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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Palestine - Burma - USA -- Liberty? Class War!

Worse Than Apartheid

Blood-stained Gaza street

Water mixes with blood in a street of the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun in this Nov. 8 file photo. Israeli tank shells landed in a residential neighborhood, killing at least 18 people in their sleep, including eight children, according to witnesses and hospital officials.

In the latter half of 2006 Israel has been unleashing missiles, attack helicopters and jet fighters over the densely packed concrete hovels in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army has made numerous deadly incursions, and some 500 people, nearly all civilians, have been killed and 1,600 more wounded. Israel has rounded up hundreds of Palestinians, destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, including its electrical power system and key roads and bridges, carried out huge land confiscations, demolished homes and plunged families into a crisis that has caused widespread poverty and malnutrition.

Civil society itself—and this appears to be part of the Israeli plan—is unraveling. Hamas and Fatah factions battle in the streets, despite a tenuous cease-fire, threatening civil war. And the governing Palestinian movement, Hamas, has said it will boycott early elections called by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, done with the blessing of the West in a bid to toss Hamas out of power. (Remember that Hamas, despite its repugnant politics, was democratically elected.) In recent days armed groups loyal to Abbas have seized Hamas-run ministries in what looks like a coup.

The stark reality of Gaza, however, has failed to penetrate the consciousness of most Americans, who, when they notice the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, prefer to debate the merits of the word “apartheid” in former President Jimmy Carter’s new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” It is a sad commentary on the gutlessness of the U.S. press and the timidity of the Democratic opposition that most Americans are not aware of the catastrophic humanitarian crisis they bear so much responsibility in creating. Palestinians are not only dying, their olive trees uprooted, their farmland and homes destroyed and their aquifers taken away from them, but on many days they can’t move because of Israeli “closures” that make basic tasks, like buying food and going to the hospital, nearly impossible. These Palestinians, after decades of repression, cannot return to land from which they were expelled. The 140-plus U.N. votes to censure Israel and two Security Council resolutions—both vetoed by the United States—are blithly ignored. Is it any wonder that the Palestinians, gasping for air, rebel as the walls close in around them, as their children go hungry and as the Israelis turn up the violence?

Palestinians in Gaza live encased in a squalid, overcrowded ghetto, surrounded by the Israeli military and a massive electric fence, unable to leave or enter the strip and under daily assault. The word “apartheid,” given the wanton violence employed against the Palestinians, is tepid. This is more than apartheid. The concerted Israeli attempts to orchestrate a breakdown in law and order, to foster chaos and rampant deprivation, are on public display in the streets of Gaza City, where Palestinians walk past the rubble of the Palestinian Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Economy, the office of the Palestinian prime minister and a number of educational institutions that have been bombed by Israeli jets. The electricity generation plant, providing 45 percent of the electricity of the Gaza Strip, has been wiped out, and even the primitive electricity networks and transmitters that remain have been repeatedly bombed. Six bridges linking Gaza City with the central Gaza Strip have been blown up and main arteries cratered into obliteration. And the West Bank is rapidly descending into a crisis of Gaza proportions. The juxtaposition of what is happening in Gaza and what is being debated on the U.S. airwaves about a book that is little more than a basic primer on the conflict reinforces the impression most outside our gates have of Americans living in a distorted, bizarre reality of our own creation.

What do Israel and Washington believe they will gain by turning Gaza and the West Bank into a miniature version of Iraq? How do they think people who are desperate, deprived of hope, dignity and a way to make a living, under attack from one of the most technologically advanced armies on the planet, will respond? Do they believe that creating a Hobbesian nightmare for the Palestinians will blunt terrorism, curb suicide attacks and foster peace? Do they not see that the rest of the Middle East watches the slaughter in horror and rage—its angry, disenfranchised young men and women determined to overcome feelings of impotence and humiliation, even at the cost of their own lives?

And perhaps they do see and understand all this. Israel and Washington probably do get the recruiting value of this repression for Islamic militants. But these Israeli attacks, despite the rage and violence they breed against Israelis and against us, also create conditions so intolerable that Palestinians can no longer reside on their land. More than 160,000 civil servants have not received full salaries for almost nine months. These government employees support families that number more than a million Palestinians. And a United Nations report states that more than two-thirds of Palestinians are now living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is more than 50 percent. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry says 10,000 Palestinians have emigrated in the last four months and almost 50,000 others have applied to leave.

Israel, with no restraints from Washington, despite the Iraq Study Group report recommendations that the peace process be resurrected from the dead, has been given the moral license by the Bush administration to carry out what is euphemistically in Israel called “transfer” and what in other parts of the world is called ethnic cleansing. Faced with a demographic time bomb, knowing that by 2020 Jews will make up only 40 to 46 percent of the overall population of Israel, the architects of transfer, who once held the equivalent status in Israeli society of the Ku Klux Klan, have wormed their way into positions of power in the Israeli government.

Washington and Israel, I suspect, know the cost of this repression. But it is beginning to appear as though they accept it—as the price for ridding themselves of the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has installed in his Cabinet a politician who openly calls for the expulsion of the some 1.3 million Israeli Arabs who live inside Israel. Avigdor Lieberman’s “Israel Is Our Home” Party, part of Olmert’s governing coalition, proposes involuntary transfer in a region populated mostly by Arab citizens of Israel, shifting those people to a future Palestinian state that would include Gaza, parts of the West Bank and a small slice of northern Israel. All Israeli Arabs who continued to reside in the territory of transfer would automatically lose their Israeli citizenship unless they took a loyalty oath to the state and its Jewish symbols. The inclusion of Lieberman, the David Duke of Israel, into the Cabinet is an indication to most Palestinians that the worst is yet to come.

The debate over Jimmy Carter’s book, one that dishes up a fair number of Israeli myths about itself and states a reality that is acknowledged even by most Israelis, misses the point. The question is not whether Israel practices apartheid. Apartheid is a fond dream for most Palestinians. The awful question is rather will Israel be able to unleash a policy so draconian and cruel that it will obliterate a community that has lived on this land for centuries. There are other, far more loaded words for what is happening to the Palestinians. One shudders to repeat them. But unchecked, unstopped, the current wave of violence and abuse meted out to the Palestinians will echo down the corridors of history as one of the greatest moral and tactical blunders of the early part of this century, one that will boomerang on Israel and on us, bringing to our own doorsteps the evil we have allowed to be delivered to the narrow alleys and refugee camps in Gaza. When it was only apartheid, we had some hope.

Beyond Rangoon: Stories Beneath the Surface of Myanmar Reporting


As all eyes turn to Myanmar with brutal crackdowns by the military junta (including reports of a Japanese reporter murdered and school children being fired upon), international condemnations, speculation of a "saffron revolution," and China caught between a policy of noninterference and brutal crackdown on its borders that could turn into a public relations disaster, there are stories at the micro-political level that deserve to be highlighted for the inspiration they might offer.

First, the role that technology has played in both mobilizing and broadcasting this information to the rest of the world through cell phones and the internet. News reports abound on the process of gathering reports in Myanmar as much as the actual reports of the brutal crackdowns by the military junta. The Democratic Voice of Burma has been praised for its role at the helm of collecting, hosting, and distributing information from the myriad of reports electronically smuggled out of the country. Despite the internet crackdown which The New York Times The Lede is reporting on, information is still apears to be making its way through to blogs like Global Voices and the Cbox aggregator of on-the-ground reports.

Just like the protests against a chemical plant organized by text messages in China a few months ago, this is not the story of technological triumphalism, but rather, of little victories that are applying pressures and compelling governments and international actors to move in certain, sometimes constructive ways.

The second story that needs be told (and I hope gets reported on more) is the bonds of solidarity formed between the monks and local residents. The lead editorial of the Asahi Shimbun reads:
Sharp increases in the prices of gasoline and other items on Aug. 15 sparked the demonstrations. The price hikes caused bus fares and other fees to soar, hitting the pocketbooks of ordinary citizens. Monks who rely on alms stood up in protest on behalf of the citizens. (...)

In Myanmar, it is customary for men to enter the priesthood at least once during their lifetime. As writer Michio Takeyama (1903-1984) described in his novel "Biruma no Tategoto" (The Harp of Burma), Buddhism is the spiritual mainstay of the people. The fact that monks, who distance themselves from mundane affairs, stood up in protest shows just how precarious everyday civilian life has become.

In return, DVB is reporting that local residents of all religions have been defending Bhuddist monks and thwarting attacks on monasteries, which have been targeted by the military:

In Rangoon, troops encountered resistance from local residents as they approached Sasana Alin Yaung, Sanana Wuntha and Min Nanda monasteries in Daw Pon and Tharkayta townships.

At Min Nanda monastery, which backs on to Pazuntaung creek, troops tried to approach from both land and water but retreated when they saw the strength of local resistance.

"There were not only Buddhist people but also Muslims, Christians and Hindus defending the monasteries," said a resident of Tharkayta township.

A similar story has been played out in other townships in Burma, as residents take action to resist government raids on monasteries.

Despite the much ballyhooed cedar, rose, and orange revolutions that turned out to be far more complex power struggles rather than purely democratic revolutions, there appears to be something qualitatively different about what is happening in Myanmar right now -- a much more organic galvanization of the population -- though I think we lack sufficient information to substantiate it. Nevertheless, the accounts above should provide sufficient cause to hope that a new social contract will arise out the battle unfolding in the country.

--Sameer Lalwani

US prison population at all time high

By Naomi Spencer
29 September 2007

The “war on terror” is endlessly peddled by the American political establishment as a crusade for freedom and liberty around the world. Yet, as the latest prison figures again demonstrate, far from representing freedom, justice and democracy, the United States is notorious for its propensity to jail its own population.

The US incarcerates a far higher percentage of its population than any other country, with its prison population accounting for fully a quarter of the world’s prisoners. In 2006, newly released Census Bureau data indicate, the US incarcerated population stood at 2.1 million. According to separate figures put out by the Justice Department, by June 30, 2006, the prison population stood at well over 2.2 million.

No other country in the world comes close to these numbers. The far more populous China ranks second, with a prison population of approximately 1.5 million. The number of incarcerated persons in the US now exceeds the population of all but three cities in the country, and is equivalent to the combined populations of Seattle, Boston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

The number of inmates held in US state and federal prisons in 2006 was more than double the 1990 prison population, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project estimates that in 2006, one in every 133 Americans was in prison or jail. Excluding the child population from the total brings this ratio close to one in every 100 adults behind bars.

Minorities continue to make up an enormously disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated. Approximately 41 percent of the adult correctional population were black in 2006, and 19 percent were Hispanic. One in every nine black men between the ages of 25 and 29 were incarcerated in 2006, as were one in 26 Hispanic and one in 59 white men of the same age group. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, black men have a one in three chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic men have a 17 percent chance; white men have a 6 percent chance.

The Census survey also found an increase of the female incarcerated population. As a percentage of the total prison population, women increased from 8 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2006.

Since the late 1970s, the prison population has increased sixfold, and the number of people on probation or parole has also skyrocketed. The overall correctional population (either in prison or on parole) has grown during this time from 1.8 million to well over 7 million people. Another 4.3 million ex-convicts live in the US. The total population of the United States is approximately 300 million.

The figures from the Justice Department and Census measure the number of prisoners at any given time. However, during the course of one year, a far larger number of people spend at least some time behind bars. According to the 2007 Public Safety Performance review by the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 600,000 people are admitted to state and federal prisons, and more than 10 million spend time in local jails, over the course of any given year.

Driving this increase in prisoners has been a shift from rehabilitative to punitive “tough on crime” policies. The incarceration rate increased dramatically beginning in the early 1990s, in tandem with a drastic growth in inequality and the dismantling of social programs. While the rich amass ever-higher concentrations of wealth, social infrastructure and economic opportunities have deteriorated.

The crumbling of industry, education, healthcare and drug rehabilitation programs in America finds its consequences in all the social ills plaguing society’s poorest layers—unemployment, debt, despair, addiction, homelessness—and gives rise to domestic disturbances, theft, and property and drug crimes. The response of the ruling elite to these problems is more prisons.

Another unsurprising consequence of this economic polarization has been an increasingly aggressive policing of minor crimes. State legislatures have enacted laws that have removed much of the judicial system’s ability to make independent decisions outside of severe sentencing laws. Drug possession, child support non-payment, shoplifting, and other various minor offenses catch more of the poor in “three-strikes laws,” which mandate long sentences for repeat offenders.

At the same time, funding has been redirected away from public defense and rehabilitation programs and toward prosecution and punishment. Even as violent crime has dropped over the past decade, longer and more rigid mandatory sentences for non-violent offenses have resulted in the huge growth in incarceration.

As Allen Beck, deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, told the Washington Post, “The growth wasn’t really about increasing crime but how we chose to respond to crime. When you increase the likelihood of a person going to prison for a conviction, and then you increase how long you keep them there, it has a profound effect.”

According to a new report from The Sentencing Project, drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, to a record 1.8 million arrests in 2005. The so-called war on drugs has pushed the number of incarcerated drug offenders up by 1,100 percent since 1980. During this same period, rates of drug use declined by half.

The overwhelming majority of drug arrests are for possession of marijuana, and most persons in prison for a drug offense have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity.

The racial disparity is enormous in drug sentencing as well. The Sentencing Project reports that while blacks constitute 14 percent of regular drug users in the US, they make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 56 percent of those held in state prison for drugs.

The number of prisoners held without being sentenced is also on the rise, according to the Justice Department figures. In 2006, 62 percent of jail inmates were awaiting trial, up from 51 percent in 1990 and 56 percent in 2000. Most were arrested on drug offenses.

The number of prisoners held in private, for-profit facilities rose by more than 10 percent in one year. This represents a dramatic leap in the growth of the for-profit prison industry that dovetails with the growth of police state measures at large. The prison industry—the network of private companies that operate the prison system—now has annual revenues of approximately $40 billion a year.

Virtually all of these prisons are horrifically overcrowded. State prisons were operating at 99 to 113 percent of capacity, and the federal prison system was operating at 134 percent of capacity. This compounds the dangers and brutality of prison life. Inmates are exposed to physical and sexual assault, and put at risk for diseases such as HIV/AIDS or developing mental illness.

See Also:
Massive US prison population continues to grow
[7 December 2006]
US prison population continues to soar in 2005
[5 June 2006]
US: record numbers in prison and on parole
[3 August 2004]

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