12 January, 2009

An inside look at Gaza conflict

Last June, Al Jazeera English produced a report from Gaza about a young couple who were preparing to marry during the relative calm of the cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, a time when they could finally shop for furniture and, as the reporter put it, let themselves "dream that a happy life together is within reach."

Today that reporter, Ayman Mohyeldin, a former CNN producer, can be seen with a helmet and flak jacket answering questions from an anchor back in the studio in Doha, Qatar, describing the Israeli bombing and ground campaign in Gaza designed to stop Hamas missiles from being fired into Israel.

In a conflict where the Western news media have been largely prevented from reporting from Gaza because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli military, Al Jazeera has had a distinct advantage. It was already there.

There are six reporters on the ground in Gaza, two working for Al Jazeera English and four working for the much larger and more popular Arabic version of the network, which was created in 1996 with a $150 million grant from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Al Jazeera describes itself on the air as "the only international broadcaster with a presence there."

While getting to the story has not been an insurmountable problem for Al Jazeera English's journalists - they are, in effect, surrounded by it - getting their reports to the English-speaking public has been a bit trickier. The network is largely unavailable in the United States, only carried by cable providers in Burlington, Vermont; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington, D.C. (In Burlington, the local government last summer rejected public calls for the city-owned cable provider, Burlington Telecom, to drop the channel.)

That contrasts with the situation in the rest of the world. Al Jazeera's English-language service can be viewed in every major European market, and is available to 130 million homes in over 100 countries via cable and satellite, according to Molly Conroy, a spokeswoman for the network in Washington.

Recognizing that its material from Gaza will have influence in the United States only if it is highly accessible online, Al Jazeera has aggressively experimented with using the Internet to distribute its reports.

For example, Nanabhay said that Al Jazeera planned to announce this week that all its video material of the war in Gaza would become available under a lenient Creative Commons license, which effectively means it can be used by anyone - rival broadcaster, documentary maker, individual blogger - as long as Al Jazeera is credited.

It currently streams its broadcasts in a variety of formats and has a dedicated YouTube channel with more than 6,800 videos. The report on the couple shopping for furniture in Gaza City, for example, was viewed nearly 6,000 times on YouTube, generating more than 100 comments in the six months it had been available.

By contrast, a recent segment in which Mohyeldin played exclusive videotape of what appeared to be a Hamas sniper's killing of an Israeli tank commander, which included repeated cautions that what was being shown could not be independently confirmed, has been viewed nearly 150,000 times in less than three days, with more than 700 comments.

Al Jazeera said that since the war started, the number of people watching its broadcasts via the Livestream service has increased by over 500 percent, and the number of videos viewed on the YouTube channel has increased by more than 150 percent.

Al Jazeera has also created a Twitter feed on the "war on Gaza," which provides short cellphone messages that refer the public to new material that can be viewed online. Over the weekend, there were more than 4,600 followers, not including the many more who view those "tweets" online. The Twitter feeds are also streamed onto the Al Jazeera English Web site.

And unlike purely commercial broadcasters, Al Jazeera does not have to accompany its new-media strategies with revised new-media business models.

"Part of our mission, our mandate, is to get our news out," said Mohamed Nanabhay, a 29-year-old Al Jazeera executive who established the company's new-media group in 2006. "We don't have the direct commercial pressures that others have. If we can make some money that is great."

The near-total blackout in the United States is no doubt related to the sharp criticism Al Jazeera received from the U.S. government during the initial stages of the war in Iraq for its coverage of the American invasion. Officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and the defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, said the network's reporting was inflammatory, irresponsible and frequently misleading.

Al Jazeera executives respond that they are being blamed for accurately reporting what is going on in the world from an Arab perspective - in other words, for committing journalism on behalf of its audience.

Nonetheless, the lack of cable carriage in the United States means that the dispatches from Mohyeldin and others reach American viewers almost exclusively via the Internet.

The network has begun an ad campaign to publicize its Web site in the United States, since reaching Americans would seem to be front and center in fulfilling Al Jazeera's mandate.

"It is something on our minds, we think about the U.S. market," said Nanabhay, who is now the co-chairman of a "digital leap committee" for Al Jazeera English. But he said, "Even if the U.S. market were completely open, we would still be innovating."

According to Nanabhay and another new-media evangelist within Al Jazeera, Riyaad Minty, a 24-year-old South African who is a senior analyst at the network, the Gaza crisis is helping to convince their superiors of the power of the Internet to tell a sprawling story that unfolds over weeks or perhaps months.

"Especially during these crises, they present a lot of opportunity to use these tools, and the value becomes apparent very quickly," Nanabhay said.

Minty has been focusing on, among other things, the introduction of a platform at aljazeera.net to allow members of the public to contribute opinion or "citizen journalism," ideas that he said were still new to the Arab world.

He said the site gets many more contributions, especially video comments and other video content, from people in the West. "That mental block needs to be broken down" in Arab countries, he said. But, he said during an interview: "A new generation of people are prepared to go out there. What it takes is big media companies to give people voices on air. Where people can feel comfortable on a specific platform."

The idea would be to help distribute contributions from Gaza, but that has been practically impossible, Minty said. "The videos/images came through during the first few days of airstrikes," he wrote in an e-mail message. "However since then there has been severe damage to the local infrastructure (electricity, communications etc.) The amount of videos/images from Gaza has been low. Most of the content now is based around opinions of people from around the world and images/videos of protests that have been taking place."

It uses a software program called Ushahidi, Swahili for "testimony," that was developed to track incidents of violence in Kenya at the beginning of 2008.

In fact, with so few contributions coming from Gaza, the map really is used to illustrate Al Jazeera's own reporting from the region and organize the many Twitter feeds that the network sends out to the world via the Internet.

"Gaza is different from other conflict zones," Nanabhay said. "People can't even watch us there. They use wind-up radios. It is hard to get material out of there."

(Source: IHT)


Who will save Israel from itself?

One by one the justifications given by Israel for its latest war in Gaza are unravelling.

The argument that this is a purely defensive war, launched only after Hamas broke a six-month ceasefire has been challenged, not just by observers in the know such as Jimmy Carter, the former US president who helped facilitate the truce, but by centre-right Israeli intelligence think tanks.

The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, whose December 31 report titled "Six Months of the Lull Arrangement Intelligence Report," confirmed that the June 19 truce was only "sporadically violated, and then not by Hamas but instead by ... "rogue terrorist organisations".

Instead, "the escalation and erosion of the lull arrangement" occurred after Israel killed six Hamas members on November 4 without provocation and then placed the entire Strip under an even more intensive siege the next day.

According to a joint Tel Aviv University-European University study, this fits a larger pattern in which Israeli violence has been responsible for ending 79 per cent of all lulls in violence since the outbreak of the second intifada, compared with only 8 per cent for Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

Indeed, the Israeli foreign ministry seems to realise that this argument is losing credibility.

During a conference call with half a dozen pro-Israel professors on Thursday, Asaf Shariv, the Consul General of Israel in New York, focused more on the importance of destroying the intricate tunnel system connecting Gaza to the Sinai.

He claimed that such tunnels were "as big as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels," and offered as proof the "fact" that lions and monkeys had been smuggled through them to a zoo in Gaza. In reality, the lions were two small cubs that were drugged, thrown in sacks, and dragged through a tunnel on their way to a private zoo.

Israel's self-image

The claim that Hamas will never accept the existence of Israel has proved equally misinformed, as Hamas leaders explicitly announce their intention to do just that in the pages of the Los Angeles Times or to any international leader or journalist who will meet with them.

With each new family, 10, 20 and 30 strong, buried under the rubble of a building in Gaza, the claim that the Israeli forces have gone out of their way to diminish civilian casualties - long a centre-piece of Israel's image as an enlightened and moral democracy - is falling apart.

Anyone with an internet connection can Google "Gaza humanitarian catastrophe" and find the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories and read the thousands of pages of evidence documenting the reality of the current fighting, and the long term siege on Gaza that preceded it.

The Red Cross, normally scrupulous in its unwillingness to single out parties to a conflict for criticism, sharply criticised Israel for preventing medical personnel from reaching wounded Palestinians, some of whom remained trapped for days, slowly starving and dying in the Gazan rubble amidst their dead relatives.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has flatly denied Israeli claims that Palestinian fighters were using the UNRWA school compound bombed on January 6, in which 40 civilians were killed, to launch attacks, and has challenged Israel to prove otherwise.

War crimes admission

Additionally, numerous flippant remarks by senior Israeli politicians and generals, including Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, refusing to make a distinction between civilian people and institutions and fighters - "Hamas doesn't ... and neither should we" is how Livni puts it - are rightly being seen as admissions of war crimes.

Indeed, in reviewing statements by Israeli military planners leading up to the invasion, it is clear that there was a well thought out decision to go after Gaza's civilian infrastructure - and with it, civilians.

The following quote from an interview with Major-General Gadi Eisenkot that appeared in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth in October, is telling:

"We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective these [the villages] are military bases," he said.

"This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorised."

Causing "immense damage and destruction" and considering entire villages "military bases" is absolutely prohibited under international law.

Eisenkot's description of this planning in light of what is now unfolding in Gaza is a clear admission of conspiracy and intent to commit war crimes, and when taken with the comments above, and numerous others, renders any argument by Israel that it has tried to protect civilians and is not engaging in disproportionate force unbelievable.

International laws violated

On the ground, the evidence mounts ever higher that Israel is systematically violating a host of international laws, including but not limited to Article 56 of the IV Hague Convention of 1907, the First Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention (more specifically known as the "Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949", the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the principles of Customary International Humanitarian Law.

None of this excuses or legitimises the firing of rockets or mortars by any Palestinian group at Israeli civilians and non-military targets.

As Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur, declared in his most recent statement on Gaza: "It should be pointed out unambiguously that there is no legal (or moral) justification for firing rockets at civilian targets, and that such behavior is a violation of IHR, associated with the right to life, as well as constitutes a war crime."

By the same logic, however, Israel does not have the right to use such attacks as an excuse to launch an all-out assault on the entire population of Gaza.

In this context, even Israel's suffering from the constant barrage of rockets is hard to pay due attention to when the numbers of dead and wounded on each side are counted. Any sense of proportion is impossible to sustain with such a calculus.

'Rogue' state

Israeli commentators and scholars, self-described "loyal" Zionists who served proudly in the army in wars past, are now publicly describing their country, in the words of Oxford University professor Avi Shlaim, as a "rogue" and gangster" state led by "completely unscrupulous leaders".

Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University, has declared that Israel's actions in Gaza are like "raising animals for slaughter on a farm" and represent a "bizarre new moral element" in warfare.

"The moral voice of restraint has been left behind ... Everything is permitted" against Palestinians, writes a disgusted Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy.

Fellow Haaretz columnist and daughter of Holocaust survivors, Amira Haas writes of her late parents disgust at how Israeli leaders justified Israel's wars with a "language laundromat" aimed at redefining reality and Israel's moral compass. "Lucky my parents aren't alive to see this," she exclaimed.

Around the world people are beginning to compare Israel's attack on Gaza, which after the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers was turned literally into the world's largest prison, to the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Extremist Muslims are using internet forums to collect names and addresses of prominent European Jews with the goal, it seems clear, of assassinating them in retaliation for Israel's actions in Gaza.

Al-Qaeda is attempting to exploit this crisis to gain a foothold in Gaza and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, as well as through attacking Jewish communities globally.

Iran's defiance of both Israel and its main sponsor, the US, is winning it increasing sympathy with each passing day.

Democratic values eroded

Inside Israel, the violence will continue to erode both democratic values in the Jewish community, and any acceptance of the Jewish state's legitimacy in the eyes of its Palestinian citizens.

And yet in the US - at least in Washington and in the offices of the mainstream Jewish organisations - the chorus of support for Israel's war on Gaza continues to sing in tight harmony with official Israeli policy, seemingly deaf to the fact that they have become so out of tune with the reality exploding around them.

At my university, UCI, where last summer Jewish and Muslim students organised a trip together through the occupied territories and Israel so they could see with their own eyes the realities there, old battle lines are being redrawn.

The Anteaters for Israel, the college pro-Israel group at the University of California, Irvine, sent out an urgent email to the community explaining that, "Over the past week, increasing amounts of evidence lead us to believe that Hamas is largely responsible for any alleged humanitarian crisis in Gaza".

I have no idea who the "us" is that is referred to in the appeal, although I am sure that the membership of that group is shrinking.

Indeed, one of the sad facts of this latest tragedy is that with each claim publicly refuted by facts on the ground, more and more Americans, including Jews, are refusing to trust the assertions of Israeli and American Jewish leaders.

Trap

Even worse, in the Arab/Muslim world, the horrific images pouring out of Gaza daily are allowing preachers and politicians to deploy well-worn yet still dangerous and inciteful stereotypes against Jews as they rally the masses against Israel - and through it - their own governments.

What is most frightening is that the most important of Israel's so-called friends, the US political establishment and the mainstream Jewish leadership, seem clueless to the devastating trap that Israel has led itself into - in good measure with their indulgence and even help.

It is one that threatens the country's existence far more than any Qassam rockets, with their 0.4 per cent kill rate; even more than the disastrous 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon, which by weakening Israel's deterrence capability in some measure made this war inevitable.

First, it is clear that Israel cannot destroy Hamas, it cannot stop the rockets unless it agrees to a truce that will go far to meeting the primary demand of Hamas - an end to the siege.

Merely by surviving (and it surely will survive) Hamas, like Hezbollah in 2006, will have won.

Israel is succeeding in doing little more than creating another generation of Palestinians with hearts filled with rage and a need for revenge.

Second, Israel's main patron, the US, along with the conservative Arab autocracies and monarchies that are its only allies left in the Muslim world, are losing whatever crumbs of legitimacy they still had with their young and angry populations.

The weaker the US and its axis becomes in the Middle East, the more precarious becomes Israel's long-term security. Indeed, any chance that the US could convince the Muslim world to pressure Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons has been buried in Gaza.

Third, as Israel brutalises Palestinians, it brutalises its own people. You cannot occupy another people and engage in violence against them at this scale without doing even greater damage to your soul.

The high incidence of violent crimes committed by veterans returning from combat duty in Iraq is but one example of how the violence of occupation and war eat away at people's moral centre.

While in the US only a small fraction of the population participates in war; in Israel, most able-bodied men end up participating.

The effects of the latest violence perpetrated against Palestinians upon the collective Israeli soul is incalculable; the notion that it can survive as an "ethnocracy" - favouring one ethnic group, Jews, yet by and large democratic - is becoming a fiction.

Violence-as-power

Who will save Israel from herself?

Israelis are clearly incapable. Their addiction as a society to the illusion of violence-as-power has reached the level of collective mental illness.

As Haaretz reporter Yossi Melman described it on January 10, "Israel has created an image of itself of a madman that has lost it".

Not Palestinians, too many of whom have fallen prey to the same condition.

Not the Middle East Quartet, the European Union, the United Nations, or the Arab League, all of whom are utterly powerless to influence Israeli policy.

Not the organised Jewish leadership in the US and Europe, who are even more blind to what is happening than most Israelis, who at least allow internal debate about the wisdom of their government's policies.

Not the growing progressive Jewish community, which will need years to achieve enough social and political power to challenge the status quo.

And not senior American politicians and policy-makers who are either unwilling to risk alienating American Jewish voters, or have been so brainwashed by the constant barrage of propaganda put out by the "Israel Lobby" that they are incapable of reaching an independent judgment about the conflict.

During the US presidential race, Barack Obama was ridiculed for being a messiah-like figure. The idea does not sound so funny now. It is hard to imagine anyone less saving Israel, the Palestinians, and the world from another four years of mindless violence.

- By Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon to be published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

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