Saturday, May 10, 2008

B. C. Liberals: Legislation without Representation

Dave Schreck's Strategic Thoughts
May 5, 2008

"Not a Dime without Debate"

Many British Columbians don't know whether the BC Legislature is sitting or not, and many don't care. That doesn't stop them from becoming very angry when they learn what is happening; it is like taking for granted that your car is going to start until it doesn't.

The Campbell government is on the verge of ramming 23 Bills through the Legislature with virtually no debate; that's much worse than a car breaking down, that's a fundamental failure of democracy.

As of Friday, May 2nd, 23 Bills had not yet passed second reading, let alone passed the detailed committee stage that precedes third reading.Until Campbell came to power in 2001, the rules that governed the BC Legislature saw the government call the session to order and the Opposition adjourn it. In other words, debate would continue for as long as the Opposition wanted to examine the government's legislation and spending estimates. On most occasions that meant that BC's Legislature sat into June, and occasionally into July.

Campbell changed the rules and implemented a fixed legislative calendar, except that in 2006 he didn't honor the calendar, not calling the House until late November. A major feature of the fixed legislative calendar, is that according to the amended rules of the Legislature all designated government business must pass by the pre-set date for adjournment in late May (or be voted on, which is the same thing, with a majority government). If the government and the opposition can't agree on how that will happen, the government introduces closure (time-allocation) to limit debate and force budgets and legislation through the Legislature with little or no debate.

Unless the Campbell government announces that a substantial portion of its 2008 spring legislative agenda will be set over to the fall, it will demonstrate an extreme abuse of power.
The pending legislation (10 of the 23 Bills were just introduced last week) includes substantial changes in how British Columbians live. The carbon tax, the cap and trade system for carbon emissions, limits on third party advertising before and during election campaigns, and a change to health legislation that puts a definition of "sustainability" on the same grounds as the concepts of universality, accessibility and comprehensiveness are but a few of the fundamental changes that the Campbell government appears willing to ram through without much debate by May 29th.

The legislature only sits for four days a week, no longer in the evenings, and it recesses for a week or more in every week in which there is a statutory holiday, hence, between May 5th and May 29th, it sits for only 12 days. It is outrageous that the Campbell government would contemplate substantial legislation with little or no opportunity for scrutiny.

It is not just the Official Opposition that would be offended; during the period of legislative debate, those who know something about pending legislation engage the public through the news media and feed their concerns to the Opposition as well as lobbying the government. Limiting debate means limiting opportunities for public involvement in the democratic process.

If the government forces passage of all 23 Bills that are currently outstanding by May 29th, its abuse of power may become more of a political issue than the substance of any of its most controversial legislation.

Israelis Facing History

New Israeli Scholars Face up to Its Origins
by Eric Rouleau

In the 1980s in Israel, a new generation of men and woman who had not lived through the Holocaust or the creation of their country came of age intellectually and embarked on a remarkable period of change. This change is indicative of how Israel’s intelligentsia has gradually matured to a point where it is now able to judge the country’s past without hang-ups, and free itself from the myths and taboos propagated by the country’s leaders.

The anti-conformism of this generation of intellectuals -- which includes historians, sociologists, philosophers, novelists, journalists, filmmakers and artists -- first made itself felt after the Six Day war in 1967. Events since then have only fuelled their dissent: The occupation, Palestinian resistance, the coming to power of the religious, nationalist right in 1977, the growing influence of settlers and expansionist rabbis, and the worsening tensions between clerics and secular society have all played their part. “Religious people often talk about Tel Aviv as if it were Sodom and Gomorrah,” says Michel Warshawski, a leader of the radical wing of the peace movement, “whereas for secular Israelis, Jerusalem is 'Tehran of the ayatollahs'.”

Peace with Egypt in 1979 raised hopes of a final peace settlement, but these hopes were dashed in 1982, with the invasion of Lebanon. This invasion, widely seen as Israel’s first offensive war, was launched on what turned out to be a false prospectus. Contrary to the Israeli government’s claims, the Palestine Liberation Organisation -- which Menahem Begin and Ariel Sharon set out to destroy -- had not behaved provocatively. Indeed, it had shown signs of readiness to compromise, and in any case did not pose a serious threat to Israel’s existence. At the time, many Israelis were shocked by their army’s extreme brutality and the high death toll among the Palestinian and Lebanese population. The worst atrocity, the terrible Sabra and Shatila massacres, was committed with the full knowledge of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

These events provoked an unprecedented response: Around 400,000 protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv; 500 officers and soldiers deserted; and the refusnik movement was born, as young people refused to serve in the army, first in Lebanon and then in the occupied territories. The “purity of arms” which Israel had boasted of since its birth was seriously undermined.

Unintentionally, young historians further contributed to the discrediting of Israel’s self-image. From official archives, which were declassified in 1978 under Israel’s 30-year rule, they discovered that the conduct of the Israeli forces before and during the war of 1948 departed significantly from the idealised propaganda version. Simha Flapan, a fervent Zionist right up to his death, was the first to make use of official documents in a book that exposed the seven main myths that have been used to dupe the public for decades.

Dominique Vidal’s book, written with Sébastien Boussois, is the first to set out and analyse the conclusions of the so-called new historians. They are the first researchers since the foundation of the state of Israel to base their work not on secondary sources, as their predecessors did, but on documents from unimpeachable sources such as the archives of the cabinet, the army, the Palmach (shock troops), Zionist organisations, and the diaries of David Ben Gurion, who held the posts of defence and prime minister.

The book describes the circumstances which led to war with the Arabs, pays special attention to the role of Ben Gurion, which is ambiguous to say the least, and devotes a chapter to Benny Morris, the most prominent of the new historians and author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Question (Cambridge University Press, 2003). Vidal and Boussois refer to Morris as schizophrenic because of the gulf between his quest for historical truth and his political position on the far right. The book also examines Ilan Pappé’s most recent book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications, 2006) which provoked a furore in Israel that forced its author -- like so many others -- to resign from the University of Haifa and go into exile at a British university.

Pappé is not the first dissident intellectual (nor is he likely to be the last) to leave his country to escape the suffocating atmosphere reserved for “lepers” such as him. But unlike his predecessors, it is much harder to dispute his versions of events, because they are so much more detailed. Pappé has had access to documents from 60 years of Israeli archives (unlike most of his colleagues who only had access to 40 years’ worth).

Pappé has also made use of the work of Palestinian historians in his writing, often for eyewitness accounts. He has collected the testimony of survivors of ethnic cleansing -- a source thus far studiously avoided by his fellow historians, either through an instinctive rejection of such material or through mistrust, or more prosaically because of their ignorance of the Arabic language. Such eyewitness accounts are all the more valuable as, so far, no Arab country has opened its archives to researchers.

Ultimately, the points of difference between Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris are not substantial. Both maintain that the 1948 war was not a David and Goliath struggle as is claimed, since the Israeli forces were clearly superior to their adversaries in both manpower and weaponry. Even at the height of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there were only a few thousand poorly equipped Palestinian fighters, supported by some Arab volunteers from the Fawzi al-Qawuqji liberation army.

Even when the Arab states intervened on 15 May 1948, their forces were still far inferior to those of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organisation that later formed the core of the IDF, which was able to keep drawing on reinforcements. Morris and Pappé agree that the Arab forces invaded Palestine reluctantly as a last resort, not in order to destroy the fledgling Jewish state, which they knew they were incapable of doing, but to prevent Israel and Transjordan -- “in collusion” according to historian Avi Shlaim -- from carving up the territory granted to the Palestinians under the United Nations plan of 29 November 1947.

“I have no doubt we are capable of occupying all of Palestine,” Ben Gurion, the father of the Jewish state, had written to Moshe Sharett (Israel’s second prime minister, who served between Ben Gurion’s two terms) in February 1948, three months before the Arab-Israeli war began -- and a few weeks before the delivery of massive consignments of arms sent via Prague by the USSR. This boast did not stop him claiming publicly that Israel was threatened by a second Holocaust.

In the first week of the war in May 1948, carried away by news of Israeli victories according to Ilan Pappé, Ben Gurion wrote in his diary: “We shall establish a Christian state in Lebanon… we shall break Transjordan, bomb its capital, destroy its army… we shall bring Syria to its knees… our air force will attack Port Said, Alexandria, and Cairo, and this will avenge our ancestors who were oppressed by the Egyptians and the Assyrians in Biblical times.”

In similar fashion, Morris and Pappé demolish the Israeli leadership’s carefully maintained myth that the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily in response to calls from the Arab authorities and radio stations (these broadcasts are entirely the inventions of Israeli propaganda, as complete recordings made at the time by the BBC reveal). In fact, the two historians confirm what has been known since the end of the 1950s: It was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror.

They diverge, however, over the meaning of these expulsions: for Benny Morris, they are simply “collateral damage.” “All’s fair in love and war”, he explained, adding more recently and somewhat cynically, that Ben Gurion ought to have kept going until the very last Palestinian was gone. Where Morris sees an exodus resulting from war and “not the intention of either Jew or Arab,” Pappé shows that the ethnic cleansing was planned and executed in order to extend Israel’s territory -- in effect to judaise it.

And with reason. For although the Zionist leadership had publicly approved the UN plan, in reality they thought it intolerable: Their consent was just a tactic, as several documents in the archives and Ben Gurion’s own diary show.

True, they had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs, who were twice as numerous as the Jews. However, they viewed the territory earmarked for Israel as too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract. Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state. Thus Zionism risked losing its very raison d’être: “making Palestine as Jewish as America is American and England is English,” in the words of Haim Weizmann, who went on to become Israel’s first president.

That is why thoughts of the transfer (in plain terms, expulsion) of the indigenous Arabs haunted the Zionist leaders, who debated the question endlessly -- usually behind closed doors. At the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl had suggested that the Ottoman sultan should deport the Palestinians to clear the way for Jewish colonisation. In 1930, Weizmann tried to persuade the British, who held the Mandate for Palestine, to do the same.

In 1938, following the proposal of a tiny Jewish state accompanied by a transfer of some Arabs, envisaged by a British commission under Lord Peel, Ben Gurion declared before the executive committee of the Jewish Agency: “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” The war of 1948 was to offer him his chance to put his plan into action by launching an offensive designed to uproot the indigenous population six months before the Arab armies intervened. To facilitate this process, Pappé has revealed, Ben Gurion had a file created by the Jewish Agency in 1939 on all the Arab villages, which was regularly updated throughout the 1940s. It recorded demographic and economic facts as well as political and military information.

Ilan Pappé has analysed in detail the measures to which the Israeli forces resorted. They make chilling reading, even if they are reminiscent of atrocities committed during ethnic cleansings carried out by other peoples from late antiquity on. The statistics produced by the historian are telling: in a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; 11 ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948. Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a high-ranking officer in the military, ran the operation. Rabin wrote about it in his memoirs published in the United States, though they were later censored in the Hebrew edition. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border. There had been similar scenes in April 1948, in Jaffa, when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant Zionist organisation, and fearful of more massacres. This is what Morris calls the “atrocity factor.”

These horrors are all the more unjustifiable since a large number of Arab villages, by Ben Gurion’s own admission, had declared their willingness not to fight the partition of Palestine. Some had even reached non-aggression agreements with their Jewish neighbours. That was the case in the village of Deir Yassin, where the irregular forces of the Irgun and the Lehi nevertheless massacred a large part of the population with the tacit agreement of the Haganah, according to Simha Flapan.

In total, 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949, and lost their land and property. According to an official Israeli estimate, the Jewish National Fund seized 300,000 hectares of Arab land, much of which was given to kibbutzim. The operation could not have been better planned: The day after the vote on 11 December 1948, on the famous resolution on the “right to return” by the UN General Assembly, the Israeli government adopted the Emergency Absentees’ Property law which, added to the law on the cultivation of abandoned lands of 30 June 1948, retrospectively legalised seizures -- and forbade the victims of seizures from claiming any compensation on returning home.

Despite the protests from some members of the Israeli government, shocked by the brutality of the ethnic cleansing, Ben Gurion -- who had not himself given an explicit written order -- did nothing to stop it. Nor did he openly condemn it. He limited himself to condemnation of the raping and pillaging which the Israeli soldiers carried out, though they benefited from complete impunity.

What is most astonishing is the silence of the international community, which has lasted for decades although international observers, including those from the UN, were aware of the atrocities. This makes it easier to understand why the Palestinians commemorate the nakba (catastrophe) rather than celebrate the Israeli war of independence.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. The title of his book is taken from the doctrine of the father of the ultranationalist right: In 1923, Zeev Jabotinsky declared that there should be no negotiations over a peace accord until the Jews had colonised the whole of Palestine behind a wall of iron, since the Arabs only understood the logic of force.

By adopting this doctrine, Israel’s political and military leaders on both the right and the left have managed to sabotage successive peace plans. Reckoning that time is on their side, and claiming, in the words of Ehud Barak (then prime minister), that Israel has no “partner for peace,” the leaders in Jerusalem chose to wait for their adversaries to accept Israel’s territorial expansion and the splitting-up of a hypothetical, demilitarised Palestinian state which is condemned to become a collection of Bantustans.

Shlaim’s book was a bestseller when it was published in English in 2000, and was translated into several languages, but had to wait five years before appearing in Hebrew. Most Israeli publishers deemed it to be of little interest. Yet Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

Almost all of the historians, sociologists, novelists, journalists and filmmakers who belong to the new wave of the intelligentsia are Zionists of a new sort -- known as post-Zionists. They share a desire to espouse the cause of peace by establishing historical truth and recognising the wrongs done to the Palestinians.

To get a sense of the scale of the change that has taken place since the 1980s, it is worth reading the research carried out by Sébastien Boussois in Israel among new historians and their opponents. Some observers have concluded that the advent of a stable Israel at peace with its neighbours will depend in large part on the impact these intellectuals have on Israeli society and especially its political class.

This is how Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to France and the United States, put it:
The ‘new historians’, even a radical such as Ilan Pappé, bring light to the dark region of the Israeli collective consciousness and pave the way for a stronger adherence to mutual respect for and peace with the Palestinians.

Their work, far from representing a threat to Israel, does their country honour, and more: it is a duty, a moral obligation, a prodigious assumption of a liberating enterprise in order that the fault lines, the healthy interstices, necessary to the integration of the discourse of the Other, may take their place in Israeli experience.

Eric Rouleau is a journalist and former French ambassador. -- translated by George Miller.

Copyright ©2008 Le Monde diplomatique

Released: 10 May 2008
Word Count: 2,696

Are the Jews an Invented People?
by Eric Rouleau

When and How Were the Jewish People Invented? is the provocative title of the most recent book to be published in Israel by Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University. Sand, one of the “new” historians, attacks what he calls the myth that the Jews are the descendants of the Hebrews, exiled from the kingdom of Judea. He has attempted to show that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans -- being in the main, Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire -- who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. According to Sand, the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand doesn’t challenge Israel’s right to exist or the notion of its sovereignty, but he thinks that sovereignty is undermined by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist ideologues. In other words: Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state, but a democratic secular one belonging to all its citizens.

Quoted in Haaretz on 21 March 2008, Sand was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

Sand may be mistaken. A no less challenging work that presents the Torah as in large part a collection of myths and legends, has been well received by the Israeli media and in secular circles.

In their book, The Bible Unearthed, two eminent Israeli archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, present an argument based on excavations and ancient documents which calls into question long-cherished convictions. Israeli society may be more receptive to challenging questions than it is given credit for.

Eric Rouleau is a journalist and former French ambassador. -- translated by George Miller

Copyright ©2008 Le Monde diplomatique

Friday, May 09, 2008

Israel's Protectors, Israel’s Critics

The Loathsome Smearing of Israel’s Critics

By Johann Hari

09/05/08 "The Independent" -- - 08/05/08 - - In the US and Britain, there is a campaign to smear anybody who tries to describe the plight of the Palestinian people. It is an attempt to intimidate and silence — and to a large degree, it works. There is nobody these self-appointed spokesmen for Israel will not attack as anti-Jewish: liberal Jews, rabbis, even Holocaust survivors.

My own case isn’t especially important, but it illustrates how the wider process of intimidation works. I have worked undercover at both the Finsbury Park mosque and among neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers to expose the Jew-hatred there; when I went on the Islam Channel to challenge the anti-Semitism of Islamists, I received a rash of death threats calling me “a Jew-lover”, “a Zionist-homo pig” and more.

Ah, but wait. I have also reported from Gaza and the West Bank. Last week, I wrote an article that described how untreated sewage was being pumped from illegal Israeli settlements on to Palestinian land, contaminating their reservoirs. This isn’t controversial. It has been documented by Friends of the Earth, and I have seen it with my own eyes.

The response? There was little attempt to dispute the facts I offered. Instead, some of the most high profile “pro-Israel” writers and media monitoring groups — including Honest Reporting and Camera — said I an anti-Jewish bigot akin to Joseph Goebbels and Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh, while Melanie Phillips even linked the stabbing of two Jewish people in North London to articles like mine. Vast numbers of e-mails came flooding in calling for me to be sacked.

Any attempt to describe accurately the situation for Palestinians is met like this. If you recount the pumping of sewage onto Palestinian land, “Honest Reporting” claims you are reviving the anti-Semitic myth of Jews “poisoning the wells.” If you interview a woman whose baby died in 2002 because she was detained — in labour — by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint within the West Bank, “Honest Reporting” will say you didn’t explain “the real cause”: the election of Hamas in, um, 2006. And on, and on.

The former editor of Israel’s leading newspaper, Ha’aretz, David Landau, calls the behaviour of these groups “nascent McCarthyism”. Those responsible hold extreme positions of their own that place them way to the right of most Israelis. Alan Dershowitz and Melanie Phillips are two of the most prominent figures sent in to attack anyone who disagrees with the Israeli right. Dershowitz is a lawyer, Harvard professor and author of The Case For Israel. He sees ethnic cleansing as a trifling matter, writing: “Political solutions often require the movement of people, and such movement is not always voluntary … It is a fifth-rate issue analogous in many respects to some massive urban renewal.” If a prominent American figure takes a position on Israel to the left of this, Dershowitz often takes to the airwaves to call them anti-Semites and bigots.

The journalist Melanie Phillips performs a similar role in Britain. Last year a group called Independent Jewish Voices was established with this mission statement: “Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peace and security.” Jews including Mike Leigh, Stephen Fry and Rabbi David Goldberg joined. Phillips swiftly dubbed them “Jews For Genocide”, and said they “encourage” the “killers” of Jews. Where does this come from? She says the Palestinians are an “artificial” people who can be collectively punished because they are “a terrorist population”. She believes that while “individual Palestinians may deserve compassion, their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project”. Honest Reporting quotes Phillips as a model of reliable reporting.

These individuals spray accusations of anti-Semitism so liberally that by their standards, a majority of Jewish Israelis have anti-Semitic tendencies. Dershowitz said Jimmy Carter’s decision to speak to the elected Hamas government “border[ed] on anti-Semitism.” A Ha’aretz poll last month found that 64 per cent of Israelis want their government to do just that.

As US President, Jimmy Carter showed his commitment to Israel by giving it more aid than anywhere else and brokering the only peace deal with an Arab regime the country has ever enjoyed. He also wants to see a safe and secure Palestine alongside it — so last year he wrote a book called Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. It is a bland and factual canter through the major human rights reports. There is nothing there you can’t read in the mainstream Israeli press every day. Carter’s comparison of life on the West Bank (not within Israel) to Apartheid South Africa is not new. The West Bank is ruled in the interests of a small Jewish minority; it is bisected by roads for the Jewish settlers from which Palestinians are banned. The Israeli human rights group B’tselem says this “bears striking similarities to the racist Apartheid regime”. Yet for repeating these facts in the US, Carter has widely called “a racist”. Several universities have even refused to let the ex-President speak to their students.

These campus battles often succeed. Norman Finkelstein is a political scientist in the US whose parents were both Jewish survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps. They lost every blood relative. He made his reputation exposing a hoax called From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters which claimed that Palestine was virtually empty when Zionist settlers arrived, and the people claiming to be Palestinians were mostly impostors who had come from local areas to cash in. Finkelstein showed it to be scarred by falsified figures and gross misreading of sources. From that moment on, he was smeared as an anti-Semite by those who had lauded the book. But it was when Finkelstein revealed two years ago that Alan Dershowitz had, without acknowledgement, drawn wholesale from Peters’ hoax for his book The Case For Israel, that the worst began. Dershowitz campaigned to make sure Finkelstein was denied tenure at his university. He even claimed that Finkelstein’s mother — who made it through Maidenek and two slave-labour camps — had collaborated with the Nazis. The campaign worked. Finkelstein was let go by De Paul University, simply for speaking the truth.

Are the likes of Dershowitz and Phillips and Honest Reporting becoming more shrill because they can sense they are losing the argument? Liberal Jews — the majority — are now setting up rivals to the hard-right organisations they work with, because they believe this campaign of demonisation is damaging us all. It damages the Palestinians, because it prevents honest discussion of their plight. It damages the Israelis, because it pushes them further down an aggressive and futile path. And it damages diaspora Jews, because it makes real anti-Semitism harder to deal with.

We need to look the witch-hunters in the eye and say, as Joseph Welch said to Joe McCarthy himself: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

–Johann Hari


Breaking Fast in Lebanon

Breakfast in Beirut
by Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- As often happens in this strange world, it was my water turtle Jerry who brought home to me the tough choices we make in times of war. This happened on Friday morning, when bullets and rocket-propelled grenades were exploding all around our apartment near the Hamra area of west Beirut, during the latest episode in Lebanon’s long-running civil strife and political showdown.

We went to bed Thursday night amid repeated rounds of automatic rifle and handgun fire, punctuated by the occasional roar of a loud explosion that was probably a rocket-propelled grenade. The fighting stopped around 1 a.m., soon after a serendipitous spring rainstorm engulfed Beirut.

The fighting resumed in the early morning. One of our balcony window panes shattered just after we woke up at 7:30 a.m., pierced by a bullet or a ricocheting stone. A few minutes later, as we prepared coffee in the kitchen that we thought was shielded from the shooting in the streets below, a bullet hit the balcony above us. Shattered stones fell past our balcony to the street below. We ducked and quickly got out of the kitchen, but with our coffee in hand.

Jerry the turtle was in his water tank on the balcony, and had not been fed since the previous night. We knew we had to feed him soon, but wondered whether it was safe to go on the balcony, from where the gunmen along the large street junction, 25 meters away and four stories below, could clearly see us.

The trouble was, we had no idea who was fighting whom, or whether any actual battles were taking place. Some neighbors thought that heavily armed fighters were simply asserting their presence and control of the neighborhood.

This was the third time in a generation that I lived through armed conflict in Beirut, including the early months of the civil war in 1975, the war with Israel in summer 2006, and now this battle -- both a local test of political strength and a proxy battle for the wider ideological war pitting United States-led, predominantly Sunni Muslim Arabs vs. Iranian- and Syrian-led, heavily Shiite Muslim Arabs. The regional and global confrontation translated this week into who controlled a few buildings and streets in West Beirut.

Our home is near two key buildings owned by the family of the late Rafik Hariri and his son Saad Hariri who essentially heads the government coalition: his home in Qoreitim district and the Future television station. Pro-Hariri armed young men had always occasionally patrolled our neighborhood, given our proximity to Hariri installations. This city block had much symbolic significance.

Hizbullah and its allies decided Wednesday-Thursday to make a show of force by quickly taking control of and closing Beirut’s airport and seaport, and then shutting down all the Hariri-owned media (television, radio and newspaper). The message was clear: Hizbullah could take over all Beirut at any moment it desired.

This was probably an inevitable moment, when Hizbullah felt it had to show the government the real balance of power between them. The fighting Thursday morning saw Hizbullah, Amal and smaller Lebanese leftist allies quickly take over Hariri-owned facilities, and then just as quickly turn them over to the Lebanese army, which is still seen as a national institution working for the unity and security of the country.

Hizbullah may have been making the point that it did not want to conquer Beirut or run all Lebanon, but rather that it wanted to push the government into making a negotiated deal that would recognize and institutionalize the real political and military power of Hizbullah and its allies. Thursday evening, both Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri had made television statements in which they insulted each other, but also offered proposals to end the clashes and reach political agreement.

The two principal political leaders in Lebanon were doing what they have always done: protect their own communities’ rights and wellbeing, assert their willingness to fight if necessary, rely on foreign powers for whom they often acted as local proxies, insult each other with mutual accusations of serving Israeli or American interests, and, finally, offer proposals that comprised a political opening for dialogue and negotiations.

All of this happened in the span of 12 hours, during which my water turtle Jerry had not been fed. In his own little water tank world, he was getting anxious, as were all the Lebanese people who were becoming fed up with their leaders’ inclination to perpetuate civil strife. In the context of the new political balance of power in Lebanon, our stepping out on the balcony to feed Jerry might have risked our lives. I told my wife Ellen I would kneel down and do a semi-crawl to the balcony, reaching Jerry and his food without being seen by the gunmen whom we could see from the corner of our window. I was overruled by the prevailing balance of power in our home, when my wife insisted she could do the crawl more safely and swiftly. I concurred, and as she prepared to feed Jerry, I held my breath.

I also thought then that the situation might be changing. The gunfire was slowing down and becoming more sporadic. Every 10-15 minutes or so, a burst of shooting or a loud explosion would rattle our windows. It seemed that whoever was emerging on top was asserting his control of the neighborhood. Ellen timed her feeding expedition with one of the lulls, and all went smoothly.

An hour later, the situation seemed to change. The rumble of Lebanese army armored personnel carriers on our street signaled that the pro-Hizbullah gunmen had turned the neighborhood over to the army. The shooting and explosions stopped.

Neighbors ventured out onto their balconies for the first time in 18 hours. We and Jerry seemed to sense that a new situation was coming into being -- in Lebanon and the entire Middle East. Where it would lead was not clear, but by the next feeding on Friday night we would probably have a better idea. We decided to leave Jerry on the balcony, assuming that reaching him would not be dangerous. We shall soon find out.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Gorbachev Charges US Aiming for a New Cold War

Gorbachev: US could start new Cold War
By Adrian Blomfield and Mike Smith in Paris
Last updated: 11:14 AM BST 07/05/2008
Mikhail Gorbachev has accused the United States of mounting an imperialist conspiracy against Russia that could push the world into a new Cold War.

Mikhail Gorbachev: conspiracyWith Dmitry Medvedev due to be inaugurated today as Russian president, the Soviet Union's last leader said that the White House's claims of peaceful intentions towards its former superpower rival could no longer be trusted.

Delivering one of his most scathing attacks on the US, Mr Gorbachev told The Daily Telegraph that a US military build-up was under way to contain a resurgent Russia.

From Nato's expansion plans in the former Soviet Union to Washington's proposals for a bigger defence budget and a missile shield in central Europe, the US was deliberately quashing hopes for permanent peace with Russia, Mr Gorbachev said.

"We had 10 years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them," he said.

"The United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently.

"Every US president has to have a war."

The 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner's denunciation of the US mirrors the most belligerently anti-Western speeches of Vladimir Putin – who is said to consult Mr Gorbachev on foreign policy matters.

Mr Putin may be switching jobs to become prime minister, but many expect him to remain the most powerful figure in Russian politics.

Mr Gorbachev hinted that the former KGB spy could still direct Russia's foreign policy, leaving President Medvedev – seen by some as more liberal than his mentor – to concentrate on internal matters.

Yet if Washington blames Mr Putin's self-aggrandising rhetoric for the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, for Mr Gorbachev the blame lies entirely with the administration of President George W Bush.

"The problem is not with Russia," he said, speaking at a friend's château outside Paris.

"Russia does not have enemies and Putin is not going to start a war against the United States or any other country for that matter.

"Yet we see the United States approving a military budget and the defence secretary pledging to strengthen conventional forces because of the possibility of a war with China or Russia.

"I sometimes have a feeling that the United States is going to wage war against the entire world."

Last year, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, told a congressional committee that America needed to boost military spending to counter myriad threats including the "uncertain paths of China and Russia".

Those comments caused uproar in Russia, with pro-Kremlin newspapers claiming they heralded the start of a new Cold War.

Tensions have already been heightened by a US proposal to build a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter a nuclear strike by Iran.

Mr Gorbachev, however, claimed the plans were an aggressive act against Russia.

"Erecting elements of missile defence is taking the arms race to the next level," he said. "It is a very dangerous step."

Relations have further deteriorated after Nato promised eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine, a move interpreted by Mr Gorbachev as an attempt to extend America's sphere of influence into Russia's backyard.

"The Americans promised that Nato wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted."

For a man hailed as one of the heroes of the 20th century, Mr Gorbachev, now 77, often sounded like the ageing hardliners he struggled against in the Kremlin during the 1980s.

He railed against a "military-industrial complex" that he insisted was the "real government" of the US and, quoting a Russian documentary on state television, suggested that Margaret Thatcher had supplied weapons to Chechen terrorists.

Still, while Mr Gorbachev may be delighted by the rebirth of what many see as Russian imperialism, many wonder whether he approves of the way in which Mr Putin has eroded freedom of expression to such an extent that some claim glasnost is dead.

"I do not think that glasnost is dead in Russia," he said.

"There is a phenomenon in the West to criticise Putin's domestic record. But in Russia he has mass support. His popularity ratings are 70 to 80 percent.

"Is this not democracy?"

Story from Telegraph News:

Fisk: Beirut Burning?

Robert Fisk: Gun battles as Hizbollah claims Lebanon is at war
Friday, 9 May 2008

If you want to fight us, you'll have to fight us. This was Sayed Hassan Nasrallah's message to the Lebanese government yesterday and his words were followed within seconds by two massive gun battles in the streets of Beirut.

He had spoken in that careful, thought-through, distressing way in which he always threatens the Hizbollah's enemies. He even swapped the names of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, with that of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – calling Jumblatt the real prime minister and Siniora his deputy – and blamed both for trying to set up a CIA-Mossad base at Beirut airport. What other reason could there be, he asked, for the two men to demand the dismantlement of Hizbollah's communications system and the suspension of the head of airport security? This was "a Lebanese government declaration of war against the resistance". Well, maybe. But Nasrallah still wants the Hizbollah's enemies to be the Israelis – not his Lebanese opponents.

So what happened in the minutes after he spoke? At least one Shia Amal gunman started shooting at an office belonging to Sunni supporters of the government, some of whom may have been the youths apparently brought down from Tripoli for just such a battle. The Lebanese army was not fully engaged on the streets last night but its armoured vehicles were driving between the sectarian interfaces and apparently taking fire from both sides.

It was a dark and distressing speech by the secretary general of Hizbollah, which came less than 24 hours after the Grand Mufti, Mohammed Kabbani, furiously referred to the Hizbollah as "armed gangs of outlaws that have carried out the ugliest attacks against the citizens and their safety". Needless to say, neither Nasrallah nor Kabbani stated the obvious – that the first represents a large number of the Shia Muslim community and the second most of the Sunnis.

The sectarian background to this dangerous game is the point, of course. The street battles in Beirut are between Shia and Sunni, the first supporting the Iranian-armed Hizbollah, the second the Lebanese government, which now regularly carries the sobriquet "American-backed". In other words, the collapse of Beirut these past two days is part of the American-Iranian conflict – even though, be sure, the Americans will blame the Hizbollah for this and the Iranians will blame the Americans.

Yet still the language of Nasrallah – like that of Kabbani – was frightening, even though he had behind him the national flag of Lebanon with its green cedar tree as well as Hizbollah's own yellow banner. To call Jumblatt "a liar, a thief, a killer..." – though this view might be heartily reciprocated by Jumblatt himself – is language that puts Lebanese in danger of their lives.

Nasrallah's complaint that the suspension of Wafiq Chucair as head of airport security was part of an American-Israeli plot might sound a bit much, but his long and point-by-point insistence that Hizbollah should maintain its new communications links – including its cameras along the Beirut airport perimeter – was perhaps more reasoned, albeit that it helps allow his organisation to remain part of a state with the state. Wireless communications can easily be tapped, he said, and he added that new communications were the "most powerful tool" in Hizbollah's 2006 war against Israel.

Nasrallah intriguingly pointed out that Siniora's government had previously told the Hizbollah that it would allow the secure communications circuits to remain if the movement closed down its largely empty "tent city" in the centre of Beirut. Indeed, it has largely been in place for more than a year. Hizbollah had no argument with the Lebanese army – a view that might not be shared by General Michel Sulaiman, its commander, who stated yesterday that the situation is "threatening the army's impartiality".

All of which continues Lebanon's crisis. Beirut airport remained largely empty of aircraft yesterday – the Christian daily L'Orient Le Jour rightly suggested that it had been taken hostage by Hizbollah, who control all roads to the terminal – and there were brief gun battles between government and opposition supporters in the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel. Yet again, burning tyres were set up in areas demarcating Shia and Sunni districts, and the army closed the Corniche Mazraa highway, which divides west Beirut. By last night it was the scene of a gun battle. Kuwait urged its citizens to leave Lebanon – without being obliging enough to tell them exactly how to perform this task without an airport.