Refugees in Palestine and elsewhere marked the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Egyptian Sinai and Syrian Golan Heights. On the frontier with the occupied Golan Heights, hundreds were injured and more than twenty were killed when Israeli soldiers opened fire with live ammunition on the unarmed demonstrators.
The march was the second in less than a month, as hundreds demonstrated on the frontier with the Golan Heights to mark Nakba Day on 15 May as well. At that time, many refugees succeeded in crossing the fence into the Golan Heights, with one refugee reaching as far as Jaffa in search of his family’s former home.
Salman Fakhreddin is a political activist and the public relations officer of Al-Marsad, the Arab Center for Human Rights in the Golan (golan-marsad.org). Originally from the occupied Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams, where he still lives today, Fahrideen described to The Electronic Intifada what he saw yesterday, what the real threat to Israel is regarding popular demonstrations, and what message the demonstration sent to residents of the Golan Heights who are resisting the Israeli occupation.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours: Talk a bit about what happened yesterday near Majdal Shams.
Salman Fakhreddin: Yesterday, hundreds of refugees from Syria — Palestinians and Syrians — marched to the ceasefire line near Majdal Shams in a place called the Valley of Tears. We usually use this place for families [living opposite of the ceasefire line] to meet each other and to speak to each other with loudspeaker on all days of the year. Yesterday, it was a demonstration in memory of the war of ‘67 and the occupation of the Golan, West Bank and Gaza and Sinai. When these people reached the ceasefire line, the Israeli forces were well prepared with snipers. They were there already and they began firing live bullets and they killed and injured hundreds of people. Twenty-three people were killed yesterday.
It is a blood harvest of the Israeli army. I think first they began shooting to kill and during the afternoon and at beginning of the night, they began firing tear gas and rubber bullets. It means that the Israeli army yesterday was standing on its head and thinking with its feet. They dealt with the issue in the opposite of a humanitarian way. They decided to kill people in order to frighten them not to continue with this demonstration because they are afraid of the delegitimization of the state of Israel and the Israeli policy in the international community.
On the other hand, the demonstration yesterday and the demonstration of Nakba Day [on 15 May] is trying to develop a culture of nonviolence in the area, in the struggle against the Israelis, or what’s called the popular resistance. In Israel, they want to stop that because they are afraid it will reach the knowledge of the international community and the internal Israeli community will join this struggle as a peaceful struggle against colonialism and apartheid in this place of the world.
I think the idea was to stop that and because of that, they chose this way: to kill people first and then to shoot them with tear gas.
JKD: Israel has claimed that the protesters were a “security threat” to Israel, despite the fact that they were nonviolent and unarmed. What is the real threat, in your opinion, of these marches?
SF: The real threat is [that the demonstrations will hurt] Israeli legitimacy in the international community. This was [why the demonstrators chose a] nonviolent march and struggle. In Israel, they are afraid all the time of this illegitimacy because all their existence is illegal. They made with their own hands ethnic cleansing in Palestine and the Golan during the wars of ‘48 and ‘67. By their own hands, they changed the population of the place and they are putting settlers everywhere. By their own hands, they are confiscating the lands and they are trying to dismiss the culture and presence in the place. They are afraid all the time.
They use apartheid. They use ethnic cleansing, and they are using discrimination and inequality inside the State of Israel itself. In Israel there are 300,000 displaced Palestinians. They are Israeli [citizens]. They are carrying Israeli papers. They are carrying Israeli passports, but because they are Arabs, they are forcibly displaced from their own villages. They are internal refugees and until now, Israel didn’t recognize its responsibility for the refugees and the ethnic cleansing and the apartheid that is functioning in Palestine. They have to recognize that.
We have enough bloodshed in this place. We paid a high price of blood in this place. Yesterday [5 June], we paid a very high price of blood. It’s a psychological disease of the Israelis: to fire at people [with] snipers, you are seeing his face and you are trying to kill him because he is 100 meters from the fence. And it is not their land. The Golan is the Syrian territory.
JKD: Yes, many news reports stated that the shootings took place on the Israeli “border” with Syria, but the Golan Heights is Syrian, not Israeli, territory.
SF: Yes. I don’t say that, international law says that the Golan is Syrian territory. The Israelis fired at people in a Syrian territory and they killed them. All the war, all the killing yesterday, took place in the operation area of the United Nations.
JKD: How did residents in Majdal Shams feel when they saw the demonstration and the violence that ensued?
SF: We had two buses yesterday. We had a field hospital to treat injured people in case there were any. At the end of the day, we received a lot of tear gas and several people were injured and treated by our crews in the occupied Golan. It was sad to see others killed in front of us while we cannot give a hand to help or to support, except for political support. We felt very depressed. It’s very sad to see.
People here are Syrians and they want to be back in Syria. Or rather, they want Syria to be back in the Golan. It’s not a question because it’s Syrian territory. [It should be given back] in a peaceful way, not in war.
JKD: Can you talk about daily life in the Golan Heights and what challenges residents face there?
SF: The Israelis occupied the Golan in 1967. They forced people to leave their homes. The Syrians from the Golan number 500,000 refugees now. The Israelis [imposed on] them with 18,000 settlers who monopolize the resources of the Golan — the minerals of the Golan, the landscape of the Golan, the atmosphere of the Golan — which is against international law and international humanitarian law.
The Israelis divided the resources and the minerals of the place in a division of one to ten. This means I am an indigenous person of the Golan, I was born here and this is my land. I share ten percent of what we have in the Golan, if it’s water, if it’s land, if it’s landscape, if it’s health, if it’s education. And 90 percent is given to the settlers in the Golan.
This is what I say by apartheid and colonialism together. Colonialism, ethnic cleansing and apartheid in one place.
JKD: What impact do you think the demonstrations on Naksa Day and Nakba Day will have on the residents of the Golan and elsewhere who are fighting for their rights under Israeli occupation?
SF: We have been trying for several years with the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to develop a culture of nonviolence, to develop a popular struggle against Israeli colonialism here. This is the way to invite others to join, to demonstrate against the Israelis in their embassies, in their companies. In many cases, we can invite others to stop investing in Israel or to pull investments from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan.
This is the only way to gather an international struggle in peaceful ways. This is our duty as human beings and this is the duty of other free people in this world. To feel free, people have to help others to be free.
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com.
Over three quarters of the French population support a gradual shutdown of all of France’s nuclear power plants, a recent survey has shown.
The IFOP poll of 1,005 adults commissioned by the Journal du Dimanche found that 77 percent of the French people believe the country should follow Germany and abandon nuclear energy over a 30-year period. About 25 percent of the participants believed the transition should take place sooner.
Last month, the German government announced plans to phase out all nuclear power plants in the country. On Monday, the German cabinet formally approved a bill to abolish nuclear power by 2022.
It made Germany the single largest industrialized nation to plan to give up nuclear energy altogether.
The seven oldest of Germany’s 17 reactors as well as the reactor in Kruemmel, which were taken off the grid after the nuclear disaster in Japan, were shut down immediately. … Full article
Israel’s announcement today that it is “allowing between 210 and 220” trucks into Gaza with humanitarian aid is a direct response to the pressure that the upcoming Freedom Flotilla II is creating. Since July 2007, Israel has kept the number of allowed trucks at 25% of what the pre-blockade numbers were and of what is required by Gaza residents. To date, Israel has not responded to calls by human rights organizations or the UN to increase the numbers. Only as a result of the mounting pressure from the Freedom Flotilla has Israel altered its policy. However, today’s allowance still falls 35% short of what is needed in Gaza.
Letting in more trucks is not enough. More trucks with food and medicine are only meant to give the appearance of an open Gaza. More trucks does not mean freedom; more trucks does not mean rebuilding the hundreds of homes and buildings that the Israeli military destroyed during Operation Cast Lead (only 12 of the trucks being allowed in contain construction material for UN projects); more trucks does not mean Gaza is not occupied and its residents subjected to collective punishment; more trucks does not mean that Israel has ended its cruel blockade; more trucks does not mean that Palestinians are any less imprisoned.
More trucks do, however, mean that Israeli farmers and merchants make money off the occupation. as most international agencies bringing aid into Gaza are forced to buy their supplies from Israel.
Freedom Flotilla II will sail at the end of June to press Israel and the international community to end the occupation of Palestine and to ensure freedom for Palestinians – just as any other people in the world have the right to be free. Instead of pressuring countries to stand in our way, or coming up with ways to bribe governments to stop our ships, the UN, the United States and the rest of the international community should recognize the power of this non-violent civilian effort to pressure Israel to change its policy. With Israel’s change in policy after Freedom Flotilla I, and now these moves to pre-empt our flotilla, it seems we are succeeding where the international community continues to fail.
West Bank Protest Organizer, Bassem Tamimi, to Judge: “Your Military Laws Are Non-Legit. Our Peaceful Protest is Just”
Tamimi, who has been held in custody for over two months, pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and held a defiant speech explaining his motivation for organizing civil resistance to the Occupation. (Full statement below)
After more than two months in custody, the trial of Bassem Tamimi, a 44 year-old protest organizer from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, finally commenced yesterday. Tamimi, who is the coordinator for the Nabi Saleh popular committee, pleaded not guilty to the charges laid against him.
In a defiant speech handed before a crowded courtroom, Tamimi proudly owned up to organizing the protest in the village saying, “I organized these peaceful demonstrations to defend our land and our people.” Tamimi also challenged the legitimacy of the very system which trys him, saying that “Despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East you are trying me under military laws [...] that are enacted by authorities which I haven’t elected and do not represent me.” (See Tamimi’s full statement at court bellow).
Tamimi was interrupted by the judge who warned him that it was not a political trial, and that such statements were out of place in a courtroom. Tamimi was cut short and not allowed to deliver his full statement.
After Tamimi finished reading his shortened statement, the judge announced that the hearing’s protocol has been erroneously deleted. However he refused to submit the full written statement to the stenographer. She went on to dictate a short summary in her own words for official record.
The indictment against Tamimi is based on questionable and coerced confessions of youth from the village. He is charged with’ incitement’, ‘organizing and participating in unauthorized processions’,’ solicitation to stone-throwing’, ‘failure to attend legal summons’, and a scandalous charge of ‘disruption of legal proceedings’, for allegedly giving youth advice on how to act during police interrogation in the event that they are arrested.
The transcript of Tamimi’s police interrogation further demonstrates the police and Military Prosecution’s political motivation and disregard for the suspect’s rights. During his questioning, Tamimi was accused by his interrogator of “consulting lawyers and foreigners to prepare for his interrogation”, an act that is in no way in breach of the law.
I hold this speech out of belief in peace, justice, freedom, the right to live in dignity, and out of respect for free thought in the absence of Just Laws.
Every time I am called to appear before your courts, I become nervous and afraid. Eighteen years ago, my sister was killed in a courtroom such as this, by a staff member. In my lifetime, I have been nine times imprisoned for an overall of almost 3 years, though I was never charged or convicted. During my imprisonment, I was paralyzed as a result of torture by your investigators. My wife was detained, my children were wounded, my land was stolen by settlers, and now my house is slated for demolition.
I was born at the same time as the Occupation and have been living under its inherent inhumanity, inequality, racism and lack of freedom ever since. Yet, despite all this, my belief in human values and the need for peace in this land have never been shaken. Suffering and oppression did not fill my heart with hatred for anyone, nor did they kindle feelings of revenge. To the contrary, they reinforced my belief in peace and national standing as an adequate response to the inhumanity of Occupation.
International law guarantees the right of occupied people to resist Occupation. In practicing my right, I have called for and organized peaceful popular demonstrations against the Occupation, settler attacks and the theft of more than half of the land of my village, Nabi Saleh, where the graves of my ancestors have lain since time immemorial.
I organized these peaceful demonstrations in order to defend our land and our people. I do not know if my actions violate your Occupation laws. As far as I am concerned, these laws do not apply to me and are devoid of meaning. Having been enacted by Occupation authorities, I reject them and cannot recognize their validity.
Despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East you are trying me under military laws which lack any legitimacy; laws that are enacted by authorities that I have not elected and do not represent me. I am accused of organizing peaceful civil demonstrations that have no military aspects and are legal under international law.
We have the right to express our rejection of Occupation in all of its forms; to defend our freedom and dignity as a people and to seek justice and peace in our land in order to protect our children and secure their future.
The civil nature of our actions is the light that will overcome the darkness of the Occupation, bringing a dawn of freedom that will warm the cold wrists in chains, sweep despair from the soul and end decades of oppression.
These actions are what will expose the true face of the Occupation, where soldiers point their guns at a woman walking to her fields or at checkpoints; at a child who wants to drink from the sweet water of his ancestors’ fabled spring; against an old man who wants to sit in the shade of an olive tree, once mother to him, now burnt by settlers.
We have exhausted all possible actions to stop attacks by settlers, who refuse to adhere to your courts’ decisions, which time and again have confirmed that we are the owners of the land, ordering the removal of the fence erected by them.
Each time we tried to approach our land, implementing these decisions, we were attacked by settlers, who prevented us from reaching it as if it were their own.
Our demonstrations are in protest of injustice. We work hand in hand with Israeli and international activists who believe, like us, that had it not been for the Occupation, we could all live in peace on this land. I do not know which laws are upheld by generals who are inhibited by fear and insecurity, nor do I know their thoughts on the civil resistance of women, children and old men who carry hope and olive branches. But I know what justice and reason are. Land theft and tree-burning is unjust. Violent repression of our demonstrations and protests and your detention camps are not evidence of the illegality of our actions. It is unfair to be tried under a law forced upon us. I know that I have rights and my actions are just.
The military prosecutor accuses me of inciting the protesters to throw stones at the soldiers. This is not true. What incites protesters to throw stones is the sound of bullets, the Occupation’s bulldozers as they destroy the land, the smell of teargas and the smoke coming from burnt houses. I did not incite anyone to throw stones, but I am not responsible for the security of your soldiers who invade my village and attack my people with all the weapons of death and the equipment of terror.
These demonstrations that I organize have had a positive influence over my beliefs; they allowed me to see people from the other side who believe in peace and share my struggle for freedom. Those freedom fighters have rid their consciousness from the Occupation and put their hands in ours in peaceful demonstrations against our common enemy, the Occupation. They have become friends, sisters and brothers. We fight together for a better future for our children and theirs.
If released by the judge will I be convinced thereby that justice still prevails in your courts?
Regardless of how just or unjust this ruling will be, and despite all your racist and inhumane practices and Occupation, we will continue to believe in peace, justice and human values. We will still raise our children to love; love the land and the people without discrimination of race, religion or ethnicity; embodying thus the message of the Messenger of Peace, Jesus Christ, who urged us to “love our enemy.” With love and justice, we make peace and build the future.
Bassem Tamimi is a veteran Palestinian grassroots activist from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, north of Ramallah. He is married to Nariman Tamimi, with whom he fathers four children – Wa’ed (14), Ahed (10), Mohammed (8) and Salam (5).
As a veteran activist, Tamimi has been arrested by the Israeli army 11 times to date and has spent roughly three years in Israeli jails, though he was never convicted of any offence. He spent roughly three years in administrative detention, with no charges brought against him. Furthermore, his attorney and he were denied access to “secret evidence” brought against him.
In 1993, Tamimi was falsely arrested on suspicion of having murdered an Israeli settler in Beit El – an allegation of which he was cleared entirely. During his weeks-long interrogation, he was severely tortured by the Israeli Shin Bet in order to draw a coerced confession from him. During his interrogation, and as a result of the torture he underwent, Tamimi collapsed and had to be evacuated to a hospital, where he laid unconscious for seven days.
As one of the organizers of the Nabi Saleh protests and coordinator of the village’s popular committee, Tamimi has been the target of harsh treatment by the Israeli army. Since demonstrations began in the village, his house has been raided and ransacked numerous times, his wife was twice arrested and two of his sons were injured; Wa’ed, 14, was hospitalized for five days when a rubber-coated bullet penetrated his leg and Mohammed, 8, was injured by a tear-gas projectile that was shot directly at him and hit him in the shoulder. Shortly after demonstrations in the village began, the Israeli Civil Administration served ten demolition orders to structures located in Area C, Tamimi’s house was one of them, despite the fact that it was built in 1965.
On the March 24th, 2011, a massive contingent of Israeli Soldiers raided the Tamimi home at around noon, only minutes after he entered the house to prepare for a meeting with a European diplomat. He was arrested and subsequently charged.
The main evidence in Tamimi’s case is the testimony of 14 year-old Islam Dar Ayyoub, also from Nabi Saleh, who was taken from his bed at gunpoint on the night of January 23rd. In his interrogation the morning after his arrest, Islam alleged that Bassem and Naji Tamimi organized groups of youth into “brigades”, charged with different responsibilities during the demonstrations: some were allegedly in charge of stone-throwing, others of blocking roads, etc.
During a trial-within-a-trial procedure in Islam’s trial, motioning for his testimony to be ruled inadmissible, it was proven that his interrogation was fundamentally flawed and violated the rights set forth in the Israeli Youth Law in the following ways:
- Despite being a minor, he was questioned in the morning following his arrest, having been denied sleep.
- He was denied legal counsel, although his lawyer appeared at the police station requesting to see him.
- He was denied his right to have a parent present during his questioning.
- He was not informed of his right to remain silent, and was even told by his interrogators that he is “expected to tell the truth”.
- Only one of four interrogators present was a qualified youth interrogator.
While the trial-within-a-trial procedure has not yet reached conclusion, the evidence already revealed has brought a Military Court of Appeals to revise its remand decision and order Islam’s release to house arrest.
Over the past two months, the army has arrested 24 of Nabi Saleh’s residents on protest related suspicions. Half of those arrested are minors, the youngest of whom is merely eleven.
Ever since the beginning of the village’s struggle against settler takeover of their lands in December of 2009, the army has conducted 71 protest related arrests. As the entire village numbers just over 500 residents, the number constitutes approximately 10% of its population.
Tamimi’s arrest corresponds to the systematic arrest of civil protest leaders all around the West Bank, as in the case of the villages Bil’in and Ni’ilin.
Only recently the Military Court of Appeals has aggravated the sentence of Abdallah Abu Rahmah from the village of Bilin, sending him to 16 months imprisonment on charges of incitement and organizing illegal demonstrations. Abu Rahmah was released on March 2011.
The arrest and trial of Abu Rahmah has been widely condemned by the international community, most notably by Britain and EU foreign minister, Catherin Ashton. Harsh criticism of the arrest has also been offered by leading human rights organizations in Israel and around the world, among them B’tselem, ACRI, as well as Human Rights Watch, which declared Abu Rahmah’s trial unfair, and Amnesty International, which declared Abu Rahmah a prisoner of conscience.
The gullibility of many Americans is rooted in deep distrust of the Islamic countries, a desire to protect their nuclear hegemony, impressions of world events, and devotion to preachings of hard-line priests.
It was all a done deal, Bob Smith sniffed. The US got their bogeyman in Abbottabad.
To Bob, the secret night raid by U.S. commandos, the staccato bursts of gunfire, the crash of the stealth helicopter and the reported killing of the al Qaeda leader in a whitewashed compound were pure gospel. The Americans had proven to the world that terrorism exists everywhere in Pakistan.
“Next we’ll go in and take control of their nuclear weapons,” the 20-year-old college student said as he walked along a cement path near the campus.
In Washington and across the country, almost all Americans are thoroughly convinced that Bin Laden was killed in a raid May 2. A poll conducted by USA Today/Gallup found that 54% of Americans believe bin Laden’s death will make the US safer from terrorism while 28% fear it will be less safe. There was no need to ask whether they believed Bin Laden was assassinated last month by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs (just like there is no need to ask who masterminded 9-11). Results indicate that at least 82% believe bin Laben to have been killed. Some people say that Bin Laden should have been killed earlier.
Such acceptance of official accounts is usual in a country with a collective propensity to get swept up by corporate media and government declarations, analysts say. The profound gullibility shared by many Americans is rooted in their deep trust of the United States government, their desire to protect their country’s nuclear hegemony, their impressions of world events outside the US, and their devotion to the preachings of hard-line priests.
The gullibility, analysts say, gives life to acceptance of the government line nurtured by free but reckless media that provide exposure for Christian-minded observers and others willing to mute skepticism. Many television talk shows try to gobble up ratings with sensationalism and demonization of the Islamic world. The result, analysts say, is often too much scapegoating and not enough self-examination of America’s own problems, a form of denial.
One of the country’s top terrorism conspiracy theory purveyors is US defense secretary Robert M. Gates who wears a trademark dark suit and tie and routinely appears at US government press conferences. In February on YouTube, Gates breathlessly talked of a real problem of anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Thus, the Democrat-Republican axis seeks to wrest control of the Islamic world by secretly supporting terrorist groups within these countries to foment civil war.
The above was a tweaking of page one of a online piece in the Los Angeles Times that palpably exposes the bias and animus toward US-government declared enemies.1 Far worse, it points to a propensity for some readers to uncritically accept printed word as fact.
The Times reporter uses the pejorative “conspiracy theorists” to describe the wide swath of Pakistanis who doubt the official US account about the purported assassination of Osama bin Laden. He thereby ignores the lies of the US government regarding Saddam Hussein having weapons-of-mass-destruction, yellow cake from Niger, dodgy British dossiers, and a history of war pretexts.2 So the skeptics are derided as conspiracy theorists.
Mainly, I substituted the word “Pakistan” with “America” and “conspiracy” with “gullibility.” Critically minded readers will easily recognize the corporate media stenography for the US government line on the conspiratorial war-on-terrorism. When many people continue to believe the official government lie after years and years of mendacity, what conclusions should one draw?
- Alex Rodriguez, “Bin Laden raid gets little credence in conspiracy-minded Pakistan,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2011
- Kim Petersen, “Grasping at Straws: Searching for a War Pretext,” Dissident Voice, 4 March 2003.
Under the auspices of the drug war, the United States is returning to its historical pattern of using Central America and the Caribbean for its own military and strategic purposes.
Even as a growing chorus of voices throughout Latin America argue that military responses to drug trafficking are ineffective against the narcotics trade and exacerbate existing human rights abuses and official corruption, the U.S. military presence in the region is growing.
U.S. military construction in Central and South America has more than doubled in the last two years, while a U.S. buildup on military bases in Colombia continues, despite a Colombian court ruling last summer that struck down an agreement for U.S. use of the bases.
Construction of military facilities is slated for this summer in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Belize, funded from an account for “counter-narco-terrorism” operated by the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), the Pentagon’s operations arm for Latin America, according to the Army Corps on Engineers plans. But the biggest Pentagon investments are in Panama and at the U.S. air base in Soto Cano, Honduras. [see interactive map for details]
The surge in U.S. military investment in the region parallels statements by SouthCom commander Douglas Fraser that the triangle formed by Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “is possibly the most violent place on Earth today.”
Congress approved a $25 million expansion of barracks for enlisted troops at the U.S. base in Soto Cano, Honduras, located 50 miles north of the capital in Tegucigalpa. The base houses about 500 U.S. troops, as well as support personnel, and served as a way-station for the aircraft that whisked President Manuel Zelaya out of Honduras during the June 2009 military coup, according to Zelaya and a leaked State Department cable. Zelaya had proposed making the base intro a commercial airport in 2008. Now, a new operating center for U.S. Special Forces troops is being built on the base.
The U.S. has also funded military base construction at Caratasca on the Atlantic Coast, which is described in Pentagon contracts as a “forward operating location,” and in April disclosed another base that is being built on Guanaja Island, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, which will be a counter-narco-terrorism operations center and barracks. The amount of Pentagon contracts for activities in Honduras signed in the six months after the coup ($19.2 million) was more than double the amount from the same period two years earlier.
The Pentagon is also constructing bases, especially naval bases, elsewhere along the Central American coast, and conducting extensive joint military exercises and training in the region. Even in El Salvador, where center-left Mauricio Funes is president, the United States will lead a massive Special Forces exercise in June, with the participation of troops from 25 nations. The Pentagon is also designing and building a $665,000 “shoot house” for U.S. Special Forces troops in El Salvador, to be completed in August.
In Guatemala, the United States last year conducted training and renovated barracks for the infamous Kaibiles special forces units, which have a base in the remote Petén department. The participation of Kaibiles in Guatemala’s attempted genocide was well documented, and more recently former Kaibilies were reported to have worked with the Zetas in Mexico, former soldiers who serve drug cartels as hired killers.
U.S. construction of a base does not necessarily mean that the United States will have title to the base or keep personnel there. But it is an intelligence asset to know in detail another nation’s military base, and it contributes to “interoperability” —that is, integration—of armed forces.
Although the Panama Canal Treaties required closure of U.S. bases in that nation in 1999, the Pentagon has had an increasing presence in Panama in the last decade, as indicated by more than 700 contracts signed by Defense Department agencies for projects there since 1999. These include the construction of five different military bases on Panama’s coasts. [see map]
In April, Panama announced the establishment on a former U.S. military base of the Regional Security Operations Center, which will host military troops from the rest of Central America and the Dominican Republic and be linked to a Southern Command surveillance base in Florida. The center echoes an unsuccessful 1990s proposal to establish a “Multinational Counternarcotics Center” on U.S. bases on the canal, as a way to maintain a U.S. military presence there. Panama hasn’t yet disclosed if the new center will include a U.S. presence.
In June, Central American leaders will gather in Guatemala, where the United States, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other nations will be urged to pitch in nearly a billion dollars to support a largely military regional security plan. The United States has committed $200 million as part of its own Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), not including Pentagon funds. Yet “officials from nearly every Central American nation maintain that the region was not sufficiently involved in the formulation of …CARSI,” the Congressional Research Service reported in March.
Cycles of U.S. Military Presence, Retreat and Advance
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the United States frequently intervened militarily in Central America and the Caribbean, it did so primarily from the sea, using gunboats to impose its will during a period when it lacked fixed military bases in the region. The installations it established were often coaling stations to supply its naval power. That changed with the establishment of bases in Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in the early twentieth century and World War II. Panama became the regional hub.
In the 1950s, the United States built up the Panama National Guard, which morphed into a more nationalistic and militarized force in the 1960s and 70s. In the wake of the 1989 U.S. invasion that dismantled Panama’s armed forces, the country constitutionally abolished the military.
The implementation of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1999, the expulsion of the U.S. military from Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003 and from Ecuador in 2009, the anti-imperialist influences on many regional governments, and the rise of Brazil and China as superpower players in the hemisphere, have placed U.S. military activities in Latin America on a more defensive footing.
Most of the military bases being constructed in Central America are naval bases, while the 2008 activation of the Fourth Fleet to deploy in Latin America has increased the tempo of naval exercises. The United States military, again, is coming mostly from the sea.
The projects bankrolled by the Pentagon for Panama include the use of drones in Panama by Stark Aerospace, a division of Israel Defense Industries, as well as an upgrade to firing ranges. Stark is a small firm based in Mississippi whose primary business is producing drones, including both unarmed surveillance vehicles and an armed “Hunter” drone that has been used for bombing missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The firing ranges being upgraded became a thorn in canal treaty implementation in the late 1990s because of the tens of thousands of explosives left behind on live fire areas on the banks of the canal.
Plan Colombia, Continued
The U.S. military buildup in Central America runs parallel to similar developments in Colombia. There, the United States and Colombia signed an agreement in October 2009 that would have given the United States military use of seven bases in Colombia for ten years.
Last August, Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck down the agreement, because it was never submitted for Congressional approval or judicial review. Yet, even after the agreement was declared “non-existent” by Colombia’s highest court, the Pentagon initiated unprecedented amounts of new construction on bases in Colombia, including for an “Advanced Operations Base” for U.S. special forces.
U.S. military agencies in September 2010 signed contracts for construction worth nearly $5 million at three bases, according to official U.S. documents. U.S. military contracts for Tolemaida in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, were larger than the four previous years combined.
The contracts included two for an “Advanced Operations Base” for the U.S. Southern Command special operations unit in Tolemaida, a training base located south of Bogota. The special operations unit, known as SOCSOUTH, has as its mission “the use of small units in direct or indirect military actions that are focused on strategic or operational objectives,” including “provid[ing] an immediately deployable theater crisis response force.”
“It is a flagrant violation of sovereignty,” according to former Constitutional Court magistrate Alfredo Beltrán Sierra. “Remember that the government already tried to justify the establishment of U.S. troops with a disguised agreement that the Court finally overturned,” he said.
The base agreement also provoked strong regional opposition in 2009 after Pentagon planning and budget documents referred to “anti-U.S. governments” and the use of “full spectrum operations” in the region, indicating that the Pentagon seeks to project military power in South America. The construction now of a U.S. “advanced operations base” in Colombia raises similar concerns.
Besides the new contracts naming military bases, there were also military contracts for $2.5 million in construction at unnamed locations in Colombia signed in September. Another military construction contract described as being for “Talemaida Avaition” [sic] for $5.5 million was signed in October 2009, just days before the United States and Colombia signed the base agreement. Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) obtained the contract information from a public website that posts federal contract information, including where the contracts will be carried out.
There is a growing chorus of voices, including former Latin American presidents, as well as Mexicans fed up with the war paradigm, who assert that military responses to drug traffickers are only making the problem worse. The question is, how will civil society in Latin America and the United States respond to the growing U.S. military buildup?
John Lindsay-Poland is research and advocacy director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke).