Gordon Campbell on the rise of ISIS, and Labour

While global attention got distracted by the fate of MH17 and the atrocities in Gaza, the world’s other mega ‘bad news’ story – the rise of ISIS-led fundamentalism in Iraq – has reached a tipping point. Reportedly, the ISIS fighters have been halted (temporarily at least) north of Baghdad around Tikrit, while a crucial battle is being fought just south of the capital, in a strategically important town on the banks of the Euphrates called Jurf al-Sakhar. A glance at Google Maps will show you just how close Jurf al-Sakhar is to Baghdad. If Baghdad was Wellington, the ISIS forces would be fighting on the streets of Waikanae, only 60 kilometres away.

Offhand, I can’t think of worse timing for Barack Obama and the Democrats for them to lose Baghdad – or to have US television screens full of images of Baghdad burning – just when the US will be voting in the midterm elections in November. Meanwhile, the ISIS fighters are doing in Iraq what their fanatical counterparts did in Afghanistan, when they blew up the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. In northern Iraq, ISIS has been systematically destroying ancient shrines, mosques and historical sites – including the 8th century shrine of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, a site revered by Christians and Muslims alike. If ISIS does succeed in winning the battle for Jurf al-Sakhar, it is not only Baghdad that will be in peril. The nearby city of Najaf, its all-important Shia shrines and the Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will all be virtually at the mercy of ISIS.

Safe to say, no one would have predicted the rise by Labour to 30% in the latest Roy Morgan poll, and the surge of the centre-left bloc to within striking distance of the Key government. Almost all the media coverage during the polling period had been highly negative for Labour and its leadership, yet…National is down to 45 % with an extra 2.5% cushion from its support partners, while the combined Labour/Greens/ Internet Mana vote now sits at a healthy and competitive 44.5%. Labour’s gains do not seem to have been at the expense of New Zealand First – which is down only one point to the MMP threshold of 5%, a level that puts Winston Peters right on the razor edge between being the kingmaker, and total oblivion. The big numbers: Labour is up 6.5 points, National down by five points, and the Greens down by two to twelve.

Sure, it’s only one poll. Too early yet to tell whether it is a trend, whether the changing numbers are the result of the undecideds breaking to the left – or if the centre left bloc is indeed motivating the previously alienated, or whether soft National votes are going elsewhere. For now, it breathes fresh life back into an election contest that was looking like a foregone conclusion. Along the way, the Morgan poll incidentally indicated the bogus nature of National’s support partners: when added together, the vote for ACT, United Future and the Maori Party is equal only to the 2.5% that Internet Mana is currently polling.

Gaza and Soweto
The massacre of children in Gaza has inevitably sparked comparisons to the 1976 Soweto uprising – another example of a repressive state using the threat of terrorism to wreak havoc indiscriminately on the children of a subject population. Juan Cole has written a column about the similarities:

As in apartheid South Africa, resistance to the apartheid policies of Israel is met with extreme violence. In Israel “law and order” is maintained “at all costs” just as in apartheid South Africa. If it is necessary to shoot down 700 students and youth [as happened during the 1976 Soweto uprising] for refusing to go along with the dictates of old white men, then so be it. The minority government “has nothing to apologize for.” Just as the sabotage and bombings of Umkhonte v Sizwe were termed mere terrorism and the ANC was demonized as a stalking horse for Stalinist dictatorship, so resistance organizations welling up from the slummy conditions imposed on Gaza are demonized, and their very resistance to being denied the rights of human beings is used to justify further repression.

Currently, Gaza is a slaughterhouse where hospitals and medical centres are targeted, and children are killed in their sleep in the UN buildings where they have gone to find refuge. Arguably, the use of collective punishment and the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian populations qualify as war crimes under the Geneva Convention – and ironically, such actions were outlawed by the UN in 1949, in order to deter the collective punishments that had been handed down by the Nazis in WW11 in places such as Lidice.

The current death toll figures in Gaza: over 1200 Palestinians killed compared to three Israeli citizens (and 53 Israeli soldiers killed while carrying out the offensive) makes a mockery of the Israel’s self-defence argument. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Gaza atrocities has been the repeated instances where families – either entirely or in large numbers – have been wiped out because one member of the family allegedly may have had links to the resistance. Reportedly, families have been faced with the choice of either dying together, or of splitting up to increase the chances of at least some of them surviving.

The world has, of course, been here before. In December 2008-January 2009, Israel conducted an armed invasion/bombardment of Gaza that killed an estimated 1,166 to 1,417 Palestinians and resulted in 13 Israeli deaths, four of them from friendly fire. A year after the Cast Lead onslaught, Oxfam released a report on how the world had failed Gaza, by condoning an Israeli blockade that had made it impossible for Gazans to rebuild their homes and replace essential infrastructure.

During the current offensive, the Israelis have destroyed the power stations essential to public health and to the maintenance of a clean water supply. But as it did before, the world appears willing only to wring its hands and to ask Israel to please, exercise some restraint – while supplying Israel with more ammunition. The latest news this morning is that a 72 hour “humanitarian truce” has been agreed. There is nothing humane however, about the conditions under which Gazans have been forced to live for the last few years.