Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 12, 2007

The Palestinians, Alone

Some 6,000 Palestinians have been stranded for the past month on the Egyptian side of the border with the Gaza Strip because of the closure of the Rafah border crossing. The terminal was closed after the European monitors who had operated there for the past two years left their jobs following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid-June. At least 20 of these Palestinian travelers have died either of illness or other causes while waiting on the Egyptian side. Most of them are complaining that the Egyptian authorities are not doing anything to alleviate their suffering. Attempts by Israel to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis have been foiled by both Fatah and Hamas, who turned down an Israeli offer to help the Palestinians return home through the Israeli-controlled border crossing at Kerem Shalom.

Meanwhile, not a single Arab country has come forth to help the marooned Palestinians. Egyptian and Palestinian families living along the border have been hosting some of them, but the majority, including women and children, are forced to sleep in mosques and on sidewalks.

“The Arabs don’t care about us,” Muhammed Haj Jamil, a university student who was on his way home from the Gulf, told me in a phone interview. “The Arabs hate the Palestinians. The Egyptians are treating us as if we were terrorists. Even the Jews treat us better than most Arabs.”

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Some 6,000 Palestinians have been stranded for the past month on the Egyptian side of the border with the Gaza Strip because of the closure of the Rafah border crossing. The terminal was closed after the European monitors who had operated there for the past two years left their jobs following Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid-June. At least 20 of these Palestinian travelers have died either of illness or other causes while waiting on the Egyptian side. Most of them are complaining that the Egyptian authorities are not doing anything to alleviate their suffering. Attempts by Israel to find a solution to this humanitarian crisis have been foiled by both Fatah and Hamas, who turned down an Israeli offer to help the Palestinians return home through the Israeli-controlled border crossing at Kerem Shalom.

Meanwhile, not a single Arab country has come forth to help the marooned Palestinians. Egyptian and Palestinian families living along the border have been hosting some of them, but the majority, including women and children, are forced to sleep in mosques and on sidewalks.

“The Arabs don’t care about us,” Muhammed Haj Jamil, a university student who was on his way home from the Gulf, told me in a phone interview. “The Arabs hate the Palestinians. The Egyptians are treating us as if we were terrorists. Even the Jews treat us better than most Arabs.”

And he’s absolutely right. Most of the Arab countries stopped providing the Palestinians with financial aid when Yasser Arafat and the PLO openly supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Since then, the Palestinians are almost entirely dependent on handouts from the U.S. and Europe. Many Palestinians who travel to Arab countries complain of maltreatment and harassment at by intelligence officers at the airports and border crossings.

Today, most of the Arab countries don’t want to help the Palestinians because of the Fatah-Hamas fighting and the Palestinian leadership’s failure to establish good governance and end financial corruption and anarchy. The Arabs are simply fed up with the Palestinians’ failure to get their act together. In the absence of Arab support, Israel is the only country that has been sending tons of food and medicine to the Gaza Strip on a daily basis over the past month.

The Egyptians, who have a joint border with the Gaza Strip, don’t allow Palestinians to enter Egypt in search of work. The Jordanians, for their part, “divorced” the West Bank in 1988; since then they haven’t wanted anything to do with the Palestinians living there. The dream of many Palestinian laborers today is to work in Israel—as they used to do in the days before the “peace process” began. Or as one Palestinian in Gaza told me recently: “We wish the [Israeli] occupation would return and improve our conditions.”

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Banned in China

Yesterday, it was revealed that authorities on July 4 had ordered China Development Brief, a Beijing-friendly newsletter published in the Chinese capital since 1995, to cease publication. It was shuttered for conducting “unauthorized surveys,” a violation of a 1983 statistical law. Nick Young, the founder of the newsletter and the editor of its English version, had tried to keep the news secret so that he could negotiate with the authorities, but a former colleague leaked the news to the international media. Young, referring to the closing, noted in a statement, “My hope is that these actions have been precipitated by zealous state security agents, and that more senior figures in the government and Communist Party will realise that actions of this kind are not in China’s best interest.”

Of course they are not, but the Communist Party almost never does what’s good for China. And now, the Party seems intent on delegitimizing its friends—and itself. Young had often pointed to Beijing’s tolerance of his publication as proof that the one-party state was reforming. “I have spent the last decade telling foreigners that China is not as repressive and totalitarian as Western media often portray it to be,” he said in his statement. “At the end of the day, I hoped that if we had an open, intelligent conversation, we would be accepted,” he told the New York Times. “But I think we miscalculated, or they miscalculated.”

If anyone made a mistake, it is Young, for being optimistic. The mission of China Development Brief was “to enhance constructive engagement between China and the world.” How do you do that when you’re dealing with insecure autocrats? The truth is that the Communist Party has gone into reverse.

We should all be grateful to Nick Young: he’s shown that, for all of China’s efforts at mustering international goodwill, it still hasn’t let go of its deep-rooted authoritarian tendencies.

Yesterday, it was revealed that authorities on July 4 had ordered China Development Brief, a Beijing-friendly newsletter published in the Chinese capital since 1995, to cease publication. It was shuttered for conducting “unauthorized surveys,” a violation of a 1983 statistical law. Nick Young, the founder of the newsletter and the editor of its English version, had tried to keep the news secret so that he could negotiate with the authorities, but a former colleague leaked the news to the international media. Young, referring to the closing, noted in a statement, “My hope is that these actions have been precipitated by zealous state security agents, and that more senior figures in the government and Communist Party will realise that actions of this kind are not in China’s best interest.”

Of course they are not, but the Communist Party almost never does what’s good for China. And now, the Party seems intent on delegitimizing its friends—and itself. Young had often pointed to Beijing’s tolerance of his publication as proof that the one-party state was reforming. “I have spent the last decade telling foreigners that China is not as repressive and totalitarian as Western media often portray it to be,” he said in his statement. “At the end of the day, I hoped that if we had an open, intelligent conversation, we would be accepted,” he told the New York Times. “But I think we miscalculated, or they miscalculated.”

If anyone made a mistake, it is Young, for being optimistic. The mission of China Development Brief was “to enhance constructive engagement between China and the world.” How do you do that when you’re dealing with insecure autocrats? The truth is that the Communist Party has gone into reverse.

We should all be grateful to Nick Young: he’s shown that, for all of China’s efforts at mustering international goodwill, it still hasn’t let go of its deep-rooted authoritarian tendencies.

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Is an al-Qaeda Nuclear Suitcase Bomb On the Way?

Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

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Norman Ornstein has an alarming piece on the Washington Post op-ed page this morning about the failure of our government to prepare to maintain continuity in the event of a devastating surprise terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction. This follows a June 12 op-ed in the New York Times by William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter, and Michael M. May, stating that “the probability of a nuclear weapon one day going off in an American city cannot be calculated, but it is larger than it was five years ago.”

Building a nuclear bomb would be a formidable challenge for a terrorist group. Obtaining one would be a much easier route. How worried should we be? How real, in particular, is the loose nuclear-suitcase-bomb problem?

I’ve long been skeptical that these things could be floating around. States that build nuclear weapons are well aware of their destructive potential and go to extraordinary lengths to keep them under control.

To be sure, there have been reports pointing in the other direction. In 1997, General Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian national security adviser, told CBS’s Sixty Minutes that the Russian military had 250 such weapons and had lost track of more than 100 of them. But was Lebed in a position to know? As James Kitfield pointed out in National Journal, other Russian authorities have asserted that the KGB was in charge of these devices, which would explain why the Russian military could not offer an accurate accounting of their numbers and whereabouts.

In his 2000 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, Yossef Bodansky stated that “there is no longer much doubt that bin Laden has finally succeeded in his quest for nuclear suitcase bombs.” But this claim was unsourced and seems difficult to credit. Although bin Laden has openly expressed interest in getting the bomb, and also obtained a fatwa from a Saudi cleric giving him divine permission to use one against American civilians, presumably, if he already had one in the 1990’s, we would have seen or heard it go off by now.

Still, the fact that there has been some sensationalist reporting does not mean there is no reason to worry. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains a chief concern. The country hemorrhaged nuclear-weapons technology for years when its atomic-energy program was being run by A. Q. Khan, who remains a national hero. Even if Khan is no longer in the loop, other elements within the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment might well offer to supply one to al Qaeda either for cash or to earn a place in heaven.

George Tenet adds significantly to our anxieties on this score. Although there are many things wrong with his recent memoir—and I point out some of them in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) —what he writes about this problem seems credible. Immediately after September 11, it turns out, the U.S. government was uncertain whether or not al Qaeda already had such a device:

In late November 2001, I briefed the President, Vice President, and National Security Adviser on the latest intelligence. . . . I brought along with me my WMD chief, Rolf Mowatt-Larsen, and Kevin K., our most senior WMD terrorism analyst. During the ensuing conversation, the Vice President asked if we thought al Qaeda had a nuclear weapon. Kevin replied, “Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qaeda nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can’t assure you that they don’t.”

Tenet continues for many pages laying out precise intelligence about al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb from Pakistan and from Russia. Whatever his flaws as a CIA director, Tenet was in a position to know all that can be known about this issue. His memoirs show that we do have reason to be afraid. But we shouldn’t be quivering in our boots. Rather, even as we work to avert a disastrous vacuum from forming in Iraq, we should be prosecuting the war against al Qaeda and allied Islamic terrorists with a vigor commensurate with what is at stake.

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China, in the Black

In June, China’s trade surplus soared 85.5 percent—compared to the same month last year—to an all-time monthly record of $26.91 billion. The surplus for the first half of this year was up 83.1 percent. Beijing said the increase in the June figures was due to a surge as producers took advantage of export tax rebates that expired on the first of this month.

It’s a step forward that Beijing is removing export incentives, because the nation cannot continue its export-led economic boom for much longer. For one thing, trade tensions will grow with its largest export market: more than half of China’s trade surplus is with the United States. For another thing, the June surplus figures will spark new calls for currency legislation in Congress. Yet this is not just about Beijing’s problems with Washington. Politicians in other foreign capitals are starting to push back on trade, and no shoppers want to buy impure food or unsafe products from the Chinese.

Yet what’s especially interesting about the June trade figures is a decline in imports. This trend could accelerate as Beijing continues to go on the attack against foreign producers. On Tuesday, China announced that it had rejected a shipment of sugar-free drink mixes from a Wisconsin company because of excessive amounts of red dye.

This comes on top of rejections in early June of health supplements and raisins from America. Apparently, Beijing mistakenly assumes that retaliation will ease foreign restrictions on its own goods. The central government accuses other countries of using food safety issues to attack China, but that tactic is bound to fail. We are in the early stages of a trade war, which is almost inevitable when touchy authoritarians put their goods into the stream of international commerce.

In June, China’s trade surplus soared 85.5 percent—compared to the same month last year—to an all-time monthly record of $26.91 billion. The surplus for the first half of this year was up 83.1 percent. Beijing said the increase in the June figures was due to a surge as producers took advantage of export tax rebates that expired on the first of this month.

It’s a step forward that Beijing is removing export incentives, because the nation cannot continue its export-led economic boom for much longer. For one thing, trade tensions will grow with its largest export market: more than half of China’s trade surplus is with the United States. For another thing, the June surplus figures will spark new calls for currency legislation in Congress. Yet this is not just about Beijing’s problems with Washington. Politicians in other foreign capitals are starting to push back on trade, and no shoppers want to buy impure food or unsafe products from the Chinese.

Yet what’s especially interesting about the June trade figures is a decline in imports. This trend could accelerate as Beijing continues to go on the attack against foreign producers. On Tuesday, China announced that it had rejected a shipment of sugar-free drink mixes from a Wisconsin company because of excessive amounts of red dye.

This comes on top of rejections in early June of health supplements and raisins from America. Apparently, Beijing mistakenly assumes that retaliation will ease foreign restrictions on its own goods. The central government accuses other countries of using food safety issues to attack China, but that tactic is bound to fail. We are in the early stages of a trade war, which is almost inevitable when touchy authoritarians put their goods into the stream of international commerce.

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