IPS Blog

America’s Good Food Movement

What better day than Thanksgiving to celebrate our country’s food rebels?

I’m talking about the growing movement of small farmers, food artisans, local retailers, co-ops, community organizers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, consumers, and others – perhaps including you. This movement has spread the rich ideas of sustainability, organic produce, local economies, and the idea of the common good from the fringe of our food economy into the mainstream.

It began as an “upchuck rebellion” — ordinary folks rejecting the industrialized, chemicalized, corporatized, and globalized food system. Farmers wanted a more natural connection to the good earth that they were working. Meanwhile, consumers began seeking edibles that were not saturated with pesticides, injected with antibiotics, ripened with chemicals, dosed with artificial flavorings, and otherwise tortured.

Natalie Maynor/Flickr

Natalie Maynor/Flickr

These two interests began to find each other and to create an alternative way of thinking about food. Today, more than 13,000 organic farmers produce everything from wheat to meat, and organic sales top nearly $27 billion a year. Some 7,000 vibrant farmers’ markets operate in practically every city and town across the land, linking farmers and food makers directly to consumers in a local, supportive economy. Restaurants, supermarkets, food wholesalers, and school districts are now buying foodstuffs that are produced sustainably and locally.

This shift did not come from corporate or governmental powers — it percolated up from the grassroots. And it’s spreading, as ordinary people inform themselves, organize locally, and assert their own democratic values over those of the corporate structure.

Family by family, town by town, this good food movement has changed not only the market, but also the culture of food. As you, your family, and friends sit down for a good meal this Thanksgiving, celebrate this change, which is truly worthy of our thanks.

Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

Bulgaria’s New Left

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Georgi Medarov

Georgi Medarov

In the same way that the New Left in the United States distanced itself in the 1960s from the old-style Communist Party and its fellow travelers, this new left in Eastern Europe has taken pains to distinguish itself from the Communist Party politics of the Cold War era.

Partly this is a generational shift. Young people who did not live through the era of Todor Zhivkov and Wojciech Jaruzelski don’t automatically associate socialism with massive human rights abuses and failed economic planning. Partly too it’s a thorough disenchantment with what liberalism has brought – austerity economics, a widening gap between rich and poor, hollow democratic institutions, a disregard for environmental issues. Many people in the region have come up against these shortcomings of liberalism and veered right, into nationalism. Another group has struck off in the opposite direction to create a new kind of progressive politics.

Georgi Medarov, soft-spoken and pony-tailed, is part of this new generation of activists. He works at an environmental NGO in Sofia and also participates in a group called New Left Perspectives. “We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough,” he says. “We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept.”

Medarov joined the movement in Bulgaria against the U.S. war in Iraq, though he and his cohort made sure to distinguish themselves from the hard-line communists and hard-line nationalists that also came out for the demonstrations. The wars of the Bush era have faded into the background. The new left’s critique of austerity, however, has proven perhaps more enduring, as the economic crisis itself has stubbornly remained front and center. Here, the experience of East-Central Europe is cautionary and could provide lessons for other movements resisting austerity measures.

Similar austerity measures, Medarov points out, “were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism.”

The economic hardship that so many people are experiencing in Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the region, has produced a certain nostalgia for the old days. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria, that nostalgia conceals a soft spot for authoritarian rule. “In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it,” Medarov explains. “This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.”

Unlike the Leninists of old and the Putinists of today, the new left has no illusions about authoritarianism. It has embraced many aspects of the social movement politics of the 1960s and 1970s: civil rights, feminism, LGBT activism. With a few exceptions, such as the Palikot movement in Poland, the new left in East-Central Europe has not registered yet in the electoral realm. In Bulgaria, the new right and the old left continue to dominate the political realm. But in the environmental protests that recently mobilized thousands of people against unrestrained economic development or the annual Pride marches that have gained in numbers and visibility, a new political sensibility is taking shape in Bulgaria. It shares many of the same perspectives as other new left groups in the region, such as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland or the organizers of the Subversive Festival in Croatia.

But as Georgi Medarov explained to me one night in October in the loud, crowded café attached to Sofia’s Archaeological Museum, Bulgaria’s new left has a sensibility all its own. My conversation with him is an important reminder that if I restricted my interviews only to the people that I talked to 22 years ago, I would miss many critical aspects of the current East-Central European reality.

The Interview

Do you remember when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I remember when I was in first grade in 1989: we had to change the way we were calling our first grade teacher from “comrade” to “mister” and “missus.” I found this strange. Throughout the 1990s, I don’t have proper political memories. I remember the 1997 political mobilizations but as something distant.

Do you remember when you became politically conscious?

In the latter part of high school, during the war against Serbia. It was a negative experience that my country was involved even indirectly in this war. I thought that this was an unjust war. It doesn’t mean that I had a proper reflection on this. Some bombs even fell by accident in Bulgaria, on Sofia, and I found this stressful.

Perhaps when I was 20 I started to become involved in the environmental movement, and I was going to environmental protests. I was also involved in some small initiatives – especially after the invasion of Iraq, we were doing Food Not Bombs in Sofia in 2004-5. We were doing this initiative with an environmental organization. We were going to anti-war demos in Sofia as a separate bloc of people because we didn’t really agree with everyone at the demo. Part of the protesters were hardline communists and some were hardline nationalists – so we had a separate bloc together with the anarchists.

Much later I started thinking about the Berlin Wall. The impressions I got from my family were quite contradictory. My parents are very apolitical; they look at both systems quite ironically and are negatively disposed to both. My sister, ten years older, was involved in the political movement of the 1990s. My grandparents were communists of various types. So there was this contradictory thing between my sister and my grandparents. But I had no opinion.

I suppose I’m on the left now, whatever this means. I have had a very ambivalent position toward the past. Personally, my parents were lucky enough that I never experienced extreme poverty in the 1990s. They were educated in Sofia and were able to adapt. For most of the people, it was a loss. There’s not much to lament about the past from my perspective. But many people are quite nostalgic about state socialism because they lost everything.

In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it. This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.

There’s a displacement in people’s memories. Their nostalgia for social achievements has been displaced by a nostalgia for a strong authoritarian state.

But this nostalgia comes not because of some kind of totalitarian mentality. It’s a reaction to the last 20 years. In 1989, everyone was excited – both the people who were on the left and those in the democratic movements. Both social movements were enthusiastic. No one was happy about what was happening in the 1980s. But no one really expected what happened in the end.

Can you describe this new left here in Bulgaria?

We use this term to try to carve out space between the old left — what we call the hardline communist left, which is nostalgic about socialism in a conservative, nationalist way, because the socialists became nationalist and kicked 300,000 people out of the country for basically racist reasons — and the Social Democratic party, which became quite neoliberal and quite conservative at the same time. So, we are trying to distinguish ourselves from this hard-line left and the social democratic one.

But at the same time we try to distinguish ourselves from liberals. We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough. We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept. We were thinking in the beginning that if we offend too many people, everyone would hate us. It’s a very negative way of identifying ourselves. But it turns out that many people are open to us. They come to our events and engage in discussions. There is a social need for this stance.

In the last couple years it’s happening not only in Bulgaria, but in Eastern Europe. There has been a rise of new left groups, with various levels of radicalism. It’s particularly strong in Croatia. The Subversive Festival is attended by a thousand people! They invite mainstream radical and left intellectuals, and they hold discussions throughout the day. It’s not only the festival. There are lots of publications, demonstrations. It’s a mainstream thing, and it gets mainstream media attention. There was a summer school that some people from my group were involved in in Budapest in July: the idea was to gather critical activist groups that are more academic-oriented. We want to make something similar in Sofia.

What is being experienced throughout Europe in terms of austerity measures are perceived as something unique. But actually they were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism. We had a general strike in 1997 that was organized by trade unions but which undermined trade union organizing in the long term. They basically lost their membership.

Is there much cooperation between NGOs and social movements east and west? Is there still an imbalance of power between the two?

Cooperation between eastern and western European NGOs is rather difficult even on the NGO level. It’s partly for financial reasons: we don’t have the resources to travel to western forums. But there are various other reasons.

Sometimes bigger NGOs, for example, they impose ready-made schema on the Bulgarian context. The Greens – which were formed here after 2007 –was very promising in the way it grew out of civil society. It was an honest initiative. But there was also an unequal exchange of ideas between west and east. The way they organized their grievances was to import ready-made policies, which were sometimes neo-liberal understandings of what policy should be, especially in realms not connected to the environment, like education. It doesn’t mean that the members really endorse this. But they see politics as a technocratic endeavor, that there are good policies and bad policies, and we should just adopt the best policies of the West and everything will be okay. But it’s more complicated than this. Many people feel that they don’t have to reflect, they just have to copy what western Europe is doing.

The NGO I work for, an environmental organization called Za Zemiata (For the Earth), is funded mostly by the European Commission. I would not call it “left,” but it definitely is quite critical and it is very open to progressive social movements and groups. The EC requires cofunding where you have to raise 20-30 percent locally. But it’s more difficult here than in western Europe. We don’t have vast memberships with fees. We’re very pressed in financial terms. So, it’s difficult to reflect and think because you don’t have time. I see this problem in western Europe too, but here’s it’s more extreme. Because we don’t have public funding here, we’re dependent on western donors.

Some of the more critical NGOs in the west are interested to see the eastern European experience of neoliberalism because they think this experience will be useful to understand what’s happening in the west. But it’s also a critical tool to use against certain trade agreements. We in Za Zemiata wrote a report on water liberalization in Bulgaria that was used as part of the international and European water movement. They need examples to see what will happen, since water privatization is now an issue in western Europe. But it was something we experienced in the 1990s.

Za Zemiata was established in 1994. Before it was more grassroots and more radical as well, but now it has become more of an expert policy organization working with the government. It tries to work on both levels. For instance, we wrote two textbooks on ecological education that were approved by the government and adopted by the school system. But we still have grassroots activities. Every year there is a clean-up of the mountains org annually. It’s very volunteer; no one funds it.

We also take part in movements like the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. Six years ago, the Bulgarian government tried to liberalize the legislation connected to GMO food production. Za Zemiata and other NGOs managed to stop this through a protest movement. Then two years ago, the current government tried to liberalize it once again. But there was an even stronger movement against this, with support at every level of society, and once again, there was success. The movement was quite varied, involving many types of groups, such as those raising health issues. At Za Zemiata, we tried to complement this activity by focusing on other related problems, such as patents and intellectual property rights. We invited Canadian farmer (and anti-GMO activist) Percy Schmeiser to Bulgaria to meet with farmers and university students.

How do Bulgarians feels about NGOs these days?

The profile of NGOs has fallen dramatically. NGOs supported the most neoliberal measures and still do — even the Open Society foundation in Bulgaria. It’s a different kind of organization in the United States, more progressive and not as right wing as it is here. It’s not conservative in terms of being racist but in supporting economic policies and foreign policies that most people radically disagree with. But the problem is that Bulgarians don’t have a language to express this disagreement. So you get a lot of conspiracy theories about the Open Society foundation that are anti-Semitic, anti-American.

There is a hatred of NGOs here, but the way it’s formulated is horrible. There is a reason for this hate, however stupid it is. In that sense, there is a lack of belief in NGOs. People tend to believe that if you’re an NGO you just want to take money from the west, you don’t care about real social issues. They think it’s a really easy job and you get paid a lot of money, which is a misunderstanding of course. But in the public imagination, that’s the way NGO-type language sounds.

My personal opinion is that it’s impossible to make social change as I imagine it, in a more critical way, as a professional activist in an NGO. The simple reason is funding. Za Zemiata works with the European Commission, which is quite conservative, but still we can do things, there is no direct limitation on what you can say or do. But in general, you have to adopt Euro-bureaucratic language and this bureaucratic mentality. And especially if one does not have any other language, another way to see the world, one ends up accepting the Euro-technocratic ideology for one’s own. That’s the reason that it’s impossible to have something more radical. So, grassroots mobilization is the way forward, though these movements have to work closely with NGOs.

But what’s left out are intellectuals. Both NGOs and the grassroots often disregard the importance of serious analysis that exists in universities, in Bulgaria as well. The cooperation between these NGOs, grassroots movements, and intellectuals is really important.

I am involved in an initiative called New Left Perspectives, comprised mostly of Ph.D. students. It’s a project for political education, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – they would never tell us what to do and it’s easier than with the NGO job. Together with most of the same people from that project we are engaged in running a social center in Sofia, where Za Zemiata also participates. We don’t have a long-term vision. We think mostly a year or two ahead. Our long-term plan would be how to make a publication, like a monthly publication, or to develop our website, which would be a year or two ahead.

Can you tell me about LGBT organizing here in Bulgaria?

There’s been a Pride march every year since 2008. Each year there are attacks. The first year was the harshest when skinheads threw Molotov cocktails. But the government decided to defend the march. There was a heavy police presence. That’s why no one dares to attack now.

The first year was about 200 marchers and maybe 100 far-right skinheads and some representatives of religious organizations. Now there are 2,000 marchers. In this sense, the event is quite accepted. I’m not saying that people are tolerant in general, but they are tolerant about this type of march.

However, after every march, someone is attacked on the way home. These militant far–right groups attack not only gay people but leftwing activists, asylum seekers, Roma, Black people living here. There is a lot of this type of violence. There was recently a march in commemoration of a boy killed four years ago in Sofia. The murderers said that they killed him because they thought he was gay. This was their defense! So, they admitted the crime, but they have not been charged, even though it took place already four years ago.

The government deploys the police for the Pride march, but it charges the movement. LGBT activists have no critique of this, they accept this as normal: “They provide us security and we pay for it, and that’s okay.” But this is ridiculous. LGBT people pay taxes.

There is also an artistic Queer Forum, organized as a part of the New Left Perspectives project I mentioned, that is going to take place at the end of November, where we want to push a left understanding of the queer movement.

How would you evaluate the level of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria? The political party Ataka, for instance, has lost a lot of its support.

Ataka disintegrated for personal reasons. This sentiment still exists, though the political spectrum is very divided. There are many parties and groups on the far right. Four years ago or less, Ataka gave its full support to the ruling party. Two years ago, it still had this cooperation when supporters of Ataka attacked a mosque here in Sofia in 2011. People asked the ruling government – what about this coalition with Ataka? “Oh, this isn’t a coalition, it’s just cooperation,” the government said. But if Ataka or a similar party gets 10-15 percent of the votes in the next election, the ruling party will have to make a decision about forming a coalition with them again.

In 1990, the far-right movement split from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on the decision to return Turkish names to ethnic Turks here in Bulgaria. The BSP managed to integrate them afterwards. But the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) also had a far-right dimension. UDF people say, “Oh, we didn’t know that Volen Siderov [the leader of Ataka] had these ideas when he was editor of the UDF newspaper Demokratsia.” But Demokratsia was very involved in historical revisionism that said that there was no fascism in Bulgaria, that denied Bulgarian participation in Holocaust. The opposition worked on Turkish rights because it was against communism. But they also engaged in whitewashing Bulgarian history. And the anti-communist coalition included a group formed by former legionnaires, who were involved in pogroms in Jewish neighborhoods during World War II. These democratic forces were not totally innocent.

So, in a sense, Ataka is not a surprise. It’s not just Siderov. Many other members were ex-members of the democratic forces, such as Rumen Vodenicharov. Usually the far-right is presented as an attempt to restore totalitarianism. It is not seen as an outgrowth of the anti-communist movement.

A year ago, there were neo-Nazi riots all over the country after the case in the village of Katunitsa. There was a guy there, a gangster, a Roma oligarch basically who had been doing extremely illegal stuff for last 20 years, like producing illegal alcohol. The local villagers hated him. He had an argument with a Bulgarian family, the family of the ex-mayor I think, and he threatened the son of the woman. A year later, the son was killed. The villagers protested against him. Initially it was not a racist riot, but it was provoked by the fact that he was an oligarch and could do whatever he wanted, that he was on good terms with all political parties over the last 20 years.

But then some football fans and various far-right youth groups saw this protest on television. They went to this village, along with some bikers, and they burned down one of this guy’s houses. The reason behind this attack was completely racist. It was because he was Roma and nothing else. The police allowed them to burn the house. It looked like a pogrom. Many far-right groups got very excited about it. In every city there was a racist march, and there many attacks against Roma. Some young kids, as young as 12 years old, were chanting, “Kill the Roma.” This type of extreme nationalism was not possible 20 years ago. I think this type of sentiment is increasing. The government is afraid to do anything against this.

The ability of these sentiments to mobilize people is much stronger these days. It’s not just the 15-20 percent always voting for far-right parties. They have managed to poison the discourse of all political parties. The parties have all adopted racist language at all levels. The BSP has campaigned together with the far-right party in support of nuclear energy. Rank-and-file members of the BSP have accepted these far-right movements. In this way these far-right arguments become mainstream.

It is quite clear what is happening. There are many examples of political parties cooperating with the far right. For example, some members of the democratic parties proposed to replace street names with the names of Nazis from the inter-war period. The most extreme propositions like this don’t go through. But it’s become normal for municipal member to make such proposals.

What about the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF)?

The sentiments against the MRF have become very extreme. People say, “We are not against the Turks, but we are against their party.” This is still racist, because it’s against the political organization of the Turks. Yes, this party is corrupt, just as corrupt as the other parties. But the attacks against the MRF, shared by democratic parties as well, are very extreme. These attacks were started by far-right groups, but they have been adopted even by some people who consider themselves anti-racist or liberal.

You mentioned groups here working on refugee issues. I’m curious whether there has been any effort to link the experience of refugees and immigrants here in Bulgaria with the experience of Bulgarians emigrating to other countries?

There are NGO groups that are engaged in refugee rights, but they would never make the connection between Bulgarian migration abroad in the 1990s and the migration inwards, like with refugee seekers. I don’t know if it’s possible to build solidarity on this basis. It’s not attempted at a mainstream level.

But there are some small, more grassroots-oriented groups working on refugee rights activism. They work with the NGOs, but they also try to make this connection. There was a project, for instance, called Repositions. In the first part of the project, they took pictures of houses squatted by undocumented refugee seekers. These were then screened in various parts of Sofia. It was a Bulgarian-German project. In the next part, they will do the same thing with Bulgarian migrants in Germany. They are trying to bring forward this argument, understanding migration through the perspective of Bulgarian migrants abroad.

There were other attempts as well. There were a few events connected to solidarity, with Konstanina Kuneva, a Bulgarian syndicalist in Athens who was attacked with acid in 2008 because of her trade union work. Some people in Bulgaria were trying to bring forward her case, speak about it. There was also recently one event at the Red House where they screened an interview with her, and compared environmental activism in Bulgaria with other places, such as the Greek protests and the U.S. Occupy movement.

Gaza: The Light Doesn’t Get Much Greener

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Jabaliya refugee camp.

Jabaliya refugee camp.

The Wall Street Journal reports the result of a press conference held on Air Force One by Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who works as one of Obama’s main (foreign policy) speechwriters who helped the President draft his spring 2012 AIPAC address. Rhodes expressed hope that mediation efforts by the Egyptians — who had been brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel the day before Operation Pillar of Cloud began — will succeed, but the meat of his remarks comes in the form of a very clear public declaration the US will have Israel’s back no matter what the government decides.

Pressed as to whether a ground invasion would escalate tensions, Mr. Rhodes said, “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”

He said that the precipitating factor for the conflict was the rocket fire coming out of Gaza, dismissing those who blame an Israeli airstrike that killed a top Hamas military commander.

“Just to be clear on the precipitating factor: These rockets had been fired into Israeli civilian areas and territory for some time now. So Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rocket for far too long, and that is what led the Israelis to take the action that they did in Gaza.”

He declined to comment on Israel’s targeting of government buildings, including the prime minister’s headquarters. “We wouldn’t comment on specific targeting choices by the Israelis other than to say that we of course always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties. But the Israelis again will make judgments about their military operations.”

Rhodes’s words offered a much stronger declaration of support for the Israeli effort than those delivered by White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday:

We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.

In … conversations [with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi], the president reiterated the United States’ support for Israel’s right to self-defense. President Obama also urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Newsweek and USA Today report that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been speaking directing to the President — currently in transit to Asia along with most of his top foreign policy staffers (including Rhodes) — to communicate that “[t]he Israeli leadership at this point is leaning against a ground invasion.” Though Haaretz reports that there was a concerted Israeli effort to “lull” Hamas into a false sense of security before restarting assassinations of its leadership, it is very likely that this whole effort was not intended to “escalate.” Though it was of course expected, planned for and deemed acceptable to risk more civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza when the IAF began the operation — the toll as it stands now is at least 90 Palestinians and 3 Israelis killed, with more wounded on both sides, especially in Gaza where casualties have already reached 700 — it is not likely that a protracted operation was or is desired by any of those who have rallied round Netanyahu’s flag.

But, now that Hamas has hit the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the stakes for Israel backing down have risen tremendously — the kitchen cabinet of PM Netanyahu has reportedly met several times Saturday day alone, unable to reach a consensus on accepting a ceasefire or going all in into Gaza as a result of the longer-range fire. The call up of 75,000 reservists — a number greater than those summoned for the 2006 and 2008 wars — and multiple reports of massed Israeli armor on the northern borders of Gaza loom large in people’s calculations. Israeli officials, keeping everyone guessing, may be bluffing on the incursion: the divisions are meant only as a message to Hamas, or Hezbollah, or even Egypt, or to Syria and Iran. Or perhaps cover for Iran in the near future.

As Phil Weiss and David Sheen report from on the ground, the mood is very much one of “finishing the fight.” Many Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza are, according to the Huffington Post, also expressing strong support for the rulers’ actions – though the rhetorical denunciations of Hamas officials (and by the Israeli government) belie the actual mediated efforts to end this operation before it turns into a political liability for either side due to rising civilian casualties.

Indeed, only the most zealous nationalists in Israel today are for re-establishing direct Israeli control over Gaza. And a ground incursion is being blasted as unworkable in the news, from The Atlantic and The New York Times to Haaretz and even the Jerusalem Post. More common is the view that this operation, with or without an incursion, has been a long-time coming, a necessary action to ensure “deterrence” is maintained in the hopes — to paraphrase the words of a tsarist general — that the harder Israel hits them, the longer they will stay quiet afterwards. The Interior Minister said that all of Gaza’s infrastructure should be “destroyed” by the IDF “in order to realize calm for a long period.” Israeli officers hinted at conducting a Gazan “incursion” in the summer of 2011 when terrorists from the Sinai killed several Israelis that incorporated most of the language used today to argue for Operation Pillar of Cloud, including a report issued by a right-wing Jerusalem think tank that argued for a crippling assault on Hamas and the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure under the title “The Opportunity in Gaza,” views which Truthout notes have entrenched counterparts in the Beltway think tank-verse.

Lamentably, Pillar of Cloud was only a matter of time after Cast Lead concluded in 2009. The dynamics in Israel and Gaza that led to it, dissected here by Juan Cole, have not changed since then: no hudna or Arab Spring or Obama second term will alter this in the near term. And the next one, whatever name is applied to it, won’t be many years off either.

And in all such instances, past, present and future, I think we can expect the US to offer the same sort of green lighting the White House has delivered this day. Obama was still in transition in 2008 when Cast Lead took place, and “only” received intelligence briefings and Israeli missives on Cast Lead. This week, he has made his views clearer still.

Leveraging Operation Pillar of Defense Into an Attack on Iran

“At first glance,” writes Haaretz columnist Amir Oren, “Operation Pillar of Defense seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.” In fact

… the dark cloud in the Gaza skies might serve as an alternative, or preface to, an Iran operation. … Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have not given up the dream of carrying out a major operation in Iran. …

Hamas often uses Iranian missiles, but, writes Oren

So as not to leave a shred of doubt, [an] IDF Spokesman emphasized that “the Gaza Strip has become Iran’s frontline base.”

In fact, Hamas is considered closer these days to Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar than Iran. Regardless

… the intelligence assessment of casualties likely to be sustained on the home front during an operation in Iran, based on the assumption that the Arrow antimissile system is used (although it has yet to demonstrate actual interception capabilities ) [and will] duplicate the performance of the Iron Dome system. … constitute calculations in favor of an Iranian operation. … Should Operation Pillar of Defense [succeed,] the political leadership, buoyed by strong performances from the intelligence and other branches, [may] try to extrapolate from this operation and transpose it to other places.

In other words, if the Netanyahu administration succeeds in sending the message that Hamas’s will is Iran’s command, and that Israel’s missile defense will afford it protection from Iran’s retaliation, it may feel it then has license to attack Iran.

Jabari Assassination Brought Hamas Negotiations to Premature End

In an oped in the New York Times, Gershon Baskin, who negotiated with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit, publicly revealed how the Netanyahu administration scuttled Israel’s most recent negotiations with Hamas.

On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt.

Thus does Baskin

… believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill Mr. Jabari. No, Mr. Jabari was not a man of peace; he didn’t believe in peace with Israel and refused to have any direct contact with Israeli leaders and even nonofficials like me.


… Passing messages between the two sides, I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency. Mr. Jabari enforced those cease-fires only after confirming that Israel was prepared to stop its attacks on Gaza. The goal was to move beyond the patterns of the past.

Though Gershon Baskin doesn’t personally reproach the Netanyahu administration for attacking during negotiations, it certainly seems like he had the rug pulled out from under him.

Israel Takes Out Its Frustration About Iran on Gaza

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Unable – or restrained from – attacking Iran (or getting the United States to do so), Israel had to get its military rocks off somewhere else, so it has turned its fire power on Gaza?

As in 2008, Netanyahu and Lieberman waited until after the U.S. presidential elections were over, but before the new administration had been put into place and a clear U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine in Obama’s second term had been fleshed out. Did Netanyahu cut a deal with Washington? That is not clear at the moment, although it is implausible that there wasn’t some kind of ‘consultation’ and green light from Obama.

To think otherwise is to live in la-la land.

It is likely that if Obama did approve Israeli military action it was on a somewhat limited basis with strict ‘red lines’ that should not be crossed, among them, avoiding any sustained ground attack on Gaza involving a large Israeli Defense Force (IDF) contingent. It is more likely that Obama Administration – enthusiastically or grudgingly – agreed to a drone-like attack that would limit Israeli casualties and deflect world public opinion. The idea is to inflict maximum damage on the Palestinians in the shortest amount of time with minimum political and human negative impacts on Israel (and the U.S.A.). Still it is possible that Netanyahu, with his visceral antipathy for Obama, is taking matters into his own hands, or letting the situation deteriorate so that the logic of war gives the Israeli Prime Minister and his bonkers foreign minister, Lieberman, the excuse to change the rules of the game…and invade.

To invade with ground troops or not to invade, that is the question.

One thing seems certain.

This massive (to date) air assault on Gaza was not a spontaneous act. Every step of this offensive was carefully planned, stupid, as are most wars, but carefully planned. The Israeli military is trying to compensate for its two last military incursions: the 2006 Lebanon offensive in which Hezbollah gave an unsuspecting Israeli ground offensive a very bloody nose and the 2008 ground offensive into Gaza, the result of which Israel lost a great deal of public support. Their argument that the war was somehow defensive and that the Israeli army avoided civilian casualties flew in the face of the facts. Israel has yet to recover.

What is missing from all this – the Israeli have yet to learn it – is that military solutions will not solve their crisis with the Palestinians and that try as they might there is no way, none, to put makeup on the ugly face of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Whatever happens here, Israel will almost certain gain the upper hand militarily but lose this war politically – as happened in Lebanon in 2006 (where they didn’t even win the fighting) and in Gaza in 2008. There is just no way to bomb their way to peace.

The plan – it is now public knowledge – was a quick but decisive air strike that would pulverize Hamas, and by so weakening it, make any serious peace initiative, once again, impossible. It is a model of warfare similar to what the U.S. is pursuing in Yemen, Pakistan, etc – an air war combined with targeted assassinations. The U.S. does it with drones, the Israelis with F-16 and naval fire power both pounding Gaza to smithereens, once again. For the Gaza war to be a success it is essential it be short and dirty for a number of reasons, among them

• It prevents a sustained mobilization of world public opinion against Israel’s actions.

• It cuts Israeli casualties.

• It is meant to humiliate the regimes that have come to power through the Arab Spring by exposing their impotence to this crisis, thus creating more tensions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, between the unstable governments and the people, etc.

• It permits the Middle East regimes – Egypt in the first place, but really all of those in the U.S. camp – to posture support of the Palestinians to their hearts’ delight without threatening their strategic commitments to U.S. policy. The longer the war continues, the more likely the Arab public will exert pressure on their regimes for more concerted action. In such situations, these unstable regimes could be in deep shit as they say.

• The longer the war, the more complicated things get for the Obama Administration’s plans for the region. When Israel bombs, the whole region knows that most of the sophisticated weapons it is raining down on Gaza have ‘made in USA’ on them – as they have for decades. U.S. made cluster bombs, phosphorus bombs and high powered missiles undermine any suggestion that Washington is somehow ‘an honest broker’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But now the Israeli cabinet is debating whether to widen the war.

An all-out offensive on Gaza is a horse of a different color for everyone concerned. A long draw- out full-scale Gaza ground offensive not only compromises Israel’s position, deepening its pariah status in much of the world, but it also considerably complicates the situation for the new Obama Administration, now facing yet another Middle East mess to deal with on top of domestic budget crisis.

So Netanyahu and Lieberman were banking on a quickie – so were those Arab regimes who feign support for the Palestinians but now ‘the landscape’ has shifted as a result of the medium range missile attacks. A ground campaign, should Netanyahu decide to take that route, will be inevitably ugly and the modicum of good will that Israel has by spinning the war, will evaporate. At the time of this writing (Saturday, November 17, 2012) the cabinet cannot decide whether to launch a ground offensive. If the Palestinians have sophisticated medium range missiles, they must also have anti-tank rockets which can knock out Israeli tanks. Then things get very, very messy. Israeli casualties will soar and if 2006 Lebanon and the 2008 Gaza offensives are any indications, Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, once again, are almost inevitable.

The Israeli cabinet has met 3-4 times over the past 24 hours. They cannot seem to make up their minds about a ground attack. Palestinian mastery of medium range missiles – even a few of them – that can hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have changed the equation of the offensive. It was supposed to be the massive bombing campaign it has been up until now, and then some kind of end to it. Netanyahu wanted to finish the job before world public opinion could get mobilized – the demonstrations are starting everywhere.

The Israeli cabinet doesn’t seem to know how to proceed. Stop the air war or expand the war with a full scale ground assault. We’ll see and rather soon. The usually conservative Jerusalem Post seems to be arguing against a ground incursion. As for me, I’m taking the sign I’ve had for the past 45 years out of the garage, dusting it off and heading, with my entire family downtown to join Friends of Sabeel, Jewish Voice for Peace and Occupy Denver. The old sign reads simply ‘End The Occupation’. I’d like to thrown it away but unfortunately, it still seems to strike a chord.

Obama Poised to Dine with Architects of Burma’s Ethnic Cleansing

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

Rohingya refugees.

Rohingya refugees.

Why is President Obama about to meet with leaders in Burma who are systematically fomenting hatred and violence that has already claimed innocent lives, destroyed entire villages and displaced tens of thousands?

In just a few days, President Obama will travel to Burma to recognize progress that one of the most brutal regimes on the planet has made toward democracy. Now that modest improvements have been made or pledged by the regime, and Aung San Suu Kyi is free, the U.S. government has decided to lift the economic and diplomatic pressure that made reform in Burma possible.

That is bad news if you are part of an ethnic minority in Burma. And it is life threatening if you are a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Systematic hate speech and entreaties for the local population to isolate and attack the Rohingya Muslim minority are pervasive in western Burma. The Burmese military stand aside or actively participate in attacks against innocent men, women and children. More than one hundred people have already lost their lives, tens of thousands have lost their homes, and over one hundred thousand have been displaced.

What is the U.S. government doing about it? On Sunday, President Obama will become the first President to visit Burma. He is there to recognize and congratulate the military-dominated government for making modest reforms toward democracy. As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya continue to live in fear, President Obama will be congratulating a government that wants to ethnically cleanse every one of them from Burma.

Burma’s President Thein Sein–who Obama will be sitting down to dine with–has been actively fomenting hatred against the Rohingya community. He has gone so far to ask the United Nations to help him ethnically cleanse Burma by forcing 800,000 Rohingya people out of their home villages and into refugee camps or out of the country altogether!

I saw what violence and persecution looks like first-hand in Burma when I snuck into Kachin State last May. I saw entire villages abandoned, its population driven into makeshift camps filled with desperate people without adequate food, shelter of medical care. I spoke with families whose loved ones had been tortured, raped, incarcerated or killed by Burmese troops. Without international pressure on the regime, I know what the Rohingya are experiencing will only continue to get worse.

An entire people are under attack not because of what they have done but because of who they are. Instead of traveling to Burma, President Obama should be leading the call for a United Nations observer mission to investigate the violence in Rakhine State, deter the escalation of the violence and hold the perpetrators accountable. The leading role that the Obama administration played in scaling back sanctions on Burma obligates the U.S. government to act urgently to hold the Burmese government to its responsibilities to protect its ethnic populations.

We’ve seen these warning signs before. The hateful rhetoric of Rakhine monks is reminiscent of the hateful propaganda directed at the Tutsi population and their sympathizers leading up to, and during the Rwandan genocide. While renewing calls for their expulsion from Burma, several Rakhine monks have urged the local population to sever all relations with the Rohingya, including trade and the provision of humanitarian aid and have called on Rakhines to expose Rohingya sympathizers as national traitors, potentially exposing them to violent attacks.

There is no word to describe the response from the United States and the international community other than inadequate. The conditions that led to two major outbreaks of mass killings in the last few months are worsening daily. Greater loss of life and displacement are a certainty without a change of course.

In a day and age in which technology affords us the ability to connect with people across the world, we can no longer claim ignorance to the fact that the Rohingya people are being slaughtered, displaced, and terrorized. When we look back on the books of history, will this be another example of when we failed to show up or showed up too late?

Take action: Tell President Obama to call for an end to ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Tom Andrews is the President of United to End Genocide.

Israel’s Real-World Flame War

Can you imagine anything more surreal than following a war on Twitter? Imagine, fiddling with your phone on your lunch break, perusing actual hashtagged death threats from representatives of Hamas and the IDF—in between all-caps proclamations from Kanye West and “Shit My Dad Says.”

If you don’t care for Twitter, the IDF is also liveblogging its latest war on Gaza on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook.

Maybe that’s just how people declare war these days. But something about the latest violence in Gaza—which is, by all accounts, utterly senseless—seems uniquely suited to the vapid virality that is the stock-in-trade of these social media platforms.

I have no idea why Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets into southern Israel, except perhaps that they lack the capacity to fire rockets at anything else. These rockets can only hit civilians, clearing away in the rubble a virtual red carpet for the IDF into Gaza. (“Who started it” is always a thorny question when all roads lead back to the Israeli occupation, but my colleague Phyllis Bennis notes that the exchanges of fire began when militants fired on Israeli military vehicles “inside the supposedly not-occupied Gaza Strip.” She adds, “Unlike the illegal Palestinian rockets fired against civilian targets inside Israel, using force to resist an illegal military force in the context of a belligerent military occupation is lawful under international law.”)

Whatever the case, with hundreds of rockets flying into civilian-populated regions of southern Israel, no one would begrudge the Israelis their right of self defense. While these rocket attacks are often little more than hapless gunplay, they do exact a human toll—three Israeli civilians were killed Thursday morning.

But that is where the clarity ends. Israel inaugurated its latest assault on Gaza by assassinating the very Hamas military leader with whom they had been negotiating a ceasefire, virtually guaranteeing that more violence would follow. When you’ve just killed your negotiating partner, after all, who’s going to take his place at the table?

The Israelis took great pains to show how targeted and carefully monitored their attack on Ahmed Jaabari was—the whole operation was essentially liveblogged and tweeted, and a video of the so-called “pinpoint strike” on Jaabari’s moving car was distributed to media only hours after it happened. Of course, if the IDF can exercise the appropriate care to liveblog a strike on a moving vehicle, then how to explain the fact that they are also firing on random houses and killing infants? At least 15 Palestinians—more than half of them civilians—have been killed as of this writing.

Next came reports of the pamphlets dropped over Gaza, warning residents to “take responsibility for yourselves and avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives and facilities.” The IDF Twitter account lauded this ostensible attempt “to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza.” Right. Don’t be near the wrong guy. In one of the most densely populated enclaves in the world.

Then came the reports that the Israeli Defense Minister was calling up 30,000 reservists for a potential ground invasion. And the reports that Israel could shut down all telecommunications in Gaza.

It would be a real shame to shut down the Internet in Gaza. Because this kind of meaningless flame war belongs on Twitter—not in the real world.

Latinos’ One-Sided Love Affair with Obama

Clearly, we Latinos love President Barack Obama. He garnered nearly three-fourths of our vote. In battleground states like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado , we helped catapult the incumbent president to victory.

An Obama supporter displays an "Obamanos" sign at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. Photo by Mundo Hispanico.

An Obama supporter displays an “Obamanos” sign at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. Photo by Mundo Hispanico.

Unlike African Americans, Latinos didn’t always back Democrats by this kind of margin. In 2004, George W. Bush garnered 40 percent of the Latino vote. Had Mitt Romney pulled that off this year, he might have won the White House.

Although Obama overwhelmingly won our support, we’re still unhappy with his immigration track record. He’s made no progress toward achieving a long-overdue and comprehensive immigration reform. Even more disheartening, more people are being deported under his leadership than during Bush’s presidency. To put this in its tragic context, thousands of our families have been torn apart. Too many kids are growing up without their parents.

Obama lucked out because the Republican Party is taking such an extreme stance on immigration that many Latino voters that might have otherwise voted GOP rejected it at the ballot box.

Romney advocated for “self-deportation” and failed to distance himself from Arizona’s Republican-led state government, which passed an extremist “papers please” law that implicitly advocated racial discrimination. Most Republicans oppose the DREAM Act, a bill that would give millions of young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Republicans regularly refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens,” insinuating that they’re not only different but somehow sub-human.

We aren’t single-issue voters or a homogenous voting bloc. But we do take the issue of immigration personally. Nearly all Latino voters have ties of some sort to undocumented immigrants. We may have been undocumented at one point or have family and friends who are currently undocumented or used to be. Both my parents came to this country without legal documentation.

Ironically, they became citizens because of the 1986 amnesty law President Ronald Reagan signed. Some of my best friends are undocumented. Most of them came to this country when they were kids. This is the only country they’ve ever known. This is their home — they’re as American as me. The DREAM Act would provide my friends and others like them with the opportunity to realize their true potential as American citizens.

When Republicans label all undocumented immigrants as “criminals,” “aliens,” and “illegals,” we in the Latino community can’t help but feel that the GOP is badmouthing our grandparents, our mothers and fathers, our neighbors, and our friends. Why would any group support a political party that explicitly disrespects its loved ones?

On Election Day, we came out in record numbers in support of Obama. In tight Senate races in states like New Mexico and Virginia, the Latino vote gave those Democratic candidates a winning edge Without Latino support, the Democratic Party would have lost its Senate majority in 2010 and failed to win it back this year.

The onus is now on the White House to prove that he deserved our votes.

In his most recent press conference, Obama said he supports “a pathway for legal status” instead of citizenship. This is discouraging news. We voted for him because we want our loved ones to become citizens. We won’t settle for less. Obama must push for bills like the DREAM Act, and fight for comprehensive immigration reform, but more importantly he must ensure that these are legitimate pathways to citizenship.

We may love President Obama, but now it’s time for the entire Democratic Party to prove it loves us back. How long can this one-sided love affair last?

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at Institute for Policy Studies. IPS-dc.org

Israel Ups the Stakes With Assassination of Jaabari

First posted at the Nation.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Tuesday’s Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Gaza and Israel collapsed today when Israel launched a major escalation. In airstrikes almost certainly involving U.S.-made F-16 warplanes and/or U.S.-made Apache helicopters, Israel’s air force assassinated Ahmad Jaabari, the longtime military leader of Hamas. As the Israeli airstrikes continued Wednesday, seven more Palestinians were killed and at least 30 were injured, ten of them critically.

Jaabari had been chief negotiator with Israel in the deal that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners held illegally in Israeli jails. He had negotiated the ceasefire that had mostly held over much of the last year or more. The attack, code-named “Operation Pillar of Defense” [sic], also killed someone else in Jaabari’s car, and quickly expanded with additional airstrikes against Palestinian security and police stations in Gaza, making it impossible for Palestinian police to try to control the rocket-fire.

So why the escalation? Israeli military and political leaders have long made clear that regular military attacks to “cleanse” Palestinian territories (the term was used by Israeli soldiers to describe their role in the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza) is part of their long-term strategic plan. Earlier this year, on the third anniversary of the Gaza assault, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Army Radio that Israel will need to attack Gaza again soon, to restore what he called its power of “deterrence.” He said the assault must be “swift and painful,” concluding, “we will act when the conditions are right.” Perhaps this was his chosen moment.

It is an interesting historical parallel that this escalation – which almost certainly portends a longer-term and even more lethal Israeli assault – takes place almost exactly four years after Operation Cast Lead, the last major Israeli war on Gaza that left 1,400 Gazans dead in 2008-09. Then, as now, the attack came shortly after U.S. elections, ending just before President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.

But the timing for this escalation is almost certainly shaped more by Israel’s domestic politics than by the U.S. election cycle. The most likely timeline is grounded in Netanyahu’s political calendar – he faces reelection in January, and having thoroughly antagonized many Israelis by his deliberate dissing of President Obama, needs to shore up the far right contingent of his base. With regional pressures escalating, particularly regarding the expanding Syrian crisis, Netanyahu needs to reassure his far-right supporters (an increasing cohort) that even if he doesn’t send bombers to attack Damascus, he still can attack, bomb, assassinate Arabs with impunity.

There is a U.S. connection, of course – however much domestic politics motivated Tel Aviv’s attack, Israel’s backers in Congress (lame-duck and newly-elected) will still demand public U.S. support for the Israeli offensive. Netanyahu will get that backing – there is no reason to think the Obama White House is prepared yet to challenge that assumption. But it’s unlikely that even Netanyanu believes it will somehow recalibrate his tense relationship with Israel by forcing Washington’s hand to defend Israel’s so-called “right of self-defense.” They will do that – but Obama will still be pretty pissed off at Netanyahu.

As is always the case, history is shaped by when you start the clock. In the last several days U.S. media accounts have reported increasing violence on the Gaza-Israel border, most of them beginning with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on Thursday, November 8th. What happened before that Palestinian attack?

For starters, the soldiers, part of an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) squad that included four tanks and a bulldozer, were inside the Gaza Strip. According to the IDF spokeswoman, Palestinians fired at “soldiers while they were performing routine activity adjacent to the security fence.” Really. What kind of activities inside the supposedly not-occupied Gaza Strip, by a group of armed soldiers, tanks and a bulldozer (almost certainly an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer manufactured in the U.S. and paid for with U.S. taxpayer military aid to Israel), could possibly be defined as anything close to “routine”? Unlike the illegal Palestinian rockets fired against civilian targets inside Israel, using force to resist an illegal military force in the context of a belligerent military occupation is lawful under international law.

Later that day, an 11-year-old child was killed. Israel was “investigating the boy’s death.” Not many U.S. media outlets reported that within the next 72 hours the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented five more Palestinians killed, including three children, and 52 other civilians, including 6 women and 12 children, wounded in Israeli airstrikes. Four of the deaths and 38 injuries resulted from a single Israeli attack on a football playground in a neighborhood east of Gaza city. Twelve Israelis, four of them soldiers, were injured by Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

The cross-border clashes continued, until Egypt was able to negotiate a ceasefire on Wednesday. Today, that fragile ceasefire was violently breached as Israel sent warplanes to assassinate a Hamas leader and destroy key parts of Gaza’s barely-functional infrastructure.

This is primarily about Netanyanu shoring up the right-wing of his base. And once again it is Palestinians, this time Gazans, who will pay the price. The question that remains is whether the U.S.-assured impunity that Israel’s leadership has so long counted on will continue, or whether there will be enough pressure on the Obama administration and Congress so that this time, the U.S. will finally be forced to allow the international community to hold Israel accountable for this latest round of violations of international law.

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