Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Is Israel's Goal in Gaza?

According to the Washington Post, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told President Shimon Peres, "Nobody in this world understands what are Hamas' goals and why it continues to fire missiles."

Olmert's observation begs the question: if Hamas is so unpredictable, exactly what is Israel's goal in continuing to fire missiles on Gaza?

The Post goes on to say, "Israel sealed off an area around Gaza on Monday, declaring it a "closed military zone," amid indications that the army may be preparing for a ground offensive. Meanwhile, Israeli jets continued to strike targets across the narrow coastal strip, including a security compound and the homes of suspected Hamas operatives."

Yesterday, I observed that the Israeli operation was unlikely to end Hamas' rule in Gaza. The Israeli government has appeared to have reached the same conclusion: so long as there are any Palestinians in Gaza, Israelis will have to contend with rockets.

The Post goes on to write, "Israeli military officials said Monday that their target lists have expanded to include the vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on to stay in power in the strip."

The vast support network that the Islamist movement relies on? Is that strategy, or justification?

Hamas' intentions may be unclear, but Olmert's intentions are obvious. He will not stop. This much is obvious in the Post story.

Does this seem alarmist? Extreme? I hope it isn't the case - but denying the possibility won't help anyone. When an Israeli soldier tells international media that his mission in Gaza is "cleansing" and then the Israeli Army censors the video, what else can we assume is going on that we don't know?

Both Ban Ki Moon (Secretary General of the United Nations) and the European Commission have called for an end to all hostilities.

The Jerusalem Post has been positive in its coverage, insisting that the Operation has won international support and has killed only terrorists. Today, a headline declares the Israeli government will consider suspending the operation. But the story makes clear that Olmert is not, in fact, considering a suspension. (Ha'aretz runs the same story under the headline, "Olmert: Gaza offensive to go on until aims achieved.) The JPost story also says that the operation has killed "mostly uniformed terrorists." The JPost's characterization is, on the surface, absurd. Terrorists are not a country. They are not an organized Army. They do not, by definition, wear uniforms. The "uniformed terrorists" statement is unusual enough that it almost demands further explanation. But none is forthcoming.

Ha'aretz (fast becoming my favorite source for news on the Gaza situation) says, "
most of them members of Hamas security forces but at least 64 of them civilians, according to UN figures." "Hamas security forces?" Very different phrasing from "uniformed terrorists."

The Palestinian News Network refers to the Operation as a "massacre," saying "Targets are vast while those hit include children and families in mourning." No mention of Hamas at all.

(I should mention that the Palestinians have responded with rocket fire of their own. So far, their rockets have claimed the lives of 4 Israelis. Israel's rockets have killed 360. This is certainly not a battle between equals nations.)

Strange and Disturbing Video From Gaza

"Arrangements" like the one between the Israeli army and international reporters (mentioned in the video below) are common in conflict zones. But that doesn't make them likable, especially where human rights conflicts are concerned. It's amazing that the Israeli news channel was brave enough to challenge the embargo.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Uncommon Opinions on Israel's Attack on Gaza

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says Hamas (the militant group that Israel is allegedly trying to target) could have prevented the current attacks on Gaza by letting the cease-fire stand. Sounds as if Abbas is trying to justify that fact that he's been a completely ineffective President.

Over at the pro-Israel Elder of Ziyon blog, the blogger blames Hamas for everything, including (apparently) the fact that Gazan civilians are dying from Israeli fire: "What is slightly newer is the desire to use the traditionally Western concept of the sanctity of all human life as a weapon itself. In other words, in Hamas' calculus, the public relations value of the media reporting that Gazans are dying due to lack of medical supplies is far more important than keeping the people alive." Ignoring the fact that this blogger is clearly a bigot (sanctity of human life is a "Western concept"?), it seems like he's using the whole "Hamas is violent" argument to justify killing Gazan civilians. He is right, though, that Hamas seems to put their own political gain above all other causes, including individual Palestinian lives.

On the other hand, to say that "they could have just been nicer and then we wouldn't have had to bomb them" is a suspiciously convenient argument for Israel.

It's the argument popular with the leadership: Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said of the attacks, "Hamas controls Gaza and is responsible for everything happening there and for all attacks carried out from within the Strip." Key phrase: "Hamas controls Gaza." Does that justify attacking anyone or anything in Gaza?

The more human reality is be found on sites that feature the aftermath of the attacks.

On the International Solidarity Movement site, where a Palestinian resident of the border town Rafah says, "After an inhumane siege that left Gaza with little to lose, people are being asked to say goodbye to the last remains of their former lives.

(Somewhat disturbing) images from the attacks on the Gaza strip to be found at Rafah Today.

The pro-Palestine In Gaza blog has pictures from the Shifa Hospital ICU (where most of the injured Palestinians are being treated) and some of the bloggers claim that Israel is targeting mosques and civilians. Remember that Gaza is a very small area, and that it is notoriously difficult to prevent civilian casualties even in a much larger country.

Ha'aretz seems to have very even coverage of the situation. Key phrase from their story: "The strikes have driven Hamas leaders into hiding."

The tragedy appears to be this: terrorists are the cockroaches of the political world. After the attacks, the Hamas leadership will emerge unscathed. The few Gazan civilians who didn't die in the attacks will have little left to lose, and all the more reason to support Hamas. After all, who else cared when their families were killed? Who else said it was wrong?

If it sounds like I'm in favor of the Palestinian side here, it's only because it seems (at first brush) that despite Israel's justifiable frustration, their strategy probably won't eliminate terrorism. The United States tried the same "shock and awe" tactic in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it didn't work for us either. Yossi Alpher says just this in an analytical essay. He also talks about how closing the crossings was bad strategy, too.

Despite the humanitarian suffering on both sides, Ghassan Khatib argues that both Hamas and Israel are using the violence as a bargaining chip in the bid for a more favorable ceasefire agreement.

Which suggests that, as in any war, both sides are playing for their own political advantage, and the innocents are still the unfortunate ones who get to suffer for it.

Image credit: University of Texas Library.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Media Rumor Mill Grinds Out More India-Pakistan Tension

Multiple international newspapers report today that the Pakistani government has moved troops away from the borderlands of Waziristan and refused them permission to go on annual leave. A look at the stories with emphasis on the attributions, and my own comments afterwards.

The New York Times' Richard Oppel Jr. writes a story headlined: "Pakistan Moves Forces as Tensions with India Rise." The story's first paragraph reports information about the Pakistani troop movements. Oppel attributes the information to "senior Pakistani officials," but the story makes clear that in fact there are only two senior Pakistani officials, both of whom spoke anonymously. Oppel also writes, "A senior military official said in an interview that the decision to sharply restrict leave for soldiers was taken 'in view of the prevailing environment,' namely the deteriorating relations with India since the Mumbai terrorist attacks last month. "

All journalists paraphrase sources, but it's interesting that Oppel's source said only "in view of the prevailing environment." That prevailing environment includes a suspected US airstrike in Waziristan that killed eight people, as well as a Christmas Eve terrorist strike in the Pakistani city of Lahore. But Richard Oppel chooses to interpret the "prevailing environment" as "deteriorating relations with India."

Oppel goes on to write, "The redeployment came as Indian authorities warned their citizens not to travel to Pakistan given the heightened tensions between the two nations, news agencies reported." He cites only other "news agencies" as his source.

Then he writes, "The senior official also refused to say where the troops would be redeployed, although The Associated Press quoted two Pakistani intelligence officials as saying that the Pakistani Army’s 14th division was being sent to Kasur and Sialkot, near the Indian border." The source: another news agency.

Finally, he writes, "In India, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, summoned the leaders of his country’s armed forces to discuss the security situation, Indian media reported on Friday." The source: Indian media.

According to Nirupama Subramanian's story in the Hindu, "Pakistan’s armed forces are on a “high alert” and all leave of absence has been cancelled for troops on account of the tensions with India, military officials here told journalists on Friday." At first it seems as if the government officials held an authorized news conference. No such thing. Subramanian goes on to write, "Also, there were unconfirmed reports, quoting unnamed intelligence officials, that the Pakistan military had pulled out some soldiers from the border with Afghanistan and redeployed them in the east."

So now the soldiers have been redeployed to the East? Interestingly, the Hindu story also notes, "The reports are bound to cause alarm in Washington, which is seeking to prevent any adverse fallout of the India-Pakistan crisis on its “war on terror’ in Afghanistan." This interpretation barely appears in the New York Times story.

Sebastian Abbot goes even further in his story for the Associated Press, practically editorializing when he writes, "The move represents a sharp escalation in the standoff between the nuclear-armed neighbors."

Of his sources: "The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation." Abbot also credits another anonymous source at the end.

A story by Sajjad Malik in Pakistan's Daily Times says, "Reports in Indian media said Pakistan moved its 10th Brigade to Lahore and ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to march towards Jhelum, following a heavy concentration of Indian troops on the borders. " Malik goes on to write a story taken entirely from Indian media sources, which in turn seem to have been lifted from the Associated Press story.

Zahid Hussain, in a story for England's Times Online, doesn't bother to attribute any of his statements about Pakistan's troop movements.

In conclusion: multiple international news stories about an escalation in tension between two nuclear neighbors all came from three Pakistani military officials who spoke to journalists on background.

It seems as if this story proves the "echo chamber" theory of mass media: after a little while, international stories all turn into a ring of news outlets randomly citing each other. More importantly, these journalists would never be able to write these type of stories if they weren't relying on an established assumption: India and Pakistan dislike each other and are once more on their way to war.

But how has this assumption been established? Largely by the media.

(India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past fifty years, so real tension exists. But that doesn't mean reporters should automatically be able to assume a fourth war is in the works.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Problem with Covering Pakistan

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday headlined, "Pakistani Jets Scramble as India Hardens Tone."

The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai have been compared to September 11, 2001. But three days after that attack, the United States Congress authorized military action against Afghanistan, another sovereign nation. A month after similar devastation occurred in Mumbai, Indian government officials are still saying, "We will take all measures necessary as we deem fit to deal with the situation."

Which brings me to the Post's headline. How does a statement like the above, by India's foreign minister, count as a hardening of tone? On Tuesday, according to a story in The Hindu, Indian PM Manmohan Singh said, "The issue is not war, but terrorism being aided and abetted by Pakistan. We want Pakistan to make objective efforts to dismantle the terror infrastructure."

Nearly a week before Singh's statement, George W. Bush gave a speech in Pennsylvania where he referred to the US relationship with Pakistan as his legacy. According to the Post, Bush told a group of students, "A country that was a supporter of the Taliban before September 11 today is a strong partner of the United States."

In a Newsweek commentary on the subject, Fareed Zakaria wrote, "The Pakistani government has never made a fundamental decision to turn its back on the culture of jihad."

There are many issues here: one is the marked difference between how the US press treats India post-attack and the way it treated the US post-attack. This might be expected. The other is the media's uncritical acceptance of Bush's fondness for Pakistan (he would not be the first president whose choice of allies we might later regret).

The Washington Post seems to have bought into the attitude that war between India and Pakistan is inevitable, and it is merely a matter of time before it occurs. (For those who don't believe this, look at the first paragraph of the Post's story about Singh's Tuesday speech. The focus is entirely on the military preparations rather on the substance of Singh's words. The story is different from the Hindu coverage.) By focusing on the possibility of war (which neither nation desires), the Post article obscures the real and important policy issue at hand: Islamabad's questionable commitment to fighting terrorism. (And we might ask why the Post is so obsessed with war: because wars sell newspapers?)

By contrast, the Hindu has consistently presented the counter-argument: that war is not the central question here. From a Pakistani perspective: regardless of whether the government wants to turn its back a culture of jihad, can it afford to? (Zakaria address this question, too.) And if not, what does that mean for diplomats?

Zakaria goes on to write, "The problem with Islamic militant groups in Pakistan is not that they are hard to find but rather that they are in plain sight."

The solution to the problem of Pakistan's terror groups won't arrive if our president keeps issuing statements like, "A nation that produced 15 of the 9/11 hijackers now serves as a staunch ally in the war on terror." (And what is the point of the Reuters story about this speech, which reproduces the text without offering any perspective?)

The world must face and address the problem of Pakistan's terrorist groups. These groups exist and thrive despite the Pakistani government's commitment to fighting terror. And while newspapers should take a critical look at Pakistan (and statements by its government), they shouldn't promote war hysteria either. The two can be reconciled: Zakaria does just that in his piece.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Contradictions in Article about Zimbabwean Poverty

When Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman made "Born into Brothels," a film about poor children in Calcutta slums, critics said the filmmakers "exploited" the children, or used the shocking images of the children's poverty to increase their own fame.

Journalists suffer the same setbacks as artists. In an article about Zimbabwe, New York Times writer Celia Dugger points out the rising levels of starvation in a country that once had a self-sufficient agricultural sector.

She writes, "American-financed charities and the World Food Program have been feeding millions of Zimbabweans since late 2002, at a cost of $1.25 billion over the years." But later on, when Dugger interviews rural farmers, they suggest a different problem: "Even when food aid has come, only those in the ruling party hierarchy have gotten any, the farmers said."

It would not be the first time in history that military juntas diverted humanitarian aid. The same situation occurred in Indonesia (during the Suharto years) and presently, in Myanmar (after the cyclone). International sources (World Bank, IMF) agree that almost all international aid shipments suffer some "leakage"—a euphemism that usually means "theft."

Later on, she writes, "[The dictator] took his vengeance, unleashing veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war and gangs of youth to invade and occupy highly mechanized, white-owned commercial farms that were then the country’s largest employer and an engine of export earnings. In time, thousands of farms were taken over. Farm workers and their families — about 1 million people altogether — lost their jobs and homes, according to a 2008 study by Zimbabwean economists for the United Nations Development Program."

Dictatorship does not automatically result in low economic growth, but neither does it immediately translate to widespread prosperity. Other dictators before Mugabe (notably Castro) have nationalized white-owned commercial farms with greater levels of success. In fact, nationalization of foreign-owned businesses was a major focus of independence movements in many Latin American countries. Dugger does not say whether the farms paid the workers a decent wage, or whether (in other hands) the nationalization might have enriched the Zimbabwean people.

But it's not her job to speculate on what might have been. Yes, Mugabe put millions of people out of work when he nationalized the white-owned farms. But white-owned farms were an exploitative system to begin with, one that took the profits of a country's natural resources away from its residents.

This last point is one that the article does not bother to explore in detail. Instead, Dugger paints a somewhat boring and predictable picture of Zimbabwe: on the brink due to Mugabe's policies, and despite the Herculean efforts of the "First World."

This article also seems exploitative, if only because it doesn't bother to address its own contradictions. Zimbabwe faces real and very deep problems: hyperinflation due to seignorage run amok, inefficient nationalization of industry, uneven distribution of land (wealth), etc. These problems litter history, they are not unique. But Dugger's treatment is superficial, and it relies on assumptions that work against each other (food aid is effective, the junta is corrupt) (white-owned farms were big employers, profit from white-owned farms did not go into Zimbabwe's GDP). As a result, it seems as if the author is just gawking at poor people.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NYTimes Article Suggests Arab Women Sprout Wings

There is an interesting, although somewhat fanciful, article in the New York Times today about young Arab women who become flight attendants because the career offers an unusual amount of personal freedom.

On the surface I have nothing against this piece, but the past year has seen a host of articles in the American media about young Arab women and the various ways they attempt to date, work, worship equally, etc. In other words, to adopt more Western customs. The article seems to fall into a predictable mold: on the one side, the intelligent young women who become flight attendants, and on the other, traditional Arab culture.

The article says:

"Many of the young Arab women working in the Persian Gulf take delight in their status as pioneers, role models for their friends and younger female relatives. Young women brought up in a culture that highly values community, they have learned to see themselves as individuals."

They have learned to see themselves as individuals? This generalization seems out of place and also moralistic.

"For many families, allowing a daughter to work, much less to travel overseas unaccompanied, may call her virtue into question and threaten her marriage prospects. Yet this culture is changing, said Musa Shteiwi, a sociologist at Jordan University in Amman."

There are two recognizable camps in this debate. The first is the "West," which in this case means America. The other is "Arab culture," which in the context of this article seems to mean, "everything that American culture is not."

However, on American Bedu, (a website by a former American diplomat now married to a Saudi), the list of what Saudi women can and cannot do does not follow that predictable pattern.

For example, as has been said many times, it is against the law for Saudi women to drive. But Saudi women can work, have their own bank accounts and have their own businesses.

A close family friend of mine was once in school to become a Koranic scholar (he is Iranian). Although he left seminary, I remember having this same debate with him and he recited to me (in classical Arabic, no less) the portions of the Koran that say that married women retain property after their marriage. Women living in feudal England had none of these rights, but women in modern England do. So the "whatever the West is not" definition doesn't hold.

The right to financial independence, for women, seems to be a very integral part of traditional Arab doctrine.

And while it may seem that prejudice and practicality have made that independence impossible for Arab women, can we be sure of that fact? The journalists and scholars who shape our awareness of Arabs have worked off a shorthand definition of Muslim culture—"whatever American culture is not"—for so long that none of our assumptions make sense.