Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article was published by Agence France Presse, January 25, 2009
JERUSALEM (AFP) – US peace envoy George Mitchell will find a region in disarray when he arrives this week on his first visit to try to cement a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants.
The Jewish state is busy with an election campaign and the Palestinians are divided more deeply than ever in the wake of the deadly three-week Gaza war.
Mitchell is due to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday to review "how to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process," an official said.
But Abbas is a weakened figure whose writ no longer runs in the Gaza Strip where the Islamist Hamas movement retains power, despite the Israeli army assault that left more than 1,300 dead.
Abbas faces a battle with Hamas, which has declared victory in surviving the Israeli offensive, just to control international relief efforts. His calls for a Palestinian unity government have gone unheeded.
And Israel's leading parties are squabbling over who is best placed to work with US President Barack Obama and his "aggressive" push for peace.
Mitchell is to arrive in Israel on Tuesday night and hold talks over the following two days.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni charged that a government led by election favourite Benjamin Netanyahu could cause a "clash" with the United States.
"Israel and the United States can head toward full cooperation over common goals such as fighting terror, stopping Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah," she said.
"Israel and the United States can also reach a clash. It depends who will be here. If whoever is here stops the peace process and thinks that the world will be with him, will find himself in a head-on collision with the United States in 20 seconds."
Deputy prime minister Haim Ramon added his own warning: "Anyone who today wants to continue the settlements and annexe all the (occupied) territories will bring a major catastrophe on Israel.
"All that will cause a confrontation not just with the United States but the whole world," he said.
Livni leads the ruling centre-right Kadima party for the February 10 ballot which pollsters are predicting will result in a coalition government of Netanyahu's Likud, the far-right Yisrael Beitenu and conservative Jewish religious parties.
A Likud party official scoffed at Livni's comments.
"She is under pressure, because the polls predict that Kadima will lose. Benjamin Netanyahu is the best placed Israeli leader to handle our relations with Washington and defend Israel's interests," he said.
Netanyahu had already tried to cool fears of a drift to the far-right, saying: "If I win the elections, I won't form an extreme right wing government."
To add to the complications, Kadima Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces corruption charges and is standing down from politics at this election.
But Mitchell, an Arab-American, is no stranger to the challenges of the six-decade Israel-Palestinian conflict.
He led a fact-finding mission into the causes of the 2000 second intifada or Palestinian uprising against occupation. The 2001 Mitchell report called for a halt to all violence and a freeze of Israeli settlements on Arab territory.
Obama appointed the 75-year-old on Thursday and dispatched him to the region to ensure a "durable" and "sustainable" ceasefire in Gaza after Israel's offensive.
Israel and Hamas declared unilateral ceasefires on January 18 and Israel completed its withdrawal from the territory on January 21.
However Israel has warned it will not hesitate to bomb the strip again if arms smuggling resumes and Hamas, which retains the capacity to send rockets to southern Israel, has demanded that the Gaza borders be fully open.
Mitchell arrives while both sides are negotiating in Egypt to try to consolidate the ceasefire.
On the ground in Gaza, residents were still picking through rubble, with major reconstruction efforts blocked because of closed borders.
Israel has kept the crossings shut, saying it will cooperate with rebuilding efforts only if Hamas, which Israel brands a terror outfit, does not control them.
War damage is estimated at 1.9 billion dollars (1.4 billion euros).
This article, by Jess Rosenfeld, was published in Haaretz, January 21,2009
I had just returned to Tel Aviv from a demonstration in the West Bank village of Ni'lin last July, when I caught word that the Israeli military had shot 11-year old Ahmad Musa in the head during a protest against the separation wall. Twenty minutes later, three Israeli anarchists and I were speeding back to the West Bank to see what had happened.
Soon we were again in the West Bank, where Israeli suburban-like settlements interrupt Palestinian farmland and villages. Apart from the occasional phone call by the activists to spread the word, we drove mostly in a stifling silence of despair.
As we were waved through a military checkpoint by an Israeli soldier with an M16 dangling carelessly around her neck, activist Yonatan Pollack kicked the glove compartment. "Fucking child killers," he spat out.
On November 7, Haaretz reported that the army had requested that the Shin Bet - Israel's domestic spy network and internal security service - provide information on left-wing Israeli activists traveling to the West Bank.
The stated goal was to make it easier for the army to issue restraining orders to prevent the activists from entering.
Since the beginning of the anti-wall campaign in Ni'lin last May, village residents have been joined by Israeli and international activists in non-violent attempts to block the army's bulldozers.
At the same time, the youth in the town have responded to the army's use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition with stone throwing. Their collective effort has created heavy delays in construction, and the wall - scheduled for completion last June - is still unfinished.
The struggle has not only generated robust participation by Israel's small radical left, it has also regalvanized the military refusal movement after two years of relative quiet.
Inspired by the resistance of Ni'lin villagers and horrified by the brutality Israel has used to repress the village uprising, the "refuseniks" - as they are locally known - are back in the news.
"If the army backs off in Ni'lin it will be an example to the refusal movement and Israeli society. It will show that the army can't break us," explains Omer Goldman, a Ni'lin solidarity activist who went to military prison this past September at age 19 for refusing to enlist on her conscription date.
Because military tribunals usually hand out numerous consecutive small sentences for refusal rather than dealing with drawn out public trials, Goldman received a second sentence immediately following her first.
Army service is compulsory for all 18-year-old Jewish and Druze Israelis, with men serving three years and women two, and it has long been seen as a sacred cow in Israeli society. The refusenik movement first emerged during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and was re-launched at the height of the second Intifada with a refusal letter of 200 high-school graduates in 2001.
The refuseniks have now been thrown back into the national spotlight following the imprisonment of five Israeli draft dodgers - including Goldman last August and September. The jailings began after an open letter from graduating high school students refusing to enlist was published in the August 15 edition of Yedioth Aharonoth. Over 60 high-school students signed the letter, declaring their intention to evade conscription, once again taking aim at Israel's 41 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
"Our refusal comes first and foremost as a protest of the separation, control, oppression and killing policy held by the State of Israel in the occupied territories," reads the published letter that was also sent to both IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
"We cannot hurt in the name of defense or imprison in the name of freedom; therefore we cannot be moral and serve the occupation," concludes the letter.
Goldman, whose father was a deputy head of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, echoes the sentiment. I first met her hiding out in a Ni'lin medical clinic as the army invaded the village spraying live bullets.
As we sit in a trendy Tel Aviv cafe talking about both her political influences and activist experiences, it becomes clear that what drives the admirer of the 1968 Paris student revolt is both philosophical and visceral: she refuses to participate in what she has seen the military do in Ni'lin and rejects what the army represents.
"Ni'lin's [struggle] is a window that shows an example of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity," Goldman explains.
It is a perspective that grinds against the Israeli mainstream. For Defense Ministry spokesman Sholomo Dror, the issue of military refusal is one of a small minority of Israelis breaking the law and not fulfilling their national obligations.
Dror argues that Israelis have a "democratic" responsibility to serve in the state's armed forces.
"If you want to oppose the government's policies, then serve in the army and oppose the policies afterwards," he says in a phone interview from his Tel Aviv office. "I don't think serving in the army is violating people's rights."
According to Dror, refuseniks represent a fringe movement that poses no real threat to the military or challenge to Israeli society. "We have more people volunteering for elite unit enlistment being turned down," he says. The war on draft dodging
Despite this claim, Defense Ministry statistics show that 25 percent of Israeli's avoided military service in 2007. While 11 percent of those were exempt for religious reasons, the majority falls into what is commonly referred to as "grey refusal." This category refers to those exempt for mental or physical health reasons, or marriage, in the case of women.
In response to these statistics, Defense Minister Barak and IDF Chief Ashkenazi called for a "war on draft dodging" - an operation to publicly shame those avoiding service.
A vigorous television and billboard campaign was launched across Israel last year, under the slogan "A real Israeli doesn't evade the army."
The ads featured a group of Israelis on a post-army tour of India - a rite of passage so popular it has almost become a social institution - trying to impress a group of Swedish travelers with tales from the battlefront. The Israeli who avoided military service is the one who doesn't end up with a beautiful blond.
Following publication of high school refusenik's open letter, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz last September launched a criminal investigation into the New Profile organization - which provides support and information for people planning on or actively refusing military service.
Haaretz reported then that the inquiry into whether the organization was guilty of "incitement to draft dodging" was launched in the wake of a February request by the military.
The "incitement to draft dodging" law has never before been investigated, but New Profile organizer Haggai Matar said the group is careful to ensure that all its work is legal.
"We are trying to offer an alternative to Israel's security discourse, to ask who's secure and whose security we are talking about," he explains. "We argue that perhaps we should talk about a different kind of security - social security, equality and security from needing."
During our chat after a refusenik demonstration at a Tel Aviv military base, Matar talks about the importance of the support he received from New Profile during his own army refusal in 2001. The bushy-bearded, strawberry blond radical was a leader in the first high school refusal letter of the Second Intifada, faced a high profile public trial for rejecting enlistment and spent two years in jail as a result. The case is now taught as precedent in law schools across Israel.
"New Profile helped me a lot when I was refusing, and therefore, all I can do is offer the support that I got," Matar smiles.
He is part of a small minority of the 25 percent of Israelis who avoid the draft by publicly opting out. Public refusal continues to receive prominent national attention and vicious social backlash.
Like Goldman and Matar, refusenik, Sahar Vardi, received national media coverage when she was jailed for the first time on August 25 for refusing her military induction.
"I'm going to tell the recruitment officer that I'm not serving because of the occupation," Vardi said, just before entering the Tel Aviv military base for new conscripts. "I've seen Palestinian kids get shot and beaten by the army in the West Bank and this is something that I'm not going to be a part of." She seemed calmed and defiant, wearing a "courage to refuse" t-shirt with the graphic of a broken M-16.
In spite of facing both jail time and public backlash for their actions, refusenik activists are headstrong in their determination.
On December 18, the refuseniks rallied in front of Defense Ministry base in Tel Aviv - which also serves as a central army base - to present to Barak 20, 000 letters of international support calling for the release of jailed draft dodgers and commending their actions.
The action was organized by a coalition of Israeli and American anti occupation groups supporting military refusal, with most of the letters coming from supporters in the United States.
The crowed of 150 chanted "from Iraq to Palestine, choose refusal, stop the crimes," while several draft dodgers attempted to deliver the 20,000 letters. They were stopped by police, at the gate of the base.
"They're the army, they don't deal with these sort of things," said a police officer preventing the delivery of letters.
Since the beginning of Israel's offensive on Gaza three weeks ago, the refuseniks have been furiously organizing anti-war action, demonstrating at army bases and joining in mass demonstrations demanding an end to the war.
For many Palestinians, especially activists in Ni'lin, Israeli military refusal is an important act of solidarity for joint struggle against occupation.
"Despite being a small part of Israeli society, [the refuseniks] give us hope that even inside Israel there are people who are really rejecting occupation," says Hindi Mesleh, an energetic 25-year old activist with Ni'lin's popular committee who regularly engages with Israeli solidarity activists. His family is currently fighting to save their own farmland from being confiscated by the separation wall.
Mesleh speaks about the refuseniks with same glint of the admiration that comes out when discussing Palestinian prisoners. "It's hard for Palestinians to conceive of someone serving on a checkpoint one day and going to demonstrate in Ni'lin the next," he explains, two weeks after Musa's death.
According to eyewitness reports, Musa was fatally wounded by an M-16 sticking out of a rifle slit at the back of an Israeli jeep, as he turned to flee troops. His corpse in the Ramallah morgue, with his skull split diagonally in two on the cold metal table, corroborate his cause of death.
The anger that arose in response to the shooting was exacerbated at his funeral the next day when 17-year old Youseph Amira was killed by two rubber bullets to the head during a checkpoint clash.
That day in July, as we arrived in Ni'lin on the eve of Musa's funeral, Pollack jumped out of the car and walked towards the barricade lines, hugging the store front walls to avoid the army's rubber bullets.
Evaluating the situation, he turned to group of local children, and asked them in Arabic what needed to be done.
This article was published in The National (United Arab Emirates), January 26, 2009
George Mitchell will travel to Jerusalem this week amid a tense ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and a fierce electoral battle in Israel. As Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, a role he held under the Clinton administration, he will seek to bolster the tenuous ceasefire and set the stage for a renewed push for peace. In anticipation of Mr Mitchell’s visit, the rhetoric from Israel’s myriad political parties is focused on the stagnant peace process. With the exception of some far right parties, each is portraying their candidates as the best suited to work with the Obama administration for peace.
Anyone who follows the seemingly impenetrable world of Israeli politics will not find any of this novel. What is new is the increasingly vocal and unified push from Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, for the peace process to be put on a more productive track. The move comes as a result of a rare show of unity at the inaugural Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait in response to Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza and the failure of the United States or the international community to stem the slaughter.
The core of the Saudi-led diplomatic push is the Arab Peace Initiative. The plan envisions a grand bargain for Middle East peace. It calls for Israel to withdraw to borders demarcated in 1967, a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem and a resolution to the Palestinian refugee situation. In return, the Arab world offers full diplomatic relations and a formal end to the 60 years of conflict, ostensibly opening a massive regional market for Israeli goods and services. For a country that relies heavily on the tourism industry, this is no small offer.
However, the initiative has struggled to gain traction. It was not until support for the plan was reaffirmed in 2007 that the Arabs began to receive a tentative positive response from Israeli politicians. Both the defence minister, Ehud Barak, and the president, Shimon Peres, have shown interest in negotiating a deal based on the Arab Peace Initiative.
But in the wake of the Gaza assault Arab governments are finding it increasingly difficult to justify dialogue with an Israeli state that appears to pay little more than lip service to peace. The difficulty facing the Arab leadership is convincing Israel that opening relations with perceptively hostile neighbours is in its best interest, a difficult task when Israelis are not the ones doing most of the dying. Short of a sudden outbreak of altruism in Israel’s halls of government, there is little to indicate that the country will change its policy of delay tactics in any peace talks.
Instead the Arab world must focus its diplomatic efforts on the US. Despite perceptions in this region that the US and Israel are inseparable allies, an image bolstered by the Bush administration, the US has interests in the Middle East that rely heavily on Arab support. The country’s efforts in Iraq, Iran and even Afghanistan would suffer should its relations weaken with the Arab world. Without continued co-operation from Arab states to control the inflow of foreign insurgents, Iraq’s tenuous calm could end along with US hopes of a peaceful withdrawal. Diplomatic pressure on Iran would weaken if Arab states ceased their co-operation with the embargo. And attempts to secure Afghanistan would falter without the availability of Arab airspace and bases.
The Arab Peace Initiative remains the most practicable path to peace and Palestinian statehood. But Arabs will never convince Israel of this: only the US has the power to push for its adoption.
In the last days before Israel imposed a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza to avoid embarrassing the incoming Obama administration, it upped its assault, driving troops deeper into Gaza City, intensifying its artillery bombardment and creating thousands more displaced people.
Israel's military strategy in Gaza, even in what its officials were calling the "final act," followed a blueprint laid down during the Lebanon war more than two years ago.
Then, Israel destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure in a month of intensive air strikes. Even in the war's last few hours, as a cease-fire was being finalized, Israel fired more than a million cluster bombs over south Lebanon, apparently in the hope that the area could be made as uninhabitable as possible.
(While this number seems hard to believe, consider this: It requires 1,700 shells to disperse about a million bombs. Most were fired from tanks, of which Israel had dozens lined up along the border. It isn't too hard to imagine, say, 50 tanks each firing 34 shells into Lebanon over the course of a few hours. According to the New York Times, Israel has a multiple-launch rocket system that can fire 12 shells in a minute.)
Similarly, Israel's destruction of Gaza continued with unrelenting vigor to the very last moment, even though, according to reports in the Israeli media, the air force exhausted what it called its "bank of Hamas targets" in the first few days of fighting.
The military sidestepped the problem by widening its definition of Hamas-affiliated buildings. Or as one senior official explained: "There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum because everything is connected, and everything supports terrorism against Israel."
That included mosques, universities, most government buildings, the courts, 25 schools, 20 ambulances and several hospitals, as well as bridges, roads, 10 electricity-generating stations, sewage lines and 1,500 factories, workshops and shops.
Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah estimate the damage so far at $1.9 billion, pointing out that at least 21,000 apartment buildings need repairing or rebuilding, forcing 100,000 Palestinians into refugeedom once again. In addition, 80 percent of all agricultural infrastructure and crops were destroyed. The PA has described its estimate as conservative.
None of this will be regretted by Israel. In fact, the general devastation, far from being unfortunate collateral damage, has been the offensive's unstated goal. Israel has sought the political, as well as military, emasculation of Hamas through the widespread destruction of Gaza's infrastructure and economy.
This is known as the "Dahiya Doctrine," named after a suburb of Beirut that was almost leveled during Israel's attack on Lebanon in summer 2006. The doctrine was encapsulated in a phrase used by Dan Halutz, Israel's chief of staff at the time. He said Lebanon's bombardment would "turn back the clock 20 years."
The commanding officer in Israel's south, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, echoed those sentiments on the Gaza offensive's first day. The aim, he said, was to "send Gaza decades into the past."
Beyond these sound bites, Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the head of Israel's northern command, clarified in October the practical aspects of the strategy: "What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan."
In the interview, Eisenkot was discussing the next round of hostilities with Hezbollah. However, the doctrine was intended for use in Gaza, too. Gabriel Siboni, a colonel in the reserves, set out the new "security concept" in an article published by Tel Aviv University's Institute of National Security Studies two months before the assault on Gaza. Conventional military strategies for waging war against states and armies, he wrote, could not defeat subnational resistance movements, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that have deep roots in the local population.
The goal instead was to use "disproportionate force," thereby "inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes." Siboni identified the chief target of Israel's rampages as decision-makers and the power elite, including "economic interests and the centers of civilian power that support the [enemy] organization."
The best Israel could hope for against Hamas and n, Siboni conceded, was a cease-fire on improved terms for Israel and delaying the next confrontation by leaving "the enemy floundering in expensive, long-term processes of reconstruction."
In the case of Gaza's lengthy reconstruction, however, Israel says it hopes not to repeat the mistakes of Lebanon. Then, Hezbollah, aided by Iranian funds, further bolstered its reputation among the local population by quickly moving to finance the rebuilding of Lebanese homes destroyed by Israel.
According to the Israeli media, the foreign ministry has already assembled a task force for "the day after" to ensure neither Hamas nor Iran take the credit for Gaza's reconstruction.
Israel wants all aid to be channeled either through the Palestinian Authority or international bodies. Sealing off Gaza, by preventing smuggling through tunnels under the border with Egypt, is an integral part of this strategy.
Much to Israel's satisfaction, the rebuilding of Gaza is likely to be even slower than might have been expected.
Diplomats point out that even if Western aid flows to the Palestinian Authority, it will have little effect if Israel maintains the blockade, curbing imports of steel, cement and money. And international donors are already reported to be tired of funding building projects in Gaza only to see them destroyed by Israel a short time later.
With more than a hint of exasperation, Norway Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere summed up the general view of donors last week: "Shall we give once more for the construction of something which is being destroyed, reconstructed and destroyed?"
This brief report, byBarry Schweid, was published by the Associated Press, January 21, 2009.
WASHINGTON -- President Obama is preparing to tap George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, for a top diplomatic post for the Middle East.
Officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the new administration is preparing to announce the appointment shortly. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been authorized to disclose it publicly.
Mitchell would assist Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's pick for secretary of State. The Senate was expected to vote on Clinton's nomination Wednesday.
The parameters of Mitchell's role were not immediately clear. Recent reports said Dennis Ross, longtime U.S. negotiator, would be named an adviser to Clinton.
Mitchell, 75, took on difficult diplomatic assignments during President Bill Clinton's presidency.
This article was published by Agence France Presse, January 21, 2009.
New President Barack Obama on Wednesday made a flurry of calls to Arab and Israeli leaders in a signal that Middle East peacemaking is a top priority following an Israeli offensive in Gaza.
A Palestinian spokesman said that Obama had told Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas that he was the recipient of his first call as the 44th US president.
The White House source confirmed the calls, on condition of anonymity, and said Obama also telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel, are key mediators between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, including in efforts to clinch a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.
More than a week after Israel launched its December 27 assault in the Gaza Strip to halt rocket fire from the Islamist movement Hamas, Obama promised to engage in Middle East diplomacy "immediately" upon taking office January 20.
Obama promised Abbas to work toward a "durable peace" in the Middle East, Abba's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
"He said he would deploy every possible effort to achieve peace as quickly as possible," the spokesman added. "President Abbas urged him to work towards peace based on international resolutions."
A close Abbas aide admitted surprise at the speed with which Obama moved.
"We were not expecting such a quick call from President Obama but we knew how serious he is about the Palestinian problem," said Yasser Abed Rabbo.
"The speed of the call is a message signalling to all concerned parties that the Palestinian people has one address and that's president Abbas."
The Islamist Hamas movement ousted Abbas' Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip in 2007, deepening divisions between the two camps.
"It also shows the level of seriousness that we hope to see translated into practice in the future," Abed Rabbo said.
"This message after the Israeli massacre in Gaza shows that President Obama realizes that the only way out of this tragedy is a political settlement guaranteeing the rights of the Palestinian people."
He was referring to the 22-day Israeli assault on the strip that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead, including at least 400 children.
Hillary Clinton, Obama's choice for secretary of state who is expected to face a Senate vote Wednesday for her confirmation, said recently that she would rule out engaging with Hamas.
The Senate will hold a roll call vote on Clinton's appointment the day after Obama was inaugurated, a Democratic leadership source said.
Obama then plans to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, aides told the Washington Post, adding the move is to send a signal the new administration wants to deal quickly with the conflict.
Mitchell, 75, is a retired US senator who steered the tough negotiations that led to lasting peace in Northern Ireland. He is the son of a Lebanese immigrant mother, and of an Irish father who when orphaned was adopted by a Lebanese family.
This article, by Jeremy Watson, was published in Scotland on Sunday, January 18, 2009
THE voice was unmistakable and the timing was impeccable. Just as George Bush was preparing to hand over the keys of the White House to Barack Obama, the Texan's bête noire put in the final appearance of his eight-year presidency.
There was only an old still photograph of the willowy, bearded figure of Osama bin Laden, but the voice was quickly authenticated as that of the al-Qaeda leader during a 22-minute rant renewing his calls for a Muslim jihad against the West.
References to the current battle between Israeli forces and Hamas in Gaza placed the video in the here and now, and the overall message could not have been clearer. Despite the global might of the US military machine and its state-of-the-art intelligence gathering, bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks, was still out there. He has successfully evaded capture for more than six years by hiding out in the mountainous tribal regions of north-west Pakistan.
For Bush, bin Laden, whom he famously vowed to catch "dead or alive", is unfinished business of the most embarrassing kind. For Obama, the Saudi Arabian terrorist will be the spectre at the feast of his inauguration on Tuesday.
Andrew Legon, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the significance of bin Laden's reappearance at this transitional moment - his last video was broadcast on Arab networks last May - will not be lost on either president. "The events of 9/11 became the defining moment of Bush's presidency and he won't be happy that bin Laden is still out there and has outlasted him," he said. "Now Obama has to take over, but he may find it just as difficult. It has been a combination of tough terrain and missed opportunities. The terrain in which bin Laden is hiding is very difficult to map and penetrate when you don't have the support."
So how has the master terrorist managed to stay at large despite one of the most intensive manhunts in history? Has his power to inspire terrorist operations around the world diminished because of his constant need for movement and protection? And what can he now expect from a new regime in the Oval Office?
All the signs are that as the Iraq mission starts to wind down, Afghanistan will become the focus and the testing ground for America's new commander-in-chief.
Bin Laden rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bush, only a few months after taking office, announced his "war on terror" and an immediate attack on Afghanistan and its militant Islamic Taliban government. The mountains of Afghanistan had become the base of bin Laden's al-Qaeda and the launch pad for global jihad. The Taliban was overthrown in a matter of weeks and bin Laden and his fighters were pursued deep into the mountain ranges bordering the largely lawless areas of northern Pakistan. But in the absence of regular troops, US special forces commanders had to rely on mujahideen from northern Afghanistan to act as their spearhead and bin Laden slipped the noose.
Analysts believe Washington then underestimated the challenge of extracting bin Laden from the protection of a fiercely loyal population for whom the Saudi Arabian was a resistance hero. As weeks turned into months, even a dollars 50m reward for his capture failed to persuade anyone in the remote Pakistani villages to betray him. Then, in 2002, the regime of Saddam Hussein replaced Afghanistan as the focus of the war on terror. In 2003 Iraq was invaded, tying up the bulk of the US military for the next four years. Although bin Laden was still a target, he was no longer Washington's priority.
To Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University, criticism of the tactics used by the Bush White House in Afghanistan are justified. "The momentum was lost after the fall of the Taliban," he said. "Many were surprised at the speed at which this occurred and they could have got the core leadership of al-Qaeda if they had pressed on.
"But the Americans got hooked on the idea of invading Iraq and implanting democracy in the Middle East, which they hoped would spread. Saddam had nothing to do with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but the deflection of resources of manpower and money meant the efforts that could have been put into bringing the leadership of al-Qaeda to book were lost." In the absence of locating him, US policy has been to isolate bin Laden in his hideouts in Pakistan, while taking out more easily accessible al-Qaeda regional commanders in other parts of the world.
But terrorism experts such as Professor David Capitanchik, of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, believe the psychological impact of bin Laden's seeming ability to evade capture, along with his role in attracting funds to his group, has played a key part in al-Qaeda's survival.
The organisation and its offshoots are still well armed and able to run operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South-east Asia and North Africa. They have also retained the ability to carry out attacks. Since 9/11, Bali, Madrid, London, Istanbul, Baghdad, Algiers, Islamabad and Amman all have come under attack.
"Bin Laden hides and moves around between remote caves so its not easy to track him," Capitanchik said. "He's well protected and as long as he remains there he remains a rallying point."
Many analysts believe that far from being beaten, al-Qaeda influence in Pakistan is growing with the setting up of training camps that supply the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan with fresh soldiers. An increasingly heavy toll is being taken on the British forces operating under the Nato banner in Helmand Province. What has hindered US operations in Afghanistan, however, is that they are unable, for diplomatic reasons, to pursue insurgents to bases in Pakistan. Instead, they have had to concentrate on using unmanned missile-carrying drones to kill a number of al-Qaeda commanders on Pakistan soil.
Wilkinson believes that strengthening the government of Pakistan is the key to catching the al-Qaeda leader. "Pakistan doesn't have the military strength to take hold of those areas," he said. "Tribalism is the tradition there.
That situation could be remedied if Pakistan's democratic leadership is strengthened and they get more resources for their army and police. That would prepare the ground for a much more effective strategy against al-Qaeda."
But after last week's audio rant, Obama suggested eliminating the al-Qaeda leader was less important than containing him. "I think we have to so weaken his infrastructure that, whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function," said the president-elect. "My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America."
Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband used a similar theme in speeches in India. He went so far as suggesting the phrase "war on terror" had been "misleading and mistaken" by lumping together all terrorists and giving them common cause. He added that western solidarity "should not be based on who we are against but instead on the idea of who we are and the values we share".
This article was published by the International Middle East Media Center, January 18, 2009
Just before Saturday's decision by Israeli officials to declare a 'ceasefire' in Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni received a signed assurance from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the US government would provide security and intelligence personnel to assist the Israeli military in its ongoing military occupation of all Palestinian land.
Previously, the US role in the conflict had been limited to material support, including weapons shipments and billions of dollars in financial commitment to Israel each year. Now, the US has committed in writing to the Israeli Foreign Minister (although no Congressional debate or resolution took place), to provide "resources, wherewithal and technology necessary in order to fulfill our part of the bargain”, according to Condoleezza Rice.
The “US part of the bargain”, according to Rice's spokesperson, thus consists of military and intelligence equipment and personnel with the aim of “inhibit[ing] the ability of Hamas to rearm."
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called a meeting with Condoleezza Rice just two hours before the Israeli cabinet was set to vote on a unilateral ceasefire. But some analysts say that this bold strategic maneuver may have been years in the making. It secures a new role for the US military and intelligence agencies in the region, on the very last day of business for the administration of George W. Bush.
The commitments made by Rice will hold for the incoming Obama administration as well.
This article, by Tim Butcher, was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, January 19, 2009.
For three weeks the Israeli armed forces have pounded the Gaza Strip with an intensity not seen since the Six Day War of 1967.
Palestinian hospital officials have counted over 1,100 people pass through their mortuaries of which more than 350 are children and at least 80 women.
Many more lie yet uncounted in the wreckage of buildings hit by Israeli airstrikes or in places where ground combat has been too intense for them to be recovered by ambulance crew.
Among the Palestinian dead are 13 ambulance crew including drivers, paramedics and at least one doctor.
Several senior figures from Hamas, the militant Islamist group Israel regards as its enemy, were killed including Said Siam, the de facto interior minister, as well as an unknown number of `troops’.
Israel been accused of war crimes after a number of incidents including the shelling of clearly marked United Nations facilities such as schools and an aid delivery headquarters.
Its actions have drawn a surprisingly high level of international criticism on Israel from Europe although America has remained solidly supportive of the Jewish state.
Palestinian militants inside Gaza have throughout the operation continued to fire rockets into Israel although at a daily rate that has slowed over the three week cycle of the operation by roughly two thirds.
And over the three weeks Israel has suffered 13 fatalities, 10 soldiers and three civilians.
Those are just about the only undisputed fact that historians will be able to mine from the 21 days of conflict in Gaza.
Where the dispute begins will be in what has been achieved by Israel and Hamas.
Israeli intelligence sources said a few days ago that it is "very unlikely" militants will stop firing rockets into Israel.
In their assessment, the Israeli armed forces had destroyed "some but not all" of the rocket stockpile so further launches should be expected.
Those same sources also said that even if the number of Hamas members killed in operation Cast Lead was at the top end of the Israeli estimate, ie 600, that still left as many as 19,400 militants under arms.
So Hamas has not been dealt a killer blow and, indeed, may enjoy a surge of popular support over in the West Bank as Palestinians ruled by Fatah, the secular rival of Hamas, show sympathy for the suffering of Gazans.
Israeli sources said the conflict had "re-established" deterrence by showing Hamas the Jewish State is not afraid to use its firepower.
A reputation, the argument goes, for Israeli invincibility has been restored after the perceived defeat inflicted by Hizbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon.
This argument sounds rather unconvincing when you consider that Israel has never held back from using firepower in Gaza and indeed has killed 1,400 Palestinians there since 2005 so Israel has never shied from using force in Gaza to establish deterrence.
One key impact of the war, and one which it is too early to judge the success of, is the possible closure of Gaza’s border with Egypt.
If, as Israel hopes, that border ends up being closed to all smuggling of goods, weapons and arms that can be used to harm Israel, then it is fair to say operation Cast Lead has had a significant impact.
Israel certainly hopes this is the case and has made much of the offer from America, Britain and other European nations to help seal the border.
But historians will probably also learn that by sealing off the Egyptian border, the festering wound of resentment felt by Palestinians inside Gaza since 1948 has not been cured.
Instead it has just committed the region to further bouts of violence downstream.
WASHINGTON, Jan 10 (IPS) - Although the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli leaders have depicted the ongoing crisis in Gaza as part of a larger struggle against Iran and its "proxies", Tehran's involvement with the Palestinians is rather limited.
Despite their condemnation of Israel's actions and the waves of pro-Hamas demonstrations across Iran, its rulers have no intention of escalating the crisis, let alone becoming directly engaged.
Instead, their main intention is to utilise their regional influence in favour of an "honourable truce" that would give the Islamist group a face-saving exit from the war.
While Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has spoken favourably about martyrdom in defence of the Palestinian cause, and tens of thousands of Iranians have reportedly signed up as volunteers to fight Israel, nevertheless Tehran has made it clear that no one will be sent with the sanction of the state.
That was made abundantly clear to a group of such volunteers who had staged a sit-in at Tehran's Mehrabad airport last week. "Iran's support [for Palestinians] is moral, and, if you intend to be dispatched, you would be imposing your opinion on the government, which has its own priorities," Davoud Ahmadinejad, a kinsman of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told them.
Indeed, Iran already has its hands full with the evolving situations in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "out-of-area" Gaza crisis does not directly affect the country's core national-security interests. This is particularly so since Tehran's leaders are by and large convinced that Israel will not be able to crush Hamas to which, according to unconfirmed reports, Iran provides a relatively small amount of assistance amounting to around 25 million dollars a month.
"This conflict has a 60-year history [and is] rooted in the oppression of Palestinian people," President Ahmadinejad said during a recent press conference on the Gaza crisis in which he predicted that the Palestinian resistance "will grow stronger".
That is a view shared by many senior political figures associated with his hard-line faction, such as Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the right-wing daily, 'Kayhan', who last week predicted that Israel will soon find itself in a "quagmire in Gaza".
The commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, similarly predicted a "Hamas victory" made possible by the group's discipline, resilience, and its "application of lessons learned from the resistance by Hezbollah" in its 34-day war with Israel during the summer of 2006.
Of course, not everyone among the leadership in Iran's faction-ridden politics agrees about the short- and long-term repercussions for Iran of the Gaza crisis.
"So far, the result is promising and Hamas's ability to use its anti-tank Staggers to knock out some Israeli tanks is a bad omen for the invading army," said a prominent Tehran University political science professor who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity. He added, however, that Hamas may lose militarily "in the short term" but emerge from the conflict in a strengthened position, especially vis-à-vis its rival, Fatah.
At the same time, however, there is concern that Israel may succeed in imposing a security zone inside Gaza or bisecting it into two or three isolated sectors, not unlike the increasingly fragmented West Bank. The leadership is also concerned that Egypt, if it succeeds in brokering a ceasefire, may yet emerge as a dominant factor in Gaza to Hamas's detriment, thus tilting the balanced of power there in favour of Fatah.
If that indeed is the result, according to some analysts, such as Morad Veisi, affiliated with the reformist Islamic Participation Front, the net result would be a "new alignment in the Middle East" that would pit "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against Iran and its allies".
These considerations have spurred Iran to engage in a flurry of diplomacy designed to bolster Hamas's chances of gaining an "honourable truce". This has ranged from Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's wide-ranging telephone diplomacy to Ahmadinejad's dispatch of 22 special envoys to Iran's regional neighbours to enlist diplomatic support for Hamas's basic demand that any ceasefire include Israel's commitment to end its economic siege of the territory.
Particularly notable has been shuttle diplomacy carried out by two of Khamenei's closest advisers, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani (who conferred with Hamas leaders in Damascus this week and ripped the Egypt-French proposed truce as highly defective), and Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, to various regional capitals.
Jalili's trip this past week to Turkey, the scene of huge pro-Palestinian rallies from the outset of Israel's military campaign, was regarded as especially significant given the warming trend in relations between the two countries, much of it due to Iran's increasing sales of gas to Ankara and the latter's growing "eastward" orientation in reaction to the European Union's (EU) long-standing and apparently increasing reluctance to admit it as a member. It was in Ankara that Jalili announced that Tehran was "prepared to cooperate with the world community to bring an end to the Gaza crisis".
A traditional Israeli ally which has acted most recently as an interlocutor between Israel and Syria, Turkey is now seen by Iran as a key player prepared to wield its influence on behalf of Hamas, in light of the Turkish leaders' pro-Palestinian statements in the wake of the Gaza crisis.
Iran's leaders also believe they are reaping the benefits of their blistering criticism early in the Gaza crisis of Arab "inaction" in defence of Gaza and Hamas. Noting that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Kuwait and Qatar, in particular, have issued increasingly harsh criticism of Israel's offensive, Iran is taking credit for the evolution of their views even while it intensifies pressure on Egypt to follow a similar path.
Indeed, as repeatedly noted by spokesmen for Iran's Foreign Ministry over the past week, Tehran is still awaiting a response to a recent offer by Mottaki to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza via Egypt.
*Kaveh Afrasiabi is the author of several books on Iran's foreign and nuclear policies, including most recently, "Iran's Foreign Policy After September 11," co-authored with former deputy foreign minister, Abbas Maleki.