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Posted at 05:27 PM ET, 07/11/2014

China’s war on Ramadan sees Muslim students forced to break fast

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, police officers stand guard near a blast site which has been cordoned off in downtown Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, on May 22. (Cao Zhiheng/AP)

Chinese authorities in the restive far western region of Xinjiang have been forcing Muslim students at universities to eat during the daytime, violating their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. That's according to a BBC report, citing three Muslims who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Xinjiang is the homeland of ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority whose religion and language sets them considerably apart from much of China.

According to the BBC, students were compelled to dine with their professors, and those who refused risked sanction from university officials. "If you want a normal life here then you'd better not fast," said one student.

The Chinese state, per communist strictures, has always been atheist, but its crackdown on Ramadan has much more to do with current politics. China has seen a spate of shocking terror attacks which Beijing attributes to jihadist militant networks operating in Xinjiang and Central Asia.

The Chinese response to the perceived threat has been severe: President Xi Jinping dramatically called for "nets spread from earth to the sky" to combat terrorism and urged party officials to help "religion adapt to a socialist society." Whatever that means, Uighurs in Xinjiang have long complained about Beijing's systematic repression of their distinct identity and cultural practices. This year, according to the students quoted by the BBC, university departments across the region are enforcing the ban on fasting. Uighur medical staff at a government hospital were even made to sign a written pledge guaranteeing that they wouldn't fast during Ramadan.

The Uighurs' brand of Islam is known for historic syncretism; it is steeped in Sufi traditions, and one of Xinjiang's holiest sites is a tomb of a 17th century concubine to the Chinese emperor. But in recent years, there has been a growing radicalization, in part a consequence of China's heavy-handed handling of the region.

As discussed here, Chinese policies in Xinjiang have led to the downgrading of the Uighur language, restrictions on religious gatherings, mass round-ups of suspected dissidents and the bulldozing of much of Kashgar's Old City, the symbolic heart of the Uighur culture. In that context, being forced to eat lunch is perhaps not the worst injustice.

By  |  05:27 PM ET, 07/11/2014 |  Permalink  |  Comments ( 0)

Posted at 05:14 PM ET, 07/11/2014

Dispatch: I’ve been to Gaza before, but it has never been like this

A rocket headed toward Israel. (William Booth/The Washington Post)

This is not my first time in Gaza, but it is my first time here during a military operation. It is disorienting. The distances are so close.

The Gaza militants lob rockets from palm groves and melon fields as you're driving by. “Oh, look, another one,” you think. You get out of the car, take an iPhone photo of the vapor trail and start counting -- o ne Mississippi, two Mississippi -- as you would for lightning, followed by a thunder clap, to gauge distance. But in this case you're counting to hear whether the rocket is intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome (kind of a puff sound, with white smoke) or lands just over the Gaza border in Sderot (more of a concussion) or is far, far away and cannot be heard.

Then our police scanner crackles, and my Palestinian fixer, Islam Abdul-Kareem, tells me, “Sirens in Jerusalem.” I phone my wife at our home there, and she says, “Yeah, we just heard two big booms.”

It is all very intimate. We visited a house in the refugee camp of Maghazi that had been hit by an Israeli air strike a few hours earlier. While I was interviewing the Nawasrah family members who survived, one of the cousins opened up a plastic bag and handed me a little finger.

I didn’t flip out, only because it was the second time that day someone had shown me something like this. After the airstrikes, the Palestinians collect the dead from the debris, and sometimes the dead are no longer whole, so they gather what they can for burial. Like a finger tip.

Are the Nawasrah family members terrorists? I honestly don’t know. We always ask, “Are you resistance? Are you Hamas?” They usually say no. But sometimes a neighbor, or someone in the crowd, will tell us that the fellow who lived in the house was maybe a Hamas operative.

It is a very aural military operation, too. There are many whooshes, kabooms, window rattlings and thuds you can feel in your teeth. But mostly there is a constant whine, like mosquitos in a small room. These are the Israeli drones.

Little kids are expert at recognizing the sounds. I didn’t believe this at first, but it is true. In Beit Hanoun, we were gathered with a crowd of gawkers, all of us staring at a house down the lane that had been hit by a small, non-lethal missile, what Israeli military calls “the knock on the door” that signals to the occupants to get out. We all had our mobile phones out, ready to snap a picture once the house was destroyed by a serious missile.

Suddenly, behind us, maybe a kilometer away, we heard a rushing galloping sound: V vippps! My shoulders shot up to my ears.

Rocket. Outgoing. Close. A child told me: “Grad.” I wrote it down in my notebook. He was probably about eight.

One afternoon, we were talking to a gathering of middle-aged men who were sitting out the battle and the heat, fasting during the day because it is Ramadan (and so nobody is smoking, eating or drinking during daylight). I asked them if they thought the war, or whatever one calls this, would go on long.

“Who cares?” answered Abu Ahmed, 46, an out-of-work construction worker. I asked what he meant. “We lived in hell before, we will live in hell again,” he said. The sleepy guys on the stoop just nodded in the heat.

Yup. Hell.

Gaza is a young place. Usually there are children everywhere underfoot. But not so much now. During the day, you see men in the mosques and in the markets, but very few women. They are all cooped up at home in their airless apartments, waiting for the six daily hours of electricity to turn the fans.

A colleague in Washington asked me what the Palestinians do during an air strike. Do they run to the bomb shelters? I think about this. It is not a dumb question. There aren’t any shelters or sirens. The Palestinians don’t really do anything. When they run around is afterward.

Related content: The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts

How Israeli soccer hooligans fanned flames of hate

The Israeli-Palestinian Twitter war, in 8 graphics

By  |  05:14 PM ET, 07/11/2014 |  Permalink  |  Comments ( 0)

Posted at 02:33 PM ET, 07/11/2014

The Israeli-Palestinian Twitter war, in 8 graphics

The conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories has hit Twitter, where both sides are creating graphics that are rapidly being shared on various social media platforms. Here's a roundup:

A message from Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei

From the Israel Defense Forces


What if Hamas was in your neighborhood?

What if Israel was bombing your city?

Israeli vs. Palestinian shelters

Attacks in Gaza, by the numbers


Related content:

The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts

How Israeli soccer hooligans fanned flames of hate

Israelis turn to smartphones to track incoming rocket attacks

Gallery: Clashes continue

By Swati Sharma  |  02:33 PM ET, 07/11/2014 |  Permalink  |  Comments ( 0)

Posted at 01:19 PM ET, 07/11/2014

Watch: Syrian baby rescued from the rubble after Aleppo bombing

The world's attention may be focused on the escalating crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, but the civil war next door in Syria continues unabated. Monitors announced this week that the death toll of the brutal, three-year conflict is now at 170,000; at least a third of the fatalities are civilians.

The northern Syrian city of Aleppo -- the country's most populous urban center -- has been pulverized during the war. Residents now fear a renewed siege as government forces seek to retake neighborhoods in the heart of the city. The video above, posted on July 11, shows rescue workers digging through the rubble of a building that was apparently hit by a barrel bomb, a crude weapon that has been used repeatedly by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the film's uploader, the operation took some 16 hours. It's unclear how many others perished in this particular attack.

By  |  01:19 PM ET, 07/11/2014 |  Permalink  |  Comments ( 0)

Posted at 12:37 PM ET, 07/11/2014

The lopsided death tolls in Israel-Palestinian conflicts

Palestinian relatives of eight members of the Al Haj family, who were killed in a strike, grieve in the family house during their funeral in Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on July 10. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

In the current conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, both sides have attempted to harm the other. Hundreds of rockets have been fired from Palestinian territory with the aim of harming Israeli civilians, while Israeli military strikes have hit hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip.

There's at least one clear asymmetry to the conflict, however. By Friday morning, 100 Palestinians had died as a result of Israeli military action, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with hundreds more wounded. To date, there have been zero reports of Israeli deaths due to Palestinian rocket fire, though Magen David Adom, Israel's national emergency medical service, said Wednesday that 123 people had been treated — 80 percent of them for shock or anxiety — since the start of the operation.

These are not surprising figures. During 2012's Operation Pillar of Defense, 167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military, according to human rights group B’Tselem, who said that less than half of that number were believed to be taking part in hostilities. The same report said six Israelis had died: Four civilians and two members of the Israeli security forces. In the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the pattern was also evident. According to numbers released by the Israeli Defense Force, 1,166 Palestinians died during that conflict, 709 of which the IDF said were  "Hamas terror operatives." Thirteen Israelis died, three of whom were non-combatants.

The death tolls in these sort of conflicts are often imprecise and disputed, but few people would argue with the core takeaway: When Israelis and Palestinians fight, Palestinians are far more likely to die than Israelis are. Why could that be? Here are four factors.

The weapons

Hamas is able to launch missiles farther into Israel than ever before. (Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

In conflicts like the current one, militants in the Gaza Strip fire a large amount of rockets into Israeli territory. According to the IDF, around six rockets are being fired at Israelis every hour. However, many of these rockets are not sophisticated, and they either fail to land in populated areas or lack the firepower to cause casualties when they do: Sometimes, the payloads are removed from missiles in a bid to increase their range.

The original "Qassam rocket," named after the Izzaddine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed branch of Hamas, and fired during the Second Intifada, were rudimentary affairs, designed to be made cheaply and easily, though they were crudely effective within a limited range. While these missiles are still produced and fired from Gaza, in recent years the Palestinian militants have been able to get their hands on better equipment: The IDF announced this week that an M-302 missile, manufactured in Syria, had landed near Hadara, 70 miles north of Gaza. Such a missile has a range that allows it to strike anywhere in Israel, though its accuracy is limited and its use appears to be rare so far (for a map showing the ranges of Hamas' missiles, click here). Hamas is also believed to possess surface-to-air missiles that could be used against Israeli military aircraft.

Even with these new weapons, Israel clearly outguns Palestinian fighters. Israel has F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and armed drones, all of which are capable of firing into Gaza with remarkable firepower and considerable accuracy.

The defense systems

A girl leaves a bomb shelter after a siren warning of incoming rockets was sounded in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on July 9. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Over the years, Israel has invested significant amounts into protecting its civilians. Most buildings are required by law to have bomb shelters, and warning sirens are used to tell people when to head to them. In communities near the Gaza Strip, extra fortifications exist, including bus stops with concrete roofs for those caught out in the open when sirens start. In recent years, there has also been the "Iron Dome," Israel's renowned missile defense system which can shoot down threats while they're still in the air. The IDF says that about 90 percent of the system's targets have been shot down, vastly decreasing the risk to Israeli civilians.

Palestinians don't have their own Iron Dome. In fact, they don't have much in the way of bomb shelters, either. William Booth, The Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, who is currently in the Gaza Strip, says that "sometimes people can see and certainly hear an incoming missile, but it doesn't give them time to run and since missiles are guided — run where?" Israel has often criticized Hamas for not doing a better job of protecting its own citizens and failing to provide more bomb shelters.

The Israeli military does make some efforts to warn the occupants of buildings it is targeting  — either with a phone call or a warning missile, a practice known as "roof knocking" — but those warnings are not always successful.

The terrain

An Israeli tank outside the northern Gaza Strip on July 10.  (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The Gaza Strip is a relatively small area, just 139 square miles in total. However, it contains 1.8 million people, according to a CIA World Factbook Estimate. For reference, it's roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., with three times the people.

While the population density of the Gaza Strip is perhaps exaggerated (it may not be comparable to Manhattan or Hong Kong, for example), it clearly plays a role. Many of the targets of Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip live in densely populated areas like Gaza City or Khan Younis. Israel does make efforts to avoid civilian casualties, and has said that Hamas hides its weapons caches and launchpads within civilian areas. The IDF has accused Hamas of using "human shields."

Conversely, many of the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel fail to hit anything. The southern part of Israel is the most sparsely populated area of the country, largely consisting of the Negev desert. The main target for Palestinian missiles in previous years was the relatively nearby city of Sderot, with a population of about 24,000, though new mid- and long-range missiles may now mean that more populous cities such as Tel Aviv are targeted more frequently.

The attitude

An explosion follows an Israeli air strike on July 11 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

As mentioned above, the Israeli military does go to some lengths to avoid causing unnecessary deaths. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out the way they plan. For example, when the Israeli military recently "knocked on the roof" of a building in Khan Younis, a group of young men apparently ran into the building.

These men may have been hoping to protect the building by their presence, a tactic that has apparently been tried before. They may have been hoping to be martyrs. Either way, their presence did not stop the building from being destroyed. Hamas said seven people, including three minors, died in the attack.

By Adam Taylor  |  12:37 PM ET, 07/11/2014 |  Permalink  |  Comments ( 0)


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