July 23, 2006

Gaza, Beirut and Fallujah

First read Robert Fisk’s report from Beirut. Then you can read my article below.

The Israeli attack on Lebanon and Gaza, is out of proportion to the kidnapping that precipitated it by orders of magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and live in fear of death under the most primitive conditions due to the systematic destruction of the civilian infrastructure.

This is punishment of innocent people, while leaving the guilty largely unharmed. In fact, volunteers will now flock to fight the Israeli invaders, both in Lebanon and against civilians in Israel. This invasion is a disaster for Israel, which is in much more danger now than before. The worst case scenario involves a war that encompasses the whole of the Middle East and Pakistani nuclear weapons. The best case, years of attacks and reprisals that will kill, wound, displace and terrorize innocent people both inside and outside of Israel. As usual it will be innocent people who happen to be born Palestinian who will bear the brunt of the suffering.

In addition, since the US supplies Israel with its weapons, and billions of dollars in aid, many now blame the United States, as well as Israel for the suffering that is being inflicted. In fact, attacks in Iraq are sharply up, according to Friday's newspaper.

Because of the aid we give them, the US is perhaps the only country that can hope to persuade Israel to change its course. The immediate need is for a ceasefire. In the long term, the only solution is a withdrawal of Israeli settlements so that there can be a Palestinian State with secure borders, internal communication and freedom of movement. In return there needs to be a recognition of Israel and a willingness to live in peace.

However, Israel has it backwards when they demand that all Palestinians make all the concessions before even talking about what Israel can do. Likewise the Administration has it backwards when it declares that they will stay in Iraq until there is peace. We have seen that road leads nowhere. Ending the occupations goes a long way towards establishing the conditions needed for peace to flourish.

President Bush has urged a two state solution for Israel and Palestine, we need to follow up on that declaration with real action to achieve it.

We need to pressure Israel to stop the invasion.

We can call on Hezbollah to agree to a ceasefire but we have no influence with them and the destruction is overwhelmingly caused by Israel.

We need to end the occupation of Iraq. The longer we stay there, the worse it gets for everybody.

Of course, it is unlikely that the current Administration in Washington, DC will do anything. In fact, they have speeded up delivery of weapons to Israel. They seem to have adopted Israel’s foreign policy as their own, despite its utter lack of success. Most people in the Middle East see a clear link between the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

There are differences, of course. There is some truth to Israel’s claims that it is acting in self-defense, while US policy in Iraq is wholly driven by lies. And there is no powerful constituency in the United States that seeks to push Iraqis out of their own country and settle Americans there instead, as the Israeli settler movement does in the West Bank.

Still, the tactics are remarkably the same. All men “of military age” are treated as enemies. Women and children are hardly to be trusted either. Heavily armed troops kick down doors and search people’s homes at will. Houses are destroyed. Checkpoints control the movement of people as they go about their business. The economy is destroyed. Unemployment is very high. and when things get bad, whole cities are attacked, be it Fallujah, Gaza or Beirut, for the actions of a few, who usually manage to slip away.

At best, the occupying armies appear to be blind to the existence of civilians as they go about their business of attempting to bomb out a resistance that grows in strength with every martyr. At worst, it is a systematic punishment of a whole people for voting for Hamas, or being unable to do anything about Hezbollah’s occasional attacks, or for wanting the US troops to go home. It is immoral because it punishes the wrong people and it won’t work, if the objective is peace. Almost 40 years of occupation in Palestine shows that.

July 16, 2006

Suzanne Swift - Sexual Abuse in the Military

Yesterday was Suzanne Swift’s 22nd birthday. She is the soldier who refused to go back to Iraq with her unit and was arrested last month at her home in Eugene, Oregon. That’s three Fort Lewis, Washington soldiers who have refused to go, for three different reasons. Kevin Benderman came to believe that all war is wrong and filed for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied. He is now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go because the Iraq war violates international law and the Geneva Conventions both in its inception and in the way it is being prosecuted, is awaiting court martial.

Suzanne Swift is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and could not bring herself to go back to Iraq with the same unit where she had been sexually harassed and a victim of what they call “command rape”. That is where your commanding officer coerces you into having sex.

The relationship between a ordinary soldier and her Sergeant is inherently unequal. Any boss-subordinate relationship is unequal, which is why most companies have policies against dating in that situation. If a romance develops, then one of the parties involved has to quit, or at least transfer to another department. There is just too much temptation for abuse of the situation. A boss can easily give special favors, promotions, or overlook poor work if their judgment is clouded by romance. On the other hand, an unscrupulous boss can promise favorable treatment in exchange for sex and has considerable power to punish a subordinate who refuses, or when the romance goes bad. People have been fired for refusing to put out. Even if there are no special favors or punishments there is often a perception that there is. That perception hurts morale and can be coercive in itself. That is why companies have policies against sexual harassment and set up a mechanism outside of the regular hierarchy for reporting and investigating abuses.

In the military, and especially in a combat zone, the same problems exist, only to an extreme level. The military isn’t just a job, its your whole life. Your commander has tremendous power to reward or punish you. In a combat zone, it can mean endangering your life by getting the worst assignments. Spc. Swift refused two sergeants who propositioned her but was coerced into sex with a third. She said, “They treat you like a dog if you refuse and it’s worse if you agree.”

The military has a policy against harassment, but it is not always enforced. Swift did report the harassment but nothing happened, except that things got worse for her, as she was singled out for humiliating treatment and continued demands for sex.

The Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Abuse in 2004 found widespread abuse in the military, which is not a surprise to women who have served. Estimates are that as many as 2/3 of women, and almost 1/3 of the men in the service are victims of sexual harassment, much of which goes unreported because the military response is often to further harass the victim, rather than punish the perpetrator. As Colleen Mussolino, co-founder of Women Veterans of America (WVA), an advocacy group for women veterans, was quoted as saying about her experience after being raped in "Female Soldiers Treated Lower Than Dirt", by Rose Aguilar, "I was taken by the criminal investigation team and treated like a prisoner of war for six weeks with threats. I finally signed a paper promising that I wouldn't prosecute.” Some female soldiers in Iraq were so worried about being assaulted going to the latrines at night that they wouldn't drink water late in the day and subsequently died of dehydration, according to Col. Janis Karpinski. Perpetrators usually face no consequences, or are simply transferred to another base.

Swift’s mother, Sara Rich, who is leading the fight to protect her daughter, is calling for implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, an investigation of Swift’s abuse, prosecution of the guilty parties and an honorable discharge. Since this case has received publicity, the Army has started an investigation. It remains to be seen how far it will go but Rich hopes that continued public support for her daughter will force the Army to treat this seriously. It was with this in mind that she celebrated Suzanne’s birthday with a rally, support banners on I-5 and a press conference at the entrance to Fort Lewis.

This isn’t really an anti-war issue and I don’t know what Suzanne Swift thinks, although Sara Rich is against the war and a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and most, if not all, the supporters who turned up at Fort Lewis were anti-war. People who believe that the war is necessary should be outraged at this abuse of soldiers who are risking their lives on our behalf. It undermines the effectiveness of the war effort. In a situation where everything depends on the mutual trust and unit cohesion necessary to be successful in their mission, this kind of abuse of authority can be deadly. It undermines respect for authority and drives away potential recruits.

The War Resisters League(WRL) in a pamphlet entitled “Battered by the Military” states, “Violence against women is not only an accepted part of military culture but an integral component in the training that desensitizes soldiers to violence and killing.” They go on to say, “If you think the military is an option, before enlisting ... Ask yourself whether you want to be part of a system that causes physical, emotional and psychological trauma to both women and men.”

Here is another article that goes a little deeper

Why Soldiers Rape
Culture of misogyny, illegal occupation, fuel sexual violence in military

Additional resources:

GI Rights Hotline 1-800-394-9544

The Miles Foundation is a private, non-profit organization providing comprehensive services to victims of violence associated with the military

STAMP Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel 1-866-879-2568

July 09, 2006

Think Locally, Act Globally

One of the themes of the World Peace Forum (WPF), held in Vancouver, British Columbia last month, which I had the pleasure to attend, was the importance to cities of taking action for World Peace. Cities must respond to the needs of their citizens. One of those primary needs is the need to live in peace.

Vancouver was one of 62 cities designated as Peace Messenger Cities by the UN General Assembly in 1986 for its efforts to spread a Culture of Peace within its boundaries. It was in that spirit that the city organized the WPF. They made a special effort to include representatives from other Peace Messenger Cities and Mayors for Peace.

It is easy to see why the Mayor of Hiroshima is the President of Mayors for Peace, or why Mayor Winstanley Johnson of Freetown, Sierra Leone sees peace as a prerequisite for running a city, as he copes with the aftermath of civil war. Both of those cities have experienced the disruption, devastation and suffering to their people caused by war. The UN makes this case in CITIES - THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO A CULTURE OF PEACE.

Many city officials believe that they are supposed to pay attention to local problems and ignore everything that happens outside the city limits. In practice, however, you have to work with other cities, counties and governmental agencies to solve regional problems. Most cities wouldn’t hesitate to lobby for laws and regulations on the state level that affect the city. They will even go to the National government for funds for an important local project.

At a time when local governments are having a hard time finding money for maintaining their infrastructure and providing services for their citizens, military spending can be seen as a huge diversion of funds.

Worldwide, military spending reaches $1 trillion a year, about half of it by the United States. President Eisenhower said, that every dollar spent on the military "signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." In more concrete terms the National Priorities Project documents the cost of war to local communities and shows other choices that could be made. For instance, taxpayers in California will pay $40.6 billion for the war in Iraq. For that same amount they could have had 631,955 Elementary School Teachers or built 4,421 new Elementary Schools, or provided healthcare to 16,850,732 people.

At the WPF we heard Jennifer Hostermann, Mayor of Pleasanton, California talk about how her city is affected by its location near the Lawrence Livermore Lab, which is a major research center for nuclear weapons. She realizes that in a nuclear war, her city would be right next door to one of the first targets of incoming warheads. In that she is not alone. Many of us in the United States are close to a military base that is sure to be targeted in the event of a war. Of course, cities will also be targets and the effects of nuclear war will be global so all of us are at risk. It is easy to forget, but Russian and American missiles are still ready for launch, despite the end of the Cold War almost 2 decades ago. She also feels a responsibility for the people who live in her city. That responsibility doesn’t end when the potholes are filled but extends to representing their interests at a state, national and global level.

Many cities, recognizing the detrimental effects to their residents of the war in Iraq have passed resolutions in opposition. Some feel that since they took an oath to uphold the Constitution, they are bound to oppose an unconsitutional war. Likewise, cities in the US, Britain and elsewhere have declared themselves Nuclear Free Zones. These declarations added momentum to the antinuclear movement that in the 1980s led to a significant slowing of the arms race. In an extension of this movement, national governments in the South Pacific, Latin America and Africa have declared Nuclear Free Zones that have had a real effect in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

With the big powers becoming more belligerent, a new arms race is on. It is time for people to act in their cities and communities, where the government is still accessible to ordinary people, to demand an end to the squandering of lives and money on war.

July 02, 2006

War Crimes in Gaza

Outrage can only go so far. These days it seems that everybody is outraged over something. The result is a kind of a moral numbness. A weariness that makes it hard to look at the dark side of humanity that seems so much in evidence today. People are especially unwilling to confront issues concerning war. Something about war arouses primitive instincts that call us to lay aside normal standards of decent and moral behavior as we rally to the defense of our group. The military harnesses these feelings to turn ordinary decent men and women into killers. That is what war is all about. The question is where to draw the line.

International law now attempts to distinguish behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable in warfare. This is not an easy task because war in any form is opposed to peacetime morality. At best, warfare involves the deliberate murder of opposing soldiers. There is a recognition that civilians will inevitably be victims as they are caught in the crossfire, driven from their homes, witness traumatic events and be unable to live normal lives. However, we now condemn deliberate targeting of civilians. The principle is that hostilities should be confined to armies fighting each other.

In World War II the Nazis clearly overstepped these bounds in a number of ways. The genocide against Jews, Gypsies and others was the worst abuse. The death camps could only exist by denying the humanity of these people. We respond by saying “Never Again shall we allow this to happen to anybody.”

The Nazis were also condemned for their brutal occupation of the countries they conquered. They held the entire community responsible for any attack on their troops. They would respond by holding government officials and other prominent people hostage. Sometimes they would be executed in response to attacks by the resistance. In other cases, the whole community would be punished by withholding necessities of life.

After the war, the Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Conventions outlawed these practices as war crimes. They declared that deliberate targeting of civilians would not be tolerated and that reprisals should be proportionate to the “offense” and should be confined to the guilty parties and not innocent people.

Last week’s attacks in Gaza and indeed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in general appears to violate these principles. At the same time it can be said that Palestinian terrorists violate these principles when they bomb Israeli civilians. It would be a mistake, however, to equally condemn both sides. The degree of violence and power is clearly unequal. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The establishment of settlements there violate the principle that military occupation should be temporary and that civilians should not be displaced. It is the settlements that make a political solution impossible. In order to maintain the settlements, Palestinian territory has to be fractured into a myriad of little enclaves that have no economic or political cohesion.

In response to the kidnapping of one soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Israel launched an attack on Gaza that clearly holds not only the Hamas led government but the entire population responsible. They bombed the power plant that provides power to most of Gaza, leaving people without electricity and water, which depends on pumps. They have also prevented food and other supplies from getting into Gaza, bombed government offices and taken much of the Palestinian Cabinet prisoner. Israel says that all this is to exert “pressure” on those holding Cpl. Shalit to release him.

It is hard to see this attack as anything other than collective punishment on the entire civilian population and the holding of government officials as hostages, which are exactly the type of war crimes that the Nuremberg Trials and the Geneva Conventions condemned when they were practiced by the Nazis. Of course, Shalit was kidnapped in response to Israeli attacks which were responses to attacks by Palestinian groups.... It seems ironic that the Israeli government seems to be more outraged by the one action that had a military, rather than a civilian target and thus did not violate the “rules of war”.

The current crisis represents an escalation in their tactics but is not essentially different than the policy they have been pursuing in the Palestinian territories in general. Free travel between different parts of the West Bank is not allowed. Periodic blockades and numerous check points give the military complete control over whether people can go to work or school. and whether food an other necessities of life are available. People’s homes are demolished if the military thinks that somebody there, or a relative of somebody there is a “terrorist”. There is no way to challenge such a decision.

The US is quick to condemn Hamas for their refusal to recognize Israel but slow to condemn Israel, who we support with $3 billion in aid a year, for their part in perpetuating the violence and preventing a solution. It will do no good for Hamas to change their stance if the reality of life for Palestinians does not improve. What does the Israeli government think is going to happen if they continue to pursue this course? Palestinians who see no prospect of a settlement they can live with turned to Hamas in the last election. Desperation leads to desperate measures. I can only see a continuation of the cycle of violence in which the unequal power will lead to unequal suffering but suffering nonetheless on both sides. It will be impossible to prevent terrorists from attacking and Israel will never be able to live in peace. Likewise anti-American feeling will continue to increase because of our support for these brutal Israeli policies, with tragic consequences.

The only solution is for Israel to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and move towards an end to the occupation. Palestinians will have no reason to seek peace unless they see a prospect for a return to normal life and self determination. Israel must commit to a policy of peace, justice and self-determination and the US must adopt a policy of “tough love” to get them on track and keep them on track.