Friday, October 23, 2009

My Unpublished Letter to the Editor of the New York Times

To The Editor,

In his op-ed of Oct 20, "Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast," Robert L. Bernstein faults Human Rights Watch and other similar organizations for citing Israel for committing human rights abuses in it's attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January, 2009.

Israel, Bernstein argues, is the only democracy in the Mideast, acted solely in self-defense and has the most moral army in the world. There are some problems with this argument.

First, being or not being a democracy has never restrained a country from committing indiscriminate slaughter against other peoples. The record of the United State's mass bombing and spraying of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war is only one case in point.

Second, all the facts of the Gaza attack are against Bernstein. The verified evidence from many reliable sources point to a policy of shoot first and don't ask questions later. Palestinian families were used as human shields, hospitals and schools were bombed and white phosphorous was used against the general population. Not only has this been verified on film, but how can Bernstein explain the children from Gaza with phosphorous burns showing up for treatment in U.S. and European hospitals?

Finally, the fanatical rightist and religious nationalism whipped up by the Netanyahu/Lieberman government has led to harassment and threats of arrests to members of human rights groups in Israel.

Richard Congress

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

From Haaretz, Israel's Press Freedom Ranking Falls

Last update - 22:49 20/10/2009
Israel ranks low for freedom of press, after Gaza war media ban
By Gili Eizkovitch Haaretz Correspondent and Haaretz Service

Tags: Israel Media, Gaza Offensive

Israel placed No. 93 out of 175 countries on a 2009 international index of press freedom, released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Tuesday.

The 2009 ranking meant Israeli lost its place as the top country for press freedom in the region, falling behind Kuwait at No. 60, Lebanon at No. 61 and the United Arab Emirates at No. 86.

Israel's dramatic drop - 47 spots since last year - came as a result of its press regulations dictated to international media during the Gaza offensive earlier this year.
"Israel has begun to use the same methods internally as it does outside its own territory," said Reporters Without Borders, adding that journalists had been arrested and imprisoned and that military censorship also posed a threat.

But as a result of actions during Israel's war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in December and January, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country at No. 150 for its "extraterritorial actions."

"The toll of the war was very heavy. Around 20 journalists in the Gaza Strip were injured by the Israeli military forces and three were killed while covering the offensive," it said.

Meanwhile, RSF noted that press freedom has improved in the United States in the last year as the country jumped 20 places to No. 20.

The media watchdog said the assumption of the presidency by Barack Obama in January brought a new approach in Washington after eight years under President George W. Bush, while some European countries fell in the group's Press Freedom Index.

It expressed concerns about U.S. attitudes toward the media in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it said journalists had been injured or arrested by the U.S. military.

"President Obama may have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but his country is still fighting two wars," the group said. "Despite a slight improvement, the attitude of the United States towards the media in Iraq and Afghanistan is worrying."

The United States came in just behind Britain on the press freedom index of 175 countries, while China was at No. 168. Afghanistan No. 149 and Iraq at No. 145.

Reporters Without Borders noted that in the United States the House of Representatives this year backed legislation to allow journalists to protect their sources - it has not yet been voted on in the Senate - and the Obama administration had promised better access to public information.

The group said civil liberties were violated in the name of national security during the Bush era.

European countries hold the top 13 spots, led by Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. France fell eight spots to No. 43, Slovakia dropped 37 places to No. 44 and Italy fell five spots to No. 49.

"Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?" said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Jean-Francois Julliard.

Press freedom in France has been worsening for several years, the group said, with the authorities placing growing pressure on journalists to reveal sources and proposing legislation that could reduce their freedom.

In Italy, Reporters Without Borders said press freedom was being stifled by threats from the mafia and various lawsuits being brought or considered by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi against news organizations.

At the bottom of the list were Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea "where media are so suppressed they are nonexistent," said Reporters Without Borders.

Iran dropped to No. 172 from No. 166, with Reporters Without Borders saying the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had fostered a paranoia about journalists and bloggers.

"Automatic prior censorship, state surveillance of journalists, mistreatment, journalists forced to flee the country, illegal arrests and imprisonment - such is the state of press freedom this year in Iran," the group said.

The ranking was compiled from hundreds of questionnaires completed by journalists and media experts around the world and reflecting press freedom violations that took place between Sept. 1, 2008 and Aug. 31, 2009. The exact number of questionnaires completed was not immediately available.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Andrew Sullivan writes a mostly good column on Israel's attack on Goldstone

I'm not a fan of Andrew Sullivan, but this column is worth reading. If for nothing else but the chart showing relative deaths of Gazans and Israelis. As Sullian states: "over eight years 28 Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets...[yes I'm eliding the part about them being war crimes, he says that in the article anyway]..four times that many Palestinians were killed by Israelis in one month in 2008..."

Also the chart tells us something else: Hamas observed a truce and didn't fire rockets for 5 months before the invasion, based on a promise that Israel would ease up on the blockade. But Israel launched a tank incursion into Gaza in November, killing 15 Gazans and Hamas responded with more rockets and then Israel unleashed the massive attack that had obviously been well planned long before the justifying "incident."
Anyway, maybe someday Sullivan will atone for his ignorant flag-waving and terrorist baiting of opponents of the Iraq invasion. This article is fairly good -- for him. I obviously don't agree with his pro-Israel remarks, but you can't have everything.
Rick Congress

Andrew Sullivan in his blog Daily Dish on Israel's attack on the Goldstone report about war crimes in Gaza.

I thought ambassadors were supposed to smoothe over rifts, not inflame them. And I thought they were supposed to speak to the broadest number of citizens in the countries to which they have been appointed, not provide inflammatory rants to the already-persuaded. But this Michael Oren piece in TNR abandons any pretense of diplomatic balance.
The premise of Oren's piece is that Israel faces a new Nazism represented by Ahmadinejad and Holocaust deniers but, to an even greater extent, by the South African liberal, Richard Goldstone, and the United Nations. Oren seems to be arguing that Gaza was a war of survival for the Jewish state and that Israel had no choice but to launch a war that killed, by one conservative Israeli count, 320 children, destroyed 4,000 homes, and up to 80 government buildings. Even if one is sympathetic to the horrific barrage of Hamas rockets that Israeli citizens endured (and what decent human being wouldn't be?) - every single rocket being a war crime - it helps no one to use language this extreme or to distort history in this manner.
One might ask what the response of Michael Oren would be if Palestinian terrorists pulled off a major coup by killing 320 Jewish children, and destroying 4,000 homes in Tel Aviv, because Israel had lobbed primitive missiles at its territory, missing human targets an overwhelming proportion of the time. This is not to defend Hamas' wickedness and war crimes. It is not to say that Israel deliberately targeted children. It is to insist that the laws of war be applied equally to both parties in a conflict. It is to ask Israel to live up to its own ancient moral values - values that were pioneered when my own ancestors were running around painted in wode.
It is also to ask beleaguered Israel to get some perspective and to see, for a moment, how things might look from the outside. I can see why they may feel encircled and alone. But they're not. Even those of us who have been made angry by their recent actions and seeming unconcern for the needs of their most powerful friend, want to help. God knows I love Israel and its people; and I understand that some of the extremism among neocons is really an excess of passion and love rather than mere belligerence and orneriness. But, seriously guys, get a grip. Help the US help you. And try to see the wider picture.
Here's a graph that tells the story of the comparative human toll in the year before the conflict broke out:

the above chart was published by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. The red lines represent Palestinian deaths in Gaza and the blue Israeli deaths from rockets fired from Gaza. The rockets are not necessarily all "Hamas launched." Islamic Jihad is an opposition group not under the control of Hamas and has often fired rockets that Hamas has tried to stop.

Over eight years, 28 Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets in what were clearly war crimes, as Goldstone emphatically reports. Four times that many Palestinians were killed by Israelis in one month in 2008. In the subsequent conflict, the ratio of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths was close to 100 - 1. With this tally, Oren writes:
If a country can be pummeled by thousands of rockets and still not be justified in protecting its inhabitants, then at issue is not the methods by which that country survives but whether it can survive at all.
Seriously? No; the issue is whether Israel committed war crimes in its self-defense in Gaza and whether that self-defense was disproportionate to the threat it faced. At the time Bret Stephens offered the just war theory behind the Gaza war thus:
For every single rocket that falls randomly on Israeli soil, an Israeli missile will hit a carefully selected target in Gaza. Focusing the minds of Hamas on this type of "proportionality" is just the endgame that Israel needs.
Does that sound like the desperate act of a country on the brink of extinction? Glenn Reynolds explained the actual rationale:
Israel’s just playing by Chicago rules:  “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That’s the Chicago way!”
Whatever else that is, it is not a just war. The disproportion was the point: it was designed to teach the Gazans and Hamas a lesson they would never forget. Michael Goldfarb, McCain's former spokesman, echoed Reynolds' statement but embraced the murder of children as well:
The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause. Perhaps it will make the leadership of Hamas rethink the wisdom of sparking an open confrontation with Israel under the current conditions. Or maybe not, and the only way to stop Hamas is to eliminate its capacity for violence entirely.
Now it is a completely fair point that many other nations are in no position to criticize, including the US. Israel has to survive on a tiny strip of land which is surrounded by enemies. The Jews have achieved there such a miraculous, inventive, dynamic state it puts most other countries to shame. And its moral standards and its internal airing of debate have no peer in its own region. In some respects, the US has recently had lower standards.
The US, by invading Iraq and failing to provide any security for the civilians trapped in the chaos the US tolerated, ("stuff happens"), by torturing hundreds of prisoners, innocent and guilty, and by unleashing entities like Blackwater on civilian populations is in no position to judge. 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the Iraq occupation in sectarian violence that an invading army has a fundamental moral responsibility to restrain. To have invaded a country with no thought for the security of its civilians is one reason I came to see the execution of the Iraq war as morally intolerable. Israel, moreover, has seen its Supreme Court outlaw the torture methods championed by the US under Bush and Cheney. The US, in stark contrast, refuses to investigate its seven-year policy of torture and abuse of individuals, some of whom it knew to be innocent.
But that doesn't make either war just. As Matt points out, even if you believe the Israeli attack on Gaza was justified, that doesn't exclude the possibility of war crimes in its execution. Is this so hard to understand? Jews of all people - the victims of war crimes of unimaginable evil - should know this. And exchange anger and paranoia for the integrity they once had.

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