Archive for December, 2008

A siege mentality: Gaza’s pain

As the world looks on with horrified eyes at the devastation that is being wreaked in Gaza, the Israeli authorities have vowed that the strikes will continue.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the Israeli authorities would expand the attacks “as much as necessary” to “deal a heavy blow to Hamas”.

Officials estimate that the Palestinian death toll currently stands at over 383 with hundreds more injured, though the lack of medical supplies promises many more. As the hours pass and the body count rises, it becomes ever more certain that the ramifications of Israel’s actions will be felt far beyond the rubble of Gaza.

Yet, despite the relentless barrage of Israel’s rockets, it seems inconceivable that they will succeed in their espoused aim to rid Gaza of their government and ever less likely that Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas will be able to advance peace talks on the West Bank.

Wayne White, a Middle East expert, believes that Israel’s attacks will fail because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Palestinian mindset.

He argues that they are predicated on “a salient and mistaken psychological assumption: that the attitude of a defiant population typically can be changed and its will broken through military force and siege.

“This assumption was disproved in the course of a number of case studies related to the Second World War alone.

“Whether it was Germany’s effort to undermine British morale in late 1940 by bombing urban areas, the Germans’ attempts to break the will of Russians in besieged Leningrad during 1941-1943, or of Britain’s to break German civilian morale by laying waste to city after city during a campaign that spanned several years, this strategy largely has been discredited.

“The military force being brought to bear against Gaza, jarring as it may be, does not begin to compare with the examples above. Nor has the blockade been nearly as severe as that employed against Leningrad, especially during the winter of 1941-1942.”

As Palestinians in Gaza are besieged by the Israelis, this will only make their compatriots in the West Bank question any potential deal with Israel and undermine any attempt at negotiations. Words of peace as people are dying in their hundreds are nothing more than a farce.

For the Palestinians, it is not just an ideology but their homes and lives that are under threat. What the Israelis are ignoring, but must understand, is the conviction that rises from necessity when everything around you is razed to the ground.

As Johann Hari of the Independent argues: “This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide vests or rockets.”

The most detailed poll of Palestinians, by the University of Maryland, found that less than a fifth want to reclaim the whole of historic Palestine while 72 per cent want a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.

The 1.2m people living in Gaza are not militants, they are civilians and children who are watching their friends and family die around them. But the longer this continues, the more likely it is that these children will grow up defiant and radicalised.

Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, believes that Hamas are “ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.” But this dream is quickly fading amid the smoke.

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Eurotrash: sliding down the EU Tube

The great French statesman Charles de Gaulle once said: “It is Europe, it is the whole of Europe, that will decide the fate of the world.” Though de Gaulle is gone, the sentiment lives on, housed in the shining edifices of the European Commission.

Earlier this month I went to Brussels with 14 of my fellow Journalism students from City University. There, we were initiated into the secrets of the Eurocrats and the mantle of responsiblity was laid upon our quivering shoulders. barroso20king2

Despite the unquestionable importance of the EU, we were told, the British public has a skewed perspective on the affairs of Brussels because of the agendas of the media moguls. And it is up to us to fix it.

As Albert Maes, a previous EU ambassador to Jerusalem and lecturer in economics at the University of Namur in Belgium, put it: “The easy solution for the tabloids is always sarcasm.”

Out of a press core of over 1,200 journalists from all over Europe, many British news outlets don’t even have their own correspondents in Brussels. Those that do will often be charged with covering Europe as a whole.

One of the spokespeople we met, who did not wish to be named, said that many of the journalists she dealt with from the UK tabloids were not only rude but massively ignorant about anything to do with the EU.

This is because, to put it bluntly, the EU is boring as hell. No amount of free coffee and walks around stunning white buildings could hide the fact that the domain of the Eurocrats is unbelievably tedious.

Even the most talented British journalists have serious problems sparking interest in the latest regulations on, say, water pollution, even if it does mean that Blackpool beach will be littered with slightly less crap than usual.

Mark Mardell, the BBC’s Europe editor, said: “The job of journalists is to inform and entertain. The EU comes down heavily on the inform side.”

Believe it or not, I am generally pro-Europe. Yet after being told repeatedly how important it was for us, as future journalists, to raise awareness of the EU, I cannot help but feel a certain smug amusement at the revelation in today’s Sunday Times that the EU’s latest online project has received as little attention from its continental audience as it has on British shores.

Launched 18 months ago by the commission’s communications bureau, EU Tube – Europe’s take on the video-sharing website YouTube – has attracted dismal viewing figures. Some videos, such as the Controlling the Use of Chemicals in Europe and the Better Rights for Temporary Workers, have had only a few dozen hits.

Still, there is one success story in the EU archive. The “Let’s come together” video, made to promote the Brussels film subsidy, has reportedly had more than 7m views. The video (above) features clips of couples having sex, watched by a gaping cinema audience.

It seems the Eurocrats have learnt something Rupert Murdoch could have told them years ago: sex sells, no matter where you are.

Barking mad

Rottweilers, the archetypal British guard dog, are being turned into docile house pets under a Dutch breeding scheme designed to engineer out the genes that cause aggressive behaviour.

The programme, introduced in Holland eight years ago, aims to stop dangerous dogs reproducing by only issuing pedigrees to dogs that pass a docility test. Breeders claim that the number of friendly dogs has nearly doubled since the scheme began.

Joanne van der Borg, who carried out the research at Wageningen University, said “The dogs born into this programme are much better behaved. There is a strong genetic element to aggression and it is possible that this is being bred out.”

As part of the study, 800 rottweiler owners were asked to rate their dog’s behaviour. About 16 per cent of the non-pedigree dogs were aggressive to strangers, which fell to just seven per cent among pedigree dogs.

This latest development comes in the wake of a series of scandals in the British dog breeding world. The BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, aired this summer, drew the media spotlight after it claimed that many show dogs had severe genetic conditions and lived their lives in constant pain.

The programme featured a prize-winning Cavalier King Charles spaniel with syringomyelia, a condition that occurs when a dog’s skull is too small for its brain, as well as boxers with epilepsy and pugs with breathing problems.

In response, the BBC decided to scrap coverage of Crufts next year after the Kennel Club refused to adhere to severe guidelines on which dogs could compete. Twelve breeds prone to genetic diseases, including the King Charles spaniel, basset hound, German shepherd, bulldog and St Bernard, would been banned from the competition.

The decision was controversial: the BBC has covered the show for 42 years and last year’s highlights attracted 14.5 million viewers. Caroline Kisko, secretary at the club, called the decision “illogical”, claiming it would only worsen the problem.

But the RSPCA’s chief veterinary adviser, Mark Evans, told the BBC: “The show world is about an obsession, about beauty, and there is a ridiculous concept that that is how we should judge dogs.

“It takes no account of temperament or fitness for purpose potentially as a pet animal, and that to me makes no sense at all. It is a parade of mutants; a freakish beauty pageant.”

The great sage Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

In a culture where shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are a national obsession, it is hardly surprising that our tastes have extended to contestants that can’t argue back. I only hope that at least one freak show will stay off the air.

Egypt’s changing faces

Egyptian protesters who rioted against rising food prices have today been sentenced to between three and five years in prison by a special tribunal.

Shouts and calls for justice greeted the surprise verdicts as 22 people were jailed on charges of looting, attacking police officers and possessing firearms.

Outside the court, hundreds of supporters chanted anti-government slogans, demanding their release. Defence lawyer Ahmed Higazi called the verdict “blatant injustice,” asking:

“What has the government done for the people? Is this what they do to the people?”

The riots in the town of Mahalla al-Kobra in April were the worst Egypt has seen in more than 30 years. Security forces killed three civilians and arrested hundreds more as an industrial strike escalated into violent protests that gripped the city for two days.

Egypt has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The World Bank estimated at the time that global food prices had increased 83% in the past three years and earlier this year, 11 people were killed queuing for government-subsidised bread.

While protests have died down in recent months as food prices have fallen, there remains a tangible sense of disillusionment among Egyptian youth at the state of their country. The majority of Egyptians are under 30 and many have lived their lives solely under the near-dictatorship of Mubarak’s government. Many are calling for change.

On May 4, to mark the President’s 80th birthday, some 74,000 young Egyptians joined a Facebook group that demanded a minimum wage, salary raises linked to inflation, and legislation and other measures to control prices.

The group urged members to strike, wear black, and write “No” to Mubarak on their money.

The growing influence of the “Political Party of the Internet” in Egyptian politics has been greeted with dismay by the government. Young dissidents have been thrown in prison for their online activism and many bloggers fear persecution for expressing their views.

Esra Abdel Fattah, 27, was thrown in jail for more than three weeks for starting a Facebook group to organise a general strike. More than 60,o00 people joined the group.

Fattah was only released when her mother personally appealed to Mubarak, though her case only worked to inspire others: We are all Esra became the name of a popular group on Facebook.

Fattah is not alone. Others, such as Noha Atef, who runs the Torture in Egypt site, Al-Tatheeb fi Masr, claims to have received death threats against her and her family because of her dedicated years of blogging.

Yet not all of Egypt’s parties fear the internet. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition movement banned in Egypt since the 50s, has used the internet with deft skill to spread its message in the face of government attempts to silence traditional electoral campaigns.

Unlike the current government, the Brotherhood in Egypt is young, dynamic and, significantly, technically literate. Where the current government has tried to silence the multitudes on the internet, the Brotherhood speak to them in their own language.

Asem Shalaby, a publisher and Brotherhood leader, said the BBC: “The media campaign has become much more important than the electoral campaign as we know we are never going to win the elections.”

In July of this year, the Brotherhood launched a Facebook group to spread Islam and promote political activism among young Muslims around the world. It now has 1,637 members.

One journalist I spoke to who has spent many years reporting on Egyptian affairs, says that if put to a free vote today, he believes the Brotherhood would win an election.

He said: “The government can’t escape the fact that it’s completely morally bankrupt. The Muslim Brotherhood is very plugged in and, in the end, the internet is more likely to bring the rise of political Islam than democracy.”

 

The Great Firewall stands intact

Today, Chinese officials defended their decision to block international news websites as part of a move to ramp up internet censorship after a brief respite during the Beijing Olympics.

Several websites that offer news in Mandarin, including the BBC, Voice of America and Hong Kong’s Ming Pao News, have been blocked since early December.

Restrictions on foreign news agencies had previously been relaxed after journalists covering the Olympics complained that China was still censoring some sites, violating its pledge for internet freedom during the games.

Liu Jianchao, a foreign ministry spokesman, said that the government has the right to block sites that contain “illegal” content.

“If a website refers to mainland China and Taiwan as two independent regions, we believe that violates China’s anti-secession law”.

Having lived and worked for a magazine in Shanghai, I have experienced first-hand the contradictions of Chinese censorship laws. Whenever I tried to access the BBC or Wikipedia a mysterious error message would pop up, blocking my path, yet I could access the Times and the Guardian in the blink of an eye.

Everything I wrote was “proof read” by a central agency and could in no way infringe on the world of politics, show pictures of monks, guns or even tube maps. Yet I covered a literary festival that included outspoken political dissenters such as Arundhati Roy and Fatima Bhutto.

It seems to me that these contraditions lie at the heart of modern China. The tension between past and future, state control and individual creativity sits in an uneasy equillibrium and sooner or later, something will tip the balance.

Next year will see the 30th anniversary of Den Xiaoping’s “reform and opening policy” which dramatically reshaped China’s economic landscape. To celebrate, the government has public programme to honour the “turning point” in China’s history which has lifted 200m people out of poverty and increased economic growth to an average of 9.8% per year.

It is painfully ironic that these celebrations come at a time when the recession has finally spread to Asian shores. The Economist reports that Chinese exports are down 2% and imports 18% on last year, while power generation, a reliable barometer, fell by 7%.

Unrest is growing as unemployed workers take to the street in the southern Guangdong province and last week protestors gathered outside China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


China has come a long way in the past 30 years, but there is a long way to go yet. 2009 will also mark 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 50th anniversary of the Chinese oppression of Tibet.

The latest clampdown on internet censorship is a clear message that the freedoms of the Olympics were the exception, not the rule.

Europe’s final frontier

An Italian man who was attempting to row across the Pacific Ocean solo has had to be rescued from fierce storms just off the Australian coast.

Alex Bellini had been at sea since February when he set out from Peru, 18,000 kilometres (10,000 nautical miles) away. But beset by a raging tempest, he was forced to call for help just 120km from his final destination, the Sydney harbour.


He said: “I didn’t put the cherry on top of the cake. But the cake is very good, very big and I will never forget about it.”


After years of preparation, Bellini can still see the merit of struggling towards a distant goal, even if it remains tantalisingly out of reach. Back in Europe, the 27 leaders of the Eurozone that gathered at the Brussels summit yesterday must be feeling something similar.


Despite having agreed one of the most ambitious climate change deals in the world, which pledged to cut carbon emissions for the Eurozone by 20 per cent by 2020, the niggling problem of the Lisbon treaty remains.


For years, Lisbon has been the thorn in the side of the EU. The treaty is designed to amend previous treaties to streamline the democratic process and includes creating a President of the European Union and High Representative for Foreign Affairs to present a more coherent approach to unified action.


After being turned down by the Irish public in a referendum this summer, it seemed the treaty might sink into the backwaters of EU policy. Yet a plan outlining new concessions to appease Irish voters has reportedly been greeted with enthusiasm by the summit.


These include questions over military neutrality, and fears that it would have to cede control over taxation, ethical and social issues while losing representation in the European Commission.


The UK is seeking more clarity in the legal language referring to the 25 countries that have already ratified the treaty, though Ireland’s foreign minister, Micheál Martin, said that Ireland is looking for the “most robust” guarantees possible.


In the UK the goings on of the EU can often seem little more than the distant rumblings of frustrated bureaucrats. Yet if nothing else, the past six months have taught us that Britain’s fate is inextricably linked with that of the Eurozone.


As EU president, Sarkozy has been instrumental in coordinating the international response to the financial crisis. While Brown has tried to cast himself as the level-headed champion of the crisis, it has been Sarkozy’s mischievous grin that has graced the front pages of papers around the world.

Yet as January approaches and the end of Sarkozy’s term draws ever closer the future of the treaty remains uncertain. The leader-in-waiting, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, is an avowed Eurosceptic and the Czech Republic remains one of two countries that have not ratified the Lisbon Treaty over fears that it would undermine national sovreignity.

Ceding authority at any level will never be a popular move. Yet, the EU itself was born out of the need to present a unified front in a time of crisis.

As the pound plunges to new lows against the Euro and the recession deepens, the spirit of the EU is more important than ever. And we cannot afford look away.

 


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