Focal Points Blog

Egyptian Government Deals With Sexual Attacks on Female Protesters by Blaming the Victims

The prevalence of sexual terrorism in Cairo—emerging prominently in international media late last month—continues to cast a shadow over protestors and activists marching on Tahrir Square and other popular protest sites. It has become a polarizing issue of its own amid continuing protests against the government.

Russ Wellen earlier this month implicated Egypt’s large percentage of jobless, frustrated youth as contributing significantly to the problem, observing that “these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy.” And indeed, groups of these oppressed, resentful men often linger in the square. One such nameless youth bluntly told Aleem Maqbool of the BBC when asked about the increase of sexual assaults in the square, “We are depressed, we can’t find jobs and money, what do you expect?”

The answer varies widely depending on whom you ask.

Take Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical Salafist sheikh known as “Abu Islam,” who was arrested for “defamation of religion” for his controversial remarks regarding the presence of women in Tahrir Square. According to him, it is halal (permissible) to rape female protestors and that these women “have no shame, no fear and not even feminism [sic].”

If only the culture of victim blaming these female protestors ended with one delusional man—but it seems it is only considered “defamation of religion” to victim blame if you are not a part of the government.

The Shura Council Human Rights Committee—part of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament—in a press conference went so far as to claim that these rampant sexual assaults are, essentially, not the Interior Ministry’s problem. Rana Muhammad Taha of The Daily News Egypt provides a disturbing round-up of these statements from the committee:

“Women should not mingle with men during protests,” said Reda Al-Hefnawy, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) member. “How can the Ministry of Interior be tasked with protecting a lady who stands among a group of men?”

“A woman who joins protests among thugs and street inhabitants should protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to offer her protection,” said Adel Afifi, a prominent board member of the Salafi Party Al-Asala.

“The woman bears the offence when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs,” said Salafi Al-Nour Party member Salah Abdel Salam.

At the same session, a female Muslim Brotherhood MP suggested that these women “think twice” before demonstrating “so as not to become prey to sexual offenders and armed thugs who commit rape.”

The Muslim Brotherhood—the ruling Islamist party in Parliament—has also been implicated in orchestrating these sexual assaults particularly against Tahrir Square, a “symbol” of the revolution—and indeed, their response thus far has not laid such accusations to rest. During the human rights committee session, Brotherhood MPs were using the sexual attacks as justification to push anti-protest legislation. As Vivian Salama of The Daily Beast reports, the absurdity of the government’s response is not lost on women’s organizations in Egypt:

“What does our government do? Instead of implementing laws that make sexual assault a crime, they are making the publicity of these attacks a crime,” said Nancy Omar … spokeswoman of Egyptian Women; Red Line, a group of volunteers from various political factions united to defend the rights of women. “And then they question our motives for going to these protests—how silly!”

In the void left by the government’s utter lack of action, such non-profit organizations and volunteer groups have instead stepped up to the plate to protect, assist, and defend victims of these attacks. Some police common protest areas, moving quickly to save women who could get caught in “circles of hell,” groups of men who violently swarm victims in horrifically organized tiers. Others help shepherd women to hospitals and help pay the costs, or offer free self-defense courses as a preventative measure.

It is tragic that the impetus to enforce basic human rights has fallen on the shoulders of civilians. One can only hope that these volunteers and activists can mitigate this ongoing trend of violence against women during Egypt’s upheaval—especially since in the face of government apathy and a culture of rampant victim blaming, they are the only buffer left to safeguard women’s political voices.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Samer Issawi’s Hunger Strike Shines a Spotlight on Israel’s Inhumanity

Administrative detention: the practice of arresting and holding persons without trial and without informing them of what crimes they are suspected of. Since the end of the British mandate of Palestine, Israel has exercised this policy on thousands of Palestinians. Israel’s refusal to relinquish it could prove deadly to hunger striker, Samer Issawi.

In October 2011 Issawi was released from Israeli prison as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, but just nine months later was rearrested. Receiving no information on the basis for his re-incarceration, including the crimes he was supposedly being detained for, Issawi launched a hunger strike shortly thereafter.

The world is finally taking notice now that Issawi’s strike that has persisted over 200 days. A hearing last Thursday in an Israeli court to appeal Issawi’s sentence had similar results to past appeals. He was once again denied his right to trial leading to clashes in which IDF soldiers fired tear gas canisters at protestors outside Ofer prison in the West Bank.

These events come as President Obama plans to visit the region within in the coming month, with stops planned in both Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, has appealed to the courts, “I urge Israel to release these people. The last thing we want is for things to get out of hand before President Obama visits.”

Another unnamed PLO official said that U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro had assured him of the release of 550 Palestinian prisoners prior to Obama’s visit. But the release of Palestinian prisoners should not be contingent upon a visit from the sitting US president, and hunger strikers like Samer Issawi should not be dependent on international pressure to receive a fair trial.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Sequestration: Our Military is Due for Downsizing

Sequestration wouldn't gut military

This strange animal called sequestration is certainly wreaking havoc with our customary ideological boundaries.

If you’re an advocate, Iike I am, for revamped federal priorities that shift resources from a bloated Pentagon budget toward neglected domestic priorities, your take on this animal can’t be simple. You say cutting everything indiscriminately is a bad way to run a government (this view is nearly universal). You oppose the cuts in the domestic budget that will leave us with fewer food safety inspectors, medical researchers, Head Start teachers, and airport baggage screeners on the job. But you can reel off long lists of ways to cut waste in the Pentagon budget to the levels prescribed by sequestration, and show that these cuts will leave us completely safe.

But you also know that the whole conversation is focused on the wrong topic. It’s past time to shift this conversation away from austerity and toward investment to create jobs, as clear majorities of voters said in November was what they wanted.

Now let’s look at the Washington Post’s blogger who says he writes “from a liberal perspective,” Greg Sargent. On Wednesday he went at the Republican position on sequestration, wielding a new report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. The report found that the single most important cause of increased income inequality in recent years is the favored tax treatment given to capital gains and stock dividends — i.e. what the rich have used to get richer.

The Democrats, as Sargent points out, want to change this, taxing the rich and using the proceeds to replace the sequester cuts. The Republicans want to stick with sequestration and keep this favored treatment for the rich.

But all of this puts the Republicans, says Sargent, in the position of “openly conceding that the sequester will gut the military.” It’s a concession that Sargent appears to be taking at face value. Or at least not calling into question.

Gut the military? That’s what the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been saying any chance they get. Sequestration would “invite aggression,” says lingering Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. It will “put the nation at greater risk of coercion,” says the Joint Chiefs Chair, Martin Dempsey. When asked at a recent congressional hearing which nation might coerce us, though, he couldn’t say.

In fact, sequestration will not “gut” our military. Our military budget has nearly doubled since 2001. Sequestration would take it back to the level it was in 2007 — when we were still fighting two wars. Adjusted for inflation, it would leave that budget higher than its Cold War average — when we had an adversary that was spending roughly what we were on its military. Now, as Michael Cohen notes in The Guardian, the closest thing to a peer adversary we have is China, and we are spending more on research and development of new weapons than the Chinese are spending on their entire military. We spend more on our military, in fact, than the next 14 countries put together.

After the longest period of war in our history, we are due for a defense downsizing. Sequestration would create a shallower downsizing than any of the previous postwar periods since World War II. We can do this, and we should. We need the money for other things.

As sequestration threatens to confuse us all, let’s be sure to stay clear on that, at least.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Fragments

Emphasis, as always, added.

A “fundamental problem with COIN.”

Where foreign forces go, violence follows.

. . . a wave of “insider-attacks,” perpetrated by members of the Afghan security forces, has killed 60 coalition troops this year (compared with 35 last year). Leon Panetta has described these killings as “kind of a last-gasp effort” of the Taliban to resist their inevitable demise. He also remarked, “It’s near the end of their effort to really fully fight back.” It’s hard to say which is worse: our president and defense secretary deliberately misrepresenting the situation in Afghanistan to such a degree, or our president and defense secretary genuinely misunderstanding it to such a degree.

The Last Men, Luke Mogelson, The New Republic

“Milicrats”

The promotion system reinforces professional ignorance. Above the company grades, military ability does not count in determining who gets promoted. At the rank of major, officers are supposed to accept that the “real world” is the internal world of budget and promotion politics, not war. Those who “don’t get it” have ever smaller chances of making general. … Its result is generals and admirals who are in effect Soviet industrial managers in ever worse-looking suits. They know little and care less about their intended product, military victory. Their expertise is in acquiring resources and playing the military courtier.

Rank Incompetence, William S. Lind, The American Conservative

The UK’s National Health Service: “a benevolent deity”

By now I am convinced that the NHS – and I hyperbolise, but only slightly – is the greatest achievement of humankind, the nearest we get to a benevolent deity, a goddamn superhero. It is an imperfect manifestation of a beautiful ideal – free care based on need, free care for all, without judgement, without reservation.

However long this [the author's father dying] goes on for, they’ll continue throwing resources at this individual and never show a single sheet of figures to any of his relatives.

This Is How You Healthcare: American Death in London, Sarah C. R. Bee, NSFWCorp

To Netanyahu, Syria Just Another “reason to blow Iran to smithereens”

Netanyahu can’t unring the bell in Syria either, but there’s little doubt that he’d like to. The Israeli prime minister remained suspiciously silent during the Syrian uprising’s first 90 days but then, as if testing the wind, began to cautiously support the rebels. By July of last year he was all in, but only after his silence bordered on the embarrassing. Even then, he characterised the May 2011 Houla Massacre (in which a reported 108 Syrians were slaughtered by Assad’s henchmen), as being carried out primarily with the help of Iran and Hezbollah. It was almost as if the Syrian military was a bystander.

This was all part of the same sad drumbeat, as if Netanyahu feared that (in the midst of the Arab Spring), we’d lose sight of the real agenda — which was finding a reason to blow Iran to smithereens. It wasn’t so important that the Houla Massacre was evidence of the Syrian government’s hate of its own people, (you see), it was important that it was carried out by people who hate Israel.

Israel’s democracy myth, Mark Perry, Al Jazeera

Protecting Papua New Guinea’s “Witches”

Even assuming the political will emerges to invest in stronger policing and community protection, it will be years before the terrorism fades in communities like Simbu, an epicentre for violence.…

Bishop Anton Bal, the Catholic bishop of Kundiawa, the capital of Simbu … argues that the catch-22 with sorcery is that the more it’s talked about, the greater its power and allure. So his programs include training up networks of local parish volunteers as a kind of resistance movement. Operatives deflect and douse conversations about blame as soon as a death in the community occurs. They go to the funeral and when someone brings up the question of sanguma they shift the topic — talk about the weather, shut it down. Or raise the alarm.

It’s 2013, And They’re Burning ‘Witches’, Jo Chandler, The Global Mail

U.S. Could Take a Lesson From France on LGBT Rights

France’s National Assembly approved a bill last week that legalizes gay marriage in the country and allows same-sex couples to adopt children. Final approval rests with the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by the left. This is a major victory for advocates of gay rights, and those French members of parliament who voted to change the course of the nation.

Opponents of the bill introduced some 5,000 amendments to the gay marriage proposal—an attempt to effectively block the bill. But despite the efforts of the opposition, the bill passed with a vote of 329 in favor and 229 against.

Public opposition to gay marriage and adoption has come in the form of high-profile rallies against the legislation, with the adoption issue proving particularly controversial. Yet unlike in the United States—where opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest among certain religious communities—the issue appears to be more secular in France, where the influence of the church has long been on the decline. According to a survey in France’s Catholic Daily, La Croix, 58 percent of French Catholics never go to mass, and 83 percent said the church should keep out of politics.

Polls show that nearly two thirds of French voters support the gay marriage bill, aligning with the makeup of the French parliament. The Socialist Party and its allies control both the National Assembly and the Senate, likely securing the bill’s final passage in the coming months. Corinne Narassiguin, representative for the Socialist Party of France has called the bill “a first necessary step [in] a social evolution that benefits society overall.”

France has taken a step toward the future of equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation; the United States could look to its European counterpart for a lesson in advancing LGBT rights.

France’s National Assembly approved a bill last week that legalizes gay marriage in the country and allows same-sex couples to adopt children. Final approval rests with the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by the left. This is a major victory for advocates of gay rights, and those French members of parliament who voted to change the course of the nation.

Opponents of the bill introduced some 5,000 amendments to the gay marriage proposal—an attempt to effectively block the bill. But despite the efforts of the opposition, the bill passed with a vote of 329 in favor and 229 against.

Public opposition to gay marriage and adoption has come in the form of high-profile rallies against the legislation, with the adoption issue proving particularly controversial. Yet unlike in the United States—where opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest among certain religious communities—the issue appears to be more secular in France, where the influence of the church has long been on the decline. According to a survey in France’s Catholic Daily, La Croix, 58 percent of French Catholics never go to mass, and 83 percent said the church should keep out of politics.

Polls show that nearly two thirds of French voters support the gay marriage bill, aligning with the makeup of the French parliament. The Socialist Party and its allies control both the National Assembly and the Senate, likely securing the bill’s final passage in the coming months. Corinne Narassiguin, representative for the Socialist Party of France has called the bill “a first necessary step [in] a social evolution that benefits society overall.”

France has taken a step toward the future of equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation; the United States could look to its European counterpart for a lesson in advancing LGBT rights.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Iran’s Weak Emergency Infrastructure Would Only Compound Effects of an Attack

In October, 2012 I wrote a post titled Attacking Iran Is Like Setting Off Nuclear Bombs on the Ground about a report released the previous month. Titled The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, it’s the product of an organization called Omid for Iran, along with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the University of Utah. Omid for Iran was founded by Khosrow B. Semnani, the Iranian immigrant who became a radioactive waste disposal magnate. A controversial figure often embroiled in lawsuits, he served as president of his company Envirocare until the Department of Energy requested he step down in the wake of a bribery scandal.

Like many immigrants who make good in the United States, he draws on a reserve of rancor toward the forces in his country of origin (usually, in these cases, communist) that keep an entrepreneur like him from fulfilling his dream. You can tell by this excerpt from the executive summary of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble” that, should they attack Iran, he’s less interested in blaming Israel and the United States than he is Tehran for inciting them.

The best long-term strategy would be a democratic, transparent, and accountable government in Iran. In such a scenario, political leaders would quickly understand that their people want jobs, dignity, opportunity, and political freedoms, not the false promise of nuclear weapons bought at a heavy, even existential, cost. A military strike would not only kill thousands of civilians and expose tens and possibly hundreds of thousands to highly toxic chemicals, it would also have a devastating effect on those who dream of democracy in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei has proven that he cares little for the Iranian people. It is up to us in the international community, including the Iranian-American diaspora to demonstrate that we do.

As for the attack…

Based on the best information available as well as discussions with Iranian and Western nuclear experts, we have estimated the total number of people—scientists, workers, soldiers and support staff—at Iran’s four nuclear facilities to be between 7,000 and 11,000. … However, unlike traditional targets, the risks to civilians extend well beyond those killed from exposure to thermal and blast injuries at the nuclear sites. Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout. … Additionally, the environmental deg­radation due to the spread of airborne uranium compounds, and their entry into water, soil and the food chain would introduce long-term, chronic health risks such as a spike in cancer rates and birth defects.

Nor have Iran’s leaders shown any inclination to present such an assessment.

[They] have had no interest in making the risks of their reckless nuclear policies obvious to its citizens even though the resulting economic toll—inflation, unem­ployment, and the loss of international credit—has devastated the Iranian people. The Iranian military has not provided the Iranian people with any description of potential casualties resulting from attacks on these nuclear facilities. Nor has the parliament encouraged an open assessment of the grave implications of the government’s policies for Iranian scientists, soldiers and civilians working at or living within the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear facilities. This study seeks to address this deficit.

Or, in my words …

… the attack and radiation will work its synergistic black magic in conjunction with Iran’s meager disaster management and emergency preparation capabilities. … bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is like setting off nuclear weapons on the ground.

While reading “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble” I couldn’t help but wonder how Iran was allowed to sign the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and to become a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) without instituting an effective emergency preparedness program. (Or one that at least upheld the pretense that it’s possible to deal with a meltdown or attack on a nuclear-energy facility effectively.) It seems wildly irresponsible, kind of like starting a war without medical staff and hospitals.

A passage from the IAEA’s website sheds some light on this.

Many Member States are currently not adequately prepared to respond to such emergency situations. Moreover, without standard procedures or common approaches, protective actions can differ between countries resulting in confusion and mistrust among the public, interfering with recovery operations and possibly leading to severe socioeconomic and political consequences.…

The Agency has a statutory function to develop standards for the protection of health and the environment and to provide on request for their application, through encouraging research and development; fostering information exchange; promoting education and training; and rendering services. Moreover, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (Early Notification Convention) and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (Assistance Convention) place specific functions on the Agency with regard to developing appropriate radiation monitoring standards and to assisting States in developing their own preparedness arrangements for nuclear and radiological emergencies.

The IAEA’s programs, as was pointed out to us by Institute for Policy Studies author Robert Alvarez, can be found on its Emergency response & preparedness page. For example: “Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Safety Requirements” (2002), “Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Safety Requirements” (2007), “Criteria for Use in Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency General Safety Guide” (20110).

In the second paragraph from the IAEA website quoted above, note that conventions (as in agreements) “place specific functions on the Agency with regard to developing appropriate radiation monitoring standards and to assisting States in developing their own preparedness arrangements for nuclear and radiological emergencies.” (Emphasis added.) Developing and assisting — but not requiring. From the 2007 report referred to above…

The IAEA’s safety standards are not legally binding on Member States but may be adopted by them, at their own discretion, for use in national regulations in respect of their own activities. The standards are binding on the IAEA in relation to its own operations and on States in relation to operations assisted by the IAEA.

By all appearances, allowing member states to develop nuclear-energy programs without requiring them to meet certain standards of emergency preparedness looks as if it’s a loophole designed to either allow states to develop nuclear-energy programs without delay or to aid the nuclear-energy industry (or both). It’s incumbent on the United States and Israel to refrain from attacking Iran and turning that loophole into a gaping abyss of human torment.

Israel Sees Syrian Civil War as Blow to “Iran-Hezbollah Axis”

Russia's SA-17 anti-aircraft system

Russia’s SA-17 anti-aircraft system

Now that the dust has settled—literally and figuratively—from Israel’s Jan. 29 air attack on Syria, the question is, why? According to Tel Aviv, the bombing was aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, which one former Israeli military intelligence officer said would be “a game-changer.” But there are major problems with that story.

First, it is highly unlikely that Damascus would turn such a system over to Hezbollah, in part because the Russians would almost certainly not have allowed it, and, secondly, because the SA-17 would not be terribly useful to the Lebanese Shiite organization. In fact, we don’t even know if an SA-17 was the target. The Syrians deny it, claiming it was a military research center 15 miles northwest of Damascus that was bombed, killing two and wounding five. The Israelis are refusing to say anything. The story that the anti-aircraft system was the objective comes mainly from unnamed “western officials.”

The SA-17 is a capable, mid-range, anti-aircraft weapon. Designated “Grizzly” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it consists of four missiles mounted on a mobile launcher. It has a range of 30 miles, a ceiling of close to 50,000 feet, and can down anything from aircraft to cruise missiles. Introduced in 1998 as a replacement for the SA-11 “Gadfly,” the SA-17 has been sold to Egypt, Syria, Finland, China, Venezuela, India, Cyprus, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

It has a bite. During the 2008 Russia-Georgian War, the SA-17 apparently downed three Russian SU-25s close-support attack planes, and an ancient long-range Tupolev-22 bomber. It appears Georgia acquired the anti-aircraft system from the Ukraine without the Russians knowing about it.

The SA-17’s manufacturers claim the system is immune to electronic countermeasures, but every arms maker claims their weapons are irresistible or invincible. The SU-25s and the bomber were downed in the first day of the fighting, before the Russians figured out that the Georgians had a trick up their sleeves and instituted countermeasures. Those apparently worked because the four planes were the only ones the Russians lost. Clearly, however, if one gets careless or sloppy around a “Grizzly,” it can make you pretty uncomfortable.

But “game-changer”? The SA-17 is big and vulnerable, a sitting duck for aircraft armed with long-range bombs and missiles and backed up by electronic warfare capabilities. Israeli counter-warfare electronics are very sophisticated, as good—if not better—than the American’s. In 2007 Israeli warplanes slipped through the Syrian radar net without being detected and bombed a suspected nuclear reactor. Damascus acquired the SA-17 following that 2007 attack.

Given that there is open talk by NATO of establishing a “no-fly zone” over Syria, why would Damascus hand over one of its most modern anti-aircraft systems to Hezbollah? And what would Hezbollah do with it? It is too big to hide and is generally used as one piece of a larger anti-aircraft system, which Hezbollah does not have. In any case, it would have been a provocation, and neither Hezbollah nor Syria wants to give the Israelis an excuse to beat up on them. Both have plenty on their plates without adding war with a vastly superior military foe.

In brief, there is no evidence that the attack had anything to do with the SA-17, which, in any case, both Tel Aviv and Washington know would not pose any real danger to Israel. According to UPI, the attack was cleared with the U.S.

So what are some other possible reasons for the attack?

The most obvious target is the Assad regime in Syria, which at first glance would seem to be a contradiction. Wouldn’t Israel bombing Syria unite the Arab countries behind Damascus? Indeed, there were condemnations from the Arab League, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and even some of Assad’s Syrian opponents—although the Gulf Cooperation Council, the league of oil-rich monarchies bankrolling the Syrian civil war, was notably quiet.

But the “protests” were mostly pro-forma, and in the case of Turkey, rather bizarre. Ankara has played a major role in supplying the anti-Assad insurgents, deploying Patriot missiles on its border with Syria, and demanding that the president of Syria step down. Yet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denounced Assad for not “upholding the dignity of his country” and retaliating against Israel.

According to press reports, Israel is strengthening its forces on the occupied Golan Heights that border Syria and preparing to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian side. Israel established a similar “buffer” in Lebanon following its 1982 invasion of that country, a “buffer” that eventually led to the formation of Hezbollah and a humiliating Israeli retreat in 2000.

Israel claims it has no dog in the Syrian fight and is supposedly worried about Islamic extremists coming out on top in the civil war. But for all the hype about Islamists leading a jihad against Israel, Tel Aviv knows that al-Qaeda and its allies pose no serious threat to Israel. It is good politics (and good theater)—in Washington, as well as Tel Aviv—to cry, “the turbans are coming” (quick, give us lots of money and your constitution), but religious extremism and Sharia law hardly pose an existential danger to nuclear-armed countries with large militaries. Fighters from the salafist Jabhat al-Nusrah will not get far marching on Jerusalem.

The bombing attack was certainly a slap in the face to Assad, but not the first, and seems less directed at the Damascus regime than adding yet another ingredient to the witch’s brew of chaos that is rapidly engulfing Syria and the surrounding countries. And chaos and division in the region have always been Israel’s allies. Divide and conquer is an old colonial tactic dating back to the Roman Empire. After World War I, the English used Jews and Arabs as pawns in a game to control the British Mandate in Palestine. In short, the Israelis have learned from the best.

The growing sectarian war between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds stirred up by the Syrian civil war lets Israel stand on the sidelines. Who is going to notice the steady encroachment of settlements on Palestinian lands when the Syria war has killed some 60,000 people, created almost 800,000 refugees, and is destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan?

Lastly, there is Iran. Getting rid of Assad would remove one of Iran’s major allies in the region, and also weaken Shiite Hezbollah, the organization that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006. Assad, says former Israeli Gen. Michael Herzog, “is a linchpin of the radical Iran-Hezbollah axis…his fall would therefore deal a major blow to Tehran, significantly weaken Hezbollah and dismantle the trilateral axis.”

Sectarian chaos in Syria is already washing over into Iraq, where a brutal bombing campaign by Sunni extremists is fueling talk about re-establishing Shiite militias to defend their communities. Islamists are also increasingly active in Lebanon and Jordan.

For several years the U.S. and the Sunni-dominated Middle East monarchies have warned about the dangers of a “Shiite crescent” of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. But the idea of a “crescent” was always more hype than reality—Shiites make up about 15 percent of the region, and are majorities only in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain. Lebanese Shiites constitute a plurality. In general, Shiites are the poorest section of the Muslim community and with the exception of Iran and Syria, have long been marginalized politically. Shiite “domination” has always been a bug-a-boo, not very real but useful for stoking the fires of sectarianism.

And sectarianism is on the march today in the Middle East, financed by the cash-rich Gulf monarchies and the hostility of the U.S. and its allies to authoritarian secular governments. While NATO overthrew the Libyan government and aids the Syrian insurgency in the name of democracy, it has no qualms about supporting the absolute monarchs that rule from Morocco in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east.

Was the ease with which the Israelis penetrated Syrian air space a message to Tehran as well? Certainly although the odds on Israel attacking Iran sometime this spring are rather low (though hardly non-existent). Israel could do a lot of damage to Iran, but it doesn’t have the weapons or the air power to take out Tehran’s nuclear program. Plus the Iranians, while angry about the onerous sanctions—and cranky as ever about negotiations—are carefully diverting their nuclear stockpiles into civilian use.

Israel would need the U.S. to really beat up on Iran, and that does not seem to be the direction that the Obama administration is moving. An attack on Iran would isolate Israel and the U.S. diplomatically, and deeply fracture NATO at a time when Washington is desperately trying to keep the alliance together.

In any case, Tel Aviv and Washington are well aware that Iran does not pose an “existential” threat to Israel. Even if Iran were to build several nuclear weapons—and there is no evidence that they have any intention of doing so—it would face an Israel armed with between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy Iran as a society. Even Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak admits Iran does not pose a threat to Israel’s existence.

If there is one thing that the bombing has accomplished, it is to thicken the walls between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Tel Aviv is deploying anti-missile systems on its northern border and handing out gas masks in the Galilee. It is beefing up its presence in the Golan Heights, and reinforcing its border with Egypt. In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration just announced yet another round of settlement building.

Whether division and chaos, along with those walls and missiles and gas masks, will keep the surrounding anarchy at bay is altogether another matter. Bricks and bombs never produce real security.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

The U.S. Would Face a Harsh Choice — and Economic Loss — in War Between China and Japan

Cross-posted from One Minute MBA.

Global economists are keeping their eyes glued to the Asia-Pacific region, where a bitter feud is brewing between two of the world’s most powerful nations over a small collectivity of islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese government argues that a treaty signed during the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) conferred ownership of the islands to China. Japan has long disputed these claims, and today argues that the islands are integral to its national identity.

The argument came to a head last September, when a boycott of Japanese products led Chinese demonstrators to target fellow citizens who owned Japanese cars. Three months later, the situation escalated when when Japanese jets confronted a Chinese plane flying over the islands; no shots were fired, but the act of antagonism has set a troubling precedent between the military forces of both nations.

The conflict between China and Japan has put the United States in a precarious position: if a full-scale war were to erupt, the U.S. would be forced to choose between a long-time ally (Japan) and its largest economic lender (China). Last year, China’s holdings in U.S. securities reached $1.73 trillion and goods exported from the U.S. to China exceeded $100 billion. The two countries also share strong economic ties due to the large number of American companies that outsource jobs to China.

However, the U.S. government may be legally obligated to defend Japan. In November, the U.S. Senate added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that officially recognizes Japan’s claims to the disputed islands; the U.S. and Japan are also committed to a mutual defense treaty that requires either country to step in and defend the other when international disputes occur. Not honoring this treaty could very easily tarnish America’s diplomatic image.

The countries of the Asia-Pacific region are collectively responsible for 55 percent of the global GDP and 44 percent of the world’s trade. A major conflict between the region’s two largest economies would not only impose a harsh dilemma on U.S. diplomats, but also have a significant impact on the entire global economy. It is in every nation’s best interest that the Chinese and Japanese settle their territorial dispute peacefully.

The video:

Did John Brennan’s End Run Lead to the Death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi?

BenghaziBenghazi: The Definitive Report is the title of an e-book published on February 12 by William Morrow. It’s written by two editors at SOFREP.com, the unofficial special operations site: Brandon Webb — a former Navy SEAL — and Jack Murphy — a former Army Ranger and Green Beret. What’s unique about the report is its bipartisan appeal. Its fodder for those who would attack the State Department, the administration, and the CIA from both the right and the left. Sure enough, it’s caused ripples in Washington and garnered significant attention from the mainstream media.

To sum up, Webb and Murphy allege that the Benghazi terrorist attack, during which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, was mounted by Islamist militants in retaliation for attacks on them by JSOC forces. Worse, the authors claim, neither Stevens nor CIA director David Petraeus knew about the raids, which were ordered by President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, who was acting outside the command structure.

Webb and Murphy also declare that Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell was leaked by the members of his personal protection detail in conjunction with members of the CIA who were unhappy with his emphasis on paramilitary activities over traditional espionage.

About Brennan, Murphy told Human Events:

The Senate should not confirm him as the new director of the CIA and Brennan should not continue in public life. … “I think we need to let this guy go.”

Meanwhile, Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, writes:

… while the book is filled with juicy revelations that promise to shock even the most casual followers of counterintelligence gossip, government officials, including spokesmen for the National Security Council and Special Operations Command, dispute some of the key claims. … Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command, declined to discuss specific missions, but said “all U.S. Special Operations Forces work inside the established military chain of command,” and wouldn’t “work in a foreign country without the knowledge and permission of the U.S. ambassador or chief of mission.”

The book also claims elements of the U.S. government either allowed or ran an operation to funnel weapons collected in Libya to Syria. The authors write, “[Ambassador] Stevens likely helped consolidate as many weapons as possible after the war to safeguard them, at which point Brennan exported them overseas to start another conflict.” … but Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says there was no program to send weapons from Libya to Syria. “This has no basis in reality and is completely made up,” he says. Hillary Clinton also denied any knowledge of this when she was asked about it by Sen. Rand Paul during last month’s hearings on the Benghazi attack.

Hmm, two spokespersons, plus Hilary Clinton during a hearing: that’s all you’ve got, Eli? From the Human Events piece:

Because of the sensitivities involved, the authors double-source the claims in the book, he said. Many more stories were left out because there was no independent confirmation.

It all comes down to who you want to believe: the U.S. government or JSOC operatives past and present? In my case, it’s more personal — who do I want to believe: the U.S. government or my nephew? (By way of “full disclosure,” as they say, Jack Murphy is my wife’s sister’s son.)

Exactly Why Is President Obama Going to Israel?

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he and U.S. President Barak Obama have agreed that when the U.S. President visits Israel they would discuss “three main issues … Iran’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons, the unstable situation in Syria … and the efforts to advance the diplomatic process of peace between the Palestinians and us,” that’s not exactly what others are saying in either Washington or Tel Aviv.

As soon was announced that the President would be visiting the Middle East, supporters of the policies of the Netanyahu government went into overdrive in an effort to throw cold water on any idea that the diplomatic mission could achieve any breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”

“While the US ambassador to Israel said today that Mr. Obama would visit the country with an ‘urgent’ mission to revive peace negotiations, Israeli diplomats said talks with Benjamin Netanyahu would focus on Iran,” reported the British daily Telegraph. “The peace process may be the subject that is initially emphasized in public but there are other issues on the table that must be addressed before the summer,” one diplomat told the paper, alluding to Israel’s spring deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium. “The deal they will have done may be on the subject of war, not of peace.”

“There are currently bigger and much more urgent issues to address than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” one Israeli official told the Telegraph.

To say the U.S. moved quickly to squash any expectation that the President’s visit to the Middle East might move toward resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be an understatement. At a press briefing February 6, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that “this is a trip the President looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the President, a new administration, and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals. I’m sure that any time the President and Prime Minister have a discussion, certainly any time the President has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit.”

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, national security and foreign policy commentator Josh Rogin quoted former Congressman Robert Wexler, the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, as saying, “I don’t think it would be prudent to raise expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip is about Israeli security in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and in the context of the violence and conflict in Syria. Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important part of that, but I don’t think it would be accurate to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over other aspects of the relationship.”

All of this would seem to raise the question: why is he going?

In response to the demands of the Republicans and rightwing supporters of the Netanyahu government that he make such a pilgrimage? Not likely.

To bolster the standing of Netanyahu following the shellacking he and his Likud party suffered in the recent Israeli parliamentary elections? That has been suggested by Israeli critics of government policy.

To engage the embattled regime of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, with whom Obama will also meet after the visit to Israel, as some have suggested? That last suggestion is not farfetched. One element largely overlooked so far in the discussion about Obama’s visit next month is that he will also visit Amman.

“With the region already in flames – Egypt no longer a reliable US partner, and Syria in utter chaos – stability in the Hashemite Kingdom and the survivability of King Abdullah II is a crucial interest not only to Israel, but to the US,” wrote Keinon in the Jerusalem Post,” adding that Obama’s visit to Amman “and the signal that sends of US support for Abdullah – is not insignificant.” Evidence that Washington is concerned about the stability of the Jordanian regime has been around for some time.

Last October, the U.S. rushed troops to the Jordan-Syria border to bolster that country’s military capabilities. One hundred military planners and others are already on the scene, operating from a joint U.S.-Jordanian military center, and the U.S. forces are said to be building another base for themselves. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the move was prompted by developments in adjacent Syria.

On January 28, Abdullah II met with Khaled Mashaal, leader of the Palestinian political movement Hamas for the third time in one year. Abdullah is said to have told Mashaal that direct negotiations with Israel and the creation of a timetable for the two-state solution are “the only way to achieve security and stability in the Middle East.” Mashaal was reported to have said later that he and the king had discussed the inner-Palestinian reconciliation and examined the Palestinian issue and its future in light of the then upcoming U.S. and Israeli elections.

Mashaal, a Jordanian citizen, was exiled from the country in 1999, accused of being a risk to Jordan’s security.

During the meeting the king expressed his support of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation attempt, saying it forms the basis to bolster the Palestinian people’s unity and that only through unity could they achieve their legitimate rights, including a Palestinian state’s establishment.

Last year, Abdullah II met twice with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

On the other hand, there has been some speculation that there is, indeed, agreement between Washington and Tel Aviv on an approach to the Palestinian question. It’s called “get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.” That’s the way U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro put it last week.

Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, wrote February 8 that the U.S. “is looking for something from Jerusalem to dangle in front of the Palestinians and thereby bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.”

It didn’t dangle long.

A headline two days later said it all: “Israel approves new settler homes ahead of Obama visit.”

It’s hard to get more provocative than that.

In defiance of international law that bars an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory – and overwhelming world public opinion – the Netanyahu regime has decided to build additional 90 units – the first of a planned 300 unites – in the Bet El illegal settlement, just east of the central West Bank city of Ramallah, the majority Christian capital of the Palestinian Authority.

“The advancement of this program could overshadow Obama’s visit,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlement construction to the media. “This is a misguided and ill-timed decision.”

Misguided it was but there is little reason to think the timing was unintentional.

One idea being floated in the Israeli media (but so far disavowed by the government) is that Netanyahu has offered to suspend settlement activity in the West Bank, except in Jerusalem and around existing colonial blocks.

“While there are no guarantees, it is hard to believe that if Netanyahu made such an offer, and Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry pushed hard on Ramallah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas would reject it,” Keinon wrote February 8. “And one of the arguments likely to be used in prodding the Palestinians is that a failure to accept the offer, a continued refusal to reenter talks, could have negative repercussions on an already precarious Jordan.”

“The Palestinian position is clear,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in response to the new Beit El construction. “There can be no negotiation while settlement continues.”

The Secretary-General of Palestinian People’s Party Bassam al-Salhi told the news agency Ma’an that Obama’s visit may create the “illusion” of returning to negotiations, but would have no impact on the peace process. Jamal Muhaisen, a member of the Central Committee of the Palestinian political party Fatah, said negotiations can resume only when Israel fulfills its previous commitments under international law and stops settlement construction on occupied land.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organization and member of the Palestinian National Council, said she and other Palestinians would welcome Obama’s visit “if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker…which requires decisive curbs on Israeli violations and unilateral measures, particularly settlement activity and the annexation of Jerusalem, as well as its siege and fragmentation policies.”

“Negotiating in good faith means you don’t place preconditions,” Netanyahu recently told a group of settlers. “In the last four years, the Palestinians have regrettably placed preconditions time after time, precondition after precondition. My hope is that they leave these preconditions aside and get to the negotiating table so we don’t waste another four years.” Well, not exactly. The chief impediment to achieving a solution to the conflict has been and remains the Israeli governments continued colonial expansion. While Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party didn’t do as well as it had expected to in the last election, gains were made by coalition partners even further to the right who oppose a Palestinian state and advocate outright annexation of major parts of the West Bank.

“Should we be happy or not?” Israeli writer Uri Avnery asked last week, concerning the upcoming visit of the U.S President. Writing from Tel Aviv in Counterpunch, he answered: “Depends. If it is a consolation prize for Netanyahu after his election setback, it is a bad sign. The first visit of a US President since George Bush Jr. is bound to strengthen Netanyahu and reinforce his image as the only Israeli leader with international stature.

But if Obama is coming with the intention of exerting serious pressure on Netanyahu to start a meaningful peace initiative, welcome.

Netanyahu will try to satisfy Obama with “opening peace talks.” Which means nothing plus nothing.

Yes. Let’s talk. “Without preconditions.” Which means: without stopping settlement expansion. Talk and go on talking, until everyone is blue in the face and both Obama’s and Netanyahu’s terms are over.

“But if Obama is serious this time, it could be different,” wrote Avnery, a founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, who has been advocating a two-state solution for decades. “An American or international blueprint for the realization of the two-state solution, with a strict timetable. Perhaps an international conference, for starters. A UN resolution without an American veto.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator , where he serves on its editorial board. His writing can also be found at Left Margin.

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