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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Sasson Report: An Altered Israeli Landscape

Under American pressure to provide an exact count of how many illegal outposts have been erected since March 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon requested that a former staff attorney for the State Prosecutor's office prepare a report on the settlement outposts. The result, the Sasson Report, is a litany of criminal activity, even at the highest levels, in a number of government ministries, nationally owned utilities, the Israel Defense Forces, and the World Zionist Organization. Sasson uncovered a web of criminality that underpins the establishment and maintenance of settlements going back to 1977, unbroken by any government with the sole exception of the two post-Oslo years of the Rabin government.

According to Sasson's report, every settlement, from the 1970s on, began with an outpost. As Adi Mintz, until recently responsible for settlement policy for the Settlers Council, described it to correspondent Nadav Shragai: "Someone would sit with Sharon and tell him: 'This point is strategic and important.' Sharon would get back to him a few days later and say, 'you're right, this is an important point. It must be seized.'" [Sharon and the Outposts, Haaretz, March 9, 2005].

The "seized" hilltop outpost was then illegally supplied by the Israel Defense Forces (trailer homes), the Housing Ministry (permanent homes), the Infrastructure Ministry (connecting roads), the Education Ministry (daycare centers), the state-owned electric and water utilities, all protected by the IDF. The report also makes clear that almost a fifth of these outposts over the decades were erected on privately owned Palestinian land. Sasson recommends prosecuting those who broke the law to support the settlement movement and ultimately formed a state within a state.

What the Israeli peace movement has known for decades has now been officially documented.

At a subsequent press conference, Talia Sasson said she cannot be sure about exactly how many outposts have been erected since March 2001, because some ministries refuse to give her the relevant data. She said she believed it is more than 100. This is substantiated by Adi Mintz, who told Shragai that by the time Sharon turned his back on the settlers and began to talk about evacuating settlements, "on the ground there were already 100 outposts, some of them approved, some in the process of being approved. Everything was coordinated. We are not the lawbreakers. We are not the villain in this tale."

It appears that Ariel Sharon is being entrapped by historical forces and circumstances well beyond his control that are moving him more quickly than he likes in a direction he would prefer not to move in at all, and, for the first time, his progress is now open to public view. It appears that, for once, Ariel Sharon miscalculated.

In order to shift international and domestic attention from the Geneva Accord and other successful citizen initiatives, he unexpectedly proposed the Gaza disengagement plan. He intended the Gaza evacuation to enable him to co-opt the doves while continuing to grow the strings of outposts into established settlements. The center left in Israel, as well as the international community were quick to seize on the disengagement initiative, but in the spirit of "Gaza first."

Perhaps also unexpected by Sharon, the settlers saw the disengagement proposal as the ultimate betrayal and quickly became the new enemies of Ariel Sharon, the father and architect of their movement. (Sharon, it could be said, would have done well to have read Freud's Moses and Monotheism).

Finally, Ariel Sharon, whether master strategist or nimble improviser, could not have predicted the sudden death of Yasser Arafat and the immediate and peaceful emergence of a Palestinian democracy pledged to non-violence and ready to negotiate with Israel. In inevitable response, international pressure on Israel, including by the U.S., was immediately turned up.

It appears that the Bush administration has seen the writing on the wall. It is obvious now that there is a higher level of reengagement. There is also an initial indicator that the administration is thinking about using its big gun "aid" to persuade both Israel and the Palestinians to adhere to their agreements.

According to Akiva Eldar, a highly respected, veteran political columnist in Haaretz, Condaleeza Rice told Sharon's closest advisor, Dov Weisglas, in response to the Sasson findings, "that President Bush expects Jerusalem to take immediate action based on the conclusions and recommendations of attorney Talia Sasson in her report on the outposts." Eldar also reports that failure to remove the outposts "could have an impact on American aid to Israel." [U.S. to Israel: Leave Outposts or Relations Will Be Harmed, Haaretz, March 9, 2005].

Whether or not the report is accurate or further substantiated, the fact that it has been reported by a journalist of Eldar's stature and not repudiated is significant. The government of Israel must take note, but, equally, so must the American Jewish community. If the Sasson Report has done nothing else, it has exposed the elaborate network of lies and official flouting of the law that underlies this massive expansionist movement, fueled not only by messianic nationalism, but also outdated concepts of national security (hilltops?) and simple greed and exploitation. A very shameful chapter in our people's history has just been officially exposed. The good news, thanks to Talia Sasson, is that the full story of the widespread wrongdoing necessary to maintain the settler movement and the settlements was first made public by the government of Israel.

Though many thousands have struggled against the advance of the West Bank and Gaza settlements for as long as three decades and hopefully many millions will soon join them, until now the majority of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have turned a blind eye to the settlement movement. Again and again we have been asked for and the majority has given support, directly or indirectly, to a vision of Israel that included the settlement movement. Now that Talia Sasson's official Israeli government report has concluded that all of the settlements are illegal--under Israeli as well as international law--we have been given an opportunity to restore our vision, if we will but look.

Summary of the Sasson Report.

Fact sheet on the settlements, written by David Matz, Brit Tzedek board member and director of the graduate program in dispute resolution at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

Marcia Freedman, President

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206

Reputed Terrorist Al-Zarqawi Still Shrouded in U.S.-Fed Myth, Mystery

However impossible it is to discern truths from fictions about the Jordanian boogeyman blamed for most of Iraq’s current chaos, Washington piles on the accusations, painting the perfect picture of a legendary master terrorist.

Mar 16 - The Bush administration’s nearly constant focus on suspected Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as the source of its problems in Iraq has helped turn the Islamic fundamentalist into a figure of mythic proportions, but despite the hype and hyperbole surrounding the mysterious Al-Zarqawi, little is actually known about the man or his alleged misdeeds.

In fact, so many of the US’s claims about Al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts and affiliations have proved suspect or false that many critics view new warnings of his alleged plans to stage attacks within the US as a case of the White House crying wolf.

Al-Zarqawi is, according to Washington, the key link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, guilty of leading tens of thousands of Iraqi insurgents and orchestrating dozens of attacks -- ranging from car bombings and assassinations to kidnappings and beheadings -- against foreign military personnel and contractors, as well as Iraqi government and civilian targets in Iraq over the past two years.

Now, according to an article posted March 13 on Time magazine’s website, unnamed US intelligence officials say they have evidence that Al-Zarqawi is planning attacks -- at the urging of Osama bin Laden -- on stateside "soft targets," such as "movie theatres, restaurants and schools." Time’s sources attributed this information to a man recently interrogated in Iraq, who they claim was one of Al-Zarqawi’s top aides.

But one day later, MSNBC reported that another unnamed government official -- this one from the Department of Homeland Security -- said such warnings were alarmist and that the informant in Iraq was not a credible source.

As with these new reports, much of the previously released information about Al-Zarqawi has been contradictory. Mostly leaked by unnamed government intelligence and military sources and contained in statements from civilian analysts, "news" of Al-Zarqawi’s whereabouts, alliances, operations and intentions is largely unreliable. In fact, it is nearly impossible to report about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as man rather than legend.

While officials inside US military and intelligence circles continue to make bold assertions about Al-Zarqawi’s activities and ambitions, some analysts believe that accounts of his past and present are still sketchy at best. US officials have offered little hard evidence to support its numerous assertions about Al-Zarqawi and have provided virtually no proof that statements made in videotapes and posted on Islamic websites, purported to be those of Al-Zarqawi, are in fact authentic.

Those who have done significant digging into Al-Zarqawi’s more distant past have had some luck locating people who claim to have known him and members of his family. Still, the information is thin and represents only the rough outlines of a life spent mostly on the margins of Arab society.

The Early Legend

According to British journalist and author Jason Burke, who has reported extensively from the Middle East for the UK Observer, Al-Zarqawi grew up in a poor Jordanian family with Bedouin roots.

Around the age of 20, Al-Zarqawi reportedly found a cause bigger than himself, one worth traveling a great distance to pursue: the fight against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan.

Like thousands of other young Muslim men who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s -- many at the behest of the CIA -- Al-Zarqawi was radicalized by his experiences there. According to Burke, after the Soviet military fled Afghanistan, Al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan determined to continue the fight against what he considered to be foreign infidels in the Middle East and to overthrow secular regimes in the Arab world.

Al-Zarqawi reportedly joined the fundamentalist Islamic group Bayaat Al-Imam (Loyalty to the Imam) in the early 1990s and was arrested by Jordanian police for keeping a cache of assault rifles and bombs in his house.

In prison for much of the 1990s, Al-Zarqawi earned a reputation for being a cellblock bully and for trying to memorize the entire Qur’an, according to fellow inmates interviewed by the New York Times. After his release in 1999, Al-Zarqawi reportedly left Jordan for Europe, where he began organizing a militant group called Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad (monotheism and holy struggle), according to Burke. While there, the US claims that Al-Zarqawi helped organize an attempt to blow up a hotel in his native Jordan that catered to Israeli and American tourists, the Washington Post reported. He was later convicted in absentia and sentenced to death by a Jordanian court for his part in alleged terrorist activities.

In late 1999 Al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan, where, under Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden had based his loosely structured Al-Qaeda network.

But whereas the Bush administration has said repeatedly that Al-Zarqawi began working in concert with bin Laden around this time, Burke, in his recent book Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, writes that Al-Zarqawi was never an Al-Qaeda operative.

Citing reports by German intelligence officials who investigated Zarqawi’s operations there, as well as his own research on bin Laden, Burke argues that Al-Zarqawi’s group operated not as a branch of Al-Qaeda, but as a competitor within the broader fundamentalist movement.

Similarly, in March 2003 Newsweek reported secret German intelligence records that suggested Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad and Al-Qaeda had separate goals and that the two groups may have been "jealous rivals."

Burke acknowledges that early on Al-Zarqawi sought and accepted logistical assistance from bin Laden, but reports that Al-Zarqawi never swore loyalty to the Saudi-born leader. Instead, Burke contends, Al-Zarqawi set out to build his own reputation as a militant leader with the hope of drawing recruits and attracting funds from wealthy donors who supported extremist Islamic groups.

"Al-Zarqawi is part of a broad movement of Islamic militancy that extends well beyond the influence and activities of any one man," Burke wrote in February 2003 in the Observer.

Bush, Al-Zarqawi and Mutual Mythologies

Al-Zarqawi reportedly fled Afghanistan in late 2001 while the country was under invasion by the US and UK. Several reports say Al-Zarqawi spent much of 2002 moving back and forth from Iran to Iraq. The Bush administration claims that Al-Zarqawi set up a poison and explosives training camp in northern Iraq, working alongside members of Ansar Al-Islam (supporters of Islam). However, that organization, heavily targeted during the 2003 US invasion, was vocally and militantly opposed to Saddam Hussein.

Al-Zarqawi is also alleged by the Bush administration to have been working with Al-Qaeda on a strategy to ignite a civil war among Iraq’s disparate religious and political factions as a way to undermine the US occupation, thus clearing the way for a Taliban-like state.

At the same time, some Iraqis, who doubt Al-Zarqawi’s presence, guilt or even existence, suggest his legend is mostly a CIA or Pentagon construction and that the terrorist acts attributed to him are actually carried out by secret American or Israeli operatives. They likewise suggest the mythic Al-Zarqawi is part of a foreign strategy to divide Iraq’s religious sects and political factions and justify a prolonged occupation.

As proof of its own version of the Al-Zarqawi narrative, the Bush administration in March 2004 presented a letter, reportedly written by Al-Zarqawi, requesting Al-Qaeda’s assistance in achieving its goals of overthrowing the US occupation and casting Iraq into chaos.

Pentagon analysts speaking anonymously to Knight Ridder reporters at the time observed that Al-Qaeda rebuffed the request for help, implying that whoever wrote the letter was of insufficient importance to the organization.

In addition, Khalid Abu Doma, who served time with Al-Zarqawi in a Jordanian prison during the 1990s, told the New York Times that Al-Zarqawi was "basically illiterate." Doma and others who say they knew Al-Zarqawi suggest it would have been nearly impossible for him to compose the 6,000-word letter, which contained elaborate political analysis and detailed historical references.

Allegations of an Al-Zarqawi alliance with Al-Qaeda resurfaced again last October when a website posted a statement announcing that Al-Zarqawi and his organization "have pledged allegiance to the leader of the mujahideen, Osama bin Laden." The statement also claimed that Al-Zarqawi’s group agreed with Al-Qaeda’s strategy and the need to unite against "the enemies of Islam," the BBC reported.

Shortly after the message appeared, Al-Zarqawi changed his group’s name from Al-Tawhid W’al-Jihad to the more convenient "Al-Qaeda in Iraq." Western media outlets and government officials seamlessly adopted the new label, which emerged around the same time US Marines said they discovered Al-Zarqawi’s abandoned hideout in Fallujah, handily adorned with a banner reading "Al-Qaeda Organization."

Such statements, if indeed they came from Al-Zarqawi, would appear to refute the Bush administration’s claim that the Jordanian had long been Al Qaeda’s top officer in Iraq.

Mohammed Salah, a Cairo-based journalist who focuses on Islamic militant organizations, hypothesized that the claims made in the internet statement were "more or less a media stunt to frustrate" the United States. Salah also suggested that by openly identifying with bin Laden, Al-Zarqawi may have been trying to benefit from bin Laden’s stature among radical Islamic militants.

More apparent evidence of a link between the two celebrity terrorists surfaced in a December 2004 audiotape in which the speaker, claiming to be bin Laden, endorsed Al-Zarqawi and his operatives. CIA analysts and Aljazeera, the TV network which aired the message, said the tape sounded authentic. If so, it marks the first public mention of Al-Zarqawi by bin Laden.

At odds with the Sunni-led resistance

Michael Ware, an Australian journalist working in Iraq for Time magazine, reported in late 2004 that Al-Zarqawi’s profile within the Islamic fundamentalist movement has grown due to his reputed ability to organize spectacular car bomb attacks and his skill at using the internet to disseminate videos showing what appear to be the beheadings of foreign contractors kidnapped and murdered by Al-Zarqawi’s associates.

The Bush administration, too, has helped raise Al-Zarqawi’s profile by regularly accusing him, albeit without presenting hard evidence, of organizing dozens of deadly attacks against US military and Iraqi government targets during the course of the two-year-old occupation. Last summer, US officials also increased the amount offered for information leading to Al-Zarqawi’s capture from $10 million to $25 million, reinforcing the accusations against him as a leading force behind the anti-occupation rebellion.

Despite the swelling influence in Iraq of Al-Zarqawi’s name, several military analysts believe that Al-Zarqawi -- now thought to be 38 years old -- is not the leading figure in Iraq’s resistance. Many also suggested as early as last summer that he was working at cross-purposes with most insurgent groups.

According to analysts and military documents obtained by the Associated Press, the most organized and active resistance cells consist mainly of native Iraqis: Sunni Muslims, Ba’ath party loyalists -- many with experience in Saddam’s military and intelligence services -- and tribal men who are fighting for a bigger role for their group in Iraq. Although they may be influenced by fundamentalist Islam, they are not, many analysts insist, fighting for a Taliban-like Islamic state as Al-Zarqawi’s fighters purportedly are.

Some even suggest that much of the government’s information linking Al-Zarqawi to the insurgency was obtained from unreliable sources through bribery, but was accepted in Washington because the US needed a high-profile villain in Iraq.

The US Army has offered almost no evidence that any of the dozens of houses and buildings which were alleged to be the hideouts of Al-Zarqawi and his cohorts in Fallujah and that the military bombed last year actually contained militants of any stripe. In fact, it is now known that those strikes were largely based on unverified tips provided by paid informants and satellite photography. Fallujans reported that well over 100 civilians died in the "precision" US bombing attacks said to be targeting Al-Zarqawi and his followers, with dozens of those deaths documented in video and still photography.

"We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Al-Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the linchpin of just about every attack in Iraq," an unnamed US agent in Iraq reportedly told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in October 2004.

"From the information we have gathered," one agent told the Telegraph, "we have to conclude Al-Zarqawi is more myth than man… At some stage, and perhaps even now, he was almost certainly behind some of the kidnappings. But if there is a main leader of the insurgency, he would be an Iraqi."

Chris Shumway
© 2005 The NewStandard