Ramallah – Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) have arrested nearly 470 Palestinians since 18 October 2011, when 477 Palestinian political prisoners were released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as part of the first phase of the prisoner exchange deal concluded by the Israeli government and Hamas authorities. This wave of arrests reveals that the exchange deal has not deterred Israel’s policy of detention of Palestinians; rather, Israeli prisons are being refilled with almost the exact number of Palestinians that were released in October. Even the released prisoners were not safe from harassment, as the IOF has regularly raided their homes, issued summons to meet with Israeli intelligence and re-arrested one individual.
The 470 Palestinians who were arrested between 18 October and 12 December include about 70 children and 11 women. The IOF continued to employ brutal methods of arrest, including the use of undercover Israeli forces, commonly known as musta’arabeen, who dress as Palestinian civilians in order to carry out ambushes and arrests of Palestinians from their homes and places of work. In many cases, joint army and intelligence raids occurred after midnight, where soldiers deliberately destroyed contents of the houses they were searching. Of the 70 children arrested during this period, the majority are from Shuafat camp in Jerusalem and Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem. In the past two weeks alone, 11 children were arrested in Shuafat and 10 in Dheisheh. Two of the 11 women arrested in the past two months remain in detention. One of the released women is Isra Salhab, a journalist who spent more than 20 days in Moskobiyyeh interrogation center. Six of the women were arrested during a demonstration outside Hasharon prison, where they were calling for the release of female prisoners not included in the first phase of the prisoner exchange. Three of these women were released shortly after their arrest, and three were sentenced to house arrest.
Political activists were especially targeted for arrest during this period. Approximately 150 arrests of alleged party members occurred, particularly including those whom the IOF claims are active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), some of whom received indictments issued against them, while others received administrative detention orders. The IOF has continued to arrest and renew administrative detention orders of members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Two PLC members were arrested since 18 October, the administrative detention orders of 6 PLC members were renewed and one PLC member received a 30-year sentence. Furthermore, on 27 October, following a mass hunger strike protesting punitive measures against prisoners including the use of isolation, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) renewed the isolation order for Ahmad Sa’adat for another year. At the beginning of December, Ahmad entered his 34th consecutive month in isolation.
The IOF also continued to carry out arrests against human rights defenders in order to further repress the popular resistance movement. During the past two months, arrests of protestors participating in peaceful demonstrations occurred in almost all of the villages with an active weekly demonstration. These arrests include at least 2 from Bil’in, 3 from Nabi Saleh, 17 from Beit Ummar, 3 from Al-Ma’asara, 1 from Kufr Qaddum and 2 from Al-Walajeh, with arrests in East Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills as well. In addition to these arrests, the IOF used extreme violence to disperse demonstrations, resulting in the death of protestor Mustafa Tamimi, 28, on 10 December. Mustafa was fatally injured when hit by a teargas canister in the head fired at close range by an Israeli soldier on 9 December, during the weekly demonstration against the Israeli settlements and Annexation Wall in Nabi Saleh. The arrests of human rights defenders, use of violence against peaceful protestors and threats to family members of activists are in clear violation of Palestinians’ right to freedom of expression and assembly.
In light of this heightened wave of arrests, Addameer is concerned about what will happen after the conclusion of the second phase of the prisoner exchange deal. The IPS has announced that 550 prisoners will be released on Sunday 18 December. Addameer calls for the implementation of the rights of released prisoners and urges the international community, including the United Nations and European Union, to intervene rapidly to prevent Israel from its continued practice of brutal and arbitrary detention.
Activists with the Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign (MN BBC) have officially filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Investments (SBI), demanding that Minnesota divest from Israel’s illegal military occupation activities in Palestine.
This lawsuit was filed despite Governor Mark Dayton’s recent rejection of MN BBC’s demand that the SBI divest from Israel bonds, the campaign stated in a press release sent by email to The Electronic Intifada. The statement continued:
On November 29, 2011, MN BBC, along with 26 other co-plaintiffs, including Palestinian residents of the besieged village of Bil’in in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jewish-Israeli members of the Israeli human rights advocacy group Boycott From Within, served a lawsuit against the SBI demanding that it cancel its Israel Bonds investments. The suit was not formally filed in court at that time in order to permit the SBI an opportunity to resolve MN BBC’s divestment demand without the necessity of court action.
The lawsuit claims that the Board’s investments in Israel Bonds are unlawful according to Minnesota and international law because they help fund Israel’s universally condemned illegal settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Following Governor Dayton’s rejection of the divestment demand, the Executive Committee of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), headquartered in New York, advised all four members of the SBI Board, including Governor Dayton, that the Board was aiding and abetting Israel’s violation of international law, which also violates Minnesota law. The NLG correspondence to each of the four Board members, which was delivered to them on December 13, 2011, is posted at the MN BBC website at http://mn.breakthebonds.org/?p=1597.
In deciding to proceed with the lawsuit, the plaintiffs also considered the murder by Israeli soldiers last Friday of Mustafa Tamimi, a Palestinian resident of Nebi Saleh, one of a growing number of West Bank villages besieged by Israeli settlers. Tamimi was shot point-blank in the face with a high velocity tear gas grenade. Israel buys a portion of its military equipment with the aid of Israel Bonds. MN Break the Bonds Campaign believes that Minnesota should not be investing our state’s money in such atrocities.
The full text (in PDF format) of the MN BBC’s lawsuit can be read by clicking here.
A summary of complaint reads:
Plaintiffs demand that the SBI divest from Israel Bonds on the basis that monies invested in Israel Bonds are pooled in Israel’s general treasury without restriction on use and that the SBI knows that these pooled funds augment funds that are then used and have been used by Israel to fund activities that violate customary international law. The SBI has refused to divest, in violation of its statutory obligation to act prudently. An actual controversy and dispute of a justiciable nature has therefore arisen between the plaintiffs and defendant.
Activists with MN BBC have been working tirelessly to pressure state lawmakers to divest from Israel bonds. They have initiated public letter-writing campaigns to the Minnesota SBI over the past year, in an effort to flood the capitol building with demands that Minnesota divest from Israel, as well as meetings with SBI representatives in person. Back in March, MN BBC activists met with SBI officials, but said that the state was “unresponsive” to the demands to divest from Israel.
The Electronic Intifada will follow this important lawsuit and provide updates. For more information on the Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign, visit their website at http://mn.breakthebonds.org/.
An Israeli soldier arrests a 12-year-old Palestinian youth (Severinelaville/Flickr)
TEL AVIV — In the wake of increased violence between the Israeli army and fighters in the Gaza Strip, Israeli threats of a second large-scale attack on the occupied Palestinian territory raise pressing questions of international humanitarian law:
How can civilians be better protected during urban warfare? And does IHL need to be amended given the increasingly blurred line between civilians and combatants, especially in places like Gaza?
Israeli military officials argue that many humanitarian rules are ill-suited to fighting militants in the densely populated Gaza Strip and say the current reality there makes a revision of IHL necessary.
“International law is not the embodiment of morality,” Israeli philosopher Asa Kasher, who wrote an early version of the army’s code of conduct, said at a recent conference in Tel Aviv, aimed at finding answers to some of the challenges urban warfare poses to military practices in the field. “We need different rules that apply to our army facing terrorists in densely populated areas.”
This position is strongly disputed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, charged with monitoring the compliance of warring parties with IHL. It says the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war also apply to asymmetric conflicts in urban settings.
With Israeli military officials saying an attack similar to the 23-day Operation Cast Lead, which killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in 2008-9, is inevitable, the question is increasingly relevant.
“There is no doubt that fighting in Gaza will come, probably earlier than we think. And each time it will be more difficult,” Dan Harel, former IDF deputy chief of staff, said during the conference.
His remarks coincided with a recent flare-up in violence in Gaza, as Israeli air strikes killed at least one civilian and wounded several others in early December, while militants in Gaza fired several rockets into Israeli territory.
What defines ‘direct participation’?
While international law prohibits the targeting of civilians, Harel defended Israel’s past military ventures in Gaza, pointing to the challenges posed by fighting in dense urban areas.
“How can we differentiate between groups of civilians and combatants on a packed street, especially when combatants don’t wear uniforms? How do we avoid killing civilians in urban areas, when Hamas militants hide among them?” he asked during the conference, hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies.
Hamas, the group that rules the Gaza Strip, has denied accusations that it has used civilians as human shields; and the report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes, found no evidence of civilians being forced by Hamas to remain in areas under attack.
Knut Dörmann, head of the ICRC legal division in Geneva, said any use of so-called “human shields” would be a war crime under IHL. But voluntary human shields can only be considered direct participants in warfare “if they pose a physical obstacle to a military operation,” he said.
This notion, he acknowledged, is subject to continuous debate. Neither the Geneva Conventions nor their Additional Protocols provide a clear definition of what represents direct participation in armed hostilities. But according to the ICRC’s interpretation of IHL, direct participation involves an act likely to inflict harm or affect military operations; there must be a direct causal link between the act and the harm likely to result; and the act must be specifically designed to directly cause the harm in support of a party to the conflict and to the detriment of another.
Civilians lose the right to protection against direct attack for the duration of each specific act that amounts to direct participation in hostilities, and in case of doubt as to whether they are combatants, must be presumed to be protected against direct attack until their status can be determined, the ICRC said.
Complex application of IHL
But the application of IHL in the context of the conflict between Israel and Gaza is highly complex because it does not fall easily into defined categories of international and non-international armed conflict.
Despite an absence of Israeli troops on the ground, the ICRC considers Gaza an occupied territory because Israel has retained a considerable degree of control over it, including over its territorial waters, airspace and land borders. Still, Israel’s obligations under IHL in Gaza are very limited, because it does not have any permanent presence inside the Gaza Strip.
“There is a nexus between the scope of Israel’s control and its legal responsibilities — where there is control, there is responsibility,” Tel Aviv-based ICRC legal adviser Eitan Diamond said. For instance, running the education system of the population may be the occupier’s obligation, but because Israel does not have any permanent presence in Gaza, it is not able and therefore not required to do so. Still, Israel has to ensure that the population’s basic needs, such as food, water and medical supplies, are met.
But the situation is complicated still further. Any occupation invokes the category of international armed conflict, and yet this occupation is a result of a historical armed conflict between Israel and Egypt, which no longer exists. Hamas is not a party to that armed conflict, but rather a new conflict that would normally be considered a non-international armed conflict. But because of the ongoing occupation, the rules on international armed conflict continue to apply.
However, Palestinian militants captured by Israel are not considered prisoners of war — entitled to special protection — because they are not state actors.
“But this doesn’t leave them in a legal vacuum,” Diamond said, because they still qualify for protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians.
As Article 4 of that convention states: “Persons protected by the Convention are those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.”
“While there are some who dispute that Gaza is occupied, the West Bank is undisputedly occupied territory,” Diamond explained, “and since the West Bank and Gaza Strip are recognized to be one territorial unit, Gazans held by Israel are clearly persons in the hands of an Occupying Power.”
Though Palestinian militants can legally be the target of attack while participating in hostilities, they should be protected as civilians when captured because the threat they pose is neutralized by detention.
“The fact that they participate in hostilities is significant only during hostilities,” Diamond said. Once they are detained, they are entitled to all the protections laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention, including humane treatment, contact with family, and assistance from the ICRC.
‘Transnational asymmetric warfare’
Furthermore, even when a militant is identified as a legitimate target, other factors must be considered.
“You can’t just proceed with the killing” in all cases, Dörmann told the conference in Tel Aviv. Following the principle of proportionality, the potential loss of life would have to be weighed against a concrete and direct military advantage, especially in densely populated areas like Gaza, where military targets are often in the midst of residential areas.
This does not sit well with the Israeli philosopher Kasher, who has been explicitly frank about his contempt of current IHL. He, like some others at the conference, questioned why Israel should have more responsibilities towards what he perceived as the “enemy’s civilians” than towards its own soldiers.
“IHL only cares about civilians, not about soldiers, and this is immoral,” Kasher said.
For the former chief of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yadlin, the ethical norms of IHL do not fit Israel’s operations in Gaza.
“If we need moral rules,” Yadlin said, “we have to adapt them to Israeli circumstances. Commanders are facing too many dilemmas when taking decisions on the ground.”
All the more reason, Dörmann said, that commanders must know the legal rules thoroughly in order to apply them in the field. “Every soldier’s knowledge of IHL is essential.”
Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, but has not ratified the protocols for the protection of victims of armed conflict. However, it is widely accepted that these rules are customary international law, and therefore applicable in all conflicts.
A joint research project by the INSS and Tel Aviv University is currently investigating how IHL might be amended, a very difficult move given that a separate international treaty would be necessary. “We try to make international law suitable for the fight against what we call transnational asymmetric warfare”, Yehuda Ben Meir, principal research fellow at the INSS, explained.
‘Some reflection must begin’
However, the ICRC’s Dörmann said such a step would be dangerous. Instead of adapting laws to asymmetric warfare, existing regulations should be reinforced and strengthened, he said.
“Otherwise we will find ourselves in a downward spiral of disrespect for IHL.”
Making the rules more suitable for regular armies would only force militants to change their tactics, which would in turn result in another undercut of IHL by the state army, he warned.
In preparation for upcoming challenges, the ICRC strongly recommended that the Israeli army learn from its past experiences in Operation Cast Lead, which saw 1,387 Palestinians killed, around half of whom did not take part in hostilities.
Civilians could be better protected through effective warning ahead of an attack, he said.
He also raised concerns over the use of specific weapons in residential areas, like white phosphorus, used by Israel during the ground phase of the operation. Originally used as a smoke screen to hide movement, white phosphorus is increasingly used as an offensive weapon, because it can cause serious burns or even death.
“Some reflection must begin over the use of artillery and mortars in populated areas, and especially the use of white phosphorus,” Dörmann said.
Promoting a concept he called “courageous restraint”, Stanley McChrystal offered these words of advice to Israelis at the conference, based on his experience as the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan.
“Limiting fire power might put soldiers more at risk. That is a correct argument,” he told the conference in Tel Aviv. “But it was necessary to protect civilians on a long term … [and] because the perception of our conduct among the people in Afghanistan became so important.”
For Israel, perception also plays a big role during conflict in the Gaza Strip, the ICRC’s Diamond said.
“This conflict wages on well beyond the battlefield, with each party investing considerable effort in a struggle for legitimacy. If you are seen to violate the rules, you can’t maintain legitimacy.”
Liberals in Congress and in the general public have allowed their blind devotion to Obama obscure their understanding of the dramatic parallels between this administration and the previous one. Obama’s high-minded idealistic rhetoric (which Bush also engaged in, it should be pointed out) may sound great to establishment liberals, but it masks the same contempt for the rule of law that was displayed so often in the Bush imperial presidency. Now, Obama’s contempt for the Constitution is on display for all to see, although many will not like what they see.
Nowhere is this contempt for the highest laws of the land clearer than in Obama’s complete refusal to protect basic due process rights for alleged terrorists and detainees in the “War on Terror.” Case in point: Obama’s commitment to illegally detain American citizens under the name of fighting terrorism (more on this in a bit).
Before getting into Obama’s most recent attacks on the Constitution, I should note that they are part of a larger historical pattern of contempt for basic civil liberties. Count among Obama’s previous transgressions:
1. The decision to refrain from prosecuting the Bush administration for its many violations of the law, including the NSA wiretaps scandal, the Guantanamo-enemy combatant fiasco, the systematic lying about the reasons for war in Iraq, and the willful skirting of the Geneva Conventions as seen in the Abu Ghraib scandal, among other deceptions;
2. The decision to continue using rendition, where terrorist suspects would be sent to third world dictatorships to be interrogated, coupled with the absurd promise that these governments would no longer torture detainees (as they did under Bush), because the new interrogations were in service of the noble and selfless Obama, unlike Bush, who was a bad, bad man; and
3. Obama’s expanded “War on Terror” as seen in the Afghan surge, which would have been protested endlessly if it occurred under the Bush administration.
The Los Angeles Times’ reporting in early 2009 perfectly symbolized the naiveté of liberal aspirations for the president, as the paper reported on Obama’s tortured promise (no pun intended) that the CIA would continue to use rendition, but that foreign interrogators simply wouldn’t torture anymore. Such a promise was outlandish on the face of it, since the whole point behind rendition is to outsource torture to allied governments which are better able to hide their use of torture in interrogations (this was the lesson learned at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram, where U.S. interrogators were eventually implicated in coercive interrogations and torture).
As the LA Times optimistically reported at the time of Obama’s inauguration: “The CIA’s secret prisons are being shuttered. Harsh interrogation techniques are off-limits. And Guantanamo Bay will eventually go back to being a wind-swept naval base on the southeastern corner of Cuba… Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said that the rendition program might be poised to play an expanded role going forward because it was the main remaining mechanism… for taking suspected terrorists off the street.” The LA Times continued: “Obama created a task force to reexamine renditions to make sure that they ‘do not result in the transfer of individuals to other nations to face torture,’ or otherwise circumvent human rights laws and treaties. The CIA has long maintained that it does not turn prisoners over to other countries without first obtaining assurances that the detainees will not be mistreated.” Such naiveté was no doubt embraced by Obama supporters who wanted to believe that Obama could never engage in the kind of torture of detainees that so regularly characterized the actions of the Bush administration.
Now Obama appears to be ready to strengthen his contempt for the rule of law via his expansion of the enemy combatant system, while slyly refusing to refer to those detained as “enemy combatants.” Much was made of Obama’s initial attempts (in 2009) to shut down Guantanamo and send detainees there to U.S. civilian courts, where they would be granted basic due process rights. That plan was shut down by Democrats in Congress, which have long displayed their basic distaste for basic Constitutional and other legal protections for “terrorist suspects.” Obama kowtowed to Congressional criminality in 2009, and is set to do it again this year. As the New York Times recently reported, Obama has now abandoned his promise to veto the “military authorization bill” being considered in Congress, which threatens to extend denial of due process to American citizens who are suspected of terrorist activities. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: Obama has now gone on record as openly supportive of denying American citizens (not only non-citizens) basic due process rights such as the right to trial, trial by peers, and right to legal representation.
As the New York Times reports: “The administration had threatened to veto versions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 passed by the House and the Senate, arguing that provisions would open the door for the military to perform policing functions inside the United States…But the bill includes a narrower provision, drafted by the Senate, authorizing the government to detain, without trial, suspected members of Al Qaeda or its allies — or those who ‘substantially supported’ them — bolstering the authorization it enacted a decade ago against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks…Another section would require officials to hold noncitizens suspected of being Qaeda operatives in military custody.”
Of course, the traditionally slavish U.S. media spared Americans the worst details of the new legislation. The Guardian reports that the new law potentially “allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.” Neither of these details was acknowledged in the New York Times’ report on the National Defense Authorization Act, to the delight of the Obama administration.
It’s truly tragic and sad that this “debate” over circumvention of basic rights granted in the Constitution has to be replayed yet again in the United States. The Bush administration was rightly condemned for its complete contempt for the Constitution, but American liberals seem content to ignore these same transgressions when engaged in by Democrats.
For the record, there is nothing remotely controversial about the conclusion that denying citizens and non-citizens alike basic due process rights in civilian courts is illegal under national and international law. As the Supreme Court ruled in the 2004 case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, military tribunals for terrorist suspects clearly violate basic protections granted under the Geneva Conventions, which require that suspects be tried in “regularly constituted courts.” A regularly constituted court is widely understood to be the equivalent of a civilian court, conferring within it basic protections to confront accusers, benefit from a trial of one’s peers, and to be protected against hearsay, majority (rather than unanimous voting), and to confidential attorney-client privileges. All of these protections are circumvented in military tribunals, which afford a far lower level of basic protections to the accused. Such due process protections carry the force of domestic law, in light of the fact that the Geneva Conventions are U.S. ratified foreign treaties, and are protected under the Constitution’s “supremacy clause,” which places foreign treaties on par with national laws and the Constitution itself as the highest form of law in the land. The Supreme Court also found that the Geneva Conventions protections for non-citizens (to have access to a trial in a civilian court) were protected via the Uniform Military Code of Justice, which also incorporates basic Geneva Conventions protections.
The outlawing of the “enemy combatant” designation and the indefinite detainment of non-citizens was also reinforced in the Supreme Court’s 2004 Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld decision, which declared the Bush administration’s detainment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo to be illegal and unconstitutional. The Constitution states explicitly in the 6th Amendment that: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury… and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” Critics will no doubt point out that the 6th Amendment refers to basic protections granted to those who are charged with crimes allegedly committed within (rather than outside) the United States. This criticism is irrelevant, however, with regard to the new legislation being considered in Congress, which is set to apply to American citizens and their (alleged) illegal activities committed on U.S. soil. Furthermore, the Constitution does not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens in the case of alleged crimes and due process rights, as addressed in the Fifth Amendment, which explicitly states that “no person [rather than no citizen]… shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This provision essentially makes illegal and unconstitutional any attempts by presidents or congress to deny basic due process to citizens and non-citizens.
Obama’s lawless infringements on basic Constitutional principles are (fortunately) opposed by a strong majority of Americans, who still maintain a commitment to the rule of law. Polling on the denial of due process is in short supply, but what little evidence exists suggests strong rejection of the circumvention of the Constitution. A 2006 poll published by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, for example, uncovers the following findings:
- 73 percent of Americans believe terrorism “suspects should have the right to request and receive a hearing.”
- 66 percent think that the “home government and families [of detainees] should be informed of their capture and location.”
- 73 percent feel that detainees “treatment should be monitored by the Red Cross or another international organization” to ensure that they are treated humanely
- 75 percent (contrary to Obama’s reliance on rendition and torture) feel that detainees “should not be tortured,” while 57 percent think that detainees “should not be threatened with torture.”
- 63 percent agree that “the rules for treating someone who is being detained because they are suspected of terrorist activities should be the same for citizens and non-citizens.”
- 57 percent feel “the United States should not permit U.S. military and intelligence agencies to secretly send terrorism suspects to other countries that are known to use torture.”
- 78 percent believe that it would be “somewhat” or “very likely” that these suspects “were tortured even if officials [as Obama has done today] say they would not be.”
American majority sentiment is very clearly opposed to the Obama administration’s continuation of the illegal attacks on the Constitution and basic due process rights. We have an opportunity today to send a message to our members of Congress that denial of due process is unacceptable regardless of the party of the president. Simply because Congress decides to initiate illegal acts doesn’t mean that they are any less unconstitutional. Political elites may have no interest in this basic lesson, but that doesn’t mean that Americans have to accept such draconian, authoritarian arguments. I strongly urge all those committed to the rule of law to contact their legislators in the House and Senate and urge them strongly to vote no against the authorization of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.
To look up your members of Congress, see the following links:
For the House of Representatives: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Rise of the Tea Party, and other works such as Crashing the Tea Party (2011); When Media Goes to War (2010); and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He has taught American politics and International Relations in Political Science at a number of colleges and universities, and can be reached at: email@example.com
One year ago, Foreign Policy magazine placed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman at number 33 on their list the Top 100 Global Thinkers, noting that he “doesn’t just report on events; he helps shape them.”
Friedman, who commands a $75,000 speaking fee (more than most Americans make in a year), wrote in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree that when he did his first column as the New York Times’ chief diplomatic correspondent in 1989:
I certainly did not know anything about most of the issues the senators were quizzing [Secretary of State James] Baker about, such as the START treaty, the Contras, Angola, the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) arms control negotiations and NATO…I couldn’t keep straight whether the Contras were our guys or their guys, and I thought the CFE was a typo and was actually ‘cafe’ without the ‘a’.
One could only hope that over the 20 years that followed, the foreign affairs columnist who once referred to himself as the newspaper’s paid “tourist with an attitude” and boasted of eating 14 Big Macs in 14 countries as one of the perks of his job, has acquired more intellectual depth.
It turns out, in Friedman’s case, that hoping for intellectual growth amounts to wishful thinking.
Fast forward a decade-and-a-half to July 2006. In an interview with the late Tim Russert on CNBC (watch video clip), Friedman not only revealed this not to be the case, but boasted, yet again, of not even knowing what he writes about or supports politically:
We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota—my hometown, in fact—and guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade Initiative [sic]. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.
While honesty is an admirable quality in any journalist, Friedman’s bravado combined with his intellectual incompetence and hostility towards the use of facts unveils an enormous amount of hubris. Friedman, despite admitting “he did not know anything about” most political issues of national and global importance, and not being able to recall the name of or knowing the contents of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), still believes he belongs in such a prominent perch covering these issues at “the paper of record.” To make matters worse, it has been reported that President Barack Obama has sought out Friedman for foreign policy advice concerning the Arab Spring.
The fact that this three-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s writing qualifies as serious, award-winning journalism and punditry is why Belén Fernandez latest book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is such an important read.
Fernandez writes that the point of her book “is to demonstrate the defectiveness in form and in substance of [Friedman's] disjointed discourse, and in doing so offer a testament to the degenerate state of the mainstream media in the United States.”
Fernandez analyzes and critiques Friedman’s journalism and punditry using his columns from 1995 to the present, and his five books, with some additional material gleaned from select interviews and public appearances.
The Imperial Messenger is divided into three sections: America, the Arab/Muslim World, and The Special Relationship [U.S.-Israel]. The book’s conclusion compares the work of Friedman to Dr. Adrienne Pine, an anthropologist at American University in Washington D.C., who blogs at www.quotha.net and whose writing and opinion has appeared in a number of alternative media outlets.
Friedman, who Fernandez concludes relies on “clichéd feel good nationalism” and the “reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality” serves as the perfect vehicle for making such an indictment of the American mainstream media.
In The Imperial Messenger, Fernandez deftly reviews some of Friedman’s signature theories and policy prescriptions from past years, and evaluates how they’ve stood the test of time.
Take for instance his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” highlighted in The Lexus and the Olive Tree — a theory which Friedman stumbled upon as he “Quater-Poundered [his] way around the world”: no two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other. Sure, it’s got a certain ring to it, but never mind the facts: as Fernandez points out, Israel’s occupation and bombing of Lebanon, or NATO’s war against the former Yugoslavia. All of these states, together with the host of NATO members, are graced with the Golden Arches.
Freidman’s “Flat World Theory,” which he floated in his 2005 bestseller The World is Flat, was developed in collaboration with the vice president of corporate strategy at IBM. Friedman, who compares himself to Christopher Columbus for making this “discovery,” argues simplistically that globalization has leveled the playing field among people, countries and companies around the globe. The World is Flat was awarded the first annual £30,000 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.
“The process of mutual aggrandizement in this case is straightforward,” writes Fenandez. “Friedman writes a book about globalization under the guidance of corporate executives, corporate executives hail book as blueprint for world, accolades propel Friedman’s fame to further reinforce elite power structures,” she writes. Friedman attributes his motivations to his professed desire to see “large numbers of people escape poverty”, evidence be damned.
Fernandez also notes that the same year when Friedman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “clarity of vision…in commenting on the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat,” he wrote a column called “ Crazier than thou,” in which he noted “No, the axis of evil idea isn’t thought through—but that’s what I like about it.”
“Crazier than thou” was a response to criticism from Chris Patten, the European Union’s Commissioner for External Relations at the time, of the Bush Administration’s “absolutist and simplistic” and “not thought through” lumping of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an allied existential threat to world peace. Friedman goes on to suggest that Bush introduce these countries to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who’s “even crazier than you.” His assessment of Rumsfeld’s mental faculties is one of the few reasonable things he’s written. Friedman goes so far as to dismiss European and Arab concerns of civilian casualties in Afghanistan as “nonsense,” because according to him, Afghans would rather be blown up by our B-52′s than continue to live under Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
In 2009, Friedman compared Afghanistan to a “special needs baby” that the U.S., an unemployed couple, has decided to adopt. This “is merely one manifestation of a tradition of unabashed Orientalism that discredits Arabs and Muslims as agents capable of managing their own destinies and sets up a power scheme in which the United States and its military simultaneously occupy the positions of killer/torturer, liberator, educator, and parent/babysitter,” writes Fernandez.
Even when it seems it can’t get worse, it does. Friedman suggested that the Bush Administration should make Iraqis “ Suck. On. This” as compensation for 9/11 (which Iraq had nothing to do with). “We can only assume that haughty refrains of sexual-military domination find resonance among audiences seeking to defy feelings of individual and/or national inadequacy,” writes Fernandez. “It is meanwhile not clear why Friedman subsequently purports to be scandalized by the sexual military goings-on at Abu Ghraib.”
Friedman also once suggested that if the Serbs don’t acquiesce to NATO demands the population should be pulverized with a “ less than surgical” bombing campaign, and if necessary, militarily-“pulverize” the country back into the 1300s. It can be assumed that Friedman either never bothered to read the Geneva Conventions, or shares the Bush Administration’s view that they are irrelevant.
Friedman often has a penchant for contradicting himself. One strong example of his contradictory positions can be gleaned from two columns on Indonesia, written just a year apart.
In a May 1998 column, Friedman describes Suharto’s regime in Indonesia as “possibly the most corrupt regime in the world today,” an analysis that bordered on accurate, though is still a little euphemistic, especially in light of the US-backed dictator’s genocide against the Timorese. But a year later, in another column, Friedman chastised the US Congress for blocking the sale of fighter jets and US-training to Indonesia’s military because the country is “too complex to be a pariah.”
Other examples of Friedman’s pearls of journalistic and political skills pointed out by Fernandez include suggesting that Washington recruit the Russian mafia in the fight against Osama bin Laden, flooding Iraq with counterfeit money, or reducing his benign criticisms of Israel, a country he noted “had me at hello,” solely to its continued illegal settlement building.
“Friedman’s accumulation of influence is a direct result of his service as mouthpiece for empire and capital, i.e., as resident apologist for military excess and punishing economic policies,” writes Fernandez. This comes through in the following quote from The Lexus and the Olive Tree:
The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the U. S. Air Force F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Fernandez’s The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work is a meticulously researched book, written with wry wit and an unrelenting critical eye, that should be read by both Friedman’s fans and critics alike; not just for what it reveals about his journalism or the New York Times, but for what it says about the state of American journalism as a whole. In short, if New York’s “paper of record” wanted to start rectifying its own journalistic deficiencies, it would do well to start by replacing Friedman with Fernandez.
By SAUL LANDAU and NELSON P. VALDES | December 16, 2011
“Los niños nacen para ser felices.”
– José Martí
On November 19, 2011 NPR broadcast “Children Of Cuba Remember: Their Flight To America.” Reporter Greg Allen claimed the 1960-62 journey from Cuba to the United States of 14,000 plus Cuban children “was made possible because of a deal a priest in the Miami diocese [Father Bryan Walsh] … worked out with the US State Department. The agreement allowed him to sign visa waivers for children 16 or under.” Allen then interviewed several right-of-center Cuban Americans to offer “objective” perspective on the facts surrounding Operation Peter Pan.
Curiously, Allen omitted the CIA from his report, although ample evidence shows the Agency in the early 1960s conspired with the Church to spirit kids out of Cuba.
Once inside the nurturing borders of the greatest country in the world “Pedro Pan kids have done well,” Allen concluded, without explaining what “well” means. Now adult Pedro Pan kids remain “firmly opposed to any normalization of relations with the Castro regime, the regime that was responsible for breaking up their families and forcing them from their homeland.”
NPR staff might have discovered a more complex and sinister story – had they looked. The CIA refuses to release Peter Pan documents, but abundant testimony shows the Agency forging documents and spreading lies, with Father Walsh and the regional Catholic hierarchy. Their goal: separate elite children from parents (a Cuban brain drain) and generate political instability.
One Operation Peter Pan conspirator, Antonio Veciana, now living in Miami, told us how Maurice Bishop (aka CIA official David Atlee Phillips) recruited him in 1960 “to wage psychological war — to destabilize the government.” Veciana described how the Agency forged a law to make affluent Cubans believe the revolutionary government planned to usurp parental control. Bishop’s agents in Cuba spread this rumor, backed by a forged simulation of the supposed law, to members of the professional and propertied classes. The forgery “declared that parents would lose control of their kids to the state.”
Veciana recounted how “CIA agents claimed they’d stolen the document from the Cuban government.” This false document “created tremendous panic.” On October 26, 1960, CIA-controlled Swan island radio station, south of Cuba, broadcast breaking “news.” Cuba’s government, the radio asserted, planned to remove children from parents so as to indoctrinate them. Radio Swan reported another lie: the Cuban underground had obtained a copy of the forthcoming “law.”
Minimal research would have revealed that Leopoldina and Ramón Grau Alsina, niece and nephew of former Cuban President Ramón Grau San Martín, had confessed to Cuban security officials after being arrested in 1965 to having printed the false law in Havana, circulated it clandestinely and then lied to parents.
Article 3 of the apocryphal document stated: “When this law comes into effect, the custody of persons under 20 years of age will be exercised by the state via persons or organizations to which this power has been delegated.” Priests and CIA agents both recruited kids and persuaded parents to “trust us. The US government will care for them.”
The clergy circulated the phony document among their Cuban upper middle-class flock. Catholic school officials feared Castro’s rapidly expanding public instruction program would undermine their virtual educational monopoly among moneyed sectors.
In March 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow the Cuban government. Agency plotters designed Peter Pan to run alongside political propaganda and economic strangulation policies. These parallel tracks would weaken Castro’s government while US trainers prepared a Cuban-exile invasion force, which, in turn, would coordinate with CIA-backed urban terrorists and guerrillas.
Operation Peter Pan (recall the Disney film?) used Cuban kids and parents to further their goal: overthrowing the revolutionary government. NPR’s claim of “no evidence” of CIA involvement would have dissolved had they asked Veciana or questioned why the CIA still refuses to release its 1500 plus documents on that Operation — while de-classifying archives on the Bay of Pigs and the 1962 Missile Crisis?
Writer Alvaro Fernandez’ father Angel Fernandez Varela, recruited by the CIA in Havana, taught at the Jesuit run Colegio Belen. Before he died in Miami, wrote Alvaro, Angel told his family “he had been one of those responsible for drafting the false law that gave rise to the hysteria.”
NPR’s report doesn’t ask: who obtained the kids’ visas, airplane tickets and contacts abroad and why did KLM and Pan American Airlines issue Peter Pan kids free tickets?
Nor does NPR Allen follow up. The US government didn’t maintain contact between parents and children, nor grant visas to most of the parents that remained in Cuba. The UN High Commissioner tried to reunite parents and children, but Washington didn’t back him.
Veciana helped facilitate this dirty trick, but later mused: “Afterward I wondered: was this the right thing to do? Because we did create panic about the government, but we also separated lots of kids from their parents.”
In fact, Cuba has won accolades for its treatment of children. “In Cuba, there are no children on the streets, no children out of school, no children without access to health services or culture, and there are no unprotected children without opportunities for development,” said Jose Juan Ortiz, UNICEF representative in Cuba.
Paradoxically, the CIA attributed its own objective to the Cuban government: separating children from their parents. Maybe, if NPR staff thought ironically they would’ve done a more accurate report on Operation Peter Pan.
Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP — available on dvd from firstname.lastname@example.org. Counterpunch published his BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD.
Nelson Valdes came to Florida in Operation Peter Pan and is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.