Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bloody Nasreen...

Blazing eyes, flying hair, looks that could kill. The main character of Shahan Zaidi’s English-­language graphic novel Bloody Nasreen is 27, smokes cigarettes and kills without pity. Pakistan’s first unveiled heroine wields a gun in her right hand and a sword in her left, but her attire – she wears a shalwar kameez and sneakers – is not the image you’d expect of a ruthless crimefighter.
But there was a strong reason for the Lahore-based Zaidi, 31, to dress the heroine of his 100-page graphic novel this way.
“I wanted my heroine to portray a regular girl-next-door from Karachi, someone every Pakistani girl could relate to,” says Zaidi. He hasn’t endowed Nasreen with any superpowers, explaining that she “picked up fighting skills along the way”.
Zaidi also wanted to keep the character away from any religious activity or implications. So he chose to name her Nasreen because “it is a very common name in Pakistan, it could belong to a girl from any region or sect”. The 100-page novel is likely to hit the stands late next month or August.
The idea
Nasreen was conceptualised long before Burka Avenger, Pakistan’s first superheroine, who appears in her own animated television series. But Nasreen languished in Zaidi’s sketch book for four years, until 2009, when he shared his illustrations with friends and noticed the growing interest.
“Men fell for her looks and women loved her nerve,” says Zaidi, who chose to set the story in the 2030s, where Nasreen fights issues such as human trafficking and corruption.
The inspiration
Zaidi grew up on a diet of Vertigo and Constantine comics and says he is inspired by female-focused movies such as Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen(1995) and Kill Bill (2003), starring Uma Thurman. He was only 17 when he published his first comic series, Blizzard, in a popular Pakistani weekly. Having found his calling, he educated himself in graphic art by signing up for online courses, as well as a stint with, a leading mobile applications and game company in Lahore.
A growing fan base
Nasreen has attracted enormous attention on social media and generated plenty of debate, especially over her outfit, which does not include a dupatta (scarf).
But Zaidi is unperturbed. “How can she keep a dupatta in place when she’s running or jumping off high buildings?” he asks, saying he wanted his heroine to be as realistic as possible.
Nasreen on film
Bloody Nasreen has generated a great deal of interest among Pakistani filmmakers, and The Crew Films company of Karachi finally landed the deal. The writer and producer Faisal Rafi, who is likely to produce the film, says: “There are hardly any stories being made into films that are set in Karachi. In Nasreen, we see an opportunity to express the deeper truth and lies about our city. It is a brilliant character with a unique premise.” Pre-production is underway, but the main cast and the director of the film have not yet been announced.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Afghan Girls Who Live As Boys...

Mehran, age 6, first arrived at her kindergarten in Kabul as Mahnoush, in pigtails and a pistachio dress. When school shut down for a break, Mahnoush left and never returned. Instead a short-haired, tie-wearing child with the more masculine-sounding name of Mehran began first grade with the other children.

Nothing else changed much. Some teachers were surprised but did not comment except to one another. When the male Koran teacher demanded Mehran cover her head in his class, a baseball cap solved the problem. Miss Momand, a teacher who started her job after Mehran’s change, remembers being startled when a boy was brought into the girls’ room for afternoon nap time but realizing, as she helped Mehran undress, that she was a girl. Mehran’s mother Azita later explained to Miss Momand that she had only daughters, and that Mehran went as the family’s son. Miss Momand understood perfectly. She herself used to have a friend at school who was a family’s only child and had assumed the role of a son.

Officially, girls like Mehran do not exist in Afghanistan, where the system of gender segregation is among the strictest in the world. But many other Afghans, too, can recall a former neighbor, a relative, a colleague, or someone in their extended family raising a daughter as a son. These children even have their own colloquialism, bacha posh, which literally translates from Dari to “dressed like a boy.” Midwives, doctors, and nurses I’ve met from all over the provinces are more familiar with the practice than most; they have all known bacha posh to appear at clinics, escorting a mother or a sister, or as a patient who has proven to be of another birth sex than first presumed.  

The health workers say that families who disguise their daughters in this way can be rich, poor, educated, or uneducated, or belong to any of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. The only thing that binds the bacha posh girls together is their families’ need for a son in a society that undervalues daughters and demands sons at almost any cost. They disguised their girls as boys because the family needed another income through a child who worked and girls aren’t allowed to, because the road to school was dangerous and a boy’s disguise provided some safety, or because the family lacked sons and needed to present as a complete family to the village. Often, as in Kabul, it is a combination of factors. A poor family may need a son for different reasons than a rich family, but no ethnic or geographical reasons set them apart.
And to most of them, the health workers told me, having a bacha posh in the family is an accepted and uncontroversial practice, provided the girl is turned back to a woman before she enters puberty, when she must marry and have children of her own. Waiting too long to turn someone back could have consequences for a girl’s reputation. A teenage girl should not be anywhere near teenage boys, even in disguise. She could mistakenly touch them or be touched by them, and be seen as a loose and impure girl by those who know her secret. It could ruin her chances of getting married, and she would be seen as a tarnished offering. The entire family’s reputation could be sullied. For that reason, and because the bacha posh I spoke to were minors, some names and details have been changed in the story that follows.

Mehran seems to have adapted well to her new role. She takes every opportunity to tell those around her that she is a boy. She will refuse sewing and doll play in favor of cycling, soccer, and running. According to Miss Momand, Mehran has fully become a boy, and neither her exterior nor her behavior is distinguishable from another boy’s. All the teachers play along and help protect her secret by letting her change clothes in a separate room when necessary.

“So is this all normal to you? Common, even?” I ask Miss Momand.
“Not exactly. But it is not a problem.”
The rules are clear: dresses for girls, pants for boys. There are no other cross-dressers attending school. But the school has other things to worry about, such as how many armed guards are needed by the front gate. The teacher expresses some solidarity with Azita: “Mehran’s mother is in parliament. She is a good woman. We do what we must.”
“We women, or we Afghans?”


As for academic skills, Mehran is “intelligent, but a little lazy,” according to her teacher. A few years after leaving Mahnoush behind, Mehran’s personality has grown louder. She spends breaks floating in and out of the boys’ soccer games and other outdoor activities, depending on where the action seems to be at the moment. Mehran is well aware she is a girl, according to the teachers. Since Mehran was a girl for several years before she was remade into a boy, there should be little confusion for her in that regard. But she always introduces herself as a boy to newcomers.
Sigmund Freud claimed that children are not even aware of genital differences until around the age of 4 or 5, but in the 1980s, the psychoanalysts Eleanor Galenson and Herman Roiphe proved that children’s understanding of a sexual identity begins much earlier. According to their findings, a child can be aware of his or her birth sex as early as 15 months.

Yet in Afghanistan, there is a certain interest in keeping children in the dark, or at least blurring the lines about boys and girls. Specifics about anatomical differences are purposely not explained by many parents, in order to keep the minds of children—and especially those of little girls—“pure” for as long as possible before they marry.
It reminds me of a story my mother once told me about how she, as a 10-year-old in a more conservative version of Sweden of the 1950s, proclaimed to her mother that she intended to become a boy when she grew up. My mother had only one sister and a dim view of differences between men and women, never having seen her father or any other men without clothes. My grandmother scoffed at her daughter and called her stupid but did not offer any explanation for why the plan wasn’t feasible.

At Mehran’s school, children are absolutely forbidden from seeing the opposite sex naked. The headmaster tells me that at this stage, she is certain that to most students, what sets little boys and girls apart is all exterior: pants versus skirts.
That, and the knowledge that those with pants always come first.

It is simple math—if she is caught, no one eats. And every day she fears discovery. All that Niima is ordered to do, she does very quickly. She climbs to fetch store offerings from the top shelf. She dives under stacked crates of imported Pakistani oranges to pull out boxes of tea. She squeezes her small, flexible body between tightly packed bags of flour behind the counter. She tries never to look directly at customers. If they looked into her eyes, she imagines, they would see she is not a real boy.

With her short hair and gray tunic, 10-year-old Niima plays her part perfectly. But her soft voice gives her away. That’s why she rarely speaks when she is Abdul Mateen, as she is mostly known outside the mud wall of her home in one of Kabul’s poorest neighborhoods, where an open sewer runs alongside cinder-block houses. Niima attends school for two hours each morning in a dress and a head scarf. Then she returns to the house, changes into work clothes, and goes to work as a shop assistant in a small grocery store near the family’s house. On an average day, she brings home the equivalent of $1.30. It supports her Pashtun family of eight sisters and their mother.

Niima poses as a boy purely for the survival of her family. Niima’s father is an unemployed mason who is often away and spends most of his money on drugs, says Niima’s mother. Niima could never work in the store as a girl, nor could her mother, even if she wanted to. It would be impossible for a Pashtun woman, according to the family’s rules.

Their daughter displays no enthusiasm for being a boy. To her, it is hard work, with little upside. She would rather look like a girl. Her mother consoles her, saying it will only be a few more years before she can change back into being a girl again.
The family’s future survival is already mapped out: When Niima gets too old for working in the shop, her younger sister will take her place. And after that, the next sister.

Shubnum’s too-early transition to become a girl has already begun. The eight-year-old’s hair is being allowed to grow out. It was not supposed to happen until she turned 13, but her manner, her fits of giggles, and her long, fluttery lashes made it impossible for her to pass any longer. When she was found out in the boys’ school she attended together with her older brother, the teachers did not object. But Shubnum had to endure plenty of teasing in class after the others guessed she was a girl.

When I visit her mother, Nahid, in her two-room apartment close to Kabul University, Jack Bauer of 24 is torturing a suspected Muslim terrorist with the electrical current from a broken lamp on the grainy television. Shubnum and her brother watch intently. Their older sister, in a head scarf with a shy smile, stays in a corner, mostly looking down at her hands.

Although Nahid has one son, circumstances dictated that she needed another one. When her abusive husband of 17 years asked her to cover herself completely and stay at home, Nahid chose to walk away with nothing. Her father struck a very unusual and costly deal with her husband at the time of the separation: Their family money would go to him in exchange for the children. Husbands otherwise have an absolute right to the children, which is why the divorce rate is close to zero in Afghanistan. With support from her family, Nahid moved to another part of the city and began her life anew. She found a job and an apartment. But as a single mother of three—which is almost unheard of in Kabul—she had to balance her family with an extra son, in order for them all to feel safer.

As a divorcée, she was seen as a loose, available woman, risking threats and violent approaches by men, as well as plenty of direct and indirect condemnation by other women. As a woman with two sons, however, she is considered a slightly more respectable creature.

It would have worked out well had Shubnum not been so reluctant and not so terminally girly. Each time she was taken to the barber for a haircut, she cried. Afterward, she would tug at her short hair to make it grow out faster, and at home, she would obsessively try on her older sister’s dresses.

Eventually, Nahid gave up. She blames herself—perhaps she did not make being a boy alluring enough for Shubnum. When asked which gender she prefers, Shubnum is unhesitant. “A girl,” she responds, with a big smile and cocked head. She glances over at the television, now showing an intense performance of Indian bhangra dance. “So I can wear jewelry and dance.” Her wish will be granted. At her future wedding, if not before.

No one knows how many bacha posh children there are in Afghanistan.
They are a minority, but it is not uncommon to see them in the villages throughout the country. There are usually one or two in a school, and often one as a helper in a small store. The health workers I’ve spoken to have all witnessed the practice and agree that every family with only daughters will consider switching one to a boy. In their view, it is mostly to the girl’s advantage to live a few years as a boy, before her other, more difficult life of childrearing of her own begins.

In neighboring countries such as India, where sons are similarly much preferred over daughters, ultrasound machines are among the most sought-after equipment by doctors and patients. According to the author Mara Hvistendahl in Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, 160 million female fetuses have already been aborted throughout Asia, skewing the demographic for generations to come and creating acute problems for societies lacking women. Although both ultrasound screenings and secret late-term abortions are available in Kabul for those who can pay, most rural parts of Afghanistan are not there yet. Women in these areas just hope to avoid bringing too many daughters into this world.

Both Western and Eastern history are filled with Mehrans and Niimas and Shubnums. In almost every era, there have been women who took on the role of men when being a woman was made impossible. Many of those whose existences are remembered were warriors, since wars are a manly business deemed worthy of recording.

In the first century, Triaria of Rome joined her emperor husband in war, wearing men’s armor. Zenobia was a third-century queen in Syria who grew up as a boy and went on to fight the Roman Empire on horseback. Around the same time in China, Hua Mulan took her father’s place in battle, wearing his clothes. Joan of Arc was famously said to have seen an archangel in 1424, causing her to adopt the look of a male soldier and help fight France’s war against England.

The Catholic Church seemed to not only accept women dressing as men but also to admire and reward those who showed bravery and displayed other male traits. In a study of medieval Europe, professor Valerie Hotchkiss of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described the phenomenon of cross-dressing women as revolving around avoiding marriage, renouncing sexuality, and forever remaining virgins. Both Scivias, a 12th-century collection of religious texts by Hildegard von Bingen, and Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas mention how women dressing in male clothing may be permitted in circumstances of necessity. In other words: war.

Dutch historians Lotte C. van de Pol and Rudolf M. Dekker also documented more than a hundred women who lived as men between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many were discovered to be women only when their bodies were carried off the battlefield. These women “existed throughout Europe,” mostly as sailors and soldiers, and likely there were many more who will never be known.

They took on a male identity for reasons similar to the bacha posh in Afghanistan today: Some needed to support themselves and their families. Others needed to disguise themselves to travel or to escape a forced marriage. Some managed to disguise themselves to study, since higher education was closed to women. A few who were found out faced prosecution, but there is evidence indicating some leniency was given to those who had fought for their countries.

By the 19th century in Europe, the frequency of women who dressed as men seemed to diminish. Historians attribute it to an increasingly organized society where various forms of civil registration such as border controls and mandatory medical examinations for soldiers made it more difficult for women to pass as men. A more dysfunctional, primitive society works in favor of those who want to disguise themselves; the fewer papers or checks of any kind, the better—circumstances still true for much of Afghanistan today.

Perhaps this decline also speaks to how much women pretending to be men really is one of the clearest symptoms of a segregated society so dysfunctional that it inevitably must change. That practices very similar tobacha posh have existed over the centuries in countries around the world speaks to the universal and historical need for them in strict, patriarchal societies.

When I asked Afghans to describe to me the difference between men and women, over the years interesting responses came back. While Afghan men often begin to describe women as more sensitive, caring, and less physically capable than men, Afghan women, whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, often describe the difference between men and women in just one word: freedom.
As in: Men have it, women do not.

The Western definition of “freedom” may be different, and it changes with each generation. The current war in Afghanistan, for instance, is named “Operation Enduring Freedom” to indicate something worth fighting a 13-year war over. But freedom as we know it today is yet another evolutionary luxury, American author Robin Morgan says when I tell her about the bacha posh. “[Birth] sex is a reality; gender and freedom are ideas.”

The Afghan women I have met, some of whom have little education but a lifetime of experience of being counted as less than a full human being, have a distinct view of what exactly freedom is. To them, freedom would be to avoid an unwanted marriage and to be able to leave the house. It would be to have some control over one’s own body and to have a choice of when and how to become pregnant. Or to study and have a profession.

Given this, who would not walk out the door in disguise—if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one’s gender gave one access to the world? A great many people in this world would be willing to throw out their gender in a second if it could be traded for freedom.

The real story of Mehran, Shubnum, Niima, and other women who live as men in Afghanistan is not so much about how they break gender norms or what they have become by doing that. Rather, it is about this: Between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea—in Afghanistan as well as globally. Defining one’s gender becomes a concern only after freedom is achieved. Then a person can begin to fill the word "freedom" with new meaning.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sunday, August 31, 2014

10 Revolutionaries You Should Know ...

Nadezhda Krupskaya
Many people know Nadezhda Krupskaya simply as Vladimir Lenin’s wife, but Nadezhda was a Bolshevik revolutionary and politician in her own right. She was heavily involved in a variety of political activities, including serving as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister of Education from 1929 until her death in 1939, and a number of educational pursuits. Prior to the revolution, she served as secretary of the Iskra group, managing continent-wide correspondence, much of which had to be decoded. After the revolution, she dedicated her life to improving education opportunities for workers and peasants, for example by striving to make libraries available to everyone.
Nadezhda Krupskaya
Constance Markievicz
Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) was an Anglo-Irish Countess, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician, revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist. She participated in many Irish independence efforts, including the Easter Rising of 1916, in which she had a leadership role. During the Rising, she wounded a British sniper before being forced to retreat and surrender. After, she was the only woman out of 70 to be put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but was pardoned based on her gender. Interestingly, the prosecuting counsel claimed that she begged “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman”, while court records show she said “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. Constance was one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position (Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic, 1919–1922), and she was also the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (December 1918)—a position which she rejected due to the Sinn Féin abstentionist policy.
Constance Markievicz
Petra Herrera
During the Mexican Revolution, female soldiers known as soldaderas went into combat along with the men although they often faced abuse. One of the most well-known of the soldaderas was Petra Herrera, who disguised her gender and went by the name “Pedro Herrera”. As Pedro, she established her reputation by demonstrating exemplary leadership (and blowing up bridges) and was able to reveal her gender in time. She participated in the second battle of Torreón on May 30, 1914 along with about 400 other women, even being named by some as being deserving of full credit for the battle. Unfortunately, Pancho Villa was likely unwilling to give credit to a woman and did not promote her to General. In response, Petra left Villa’s forces and formed her own all-woman brigade.
Nwanyeruwa, an Igbo woman in Nigeria, sparked a short war that is often called the first major challenge to British authority in West Africa during the colonial period. On November 18, 1929, an argument between Nwanyeruwa and a census man named Mark Emereuwa broke out after he told her to “count her goats, sheep and people.” Understanding this to mean she would be taxed (traditionally, women were not charged taxes), she discussed the situation with the other women and protests, deemed the Women’s War, began to occur over the course of two months. About 25,000 women all over the region were involved, protesting both the looming tax changes and the unrestricted power of the Warrant Chiefs. In the end, women’s position were greatly improved, with the British dropping their tax plans, as well as the forced resignation of many Warrant Chiefs.
ABA Women
Lakshmi Sehgal
Lakshmi Sahgal, colloquially known as “Captain Lakshmi”, was a revolutionary of the Indian independence movement, an officer of the Indian National Army, and later, the Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Azad Hind government. In the 40s, she commanded the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, an all-women regiment that aimed to overthrow British Raj in colonial India. The regiment was one of the very few all-female combat regiments of WWII on any side, and was named after another renowned female revolutionary in Indian history, Rani Lakshmibai, who was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Lakshmi Sehgal
Sophie Scholl
German revolutionary Sophie Scholl was a founding member of the non-violent anti-Nazi resistance group The White Rose, which advocated for active resistance to Hitler’s regime through an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign. In February of 1943, she and other members were arrested for handing out leaflets at the University of Munich and sentenced to death by guillotine. Copies of the leaflet, retitled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich, were smuggled out of the country and millions were air-dropped over Germany by Allied forces later that year.

Blanca Canales
Blanca Canales was a Puerto Rican Nationalist who helped organize the Daughters of Freedom, the women’s branch of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. She was one of the few women in history to have led a revolt against the United States, known as the Jayuya Uprising. In 1948, a severely restricting bill known as the Gag Bill, or Law 53, was introduced that made it a crime to print, publish, sell, or exhibit any material intended to paralyze or destroy the insular government. In response, the Nationalists starting planning armed revolution. On October 30, 1950, Blanca and others took up arms which she had stored in her home and marched into the town of Jayuya, taking over the police station, burning down the post office, cutting the telephone wires, and raising the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the Gag Law. As a result, the US President declared martial law and ordered Army and Air Force attacks on the town. The Nationalists held on for awhile, but were arrested and sentenced to life in prison after 3 days. Much of Jayuya was destroyed, and the incident was not fairly covered by US media, with the US President even saying it was “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”
Blanca Canales
Celia Sanchez
Most people know Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, but fewer people have heard of Celia Sanchez, the woman at the heart of the Cuban Revolution who has even been rumored to be the main decision-maker. After the March 10, 1952 coup, Celia joined the struggle against the Batista government. She was a founder of the 26th of July Movement, leader of combat squads throughout the revolution, controlled group resources, and even made the arrangements for the Granma landing, which transported 82 fighters from Mexico to Cuba in order to overthrow Batista. After the revolution, Celia remained with Castro until her death.
Celia Sanchez
Kathleen Neal Cleaver
Kathleen Neal Cleaver was a member of the Black Panther Party and the first female member of the Party’s decision-making body. She served as spokesperson and press secretary and organized the national campaign to free the Party’s minister of defense, Huey Newton, who had been jailed. She and other women, such as Angela Davis, made up around 2/3 of the Party at one point, despite the notion that the BPP was overwhelmingly masculine.
Kathleen Neal Cleaver
Asmaa Mahfouz
Asmaa Mahfouz is a modern-day revolutionary who is credited with sparking the January 2011 uprising in Egypt through a video blog post encouraging others to join her in protest in Tahrir Square. She is considered one of the leaders of the Egyptian Revolution and is a prominent member of Egypt’s Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution.
Asmaa Mahfouz

Sunday, August 17, 2014

10 Things That Have Changed Forever On Gaza

After every bloody episode of violence perpetrated by Israel, media spin doctors are deployed with one grand mission: Absolve Israel of any responsibility in its acts of carnage.
These apologists not only demonise Palestinians, but also anyone who dares to take a stand on their behalf. The main staple of this Israeli strategy is blaming the victim.
There is nothing new in this tactic - this is how the so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” has been presented in Western media.
The narrative is always much closer to that of Israeli official and media discourses than that of Palestinians' - despite the decades-long military occupation, successive wars, and countless massacres.
Since the Israeli siege on Gaza began, following the democratic elections that brought Hamas to power in January 2006, Israel has needed all of its hasbara savvy - alongside that of its backers in the West - to explain why a population was brutalised for making a democratic choice.
The sheer amount of deception involved in the cleverly knitted story, which among other ruses equates Hamas with al-Qaeda (as Israel once did between late Yasser Arafat and Hitler), has represented a new low - even by Israel’s own standards.
The West’s media demonised Hamas, the resistance and all the other “bad” Palestinians who voted for the movement, while intentionally ignoring the fascism that has taken over Israeli society.
For the “bad” Palestinian to exist – ie a “radical”, “extremist” who is anti-peace - there always had to a “good” Palestinian, represented by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas or any faction, person or leader willing to co-exist with the Israeli occupation.
The PA has gone even further cooperating with Israel to ensure the demise of the Palestinian “radicals”, as in those who insist on resisting the occupation. 
Thanks to the PA, the price for the Israeli occupation has never been so cheap. Despite repeated attempts at re-activating the so-called peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always found a way to torpedo such efforts, even those promoted by his closest allies in Washington.
“Peace” is a major risk for Netanyahu, because his government is sustained by Jewish nationalists and extremists who feel no particular need to end their colonization of the West Bank. Abbas had done a great deal to ensure that Israel feels no pressure to negotiate. Every attempt at resistance, even by standing peacefully with placards and banners in Ramallah’s al-Manara Square was crushed; often brutally.
Gaza, however, remained an exception. Israel’s brutality there has reached unprecedented levels, especially after Israel’s Cast Lead Operation, which killed and wounded thousands. Many predicted that the crimes in Gaza would turn the tide against Israel, but they didn’t. Israeli influence over the media was still tight enough that somehow they managed to, at least, neutralize the impact of Cast Lead. The advent of the Arab Spring and the devaluing of human life, as happened in Syria, Libya and Egypt, somehow buried the Israeli crimes in Gaza; however temporarily.
 But Israel’s latest war on Gaza in the summer of 2014 has amounted to a genocide. Israel’s argument that it was “defending itself” was no longer sufficient. No amount of hasbara was enough to explain the burying alive of entire families, the summary execution of civilians, the pulverizing of entire neighbourhoods, the shelling of fleeing children playing at a beach during a deceptive “lull,” the destruction of dozens of mosques and churches, and the killing of more children sleeping in UN schools-turned temporary shelters.  
It is particularly embarrassing for Israel, but also poignant, that the Gaza resistance, which stood alone against tens of thousands of well-armed invaders from tunnels, killed 64 Israelis. All but three were soldiers, mostly killed inside Gaza.
As the world was awakened to the level of devastation created by Israel in Gaza, many also became aware that such wrath is not independent from the fascism that has gripped Israeli society for years. In Israel, there is no longer room for dissent, and those in the highest positions of power, are the ones who openly and freely preach genocide.
In an excellent article in the American Conservative in August 2006, Scott McConnell, wrote, “All societies have their hate groups and extremists, but nowhere in the democratic world are they nearer to the centre of power than Israel.”
He elaborated, “In the 1980s Meir Kahane had a small following in Israel, but his pro-ethnic cleansing party was made illegal. Now Kahanists are in the center of the country’s ruling ideology.”
This was discussed in context of statements made by Moshe Feiglin, deputy speaker of the Knesset and a “top player in Israel’s ruling Likud Party”. Fieglin called for Palestinians from Gaza to be resettled in concentration camps, and all of Hamas and its supporters to be “annihilated”. Who can now, with a good conscience, protest those who infuse the Nazi analogy to what is happening in Palestine?
Meanwhile, in this age of social media, where mainstream news networks no longer have complete command over the narrative, no self-respecting intellectual, journalist, official or any citizen with a conscience can plead ignorance and stand on the fence of neutrality.
Gaza has indeed changed everything. Israel’s criminality and fascism should no longer be open for vibrant media debates, but it must be acknowledged as an uncontested fact. Our language, as in our perception, must also change to accommodate this uncontested reality:
First - military occupation must be fully and unconditionally rejected. Palestinians cannot be judged for defending themselves and for resisting Israel to end its military occupation, end the siege and achieve freedom. Armed struggle is a right defended by international law for people living under foreign occupation.
Second - as anti-Apartheid icon, Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” There can no longer be a place for neutrality when thousands of civilians are brutally murdered by an invading army. Neutrality in this context is outright intellectual cowardice, if not even support of Israel’s crimes.
Third - taboos placed on analogies comparing the Israeli occupation to apartheid, and Nazi conduct should be dropped. While the racist notions that enabled apartheid are practiced daily by Israel, the analogy should go much further, considering that genocide has in fact been carried out in Gaza.
Fourth – There can be no mutual blame as a way to avoid placing full responsibility on the Israeli occupation and military. Palestinian resistance that blocked the way of the Merkava tanks in Jabaliya and Shejaiya is a heroic expression of the valour of the Palestinian people. Armed struggle in World War II continues to be admired throughout the world. Palestinians should not be made an exception.
Fifth – There can be no bad vs good Palestinians. There are those who resist, and those who collaborate with the enemy; those who pay the price, and those who benefit from the occupation.
Sixth – Israel is a fascist state. It controls the media, and cracks down on dissidents. It uses violence to achieve political ends, and doesn’t shy away from genocide when it suits it interests. Reverting to “only democracy in the Middle East” statements is a sign of willful ignorance that can no longer be tolerated.
Seventh – The “Arab-Israeli conflict” is a misleading notion. The confines of misleading geography must end. Moreover, there is no conflict per se, but a military occupation and a state of one-sided war. Palestinians are fighting this alone, but are supported by people from around the world, from every color, race, religion and nationality.
Eighth – The Israeli siege on Gaza would have not been possible without full Egyptian support. Egypt is a culprit in the suffering of the Palestinians, and it must be recognized, condemned and held legally accountable for such a crime.
Ninth – Palestinian supporters should no longer view Palestinians with a sense of pity, but respect and admiration for their courage and heroism.
Tenth – And finally, to end the Israeli genocide and occupation, the wheel of continuous action must turn and keep on turning. Those who support Israel must be exposed, and those who facilitate the Israeli occupation and sustain its war machine are partakers in the war crimes committed daily in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. They must be boycotted. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement must grow and serve as the main platform for international solidarity.
The time for clever words and no action is long gone, and those who remain “soft” on Israel, for whatever reason, have no place in what is becoming a global movement with uncompromising demands: end the occupation, punish its sustainers, halt ethnic cleaning and genocide, end the siege, and bring Israeli and other culprits to the international criminal court for their massive war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People's History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: Palestinian people stage a demonstration to protest the Israeli attacks in Ramallah (AA)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Debunking Israel’s Self-defence Argument

Israel claims that it is acting in self-defense in Gaza, thereby portraying itself as the victim in the present conflict. President Barack Obama and both houses of the U.S. Congress have endorsed this justification for the use of force. But is it an accurate assessment?
Gaza is not an independent state like Lebanon or Jordan. Israel accepts this but instead sees Gaza as a “hostile entity,” a concept unknown to international law and one that Israel has not sought to explain.
But the status of Gaza is clear. It is an occupied territory — part of the occupied Palestinian territory. In 2005 Israel withdrew its settlers and the Israel Defense Forces from Gaza, but it continues to retain control of it, not only through intermittent incursions into and regular shelling of the territory but also by effectively controlling the land crossings into Gaza, its airspace and territorial waters and its population registry, which determines who may leave and enter.
Effective control is the test for occupation. The International Court of Justice recently confirmed this in a dispute between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. The physical presence of Israel in Gaza is not necessary provided it retains effective control and authority over the territory by other means. Modern technology now permits effective control from outside the occupied territory, and this is what Israel has established.
That Gaza remains occupied is accepted by the United Nations and all states except, possibly, Israel.
An illegal occupation
Military or belligerent occupation is a status recognized by international law. According to the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 — to which Israel is a party — a state is allowed to occupy a territory acquired in armed conflict pending a peace settlement. But the occupation must be temporary, and the occupying power is obliged to balance its security needs with the welfare of the occupied people. Collective punishment is strictly prohibited.
The occupation of Gaza is now in its 47th year, and Israel is largely responsible for the failure to reach an agreement on a peaceful settlement. Moreover, Israel is in breach of many of the humanitarian provisions contained in the Fourth Geneva Convention as a result of the siege it has imposed on Gaza since 2007. In short, Gaza is not only an occupied territory; it is also an illegally occupied territory.
The present operation in Gaza — Operation Protective Edge — must therefore not be seen as an act of self-defense by a state subjected to acts of aggression by a foreign state or nonstate actor. Instead, it should be seen as the action of an occupying power aimed at maintaining its occupation — the illegal occupation of Gaza. Israel is not the victim. It is the occupying power that is using force to maintain its illegal occupation.
The rockets fired by Palestinian factions from Gaza must be construed as acts of resistance of an occupied people and an assertion of its recognized right to self-determination.
History is replete with examples of occupying powers using force to maintain their occupations. Apartheid South Africa used force against the people of Namibia; Germany used force against the people of France and the Netherlands during World War II.
The rockets fired by Palestinian factions from Gaza must thus be construed as acts of resistance of an occupied people and an assertion of its recognized right to self-determination.
Before Israel’s physical withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Palestinian acts of violent resistance were directed at Israeli forces within the territory.This was during the second intifada. Since then, Palestinian militants have been obliged to take their resistance to the occupation and the illegal siege of Gaza to Israel itself. The alternative is to do nothing, a course no occupied people in history has ever taken.
It is unusual for an occupied people to take its resistance outside the occupied territory. But it is also unusual for an occupying power to maintain a brutal occupation from outside the territory. When the occupying power maintains its status through military force within the occupied territory because of these acts of resistance on its own territory, as Israel has done, it acts as the enforcer of an occupation — not as a state acting in self-defense.
Lack of accountability
A state seeking to enforce its occupation, like a state acting in self-defense, must comply with international humanitarian law. This includes respect for the principle of proportionality, respect for civilians and the drawing of a distinction between military and civilian targets, and the prohibition of collective punishment. Both Israel and Palestinian militants are obliged to act within the confines of these rules.
Sadly, Israel is in violation of all three of these basic tenets. Its action is a clear collective punishment of the people of Gaza. The numbers of the dead and wounded and the property damage inflicted on them are completely disproportionate to the few civilians killed and wounded and property damaged in Israel. It is also clear from its bombing of schools, hospitals and private homes that Israel makes little, if any, attempt to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
What is to be done? The United Nations is powerless to act in the face of the U.S. veto. This places a heavy burden on the European states to use their influence to stop the bloodshed.
It is also incumbent on the International Criminal Court to act. Palestine, recognized as a state by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012, has accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Under pressure from the U.S. and Europe, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court refuses to hold Israel accountable for its crimes. History will surely judge unkindly both the prosecutor and the institution that she serves if nothing is done.
John Dugard is emeritus professor of international law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy. Operation in Gaza is aimed at maintaining its illegal occupation
July 31, 2014 6:00AM ET