‘Our’ censorship

The last weeks have seen a string of incidents that make it increasingly clear how unfree the Western mass media are – specifically but not only in the US. First, Helen Thomas was forced to resign for expressing the eminently reasonable opinion that the colonisers of Palestine ‘should go back to where they came from. Then Octavia Nasr – of Lebanese christian origin – got fired by CNN after 20 years as its senior Middle East editor for expressing ‘sadness and respect’ for the death of Fadlallah. And now British ambassador to Lebanon Guy Frances is forced into apologising for and deleting a blog post in which she wrote about the same shia cleric that ‘When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person (…) That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith.’

Do note that all three merely expressed personal opinions outside their professional activities and that none of them are particularly anti-Israeli in their professional life. So in fact this is not even an attack on ‘freedom of the press’ – that so-called ‘freedom’ is already severely curtailed by private ownership of newspapers and tv stations and governmental pressure in all shapes and forms – but on the freedom of expression of private individuals, the next stage in the elimination of all ‘deviant’ opinion. In true orwellian fashion, they are doing this in the name of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’, which in their twisted vision means ‘aping without criticism one prefabricated view and censoring the other side’… On the positive side, of course, this only shows the despair of  Israel and its allies in the face of their losing battle for global public opinion, which is sliding inexorably and ever faster towards the critical mass that forced that other apartheid regime in South Africa into despise and ultimately oblivion, despite the inaction or even resistance of the US and European governments supporting that regime at the time.

As for the situation in what is sometimes laughably called ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’ – see this article in the Guardian on the resistance (finally…) of the Israeli academic world to one of the many recent laws criminalising local and international NGOs and dissenting opinion in general.


The islamic resistance as a tourist destination

I spent the past weekend in the south with a mixed group of Lebanese and foreigners to visit  friends in the village of Yaroun, just outside Bint Jbeil. On the way there, we stopped off at Mleeta, where Hezbollah has constructed its first permanent museum of the resistance. In the tried and true fashion of the party of god, it is a large-scale, comprehensive and well-organized effort to shine a light on the power, dedication and success (not to mention the god-fearing attitude) of the islamic resistance. As was the case in the temporary 2007 exhibition celebrating Hezbollah’s 2006 expulsion of the Israeli invasion – Bait al-Ankabout (House of the Spider) in Dahiyyeh – Israeli soldiers are only shown wounded, dead, defeated or retreating. A large part of the site is given over to displays of captured Israeli weapons and equipment, from helmets to tanks, and there are large maps showing the targets – complete with coordinates – within Israel which Nasrallah has promised to hit in any future conflict. But the most impressive section of this ‘Resistance Tourist Landmark’, as it is called on the road signs pointing the way, is the tunnel complex dug out in the mountain top. The Mleeta museum celebrates in the first place the achievements of the resistance during the Israeli occupation of the south (1982-2000), which eventually succeeded in driving Israel out of (most of) Lebanon. The tunnel complex at the centre of the exhibition was an actual fighting post at the time: inspired by techniques successfully used by the Vietcong to drive out the US occupation of Vietnam, a gigantic network of tunnels and rooms has been dug out in the mountain which offers a strategic view over large swathes of the south including Saida, Nabatiyyeh and the Iqlim at-Tuffah region. The complex contains everything from living quarters to first aid posts, munition storage and communications posts and artillery bunkers controlling the valley below. At the end of the walk, a movie theatre plays films about the history of the resistance, and everywhere kids and adults alike can – and do – study the weapons of both the resistance and the enemy for future reference, helped by useful informative displays mentioning the range, calibre and documented uses of the arms in question. The exhibition is obviously conceived as an educational experience for the children who will become the next generation of fighters and busloads of mothers with children arrive there all through the day. But no doubt Hezbollah would welcome any Israeli ‘spies’ to come visit and take the message back home. The international press has actually already been doing that extensively for them in the two months since the museum was opened to the public, but they have missed out on another, more innocuous and peaceful, but possibly even more provocative site: ‘Hadiqat Iran’.

The ‘Park of Iran’, located in Maroun Al-Ras, a village near Bint Jbeil which overlooks the nearest Israeli settlement, seems to mockingly reverse the situation in the West Bank, where Palestinians live down below in the valleys, in permanent fear and under incessant siege of the heavily armed Israeli settlers in their surrounding hill top colonies. Here, the situation is reversed – in several ways – with the Israeli border village of Saliha being overlooked by a cute picnic place and family amusement park in full view of the Israeli border guards and villagers, where families are already coming in large numbers to enjoy barbecues in cute little picnic pavilions with grills provided, looking down on the enemy while sitting under the flags of Hezbollah and Iran, their kids occasionally climbing up on the lookout towers which are actually still under construction. No weapons or threatening installations of any kind are on display here, and there is actually a sign in Arabic at the entrance of the park admonishing visitors to ‘avoid discussing politics’. If you ignored that sign and the flags, you could actually be mistaken into thinking you were in some tourist Raststatte next to a German or Austrian highway. This incongruous feeling is only enhanced by the fact that every picnic pavillion is adorned with a discrete billboard advertising visits to a specific Iranian town or region – it turns out the park doubles as a promotional effort to entice the Lebanese to the charms of holidaymaking in Iran.

It seems the commercialization of the resistance is in full swing, and it is in fact a neat and clever new way to build self-confidence for the future and celebrate past achievements without actually resorting to any violence whatsoever. Both places emanate a typical islamic ‘family-day-in-the-park’ atmosphere, with ample mosques provided and plenty of toys and amusement opportunities to keep the kids happy. This innocuous ‘Iranian’ presence on their border probably worries the Israelis a lot more than if they would actually cone under rocket fire – in any case, it would become a PR problem the size of the flotilla raid if they would choose to get rid of it…

PS I didn’t mention it at first because I presumed it was common knowledge, at least in Lebanon, but Maroun Al Ras is of course one of the great battlefields of the July 2006 war. The IDF elite forces tried twice to capture and occupy the village and twice they were beaten back by the resistance suffering heavy losses. Several of their ‘impenetrable’ Merkava tanks were destroyed there too. Which makes it an even more salient location for the Park of Iran, of course.

Two remarks about loosely related issues: this weekend, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah died. He was one of the most progressive, modern and liberal among the Shia ‘marajia’ or ‘sources of emulation’. Much of the mass media claim he was the ‘spiritual guide’ of Hezbollah, but this is manifestly untrue. Contrary to sunni islam, where anybody who can recite a few verses of the Koran and climb the steps of a minaret can issue fatwas which may or may not be followed, in shia islam there is a strictly controlled procedure involving many years of study, the writing of a risala or dissertation, and a peer approval process which determines who can become a marja. This makes for a rather higher level of education among the shia clergy, as well as lively scholarly discussions among them on various subjects, and specifically on the topic of the wilayat af faqih – Khomeini’s thesis that the state should be led by clerics, which is actually a revolutionary new concept in the traditionally quietist and non-political shia clerical tradition. Shia believers choose a particular marja to follow and pay their religious taxes to (the khums, or 20% of their disposable income). Many shia in Lebanon (and many more abroad, including in Iran) follow Fadlallah and other ‘non-political’ clerics such as Sistani in Iraq. Hezbollah as an organization has from the start followed Khomeini and after his death his designated successor Khamenei, and decidedly not Fadlallah, with whom they were actually in open conflict in the nineties. You can read more about the relationship  between Fadlallah and Hezbollah here on Angry Arab’s blog. A short biography of Fadlallah in English is published here on Naharnet.

Another related remark: to travel to ‘sensitive’ border areas in the south of Lebanon, as we did this weekend, foreigners need a special permit from the army which has to be obtained from the army barracks in Saida. At checkpoints in the south, this permit is supposedly strictly controlled and checked with HQ in Saida. The procedure lost us about an hour on the way to Yaroun, much to the distress of a few German co-travelers, who consequently missed their team’s first goal of the world cup game… But later that day, two Belgian friends came to join us, without the permit, driving down in their motorhome with Belgian license plates, and were simply waved through by the soldiers manning the checkpoint. On the way up the next day though, when they in their turn went to visit the resistance museum in Mleeta, Hezbollah checked and copied their passports. This just to give you an indication why most Lebanese tend to trust Hezbollah more with their security and defense than the Lebanese Armed Forces…

Regional update for June

I have been swamped with work recently, so there wasn’t much time left to update the blog. Recent developments in Lebanon have been revolving around two main subjects: the newly discovered gas fields in the Mediterranean, off the Lebanese and Israeli coasts and the arrest of a technician of Alfa, one of Lebanon’s two ridiculously expensive mobile phone networks, on charges of giving Israel access and monitoring capabilities on the network for the past 15 years. Ian Black at the Guardian gives a concise overview of both issues: ‘Beirut media reports claim that Charbel Qazzi worked for the Mossad secret service for 15 years and that information gleaned from his position in the transmission section of the Alfa network – one of the country’s main providers – allowed the Israelis to locate and kill individuals during the 2006 war. The Shia movement Hezbollah has warned that Israel has compromised Lebanese national security and there have been calls – endorsed today by President Michel Suleiman – for the death sentence to be imposed on anyone convicted of spying for the enemy. The neighbours have been in a state of war for more than 60 years. “You know how everyone would joke that it was assumed the Israelis could listen to anyone’s mobile calls?” a Lebanese military intelligence officer was quoted as saying. “Well, we can stop laughing and assuming, because they can.” According to one source, prosecutors may ask for the immunity of government ministers to be lifted if the army investigation points to political complicity. (…) Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, joined Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, in calling on the government to hang agents caught working for Israel. “Security in Lebanon is exposed and fear mounts of new assassinations that could lead the country to disaster,” Jumblatt said.
Tensions between Lebanon and Israel have also been rising because of a row over gas reserves in the Mediterranean. An Israeli-American consortium this month announced the discovery of two potentially huge offshore natural gas fields that could be worth as much as $40bn (£27bn) and turn Israel from a net importer of fossil fuels into a lucrative exporter. Lebanon says the northernmost portion of one field is in its territorial waters but international law requires both countries – which have no sea border – to negotiate the exact boundaries and come to an arrangement. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, warned today that his organisation would use “all means to exercise Lebanon’s sovereignty and control over its natural resources”. Israel has said it would use force to protect its interests.’

Another episode which has made major headlines in Lebanon lately was the attempt of parliament to pass – without discussion – a new law on electronic communications and e-commerce which would create a new government agency with sweeping powers to monitor and confiscate any and all files on anybody’s computer. Additionnally, it would legalize the ongoing blocking of Skype and other voice communications software, which is blocked to ensure the Lebanese keep paying the extortionate rip-off rates imposed by Hariri’s Ogero (landlines), Alfa and MTC (mobile), who together monopolise the telephone networks in this corrupt country of crony capitalism. Protest from many different corners succeeded in getting the proposed law sent to a parliament committee for discussion minutes before the vote was due. Read all about it here at Qifa Nabki, who provides links to a number of other sources: ‘The only thing I can think of as a possible explanation for this move is the notion that Nahhas is trying to circumvent the likely loss of telephone revenue once Lebanon receives fiber optic upgrades in the next couple of months. The upgrades will enhance internet speeds, making it easier for people to Skype their Teta to get her recipe for koosa mi7sheh… unless Skype is banned.’

In the wider region, it has been reported that a large US and Israeli fleet of warships has passed through the Suez canal to take position off the coast of Iran, presumably to start carrying out inspections of Iranian cargo ships – a serious provocation if their intentions are not worse than that. It was recently reported that Saudi Arabia has been exercising its air force’s capabilities to ‘stand down’ while Israeli jet fighters and bombers fly over on their way to attack Iran, and even that an Iraeli air base is being set up in the country. The reports were of course vigorously denied by Saudi sources, but they were published in the Times – not in the Kuwaiti Al Syasa or similar favourites for Mossad-planted disinformation such as Debka or (occasionally) Der Spiegel.
As for the zionist colony itself, John Mearsheimer writes a good overview of the latest developments in its ongoing suicide attempt: ‘The bungled assault on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the flotilla, shows once again that Israel is addicted to using military force yet unable to do so effectively. One would think that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would improve over time from all the practice. Instead, it has become the gang that cannot shoot straight.
The IDF last scored a clear-cut victory in the Six Day War in 1967; the record since then is a litany of unsuccessful campaigns. The War of Attrition (1969-70) was at best a draw, and Israel fell victim to one of the great surprise attacks in military history in the October War of 1973. In 1982, the IDF invaded Lebanon and ended up in a protracted and bloody fight with Hezbollah. Eighteen years later, Israel conceded defeat and pulled out of the Lebanese quagmire. Israel tried to quell the First Intifada by force in the late 1980s, with Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin telling his troops to break the bones of the Palestinian demonstrators. But that strategy failed and Israel was forced to join the Oslo Peace Process instead, which was another failed endeavor.
The IDF has not become more competent in recent years. By almost all accounts—including the Israeli government’s own commission of inquiry—it performed abysmally in the 2006 Lebanon war. The IDF then launched a new campaign against the people of Gaza in December 2008, in part to “restore Israel’s deterrence” but also to weaken or topple Hamas. Although the mighty IDF was free to pummel Gaza at will, Hamas survived and Israel was widely condemned for the destruction and killing it wrought on Gaza’s civilian population. Indeed, the Goldstone Report, written under UN auspices, accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Earlier this year, the Mossad murdered a Hamas leader in Dubai, but the assassins were seen on multiple security cameras and were found to have used forged passports from Australia and a handful of European countries. The result was an embarrassing diplomatic row, with Australia, Ireland, and Britain each expelling an Israeli diplomat.
Given this history, it is not surprising that the IDF mishandled the operation against the Gaza flotilla, despite having weeks to plan it. The assault forces that landed on the Mavi Marmara were unprepared for serious resistance and responded by shooting nine activists, some at point-blank range. None of the activists had their own guns. The bloody operation was condemned around the world—except in the United States, of course. Even within Israel, the IDF was roundly criticized for this latest failure.’