Palestinians Hunger Strikers and U.S. Veterans Returning Service Medals Lead Movements for Peace

In a rare victory for human rights in a part of the world far more familiar with human rights violations, Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike won major concessions from the Israeli occupying forces. Their collective action began on April 17th – but five hunger strikers had not eaten for much longer, including Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, whose hunger strike lasted a miraculous 77 days. They were among the “administrative detainees” among the hunger strikers – held for many months or years without charge or trial, in complete violation of international law. The strike forced the Israelis to agree that their administrative detention orders will not be renewed and they will be released upon the expiration of their current orders.

Palestinian activists celebrate the end of the hunger strike. According to the Palestinian prisoner rights organization Addameer, the 2,000 or so hunger strikers demanded and won an end to Israel’s “abusive use of isolation for ‘security’ reasons, which currently affects19 prisoners, some of whom have spent 10 years in isolation, and a repeal of a series of punitive measures taken against Palestinian prisoners following the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, including the denial of family visits for all Gaza prisoners since 2007 and denial of access to university education since June 2011.”

According to Addameer, the agreement contained five main provisions:

  • the prisoners would end their hunger strike;
  • there will be an end to the use of long-term isolation of prisoners for “security” reasons, and the 19 prisoners will be moved out of isolation within 72 hours;
  • family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip and for families from the West Bank who have been denied visit based on vague “security reasons” will be reinstated within one month;
  • the Israeli intelligence agency guarantees that there will be a committee formed to facilitate meetings between prison officials and prisoners in order to improve their daily conditions;
  • there will be no new administrative detention orders or renewals of administrative detention orders for the 308 Palestinians currently in administrative detention, unless the secret files, upon which administrative detention is based, contains “very serious” information.

Certainly Israel’s violations of the Geneva Conventions and other tenets of international law regarding prisoners have not ended. The hunger strikers’ most important demand had been for a complete end to Israel’s use of administrative detention; as expected, that demand was not met. But the Israeli concessions on treatment of prisoners represents a huge victory. Now our job is to continue to monitor, mobilize, and work to end U.S. support for Israel’s illegal policies on prisoners and beyond – including U.S. government and corporate support.

NATO IN CHICAGO: PROTESTING WARS IN AFGHANISTAN & BEYOND

Many of us are heading to Chicago in the next few days, for a series of marches and teach-ins protesting the NATO summit and NATO’s business-as-usual. That business is making war around the world – including wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, far beyond the “North Atlantic” region that NATO is supposed to be defending. And now the question for heads of state gathering in Chicago – turning the City of the Big Shoulders into the City of Big Shudders around the world, as we watch the war-mongers at work – will include how to craft a new global raison d’etre for the U.S.-dominated Western military alliance.

In other NATO countries opposition to the Afghanistan war is growing even faster – and when you combine that with the massive European and especially euro-zone economic crisis, President Obama may face far less traditional NATO unanimity than usual. Oh the official statements will be anodyne and unanimous…But the summit is happening just days after right-wing French President Sarkozy, for whom President Obama all but campaigned, was defeated by the [way too moderate, but still] socialist Francois Hollande who will lead the French delegation in Chicago. In Greece the pro-NATO parties that negotiated the euro-bailout were massively defeated in elections a couple of weeks ago. Angela Merkel, hard-line queen of Europe’s austerity-for-all-but-the-1% plan, saw her party defeated in Germany’s largest province over the weekend, replaced by a center left-green coalition. None of this means that NATO will politely go where it belongs – into the dustbin of history as a relic of the Cold War. But opposition is growing.

The problem is, of course, that NATO is one giant militarized hammer – and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a military alliance, every problem, from human rights to global warming, looks like it needs a military solution. But NATO’s and the Pentagon’s “solution” in too many places, including Afghanistan, is not “solving” the problems but creating massive new problems.

(For those of you planning to be in Chicago, I’ll be doing workshops on Afghanistan and Iran with a host of other friends and comrades. Click here for details and logistics.)

If we look just at Afghanistan, and pull our eyes from the war-caused devastation of that land, and just look at the devastation here at home, the price paid by our veterans – themselves victims as well as perpetrators of this war – and their families comes to the fore. According to former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen (sure, now that he’s FORMER chief, he’s willing to tell a bit of the truth…) 18 veterans are committing suicide every day – more than 6500 every year. At the same time, he noted in the Washington Post, “as of last week, 6,414 U.S. service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, suicide kills as many of our troops in one year as our enemies have killed in the past decade.”

Maybe they have to redefine “our enemies” to realize that wars and militarism are the enemy, not some impoverished Afghan fighter furious at the drone strike that killed his daughter and desperate to get those foreign occupiers out of his country any way he can.

VETERANS TAKE THE ANTI-WAR LEAD

In the meantime, the great news is that our veterans – Iraq Veterans Against the War and especially IVAW’s Afghanistan veterans’ contingent – will be leading the protests in Chicago this weekend. Many of the vets will be returning their service medals, in recognition that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wrong, not something to be celebrated.

And not only veterans, but lots of people, it seems, are starting to understand that.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone, but support for the longest U.S. war is dropping further and faster than ever. The latest national U.S. poll, released on May 9, shows 66 percent of Americans are against the war in Afghanistan – and 40 percent are “strongly opposed.”

We’re already hearing the usual spin, claims that it’s a hard slog but Afghans are still better off, and that we have to finish what we started. That only the presence of our brave troops is giving the Afghan government and military the chance to consolidate their rule. That only our troops provide the possibility for stability and security in Afghanistan. That we have to stay to protect Afghan women.

But the reality is people have watched – and paid for – this war for more than 11 years now, and some facts just can’t be spun anymore. Half of the 66 percent who oppose the war say that the presence of U.S. troops is actually hurting the people of Afghanistan more than they are helping. They’re the ones who got it right.

U.S. troops urinate on the bodies of dead Afghans. U.S. troops burn Q’’rans. One or more U.S. troops goes on a murderous rampage killing 17 civilians, 9 of them children. U.S. troops photograph each other grinning with the body parts of dead Afghans draped over their shoulders. As for protecting women, according to Save the Children’s new “State of the World’s Mothers” report, Afghanistan is the second worst place in the world for a mother to give birth and try raise a child.

And the war has cost the lives of more than 1800 U.S. troops, killed unknown thousands of Afghans, and cost more than half a trillion dollars in taxpayers’ money. That’s not spin – those are the reasons that support for the illegal war continues to plummet. If that money ($571 billion according to the National Priorities Project) had not been wasted on the war in Afghanistan since 2001, it could instead have paid for ten years of health care for 12 million low-income people, or hired 840,000 new elementary school teachers for ten years, or paid for converting 246 million households to all solar energy for a year. Think it’s those investments, or a brutal, useless war, that would make us safer?

Only 27 percent of people in this country say they support the war now – the lowest number ever. Just a year ago 37 percent supported the war, and the year before that support in some polls was at 46 percent – almost half. And only 8 percent now “strongly” support the war.

Certainly there’s an election connection to all this. Support for the war is dropping among Republicans too – to 37 percent backing the war, down from 58 percent just last year. That raises a lot of questions about whether Romney – or perhaps Republican congressional candidates, might decide to abandon the war, even if they loved it when George W. Bush launched it 11 years ago, and embrace the Republican majority who now oppose the war.

For President Obama, the challenge may be even greater. This is his war now, it has been since January 20, 2009. But support for the war in his party (a slightly embarrassingly low 30 percent last year) has dropped to a humiliating 19 percent today. Does he really think he can re-energize his base with the claim that “I’m ending the war” when the reality of his plan is so well known? His plan for two more years of full-scale war in Afghanistan, followed by at least ten years of continued occupation by thousands (16,000? 20,000?) of special forces and “training” troops? Too many people know that’s the reality of the agreement Obama signed with the U.S.-backed Afghan President Karzai last week. It’s not an end to the war, it’s simply changing the size and nature of the occupation.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee and the Progressive Caucus are leading an effort to gain support for HR 780, which would cut all funds to the Afghanistan war except money needed to safely withdraw all U.S. troops and contractors. It certainly reflects the vast majority of public opposition to the war – but it still faces a difficult battle. Many members of Congress are signing on, but far too many members are still afraid to use their Constitutional power of the purse to end this war. Too many – and they’re not afraid of what will happen in Afghanistan, or what will happen to the troops (how better to keep them safe than to pull them out?). They’re afraid of what their hometown headlines will say the next day.

We’ve largely won the battle for public opinion. The challenge now is to turn that transformation of public opinion into the transformation of policy. It’s very late – but we have no choice but to continue to try.

The great songwriter Phil Ochs, in his masterful Viet Nam-era “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” also had Afghanistan right: “We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.” The main unspinnable fact is that whichever of the myriad of reasons, rationales, excuses, and justifications for this war of vengeance one chooses, it was lost long ago. The only solution now is to get out – now, not in 2014. And completely, not with thousands of troops continuing to occupy Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond. Get Out. Now.

(This article, “We’re Fighting in a War We Lost Before the War Began,” was published in much shorter form last week on the IPS blog, CommonDreams, and a number of other venues.)

I’m just back from an extraordinary month of writing and studying in Marfa, Texas, a writers residency sponsored by the Lannan Foundation and its also extraordinary staff. I remain grateful to all of them for the amazing opportunity. And I remain grateful to all of you, as well, for all you do, and for all your support.

Chicago is a step in fighting back to STOP these wars we lose before the war begins. But it’s only one step. We’ve got a lot of work to do.