Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Civilian casualties in the war on the Islamists

Last night the US launched a new chapter in the war on the Islamists. This is a war which has been underway for many years, but on 9/11 2001 it leapfrogged to great prominence, and for the past 5 years or so folks have been pretending it isn't really happening. I have no reason to think it will be over anytime before the 2040s, but that's a topic for a different post.

I dislike war, and unlike most Western interlocutors my dislike comes from personal acquaintance, not theoretical articulation of lofty principles. Yet I recognize that war is not the worst thing that can happen. Allowing evil people to dominate helpless people is worse. Since the supply of evil people eager to harm the helpless is not running out, the use of violence against them, in self defense or otherwise, will continue to be necessary for quite a while. Centuries, probably, or longer.

So I'm not one to damn the Americans for bombing Islamist targets, in whatever country they need to be bombed in. (Simon Jenkins at The Guardian penned just such a damnation first thing after breakfast this morning). But I am interested in the way such wars are understood. Just recently for example, Israel had a small war with avowed and accredited Islamists with a long track record of murdering Israelis over a quarter of a century. In what was perhaps the single most important article of the summer, former AP journalist Matti Friedman described how the Western media always gets the Israel-Palestine story wrong. His main thesis is that the media sees the Israel-Palestine story as being almost exclusively about how powerful Israel harms weak Palestinians. Thus, reports on Israeli military action always include description of Palestinian suffering, and of course detailed enumeration of Palestinian civilians casualties, whether the reports are true or not,credible or not, likely or not.

America has been bombing Islamists this summer, too. I've seen hardly no reports on civilians casualties these attacks are causing, and certainly no detailed enumerations. But forget this summer. Lets look at today's reports about lest night's US attacks:

In the NYT, the only mention of possible civilian casualties is in the 21st (twenty first) paragraph of their report:
In addition to Islamic State bases in the provinces of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo, strikes also hit bases belonging to the Nusra Front further west, killing at least seven Nusra fighter and eight civilians, according to the Observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria.
(Paragraphs 24-25 in the item about US attacks tell of how Israel has shot down a Syrian plane).

The BBC says the US strikes killed 70 Islamists (1st paragraph), and mentions the same 8 dead civilians in the 20th paragraph.

The top item in the Washington Post, which is long and meandering, doesn't mention numbers of people killed in the attacks at all. Not fighters, not civilians.

CNN has a long report, with nothing about casualties except a laconic note in the 11th paragraph that numbers are not known.

The Guardian's top report doesn't mention casualties of any sort.

I think these examples are sufficient to make my point. The media's knee-jerk response to Israeli force against Islamists is different than its knee-jerk response to American violence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A quick rumination on Scotland and rationality

The Scotts are voting today to separate or not from the English (and, I suppose, from the Welsh, tho I doubt that's the issue). I have no expertize in the matter, and no position, either. It's not my business. Yet as I've followed the story from afar, it has been rather clear that the vote isn't about rational arguments. If folks all based their decisions exclusively on calm rational considerations based on cold figures and data, I don't see how today's vote could ever even have been mooted, much less enacted. If the Scots decide to go their own way they'll have to surmount countless obstacles, from the identity of their currency to their unclear membership in the EU along with 30,000 matters. If never the less they decide to do so it will be for for what are ultimately emotional reasons.

This is important. Much of the political discussion about how the world works assumes that people are ultimately rational or at least easy to understand: give them a good life and they'll behave nicely. The entire world of contemporary diplomacy is predicated on this: talking is better than killing, and there's almost always something to be talked about. Hence one engages with Iran, for example, and seeks leverage of soft power, and insists that implacable enemies must talk to each other until they've addressed the only real - i.e. rational - issues, and then agree on them and have peace. (Until the mid-20th century diplomacy wasn't like this, as the term gun-boat diplomacy tells. But that was then).

The interesting thing about the Scottish story, then, is that even in one of the oldest of democracies, in one of the wealthier countries in the world, a place with centuries of tradition of enlightened civilization, rationality will take you only so far. There comes a moment when other motivations for human action proves stronger. If that's so in the United Kingdom, it's even truer elsewhere.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A comment on new settlement activity

I'm writing this post very very gingerly. Being a civil servant I'm strictly forbidden to publicly pontificate on political issues. I've decided that defending issues of Israeli consensus at time of war is alright, hence the recent few posts, but Israel's settlement policy isn't that in any way, so I need to stay far from it as long as I remain a public servant. (On which matter, by the way, I posted an announcement earlier today, over here).

And yet.

The issue of settlements is characterized by large dollops of inaccurate information. I'm toying with the idea of doing what an archivist can do, namely publish the full documented record of the story. Significant parts of such a story would differ enough from "accepted wisdom" as to be an important public service. So: someday, perhaps.

Today I'd like to point out a few facts about settlements which seem not to be widely known, starting with an item in today's paper relating to a decision made yesterday, to appropriate some 1,000 acres of land near Guh Etzion. Whether this is good or bad, wise or foolish, is not for me to say. The head of Peace Now, however, doesn't like it, and one of the things he has to say about it is
The decision to appropriate 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) and make them state land is unprecedented and changes the reality in the region of the Etzion Bloc,” Oppenheimer said, adding that there has not been such a large land seizure since the 1980s.

If he's correct about the fact, and I think he may be, what's going on? Many of the arguments pro and con the settlements are about how they're taking over ever more land on the West Bank. How are they doing so if land isn't being appropriated?

To which I'd like to add another few facts. To the best of my knowledge, no new settlements have been created since 2003, which is 13 years ago. If someone knows otherwise I'd be interested in what they know.

No settlements exist in Area A, which was transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the 1990s, and there has been no settlement activity there ever since.

So far as I know, there are no settlements and has been no settlement activity in Area B, either, since it was transferred to civilian control of the PA in the 1990s. Area A and B together make up something like 40% of the West Bank.

So if I'm right and there are no new settlements at all, and very little appropriation of land (says Oppenheimer), what is going on? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that most of the construction which is happening is taking place inside existing settlements, and most but not all of that is in settlements in areas Israel expects to hold onto in any peace agreement, perhaps in exchange for other areas and perhaps not.

That's as much as I feel comfortable in saying right now.