Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Bush's War" on PBS

I just caught part two of the PBS Frontline documentary "Bush's War," produced by Michael Kirk. It's very well done. When I heard Kirk speak at Columbia's journalism school this fall, he emphasized that detailed chronologies were the basis for his films. A solid time line, he said, was his script. This method seemed to me to pay dividends in "Bush's War." So, of course, who remembers exactly which day (or even month) Jay Garner was appointed "viceroy" of Iraq, or when L. Paul Bremmer replaced him? But what I found startling was how compressed certain events were in time. For example, Jay Garner received notice of Bremmer's appointment the first day he actually arrived in Baghdad. Just as he was looking for a functioning toilet in one of Saddam's palaces! Or that within days of arriving in Iraq, Bremmer had disbanded the Iraqi army, not after so much as a photo-op tour of the country.

In his talk at Columbia, Kirk cast himself as a kind of know-nothing interviewer. The guy isn't trying to outsmart his subjects. In fact, he comes off as somewhat amateurish. But he does stick to a policy of not allowing interviewees to set ground rules. That was evident in his handling of Bremmer (and Ahmed Chalabi for that matter). So it turns out Bremmer doesn't remember a meeting that Jay Garner describes in which Garner, and someone from the CIA called "Charlie" confronted Bremmer over then Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's draconian debathification order. Charlie tells Bremmer that 30,000-50,000 people, closer to 50,000 actually, are about to lose their jobs, their place in the new society. In the documentary, Bremmer seems to panic, he can't remember the meeting, but says the number he heard was 20,000.

Much in the film is eerie in light of current events. New York Times reporter John Burns, who was in Iraq from before the invasion until last summer, in the interview, seemingly reclining on a pillow, notes dryly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the kind of man, if he sat on your local school board, you would be worried about him being appointed principal of a high school. Now he's running a country of 30 million. Like Putin, Bush looked him in the eye to see what he's all about. Now Maliki's in Basra, confronting the Sadrists with what seems to be the full force of the Iraqi Army. The Bush people are calling it "courageous," while the British are standing pat at the airport. From the documentary, it seems such an operation was very nearly set in motion many times in the war's early stages. I just hope Maliki knows what he's doing; that John Burns has him wrong.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Barbarians at the Gates

Shimon Peres and Nicholas Sarkozy bumping chests (Photo: Ynet).

Israeli President Shimon Peres inaugurated the literary festival, Le Salon du Livre, in Paris today, capping a warm reception in France that is being widely interpreted as a signal of the revitalized relationship between the two nations. But has the French position on Israel really changed? I'm not sure. But I would tend to see recent developments as the outgrowth of French President Nicholas Sarkozy's own personal preference for close, public ties with the Jewish state, and not as a fundamental reorientation of the French foreign policy (as Le Monde). Sarko is special. First he married Carla Bruni, former femme fatale of the French intelligentsia, now he wants to require every French schoolchild to "adopt" a coeval victim of the Holocaust. What will make things interesting for the outside observer is that the Sarkozy administration contains in addition to the one in the Élysée an equally strong personality on the Quai d'Orsay: foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. He has deep ties to nearly everyone in Lebanese politics -- though it seems he couldn't convince the Lebanese delegation to today's Salon not to boycott, which was indeed a major loss for a Francophonie that is under assault from cultural critics. But those ties, combined with Sarkozy's energetic engagement with the Middle East, which has already included visits from the Maghreb to the Gulf, (where the French are establishing a permanent base in Abu-Dhabi), may pay dividends for the peace process, for the effort to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions, and more. Or maybe I'm too optimistic. At any rate, cheers to the Israelis whose psyches may have been salved today by those gatekeepers of the world community, the French.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Iraqization in Gaza

I find it curious that Israeli patrol that was targeted with an explosive today just north of the border with Gaza is reported to have been hit by "an explosively formed penetrator" (or "projectile"). The American military considers the so-called EFP to be an Iranian device, one that has to a certain extent changed the rules of the game in Iraq. It was this very weapon that the Bush administration pointed to when it accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of meddling in Iraq and labeled the group a terrorist organization. In fact, a US Defense Department briefing just Tuesday mentioned again the association between this particular bomb and the Iranians. Of course, the katyusha-style rocket that is now hitting Ashkelon, the "grad," is Iranian made. So what's going on here? There's an Israeli line being retailed that the breach of the border with Egypt allowed lots of weapons into the country, weapons which are now being used against the Israeli border communities. I'm skeptical of that. I view it as part of the propaganda war. These EFPs and grads sound like the most valued and hoarded elements of Hamas' arsenal. On the other hand, if, as in Iraq, the technique of manufacturing the EFP can be imported instead of the actual bomb, we may be seeing the diffusion of know-how either from Iran itself, or, alternatively, from non-Iranian individuals who fought in the Iraqi insurgency and somehow made their way to Gaza. Either way, it's clearly a disturbing development, and will make any ground campaign in the Strip that much more costly in terms of human life.

Revenge for Mughniya in Jerusalem?

Map of Jerusalem (ArcIMS), Qiryat Moshe in orange

According to Ha'aretz, Hizbullah flagship station Al Manar reported that the "Liberators of the Galilee - Shaheed Imad Mughniya Group" took responsibility for the shooting which occurred hours ago at the Merkaz ha-Rav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Needless to say, the authenticity of this claim is highly suspect. It is extremely unlikely that the perpetrators of the attack, which has so far claimed the lives of eight, are Lebanese or directly affiliated with Hizbullah. However, they may have been Palestinians recruited by Hizbullah handlers or sympathizers. To be sure, retaliation for the assassination of Mughniya in Damascus was expected around this time.

The shooting at Merkaz ha-Rav is the worst terrorist attack that Jerusalem has seen for quite some time. The yeshiva is located in the west of the city, in Qiryat Moshe. It remains to be seen what route the terrorists took to reach the site, and where exactly they came from. I was surprised to hear that they may have infiltrated from East Jerusalem. But perhaps they took a more circuitous route.

At this point in time, it is still unclear how many attackers were involved, and what weapons they used. There are reports of one terrorist having fired an AK-47 for several "long minutes." One witness spoke of 500-600 rounds having been shot.

If the police and security forces release details of the origins of the attackers, we can be sure that there will be a major response by the IDF in Gaza or the West Bank. Tensions are already high after a roadside explosive device near the security fence around the Kisufim Crossing in Gaza destroyed an IDF jeep, killing one soldier (a Bedouin tracker). To me, that attack had all the marks of an attempted kidnapping.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Mishkans and Mishugas: the Power of Acacia

A mountain of acacia chips (source).

Just to lighten the mood a bit...Ha'aretz reports that the former head of the psychology department at Hebrew University has just published an article in the philosophy journal Time and Mind suggesting that ancient Israelites used "psychotropic materials" in ritual. The theory creates a certain naturalistic explanation for the Torah's story of Moses at Sinai. In other words, Moses was tripping. Get this, Prof. Benny Shanon's idea germinated in the Amazon rain forest, where he first ingested the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca when he participated in a ritual in 1991. Since then, the man has used the drug hundreds of times. I wonder how many other articles he's written since then. But where would the Israelites have found ayahuasca in the Negev or Sinai Deserts? They wouldn't have. And that's where the acacia wood comes in, the same material the Israelites made their tabernacle (mishkan) from. It too has psychotropic properties. Chew on that (maybe).

The Lies of Students for Justice in Palestine

UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall

Today I received an email from UC Berkeley's Students for Justice in Palestine through my department list calling on students to join a "die in" on Sproul Plaza in protest of "israeli government atrocity" [sic]. The email went on to claim that
the daunting words of israeli deputiy defense minister matan vilnai are
coming true, as a holocaust is bloodying the mediterranean sea under OUR
WATCH. Hundreds of innocent civilians are being gunned down and bombed in
their homes and cities, and we can not sit back and let this happen.
This is a blatant and unacceptable lie. First, the organizers seem to have missed the fact that IDF operations in Gaza effectively ended on Sunday. Second, to say that "hundreds" of innocent civilians are being "gunned down" is a willful distortion of the facts. The SJP has become a mouthpiece for the likes of Khaled Meshal, it appears. It reminds me of the hysterical emails about "massacres" and "holocaust" that were circulated following the IDF incursion into Hebron as part of Operation Defensive Shield in spring 2002. Most of the dead then were armed fighters not civilians.

The "daunting" words attributed to Vilnai are also a distortion. On Friday, the Guardian reported that
An Israeli minister today warned of increasingly bitter conflict in the Gaza Strip, saying the Palestinians could bring on themselves what he called a "holocaust".
But Vilnai actually said the following:
ככל שירי הקסאם גובר ומאריך טווחים, הפלסטינים מביאים על עצמם שואה יותר גדולה

As long as the qassam firing increases and lengthens in distance, the Palestinians bring even greater destruction [shoah] upon themselves.
When people mean "the Holocaust," in Israel, the word "shoah" is preceded by a definite article - "ha-shoah." Of course, even "shoah" by itself is a strong word - but it means destruction or disaster, which is what Vilnai intended. This is quite clear from the context of the word, as it is followed by the modifier "even greater." In any case, to call what happened in Gaza this past weekend, as the SJP did, a "holocaust" in the sense of a genocide claiming the lives of millions of people is disgusting.

What's so galling is that this email claims that Israel's goal is to commit a genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. There is no context for the IDF operation; it is only part of an eternal campaign of oppression. Never mind the hundreds of rockets that have rained on Israeli cities - with the deliberate intent to kill Israeli civilians.

How long will people keep up the moral obfuscation by which military operations pursuing armed fighters, who hide out in civilian areas, are equated with deliberate efforts to murder families sitting in their homes?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

War of the Missiles Redux

Most of the IDF activity is taking place around Jabaliyah (Map: Perry Castaneda, click to enlarge)

What we are seeing so far is eerily reminiscent of the beginnings of the war between Israel and Hizbullah in the summer of 2006. So far, Hamas has demonstrated that its rocket attacks can reach at least as far as Ashqelon, and that it is capable of firing hundreds of missiles a day, if it so desires. IDF activity, so far taking place at the brigade level (Givati) and consisting of infantry forays together with armored units, engineers, and air force, has made no dent whatsoever in the qassam firing while killing many civilians, including children - though it has also managed to engage Hamas fighters. The army has even made statements to the effect that its activity in Gaza is not directly related to the rocket launchings; the claim seems to be that it is pursuing larger tactical or strategic aims.

בכירים אומרים בנוסף כי ההחלטה להמשיך בפעילות היא ללא כל קשר למספר הקסאמים שנורים מהרצועה לעבר ישראל, וכי הצבא ממליץ על שורה של צעדים כנגד החמאס ולא להסתפק בתגובות נקודתיות בהתאם לשיגור הרקטות

Senior figures added that the decision to continue the activity is without any connection to the number of qassams that are fired from the Strip at Israel, and that the army recommends a series of steps against Hamas and not to make do with pin-point responses to rocket launchings (Ha'aretz).
The army appears to be testing the waters before embarking on a larger ground offensive. Barak may very well be unable to resist the calls (indeed it serves him in his own political aims against Olmert) for the "real thing" - the much-anticipated ground operation - if qassams hit a strategic installation in Ashqelon, end up killing a family, or strike a target similar to the train depot in Haifa during the Lebanon war.

What we have not seen so far are significant casualties of IDF soldiers. This suggests that the forays are still being conducted fairly cautiously, even though the military has apparently entered heavily defended areas.

UPDATE: As I write this, there is a report of 5 "seriously injured" soldiers.

Right now, it appears that Hamas is trying hard to force Israel into a truce that would see an end to the threats of assassinating the remaining political leadership. Israel, in the meantime, hopes to achieve some kind of near-knockout blow that would make it look as if it had won this round of the conflict. Destroying a few Hamas outposts will not do for this aim. If there is no large-scale ground offensive, we may see an attempt to assassinate a key Hamas figure before this fighting ends.

One thing that Israelis and Americans must get into their heads is that neither this activity, nor the assassinations, nor a large-scale ground operation will by themselves bring about regime change. The goal of regime change will continue to elude the allies. That is not to say that there isn't a great of dissatisfaction with the Hamas government in Gaza. But a revolution from below is a very unlikely prospect, especially while Gaza is under attack.