Friday, February 19, 2010

UNRWA chief steps down, still standing up.

AbuZayd: “Open Gaza’s borders”

From Ian Williams in New York MEI 18 Feb 2010

At the end of January, Karen AbuZayd stepped down as head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to be replaced by her Italian deputy, Filippo Grandi. During one term as deputy and two as commissioner-general, AbuZayd won the respect of staff who worked with her.

Since UNRWA incumbents were often singled out by the US, I asked whether she left or was pushed. She replied that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had encouraged her to extend her contract if she wanted. He then had to reassure Arab ambassadors that she was the one who had taken the decision to leave.

One would have thought that a name like AbuZayd could give rise to complications in dealing with Israeli officials, but she laughed when asked. “Their intelligence is supposed to be so good,” she said, “but when I became commissioner, I discovered that they thought it was because I had married a Palestinian, when in fact my husband was Sudanese.”

Relations with Israel are at the core of the job, with, of course, a sideline in coping with donation-hunting American politicians, who have repeatedly tried to cut funding to UNRWA or subsume it in the UN High Commission for Refugees. “We’ve always had this group in Congress continually attacking us over and over again with the same stories – even the Israelis defend us against them. We’ve answered them so many times, and they really know the answers, but it’s too easy for them to attack. But since the Gaza War, [Senator John] Kerry and others came in and saw Gaza. Now we have a group of 60 to 70 writing in support [of UNRWA], instead of the handful that used to.”

The week before she stepped down, Israel confirmed it was paying $10.5 million in reimbursement for the UNRWA supplies and buildings destroyed in Gaza during Cast Lead. She disclaims all credit, saying it was the Board of Investigation, led by Ian Martin, that made it possible. The secretary-general “took it to the Israelis, and the Israelis have been apologising profusely and profoundly for what they admitted were ‘mistakes’.”

She was not surprised at Ban’s tenacity pursuing compensation, adding that “he’s always stuck up for us and made strong statements when needed.” Nor was it a surprise to her that the Israelis settled. After Cast Lead, “the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] people we deal with were so apologetic, so embarrassed. They admitted: ‘We just don’t know what our fellow soldiers were doing’.”

Education under pressure
Until Gaza came under siege, perhaps the worst place to be a Palestinian was in Lebanon, but here, she admits, “I was certainly lucky because I took over when [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora took over, so we were able to work in the camps, and worked with them very well, doing projects together, raising money, and the like, on the ground.” AbuZayd added that the new Lebanese government was working along the same lines and wants things to improve for the Palestinians, although ”everyone is clear, and so was Arafat: they know it is not feasible to stay in Lebanon if there is an end to the peace process. But that does not affect what we are doing now.”

Arab states, which once refused to pay on principle, have begun to contribute to UNRWA emergency funds, egged on by the Arab fundraising unit AbuZayd established. While emergency appeals raise money (recently another $80 million from the US, and over $40 million from the EU), her complaint is the strain on the core budget to maintain services, such as education and health, not to mention food. “They can’t let things collapse,” she said, “but they don’t give enough for us to really develop, to end the double shifts in schools, for example.”

Looking back over her UNRWA career, Gaza clearly predominates, and she confessed that “if anything, things have become worse throughout the nine years that I’ve been there. The Palestinians don’t have a state, and don’t look as if they are likely to soon. Physical conditions have become worse for most people.”

Admitting to be perplexed at Egypt’s refusal earlier this year to allow the international solidarity convoys through, she warned: “I don’t know what would happen if the Egyptian wall were built. People can’t survive on the few trucks we can bring in through the one crossing that’s working, that’s shared with commercial traffic, only open daylight hours and never open every day anyway. We can only bring in medicine and food, and very basic food at that.”

AbuZayd concluded with her short-term recipe for Gaza: “Open the borders.” Still, after nine years with UNRWA she cannot accept that, despite UN resolutions, previous commitments, and international law, the world’s nations have done nothing to persuade Israel to do so.

Light Years Apart- Emma Williams on Jerusalem

Light years apart
MEI 18th Feb

From Ian Williams

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir, Emma Williams
Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.
ISBN: 9781566567893, $16

Newly updated for the American edition, Emma Williams’ account of her six years in Jerusalem is, in many ways, far more telling than many of the more overtly partisan and ideological accounts of the Middle East conflict. She was conducting medical research in the Occupied Territories while her husband, Andrew Gilmour, was in Jerusalem with the United Nations, trying to put truth in the increasingly far-fetched rumours of a peace process.

She does not belabour the symbolism of the timing and location of the birth of her son – just before Christmas in a hospital in Bethlehem – but it surely enhances her authority. The statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof hospital had been raked with machine-gun fire from an Israeli tank the night before, but, unlike many Palestinian women, she made it to the hospital and was not held up to die at an IDF checkpoint.

Shortly after the author’s arrival in Jerusalem in 2000, Ariel Sharon took his deliberately provocative walk through the Haram al-Sharif, triggering the Second Intifada, followed after 9/11 by his assault on the Palestinian Authority. She records the puzzlement of her international colleagues in the bars of Jerusalem about the mentality of someone who could order the destruction of dental records, examination records and even driving licence records in the government buildings.

Williams’ family lived in an Arab part of Jerusalem, but with Jewish as well as Arab neighbours. Their social and professional lives crossed the divide between communities while also exposing them to the foreigners, who brought their own intellectual baggage with them. From her anecdotes, the experience is not so much one of apartheid as of switching frequently between parallel universes. “You live on the wrong side of reality,” a friend tells her about their home “on the seam”, in an Arab village in “no man’s land” in Jerusalem.

On one side, life goes on normally, except she vividly paints the perpetual fear of suicide bombings, the randomness of which magnifies their effect on morale, where every explosion has friends and family checking on the whereabouts of their children and spouses. One exploded outside the French School that her children attended. She, her three children and the unborn she was carrying, all missed it only by minutes.

Anyone who has dealings in or about the Middle East has confronted the absolute assumption of moral correctness. On the one side are those Israelis who have no conception of the brutality and humiliation of the occupation, and on the other are some Palestinians who make the “traditional” justification for the bombings as “the weapon of the weak.”

The author’s quantum leaps between the universes provide telling contrasts. The metaphysical membrane of belief is so strong that an Israeli acquaintance asserts to the wife of a French journalist shot by an Israeli paratrooper: “Our security forces don’t do that sort of thing.” The paratrooper had been captured on film taking careful, unprovoked and deliberate aim. Only the journalist’s flak jacket and the angle he was standing at stopped the bullet from going though his heart. The armour of moral certainty is hard enough to stop mere reality penetrating.

Williams is archetypically British in her politeness, which makes her a much better reporter than a more easily riled observer. When Israeli officials and, indeed, ordinary people say blinkered things, she does not take them to task and so can record the smooth flow of their prejudices.

However, she goes further to show how the suicide bombing campaign alienated even the best-intentioned Israelis, such as veteran peace campaigner Israel Shahak. Yaser Arafat’s half-hearted condemnations enhanced the rapid shrinkage of the Israeli peace camp and allowed him to be easily typecast as the terrorist leader rather than the opportunist would-be beneficiary.

What terrorises about suicide bombs is their unpredictability. But as a frequent visitor across the lines to the West Bank, she records how randomness is subsumed in the caprice of the occupying forces. The wall, the checkpoints, the peremptory behaviour of the troops are perennial, even for relatively privileged foreigners. At the same time, Williams illustrates how much worse it is for the Palestinians – especially the casualties, direct and indirect, that as a doctor and medical researcher, she saw in the Occupied Territories.

Her direct experience of both worlds (one checkpoint, but light years away from each other) allows her to ask questions that would seem offensive from others. After a bomb at the Hebrew University, she asks: “Why is the killing of so many students worse than the killing of women and children or old people – or anyone?” She compares suicide bombing to “the other forms of killing: those from further away, or from so great a distance that the victims are unseen.”

This eminently readable book not only recounts dispassionately the background to the problem, but, perhaps most usefully, gives the reader a vivid and touching depiction of the human clay, on both sides, from which any peaceful solution has to be built.

Laid Back Hacks in ME

'Straight journalism'
Passionate Detachment, Middle East International, February 18 2010

From Ian Williams in New York

Following a back injury, I write this from a horizontal position. There is only one other group of professionals that can earn a living lying flat on its back, and, frankly, I often suspect the other has more honesty and integrity. Which leads in naturally to the debate about whether the supposed objectivity of Ethan Bronner, The New York Times’ (NYT) Jerusalem bureau chief, is compromised because his son has enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the paper, praised Bronner’s work and claimed that it was, indeed, balanced – but that like Caesar’s wife, NYT staff should be above suspicion and Bronner should be reassigned. Executive Editor Bill Keller disagreed. Neither mentioned that Bronner was also married to an Israeli.

The American media are often over-punctilious about the minutiae of conflicts of interest. They will insist on paying full fares and accommodation for a junket arranged by a foreign government or a company, and then write grovelling and obsequious copy about it. A British journalist riding with them on a totally paid-for gravy train might well reward his benefactors by being rude about them. Some American journalists even refuse to join political parties or vote because they imagine it would compromise their position.

In reality, of course, the real issue is not whether Bronner is Jewish, has an Israeli wife or a son serving in the forces occupying the other side’s territory. Indeed The New York Times would be well served to have Jewish and Israeli journalists covering the issue for them if they had the integrity of the likes of Amira Hass, Akiva Eldar or Gideon Levy from Haaretz.

The real test here is to reverse the terms in the equation. Would the NYT appoint a Muslim to the position, and even if they did, would they keep him in it if his son went native and joined the forces of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas? The answer is clear.

It could be argued that Bronner’s son had no option because of Israeli conscription – but his son is also an American citizen with an easy exit, so there is more than an element of voluntarism about this. Indeed, that compounds it: he has either volunteered for a short term under the programme for foreigners, or he has been conscripted as an Israeli – and faces a lifetime of reserve duty.

However, is also true that both Bronner and the NYT have been evasive about his son’s action, with the bureau chief initially denying it then referring questions on the issue to his superiors back in Manhattan – who compounded suspicions with a wriggly response that could have been crafted by a scriptwriter for Yes Minister. They clearly think that this is, indeed, an issue.

The Times, even more than most American media, takes itself far more seriously than its actual performance merits. The box-ticking approach to ‘objectivity’ tends to obscure the question posed by a previous visitor to Jerusalem –‘what is truth’? The newspaper’s connivance in the drumbeat of frenzy leading up to the Iraq War and its tolerance for Judith Miller’s attempts to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her WMD reporting demonstrate that.

In a recent talk, Bronner claimed to work in shades of grey as opposed to the black and white he characterised in others. In fact, if you look at his work, it tends to be in shades of blue. His bedrock assumptions identify with Israel as a polity, and even when he is critical of policies, he is less so than many Israeli colleagues, although, to be fair, more so than many of the less sophisticated ‘Israel-firsters’ in the American press.

Reporters have to work in a context of editors and proprietors and meet their requirements for source cultivation. In the hierarchy of sources, an undisclosed White House or State Department source normally trumps a named foreign envoy or politician. But Israeli leaders are accorded honorary Washington insider status. Ariel Sharon could come with his hands dripping with blood, Binyamin Netanyahu can promise a settlement freeze and then plant trees in Ariel, and they will still be treated with the deference due to a senior senator in Washington.

Bonner, like the NYT, brings with him the deference to authority that is characteristic of the American media. Einstein’s second theory of relativity applies: “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” The American social environment, especially in the media, is overwhelmingly pro-Israeli and, with a few exceptions, contrarian journalists do not have successful career paths if they differ.

Jeremy Paxman, a pugnacious TV journalist and presenter in Britain, succinctly expressed a proper journalistic attitude when talking to those in authority: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” His career prospects in American media characterised by deference to authority would be as dim as Robert Fisk’s.

In which context, it is worth quoting Bronner’s 2006 review of Fisk’s book, in which he charged that The Independent’s Middle East correspondent “has become something of a caricature of himself, railing against Israel and the United States, dismissing the work of most of his colleagues as cowering and dishonest, and seeking to expose the West’s self-satisfied hypocrisy nearly to the exclusion of the pursuit of straight journalism… Mr Fisk is most passionate and least informed about Israel.” In this context, we can assume that “straight” journalism means: don’t ask, and don’t mention inconvenient facts that stray too far from Israel’s self-image.

Mark Twain, H L Mencken, I L Stone and other greats of American journalism were not afraid to take sides against the forces of darkness – as they saw them. We remember them because, even if occasionally they got the facts wrong, they pointed to the truth on the great issues of the day, without deference to authority. They would not be a Times bureau chief anywhere.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Palin into omnipotence

Asia Times February 10, 2010
By Ian Williams

WASHINGTON - "We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron," declaimed American journalist H L Mencken (1880-1956) many years ago: former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's speech to the National Tea Party movement in Tennessee last weekend calls the famous curmudgeon's lofty aspiration to mind.

Certainly, the "plain folks" assembled there fitted Mencken's bill, and they enthusiastically assume that Palin is one of them. The convention included "birthers" who think that President Barack Obama is a Muslim alien, many who think the United Nations is a sinister internationalist plot, and platform speakers who think that

the president is not just a socialist, but an "international socialist", which does not betoken an esoteric appreciation of the detritus of the fourth international, but is simply two conservative swear words compounding each other.

Palin might on occasion be an ignoramus, but she is no moron, and what is more, she is making money hand over fist, which is more than they are. In fact, they paid over their hard-earned dollars to attend the convention, which a for-profit company arranged, and which paid Palin a US$100,000 speaker's fee.

Her rhetoric avoids endorsement of the wilder excesses of her supporters, yet her folksy delivery and anarchic syntax is close enough in spirit for them to identify with her. If she did articulate her policies in a clear and intellectually compelling way, she would lose their support, as in fact former presidential candidate John McCain has done with occasional, albeit infrequent, public displays of cerebral activity. Horrified at his temerity in letting reality intrude on the smooth flow of their venomous prejudices, some in the Tea Party are against him in the next primary.

Insofar as is there is a movement, it is fueled by a rage that depends for its strength and cohesion on its inarticulacy. Yes, there is also a deep racist undercurrent - in fact often quite explicit. There are a lot of whites who still can't cope with a black president - which is why some of them can't believe he is a citizen. It is progress of sorts that they don't come out and say clearly why he cannot be president, but it is noticeable that the conventions and demonstrations are whiter than a supermarket sliced loaf.

However, there are more rational premises for their anger, even if the conclusions they draw from them are far-fetched, indeed far-stretched. Working-class (or in US parlance middle-class) incomes have been stagnant for decades, since president Ronald Reagan in fact, while health and higher education costs have soared.

It is a year since Obama picked up the poisoned chalice from George W Bush and was left to pick up the ruins of the neo-liberal enterprise. There is little doubt that his efforts have stopped it being even worse, but after a year in which he has, in effect, pandered to the perpetrators in the name of bipartisanship, it almost presents his back with a large target.

But Obama has not shown the leadership he should have done, whether on oversight of banks or reform of healthcare, and his main fault is that he has left it to the congressional Democrats, many of whom have been as subservient to the business lobbyists as their Republican opponents.

Palin's flip comment on Obama strikes memorably home at his failure, which is no less a real political failure, even though neither she nor the Republicans have any alternative plans at all, "So, how's that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?"

Obama has gone technocratic on his erstwhile supporters, and backpedaled on charismatic clear leadership while not putting a clear enough line between him and his predecessor. Certainly, the direction and tone of government has changed, immeasurably for the better under Obama, although you would never guess that from listening to the leftist mirror images of the teabaggers who accuse the president of betraying principles that he never espoused. But even if he did not promise the revolutionary changes that some of them imagined, he did, both explicitly and implicitly, promise change in how business would be conducted in Washington.

One lesson that some have drawn from the surprise Republican victory in Massachusetts is that the teabaggers rule and that conservative rage is triumphant. But polls show that no less than 82% of those who deserted Obama and voted for the Republican candidate wanted a public option in the healthcare bill. Similarly, large majorities of voters in all parties disagree strongly with the Supreme Court decision that now allows corporations unlimited spending in elections.

We cynics, looking at how much influence business already has in Washington, are not sure that it could get any worse. But the entirely rational fear of big business and big government is the basis of disaffection from left to right. The genius of Palin and the Republican right is to tie these in a package with "Big Labor" and present it as creeping socialism, along with undercover anti-minority and anti-black sentiment, in a way that attracts such dedicated and vociferous support. It has been done before. Think of the brownshirts, until they had served their purpose.

On the one hand, the teabaggers might make the Republicans unelectable nationally - soon, for example, the minorities will be a majority! And the electorate as a whole still shows signs of awareness of the real world. But Obama and the Democrats need some more therapeutic and constructive anger to retain traditional supporters and win new ones.

Ironically, the Supreme Court decision, even if does not inaugurate the cataclysmic consequences that some fear, could be the fulcrum for a major campaign to change how Washington does business, to question what most countries see as a system of overt corruption and bribery. But the president has to be indignant with his own side as well: he cannot allow the congressional leaders of his party to frame legislation, whether on health, financial oversight or Pentagon procurement, shaped by the campaign donations the most self-interested corporations and industries have given them.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and

Friday, February 05, 2010

Oh Canada

Canada's pandering to Israel
Middle East International 4 Feb 2010
Passionate Detachment

From Ian Williams

In January, Canada stopped contributing to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It is the latest in a series of decisions that have seen Ottawa ‘out-Israeling’ Washington. It had previously stopped funding KAIROS (Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives), an NGO that had been supporting human rights groups in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In each case, the government of Stephen Harper seemed to be responding to, or rather pandering to, rabidly pro-Israeli Jewish groups in Canada. Israel itself has certainly never encouraged an end to the funding of UNRWA, an institution that for decades has, in effect, been paying some of the bills for the occupation.

Although camouflaged internationally by a similar drift in British and Australian policy, Ottawa has moved far from its own earlier positions, and possibly farther than either London or Canberra. Indeed, the Obama administration’s muted criticisms of Israeli policy sound relatively ferocious compared with Canada’s gestures towards the administration of Binyamin Netanyahu.

Once upon a time, Canada was a paragon of international virtue: supportive of the UN and happily putting distance between itself and its southern neighbour on the Middle East. Then came Stephen Harper. Ottawa did not join the Iraq war, but that was more a function of strong Canadian public opinion and Harper’s parlous electoral position than any considered choice.

Canada led the walk-out at the Durban conference on racism and was the first to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. It applauded Israel’s right to “defend itself” against Hizbullah (a “measured response”, according to Harper), and against Hamas in Operation Cast Lead.

The move in the Conservative Party has also pulled the Liberal Party a significant distance from the principles of Pierre Trudeau, leaving only the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois to uphold international law. Indeed, the first turns in policy came under the previous Liberal government, ironically with human rights stalwarts in its ranks like Irwin Cotler and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who, in 2006, suggested correctly that Israel’s shelling of the UN post at Qana in southern Lebanon (in which a Canadian officer was killed) was a war crime.

Ignatieff was criticised so strongly for his remark that he ended up apologising for it, and last May he commented on the Conservative bid for Jewish votes: “It is beyond reckless for political leaders to try to score points by branding one another as ‘anti-Israel’ — to try to win votes by claiming a monopoly on supporting Israel. My party will never claim to be the only genuine defenders of Israel in Canadian politics because I don’t want my party to be alone in the defence of Israel. I want all parties to be genuine defenders of Israel.”

Yet why would anyone want to defend another country so uncritically, let alone one that had killed a Canadian soldier? How did these sincere defenders of human rights allow themselves an Israeli exception?

It is not just the multilateralism and commitment to the UN that have been a cornerstone of Canadian policy since 1945, it is also the particular application of that policy to the Middle East. To look at the official Canadian Foreign Affairs website, a Likudnik might think it had been drafted by the PLO’s legal department. Canada does not recognise the annexation of East Jerusalem, considers the territories to be occupied and the settlements to be contrary to the Geneva Conventions. It calls the West Bank barrier illegal and supports the Arab peace initiative, which is, of course, based on the 1967 boundaries.

Which leads to the basic paradox: why is Ottawa so fervent in support of an Israeli government that flaunts its denial of all these positions, whose prime minister only a week ago was declaring that the settlement in which he was planting a tree would always be part of Israel, and whose administration is evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem and building that illegal barrier?

If you delve into the official US State Department positions you will find a similar, if somewhat less explicit, exposition of and support for the accepted international legal position on the issues. But the gap between Canada’s legal position and its diplomatic gestures is amazingly wide.

On one level, it is a cynical electoral ploy. Canada’s Jewish vote is small but concentrated in areas that include key marginal ridings (constituencies). By pandering to Israel, Harper hopes to dislodge enough votes to swing the balance. Some Canadian observers also suggest it appeals to the evangelical element in the Western prairie states that provides much of the Conservative vote.

On the face of it, the strategy could backfire since there are approximately three times as many Canadian Muslims as Jews. Indeed, in the absence of adequate polling, it is possible that ‘official’ Jewish leaders, like many of their colleagues in the US, exaggerate the degree of support for Netanyahu’s Israel in their traditionally Liberal and liberal community.

It is also possible that they have gone too far with defunding UNRWA. Penalising refugees to pander to groups of fanatics with dubious political support seems to have provoked a backlash from many Canadians, who want to know who made this decision, when and why.