Israel attacks Gaza aid flotilla

It is inconceivable that the Israeli cabinet ordered the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla in international waters, killing and wounding scores of civilian passengers of dozens of nationalities, without considering its consequences. Among the more than 600 passengers were people of all ages, Members of the European Parliament, United States and Israeli citizens. Turkey, from where the flotilla sailed, had said that the ships were indeed carrying humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have been under Israeli siege for three year.

According to Al Jazeera, the Turkish government has summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara has called it a gross violation of international law and warned of irrevocable consequences for bilateral relations. Angry demonstrations have taken place in several places in Turkey and they are spreading. Condemnations of Israel are bound to continue in the coming weeks and months.

In the light of information widely available in advance, Israeli claims that the activists bringing aid were armed with guns and knives, were Hamas affiliates, who made attempts to lynch Israeli soldiers, are grotesque. Equally bizarre is the Israeli military spokeswoman’s claim that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza – claim that the United Nations relief agency and other humanitarian organizations flatly deny. Many people outside Israel will not believe these claims. An Al Jazeera correspondent traveling with the flotilla told the network that the organizers had instructed all the passengers to go inside the ship under attack and had raised the white flag.

The aid flotilla was at least 40 miles from Gaza, in international waters. Some international lawyers are already describing the Israeli military operation as illegal, because the flotilla was on the high seas. Moreover, as one of the ships was flying Turkey’s flag, it was under Turkish jurisdiction. An Israeli radio commentator has suggested that the military miscalculated the strength of resistance from those on board. It must be said here that the passengers, in international waters, would have the right to defend themselves in the circumstances.

What does this episode tell us? It shows the Israeli government’s determination to ensure that there are no more international attempts by activists to break the Gaza blockade in future. Even if future attempts were deterred, the international fallout of these events would be serious. From Jordan and Turkey to Spain and Sweden, many governments are joining in the condemnations of Israel.

The latest episode is another severe blow against the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that was barely alive. It makes President Obama look powerless to influence events in the Middle East in any positive way. Many of Israel’s critics may feel the aim of the attack on the aid flotilla was to sabotage the latest American attempts to resurrect talks with the Palestinian Authority.

As international criticisms grow, the Israel lobby in the United States, and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, will intensify their efforts to counter them. Israel may continue to enjoy the protection of America’s veto in the United Nations Security Council. But Israel stands more isolated today than it has been for many year in the wider community of nations.

The Lahore massacre

Even for a country where violence has long become routine, the orgy of killing in Pakistan at Friday’s prayers in Lahore is particularly distressing. Men armed with guns, hand grenades, wearing suicide vests, killed nearly 80 people and wounded more than 100 at Garhi Shahu and Model Town in the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Three suicide bombers blew themselves up as security forces began closing in.

It is important to say a few words here about the victims. They were members of the Ahmadiyya sect of Muslims, regarded as heretics by many other Muslims, particularly hard-line Sunnis. Pakistan has a four-million-strong Ahmadiyya community, officially regarded  as non-Muslims. They have long been persecuted and the discrimination continues to date. In 1984, Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq issued an edict that prohibited Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim, or ‘to pose as Muslims’. General Zia then enjoyed the patronage of the United States president Ronald Reagan. At the time, Washington was providing Zia with billions of dollars of military and economic aid, and arming and encouraging Sunni Islamic fundamentalism, to fight Soviet communism in Afghanistan.

Ahmadis, in fact, claim to lead the revival of peaceful propagation of Islam. The sect’s founder Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) proclaimed himself to be the Mujahid (divine reformer) of the fourteenth Islamic century. Among the most objectionable aspects of Ahmadiyya beliefs is their view on the death and return of Jesus.

The massacre on Friday at Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore is yet another reminder of the folly of feeding bigotry and intolerance that always leads to unforeseen disastrous consequences. Today, the same fundamentalists the Americans fed, and their children, confront their erstwhile masters. They kill fellow citizens who do not conform to their interpretation of Islam. And those who do.

Kabul suicide bomber targets NATO troops

A suicide car bomb attack targeting NATO troops killed about 20 people near parliament in the capital Kabul today. More than 50 others were wounded. An army doctor said it was the worst bombing in the city for more than a year.

The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, saying they had targeted ‘invading  NATO forces’. The insurgents said they used a van loaded with 750 kg of explosives. The attack came amid US-led military operations in Helmand Province and in the Taliban stronghold, Kandahar. Success in these operations would be essential for President Obama’s intended withdrawal of US combat troops to begin in July 2011.

The BBC defence and security correspondent Nick Childs says, “The Western alliance is making no bones about the fact that it is trying to wrest the military initiative in Afghanistan from the insurgents. So, in the battle for perceptions and hearts and minds, this will be a serious blow, with the high loss of life both of NATO troops and local civilians.”  

A spokesman for the international peacekeeping force confirmed that six of its soldiers had been killed. Apart from the five US soldiers, one Canadian is believed to have died. But most of the casualties were civilians, as is the case in most attacks by combatants.

There was another attack inside Pakistan. At least 12 people were killed in a bomb blast near a police vehicle in the north-western Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan. Officials said the bomb was planted on a bicycle and targeted the deputy police superintendent, who was killed along with his guard and driver.

There have been a number of US drone strikes inside Pakistan since the attempted bomb attack in New York in early May. An American citizen of Pakistani origin, Faisal Shahzad, is in custody as the main suspect and is being interrogated. In response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned of serious consequences for Pakistan if security threats appeared to originate from that country.

As President Obama’s deadline of July 2011 for a military drawdown approaches, violence on both sides is likely to increase, resulting in casualties not only among combatants, but critically, among civilians.

Bye bye Thatcherism

In one of the most perceptive commentaries on the outcome of the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy) describes it as marking the end of Thatcherism.

After defeating the tired Conservative government, which itself had been in power for 18 years, Tony Blair’s New Labour continued the Thatcherite policies for 13 more years after the 1997 election. Blair was an admirer of the ‘Iron Lady’. Labour’s economic policies, presided over by Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, contributed to a widening gap between rich and poor, despite an array of stealth taxation and the much publicized objective of reducing the gap. The defeat of Brown brings the New Labour project to an end.

The indecisive result of the May 6th election, in which no party won an absolute majority, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (successor to Britain’s old Liberal Party) has formed a new government. Some progressives are lamenting a liberal force in British politics entering a marriage with the party associated with harsh economic policies in recent memory. They are warning that the Liberal Democrats will have to pay a high price for their decision. The prospect of being in power for the first time since 1945 was certainly very tempting for the Liberals.

But, as Anthony Barnett argues, what we have is a ‘distinctly more progressive government’ in the United Kingdom. Labour’s re-election under Brown would have meant a continuation of the same failed policies at a time of unprecedented economic and social problems. The British electorate could not make a clear decision about who should govern. But the people clearly did not want the old order to continue.  

The two coalition partners are having to compromise on policies. But the Liberal Democrats, despite their 57 seats out of a total of 650 seats in parliament, will have 5 cabinet ministers and nearly two dozen in junior posts. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is the new deputy prime minister, working with the Conservative prime minister David Cameron.

Liberal Democrats in the cabinet are: Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister), David Laws (treasury secretary, in effect deputy chancellor of the exchequer), Vince Cable (business), Chris Huhne (environment and climate change) and Danny Alexander (Scottish secretary).

The appointment of Kenneth Clarke, an old stalwart on the Conservative Party’s liberal wing, as justice secretary will be welcomed by many people across the country who have been highly critical of the erosion of civil liberties. And Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister, becomes the Conservative Party chairman. Her appointment is intended to assure Britain’s Muslim community.  

The new coalition government will be tougher on the bankers and more focused on helping the very poor with the promise to gradually raise the limit at which people begin to pay the income tax. It is committed to ending Labour’s assault on civil liberties, although, like President Obama, it will not investigate Britain’s use of torture since 9/11. Some kind of electoral reform re-enters the arena of constitutional debate. And the introduction of greener policies is in prospect.  

But the most pressing task for the new government is to deal with the economic crisis. Public expenditure must be cut drastically. The consequence will be many government workers losing jobs. It will add to the unemployment and social discontent. The Conservative-Liberal government says it is committed to governing Britain for the full five-year term of the current parliament. The road ahead is going to be rocky.

American Mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq

Deepak Tripathi

History News Network, May 3, 2010

A little more than a year after Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush as president, United States military hardware and troops are transferring to the Afghan theater in yet another attempt to control the insurgency.  Despite the ‘surge’ that General Stanley McChrystal asked for and President Obama approved after weeks of reflection, militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border continue to defy American power.

High-profile military operations against the Taliban in Helmand, and more recently in Kandahar, illustrate both abilities and limitations of a superpower. This is not new.  The Soviet occupation forces went through a similar experience during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Like the Soviets, the Americans are increasingly finding that it is possible to wrest control of specific areas, but only as long as their troops are in occupation of those areas.  As they move on for other operations, the insurgents make a comeback. More

Brown in no hurry to leave, Tories and Lib Dems move closer

Conservative 306 (36%), Labour 258 (29%), Liberal Democrats 57 (23%)

So the United Kingdom has a hung Parliament after the general election, with the Conservatives short of the 326 needed for a majority to form a government on their own. On the day after, the defeated prime minister Gordon Brown indicated he would allow the other two main parties to try to form a government and should any other leader want to hold talks with him, he would be available.

Brown appears to be in no hurry to submit his resignation to the Queen. For the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the results have been deeply disappointing, after the initial surge in opinion polls in the wake of the first televised debate. His reaffirmation today that the party with the largest number of seats and the biggest share of the vote should be allowed to try to form the next government appears to rule out the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, formal or informal. Brown remaining the Labour leader would pose an added problem.

In an attempt to woo the Lib Dems, Labour has promised to consider introducing proportional representation as an immediate priority, a long-standing Lib Dem demand. But even with Lib Dem support, Labour cannot achieve a majority in Parliament. The Conservative leader David Cameron has also promised to consider electoral reform and cooperation with Lib Dems on the prospect of dropping Labour’s plan to introduce ID cards and other issues of civil liberties. the Lib dem leader specified his conditions for cooperation – fairer taxation system, greener economy and proportional representation. The two sides are talking.

British 2010 election scenarios

After spending six weeks in South Asia, I have just returned to the United Kingdom. We face the most critical general election on May 6 in the last thirty, perhaps more than sixty, years. Like 1979, when I was here, and 1945, six years before I was born, Britain is in the midst of a worldwide crisis. In 1945, the country had to deal with the aftermath of the Second World War, which the Allies had barely won. The crisis in 1979 was caused by the collapse of Labour government’s  relations with the unions and a deep recession. The country faces an economic crisis of much greater proportions this time.

Two things have contributed to Britain’s woes: the collapse in the US economy visiting the rest of the world and here the governing Labour Party’s own arrogance in the way the current prime minister Gordon Brown managed the economy as chancellor of the exchequer for more than a decade.

In 1979, and again in 1997, economic failure swung the public mood decisively and produced a solid majority for the victorious party. In the former case, the Conservatives came to power and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended up restructuring the British economy and society. After a traumatic period in which the labour unions were defeated and the Soviet Union collapsed marking the end of the Cold War, the Thatcher-Reagan mission seemed to have been accomplished. But those solutions created new problems.

It may be stating the obvious, but it is nonetheless worth noting that the 2010 general election comes at a time when the UK economy is in dire straits: total national debt, money owed to the private sector and other purchasers of UK gilts, £848.5 billion or nearly 60 percent of the gross national product; the public sector borrowing in 2009/2010 around £178 billion or 12.6 percent; the overall unemployment rate 8 percent, the highest since 1996; more importantly, the working age employment rate 72.1 percent. Roads and government buildings in many parts of the country have fallen into disrepair, heath care and education are facing drastic cuts. The outlook is deeply pessimistic and likely to remain so possibly for a decade.

There has been a steady erosion in trust in the mainstream political parties. And, for the first time in memory, there is a real prospect of a hung parliament, or the winner – Conservatives or Labour – emerging with a narrow lead, or a weak majority.

It means one of two possible scenarios. Either a weak Conservative government led by David Cameron, who is young, attractive but inexperienced like Labour’s Tony Blair at the time of his ascent to power in 1997. Or another Labour government, dependent on a resurgent Liberal Democratic Party, without Gordon Brown as prime minister. But any Labour-Lib Dem deal would be difficult if the Labour Party resisted changing its leader – a less likely event after defeat. In any case, the next government faces an enormous task. It will have to raise tax and cut public services, a recipe for growing public discontent.