Senate Republicans’ 1st bill on Israel boycotts divides Democrats

Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate and would need Democratic votes to advance the measure over the 60-vote threshold. (File/AFP)
Updated 08 January 2019
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Senate Republicans’ 1st bill on Israel boycotts divides Democrats

  • Democrats are split over the addition of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Combatting BDS Act,” which seeks to counter the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel
  • The bill comes amid the partial government shutdown, and Democrats say they will block it until government is reopened

WASHINGTON: Senate Republicans’ first bill of the new Congress aims to insert the legislative branch into President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy — but also tries to drive a wedge between centrist and liberal Democrats over attitudes toward Israel.
The bipartisan package backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had initially drawn widespread support ahead of Tuesday’s vote. It includes measures supporting Israel and Jordan and slapping sanctions on Syrians involved in war crimes. But Democrats are split over the addition of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Combatting BDS Act,” which seeks to counter the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and the settlements.
For now, the package will almost certainly stall. The bill comes amid the partial government shutdown, and Democrats say they will block it until government is reopened.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will oppose proceeding to the legislation, according to a senior aide who was unauthorized to speak publicly about the vote and spoke on condition of anonymity. Other Democratic senators who also support the bills will likely follow suit.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., tweeted that the Senate “should not take up any bills unrelated to reopening the government” until the shutdown is resolved.
But Republicans see an opening to focus on newly elected House Democrats, including the country’s first Palestinian American woman in Congress, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has spoken about the rights of Americans to support the BDS issue.
“This is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality,” Tlaib said in a weekend tweet. “Maybe a refresher on our US Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away.”
Israel sees a growing threat from the BDS movement, which has led to increased boycotts of the Jewish state in support of the Palestinians. A Woodstock-style concert was canceled and some companies stopped offering services in the West Bank settlements. That has led to a “boycott of the boycotts” as Israel pushes back against those aligned with BDS.
In support of Israel, Rubio’s bills would affirm the legal authority of state and local governments to restrict contracts and take other actions against those “engaged in BDS conduct.” Several states are facing lawsuits after taking action against workers supporting BDS boycotts of Israel.
Opponents say Rubio’s measure infringes on free speech. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tweeted, “It’s absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity. Democrats must block consideration of any bills that don’t reopen the government. Let’s get our priorities right.”
But Rubio’s office says the bill allows the governments “to counter economic warfare against Israel.”
Rubio, a Florida senator, said Monday in a series of tweets, including one pointed at Sanders and Tlaib: “The shutdown is not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill.... A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”
Both sides are squaring off ahead of Tuesday’s votes. A coalition of civil liberties and liberal Jewish groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and J Street, is working to defeat the legislation, while the influential pro-Israel AIPAC supports it.
“Any contention that the bill infringes upon First Amendment rights is simply wrong,” said AIPAC’s Marshall Wittman by email. “It ensures Israel has the means necessary to defend itself-by itself-against growing threats and helps protect the right of states to counter boycotts against Israel.”
J Street’s President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement: “While millions of Americans suffer from the effects of the ongoing government shutdown, it’s outrageous that Senate Republican leaders are prioritizing legislation that tramples on the First Amendment and advances the interests of the Israeli settlement movement. Not a single Democrat should vote to enable this farce.”
Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate and would need Democratic votes to advance the measure over the 60-vote threshold.


Amazon tribe in Brazil patrols territory, braces for fight

Updated 7 min 9 sec ago

Amazon tribe in Brazil patrols territory, braces for fight

  • Tension over territory reached a new height after a surge in annual fires
  • Some indigenous people who live in the Amazon say deforestation is encroaching on their lands and way of life

ALTO RIO GUAMA INDIGENOUS RESERVE, Brazil: Deep in the Amazon rainforest, there is talk of a looming conflict over land. The men in the Tembe indigenous group sometimes daub themselves in traditional war paint and patrol the forest. They carry bows and arrows, but feel increasingly vulnerable as they brace for run-ins with illegal loggers.

Tension over territory reached a new height after a surge in annual fires, usually set to clear land, devastated large areas of the Brazil’s Amazon region in past weeks. Some indigenous people who live in the Amazon say deforestation is encroaching on their lands and way of life.

The problem is old — and escalating. On Aug. 27, Tembe people who had repeatedly warned loggers to stay out of their reserve took action. On a forest trek, men from the Tekohaw village spotted loggers using chain saws, trucks and tractors to cut down and haul trees. The indigenous warriors recorded video. Then they intervened, letting the loggers flee before burning their machinery.

“We destroyed their machinery because they have been destroying our lives for a long time. Our life is the forest,” said Ronilson Tembé. On a recent jungle patrol, he was camouflaged from head to foot with leaves and carried a large red horn to summon companions.

The Tembe are proud of their triumph, but worry about retaliation. Police are monitoring makeshift sawmills around their land after the Tekohaw village chieftain filed reports of death threats. “Every day that passes, the invasion comes closer to our village,” said the chieftain, Sergio Muxi Tembé. He wore a colorful headdress of macaw and other feathers and a traditional bone bracelet on his wrist, next to a Casio digital watch.

“We don’t want to be killed by bullets,” he said. “We want the federal government to assume its responsibility and guarantee the right that we have to live in our lands, to live in peace.” Their 1,080-square-mile (2,766-square-kilometer) Alto Rio Guama homeland is officially protected. But in reality, it’s under siege by loggers who try to extract prized hardwood in a Brazilian state that is one of the Amazon’s largest producers and exporters of timber.

Like other Amazon states, Para has also been hit by thousands of fires that have intensified international concern about the world’s largest rainforest, considered a vital bulwark against climate change. An Associated Press team traveled for days in the Amazon to document the fires and deforestation on the remote indigenous reserve, which can only be reached by river or on rough roads.

On a recent day, a boa constrictor slithered in the sun on a red dirt road leading to Tekohaw, where about 600 members of the tribe live on the banks of the Gurupí River. Their life mixes tradition and modernity. Villagers fish for piranhas, hunt for birds, and pick fruits and take materials for traditional medicine from jungle trees, while some watch television or log on to the Internet on phones inside thatched-roof huts.

Like elsewhere in Brazil, stricter enforcement of environmental laws between 2004 and 2014 sharply curbed deforestation in the Amazon. The rate began climbing after that, and ramped up further as the fires escalated in early August, according to Brazilian state monitors.

Amid an international outcry, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent the military to help battle some fires and banned most legal fires for land-clearing in the Amazon for 60 days. However, he had previously promised to loosen protections for indigenous lands as a way to develop Brazil’s economy, a pledge that critics say has stoked clashes.

Bolsonaro believes past allocations of land to indigenous people were excessive. About 14 percent of Brazil is indigenous territory, a huge area for a relatively small population, according to the president. Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, said in Washington last week that the opening of the Amazon to development is “the only way to protect the forest.”

One expert on Brazil said the plight of the Tembe people is the direct outcome of government policy. “This leads to a situation where the lawlessness of the Amazon region ... becomes such that the livelihood of the indigenous people is under a real threat. And they don’t have a lot of capacity to defend themselves,” said Monica de Bolle, a Brazil expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“These are the people who live off the land, who do substance farming. They are very much aware of the environment around it and how to maintain it because that’s how they sustain their livelihood,” said de Bolle, who recently testified before US Congress about the Amazon.

Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week that deforestation in the Amazon “is driven largely by criminal networks that use violence and intimidation against those who try to stop them.” It blamed Brazil’s government for failing to protect the rainforest and people trying to protect it.

Those networks can “coordinate large-scale extraction, processing, and sale of timber, while deploying armed men to intimidate and, in some cases, kill those who seek to defend the forest,” Human Rights Watch said. It based its report on interviews with indigenous people and others in the Brazilian states of Para, Maranhao and Rondonia.

In Brazil’s Congress, lawmaker Edmilson Rodrigo from Para state made a call to defend the Amazon’s indigenous people, including the Tembe. “Land grabbers, miners, loggers have taken their lands and they’ve reacted by trying to protect it,” he said.
Women of the Tembe tribe said their men will suffer casualties if they get into a fight with loggers likely to have firearms. They hope an international donor can provide the men with bulletproof vests.

“Our husbands go to look out after our lands, and this is our only weapon,” said Anailde Tembe, the chieftain’s wife. She lifted a bow and a sheaf of feathered arrows.