The Burgas Bombing

Israeli tourists were killed today in a bomb attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. We don’t know how many were killed yet – at least three, but there are reports of up to seven fatalities with 20 wounded. We don’t know for sure how the bombing was carried out, though initial reports suggest that either a suicide bomber carrying a backpack boarded the bus and exploded, or there was a bomb placed in the luggage compartment.

And, of course, we don’t know who was responsible. It could be far-Rightists, though they don’t usually use suicide bombers. It could be an al Qaeda-linked bomber or a home-grown Salafi-Jihadi.

But the biggest suspicion has to be on Hezbollah and Iran. Iran has, in recent weeks, launched or almost launched terrorist attacks against Israelis in India, Thailand, GeorgiaAzerbaijan and Kenya. A Hezbollah operative was stopped planning an attack in Cyprus earlier this week. Today is the 18th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, a Hezbollah operation jointly organised by Iran.

The thing is, Hezbollah is a member of the Government of Lebanon. Iran is a sovereign state. These aren’t guys hiding in caves in Afghanistan. We know where they are and who they are.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. An attack on tourists – teenagers – like this is an Act of War. It’s not 1994 any more. All countries, and especially EU countries, will have to take real steps against Iran, Hezbollah and possibly even Lebanon if there is good evidence that they’re behind it. Can Bulgarian athletes just compete against Iranians in the Olympics a couple of weeks after they bombed their country? Can EU Governments sit in international forums like it’s business as usual? Can they allow Iranian and Lebanese embassies to remain anywhere in the Western world?

Enough. No country can ignore this anymore. Yes, this was an attack on Jews and Israelis and Jews and Israelis should respond to it. I’m sure the Israeli Government will find ways of responding, whether we find out about them or not. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also an attack on Bulgaria, Europe and the West as a whole. We shouldn’t give anyone a free pass for an act of war just because they were aiming for Jews.

Thoughts on the Arab revolutions

A few thoughts after sitting in a panel discussion on the Arab revolutions, with speakers from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, the USA and Israel, as part of the Israeli Presidential Conference.


Though Jordan isn’t undergoing a violent revolution (or a violent repression of a peaceful revolution), there are now weekly protests against the King and Government. If and when Syria falls, the pressure on the Jordanian regime will become irresistible. Democracy is coming to Jordan.

And we have to ask what that means, because Jordan has a majority-Palestinian population. What would a democratic Jordan with a Palestinian majority mean for the peace process and the Israeli – Palestinian conflict?

At the height of the Arab Spring last year, I asked this question to people in the UK’s Foreign Office. I got two reactions: first, anger. “Are you saying that Jordan is Palestine?”. I wasn’t. And then denial “we don’t believe that Palestinians would vote in a democratic Jordan. That would be abandoning their own aspirations”. To which my only response was “hmm”.


Everyone here now agrees that the fall of Assad is now in Israel’s strategic interest – even if the new Syrian government is a belligerent Islamist regime. The end of Assad would massively cut Iran’s ability to project to power and would cripple Hizballah. This is new; a year ago, there were many Israeli commentators who preferred the devil they knew. Despite all this, there’s a feeling that Israel can’t and shouldn’t do anything to intervene in Syria.

The Bigger Picture

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were originally triggered by economic factors: unemployment, the price of food and fuel, and lack of economic development. They morphed into anti-regime protests that succeeded. But the underlying triggers – prices, unemployment, investment – are still there. In fact, the instability in these economies is likely to worsen all of these problems.

The global financial crisis isn’t going away. What happens in a year’s time when their standards of living are continuing to fall? Maybe they will be happier because they are free, but Maslow might remind us that you can’t eat a ballot slip. Unless political freedom is combined with economic improvement, the future could be very frightening.

Get the picture?

Avi Mayer called it first, when he asked if the photo below was genuine.

Photo tweeted by @KhuloodBadawi

He guessed it wasn’t.

Over the last few days, hundreds of increasingly sophisticated rockets have been fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The rockets have been able to reach large cities like Ashdod, Beer Sheva and even Gedera, only 25 miles south of Tel Aviv proper. Most of those have been shot down by the Iron Dome system, an anti-missile defence system that actually works. Some, inevitably, have got through. A rocket hit a school yesterday, but luckily it was empty, all students in south-central Israel told to stay home to keep them safe.

Israel’s response has actually been pretty restrained – hitting the small rocket crews from Islamic Jihad and the PRC and operational leaders. There had been no reports of a girl being killed.

Avi found some websites using the picture in 2009, which was enough to prove that it didn’t happen yesterday.

I put the photo into Google Image Search, which brought up a lot of 2008 sites claiming that the girl was Iraqi, a victim of a white phosphorus attack by the US on Fallujah in 2004. I tweeted this:

So I kept digging. Playing with the time-window, I could find no record of the photo before 2006, and several in August 2006, which suggested that this might the time it was taken. Eventually I found an left-wing Israeli website called Mahsom. The photo was captioned:

הילדה רג’א אבו שעבאן בת ה-3 נהרגה בידי הצבא ב-9 באוגוסט. צילום: סוכנות ופא

which translates as:

The girl Raja Abu Shaban, aged 3, killed by the [Israeli] army on the 9th of August. Photo: WAFA

This was the only source that named the girl, so it seemed to be genuine. But to double-check, I googled “Raja Abu Shaban” in English to see what came up. One of the first hits was this Little Green Footballs post, from August 2006, which revealed that AP and Reuters had retracted their stories about the poor girl.

AP published the following note:

EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A Relative carries the body of Rajaa Abu Shaban, 5, into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006. On Thursday, doctors said that the 5-year-old Palestinian girl initially believed to have been killed by an Israeli military strike Wednesday apparently died after sustaining head injuries during a fall from a swing in the same area shortly before the strike.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

I passed on my info to Avi

He found a similar note from Reuters, including their photo recall note. And then he spread the word to his 4000 followers. He forced Twitter user @ManaraRam, who had spread the photo into admitting it was false. And then the blogs picked up on it – the IDF’s official blog and the Times of Israel. Honest Reporting traced the original tweet to a UN employee.

Some thoughts on the Twitterstorm:

First, perhaps I’m naive, but I try to follow the advice of the sage Yehoshua ben Prachia, who used to say:

“הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות”

“Judge every person favourably”

Or perhaps I’m ultra-cynical, because I also do my best to live by Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

My point is that I don’t assume the people who used these incorrect photos were deliberately lying. Maybe they made a mistake with their image searches, or didn’t check dates properly. That doesn’t mean I rule out malice absolutely, but I don’t assume it. People are generally quite capable of screwing up.

That said, no doubt there are some anti-Israel campaigners who would say “Well, this might not be an actual photo, but I’m sure it reflects the essential truth about what’s going on”. Or something. In fact, a load of them have answered in just such a predictable way. This article by Lynette Nusbacher wisely notes:

The IDF Spokesman blog says that the photos have been proven false.  False is, in context, irrelevant.  The picture has spoken its thousand words, and the one word “false” is not an adequate response.

Dr Nusbacher is partly wrong; “false” is not irrelevant, and it’s important to expose distortions when they appear. Bur she’s also right to note that the damage is done, and the wider narrative that the picture re-enforces is already well-established. Despite hundreds of rockets, the international media narrative has been “Israel hits Gaza”.

Knocking down false photos isn’t nearly enough. But it’s a start.

Why Mahmoud Abbas is like Yoko Ono

Is Mahmoud Abbas the new Yoko Ono? I ask because it seems very much like he’s trying to break up the Middle East’s very own Fab Four.

In 2002, roughly 18 months after the start of the Second Intifada, the USA, European Union, Russia and the United Nations came together to form the Quartet on the Middle East. It quickly released the “Roadmap to peace”, which was eventually accepted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority as the process that should be followed to reach a peace deal. The Quartet has been the main mediator in the Peace Process since then, the custodian of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In 2007, Tony Blair became the Quartet’s representative, and has generally been praised by the Israeli Government and the PA for the work that he’s done in the region.

But bilateralism isn’t fashionable anymore. For the last 18 months or so, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been running a unilateral track to statehood – first trying to get all those States that recognised Palestine in the 1980s (the NAM and ex-Eastern Bloc) to reiterate their recognition, then getting the South American states to add their names, and having an unsuccesful stab in Europe too.

After this, Abbas announced that he would seek full UN member state status for Palestine.

The Quartet generally opposes unilateral steps by any side. It tried to persuade the PA not to go to the UN and instead return to talks with Israel without preconditions. It also put pressure on Israel to meet the PA’s preconditions anyway – specifically, to stop construction in settlements. Following Abbas’ application to the Security Council for recognition and membership for Palestine, the Quartet also published a formula for restarting talks between Israel and the PA.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the formula and broadly accepted the terms – albeit with reservations.

It’s pretty clear now that Abbas prefers the unilateral route, which has won him praise in the Arab world for standing up to the USA and strengthened him domestically.

So, suddenly there have been a series of attacks on the Quartet from the PA. First a couple of weeks ago, PA-run newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah called Tony Blair a liar, the “godfather of wars on the Arabs, Muslims and weak peoples” and a US lackey.

Then the PA said the terms of the Quartet statement were ‘biased’ in favour of Israel. Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said that “The Quartet has lost its credibility” and that Tony Blair is a

“servant of the Israeli government” [who is] “no longer welcome in Ramallah. We prefer not to see him here again.”

The PA leaked that they were considering formally asking for Tony Blair to be fired. And today, Fatah Central Committee member Mohammed Ishtayeh said on the radio:

“We do not expect much of the Quartet. There is discontent with its envoy Mr. Tony Blair”

“Our general evaluation of his efforts is that he has become of no use at all. He has developed a large bias in favor of the Israeli side and he has lost a lot of his credibility.”

“We hope the Quartet will reconsider the appointment of this person”

He also attacked the Quartet more generally, saying

“I believe the Quartet needs to work on itself more than anything else”

There are tensions in the Quartet between Russia and the USA over issues like Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish people. The Quartet office run by Tony Blair has helped hold the members together, but knifing Blair could destabilise the whole operation.

I think that’s the whole point. The Egyptian revoltion and Turkish realignment have changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Unilateralism is boosting Abbas and hurting Israel and the US, as well as splitting the EU. From the point of view of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet – with its committment to promoting bilateralism and negotiations – is now in the way. Abbas thinks he can smash the Quartet, and he might be right.

Some legal consequences of UN membership for Palestine

Today the Palestinian Authority’s request to be accepted as a UN member state will be submitted to the Security Council.

So far, this has proved a good tactical move to embarrass Israel. Strategically, though, in the long run it could make life harder for Abbas and the PA. Guy Goodwin-Gil has already pointed out that a succesful bid would mean that the PLO would lose its status as representing all Palestinians. This is one reason why pro-Palestinian groups around the world are deeply suspicious of the bid. But there are many other potential legal problems and contradictions.

Article 51 of the UN Charter

If the UN recognises Palestine as a state then it has to accept that many Israeli actions will be protected by Article 51 of the UN Charter, which states:

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”.

The famous 2004 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the West Bank Barrier says that Israel couldn’t use Article 51 because Palestine isn’t a state:

“Article 51 of the Charter, the Court notes, recognizes the existence of an inherent right of self-defence in the case of armed attack by one State against another State. However, Israel does not claim that the attacks against it are imputable to a foreign State”

If the UN does recognise Palestine then it seems Article 51 is back on the table and the 2004 ICJ opinion may have to be revisited too.

UN Resolutions

If Palestine becomes a UN member state it becomes itself bound by the UN Charter and UN resolutions – for example, here’s UN Security Council resolution 1373, passed unanimously in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001:

“Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,

“1. Decides that all States shall:

“(a) Prevent and suppress the financing of terrorist acts;

“(b) Criminalize the wilful provision or collection, by any means, directly or indirectly, of funds by their nationals or in their territories with the intention that the funds should be used, or in the knowledge that they are to be used, in order to carry out terrorist acts;

“(c) Freeze without delay funds and other financial assets or economic resources of persons who commit, or attempt to commit, terrorist acts or participate in or facilitate the commission of terrorist acts; of entities owned or controlled directly or indirectly by such persons; and of persons and entities acting on behalf of, or at the direction of such persons and entities, including funds derived or generated from property owned or controlled directly or indirectly by such persons and associated persons and entities;

“(d) Prohibit their nationals or any persons and entities within their territories from making any funds, financial assets or economic resources or financial or other related services available, directly or indirectly, for the benefit of persons who commit or attempt to commit or facilitate or participate in the commission of terrorist acts, of entities owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by such persons and of persons and entities acting on behalf of or at the direction of such persons;

“2. Decides also that all States shall:

“(a) Refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by suppressing recruitment of members of terrorist groups and eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists;

“(b) Take the necessary steps to prevent the commission of terrorist acts, including by provision of early warning to other States by exchange of information;

“(c) Deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens;

“(d) Prevent those who finance, plan, facilitate or commit terrorist acts from using their respective territories for those purposes against other States or their citizens;

“(e) Ensure that any person who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is brought to justice and ensure that, in addition to any other measures against them, such terrorist acts are established as serious criminal offences in domestic laws and regulations and that the punishment duly reflects the seriousness of such terrorist acts;

“(f) Afford one another the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or criminal proceedings relating to the financing or support of terrorist acts, including assistance in obtaining evidence in their possession necessary for the proceedings;

“(g) Prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups by effective border controls and controls on issuance of identity papers and travel documents, and through measures for preventing counterfeiting, forgery or fraudulent use of identity papers and travel documents;

Unless the PA substantially changes its practices, it will be in breach of that resolution the day that a State of Palestine is recognised. There are probably loads of other examples too.


The UN officially considers Jerusalem to be a corpus separatum that is neither in Israel or in any other territory. East Jerusalem is not considered part of the West Bank. Because of this, most countries won’t acknowledge that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and will not have Embassies there.

Will the state of Palestine that the PA ask to be regognised include Jerusalem? If it doesn’t, then it looks like they aren’t that bothered about East Jerusalem being the capital of a Palestinian state. If it does, then this implies recognition that West Jerusalem is a full part of Israel, and everyone can stop pretending that it’s Tel Aviv and move their Embassies.

These are some consequences that I noticed. There are doubtless hundreds of others, too. Abbas might be secretly glad that the bid looks certain to fail.