– Israel’s Sharon, Sharon’s Israel
– The Inquest verdict on Tottenham’s Mark Duggan – On the “lawful killing” of an unarmed man, and the impossibility of reforming the system
(AWTWNS 13 January 2014)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 13 January 2014 contains two articles. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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  • Israel’s Sharon, Sharon’s Israel
  • The Inquest verdict on Tottenham’s Mark Duggan
    On the “lawful killing” of an unarmed man, and the impossibility of reforming the system

Israel’s Sharon, Sharon’s Israel

13 January 2014. A World to Win News Service. When Ariel Sharon died 11 January after eight years in a coma, most Western politicians and media, if they were critical at all, called him “controversial” or “divisive, mainly referring to Israeli public opinion. Nevertheless they treated the occasion with great solemnity and respect. It was like “a death in the family”, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden lamented at the the memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv, notable for the empty seats and hilltops that the public failed to fill.

What Israeli and Western statesmen felt should be considered most memorable and unifying about Sharon was his qualities as a “warrior” – his “courage” and his “North Star”, as Biden put it, his commitment to the Zionist cause. This reveals much of what the Palestinian people are up against. There is no controversy about the facts. Sharon built an identity as a butcher on a mass scale. There are no two conflicting sides to his story, just two different sides in the real world, divided by whether or not the Palestinian people should be crushed.

Sharon’s military career started with the Naqba, the armed expulsion of Palestinians from their homes that marked the establishment of Israel in 1948. Later, as a rapidly rising young officer, he founded and commanded the Israeli Army’s Unit 101. Its mission was to carry out reprisal raids against villages outside of what was then Israel, punishing civilians for harbouring “infiltrators” – Palestinian fighters, smugglers and often unarmed people trying to get back home. In 1953, he lead an assault against a village called Qibya.

The village was guarded by a dozen or less armed men. Sharon’s unit, with hundreds of soldiers, blocked off the village on all sides, fired mortars and rockets and then went in. They killed 69 people. More than half (The New York Times, 13 January 2014) of the dead and perhaps as many as two-thirds were women and children. Many died in their homes, which soldiers shot up and then demolished without checking to see who was inside. The attackers suffered only one slightly wounded soldier. This is the “battle” that brought Sharon to prominence as Israel’s signature “warrior”, to quote the title of his autobiography.

Sharon was a cold-blooded strategist, however, not just a monster, and he understood the political aims of his war. “The orders were utterly clear: Qibya was to become an example for everyone,” wrote Israeli historian Benny Morris in Israel’s Border Wars. That was Sharon’s creed as a soldier: to make a special point of killing not just fighters but civilians in order to demonstrate Israeli power and ruthlessness, to terrorize the Palestinian people into submission. The UN condemned the massacre but Sharon was promoted to help reorganize and shape the Israeli army. Unit 101 was disbanded, but it became a model for the tactics and spirit of the Israeli armed forces.

Real courage in the pursuit of justice lay with Israel’s enemies. After those years Sharon himself was not directly involved in fighting Palestinian fedayeen, who won some important tactical victories against overwhelming odds, for instance the celebrated battle of Karameh in 1968. Sharon’s most famous campaign was when he led the invasion of Egypt in 1973. In the city of Suez, factory workers and other people, armed and hastily organized by nationalist army officers and leftists in the Popular Resistance Committees, came out to stop the Israeli army from taking the city. Armed mainly with rifles and RPGs, they destroyed tanks, surrounded the invaders and captured many professional soldiers, helping to halt the Israeli push towards Cairo. Although Israel eventually came out on top in this war, it destroyed the myth of Zionist invincibility.

In 1982, Sharon repeated Qibya on an even more massive scale. With U.S. backing, he launched and led an invasion of Lebanon. The pretext was that Israel was protecting its own security by clearing Palestinian fighters along the border. Then the Israeli armed forces moved far north into Beirut, where they forced the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership and thousands of its fighters to leave the country by ship. The American government, supposedly acting as a mediator, guaranteed the safety of the Palestinian civilians left behind.

The U.S. and Israel hoped they could run the country through an alliance with the Christian-based Phalangist party, whose head Bashir Gamayel was set to become the country’s president. Bashir had agreed to let Israel take over southern Lebanon, which they did. But then he was assassinated.

The day Bashir was killed, Sharon met with the family, one of the most powerful clans in Lebanon, supposedly to offer his condolences. According to Time magazine, “Sharon reportedly told the Gemayels that the Israeli army would be moving into West Beirut and that he expected the Christian forces to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon also reportedly discussed with the Geymayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir, but the details of the conversation are not known.” (Time, 21 February 1983) The Israeli government blamed the PLO for the assassination, even though they knew that was not true.

The Israeli army surrounded the adjacent Palestinian refugee camps known as Sabra and Shatila. They prevented anyone from leaving, but let Phalangist militiamen move in. Israeli flares lit the night sky. The Phalangist leader of the operation, Elie Hobeika, and the Israeli field commander on the scene, Brigadier General Amos Yanon, were stationed together on an overlooking rooftop.

An Israeli lieutenant later told a Knesset (Israeli parliament) commission that an hour after the Phalangist militia entered the camp’s narrow streets, an officer in the camp radioed for instructions about what to do with the women and children. Hobeika answered, “This is the last time you’re going to ask me a question like that. You know exactly what to do.” The Israeli general was aware of this exchange (see indictsharon.net). When twenty years later, a Belgian court prepared to try Sharon, Yanon and Hobeika for the massacre, the Phalangist said that in his own defence he would testify that the Israelis knew and approved of everything. He was killed by a car bomb and the case was dismissed at the U.S.’s insistence.

There is also evidence that the Israeli army itself killed many Palestinians, even after the massacre had ended in the camp. Only about 600 bodies were found in Sabra and Shatila, while almost 2,000 people are known to have disappeared and the actual toll may have been higher. British journalist Robert Fisk, who arrived on the scene shortly after the Phalangists left, wrote that the Israelis brought “probably well over a thousand” Palestinian men and boys to the nearby sports stadium. When he returned, they were gone, and their families couldn’t find them. After discussions with witnesses, he concluded that the Israelis killed the prisoners and buried them in secret graves. (Robert Fisk, The Independent, reprinted by Counterpunch, 28 November 2001)

The basic facts about Sabra and Shatila came out in the report of the commission established by the Israeli parliament after an unprecedented public outcry in Israel in the days following the massacre. Yet the Kahan commission came to the conclusion that the massacre was the work of the Phalangists alone, while Sharon and other officers were guilty of failing to prevent it. That commission held that Sharon bore “personal responsibility”, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was “indirectly responsible” for not looking into Sharon’s negligence.

That was both a mere slap on the hand and a cover-up. While Sharon certainly did bear personal responsibility, the massacre was not due to his negligence or indifference – or even his personal criminality. It was committed as part of overall Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and its neighbours, policies that led to three invasions of Lebanon and continuing horrors against the Palestinians. These are the natural result of Zionism itself – logical solutions to the problem of establishing and safeguarding a Jewish state based on the racist fantasy of a mystically-defined Jewish people worldwide somehow gathered into a single nation and endowed with a genetic birthright to land already peopled for thousands of years.

As a consequence, Sharon was forced to resign as Defence Minister, but Begin kept him on in the cabinet. Begin is said to have told Sharon, “You are young. You still have much to do.” He remained a pillar of Israel’s political establishment as well as its leading general, and went on to continue his work as prime minister until a stroke left him all but dead in 2006. His “personal responsibility” was approved by Israel’s ruling class as a whole and a large part of the electorate. There was never any danger that he would end up facing an international trial for his crimes. The U.S. did not let that happen.

Sharon used the various cabinet posts he occupied to win himself the name of the father of the Jewish settlement movement. The Israeli government financed and protected Jewish “settlers” who helped themselves to land still occupied and farmed by Palestinians in the West Bank. In 1998 he told them to “run and grab as many hilltops as they can, because everything we take will be ours.” (Reuters, 12 January 2014) These settlements are armed outposts of the Zionist state in what remains of Palestinian territories.

But what most made Sharon “controversial”, especially in Israel today, is that he supposedly turned against the settlement movement. In 2005 he sent Israeli troops to evacuate Jewish families who refused to leave Gaza, which Israel invaded and took over in 1967.

The evacuation move sparked an ideological crisis in a movement that until then thought itself entitled to whatever it wanted because of what it considered God’s promise. Some families are still enraged about losing their highly subsidized farms and businesses in Gaza. Perhaps they resent having been wiling Zionist cannon fodder. But the evacuation did not represent a departure from the goals behind state support for the settler movement.

It enabled the Israeli state to consolidate its military situation, so that its troops would no longer be tied down defending a few hundred families. The displaced settlers were supposed to be sent to fatten up more viable Jewish towns in the West Bank.

Even more important was the political purpose of what Sharon called “disengagement”. For Sharon this was a change of tactics, not change of heart. Tony Blair, who famously lied to the British public to garner acceptance for the invasion of Iraq and was rewarded by becoming the envoy for the Quartet, a body established by the U.S.,UK, EU, UN and Russia to oversee the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, shamelessly told the truth at Ariel Sharon’s memorial. Blair said he wanted to correct the widely-accepted misconception that Sharon “changed from man of war to a man of peace. He never changed. His strategic objective never wavered. The state of Israel… had to be preserved for future generations. When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace with the same iron determination.”

But what was this talk of “peace” if not another attempt to crush the Palestinians by other means? Sharon conducted the evacuation of Gaza unilaterally in order to weaken and not strengthen the PLO’s authority. He considered it a matter of principle never to negotiate with Palestinians. He had refused to shake hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat when Arafat signed on to the U.S. plan for a “two-state solution”, and kept Arafat a prisoner in his home until the day he died under circumstances that have never been made clear.

If Sharon had come to believe in the necessity of a “two-state solution,” as the U.S. had by then – and because of his subsequent stroke no one can know exactly what he had in mind or what he would have done later – the plan was (and still is) to make a “Palestinian” state that would amount to nothing more than a big detention centre. The same vision connected Israel’s construction of a wall around the West Bank, which began under Sharon, and his policy of “disengagement” that meant that instead of occupying Gaza, Israel would fence it in and pick off its inhabitants from the air whenever considered necessary.

Whether or not a Palestinian “mini-state” is ever allowed to emerge, what Sharon tried to further, and the U.S. still values, is the “peace process“. This “process” only goes one way – against Palestinians. The number of West Bank settlers swelled by a third during the years Sharon spent in a coma, with no end in sight. Further, it is based on an illusion: the U.S. is no more likely to protect the Palestinians in the future than it did at Sabra and Shatila. Very importantly, it provides political cover for reactionary Arab regimes allied with Washington, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But it also causes some ideological friction for some Israelis who object to interference with what they consider God’s plan. They hate even pretending to consider Palestinians as worthy of rights. To the degree that there are real contradictions between Israel and the U.S., it is because that while the U.S. cannot do without the Jewish state, a reliable outpost in an increasingly volatile region, the U.S. is also concerned with the regional stability that Israel often endangers. For the U.S. and the EU, Sharon’s memorial – where they hailed this mass murderer as a “man of peace” – was an occasion to gently nudge the Israeli government toward the revival of the “peace process”.

This was unwelcome for many Israelis. Only a few thousand came to his funeral. Many hated Sharon. Some of them were embarrassed by his naked, joyful brutality, even though they cannot imagine an acceptable alternative to the Jewish state. Others, especially the so-called national religious movement, considered him a traitor. As much as they clash, both currents operate within the limits of the interests of the larger settler state. That’s why a sober-minded, secular Zionist like Sharon championed crazed Jewish religious fanatics when that served Israel’s goals.

The concept of a multi-national, non-religious state once championed by the PLO has been blasted off today’s political landscape, in no small due to Sharon and the policies he represented. He did his part – under the wing of the U.S., of course – to create the conditions, at times deliberately, in which Islamic fundamentalism is thrusting itself to the forefront of the struggle against Zionism.

At the memorial for Sharon, the present Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “Your memory will be part of this nation forever.” That’s true: Sharon’s criminal deeds were totally consistent with the criminality of the Zionist project, and will always be synonymous with Israel and the imperialist powers it serves.

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The inquest verdict on Tottenham’s Mark Duggan
On the “Lawful Killing” of an unarmed man, and the impossibility of reforming a system

On Wednesday 8 January, after three months of testimony, the verdict finally came in from the jury in the coroner’s inquest into the death of Mark Duggan – the 29 year old Black man whose killing at the hands of London’s Metropolitan police in August 2011 set off the biggest rebellion in the UK in a generation. The verdict: “lawful killing”. People expressed shock in North London’s Tottenham district, the inner city neighbourhood where Duggan lived and where the rebellion kicked off, and around the country. There had been a widespread sense that foul play was involved in Duggan’s death, that the police were hiding something – so how could this not come out after three months of evidence?

In a sense something of the truth did surface when you take a look at the rest of the jury’s verdict – and this shows a lot about how the system of criminal justice functions in the world’s oldest bourgeois democracy. The jury had four findings of fact: first, that Duggan’s death at the hands of the police was a “lawful killing”, but second, that Duggan was unarmed at the time he was gunned down. But how can a killing possibly be “lawful” when armed police shoot down an unarmed man in the street!?

What this seemingly absurd conclusion reveals is that first, the British authorities were fiercely determined to ensure that this case served their continuing efforts to take revenge for the mass 2011 revolt against their system no matter what, and second, that they were going to protect the front-line enforcers of that system, the elite firearms squad that shot down Duggan, at all costs. This is reflected in what the jury concluded, and what they didn’t conclude, in reaching their verdict.

In August 2011 when Duggan was gunned down the authorities immediately issued a statement claiming that Duggan had fired on them as he emerged from the taxi that police cars had “hard-stopped”, and that their officers had only killed him in self-defence. This claim resounded through the media for 24 hours until due to repeated testimony to the contrary it finally came out that Duggan had never even fired a shot, and that the gun he was supposedly firing was found 15 or 20 feet away from his body. The fact that the authorities had lied so blatantly was widely seen as one more sign that they were covering up the cold-blooded execution of yet another young Black man.

But the police maintained the claim that they fired in self defense, so a central question facing the coroner’s jury was, how did the gun get where it was? The explanation in line with the police story was that Duggan had gotten out of the taxi, gun in hand, and then when shot must have thrown it in his death throes. Leaving aside how improbable it is that when hard-stopped by police cars with a total of 31 policemen surrounding you anyone would get out of their car brandishing a gun, the problem with this is that, 1) all the witnesses other than the cop who shot him said Duggan did not have a gun in his hands when he got out of the taxi, including the testimony of the taxi driver and several bystanders, and 2) there was no forensic evidence showing that Duggan had ever even touched the gun.

But there was another possible explanation: several witnesses testified that they saw a police officer go into the car, rummage around, then walk directly to the back of the fence where the gun was found shortly afterwards. This pointed to a version of the “throw-down” weapon which is known to be frequently used by cops in the US when they shoot someone who’s unarmed. But to accept this version the jury would have had to go up against a tremendous amount of pressure and prejudice, including systematic attempts to glorify the “brave” work of the firearms specialist unit and to undermine the credibility of the evidence given by bystanders, and the jurors would have been forced to conclude that at least two members of the elite firearms specialist unit – the shooter and the cop who allegedly took the gun and planted it behind the fence – conspired to cover up a blatant murder.

This was clearly a step too far for the jurors – but it’s what is widely believed by millions, including many who’ve seen the workings of British justice from the wrong end of the police baton. And it’s totally consistent with the exposure of the systematic lying that has characterised other police murders, such as that of the Brazilian youth Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, when police claimed that he’d acted suspiciously in so many ways that they’d been forced to conclude he was a “terrorist” – which was later established to be a tissue of lies.

The jurors instead concluded by an 8-2 vote that Duggan got out of the car and immediately threw the gun over the fence and then was subsequently shot down by the police while unarmed. This finding flies in the face of the witness testimony and the forensic evidence – but it is the “least unbelievable” of the versions that let the cops off the hook and it avoids coming to a conclusion that most of the jurors would undoubtedly have found to be deeply disturbing.

The announcement of the verdict on Wednesday was met with anguished cries and outrage by the dozens of family and friends who had gathered at the Coroner’s Court. Duggan’s brother said that the family “had come for justice, but all we’ve gotten is injustice” – his aunt, Carol Duggan, cried out “No peace, no justice”. The efforts of the Met’s Assistant Police Commissioner to justify the verdict on the court steps were drowned out by cries of “murderers, murderers”, and the police immediately put hundreds of riot squad police on full alert in Tottenham and around London.

The stepped-up police presence was accompanied by a frenzied media attack justifying or “explaining” the verdict – including vicious attacks on Duggan himself, with the Daily Mail for instance headlining its coverage with talk of the “thug whose death sparked riots” – as if when the police gun down an unarmed man it’s alright so long as you can later establish his disreputable character. This evoked comparison with the way that the American media tried to use character assassination of Trayvon Martin in Florida to justify his murder at the hands of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman.

To understand how such an improbable verdict could be reached by the British courts, it is important to put it into the context of what has happened since the 2011 rebellions. The British ruling class was shocked and thrown on the defensive by the mass fury that exploded from the “lower depths” of its class order, as the rebellion shined a spotlight on the deprivation and misery that are daily life for millions. The rebellion grew stronger and spread like wildfire from day to day over three days, from Tottenham through London’s inner city neighbourhoods and then to much of England – clearly showing the fury seething just below the surface of the existing social order – before finally burning out amidst massive police repression and heavy rain.

The British ruling class immediately closed ranks, from Labour to Tory, in a campaign of retaliation. Participants in the rebellion have been ruthlessly hunted down and punished – over 5000 have been arrested in the last two and a half years, and over 3000 imprisoned, the vast majority of them based on CCTV footage long after the events. Even today, two and a half years later, Scotland Yard is continuing to issue new arrest warrants using CCTV images and face recognition technology.

Quite a few young people were incarcerated for 2 or 3 years for nothing more than taking soda pop or candy from convenience stores looted during the rebellion, and one young man who, in a state of inebriation, put up a call on his Facebook page to gather and “riot” the next day, but who never even left his flat – with not a single person showing up in answer to his call except the police – was condemned to 4 years – longer than the sentence given to many convicted of rape in the UK. The severity of the sentences was, and was meant to be, shocking, but was aggressively justified by British justices as warranted due to the “organised character” of the rebellion.

The rebellion inspired plays, films, poetry and music, many of these produced by Black radicals and campaigners against “stop and search” and racism. Some, like the documentary film Riots Reframed, focused on repudiating the efforts of the media and politicians to portray rebels as “mindless thugs”, “hooligans” and so on – showing instead the harsh life of the “underclass”, the limited choices they face and the daily brutality they endure at the hands of the system’s enforcers. Others like the “spoken evidence” play The Riots, which played to sold-out houses in Tottenham for several weeks, tried to give a more accurate picture of the actual events that transpired during the three days in contrast to media efforts to spotlight instances when masses were attacked by participants in the rebellion.

This battle brought to the surface major faultlines in British society and exposed the real role of its institutions – the mass media bared its fangs as a propaganda organ for the capitalist state, parties like Labour came out forcefully for brutal repression of the marginalised youth, social-democratic organs like the Guardian wrung their hands and “explained” the problem as “excesses” that needed to be “reformed”. And on the other side, tens of thousands of youth demonstrated their willingness to take enormous risks to stand up against the frontline enforcers of the system, with gang truces being called in an effort to forge unity against what was perceived as the bigger enemy. The eruption even won sympathy from many among the middle strata, which led to a great debate throughout the country about the real source of what the youth face. This battle also gave a brief glimpse of the potential for forging a revolutionary force for the overthrow of the existing system – not, it is true, as the youth, or anyone else, are today, but forged out of the fury seething just below the surface that burst forth from those with no stake in the existing society, in the realignment that eruption provoked so immediately from broader social strata, and in the clarity it brought about the real role of all these different forces.

How did the organised Marxist and “revolutionary” forces in the UK fare In the light of all this? Miserably. The largest of the so-called Marxist parties on the Left, the Socialist Workers Party, argued that “riots” like this, while caused by the inequities of the British social order, were ultimately ineffectual and that what was needed was instead …. an organised revolutionary onslaught against the existing powers?! Dream on – no, far from that, the SWP concluded that the “riot” pointed to the need for …. an “organised labour movement” – in other words, more of the trade unionism and economist reformism that has long characterised the Marxist forces in the UK, and which time and again winds up sucking up the revolutionary energy of the masses and then being sucked into Labour’s wake. The “labour movement” is still a hallowed term in the land where Marx laid the foundations of the communist revolution.

Once again, following the inquest verdict, the police commissioners are promising reform – such as having the firearms specialist unit wear “body cameras” – and from Prime Minister David Cameron on down politicians and pundits are demanding that any discontent with the verdict must go through the “proper channels” – in other words, further investigations by this or that official body, in particular the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The widespread nickname it’s been given – the Independent Police Cover-ups Commission – is indicative of just what can be expected from that body.

Inquest, a documentary put out by a local NGO, showed that of 300 deaths in police custody in the UK over slightly over a decade, not one cop has ever been successfully prosecuted for a killing. In a dozen rulings in coroner’s inquests, it has even proved possible to obtain a finding that someone who died while in police custody was a victim of an “unlawful killing” – findings that were widely hailed as showing “the system works” – yet even in these dozen cases, when the victim was inside a police station entirely under the control of the police, not a single policeman has been prosecuted successfully.

So in conclusion we would like to ask: if this case – in which the jury has ruled the killing of someone “lawful” even though it accepts that the person was not armed, and after a rebellion of hundreds of thousands delivering the verdict of the masses on Duggan’s murder, and with everything that has ensued since then – if this doesn’t show the impossibility of reforming this system, then what do you need to convince you of this?

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