How Gaza Looks From Latin America

A view from afar on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the Jewish-American lobby looks all too much like the Cuban-American lobby.

A pro-Palestinian protest in Buenos Aires
A pro-Palestinian protest in Buenos Aires

SANTIAGO — Weeks into the war of attrition in Gaza and with over 1,000 Palestinians and dozens of Israelis killed, América Economia wants to hold on to a sense of optimism that a ceasefire is not a far-fetched prospect. Or better said, that it's not yet another ceasefire.

There have already been two wars in Gaza that led to ceasefires after weeks of fighting — in 2007 and 2012 — and this time cannot be much different. The United States is finding it increasingly difficult to keep backing the Israeli government, while the Islamist Hamas administration, which has governed Gaza since 2007, is starting to run out of rockets.

The ceasefire will last months, maybe years. The last one in 2012 resolved nothing, and neither will this next one, in all likelihood. Only the firing, the bombardment and deaths will stop. The news will switch to something else and two million Palestinians living in Gaza will again cease to exist for Israel — and the world.

But they will still be there. Gaza, a strip 40 kilometers long and 10 wide, is one of the world's most crowded places. Since 1994, the Palestinians themselves have governed this territory, under Israel's air, sea and frontier control. And since 2007 when Hamas took power in Gaza after an electoral victory, the Israelis have imposed a blockade that prevents its residents from freely entering or leaving the strip, blocks trade and restricts basic activities like fishing. Gaza has efffectively become the world's largest open-air prison.

The latest Israeli ground assault began on July 18, though it really began three months earlier with the failure of peace talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Given the casualties so far, the vast majority of which have been Palestinian civilians, an end to fighting would be welcome. But it should not be like former ceasefires.

So far Israel has acted as if it wished to forget, not resolve, the problem of Gaza. When Hamas stops firing rockets, Israel tends to ignore the issue, as if to suggest that when there is no mortar fire, there are no Palestinians in Gaza. With such neglect, launching rockets seems to be the only way to demonstrate one's existence to the Israelis, and to the world.

There is no military solution. A solution would require Israel to truly accept that it will have a Palestinian state as a neighbor, made up of the West Bank and Gaza.

That is what immediate, medium or long-term talks are really about. There will be no solution if Israel keeps on refusing the existence of a Palestinian state. The first, urgent step is to stop this war. That merely requires Israel to carry out its promise of 2012: to lift the blockade that has turned Gaza into a prison and a poorhouse. Hamas must in turn promise to stop firing rockets — and keep its pledge.

It is difficult to believe however that Israel will do what it should.

The United States, Israel's only real ally, is the one that can convince it to do the right thing. Barack Obama gave the impression, when he took office in 2009, that the U.S. would finally start to act with pragmatism in this conflict. But Obama's reasoned intentions clashed with Pentagon realpolitik. Israel was the only its ally in the region, and the United States was at war against al-Qaeda.

The president found another, and equally powerful obstacle: the Jewish-American lobby, which practically takes its cue straight from Israel.

Just as the Cuban lobby has impeded a transition toward democracy and the free market in Cuba, the Jewish lobby has done the same with regard to resolving the Palestinian issue. John Kerry will have to do much more than he has so far to ensure that a ceasefire leads to serious talks to attain stable peace for the region.

We might do well to look at Latin American states, where Arab and Jewish communities have established and acquired economic and political power without rivalries. One of the world's richest men, Carlos Slim, is the son of Lebanese migrants, while the main players in the world of Latin American finance — but also business and politics — are of both Arab and Jewish origin.

Argentina, the country with the western hemisphere's second largest Jewish community after the U.S., had a president of Syrian ancestry: Carlos Menem. We may recall other regional leaders of recent decades — Presidents Abdalá Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador, Colombia's Julio César Turbay Ayala, the son of a Lebanese migrant, and Antonio Saca in El Salvador, born from Christian Palestinian parents.

Latin American states should follow the example of Brazil and Ecuador, and withdraw their ambassadors from Israel. Not just for the 20 million Latin Americans of Arab origin living on the continent, but because the move would help show Israel what it must do.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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