Friday, May 30, 2008
Thursday, May 29, 2008
"Which brings us back to the question: What constitutes a crisis? With all due respect to security issues, any crisis in that arena immediately receives additional funding and support. After the Second Lebanon War, the IDF embarked on a rigorous training regimen to bring itself back up to speed. It retasked itself within only a couple of years and we are, according to reports, once again capable of fighting any kind of war our enemies throw at us.
Well, there is no enemy we can fight here (except maybe polluters), but there is certainly a need to retask ourselves for this vital mission. We cannot continue to let the "urgent displace the important," as MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) put it so eloquently Monday morning. For once, this is a crisis that actually announces itself in forecasters' dire tones months and even years in advance, and we need to take advantage of that. Human beings landed a probe on Mars to search for water on Monday, but the essential search is for a coherent water policy, and that begins at home."
This is a Jerusalem Post analysis of the water crisis. Don't you just love the delicate analogy? Freud would have had a ball.
And so on: an apple - 70 liters; a glass of beer - 75 liters; a slice of bread - 40 liters; one kilo of cheese - 5000 liters; a kilo of chicken - 3900 liters."
From Slow Food's Terra Madre Newsletter
Narratives Under Siege (12):Eighteen years of Work Destroyed in Less than four Hours
“They came at four in the morning, with two bulldozers, and they left before 8am. I own this chicken farm with my three brothers, and we worked day and night for eighteen years to build up our business. The Israelis destroyed everything in less than four hours.”
Nasser Jaber’s chicken farm was bulldozed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) ten days ago, in the early morning hours of May 16, while he was sleeping at home in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. He still looks stunned. Wearily he guides us round the ruins of his eighteen-year business. “This was a lifetime project for me and my brothers” he says as we clamber over rubble, wire, shattered sheets of metal and thousands of putrefying chickens. “I have never belonged to any political faction, and I have never been to jail. I don’t know why they did this.” The farm workers who are starting to clear some of the rubble are all wearing facemasks. Forty thousand dead chickens lie smashed amidst the rubble and the stench is sickening.
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When his workers raised the alarm that the chicken farm was being bulldozed, Nasser Jaber didn’t rush out to the farm, but stayed at home, waiting until the Israelis had finally left. “It would have been too dangerous to come to the farm while they were destroying everything” he says. “This is not the first time the Israelis have been here. The [Israeli] border is only two and a half kilometers away, and they invade this area every month. They had already destroyed one of our walls, and then the water tanks. But nothing like this.” One section of the chicken farm, a large barn containing 9,000 chickens, was spared the attack, though Nasser Jaber says the poultry are traumatized, and laying few eggs.
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The farm used to produce 45,000 eggs a day – now production is down to 2,000 eggs per day, and Nasser Jaber is worried the Israelis may return to finish off what’s left of his farm. He estimates that between them, he and his brothers have already lost more than a million dollars. “I am a peaceful farmer” he says. “But they destroy our homes, our land - everything.”
Abdul Halim Abu Samra, Head of Public Relations at the nearby Khan Yunis branch of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, says the IOF is systematically destroying farm land in the Gaza Strip, especially in border areas. “We have good fertile agricultural land in Gaza, but Palestinian farmers have been driven off their land in these border areas by intimidation and attacks like this. The land is now almost empty a kilometer before the eastern border, because it is too dangerous for people to live and work there.”
As we drive north east towards Sofa Crossing (one of the five crossings between Gaza and Israel) we see very few people, only an occasional elderly man leading a donkey and cart. These rural eastern border areas of the Gaza Strip are emptying, because farmers, many of whom have farmed here for generations, are now too frightened to live and work on their own land. The confines of the Gaza Strip, which is just forty kilometers long and ten kilometers wide, are being shrunk even further by relentless Israeli invasions.
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The deliberate destruction of civilian property is illegal under international human rights law and humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention (articles 33 and 53). Since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000, PCHR has documented the deliberate destruction of more than 40,000 donumms of agricultural land in the Gaza Strip. This year alone, almost 3,000 donumms of agricultural land around Rafah and Khan Yunis have been destroyed by the Israeli military (including 500 donumms in the last seven days), ruining vegetable allotments and family owned farms, and contributing to the devastating economic destruction of the Gaza Strip.
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Mohammed Abu Daggah's cement factory
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Fifteen kilometers away from the remains of Nasser Jaber’s chicken farm, Mohammed Hamdan Abu Daggah is standing amidst the ruins of his cement factory, which lies four kilometers from Sofa Crossing, and was bulldozed by the IOF three days ago, on May 24. “I started this business in January 2007” he says. “My family invested everything in this factory. We managed to import good equipment under license, and we had lots of work from local clients, and the United Nations here in Gaza. But the Israelis arrived in three bulldozers, and they tore up everything.” Abu Daggah’s factory was employing forty local men who now have no jobs. Like Nasser Jaber, Abu Daggah says he has no idea why his business was targeted. “I have never been in any trouble and have never been arrested. They had absolutely no reason to do this – but now we have nothing left, except heavy debts that we cannot afford to pay.”I am posting this article taken from the Palestinian Center For Human Rights in Gaza. You can find more on their site. Here's the link to this article.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
"The prospect of spending six months of the year knee-deep in brown paddy water for scant reward is encouraging rice farmers to abandon their land. About 2.5 million people, or a 10th of the state's population, work in the Middle East, where they help build apartments, hotels and offices.
The exodus has led to a tripling of wages for day laborers who stayed behind, and fueled a building boom on drained paddy fields as engineers, surveyors and construction workers send money back.
At least 60 percent of the land traditionally used for rice in the Palakkad district, about 110 kilometers northeast of Kochi, Kerala's largest city, has been lost to other crops and to the construction of homes, villas and shopping malls, said Jayachandran.
The share of agricultural land devoted to food crops, including rice, fell to 12.5 percent in the year ended March 31, 2006, from 37.5 percent in 1981.
``The younger generation no longer wants to dirty his feet and hands working in paddy fields,'' says Jayachandran. ``He prefers a job in a factory or a shop.''
Vasu may well be the last rice farmer in his family. His 29-year-old son, who earned a diploma in electronics engineering, works in a cement company.
Still, Vasu said he could be tempted to resume rice farming if the government increased subsidies above the 160 rupees an acre it pays, and provided cheaper fertilizer and pesticides.
``Rice is close to our heart,'' Vasu said. ``But we need to be practical.''"
Monday, May 26, 2008
This is a great piece by Walden Bello in the Nation. This has been a question going on relentlessly in my head: How on earth did the Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians who live on the land where wheat was domesticated, become dependent on wheat imports. I know part of the answer, which includes carrying capacity (there were far fewer people), possible climatic changes (less rainfall), and the abandonment of vast expanses of land, which used to be planted with grain and have now become derelict. Bello offers an additional element that has to do with free-market development policies, the destruction of peasant agriculture and speculations. The example he gives for rice in the Philippines is very thorough.
" That the global food crisis stems mainly from free-market restructuring of agriculture is clearer in the case of rice. Unlike corn, less than 10 percent of world rice production is traded. Moreover, there has been no diversion of rice from food consumption to biofuels. Yet this year alone, prices nearly tripled, from $380 a ton in January to more than $1,000 in April. Undoubtedly the inflation stems partly from speculation by wholesaler cartels at a time of tightening supplies. However, as with Mexico and corn, the big puzzle is why a number of formerly self-sufficient rice-consuming countries have become severely dependent on imports." (Thanks Rami)
Sunday, May 25, 2008
"Food prices at the global level, notably dairy and wheat, are now beginning to dip after last year's huge surge and they could fall further. Unlike oil, the supply response to grain price increases can be rapid, as quick as the next harvest.
That will take several years. It requires huge investment, in farms, in infrastructure and in agricultural technology. Without high food prices, the investment will not happen. It will take time for the world to compensate for the past three decades of low investment in food and there is little that the supermarkets or Mr Darling can do about it."
The European Union, the world’s leading food importer, has increased imports 20 percent in the last five years. The value of fresh fruit and vegetables imported by the United States, in second place, nearly doubled from 2000 to 2006.
Under a little-known international treaty called the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago in 1944 to help the fledgling airline industry, fuel for international travel and transport of goods, including food, is exempt from taxes, unlike trucks, cars and buses. There is also no tax on fuel used by ocean freighters. " (Thanks D. and Yaz)
It's a bit old (one month) but this is a very current issue. There are 2 important issues here:
1. It is often claimed that limiting access of products from the South into Northern Markets through environmental taxation will reduce the income of Southern farmers. But the question must be: who benefits from this trade? Is it poor, small farmers? The workers in the tomatoes production system in Morocco for instance are exploited and abused. That's why the products are so competitive. If these tomatoes have to be taxed, it should be because of the inhuman treatment of workers.
2. The article (and many others like it) addresses mainly fruits and vegetables. In Southern countries, these account for a small share of the total food bill. Stables, canned foods, prepared foods, staples such as wheat and rice, and cooking oil constitute the main components of the food bill. In Lebanon for instance, we are self sufficient in fruits and vegetables, but we import almost everything else, 80% of our food needs. These are not luxury, seasonal items. An environmental tax on these imports may have dramatic impacts on the lives of the poor.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The United States said on Wednesday the treaty could jeopardise U.S. participation in joint peacekeeping and disaster relief operations by "criminalising" military operations between countries that signed the ban and those that did not.
Cluster munitions open in mid-air and scatter as many as several hundred "bomblets" over wide areas. They often fail to explode, creating virtual mine fields that can kill or injure anyone who comes across them -- often curious children." (Thanks akhuy fil-mahjar)
I have written about cluster bombs in South Lebanon before, and one of my students did a thesis on the subject, which remained unfortunately unpublished (what is it with students? They seem to lose interest once they get their MSc) . I often go for long hikes in my little Southern village, and there is an area I usually avoid as I was told that the Israelis had dropped little presents for the children a few hours before the end of the bombing in August 2006, 48 hours AFTER the cease fire had been agreed. But recently, I have started walking there again as many hunters and wild plant gatherers have assured me that the bomblets had all been removed by the demining teams. I went for a motocross ride in that area today, a gorgeous valley with thick oak coppice and rocky slopes. Back in the village after a fantastic ride, my cousin stopped by my house to warn me to avoid that same valley. He told me he found there yesterday an unexploded Israeli 2 tons bomb as he was picking wild thyme. He called the Lebanese army and they came and removed it but no one thought about cordoning off the area. And if they miss a 2 tons bomb, how can I trust them with 1 kilo bomblets? There will continue to be victims for decades, and you can be sure that the Western press will not mention them.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
But leftists are killjoys, everybody knows that. Look how Khaled Saghieh refuses to join in the fun. In his editorial today (which I summarize and translate very freely) he calls on us to be ashamed and to commiserate. He asks: "What are the politicians, and the Lebanese people happy about? About electing a president who has no program and of whom we know nothing except that he stayed neutral when he was forced to do so? The military is not the best school of diplomacy, and we remember what happened in Nahr el Bared.
And we are going to have now a new government, in which the Opposition got all it wanted: veto power. This may prevent or correct the marginalization of some confessions, but what about the socio-economic programs? Neither Loyalists nor opposition have ever taken any position on that, except to use the poor and the workers as political pawns.
As for the last achievement of the Doha accord, the electoral law, all this has achieved is to anchor sectarianism further and deeper, in order to impose elections in which independent voices can never be heard.
There is nothing to rejoice about in these agreements, only more shame."
I told you he was a party-pooper.
Driven by our bottomless stomachs, Roberts argues, the modern economy has reduced food to a “commodity” like any other, which must be generated in ever greater units at an ever lower cost, year by year, like sneakers or DVDs. But food isn’t like sneakers or DVDs. If we max out our credit cards buying Nikes, we can simply push them to the back of a closet. By contrast, our insatiable demand for food must be worn on our bodies, often in the form of diabetes as well as obesity. Overeating makes us miserable, and ill, but medical advances mean that it takes a long time to kill us, so we keep on eating. Roberts, whose impulse to connect everything up is both his strength and his weakness, concludes, grandly, that “food is fundamentally not an economic phenomenon.” On the contrary, food has always been an economic phenomenon, but in its current form it is one struggling to meet our uncurbed appetites. What we are witnessing is not the end of food but a market on the brink of failure. Those bearing the brunt are, as in Malthus’s day, the people at the bottom." (Thanks to Akhuy fil-Mahjar)
This is one of the most comprehensive and readable articles on the global food crisis from the New Yorker.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"America is being held responsible for what is happening," said Arshid, of Jordan's Islamic Action Front. "It's supporting these corrupt regimes."
Privatization efforts and free-market slogans have only fueled perceptions of corruption, giving teeth to claims that the region's pro-U.S. governments are corrupt lackeys serving only the elite.
"The economic team doesn't believe in the poor," said economist Kamhawi, who often confers with ranking Jordanian officials. "They only care about the rich. They say, 'The poor are failures. We have no interest in helping failures.' ""
So the media is now starting to realize that the Middle East, in addition to being a powder keg with a lit fuse is also one of the most food dependent places on earth. And how true it is that economic teams affiliated with the Arab regimes do not believe in the poor. I have worked with many and can vouch for that. Wake up!
"Egypt also got outside help from the United Arab Emirates, which donated a million tons of wheat to the country last week, said the Emirates state-owned news agency WAM.
Egypt is one of the world's largest importers of wheat, and prices shot up by more than 50 percent over the last year.
The Emirates is also struggling with rising food prices. The government has signed agreements with supermarkets to keep prices on more than 30 basic commodities at last year's levels.
Rising food prices have been more difficult for Mideast countries that lack significant natural resources, such as Jordan, which has raised food and fuel prices multiple times since the beginning of the year because the government lacks the cash to continue expensive subsidies."The Arab divide: rich and poor.
"When 250 diners sit down to an £85 feast called Ten Things to Eat Before They Die this week, they plan to send a message to the mass market.
What's on the menu
· Lancashire asparagus The Formby crop is down to a few farmers after the loss of the transatlantic liner market.
· Herdwick mutton Staunchly produced since Beatrix Potter's day but confined to the Lake District.
· Ballobar capers Introduced to the Aragon region of Spain by the Moors but long since gone wild. Costly to harvest and outpriced by Andalusian and Moroccan rivals.
· Huehuetenango highland coffee From Guatemala. Needs forest shade and laborious depulping and bean-raking for its famed flavour.
·Raw milk cow's cheese Traditional process reintroduced by Irish artisan producers in the 1970s to international acclaim, but a small market.
· Herat raisins Known since the fourth century AD but the 120 varieties are struggling against Afghanistan's disruption and more lucrative crops such as poppies.
· Perry pear juice Unsuited to mass production and now limited to Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
· Imraguen mullet botarga Mauretanian caviar confined to the Banc d'Arguin national park, whose nomads with motorless boats are the only people permitted to fish there.
· Saxon village preserves Based on berries and other fruits from Transylvania, made by Romanian women to supplement low farming incomes.
· Saint Flour golden lentils Thin skins absorb sauces well but livestock has taken over much of the French land used in its early 20th century heyday." (Thanks Rania)
Monday, May 19, 2008
Aoude (1997: 191) writes, 'by 1970, Syria became a net importer of food stuffs, which eventually, along with industrialisation and consumer goods imports, increased the trade deficit and developed a serious foreign exchange crisis'. The ruling class decided to use this crisis to restructure Syrian capitalism. Once Asad felt secure, he launched the first attempt at liberalisation in 1973. Pretentiously referred to as 'the infitah [opening] of abundance' (1973-1981), the measure was intended to increase the rate of exploitation by restructuring both rural and urban environments. In the countryside land reform allowed middle-ranking peasants to forge a profitable alliance with wealthy farmers and agribusiness at the expense of small peasants and rural wage-slaves (Aoude 1997: 192). Since the state bourgeoisie (meaning Asad, the Baath party, high ranking military officers and the trade union hierarchy) still had the upper hand within the ruling class, they managed to draw a red line around nationalised industries such as banking, mining, oil, insurance and manufacturing of strategic goods. Entrepreneurs would have to wait many years before gradually resting these segments of the economy away from the state bourgeoisie. However, Asad was more than willing to use the 'infitah of abundance' to create a mixed economy in areas such as tourism.
The reasons they moved into tourism are not very different from the Corleone family seeking interests in the tourist industries of Cuba and Las Vegas. 'First', explains Gray (1997: 58), 'the potential for tourism to generate foreign currency is important, all the more so in states ... suffering balance of payment problems. Second is the fact that tourism is labour intensive, and creates employment throughout the economy; tourists spend money on hotels, transport, and meals, but also on a wide variety of goods and services. Third, is the fact that the tourism industry does not, on the whole, require expensive or complex technology or a highly skilled workforce [with the exception of the need to operate an airline]'. Syria, by all accounts, has a whole host of tourist attractions, spread across the country and easily accessible. Traditional industries in the countryside (bedrock of the Syrian ruling class) could potentially benefit. Finally, and this is very significant for a regime as paranoid as the Syrian state, 'tourists themselves pose little threat to the stability or popularity of the regime' (Gray 1997: 60)."
From a long, fascinating article from libcom.org signed by Melancholic Troglodytes on class struggle in the Syrian-Lebanese relations. Very radical class analysis, read at your own risks. Take for example this paragraph from the conclusion:
"We feel those proletarians in the 'West' who wish to assist our 'Middle Eastern' counterparts in escalating the social conflict can do so on a number of fronts: First, we should step up the struggle against those sections of the bourgeoisie we have an impact on (this is sometimes the bourgeoisie 'at home' and sometimes vulnerable pockets of the ruling class 'abroad' and sometimes both at the same time); Second, we should acknowledge, demarcate and foreground the qualitative class divisions within 'our movement' by articulating the distinction between middle class 'anti-globalisers' and working class anti-capitalists. Middle class 'anti-globalisers' represent a neo-libertarian trend paralleling the ideology and structures of neo-liberalism. Tourist summit-hopping and joint-activities between some sections of the 'anti-globalisation' movement and reactionary scum like Hezbollah are merely the most obvious and superficial manifestation of this symbiosis; and finally, we should establish better channels of communication with our comrades in the Middle East, learning from their experience whilst informing them of ours."
Karim Makdisi's excellent analysis of the Lebanese crisis.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
"``The problem is Egypt doesn't have the money to pay for food subsidies,'' said Simon Kitchen, an economist and strategist at Cairo-based EFG-Hermes.
In Saudi Arabia, which has an economy three times the size of Egypt's and a third its population of 81.7 million, the government cut duties on wheat imports and lowered tariffs to 5 percent on frozen chicken, eggs, vegetable oil and canned food. That cost 6 billion riyals ($1.6 billion) a year in revenue, Okaz newspaper reported on April 3. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is also planning to boost welfare payments and acquire farms abroad.
The U.A.E., which stashed away about $875 billion in its sovereign wealth fund as oil more than quadrupled, is considering purchasing farms in Cambodia, Thailand and Africa because ``the weather doesn't help us grow items in the country,'' Mohammed Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, undersecretary of the Planning Sector at the Ministry of Economy, said in a May 13 interview."
The New Arab World of failed food systems.
The current global food system, which was designed by US-based agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by the US government and its allies at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, has planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow healthy food for local consumption and regional stability. " (Thanks Rami)
Strong words from The Nation
Good article in the NYT commiserating the cut backs in research aimed at improving the lot of poor farmers. I'm expecting the big seed corporations to take over the ailing international research sector anytime now.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
Who are the butchers?
Where do they live?
Does any one know their names?
Why are they still free?
Do they go to a family every evening and play with their children?
Do they think about what they have done? Does it haunt them?
Do I meet them without knowing who they are? Do I buy grocery from them? Do they fix my car?
Do they have a little life with a little wife and a little house and a little car and little children?
Do they remember it? Do they talk about it? Do they brag about it?
Do they fear the law? Do they think someone's going to come and get them and take them to jail and then condemn them for torture and murder?
Do they know that their deeds will be placed in a big box called "war activities", the box closed and then buried?
Do they see the eyes of their victims, do they hear their screams?
But two weeks ago, Cyclone Nargis did away with all that. The storm's timing could not have been worse. Tens of thousands of farm families lost their draft animals, their rice stocks and their planting seeds. Now the harvest is in doubt as well." (Thanks D.)
Egypt's and Lebanon's workers strike seen by Alberto Cruz. The strike in Egypt might have been a success, albeit qualified. In Lebanon, the strike was quickly dissolved in the war over the governmental decrees delegitimizing Hizbullah's communication and surveillance network. But the regimes are nervous, that's for sure.
Apparently, the government had imposed a tax duty of 5% on imported green coffee beans, and no duty on roasted beans. The 2 largest importers, Sinno and Bsat, pleaded their case with their friend PM Sanioura, who found no problem in backtracking on the 2 decrees without the government losing face in the process.
But that's not the best bit. In a TV interview yesterday, Finance Minister Jihad Azour was asked about the elimination of the tax duty on green coffee bean. He looked extremely surprised, and did not seem to be aware that this decision was taken in a Council of Minister in which he participated.
This is not the first time I hear of such decisions being slipped at the last moment in the minutes of the council of ministers. As Mohammad Zbeeb asks: was it really worth going to war for such a corrupt government?
Thursday, May 15, 2008
"UN alert: One-fourth of world's wheat at risk from new fungus
Scientists and international organizations focused on controlling wheat stem rust have said 90 percent of world wheat lines are susceptible to Ug99. The situation is particularly critical in light of the existing worldwide wheat shortage." (Thanks Steve)
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Akkar is the poorest district of Lebanon: a recent UNDP report found that 63% of the families are deprived and face serious poverty. Located in the extreme north of the country, Akkar is an agricultural district, with an estimated rural population of 80%, the highest in
The landscape of Akkar is breathtakingly beautiful and extremely diverse. There are 3 principal physiographic zones: the plain (al Sahl), the mid-elevation plateau, and the mountains (al Jurd), which reach up to the tallest
Akkar was under quasi-feudal rule till recent times, and the current social and economic relations are still heavily impregnated with this history
society offer a tremendous potential that must be captured. In light of the dramatic increase in world food prices, this is the moment to do so.
Photos by Tanya Traboulsi
The Egyptian regime has traditionally addressed the demands of the population with a combination of small carrots and big sticks. While repressing the demonstrators with live ammunition and leaving many dead, a rise of 30% was promised, but not yet enacted. The raise translates in a wage increase of about $15 for most employees. And while the raise is not expected to be effective until the end of the month, the 100% increase in food prices that was also determined by government came into effect at the beginning of the month, leaving the people one month short. The salary increase will cost the government 12 billions Egyptian Liras, but the increase in food prices will save them 15 billions Egyptian Liras. Thus, the government, largely made up of business men found a way to make money off the people. The new rallying cry of the workers unions is "Take back the raise and the price increase".
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
In the mountain, the situation is also calm, and the Lebanese Army has taken position in many locations previously occupied by Jumblat’s PSP. However, I believe that the situation remains very fragile, and that this is at best a wait-and-see period. There are 2 reasons for that:
- The Lebanese Army appears to be disempowered. Whether this is a temporary tactic in order to preserve the unity of the last major state institution, or because it is really powerless is not important at this stage. What is relevant is that the army will probably vacate any position it occupies if it is asked to do so by the militias, because it is avoiding confrontation.
- Waleed Jumblat represents the vast majority of the Druze. Figures of 90% are often quoted. The Druze are believed to constitute just 5% of the Lebanese population, but their strategic location in the mountain gives them the advantage of the terrain, and they are also thought to be well armed. They will not easily give in.
In the North, the situation has also quieted down, and peace agreements are being signed between the belligerents. But the issue of the SSNP militants executed in Halba might still have repercussions, although this will probably happen at a later stage.
The Council of Ministers was expected to meet today to cancel the two ill fated decrees, as it was requested to do so by the army. PM Sanioura seems to have backed down on this as he declared that he will wait for the Arab Foreign minister’s delegation sent to mediate before calling for a meeting of the council of ministers. This is understandable: why give the cancellation for free, let it be a negotiating chip in a general settlement.
Most roads in and out of
I’ll stick around.
Najwa's one-room house has been put together from various materials: a bit of cement, some wood, and a couple of glass windows. Electricity and running water are occasional guests. There is a small platform in front of the house where she keeps plants in old powdered milk containers. She sits there sometimes in the evenings, after a day's work and talks to her neighbors.
They have drifted in from all over the place. Some are Shi'a from the Bekaa, some from the South, some are Sunni from 'Aarsal, in the Bekaa, and others are settled nomads. There are also a few houses built from wood, plastic and corrugated iron, where Nawar (Roma or Dom) people live. They were all brought here by poverty and the need for shelter.
The area is known as "Behind the Sport City". For the past 3 years, its inhabitants have been living in tremendous tension. The sectarian parties of Lebanon have found fertile ground among the poor. There are many reasons for that: occasional payments and aid, the need for protection when the bulldozers will come to clear the illegal settlement, but also fear. An irrational perhaps, but very powerful fear from "the other", a state that was cultivated by the various sectarian media in the past 3 years.
"Behind the Sport City" sits in the middle of an explosive cauldron: The Future Movement's Tariq al Jadidah stronghold to the north, Jumblat's PSP-controlled Wata Mussaytbah to the west, the Palestinian camp to the east and the Rihab neighborhood dominated by Amal to the south. Around Najwa's house, everybody was armed, but the Future movement's militias were the most powerful. They became bolder after the events of the Beirut Arab University last year, when organized shooting took place between Amal and Future supporters and resulted in several dead and wounded.
On Wednesday, Najwa told me, the Future militia established armed presence around her and shot at the houses of opposition supporters. Many left. When the skirmishes started on Thursday afternoon, the neighborhood filled up with armed men. She looked out of her door and saw her neighbors sitting outside the house. Their 17 years old stood up and walked towards the street. He was shot and died there.
Najwa and her son left the house in a hurry and ran down the hill to seek shelter in Sabra. The Palestinian camp was boiling, filled with armed men. Hamas and Fateh supporters were eying each others menacingly. Hama's people support Hizbullah, and Fateh are sympathetic to Hariri and the Future movement. But when the night fell, they all joined rank as the camp began to tremble. As the sound of explosion and gunfire increased, a rumor had spread through the camp: Samir Geagea men, the Lebanese Forces, were coming back to massacre everyone, as in September 1982. Najwa tells me that as of this moment, the camp established serious guard rounds till the morning, and only relaxed when the news came that the Opposition had taken over the city.
When she went back to her house, Najwa found the neighbors in mourning. Being Shi'a, their grief and anger had been adopted by the Amal militiamen. These had gone around shooting and terrorizing some of the known Future supporters. The Nawar people, she told me, paid the price. But her neighbor's son was dead.
The poor, regardless of color, race or creed, always pay the price.
Monday, May 12, 2008
I know we are all immersed in the Lebanese crisis, but lets get some perspective here: an estimated 100,000 have died in Burma in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, and agencies estimate that the death toll could rise to 1.5 millions if clean water and sanitation are not provided. A 7.8 Richter earthquake hit south-east China, and the number of victims is still unknown. Elsewhere in the world, the food crisis is still unfolding, and the number of people who are hungry keeps increasing by about 5 millions a year. That's 10 persons becoming hungry every minute.
In the mountains, the fighting that took place yesterday afternoon had almost ended by last night. The army is taking over some of the offices and some of the strongholds of Jumblat's Progressive Socialist Party. No doubt that Jumblat did not want a war, although it is said that his militia, which used to be called the Popular Army- Al Jaysh al Shaabee, has kept some of its structure and much of its weapons. In 1991, Jumblat refused to surrender his weapons to the Lebanese Army, and preferred to give it to the Syrian Army, which may have allowed him to keep some. This was when Jumblat was still a close ally of Syria.
Negotiations between the Loyalists and the oppositions have of course already started. I say "started" and not "resumed" because we are in presence of a totally new balance of power, as if the last card game had been stopped, a new one has been started, and new hands distributed to the players. Now, before formal negotiations (euphemistically called "dialogue", al hiwar) take place the players are trying to consolidate their hand.
For the Loyalists, this means rallying as much external support as possible, from the Arab League to the Sixth Fleet. This is taking place concurrently with the establishment of physical control over regions that are traditional Loyalists strongholds: Tripoli where street battles are still going on, and Akkar, where several members of the SSNP were killed yesterday in what appeared to be an execution; Koura and the North, where the Lebanese forces moved to take control, which prompted some of the inhabitants to call for the Lebanese Army to take over.
For the opposition (and this refers mainly to Hizbullah) the most important goal is probably to preserve its ability to physically communicate with "its" regions: the South and the Bekaa. There are 3 main roads that are important for that purpose: 1) the Damascus road through Aley, 2) the Coastal road to the South through Shweifat, the lower Shuf and the carob district, and 3) the Mashghara-Jezzine road, which passes near the High Shuf, Niha and not very far from Barouk and Mukhtara, where Jumblat's palace is located. Yesterday's fighting took place around Shweifat, Aley and the Mashghara Jezzine road. While the Shweifat and Aley roads appears to have been secured by the Lebanese army, the situation in the high Shuf is still unclear.
1- Mar Elias (blocked near Cornich il Mazra'a and Center Makassed)
2- Cornish il Mazra'a on 4 locations
3- Intersection of Verdun and Ramlit il Bayda and the Beginning of the
4- Near Rawsheh on Cornish
5- Dinaweh and the road leading to Sodeco Square
6- Ein il Mrayesseh (may open later on)
7- High Bshara il Khoury (2 locations)
8- Airport Road as well as Msaitbeh, the tunel is completely closed, only
entrance is from those living on the bridge, roads leading to the bridge
are also closed
9- Sodeco square and the road leading to downtown Beirut, part of the
protective element of the Grand Serail
10- Ring Highway, both sides, 4 lines of blockade
11- The two streets on top of Hamra leading to LAU as part of the
protective element of the Hariri Residence
12- The Kroitem High Way, near britstol also as part of the protective
quadrant of Hariri residence
13- Tayyouneh Rondpoint completely closed
14- Shatila Rondpoint completely closed
Sunday, May 11, 2008
After 1991, solid waste disposal became a priority goal of the new republic, but alas only in Beirut. The operation of solid waste removal and disposal was subcontracted to Sukleen, a private company whose owner is close to the top politicians of the country. The process for awarding the contracts as well as the costs of the contracts have all been severely criticized, and there were widespread accusation of corruption. The location of the solid waste disposal dump, in the Naameh area south of Beirut, as well as its design and its capacity have also come under fire. Yet, and while the rest of Lebanon's cities and villages are still awash with their own rubbish (because the state is not interested in anything aside from Beirut), the city (at least the central part of it) has become, in the past few years, cleaner than I have ever known it.
The system is simple and human intensive: People throw their garbage in large rectangular bins situated at street corners and the Sukleen trucks come and collect it on a very regular basis. But people are often careless, and throw their rubbish around the bins. Many do not close the bags properly. As a result, there is often as much garbage inside the bin as there is outside.
But the Beirutis have found another function for these bins: they use them to block roads whenever there are strikes or demonstrations. Their contents spill out, and the roads are closed to the collectors. Garbage accumulates again on street corners, and at these times, I can start smelling the burn again. This is what Beirut looked like yesterday.
West Beirut is still unsure of what to make of the latest political developments. Although the army is said to have taken over the whole city, people are cautiously evaluating the situation behind the safety of their TV sets. There are occasional sounds of gunshots, but we are told it is in mourning as people bury their dead. The streets are empty, but they are clean. Another, silent army has deployed, clad in bright green: the Sukleen cleaners. Many come from India, Bengladesh, or Sri lanka, and they are here, in the middle of this conflict, to clean the Beiruti's mess. Like an army, they follow orders. Fear or disobedience means the loss of a much needed wage. I spoke in a combination of broken Arabic and English with Asam this morning, as he and his 2 colleagues were cleaning an empty street in Hamra. The 3 of them are from Madras, India. Two of them have been here 2 and a half year and one just 6 months. They are given $200 a month (the minimum wage in Lebanon), and health insurance, and they are all housed together (I couldn't tell how many to a room) in common sleeping quarters. He did not seem to be aware that the government has decreed a 40% increase in the minimum wage.
To those unsung heroes.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
PM Sanioura gave a speech today from the grand serail. Besides the attacks and refutations of Nasrallah's rhetoric, he made the following offer: The fate of the contentious decrees (which, he said, have not come into effect) is to be decided by the Army; all armed presence is to be removed from the streets; the sit in and the strike are to be lifted and the airport re-opened, a new president is elected (I assume he meant army general Sleiman, but he didn't say that) following which a national unity government is created in which neither the parliamentary majority nor the opposition have veto power, and the new government will prepare for elections on the basis of the qada (district), with minor "demographic" (read sectarian) adjustment. He added that this offer can form a basis on which one can build to get to a compromise. I think so too.
Moments later, the army responded by taking positive steps and reinstating the airport chief of security. The Opposition accepted to remove all armed presence, but promised to keep the "civil disobedience" going. En passant, it reminded Sanioura that the decrees are as effective as can be, as they have been sent to the UN for support in implementation.
In West Beirut, and for a reason I cannot fathom, sand barricades have been erected, blocking traffic in almost all the main streets.