Saturday, September 29, 2018

This week: Ruling the air and women’s empowerment

In February this year, an Iranian drone flew into Israel's airspace and was shot down after a few minutes. A week later, Prime Minister Netanyahu – in one of his trademark gimmicks - presented a fragment of the Iranian drone to the Munich Security Conference,  stating: "Iran committed an act of aggression last week, launching a drone into our airspace!" Then Netanyahu turned directly to the Iranian Foreign Minister and waved the drone fragment: " Do you know this, Mr. Zarif? It's yours.”

The State of Israel does not exactly respect the airspace of others. Already for decades, the Israel Air Force has taken the liberty of regularly flying in the skies of Lebanon. With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, this liberty was extended to the Syrian skies as well. There, Israeli planes began to carry out attacks and bombings "preventing the creation of an Iranian presence.”  At first, Israel denied any involvement. But later the pretence was dropped. Recently the Israeli Air Force announced – openly and rather proudly - that it had carried out no less than 200 attacks in Syria.

 The Israeli presence in Syria's skies was made possible through coordination with Russia. Netanyahu agreed with Putin that Israel would not interfere with Russia's efforts to restore Assad's rule and would not intervene in any way in the mass killing carried out against Syria's "rebellious" citizens. In exchange, Russia would not intervene in Israeli bombing of Iranian targets throughout Syria. This partnership culminated a few months ago with Netanyahu being invited as the guest of honor at the military parade in Moscow's Red Square, and… on the night of his return to Israel he sent the air force to a particularly intensive attack on Iranian targets in Syria.

But the bromance was short lived. This week, Assad's army, having only an obsolete  and ineffective air defense system, tried in vain to block an Israeli attack on the post of Latakia - but accidentally hit a Russian plane and shot it down, with all its 15 crew members killed. Suddenly, Netanyahu discovered, instead of the friendly and affable President Putin, an angry Russian bear. Unwilling to listen to Israeli explanations and apologies, the Russians placed the full blame on Israel and announced that they would provide the Syrian army with an updated air defense system. In vain did Netanyahu cry out to Putin that "placing the S-300 ground to air missiles in irresponsible hands would exacerbate the situation." Commentators tend to say that the downing of the Russian plane was but an excuse for an already planned Russian volte face in Syria. The restoration of Syria as a sovereign state, under Russian patronage, is nearing completion.  And a sovereign state is supposed to be able to protect its airspace ...

Netanyahu does not give up easily. He declared that Israel would keep at all costs the freedom of flying in the skies of Syria, and in his speech at the UN General Assembly added  casually that this Israeli freedom is soon going to be extended to the skies of Iraq as well.
Our Prime Minister might not be aware of the definition of anti-Semitism widely accepted in Europe – and which he himself recently pressured the British Labor Party to adopt.  It includes in its definition “those who practice double standards” regarding the policies of the State of Israel and who set for Israel different rules of conduct  than those prevailing in other countries. Anyone who acts in such a manner is liable to be denounced as an anti-Semite - so maybe our PM should be a bit more careful.  

Israeli intelligence did an excellent professional job and located in the Iranian capital Tehran a secret warehouse housing radioactive materials. Prime Minister Netanyahu revealed the exact address on the podium of the UN General Assembly platform and invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out forthwith an inspection there. A good idea, without a doubt.

No complicated intelligence operation is needed in order to know where the Dimona nuclear reactor is located. It's no secret, the reactor’s location has been well known for decades. But in all these years, no IAEA inspector has ever set foot there. Not even after a former employee of this reactor, named Mordechai Vanunu, published detailed testimony indicating that nuclear bombs are produced there by the hundred - even then, the Atomic Energy Agency  was not invited to make an inspection. But maybe, even if it's a few decades late, the time has come at last? After all, no double standards, Mr. Netanyahu!



The Israeli Navy declared with joy and pride that, for the first time, a woman selected to command a gunboat patrolling off the coast of the Gaza Strip. And Israeli newspapers featured a picture of the new captain, Lieutenant Dana Abudi, smiling at the wheel of her ship. "I am grateful for the confidence that was placed in me, to lead a fighting crew and a fine vessel in one of the most operationally challenging theaters of The Sea Arm." As reported, Squadron 916, one of whose Deborah gunboats will from now on be commanded by Lieutenant Abudi, "is in constant  daily friction with the Gazan population, particularly the sector economically dependent on the fishing industry."
 “Friction” is something of an understatement to describe the daily relations between the fishermen of Gaza and the navy of the State of Israel. In fact, very little is published about the subject in the Israeli media. In order to learn a bit more, one needs to turn to the Palestinian news outlets and to international human rights organizations. For example, the testimony of Rajab Khaled Abu Riela, 30 years old, who at midnight on June 8, 2016 let the port of Gaza together with his brother and two cousins. “We were out at sea, fishing, until 1:30 am. When we started our way back to the port, an Israeli warship approached. The soldiers started insulting us through the megaphone, and soon opened up with live ammunition at our two small boats. Then the warship directly rammed us. I tried to escape, but was shot in the leg. They took me and my brother to Ashdod port, where they wouldn’t give me any medicine or treatment for the injury I sustained. I was left bleeding until 9:30. Finally they  sent  me back to Gaza. An ambulance took me directly from Erez Checkpoint to the Shifa Hospital and there immediately into surgery. The doctors managed to remove the bigger pieces of the bullet – but many small fragments still remain in my leg, and probably I will have to live with them for the rest of my life”.

The next time that Gazan fishermen come under a barrage of live fire from an Israeli warship, they will be honored to be attacked by a ship with a female captain…

 A proud captain at the wheel - Yediot archive

A wounded fisherman tells his story - ISM

My Fifty Years With Uri Avnery

Aug 25, 2018
How to sum up in a few words 50 years of political partnership, which was also an intensive friendship, with the person who, I believe, had the most influence on me? The starting point: summer of 1969. A 14-year-old from Tel Aviv, during the summer between elementary school and high school, I notice an ad in HaOlam HaZeh newspaper asking for volunteers at the election headquarters of the “HaOlam Hazeh – Koah Hadash” (“New Force”) party. I went. In a small basement office on Glickson Street, I found three teenagers folding propaganda flyers into envelopes. To this day, the smell of fresh print takes me back to that very moment. Two hours later, we heard a commotion outside. Knesset Member Uri Avnery, the man whose articles brought us to this office in the first place, walked in. He was returning from an election rally in Rishon LeZion. He exchanged a few words with the volunteers, thanked us for our help, and went into a meeting room with his aides. At that point, it was not Uri Avnery’s opinions on the Palestinian issue that motivated me to volunteer for the campaign. My own opinions on the matter were not fully formed yet. Only two years prior, in June of 1967, I had shared with many others in celebrating the fact that Israel expanded into “new territories.” I would not have imagined that I would eventually dedicate most of my life to trying to get Israel out of those territories. I was attracted to Uri Avnery’s party primarily because it was a young, fresh political party that challenged the old, rotten establishment parties, and because it was opposed to religious coercion, and advocated for separation of religion and state, public transportation on Shabbat, and civil marriage. A few weeks after I began volunteering, I left a note on Uri’s desk with a few questions: Can we really make peace with the Arabs? Should we give back all the territories Israel occupied, or only some? And what will happen with the settlers? (The settler population at the time was a tiny fraction of what it is today.) A week later, I received a letter in the mail – three pages of detailed answers to each one of my 10 questions. I still have that letter. I have no doubt that Uri wrote it himself – his writing style seeps out of every word. He took the time and energy, in the middle of running a political campaign, to provide thorough answers to the questions of a 14-year-old. I think it turned out to be a profitable investment. The end point: Friday, August 3, 2018. A years-long political partner of Uri Avnery, at 63 years old, I receive his weekly column, as I do every Friday. In this article, he wrote about the Jewish Nation-State Law and Israel’s national identity, and whether it was Jewish or Israeli (he of course advocated strongly for an Israeli identity). As I had done many times before, I wrote him an email commenting on the substance of the article, raising some fundamental objections. He suggested we discuss them further next time we meet. I asked for his opinion on the protest against the Nation-State Law, scheduled for the following day by the Druze community. He said he was convinced that the demonstration would not focus on the Druze’s exclusive standing in Israeli society, or the unique bundle of rights they get for serving in the military, but that it will tackle the fundamental principle of equality for all citizens. The last which I will ever hear from him was a one-line message on my computer screen: “I am going to the Druze protest tomorrow.” I assume that he did read what I had written him, that on that night he went to sleep in his bed and that he woke up the next day with the intention of participating in the protest. In the evening, when I was standing amidst the large crowd that amassed in the Rabin Square, I assumed he was standing somewhere around. I rang his phone twice, getting no reply and chalking it up to bad reception (which is common during mass rallies when very many people use their mobile phones all at once). In retrospect I know that by then he had already been admitted to the emergency room at Ichilov Hospital, never to regain consciousness. It was the activists who planned to give him a ride to the demonstration who had found him lying on the floor of his apartment. What filled the 50 years between the start and end points? The HaOlam Hazeh – Koah Hadash party, which merged into Peace and Eqaulity for Israel, a political party known as Shelli in Hebrew; the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which held meetings with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and became a faction of Sheli; the Progressive List for Peace, which we joined after Shelli broke up; and then Gush Shalom. So many meetings, marches, protests and conversations. So many memories. Standing side by side, holding posters at a protest to prevent the closure of Raymonda Tawil’s news agency in East Jerusalem. The photo that Avnery’s wife, Rachel, took of that demonstration is still up on the wall of the room I am writing these very words in. A conversation with Avnery the day that HaOlam Hazeh, which he edited for 40 years, officially shut down. I Said: “I know this is a difficult day for you”. He answered: “The paper was a tool, serving a purpose. We shall find other tools.” It is early 1983. Uri Avnery, Matti Peled and Yaakov Arnon, known us the “Three Muskateers”, come back from a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Tunisia. As soon as he lands at the airport, he hands me photos of the meeting, and I bounce from one newsroom to another across Tel Aviv to distribute them in person. I then take a shared taxi to Jerusalem where Ziad Abu Aayyad, editor of the Palestinian Al-Fajr (“The Dawn”) newspaper, waited for me. A bit later in 1983, the radio announcing the assassination of Issam Sartawi, a PLO member who often met with Avnery and was a close personal friend to him, and my phone call to Uri informing him of the sad news. The frustrating endless phone calls, in the couple of days that followed, proved to us that it was impossible to rent a hall in Tel Aviv to commemorate a PLO man – even one who advocated for peace with Israel and was killed for it. December 1992. Prime Minister Rabin, who had not yet signed the Oslo Accords and had not yet become a hero of peace, expels more than four hundred Palestinian activists to Lebanon, and we put up a protest tent in front of the Prime Minister’s Office. A cold Jerusalem winter, and it is snowing, but inside the tent that was donated by Bedouins from the Negev, it feels warm and cozy. Uri, Rachel, myself and my wife Beate join other activists in a long conversation with Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, on Judaism and Islam, and how religion and politics converge and clash. In 1997, in the middle of a protest in front of Har Homa – Netanyahu’s flagship settlement – Uri’s stomach wound, which he had been carrying since the war in 1948, breaks open. A Palestinian ambulance clears him to Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem; we are all very anxious. Rachel tells me, “even though I do not believe in God, I am praying.” But Uri recovers and lives on for 21 more years of intensive political activity. May 2003, the Muqata’a (Presidential Compound) in Ramallah. That afternoon, there was a suicide bombing in Rishon LeZion, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drops a broad hint that he might send an elite IDF unit to “handle” Yasser Arafat that night. We are among 15 Israeli activists who go to Ramallah to serve as human shields. We call the media and tell them that “for the Prime Minister’s information, there are Israeli citizens sitting outside of Arafat’s door!” Arafat shows Uri his gun and says, “if they come, I have a bullet in here for myself.” We spend an entire night at Arafat’s door, having conversations with young Palestinian guards in a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English, paying attention to every sound. Then it is dawn, and we understand that we made it through the night safely, and that the soldiers will not be coming. Another long, relaxed conversation when we stopped to eat something on our way back from a Progressive List meeting in Nazareth: “The Crusaders were here before us, they came from Europe and established here a kingdom that lasted 200 years. Not all of them were religious fanatics. Among them were people who spoke Arabic and had Muslim friends. But they were never able to achieve peace with their neighbors or adapt to this region. They had temporary agreements and ceasefires, but were not able to gain real peace. Acre was their ‘Tel Aviv,’ and when it fell, the last Crusaders were thrown into the sea - literally. Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.” “If I ever get the chance to serve as a minister, I would want to have Education Ministry. That is the most important portfolio in the cabinet. The Defense Minister may be able to send soldiers to die in war, but the Education Minister can shape children’s consciousness. The policies of today’s Education Minister will still bear manifest results in 50 years, when today’s children become grandparents and talk to their own granchildren. If I were the minister, the first thing I would do is remove the [Biblical] Book of Joshua from the curriculum. That book advocates genocide, plain and simple. It is also a historical fiction – the events it describes never happened. Rachel was a teacher for 40 years, and every year she succeeded in avoiding teaching this trash.” Rachel accompanied him everywhere, an active partner to everything he did, editing his articles and dealing with the all the logistics of organizing protests. We all knew she was a carrier of hepatitis B - a time bomb that might explode at any moment. And when it finally did, Uri spent six months with her in the hospital, day and night. He almost disappeared from political life. One day, I happened to bump into him in the hallway of Ichilov Hospital as he was pushing her in a wheelchair, from one checkup to another. In her final weeks, someone told Uri of an experimental treatment that might save Rachel’s life. Although he knew the chances were slim, Uri spent large sums of money to purchase the medication in America and have it flown to Ben Gurion Airport, and from there, transported directly to the hospital. When she passed away, Uri asked that nobody contact him for three days, and he completely disengaged from the world. Once those three days were over, he went back to his routine of protests and political commentary ­ or so it seemed. How to finish this article? I will go back to 1969, to an article by Uri which I read under the table during a very boring class in eighth grade. I still remember it, almost word for word; it was a futuristic article that attempted to imagine what the country would look like in 1990. The page was split into two parallel columns, representing two parallel futures. In one of the futures, Independence Day in 1990 is marked by a tremendous manifestation of military power, with new tanks on display in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Moshe Dayan congratulates IDF soldiers who are on alert in the Lebanon Valley and the Land of Goshen near the Nile, and declares: “We shall never give up the city of Be’erot (formerly Beirut), this is our ancestral homeland!” In the second future, on Independence Day in 1990 festive receptions are being held at Israeli embassies across the Arab world, but the most moving photo was captured in Jerusalem, of a warm embrace between Israeli President Moshe Dayan and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

A version of this appears in +972

Friday, September 8, 2017

An enemy image is a vital munition of war

1) A shooting in Hebron shakes the Israeli society
The following article is due to be published in German by Internationaler Versoehnungsbund, the Austrian branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).


 On March 24, 2016, a young Palestinian named Abdel Fattah al-Sharif tried to stab the soldiers guarding an enclave of extreme-right Israeli settlers in the heart of the city of Hebron on the West Bank. The soldiers shot and severely wounded him. Eleven minutes later, another Israeli soldier arrived on the spot, named Elior Azaria. A medic by training, Azaria did not try to give medical help to the severely wounded man lying on the ground.  Instead, Azaria deliberately pointed his gun at al-Sharif’s head and shot at point blank, instantly killing him.

A field worker of the B’Tselem Human Rights group was able to photograph the entire event, on a hidden camera. The footage was later that day released to the Israeli and international media. Faced with this unequivocal evidence, the military authorities had no choice but arresting Azaria and starting military judicial proceedings against him – which they probably would not have done had this video footage not existed.   

This was by no means the first case in which an Israeli soldier or policeman deliberately killed an unarmed or disarmed prisoner. Nor was it the worst such case. Nevertheless, the Azaria Affair marked a very disturbing first in Israeli history. Never before did such a big part of the Israeli society rally to the complete and unequivocal support of a soldier who had killed an unarmed prisoner.

Extreme-right groups held incendiary demonstrations outside the military court when Azaria was brought there, chanting “He is a hero! Release him – kill the Arabs!”. Alarmingly, this was no fringe phenomenon. Opinion polls indicated that a great part of the Israeli public – a majority in some polls – failed to see anything wrong in what Azaria did.

It was of no avail that the Army Chief of Staff and the entire IDF High Command reiterated, again and again, that soldiers are authorized to shoot only in face of a threat, and that a disarmed opponent  must not be harmed; that soldiers are given unequivocal orders to that effect, and therefore a soldier acting otherwise must be punished for his disobedience.

Israelis have a habitual, deep-seated admiration for the country’s armed forces, usually tending to place greater credence in army generals than in civilian politicians. Not in this case, however. Whatever the generals said, large parts of the public continued to hold to an opposite doctrine – i.e. that “Arab terrorists deserve to die” and that soldiers could and should kill them “without  the formality of a trial” and regardless of whether they are armed or disarmed.
Outside the military court building, the extreme-right mobs started with chants jeering the IDF high command and sometimes voicing explicit threats against the life of Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot and other high-ranking officers.  

In the Israeli peace movement we had our own intensive debate. There were those who thought we should have our own strong presence outside the court building. Others felt it would be a mistake to be perceived as hounding one specific young man, however guilty he was, and that we should rather treat this affair as an indication of what prolonged occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is doing to the Israeli society.

Elior Azaria was born when Israel’s occupation rule over the Palestinians had already lasted for three decades - and when he was put on trial, the occupation was nearing its fiftieth anniversary. There were good reasons to regard Azaria as a pawn in the game of much greater forces, and not to endorse uncritically the High Command’s ’ position. After all, it was the generals who daily maintain the occupation, rather than a lowly Sergeant in Hebron.

Moreover, the generals were well aware that there were other soldiers, more than a few of them, had also killed disarmed prisoners – only without a camera present. The high publicity around the Azaria Trial helped create a far from accurate image of a morally upright army, holding its soldiers to high standards of behavior and making an example of a single “rotten apple”.

All of these bring me to reflect on the changes which fifty years of occupation had wrought in the Israeli public discourse and specifically in how Israelis perceive and refer to the Palestinians.

Shortly after the Six Day War ended in 1967, a book came out which at the time made quite a bit of a stir in Israeli public opinion. Called “Siah Lohamim” (“Talk of the Fighters”) it included the record of extensive interviews and discussions with dozens of young soldiers who had participated in the  June 1967 fighting.

A significant number of those interviewed – especially young Kibbutzniks, who at the time comprised a significant part of the IDF combat troops – spoke of nasty scenes and acts which they had witnessed, and in many cases participated in themselves. Many of them engaged in prolonged soul-searching, grappling with moral dilemmas over what they had witnessed or taken part in.

At the time, people further to the political left used to jeer at such soul-searching conducted after the war was over, using the term “Yorim Ubochim” (“Those who shoot and then shedding a tear”). Yet these fighters of the 1967 generation, grappling with moral dilemmas and a sense of guilt, compare favorably with later crops of combat troops who can be characterized as “Those who shoot and afterwards laugh”.

“When the bomb is released, I feel a slight blow against the plane’s wing. Nothing more”. So did Dan Halutz, Commander of the Israeli Air Force and afterwards Chief of Staff of all the Armed Forces, comment on the 2002 bombing in Gaza when a one-ton bomb was dropped in order to kill Salah Shehade, a senior Hamas man – and ended up killing fourteen civilians living in the same building. Halutz refused to express any regret or remorse. “A slight blow on the wing”, a phrase emblematic of complete and callous disregard for moral considerations, entered the Israeli public discourse side by side with the often-repeated sanctimonious assertion that “The IDF is the Most Moral Army in the World”.

All this can be traced to the corrosive influence of fifty years of occupation. It is now more than forty years since the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s armed forces were last engaged in a “classical” war of army against army; none of the soldiers and officers now serving can recall taking part in that. Since then, Israel made peace with some Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) while others disintegrated, and their armies with them (Iraq, Syria, Libya). The Israeli army was left with the primary task of maintaining military rule over an occupied, restive population which again and again bursts out into all-out rebellion. The tasks which Israeli soldiers are given consist primarily of “restoring order” by violently dispersing Palestinian demonstrations and protests, and the capturing or outright killing of various terrorists/guerrillas/freedom fighters (or whatever name one may attach to them).

To this should be added the army’s role as facilitator or protector of  settlement activity on the West Bank. It is the army which declares parcels of land to be “State Lands” and hands them over to the settlers. It is the soldiers who arrive to enforce the decree, who stand guard as the land in question is made into “a closed military zone” and who lob tear gas grenades at the Palestinians who hitherto considered themselves its owners. And once the new settlement has been completed, soldiers stand guard at its perimeter day and night. Soldiers are instructed, whenever encountering a confrontation between settlers and Palestinians, to first of all come to the settlers’ help and only afterwards inquire what the quarrel was all about.

The up to date heroes, to whom new Israeli recruits are expected to look up  and try to emulate, are mostly those who had fallen in fighting “Palestinian terrorists” of one kind or another. And such a massive indoctrination does not fade off also when has ended the three years of obligatory military service. Attitudes and opinions acquired during military service often remain with a person in civilian life, too.

2) How hope turned into bitterness

There had been one great opportunity to fundamentally change Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, break through the enemy images and indeed  end the enmity itself. It was totally missed, and indeed in many ways made things worse. In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, signing an agreement which was supposed to lead to peace (and which many mistook for a peace agreement itself). At the time, there was a groundswell of support for peace, in both the Israeli and the Palestinian society – of which only a sad memory now remains.

 It would take an article longer than the present one to analyze in detail how and why the Oslo peace process  failed. Suffice it to say here that Oslo envisioned an interim period of limited Palestinian self-government, starting in 1994 and ending in 1999, which was supposed to end with a Comprehensive Agreement. Palestinians fully expected that this Comprehensive Agreement would  include an end to the occupation and the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state; Israelis expected a complete end of any manifestation of Palestinian and Arab hostility to Israel.

This might or might not have become a reality had Prime Minister Rabin not been assassinated. As it was, there never was any Comprehensive Agreement; the “interim” situation which should have ended in 1999 remains in 2017, and at least the present Government of Israel has no intention of ever changing it.

Instead of an independent state, the Palestinians are stuck with an almost completely powerless Palestinian Authority, a military occupation maintained with all severity, settlements continually expanding at the expense of Palestinian land, and a tight siege which suffocates the Gaza Strip’s economy and social life.  Instead of achieving peace, Israelis are faced with an intense hostility from the occupied Palestinian population, which on occasion bursts out into deadly violence, and which increasingly takes up religious themes and becomes mixed up with Islamic radicalism.

If remembered at all, the handshake of Rabin and Arafat which aroused so many hopes, is nowadays remembered as an act of deception and perfidy. That is, Israelis and Palestinians alike think of it as representing the deception and perfidy of the other side. “We wanted to make peace with them. We tried so hard, we made so many efforts, such huge concessions. But it was all in vain. They don’t want to make peace, they just want to kill us and take our land”. That is how both an average Israeli and an average Palestinian would likely sum up the last twenty years.

The creation and elaboration of monstrous enemy images is part of making war. Most human beings do have some basic reluctance to kill other human beings. In order to efficiently overcome such scruples and engage in the organized killing of others, human beings need to find some kind of justification. To have a way of convincing themselves that “we” are the Good Guys and “they” are the Baddies, that they are nasty people doing nasty things while we are good and righteous people who do good things – and therefore, it is right for us to kill them while it is a monstrous wrong for them to kill us.

Such a creation of enemy images has always been a necessity of war.   Whether fought with bows and arrows or with intercontinental ballistic  missiles, the enemy image is an indispensable munition of war. Israel is certainly no exception. Israelis have largely come to accept Netanyahu’s version: Peace with the Palestinians is impossible; the Palestinians seek to gain the entire land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and they will never accept a Jewish state in whatever borders; manifestations of Palestinian violence are just part of a worldwide “Islamic Terrorist  Wave”, no different than attacks in Paris, Manchester or Barcelona; therefore, giving up territory is of no avail, and the evacuated land would simply be used to launch missiles at Israeli cities.

Accepting this view of the situation leads to regarding the conflict as a matter of survival – “It is either us or them”. And of course, human beings who perceive themselves as fighting for survival can become more callous and unscrupulous. Even with Israel possessing the strongest army in the Middle East (and one of the strongest in the world), Israelis often tend to call up  images of the Holocaust, of gas chambers and crematoria. Young Palestinians who try to stab Israelis (and in most cases get killed before even getting near to an Israeli soldier) are magnified into the harbingers of “fanatic hordes,  coming to slaughter us all”.

3) Is oppression Feminist?

One of the most significant implications of the creation of enemy images concerns young Israeli women. Already at its foundation, Israel had enacted conscription of women, but until the 1990’s most women soldiers were simply uniformed secretaries. However,  in the past decade, the Israeli armed forces are making a considerable effort to involve female soldiers in combat duties - which includes, very prominently, involvement in maintaining military rule over the Palestinians. In the so-called “Border Guard” – the militarized police force charged with maintaining the day to day  routine of the occupation – women already constitute more than a third of the troops, and their proportion continues to rise every year.

Two women Border Guard officers had been killed in incidents at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem – a perennial “trouble spot”.  A massive propaganda campaign is conducted in the mainstream media to make these two fallen women soldiers into matchless heroines, the role models which young Israeli women should seek to emulate. Serving in the Border Guard and “fighting the Arab terrorists” is depicted as a the new form of “Women’s Empowerment”.

It is an effective propaganda, and a considerable number of young women are indeed induced to fill the ranks of the Border Guard. But there is also a growing number of young Israeli women who reject out of hand this form of “Feminism” and  “Empowerment”. There is an increasing number of young Israeli women who declare their total refusal to join and army of occupation and take part in the oppression of millions of Palestinian men and women.

Such refusers face the normal routine meted out by the Israeli army – being called up, declaring their refusal and being sent to a month in prison, then released and again ordered to enlist and again sent to another month behind bars and so on and on and on. Eventually, the army would get tired of it and let them go – but there is no way of knowing when that will be.

As I write, the latest two such refusers - Noa Gur Golan and Hadas Tal – are undergoing this process of repeated, open-ended imprisonment. “I know that my refusal, in itself, will not end the occupation” said the 18-year old Hadas Tal on the eve of going to prison. “I refuse because it is important not to let this oppressive system continue existing without offering resistance, in order to  raise awareness and create a public discussion.”

So long as the Israeli society can produce such young people, hope is not lost.

Elior Azaria, imprisoned for killing a disarmed, severely wounded Palestinian. 

Hadas Tal, imprisoned for refusing to join an army of occupation and take part in acts of oppression. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Is there any hope left?

The following was written for the September issue of "Jewish Socialist", magazine of the Jewish Socialist Group in London. 

The symbolic date of June 5, 2017 – fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians – had come and gone. It was marked by a reasonably large rally held at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, plus a few more political and artistic events. A week later, it was again occupation as usual. One more reason for doubts whether the Two State Solution is still a realistic option.

Can hundreds of thousands of settlers be removed from the West Bank, or did   their numbers already reach “a point of no return”? There had been some 8000 settlers in the Gaza Strip - and in 2005, having soldiers physically pick up each and every one of these settlers was a very big strain on the IDF resources. On the other hand, back in 1962, France’s De Gaulle did manage to remove a million and half French settlers from Algeria by the simple expedient of removing the soldiers and letting the settlers remove themselves. An Israeli De Gaulle (if we ever get one…) might be able to do the same on the West Bank.

A much bigger problem is that most Israelis no longer believe peace to be possible. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the Oslo Process, as actually carried out by actual Israeli governments, ended in miserable failure – though one can argue endlessly over why it happened and especially whose fault it was. So, if you define “Oslo” as “Peace” it would be is quite reasonable to conclude: “We tried to make peace, and it did not work”.  

As to the reason why it did not work, most Jewish Israelis have come to accept the official narrative: that  Israel made “great concessions” and “generous offers”, to which the Palestinians responded by suicide bombings and the lobbing of missiles; that Palestinian violence is  endemic, motivated by a blind hatred, part and parcel of a worldwide “terrorist wave”. Can counter-arguments be offered? Sure they can, but only a minority are willing to listen.

Opinion polls still indicate most Israelis willing to give up the Occupied Territories in return for peace – but they regard this as a hypothetical possibility only. If a peace deal were to be presented to the Israeli electorate as a done deal, it is likely that the majority would vote “yes”. But until and unless this happens, they would not lift a finger to bring it about – neither mass peace demonstrations, not a mass voting for peace-oriented parties. Which leaves us in the position of waiting for outside pressure.

From 2008 up to 2016 we kept hoping for Obama to have an all-out confrontation with Netanyahu – but every time when it seemed in the offing, Obama backed off. Had he let the UN Security Council condemn the settlements in the first month of his first term, rather than doing it as an ineffective parting shot by a powerless lame duck, things might have been different. But Obama didn’t. And the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner, never showed a real inclination to use its economic leverage – not even in times when the EU was in a much better shape than it is now.

So, is the Two State Solution dead? If it is, it means that the Solution is Dead, period. The idea of taking up instead the One State Solution – i.e., that Jewish Israelis rejecting a Palestinian State on the West Bank would be ready to embrace millions of Palestinians as their new fellow citizens of Israel – completely ignores the most basic realities of Israeli society and politics.

Yes, it is quite possible that the Solution is Dead. We are not living in a Hollywood film, and nobody guaranteed us a Happy End. It is quite possible that there will be no solution, that Israel will just go on becoming ever more oppressive, more racist, more nasty and disgusting – as long as Israel maintains its military superiority and as long as the US is able and willing to fully back Israel. (And when Israeli superiority and/or American backing come to an end, several outcomes can be conjectured – most of them nasty, too.)

Is there any cause for optimism? I can point to no strong, coherent, clear-cut cause. But some glimmers can be discerned in the dark.

* Netanyahu is deeply mired in corruption investigations, and his term seems near its end. There is no guarantee that he will be replaced by somebody better – but perhaps...  

* In the recent crisis around Temple Mount / Haram A Sharif Compound, the Palestinians for the first time used the methods of large-scale, non-violent civil disobedience – and it worked and gained them an important moral victory. This might have long-term results.

* Among many other drastic effects, the Trump Presidency might bring about a final discrediting of the American monopoly over mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. Eventually, a better, more even-handed mediator might emerge.

* Perhaps most important: An increasing number of American Jews, especially young ones, are strongly critical of Israeli government policies. The advent of Trump has widened the rift – most American Jews are disgusted and horrified by him, most Israeli Jews are rather pleased with Trump.  A historical precedent: one of the factors which made the Portuguese finally give up their colonial empire was coming under strong criticism from the Brazilians, with whom Portugal shares language and history…

* Today Hadas Tal, an 18-year old Israeli girl, begins her second month in the military prison, and her fellow refuser Noa Gur Golan is already on her third. The two of them reject the idea, widespread in the Israeli media and public discourse, that female soldiers’ participation in holding  down the Palestinians constitutes a form of “Women’s Empowerment”. Rather than take part in this kind of state-sponsored Feminism, Hadas and Noa  prefer to spend a prolonged period behind bars. So long as Israeli society can produce such young people…

Will these two flags ever fly, side by side, 
 at the border crossing between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Being a peace activist - after fifty years

(Written for De Brug, Amsterdam, where it will appear in Dutch)
I started being politically involved in the summer of 1969, when I offered myself as a volunteer to do menial work at the elections campaign headquarters of Uri Avnery’s "HaOlam HaZeh / New Force" Party. Uri Avnery, then a radical young Member of the Israeli Parliament, had been one of the first Israelis to call for creating a Palestinian state in the newly-occupied territories. As a matter of fact, it was not this which initially drew me to the party – but rather its opposition to "the rotten old parties" which dominated Israeli politics, as well as the call to separate religion and state. HaOlam HaZeh was, in fact, rather similar to the Dutch D-66 party, launched at much the same time. It was only gradually, over a period of some two years, that I fully accepted the idea of Israel making peace with the Palestinians and getting out of the Occupied Territories.

There was a key moment – an evening in 1971 when I was sitting with some twenty other youths in the a dingy basement of a house in downtown Tel Aviv, and heard a soldier in uniform who had just come from the Gaza Strip. He was telling of horrors: extrajudicial executions, the victims’ bodies thrown into dry wells; torture; soldiers beating up passers-by on the streets of Gaza "just for the fun of it"… We were shocked, we did not want to believe it, we said "This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!". The soldier said:"Yes, it is true. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night". Later that night, we went out with some three thousand leaflets, badly printed on an old stencil machine, which contained what the soldier had told. We put them into postboxes around Tel Aviv – "To let the people know what the government was hiding from them" – and looked behind our shoulders to make sure there were no police patrol cars in the streets.

There followed the daily exhausting routine of activism – distributing leaflets on street corners, endless debating with passers-by, going after midnight to write graffiti and paste inflammatory posters on the walls, visits to Palestinian villages, protest vigils of a few dozens outside government offices, sometimes a bit bigger demonstrations which required weeks of intensive preparations and sometimes had disappointing results…


Even if the going was difficult and there were many setbacks, for some decades we felt we were making a headway. PM Golda Meir said that "There is no such thing as Palestinians". Gradually, the idea that the Palestinians are indeed a people and deserve to have their own state became widely accepted in the mainstream of Israeli society, and Golda Meir’s opinion is nowadays held only by the extreme right lunatic fringe.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel and spoke on the Knesset podium, there was a month of peace euphoria. Peace stopped being an unattainable dream and became a concrete, real possibility, peace rallies grew from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands, sometimes to hundreds of thousands. When it became clear that Menachem Begin wanted peace only with the Egyptians and had launched an invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the Palestinians, there was for the first time in Israeli history an active grassroots anti-war movement, with large rallies on the streets and soldiers going to prison for refusing service in Lebanon and eventually the protest of soldiers’ mothers forcing the government to terminate the Lebanon adventure.

The outbreak of the First Intifada convinced many that continued occupation was both immoral and impractical. For decades, the PLO had been considered "a terrorist organization", and the activist and philanthropist Abie Nathan served two six-month prison terms for the "crime" of having met Yasser Arafat and shaken his hand. "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" was what Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said in the earlier part of his career, and he ordered soldiers to "break the bones of rioting Palestinians". Little did Rabin realize that eventually he himself would shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, in a blaze of worldwide publicity – or that he would pay for that courageous act with his life and become after his death the archetypal Martyr for Peace, at the focus of vast annual memorial rallies.

At the time when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat, we felt that our task was nearly done, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand and only a few last details needed to be worked out. Even after the assassination of Rabin, peace activists were far from losing heart. The first time that Netanyahu got elected, we in general regarded it as a regrettable accident to be soon corrected. Many of us considered Netanyahu an altogether illegitimate Prime Minister – a bit like many Americans consider Trump nowadays – and the three years of Netanyahu’s first term were stormy, full of intensive demonstrations and protests.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected, claiming to be Rabin’s successor and complete Rabin’s unfinished task. The fact that this claim got wide public credibility enabled Barak to give the Israeli peace movement the most grievous blow it ever suffered. In August 2000 Barak, Arafat and Clinton were closeted for intensive negotiations in Camp David. Opinion polls in Israel indicated that, if an agreement was reached and presented to the Israeli voters, it would have gotten at least 70% support and possible as much as 80%. A vast coalition was formed, including the Labor Party and more or less everybody to its left. Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), on whose behalf I took part in this coalition’s meetings, was the most radical and critical participant – but we, too, were ready to throw our full backing behind a Barak-Arafat deal. A full-scale campaign was planned in great detail. A very beautiful color poster was prepared, with a large dove and the words "Back the Agreement – Vote YES for Peace". Everybody in the room fell in love with it - If things had gone as we hoped, a hundred thousand copies would have been printed and everybody around the country would have seen them.

What did happen is that Barak came back with the announcement that he had made "generous offers" but the intransigent Arafat had rejected them, and there was "no partner". Shortly afterwards, Barak allowed Sharon to stage his provocation at the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the entire Middle East – resulting in 13 dead Palestinians, the outbreak of the bloody years of the Second Intifada, and the increasing isolation of the peace movement. There had never been a more difficult and uphill task, in all my years of peace activism, as the effort to convince Israelis that Barak’s "generous offers" had not been so generous at all. The general Israeli public just refused to listen, convinced that "Barak offered EVERYTHING to the Palestinians and they reacted with bloody terrorism and suicide bombings".

There was a partial upsurge in 2003, when hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians met in Geneva and signed a draft peace agreement – just needing the signature of the official leaders on the dotted line. But the crafty Sharon, Prime Minister by then, diverted this political energy into a unilateral move in Gaza. Israeli settlers were removed from the Gaza Strip, but direct military occupation was replaced by a suffocating Israeli siege of the Strip – and on the West Bank occupation and settlement expansion continued unabated. There followed several rounds of fighting in and around Gaza, shooting of missiles at Israel and large scale bombings by the Israeli Air Force – altogether cementing the feeling of ordinary Israelis that "peace is impossible" and that "every territory given to the Palestinians will just become a Hamas shooting pad".

And so we come to the present – the incredible fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which none of us really believed we would see. There was an impressive big rally on the Rabin Square, and numerous smaller protests and events are planned at various locations. But there can be little doubt that Netanyahu – now far more firmly seated than he was twenty years ago – fully intends to continue and perpetuate the occupation.

So why should we continue being active under these inauspicious conditions? For two overlapping reasons. Because it is immoral to occupy and oppress and dispossess another people – and when your country is committing injustice, to be silent is to be an accomplice. That would be true in any country – and doubly true in a country which prides itself as "The State of the Jewish People", given the centuries-long history of Jews suffering injustice and discrimination and persecution.

But also, we must continue to act and strive and protest and hope against hope because of sheer self-interest. Because Israel’s present course is a deadly threat to our future. As things now stand, the survival of Israel depends of three factors: On Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, on the American domination of the world and the United States being willing and able to give Israel unlimited political, military financial and diplomatic support. An undermining of any of these three would put Israel in very grave trouble. And history shows conclusively that no military superiority, regional or global, lasts forever – nor are there any eternal alliances.

Only a peace agreement, making Israeli a legitimate part of its geographical environment, can truly ensure our long-term survival. And only the Palestinians can sign such a peace.

Ultimately, the reason to continue being a peace activist in Israel is very simple: we just can’t afford to stop it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Women and the army

- with such rabbis, who needs Trump?
- women enter tanks and military prison

This week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein made a new provocative pronouncement. To the students whom he is educating and preparing for their term of military service in his pre-military academy at the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank, the Rabbi he told to "marry a warm woman, a religious woman who did not serve in the army" and embarked on a barrage of condemnations for the service of women in the IDF in general and  the military service of religious women in particular: "Our women are holy and chaste. What is the mission of a woman? The Talmud says it clearly: to bring up the next generation. That is their destiny. Only our holy women know how to do it. What is she going to be? Commander of an infantry company? Madness, this idea belongs in the lunatic asylum. They are making our girls crazy, recruiting them into the army. They go in as Jews, but they will not come out Jewish in the end. Their values and priorities will be totally disrupted; home-career, everything falling into confusion. It must not be allowed!"
Rabbi Levinstein was not religious in his youth, having "seen the light" as an adult, and he is very familiar with the Israeli secular society. He knew full well what the reaction would be for his making such a statement precisely on International Women's Day - just as six months ago, he knew what the response would be to the statement he made on the eve of the Gay Pride Parade ("Those perverts have broken with full steam into the army - and no one dares to open his mouth about it").
Indeed, the responses were immediate - women's groups issued a series of sharp condemnation of the Rabbi’s intolerable words, joined by secular politicians from various parties as well as parts of the religious community. Michal Nagen, who herself maintains a pre-military academy to prepare and encourage young religious women to join the army, wrote: "I was shaking with grief and shame at the words you uttered before the very Ark in your synagogue. I felt that God's name was being desecrated. I have had enough of men telling ‘the girls’ what they should do and think. The army is not your private property, Rabbi Yigal, as it is not the property of the liberal secularist or of the women. The army belongs to all of us, to the entire people. I cry for your students who laugh at your banter which insults their sisters, their women friends, and sometimes even their mothers at home."
In the big wave of vehement response, the women who enlist in the IDF - especially those who in increasing numbers join combat units and take up belligerent tasks –were held up as a shining example of women's empowerment as well as of Zionism and patriotism. "The warrior women of the IDF and the Border Police, as well as the heroic women police in the streets of Jerusalem, are taking an active part in safeguarding the security of Israel, they are part and parcel of the nation’s defense system, and we are proud of them" said Prime Minister Netanyahu. For his part, Defense Minister Lieberman said: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel, women have served in the IDF and contributed enormously to the security of Israel. Rabbi Levinstein damages not only the women but also  the heritage of the IDF and at the basic values ​​of the State of Israel. I intend to re-examine the status of Rabbi Levinstein and his competence to prepare young people for service in the Army."
Rabbi Levinstein, however, was not really bothered by all the fuss. He feels secure of his backing deep in the political establishment , which would prevent anyone touching the funding and official status of his pre-military academy. Like no concrete steps were taken after his inflammatory remarks about the homosexual perverts. Standing his ground, the Rabbi reiterated: "In recent years, a deep cultural process is taking place. A feminist approach is infiltrating the IDF, which is completely incompatible with Judaism." Other senior rabbis met with the cabinet ministers of the Jewish Home Party to ask their help in a counter-offensive: "The army is being stolen from us! The previous Standing Orders regarding women's service in the army, were formulated with the aim of reaching a consensus and maintaining dignity and respect for the divergent lifestyles of all who serve in the IDF. Now, there is a new and completely different set of Standing Orders, which were composed in secret, behind everybody’s backs. These are infused with radical liberal and feminist agendas prevalent on the extreme left. Trying to force religious people to serve in mixed units of men and women, contrary to Jewish law and to the Jewish lifestyle upheld by our ancestors for countless generations. The result would be to push them altogether out of the army. "
Also two hundred reserve officers who were disciples of Rabbi Levinstein gave him their public backing: "Recently, the Rabbi sounded a warning about the changes and the transformation in the military, particularly with regard to the integration of women in combat units. These changes might severely and painfully damage the army. Being highly familiar with the military system, we well understand the problems of which the Rabbi was speaking and the inherent dangers. The grave criticisms which he made come of a great heart, full of love and pain, having before his eyes nothing but care for the IDF and of the State of Israel. The Rabbi’s position reflects the opinions expressed by the greatest of Sages and the generations-long rulings of the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of integrating women into the army."
Amid this debate - almost forgotten the position of young Israeli women who have no shred of sympathy for Rabbi Levinstein and his ranting and who yet refuse to seek women’s empowerment via service in an occupation army, whose main function already for many years is to maintain an oppressive Israeli rule over millions of Palestinian men and women.
This week, the IDF Spokesperson published statistics on the immense efforts which the army makes to reduce the number of women soldiers serving as secretaries in military offices, and to move more and more of them to service in combat units. The idea of training women tank crews is still in the stage of an experiment which for the time being includes no more than fifteen women. However, in the Border Police, the military-police force handling the daily routines of maintaining Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, the number of women already reached 35 percent - more than a third. The trend is expected to increase, so that in future women will comprise a full half of the Israeli soldiers holding on roadblocks throughout the West Bank and late at night carrying out raids to remove"wanted terrorists" from their homes and transfer them to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure."  As it turns out, not all young women relish such a role.
Under the slogan in the "Neither secretary nor tank crew – a refuser and a Feminist", three young women this week repeated the ritual which the IDF forces upon those who were examined by the army’s "Conscience Committee" and ruled to be lacking a conscience. Again and again, those who refuse military service (male or female alike) are called to present themselves at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center. There, they are given an order to join the army, which they disobey and are promptly sent off to a month in jail - after which the ritual will repeat itself. The "Two Tamars", Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, have this week gone through this procedure for the sixth time. Atalia Ben-Aba, a refuser of a bit shorter seniority, was now sent to prison for the second time.  The military authorities took care to separate the three and send them to different prisons.
Vered Lee, reporter of Ha’aretz who was there, wrote: "Tamar Alon was radiant, inspiring optimism among the accompaniers. When asked where does she get her optimism, she laughs and replies: 'Also the girls imprisoned with me do not understand my optimism. They wonder how I can smile with such a long-drawn incarceration.' The other prisoners, she says, got there for going AWOL, for disciplinary offenses or for drugs.' Never before did they meet a real, actual leftist. They thought of us as traitors, enemies of the state. During our stay in prison, they learned to look at us differently, see us as human beings. Not that it was always easy. When we got to prison the first time we had a sudden shock to find ourselves behind bars. We felt suddenly alone. We asked ourselves again and again whether this act is significant, whether anyone cares. But yes, there are many who do care. "
Muhammad Awda of East Jerusalem, who is active in Combatants for Peace during the last nine years, said at the modest ceremony: " I realize that there are at this moment only three female objectors in the Israeli army, and no male ones. I see them and I salute them. I see them and I think about my daughter who is their age and who is also struggling for a just society. They deserve support, not only from the immediate family but from everybody. I'm speaking here, not only for myself but for many Palestinians who could not come and express support for you today, because of the policies of the occupation rule which denies them freedom of movement. We are proud of these young brave women, who are struggling for our rights and for justice and freedom. Thank you, from all of us! " He then added, with a smile: "We'll meet again in freedom. Freedom for all!"

The three refusers en route to another term in the military prison

A woman graduate of the Border Police training course, en route to the Occupied Territories