Month: October 2000

One Planet – October 25, 2000

Facts About the Fighting

While the fighting in Israel and occupied Palestine continues, the U.S. press is busy heralding the verbal ceasefire agreement Bill Clinton announced last week. But will the two sides be able to stick to the hazy and vague terms of the agreement? Yassar Arafat has lost most of his credibility with the Palestinian people and Ehud Barak faces a dissolving government. Barak has been courting Likud and other hard-line, conservatives parties in a desperate attempt to maintain a majority coalition.

Meanwhile, there’s a number of important facts that have been widely reported in the foreign press, but not here in the U.S. They include: Three weeks ago, when the fighting first erupted, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously (with the U.S. abstaining) to condemn Ariel Sharon’s actions and the brutality of the Israeli military. The resolution also called for a speedy and objective investigation of the violence (with no action on this so far). The Israeli government and U.S. propagandists have responded by saying that the U.N. is controlled by “Arabs.” This includes France, Britain, Australia, Canada, and a whole host of other U.S. allies (including Germany, which has its own internal problems of discrimination against Muslim immigrants).

The U.N. offered to broker a ceasefire. Again, Israel objected, preferring to have only U.S. negotiators at the table (during the peace talks earlier this year, U.S. negotiators sided 100% with Israeli demands). However, last week’s ceasefire was hammered out not by Clinton alone, but with the help of U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the king of Jordan, and a number of diplomats from the European Union. Last week two major, international human rights organizations condemned the Israeli military’s role in the recent violence. Amnesty International sent Elizabeth Hodgkin and Dr. Steven Males, a former British police officer experienced in “riot control,” to Israel to document and examine the violence from October 4-13. They concluded that the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) used “military methods–that is to say of eliminating an enemy, rather than policing methods of serving the community and preserving lives.”

The IDF is required by law to fire live ammunition only when fired upon, and then only at the person or persons who fired at them. Hodgkins told the press that at the site of at least one demonstration in Ramallah, examination of a wall showed that the IDF had not fired at the sniper who had shot at them, but instead fired indiscriminately at a crowd of demonstrators.

The other organization to condemn the IDF was Human Rights Watch, which documented “repeated excessive use of lethal force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators, who posed no imminent danger of death or serious injury to security forces or to others.” The IDF is required by Israeli law to respond to rock-throwers with the use of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, which must be fired from a range no closer than 40 meters (rubber bullets can be fatal at close range). The IDF’s own spokesmen have admitted that rubber-coated bullets have been fired at Palestinians at much closer ranges.

Also, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) sent an investigator to the Palestinian territories. Giorgio Giacomelli reported that close to 100% of the dead are Palestinians, one-third of whom are children. An estimated 2,000 to 3,700 Palestinians have been wounded; 40% of those are under the age of 18. He laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the IDF and its commanders, who “appear to have indiscriminately used excessive force in cases where there was no imminent threat to their lives.” Said Giacomelli: “It is worthy of note that the number of deaths caused by Israeli forces so far approximate the number killed in the first four months of the Intifada, in 1987-88.” It’s only been three weeks since the fighting began.

IDF units have openly disobeyed orders from the Israeli government and even upper-level military officers. Many units, including the one that launched a missile at Yasser Arafat’s home, are currently acting on their own initiative. So far none have been sanctioned for breach of discipline. And finally, the one important point that never appears in the U.S. press is this: the Palestinians live in squalid conditions that are getting worse every day, while Israeli settlers continue to seize more of their land and appropriate more and more of their fresh water resources. The Oslo accords gave the Palestinians hope that the land seizures would end, that they could piece together a sovereign state, that martial law would become a thing of the past, and that the Israeli military would stop killing them. Instead, the reverse has happened: more land seizures, more deaths, and proposal that would create a “Palestinian Bantustan” (in the words of one former U.S. diplomat). This is what the peace process has brought them. Are we truly surprised that their teenage sons are in the streets throwing stones and screaming for justice?

DARE Gets an “F”

A couple of weeks ago, a researcher from the RAND corporation (a Santa Monica-based think tank) spoke to an audience of social workers and policy makers in Seattle. His talk was about troubled kids and how the criminal justice system fails them. To the surprise of all present (but, surely, not to you and me) he pointed out that the popular, repressive methods of dealing with child criminals have all failed. The DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which is used in school districts all over the country, has largely failed to effect any change in drug use. The same is true for “scared straight” programs. Boot camps, in particular, are a highly expensive flop. While kids are forced to toe the line in wilderness camps run by psychotic goons, their homes are nothing like a backwoods boot camp (although life in a street gang may sometimes resemble it–only with a lot more fun stuff going on, like drugs, booze, and sex).

In fact, the programs that have the most impact on juvenile crime are the relatively inexpensive programs that target early childhood education and provide services to the family as a whole. For example, in-home nurse visits to young mothers cost only about $7,400 per client, but they rate very high in reducing crime in the children whose mothers participate. For every dollar spent on the mother, $1.54 in criminal justice costs are saved later down the road. Other programs that come in for high marks include the Perry Preschool model, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the Bullying Prevention Program. In short, punishing kids after the fact doesn’t work at all, versus providing rewarding service to them and their families when they’re very young.

Notably, funding for many of these early childhood education and parental service programs were cut from state and federal budgets during the Reagan years and the Clinton/Gore “Welfare Reform” drive. At the same time, increasingly larger pots of money have been poured into punitive programs like DARE, boot camps, and other crap that should be ditched as soon as possible.

For teenagers already in the criminal justice system, the RAND researcher had encouraging news. Intensive family counseling has proved to be 85% successful at preventing repeat crimes. The cost is about $4,540 per family, a savings of about $13.45 in future criminal justice costs for every dollar spent on therapy. Once again, the peaceful, reasonable, “let’s talk about it” approach that includes the whole family is preferable to locking kids up.

When the family is impossible to deal with or is nonexistent–and they often are–kids respond very well to court-ordered foster care with a foster family that is trained to cope with teenagers who have committed crimes. The foster programs are astoundingly cost effective, saving taxpayers $22.58 in criminal justice costs for every dollar spent. The recidivism rate is very low. In comparison, group homes (where kids are locked up with other teenagers in a glorified juvenile prison) fail pitifully to keep kids from re-offending.

The danger is that local governments often fund the programs that are most popular and most superficial. Having a cop visit a middle school and give a lecture to students will have minimal impact, especially when the kids already distrust the police. On the other hand, whole-family counseling will confront the source of the problem head-on–whether it’s a kid’s bad choice in friends, lack of self-esteem, need to rebel, or the parents’ inattentiveness or incompetence. The non-glamorous, labor-intensive stuff is what works.

One Rail or Two?

That is the question, according to local politicians. But it doesn’t have to be.

In early September, a group of 100 activists and community leaders signed a letter demanding an independent audit of Sound Transit’s light rail plan. The group proposed that a panel of three people–one of whom would be from Sound Transit itself–review the cost of the plan (particularly of the Capitol Hill/U-District tunnel section) over the course of three months. Sound Transit rejected the proposal out of hand as an attempt to “kill light rail.” The signers, however, should not be ignored; they include a number of environmentalists, former director of Metro Transit Chuck Collins, Tom Albro (chairman of the Municipal League), former Gov. Booth Gardner, several city council members, and two county council members (Maggi Fimia and Rob McKenna).

These folks have a point. Sound Transit has already increased its own projections by $500 million over the initial budget. Experts have pointed out that other federally funded rail projects around the country have come in with average cost overruns of 33.5%–much higher than the 10% cost overrun built into Sound Transit’s budget.

The big-ticket item, and the part that will generate the biggest cost overruns, is the Capitol Hill/U-District tunnel. Sound Transit has taken bids on the tunnel from contractors, but has slyly refused to announce the actual amounts, for fear of public backlash against the project. Fortunately, the contractors have spilled the beans: the bids came in at $800 and $900 million respectively. The lower bid is $243 million higher than Sound Transit’s budgeted figure for the tunnel.

Sound Transit is poised to accept $500 million in federal money for the project as soon as Congress approves it. This will put a requirement on the local region to finish the project, regardless of the cost. Local governments will have to cover the cost overruns. Obviously, an outside audit is long overdue.

Sound Transit supporters, including county councilmember and would-be mayor Greg Nickels, city councilmember Richard McIver, Mayor Paul Schell, and County Executive Ron Sims, have objected to the audit and referred critics to the Citizen Oversight group that has supposedly been keeping Sound Transit honest for the past four years. It took less than 24 hours after the signed letter reached their desk for the Citizen Oversight panel to announce that yes, indeed, Sound Transit is grossly underestimating the cost of the project. Why they didn’t speak up sooner is anybody’s guess. My guess is that the vaunted Citizen Oversight panel is composed of yes-men and cheerleaders for light rail.

In mid-September Ron Sims tried to sneak more money into light rail coffers by proposing a 0.3% increase in the county sales tax. County councilmembers dumped his plan and settled on a 0.2% increase that would provide money for buses, but not a dime for light rail. The debate hinged mostly on ridership. Sound Transit swears that it can attract new transit riders to a combined bus and rail system. Critics claim that light rail will only draw people who already ride the bus.

Their argument is reasonable. When Sound Transit recently unveiled its new commuter rail service between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, a survey of riders showed that most were folks who usually ride the bus. This should come as no surprise. To get suburbanites and long-distance commuters out of their cars and into mass transit will take a combination of incentives (sleek trains and spiffy commuter buses) and disincentives to driving. Like a really big gas tax, for example. Or exorbitant parking rates. Or banning single passenger automobiles from a portion of downtown Seattle. Or perhaps all three. We virtuous bus riders can dream, can’t we?

Those of us who ride in-city buses are used to seeing half-empty express buses running out of downtown for the suburbs. Yet we continue to pile onto cramped, crowded, aging in-city trolley buses. We know that we’re doing the right thing in riding transit, yet we feel we’re being punished. A fifteen minute in-city bus ride during rush hour now easily stretches to an hour-and-a-half. We can only feel anger and frustration in the morning when our bus speeds past our stop packed to overflowing–unable to pick us up because there’s no room for any more people on the bus.

Our current mass transit system is run by the county and not the city, which is why Metro emphasizes serving the suburbs and the eastside. Sound Transit, too, is a regional body, with an emphasis on moving people around the region.

The greatest need for more, efficient mass transit is within the Seattle city limits. This is what drives the monorail initiative. In the face of city bureaucrats who want to forever shirk responsibility for transit and dump that whole dilemma on the county and Sound Transit, Seattle citizens have responded with Initiative 53.

In 1997, a year after voters approved the light rail plan, city residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of an in-city monorail. The city has ignored the monorail plan, hoping that it will die from neglect. Monorail supporters sued the city, and a recent court decision ruled that the city council had to either fund the monorail or kill it for good. Councilmembers narrowly voted against putting their own initiative on the ballot to fund a monorail study. Mayor Schell and his cronies on the council (Drago, Pageler, McIver, et al.) decided to wait for a group commissioned by the city to study transportation solutions to make its recommendations first. In the meantime, Mayor Schell has suggested that the city build trolley lines, bus-only lanes, or subsidize private shuttle services–anything but build a monorail.

The transportation study group, however, recently came forward and said that, while a monorail may be more expensive than buses and trolleys, it’s a hell of a lot more efficient in moving people around. It may, indeed, be the very thing that we need. For example, building a trolley line from West Seattle to downtown would cost around $465 million. Building a bus-only lane over the same distance would cost only $87 million. But building a monorail over that distance would cost just over $500 million–and it would carry five times more people than either the trolley system or the bus-only lane. It would also be faster, it wouldn’t have to stop for traffic, and it would remove five times more commuters from the roads.

In short, it wouldn’t punish us mass transit riders. It would reward us for our virtue, for a change.

While the mayor and city council continue to waffle, Initiative 53 will go on the ballot in November. It would require the city to give $6 million to the Elevated Transportation Co. to draw up a plan to construct a monorail system. Then the city would have to place the plan on the ballot for voters to approve or reject, and set aside $200 million in the city’s borrowing capacity to fund the project. In other words, the city would have to pay for an in-city transit system, instead of throwing a little cash into a regional transit system (that may not be financially viable–or solve our local transit problems).

In the meantime, Mayor Schell, Ron Sims, and city councilmembers Jan Drago and Richard McIver are all aghast at the prospect of a monorail. The usual refrain is “we don’t have the money for it.” Yet we have the money for a lavish new city hall, a new downtown library (that resembles a deformed chain-link fence), and a new stadium with a defective roof. We have so much money in the coffers that Paul Schell can give away the old PacMed Building to Wright Runstad for a measly $1 million. There’s enough money around for bus-only lanes or trolley lines that would only contribute to traffic congestion, not alleviate it (like a monorail would).

Don’t let them tell you it’s a choice between one rail or two. We can have both. We might have to give up a tunnel under Capitol Hill, but so what? The Sound Transit planning process has taught us that there are always alternative routes.

One Planet – October 11, 2000

No Sermon on the Mount

The U.S. news media coverage of the recent violence in the occupied Palestinian territories has been selective. For example, we read about the body count, but not the fact that the victims are almost exclusively unarmed Palestinians–rock throwing teenagers or bystanders killed by Israeli troops firing live ammunition.

We read about the intransigence of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, but not about Israel’s refusal to implement portions of the agreement that they’ve already signed. We hear that the Palestinians won’t give up Jerusalem to Israeli rule, but not that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has offered to share the city with the Palestinians–a completely reasonable plan, and one that will have to be implemented eventually, if peace is ever to come to this part of the world. The Palestinian delegation may have been ready to accept this offer; we may never know. The recent violence has turned the peace talks away from the subject of Jerusalem and focused them on bringing an end to the violence, instead.

We don’t hear or read about many things that are important in understanding the ongoing conflict. Israel–particularly the Israeli military–are the biggest recipients of U.S. aid in the world. The Israeli military, which routinely engages in human rights violations in the occupied territories, has also drawn the condemnation of nearly every nation in the world (except the U.S.).

The U.N. has offered to oversee the peace talks. Israel has refused, turning instead to the U.S. The talks have been slow and unproductive. The current Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, was elected on a peace platform, and he has begun to make some concessions to the Palestinian negotiators. Hard-line conservatives in Israel are beginning to panic.

The conservative Likud party will be attempting to force Barak out of office after the Israeli Parliament reconvenes on October 30. But first, they must find a candidate among their ranks to replace him. Benjamin Netanyahu is the favored candidate; he runs neck-and-neck with Barak in the polls, but a recent fraud scandal has alienated him from many members of his own party. The second choice is Ariel Sharon. Sharon, who’s less popular, is now locked in a power struggle with Netanyahu over leadership of the Likud party.

When Barak offered to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, Sharon decided to make a gesture that would both sabotage the peace talks and draw more hard-liners to his side. Sharon assembled a massive, armed squad of “bodyguards” and an entourage of media people, then made a political visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews (Jews refer to it as the Temple Mount–site of the Biblical Jewish temples). Sharon and his troops occupied the mosque and declared his visit a demonstration of Israeli sovereignty over the site.

The response was immediate: scuffles broke out on the site immediately before and after his visit. Within a day of his visit, Israeli troops were firing on Palestinian protesters in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Appalled by both Sharon’s action and the violence of Israeli troops, Israeli Arabs went on strike to show solidarity for the aggrieved Palestinians. Members of the current Israeli government lambasted Sharon, who was unrepentant–in fact, he was happy to see that his antics had produced the desired outcome. Israeli Jews were split: some supporting Sharon, while many others were sickened by his casual provocation of violence. After a week of mostly one-sided fighting (nearly all of it in the occupied territories) over 80 people–mostly Palestinians–were dead and more than 1,000 people injured.

This violence was not, as the U.S. media has portrayed it, just another irrational incident of religious squabbling. It had a calculated cause: one man’s egotistical drive for power. It was fed by a deadly serious political struggle going on within the Israeli government that, of course, has received no airplay here in the U.S. Its victims are people who have no say over who rules them, who live under an illegal occupation, and who have been fighting for their political freedom with nothing but handfuls of rocks.

In all of the reporting on the recent violence, one fact was never mentioned: according to the Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement signed seven years ago, the Palestinians should have been free to declare their independence long ago. But as each year passes, they have put off announcing their independence in favor of good-faith negotiations with Israel. The question now is whether this patience has brought them any reward.

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