Posted by: sean | August 29, 2013

An open letter on Syria to Western narcissists

ImageOn the eve of what seem to be ineluctable strikes on Syria, I’ve been struggling with what my position on Syria should be. Before I get to that though, I should say that while I’m not Syrian, I too have some skin in the game, as it were. On our way to donate blood for a friend’s mother’s surgery last month, my wife got a call from a friend telling us to avoid the neighborhood of Bir al-Abed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, since there had just been a large explosion there. At Bahman Hospital, my wife and baby daughter and I saw ambulances speeding toward us carrying those who had just been wounded. And a few days after I’d left for southern Turkey to conduct interviews with Syrians who had fled the war in their homes, I found out that a car bomb had just gone off a few blocks from my mother in law’s home in the “Hezbollah stronghold” of Rweiss. It kills me that my daughter has heard the sound of a car bomb before her first birthday.

Extended family from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp outside Damascus, have been displaced and are forced to seek refuge yet again in Lebanon, a country that doesn’t want them. And even now, we’re making plans for what might happen if the impending strikes on Syria fuel an escalation in Lebanon, where living in the southern suburbs can get you killed if there’s a war with Israel. And yet all of this pales in comparison to what my Syrian friends continue to go through on a daily basis.

All that to say that the current conflict in Syria isn’t just of academic interest to me; it’s personal as well. This is partially why I have so little patience for some of the rhetoric I’ve been seeing from Western leftist circles, where this conflict seems like nothing more than a rhetorical bludgeon for scoring ideological points. This has been illustrated by the passing around of an article by Robert Fisk, who asks, “Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?” This lazy and facile opinion piece assures us that if the US attacks Syria, then “the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.” It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qa’ida” according to this logic.

This is the caricature of knee-jerk leftism, where everything is always and everywhere about the United States. The narcissism of such a position boggles the mind. In such an ideological stance it’s not enough to be critical of Washington’s actions and motivations, as well we should be, it is necessary to parrot the talking points of Washington’s enemies. (The same phenomenon can be seen in certain Islamophobic and right-wing circles.) In this narrative, the militarization of the uprising in Syria was an American plan, not a foreseeable reaction to a brutally violent crackdown on a predominately peaceful opposition movement by the security forces of the Ba’ath regime. This conflict is, so the argument goes, a creation of Washington, and perhaps Riyadh, and the opposition is made up of only of blood-thirsty sectarian Islamists who are generally seen as but tools of malicious statecraft. Such a narrative, of course, denies the agency of Syrians, seeing them as so many lifeless puppets waiting for a tug from the imperialist American hand.  

This is why discussions of Syria in such quarters tend not to be discussions of Syria. They’re actually discussions of “American capitalism” or “American imperialism” – take your pick. So let me be clear: if your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

Lest I be accused of shilling for American intervention here, let me set a few things straight. In addition to endangering my family’s lives, the proposed “punitive strikes” that are all but inevitable probably won’t make anything better on the ground, and may make things worse, which is why I’m against them. My opinion on American intervention in general and in this conflict in particular (about which more in a subsequent post) is that the US is not to be trusted to act in anything but what it sees as its interests, and often a woefully short-sighted understanding of those interests to boot. So no, Washington does not really care about those children killed last week in a chemical attack, just as it didn’t care about the Iranians or Kurds killed in previous ones. Consequently, my feeling is that a vicious, and viciously short-sighted, realpolitik in Washington would probably like nothing better than to let its enemies fight indefinitely in Syria, burning the country to the ground as they do so. 

But please, don’t let the conflict in Syria be about opposing America. Let it be about Syria, and what might actually help Syrians – you know, the actually existing people who are dying by the tens of thousands in this brutal war. But if you can’t do that, then do me a favor, and please shut up.

Posted by: sean | November 30, 2012

Palestine at the UN

After a full tally of the UNESCO vote, here’s a full tally of this evening’s UN General Assembly vote on Palestine. I don’t have a whole lot to add, except to note that some countries that generally vote with the US and Israel abstained or even voted “yes” this time. For instance, Vanuatu abstained. I mean, when you’ve lost Vanuatu, you might as well hang it up. It is also worth noting that that overall, there were more “yes” votes and fewer abstentions and “no” votes than there were for Palestine’s membership bid at UNESCO.

Again, I’ve transcribed these votes from the attached document, so please let me know in the comments if I’ve made any mistakes.

No: 9; Yes: 138; Abstained: 41.

No: Canada, Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Panama, United States.

Yes: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Antigua-Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Dar-Salam, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Chile, China, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rico, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Cyprus, DPR Korea, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Honduras, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, São Tomé and Principe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor Leste, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Abstained: Albania, Andorra, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Estonia, Fiji, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malawi, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Poland, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Rwanda, Samoa, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, TFYR Macedonia, Togo, Tonga, United Kingdom, Vanuatu.

Did not vote: Equatorial Guinea, Kiribati, Liberia, Madagascar, Ukraine.

NOTE: As two people have noted below, I forgot to write Czech Republic under the “no” column. I’ve added it now.

UPDATE: Here is the full text of the agenda item that was voted on.

Posted by: sean | December 28, 2011

Darfur and Syria

Sudanese General al-Dabi, head of Arab League observer mission in Syria (Reuters)

Many are up in arms after the remarks by Sudanese head of the Arab League’s observer mission to Syria, General al-Dabi:

“Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening,” Sudanese General [Mohamad Ahmad] Mustafa Dabi, chief of the monitoring contingent, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.

“The situation seemed reassuring so far,” he said on Wednesday after his team’s first foray into the city of one million people, the epicenter of revolt against Assad.

“But remember, this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time,” Dabi said.

A recent report in Foreign Policy calls al-Dabi “the world’s worst human rights observer.” While I agree that this likely stinks of either a voluntary whitewash or an example of how the observers are being stage managed by the Syrian regime, I’m surprised that people are surprised. What does one expect from an Arab League mission headed by a loyalist of President Omar al-Bashir, currently wanted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity?

After all, there is some irony in the Arab world being aghast at al-Dabi’s comments after it generally either remained silent or actively supported Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum when the Sudanese government was doing its best to ethnically cleanse Darfur.

To give us an idea of who al-Dabi is, here are some references to him in the literature on Darfur.

From Julie Flint and Alex De Waal’s Darfur: A New History of a Long War (pp. 62-3):

President Bashir dispatched his deputy chief of staff for operations, a retired general named Mohamed Ahmad al Dabi, to ‘restore calm’. Putting on his khaki uniform again al Dabi arrived [in Dar Masalit, Darfur] on 9 February [1999] with fill personal authority from the president, two helicopter gunships and a company of 120 soldiers. He demanded an immediate end to the violence. ‘If anyone fires a shot, my reaction will be very hard against the man who fired the bullet and the leader of the group.’ He ordered the gunship pilots to put on a display of firepower in front of tribal leaders – ‘to show them what the helicopters could do’.

General al Dabi stayed four and a half months in Geneina. Accounts of what happened during his tenure diverge sharply. Governor Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the Janjiwid’, with militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go on. They would attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.’

[…] General al Dabi tells a very different story. He says he arrived to find Dar Masalit in chaos, with the Arabs angry at the killing of their leaders and what they saw as the governor’s bias. The state government lacked resources and could not tackle the root causes of the crisis, which he identified as lack of water for the nomads’ herds. With a firm hand, undisputed authority and money from Khartoum to pay expenses for the leaders on both sides, al Dabi insists that he brought the crisis under control. He gave fuel for the state government’s cars, fug wells and repaired reservoirs. He pressed both Arabs and Masalit for a ceasefire and then a full tribal reconciliation conference — threatening them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet. Conference documents enumerated 292 Masalit and 7 Arabs killed — all of them in January and early February. Before leaving at the end of the June, al Dabi instituted a council of advisers for the sultan, with equal representation of Masalit and Arabs. ‘I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina’, he said.

From M. W. Daly’s Darfur’s Sorrow (p. 262):

General Muhammad Ahmad al-Dabi was sent to the region [Dar Masalit] in February 1999, ostensibly to restore order but in fact to put down Masalit resistance, which was now publicly referred to as treasonous complicity with the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]. His personal militia, moved from Kordofan to southern Darfur, trained local Arabs for the government’s “popular defense forces” in the west. Since non-Arabs were not allowed to enlist, these became in effect another local militia, which the Masalit called janjawid, a term that eventually merged all the Arab militias, whether local or of Chadian, Libyan, or other origins, under one malevolent rubric. Thousands of Masalit were killed and tens of thousands put to flight.

In their book, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Burr and Collins speak of this same period without mentioning al-Dabi by name (p. 287):

To compound the marginalization and humiliation of the zurug, new governors were appointed who were Arabs from the awlad al-bahar in Khartoum, or Arabs from Chad and not from the traditional families from Darfur. They even replaced the hereditary sultan of Dar Masalit and stripped the Masalit chiefs of their traditional authority which was unceremoniously handed to the Arab amirs giving them the power to seize Masalit land. When the Masalit protested, General Hassan Hamadein replaced the civilian governor, Mohamed Ahmad Fadl, and promptly placed their sultanate under military rule. He imprisoned and tortured prominent members of the community as Masalit drifted into a guerrilla war until January 1999 when government troops, helicopters, and Arab militias crushed the Masalit insurgents killing over 2,000 and displacing 100,000, 40,000 of whom fled to Chad.

Given the history of the Sudanese regime in general and General al-Dabi in particular, can anyone really be that surprised that he sees the situation in Homs as “nothing frightening”?

In the end, though, I suspect that it will be al-Dabi’s ties to Qatar that might be the most important factor as to what sort of results his observer mission brings back:

Mr. Dabi, 63, has flown to Damascus to lead about 150 observers assessing whether Syria is ending a nine-month crackdown on protests, the first foreign intervention on the ground in unrest that the UN says has seen 5,000 people killed.

He became head of Sudan’s military intelligence in 1989, the day Mr. Bashir took power in a coup, and went on to head Sudan’s foreign spy agency and serve as deputy chief of staff for military operations from 1996-99.

He has held at least four positions related to Darfur , including coordinator between Khartoum and international peacekeepers sent in after rebels complaining of political and economic neglect took up arms in the remote western region.

He also served as Sudan’s ambassador from 1999-2004 in Qatar, the country which has taken the lead in shaping the Arab League’s unusually tough response to Syria.

Posted by: sean | December 22, 2011

Friedman on collaborating with Iraqis

Thomas “the ‘stache” Friedman in the Times yesterday:

Iraq was always a war of choice. As I never bought the argument that Saddam had nukes that had to be taken out, the decision to go to war stemmed, for me, from a different choice: Could we collaborate with the people of Iraq to change the political trajectory of this pivotal state in the heart of the Arab world and help tilt it and the region onto a democratizing track?

And here he is talking about what it looks like when we “collaborate with the people of Iraq” with Charlie Rose back in May of 2003:

What [Iraqis] needed to see was American boys, and girls, going house to house from Basra to Baghdad. Umm, and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well: Suck. On. This.” Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia; it was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.

Posted by: sean | December 18, 2011

Christopher Hitchens as Stevie Wonder

I haven’t known really what to say about the passing of Christopher Hitchens. There have been hagiographies coming in from the left and the right, as well as those who take a much more nuanced view of his oeuvre and those who see no need to cut Hitchens the slack that he never cut anyone else.

For me, the question of how to judge Hitchens and his work was put elegantly by Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, while speaking of Stevie Wonder:

At 45 seconds in, Jack Black’s character Barry asks Cusack’s character Rob:

Rob,  top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the ’80s and ’90s. Go. Sub-question: is it, in fact, unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins. Is it better to burn out than to fade away?

Posted by: sean | December 17, 2011

Vandewalle on Libya

It’s always frustrating to me to see instant “experts” emerge when a country comes to the forefront of the news. And it’s even more frustrating to see academics co-opted by lobbying firms employed by special interests or the countries in question. One egregious example of this is the case of the University of Maryland’s Benjamin Barber, who it turns out was paid by a lobbying firm to improve Libya’s image abroad. After Barber’s shady, and previously undisclosed, relationship to Qadhaffi’s regime via this lobbying firm was disclosed, you’d think that no one would want to print his pieces on the country anymore.

You’d be wrong. Here he is earlier this month in The Guardian, still shilling for the infamous Seif al-Islam. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see space given to people like Barber, when I’d much rather read something by, say, Dirk Vandewalle, whose books on Libya (here and here) are probably the best resources on the country in English. Unfortunately, with the exception of two pieces in Foreign Policy, there hasen’t been much from Vandewalle since the conflict in Libya started.

So it was nice to see Vandewalle take to The Guardian to respond to Barber:

In an earlier article, weeks after Saif’s infamous speech in which he vowed to help crush all opposition, Barber exhorted us to “engage with Saif’s better instincts, for Libya’s sake” (Yes, he’s a Gaddafi. But there is still a real reformer inside, 13 April). Barber, like several other western public intellectuals and well-known academic figures that were brought to Libya to help provide a veneer of respectability to the regime, never really understood what they were up against. His support of Saif – a self-appointed reformer who argued for accountability but, without accountability, spent millions of dollars of his country’s money for his personal enjoyment – was a particularly egregious example.

But nowhere is his lack of understanding of Libya’s reality under Gaddafi so apparent as when he tries to parse Saif’s role in the uprising by asking whether he was “merely a cheerleader for the regime, or … giving orders?” Doesn’t he understand that in a brutal dictatorship like Libya’s, Saif’s privileged position in effect made that distinction purely academic?

Perhaps the point is simply that everyone should desist offering unsolicited advice, and let Libyans get on with the formidable tasks they face in rebuilding a country that, in part because of Saif Gaddafi’s actions, suffered so much.

Posted by: sean | December 13, 2011

Newt Gingrich and Palestinian national identity

Palestinian refugees at the Lebanese border commemorating the nakba.

Newt Gingrich has recently made some waves by calling Palestinians an invented people: “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state – [it was] part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places.”

Presumably, Gingrich is using “people” here as a synonym for “nation,” and in that sense he’s right: the Palestinian nation is an invented one. But then again, so are all nations. The doyen of the study of nationalism is probably Ernest Renan, whose famous lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What is a nation?”) included one of the most famous pronouncements on the phenomenon of nationalism: “Or l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” (“Now, the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have much in common, and that all of them have also forgotten much.”) Also germane here is Renan’s idea that “L’existence d’une nation est … un plébiscite de tous les jours.” (“The existence of a nation is … a daily referendum.”)

Renan also speaks of the nation as a sort of solidarity, a formulation that Max Weber echoes later in his essay, “Structures of Power,” by calling the nation “a specific sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups” and “a community of sentiment” with “memories of a common political destiny.” Later, Benedict Anderson expanded on Weber and Renan in his classic Imagined Communities, in which he traced the advent of nationalism to the late 18th century in the American colonies of England and Spain by what he called “creole pioneers.” There has been some dispute as to whether nationalism first emerged in the Americas or in Europe, but the general time period is generally agreed on, as is Anderson’s definition of nationalism as an “imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Nationalism, then, is a relatively recent invention but one that relies on national myths of antiquity in order to bolster the modern claims of nationhood. For Anderson, more organic forms of nationalism (as opposed to official, top-down nationalisms) were tied to language and the spread of “print-capitalism” and modeled on the earlier creole models:

If we consider the character of these newer nationalisms which, between 1820 and 1920, changed the face of the Old World, two striking features mark them off from their ancestors. First, in almost all of them “national print-languages” were of central ideological and political importance, whereas Spanish and English were never issues in the revolutionary Americas. Second, all were able to work from visible models provided by their distant, and after the convulsions of the French Revolution, not so distant, predecessors. The “nation” thus became something capable of being consciously aspired to from early on, rather than a slowly sharpening frame of vision (p. 67).

And this model was “pirated,” as Anderson puts it, throughout the world, spawning national movements throughout Europe and then throughout the colonized world.

So where does this leave the Palestinians? Gingrich is right that until relatively recently there was no Palestinian national sentiment (although according to the King Crane commission, there was certainly a pan-Arab sentiment) among Arabs in Palestine, but that was the case in all empires, whether the Maygars or Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Kenyans or Somalilanders in the British Empire. Likewise, before Zionism was established at the turn of the century (Herzl published Der Judenstaat in 1897), there was no Jewish nationalist sentiment to speak of.

Nationalism craves myth in order to lend credence to the national project, and the further back the national myth can call, the better. In the words of Ernest Gellner:

Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, whicih sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing culture: that is a reality, for better or worse, and in general an inescapable one (pp. 48-9).

The continuity that was once offered up by religious tradition is replaced or supplemented by a secular, national continuity. This was primarily done by lexicographers who created collections of national sentiment through dictionaries, eager to use national mythologies in order to create modern nations. Anderson quotes one Greek who wishes to “debarbarize” the Greeks, making them “beings worthy of Pericles and Socrates”:

For the first time the nation surveys the hideous spectacle of its ignorance and trembles in measuring with the eye of the distance separating it from its ancestors’ glory. This painful discovery, however, does not precipitate the Greeks into despair: We are the descendants of Greeks, they implicitly told themselves, we must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it (p. 72).

Consequently, we have a search for historical continuity that has Macedonia and Greece battling over the mantle of Alexander the Great and Uzbekistan claiming the 14th century conqueror Timurlane as an explicitly Uzbek hero.

So for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the study of nationalism, Gingrich’s comment is a banality. However, Gingrich is not just stating that nationalism is constructed; rather, he is implicitly suggesting that as an “invented” nation, the Palestinians have no right to their lands. Presumably, as others have recently done with little regard to history or irony, he is contrasting the invented nationalism of Palestinians for what he believes to be a genuine Jewish nationalism. Leaving aside the fact that Jewish nationalism is just as much a construct as any other nationalism (and arguably even more explicitly so than some), the idea that Gingrich seems to be advancing here is that without the claim of a national sentiment, one’s land and home are up for grabs by anyone who claims them as part of their national heritage or, in the case of the US, manifest destiny.

By this logic, European colonialism was more than fair game, since colonial subjects lacked national identities. Given Gingricht’s attachment to the white man’s burden, this would seem true to form. And this is the Zionist argument (particularly in its contemporary American variety) in a nutshell: since our national myths claim this land as a birthright from God, our “national self-determination” trumps your individual rights to not be ethnically cleansed from your homes and return to those homes once you’ve been dispossessed. And even if you do have a sense of nationhood, it’s artificial and invented, whereas ours is timeless and handed down from the Almighty himself.

Finally, what’s happening here is that Gingrich is attempting to add a veneer of legitimacy to the Zionist national project by attacking Palestinian nationalism with an expression of that Weberian “sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups.” Of course, American politics being what it is, Gingrich, who is neither Israeli nor Jewish, feels the need to be more Catholic than the Pope, as it were, in arguing for someone else’s national mythology.

Posted by: sean | December 4, 2011

Zionism, nationalism and liberalism

An old post that I wrote last year has been slightly edited and put up over at +972, which is a great Israeli blog that you should be reading if you aren’t already.

The piece focuses on the idea that Jewish nationalism is the same sort of thing as, say, French nationalism or any other nationalism, a claim that I take issue with. It focuses on Zionism as a national identity without going into the inescapable fact that regardless of the merits or demerits of Zionism, millions of Palestinians are currently left dispossessed. That’s an obvious, and to my mind the most important, point, and one that can find no liberal justification. In any case, that’s not the issue I wanted to address, especially since my perspective on that is pretty clear.

Posted by: sean | November 15, 2011

The WWF comes to Lebanon

Here we have Mustapha Alloush, Future Movement (former?) MP, debating the head of the always classy Ba’ath Party in Lebanon, Faiz Shukur, on MTV when things quickly degenerate and Shukur throws a glass then picks up a chair. No kidding, a chair. Oh the beauty of politics in Lebanon:

Posted by: sean | November 13, 2011

The prisoner swap and Idi Amin

The NYT Magazine has a piece today on the prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel. The article itself is an example of the Israeli-centric view of the conflict that focuses on Gilad Shalit without bothering to think at all about dehumanized Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are children. The focus, as usual, is on Israeli casualties without expressing, for example, how many Palestinian civilians were killed in Israel’s 2008-09 “Operation Cast Lead” (between 726 and 926 — full list of casualties here) or in the case of the 2006 war, how many people were killed at all in Lebanon (around 1,191). In other words, the question of how many Arab civilians Israel deems it acceptable to kill in order to free its  military captives isn’t even posed.

That said, the piece does include some very interesting information that I was unaware of. For example, the Israeli decision to assassinate Ugandan president and tyrant Idi Amin at Entebbe if they had the chance:

Rabin signed off on the Entebbe plan only after intelligence agents assured him that aerial surveillance showed Ugandan soldiers guarding the terminal where the hostages were being held, indicating that the building was not booby-trapped. (These same documents also reveal the orders to follow if the commandos ran into Idi Amin himself. “He isn’t a factor,” Rabin said. “If he interferes, the orders are to kill him.” To which the foreign minister, Yigal Allon, added, “Also if he doesn’t interfere.”)

Another tidbit that I was unaware of regards the prisoner swap with Ahmed Jibril of the PFLP-GC:

The first to grasp how sensitive Israeli public opinion was on the issue of hostages and M.I.A.’s — and therefore what a powerful weapon abduction could be — was Ahmed Jibril, the leader of a faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1979, Israel reluctantly agreed to its first disproportionate exchange with a guerrilla organization when Jibril insisted on getting 76 P.L.O. members in exchange for one hostage.

Jibril’s greatest success came in the mid-1980s, when in exchange for three Israeli soldiers he demanded the release of 1,150 prisoners. The group included some of the most infamous terrorists held by Israel, including Kozo Okamoto, a Japanese Red Army member who participated in the massacre of 26 people at the arrivals hall in Lod Airport in 1972. In the wake of Jibril’s demand, Israel attempted to put counter-pressure on him by kidnapping his sister’s son, Murad al-Bushnak, whom Israeli agents lured to Beirut with promises of a weekend of sex, drugs and gambling. Instead, Bushnak was captured and taken to an underground interrogation cell, where he quickly gave up the phone number of Jibril’s home in Damascus. A senior intelligence officer dialed the number and made Jibril a simple offer: a quick swap, without anyone knowing, of Bushnak for the three Israelis. Jibril calmly upped his price to include his nephew.

Interestingly enough, the NYT piece doesn’t distinguish between the capturing of soldiers or militants and the kidnapping of civilians. This is routine in the Western press when Israel and Palestine are concerned: the kidnapping of Jibril’s civilian nephew (or other examples of similar behavior) are often not reported at all or are described as a normal security tactic, while the capturing of Shalit, a soldier, is painted as morally outrageous.

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