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April 25, 2012

Back to Daraa

Syria under lockdown
We travel back to Daraa, where the nation’s uprising began, to find a city under complete military control
By and , GlobalPost

In this image made from amateur video released by the Shaam News Network and accessed Wednesday, April 18, 2012, smoke billows an impact following purported shelling in Khaldiyeh district, Homs, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video) (Credit: AP)

A GlobalPost journalist, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, reported this story from Daraa, Syria. Hugh Macleod contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon. This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

DARAA, Syria — In the heart of Old Daraa — the tough, tribal, farming community on Syria’s southern border with Jordan — the Omari Mosque once stood as a symbol of resistance, a gathering point for those demanding the end of the regime, and a field hospital for when they received their reply.

Global PostToday, a year after GlobalPost first visited the city where Syria’s uprising began, the mosque has been transformed into a military base. Cement rooms have been built around its walls, home to dozens of soldiers.

The snipers who picked off civilians during the siege here last year are still posted atop the highest buildings and the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and the regime’s many security agencies.

Tanks and armored vehicles remain deployed not only inside the main city itself — in violation of the UN-Arab League cease-fire plan — but around most towns and villages where anti-regime protests have taken place.

On road signs, bridges, schools and clinics the graffiti slogan that children first scrawled back in March 2011 still stands: “The people want to topple the regime.”

Dozens of checkpoints still ring Daraa and divide its streets and neighborhoods. Soldiers and secret police mete out arbitrary humiliation, residents said, often abusing women or making locals wait an hour in the blazing sun while they leisurely finish their cigarettes and tea.

Locals said government services are running at a minimum and state employees now regularly work only one or two days a week. The shops are open again, but night markets are a thing of the past as shutters come down promptly at 7 p.m., just before the regular nightly clashes between regime troops and armed rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

Exactly one year after first visiting this city, which gave birth to the Syrian uprising, a GlobalPost reporter described Daraa as “dying,” a “demolished battlefield” where residents complain bitterly about the destruction of their livelihoods and discuss international military intervention, finding arms to fight and other means to bring down the regime.

As the first major city to suffer a full military assault, the situation in Daraa could foreshadow the fate that likely awaits Homs, Hama and other major protest centers if the regime re-exerts long-term security control over urban opposition strongholds.

“We know that if we give up now the regime will finish us later,” said Abu Rami, a member of the Zuabi tribe, one of the four big tribal families that dominate Syria’s south, a land of black basalt rock, known to locals as the Houran.

“To keep our revolution going now costs less than if we stay at home until the army or security men come and slaughter us like sheep.”

One of Abu Rami’s cousins was among the 15 schoolboys whom security forces arrested last March for spray-painting anti-regime graffiti. The boys were tortured, sparking the mass protest movement. A year later, the 40-year-old said that security forces have killed at least 70 members of the Zuabi tribe. Each one — under the local system of tribal law — represents a blood feud between the tribe and the regime.

To travel from his home in Old Daraa’s Arbaeen quarter into the city center means Abu Rami must pass through three checkpoints, his every movement monitored by snipers.

Protests still go on across the Houran most Fridays, but they are now usually small and unable to join together as they did this time last year.

And every weekend, Syrian activist groups report the endless morbid toll: Reem Abdul Rahman, 17, killed in Giza yesterday, a day after her brother; Adel Ghaleb al-Zuabi, died of wounds untreated in Taiba; Ali al-Turk, tortured to death after being arrested in Al Karak al-Sharwi eight days ago; an unknown male from Heet, detained and tortured to death; Mahmoud al-Badawi, also from Heet, whose body was discovered in the village of Sahm, bearing the scars of torture.

All of these fatalities were from Daraa, just one area of Syria. The respected Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) confirmed their deaths on Sunday. All told, the SNHR found 25 people killed on Sunday in Syria, a modest toll by the standards of the past month.

Against this backdrop of everyday long-term violence, even overtly non-political residents of Daraa appear to be becoming increasingly radicalized against the regime.

Ali is a 45-year-old engineer who works for the state and lives comfortably in a big house with his wife, four children and elderly parents in Daraa’s Qusour district. For the past year, however, Ali’s middle-class status has taken a serious hit: With regular electricity blackouts lasting between 12 and 14 hours, Ali can’t keep fresh food in his fridge, and his children have to study by candle or flashlight.

If his parents need medical treatment they can no longer seek it for free at the state-run Daraa National Hospital because Ali said the facility has been taken over by the military for the treatment of injured soldiers, secret police and armed pro-regime thugs.

Instead, they must travel to Damascus and endure the one aspect of the regime’s vice-like grip on Daraa that irks Ali the most: checkpoints.

“I am an engineer and earn a good income and have no problems with the government. But when I cross any checkpoint, the security men deal with me as if I am an armed fighter,” Ali said. “They don’t respect anyone: The elderly, women, the educated, they see all people as nothing.”

Last week, as he was trying to cross a checkpoint, Ali said a young member of the secret police took his ID and slapped him in the face with it.

“He said, ‘I’ve seen you before.’ He was joking and making fun of me. I felt so angry, but what can I do? It is very easy for him to shoot me and say that I am an armed fighter. No one will investigate or hold him accountable.”

As well as IDs, residents of Daraa wishing to travel north to the capital must now show security men at checkpoints their recently paid electricity, water and phone bills, a move by the regime to counter the spread of civil disobedience in protest centers like Daraa and Hama where residents began burning their municipality bills.

With so many checkpoints choking it off, Ali said many large food companies no longer send their trucks to Daraa, creating spiraling inflation on basic commodities.

Many of Ali’s neighbors have moved to the slum-like illegal housing areas that have sprung up around Damascus over the past decade. Ali chose to stay in Daraa to continue working his government job but makes regular trips to Damascus to buy dry foodstuffs rather than pay exorbitant local prices.

And every time he travels he faces the same checkpoint humiliation.

“The military and security crackdown pushed the people to be more angry and radical but without solving any problems,” Ali said. “Personally, I used to be very supportive of Bashar al-Assad, but today I am not.”

More GlobalPost

  • Syria: How it all began

    A single act of brutality by Assad’s secret police ignited protests that swept the country
    Hugh Macleod and a reporter in Syria April 23, 2011
  • source

Harvard Israel conference presents ‘innovation’ to hide occupation

by on April 23, 2012 20

(Image: Facebook)

As a response to the highly successful One State Conference at Harvard held last month, a number of Harvard undergraduate and graduate students recently organized the Israel Conference. According to its website and an op-ed by the conference’s organizers, the conference is meant to showcase Israel’s innovation – in a way that is palatable to all parties involved in activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speakers at the conference included Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson, Governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer, the author of the book “Start-Up Nation” Dan Senor, Dennis Ross and a number of other panelists and entrepreneurs.Unfortunately, the Israel Conference brought to campus individuals whose disregard for international law raises questions regarding the conference’s dubious educational quality.

At least two panelists – Asaf Bar Ilan and Michael Eisenberg – are involved in illegal settlement activities. The first owns a farm in the occupied Golan Heights – territory that belongs to Syria and has been occupied by Israel since 1967. The second sits on the board of a religious and military school in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank. Both of these cases are a direct affront to the Geneva Conventions, which explicitly forbid the expropriation and settlement of occupied land by citizens of the hostile state – in this case, Israel. Sustainable innovation that deserves praise does not stem from illegal activities. The involvement of two panelists who violate international law in their daily lives proves the conference’s lack of credibility, and reflects quite clearly the inextricability of Israeli “innovation” from the occupation of Palestinian land and violation of Palestinian rights.  (Screenshots:


As troubling as the presence of settlers coming to speak at a university is (we’ve been long since sadly habituated by the presence of both IDF and US military officials as a regular presence), so too is the attempt by the conference organizers to recast Israel purely as an “innovation state” an undeniable propaganda effort.

After being called out for their whitewashing efforts in an op-ed by fellow Palestine Solidarity Committee member Alex Shams, being faced with the facts of Israel’s innovation-Occupation duo in another op-ed, and being faced with a counter-campaign whose posters you can see below, the conference organizers published another op-ed defending their enterprise using the tattered shield of “we self-sacrificing Israelis only want peace but get nothing but rockets in return.” Aside from the fact that any kind of terrorism directed at civilians is a war crime and is never condoned, depicting the so-called peace process as an Israeli-only enterprise blindly buries the efforts of thousands of Palestinians (and citizens of other countries) who have dedicated their lives to achieving a solution for this conflict. It seems, however, that in addition to trying to conceal the unpleasant matter of the Occupation underneath Israeli success stories, the conference organizers are also trying to bury decades of global peace struggle in the same casket where Israel apologists have interred nonviolent Palestinian resistance and where they are trying to (metaphorically) entomb pro-peace Israeli activists and NGOs.


This poster was part of a media campaign run by a number of independent individuals at Harvard to challenge the assumptions and publicity of the Israel Conference and instead present the public with a different perspective on the roots of Israeli innovation: ethnic cleansing, the Occupation, and foreign subsidies.

The text says: “Come learn the exciting secrets of the vibrant ‘start up nation’ & the realities of Israeli innovation. After ethnically cleansing 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, we demolished their homes and built farms and parks on top. Or as we say, ‘made the desert bloom!’

Since occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, we have explored diverse and exciting new ways to start wars against our neighbors. Indeed, Israel is forever optimistic about its ability to never be held accountable for its crimes under international law!

Is it sustainable? Since 1949, Israel has received about $109 billion in US aid, including $3 billion in 2011, despite being one of the most developed countries on Earth!”

An image of Mr. Fischer’s presentation.

At the conference itself, a friend of mine who attended told me how Niall Ferguson, Harvard history professor and one of the keynote speakers, engaged in the classic game of listing Arab versus Jewish inventions, proving the point (as if that needed to be done) that the conference is nothing but a political propaganda tool. Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel and other keynote speaker, decided to focus instead on the demographic threat posed by Arab population growth rates – another Zionist trope and indication that the main course “innovation” comes with a side of fear politics and demagoguery.

At the end of the day, no one asked – or rather attempted to coerce – Harvard University to shut down the Israel Conference or dissociate itself from it, as was done by vocal pro-Israel groups for the One State Conference. Instead we hope that all attendees, both Harvard-affiliated and not, will see through this hasbara wall engraved with upward-trending NASDAQ arrows and understand what it hides: the legitimization of the settler movement, a distortion of the history of the “peace process”, a decades-old colonial establishment, and “sustainable innovation” based on extensive foreign aid and lack of legal accountability.

About Giacomo Bagarella

Giacomo Bagarella is a Government and Psychology undergraduate student at Harvard. He is one of the co-chairs of the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee. Giacomo has spent the last two summer in the Middle East, studying Arabic in Jordan and working for a human rights organization in Cairo.

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