Various links on Israel/Palestine

Here is a collection of links on Israel/Palestine accumulated in recent days, as there was widespread speculation that a prisoner exchange between Hamas (for up to 450 people, including Hamas MPs) and Israel (for Gilad Shalit) would take place, opening the way for an easing of the blockade and truce. This now looks less certain to happen, especially as there is news that the inter-Palestinian dialogue has been postponed to 25 July, rather than a 7 July deadline aired by Egypt earlier this week. Do check especially, in the context of Marc Lynch's recent blog posts arguing that Obama's stance on settlement expansion is making progress, the evidence that Israel is doing its old tactic of temporarily dismantling "rogue settlements" (aren't they all rogue) only to have them rebuilt a few hours later. Bottom line: yes, some checkpoints have been eased and the PA is assuming more security control in the West Bank. But should that really be the endgame? Hasn't enough time been wasted on such small steps in the past 20 years of peace processing? And the bottom link - suggesting the US and Israel may cut a deal on settlement expansion - simply highlights how wrong-headed this focus on expansion, rather than existence of settlements has been for the Obama administration. Well, this gives me no pleasure, but I never expected much from them anyway. For some interesting background to Bush-era dealmaking (behind the Palestinians' back) on the settlements issue, do read the WSJ op-ed below -- it's by Elliott Abrams.
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Links for 06.29.09 to 06.30.09

The Great American Bubble Machine | The great, indispensable Matt Taibbi on the US economy:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled-dry American empire, reads like a Who's Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
AFP: Morocco dismantles militant group: security official | Spanish-Moroccans jihadists arrested, possibly in touch with AQIM. Death penalty debate rages as hundreds await gallows - The National Newspaper |
CAIRO // June has been dubbed “the month of executions” and 2009 “the year of mass executions” by Egyptian newspapers and analysts amid debate about abolishing capital punishment. More than 200 death sentences have been handed down since the beginning of the year, including 68 in June alone, according to official sources at the justice ministry. There are usually about 80 people executed each year.
Tomgram: Dilip Hiro, The Weeks of Living Dangerously | The Smirking Chimp | Very interesting look at student demographics in Iran, and what some of the key issues of the elections were for young people. Informed Comment: Moaddel Guest Op-Ed: Iran’s Crisis and the U.S. Option: Support Mousavi now or fight Ahmadinejad tomorrow | It arlams me to see Juan Cole hosting an op-ed such as this one, basically calling for a US-Iran war...
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The Coca-Cola Bottling Plant

PR documentary, from the late 1940s or the early 1950s at the latest I would guess, on Coca Cola's bottling plant in Egypt. There's some great footage of upper class social club type people at the beginning and at the end, with a very modernist exposé on the state-of-the-art bottling facilities at the plant. If anything watch the last few minutes when the whole social club breaks into song. It's worth remembering that the Coca-Cola Company, which built the Egypt bottling plant in 1945, faced an Arab-wide boycott between 1967 and 1979. Some Arab countries had started a boycott of Coca-Cola as early as 1951, while Coca-Cola for a while did not want to anger Arabs by doing business in Israel, earning the condemnation of the likes of the Anti-Defamation League, which launched a campaign in the US accusing the company of anti-Semitism. The anger of the American Jewish community forced Coca-Cola to open a Tel Aviv franchise in 1966, which resulted in an Arab League boycott in 1967. Aside from Egypt where Coke returned in 1979, most Arab countries were Coke-less until 1991 -- the contexts respectively being Camp David and the launch of the Middle East peace process with the Barcelona conference. Coca-Cola continues to be the subject of frequent rumors because of the brand's strong identification with the US. I remember one when I arrived in Egypt in 2000, alleging that if you read the Coca-Cola label in a mirror it spelt out, in Arabic, "la Mohammed la Mekka" -- i.e. No Mohammed No Mecca". I tried it and must admit it's true there was some resemblance! Naturally, it's a coincidence. This is not a dig at Coke (like most people my age I drink plenty of the stuff, although I've cut down as I started to have to think about things like empty calories - I can't stand Diet Coke) but the spread of bottled soft drinks in countries like Egypt has greatly reduced the number of traditional beverages that were once ubiquitously sold on the street.
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Time reports on Israeli abuse of Palestinian children

Israeli Prisons: Are Palestinian Children Abused? - Yahoo! News:
"Walid Abu Obeida, a 13-year-old Palestinian farm boy from the West Bank village of Ya'abad, had never spoken to an Israeli until he rounded a corner at dusk carrying his shopping bags and found two Israeli soldiers waiting with their rifles aimed at him. 'They accused me of throwing stones at them,' recounts Walid, a skinny kid with dark eyes. 'Then one of them smacked me in the face, and my nose started bleeding.' According to Walid, the two soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him, dragged him to a jeep and drove away. All that his family would know about their missing son was that his shopping bags with meat and rice for that evening's dinner were found in the dusty road near an olive grove. Over the course of several days in April last year, the boy says he was moved from an army camp to a prison, where he was crammed into a cell with five other children, cursed at and humiliated by the guards and beaten by his interrogator until he confessed to stone-throwing. (See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.) Walid says he saw his parents for only five seconds when he was brought before an Israeli military court and accused by the uniformed prosecutor not only of throwing stones but of 'striking an Israeli officer.' The military judge ignored the latter charge and chose to prosecute Walid only for allegedly heaving a stone at soldiers. The boy got off lightly: he spent 28 days in prison and was fined 500 shekels (approximately $120). Under Israeli military law, which prevails in the Palestinian territories, the crime of throwing a stone at an Israeli solider or even at the monolithic 20-ft.-high 'security barrier' enclosing much of the West Bank can carry a maximum 20-year-prison sentence. Since 2000, according to the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoner Affairs, more than 6,500 children have been arrested, mostly for hurling rocks."
Read the rest. This report is partly based on the research of the Swiss NGO Defense for Children International's Palestine Section. Their report is here.
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Blogger Wael Abbas held at Cairo airport

Egyptian mega-blogger Wael Abbas is being detained at Cairo Airport after his passport was confiscated last night. This is the first time this happens to Wael, who is currently holding a sit-in with a banner at the airport requesting his passport back. He's been Tweeting his situation - below are his updates as of 8:40am Egyptian time. Update: Wael tweets at 10:40am: waelabbastwitter2.png
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Mercenary-run checkpoints stop Palestinians carrying "too much food"

Don't celebrate Israel's minor relaxation of some checkpoints. This is the daily reality of some Palestinians:
A West Bank checkpoint managed by a private security company is not allowing Palestinians to pass through with large water bottles and some food items, Haaretz has learned. MachsomWatch discovered the policy, which Palestinian workers confirmed to Haaretz. The Defense Ministry stated in response that non-commercial quantities of food were not being limited. It made no reference to the issue of water. Advertisement The checkpoint, Sha'ar Efraim, is south of Tul Karm, and is managed for the Defense Ministry by the private security company Modi'in Ezrahi. The company stops Palestinian workers from passing through the checkpoint with the following items: Large bottles of frozen water, large bottles of soft drinks, home-cooked food, coffee, tea and the spice zaatar. The security company also dictates the quantity of items allowed: Five pitas, one container of hummus and canned tuna, one small bottle or can of beverage, one or two slices of cheese, a few spoonfuls of sugar, and 5 to 10 olives. Workers are also not allowed to carry cooking utensils and work tools. MachsomWatch told Haaretz that Sunday, a 32-year-old construction worker from Tul Karm, who is employed in Hadera, was not allowed to carry his lunch bag through the checkpoint. The bag contained six pitas, 2 cans of cream cheese, one kilogram of sugar in a plastic bag, and a salad, also in a plastic bag. The typical Palestinian laborer in Israel has a 12-hour workday, including travel time and checkpoint delays. Many leave home as early as 2 A.M. in order to wait in line at the checkpoint; tardiness to work often results in immediate dismissal. Workers return home around 5 P.M. The wait at the checkpoint can take one to two hours in each direction, if not longer. The food quantities allowed by Modi'in Ezrahi do not meet the daily dietary needs of the workers, and they prefer not to buy food at the considerably more expensive Israeli stores.
Israel's occupation of Palestine is getting - got a long time ago - so sordid that they are now subcontracting it to for-profit enterprises. In other words, creating an occupation industry that would be a natural lobby against disengagement from the occupied territories. Probably, that's the whole idea. Amira Hass relied on the Israeli NGO Machsom Watch (aka Women Against the Occupation and for Human Rights) for the info, they have a lot more on their site.
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Ashraf Khalil on reporting on Palestine

Please go NOW to Mondoweiss and read my friend Ashraf Khalil's account of reporting for the Los Angeles Times on what happened to Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist who was returning from a European tour where he received an award for his work. Omer came back through the Allenby terminal between Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, at which point something happened: as Ashraf puts it, "He emerges from the terminal in a wheelchair, semi-coherent, and is never quite the same again." The rest is how difficult it was to get what clearly was an important case of abuse in the American press:
I was just a few months into what would turn out to be a one-year run as Jerusalem correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps my more seasoned colleagues recognized quickly what I was still too new and naïve to grasp. Put simply, the story was a swamp—something that would require months of investigation to properly unravel, then prompt a horrendous clash with their editors and probably never see daylight in any kind of satisfying form. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be. I couldn’t prove what happened to Omer inside the Allenby terminal, so I didn’t even try. What I COULD prove, after months of digging, was that the resulting Israeli investigation of the incident was a threadbare joke. The official Israeli report on the incident essentially called Omer an attention-seeking liar. Omer’s claims were “found to be without foundation” and the report expresses “doubts about the sincerity of the situation.” Translation: he made it all up. But the Israeli authorities never even attempted to interview Omer, and never interviewed the paramedic who brought Omer from the Allenby terminal to a nearby hospital. As far as I could tell, the Israeli government basically interviewed its own officers. One Israeli official told me with a straight face that they didn’t really need to interview the victim of the alleged assault since they could just read his account in the various news reports. So after fussing over the story for more than a month, knowing that something like this had to be airtight to protect against a CAMERA campaign, I filed a story calling the Israeli investigation of the incident “insincere” and “deeply flawed at best.” My editors hated it, prompting a several-week staring contest while the story sat in limbo. One editor (my single favorite editor on the foreign desk and someone I would love to work with again) found it to be hopelessly biased. I argued, to no avail, that if the exact same set of circumstances and evidence surrounded a Los Angeles Police Department investigation of a high-profile abuse allegation, we would have crucified them on the front page. In the end, the truth of what happened to Mohammed Omer was sacrificed on the altar of the false deity known as “balance”. He’s hardly alone, and the basic steps of the process are grindingly familiar to all observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. *Alleged Palestinian Victim X makes such and such claims of abuse, discrimination or torture. *The Israeli government “investigates” and releases an official report on nice shiny letterhead concluding that the alleged victim’s claims are unfounded. *It all just fades away into the murky mists of “conflicting accounts.” But here’s the thing: Can it really be “conflicting accounts” if one of the sides is lying and you can prove it?
Go and read it all. It should be noted that the LA Times' current owner is Sam Zell, a major pro-Israel donor.
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Censorship and love in Iran

Very nice, long, mixed review from James Woods at the New Yorker of a new novel by Shahriar Mandanipour entitled "Censoring an Iranian Love Story." The author makes the censorship process part of the book's subject, including a censored version of the love story (with words crossed out but legible) and an uncensored commentary by the author. As Woods writes: 
“Censoring an Iranian Love Story” is not simply prohibited by censorship but made by it. For Mandanipour, the censor is a kind of co-writer of the book, and he appears often in this novel, under the alias of Porfiry Petrovich (the detective who chases Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov). We see him squabbling with Mandanipour, chatting to another Iranian writer, plotting alternative stories for Dara and Sara, striking out offensive phrases, and finally falling in love with Sara. He is a heavy presence in the novel, and is both creator and critic; the writer is always anticipating the imagination of prohibition even as he tries to outwit it. Even more interesting, the writer, in this situation, becomes his characters; he wants what they want. Their freedom is bound up with his.
But ultimately, the post-modernism and politics of the book seem to devolve into heavy-handedness.
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Links for 06.28.09 to 06.29.09

Almasry Alyoum: Israel above all Constitutions | Magdi el-Gallad has a good column today about a German dignitary, lecturing Egyptians on secularism, refusing to answer a question about Israel's self-definition as a Jewish state. Mondoweiss: 'I think this is the most emotional event I've ever done' (Naomi Klein in Ramallah) | Philip Weiss has a recording of a Naomi Klein speech in Palestine, in support of the Boycott - Sanctions - Divestment (BDS) movement. Mauritanian political rivals reach accord; Abdellahi resigns: | A resolution in sight:
Mauritania formed a transitional national unity government on Friday (June 26th) in Nouakchott, Journal Tahalil reported. International mediator Habib Kabachi was quoted as saying that the rival political poles had successfully reached "an accord on all points". In the presence of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, deposed president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi officially resigned and signed the decree for the installation of a new Mauritanian cabinet. Mohamed Ould Moulaye Laghdaf was chosen to lead the transitional government. After signing the decree, Abdellahi called for unity among all Mauritanians and affirmed that the country would hold presidential elections next month.
Worth remembering that this was a mediation that did not significantly involve the West. Iran's Post-Election Uprising: Hopes & Fears Revealed | The story of Iran's elections, from the dissenters' viewpoint, told in the same comic book form as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Very, very cool. Mousavi remains defiant – Tehran Bureau | Letter from Mousavi to Guardian Council calls for annulment of elections on the grounds that electoral law was violated multiple times.
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Egyptians for Neda

From the Daily News, an image of anti-riot police preventing Egyptian protestors from commemorating the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in Cairo on Saturday.

It kind of reminds you, when Cairo's streets were full of battles between protestors and security over elections or the movement for judges in 2006, and all the subsequent elections that were fraudulent - where was the outrage?

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The Bir Tawil Trapezoid

From the always excellent Strange Maps:

The Bir Tawil Triangle is a desert of sand and rocks on the border between Egypt and the Sudan. It is also officially the most undesired territory in the world. Bir Tawil is the only piece of land on Earth (*) that is not claimed by any country – least of all by its neighbours. For either of them to claim the Bir Tawil Triangle would be to relinquish their claim to the Hala’ib Triangle. And while Hala’ib is also mainly rock and sand, it is not only ten times larger than Bir Tawil, but also adjacent to the Red Sea - so rather more interesting.

[Thanks, Stefan]

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You may remember my coining of the acronym CRAP - Courageous Arab Reformist Personality - to describe the people who have made it a lucrative business to appeal to Western (and especially American) sensitivities by posturing as daring reformists taking on their countries' repressive culture. Typically, this involves adopting a position so out of touch with the realities of practical political activism for the only purpose of appealing to liberal Western sensitivities. I have to say, this story in the Washington Post takes the prize for concentrated CRAPpiness, especially this unbelievable quote abusing the memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death from a bullet wound during the recent Tehran protests was captured on video:
"Everyone is so shocked to see that beautiful young girl dying and looking so modern and secular," said Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Does this mean that if she had not looked "so secular and modern" the outrage would have been less? Actually, that's probably exactly what it means. [Thanks, SP]
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Egypt: Top MB arrested

It's become almost routine to see Muslim Brothers being arrested in the last few years, especially in the Delta, but the recent arrest of some of the group's most prominent members is rather curious:

State Security Services launched a wide crackdown today at dawn against three Muslim Brotherhood high-ranking figures in Cairo. Among those arrested are Dr. Abdel-Moneim Abu el-Fotouh, Member of the Executive Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Secretary-General of the Arab Doctors’ Federation, Judge Fathi Lashin, former legal adviser to the Ministry of Justice and Expert on Islamic Financial Transactions and Dr. Jamal Abdul Salam, Head of the Emergency Relief Committee of the Arab Doctors’ Federation and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in the 2005 elections.

Aboul Fotouh in particular is one of the MB's most popular figures, respected well beyond their ranks for his intellectual calibre and moderation. Considering all of these people were involved in the fundraising drive and aid effort to Gaza, and the Egyptian government has just reopened the border, one wonders whether there's any connection. Especially at this time when there are so many rumors about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, being moved to Egypt in advance of a prisoner exchange deal and ongoing Israel-Hamas as well as Fatah-Hamas negotiations.

Update: I should add that several companies close to those arrested and other prominents MBs have been shut down, dealing a further financial blow to the group. This morning (29 June 2009) newspapers like al-Dustour are accusing the MB of a weak reaction, perhaps channeling some Islamists' belief that they have been too supine in their reaction to the last few years of crackdowns.

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Obama's Middle East team

A little more clarity on Barack Obama's national security — and mostly Middle East and AfPak — team:

National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon both have the rank of assistant to the president. NSC Director of Strategic Communications Denis McDonough and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert have the rank of deputy assistant to the president. Ross, along with Lute, will have the rank of special assistant to the president. Daniel Shapiro, Puneet Talwar, and Don Camp have senior director status, but not the rank of special assistant to the president that Ross will have.

Note that Dennis Ross has also joined in a beefed-up position now going beyond Iran called "special assistant to the president and senior director on the central region." Note the adoption of a region system analogous to the military's "Central Command" to refer to the Middle East — another sign of the regrettable commitment of the administration to what is, for lack of a better word, essentially an imperialist posture in the region. Laura Rozen has more on that. It is becoming clearer that Ross' move from State to the White House is a promotion, enabling him to have the ear of the president. The idea has been floating around that Ross may be in this position not so much as a key crafter of regional policy but rather as an interface between the president and the Israel lobby he has long been associated with (let's remember that during the Bush years Ross was not only at the pro-Israel Washington Institute, but also at an organization associated with the Jewish Agency, the Israeli quasi-governmental organization whose mission is to bring people to Israel, including the settlements).

Meanwhile, Acting Assistant SecState for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is still waiting to be confirmed, and thus cannot appoint his own staff yet. I was in Washington a few days ago and visited the State Dept, where I got the impression that things were definitely not quite set up yet. Note that the reason Feltman is not confirmed yet, apparently, is that Senator Carl Levin is withholding (also here) his vote to lobby for one of his constituents who is trying to get money out of the Libyan regime (which has already paid through the nose for the normalization of its relationship with the West.)

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Podcast: Max Rodenbeck on Iran

As part of a plan to return to more prolific blogging and revamp the site over the next few months, we are starting a series of regular podcasts about the Middle East. The aim will be to carry out interviews with informed commentators on various regional issues, and hopefully eventually carry out some interesting discussions about the issues we regularly cover on this blog. This is partly due to the fact that I recently left a job which severely constrained my ability to blog, and made me remove my name from the blog. Long-time readers perfectly know who I am, but if you're newer to this site my name is Issandr El Amrani. I've lived in Cairo for nine years, am Moroccan-American, and my professional background is mostly in journalism and political analysis. This is my first attempt at podcasting, so be patient as we iron out the kinks (and I try to improve my radio voice). The first podcast in this series is basically a long interview with my friend Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent for The Economist and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books on regional issues. Max, whose book Cairo: The City Victorious is one of the best works on our great city, has made several trips to Iran in the last year and recently returned from covering the elections and following protests. Our conversation covers the elections themselves, the politics behind the protests, Max's impressions of the popular mood in Iran, and more. Some recent pieces on Iran Max wrote: ✩ Demanding to be counted (The Economist, 18 June 2009) ✩ Is the dream already over? (The Economist, 25 June 2009) ✩ Why the turbans are at odds (The Economist, 25 June 2009) ✩ The Iran Mystery Case (NYRB, 15 January 2009) ✩ An American in Iran (NYRB, 17 January 2008) And here's the podcast: Play / Download The podcast (and subsequent ones) should be listed on iTunes for subscription shortly - we'll update the page with that link when's it available.
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Links for 06.28.09

MEI Editor's Blog: "She was a Splendid Beast": The Arabic Transliteration Problem | Michael Dunn on transliteration. I say, don't worry about it too much, spell it like it sounds even if that changes dialect to dialect, and use fuzzy query software for information retrieval. Arab world mourns Michael Jackson | There's a bizarre number of stories and blog posts about Michael Jackson's popularity in the Arab world. Yes of course he is popular in the Arab world. As if he wasn't popular everywhere. Perhaps his popularity is magnified in developing countries because he was one of few truly international artists (like Madonna). So what you say about Jackson in the Arab world is probably applicable to Central Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. World Bank approves Dead Sea canal plan: Israel | Linking Red and Dead seas and powering a desalinisation plan. I remember Egypt opposed this, but not sure why. Maybe it wants to be the only one with a canal. Supreme Iranian Leader | Angry Arabon Khameini:
If there is one area of the Iranian political-clerical system that is more at odds with the tradition of Shi`ite theology it is the position of Supreme Leader: or the Guardian Cleric, as the translation should be. In Shi`ite tradition, the Grand Ayatullahs are never appointed or officially designated: they simply rise by reputation, just like a village or rural physician. Khumayni (the mentor of Mr. Moussavi in Iran) reversed that by deciding to first appoint himself (on behalf of the missing 12th Imam), and then to appoint his own successor without regard to clercical seniority. Khamenei is not senior at all among the clerics, and his Ayatullah treatise was rushed AFTER his designation, when Khumayni reversed his decision to designate Mountazari. I would expect that part of the Iranian republic to be the weakest link.
How Arabic is Like Parseltongue | Harry Potter joke.
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A child's view (of Civil War)

Words Without Borders gives a very positive review to a debut novel written from the point of view of a young Lebanese girl during the Civil War, by the Lebanese-British author Nathalie ABi-Ezzi. As the reviewer points out, "to construct a compelling narrative with only a linguistically-limited and innocent voice as a conduit is a daunting challenge, one which few novelists have taken up and still fewer pulled off successfully." The best example I can think of is Henry James' brilliant What Maisie Knew, the story of her parents' divorce--and subsequent affairs and marriages--from the confused point of view of young Maisie.
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