Columbia Students Launch Divestment Campaign To Get Money Out Of Prisons

In the late 1970s, on college campuses across the country, students banded together to demand that universities align their wallets with their consciences: They called for schools to divest from companies with ties to South Africa, to translate moral opposition to apartheid into tangible economic policy. Now, four decades after Columbia’s Coalition for a Free South Africa blockaded the steps of a university building, another divestment movement is trying to tackle what could become this generation’s signature cause: criminal justice reform.

Members of Columbia Prison Divest protest at Columbia University in September.

Columbia is one of several schools where students are demanding that university endowments take a visible stand against mass incarceration by divesting from private prison companies, which have faced criticism — and lawsuits — for rampant abuse and a lack of transparency.

Back in 1985, Columbia agreed to student demands. Within months of the first blockade, the board of trustees voted to divest, joining endowments from coast to coast, from Harvard to University of California campuses. In retrospect, some skeptics have called the effect of divestment on South Africa’s economy into question. The impact on American universities, however, is clear. Divestment petitions became a go-to tool in the arsenal of student activists, representing a range of political causes. In recent years, robust movements calling for divestment from Israel and fossil fuels have demanded attention from university administrations. The University of California student council even lobbied to divest from entire nations, including the United States, with poor human rights track records.

In February 2014, Columbia Prison Divest launched their campaign with a letter to university president Lee Bollinger — which they read aloud to his secretary when they found him away from his desk. According to the group, the university had $8 million invested in Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, as well as shares in other behemoths of the private security industry, the GEO Group and G4S. They called for immediate divestment from the groups and a pledge not to reinvest in the future.

Since 2013, five University of California schools have passed resolutions in their student senates calling for divestment, and have published a guide “to getting UC money out of the prison industrial complex,” for use by other campuses interested in replicating their efforts. Their work has been coordinated in part through the work of Enlace, an alliance of community organizers who have made “driving a wedge between investors and the private prison industry” their priority in recent years.

The Dream Defenders, a civil rights group that formed in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting (and was invited to meet with President Obama last December), has coordinated divestment efforts in Florida. They swooped onto the scene in February 2013 when Florida Atlantic University announced the school’s new football stadium would be funded by, and named after, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, The GEO Group. The stadium deal quickly received national attention — and even inspired a segment on The Colbert Report. In April, FAU had canceled the contract with GEO. Within another month, the university president resigned.

At Columbia, divestment advocates struggled to get their campaign off the ground after that first petition outside President Bollinger’s office. They wrote several more letters, but didn’t receive any formal response from the administration. In November, they staged what one of the group’s leaders, Dunni Oduyemi, called an “intervention,” accosting the president on his way to teach a class until he promised to meet with CPD in person. The group was impressed with Bollinger’s receptiveness — Oduyemi says he has “continued to express interest in using Columbia, its legacy, its prestige, to address racial inequality” — but the decision to divest isn’t up to him: According to Colombia’ protocol, requests must first be approved by a finance subcommittee, and then by the Board of Trustees.

In 2000, Columbia created the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, a body composed of students, faculty, and alumni, which is charged with evaluating any petitions for changes in investment strategy. Calls for divestment are assessed according to strict criteria, which requires “broad consensus within the University” on the issue and stipulates that divestment should be shown to be “more viable and appropriate” than any other possible policy response.

Navigating Columbia’s bureaucracy, Oduyemi says, has been slow. “As a campaign, we recognize that one of Columbia’s strategies in dealing with divestment is to delay the process as much as possible,” she says. Another member of Columbia Prison Divest called meetings with the advisory committee “wrought with confusion, misunderstanding, and miscommunication.”

Members of the Advisory Board weren’t available for comment, but a university spokesperson said by email that Columbia “has a strong set of procedures around ACSRI that include research, discussions and public meetings, which are thorough and deliberative (and thus take time).” The university doesn’t comment on investment strategy except in its annual report.

Meanwhile, CPD has been facing other logistical challenges. School commitments constantly vie for students’ attention, and graduation throws leadership into upheaval every year.

These challenges are large enough that many schools have opted not to follow Columbia’s lead. Eva Shang, a student at Harvard and the head of Student Alliance for Prison Reform, an umbrella group that coordinates activism on multiple campuses, says that there’s real risk in taking on “extended campaigns that rely on student investment.” She has focused her time and energy on more service-oriented work, like bringing tutoring or theater programs into prisons. As a leader setting campus agenda, she has to ask herself: “Is attention best diverted to other efforts that benefit the broader community and achieve something tangible?”

Some university administrators have voiced more forceful criticism. Christine Wood, a trustee at Vassar, told University Business that even when divestment campaigns achieve success, they don’t actually make change: “an investor with proxy votes that influence corporate decision-making, is more powerful in advancing corporate sustainability than stepping outside the sphere of influence by divesting.”

When rejecting a bid from Harvard students to divest from fossil fuels, University President Drew Gilpin Faust said maintaining a robust endowment should take precedence over making politicized statements. “We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution,” she wrote in a statement.

Shang says she has watched several private prison divestment campaigns struggle to gain traction and thinks there is greater enthusiasm for other avenues of mobilizing on criminal justice issues, like a push to curb the use of solitary confinement, which she says “everyone is so on board and gung-ho about.”

But back at Columbia, Gabriela Pelsinger, another leader at CPD, disagrees. She sees the goal of divestment as precisely the kind of “tangible” result Shang cites as motivation: “You can say, ‘Look at our school. Our education is profiting off of the incarceration of marginalized communities, and that directly allows us to have access to these resources.’”

President Bollinger has agreed to sit down and meet with the divestment group in April. By that time, many students will be gearing up to leave Columbia’s campus for good. But April also brings the 40th anniversary of the apartheid divestment movement, and activists are looking forward to an event that will bring both generations of agitators together. “It does feel like we are in a kind of moment,” she says. “Hopefully that will keep building into a movement.”

prison divestment campaign, criminal justice reform, Columbia Prison Divest, Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, Dream Defenders, incarceration rates, Student Alliance for Prison Reform

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Obama’s Middle East Gamble

The president is trying to engage the troubled region on his own terms. Is that even possible?

debris at the site of a Saudi air strike against Huthi rebels.
Realpolitik gets real: A Yemeni man in military fatigues surveys debris at the site of a Saudi airstrike against Huthi rebels near Sanaa Airport on March 26, 2015, which killed at least 13 people.

Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is bombing Sunni radicals in Iraq (which, in the end, will help Shiite militias), while also helping Saudis bomb Shiite rebels in Yemen (which is intended to help Sunni regimes).

Is this the product of a fractured, even contradictory foreign policy? No. It’s more a reflection of the fact that the Middle East is a messed-up place these days—and so, for that matter, is the world.

In a certain way, Obama’s actions, taken together, can be seen as the product of a realpolitik policy. It’s a separate question whether realpolitik—the cold, calculating pursuit of one’s own national interests—can be effectively applied to the Middle East. In other words, it’s a separate but vital question whether Obama’s approach is shrewd or naive.

Middle East politics these days are driven almost entirely by the conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Many of America’s allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states) are ruled by Sunnis. Many of its foes (Iran, Syria, and such militias as Hezbollah) are Shiite or pro-Shiite. However, ISIS, which seems to be the No. 1 enemy in the region, is Sunni; the Iraqi government, with which we have a partnership, is Shiite. We share some interests with Shiites (for instance, the desire to crush ISIS), while we share other interests with Sunnis (for instance, the desire to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to contain Iran’s expansion).

It’s this muddle that people are referring to when they talk about “the post-Cold War world.” It’s not just that the Soviet Union imploded; it’s that the bipolar international system imploded, too. In the old days, nations were treated as allies or adversaries according to whether they aligned with Washington or Moscow. This is no longer true.

With the dissolution of the superpowers, a regional cold war has come to dominate Middle Eastern politics, based on the ancient rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites. At various times both sides have tried to lasso the United States into fighting this war for them.

President Obama, for the most part, has tried to avoid getting pulled into a wider sectarian war—while, at the same time, pursuing U.S. interests. The nations in the region may see their politics in terms of the Sunni-Shiite confrontation, but that doesn’t mean Obama has to see it the same way.

The United States has a substantial interest in crushing ISIS, so Obama will do certain things—such as launching airstrikes against ISIS positions in Tikrit—that happen to be in Iran’s interest, too. The United States also has an interest in restoring order in Yemen, though to a lesser degree, so Obama is providing logistics and intelligence support to help the Saudis launch airstrikes against the Houthi fighters’ military assets. (Egyptis preparing to send ground troops to Yemen, intensifying the conflict. Better that Egyptians do this than Americans.)

White House officials have said that the airstrikes in Tikrit are designed to assist the Iraqi army—not Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shiite militias—expel ISIS from the area. The bombing didn’t begin until after Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander who was helping the Shiite militias on the ground, left the battlefield. This timing and those words might bolster the confidence and standing of the Iraqi army and might somewhat boost the influence of American advisers in Iraq. But these assurances are a bit theatrical: If ISIS is repelled, the Shiite militias will try to reoccupy the ground. Depending on the politics of the moment, the Baghdad government might even welcome, or tolerate, the militias in a coalition of forces. (It’s happened before.)

The main point is this: Obama seems to have made a calculation that beating ISIS is so important that it’s worth doing even if it means a slight expansion of Iranian influence. Some criticize this set of priorities. Retired Gen. David Petraeus recently said that containing Iran should take precedence over beating back ISIS. I disagree. ISIS is far more brutal than Iran; its expansion would be far more destabilizing than Iran’s; and finally, Iran is as prone to overextension as any other power.

This isn’t to say that Iran’s widening control of the region isn’t unsettling or that we should do nothing about it. But hard choices have to be made sometimes: Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sided with Josef Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler, and a similarly strange alliance (whether openly acknowledged or not) might be needed to destroy ISIS. (I’m not likening ISIS to the Nazis or anyone to FDR, Churchill, or Stalin; as the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.)

One question is whether Obama’s realpolitik approach is realistic. Is it possible to play a role in the Middle East without succumbing to the game as the locals see it? Can Obama side with Sunnis here, and Shiites there, as they align with his view of U.S. interests, without stirring distrust from all sides?

In the summer of 2013, Obama at first made plans to bomb Syria, then backed away. The Egyptian and Saudi leaders erupted with fury, accusing Obama of betraying them. Certainly Obama handled the situation poorly; a president shouldn’t draw “red lines,” then ignore them when they’re crossed. But his main interest—what he saw as the U.S. national security interest—was to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Once that happened, at the prodding of Russia, the operation was over, as far as he was concerned.

The Sunni leaders of the region are also upset by the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. They see the very existence of the talks as a sign that the United States is drifting toward Iran, which to their minds means drifting away from them. But to Obama, the United States simply has an interest in setting back Iran’s nuclear program without setting off a war. (He would add that, from an enlightened point of view, such an accomplishment would serve the entire region’s interest, too.)

These leaders also see Obama’s moves as marking a retreat from the Middle East generally—to which, on grimmer days, Obama must mutter, As if. It would be great if the United States could peel away from the primitive squabbles of the Middle East and “pivot” to the dynamic growth and trade of the Asia Pacific. But, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, Obama keeps getting pulled back in by the crises. There’s too much at stake to walk away: oil, Israel, global terrorism, the crossroads linking west with east—if it all blew up, there’d be catastrophe.

But does staying in the game preclude playing it our own way? Or does it require going all in, viewing everything through the Sunni-Shiite prism and either perpetually managing the conflict (probably impossible) or ultimately taking sides (extremely unwise)? Whichever way we go, there’s no way to avoid the mess.

I want my country back

Yesterday I spent $2.50 on the New York Times and splashed across the top right two columns of the front page was Jodi Rudoren’s piece from Jerusalem titled “Rebukes From White House Risk Buoying Netanyahu.” The article is a full-on assault on President Obama for taking on Netanyahu over his repudiation of the two-state solution and his election day racism, and it is disingenuous from start to finish, beginning with the headline. The aim of the piece is to buoy Netanyahu and submarine the US president. It quotes one rightwing Israeli after another–

Israeli analysts are now suggesting that Mr. Obama and his aides might be overplaying their hand, inviting a backlash of sympathy for Mr. Netanyahu–

and when it comes to the Palestinian voters Netanyahu slimed, says they rejected his apology but doesn’t quote a single one.

I’ve never seen anything like this before: the top space of the newspaper turned over to a war- and fear-mongering foreign leader to undermine the US president.

It would be one thing if this were just Rudoren’s application for an interview with the Prime Minister. I’m sure she’s under a lot of pressure to deliver one; after Andrea Mitchell and other TV reporters got interviews with the PM last week in which he tried to walk back his hateful comments, Rudoren noted that Netanyahu turned her down. Maybe after this hasbara service, he will change his mind.

But that’s garden-variety journalistic corruption, and the real offense of the piece is staggering. This is the journalistic equivalent of the Tom Cotton neocon letter: a foreign prime minister is given the top space in the New York Times to suggest again and again that Obama has gone off the rails. We are told that the president had “harsh” words for the prime minister and that the president has been “patronizing and disrespectful” to Israeli voters.

The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with are sounding mandate for a fourth term.

How? The president’s manner has been severe, but show me the words that are harsh, patronizing or disrespectful? He has quoted the prime minister and made very clear that this is a defining moment. Israel doesn’t want a two state solution. There is not one harsh, patronizing or disrespectful word that Rudoren quotes, even as she quotes Israeli colonizers like Dore Gold trashing the president.

She says that the president is acting out of pique.

“Obama and his team had assembled this rage over several months or maybe a few years, and now it’s all coming out,” added [former ambassador Itamar] Rabinovich, no fan of Mr. Netanyahu. “I think they are overdoing it.”

Without a word about Netanyahu’s repeated insults to the White House, going back to the 2010 settlement announcement, the 2011 lecture, as well as the use of the Israel lobby to stuff Obama’s 2009 call to end settlements back down his throat.

Rudoren says that the president doesn’t have any strategic aim in his criticisms of Israel. Though he seems to want a Palestinian  state approved at the United Nations, and his criticism might be a “ploy to undermine Israel’s lobbying efforts against the American negotiations for a nuclear accord with Iran.” Those seem very strategic aims indeed, to end Israeli colonization and head off Israeli “lobbying” for yet another hot war in the Middle East. These would seem to be goals that the New York Times should be lending itself to.

The article goes out of its way to sandbag the story in the Wall Street Journal two days ago saying that the Israelis were spying on US communications with Iran and then leaking details to friendly congresspeople so as to undo the president’s diplomacy. The Times suggests that the story is based on unreliable sources and is false. Three Israeli officials, unnamed, “vehemently” denied the report and “several” congressional Republicans say they received no such information. As Justin Raimondosaid in linking Rudoren’s piece: 

The Judy Miller Times comes to the Lobby’s aid, covers for Israeli spying.

That’s what’s so mindboggling about the Times piece. The newspaper is once again lending its pages to aggressive Zionists. In the top spot, no less. To take on an American president in his foreign policy

I always underestimated the strength of the Israel lobby. I didn’t want to extrapolate beyond what I’d seen before my eyes. But this piece suggests that the lobby is imbedded in the New York Times itself, that our leading newspaper sees it as its job to support Israel when the president is seeking to reassess his relationship with the country– supporting a rightwing racist foreign leader over the president. Just what 47 Republican Senators did, and what Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are doing now, what Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer and many Democrats also do, out of what a more honest bureau of the Times has called “loyalty” to Israel.

And everyone knows what is going on. As David Bromwich wrote after Netanyahu’s speech:

“As if he anticipated the strange moment in which we find ourselves — when a foreign leader who asked us to fight one disastrous war now commands us to fight another on his behalf — [George] Washington said: ‘A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.’”

John Mearsheimer once said that the fight against pro-Israel ideologues was “mortal combat,” and I take his point. I call on others with any spine to decry the influence of the lobby in our politics, to challenge anyone who is serving Israel’s aims against the president. I want my country back.

Thanks to James North.

JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and others have discussed withholding campaign contributions as punishment for populist rhetoric of progressive senator

Sen. Elizebath Warren has reportedly generated enough ire among Wall Street banks to have them considering a coordinated campaign of collective punishment against her fellow Democrats. (Photo: file)

What could she possibly be doing right?

According to exlusive reporting by Reuters on Friday, big Wall Street banks are so upset with Elizabeth Warren’s call to “un-rig” the economy and proposals for stronger financial regulations that discussions are underway about withholding campaign contributions to Senate Democrats as a form of “symbolic” protest against the freshman senator from Massachusetts.

Citing sources familiar with the situation, representatives of some of the nation’s largest banks—including Citigroup, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America—have actively considered putting pressure on the Democratic establishment by making a coordinated threat to withold campaign contributions unless the populist rhetoric coming from Sen. Warren and her colleague from Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown, is toned down.

Reports Reuters:

Bank officials said the idea of withholding donations was not discussed at a meeting of the four banks in Washington but it has been raised in one-on-one conversations between representatives of some of them. However, there was no agreement on coordinating any action, and each bank is making its own decision, they said.

The amount of money at stake, a maximum of $15,000 per bank, means the gesture is symbolic rather than material.

Despite that seemingly small figure, especially in major election cycles which now cost $1 billion or more, the political implications of the banks actively eschewing the Democrats because Warren or Brown’s outspoken criticism cannot be dismissed now that money has become the dominant feature of American democracy.

As recently as Thursday—as the Republicans moved to pass its new budget—Warren could be seen using social media to trumpet warnings about the ways in which Wall Street and the financial industry would benefit by the GOP proposals being put forth. On Twitter, she announced:

Meanwhile, Sen. Sherrod Brown has been Warren’s close ally in the Senate on such matters. Along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Brown has been among the most outspoken proponents of breaking up the nation’s largest bank and re-instating the rules of the now defunct Glass-Steagall Act which—before it was repealed in the late 1990s under the Clinton administration—forced large financial insitutions to keep their investment arms and commercial banking divisions separate. Many critics blame the repeal of Glass Steagallas one of the key policy decisions that led to the 2008 financial disaster.

Though popular among progressives, the stances of Warren, Brown, and Sanders (who is an Independent but caucuses with the Democrats) have clearly ired Wall Street’s power brokers.

And, of course, the larger focus may ultimately fall on the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016: Hillary Clinton. Though many on the left have urged Warren to throw her hat in the ring to challenge for the nomination, Warren has repeatedly said she has no intention of entering the race.

Even though Clinton is well known as having a very comfortable relationship with Wall Street and the corporate world, Reuters reports that “political strategists say Clinton could struggle to raise money among Wall Street financiers who worry that Democrats are becoming less business friendly” because of the populist rhetoric of Warren.

According to the reporting:

Citi spokeswoman Molly Meiners declined to comment specifically on the Warren issue, saying the bank’s fund-raising political action committee (PAC) “contributes to candidates and parties across the political spectrum that share our desire for pro-business policies that promote economic growth.”

JPMorgan representatives have met Democratic Party officials to emphasize the connection between its annual contribution and the need for a friendlier attitude toward the banks, a source familiar with JPMorgan’s donations said. In past years, the bank has given its donation in one lump sum but this year has so far donated only a third of the amount, the source said.

Goldman, which already made its $15,000 donation for the year, took part in the Washington meeting between the four banks to talk about anti-big bank rhetoric of some Democratic lawmakers like Warren but has not had any discussions about withholding money, a source close to the bank said.

The Gates Foundation vs. the World Social Forum

Food sovereignty activists protest outside a secret elite corporate seed conference convened by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on March 23, 2015. (Photo: Jess Hurd/reportdigital.co.uk/flickr/cc)

This week the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID hosted a meeting in London with big agribusinesses to discuss strategies to increase corporate control over seeds in Africa. The location of the meeting was secret. So was the agenda. Attendance was strictly invite-only and nobody who even came close to representing African small farmers was invited.

Meanwhile farmers and food sovereignty activists met at the World Social Forum in Tunis, Tunisia to discuss their solutions to the problems of our food system. These two meetings represent not just two different types of meeting – a closed, secretive meeting of the powerful versus an open, democratic meeting of grassroots activists – but also two radically different paths for the future of our food. One is based on corporate control and would generate vast profits for a small elite; the second is centred on sustainable, democratic, local food production.

“There is powerful evidence that organic farming practices and local seeds used by small-holder farmers are able to produce more food on less land and with less water than industrial agriculture.”

As often was the case in colonial times the corporate agenda in Africa is today often disguised as paternalistic benevolence. Friendly-sounding projects such as the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the DfID-supported New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition promise to eliminate hunger by creating the conditions that will bring new corporate technologies and more big business investment to African agriculture.

On the face of it that all sounds very good. So why this level of secrecy for the meetings about the projects? Samwel Messiak, a Tanzanian food campaigner I met in Tunis tells a very different story of the corporate agenda for Africa’s food. He told me that in Tanzania the New Alliance has helped corporations “buy” land off local communities without their consent and without paying them compensation for their lost land.

This is because the corporate agenda of AGRA and the New Alliance threaten to move control of land and seeds into corporate hands. The push for corporate engagement in Africa’s agriculture also has a strong focus on producing cash crops for consumption in richer parts of the world (a practice started in colonial times) which if anything provides less food for people living locally. It seems strange that a supposedly charitable organisation such as the Gates Foundation is involved in this agenda; it seems they have swallowed the idea that only the market can provide for our needs.

Democratic food

In a very different setting from the corporate meeting in London, an alternative vision for our food is forming. In a packed room at the World Social Forum in Tunis, farmers and food sovereignty campaigners discussed a radically different food system.

Farmers and campaigners from across the world shared examples of how agriculture can provide livelihoods for farmers, food for local communities and can be a central part of women’s liberation as women are taking a leading part in food production in most places.There is powerful evidence that organic farming practices and local seeds used by small-holder farmers are able to produce more food on less land and with less water than industrial agriculture.

Agribusinesses are putting small-scale farmer under pressure everywhere. But representatives from places like Chile, Senegal, Bangladesh and Italy told the meeting how farmers are showing how local communities can take back control of their food systems to provide healthy and affordable food. It was inspiring to experience how unified farmers and campaigners from different places are in their fight for democratic control of our food. As we chanted at the end of the meeting: “The people united will never be defeated”.

In 2015 it shouldn’t be a radical notion to want to move beyond colonialism and make sure farmers can keep control of the resources needed to grow food to feed their communities. So it is more important than ever that we stand with small farmers across the world to defend their right control their own land and their own seeds and our right to healthy local food.

2014 Deadliest Year for Palestinians Since 1967

Human toll included high levels of displacement, driven by Israel’s 50-day military assault on Gaza last summer

People walk through the heavily-bombed Shujaiya area in eastern Gaza in July 2014 during a pause in attacks.  (Photo:  Iyad al Baba/Oxfam via flickr/cc)

People walk through the heavily-bombed Shujaiya area in eastern Gaza in July 2014 during a pause in attacks.  (Photo: Iyad al Baba/Oxfam via flickr/cc)

Palestinians suffered a dramatic increase in fatalities last year, with more killed by Israel in 2014 than any other annual period since the 1967 war nearly 50 years ago.

A new report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory found that, overall, Israel was responsible for 2,314 Palestinian deaths and 17,125 injuries last calendar year.

Entitled Fragmented Lives, the study concludes that Israel’s 50-day military assault on Gaza last summer was the most significant driver of casualties. Between July 7 and August 26, Israel killed at least 2,220 Palestinians and wounded 11,231 in the war. According to researchers, 1,492 of those killed were civilians, but the number could be far higher, as 123 are listed as unverified. At least 551 children are numbered among the dead.

When compared with Israeli deaths, the human toll is asymmetrical. The report notes that 71 Israelis, 66 of them soldiers, were killed, in addition to one foreign national.

But this high magnitude of human loss is not limited to Gaza.

The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, “witnessed the highest number of Palestinian fatalities in incidents involving Israeli forces since 2007 and the highest number of Palestinian injuries since 2005, when OCHA began collecting data,” the report notes.

There was a drastic spike in child casualties specifically, as well as a a dramatic rise in Palestinian injuries, driven by a “sharp increase in the Israeli forces’ use of live ammunition.”

This trend appears to be continuing into 2015.

Earlier this week, Defence for Children International-Palestine reported that, in the first three months of this year, at least 30 children in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were shot with live ammunition by Israeli forces during protest, with several left in critical condition.

But the human toll was not limited to immediate deaths and wounds, the UN report notes.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians endured a dramatic rise in incarceration for alleged security offenses, including a monthly average of 185 Palestinian children held in military detention. Defense for Children International – Palestine has documented abuse and torture that Palestinian children endure in Israeli prisons, where they are denied due process.

Furthermore, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, home demolitions, discriminatory planning, and settler violence led to high levels of displacement last year. More than 7,500 Palestinian Bedouins in 46 West Bank communities face the immediate threat of forcible transfer by Israeli authorities, thanks to a controversial relocation plan, the report notes.

In Gaza, nearly half a million people—28 percent of the population—were internally displaced last year by the war, and as of the end of December, approximately 100,000 remain displaced.

The report was released just days after Israel and close ally and backer the United Statesboycotted a UN human rights session aimed, in part at addressing Israeli human rights violations.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Common Dreams that the UN report underscores the importance, right now, for the international community to exert pressure to enforce real change.

“Palestinians continue to pay highest price for the status quo,” said Munayyer. “The failure to do something to resolve this situation is a stain on the moral conscience of international community.”

Beyond dirty politics: Harperism threatens democracy itself

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

It’s getting worse.

Stephen Harper is now serving notice that he’s willing to tear the social fabric of the country apart if that’s what it takes to get his party re-elected. That is, if torquing democratic process, the rule of law, election rules, the tax system etc., etc., to make them conform to Harperism isn’t enough, he’ll throw stink bombs in the public place in the expectation that, amid the chaos, he’ll be seen as the strong hand who can straighten things out.

There were several of these this past week. Speaking to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, Harper let fall that rural people should be armed if they’re “a ways away from immediate police assistance.” He was accused of promoting vigilantism by, among others, the national assembly of Quebec, which passed a unanimous resolution denouncing him.

He dismissed the accusation as ridiculous, insisting that his was a “moderate” position. This is the Harper technique. Stake out an extreme position, then dress it up in moderation and wait for it to be accepted as such, by the Harperist “base” first, and then beyond.

Cruising for views on this in the Harper heartland, I found an editorial in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (granted, a potted one from the Postmedia chain) that, surprisingly nevertheless, accused Harper of importing American culture wars. The gun debate in Canada has been about “balancing public safety and the rights of gun owners without undue expense and red tape,” not about whether the citizen should be armed (or about whether the society is at war with itself and we should fear that our neighbour is a criminal or a terrorist).

Besides, the editorial affirmed, citing American studies, it is “utterly false” that gun ownership increases security.

There were a couple more episodes. One Tory MP mused about “brownies” taking jobs away from “whities” and another invited niqab-wearers to go back where they came from. Both are experienced political operators. Both apologized with a wink to the base, but the substance stayed. Message sent. This has the mark of well-calibrated Harperism.

In response to my last column on the Harper record, I’ve had a number of correspondences, mostly in the snotty tone of neo-con etiquette, telling me to get my lily-livered head examined: dirty politics, big deal — Harper is just doing what they’ve all done. “Have you never heard of Jean Chrétien and the sponsorship scandal?” one asked.

Here’s the picture. No prime minister before — not Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker and beyond — have ever assaulted the very principle of Parliament itself, ever attacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court, ever muzzled the scientists, neutered the parliamentary committee system, and so on. Dirty politics, corruption — yes indeed. But Harperism is worse than all that. It is an ideological assault on the elements of the constitutional order. It hangs pictures of the Queen all over, but owes its loyalties to the same dark, anti-democratic, corporate and imperialist forces that drive the American right wing.

And talking of parliamentary committees, the hearings on the secret police bill — Bill C-51– are on. Legal experts, civil libertarians and others have been, almost as one, trooping to Ottawa with carefully crafted arguments warning about the dangers of a bill that conflates peaceful protest with terrorism and works mostly outside the law.

They’re being met with Tory members on the committee not only imperiously uninterested in their arguments, but insinuating that if they’re against the bill, they must be in favour of terrorism — a class of people that would include four former prime ministers, five former Supreme Court judges, Amnesty International and essentially anyone who knows anything.

In the spirit of Harperist manipulation, the hearings are short and potentially embarrassing witnesses have been carefully excluded — the federal Privacy Commissioner, for example — as the government has no intention of changing anything, and as Canada’s international reputation for human rights and democracy goes down the drain.

Since Parliament is unfortunately no longer responsive, we can expect opposition to become extra-parliamentary. And, sure enough, there were demonstrations against the bill in 70 communities across Canada last weekend. These things don’t sprout up for nothing. Harper has triggered a politics of defiance, on the streets. Expect more of that, much more.

Meanwhile, Harper will be emboldened by the victory of his fellow traveller, Benjamin Netanyahu, who played the fear and race card at the last minute and won. Who knows what a desperate Harper might do?

All this, and the election campaign isn’t even on yet. Nor have we talked about the wobbling economy, Harper’s besmirched environmental record, or the Mike Duffy trial. Or will talking about those, too, be signs of sympathies for terrorism? We’re in deep waters. Keep your eyes peeled for just about anything.

Ralph Surette is a freelance journalist in Yarmouth County. This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr