Tag Archives: International Affairs

A Scandal in Brasilia

It’s just as well that the Brazilian national football team is enjoying a resurgence of successes after their abysmal performance at the Copa America. The ‘seleção brasileira’, under new management from Tite, became the first team in the world to qualify for the 2018 world cup in Russia next year – providing a much needed source of national pride at a time when the country is being subsumed in political scandal and economic disaffection. One wonders if President Michel Temer must not regret weaseling his way into power now that he sees the headache it brings. Eight of his ministers have been named in the latest round of the Lava Jato graft probe, which continues its long march to clean out the Augean stables of political power in Brasilia. Temer has already lost one top cabinet member, Romero Juca, who was forced to resign just two weeks after the new president took over following the release of a recorded phone conversation in which Juca can be heard stressing the need to topple then President Rousseff from power in order to “stop the bleeding” from the Lava Jato investigation. Dilma seized on this as definitive proof that her impeachment was plainly a clandestine coup by political opponents, but nothing much came of it and Juca, though out of the cabinet, was able to return to his senatorial post in the Congress.

Continue reading

Reflections on the political crisis in Brazil: Part 2

Eight months ago I wrote a piece about the current turbulent political situation in Brazil. Since then the drama has hardly let up, and even relative to the political rollercoaster that is 2016 it’s been fascinating. I thought I would record some of it again, for those who may be interested in the trials and tribulations of this Latin powerhouse.

We left off with President Dilma Rousseff, the first female president in Brazil’s history and a member of the once very popular Worker’s Party (PT), facing a key impeachment vote before Congress. A small cabal of senators charged Dilma with violating a rather esoteric and obscure budgeting law written into Brazil’s constitution. As far as I can tell no one understands the law, not even the senators, and no one can explain, concisely and completely, how Dilma broke it, but the general gist of the matter is that she manipulated the government books to conceal or at least understate the true size of the nation’s public debt. The accusation claims she did so deliberately in the run up to the 2014 election in order to win more votes. Dilma of course denies all of this and contends, not without good reason, that the entire impeachment has been orchestrated by her right-wing opponents to remove her party from power – something they’ve been unable to do at the ballot box in over 12 years.

In any case, whatever one thinks about the merits of the charge itself, the actual impeachment proceedings, held on April 17th in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower legislative house, turned out to be a rather amusing display of pomp and buffoonery. Brazilian politics is already quite a messy, passionate ordeal, but with the stakes this high, it turned into a circus. Deputies were yelling at each other, waving banners, and chanting the entire night. At times scuffles broke out on the floor as people tried to press their way to the lectern to speak. Much to the embarrassment of many Brazilians, the entire 11-hour session was broadcast live on Brazilian TV and is on YouTube for the whole world to watch. Presiding over the whole affair with calm determination was Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies, and the man labeled Dilma’s “nemesis” for his role in architecting the impeachment. Cunha called each of the deputies up one by one to declare their vote and provide a brief explanation for why they were voting the way they were. Almost invariably the (usually male) deputy would dedicate his vote in favour of impeachment to some combination of ‘God’, ‘my beloved country’, and ‘my family’. Some felt the need to mention each of their family members by name, with one man, Marcelo Álvaro Antônio, listing each of his children, but, rather embarrassingly, forgetting one son. Realizing to his horror the mistake he had made later in the evening, Marcelo hurried back to the lectern, interrupting the deputy whose turn it was, to state : “Just to correct one thing: I didn’t mention my son, Paulo Henrique: Paulo Henrique this is for you my son!”  Others used their time to rail against the vague menace of ‘corruption’. Hardly anyone referenced the “Fiscal Responsibility Law” (Lei de Responsibilidade Fiscal) which Dilma is alleged to have breached, and none noticed the irony in the fact that 150 members of their own chamber (the majority of whom voted for impeachment) were implicated in crimes far more severe than the one they so sanctimoniously charged Dilma with. Of course, there was righteous indignation – a sentiment to which the Portuguese language seems particularly well-suited – on both sides. Glauber Braga, a socialist deputy from Rio, used his time to call Cunha a “gangster”. Jean Wyllys, a left-wing firebrand and rising star in Brazilian politics, went even further and, in what became one of the most cited speeches of the event, proclaimed the entire proceedings to be a “farce” that was being “conducted by a thief”, “urged on by a traitor”, and “supported by cowards”. Draped in his signature red scarf, Wyllys had to speak louder and louder as his speech went on in order to be heard over the rising din. By the end he was practically screaming:

In the name of the rights of the LGBT population, of the black people and those exterminated [by police] in the favelas, of the culture workers, the homeless, the landless, I vote against the coup! And sleep with that, you bastards!

Jean Wylyss, a socialist deputy from Bahia and the second openly gay member of the Chamber of Deputies, speaks against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.
Jean Wyllys, a socialist deputy from Bahia and the second openly gay member of the Chamber of Deputies, speaks against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Perhaps the most shocking and unforgettable moment of the night came when Jair Bolsonaro, a polarizing, right-wing demagogue, took to the stand and dedicated his vote in favour of impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Ustra’s unit was responsible for rounding up and torturing some 500 suspected ‘left-wing terrorists’, including the then young student Dilma Rousseff. In response to Bolsonaro’s ugly move, Jean Wyllys pushed through the crowd and spat on him, which led to fisticuffs breaking out between the two men’s supporters.

Jair Bolsonaro dedicates his vote for the impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Jair Bolsonaro dedicates his vote for the impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

In the end, with 367/513 votes, the ayes cleared the ⅔ majority they needed to pass the motion of impeachment. The bill then moved to the senate, who, on May 12th, also passed it, though with much less fanfare. Dilma was now suspended for 6 months while they prepared and conducted the actual trial to determine her guilt. In the meantime, her vice president, Michel Temer, took over. In Brazil vice presidents need not (and indeed often are not) from the same political party as the president, although they do run together on the same ticket. Temer is from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). A sidenote here: Brazilian political parties are very different from their counterparts in the more ‘developed’ world. Brazilian democracy is very young and, therefore, most parties have not had time to carve out a clear political and ideological territory. As a result, there are literally dozens of active political parties in Brazil – in the Chamber of Deputies alone no fewer than 25 parties are represented – and, unlike in the US or the UK, most ordinary citizens do not describe themselves as being more loyal or more committed to one particular party. No one really has a clear idea of what each party stands for and often even educated, well informed citizens have trouble remembering which politician belongs to which party, simply because it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in how that politician will vote. The party names also are of no guidance: The “Progressive Party” tends to be pretty conservative and right wing; the Brazilian Women’s Party has exactly one deputy in the Chamber, and he is a man.

Michel Temer assumed the presidency of Brazil after Dilma was impeached. Critics accuse him or helping orchestrate the impeachment for his own personal political gain.
Michel Temer assumed the presidency of Brazil after Dilma was impeached. Critics accuse him or helping orchestrate the impeachment for his own personal political gain.

Supporters of Dilma have long accused Temer of helping orchestrate what they describe as the “illegal coup” against her in order to put himself in power. Suspicions intensified when, just hours before the vote to begin the impeachment trial, Temer committed one of those faux pas we all dread: he accidently sent an audio message to an entire WhatsApp group, when he meant to send it to just one friend. The message appeared to contain parts of a speech which he would give once he assumed the presidency. Given that at that point the country had not yet even opened the case for impeachment proceedings, let alone convicted Dilma, such a prepared speech seemed strangely presumptuous. Temer lost even further credibility when it emerged via Wikileaks that he had, since 2006, been acting as something of an informant for the US government, passing detailed reports and information on the current political situation in Brazil to US Southern Command in Miami. Never forgetting the key role that the Johnson administration had played in the 1964 military coup that had overthrown their first attempt at democracy, many Brazilians regarded these revelations as evidence of treachery and became even more convinced that Dilma’s impeachment was essentially a coup without the tanks.

Despite these setbacks, and with a poll showing that only 2% of Brazilians would vote for him in an election, Temer assumed the presidency. His first move was to establish a new cabinet. What ought to have been a fairly procedural affair blew up into a political firestorm. He appointed a creationist to head the Ministry of Science, and a ‘soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest’ for his agriculture minister. What really angered people, however, was that Temer’s cabinet was the first in decades to feature only white men. Coming right after the ousting of what had been a remarkably diverse administration, led by Brazil’s first female president, such a decision seemed like a slap in the face to Dilma’s legacy. The impeachment had already been tinted with sexist overtones – “Tchau querida” (“Goodbye dear”) had become a popular slogan for those wanting Dilma out – and Temer’s cabinet picks seemed only to normalize that. It didn’t help Temer that in the same month Veja, a popular news magazine, published a feature special on his wife, Marcela, a 28-year-old former beauty pageant winner, which they titled ‘Marcela Temer: bela recatada e “do lar” (beautiful, demure, and of the home)’. In it, they praised Marcela for being the type of girl who “wears knee-length dresses”. Those furious at this sexist interpretation of a woman’s place in society were quick to respond with a flurry of memes on social media, posting pictures of strong feminist icons, past and present, captioned (ironically) with the phrase “bela, recatada, e do lar”.

Michel Temer with his wife, Marcela.
Michel Temer with his wife, Marcela.

In terms of actual policy, Temer immediately pursued a program of harsh austerity and neoliberal economics. His administration abolished several ministries, including the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, as well as the Ministry of Culture, though the latter he was forced to reinstate 11 days after he dissolved it in response to angry, yet creative protests by a variety of artists and musicians. More troublingly, he pushed through a constitutional amendment that freezes government spending for 20 years. Characterized by UN officials as simply “an attack on the poor”, the PEC55 policy, as it is known, prevents future governments from softening or undoing the austerity, thereby locking in a right-wing economic agenda for two decades and jeopardizing many of the gains made in poverty reduction during the Lula years. The measure fails to even take into account increases necessary to support a rising population, meaning that per capita spending on things like education and healthcare are expected to fall. Despite Temer’s promises that it is the shock therapy Brazil needs to climb out of recession, Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest what Vox dubbed “the harshest austerity program in the world.” The police response – in contrast, some have noted, to how police responded to the Dilma protests – has been swift and unrepentant: firing tear gas and pepper spray at unarmed protesters and blinding at least two journalists with rubber bullets.

A protestor holds a sign saying "Out Temer! Out everyone!". Her shirt says "No to PEC55".
A protestor holds a sign saying “Out Temer! Out everyone!”. Her shirt says “No to PEC55”.

As one of the groups expected to be hardest hit by the spending cuts, students have formed the vanguard in many of these protests. Even before PEC55 kicked in, state governments in Brazil had, of their own volition, been ordering the closure of dozens of schools across the country, in an effort to consolidate resources. Faced with the prospect of having now to attend overcrowded schools further from home, students resisted the closures by occupying hundreds of school buildings across the country, refusing to leave until their demands were met. The national austerity program has only exacerbated the students’ plight, and led to more vociferous protest. In October, sixteen-year-old Ana Julia, one of the students involved in the sit-ins, delivered a speech to the senate in her home state of Paraná. Opening with the words “Who is school for?”, she embarked on a lengthy tirade, defending the legitimacy and necessity of the student occupations and lambasting the legislators for failing to address student needs. She also attacked as “insulting” a recent government initiative escola sem partido, which forbids political discourse in public schools. The senators remained silent and attentive throughout, albeit with looks of mild annoyance at being lectured to by a girl who, for most of them, was young enough to be their granddaughter. When she decried them for having ‘blood on their hands’ – a reference to a student who had recently died during an occupation – they could no longer contain their irritation. Some began to murmur disapproval, and one angrily shouted back “my hands aren’t dirty!”. At this point the president of the senate stepped in, and reprimanded Ana Julia, reminding her sternly “You can’t attack parliamentarians here…here no one has hands stained with blood.” The sixteen year old apologized, but then retorted by quoting the Statute of the Child and Adolescent, which proclaims that “responsibility for our adolescents lies with society, the family, and the state.” At this the public crowd in the gallery erupted in applause and Ana Julia’s video soon went viral. Cries of “Ana Julia me representa” resounded across Brazilian social networks.

Ana Julia defends the student protests before a senate hearing in her home state of Parana.
Ana Julia defends the student protests before a senate hearing in her home state of Parana.

Meanwhile back in the nation’s capital, the ‘Lava Jato’ corruption investigation, which is what had first triggered this political crisis, continued to draw ever more powerful politicians into its proverbial noose. Eduardo Cunha, the man who conducted the impeachment proceedings against Dilma, was arrested and charged with accepting $5 million in bribes from a company bidding on state contracts. As the man most responsible for ousting Dilma, his arrest was greeted with unabashed glee by supporters of her party, especially since he had once vehemently sworn that he would ‘walk to Curitiba [the city from which the investigation was being run]’ if they ever found any real evidence against him. Brazilian meme artists had a field day with this quote and the photo of Cunha being escorted out of his home by federal police.

Eduardo Cunha, the former head of the Chamber of Deputies, was arrested on October 19th.
Eduardo Cunha, the former head of the Chamber of Deputies, was arrested on October 19th.

Next on the chopping block was Renan Calheiros, the canny yet uninspiring president of the federal senate. The Lava Jato team charged him with embezzling government funds and using them to support a daughter he had fathered via an extramarital affair with a journalist. Although his case is yet to reach a conclusion and he denies all charges, a federal judge ordered Calheiros to resign, on the grounds that one cannot be in line for the presidency (as head of the senate he is second in line until Temer appoints his own vice) while being under federal investigation. Calheiros spurned the judge’s order, insisting he would stay right where he was. His refusal sets an alarmingly dangerous precedent – that lawmakers can simply evade and defy the rulings of Brazil’s judiciary, in blatant contravention to the separation of powers principle ingrained in the country’s constitution. The same judge, Justice Marco Aurelio Mello, described Calheiros’ defiance as “inconceivable” and “grotesque”. Calheiros, however, knew he had the tacit support of President Temer, who needs him in the senate to help push through his economic agenda – if Calheiros were to fall, Jorge Viana, a senator from the leftist Worker’s Party and a key ally of the ousted president Dilma, would take over as head of the senate and would no doubt give Temer more resistance to his austerity legislation. After a tense exchange of ever more trenchant rhetoric between the Senate office and the judiciary, the case went to the Supreme Court, who softened Judge Mello’s ruling, allowing Calheiros to remain at his post but still forbidding him from ascending to the presidency in the (not unlikely) event that Temer is forced to resign.

Renan Calheiros, the president of the Brazilian Senate.
Renan Calheiros, the president of the Brazilian Senate.

With Cunha and Calheiros both brought to heel, it became clear firstly that the Lava Jato had no intention of closing shop just because Dilma was gone, and, secondly, that no politician was too powerful to be beyond their reach. Those two facts simultaneously overjoyed the Brazilian populace, and terrified the rest of the political elite. It got to the point where almost every day another politician was charged with some form of fraud or corruption and dragged (sometimes literally kicking and screaming) to a federal prison. But Brazilian politicians are a shrewd and wily bunch, and they were not about to just sit back and wait for the maw of justice to close around them. Something had to be done.

The first was that, just after Temer formally took office, the senate very quietly passed a measure granting executive branches of government much more leeway over budgetary adjustments. The blandly named Law 13.322 allows state and federal administrations to increase spending on a particular budget item, beyond what was originally planned, as long as they took the extra funds from another area of the budget. The Brazilian constitution is in general pretty strict about ensuring that government spending sticks to its planned budget and does not deviate from the amounts defined therein. This law would ease some of those restrictions, and, recognizing that economic priorities can change as events unfold, gives governments much more flexibility to adapt spending to meet changing demand. It all sounds quite sensible, but what is rather peculiar about this measure is that it is this practice – namely, unilaterally borrowing from one part of the budget to add more funds somewhere else without legislative approval – that this same Senate impeached Dilma for just one week prior. Moreover it was Dilma’s administration who originally proposed Law 13.322; had it passed when she was in office, there would have been no grounds for impeachment at all. This is not to excuse the fact that what Dilma did was at the time legally dubious, but it does make one wonder what these senators were thinking when they so piously railed against Dilma’s financial imprudence and corruption, if they were going to make what she did legal just one week after. The answer of course, is that these politicians are now desperately trying, ex post facto, to patch the gaping hole in their argument, which is that these accounting tricks, while not completely above bar, had been used, and are still being used, all around Brazil at all levels of government. To be consistent, Dilma’s opponents would have to also throw out all the state governors who did the exact same thing. A lot of those governors are friends or political allies of theirs, so they don’t want to do that. The only solution, therefore, is to be inconsistent, and hurriedly try to shield their comrades from suffering the same fate they just leveled against Dilma.

Having patched the hole they had pushed Dilma through, Brazil’s congressmen then moved to stymie the Lava Jato investigation. While the country was distracted mourning the death of an entire football team in an airplane crash, Brazil’s lower house frantically rewrote an anti-corruption bill to introduce penalties against judges said to have abused their power. They didn’t mention him by name, but the obvious target of the measure was Sergio Moro, the regional judge who is spearheading the Lava Jato investigations. Critics of the bill warn it would “erode the independence of the judiciary.” The chamber also edited the law to maintain certain statute of limitations which will ensure that many of their corrupt members will avoid jail time. The end result would be to make Lava Jato toothless. In response, Brazilians have taken to streets yet again in protest, many of them donning banners proclaiming support for Sergio Moro.

Judge Sergio Moro, the man spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, is seen as a national hero by many Brazilians. Critics say he is overstepping his authority.
Judge Sergio Moro, the man spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, is seen as a national hero by many Brazilians. Critics say he is overstepping his authority.

And that’s where we are now. Brazilian politics continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, with an overall mood that is at once both depressing and terrifying. There are a troublingly growing number of calls for a return to military rule, as well as serious threats of secession from southern states in the country. Having managed to keep its image together for the Summer Olympics, Brazil has hit turbulence again, and is still plagued by economic stagnation. Cynicism, especially about politics, is as Brazilian as football and cachaça, and this year has only reinforced that. I hope that 2017 gives the people of this wondrous country reason to buck that tradition.

Reflections on the political crisis in Brazil

Notwithstanding Brazil’s position as the seventh largest economy and fifth most populous nation on Earth, its political crisis of late has received relatively little attention in the foreign press – or, at least, in the American and British press I follow. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that both countries are fixated on their own respective political dramas: the US its presidential election, and the UK its upcoming referendum on  EU membership. Journalists and commentators have precious little ink to spare on the domestic turmoils of a ‘developing’ country, many thousands of miles away – not when they could be agonizing over the latest Trump or Farage gaffe for their readers.

Continue reading

On Gaza

Amidst the war of words raging on in the media regarding the recent Gaza war, supporters of each side have tended to distill their vocal support into a handful of oft-repeated phrases. Having ready-to-go, prepackaged phrases like these make it easy to shore up support for your side, since people tend to think that if something is said often and loud enough, it must have at least some degree of truth to it. But that is precisely what makes these platitudes particularly damaging: they become so common-place and so easy to regurgitate, that newcomers to the debate enthusiastically adopt them without considering the validity of their content. In fact, when someone brings one up, it is an almost sure sign that they don’t have any arguments of their own to use to defend their position and so have resorted to using one of these ‘off-the-shelf’ arguments instead. The wide proliferation and constancy of these points does nothing to shore up their validity.

These aphorisms (for that is what they have become) tend to be either unsound – that is, they rest on dubious or outright false claims of fact – or they are invalid – the facts that are assumed do not lead to the purported conclusion. In this post I focus on the invalidity of the claims, not because the factual nature of them is any less important, but because I find that disagreements on fact are more likely to grind to impasse, since the two sides arrive at a fundamental disagreement about what authority they can trust to get facts from. Of course, inevitably, I must make reference to some facts, but I hope for the most part that they are those which are less controversial.

The first, and most popular claim, is that of Israel’s right to self-defense. It is asserted that Israel’s invasion and bombardment of Gaza is a response to the bevy of rockets fired at Israel by Palestinian militants. This line of reasoning is often summed up in what has become the trite phrase “what would any other country do if they had thousands of rockets landing on their territory?” The point here is, apparently, that Israel’s use of force is not excessive nor disproportionate, given the nature of the threat they face.

First, it should not be asked, what would another government do? The only morally relevant question is what would another government be justified in doing. National governments quite frequently violate not only basic moral principles but also the set of international laws to which they claim to adhere. The fact that we live in a world of excessive state violence does not excuse or absolve the actions of any one instance of that excess.

Secondly, to ask the hypothetical is this way is incredibly misleading. Yes, if rockets were being fired, unprovoked, from a neighbouring country, a government would (perhaps) be right to do what it could to stop them. But that is not what is happening here. Palestinians are retaliating to and resisting ongoing Israeli occupation of what the international community has declared is their rightful territory. So that hypothetical can only begin to make sense if you also stipulate that the country against which rockets are being fired has established a blockade around their neighbouring country, with the declared intention of putting the inhabitants on a ‘diet’ – that is, controlling the flow of food and and supplies into the territory, and only allowing in the bare minimum for the people to survive. The (now going on) 7 year blockade of Gaza is a grotesque form of collective punishment, imposed on the Palestinians for committing the grave crime of voting the wrong way in a free and fair election. Israel has no right to defend this blockade, and it is the blockade that Palestinians are trying to erase.

Putting it another way, perhaps the most obvious answer here is to simply turn the rhetorical question on its head, whereupon it takes on real power: “what would any other people do if they were trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison, subject to periodic invasions and bombardments by the one of world’s most sophisticated militaries?”. The answer, of course, is that they would resist. That is the desperate choice the Palestinians in Gaza have to make: they can either die slowly and miserably under the siege, or die giving their last breath to lift the siege that has forced them to live in this prison. I don’t know which one I would choose, but I do know that the existential problem inherent in that awful choice is a far more wretched one than that faced by Israel, for which we are supposed to show understanding.

Turning now to the specific issue of the rockets. The targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants is a grave crime, and the innocent civilians of Israel should be lamented over no less than the innocent civilians of Gaza. But as a whole, the rockets are miserably ineffective – described by the Guardian as little more than ‘useless fireworks’. This is not to trivialize the very real state of fear in which residents of southern Israel live because of the rockets, but it is to put them in perspective: four civilians (three Israeli citizens and one Thai national) were killed by rockets in the most recent attack. Over the same period, more than 1400 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli warplanes and tank shells. So if we are to condemn Hamas for inducing a state of terror among Israelis, we must condemn 300 times over the IDF for the much stronger state of terror it imposes on the Palestinians.

People here will be quick to point out that it is the intention of Hamas militants to kill many more civilians, and that were it not for Israel’s Iron Dome system, which intercepted some rockets, many more civilians would be killed. I will come to the issue of ‘intention’ later, but with respect to the alleged efficacy of Iron Dome, it is worth pointing out that in the 2008-09 war, before Iron Dome was deployed, a similar number of civilians, namely 3, were killed. Either Iron Dome is not as effective as is claimed or (more likely) comparisons between the two scenarios are statistically meaningless precisely because the number of deaths in both cases is so small.

The next claim we hear is that Hamas uses its civilians as ‘human shields’ and that this tactic is what explains the large amount of civilian deaths on the Palestinian side. The blood of innocent Palestinians, it is said, is on the hands of Hamas, since they deliberately store rockets in Palestinian homes, knowing that Israel will bomb them, and that the resultant loss of innocent life will elicit sympathy for their cause. This argument is nothing more than a perverse form of victim blaming, and shows to what ludicrous depths the masters of war have to stoop in order to try to defend the indefensible. It is always and everywhere wrong to kill civilians, and when such a crime is committed, responsibility rests solely with the perpetrator of the crime. Hamas did not induce Israel to kill the four boys playing on the Gaza beach, nor did it induce Israel to drop bombs on hospitals and power plants throughout the Gaza strip. When families are killed in their homes at night, they tell us it is their fault for staying in their homes. Where are these people supposed to go? Putting aside the fact that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, where is anyone supposed to go when their land is under siege and being bombarded from above. A UN shelter? How would that have turned out?

I use the phrase ‘victim blaming’ quite deliberately, because it is also the tactic deployed to try to excuse or mitigate accusations of rape. It is tragic that she was raped, they say, but maybe she shouldn’t have been in that neighbourhood to begin with, when she knew it was dangerous; or maybe she shouldn’t have been wearing that outfit, or drinking those drinks. These (feebly transparent) attempts to shift blame from where it ought to reside serve only to confirm how distant from any consistent moral position apologists for crimes such as these have to go. It is a double injustice, since it first excuses the perpetrator, and, second, blames the victim herself!

It is also worth pointing out that to say that these resistance groups hide amongst the population is sort of a red herring: the resistance is the population. Hamas doesn’t have an army – they have fighters, drawn from the people in Gaza who have decided – incorrectly and unjustly, in my view, but nevertheless have decided –  that they must use violence to bring about some respite from the occupation under which they live. Just as the Vietcong in Vietnam, or the FLN in Algeria, or the Communist resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe, they are fighting to expel foreign forces from their land.

Now, those who don’t go so far as to try to blame deaths of Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves will still retort: well, the difference is Israel does not intend to kill civilians, whereas Hamas does. As Sam Harris put it, regarding the killing of civilians in Gaza “we know that this isn’t the general intent of Israel. We know the Israelis do not want to kill non-combatants, because they could kill as many as they want, and they’re not doing it.” We have to ask ourselves, however, what constitutes an intention. In so far as we cannot read minds and divine their ‘true intention’, we must accept that the inevitable and forseeable consequences of an individual’s action constitute an intention. Suppose as an act of malice you decide to set fire to part of the house of someone you don’t like. You don’t want to kill them – in fact, perhaps you believe them to be out of town – but you do want to commit serious damage. But then it turns out that the fire gets out of control, and that an entire family is sleeping inside, who all perish. Well, when you are subsequently brought before a magistrate, you cannot, at that point claim, well look, I didn’t intend to injure anyone with my act. Why not? Because the inevitable and foreseeable consequences of setting fire to a house is that you will injure someone. Once you choose to commit that action, it is not up to you what happens, so it is morally meaningless what you intended to happen. How does this relate to the conflict? Well, when you fire tank shells into the middle of a crowded city, it is again, irrelevant what your true intention was, because the inevitable and foreseeable consequences of your action is that you will kill civilians living there. The philosopher Hegel had this exact idea in mind when he gave his approval to the phrase, “The stone belongs to the devil when it leaves the hand that threw it.” If you throw a stone near a window, you may not intend, nor indeed actually cause, any damage. But the risk of serious damage is clearly there and it is no good to disown that risk when it comes to fruition.

Inevitably following on the heels of this talk about which side has the worse ‘intention’ comes the issue of the Hamas Charter, and it is this issue to which I would now like to turn. The Hamas Charter is an abhorrent, contemptible document, full of vicious language and hateful claims resting on total falsehoods about the world. It is also true that the people who most often reference this document are not Hamas members themselves, but Israeli supporters. They use it to try to show how monstrous Hamas are, since the more monstrous they can depict Hamas as being, the more justified they feel they can be in confining all Gazans to live in a constant state of imprisonment. It is entirely overlooked, of course, that the majority of Gazans today were not even alive when the charter was written and that Hamas itself has not officially adopted the charter as part of its political programme since it won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Those facts must be irrelevant, since they don’t fit the desired narrative of US-Israel apologists.

And while we are scrutinizing political charters, we would do well to look at that of Likud, the governing political party in Israel. The Likud Platform of 1999 (written much more recently than the Hamas charter) “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” So it denies the right of the Palestinian state to exist, just as the Hamas charter denies Israel that right. The crucial difference, of course, is that unlike Hamas, the Likud party doesn’t just confine that rejectionist idea to an old piece of paper – they actually act on it. They are carrying out that policy in the West Bank: with the construction of the West Bank wall, in gross violation of international law, and the expansion of the illegal settlements, the Israeli government is slowly dismantling any idea of a Palestinian state. These actions deny the Palestinians a right to statehood much more than Hamas’ charter could ever do to Israeli statehood.

The next objection we hear, and the final one I will address in this post, is about the disproportionate media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many more people are dying in other conflicts around the world, it is said, and yet we focus so much attention on Israel. Isn’t that indicative (they say) of a prejudice? The idea that a state or group should be exempt from criticism simply because other states commit similar or worse crimes is an argument we would do well not to dignify with a response. But there is a more salient point here that is worth spending time on: what makes Israeli crimes so deserving of attention is that every single one of them is enabled by the support, diplomatic and financial, of the United States. The US funds Israel to the tune of $3 billion per year. We provide them with the weapons used to enforce the occupation. Whenever a UN resolution calls upon Israel to settle the conflict based on international law, it is the US which vetoes it, providing Israel with a diplomatic shield under which it can continue to annex Palestinian territory. It is no exaggeration to say that Israel could not do what it is currently doing without the support of the United States, which therefore makes us complicit in every one of those crimes.

There will, of course, always be an inexhaustible supply of specious arguments that apologists for state terror will use in order to try to justify themselves. I have tried here to address what I have found to be the most widely disseminated ones, in the hopes of preventing people from falling for this kind of sophistry.