Category Archives: Terrorism

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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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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Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

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It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

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Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

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An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

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War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election

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Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

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A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

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A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross

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Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

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Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

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A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 

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At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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Before the Paris attacks – IS’s dangerous liaisons in Turkey

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When I visited the devastated houses that were the scene of a Turkish police raid on hideouts of the Islamic State (IS) armed group it never crossed my mind that I would be visiting the scenes of IS attacks in Paris less than three weeks later. The Paris attacks cost at least 120 lives and have sparked a wave of sympathy across the world. IS has claimed more lives in Turkey – 135 in the Suruc and Ankara bombings, which appear to have been targeted because of their links to the Kurds, alone  – but, although those attacks received plenty of media coverage, there was not the same outpouring of grief worldwide. The story of the IS and the Turkish state is a complicated one, as I found on my visit to Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority south east.

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The damage caused by a booby trap that killed two police officers and the police assault at the IS hideout in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir 29 October 2015

There’s a gaping hole where the house’s front door used to be. That’s where a booby trap went off, killing two police officers trying to enter and capture or kill the house’s occupants.

The windows are blown out, the interior is a charred shell, there are bullet holes in the walls and a hole in the garden where a jihadist detonated a suicide vest. The trunks of trees in front of the house are splintered and torn by shrapnel.

Seven IS fighters were killed and a significant haul of weapons and explosives seized in the this house and another nearby. They buildings in a residential area of the city served as an IS commando’s base in Diyarbakir.

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Police have done nothing to prevent access to the scene of the fighting Photo: Tony Cross

Although the raid was on Monday, the house still attracts the interest of a group of men and youths. There are no police present and the site had not been cordoned off, so kids and adults go in and clamber among the ruins, oblivious to the possibility that there might still be undiscovered explosives inside.

The police were not particularly diplomatic with Fatma, who live in the house next door, either. They told her and her family that they would fire on their house if they failed to leave the lights on before evacuating them and starting their assault.

Fatma didn’t have much to do with her young neighbours, their main contact being when they put up a tarpaulin in the garden and she asked them to take it down because it interfered with her family’s satellite TV reception.

“We didn’t expect Islamic State to be our neighbours!” she comments.

The pink house around the corner is in almost as bad a state of destruction and also excites the interest of neighbours, both adults and children.

Sinan, who is taking photos on his smartphone, lives in a block of flats over the road.

His family was woken be the fighting.

“Of course I was frightened,” he says. “My children woke up and they were frightened.”

Before the attack, the occupants, all young Kurdish men, gave lessons in religion to local people.

“I didn’t go and I didn’t send my children,” Sinan says.

To read my report of IS in Diyarbakir for RFI click here.

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Children explore the ruins of one of the houses raided by police in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

The government and the security forces insist they are taking the threat from IS seriously and are even issuing alarming reports of possible further attacks.

Police told the media today that a commando of 10 women, four of them foreign, is at large and planning suicide bombings. They are said to be part of the Dokumacilar group, to which those who were living in these also belonged.

Yesterday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu slammed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurd HDP, for accusing him of legitimising IS.

His office says that 285 IS suspects have been arrested in the first nine months of 2015.

But he quickly changed the subject to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, an armed group allied to the Turkish PKK that has proved the most effective force in fighting IS, most famously by recapturing the town of Kobane.

The military have bombed the YPG recently and Davutoglu says that is justified because they represent a threat to Turkish territory.

An indication that he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more worried about armed Kurds than armed Islamists came when Ankara agreed to join US-led air strikes on IS … and then proceeded to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, having broken off peace talks with the guerrillas following the inconclusive 7 June election.

The government is believed to be worried that the autonomous area, known as Rojava to the Kurds and established by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), could serve as an example to Kurds in Turkey, as, indeed, it has. Autonomous zones have been declared in parts of Diyarbakir itself, as well as in towns like Silvan, since the peace talks were broken off.

The HDP and other opposition parties accuse the government of more than sitting on the fence, however.

They claim that it has helped the armed Islamists in Syria – firstly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front and then IS – party because a part of the electorate and membership of the ruling AKP sympathises with them ideologically and partly as a counter to the Kurds.

Evidence of the state’s complicity appears to have been brought to light in 2013 when a convoy heading for Syria was stopped and searched.

It was found to be carrying arms and agents of the secret services, the MIT.

The five prosecutors and one military commander responsible for stopping the convoy were rewarded for their vigilance by being charged with seeking to overthrow the government and revealing state security information.

A secrecy order has meant that their trial, which began earlier this month, is being held behind closed doors.

Kurdish activists believe that the state facilitated two bombings – one in Suruc in July that killed 33 young left-wingers and injured 104, the other at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 0ctober that killed 102 and injured 400 – for which IS has claimed responsibility.

“There are hundreds of cameras in Ankara. They knew there was going to be a demonstration. Why wasn’t there any protection?” asks HDP youth activist Cuneyt Cihan.

On the day of the Ankara bombing, after Erdogan called it an attack on Turkish unity and equated it to PKK attacks on Turkish police and soldiers, Demirtas came right out and accused the state of involvement.

“This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people,” he said

Davutoglu is in town to officially open the airport – now we know why it’s operating although not exactly fully functional in all details – and hold an election rally.

“Turks and Kurds, brothers,” he has the crowd shout in a fine example of Erdogan’s conception of unity. “The separatists are traitors!”

When I came here in 2007, many Kurds found the AKP readier to listen to their discontents than the secular MHP and CHP, whose nationalist agenda had vigorously supported a dirty war in the south-east while in power.

The AKP had no Kemalist axe to grind and a certain amount of support among conservative Muslims in the region. And its supporters among the rising bourgeoisie of central Anatolia were keen to do trade with the European Union and eventually to join it and so ready to concede to concede to its criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record.

Two things appear to have changed.

Firstly, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, casting himself as the heir to the Ottomans, whose legacy in the field of minority rights leaves a little to be desired.

Secondly, ending the peace process seems to have been a calculated attempt to heighten a feeling of insecurity and rally the nation around a strong ruler – himself, in this case.

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AKP Diyarbakir regional councillor Nejla Uysan Photo: Tony Cross

That’s not an analysis that shared by AKP regional councillor Nejla Uysan when we meet her at the party’s regional office on Friday.

“The government and the state doesn’t support Daesh. Definitely not!” she declared. “This is a barbaric organisation and, as Muslims, how do you think we could support such an organisation.”

She accuses the PKK of breaking the ceasefire and claims that the “liberated zones” punished the local population.

But she surprises me by saying that she thinks her party should work with the HDP.

For my written and audio accounts of the AKP in Diyarbakir for RFI click here

“Why don’t you think (we) will not share?” she asks in response to my surprise. “We are living in the same city. We can share everything.”

Not the party line, so far as I know.

For an audio report on the AKP in the 2007 presidential election click here.

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Why did IS attack Paris?

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A woman pays tribute to victims at the Belle Equipe restaurant in Rue Charonne, 11th arrondissement Paris Photo: Tony Cross

The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?

  • The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price.  The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
  • IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
  • France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
  • France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France.  The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
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A TV repoter outside the Bataclan, where there was the heaviest death toll on Friday night Photo: Tony Cross

Update 17.45 Paris time

I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.

There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.

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“Death to the illiterate barbarians” this handwritten poster declared Photo: Tony Cross

A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.

So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?

Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.

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