Cutting through the bullshit.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Vale Max Roach

In other tragic news, fluent, lyrical, jazz drum virtuoso and bebop pioneer Max Roach died yesterday at the age of 83. The good news is that Columbia University’s WKCR is commemorating his life by broadcasting his complete opus, or thereabouts, over the next several days, 24 hours a day, interspersed with the most arcane commentary by the legendary Phil Schapp and other erudite presenters. And you don’t have to live in NY to listen (!

'Cowardly blending'

In his latest article on Counterpunch, Jonathan Cook, conducts a timely review of a few matters that have come to light in the year since Israel’s devastating war on Lebanon last July and August.

Among other things,

Recent reports have revealed that one of the main justifications for Hizbullah's continuing resistance -- that Israel failed to withdraw fully from Lebanese territory in 2000 -- is now supported by the UN. Last month its cartographers quietly admitted that Lebanon is right in claiming sovereignty over a small fertile area known as the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel. Israel argues that the territory is Syrian and will be returned in future peace talks with Damascus, even though Syria backs Lebanon's position. The UN's admission has been mostly ignored by the international media.

Also, far from the unexpected wanton cross border ‘kidnapping’ of innocent Israeli reservists we’ve heard so much about,

Hizbullah had long been warning that it would seize soldiers if it had the chance, in an effort to push Israel into a prisoner exchange. Israel has been holding a handful of Lebanese

Israel had tried to justify its wanton bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon on the grounds that the unscrupulous Hizb’allah combatants were hiding and launching attacks on Israel from areas populated with concentrations of civilians. Doubtless there is much learned opinion on whether ‘international law’ deems this legitimate. As I read it, this is actually a step or two beyond ‘Duh! We didn’t know there’d be civilians there!’. It presupposes a doctrine that non combatants are legitimate targets if they are compelled to serve as human shields – in other words, humans are useless as shields. UN official, Jan Egeland, famously backed up Israel’s claim with his ill considered accusation of Hizb’allah of ‘cowardly blending’.

It turns out, however, that

…Hizbullah had invested much effort in developing an elaborate system of tunnels and underground bunkers in the countryside…Also, common sense suggests that Hizbullah fighters would have been unwilling to put their families, who live in south Lebanon's villages, in danger by launching rockets from among them. [my emphasis]

…According to the UNIFIL, some 33 of these underground bunkers ­ or more than 90 per cent -- have been located and Hizbullah weapons discovered there, including rockets and launchers, destroyed.

…Relying on military sources, Haaretz reported last month: "Most of the rockets fired against Israel during the war last year were launched from the 'nature reserves'." In short, even Israel is no longer claiming that Hizbullah was firing its rockets from among civilians.

Not only were Hizb’allah fighters not hiding among civilians, those levelling the accusation, the Israelis themselves, had in fact ’built many of its permanent military installations, including weapons factories and army camps, and set up temporary artillery positions next to -- and in some cases inside -- civilian communities in the north of Israel’, as Jonathan Cook was himself probably the only one to point out last year during the fighting, notwithstanding the military censor.

The Arab Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth, has been compiling a report on the Hizbullah rocket strikes against Arab communities in the north since last summer. It is not sure whether it will ever be able to publish its findings because of the military censorship laws.

…The Association has…found that in every case there was at least one military base or artillery battery placed next to, or in a few cases inside, the community. In some communities there were several such sites.

Armed and uniformed soldiers are of course a common sight anywhere in Israel. They crowd every bus, every disco, every pizza parlour and felafel stand. But somehow, the hasbara machine has managed to paint the Hizb’allah fighters as those who are ‘cowardly blending’, while the Israelis doing exactly the same thing are heroic. And when a terrorist attacks the soldiers on a bus or at a felafel stand, the spin is always on the ‘collateral damage’, the innocent bystanders. They were the real targets, however many soldiers may have been in range. As far as I’m aware, we have only the hasbara establishment’s word for it that Palestinian terrorists always target civilians and any military losses are the real collateral damage. If that is the sole source, since we already know that they are the ones who would have us believe that the Israeli military never targets civilians and in fact goes to extraordinary lengths to absolutely rule out any accidental harm to civilians, I guess it must be true.

Jonathan was also among the only ones, if memory serves, who took on Human Rights Watch, when they

…argued that, because Hizbullah's basic rockets were not precise, every time they were fired into Israel they were effectively targeted at civilians. Hizbullah was therefore guilty of war crimes in using its rockets, whatever the intention of the launch teams. In other words, according to this reading of international law, only Israel had the right to fire missiles and drop bombs because its military hardware is more sophisticated -- and, of course, more deadly.

The HRW position is simply bizarre. It effectively advocates banning oppressed and occupied people from armed resistance and elevates it to a matter of principle. Meanwhile, with their inaccurate weapons, Hizb’allah managed to hit 119 Israeli soldiers, nearly three times as many as the 43 Israeli civilian victims, 18 of them Arab. And Israel’s precision weaponry killed over 1000 civilians, many times more than the handful of Hizb’allah fighters killed.

Hasbara is quite amazingly effective. The obvious, and obviously correct, interpretation of these data, particularly in historical context, is utterly off the radar. Only bolshie crackpots even consider the possibility either that Israel deliberately targeted civilians or that Hizb’allah might have tried to focus on military targets, even though it was clear at the time that that was precisely the situation. As more and more evidence comes to light, the lunar conspiracy theory will be shown to be as sound as it always has been. By then, unfortunately, the entire population of the civilised world will have fully internalised the myth of ‘cowardly blending’, if we haven’t already, just like we have the myth of ‘wiping Israel off the map’ and the Iranian nuclear weapons program, Saddam’s WMD, the Kosovo genocide, and a long, long list of other outright fabrications swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the vigilant, responsible, independent media.

Anyway, Jonathan, who does not resile from calling it as he sees it, concludes by summarising:

The evidence so far indicates that Israel:

· established legitimate grounds for Hizbullah's attack on the border post by refusing to withdraw from the Lebanese territory of the Shebaa Farms in 2000;

· initiated a war of aggression by refusing to engage in talks about a prisoner swap offered by Hizbullah;

· committed a grave war crime by intentionally using cluster bombs against south Lebanon's civilians;

· repeatedly hit Lebanese communities, killing many civilians, even though the evidence is that no Hizbullah fighters were to be found there;

· and put its own civilians, especially Arab civilians, in great danger by making their communities targets for Hizbullah attacks and failing to protect them.

It is clear that during the Second Lebanon war Israel committed the most serious war crimes

So it is not propitious that

In the meantime, there is every indication that Israel is planning another round of fighting against Hizbullah after it has "learnt the lessons" from the last war.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

'We do body counts'

Back in February, I made an attempt to project current estimates of excess Iraqi deaths since the march 2003 invasion on the basis of the estimates arrived at on the basis of the survey carried out by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and al Mustansariya University School of Medicine team of Burnham et al between May and July 2006 and published in The lancet last October.

The Johns Hopkins survey report in October that estimated the number of excess deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion at about 655,000 was conducted in May-July last year. Iraqis have obviously continued dying since then, and at an accelerating pace, from all reports.

Deploying a slightly suspect methodology, I have averaged the estimate, along with the upper and lower limits of the 95% confidence interval that the Lancet paper reported, to arrive at new estimates. On this basis, the probable number of excess Iraqi deaths as of this month stands at 769,583. Projecting from the July figures, we would be 95% certain that the true number lies in the range between 461,750 and 1,107,597. And counting. Since the numbers dying is on the increase, this is almost certainly an underestimation and the probability that at least 450,000 have died is therefore very high. Clearly there’s no point in even asking why these numbers don’t see the light of day in the mainstream press – only American deaths count.

So, of the estimated pre invasion population of 27 million, the occupation troops have already killed at least 450,000, and perhaps as many as 1.1 million – that would be over 4% of the population, and counting…

The approach I adopted was to calculate a monthly average for the first 40 months since the invasion covered by the Burnham et al study and assume that the average monthly rate of excess deaths for the year to July 2006 persisted. I also calculated on the basis of the average over the forty months, which yielded an unrealistically low projection, and on the basis that the monthly death rate post July 2007 increased by as much over the June 2005-June 2006 rate as the June 2005-June 2006 rate had increased over the average monthly rate May 2004-May 2005, which yielded projections that looked unrealistically high.

Using the same method and projecting out to this month, I arrive at an estimate of 1,015,195, including non ‘violent’ deaths.

A recent Information Clearing House linked me to the Just Foreign Policy site, where they have developed a new counter. The way it works is to update Burnham’s estimate of some 601,000 excess deaths specifically from violent causes over the period between the US invasion in March 2003 and the survey in May-July 2006 on the basis of increases in the Iraq Body Count counter. IBC provides minimum and maximum counts due to the range of numbers reported in the media they rely on. The new counter divides the average of the current minimum and maximum by the average of the two figures for July 2006 and multiply it by 601,000 to arrive at an approximation of the probable current death toll from violent causes.

JFP are quite explicit in acknowledging that this method is likely to under estimate the actual number of deaths because IBC relies on media reports. As the situation for reporters in Iraq has become more and more dangerous, the proportion of deaths reported in the media inevitably declines. They are also aware of the incompatibility between the IBC claim only to report the deaths of non combatants and Burnham’s principled approach to not attempting to distinguish combatants from non combatants.

A point that Eli Stephens has made and I believe I’ve mentioned before is that when the media report an incident that kills 5 and injures 30, that’s the end of the story. There is never a follow up story reporting on the 23 who subsequently died of their injuries. That is one source of the gross understatement of Iraqi deaths that IBC continues to defend.

JFP are also explicit that what their counter is trying to enumerate is the number killed specifically as a result of the US invasion and occupation since 2003. That means above and beyond the already elevated mortality from the previous US (aka UN) military adventure in Mesopotamia and the subsequent campaign of boycott and bombing.

I note with some pleasure that Tom Feeley at ICH has finally started presenting a more accurate description of the nature of the projection, ‘Number Of Iraqis Slaughtered Since The U.S. Invaded Iraq 1,004,219’. As I’ve mentioned before, until 18 June, ICH announced, ‘Number Of Iraqi Civilians Slaughtered In America's War On Iraq - At Least 655,000 + +’. There are two problems with this formulation. The survey on which the estimate is based explicitly made no pretense of distinguishing combatant from civilian deaths. And the breadth of the 95% confidence interval means that there is a small possibility that the actual number killed could have been as ‘few’ as 392,979 at the time of the survey, so it is not appropriate to describe the midpoint estimate as ‘at least’.

Anyway, I think the JFP methodology is sound and the projection it generates is not far off my 1,015,195 projection, perhaps a little less than the discrepancies regarding violent and non combatant deaths would suggest. So I’ve installed the code and will display the JFP counter here unless someone shows me why the reasoning is faulty.