MintPress News Independent, non-partisan journalism Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:33:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Independent, non-partisan journalism Mint Press News clean Mint Press News (Mint Press News) All Rights Reserved Independent, non-partisan journalism MintPress News Syria’s Alawites Pay Heavy Price As They Bury Sons Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:13:45 +0000 More soldiers have been killed from Tartous than any other region in Syria in the fighting to quell an armed rebellion seeking to topple Bashar Assad’s rule, now in its fourth year. Continue reading

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Ibtisam Haidar

In this Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014 photo, Ramadan Haidar, father of Mahmoud, a 23-year-old Syrian who was killed while fighting in the military, sits in his living room under photos of his son, in the city of Tartous, the capital of a coastal province in Syria.

DWEIR SHEIKH SAAD, Syria — The posters of slain Syrian soldiers, put up by families to commemorate their sons killed in the fight against rebels, are plastered on walls throughout the coastal province of Tartous, forming impromptu murals of death that illustrate the price supporters of President Bashar Assad are paying to defend his rule.

The khaki-clad men often pose with guns, with Assad’s image often imposed above the slain soldier.

For government supporters, Assad is synonymous with Syria itself, particularly in Tartous, a scenic Mediterranean port that is majority Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is the faith of Assad’s family. For Syria’s Alawite minority, there is no other way out but to back the president, despite rumblings of dissent. Rebels often indiscriminately target Alawites because they are seen as the firmest pillar of Assad’s rule — and because extremists among the rebels consider them heretics.

More soldiers have been killed from Tartous than any other region in Syria in the fighting to quell the armed rebellion seeking to topple Assad, now in its fourth year.

“This is the price we must pay for the country,” said Ramadan Haidar, whose 23-year-old son Mahmoud was killed fighting in northern Syria. “Because if the country doesn’t regain its sovereignty, then I have lost my son and my home.”

It’s unlikely that need for the sons of Tartous will ease, with the government seemingly desperate for soldiers as the conflict grinds on.

Some 4,000 soldiers from Tartous have been killed in the war, according to a Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to media.

The death toll forms some 10 percent of the estimated 40,400 soldiers killed, even though Tartous’ population is fewer than a million people — less than one-twentieth of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million. Alawites form some 13 percent of Syria’s population, concentrated in the coastal provinces and the central city of Homs.

They are not the only ones to die in the fighting. Syria’s army represents the sectarian makeup of the country: it is largely Sunni Muslim, fighting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels. But Alawite troops are the most trusted by leadership.

School teacher Haidar’s son Mahmoud was killed two years ago in a suicide bombing. The family home in the town of Dweir Sheikh Saad in Tartous province is now a memorial for the young man, strung with photos of Mahmoud in his army uniform, with his girlfriend, with his two sisters.

Haidar’s wife Ibtisam, 43, stashed away her son’s belongings, including red love-heart cushions his girlfriend gave him. She wore a necklace with a pendant of Mahmoud’s face, often clutching it as she described her pride in her son for joining the Syrian army.

“He was sacrificed for the homeland,” she said, smiling. “He is in my heart. I talk to him and it makes me feel better,” she said.

The town, nestled amid olive groves, has lost 34 men so far, said mayor Mohammed Shaban.

Reflecting a broader trend, Shaban said most of the men were killed in the past two years, mostly by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and in mass killings perpetrated by the extremist Islamic State group as they seized a string of military bases in the country’s northeast.

Among the massacres was the killing of more than 150 government troops captured when the militants took the Tabqa base in Raqqa province, in August. The militants stripped the soldiers to their underwear and forced to run through the desert before they were shot.

“We can’t live with them. We are fighting ignorance and terrorism” said Issa Mariam, 54, whose son Abdullah was killed two years ago fighting in Aleppo.

Posters of Abdullah, 25, were plastered around the house, alongside his framed death certificate. His mother also bore a gold pendant bearing Abdullah’s image.

There appears to be growing resentment toward Assad, particularly after the mass killings by militants. Some families say they felt their sons were sacrificed for the survival of one family.

But as Islamic militants become more powerful, many Syrians see little choice — better Assad’s rule than the extremists.

An aid worker who works closely with Syrian officials said because the fate of Alawites was tied with Assad’s rule, some were demanding the government pound rebel areas harder.

“If anything, their critique of Bashar is that he is too weak, so they would rather have a hard-line guy in power,” said the aid worker, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t meant to speak to reporters.

A demonstration in early October in an Alawite-dominated neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs may be instructive. After twin bombings killed 25 children there, hundreds of Assad supporters held a rare protest, accusing the Homs governor of not doing enough to stop rebel attacks on their neighborhood.

Haidar, the school teacher who lost his soldier son, suggested there was weariness.

“Certain provinces are motivated to go to the army, and perhaps they are affected more,” Haidar said, referring to Tartous. “Many people were killed, and they are buried here in this cemetery.”

The government appears to be trying to mitigate potential dissent.

A Syrian economics expert said the state was prioritizing social affairs spending on families of slain soldiers. But a decision to grant first priority in civil service jobs to those families was cancelled this week, said the Health Minister Nizar Yaziji. It appeared that the decision had caused an outcry.

As the war grinds on, with no decisive winner and no political headway, the military is becoming low on personnel resources, meaning there’ll be no rest for Alawites soon.

“They will have to be patient, what can they do?” said Assad adviser Bouthaina Shabaan. “We all in Syria have to be patient, and we all have to persist in our resilience. What is the alternative?”

This week, soldiers at checkpoints in Tartous began stopping men aged between 23 and 42 years old, examining their ID cards and ordering some of them to report for reserve duty. Men were taking alternative routes to avoid being caught.

There was no formal announcement of the move, and an official on state-run television this week denied what he called “rumors” that men were being seized.

Parents of slain Alawite soldiers said they would allow their other sons to volunteer service if they wanted.

But the price is clear. In the provincial capital city of Tartous, an informal mural made of the posters of slain soldiers stretched for meters on a wall.

Further down, there was an official memorial: it was a large billboard featuring Assad’s face, and thousands of names of slain soldiers scrawled on either side.

Across the road there was another billboard, also listing names of the killed. It too, was full.


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Iraqi Christians Seek Shelter In Jordan After ISIS Threats Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:37 +0000 Around 11,000 Iraqis have registered with UNHCR this year, bringing the total number of Iraqis in Jordan to 37,067. Continue reading

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Iraqi Christian

Marvin Nafee, an Iraqi Christian who fled to Jordan to escape the Islamic State, prays for “the safe Mosul from ten years ago where everyone co-existed peacefully”. Credit: Areej Abuqudairi/IPS

AMMAN, Oct 31 2014  - Watching videos and pictures on social media of the advance of the Islamic State (IS) inside Syria made it all seem far from reality to Iraqi Marvin Nafee.

“We did not believe it,” said the 27-year-old, “it seemed so imaginary.”

Only months later, his home city Mosul fell to the IS in two hours and he and thousands of Christians had to flee. Marvin made his way to Jordan, along with his father, mother and two brothers.

“The Middle East is no longer safe for us. As Christians we have been suffering since 2003 and always feared persecution” – a 60-year-old Iraqi refugee

“There is nothing like peace and safety,” he told IPS from the Latin Church in Marka neighbourhood in Amman, which he has been calling home for the past two months.

In July, the IS  issued an order telling Christians living in Mosul to either convert to Islam, pay tax, or give up their belongings and leave the city. Failure to do so would result in a death penalty, “as a last resort”.

“Mosul is empty of Christians now. Everyone we know has left, except for a group of elderly in a care centre who were forced to convert to Islam,” Marvin said.

Since August, thousands of Iraqis have been streaming to Jordan through Erbil.

Caritas spokesperson Dana Shahin told IPS that 4,000 Iraqi Christians have approached the Caritas office in Jordan since August, and 2000 of them have been placed in churches.

Churches in the capital and the northern cities of Zarqa and Salt have been turned into temporary refugee camps, with families living in the yards and hallways.

In Maraka’s Latin Church, around 85 people share a 7×3 metre room. Children, elderly, men and women sleep on the floor with extra mattresses dividing the room to give them privacy. They use the cafeteria facilities to prepare meals using food items donated by Caritas.

“It was generous of Jordan to offer what it can, but this is not an ideal living situation for anyone,” says a 53-year-old woman, who gave her name as Um George.

Having been stripped of all of their possessions by the IS, most of them arrived in Jordan penniless and carrying little more than what they were wearing. “They [IS] searched everyone, including children, for money,” said Marvin’s 25-year-old brother Ihab. “We gave it all to them for the sake of safety,” he added.

The Islamic Charity Centre Society has provided pre-fabricated caravans to be used by families in the yards of churches, and a few families have been relocated to rental apartments shared by more than one family. Caritas provides basic shelter, food, medical treatment, and clothes. But a durable solution for these families is yet to be found.

“We are still evaluating their needs. Most of these families have fled with almost nothing,” said Andrew Harper, representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Jordan. His organisation registered an average of 120 new Iraqis every day in August and September, with more than 60 percent citing fear of IS as their reason for fleeing Iraq.

Around 11,000 Iraqis have registered with UNHCR this year, bringing the total number of Iraqis in Jordan to 37,067.

Jordan has been home to thousands of Iraqi refugees since 2003, and many of these live in dire conditions, struggling to make ends meet as aid funds dry up.

“Iraqi refugees remain on the margin of donors and institutions,” says Eman Ismaeel, manager of the Iraqi refugee programme at CARE International in Amman.

Unable to work legally, Iraqi families live in the poorest neighbourhoods of East Amman and Zarqa city. They struggle to pay rent and send their children to school.

The new influx of Iraqi refugees has introduced a new challenge for aid agencies operating in resource-poor Jordan, which is already home to more than 618,500 Syrian refugees.

“We have more refugees than we have ever had since the Second World War, but resources are dire,” said Harper. “We are challenged every day, but we hope to get through with international support,” he added.

Most of the newly-arrived Iraqi refugees interviewed by IPS said that they want to be resettled in Western countries. “The Middle East is no longer safe for us,” said 60-year-old Hanna (who declined to give her last name). “As Christians we have been suffering since 2003 and always feared persecution,” she added, noting that she and her daughters had been covering their hair to “avoid harassment”.

But resettlement “in reality is a long process and is based on vulnerability criteria,” said Harper, and thousands of Iraqis in Jordan have been waiting to be resettled in Jordan for years.

Back in Marka, Marvin points to a picture of his house back in Mosul stamped in red with “Property of the Islamic State” and the Arabic letter Nfor Nasara (Christians). A Muslim friend who is still in Mosul sent him the picture. More bad news followed from his friend, who emailed to say that Marvin’s house had been taken over by IS members.

Although he has lost hope that one day he and his family will be able see a glimpse of Iraq again, Marvin still has faith that prayers can bring peace back. “We always pray for the safe Mosul from ten years ago where everyone co-existed peacefully.”

This article was published by IPS.

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Hagel Blasts America’s Syria Strategy In Memo Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:31 +0000 Hagel warned the fighting in Syria could go on for years without any clear end, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad was deriving benefits from the US campaign. Continue reading

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Chuck Hagel, Martin Dempsey

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (AP/Susan Walsh)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice which was deeply critical of the administration’s military strategy in the ongoing ISIS war in Syria, saying the plan was “in danger of unraveling.”

The memo, described by officials familiar with it, centered on the lack of an endgame strategy as well as the inability of the administration to clarify its intentions toward the Assad government.

Hagel warned the fighting in Syria could go on for years without any clear end, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad was deriving benefits from the US campaign.

The memo was much more critical than Hagel has been in comments publicly, and declined to discuss the specifics of the memo, saying only that he felt he owes the president “honesty.”

The lack of an endgame strategy has been something analysts have been pointing out for quite some time, as the US talks up backing a moderate rebel force that they haven’t even begun attempting to create, and which is going to take at least a year to be in any sort of form. Hagel’s memo acknowledges this in a way that officials haven’t publicly, and suggests that even if they don’t want to admit it, the problem is very much on their minds.

The issue with Assad is even more complicated, as the administration publicly insists it still wants regime change, but is clearly coordinating, at least secretly, with the Syrian military.

This article was published by AntiWar.

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Police Using Controversial Patriot Act Authority For ‘Everyday’ Cases: Civil Liberties Group Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:31 +0000 Created under the guise of fighting terrorism, 'Sneak and Peek' now being used to spy on drug suspects, immigrants, rights group finds. Continue reading

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policeA contentious surveillance provision of the Patriot Act, which allows law enforcement to conduct searches while delaying informing the suspect, is broadly used, but almost never in terrorism cases—despite Justice Department officials arguments to the contrary, according to an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“Yet again, terrorism concerns appear to be trampling our civil liberties,” writes EFF’s Mark Jaycox.

The rights group analyzed federal reports from 2011, 2012, and 2013, released after an unexplained three-year delay, on warrants that were issued under Section 213, known colloquially as “Sneak and Peek.”

Out of more than 11,000 requests for those delayed-notification searches in 2013, a grand total of 51 were used for terrorism cases, EFF found. Almost all of the other Sneak and Peek warrants went to drug investigations.

Notifications of searches were routinely delayed by at least a month, and often by several. The average (pdf) delay nationwide in 2013 was 64 days.

Fraud, theft, and immigration investigations all garnered more Sneak and Peek warrants than terrorism cases.

“Yet again, terrorism concerns appear to be trampling our civil liberties”
—Mark Jaycox.

“Exactly what privacy advocates argued in 2001 is happening: sneak and peak warrants are not just being used in exceptional circumstances—which was their original intent—but as an everyday investigative tool,” Jaycox writes.

Jaycox continues:

The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.

In addition to their egregious use, the number of warrants issued has skyrocketed, with requests nearly tripling in just three years. By contrast, police made 47 sneak-and-peek searches nationwide from September 2001 to April 2003.

Section 213 was enacted over protests by civil rights groups who noted that the FBI already had the power to conduct delayed-notification searches in terrorism investigations through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“Section 213 authorizes sneak-and-peek searches in run-of-the-mill criminal investigations, not just in foreign-intelligence investigations involving terrorists,” the ACLU warned in 2003. Likewise, even as the Supreme Court ruled in Wilson v. Arkansas and Richards v. Wisconsin that the Fourth Amendment required police to “knock and announce” their entry into property when conducting a search, the decision allowed for police to skirt that rule in situations where evidence or their safety was under threat.

“Section 213 codified this practice into statute, taking delayed notice from a relatively rare occurrence into standard operating law enforcement procedure,” Jaycox writes.

As Radley Balko notes, “this was all immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and there was little patience for civil libertarians. The massive Patriot Act of course passed overwhelmingly…. sneak-and-peek is increasingly ubiquitous while the justification for granting the government this power in the first place—terrorism—is not only irrelevant to the tactic’s increasing pervasiveness, it gets more irrelevant every year.”

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FBI Quietly Seeks Broader Hacking Powers Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:28 +0000 Department of Justice proposal raises 'significant and troubling' privacy concerns, ACLU says. Continue reading

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IMG_2802The FBI is seeking to expand its hacking and surveillance powers through “an apparently backdoor route,” the Guardian reported Wednesday, a move that civil liberties groups say could infringe upon constitutional rights.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has proposed (pdf) an amendment to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, having to do with warrants for remote access to electronic data. The rule changes, according to the DOJ, would make it easier for law enforcement “to investigate and prosecute…crimes involving Internet anonymizing technologies,” such as Tor.

The federal Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules is scheduled to hear testimony on the proposal at a hearing next week.

The Guardian reports:

Under existing wording, warrants have to be highly focused on specific locations where suspected criminal activity is occurring and approved by judges located in that same district.

But under the proposed amendment, a judge can issue a warrant that would allow the FBI to hack into any computer, no matter where it is located. The change is designed specifically to help federal investigators carry out surveillance on computers that have been “anonymized”—that is, their location has been hidden using tools such as Tor.

The amendment inserts a clause that would allow a judge to issue warrants to gain “remote access” to computers “located within or outside that district” (emphasis added) in cases in which the “district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means.” The expanded powers to stray across district boundaries would apply to any criminal investigation, not just to terrorist cases as at present.

At that point, tech experts suggest, the FBI could employ “Network Investigative Techniques” to install malware that permits remote control of a computer and thus would allow the FBI to search and collect data from both a user’s hard drive as well as cloud-based storage systems such as Dropbox or Google Docs.

Because “[c]riminals are increasingly using sophisticated technologies that pose technical challenges to law enforcement,” the DOJ wrote in its proposal, permitting remote searches is “essential.”

But privacy advocates are warning against granting the FBI’s request too hastily or without considering the long-term technical implications.

“The Advisory Committee should proceed with extreme caution before expanding the government’s authority to conduct remote electronic searches,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in its submitted comments (pdf) on the rule change. “[T]he proposed amendment would significantly expand the government’s authority to conduct searches that raise troubling Fourth Amendment, statutory, and policy questions.”

The ACLU continued:

If adopted, the proposed amendment will provide authority for the government to conduct remote access electronic searches for years to come. Over the coming decades, electronic storage systems will become ever more interconnected. Interconnectivity of cloud storage will likely increase at a rapid rate, and will proceed in ways that we cannot now accurately predict. This raises the specter of the authority enacted today for one purpose inadvertently enabling future searches that are considerably more invasive than anything the Advisory Committee, or even the government, now envisions.

And watchdogs are also concerned about the way in which the DOJ is trying to expand its powers.

“This is an investigative technique that we haven’t seen before and we haven’t thrashed out the implications,” Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told the Guardian. “It absolutely should not be done through a rule change—it has to be fully debated publicly, and Congress must be involved.”

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An Israeli newspaper published this stupid 9/11 cartoon. Here’s the REAL reason you should be mad Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:23 +0000 For people who genuinely care about US policies with respect to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East more broadly, the real reason to be perturbed is that it's a massive, unnecessary distraction from a serious diplomatic problem and from a crisis on the ground in East Jerusalem that's set to explode. Continue reading

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haaretz_cartoon_leadOh boy…

That was probably the experience readers of Ha’aretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper, had today when they discovered this cartoon, which shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flying an airplane into one of the World Trade Center towers. Below the cartoon, editors wrote “US-Israel tensions: The crisis with Washington is here to stay” and linked to an article about the ongoing and building conflicts between Netanyahu’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

The response has been what you’d expect: It’s disgusting, tasteless, and irresponsible. It — probably unintentionally —rehashes anti-Semitic 9/11 conspiracy theories. And as far as political cartoons go, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Those are all fine reasons to be annoyed by it. But for people who genuinely care about US policies with respect to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East more broadly, the real reason to be perturbed is that it’s a massive, unnecessary distraction from a serious diplomatic problem and from a crisis on the ground in East Jerusalem that’s set to explode.

Even the cartoonist, Amos Biderman, must feel that way, given that he was trying to mount a critique of Netanyahu and instead created a controversy that is, at the end of the day, stupid. Biderman told the Times of Israel that he was trying to convey his belief that Netanyahu’s policies and personal behavior could lead to “a disaster in Israel-US relations on the scale of 9/11.” He was also responding to recent controversy over the fact that a senior Obama official told the Atlantic that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” — another distraction from the very critique that official was trying to make.

So, what should we be talking about INSTEAD of tweeting outrage at this cartoon?

Let’s talk about money and friendship: like the fact that every year the United States gives $3.1 billion in aid to Israel even as the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administration has reached what people in the know are calling a “full-blown crisis.” Up to 25 percent of Israel’s military spending comes from the pockets of US tax payers, and given how it got used this summer in Gaza, it’s time for a conversation.

And let’s talk about what’s happening in East Jerusalem right now.

In case the cartoon has pushed all other Israel news out of your Twitter feed, here’s what’s happening.

Netanyahu is pushing ahead with 1,000 new settler homes in East Jerusalem, a tinderbox of an area that Israel has occupied since 1967 and that many Palestinians consider their own capital city. The Obama administration tried to get Netanyahu to abandon support for the settlements, but apparently $3.1 billion doesn’t buy much influence these days.

Settlers aren’t just building new homes. In villages like Silwan, they are purposefully displacing Palestinian families, as Reuters has reported. The new settlements and police protection for settlers has led to clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.

Rising tensions led Israeli security forces to briefly close Al Aqsa mosque, a move that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called a “declaration of war.” Al Asqa mosque has long been a site of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. It’s not only an extremely holy site for Muslims, but for Jews, as well, who call the site Temple Mount. Some right-wing extremists in Israel would like to see the mosque destroyed and a temple built in its place. But increasing Jewish presence at the site and using Israeli security forces to control it are very much in the mainstream. Currently, only Muslims may enter the mosque, but a new Israeli law might lift those restrictions, dividing the mosque into two separate parts for Jewish and Muslim worshippers, like the Ibrahim mosque in Hebron.

The shutdown of Al Aqsa came after a failed assassination attempt on an Israel-American activist whose organization strives to “liberate” the holy site from Islamic “occupation.” Israeli security forces then shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man they believed was responsible for the assassination. Violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians erupted, as you’d expect, but when you hear about these “clashes,” keep in mind the power dynamics at work in this conflict over Al Aqsa. Only one side has an army and the power to shutter one of the holiest places in the Muslim faith.

So, how about that cartoon?

This article was published by GlobalPost.

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VIDEO: Boynton Beach Police Officer Accused Of Rape At Gunpoint Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:08:22 +0000 According to the allegation, Maiorino drove to a secluded area and sexually assaulted the woman on the hood of his squad car while holding a gun to her. Continue reading

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The ‘Silent Intifada’ In Jerusalem Grows Louder By The Day. Here’s How Things Got So Bad Fri, 31 Oct 2014 12:43:33 +0000 The ‘silent intifada’ in Jerusalem grows louder by the day. Here's how things got so bad. Continue reading

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APTOPIX Mideast Israel PalestiniansJERUSALEM — The press here has been talking recently of a “silent intifada”: the city has been convulsed by violence for months, but most of it happens at night, bottled up inside the Palestinian districts of occupied East Jerusalem.

By Thursday afternoon, though, after two shootings and a day of clashes, the situation in Jerusalem had become anything but quiet.

Thursday’s riots were sparked by the killing of Mutaz Hijazi, a Palestinian man accused of shooting a right-wing Jewish activist on Wednesday night. A pre-dawn raid by Israeli security forces to arrest him ended in gunfire, and for much of the day his neighborhood, Abu Tor, was blanketed in tear gas as security forces fought with local youths.

The activist, Yehuda Glick, remains in stable condition at Sha’are Tzedek hospital.

Just a week earlier, a Palestinian man drove his car into a crowd of passengers disembarking from the city’s light rail, killing two people, including an infant. Police killed him during a raid later that night.

Both attacks offer some insight into the grievances fueling the violence in the holy city. But while they may have escalated the violence in Jerusalem, the truth is that tensions have been rising for months.

Back in July, Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted and burned alive in an act of revenge for the killing of three Jewish Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

His murder set off a week of riots in his neighborhood, Shuafat, which ended with hundreds of people injured or jailed. Violence has continued at a lower level ever since: nightly clashes, buses and trains attacked with stones and firebombs. More than 700 people have been arrested in the past four months.

Palestinians point to a range of grievances, from the most recent Gaza war — in which 2,104 Palestinians died, including 1,462 civilians, along with 66 Israeli military personnel and six Israeli civilians — to ongoing home demolitions and arrests in the east.

One of the key issues is the status of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the most hotly contested religious site in the city. It is the most sacred spot for Jews, who believe it to be the site of the biblical temple, and the third holiest place in Islam, since it houses Al-Aqsa mosque.

Glick worked with an organization called the Temple Mount Faithful, which campaigns for the construction of a new Jewish temple on the plateau.

Jews are currently banned from praying on the esplanade, to avoid confrontations, a status quo that many right-wing Israelis have long worked to change. Moshe Feiglin, a deputy speaker of the Knesset who witnessed the shooting, encouraged his followers to respond by showing up at the complex on Thursday morning. His announcement, and others by right-wing groups, prompted the authorities to shut the compound entirely.

Local activists said the closure was the first since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “declaration of war.”

A police spokesman said the complex will reopen on Friday, the Muslim holy day, but men under the age of 50 will be barred from attending prayers.

Tension has not been limited to the Old City. To the south, perched on top of a steep hill overlooking Abu Tor, lies the neighborhood of Silwan — a focal point for conflict in recent weeks.

Earlier this month dozens of Jewish settlers moved into nine buildings there. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, from the national-religious Jewish Home party, praised the settlers for helping to ensure a “Jewish majority” in Silwan. In truth, the neighborhood is still overwhelmingly Palestinian.

Palestinian grievances in Jerusalem also have much deeper roots. Israel occupied the east of the city in 1967, and the vast majority of its residents elected not to become Israeli citizens. They are free to work and travel, but cannot vote in Knesset elections, and are subject to lose their status if they move out of the city.

Neighborhoods in the east receive less funding than the predominantly Jewish west, and municipal services are scarce. Building permits are expensive and difficult to obtain, and Palestinians who build illegally often have their homes destroyed.

Even the justice system, they say, treats Jews and Palestinians differently, a belief reinforced by the killings of the suspects in Silwan and Abu Tor.

In both cases, police spokesmen said the suspects were armed, and opened fire on security forces; in both cases, neighbors disputed the official account, and cited the peaceful arrest of Abu Khdeir’s killers as a counterexample.

“They would treat us much differently if it was a Jewish man who shot a Palestinian,” said Samir Natsheh, a resident of Abu Tor watching the clashes on Thursday.

This article was published by GlobalPost.

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The Right To Vote Shall Not Be Infringed — Or Shall It? Fri, 31 Oct 2014 12:30:17 +0000 Is the right to vote as much of a right as we think it is? Despite a number of amendments to the Constitution that have expanded access to voting booths, the Constitution still doesn’t approach voting with a positive “one person, one vote” theory. Continue reading

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Voter ID

Members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee stage a silent protest in the gallery of the House chamber in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, March 24, 2014. The group opposes a state law that prevents student IDs to be used to vote in Tennessee.

This election season has been a typical one. Republicans have castigated Democrats and President Barack Obama on the economy, national security and a whole host of other issues, while the Democrats have done the same to them in return. The balance of power in the Senate is up for grabs, though regardless of who controls it not much will get done, and the elections will set the stage for the big vote two years from now, when the White House will once again be contested by America’s two parties. Already, one can see some of the players in that future contest jockeying for their positions.

With all of this political maneuvering taking place, one might have not noticed what is probably the biggest political story of the year. It’s not big because it highlights how one of the two parties is going to win or take an important seat, nor is it important because it highlights how one corporate actor or another has staked a claim to this or that politician. No, it’s important because it touches upon the most basic, primal act of our democracy: voting. This basic act of citizen sovereignty is increasingly under threat.


A Lone Star veteran, without a driver’s license

Perhaps the best demonstration of this recently was what happened to an elderly Texan veteran who tried to vote early in late October. As reported in the press, a Houston election judge had to turn away the unidentified man at the polling place because the veteran, who had fought in the Second World War, lacked the proper identification needed to cast a ballot. In previous elections the man had voted and, given his age, might not ever cast a ballot in a national election again, but that didn’t stop Texas from making sure that a man who was registered to vote couldn’t do so because his driver’s license had expired.

All the elderly man had to do, said the Lone Star State, was to go to the local branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety — where freedom-loving Texans get their driver’s licenses — and stand in line for hours and hours as an underpaid, understaffed, inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracy eventually winds its way to him. Oh, and he better have his car registered, insured and inspected, and have all of that documented and ready for the DPS clerks to see; otherwise, that veteran who had fought fascism in his youth still won’t be able to vote. Although the 93-year-old man could also get a much easier to obtain public photo ID from DPS, he would still have to wait in line for hours to do so.

To require an old man who was otherwise registered to vote, let alone one who fought for his country in his youth, to stand in line in order to get an ID is absurd, especially when one understands just how unnecessary it is.


The myth of voter fraud

Conservatives in Texas and elsewhere claim IDs are necessary in order to prevent voter fraud, yet the most recent examination of ballots cast in the last election demonstrates that real-life fraud, as opposed to that theorized in the minds of Republican lawmakers, is so infrequent as to be laughable. As the Washington Post reported back in August, a comprehensive investigation of voter fraud found just 31 (that’s a three, followed by a one) “credible incidents” of fraud out of 1 billion ballots cast since the year 2000.

To put that into perspective, that represents just a .0002 percent chance of a voter casting a ballot on Election Day being somebody other than who he says he is. Voter fraud, in other words, simply doesn’t happen.

Indeed, a voter is more likely to have been hit by lightning 39 times than to be engaging in fraud. Voters are 3,500 times more likely to have reported a UFO encounter than to fraudulently cast a ballot.

What’s more, this has been known for quite some time, suggesting that the real issue isn’t fraud but the desire by some politicians — e.g., Republican conservatives — to make it more difficult for some types of voters to cast ballots than others. Indeed, Republicans have often admitted as much publicly in unguarded moments in front of the press. They simply do not believe that democracy and the right to vote should extend to all people, regardless of race, creed or level of income, especially those who are likely to vote for Democrats on Election Day.

It’s telling that one of our two parties sees voter disenfranchisement as an acceptable solution to their political woes. It suggests that democracy in the United States is neither so secure, nor as accepted as we would like it to be, and that our right to vote may ultimately depend on whether a few calculating politicians at the state and local levels deem our ballot worthy enough to count. This is unacceptable and highlights in glaring detail the fact that although Americans enjoy all sorts of rights enumerated in the Constitution, the right to vote is explicitly not one of them, even though several amendments have abolished past restrictions on voting such as the 19th, 24th, and the 26th Amendments.


A constitutional right?

As it stands, the Constitution mostly comments on voting in a negative way, meaning that it lays out what a state can’t do vis-à-vis voting. For example, a state can’t restrict the right to vote due to gender, or race, or age. What it doesn’t do, however, is lay out a positive, forward-thinking constitutional theory on voting that explicitly states that all votes should be cast on the principle of “one person, one vote,” or regulate how national elections are carried out at the state and local level. This needs to change because history has repeatedly shown that state and local politicians will, when left to their own devices, use the space left to them by the Constitution to regulate, manipulate, and suppress voters inimical to their interests.

A solution to this problem is to pass an amendment to the Constitution that explicitly lays out a positive theory of voting. “One person, one vote” should be mandated, and the state and local governments should be required, under pain of stiff civil and criminal penalties, to ensure fair and equal access to the ballot box for all voters, regardless of administrative cost, past practice or legal tradition. Long lines in minority neighborhoods should be made illegal and local governments penalized severely if they do not ensure timely access to voting booths. Extended early voting should be encouraged, if not mandated outright, as should postal voting or even email voting.  Registration should be made easier and less burdensome. Above all, make Election Day and the Monday prior to it national holidays and allow voters to turn in an official “I voted” decal on their tax forms in order to receive a small rebate on their annual tax bill.

Furthermore, instead of requiring citizens to obtain a voting ID, the government should be required to provide one, at cost in time and money, to each and every voter who wants one if an ID should be required. In general, a system in which the government goes to the 93-year-old man to help him vote, not one in which the 93-year-old man goes to the government, is what such a constitutionally mandated election reform would look like. Expanding access to the ballot should be encouraged, with a bias toward allowing as many people as possible to easily and costlessly vote, while any effort to restrict voting or to make it costly and difficult should be discouraged and, in effect, made unconstitutional and illegal.

None of these ideas are particularly partisan, and they all smack of good, old-fashioned “small-d” populist democracy that everyone should, in theory, support.  After all, no one wants to be explicitly against people voting, so forcing the issue via an amendment will be a good thing. If successful, it expands voting access and rights, which should theoretically help liberal progressives politically. Even better, it puts Republican conservatives in a deeply uncomfortable place by forcing them to defend what are indefensible practices. It shows the public who these folks really are: The type of people who would make a 93-year-old veteran stand in line for hours for a photo ID just so he can vote on Election Day.

The post The Right To Vote Shall Not Be Infringed — Or Shall It? appeared first on MintPress News.

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EPA Casts Doubt On Efficacy Of Pesticide Linked To Dwindling Bee Populations Fri, 31 Oct 2014 12:24:22 +0000 “Pesticide sellers have worked hard to convince American farmers that they need to use these toxic seed treatments. Now that we know that these treatments don’t even help farmers, EPA must take action to ban them,” one environmental watchdog tells MintPress. Continue reading

The post EPA Casts Doubt On Efficacy Of Pesticide Linked To Dwindling Bee Populations appeared first on MintPress News.

Kansas Daily LifeWASHINGTON — Environmentalists and those pushing for the weakened use of chemicals in agriculture say they are bolstered by a new study from the U.S. government that strongly questions the efficacy of one of the most common pesticides used on soybeans.

The class of pesticides under investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency is known as neonicotinoids, or neonics. Similar to nicotine, neonics are today the most commonly used insecticide in the world. They’re also widely considered a key culprit behind the mysterious mass collapse among bee colonies worldwide in recent years.

Over the past decade, beekeepers in the United States have reported average annual mortality of nearly a third of their colonies. And during certain years and in certain places, these rates have been and continue to be far higher.

“Neonicotinoids are causing massive die-offs of pollinators such as honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies,” Lori Ann Burd, director of the Endangered Species Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, a watchdog group, told MintPress News.

“Pesticide sellers have worked hard to convince American farmers that they need to use these toxic seed treatments. Now that we know that these treatments don’t even help farmers, EPA must take action to ban them.”

Bees and other pollinators contribute some $24 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the U.S. government. While there is little consensus on the exact role that neonicotinoids have played in harming global bee populations, the science is strong enough to have led the European Union to impose a moratorium on the use of several of the most common of these products.

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments are likewise studying whether to take action. In an annual report released earlier this month, the environment commissioner of Ontario called for the provincial government to unilaterally ban neonicotinoids if the national government doesn’t act. According to a release, the commissioner, Gord Miller, called the compounds “the biggest threat to the structure and ecological integrity of the ecosystem that I have ever encountered in my life.”

In this country, however, the EPA has said it will not move on the issue before 2016. Nonetheless, for the first time EPA researchers have carried out a cost-benefit analysis on the use of neonics to treat soybean seeds, and the findings are stark.

“[T]hese seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations,” the report states. “Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.”


Prophylactic use

The U.S. soybean sector is booming, and this summer the federal government forecast what could be a record harvest. Around a third of the country’s soybean producers – covering some 22 million acres – use neonic treatments, according to official data, a process that generally involves coating the seeds in the chemical before planting.

Yet the EPA’s new study points out that this early-season use does not actually overlap with the active periods of several of the most voracious crop-eating pests, suggesting instead that “much of the existing usage on soybeans is prophylactic in nature.”

While these seed treatments may not be thwarting many of the targeted insects, neonicotinoids do stay in the soil and in plants for long periods. In part, this is what makes them potentially dangerous to the bees and other pollinators that come and visit once those crops start to flower. The EPA also investigated multiple alternative pesticides, which the researchers found were comparable in price and efficacy.

It is unclear how either individual farmers or larger agribusiness interests will react to the findings, which are currently open to public comment. For now, many appear to be trying to digest the EPA’s findings. The American Soybean Association, for instance, told MintPress that it would be submitting comments on the analysis but was still looking at the EPA’s methodology.

CropLife America, a trade association representing the pest-management industry, likewise said it was continuing to review the findings. Still, a representative did suggest that the EPA’s analysis was only partial.

“Seed treatments, including neonicotinoid insecticides, provide numerous benefits to growers in the U.S. and abroad,” Ray McAllister, CropLife America’s senior director of regulatory policy, said in a statement sent to MintPress.

“EPA acknowledges that the data sources for their analysis are incomplete. We believe that a much more positive account of the value of seed treatments will emerge when a more robust body of information is considered following the announced comment period.”

McAllister also noted that seed treatments offer a “precise method of delivery, while minimizing potential exposure to growers, applicators, non-target species and the environment.”

Indeed, recent media reports from the United Kingdom have offered a mixed picture on the impact of the ban on three types of neonics, which went into effect this year. Farmers report using neonic alternatives that require the use of far more product than is needed with seed treatments, coating a field and potentially causing greater harm to beneficial bugs within the soil.

Still, environmental advocates in the U.S. are lauding the EPA’s study, and note that the findings aren’t new.

“EPA’s findings confirmed what a number of scientists have found in the past, that the prophylactic use of these pesticides offers no economic benefits in terms of crop yield or longer-term benefits,” Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, told MintPress.

“But having the EPA confirm these findings is quite significant. We think EPA now has no excuse but to suspend this use to protect pollinators.”


Consumer demand

Even as the regulatory process moves slowly forward, others are taking more decisive action, including within the federal government. In June, for instance, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum pushing federal agencies to take steps to promote the health of bees and pollinators. The state of Minnesota is currently considering a full ban on neonics.

Last week, the White House also released revised guidelines stating that trees, shrubs, grasses and other greenery planted on federal lands and around federal buildings – covering some 41 million acres and 429,000 buildings – should not be pretreated with pesticides at all. “Acquire seeds and plants from nurseries that do not treat their plants with systemic insecticides,” the guidelines state.

Advocates are now hoping that these new guidelines will convince commercial retailers carrying such items that a tide is shifting on this issue. The past year has already seen several notable decisions in this regard by major retailers, responding to mounting vocal public engagement on the issue. Even those close to the issue say that the level of public mobilization around pollinator protection – an issue that was on next to no one’s radar just a few years ago – is surprising.

“It is really incredible how this has grown, and today there is an impressive level of consumer demand on this issue, directed at the EPA, Congress and the marketplace,” Friends of the Earth’s Finck-Haynes said. “In response, there’s been a lot of movement over just the past year from companies, with over a dozen retailers taking steps to eliminate or label products with neonicotinoids.”

Home Depot, for instance, has agreed to label all of its plants that have been treated with neonics by the end of this year, and the home improvement chain is also looking into alternatives. BJ’s Wholesale Club has taken similar steps, as have the largest garden supply stores in the U.K.

These actions have been so marked that activists have been able to start targeting stores that thus far have refused to remove neonics and related products from their shelves. On Wednesday, some 30,000 people across the U.S. and Canada were planning on demonstrating at or near Lowe’s stores, asking them to take such actions.

Green groups say Lowe’s, a major home improvement retailer, is continuing to sell plants that have been pretreated with neonicotinoids and include no label alerting consumers. Organizers say they delivered a million petition signatures to the store’s management on Wednesday, asking for remedial action. Lowe’s did not respond to request for comment for this story.

Still, Finck-Haynes says that the actions taken in recent years by the government, retailers and consumers have yet to significantly benefit still-plummeting bee populations. Even in the EU, where the neonic moratorium remains in effect, she says the ban is only partial and there is no comprehensive monitoring set up to track the policy’s impact.

“Long-term, we’d like to see a transition to a sustainable agricultural system that best protects both pollinators and our broader ecosystem,” she said, “a system that does not rely on chemical-intensive practices.”

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