Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another tsunami

It was not Binyamin Netanyahu who started the occupation. Keeping millions of Palestinians under military rule, constantly expanding  settlements throughout the Occupied Territories, diverting the country's best resources for it - many previous governments have done  the same, including governments headed by the Labor Party. But Netanyahu's watch happened to be the last straw, and the Palestinians are no longer ready to listen to empty promises and wait until it would please the State of Israel to graciously free them from the yoke of occupation and dismantle the settlements which go on swallowing ever more of their land. They are fed up with going thought round after round of negotiations leading precisely nowhere. Now the Palestinians are going to the UN to demand international recognition of their right to establish a state - not just a state in the abstract, but a state in the 1967 borders, and Israel's military and police are preparing for large scale demonstrations and clashes, and a day before yesterday Likud Minister Yossi Peled described in concrete words the diplomatic tsunami which can be expected in September: "The isolation of the State of Israel is likely to intensify,  some countries might prohibit Israeli ships to unload goods, Israeli companies will be damaged, and the opponents of Israel will get a boost". And PM  Netanyahu is sweating and running around from one country to another in order to rally support at the UN against the Palestinian proposal and is making speeches and more hollow promises.

It was also not Netanyahu who first embarked on dismantling the Israeli welfare state. Undermining the public health system, public education, social welfare and organized labor, privatizing everything in sight and selling assets for next to nothing to a select group of Tycoons - all this, too, was also done by many previous governments, among them Labor governments,  though hardly ever with as much enthusiasm and conviction as Netanyahu brought to the job. And also here, Netanyahu's watch happened to be the last straw. Also the citizens of Israel - especially the young ones - are fed up with empty promises, fed up with waiting until it would please the government to provide them with affordable housing and functioning health services and truly free education for  their children. No longer are they content to again and again vote in elections and  discover again and again that even if the party in power changes, government policy changes hardly at all.

And protest camps get set up and spread from Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv to places all over the country and young people take to the streets in their tens of thousands and boo and hiss every time when they hear in speeches from the podium such words as "privatization" or "market forces", and they burst out chanting "The People Demand Social Justice!" And Netanyahu is sweating and running around, making speeches and throwing some crumbs - but his promises are just not believed, and the social tsunami is already here in late July. And the Prime Minister was forced to cancel his flight to Warsaw where he intended to mobilize the Poles against the Palestinian proposal in the UN, and instead went to meet the  representatives of Israel's student unions and offer them all kinds of inducements aimed at splitting up the struggle but they did not swallow the bait and the PM will have to think about another trick and oh God why did it all have to fall on his head?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Al-Arakib - sixty years, and the struggle is just beginning

Al-Arakib is a village in Israel, northeast of Beersheba. A village which does not appear on any map published in this country, a village whose existence the Government of Israel does not recognize and does all in its power to make sure that it would indeed no longer be there - and yet, in spite of all that the government can do, the village is very much alive. At just the moment that I write this, the children of Al-Arakib are very loudly singing and dancing at the center of their village.

The village of Al-Arakib existed in the Negev, under the Ottoman Empire, long before a Viennese Jew named Theodor Herzl convened a conference at Zurich, Switzerland to call for the creation of a Jewish state. Sheikh Mohammed Son of Salem al-Okbi owned six thousand dunums of land at Al-Arakib. He employed twelve field hands who plowed and sowed the ground each season and sold the surplus produce to traders from Gaza, Jordan and Sinai. The Ottoman Government did virtually nothing for the villagers, but nor did it interfere much with them and certainly never tried to deprive them of their land.

In 1917 British soldiers who came from the south to conquer the land passed near Al-Arakib. An artillery shell fired at the retreating Ottoman soldiers hit the house of Sheikh Mohammed and destroyed it. But with the consolidation of the British Mandate rule the house was rebuilt, and the new British government also did not interfere much in the life of the Al-Arakib residents and left them to live quietly on their land. And in 1948 a new rule again came to Al-Arakib, the rule of the newly-established State of Israel. And at first the people of Al-Arakib thought that also under this regime they could live as they had lived all those years under the earlier rulers.

During Israel's two first years, the villagers' way of life seemed to be respected. Indeed, the home of Sheikh Suleiman son of Muhammad al-Okbi was used by the State of Israel as a Tribal Court, empowered to settle disputes among the Bedouins of the area, and Israel's National Flag was always hoisted on the roof when the court was in session.

The illusion was shattered on a single bitter day in 1951. Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, on behalf of the military government under which Arab citizens of Israel then lived, arrived and ordered the residents of Al-Arakib to leave immediately their homes. After six months they could return, so they were told, but years passed in their place of exile and the day for going back never came. When in 1954 Sheikh Suleiman tried to return to his home, soldiers promptly arrive to take him into custody at Beersheba.

And the village houses were destroyed and razed to the ground, including the house which the State of Israel had used as a court of law and the house in which the polling station had been placed for the first Knesset elections in 1949. And in the Land Registry of the State of Israel it was duly noted that this parcel of land was "an uncultivated and unoccupied property" and therefore it was registered as the property of "The Development Authority", i.e. of the government of Israel. And when the al-Okbis tried again to go back and cultivate their land in 1973, they were charged with trespassing on State Lands. And the same with Nuri al-Okbi, son of Sheikh Suleiman and the grandson of Sheikh Mohammed - who is himself not a sheikh but an activist for the rights of his people, the Bedouins. He had set up a tent on a small portion of the land of his ancestors, and lived in it day and night for several years until the police came to arrest him on charges of trespassing and a court sternly warned him that repetition of that offense might entail a long prison term.

And not just him. Hundreds of the al-Turis, neighbors of the al-Okbis who had also been expelled in 1951, returned in an organized way to their ancestral lands at Al-Arakib, near the cemetery where family members had been buried for over a hundred years - land of which the state had made no use of any kind during all the decades that it was in its possession . And they rebuilt their homes and farmed the fields and planted olive trees and returned at least part of al Araqib village to life.

And the authorities were far from pleased, and demolition and eviction orders were issued against the residents, and the sown grain fields were destroyed by aerial spraying, and after the Supreme Court banned the aerial spraying the Israel Lands Administration began to plow the lands and destroy the newly sprouted corn. And the residents, undeterred, continued to farm the land and sow again and again.

Exactly a year ago, on July 27, 2010, the police and Border Guards and Israel Lands Administration mobilized no less than 1,300 men under arms, accompanied by bulldozers and heavy equipment, to raid the village and surround it on all sides and destroy and raze it to the ground and uproot the olive trees to the very last one and make it again "uncultivated and unoccupied" as it was when the state registered it in its name.

But these are not the 1950's, and this time the land was not left empty for decades. The residents did not give up, and they came back and built their homes again the very next day - if not actual houses, at least huts to give a degree of shelter from the desert sun and the cold nights. And once again the police came and destroyed everything and again the residents rebuilt – and so it went on all of the past year, twenty-four times at least. There was increased police violence during the arrest of villagers and of the Jewish and Arab volunteers who came to help them, and once again the village was rebuilt the next day or even the same night, and again the government representatives came to destroy it, and so on and on and on…

Meanwhile, the government passed a directive to the Jewish National Fund to begin forestry work and plant a wood where the Al-Arakib houses stood, and also where olive trees had been planted by the villagers. (The trees which the JNF plans to plant in their place would bear no fruit...). "Making the desert bloom", the JNF's decades-old slogan, seems now a bit less attractive. And the villagers appealed to the District Court, and the judge admonished the JNF for establishing facts on the ground when the disputed ownership of the Al-Arakib lands has not yet been decided on.

The activities of the JNF's bulldozers at al - Al-Arakib were also heard of beyond the borders of Israel, and British TV aired an extensive item article about it, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the termination of position as "A Honorary Patron of the Jewish National Fund". The JNF was one of various registered charities in which the British PM had this position, but it became a bit embarrassing in light of the Jewish National Fund's less than  charitable activities at Al-Arakib...

Actually, the problem should have been solved already years ago, when the Government of  Israel appointed a fact-finding commission headed by former judge Eliezer Goldberg,  to deal with the Bedouin Problem. It deliberated for more than a year, heard testimonies – including even from the Bedouins themselves - and its recommendations called for giving formal recognition to the "unrecognized" Bedouin villages in the Negev – which might have been applied to Al-Arakib, too. But many influential people in the government and the Knesset did not like that recommendation, and a new committee was appointed, headed by Ehud Praver of the Prime Minister's Office, and this second committee did not bother hearing the opinion of the Bedouins, and decided that most of the unrecognized villages should be destroyed and some thirty thousand people transferred to (jobless) townships.

But these aforementioned influential people did not quite like these recommendations, either,  because they did still include some recognition of Bedouin land ownership rights. And so the PM's National Security Adviser, Ya'akov Amidror, asked that publication of the  conclusions be delayed, because he wanted to make some changes and amendments. Which are not likely to be changes in favor of the Bedouins...

Meanwhile, at Al-Arakib life goes on as usual, and the latest destruction so far took place on Thursday last week. And yesterday, to mark the anniversary of the 2010 destruction, dozens  of activists came over from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and youths from villages in the Galilee who held a summer camp in the Negev, and American Christians peace activists of the CPT, usually based in Hebron, and some Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who managed to gain a rare entry permit. And together they rebuilt Al-Arakib for the twenty-fifth time (some say the twenty-seventh), and twelve strong and sturdy huts were erected. And on Friday afternoon, there was a common prayer of Muslims, Jews and Christians. And three young women activists encamped at the tent camp in Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard came and held a presentation for the Al-Arakib children who received them with great applause, and tonight a delegation of Al-Arakib residents will take part in the protest march of young Tel Avivians who are rendered homeless by the scarcity and soaring prices of housing in their city. And on the coming Wednesday - July 27, 2011, the exact anniversary of the 2010 destruction - villagers and supporters of their struggle from all over the country will at 6:30 pm hold a picket and torchlight parade at the Lehavim Junction, on the highway near to Al-Arakib.

Not that anyone has illusions. The police will come again, and the huts erected now will be destroyed and need to be replaced by new ones. The Government of Israel has not given up its intention to wipe Al-Arakib off the face of the Earth. But the villagers have definitely not given up, either.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

We won!

What a victory! The war against the flotilla, one of the great victories in the annals of the State of Israel! Only one little yacht still managed to escape our remote control and set sail  from some Greek island for the shores of Gaza. Even then we did not fall asleep in our vigilance! We immediately set in motion the entire naval power of the the State of Israel. Lt. Gen. Benny Ganz, Chief of Staff of our armed forces,  gave the order in person. And the Navy's Commander in Chief Admiral Eliezer Marom took himself command of the operation, and everything worked smoothly like a Swiss watch. 
Hundreds of our renowned Naval Commandos  blocked that nasty small boat's way and swarmed aboard and took into custody all the fifteen nasty invaders on board and transported them to an Israeli jail, and tomorrow the Attorney General will ask the court to extend their detention on suspicion of attempted illegal entry to Israel. Yes, by no means will we let these people enter our country, Israel is a sovereign state which knows how to guard and protect its national borders, and therefore we will not allow anyone to sail to Gaza - not a flotilla and not a single yacht nor a raft nor even a surfboard. Nobody! No one! No one will travel to Gaza, and that's final! No one would violate Israel's sovereign borders! No one, I tell you, no one at all!

Wait a minute, what are you saying? Gaza is outside the borders of the State of Israel? Sailing to the shores of Gaza is not at all an attempt to enter Israel?  Impossible! Really? Are you serious? What makes you say such a thing? What? The State of Israel disengaged from Gaza? When did this happen? In 2005? And it was official? The Prime Minister announced it officially? The Knesset voted overwhelmingly in favor of disengagement from Gaza? A disengagement from Gaza? I don't understand, why is no one telling me anything?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Balaam's curse 2011

For many years, the Gush Shalom movement (of which, it must be disclosed,  the present writer is the spokesperson) was alone in calling for a boycott of settlement products – the products coming from Israeli settlements in Occupied Territory, designed to serve as an obstacle to peace and to prevent the Palestinians from establishing their state. From 1997 to 2011 the movement's volunteers made the constant effort, with a tiny budget and limited resources, of moving between supermarket shelves and checking the small print on each product. Occasionally an  activist on a motorcycle went to the settlement industrial areas themselves and carefully noted down the names of all the plants seen. And the data were compiled systematically and published online and distributed at the annual rallies in memory of Yitzhak Rabin, early in  November every year. "Do not buy the products of the settlements – every penny for the settlements is a penny against peace" was inscribed in large characters on the cover of these booklets.

Many in the Israeli Left did not really like this activity. Very many times we heard such things like: "I am against the settlements, sure, but to boycott them is really a radical step." Peace Now carefully refrained from declaring a boycott of settlement products. At most, some of its activists sometimes disclosed that privately they were avoiding purchase of settlement products. Absolutely nothing beyond that.

For many years the settler leaders claimed that the boycott did not matter, that it did it not bother them at all, that their manufacturing plants were booming and thriving, and that their sympathizers were actually using the boycott list as a positive guide of things to buy. But it seems that somehow the boycott did touch them and deeply disturb them and punctuate their sleep. The fact is that Knesset Member Ze'ev Elkin, himself a settler and head of the "Eretz Ysrael Lobby" in the Knesset initiated a bill to outlaw this boycott, and pushed and pressed and struggled with all his might until it was inscribed in black and white on the statutes of the State of Israel.

Ze'ev Elkin and his settler friends expected that they would achieve their goal and erase the settlement boycott from the spectrum of political expression and activity in Israel. After all, Gush Shalom simply would not be in a position to continue the settlement boycott  campaign – a movement which is far from overflowing with money, which has no funding from any foreign government nor a millionaire supporter such as the settler patron Irving Moskowitz, and  subsisting on quite modest donations from private citizens. Rightly could Elkin assume that Gush Shalom could not risk to be flooded with  lawsuits under the new law, whereby any company based in a settlement could sue and demand unlimited damages from anyone boycotting them, without having to prove any harm caused to them by the same boycott.

But the unexpected happened. Precisely since Ze'ev Elkin managed to bend the Knesset to his will by disproportionate pressure, the drive for a boycott of the settlements is on an unprecedented rise, flourishing and jumping up as it never did before. From the moment when results of the  Knesset vote were published, Peace Now started collecting signatures on the petition entitled: "Prosecute me - I'm boycotting the products of the settlements!" and parliamentarians read out a list of products to be boycotted on the Knesset floor, and the Meretz Youths entered supermarkets and stuck warning labels on settlement products displayed for sale. And day by day there is a lengthening list of public figures and  columnists proclaiming that despite - and precisely because of – Elkin's Law they would from now on boycott settlement products and call upon  others to do the same.

It would suffice to quote the words of Etgar Keret, in yesterday's Yediot Ahronot: "When elected officials enact violent legislation which violates the individual's basic rights, it is nothing less than a civic duty to break it. Had my country enacted a law prohibiting men from kissing in public, I would look on the street for the first man who does not reek of cigarettes or garlic and give him a passionate kiss. When our country chooses to prosecute and persecute people because they are trying to influence in democratic ways the future of the country where they live, then I must use this forum to call for a boycott of the settlements. "

And a few pages later in  the same paper appears the article of Meir Shalev: "By the weekend, when my column appears, quite a lot of good people already preceded me in expressing shame, disgust and apprehension at the anti-boycott law, another piece of legislative folly and injustice, courtesy of the Israeli right-wing.

I can tell you that from now on every visit to my grocery store will take much more time. If in the past I was looking at the packages of products in order to find how many calories and what harmful chemicals I might gorge myself on, from now on I will also look for the place of production. Following the publication of this law, I'm not going to continue giving any support to the settlements beyond what they get from the taxes I have no choice but to pay. By the way, I think that for this it might be possible to claim compensations from MK Elkin under his own law – since it was that law which caused me and others to undertake such a strict boycott.

Uri Elitzur, a sober rightist, expressed on the pages of "Makor Rishon" his fear that this law would not be much enforced. "It is, after all, left to the discretion of the judge, and allow me to guess that judges would not be very welcoming to settlers who claim damages without proving a damage. And anyway, the law first needs to get through the Supreme Court. It could be assumed that even if they don't overturn it altogether, the judges would send the law into a long obstacle course going back and forth between Knesset and Attorney General and judges..." 

In fact, at least the religious among the initiators and backers of this law could have foreseen the consequences. Just two days before pushing this law through the Knesset, they have read at their synagogues the Biblical story of Balaam the evil magician and prophet who wanted and tried with all his might to curse, only to have his curse become a blessing...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Welcome to the State of the Police

I am happy to host here Hagai Matar's eyewitness account of events yesterday at Ben Gurion airport.

(Link to original Hebrew article & photos)

Hundreds of police and other security personnel, dozens of Interior Ministry employees, a careful intelligence work, a massive PR campaign. What for? In order to prevent a few hundred peace activists from touring the country and seeing itsreality that, to arrest five Israelis, and drive away from the airport three journalists - including yours truly.

It's not that an excessive use of force is a new motif in the conduct of the Israeli defense establishment. Hardly so. Nor are baseless slander and assault upon non-violent peace activists a new phenomenon which we did not encounter before.

Also, we can hardly be said to be with is also not new to us. Also that we already know a long time. What happened today at the Ben Gurion International Airport was simply and mainly an unrivaled absurdity. Insanity or a total blindness. If you will, a warning sign for a country going completely off the rails. But possibly also a reminder a different choice is still possible.


The absurdity was already evident on the way to the incoming hall. Dozens of policemen were deployed at the airport railway station and guarded all the entrances in the face of some   imaginary threat. It increased in the hall itself, where more than a hundred policemen stood for hours upon hours, as did  a similar number of journalists, all arranged in a neat, disciplined semicircle around the fountains and gazing at the entrance from the baggage claim hall. The door opens and a couple emerges, small children running forward with cries of "Mom, Dad," and hug them. Again it opens, and an ultra-Orthodox family walks rapidly toward the door. Again, for two bands of teenagers spill in with great laughter, all wearing identical t-shirts indicating that they had come from a holiday in the Greek Islands. And nothing happens.

The authorities occasionally took care to provide some action to us journalists. Once Minister Yitzhak Aharonibitz was sent to boast of the great success in preventing activists from boarding flights already abroad. "We're acting as a sovereign and democratic state," he clarified. An hour later, almost on the clock, somebody took care to entertain us with Minister Eli Yishai, who prided himself on the dizzying success in blocking "the enemies of Israel" and "pogromists", those who arrived and those still on their way.

And when we were not entertained we entertained ourselves. Everyone agreed that there were very low chances of an activist managing to pass all controls choosing to demonstrate precisely at the incoming hall, rather than just simply taking a bus to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.  Therefore, in the absence of activists, the reporters were trying to create oter points of interest.  One of them interviewed the Police's special spokeswoman for the Arab media, who called the activists "supporters" or "identifyers" rather than "enemies of Israel", and who uncomfortably avoided the question whether a T - shirt or bumper sticker would be considered sufficient grounds for expulsion from Israel. Others have tried to draw out innocent tourists, asking them "How does it look in there" and "Did they ask you special questions or made special inspections". The answer was always no.

A more entertaining practice was the spotting the undercover cops wearing civilian clothing. These were mostly in groups, occasionally scratching an ear and glancing at the balcony above and nodding as if to the thin air. Others walked alone, were also easy to identify by the way they scanned those around them, or by the glazed look in their faces when some hidden entity suddenly contacted them and instructed them to change their direction of walking. Quite soon we identified them all, and the boredom and sense of anti-climax again enveloped all of  us.

Four A4 signs  

An then everything changed, and at last there was something to cover. A group of seven left-wing Israelis placed themselves besides the fountains in the incoming hall, waving a  Palestinian flag and four A4 signs with the words "Welcome to Palestine" in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Journalists quickly converged on them, followed by the police - and the crowd. For half an hour, there was action to be seen in plenty: activists being pushed out of the hall by police and beaten by bystanders who shouted "Go to Syria," "Nazis", "Take off their heads", and so on. "When the cameras move off, I'll kill her," said one. "They all should be  raped" shouted another.

On their way to the police patrol cars, while being punched and shoved by civilians, activists did manage to say a few words. Beyond calling for the liberation of Palestine, activists recalled that the hysterical reaction of security forces to arriving peace activists not start today, and that already for years entrance to Israel is denied to people who are committed to human rights and to nonviolent action for peace and equality.

The same police officers who arrested the handful of sign holders had not detained any of their attackers. In at least one case I saw a policeman ignoring a young man who was beating one of the protesters, and when he went on hitting her the policeman gently asked him to stop and go stand on the side. None of the attackers was not arrested or detained. A reporter of The Jerusalem Post, on the other hand, found himself under arrest together with the activists because when interviewing one of them he also protected him from the beating by the crowd. The police evidently regarded this as a collaboration with leftists, and carried him off with them.

Then it was all over. Most activists were arrested, the others dispersed, and the last interviews with the attackers petered out. We headed back into the airport, when two policemen grabbed me and my photographer friend, Oren Ziv, an employee of Schocken news network and member of the collective ActiveStills photographers' collective - and asked for our ID's. We presented our Government Press Office journalists' cards, the same documents which a bit more than an hour before had enabled us to approach within less than a meter from two cabinet ministers – but this time the journalists' cards were not enough. The police detained us and also took our ID cards, asked us to stand aside and refused to say what it was about. A camcorder from an American news network, trying to understand out why we were being  detained, immediately found herself ordered to give her own documents. 

It was not long before senior police arrived, accompanied by neat suited people reminiscent of the Shabak security service. At first we were told that we were ano allowed to take photos in the airport  without  permission. I explained to them that I was taking photos but only writing,   and that Oren did take photos but only after coordinating it with the Airport Authority spokesperson. After a we were told that due to unspecified "security reasons" and under the Aviation Act, we were not allowed anywhere within the airport compound fences." No further explanation was offered, and no explanation of ours was acceptable to the uniform wearers. A Channel 2 crew filmed the whole incident, and also failed to get a clarification from the security people. Our colleagues - photographers and reporters - were also surprised, though they failed to protest the expulsion. Soon we found ourselves escorted respectfully back to the train station, with two police officers verifying that we get on the Tel Aviv train. At home heard about the special forces and riot police taking over the Easy Jet flight from Geneva, and detaining dozens of foreigners for deportation.

What happened here

Lots of excuses can be offered for today's events. The activists who came from abroad could be dubbed "enemies of Israel" and "hooligans". The detained activists could also be accused of being "disrupters of public order with proven ties to Hamas", as an official spokesperson asserted when journalist Joseph Dana tried to make sense of the detentions. It could be stated that Oren, Lia (the American) and myself are endangering the safety of the flying public because we're leftists, though we came to the airport strictly as journalists and acted accordingly.

It's all possible, but there's something very weak and terribly pathetic in such arguments. How much, and why, can danger be actually posed to the State of Israel by several hundred tourists, who come on a tour of the Negev, Ramla, Jerusalem and Bil'in? Why are they so much more terrible than the group of American teenagers who spilled into the hall full of cops and reporters, and went on a day trip as  part of the "Discovery" projects? And can somebody really, honestly justify the detention of four people who stood with small signs and did not harm anybody, practicing a democratic right to protest, while people who assaulted and beat  them go free? And is there any conceivable reason, except for a general dislike of left-wingers, which can justify the expulsion of three journalists from a scene of journalist coverage at the focus of national attention?

The answers to these questions are, I think, quite clear. At the same time , it is also crystal clear that the hysterical response of the security forces reflects a mental state which becomes increasingly established in the collective consciousness of this country. September is  approaching (which, because of the American vet, would probably become not a defining moment but just another small and symbolic step with no practical importance, on the road to Palestinian independence). With its approach, the feeling of fear, siege, persecution and self-identification as the victim, which dominates political discourse in this country, reaches  really scary dimensions. Banner headlines warn of the threatening approach of a few ships carrying medicines and cement. Laws and bills are proposed and enacted to confront the mounting political and diplomatic pressure on Israel by assaulting the local human rights organizations. The army does not hesitate to use dangerous arms in continuing to suppress popular, unarmed protests and demonstrations in the Territories – even when the crowd marching towards the soldiers consists of children with balloons. The PR apparatus issues crazy films of slander against anyone in the world who criticizes Israel. And now - this day madness at the airport.

It is important to remember it is still possible to act differently. It is still possible to organize a struggle against the rise of the police state, against paranoia and violence, and to offer alternative solutions of freedom and equality for all. It is still possible to struggle for true democracy. It is still possible to demand from our leaders a true peace and security. It is possible, and as things looks now – there is no choice but to start now.

Far from being the end

So far, Hagai Matar's testimony. I would like to add a few words of my own.

At this moment, 124 peace activists who arrived yesterday at Ben Gurion Airport are behind bars, divided between two Israeli prisons and awaiting deportation from the country. 124 is a lot less than the 600 who intended to come, but also 124 could have – had they wanted to – staged a fair-sized riot at the airport. In fact, there were no riots and no one had ever intended to start a riot. There did not arrive here any hooligans. Still. of course the State of Israel does not intend to allow them to visit the Occupied Territories and meet the Palestinians who had invited them. Also in the future, anyone who wants to visit the Palestinian territories would have to lie at the airport and pretend to be "just a tourist".

The leaders of our country congratulate themselves for their creative and resourceful  ploy:  submit blacklists to the European airlines and threatening them with financial damage should they carry any of these "black" passengers. Three hundred activists were left behind in Europe and not allowed to board the flight for which they had paid good money. At all airports – Paris and London and Geneva and Frankfurt and Brussels – the same things were told to them: "By order of the Ministry of the Interior of the State of Israel, we do not allow you to board this flight." "The Charles de Gaulle Airport is under Israeli occupation. Israel runs things here!" cried out the passengers who were stuck in Paris, and what they said was broadcast at the head of the news on all French channels. Was it really worthwhile for Israel? .

And earlier, there had been the equally brilliant gambit of seeing to it that it that Greece did Israel's dirty work, that it was Greek naval commandos who stopped the "Freedom Flotilla" instead of their Israeli counterparts. Indeed, it seems that the flotilla was blocked and would no longer head out towards the port of Gaza. And now, every citizen of Greece knows that with one phone call Israel's Prime Minister can give orders to the Greek Navy and the its commandos, dictate to them how to operate at the Port of Piraeus and at Crete and in Greece's coastal waters.

Benjamin Netanyahu foiled a flotilla of ten small boats, whose arrival in Gaza would have in no way endangered the security of Israel, and prevented several hundred peace activists from reaching the Palestinian Territories – who were no threat either. And in return he enhanced and strengthened all over the world the image of Israel as a dark octopus reaching its tentacles  everywhere, with its clandestine forces and agencies and pressures and control levers behind the scenes in all countries. We may feel the results in years to come, long after the flotilla and flytilla are forgotten, after Binyamin Netanyahu is himself forgotten.

PS:Laura Durkay, a writer and activist living in New York City with whom I was in contact during  the past few days, is at this moment among the activists held in an Israeli prison. As soon as she is at large again, a detailed account of her experiences is likely to appear on her blog:

Happy birthday, a new country is born

A great celebration in South Sudan. A new country is born today, and its citizens are dancing  in the streets. Omar al-Bashir, a ruthless ruler who certainly deserves the arrest warrant issued against him by International Criminal Court, decided after a long and bloody war to accept reality and resign himself to the aspiration and decision of the residents of South Sudan to declare their independence and establish their independent state. Sudan, which for decades tried very hard indeed to prevent this day from ever coming, was the first country to recognize the independent South Sudan.

Israel is going also going to recognize the independent South Sudan. Netanyahu will probably send an ambassador there, in some spare minute in between his intensive travels the world to mobilize countries to vote in UN against the independence of Palestine.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mr. Minister, who are you calling a hooligan?

To  The Minister of Internal Security, Mr. Yitzhak Aharonowitz

Dear Sir

According to reports in the media, the Prime Minister has entrusted you with handling what is known as the "Fly-In," i.e. hundreds of peace activists from abroad who are scheduled to land at Ben-Gurion Airport this Friday. You have been quoted as saying that you consider these people to be 'law-breaking hooligans,' without your having bothered to check or find out who they are and what are their intentions. It has also been published that you intend to treat them with brute force, and to this end to fill Ben-Gurion Airport with thousands of police officers. These violent plans may cause a serious and completely avoidable damage to the State of Israel.

I wish to clarify the facts. Several months ago, Palestinian civil society organizations sent an invitation to peace activists around the world to visit the West Bank over the week
of July 8-16. In the framework of the visit, which is called Welcome to Palestine, the visitors from abroad are invited to stay in the homes of Palestinian families and to take part in various cultural activities such as planting olive trees in villages in the Ramallah area; visiting the Freedom Theater in Jenin whose director, Juliano Mer, was murdered several months ago; and visiting the community center in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. In no way or form is any violent or provocative action planned. Indeed, the Palestinians have encouraged their visitors to come as entire families with their children, and many of them intend to do so.

The first people to accept the Palestinian invitation were 350 peace activists from France, who have been joined over the last few months by activists from the USA, the UK, Germany, Italy and Belgium, totaling about 600 people – many of them, as stated, entire families including their children.

If the Palestinians had an airport of their own, the activists would have preferred to land at such an airport. However, at present it is only possible to reach the Palestinian Territories by way of Israel, and the activists purchased, at their own expense, tickets for flights landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. They have no intention of creating chaos at the airport, and their only intention is to pass through passport control, like any other traveler, and be on their way.

In many cases over the past years, visitors who have arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and stated their intention to travel to the Palestinian Territories were not allowed to enter and were summarily deported. As the result, such travelers feel that they are forced to use lies and deceit and to conceal the true purpose of their visit from the Israeli authorities. The people who are coming to Israel this Friday do not intend to do that. Each and every one of them intends to act honestly and sincerely and to clearly state that the purpose of their visit is to stay with Palestinians. Moreover, the participants met early this week with representatives of the French Foreign Ministry, and asked them to relay the purpose of their visit to the Government of Israel – evidently, that information has not reached you.

Whatever happens at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday is entirely in your hands, Mr. Minister. If the peace activists are allowed to pass through passport control and depart for their destination, it will be just another routine day at the airport. If, on the other hand, you decide to act abusively and violently and to deport no less than 600 people at once, including families with children, there will be severe logistical problems and later, political, diplomatic and public relations problems which might  continue to plague us for a long time to come. It is not yet too late to decide to act wisely.

Adam Keller

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Pyrrhus in Piraeus

Every morning numerous Israelis on the way to work listen to the two hour news bulletin on the Voice of Israel Radio. In the past few days, hearing veteran commentator Aryeh Golan one could have thought that Israel was facing a major invasion by a mighty fleet of dreadnaughts. After all, listeners were told that the Inner Cabinet is in almost continual session, and that Israel's Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister and National Security Council  were all working full steam. All were  exerting themselves in maintaining a very intensive contact with their counterparts in various countries, demanding and imploring them to do all in their power to stop the infamous flotilla from its its impending departure towards the shores of Gaza. And the Navy gunboats and Naval Commandos were put on full alert, all leaves cancelled and reserves called, and a special exercise held at sea with the participation of the IDF Chief of Staff in person. And last but by no means least, the famed Mossad  dispatched its best agents on unspecified hush hush missions...

Israeli diplomats all over the world were instructed to put on the back burner their other urgent job – opposing the threatening UN vote on Palestinian statehood – and concentrate on the more immediate flotilla threat. Propaganda Minister Yuli Edelstein mounted a major worldwide PR campaign over the sacks of sulfur with which activists on the boats were going to burn Israeli commandos to death. When these turned out to be non-existent, the unfazed Edelstein turned immediately to the information gained from highly reliable that known terrorists (or at least family members of terrorists, or perhaps the bosom friends of family members) were on the flotilla passenger list. And there was also the brilliant stroke of threatening any journalist found on the flotilla boats with a ten-year banning from Israel – a threat which proved a bit embarrassing when issued by the Only Democracy in the Middle East and was retracted a day later.

In fact it had been going on for months. Ship owners of whom flotilla organizers tried to lease boats came under mysterious pressures and cancelled the deals on the last moment – whereupon the organizers bought the boats outright. And then, Lloyds of London and other reputable insurance companies got letters from lawyers, informing them that insuring Gaza-bound boats would result in judicial suits about "support of terrorism". But the flotilla organizers found some insurers who were not intimidated. And the leadership of the French Jewish leadership pleased the government in Jerusalem by nearly getting a restraining order against a boat which was due to sail from Marseilles – but at the last moment the naughty boat escaped by way of Corsica.  And the State Department in Washington issued a stern warning for US citizens not to take part in the provocative voyage to Gaza, and that they might be prosecuted, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton actually stated that Israel would be within its "right of self-defense" in using force to stop the Flotilla. All of which only served the American activists all the more determined to embark on "The Audacity of Hope" and set off (a large part of them having voted for Obama in 2008 and thus having shared in getting Clinton into position to make such threats).

By some kind of deal with the Turkish Government, Netanyahu got the Navi Marmara – largest of the intended Gaza flotilla boats, on whose board last years' bloody confrontation took place – removed from the roster. But still this left ten boats, mostly on the shores of Greece, with hundreds of activists determined to go on to Gaza against all odds – from Canadians, American, Irish, Swedes, Britons, French, Germans, Italians, Australians – all signing a pledge of non- violent behavior towards their impending encounter with the Israeli commandos,  a considerable proportion of them being Jewish,  including many Israelis and former Israelis. However, Netanyahu had one string left to his bow. In a radio interview he gave "Heartfelt thanks to "My Friend,  George Papandreou, for his great efforts on our behalf" – which was certainly deserved.

George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece, is at this moment in about the most difficult and precarious position which any head of a government can find himself – being forced to yield to brutal international pressure to sign a deal which many of his fellow Greeks regard as a frontal assault on their standard of living, as well as trampling on the remnants of their country's sovereignty. In comparison, yielding also to the pressure to make life difficult to a band of peace activists hosted in Greek territory would be small change indeed.

And so, there were weeks when Greek authorities subjected the boats to endless exhausting bureaucratic procedures, the filling of one form after another – and meanwhile, boat after boat encountered mysterious disabling accidents, seeming to be the work of expert underwater saboteurs, which were reported with glee on the Israeli media ("Ha ha ha, another boat disabled, are they not careless about the maintenance?"). And yesterday morning, Greta Berlin, spokesperson of the flotilla organizers spoke loud and clear in an interview to yet another morning bulletin of the Israeli radio: "We start feeling that we are under siege, as well as the Gazans. But let it be clear – we are determined to go. If we are given more to fill, we will fill them. If more boats are sabotaged, we will repair them. And then,  we are off to Gaza!"

A few hours after this defiant message was delivered,  Netanyahu's best friend Papandreou dropped the guise of bureaucratic minutiae and pounced – setting his own naval commandos to do the work of their Israeli colleagues, and take over the boats and brutally restrain them from setting off to Gaza, and generously take upon himself some of the anger which should have been directed at Netanyahu. And so, "The Audacity of Hope" is at this moment held up in a Greek naval base, and its captain is in jail, and protest demonstrations  take place this evening  in front of Greek embassies around the world, and the switchboard at the Washingtom embassy was blocked by incoming protest calls. Also at the Greek embassy in Tel Aviv there was a protest, with Hebrew and English signs "Let the flotilla go!" and "Stop Greek complicity with occupation and siege!" and especially "Greece, shame on you!" and some scuffles and confrontations with right-wingers who had suddenly become lovers of Greece - as a year ago they had become sworn enemies of Turkey. 

Is this the end of the story? Can Netanyahu consider himself to have gotten cheaply off the flotilla hook?  I would advise him not to count on that.  .

Report on Social TV about protest demonstration at Greek Embassy and extreme right counter-demosntration