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EDITORIALS

Hasina returns to power
Democracy back on the rails in Bangladesh
T
HE army-backed emergency rule in Bangladesh has ended with a landslide victory for Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led alliance in the keenly contested parliamentary elections there. Her re-emergence at the helm of affairs is significant in many ways.

BJP’s gains
Karnataka byelections a blow to Congress
T
HE ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has reason to feel happy with its performance in the Karnataka byelections. By winning five out of the eight Assembly seats, it has demonstrated its lead in the state’s power structure.

Cheaper air travel
Airlines still face rough weather
M
OST airlines in India have cut fares by 25 per cent. As oil prices have fallen from $147 a barrel in July to below $40 now, the major airlines were expected to reduce fares. It has taken them quite some time to roll back the surcharge and fare hikes.



EARLIER STORIES

Generational change
December 31, 2008
Sonrise
December 30, 2008
Voters’ victory
December 29, 2008
Transformation of polity
December 28, 2008
Abandoned by Pakistan
December 27, 2008
Triumph of democracy
December 26, 2008
Guillotine at work
December 25, 2008
Antics of Antulay
December 24, 2008
PF eaters
December 23, 2008
Sharif nails Zardari lie
December 22, 2008


ARTICLE

2008: a difficult year
Relief not in sight soon
by Arun Kumar
T
HE year 2008 started on a high with the economy doing well, stock markets at a historic high, the real estate sector booming, industrial growth running at upwards of 10 per cent and inflation at a low level. The Finance Minister boasted that the macro-economic fundamentals were good and the Eleventh Plan target of 9 per cent average growth rate viable.

MIDDLE

Path-breaking research
by S. Raghunath
A
reader writing to the “letters” column of a national newspaper has said that the principal reason for the continued “brain drain” from the country is that peons in India are paid more and enjoy a better status than scientists. The Joint Action Front of the National Confederation of Peons (NCP) has taken strong exception to the tone and tenor of the latter calling it “ill-informed, malicious and pre-judged”.

OPED

News analysis
New equations in J&K
Governance emerged as an issue
by Ehsan Fazili
Elections in Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of 18-year-long militancy have evolved from the touchy  (pro-India) “political process”, particularly in the Kashmir valley, in 1996 to the issue of good governance in 2008.

Egypt caught in conflict
by Ashraf Khalil
T
HE relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian government has been little more than one of necessity. And those ties have been strained to the breaking point and possibly damaged beyond repair by the Israeli assault on Hamas that began on Saturday.

Leaders lie, civilians die
by Robert Fisk
W
E’VE got so used to the carnage of West Asia that we don’t care any more – providing we don’t offend the Israelis. It’s not clear how many of the Gaza dead are civilians, but the response of the Bush administration, not to mention the pusillanimous reaction of Gordon Brown, reaffirm for Arabs what they have known for decades: however they struggle against their antagonists, the West will take Israel’s side.

China’s new export: farmers
by Clifford Coonan
Liu Jianjun is wearing a brightly coloured African tunic, the tall hat of a tribal leader, a string of red beads round his neck and carrying a stick with a secret knife in the handle. Beside him sits a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. It is a slightly incongruous scene but one that mirrors the ever-closer relationship between Asia’s economic giant China and the world’s poorest continent.





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Hasina returns to power
Democracy back on the rails in Bangladesh

THE army-backed emergency rule in Bangladesh has ended with a landslide victory for Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League-led alliance in the keenly contested parliamentary elections there. Her re-emergence at the helm of affairs is significant in many ways. The voters have expressed their disapproval of negative politics played by the defeated alliance headed by Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP leader, who was the Prime Minister when the army intervened to set up its own interim government, tried to woo the electorate by creating a fear psychosis vis-à-vis India. The BNP and its key ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh, rarely highlighted development-related issues in a country where there are very few job opportunities and people are reeling under skyrocketing prices. These parties could not provide a satisfactory answer to dispel the charges of promoting corruption at every level during the BNP regime.

The election result is a clear reminder that any party ignoring the issues of development and widespread corruption will not be spared by the politically conscious voters of the country. The Awami League and its allies have won 258 seats in a House of 300 because the people consider their leaders as less corrupt. The League manifesto stressed the need for a change to a corruption-free administration in which religious extremism will have no role to play. The people obviously found it appealing and gave their mandate in favour of the alliance headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The Jamaat, which has been a quiet supporter of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HUJI), a terrorist outfit, has received a well-deserved dressing-down. It could win only two seats against its tally of 11 in the previous Parliament with most of its top leaders suffering a humiliating defeat.

The people’s verdict for an Awami League-led government reflects their desire for friendly relations with India. Sheikh Hasina stands for ending negative politics, which has been coming in the way of better ties with India. Both Bangladesh and India have their grievances against each other, but these can be redressed in an amicable atmosphere. Both countries will gain immensely by promoting a relationship of goodwill and trust. Bangladesh, virtually floating on a sea of natural gas, can be a major beneficiary by exporting gas to India and facilitating investment from Indian companies. India also can buy more merchandise from Bangladesh to improve relations between the two neighbours. Given goodwill and understanding between New Delhi and Dhaka, most bilateral problems can be solved without any difficulty.

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BJP’s gains
Karnataka byelections a blow to Congress

THE ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has reason to feel happy with its performance in the Karnataka byelections. By winning five out of the eight Assembly seats, it has demonstrated its lead in the state’s power structure. The B.S. Yediyurappa government has now secured an absolute majority seven months after it captured power in the state. While its strength in the 224-member House has gone up to 115 from 110, the government now enjoys the support of 121 members with the backing of six Independents. The byelections were a prestige issue for the BJP’s first government in Karnataka as seven legislators — three Congress and four Janata Dal (Secular) — resigned from the State Assembly to join the BJP. Among the newly elected members are four ministers. Under the Anti-Defection Act, if a member defects to another party, he has to resign from his membership and seek a re-election to avoid disqualification.

The results are seen as a setback for both the Congress and the JD (S). Both conducted a high-voltage campaign against the BJP. They urged the people to punish the “defectors” during the campaign. However, the voters seem to have preferred the BJP’s stability platform. One reason for its success is the failure of the Congress and the JD (S) to arrive at an electoral understanding after half-hearted attempts from both sides. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s JD (S) has captured three seats. While his two sons continue to call the shots in the party, his daughter-in-law, Anita Kumaraswamy, has now entered the Assembly. Wife of Mr H.D. Kumaraswamy, former chief minister, she has won the Madhugiri seat.

The Congress came a cropper in the byelections, raising questions about its ability to put up an impressive performance in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. Apparently, the people were not impressed by its new state president, Mr R.V. Deshpande and working president, Mr D.K. Shivakumar. This may embolden Mr Deve Gowda to demand a large slice of the Lok Sabha seats from the Congress if there is any scope for rapprochement between them. In any case, the Congress will have to rework its strategies to improve its performance in the Lok Sabha elections and announce a programme for which the BJP has no answer.

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Cheaper air travel
Airlines still face rough weather

MOST airlines in India have cut fares by 25 per cent. As oil prices have fallen from $147 a barrel in July to below $40 now, the major airlines were expected to reduce fares. It has taken them quite some time to roll back the surcharge and fare hikes. Perhaps, they were recouping the losses suffered earlier in the year. The cut in fares may cheer domestic travellers, but they have to cope with delayed flights due to fog and congestion at airports. Many price-sensitive, middle-class commuters had abandoned planes to travel by train after air fares shot up and incentives were withdrawn. Low-cost flying came to a sudden halt.

Despite relief from costly fuel, there seems no immediate end to woes of the airlines, whose combined losses are estimated at $2 billion this financial year. The capital-intensive aviation industry faces a severe cash crunch. The state sales taxes on jet fuel are very high at 26 per cent and the government appears in no mood to slash them. However, the government has given the industry a six-month reprieve from repaying debts. The airport authorities are under pressure to delay the collection of usage charges. Thanks to domestic and global economic slowdown, there has been a slump in tourist traffic. Only 30 lakh passengers flew in November against 38 lakh in November last year.

All this has forced the air carriers to cut short the mindless expansion spree, cancel flights to less-in-demand foreign destinations and send surplus staff on paid leave where retrenchment is not possible. As if financial troubles were not enough, the terrorist strikes in Mumbai gave another blow to tourism. Some developed countries have issued an advisory against travelling to India. To regain health, the airlines need tax relief, efficient managements and world-class infrastructure. Congested airports are in need of urgent expansion and passengers want hassle-free travel at a reasonable cost.

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Thought for the Day

It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.

— William Shakespeare

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2008: a difficult year
Relief not in sight soon
by Arun Kumar

THE year 2008 started on a high with the economy doing well, stock markets at a historic high, the real estate sector booming, industrial growth running at upwards of 10 per cent and inflation at a low level. The Finance Minister boasted that the macro-economic fundamentals were good and the Eleventh Plan target of 9 per cent average growth rate viable. There was little inkling that policy making circles understood that a deep economic downturn had set in India and the entire world.

Contrasting this rosy picture, the year has ended with widespread reports of declining employment, stock markets down by 50 per cent to the levels of 2006, declining real estate markets, poor industrial growth and exports showing negative growth and many components of the services sector declining rather than rising. This has happened despite the unprecedented interventions by the government and the Reserve Bank — the infusion of massive liquidity, a huge supplementary budget and the announcement of the first package of fiscal stimulus soon to be followed by a second one. The FRBM has been given a quiet burial.

The year also saw much turmoil due to a rapid acceleration of inflation from its lows in January to the highs in the middle and to a rapid decline at the end. It seemed that the government had lost control because at one point it admitted that it could do little to keep inflation in check by pleading that it was stable and not rising further.

Internationally, the crude oil prices, which had reached a peak of around $150 per barrel, have sharply fallen to around $40 in spite of the threatened cut in production by oil producers. In fact, many like Goldman Sachs had predicted that the price of crude would be around $200 by the end of 2008. Similarly, given the blistering pace of the rise in the BSE, experts predicted that it would touch 30,000 — three times the level ruling currently. All this calls into question the expertise of the so-called experts and policy makers.

The year began with policy makers and experts suggesting a decoupling between the Asian and the US and European economies. They suggested that the rapidly growing economies of Asia will provide the boost to the advanced economies so that there would be a soft landing for the world. This was based more on hope and hype rather than on analysis (As argued in these columns on February 6, 2008).

These economies were already at their peak growth rates and could not double them which was required to compensate for a decline in the rates of growth in the OECD economies. Further, since China is heavily dependent on exports to these economies and India is much more open than earlier, if anything, their rates of growth were bound to fall. These two economies could not move in a direction opposite to that of the bigger economies, as events have borne out. Clearly, all along, the policy makers and experts have been hoodwinking by denying the reality. They also fooled themselves and did not take timely steps so that the situation became worse than it should have, and now everyone is paying for it.

The rich have lost a lot of paper wealth on their financial assets where much of their savings were invested. These people also had a substantial amount of their black wealth stashed away abroad because this was invested in financial instruments. These people were also operating real, nuts and bolts companies or offices and due to the slowdown, these are in trouble. The contagion has spread from the financial markets to the real economy.

All this has impacted the middle classes who have linkages in the organised sectors. Many of them are in the process of losing jobs and their children are not getting the good jobs they expected. Further, a large part of their savings in financial assets — stocks, real estate, mutual funds, etc. — have been wiped out. In recent times they were lured by stories of high returns, and greed won over caution. Many NRIs will possibly return as they lose jobs abroad and add to the employment pressures. Remittances that supported many families are likely to dry up, leaving families in trouble. Public sector employees with safe employment will have a good time as prices fall.

Some argue that the poor will not be hit by the current crisis because they are marginal to the market and especially the financial markets. This is fallacious because the marginal are coercively linked to the markets in a one-way relationship. While they derived little benefits from the high but marginalising growth, they will suffer from the decline. Even if they lose a few rupees a day of income, it will be calamitous for them since they are at the edge of survival.

As unemployment builds up the world over, wages will fall and disguised unemployment will rise. The price fall will help but not enough. Employers in the unorganised sectors and the rich farmers, who will be squeezed by the crisis, will put the squeeze downwards and affect adversely the incomes of the poor. Government programmes like rural employment schemes can help the poor but corruption moderates its effect.

Agriculture in India has been increasingly export-oriented, and there has been a shift towards commercial crops and high-cost agriculture. The markets for these commodities have declined sharply and the slide can continue unless prices are sharply lowered, but then the surplus farmers will lose out. The traders will put the squeeze downwards and the farmers will do the same to the landless workers.

In India, big and medium-sized firms buy from the smaller units in the unorganised sectors. As these units face a decline in demand, they will be forced to shut partially or wholly, reduce shifts and cut prices which is possible only if they squeeze either the wages or the smaller ancillary suppliers (possibly both) who in turn will squeeze their workers. Thus, wages of workers are likely to decline all around and their employment curtailed.

Governments all over the world have put together huge packages of interventions to prevent their financial sectors from collapsing but done relatively little for the real economy and the poor. This has certainly slowed the decline but it is still continuing. The problem this time is different than in 1929 and much deeper, linked to the basics of the world economic system. Merely trying to reflate the economies without any basic change will not work.

In India, the NEP, launched in 1991, depended on the proper functioning of the global financial system. But because this is now collapsing, the success of NEP is in doubt. While the marginalised sections were suffering and continue to suffer, now the beneficiaries of the NEP are being grievously hurt. In the changed global scenario, the NEP need a rethink.

Many companies are close to bankruptcy if not bankrupt; the public does not trust the present financial system. So it has ground to a halt and due to extreme uncertainty, everyone wishes to remain liquid rather than invest. The crisis has been building since 2006 without our recognising it and we are still groping for solutions because these have to be out of box and this will take time.

If the social and political situation deteriorates with rising unemployment and destitution, then even big economic interventions will not succeed and governments will become helpless. While 2008 has closed on a difficult note, 2009 appears to be heading for deeper trouble.

The writer teaches at JNU, New Delhi.

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Path-breaking research
by S. Raghunath

A reader writing to the “letters” column of a national newspaper has said that the principal reason for the continued “brain drain” from the country is that peons in India are paid more and enjoy a better status than scientists.

The Joint Action Front of the National Confederation of Peons (NCP) has taken strong exception to the tone and tenor of the latter calling it “ill-informed, malicious and pre-judged”.

Talking to newsmen, a spokespeon said, “Peons in India have been quiescent for far too long and it’s about time we took a stand and informed the public that we peons are engaged in path-breaking research in many cutting-edge fields and let me elaborate briefly.”

“Visitors to government offices might have seen peons sitting motionless for hours on rickety wooden stools. Actually, this is part of a well-funded and on-going research in Three-dimensional structural analysis of dead load weights whose end objective is the design and development and productionisation of one-legged wooden stools for use in government offices. Just imagine the amount of wood saved by the manufacturer of one-legged stools!”

The spokespeon continued: “It might be of interest to you that we peons are presently engaged in research in Human Psychology and Behavioural Sciences — a realm not trodden by even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. We let people who visit government offices to transact legitimate business wait for hours and give maddeningly vague and evasive answers to plaintive queries, “Can I see the officer now?” and under controlled conditions, we study the effect of our conduct on their blood pressure and mental balance and stress levels. We peons are doing research in these greenfield and esoteric areas and what do we get in return? Only brickbats and not bouquets.”

“I want to go on record as saying that peons in India are into Textile and Fibre Chemistry and research. We wear the same dirty khaki uniform for months on end without washing them even once and we study the effect of human sweat on artificial fibre with the ultimate aim of developing sweat-resistant artificial clothing and we expect that this will revolutionise the textile industry worldwide.”

“No aspect of research has escaped our attention and you might be pleasantly surprised to know that we are engaged in motion-centric medical research, too. We routinely go out of our offices every 10 minutes to fetch coffee and tea for the babus and we study the effect of caffeine on the human body and under laboratory conditions. We’ve observed that caffeine induces marked lethargy in disposing of important files of public interest, alacrity in tying the red tape and demanding the immediate implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations. We’ve submitted learned papers to The Lancet and the British Medical Journal and they’re being held over for publication.

The spokespeon concluded his media briefing: “So you can see for yourself that peons are contributing in their humble way and away from the glare of publicity, to scientific advancement and enlightenment.

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News analysis
New equations in J&K
Governance emerged as an issue
by Ehsan Fazili

Elections in Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of 18-year-long militancy have evolved from the touchy (pro-India) “political process”, particularly in the Kashmir valley, in 1996 to the issue of good governance in 2008.

If it was the restoration of a democratic set-up after nearly seven long years of Governor’s rule in 1996, and providing a healing touch to the common man sandwiched between state and militants in 2002, the voters this time have given a mandate for the fulfilment of their respective regional or local aspirations.

The grant of autonomy, self rule, infrastructure development and the resolution of the Kashmir issue for peace in the sub-continent have been the common issues for all the three major players — the National Conference, the PDP and the Congress.

The 2008 elections have also clearly indicated the acceptance of a coalition culture in place of single-party rule, though there has been one instance of an alliance government, which had fallen with the eruption of militancy in the state.

The recent elections have further divided the two regions of Kashmir and Jammu on regional and communal lines thanks to the Amarnath land row which, in turn, had led to the premature fall of the Azad-led coalition government in July this year.

The row cast its shadow on the poll performance of the Congress in Jammu, where its opponent, the BJP, managed to get the highest number of 11 seats so far in the state, reducing the Congress to 17 seats from 22 in the last elections.

The Congress mantra on the issue of development during its three-year term did not get the desired results, though the party had been banking more on Jammu seats than those in Kashmir, which is not supposed to be its home ground.

In the Kashmir valley, the Amarnath land row had its impact as well, hitting the PDP against its expectations, which had been visible in the defeat of the former Forest Minister, Qazi Mohammad Afzal, from Ganderbal.

The influence was also seen in all the eight vital constituencies of Srinagar district maintaining the NC’s magic 28 number like that in 2002.

The poll percentage, much to the satisfaction of the government, has gone up to 20 per cent in eight constituencies of Srinagar against only 5 per cent in 2002.

This, however, hampered the increasing graph of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has otherwise managed to get 21seats against only 16 in the last elections.

The National Conference had got only five of the eight in Srinagar district in the last Assembly. One had gone to the Congress and two were won by independents. Later the PDP managed to wrest the Batamaloo seat in the by-elections after the death of senior NC leader, Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah, in 2004.

Despite the separatist boycott campaign, there has been a fairly good turnout in the last three elections held since 1996, though there was a decline in the poll percentage in 2002. While it was registered at 54.04 per cent in 1996 and 61 per cent in 2008, it was only 43.69 per cent in 2002 elections.

The Lok Sabha elections in 1989 to the three constituencies of the Kashmir valley — Srinagar, Anantnag and Baramulla — were also influenced in the initial stages of the separatist movement. While Srinagar did not go to the polls with the unopposed election of an NC candidate, there was a single digit poll percentage in the Anantnag and Baramulla constituencies.

And the past two assembly and two Lok Sabha elections in the state since 1999 have seen the growth of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) of the former Union Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Mufti and his daughter, Mehbooba, after quitting the Congress, constituted the PDP in 1999. It emerged as an alternative regional party against the National Conference. Due to the presence of the PDP on the scene, the base of the National Conference, which ruled the state for 27 years uptill 2002, has been eroded in most parts of Kashmir valley.

The PDP has made inroads into the bastions of the NC in south Kashmir, where the NC could manage to retain its two seats out of 16 in all. The National Conference got 57 in the 87-member Legislative Assembly in 1996, but stagnated at 28 in both the two last elections.

Thus, the PDP’s gain is regarded as the NC’s loss in the Kashmir valley, both of which continue to be political arch-rivals. The peoples’ verdict in favour of the three major players — the NC, the PDP and the Congress — has led to new political equations in the state, with all the three former chief ministers (following the eruption of militancy) having been elected to the state legislative assembly.

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Egypt caught in conflict
by Ashraf Khalil

THE relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian government has been little more than one of necessity. And those ties have been strained to the breaking point and possibly damaged beyond repair by the Israeli assault on Hamas that began on Saturday.

At this point, it is no longer clear whether Egypt can even continue to play its traditional mediating role in Palestinian affairs.

“I’m worried that Egypt has destroyed its chances to play that role,” said Moustafa Barghouti, an independent member of the Palestinian Parliament. “To be an effective mediator, you have to maintain an equal distance from all sides.”

Egypt, which fears the rise of Islamic militancy, faces accusations from Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, that it is actively supporting the Israeli campaign by continuing to keep its border with Gaza sealed at a time when its residents are vulnerable to Israeli missile strikes, which have been killing civilians as well as Hamas fighters in Gaza.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government, which sealed the border more than a year ago when Hamas took military control of Gaza, has blamed Hamas for the suffering of the Gazans and implied that the movement is an Iranian proxy.

Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, won Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in early 2006 and seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Fatah movement in mid-2007. Since then, Israel has tightened a blockade against Gaza, and Egypt, the only Arab country sharing a border with Gaza, has refused to open it, fearing increased Hamas influence and the responsibility for 1.5 million hungry Gazans.

In the aftermath of the Israeli bombardment that began Saturday, Egypt has continued to keep its Rafah border crossing mostly closed — opening it briefly to admit a few dozen critically wounded Palestinians and allow several truckloads of aid to enter.

Hamas and its allies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, say the actions prove that Mubarak collaborates with Israel and the West. In a statement Monday, Hamas said: “We call upon the Egyptian authorities to stop these strange positions which are not consistent with the positions of the Egyptian people and their historical positions in supporting the Palestinian cause.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was even more direct, charging earlier this week that Egypt’s government was “taking part in the crime” against Palestinians and calling on Egyptians to force open the Rafah crossing.

Nasrallah’s sentiments echo the feelings of many in Egypt, who sympathize with Palestinians in Gaza. And across the Arab world, many chafe at the sight of Egyptian police shooting in the air to scare Gazans away from the border.

On Tuesday, an angry crowd stormed the Egyptian consulate in the Yemeni city of Aden. News reports said protesters trashed the building, burned the Egyptian flag on the roof and hoisted a pro-Palestinian banner in its place.

But not all Egyptians sympathize with such actions. Many in Cairo believe their nation has paid enough for the sake of the Palestinian cause, fighting four wars and losing tens of thousands of soldiers.

On Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Nasrallah had “insulted the Egyptian people” and implied that Hamas and Hezbollah were both vehicles for Iran’s regional ambitions.

“There are Iranian motives driving Arab parties to play in the interests of Iran,” Aboul Gheit said. Mubarak, in a televised address Tuesday, criticized Israel and Hamas. He condemned the “savage aggression” of the Israeli assault and said the Jewish state’s “bloodstained hands are stirring up feelings of enormous anger.”

But Mubarak also accused Hamas of bringing the carnage on its own people by refusing to renew the truce that expired Dec. 19.

“We warned (Hamas) repeatedly that rejecting the truce would push Israel to aggression against Gaza,” Mubarak said.

Cairo has long feared Hamas’ historical and ideological ties with its sister Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On Tuesday, Egyptian police arrested 23 brotherhood members on their way to a pro-Hamas rally.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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Leaders lie, civilians die
by Robert Fisk

WE’VE got so used to the carnage of West Asia that we don’t care any more – providing we don’t offend the Israelis. It’s not clear how many of the Gaza dead are civilians, but the response of the Bush administration, not to mention the pusillanimous reaction of Gordon Brown, reaffirm for Arabs what they have known for decades: however they struggle against their antagonists, the West will take Israel’s side. As usual, the bloodbath was the fault of the Arabs – who, as we all know, only understand force.

Ever since 1948, we’ve been hearing this balderdash from the Israelis – just as Arab nationalists and then Arab Islamists have been peddling their own lies: that the Zionist “death wagon” will be overthrown, that all Jerusalem will be “liberated”. And always Mr Bush Snr or Mr Clinton or Mr Bush Jnr or Mr Blair or Mr Brown have called upon both sides to exercise “restraint” – as if the Palestinians and the Israelis both have F-18s and Merkava tanks and field artillery. Hamas’s home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, but a day-long blitz by Israeli aircraft that kills almost 300 Palestinians is just par for the course.

The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel’s anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas’s anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which ... See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and ... Got it? And we demand security for Israel – rightly – but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was “under siege” – as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

By last night, the exchange rate stood at 296 Palestinians dead for one dead Israeli. Back in 2006, it was 10 Lebanese dead for one Israeli dead. This weekend was the most inflationary exchange rate in a single day since – the 1973 West Asian War? The 1967 Six Day War?

The 1956 Suez War? The 1948 Independence/Nakba War? It’s obscene, a gruesome game – which Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, unconsciously admitted when he spoke this weekend to Fox TV. “Our intention is to totally change the rules of the game,” Barak said.

Exactly. Only the “rules” of the game don’t change. This is a further slippage on the Arab-Israeli exchanges, a percentage slide more awesome than Wall Street’s crashing shares, though of not much interest in the US which – let us remember – made the F-18s and the Hellfire missiles which the Bush administration pleads with Israel to use sparingly.

Quite a lot of the dead this weekend appear to have been Hamas members, but what is it supposed to solve? Is Hamas going to say: “Wow, this blitz is awesome – we’d better recognise the state of Israel, fall in line with the Palestinian Authority, lay down our weapons and pray we are taken prisoner and locked up indefinitely and support a new American ‘peace process’ in the Middle East!” Is that what the Israelis and the Americans and Gordon Brown think Hamas is going to do?

Yes, let’s remember Hamas’s cynicism, the cynicism of all armed Islamist groups. Their need for Muslim martyrs is as crucial to them as Israel’s need to create them. The lesson Israel thinks it is teaching – come to heel or we will crush you – is not the lesson Hamas is learning.

We hear the usual Israeli line. General Yaakov Amidror, the former head of the Israeli army’s “research and assessment division” announced that “no country in the world would allow its citizens to be made the target of rocket attacks without taking vigorous steps to defend them”. Quite so.

But when the IRA were firing mortars over the border into Northern Ireland, when their guerrillas were crossing from the Republic to attack police stations and Protestants, did Britain unleash the RAF on the Irish Republic? Did the RAF bomb churches and tankers and police stations and zap 300 civilians to teach the Irish a lesson? No, it did not. Because the world would have seen it as criminal behaviour. We didn’t want to lower ourselves to the IRA’s level.

Yes, Israel deserves security. But these bloodbaths will not bring it. Not since 1948 have air raids protected Israel. Israel has bombed Lebanon thousands of times since 1975 and not one has eliminated “terrorism”. So what was the reaction last night? The Israelis threaten ground attacks. Hamas waits for another battle. Our Western politicians crouch in their funk holes. And somewhere to the east – in a cave? a basement? on a mountainside? – a well-known man in a turban smiles.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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China’s new export: farmers
by Clifford Coonan

Liu Jianjun is wearing a brightly coloured African tunic, the tall hat of a tribal leader, a string of red beads round his neck and carrying a stick with a secret knife in the handle. Beside him sits a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong. It is a slightly incongruous scene but one that mirrors the ever-closer relationship between Asia’s economic giant China and the world’s poorest continent.

“The African people yell, ‘Mao Zedong is all right’ and they are very warm-hearted when I’m there,” says one of China’s most prominent private sector ambassadors. “The minute Chinese people get off the plane, the Africans are friendly. Chinese do not bring rifles and weapons; they bring seeds and technology.”

China’s Ministry of Commerce triumphantly announced this month that its bilateral trade with the continent is set to hit $100bn (£67.8bn) by the end of 2008, two years ahead of schedule. Africa’s plentiful oilfields and rich mineral deposits are top of China’s imports, and in return the world’s most populous nation is exporting tens of thousands of its countrymen.

By some estimates, 750,000 Chinese people have spent time on the continent or have moved to Africa permanently to do business and take advantage of the natural resources. And Hebei, the province from where the middle-aged Mr Liu hails, is no exception. He reckons 10,000 farmers from Hebei alone have gone to 18 African countries in the past few years.

They work in “Baoding villages”, named after the dusty township where Mr Liu lives; he likes to point out that Baoding means “Protection and peace”. The villages, ranging in size from 400 to 2,000 Chinese, have been set up across the continent, from Nigeria to Kenya, from Sudan to Zambia.

It is a winning formula for China, which has more than 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 7 per cent of its arable land. “China has too many people and too little land,” Mr Liu ponts out. “In Africa, they have plenty of land and too few farmers. Places such as Ivory Coast are short of 400,000 tonnes of food a year, and the local people cannot farm enough to feed the population. Local farming skills are not developed.”

Although China has witnessed astounding economic growth, albeit slowing in recent months, there is a yawning gap between the city and the countryside, and the largely rural hinterland remains poor. So for Chinese farmers in places such as Hebei, the prospect of earning up to £7,000 a year in Africa is remarkably attractive, allowing them to send home vital remittances.

It is not just individuals who are capitalising on an abundance of workers to send over to Africa. The head of China’s Export-Import Bank, Li Ruogu, pledged to help finance emigration to Africa as part of a rapid urbanisation scheme in the western Chinese city of Chongqing, already reckoned the world’s biggest metropolitan area with 32 million people. “With the establishment of the rapid urbanisation project, several million farmers will have to move,” Mr Li told the People’s Daily.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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