25 September 2004

Who dares wins

By Marguerite Finn

Recently I wrote about five young men whose courage to refuse to serve with the Israeli Defence Forces earned them two years in jail.

Today I am delighted to report that the five - Haggai Matar, Matan Kaminer, Noam Bahat, Shimri Tzameret and Adam Maor - were released from jail on 15 September.

They had to endure several more days of nerve-wracking uncertainty as to their future before learning that they had been permanently dismissed from army service. Had they not received this dismissal, they would have been required to re-enlist or face further imprisonment if they refused. The military committee, in deciding to exempt them, particularly noted their contribution to society before they were taken into custody and also during their incarceration where they served as tutors and helped other prisoners in various ways.

Adam Maor said: "In spite of the heavy punishment we received, we feel victorious. We will continue working to end the occupation and to contribute to society." The loyalty and devotion to Israel of the refuseniks is unquestionable, "We refused out of love for this place and for the people who live here. All along the way, we asked to do alternative service to contribute in our own way to the community. With our release, we will work according to these principles", affirmed Matan Kaminer.

While still at school, Haggai Matar took part in a joint summer school for Israelis and Palestinians, and subsequently he became active in various anti-occupation groups.

He visited Salfit in the Occupied West Bank and what he saw there convinced him that he had no option but "to refuse to be part of an army occupying another people and destroying Israeli society". What he would say to anyone else considering military refusal? "I would say 'Hey, you are already doing the most important thing - and that is considering itself'. The problem with Israeli politics these days is that the majority just doesn't stop to think, to ask the question: 'What is the moral thing to do?'"

I asked him what people outside of Israel could do to help. He replied, "It is very important for us, and for future refuseniks, to get support from people all over the world. It makes you feel better in your hardest times in prison, that you are a part of something greater, international."

Haggai told me that there is a growing movement for change in Israeli society. Israel is one of the most militarised societies on earth, yet Haggai says, "Now, there are about 40-60 percent who either don't enlist or don't finish their first year in the army. This is an amazing figure, not talked about too often in Israel." Is this, perhaps, the outward manifestation of the internal struggle engaging the minds of many soldiers serving in the occupied territories: Can they treat the thousands of Palestinians passing through the road blocks like equal human beings? Dr Ian Gibson MP may have been asking the same question when the Palestinian ambulance taking him to hospital for urgent medical treatment for a stroke, was held up for 1½ hours at an Israeli checkpoint on Saturday.

Israeli culture and media portray a world in which the use of force is the normal means of solving political problems. Ilan Pappe, lecturer in Political Science at Haifa University, says, "Israel in 2004 is a paranoid society led by a fanatical political elite, determined to bring the conflict to an end by force and destruction, whatever the price to its society or its potential victims - while the rest of the world watches helpless and bewildered." He fears that "the critical instincts of both intellectuals and journalists have petered out in the last four years. There is an ethical void which allows the government to go on killing unarmed Palestinians and, thanks to curfews and long periods of closure, starving the society under occupation." A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) states that the Palestinian economy 'will sink to mere subsistence' without aid and urges immediate action to shore up small and medium-sized business in the occupied territories.

This is Haggai's world - but it is ours too. Like Haggai, we must ask questions, like why the UN resolution 242 of 1967 calling for the withdrawal from the occupied territories has been ignored by Israel for over 35 years - with no action from the West?

We owe it to Haggai and all young Israelis fighting for justice, to demand answers. I am grateful to Haggai Matar in Israel for his input and inspiration.

18 September 2004

Remembering Falluja

By Ian Sinclair

The experienced Middle East journalist Robert Fisk argues the Americans have faced the same problem in Iraq from the start: "explaining how Iraqis who they allegedly came to 'liberate' should want to kill them." The questions raised about US tactics in Iraq by Steve Snelling in last Saturday's EDP are thus very pertinent. The recent uprising in Najaf confirms Fisk's thesis, however nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in Falluja, where, during a week in early April, US forces killed over 600 Iraqis and wounded over 1,000.

For the Western media, events in Falluja began with the murder and mutilation of four US private security guards on March 31. However, the Iraqis know different. In April 2003 US soldiers killed 18 protestors during a demonstration. After six months of occupation, US forces had killed at least 40 people in the city. In response to the killing of an American soldier, on March 27 US Marines undertook a "sweep" through the city, killing at least six Iraqi civilians, including an 11 year-old boy. It was in this heightened atmosphere that the private security guards were murdered.

On April 5 the US military sealed off the city, cut the power and launched military operations, using heavy artillery, cluster bombs, 70-ton main battle tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers and Apache helicopters. The US commander explained that US marines are "trained to be precise in their firepower", and that "95% of those killed were military age males."

However, eyewitness accounts from those who managed to flee the city, international observers and journalists contradict the official US story. During the incursion, US soldiers occupied the city's main hospital, a violation of the Geneva Convention. Ibrahim Younis, the Iraqi emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said "the Americans put a sniper position on top of the hospital's water tower and had troops in the single-story building." Mr. Younis noted this meant many wounded died because of inadequate healthcare.

The heavy use of snipers by US forces is confirmed by testimony from both sides. A 21-year old Marine Corporal told the Los Angeles Times that Falluja was "a sniper's dream." He continued: "Sometimes a guy will go down, and I'll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies, then I'll use a second shot." However, it is clear US snipers killed many Iraqi civilians. Journalist Dahr Jamail saw "an endless stream of women and children who have been sniped by the Americans." Jo Wilding, a human rights campaigner from Bristol said, "the times I have been shot at - once in an ambulance and once on foot trying to deliver medical supplies - it was US snipers in both cases."

Contrary to US military claims of precision firepower, the director of the town's general hospital, Rafie al-Issawi, estimated that the vast majority of the dead were women, children and the elderly.

With a few exceptions, the facts presented above have been largely ignored by the mainstream media in the UK. The chief of the Falluja delegation for the ongoing negotiations with the US said, "we are facing what can be called… war crimes." Amnesty International said they were "deeply concerned at the ever mounting civilian death toll" and that "the parties to the conflict have disregarded international humanitarian law." Even Adnan Pachachi, widely seen as the most pro-American member of the (then operating) Iraqi Governing Council said "we consider the action carried out by US forces as illegal and totally unacceptable."

In Najaf, the US forces implemented similar tactics to Falluja - sniping civilians, cutting the power and limiting access to hospitals. According to American commanders as many as 1,000 Iraqi fighters may have been killed in Najaf, compared to just 11 American deaths.

Last Friday, the vision of an independent Iraq, free of US/UK troops, gained an unlikely supporter. In its editorial the Financial Times argued "the time has come to consider whether a structural withdrawal… can chart a path out of the current chaos." And it is chaos. On Sunday 13 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad when US helicopters fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. On Monday a US air strike on Falluja killed over 15 people, including an ambulance driver and two nurses when an ambulance was hit. On Tuesday 47 people were killed and over 100 injured in a bomb blast in Baghdad, and 12 policemen were killed in Baquba.

Only a complete Coalition withdrawal will bring this bloodshed to an end, because, as Kofi Annan said last October, "as long as there's an occupation, the resistance will grow."

11 September 2004

Patriots and scoundrels

By Rupert Read

When I was at university, I took part in a debate. I spoke in favour of the motion, 'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.'

Twenty years on, little has changed. For instance, I took no pleasure in this summer's Olympics: the naked jingoism of the media coverage, even that of the (supposedly 'objective') BBC, made the whole thing too painful to bear. I didn't necessarily want some British bloke I had never heard of to beat a skilful sporting opponent from another nation. Why should I 'support' someone, just because they are British? Isn't it a bit sad to feel happy if someone who you have never met beats someone else you have never met (but who has a foreign accent) at Synchronized Underwater Weightlifting?!

You could call me an internationalist. And an internationalist surely cannot be a nationalist. And yet, some of my cultural heroes call themselves 'patriots': Billy Bragg, in Britain; Michael Moore, in America.

And when I was campaigning in the Council elections, this June, I noticed something that surprised me: Many of the houses which were flying St. George's England flags (the elections took place about the same time as the 'Euro 2004' Soccer competition) were also sporting posters for one political party or another, including (indeed, especially) my own Party, the Greens.

That made me stop and think: Perhaps those people who identify with their country are not narrowly nationalistic? Perhaps many patriots are people who really care about their locality, and about their whole world, too.

Why else would it be that people supporting their national soccer team were also supporting political parties, parties trying to change things in a positive way? Maybe the reason why there were England flags and party-political-posters hanging from the same windows was that the same people who cared enough to shout for their country also cared enough to shout for the Party that they believed would make that country better. But then the following worry came to me: is Britain really a force for good in the world?

Next week, Norwich will be joining in the celebrations of 'Battle of Britain Week'. What is this event really for? Is it for the remembrance of past heroism? Or is the reason that our rulers fund events such as this that it helps them to justify present-day atrocities and illegalities? In the run-up to the attack on Iraq, in 2002-3 just as in 1990-1, we were often told that Saddam was 'a new Hitler'. This was silly propaganda: Hitler led the most powerful armed forces in the world, whereas Saddam's army was a pitiful remnant only. But invoking the ghost of the Second World War seemed to help Blair and Bush 'justify' their illegal war of aggression.

When the British Army is illegally occupying and subjugating another people, having first blasted many tens of thousands of those people to their deaths, some of us may find it hard not to feel ashamed of our country. It is hard to have any enthusiasm for the flag, when that flag has far too often thoughtlessly been waved - in our name - over the bodies of dead foreigners.

We humans need community. But too often, patriotism doesn't give us any real community. Instead, it gives us only a mythical sense of belonging, a sense that can then be exploited by unscrupulous leaders.

So I am still unsure. Does patriotism always lead to perdition? Or is it only that the worst scoundrels - such as the 'leaders of the free world' - use and abuse patriotism, to try to get away with murder? Is the problem really with the way that politicians and Generals twist love of country so that it turns into hate for certain foreigners?

It cannot be right to say, "We should not speak against war, when our troops are fighting", if what they are fighting in is an immoral war. It cannot be right to say, "My country right or wrong". That kind of disgraceful attitude is exactly what led to Hitlerism - and more recently, in the US, to the appallingly authoritarian 'Patriot Act' (introduced as a response to the events of September 11th 2001) which virtually abolishes free speech and 'habeas corpus'. Would a true patriot support the destruction of the very liberties for which the people have fought so hard, the very liberties that make one's country truly worth defending?

So: is being a patriot nevertheless quite compatible with being someone who cares about their neighbourhood, and about the planet as a whole?

Given the number of people who are keen to call themselves 'patriotic', we should hope that the answer is 'Yes'. Who knows; maybe one day, when patriotism is identified not with being a 'Little Englander' but with one's country doing the right thing the world over, then it will be easy for everyone to be proud of being British.

4 September 2004

Rethinking crime and punishment

By Ian Sinclair

Currently, the two main political parties in this country are going head-to-head over who has the toughest policies on crime. In July, Tony Blair heralded "the end of the liberal, social consensus on law and order." Not to be outdone, Michael Howard responded by arguing rising crime "is the reality of Britain today". If elected, Howard promises to send "an unequivocal message to offenders - if you break the law you will be punished."

However, these tough policies are not based on any objective reality, but rather implemented in response to the general public's often irrational fear of crime - a fear which our political masters, along with a pliant mass media (more about this below), have created in the first place.

The authoritative British Crime Survey (BCS) consistently concludes, "people generally have a poor knowledge of crime levels and trends" and of the criminal justice system. This misperception is based upon two commonly held beliefs. Firstly, most of the public believe recorded crime is rising. However, crime has been falling across the western world, with the BCS showing the number of crimes has fallen by 17% since 1999. Secondly, the popular perception is that we are soft on crime, with the system weighted too far in favour of the criminal. The 2000 BCS found over 75% of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.

However, the fact is this country is currently experiencing the most punitive period of criminal justice for decades. The latest official figures show that 111,600 people were sentenced to immediate custody last year - the highest figure for at least 75 years! The courts are finding roughly the same number of serious offenders guilty as they were ten years ago, but are dealing with them much more harshly. A 2003 report by the Prison Reform Trust, noted that between 1991 and 2001, magistrates tripled the proportion they sent to prison (from 5% to 16%) while in crown courts it rose from 46% to 64%. Currently, England and Wales has more prisoners serving life sentences than the rest of the European Union put together.

Society's love affair with imprisonment continues, even though it is clear locking up people, especially children, does not work. The reoffending rates for Young Offender Institutions are as high as 84%, with a six-month custodial sentence costing the taxpayer an average of £21,000. By comparison, alternative non-custodial options for a similar six month period cost as little as £6,000 and have markedly lower rates of reoffending. The journalist Johann Hari summarises: "The choice is not between 'tough' and 'soft' it is between effective and useless. 'Tough' policies… just don't work. It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools - it is the Howards and the Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work."

So why is there a gigantic chasm between the public perception of crime and punishment and the reality? Most commentators agree that the media play a significant role in the public's misperception of crime. Commissioning a review of the literature on public attitudes to crime in the UK, the organisation Rethinking Crime and Punishment concluded "the media misrepresents the levels of occurrence and the nature of criminal acts." Interestingly, the BCS found those who read tabloid newspapers tended to have a poorer knowledge of crime and criminal justice than others, with 43% of tabloid readers thinking the crime rate had increased a lot compared to 26% of broadsheet readers.

We need to revolutionise the way we think about crime and punishment. We need fresh policies - that actually work. Building more prisons is not the answer, because, to paraphrase Michael Howard, prison does not work. The Government needs to be pressured into introducing policies that tackle the root causes of crime - poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. During the 80s and 90s, while Britain experienced a dramatic rise in poverty and unemployment, countries like Germany and France pursued policies designed to redistribute wealth and protect vulnerable members of society. At the start of the 80s recorded crime was roughly the same in Britain and France (3.5 million), but by the end of the decade it had fallen to 3 million in France, but increased to 5.5 million in Britain.

As the public's primary source of information, the media must also change, improving the way it reports crime issues. Rather than simply focusing on sensational, violent crime, the media need to explore the wider, societal problems that lead people to commit crime in the first place.