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Russia pushes Viktor Yanukovych to stare down protests as EU puts Ukraine deal on ice – World – CBC News
By Don Murray, CBC News Posted: Dec 16, 2013 5:00 AM ET Last Updated: Dec 16, 2013 5:08 AM ET
- Pro-European integration protesters take part in a rally at Independence Square in Kyiv on Dec. 15, 2013. Thousands gathered on Sunday for a rally against President Viktor Yanukovich just days before he heads for a meeting at the Kremlin which the opposition fears will slam the door on integration with the European Union. (Alexander Demianchu/Reuters)
Eye on Europe
A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.
Winters are long and winters of discontent more frequent in the biggest states of the ex-Soviet Union. At Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the crowds arrived weeks ago.
Days later the police arrived, too, and tried violently to dislodge them. Instead, the police fell back,and the next day the crowds were several times larger, growing to more than half a million people.
This winter confrontation mirrors another two years ago in Moscow and an earlier one in Kyiv as well in 2004. Both were marked by large crowds, and great enthusiasm; both were followed by failure.
The Moscow failure was obvious; a few months later Vladimir Putin, the object of the demonstrators’ fury, was elected president of Russia by a comfortable majority.
The 2004 demonstrations in Ukraine — the so-called Orange Revolution — are more paradoxical, though they seemed, at the time, a success.
Their goal was to prevent the fraudulent election of Viktor Yanukovych as president, and in that they succeeded.
Yet two years later, he and his party triumphed in parliamentary elections and he became prime minister; and in 2010 he was elected president in a vote that outside observers accepted as largely untainted.
Man of controversy
But Yanukovych seems to ignite controversy in whatever he does. This latest cold-weather confrontation began after he refused, at the last minute, to sign a deal offered by the European Union.
The deal would have allowed for Ukraine to assume associate status, and thereby enjoy a free-trade deal with the 28 European states.
Why refuse? Because Russia, the Russia of Putin — the man who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century — was offering more.
More money to Ukraine as an incentive, and more penalties — higher gas prices, indeed a cut in gas supplies — as a whip if Ukraine didn’t sign up to his post-Soviet customs union.
Yanukovych, as his wont, dithered, and played for time.
In Kyiv, the demonstrators replied by tearing down a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the dictatorial founder of the Soviet Union, a man Putin admires.
Yanukovych clearly hadn’t expected to face a second Orange Revolution in the streets.
He tried force; it merely magnified the crowds. He dismissed lieutenants who had carried out the orders to crack down. The opposition was unimpressed: It demanded the heads of his prime minister and minister of the interior. But their heads stayed on.
The crowds that dug in and grew are the Ukrainians who see Europe and the EU as their future. They are, for the most part, from Western Ukraine.
But Ukraine is a divided country. In the industrialized East, Yanukovych’s stronghold, many voters are native Russian speakers and see their future with Moscow.
They are the ones his regime brings in by special train to counter-demonstrations in Kyiv, though many do so with little enthusiasm.
“I really don’t trust our politicians,” said one man taking part in the pro-Yanukovych demonstration on the weekend. “I don’t the like opposition leaders. But, of course, the president is an idiot, too.”
Calling his bluff
The “idiot,” however, clings to power, supported by the power ministries, like the police, the security forces and the army. But, short of resorting to lethal repression, they seem powerless to stop the popular uprising.
The vague U.S. threat of economic sanctions following the aborted police crackdown, and the appearance at Independence Square on the weekend of American Senator John McCain, in support of the demonstrators, has only added to the headaches of the Ukrainian president.
Yanukovych’s bluff in recent days, of promising to continue negotiations with the EU and devise some sort of interim deal, has now been called.
The European commissioner for enlargement, Stefan Füle, tweeted on Sunday that the “words and deeds of [Ukraine] president and government further and further apart. Their arguments have no grounds in reality.” The negotiating process was frozen.
It may be another blast of cold air to many pro-Europe demonstrators, but several of the largest nations in the EU, including Britain, France and even Germany, will be perfectly at ease with the freeze.
The negotiations with Ukraine began years ago. Since then the EU has been plunged into the euro crisis and has admitted Bulgaria and Romania to its ranks.
Since then, the appetite for expansion has cooled as the problems of absorbing those two Eastern European states have proven complicated.
What’s more, some Ukrainians living in the EU are distinctly skeptical of the deal as well.
I recently listened in astonishment as several vehemently rejected the idea, saying it would merely turn Ukraine into a hewer of wood and drawer of water, a sort of Slavic Canada, for the European powerhouses.
Russia’s zero-sum game
None of these developments, mind you, have stopped the drumbeat of Russian criticism of the West in general and the EU in particular.
Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has accused the EU of “crude interference” in Ukrainian affairs, while his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, describes the demonstrations in Kiev as the work of provocateurs, adding that the European powers have “lost their sense of reality.”
For the Putin regime, this is a zero-sum game: it’s either Russia or the EU for Ukraine. There can’t be deals with both. Which doesn’t leave Yanukovych with many good options.
But despite the size of the demonstrations in Kyiv, the opposition remains hydra-headed, only united over two things: the wish to sign the European deal and to get rid of Yanukovych.
These were the same objectives nine years ago, and that ended badly.
Lenin toppling in the snow was a photo opportunity too tasty for the world’s media not to swallow.
It recalled another famous figure pulled from his plinth 22 years ago in Moscow — Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka.
That toppling seemed to symbolize the end of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. Yet less than a decade later a Dzerzhinsky man, a graduate of the KGB, Vladmir Putin, was running Russia and putting ex-KGB men in positions of power around him.
Breaking a statue does not break a regime.
Canadians’ debt ratio increased last quarter, but so did the value of their assets, so the national net worth increased. (The Associated Press)
The amount that Canadians owe compared to their disposable income rose to an all-time record last quarter, although their net worth also increased.
Statistics Canada reported Friday that the level of household credit market debt to disposable income increased to 163.7 per cent in the third quarter from 163.1 per cent in the second quarter.
That means Canadians owe nearly $1.64 for every $1 in disposable income they earn in a year.
‘The seasonal bounce in mortgage borrowing in the previous quarter picked up into the fall’– Royal Bank economist Laura Cooper
Policymakers are fixated on the debt ratio in part because it was at above 160 per cent that households in the United States and Britain ran into trouble about five years ago, contributing to defaults and the financial crisis that triggered the 2008-09 recession.
Debt loads can be influenced by seasonal factors, and although the headline figure is higher, the rate of growth in that ratio was the smallest in 12 years.
“Those figures should be encouraging for policymakers and suggest that the Bank of Canada’s belief that imbalances are evolving constructively is right on the mark,” said Benjamin Reitzes, a senior economist with BMO Capital Markets.
Indeed, while they are borrowing more, Canadians are also worth more as their assets increase by a similar amount. The national net worth increased to $7.5 trillion in the third quarter, up 2.1 per cent from the previous quarter.
On a per capita basis, that works out to $212,700 for every Canadian. The previous quarter, that figure was $208,300.
Canadians saw their financial assets go up in value, as well as their non-financial assets (such as houses) do the same. The value of shares and other equities gained 3.7 per cent in the quarter, while the value of household real estate gained 1.5 per cent.
“The pace of debt accumulation picked up slightly in the third quarter as the seasonal bounce in mortgage borrowing in the previous quarter picked up into the fall,” Royal Bank economist Laura Cooper said.
With files from The Canadian Press
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to open up the country’s oil and gas sector to private investment in the biggest overhaul of the industry since it was nationalized in 1938.
After a whirlwind final passage through Congress, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s bill will offer companies the chance to operate oil wells, commercialize crude and partner with state oil giant Pemex as Mexico seeks to revive flagging output.
Facing down accusations they were betraying their homeland to foreign oil majors, Mexico’s two biggest parties approved a series of changes to the constitution that could radically transform the fortunes of the world’s No. 10 oil producer.
At more than 10 billion barrels, Mexico has Latin America’s third-largest proven oil reserves after Venezuela and Brazil. It also has nearly 30 billion barrels of prospective resources in the country’s territorial deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Pemex has struggled to exploit those reserves due to a lack of investment, a crippling tax burden and persistent allegations of corruption. Since peaking at 3.4 million barrels per day in 2004, Mexico’s crude output has fallen by more than a quarter.
Proponents of the reform argued Mexico would fall further behind its peers without finding new investors to help exploit its deep water and subterranean oil and shale reserves.
“Today, the name of the game is greater economic competitiveness,” Javier Trevino, a lawmaker in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on the lower house energy committee, said in a debate that went through the night.
END OF AN ERA?
Pena Nieto first presented his bill in August, and after weeks of negotiations with the center-right opposition National Action Party (PAN), the PRI unveiled a revised plan at the weekend in the Senate that was far more radical.
The new draft bore the stamp of the PAN, which had urged the government to offer companies full concessions at a time the president was only talking about profit-sharing contracts.
The revised bill did not go that far, but it opened up the prospect of production-sharing contracts and licenses, and both parties were keen to pass it this week.
Barely 24 hours had elapsed since Senate approval when PAN and PRI lower house deputies signed off on the reform, packed into a smaller chamber of the house after a group of left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) legislators tried to derail the reform by blocking access to the main floor.
Supported by the Green Party, a group allied to the PRI, lawmakers from the three parties gave final approval to the bill with 353 votes in favor and 134 against after rejecting a long list of objections to the bill argued by left-wing opponents.
Critics lamented the energy reform as an act of submission and the end of an era, tapping into the pride many Mexicans still feel over President Lazaro Cardenas’ move to expropriate foreign oil companies’ assets in 1938 and create Pemex.
“Today is a black day,” said Ricardo Monreal, a trenchant critic of the government and leader of the leftist Citizens’ Movement in the lower house. “More poverty for everyone, which has been the rule for Mexican privatizations.”
One leftist lawmaker stripped down to his underwear on the podium during the overnight debate, accusing the backers of the reform of leaving Mexico naked without its oil wealth.
OPENING THE DOOR
The floor of the lower house started to debate the bill just a few hours after it arrived from the Senate. In a swipe against the PRD and other left-wing lawmakers trying to derail the reform, legislators from the PRI, PAN and Green Party voted to bypass the committees usually consulted.
Following congressional approval, the constitutional changes must be ratified by a majority of the 32 regional assemblies in Mexico, most of which the PRI and the PAN control.
However, experts say the shake-up is some time away from yielding fruit, not least because the government must still draw up secondary legislation to implement the reform.
“They removed the lock from the door, but do you want to go through?” said Alberto Ramos, an economist at Goldman Sachs.
Seeking to lure billions of dollars to Mexico, the reform formally puts an end to Pemex’s monopoly in oil and gas and will offer companies the right to be paid in barrels of oil.
That is a big departure from the service contracts now on offer, in which firms are paid a fee and can recover costs.
But how lucrative the new regime will be is not yet clear.
“They still have to determine royalty rates and tax structures and national content requirements,” said Carlos Sole, an energy specialist with law firm Baker Botts in Houston.
“All that will determine the scope of potential investment,” he added. “But given Mexico’s market has been mostly closed to investment for so long, this is really a transformative change. The lion’s share of the excitement is on the upstream side.”
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Miguel Gutierrez, Ana Isabel Martinez, Tomas Sarmiento, Lizbeth Diaz, David Alire Garcia and Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Simon Gardner, Alden Bentley and Andrew Hay)
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych “intends to sign” the far-reaching trade and co-operation agreement with the European Union that he rejected only last month, said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
- ANALYSIS: Divided Ukraine roiled by protest, love-hate with Russia
- VIDEO: George Clooney supports Ukrainian protesters
- On mobile? Watch here
Ashton said Thursday that after talks with Yanukovych in Kiev it was clear that the short-term economic and financial issues Ukraine faces can be alleviated by signing the association agreement, which will bring in fresh investment from EU nations.
Ashton said that “look, Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement.”
Signing would be an about-face for Yanukovych since his rejection to close the deal last month made it clear he sought closer links with Russia instead. Mass protests in Kiev since have been calling for closer links with the EU.
With the Ukraine situation increasingly precarious, and now even the US state department getting involved with the occasional unexpected harsh warning…
- U.S. MAY CONSIDER SANCTIONS ON UKRAINE: STATE DEPT
… into what Putin has made very clear is his brand new sphere of influence (it is unclear just why the US is responding in such a way: did the pro-Europe protesters not use Made in the US tear gas or chemical weapons?), Russia casually threw it out there earlier today that it would use nuclear weapons if it comes under an attack. As vice prime minister and defense industry chief made clear, “One can experiment as long as one wishes by deploying non-nuclear warheads on strategic missile carriers. But one should keep in mind that if there is an attack against us, we will certainly resort to using nuclear weapons in certain situations to defend our territory and state interests.” Just in case it wasn’t quite clear…
Rogozin pointed out that this principle is enshrined in Russia’s military doctrine. Any aggressor or group of aggressors should be aware of that, he said. “We have never diminished the importance of nuclear weapons – the weapon of requital – as the great balancer of chances,” Rogozin said.
More from RT:
Russia’s Fund of Perspective Researches (FPI) will develop a military response to the American Conventional Prompt Global Strike (PGS) strategy, Dmitry Rogozin told the State Duma.
So far, the FPI has already looked at over a thousand proposed ideas and plans to work on 60 projects, eight of which are top priority, the politician said. He refused to disclose any details, but said that one of those projects is focused on preparing a response to the PGS, which is the “main strategy” that the Pentagon is nurturing.
PGS would allow the United States to strike targets anywhere on the planet, with conventional weapons in as little as an hour.
As Rogozin explained earlier, the strategy would give America an advantage over a nuclear state, thanks to their better technical capabilities with weaponry, including the speed, RIA Novosti cited.
So if nothing else, at least the primary deterrence strategy of the cold war has just made a roaring comeback. We can only hope that with such skilled heads of the State Department as John Kerry, that the nuclear exchange that was avoided for the duration of the first cold war doesn’t somehow become a GDP-boosting reality.
Ukraine Escalates: Police, Some Armed With Chainsaws, Storm Protest Camp – Live Webcasts | Zero Hedge
It will be a long night in Kiev, where as warned previously, once things start rolling downhill, they will deteriorate rapidly. Via Bloomberg:
- POLICE STORM PROTEST CAMP IN CENTER OF KIEV, AP REPORTS
- UKRAINIAN POLICE MASS NEAR BARRICADES AT KIEV SQUARE
- RIOT POLICE ARMED WITH CHAINSAWS APPROACH KIEV BARRICADES
- UKRAINIAN POLICE INSIDE KIEV PROTEST CAMP
BREAKING: Police storm protest camp in the center of Ukrainian capital.
— The Associated Press (@AP) December 10, 2013
— Jonathan Paterson (@patersonjon) December 10, 2013
— Quentin Guillemain (@qguillemain) December 10, 2013
Some background from Guy Haselmann of Scotiabank:
Ukraine is a strategically important country of 45 million people. A trade pact with the EU was close. However, it appears that a rival bid (or other means of influence) arose during two closed door meetings with Vladimir Putin. The press often reports that President Yanukovich’s corrupt government has shown an instinct for self-preservation often at the expense of the expense of the nation.
The Ukraine economy is in recession. The country has only $20 billion of foreign reserves which is 2 ½ months of imports (worse than Egypt). The IMF’s red flag level is 3 months. Ukraine has $10bln of external debt maturing in 2014. Its CDS rose over 100 bps this week to near 1100. Debt-to-GDP is only 43%, but Argentina defaulted with its debt-to-GDP at 50%. Its currency (Hryvnia), which was devalued in 2008, is pegged to the dollar. The current account deficit is 7% and herein lies the biggest problem.
The IMF is unlikely to help until after the 2015 election. The EU is unlikely to provide any aid. Russia may be enticed to help via loans. The President is on his way to China – who may help – but he may return no longer in power.
And Goldman notes the situation is fluid but highly likely that anti-regime protests will persist with several possible scenarios developing:
1) President Yanukovich declares a state of emergency and/or uses force to prevent protests from developing further;
2) President Yanukovich agrees to talks with the opposition and to a roadmap for signing the EU association agreement at some point in 2014 (our understanding had been that this would not be possible on the EU side, but EU leaders have recently suggested otherwise);
3) President Yanukovich does nothing and protests persist.
From the macroeconomic standpoint, these protests come at a time when the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) has had to defend the currency peg through sizeable interventions, which have depleted the reserve cover to 2.5 months of imports, and when the government is arguably unable to roll its debt in the market. Goldman fears the further risk is that, due to the heightened political uncertainty, capital outflows could intensify, putting further pressure on the peg.
While there had been some press reports suggesting sizeable Russian financial help in exchange for the country not signing the EU association agreement, the recent developments, in our view, call this further into question. We think that Russia is unlikely to extend substantial help without guarantees. Given that it appears that President Yanukovich’s chances of holding on to power beyond the 2015 spring election have decreased following the protests and schisms in his administration might even weaken his powers earlier (splits in the Region’s Party, for instance, might deprive him of a majority in parliament) he might very well not be in a position any more to give those guarantees.
As indicated by polling and by the participation in street protests, the decision to suspend preparations for signing the EU association agreement was an unpopular one, at least with a significant part of the population. Goldman believes that President Yanukovich may have underestimated the political ramifications of doing so.
At this stage, it is difficult to forecast how the situation will evolve. Apart from the size of the protests it also matters to what extent the president can hold on to his own power bases in the Regions Party and the eastern part of the country. Given that the economy is in recession and the heavy industries in the east in particular are suffering, his support there might very well be more brittle than in the past.
But perhaps there is a silver lining – in an odd twisted way – the concerns about Ukrainian banks and the currency peg have seen deposit outflows increasing the risk to the country’s financial system and creating a particularly acute headache for Russian banks. The silver lining, of course, is that Russia may be forced to provide more assistance in a Cyprus-style save for its own banks (lenders) and depositors…
While other foreign lenders have cut their Ukraine exposure in the five years since – to 20 percent of Ukraine banking sector assets in 2012 from 40 percent in 2008, according to a Raiffeisen Research survey – Russian banks have maintained a strong market presence, still accounting for 12 percent.
Among foreign banks, the Russians have easily the biggest exposure, more than twice that of Austrian lenders, the next biggest.
“[Moodys] estimate that these banks’ exposure to Ukrainian risk is $20-$30 billion, a sizeable amount indeed, considering that their combined Tier 1 capital was $105 billion in June,” Moody’s said.
Moody’s, which estimated that 35 percent of all bank loans in Ukraine were problem loans, said the country’s severe economic problems would keep local borrowers under pressure and could result in higher loan losses for the Russian lenders.
In the absence of the association agreement with the European Union, Russian-Ukrainian trade is likely to rise, and the four big Russian banks may well increase their exposure to Ukraine, it added.
Dimitry Sologoub, head of research at Raiffeisen in Kiev, said the banks had learned lessons from the 2008 crisis, so were much less exposed to credit risk, liquidity risk and forex risk, and the central bank was calming matters by providing liquidity and foreign exchange.
“The question is how long it will go? The reserve cushion of the national bank is not so big.”
In the meantime, Ukraine might secure short-term benefits from its closer ties with Russia, enough perhaps to stave off the kind of currency crisis that nearby Belarus suffered in 2011, said Charles Robertson, chief global economist at Renaissance Capital in London.
“In the long run, it will probably keep Ukraine poor. This is bad for Ukrainians and bad for Russia,” he added.
“Instead of being a strong, successful economy on Russia’s borders, able to buy plenty of Russian exports, Ukraine risks becoming another Belarus.”
Which – after all – could be just what Putin wants…
The report in the Washington Post says the NSA inadvertently gathers US location records [Reuters]
|It is being reported that the National Security Agency is gathering nearly five billion records a day on the whereabouts of mobile telephones around the world.
That is according to documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden published by the Washington Post.
The newspaper says the NSA inadvertently gathers US location records, along with the billions of other records it collects by tapping into worldwide mobile network cables.
The programme is detailed in documents given to the Post by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.
Such data means the NSA can track the movements of almost any mobile phone around the world, in addition to tracking who that cell user is calling.
The report said the NSA does not target Americans’ location data intentionally, but acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellular telephones “incidentally.”
One manager told the newspaper the NSA obtained “vast volumes” of location data by tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve US mobile phone as well as foreign ones.
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the report.
NSA officials have said no NSA programme gathers data on US mobile phones inside the US.
‘Guilt by association’
Senior Staff Attorney at the non profit advocacy Electronic Frontier Foundation Kurt Op-Sal told Al Jazeera that the programme was against civil liberties.
“It is being used to track people to find out associations between one person and another and to build guilt by association,” he said.
“If we want a future that has freedom we need to have privacy.
“The UN has recognised a freedom of association without having the government making assumptions based on those associations.This programme is designed to destroy that.”
Facing a public outcry and concern that programmes are targeting average Americans as well as international terrorism suspects, Republican and Democratic members of Congress are writing legislation to clamp down on the data collection and increase public access to information about it.
Advocates responded to the Post report by calling on Congress to take up legislation to reform NSA data-gathering programmes.
“How many revelations of NSA surveillance will it take for Congress to act? Today’s news is the latest startling blow to the right to privacy,” Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights, said in a statement.
With Ukraine’s CDS spiking and the protests growing ever more violent, the government is oddly honest:
- *AZAROV SAYS KIEV PROTESTS SPINNING OUT OF CONTROL: INTERFAX
- *AZAROV SAYS GOVT AWARE OF PLAN TO SEIZE PARLIAMENT BUILDING:IFX
- *AZAROV SAYS UKRAINE ASKING WEST FOR HELP TO CALM PROTESTS: IFX
Of course, the only voice that matter is still calm:
- *PUTIN SAYS CRISIS IN UKRAINE WILL SUBSIDE
Is that a directive or a statement…?
Drones killed an estimated 36 of the 162 Palestinians who lost their lives during Operation Pillar of Defence [AP]
|Jerusalem – There are many things to fear in Gaza: Attacks from Israel’s Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, the coastal enclave’s growing isolation, the regular blackouts from power shortages, increasingly polluted drinking water and rivers of sewage flooding the streets.
Meanwhile, for most Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above.
Drones are increasingly being used for surveillance and extra-judicial execution in parts of the Middle East, especially by the US, but in nowhere more than Gaza has the drone become a permanent fixture of life. More than 1.7 million Palestinians, confined by Israel to a small territory in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky.
There is little hope of escaping the zenana – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that Gazans have adopted to describe the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it. According to statistics compiled by human rights groups in Gaza, civilians are the chief casualties of what Israel refers to as “surgical” strikes from drones.
“When you hear the drones, you feel naked and vulnerable,” said Hamdi Shaqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza City. “The buzz is the sound of death. There is no escape, nowhere is private. It is a reminder that, whatever Israel and the international community assert, the occupation has not ended. We are still living completely under Israeli control. They control the borders and the sea and they decide our fates from their position in the sky,” said Shaqura.
The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Suffer the children
The sense of permanent exposure, coupled with the fear of being mistakenly targeted, has inflicted deep psychological scars on civilians, especially children, according to experts.
“There is a great sense of insecurity. Nowhere feels safe for the children, and they feel no one can offer them protection, not even their parents,” said Ahmed Tawahina, a psychologist running clinics in Gaza as part of the Community Mental Health Programme. “That traumatises both the children and parents, who feel they are failing in their most basic responsibility.”
Shaqura observed: “From a political perspective, there is a deep paradox. Israel says it needs security, but it demands it at the cost of our constant insecurity.”
There are no statistics that detail the effect of the drones on Palestinians in Gaza. Doctors admit it is impossible to separate the psychological toll inflicted by drones from other sources of damage to mental health, such as air strikes by F-16s, severe restrictions on movement and the economic insecurity caused by Israel’s blockade.
But field researchers working for Palestinian rights groups point out that the use of drones is intimately tied to these other sources of fear and anxiety. Drones fire missiles themselves, they guide attacks by F-16s or helicopters, and they patrol and oversee the borders.
A survey in medical journal The Lancet following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, found large percentages of children suffered from symptoms of psychological trauma: Fifty-eight percent permanently feared the dark; 43 percent reported regular nightmares; 37 percent wet the bed and 42 percent had crying attacks.
Tawahina described the sense of being constantly observed as a “form of psychological torture, which exhausts people’s mental and emotional resources. Among children at school, this can be seen in poor concentration and unruly behaviour.” The trauma for children is compounded by the fact that the drones also disrupt what should be their safest activity – watching TV at home. When a drone is operating nearby, it invariably interferes with satellite reception.
“”It doesn’t make headlines, but it is another example of how there is no escape from the drones. Parents want their children indoors, where it feels safer and where they’re less likely to hear the drones, but still the drone finds a way into their home. The children cannot even switch off from the traumas around them by watching TV because of the drones.”
Israel’s ‘major advantage’
Israel developed its first drones in the early 1980s, during its long occupation of south Lebanon, to gather aerial intelligence without exposing Israeli pilots to anti-aircraft missiles. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said drones help in situations where good, on-the-ground intelligence is lacking. “What the UAV gives you is eyes on the other side of the hill or over the border,” he said. “That provides Israel with a major advantage over its enemies.”
Other Israeli analysts have claimed that the use of drones, with their detailed intelligence-collecting abilities, is justified because they reduce the chances of errors and the likelihood of “collateral damage” – civilian deaths – during attacks.
But, according to Inbar, the drone is no better equipped than other aircraft for gathering intelligence or carrying out an execution.
“The advantage from Israel’s point of view is that using a drone for these tasks reduces the risk of endangering a pilot’s life or losing an expensive plane. That is why we are moving towards much greater use of these kinds of robots on the battlefield,” he said.
‘Mistakes can happen’
According to Gaza human rights group al-Mezan, Israel started using drones over the territory from the start of the second intifada in 2000, but only for surveillance.
Israel’s first extra-judicial executions using drones occurred in 2004, when two Palestinians were killed. But these operations greatly expanded after 2006, in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza and the rise to power of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.
Drones, the front-line weapon in Israel’s surveillance operations and efforts to foil rocket attacks, killed more than 90 Palestinians in each of the years 2006 and 2007, according to al-Mezan. The figures soared during Operation Cast Lead and in its aftermath, with 461 Palestinians killed by drones in 2009. The number peaked again with 199 deaths in 2012, the year when Israel launched the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence against Gaza.
Despite Israeli claims that the intelligence provided by drones makes it easier to target those Palestinians it has defined as “terrorists”, research shows civilians are the main victims. In the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation, 36 of the 162 Palestinians killed were a result of drone strikes, and a further 100 were injured by drones. Of those 36 killed, two-thirds were civilians.
Also revealing was a finding that, although drones were used in only five percent of air strikes, they accounted for 23 percent of the total deaths during Pillar of Defence. According to the Economist magazine, the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, which triggered that operation, was carried out using a Hermes 450 drone.
Palestinian fighters report that they have responded to the constant surveillance by living in hiding, rarely going outdoors and avoiding using phones or cars. It is a way of life not possible for most people in Gaza.
Gaza’s armed groups are reported to be trying to find a way to jam the drones’ navigation systems. In the meantime, Hamas has claimed it has shot down three drones, the latest this month, though Israel says all three crashed due to malfunctions.
Last week, on the anniversary of the launch of Pillar of Defence, an Israeli commander whose soldiers control the drones over Gaza from a base south of Tel Aviv told the Haaretz newspaper that “many” air strikes during the operation had involved drones. “Lt Col Shay” was quoted saying: “Ultimately, we are at war. As much as the IDF strives to carry out the most precise surgical strikes, mistakes can happen in the air or on the ground.”
Random death by drone
It is for this reason that drones have become increasingly associated with random death from the sky, said Samir Zaqout, a senior field researcher for Al-Mezan.
“We know from the footage taken by drones that Israel can see what is happening below in the finest detail. And yet women and children keep being killed in drone attacks. Why the continual mistakes? The answer, I think, is that these aren’t mistakes. The message Israel wants to send us is that there is no protection whether you are a civilian or fighter. They want us afraid and to make us turn on the resistance [Palestinian fighters].”
Zaqout also points to a more recent use of drones – what has come to be known as “roof-knocking”. This is when a drone fires small missiles at the roof of a building to warn the inhabitants to evacuate – a practice Israel developed during Operation Cast Lead three years earlier, to allay international concerns about its repeated levellings of buildings with civilians inside.
In Pillar of Defence in 2012, 33 buildings were targeted by roof-knocking.
Israel says it provides 10 minutes’ warning from a roof-knock to an air strike, but, in practice, families find they often have much less time. This, said Zaqout, puts large families in great danger as they usually send their members out in small groups to be sure they will not be attacked as they move onto the streets.
One notorious case occurred during Cast Lead, when six members of the Salha family, all women and children, were killed when their home was shelled moments after a roof-knocking. The father, Fayez Salha, who survived, lost a case for damages in Israel’s Supreme Court last February and was ordered to pay costs after the judges ruled that the attack was legitimate because it occurred as part of a military operation.
A US citizen who has lived long-term in Gaza, who wished not be named for fear of reprisals from Israel, said she often heard the drones at night when the street noise dies down, or as they hover above her while out walking. “The sound is like the buzz of a mosquito, although there is one type of drone that sometimes comes into view that is silent,” she said.
She added that she knew of families that, before moving into a new apartment building, checked to see whether it housed a fighter or a relative of a fighter, for fear that the building may be attacked by Israel.
Shaqura said the drones inevitably affect one’s day-to-day behaviour. He said he was jogging early one morning while a drone hovered overhead.
“I got 100 metres from my front door when I started to feel overwhelmed with fear. I realised that my tracksuit was black, the same colour as many of the fighters’ uniforms. I read in my work too many reports of civilians being killed by drones not to see the danger. So I hurried back home.”