Thursday, October 29, 2015

Living by the sword - on a powder keg

On Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street I saw earlier this week a taxi billboard with a giant Israeli flag under which appeared the slogan "Together we will win!" (along with the logo of the shopping chain which funded the ad...). It is not a new phenomenon. Again and again in recent years, at times of mounting crisis, bloodshed and war and, shrewd business people and advertisers discover the value of patriotism for promoting sales.

On Ibn Gvirol Street, pretty close to where I saw the taxi with the sign, there were thousands of demonstrators marching on the Saturday night two days earlier, loudly chanting "We stand / together / without hatred and fear!" as well " We stand / together / without racism and fear!". The same call was heard in Jerusalem a week ago, and it is intended as the main slogan in the rally scheduled for Haifa next Sunday. What is the difference between the "togetherness" of the ad on the taxi and the one of the protesters in the street? Primarily, the fact that the second togetherness specifically and explicitly included Jews and Arabs alike, marching together on the street and dreaming together of a future of peace in this miserable country.

One of more than 600 Palestinian minors detained this month,
Photo: Palestinian News Agency  
On Monday, many Israeli news websites carried the photo of a dead body lying on the ground - a clear example of the fast-growing genre which some columnists term "the pornography of death". The man whose body was photographed by one of the soldiers who killed him five minutes earlier was the 22-year-old Raed Jaradat – a student from Sa’ir village, northeast of Hebron. According to his friends, he had been very upset by the killing of Dania Irsheid, a 17 year old girl who was last week shot by soldiers at a Hebron checkpoint, allegedly when she tried to stab them. )These allegations will probably never be impartially investigated). Like many youths, Jaradat was an intensive user of the social media. To his last Tweet was attached a photo of her blood-soaked body with the words: "Imagine that she was your sister."

In the morning Raed Jaradat went to the Anun Junction north of Hebron, where Israeli soldiers were on duty. They were Armored Corps personnel who, as part of the reinforcement of forces on the West Bank, were removed from their tanks and stationed on foot to maintain security at the junction. Raed Jaradat took advantage of the soldiers’ lack of vigilance and managed to stab one of them in the neck - and was then shot and killed by other soldiers. The medical teams which picked up the stabbed soldier Gile’ad Mazmur provided life-saving emergency care in the ambulance, all the way to the intensive care ward in Jerusalem.


Quite unusually, the Israeli TV First Channel provided some coverage of the Palestinian side of this news item. The reporter visited the village of Sa’ir and showed the dead man’s brother crying out: "Raed! Raad! Just an hour before it happened I saw him, he looked just as usual, I can’t believe I will never see him again!" Behind were dozens of village youths - lighting tires, chanting "Raed – the Blessed Martyr! We will follow on Raed’s path!" and preparing for the confrontation with the soldiers entering the village. The reporter then moved to the soldier's father, who was at his bedside when he woke up after three days’ coma: "This is the second time that it happens to me. Last year my elder son Niv was wounded in Gaza and I rushed to his hospital bed, now it is the younger one, Gil’ad. The murderer tried to kill our Gile’ad, a good child, a talented musician beloved by everybody. Look at how those children in the village admire the killer and want to follow in his footsteps. I fear that this situation will still last very much longer. "

I have been writing this article on and off in the past three days. Since I started, there were several more such cases, more Palestinians killed in their attempts to stab Israeli soldiers, more dead bodies piled in the Israeli morgue’s refrigerators. The government resolved that the dead bodies will not be returned to their families, since "every funeral becomes a mass demonstration." The government's decision itself precipitated a whole series of mass demonstrations throughout the Occupied Territories, demanding the return of the bodies to the families. The spokesperson of the State Hospital in Hebron said that, following the demonstration demanding the return of the bodies, the emergency room was filled with the wounded, including ten who were injured by live fire and three injured by rubber bullets. Others were severely effected by inhaling gas. At least, this demonstration did not, produce more dead bodies…

In the early days of "The Third Intifada" or "The wave of terrorism" or whatever one chooses to call it, many knife-wielding Palestinians went out to Israeli cities and stabbed random civilians. In the past two weeks, almost all such acts of stabbing are directed against armed soldiers in the Territories.

The conflagration whose end no one can see began in East Jerusalem, set off by acts of settlers and Israeli politicians who made blatant attempts to change the status quo at the Old City mosque compound in Jerusalem, allowing Jewish prayers there – which for many of the participants would be but a preliminary step toward rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the site of the mosques. US Secretary of State Kerry, in his attempt to calm down the situation, concentrated on the issue of the mosques and managed to get Netanyahu's agreement to place cameras at this sensitive site, broadcasting 24 hours a day, in order to "ensure that Israel does not violate the religious status quo". This seems too little and too late. Moreover, so far no cameras are in place, Israeli police removing the ones which were placed by the Muslim religious authorities. It is yet to be determined who would place the cameras, and at which precise locations on the sacred Mount, and who would be authorized to view the footage and publish it. Each and every one of these points could well become the subject of negotiations lasting months - perhaps years.

The Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported that President Mahmoud Abbas was asked by Kerry how to calm down the area, and quoted the Palestinian President's response - saying that the manifestations are led by "angry young people who have lost all hope, people who are seeking their people’s independence." Also Ha’aretz quoted Palestinian officials saying that "Calming down the tensions around the compound in Jerusalem is essential, but Palestinian anger is also about the continued occupation, the settler aggression and the lack of any political solution on the horizon. If Mr. Kerry thinks the camera transmissions from the Al-Aqsa Mosque would in themselves lead to calm, he is dead wrong. We have gone on the streets to say - enough, we are fed up with the occupation."

Beyond the issue of the cameras, Prime Minister Netanyahu was far from holding out any encouraging news to the Palestinians (or for that matter, to Israel’s own citizens...). At the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the PM stated explicitly that "At this time and for the foreseeable future we must retain control of all the territory.(…) People ask me if we will have to live by the sword forever? Yes". Then he added that he does not want a binational state – meaning that he has no plans to formally annex the territory and apply Israeli law, which would require the granting of Israeli citizenship and the right to vote to the Palestinian residents. The Prime Minister would obviously prefer to continue indefinitely the current situation, Israeli "temporarily" rule continuing "until conditions changed in the Middle East"...

Against this background, initiatives such as that of New Zealand seek to have a UN Security Council resolution seeking to facilitate the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by a series of mutual confidence-building measures (Israel enacting a settlement construction freeze and ceasing to destroy Palestinian homes, the Palestinians reciprocating by refraining from appeals to the International Court in The Hague). But when the head of the Government of Israel declares openly his intention to keep control of the entire territory, what is there left to negotiate about?

At a conference in the Netanya Academic College, a warning was voiced by Brigadier-General Guy Goldstein, Deputy Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: "We are in the midst of a confrontation whose end is nowhere in sight. Abu Mazen does not conduct a policy of terrorism, he is trying to calm the situation, but without a political process involving both Israel and the Palestinian Authority this ongoing confrontation is not going to end. Even if there is a certain calm, and I do wish that there will soon be quiet days with no further attacks, basic conditions will remain the same. We sit on a kind of powder keg ".

All of this happens to coincide with marking the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The fact that there is an official anniversary prescribed by law required several prominent politicians to resort to complex verbal acrobatics in order to express grief over the murder of a Prime Minister, without having to refer to the elephant in the middle of the room - that is, to the Oslo Accords which Yitzhak Rabin signed and for which he was murdered.

Naftali Bennett - head of the settlers’ Jewish Home Party who was appointed Minister of Education, had to deliver a speech eulogizing Rabin at a governmental memorial attended by hundreds of youths, broadcast live by the Educational TV network. Bennett spoke of Rabin as a great patriot and Zionist, a military man who dreamed of Israel before it came into being and who had a significant role in fighting for its creation in 1948, a courageous military man who was in command of the great victory in 1967 and had "unified Jerusalem" and who later had some kind of a political career and was murdered under some unspecified reasons – which was obviously a terrible thing which teaches us all how important it is to maintain tolerance and pluralism. Also the other speeches in this gathering did not contain the word "Oslo" and rare was the word "peace".

Nor are these words to be found in the official call published by organizers of the mass memorial rally, scheduled to take place on Saturday night at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and expected to attract a crowd in the tens of thousands. "All the ‘tribes’ of Israel, all parts of our society, must unite and commit themselves to resolving any dispute among us by democratic means only. Israel is facing the need to make difficult, crucial and historical decisions. Such decisions must be taken only through the democratic process and in accordance with ethical values. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin must serve as a dire warning sign to Israeli society." But what is the nature of these difficult necessary? Peace? Territories? Occupation? Palestinians? The rally organizers deliberately refrained from any such reference, with the stated goal that also right-wingers be able to participate.

Daniel Bar-Tal, a Professor of Sociopolitical Psychology at Tel Aviv University and the Head of a Jewish-Arab Coexistence institute, collected and spread extensively some quotes from Yitzhak Rabin's speeches in the last few years of his life - quotes so conspicuously absent from the official speeches:

"It is no longer inevitable that we be a people who dwell alone, nor is it true that the whole world is against us. We need to break out of the sense of isolation which held us in its grip for almost fifty years. We must come aboard the great journey towards peace, reconciliation and international cooperation. If we don’t, we will remain alone in an empty station" (July 13, 1992).

"We can lock every door, cut off any attempt at making peace. Morally, we have the right to refuse to sit at the negotiations table with the PLO, refuse to shake a hand which had held a knife or pulled a trigger. We can reject with disgust any overtures from the PLO – which would mean we will stay trapped in the same cycle in which we had lived up to now: endless war, terrorism and violence. But we have chosen the other way, the way which gives a chance, which gives hope (September 21, 1993).

"We are certain that both peoples can live on the same piece of land, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, as prophesied by the Prophets. We can give to this land of rocks, to this land of tombstones, the rightful taste of milk and honey. At this time I appeal to the Palestinian people and say: Our Palestinian neighbors, a full century of bloodshed has implanted in us a hatred for each other - today you and us extend our hands to each other in peace "(May 4, 1994).

Yigal Sarna wrote in Yediot Ahronot today: "On Saturday night I will go to the rally because that is all that is left. I will be there, at the spot where the blood was spilled – which half the population tries to forget, and which the Religious Zionists consider as a just punishment meted out to the evil Rabin. So I will go once again to the rally, to mourn the horrific consequences of the transition from Rabin’s Israel to that of Bibi. To listen to the lament of gloom of those who once led this country and whose place was usurped by those who seek to rebuild the Temple even at the cost of eternal war with a billion and half Muslims. I will stand there and remember Rabin - and my father, who was half a generation older than him - who both wanted the same thing: an Israeli state that will live as part of the Middle East, a prosperous member of the Family of Nations – not a ghetto bent on revenge and bloodshed".

Peace Now and Meretz issued a call for their supporters to take part in the Rabin rally as a big solid block – "So that our presence will emphasize Rabin's path to peace and the Two States - for which he was murdered - and the urgent need to go back to this path today. We will stand together in the Rabin Square and tell the Prime Minister that we do not accept living forever by the sword. There is hope, and hope will prevail."

Also we of Gush Shalom will be in this rally, to address the young people who were not yet born on the day Rabin was assassinated and who are Israel’s last best hope. Always, every year, these young people enthusiastically take up the stickers bearing the flags of Israel and Palestine, side by side, and wear them on their clothes. Even if the issue of peace with the Palestinians is absent from the speeches to be heard from the podium.

Three days ago before the rally I went through the Rabin Square, which was still empty. I passed the monument where the murder took place and moved on. All around the square the official rally organizers had hung large photographs of Rabin's life. The photos were carefully selected. Conspicuously absent was the historic handshake with Arafat, nor were there any other photos from the Oslo era. There was indeed a photo with King Hussein of Jordan – the peace with Jordan, involving no territorial concessions, is much less controversial. There were photos of Rabin in uniform during his military career, and one with US President Gerald Ford at the time when Rabin was the Israeli ambassador to Washington.

Remarkably, one of the photos shows a visit by Rabin to Ramallah - a pre-Oslo visit. That was still the old Rabin, the one of "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" and who ordered soldiers to "Break the rioters’ arms and legs". But, even so, it was quite daring for him to stand on a Ramallah street and talk with a big group of Palestinian passersby. His expression in the photo gives the clear impression that Rabin was seriously listening to what they had to say.