To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Daily War Crime: Drone Footage From Gaza Reveals Appalling Destruction---And A Pattern Of Indiscriminate, Disproportionate Shelling Of Civilian Areas


Trigger warning: This drone camera footage from the destroyed Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiya is Very Disturbing, especially if you followed the military action as it unfolded. Mark Perry, who often writes for Foreign Policy, has a great piece at  Al Jazeera on the indiscriminate IDF shelling that obliterated Shejaiya on July 20, as observed by US military officers in the Pentagon who closely monitored the fighting in twice-daily classified reports. Perry reports that the Israeli artillery barrage left American military monitors “stunned” at its ferocity. The YouTube footage, which was featured on the BBC this morning, is what really brings it home---pounds it home is more like it. Think Berlin, 1945. Some of it actually looks like Dresden, or a videogame depiction of Planet Null.

The IDF is putting a lot of effort into addressing Palestinian war crimes charges with its internal legal advisors going into overdrive; Israeli political leaders and diplomats have been working tirelessly on other fronts, including the US Congress,  trying to block a formal UN inquiry and Palestinian efforts to present their case to the International Criminal Court.  This footage shows why Palestinians in Gaza have a lot to work with, and why Israel might be in for a unprecedentedly rough legal ride, especially with Palestinian human rights workers improving the reliability of their forensic evidence compared to prior Israeli operations in Gaza in 2009 and 2012. And from what Perry reports, Israel better hope that human rights investigators don’t get their hands on the Pentagon reports or any similar “logs” kept by the IDF.  

According to Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem who spoke at a New America event last week, answers to war crimes questions from Gaza “aren’t necessarily found in Gaza.” When I asked him if they were exploring the possibilities that there might be a Bradley Manning/ Edward Snowden scenario on the horizon wherein someone from inside the IDF might leak incriminating information, or, in the case of Pentagon, to allow a “sanctioned leak” of the information the US military has, El-Ad was coy, only saying “We’re exploring all options and scenarios.” I doubt the White House would order a “sanctioned leak” but you never know. There’s no real love lost between the CIA, the NSA or the DIA and Israel over Israel’s lack of reciprocity with those agencies and its continued spying on US targets, including Secretary of State John Kerry while on the ground in Israel during failed peace negotiations this spring.

I don’t like the idea of these kind of leaks, at least the Manning and Snowden actions where a single individual takes it on himself to make the decision to divulge state secrets. (I’ve since come around to a reluctant acceptance of Snowden’s actions, especially because he revealed that the Obama administration authorized a sharing agreement between the NSA and the Israelis in which metadata of US citizens and politicians would be given to Israel, with very little enforceable legal protection against violations of privacy and free speech.) Still, when you look at the utter destruction of a place like Shejaiya , you could see why someone in a position to bring those responsible for it to justice might be tempted to release information capable of doing that.

Watch the footage---and watch this space. A Manning /Snowden scenario, or an Israeli version of it, is fanciful at this point, but still...  

Monday, September 15, 2014

ISIS’s Decapitations Shouldn’t Make Us Lose Our Own Heads About Going To War Again In The Middle East

Times editors were too classy to work a decapitation reference into the headline it gave Tom Friedman’s column on Sunday, but that’s what anyone concerned about war fever raging in Washington right now could have used.  “Don’t just do something, sit there!” is one of those insipid 12 steps “slogans;" in the case of US military action v ISIS it’s wise counsel. 

Noting that Obama was "drummed into" pledging military action "by the sudden shift in public opinion after ISIS ghastly videotaped beheadings of two American journalists," Friedman says that whatever course of action Obama pursues, that plan can only end well “if we are extremely disciplined and tough-minded about how, when and for whom we use our power.” The ISIS challenge makes Iraq---the gnarly reality we met in that country only after we got there, not the neocon delusion that took us so naively into it--- look simple, with every variable in the equation raised to an exponential level of complexity.

Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Prudence and caution are certainly much merited. “Before we step up the bombing campaign on ISIS, it needs to be absolutely clear on whose behalf we are fighting,” Friedman advises, explaining that

ISIS did not emerge by accident and from nowhere. It is the hate-child of two civil wars in which the Sunni Muslims have been crushed. One is the vicious civil war in Syria in which the Iranian-backed Alawite-Shiite regime has killed roughly 200,000 people, many of them Sunni Muslims, with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And the other is the Iraqi civil war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki systematically stripped the Sunnis of Iraq of their power and resources.

Never forget, this is a two-front war: ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second. If our stepped-up bombing, in Iraq and Syria, gets ahead of their reconciliation, we will become the story and the target. And that is exactly what ISIS is waiting for.
This seems like sound analysis, informed by an understanding of ethnic and sectarian dynamics and by America’s sorry historical experience in making them part of our calculus.  But as much as the diagnosis seems strong, the prescription is a bit too soft focus, too “cultural,” a bit too enamoured of social media in the way that someone of a certain age trying to be “cutting edge” can often sound.
ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam — a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism. ISIS wins if it can make this America’s war with Sunni Islam — a war where America is the Shiite/Alawite air force against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will use every bit of its Twitter/Facebook network to try to depict it as the latter, and draw more recruits.
We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be. It’s about a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism and needs to learn how to coexist. It’s the 21st century. It’s about time.

However accurate and incisive we are in assessing what we’re getting into at the front end, the ISIS situation is the living definition of a “hot mess.” It’s protean, molten, shape-shifting, whatever word you want to use. And the conditions it is exploiting---failed states, sectarian rivalries, demographic crises --- represent a perfect storm. As this intervention progresses, the trick will be to constantly reexamine where we are and where the situation is at any given moment, and to avoid false narratives and analytic equations that fail to capture the complexity and power of a phenomenon that seems less a function of earthly politics and culture than something supernatural. 

It's hard not to hear echoes of Yeats’ Second Coming: The vast and troubling “image out of Spiritus Mundi” emerging from “a waste of desert sand... A shape with lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"… a “rough beast, its hour come round at last,” 
slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born”

And Baghdad. And Aleppo. And Damascus. And Beirut. And Jerusalem. To say nothing about New York and Washington.

ISIS surely epitomizes the worst “filled with a passionate intensity.” It makes Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda, even the murderous 1979 "Guillotine Edition" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, look mild. And even if the best do find the conviction needed to take the movement on, addressing every rip, snarl and surge of ISIS's “blood dimmed tide” will require an analytic clarity that has eluded us so far. Moving fast on our end could, as some argue, nip ISIS in the bud, whatever that bud might be given its fluid nature. But a fast strike, absent focused and targeted follow up, could also spin ISIS in a direction that might make it even more difficult to destroy downstream, if in fact that is even possible. The smart people on this, like Michael Tomasky, are advising us to be grown ups, accept a harsh truth, and settle for containment. 

Better to sit on our hands for a little while longer then before thrusting them into the “widening gyre.” No matter how furious and inflamed ISIS's beheadings may have made the American electorate, going in without a precise and coodinated plan A, and the flexibility that can help us shift to Plan B, Plan C and even Plan D if we need to, is the wrong way to start this next round. In the case of ISIS, timing isn't everything. The crucial factor here is sequencing---choreographing coordinated and complicated moves on multiple fronts. And getting that right will take considerable time to plan.


At Yesterday's Anti Semitism Rally In Berlin, Israeli Flags Might Have Sent A Message At Odds With The Rally’s Intent

Berliners At The Brandenburg Gate Wave Israeli Flags

I love a parade, especially one denouncing intolerance, thuggery and racial hate, but the visuals at Berlin's rally against anti Semitism in Berlin have me a bit confused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech in which JFK's infamous line Ich Bin Ein Berliner could have been repurposed into Ich Bin Ein Juden as a statement of solidarity with European Jews who've become targets of rising anti Semitism across the continent triggered by Israeli actions in Gaza this summer. Indeed, one of the reasons for the rally was to draw the vital distinction between "European Jews" and "the Jewish State" as a way of standing against Jewish scapegoating. The sea of Israeli flags at the rally, however, seemed to have sent a message at odds with that aim, conflating Jewish Europeans with the State of Israel and in the process sending a signal of support for that state: Ich Bin Ein Israelisch.

One of the reasons for the dysfunction in the American and European discourse on Israel is the tendency to equate criticism of Israel, no matter how legitimate, with anti Semitism, which is basically a way of saying that "Jews = Israel." In fact this is not the case, as many diaspora Jews, and certainly many anti Zionist Jews, will insist.  Maybe someone needs to design a flag specifically to represent Jews as "a people," as opposed to having the Star of David flag of the Jewish State do double duty? Or a flag that simply, and specifically, stands for opposition to anti Semitism around the world? To hard-core anti Semites, this might be a matter of a "distinction without a difference." But it's a distinction that might actually make a difference in terms of the nuances that need to be established.   

Design proposals for new flags should be sent to: