Saturday, September 7, 2013

A troubled first week & the good sewage news

Rosh Hashana. The Jewish New Year. A national holiday throughout Israel. People greet each other with “Shana Tova”, Happy New Year, and the media is busy summing up the passing year in politics and economy and sports. Still, few Israelis outside the religiously observant minority could tell without looking it up what year it was which ended and which is the new one. Heh Tav Shin Ayin Dalet, which according to the numerical value of Hebrew character translates into 5774 – 5774 years after the creation of the world. An average Tel Avivian, when asked what year is it, would most likely answer: 2013 – the Civil Year which still has three months to run, and whose end on December 31, the Sylvester Night, would be marked by quite a lot of young Israelis even though it is not a national holiday and though the Chief Rabbinate greatly frowns at those marking it.

Count the coming week as we would  – as the first week of 5774 or the second one in the last quarter of 2013 – it would see some momentous events. Within a few days we might witness the launching of an American military strike at the Assad regime in Syria. And it could turn to be as advertised, a simple and quick affair lasting no more than a few days. Or it could turn out to have unpredictable effects and results and implications and complications, some of which might be quite nasty, and some might touch directly upon us in Israel. (It was Helmuth von Moltke, well-known 19th German general with a considerable experience of making battle plans and implementing them, who formulated the maxim that "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy").

Alternatively, the coming week might mark no military confrontation in the Middle East, but rather a major public humiliation administered to the President of the United States by his country’s Congress. And next week’s vote might go further than the issue of what the rest of Barack Obama’s second term would look like, and extend into an effective  abdication of the United States from the Global Imperial role which was assumed in 1945. Which would also carry very many weighty implications for Israel, as for the whole Middle East and the entire world.

All of which does not mean that everybody in this country is waiting with bated breath for the vote due on Capitol Hill. Our own affairs go on full steam ahead, while the world looks elsewhere. For example, a sizeable number of Israel’s Religious Nationalists found the New Year’s eve an auspicious time to stage a major provocation at  one of the most sensitive spots in the whole world: The compound in the Old City of Jerusalem which Judaism venerates as Temple Mount, the site of the Temple destroyed by the Romans two thousand years ago, while for a billion Muslims it is Haram A Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary from where the Prophet ascended up to Heaven.   

To mark the New Year, some three thousand of the “Temple Mount Seekers” marched round and round this sensitive compound, blowing the shofar ram’s horns as loudly as they could. The notorious Rabbi Shamuel Eliyahu, undaunted by his failure to become Chief Rabbi, proclaimed “On Rosh HaShana we crown God, and the Mount will become God’s Palace”. And in order for it to become God’s Palace,  the venerable 1300-year old Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam third holiest site, would “in one way or another disappear”.

Sheikh Ra’ed Salah of Umm El Fahm has long been warning the Muslim faithful that “Al-Aqsa is in danger!”. The shofar-blowing march and Rabbi Eliyahu’s speech added credibility and urgency to the Sheikh’s warning, and many of his followers were aroused to a march of their own. Israeli police promptly arrested Sheikh Salah on charges of “making inflammatory speeches”, but many of his followers did make it to the Mount, and there followed several days of violent clashes, stone throwing and large-scale arrests. Not an auspicious time for the holding of yet another round of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (but when has there been such a time?). Though unlike on several previous occasions, police took care not to use live ammunition and create new Palestinian martyrs.

There were more jarring notes accompanying this week’s round of talks. Last week’s round was accompanied by the announcement of new construction of houses in Israeli settlements on the West Bank. This week there was its mirror image – the demolition of Palestinian homes.
Specifically, the home of the Rashayda Family in the Jordan Valley.

Unlike the events in Jerusalem, this was not about an especially holy site. It was of importance mainly to the family of twelve who built the house and lived in it, who would have liked to get a building permit from the Israeli authorities but found this to be impossible, and who perforce had built without a permit. Not a holy site, but dear to family members who tried to defend it as best as they could. Also and especially the family’s women. Five of these women were wounded in confrontation with the soldiers and taken to hospital. With them out of the way, the Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer made short work of the family home.

Palestinian Chief Negotiator Dr. Saeb Erakat must have felt uncomfortable going on the same day into the negotiating room with the representatives of the Netanyahu Government. At least, he issued a strong condemnation stating that  “This new act of aggression, today's brutal escalation of Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians, is further proof that members of the Israeli government wish to undermine the negotiations process.”

The veil placed on the negotiations as per Kerry’s guidelines a month ago was this week drawn aside by well-placed leaks from the Palestinian side. As could have been predicted, there was not so much to reveal. So far, it seems that in fact negotiations had not really started, the two sides engaging mainly in a debate about setting the agenda.

Palestinian negotiators wanted to hear a clear Israeli position about the future border between Israel and Palestine, and specifically whether or not Netnayahu is ready to accept the principle of the 1967.  Had Tzipi Livni been speaking for herself, she might have taken up this challenge. Speaking as Netanyahu’s emissary without any real power base of her own, she proposed instead to talk first of “Security Arrangements” – read, continued presence of Israeli troops in considerable parts of the West Bank. Chief among these, and not by chance, is the Jordan Valley where the Rashayda Family home was destroyed, and where there is a long-standing policy to regard the presence of Palestinians as a nuisance to be gotten rid of.

Alternately, there was an Israeli offer to discuss borders – but only “temporary ones”. Netanyhau would be ready to accept  a “Palestinian State in Temporary Borders”, comprising about 60% of the West Bank.
Pending a future discussion of the permanent borders, which would take place, either before or after the coming of the Messiah, Israel would be left in possession of about 40% of the West Bank: settlements, military bases, strategic highways and – once again – the whole of the Jordan Valley. Needless to say, the Palestinians found this generous offer completely unacceptable.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. In fact, it is what commentators predicted virtually unanimously in advance, on the basis of extensive previous experience.  From the start, it was assumed that the negotiations could only bear any fruit if there was a high-profile American involvement . In practice Secretary of State Kerry, having invested considerable  personal attention and energy in re-launching the negotiations, had since then let them drift rudderless.

Reportedly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has asked for an urgent meeting with Kerry, to take up the situation of the negotiations, and it seems that they are to meet in London, Most likely,  Abbas would bring a copy of the letter which Kerry sent him two months ago, committing the US to support negotiations based on the 1967 borders, and ask how seriously should such American obligations be taken. But that would be on the very eve of the crucial vote on Syria, with Kerry more than any other member of the Obama Administration committed to punishing Assad for the use of chemical weapons in Damascus.  So, it would be quite surprising at this moment to see a full-fledged, high-level US involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Where the involvement of the American government is uncertain at best, one can look for some flickering lights elsewhere. For example, to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, of whose composition and orientation the right wing (so far) failed to seize control, and whose rulings on at least some occasions serve to block the most blatant abuses.

A case in point was this week’s proceeding regarding the Palestinians of the South Hebron Hills, which suffer untold daily harassment from army and settlers – due to this area, like the Jordan Valley, being slated for eventual annexation to Israel and Arabs being considered, also there, a nuisance . About a thousand people in this area, have been living for fourteen years under the constant threat of wholesale deportation.  Twelve tiny Palestinian communities, poor and marginal in the Palestinian society itself and with some of them actually living in caves, are threatened with destruction, In the eyes of the state, they are “squatters without rights” and the area, known as “Fire Zone 918”, was proclaimed a vital training area for the army’s ground troops.

Israeli and international peace activists, human rights groups and prominent artists, writers and academics have been conducting an intensive campaign in the media and an ongoing presence on the ground. Towards the crucial Supreme Court session, the signatures of
Nobel Peace Laureates and other international VIP’s were obtained. And for their part, the state representatives made some cynical statements such as that “if the Arabs are allowed to stay, soldiers will have to travel longer to and from training”.

The Supreme Court  judges were plainly unhappy with the entire hot potato falling into their lap, and suggested that the state enter into a mediation process with the villagers and their lawyers. While not completely removing the Damocles’ Sword from above their heads, at least  it was moved  further away. 

A small ray of light also came this week from the Netherlands, concerning such a prosaic subject as sewage treatment.  

Raw sewage in and around Jerusalem is flowing into the Kidron, a creek which had been a nice and scenic place (it is even mentioned in the Bible), Some of this sewage comes from Palestinian communities and others from Israeli settlements – both being inhabited by human beings having indoor plumbing in their houses. Therefore, a respectable Dutch company named Royal Haskoning was asked by the government of Israel to prepare for the  construction of a wastewater treatment plant.

As envisioned by the government planners, a system of sewage treatment would be constructed dealing with the settlements and the Palestinian communities as a single system. Implicitly, the plan took for granted that the settlements are there to stay, that overall Israeli control is there to stay, and that strategic planning decisions (in this as in other fields) would be taken by Israeli officials, who would then condescend to  inform the Palestinians of what they decided.

Like other European companies concerned with settlement-related projects on the West Bank, Royal Haskoning was pressured by its government to terminate such involvement. For their part, the company’s  Israeli government interlocutors asked the company’s directors to “forget about politics and get on with the sewage treatment project”.

To no avail. Yesterday, Royal Haskoning officially “advised the client of termination of the Kidron contract”, since “Royal Haskoning carries out its work with the highest regard for integrity and in compliance with international laws and regulations. In the course of the project, and after due consultation with various stakeholders, the company came to understand that future involvement in the project could be in violation of international law.”

It’s harder and harder to get rid of occupation sewage.