Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sharon-Abbas summit ends in deadlock

I'm not saying I'm surprised, but I am still disappointed. Every talk boils down to how the Palestinians have failed to curb violence despite what the Israelis may have done. What really amazes me is how Sharon is increasingly going against what the US wants - in this case, Secretary Rice had pressed for substantive agreements but to no avail. History repeats itself but it doesn't look like the US governments ever learn - I have a feeling that our blind support for Israel will come to haunt us one day just as some of our other past actions have....

From The Guardian:

A rare meeting between Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, ended in deadlock yesterday after the Israeli prime minister said there could be no political progress, or even gestures, "so long as terrorism continues".

The Palestinians described the first meeting of the two men since February's ceasefire declaration as "difficult" after the Israeli prime minister said "this is not the time for concessions" following a series of attacks by armed Palestinian factions that have killed two people, and a failed attempt to send a female suicide bomber to blow up an Israeli hospital.

At the beginning of the talks, a microphone picked up Mr Sharon telling Mr Abbas: "We are still taking casualties."

Mr Abbas appealed for practical concessions that would bolster his support among Palestinians increasingly sceptical about the real intent of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza this summer and the value of cooperation with Mr Sharon.

He also called for Israel to fulfil a commitment made in February to withdraw from five Palestinian cities, to lift roadblocks that restrict travel through the West Bank and to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

The Palestinian leader also appealed for a return to peace negotiations shortly after Israel completes its Gaza withdrawal, and demanded an end to the continued expansion of Jewish settlements.

Mr Sharon said he is prepared to hand over control of two Palestinian towns, Bethlehem and Qalqilya, to release some prisoners and to grant an additional 39,000 permits for Palestinians to work or trade in Israel in an effort to ease economic hardship. Israel also said the international airport and sea port in the Gaza strip might be permitted to reopen once Jewish settlers had left.

But Mr Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said it was all conditional on the Palestinian leadership doing more to "end terror", including disarming armed groups.

"None of this can be accomplished as long as terrorism continues to run rampant, as long as the Palestinian Authority does not take the steps necessary to stop terrorism," Mr Gissin said. "It is not only Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] who has problems. If the public does not support [Mr Sharon's] plan, the whole thing will fail."

Mr Sharon said continuing Palestinian attacks, led by Islamic Jihad, are helping to weaken public support for the Gaza pullout.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, who also attended the talks, said the meeting achieved little."There were no positive answers to the issues we raised," he said.

Hours before the summit Israeli forces arrested 52 Islamic Jihad activists in its first big sweep against the organisation since the ceasefire declaration.

Israel's defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, said the military would no longer show "restraint" toward the armed Islamist group because the Palestinian Authority had been "ineffectual" in confronting it.

"When we found out that the Islamic Jihad was carrying out acts of terror and wasn't adhering to the truce ... then there was no choice but to take resolute action," he said.

But Mr Abbas's national security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, said Mr Sharon's unwillingness to make further concessions was complicating the Palestinian Authority's attempts to rein in the armed factions. "Without help, without cooperation from the Israeli side, without the Israeli side treating him as a partner, as a neighbour, I do not think [Mr Abbas] can do anything," he said.

Israel is demanding that Islamic Jihad, Hamas and similar groups be confronted and disarmed. Mr Abbas has sought to draw them into the political process by offering the prospect of electoral legitimacy in return for abandoning the armed struggle.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

G8 for Dummies

Since there has been so much talk about the upcoming G8 summit next month in Scotland, my organization has created an easy G8 for Dummies guide to explain what the G8 is & what the meeting will be about - enjoy!

What is the G8?

The G8 stands for the ‘Group of Eight,’ which is comprised of the world’s leading industrialized nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. It was initiated as the G6 in 1975 by the President of France, who convened a meeting with leaders from the U.S., UK, Germany, Japan and Italy to discuss the global issues of the day. Since then, it has grown to eight members and has become an informal but well-established group that meets every year to form a common agenda for tackling the world’s most formidable challenges. It is not a legal body and has no formal rules or procedures. Since the United Kingdom holds the rotating presidency of the G8 this year, the Summit is scheduled to be held in Perthshire, Scotland, from July 6-8.

Why is the G8 important?

In today’s interconnected world, threats are not confined to national borders and require national, regional and global approaches to solve problems. The G8 Summits provide a forum for the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries to meet and discuss how to work together on issues such as terrorism, non-proliferation, poverty, disease, trade, and climate change.

What is on the G8 agenda for this year?

In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has designated three main agenda items for this year’s G8 Summit: debt relief, increasing aid to Africa, and climate change.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed to in September, 2000, are ambitious but attainable targets for the year 2015 in the global effort to address poverty, hunger, disease, and other development challenges. In the report he published in March, Secretary General Kofi Annan emphasized that “humanity will not enjoy development without security, or security without development.” The Secretary General has long held that countries must commit 0.7% of their gross national incomes in order to achieve the MDGs. Donor countries reaffirmed their commitment to increase their Official Development Assistance (ODA) at the 2002 Financing for Development conference in Monterrey.

Increasing aid to Africa:

Of the 20 poorest countries in the world, 18 are in Africa. Prime Minister Blair has urged G8 members to double aid to Africa to help people on the continent lift themselves out of poverty, an effort he calls the moral challenge of our time for all of us. The world is too small for us to ignore the impact of poverty around the world on the U.S. Trans-border threats such as terrorism, disease, and illegal drugs flourish in countries where lawlessness and despair prevail. Helping responsible governments get stronger and offering their people hope for a better future is a smart investment in our security.

U.S. position: The Bush Administration has incrementally increased aid to Africa but has refused to match the commitment level of our G8 partners or a level sufficient to achieve the MDGs.

Investing in Debt relief:

Another item at the forefront of the agenda is investing in debt relief. Many poor countries spend more in interest on old loans from foreign governments and banks than on health and education for their own people.

Canceling loans for countries that are committed to good policies and responsible governance can make a huge difference. For example, $3 billion in debt relief is helping Tanzania send 1.6 million children to school. Its neighbor, Uganda, used the money it saved through debt relief to make primary education free for every child, which it couldn’t afford before.

On June 11, G8 finance ministers agreed to write off $40 billion in debt owed by 18 of the world's poorest countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. With more resources at their disposal, millions of Africans will be provided the right mix of tools and resources to invest in education, health care, jobs, businesses and economic stability.

U.S. position: The Bush Administration supports this initiative.

Climate change:

Scientists agree that human pollution of so-called greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide, is causing significant shifts in global climate patterns. These shifts are increasing the frequency and danger of extreme weather events, reducing agricultural output in certain areas, and causing sea levels to rise. Prime Minister Blair is one of many world leaders who recognize the grave threat that climate change poses to humanity.

In spite of U.S. opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, which all other G8 countries have ratified as a first response to the problem, Prime Minister Blair is attempting to forge a new consensus for a long-term agenda on climate change. He is offering a wide range of options for the discussion.

U.S. Position: The Bush Administration questions the importance of human activity in climate change and refuses to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. The Administration also invests very few resources in climate change research or technological solutions.

Other Issues:

Other agenda items taking lower priority at the G8 Summit include counterterrorism, non-proliferation, and following up on past G8 initiatives like the Broader Middle East.

Key Recommendations

· The United States should increase Official Development Assistance (ODA) substantially in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

· The Bush Administration should actively engage with the international community to develop a long-term, comprehensive strategy on climate change.

· The G8 agenda should address critical security and human rights issues that affect the course of sustainable development in Africa. These include Charles Taylor’s criminal activities in West Africa, human rights violations and democratic failures in Zimbabwe, the ongoing conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, and the crisis in Darfur.

· The U.S. should maintain a firewall between aid pledges and our commitment to debt relief.


Abizaid: Insurgency still strong

From the directly contradicted recent statements by the vice president and the secretary of defense. Canada's Globe and Mail reports that Gen. Abizaid "conceded yesterday that the Iraqi insurgency is as strong as it was six months ago, countering declarations by Vice President Dick Cheney that the revolt is 'in its last throes.' "

"In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I'd say it's about the same as it was," he said, declining to specifically criticize Mr. Cheney's upbeat assessment of the continuing conflict.

Gen. Abizaid also said that there are more foreign fighters entering Iraq today than there were six months ago. On Wednesday, a classified CIA document that was leaked to the media showed that the war in Iraq is becoming a urban warfare training ground for many of these foreign fighters. He also recently said there would be a surge in violence in Iraq, particularly against "soft targets" such as civilians and aid workers, as insurgents try to disrupt elections slated for September, but that the process would go ahead regardless of attacks.

When asked to explain the contradiction between his earlier statements and those of Gen. Abizaid. Mr. Cheney told CNN it all depends what you mean by "throes."

"If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution," he said. "The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand that if we're successful at accomplishing our objective – standing up a democracy in Iraq – that that's a huge defeat for them.

Abizaid raised another key issue - public support of the war in Iraq. The Boston Globe reports that he warned that troops are starting to worry about public support for the war. The general "implored political leaders to engage in a frank discussion about how to keep the country behind a mission that the armed forces believe is 'a war worth fighting.' "

A recent CNN poll shows that public support for the war it as low as it has ever been - 39 percent of Americans still believes the US should be fighting in Iraq. The Globe and Mail also reports that US politicans are starting to see evidence of this swing in support even in solidly "red" states.

"Public support in my state is turning," said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, part of the heartland of Bush support. "People are beginning to question. And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. We have a chronic problem on our hands."

Cheney, in Thursday's CNN interview, said the Bush administration doesn't "pay much attention" to poll showing support for the war fading.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other US military commanders tried to assure a fractious Congressional hearing that things are not all that bad in Iraq. The Detroit Free Press reports that Gen. George Casey, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, "told lawmakers that the insurgents represent 'less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the Iraqi population.' He expressed confidence that the insurgency would be defeated, although he added that the solution lay in the political process."

Rumsfeld and Gen. Casey say Iraqi troops now number 170,000, but declined to say how many have been fully trained. Rumsfeld also told the hearing that the US is "not losing the war in Iraq."

Salon writer Mark Benjamin details the "return of the body counts." For the first time in the Iraq war, and in direct contradiction to prior statements by top US military leaders, commanders in the field are now reporting the number of insurgents killed.

An extensive review of combat accounts from military commanders reveals that regular reporting of body counts appears to have begun with the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. US Marines' assault on the insurgent stronghold, launched immediately after the US presidential election, was considered critical to showing progress in the war. The Pentagon estimated 1,200 to 1,600 enemy fighters killed - though at the time the media noted a large and "mysterious" discrepancy in the body count reported following the battle.

If history offers any clue, counting dead insurgents is a misleading endeavor that can destroy trust in the Pentagon and ultimately lead to atrocities on the battlefield. During the Vietnam War, historians say, inflated body counts that sometimes included civilians shattered the Pentagon's credibility with the American people and undercut support for that war. Former soldiers from that era say that relying too much on body counts can drive soldiers in the field to commit atrocities in order to achieve a high number of kills – though there is no indication that is happening in Iraq.

The Guardian reports on a bold attack earlier this week by insurgents against Baghdad's largest police station, and the effect it had on inhabitants of the city.

Residents said their confidence in the government and security forces was severely dented. A rash of graffiti has spread across the area: "We will be back." One taxi driver, a Shia who loathes the mostly Sunni Arab resistance, shrugged. "Yes, they will."

Finally, CNN reports that a new poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that the image of the United States "is so tattered overseas two years after the Iraq invasion that communist China is viewed more favorably than the US in many long-time Western European allies." The polls were taken in 16 countries, including the US, from late April to the end of May with samples of about 1,000 people from each country.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

Why I have faith in the UN

When I tell people that I work on peacekeeping issues & UN Reform, they are impressed but many are also weary that the UN can be salvaged into an effective international institution for the 21st century. It irritates me but I can understand because before I started working for Citizens for Global Solutions five months ago, I felt the same way. But in some ways I have always believed in the UN, in international law & that in our interconnected world today, global problems require global solutions. The first time I heard Michael Jackson's Heal the World in Grade 5, I was moved to tears because I truly believed in the message of that song.

I call myself a realistic idealist because although I have a vision of a better & peaceful world, I am also very grounded in reality and work towards practical solutions for problems. That is why working on UN reform is so exciting - in March, Kofi Annan published a report called
In Larger Freedom where he proposed some groundbreaking proposals to for UN Reform – the most ambitious ones in the institution’s 60-year history.

These recommendations are now up for adoption by all the members during a summit in September. I have much hope that many of these amazing proposals will go through because over the past centuries, international law & norms have become more accepted as a norm. I'm not saying things are perfect right now and the genocide in Darfur, torture, and other human rights violations are examples of how much work still needs to be done. However, the fact that we can have the kind of debates about international law and sovereignty today is a huge step from where the world was even 10 or 20 years ago. My co-workers and I created an easy to read
Your Guide to UN Reform, so please check it out!

From the NY Times:

Going against President Bush's wishes, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a bill today that would withhold half the United States' dues to the United Nations unless the organization adopted significant internal changes.

The measure, passed by 221 to 184, is not necessarily close to final Congressional approval, since there is no companion bill pending in the Senate. Moreover, the margin in the House was far short of the two-thirds necessary to override a veto, should Mr. Bush choose to cast the first of his administration.

But the House action was significant enough that the administration tried hard to keep it from happening. President Bush has repeatedly said that reforms are needed in the United Nations, but he and his top aides have insisted that withholding Washington's dues from the organization would be counterproductive.

Critics in the administration and on Capitol Hill have expressed dismay over scandals like the one involving the oil-for-food program for Iraq that funneled money to Saddam Hussein and over rotating-membership rules that allow countries that abuse human rights to have seats on the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

The House bill approved today, which calls for the United Nations to comply with a long list of requirements by 2007 or face a loss of American funds, was sponsored by Representative Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and backed by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader.

"Let's begin real reform of the United Nations," Mr. Hyde said, envisioning "a long road ahead." Mr. DeLay said the ideals that marked the organization's founding 60 years ago now hover over it as "a reminder of its abject failure" and its decay into "a second-rate kleptocracy."
One of a handful of Republicans to oppose the measure, Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, said whatever corruption exists at the United Nations "is isolated, it is not endemic," and that most people who work for the organization are "honest and decent."

But the bill's supporters argued that conditions are much worse than that. "The American people today are underwriting rampant corruption," Mr. DeLay said.

Before voting for the final measure, the House rejected a proposal by Representative Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, that the secretary of state be allowed to withhold United States' dues, but not be required to do so. The vote on that proposal was 216 to 190.

The Hyde bill was backed by 213 Republicans and 8 Democrats. It was opposed by 176 Democrats, 7 Republicans and the House's sole independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Mr. Lantos's failed measure was supported by 180 Democrats, 9 Republicans and Mr. Sanders, and opposed by 211 Republicans and 5 Democrats.

The measure approved today is popular among conservatives. American dues to the United Nations total about $400 million a year, and State Department officials have expressed fear that refusing to pay them would cost Washington credibility. They say that is just what happened in the eyes of the world community when the United States withheld its dues for a time in the 1990's.

Despite the debate over how to change the United Nations, there is wide agreement that some changes are needed. A panel set up by Congress and headed by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, and George J. Mitchell, a former Democratic Senate leader, released a report on Wednesday calling for corporate-style auditing units and accounting reforms.

President Bush, who has challenged the United Nations to demonstrate that it is more than an ineffectual debating society, has cited a need for reform as a good reason to install John R. Bolton as the United States' next ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Bolton, a former under secretary of state who has been outspokenly critical of the organization, is to be considered by the Senate on Monday.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

Proud to be a Minnesotan!!

I always tell people I really don't have one home: I was born in the United Arab Emirates, but am not considered Emarati due to its legal code, my ancestry is Indian and my nationality is Tanzanian because of my parents. However, since I have come to the United States, I'm definitely comfortable calling it my home - Minnesota, in particular. I only lived in Minnesota for about 5 years, but I have experienced the Winter, went to college there, have been to the State Fair & Valley Fair and grieved the death of Paul Wellstone with fellow Minnesotans!

I'll never forget how proud I felt to be a Minnesotan on Election Day 2004 when we voted for John Kerry. I felt like wearing a button that said "Proud to be a Minnesotan!" And now that I live in DC, I'm even more defensive about the state especially when people make fun of me for calling soda "pop"! I may never return to Minnesota, but it changed my life in many ways & will always be my physical home because that's where my family is. Where will my future home be? Wherever my heart is...

From NY Times:

The swells who showed up before Al Franken's speech at a Democratic fund-raiser to down finger food and punch were thrilled to see him, all the more so because he continues to make threatening noises about running for the Senate here in 2008.

A former writer and performer for "Saturday Night Live" and more recently a radio host on Air America, Mr. Franken has used his outsider status to hurl humor-based invective and indignation at the powers that be, but he is considering becoming part of what he so frequently assails.

On Saturday evening he worked the crowd as if being accosted by strangers in a sweltering tent redolent of meatballs was his idea of a good time.

It can get mighty personal mighty fast for a native son whom everyone seems to know.

"I jumped ya twice in Thief River Falls," said a middle-age woman in greeting at the pre-speech party in a tent next to the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota here. The seeming inference of long-ago sexual congress would cause deep blushing elsewhere, but it actually meant that Faith Rud and Mr. Franken had bonded in a far more profoundly Minnesotan way: she had used jumper cables to revive his Volkswagen bus on a cold night long ago after a college gig.

Mr. Franken, who left Minnesota at age 22 but has made a habit of coming back frequently, has suggested he may move his radio show to the state sometime next year. His delivery manages to be caustic and laconic, an unhurried savaging of all that is conservative and Republican, all wrapped up to a trumpeted call to arms.

"In this country, we are going through a very dark period," he told his audience, "and someday your grandchildren are going to ask what you did, and you are going to tell them, 'I worked my butt off,' " he said, exhorting the audience to work to turn out the current administration. He is a public person who likes his public and enjoys a microphone. (He was heckled last week for going on too long while accepting an award from Talkers magazine.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura have already demonstrated that star power can create its own legitimacy in politics, but given Mr. Franken's penchant for going over the top and staying there, he may serve as a test of just how far a celeb-pol can go and still have a valid shot at being elected. A ferocious, unreconstructed liberal, he may show up for the troops as part of U.S.O. tours, but he believes that the war they are fighting is little more than a criminal conspiracy at the highest reaches of government. Mr. Franken can give a speech. He knows the issues. But could he be too partisan for politics?

"There is an intersection between humor and truth," said Sandra Yue, who attended the speech.

"He has a sincerity and commitment that I think people will respond to." Before and after the speech at the University of Minnesota here, many people thanked him for rushing back to Minnesota after Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash to campaign for Walter F. Mondale as the senator's successor. The effort failed, and Norman Coleman, a Republican, ended up in the Senate. Mr. Franken and others believe the seat rightfully belongs to the Democrats.

"Aren't you sick of Republican lectures about family values?" he said, mentioning Rush Limbaugh's battles with prescription drugs and Bill O'Reilly's alleged penchant for using the phone to titillating ends. (A sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Mr. O'Reilly was settled last year.)

The prospect of a comedian running for the office sparks belly laughs in some and genuine interest in others.

"Al is no better or no worse, no more or less qualified, that anyone else who has expressed interest in running in 2008, although that is a long way away," said John Van Hecke, campaign manager for the Minnesota House Democratic caucus. "Al says what a lot of people are thinking, but says it in a way that is a lot funnier than almost anyone."

A spokesman for Senator Coleman said that his office would not comment on a potential opponent in a race that is a few years away.

Mr. Franken continues to hedge his bets, partly because Air America seems to be gaining some traction.

"I am not sure that I am running yet," he said, sitting in the concert hall's green room before his appearance. "Part of the calculus is where the radio show goes. I don't want to leave them in the lurch."

There would not seem to be much of a fit between Mr. Franken and his re-adopted home state. Minnesota Nice, as it is called, means that when the woman serving coffee at Caribou, the local doppelgänger of Starbucks, asks how you are doing, she really wants to know. Although Mr. Franken is affable and sports a backpack jammed with wonky articles and books, he is not exactly Minnesota Nice. His last book was titled "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," and he spends enormous amounts of time on his three-hour radio show truth-squading and savaging various people on the right.

Then again, Minnesota is a place of enormous, and not easily explained, contradictions. A place where lions of the Democratic party - Hubert H. Humphrey and Eugene J. McCarthy - once strode the earth, it takes voting very seriously, with a 79 percent turnout in the 2004 general election. Yet in 1998 it elected a professional wrestler to run the state. Minnesotans, who show up in droves at the state fair to marvel at seed art and butter sculptures but also show up en masse at the legitimate theater, are their own darn thing. So frequently cast as droll practitioners of the art of common sense, they have displayed some fairly atavistic tendencies, electing Mr. Ventura out of nowhere as both a slap and a jolt to the system. In their own quiet way, they remain mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore.

On Saturday the crowd of about 500 Minnesotans was hungry for Grade A red meat with a side of invective, and Mr. Franken did not disappoint. He pointed out that he had been married for 30 years and said, "If I get in a debate with Norm Coleman, I plan on asking him, 'Don't you want two people to have what you and your wife have?' " He paused as the roar grew in acknowledgement of the fact that Senator Coleman and his wife, Laurie, spend significant amounts of time apart because of her acting career.

The laughter filled Mr. Franken with glee, but in the next moment, he choked up while talking about touring with the U.S.O. He is surprisingly raw, breaking down when he mentions his father and, minutes later, screaming with indignation when he talks about money that has gone missing that was intended for redevelopment in Iraq. In that sense he is not remarkably different from Senator Wellstone, known to rattle a lectern with his sheer volume.

"I'd like to think that somebody like me, who says what he thinks and gets his facts right, has a place in politics," Mr. Franken said much later on Saturday, sitting in the Brave New Workshop comedy club on the south side of Minneapolis, where he started performing while in high school.

Mr. Franken grew up in St. Louis Park, a Minneapolis suburb, and was admitted to Blake, a competitive and expensive prep school, because, he said, "they needed some Jews to get their SAT scores up."

Minnesotans, as Garrison Keillor has pointed out, are plenty smart in general, just not too fond of showing it off. They are more than willing to invite a prodigal back to the potluck supper that is life here, and to lampoon their own cartoonish dimensions at the same time. At the end of Mr. Franken's speech, he received a thunderous ovation - and a special gift from Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Democratic state representative from Minneapolis.

She presented him with a Crock-Pot, along with some advice: "Nothing says 'I care' quite like wild-rice hot dish for the neighbors."


Sunday, June 12, 2005


It's the sense of any other city you walk ya know, you brush past people. People bump into you. In LA, no one touches you you're always behind some metal and glass...It's the touch I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other so that we can feel something..."

Last weekend, I went to watch the movie
CRASH with two of my friends - it stars Don Cheadle (from Hotel Rwanda), Sandra Bullock, Will Ferrel & others. The film is by Paul Haggis who was nominated at the Oscars for best screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. I have to say that it's one of the best movies I have ever watched. The film beautifully weaves tales of people of different races (African American, Iranian, Hispanic, Asian, white) in LA & during a period of 36 hours, their worlds collide. What I loved about the movie is how everybody holds prejudices towards a person of another race but none of them are really bad people. It shows how when we create our own worlds & refuse to go beyond our comfort zones, we make judgements about people based on a lot of misinformation which then has the potential of creating racial hatred. It also brilliantly proves that racism in the US is very prevalent but many of us choose to turn a blind eye to it. My supervisor made an interesting point the other day saying there's a difference between prejudice & racism - while she sees the former as based on ignorance, she sees the latter as pure hatred. It took me a while to digest the movie & I recommend everyone to watch it.

Growing up on American TV in Dubai, I too held many prejudices against the black community. It was only after I befriended African Americans in the US, did I realize how unfairly they & other minorities are treated. In college, I read a book called
Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol which focuses on how badly inner cities schools are funded (some classes were held in restrooms due to lack of space!!) thus robbing many minorities of any opportunity to move up the social ladder. This book changed my life in many ways & allowed me to see why we need affirmative action policies in higher education & employment.

Muslims tend to proudly claim that Islam is a religion of equality & the example we use is of how Prophet Muhammad made Hazrat Bilal, a freed slave, the first person to give the call to the Muslim prayer (mu'azzin). The reality unfortunately is very different - in my experience, we can be very racist ESP towards the black community. What amazes me is after 9/11, as Muslims, we know how it feels to be branded as bad due to the actions of a few, yet we do the same to other communities, including Jews. I also remember growing up in a dominantly East African Khoja community in Dubai, how the Indian/Pakistani Khojas or non-Khojas were always referred to as "them" or "they" which automatically creates a mental barrier between groups & makes it easier for people to criticize & in worst cases, de-humanize members of a group. After creating so many divisions, it is no wonder Muslim communities haven't achieved much in the past few decades or even centuries! Ok I\'m done ranting!

On a brighter tone, I had a great Memorial weekend & the weather was gorgeous. It was so nice to see Hussein Uncle, Kaniz Aunty, Farzana, Naheeda & Sabina when they came to DC for the UMAA Shia conference. My mom also sent me tons of roti (Indian bread) & mandazi (East African bread) while Shamim Aunty sent me nan khatai (Indian cookies) - I was homesick for a while, but I'm ok now! Many of us also attended a gathering of Shia youth, many of them who are against UMAA & it was interesting to meet such a diverse group of Shias from different states. A bunch of my friends & I also rented a car one day & spent a day in Baltimore chilling by the harbor, which was a refreshing break from the city. Since we had the car, we also made a trip to Walmart, which I haven't done in 4 months since there's no metro access to one, and we were like a bunch of kids in a candy store. I know suburbs pretty much look alike, but this one looked so much like Maple Grove in Minnesota & the only thing that was missing was a Dairy Queen & the lane that leads to my best friend's house!! Driving around DC also made me realize how small the city really is & only seems large due to it's close proximity to Maryland & Virginia.

The weather has turned really hot & worst of all, humid. I've also heard the mosquitoes are bad here although I doubt they can beat the vicious mosquitoes of Minnesota! DC has a very suit culture, which can get really stuffy in the heat & women here wear high heels a lot...I find it amusing to see women who wear sneakers or flip-flops while they walk to work & then change to their dressy shoes once they get there! DC is also a very random place - a few months ago, I randomly met two of my friends from Jordan & today I met a guy who studied at my high school in Dubai!! Sometimes I feel like everybody knows everybody & the only way to get jobs in this city is through connections - they are u're lifeline...politics is definitely an insider's world!

Anyways, it's time for me to get my beauty sleep, so I will end here. I hope you all have had a great start to your summers. You'll definitely be hearing from me again! :o)

Take care & keep cool!


Sunday, June 05, 2005

Israel's Mr TV blasts occupation

From Haaretz:

No one knew until now what veteran television journalist Haim Yavin thought about the news he has been announcing for more than three decades, and he is so nonpartisan that one wondered whether he had an opinion of his own at all. Now, at 72, he is coming out of the closet: "Since 1967 we have been brutal conquerors, occupiers, suppressing another people," he says in "Yoman Masa" ("Diary of a Journey"), which he filmed in the West Bank.

For two and a half years,s Yavin wandered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a small hand-held camera, which he operated himself, without a technical crew. Here and there he was reviled as the representative of the hostile leftist media, but in general the settlers spoke to him on the assumption that he was their man, and justly so: Until now he was everyone's man. The film he brought back seems intended to salve his conscience: "I cannot really do anything to relieve this misery, other than to document it, so that neither I nor those like me will be able to say that we saw nothing, heard nothing, knew nothing," he says in the film, and in response to a question asserts: "I did not move left. The country moved right."

He filmed people who waited for hours at checkpoints and says this has no security justification. Settlers who heard from him about a woman who was not allowed to get to a hospital and therefore was forced to give birth at a checkpoint, try to reassure him: If only the Israelis are able to maintain domestic harmony, "Mohammed" will make coffee both for them and for him. Yavin responds: "I am not willing to rule another people, not willing for `Mohammed' to make me coffee." He tells again of the woman who was forced to give birth at a checkpoint and says, "It is not Jewish, what we are doing there."

He believes in withdrawal so that a Palestinian state will be established and peace will come. "That is the only thing I can believe in. Other than that I have nothing to believe in - only in bloodshed," he tells a female settler. His thoughts move to the roots of Zionist existence. When he hears people describe Zionism as an expression of racism and colonialism, he is outraged, of course, he says, but on returning from the West Bank, he asks himself what remains of the "true Zionism," the Zionism of peace and equal rights: the Zionism of the settlements?

This is a good foundation for a discussion of the question of whether there ever was a "true Zionism" that did not dispossess the Arabs of this land. Be that as it may, in the first two films in a series of five, Yavin portrays the settlers as members of a fanatic, insane, racist, despicable, violent and dangerous sect - more infuriating and despairing than they have ever been seen in an Israeli film.

It is no wonder that Channel 1 (the state television station, with which Yavin has been identified for almost 40 years) refused to broadcast the series. Instead, it will be broadcast starting next Tuesday as the swan song of Telad on Channel 2: Having failed to win the tender for a renewed franchise, Telad can allow itself to end its term with something real.

A soldier in uniform told Yavin that the Hebron settlers were inciting him to shoot and kill Palestinian children. Activist Noam Federman and his wife tell him on camera that an ultimatum has to be presented to the Arab residents of Hebron: Either they leave the country immediately, or the Israel Air Force will bomb their homes. Not far from their home, Yavin filmed a bit of graffiti on a wall: "Arabs to the crematoria." A Border Policeman, a muscular, tough-looking guy, says in a heavy Russian accent, "I am only following orders, I do what I am told." Yavin asserts: "We simply do not see the Palestinians as human beings."

A Peace Now activist who wanders around in the territories still believes that the settlers can be evacuated, as France evacuated its citizens from Algeria, but Yavin does not bring even an iota of hope from the West Bank: "This hilula [merrymaking] will never be stopped," he states. He recalls, apparently with sorrow, how Yitzhak Rabin missed the chance to evacuate the Hebron settlers in the wake of the massacre of Muslim worshipers by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. About 20,000 Hebron residents were forced to leave their homes then. Yavin feels "sadness and despair" and says that "maybe it really is preferable to visit Hebron with a visa."

Yavin believes that the settlers are "wrong" and are also "endangering us," but in contrast to some of his friends on the left, he does not hate the settlers; he even "esteems and likes them," he says. Occasionally he also tries to "balance" Palestinian bereavement with Israeli bereavement, as though finding it difficult to discard the usage of the national "we" that became second nature to him. But not one of the settlers he filmed justifies his high regard.

Daniella Weiss, one of the original settlers in the West Bank, articulates for the camera her credo as a mother: We have to raise tough children. She gives less consideration to life than to the idea. A woman named Orit Struk reacts to Yavin's arguments with bloodcurdling laughter and tells him about how a sniper tried to kill her son.

In any properly run country, the welfare authorities would take away their children.

Yavin, though, also tries to jettison the superficial thesis that pins all the blame on the settlers themselves. In his film, too, they are the "masters of the land"; they issue orders to the army and the army obeys. But Yavin's series shows that the whole society is to blame for the injustices of the occupation and also for the war crimes it has entailed. "We cluck our tongues and move on to the gossip columns," he says.

A few of the settlers praise the help they received from two leaders of the Labor Party, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Ehud Barak. One of the original settlers, Elyakim Haetzni, relates that he has been fighting for a long time to have one of the squares in Hebron named after Yigal Alon, the father of the settlements, but Alon's widow objects.

Yavin shows that the left-wing organizations, such as Peace Now, are effectively moribund and that only a few humanitarian groups remain, such as Ta'ayush, Physicians for Human Rights, B'Tselem and MachsonWatch, the women of the checkpoints. The good Israelis in the film are individuals: an immunologist (Prof. Zvi Bentwich), a lawyer (Shlomo Laker), a journalist (Haaretz's Gideon Levy), a Jerusalem plumber (Ezra Yitzhak Nawi) and a soldier in uniform. who says that he could not remain silent "in the face of such horrors."

Yavin says that his professional integrity will allow him to go on anchoring Channel 1's nightly "Mabat News Magazine." However, the broadcast of the series on a commercial channel raises the question of why we even need what continues to be called "public broadcasting." It's not worth the compulsory fee. One way or the other, it will be interesting to watch the reactions. It's possible that attention will not focus on the horrific message of the films, but only on the fact that Haim Yavin, of all people, made them. If he is right about the moral insensitivity that prevails in the country, most viewers may react like the family in the Strauss commercial: Mom, Dad and the kids are visiting the Safari in Ramat Gan. They see an antelope, say "We saw it," and hurry on. They see a lion, say "We saw it" - and hurry home to lick an ice cream bar.


What did Mahmoud Abbas achieve in Washington?

From Electronic Intifada:

Mahmoud Abbas has just completed a "successful" visit to Washington. He expressed great satisfaction with the results, and comparing what he had expected to what he had achieved, he must be right. But what benefits the visit did bring the Palestinians is a different matter: simply nothing.

The visit as such was very important. Chairman Yasser Arafat spent the last years of his life besieged in his dilapidated headquarters in Ramallah, completely shunned by President George Bush and Washington officialdom. When Colin Powell, or other American officials, needed to meet lower rank Palestinians, they preferred to avoid Ramallah altogether, in favour of Jericho, to ensure adequate distance from Arafat. To reopen the White House doors to a Palestinian president must then be a great development.

Having been spotted as the best alternative to a leader who had "blocked peace in favour of terror", Abbas, since his early days in office, was promised the honour of being received by Bush in the White House as a way of recognizing his peace credentials. The political value of this distinct "honour" has been so much on the rise that it has emerged as a precious end by itself.

Arafat paid heavily to qualify for the honour, and it must have been a severe punishment for him when it was finally withdrawn. It is obvious, therefore, that opening the White House doors to Abbas was more than a mere symbolic triumph. To further emphasize the significance, Bush was visibly cordial. He praised Abbas, described him as "a man of peace," thus elevating his stature to that of Sharon, and addressed him right from the start as "Mr President", when Arafat had never achieved anything beyond "Mr Chairman".

On the more "substantial" issues, Bush was also generous. He reiterated his vision of a Palestinian state, stressing the need to preserve territorial contiguity in the West Bank, and the relationship between the West Bank and Gaza. He referred to the roadmap and even quoted from it, urging Israel to withdraw from the areas its forces occupied in September 2000. He called on Israel to "remove the illegal outposts and not to expand the settlements."

In referring to the separation wall which Israel continues to build deep into occupied Palestinian lands -- and what actually looks like an endorsement -- Bush said the wall must be a security rather than a political barrier and Israel must minimize its impact on Palestinian civilians. For Israel there is nothing easier than saying yes to Bush, promising that it is a security wall which will have no impact on the Palestinians. Who is going to prove the contrary?

In an apparent contradiction to his letter of guarantees to Sharon which recognized Israeli-created facts on the ground as irreversible in any final settlement, a year earlier, Bush this time decided that any "changes to the 1949 lines must be mutually agreed" upon, and warned Israel not to undertake activity that would "prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and [even] Jerusalem".

And probably with the clear intention of facilitating Abbas task of "agreeing," Bush promised $50 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority; and rather than repeating the call for "dismantling the terrorist organisations" the US president called for defeating Hamas (which he still considers a terrorist organization) at the polls in a democratic fashion, not of stripping it of its arms by violence.

Admittedly, some of the presidential promises and policy statements would be considered positive if they were meant to have any real effect on the ground. They do not, however, mainly due to the absence of a time frame or mechanism for implementation; and because the president gave no hint as to what would happen if Israel paid no attention, as usual, to all the president's appeals, calls and warnings.

It is well known on the basis of past and recent experience that Israel will only continue to implement its plans for expansion and colonization, without fear of any consequences from anywhere.

The difference between promises made by Washington to Israel and promises made to the Palestinians is that Israel, as an occupier, has the power and the means to see such promises implemented, while the Palestinian Authority has no such means and has to wait for Washington to make good on its word. This has never happened before and it is very unlikely to happen now. Equally unlikely is that Abbas will be reminded of this obvious reality, his expressed satisfaction with the results of the visit notwithstanding. More than the actual success, probably what Abbas was seeking was a convenient formula to return home with proof of the success of his visit.

The entire peace process has been based on open-ended formulas and promises, which only served so far to provide interested politicians with the time needed to prolong their political life and to provide Israel with the time needed to implement in full its expansionist plans on the whole of Palestine.

Israel, since the peace process industry was established, never committed itself to any of the peace plans which have been internationally approved since 1967. Even the plans which Israel pretended to have accepted, beginning with Security Council Resolution 242 and finishing with the roadmap, 35 years later, and all the countless peace projects in between, were never taken seriously. Israel never respected any American demand to stop building settlements or implement any measures required by any agreement to reduce tension or to show real goodwill towards an acceptable reasonable settlement. Actually, to the contrary, Sharon continues to announce that he is not interested in any final settlement with the Palestinians, and all he wants to achieve is an open-ended, unarmed truce; in other words, peace to enable Israel to absorb the occupied land without the people.

The sad irony is that although such facts are too obvious to be ignored by even the most ignorant, they continue to be ignored by the most intelligent. Why? Simply because it is convenient for political opportunism to invest in false hopes rather than expose the futility of failure.

Bush knew that his statements were no more than expressions of goodwill, not for implementation, and Abbas accepted them on that basis.

In early school days, we were taught of the mother who had no food for her children, but her maternal sentiment prevented her from presenting to the starving kids the cruel reality. She chose, instead, to pretend that she was preparing some food by endlessly stirring gravel until, out of hunger and exhaustion, they would fall asleep. The caring mother did it to reduce suffering, and not to deceive. Cooking gravel seems to be the only option left for the peace process operators. The difference is that more people discover daily what is simmering in the pot.

Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations, and was a member of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian team at the Washington peace talks in the early 1990s.


Deeds to match lofty words

When I was studying in Jordan, I felt like it was a politically moderate country especially compared to its more authoritarian neighbors. Even the English newspapers, like the Jordan Times (read mostly by intellectuals & those who don't understand Arabic) were very open in their opinions about the government. True, the picture is not perfect, especially in terms of Palestinian rights, but I feel it is a lot better than say Syria. I found this article from The Jordan Times very interesting because it criticizes about the lack of democracy in the country in a popular Jordanian newspaper!!

In a string of recent interviews with the foreign press, His Majesty King Abdullah has spoken of Jordan's ambitious plans for reform and democratisation. The King has successfully portrayed Jordan as a leader in political reform and repeatedly praised the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. In one particularly noteworthy exchange with American broadcaster Peter Jennings in March, the King assured viewers that Jordan was on its way to becoming a “constitutional monarchy”.

With all this talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jordan is an island of progressiveness in a region dominated by a sea of one-party police states and sham democracies. Things, however, are not always what they appear to be.

When King Abdullah first came to power in 1999, observers were encouraged by the prospect of this young, dynamic Sandhurst and Georgetown-educated monarch leading one of America's closest allies. Today, Western commentators still regularly laud Jordan as a modernising, progressive nation, and a model for the Arab world. There was, in fact, a time when it appeared that Jordan, in contrast to its more recalcitrant neighbours, might very well fulfil its promise. Prominent scholars, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, argued that young, Western-educated monarchs who enjoyed popular legitimacy and political security would be more willing to take risks, gradually letting go of some power and embarking on potentially destabilising reforms. Yet, as of late, it has been four non-monarchical regimes — Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria — which have, to varying degrees, experienced unprecedented democratic openings.

In Jordan, such openings are proving hard to find. Last year was dark and disappointing for what remains of Jordanian democracy. With authoritarian gusto, the past government of Faisal Fayez systematically clamped down on the opposition, put new limits on press freedom and introduced draft laws which showed blatant disregard for the most fundamental aspects of democratic life. After being appointed in April, the new Prime Minister Adnan Badran half-heartedly tried to convince doubters that he was serious about democracy. Analysts, however, were quick to point out that the same tired pledges to “accelerate political reforms” have been uttered by every prime minister since 1989. Badran has used a less confrontational tone that his predecessor, but has failed, after seven weeks in power, to withdraw either the controversial Professional Associations Law or Political Parties Law introduced by his predecessor.

Jordanians are understandably frustrated. The region is changing before their very eyes, yet they remain on the outside, looking in. The seeds of a democratic revolution are being planted in previously barren land. In a region known for its apathy and quietism, the last few months proved a pleasant surprise and mark what may very well be a new chapter in the often tragic story of what we call the Arab world. But amidst the excitement and expectation, Jordan has, in its own peculiar way, been forgotten, conveniently dropped off the West's democracy radar, as the Bush administration and the European Union have turned a blind eye to the Jordanian regime's authoritarian practices.

Vague platitudes about democracy will no longer suffice. King Abdullah appears well intentioned, but his plans for reform, which focus on promoting decentralisation and improving government efficiency, miss the mark. The most significant obstacles preventing Jordan from joining the ranks of the world's democracies have yet to be addressed. Most glaring, Jordan's outdated Constitution legally enshrines an unbalanced distribution of power, with the executive branch towering over a weak parliament. The Constitution also states that the King, who appoints the prime minister as well as all 55 members of the Senate, is “immune from any liability and responsibility”. How such an arrangement could possibly be conducive to the development of a liberal polity is anyone's guess.

It is time, finally, to open a frank dialogue on the future of Jordan. What does Jordan aspire to become in the years ahead? Instead of disingenuously dodging the crucial issues involved, it is time for both Americans and Jordanians to come to terms with the fact that Jordan is not, as the popular myths would have it, a lonely but brave outpost of liberalism in a sea of what is still the most authoritarian region in the world.

Jordan has played an important role in working for peaceful resolutions to a whole host of thorny regional issues. This, however, does not mean that it should be exempt from American efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. Thus far, both President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have studiously avoided any public criticism of Jordan. It is baffling that after nearly two months, Rice has failed to mention April's change of government in Jordan even once in her briefings to the press.

Those of us who work for democracy promotion in the Arab world were heartened by the bold Wilsonian vision that Bush presented in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses earlier this year. But, once again, on this most vital of issues, US deeds fail to match the lofty words we so often hear. America's credibility — and its ambitious plans to promote Arab democracy — hang in the balance.

The writer is a Fulbright fellow in Amman, conducting research on democratisation and political Islam in the Arab world. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.


Thursday, June 02, 2005

On a short break...

I want to apologize for not posting in a while - I've been dealing with some personal stuff, have been really busy at work & my network in the dorm has been down several times this week!

Promise I'll be back by Sunday...keep tuned! :o)