Global News Blog
Adi Pito and his friend Avi Genasia were checking out the damage from the first – and so far only – fatal rocket attack of the past week when there was a deep rumble on the horizon.
Thanks to Color Red, a new app thought up by a 13-year-old, Israelis all over the country know exactly when and where each rocket is headed.
The geeky solution for Israel’s more than 3 million residents threatened by rocket fire isn’t the first time Israel’s high-tech prowess has been applied to its security threats. In fact, much of Israel’s innovation economy – which is considered second only to Silicon Valley – is spurred by the demands of its military and related security industries.
Perhaps adversity whets Israel’s competitive edge, as suggested by the 2009 best-seller Start-Up Nation. According to Israeli press reports, the young teenager behind Color Red is from Beersheva, one of the cities that bears the brunt of Gaza rocket fire – and thus pops up most frequently on the app.
You can choose to have all alerts sent to your phone, or just those for areas you select from a long list – all in Hebrew. The system efficiently delivers its notifications based off the government's public warning alerts.
Depending on where Israelis live, they have between 15 and 90 seconds to reach a bomb shelter once the sirens begin to wail. Lately, the sirens have been followed by a large BOOM as Israel’s Iron Dome system kicks in.
Apps may not blunt the rockets, but it’s nice to know where they’re falling – and where they’re not.
Israel’s cosmopolitan capital has developed a reputation over the past decade for residents leading lives removed from the rest of Israel and the Middle East, but this weekend's rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip have burst the infamous Tel Aviv bubble.
Video footage showing bathers sprinting from a hotel beach on Saturday with rocket intercepts overhead served as a jarring contrast to the city’s image as a destination for carefree pleasure seekers. On Sunday, Tel Aviv was targeted by two separate rocket salvos, though all of them were shot down.
Not only does Tel Aviv symbolize Israel’s capital city for business and culture, it’s also a city that symbolizes efforts by Israelis to maintain a sense of normalcy despite the daily feuding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But now the new normal in Tel Aviv includes the opening of municipal bomb shelters to the public.
"People here hold up the banner of freedom," says Motti Haimovich, the owner of a French bakery in central Tel Aviv. "When there are rockets, then there isn't any freedom."
On the morning after the first siren last Thursday evening, weekend café goers at the Le Moulin bakery showed for their usual coffee and croissant to check in with one another, says owner Motti Haimovich. But when a siren sounded at the height of the midday rush on Friday, the café emptied quickly.
That type of blow to the daily routine is being held up by Palestinian militants as an achievement. For Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip the very success of placing Tel Aviv under attack – even if there are no casualties – is a symbolic milestone matched by no one else in the region since Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at the Jewish state in the first Gulf War in 1991. Because of that, many Israeli commentators say that the prime minister may want to prolong the fighting.
Israelis derisively refer to the city as "the State of Tel Aviv" to impugn it as a mecca for out of touch armchair liberals who still insist on pushing the peace process with the Palestinians. The plight of rocket attacks could remake the attitudes of Israelis who dismiss the city and its residents as naïve peaceniks.
"Now maybe we are even," said Israeli author Etgar Keret, referring to the dividing lines between armchair liberals and mainstream Israelis. "Now we can start talking." (The original version of this story misstated the source of the quote.)
Residents of Tel Aviv often are nostalgic about that period around the first Gulf War, which left the city virtually unscathed. They have more serious and pained memories of the second Palestinian intifada, which unleashed a wave of bombings around the city.
So far, rockets haven’t turned Tel Aviv into a ghost town like Israeli cities in southern Israel. Part of the reason is that none of the rockets have hit buildings so far, giving people more confidence to keep their daily routine.
"Has the world stopped?" asked Madaleine Koger, a retired shopowner, who was forced by a siren to interrupt a bike ride on the sea promenade to take cover in a hotel basement. "For this I should stop all of our life?"
I had just sat down to interview a commander of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and we were exchanging the normal pre-meeting pleasantries as some distant gunfire cracked in the background. After 20 months of conflict here, most artillery and gunfire goes unnoticed unless people are close enough to be directly affected.
With this as the backdrop for our interview, I was taken off guard when he asked if my friends and family were all right after Superstorm Sandy.
As a Californian living abroad, I was aware of Sandy. I had seen a few pictures of the aftermath, but I hadn’t even followed the Sandy news close enough to know that it had been classified as a “superstorm,” as a opposed to a hurricane. Yet here was a man whose nation is being torn apart by a violent civil war that had claimed the lives of several friends and tens of thousands of Syrians, and he’d been following Sandy news.
I initially thought the comment was a one off, a lone hurricane watcher, perhaps he was a Syrian with an interest in meteorology. Yet it has happened again and again and everyone who asks knows that it was a superstorm, not a hurricane.
Working in the midst of a war like Syria, it’s easy to assume that for those involved the conflict, the situation is their entire life and there is little time for details, like a destructive storm thousands of miles away.But Superstorm Sandy is just one of the odd questions about America you might encounter in Syria as people try to take a mental break from the war.
One night, I found myself with a group of FSA fighters watching Jumanji on an Arabic movie station that gives Arabic subtitles. We got into a debate about whether the child actress in the film was a young Drew Barrymore or someone else. (It was a teenage Kirsten Dunst.)
A few days later, I sparked a heated discussion when I jokingly asked a Syrian activist wearing a glove on only one hand if it was a tribute to Michael Jackson. The person wearing the glove argued that while Michael’s music was impossible not to enjoy, it had been tainted by the scandals surrounding his personal life. His friend argued that art is not defined by the artist and Michael Jackson remains hands down one of the best singers ever, regardless of what happened off stage.
In all the conflicts I have ever covered, I find myself in these conversations. Everyone tries to hold on to a normal world of news and pop culture to take them beyond their current hardships.
“I was worried about my wife,” says Mr. Pito, who was in a nearby city at the time. “If you ask me, I think we have to destroy Gaza. I think they are animals, not people,” he says, pulling at his new wedding ring as he stood outside the damaged apartment yesterday. “It’s the right thing to do.”
But in towns across southern Israel that have been hit by rockets, other residents only reluctantly express support for a potential expansion of Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation and express sympathy for the suffering on the other side of the border, where at least 53 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds injured since the operation began five days ago.
“When people say, ‘Let’s kill them,’ I don’t think they really mean to do it,” says Yehudit Bar Hay, a trauma expert at the Israel Center for Victims of Terror and War, known as NATAL. “It is an angry feeling but … we don’t want to kill the people of Gaza. We see the mothers and the children, we are sorry for them.”
Even those who are “very, very injured” from the trauma of living under rocket fire say they don’t want to hurt anybody, adds Ms. Bar Hay, who lives less than a mile from the Gaza border.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today that Israel’s military “is prepared for a significant expansion of its operations,” even as at least 16,000 reservists have been called up for a potential ground invasion. The Defense Ministry has authorized the calling up of as many as 75,000 reservists – more than six times as many as participated in the 2008-09 Gaza war.
But while some Israelis say war is necessary or inevitable, few are happy about it.
“Who wants this war? Nobody in Israel,” says Ashdod resident Bebert Avitan, his pink-rimmed glasses hanging from his neck.
Part of the reason for a lack of public pressure may be the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome system, which has kept casualties very low despite a barrage of rockets from Gaza. See today's Monitor story on the Iron Dome system.
“Hamas apparently has much greater capability than it had in the last war on Gaza,” says Galia Golan, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, but notes that there hasn’t been a parallel uptick in Israeli casualties. “Because Iron Dome has been relatively successful, there has been less pressure on the government or within the government to launch a ground attack.”
Only three Israelis, all from one building in Kiryat Malachi, have been killed in the recent escalation.
As the evening news shows a picture of a bombed out building, lifelong resident Masodi Sugaker says, “It’s so sad to see this. To [have to] make everything new after this? Why? Because of Hamas.”
“Hamas exploits their own people, the Palestinians,” says she adds.
Her sister, Hanna Shukrun, adds, “We don’t want [war],” because there are kids [in Gaza].
But she says, “Israel can’t just sit here and do nothing…. Our army doesn’t need to wait until they have many weapons.”
(This story was edited after posting to correct the name of Galia Golan from IDC Herzliya. We apologize for the error).
Reports that controversial right-wing leader Bal Thackeray was critically ill put Mumbai on tense hold for much of Thursday while raising questions about the future of his party, the Shiv Sena, which controls the city government and is an important member of India’s opposition group, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
Parts of Mumbai reportedly shut down Thursday in anticipation of trouble from Sainiks, as the members of his party are known, gathered in large numbers near the residence of the Thackerays. By evening, the 86-year-old’s condition was reported to be stable and a parade of the city’s powerful and famous was visiting the leader’s home amid tight security.
Thackeray's declining health is putting the spotlight on the fragile state of his party, which has been riddled by succession struggles for more than a decade and has seemed unable to move beyond its founder’s polarizing identity politics.
In the four decades of its existence, the Shiv Sena has targeted – sometimes violently – south Indian migrants to the city, Muslims, so-called symbols of Western culture like Valentine’s Day, and more recently, north Indian migrants. Earlier this month, Mr. Thackeray reiterated his opposition to cricket matches between the Indian and Pakistani teams in a front-page editorial in the party newspaper, Saamna, asking party activists to stop such matches from being held in the country.
A political cartoonist known for his barbed rhetoric, Mr. Thackeray formed the Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) in the 1960s in the wake of the successful movement for the formation of the state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital. Not unlike Tammany Hall in New York, the Sena promoted the interests of local Maharashtrians or “sons of the soil” against the influx of migrant workers to Mumbai, historically India’s most cosmopolitan city and its commercial headquarters, through a network of street cadres.
The Sena’s power grew in the 1970s and 1980s, at the expense of the Communists. Thackeray’s invocation of a proud, native identity especially through the historical figure of Shivaji, a 17th century Hindu Maratha warrior who fought the Muslim Mughals and established a Hindu kingdom, found resonance with disaffected young men at a time of declining industrial jobs. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the party members’ rough-and-ready tactics gave Thackeray the power to shut down the city.
The Sena found broader electoral power in the mid-1990s when it allied with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to win the state and later participate in the BJP-led coalition government at the center. Thackeray never held political office but famously said in 1995 that he had “remote control” of the state government. Thackeray was indicted by an independent commission for inciting hatred against Muslims during communal riots in 1993, but he was never brought to trial.
Since the late 1990s, however, the party has struggled to maintain relevance in a globalizing city and in the absence of fresh ideas and a viable second-rung leadership.
Thackeray anointed his relatively peaceable son, Uddhav, as party leader in 2004, over his more popular nephew Raj, who then split to found his own party in 2006, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The MNS is seen as hewing more closely to the ideological and combative spirit of Bal Thackeray. In 2008, MNS members attacked north Indians who had come to the city for an entrance exam for government jobs.
Given its decline, the Sena party surprised observers earlier this year when its candidates swept city elections with the aid of an alliance with the Republican Party of India, which represents lower-caste Dalits.
The win doesn’t necessarily portend the re-emergence of the party beyond its stronghold of Mumbai, however.
The gains, suggested veteran journalist and political observer Kumar Ketkar in a column, are a “recognition of the political and cultural reality of this growing metropolis, where the single-largest bloc feels it is being marginalized.” An editorial in the Economic Times noted that with the city widely felt to be in decline, the win was an opportunity for the Sena “to deepen and widen the party's appeal through honest and efficient civic governance.”
Whether Thackeray’s illness will bring the son and nephew back together, as some observers suggest may happen, could now determine the survival of his party
More than 180 websites have been blacklisted and blocked under a restrictive new Internet law signed by President Vladimir Putin last July, which critics warn may be the start of a wider crackdown on free speech in Russian cyberspace.
The blacklist compiled by the Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Media and Communications (Roskomnadzor) is secret, but authorities insist its purpose is to eliminate extreme forms of "offensive" content, such as child pornography, or advocacy of racism, terrorism, drug use and other anti-social behaviors.
The list is constantly changing and expanding (Russian bloggers have posted an alleged copy of it here) and citizens can suggest new entries by logging into an official Roskomnadzor website.
But in its first two weeks of application, the law has produced a few high-profile casualties that critics say point to the fundamental weaknesses of a system that allows authorities to summarily shut down content without any need for a court order or reference to any supervisory body.
The definitions of "offensive content" are also murky, critics say, and could easily include political conversation that looks "extremist" to a policeman's eyes and other forms of commentary that might be simply misunderstood.
That criticism seems to have already been borne out. This week alone Roskomnadzor has closed down, among others, a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia of satire, which contained an article about how to make hemp (often associated with marijuana) soup; an online library, which included a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," a 1970's American-authored manual for radicals; and a popular torrent-tracking website, on which users had apparently exchanged a file called "The Encyclopedia of Suicide."
The agency allowed those websites to reopen after the "offensive content" was pruned. But experts say those examples were hugely popular websites whose closure attracted immediate public attention and a storm of complaints; restoring service may not prove so easy for smaller victims of the law.
"The first several days of operation of this law have confirmed our worst fears," says Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and popular blogger.
"Roskomnadzor can shut down a site within 24 hours, without appealing to a court. But in order to restore a resource, one has to complain and go to court. Even so, the rules for getting back online are not at all clear ... As a result, big resources like YouTube, or internet encyclopedias, or social networks are all under threat. They have millions of users, and some of them are inevitably going to post something deemed offensive. That could lead to the closure of the whole portal," which will be disruptive even if it's temporary, he says.
The head of Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov, told journalists this week that big Russian social networks are scrambling to cooperate with the agency, rather than face the possibility of being axed.
"The response from national social networking sites has been comprehensive and constructive, we have no problems with them," Mr. Zharov said.
That worries many opposition-minded Russians, who recall that the protest movement, which erupted last December over alleged electoral fraud was largely self-organized by citizens who communicated through social networks like Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte.
"The criteria of this law are too vague, and the way we've seen it applied already gives us no grounds for optimism," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and member of the Solidarnost opposition group.
"There is no presumption of innocence, since the decision [to censor] can be taken without a court order. And there is no independent supervision over our law enforcement agencies ... It's clear that under these conditions, and with the prohibit-first approach that authorities are taking, mistakes will be commonplace and the field of freedom will narrow further," he says.
In a comprehensive analysis of the new law, security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan warn that Russian authorities are introducing DPI (deep packet inspection) technology, which creates the potential for unprecedented and total surveillance over all Internet activities.
"No Western democracy has yet implemented a dragnet black-box DPI surveillance system due to the crushing effect it would have on free speech and privacy," they quote Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, as saying. "DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China."
Experts also warn that the vastly expanded powers open new vistas for official coercion and corruption which, this being Russia, are almost certain to become part of daily practice.
"Imagine that some Internet business has a public forum, and somebody posts something 'offensive' there. It will immediately face the threat of closure," unless authorities are properly mollified, says Mr. Kozyrev.
"Basically, this law opens an enormous field for political pressure on one side, and corruption on the other. It combines an attack on freedom of thought with an assault on business. The situation is really alarming," he says.
As a former student of elite Eton College – just like the current prime minister and generations of other senior figures in British public life – the new Archbishop of Canterbury comes with some impeccable establishment credentials.
While his mother had been Winston Churchill’s private secretary, business is also in the blood: He is the son of a businessman who traded in whiskey during America’s prohibition years and later worked for a company that survived the ban by selling communion wine.
A career in the oil industry beckoned and he spent 11 years in the sector as a senior executive, based in Paris and London. He worked on projects in the North Sea and the Niger Delta, gaining a familiarity that would come in useful in later years as a cleric traveling to the West African reaches of the Anglican Communion, Nigeria.
In 1983, his seven-month-old, first-born daughter was killed in a car crash, leading to "a very dark time" for him and his wife. But it also "bought us closer to God," he has said.
He left behind his career in business in 1987 to train an Anglican priest, later telling business magazine Money Marketing "I was unable to get away from a sense of God calling."
He became a deacon in 1992 after taking a degree in theology, serving later as a curate in the Coventry diocese and was made a rector in 1995 before being made a canon at Coventry Cathedral in 2002.
At Coventry, he was involved in international conflict resolution before becoming dean of Liverpool in 2007. He was elevated to the fourth most senior post in the Church of England in November 2011, when he became the bishop of Durham.
Endless and pointless meetings are by no means unique to China, as almost anybody who works in a large organization can attest.
But the Chinese Communist Party has refined the endless meeting to an exquisite level of pointlessness, and on Friday, when journalists were invited to sit in on “private” discussions among delegates to the 18th Party Congress, the phenomenon was on full display.
None of us had expected lively and spontaneous debate about the speech that party leader Hu Jintao had given on Thursday at the opening of the Congress. That is not the way things work here.
But there was no discussion of any description of the speech at any of the three gatherings that I attended in ornately decorated, thickly carpeted, marble pillared meeting rooms in the gigantic Great Hall of the People.
The Shanxi provincial delegation meeting seemed pretty typical. Thirty or so delegates were sat around a U-shaped table, and one by one they made their speeches.
'Yesterday, I heard Hu Jintao's report'
“Yesterday, I listened to Hu Jintao’s report and I found it very profound and very correct,” said Wu Huada, president of a coalmining company, before reading his prepared remarks about improved mine safety in Shanxi.
“I heard Hu Jintao’s report yesterday, and I firmly support this report,” said Niu Guodong, who introduced himself as a worker at the largest stainless steel factory in the world, and then read from a text explaining the energy saving measures the factory has introduced.
“Yesterday, I heard President Hu Jintao’s report and it expressed the will of people across the nation. I shall study it further,” promised Li Fei, a local party secretary, who then read her speech detailing the number of kilometers of road paved recently and the number of rural schools that had been remodeled in the county she rules.
All over the Great Hall of the People, in room after room, delegates were droning on about things their audiences knew already, or if they didn’t know, they evidently did not care about. Some stared into the middle distance; others pored over the speeches they themselves were about to make; some openly read a newspaper, or dozed.
The whole exercise appeared to strike them as a monumental waste of time; everything had been scripted in advance, and everyone had heard it all before.
Nor are these sorts of meeting uncommon in China. This was the cream of the Communist Party, but officials at all levels of the Chinese system spend huge amounts of time engaged in similar meetings.
It struck me that the progress China has made in so many spheres over the past 30 years is even more remarkable when you take into account that its successes have been achieved even though the people running the country waste so much of their time in endless and pointless meetings.
A Chinese colleague, however, had a more cynical take on what we were witnessing. “It just shows,” she said, “that the country goes on running perfectly well even without all these guys while they waste their time at meetings.”
What makes Wuxi even more striking is that the city fathers have pinned their hopes for the future on high tech. That means this is not the sort of town you imagine when you think, “5 million people in a Chinese city.” The air is breathable (indeed the authorities are decommissioning coal-fired power plants near the center of the city), the streets are broad, and many of the suburban districts look like a bucolic Google campus writ large.
Things are not necessarily what they seem, however.
The city’s shiniest success story, until recently, was Suntech, the biggest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. But the company has been hit hard by a downturn in the industry, and saddled with debt has been laying off workers in the past few months.
Still, Wushi has other strings to its bow. While many other Chinese cities have made a name for themselves on the strength of a particular product (“Yiwu – Sock Capital of the World”), Wuxi has broader appeal. For example it has focused on measuring instruments, which nowadays means digital measuring instruments, another high tech business with good export potential.
Once, the worst polluter in China
But all this represents a bid by the city to escape its nationwide image as one of the worst polluters in China. For Wuxi built its prosperity on thousands of chemical factories along the shore of Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China.
For years they have poured phosphates and other effluents into the lake, sucking out the oxygen and killing the fish and shrimp for which the lake was famous. In 2007 the waters of Lake Tai became so eutrophic they were covered with a thick layer of luminous green, foul smelling pond scum. More than 2 million people were deprived of cooking and drinking water for nearly a week. Each spring the scum re-forms, though rarely as badly as five years ago.
The local government has repeatedly promised to enforce stricter pollution controls, and repeatedly failed to do so, according to environmental nongovernmental organizations. In fact even as Lake Tai was fouling up in 2007, the best known local activist was being jailed for three years on what he insisted were trumped-up charges of fraud and blackmail. Since he got out of prison, reporting that he had been tortured, he has kept his mouth shut.
It is not hard to see why. The authorities in Wuxi want to present the world with a clean, modern, international image that will attract traders and investors. And anyone who threatens to sully that image by drawing attention to inconvenient truths had better watch out.
( Interested in more? Read Peter Ford's piece on China's reverse Brain drain here.)
• The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded travel in China for this project. Multimedia and reporter blogs about the project can be found on the Pulitzer Center website.
The controversial (more on that later) half-page ad in The Irish Times newspaper read: "Sorry Romney, you're not black or cool. We're paying out early on an Obama victory."
So, while Americans head to the polls to choose their next president, many people in Britain and Ireland can head to the cashier's window and pick up their winnings for choosing Obama for a second term. They won't be collecting much though, because with odds of 1/5 the firm only pays out 20 cents for every euro bet (plus gives gamblers their original stake back).
The total payout has been over $650,000, according to the betting outfit.
Anyone who fancies their chances in taking on the house and winning by betting on a Romney victory will win €3.50 (about $4.50) for every euro staked. Despite the early payout on Obama, a Romney win would mean a second payout — and big losses for the bookie.
The low odds on Obama winning coupled with high ones on a Romney victory indicate Paddy Power is confident of a Obama victory as it is unlikely the firm would stake millions on a one-off publicity stunt.
The bookmaker is no stranger to controversial ads designed to get the attention of the press and, perhaps intentionally, rile industry regulators. In fact, Paddy Power's marketing department appears to have something of a fixation with the 44th President of the United States.
When Obama visited Ireland in May 2011 Paddy Power re-branded thirteen of its shops as "Obama Power" and took bets on which pub the president would drink a pint of Guinness in, a traditional photo-op for visiting US presidents.
More darkly, in 2008 the firm was accused of taking bets that implied Obama would be assassinated, when it offered odds that the president would not complete his term in office.
The most recent ad has attracted the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, standing accused of racism.
ASAI chief executive Frank Goodman said a single complaint about the ad had been lodged with the advertising industry's self-regulating body he heads.
"It's not causing widespread offense, but we're looking at it under [the rubric of] social responsibility," he said.
No one from Paddy Power was available for comment when The Christian Science Monitor called.