Sunday, December 13, 2015

Let There be Light! Happy Hanukkah from Istanbul

What a great day it was in Istanbul. I would have loved so much to have been there (on my way in just a few weeks)!

For the first time in Turkish history, the Jewish community held a public lighting of the Hanukkah candles, on the eight and last night of the Jewish holiday. It took place in the Ortaköy neighborhood, part of the district of Beşiktaş. 

In fact, the festive event was sponsored by the local municipality, together with the Jewish community, which stands at about 15,000-17,000. Also, taking part in the candle lighting was not only the Chief Rabbi Isak Haleva but also the Imam from the neighboring historical Ortaköy Mosque (in the neighborhood, there is a synagogue, mosque, and church within a small closed walking district). 

In addition to members of the Beşiktaş municipality, representatives from the Istanbul Greater Municipality, and Turkey's foreign ministry took part. According to the article on CNN Turk, representatives from Israel and Spain's Istanbul consulates were also present. The lighting of the candles come at a great time since in the recent past we have been hearing about rising antisemitism in Turkey, with some claiming that the Jews are "packing their bags" ready to leave (something I refute in a recent article).

In the below tweet the mayor of Beşiktaş states: "We have made another first in Istanbul. We lit Hanukkah candles together with our Jewish citizens in Ortaköy Square" 

In another tweet, journalist Nese Berber stated: "The candles that were lit by Jews, Muslims, and Christians will light our country." 

Happy Hanukkah! Hanuka Bayramı Kutlu Olsun!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Davutoglu’s Juggling Act: Can Turkey’s Re-elected PM Offer a More Moderate Future?*

This week, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s interim prime minister and the head of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (the AK Party), scored an astounding victory at the polls, sweeping almost 50 percent of the vote. 

Few could have imagined that the not-so-charismatic professor turned politician would be able to salvage his party from its poor standing in the June election, when his party received 40.7 percent of the vote, ending the party’s three term, 13-year, sole-rule of the country.  

As for the three other parties, the mostly secular main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) faired about the same as it did in June, receiving about 25 percent of the vote. 
The real story of the night, however, was the sharp drop in support for the National Action Party (MHP), which fell over 4 points, coming in with only about 12 percent of the vote. The mostly Kurdish leftist party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (or HDP), which in June shocked all by crossing the ten-percent threshold with 13.7 percent of the vote, this time barely crossed it, with just under 11 percent of the vote. Needless to say, the election results came as a major blow to those voters of the CHP and the HDP, in addition to independent citizens, worried about Turkey’s future as a democracy. 

Furthermore, the initial shock was compounded by the failure of the vast majority of polls to predict that the AKP would repeat its election victory of 2011; the slight upward turn in the pre-election polls turned out to be a major understatement. Indeed, for many in the opposition, the election results were literally a slap in the face. So what happened? How is it that within five months the country’s politics have returned to a very similar place to where it was last June, with both the AKP and CHP having almost the same number of seats in the parliament that they had had before? 

First and foremost, credit for this "regressive triumph" must go to Davutoglu, who led a focused campaign, and understood that Erdogan’s intense campaigning in the months leading up to the previous, June elections did more harm than good. Erdogan then had deliberately overshadowed Davutoglu, undermining his role, and in his usual polarizing way, created a great deal of unnecessary controversy. 

This second round of elections was in effect forced on Davutoglu by Erdogan. After the last elections, which didn't produce the supermajority that the AKP sought, Erdogan pressured the prime minister not to enter a coalition government with the CHP, forcing Davutoglu to take his chances with a new popularity test at the polls. 

But it is Davutoglu who has now created an important balance between the two leaders. On the one hand, Davutoglu provided Erdogan with his due respect as the “leader,” by never short-changing or challenging Erdogan’s quest for extended presidential powers; in return, Erdogan remained “presidential” and more or less above party politics. This agreement seems to have been reached this September, at the AKP convention, when more and more disgruntled voices were emerged in the party, growing impatient with Erdogan’s often irrational behavior.  

The AKP’s gain can also be attributed to the other parties’ lack of ability in retaining their votes or gaining more electoral traction. Firstly, the AKP successfully pulled votes away from the MHP through its message that the AKP held the key to stability, as fighting between the PKK and the Turkish security forces entered a dangerous new round following the collapse of the peace process. Further, the poor political maneuvering of the MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, was edged out by the AKP’s hyped-up nationalist rhetoric.  

As for the CHP, even if Kemal Kilicdaroglu, its leader, has consolidated the party’s powerbase, he has not been able to transform the party into one that embraces more conservative voices: He is not much of a coalition-builder and is not a particularly charismatic leader, whose 25 percent seems to be an election ceiling for the party 

The Kurdish-associated HDP, and the other opposition parties for that fact, can breathe a sigh of relief that it was able to cross the threshold for a second time; if it had not, the AKP could easily have reached the 367 seats needed to allot new powers to Erdogan, which would have set the stage for Turkey’s descent into a more authoritarian state than it has already become. 

However, the HDP's image has been badly dented. The HDP was able to create a special dynamic of change and hope for the Kurdish issue in the lead-up to the June elections, but afterwards, once the peace process began to break down, its inability to persuade the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (the PKK) to halt its violence highlighted a major weakness of the party, which led more conservative Kurdish voters to return back to the ranks of the AKP.

At the same time, the attacks against HDP offices and affiliated businesses, even as the police turned a blind eye, coupled with the rampant state of violence in the majority-Kurdish cities, which have been subjected to extended curfews, did not provide the HDP with a chance to relive its impressive pre-June campaign, as it was preoccupied with the daily struggles of its constituency, not to mention the two ISIS-led suicide attacks on HDP-affiliated political gatherings.  

While it is too early to understand the greater trends of these elections, it is clear that the AKP’s winning 317 seats in parliament (a number that is subject to change with later electoral adjustments) returns the party to a very similar bind to the one it was in before. It is still short of the 330 seats needed to bring constitutional changes via a referendum, or the much higher 367 needed for the party to pass constitutional changes without putting them to a popular vote. 

In other words, this election was no more of a landslide victory than past AKP wins. However, only time will be able to answer the pressing question of whether Davutoglu will be able to balance the various factions in parliament and create a new atmosphere of change. He has shown some talent for difficult juggling acts – not least, he has just managed Erdogan's pressures on him and with the electoral need to minimize Erdogan's presence in the election campaign. 

With the increasing polarization of the electorate, the continued clamp-down on the press and personal freedoms, the timing for change could not better. 

*This article appeared in Haaretz on November 3, 2015. Click here for article 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

An Election Primer: One Week to go until Turkey's Snap Elections (Turkey November 2015 election, part 2)

In just one week from today, Turkish citizens will return to the ballot box in a snap-election. In the previous election update blog post, I outlined the background of the election, and why the AKP opted to return the polls, in place of working to form a coalition government (after 13 years of single-party rule). Basically, as I stated before, the formation of an AKP led-coalition government seemed like an impossible feat, with the three other parties (CHP, MHP, and HDP) staunchly opposing its plan to transfer new powers to the nation's president (and its former party leader and prime minister), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, essentially creating a super-presidency for him.  

Unfortunately, on October 10, a little over a week after writing the election update, a massive twin suicide bombing attack went off in Ankara, killing 102 people, taking place at a peace rally, which was sponsored by labor unions, heavily attended by the mostly Kurdish left HDP party, and joined by a symbolic representation from the main opposition party, the CHP. The alleged perpetrators were ISIS sympathizers who were known by the state's internal security, highlighting its failure to prevent the attack.  

Just days later, I explained in an article for Haaretz, entitled Bombs, Bans, and the Ballot Box*, why the attack had not come as a surprise: 

Over the course of the last few months, the mostly Kurdish HDP has been the target of violent attacks, including a deadly bomb attack at their election rally just two days before the June 7 parliamentary elections, and an ISIS linked-suicide attack targeting a socialist youth group affiliated with the HDP on July 20, killing 33. These major security breaches made it clear to all that another attack was highly likely. Last month, HDP offices around Turkey were vandalized and burnt to the ground in racist attacks, with the police remaining largely indifferent.

and the following:

Sadly, the Ankara bombing victims make up just part of Turkey’s rampant death toll during the last few months. Since the June elections, over 600 Turkish citizens have been killed, whether in terrorist attacks, or Turkish security forces by the PKK, or in operations carried out by the Turkish army in the southeast of the country which is under partial military curfew, or PKK fighters (who are also Turkish citizens) killed by the army. Indeed, during the elections Erdogan insisted that only an absolute AKP majority would ensure Turkey’s “peaceful” transition to a new presidential system, leaving many to believe that he was actually threatening the electorate, and that things could get messy if it did not give the AKP a clear majority. Regardless of what he actually meant, his prediction seems to have been right on.

The bombings left Turkey in a state of shock, leaving the country more polarized than ever. 

So, now, what is in store for next week?

Since the summer, most polls have predicted more-or-less the same results as the June 7 elections, with it most likely leaving the AKP, and the other parties, in a similar dilemma. Nevertheless, here are my impressions of the election campaign and what we might learn from the last few months:

1. For the current election, despite still clearly in control of the party, Erdogan has learned that the electorate has become tired of his polarizing politics, and thus took a step back in attempt to look more "presidential." However, the problem is that without Erdogan, it seems Davutoglu is not the best candidate to energize the masses, and he seems to have better luck in his normal role as a professor in the classroom, or a politician working behind the scenes. In fact, in a recent poll, when asked which leader do you think is most successful, Davutoglu got a measly 4%, with Erdogan getting the highest, with his numbers showing a decline as well.

2. Lately, Davutoglu also seems to be taking the route of polarizing politics, which certainly will not bring new votes in-especially the Kurdish voters who flocked in masses to the HDP. First, he showed a great amount of insensitivity towards the victims and families of the Ankara bombing, stating just over a week after the bombings that the AKP had seen a surge in the polls following the attack. 

If this was not enough, Davutoglu also recently commented that if the AKP is unseated, the Southeastern Kurdish regions could see the return of "white Toros" brand cars back on the streets. This has been interpreted by many as a threat since that automobile model was notorious in the 1990s of being used by gangs believed to be undercover security forces, who caused havoc on the civilian population, while whisking away people, often never to be seen again. Whether a threat or not, just the mention of it brings back dark memories for many Kurds. 

3. For the reasons stated above, it seems hard to imagine that the AKP will gain votes, with common sense pointing to it actually losing support. However, if it does gain votes, this will be attributed to the fact that many Turkish people simply see that stability trumps the chaos experienced in the last few months, and will not be attributed to Davutoglu's campaign.

4. Over the last few violent months, the opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has emerged as an experienced politician, showing a great amount of leadership. With the mounting attacks and deaths of the Turkish security forces on the one hand, and the attacks on Turkey's Kurdish population on the other, Kilicdaroglu has served as an important stabilizing factor, trying his best to keep Turkey from going completely off the rails. This fact alone could bring new votes to the CHP, and has created a since of momentum, which could attract some young voters back who voted for HDP in the last round. However, the party still needs to take serious steps at implementing reforms if it wishes to become a party that is able one day to surpass 30% of the overall vote (having consolidated CHP support at around 25%). Of course, a young dynamic leader would be the way to start this. However, that is easier said than done.  

5. Due to the election process, despite getting 16.3% of the vote, the MHP ended up with the same number of seats in the parliament as the HDP, which recieved 13.1 % (following the defection of one of their candidates to the AKP). Therefore, it is clear that this elections could deal a fatal blow to the MHP, if its numbers drop and the HDP votes surge, which would make it the smallest party in the parliament. For now, its leader, Devlet Bahceli is holding the party's reins tight, even after having Tugrul Turkes (the son of the iconic party founder, Alparslan Turkes) defect to the AKP. However, if its numbers drop, it is hard to imagine that Bahceli will be able to hold on to the party much longer. In the meantime, any extra votes to the MHP will hit at the AKP chances of gaining new votes.

6. The million-dollar question in this election is if the HDP can maintain, or even increase its votes, in this election. It was this party's crossing the 10% threshold that shook the Turkish politics at its core. It seems safe to say it will cross the 10% threshold again (if it does not this will increase fears of election fraud). However, with violence and military curfews being enforced over many of the Kurdish regions, election observers need to be diligent in making sure the vote is transparent and voters are able without hindrance to cast their votes.

The HDP, under the numerous attacks, which in addition to the bombings included the looting and burning down of their offices throughout the country, obviously could not put on the dynamic campaign it did leading up to the June elections. However, its charismatic co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas has demonstrated his dedication to keep the party on track, and has proven his ability to be a major player in Turkish political system for a long time coming. If the party loses votes, this could be attributed to its lack of influence in getting the PKK to stop attacks against the Turkish military (regardless if this is a realistic claim or not). However, this could be offset by a new group of silent voters who have been influenced by the party's motivation to run a clean campaign that still offers a genuine voice to Turkey's minorities and its dedication to change the "old system" of Turkey once and for all. 

While a coalition government following the next elections seems likely, we will need to wait until then to discuss the possibilities! Let us hope that whatever the outcome, Turkey will see brighter days in the near future.  

*The article is also featured on my blog

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Netanyahu's Blame Game: Forget the Nazis, its the Palestinians

For years, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has compared the Iranian regime to that of the Nazis. Earlier of this year, on the Israeli Memorial day for Holocaust Survivors, he tweeted the below tweets, in reference to the US negotiations with Iran, concerning its nuclear program: 

The same day, Netanyahu stated in a speech at Israeli's Holocaust museum, Yad VaShem, the following: "Democracies cannot turn their eyes away from the dictatorships of the world that seek to spread their influence."; and went on to say, "ahead of World War II, the world attempted to appease the Nazis. They wanted quite at any price, and the terrible price did come."

In that speech, Netanyahu was aiming to undermine US-Iranian progress concerning Iran's nuclear program, which was eventually signed in July, marking a major diplomatic success for Obama; true, even if the Islamic Republic of Iran has threatened to annihilate the Jewish state, Netanyahu's comparing the US to the European powers who appeased Hitler, certainly hit a low. 

Well, if you could not get lower, this morning I awoke to the following headline in Haaretz: 

What, did I read this correctly? Did Netanyahu actually just say that the Palestinian Mufti Hajj al-Amin Al-Husseini is the one who convinced Hitler to embark on the mass genocide of Jews? Unfortunately, I did; and even worse he said this just 24-hours before an official visit to Berlin. The exact quote, which was said in a speech to the World Zionist Congress, started off by explaining that the Mufti had a central role in fomenting the Final Solution. Then, Netanyahu explained:    

"He (the Mufti) flew to Berlin...Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews and Hajj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here; so what should I do with them, he (Hitler) asks; he (the Mufti) said Burn them!" 

In Israel, and in Europe, Netanyahu's words have been criticized by historians and politicians alike. Germany's Chancellor  Angela Merkel even issued a statement reconfirming Germany's crime against the Jewish people: 

"All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust,”…and continues, “this is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten. And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own."

These words are wrong on so many levels that it is hard to figure out where to start. Historically this is nothing short of a blatant lie, with the mass killing of Jews happening months before their meeting. True, the Palestinian Mufti took refuge in Berlin, supported the Axis powers, and embarked on propaganda campaigns on their behalf. However, he only met with Hitler once, which at the time was reported that "Hitler was sympathetic, but declined to give al-Husayni (Husseini) the public declaration of support that he sought." In short, there is no record of such a conversation even existing!

According to the United States Holocaust Museum, on its webpage about the Mufti, it states, "even after he realized that the Germans would not give him what he sought and intended to use his Muslim recruits without regard to his advice, al-Husayni continued to work with both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany until 1945." Clearly, from these words, we see that the Mufti was not ever considered a major card for the Nazi regime.

In addition, it needs to be noted that Netanyahu's twisting of the historical narrative are a disgrace to the memory of all the Jews killed in the Holocaust, whether it were those who were killed even before Hitler had met with al-Husseini, or those after; not to mention, it being highly offensive to the families of the victims.    

For educators, Netanyahu's statement is no less damning. How are educators suppose to combat conspiracy theories concerning the Holocaust, if the Israeli Prime Minister so nonchalantly  manipulates the simplest of narratives for his own political gains? True, politicizing genocide is not new, however, now Netanyahu has offered a prime example of its disgusting nature.     

While Netanyahu has since issued a clarification, stating, "I had absolutely no intention of absolving Hitler of his diabolical responsibility for the extermination of Europe's Jews," it is clear that his comments have once again uncovered how far he is willing to go to incite hatred towards Palestinians-so much so that he inadvertently cleared Hitler, while blaming a Palestinian as devising the plan to kill Jews. 

Sadly, for the Palestinians who are working towards teaching their society about the Holocaust, their work has become all the harder. Further, for the Palestinians who long gave up on the Prime Minister as simply racist (let us not forget his racist comments directed towards Palestinian citizens of Israel during the last elections), this only reconfirms that it is the Palestinians who do not have a partner for peace.

Perhaps, the only good thing that might come out of this is the massive backlash this has had against Netanyahu. Clearly, most Israelis did not buy this cheap shot of his, and both in Israel and in Europe this will prove to be a major embarrassment. 

Perhaps, in place of passing the buck on Palestinians, Netanyahu should leave history behind for now and recognize how his bad policies are continuing to lead Israel on a mode of self-destruct. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bombings, Bans and the Ballot-box Turkey on Edge*

No words can express the tragedy that hit Turkey last Saturday, when over 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured following a twin suicide-bomb attack at a peace rally in the capital Ankara. The rally was sponsored by labor unions, heavily attended by the mostly Kurdish left HDP party, and joined by a symbolic representation from the main opposition party, the CHP.

Just hours after the attack, the Turkish government declared an official three-day mourning period in recognition of the nation’s largest terrorist attack ever. The finger of blame is increasingly being pointed at Islamic State, or ISIS, sympathizers. However, rather than uniting Turkey, the bombing only has strengthened existing divisions.  

After the initial shock of the sheer scope of the bombing, anger was the reaction of many to the bombing - directed at the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the religiously conservative AKP interim-election government, led by the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. For many Turkish citizens it was no surprise that such an attack had happened to begin with.  

Over the course of the last few months, the mostly Kurdish HDP has been the target of violent attacks, including a deadly bomb attack at their election rally just two days before the June 7 parliamentary elections, and an ISIS linked-suicide attack targeting a socialist youth group affiliated with the HDP on July 20, killing 33. These major security breaches made it clear to all that another attack was highly likely. Last month, HDP offices around Turkey were vandalized and burnt to the ground in racist attacks, with the police remaining largely indifferent.

Of course, things soured for Erdogan’s AKP following those June elections, when it lost its parliamentary majority, and the HDP crossed the 10% voter threshold. This lead to political deadlock, since the AKP was not able to form either a coalition with the main opposition CHP, or a narrow government with the nationalist MHP, leading the country to snap-elections to be held on November 1.

Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have done their utmost to delegitimize the HDP, a campaign that began even before the June general elections, once it was clear that the HDP would not support Erdogan’s quest to allocate further extensive powers to the presidency that he holds. Following the elections, the embryonic peace process facilitated by Kurdish MPs between the outlawed Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, and the Turkish state collapsed, both sides now fully immersed in fighting each other.  

Following the Ankara attack, HDP’s head, Selahattin Demirtas, lashed out at the government claiming not only was it delinquent in preventing the bombing but that members of the state institutions were also complicit in the attack. No evidence was provided, but for some in Turkey such a damning accusation didn’t seem so far from an obvious truth; many others believe that Ankara has consistently turned a blind eye to ISIS sympathizers, with fatal results.

While the AKP denies these claims as completely preposterous, Turkey’s long history of its intelligence services working within its own autonomous and unaccountable set of rules fuels such claims. Indeed, on Wednesday an Ankara court upheld the government’s request for a complete media blackout on the bombing (covering “all kinds of news, interviews, criticism and similar publications in print, visual, social media and all kinds of Internet media”) only heightening the suspicion that few details will ever come to light. The ban came into effect just as reports that the suicide bombers had been identified; both were known to the  police and intelligence services, one suspect's brother is said to have committed a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS only three months earlier 

The fear that the full account of the attack will never come to light is hardly unfounded in recent Turkish history: in the past, when the media was banned from reporting on specific events, such as the 2011 Uludere affair (34 Kurdish civilians mistakenly believed to be PKK terrorists killed in an airstrike), or the 2014 alleged transfer of Turkish arms to Islamist radical groups in Syria, perhaps even to ISIS, the censorship seemed to have been aimed at covering up government complicity, with the benefit of a complete lack of transparency.

The media ban is the latest expression of an accelerating clampdown on a free press in Turkey. Just a day before the bombing the editor of the English-language newspaper Todays Zaman, Bulent Kenes, was arrested on live television for allegedly “insulting” Erdogan, while two other journalists joined a long list of other citizens found guilty of insulting Erdogan. Fortunately this week Kenes was released but still faces prison if found guilty.

Sadly, the Ankara bombing victims make up just part of Turkey’s rampant death toll during the last few months. Since the June elections, over 600 Turkish citizens have been killed, whether in terrorist attacks, or Turkish security forces by the PKK, or in operations carried out by the Turkish army in the southeast of the country which is under partial military curfew, or PKK fighters (who are also Turkish citizens) killed by the army. Indeed, during the elections Erdogan insisted that only an absolute AKP majority would ensure Turkey’s “peaceful” transition to a new presidential system, leaving many to believe that he was actually threatening the electorate, and that things could get messy if it did not give the AKP a clear majority. Regardless of what he actually meant, his prediction seems to have been right on.

The AKP has radically failed on numerous fronts. If it had not been for the main opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose leadership bridges the country’s dangerous political polarization, and the determination of the opposition parties, Turkey could have very well have run off the rails of democracy by now. However, a culture of fear is consolidating in Turkey, and its effects will reverberate not only over the coming fortnight preceding the general elections, but in the weeks and months following it as well.

This week, Turkey’s national football team took on Iceland in the conservative city of Konya, an AKP stronghold. Jeers and whistles marred the moment of silence for those killed in Ankara. The lessons of the bombing have clearly still not been learnt.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on 15 October 2015, please click here for article.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Ugly Occupation: the new rules of engagement and the Israeli "Mista'arvim"

Over the past two weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once again taking center stage. Increasing tension over Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, which for Palestinian Muslims is the Holy Haram al-Sharif, has spilled over with many claiming that we could be witnessing the beginnings of the "Third Intifada." 

Tragically both sides have suffered dead. Over the last few days, Palestinians have embarked on a wave of stabbings and shootings against Israelis, and the Israeli army and police have continued to react with excessive force--often live ammunition--against protesters hurling rocks at any Israeli military presence within the Occupied Palestinian lands. 

Making it worse, recently, the Israeli Cabinet changed the rules of engagement, allowing the army to use live ammunition even in cases when its soldiers' lives are not in danger. While the decision on paper might makes sense, allowing live gun fire also when a third party is in danger, clearly the army has taken it as a green light to use live ammunition to deter stone throwing Palestinians resisting Israel's ongoing 48 years of occupation.

Funeral of child killed by Israeli army gunfire.
photo credit:MUSA AL-SHAER / AFP
As a result, just two days ago, a 13-year old, Abdel Rahman Abdullah, was killed at a demonstration, when clearly Israeli soldiers were not in a not in a life-or-death situation. The Israeli army claims now that it was an accident and that it "had intended to shoot a protester who was leading the riot." However, any way you look at it, there was no "third party in danger" and to claim their own lives were in danger is ludicrous as they were armed with full riot gear.  

Israeli army claims that this unarmed protester proved a threat and as a result
was shot point-blank in the leg
Even more damning is the video that surfaced yesterday of Israeli undercover security personnel, dressed as Arabs (a unit within the army known as the "mista'arvim"),  inciting Palestinians to attack the army with stones and then turning on the protesters with pistols, as the army stormed them. In the video, posted by the Agence France Presse on YouTube, one protester is caught by the undercover agents and soldiers, and then brutally beaten with one undercover man coming and actually shooting him directly in the leg.

This disgraceful video shows us once again how ugly the occupation is, highlighting the abuse of force by the Israeli army--making it easy to understand why with each bullet more people will come out to challenge its presence. 

With years of relative silence on behalf of the West Bank Palestinians, it seems the time has come that once again they are saying "enough" to the occupation--especially since this silence has been met with the continued building of Israeli settlements, not to mention the decades of oppressive measures they live with on a daily basis.  

Will this turn into the "Third Intifada"? Only time will tell, however, what is clear is that Israeli attempts to use live ammunition as a preventive measure will only increase the circle of violence bringing more death to both sides, as was feared by the Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Turkey's Snap Election: One Month to go (Turkey November 2015 election, part 1)

Turkish Snap Elections 2015: An Intro

In exactly one month, on November 1, Turkish voters will return to a new round of elections, following the failure of the religious conservative AKP to form a coalition government with the secular-orientated CHP, the nationalist MHP, or the mostly-Kurdish leftist HDP. It seemed clear from the past that this was an impossible feat, with the three other parties staunchly opposing AKP’s plan to transfer new powers to the nation’s president (and its former party leader and prime minister), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, essentially creating a “super-presidency.”

The fact that the AKP was not able to form a government was no surprise; in fact the only surprising part of the whole election was the party’s dwindling show at the ballot box, receiving just over 40% of the vote, down almost 9% from the 2011 vote. This of course was caused when the HDP crossed the 10% parliamentary threshold—a remnant of the 1980 Coup—and one that was kept in place by the AKP despite 13 years of single-party rule and promises to rid the country of the remnants of the coup.  

For my analysis of the June elections, please click link

Since the election however Turkey has seen some of its bleakest days in over a decade, once again locked in conflict with the PKK, with the Turkish security forces taking heavy blows. Let us remember that the peace process with the Kurds entitled the AKP and Erdogan continued support; however, as I stated recently in an article in Haaretz (related to the AKP’s Grand Congress):

“the days of hope have been buried with the widespread belief that Erdogan instigated the renewed violence in order to delegitimize the HDP and ensure the AKP’`s stability and electoral support. The question of whether the lives of soldiers, policemen and innocent civilians could have been spared by doing its utmost to keep the peace process on track will forever loom over the AKP.”

Therefore, placing aside whether Erdogan bears some responsiblity for the violence, the quick unravelling of the peace process, the growing number of dead (from among civilians and security forces), and the subjecting of large parts of the population to military curfews, is ample proof that the AKP’s peace process was wrongly mapped out from the start, and despite the best of intentions of many involved, it has turned into a massive failure. 

Nevertheless, even if a failure, on the flip side, the AKP can be credited with placing the process on the daily agenda and thus paving the way for a possible future deal.  

Now to the elections….

So the question is how do you hold elections in this terrible state of violence and turbulent times? Well, the answer is, the show must go on. And, based on most polls, the Turkish electorate is not about to change their vote, with almost all showing a similar outcome to the previous June 7 elections with Turkey most likely witnessing the fact that the days of AKP’s sole rule is over.

Over the next month, I will be covering different aspects of the election, recapping major points leading up to the vote, and highlighting each points related to each party and its leadership, so stay tuned!

Erdogan’s Political Gamble: From Peace to War?*

With each passing day, Turkey is falling deeper into a chasm of violence. Pictures showing funerals of Turkish security forces are splashed across the news, together with reports of Turkish airstrikes hitting at strongholds of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), located deep in the mountainous regions of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. With this news, it is easy to forget that Turkey has been steadily working toward a peace agreement with the PKK since 2012. It has become one of the most prized policies of the former prime minister, and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This sharp turn in events occurred just days after an Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) sympathizer led a suicide attack on the youth wing of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), which is affiliated with the mostly Kurdish leftist bloc, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The attack occurred on July 20 in the southern town of Suruc, taking the lives of 32 people. The victims were mostly university students, on their way to deliver goods to the Kurdish-Syrian border town of Kobane, whose People’s Protection Units (YPG) had resisted a massive Islamic State onslaught just last fall. It is important to note that the YPG has numerous leftist Turkish citizens fighting among its ranks, much to the dismay of the government and radical Islamist groups in Turkey.

Once news broke that the suicide bombing in Suruc was the work of an ISIS sympathizer, the interim Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, opened a military front against the organization, arresting members in Turkey and conducting airstrikes against it in Syria. This move was welcomed by the United States, which was becoming impatient with what appeared to be Turkey’s “hands-off stance” – or even, at times, preferring Islamic State over the Kurds in Syria. In June, after ISIS lost control of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad to the Kurds, Sabah – a staunchly pro-Erdogan newspaper – went so far as to run a headline stating the Kurds posed a greater danger to Turkey than ISIS.

The problem, however, went up a notch when Turkey didn’t just suffice with hitting Islamic State, but also used the opportunity to embark on a bombing campaign against what now appears to have been its real target, the PKK. This came after the PKK assassinated two Turkish police officers, claiming they had collaborated with ISIS in the Suruc attack. While Turkey certainly has the right to retaliate, its response was disproportionate, leading one to ask why it has taken a path that is clearly working on collapsing the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) much-cherished peace process.

Unfortunately, the answer boils down to Erdogan himself, who is still running the show and maintaining a strong hold over Turkey’s prime minister, Davutoglu, who took the AKP reins when Erdogan became president last summer. Even before the June election – when the AKP failed, for the first time in 13 years, to secure a parliamentary majority – Erdogan made clear time and again that if peace was to be made with the Kurds, it would be done on his terms and his terms alone. He even softly threatened the Turkish electorate that it needed to give the AKP an overwhelming majority if they wished to change the system “peacefully.” The AKP didn’t get a majority, and Turkey is now farther than ever from peace.

Unsurprisingly, the AKP’s war of words against the PKK has swiftly turned into a delegitimization campaign against the HDP, amid claims by Erdogan that it has “links to terrorist organizations,” and that its members’ parliamentary immunity should be lifted, with prosecutors opening investigations within days. One can only marvel at the irony that the very people who were acting as intermediaries between Erdogan and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan just months ago could now be placed on trial. And if found guilty they will be sent straight from parliament to a jail cell, essentially barring them from any potential snap election.

Even more worrying is the fact that all this is happening as the AKP is serving as an interim government. In other words, the military offensive against ISIS (which has repercussions not discussed in this article) and the PKK come without a mandate, and make you question who Davutoglu is actually referring to when he declares, “We are ready to sacrifice our sons.” In the meantime, the muscle-flexing PKK has shown in the last two weeks it is still able to hit hard at Turkey, with daily attacks on the Turkish army and police. It has pushed Davutoglu into a corner, leading him to react in similar fashion to previous leaders who also believed military power could silence the Kurdish question.

With optimism at a low, one can only hope the HDP’s charismatic coleader Selahattin Demirtas can convince the PKK to adhere to a cease-fire – since, like Turkey, it has little to gain from the current escalation. It is important also to commend the main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (Republican People’s Party – CHP), for not getting dragged into the wild nationalist rhetoric used by Erdogan, Davutoglu and, most recently, Devlet Bahceli, the nationalist MHP (National Action Party) leader. The CHP has opted to take a high road and, by not undermining the HDP’s role in Turkish politics, is proving to be an important stabilizing factor.

Let us hope Turkey is able to overcome this sudden turn toward violence. However, this is unlikely to happen until the AKP accepts the outcome of the June election, which can be interpreted as an overwhelming vote for a continuation of the peace process together with a resounding “no” to Erdogan’s plans for a presidential system. Until Davutoglu and other AKP members take this fact to heart, and recognize that the peace process belongs to the people and they don’t have a monopoly over it, it seems Turkey could be on its way to much darker days.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2015, please click here for original

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Turkey's Ruling Party Has Exhausted Its Own Existence*

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, will convene its fifth Grand Congress this Saturday, where members will elect its leader and the party will launch its campaign for the upcoming snap elections on November 1.

In the past, these congresses were upbeat and optimistic, a sign of the party’s continued success at the polls; the last Grand Congress was in 2012, a year after the 2011 elections when Turkey’s charismatic prime minister, now the nation’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, garnered almost 50 percent of the vote, ushering in a “New Turkey.”

However, in the elections last June, under its new party leader and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP was dealt a major blow: after a 13-year run as the sole party in power, it lost its parliamentary majority, shattering a psychological barrier of invincibility.

Now there is little to celebrate. The party is planning to launch its campaign for the upcoming elections after Davutoglu failed to form a coalition government with any of the three parties in parliament. They staunchly opposed Erdogan’s demands for extended presidential powers. In fact, even if Davutoglu is, as is likely, re-elected as the AKP’s leader this weekend, the party faces an uphill battle, with much of the electorate tired of the AKP forfeiting all of its values for one man, Erdogan.  

Just as detrimental to the party’s image is the breakdown of the peace process between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. For years, despite the Gezi Park protests and wide-scale corruption, the AKP could always fall back on the fact that it was taking serious steps to end the decades-old conflict that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens.

But with the renewal of violence in July, at least 100 soldiers and policemen have been killed, including 16 soldiers who were slain this past Sunday in the deadliest PKK attack in years. The chaos has extended to civilians, with AKP supporters attacking the offices of major newspaper Hurriyet with sticks and stones, accusing it of misquoting the president and implying that he was trying to gain political capital from Sunday’s attack. 

Even worse, over the past few days, numerous Kurds have been randomly attacked by Turkish nationalists, headquarters of the mostly Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP, have been vandalized, some even burned to the ground, and military curfews are becoming the norm in some of the southeastern cities. In addition, there are casualties among Kurdish civilians.

The days of hope have been buried with the widespread belief that Erdogan instigated the renewed violence in order to delegitimize the HDP and ensure the AKP’s stability and electoral support. The question of whether the lives of soldiers, policemen and innocent civilians could have been spared by doing its utmost to keep the peace process on track will forever loom over the AKP.

If things were not bad enough, Turkey is facing an increasingly sluggish economy, with the Turkish lira in decline, hitting a new low of three liras to the dollar. While AKP pundits might try to put a positive spin on the weak lira, the truth is that this was not a calculated move on behalf of Turkey’s Central Bank, or the Finance Ministry, but rather a reflection of the current state of political instability.  

For these reasons there will be little room for optimism at the upcoming AKP congress. While it is still too early to throw the AKP in the dustbin of history, clearly the once dynamic party has for all intents and purposes exhausted its own existence. 

As moderate voices in the party have been replaced by blind supporters of Erdogan, and internal criticism subjected to unjust attacks in the pro-Erdogan press, it is apparent that the AKP party of yesterday resembles nothing of what exists today.

With Erdogan stating last month that the constitution needs to be changed to suit his new de facto powers, which in his words, exist “whether one accepts it or not,” it seems that no one can predict where Turkey is headed.

However, even if we set aside claims of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, the AKP should be judged on its performance. Unfortunately for the party, the last few years have shown that, on many levels, it has failed the test of good governance, and it seems unlikely that the upcoming congress will persuade anyone outside of its diehard supporters that it will be able to put Turkey back onto a true path of prosperity.

In fact, for many, the opposite perception holds true: if the current situation continues, the AKP runs the risk of bringing the whole country down with it.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on 10 September 2015, please click here for original.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Suruç Massacre: the Tragic Death of 32 activists

Hatice Ezgi Sadet was a student at Turkey's Mimar
Sinan Fine Arts University-she was 20 years old
Yesterday, a massacre took place in Suruç (pronounced su-ruch), a city in Turkey’s Southeastern Kurdish region. The Federation of Socialist Youth were on their way to deliver humanitarian aid to the war stricken Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane, when an ISIS suicide bomber blew herself to pieces, taking 32 lives, and leaving many others injured.  

Unfortunately, for me, the killing of this group, which was made up of many university students, did not come as a surprise. Over the last year, groups in Turkey supporting the Kurdish struggle in Syria have been targeted both by radical Islamic factions, some who openly identify with ISIS, and by the Turkish government, which fears that a Kurdish Syrian stronghold could tilt the balance of power in the region, giving the Kurds an independent Kurdish autonomous zone not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, causing concern due to their close ties to the outlawed PKK.  

In other words, there is no doubt that both ISIS and the Turkish government share a great amount of disdain for the Syrian Kurds (and their sympathizers), who have been fighting day and night to free Syria’s northern border from ISIS control. In fact, just last month, as the ISIS controlled Syrian city of Tel Abayd fell to the Kurdish YPG forces, pro-government newspapers close to Turkey’s president Erdogan, such as Sabah, went so far as to state that the Kurds were even "more dangerous than ISIS." Even worse, even if there have been recent crackdowns on ISIS in Turkey, just last year Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, avoided calling ISIS a terrorist organization, keeping in line with others members high up in the government (not to mention the claims that Ankara might have supplied arms to ISIS in January 2014).

Suleyman Aksu was a 27 year old English teacher
Since last year's breakout of fighting between Syrian Kurdish forces and ISIS, the Turkish government has shown the least bit of sympathy towards the Kurds who are fighting a long drawn out battle for their homes, and their future. As I stated last year, I never believed it was Turkey’s role to fight alongside the Kurds, however, it did not suffice in silence on the topic, but also set out to demoralize them and their supporters in Turkey. Last October, Erdogan brushed off Kurdish chances of holding on to Kobane, stating it “is about to fall.” In the meantime, in Turkey, those protesting on behalf of Kobane were regularly attacked by Turkish police, while peace activists, such as Kader Ortakaya, protesting on the border were killed by the Turkish army (see my blog: This One is for Kobane). 

Let me be clear, I am not claiming that Turkey is complicit in the attack, but it has failed not only to protect these activists, but also prepared the ground through a continued campaign of delegitimization, treating ones supporting Kobane and the Kurdish struggle as if they were traitors. Not surprisingly, last night in Istanbul, a political demonstration of multiple left parties, showing solidarity with the victims, was violently dispersed with water cannons and teargas.   

Yunus Emre Sen was a student at Ankara University
Making things worse, the current bomb attack comes just as many feared that if the AKP did not reach enough votes to rule as a single party government, Turkey could enter a stage of chaos, with a scenario of widespread violence. Just a day before the elections, a bomb went off at the mostly Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, which even induced more fears for the future. This recent attack will no doubt leave on all on edge about what the future could hold, while no coalition is in sight, with Turkey possibly seeing a new round of elections to solve this political impasse. 

For me personally, this attack hit too close to home as well. As a university professor (and a parent), seeing so many young souls taken was tragic. The truth is, any of these activists could have been my students, friends at bars with whom I would talk about politics into the wee hours of the morning, or ones I march with in demonstrations.

Activist Cebrail Gunebakan was killed; just last year his face
became famous as Turkish police held brutally held mouth
wide-open, as he was detained at pro-Kobane protest
It is perhaps for this reason that with this attack, I opted not to turn the television on, and avoided the gory photos. On my facebook I shared the photos of these three activists killed (and added one more here to the right). Let us remember them this way, and remember the good in their hearts for embarking on a humanitarian aid trip, which was bringing diapers, baby formula, and goods to needy people in Syria.   

Yes, these were not terrorists, and it is too bad that they have been portrayed this way so often in the pro-government press and by the Turkish government. Let us hope that the Turkish government will understand that it needs to work diligently to rid Turkey of ISIS. Sadly, the massacre in Suruç just shows that the Turkish authorities are a bit too late in realizing the real threat this group poses in Turkey. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Top Ten Photos of NYC Pride 2015

After eight years teaching in New York, I finally stayed for the month of June, rather than immediately going home to Istanbul and Tel Aviv once classes ended. 

The highlight of the month was without a doubt the New York City Pride. In the past, I have participated numerous times at the Pride parades in Istanbul, and once in Tel Aviv (see my recent blog on Istanbul Pride). However, New York is where it started, with the Stonewall Inn raid, which led to the first Pride parade in 1970.

Luckily, a friend of mine asked me to join in with their group, since in New York to participate-and not to be stuck on the sidelines as a spectator-one needs to be affiliated with a group (see below). In other words, unfortunately, it is impossible just to jump in, which seriously limits the possibility of spontaneous fun!

Much to my dismay, NY Pride is not the protest I imagined, with Corporate America taking a major role, with numerous banks and companies sporting some of the greatest floats and crowds, such as Goldman Sachs and Google. Uber seemed the most gimmicky, sending a message such as "we love gays, use us, and you might even get one of these sexy guys as your driver." Completely insincere.

Whatever the case, I had a great day, and anyone who knows me knows that I love taking photos at protests and parades. So here are 10 of my favorite ones. Enjoy!

1. It was an honor to march with the American Civil Liberties Union,  one of the US's oldest non-profit organizations fighting for civil rights! 

2. While it is easy forget the meaning of Pride, especially with the growing presence of corporate America, this couple was the best reminder how important Pride is! 

3. This group of high school students did not need a float or a car, no loud music and dancing, just lots of energy! 

4. And, then there were the ones that came all decked out! 

5. And, then there were the tattoo lovers.....

6. Don't forget that some are Made in New York!

7. What about the Trojans? (OK, I suppose condoms do count as part of Corporate America, but I give them two thumbs up!) 

8. For a second it seemed we were at the Rio Carnival.....

9. There were cheerleaders as well!

10. The finale: Stonewall! Where it all began! All who passed buty gave the legendary bar threw out a shout in solidarity!