Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gaza escalation-1: The outcry which was not heard

A week ago the veteran peace activist Benny Gefen wrote a Letter of Outcry which he sent to the country's leaders as well as to the editorial offices of all newspapers in Israel, and so did he write:

The Prime Minister and Minister of Defense wore their suitable jackets, being photographed with great self-satisfaction beside the great quantity of smuggled arms which Israel's navy seized on board the "Victoria". It is a shame to spoil the fun, but as one who participated in smuggling arms to the Haganah under British rule I know that it is impossible to hermitically seal borders. Sooner or later, Gaza will be strongly armed, like Lebanon.

The country's political and military leadership have not truly come to terms with the fundamental change in the preparations which must be made towards a new conflict in our region. In the next war, if we are not wise enough to prevent it, the Home Front will be heavily bombarded. By media reports, Hezbollah was already a year ago in possession of 40 000 rockets, including accurate Scuds; and the Gaza Strip, Iran and Syria all provide similar threats.

We must remember what havoc was wrecked by 39 obsolete missiles shot from Uraq in the 1991 Gulf War, and how primitive missiles made life in Northern Israel into hell during the Second Lebanon War. The government it trying to reassure us with singing the praises of the Arrow anti-missile-missile, forgetting how hugely expensive each one of these missiles is – in Shekels and Dollars alike.

We invest/bury billions in extremely expensive aircraft and submarines. Just the other day Barak gave voice to the wish that the U.S. will generously come up with an additional 20 billion Dollars to meet our needs due to the upheavals in the region.

The only real solution is to put an end to the hatred which the Arab- Muslim World bears us. A hatred founded upon the continuing occupation and the mutual religious incitements.

We still can act, but time is running out. We do not need any more self-righteous speeches by the Prime Minister, nor any more incisive but hollow words from the Minister of Defence. We need our leaders to take a brave decision and implement it.

The letter did get published in several newspapers, but it's hard to say that it actually reached the ears of the decision makers. In this country, a man recently resigned who served as Head of the National Security Council, who had an explicit role defined by law to advise the decision makers, and who found that even his actual impact on the decisions taken was minimal, to say the least.

Who would listen, then, to a man who spent much of his life in Israel's wars and then became a peace activist, who got safely through many battles but lost his son in Lebanon - a man who accumulated quite a bit of wisdom and experience but never received any appointment to advise the decision-makers?

Gaza escalation-2: Embarking on the Dance of Fire

How exactly did the escalation start? Even though it happened only last week, it is by no means clear exactly how it started. Commentators argue about who was the first to shoot and who responded, and why, and just who wanted it (if at all anyone really wanted it, on either side of the border).

Alex Fishman, military commentator for Yediot Ahronot, who disposes of very good sources within the army, wrote a week ago a detailed and rather critical description under the headline "You told us to shoot – we shoot":

"It began accidentally, with a miscalculation, an excessive reaction to the shooting of a Qassam missile, which threatens to develop into a new comprehensive conflict. Now both sides already start pasting unto this chain of events their whole series of weighty political and security arguments. Both sides heat themselves up and lead Gaza towards an uncontrolled explosion. The army has in store a whole armory of retaliations to retaliations to retaliations and so on. (...)

The aggressive message sent down from the cabinet was well absorbed in the army – from now on, there should be a smashing response to each event. After a Qassam missile fired by an ephemeral group landed in an open field , the IDF struck at Netzarim, killing two Hamas militants, one of them apparently a senior member. Someone in the Southern Command went a step too far in translating the instructions of the political leadership - . - "You told us to shoot – we shoot".(...)

The army was waiting for a response, and hoping that also this time it will be limited to the shooting of some anti-tank missile. On Friday, the IDF was on alert because of the fog that prevailed in the area. Then, Hamas and Jihad opened up with 120mm mortars, aimed at six locations within Israel - with an emphasis on military camps. The IDF responded by firing rockets, mortars and tank guns at predetermined targets. At noon, when the fog dispersed, assault helicopters also went into action. The Dance of Fire started."

So wrote Alex Fishman on the pages of Yediot Ahronot last Sunday (March 20). On the following days, the Dance of Fire spun faster and faster, and the missiles fell at Be'er Sheva and Ashdod, and the pupils stayed home in fear for their lives in un-fortified shool buildings. Politicians competed with each other in crying out for war and war and war to the bitter end. In the Sajaya neighborhood of Gaza, four members of the Hilo Family were killed when an Israeli shell landed on their house by mistake. Sure, it was an unfortunate mistake by the army. As they explained, they had used an inaccurate mortar system because at that moment the more accurate system was not available. And the Government of Israel was quick to express its regret about the harm to innocents, but its expressions of sorrow were not really well received in Gaza where TV repeatedly broadcasted photos of the body of the 11-year-old Mohammed Jihad Al-Hilo who was killed by the shell. And the next day a bomb exploded on a crowded street in Jerusalem, killing a Christian British woman who came to Jerusalem to learn Hebrew so as to better translate the Bible to an African tongue, and some thirty-passers-by were wounded, some of whom would bear the scars long after we have all forgotten this incident. And banner headlines in Israel's newspapers said that Terrorism had come baack after a long absence, and horrible scenes were depicted on huge photographs of the scene of the attack, and politicians outdid themselves in competing with each other to make cries of war and war and war to the bitter end. And the army went on to kill more Palestinians in Gaza, and since these were confirmed as having been terrorists the government expressed no regret for killing them and in fact took some pride in it.

And in Yediot Aharonot, Alex Fishman played a quite different tune from that in his own article earlier in the week: "The army is pushing for an escalation. In a policy briefing held yesterday morning with the Prime Minister, the army manifested a very combative attitude. As the army sees it, an all-out confrontation with the Hamas government at Gaza is almost preordained. If not now, it will happen in another year or two. Unless we act today, we will pay the price for going gradually into the escalation. Israel, says the army, should restore its deterrence, which has been eroded since the days of "Cast Lead". We should have struck hard at Hamas already a month ago, when the Grad rocket came down on Beersheba for the first time. Now the blow must be even more painful. If not an overwhelming military strike, or a partial ground operation, the obvious next step on the scale of violence should be a return to the era of targeted killing of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships. In the IDF's view, this would be the most effective move, speaking the language which the Palestinian leadership understands best. "

So spoke – as of Wednesday, March 23 - Alex Fishman, the man who already for many years serves as an unofficial army spokesman.

"In the IDF's view, this would be the most effective move, speaking the language which the Palestinian leadership understands best." The problem is that this language was spoken quite often before, and where did it lead us?

Gaza escalation-3: Discovering the real danger

"The Other Voice" is a movement which is active several years already at Sderot and other communities on the Gaza border. With boundless devotion, these activists are trying to make a voice of peace and coexistence heard in a region enveloped by a constant tension, and maintain e-mail contact and dialogue with residents across the border. (A few months they succeeded, with a tremendous effort, to obtain permits for a few Gazans to cross the border, attend a conference and bring a message of peace to their Israeli neighbors from the city of Gaza and the Strip surrounding it.)

Under the sound of sirens and falling missiles, "Other Voice" activists scheduled a demonstration for yesterday noon at the Yad Mordechai Junction. The announcement stated:

Again we are in the same nightmare: Our army reacts to their rockets' reaction to our army's reaction to their rockets – and who pays the price? We, the civilians on both sides of the border.

On Friday, March 25, 2011, at 14:30, we will hold a protest vigil at the Yad Mordechai Junction, with the message:

Stop the shooting! Start Talking! Life or Them = Life for Us.

We, residents of the area, see a close connection between the suffering of our neighbors, due to the ongoing siege and military attacks, and our own suffering. We urge the Government of Israel to halt the deterioration towards another pointless cycle of violence, to end the mutual bloodshed and offer to inhabitants of the region another option: Dialogue, negotiations, and a striving for a long-term agreement, which would make possible a life of quiet and dignity to us and to our neighbors.

The aggressive option has brought us to a dead end! It's time for a political initiative!

The Other Voice Group from Sderot and the Gaza border.

The demonstration did not take place at the appointed time. The police informed the organizers that due to the security situation and the dire warnings, it was unable to secure the event. It is too dangerous here to demonstrate for peace at this time, we will not allow it - warned the police commanders.

But in the longer term, is it not even more dangerous to stifle that voice?

Gaza escalation-4: And still, perhaps?

Just now, the news websites carried the information that, after a weekend during which three missiles were shot at Israel, representatives of the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip convened and announced their willingness to embark on a ceasefire. The Hamas Spokesperson told Reuters: "The armed factions will be obliged to a ceasefire, as long as the occupation too maintains a de-facto cease-fire".

We will know better tomorrow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On photos and narratives

Exactly a week ago I was in Oslo, capital of Norway, at a conference convened by the Norwegian Quakers and other people who care about what is going on in our region. Five Israeli peace activists came to take part, along with Norwegian activists (and some from other Scandinavian countries). Serious and profound discussions were held on the crucial issues: Is it still possible to end the occupation and reach a peaceful solution between the two states, Israel and Palestine, or had the accomplished facts established by successive governments of Israel already created an insurmountable barrier to implementation of this option? And what is the meaning of "a Jewish and democratic state"? Can this be a truly democratic state which guarantees equal rights also to citizens who are not Jewish?

During the morning discussion, whispering began in the audience shocking news which appeared in the Norwegian and Swedish morning papers. "Terrible, small children murdered with a knife," said the man sitting next to me, a middle-aged clergyman who had come to the conference from the far north of Norway. Suddenly, the scheduled agenda was interrupted by a woman organizer taking the floor to read out a statement expressing grief and pain and an unequivocal condemnation of the murder.

After returning to Israel I read about the debate between policy makers in Israel which took place during these same hours. "To publish or not to publish the photos? To maintain respect for the dead and play it down, or to distribute them worldwide in the hope that this time Western public opinion will not ignore the cruelty of the Palestinian terrorists?" was how Yediot Aharonot put it.

As we now know, ultimately it was decided to publish throughout the world the horrifying photos of the children's bodies lying in pools of blood - though Israeli embassies were instructed not to distribute them officially, but only help in the distribution by unofficial sources. The result was disappointing - it turned out that also this secret weapon failed to get rolling the creaking wagon of the "Hasbara" international public relations drive.

One after the other, Yedioth Ahronot's reporters in Rome, London, Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen recounted their disappointment with European colleagues. It turned out that even after being presented with the horrible pictures, the European media insisted upon mentioning that Itamar where the murder took place is an illegal settlement established in Occupied Territory.

The Rome correspondent quoted with great anger an Italian journalist "who is considered honest" and who actually dared to compare the Israeli children killed by stabbing in Itamar with the Palestinian children killed by airplane bombing in Gaza. She said that "For me, it's the same horror" and completely rejected the suggestion that the Gazan children were killed when Israel resorted to "justified self defense".

In short, the paper concluded, "when such are the views prevalent in the European public, it would be naive to think a series of photos, however shocking, can change the situation."

In Makor Rishon yesterday, Uri Elitzur provided a sober explanation to his friends on the extreme right: the problem is not a specific murder, the problem is "the narrative." As long as the Western world takes up the "narrative " that Israel is the occupier and the Palestinians are occupied and oppressed, that the settlers have illegally grabbed land in an occupied Palestinian territory, even a shocking murder documented by bloody pictures would not convince the world that the settlers are right and the settlement project is justified and the government is right in building for them hundreds of new building units.

Elitzur continued by setting out a more ambitious project: "The mission of the Israeli hasbara is much more difficult than to create a one-day shock within the existing narrative. Its mission is to fundamentally change the narrative." Elitzur explains what the true "narrative " is which Israel must instill in the world's consciousness: "We are a small and diligent Jewish minority among hundreds of millions of Arabs; we represent the Jewish people which returned to their homeland after 2000 years, and we are being brutally attacked by the evil Arabs."

Instilling this "narrative " in the international public opinion was characterized by Elitzur as "a job for very many years, an almost impossible task. " In my humble opinion, the word "almost" can be left out. There does, indeed, exist a narrative which the State of Israel can still hope to introduce to world opinion: the narrative of a peace-seeking Israel, an Israel which is ready – in deeds and not just in words - to put an end to the occupation and settlements, to reach real peace with the Palestinians and with the entire Arab and Muslim world. Such a narrative may still find takers all over the world, should our government choose to take it up – first of all, towards itself. But even for that, time is quickly running out.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is there such a thing?

Yesterday, the police came once again to destroy the village of Al-Arakib and erase it from the face of the earth, for the 21th time in less than a year. Again the wretched huts and tents were destroyed and the remains loaded on trucks and taken away, so as to leave not a trace. And again the Jewish National Fund bulldozers were invited to start preparations for "planting a forest" on this devastated spot. And again, once the police and bulldozers have left the area, Al-Arakib's stubborn Bedouins came back to set up new tents and huts, for the twenty-second time, and settle down to the daily routine of life without electricity or water or sewers - until the next destruction and the next expulsion and the next coming back.

Israel's official radio this morning interviewed Yuli Edelstein, Minister for Information and Diaspora Affairs. Minister Edelstein is currently in the U.S. He came in the company of a group of energetic young Israelis carefully selected to run around the American universities and speak out against the annual event called "Israeli Apartheid Week". "What dismal ignorance do we witness here about the real state of Israel, what lies and slanders are being spread about us!" sighed the minister on the air. "Can you imagine that American students did not even know or hear that there is such a thing as an Arab Israeli? Only from our journey this week did they hear it for the first time!"

In fact, these American students are not alone. Did the police officers who again and again every week destroy Al-Arakib ever hear of such a thing as Arab Israelis? Arab Israelis, citizens with completely equal rights in the country which until recently thought itself to be the only democracy in the Middle East? And the bulldozer drivers, did they ever hear of such a thing? And the top officials of the police and the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Authority, and the ministers who set the long-term policies, and the Prime Minister who is above the ministers? Which of them ever heard of it?

Mr. Minister of Information and the Diaspora, where are you? Can you not at least inform your fellow ministers about the existence of these equal citizens?

The Song of the Bulldozers

Pete Seeger is 92, and still going strong. The world-famous protest singer is still active, still writing and singing and being involved in various struggles, almost like in the great days of the struggle for Black's Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War.

Last year the Arava Institute asked Pete Seeger to co-sponsor the virtual rally which the Institute held under the title " With Earth and Each Other:  for a Better Middle East". As told by the organizers, the Arava Institute is a university-level academic program located at the Negev in the south of Israel, and which seeks "to address regional environmental challenges by bringing together Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and other future leaders to study the environment while building positive cooperative relationships that will lead to trans-boundary cooperation" 

There were those who called upon Seeger to boycott the Arava event, but he turned down this request. Indeed, he even used his international prestige to influence other artists to join.

That was last year. But recently Israeli activist Jeff Halper visited Pete Seeger at his home. Halper told that much of the funding for "The Arava Institute" comes from the Jewish National Fund, and also presented pictures and documentation on the creative ways in which the JNF bulldozer drivers educate the residents of Al-Arakib in "addressing regional environmental challenges" and "building positive trans-boundary cooperative relationships".

“I appeared on that virtual rally because for many years I’ve felt that people should talk with people they disagree with,” Seeger told Halper (and later, the media) . ”But it ended up looking like I supported the Jewish National Fund. I misunderstood the leaders of the Arava Institute because I didn’t realize to what degree the Jewish National Fund was supporting Arava."

After Pete Seeger's public outburst it is unlikely that his songs will be heard again in this country in the near future. We'll have to settle for repeated recitals of The Song of the Bulldozers.

Saturday – planting olive trees at Al-Arakib

As I sat down to write this blog, the following message landed in my box:

Saturday, March 12, 2011 - Solidarity Visit, Tree Planting and Protest Vigil at Al-Arakib. The Israel Land Administration demolished the village of  Al-Raqib for the 21st time this week. The Bulldozers of the Jewish National Fund are currently completely razing the village and flattening its lands, preparing it for artificial forestations meant solely to deprive the Bedouin residents of Al-Araqib of their land. Thousands of olive trees which have been cultivated by the villagers were uprooted. This Saturday we will replant some of these trees, as a sign for the return of  the people of Al-Araqib to their lands.

Transportation from Tel Aviv: 10:00 AM – Arolzerov St. Railway Station, next to SIxt Parking Lot. (Details and registration: Yaacov: 050-5733276, 09-7670801 or Michal 052-6886867,  

Transportation from Jerusalem: Dolev  054-8184467,