Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Israel and Barak: Labour's enduring friends

Was there ever a more damning illustration of New Labour's shameless support for Israel, dismissal of Palestinian suffering and disregard for international advocates of war crimes justice?

I speak, of course, about the invitation of Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, a staggering act of insensitivity even for Labour Friends of Israel.

Barak is the man who, with meticulous, time-obsessed detail, planned the murderous 23 day assault on the people of Gaza, snuffing out over 1400 lives and leaving a scene of continuing devastation.

Supported by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the recent 575-page Goldstone report firmly recommended prosecution of the principal people responsible for those crimes through the International Criminal Court.

Goldstone has also urged that all party states to the Geneva Convention apply the principle of universal jurisdiction to arrest and indict such persons entering their countries.
1772. To the international community

The Mission recommends that States Parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognised standards of justice.

Human rights lawyers acting on the instructions of Palestinian families have lodged a legal challenge at Westminster City magistrates court to have Barak arrested - an action largely ignored by the UK media. Alongside reference to the Goldstone report, a useful precedent was cited:

"Barak, who is also deputy prime minister of Israel and leader of the country's Labour party, could argue that his government office guarantees him "state immunity" from prosecution. But lawyers from two London law firms, Irvine Thanvi Natas and Imran Khan & Partners, believe the warrant that the international criminal court issued in May last year for the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, offers a precedent. Bashir is accused of committing war crimes in Darfur."

Barak and his ministerial acomplices will, of course, continue to claim diplomatic immunity. But while the prospect of actual arrests seem unlikely for the time being, gathering international recognition of Goldstone's universal jurisdiction call and the pressure on courts to apply war crimes rulings more equitably suggests a worrying time to come for Israel's political and military henchmen.

Meanwhile, the presence of Barak as an openly-welcomed guest at Brighton, rather than a pursued war criminal, helps expose the hypocritical complicity of his hosts.

Only last week, British officials were walking out of the United Nations gathering in New York, apparently 'revolted' by the presence of Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi. Yet, here we have the identified architect and prime suspect of a mass murder campaign against an entire population feted and defended in Brighton.

Barak will, no doubt, be using the occasion to intensify his country's scaremongering over Iran's 'nuclear ambitions' in an effort to blanket Israel's ongoing crimes.

Conveniently disregarded in the current flurry of political denunciations are these more sobering truths: that precisely no evidence exists of Iran's intentions to build nuclear weapons; that, unlike the West's next-door aggressions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has no such record of, or apparent intentions towards, illegal invasion/bombing of other states; and that, unlike Israel, Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As noted in one of the few available mainstream reports, Israel has now been seriously challenged over its own refusal to open-up to the international weapons inspectors and work towards non-proliferation.

"Israel has rejected the call by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and open up its atomic sites to international inspection. The nuclear watchdog, meeting yesterday in Vienna, adopted a resolution expressing concern about “Israeli nuclear capabilities” and called on agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei to work on the issue. The motion was adopted by 49 votes to 45, with 16 abstentions. Russia and China, both permanent members of the UN security council, voted in favour."

Yet, it's the message of the Iranian 'menace' that persists. Forget the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the defiant expansion of settlements and the tragedy of Gaza. The 'threat' from Tehran remains the centre stage issue for Obama, Brown, Sarkozy, Merkel and the other blind-eye defenders of Israel.

Nor do most of the media need much encouragement in Iran-bashing and ratcheting-up the same calls for punitive action.

For the BBC, Iranian missiles are "the big fear". As the BBC's Tehran correspondent John Leyne explains:

"The big fear is that ultimately Iran will have a fully-fledged inter-continental ballistic missile. These missiles already cover pretty much the whole of the Middle East and a good chunk of Turkey as well, and maybe the fringes of Europe. I think Iran would say with some justice its missile programme is the strongest deterrent it has got. It probably cannot prevent Western jets getting through and Western missiles getting through. But it could - and I think Israel knows for example - that if it did strike Iran, it would have to take into account the possibility of really substantial casualties if Iran did unleash its long-range missile pack."
Note the standard BBC assumption about the 'primary problem' here. "The big fear" of Iran having "a fully-fledged inter-continental ballistic missile" is stated by Leyne as a generallly 'understood' truth. In contrast, he thinks "Iran would say" it is justified in holding such missiles.

The caveat "with some justice" is the BBC's dutiful nod to 'analytical' reality - Leyne's token concession to Iran's deterrent purpose and the potential response Israel might expect. But that all sits as secondary to "the big fear" of Iranian armaments. For Leyne and his peers, there's no suggestion that "the big fear" could actually be Israel's nuclear intimidations in the region backed by the overwhelming presence of conventional Israeli/Western weaponry. It's another useful example of simplified BBC 'analysis' posing as 'specialist understanding'.

Perversely, for another Westminster correspondent, Iran's self-declared nuclear enrichment site has been viewed as a 'gift' to Gordon Brown in the wake of his snubbing at the UN by Obama.

"By accident, and certainly not by any choreography, Brown has been handed a global crisis that could transform his last months in office. The crisis centres on a secret Iranian nuclear enrichment plant and demands that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors be given access to the hidden plant at Qom in Iran. In the absence of co-operation by the Iranians, a new regime of sanctions will be imposed with the potential backing of Russia."
Again, note the words "global crisis" here, part of the media's standard reiteration of a 'war-provoking' Tehran. As one astute comment in the Guardian, alas limited to the letters page, puts it:
"That western powers dangerously demonise Iran is one tragedy. That newspapers uncritically imitate them is a worse one."
While Barak takes refuge in such evasions and distractions among his trusted friends at Brighton, one can only wonder how those traumatised, bereaved families in Gaza must feel about this despicable invitation and the media's pandering to Israel's diversionary agenda.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

Goldstone's report: no excuse now for legal inaction

The prospect of senior Israeli politicians and generals standing in front of an international war crimes court took a significant step forward this week with the release of Richard Goldstone's UN-based report on the recent attacks against Gaza and related Israeli violations across the Occupied Territories.

Goldstone, a prominent South African judge with noted experience in helping to dismantle that apartheid regime, delivered a scathing set of findings and recommendations, concluding, most notably, that Israel has committed a series of high war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, all of which should be investigated and prosecuted through the International Criminal Court (ICC).

As the report states:

1732. From the facts gathered, the Mission found that the following grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention were committed by Israeli forces in Gaza: willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly. As grave breaches these acts give rise to individual criminal responsibility. The Mission notes that the use of human shields also constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
As an accompanying statement to the report also concludes:

"The Mission found that, in the lead up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation, code-named "Operation Cast Lead," houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings were destroyed… More than 1,400 people were killed during the military operation…

The report concludes that the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population. The destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy which has made the daily process of living, and dignified living, more difficult for the civilian population…"

The language from Netanyahu has been, predictably, dismissive. As with Israel's refusal to co-operate with the Goldstone team, there will be no active response to the report's recommendation that Israel conduct its own investigations within six months.

Israel's institutional aversion to instructing any such enquiry is duly noted in the report:

122. The Mission concludes that there are serious doubts about the willingness of Israel to carry out genuine investigations in an impartial, independent, prompt and effective way as required by international law. The Mission is also of the view that the Israeli system overall presents inherently discriminatory features that make the pursuit of justice for Palestinian victims very difficult.
This forms part of a more damning set of charges and instructions to Israel:

1769. To Israel

The Mission recommends that Israel immediately cease the border closures and restrictions of passage through border crossings with the Gaza Strip and allow passage of goods necessary and sufficient to meet the needs of the population, for the recovery and reconstruction of housing and essential services and for the resumption of meaningful economic activity in the Gaza Strip.

The Mission recommends that Israel cease the restrictions on access to the sea for fishing purposes imposed on the Gaza Strip and allow such fishing activities within the 20 nautical miles as provided for in the Oslo accords. It further recommends that Israel allow the resumption of agricultural activity within the Gaza Strip, including within areas in the vicinity of the borders with Israel.

Israel should initiate a review of the rules of engagement, standard operating procedures, open fire regulations and other guidance for military and security personnel. The Mission recommends that Israel avail itself of the expertise of the ICRC, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other relevant bodies, and Israeli experts, civil society organizations with the relevant expertise and specialization, in order to ensure compliance in this respect with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. In particular such rules of engagement should ensure that the principles of proportionality, distinction, precaution and non-discrimination are effectively integrated in all such guidance and in any oral briefings provided to officers, soldiers and security forces, so as to avoid the recurrence of Palestinian civilian deaths, destruction and affronts on human dignity in violation of international law.

The Mission recommends that Israel allow freedom of movement for Palestinians within the OPT - within the West Bank including East Jerusalem, between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and between the OPT and the outside world - in accordance with international human rights standards and international commitments entered into by Israel and the representatives of the Palestinian people. The Mission further recommends that Israel forthwith lifts travel bans currently placed on Palestinians by reason of their human rights or political activities.

The Mission recommends that Israel release Palestinians who are detained in Israeli prisons in connection with the occupation. The release of children should be an utmost priority. The Mission further recommends that Israel cease the discriminatory treatment of Palestinian detainees. Family visits for prisoners from Gaza should resume.

Israel should forthwith cease interference with national political processes in the OPT, and as a first step release all members of the Palestinian Legislative Council currently in detention and allow all members of the PLC to move between Gaza and the West Bank so that the Council may resume functioning

The Government of Israel should cease actions aimed at limiting the expression of criticism by civil society and members of the public concerning Israel’s policies and conduct during the military operations in the Gaza Strip. The Mission also recommends that Israel set up an independent inquiry to assess whether the treatment by Israeli judicial authorities of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis expressing dissent in connection with the offensive was discriminatory, both in terms of charges and detention pending trial. The results of the inquiry should be made public and, subject to the findings, appropriate remedial action should be taken.

The Government of Israel should refrain from any action of reprisal against Palestinian and Israeli individuals and organizations that have cooperated with the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, in particular individuals who have appeared at the Public Hearings held by the Mission in Gaza and Geneva and expressed criticism of actions by the State of Israel.

The Mission recommends that Israel reiterates its commitment to respect the inviolability of UN premises and personnel and that it undertakes all appropriate measures to ensure that there is no repetition of violations in the future (ref Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN). It further recommends that reparation to the United Nations be provided fully and without further delay by the State of Israel, and that the General Assembly consider this matter.

The enquiry team also took in-depth submissions regarding Israel's gross violations across the West Bank, including the wilful shooting of peaceful demonstrators at Bi'in and Nil'in.

Goldstone further asserts that Hamas rockets fired into Israel constitute war crimes and recommends similar referral to the ICC:

108. The Mission has determined that the rockets and, to a lesser extent, mortars, fired by the Palestinian armed groups are incapable of being directed towards specific military objectives and were fired into areas where civilian populations are based. The Mission has further determined that these attacks constitute indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population of southern Israel and that where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into a civilian population, they constitute a deliberate attack against a civilian population. These acts would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.

Israel supporters and much of the media have seized upon this as evidence of a 'two sides to blame' conflict. Israel, of course, is reluctant to endorse this view given that it would incriminate itself as one of those guilty parties.

But the case against Hamas can also be viewed as an added opportunity for a full and just revelation of the truth behind this conflict.

This writer has been clear that the firing of rockets is a counter-productive strategy. Ultimately, violence achieves nothing - even violence against 'superior' forms of violence. However, it's also obvious - and implicit in the weight of the report's indictment against Israel - that such actions have been carried out as part of a desperate, rearguard effort against overwhelming Israeli oppression.

Consistently identifying such attacks as contrary to international law may be valid. But one also has to recognise the context within which they happen: namely, the brutal siege of Gaza and daily terror perpetrated by Israeli forces. Again, while maintaining the case against Hamas, Goldstone appears to offer unstated 'recognition' of that context in the report's proportional indictments and critical instructions towards Israel.

Referring Hamas to the ICC may, thus, be regarded as a helpful step in bringing all the evidence of Palestinian suffering to court. It will offer those who have felt driven by such desperate measures the opportunity to present mitigating evidence of self-defence.

Goldstone's report is also careful to say that anyone subsequently investigated by the ICC is presumed innocent until proved guilty.

It's also worth noting, with regard to rocket fire, the report's concerns about the discriminatory nature of Israeli defence arrangements:

110. The Mission notes that the relatively few casualties sustained by civilians inside Israel is due in large part to the precautions put into place by Israel. This includes an early warning system, the provision of public shelters and fortifications of schools and other public buildings at great financial cost – a projected USD 460 million between 2005 and 2011- to the Government of Israel. The Mission is greatly concerned, however, about the lack of an early warning system and a lack of public shelters and fortifications available to the Palestinian Israeli communities living unrecognized and in some of the recognized villages that are within the range of rocket and mortars being fired by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza.

The question now is whether the key Security Council powers, notably the US, will exercise their veto on having the report referred to the ICC. The option of upholding international law and giving teeth to the ICC, rather than default-line protection for Israel, will be another major test of Obama's proclaimed desire to see justice in the Middle East. Alas, as evidenced by Washington's current appeasement of Israel over the 'settlement freeze', any just action appears unlikely.

However, in a further section of the report, Goldstone also made this significant recommendation to individual states:

1772. To the international community

The Mission recommends that States Parties to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognised standards of justice.

Which, with proper application by signatory states and full implementation by others into national law, gives little excuse now for ministerial and legal inaction.

Whether or not states like Britain now pursue and arrest prima facie Israeli war criminals arriving in the UK, the international standing of Goldstone's report and recommendations now makes it much more difficult for governments and courts to ignore.


Friday, 4 September 2009

Guardians of Obama

As the latest Media Lens Alert, 'An existential threat: the US, Israel and Iran', ably documents, the Guardian and other liberal media continue to provide convenient cover for US-Israeli war positioning in the Middle East.

In particular, Media Lens cite a slavish and misleading article by Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, 'US takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear programme in one massive gamble'.

Here's my own response to Borger and MacAskill:

Dear Julian and Ewen,

I trust you've both taken time to consider the charges of misleading and compliant journalism presented in the latest Media Lens Alert, 'An existential threat: the US, Israel and Iran' (1 September 2009).

It's a sad reflection of what passes for critical reporting to read this face-value acceptance of US-Israeli positioning in the Middle East.

You say:
"The Obama administration's approach to two of the world's most intractable and dangerous problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear programme, is to link them together in the search for a solution to both."
This suggests that the US has played no particular part in the creation of these "dangerous problems" or can be blamed for the absence of any available "solution to both." Readers are to presume that continued US-Israeli efforts to destabilise Iran, Washington's unrelenting support for Israel and now the spurious linking of the Israel-Palestinian issue to a contrived Iranian threat constitutes some kind of neutral, peace-seeking "approach" rather than nefarious peace-defying behaviour.

We then we have this favourable reading of Obama's motives and modus operandi:
"The new US strategy aims to use its Iran policy to gain leverage on Binyamin Netanyahu's government. Sanctions planned against Iran's energy sector if Tehran does not compromise on uranium enrichment by the end of next month are not only aimed at pre-empting Israeli military action; they are also a bargaining chip offered in part exchange for a substantial freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not," said one official close to the negotiations."
Unfortunately, the Guardian's acceptance of Obama's benevolent 'game plan' includes no apparent concern over the untold suffering these planned sanctions will cause, nor any thought on the minuscule worth of the 'concession' he's supposedly getting on a settlement freeze. Aside from what this freeze conveniently excludes - actual removal of the settlements - where, one wonders, is your critical comment on the gross injustice of this cosy quid pro quo? Millions of Iranians are to suffer economic hardship and possible death 'in return' for a "temporary and partial" cessation of settlement construction. Have you nothing to say about the appalling logic behind that proposal?

Likewise, have you any thoughts on the patronising message of the "new US strategy" in relegating the primary case of Palestinian statehood to some secondary status and outcome of relations with another state?

The article continues:
"Netanyahu is heartened by what he sees as US and western European determination to impose "crippling" sanctions on Iran, a phrase used by Hillary Clinton that the Israeli prime minister repeated at his meeting with Gordon Brown. Israel is no longer threatening military action to curtail Iran's nuclear programme, and Netanyahu is signalling readiness to bargain on the Jewish settlements. European diplomats believe Netanyahu will be better able to keep his coalition together through a freeze on settlements if he can demonstrate western resolve on Iran."
As with your 'good Machiavellian' portrayal of Obama, this is a completely vacant reading of Netanyahu's true agenda of aggression, intransigence and destabilisation. You may claim to be illustrating Israeli 'bargaining power' in these matters. But it carries no useful reflection on the actual peace-destroying motives behind it.

In the same vein, there's no elementary questioning of "US and western European determination" to target Iran. As desired by the US and Israel, this "existential threat" is reported with immediacy and gravitas, while the actual, imminent threat of "crippling sanctions" against a non-threatening state is, seemingly, not fit for discussion. Nor is there any consideration of the fact that Iran is an already threatened state neighboured by a sanction-crippled, occupied and broken country.

You conclude:
"The Obama administration is setting out to juggle two potentially explosive global crises, while walking the tightrope of a shaky and nervous global economy. It is not going to be easy, but Washington appears to have decided it has no option but to try."
Again, we're left with only noble images of Washington as an honest broker and selfless saviour in its resolve to effect peace in the region. It reminds me of that B-list film cliché where our (usually American) heroes consider the last resort rescue plan: "it's a long shot, but, just maybe..."

It may not be easy, or editorially permissible, but perhaps 'serious' Guardian journalists might occasionally decide that there's another narrative option besides slavish reiteration of 'benign US interventionism'.


John Hilley


An additional exchange with the BBC's Roger Hardy (9 September 2009)

Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Dear Roger

I was interested to read of your firm belief in Obama's "good intentions" for the Middle East ('Obama Mid-East plans in jeopardy', 7 September 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8242387.stm) which included this statement:

"On the Middle East, as on other issues, Barack Obama entered the White House full of good intentions.

The Bush administration had neglected the peace process. He would revive it.

Mr Bush had shunned Iran and Syria. Mr Obama would talk to them.

But like other presidents before him, he has discovered how resistant the region's problems are to solution."
Allow me to ask three simple questions:

1. How do you reconcile the standard BBC instruction towards 'impartiality' against your clearly-stated opinion that Obama is acting with "good intentions" in the Middle East?

2. How might you explain Obama's "talk to" position given his current threat, at the behest of Netanyahu, to impose crippling sanctions on Iran?

3. Coupling Washington's confrontational words towards Tehran with its unrelenting support for Israel, might your 'analysis' better include the suggestion that the US is itself a key part of "the region's problems" and, thus, a "resistant" party to any "solution"?

I look forward to hearing from you.


John Hilley


Re-read my piece and you will see it is scarcely a ringing endorsement of Obama's achievements in the region so far. To be fair to him, it is early days. But almost nothing is going right -- and, had I had space, I might have included Iran in that category. As for good intentions, aren't they supposed to be what the road to hell is paved with?


Hi Roger,

Thanks for getting back.

As you probably understand from my questions - alas, unanswered - the issue isn't about "Obama's achievements in the Middle East so far." It's about the posturing behind his Cairo speech and America's own principal role in undermining any peace agenda.

Or do you believe that threatening to starve Iran into submission over spurious Israeli-fed charges of nuclear terrorism is some kind of benevolent, peace-promoting position? Likewise, are we to believe the BBC repetition that Obama's token pleas to Israel for a 'settlement freeze' constitutes "good intentions"?

Is it too much to expect from BBC analysts like yourself analysis that doesn't begin with face-value acceptance of 'Obama the neutral peace facilitator'?

In the meantime, here's some useful analysis to ponder: