Friday, January 23, 2009

Can Obama’s shift on terror succeed?

But a few days in office and already US President Barack Obama has moved to undo some of the most nefarious monsters former president George W. Bush unleashed in his “war on terrorism.” This included, on Thursday, the signing of executive orders calling for the closure, within no more than a year, of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facilities and other secret prisons, an end to questionable interrogation techniques used by the CIA (such as “waterboarding”) and a rapid drawdown of US forces from Iraq.

These early moves are cause for celebration and optimism, and Obama should be commended for making them so early after entering the White House. He promised change, and so far seems to mean it.

Full article, published in CounterPunch, continues here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lies, lies, lies (Part II)

I find it heartening to see that in recent weeks demonstrations against Israel’s military aggression in Gaza have been held in countries with little history of caring about the issue. Such demonstrations were not only held across the Muslim world, where thy are expected, or in Europe and the US, but also in Japan and South Korea. Even Taiwan, which as far as I know has no history of such protests, has held its own.

After protests on Friday (pictured above), a second, smaller one was held on Tuesday in front of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), where about 70 demonstrators called for an immediate end to US weapons sales to Israel and a complete pullout of Israeli troops from Gaza. Shoes, now a global symbol of resistance, were also lobbed at a poster of an outgoing US president George W. Bush donning the Hitler mustache.

In response, the Israeli representative to Taipei, Raphael Gamzou, justified his government’s actions by saying that Israel had “abided to a policy of restraint in the last eight years while Hamas, a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist group, relentlessly sought to destroy Israel.”

Restraint? I wouldn’t call the killing of more than 1,200 people — about half of whom were civilians — restraint, nor has this been the only instance of “restraint” on Israel’s part in the past eight years. As for Hamas’ “relentless” efforts to “destroy” Israel, while its leadership uses that ill-advised and disgusting rhetoric, the group’s performance defending Gaza in the past three weeks — with 10 Israeli soldiers killed altogether, some by Israeli soldiers — should put at ease those who still believe Hamas has the ability to do so. Note, too, the inevitable addition of “terrorist” by Gamzou.

AIT officials, meanwhile, couldn’t be bothered to come out, but in an e-mail statement, AIT spokesman Thomas Hodges had this to say:

Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas, the legitimate president of the Palestinian people. We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against innocent Israeli civilians and hold Hamas fully responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza.

A few things about Hodges’ comments. First, Hamas did not hold an “illegal coup.” It was elected on Jan. 26, 2006, winning 74 seats (to Fatah’s — Abbas’ party — 45). Secondly, Abbas is no longer a“legitimate” Palestinian president, as his pro-Western, capitulation-leaning party has long been reviled for its corruption, which largely contributed to Hamas’ electoral victory (although to be fair, a government — Hamas — that claims “victory”after more than 1,200 of its own people are killed and the civilian infrastructure destroyed also has no claim to legitimacy). Lastly, while Hodges fully blames Hamas for the bloodbath in Gaza, he gets his facts wrong, as it has been documented that it was Israel — on two occasions (on Nov. 4 and Nov. 17) — that broke the ceasefire.

Sadly, without the necessary caveats, those official comments risk being mistaken for facts and those brave demonstrators (including at least one Jewish expatriate, who asked to remain anonymous) who defied the rain and gathered in front of AIT today will likely be seen as troublemakers, or friends of “terrorist” Hamas. Kudos to them, shame on the officials.
Lies, lies, lies

Bloomberg today carried a piece headlined “China Security Improved in 2008 With Taiwan Ties,” a headline that on its own should have left anyone who knows anything about the situation in the Taiwan Strait feeling high on some hallucinogenic drug. The story opens with the following paragraph:

Security improved in 2008 as relations across the Taiwan Strait warmed, a [Chinese] Ministry of National Defense spokesman said, as the government released a report showing the slowest defense budget annual growth in three years … “Relations across the Taiwan Strait have seen unprecedented and tremendous changes,” Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Colonel Hu Changming [胡昌明] told reporters at a press conference in Beijing.

Now of course Bloomberg is doing what any good Confucian would do and uncritically regurgitated whatever the authorities said at the press conference. More responsible journalism, however, would have qualified the spokesman’s statement, which creates (sadly not for the first time) a false moral equivalent in the Taiwan Strait.

Let me clarify this. When it comes to China’s security in the 21st century, improved ties with Taiwan are not a variable, as unlike the period from 1949 until the 1980s Taiwan does not threaten China militarily, neither with its posture nor with the type of military hardware that it possesses. The US — Taiwan’s almost sole source of weapons — only sells Taiwan weapons that are defensive in nature and has exerted pressure on Taipei whenever it sought to acquire or develop offensive weapons. The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense’s announcement this weekend that it was considering troop cutbacks also has no incidence on the threat level for China, as those troops are also part of a defensive posture.

Furthermore, improved ties with Taiwan does not lessen the threat to China from Taiwan’s main ally, the US, as Washington has made it clear that it would only consider using force in the Taiwan Strait to help Taiwan defend itself from aggression. In other words, the US military posture in the Asia-Pacific region is a non-threatening one to China.

The conclusion that China was “safer” last year as a result of improved ties with Taiwan, therefore, is an altogether misleading one. Ironically, while the Chinese defense ministry (and Bloomberg) wax enthusiastically about a “safer” China, the threat to Taiwan remains undiminished — despite the warming relations between Taipei and Beijing. We have seen no troop reduction across the Strait, no removal of the 1,300-plus missiles the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) points at Taiwan (which to its credit Bloomberg mentions), and no change in Beijing’s plan to use force should Taiwan attempt to change the so-called “status quo” or allow its people to decide their own future. Anyone familiar with the brief “honeymoon” that followed the PLA’s “liberation” (read invasion) of Tibet knows that Beijing niceties and “peace” notwithstanding, the knife is ever drawn behind its back and ready to come slashing down.

By linking Chinese security with Taiwan, Beijing (and Bloomberg) are providing a false depiction of the dynamics in the Taiwan Strait and portraying Taiwan as an aggressor rather than a victim of aggression. There simply is no moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait, period.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Only fools wouldn’t see a developing pattern

Not once, not twice, but on three occasions calendars meant for distribution by government offices across the country included Chinese holidays such as Reunification Day and Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) birthday, or substituted the Republic of China (ROC) flag with that of the blood-drenched People’s Republic of China (PRC). Every time, government officials blamed printing companies or, in an insult to our intelligence, black-and-white samples that had ostensibly prevented proofreaders from seeing clearly, for the mishaps.

Now, anyone who has worked in publishing or ever pored over black-and-white proofs could be excused for recoiling in shock at such asinine explanations. Black-and-white or in color, the ROC and PRC flags certainly do not look the same — unless, of course, the printing company used so much black ink that it should be sued for environmental damage. And let’s be honest — black-and-white or color, the anniversary date of a mass murderer who starved millions of his own people is exactly the same.

Op-ed continued here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

CIA reviews my book — my response

In the Intelligence Officer's Bookshelf, the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (vol. 52, No. 4) had a short review by Hayden B. Peake of my book, Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001. Peake:

Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst Michael Cole felt an “urgency in writing this book” that was “exacerbated by the increasing signals in 2007 that the United States was readying itself to wage war against Iran.” (xiv) This confession of analytic prowess, gained after 29 months of service “amid the dullness and the ugliness that an intelligence officer deals with on a daily basis,” (xv) — service he found boring — sets the tone of SMOKESCREEN. It is a critical chronicle that runs from his deficient training — ”death by PowerPoint” — to his strategic world view — that America, not al-Qaeda, has made the world a more dangerous place after 9/11. In between he complains about CSIS tolerance of incompetence, ingrained institutional racism, the high value placed on “spineless intelligence officers” (70), and the lack of a foreign intelligence collection mission. He also finds that the “need-to-know-principle” is self-defeating and that there is a need for more oversight (undefined). He concludes that the “US intelligence Community remains a mess.” The corrective, he suggests, citing some wisdom found in “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf” (92), is with people [,] not organizations, though he is not optimistic of success. Nevertheless, in chapter six, “Fixing the System,” Cole presents pages of recommendations for improvement. There is nothing profound or unexpected there, just common sense. But nowhere in his book does Cole address a key issue: why he wasn’t willing or able to stay and help correct the deficiencies. Instead he moved to Taiwan.

Coming from an institution that I certainly do not spare in my criticism of Western intelligence, Peake’s review, though not flattering, is surprisingly fair and neutral (with the exception, perhaps, of the snipe about “analytical prowess” regarding the coming war with Iran, which hasn’t happened — yet). Given the institutional mindset that prevails at CSIS, the CIA and their like, the reflex would be to discard criticism — especially criticism by “outsiders” — without giving it a second though, a practice that I saw time and again while at CSIS.

Peake concludes by taking me up to task on my being unwilling or unable to stay and help correct the deficiencies and instead moving to Taiwan. The question is a fair one, and one that I attempted to answer in a previous version of my book before that section was cut out in the editing process. Before I answer it here, however, I must qualify his reference to my moving to Taiwan, which could give the impression that I eschewed my responsibilities and ran away. The reason for my decision to relocate to Taiwan — and those who know me are already fully aware of this — is that it offered promising career opportunities and I had had a longstanding interest in the Taiwan Strait issue, which, after graduating from the War Studies Masters program at the Royal Military College of Canada, I felt like studying first-hand. What’s more, I’ve become, as a journalist, a participant in it. (Another reason, I must add, is that this beautiful country is the birthplace of the woman that I love.)

Let us now turn to Peake’s question. Why did I leave? A very good question indeed, one that haunted me for months, with much to-ing and fro-ing before I made the decision in fall 2005. In a previous iteration of my book I stated my disagreement with the great (and sadly late) Edward W. Said of Columbia University, who (I think it was in his book Representations of the Intellectual) said that academics should never work for government lest it risk polluting their minds and integrity. With all due respect to Said, a great mind if ever there was one and an intellectual who has had tremendous influence on my worldview, I argued that in fact every intellectual should work for government for a while, otherwise how can one understand how it works, how can one experience its deficiencies if one does not partake of the dullness, the pervasive ossification, the detrimental hierarchy, the careerism? Ironically, Said’s argument played a role in me decision to leave, as an intellectual who had spent almost three years in government. I felt that I’d learned enough about the system — not just CSIS, but the community of which it was part — to write about it. In fact, having been on the inside, I felt it was my responsibility, as someone who felt a great sense of alarm at what was going on and with the direction our government had chosen, to write about it, something I could not have done had I remained at CSIS, given the Security of Information Act that barred me, as an intelligence officer with the highest security clearance in the country (Top Secret, NATO Umbra Orcon), from speaking out publicly.

An equally valid reason why I chose not to stay was that I did not think one could bring about change from the inside — at least not as quickly as I believed it should. With Ottawa (first Liberals, and then the Conservatives) falling in step with US/Israeli policy, waging war in Afghanistan and supporting Israel’s criminal war in Lebanon in 2006 (and again today, in Gaza), I felt someone had to do something before it was too late. Again, there were far too many constraints on the inside. God knows I tried, raising the issue of our self-defeating support for Israel, our lack of criticism regarding allied intelligence (often single-thread, or uncorroborated), the danger of racism and all that on a number of occasions, only to be shot down, insulted by superiors and treated like an idiot. I was soon made to understand that people like me were a cancer within the system and that the surgeons at the top — from the director to the DO to the DDO to the chiefs and heads — would not hesitate one second to use the scalpel on me, to excise my thoughts. Sadly, it is my firm belief that CSIS has worked in isolation for far too long, has developed enough antibodies to critical thinking, for it to be changed from within. But in fact, CSIS is only a reflection of our government’s strategic worldview, and if CSIS is to become a better, fairer and more accountable service in future, how Ottawa views and engages the world in general will have to change. As long as Ottawa remains a participant in empire, as long as it myopically supports Israeli war crimes and colonialism in the Middle East, as long as Ottawa remains a willing participant in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition system and as long as it maintains what is — let’s say it — a racist view of the world, CSIS will have carte blanche to do everything I criticize in my book.

Was it worth it? That has yet to be seen. But one thing I can tell you: It is being read, it is provoking reactions. It is now in public libraries and is on the reading list of a course on intelligence in the modern age at Carleton University in Ottawa, where, I hope, its inclusion will help prepare more critical minds to serve Canadians. Readers, some of whom are involved in cases past and present, have even contacted me. Oh, and it is at the Info Center at CSIS as well, being read by intelligence officers, perhaps helping them ask the questions they long should have been asking.

That, in a nutshell, is why I left. I didn’t flee, as those experiences remain part of who I am — I just chose not to stay.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Live from Sderot

Every day, as part of my job on the copy desk at a newspaper, I scan news and pictures from the global wire agencies my paper subscribes to. In the past two weeks, I have paid special attention to pictures from Gaza as it is relentlessly pounded by the Israeli military, scenes of carnage and destruction that starkly show how uneven this battle has been from the onset (the latest body count is about a dozen Israeli soldiers killed — mostly from “green-on-green” incidents — to about 1,000 Palestinians, between one quarter and one half of whom were civilians).

Then something caught my attention. Amid the bloodied corpses, collapsed buildings, infernal explosions and anti-Israel protests worldwide were a handful of pictures of a bald Caucasian male standing some distance from a burning Gaza. I turned to the picture caption, which informed me that the individual in question was one Joseph Wurzelbacher, a “reporter” sent by the conservative US-based Web site to report on the daily lives of ordinary Israelis during the conflict.

Now, there is no doubt that a conflict of this scope and complexity requires the best journalistic minds, people like Robert Fisk of the Independent, the late Ze’ev Schiff and Amira Hass, both of the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, or the handful of Western reporters who still take their work seriously. (Of course, it would help if Israel stopped barring such reporters from entering Gaza because of their alleged “bias.”)

So who is this Joseph Wurzelbacher? For those who followed the interminable US election last year, he is better known as Joe the Plumber, the man who famously asked then-candidate Barack Obama about his tax plan, who supported candidates John McCain and his stark-mad running-mate Sarah Palin — and who agreed to the statement that one vote for Obama was a vote for the death of Israel.

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry. Joe the Plumber, a man with no journalistic credentials whatsoever, a former unlicensed plumber who “owes taxes” and who now promotes digital converter boxes for analog television. Yeah, that’s what the public needs to stay informed on matters such as conflict in the Middle East, a conflict that with every invidious, murderous day that passes further angers and radicalizes the half on the “wrong” side of history — Muslims. At best, Joe the Plumber-Turned-Digital-Converter-Box-Advocate-Turned-War Correspondent will provide something else that increasingly (and dangerously) characterizes how many in the West regard and receive news — as entertainment. It would now seem that it’s OK for credible, seasoned war correspondents to be barred by governments from covering war, and that it is equally OK to minimize the horror of war by turning it into farce, a cheap form of entertainment that would be merely a terrible waste of bandwidth were the props not real human beings getting disemboweled and burned to death and crushed in the smoldering background. Oh, and if I were a Palestinian (or a Muslim), I’d be angry as hell and insulted to see this ludicrous personage dispatched in my backyard as a “correspondent.” First F-16s, Apache helicopters, cluster bombs and a variety of US-made bombs. Now Joe the Plumber. Ugh.

I wouldn’t even trust this man to fix my plumbing, let alone have him “inform” thousands of watchers on the “realities” of the Middle East. But some will. Some will…

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Freedom House releases ‘freedom index’ in Taipei

For the first time since it started publishing its Freedom of the World annual report in 1972, the US-based Freedom House released the report in Asia, and did so in Taipei on Tuesday. The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy hosted the event at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel.

In assessing countries, related territories (Hong Kong, Puerto Rico) and “disputed territories” (such as Kashmir, Tibet, Palestinian Occupied Territories), Freedom House looks at five principal variables — namely public assembly, media freedom, ethnic/religious tolerance, rule of law/judicial independence, and corruption/governance — within two broad categories: Political Rights (PR) and Civil Liberties (CL), which are then attributed a score of 1 (“free”) to 7 (“not free”). With these, all 193 countries are listed as either “free”(green) “partly free” (yellow) or “not free” (violet).

Without going into too much detail (the full report is available at, Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, said that last year, the number of “free” countries dropped by one to 89; the number of “partly free” countries rose by two to 62, while the number of “not free” countries stood at 42. By population, 3 billion people lived in “free” countries, 1.3 billion in “partly free” countries and 2.2 billion — 1.3 billion in China alone — in “not free” countries.

Three countries — Pakistan, the Maldives and Bhutan — moved from “not free” to “partly free,” while three experienced declines: Afghanistan and Mauritania (“partly free” to “not free”) and Senegal (“free” to “partly free”).

“Not free” countries included the usual suspects: North Korea, China, Zimbabwe and Burma, among others, while at the other end of the spectrum, Scandinavian countries topped the list. Of interest to readers of this blog, Taiwan was listed as “free,” with scores of 2 in PR and 1 in CL; China was “not free,” with 7 in PR and 6 in CL; Singapore was “partly free” with 5 in PR and 4 in CL; Hong Kong was “partly free,” with 5 in PR and 2 in CL; Tibet was “not free,” with the 7s in both categories. South Korea and Japan were both “free,” with 1 in PR and 2 in CL. The US and Canada were both “free,” with top scores in both categories. In Asia — the region with the greatest variety — South Asia was mostly “partly free,” Northeast Asia was either “free” or “not free,” while Southeast Asia was mostly “partly free” or “not free.”

As some, including Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, executive director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, pointed out, Freedom House may have been “too kind” to Taiwan this year, especially in light of recent developments, including the violent police crackdown on demonstrators during the visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) in early November. At minimum, some said, a “downward trend” arrow should have been added next to the country.

Mr. Walker was accompanied by two contributors to the report, Dr. Bridget Welsh of John Hopkins University, and Sarah Cook of Freedom House, as well as Mr. Hsiao and Dr. Chu Yun-han of National Taiwan University. Some salient points from the presentations and the Q&A period that followed:

- While from 2000 to 2006 political freedoms improved worldwide, after 2006 that trend was reversed.

- Despite the promises and commitments it made prior to the Olympic Games, Beijing failed to deliver. It remains a regional hegemon whose effect on democracy and freedoms in the region is for the most part negative, especially through investments in countries like Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. Its “neutral” stance vis-à-vis corruption and abuse in countries it invests in could have a serious long-term impact socially, especially as the divide separating the elite and ordinary citizens widens.

- The Asia-Pacific lacks a regional organization that pushes for human rights and democracy. For example, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping, of which China was a principal architect, focuses on economics and security, but fails on the democratic side (while only one country in region, Indonesia, is listed as “free”). Exacerbating this problem is that the Great Powers have placed little emphasis on democracy in Asia, focusing instead on trade and security. Chu said that while such a role would ostensibly be for Japan to fulfill, it has failed to do so and Japanese are not all that confident in the health of their political system, let alone its value as a model for the region.

- While the impact of the ongoing economic crisis has yet to be fully ascertained, there was general agreement that it risks widening the gap between rich and poor and cause problems in countries with vast migrant populations, such as China, and where governments depend on economic performance to retain their legitimacy. In the face of economic crisis, authoritarian regimes could become more repressive to stay in power. Chu made the point that “Many democracies did not survive the Great Depression.”

- Repressive regimes are becoming more subtle in their control of citizens and the media. Realizing that monitoring Internet use in full was impossible, regimes such as China have turned to more “creative” strategies, such as placing pro-government propaganda on key Web sites or controlling Web portals.

- Mr. Hsiao pointed out that the belief that Islam is incompatible with democracy was a fallacy, as most Asian countries in the “southern crescent” of Asia tended to be freer than their northern, Buddhist counterparts. We should therefore ask why most Muslim countries in the Middle East remain so undemocratic, he said, without elaborating (oil, external intervention and geography are all likely candidates).

- Freedom is transitory and could be at risk if the electorate feels that governments are not delivering. In fact, Asia’s three strongest democracies — Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — also show the highest levels of dissatisfaction, which seems to stem from the greater expectations that come with democratization. As such, failure to deliver could bring about a democratic backlash and give rise to populism (as was seen in Venezuela, to name but one country).

- Despite all its rhetoric, the administration of US President George W. Bush was generally bad for freedom and democracy, and aside from military invasions it encouraged dictatorial and authoritarian regimes while compelling otherwise democratic regimes to undermine the rights of citizens in the “war on terrorism.” Expectations were high that president-elect Barack Obama would reverse the course.

- Most agreed that 2009 would be a pivotal year for worldwide freedom, especially amid the challenges posed by the economic crisis. On Taiwan in particular, this year will be a crucial one that will determine whether the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which has control over both the executive and the legislature, has indeed brought about a downward trend in freedom and democracy, as many already fear.

In all, I believe it was very positive for Taiwan that Freedom House would choose to make its first Asia launch here, as it might help put the country back on the map internationally (in contrast, for example, with the decision by Human Rights Watch to remove Taiwan from its Web site). As Mr. Hsiao said, in Taiwan he can (still) express his political views (very green, I must add) without fear of being arrested, a stark contrast with places like China, Myanmar and North Korea. Yet there was a consensus that democracy and freedom are very fragile and should not be taken for granted. Epitomizing this reality was the birth of the Wild Strawberries Student Movement (whose representatives were present in the audience), which, as Mr. Hsiao said, emerged after years of non-involvement by youth in politics and in reaction to new realities.

Vigilance, therefore, remains necessary. Now the question is, Which way will Taiwan go in 2009?

Monday, January 12, 2009

The downfall of an academic

Michael Ignatieff, once a respected academic, authored a handful of important books on human rights, nationalism and ethnic conflict in the 1990s, making him the pride of many Canadians — even if, from 1978 until 2000, he lived in the UK, and then in the US, where he was director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Blood and Belonging, The Warrior’s Honor and The Rights Revolution were all must-reads, proof, we thought, that intellectuals had a role to play in describing, and perhaps influencing, the politics of our time. Despite his almost 30 years of exile, Canadians counted him as one of theirs, someone who reflected the ever-elusive “Canadian values.”

Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and more importantly, the US launched its mass disinformation campaign to justify its invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11.

Op-ed, published in CounterPunch magazine, coninues here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Airport 'glitch' poses security risk

If this were any normal country in any ordinary neighborhood, the computer crashes that affected four international airports in Taiwan (Taoyuan, Kaohsiung, Kinmen and Nangan) on Monday would not be of major concern. But when they occur in a country such as Taiwan, which faces, about 130km away, a major military power that has relentlessly stated its ambitions to annex it — by force if necessary — the “glitch” turns into a major security problem.

Even more troubling than the “hard drive” failure itself is the fact that four National Immigration Agency (NIA) systems simultaneously went offline at rush hour. This either indicates that all airports rely on the same, centralized computer system without the redundancy (ie, a system that runs in parallel to ensure continuity when failure occurs) that one would expect for such critical infrastructure or that the systems were somehow victims of sabotage or electronic attack, domestic or foreign.

Taipei Times op-ed continues here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Speak not the truth, or hide

The Taipei Times received a letter, which it published on Sunday, by an American who was reacting to an op-ed by Fania Oz-Salzberger in the Times on Jan. 8. The author of the letter was accusing Oz-Salzberger, professor and chair of Modern Israel Studies at Monash University in Melbourne and director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, of minimizing Israel’s responsibility for the Middle East crisis.

An excerpt from the letter: “Imagine someone … from outside your neighborhood coming into your home, forcibly removing you … from it, and kicking you into the dog pen. He electrifies the wires surrounding the pen, making it impossible for you to leave. To your great surprise and chagrin, many of your neighbors and indeed the entire community at large turn a blind eye to this brutal treatment. Later, the intruder decides to block food and medicine deliveries into the dog pen. Your children are now suffering malnutrition, with no access to health care. In your great anger, you begin to lob stones toward the house and some of them even succeed in breaking some windows. Your neighbor then takes out his M-16 and shotgun and begins to fire indiscriminately at you and your family.”

There is no need to name the actors in this scenario, which serves as a perfect analogy for the roots of the conflict and vividly recounts, in a way Oz-Salzberger could not be bothered to mention, what happened in 1948.

However eloquent, the letter does not say anything new, as there are entire shelves of history books and diplomatic documents testifying to the Catastrophe and its aftermath. And yet, its author, “a Zionist; I believe that Israel has a right to statehood, behind the 1967 borders (Green Line) with Jerusalem a divided city,” requested that his or her name and address be withheld. Why? For the same reason that authors, reporters, academics and others have always been reluctant to tell the truth about Israel — personal attacks, accusations of anti-Semitism, defamation and so on (God knows I’ve received my share); book contracts canceled, tenures at university lost or TV programs mothballed. So vicious is the system of repression unleashed by defenders of Zionism that even supporters of Israel — those who believe that Israel’s right to exist should not come at the cost of whitewashing history, that is — are afraid to reveal their identity.

Congratulations to the author for a good letter. One wishes, though, that he or she also had enough courage to provide a name. We cannot continue to allow fear to rule our lives, to bar us from telling truth to power.

Friday, January 09, 2009

HRW denies any influence at play in removal of Taiwan

By J. Michael Cole

In an e-mail response to an inquiry from the Taipei Times yesterday regarding the removal late last year of Taiwan from its list of countries, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) denied the move was made in response to any pressure. “The decision to remove Taiwan from the site had nothing whatsoever to do with the Chinese or Taiwanese authorities, nor with any donors,” HRW communications director Emma Daly wrote. “When we relaunched our Web site late last year, we decided to cut back the list of countries to remove those where we’ve done little or no work over the past few years.”

“The only information we had posted on the Taiwan page on the old site were links to two global reports from 2000 and 2001 — one on land mines and one on the use of child soldiers — and a 1989 assessment of human rights in Taiwan. So we decided to cut it from the list of countries we work on,” Daly wrote.

Asked why, in light of signs of a democratic backsliding in Taiwan since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to power in May, HRW had not issued any reports or comments — as other rights watchdogs have done — Daly said: “Human Rights Watch does not work on Taiwan because the abuses there aren’t nearly as acute as they are in many other Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Burma [Myanmar] or China.”

“Human Rights Watch has finite resources and there are many Asian countries where the human rights situation is appalling. That’s why we don’t carry out rights investigations in, say, Japan or South Korea,” Daly wrote.

HRW nevertheless maintains Web pages for both those countries, Daly said, because they are significant advocacy targets, adding that if they decide to work on Taiwan again, HRW would “certainly restore the link on the new site.”

The organization had no comment on recent developments in Taiwan.

In its 2007 financial statement, the non-profit said it obtains financial support from the public, mainly from individuals and foundations, as well as businesses. It does not seek or accept support from governments or government-funded agencies. Its statement showed US$37.6 million in public contributions and grants for 2007, of which US$2.88 million went toward the Asia program.

Link to article.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ottawa blames the victims — again

“The Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper reached an abysmal new low in its uncritical support of Israel yesterday when it said that Israel bombing of the UN-run al-Fakhora school in Jabaliya refugee camp, killing at least 42, including children.

Hamas bears a terrible responsibility for this and for the wider deepening humanitarian tragedy,” Canadian Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent. Those comments by a junior foreign minister — let’s hope he remains junior for the rest of his diplomatic career — bore all the usual hallmarks and keywords of defenders of Israel. Hamas is responsible for the “tragedy,” we are told, as if this were not terror. Tragedy removes responsibility from the actor; it neutralizes events as if they were a natural phenomenon. We can be certain that if Hamas fired rockets at a school in Israel and killed dozens of civilians, it wouldn’t be called a “tragedy.” It would be called … yes, terrorism.

Our impeccably delusional Kent continues: “Hamas’s record is to use civilians — the population and civilian infrastructure — as shields and it would seem quite possible that this is yet another tragic instance.” Tragic instance — not even an attack, an “instance.”

If Kent and the government he represents were not so biased, he would have taken note of the fact that Israel has prevented Palestinians from leaving the territory while it is under siege. So, one could reasonably ask, are Palestinians supposed to hide, if not in buildings bearing the UN symbol? Are the supposed to vanish into thin air so that “tragedies” will not occur?

Voicing his opposition to a temporary truce, Kent said that Hamas has a “history” of using truces to rearm. Oh yes, the dangerous Hamas, which has failed miserably at defending Gaza. With a few exceptions, the handful of Israeli soldiers who have been killed since the invasion was launched on Dec. 26 were killed by friendly fire — that is, by Israelis. Meanwhile, more than 600 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli attacks.

Kent concluded by echoing the risible Ottawa blurb that Canada remains committed to playing a “constructive” role in the Middle East “peace” process. Very constructive indeed, when the victims are blamed and reality so outrageously defied. I am sure that Palestinians could do well without such “constructive” help from Ottawa. Maybe Mr. Kent should spend a night at a Palestinian refugee camp before he speaks for his government in future. Oh, that’s right — Westerners (including the media) are barred by Israel from entering Gaza because of their supposed biased views against Israel.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The forbidden question

Whenever Israel launches strikes against Palestinians, it always justifies its actions by saying it is doing so “in retaliation” for Palestinian “terror.” By doing this, Israeli authorities answer two questions: who, and how. Who is the enemy? Palestinians. How is it an enemy? “Terror” — suicide bombings, cross-border rocket attacks. What it never answers, however, or what its detractors should never ask, is Why. Why are Palestinian groups launching “terror” attacks against Israel. It is a forbidden question, the one that, when asked, prompts supporters of Israel, or Israeli diplomatic missions worldwide (as did the mission in Taipei last week to an article by the Observer republished in the newspaper where I work about the inhumane conditions Palestinians are forced to live in as a result of an Israeli blockade), to launch accusations of anti-Semitism, bias, one-sidedness or — the best one — of siding with “terror.” Such rebuttals are often emotional and include attacks on the author of the article (“preposterous,” “ignorant,” “racist,” “condescending,” “stupid” and so on) rather than counterarguments based on facts.

Yet, it is the Why that matters most, the one that the Israeli government and its supporters would rather see unanswered — or not even asked. Let’s stop at “terror,” shall we? Let’s maintain the illusion that Palestinians, or Arabs, are all mindless suicidal killers who enjoy being bombed, seeing their families destroyed or blowing themselves up at a pizzeria in Tel Aviv. Somehow, Palestinians, Arabs, “terrorists,” are less than human, the argument goes, so let’s not look into motivations, the Why. (Richard Perle, a former US assistant secretary of defense, co-architect of the invasion of Iraq and staunch supporter of Israel, said in 2002 that “terrorism must be decontextualized”— in other words, we mustn’t ask why.)

Of course, the Why is that Palestinians are under occupation. They were forced from their homes, ethnically cleansed in 1948, when the powers that be felt guilty enough about the Holocaust to create a state for Jews where they would live in safety. While there is nothing wrong with the concept, this came at the price of Palestinians being forced to leave their homeland. They resisted — they still do — and we blame them for that, or remain silent as the Israeli army pounds them again and again, further poisoning the well. Worse, Israel’s greatest supporter, the US, blocks UN Security Council resolutions decrying Israeli action in Gaza, which it invaded today and will most certainly result in further atrocities.

Detractors of Israel’s detractors will then counter that Palestinians were made numerous offers, which they all rejected. Not only is this false (see, for example, the Arab League’s Beirut offer of 2002, which Israel turned down but which would have resulted in official recognition by Arab states), but all those “generous offers” would have resulted in an unviable Palestinian state (or rather a series of statelets) that no nation with a shred of dignity would have acquiesced to. Even when attempts were made to turn those offers into fact, the Israeli government would break its promises, break ceasefires through targeted killings (in other words, assassinations) and continue to build illegal settlements. Seeing that their counterpart was not ready to abide by even the lopsided commitments that gave less to Palestinians than what is legally theirs — a return of all territory seized by Israel in 1967 — Palestinians have justifiably reacted in anger, electing radical movements like Hamas or condoning attacks against Israel. This is the Why: the injustice, Israel’s continual breaking of international law and its being allowed to do so as a result of support by the West.

Palestinians are resisting. They have motivations like everyone else. Their actions do not draw from a mindless hatred for Jews, just as the actions of the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were not in response to a biological aversion to democracy or liberty or same-sex marriage. Their actions are in response to policies — self-defeating policies that very much resemble colonialism — by the West, by Israel. The danger is, of course, that the longer this injustice is allowed to continue, the more credibility will the homicidal few who do feel senseless hatred for the Other have, and the more difficult it will be to condemn their actions.

Only by refusing to even consider the Why can Israel continue to launch invasions it cannot win — at least not strategically. This is self-defeating, fuels extremism, poisons the well and makes it harder for both sides to accommodate less radical individuals. For all the writers and bloggers out there, if you ever get an angry response about a piece on Israel, chances are you dared to ask Why.