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White Nationalist Steve Bannon Moves to Europe to boost Far Right

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 - 11:42pm

Washington (AFP) – US President Donald Trump’s controversial former advisor Steve Bannon plans to set up a foundation in Europe called “The Movement” to spark a populist rightwing revolt, according to a report.

Bannon envisages the organization rivalling George Soros’ Open Foundation, which has given away $32 billion to liberal causes since it was established in 1984, according to the report by the Daily Beast published late Friday.

The non-profit will be a central source of polling, advice on messaging, data targeting, and think-tank research.

He told the Daily Beat he was convinced the coming years will see an end to decades of European integration.

“Right-wing populist nationalism is what will happen. That’s what will govern,” he said. “You’re going to have individual nation states with their own identities, their own borders.”

He added he had held talks with right-wing groups across the continent, from Nigel Farage and members of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (recently renamed Rassemblement National) in the West, to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the Polish populists in the East.

The organization will likely be based out of Brussels initially and has set its sights on the 2019 European parliament elections.

The architect of Trump’s nationalist-populist campaign and his election victory, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness” and the “Shadow President.”

His economic nationalism became the lynchpin of Trump policies, even as many of his other ideas were rebuffed by policy rivals.

After new Chief of Staff John Kelly arrived, Bannon’s constant clashes with other advisors became untenable, as did his ties to the extreme right, which drew accusations that Trump fostered racists. Bannon left the White House last August.

Featured Photo: AFP/File / Michal Cizek. The architect of Trump’s nationalist-populist campaign and his election victory, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was nicknamed the Prince of Darkness and the Shadow President.

Iran’s Khamenei endorses Closing Gulf Oil Shipping if US Blockades

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 - 11:27pm

Iran’s clerical Leader, Ali Khamenei, spoke Saturday to a gathering of diplomats in Tehran.

Speaking of the Trump administration’s full court press to put Iran under severe sanctions now that Trump has violated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Khamenei said he approved of the threat made by President Hassan Rouhani on his recent visit to Europe. Rouhani had intimated that Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz, interrupting the petroleum and gas exports of other nations on the Gulf littoral, if it was pushed to the wall. He said, “If Iran cannot export oil, no country in the region will be able to.” Khamenei said that the obligation of the ministry of foreign affairs is to advance such positions of the president.

[I’d just like to point out that it probably is not technically possible for Iran, which has no proper navy, to close the Straits of Hormuz. And that if it did so, it would be hurting itself, since US sanctions can’t stop Iranian exports entirely. And that if it did so, it would likely lead to tit-for-tat attacks that would hurt Iran as much as its neighbors. Even at the height of the Iran-Iraq War, this was a step Iran never took, for fear of mutual assured destruction of its own oil facilities. Moreover, the Europeans have asked Iran to stop talking like this, since this sort of threat makes it harder for them to buck the Trump administration.]

Khamenei criticized those pragmatists who sought to separate diplomacy and ideology. He insisted that ideological diplomacy is unproblematic, and that ideology and the national interest are compatible.

He pointed out that American diplomats are always going on about “American values,” which he said was “their ideology.” Similar ideologies are part, he said, of much European diplomacy.

He argued that the European and American focus on “democracy” is hypocritical. They hardly allowed democracy in their colonies during the age of colonialism. Nowadays, he said, several of them suffer from the dictatorship of party rule. Some of them have collaborated with Saudi Arabia in killing people. The Europeans, he said, are perfect examples of the lack of human rights, but then impudently turn around and accuse Iran of human rights abuses.

(This is not actually a thing. Democracy is not actually incompatible with parties. While it is true that Europeans and Americans have allied with the Saudis in their war on Yemen, that does not let Iran off the hook with regard to its human rights abuses. Two wrongs don’t make a right.)

Khamenei said that it was a mistake to negotiate with the United States, since Washington has a basic antipathy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. He said that the US wanted to return to its position [of neocolonial dominance] in Iran that characterized the situation before the 1979 revolution.

The leader said that he has been stressing for ages that it is not possible to depend on the word or even the signature of the Americans. For this reason, negotiating with them is useless.

In contrast, he said that negotiations with Europe should not be cut off, but that there should not be delays, since many projects needed to be undertaken in Iran.

Featured Photo via Hossein Zohrevand, Tasnim News, Creative Commons/ WikiMedia Commons.

Is NRA in Peril from Russian Criminal Conspiracy Charges?

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 - 11:24pm

By Brian Galle | –

Washington, D.C. (The Conversation) – Editor’s note: U.S. authorities have arrested Mariia Butina, a Russian advocate for firearms ownership also known as Maria. In a criminal complaint that led to her indictment, the Justice Department accused her of secretly infiltrating American electoral politics as a foreign agent working on behalf of Russia and engaged in an anti-U.S. conspiracy. Numerous media reports allege that Butina illegally helped funnel Russian money into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign through the National Rifle Association. Brian Galle, a law professor who used to work for the Justice Department, explains what the consequences might be if the charges and accounts are true.

1. How could the government punish the organization?

The court papers allude to the NRA, although not by name. Several news sources have described in detail the relationship Butina and her Russian employer built with the organization, starting in 2013 or earlier. Depending on what NRA officials knew and when they knew it, the government could make a case that the gun advocacy and lobby group coordinated with Butina to help her advance Russian interests here in the U.S. – making it a co-conspirator in her individual lawbreaking.

The NRA has several arms. Its largest operation is technically known as a social welfare group or 501(c)(4) organization, granting it exemption from U.S. taxes. Another branch is a traditional charitable organization, making contributions to that entity tax deductible. Under federal tax law, when either of these kinds of nonprofits break laws, they jeopardize their tax exempt status.

The government has stripped several nonprofits of their tax exemptions for breaking the law over the years, including organizations that used their charitable status to defraud donors and, in the 1940s and ‘50s, groups suspected of supporting communism.

Some media reports suggest the NRA served as a conduit for Russian money that landed in the Trump presidential campaign’s coffers. If that proves true, it would violate election laws that bar foreigners from funding political candidates. At the same time, however, there could be some ways to structure such transactions as technically legal, as dark money expert Robert Maguire notes.

In addition, many state and federal laws treat the use of fake or “straw donors” to make campaign contributions with someone else’s money as a crime, punishable with fines. Conceivably, there could be individual criminal liability, even jail time, for any NRA leaders who might be found guilty of scheming to misreport campaign expenditures.

But, I want to emphasize, nothing in the court papers unsealed on July 16, 2018, support those scenarios.

2. What might happen to its influence?

Since charitable giving tends to be an emotional act, some donors might not continue to support the NRA if it lands in legal trouble. Past scandals have weakened support for other prominent nonprofits, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

For an organization that has cast itself as a bulwark of patriotism, any evidence that it conspired to undermine U.S. laws seems off-brand. On the other hand, polls indicate that support for Vladimir Putin has soared among Republicans, making it hard to predict how the NRA’s members and big donors might respond.

Public scrutiny might also make the NRA more cautious in how it doles out its political spending, a major source of its influence these days. The organization spent more than $30 million supporting President Trump alone in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If its benefactors become more suspect, even among the NRA’s base, that could loosen its grip over many American politicians and policymakers.

3. How might the government catch more of these alleged infractions?

Although U.S. charities can’t engage in political spending, they are allowed to partner with social welfare groups, as the NRA and the NRA Foundation do.

Unlike charities, social welfare groups can lobby, and they are allowed to spend at least some of their budget on election-related activity. Their donors are known to the government, but hidden from the public, which is why their funding is sometimes called “dark money.”

And the Trump administration just made dark money darker.

Just hours after the government announced Butina’s arrest, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that the IRS was reducing the reporting requirements for donations to social welfare groups. Under this new guidance, 501(c)(4) groups will no longer need to reveal most of their donations on their tax returns, even to the IRS.

In my opinion, it’s hard to see this move as anything except an effort to help big-money donors cover their tracks. Without a list of donors, the IRS can’t know when an organization is being used to further the interests of those backers, instead of the public.

Brian Galle, Professor of Law, Georgetown University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

From Wednesday: Bombshell: NRA-Linked Russian Charged With Being Foreign Agent | The Beat With Ari Melber | MSNBC

Massive South Iraq Protests move to Baghdad as Police use Water Canons; 1 Dead

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 - 11:18pm

A security guard outside a branch of one Iraq’s most powerful paramilitary groups shot and killed a protester on Friday while trying to push back a crowd, police sources said, ratcheting up tensions over a lack of basic services sweeping southern cities.

Two people were wounded when demonstrators throwing bricks and stones gathered outside the local headquarters of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation.

“We received the body of a protester with a bullet wound to the head,” said a doctor in a hospital in the city of Diwaniya.

Friday’s death brings to four the number of protesters killed in nearly two weeks of demonstrations against corrupt politicians blamed for failing to deliver basic services and jobs to the crumbling oil hub of Basra and other cities.

Dozens of members of the security forces have been injured in the protests, some of which have taken place at the entrance to oilfields. Officials say production has not been affected.

Anger has also been directed at paramilitary groups such as Badr, which is unusual. Badr politicians had a strong showing in the May 12 parliamentary election which was tainted by allegations of fraud.

Thousands protested in southern cities and Baghdad on Friday, calling for the downfall of political parties, as they escalated demonstrations backed by the country’s most influential clerics.

In Basra, crumbling from years of neglect and under-investment, about 3,000 people gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial governorate.

“The people want the downfall of political parties!” they chanted, a slogan similar to one used in the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, as politicians struggled to form a new government.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seeking a second term, promised that his Shi’ite-led government would fund electricity and water projects in Basra, where the colour of tap water is often brown because it contains dirt and where garbage is piled up along many streets.

“The promises they make are all lies,” said Khaled Hassan, 42, a health worker in Basra. “We will not keep quiet.”

On Thursday, Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc finished first in the election, said politicians should suspend efforts to form a coalition until the protesters’ demands are met.

Sadr won the election promising to eradicate poverty and corruption and resist interference from Iran.

Sadr, whose militiamen staged uprisings against US forces after the 2003 invasion, has in the past mobilised tens of thousands of people to press his demands.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful cleric in Iraq, has also expressed solidarity with the demonstrators.

Iraq’s Shia heartland in the south has long been neglected, first by Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and then by Shia-dominated governments after him.

“We are demanding the sacking of the governor and removal of all corrupt officials from the province,” said Faris Abdel Karim, who helped organise a protest outside the house of the provincial governor in the city of Nasiriya, where police fired in the air, wielded batons and fired tear gas.

About 300 people demonstrated at one of Baghdad’s main squares. One held up a poster which read: “The revolution of the poor.” Riot police used water cannons to disperse the crowd.

This work by Middle East Monitor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Via Middle East Monitor

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Anger mounts in Iraq as protests spread to the capital Baghdad | Al Jazeera English

Syria: Regime victory as Thousands of Rebel Fighters bused out of Daraa, Quneitra

Sat, 21 Jul 2018 - 11:09pm

Morek (Syria) (AFP) – More rebel fighters with their families boarded buses to leave southern Syria on Saturday under deals with the regime, a war monitor said, after hundreds reached opposition territory in the north.

On Saturday evening, a second bus convoy prepared to leave Quneitra province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

State news agency SANA published images of white buses it said were leaving Quneitra’s Umm Batna area on the ceasefire line, watched by men in military uniform.

AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR. A Syrian child looks through the windows of a bus carrying rebels and their families from the southern province of Quneitra to northern Syria on on July 21, 2018.

In neighbouring Daraa province, 19 buses carrying rebels and civilians hit the road north, more than half from the town of Nawa, the Observatory said.

Earlier in the day, an AFP correspondent said around 50 buses carrying opposition fighters and civilians from Quneitra reached the Morek crossing on the edge of northwestern rebel-held Idlib province.

Just over a month into a Russia-backed regime campaign to retake Daraa and Quneitra from rebels, Moscow-brokered surrender deals are paving the way for government institutions to return to nearly all parts of these provinces.

The deals provide for rebels who do not agree to a government takeover to board buses with their families to join other opposition fighters in the north of the country.

Damascus has been determined to retake Daraa and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, with Daraa seen as the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising.

– ‘Six dead’ in air strikes –

But the surrender agreements do not include jihadists, and Russian air strikes on Saturday killed six civilians in an Islamic State group holdout in Daraa province, the Observatory said.

The deadly raids came just a day after strikes in the same area took the lives of 26 non-combatants including 11 children.

On Saturday, clashes between loyalists and jihadists in the area also killed 13 regime fighters, including eight in a car bombing.

The first bus convoy on Saturday carried around 2,800 people, more than half women and children, and has reached rebel held territory, according to the monitor.

Near the parked buses in Morek, a woman and five children waited by a cluster of small suitcases, the eldest among them carrying bottles of water and a blanket.

Men with light weapons slung on their backs shared a bite to eat and some water as they stood around waiting. Several wore scarves wrapped around their faces.


AFP / Youssef KARWASHAN. Syrian government soldiers hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Quneitra on July 19, 2018.

Syrian forces launched their southern offensive on June 19, targeting the province of Daraa that borders Jordan to the south, then turning their attention to neighbouring Quneitra.

With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, President Bashar al-Assad’s troops this month captured more than 90 percent of Daraa, where protests against him first erupted in 2011.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with a brutal government crackdown on protesters.

Featured Photo: AFP / Youssef KARWASHAN. Syrian government soldiers wave national flags after retaking control of the city of Quneitra from rebels, on July 19, 2018.

Ankara to US: Your New Iran Sanctions Must not Hurt Turkey

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 - 11:40pm

Ankara (AFP) – Turkey on Friday hosted an American delegation for talks to address concerns about the potential negative impact on its economy of the looming reimposition of US sanctions against Iran.

US President Donald Trump decided in May to abandon the 2015 deal agreed with other world powers on Iran’s nuclear programme and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

The sanctions, which will seek to bar foreign companies from doing business with Iran and block its oil sales abroad, have alarmed Turkey which has a strong trade relationship with its neighbour and imports Iranian crude.

“Our relevant authorities are carrying out necessary work for Turkey not to be negatively impacted by the upcoming sanctions,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Within this framework, we had discussions with the US delegation visiting Turkey,” it said, without giving further details.

It added that “Iran is an important neighbour for Turkey, in view of both our bilateral economic and commercial relations as well as our energy imports.”

Turkish officials have vowed to continue trading with Iran despite the sanctions, which the former economy minister Nihat Zeybekci in May described as an “opportunity”.

Asking not to be named, a US official acknowledged that the sanctions were “a very important and potentially contentious issue between the two governments.”

He said the delegation had come “to make clear what the implications of our sanction legislation are, so there are no misunderstandings and confusion.”

“The earlier we have these high level talks…, the less likely we are to wander into new areas of disagreement out of ignorance,” said the official.

Relations between Turkey and the US have already been strained after a Turkish banker who helped Iran evade US sanctions was convicted in the US in January.

Mehmet Haka Atilla was convicted after well-connected Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, arrested in the US in 2016, became a government witness and admitted involvement in a multi-billion-dollar gold-for-oil scheme to subvert US economic sanctions against Iran.

During his testimony, Zarrab implicated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials in the scheme. In May, a Manhattan court sentenced Atilla to 32 months in jail.

Annual trade between Turkey and Iran is around $10 billion but Erdogan has expressed hope of raising it to $30 billion. Iran supplies Turkey with around one half of its crude oil imports and Iranian tourists are increasingly important for the Turkish market.

Featured Photo: AFP/File / Yasin AKGUL. Relations between Turkey and the US have already been strained after a Turkish banker who helped Iran evade US sanctions was convicted in the US in January.

Mother and Son Separated for 45 Days by Trump Policy Tell their Story

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 - 11:28pm

Los Angeles (AFP) – Otilia Asig-Putul’s voice breaks when she recalls the interminable 45 days she was separated from her son.

The nightmare began when she crossed the Mexican border into the United States to seek political asylum during the “zero tolerance” policy imposed by US President Donald Trump.

She had completed a long and exhausting trip from Guatemala City, accompanied by her 11-year-old son, whom she is calling “Geremy,” and a nephew.

She left behind three other children: boys of 10 and four, and a girl aged six. She had separated from her husband, who stopped giving her money, and decided to emigrate to the US in order to be able to support the children better.

She offered few details of the trip, though she said she came with other families — not in the infamous immigrant caravan that Trump warned about — and that they were helped by “a guy.”

At a border post in San Luis, Arizona, they turned themselves in to authorities, the first step to requesting asylum.

It was a hot day in May, as both Otilia and Geremy remember well.

Immigration officers placed them in a car; its windows were closed tight.

“It was hot, so hot,” the 31-year-old mother told AFP in a telephone interview. “I didn’t know what to do. I started crying.”

They were the first tears she would shed in the long and painful days to follow — but not the last.

“I never imagined what was going to happen,” said the housewife, who has been studying to become an accountant.

“If I had known it was going to turn out like this, how would I ever have put my son’s life at risk?”

– ‘Say goodbye to your son’ –

Otilia and Geremy were moved from the blistering heat of the car to what migrants call “la hielera,” or the cooler, a jail run by the federal authorities.


GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File / JOHN MOORE. Central American immigrants are freed from US custody in a Texas facility, pending future immigration court hearings.

“They kept us for three days in the cold, on the floor, and gave us nothing,” she said. “The officers made fun of us in English.”

Geremy said he has one image etched in his memory from those first days in captivity: “They took her away chained at the feet, at the hands, and at the belt.”

“I felt very bad, I started to cry,” the boy recounted.

It was worse when the immigration official told Otilia to “say goodbye to your son.”

“He started crying too and we told each other goodbye.”

She was sent to the Eloy detention center in Arizona, while he was taken north to Chicago, 1,750 miles (2,800 kilometers) away.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Otilia said. “What if I was deported? How would I know where my son was? I was very scared.”

In the shelter in Chicago, Geremy was attacked by a 14-year-old boy and suffered a head injury that required hospital treatment.

The Nexus Human Rights law firm, which took up the case, has sued the shelter for negligence.

“My social worker treated me badly,” the boy said. “She did not want to have anything to do with me.”

– Finally, a reunion –

With the help of other detainees, Otilia was able to figure out where her son had been taken and speak to him on the phone.


GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File / JOHN MOORE. Undocumented immigrants, wearing shackles, are seen in a detention center in McAllen, Texas.

“I felt sad, but he was strong. I was the only one telling him to be brave, that everything would turn out in the end.”

She was freed a month later after making bail of $20,000, which Nexus paid after deciding to represent her pro bono. That allows Otilia to remain in the US until her asylum application is resolved.

Nexus represents about 60 of the more than 2,500 cases of children separated from their parents or relatives at the border in the few weeks the policy was in effect.

Nexus finally managed to get Geremy released by late June.

Now he and his mother live with the boy’s paternal aunt in Miami Beach, and her son — the nephew they crossed over with.

Together — free at least — Otilia and her son ponder the future.

Nexus said she will not be deported unless an immigration judge orders her removed.

A first priority is to get a job, Otilia says.

“I left my three children behind and I have to fight for them and fight until the end.”

Meanwhile, she hopes Geremy will work hard to have a better future of his own.

“For all that we’ve been through,” she said, “it will be worth it.”

Featured Photo: US Customs and Border Protection/AFP / Handout. This recent photo from the US Customs and Border Protection agency shows border crossers waiting to be processed at a facility in McAllen, Texas.

Critics: Death of Democracy in Israel

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 - 11:11pm

Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel’s parliament on Thursday adopted a law defining the country as the nation state of the Jewish people, provoking fears it could lead to blatant discrimination against Arab citizens.

Arab lawmakers and Palestinians called the law “racist” and said it legalised “apartheid” following a tumultuous debate in parliament.

Others said it neglects to specify equality and Israel’s democratic character, implying that the country’s Jewish nature comes first.

The European Union expressed concern and called for the rights of minorities to be respected.

The legislation, adopted by 62 votes to 55, makes Hebrew the country’s national language and defines the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest.

Arabic, previously considered an official language, was granted only special status.

The law, passed in the early hours of Thursday, speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a “unique” right to self-determination there, according to its final text.

The legislation becomes part of the country’s basic laws, which serve as a de facto constitution.

“It is our state, the Jewish state, but in recent years some have tried to question that as well as the principles of our existence and our rights,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the vote on the legislation, backed by his right-wing government.

He called its approval a “decisive moment” in Israeli history.

– ‘Death of democracy’ –

A range of opposition politicians denounced the vote. The head of the mainly Arab Joint List alliance Ayman Odeh called it “the death of our democracy”.

Arab parliament members who called the legislation “racist” ripped up copies of the bill in the chamber of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, after it was passed.

“This is a law that encourages not only discrimination, but racism as well,” lawmaker Yousef Jabareen said.

Arab citizens account for some 17.5 percent of Israel’s more than eight million population. They have long complained of discrimination.

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, called the legislation a “dangerous and racist law” that “officially legalises apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system”.

Turkey defined the legislation as a “racist” attempt to create “an apartheid state” discriminating against Israeli Arabs.

An EU official said they were “concerned” with the new law and were engaging with Israeli officials on the issue.

“We believe the basic principles, including when it comes to respect of minorities, needs to be assured and needs to be respected,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.


AFP / Menahem KAHANA. Israelis watch fireworks over Jerusalem on April 18, 2018, at the start of the country’s 70th annual Independence Day celebrations.

The sponsor of the law, Avi Dichter from Netanyahu’s Likud party, has said it aims to defend Israel’s “status as a Jewish and democratic state.”

But others pointed out that references to “Jewish and democratic” in earlier versions of the law had been removed and that the law lacked references to equality as specified in the country’s 1948 declaration of independence.

Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank said much of the law is symbolic, but it would force the courts to consider the country’s Jewish nature and lead to a more “narrow interpretation of Arabs’ rights”.

By emphasising Israel’s Jewish nature, it is “reducing, not directly but indirectly, its democratic nature,” Friedman told AFP.

– Rightward shift –

Various versions of the legislation have been debated for years.

Netanyahu’s government, seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history, had pushed for the law’s approval before the parliament’s summer session ends.

Israelis on Thursday appeared split over the law.

Some, like Roni Pearlman in Tel Aviv, were “sad” and “disappointed”.

“Another part of Israeli democracy is being kicked away,” she said.

But others, like Yehuda in the city of Holon, welcomed it as a move that “strengthens the connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel”.

“We need to believe in our truth and go all the way with it,” he said.

The passage of the law continues Israel’s rightward shift in recent years amid frustration with failed peace agreements with the Palestinians and steady growth in settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu has been in power since 2009, after having also served as premier between 1996 and 1999, and religious nationalist settlement advocates wield strong influence in his current government.

Parliament’s term expires in November 2019, but there has been speculation that Netanyahu, facing a potential corruption indictment, will opt for polls before then and could use the passage of the law to boost his popularity with his base.

Featured Photo: AFP / Marc Israel Sellem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session ahead of the vote on the National Law on July 18, 2018.

Surprise! On how Muhammad never preached “Jihad”

Fri, 20 Jul 2018 - 11:03pm

The word “jihad” has become pervasive in English. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates yesterday spoke of “jihadis.” The Western Right wing is trying to use the term to replace the Communist Manifesto as the ultimate in the threatening Other. It figures prominently in FBI charges against militants. It is often glossed as “holy war.” People, especially those who dislike Islam, think that it means aggression and that the conception is intrinsic to the religion of Islam.

In fact, the Prophet Muhammad never preached “jihad” in this sense of “holy war,” as I argue in my new book:

In the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an, the word “jihad” does not mean “to fight” but to engage in pious and ethical struggle (the same is true for other words from the same Arabic root). It has been suggested* that it is similar to the Greek agōn or struggle, conflict, challenge. Ancient Greek culture was highly competitive, and agōn was everywhere– in debate, athletic contests, etc. The Olympic Games were an agōn. The English word “agony” derives from this root, in the sense of an ordeal, but in Greek the word just means contest, and not necessarily an excruciating one.

Agōn also used in a spiritual sense in the New Testament.

For instance, 1 Timothy 6:12 says

    12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

    ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα τῆς πίστεως, ἐπιλαβοῦ τῆς αἰωνίου ζωῆς, εἰς ἣν ἐκλήθης καὶ ὡμολόγησας τὴν καλὴν ὁμολογίαν ἐνώπιον πολλῶν μαρτύρων.

in 1 Thessalonians 2:2, the apostle Paul uses the word agōn for the great “opposition” to his preaching there and at Philippi:

    2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

    ἀλλὰ προπαθόντες καὶ ὑβρισθέντες καθὼς οἴδατε ἐν Φιλίπποις ἐπαρρησιασάμεθα ἐν τῷ Θεῷ ἡμῶν λαλῆσαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ Θεοῦ ἐν πολλῷ ἀγῶνι.


h/t Creeds & Deeds.

With regard to church fathers such as Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), Silouan Fontineas writes,

    “In Basil’s letters, ascetic discipline and the struggle (ἀγῶνα [agōna]) associated with a life of purification, implied that the edification of a person’s faith came as direct consequence of
    serving the other.”

Both of these senses, of spiritual struggle and of social conflict also characterize the Arabic jihad in the Qur’an, and my own suspicion is that jihad is an Arabic loanshift from the Greek agōn, i.e. that the Arabic conception was formed with regard to the Greek word. Certainly it is worthwhile systematically comparing the two concepts, and reading the word in the Qur’an with fresh eyes untainted by later medieval feudal notions.

In The Pilgrimage (Al-Hajj), chapter 22:77-78 of the Qur’an, jihad is used for spiritual struggle and sacrifice for the sake of God, just as in 1 Timothy 6:12:

    You who believe: Bow down and prostrate yourselves, and worship your Lord, and do good, so that perhaps you will thrive. Strive steadfastly [jahidu] for the sake of God, mounting a struggle [jihad] for him as is befitting. He chose you, and imposed on you no hardship in religion, which is the Logos of your ancestor Abraham. And he named you monotheists [muslims] aforetime, something to which the Messenger will bear witness in your regard, and to which you will be witnesses to the people. So pray regularly, and give charity to the poor, and take refuge with God. He is your Patron, and the best of patrons, and the best of helpers.

This verse is clearly speaking of a purely spiritual struggle to be a good person and to honor God. The parallels in the verse for jihad are doing good, performing prayers, helping deserving people with charity (zakat), and taking refuge with God.

The way the Qur’an uses the term, when you give charity to the poor at the holidays, that is jihad. (Remember, above, that St. Basil used agōn/struggle to speak of the challenge of “serving others”). When you lose yourself in prayer or meditation, that is jihad.

The noun jihad only occurs four times in the Qur’an. All the passages are like this one. They don’t mention anything about fighting or warfare.

The verb, which also occurs above, also does not imply violence. One verse (The Criterion/ al-Furqan 25:52) talks about refusing to bow down to the militant pagans who opposed Muhammad’s teachings, and instructs him to engage in a major struggle with them “thereby,” i.e. a verbal struggle using the Qur’an. This is like the conflict or agōn St. Paul faced in Thessalonica and Philippi in Macedonia. This nonviolent sense of the verb here is fully admitted by the later Muslim commentary tradition (which, however, sometimes in other instances militarizes verses that bear no obvious such connotation).

The chapter of The Chambers (al-Hujurat) 49:15 instructs (Arberry),

    “The believers are those who believe in God and His Messenger, then have not doubted, and have struggled in the way of God with their possessions and their selves; those — they are the truthful ones.”

The verses that come immediately before this one have nothing to do with conflict, and this verse forms one in a series of pastoral comments. It makes it clear that giving money to the cause and giving of yourself to the cause are both types of jihad.

This verse seems to me very similar to Paul’s letter to the Philippians (the new Christians among them, as we saw above, were facing severe opposition), 1:27:

    “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”

Here, the Greek verb used for to strive side by side with your “minds” or “selves” (Greek psyche, Arabic nafs), which is parallel to the Qur’an’s “struggled in the way of God with their possessions and their selves”, is συναθλέω (synathleō), which is from “syn”, i.e. together, and athleō— to compete or strive. It is of course the origin of our English word, ‘athletics.’ This verb in Greek does exactly the same work as the Arabic jihad. In fact, a word from the same Arabic root, juhd or effort, is used at the FIFA Arabic site to describe teams struggling to win the soccer World Cup. The root in Arabic has to do with struggle and effort, not with violence.

The Qur’an in the Mecca period, 610-622, advises believers who are harassed by pagans to simply “withdraw graciously” and to be “patient.”


Pre-Islamic Arabia. h/t WikiMedia .

Of course, when Muhammad and his followers were expelled in 622 from Mecca in the Hejaz to Medina, and when the truculent pagans of Mecca repeatedly launched wars on them in hopes of massacring them and taking their city, the Qur’an permitted them to defend themselves militarily.

That wasn’t, however, an aggressive holy war but rather a just war of defense as understood by e.g. St. Augustine and St. Ambrose in late antique Christianity just before the time of Muhammad. Just war is not “terrorism” inasmuch as it is fought on a battlefield against peers. The Qur’an tells the believers to “fight those who fight you.”

There is no verse in the Qur’an where jihad is explicitly associated with physical, bellicose struggle. The word the Qur’an uses for fighting to protect the nascent Muslim community from the militant pagan invading armies is a secular one, qital.. There is no theory of holy war in the Qur’an, an idea likely developed by the Christian Byzantine Empire in its wars with Sasanian Iran, and which some Muslims later adopted from the Byzantines on the frontier as they fought them, in later centuries.

As far as I can see, Muslims in the generations after the Prophet’s death in 632 engaged in a series of linguistic shifts such that they endowed Qur’anic vocabulary with new meanings not originally present. Thus, the Qur’an says Solomon and the disciples of Jesus were muslims, which I translate as “monotheists.” It wasn’t the word for followers of Muhammad in particular– all the Abrahamians who followed the Word (Aramaic melta, Greek Logos, Arabic millah) of the one God were muslim. But later Muslims appropriated the term solely for the people of Muhammad and the Qur’an.

Likewise, in the Qur’an, fighting is qital (and it was always in self-defense in the Prophet’s lifetime), but, as Michael Bonner has argued, later generations appropriated the term jihad for that activity. Muslims in later eras also attributed a lot of sayings to the Prophet Muhammad. My own rule is that they are not reliable unless they clearly parallel a Qur’anic verse or value. Any saying or hadith that uses “jihad” to mean “holy war” is clearly much later than the Qur’an itself (though it may contain an earlier kernel).

My theory is that the Arabs who lived under the Eastern Roman Empire 106 AD to the late 500s had developed new words and had inflected old ones with Greek and Aramaic conceptions, which would have been important for those, like Philip the Arab, who rose high in the Roman state (he rose all the way to emperor) or those who studied philosophy or converted to Christianity. There were 400 years of linguistic interaction in northern and eastern Syria, the Transjordan, Palestine, and the northern Hejaz, for which we have no literary evidence before the Qur’an, though some rock inscriptions are now being found. There are even Bedouin bilingual Greek and Arabic rock inscriptions. Also important here is the theory of Fergus Millar that Near Eastern cities in the eastern Roman Empire used Greek as their urban standard rather than Aramaic. This situation would be consistent with the Petra papyri of the 500s and the Nessana documents, where Greek is used for letters and records by people who are clearly Arabs, and Arabic words and names are transliterated into Greek letters.


Roman Near East in time of Muhammad, Creative Commons via Getoryk.

I also think Arabic had an independent, direct relationship to Greek words and ideas not necessarily mediated by Aramaic or Syriac. For instance, in the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament, agōn is translated by k*t*sh, “to fight” in 1 Timothy 6:12, while in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 the Greek agon is just taken in as a loan, as ‘gown.

Another Greek parallel to jihad could be spoudaios, as used by Plotinus and his followers. Neoplatonists like Damascius were still active in Damascus and Bostra in the generation before Muhammad, and he is said frequently to have traveled up to those cities, for month-long trade fairs and it is possible that he resided up there some of the year. If, as seems likely, in Petra, Bostra and Damascus, Greek was the urban standard in the sixth century, then Muhammad would have often functioned in it there.

—–

*Irfan A. Omar, “Jihad and Nonviolence in the Islamic Tradition,” in Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions, ed. Irfan A. Omar and Michael K. Duffey (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 9–41, this point on p. 37.

With Nationality Law, Israel openly Declares Apartheid and Racial Supremacy

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 11:49pm

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Israel has for decades been running the occupied territories of Palestine–Gaza and the West Bank– with Apartheid tactics. As with black South Africans under Apartheid, most Palestinians have been deprived of citizenship in a real, recognized state. Their villages have been isolated by a network of what often amount to Jewish-only highways. They have trouble getting to hospital through checkpoints. Their territory in the West Bank is patrolled by the Israeli army, and the Israeli state is actively depriving them of their property and giving it to white squatters.

One reply had been that while the Occupation regime may have Apartheid characteristics, it is temporary. It has become abundantly clear, however, that the Occupation is forever and the Palestinians will be kept stateless in perpetuity (they are the largest group of human beings in the world entirely lacking citizenship and nationality– a condition much worse than having a nationality you don’t want, as with many Kurds).

Another reply had been that in Israel proper, 20% of the population is Arab (i.e. Palestinian-Israeli), and they are equal citizens of the Israeli state with full democratic rights. That assertion was all along de facto untrue, since Palestinian-Israelis suffered various forms of discrimination. Some of their villages were unrecognized, and were hence forbidden to conduct repairs or building expansions. Only 1% of Bedouin Israelis have a college degree.

But now the Israeli parliament or Knesset has passed a law openly declaring Palestinians to be second-class citizens. Building squatter settlements on Palestinian land is made the official policy of the state (well, it has been for decades de facto, but now it is de jure). Arabic is demoted from being an official language.

It would be as though the US passed a law designating America as a state for white Christians, excluding African-Americans and Latinos, and making English the only official language.

It is difficult to see how Zionist Jews can complain about being second class citizens in Christian societies if their movement treats non-Jews this way in Israel.

Sovereignty is vested solely in the 80% majority of Jewish Israelis. Israel is no more a democracy now than Turkey is. Both have regular elections and in both the Right routinely wins, and probably fairly so.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization correctly declared this system to be unadorned Apartheid.

The implications are enormous. Some critics of the crushing of the Palestinians had made a distinction between boycotting the squatter enterprises on the West Bank and boycotting Israel itself. There simply is now no longer a difference. The law will certainly invigorate the movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel.

Apartheid is defined in the 2002 Statute of Rome as a war crime, and Israeli politicians could be indicted on these grounds.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken Israel in the direction of illiberal ‘democracy,’ attacking the freedom of the press, the judiciary, and Non-governmental Organizations.

——

Bonus video:

Channel 4 News: “Israel approves law to become a Jewish nation-state”

Army of Buddhist Burma made ‘Systematic’ Crackdown Plan for Muslim Rohingyas

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 11:38pm

Bangkok (AFP) – Myanmar’s military engaged in “extensive and systematic” preparations for a bloody crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, a rights group said Thursday, in a damning new report that it says justifies a genocide investigation.

A bloody military campaign that started last August forced some 700,000 of the effectively stateless minority over the border into Bangladesh, where they have recounted allegations of rape and extrajudicial killings.

The UN and US have called the campaign ethnic cleansing. Myanmar denies the accusations, saying it was responding to an attack by Rohingya militants.

But Fortify Rights said its report, based on months of research in Myanmar and Bangladesh and hundreds of interviews with both victims and authorities, found that security forces disarmed Rohingya civilians and trained non-Rohingya communities to fight.

The Myanmar army also cut off food aid from Rohingya and removed fencing from their homes for a clearer line of sight, according to the report.

“Myanmar authorities made extensive and systematic preparations for the commission of mass atrocity crimes against indigenous Rohingya civilians during the weeks and months before Rohingya militant attacks on August 25, 2017,” Fortify said.

The report also said that deadly August attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which Myanmar has cited as a reason for its counteroffensive, was a far more ad hoc operation than previously believed, and that crackdown plans were already under way.

Fortify co-founder Matthew Smith told journalists at the report’s launch in Bangkok that security forces made the Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine weaker and vulnerable to attack.

The Rohingya have long lived in Rakhine but are seen as outsiders in Buddhist-majority Myanmar after years of marginalisation propaganda from successive military regimes.

“This is how genocide unfolds. And this is how genocide has unfolded in Rakhine State,” he said.

Fortify echoed calls by other organisations for the UN Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, singling out 22 military and police officials as responsible, including armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Rights groups have used the phrase crimes against humanity to describe the expulsion of the Rohingya but many have stopped short of the term genocide.

UN special rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee warned last month that chances of generals seeing the inside of a courtroom in the Hague are slim, with the nation shielded by powerful allies who she declined to name.

Permanent UN Security Council members Russia and China have previously supported Myanmar and defended it from further censure.

A Myanmar government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

The report also condemned Rohingya militants for the alleged killing of Rohingya civilians they claimed were government informants.

Myanmar’s government has also blamed ARSA for the slaughter of dozens of Hindus in Rakhine after they were found in mass graves.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has denied committing any abuses against non-combatants.

Featured Photo: AFP/File / MUNIR UZ ZAMAN. A bloody military campaign that started last August forced some 700,000 of the effectively stateless minority over the border into Bangladesh, where they have recounted allegations of rape and extrajudicial killings.

Syria Rebels Surrender Zone Bordering Israeli-Occupied Golan

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 11:30pm

With Omar Haj Kadour in Al-Eis | –

Beirut (AFP) – Syrian rebels have agreed to surrender a sensitive area bordering the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, a monitor and opposition source said Thursday, the latest in a series of deals expanding regime control over key territory.

The agreement follows another deal that saw thousands of residents evacuated Thursday morning from two pro-regime towns in northern Syria long besieged by hardline rebels.

Both deals, negotiated by regime ally Russia, will be seen as victories for President Bashar al-Assad over the seven-year uprising that once threatened his rule.

With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, his forces this month captured more than 90 percent of Daraa, the southern province where protests against him first erupted in 2011.

They then began intensely bombing rebels in Quneitra, a crescent-shaped province wedged between Daraa and the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.

Under pressure, rebels have agreed to hand over Quneitra and the buffer to government forces, an opposition negotiator and a monitoring group told AFP on Thursday.

“The deal provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

Syrian forces would take over opposition territory in the buffer and some rebels would be bussed to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.

– Carrot-and-stick –

The agreement, according to the Observatory, does not include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist-led alliance that holds territory straddling Quneitra and Daraa.

State news agency SANA said it had information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, without providing more details.


AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR. Members of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, watch as busses get ready to enter the towns of Fuaa and Kafraya to evacuate their residents on July 18, 2018.

A rebel negotiator confirmed a preliminary ceasefire agreement on Quneitra had been reached with Moscow but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.

Under it, he told AFP, Syrian government forces accompanied by Russian police would enter the buffer zone.

There was no comment from Israel on Thursday, but its military said it was keeping a close eye on the border, where tens of thousands of Syrians have sought safety from fighting.

The Israeli Defence Forces said it was “monitoring the events transpiring in southern Syrian closely and is prepared for a wide range of scenarios, including additional humanitarian aid distribution to displaced Syrians.”

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967 and later annexed it, in a move never recognised internationally.

It sees security in the area as a top priority, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussing the south with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month.

Russia is a decades-old ally of Syria’s government and has used a carrot-and-stick strategy against rebels to help Assad regain the upper hand.

Moscow began bombing Syrian rebels in 2015 but has also reached out to them, securing negotiated surrenders of vital areas.

It even brokered a deal this week to evacuate thousands of besieged people from a pair of pro-regime towns in northwest Syria.

– ‘A huge loss’ –

Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib province were the last remaining areas under blockade in Syria and a rare example of pro-government towns surrounded by rebel forces.

Besieged for three years by rebels and HTS, the Shiite-majority towns had become a rallying cry for the government and Iran, another key regime ally.

A deal between Russia and rebel ally Turkey saw thousands of residents bussed out on Thursday to regime-held areas in Aleppo.

The departure was emotional and bittersweet, said Shilan Shuweish, a Fuaa resident who left with her husband and two children.

“It’s a huge loss,” Shuweish, 28, told AFP, writing from the bus via a mobile messaging app.

“We left our homes behind, but at the same time we’ve got kids here that until this day don’t know what an apple is,” she said.


AFP / George OURFALIAN. Busses transporting residents and fighters from the towns of Fuaa and Kafraya arrive in Syrian regime-held territory at the Al-Eis crossing point south of Aleppo on July 19, 2018.

Some 6,900 civilians and fighters left, fully emptying the towns.

HTS has said that 1,500 detainees would be released from regime jails in exchange for the evacuation.

On Thursday, a gaunt man released from regime custody could be seek tearfully hugging a younger rebel fighter at a staging ground between opposition and government territory in northern Syria.

But a Syrian advocacy group slammed the regime, saying long-detained rights activists were not among those freed.

“They are releasing detainees who’ve been detained for two or three months — so the peaceful activists detained for years are not included in such deals,” said Laila Kiki, executive director of the Syria Campaign.

“Again, the regime was able to (maintain) its crackdown on the civil, peaceful, non-violent activists.”

Featured Photo: AFP / JALAA MAREY. A picture taken on July 16, 2018 from the Israeli side in the annexed Golan Heights, shows smoke plumes rising from reported Syrian and Russian air strikes across the border in Syria’s southern Quneitra province.

US Gen. Denies Change in US Syria Policy despite post-Summit Russian Announcement

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 11:25pm

Washington (AFP) – The top commander overseeing US military involvement in Syria said Thursday he’d received no new instructions to work with Russians since President Donald Trump met with his Russian counterpart in Finland.

“No new guidance for me as a result of the Helsinki discussions as of yet,” General Joe Votel, who heads US Central Command, told reporters.

Trump and President Vladimir Putin’s talks, which yielded few specifics to the public, apparently included discussion on ways the US and Russia could cooperate in war-torn Syria, where the two powers are pursuing separate military campaigns.

There were indications of an arrangement to work together and with Israel to support a ceasefire in southern Syria, suggesting that the US administration is backing off its demand that Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad step down.

Trump said both he and Putin had spoken to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “and would like to do certain things with respect to Syria having to do with the safety of Israel.”

Putin said, “I want to confirm that Russia is interested in this development and… will act accordingly,” but neither leader was very clear about what the next steps would be.

Votel pointed out that any cooperation with the Russian military in Syria would require Congressional approval or some sort of special waiver.

Congress passed a law banning military-to-military cooperation after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

“The National Defense Authorization Act as a law prohibits us from coordinating, synchronizing or collaborating with the Russian forces, so that does guide our activities,” Votel said.

He said for now, the US mission in Syria is clear: to defeat the Islamic State group.

“I won’t speculate on other things that we might do or might be done outside of CENTCOM here but for us, steady as she goes,” Votel said.

Featured Photo: AFP / SAUL LOEB. General Joseph Votel at Congress earlier this year.

US War on the Weak: Trump in Mideast helps Crush Palestinians, Yemenis

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 11:15pm

San Francisco (Tomdispatch.com) – My father and I always had a tacit agreement: “We will never speak of That Part of the World.” He’d grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Norfolk, Virginia. His own father, a refugee from early-twentieth-century pogroms in what is now Ukraine, had been the president of his local Zionist organization. A liberal in most things (including his ardent opposition to both of the U.S. wars against Iraq), my father remained a Zionist to his dying day. We both knew that if we were ever to have a real conversation about Israel/Palestine, unforgivable things would be said.

As a child in the 1950s, I absorbed the ambient belief that the state of Israel had been created after World War II as an apology gift from the rest of the world to European Jews who had survived the Holocaust. I was raised to think that if the worst were to happen and Jews were once again to become targets of genocidal rage, my family could always emigrate to Israel, where we would be safe. As a young woman, I developed a different (and, in retrospect, silly) line on That Part of the World: there’s entirely too much sun there, and it’s made them all crazy.

It wasn’t until I’d reached my thirties that I began to pay serious attention to the region that is variously known as the Middle East, the Arab world, or the Greater Middle East and North Africa. And when I did, I discovered how deep my ignorance (like that of so many fellow Americans) really was and how much history, geography, and politics there is to try to understand. What follows is my attempt to get a handle on how the Trump presidency has affected U.S. policy and actions in That Part of the World.

Old Alliances…

The United States has a long-standing and deep alliance with Israel. During the Cold War, Washington viewed that country as its bulwark in the oil-rich region against both a rising pan-Arab nationalism and real or imagined Soviet encroachments. In fact, according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $134.7 billion current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding.”

The vast majority of this largesse has been in military aid, which has allowed Israel, a country of a little more than eight million people, to become the 14th or 15th strongest military power on the planet. It is also the only nuclear power in the region with an arsenal of at least 80 weapons (even if its government has never officially acknowledged this reality). By comparison, Iran, its present archenemy, ranks 21st, despite having a population 10 times greater.

The history of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights — territories it captured in the 1967 war — is too long and complex for even a brief recap here. Suffice it to say that the United States has often been Israel’s sole ally as, in direct contravention of international law, that country has used its own settlements to carve Palestinian territory into a jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces, making a contiguous Palestinian state a near impossibility.

Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained Israel’s plan for the Palestinian people in 1973 when he said, “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them.” Promising to insert “a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank,” he insisted that “in 25 years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”

Forty-five years later, his strategy has been fully implemented, as Barack Obama reportedly learned to his shock when, in 2015, he saw a State Department map of the shredded remains of the land on which Palestinians are allowed to exist on the West Bank.

The “pastrami sandwich” strategy has effectively killed any hope for a two-state solution. Now, as the number of non-Jews begins to surpass that of Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, that country once again confronts the inherent contradiction of a state that aims to be both democratic and, in some sense, Jewish. If everyone living in Israel/Palestine today had equal political and economic rights, majority rule would no longer be Jewish rule. In effect, as some Israelis argue, Israel can be Jewish or democratic, but not both.

A solution to this demographic dilemma — one supported by present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is to legislate permanent inequality through what’s called “the basic law on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which is now being debated in the country’s parliament, the Knesset. Among other provisions, that “basic” law (which, if passed, would have the equivalent of constitutional status) will allow citizens “to establish ‘pure’ communities on the basis of religion or ethnicity.” In other words, it will put in place an official framework of legalized segregation.

In the Trump era, Washington’s alliance with Israel has only grown tighter. After recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — despite almost universal international objections — Trump sealed the deal in May, traveling to Jerusalem with a coterie of Zionist evangelical Christians and, on Israeli Independence Day, opening a new U.S. embassy there. That day, May 14th, was the eve of the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call the nakba (the catastrophe of Israel’s seizure of Palestinian homes and lands in 1948).

Donald Trump could not have sent a clearer signal to the world about exactly where the United States stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That same day, as Time reported, “cameras captured the chaos as Israeli soldiers methodically cut down some 2,700 Palestinians, 60 fatally, as they marched toward the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.” Gazans, in case you’ve forgotten, have been subject for years to a vicious blockade, both literal and economic, that has turned their homes into what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison. And keep in mind that Israel also launched major military operations against that tiny territory in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014, and appears to be ramping up for a new one.

It’s unlikely, to say the least, that the new “peace deal” that the world awaits from President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will offer Palestinians much more than another bite of that pastrami sandwich.

…And New Ones

Geopolitics (and a common enemy) can make strange bedfellows. In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Entous suggests that a new ménage-à-quatre was formed in the region in the run-up to Donald Trump’s election, bringing Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States ever closer. As it happened, there was even an unexpected fifth player lurking in the shadows: Russia. Entous reports that Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and one of UAE’s most powerful men, suggested to an American friend that Russian President Vladimir Putin “might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.”

The goal of this new alliance was not so much an end to the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as an end to the Iranian military presence in Syria. The unofficial alliance of the Saudis, the UAE, and the Israelis was, above all, meant to push back or even bring an end to the present government of Iran. This seems to have been the genesis of a 2016 meeting in the Seychelles Islands between Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious hire-a-mercenary company, Blackwater, and a confidant of then-Trump adviser Steve Bannon as well as the brother of present Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and a figure who might serve as a Russian-UAE go-between. Endous indicates that the deal then proved “unworkable,” because Russia had neither the desire nor the capacity to evict Iran from Syria.

Nevertheless, this July 10th, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet with Putin for a discussion of the Syrian situation in which the Russians are now, of course, deeply enmeshed. At the same time, a top foreign policy adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was also on his way to Russia to speak with Putin. Netanyahu returned from Moscow with less than he’d hoped for, but at least with “a commitment to keep Iranian forces tens of kilometers from Israel,” according to the New York Times.The fact that these meetings were happening the week before presidents Trump and Putin were to sit down together in Helsinki and discuss Syria, among other topics, is, however, suggestive. Bloomberg News reported that Putin has “stepped up efforts to broker a deal on the pullback of pro-Iranian militias from Syria’s border with Israel” as he prepared for his summit with Trump.

The American president has already backed away from his predecessor’s insistence that the departure of Syrian leader Assad be a precondition for a peace settlement in that country. For his part, Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel can accept Assad in power as long as the Iranian military units in that country are withdrawn. Before leaving for Moscow, he told reporters, “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime; for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” Presumably, Trump and his feckless son-in-law feel the same way.

In the end, the target of all these machinations remains Iran. The dangers represented by a conflict between the Trump administration and Iran (with the Israelis, the Saudis, and the UAE all potentially involved) threaten to make the invasion of Iraq and ensuing events there look mild by comparison. And it’s hardly out of the question. As University of Michigan history professor and Middle East expert Juan Cole notes, overshadowed by other absurdities in Trump’s bombastic post-NATO-summit news conference was this warning: “I would say there might be an escalation between us and the Iranians.”

Meanwhile, in Syria…

Meanwhile, if it weren’t for Yemen (see below), it might be hard to imagine a more miserable place in 2018 than Syria. Since 2011, when a nonviolent movement to unseat Assad devolved into a vicious civil war, more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million has become internally displaced or refugees, according to numbers from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees. Actual casualty figures are impossible to pin down with any exactitude. In April 2018, however, the New York Times reported that the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of directly caused deaths at 511,000, including fighters and civilians.

Death and destruction have come from all sides: al-Qaeda-linked terror groups and the Islamic State killing civilians; the Syrian military, which is presently driving opposition forces out of the southern city of Dara’a, where the original uprising began (creating a quarter-million refugees with literally no place to go); and U.S. bombs and other munitions — 20,000 of them — reducing the city of Raqqa to rubble in a campaign to liberate it from ISIS militants. Add it all up and the war, still ongoing, has destroyed millions of homes and businesses, along with crucial infrastructure throughout an increasingly impoverished country.

So many military forces — foreign and domestic — are contending in Syria that it’s difficult to keep track. Wikipedia’s list of those fighting fills screen after screen. On the side of Assad’s government are the Syrian military, elements of the militia of the Iranian-supported Lebanese party Hezbollah (part of the government in that country), some Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, and of course the Russian military. On the other side are various militant terror groups, including what’s left of the Islamic State, and a wide variety of U.S.-supported anti-Assad groups, including those hailing from the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a semi-autonomous, multi-ethnic area in the country’s northeast. Throw in Kurdish fighters, including Syrian natives and Kurds from Turkey, and the Turkish military itself (in its bid to tamp down any errant Kurdish nationalism), at least 2,000 U.S. military personnel, and the Israeli air force, striking at Iranian targets in the country, and even with an eventual peace settlement, Syria, the birthplace of the alphabet, will be a desperate nation for decades to come.

Whose fault was all of this? There’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty of actors to shoulder that blame. But when you begin to make that list, make sure to include Washington’s so-called neoconservatives who, as far back as 1996, offered Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s prime minister then, too) their “Clean Break” strategy to rebuild the Middle East. That plan started with unseating Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and went on to destabilize Syria. A number of these neocons, including Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, then became top officials in George W. Bush’s administration, invading Iraq themselves to make sure their dream for the Israelis came true. And what a nightmare it proved to be. Nor should we forget that one of that plan’s loudest advocates during the Bush administration — John Bolton — is now Trump’s national security advisor. In other words, there’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty to worry about.

Does Anyone Remember Yemen?

If there is a place in the greater Middle East even more desperate than Syria, it has to be Yemen. With U.S.logistical and financial support, Saudi Arabia has waged a cruel air war against the Houthis, a home-grown movement that in 2015 overthrew the government of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. What is the Saudi interest in Yemen? As in their support for a potential UAE-Israel-Russia-U.S. alliance in Syria, they’re intent on fighting a proxy war — and someday perhaps via the U.S. and Israel, a real war — with Iran.

In this case, however, it seems that the other side in that war hasn’t shown up. Although, like the Iranian government and most Iranians, the Houthi are Shi’a Muslims, there is little evidence of Iranian involvement in Yemen. That hasn’t stopped the Saudis (with American support) from turning that country into “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Their destruction of infrastructure in rebel-held areas has collapsed a once-functioning public health system, touching off a cholera epidemic, with the World Health Organization reporting a total of 1,105,371 suspected cases between April 2017 and June 2018. The infection rate now stands at 934 per 10,000 people.

Even worse than the largely unchecked spread of cholera, however, is Yemen’s man-made famine. Photographs from the country display the familiar iconography of widespread hunger: children with stick-like limbs and blank, sunken eyes. As it happens, though, this famine was not caused by drought or any other natural disaster. It’s a direct result of a brutal Saudi air campaign and a naval blockade aimed directly at the country’s economic life.

Before the war, Yemen imported 80% of its food and even today, despite a disastrous ongoing Saudi/UAEcampaign to blockade and take the port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main economic center, there is actually plenty of food in the country. It now simply costs more than most Yemenis can pay. Because the war has destroyed almost all economic activity in Houthi-controlled areas, people there have no money with which to buy food. In other words, the Saudi offensive against Hodeidah is starving people in two ways: directly by preventing the delivery of international food aid and indirectly by making the food in Yemen unaffordable for ordinary people.

We Have to Talk about It

With President Trump and his secretary of state now talking openly about a possible “escalation between us and the Iranians,” there is a real risk that some combination of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia could initiate a war with Iran. If there’s one lesson to be learned from U.S. wars since 9/11, it’s “don’t start another one.”

For more than 70 years, Americans have largely ignored the effects of U.S. foreign policy in the rest of the world. Rubble in Syria? Famine in Yemen? It’s terribly sad, yes, but what, we still wonder, does it have to do with us?

That Part of the World doesn’t wonder about how U.S. actions and policies affect them. That Part of the World knows — and what it knows is devastating. It’s time that real debate about future U.S. policy there becomes part of our world, too.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Copyright 2018 Rebecca Gordon

Via Tomdispatch.com

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Featured Photo: AFP/File / MOHAMMED HUWAIS. Yemeni protesters next to a mock-up depicting victims of torture.

Benedict Trump

Thu, 19 Jul 2018 - 8:58am

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Donald Trump to let Russian security forces interrogate former US ambassador in Moscow Mike McFaul on US soil, and that Trump did not dismiss the request out of hand. He would, Sanders said, take it under consideration and consult his cabinet about it.

The bizarre episode is causing outrage in Washington, D.C., where there are a lot of officials who have served overseas and who would be in trouble if their enemies over there felt as though the White House no longer had their back. Clearly, simply making the request and publicizing it is Putin’s way of pressuring his critics in the US, like Mike McFaul and Bill Browder. It is like when goons from organized crime visit you and leave behind a bullet on your coffee table.

The episode is also to my knowledge unprecedented. I tried to think of historical analogies.

What if Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Premier 1964-1982) had asked Lyndon Johnson if Soviet secret police at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D. C., could interrogate Kremlin critic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA)? I mean, Johnson did launch an attempt at “rapprochement” or reducing tensions with Moscow after the dire Cuban missile crisis, but his answer would have been colorful Texas expletives, not “I’ll think about it.”

What if Adolf Hitler had come to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934 with a request for security personnel of the Geheime Staatspolizei sent over to the DC Germany embassy to interrogate Edgar Mowrer, the Chicago Daily News reporter who was kicked out of Germany in 1933 for reporting critically on the National Socialists. Would FDR have lifted his cigarette holder high and taken a slow toke, and said, “Let me think about it, Wolfie”? I am not saying Putin is Hitler, but remember in 1934 the US and Germany were not at war and he was just another European leader who had not yet committed his major monstrosities.

What if in 1897, Spanish prime minister Marcelo de Azcárraga had asked President William McKinley to let Spanish officials at the embassy in Washington, D.C., interrogate Joseph A. Pulitzer over his (admittedly scurrilous) coverage of Spain in Cuba? I mean, McKinley was no paragon but even he wouldn’t have caved to the Spanish empire that way.

Or what if, during the Revolutionary War, in 1779, the British high command had reached out to the distinguished American officer and revolutionary, Benedict Arnold, with an offer of a handsome amount of money and a high position in the British officer corps if he would turn over the US base at West Point to London. Why, Arnold would have . . . oh, wait.

———-

Bonus video:

Would Donald Trump Give Fmr. US Diplomat To Putin? That Diplomat Reacts | The 11th Hour | MSNBC

11 Years of Blockade: How Despair Has Made Gaza Unlivable

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 - 11:33pm

By Valerie Carmel | –

(TeleSur) In 2012 the United Nations published a report claiming the Gaza Strip would be unliveable by the year 2020. Five years later, after the summer 2014 full-on Israeli military assault against the Palestinian terrirtory, the U.N. published another report arguing Gaza had reached the point of un-liveability citing deteriorating infrastructure, alarming economic indicators and worsening social services.

However, these numbers do not explain the surge in suicides that has taken over the Strip. Testimony of Palestinians who have committed suicide, even against their religious beliefs, reveal that occupation breeds powerlessness and hopelessness, making Gaza an unlivable place.

The most devastating effect of Israel’s crimes is a generation of isolated men and women who can find no hope in the future.

This year the world witnessed how thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children risked their lives walking towards the Israeli fence in the context of the Great March of Return to assert their humanity, and demand their rights as refugees to return to the ancient cities of Jaffa (now Tel Aviv), Haifa, Akka, or al-Quds (or Jerusalem).

Between March 30, when the march began, and the end of May, at least 130 people were murdered. Numbers get muddled. The Israeli occupation forces kill protesters with snipers and bomb Hamas targets that also kill civilians. On July 14 two boys were killed at a park in Central Gaza after Israel bombed an alleged Hamas target.

Pro Zionist talking heads around the world insisted on the old narrative that places blame and protagonism on Hamas, the religious-political group that rules the Strip. “Hamas is sending women and children to die for a photo-op” they say.

Rawan Yaghi, a young woman who volunteers at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program explains in a video that these narratives only help to dehumanize Palestinians, to strip them of agency and political will.

“The right question to ask is not whether there is someone asking them to go to the fence, the right question is what is driving these people to walk up to the fence? What kind of conditions would drive somebody to risk their lives knowing that there are snipers who are willing to shoot, maim or kill them?”

Living under occupation and siege

“When you live in a house you love and don’t leave it you won’t have a problem,

but if you’re locked inside the house against your will you sense paralysis and despair.”

(Mohanned Younis, a 22-year-old student and writer who asphyxiated himself).

Despite Israel’s insistence that it no longer occupies Gaza because it withdrew its troops and illegal settlers from the Strip in 2005, under International Humanitarian Law Israel continues to be the occupying power in Gaza because it controls its air and maritime space, as well as its borders.

Pretending Israel isn’t occupying Gaza is essential for the regime in Tel Aviv because occupying powers have duties and responsibilities to the people who live under their occupation. To recognize the occupation is to renounce to Israel’s claim that when it kills civilians, or bombs a population under siege it is exercising “its right to defend itself.”

For Gazans, living without settlers or army bases within the Strip has come at the exacting price of living behind bars with no escape since 2007 under a widely condemned blockade.

If you are a fisherman in Gaza, since 2012 you can only fish within 6 nautical miles, that is 194 nautical miles less than the area all coastal nations have a right to. If you wander off you risk being shot, your boat sunk, your livelihood stripped from you.

If you are a farmer and wander too close to Israel’s unilaterally imposed Access Restricted Areas you risk being shot and killed, even if you pose no immediate threat to Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence.

Deadly incidents have been registered within 1.5 kilometers of the fence according to human rights groups.

At least 1.3 of the 2 million inhabitants in Gaza are refugees. They have been expelled from their land in 1948, which now lies within Israel and face the progressive encroachment of the little territory they have left.

Israel’s blockade translates into a people unable to rebuild after military assaults, medical patients unable to travel for treatment, students who can’t enjoy scholarships, families torn apart, people killed with impunity.
Facing periodic full-on military assaults

“I wish I could be like other children of the world who don’t know war.”

(Palestinian girl Ala’ Abu Said, age unknown).

Palestinians in Gaza cannot escape occupation and siege.

Around 14,000 people were born in Gaza in 2007, the year when Israel started imposing an air, sea and land blockade. If you were one of them, you are an 11-year-old person who has witnessed three full-on military assaults by one of the world’s most powerful armies, you most likely have lost a loved one, and no one has been held accountable.

It’s been four years since Israel launched operation Protective Edge against the besieged population in the Gaza Strip. For almost 50 days, between July 8 and August 26, Israel’s military killed 2,251 and injured 11,231 people, damaged 83 U.N. schools, 10 U.N. health centers, and destroyed 9,117 housing units.

The attack was carried out two years after Operation Pillar of Defense, which resulted in over 100 civilian deaths according to the U.N., and four years after the 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead, in which Israeli forces killed between 759 and 926 civilians according to Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups.

Such attacks could not be called wars as Gaza has no fleet, no airforce, no regular army. With each attack Gaza’s already insufficient infrastructure collapses further, making life unimaginable for most.

“An 11 year-old child has not experienced more than 12 hours of electricity in a single day in his/her lifetime,” the 2017 U.N. report highlights. Today, Gazans have electricity for an average of four hours a day.

Energy shortages affect a person’s ability to work online, to refrigerate food, to enjoy light during the night, but also undermines the functioning of wastewater treatment and healthcare facilities.

This January Israeli media outlet Haaretz reported that 97 percent of water in the Gaza Strip was polluted by sewage or high salinity levels making it unsuitable for human use. This environmental and humanitarian disaster is man-made and it is a consequence of the lack of electricity required to operate Gaza’s wastewater treatment facilities.

With no option to treat wastewater, an equivalent of 43 Olympic-size swimming pools of poorly treated sewage is being dumped into the Mediterranean every day.

Having no constant electricity flow also affects hospitals and clinics.

Salim Saker, a 54-year-old surgeon in Gaza recently told Physicians for Human Rights they endure shortages of antibiotics, morphine, basic medical supplies such as surgical sutures, anesthetics and disinfectants, which diminishes the ability to treat people in need of medical care.

“I am deeply depressed. We feel abandoned. The world around us has no conscience. We want to live with dignity,” Dr. Saker told Physicians for Human Rights. In these conditions, doctors had to treat 15,000 Palestinians injured by Israeli forces during the Great March of Return.
Lack of Opportunities

This June Fathi Harb, a 22-year-old Palestinian man, set himself on fire in a street in Gaza City.

Fathi’s suicide is the still image of the unfolding mental health crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip, where levels of anxiety, depression continue to rise.

According to Gaza’s Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, in 2017 the number of psychiatric patients rose by 69 percent compared with previous years, and the Gaza Community Mental Health Program has reported that “the majority of people have feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness… They feel trapped. They feel paralyzed, like they cannot do anything to change their reality.”

Fathi Harb was going to become a father. He had been unemployed for years and could not provide a dignified life for his family.

Israeli hostilities continue to worsen the economic situation in Gaza. According to the U.N., the 2014 military assault caused Gaza’s productive sector direct damages estimated at US$418 million and indirect losses estimated at US$451 million.

On too of this cost Gaza bears the brunt of being denied the freedom to rebuild its economy as a result of the blockade, which between 2007 and 2009 “led to the closure of 95% of Gaza’s industrial establishment,” the U.N. report affirms.

This June the U.N. estimated poverty in the Strip reached 53 percent of the population, unemployment reached 49 percent in the first quarter of 2018, and at least 47 percent of Gaza’s population experience food insecurity.

Palestinians are denied the right to self-determination as a people, the right to life as individuals and the right to work, water, healthcare and food security.

These are the conditions that “would drive somebody to risk their lives knowing that there are snipers who are willing to shoot, maim or kill them,” the U.N. report said.
The U.S. and Israel Deliver Last Blow

For the United States and Israel, the audacity of Palestinians to protest against the subhuman conditions they have been forced to live in must be punished. The U.S. announced it was cutting the aid provided to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees currently living in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

According to Pierre Kraehenbuehl, head of UNRWA president Donald Trump withheld US$305 million in funding, leaving the agency with an insurmountable deficit.

Meanwhile, Israel has cut off all “exports or marketing of goods… carried out from the Gaza Strip,” limited the goods entering the Strip to food and medicine that will be “approved on a individual basis,” and carried out extensive airstrikes against Hamas and civilian infrastructure in Gaza.

These measures are meant to deter Palestinians from flying incendiary kites into Israel and force Hamas to stop launching rockets into neighboring Israeli towns. However, as they fail to recognize the humanity and rights Palestinians demand, strangling the Strip and plunging Gazans further into hopelessness, the people of Gaza are more likely to continue resisting the Israeli occupation and aggressions by the limited means at their disposals, even if all they have left is their own lives.

Via TeleSur

Featured Photo: Kerem Shalom Checkpoint for Gaza via Ma’an News Agency.

Protest Wave: ‘Explosion of Rage at System that has Robbed Iraqis of’ Hope

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 - 11:17pm

Baghdad (AFP) – In the heat of battle against the Islamic State group, Iraqis united against a common enemy.

But just a few months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the jihadists, social grievances that once simmered on the back burner have boiled over in a series of protests that have spread to several cities.

After erupting in oil-rich Basra province on July 8, unrest has quickly spread, as people have vented their anger over unemployment, high prices, power cuts and a lack of usable water.

From Basra to the capital Baghdad, the question on people’s lips has been: “Where is the government?”

That query is made all the more pertinent by the failure of May’s elections — thus far — to produce a new administration, as a record abstention rate highlighted Iraqis’ contempt for their political leaders.

Eight people have been killed during the demonstrations so far, multiple sources say, while there has been a brief internet blackout and the authorities claim over 260 security personnel have been wounded.

– ‘Explosion of rage’ –

The protests represent “an explosion of rage at an entire system that has brazenly robbed Iraqis of the chance for a better life,” says Iraq expert Fanar Haddad.


AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE. Members of the Iraqi security forces deployed in the capital Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during demonstrations against unemployment on July 16, 2018.

With the jihadists in retreat, “the failings of the Iraqi political classes in all aspects of governance and economic management come into sharper relief,” adds Haddad.

For more than a week protesters have taken to the streets, questioning how a country that is the second largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel can leave its 38 million citizens so bereft of basic services.

In some cases security forces have fired live rounds into the air, including to deter protesters who set fire to public property and political parties’ headquarters.

The authorities say troublemakers have turned peaceful protests violent.

In an effort to restore calm, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flew to Basra last week from Brussels, after a NATO meeting where the continued threat of IS was on the agenda.

The premier announced investments of $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) for Basra province and pledged additional spending on housing, schools and services.

And several cabinet minsters summoned powerful tribal chiefs in southern Iraq, urging them to use their clout to restore order in their provinces.

When Abadi was elected in 2014, the prime minister pledged to tackle endemic corruption and vowed to rid Iraq of the jihadists, who at that stage held a third of the country.

He has won plaudits for overseeing the war effort — but the battle against corruption will take time, his supporters say.

Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

– ‘Cosmetic concessions’ –

The promises of investment for Basra will fail to satisfy the demonstrators who know Abadi may well not lead the next government, political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi says.

The elections placed the premier’s Victory Alliance third.

And while his bloc tentatively allied itself with nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr in June, the combined forces would still take only 96 out of 329 parliamentary seats.


AFP / Haidar HAMDANI. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (R) attends a press conference with Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf on June 23, 2018.

But despite the political chaos — two months after the elections, even the fragmented results are subject to a recount in some areas — Hashemi expects the protest movement to fizzle out.

“They don’t have a leadership, a political identity or media support (to further their) legitimate demands,” he says.

And alongside the offer of carrots, sticks are being deployed.

The authorities have ordered the arrest of dozens of activists who encouraged others to take to the streets by posting pictures of the protests online.

On Saturday, the internet was cut across the country, as demonstrations threatened to spread.

Authorities said the shutdown was due to maintenance work and Iraq was largely back online Monday.

But Iraqis were still unable to connect on social networks.

An end to the protests could lie in offering temporary solutions until political and meteorological temperates cool, Haddad says, noting that anger over public services has historically tended to boil over during the summer.

It is “likely that the Iraqi political classes will bunker down and wait for the storm to pass while offering cosmetic concessions and promises of reform,” he says.

But the problems facing the country are long-term ones “that require far more than Iraq’s self-interested political classes are likely to be able to offer”.

Featured Photo: AFP / Haidar MOHAMMED ALI. A demonstrator burns tyres during a protest against unemployment and high prices in the southern Iraqi city of Basra during the night of July 12, 2018.

Can Republicans find the Spine to “Contain” Trump?

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 - 11:12pm

Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump’s unsettling embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin this week drew derision across the US political spectrum, but it remains to be seen whether Republicans have the will to rein in their president.

The two major American political parties appear largely united in their desire to keep the Kremlin in check, particularly after Trump made the startling assertion in Helsinki Monday, with Putin at his side, that he believed the Russian leader when he said Moscow did not interfere in US elections.

That globally televised submissiveness to a strongman was interpreted by many as a betrayal of US intelligence agencies, which had collectively declared that Putin and Russia launched a coordinated attack on the American electoral process in 2016.

“We walked away from basic reality,” an angry Republican Senator Ben Sasse told colleagues, as he accused Trump of coddling a “thug turned Russian despot.”

While Trump’s position on Russian interference has shifted repeatedly in recent days, and fresh comments about NATO cast doubt about the alliance’s mutual defense premise, some in Trump’s party signalled they had had enough with his wrecking ball diplomacy and sought to take steps to box him in.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, with a Democratic co-sponsor, on Wednesday introduced a non-binding resolution that would reaffirm the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference, and assert that Moscow be held accountable for its actions.

A meatier measure would be a bill, introduced months ago by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Tim Kaine that is gaining traction now, that would automatically sanction Russia for any future election meddling.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested Tuesday that he could allow a vote on the legislation.

“I think the dam is breaking as it relates to people realizing that we need to have some significant push backs,” Senator Bob Corker told reporters Wednesday.

“Doing nothing is political malpractice,” added Senator Lindsey Graham. Russian meddling “is a 9/11 type scenario that we can actually prevent.”

Corker has been adamant about passing legislation that would restrict Trump’s ability to impose tariffs, arguing that taxing US allies pushes them away while strengthening Putin.

But while Corker serves as the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies next week and will certainly be grilled about Helsinki — he is not running for re-election, and neither is Flake.

They are liberated to a degree to voice their frustration, but there is little upside in speaking out for other Republicans seeking re-election this November.

Anti-Trump vitriol has backfired on some lawmakers, notably South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford. Trump raged about him on Twitter, and the lawmaker ultimately lost his Republican primary last month to a Trump loyalist.

– ‘Wave of alarm’ –


AFP / Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he wants US national security officials to testify before Congress about what was said and negotiated in President Donald Trump’s private meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There is little sign that Republicans are ready to go nuclear against the president. But with Senate Republicans holding a slim 51-49 majority, and Senator John McCain absent while battling brain cancer, a single defector has the power to gum up Trump’s agenda.

Republicans “should use their leverage to stop the administration’s priorities” until the Senate passes legislation that protects special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia probe, and bolsters election security, Senate Democrat Brian Schatz told Politico.

“In a 51-49 Senate, all we need is one person who wants to be on the right side of history.”

The pressure is building.

“I think there’s a growing wave of alarm” in both parties, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told AFP.

Blumenthal and other Democrats want Trump’s interpreter — the only other American in the room when the American and Russian presidents met privately — brought before Congress to testify about what transpired between the two men.

Republicans have not publicly warmed to that idea, but some are interested in hearing from Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who were likely debriefed by Trump after his Putin sit-down.

Major US newspapers, meanwhile, called on the Republicans who control both chambers of Congress to take action.

The New York Times, in an editorial titled “Time for Republicans to Grow a Spine,” said Congress should pass a resolution censuring the president over his Helsinki debacle.

“Let Mr. Putin know that not every American politician is eager to be his dancing bear,” the editorial board wrote.

It also suggested other steps, including boosting the integrity of US election systems and protecting them from further Russian meddling, and calling on Trump to demand the extradition of 12 Russians indicted last week for election interference.

Even the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that lawmakers need a “containment strategy” for Trump.

“Republicans and Democrats will unite in Congress, as they should, to limit his diplomatic running room,” it said.

Featured Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm. US President Donald Trump is under fire from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike after his performance in Helsinki, where he met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

What exactly did Trump Promise Putin on Syria, START Nuclear Treaty?

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 - 6:35am

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – There was a difference of opinion in the Russian press about whether the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit was contentless or whether new agreements were reached, especially on strategy and Syria.

BBC Monitoring of the Russian press reports an editorial in the Vedomosti business daily on the Helsinki summit, which says that neither Putin nor Trump made any verbal or written commitments there. As the BBC translated it, the editorial concluded that this outcome suited both: “For the US president, the absence of agreements and commitments… means that a risk of him being accused at home of intensive contacts with toxic Moscow is low, while for Putin, this is evidence that Moscow has not yielded an inch to Washington”.

In contrast, editorial writer Fyodor Lukyanov differed, telling Vedomosti that: “There are two tracks where the sides have conciliated positions: Syria… and strategic security issues.”

Ekho Moskvy editor in chief

Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, argued that for Washington, DC, the two crucial issues were “strategic stability and meddling in domestic affairs”. He added, BBC Monitoring translates, that “For me it is evident that they reached an agreement in strategic stability, which they were trying to downplay at the press conference.”

Lukyanov’s point of view seems to be that of the Russian military. Russia’s Tass reported that the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, said on Tuesday:

    “The Russian Defense Ministry is ready for practical implementation of the agreements in the sphere of international security reached by Russian and US Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, at their Monday’s summit in Helsinki. . . The Russian Defense Ministry is ready to enliven contact with the US colleagues, between our General Staffs and via other communication channels, to discuss extension of the START Treaty, cooperation in Syria, and other topical issues of military security.”

If Trump made off the cuff commitments regarding the START nuclear arms control treaty, that would be truly scary.

But then the other intriguing part of this announcement regards US and Russian military cooperation in Syria. The two militaries already had some mechanisms aimed at attempting to avoid friendly fire incidents. The Russian Aerospace Forces mainly operate in the west of the country from north to south, whereas 2000 US special operations personnel and at least that many civilian combat contractors operate in eastern Syria against the remnants of ISIL, the extremist group that had aimed at creating a state government by their cult-like distortions of Islam.

But earlier statements and leaks of Trump indicated that he wanted to pull US troops out of Syria by this October, declaring victory over ISIL and going home, as part of the platform on which Republicans could run in the midterms. US military officers are concerned that ISIL hasn’t been completely crushed and that in a vacuum they could come back. One solution would be to have a firm commitment from the Russian Federation that they would not allow this comeback to take place, and would put a larger priority on eastern Syria than they have in the past.

Russia and the al-Assad government that it backs are much more worried about al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the northwest and southwest of the country than about ISIL, which never posed a realistic challenge to Damascus. The al-Qaeda-linked extremists and their merely fundamentalist allies, moreover, have strong connections to the Chechnya insurgency in Russia, one of Putin’s priorities since he first came to power.

In contrast, the US, with its Iraq-based strategy, focused mostly on ISIL from 2014 forward and was actively allied with allies of the al-Qaeda-linked groups, against both ISIL and al-Assad.

One way Trump could extricate himself from the Syrian quagmire would be to acquiesce in the Putin-al-Assad victory in Syria and then hand the northeast over to the Russians and the Syrian Arab Army. This step has the complication that it would profoundly betray US commitments to its crucial allies, the Kurdish paramilitary, the YPG, the fighting arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a far left outgrowth of the thought of Murray Bookchin. It was mostly YPG fighters who, with US air support, took Raqqa and defeated the formidable troops of the ISIL caliphate, taking high casualties. The repercussions of a perceived US betrayal of these Kurdish allies, delivering them into the hands of al-Assad’s Baath secret police, could reverberate in the Middle East for decades.

But so far we don’t know what commitments Trump made about Syria to Putin, though it seems clear that he did make some. That he appears to have done so without reference to his own cabinet officials and with no State Department presence at the meeting means that Putin is the one who will get to interpret those commitments, and in order to understand Trump foreign policy we probably should all start taking Russian 101.

——-
Bonus video

Channel 4 News: “Donald Trump under-fire over Putin summit performance”

US Episcopalians Will Boycott Israeli Firms involved in West Bank Rights Abuses

Wed, 18 Jul 2018 - 5:40am

The US Episcopal Church has announced it has adopted a series of human rights resolutions which will set a screening mechanism for Israeli companies.

According to the resolution, the companies will be screened for human rights violations and activities.

The number of Episcopal Church followers in the United States is estimated at 2 million.

The vote on the resolutions which took place on Friday at the church’s headquarters in Austin, Texas and is considered a new victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Read: Broad support for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel in Spain’s largest cities

The movement is supported by a number of American churches, most recently the Presbyterian Church in June, preceded by the United Church of Christ and the Churches of Christ.

This is the second defeat for Israel in a week.

On Wednesday last week the Irish Senate passed a new law prohibiting the import and sale of Israeli goods or services produced in settlements built in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This work by Middle East Monitor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Via Middle East Monitor

Featured Photo of Washington National Cathedral by Shubert Ciencia via a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.