Monday, December 27, 2010

"We asked for asylum - prison we got"

Dark and grim days. And suddenly, a small moment of hope and encouragement, from people who are not citizens of Israel, and whose status even as temporary residents here is extremely precarious and cast in perpetual doubt. The refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, living in the slums and margins of Israeli society, have organized and went out onto the streets, to have their say, loud and clear, and hold a mirror to the Israel of late 2010.

For a long time they were talked about without their opinion being asked, without their speaking for themselves, without anyone bothering to listen to them. As if they had no ears to hear what was said, or eyes to see, and feelings to be hurt.

The Prime Minister said that the refugees and infiltrators who arrive in Israel from Africa via the Egyptian border are a security and demographic risk, and that they steal the livelihood of poor Israelis. The government decided to set up for them a camp somewhere far away in the Negev desert, out of sight and out of mind, where they could "stay" under the courteous supervision of Israel's Prison Service.

In the slums of South Tel Aviv a demonstration took place where the extreme racist Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union Party and the moderate racist Knesset Member Yoel Hasson of the Kadima Party both said in slightly different styles the same thing: that black skinned people walking the streets of Tel Aviv and speaking various African languages are a nuisance and disturbance which should be removed forthwith. And of course they were quick to clarify that this was of course not racism, not at all – it was just a manifestation of self defense and a war for survival by the slum dwellers.

And in the course of this demonstration, some of the refugees in question happened to pass in the street nearby. Quite a few of them know Hebrew - certainly well enough to understand such sentences as "We don’t want these blacks here" and the various pejoratives attached to the word "blacks" in fiery speeches blaring from the loudspeakers.

True, no one present there tried to physically assault the passing refugees. They were just ignored as if they were thin air. In media reports this was emphasized with rupture, as a clear sign of tolerance and magnanimity on the part of the rally's participants. Later that night, some of the miserable and overcrowded apartments where the refugees live got visits from people carrying flammable materials.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai reiterated that the demonstration had been "understandable and justified," and the oh so liberal Yair Lapid explained that no one would have called it a racist demonstration had the refugees been blond Norwegian rather than black Africans. (Why not?) And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called upon citizens not to take the law into their hands, as the government would soon take steps to remove the black nuisance.

On Friday morning, the refugees broke their silence. They went out on the streets of Tel Aviv, organized and articulate, people who began to take their fate in their hands, chanting slogans and carrying signs, handwritten and printed, in Hebrew and English and in their mother tongues. "We are not infiltrators / We are not criminals / We are asylum seekers / We demand justice / We demand our rights", "We asked for asylum - we got prison", "We did not come looking for work / We escaped oppression and murder." Israeli activists were among them, the human rights of the We are Refugees organization and intellectuals and singers and past and present Knesset Members, Dov Hanin and Zehava Gal'on. But in the rally which took place in the center of the Meir Park, the refugees themselves took center stage - the people who had fled from genocide in Darfur and from a brutal and repressive regime in Eritrea, and who had undergone many atrocities on their long way until they found a refuge – a very temporary and precarious refuge – in Israel, and who spoke out very clearly and movingly. To any who wanted to listen. .

One demonstration does not in itself change the entire situation. These people still have ahead of them a difficult time. They have good reason to fear more persecution in the Jewish-Democratic State, possibly detention camps or deportation back to the hell they had escaped from. But at least, from now on it will be harder to talk about them as if they were not present to hear every word.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The bird and the sea

 or: the diplomats' predicament

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel - headed by Mister Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foremost diplomat - there is a certain feeling of concern. There is a sense that this country's international standing is deteriorating, especially since the official announcement that there will be no freeze and that the settlements are going to grow and flourish over every hill and dell.

In particular, the Foreign Ministry got some indications that the Palestinian Authority is in constant contact with European countries with a view to letting them follow the lead of France and Spain and upgrade the status of the Palestinian diplomatic representatives there. The Palestinians are talking about this with Britain, and Sweden, and Finland, and Germany, and Denmark, and Belgium, and Austria, and who indeed are they not talking to? And in South America there is a continuing parade of countries extending diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders. And at the United Nations, there is no telling what will happen at the impending vote on the draft resolution stating that settlement construction is illegal and contravenes the Geneva Convention.

In short, the situation is not good. So, something must be done! All Israeli ambassadors are called to stand at the breach, and repel with all their might this dangerous offensive. And heavy ordnance was put at their disposal, in the form of a juridical position paper drawn up carefully by the Foreign Ministry's team of legal experts, a paper which all of the ambassadors are instructed to deliver immediately to the governments to which they are accredited.

What does this position paper say? Quite a lot, in fact. It explains at great length that there has never been a ban on the construction of settlements during negotiations, since the status of the settlements should only be determined when the permanent status is agreed upon. In proof of which, it is pointed out that Israel has already been negotiating with the Palestinians for seventeen years without ceasing to concurrently build settlements. And since in all these seventeen years Israel has not yet gotten around to talking about the permanent status, the settlements had in the meantime tripled in size.

On the other hand, the Palestinians are clearly forbidden to unilaterally create facts via the passing of all kinds of unsympathetic UN resolutions. Certainly it would be a very negative step if various countries begin to help the Palestinians in establishing such facts. It might sabotage and derail the entire peace process. God forbid, it might even preclude the possibility that the negotiations would go on for another seventeen years!

In the Talmud there is the story about a stubborn bird who was angry with the sea and tried to make it into dry land. He filled his beak full of grains of sand and threw them into the sea, and one more beakful of sand, and one more, and one more... Another bird, his friend, happened to pass the spot and told him: "Ye fool, how much can you achieve, when all is said and done?" 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Expelling the darkness

Today the sewers burst out and flowed into the streets of Bat Yam, and gathered into a pool before the shopping mall on Yoseftal Street. A band of local racists, augmented by a stream of militant "Hilltop Youth" bused in from the most extreme of the West Bank settlements, raised high the banner of Jewish racial purity. Specifically they called for murdering any Jewish girl caught dating an Arab ("Arab, don't you dare touch my sister"), and to be killed was also any Jew known to have sold property to Arabs.

The police of the state of Israel listened calmly to the incitement to murder flowing from the loudspeakers. The main duty placed upon them - the "separation of powers" to prevent any contact between the racists and the supporters of peace who gathered in protest around the corner.

"Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies," chanted the protesters, and also "Racists out", "Jews and Arabs – in Bat Yam we are all equal", "Bat Yam - a city for everybody", "Come, sister, there is no problem, you have the right to choose", "Sister, Sister – date whoever you fancy", "Without democracy there would be no country", "In the Declaration of Independence there is no place for racism", "We will not let the racists destroy this life" and then again to ""Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies" and "Racists out". "We are proud Arab-lovers" read the big placard flying overhead.

Former Knesset Member Tamar Gozansky and her husband Yoram were there, who live right next to where the racists held their party. And the Blue Shirt youths sang and danced and jumped and stamped their feet and chanted endless slogans and sang enthusiastically an old Hanukkah song which had become an anthem of the struggle against racism:

"We have come to expel the darkness,
Light and fire in our hands
Each one is a small light,
Together we are a strong light.
Turn back, darkness, turn back, away!
You cannot stand against the light!

A small tortoiseshell cat, apparently frightened by the noise and shouting, ran out into the road. A photo journalist, a policeman and two protesters came out immediately to protect her from the racing cars. The cat arrived safely at the other side and disappeared among the bushes behind the racists' rally. At least that.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Each of these detainees has a family.

I got the following from Buma Inbar, a bereaved father and tireless activist who spends much of his time and energy wandering the mountain paths of the West Bank and providing help and support where they are needed. He can be contacted at

The early morning hours of a weekday. This special time when the first rays of the sun appear, accompanied by the melodious chirping of early rising birds. At such moments of grace one may quietly drink a cup of coffee, look out into the street and enjoy the sounds of the waking world, until the pastoral image fades and daily routine takes over.

Recently, my early morning hours include a new element. Every morning between five and six, there is a specific news item joining the news flashes which had been rolling through the news websites overnight. A modest, laconic news flash announcing: "Tonight IDF forces operated on the outskirts of Qalqilya, (or at the approaches to Nablus, or in the Jenin District) and arrested two suspected Palestinians (or three, or ten, or thirteen)." Invariably, the flash would end with the words "The suspects were transferred to Security Forces interrogation". By about Nine AM, when the roads are already full of traffic jams, this news flash would disappear, only to come back on the following morning.

This ritual takes place every day, except on weekends and Jewish holidays. I doubt that the security forces are not active on these days. More likely it is the conscripts on duty at the IDF Spokesperson's bureau who take their weekend rest and fail to issue the daily bulleting. These two or three terse sentences conceal whole worlds of meaning.

The detention of a Palestinian has many implications for family members, and not only with regard to the judicial process itself. It is not so well known that such a detention is enough to immediately put all first-degree relatives of the detainee on the list of those denied entry to Israel, on the theory that one of them might seek revenge. The arrest of one youthful member of the family turns the entire family into security risks. Simple calculation shows that the "club" of detainees gets every month dozens of new "members".

Recently, the laconic lines got – where I am concerned – a clear human face. Early this year the night's detainees included M., the son of my acquaintance Khaled, director of the Palestinian Bereaved Families' Forum. Now also Khaled, a man who invests all his time and energy in promoting peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, is denied entry to Israel.

I ask myself: was there a justified reason for all these detentions? I would have liked to believe that none of them was tortured and that they all get a fair trial. I would so very much like to believe that the system of which I was part and whose members I appreciate and love is doing the right thing. So much I want to believe that M., who like his father took part in many dialogue and reconciliation meetings with Israelis, would be set free without his experience of detention changing him or his any of his family members.

Every time I come to take my turn at the Shalit Family Tent opposite the PM's residence in Jerusalem, I remember these news flashes and I wonder. Each of these detainees has a family. Each of them is an entire world. Some of them are teens who have not yet turned eighteen. How many of them did truly engage in terrorist activities against Israel? How many of them are truly so dangerous that there is no choice but to detain them? And the most important question - are we Israelis really aware of the impact which that small item, running among the news flashes between five and six every morning, has for our lives and our future?

List (in Hebrew) of Y-net reports on detentions of Palestinians

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just an ordinary day

Just an ordinary day
With a blue sky
With no feast nor dance
No drum and no fife
Nothing special had happened
But Senator Mitchell has been here and gone

(Variation of Yossi Gamzu's poem)

And at the airport Senator Mitchell, envoy of US President Barack Hussein Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, reiterated the United States' commitment to conduct substantive talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to achieve significant progress towards signing a framework agreement between the two parties which would be the basis for a definite peace agreement which will be signed sometime. And the newspaper readers yawned and turned the page in search of more interesting news. And the settlers shrugged and continued the accelerated construction. And the Palestinians also shrugged and continued mobilizing international support for the State of Palestine, due to be declared in Auguest or September 2011, with or without an agreement. And seekers after peace, who remember very many peace processes and rounds of negotiations and international mediators, said that when someone had not been able to achieve a three months' freeze, it is up him to prove that he can truly achieve the complete dismantling of the settlements.

And meanwhile, the Knesset plenum was today in upheaval and uproar about a major contentious issue which has the potential of bringing down the government coalition. Namely: what should be the status of a young man whose mother is not Jewish, who is an Israeli citizen speaking Hebrew as well as Russian who is clearly part of the Israeli society, who enlists in the army of this Jewish Democratic state and gets sent on its behalf to the territories which it occupies, who imposes the rule of the Jewish Democratic state over people who are not Jews and have no share in Israeli democracy, who performs the dirty jobs with a high motivation and efficiency and the needed brutality. Doesn't such a young man deserve the right to call himself a Jew - no less so than do his comrades in arms, whose mothers are Jewish and who wear the very same uniform he does and perform with him the same dirty jobs with the same amount of motivation and efficiency and needed brutality?

Truth be told, most likely he does deserve it. 

To The Cisterns

For love
I have gone to the cisterns
In the paths of the desert
In unsown land
For love
I have forgotten city and home
And followed you
With wild longing
To the cisterns, to the cisterns…
(Naomi Shemer)

To the ancestors who lived in this land 3500 years ago, and of whose story Zionism drew inspiration and legitimacy, rain and its absence were quite literally issues of life and death. A rainless year was a disaster year, a year of famine, a year when, to survive, the people of the land had to flee to where food was to be had.

For the Israelis of our time, the absence of rain is an interesting subject for conversation, one of many issues which the papers deal with. "Will the water level in the Sea of Galillee fall below the Red Line?" ask the headlines, and experts are called to the TV studio to discuss the problem in detail. True, the farmers among us are a bit more directly touched. When the November rains failed to come, they started to worry and calculate the financial loss from a spoiled harvest and worry if the government's compensations would fully cover it.

But there are still people in this country whose lifestyle had not changed much in thousands of years, shepherds living in the arid land on the margins of the desert, at the Southern Hebron Hills at the edge of the West Bank. Not that even in this remote region there is any lack of pipes to bring an abundant supply of water. Israeli settlers who came to live there always have running water in their beautiful homes all year round, and green lawns which would not shame any European country, and even some swimming pools. But these pipes laid by the enlightened state of Israel are definitely not intended for the use of the Palestinian shepherds outside the settlements' barbed wire perimeters.

It was left to the shepherds to look with increasing anxiety at a sky which remained blue with no cloud, and pray for rain to come and fill the cisterns which were hewn by hard dedicated labor in the desert floor.

The rain finally did come, early this week. Not that much of the rain got there, to the shepherds who so much longed for it. In Tel Aviv the storm raged and lightning flashed and thunder boomed and luxury restaurants on the shoreline were flooded with the rising water. The remote South Hebron Hills got only some odds and ends of rain, a scattered rainfall here and there. A far cry from the really big rain needed to fill the cisterns with the water of life. But some water is better than none.

After the rain ended the military arrived, equipped with bulldozers and heavy engineering equipment. They moved systematically from one cistern to the next, demolished and destroyed them and dropped heavy rocks to completely fill them in. The bit of water which the rains of this week provided will not provide drink to the sheep. Nor to the humans.

When setting on their work of destruction - twelve cisterns in all, accounted for within a few hours - the soldiers had their weapons drawn, lest the shepherds dare to approach and interfere. "I've got a properly signed demolition order" said the officer of the Defense Forces of the enlightened state of Israel. "These cisterns were dug without a permit. The law must be enforced!"

See for yourself:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Bibi Trap

Wonderful, wonderful! No more freeze, not even a demand for a freeze! No need to fight the settlers, no need to fight the extreme right ministers and Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon, no need to bow down before Eli Yishai and offer him all his heart's desires so that he would abstain and provide a narrow majority in the cabinet. Let our friends in Judea and Samaria open the throttles and build and expand without interference. Now it only remains to torpedo the formation of a commission of inquiry on the Carmel forest fire, and we have a smooth sailing for several months at least.

What's that you say? The State Department Spokesman said that the US is still firmly opposed to settlement extension? So he said it. Nobody ever died of words. What more do you want? Oh, yes, Brazil recognized the State of Palestine in the 1967 borders. And also Argentina and Uruguay. Well, really! With all due respect, since when do these muchachos run the world? In the end this will get to the Security Council, and the Americans will impose a veto, full stop. Hilary promised me!

Wait a minute, what are you telling me now? The promise to impose a veto was conditional upon a settlement freeze? Are you kidding?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fighting with bows and arrows

Once upon a time there was a Prime Minister and Bibi Netanyahu was his name, but he wanted to be called Winston Churchill. A single thing preoccupied him, day and night, the nuclear bomb which a diabolical villain named Ahmadinejad was plotting to produce. All other problems and issues were minor and insignificant to Bibi, and he devoted most of his energy to preparing his people for the coming war. So determined was he that, for the sake of stealth bombers which could fly quickly in stealth and arrive to bomb Ahmadinejad 's country, Bibi was even willing to confront the settlers, his best friends.

And yet Bibi did not remember that war with the evil Ahmadinejad would necessarily involve the massive shooting of rockets and missiles, and that missiles cause fires where they fall, and it is the nature of fires to spread in all directions burn everything in their way, and in Bibi's country the fire fighting apparatus was outdated and clumsy and split between thirty competing authorities. And the firefighters were crying out fot proper equipment, and again and again making dire warnings of an approaching disaster. But they went unheard, like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

And it came to pass that while Ahmadinejad was sleeping peacefully in his bed and not a single missile was yet fired, stupid negligence caused a terrible great fire to burst out on the Carmel range, and it consumed woods and villages and kibbutzim, and the Prison Service cadets were caught in the flames and died a terrible death. And the firemen fought the flames heroically but hopelessly because they did not have the appropriate equipment, as if fighting with bows and arrows on a modern battlefield, and they urgently clamored for all the world to quickly and urgently send the vital equipment which nobody provided in their own country. And the TV commentators marveled at the sight of Prime Minister Bibi running quickly and efficiently the entire fire-fighting operation. In the absence of a singe country-wide head of the fire-fighting services Bibi had to take the role upon himself.

And the entire grateful nation determined that this man. Bibi, has at last found his fitting slot and mission in life, and confirmed him permanently in his appointment as the National Commander of the State of Israel's firefighting services.

Frustrated Racists

Forty-eight hours after the terrible fire broke out, racists can no longer stop their frustration at not getting what they wanted - a pretext for an all-out assault against the Arab population in Israel (including the Druze). "I don’t want negligence, I want vengeance on the arsonists!" so wrote an anonymous person in the talkback section of the Y-net news website and speedily others added racist comments, inciting to bloody violence, of the kind which the web editors were supposed (in theory) to immediately delete.

Of course, the racists draw encouragement from the police announcement of two minors from Ussefiya being detained on suspicion of negligent behaviour which led to the fire. Who cares if it was negligence or intentional arson, who cares that Ussefiya is surrounded by the Carmel woods and was the first to be endangered when they caught fire? Just cry out "Catch the Arab!"

Still, it seems that so far these characters are not able to add a raging fire of racism and hatred to the physical fire still raging on the Caramel. The vast majority understands, if blame is to be apportioned, we should look in the right (and obvious) place: up there at the corridors of power, to those who for years heard the firefighters making dire warnings of a lack of equipment and an impending disaster – heard them, and chose to ignore the warnings and to go investing the government budgets in all sorts of other places.