Saturday, April 5, 2014

The danger of peace has receded.

It seems that that is it. The most expected is what really happened. The very many sceptics were right again. The incorrigible optimists had cultivated some hope in vain. On yesterday's evening news an unidentified senior member of the Likud Party was quoted as saying: "The danger of peace has receded."

What was called "negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians"  has apparently breathed its last, and  the offer to release Pollard failed to do its magic. The magician's hat contains no further rabbits, and the career of Secretary of State John Kerry is not going to be crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony.

Nor will there be in the history books a big chapter about Kerry and his name will not be remembered as the one who succeeded to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He will have to rest content with a footnote at the side of all the many mediators who tried before him. At the side of Senator George Mitchell who succeeded in North Ireland and failed utterly in the Middle East, and before him James Baker who cut off contact in a farewell speech where he announced for the attention of the government of Israel the phone number of the White House, and before him Henry Kissinger who achieved interim agreements and took very much care not to touch the real problems, and before him the Swedish Gunnar Jarring who spent years for a futile going to and fro before the Americans asserted the monopoly over mediation, and even much earlier Count Folke Bernadotte who in 1948 paid with his life for asking of  the young State of Israel some concessions which the Lehi underground didn't like.

This time, at least, the process which led to the final collapse was quite visible and open for all to see. Unlike after the collapse of Camp David in 2000 we are spared the tiring and endless debate of what happened in closed rooms and who offered what and who refused it and where the "generous offers" really that generous.

It is difficult to argue with the facts. The government of Israel obliged itself to release on March 29,  2014 the last 14 of 104 Palestinian prisoners  it had committed to set free. The Palestinians in exchange committed themselves not to seek recognition in international institutions until the end of the time set for negotiations. In actuality the government of Israel took a formal decision to break its obligation and not to release those 14. To this was added the publication of building tenders for 700 housing units for Jewish Israelis in East Jerusalem.

In the past, the Palestinians reluctantly restrained themselves about settlement projects which were intended to "counterbalance" the release of prisoners. But there was no reason in the world to pass in silence a settlement project which was adding insult to injury; a settlement project on top of non-release of prisoners. 

President Mahmoud Abbas reacted by sending applications to join 15 international institutions and treaties, so as to further cement the existence the State of Palestine as a recognized entity in international law - even if it does not yet exist as a sovereign state on the ground. It is in fact a long-established Israeli form of behaviour of facing the other side with accomplished facts - but Israeli decision makers don't like so much to be on the receiving side.

As could have been expected the Americans make every  effort not not to take a position in the blame game dividing responsibility equally among Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides have resorted to "unhelpful" measures, both leaders have "avoided taking difficult decisions". Just like in earlier and more hopeful stages John Kerry took care to make equal compliments to Netanyahu and Abbas about their "seriousness and determination to go forward." A complete symmetry. Is it justified?

There is a reason to suppose that Mahmoud Abbas did want to reach an agreement. After sharp haggling about the terms, undoubtedly - but he had many good reasons for wanting to be remembered as the one who liberated his people from an occupation regime and brought them statehood. But did Benyamin Netanyahu ever really want to reach an agreement? To be remembered as the right-wing leader who put an end to a dream of ruling over the Biblical Homeland and to Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria? Was it his dream to get Israel out of the occupied territories, even had the Palestinians been willing to sing with a great chorus the mantra "Jewish State, Jewish State, Jewish State"?

Since he made the Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, a great crowd of commentators insisting upon dreaming again and again of Netanyahu crossing the Rubicon, becoming a man of peace, engaging in head-on confrontation with the zealots in his party and his coalition, extending his hand to the Palestinians and to the Israeli left. Learned articles set out very detailed scenarios and counted fingers in the Knesset towards fateful decisions. But there is a lot of reason to doubt whether Netanyahu's real aspirations ever went further than an end to the negotiations without an agreement and with the blame put on the Palestinians.

Could it have ended differently?

Where Kerry's efforts foredoomed in advance to inevitable failure, or was there a moment where a real chance for success was missed? If at all, one specific moment can be pointed at: afternoon of Saturday, February 1st, 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry got up to speak at the International Security Conference at Munich, and made a sharp and firm warning:

(…) Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace. The fact is the status quo will change if there is failure. So everybody has a stake in trying to find the pathway to success. For Israel, the stakes are  enormously high. Do they want a failure that then begs whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community? What happens to the Arab Peace Initiative if this fails? Does it disappear? Are we going to then see militancy? Will we see violence? What happens for Israel’s capacity to be the Israel it is today – a democratic state with the particular special Jewish character that is a central part of the narrative and of the future? What happens to that when you have a bi-national structure and people demanding rights on different terms? We all have a powerful, powerful interest in resolving this conflict. Everywhere I go in the world, wherever I go – I promise you, no exaggeration, the Far East, Africa, Latin America – one of the first questions out of the mouths of a foreign minister or a prime minister or a president is, “Can’t you guys do something to help bring an end to this conflict between Palestinians and Israelis?” (…) You see there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign of Israel that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that? (…)

The word "boycott" out of the Secretary of State's mouth aroused in Israel an outburst of panic, especially among business people whose firms very much depend on trade with Europe. In the papers banner headlines read "Kerry threatens boycott" and under it was written: Is this how the European boycott will look like?

Worrying scenarios popped up about what the economy of Israel might face in case of boycott. The names of companies and financial institutions were mentioned from various European countries which already had taken steps against Israeli business partners. For a moment it looked as if Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama found in 'bad cop Europe' a way to by-pass AIPAC, a creative way to neutralize the power of the Israeli government's lobby on Capitol Hill and fundamentally change the rules of the decades-old game.

What would have happened if on that particular week John Kerry would have taken the bull by the horns, put on the table with no further delay his overdue "framework agreement", demanding an immediate and unequivocal Yes or No answer? We will never know.

Fact is that in reality Kerry did exactly the opposite, delayed and delayed again and thereby eroded the deterrence which he had for a moment created. He met several times with Netanyahu,  spoke to him in a conciliatory way and softened the draft of the framework agreement, putting in it changes which Netanyahu liked, and the Palestinians didn't. From then on Kerry was more and more treated as a paper tiger...

So what is going to happen now? Kerry himself said it quite accurately on that day in Munich.

"Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace. The fact is the status quo will change. For Israel, the stakes are  enormously high, whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community? What happens to the Arab Peace Initiative if this fails? Does it disappear? Are we going to then see militancy? Will we see violence? What happens for Israel’s capacity to be the Israel it is today – a democratic state with the particular special Jewish character that is a central part of the narrative and of the future? What happens to that when you have a bi-national structure and people demanding rights on different terms. there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign of Israel that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?"

Two months ago these words were intended as warning. Now they have  become a realistic assessment of what to expect.

As Fatah's Jibril Rayyoub said in an interview in the Sof Shavua Israeli weekly: "The Israelis can't continue to eat honey while we eat shit. Either we both eat honey, or both eat shit. You decide what we will eat."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Riding missiles on the Rabin Square

In the 1980s the municipality of Tel Aviv used to invite the IDF Armoured Corps to bring into town dozens of tanks every year, put them in the big square opposite the town hall. The public used to come in great numbers to  The Square of the Kings of Israel. Children especially enjoyed climbing on the tanks and hanging from the cannons. Some of them even succeeded to be photographed with their finger on the trigger of a machine gun. 

Years have passed and the annual tank exhibition got out of fashion. Indeed, the armoured corps as such fell out of favour when already for decades the IDF did not any more fight against another regular army. Also the 18-year olds who volunteer for the armour discovered that most of the time the army is taking them out of the tanks and sends them on foot to maintain checkpoints on the roads of the West Bank, and shoot tear-gas at young stone throwers. Meanwhile, the square in the heart of Tel-Aviv became identified mainly with mass peace demonstrations, and with the great hope which flared up for a moment at the Oslo Agreements. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated at this square behind the town hall, the square since that day bearing his name.

And again, years have past with continuing occupation and extending settlements and  Palestinian resistance continuing as well. And the hope died down, with only some glowing ambers  left here and there, and a rather stubborn American Secretary of State.     
On the occasion of The Israeli Science Day, the military exhibition for the pleasure of the city's children  returned this week to the square in the heart of Tel Aviv. 

Not tanks this time. This year was brought to the square and presented proudly, the Iron Dome missile system which is intended to intercept short-range missiles. And at the firm demand of the competing producer of the Arrow Missiles, also its anti-missile missiles are part of the exhibition. The development of the middle range missile against missile, called Magic Wand, is not yet completed and it will have to wait for next year. Foreign sources have already for years told that Israel possesses its own offensive missiles, named 'Jericho', which can carry nuclear warheads to any point in the middle East and quite a bit beyond. However, Israel never admitted their existence, and certainly they are not included in the exhibition.

It is difficult for children to climb on vertically exposed missiles, but at least there was made available a photo opportunity where they could get photographed as if riding a missile high in the sky. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Small Bang

On the same day that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came to meet President Barack Obama of the United States at the White House,  and when President Valdimir Putin of Russia announced that as far as he is concerned  the Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, news came out which excited the world of science and managed to get some attention even from those who are not involved in physics. 

The subtle observations of the telescope mounted in the fresh Antarctic air had provided confirmation and empirical proof for the hypothesis that about fourteen billion years ago our universe was less than the size of a single atom, that it had exploded in a Big Bang and began to expand and expand and expand and still continues  expanding. "The confirmation of the theory means that the universe which we can see, spanning  over 14 billion light years with hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal corner in a far vaster cosmos whose size, structure and ultimate fate are unfathomable" was how the scientific editor of  Ha’aretz tried to explain it.

To the Bedouin citizens of Israel who reside at a small dot in the Negev desert called the village of El Arakib, the size and age of the universe take a definite second place to the police and government demolition teams which visit Arakib again and again. Next time, so they threatened, they will also demolish the village cemetery, which hitherto remained untouched.

Among the living beings known to us, the ants are the only ones, except for human beings, who are in the habit of going to war. Not one against one or two against two, but thousands and tens of thousands, whole armies of ants going into battle and resorting to sophisticated tactics and strategies to defeat the opposing nest 's army.

When I was ten or eleven, I and the other neighborhood kids witnessed ants at war. The entire backyard was full of ants, thousands of ants engaged in a life and death struggle. The modest backyard of our house on Philon Street in the Old North of Tel Aviv, which a human could cross in one minute, was for the ants Homeland and Fatherland and Promised Land and Holy Land and Occupied Territory and Liberated Territory for whose sake it was definitely worthy to sacrifice one’s  life. Ilan, our neighbors’ son, gathered some ten ants and dumped them in another corner of the yard. To our eyes they all looked the same, but they could instantly recognize who is a friend and who is a foe, and after a moment of confusion they renewed their battle. When we went to sleep the ants’ battle was still going on intensively.

The next morning the yard was completely empty of them, not a single ant anywhere in sight. After about a week, ants appeared again in the yard -  engaged in ordinary ant daily life activities, gathering food and returning in a long convoy to the nest. Were these the indigenous ants who had lived here long before and who had heroically repelled the invaders of their country? Or were they conquerors and settlers taking control of newly conquered territory? There was no way of knowing, to the eyes of human beings all these ants looked the same.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

“We are not Pirates – we are the Israeli Defence Forces”

“We are not pirates, we are the Israeli Defense Forces” – Yediot Aharonot, March 7, 2014

My involvement in political activity began many years ago , as high school pupil in Tel Aviv who came to volunteer at the elections headquarters of the “Holam Hazeh - New Force" party. It was a small party, holding but a single seat among 120 in the Knesset, and that single MK was Uri Avnery. It was an unconventional and highly dissident party, which struggled for the separation of religion and state, and which was the first to raise the idea of ​​establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after these territories were occupied in June 1967. Moreover, Uri Avnery was acknowledged, even by his staunch opponents , as a highly industrious Knesset Member. He made it his invariable practice to sit at all Knesset sessions without exception, even when the plenary was otherwise empty, and expressed great interest and considerable involvement even in deliberations of technical and boring issues (which often have the most influence on the daily life of ordinary citizens).

Starting from the next elections, it will no longer be possible for such an audacious and iconoclastic member to serve in Israel’s Knesset  and stand alone if need be, "One against 119 ". According to the law enacted this week by the tyrannical Knesset  majority, any new Israeli party which will arise in the future would need to pass a high hurdle and gain enough votes for at least four seats - otherwise all votes cast for it will be lost. A very high hurdle for those expressing innovative and unorthodox positions. Also veteran, long established parties which undergo a crisis, as happened to Meretz in the March 2009 elections, might now be wiped out and disappear from the political spectrum, given no breathing space to recover and regain the confidence of their voters. Of course, even now new parties might emerge from nowhere and soar to heights, as did Yair Lapid and his party in the last elections - especially if they take care to keep their message superficial and populist and not really binding. It would be poetic justice if Yair Lapid’s lucky streak would fade by the next elections and his party fails to pass the threshold he had himself raised... (Such things have happened before in Israeli politics, even to the party which had once been created by Lapid’s own father.)

Of course, as nobody bothered to hide, the new law primarily targets the Arab citizens of Israel, and aims at blocking the parties which represent them from gaining parliamentary representation. Unless these parties are to unite, or at least form an alliance to run jointly in elections despite the great ideological and practical differences between an Islamic party, a nationalist party and a  Communist party (which also upholds the principle of partnership between Jews and Arabs and sternly refuses to be classified as “an Arab party") .

Probably, in the next elections these parties will have no choice but to bridge their differences and form a joint electoral slate. There had been more than one case in Jewish History when, faced with an antisemitic offensive,   Jews were forced to cooperate with each other – left-wing Jews and right-wing Jews, religious and secular. Also other persecuted minorities in different countries had such occasions...

And just at the time that the tyrannical Knesset majority launched the offensive campaign to raise the electoral threshold, and the opposition united in an unprecedented protest act of boycotting the deliberations and vote, the ship Klos C entered the port of Eilat to the sound of fanfare. A ship flying a Panamanian flag and manned normal days by a Turkish crew and nowadays  replaced by a crew of Israeli Navy commandos which took it over at a distance of 1500 kilometers from the shores of Israel, in an intricate operation described in detail by all the Israeli media for five consecutive days. Waiting for the ship were some citizens waving flags, and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and sundry senior military officers as well as foreign journalists, though not in the numbers which the PM’s bureau expected.

Everybody in the port watched the unloading and meticulous count of the loot: 40 rockets and 181 mortar shells and 400 thousand rounds for the Belgian 7.62 FN MAG machine gun. (As an IDF conscript, I had at one time been charged with the cleaning and lubrication of such a gun).  And the Prime Minister gave a speech expressing his irritation with the indifference and hypocrisy of the world, which failed to be duly shocked by the terrible crime committed by the Iranians who had sent the ship and its cargo. The veteran military correspondent  Amos Harel of Ha’aretz wrote: "At some moments during the  live government propaganda broadcast from the Eilat naval base in Eilat, the camera lingered on the face of Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot , and it seemed that the general would have rather been somewhere else. Senior officers told me that the operation to capture the arms ship had been a neat intelligence and operational success, but when marketed to the public and the media it was blown out of all proper proportions."

What might be remembered of this whole affair are the words of the commander of the naval force which captured the ship, quoted in a banner  headline on the "Yediot Aharonot" weekend  edition, "We have told the Captain: We are not pirates, we are the Israel Defense Forces." Such words of clarification were definitely required, because in the waters where the ship was captured there are indeed modern pirates who are in the habit of taking over  passing merchant ships . But these pirates are mainly poverty-stricken Somalis, sailing small boats out of godforsaken anchorages in their ruined homeland.  But these were warships of the navy of the state of Israel, a sovereign state in possession of weapons galore and even submarines armed with nuclear missiles...

Apparently, not much has changed in the world since the 16th century, when the famous Rabbi Yehudah Leib Modina lived in Venice and in his book “Tzemach Tzedek” (Tree of Justice) he quoted an already old legend: "In the olden days of Macedonian Alexander, it came to pass that the King’s Chief Henchman laid hands on one of the despoilers of the seaways that are called Corsairs, and brought him into the Royal presence. And Alexander did ask him, Why dost thou roam the sea to plunder and rob? Replied he, The King’s Majesty dost hold the globe entire to ransom with hosts innumerable, and in consequence a Great King art thou acclaimed, whereas I have but the single vessel and wherefore am I accounted a vulgar robber”.

This week was also the week in which IDF soldiers shot dead a Palestinian named Raed Zeiter at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. "He had tried to grab the weapon of a soldier, and was shot" said a brief statement sent to the media. Normally, this would have been the end of the story, at least as far as the Israeli public is concerned. Citizens of Israel usually take soldiers’ word without demur. Those were killed because they were about to fire a missile, and this one was killed because he threw stones, and she was killed because she came near to the border fence at night and this one was killed because the soldiers sincerely suspected him of being a terrorist and did not take a risk so a regrettable mistake occurred.  Only a handful of leftist Human Rights activists dare to dispute the Gospel handed down from the IDF Spokesperson’s bureau .

But soldiers are not always able to distinguish whom it is permitted to kill and whom not. In this case it turned out that the dead Raed Zeiter was not just an ordinary Palestinian, but a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who had the position of a judge in Amman. Therefore, his killing caused a great stir in Jordan, and set off a wave of demonstrations and strengthened the hand of  the factions which have long since been displeased with the peace which their King maintains with Israel. Therefore, Netanyahu was quick to publish an apology and a statement of condolences and to promise to let the Jordanians share in investigating the circumstances of the incident. Maybe in this particular case somebody would take seriously an alternative to the soldiers’ version – i.e. that possibly it was not  the judge who had attacked the soldiers, but rather the lethal confrontation started with the soldiers roughly pushing and shoving the judge. If only all Palestinians were Jordanian judges...

The three who were killed this week in the Gaza Strip weren’t. "A terrorist squad liquidated" was the caption of the brief army communiqué. The three were about to fire a mortar, the IDF was quicker on the draw and killed them, an open and shut case. "The mortar shell might have fallen, God forbid, on a kindergarten. We can’t take chances” explained on TV the retired General  Yom Tov Samia, whose years of ruling the Gaza Strip with an iron fist made him a popular expert on Gazan affairs. But those reading the fine print found that there had been no kindergarten at risk. Rather, the Palestinians were  aiming at Israeli soldiers who had crossed the border fence and entered into the Strip and were performing there an unspecified task of military engineering.

Who, actually, could claim here the right to self defense:  the soldiers who penetrated into Palestinian territory or the Palestinians who sought to contest  their entry there? An interesting judicial case which, it seems, no experts in  International Law will be called upon to deliberate. What did happen was that in retaliation for the killing of the three, dozens of rockets were suddenly fired at Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza Strip border – the biggest flare-up since the 2012 ceasefire was signed. Within a few hours, the Israeli Air Force embarked on a counter-retaliation with a series of bombing raids across the Gaza Strip. "Air Force lands a massive blow on Gaza" boasted on the following morning the banner headline of “Israel Today", nicknamed Bibinews. However, it seems that somebody selected carefully the targets all over the Gaza Strip so as to ensure that this time there were no fatalities on the Palestinian side, making it easier to put an end to the escalation.

In his weekly column Amnon Lord, one of the columnists closest to Netanyahu's bureau, exhibited a rare glimmer of common sense: "Israelis love it when the Special Forces, the IDF at its glorious best, perform such fascinating tricks as capturing the Klos C on the high seas. But would they be able and willing to endure and expensive and possibly bloody war against Gazan terrorism?" Apparently, the assessments made by the government and the IDF top brass reached a negative answer to that question, and after some words of bravado and dire verbal threats, the relative calm resumed along the Gaza border, with no casualties on either side. And, a new precedent was set - not only with Hamas can the State of Israel negotiate indirectly via the Egyptians and reach agreement on a cease-fire; also with the Islamic Jihad is this definitely possible .

The new ceasefire came just in time for Israeli children in the border communities to hold on schedule their outdoor Purim Carnival. Also in Gaza life went back to what is considered normal there. For the time being, Gazans can still enjoy the luxury of having electricity for twelve hours in every twenty-four; once the stores of fuel donated to Gaza by Qatar run out, they would have to go back to eight hours’ electricity only in twenty four.  

And among the many events of this crowded week were also the fifty highschool pupils, boys and girls, who signed a new School Seniors’ Letter - the first in five years -  announcing  their refusal to join an army of occupation. "We, the undersigned, refuse to enlist, and the main reason for our refusal is our opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territories by the military” they started. “The Palestinians are living under the rule of the government of Israel, a rule they did not choose and did not consent to, and over whose laws and decision-making they have no recourse whatsoever. There is neither justice nor equality in such a situation. Military rule in these areas involves violation of Human Rights, and even acts which are considered war crimes under International Law . There are extrajudicial executions, administrative detentions without trial, torture, collective punishments and unequal allocation of such basic resources as water and electricity. Moreover, the problem with the military system is not limited to the harm caused to the Palestinian society, but also with a continuing seepage into the daily life of Israeli society as well. The military system shapes education in the schools and opportunities in the labor market, and inspires racism, violence and ethnic and gender discrimination in the Israeli society. We are also opposed to the oppressive and gender discriminative system inside the army itself. Any military service, in any form and function whatsoever, contributes to the perpetuation of this status quo. Therefore, following the dictates of conscience, we cannot be part in this system”.

Already for many decades, Israeli society has witnessed the appearance of a  new Shministim (Highschool Seniors) letter every few years. The first such letter, back in 1970, was quite modest, going no further than to express the signatories’ concern over the then Golda Meir Government’s lack of willingness to move towards peace. In these days even that was enough to arouse a great storm of outrage by politicians who voiced concern about the  poor education which the brash youngsters had gotten. Since the Seniors' Letter of 1981, such letters included a clear statement of intention to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories and a willingness to endure prison terms, and later generations of Seniors went to the extent of refusing military service altogether. Some graduates of the military prison system in previous cycles have helped with advice to the present youngsters, so as to save them   having to learn everything on their own.

Several of the youngsters were invited to speak in the media, and as usual in such cases were immediately subjected to a wave of outrage, including vulgar invective  on Facebook. Unusually, also a senior politician -  Finance Minister Yair Lapid – chose to personally confront the mischievous youngsters via Facebook, and they replied vigorously and unhesitatingly. "Spoiled kids" the Finance Minister called them, and compared them with the young Ultra-Orthodox who prefer holy studies to putting on uniforms. A demonstrably false comparison – under  the law whose enacting Lapid’s own party had initiated, ultra-Orthodox scholars will have at least another four years of full exemption from military service, while secularists who refuse to serve the occupation are bound in the here and now for cells in Military Prison 6 at Atlit. This morning, many of the new COs along with veterans of the refusal movement have climbed the mountain overlooking that prison, to shout words of encouragement to a present inmate. Musician Omer Saad had refused, like an increasing number of Druze youths, to take part in the conscription to which their community alone was singled out of Israel’s Arab citizens. Ever since, he had been going into the prison and out and in, again and again.

All the events of this crowded week seem to be the prelude for the meeting scheduled at the White House next Monday, between Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Barack Obama. Its results might largely influence the outcome of the diplomatic initiative led stubbornly by Secretary of State Kerry – to go forward against all odds, or to reach a final collapse amidst  mutual recriminations blame games, probably followed by a new cycle of bloodshed.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Until the last secular soldier

Last Friday, the inhabitants of Bil'in marked nine years since the beginning of the struggle which had turned Bil'in from one Palestinian village among hundreds into a household word. On February 20, 2005, bulldozers had began uprooting olive trees on the designated route of the Separation Fence/Wall/Barrier on the land of Bil'in. That same day, the villagers held their first demonstration against the Wall - the first in the line of demonstrations which were since then held every Friday, with the villagers and those who came to stand with them encountering  countless volleys of tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets. Two residents of Bil'in, Bassam Abu Rahma and his sister Jawaher, paid with their lives. Many others sustained serious injuries or spent considerable time in Israeli detention.

The purpose of the construction of the fence along the route designated for this sector was clear and obvious: to cut off half of Bil'in’s farmland and make it available to the Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit. Modi'in Illit is the largest settlement in the West Bank, a real city, having some thirty thousand inhabitants and its mayor speaking about future plans to reach the figure of three hundred thousands.  The Bil'in residents appealed to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem.  and after years of deliberation the judges ruled that the land in which the settlers had not yet built would be returned to the residents of Bil'in, while the settlers could retain possession of the part where the olive trees had already been uprooted and neighborhoods of crowded four storey building erected (without  building permits and in violation of both Israeli and International law ). Two further years of foot-dragging by the army were needed until the Supreme Court ruling was actually implemented and the villagers regained about a third of the land which was stolen from them. Residents decided not to leave it at that, but continue their popular struggle until the Fence would fall, all village land given back and the occupation ended.

Group photo of the Belgian delegation in Bil’in

The Nine Years’ Anniversary Demonstration was a bit larger than usual, with the participation of a group of specially-arrived Belgian activists, but it was not really extraordinary. Like every Friday, hundreds of people concentrated near the mosque in the center of Bil'in, beat drums and waved flags and placards and marched towards the Wall. Once there, a confrontation soon developed between soldiers shooting tear gas and stone-throwing youths. Most of the time, demonstrators could only see the soldiers as anonymous figures clad in helmets, who rose for a moment behind the wall,  fired another volley of gas and bent down again . Only briefly was there a kind of dialogue: "Now, now , that’s enough, go home!" Called one of the soldiers . "This is our home! " answered one of the village youths in Hebrew. The soldier responded with some more tear gas.

A  video from the Bi’lin demo on Feb. 28, 2014, prepared by David Reeb 

 The conscript soldiers standing on the Separation Wall and firing tear gas had arrived there from towns and villages from all over Israel. There is one place from which none of them came: the huge settlement of Modi'in Illit to whose protection they were stationed. Modi'in Illit is a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) settlement. Strange as it may sound, the residents of Modi'in Illit define themselves as “Anti-Zionists”.  That is, they have no objection to living on land which was taken by force from Palestinian villagers and getting the protection of the Zionist army against the anger of the original landowners, but they have objections - very strong objections indeed - to serving in the army which protects them.

Two days after the demonstration where Bil'in residents encountered barrages of tear gas, a bus convoy set out from the other side of the Wall to join the mass Ultra-Orthodox rally held in Jerusalem to protest against the new law which is supposed to apply to them the duty of military service. " Please don’t try to force us to join the army” pleaded one of the young Modi'in Illit settlers who talked to a radio reporter at the rally. "We want to dedicate our lives to the study of the Holy Torah, to Torah studies and nothing else. If you force us to go to the army it would be like taking fish out of the water."

"Torah study is crucial to the future of the Jewish People, it is no less important than the army" said in the same radio broadcast Knesset Member  Yisrael Eichler, one of the most prominent speakers of the Ultra-Orthodox camp. "For example, President Obama is now plotting to take away the Land of Our Ancestors in Judea and Samaria. If Torah scholars do not pray and ask for God's mercy and intercession, who will save us? ". Veteran radio broadcaster Arye Golan asked: "So, you are supporting a right-wing political program, and you want to fight for it until the last secular soldier? " "God forbid!” reacted the unperturbed Eichler. “We are praying every day for the soldiers, praying that they will all return safely from their tasks."

Apparently, what was is also what will be. The new law would apply the duty of military service to the ultra-Orthodox only in four years - and many are skeptical that it will ever be implemented.

So for quite a long time still the Ultra-Orthodox Modi’in settlers can continue, on Bil'in lands, to study the holy Scriptures under far from holy army protection.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Not an Apartheid State? Bennett will take care of it.

The Batsheva Dance Company went to New Zealand, for a performance reflecting the decades long artistic work of its director, the well known choreographer  Ohad Naharin. But even there, on the other side of the world, the dancers could not escape the political problems of this country. Outside the St. James Theatre in Wellington were waiting for them dozens of angry protesters, who accused Bat Sheva of “whitewashing”, of presenting a nice  face for the State of Israel, hiding the violation of the Human Rights of Palestinians.

The protest organizer was John Minto, known from the struggle against the South Africa apartheid regime - when he and his fellows disrupted rugby matches where South African teams came to play in New Zealand. In this week's demonstration Minto claimed that Israel, too, is an apartheid state, since "Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship are not regarded as nationals of Israel. To be a national of Israel, you have to be Jewish, and so you have a whole network of laws that follow through from that and which actually discriminate against Arab Israelis.''

A counter-demonstration was held by members of the local Jewish community. Community representative David Schwartz objected to Minto’s words, saying that "Israel is a democratic state where all the citizens have equal rights under the law”, firmly asserting that there are no laws discriminating against Arab Israelis and even making the accusation that Minto and his fellows were themselves motivated by racism in voicing their accusations of Israel.

From Jerusalem, capital of Israel, Minister Naftali Bennett added his voice on that same day to the fierce debate taking place in Wellington, capital of New Zealand. The voice of Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party and a senior minister in the Netanyahu cabinet, was loud and clear: "We must show zero tolerance to the national aspirations of Israeli Arabs. We must mark out the Jewish character of the state, enact a law which will set out firmly the identity of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Israel has numerous laws defending all kind of rights”, continued the minister, “but there is no law on the basic identity of the state itself. Some people here dream of making us into something like Sweden, but we are not Sweden.”   The Economy Minister  especially attacked former  Supreme  Court President  Aharon Barak, accusing him and his fellow judges of  “consistently striving to overturn the balance and strip the State of its Jewish significance” and of “enacting a Civic Revolution at the expense of our Jewishness”.  In his view, such landmark verdicts as the Ka’adan Ruling should be overturned, Judaization should no longer be the obscene concept into which the  Supreme Court turned it. Rather, Judaization should be elevated and enshrined as a supreme constitutional principle of the Jewish state.

It may be worthwhile recapitulating the Supreme Court’s Ka’adan Ruling - for the sake of those who don’t remember. More than twenty years ago, Adel and Iman Ka'adan, a successful young couple residing in Baka al-Garbiya, sought to build a house for themselves and their children in Katzir, a new community being established nearby where they could expect a higher quality of life which is not available in crowded and impoverished Baka al-Garbiya. But their request to purchase a plot of land at Katzir was rejected out of hand. The reasons were stated quite clearly and explicitly: the Ka’adan are Arabs, while the community or Katzir was being built on land which the State of Israel had allocated to the Jewish Agency which – being a purely Jewish national organization - was involved with interests of Jews  and engaged in creating communities open to Jews only.

The Ka'adans contacted ACRI (Civil Rights Association) and with its help appealed to the Supreme Court . In the course of principled deliberations, lasting some five years, officials of the State and the Jewish Agency expressly informed the court that establishment of communities intended for Jews only was inherent in the implementation of Zionism, and so it has been since the first Zionist pioneers arrived here. Chief Justice Aharon Barak made ​​great efforts to avoid a conclusive judicial ruling on the fundamental issue, and provide a personal solution to the Ka'adans’ problem by finding them a plot of land "outside the fence" , i.e. outside the land designated for the community of  Katzir. However, all attempts to find a compromise failed, and in March 2000 the counrt rendered a principled ruling. .

Chief Justice Barak wrote that the decision to accept the Ka'adans ' appeal had been the hardest decision of his life, but there was no escaping it. "Precisely because the state of Israel is a Jewish state, it must uphold equality as a supreme moral value. Allowing a community for Jews only is a clear violation of the law. The principle of Israel being a Jewish and democratic state does in no way suggest that the State may effect discrimination between its citizens.”

 “The State is the State of the Jews; the regime which exists in it is an enlightened democracy, which grants equal rights to all citizens, Jews and non –Jews alike. There is therefore no contradiction between the principle ​​of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and the absolute equality among all its citizens. On the contrary: equal rights for everybody in Israel, whatever their religion or ethnicity, is directly from the basic moral values ​​of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

End of the story ? Not precisely. The Supreme Court referred the Ka'adans to the admissions committee of the Katzir community and forbade it to use their being Arabs as a direct or indirect criterion for rejection. Whereupon the admissions committee promptly rejected them again, this time not because they were Arabs but just because they “did not fit ." ACRI lodged a second Supreme Court appeal, and in 2004 the government’s Lands Administration announced that Katzir has grown in size and no longer needed an Admissions Committee, and therefore the Ka'adans would be assigned a family plot.

In August 2007, over ten years after they had embarked on their struggle, the Ka'adans at last could start building their home in Katzir. But the path opened with such effort did not long remain open for the use of others. In March 2011, the Knesset passed the Admissions Committee Law, which allows the government to allocate land for the establishment of "Community Locations", where people can come to live only if approved by an Admissions Committee – and such Admissions Committees are empowered to reject any applicant which in their judgement “does not fit the community’s social fabric”.

For Minister Naftali Bennett this is not enough. He wants to turn the clock back to the period before the Ka’adan Ruling. His Israel will not be like Sweden, nor like any other democratic country in Europe or North America (or in New Zealand) . In the State of Israel envisioned by Naftali Bennett, the statutory basic constitutional principle would state that it is permissible and appropriate for the state authorities to establish communities for Jews only, in order to  promote the Judaization of the Galilee and the Judaization of the Negev and the Judaization of the entire country. And what about an Arab who dares to raise his voice in protest? The minister made it clear: zero tolerance .

Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard to overcome the problem of the recognition of a Jewish state, which has become a major stumbling block in the ongoing negotiations. Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sine qua non for any agreement , while the Palestinians so far refused outright to grant any such recognition .

According to media leaks last week, some compromise solution might be found. For example, the Palestinians might agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state if they are categorically assured that this would in no way compromise the civil rights of Israeli Arabs. Perhaps, the Palestinians would eventually be able to live with such a formula. But could Bennett?

Friday, February 14, 2014

From Canaan to Spain

A week ago, the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat startled his Israeli interlocutors by  stating that his ancestors had been among the Canaanites who had lived in the city of Jericho three thousand years ago, before the conquering Children of Israel arrived there under Joshua’s leadership.

It was not made clear what Erekat’s remark was a reaction to. Whatever it has been, Tzipi Livni, in charge of the negotiations on behalf of Israel, decided "not to argue with Erekat on historical narratives, but rather concentrate on building a future of peace”. That aroused against her the great wrath of Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party.

Bennet was quick to set out the Zionist historical narrative in all its length and breadth and glory - the Bible and the Divine Promise and the Land of Israel being Our Patrimony for 3800 (sic) years and 2000 Years of Yearning and all the rest of it. In the print media and on the net, dozens of furious rightists took up the cudgel and strove with all their might to extol the sole and exclusive rights of the Jews and smash to smithereens any claims of Erekat and the Palestinians. (Not much later, the zealous Bennett called Martin Schulz a liar to his face; Schulz , President of the European Parliament, spoke in the Knesset and dared to mention the more mundane problem of the water inequality between Israelis and occupied Palestinians.)

Does Saeb Erekat keep in his pocket the detailed lineage which links him with the Canaanites of three thousand years ago ? Probably not. On the other hand , does Naftali Bennett’s pocket contain a lineage culminating with Joshua’s bloodthirsty warriors? That, too, is rather in doubt . Incidentally, the name "Bennett ", common in the English-speaking world, is specifically related to another set of conquerors, the Normans who conquered England in 1066 and brought the name with them from France . (Even in this direction, it is not sure that Naftali Bennett has a clear lineage...)

The Bible, the Economy Minister’s favorite book, includes a detailed description of what  the Children of Israel (Bennett 's ancestors ?) did to the Canaanites (Erekat 's ancestors?)  three thousand years ago:

" And the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city [Jericho]. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”  And later the Children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua moved on to  Ai : "And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai." And then on to Makkedah: "And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof/ He utterly destroyed them, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain”. 

In fact, among modern historians this description is doubted, and considered an exaggeration by a writer a bit later among our ancestors – presumably someone with a particularly morbid imagination. But in order to hear such skeptical thoughts one needs to get to university. Pupils in Israeli schools are taught to regard the wars and massacres of Joshua as undisputed facts, and as acts committed under the direct command of God Himself.

Thanks to Christianity adopting the Old Testament as part of its own Scriptures, the story of Joshua’s bloody campaign was translated into all languages ​​of the world, and for centuries served as a source of inspiration and legitimacy to many who sought to conquer somebody else’s land and settle there. For example, those who conquered the land of Indians in North America and of Blacks in South Africa. By the way, Islam which adopted many Biblical figures as its own Prophets had the good taste not to include Joshua among them.

Still, who are we and who were our ancestors? Who are the Palestinians and who were their ancestors? Looked at soberly, the most likely answer is that the Jews now living in Israel and in many other countries do have ancestors who lived in this country two thousand years ago - and they also have other ancestors who lived in various other places. My own personal grandmother had very Mongolian cheekbones, which seems to indicate that some of my own ancestors came to Eastern Europe from the Far East rather than from the Middle East... The same, probably, is true for the Palestinians - some of them are descendants of people who lived here two thousand or three thousand years ago, or perhaps even more, who throughout the generations remained in the same village and used the same farming methods, while others of the Palestinians’ ancestors probably came at various later times.

In 1918, the Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi published a book called "The Land of Israel, Past and Present". Arab inhabitants of Palestine - especially in the countryside – were shown to be descendants of Jews who lived there during the Roman period. Evidence was brought up to substantiate this theory, in particular that the Arab dialect of the country’s peasants was full of Hebrew and Aramaic words. The research found that some 10,000 names of villages, rivers, springs , mountains, valleys, and hills all over the country in fact preserved the ancient Hebrew names in the Arabs’ usage.

At the time Ben Gurion and Ben-Zvi, future PM and President of Israel, entertained some hope that if the Arab inhabitants would be shown that their  ancestors had been  Jews, they might want to be Jewish in the present time and to cast their lot with Zionism. This hope was dashed soon. Especially since the Zionist movement was striving very hard to buy land all over the country and establish on it Kibbutzim and Moshavim – very Socialist Zionist communities, in which there was no place whatsoever for Arabs, Jewish ancestry or not...

The narrative of the Palestinians’ Jewish origin was consigned to a dusty shelf, and its place was taken by a completely opposite idea, Far from the Palestinians having lived here for two thousand years and maintaining remnants of a Jewish ancestral heritage, they had not been here at all. The land was empty and deserted, when the Zionist pioneers arrived in the late Nineteenth Century. The Palestinians - recent immigrants, migrant workers who came here because the Zionists have developed the country and created jobs which attracted them. It was this narrative was set out at great length by Nadav Shragai, a veteran columnist of the Israeli right-wing, in reaction to Saeb Erekat’s Canaanite origin.  In an article which covered three pages in the weekend edition of "Israel Today" (nicknamed “The Bibinews")  Shragai gleefully listed surnames common among Palestinians, which prove that they have come here from other countries. For example, those called " El Masri " are of Egyptian origin, and those called " Mughrabi " have come here all the way from Morocco. Shragai forgot, however, to mention that this last name exists also among Israeli Jews…

A few days later came the exiting news of the Spanish Government 's intention to grant Spanish citizenship to all who could show that their ancestors were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. There are quite a few Israelis whose surnames indicate the city in Spain where their ancestors lived, Toledano and Cordovero and Saragusti and Valenci and Murciano. Many of them plan to go to the Spanish Consulate in Tel Aviv as soon as the law is finally enacted by the parliament in Madrid. "Now, the Ashkenazis will no longer be the only ones to have place to flee to" one of them told a Yediot Aharonot reporter.