Monday, September 19, 2011

A century-old warning

A few days ago I found lying in the street near my home an old book – the collected writings of Micha Joseph Berdichevsky, a Zionist writer, poet and commentator who was born in 1865 and died in 1921. Once his name was well known, but now he is almost forgotten and even most of those who live on Berdichevsky Street in Tel Aviv have no clear idea for whom their street was named. I opened the yellowing pages and found an article written in the aftermath of the  Seventh Zionist Congress, held at Basel in 1907. Much of it seems as if it was written just now. (Emphasis in the original). .

(...) We heard a thorough discussion about the Arab movement and of the Arab people. Eretz Yisrael is no virgin soil, but a land inhabited by a nation which works the land and which has rights over their land ... The writer A. Hermoni, a native of Eretz Yisrael, spoke of the Arab movement in his articles published in "Hashiloah". Even more explicit was what we heard from another resident of Eretz Yisrael, the teacher Yitzhak Epstein, who during the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel set out before us this major issue, the issue of the attitude of the Sons of Israel coming to settle in the Land of Israel towards the Arabs ...

"The Hidden Question" was how the speaker spoke of it. The fact that such a fundamental issue could have been ignored and kept out of mind, that after thirty years of settlement work it could be spoken of as a new subject for investigation, is a sad proof of the lighthearted attitude prevalent in our movement.

"Ever since our national movement emerged,  said this speaker, the activists ceaselessly discussed and debated about the situation of the the country and its laws and so on. But one thing we have forgotten to discuss: we have forgotten that in the country we love there is an entire other people, which has been holding to it for centuries, and which never had any intention of letting go of it".

And he goes on to tell us of this living people as "a people with a sensitive heart and a loving soul", which is bound to its his homeland by strong bonds and that "It is to be conjectured that many of them are descended from the scattered and refugee members of our own people, who had become assimilated among other peoples during times of persecution and destruction", and share this blood relation. "The Arabs are a prime example of peasants who work their fields devotedly and water them with the sweat of their brow. In physical development, the Arab is the superior of all European".

"It is high time to get rid of the wrong idea, which has become widespread among Zionists, that in Eretz Israel there is soil which remains uncultivated due to the lack of working hands. There are no empty fields. On the contrary, each fellah is striving to add to his plot whatever uncultivated land is to be found nearby."."Well, when we come to take hold of the country, there immediately comes up the question: What would do the peasants, whose fields we will purchase? – Where will the dispossessed turn? – True, sometimes the Hebrew colony provides him with some work. However – first, we can’t oblige ourselves to permanently provide him a job, and secondly, by so doing we only make the situation worse. For when the fellah is provided with a job in the colony founded on his land, he is also provided with the ability to retain contact with the land which nourished him from birth, and he will continue to regard it as his own domain which had been temporarily stolen by strangers…" 

The speaker added: "Even supposing that in the land of our ancestors we are not obliged to care for others and that we have the right – or even a duty incumbent upon us – to obtain whatever parcels of land become available. But can this behavior really persist? Would these dispossessed keep silent and accept passively what was done to them? Is it not clear that they would at least rise up to regain by the fist what was taken away from them by  gold!  Will they not seek to settle accounts with the foreigners who expelled them from their land. - and who knows, would they not then become prosecutors and judges rolled into one... After all, they are brave people, all of them armed, skilled shooters, excellent riders, zealous for their nation and especially their religion. And this people is but a small part of a great nation, holding all the environments of our country: Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt"..
"We must not disregard the rights of these people" he cried out. "Most especially, we must not resort to the evil of those who rob their brothers. Do we trust that the ashes will always cover  the flames? Let one spark escape – and a conflagration will arise which could not be extinguished!"

Is Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel in September 2011, truly unable to see what  Micha Joseph Berdichevsky  described so clearly a hundred years ago?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Village of Aqaba, the bulldozers and Netanyahu's truth

Sample protest letter in the end
Last Thursday morning it happened again. As on many previous occasions over the past decades, a large force of the Israeli Defense Forces arrived at a small village called Aqaba, on the northeast corner of the West Bank. Soldiers mounted on jeeps sped along the village's main (and only) street, followed by three bulldozers. Three houses were razed to the ground, and twenty people (out of a bit more than the village's three hundred) were thrown into the street. The bulldozers also destroyed and thoroughly ploughed the access road to the village, about a kilometer and half long and known by the inhabitants as "The Peace Road", and then blocked it by large piles of dirt and debris. Also another kilometer-long road, used by villagers, was similarly destroyed and blocked.

The soldiers were accompanied by a man called Asher Tzur, an officer in the Civil Administration maintained by the State of Israel on the West Bank - a man who already for many years has taken it as his personal mission to act as the nemesis of the Akaba villagers, constantly issuing demolition orders and taking care that they would be implementated. Villagers standing near the active bulldozers could see a big smile on his face, and later he got on a bulldozer, and asked a soldier to take his photo. And then he left the village with soldiers and bulldozers - until next time.

Not for the first time, Haj Sami Sadeq, Mayor of Village of Aqaba asked me: "Why are they doing this to us? What did we do to them?" Haj Sami is wheelchair-bound since being, early in his life, shot in the back during training with live ammunition held by IDF forces in the village. "I personally, all our village people, have suffered very much from the Israeli occupation, but we do not harbor hatred in our hearts. There were never any acts of violence here. I went several times to speak in Europe and America and everywhere I told that all we want is to live in peace with the Israelis. Just leave us alone, to live our lives in our village, stop destroying our homes and roads ".
How to understand and how to explain that it's probably not a chance act nor the sadistic whim of one man, it's a policy that comes straight from above, straight from the government's decision makers. Not new policies or a new plan, but ultimately the same program which was initiated already in 1967 by a senior Israeli cabinet minister named Yigal Allon, who is long dead but whose "Alon Plan" is alive and well. According to this plan, the State of Israel must maintain permanent control over the Jordan Valley. And unfortunately for the village of Aqaba, it is located on the edge of that Valley. If  the authorities can manage to "get rid" of Aqaba, than the Jordan Valley area "free of Arabs" could be extended several kilometers further.  And so it came about that the bulldozers arrived again to make another effort at  implementing the Alon Plan. 

And by chance (and is it only by chance?) the bulldozers came to the village of Aqaba on the very day that Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his intention of going to the UN General Assembly next week and delivering an eloquent  speech setting out Netanyahu's truth and explaining why he calls upon the nations of the world to reject the Palestinians' bid to be free of the occupation and establish their independent state. From what was published so far, it seems that Netanyahu intends to speak at the UN about Israel's righteousness, its democratic society and its desire for peace. The name of the village of Aqaba would most probably not be mentioned in his speech on the UN podium.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu


Defense Minister Ehud Barak

Dear Sir

I wish to express my strong protest at the September 15 demolition of homes and roads in the small village of Aqaba, east of Tubas in the West Bank. It is an especially ominous sign so short before the  United Nations debate on  Palestinian statehood. The twenty people who were left homeless by your acts are no recommendation for your real intentions.

I can't understand what your government thinks to achieve by delivering such a blow to a small village whose inhabitants wish only to live in peace and be left alone.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bankruptcy of the bypass diplomacy

About a century ago the Zionist movement - established in order to settle in an ancestral land and establish a Jewish state - met with increasing resistance from the inhabitants, who also regarded  it as their ancestral country. Already then it occurred to the Zionist leaders that it might be possible to overcome this resistance by creating bypasses and finding allies across the region who would counter-balance and cancel the local Arab resistance in Mandatory Palestine.

The first to be assigned such was the Hashemite Dynasty, which during the First World War led the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule, and who later became Emirs of Transjordan, still later the Kings of Jordan.

Already in 1921 Chaim Weizmann - the future President of Israel – met with the Emir Feisal, founder of the dynasty, and got from him a statement rather sympathetic towards Zionism and its goals. The only problem was the Arab Palestinians, in whose country Zionism strove to establish the Jewish State, had not really authorized the Emir Feisal, nor his descendants, to make concessions on their behalf. And for decades the unofficial alliance with the Hashemites continued, and even when they found themselves at war in 1948 the secret contacts continued, and after the war the new State of Israel tacitly encouraged the Kingdom of Jordan to annex what is known since then as "The West Bank" and wipe the name of "Palestine" off the map. But it turned out that the Palestinians have not disappeared, were just swept under the carpet, emerging into the spotlight after another war in 1967. And after more struggles and intifadas "The Jordanian Option" (once Shimon Peres' favorite) was once and for all removed from the agenda.

But in the meantime there continued a feverish creative effort to find tortuous new diplomatic detours. In the fifties it was David Ben Gurion, Founding Father and first Prime Minister of Israel, who came up with what seemed a brilliant idea - "The Alliance of the Periphery", designed to bypass the entire Arab World and form a strategic alliance with the non-Arabs Muslim countries of the region, i.e. Iran to the east and Turkey to the north.

Indeed, for decades this covenant thrived. The Shah of Iran was a close and loyal ally to Israel, which among other things helped him to lay the groundwork for an ambitious nuclear research program in his country. And also the Shabak, Israel's security service, helped greatly in  establishing and building up the Shah's own Security Service, which became notorious under the name Savak (the similarity of names is perhaps not entirely coincidental). But it so happened that in 1979 the Shah fell and in Iran emerged a new regime, many of whose leaders were graduates of the torture chambers of the Savak, which did not increase their sympathy for the State of Israel.  (It also did not deter  them from establishing torture chambers of their own, but that's another issue...). And thus, Israel's close ally Iran became its bitter enemy – far more bitter, in fact, than countries which had never been Israel's allies.

Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey lasted longer, until quite recently – extensive military contacts, and flourishing bilateral trade, and tourism packages highly popular with less than affluent Israelis. But then came the dramatic chain of events of the past three years. There was the hearty visit of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara in December 2008, when he requested the help of Prime Minister Erdogan to mediate between Israel and Syria and neglected to mention that within three days he was about to embark upon massive bombings in Gaza in which over a thousand and three hundred Palestinians would be killed, and it happened that Erdogan took this rather personally. And then the incident of the Turkish Ambassador being made to sit on a low chair, the unique contribution of Foreign Minister Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon to Israeli relations with Turkey. And then of course the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza and the flotilla which was trying to break this blockade and the Israeli Naval Commandos who encountered resistance on board  the "Marmara" and overcame this resistance within minutes and then went further to the extent of confirming the kill of Turkish citizens by means of bullets shot point blank at their head.  And then many months of secret and public discussions and attempts to reach a compromise formula and the absolute refusal of the Government of Israel to utter the word "apology" and the scrupulous preservation of Israeli National Honor. And ultimately Israel remained with its National Honor intact and with a a strategic ally irrevocably lost, and now it is not longer a complete fantasy to envisage a naval battle in Gazan waters between the Israeli Navy gunboats and the Turkish warships which might escort the next Gaza-bound flotilla.

And meanwhile Egypt, and the wild crowds bursting into the Israeli embassy despite Egyptian security forces shooting dead three of their number. One should again go back - back to the days of euphoria in November 1977 and the courageous Egyptian President who abruptly landed in Israel and spoke in the Knesset and opened a horizon of hope and peace and sought to break and shatter the psychological walls separating the two peoples. And it must be mentioned that it was never the purpose or intent of Anwar a-Sadat to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel and leave the Palestinians to their fate. But certainly that was the precise intention of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, and he did achieve it, above and beyond all expectations. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt has become a part of reality, and in order to strengthen it was taken the decision that Egypt would receive annually two billion dollars from the U.S. taxpayer, with the generous assistance of the influential Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the negotiations conducted with regard to the Palestinians moved not a single inch, and dozens of new settlements mushroomed throughout the Occupied territories, and the IDF invaded Lebanon and bombed and killed thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, and Israel's allies carried out the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, and then came the time of the intifada and the daily killing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And throughout all this the peace with Egypt remained steady, and the Egyptian Army remained camped on the other side of the Suez Canal and the IDF could safely transfer forces to other fronts. But the spirit of peace between Israel and Egypt was murdered with every IDF bullet  and bomb, with every house built in a settlement, and the psychological walls which Sadat had sought to break down rose up again, higher than ever. And the bitterness and hatred accumulated, and already for many years Israel-Egypt peace was considered a Cold Peace, cold as ice, and some called it a Cold War. All that was needed was a revolution to topple the dictatorial regime in Egypt in order to blow the lid off the bubbling pot. And another diplomatic bypass road designed to avoid dealing with the Palestinians seems to have come to its end.

Only once in its history did the State of Israel seriously try to stop circumventing the real problem, to come face to face with the Palestinians – its closest neighbors, co-inhabitants of the land where the founders of Zionism chose to create the state of the Jews. In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Yasser Arafat, Head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and they shook hands and signed an agreement under which the State of Palestine should have come into being by May 1999. And as one of the results, the long-established relations between the State of Israel and the Jordanian Hashemites could come out of the closet and become an official peace treaty, and the possibility was opened of peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world, an official peace initiative adopted by the Arab League - not a peace leaving the Palestinians behind, but the fitting and rational complementary to a peace between Israel and Palestine.

What would have happened if the assassin's three bullets had not been  fired behind the Tel Aviv Town Hall on November 4, 1995? Had Yitzhak Rabin remained alive, and remained Prime Minister for another term, would he have completed what he started? That we will never know for sure. In history as it actually happened, Rabin was assassinated, and management of what was still called "the peace process" fell into the hands of Binyamin Netanyahu, and the devastation left by Netanyahu was completed by Ehud Barak proposing "generous offers" which were not that generous, and the bloody wilderness through which Israel was led by Sharon and Olmert and Netanyahu again.

So, on this day, the tenth of September of 2011, the State of Israel is at the brink of a moment of truth which had been avoided for years and decades: the bankruptcy of bypass diplomacy, the end of the  Turkish bypass as well as the Egyptian one - and in ten days, facing at the UN the Palestinians' firm demand for an independent state based on the 1967 borders, a demand which for Palestinians is the very bare minimum as it effectively entails accepting the finality of what they lost in 1948.

Apparently, this is the last possibility for Israel to gain recognition and acceptance as a legitimate part of the region in which the Zionist founders chose to establish it. As it now seems, the Government of Israel is about to reject that possibility furiously and out of hand, to respond with physical violence on the ground and diplomatic violence at the UN. A complete reliance on the largest and only remaining detour, Capitol Hill and the rule of AIPAC in American politics. The State of Israel would live by the sword, holding to the mantle of a sinking empire - wagering its entire future on the willingness and ability of the United States to maintain a pariah, isolated enclave in the heart of the turbulent Middle East.

Will the Palestinians be able to influence the international diplomatic arena by conducting a determined mass struggle in the Occupied Territories, without being drawn into the kind of violence which would take away the sympathy of the world? Would the International Community be able to force the State of Israel to turn to a sane path, even without the participation of the US? Would the United States be able to shake off the stranglehold of the Government of Israeli on its internal politics? Could the young people of Israel, who in the past two months waged such an  impressive and encouraging struggle in the past two months, turn their energies also to an issue which so far they have carefully avoided? I wish I could see a convincing reason to end this article on an optimistic note.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Those ungrateful Palestinians

Yesterday was celebrated throughout the Muslim world – including the Palestinian Occupied Territories – the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. And with the end of this month there also came to their end the special Ramadan easing of restrictions which the state of Israel and its armed forces granted the Palestinian population on the occasion of Ramadan.

Exactly a month ago, General Eitan Dangot, Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, met with the representatives of the Palestinian Authority, so as to inform them of the special favors which Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz has seen fit to recommend for them and which Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has seen fit to approve. These measures were undertaken as part of the policies intended on improving the way of life for Palestinians in the Judea and Samaria region.

As at the time reported proudly on the Israel Defense Forces blog, it was decreed that no less than 200 Palestinians be allowed to travel abroad via Ben Gurion Airport; that during Ramadan the Beit Mishpat crossing to Ramallah be open to Palestinian traffic, as would be Gate 107 near Qalqiliya; and that during Ramadan, trucks carrying supplies will be able to travel freely between the Judea and Samaria Region and the Jordan Valley. Also, in a most generous good will gesture, it was decreed that for the duration of the Ramadan period, no less than 2,000 Palestinians be able to pray at Temple Mount during weekdays.  As for Fridays, it was decided that Palestinian residents of the Judea and Samaria Region and who are men aged over 50 and women aged over 45 would be able to enter the Temple Mount for prayer without any restrictions. For men married with children who are over the age of 45 and women married with children who are over the age of 30 it would be more complicated, they would have the option of asking for a special prayer permit and if granted it would be allowed to pray in Jerusalem. And as for men younger than 45 and women younger than 30, they would just have to wait some years for implementation of Israel's famed policy of free religious  worship in Jerusalem, for which Netanyahu got such a wonderful standing ovation on Capitol Hill…

But now Ramadan has ended and the time of leniency with it, and now the checkpoints and gates will close down, and there will be no further prayer permits, and no further trucks with supplies sent to the Jordan Valley.

At the end of this month, the Palestinians will go to the UN - as well as holding mass demonstrations on the ground. They intend to express, in a clear and unequivocal way, that they are not content with an easing of restrictions which an Israeli Chief of Staff graciously recommends and an Israeli Defense Minister graciously approves. At the end of this month, the Palestinians will demand at the UN - and on the ground - to be a free people and live in their own independent state. A state in whose territory there will be no checkpoint or gate manned by Israeli soldiers, with the Jordan Valley part of its sovereign territory to which Palestinians would be able to send trucks of goods at any time of the year, and also the mosques in East Jerusalem would be part of its territory where Palestinians of all ages could pray without needing anyone's permission, and their state would also have an international airport from where all Palestinians could take off to wherever they choose as of right. In short, the Chief of Staff of Israel's armed forces would no longer have anything to do with improving the way of life for Palestinians in the Judea and Samaria region, but rather this issue would be given over exclusively to the government of their own sovereign state.

And how would the Israeli Defense Forces respond to the audacity of Palestinians who are not satisfied with the easing of restrictions granted to them by the army? According to news published daily in the papers, the soldiers are intensively training in order to respond to that threat. Two weeks ago a Ma'ariv correspondent was present during one of these exercises, held  in the Nablus area, where the commander told him "We practiced using non-lethal weapons, but still in the scenario of our exercise three demonstrators were already killed". Later, the army started providing weapons to the settlers, who were authorized to use them in case of a crowd of Palestinian demonstrators crossing a "red line" which was demarked around each of the settlements. And dogs are also to be used by settlers against the threat of Palestinian demonstrators - on TV the head of the Judea and Samaria Dog Handlers Unit reiterated that "A dog is an excellent biological weapon."
Meanwhile, the new school year opened  throughout the State of Israel (and also in the settlements the state of Israel maintains in the Occupied Territories). On this occasion Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that  the educational system would continue to focus on instilling the values of Zionism and Jewish Heritage and inoculate discipline. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar added that he would strive to instill love of the Homeland, and even in kindergarten kids must learn to salute the national flag, and the dogs of course…