May 30, 2007

What Assad Fears Most Has Come to Pass

by Michael J. Totten

Syria's tyrant Bashar Assad has dreaded nothing so much over the past couple of years as a Chapter 7 United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a tribunal to put on trial the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Chapter 7 means the international community will impose enforcement mechanisms on the guilty. Assad worries it will be the first step toward internationally-sanctioned regime-change in Damascus.

Today the Security Council passed a Chapter 7 resolution with no votes against. Fireworks lit up the skies over Beirut as a small bomb was tossed into a church near the Hezbollah dahiyeh.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:29 PM | Comments (126)

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan

by Michael J. Totten

Paul Berman has written an epic-sized essay the length of a small book about Islamic activist Tariq Ramadan for The New Republic. It is called The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism. This is not intended to be read in one sitting. You might want a hard copy of this one.

I don’t normally recommend you read something I haven’t (yet) read in its entirety myself. But this is Paul Berman we’re talking about. His books Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists should be considered required reading for every single person who reads this blog.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:00 AM | Comments (185)

May 29, 2007

Remember the conventional wisdom?

By Noah Pollak

I’ve had little time to post over the past week, as we’re in full production mode at the journal I work for and my days have been busy. But I wanted to make a brief observation about the situation today in Gaza, as by my lights there are three fundamentally important premises of recent Middle East diplomacy that the lawlessness there has overturned -- and quite violently, at that.

The first is the notion that power would moderate Hamas. After the terrorist group was elected in January 2006, western interpreters of “the conflict” dreamily predicted that its stridency and absolutism would attenuate; with its constituency being the entire Palestinian population, this thinking went, Hamas’ war against Israel would be necessarily curtailed by the mundane requirements of governance and incumbency. At the time, President Bush said, “I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table.” The AP’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief wrote, “if the elections pull the Islamic militants off the streets and into the corridors of power -- shifting their focus from terror to governance -- prospects for peace could be improved.” Not only has Hamas not moderated, it has actually become even more self-confident. Islamists, like most people, aren’t “moderated” by winning political power; they only compromise when a more powerful force, or necessity, compels them to.

The second is an idea that dates back at least to the start of Olso in the early 1990’s. It is the belief that Israel must make concessions in order to validate and strengthen the Palestinian moderates and marginalize the radicals. Another piece of conventional wisdom holds that Hamas won the 2006 election primarily due to a widespread feeling of disgust among Palestinians with Fatah’s corruption and fecklessness. Yet Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza happened just four months before the election, and the commotion surrounding that event distracted many people from taking note of what the withdrawal meant for the Palestinians themselves.

And what it meant for the Palestinians, especially the residents of Gaza, was that Hamas’ fierce resistance over the decades had finally forced an Israeli retreat. It was the Shia reaction to the 2000 Lebanon pullout all over again, with Hamas playing Hezbollah. Hamas was able to campaign proudly on this victory, which was viewed as additional evidence of Hamas’ strength and competence. And so it seems clear that a massive Israeli concession -- its departure from Gaza -- did not strengthen the Palestinian moderates at all, but in fact did the opposite: it vindicated the extremists, who unlike the moderates could declare a great victory and bask in the ensuing public admiration -- and collect a lot more votes when election day arrived.

And finally, there is the matter of foreign aid and its relationship to democracy-promotion. The Arab states and Iran have always spoken with great high-mindedness about the plight of their brothers in Palestine, but these regimes in practice have always lustily enjoyed seeing their brothers become permanent wards of UNRWA, settle into never-ending refugee status, and stagnate in extremism and violence. Since Hamas came to power, as David Frum helpfully notes, the gushers of largess that flow into the Palestinian territories have actually increased.

It is a little-known fact that international aid to the Palestinian territories has actually risen since Palestinians elected a Hamas government in January, 2006. According to International Monetary Fund and UN figures, the Palestinian areas received a total of $1.2 billion in official aid in 2006, up from $1 billion in 2005.
America's contribution rose from $400 million in 2005 to $468 million in 2006. Aid from the European Union and other international organizations also increased handsomely, and the UN has called for still greater increases in aid in 2007.
Look at the incentives that have been created for the Palestinians: vote for terrorism, get an increase in your foreign aid. The Palestinian areas now receive more than $300 per person, per year, making them the most aid-dependent population on Earth. (The people of sub-Saharan Africa receive only $44 per person per year.)

Meanwhile Hamas’ supposed pariah status has allowed it to strike a deal with a generous fellow-pariah, Iran, which since the election has spent well over $100 million directly on the terrorist group. Iran, whose economy is rapidly falling apart, is not providing this money out of altruistic solidarity, or even as cheap symbolism, as Saddam Hussein used to do with his payments to the families of suicide bombers. Iran is purchasing terrorism against Israel and improving its already substantial ability to foment crises in the region, which is one of mullahs' greatest deterrent capabilities.

Add all of this money up, and one confronts the reality that Hamas and the PA today are awash in unprecedented sums of money, absolving both Hamas and Fatah of the need to fulfill the most basic requirements of governance. This largess has so taken the pressure off Hamas that it is free to indulge almost exclusively in its greatest interest, and a major interest of its new patron, Iran -- waging jihad against Israel.

The primary givers to the Palestinians -- America and the EU -- have for years insisted on democracy without demanding accountability, or even a modicum of initiative and self-sufficiency. This is not aid; it is welfare. If there should ever be a moment when the institutions that are charged with improving the plight of the Palestinians take stock of what their benevolence has wrought, that moment it now, amidst Hamas' acts of war against Israel, its entente with Iran, and its civil war with Fatah. Have all of these billions been helping the Palestinians, or hurting them?

Many observers of Hamas’ rise to power have noted that the U.S. wishes for the Hamas government to collapse under the weight of its own narcissistic radicalism and unrestrained ambition. But the U.S., UN, and EU are pumping so much money into the Palestinian territories that they’re preventing that collapse, and the ensuing recognition among Palestinians that their votes were perhaps cast unwisely. With its prolific foreign aid, the West is not just infantilizing the Palestinian people and continuing to thwart any possibility, however implausible, of a Palestinian state. It is now underwriting the emerging Palestinian-Iranian alliance.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 04:32 AM | Comments (267)

May 28, 2007

Syria’s "Resistance" - UPDATED

By Michael J. Totten

Barry Rubin explains Syrian foreign policy in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen. (Thanks to Tony Badran.)
In the Middle East, violence is not the result of poor communication but a tool for political gain. Nothing proves that point better than Syria's successful use of violence and terrorism to promote its interests. No amount of dialogue is going to change that reality.

Now Syria is using a Palestinian front group to start a war inside Lebanon, just as it employed another Lebanese client organization, Hezbollah, to battle Israel last year. The Syrian government's message is simple: Lebanon will know no peace until it again becomes our satellite.


What is less understood is how the regime's radical strategy is used at home and why this makes it impossible to gain anything from engaging with Syria. Like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Syria's rulers face a paradox. How to stay in power after failing so completely? The economy is a mess, there is little freedom, and the regime is dominated by a small Alawite minority which is historically secular.

Since taking power in 2000 on his father's death, Bashar has met this challenge. He sends terrorists against Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and even the U.S. military, but nobody retaliates in kind against him. At home, the regime sounds increasingly Islamist; abroad it is the biggest sponsor of radical Islamist groups in the region.

Bashar has even declared a new doctrine he calls "Resistance," which combines Arab nationalism and Islamism. The West's goal, he claims, is to enslave the Arabs. The mistake made by other Arabs was to abandon war. "The world will not be concerned with us and our interests, feelings, and rights unless we are powerful," and victory requires "adventure and recklessness."

As Tony reminded us a few days ago (I had forgotten), Syria also sponsored terrorist groups against Turkey. Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel – that’s every single democratic country that shares a border with Syria.

Turkey threatened to invade in 1998. It is the only country on Syria’s border that threatened to respond to violence with violence. And it’s the only country on Syria’s border not terrorized by Assad today.

I saw the Syrian border from the Turkish side while driving to Iraqi Kurdistan from Istanbul. Two parallel fences a mile apart run the length of it. The area between the two fences is a vast minefield. Skull and crossbones signs warn of certain death to anyone reckless enough to cross.

The Turks never fired a shot, but the border is quiet.

UPDATE: Barry Rubin has another article along the same lines in Beirut's Daily Star:
Syria has been brilliant at creating and maintaining such Catch-22 situations, where the only way to "solve" a problem is to buy Syrian "cooperation" with deals that would make things worse. Syria has acted as the arsonist who sets the fire, then has played the role of fireman who would put it out only on condition that the burning property be given to it. This was how Syria fomented terrorism in Lebanon against Western peacekeeping forces in the early 1980s, driving them out and then offering to stabilize Lebanon by controlling it completely. The same approach was applied to the Palestinians, in post-Baath Iraq, and in Lebanon again.

Lebanon was indeed the masterpiece of this political genre. Thus, Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal explained, "How can we be asked to disarm Hizbullah [since] we're out of Lebanon?" But what if Syria was allowed to return to Lebanon in force, would it then clamp down on Hizballah? Well, on another occasion, Bilal was asked: "Will you be using your influence to persuade Hizbullah to disarm, or not?" His response: "Why on earth should we?" In fact, Hizballah is the main element in Syria's plan to recapture Lebanon entirely. If the West wants a stable Lebanon, or to avoid more Lebanon-Israel wars, it has to confront Syria, not make a deal with it.

Look, I realize I'm telling you to "eat your peas" here, that hardly anyone wants to confront Syria. But there aren't any good options. Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq can continue suffering Damascus-sponsored terrorists attacks, they can make a "deal" and surrender to Assad what he wants, or they can push back. That's all there is. Convincing him to be a good boy and an all-around pal over tea isn't an option.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:20 AM | Comments (77)

Fatah Al Islam Threatens all of Lebanon

by Michael J. Totten

Fatah Al Islam Military Commander Shihab Al-Qaddour threatened all of Lebanon in an interview with Al-Hayat.

During the interview, Al-Qaddour told Al-Hayat that the Fath Al-Islam organization "would respond against the Lebanese military if the attacks on it were to continue," and added that "[our response] will not be limited [solely] to the Palestinian refugee camps or to Beirut, but all fronts will be opened." Referring to the battles in Tripoli and the bombings in the neighborhoods of Beirut during the past week, he said: "This is only the beginning... We are ready to blow up Beirut and every other place in Lebanon."

Al-Qaddour stated that "in addition to the supporters of the organization, Fath Al-Islam has bases and sleeper cells in all the Palestinian refugee camps in the various regions of Lebanon, and they are on alert [to launch] a harsh response - they await only a sign from us." He said, "Fath Al-Islam's threat to open the fire of hell against Lebanon is a serious one. As long as we are under attack, we will [defend ourselves] by any and all means. The organization has the full capability to bring the battle to every place in Lebanon. We can easily do this..."

Meanwhile, can we please set aside Seymour Hersh’s story that alleges the United States and Lebanese governments supported these people? I realize, of course, that the both governments have suffered blowback from stupid alliances, but this one makes about as much sense as 9/11 being an inside job.

Here is Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star:

There are few pleasures these days as Lebanon descends into the kind of violence that Syria seems to manufacture so effortlessly. However, one of them is discovering how easy it was for a gaggle of pro-Syrian Lebanese operators to manipulate investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, before he wrote a much-discussed article recently implying that the Lebanese government was financing Islamist groups, including Fatah al-Islam.

In his article for The New Yorker, Hersh faithfully channeled what sources in Lebanon told him, lending legitimacy to statements he otherwise failed to prove. Most prominently, for being so specific, he wrote that "representatives of the Lebanese government" had supplied weapons and money to Fatah al-Islam. But Hersh's only evidence for this claim was a quote attributed to one Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent who is co-director of Conflicts Forum, an institution advocating dialogue with Islamist movements. Nor did Crooke have direct knowledge of what he was saying. In fact, he "was told" the weapons were offered to the group, "presumably to take on Hizbullah." The argument is now being picked up by media belonging to senior members of the Syrian regime to affirm that the Lebanese Army is fighting an Islamist group in the Nahr al-Bared camp that is effectively on the payroll of Saad Hariri.

Lately, we've had more ricochets from that story. Writing in The Independent on May 22, journalist Robert Fisk, who we might forget lives in Beirut, picked up on Hersh, citing him uncritically to again make the case that Hariri was financing Islamists. So we have Fisk quoting Hersh quoting Crooke quoting someone nameless in a throwaway comment making a serious charge. Yet not one of these somnolent luminaries has bothered to actually verify if the story is true, even as everything about the fighting in Nahr al-Bared virtually confirms it is not true.
Also see Michael’s earlier debunking in Reason magazine: Does the New Yorker actually edit Seymour Hersh?

David Kenner, guest-blogging at From Beirut to the Beltway, adds the following:

Hersh (who was a great journalist, though you are excused for not noticing) credits Syria with more rationality than the United States. When the confused CNN anchor asked why -- if neither country was ideologically aligned with Fatah al-Islam -- it makes sense for America to be funding the terrorists but not Syria, Hersh answered, "You're assuming logic by the United States government." And that is about as far as the opposition's ridiculous explanations for the recent violence extends: forget the regional situation, forget who benefits from chaos in Lebanon. Dick Cheney sure is sketchy, isn't he?
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:51 AM | Comments (35)

May 25, 2007

War in Lebanon (Again)

By Michael J. Totten

Robert Fisk:
Butchery was the word that came to mind. Twenty-three Lebanese soldiers and police, 17 Sunni Muslim gunmen. How long can Lebanon endure this? Just before he died, one of the armed men - Palestinians? Lebanese? - we still don't know - shot a soldier right beside me. He fell down on his back, crying with pain, and I thought he had slipped on the road until I saw the blood pumping out of his leg and the Red Cross team dragging him desperately out of the line of fire. Not since the war - yes, the Lebanese civil war that we are all still trying to forget - have I heard this many bullets cracking across the streets of a Lebanese city.
NOW Lebanon:
[T]he situation in Lebanon today could easily be taken from a B-movie, so rarely does life provide circumstances where the Good Guys and Bad Guys are this clearly differentiated. One can easily imagine movie goers rolling their eyes at such a simple representation of good versus evil: the under-equipped but terribly brave, multi-faith group of telegenic young soldiers battling evil, murderous terrorists to defend democracy and freedom.

The word terrorist has been devalued and possibly rendered useless by overuse, but there are still those for whom the title applies: groups and individuals whose only discernible ambition is, to put it quite simply, to terrorize. If ever there was an indisputable frontline in the international “war on terror,” it is at the entrance to Nahr el-Bared.

Charles Malik:
Most Lebanese go to work, and return home immediately. Friends, the other day, came over to my place. They said, "We'll go out after the bomb." There has not yet been more than one attack on the same night. Most nightspots are closing early or not opening at all. And the ones that remain open are empty, and the owners are jittery. The other night was the first time that I saw the owners of an unpopular local pub look upset when more patrons arrived. It was as if they thought, "The more popular we are, the more likely it is we will become a target."
David Kenner, filling in for Abu Kais at From Beirut from the Beltway:
People were greeting friends and smiling, in that rueful way that Lebanese smile when they know that something is very wrong but that there is nothing to be done about it. People were scared, but they were still functioning. The bomb broke most of the windows for an approximately 300- foot radius, and totaled four or five cars.

This is what characterized the entire trip, for me. People were calmly repairing the damage. This Vero Moda store was open for business. People were shopping inside, thumbing through clothes..The conversation on the street was uniformly about how quickly everything could be rebuilt, when Aley would be up on its feet again. The cell phone store bragged about reopening on Monday; the bank employee said that he would be doing business again tomorrow.

I thought the citizens of Aley exhibited just the right mix of resolution, self-control, and defiance.
Michael Young:
The Assad regime never reconciled itself with its forced withdrawal from Lebanon, and is now actively seeking to reimpose its hegemony over its neighbor through a network of allies and agents. A return of tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers may not be achievable in the short term, particularly as the main barrier to such a return would, this time, be an outraged Sunni community. This could have severe implications for President Bashar Assad at home. However, the Syrians often operate according to an obsolete template - that of Hafez al-Assad. While it may be easy for them to provoke conflict in Lebanon, as they did throughout the war years between 1975 and 1990, the Syrian leadership might not be able to resist the blowback this time around if new hostilities break out.
As the battle in Tripoli continues between the Lebanese Army and Fateh El Islam and as another explosion occurs, this time in Aley, the Lebanese seem to be ALMOST united once again. It’s sad how such matters unite us.

On Facebook, groups have been emerging calling for the support of our army, the love of Lebanon, encouraging people to vacation in Lebanon, and much more.

Almost every Lebanese I know, has changed their MSN display picture to some sort of symbol of patriotism such as the flag, or the army’s emblem and almost every one of them have placed a flower (F) before their display name symbolising their support for the Lebanese Army.
Perpetual Refugee:
The Lebanese were collectively punished last summer for not being able to control a mad man who thought that kidnapping the cubs of a lioness was a game. As he hid safely like a pussy behind a chastity belt, over 1,000 Lebanese died. And the dreams of millions along with them. I hated the Israelis then. Even though I knew a lot of them personally who did not hate me back each time a missile hit Haifa.

And as we collectively punished the Palestinians in their camp for not being able to control mad men who thought that killing the kittens of a declawed housecat would demonstrate their power, I felt no remorse. None. Hypocrite. They should have controlled the madmen, I thought.

Then Boom. A bomb in Achrafieh. Again. A dead innocent woman. Again. Boom. Another bomb in another affluent neighborhood. Verdun. Boom. Another bomb in Aley. Here we go. The birthing pangs of our rebirth.

While the mad men of Damascus started softly gloating, my numbness turned to rage. And while we exercised power over the powerless, I thought back to July of 2006. And I realized. Realized that I was guilty. Of hypocricy.

The terrorists need to be eliminated.
Tony Badran:
The bottom line is this: everyone knows that this is a rabid terrorist campaign by a psychopathic murderous thug in Damascus, who will stop at nothing. The tribunal must be established without delay, and Assad must be made to pay a tangible painful price for his murderous policy. It's as simple as that. "Engagement" (I.e. appeasement) will only be seen by Assad as a sign of surrender and encouragement to commit more terrorism. It's telling that the only time the thuggish Assad Sr. was persuaded to back off his terrorism against one of his neighbors (and Syria is guilty of exporting terrorism to all its neighbors) was when Turkey threatened to invade Syria in 1998.
Meanwhile, United States military aid is rushed to Lebanon, as it should be.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:34 AM | Comments (212)

May 23, 2007

The Story of Gaza

By Michael J. Totten

Last year I visited Southern Israel after the Lebanon war winded down. The Israelis were then engaged in a similar fight against the rocket launchers in Gaza. The situation in the meantime has hardly changed at all. Once again – still – Israelis are under Qassam rocket fire from Gaza and are planning an IDF operation to stop to it. The crisis, if anything, is only worse now because the rockets are even more frequent. I wrote three articles about this in August last year and I realize now they could have been written today. Here they are as they originally appeared and as relevant as they were when I wrote them.

Part I: Eyeless in Gaza

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The engine of a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian terrorists

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – All eyes turned from Gaza to Lebanon as Israel fought a hot war with Hezbollah across its northern border. Before the Lebanon war broke out, the fighting in and around Gaza was the big story in Israel. But once the media coverage ended it stayed ended, even after foreign correspondents were free to pick up where they left off. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists by the latest in a long line of Palestinian terrorist groups -- the Holy Jihad Brigades -- all but guaranteed reporters wouldn’t go back.

Even though I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks, I still didn’t know any more about what’s going on down there than people who have never been here before. News from Israel’s other rocket war barely trickles up to Tel Aviv. So I hopped in my rental car and drove down to Mishav Klahim, just east of Netivot and 20 kilometers from Gaza, to meet Shika Frista who promised to show me what’s going on.

I missed a turn on the coastal road when I was supposed to veer left to avoid driving straight into Gaza. Suddenly mine was the only car on the road. An aerial surveillance balloon hovered in the air up ahead. It looked just like the one I saw flying on the border with Lebanon while Hezbollah fired barrages of Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities.

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The war of the rockets was supposed to be over. But I was back in it.

The left turn I needed to take was behind me. But I kept driving, slowly, so I could see what was ahead. I rolled down the window and listened for sounds of war. All was quiet, oppressively hot, and still.

The road dead-ends at the Erez Crossing Point. No one was going in or out of Gaza that day. It looked like no one was even there working or watching, like the place had been abandoned and left to itself.

I took a quick picture…

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…then turned the car around and realized I had made a mistake. Any Israeli military personnel who watched me drive up, take a quick picture, and leave right away would have good reason to be suspicious and even arrest me. But no cars followed in the rear view mirror.

The map led me straight to Shika Frista’s house on his Moshav. We sat at little table under the shade of palm trees next to his swimming pool.

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Shika drank a glass of red wine.

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It was too hot for wine, so I asked for a beer. The air outside is drier in the south, though, not humid and heavy like it is in Tel Aviv.

“I can hear the Qassam rockets fired at us from Gaza,” he said and gestured to the farmland beyond. “They shake the windows of my house when they hit.”

Israel ended up with two rocket wars at the same time. One in the north, and one in the south. Unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal, Qassam rockets aren’t made in Iran. They’re made in Gaza itself. They’re smaller, though, than Katyushas. The south has not been evacuated like the north was, even though people still occasionally are killed by the rockets.

“How often does Hamas fire rockets?” I said.

“Hamas doesn’t shoot them,” he said. “Islamic Jihad shoots them.”

“How close to your house has a Qassam hit?” I said.

“About…four or five kilometers away,” he said.

“And you can hear them here,” I said, “even from that far away?”

“Oh,” he said. “Of course.”

We finished our drinks and drove toward Gaza in his truck.

“Ariel Sharon’s farm is near here, right?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “A Qassam landed twenty meters from his wife’s grave on the family property.”

We passed Sharon’s farm and in minutes reached the city of Sderot.

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“Lots of Qassams hit this city,” Shika said. “Most people killed by the Qassams live here.”

“How many rockets are hitting the city right now?” I said.

“Not as many today,” he said. “Because of the war in Lebanon.”

“What does Lebanon have to do with it?” I said.

“All the journalists forgot about us during the Lebanon war. So the terrorists are waiting for the media to come back before firing rockets again. They don’t want to waste those they have.”

“That can’t be the only reason,” I said. “The IDF has been active in Gaza this entire time. Surely that has something to do with it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Also because of the IDF.

Later two more Israelis repeated what Shika said about Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooling their rocket launchers while the media’s attention was elsewhere. I haven’t heard any official confirmation from either side that it’s true.

“How long do people here have from the time they hear an air raid siren until the rockets land?” I said.

“About 20 seconds,” he said.

We reached a small IDF base near the Israeli town of Nir Am where Shika’s friend Zvika waited for us.

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Shika’s friend Zvika

The parking lot was shielded by concrete bomb-blast walls.

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A civilian overlook tower was erected next to the military compound. It was not shielded by walls of any kind. But Gaza was still a comfortable distance away. No sniper could possibly shoot us from the other side of the vast and eerily empty no-man’s wasteland that lay between the de-facto end of Israel and the beginning of Gaza.

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An aerial surveillance balloon flew right over our heads.

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Zvika knew the area well. Shika had asked him to meet us so he could tell me what we were looking at.

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“Over there,” Zvika said, “is the town of Beit Hanun.”

Beit Hanun was far, and I had to zoom my camera lens all the way out to take a picture.

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The Gaza city of Beit Hanun from Nir Am with a zoom lens

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Here is a severely cropped piece from the photo above

“You see those towers off in the distance,” Zvika said. “With the sun shining on them? Those are apartment buildings in Gaza City that Arafat built for members of Fatah.”

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“Where are those smokestacks in the distance off to the right?” I said.

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“That’s Ashkelon,” Zvika said. “Islamic Jihad fires Qassam rockets at that city all the time.”

“Is this overlook point always open to the public?” I said. It felt strange just driving up to an IDF base, even if it was just a small one, and hanging out right next to it without having to even say hi to a soldier guarding the road.

“Very few civilians know about this place,” Zvika said. “Only the people who live nearby ever come here.”

“Is this interesting to you?” I said. “Or is it normal?”

“It is normal,” he said.

“It is interesting for me,” Shika said. “It has been three years since I saw anything like this.”

“There used to be plantations just on the other side of the fence,” Zvika said. “But the IDF uprooted them because Qassams were being launched from there. Now they have to fire Qassams from the buildings farther away.”

“If they fire a rocket you will see it,” Shika said.

“Will we see a trail of smoke?” I said.

Oh yes,” Zvika said and raised his eyebrows. “You will see the smoke.”

Just then several IDF soldiers in the base below shouted something in Hebrew and ran to one of the tanks.

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Several men jumped in, cranked up the tank’s engine, and roared with surprising speed into the field toward Gaza in front of the overlook tower.

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I braced myself for the thunderous racket of combat or a possible incoming or over flying Qassam. Nothing happened. The Gaza area was tense and sporadically violent, but the conflict was significantly dialed down compared with the just-ended open war against Hezbollah in the north.

It was time to move on. Shika and Zvika had much more to show me.

Zvika hopped in his van. Shika and I climbed into the truck and followed Zvika as he drove south down the length of the Gaza Strip.

“You see that dirt road on the other side of the trees next to this one?” Shika said.

I did, and I took a picture of it.

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“Every day a machine goes over it and smoothes it out,” he said. “Trackers, mostly Bedouin, search the dirt every day for fresh footprints. They can tell when someone has come out of Gaza and which direction he’s going. If you put one foot on that road right now you will be arrested.”

“I’m partly relieved that I can’t go into Gaza right now,” I said. I’m being prevented from going into Gaza for a variety of security, logistical, and bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. “But I also partly wish that I could.”

“The beach in Gaza is amazing,” Shika had told me earlier. “It is virgin. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“You’ve been there?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We used to go there and eat in the restaurants.”

“When?” I said.

“In the early 80s,” he said.

“It was friendly then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Israel ruled there. The Palestinians were friendly, I think they miss that period. They had money, they could walk freely.”

We continued following Zvika in his van to the abandoned Karni Terminal.

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“That’s Gaza, man,” Shika said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Not without the army, though. If you and I go in there right now, we’re both in trouble.”

“Me more than you,” Shika said.

We were much closer to Gaza this time than we were at the overlook tower. Buildings inside the strip loomed just over the tops of concrete bomb-blast and sniper-fire walls.

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“We are probably over some tunnels right now,” Shika said. “It is very dangerous and we have to be careful.”

The Karni Terminal was a major crossing point for people and goods into and out of Gaza before the place went completely to hell. Today it is abandoned.

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The spooky silence and emptiness only hinted at the violence and anarchy being walled off on the other side after the Israeli withdrawal.

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It wasn’t a safe place to linger. So we moved along and headed further south without getting out of our vehicles.

“The last three prime ministers want peace,” Shika said. “They go out of Lebanon, they go out of Gaza. And look what [Arab terrorists] continue to do.”

“Do you think it was right to leave Gaza?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

“Even though there are rocket attacks?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This is occupied land. They always have excuses to do what they do. Do you know what’s going on in Gaza now?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

“Whew,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

“What do you know about it?” I said.

“Everybody has weapons,” he said. “The strongest is the ruler. It is not like in Ramallah.”

Smoke rose from Gaza off to the right.

“You see that fire?” Shika said. “It is from missiles. Israel is shooting at where the terrorists hide.”

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Vicious dogs chased the truck and ran right alongside it, furiously barking, snarling, and threatening to lunge at us.

The only thing less dodgy about this environment than the war zone on the northern border is that I couldn’t hear or see live explosions.

I did, however, see a tank moving fast among some trees.

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Once again I braced myself for the unspeakably loud explosions of combat. Once again, though, the IDF just seemed to be moving its forces around. There was no fighting at that particular time on that particular day.

We kept driving and passed by more tanks.

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“They are getting ready to go into Gaza,” Shika said.

Some of the tanks looked idle, though. Notice in the photo below that a cover of some sort has been placed over the barrel.

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“Roll down the window,” I said. “I want to talk to these guys.”

Shika rolled down the window and shouted at an IDF officer. The officer shouted back.

“I told him you are a journalist,” Shika said. “And he said It’s about time you got down here.”

“Ask him if I can interview some of the soldiers,” I said.

Shika asked my question in Hebrew.

“No,” the officer said.

“Can I take pictures?” I said and held up my camera.

“No,” the officer said. Then why did he say It’s about time you got down here? He didn’t send us away, but he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

It was okay, though. Noah Pollak and I were already wrapping up the week-long process of securing interviews with IDF soldiers and military intelligence officers out of Gaza. We had plans to get that side of the story soon enough from people who know who we are and are willing to talk.

You can drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza in an hour. How strange, then, that there’s a little war down there that no one else in Israel – not even the foreign correspondents – have any interest in or are really even aware of. I felt like I had slid off the edge of the country and through a hole in the dimension into a violent alternate reality. It’s as if the Gaza war does not exist in Israel now even though it’s right down the road.

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If a terrorist army fired rockets into Jersey City and the US military deployed tanks and heavy artillery against them, those who live in New York would take a keen interest in the goings-on. So would, I suspect, the people of Britain, France, Israel (!), and Cairo.

People get used to war, though. So do countries. Arabs are firing rockets at Jews? Israelis are sending tanks after their hides? Yeah, well, what else is new. Right?

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It’s tourist season now, just one hour north. And the beach is calling.

Part II: Israel’s Other Rocket War

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – Israel’s other war-without-a-name in the summer of 2006 is eerily similar to the one in the north, the one that got all the attention, against Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just across the border from Gaza and ramped up their Qassam rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.

Shika Frista and his friend Zvika took me to Kibbutz Alumim, where Zvika lives with his family, and showed me some of the rockets that landed in and around the community recently.

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Several Qassam rockets had been placed beneath a palm tree.

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Oddly, the Gaza rocket factory took the trouble to brand their weapons in English.

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Elsewhere exploded Qassam rockets and parts were used as garden art.

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There is something slightly creepy about using Qassam rockets as garden art. But Qassams are a part of life in Southern Israel. And there’s something slightly defiant as well as creepy about integrating them into the landscape.

Turning a murderous instrument with your name on it into a community showpiece is a way of taking ownership of it, laughing at it even. Your rockets don’t scare us. They’re just garden art now. We’re still here. And you keep missing the target.

Zvika did seem to think the rocket parts were a little bit funny. He held them up for my camera with the same good cheer as a fisherman who just caught a seven pound bass.

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I, too, picked up some of the rockets, thinking while doing so that thugs from Hamas or Islamic Jihad had handled them before I did, hoping against the odds that they could use them to kill a few Jews.

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Unlike Northern Israel during the Hezbollah war, Southern Israel has not been evacuated. Rockets flying out of Gaza are fewer and smaller than those that were shot out of Lebanon. Terrorism usually doesn’t work as well as its practitioners wish. So far the only thing terrorists in Gaza have accomplished is bringing about the return of the Israeli Defense Forces.

I saw a huge pile of busted up pavement next to one of the streets. “What’s that?” I said to Zvika.

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“It is from a Qassam,” he said. “It landed right next to these houses and shattered the road.”

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“The houses look okay,” I said. But I remembered the damage I saw from Katyusha attacks by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona. Most of the damage done to buildings is cosmetic and easily fixable even while Katyushas are extraordinarily dangerous to human beings.

“If the Qassam lands next to you,” Zvika said, “it will kill you. But it if lands ten meters away it won’t kill you. Qassams are lightweight. If they had more explosives and weighed more the rockets wouldn’t go very far. They would land on the Palestinians.” He laughed and made a diving gesture with his hand. “The rockets are made in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are not technologically sophisticated like the Hezbollah.”

If Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers compared with IAF missiles, Qassams are practically spit balls compared with Katyushas. Then again, a Qassam is huge compared with a bullet, and a great deal more dangerous. They have only killed a handful of people, even so. The biggest danger from the Palestinian rocket war against Israel isn’t the damage Hamas and Islamic Jihad are able to inflict today. It’s the damage they could inflict tomorrow if they find a way to equip themselves with more powerful missiles that could render Southern and even Central Israel uninhabitable.

Zvika pointed to the alarm system on top of the roof of a school.

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“You have twenty or thirty seconds after you hear that alarm to get to a shelter,” he said. “It scares the children every time it goes off.”

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“Do they ever fire rockets at night?” I said. Hezbollah hardly ever fired Katyusha rockets at night because they did not want to give away the positions of the launchers to the Israeli military.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All day, all night, all the time.”


Earlier we had coffee at an outdoor café just far enough away from Gaza that we couldn’t quite see it.

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Zvika’s two children joined us.

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They had accompanied us during our entire tour along the border with Gaza, which just goes to show how normal-seeming such places can be when you live near them. I doubt many tourists ever take their kids to that border.

A Qassam could have struck us at any moment, although the odds were low enough that I didn’t worry about it. I even tried to worry about it just so I would have an idea what it can feel like to live next to Gaza. After spending a day and a half under fire from Hezbollah, though, Qassams didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Just as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, Zvika received a text message on his cell phone telling us that an incoming rocket struck Kibbutz Kissufim.

“That happened just now?” I said.

“Just now,” Zvika said.

It was far enough away that we didn’t hear it.

I wanted to know what Zvika thought about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year now that he has to live under rocket fire in part as a result. Was withdrawing the settlements and the army the right thing to do?

“Yes,” Zvika said. But he does not want to withdraw from the West Bank. “It is our land. They can have Gaza. But Hebron has always been ours. They have only been there for 200 years.”

The United States has barely existed for more than 200 years. No one thinks non-native Americans should have to pack up and go back to Europe or wherever else their families came from. At some point the statute of limitations has to run out on these things. George Santayana famously said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. P.J. O’Rourke went further and said it goes double for those who can’t remember anything else.

“Do you just want to sit on top of Palestinians forever?” I said to Zvika.

He shrugged.

“What is the solution to this problem?” Shika asked Zvika. Zvika had no answer, not even a bad one.

“What is the solution?” Shika said again. “What do you think is the solution?”

Zvika didn’t say anything.

“You want to keep the West Bank but give them Gaza?” I said.

“We gave them Gaza,” Zvika said, “and Lebanon. But Hamas and Hezbollah still want to kill us. Why? What did we do to Lebanon? Nothing. And they want to kill us!”

“The West Bank is different from Lebanon, though,” I said.

“Yes,” Zvika said. “It is our land.”

Zvika is in the minority. Shika calls him a “fanatic,” even though they are friends. The Israeli center as the well as the left wants out of the West Bank as well as out of Gaza. Ehud Olmert was elected in part on that platform.

There’s an old formula that has been floating around for a while.

1. Greater Israel
2. Democracy
3. Jewish Majority

Pick two.

Zvika and the rest of Israelis to the right of the mainstream still think, somehow, they will find a way to hold onto all three.

It didn’t matter what I said to Zvika. He just kept saying “It is our land,” as if that settled everything and there was nothing left to be said.


Shika and I left Zvika at Kibbutz Alumim and continued by ourselves in his truck to Kelem Shalom, where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt converge.

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This is where the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, triggering Operation Summer Rain that continues in Gaza today, almost entirely beyond any media coverage.

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Shalit was inside a tank near the tower pictured above. Eight terrorists emerged from an underground tunnel 700 meters long that began in a building in Gaza and ended as a hard-to-see hole in the middle of an Israeli field. They fired an RPG at the tank and killed two soldiers. Gilad Shalit emerged from the tank. The terrorists snatched him off the tank and stole him to Gaza. The whole operation took seven minutes.

Tunnels are appearing all over the place. Tunnels from Gaza into Egypt for smuggling weapons. Tunnels from Gaza into Israel for carrying out terrorist actions.

The Egyptian border patrol (pictured below) does shut down some of the smugglers’ tunnels, even though it is not their top priority.

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Tunnels are a top priority for Israel, though, along the border with Egypt as well as underneath their own territory.

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Those tunnels get people killed. They keep finding new ones beneath the houses.

Part III: A Volcano of Terror

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SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA - On June 25, 2006, eight armed Palestinian men emerged from an underground tunnel through a hard-to-see hole in the ground, fired an RPG at an Israeli tank, killed two soldiers, snatched another young soldier, Gilad Shalit, and stole him away into Gaza. The attack lasted seven minutes. The Israeli Defense Forces then launched Operation Summer Rain against the kidnappers, against those who fire Qassam rockets at Israeli civilians, and against those who dig tunnels under the earth so they can smuggle weapons out of Egypt and carry out terrorist attacks inside Israel.

Soldiers keep watch on the border at a small military outpost just south of Kibbutz Nir Am.

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There I met Major Tal Lev-Ram, Spokesman for the IDF Southern Command. He unfurled an enormous map of Gaza and asked me please not to take any pictures of it. Code names for villages and neighborhoods were hand-written with red ink in Hebrew.

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“When we left the Gaza Strip we didn’t think the terrorism would stop," he said. "We understood that there would no longer be any legitimacy for them to act. A year after they continue to re-arm. The terrorist groups -- Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad -- they did not turn the areas we left into schools, factories, and so on. They became training camps for the terrorist groups.”

The major knows passable English, but he chose to speak to me in Hebrew through a translator. I had hoped for an interview with an English-speaking officer. But none of the spokesman for the Southern Command are fluent in English. All the English speakers were sent to the Northern Command so they could talk to foreign media during the Lebanon war. Only Israeli journalists who write and broadcast in Hebrew showed much interest in the military confrontation in Gaza.

“We also left the Egypt-Gaza border," he said. "The Egyptians are responsible for it now. They are doing an okay job, but there is still a lot of smuggling and so on.”

“They’re using tunnels?” I said.

“We found two tunnels just two weeks ago," he said. "They are very organized, with electricity and everything. One city straddles the border. It’s basically one city on each side. They are digging tunnels to connect them.”

“Do the Egyptians shut down the tunnels?” I said.

“We spend great effort finding and exposing the tunnels," he said. "The Egyptians make an effort, but it is not the highest priority for them.”

I taped our conversation with a digital voice recorder, as is routine for me lately. A young Israeli soldier took notes by hand at the same time. Perhaps it was her job to make sure I did not misquote the spokesman. Or maybe she was checking on him. It's hard to say. I didn't ask her why she recorded everything, and no one in the military ever told me I need to clear my work with any censors.

“We have good defenses on the border fence," the major said. “Last year more than 70 terrorists were killed trying to breach it. Because the area is very confined, terrorism is brewing. They keep trying to find ways to go outside. It is like a volcano of terror. It needs to go somewhere. They try to go around, out into Egypt, and then over to the Israeli side. Sometimes they try to cross back in right next to Gaza. Other times they go down near Eilat [at the bottom of Israel.]”

Gaza is tiny. It's 30 or so miles long and only a few miles wide.

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“[They try] to go around the border," he said, "in order to move information, training, and terrorists, and ammunition to their side from the West Bank. They are always trying to find ways to go around the Israeli border. They also fired something like 1,000 Qassam rockets since the disengagement until now. For no reason.”

“How many people have been killed by the Qassams?" I said.

“This year?" he said. "Zero."

Zero! No wonder the Israelis who live near Gaza haven't evacuated. Southern Israel at war is not like Northern Israel during Hezbollah's Katyusha war.

"But terror is terror," he said. "If you are afraid to send your child to a kindergarten, for me it’s the same. For now it’s the Qassam. In the future they will have more than today. 20 people in the past were killed by the Qassams. And like I said, terror is terror. You feel terror.”

I asked him if he thought the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a good idea. He wouldn't answer and said that his opinion as a military man didn't matter. The Israeli military takes orders from the democratically elected government, and that's that.

“One of the major events after the disengagement," he did say, "was the election of Hamas. They became the government in the Gaza Strip. Their principal goal is to destroy Israel. And they actually commit terror. Israel can’t accept that we left the Gaza Strip and still face daily terror attacks on and over the fence. Around 60 times charges of 50 kilograms were exploded on the fence. Also RPG and M-16 attacks on the fence against our forces. On Passover an attempt was prevented to go into a Kibbutz near the Karni Terminal...The second event that had a significant role in changing the rules of the game was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. We came to the decision that we need to take some sort of aggressive action in the Gaza Strip. The decision was to act against specific cells in different places. So we’re not talking about conquering land. We’re talking about operations of a few days each. We’re going in to destroy the infrastructure of terrorists. We can’t finish all the terror. But we can punch against it. During these operations more than 200 terrorists were killed. Weapons storages, training camps, all the infrastructure, factories where they make Qassam rockets.”

“How do you know where the factories are?" I said. "Do you have Palestinians informers?”

“We have good intelligence,” he said and laughed. “We have good military intelligence.”

It's no secret that many Palestinians cooperate (or "collaborate") with Israel against terrorists. But I decided to be a good sport and let him deflect the question. He wouldn't be able to say anything on the record that isn't already widely known anyway.

“Another pattern that’s unusual," he said. "They use the civilian population as human shields.” It's not really unusual. Hezbollah did the same thing in Lebanon. Fighters in Iraq do it there, too, although some in Iraq also deliberately murder Iraqis.

“Does the local population let them do this?” I said.

“It’s a problem," he said. "Sometimes we see resistance. But it’s difficult to judge from our perspective. We see a lot of cases where Katyusha or Qassam rockets are fired from within populated areas. More than that, they came up with a system that was based on the fear that we would find the exact location of the rocket launchers. So they place the launchers with a timer. And ten, eleven, and twelve year old children come and take the launcher away afterwards. Often we’re faced with fourteen or fifteen year old youth who come, armed, and place charges along the fence. When we see them, even when we see that they are armed, if they are only fourteen or fifteen we only shoot to scare them. We don’t actually fire at them. Of course, only if there is no immediate danger to our forces.

“Our general instructions," he continued, "not just in the these cases, is if we see a militant who is armed, a terrorist, and there is no immediate danger to our forces, we don’t fire if there is a danger that we would hurt the innocents, people who are not involved. But with that, it’s important to say that when we have such aggressive fighting in populated areas, when there’s an exchange of fire between terrorists and the IDF, there are cases where innocent people get hurt. But we warn as much as we can to step back, step away, to clear the area. So we see the terror organizations as responsible when civilians get hurt. And when there is a case and we know that a civilian was killed by mistake or unnecessarily, we check ourselves. When a rocket is fired and we respond with artillery fire, there could be civilians hurt. We don’t fire into populated areas. Only to the exact spots where they fired Qassams. If it’s in the middle of the city, we will not shoot.”

Sadly it's impossible to fight terrorists, guerillas, or whatever you want to call them, in populated areas without hurting civilians. No one has yet invented the Bad Guy Bullet that flies safely past innocents and hits only the armed. The fact that Palestinian terrorists, like those everywhere else in the Middle East, make blending in with the civilian population part of their modus operandi means civilian casualties are unavoidable in a fight. It doesn't help that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

“About a month and a half ago," he said, "another event that shows you the dilemma here: Two terrorists with an RPG tried to shoot a tank. We shot back. In the same house the mother of them, and a cousin, were in the same house. They fired five meters away from where the mother and cousin were standing. The Palestinian headline said that a mother and child were killed. The child was twenty two years old. And he was a member of Hamas. So, I am not happy about the mother. But, this is my right. You know? In the houses of Hamas militants, and all the other terrorist organizations, there are storages of weaponry. That’s because in the past we would avoid attacking houses with families. Which raises the question: Sometimes we as the IDF care more about the families and the children than he who would put them in danger. In a house, let’s say of three floors, a whole floor may be used as a storage.”

A tunnel had recently been found near the Karni terminal where goods and materials cross from Israel into Gaza. I asked if I could see it.

“I will take you to Karni," he said. "But you cannot see the tunnel. It is inside the Palestinian territory. One kilometer inside. You understand? It is one kilometer inside the Palestinian territory." In other words, the tunnel diggers are determined. They will spend Lord only knows how many hours digging and digging and digging, knowing most tunnels are discovered before they're completed, just on the off chance that they'll make it all the way into Israel and get to maybe kill one or two people.

“One more thing I want to say," he said. "We will not stop the military action until Gilad Shalit comes back to us. But -- and I say this to the press all the time -- if there will be silence on our side for our villages it will be quiet on the Palestinian side.”

"How many soldiers have been killed since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped?" I said.

“All the year, before Gilad Shalit, no one. In the Shalit event, two soldiers died. And after that one more soldier died from friendly shooting. That’s all. So this is the big question for them. The spokesman of the government for Palestinians three days ago said the same thing I say all the time. For what? For what? For three soldiers who were killed in Gaza. In all the year something like 500 terrorists died in Gaza. So for what? The organizations of terror need to understand that it’s not worth it for them. And they can choose. We left the territory in the Gaza Strip, so it’s up to them. We will not stop the Qassam only with military pressure. They need to decide that they want to stop it. And if they will stop the Qassams, if they will stop the terror, free Gilad Shalit, we won’t have anything to fight about. And Karni will be open more. And everything will be better for them, not for us. This is the question. This is the biggest question, I think. And if you have time to read what the spokesman for Hamas government said, I think he can replace me.” He laughed. “Yeah? This is the truth. He is a good man.”

And he laughed again. Not because he was joking, but because it truly is an alternate Middle Eastern universe when the spokesman for Hamas echoes precisely the views of the spokesman for the IDF Southern Command.

Skeptical? Read for yourself. Hamas Spokesman Ghazi Hamad comes across like a world-weary man ground down and plainly despondent from a largely self-imposed Palestinian catastrophe.

I had a faint hope after Hamas was elected that the reality check from hell might finally kick in. And at least in one case, and for one day, it did.


The major drove to an area near the Karni Terminal in his jeep.

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I followed behind him in my rental car. He took us straight into a dirt field. I nearly took the muffler off my poor little Hundai when I drove over a basketball-sized dirt clod as hard as a rock. We stepped out into the open where there was no shade from the fierce Levantine sun at the end of the summer. Distant machine gun fire was almost, but not quite, drowned out in the wind.

"Kalashnikov," said my translator who, like many Israelis, can identify weapons by sound.

A large truck-mounted surveillance camera monitored Gaza just to our left.

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"Two days ago was Gilad Shalit's birthday," said the major. “One soldier from his unit said he was glad to be in Gaza fighting the people who took him. His family and friends released hundreds of balloons into the air from the place where he was kidnapped.”

I wanted to know about that tunnel the IDF found.

“The plan was to use it for suicide bombings at Karni,” he said. “I can’t understand it. Karni is their lifeline, their life. This is the biggest reason we closed it. It’s hard to understand why they keep doing these things at the crossing points unless they are trying to make life harder in Gaza.”

Two months ago Palestinian police stopped a car bomber heading toward Karni. Six months ago the IDF stopped three terrorists with M-16s, grenades, and suicide bomb belts at the Erez crossing point where people, rather than goods, transit into and out of Gaza.

“We think there are many many more tunnels," the major said. "The Kelem Shalom action [where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped] was through a 700 meter-long tunnel. We can’t just stay here and wait for the tunnels to come to us. In a few hours we will bomb that one we just found."

And bomb it they did, from below. Click here to watch the video.

"How many Qassam rockets are they firing now?" I said. I saw more than a dozen Katyushas fired from Hezbollah in the north, but I did not see a single Qassam fired from Gaza.

“Sixty per week at the start of Operation Summer Rain," he said. "Ever since the number has been going down. Now there are only five per week. Hamas has partly put a stop to this because they know terror does not work for them.”

"How good are the fighters in Gaza compared with the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon?" I said.

“I don’t mean to dismiss anyone," he said. "Some fights are serious here. But you can’t compare them with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has more weapons and uses more guerilla activity. Hamas doesn’t have big rockets yet. Yet. The word yet is very important. Hezbollah also is more organized. You shouldn’t underestimate anyone. We had some people wounded in the fight here. Some in Gaza fight very good. But we killed hundreds of terrorists since Summer Rain. We had only one soldier killed in friendly fire, and ten to twelve wounded.”

"How long until this fight is over?" I said. I meant the current fighting in Gaza, but he seemed to have thought I meant the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.

“I don’t see the end now," he said. "Maybe this part will be soon be finished. Shalit will be back. For a while it will be quiet. The question, you know, is for the other side. Because we went out of Gaza and then it started. If they get more democratic and reduce the chaos…that’s my hope. We need to be strong and give a chance for something else. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian side now to have another life.”

We left the field and drove straight to the fence. I wanted to get as close to Gaza as possible. We parked next to large concrete wall placed there for protection.

"So this wall," I said. "Is it to protect us from snipers or from rockets?

“From everything," the major said. Barriers of all kinds are erected near the Palestinian territories. One road I took next to the West Bank was shielded on one side by bullet-proof glass because some Palestinians like to randomly shoot rifles at cars.

The fenced border between Israel and Gaza was right in front of us. The fence is electric. It won't shock you if you touch it. But it will send a signal to the Israeli military telling them where contact was made so they can dispatch soldiers to that location.

"What would you do," I said, "if you saw somebody from the other side walk up and stand right there?"

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“Eh, it depends," he said.

"It depends on what he’s doing?" I said.

“Of course.”

"If he’s just standing there it’s not a problem?" I said.

“No, it’s a problem," he said. "Because sometimes they come like a citizen and they put charges there. If it’s in the day and we see a man, the soldiers come. If someone goes to the fence he has some reason. If we see some people come in the night we have a procedure. We start by shouting to them to go. But if they continue…okay? If it’s in the night, well you know, night is night. The thing is to make them understand not to come. Sometimes Palestinians come and want to go into Israel to work. They want to come into Israel not for military action but to come inside for working. But it is very complicated, especially in the night, to know who is the person."

"How many people who come to the fence aren't here to fight?" I said.

“Here is a sad story," he said. "One Palestinian went to the fence with a grenade. Not a militant. He came to the fence and we did not understand it. Because we told him to stop and he dropped it and everything was okay. Sometimes they want to be in the Israeli jail.”

"To get out of Gaza?" I said.

“Because maybe the food in the jail is better," he said. "I don’t know. It’s a few, it’s not, you know, all the time.”

Gaza itself is often described as a prison. The reason I didn't go in there myself is because I was briefly affiliated with Time magazine and they ordered me to stay out. They had neither the time nor the inclination to take out a war insurance policy on me. But a Danish journalist I know, Louis Stigsgaard Nissen, did get a brief tour of Gaza and she described it as an absolute horror, a far worse place than the West Bank which both of us had visited in the past.

Trash has not been collected for months, so much of Gaza City looks like a garbage dump that happens to have buildings inside it. The garbage is seeping now into the water. Israeli doctors are returning because the Palestinians desperately need medical help. She interviewed a man who lives in a sports stadium with his children. She was nearly run over in the street by a truck driven by gunmen and bristling with weapons.

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"Is anyone really in charge inside Gaza?" I asked the major.

“That is the question," he said. "They have a government, but there is a power struggle among the armed groups.”

Once again we heard rapid machine gun fire in the middle distance. He and I stood right next to the concrete wall and could have taken cover. But the shooting had nothing to do with us and sounded just barely far enough away. So we didn’t move. It's funny what you get used to. I've never been in the army, and I'm unaccustomed to being in war zones. But it doesn't take long to get used to it.

“We have a connection with the Palestinian police and with the army," he said. "For example if we found some charges that they put on their side of the second fence the Palestinian police come to take it or to boom it. In the operations today because of the army, and the pressure, and the militants, there was a fire between us and the Palestinians next to a place where gasoline was stored and also some baby chickens, you know, the little ones. And we talked with the Palestinian police and they brought some trucks in to take them out. We saved them from the RPGs.”

He spoke in English now instead of through a translator, and I wasn't sure I understood.

"So the Israeli side and the Palestinian side cooperated in the middle of a war to save baby chickens?" I said. "And then started fighting again?"

“Not exactly," he said. "If you see the story as a simple one, yes. But the ones we talked with were not the ones shooting the RPGs. So it’s a very complicated story. But we talked with the police and the citizens talk with the army to help them. We told the citizens: Not now. It’s dangerous. The militants are firing RPGs.

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“It is very strange," he continued. "But it is our world. It is us against them, but they are divided inside. This is the story of Gaza.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:07 PM | Comments (81)

The Ice is Cracking

by Michael J. Totten

Here is a terrific article by Mario Loyola about the unfolding crisis in Lebanon:
Perhaps the single most surprising, and enchanting, thing about Lebanon is the stillness of the place. High above Beirut on Mount Lebanon, signs at the Monastery of Saint Maron-Anaya admonish visitors to respect the quiet: “You can hear God in the silence.” At night even Beirut sleeps peacefully. When I was there two months ago, I stayed in the heart of Christian east Beirut; I slept with the sliding glass door to my balcony wide open, the curtains waving in the soft breeze, and I think I’ve never slept so soundly in my life.

A few blocks away from that place, just after midnight last Sunday night, a massive car bomb blew the façade off the main shopping mall in east Beirut, killing an elderly woman and demolishing dozens of cars. Monday night, with all Lebanon glued to the television, another car bomb destroyed another quiet corner of the city — this time in Sunni west Beirut. Yesterday, suicide bombers struck army targets for the first time. The heralds of terror and civil war have come to remind the people of Lebanon that their tranquility is on thin ice — and the ice is cracking.

Needless to say, after 15 years of civil war, and 15 more years of Syrian occupation, the people of Lebanon need little reminding how precious and fragile are their peace and their freedom. Monday night on the phone, one friend of mine in Beirut cried softly as we spoke, not because of what’s happened in recent days — Lebanon has seen much worse — but because of the inevitability of whatever is going to happen next.
Next has already happened. Another bomb exploded, this time in the mountain resort town of Aley:
The blast which went off at around 9:00 pm damaged several buildings and shops along the street, which was immediately cordoned off by police. It sheared off walls of apartments, tore down electrical cables and wrecked parked vehicles. It also blew off shutters on the many shops in the street.
UPDATE: Trying to read the logic behind the last three car bombs is a little bit like reading tea leaves. But as someone named Triok pointed out in the comments, it may not be an accident that the first bomb was in a Christian area, the second bomb was in a Sunni area, and the third bomb was in a Druze area.

The overwhelming majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are in the anti-Syrian coalition. And until this week, no bombs have exploded in Sunni or Druze areas since Syria's withdrawal. Perhaps this is enough to discern a deliberate pattern, especially since the UN is gearing up to impose a tribunal against Syrian regime suspects for assassinating Rafik Hariri.

As Triok pointed out, no placement of bombs in Lebanon is ever random. Of course this will not stop a certain kind of person from thinking Christians, Sunnis, and Druze bombed themselves, or that Jews did it.

UPDATE: See also Mustapha at Beirut Spring.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:19 PM | Comments (36)

May 22, 2007

Who is responsible for Gaza? A reply to Matthew Yglesias

By Noah Pollak

There has been a dustup between New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz and Atlantic magazine blogger Matthew Yglesias (see here, here, here, and here). It is an unimportant tiff over an important question: Why are the Gaza Palestinians killing each other? Peretz blames the situation on the immutably violent characteristics of Palestinian society -- a culture, he emphasizes, in which genuine nationalist sentiments do not actually exist -- whereas Yglesias says the carnage is pretty much the Bush administration's fault.

Peretz clearly has the better understanding of Gaza, and the better argument. But he became annoyed, told Yglesias to shove off, and let the ignorant party come away appearing more reasonable. That's too bad, because Yglesias' writings on the Middle East, I’m afraid to say, have a distinctively hanging-out-at-the-coffee-shop feel to them. Yglesias believes that “Hamas-Fatah violence is largely the result of deliberate American policy.” If Peretz won't have a go at this argument, I will. Says Yglesias:

Fatah used to rule the roost on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. Then the US proclaimed that the Palestinian Authority needed to implement political reforms and hold elections. The Palestinians went to the polls and duly booted out the ruling party in favor of the main opposition party. At this point, the US government, apparently run by morons, realized that the main opposition to Fatah was . . . Hamas. … At which point the United States embarked upon a campaign of funneling all monies away from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government and directly into the hands of Fatah-run security services. Shockingly, this has tended to fuel rather than constrain intra-Palestinian fighting.

There is a great deal of history and nuance ignored above, the kinds of things that get in the way of indulging in what are no doubt very satisfying denunciations of the “morons” who run the U.S. government. If I may rephrase Yglesias's argument and add a helpful enumeration to his points, he says that (1) the Fatah party was keeping things under control until (2) the foolish Bush administration pushed the PA to hold elections. These brought Hamas to power, and (3) now the administration is making the problem worse by helping Fatah wage street battles with Hamas.

Amazingly, none of these assertions are true.

In the case of the first point, the Fatah party most certainly did not “rule the roost” in the territories -- especially not in Gaza, where Hamas was founded and has always enjoyed its greatest popularity. The first major suicide bombings that certified the onset of the second intifada were perpetrated by Hamas (including the one that blew up the café next to my office), Yasser Arafat all the while insisting that his government should not be held responsible for such terrorism because Hamas was simply beyond his control. And at least in this case, Arafat was probably saying something close to the truth. When he arrived in the West Bank from Tunis in 1994, Hamas had already been around for eight years. The Fatah party, ruling the roost? Certainly not in Gaza.

And most certainly not in 2004-2005. Does Yglesias remember four very important events that happened during those years? First, Israel defeated the intifada; second, Arafat died; third, Mahmoud Abbas was elected the new PA president; and fourth, Israel removed itself from Gaza. The latter three in particular served to strengthen Hamas -- not Fatah. The reality of the fractiousness of the Palestinian cause was already coming into view in 2005, before Hamas was elected, when more Palestinians were killed in internecine fighting than in battle against Israel. It might be gratifying to make a post facto declaration that in 2005, the old hands among the Palestinians had their territory under control until the Bush administration, which can’t do anything right, forced inadvisable changes on them. But that idea is simply a flight of fancy.

Even the use of the phrase “Fatah party” here is misleading. Fatah didn’t rule anything -- Arafat did. "Fatah" is a moniker given to the collection of gangsters, sycophants, and terrorists Arafat assembled around himself to protect his rule. Upon Arafat’s death, Fatah became adrift and leaderless. Abbas was elected two months later, and the only thing that has given his rule any salience at all is America’s rather desperate backing.

And now we get to point two, which is that the Bush administration was mistaken in pushing for the PA elections (I assume Yglesias here is talking about the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, not the 2005 presidential election that Hamas boycotted). The ’05 and ’06 elections were the first of their kind since 1996 (they were supposed to have happened sooner, but the intifada stood in the way), and holding them had been not just a stipulation of Oslo and a longstanding U.S. objective, but a goal of the EU, the UN, and the entire constellation of Middle East peace agitators in think tanks, universities, and the media (Yglesias among them).

By late 2004, the desirability of holding elections became not just a consensus position, but an actual necessity. The president of the PA had just died. Does Yglesias believe that with the old kleptocrat finally gone, the United States and the massive alliance of nations and organizations committed to Palestinian democracy shouldn't have pushed the PA to finally, after a decade, hold elections?

And now the final point, about the fighting itself.

There is something very consistent about governance in the Arab world. Among the Arab countries today in which there is a modicum of internal stability, each is controlled by an Arafat-type figure -- an anti-democratic strongman who is able to crush all challenges to his authority. Likewise, among those Arab countries that aren't ruled by a despot, the political dynamic is also consistent: In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Gaza, sectarian violence is the dominant form of political expression. It’s true that Arafat’s authority was weaker in Gaza than in the West Bank, but in Gaza there was always another strongman present to keep a lid on things: the Israeli occupation. When Israel disengaged in the summer of 2005, suddenly Gaza was without any master at all, and that’s exactly when the territory started going full-tilt toward the Hobbesian state of nature it now finds itself in.

And so to blame recent Bush administration choices for this lawlessness -- or more precisely, to invent stories about administration choices -- is more than a bit much. Even if the PA elections in 2006 hadn't occurred, I doubt the battle we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened. The fight is foreordained by Gaza's demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat's death, and Israel's unwillingness to police the territory. The Bush administration is simply along for the ride -- as is Israel. And the reason why Abbas has never been able to emerge as a leader of the Palestinians is because his weakness is similarly foreordained. Consensus-based political leadership is anathema to the Arab world. We're seeing that rather starkly today in Gaza.

All of that said, I think that Yglesias ends up being partially right (even though he doesn't mean to be) when he lays the lawlessness in Gaza at Bush's feet. The sad truth is that Gaza today is a testament to the failure of the entire 14-year project of creating the Palestinian Authority, retrieving Arafat from exile, and attempting to drag the Arabs of Palestine, against their will, into western political modernity. This process was started, and most forcefully pushed forward, by the Clinton administration, and today its corpse is still being dragged around the Middle East, Weekend at Bernie's-style, by Condoleezza Rice.

Readers might be surprised to hear -- Mr. Yglesias probably among them -- that less than a year ago, Yglesias wrote the following: "I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections -- even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won." A couple of days ago, he called these administration officials "morons" for having supported the very same elections that he now condemns. I know it’s best to just hurry past the contradictions, especially when they involve the reshuffling of positions in order to condemn the Bush administration. But it is too enjoyable to avoid the conclusion that here, Yglesias is calling himself names.

UPDATE by MJT: Don't miss the exhaustive Story of Gaza which is up now on the main page of the blog.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 01:47 PM | Comments (310)

Syria Targeting Russia?

Mustapha at Beirut Spring makes an interesting point about the escalation of terrorism in Beirut and its expansion into the posh Sunni neighborhood of Verdun. The target was (possibly) the Russian Cultural Center, which reportedly was right near where the car bomb exploded, in order to pressure the Russian government to veto the pending tribunal against Hariri's assassins in the United Nations Security Council.

It's unclear to me how close the bomb actually was to the Russian Cultural Center so I don't know if Mustapha is right or if this is a bit of a stretch. But he could be right, and if so this is a serious escalation.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has orders to "finish off" Fatah Al Islam in the Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon. Fatah Al Islam exists in other camps, as well, and this fight could go on for a while. The group is small enough, though, that they can be erased from the world if the army doesn't stand down. The fact that they are using Palestinian civilians as human shields means they have no sea to swim in and no place to hide.

For background on the Syrian connection to this group, see Tony Badran and William Harris.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:31 AM | Comments (20)

May 21, 2007

Violence in Beirut Continues

Naharnet reports (no link yet) that a "huge blast ripped through Beirut's Verdun district at 10:50 p.m. Monday, gutting several apartments and storefronts."

This, I believe, is the first time since Syria's withdrawal that a terrorist bomb has exploded in a Sunni area. The others have been in Christian areas.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari laughably says the terrorists in Northern Lebanon -- who are still battling it out with the Lebanese Army -- are Al Qaeda and that they are fighting for the UN tribunal to punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It will require a gullible mind indeed to believe Al Qaeda has taken up the cause of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:12 PM | Comments (48)

May 20, 2007

Soldiers Without Borders

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed Bernard Kouchner, a member of the Socialist Party, as his new foreign minister. I know something about this man because I wrote about him a while ago in an article that was never published. I shopped it around a bit, then got distracted writing foreign dispatches from the Middle East. It languished unread, but now it’s relevant again. So I’m publishing it here. Enjoy.


Soldiers Without Borders
by Michael J. Totten

The story of neoconservative political conversion is a familiar one. Many liberals, for one set of reasons or another, become conservatives as they get older. What starts them down the well-traveled road from the left to the right is usually some kind of a shock. Less known, or at least less written about, are the stories of militant anti-totalitarian liberals and leftists from the generation of 1968 who didn’t become neoconservatives, who started out on the radical left and who remain radicals of the left in more mature versions.

Paul Berman is perhaps the greatest American intellectual who hails from this tradition. His only real competition is the somewhat better known and more prolific writer Christopher Hitchens. Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism is a masterwork of the “liberal hawk” genre, and is perhaps the best philosophical argument yet written about September 11 and the Terror War. I hope he won’t mind if I characterize it as neoconservatism for liberals who are troubled by neoconservatism.

His new book Power and the Idealists is a sequel of sorts to Terror and Liberalism. It begins earlier, prologue-like, in the dark and euphoric days of 1968 when the New Left thundered onto the world-wide political scene and changed the direction of history forever.

The New Left, as Berman put it, was “a young people’s movement motivated by fear...It was a fear, in sum, that in World War II, fascism, and more specifically Nazism, had not been defeated after all – a fear that Nazism, by mutating, had continued to thrive into the nineteen-fifties and sixties and onward, always in new disguises.”

The New Leftists forged movements, huge movements all over the world, which varied depending on the particulars of each place. New Leftists were libertarians, socialists, anti-racists, counter-culturalists, feminists, and sometimes – in the extreme cases of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Red Brigades - even terrorists.

Sometimes the New Leftists went over the top, and not just those on the fringier side who waged stupid wars against their own societies. Even the moderate New Leftists lacked perspective and maturity on certain questions. As they exaggerated the problems in Britain, France, West Germany, and the United States, they too often failed to acknowledge the brutality of the fascist-like political system in the eastern Soviet bloc. They did have their reasons, though, to look upon the modern Western world with revulsion and even horror.

Right-wing bombs exploded in Paris as French soldiers massacred Algerians fighting for independence. France had done the same in Indochina, and now the United States was picking up where the French had left off. Americans bombed tiny impoverished villages, and sometimes committed atrocities. It was horrible. The United States, also, was propping up perfectly hideous rightist military regimes in Latin America. These regimes were anti-communist tools. Maybe that was reason enough to support them at arm’s length. But weren’t the communists allies in the fight against fascism? They were, during World War II and also before, in Spain, during that country’s civil war. The Battle of Madrid still, just barely, belonged to living memory in 1968. Spain is a modern liberal democracy now. But in the sixties it was ruled by the monstrous General Franco.

Germany’s de-Nazification wasn’t complete. Many of the same ugly faces ran Germany’s industries then as before. American reactionaries screamed “Go back to Russia!” at New Left protesters. But German reactionaries sometimes screamed “You should go to the gas chambers!” – the very worst thing, and surely the most radicalizing, that any right-wing German could possibly say.

So the New Leftists did have a point. Several points, as a matter of fact. They weren’t entirely imagining things. They wanted to fight fascists, which is an honorable and even necessary thing for decent people to do. They wanted to fight fascists so badly they fought fascists where they didn’t even exist. They hurled slogans, rocks, Molotov cocktails, and sometimes bombs at fascism’s remnants and ghosts.

And it got them in trouble. In 2001 Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer was shown in a newly discovered series of photographs brutally assaulting a police officer back in the days of left-wing street fighting, the days when the Baader-Meinhof Gang waged its left-wing terrorist war inside West Germany. It was a huge scandal, and it spread from one European country to another and, eventually, even to the United States. How could a man who was a street thug in his youth possibly represent Germany to the world in the 21st century?

Fischer survived the scandal. He was a morally serious person who enjoyed wide support in German society. No longer was he a violent reactionary anti-establishment brute. Fischer himself was the establishment now, and he had done a fine job so far. Berman makes a compelling case that Fischer’s radical left-wing past was in some ways a good sort of past for Fischer to have.

Fischer was a militant anti-fascist as a young man. And he was a militant anti-fascist – albeit a much more mature one - as Germany’s foreign minister. This was not such a terrible thing at a time when Slobodan Milosovic was busy building his own Balkan version of a fascist state and bulldozing tens of thousands of undesirable civilians into mass graves. The fire that burned inside Joschka Fischer when he assaulted a Frankfurt police officer was the very same fire that compelled him to lead Germany into war against Serbian national socialism in Belgrade. Here was a chance to fight fascists for real, and this time with NATO’s bombs and not merely with slogans and fists.

Joschka Fischer is by no means the only New Leftist who became, in time, a militant left-wing anti-totalitarian. Nor is Fischer’s the only personal tale told in Paul Berman’s book. Berman also tells the stories of the radical left-libertarian Daniel Cohn-Behndit, French-German politician par excellence and popularly known as Mr. Europe; Poland’s Adam Michnik, leader of the anti-Soviet Solidarity uprising; Azar Nafisi, the hard-nosed Iranian feminist author of Reading Lolita in Tehran; Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi expatriate who wrote the ground-breaking Republic of Fear and who returned home from exile alongside the U.S. Marines; and Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.

Bernard Kouchner’s story of political evolution may be most compelling of all. The man was practically born a communist, and he remained a communist throughout his youth and into his adulthood. He admired Che Guevara and the way Che did more than just protest and posture. Che went into action. Che created guerilla cells, focos as he called them, in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Che forged a revolutionary doctrine that worked, even if only inside one country. (He got himself killed in his total flop of a campaign in Bolivia.) He helped topple a filthy rightist regime in Cuba, and this was something to celebrate.

But there was more to Che Guevara than that. And Bernard Kouchner was not the sort of man who could go on pretending. Che hated the very idea of elections. He thrived on brutality and violence. He built a gulag in Cuba. All this looked, ominously, a great deal like fascism. And Che’s comrade Fidel Castro cut a rather Mussolini-like figure in his thunderous demagogic speeches in central Havana. Cuban communism turned out not to be much better than Soviet communism – a huge disappointment. And so Kouchner was out. He joined the Red Cross because he wanted to do some good in this world, and they sent him to Africa.

The Red Cross at the time turned out to be a huge disappointment as well. Such was Bernard Kouchner’s luck. He was doing yeoman’s work in the midst of Nigeria’s brutal civil war in the region of Biafra. Civil war, actually, doesn’t describe what was happening. Fascism and ethnic cleansing, that’s what it was. And the Red Cross was forbidden to speak of it. The Red Cross required all volunteers and employees to remain strictly, maddeningly, neutral. Kouchner was told not to speak or write to anyone, ever, of the wicked atrocities he witnessed on a regular basis.

Kouchner wasn’t the type who could do that. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Cuba’s Batista regime, the one before Fidel Castro’s. So he cheered on Che and Fidel. Then he couldn’t keep quiet about Che and Fidel. Now he couldn’t remain tight-lipped about the vicious campaign before his very own eyes in Biafra. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, were new variations of the same despicable story.

Dr. Kouchner had had it. He knew communism was a mendacious lie. But the idea of “Workers Without Borders” (which, as Paul Berman notes, is what “Workers of the World Unite” ultimately means) stirred his soul, even so. Workers didn’t inspire him so much as the idea of the abolition of borders. So he formed his own revolutionary organization of sorts, and he called it Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders was what the Red Cross would have been if an anti-totalitarian Che Guevara had founded it. Its missions, Berman writes, “were no less dangerous than any guerilla struggle, no less frightening, no less difficult, but [they had] the great virtue, in contrast to a communist insurgency, of refusing to lie.”

Shortly after its founding, thousands of “boat people” fled the cruel abuses of the communist regime in Vietnam. They threw themselves onto rickety boats, set off into the sea, and hoped for the best. Kouchner took note. And Kouchner took action. It wasn’t enough to provide medical care to the brutalized and the poor of the Third World. International law and the sanctity of borders be damned, Kouchner thought. As Paul Berman put it, the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued.

So Kouchner and Doctors Without Borders rented a French vessel and rescued some of the boat people. Scooped them right out of the sea. Some of his left-wing comrades burned with volcanic rage – rage against Kouchner for saving people! American imperialists, not the Vietnamese communists, were the villains in their mental universe. Kouchner showed up their fantasy as a lie, and they hated him for it.

Later Jimmy Carter dispatched the United States Navy to rescue the rest of the boat people. Doctors Without Borders were followed by Sailors Without Borders. This, from the point of view of the formerly communist and anti-imperialist Kouchner, was nothing short of fantastic.

Little surprise, then, that Kouchner – unlike many of his former comrades on the left – favored the humanitarian rescue of Iraqis from the predatory regime of Saddam Hussein. From Workers Without Soldiers Without Borders. He became frustrated, apoplectic actually, at what he saw as the Bush Administration’s arrogance and incompetence. But he supported the war all the same, and he did so strictly on left-wing grounds.

No one knows, really, whether the regime-change and nation-building project will succeed or fail in Iraq. If it does fail it will be widely interpreted as a failure of neoconservatism. But the war against Saddam Hussein has a left-wing pedigree, too.

Liberal hawks made history in the Balkans. History never did repudiate them for that. Whether Iraq turns into a success or a failure, whether the neoconservatives triumph or whether the neoconservatives fail, the left-liberal ideas that fascism means war and that people have a right to be rescued will not go down without a fight.

Order Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists from

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:34 PM | Comments (43)

Street Clashes in Northern Lebanon

by Michael J. Totten

Syria's Bashar Assad ratchets up his war against Lebanon using the Palestinian terrorist organization Fatah Al Islam as his proxy to trigger the biggest street battles in the city of Tripoli since the civil war ended. Abu Kais explains.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, another car bomb exploded in the Achrafieh neighborhood of East Beirut and killed a 67 year-old woman.

UPDATE: If you want to know why Syria does what it does in Lebanon, read Tony Badran.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:37 PM | Comments (97)

The Case Against Withdrawal

by Michael J. Totten

I will admit that sometimes I am this close to deciding the US should withdraw from Iraq. Honestly, I do not expect we will succeed there, not because we can't but because not enough of us want to in the time it would take. We might not succeed after even ten years. I do not know, and I'm working on a long essay now about what I think the least disastrous way to withdraw would be. (To Kurdistan, basically, and lose only part of Iraq instead of all of it -- a Korean war style exit instead of a Vietnam War style exit.)

Frederick Kagan makes the best case against withdrawing at all. Tempting as it is to cut our losses, I cannot argue with this.

Please don't leave comments until you have read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:29 AM | Comments (67)

May 18, 2007

Good and Bad Mainstream Journalism

by Michael J. Totten

I'm a bit slow with the blogging right now because I'm writing two long magazine articles that are taking up most of my time. Once these are out of the way, or at least when I have some breathing space before my deadlines, I'll have some more original material for you.

In the meantime, two articles I read today stand out.

The first is a critique by Jonathan Foreman of mainsteam media reporting out of Afghanistan, which he says at times recklessly damages Western armies fighting the Taliban there.
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.
Beating up on the mainstream media isn't a hobbyhorse of mine, though. Some journalists do a very good job. Here is a report on the tinderbox of Kirkuk, Iraq -- a subject I know something about -- that is excellent. Excerpt:
Sunni-based insurgent groups want to exploit the tension and ignite a broader war, Browder says. The groups operate from nearby Arab villages and often target police patrols or offices of the two main Kurdish parties, he says.

Browder's biggest concern is a large-scale bomb attack on a civilian Kurdish area, such as a market, he says.

That likely would trigger Kurdish leaders to send battalions of the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga ("those who do not fear death"), into Arab areas of Kirkuk. A sectarian battle similar to the Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Baghdad then could erupt, further complicating efforts to stabilize the country.

Sunni insurgents have been hesitant to cross that line, Browder says. The reason is a mystery, but he says they might be scared of peshmerga reprisals.

"The terrorist organizations know what buttons to push," he says. "They understand what the no-penetration line is."


Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to withdraw from the federal government in Baghdad if the referendum is not conducted on time. Al-Maliki's coalition depends on Kurdish support to keep its majority in parliament and could collapse if the Kurds leave.

Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish member of parliament, says any delay is unacceptable. "We're not flexible. It has been four years," Othman says.
The whole thing is worth reading. Kirkuk gets little media attention, but it could potentially turn into the most violent -- and significant -- city in the entire country. Several foreign powers in the region have a stake in that city. They don't call it Iraq's "Jerusalem" for nothing. If it truly blows -- watch out. Especially if the US is no longer around.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:47 PM | Comments (24)

May 16, 2007

Another Hostage in Iran

By Noah Pollak

Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, and in December of last year she traveled to Iran to visit her ailing mother. In a statement on its website, the Wilson Center explains that in late December, “on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, the taxi in which Dr. Esfandiari was riding was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men. They took away her baggage and handbag, including her Iranian and American passports.” Her visit to a passport office four days later instigated six weeks of interrogations. Last Monday, just over a week ago, she was arrested and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where she stands accused of being a Mossad agent, a U.S. spy, and of trying to foment revolution inside Iran -- the same charges that were leveled at the American embassy staff in 1979 when it was taken hostage.

One might think that at this heady moment of entente with the Iranian regime, when American officials are expected to meet with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, members of the media and political classes would have their diplomatic seismographs particularly attuned to the signals emanating from Iran. Yet that appears to not be the case: the Esfandiari abduction has been downplayed, and almost as appalling as the scant attention the story has received is the tepidness of the comments from those who have broached the matter.

The Washington Post’s editorial page, which can usually be relied upon for relatively sound judgment on foreign affairs, wrote on Friday that “Arresting an Iranian American scholar is no way to win the world’s respect,” and concluded its mushy, insipid statement by boldly reemphasizing that Esfandiari's imprisonment is causing the world to “lose respect for Iran.” One might start by noting that the question of the world’s respect for Iran was settled almost 30 years ago, when the regime held the staff of the U.S. embassy hostage for fifteen months. I’m not sure what’s more troubling: that among the editorialists of the Post there are apparently reserves of “respect” remaining for Iran, or that the same editorialists appear to believe that losing the world’s “respect” (whatever that entails) is actually a source of apprehension for the mullahs. Indeed, isn’t the ideology of the Iranian Revolution founded quite explicitly on disrespect for the West? Hasn’t the entire question of “respect” been long settled, given that for thirty years Death to America! has been a central organizing principle of the regime?

Several politicians have also weighed in, and they haven’t done any better. In a statement sure to send an ominous chill across the Iranian political establishment, Barak Obama announced that "If the Iranian government has any desire to engage the world in dialogue, it can demonstrate that desire by releasing this champion of dialogue from detention." Haleh Esfandiari’s senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, asked Iran to make a “gesture of goodwill” to the American people by releasing their latest hostage. Respect, dialogue, gestures of goodwill. I’ll bring my acoustic guitar and some big fluffy pillows and we can do a sing-along for Ahmadinejad.

I probably shouldn’t be so flippant. Aside from the fact that Esfandiari’s detention brings the number of American citizens being held by Iran to three, there is a deeper problem, and that is the apparent inability of American elites to grasp why the regime continues to take hostages. The Washington Post and LA Times editorials, not to mention many of the politicians who have spoken on the matter, seem to take Ahmadinejad seriously when he claims to desire the world’s respect and express their befuddlement when the mullahs do something audacious and cruel that will undermine Iran’s ability to cultivate that respect -- like imprisoning a well-known, well-connected scholar.

So, let us ask: Why does Iran abduct British sailors and marines, supply weaponry to insurgents in Iraq, imprison American scholars, and take so much delight in repeatedly doing things that frighten and bewilder the western world? The answer is to be found in the Iranian conception of the significance of its revolution and its relationship to the West, especially to America. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the overthrow of the American-backed shah in 1979 was a supreme victory, proof not only of the revolution’s divine ordination but of America’s weakness and the ease with which the great power could be disgraced (at least through its allies). Having succeeded in expelling the shah, the radicals believed that the United States should be next. And it was: the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tehran happened only nine months after Ayatollah Khomeini’s arrival in Iran.

And the hostage-takers and the government that sponsored them never paid a serious price for the ensuing fifteen-month humiliation of the United States. Iran has also never paid for its various assassinations and bombings in Europe, the murder of hundreds of American marines and French soldiers in Lebanon in 1983, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, its lavish funding of Hezbollah and destabilization of Lebanon, the abduction of the British sailors, its nuclear program, and so on. In other words, the Iranian regime, since the first day of its existence, has seen its every provocation go unanswered -- which has perfectly reinforced its conviction that the West, and America in particular, is a brittle facade, economically powerful and technologically sophisticated but weak-willed, indecisive, risk-averse, and easily intimidated.

And so all the fretting about “respect” and “dialogue” amount to more than just comforting creations of the western imagination and impositions of a hoped-for reality. For the Iranian regime they are yet another layer of evidence vindicating a set of beliefs about America's inability to stand up for its interests -- or even for its citizens. Meanwhile, inquiry into the more plausible sources of Iran’s actions, such as the regime's ideological contempt for America and its need to demonstrate revolutionary strength and western weakness, continues to be avoided. In 1981, after the American embassy hostages had finally been released, Iran’s chief negotiator said, “We rubbed dirt in the nose of the world’s greatest superpower.” His comrades are no doubt saying the same thing today about their newest hostage, Haleh Esfandiari.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 02:14 PM | Comments (236)

May 14, 2007


From Appeal for Courage. Hat tip: Instapundit.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:14 PM | Comments (115)

May 13, 2007

Assad Getting Desperate, Belligerent

by Michael J. Totten

From Lebanon's Naharnet:
Syrian President Bashar Assad has threatened to set the region on fire, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, over differences with the United Nations regarding Lebanon's stability.

The independent daily newspaper an-Nahar quoted well informed diplomatic circles as saying Assad made the threat last Wednesday in a telephone discussion with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The sources, according to the paper spoke of a "heated dialogue" between Assad and Ban, during which the Syrian President "threatened to set the region on fire, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean."

The focus of the telephone discussion was creation of the international tribunal that will try suspects in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-Premier Rafik Hariri and related crimes, the report explained.
First Assad threatened to burn Lebanon. Now he's threatening to burn the whole Middle East.

Assad truly believes a conviction against his regime in a United Nations tribunal will be the first step toward a UN-approved American-led regime-change in Syria. He has no idea that the American appetite for such an adventure is somewhere near zero, but he really is scared to death of it.

He would rather (at least threaten) to turn the region into a fireball than have his regime be accountable for murders in Lebanon under international law. Those who wish to negotiate with this man should take note.

UPDATE: See also Abu Kais, who has more time to think and write about this right now than I do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:03 PM | Comments (25)

XML Question

By Michael J. Totten

I have a question for those of you who are more techie than I am.

Is it possible for me to provide an XML feed for syndication that includes the entire text of an entry? Right now the only available feed excerpts the first sentence or so, and I don’t want to upgrade the blog (from Movable Type 2.64) if I don’t have to.


UPDATE: Fixed thanks to RG in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:41 PM | Comments (8)

May 11, 2007

A Plea from Baghdad

by Michael J. Totten

From Mohammed Fadhil in the New York Daily News
It is up to us to show tyrants and murderers like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, Syria's Bashar Assad, and their would-be imitators who seek to control Iraq's people and wealth that we, the people, are not their possessions. They can't take out our humanity and they can't force us to back down.

The world should ask them to leave our land before asking the soldiers of freedom to do so.


Those who prefer to bury their heads in the dirt today, and withdraw from this difficult fight, will be cursed forever for abandoning their duty when they were most capable.
I have nothing else to say but read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:10 PM | Comments (47)

May 10, 2007

UNIFIL, Unfulfilled

By Noah Pollak

I have a piece up today over at National Review Online that folks might be interested in reading.

UNIFIL Unfulfilled
The U.N. organization is ineffective and unaccountable.

By Noah Pollak

Jerusalem — Israel is abuzz with the talk of incompetence and failure. The interim report of the Winograd Commission was released last week, and it lays out, in excruciating detail, the multifaceted catastrophe that was last summer’s war against Hezbollah: the ignorance of the prime minister and defense minister concerning military matters; the appalling ineptitude of Dan Halutz, the chief of staff of the IDF, in commanding the military and advising the country’s political leadership; the absence of a preexisting plan to deal with an entirely predictable crisis; the declaration of strategic goals that were entirely divorced from the means required to achieve them; the ill-conceived, ineffective air war and the last-second, impulsive ground campaign; and the six-year history of passivity and retreat on the northern border that emboldened Hezbollah and telegraphed Israel’s lack of military readiness.

The Winograd report is sobering reading, but the fact of its existence is certainly not unusual in the Jewish state’s history. Israel’s culture of self-criticism and its ingrained lack of deference toward authority figures are some of the foundational reasons why this small country, constantly under attack, has been able to flourish in the Middle East. There is no doubt that Israel’s political landscape — and its military priorities — will be significantly altered by the fallout from the Winograd report.

But there is one institution that has quite remarkably escaped any opprobrium for its own important contribution to the outbreak of war last summer. And that is the United Nations and its edifice of Security Council resolutions, some dating back decades, that have sought to remedy the problem of Lebanon’s lawless southern region and its hospitality to terrorist organizations. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was encamped there from 1968 until it was pushed out by Israel’s 1982 invasion, and Hezbollah remains there to this day. Since it is the season for assessing failure and assigning blame, why should the U.N. escape scrutiny?

It was back in March 1978 that the first Security Council resolution was passed attempting to address the power vacuum in southern Lebanon. A week earlier, PLO terrorists had crossed into Israel and murdered 37 people in a gruesome bus attack near Tel Aviv. Israel responded with Operation Litani, an IDF incursion that pushed the PLO off Israel’s northern border. Resolutions 425 and 426 created a U.N. force that was supposed to take the IDF’s place in southern Lebanon, create a buffer zone along the border with Israel, and, in the somewhat ludicrous text of the resolution, “restore international peace and security and assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area.” UNIFIL was born.

Since then a concatenation of nearly identical UNIFIL-related resolutions has been issued by the Security Council, always with one thing in common: Events on the ground are never permitted to affect UNIFIL’s mandate. Through a combination of diplomatic foolishness and bureaucratic inertia, UNIFIL has remained impervious to any evaluation of its actual utility in bringing peace and security to southern Lebanon.

By my count, the Security Council has passed some 38 resolutions pertaining to UNIFIL, every one of which seamlessly ignores UNIFIL’s inability to accomplish its mission. If Israel last summer declared goals for itself that it didn’t have the means to accomplish, the U.N. has been doing so for thirty years. In renewing UNIFIL’s mandate in 1978, the council noted “the progress already achieved by the Force towards the establishment of peace and security in Southern Lebanon” and called “for strict respect for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon.” In 1982 it demanded “the strict respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence under the sole and exclusive authority of the Lebanese Government.” In 2000, after Israel withdrew completely from southern Lebanon, the Security Council announced that it “calls on the Government of Lebanon to ensure the return of its effective authority and presence in the south.” When that didn’t happen, the council announced its “strong support for the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Lebanon.” And so on, plagiarizing itself repeatedly, farcically declaring the same impossible goals, decade after decade. Resolution 1559, passed in 2004, is considered a watershed for Lebanon because it used stronger, more precise language to demand exactly the same things that the Security Council started demanding in 1978. But, alas, even stronger words didn’t deter Syria and Hezbollah. Five months after 1559 was approved, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, was murdered in a massive explosion in Beirut, almost certainly by Syria.

Fine, a person might say — UNIFIL is ineffective. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that UNIFIL is more than an innocuous presence. It contributes to instability along the Israeli border and to the ability of Syria and Iran to co-opt Lebanon by allowing the international community to embrace the comforting delusion that it is doing something. In reality, UNIFIL gives diplomats an excuse to do nothing about Hezbollah’s re-armament, and thus enhances the militia’s ability to thrust Lebanon and Israel into war at a time of its choosing — such as during a U.S. military strike on Iran. Moreover, UNIFIL stands as a disincentive for the Lebanese army to attempt to deploy in the area, it observes Hezbollah daily but does not collect or share intelligence on its activities, and its presence on the ground complicates Israel’s ability to engage the terrorist army in battle. (Hezbollah shrewdly built much of its military infrastructure in close proximity to UNIFIL stations.) The presence of UNIFIL certainly hasn’t prevented violence in the past: Since Operation Litani in 1978, Israel has had to strike at the PLO and then Hezbollah on numerous occasions, including air strikes in 1981, the 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation, the week-long Operation Accountability in 1993, the sixteen-day Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, and dozens of smaller incidents scattered in between. And over the course of this long history of terrorist provocation in southern Lebanon, the world’s diplomatic corps has maintained the self-congratulatory fantasy that more extensions of UNIFIL’s mandate will help the region.

At the conclusion of the war last summer, an enlarged UNIFIL was given the mission of ensuring the tranquility of southern Lebanon. But, nine months later, it has only enlarged the problems created by its less ambitious predecessors. The new force is feckless: afraid to confront Hezbollah, unwilling to interrupt the easy flow of arms across Lebanon, prohibited from patrolling the border with Syria, unable to make a difference. No serious observer of southern Lebanon today believes that the new, “robust” UNIFIL is doing anything that will prevent another round of warfare.

And when hostilities break out again, the world’s diplomats will have one predictable solution in mind: a cease fire, and more UNIFIL. Israel’s willingness to criticize itself sets an admirable example in how to publicly evaluate failure. It is unrealistic to think that the United Nations would follow suit with an examination of its own failures in Lebanon, but that should not stop us from asking: How much longer will this region have to suffer the Security Council’s benevolence?

Posted by Noah Pollak at 07:54 AM | Comments (54)

PJ Interview

by Michael J. Totten

Austin Bay interviewed me for Pajamas Media on his Blog Week in Review show. We talked about Iraqi Kurdistan, the violent city of Kirkuk, whether the Iraq war is lost, and Sarkozy's victory in the French election. You can listen here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:35 AM | Comments (3)

May 09, 2007

Osirak Redux?

By Noah Pollak

If you want to forage deep into the weeds of the debate surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, you should read the long, detailed analysis entitled “Osirak Redux?” in the new issue of the quarterly journal International Security. The piece, by Whitney Raas and Austin Long, attempts to answer a very important question: Is Israel capable of destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Their answer is yes. And they arrive at that conclusion after considering the capabilities of Israel’s air force -- the ranges of its aircraft and the effectiveness of the armaments they carry -- the capabilities of Iran’s antiquated air force and air defense systems (“In contrast to the modern systems of the IAF, the Iranian military possesses an odd amalgamation of technologies,” the authors dryly note), the targeting requirements of the strike, Israel’s possible attack routes, refueling and airspace concerns, and aircraft attrition rates. One is left with a stark picture of the reality that for this type of mission, military technology is especially vital -- and Israel has it in spades, while Iran’s defenses are comprised almost entirely of dilapidated anachronisms that predate the Carter Administration. The members of the Revolutionary Guards may have a great deal of jihadist fire in their bellies, but they’re certainly not flying F-16’s.

Having established, with a good deal of credibility in my opinion, that Israel could eliminate or at least delay for years the Iranian nuclear project, another question comes into view. And that is the following: If military action becomes necessary, should Israel carry out the strike, or should America? I don't have the time at the moment to examine this question, but I would like to do so soon. It will likely not remain hypothetical.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 02:11 PM | Comments (39)

"The Fragile Crescent"

By Noah Pollak

A handful of articles and essays have been published in the past couple of weeks that are worth noting.

The first is from my friend and colleague at the Shalem Center, Martin Kramer (and by “friend and colleague” I mean someone who I admire greatly and who probably forgets more about the Middle East in a year than I currently know). Martin spends part of the year at Harvard as an Olin Institute Senior Fellow, and on April 30th he gave a lecture there entitled “After Iraq: The Future of the United States in the Middle East.” He has now posted an excerpt of his talk on his website, and it is exemplary of Martin’s great skill in putting current events in this region into their larger historic and geopolitical context.

Martin argues that the United States, through the Iraq war, has delivered a shock to the Middle East that is “rendering parts of the political map an anachronism.” Put differently, he says, “the dissolution of the Ottoman empire has resumed.” The first cause is the Shiite revival; the second is the rise of Kurdish nationalism; and the third is the “refugee crescent.”

The choice the United States will face with greater frequency and urgency is whether or not to sustain its traditional support for that [post-Ottoman] map. Past challenges came from aggressive states encroaching on smaller ones, and aggressors could be cajoled, deterred, and punished. But transformation within states, in which the main actors are movements, insurgents, refugees, and secessionists, is another matter.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 09:46 AM | Comments (10)

May 08, 2007

Patrick Interviewed

by Michael J. Totten

Vladimir van Wilgenburg interviewed my colleague Patrick Lasswell for the Kurdish press in the Netherlands. Patrick also published the interview on his blog. They discuss Iraqi Kurdistan's economy, honor killings, corruption, Kurdish PKK terrorists in Turkey, post-Ottoman imperialism, the hot zone in Kirkuk, and the agony of Halabja.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:28 PM | Comments (16)

May 07, 2007

“Better a Thousand Israeli Invasions…”

by Michael J. Totten

The Winograd report is a damning indictment of Israeli failure and incompetence during last year’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. I criticized the war myself from the very beginning when it became clear the Israeli Defense Forces still had no idea how to successfully deal with the Iranian-sponsored guerilla militia in the north. Now is a good time to return to this subject.

Efraim Inbar in Middle East Quarterly zeroes in on a major part of the problem.
From the first day of the campaign, [IDF Chief of Staff Dan] Halutz advocated attacking infrastructure beyond southern Lebanon to pressure the Lebanese government to counter Hezbollah.
Just about any person living in Lebanon, whether Lebanese or international and regardless of their view of Hezbollah, could have told the Israeli government that this wouldn’t work. If Dan Halutz truly believed bombing civilian infrastructure would rally Lebanese to his side, he does not have even a basic grasp of Lebanese politics.

Lebanese have rallied around Hezbollah before when they felt themselves threatened by a common enemy, not because Hezbollah is well-liked by the majority (it isn’t) but because Hezbollah is Lebanese and Israel isn’t.

The biggest reason, though, that most Lebanese won’t side with Israel against Hezbollah is because Lebanese fear civil war more than they fear anything else. They have good reasons, too. The 1975-1990 civil war wrecked far more destruction in Lebanon than any foreign invasion.

“Better a thousand Israeli invasions than another civil war,” is a refrain I heard more than once from Lebanese who detest the very existence of Hezbollah. Israeli military and defense officials would be well advised to tattoo that phrase on their foreheads before trying again to use force inside Lebanon to alter its politics. Israelis don’t have to like this feature of Lebanese political culture, but they do need to understand that it is a feature. (Call it a bug if it makes you feel better.)

If all the non-Hezbollah Lebanese suddenly became committed Zionist agents, the Lebanese government still would not and could not disarm Hezbollah. Partly this is because Hezbollah is stronger, better armed, and better trained than the Lebanese army. Partly this is because the Lebanese army was sabotaged and degraded during Syria’s 15-year occupation. Partly this is because some of the army’s officers are Syrian-appointed stooges who take their orders from Damascus. Partly this is because the Lebanese army is an army of conscripts, many of whom are more loyal to Hezbollah than they are to the state. The Lebanese army split into separate armed forces during the last civil war and will likely do so again if there is another one.

The main reason, though, even if none of the above things were true, is because Hezbollah is the private army of vastly more powerful Syria and Iran. A significant portion of Lebanon’s people find this perfectly acceptable and will continue to do so as long as Syria and Iran are willing and able to interfere in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah could be disarmed to the last man, but that by itself would not stop Syria and Iran from replenishing the weapons stocks within a mere couple of months.

Syria and Iran must be contained at the least before Hezbollah can be neutralized.

Don’t be fooled by your atlas. Lebanon isn’t a country any more than Iraq is a country. Both are geographic abstractions held together only by common currencies, common passports, and a map. They aren’t nation states like France and New Zealand. Both Lebanon and Iraq have more than one government and feature private armies controlled by third governments.

The government in Beirut is the most democratic of all Arab governments. It is also the weakest. It cannot be expected to effectively resist Syria and Iran any more than Kuwait could have freed itself from Saddam Hussein or Costa Rica could pacify and stabilize Colombia. These are not jobs for small and weak countries, especially not for weak countries divided against themselves.

Israel’s first fatal flaw last July was the assumption that Lebanon’s problems are local and can be solved in Lebanon. The Hezbollah problem is a regional one. Think globally, act locally will get Israel nowhere.

Israel’s second fatal flaw was the decision to fight an asymmetric war, which is hard, instead of a conventional war, which is easy.

Israel fought an asymmetric war with Hezbollah for years in South Lebanon and basically lost. This, after defeating three conventional Arab armies (Syria's, Jordan's, and Egypt's) in six days in 1967.

The United States has been fighting a grinding asymmetric insurgency in Iraq for several years now after easily defeating Iraq’s conventional army two times.

Western armies are good at conventional war. Western armies are bad at asymmetrical war. That means relatively weak states like Syria and Iran are well advised to fight asymmetric wars whenever possible. Western armies are well advised to fight conventional wars whenever possible.

Let’s go back to Efraim Inbar in Middle East Quarterly.
Fear of escalation clouded Olmert's strategic judgment. On the first day of the conflict, Mossad chief Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan recommended that the Israeli air force target Syrian sites. Instead, Olmert sought to placate. Israeli leaders repeatedly said that Israel had no intention of expanding its military activities to target Syria.
Therefore Syria has no incentive whatever to make peace with Israel or stop arming and funding Hezbollah. Weak Arab dictatorships have finally discovered an effective way to wage wars against Israel (and the United States). Asymmetric proxy wars work.

Israelis allowed themselves to be suckered into an asymmetric war by Syria and Iran. Instead of weakening Syria and strengthening Lebanon, they weakened Lebanon and strengthened Syria. They would be well advised not to do it again.

Israel, understandably, doesn’t want regime change in Syria. What comes after the Baath could be worse. Very well, then. Bomb the Assad regime until Assad cries uncle. However much the Israelis don’t want regime change in Syria, the Assad regime wants regime change even less. Assad will cry uncle because he has far more to lose. If his choice is to sever his relations with Hezbollah or die, he’ll sever his relations with Hezbollah. Otherwise, why on earth should he?

Assad is making noises about peace negotiations with Israel. But he doesn’t want peace with Israel. He already has peace with Israel if peace is defined by the lack of incoming bombs. What he wants is a peace “process” because he hopes it will take the heat off his government for murdering journalists and politicians in Lebanon. If Assad suddenly finds himself under attack, he might decide a peace treaty – a real one, not a peace “process” – is something worth having.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:49 AM | Comments (55)

May 06, 2007

Welcome Noah Pollak

I've given my American friend and colleague Noah Pollak publishing rights on this blog. He's an assistant editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and you may remember him as my traveling companion from some of my earlier dispatches.

Noah Pollak Mt Lebanon.jpg
Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

If you haven't yet read it, don't miss his terrific essay Hope Over Hate about his trip to Lebanon in December.

Please give him a warm welcome and encourage him to post often.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:23 PM | Comments (8)

What Does Winograd Say?

By Noah Pollak

I was going to post something about the Winograd Report, but David Horovitz, the editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, has written a commentary that is truly worth reading. His piece is thorough and devastating, and it emphasizes not just the headline-making individual incompetence of Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz, and Dan Halutz, but the collective fecklessness of the Israeli political and defense establishments when it came to post-withdrawal Lebanon. Israelis will be drawing the wrong lesson from the war and from Winograd if they believe that everything would have gone better if only Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz hadn’t been so impossibly inept. The problems are much deeper.

“In its sections on the six years preceding the [2006] conflict," Horovitz writes, "the commission tracks a process in which the IDF concedes sovereignty at the Lebanon border to Hizbullah. Nothing less. An abandonment of the elementary protection of northern Israel in the face of an extremist guerrilla army utterly committed to the defeat of Israel. … Hizbullah amassed its arsenal of missiles and rockets. It deployed along the border. And it gradually created a situation where it was able ‘to act when and how it wished, without any military response from Israel.’”

And not only did the IDF allow Hezbollah to act when and how it wished, but it turns out that the IDF did not have a response ready for the most predictable contingency on the northern border, namely a missile attack and abduction -- which is exactly what happened. And the IDF did not have such a plan in part because of its own hubris and neglect of the northern front, but also because Israel’s political leaders simply had never bothered to ask for one. Horovitz: "[T]he wider appalling picture set out in Winograd [is] the extent of military unreadiness, of misassessment, of absent political-military coordination." Olmert and Peretz are both novices in international and military affairs, but "the degree to which [they] sat, paralyzed, in thrall to the IDF and its chief of General Staff is unthinkable. And yet that was the case.”

Horovitz concludes that Winograd is “a searing indictment of fundamental incompetence at the top.” His strong language is warranted.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 10:26 AM | Comments (22)

May 04, 2007

Protesting Incompetence

By Noah Pollak

TEL AVIV -- Last night, on one of the first warm evenings of the spring, at least 120,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to declare their dissatisfaction with the Olmert government.

blog6.jpg In a clever use of English, French, and Hebrew, this sign says "Olmert -- Go Home." Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

The catalyst for the event was the release, on Monday, of the Winograd Commission’s report detailing the failures of Israel’s leadership during the war against Hezbollah last summer. (This critique, by Efraim Inbar in the Middle East Quarterly, is also worth reading.) In Israel, there is a long and admirable history of commissions being assembled to examine military failures in painful detail. Before Winograd, as Roger Cohen points out in the International Herald Tribune, “Golda Meir and [Moshe] Dayan were forced out by the findings of the Agranat Commission on the 1973 [Yom Kippur] war, and the Kahan Commission on the 1982 Lebanon war cost Sharon his job as minister of defense and eventually led to the resignation of [Menachem] Begin.” The findings of these inquiries are taken seriously by the public and government alike to a degree that is foreign to Americans. Can anyone imagine hundreds of thousands of people assembling on the Washington Mall to rally for the Baker-Hamilton Commission report, which appears to have only been taken seriously by the media? Does anyone even remember what Baker-Hamilton was supposed to accomplish?

The purpose of the Winograd report is much more obvious: A transparent accounting of what went wrong during the Lebanon war, for public consumption. A reckoning. But the release of the report only partially explains the size of the turnout, or its mood, which was subdued and reluctantly, rarely, boisterous. The larger undercurrent is the feeling that, despite a remarkable economic boom and the containment of Palestinian terrorism, the past year has been a dangerous example of the perils of feckless leadership. The three abducted soldiers remain in captivity; rockets from Gaza land in the Negev regularly; Nasrallah gloats, quite convincingly, from Lebanon; missiles and arms pour into Southern Lebanon from Syria, unimpeded by the indolent “international force” that patrols the area; and Iran races toward the realization of its nuclear ambitions. And there is another source of the worry that pervades Israel. That is the absence, in the post-Sharon era, of Israel’s founding fathers in the country’s political leadership. Almost every one of the statesmen who built this country out of stone and swamp and battle has passed on -- and in this test of the new generation, in the Olmert government, Israelis are witnessing the disgraceful spectacle of leaders not only lacking in the wisdom and dedication of the founders, but who also turn out to be corrupt, ignorant of how to lead the IDF into war, and unreliable under pressure.

And so Israel falls back on its strongest asset, its people. Politicians were not permitted to speak at the protest. There was very little 1960’s pageantry to be found last night, and virtually no dumb sloganeering or vapid pacifism. This was a thoroughly middle class protest. The nation’s grown-ups arrived to announce their desire to take the state back from the ambitious dilettantes who had been mistakenly entrusted with power. The Israelis present, from the left, right, and center, wished to save the nation from unseriousness. Last night, the need for competence trumped ideology.

blog1.jpg Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

blog5.jpg Photo copyright Noah Pollak.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 10:54 AM | Comments (68)

May 03, 2007

French Foreign Policy is Over

I missed this last week when it was published. You probably did, too, so read it now. (Thanks to Tony Badran.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:27 PM | Comments (56)

This Has Got to be Embarrassing

Juan Cole, meet Martin Kramer, comedian.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:29 AM | Comments (6)

May 01, 2007

Transcript of Interview with Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin

Below is a transcript of my video interview with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen. Most of the questions were edited out of the video, so they aren’t present in the transcript either. Questions were only included when they were necessary for context.

Kak Salah.jpg
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen

Salahdin: March 11, 1974, the war started between Saddam’s army and our Peshmerga. It was a very tough time – all the time killing, capturing, and…war. It was a war. A big war between us.

For missions we were coming to attack by night Iraqi positions or Iraqi posts, Iraqi bases, around the city and inside the city. But in the day time we were not coming to attack.

During the Anfal campaign we fought Saddam’s army when they came, but the forces they used, we could not defend ourselves from them. It was very huge numbers of army with all kinds of weapons, with chemical weapons. If we defended some place and they could not seize that place, at last they used chemical weapons.

I think all the people of America, or somewhere, they think they used chemical weapons in Halabja only. But I can tell you tens of villages and places where they used chemical weapons. But the number of casualties in Halabja was [so] high, five thousand. In Sosinan here, in Kara Dagh, with chemical weapons they killed 106 people. They killed…everywhere on the front line when they could not capture any position from us, straight they used chemical weapons against us and after that they came.

One day we captured Kara Dagh town from them, from the Iraqi army. We liberated Kara Dagh. They wanted to come to Kara Dagh and occupy it again. But we defended [ourselves from] them. We had some mortars, we were mortaring them. They could not...

After that, four big jets came and threw something white. We never saw it. Big white boxes coming down from the sky. When it exploded there was no sound from it. Only a faint sound. After that, there was a smell coming like…a bad egg. Some people were wounded by it, their bodies became blistered. But we were a little far from it. We smelled it.

“We Were 300”

We were traveling between the – we were about 300 Peshmerga – traveling from Kara Dagh to Halabja area because we wanted sometimes to show ourselves to our people and make their morale higher and higher and higher. We were traveling among the villages between Halabja and Sesara, near Halabja. There is a plain area.

At night someone came to us and gave us information that the Iraqi army was collecting its forces to attack. There is a good place we chose called Zam. It has thick bush, big trees, and a swamp area where it’s not good for tanks or something to come through it. There were four villages near to each other in that area. We distributed our forces, 300 Peshmerga, in those four villages.

In the morning the attack came. Later we were informed that it was a brigade of Iraqi army. And we were 300. A brigade of Iraqi army supported by artillery, mortars, helicopters, and some of the Kurds who were cooperating with them, about 2000 Kurds who were – we call them Jash and you call them mercenaries.

The attack started in the morning. It was dark still. We were ready for them. The first blast of fire we killed 14 of them and took their weapons. We came back to the villages and we had good places for defending ourselves. At 3:00 they started withdrawing. We found that we killed 38 of them, five of them officers. We seized 14 pieces of weapons from them. And our casualties were one Peshmerga. A shrapnel from the helicopters from when they were shooting rockets at us, shrapnel hit his backbone. He is now paralyzed. He’s in Sweden now.

We were surrounded. And we could defend ourselves and make heavy casualties among them. And we person wounded.

MJT: Did Saddam’s soldiers ever surrender to you?

Salahdin: Yes, of course.

MJT: How were they treated?

Salahdin: We treated them like human beings. We did not treat them like…if they captured one of us they would kill him straight on the spot. Not only Saddam’s soldiers. We know they were sons of poor people. They were obliged to come and fight us. But we should defend ourselves, also.

Even when we captured the mercenaries, the Kurdish traitors, also we worked with them. When someone was wounded we took care of him. We had no jails. We kept him for a while, talked to him, talked to him about good things so when he goes back [he can say] good things about us. And we would release him.

We never killed anyone [who] surrendered or [that we captured], was wounded, or something like that.

There were some Arabs among us. Maybe they were soldiers and they stayed with us and became Peshmerga. Some Arab soldiers came. Many of them were killed in the battles with Saddam Hussein.

Abu Ghraib

Abu Ghraib prison is a very notorious prison. I think [unintelligible] was better than Abu Ghraib.

When we entered, we were about 100 prisoners going to Abu Ghraib. There were many hundreds of people standing in a row. When we reached them, all of them started beating us, kicking us. That was the welcome.

When they put you in the prison, in your ward, every day they came and made excuses to beat you. They ask you, what’s your problem, why are you in jail? If you say I am a political prisoner, they will take you to the office of the security there and hang you and torture you as they torture in the intelligence [offices]. You should say I am a terrorist. Not a political [prisoner].

One day during the Iran/Iraq war in 1979 when Iran was uprising against the Shah, I had small radio. I was listening to the BBC for news. The security officer for the jail came and said, what’s that you are listening to? I said it’s news from the BBC. He said why, we have no broadcasting stations, you are listening to BBC? Come with me.

He took me to the office and hanged me upside down and beat under my feet with thick cable until I became unconscious three times. They pour water on and you become conscious and they start beating you [again]. I fainted three times and later they took me back to my room.

They were capturing people, young people, from the cities, and taking them prisoner. Why? They wanted to frighten the people, to remind them every time, taking many people to jail and make them hungry and thirsty. When they came back they were only skin and bones. To frighten the people not to do anything against Saddam, not to say a bad thing against Saddam.

In Iraq, especially in the south of Iraq, in one family no one trusts…even inside one family the father doesn’t trust his son [enough] to say something bad against Saddam. Maybe his son will go and announce him to the authority of Saddam Hussein. It was a bad time. Even those who were loyal to Saddam Hussein could not say no to Saddam.

Weapon of Mass Destruction

The Kissinger Betrayal was in 1974. He mediated between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein and…of course it made us very upset at America at that time. But in 2003 we forgot everything about the past. And we are thankful.

A big number of people criticize Mr. Bush that he attacked Iraq without reason, that there are no weapons of mass destruction here. Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction.

Mass destruction…what does a nuclear weapon do when it hits a country? Of course it kills hundreds of thousands of people, ruins the country, and makes the wilderness obliterated.

Saddam Hussein destroyed 5,000 villages in our country. He filled up the water springs and the wells with concrete. He even deprived the birds and wild animals from drinking water in our mountains. He dried the marshes and swamplands in the south of Iraq which was the source of life for the people of that area. I am not just talking about Halabja, I am talking about thousands of villages in the south and north of Iraq which were destroyed by Saddam. The infrastructure of the area was destroyed by Saddam Hussein. It was worse than a nuclear weapon. Saddam Hussein himself was a WMD.

Should Kurdistan Declare Independence?

If we declare our independence we need a superpower like the US to be backing us. But maybe they will back us for two or three years and later they go back and leave us alone. And at that time, do you know what will happen to us?

There are all around us enemies. The national Islamists in Turkey. The national Islamists in Iran. And the Arab Nationalists in 22 Arab countries. They will attack us. They could swallow us in one day.

The Arabs call us a Second Israel all the time. They instigate their people [and say we] want to make a Second Israel here in the middle of their area. We are not as strong as Israel to defend ourselves from our enemies all around.

I like working with Americans all the time. Our first aid, first help, was from the Americans. When President Bush declared the war on Iraq it was truly…we forgot all our bitter experience with America [in the] past.

MJT: What will happen if the United States withdraws from Iraq next year?

Salahdin: I don’t think they are withdrawing.

MJT: What will happen to Kurdistan if it happens?

Salahdin: If it happens, there will be a civil war in Iraq, especially in the south of Iraq. It will be very bad. It will affect us also.

Of course, we are not participating in that battle between the Shia and [Sunni]. Our religion…we are Muslims. Sunnis. And Shia also, there are Kurdish Shia. But we are Kurdish before we are Muslims. We don’t care about the argument between Sunni and Shia. That’s not our…I don’t think we participate in that. Never.

I ask [Americans] not to leave us. All the time we have been frustrated from the pledges and help from America as we saw in 1974, 1920, and…from 1920 until now we have been frustrated and disappointed from their pledges and promises. Eight times we have been disappointed. I ask the American people, not make it nine times.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:57 PM | Comments (18)