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War is America’s Business

Calvin Coolidge once famously remarked that “the business of America is business.”  Now that statement has become a tautology.  But it needs to be updated: today, the business of America is war.  Today’s NY Times published an article portraying the escalating arms race in the Middle East that’s been fueled by the Yemen civil war.  Numerous Gulf States (largely Sunni), Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and their arsenals have been deployed against Shiite forces there.  Though the Houthis in Yemen do not receive massive amounts of arms or funding from Iran, given the exploding armory of weapons being wielded in fighting there, that could change momentarily:

To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.

As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.

We’re selling not billions, but tens, if not hundreds of billions in armaments to these states:

Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year — the most ever, and more than either France or Britain — and has become the world’s fourth-largest defense market, according to figures released last week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global military spending. The Emirates spent nearly $23 billion last year, more than three times what they spent in 2006.

Qatar, another gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence around the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. Now the tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets.

yemen saudi airstrikes kill civilians

Funeral for entire family killed by Saudi airstrikes

It’s a veritable fire sale.  To reframe the slogan of Field of Dreams: “if you bring it, they will buy.”  And this is no dream.  Rather it’s a nightmare for the civilians caught up in the massive devastation caused by this arms race.

To understand the sordid history of proxy wars and foreign military intervention, we should go back to the Spanish civil war.  Then, the royalists were supported by the Soviet Union and sympathetic leftists in America and Europe who came to fight in the International Brigades.  The fascists were supported by Nazi Germany, then at the height of its military build-up before World War II.  Hitler saw the conflict in Spain as an excellent opportunity to test both his military strategic concepts and new weapons systems.  Thus, the Luftwaffe took to the skies to devastating effect, especially in places like Guernica, memorialized in Picasso’s painting.

The United States during World War II confined the arming of its allies to Great Britain.  Proliferation didn’t become a major issue until the Cold War, when we stationed tens of thousands of our troops in West Germany and began placing our nuclear missiles in Europe to deter possible Russian attack.  This turned the continent into a proxy battlefield between the two great ideological powers of the day.  Luckily, European civilians weren’t made actual victims of this conflict since the Russians and Americans managed to constrain their rivalry.

After World War II, our occupation of Japan made it into a protectorate of sorts.  Our military alliance there has remained strong with tens of thousands of troops still stationed in Okinawa.  Following the Korean War, a similar American engagement has alternately acted as both a stabilizing force and irritant to both our hosts and those we oppose (mainly China).  Additionally, Taiwan became another protectorate to whom we offered our weapons to protect them from Chinese encroachment.

But in no region has American military intervention served a more damaging role than in the Middle East.  After Britain, France and Israel attacked Nasser in 1956, he turned away from the west to the Soviet Union for military support.  That, in turn, led the U.S. to lend its support to Israel.  The fruition of this policy didn’t become fully apparent until the 1973 War, when Israel, in the midst of its counter-attack against Egyptian forces which had crossed the Suez Canal, nearly ran out of ammunition.  A massive U.S. airlift followed which single-handedly allowed Israel to successfully drive the Egyptians back across the Canal and led eventually to a ceasefire.

Since then, the U.S. has provided its most advanced weaponry to Israel.  We’ve also collaborated with Israel on building new weapons systems like Iron Dome.  Whenever Israel decides to go to war it knows America has its back.  We supply the F-16s, the Apache helicopters, the cluster munitions.  Hell, without knowing it, American even provided the uranium to make Israel’s first nuclear weapons.  Israel has used our weapons in wars with virtually all the frontline states: Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and now Gaza.

Because Americans, until recently, have seen Israel as an ally existentially threatened by its Arab enemies, only lonely dissenters have ever questioned the use of U.S. munitions to pummel largely civilian targets in places like Lebanon and Gaza.  A small number of NGOs have called for the end of military aid to Israel.  But that is beginning to change.

Our weapons tore up other countries in the region as well.  In the 1970s, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the mujahadeen became out poster children.  It was there we turned Osama bin Laden into the monster he later became.  Our rockets shot down Russian MiGs.  But after the Russians left, the Afghanis turned our weapons on each other and the country became a wasteland.

When we returned in 2001 to topple Bin Laden’s Taliban friends, many of those same mujahadeen who resisted Russian occupation turned against our invasion.  For centuries, going all the way back to Alexander, they’d fought against foreign invaders.  They continue to fight us to this very day, though our troops are no longer there in such force.

Our 2003 invasion of Iraq which toppled Sadaam Hussein followed a similar trajectory.  Just as the mujahadeen had been our allies against our common Russian enemy, Sadaam had been our ally in his fight against Iran.  We hated the ayatollahs because of the humiliation they subjected us to in the 1979 hostage crisis.  Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld eagerly showered the Iraqis with weapons used to slaughter 1-million Iranian boys and men.  But when we came back to Iraq, Saddam wasn’t our friend.  He was our enemy.  So after we overthrew him we dismantled his Baath Party, the only political force able to hold the raging ethnic factions together.

As a result, we were forced to sit back and watch Sunnis and Shiites, and to a lesser degree Kurds, take out their ancient grudges against each other as rivers of blood washed through neighborhoods and tens of thousands of corpses floated down rivers.  It was all our doing.  We came thinking we knew so much about how to instill Middle Eastern democracy.  Instead, we set neighbor against neighbor and brought rival Muslim sects to each others’ throats.

Now, we propose to work the same “magic” in a new region of conflict, Yemen.  Think of all those shiny new U.S.-made weapons in the hands of all those oil sheikhs like little boys with a new toy.  They’re eager to see what that baby can do.  What better place than that godforsaken strip of desert called Yemen.  It has none of the wealth or power of the Gulf States.  It’s still a largely tribal society with little of the appurtenances of foreign influence.  Just as Gaza is Israel’s punching bag whenever an Israeli leader is in need of someone to beat up, so Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s.

There are a few sane voices speaking out against this incipient military madness:

“A good number of the American arms that have been used in Yemen by the Saudis have been used against civilian populations,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an assertion that Saudi Arabia denies.

Mr. Kimball said he viewed the increase in arms sales to the region “with a great deal of trepidation, as it is leading to an escalation in the type and number and sophistication in the weaponry in these countries.”

Returning to Iran, it isn’t sitting around waiting for all this new armament trove to find its way to Tehran.  It’s spending $800-million on the Russian S-300 air defense system which can protect (to an extent) from F-16s that might attack from Israel or elsewhere.  Nor are the Gulf States content with allowing Iran to get the latest toy from their Russian patrons.  The Sunni sheikhs are lining up to buy the F-35, whose stealth capability may allow it to circumvent the S-300’s air-defense capability.  You can see where this leads, can’t you?

Israel is delighted with the Sunni network fighting in Yemen.  Any enemy of Iran is a friend of Israel.  The latter doesn’t have many friends in the world.  This is why it’s worked so diligently to build up tacit alliances with the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and more explicit ones with Egypt.  These states will join Israel in confronting Iran (or so it hopes).  Not to mention, when Arabs are fighting each other they’re not fighting Israel.  Besides, when Sunnis fight Shia they can’t put pressure on Israel to solve its conflict with the Palestinians (or Lebanon or Syria, for that matter).  Yes, when the blood running in the streets is Arab, it’s a godsend.

Let’s raise another important consideration: today’s friend is tomorrow’s foe.  Look at Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, etc.  Without doubt, one of these countries with whom we are now allied will turn against us in five or ten years.  Or perhaps two countries now participating in this Sunni alliance will turn against each other.  The same weapons we now sell them to fight Houthis may, and will, be turned against each other.  It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when.

Not to mention that any one of these countries could turn, like Iran, into a new arch enemy of Israel.  Then these same weapons could be turned on our ally.

Finally, American miltiary intervention is almost universally deadly in the Middle East.  We’ve been responsible for the deaths of millions in the past decade.  Why do we continue with policies which have failed so miserably?  Do you remember Obama’s “famed” Cairo speech of 2008?  We were going to bring a new form of engagement to the Arab world.  One not based on military might or dictating our political views or values.  We were going to treat the Arab states as partners.

Whatever happened to that Obama?  How did he turn into the president whose sole policy seems to be sending drones to kill Islamists and many unarmed civilians?  Now, he wants to become the president who presided over a U.S. weapons fire sale there.  The leader who confirmed that America’s become “War Inc.”



Bibiton article quoting Lt. Col. Eitan Ben Gad (anonymously)

Bibiton article quoting Lt. Col. Eitan Ben Gad (anonymously)

There are Israeli reports that the new IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkrot, has sacked a senior officer (Hebrew) for repeatedly leaking sensitive military information over a long period of time to the media.  I can’t say why these reports refused to name the officer.  But I will: he is Lt. Col. Eitan Ben Gad, the Operations officer for the army Central Command.  He was under consideration for promotion to full Colonel and the prospective command of a reserve brigade.  However, his history of leaking like a sieve worked against him.

One example of his work is to be found in the reporting of Bibiton reporter Lilach Shoval. In the early phase of Operation Protective Edge, before Israel committed to a ground invasion, an unnamed officer told her that he was distressed by the waffling over what the army should do. He urged the political – military echelon to either invade Gaza and get the job done or sign a ceasefire.

You can imagine no senior commander wants to be second-guessed in this way by a subordinate. Especially not in the pages of Bibiton, the prime minister’s personal media mouthpiece.

eitan ben gad

Lt. Col. Eitan Ben Gad (far right) who was sacked by the IDF chief of staff for leaking to the media

Ben Gad, as so many of the army officer corps these days is a child of the settlements.  In his case, the most incendiary of them all, Hebron, where 500 settlers face off against 25,000 Palestinians.  The Jews goad the Palestinian residents at every opportunity like lions chafing to consume their prey.  The Israeli officer is a product of a mechinah program, Beit Yatir.  A knowledgeable Orthodox Israeli-American friend described mechinot thus:

Note that it is not a hesder yeshiva but a mekhinah, preparatory school, which is much worse, because it combines a year of religious Zionist indoctrination/paramilitary training with a full three-year regular army service and graduates are often fast-tracked into leadership roles in the IDF…The mekhinot were started in order to take over the IDF from within.

This Christian Science Monitor story goes over some of this ground and reinforces the notion that Israeli settlers have created institutions to infiltrate the army and neutralize it as a force that could oppose the settler agenda.  Though of course no settler leaders quoted in the article articulate the mission in this blunt a fashion.  A Reuters story quoted army-related internal surveys showing that in 2010 13% of company commanders are settlers and that the level of Orthodox Jews in officer candidate school rose from 2% in 1990 to 31% as of 2007.  That number would be even higher today.

As a strategy, this is an exceedingly clever one.  The settlers know they are in a minority among the overall Israeli population.  But they understand that the army is the one and only national institution that unites all Israelis.  If the officer corps is sufficiently filled with settlers and Orthodox Jews, then you don’t need to take over the country to make your point of view dominant.  You only need to populate the army with commanders who share your views.  Then how will you get the army to evacuate West Bank settlements if that became necessary?  How would the army agree to hand over the keys of Israeli settlements to Palestinians?  At a crucial moment, the refusal by 20-30% of the IDF officer corps to execute orders could paralyze the entire army and, by extension, the nation as well.

Ben Gad holds another distinction: he’s listed 48th out of the IDF’s “dirty 200” accused of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.

I do have several concerns regarding cashiering Ben Gad for such offenses: first, every IDF commander leaks to the media at one time or another. They leak to advance their professional or tactical agenda. They leak to gain an advantage over an Arab adversary or an internal army rival. They leak regularly and repeatedly.

So anyone charged with doing what virtually every one else has done is being made a scapegoat. And this is hypocrisy.

The second problem is that media reports accuse Ben Gad of leaking “sensitive security information.” I’ve seen no evidence to support that. He embarrassed his commanders. He pressured them to commit to a plan of action before they were ready to do so. But damaging Israeli security? I think not.

This episode strikes me in some way as a settling of accounts by one party against another. An age-old practice of internecine conflict within organizations.


Back in 2014, the IDF destroyed illegal building in the radical settlement of Yitzhar.  Each time they arrived they were met with a pitched battle (Hebrew and English): a hail of rocks and curses.  Six soldiers were lightly wounded.  Their vehicles were vandalized.  Even their own military outpost next door, which was built to protect the settlement, was trashed, destroying military equipment.

yitzhar settlement

Illegal buildings destroyed by police at Yitzhar

In the past few days, the answer may have become clearer. Cpl. Yitzhak Sela, an ultra-Orthodox settler, recruited to serve in the army via a new program designed to encourage Haredim into military service, was given access to highly secret military data.  Sela, was appointed to the intelligence unit of the Etzion Brigade, knew in advance when police were going to arrest his fellow hooligans at how own settlement, Bay Ayin.  They in turn could escape before the arresting officers arrived.  Incredibly, some of the data he released concerned his own planned arrest (by Israeli police) for inciting anti-Palestinian violence in the area:

He is suspected of a number of instances of leaking information to his friends in Bat Ayin about the police’s plans to arrest him. Sela apparently gained access to the information because all police activity in the region goes through the Etzion Brigade, at one of whose bases he was stationed.

Two of Sela’s friends were interrogated and Haaretz learned that one of them confirmed he had received information from Sela.

Sela is also suspected of leaking information about operations by the Judea and Samaria police district, as well as the movement of forces and the activities of the police unit in charge of far-right political crimes.

Sela is suspected of using the army’s computers to search for information involving him, as well as information about members of the Shin Bet security service unit that investigates Jewish suspects, regarding a probe into the throwing of an incendiary device near Bat Ayin in which a Palestinian family was injured in August 2012, and into an arson attack on a mosque in the village of Jab’a, near Bat Ayin, in February…

Because Sela’s search involved seeking information about Shin Bet operatives, he is suspected of exceeding his authority and, the Shin Bet will attempt to show, of endangering state security.

Think about this: a radical settler suspected of violence against Palestinians is invited into the army, given a privileged intelligence position which he can use to protect himself and his fellow hooligan friends.  In the course of his army adventures, he even blows the cover of Shin Bet agents possibly working undercover within the settlements to stem such violence.

While it’s understandable why it would be useful from an intelligence perspective to coordinate activities and share information between the IDF and Shabak, it’s not clear why there would be no impediment for such a low-level figure as Sela to be able to read 15,000 sensitive documents as he did, without hindrance.  Why was there no compartmentalization of such data so that only those who needed it could access it?

Now add this new development into the mix: according to Nana, Sela didn’t even have a security clearance.  In normal circumstances, a soldier who is a candidate for a intelligence job will be vetted by the Shin Bet.  They fill out a questionnaire and receive an interview.  Then they are given a security clearance that enables them to see classified material.  None of that happened with Sela.

Which means one of two things: either the commanders of the Etzion Brigade engaged in a major fashla (“fuck-up” in idiomatic Hebrew derived from Arabic) or someone in position of authority deliberately placed Sela in this role knowing what he would do and wanting him to do it.  In other words, the army itself wanted to sabotage its own mission of controlling settler extremism and violence.

Even if we prefer the fashla option, it’s hardly less troubling in terms of testifying to IDF dysfunction.  There are ample other examples of major security lapses (most of which are either covered up or ignored).  In the case of Anat Kamm, a woman working in the brigade commander’s office had access to classified material in an army computer and was able to copy thousands of pages of documents onto a thumb drive.  The officer responsible for such lax security? Yair Naveh, who was afterward promoted to the second highest position in the IDF. How’s that for rewarding a soldier for his incompetence?

Sedki al Maket revealed through his Facebook “spy posts” that the IDF left open doors and gates in the fence separating Israeli and Syrian-held Golan.  Such laxness allowed al Nusra rebels allied with Israel to cross into Israeli-occuped territory.  But it could just as easily allowed Hezbollah fighters to gain easy access to the Israeli-side of the armistice line.


Iranophobia and Anti-Semitism: a Double Scourge

Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, as usual, took advantage of Jewish historic suffering to score a few cheap political points (the video of his Hebrew remarks is above).  In this case, instead of speaking directly about the meaning of the Holocaust or plumbing the depths of this traumatic event in Jewish history, he exploited it for the sake of his own political benefit.  In fact, Nir Hasson did a graphic that showed how much of the speech dealt with Iran and how little with the Holocaust:

Netanyahu pursued a trope he’s mined repeatedly over the years: that Iran is Nazi Germany; that today is 1938 and the west, via its negotiations with Iran, is about to sell Israel out at Munich as Neville Chamberlain did.

“As the Nazis strived to trample civilization and replace it with a ‘master race’ while destroying the Jewish people, so is Iran striving to take over the region and expand further with a declared goal of destroying the Jewish state…

In the past, Bibi’s claims have gone even further, saying that Iran intends to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people.  Similarly, Shimon Peres, the developer of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal, called an Iranian nuclear weapon a “flying Holocaust.”

I24 further quoted quoted Bibi in its coverage:

“Appeasing tyrannical regimes will only increase their aggression and…is liable to drag the world into larger wars.

Has the world really learned from the incomprehensible, universal and Jewish tragedy of the last century? I wish I could tell you that the answer is yes.

The bad deal with Iran signals that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned. Even if we are forced to stand alone against Iran we will not fear. In every circumstance we will preserve our right and our ability to defend ourselves…”

These historical claims are false and Iran’s leadership has never expressed an intent to destroy Israel, let alone the Jewish people. What’s further notable about the Israeli analogies is that they suggest Israelis and Jews are the world’s eternal victims.  It is Israel, like European Jewry, hounded by its enemies. As we were sent to concentration camps and ovens, Israel’s enemies have the same plans in store (supposedly).

This is what Salo Baron, the 20th century’s pre-eminent scholar of Jewish history called “the lachrymose theory” of Jewish history. It is the erroneous view of Jewish existence through a vale of tears. It is reducing all of Jewish life and identity to a series of traumas. It suggests no agency, no positive identity or affirmation.

What is the truth in regards to Iran?  That Israel’s assassins and covert agents have murdered Iranians on Iranian soil (and elsewhere in Lebanon and Syria as well).  Israel has bombed Iranian military bases causing massive loss of life.  Israel has funded Iranian dissident groups like Jundallah which committed terror attacks inside Iran.  Israel has threatened countless times to attack Iran and unsuccessfully tried to persuade two presidents to join it in doing so. If anything, Iran has been the victim, not Israel.

So Israel’s claims are a distortion of fact.  But they serve a useful purpose.  How can you accuse a grieving widow of amassing a weapons arsenal that could kill not just her own neighborhood, but the entire town?  She’s a victim.  She’s in mourning.  It’s unseemly to intrude upon her mourning with such uncomfortable facts.  So the world treats Israel.  When a nation is always suffering a trauma or anticipating one, you can’t possibly accuse it of being the aggressor, the oppressor.  Quite an advantageous ploy.

Bibi’s remarks above are Iranophobic.  This is not just a flip coinage.  This is an important concept in the history of hate in the Middle East.  Just as anti-Semitism led to the Holocaust, Iranophobia can set the stage for a military assault on Iran by Israel or the U.S.  Iranophobia is hate just as anti-Semitism is.  They are no different.  Anyone who expresses Iran-hatred, as Netanyahu is, should be treated the same as an anti-Semite.  Iranophobia has no place in civil discourse.  It should be sanctioned just as misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism are.

It should go without saying that these remarks are yet another desperate ploy by Bibi to focus the world’s attention on Iran as villain.  Iran as what Robert Oppenheimer called “Shiva, destroyer of worlds.”  If you spin Iran as untrustworthy, as prospective genocidaire, then it’s impossible to sign a nuclear agreement with it.  We must not buy into this false trope.  Just as we must not allow Bibi or the Republican Congressional majority to sabotage this deal.  If they do it is they who put the world in jeopardy, not Iran.


Will Herzog Do the Deed with Bibi?

Israeli TV news reported tonight that Bibi Netanyahu, who is negotiating to form a new government, held a secret meeting with Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union.  I’d hoped something like this wouldn’t happen.  I’d hoped that Labor, despite the hard times on which it’d fallen, would retain some sense of honor, dignity and principle and reject such a prospect.  Though I knew in my heart that all the major parties are far more interested in survival and retaining their grip on power and perks, than they are in political principle.

netanyahu herzog

Campaign billboard merging images of Netanyahu and Herzog. Is there a difference?  (Ariel Schalit/AP)

It would make far more sense for Netanyahu to pursue a hard-right government, as there are more than enough seats in such a coalition (if he also includes one or more of the Orthodox parties) to form a majority.  But apparently, either the rightist parties are driving a hard bargain in terms of the ministerial portfolios they’re demanding; or else Bibi needs leverage to fight back against such demands in the negotiation phase by reminding them that he has ‘other options.’  But this prospect is the most disturbing: that both Bibi and Bougie believe they have enough in common to form a unity government.

Remember, this is the same Likud whose campaign slogan was “it’s them or us.”  The same Bibi who railed against “leftists and Arabs” handing over the country to ISIS or some such nonsense.  This is the party with whom Labor now proposes to make common cause!

Presumably, Bibi would hand the second most valuable portfolio, foreign minister, to Bougie in return for the fig leaf it would offer the new government.  Imagine how difficult it would be for the U.S. and Europe to expand their offensive against the racist Likud with Labor solidly within the fold.

But Herzog should examine the role played by previous second-fiddles in Netanyahu governments: Ehud Barak served as a more competent defense minister, but later he too faded into political oblivion; Avigdor Lieberman merged his Party with Likud, and for his troubles was tried on corruption charges and then saw his party representation halved in Knesset in the past election.  He’ll be lucky to get the animal control portfolio in the next government.  Amir Peretz formed a unity government with Bibi’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and ended his term in ridicule as defense minister.

When in office, none was offered real power by Netanyahu, a true megalomaniac who cannot trust or delegate responsibilities to anyone, even his own allies.  Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s new “bride,” was co-opted into the last government.  Though she ostensibly had the peace negotiation portfolio, she essentially had nothing to do.  Bibi called all the shots and when he grew tired of Lapid and Livni sniping at him from his left, he summarily fired them.  Making your bed with Bibi is a recipe for political irrelevance.

Another disturbing development, was the announcement yesterday that the Zionist Union released a position paper on the Iran nuclear deal. If the Party wished to truly serve the role of Opposition in Knesset, you might’ve expected a document that took a skeptical or at least nuanced view compared to those of Netanyahu.  Instead, the paper, largely authored by former IDF military chief, Amos Yadlin (hoping to be defense minister in a unity government), consisted of a lot of drivel and nonsense.  It essentially repeated Likud demands for “improving” the deal by adding non-starter demands of the Iranians.  But the demand that stood out from all the rest for its sheer chutzpah was that Israel should demand from the U.S. pre-approval for any Israeli attack on Iran should it “go nuclear:”

The U.S. and Israel must reach understandings which match the changing security needs of Israel with the issuing of the agreement between the [P5]  powers and Iran.  These understandings must include strengthening the strike and defensive capabilities of the IDF.  They must tighten the existing alliance and strategic coordination, so that it strengthens Israel’s deterrent capacity.  It should also provide an American umbrella, and the ability to act without restraints against threats and violations–whether of the agreement or by those of our adversaries in the region supported by Iran.  Specifically, there must be pre-approval [“legitimization”] for any act Israel may be forced to take in order to protect itself in any situation that arises.

Sure, it’s like a father handing the keys to his new convertible to his son, who’s already smashed up three earlier cars.  There is about as much chance that Obama would entertain such a provision as the Temple High Priest is going to find a sacred red heifer in my backyard.

Finally, a “left-right” unity government would be a fraud.  It would be a solely-owned subsidiary of the Likud.  The “left” would exist solely to legitimize the worst offences of the rightist majority.  It would hinder the world from holding Israel accountable for its worst excesses.  It proves yet again that the Israeli “left” is not only not “left,” but not even “center.”  Rather, it’s a cipher and would be much better off dying a decent death.

niv asraf barnea column

Nahum Barnea column revealing Shin Bet extracted confession to crime that never happened.

Israel’s Shin Bet is famous for extracting Palestinian confessions to terror attacks.  It’s infamous for extracting false confessions as well to crimes suspects didn’t commit.  Now the security police have done themselves one better: they extracted a confession to a crime that never even happened.

It all goes back to the “disappearance” of an Israeli, Niv Asraf, outside a West Bank village.  His partner, Eran Nagauker, told a story of a flat tire and Asraf’s entering a Palestinian village to get help, after which he disappeared.  As a result, the entire Israeli security apparatus went on red alert and began scouring the West Bank for Asraf.  The only problem…he hadn’t disappeared.  The entire incident was a hoax.  They later told a new story that Asraf devised the ruse in order to pretend to escape from his captors and win back an ex-girlfriend.

Niv Asraf, in shades, slicked down hair & sports car…in happier times…

At any rate, Nahum Barnea wrote this in his popular Yediot Achronot column (thanks to Or Shai and the Israeli blog, Hakol Shkarim (“It’s All Lies”) for catching this):

From the first moment, the story stunk.  Nevertheless, everyone went on full alert.  When they [the security services] discovered that the partner lied about the flat tire, they assumed it was a drug deal turned into a kidnapping…They called the IDF central command, brought out 3,000 troops, drones, helicopters, turned Palestinian homes upside down, arrested innocent individuals.  From one of these they even extracted a half a confession.

In other words, in rounding up the “usual suspects,” the Shin Bet managed to find one poor shnook they decided was guilty and managed to get him to confess.  The only problem: the poor guy, wanting to end the torture, confessed.  As Michael Kaminer suggested in his Facebook comment, the Palestinian didn’t know precisely what his interrogators wanted to hear.  Otherwise, it would’ve been a full confession.  And had the crime actually been real, they likely would’ve wasted precious hours interrogating an innocent man.

The whole thing reminded an Israeli friend of an old joke:

Three spy agencies, the FBI, KGB and Shin Bet, had a contest: who could be first to capture a fox in a dense forest.

The first fox was released.  Tens of FBI agents entered the forest with helicopters and sensors.  Within four hours they returned with the fox.

The second fox was released.  The KGB sent ten agents with eavesdropping equipment and within three hours the agents returned with wide smiles on their lips and with the fox in hand.

The third fox was released.  Two Shin Bet agents wearing sunglasses entered the dark woods.  After two hours they came out with a squirrel: “Under interrogation, he confessed he was a fox!”


This is a slightly expanded version of a report that ran in Middle East Eye this past Monday.  I am seeking to translate this piece into both Arabic and Hebrew.  If you can help, please be in touch:

In 2012, Israel released the longest-serving Arab security prisoner, Sedki al-Maket, from prison.  He had served 27 years on charges of planning a terror attack.  Al Maket, age 48, is a resident of Majdal Shams, the major town in Israeli-occupied Golan.

On gaining his freedom, he turned to fighting Israel’s 45-year Occupation of the Golan.  Al Maket is an ardent supporter of the Assad regime and views Syria as his homeland.  As such, he embraces Assad’s ally, Hezbollah and those supporting liberation of Israeli-occupied territory in Lebanon, the Golan or Palestine.

Since his release, he has not engaged in violence or armed struggle.  He has made speeches, written articles in the Arab press, posted to social media, and blessed armed struggle without participating in it.  In addition, the security services claim al Maket scouted IDF activities in the Golan, especially army aid offered to the Syrian Islamist rebels associated with al Nusra.

netanyahu visits syrian rebel in hospital

Netanyahu visits wounded Syrian, and likely al Nusra rebel, in Israeli hospital (Kobi Gideon GPO/Flash90)

It’s been widely reported in VICE News, the Wall Street Journal, FoxNews and Middle East Memo, that Israeli commando forces enter Syria to liaise with Syrian rebels, that the IDF provides medical treatment in Israeli hospitals for wounded Islamist rebels, and that the army supplies the rebels with crate-loads of military equipment and supplies.  IDF Brig. Gen. and current Washington Institute for Mideast Peace fellow, Michael Herzog, explicitly acknowledged in the WSJ article al Nusra affiliation with al-Qaeda.  But he attempted to turn the former into an Islamist version of the Boy Scouts:

“Nusra is a unique version of al-Qaeda.  They manage to cooperate with non-Islamist and non-jihadi organizations in one coalition.” The Nusra Front “are totally focused on the war in Syria and aren’t focused on us.”

…An unnamed military official also said there is an “understanding” between Israeli forces and al-Qaeda fighters there and that “there is a familiarity of the [al-Qaeda] forces on the ground“.

idf al nusra cooperation

Syrian rebel fighter treated at Israel-Syria fence (Press TV)

That italicized phrase in the last sentence is a euphemism for military coordination and everything else that goes on.  PressTV has published photographs of daytime meetings between the IDF and Syrian militants.  The Israeli media videotaped a camp for Syrian rebels inside Israel-held territory.

In February, after possibly being tipped off by a Druze IDF soldier who has also been charged, al Maket produced a video in which he described (without showing it) a nighttime meeting between the IDF and al Nusra commanders.  The Golani activist then arranged for the video to be aired on Syrian state TV.

That was the last straw for the Israeli security apparatus.  They could tolerate pro-Syria social media agitprop, but using the Syria media to embarrass the IDF went one bridge too far.  I reported in my blog in late February based on a confidential Israeli source, that Al Maket had been secretly arrested by the Shabak.  His arrest was placed under gag (Hebrew gag order).  Outside of Syrian media, I was the only journalist who revealed his arrest.  No Israeli media could report anything regarding the case.

Subsequently, a number of other alleged “co-conspirators” in what the Israeli media has come to call a Syrian “spy ring” were arrested.  One of them was a Druze IDF soldier, Cpl. Hilal Halaby, from Daliat al-Carmel (near Haifa).  In his case, I was the first journalist to report his arrest thanks to information conveyed to me by a confidential Israeli source, which was under gag as well.  Only in the past few days have the security services lifted this gag and reported that Halaby is being charged with aiding and abetting the ‘notorious’ pro-Assad spies.

Haaretz reported on the charges against Al-Maket.  There are scores of them, most of which involve aiding a terrorist organization, contact with an enemy agent, and aiding an enemy in time of war.  Considering that there’s been an armistice in force since 1973, it’s hard to understand how Israel is at war with Syria.

The indictment (in Hebrew) also indicates that many offenses remain secret and are not even known to al-Maket’s former attorney, Labib Habib.  But he did say that he believed these were activities which exposed IDF collusion with al Nusra.  As Israel doesn’t wish the world to know it’s collaborating with an Islamist militia allied with al Qaeda, these charges are the most embarrassing and potentially explosive.

Habib also told me that he was denied contact with his client for ten days.  During that period his interrogators tortured him.  Among the methods they used according to the defense attorney, were slaps to the face and severe shaking.  All of these methods have been prohibited by the Israeli Supreme Court except in circumstances of extreme exigency in order to prevent an imminent terror attack.  Such was not the case in al-Maket’s detention.  But that makes little difference since the Supreme Court, unlike in other democratic countries, cannot force the security forces to obey its directives.  It can only rule and hope it will be obeyed.  It often isn’t when it comes to national security suspects.

Both Syria and Iran have protested the Druze’s torture.  Though I do wish reporters like these would do more due diligence to research reporting that preceded theirs.

As I wrote above, al-Maket chose attorneys to represent him in his legal proceedings.  But the security forces chose to invoke a rarely used rule (Hebrew) that demands a security prisoner be represented only by defense attorneys with a high-level security clearance.  This demand is a feature of the military justice system.  But al Maket is a civilian, albeit not a citizen.  Instead of being judged under civilian law, he will be judged under a hybrid system of civilian-military law.  The defense minister invokes principles from military law when he needs them.

There are two problems with this approach.  The first, obviously, is that a basic right of a defendant to have counsel of his choosing.  Second, in order to get a security clearance a lawyer generally has to have served either as a military prosecutor, or in some legal capacity with the police or security services.  That means these lawyers are already inclined to offer broad leeway to their former bosses and to absorb the lessons of their previous employment.  They are known, in many cases, as being pliant in the face of the State’s demands.  Since very few Israeli Palestinians serve in the IDF, there are few such attorneys with security clearances.  This means al-Maket will have to choose a Jewish attorney who likely possesses a military or intelligence background.  Not an auspicious start to a legal defense.

maket indictment screenshot

Screenshot of al-Maket indictment (partial) document

Attorney Habib filed an appeal of the judge’s decision to compel al-Maket to hire a lawyer with a security clearance.  The appeal was scheduled to be heard by Supreme Court Justice Salim Jourbran, the only Israeli Palestinian justice serving on the High Court.  After an appeal by the State, Justice Jourbran was removed and replace by a Jewish justice.  If you’re detecting a pattern, it’s no accident.  The deck is always stacked against security prisoners in such cases.  The defense often doesn’t see the evidence against the accused and doesn’t get to cross-examine witnesses.  Judges are extraordinarily obeisant before the altar of national security.  Generally, since convictions are guaranteed, defendants agree to plea deals, which sometimes reduce the sentence by half that an outright conviction would bring.

The State prosecutor has circulated the against the detainee which includes scores of charges, though scores more remain under seal and may not be reported in Israel.  I’ve obtained a copy of the partial charge sheet.  He’s accused, beginning in 2014, of acts of espionage, supporting a terror organization, making contact with a foreign agent, and aiding an enemy in time of war.

There are a number of extraordinary things about the indictment.  Perhaps foremost is his espionage consists mostly of posting comments and videos to Facebook and YouTube.  Al Maket may be the first individual accused of spying through social media.  Along with a description of the content of the posts, the clerks in the Shabak or prosecutor’s office have taken the trouble to compile the number of Likes, Shares and YouTube Clicks his posts obtained.  Does Shabak measure a spy’s success by the number of Likes he has?

In addition, I’m confused about why a spy, whose activities presumably are meant to be secret, would make use of a very public form of communication: social media.  Or is Israeli intelligence accusing Syria and al-Maket of innovating new forms of espionage previously unknown?

The prosecution accuses the pro-Syria Druze of posting material he knew would aid Syria.  But if this is true and it did aid the enemy, why did the Shabak allow him to continue with such activities for over a year?  Why is his Facebook account still publicly accessible?  Presumably, if al-Maket’s activity endangered Israeli security it could make a reasonable case to Facebook to close it.  Apparently, it either hasn’t approached Facebook; or if it has, it couldn’t persuade the company of the danger.  If it couldn’t persuade Mark Zuckerberg, why should it persuade the Israeli public?

If al-Maket is truly a Facebook spy, he had about as much success as Anna Chapman.  Rather, he was much less a spy and much more a deliberate irritant of the Israeli security services.  Israel is one of the few nations calling itself a democracy that imprisons enemies of the State merely for irritating the country’s intelligence apparatus.

The IDF itself has not been shy about exploiting social media to convey its message to the world.  It even used Twitter instead of the convention press statement to announce the start of Operation Pillar of Defense and to boast about the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari.  If Israelis can boast about murdering Palestinian leaders why can’t a man oppose Israel Occupation of his homeland on Facebook?

Foreign journalists too, reporting from the Golan, have published stories similar to al-Maket’s.  FoxNews even filmed an Israeli commando unit returning from a field operation inside Syria.  According to a confidential Israeli source, they were rallying Syrian Druze to fight against the Assad regime.  Since FoxNews, like Israeli media, is subject to IDF censorship, we can assume this report was approved by the military.  If a foreign journalist can report this, then why can’t a Golani Druze?

Many of the charges note that the Druze activist often toured the Golan area near the armistice-line between Israel and Syria and then posted to Facebook the results of his trips.  He recounts seeing IDF military personnel leaving crates on the border for delivery to al Nusra militants.  One charge notes that al Maket found several gates in the fence which were unlocked presumably to allow access either for the IDF into Syria or the Syrian rebels into the Israeli-held Golan.  In effect, al-Maket is revealing lapses in Israeli security on the border to Israel’s security services, who were monitoring his Facebook postings.

The prosecution manages to twist this activity into scouting weaknesses in Israeli security which would allow a Syrian terrorist to infiltrate Israel and attack.  To my knowledge, no Syrian has ever infiltrated Israel to commit an act of terror since before the 1967 War.  Why a Syrian dictator fighting for his life against domestic rebels would want to take the trouble to open a new front against Israel is hard to explain.

Another charge claims that the Golani Druze posted pictures of burning IDF vehicles hit by Hezbollah rocket fire.  Two soldiers were killed in the attack, which was in retaliation for Israel’s air attack on an Iranian convoy days earlier which killed an Iranian general and Hezbollah commanders.  The prosecutor says that al-Maket’s display of the burning vehicles and his support for the retaliation against the IDF are tantamount to incitement to terror.   Supposedly, social media postings encourage new acts of violence.  This may be one of the first times someone has been accused of fomenting terrorism for posting a picture online.

Nowhere in the indictment does the State argue that al-Maket engaged in violence or took up armed struggle.  He merely voiced support for resistance to Israeli-Occupation of the Golan and Palestine.  While it is true that he praised armed struggle, including the forces of Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah, he never engaged in any act remotely connected to it.  He didn’t plan a terror attack, he didn’t meet with anyone planning such an attack.

The defendant faces decades in prison on these charges.  There is little chance he will be found innocent.  The only unknown is–will he cut a deal with the State offering a “reduced sentence” of a decade in jail or go to trial and face a sentence of multiple decades. Most take the deal.

Israeli Jews would, if they were smart, worry about the precedent this arrest sets.  If al-Maket can be jailed for social media activism, anyone can be charged for reporting on Facebook virtually anything about the IDF or security services which they prefer remain secret.  Of course, there’s a distinction between Jews and non-Jews and Jewish citizens would likely be treated with more discretion.

Al Maket and his fellow Golani Druze find themselves in an awkward position.  Like East Jerusalem, they have been annexed by Israel in violation of international law.  And also like Palestinians from East Jerusalem, they’ve refused to take Israeli citizenship in protest of Israel’s Occupation.  Because they are not citizens, they have less rights under Israeli law.  Yet the idea of resistance to Israeli conquest and Occupation is no less important to them.  If they do protest, even non-violently as in the case of al-Maket, they face torture, conviction and decades separated from loved ones in an Israeli prison.