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The flotilla crisis seen from Cairo

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

Sorry about the quality – cops telling me to leave…

It’s impressive to see such a forceful international reaction to this morning’s deadly raid on the flotilla of boats bringing aid to Gaza. Thousands have protested in New York, Istanbul, Ankara, Stockholm, Paris and many other places, in one of the biggest mobilizations on behalf of the Palestinian cause in years. 

Even in Cairo, where pro-Palestinian demos have been very, very tightly restricted since the Gaza war — since the regime doesn’t want any reminders of its role in the Gaza blockade — today was a surprise. At first, the protest outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed disappointed, with only a few dozen participants. But this evening, thousands gathered at the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square and staged an impressive protest, even if they were penned in by several hundred uniformed riot control troops and police officers, as well as tons of plainclothes security people and a bunch of baltiguiya (street toughs hired to intimidate, and need be, beat up protesters).  

I didn’t get to come close to the mosque, because police people were everywhere (mostly plainclothes, which always leads me to say the equivalent of, ‘who the fuck are you? where’s your uniform? show me some ID if you’re a cop’ and that gets tiresome, especially since I probably only get away with it because I’m a khawaga) getting people to move off. But from what I could tell — confirmed by my colleagues Sarah Carr and Jon Jensen who were closer and there longer — it was a tightly organized affair, if not led by the Muslim Brothers then definitely Islamist-dominated. They even had a brief moment of shouting slogans against Mubarak, although that was quickly shushed down (my guess would be this is the old Labor Party Islamists vs. MB argument).

It’s important to note that this is the biggest protest about Palestine since the Gaza war, in an atmosphere in which such protests have not been tolerated. We might see more in the next few days, including on Friday after prayers. This may revive local activism on Gaza as well as linkages made between the situation there and the situation in Egypt — notably the Mubarak regime’s collaboration with Israel on the blockade. Expect a fierce fight in the media over this in the next few days, and more opportunities to express all sorts of grievances. But when Turkey expels its ambassador and Egypt is seen to be doing nothing, it looks very, very bad for Cairo.



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Bullshit alert: Haaretz

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

Haaretz, the sometimes leftish Israeli newspaper, ran a story with quotes from the Israeli soldiers who were involved in this morning’s raid. Here’s the beginning:

The left-wing activists on board a flotilla carrying aid to the Gaza Strip tried to lynch the Israel Navy commandos who stormed their Turkish-flagged ship early Monday, Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz.

The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.

Activists attacked a commando with iron bars as he descended onto the ship from a helicopter, the army said. The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a “life-threatening situation”.

The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.

To be verified, and I don’t have a problem with that. They ran a the following picture and caption with the story, though:

 

I don’t know about you, but that guy doesn’t particularly look like a leftist activist and the reporters and photographers standing behind him (who are supposed to be on separate ship) seem pretty relaxed for a bunch of people who’ve just seen 10 to 20 people killed. Not to mention, what’s he doing with that knife if the IDF is already in control of the ship? And why is there no attribution to the picture, unlike the others featured in the article?

Update: I’ve added the link to the Haaretz story above, and for another ludicrous version of events being fed to the Israeli media, see this story titled “A brutal ambush at sea” — yes, they mean the activists!!!

 



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How Israel sets the TV agenda

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

This morning was a powerful example how a well-organized press strategy, combined with hasbara, can drive the media agenda. As the story of the flotilla unfolded, I was zapping between BBC World, CNN, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic. The Arabic channels I’ll discount, they were mostly reporting from Gaza or featuring well-known commentators like Abdel Bari Atwan (which, mind you, I don’t find particularly useful.) Most of the English channels were struggling to respond to the crisis. CNN was late to the story and featured analysis from the talented Ben Wedeman in Cairo, which suggests it did not have someone ready in Israel or Palestine. With all due respect to Ben, an excellent correspondent, CNN was just not on top of the story. BBC World wasn’t either — it’s been clear for years the channel is chronically underfunded.

Al Jazeera English had multiple correspondents available reporting live, as well as people in-studio. It covered the issue non-stop for much of the morning. But TV is highly demanding medium, it needs new content all the time — and not just information, but video and sound. For a couple of hours this morning AJE was going from one Israeli official or commentator for another, the IDF has scheduled several press conferences, as did the Prime Minister’s office and the Foreign Ministry. They controlled the news cycle by having their message dominate the airwaves in those early hours, the TV stations — starved for content since there was a communications blackout from the flotilla ships and Israel’s military censor was no doubt squashing other aspects of the story — were running the Israeli viewpoint non-stop.

AJE compounded that by having its correspondents (one of them in particular not very quick-witted) constantly repeat what the Israelis were saying, and being ineffective in taking Israeli officials to task. And the Free Gaza flotilla organizers did not plan ahead — they did not have representatives who could be easily available in Israel/Palestine near where TV cameras were, few on the boats to talk by telephone, or others elsewhere who could go to studios. This oversight really impacted the early TV version of the crisis, allowing the other side’s message to dominate.

Just in terms of international law, it might be noted that the blockade is illegal, as is piracy — which is what seizing control of a boat flying a non-enemy flag in international waters is. The focus should be on that the boat was full of unarmed activists, that the Israelis fired on the ship before boarding, as well as the wider issue of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We need reporters that raise these issues and don’t just respond to unsubstantiated claims by officials.



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Israel’s Memorial Day Attack on Gaza Aid Flotilla

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

Washington DC woke up this Memorial Day morning to the shocking news that an Israeli commando team had stormed the "Freedom Flotilla", a Turkish aid ship headed towards Gaza, killing (at last count) ten and wounding dozens.   Israeli claims that their actions were a necessary move against an extremist-linked threat fall flat in the face of what looks to the world like an outrageously disproportionate military response to a publicity-seeking aid mission in international waters.  The details are still murky, and I expect that as all sides throw out their propaganda fast and furious they will become murkier yet.  

I’m not going to try to keep up with the breaking events, as world governments and publics scramble to figure out how to react.  Instead, I’ll just say that the bottom line for Washington is that the U.S. can not ignore this or try to hope that it will pass quickly so that it can resume business as usual.  It is rapidly spiraling into one of the most intensely galvanizing issues in the Arab media — and around the world — since the Israeli war on Gaza itself.   If Obama goes ahead and meets with
Netanyahu as if nothing happened, then his administration’s outreach to the Muslim communities of the world
is effectively over. 

[[BREAK]]

This crisis — and it is a crisis — is the fairly predictable outcome of the years of neglect of the Gaza situation by the Bush and Obama administrations.  Bush turned a blind eye during the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, and then the Obama team chose to focus on renewing peace talks between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority while continuing to boycott Hamas.  The U.S. only sporadically and weakly paid attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the strategic absurdity and moral obtuseness of the Israeli blockade, or the political implications of the ongoing Hamas-Fatah divide.   Now, on the eve of Obama’s scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas — the fruits of the "honey offensive" towards Israel — can they be surprised that Gaza is blowing up in their face? 

The Israeli assault on the flotilla has galvanized Arab and international media attention (to say nothing of my Twitter feed).   Arab and Turkish publics appear to be truly outraged, as do the Turkish, Arab and many European governments.   The issue is evidently headed to the Security Council.  It is difficult to fathom how the Israeli government could have thought that this was a good way to respond to a long-developing public relations challenge, but its actions will certainly fuel its evolving international legitimacy crisis.  We’ll be keeping track of the story as it develops.

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Iran expands atom work; oversight better-IAEA

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

UPDATE 2: Iran prepares second set of centrifuges for enrichment; move likely to increase tensions with West.
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German President Koehler steps down

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

UPDATE 2: Horst Koehler resigns after being criticised for remarks on military deployments abroad.
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World Condemns Brutal Israeli Assault on Humanitarian Convoy

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

Israel faced a wave of global condemnation over its military assault on a humanitarian aid convoy in international waters. Everyone from the UN Secretary-General to the Pope came down hard on the Israeli government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was constrained to cancel his planned visit to Washington, D.C., since that trip would have forced him to face questions from American journalists on why the Israeli navy could not have simply blocked the aid convoy.

The convoy’s passengers included a wide range of European and American activists as well as Turks and others.

Since American television news is predictably slighting the story, here is a report by Russia Today on the Israeli attack.

Russia Today interviews Israeli-American anthropologist and peace activist Jeff Halper on the Israeli strangulation of Gaza and the goals of the aid flotilla that was brutally assaulted by Israeli commandos early Monday morning.

Halper’s account of the dire effects on Palestinian health and well-being of the Israeli blockade of Gaza is supported by a recently released World Health Organization study.

Halper is the founder of the Israeli Coalition against House Demolitions and author of An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel

Here is a footage from the deck of the Mavi Marmara in the aftermath of the violent boarding, in Arabic, English and Turkish. The israeli commandos deployed stun grenades and tear gas, attacking in international waters. “Despite the raising of white flags, the Israeli army is still shooting.”

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Dubai Police Chief….. Praises Nasrallah and Resistance Axis tactics

May 31st, 2010 Comments off
“… On May 31, Dubai Police Chief Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim said in interview with Al-Quds al-Arabi: “In their conflict with Israel, the Arabs should adopt the same method as Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. If they stay in their land and strike Israel with rockets, the latter will lose. I thus advise all the Arab states to manufacture and develop their missiles in order to acquire power and force the other side to respect them and their rights. I believe it is odd that strong states in the region are unable to manufacture rockets while Hamas and the Jihad are doing that locally.

“I do not know Hassan Nasrallah in person and I am in no way connected to him. However, he made everyone respect him, including his enemies. He won the battle on the ground during the July war and was able to defeat Israel and its soldiers in thirty days.”

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Former US paratrooper & diplomat had joined Gaza flotilla

May 31st, 2010 Comments off
A retired U.S. diplomat, Edward L. Peck, was among 11 Americans who had joined the flotilla of activist ships that were forcibly diverted Monday from Gaza, where they were planning to unload humanitarian supplies and demonstrate their ability to break the years-long Israeli blockade on the impoverished Palestinian territory.

Peck is an interesting and controversial character. A former Army paratrooper, he was in the Foreign Service for three decades, serving in a number of posts in the Arab world, including as chief of mission in Baghdad under the Carter administration. In the Reagan years, he worked on terrorism issues in the White House. He has sinced emerged as an outspoken critic of U.S. and Israeli policies the Middle East. (Here’s the transcript of a 2006 interview he gave with Democracy Now, the left-wing radio show, in which he describes certain actions by the United States and Israel as fitting the defintion of terrorism.)

In an interview on CNN in October 2001, Peck warned that invading Iraq would be a mistake. “But when you take out Saddam Hussein,” he said, “the key question you have to ask then is, what happens after that? And we don’t have a clue. Nobody knows, but it’s probably going to be bad.”
Peck also supposedly inspired President Obama’s former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, to say “the chickens are coming home to roost” after the September 11, 2001, attacks. He was also highly critical of the U.S. handling of the 2006 Lebanon War, accusing the Bush administration of deliberately extending the fighting.
Although there are reports that Israeli toops fired shots at the ship Peck was on, the Sfendoni, I’m told he is OK and headed home to New York (all of the casualties seem to have taken place on the Marmara, much larger vessel). Peck was among four other Americans representing the Free Palestine Movement, an activist group from California.

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… Suddenly, Turkey is the "Muslim nation" …

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

… Not the NATO member, the EU applicant or the rising power of Eurasia … Now Turks are simply known as “Muslims”…

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