Two boats are a day and a half from Gaza, and plan to arrive at daylight

Democracy Now! is covering the latest Gaza flotilla, with exclusive video coverage from Jihan Hafiz, who is aboard the Canadian boat, the Tahrir. And here is a portion of Amy Goodman’s conversation with Hafiz, one of five journalists on the boat.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we can hear you fine. Can you tell us the latest report from where you are in international waters? You’re on the Tahrir, the Canadian boat. The other boat that is alongside of you, the Irish boat—have you made contact yet? And what are your plans, the group’s plans, on the two boats at this point?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes, for the first time today, actually since this trip was planned, the delegations from the Canadian boat were able to make physical contact with the Irish boat. As we’ve been sailing, it’s been—the seas—the waters have been very rough here. So they haven’t been able to board the boat, and we haven’t been able to board their vessel. However, the plan is to continue the voyage, to continue this voyage to Gaza, regardless of the threats coming from the Israeli government. And in fact, both teams met today to hold meetings with the journalists and delegates on board to discuss a strategy for when the Israelis do intercept the boat, if they intercept the boat, and what will take place from there.

We’re about 120—excuse me, 150 to 170 kilometers off the coast of Gaza. It will take us about another day and a half to get there.

As I mentioned in the report, the activists and the organizers of both flotillas do not want to reach Gaza’s borders, at least the territorial region, until daylight. They do not want to have a similar situation to what happened to the Mavi Marmara. That boat was attacked in the evening. And they want to avoid any kind of misperception about violence, if violence is committed. As mentioned in the report, as well, there’s also a commitment to nonviolent resistance. There was training for that today on the boats to make sure that if we do come in contact with the Israelis, there will be no confrontation from those on either boats. Aside from that, the spirits have been very high.

AMY GOODMAN: Jihan, is there a boat that is following you?

JIHAN HAFIZ: At the moment, there is not. There was—last night, up until 4:00 in the morning, on our side, there was an unidentified boat that was following us. The only other boat that followed us out of international waters was the Turkish coast guard. So, from the boat, we all presumed it was the Turkish coast guard, but there’s no longer anyone following us. It’s only the Irish boat and the Canadian in open waters.

AMY GOODMAN: Jihan, we—you took us on a tour of the boat you are on, the Tahrir, and we met some of the activists on board—Canadian, Australian, there’s a U.S. citizen on board, as well. Who’s on the Irish boat?

JIHAN HAFIZ: These are solely Irish delegates. Some of them are former members of parliament. We haven’t been able to sit down and speak with them, but we do know that there are three to five on board who are former members of parliament. Also, they’re a group that has been making—that has continuously made efforts, through different initiatives, to reach Gaza. And we haven’t been able to speak with them, but they have been to Gaza a number of times before, some of the delegates. And they planned this on their own, in close coordination with the steering committee here. However, we have not been in touch with them at all. They’ve sort of been on their own in this journey, mainly because of the waters, but also because of the secrecy of the planning of this. So they’re mainly—it’s mainly an Irish delegation.

I also want to mention that the Canadian boat was restricted to 12 people. Of the 36 who were meant to come along on the Tahrir, the Canadian boat, only 12 were allowed on, whereas the Irish boat, they only allowed them to have 12 on, but they snuck some people on their boat. And so, the entire Irish delegation that came to Turkey to take this—to make this voyage to Gaza is present, and they’re heading in that direction now. We have—supporters from this boat are still in Turkey. Some returned home, and they’re working on—they’re working on logistical work, as well as media work, to communicate with people on the boat. The internet hasn’t been—hasn’t been precise at times. It goes out every now and then. But there is a lot of international support from the organizations represented on this boat, as well as the Irish one, including a number of committees around the world that are supporting what these Freedom Waves to Gaza are: essentially, an extension of the Free Gaza movement, which is a movement to break the siege by any means, at any costs.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there fear on board your boat, the Tahrir, the Canadian boat that you’re covering? There are 12 people on board the boat, is that right? The captain, six activists and five journalists?

JIHAN HAFIZ: Yes. There is concern. I wouldn’t say “fear.” I think people here are defiant, in that they believe in what they’re doing, and they believe that what they’re doing is peaceful and that they will—even if there is any kind of—if the Israelis do board the boat or intercept the boat, there will not be any resistance, any violent confrontation from any of the activists here. So the concern is mainly losing—losing a lot of their equipment.

( / 03.11.2011)

Israeli Warships Move Against Surprise Gaza Aid Flotilla

Israeli warships are on the move tonight, preparing to attack a pair of aid vessels from Ireland and Canada which are attempting to deliver medical supplies to the Gaza Strip, insisting they will “take whatever measures will be necessary” to prevent the ships from reaching Gaza.

Israeli officials were quick to condemn the move as a “provocation” and claimed that an attempt to deliver aid amounted to a “deplorable propaganda exercise.” The ships are currently in international waters.

The ships left from the Turkish port of Fethiye today, and were supposed to sail to Rhodes, according to Turkish officials. Instead the ships are heading to Gaza, with 19 activists and five journalists between them.

The sail was something of a surprise and activists from the two ships said they deliberately kept a low profile until reaching international waters, fearing that they would be detained in port or sabotaged like previous ships.


( / 03.11.2011)

Palestine news 03.11.2011

#Dublin EMERGENCY DEMO in support of #FreedomWaves – End the Siege of #Gaza, FRI 4 NOV, 6PM, Spire… #flotilla #palestine

Video Showing IOA Destroying electricity lights/ lines – #Occupation #Crimes #HumanRights #Palestine

Thank you all for your concern and your vigilance. Everyone on board both ships is grateful for your support of #FreedomWaves

No additional info to confirm re: boat trailing. We remain on course to Gaza. We’ll strive to update w/ confirmed info only.

Al-Jazeera English: Israel to ‘prevent’ aid ships reaching #Gaza :

a sorry state of affairs ! RT @ibnezra: Israeli attacks on #flotillaships usually occur at night and in international waters.

Conflicting info on #Saoirse – Some say radio silence in effect, others say boat radioed that Israeli warships have faded into distance.

#2ALL The #FreedomWaves are being trailed by zioboats .. so we need all help now to RT! U can use also… for tweets to RT

important news from irish boat: 2 israeli warships shadowing saoirse, 2 spotter planes overhead #FreedomWaves

#Palestine – Gaza: Breaking via @huwaidaarraf: Important news from Irish boat: 2 israeli warships shadowing.

Israel to ‘prevent’ aid ships reaching Gaza

Israeli navy says it will stop two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists from reaching blockaded territory.

Israel has announced that its navy will attempt to stop two boats carrying pro-Palestinian activists bound for the Gaza Strip, in the latest attempt by activists to break the four-year Israeli blockade against the territory.

The Israeli military spokesman’s office said the country’s navy was “prepared to contact” the vessels and had “completed the necessary preparations in order to prevent them from reaching the Gaza Strip”.

The Canadian boat Tahrir and the Irish boat MV Saoirse left the port of Fethiye in southwest Turkey on Wednesday after Turkish authorities gave them permission to sail to the Greek island of Rhodes.

Click for map of ships and passenger details


Al Jazeera’s Casey Kauffman, on board one of the ships, said that in total it would be a 50-hour journey, and they were currently one-fifth of the way there.

“Everyone on the boat wants to get to Gaza,” he said, adding that while the activists are prepared for the possibility of an Israeli interception, the initiative will not be wasted.

“It will still bring attention to the situation in Gaza, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military official, would not say how the boats might be stopped, saying only “we will have to assess and see if we are facing violent passengers.”

Describing their journey as a “provocation”, she said Israel would offer to unload any aid supplies on board and deliver them to Gaza.

Sailing under the flag of the Comoros Islands, the Tahrir is carrying six activists, a captain and five journalists.

The Saoirse – sailing under the US flag – has 12 Irish nationals on board, none of whom are journalists.

‘Support from Turkish society’

David Heap, a member of the steering committee on board the Tahrir, told Al Jazeera that the activists chose to leave from Fethiye because of the strained relations between Turkey and Israel.

“The Turkish government has been creating more distance from Israel diplomatically and we know there is support from Turkish society for what we are doing.

“Our judgment was that the Turkish state would not interfere with us if we didn’t make too much of a public issue of our plan to depart from there,” Heap told Al Jazeera.

Freedom Waves
A Canadian boat to Gaza

History of Israeli blockade on Gaza

In Quotes: Shalit and the siege

Map: ‘Freedom Waves’


It will take at least a couple of days before the boats reach the Palestinian waters of the Gaza Strip, where they expect to be approached by the Israeli navy.

“We have some distance to cover between where we are now and Palestinian territorial waters of Gaza.

“Obviously we are going to avoid going through Israeli territorial waters.

“Our plan is to go directly from international waters into the territorial waters of Gaza – within a couple of days.

The activists say the new attempt the break the siege on the Gaza Strip is part of a campaign they call “freedom waves”, implying that more such efforts will follow.

Both ships were part of previous attempts to break the siege on the Gaza Strip that was stalled when the Greek government refused to let a flotilla leave from its shores in July this year.

The Tahrir, the larger ship of the two, was intercepted by the Greek coast guard with more than 30 pro-Palestinian activists onboard.

Two of them were detained for defying Greece’s ban on setting sail to Gaza. The vessel was stopped about 10 minutes after it left port on the island of Crete.

The Irish boat allegedly suffered damage when it was sabotaged while waiting to join the flotilla from Turkish waters. The ship has since been repaired and kept in dry-dock in Turkey.

( / 03.11.2011)

President Obama urges Bosnian leaders not to support Palestinian bid at UN

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — President Barack Obama has sent a letter to Bosnian leaders urging them not to support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. Security Council, authorities said Thursday.

Bosnia has a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, and its three-member presidency is split on the issue. The Bosniak supports the Palestinians, the Serb is pro-Israeli and the Croat has not made his position clear. Without unanimity, Bosnia must abstain, which counts as a ‘no’ at the Security Council.

As a result, the country has become the focal point of lobbying efforts by Israelis, Palestinians and others with a stake in the outcome of the vote, which may come Nov. 11. The Palestinians claim they have secured eight of nine required votes for a majority on the council, while the U.S. has promised a veto.

According to a statement from the cabinet of the Serb member of the presidency, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker personally handed over Obama’s letter on Wednesday.

“The stand of the U.S. government is that the Palestinian effort on statehood in the U.N. and other places is not going to achieve what we want to see for both the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Middle East,” U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Patrick Moon said. “The solution we all want to see will be achieved through a negotiated settlement.”

The Palestinians are trying to rally nine votes in part to trigger the American veto, believing that would give them a moral victory by placing the U.S. at odds with most of the international community.

The Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, said Thursday that he has been locally and internationally criticized for not supporting the Palestinian bid, but that he is just “acting in the interest of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina … as well as in the interest of the Jewish people, the Palestinians and the peace in the Middle East.”

He said he believes a solution can only be found in a Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and that Reeker told him the U.S. “appreciates his position.”

With peace talks stalled for the past three years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the Security Council in September to admit Palestine as a full member state. The Palestinians say that although any vote will not end Israel’s occupation of lands they claim, they believe a strong international endorsement would boost their position in future negotiations.

Last week, the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers visited Bosnia to argue their sides, but neither the Bosniak nor Serb presidents changed stances.

( / 03.11.2011)

Israeli leaders’ price tag against the Palestinians

This price tag meted out by the forum of eight is not much different than the settlers’ price tag; it’s violent, uncontrolled and seeks vengeance.

What, for heaven’s sake, is so terrible about Palestine being accepted to UNESCO? Why is this considered an “anti-Israeli” step? And in general, what’s so bad about the Palestinians relinquishing terror and going over to the international arena? If Israel were to behave intelligently, it would vote to accept the Palestinians to any respectable international organization.

And if Israel were to behave with integrity, the hollow talk about two states would be translated into support for the Palestinians’ diplomatic moves to achieve that. International recognition of a Palestinian state is the last chance to thwart a one-state solution. It’s also the last chance to preserve the Palestinian Authority’s strength and prevent Hamas from taking over instead. Israel should support that enthusiastically.

If the U.S.-led international community that supports Israel were to act with integrity and wisdom, it too would welcome the Palestinians’ move. We’re talking about nothing less than a friendly step, the best way to ensure Israel’s future as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But instead, the Americans and Israelis are meting out punishment and the Palestinians are being punished. It’s doubtful whether they received such punishment even during the worst days of terrorism. Two world powers, the United States and Israel, are hitting at their pockets and part of Europe has rushed to follow in a scary way.

This might be one of the only examples in history where the occupied country is punished because of its justified and nonviolent struggle to win its freedom, while the violent occupier that continues its settlement enterprise and control by force wins the West’s support. This is the dish Barack Obama’s America is serving up and this is the chaotic situation Israel is leading – stopping assistance to a cultural and scientific organization that has accepted into its ranks a nation fighting for its independence.

It’s interesting how Obama, who until only a short while ago was in favor of freedom, comes to terms with this before he goes to bed at night. It’s interesting how the leaders of Europe, some of whom voted against accepting the Palestinians, explain this to their voters. Muammar Gadhafi was bombed in the name of freedom while they support the continuation of the occupation by Israel, the enemy of freedom, which is thwarting democratic and diplomatic moves aimed at a nation’s liberation.

What’s left for Mahmoud Abbas to do? What can any Palestinian living under the occupation think? They tried for years to sit quietly, waiting for Godot, but Godot didn’t arrive. They tried to fight against the occupation with stones and knives but nothing happened. They tried negotiations, but these dragged on futilely for years and didn’t move them a step forward. They tried cruel suicide bombings but nothing changed. There is no one they can talk to in Jerusalem and nothing to talk about.

Now they are trying to enlist the world, and what do they get in return? A punishment that may yet turn into a death sentence for the PA and the most moderate Palestinian leader there will ever be. It was enough to hear Abbas promise an end to the conflict during an interview on Channel 2 Friday night to understand that. That interview should have reverberated throughout every Israeli household. But instead it was received sourly by the analysts who know everything.

A gang of thugs, the forum of eight senior ministers, decided on the steps to punish the man who dared to act contrary to the desires of the familia. They’re building another 2,000 housing units in the settlements, which are for the first time being characterized as punishment. And they’re stealing the Palestinians’ tax money and canceling some of their leaders’ VIP passes. At least now we know that every apartment in a settlement is a punishment and every settler who lives there is doing so as revenge.

The Palestinian leaders will also know that their relative and privileged freedom of movement was nothing more than a wretched and insulting bone thrown to them by the occupying power, in return for their collaboration. If they collaborate, they’ll get; if they don’t, they won’t. If they abduct a soldier, they’ll get; if they go to the United Nations, they’ll be punished.

This price tag meted out by the forum of eight is not much different than the settlers’ price tag. It’s violent, uncontrolled and seeks vengeance. So settlers, you can continue with your price tag because your country is doing the same thing, and in broad daylight.

( / 03.11.2011)

Embassy slams Gaza bid ‘hypocrites’

Human rights activists on board an Irish ship attempting to break the blockade on Gaza have been labelled hypocrites on a publicity stunt.

Former rugby player Trevor Hogan and several politicians are on the MV Saoirse, which is in international waters about 200 miles from Palestine.

The Canadian ship MV Tahrir also set sail as part of the Freedom Waves humanitarian mission. The vessels are carrying 27 passengers from seven countries who hope to reach Gaza on Friday.

Dr Fintan Lane, of the Irish Ship to Gaza group, said the only obstacle in their way was Israel’s military – which last year killed nine Turkish activists taking part in the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza.

The MV Saoirse was also forced to pull out of a flotilla in June after it was damaged while docked in Turkey, which activists claimed was deliberate sabotage by Israel. “The Palestinians living in Gaza want solidarity – not charity,” Dr Lane said. “Our primary goal is to help free Palestinians from their inhumane isolation in what is in effect an open-air prison.”

But the Israeli Embassy in Dublin warned the vessels will be intercepted before reaching Gaza and accused those on board of being “hypocrites on a provocative publicity stunt”.

“If these people care about human rights in the Arab world, why not take a flotilla to Syria, where over 3,000 people have been killed by the regime?” said a spokesman. “If they care about Palestinians, why not speak out against the Hamas regime in Gaza, which represses all dissent and the rights of women and homosexuals?”

Israel maintains it imposed the naval blockade to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas militants and that aid and consumer goods are reaching the area through Israel and Egypt.

Last year, nine people were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the MV Marmara, a Turkish aid ship trying to break the naval blockade. Each side blamed the other for the violence.

A UN panel report later blamed Israel, Turkey, and organisers of a Gaza-bound flotilla for the deadly raid. It found the blockade of Gaza was legal but it called the raid on the flotilla “excessive and unreasonable” and the killing of eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American “unacceptable”

( / 03.11.2011)

Egypt ‘will not allow’ new war on Gaza

An Egyptian soldier guards the Gaza-Egypt border

EL-ARISH, Egypt (Ma’an) — Egyptian security officials have expressed concerns after recent violence in Gaza despite Cairo’s efforts to secure a truce between Israel and Palestinian factions.

Security officials said Wednesday that Egypt “will not allow” a renewed Israeli operation against Gaza, in light of changes since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, seen as supportive of Israel.

The Egyptian people refuse to accept Israel’s “wide scale aggression” and the military council and Egyptian security forces would not be able to prevent regular citizens from going toward the border, they said.

Separately, security officials have also said that two Palestinian rockets landed south of Rafah during the latest flare up in violence in which 12 members of Islamic Jihad’s armed wing and an Israeli civilian died.

( / 02.11.2011)

From Tahrir to Gaza: The faces of ‘Freedom Waves’

Michael Coleman, an Australian activist on board the boat Tahrir, a day before it left Turkey en route to Gaza.

FETHIYE, Turkey – “It doesn’t matter what we do for Gaza this month or this year. What matters is how many years we stay with Gaza,” said David Heap, a member of the steering committee of “Tahrir,” a Canadian ship currently headed for the Gaza Strip in a show of solidarity with the besieged Palestinian territory.

His comments came a day before the boat left the Turkish port of Fethiye carrying some 12 people in the most recent attempt to break the siege after Greek authorities prevented a flotilla attempting to depart from that country in July.

The boat’s name easily resonates with Egyptians, who occupied the Cairo square of the same name for 18 days last winter demanding freedom from a three-decade-long oppressive regime. “When the media asks me about the name ‘Tahrir,’ I tell them Tahrir isn’t an Egyptian name or an Arabic name,” Heap said. “Tahrir means liberation and it’s a universal name.”

This idea of the universality of freedom unites the diverse delegations setting sail on the flotilla to break the Israeli siege of Gaza.

Nicole McGrath and Robert Lovelace are a perfect example. Lovelace is a Canadian national who is descended from the native population of Canada, before Europeans arrived. This native population is now often described as economically and politically marginalized. Due to bureaucratic complications in Turkey Lovelace and McGrath were not allowed to be on board the boat, but they still offered their support.

“I am interested in helping the people of Gaza, because at home, many policies are enacted against the Indians [native population] of Canada that are similar [to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians]. The Indians of Canada have experience with settlements, for example. They lost their land, their right to their resources and the government works hard to control them to benefit from their resources,” said Lovelace, a university professor.

“I see a clear intersection with Gaza, and you can’t free yourself and allow others to continue to suffer. Everyone has to be liberated together.”

His wife, McGrath, also sees different struggles for freedom as a united human quest. “All of those struggles are similar in conscience. It’s one system [of oppression]. God knows how long it would take it to fall and it won’t be easy. But it’s in people realizing that it is not working that there is hope,” she said.

As McGrath and Lovelace came from Canada to be on a boat bound to Gaza, Michael Coleman came from the other end of the world. The Sydney, Australia-based youth worker had also tried to break the siege back in July with the Canadian boat sailing from Greece. His story goes back to just after the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident, when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara ship that had set off from Turkey and killed nine activists in international waters. The incident stirred a wave of global fury against Israel and soured its relations with Turkey, a former ally.

Coleman recalls an activist from the flotilla who came to Australia and gave a speech. “At the end, she asked, ‘Who is going on the next flotilla?’ and we all raised our hands,” Coleman said. After that, he and others began collecting money to buy the boat Tahrir.

The boat sailing today from Turkey is a joint venture between Canadian, Australian, Belgian and Danish activists.

Coleman has gone as far as anyone to challenge the siege. In July, when a flotilla was supposed to leave Greece for Gaza, Coleman found himself challenging what he calls “’the outsourcing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza to European countries” by positioning himself in a small boat in front of the Greek coast guard to get in the way of their efforts to stop the Canadian ship from leaving port.

“We were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in [in jail] Greece. Luckily, that [sentence] was suspended. I am more than happy to do it again. We need a chance to get to Gaza and challenge the Israeli blockade, as opposed to challenging its outsourcing to Europe alone,” Coleman said.

Finding a suitable port of departure has been a challenge for the flotillas. “In 2010, the best country for the flotilla to leave from was Greece, but that wasn’t the case in 2011. The eastern Mediterranean is changing,” said Heap.

“If one is leaving in late 2011 or 2012, there would be more countries to choose from, which is good, because it makes it unpredictable for the Israeli forces,” said Heap.

But this diversity of options in the eastern Mediterranean doesn’t mean yet that the flotilla is ready to leave from an Egyptian port. In July, as the Greeks stopped the flotilla from departing, Al-Masry Al-Youm launched a popular initiative inviting the flotilla to set sail from Egypt.

“We were impressed by the call. Today if I am to bet on a country’s civil society, I would bet on Egypt because of its impressive track record,” said Heap. But he believes that Egypt’s revolutionary struggle is still continuing and it is showcased in Egypt sponsoring the blockade itself by making compromises on its decision to open the Rafah border crossing. While in May 2011 the Rafah border crossing was opened for Palestinians, concerns rose about the restrictive nature of this opening as many were denied passage for various reasons.

Heap, who protested in Tahrir Square in 2009 with a group of international activists against the Egyptian government’s prevention of the Gaza Freedom March to cross into Gaza via Rafah, remains hopeful. He recalls the oppressive security apparatus of the Mubarak regime, and says he is not surprised that Egyptians revolted against it a year later.

“You don’t stop the dependence of a military with decades of billions of dollars in aid from the United States. We see a tug of war between the military and the people. But we are rather optimistic,” Heap said.

( / 02.11.2011)

Syria, Assad and the right-wing connection

West remains extremely reluctant to “protect civilians” being killed by the government in Syria.

Since the very beginning of the Arab uprisings earlier this year, the leaders of dictatorial governments at the centre of the storms across the region have raised the spectre of “Islamists” in the struggle to stay in power. “We’re the best you’re going to get,” is the message. Initially, this was also the mantra of some governments in the West, fearful that after years of supporting dictators in the name of “stability”, a euphemism for “we can’t let politically adroit Muslims take control”, Western governments and their allies found themselves faced with the possibility of having to deal with or worse, actually back, Muslim Brotherhood-led regimes. After years of touting democratic values around the Middle East, the awful thought dawned on Washington and London that the rejection of the democratic will of the Palestinians in 2006 which brought Hamas to power couldn’t be repeated in Tunisia, Egypt and… Well, Libya is another matter; it has oil, so NATO bombers were wheeled out to “protect civilians”.

Syria is another awkward case; no oil or other minerals worth committing the lives of NATO troops to defend, and no real friend in President Basher Al-Assad, a dictator marginally more benign than his late father but a dictator nonetheless. Calls for Western Libya-style intervention have so far been ignored, despite the slaughter of thousands of anti-regime protestors calling for free and fair democratic elections. Why is this so? Articles in the right-wing Telegraph group newspapers over the past few days give us a clue as to why the West remains extremely reluctant to “protect civilians” being killed by the government in Syria in stark contrast to the way NATO rushed to bomb the Gaddafi regime in Libya into submission.

The articles have been written by arguably the most aggressively anti-Muslim and anti-Islamist journalist writing in Britain today. Andrew Gilligan was granted what is trumpeted as Bashar Al-Assad’s “first interview with a Western journalist since Syria’s seven-month uprising began”; an “exclusive interview”, in fact. That alone should raise some eyebrows; what on earth is Assad doing, giving such a scoop to a right-wing pro-Israel newspaper group by speaking to such an anti-Muslim hack?

Scrutinise Gilligan’s articles – go on, force yourself – and there it is, buried deep in the text: “He [Bashar Al-Assad] described the uprising as a ‘struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism]’, adding: ‘We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them.'” Clearly, this is a woeful attempt to misrepresent the Syrian opposition which today includes all forces across the political divide. It is the familiar refrain from earlier in the Arab Spring which has been discredited everywhere apart from Israel, with even the US State Department acknowledging that it is more than likely going to have to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in some capacity in Egypt; it is also the reason why Israel, alone among with the Westernised democracies, has opposed freedom and democracy for its Arab neighbours. The dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad may not be ideal, but the alternative is much worse. That’s the line of thinking in Tel Aviv, which maintains an uneasy unofficial peace with Syria even though Israel occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. It suits both countries to maintain the status quo. Assad can posture as the Arab hard man and Israel can use him as the regional bogey in bed with Iran in order to squeeze yet more military aid out of hard-pressed American taxpayers. In the strange world of Middle East diplomacy, Israel’s President Shimon Peres has called for new talks with Damascus “without preconditions”. According to Haaretz newspaper, he refused to elaborate on this. The Palestinians, however, can teach Assad a thing or two about the futility of talks with Israel.

Gilligan comes across slightly awestruck at Assad’s apparent ordinariness. He was not the kind of Arab dictator you expect to meet, in difficult circumstances surrounded by “officials, flunkies and state TV cameras”. He has a “modest lifestyle” in a “normal – albeit guarded – street”. Assad, claims Gilligan, “was quite different” to other Arab leaders. So much so, that Gilligan was able to call him a “nerd” and the president “laughed out loud”.

Syria, said Gilligan, is “neither religiously nor ethnically homogeneous” and minorities feel threatened that reform may be allowed to go unchecked: “On Thursday night, the beginning of the Muslim weekend, Damascus’s Old City was heaving with people having a good time. Men and women were mixing freely. Alcohol was widely available. A pair of Christian Orthodox priests, in their long cassocks, walked through the crowded alleys, and small Christian shrines were tucked away in the corners. The regime is successfully pushing the message that all this is at risk. ‘I don’t like Assad, but I am worried that what follows could be worse,’ said one of the partygoers.” It looks as if Gilligan agrees; he has no qualms about “successfully pushing” the right of the majority in Britain to impose its will on minorities, especially Muslims, but he is reluctant to comment on the rule of the Sunni majority in Syria by a secular minority. The sub-text is clear; tolerance, respect for others and “people having a good time” is under threat if we allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take power in open elections. Better have limited reform under a president who wears jeans, speaks “perfect” English and – hey, he’s one of us! – “lived for two years in London”.

The question has to be asked, therefore, if the Arab Spring has run its course in Western eyes. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said military action in Syria is “out of the question” and insists that the Alliance “has no intention [to intervene] whatsoever”. If that is the case, with no prospect of a NATO-imposed safe zone in Syria to protect civilians from the excesses of Assad’s troops, we must prepare ourselves for the international rehabilitation of the Syrian president. He’s bad, but not that bad seems to be the early message conveyed by Gilligan in the Telegraph, a media organ that is as unlikely to publish anything remotely unacceptable to Israel as it is to publish anything remotely agreeable about the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, therefore, may well be the one Arab dictator that the West cannot afford to lose; the repercussions from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby would be far too much for Western politicians to bear.

( / 02.11.2011)