Category Archives: Politics

France: Le Pen’s been beaten – so what now?

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The majority of French voters have rejected Marine Le Pen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the elected president is a free-market fanatic whose programme inspired a record number of people to cast blank votes.

Election posters in Champigny-sur-Marne on 7 May 2017 Photo: Tony Cross

Had Le Pen won the presidency, another country would have succumbed to the revamped right-wing populism represented by Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Brexit – not fascism, in my view, but a new kind of majoritarian authoritarianism endorsed by popular mandate, fuelled by fear of the future and resentment of the establishment, finding its expression in xenophobia and prejudice.

Emmanuel Macron could hardly be styled a courageous defender of minorities but he did resist Le Pen’s racism in the campaign TV debates, which is more than can be said for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon and, for that matter, more than can be said for Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls while in office.

So we’ve escaped a national-level version of the discrimination, repression and racist rabble-rousing the far right has let loose on the towns it controls. And Le Pen’s National Front (FN) seems to have big problems ahead.

Crisis for National Front

The result, and Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the few days before the poll, appears to have plunged the FN into crisis.

In one sense, they don’t have so much to complain about. They achieved a record 10.6 million votes, nearly double their score when Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac 2002. That’s a lot of Islamophobes – or, at least, a lot of people prepared to go along with the FN’s hatred of Muslims, immigrants, Roma and other minorities to poke the “elite” in the eye, which should, but won’t, give the “elite” pause for thought.

But, and this is really worrying, they could have done even better.

Le Pen ran an effective campaign up until the last few days. Then she had the bright idea of picking a holocaust-doubter as her party’s interim president (he also thought that beating up commies was a good political education but that received less media attention) say that France was not responsible for the wartime rounding up of Jews, call Fillon and his party “shits” (the FN claims she just said they were in the shit) and, worst of all, behave just like her father’s daughter during the crucial final TV debate.

The debate performance – where she was caught out lying, blustered, bullied, slouched and grimaced like the chip off the old block she is – has probably destroyed the “dedemonisation” strategy that had been working pretty well for Marine and her pals.

The FN’s canal historique is already sharpening its knives. Its best-known representative, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, one of only two FN-affiliated MPs at the moment, said on Sunday evening that the party must consider its strategy in the election after the “disappointment”.

And, if reports are to be believed, the rank and file is in disarray. An anonymous FN official told the Mediapart website that a the party’s post-debate postbag contained a number of torn-up membership.  And the “fachosphere” – the far-right social media network – is full of recriminations, mostly against Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the FN vice-president who’s seen as the Svengali behind the dedemonisation strategy and the party’s “social” turn.

One is tempted to ask whether Le Pen threw the debate deliberately. As a Trump admirer, she must have read his comment that leading a country is harder than he’d thought. Being the party of mean-minded, resentful opposition has been a profitable business for her family, making them millionaires. Had the FN watered down its opposition to the EU, the real point of difference with the Fillons, Sarkozys and other tough guys of the mainstream right, it could have undergone the same transformation as Italy’s MSI and joined a coalition government some years ago.

But no, the FN leaders were riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment mixed with xenophobia and seemed genuinely to believe they were on the road to power on their own terms. Hence the disappointment today.

It remains to be seen if the backbiting will hamper their campaign in June’s parliamentary elections. A good result there could staunch the crisis.

Macron and extremes

Something else revealed in that TV debate is that Macron is not a very skilful politician.

He’s an intelligent man, a skilled technocrat who knows his facts.

But Le Pen destroyed herself, he didn’t destroy her.

When she posed as a defender of gay and women’s rights during an attack on a Muslim group that supported him, he failed to remind her of her own party’s record on those questions – the potential for mockery was great but Macron doesn’t do funny. When she justified her claim that the wartime deportation of Jews was not France’s responsibility but that of the Vichy government, he let it go without even a mention the former collaborators who helped found the party. Apparently, he also doesn’t do history.

This is not just a historical quibble. Obscuring the party’s Nazi origins and airbrushing out its anti-Semitism are a key part of the dedemonisation strategy and Macron passed on an opportunity to deal it a powerful blow.

In short, Macron has no political culture, which is also the problem of his newly founded En Marche ! movement. Apparently, the political experience that his presidential campaign lacked was made up for by Socialist Party traitors, working against their own candidate, Benoît Macron, in the first round and even more openly for a republican front – nominally anti-fascist but in reality more pro-Brussels – in the second round.

That was also apparent in his speech after the result was announced. In what he imagined was an olive branch to supporters of Le Pen and left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he told them they had voted for “extremists”.

Repeating the old canard of the “extremes” meeting up is hardly a way to win over the seven million who voted Mélenchon in the first round and Macron’s assurance that he understood voters’ “anger, anxiety and doubts” is undermined by his obvious lack of empathy with ordinary people on the campaign trail.

With 25 percent abstention, the highest since 1969 when France’s youth was radicalised by May ’68, and an absolute record of four million blank votes, Macron can expect trouble.

His programme, for the most part a collection of micro-measures and expressions of good intentions, is ardently pro-EU and pro-capitalist. Despite a promise to revive Europe’s connection with “the people”, Macron is determined to press on with reducing the debt through austerity, the very policy that has done so much to help demagogues like Le Pen. On the economy it’s more of the same – tax cuts and subsidies for employers, in the desperate and so far unrewarded hope that they will be bribed to invest, longer hours, later retirement and less social protection for employees.

He has promised to bring in more changes to labour law in the summer, his main proposal being to encourage company-level negotiations on working hours and other conditions, a further undermining of collective bargaining and trade union solidarity.

Mélenchon’s seven million votes mean that, for the first time for years, the left is not demoralised.

Rather it is in combative mood, witness all those blank votes. So strikes, demonstrations and social upheaval are guaranteed, indeed the first took place on the afternoon after the election.

Parliamentary elections – who know what will happen?

It’s all very well winning the presidency but afterwards you have to form a government.

For someone who doesn’t actually have a real party that’s a problem.

And, with the mainstream parties rejected by voters in the presidential election, everything’s up for grabs in June’s parliamentary election.

Will Macron succeed in destroying the Socialist Party, as seems to be his intention, with his assurance that En Marche ! won’t endorse any candidate standing under another party’s colours?

Will the mainstream right Republicans lose their more liberal MPs, tempted by the prospect of ministerial positions?

Will voters be as ready to reject sitting MPs as they were to turn their backs on their parties’ candidates in the presidential first round?

Will the FN pick up MPs in some of the 95 constituencies where Le Pen won more than 30 percent in that round?

Can Mélenchon and his allies build on the presidential campaign success and win more seats?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone else does, either.

Which means that the parliamentary poll is going to be another cliffhanger and, whatever happens, French politics will never be the same again.

Read my analysis of the result for RFI English here

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Turkey’s divisions run deep as referendum result shows

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The result of Turkey’s referendum was a cliff-hanger, which I witnessed at the main opposition party’s HQ where accusations of fraud were flying. At the polls I saw the deep divisions in the country, No supporters’ disdain for government supporters, Yes supporters’ fury at European “crusaders” and adulation of President Erdogan.

Polling officials await voters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 14 April 2017, Ankara

On arrival in Ankara, where I will report on the voting and the result, I meet the young man who is going to be my fixer, Cagdas Ersoy (without the diacritical marks and the knowledge of what Turkish ones mean you’ll never guess how to pronounce that first name).

It turns out he’s a story in himself.

He used to be a left-wing activist and was arrested, along with several of his comrades, on a protest at the death of a well-known teacher and activist, Metin Lokumcu, on another demonstration.

Prosecutors decided to charge them with membership of a terrorist organisation but they couldn’t decide which one.

So they left them in jail for six months while they made their minds up, eventually admitting defeat and releasing them.

The compensation was quite generous, at least, Cagdas says.

He has a nice line in prison anecdotes, especially since several of the common law prisoners were members of the Grey Wolves, the far-right militia associated with the nationalist MHP.

“If you’re a hired killer what do you when the work runs out?” Cagdas asks.

One explained his racist ideology by assuring him that the Turks are the world’s top race because they can shoot a bow and arrow on horseback better than anybody else, although the skill seems to be widely practised in modern Turkey than it was on the central Asian planes several centuries ago.

On another occasion a group of Grey Wolves were expressing their certainty that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished severely in the afterlife.

“That’s true,” one said. “But, let’s face it, who here hasn’t had sex with a tranny at least once ?”

The others were obliged to concede the point.

Saturday 15 April, Ankara

A No banner hangs on the front of the CHP’s national headquarters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

 

The search for politicians ready to be interviewed on the referendum resumes.

It has proved especially difficult to find Yes campaigners to speak to us, the MHP being split on the question and AKP cadres apparently being reluctant for fear that they unthinkingly contradict the party line and bring their careers to an unplanned end.

But officials at the party’s Ankara headquarters are helpful when we turn up in their lobby and we end up speaking to the man in charge of the No campaign in the city, Nedim Yamali, in his spacious and well-furnished office.

Nedem Yamali Photo: Tony Cross

The claim that the constitutional reforms are a product of Erdogan’s megalomania is “a big lie”, he says, pointing out that they will allow for the president’s removal and prevent him standing again after 2029, although laying less emphasis on his proposed right to appoint the cabinet, issue decrees, declare a state of emergency and so on.

He also shares the Yes campaign’s distaste for coalition government, blaming previous ones for the country’s hard times before the AKP came to power and claiming that the reform would mean such a state of affairs would never be repeated.

We then meet a former AKP MP, Emin Dindar, in a more congenial setting, a charming café with art deco touches where he appears to hold court.

Dindar is a Kurd and a former mayor of Cizre-Sirak. Cagdas tells me his brother was killed by the PKK.

He takes an original line on the referendum, arguing that it will Erdogan a free hand to reopen the peace process and resume the improvement in Kurdish rights that the AKP started in the early years of its time in government.

He’s also not keen on coalitions.

As we leave, a man jumps up to greet Dindar, kissing his hand and engaging him in an intense conversation at a table on the sunny terrace.

CHP vice-president Telim Bingol Photo: Tony Cross

In another imposing party office, the opposition CHP’s national headquarters this time, party vice-president Telin Bingol says coalitions are getting an unjustly hard rap from the Yes campaign.

“Today we have unemployment, low-level economic crisis, lots of problems in our foreign policy and they have been ruling the country for 15 years by themselves,” he says. “There’s no coalition today and there’s no stability, either.”

On a precinct in central Ankara, sacked university lecturers Nuriye Gülman and Semih Özakca are staging a sit-in protest over their dismissal.

They have been here for about 100 days and have been on hunger strikes for 38.

To read my report for RFI Yes and No camps explain their cases click here 

Sunday 16 April, Ankara

Market traders start work on referendum day in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Market traders are setting out their stalls as polling opens at Necla Kizilbag high school.

As the sun brings out the red in the rows of tomatoes, the green in a mountain of chillis, one of them explains the superiority of street markets to supermarkets – fresh, local produce, friendly service – to us.

This is a middle-class CHP-supporting area and the No voters are getting their disappointment in early, assuring us that fraud will deliver a Yes vote.

While the muhtar (mayor) Aydin Yasap, expects this area to vote No “because people are educated here”, journalist Nalan Aygun says she is pessimistic about the outcome because “we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey” whom Erdogan knows how to manipulate.

This disdain for the “uneducated” is widespread among middle-class secularists and must surely impede the No campaign’s ability to win over the AKP’s working-class support base.

Opinion is more divided at another polling station, in Mamak district.

Here I am taken to task by Osman, a flashily dressed businessman playing with prayer beads, who takes my presence as an imperialist aggression.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, as you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asks me.

He seems unconvinced by my assurance that he could, nor does my insistence that I am not personally responsible for the French or any other European government’s decisions cut much ice.

Like many AKP supporters, including Ankara party chief Yamali, Osman is enraged by the refusal of the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies on their soil.

The move worked for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, so far as domestic politics were concerned, but it appears to have strengthened the resolve of many Turks to vote No and Erdogan has made the most of its potential.

Yasar Akalin and Zamazan Acar Photo: Tony Cross

At another polling station nearby, one AKP supporter refers to “crusaders” as muhtar Yasar Akalin predicts a 60-65% victory for Yes.

Having resorted to that venerable journalistic technique of talking to taxi drivers, we are surprised to find unanimous opposition to the reform.

Of course, it may be that some are telling us what they think we want to hear but the man who drives us back to my hotel has an interesting explanation, which may indicate that the AKP is losing its magic touch.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch of a downturn in the economy, he explains, adding that he and his colleagues are also angry at hikes in petrol taxes and the government’s refusal to negotiate with their representatives.

The AKP “helps the poor”, Zamazan Acar told us at Mutlu polling station, citing free health care and other improvements in his life during the party’s time in power.

But some of the AKP’s support may evaporate if the economy continues its turn for the worse.

To read my report of polling in Ankara for RFI click here 

CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan claims there has been fraud at the party’s headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

And now the result!

At the CHP HQ journalists and party members gather around a TV screen.

As results come in from the east, where the polls opened and closed earlier, the Yes has a substantial lead.

But it declines as the hours tick by.

It’s an agonising process, the activists are on edge, cheering good results even when they’re partial but far from confident in their campaign’s success.

The impression that the CHP thinks it has lost is reinforced when party apparatchiks sweep into the lobby and denounce alleged vote fraud.

Another CHP vice-president Erdal Aksünger claims that the party’s own returns show a No victory and accuses the state-run Anadolu news agency of issuing false results to demoralise their supporters.

The activists explode in chants of “Mustafa we are your soldiers” and other rousing Kemalist songs of a martial tone.

But the Yes lead is still falling as Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara seem to be going for No.

Izmir is a CHP bastion but losing in the other two would be a big blow to Erdogan, who started his national career as mayor of Istanbul.

In another dramatic announcement, party spokesperson Bülent Tezcan slams the high electoral authority decision during the day to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted on the AKP’s request.

After an agonising wait the official result is revealed.

CHP activists chant as the result come through Photo: Tony Cross

Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara have indeed voted No but the country, according to the television, has voted Yes by a wafer-thin margin of 51.3 to 48.7.

As it comes through, Aksünger is making another announcement, claiming that 1.5 million unstamped ballots have been counted, denouncing the official results as fraudulent and vowing to fight them.

Neither the electoral authority or the courts, run by a purged magistrature, are likely to back the CHP’s appeal but it keeps the indignation-fuelled adrenalin pumping and the activists chant their defiance again.

To read my report of the result and the CHP’s reaction click here

Monday 17 April, Ankara

Bearing in mind that the two parties who campaigned for the Yes vote won 60% in the last general election and the odds stacked against the No campaign, the result is actually remarkable.

It shows a decline in Erdogan’s support, possibly the result of the economic turbulence that has hit the country.

But it still reveals a country “sliced in two like a water melon”, as Cumhuriyet columnist Cigdem Toker tells me.

The narrowness of the margin is unlikely to restrain Erdogan, who has already said he’s ready to have another referendum, this time on restoring the death penalty, giving the political finger to his European critics and finally slamming the door on the admittedly unlikely prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU.

But this bitterly divided country has plenty of other challenges.

To read What now for Turkey after Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory? click here

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A bomb, a baby, a hunger strike – the Kurds and Turkey’s referendum

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With Turkish nationalists split over the 16 April constitutional referendum and even some dissidence in President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s AKP, the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, found themselves courted by all. I visited Diyarbakir to see how the conflict in the south-east and the influence of the left-wing HDP were affecting the campaign.

The former caravanserai in Diyarbakir awaits a politiian’s visit during the referendum campaign Photo: Tony Cross

Tuesday 11 April 2107, Diyarbakir province

We’re on our way to see a little girl who is going to be called Yes for the rest of her life.

But more of that later.

As we drive across the flat countryside of the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir, a report comes through of an explosion at the main police station in Diyarbakir city, which we left about an hour ago.

Should we turn back? Has our search for the latest in nutty names meant we’ve missed a major news story?

At these times you weigh up sordid calculations like the numbers of dead and injured and the likely news impact of the event. We conclude that by the time we get back to the city the area will be well and truly sealed off and then an official statement that the blast, although big, was an accident in the police station’s garage, so we press on.

Mustafa Celik with Evet Photo: Tony Cross

We arrive in Gecitli, an alleged village that appears to consist of about three farms, and meet Mustafa Celik, a Kurdish farmer who is so enthusiastic about the referendum that he has decided to call his newborn daughter Evet, which even I know by now means Yes.

Celik has two wives and seven other kids, so maybe he was running out of ideas for names but one can’t help wondering whether he has weighed up the longterm consequences of his choice of name for his daughter.

Not that he isn’t an affectionate parent. He cradles Evet fondly in his arms as we stand in the sun outside his rectangular one-storey dwelling, chickens and ducklings pecking at the ground around us.

This stocky 43-year-old, who raises animals on several hectares of stony land, is one of the minority of Kurds who support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP.

Adem Karakoc Photo: Tony Cross

He expresses the usual admiration for the leader but, above all, points out that no other bothered to provide his village with electricity and water or guarantee health care for the poor, important considerations when you live in a bare concrete block with no doors inside, even for the toilet, in the back of beyond.

It’s the reason Adem Karakoc and several of Celik’s relatives give for backing the AKP, when, at his request, we drop the proud father in their equally tiny village of Taveran.

I was anxious to speak to other people in the neighbourhood and suggested we go to see the local muhtar, a sort of mayor, but Celik told is he didn’t talk to the press, an assertion that doesn’t entirely convince me, since they apparently had a disagreement over the phone during a previous media visit.

To read my report on a girl named Yes click here http://en.rfi.fr/europe/20170411-turkey-referendum-girl-named-yes

Wednesday 12 April, Diyarbakir

HDP MP Feleknas Uca with hunger-striking prisoners’ families at her party’s headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is rife with rumours about that explosion, a favourite being that the police were preparing a bomb to plant at Saturday’s rally by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) so as to revive the security concerns that won the AKP the second election in 2015.

We drive past the site and see the blast has done very substantial damage. On one side of the compound is another empty space – the site of a previous bombing, claimed by the Islamic State armed group.

The government has changed its mind and declared that yesterday’s explosion, which killed a police officer and two civilian personnel, was a terror attack.

A PKK unit dug a tunnel from the basement of a block of flats next door, they say, and they have issued photos to back up the claim. They show a wall daubed with “PKK” and other slogans, the tunnel itself and there’s even a bed for the industrious attacker to take a pause in.

Later the PKK claims responsibility, saying that it was a gesture against Erdogan’s “fascist” plan.

A security roundup has seen 177 people detained.

Pro-Kurd party under pressure on security

Behiye, on hunger strike for prisoners who include her son, Murat Photo: Tony Cross

“Just today dozens of our comrades involved in the campaign were arrested,” HDP MP Feleknas Uca tells us, after detailing the measures taken against her party since the 2016 failed coup.

She is sitting among a group of families of Kurds found guilty of membership of or association with the banned PKK – who are on hunger strike for improved conditions of detention.

One of them, Behiye, 56, tells us that her son, whom she first calls a “guerrilla” before correcting her terminology to “political prisoner”, is in the 21st year of a 26-year sentence and complains of overcrowded cells and other alleged mistreatment.

The HDP became a rallying point for a resurgent left after the protests against the closure of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, campaigning not only on Kurdish rights but also gender equality – all its posts are shared by a man and a woman despite the traditional conservatism of the south-east – LGBT rights and anti-capitalism.

But, having won 13.12 % of the vote in the June 2015 election, it saw its support decline to 10.75% in November.

In between the two polls the government had broken off the peace process with the PKK and launched a massive security operation to which the guerrillas responded in kind.

With his declarations that a No vote is a vote for the “terrorists”, Erdogan hasn’t held back from playing the security card again this year.

So one has to ask whether the HDP’s association with the PKK – pictures of its leader Abdullah Öcalan are hanging in the party headquarters where we meet Uca and she, like he hunger strikers, is wearing a garment bearing his portrait – has damaged the HDP among Turks who are not Kurds and conservative Kurds.

Uca is unrepentant.

“Today who is fighting Islamic State? It’s PKK. Today who are giving their lives for the people? It’s PKK,” she argues. “We can’t find a solution while we’re sending the PKK away from the table. We have to all get around the table to find a solution.”

Like Sinn Fein and other nationalists in Northern Ireland in the past, the HDP would be accused of treason if it distanced itself too far from armed struggle, whether its leaders wish to or not.

To read my interview with Feleknas Uca on RFI click here

Victimisation leads to solidarity

Mehtap Yörük serves a client Photo: Tony Cross

We meet Mehtap Yörük on the corner of a street in front of a café.

She is serving rice and chicken to customers, although she is a qualified teacher.

She is one of the thousands of state employees who were fired after the 2016 coup attempt.

She, like the others, has never been personally informed why, although the explanation for the purge is that those dismissed were members of the Fehtullah Gülen organisation that is believed to have plotted the putsch.

Which strikes Yörük as odd since, far from being a follower of the US-based imam, she is a left-wing social issues activist.

Of the 130,000 people purged since last July, at least 3,150 were trade unionists or other activists presumably fingered by employers or colleagues who wanted to see the back of them, according to left-wingers.

Serap Kilic behind the counter of her mezze shop Photo: Tony Cross

Serap Kilic and Selma Atabey are two more.

They have also gone into catering, opening a small mezze restaurant, where customers can eat cucumber in yoghurt, walnuts and dried tomatoes and other delicacies to background music that ranges from Kurdish music to Johnny Cash.

One striking thing about their story is that, while Atabey is a Kurd and a long-term Diyarbakir resident, Kilic is an ethnic Turk, sent to the south-east as a condition of her civil-service employment as a statistician.

The purge has at least revealed reserves of solidarity. Many of their customers are fellow victims and Kilic says that Kurdish people, who have plenty of experience of discrimination themselves, are sympathetic to her plight.

Despite some pressure from friends and family in Istanbul, she is happy to stay here, she says.

Atabey was a nurse and believes that her work with fellow trade unionists to provide medical care to people trapped under military-imposed curfews in Cizre and the central Diyarbakir district of Sur is the real reason for her dismissal.

A small girl is hanging around the restaurant as we speak.

She is the daughter of the cleaner, a mother of five whom the pair employed after finding her family had been forced out of their home in Sur, Kilic explains.

To read my report on Turkey’s purge victims and the referendum click here

Thursday 13 April, Diyarbakir

Nurcan Baysal in her office Photo: Tony Cross

Nurcan Baysal remembers the bullets that hit the block of flats she lives and works in during a military operation in Diyarbakir.

And she remembers visiting the site of the killing of the city’s bar association, Tahir Elci, and the bodies in the street where she was born, some of them with their eyes gouged out.

Baysal, a writer, newspaper columnist and activist, is certainly voting No, she tells us and she goes on to vent her rage against the Turkish state’s destruction of much of Sur.

“Can you imagine? For 5,000 years there has been life in this area and all this life has been demolished in the 21st century.”

A concrete barrier blocks access to part of Sur Photo: Tony Cross

Parts of Sur are still sealed off by concrete barriers installed by the military and armed police officers and vehicles are an ever-visible presence in the city centre.

In a No campaign base run by the HDP a young man called Isa wins applause when he says he’ll vote No because “I’m against all this fascist system and oppression”.

“Everybody is talking about economic problems but so many young people have lost their lives, mothers are crying and I don’t want mothers to cry,” he goes on.

Adil in his cheese shop Photo: Tony Crpss

But there are Kurds who will vote Yes.

One of them is Adil, the burly owner of a cheese shop in Sur.

He has no time for the PKK, accusing the guerrillas of bad faith during the peace process, and caring more about Yezidi refugees from Iraq than local people.

It’s difficult to stop Adil once he gets going, accusing both the army and the insurgents of being infiltrated by the Gülenists – as it happens many of the senior military arrested after the coup had been based in the south-east, although I know of no evidence of a Gülen-PKK overlap – and, for good measure, accusing the AKP of caring more about Syrians that the people of Sur.

Mehmet Kaya, the headmaster of a private school in a suburb of the city that is still under construction who works with local NGOs and is also an analyst, believes the PKK made a mistake in declaring autonomous zones in areas where the HDP had massive support.

It may have been a response to provocation by the state, he says, but the ensuing destruction drove enough Kurds away from the party to drastically reduce its vote in the November 2015 election and could still influence the referendum result.

Erdogan tries to win Kurds and nationalists

Erdogan, too, has to reconcile some contradictions.

He needs to win the support of conservative Kurds, who could even hold the balance of power in the referendum due to splits in the nationalist camp.

But his tone at a rally here at the beginning of the months was strongly nationalist, repeating the “One nation, one flag, one state” stance he has adopted since breaking off the peace process.

That’s because he must also rally the support of voters from the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and that is far from guaranteed.

The party, which is strongly secular, is split over its leader’s support for the constitutional changes with several high-profile MPs campaigning against and a substantial number of voters opposed, according to opinion polls.

With its support for previous military dictatorships and its history of opposition to such basic demands as the right to speak the Kurdish language in public, the MHP is profoundly repellent to most Kurds.

Winning substantial Kurdish backing while keeping that of the nationalists is a tall order even for such a supreme political manoeuvrer as the Turkish president.

To read my report for RFI on the Kurds and the referendum click here

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Turkey referendum – Not a fair fight for No campaign

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I arrived in Turkey just over a week before 16 April’s referendum whose aim was to put the popular stamp of approval on the de-facto concentration of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The odds were stacked against the opposition, to put it mildly. Here’s my account of the first leg of my reporting assignment.

No campaigners in Istanbul’s Isli district Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 7 April 2017, Istanbul

There’s no escaping the fact that Turkey is holding a referendum. Hundreds of banners are draped across the road from Atatürk airport and billboards address their message to the passing traffic.

It’s not immediately apparent that anyone opposes Erdogan’s proposed constitutional reform, however.

Apart from the huge portraits of Erdogan that have become a sort of Great Leader mood music in today’s Turkey, the vast majority of the posters, flags and whatnot tells you to vote “Evet” (Yes).  It takes some time before you spot the jaunty sun with multi-coloured rays of the “Hayir” (No) campaign.

As we swing by an improvised structure on the banks of the Bosphorus, the taxi driver, with whom I have been discussing the day’s truck attack in Sweden with the help of a translation app on his phone, tells me that it is for a Yes rally to be addressed by Erdogan the following afternoon.

Shock! Horror! Clouds over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Shockingly, by the time I reach my hotel the sky is overcast. I thought it was always sunny here!

Saturday 8 April, Istanbul

The ferry stop in Istanbul’s Karaköy district on a damp Saturday morning Photo: Tony Cross

Up early to talk to our morning broadcasts, I leave the hotel at about 9.00am in search of vox pops and campaigners.

The latter are a slack lot, clearly not judging it worth facing the public before midday.

And it starts to rain.

Finding English-speakers is not that easy – I’ve foolishly decided to do without a fixer/translator in cosmopolitan Istanbul –and, anyway, fewer people seem ready to speak to reporters than during my previous visits.

Eminömü market Photo: Tony Cross

But some are and the first of those are No voters.

Erman, an Armenian, has voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past because, as with the Kurds, the party used to be more accommodating to his community than the secular nationalist parties.

“They built new churches, new schools but I don’t think this will happen again,” he explains. “Because with one leader everything will involve him and if he says anything everybody will think it is true. But I don’t think one man will change everything. This is not credible to me.”

Some other traders and customers in the bazaar at Eminönü are also in the No camp, one accusing Erdogan of wanting to be a dictator and a “new Sultan” but there are also Yes men, fans of Erdogan who say the extra powers the reform will give him will mean a “strong Turkey”.

Adulation of the president and a desire to see the country walk tall on the world stage are the two main refrains of Yes supporters, repeated as a crowd of thousands descend on the rally at 4.00pm.

“I love you Recep Tayyip Erdogan! I love you Binali Yildirim! Yes, government OK!” cries Ahmet in a not uncommon outburst of enthusiasm.

AKP supporters pose for selfies in front of a montage of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in martial mode Photo: Tony Cross

A little closer to the rally a crowd has gathered in front of a montage of an action film poster with the heads of Erdogan and other AKP leaders on the bodies of the battle-fatigued, gun-toting heroes.

This could be taken for satire but the loyalists posing for selfies in front of it seem to find it a congenial portrayal of their heroes.

Prime Minister Yildirim is warming up the crowd in a turkey-voting-for-Christmas contribution to a campaign whose success would mean the abolition of his job.

That’s a role his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu declined to take on, putting him in the company of a small number of AKP dissidents that includes Abdullah Gül, a cofounder of the AKP along with Erdogan who alternated as president and prime minister with him between 2003 and 2014.

Deadlines and editing requirements mean I must leave before the president himself arrives in a helicopter to violate his current constitutional obligation of neutrality and speak forcefully in favour of a Yes vote.

The dispatches report that he called for a strong Turkey.

To read my report for RFI of Saturday’s rally and campaigning click here

Sunday 9 April, Istanbul

A Yes campaign boat Photo: Tony Cross

Sunday means another desperate search for people willing and able to speak to a radio reporter.

Several analysts I have interviewed previously don’t answer their mobiles, maybe because it’s the weekend or maybe because they fear joining the ranks of university professors purged since last year’s coup is unclear. The two who answer tell me they are not in Turkey at the moment.

I criss-cross the city on foot and by ferry, metrobus and taxi.

At the suggestion of colleagues I track down activists of the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

With balloons, flags, leaflets and the sort of stirring music beloved of Turkish political campaigners, they seem a jolly lot.

But they are not happy with the way the campaign is playing out.

“AKP uses everything, especially money, and they don’t give any money to CHP,” said CHP veteran Kamer Demir“So we cannot talk to our people, we cannot tell our things to people.”

CHP No campaigners at Kadiköy, Istanbul Photo: Toy Cross

One casualty of an ambient self-censorship is the 2012 film No that credited an advertising agency with the result of Chile’s 1988 plebiscite.

CHP leaders are reported to be trying to emulate the strategy outlined in the film and their logo is clearly lifted from it, which may explain why the Digiturk digital platform dropped No from its lineup in February.

Another, according to the Turkish Minute website, has been an anti-smoking campaign in the city of Konya.

Its slogan “If you say ‘no’, you have gained your future” appears to have displeased the city authorities and no longer appears on the city streets.

Media harassed

AKP members campaigning for a Yes vote in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

Government harassment of the media started well before the referendum campaign and has been particularly intense since last July’s failed coup.

Hundreds of media outlets have been closed since then and dozens of journalists are in jail, described “hostages of this referendum” by Erol Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders, who has served several months in prison himself.

The majority of media that remain open make no effort to hide their bias.

The satirical paper Penguen says that the Yes campaign has received 10 times more live airtime on television than the No campaign, while the Washington Hatti site has calculated that from 1-20 March the AKP had over 300 hours of national television coverage, “with the 169 hours clocked by President Erdogan alone almost three times that of the [secular] MHP and CHP combined”.

Thousands of people have been purged from their jobs in the public and private sectors since the coup attempt and thousands jailed.

Some of them were involved in the conspiratorial Fehtullah Gülen movement, which the government blames for the failed putsch but others, as I found when reporting from Turkey last summer, were trade unionists, left-wingers and other members of the awkward squad framed by employers or hostile colleagues.

Kurdish left-wingers jailed

An HDP stall in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

The left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been hard hit, although few would suspect it of Gülenist sympathies.

Hundreds of its members are in jail, including its co-presidents, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag along with 11 other MPs.

Demirtas’s absence from the campaign is a particular blow, with many commentators seeing him as the natural leader of the campaign, a far more attractive figure than the CHP’s bland and inconsistent Kemal Kiricdaroglu.

The atmosphere is rendered even more oppressive by the rhetoric employed by the president and his supporters, who warn that a No vote is a vote for “terrorists”, a term that is even more catchall in Turkey than elsewhere, applying in Erdogan-speak to coup plotters, PKK guerrillas, Islamic State and other armed groups, and anyone suspected of collusion with any of the above.

The bias in the media is also visible in the civil service, No campaigners tell me.

Government supporters can campaign for Yes during working hours, Emre a doctor and CHP member tells me, but No campaigners are certain to be fired if they do the same.

To read my report of the No campaign struggling to make its voice heard on RFI click here

Monday 10 April, Istanbul

Yasemin Bektas Photo: Tony Cross

Feminist Yasemin Bektas repeats some of those complaints when I meet her in a café in the hip district of Cihangir, where I am staying.

She has two hats, one as a member of an organisation encouraging women to vote in the referendum, the other encouraging them to vote No.

I would say the No hat is on today.

“We are not in equal conditions now,” she says. “It’s easy to say ‘Yes’, it’s so hard to say ‘No’.”

She point to the disparity in posters and other material from the opposition.

“It doesn’t mean we are not working. They are not giving us permission to work.”

She gives Erdogan credit for taking an interest in the women’s vote, despite cultural barriers to women’s involvement in politics.

“I remember in the first meeting he made about the AKP he asked the men ‘Take your wife with you’,” she says. “Some of them came, some of them stayed at home.

“In the second meeting he said “If you don’t take your wife, don’t come,’. He’s a clever man, He knows we’re half of the public.”

It was the first time women could enter the political arena but that didn’t mean the AKP intended to liberate them from traditional gender roles, according to Bektas.

Gender politics and violence against women

“For the first issue is mothering. We are mothers and we have to bear children, we have to care for children. But there’s also gender equality. I don’t have to have a child. Maybe I don’t want to be a mother, maybe I want. Maybe my love is not to a man, I love women, maybe I don’t love anyone.

“We are killed, we are raped. In the past 15 years every day five women [have been] killed in Turkey. There has been significant increases in child abuse, female murders, violence rates.”

The conservative discourse, pushing women into the home and blaming them for rape and other assaults because of their clothing, for example, has empowered men inclined to violence, she argues.

I ask if I can take a picture of her and she leaps up to arrange her hair in a mirror.

I think she’s happy with the result.

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Moderate, extremist and other words that skew the news

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2016 having turned out to be the year of the unpredictable, there’s been a brief spasm of soulsearching in the news media. Maybe one question we might like to address is the often unconscious bias in the words we use.

TV crews film Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. Photo: Tony Cross

Are journalists really an out-of-touch metropolitan elite?

Well, to some extent, yes. Even if most journalists are not the well-paid celebrities that Brexiteers or Trump voters love to hate, we are educated, middle-class people who share the outlook of a certain social grouping and we can mistake that outlook for “objectivity”.

We’ve all heard those reports where the journalist, often in response to a question that invites them to be the spokesperson for a whole population, tells us “People think …”

Who are those people? Usually they’re the people we work with, the people we had dinner with last night, perhaps the politicians and pundits we’ve been interviewing, a very specific milieu whose opinions and prejudices are generally similar to those of the reporter.

For the reporter all reasonable people think this way – even if the equivalent milieu thought very differently on the same questions 50 or 100 years ago – and this outlook tends to be mistaken for the natural order of things.

This internalised bias is reflected in our coverage of events, our choice of subject matter and the terminology used in media that pride themselves on their objectivity.

Here are some terms I feel are widely abused:

Moderate/extremist: Do you consider any of your own opinions extreme? No, and nobody else thinks theirs are, either. Dubbing someone “extreme”, and even more so an “extremist”, puts them beyond the pale, situating them in relation to a consensus that you have not bothered to define and in general reflects your own prejudices. Was the Iraq War moderate in its aims, conduct or achievement? Did it enjoy majority support, either in the countries who waged it or in the Middle East? But how often have you seen Tony Blair or George Bush described as extreme? The consensus in the average newsroom has been confounded on several occasions in 2016. I’m not going to argue that Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or George Osborne are leading us to a brighter dawn. But are they extreme? Or are just the first three extreme and BJ and George moderates fallen into bad company? A more specific description of a political, religious or philosophical stance is more accurate and less value-loaded. Of course, we need a short-hand description of movements to the left or the right of the mainstream – far left, hard left, far right and hard right don’t carry so much implicit judgement.

Centre-right: Here, as I remember it, is how this term slipped into the political lexicon. Once upon a time the British Conservatives, Republicans, Gaullists etc were just plain right-wing and nobody thought any more about it. In the 1980s, led by Thatcher and Reagan, the mainstream right moved right. The mainstream left moved right as well, leading commentators to describe the Clintons, Blairs etc more or less accurately as centre-left. Then people without much political culture started saying “If there’s a centre-left there must be a centre-right” and relabelling the mainstream right parties “centre-right”. “Centre” had become one of those approval words, like “moderate”. But those parties hadn’t moved to the centre at all. There’s nothing particularly centre about today’s Republicans or Tories. François Fillon, the mainstream right’s candidate in next year’s presidential election in France, wants to scrap 500,000 public-sector jobs and thinks French colonialism was a sort of prototype for the Alliance française. What’s centrist about that?

International community: What is this entity? Who’s in and who’s out? Do you qualify by GDP, colonial history, skill in English? Is it established by UN votes? Or is it a way to make the opinions and interests of the world’s richest and most powerful countries sound like just plan common sense?

Reporters at Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, the scene of one the November 2015 Paris attacks Photo: Tony Cross

Terrorist: OK, this is an old chestnut. Terrorism is a bit like populism, we know it exists but we can’t really define it. Some people use it to describe non-state political violence but the origin of the term lies in its use by the French state after the revolution and virtually every politician has at some time or another labelled some government or other “terrorist”. We tend not to us the word to describe anyone whose actions we condone. Not many people nowadays use it for World War II resistance movements, although the German army certainly did. And we all know about “freedom fighters”, although we may not agree as to whether they operated in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba or, in any case, in what historical period they did so. I see that the BBC styleguide advises “its use can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, preferring “words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent and militant”, advice that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, as far as I can see.

Militant: Which brings me to “militant”. I blame the south Asians for this. In the 70s and 80s, as I remember it, we had “trade union militants”, who may not have had a very good press but were rarely accused of shooting managers or bombing factories. Then there were quite a few armed groups active in south Asia and the media there tended to refer to them as “militants”. That seeped into BBC and other British coverage, later spreading to other English-language media. It’s true, so far as I can make out, that the roots of “militant” are the same as those of “military” but the former term has meant “combative” in a non-military sense for some time. The church militant is not exclusively that involved in the crusades, the militancy of the British miners was not armed resistance. And what is an “anti-abortion militant”? A “pro-life” activist or a marksman who shoots doctors at family planning clinics? In France we have the added complication that the French word militant just means activist, leading to all sorts of confusion in translation (I’m looking at you, AFP!). Ambiguous and best avoided, in my opinion.

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How far will Turkey’s post-coup purge go?

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Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?

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The road between the Turkish parliament and armed forces headquarters where civilians confronted soldiers during the coup atttempt Photo: Tony Cross

 

Ankara 27 July 2016

Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.

“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.

He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.

“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”

But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.

This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.

Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.

The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.

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Karuman Karaca of Egitim Sen Photo: Tony Cross

The union is no stranger to legal action, however.

Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.

The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.

Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.

“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.

Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.

He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.

Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?

It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.

The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.

To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here

Erdogan angered by purge criticisms

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Taxi driver Ahmet, who confronted troops and tool the wounded to hospital on 15 July Photto: Tony Cross

The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.

AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.

Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.

And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption,  prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.

His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.

Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.

But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.

The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.

Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.

Who defeated the coup and why?

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CHP vice-president Bülent Tezcan Photo: Tony Cross

“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.

Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.

So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.

Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.

Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.

As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.

“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”

The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.

“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.

For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

How far is the CHP prepared to go?

Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.

“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.

Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”

To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here

Lokman Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross
Kazan distct mayor Lokm Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross

That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.

He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.

Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.

The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.

Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding”  in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.

“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”

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Turkey’s post-coup purge brings fear of media witch-hunt

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Turkey’s government has launched a purge of all institutions since the failed 15 July coup, including the media. But how do we know if it is pursuing genuine plotters or  witch-hunting government critics?

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Leman director Zafer Aknar with the offending issue of the paper Photo; Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 July 2016

The 15 July coup attempt came as a shock to everybody – including foreign journalists in Istanbul.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan, who’s lived in the US for some time. She promised her family she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan or any other war zone, so they went to Istanbul, only to find themselves in the middle of a coup.

Kiran Nazish is of Pakistani origin and has also lived in the US. Having reported from a few hairy places, she went to Istanbul to write in peace on the banks of the Bosphorus. Thar didn’t work out.

Forty-two journalists and 31 academics had a surprise of a different sort this morning when they found themselves on a prosecutors’ list of people to be detained in connection with the coup attempt.

The best-known appears to be Nazlı Ilıca, a 72-year-old reporter and former MP who lost her job in 2014.

I have no idea if she has anything to do with US-based Fehtullah Gülen, who the government says was behind the power grab, but the evidence against her, so far as internet trolls are concerned, seems to be that she reported corruption allegations against members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Those accusations arose during the earlier stages of the AKP’s feud with the Gülenists, now referred to by the AKP as the “2013 coup”, and led to a purge of prosecutors and police.

It also led to a crackdown on the media with papers having offending issues seized and some being taken over by the government, notably the Gülen-linked Zaman, whose English-language editor Abdülhamit Bilici was full of praise for Erdogan and the AKP when I interviewed him during the 2007 general election. How times change!

Media under attack since 2007

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Journalists’ union president Ugur Guc Photo: Tony Cross

In his office in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, journalists’ union president Ugur Güc is getting ready to defend any journalist who come to his organisation for help.

“Since 2007 many journalists have been arrested,” he says, although the union has lately had its hands full defending Kurdish journalists in the south-east, the scene of conflict between the military and Kurdish armed groups.

So the government’s record does not inspire confidence that the purge will be restricted to people truly implicated in the failed putsch.

“We will defend anybody who is a media worker,” he says. “We have many members who previously worked for Zaman newspaper and other newspapers and now are unemployed. For sure we will defend them!

“What they were doing was journalism. We are not interested in their connections.”

But he admits it won’t be easy to defend anyone who really supported the coup.

The problem is that the Gülen organisation really is a conspiracy, whose members keep their membership secret and aim to achieve positions of influence in the state and civil society.

The AKP knows this because it used its network to achieve power and fight the secularists, going along with prosecutions of alleged coup plots that are now being denounced as Gülenist set-ups.

Fear of a witch-hunt

The young man we meet in a café next to one of Istanbul’s many noisy major roads prefers not to give his name.

He is one of “six or seven” journalists who have resigned from Nokta magazine for fear of being caught up in a witch-hunt.

Nokta, which opposed the coup, has been fingered as a Gülenist publication and its chief editor, Cevheri Güven, is on the list of people to be picked up.

“Bringing journalists into line by forming such lists, not letting them sayl things we do not want is not a solution,” he says. “Because in a democratic regime everybody has the right of freedom of expression.

“We do not know what these lists are. They are taking some people, arresting them, then releasing some of them after a few days, and continuing to imprison some others. In my opinion this is not correct.”

Güven and a colleague were detained for two months last year because of a cover, showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffins of soldiers killed in the south-east.

Nokta has had to go 100 per cent digital because printing houses refuse to touch it.

Although Güven admitted sympathy for some of Gülen’s ideas, the journalist says he did not let it affect editorial policy and that the magazine took a different line to the Gülenists on questions such as Kurdish rights and democracy..

“I have not seen any connection to them. As far as editorial policy is concerned, our chief editor and coordinator said, we will try to make BBC-style journalism. I don’t think that a Gülen newspaper will try to do BBC-style journalism.”

Police seize satirical paper’s post-coup print run

“So you’re sort of Turkey’s Charlie Hebdo,” I say to Leman’s director Zafer Aknar as we sit down in the magazine’s cluttered office in central Istanbul.

And, indeed, there are photos of a visit by cartoonists and writers from the French satirical paper on the wall.

After the coup attempt Leman published a front page cartoon showing soldiers confronting anti-coup demonstrators, both groups pushed forward by huge hands, depicting the conflict as a “struggle for power between two groups”, as Aknar puts it.

“We prepared the magazine and sent it to printers,” he recalls. “Then we shared the front page on Facebook and Twitter as we have been doing every week. After this post, so-called journalists from the pro-government media launched a campaign against us and then Ak-trolls joined in. They shared the location of our office on internet and called people who were already on the street to go to the office.”

A mob gathered outside the office, although they missed the staff, who had already gone home.

When the police turned up they told the protesters to go home because they had everything in hand.

Which they did, in a way. In a scene that could have been satire itself, they went to the printers and seized the print run, even though they had not warrant to do so, then, when the warrant arrived, went into town to seize papers that had already been distributed.

That didn’t satisfy the trolls, who posted “thousands of messages” threatening the paper, “Didn’t you learn your lesson from Charlie Hebdo?” “Probably Isis was right,” “If you haven’t learnt your lesson, we will teach you,” “Sons of bitches, we will come, raid and burn,” ”‘Are you still alive?” were some examples.

Although none of Leman’s staff are on the present wanted list, Aknar, who is no stranger to the authorities’ attentions, drily comments “It’s not our turn … yet.”

To read my account of the media after the coup for RFI click here

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Two rallies and a purge – Istanbul after Turkey’s failed coup

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Patriotism was on show everywhere in Istanbul a week after the 15 July coup attempt, cars flying Turkish flags blasted out songs praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There were nightly rallies on Taksim Square, whose edifices were covered in huge banners declaring a victory for the nation. All parties had opposed the putsch … but there were fears that the ensuing purge could go further than supporters of Fehtullah Gülen, the US-based imam alleged to be behind the power grab.

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The sun sets behind the Atatürk statue on Istanbul’s Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 22 July 2016

“Erdogan, Erdogan …”

As the sun sets behind the Atatürk monument, Taksim Square fills with a crowd waving Turkish flags – street-sellers are doing a healthy trade – responding to an appeal by President Erdogan to occupy the centres of Turkey’s towns to prevent a repetition of last Friday’s coup attempt.

I’m just off the plane and haven’t met my fixer/interpreter yet, so have to find English-speakers, which rules out a large part of the crowd.

Those who do speak to me, apart from the Algerian woman who tells me in French she has come to see what’s going on, are Erdogan loyalists, proud that a popular mobilisation faced down the tanks and soldiers with deaths and injuries on both sides.

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Flag-sellers make the most of the patriotic mood Photo: Tony Cross

As a new hit song – chorus “Erdogan, Erdogan …” – blasts out, Mesut, an IT engineer, tells me “we are not supporting any party” but he has confidence in the government.

“Because we are living in 21 century, it shouldn’t be, this kind of thing,” he says. “We are supporting our democracy, that’s all.”

Turkey is a European country, he adds, “We are not Middle East any more.”

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Flagwaving in front of one of the big screens ahead of Erdogan’s speech Photo: Tony Cross

Neither he nor Songül, who has come back from Belgium where she lives and works, believe that Erdogan will abuse the powers he has assumed in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

“I think that the people now have the knowledge that Erdogan is for democracy, is not a dictator, which is said by many countries, she comments. “I think he is supporting democracy and the people love him. It is possible that he has more power now but he is not a dictator.”

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Young men pose for a photo during the rally Photo: Tony Cross

As the crowd swells, Erdogan appears on one of the giant screens that loom over the square, giving a speech, which is presumably broadcast to the crowds on the squares of towns across the country, to an audience that claps regularly, more regularly in fact than the crowd on the square.

The speech is long and is followed by music and more speeches that will last all night, as I find out when I return to my hotel, conveniently close to Taksim, inconveniently close to the noise.

I don’t imagine people staying on the luxury hotels that look onto the square, or residents of the streets that surround it, get any sleep at all.

To read my report of the rally for RFI in English click here

Saturday 23 July

Conscripts, cadets rounded up with coup-plotters

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The Istanbul Palace of Justice guarded by the police and army Photo: Tony Cross

There are few people on the vast esplanade in front of Istanbul’s maIn court house.

Barriers prevent access to most of it, behind them sit a couple of armoured cars, down the side of the intimidating structure, in the pompous pomo style, is a long line of buses commandeered to transport police to raids on barracks and military academies.

Amog the few people here – either in the cafés or leaning on the barriers in the blazing sun watching for signs of activity – are relatives of soldiers detained inside.

Most of them don’t want to speak, indeed one man denounces us as interfering foreigners who want to do down Turkey, but one man, who refuses to give his name, tells us that his son, a cadet, was one of 300-400 cadets detained at the air force academy four days after the coup.

Either he has a military family’s confidence in authority or he is anxious not to speak out of turn and jeopardise his son’s chances of being freed, as 1,200 soldiers were in Ankara this morning.

“The state will decide,” he says when asked what will happen to the boy. “The state will interrogate people and the guilty ones will be punished. That is it. But my son is not guilty. Because, he was a student and he was at the school and he was taken together with some 300-400 other students. They took him just to have his testimony.”

Other people we meet have limited sympathy for the detainees.

A couple who run a small restaurant say they were on the streets to oppose the coup.

“You are talking about the conscripts,” says Savas. “They are detained because they have to be interrogated. We saw what happened, they are doing this for the sake of the public. They wll be released after two or three days.”

“No-one will be able to divide this country,” his wife butts in. “We will fight together under this flag.”

“They planned to create panic and turn Turkey into Syria or Egypt,” is furniture-maker Turgay Dogany’s view of the coup-makers. Some innocent people have probably been detained, he admits, quoting a Turkish proverb that indicates a phlegmatic approach to potential injustice.

“For sure! Wet leaves may be burned with dry ones. You cannot choose. It is not all the military, just some gangs in it. It doesn’t mean that all 50,000 people are guilty.”

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Relatives of soldiers watch the court house for signs of activity Photo: Tony Cross

Many of the 7,423 soldiers detained are conscripts or even cadets of 14-16-years-old, according to Senaly Karatas, who we meet in the poky but centrally situated offices of the Human Rights Organisation in Istanbul.

The organisation is more used to handling the cases of victims of the military’s offensive in the Kurdish-majority south-east, where 100 soldiers are reported to have been detained.

Many families are scared to ask for help, she says. “We have written applications and 30 verbal applications.”

“Military service is obligatory in Turkey and it is not possible for a conscript to disobey orders,” Karatas points out, describing the young soldiers’ fate as “most tragic part of this situation”.

Many families have no news of their sons and don’t know how to find out where they are or how they are being treated.

“One family saw the photo of their son in the newspaper Posta, where it was clear that he had been subject to violence and was being detained,” she explains. “They went to his unit, they said he was arrested, but the family could not find him at places where he could be detained. In the end we found that he was in Silivri prison.”

He has been charged with involvement in the coup.

The family of one high-ranking officer did not dare file a complaint but told the human rights group that they were frequently insulted and obstructed as they trailed round police stations and courts searching for him.

“The declaration of the state of emergency greatly increases our concern,” Karatas says, citing official figures that show 10,410 people detained, 7,423 of them soldiers, 2,014 of them judges and prosecutors, 44,530 civil servants and other public-sector employees and have been suspended from their jobs, and 241 civilians and 24 coup-makers were killed during the coup.

The first measures of the state of emergency, announce today, were the closure of 15 universities and 600 other educational institutions and the extension of the limit of detention without charge from four to 30 days.

To read my report on Cadets and conscripts caught up in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown click here

“Terrorists in uniform”

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The mosque where prayers were said for Senol Sagman in Besiktas Photo: Tony Cross

Late in the afternoon friends of Senol Sagman gather at a mosque in Besiktas district to pray for him.

Two large wreaths of yellow flowers stand by the small cemetery next to the mosque, men perform their ablutions at the fountain in the centre of the mosque’s courtyard.

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Wreaths outside the mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Sagman’s friend Mustafa Gülenc, who ran a catering business with him, describes how his friend died.

“We went out into the streets, the soldiers were in front of us, we were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Allahu Akbar’, Gülenc recalls. We told the soldiers ‘Don’t fire on us. A Muslim cannot kill a Muslim!’ They said ‘Don’t say Allahu Akbar!’ First they shot in the air, then they shot at us. I lay down and when I got up I saw that my friend was dead.”

The soldiers were “terrorists in uniform”, he says.

To read my report for RFI on the mosque honouring Senol Sagman click here

Sunday 24 July 2016

“After this they will take us”

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CHP supporters march down Istiklal Caddesi Photo: Tony Cross

Taksim is packed again on Sunday. Coachloads from the provinces arrive, streaming down Istiklal Caddesi in the sweltering afternoon heat, one group in file carrying an enormous banner they will unfold when they arrive at the square.

This rally has been called by the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which like all other parties represented in parliament opposed the coup.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called for the national unity in defence of democracy to continue and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has responded by declaring its support for the demonstration.

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Women arrive at the CHP rally Photo: Tony Cross

There are no “Erdogan, Erdogan” songs this time, however. The last post for the victims of the coup attempt is head in perfect silence, then part of the crowd joins in with the national anthem.

There are many portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is the secular camp’s idol and apparently as few AKP supporters as there were CHP supporters on Friday.

Searching for English-speakers, I find a group of Afghans, Hazaras horrified by the Islamic Sate attack on a protest in Kabul that has killed 80 people and injured 230.

Abdurazzak, a Libyan, pays a heartfelt tribute to “the new face of democracy”.

“We are supporting Turkish people who face this army who want to take authority by force because in Libya we are still suffering from this,” he says. “We are still fighting to get our democracy.”

As for the Turks, none of those I speak to have been on the night-time rallies called for by Erdogan during the week.

Many are worried that Erdogan will profit from the boost in his support and the emergency powers granted to the state to clamp down on the secular camp.

“He is more powerful,” comments Hussein, a . “You know the extraordinary situation in Turkey now. They are taking everybody from this corporate [Gülen’s organisation]. But we know that after this they will take us.”

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The crowd listens to the national anthem at the start of the CHP rally Photo; Tony Cross

Turkey has the secularists to thank for its democracy, he argues. “We supported and established democracy in Turkey, not the other people.”

Hayri, a middle-aged man, says he has come to show that he is opposed to the coup but also because he fears Erdogan will take advantage of the situation to make “antidemocratic rules”.

The big powers should learn not to “play with the card of Islam, which they did in Syria”, he argues.

“Everything that is going on from Munich [scene of a recent shooting spree by a teenager] to here is because of this dirty game and Turkey is also partly responsible, with Saudi and Qatar.

“I also believe the European Union should think about Turkey in a very serious way,” he adds. “Because this is a very important moment for the future for the democracy of Turkey.”

The secularists feel threatened, political analyst Behül Özkan told me earlier in the afternoon.

AKP supporters drove through their neighbourhoods chanting Islamic slogans after the defeat of the coup. “The exact word is, the secular people feel trapped.“

To read my report Turkey’s secular opposition rallies for national unity click here

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Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza – a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict

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With charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel flying in Britain and France, I’m publishing an account I wrote up going to cover Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza. It marked a new stage in the bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, a bitterness that infects the world’s politics, as we see today. I was in Israel and the West Bank because Israel prevented entry to Gaza, although colleagues managed to get in via Egypt just as I left the region. I found fear and distrust on both sides, a deeply divided Palestinian leadership and a demoralised and isolated Israeli left.

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War as a spectator sport – Israelis and journalists watch Gaza from a hill near Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

12 January 2009

On a small hill just outside the Israeli town of Sderot, the world’s press, and a few curious local people, are looking at Gaza. With the international news media banned from entering Gaza, photographers’ huge telephoto lenses point south, towards Israeli tanks, whose barrels point further south again. TV reporters record to camera with the territory in the distance and an Israeli information-gathering balloon floating above.

It’s the beginning of the third week of Israel’s offensive against the territory and, compared to the early days, the old hands say things are calm. Nevertheless, a tank lets off a shell, there’s some gunfire and a larger explosion lets off a large cloud of smoke which rises lazily towards the clear blue sky.

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A shell falls on Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

A convoy of land-cruisers flying Israeli flags pulls into the dirt car park behind the hill. All the drivers are women.

Ariela Geneger is one of them. She explains that they have been collecting for the troops and have put together packages of thermal underwear, gloves, socks and “some goodies” for 1,000 soldiers.

Geneger says that this is a gesture of support for the offensive but the women’s concern seems more maternal than geostrategic.

“Those are our children they’re fighting,” she says.

Her son is a pilot, she explains, and the son of the group’s organiser is in Gaza.

“It’s not this separate thing, army and civilians; it’s part of this … this country’s all bound together.”

The group has also collected supplies for the bomb shelters in Sderot, which has been one of the principal targets of rockets fired from Gaza. “These people live under attack, so it can’t go on like this,” Geneger says.

But she also expresses sympathy for the people of Gaza.

“A lot of sympathy. My heart breaks for them; it’s just awful. And I don’t know, I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t know if it can be stopped now or if it needs to go on in order for people to talk. Because eventually people have to talk, so why do we have to go through all this?”

Maybe fighting first and talking after is the way of the world, she says, but, as a professional psychologist, she knows that “everybody should talk”. And that includes the Israeli government talking to Hamas, although the politicians argue that the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza cannot be an interlocutor because it does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Will the offensive bring peace?

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I hope it will make it better. I really don’t know. I think too many people assume that they know too much but I’m afraid that we don’t know enough.”

Also on this blog War, what is it good for?

A kibbutz on the edge … and the missing Arabs

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Marlene Markovitch Photo: Tony Cross

There’s another anxious mother at Zikim, a kibbutz which lies just 400 metres from the Gaza border.

“Mothers in Israel can’t really think rationally,” says kibbutz secretary Ilil Burde. “I don’t think any mother can think rationally when it comes to this question. So don’t ask me.”

Two of her four sons may be called up to fight, so Burde, aware of her status as a representative of the kibbutz, is reluctant to express an opinion on the offensive.

“When you reach this point, I don’t think any mother in the world is a rational person. You get only emotion. At least, that’s the way I am,” she says.

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“If all the mothers around the world would be the leaders of the world, there wouldn’t be any war and we’d all be happy. So, if you want to see any declarations, let all the mothers of the world be the leaders of this world and we’ll stop all the wars.”

Meanwhile, she blames Hamas for the latest fighting and the civilian deaths in Gaza, which are now in the hundreds.

“In war there’s casualties,” she says. “And Hamas uses civilians as human shields.”

Burde, who sees herself as a left-winger, also blames Hamas for undermining the peace camp in Israel. Most of the kibbutz members supported the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, she says, but now they feel betrayed by the breakdown of the truce.

“We’re very, very deeply disappointed because we feel instead of going forwards things are just going backwards,” she says. “What happens here, with all the rockets that we suffer for years and years, we the more left-wing in Israel can’t convince the more right-wing in Israel that we have to go on with the peace process because we get the answer, ‘See what happens, we draw out of the occupied territories in Gaza and they shoot rockets on us.’ ”

The kibbutz is doing its bit for the nation by playing host to a group of soldiers, some of whom are playing basket ball on a tarmacked surface near Burde’s office.

Standing by a paddock where two white horses graze, Zikim resident Marlène Markovitvh points to a field between her home and the barbed-wire topped fence which surrounds the kibbutz.

“That was all on fire,” she says. On the terrace of her white-painted bungalow stands an improvised flower-pot – trailing plants grow out of exploded ordnance.

Rocket attacks reached the level of 50-70 per day before Hamas’s six-month truce with Israel, she says. The number was reduced during the Egyptian-brokered six-month truce but the attacks increased again when it ended.

No kibbutz members were killed, although some children were injured and a direct hit on the dairy killed six cows. Zikim is one of the biggest milk producers in Israel and has two small factories, which have also been hit.

The offensive drastically reduced the number of attacks but brought new disruption to the kibbutzniks’ lives. The sound of the military’s drones and helicopters frightened the children so much that they had to be evacuated.

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The kibbutz’s school Photo: Tony Cross

“They know that they are from Israel but it’s frightening when you hear them at night, the few last days it was horrible,” says Markovitch. “The few last days, we couldn’t sleep, we were scared. Everbody was scared.”

Markovitch speaks with a certain pride of her good relations with Gaza residents who worked on the kibbutz before the Israeli blockade of the territory.

“These were made by a friend from Gaza,” she says, inviting us to sit on metal chairs at her dining table.

She and her husband have phoned some of their Gazan acquaintances during the offensive but believe that they are not keen to talk for fear that Hamas will find out that they are in contact with Israelis.

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The abandoned Arab house on the kibbutz Photo: Tony Cross

Markovitch takes us up a gentle slope, past the neat bungalows and the school with its roof reinforced in case it’s hit by a rocket, to a half-ruined house looking onto the kibbutz on one side and onto Gaza on the other. It belonged to an Arab family who fled in 1948, after the state of Israel was founded.

“They were scared, they were very scared by the Israelis and they didn’t want to stay here. But, anyway, I think they didn’t have a choice, too. The Israelis didn’t give them any choice.”

The family came to visit not long ago, says Markovitch.

“We invited them and they ate here and it was very nice. They are angry because we are getting their place but it’s the eternal problem between Palestinian and Israeli – who owns what?

“But they have the right to be here, too,” she concludes with a laugh, which has perhaps a hint of embarrassment.

To read and hear my report from Zikim for RFI click here

West Bank Palestinians collect for Gaza, criticise Abbas

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Rezeq Barghouti, RFI colleague Eduardo Febbro, interpreter Steve Nasi Photo: Tony Cross

14 January 2009

In Ramallah the collections are for Gaza and the declarations of solidarity are with the 1,000-plus people killed there, the several thousand wounded or homeless.

Collecting aid has replaced dance and poetry as the principal activity of the Baladna Cultural Centre. Cardboard boxes are piled up the walls, bags of clothes and babies’nappies lie on the ground.

Rezeq Barghouti, who works for the Palestinian Authority’s farming section, explains that people have given everything from agricultural produce to blood.

“Here’s olive oil from the farmers in the West Bank,” he says. “And here we have blankets, you see, because they suffer from cold now in Gaza.”

An appeal to give blood got a big response, says Barghouti, “because you know that we cannot go to Gaza now. We cannot stand with our people there, so what can we do?”

Barghouti wants to see unity of the Palestinian leadership, after more than two years of often violent clashes between President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.

But he is critical of Abbas’s response to the offensive, as are, it seems, the big majority of people on the West Bank, which, until now, has been Fatah’s base of support. At the start of the offensive Abbas declared that Hamas was at least partly to blame because it had broken off the truce with Israel and resumed rocket attacks.

Most Palestinians point out that Israel’s killing of seven Gazans on 5 November last year was already a breach of the ceasefire and agree with Hamas that the blockade of the territory is another form of hostile act.

“All the Palestinians in Gaza suffer the same enemy and they suffer the same killing … Israel doesn’t distinguish between this and this,” says Barghouti. He is particularly critical of Egypt for closing the Rafah crossing and preventing Gazans from escaping the offensive and of Abbas for failing to criticise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite being a Palestinian Authority employee, Iman Nafeh, who is organising another collection in Ramallah’s main square, is even more outspoken in her criticism of Abbas.

“He is all the time saying he wants peace and he’s supporting the peace,” she says. “And he is even shaking hands with the people that killed the Palestinians and … they are not giving him anything.”

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Iman Nafeh with helpers Photo: Tony Cross

Nafeh, who is tightly wrapped in hijab and a long coat over a long dress, insinuates that informants are likely to report her words to people in power, even the president himself.

“I know he will hear me,” she says, adding that all Palestinians are under observation.

“I am sorry because he’s not going to be elected if we have another person who is stronger than him … People here, they are angry about what Mr Abbas is doing.”

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Palestinian activists thank Hugo Chavez for breaking off relations with Israel over the offensive Photo: Tony Cross

Outside a modern building on a windy street a kilometre or so outside Ramallah’s town centre stands a small but noisy crowd, mainly women, waving the Palestinian flag and shouting slogans in Arabic and English.

They are a delegation of Palestinian political parties, who have come to present a letter of thanks to the Venezuelan consulate, which is inside the building, because the Bolivarian republic broke off diplomatic ties with Israel over the offensive.

According to our interpreter, Steve, the move has made Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more popular than Abbas, with TV presenters asking why Arab countries, who are supposed to be the Palestinians’ allies, have not made such vigorous protests and why the Palestinians don’t have such resolute leaders.

Khitam Fahim, an activist in a women’s organisation linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, sees the Venezuelan leader as a comrade in the struggle.

“So, we are here to say Viva Venezuela! Viva Hugo Chavez! Viva every freedom fighter in this world!” she exclaims. Foreign politicians should stop calling Palestinians “terrorists, she says, “We are freedom fighters and we are struggling for our freedom and we are with the whole freedom fighters in the world.”

Fahim, too, wants Palestinian unity: “The Palestinian leaders should go to emergency negotiations, emergency unified leadership for their people.”

They should stop quarrelling and they should stop listening to the US, she says.

For all Fahim’s criticisms of the US, many Palestinians hope that an event in Washington will bring an end to the offensive.  They think that Israel may want to finish its operations before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president next week.

To read and hear my reports on RFI click here

Divided Palestinians bicker as Gaza burns

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Abdullah al-Frangi Photo: Tony Cross

15 January 2009

Abdallah Al-Frangi is a Fatah veteran and a member of the movement’s Central Committee. But, when he meets us in a capacious office in Ramallah, he doesn’t rush to defend Mahmoud Abbas.

Asked about popular criticism of the president, Al-Frangi sighs and shrugs. Nobody believed that the attack would be so intense when it started, he says, by way of a partial excuse.

But he believes that the Israelis were preparing the offensive for longer than eight months, a claim based on information which Abbas presumably also has access to.

“So I don’t believe that the Israelis came to Gaza because of the missiles of Hamas,” Al-Frangi says. “From time to time they want to show the world, and the Arab people, that they are strong and that nobody can touch them and nobody can fight against them and I think they used Hamas in this case.”

Al-Frangi’s family is from Gaza and he seems deeply moved by the effects of the offensive.

“It is too hard! It is too hard for me, it is too hard for everybody who is a human being,” he says. Basing himself on frequent calls to Gaza, he says that people are living without water or electricity and that many have been wounded or killed, mostly civilians.

“Surely I am suffering with them,” he adds.

Above all, Al-Frangi wishes to see en end to the split between Fatah and Hamas, which “is helping the Israelis more than this attack”.

Abbas’s priority is a ceasefire, according to Al-Frangi. He also wants to reopen Gaza borders and rebuild Palestinian unity.

But “it is not easy.” For the last two years the two sides have not spoken. Hamas is perhaps justified in its suspicions of Abbas, who dismissed an elected Hamas-led government two years ago, after Israel, followed by the US and the European Union, refused to deal with the movement.

For his part, Al-Frangi is suspicious of Hamas, which seized power in Gaza and drove out leading Fatah members after the dismissal.

He used to negotiate with the group and says that the Islamists are unreliable negotiators, prone to demanding radical revisions of already agreed points just when a deal seems close.

Al-Frangi is blessed, or cursed, with a name which means foreigner. His father insisted that it came from an ancestor who was the first to wear European clothes rather than from the family’s origins, but Hamas exploited it when he returned to Gaza from exile with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis.

Hamas members told him to “go back abroad” or even “return to your foreign religion”, he recalls.

Even now he is not optimistic.

“I have the feeling the Hamas people are not ready to make a step towards Fatah to make a common policy together.”

As we meet Dr Mustapha Barghouti in another spacious Ramallah office, the television shows footage of the Gaza press centre just after it has been hit by Israeli bombs.

Barghouti, who was information minister in a short-lived unity government, accuses the world’s news media of bringing this on the journalists reporting from Gaza, who are almost all Arabs because of Israel’s ban on reporters entering during the offensive.

“I think this is a result of the silence of the world media about the Israeli violation of every basic principle of free journalism and press,” he says.
There was “no serious protest” against the Israeli ban, he feels.

“This is the third time that they bombard journalists. Already three journalists were killed and now several others injured. They have now upscaled their attack to include not only Abu Dhabi channel and Al Arabiya channel but even Reuters offices and that’s because of the international community and the complicity of the international media, worldwide.”

“The time has come to stop treating Israel as if it is above international law,” Barghouti says.

The press ban is because Israel “is trying to hide the truth”, he says. “They’re trying to hide the fact that this is not a war on an army, it’s a criminal war against civilian population with a totally disproportionate power between the two sides and with the use of prohibited equipment and prohibited weapons.”

Barghouti considers it proven that Israel is using white phosphorous in Gaza. The Israeli army denies using the chemical and ICRC chief Jakob Kelleberger told a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday that he had seen no evidence of its use on a visit to the territory’s main hospital.

But several newspapers and a report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch agree with Barghouti. Human Rights Watch points out that its use in densely populated areas violates international legal requirements to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. Gaza has 75,000 people per square kilometre, compared to 25,000 per square kilometre in Manhattan, according to Kellenberger, who took care to declare that such a dense population means that “the choice of weapons is important”.

Barghouti, who is a medical doctor, claims that other, unknown chemicals are being put inside munitions, saying that they “seem to burn the whole tissue to the bone”.

“The only thing that is not burnt by these chemicals is the bone …. Doctors called me and said that when we find somebody with an internal injury we open it and we cannot do anything because this is not a bleeding we can stop. It’s a burn that goes on and on and on till the patient dies.”

Barghouti was once general secretary of the Palestinain People’s Party, the former Communist Party, but left the post and the party in 2002 to establish the Palestinian National Initiative, along with US-based academic Edward Said. He stood as an independent in the 2005 presidential election, coming second but winning only 156,000 votes to Abbas’s 501,000.

Like Al-Frangi, Barghouti calls for unity, although he is less indulgent towards President Abbas. Blaming Hamas rocket attacks for provoking the Israeli offensive was “a very big mistake”, he says. “And he’s paying for it.

“His credibility is very low today. It’s the lowest ever and I don’t know if he will regain any credibility after what he has done.”

Admitting that the divisions in the Palestinian camp are “very damaging”, Barghouti insists that there is also “very serious internal transformation”. Abbas’s Fatah, along with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is likely to be “the biggest loser from this war”.

The lack of internal democracy means that “most of the Palestinian forces that are struggling for Palestinian rights are outside the PLO now and most forces inside the PLO have become a bureaucracy, feeding on the Palestinian Authority”.

Forces that are “not Hamas and not Fatah” are “working very hard to find a way to go back to national unity and that’s what we need”, he insists, citing the government in which he served as proof that unity is possible.

Even though he is one of the most outspoken secular Palestinian politicians, Barghouti seems to believe that the immediate answer to his people’s problems is in foreign hands. The European Union should stop buying arms from Israel, he says, and “what will stop aggression is a serious change of the behaviour of the international community, which looks like either careless or complicit with Israeli aggression”.

Gaza day of anger in Ramallah

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Women on the day of anger demonstration Photo: Tony Cross

16 January 2009

Friday morning in Ramallah, the streets are unusually empty. Uniformed police gather on the central Manara Square, while groups of men loiter around its edges.

This is the third Friday since Hamas called on Palestinians to demonstrate their solidarity with Gaza after Friday prayers.

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Youths wait for the Gaza day of anger protest to start Photo: Tony Cross

Among those waiting is Faisal, a thin, dark, shabbily dressed man, with sunken cheeks and an intense stare. He is a member of Fatah and spent 12 years in Israeli jails. His faith in his leaders has been shaken and his patience with the peace process with Israel has run out.

“There is no other solution,” he says. “The only solution is resistance. First it was Jenin [the refugee camp where over 50 Palestinians were killed in 2002], now it is Gaza, maybe tomorrow it will be Ramallah, so the only solution is resistance.”

Faisal thinks that the Palestinian National Authority should be disbanded and armed struggle resumed. Like Hamas, he argues that Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate has run out since he was elected for four years in 2005. Abbas claims he should stay on until 2010 because the Palestinian Legislative Council has since decreed that presidential and legislative elections should be held together.

We discuss where it would be best to stand and which roads can serve as escape routes if teargas is fired. On the previous two “days of anger” the Palestinian Authority’s police have dispersed Hamas supporters in a manner unlikely to foster Palestinian unity.

As the call to prayer rings out a crowd fills the Jamal Abdel Nasser mosque, spilling out onto the street in front of a market which stops business as the imam begins his sermon.

Thousands have been killed in Gaza, he says. UN resolutions against Israel have not been implemented, while resolutions against Muslims are, so what’s the use of the international body?

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Prayers before the Gaza day of anger demonstration in Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

The preacher is as contemptuous of the leaders of Muslim countries as he is of the UN.

The unbeliever has declared war on Gaza and the leaders of Islamic nations watch and do nothing except count the killed and wounded, he says. Unbelievers attack believers all over the world.

In the mosque, in a passage down the side reserved for women and in the street, hundreds of the faithful join the prayer. Then the demonstration starts.

Or rather demonstrations, because, although this has been billed as a demonstration for Palestinian unity, the crowd splits in two – hundreds of Hamas supporters gathering on one street at the front of the mosque, while hundreds of others head down another street behind it, both marches heading for Manara Square.

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Hamas supporters brandish the Koran Photo: Tony Cross

Loudspeakers crackle slogans and orders, one of which is from Hamas leaders telling their supporters not to wave banners so as to avoid trouble. Some small groups of women wave the green flag nonetheless, but are quickly instructed to put them away and obey.

The Hamas contingent is segregated according to gender. The women, in hijab and long dresses and coats, brandish the Koran and shout shrill slogans, calling on the movement’s armed wing, the Brigades of Ezzedine al-Qassam, to fire Kassam rockets as far as Tel Aviv.

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The march heads for the centre of Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

Wahid Mansour seems a little out of place among the Islamists. Clean-shaven and in western dress, he says he is “just seeing what they’re doing” on his way home from the mosque. Unlike the Hamas women shouting right behind him, he is extremely supportive of Abbas.

“Mahmoud Abbas is the president of all Palestinians,” he says. “He is elected from Palestinians and he is one who express our Palestinian will.”

On the square the two protests come together without dispute. One young demonstrator, Rami, believes that Palestinians should “unite under one legitimate leader” but won’t commit himself on the question of whether Abbas is the man for the job.

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Mustapha Barghouti and supporters on the day of anger Photo: Tony Cross

As the different currents of the demonstration eddy around the lion monument in the centre of the square, Mustafa Barghouti and his supporters make a nosiy entrance, shouting slogans in support of Hugo Chavez. As the Hamas women pass them, they scream “Haniyeh! Haniyeh!” in support of the Hamas chief in Gaza who was deposed by Abbas as prime minister. In another corner, Fatah supporters shout their own slogans.

Unity doesn’t seem to be a done deal.

To read and hear my reports of the day of anger in Ramallah click here

Israelis on edge in Sderot and Ashkelon

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Israeli flags greet visitors to Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

17-18 January 2009

On Saturday in Jerusalem Hassidic Jews in their black hats and coats make reproachful signs at our taxi driver for driving on the Sabbath, on the hill outside Sderot secular residents spend their day off staring at the occasional explosion on the Palestinian horizon, late in the evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares a ceasefire and announces: “We won”.

Overnight the alarm sounds in Ashkelon, where we have found a hotel. On Sunday morning there are reports of six rockets being fired from Gaza. At the government press centre in Sderot, officials say that two landed near the town. When we ask to see them, we’re told that they fell in fields outside the town and there isn’t much to see.

“It’s another proof that Israel made the decision unilaterally that we would like to halt fire, unfortunately Hamas is responding, firing rockets into Israel again and again,” says Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Leo Vinovesky.

Israeli officials hold Hamas responsible for all attacks. If it’s pointed out that they could be the work of other groups, they reply that Hamas controls Gaza and should therefore control them. How it can do this after a three-week bombing campaign aimed at destroying their political and administrative apparatus is unclear.

So how long can the truce last?

“The fact is that Israeli forces are still there in the Gaza Strip, ready for any scenario,” says Vinovesky.

“We have the right to protect ourselves,” he adds “You witness here in Sderot – it’s not a life to rush into the shelters every five minutes, every 10 minutes. Imagine that happening to this population in the south of Israel for more than eight years, so enough is enough!”

The whole of Sderot is draped in Israeli flags and banners. Billboards depicting a heart pierced by a missile welcome you to the town. In the centre men sit around gossiping under a tree, as they would in any town around the Mediterranean.

Shopkeeper Sasson Sara hasn’t much confidence in the ceasefire. He gives it “maybe one month, that’s all” and says that the rockets won’t stop until the Israeli army has wiped out all of Hamas.

Two women passing through town also put all the blame on Hamas. One of them, Nama, is on her way home from a centre which helps people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of rocket fire.

“I think they should have stopped the fighting,” she says but adds that Hamas must stop firing rockets and shooting “their own people”.

“I don’t like the war,” she sighs.

The sirens sound as I arrive in Ashkelon in a taxi whose hitherto-lethargic driver is spurred into action. I don’t realise what is happening and he yells at me in Hebrew, jumps out of the car and leads me into a bank where a crowd of customers and passers-by is shepherded into a shelter. People talk calmly, there’s even a certain camaraderie. We hear no explosion.

Hamas announces a one-week ceasefire, calling on Israel to withdraw and open the border crossings. Its leaders, too, claim victory.

Israeli peace camp isolated and split

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Supporters of the offensive argue with peace campaigners in Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

In Jerusalem on Sunday evening Israeli leader Ehud Olmert receives European Union leaders, who have been in Egypt negotiating a truce, at a dinner in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

On the other side of a busy crossroads, a small group of protesters chants “War is not a game!” and “Peace yes! War no!”.

In the past their movement, Peace Now, has mobilised thousands to call for negotiations with the Palestinians and peace with Israel’s neighbours. Today, with a large majority of Israelis apparently supporting the offensive, they are less than 20.

“Maybe sometimes you have to use violence to defend your country,’ says one of the protesters, Devora. “But when you have to use violence, you have to make it pointed … you have to use the minimum violence to the maximum effect and I feel like we used the maximum violence to the minimum effect.”

Like so many Israeli women, Devora has sons in the army.

“I’m a mother and I would like the ceasefire to hold that people won’t be killed on both sides of the line but I’m not very hopeful.”

Three girls, armed with banners and the Israeli flag, stage a counter-demonstration, accusing the peace campaigners of supporting “terrorists”, who kill Israeli women and children.

“We want all the Palestinians – no, not all the Palestinians, Hamas – will die!” says one of them, Amara, struggling with her English but not her feelings. The two sides launch into an impassioned argument before the girls cross to the other side of the road to wave the flag and shout at the peaceniks.

Some Peace Now and left-wing leaders initially supported the Gaza offensive, believing it to be a justified response to Palestinian rocket attacks. But by the second week they had organised a demonstration of 1,000 to call for a rapid end to the attack.

“It’s very hard,’ says Peace Now member Yonatan, who admits that he feels isolated from most Israelis at the moment.

“Once you say you’re against the offensive … they take it as agreeing with Israel being bombed and I don’t think Peace Now agrees with Israel being bombed and it doesn’t agree with Israel bombing.”

In the chilly Jerusalem night, the protesters keep up their chants to an audience of police and passing cars. Several drivers sound their horns in disapproval as they speed past.

Israel denies using white phosphorous

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Lt-Col David faces the press on a hill overlooking Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

19-20 January 2009

Today the hilltop outside Sderot is serving as the venue for an Israeli army press conference. As a drone whines overhead, an officer presented to us as Lt-Col David tells journalists how his soldiers felt as he led them in combat in Gaza.

“The last eight years, when civilians here, just behind you, were targeted by Hamas terrorists daily with these rockets destroying homes and schools and creating a lot of disruption to civilian live, this is what we were trying to stop and I think, I know, that when my soldiers were in there this is what was in the back of their mind all the time.”

But official minders move in when he is asked whether Israel has used white phosphorous.

Military spokesperson Olivier Rafovitch, who speaks to the media in battle dress with a rifle slung over his shoulder, denies the charge and claims that Hamas used the chemical in one rocket attack on a village near Gaza.

According to the Israeli official line, the offensive is the fault of Hamas, the white phosphorous is the fault of Hamas and, says Rafovitch, the civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas.

“I believe that the ones who have to be blamed for the civilian losses of life are Hamas,” he says. “Hamas was using the people of Gaza as a human shield. It’s not a secret, it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, a report by Amnesty International says that its investigators “found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings” in Gaza.

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Israeli troops near the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

Yael Stein, Research Director at the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, finds the official denials incredible.

“Of course it came from the Israeli army,” she says. “There was one day they said Hamas threw one rocket to Israel and that was with a little bit of white phosphorus. They had such a report, but it can only come from the Israeli army.”

The question has not made the front page of the Israeli press, whose coverage of the offensive has drawn criticism from some NGOs.

One of them, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) wrote an open letter to the media to tell them that they weren’t exactly speaking the truth to power.

“What’s being portrayed right now is this ultrapatriotic rhetoric, where criticism is really shunned,” Acri’s Melanie Takefman told us last week. “We’re saying that this is a crisis but, look, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have freedom of expression and that there can’t be meaningful debate.”

You’re never far from the army in Israel and the office of Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel (Keshev) is just one floor above a suite guarded by soldiers and clearly closed to the public.

The close military presence doesn’t seem to inhibit Keshev’s Yizhak Be’er, who monitors press coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world and doesn’t like what he finds.

Sifting through a pile of copies of best-selling daily, Yediot Aharanot, he contrasts the prominence given to rocket attacks on Israel with no victims, while reports of the hundreds of Gazan civilians killed receive little attention.

Be’er accuses the press of buying into an official discourse which portrays all Israel’s conflicts as battles in a war to defend western civilisation.

“There is a confrontation that is depicted as war of the west against the terror, global terror, and against fundamentalistic groups of Islam,” he says.

Recalling the dictum “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting at you”, he points out that Israeli consciousness is formed by Jewish history and the present hostility of the country’s neighbours. But he thinks that the media-managers have made many mistakes in their handling of this offensive.

“First of all, the closure of the borders to foreign journalists, it is a stupid decision,” he says. “The foreign media have only one source now, the Arab cameras. Al Jazeera and Al Watan who give one side of the story.”

While officials have expressed satisfaction in the work of the newly-established National Information Directorate, Be’er believes that foreign reporters know when they are being treated like idiots and are alienated by officially-organised visits to hospitals with Palestinian patients admitted before the offensive which are meant to show Israeli generosity.

Ban – and Hamas ordnance – face the cameras in Sderot

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Israeli police show off rockets fired by Hamas at Sderot and its surroundings Photo: Tony Cross

 

Sderot’s press centre is closed for “reasons of security”, as Ban Ki-Moon heads for the town. The UN Secretary-General’s press conference is to be held in the town’s police station, allowing the cameras to film him against a background of showcases packed with used ordnance collected after Palestinian rocket attacks.

As we wait for Ban to arrive, corpulent police officers fuss around with flags, trying to hang them from twisted shells and other officials tell us that no questions will be taken after Ban’s statement.

Earlier in the day Ban was in Gaza, where he called for punishment for those responsible for the bombing of UN-run buildings in which a number of civilians died.

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Ban Ki-Moon with Sderot’s mayor Photo: Tony Cross

Here he meets Sderot’s police chief, who shows him what an exploded shell looks like, and its mayor, who accompanies him to the mikes.

Ban declares the rocket attacks “unacceptable” and expresses sympathy for the “trauma” experienced by local people.

But he also calls on Israel to open the border crossings, with “transparent, clear and effective border management” to stop weapons being taken into Gaza. And he says that there must be political action “or there will be an increased radicalism among Palestinians”.

Like almost everybody nowadays, it seems, Ban wants Palestinian unity. But, although he does take two questions which allow him to say a little more of what he wants to say, he doesn’t answer when asked if that unity would include Hamas.

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Alley, Jerusalem Old City Photo: Tony Cross

To read and hear my reports of the 2009 Gaza offensive click here

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Pakistani atheist infiltrates jihadi training camps

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Saying you don’t believe in any god can be dangerous in Pakistan. It has tough blasphemy laws and apostates from Islam could be punished by the death penalty, if fundamentalist mullahs haven’t incited a mob to murder you before your arrest. Nevertheless some Pakistani atheists are open about their non-belief, there’s even a Facebook page, and are accepted by their friends. In Karachi in 2008 I met an atheist who took his bravery a little further and infiltrated jihadi training camps. Here’s what he told me (article first published on RFI’s English website).

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The port in Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi 21.02.2008

While Pakistan’s three largest parties are all secular, all mainstream politicians are at pains to justify their policies with reference to Islam.

Sikandria Hayat Janjua, a member of Farooq Tariq’s Labour Party, feels no such constraint. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, he rips into religion at considerable volume. Tareeq says that his outspokenness has landed him in trouble more than once. One night, after outlining a vigorous critique of Islam to a young man who was staying with him, Janjua woke up to find the shocked believer stabbing him repeatedly.

He fought him off, summoned help and was taken to hospital, where, he’s happy to report, medical science saved his life.

“I believe that we will one day conquer death,” he tells me.

Janjua’s religious skepticism dates from the death of his father, a soldier who was killed in the nominally-independent region of Azad Kashmir in 1980. His killer was not an Indian soldier defending Delhi’s rule of much of the divided state, but an Islamist who took exception to what Janjua calls his father’s “progressive views”.

Janjua joined the secular Jammu and Kashmir Student Federation and then came to Karachi University, where he now leads an organization called the Progressive Youth Front. The organisation’s relations with the Islamist student organisations are not particularly friendly.

But back home in Azad Kashmir Janjua is part of the community, so, in 2001, when a group of young men went off to an Islamist training camp, they invited him to attend.  He says he went back on two other occasions, in 2003 and 2004.

Janjua says that there are five such camps in Azad Kashmir and that they take in about 180 18-22-year-old men for six-month courses in fighting for Islam, including preparation to become suicide-bombers.

“They welcome me as a muslim and took me to a barracks,” he says of his first visit.

The fajr prayers, at dawn, were followed by readings from the Koran. Janjua says the verses were selected to encourage suicide-attacks then followed by physical training.

He says he attended an international training camp at Kotly, 160 kilometres north of Islamabad, where the mullahs tried to convince him to join their version of jihad.

“They said ‘You will be in heaven, paradise, and you will be with houris [the pure and beautiful companions promised to the faithful], you will get then wine and different kinds of fruits, honey, and you will have your own luxury cars and horses …’ ”

Most of the youths who go to the camps are poor, Janjua says, attracted by promises of happiness that escapes them on earth. Some are criminals, invited to atone for their sins by sacrificing themselves for the fundamentalist cause.

“They are told that ‘You are a criminal and you will be in heaven and this is the way – that you take a jacket and finish your enemy all over the world, especially India, British, America and all the white-skins’.”

Janjua confirms reports that Pakistan’s secret services help the camps, claiming that some of the preachers were from the military. He adds that Saudi Arabia is a major financial backer.

The camps still exist, he says, but their names have changed. In 2001 they were bellicose references to the armies of the faithful.

“Now their terrorist camps are changed, like gardens and like flowers’ names, and inside the terrorist camps they are the same.”

He hopes that a PPP-led government in alliance with secular parties like the Awami National Party in the North-West Frontier Province will bring the intelligence services to heel and close the camps.

“This is my hope. Ground realities may be different,” he concludes.

To read or listen to my reports for RFI of Pakistan 2007-08 click here

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