Tag Archives: palestine

The revolutionary spectacle: Sanders’ answer to Trump?

As the primaries and caucuses have unfolded I’ve spent a lot of time revisiting this piece I wrote about Trump nearly a year ago. In a nutshell, I said his campaign wasn’t viable. It would alienate too many people for him to win the general election, if not the primary itself. While he has managed to become the presumptive Republican nominee, it was only after months of him achieving mere pluralities in state after state. He was the frontrunner from early on, but a limited one who took many months to lock up the nomination. With the steady loss of RNC staffers just in anticipation of having to work with him, a similar uphill slog looks likely to be his best case scenario in the general election. There’s a certain point where you can’t be overtly hostile to everyone outside your narrow part of the electorate and expect to win nationwide elections.

What’s hopefully more interesting, in light of the protracted Sanders-Clinton contest, is turning that question of what an ultimately unsuccessful campaign was actually about onto another target. In Trump’s case, I thought and to a certain extent still think, it’s about reaffirming certain voters’ sense of security. Even in a general election defeat, Trump will have demonstrated to those who feel “silenced” by “political correctness” that many people share at least parts of their White supremacist worldviews. The “silent majority” doesn’t even need voter fraud conspiracy theories at the end of the day – many of its members will probably settle for just not being alone, for being heard and recognized and agreed with by someone.

With Sanders’ campaign looking increasingly similarly non-viable, it seems worth asking what analogous benefit supporters are getting out of it. On the surface, it might seem obvious – Sanders has called repeatedly for a political revolution, and his supporters are hopeful that he might oversee some sort of radical reinvention of this society. But his campaign consistently stepped back from exactly those types of demands at almost every turn. Sanders himself didn’t just dismiss reparations as impractical or difficult, he outright categorized them as outside of his concerns about economic injustice. While he goes further than most candidates in terms of suggesting greater political autonomy for indigenous peoples, his campaign’s messaging confirms that that would remain limited to reservations and similar spaces determined by the settler colonial state.

Actual anti-colonial revolutionaries have rejected this sort of approach pretty explicitly in the very midst of his campaign. Indigenist theorist

[The Americas are] a prison house of nations, and that as such it is without a single, unified class structure. There is no ineluctably singular ‘proletarian’ class here.

[…]

While there have been high tides of radical settler working-class struggle, perhaps most vibrantly seen in the early work of the Industrial Workers of the World, even those movement failed to truly break with general trend of settler labour movements to ignore, submerge and derail anti-colonial movements arising from within the popular ranks of the domestic colonies. Regardless, even that high tide ebbed nearly a century ago. Since then the settler working-class has primarily functioned outright as a bulwark of colonial and fascist oppression domestically and imperialist aggression overseas (it had previously as well, but it was at least tempered at times by nominal anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organizing by some strata of the settler working-class movement). Both the failure of even the most radical expressions of settler working-class labour organizing, as well as the broader historic trend of the settler working-class to act as a reactionary bulwark is a result of their class aspirations, which are inherently petty-bourgeois in nature, seeking a greater slice of the imperialist pie, or, in the era of neo-liberal globalization, to re-assert their position on the imperialist pedestal at the expense of hightened [sic] exploitation and oppression of colonized peoples.

[…]

The settler left cannot imagine a future where the garrison population does not continue to hold down the majority of the land of A’nó:wara Kawè:note [the Americas]. It doesn’t matter if settler society is re-organized on the basis of a confederation of autonomous anarchist municipalities and industrial collectives, or a federative socialist workers’ state of the marxist sort: so long as the land is not relinquished back to its original owners then all that will develop is settler colonialism with a marxist or anarchist face.

So it must be recognized that all of A’nó:wara Kawè:note [the Americas] is stolen land, and that over the course of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle all of it must be liberated, even if that goes against the material interests of the settler population. The rights and aspirations of the domestic colonies will be given primacy.

This means the return of all land seized via treaty, the overwhelming majority of which are demonstrably fraudulent, and were never signed in good mind on the part of settlers. Many settler anarchists and marxists propose a line of upholding treaty rights, and the full application of previous agreements such as the Two Row Wampum as the vehicle for what they call ‘decolonization.’ However, this politic immedietely [sic] falls into the trap of assuming that settlers have an inherent right to at least posses some of the land, which is in fact simply a more insiduous [sic] form of settler colonialism. Further, the treaties and other like documents are what removed thousands of Indigenous peoples from their lands, marching them hundreds or thousands of miles to foreign lands, and sequestered all of us, even those of us who remained on ancestral lands, onto reserves and reservations. So all of the treaties must be scrapped, and the land returned that they were used to seize. Self-determination that is restricted to the open air prisons in which one is held prisoner is not real national liberation.

Sanders holds that exact policy stance on what reservations could be, and the same dynamic in which he advocates renegotiating the same relationships between groups rather than redefining them crops up on other issues as well. His perspective of Israeli colonialism carefully frames the right of Jewish communities in the region to exist as predicating the Israeli state and implicitly denying at least the vast majority of Palestinians’ right of return to properties seized. Just as he envisions greater autonomy for indigenous groups in their few remaining spaces under US occupation, his language on the Israel-Palestinian conflict suggests he would promote Palestinian statehood and a “freezing” of Israeli expansion. No restitution for al Nakba, no return to land still under Israeli occupation, no accountability for the continuing systemic violence.

So, if Sanders’ campaign isn’t about overhauling the colonial relationships a whole host of people worldwide have with the United States government, what exactly is his “revolution”?  The concessions he’s gotten from the Democratic Party make it seem dourly procedural – that what he’s won is greater influence on the Party platform for significant but still unsuccessful presidential candidates, and what he’d like to also get are various reforms to primaries, namely more open ones. That all does not a revolution make.

Is that really why people have voted for him, donated to him, or volunteered for him though? Obviously there’s as many answers to those questions as there are people who have done any or each of those things for his campaign, but his “revolution” has been for many a potentially approachable “radicalism”. It’s one that speaks decisively about ending this era, particularly in terms of corruption and the excesses of the wealthy, but shrinks back when it comes to some of the key relationships underpinning the US locally and globally: settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, and capitalism.

There is a reason why his support has in general been so markedly White in comparison to the broader electorate – his “revolution” is one that can be palatable to the exact White “radicals”

I’ve written about this before, that in essence Sanders’ socialism doesn’t seek to address the unique forms of exploitation – capitalist and otherwise – experienced by various groups, especially people of color. The question here is what do those politics do for his predominantly White supporters. Their needs ultimately seem fairly similar to Trump’s supporters – to feel comforted. Treating the minor tweaks to existing colonial policies as a revolution places policies more confrontational to White supremacy as safely outside of consideration or acknowledgement.

It’s important for Sanders’ supporters to ask themselves if just like how Trump’s campaign delivers on some people wanting to feel like the omnipresent True American but also a righteously resistant minority, if the Sander’s campaign provides them a similar resolution to contradictory desires. Does it give them a way to feel like they’re dismantling a sprawling oppressive system while continuing to largely benefit from it? Does the right want to stop any tentative steps towards decolonizing this country while the left wants to wash its hands and call the process over and done?

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Simone Zimmerman – how the Sanders campaign clarified their message

Trigger warning: Israel/Palestine conflict, antisemitism, islamophobia, racism

The Sanders campaign caught a significant amount of flack this weekend for his trip to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. Just in terms of the optics – the deference it suggested to an institution wracked recently and historically by criticism, particularly over its role in socio-economic inequalities – the meeting clashed with Sanders’ primary political message of the need for a popular voice in more spheres of life. Or did it?

A second scandal of sorts for his campaign broke earlier last week, and called into question whether Sanders’ campaign is about social and economic justice anymore. In short, what transpired was that his campaign hired a young Jewish activist, Simone Zimmerman, only to “suspend” her mere hours later over comments unearthed from her personal Facebook dating back to the spring of 2015. Angered over Israeli military policies, she typed this out, addressing then and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole. He is the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and the tone-deafness toward the international community. Fuck you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of the Jews in this world, for your consistent fear-mongering, for pushing Israel, in word and deed, farther and farther away from the international community, and most importantly, for trying to derail the potentially historic diplomatic deal with Iran and thus trying to distract the world from the fact that you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer, that a brutal military occupation of millions more continues under your watch, and that you are spending time and money on ridiculous campaign opportunities like this instead of actually working to address the real needs of your own people.

Netanyahu insulted our President but also much worse. He does not speak for me as a Jew, an American, and as a thinking person. #BibiDoesntSpeakForMe

She later modified it to cut out the swearing, saying instead “Shame on you”. The Sanders campaign is not just any campaign, and the decision to suspend Zimmerman over this discovered comment uniquely calls into question their political vision and policy prescriptions. In this race, his rhetoric has often been accused of being one note, with his emphasis on not only economic inequality but the need to reform the political process to limit campaign contributions. That is an important political question, and Sanders himself has spoken about the haunting questions is raises about whether we still live under a truly democratic system.

It’s also a loftily abstract issue in politics, that the average person contends with directly only once in a few years. A more every day issue of freedom of speech, tied into the reality of insurgent campaigns like Sanders, is whether people with less can be coerced into particular statements or political silence. In the age of the internet this has leaped from an issue about bosses demanding their employees take off the bumper sticker on their car, to now the ability of employers to fire or punish their employees over literally anything traceable to them online – like a Facebook post, even before it was edited. Sanders just made a statement about where he stands on the more colloquial experience average people have with the intersection of economic and political power.

Setting aside the issue of freedom speech, this speaks to the thorny place Sanders finds himself in terms of outreach towards Jewish communities. Reminiscent of the liberal if not socialist Zionism of a bygone era of Jewish politics, he has limited appeal to more modern Zionist circles. Given his policies on Israel, however, anti-Zionist Jewish activists, like Zimmerman, have historically found themselves in even greater dissonance with him. His choice to hire Zimmerman, in fact, was seen as a sign of changing ideas about which Jewish circles require outreach and what that would typically sound like.

2016-04-18_0746(From a New York rally held the year before, credit to Martyna Starosta.)

By pivoting back into staffing decisions in line with a more traditionally Zionist Jewish politics, the Sanders campaign has echoed what I’ve noted in their politics for months now: a focus on whittling down what the supposed political revolution will be about. Reparations have been declared as outside the purview of economic injustice, now implicit criticism of Zionism is beyond a similar pale. This is a facet of his political organization that’s increasingly hard to ignore.

In fact, one of the heralds of this moment in which Sanders’ revolutionary politics shrank back is eerily relevant. In one of the year’s first Democratic debates, Sanders spoke about the economic and political elites in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as if they not only were representative of the broader population, but also as ultimately responsible for resolving problems in entirely other states just in the same larger region of the world.

Now, he’s suspended a staffer, over her declaring that the head of a state in that part of the world, who claimed to speak for her, was not truly representing her. Sanders’ previous discussion of the region acted as if someone like Zimmerman, a person categorized on paper by certain ethnic or national words like “Qataris” or “Saudis” or “Jews,” was not meaningfully different from most others roped together with those words.

He sure showed her with a suspension.

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The year that environmental racism started to get noticed

TW: racism, erasure of people of color, classism, colonialism, Israeli occupation

I wrote on-again-off-again about a phenomenon over the course of 2012, where historical and present realities of racism and colonialism created economic and environmental conditions for people of color that put them at greater risk in changing climates.

That August, there was a bit of joking about global warming at the 2012 RNC that was primarily met with Democratic criticism that in the future that will seem foolish. At that time it seemed pertinent to remind people that global warming was already making indigenous Alaskan communities more food insecure, as fishing times and spots had begun shifting in relation to new weather. In Fall, with Hurricane Sandy’s landfall in Haïti, it seemed important to highlight how the poverty in that country meant that buildings and infrastructure were both more likely to fail and more likely to not be rebuilt. In fact the 2010 earthquake hadn’t been dealt with, exacerbating both the fallout from the hurricane and the subsequent cholera epidemic as untreated water became a normal backdrop in Haïti. After Sandy made landfall in the US, the media seemed to wholly erase what had happened years before to predominantly Black communities in the Gulf as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The intersections between global warming, systemic racism, and poverty were there, but were seldom being connected.

To a degree, 2013 was an improvement on that, with environmental issues and the realities of racism and classism sometimes being introduced in tandem. The Idle No More movement, originally founded in 2012 by First Nations (ie, indigenous) activists in Canada became an international phenomenon in 2013, which both attracting indigenous peoples to its activism in other countries but was widely reported on. By the end of the year, a common narrative had formed. The pattern of communities vulnerable to economic and environmental exploitation attracting companies, foremost minerals extraction ones, then facing police violence in response to protests had become established. Most painfully, against Mi’kmaq protesters in Canada in late 2013. The role that racism played in these communities being selected for environmentally questionable policies and actions and later the racism that informed the police response was unfortunately largely implicitly referenced in major media.

There were additional limitations sadly imposed on this type of story, however, with them often conforming to a set formula. Overwhelmingly, it was only indigenous groups, not other ethnically marginalized people who were covered, and the near exclusive type of exploitation highlighted was mineral extraction often in association with fossil fuel companies in Canada or the United States. Just as in previous years, the on-going reality of ethnically and economically marginalized populations in South and Southeast Asia whose their ancestral lands can and often are selected to be flooded as a result of damming projects have remained largely overlooked.

environmental racism
(From here.)

We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where the global connections between poverty, racist and colonial practices and histories, and climate change are part of typical media reporting on a number of events worldwide, but we’ve edged closer. Can we wait for more people to make this connection on their own, so that it’s not a shock to them for media to cover it in that way? While we’re sitting here, the reality the Philippines were hit by a hurricane categorically stronger than any storm on the planet in more than thirty years, which sounds silly until you read the stunning wind speeds recorded as it passed through a densely populated portion of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony and US territory. The Philippines’ Climate Commissioner released a petition in the midst of attempting to contact his family, but his request for not even any specific policy change but for the largest contributors to carbon emissions to “acknowledge the new climate reality” that the Philippines now know all too well. That garnered less attention than the disaster itself, however.

More recently, unusually heavy rains flooded the Gaza territory in Palestine, whose infrastructure couldn’t handle the crisis under the weight of Israeli occupation and other international factors. Our failure to connect these forces costs isn’t just threatening people’s futures, but presently costing lives.

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Helen Thomas and “the palestinian question”

TW: Holocaust/Shoa, Israeli occupation, Zionism, sexism

I have to be as brief as possible today, so I’ll recommend reading what I’ve already written on how the historically pivotal and intriguing journalist Helen Thomas is being remembered. In a nutshell, the way she created the news seems really inseparable from her gender, in spite of the flurry of obituaries that either don’t discuss her gender at all or do so in comparatively shallow way.

When I say “don’t discuss” it at all, I honestly do mean that. The Guardian’s Dan Kennedy seemed to do so in fascinating oblique way. Among the actually utterly bizarre sections of his piece I could pull out, here’s the two most striking. First, when establishing her as not merely critical of Israel but (as his piece intended to) as antisemitic, Kennedy quotes this confusing mess:

“Her comments – that Jews [specifically modern Jewish settlers] should ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and ‘go home’ to Poland and Germany – brought Thomas’s 67-year career to an abrupt end. On Monday, she announced her retirement from the Hearst news service amid condemnation from the White House and her fellow reporters. ‘It’s hard to hear the words ‘the Jews of Germany and Poland’ and not think of anything but the millions and millions of Jews who were incarcerated, enslaved, tortured, starved and exterminated in the Holocaust,’ wrote Rachel Sklar at Mediaite, concluding: ‘Which means that, sad as I am, Helen Thomas can no longer be a hero to me.'”

Sklar better explains her point later in that article (most “couldn’t go back to where their families came from in Germany or Poland even if they wanted to, because entire villages were wiped out”), but there really isn’t much of a there there. Of course survivors of the Holocaust have every reason to want to leave Germany and Poland, but it seems a rather difficult length to go to where Thomas was saying they couldn’t leave those countries. Her statement was made within the context of the Israel-backed right of any Jewish settler to any Palestinian land they might want, free of charge, because it’s “theirs”. The need for many Holocaust survivors to leave the cites of that massacre doesn’t give them the right to any property they so choose, and the militant efforts to establish their ability to do so anyway is what has prompted many current residents of the region to tell the settlers to go elsewhere (including to Germany or Poland).

Kennedy shows how he’s willfully ignoring that entire context of forced land redistribution when he closes his article saying, “It would be unkind to suggest that Thomas, who was born in Kentucky, should ‘go home’ to Lebanon, from which her parents immigrated. But it would be in keeping with her own loathsome views.” For one, virtually none of the Holocaust survivors whom he and Sklar pointed to were born in Palestine as Thomas was in Kentucky. What’s more, unless the Thomas’ have an extensive yet well hidden criminal record, they didn’t take their home in Kentucky from a family which had been living there, but purchased one. His entire point collapses under this conflation of the survivors of the Holocaust and any Jewish person who is afforded citizenship rights and certain social privileges by Israel, as well as an astounding romanticization of the settlement process.

The second egregious flaw in Kennedy’s argument is much less illuminating and more utterly baffling. Having cycled through recent Thomas quotes up to the Israeli attack on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010, he wrote, “to assert, as Thomas did, that Israeli commandos landed on the deck of the Mavi Marmara with the express intent of shedding Muslim blood is to deny Israel’s very legitimacy as a state.” That is then explained as the “subtext” to her and other critics’ response to that action by the Israel Defense Forces. I honestly have no idea how he goes from one action of the state being illegal under international law to Israel itself being vaguely ‘illegitimate’ but it’s quite breathtaking. If that’s how international human rights standards work, then we should all prepare to live in anarchy while nearly every state on the planet is presumably dismantled for ‘illegitimacy’.

The only angle through which I can squeeze some modicum of sense through those statements is that Kennedy (and Michael Hirschorn) honestly believe that the attack on the flotilla was exaggerated or a set-up or some other bizarre conspiratorial situation or account, which was created for the use by the villainous Thomas and her ilk against the good (if perhaps flawed) state of Israel. There’s sadly no charitable way of putting how ludicrous that is, given that it was Israel that put out blatantly false evidence of the “threat” posed by the flotilla.


(This is one of the infamous pictures supposedly taken after raiding the flotilla of their “weapons”, the metadata of which suggested that the photos were taken years prior to the flotilla raid, from here.)

Ultimately, that’s what these issues (of the rights of Palestinians and other gentile groups within Israeli-controlled territory to basic dignity) boil down to. Thomas, although dead, seems to have coaxed Kennedy and those like him into making these same broken arguments, based on falsehoods or strange comparisons, with a fervor that betrays them. Even beyond the grave, she’s getting answers out of people that they don’t want to give.

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An overlooked complication in Syria…

TW: Syrian revolution, Palestinian diaspora

Yesterday, the Ma’an News Agency reported the death of multiple Palestinians in Syria, several of whom were non-combatant civilians living in the Yarmouk refugee camp. That brings to the fore an often overlooked part of the conflict in Syria – there’s already well over 100,000 Palestinian refugees registered as living in Yarmouk alone, with nearly half a million of them in Syria altogether. Even as there’s extensive discussions about the increasing proportion of the Syrian population living abroad or within Syria as refugees, it seems often unexamined how many of those people were already refugees, had been born refugees, and whose own parents might have been born as refugees.


(An image of the camp being attacked, from here.)

The issue of course is complex. There are estimated to be multiple millions of refugees as a result of the conflict in Syria who aren’t Palestinian as well as millions of Palestinian refugees who were displaced within current Israeli-controlled spaces or to other countries besides Syria. But it seems crucial to acknowledge that many thousands of people fall into both the groups of people displaced by the Israeli government and those dislocated by Syrian regime.

This is the world that various influence people, organizations, and states have allowed to come into existence: one where there are now two overlapping refugee crises in the eastern Mediterranean.

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What a right of return could look like

TW: ethnic cleansing, Israeli occupation

To be brief, Al Jazeera’s Jonathan Cook recently published an excellent article on the Palestinian village of Iqrit, which is still under Israeli jurisdiction, and how the displaced residents of it are enacting a plan to make their right of return into a reality. To provide some background, in 1948, Iqrit like most villages was evacuated under misleading or false assurances that Palestinian civilians would be allowed back into their villages and homes after a brief period.

Iqrit was in fact one of the fortunate villages in that “Israel does not deny that the promise was made, and the villagers’ right to return was backed by the country’s supreme court in 1951”. Unfortunately before that decision could be implemented, Israeli forces “blew up the houses in a move designed to stop the ruling being enforced.” Since then, a series of ministerial decisions and outright propaganda on Israel’s part have effectively buried the issue, in spite of the Israeli decision to return at least a portion of the land taken from the Palestinians at Iqrit (and a few other villages were land claims weren’t so easily cast aside).

The former village of Iqrit sits atop a small hill surrounded by lush groves of various trees
(Iqrit in 1935, sixteen years before it was destroyed, from here. It then only housed about 600 Palestinians, less than half of the now 1,500 who can claim a right of return to the location.)

Tired of waiting, those exiled or born from those exiled from Iqrit are presented an official plan of how to rebuild the village, “showing how it would be possible to build a modern community of 450 homes, including a school, for the villagers-in-exile, who today number 1,500.” The limiting factor, which apparently they have finally gotten past, was simply that there was no were to return to an a moral expectation for Israel to restore the village it destroyed. The former has been overcome and the second has been abandoned evidently, with plant to rebuild Iqrit being put into motion now.

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Quick notes on the Nakba

Among Palestinians specifically and Arab speakers generally, the term nakba or catastrophe has become particularly associated with the original forced removal of several hundred thousand Palestinians in 1948. The anniversary of that by Palestinian reckoning fell on today’s date, and was the sixty-fifth remembrance of the nakba. Even only somewhat sympathetic Israeli media acknowledged the significance of the date as protests (which escalated into confrontations with the Israel Defense Forces) were staged throughout Israeli and Palestinian areas.


(A decaying Palestinian passport from the pre-1948 period that was shared online today, form here.)

Today is one of those days when it’s more worthwhile to meander through the murky claims on twitter than to listen to me trying to make sense of it all, so I urge you to attempt to educate yourself on this, the sixty-fifth Nakba Day.

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Resources curse, cooperation blesses?

TW: military conflict in Sudan / South Sudan, military conflict in Israel/Palestine

I’ve mentioned before how there’s a long-standing idea within the social sciences that countries with more of certain resources are actually more vulnerable to certain economic and social problems, which is often referred to as the “resource curse“. It’s interesting to keep that idea in mind while watching the political situation along the border of Sudan and South Sudan unfold. Indeed, competition over the various undeveloped oil reserves along their border did initiate what’s essentially a war between the two states. But what’s more, the need to cooperate to allow oil extraction and shipping (and consequently, sales) to occur has been credited with facilitating a ceasefire, as both countries demilitarized the zone around Jau to permit some industrial development.


(A map of the contested areas approximately a year ago, from here. Jau is located northeast of Heglig, marked in red on the map. Over the past year, the border has inched north, as South Sudan has reclaimed many areas with significant support for its government and attractive oil reserves.)

This is particularly interesting to look at in comparison to Israel and Palestine, as the conflict between them shares many similarities with Sudan and South Sudan. Both instances involve a complex conflict between different factions which invoke questions of the areas’ ethnic, religious, and national identities in post-colonial contexts. The most sizable difference – that South Sudan successfully transitioned from resistance movement to separate state while Palestine has yet to – seems likely to be a temporary distinction, as Palestine seems increasingly likely to attain statehood.

But in spite of all those admittedly broad similarities, today, the international press lamented that President Obama, while visiting both Israel and Palestine didn’t draw the Israeli government to the negotiating table or otherwise recast the situation in a way that makes continued settlement and a third intifada less likely. As international interest in forcing a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine has declined, the disincentives against conflict have also diminished, resulting in Israel being led into an even more total state of war. Israel hasn’t had to offer an olive branch in so long, it might have forgotten how.

In light of that, it seems like two pertinent questions should be asked. Firstly, what will happen along the Sudan / South Sudan border when oil production is more established or when extraction has  effectively bled the region dry? The modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests that this basis for peace is innately unsustainable over a long enough term. Ideally, now that some degree of peace has been established, it’s time to work out how to extend that peace.

Secondly, what could provide Israel and Palestine with a common goal with both groups would prioritize over continued conflict? The story in Sudan and South Sudan should give us hope – the circumstances can and eventually will change. Still, it’s worth asking what can be done to hurry that along.

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Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

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Let’s catch up on Palestine

TW: indefinite detention, violation of due process, torture, racist violence

The number of politically significant events that occurred in Palestine and Israel over the past weekend is actually staggering, but between the Oscars and numerous other on-goings in the world, they’ve sadly been largely overlooked. I think it’s necessary to be informed about them, so hopefully this will provide a quick exploration of what’s happened so far.

While this isn’t as directly interconnected to the following events as they are to each other, it seems noteworthy that files from 1982 were finally declassified, which revealed that while Ariel Sharon, at that time serving as the Minister of Defense, feared that the Israeli government’s actions in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres could be legally considered genocide. This joins the fact that independent Israeli investigators tend to pin much higher casualty estimates on the massacres, in some cases determining as many as 3,000 Palestinian civilians then living in Lebanon to have been killed. In short, this reveals that the Israeli state is aware of the severity of its actions and either chooses to ignore their meanings or actively accept them.

The previous day Israel finally provided charges against and summarily convicted Samer Issawi, who had been held without them for over two hundred days – for the vast majority of which he has been on a hunger strike. Apparently he violated the terms of his early release from Israeli custody in 2011 by leaving East Jerusalem, where he lived, to go to the West Bank to fix his car at a particular garage. So, the eight months of him being held without charges have come to a close, but only because his prosecutors worked out something to charge him with.

Another imprisoned Palestinian, Arafat Jaradat, was even less lucky. After being arrested under suspicion of having thrown stones at Israelis on February 18, his body was provided to his family on Saturday. He disappeared into the blackhole of Israeli prisons and didn’t come out alive. His death has stimulated a series of mass protests, fueled by the fact that an autopsy conducted in Israel suggested that he had six different broken bones in his body – suggesting either serious mistreatment while in Israeli custody, or that he was quite purposefully killed. Yesterday, Israel announced that two additional Palestinian detainees, who like Samer Issawi had been protesting their detentions with hunger strikes, would not be provided to a court hearing because they were too weak. The fact that such a decision only extends their time without food was either deliberately ignored or never occurred to the Israeli court.


(On that same day, a Palestinian woman was jumped by a group of Jewish Israelis and beaten in public after a mild argument, from here. Other, Israeli sources suggest that municipal security guards witnessed the attack and did nothing.)

That’s the question that’s shouted by all of these incidents: does the Israeli state realize what it’s doing? And I’m not entirely sure which answer is worse.

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As this post involves extensive discussion of both Israel and Palestine, I should let you know the requirements of comments are much higher. If for any reason I interpret your comments as expressing hostility towards broad political, social, religious, or ethnic groups, they will be deleted. That’s your warning.

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The broad progressive coalition fails to emerge in Israel

TW: suicide, indefinite detention, police brutality

If you care to peruse the Israel tag here you’ll come across a number of different developments in the past few months that haven’t boded well for any civilians in the region. Police violence has long been endemic in Israel, but a recent report by +972 has tried to shed light on the powers behind the brutality. In short, there’s a culture of impunity particularly for those viewed as moderates because they don’t support quite as extreme measures against Iran and Palestine. Those who are highly ranked in the military are given glowing mentions in the New York Times and touted, even by their more humanist critics, as Israel’s great last hope.

Now, if only they weren’t imprisoning Israeli’s with secret evidence. And if only those detained weren’t kept in solitary confinement for so many months that they became suicidal. And if only there wasn’t a legitimate case to be made that they were a literal “shadow government”. Darn.


(The facility in Ramla, Israel, where Ben Zygier committed suicide after multiple months in solitary confinement, from here.)

Unfortunately, even in how their failings are being noticed and called out you can see the cracks in a hypothetical broad coalition of those against war mongering, those against systemic disenfranchisement and criminalization of  Arabs and Palestinians, and those against the transformation of Israel into a police state. One of the core cases examined by the article was that of Anat Kamm, who I’ve commented on before. Indeed, what has happened to her was monstrous and reflective of the growing power of the military and similar martial forces in Israel.

But as I pointed out when her case initially became public in October, her imprisonment coincided with the killing of a Palestinian woman and her daughter who were in the process of signalling that they were non-combatants by waving a white flag. If there’s an undemocratic autocracy developing in Israel, its effects are felt unevenly. A few Jewish Israelis are imprisoned for inadequate fealty to the emerging order, but Palestinians are harassed and locked away on a much larger scale. The purported moderate-ness of the effective governors of Israel is just that – purported. The systemic inequalities against Arabs and Palestinians in territory Israel claims are not only continuing but worsening under their rule.

An effective challenge of the increasingly undemocratic norms in Israel needs to criticize the constant violence doled out rather than be selective about it.

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What’s a better term for this than ‘islamophobia’?

TW: cissexism, islamophobia, drone strikes

I’m sorry if I’m spending too much time on the controversy surrounding Julie Burchill’s cissexist opinion piece defending Suzanne Moore’s cissexist comment, but there’s a lot to sift through there. Last week, I had to rant about how both of them were using the same silencing and dehumanizing techniques that are routinely used against all women, and so it was worth asking whether they really wanted equality and liberation or simply personal empowerment. Earlier today, over at Velociriot! it felt pertinent to note that if we’re going to have a conversation between flavors of feminism about appropriation of femininity, transgender women aren’t really the people Burchill in particular seems to be thinking about. Instead, the image that she seems to be conjuring up has mostly been created by cisgender men performing drag routines, which is maybe a phenomenon we can talk about as having potentially misogynistic readings.

But going back to the heart of it – Moore’s original comment and subsequent twitter arguments – there’s even more going on. For instance, we get this lovely argument:


(Moore casting doubt on twitter about the existence of transphobia and islamophobia, from here.)

Now, I’m willing to concede that transphobia and islamophobia are terms that I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of. For one thing, they conflate what for many people are chronic psychological conditions (agoraphobia and acrophobia, among others) with bigoted philosophies, which seems virulently abilist. For another, the obvious alternative to “transphobia” is “cissexism,” which I strongly prefer as it emphasizes the belief in the superiority and default status of cisgender people. So, my issue with both of those words is the terminology, not the underlying concept.

And, while I have a whole lengthy backlog of posts about that issue, I think it’s rather chilling to insist that there is no bigotry against (actual or perceived) Muslim people on the basis of their religious background. In the past three days alone, there’s been more than enough incidents of hostility towards the mere existence of Muslims that it’s difficult to even conceptualize the privileged bubble within which Moore must live. On Saturday, a future member of Israel’s Knesset, Jeremy Gimpel, on a hybrid radio-television show called for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, the mosque on the otherwise barren Temple Mount in Jerusalem. His reasoning was quite illuminating, as he explained that other non-Jewish religious sites in the city “blended in” with the rest of the city, but the Dome of the Rock was just too distinctive and too dissonant. Prominent Muslim sites apparently have a special sort of non-Jewishness to them that even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn’t. So far, Gimpel’s political party has continued to support him in spite of his various controversial statements on the issue.

On Sunday, the US government fired on a group of eight people in Yemen, with only two of them (at least by public announcement at this moment), having been confirmed members of an Al Qaeda affiliate. The remaining six, presumed to be Muslims, were deemed acceptable losses of life. Whether this is because they were Muslim, because the intended targets were Muslim extremists, or some combination of the two is unclear. Still, it’s hard not to see either a devaluation in the “collateral damage” to Muslim communities in the parts of the world subject to drone strikes or a uniquely panicked reaction to extremists who are Muslims.

Today, President Obama was sworn in for the fourth time and his second presidency. The last time around he officially took the oath as Barack Hussein Obama, keeping both with the tradition of most past presidents of using their full name and the Arabic-origin name his Muslim father bestowed on him. This time, however, he was merely Barack H. Obama. His middle name, an indicator of his kinship to Muslims, is a liability, rather than an incidental facet of his life. It’s evidently quite important (and politically toxic) that his middle name can be traced back to the language in which more than a millenium ago a certain Mohammed (peace be upon him) preached.

So while I might concede that the term is a poorly thought out neologism, I have to disagree that the phenomenon isn’t a real part of the world that impacts Muslims in myriad ways. This particular form of cultural racism should have a specific name by which we could refer to it, so I’ll ask Suzanne Moore and the internet at large to help me out and let me know if they have a better way of denoting the cultural racism against Muslims that’s quite fashionable as of now.

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They make a desert and call it peace…

TW: civilian casualties of war, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Israeli-Syrian conflict, Israeli-Turkish conflict

If you’ve been on twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media site at all today, you’ve probably encountered the familiar yet impossible-to-resolve arguments about Israel that crop up every time there’s a military conflict involving it. Yes, we’ve already slid back into another conflict in which Israel is involved for the sixth time in the past few years. In 2006, it was Lebanese civilians and Hezbollah. In 2007, it was North Korean workers and the perceived threat of a nuclear Syria. In 2008 and 2009, it was Gazan civilians and Hamas militants. In 2010, it was Turkish activists. In 2011, it was Gazan civilians and Hamas militants again. And now we have a newfangled youtubified war between, you guessed it, the Israeli military and Hamas-affiliated militants in Gaza.

Continue reading

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It’s a world of pain

TW: child soldiers, military occupation, war crimes

There was a lot of death in the news this past week. Al-Jazeera has offered a quick but useful run-down of the origins of the conflict in Mali, where the Tuareg, a Berber tribe, initiated a secessionist movement which has since allowed the disintegration of secular governance over two-thirds of the country. There’s a lot of moving parts in the situation – a nationalist hope for statehood for Berbers somewhere in the region, a coup in Mali over the federal government’s inability to address the Tuareg rebellion, and the rising influence of Islamism in the rural Maghreb. One issue remains clear – the Ansar Dine, the Islamist organization that now controls the majority of Mali, is recruiting child soldiers and using extreme punishments (including death) on the usually forcibly enlisted children.

Last night, Rachel Maddow put on a lengthy but excellent segment about violence in Afghanistan. The data point to a clear conclusion – President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan has unambiguously failed to reduce violence, at least after the past three years. As a military strategy, the surge has in fact correlated with a dramatic increase in attacks on US soldiers, the Afghan state’s forces, and Afghan non-combatant civilians. Maddow lays out the case and the only options with this undeniable evidence is that either the surge has failed or the surge has backfired.

Additionally, an online Israeli magazine yesterday noted that a Canadian woman with Israeli citizenship was sentenced to 90 days imprisonment for avoiding military enlistment after immigrating as a minor to Canada. This was roughly contemporaneous with an incident where a former Israeli soldier was sentenced to half that time for killing an unarmed Palestinian woman and her daughter while they were waving a white flag. Independent news sources have confirmed the sentencing of the Canadian-Israeli woman and the sentencing of the former soldier. There’s many ways of interpreting the comparison these two events invite – for one, it begs the question of whether Israel views peaceful coexistence with its neighbors as possible, and likewise, how its answer to that question is impacting its citizens and the overall region.

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