Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An order on which a black flag flies

"In my government there will not be a minister who supports soldiers'  refusal of orders" declared Prime Minister Netanyahu at the beginning of this week, and his words got banner headlines in the papers. It has been long since the last time that soldiers' refusal got to the focus of public attention in this country. And all due to Naftali Bennett.

A few weeks ago I took a long ride in a taxi, and in talking with the driver I found out he was among the first of the Israeli military refusers. In the early 1970's, when the West Bank military government and settlement movement were brand new, he was called up for reserve duty in the city of Hebron, was ordered to accompany Rabbi Moshe Levinger in the streets of Hebron and refused to obey and got sent to a military prison. At the time, this kind of act was not published and did not get into the media at all. "I'm not a political person. It is just that this Levinger is a bastard. He was going around in Hebron marketplace and overturn the Arab vendors' stalls. I told my commanding officer that I did not join the army to help bastards like that."

In the early years of the occupation, refusers were few and isolated. The poet Yitzhak Laor spent time behind bars at the beginning of his literary career, and Giora Neumann was repeatedly jailed and graffiti calling for his release remained for many years afterwards on the streets of Tel Aviv. The organized refusal movement, began in June 1982 when Defense Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Peace for Galilee which became the First Lebanon War and later became known as the War of Deception.

It was the time when soldiers heard their Prime Minister Menachem Begin stating on the Knesset floor that the army will not go deeper than forty kilometers into Lebanon and looked at the map and saw that they were already on the outskirts of Beirut, at least a hundred kilometers from the Israeli border. And they sung "Go to Lebanon/Fight for Sharon/Return in a coffin"(in Hebrew it rhymes).  And a few months later they were ordered to shoot flares over the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and then found that they had illuminated the path of those who indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of men and women, elderly and children.

Sharon's followers dismissed it as "Just Arabs massacring Arabs", but resentment and disgust of the war grew ever higher. Thousands signed a petition declaring their refusal to go to Lebanon, entitled "Yesh Gvul" – translated as both "There is a Border" and "There is a Limit". It was in 1984 that I went to the  military prison for the first time, when I refused to take part in escorting  supply convoys to the military outposts established throughout South Lebanon.

In December 1987 the Palestinians revolted and demanded to have the right which Israelis long enjoyed, the right to be a free people in their own country. It was just as the occupation became twenty years old, and at the time it seemed that twenty years was a long time, even that it was too long. There were Israelis who considered the Palestinians right in their aspiration to be free, Israelis who could not wholeheartedly take part in the army's operations aimed at suppressing the Palestinians and keeping them under occupation. Again, thousands signed the re-launched and extended Yesh Gvul refusal petition, and some spent time in prison instead of going into battle against the stone throwing youths.

In April 1988 I was doing a term of military reserve service and on the evening news I heard of soldiers forcing a Palestinian passer-by to climb an electricity pole and with his bare hands remove the Palestinian flag flown on it, whereupon he was electrocuted and died. On that night I went through the camp where I served and I wrote on 117 tanks, trucks and forklifts the following words: "Soldiers of the IDF, refuse to be occupiers and oppressors! Refused to serve in the Occupied Territories!".

After I was apprehended by Military Police Investigative Arm, the Southern Command Court Martial sent me to three months' imprisonment and also demoted me from corporal to private. And after another round of confrontation with the military authorities and a hunger strike in prison I was taken to a military psychiatrist who prescribed a psychiatric discharge from service. At that time I wrote a letter to the Army Chief of Staff: "If, in the army under your command, my conscience is considered to be madness, than I'm proud to be crazy."

In 2002 my son Uri got to the age of eighteen at the height of the Second intifada, and took the decision to refuse to join an army of occupation. I accompanied him during six months that he went in and out and in and out of the military prison, again and yet again, until a military committee declared him "unfit for military service" (which he is). He was lucky - five of his fellow refusers ended up facing a court martial and spending more than two years in prison. Among them was Hagai Matar who later became known as a journalist and intrepid anti-occupation activist, most recently  also heading a workers' union.

This was also when the Courage to Refuse movement flourished, a special breed of Zionists who demonstrated with large banners stating "Refusal of the Occupation is Zionism." And there was David Zonshein, the paratrooper officer who specifically wanted and indeed demanded of military authorities to court martial him for his refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories, which would have ended with his being sent for years behind bars - and, oddly, the army high command vehemently refused to take up the challenge.

A year later came the Pilots' Letter, whose signatories announced that they would refuse to bomb Palestinian cities. They did not yet know that in January 2009  other Israeli pilots, of a bit less sensitive conscience, would go out to bomb Gaza and manage to kill 1300 people in three weeks.

Altogether, during the forty-five years of the Israeli occupation over the Palestinians, there were thousands of refusers and objectors – conscripts  and reservists, young people at the start of their adult life and family men in their forties, and in the past decade also quite a lot of women. Many of them spent time behind bars, at Military Prison 4 and Military Prison 6 and Women's Prison 400. The latest is Nathan Blanc of Haifa, who had so far three times gotten the order to join the occupation army and three times refused and was three times sent to prison where he is incarcerated at this moment.

Naftali Bennett was certainly not among these refusers, neither among the early ones not among the latter. An occupation lasting forty-five years did not bother him at all, and he remained unmoved by the ongoing oppression of millions of disenfranchised people. And quite certainly he did not mind that the Israel Defence Forces became more and more The Settler Defense Forces, an army whose primary role is to take over the land, pass it on to settlers and to protect and maintain tight guard over the settlers as they take firm control of the land.

All this was, in fact, quite to Naftali Bennett's liking. He had joined the army, and served in the ranks of Sayeret Matkal and other elite units (and definitely was not among the Sayeret Matkal refusers of 2003) and reached the rank of major, and then went into high tech and took up a position in Netanyahu's bureau until they broke in an angry row. Then he took charge of the settlers' Judea and Samaria Council and struggled mightily against the construction freeze in the settlements and for their expansion and deepening without limit and without restraint. He also came up with a sophisticated ,plan for perpetuating the occupation and annexation of the settlements and all lands around them and thus confining Palestinians in tiny enclaves which would be "autonomous under supervision of the IDF and the Israeli Security Services" (in South Africa they used to call  it "Bantustans"). And in recent months Naftali Bennett managed to take over an old and rotten political party and make it seem brand new and fresh and attract the right-wing voters and pose a tangible electoral threat to the Likud Party of his former friend Binyamin Netanyahu.

But still, a refuser? His words on TV echoed throughout the country in the past week. If Major (res.) Bennett is ordered to evacuate settlers, he will regard that as an order on which a black flag flies. He would not be able to carry out such an order, he would ask his superior officer for a personal exemption from doing it, if no option presents itself he would also go to prison. After the big furor which followed, he half retracted his words, at least partially, and asked it to be clear that what he had said had been a cri de coeur, truly from the very depth of his heart.

A cri de coeur? Quite possibly it truly is such . One may grant that indeed in Naftali Bennet's eyes the settlements are dear and precious and downright sacred, and the idea of evacuating settlers arouses in him horror and repugnance, and that for him this a genuine issue of conscience.

Still, all that a politician says and does is liable to be suspected of having political motives. All the more so with what a politician says at a very hot moment of an elections campaign. And Naftali Bennett certainly has a political interest in flirting with refusal and insubordination. First of all, according to recent polls this seems to helps him capture the hearts of voters in his segment of the political spectrum, towards the January general elections. In the longer term, there might be a consideration of creating a kind of deterrence.

Bennett belongs to and represents a sector of the Israeli society which in recent years is taking an increasingly  prominent place in the army, among both conscripts and reservists as well as in the officer corps, over and above their proportion in the general Israeli citizen body. For an obvious reason: they are the only sector that truly identifies, ideologically and emotionally, with the role that the army plays vis-s-vis the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

What if at some future time this military is asked to play a quite different role, under a different government pursuing a different policy? What if there would be on the agenda such issues as ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state and evacuation of the settlements? Would  observant soldiers and officers,   placed in key positions, in great numbers  take Naftali Bennett's road, declaring "It is not that I'm refusing, I just cannot do it, this is really a cri de coeur from the depth of my heart"?

And then, what? Should consideration and respect for people's acts of conscience be extended also to the conscience and sincere faith of the settlers and their supporters? And if so, how could an Israeli  government ever take the way of peace – either from its own free choice or out of  recognizing the facts of life in the international arena in which the state of Israel must survive? Was an impassable barrier erected here?

Here, history might come to our aid. All of this had happened before. France ruled Algeria for a hundred and twenty years, and sent hundreds of thousands of settlers to live there. The war which ended French rule in Algeria was harsh and bloody, more so than even the worst moments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. French settlers in Algeria were bitterly opposed  to a French evacaution, and fought with all their might for the preservation of  l'Algérie Francaise, and they had quite a few supporters within the ranks of the French Army. Moreover, there were more than a million settlers. Even without any refusal of orders, had soldiers and officers been required to physically grab each and every settler and drag them on board a ship sailing off to France, the entire French Army would not have been equal to the task.

French President Charles de-Gaulle, the man who got France out of Algeria, did not dream of such foolishness. In 1962 he signed the agreement which ended French rule in Algeria. This agreement stipulated that French settlers were free to choose whether to return to France or remain in independent Algeria. In the second case they could choose between French citizenship, Algerian citizenship or dual citizenship. In practice, almost all of them chose to evacuate, getting by their own power on the ships leaving the coast of Algeria.

If ever an Israeli government takes the path of peace - either from its own free choice or out of  recognizing the facts of life in the international arena in which the state of Israel must survive – it can be assumed that it will do so using the De Gaulle Method. The settlers will receive in good time a notification of the date for the evacuation of the Israeli military and the enactment of full Palestinian control and sovereignty. They will be able to decide freely on their future, each in his or her own way. Those who wish could remain in Palestine and establish there a Jewish community. Those who prefer to leave together with the army will get free of charge furniture removal trucks to transport their belongings. No soldier or officer will get the repugnant order to go in and drag them off by force.

Naftali Bennett and his fellows will not be faced with the difficult dilemma. They will not have to ask for a personal or a group exemption, nor face the possibility of refusing to obey an order. Will that satisfy them? That is far from sure.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Who has shot and who has there fallen

Mount Gilboa is darkened
A horse gallops from shadow to shadow.
A screaming voice cries high
From the fields of the Jezreel Valley.
Who has shot and who has there fallen
Between Beit Alpha and Nahalal?

What, what of the night?
Silence over Jezreel
Sleep, Valley, land of glorious beauty
We stand guard over you.

Who has shot and who has there fallen? Nathan Alterman, who wrote these words, left the question open and unanswered. He wrote it in 1934, as a young man making his first steps as a poet. Most of us were not yet born then, and the very old among us were children. The State of Israel was not yet created, and the Israel Defense Forces not yet been established, but the war in which we are involved today was already going on.

Just a year ago, December 9, 2011 there was not much doubt as to who shot and who fell at the village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah in the West Bank. Like every Friday, villagers along with Israeli and international activists had embarked on a protest march towards the fresh water spring which the villagers had used until in 2009 it was taken over by settlers from the nearby settlement of Halamish. As always, their way was blocked by soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces, and as always there soon developed a confrontation in which soldiers fired tear gas and Palestinians threw stones, and as always it was difficult even for eye-witnesses to determine with any precision "who had started it".

But on this Friday something unusual did happen there, a bit different from the normal weekly routine. A soldier fired a gas grenade at close range directly to the head of a protestor. Firing tear gas grenades at close range can be lethal and therefore military orders explicitly prohibit to shoot like that. Indeed, this time the shooting was fatal.

The photographers who were present took photos of Mustafa Tamimi in real time, just after being hit, lying on the ground in a pool of blood. A gut-wrenching photo, and there is an ongoing debate on whether or not it should have been published.

But who had aimed and shot him at close range, directly to the head? Actually, this should not have been so much of a mystery, either. Photographer Haim Schwarzenberg documented the shooter at the very moment of shooting. His name and rank and all the details are well known to the IDF, but the military censor does not permit their publication. (A few days ago I saw a facebook page where the hidden name was published, but that page no longer exists. Someone had taken care to  remove it.  But searching in websites which are not based in Israel and not subject to Israeli censorship might still turn it up.)

It so happened that all this took place exactly on International Human Rights Day, when thousands of activists marched through the streets of Tel Aviv to mark this date. The soldiers probably never heard of such a day. What the anonymous shooter should have known is what are the military orders which he was violating.

The Military authorities, who do know this unknown soldier's identity, were supposed to interrogate and prosecute him. If not for murder or manslaughter, at least on a lesser charge such as a breach of military orders, or an improper use of firearms, or conduct unbecoming. At the very least, an offense which carries a sentence of a few months' suspended imprisonment. To date, nothing of this happened. The B'Tselem Human Rights group approached the Military Prosecution several times, and each time got the same answer: "The investigation is still underway."

A week ago, with Human Rights Day coming around again, a group of activists tried, maybe a bit naively, to arouse the conscience of Israeli society. Under the title "Who Killed Mustafa Tamimi?" they campaigned online and on Facebook and distributed leaflets in the streets and explicitly mentioned the name of the unknown shooter and also the names of those above him in the chain of command up to and including the Army Chief of Staff and the record each one of them has with regard to the killing of civilians. It is not always easy to get citizens of Israel to listen to messages of this kind (more on that later).

The Israeli media were not really interested in the story of a Palestinian resident who was shot and killed precisely a year ago and a of a soldier who shot to kill in contravention of the military orders and was not even slightly punished.  Editorial offices where bombarded with press releases prepared by activists and Human Rights organizations alike, but not a single word on the printed page nor on the air waves.

The media had no space for such moral stuff.  It just didn’t fit. These days they were in the mood of asserting again and again that IDF soldiers are fleeing before Palestinian demonstrators, and that this is a disgrace and an insult to national honor.

What made headlines were soldiers complaining about the military orders forbidding them to shoot demonstrators. These orders, they said, are too strict and harsh. They are being sent to "fight with tied hands" and their commanders are restraining them out of fear and apprehension of the photographers present at the arenas of clashes with Palestinian protesters and of the images which these photographers distribute worldwide. One soldier who is a fan of American  comics compared the photos taken by these photographers to kryptonite, the green substance which is the single weak spot of the otherwise mighty superhero Superman.

"A soldier symbolizes the sovereignty of the state. Throwing stones at him is an injury to national honor. National honor is power, hitting it hurts the country's very spine. The photographers documenting these events and distribute them are gravely damaging the position and power of the IDF" stated Former Chief Army Rabbi Avichai Ronsky. For his part, the once liberal columnist Dan Margalit demanded that the Army Chief of Staff no longer allow soldiers to retreat from protestors, but rather instruct them to open fire "even if the photos would not be good for Israel's public relations."

The most unequivocal was Avigdor Lieberman, just two days before he was forced to resign as Foreign Minister because of the affair of his underhand dealings with the Ambassador to Belarus. The Foreign Minister stated that "The open-fire regulations by which the IDF operates in Judea and Samaria do not contribute to calming the area but further fan the flaming passions. It is unacceptable that Palestinians who attack IDF soldiers will get out alive."

Certainly, all this talk had an impact. The immediate result of several days'  passionate calls upon soldiers to open fire in order to save the national honor of the State of Israel could be seen in a banner on the front page of the mass circulation "Yediot Ahronot": "Border Guard Fighting Woman Liquidates  Terrorist in Hebron. " And under it the details in smaller characters: "A young Palestinian attacked the Border Guard position at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a woman fighter responded cool-headedly, fired three bullets and liquidated him, the army is apprehensive that the wave of incidents would deteriorate into a Third Intifada." And a photo of the fighter appeared, her face blurred, under the caption "The Border Guard Heroine".  (As is well known, the Border Guard is at the forefront of promoting women's equality and has already given several of them ample opportunity to take part in the daily maintenance of the  occupation and show that they can be just as tough and brutal as their male colleagues.)

Buried deep in the news item was the information that the weapon in the hands of the dangerous dead terrorist had been in fact no more than a toy pistol.  Was it true, as the Heroine of the Border Police claimed, that he made very threatening gestures with it and that she had acted swiftly in order to save the life of a fellow fighter from a perceived real danger? Or is the correct version that of his family, who said that he was a boy celebrating his 17th birthday and going out to buy a cake rather than attack soldiers or border guards? Perhaps he had simply taken the plastic pistol out of his pocket to get to his ID card.

Human Rights organizations sent researchers to Hebron, trying to locate reliable witnesses and crosscheck and get a real idea of what did happen there. But it is unlikely that the papers would publish the results of the inquiry – certainly not in a banner headline on the front page. Most citizens of Israel already know exactly what happened: a warrior heroine killed a terrorist bastard, three cheers.

And in this case, who has shot and who has there fallen? The one who fell was Muhammad Salim, killed on his 17th birthday (on this, at least, there is no disagreement). The one who shot was a Border Guard fighter whose name starts with an N', whose identity we might or might not find out once upon a time. In the near future, during the elections campaign for Israel's  Knesset, there is likely to be a lot of shooting and a lot of people falling, there in the territories under Israel's military government over the past forty-five and a half years. As all experts say, every shooting incident helps to focus public attention on security issues, which directly facilitates the elections campaign of Binyamin Netanyahu and his partner Avigdor Lieberman. But what if the Third Intifada will indeed break out? Sufficient unto the day, first of all the Nationalist Camp must win the elections and form the next government.

And who killed Mustafa Tamimi? Really, who is still interested in such ancient affairs from a year ago?


Michal Vexler is one of the activists attempting to arouse interest among the citizens of Israel in the death of Mustafa Tamimi - and in the fate of the Palestinians under occupation in general. With her permission I publish here her story

On the Refinement of the Soul
By Michal Vexler

Right after the Human Rights Parade I met a hippie who knew me from Facebook, at the organic falafel stall opposite the Rabin Square. Young, sweet and smiling, full of light and love. She jumped at me a stormy hug windy and shook hands excitedly. At the questioning look on my face she explained that we know each other from Facebook, and some group called "The Academy for Superheroes", a group full to bursting with positive energies, seeking to improve the world by expanding concentric circles – first the superhero himself and his inside, then the community and finally the whole world.

I asked her if she enjoyed the parade, and she said she had skirted around it since "All these angry demonstrations are just not the right thing". As far as she was concerned, the parade was "full of negative energies."

I shrugged and walked away, but I kept thinking about her reaction. Perhaps the large turnout in the parade made me optimistic, or I believe in the ability of superheroes to at least listen and use their brains and emotion. One way or another, I decided to return to the falafel and talk to her, try to explain why I and a lot of other people are angry and why it is legitimate to be angry.

I tried to tell her how a year ago, just at the time of last years' parade, there was man -  somebody whom I know, with whose family I was friendly – demonstrated a few meters from his home, in his own village and ...

She stopped me:
"I don't want to hear."

"... But ... a,"

" I don't want to hear. It is rude of you to force me to hear things which have nothing to do with my life."

"It IS your life. It is your country, your army!"

"But it really does not interest me. Stop it!"

Then I did something that I had not planned to do, and I slammed on the table the shot of the bloody mangled face of Mustafa Tamimi -
"Bon appetit"
And I went away.

It was a bad and violent thing to do, like giving this photo of horror to a small girl.

Hippies with a developed spiritual awareness such as this girl make enormous efforts to preserve the tranquility  of their minds – never get angry, positive thinking, searching everywhere only for the light and pushing  the darkness as far away as they can. The soul of that hippie thing was probably the most pure and immaculate thing in that spotlessly clean Falafel stall.

Until that moment I did not understand how the term "Refined Souls" (Yefey Nefesh) had become such a pejorative term, but now I'm beginning to understand: A Refined Soul is someone who hovers above us like an angel, not tainted by our hatred because her life is very protected and insulated. I hate her because her soul is refined while mine in injured. I must remember that I too might become a  Refined Soul , and that wallowing in the sweat and blood of others will not automatically make me immune of arrogance and insensitivity. I pray to the Jewish God – the vengeful and implacable and furious God: Give me the strength to live in the harsh world you have made, in it and not above it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Jurist’s and Ambassador's Dilemma

Such an event does not occur every day at the halls of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. A year and a half ago, the right-wing majority in the Knesset passed the "Boycott Law" which claims to be a law against boycotting Israel, but in fact defines boycotting of the settlements as a “boycott of Israel.” The net result is to prohibit Israeli citizens from calling for a boycott of products made in settlements, but does not prohibit any other boycott call. It is perfectly OK to call for a consumer boycott, or organize a boycott due to religious dietary laws or working conditions or vegetarianism and care for animals. Israeli law does not even have any ban on outright racist boycotts, specifically targeting members of an ethnic group. Boycotts of all kinds and types are allowed. The sole exception is when Israeli citizens call for a boycott of products originating in the settlements - settlements in Occupied Territory, created in violation of International Law with the declared aim of preventing the Palestinians from establishing a state. Making such a call exposes one to  heavy damage claims by settlers and their supporters.

Several appeals have been filed against this law. By Gush Shalom of which I am the spokesperson, by Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi, by the Civil Rights Association and Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and Coalition of Women for Peace and the the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, and many other organizations and individuals. The Supreme Court judges were not quick to pick up this hot potato. It took them a year and a half to set a preliminary hearing, which was held this week.

The petitioners' attorneys spoke out, one by one, telling the judges that this is a manifestly unconstitutional and anti-democratic law, seriously violating Israeli citizens' freedom of expression and of political organization. Then it was the turn of the Knesset's legal adviser, attorney Eyal Yinon, to face the judges, make a reply and defend the law enacted by his client, the Knesset of Israel. Only, there was one small hitch: Eyal Yinon himself opposes this piece of legislation, and like the petitioners he regards it as unconstitutional and anti-democratic.

"Before the bill was voted in, I spoke at length several times with the Knesset Members who initiated it. So did the other legal advisers, the Attorney General's representative the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry and the one for the Ministry of Trade and Industry. We all made them aware of how problematic the bill was, we did our best to make it fit into a proper constitutional frameworks. However, our opinions are not binding on the Members of the Knesset, they passed it into law by majority vote. The court here has the authority to overrule them, legal advisors do not [emphasis mine]."

And the bottom line: "In the meantime, I serve as the legal counsel of the Knesset. I am duty bound to represent the Knesset and defend to the best of my ability the binding resolutions  taken by the Knesset majority". The Legal Adviser's dilemma did notso much impress the three judges on the panel. "Actually, you were sent here without ammunition," remarked Justice Salim Joubran. Not that  Joubran himself and his colleagues seem in a hurry to render their decision on this loaded issue? Maybe next week, maybe only in a year or two. There is no obligatory time frame.

In Israel, 2012, more and more decent persons find themselves facing a dilemma. One  is left to wonder what was exactly said  inside closed rooms at the foreign ministries in London and Paris, Madrid and Moscow and Canberra and Stockholm and Copenhagen and Cairo and where not, when Israeli ambassadors were invited one by one to receive one sharp rebuke after another.

The Israeli ambassadors heard through the media, without any prior notice, of the decision to build near the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, in the area known as E-1, a large new settlements which will serve as a barrier to prevent the Palestinians' territorial contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank, and thus block their way to having a viable state.  There were in the media some echos of the annoyance felt by Israeli diplomats. They learned that this significant decision was not taken by the full Israeli cabinet, nor  by the Inner Cabinet nor even by The Nine who are the Inner-Inner Cabinet. In fact, it was taken by Netanyahu in an informal meeting with the Minister of Education and the Minister for  the Environment, who have no authority whatsoever to make such decisions but do happen to be Netanyahu's main supporters inside the Likud Party.

The Foreign Ministry sent a clear and unequivocal message to all ambassadors of Israel all over the world and instructed them to convey that precise message to their host governments: "We will continue to build wherever we want. The decision to expand construction beyond the Green Line will not be changed. Israel has built and will continue to build in Jerusalem, and in all places which are included in our map of strategic interests. Israel will insist upon its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure. The responsibility for the stalemate in the peace process rests with the Palestinians, and with them only". This text, too, the Ambassadors could read on the Israeli news websites before getting it by the formal diplomatic channels.

Did all Israeli ambassadors indeed convey this precise message to their English and French and the Danes and Swedes and other interlocutors all over the world? Or were some of them tempted to translate it into a language a bit more subtle and diplomatic? Or even add the tiniest hint of a personal disapproval?

Won't all this hurt Binyamin Netanyahu's electoral prospects next January? Probably not. At least, not as long as the strong reactions from world capitals are purely verbal. This the PM could well contain. He can even boast to his supporters and voters of how he ignores and defies all the pressures and continues (talking of)  building. It might even raise his standing in the polls. For the time being, he has no serious reason to worry. International pressure won’t cross the boundary of the merely verbal and escalate into measures which may have an impact on the Israeli economy and thereby on the personal economic situation of Netanyahu's voters. At least, not before  these elections…

Meanwhile, there was held in Tel Aviv the Human Rights Parade which has already become an annual tradition at the beginning of each December. Thousands of Israelis who feel no dilemma  about dissenting and outspokenly opposing the policies dictated by Netanyahu and Lieberman and their fellows. Thousands marched through the streets of Tel Aviv and chanted slogans and beat the drums and waved flags of all colors and signs in Hebrew and Arabic and English and Russian and some French and Amharic and Tigrinya, the languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea which share their own very distinctive script. Young and old, feminists, and slum neighborhood activists, and gays and lesbians, and Negev Bedouins in traditional clothing whose homes are destroyed every two weeks and are immediately built yet again, and black refugees living in the slums of south Tel Aviv under the shadow of the huge detention camps being built in the Negev to house them, and Tel Avivian lower middle class couples with their children and babies and dogs and signs retained from the great social protests of last year.

Three Anarchists, who are going out every week to take part in demonstrations at  West Bank villages and breathe tear gas together with Palestinian villagers, performed a remarkable kind of street theater. Their fellow activists bound their hands behind their backs with tight and painful plastic handcuffs, and blindfolded them with rolls of military flannel originally designed for cleaning guns, a realistic and completely accurate simulation of Palestinian detainees. The detainees who are every night taken out of their beds by the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces and handcuffed and blindfolded  and taken in for questioning under moderate physical pressure at the facilities of the General Security Service of Israel. Sometimes five per night and sometimes fifteen. Two weeks ago, precisely on the night after the ceasefire came into force in Gaza, there were fifty-five detainees on one night in a special operation under the supervision of the Commanding General Center in person.

In these detentions the media is not present, and if someone takes photos of the bound and blindfolded detainees it is a military photographer and the photos enter the military files and get a high security classification. The three handcuffed and blindfolded activists were spread for an hour in plain sight, on the tarmac of Ibn Gabirol Street at the very heart  of Tel Aviv. Thousands of demonstrators marching past them looked with shock at this presentation, and the press photographers converged and took dozens of photos of the three lying handcuffed  on the road. Also the police forensic team arrived and took photos, for the classified files at police headquarters…

Nathan Blanc of Haifa had not taken part in this demonstration. Nathan Blanc is already for several weeks in the military prison. Since the day set by the Israel Defense Forces for his call-up came by,  when he arrived at the recruitment base and announced to the recruiting officers his refusal to join an army whose main business is occupation and oppression. He was   immediately sent off to the military prison, and after a week and a half taken from the prison back to the recruitment base and again given the order to join the army and again refused and again sent to prison. From the experience of earlier refusers, he can expect to run that gauntlet many more times, over and over again ordered and refusing and imprisoned, many  short terms of detention which could altogether accumulate to quite a long time behind bars. But this is a typical example of a stubborn and recalcitrant person, who faces no dilemma in saying no.

Friday, November 30, 2012

From Hebron to East-Timor - and back

It looks already long ago, but the incident happened this month.  It was totally forgotten because of  the stormy events through which we went immediately after.

November 7, Israel Katz, Minister of Transportation in the Government of Israel, left his office in Jerusalem and under the protection of the Israeli Defense Forces went to the city of Hebron which is forty five years under the military rule of the State of Israel. Located in the heart of Hebron is an enclave of settlers, who are considered as rather   extremist even by other settlers, but with whom Katz has very cordial relations. Among other things, they promised him their support in the primary elections of the Likud party. At Hebron, Minister Israel Katz inaugurated a new highway, created for the exclusive use of settlers and linking their enclave at the heart of Hebron with the settlement of Kiryat Arba to the east.

Thirty million Shekels from the treasury of the State of Israel had been invested in the construction and upgrading of this highway. It was given a clear priority and precedence over other highways which are under the responsibility of the Minister of Transportation of the State of Israel, highways whose users do not command a solid block of voters in the Likud primaries and whose construction does not constitute a blatant political act. Yes, construction of this highway was not just a part of the humdrum daily routine of the Ministry of Transportation. Katz certainly admitted it – indeed, he was quite proud of the fact.

At the festive ceremony in the presence of all the settler leaders, Katz declared: "We are today giving a clear answer to Abu Mazen - Hebron is our home, that is not subject to talks". A few days earlier the Palestinian Authority President had been interviewed on Israeli TV and expressed views that quite a few people here considered particularly moderate (too moderate to the taste of  some Palestinians). Katz, full of humor and good cheer at the decisive counter-blow he was landing on
Abbas' peace offensive, recalled that the settlers' Hebron highway had originally been called "The Patriarchs' Highway", but to please the  Feminists the honorable minister insisted upon it being changed to "The Patriarchs' and Matriachs' Highway".

The settlers, in their publications, mentioned and noted with great satisfaction this ceremony in Hebron. The regular media did not really pay attention. As it happened, this was exactly the same time that Israeli soldiers penetrated into the Gaza Strip and entered into an exchange of fire with armed Palestinians during which a stray Israeli bullet hit the boy Hamid Abu Daka and killed him, setting in motion the cycle of retribution and counter-retribution and counter-counter-retribution, in which six Israelis and one hundred and fifty Palestinians got killed.

Fortunately for Katz and the other contenders in the Likud primaries, the indirect negotiations conducted between the government of Israel and the Hamas leadership in Cairo led to a ceasefire in time for the Likud primaries to be held. Polling stations were erected in the settlements, to give settlers the full opportunity to take part in the democratic process that would deeply affect the fate of the nearby Palestinians, and in which the Palestinians themselves were offered no part. And the settlers came in great masses to the polls and gave their generous support to all who had benefited them and who vowed to continue doing so in the future. Minister Israel Katz, like others of the settlers' friends and well-wishers, scored high on the list.

On the other hand, Minister Benny Begin was removed from the list of candidates, and will not be in the Knesset after the next elections. Not that he opposes settlements, God forbid. There is none to equal him in staunch support for the Greater Israel. But he did dare to assert that when settlers take over a plot of private Palestinian land in a manifestly illegal manner, and when the Supreme Court in Jerusalem orders them to vacate such a plot, it is incumbent upon them to obey the court's ruling. From now on, clearly, no Likud Knesset Member will dare to say any such thing.

It was not only Minister Katz who at Hebron gave a clear and very rude  answer to the peace offers which Abbas had put before the citizens of Israel. The entire Likud party - the ruling party of Israel which has a good chance of being the ruling party also after the January elections – repeated the same answer in its choice of parliamentary representatives. But Abu Mazen had at his disposal a response of his own to this answer, and last night this response was granted a large majority at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Last night - an exceptionally joyful demonstration in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the State of Israel was proclaimed sixty four years. One by one the speakers mounted the podium, new and veteran peace seekers. All praised the Family of Nations' recognition granted by a large majority to the State of Palestine in the 1967 borders. Sufian Abu Zaida, who came from Gaza, was received with thunderous applause. Red and green signs declared "Palestinian state - an Israeli interest", "67 is not just a number" and "Bibi, Say Yes!".

A week ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister  Lieberman still entertained the hope of forming a block of "The Moral Minority", composed  of Western democracies, which would staunchly oppose the Palestinian initiative. For after all, these countries had just given their backing to the glorious Cloud Pillar Operation, and they all repeated the mantra that the State of Israel has the right to self-defense and that no country would tolerate the firing of missiles at its cities. But it happens that those countries also back the Palestinian aspiration to establish an independent state, and consider that no people would tolerate living under occupation for forty-five years and having its lands  confiscated for the construction and expansion of settlements. It might even lead to the cautious conclusion that Palestinians, too, have some right of self-defense against this occupation. And thus, Israeli diplomacy  suffered an unprecedented defeat, and the European countries either openly supported the establishment of the State of Palestine, or abstained.

And really - what now? This morning, after a night of celebrations and fireworks in Ramallah, Palestinians got up to another day of occupation, of humiliation at roadblocks and settlements which continue to grow and expand. The State of Palestine is recognized by the UN, but is not to be seen on the ground. On the ground nothing has changed, as the Prime Minister of Israel declared this morning. (And in this, skeptical Palestinian agree with him – and proclaim that "Israel understands only force").

Is it, then, a meaningless statement? That is what Indonesia also thought, when the UN recognized a new nation called East Timor. For years after this resolution was taken, Indonesia contemptuously ignored it, and the Indonesian military ruled the territory of East Timor with terrible brutality. Yet today, and already for several years, East Timor is an independent and sovereign state, which was yesterday among  the supporters of establishing the State of Palestine. The same when the United Nations resolved to establish a country called Namibia in a territory which remained under South Africa's military rule for quite a few years after the United Nations adopted this resolution, and later when the  UN resolved to put an end to the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa itself. Only recently, the UN recognized a country called South Sudan, which after a harsh and cruel war became a solid reality. Experience shows that the UN is far from a sham, and that resolutions taken at the General Assembly in New York have a habit of eventually assuming a solid body on the ground (this is, it should be remembered, precisely how the state of Israel itself came into being…).

Meanwhile, today we witness an example of what settlers and their friends call "an appropriate Zionist response". No less than three thousand housing units to be built all over the settlements, the State of Israel under Netanyahu giving the finger to the entire world - to the delight of the newly elected Likud parliamentary candidates.

If the polls are right and the Likud Party will retain power after January next elections, it seems Binyamin Netanyahu will have no more fig leaves left. Ehud Barak will no longer be Defense Minister, and could no longer be sent out as acting Foreign Minister to places where Avigdor Lieberman is not welcome. In his next term, Netanyahu will have to face the world alone; no more real or supposed Liberals to hide behind. "Israel moved right, but the rest of the world moved to the left," wrote one commentator this morning.

So where are we headed? It seems towards a head-on collision, possibly a very big bang. It is certainly not going to be boring.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

After the ceasefire

I give here the floor to my wife Beate, who shared with me the week of war in the sometimes targeted Holon. The following was originally written in Dutch, as a blog for the EAJG site (Een Ander  Joods Geluid / A Different Jewish Voice).

A snake in the grass

The ceasefire brought about a very strange experience:  I agreed with the government.  And that  after a week of pent-up anger against  that same government.

To begin at the beginning:  For the umpteenth time skirmishes around the Gaza border had taken  their toll – with deaths on the Palestinian side, while Israelis suffered  damage, and hours of fear. But it seemed last Tuesday to be really over. Not only was such an  impression given by ministers. Also, the Israeli negotiator Amos Gil'ad went November 14  to Cairo to officially announce that Israel regards   this round to be over. If we hadn’t known it already, it was confirmed  today in the Ma'ariv newspaper that this had been a  deliberate deception. Thus, the Hamas General Ahmed al Ja'abri was seduced to the fatal car ride with  his son – al Ja’abri’s car was subsequently hit by an Israeli precision bomb . In his pocket, the proposal for a long-term ceasefire that had to be worked out in further negotiations. Unofficial negotiator Gershon Baskin, in ordinary life a peace activist, was furious and could no longer keep quiet.

Meanwhile we people of the region went through a thousand fears, counting  hundreds of dead and injured , and the cultural and economic heart Tel Aviv has become part of the Gaza shooting range – not to speak  of  the exploded bus hours before the ceasefire.

And now those same negotiations for a longer-term truce just pick up where they left off. No wonder that Israelis wonder what Israel actually won with its show of force. During the days of warfare you heard criticism against the government only from the handful of "peace-fanats"  to which I count myself. Now I tend to defend  the government against  those who claim that "we should have continued and should have torn Gaza   to pieces"  instead of  "allowing Hamas the victory". Hamas representatives also  saw themselves as the victors, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,  after a week of continuous day and night bombing , were in jubilation now that it was over  .

So, I am glad that Netanyahu & Co dared to interrupt the war euphoria, and this time not to exceed the limits of the American ally, and actually awarding a success  to Morsi, the new Egyptian Muslim Brothers president.  But I fear that there is a snake in the grass. It may lead to the Likud winning  votes in the "pragmatic center" while the ultra-right parties grow, in other words the right block will further gain strength. All that without Netanyahu sacrificing even an inch of  the occupied West Bank. And, maybe the new pragmatic Netanyahu would find it also easier to get Obama on his side for the absolutely ‘surgical and controlled’ attack on Iranian nuclear  targets. 

Beate Zilversmidt , Holon 22.11.12

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sirens and protests

The alarm sounded when we were at the corner of Frishman Street, twenty minutes before the demonstration against the war. The first alarm in central Tel Aviv. I was among those who ran to the nearest stairwell. There is only a small statistical chance the missile will fall exactly where you are. This morning two men and a woman in Kiryat Malachi sitting on their balcony thought they could ignore the sirens. They are dead.

But then, the civilians killed in Gaza:  the three children under the age of four whose photographs were spread widely on Facebook (but not in the Israeli media). Did they even get any warning? Had they any safe place to run to?

In the stairwell we heard a dull explosion, and the radio said it fell in an open area in the Bat Yam suburb. “Is there at all any open space among the crowded buildings of Bat Yam? "Maybe it fell in the cemetery”,  someone thought.

"Will the demonstration be held at all, in such a situation?" "Come on! One missile is not going to deter us who have decided to go against the current and demonstrate against the war. At worst, if there is another alarm, we will run with the signs to a safe place and return after five minutes." However, the new situation did affect my mother, who is 83 and needs a walker but with indefatigable fighting spirit. She had to give up her intention of coming to the demonstration, which considerably frustrated her.

At Dizengoff Square a group of young people were sitting on the benches and debated loudly. "No, I tell you again, you cannot eliminate them. We need another solution" we heard one persistent voice. It would have been interesting to continue listening but we were already late.

Already from a considerable distance it was possible to hear the voices,  resounding through the King George Street: "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies!" and "The people demand / stop shooting!" at the cadence of the Social Justice protests of last summer. Like a breath of fresh air after the ongoing undiluted war propaganda which fills the airwaves. Hundreds of demonstrators on the sidewalk opposite the Likud Party, incessantly chanting: "In Gaza and Sderot / children want to live", "Bibi Netanyahu resign / For the sake of the South", "War is the right-wing government's electoral spin", "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies","No no to war / Yes yes to peace","Arabs and Jews / Together against the war ","Give the funds/To slums and welfare/ Not to new wars"," No to the war of the tycoons ","The people demand / not to be occupiers"," Sderot and Gaza do not despair / we will end the occupation".

On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Likud building, stand  the right-wing counter-demonstrators. It is very hard to hear them. For a moment it was possible to make out that they were singing the National Anthem Hatikva and waving Israeli national flags. There are also some such flags on our side. A young man in a green shirt waves a big Blue and White flag while chanting "Stop shooting!". On the old tree in the middle of the road, which was here long before it was Tel Aviv, press photographers are hanging with cameras aimed both ways.

The Hadash Communist Knesset Members take the megaphone. "We are here, Jews and Arabs, to cry out: Stop the killing, stop the bloodshed! Netanyahu tries to stabilize his rule through war, Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis in Kiryat Malachi pay the price" said Mohammed Barake. Dov Hanin calls out: "War and a cycle of violence are not the solution, they are the problem. This war will not bring peace and quiet to residents of the South nor to the people of Gaza. The only way to break the vicious cycle is through dialogue." Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz was seen in the crowd, but did not speak. "It's better than last time, in 2009 it took Meretz more than a week to come out against the war" said one activist.

People from the south take the megaphone to the sound of prolonged applause. "We are sitting closed at home, hearing the launches and explosions from both sides passing over the roof. Those are our neighbors, five kilometers away. Who decided that they must be our enemies?" Says Ya'ala Ra'anan from Moshav Ein HaBsor, followed by Nir Hefetz of Kibbutz Nirim: "I heard the alarm here in Tel Aviv and before that at my home. My children went to their grandparents to get some rest. I want to say to the Netanyahu Government - stop playing with us, stop playing with our fate, stop conducting power games with us as playing chips!". And Emanuel Yariv of Beersheba: "We in the south are paying the price. It is time to stop this madness. The army has no solution, the only solution is negotiation and a political settlement." After each speaker the chanting arises again, "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies / refuse to be enemies / refuse to be enemies!"

All that was last night. And since then there had been a tense and quiet night (should we return to the routine of the 1991 Gulf War and sleep with clothes on, ready to jump and run to the stairwell?). And again  a missile was fired at Tel Aviv, and today also at Jerusalem, to the chagrin of Jerusalemites who thought that Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Muslim holy places gave them immunity.

The Israeli media reported at very great length the many missiles fired at the south which fortunately did not cause any more Israeli casualties today. Very little report of the Palestinians killed in Gaza (29 deaths so far). The injured Palestinians that fill the Shifa Hospital got no mention at all (about two hundred and fifty wounded). Tahrir Suleiman, aged 22, was this morning at her home in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli aircraft dropped a bomb and the house was destroyed. Palestinian rescue teams extracted five members of the family from the wreckage. Tahrir Suleiman died in hospital a few hours later, doctors continue treating the other four family members. If it were an Israeli family, all this would have gotten banner headlines in every newspaper in Israel with huge news stories full of pathos about the tragedy of this family. But she was a Palestinian, so those who get  their information from the Israeli media will never hear of her. And if by chance they do hear of it, the government has already explained that Hamas uses the civilian population as human shields, so of course they are to blame.

Meanwhile, the cabinet approves calling up 75,000 reservists. and soldiers interviewed on TV all sound very gung-ho and belligerent, waiting  impatiently for the moment they would plunge into street fighting in the alleys of Gaza. A representative sample? British Foreign Secretary warns that a Gaza ground invasion could bring an end to the European backing which Netanyahu so far enjoys. And what would Egyptian President Morsi do, who sent his Prime Minister to Gaza and made angry irritated statements but so far avoided irreversible damage to the peace agreement with Israel?

Meanwhile, on TV tonight former Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz spoke in a moderate and restrained tone, strongly urging caution in Gaza – very different indeed from the cocksure and arrogant presentation at the time he conducted the 2006 war in Lebanon.

The Combatants for Peace group is holding tomorrow afternoon a joint march and rally of Israelis and Palestinians, calling together for an end to  this murderous madness. The struggle continues.

(...) We, Israelis and Palestinians, oppose the use of violence as a means of resolving conflicts between nations, and see this as the main problem and obstacle on the way to ending the conflict. We share in the pain and grief of the bereaved families on both sides.

Tomorrow, Saturday Novermber 17, we will hold a joint protest event, where we will together call upon the leaders:

Stop shooting!

We will start with two marches, an Israeli an a Palestinian one, from two different points near Beit Jala (in the C Area of the West Bank) and meet at an agreed point for a joint protest rally and a call upon leaders to cease the fire immediately.


Buses will leave from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, according to the following schedule:

Departure from Tel Aviv Arlozorov St. Railway Station, adjacent to the "Shlomo Sixt" parking lot: 14:45
Departure from Jerusalem, Teddy Stadium, near the western tiers: 15:45

Start of the marches: 16:00
Converging of the marches and rally: 16:30
Approximate departure time for the return: 19:00


Monday, November 12, 2012

A country at war rarely spares a thought for the children of the enemy

A bit more than a week ago, people from communities in southern Israel wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak:

"We, members of 'The Other Voice' from the communities near the Gaza Strip, urge the Government of Israel to stop playing with our lives, and immediately open diplomatic contacts with the Hamas government! We are tired of being sitting ducks in a shooting range serving political interests. Missiles from there and bombing from here do not protect us. This country has tried long enough, over years, the games of war and of brute force. Both sides have paid, and are still paying, a high price of suffering and loss. It's time to talk and strive for long-term understandings which will enable citizens on both sides of the border to live a normal life".

'The Other Voice' is a group of residents of Sderot and Gaza Vicinity communities, who maintain an ongoing contact with residents of the Gaza Strip, and promote neighborly relations and dialogue, in the south and throughout the country.

At the time when this letter was written, there was no escalation cycle going on at the Gaza border, and the issue was not really in the headlines. But there was no need to be much of a prophet to realize that it would get back into the spotlight, sooner rather than later. Especially when you live in that area.

On Thursday last week, Gaza was still not in the news. The headlines dealt mainly with the results of the U.S. elections and their implications for Israeli politics. And a smaller news item told of the collapse of a shopping mall in Accra, capital of Ghana, and of many people being trapped in the rubble, and of the Israeli Defense Forces mounting quick and efficient mobilization to get a rescue mission on its way there within hours, and of three Ghanaians  saved by our soldiers from the rubble. Indeed, a model humanitarian act, which could well warm the heart of an Israeli citizen, fill it with joy and pride.

Gaza was not on the news last Thursday - but the Israeli Defense Forces are busy with Gaza every day, headlines or no headlines.  At the same time that the IDF rescue mission to Ghana went on the plane, Israeli tanks and bulldozers were crossing the Gaza Strip border fence into the Palestinian side, and above them flew helicopter gunships. There was a lot of shooting and counter-shooting and counter-counter-shooting, and during this shooting the bullets from an Israeli machine gun hit a piece of land east of Khan Younis, where boys were at that time playing football.

The machine gun of a tank, or one mounted on a helicopter? We will probably never know and it does not really matter. The important thing is that one of the bullets hit the head of a thirteen year old boy named Hamid Abu Daqqa, and a few hours later he died of his wounds in hospital.

The office of the IDF Spokesman told inquiring foreign journalists that the soldiers had not deliberately aimed their weapons at the boy. And indeed, It is not likely that any Israeli soldier would consciously and deliberately shoot a boy playing football. But still, the boy is dead and buried.

What did the citizens of Israel have to say about this tragic case? The truth is that most citizens of Israel had simply not heard about it at all. Their mass media forgot to tell them, news editors just did not really feel that a dead Arab boy was news. Then came the harsh surprise. On the day after the boy's funeral some Palestinian faction fired a missile at an IDF jeep which was going about its ordinary business of driving along on the patrol road. Four soldiers were wounded and taken to hospital, and full-page articles in the media described the incident in great detail and also provided medical bulletins on the condition of each one of the soldiers. As is right and proper in a country which cares greatly about soldiers who are sent into battle.

The IDF responded immediately and furiously to the wounding of the four soldiers, and in the massive artillery shelling were killed four civilians while sitting in a mourning tent on the east side of Gaza City, and whose families now are even deeper in mourning. This was reported in the Israeli media tersely and with little detail. Without mentioning, for example, that three of those killed were teenage boys. Certainly no editor in Israel considered it worthwhile to mention the 17-year old Mohammed Hararah, who was not hit by the first shell, but ran  to help the wounded when another Israeli shell landed and killed him instantly. That's not really news.

And yesterday there was already a heavy barrage of rockets falling down on the Israeli communities around Gaza and the air raid alarms sounded again and again, and residents ran for cover, and luckily no one was killed. In the media there was much furious talk about the intolerable situation in the communities of the South and of the children growing up in a terrible state of daily anxiety.   No one spoke of the conditions under which children grow up in Gaza, and of those who had the day before yesterday witnessed the death of their brothers.  Which is not surprising because a country at war rarely spares a thought for the children of the enemy. (Tomorrow night an activist group plans to meet in front of the Prime Minister and hold a candlelight vigil, holding signs with the names of the people killed in Gaza, the names which the media did not publish. It will probably not be popular.)

And this morning on the radio morning news bulletin there was a whole string of senior politicians from all the mainstream parties, and they all said that we must strike a painful blow and teach Hamas a lesson and destroy the terrorist infrastructure and more of the usual clichés. And Minister Avi Dichter, the ex-director of Shabak security service, made use of software terminology "reformat the Gaza Strip." But in the meantime, the same government also continues its intensive media campaign calling upon  Israeli citizens to convince their friends and acquaintances abroad to come as tourists to Israel. "Every tourist who comes here spends money, creates jobs and improves the image of Israel in the world," stated the special website opened by the Ministry of Tourism. Is this government going to start a big war  in Gaza? To fill the television screens around the world with images of blood and fire and pillars of smoke, and after the war, maybe have a new Goldstone Commission investigate and ask uncomfortable questions? Not so likely.

So what is going to happen? Probably the shooting will continue for some more days, and perhaps some people who are still now living and breathing will already lie in their graves. And then a shaky cease-fire will be set up and life will return to normal and Gaza will disappear from the news pages and we will go back into the confused hubbub of the elections campaign. Like in the previous round on the Gaza border and the one before and probably the next one, too.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Night of Hope

A few hours and many cups of coffee after a night which seemed like an eternity. The CNN non-stop on the screen and experts arguing  and maps with red and blue spots. Swing states and swing counties in the swing states. Instant lessons in the physical and human geography of Virginia and Florida and Ohio. Here the countryside always votes Republican and the big city there is a Democrat bastion and here live many Blacks and there the number of Hispanics increased in the past decade and in this location Bush won in 2004 but Obama did in 2008 and there might develop a big surprise. And in Florida it was 50% against 49% when a quarter of the votes were counted, and the same when half were counted and when it was three quarters, and suddenly the gap narrows and then widens again, and would Obama's advantage be maintained and when at last would the count be finished in the counties south of Miami, and how long can one stand this tension?

And in the end there was no need to wait for Florida because the die  was already cast in other places and the crowds were celebrating in the dark streets of Chicago while here in Holon in the State of Israel the light of the quiet early morning was already streaming through the window and this decision which was taken overseas will affect our destiny here, no less and perhaps more than our own Israeli elections come January. And on the screen Mitt Romney made a respectable speech and how good to spare him a moment of a generous victor's sympathy, and in another year we will hardly remember who he was. And how wonderful that Sheldon Adelson's hundreds of millions have all gone down the drain and that the Jewish pensioners in Central Florida were not really impressed with the special elections broadcasts recorded by Binyamin Netanyahu.

In a way the achievement of Barack Hussein Obama last night was greater than his achievement four years ago. Then, he was widely regarded as a savior, almost a Messiah, and was swept to power on enormous  waves of enthusiasm. Since then, he has many times disappointed those who voted for him and those who looked up to him. By now, everybody  knows he is no Messiah nor does he posses any magic wand, and that he certainly does not succeed in everything he tries. Yet at the crucial moment  the Blacks came out, and the Hispanics and the Jews and the women and the Ohio auto workers, and also quite a few of the maligned White Men, and they all gave him a chance to achieve in four more years, what he didn’t so far.

And also we here in Israel, who had no vote in these elections, we shared in the dashed hopes. The impressive speech in Cairo and the high-profile clashes with Netanyahu which somehow always ended indecisively, while the settlement freeze dissolved. And the grand confrontation in the summer of 2011, when Obama proposed negotiations based on the 1967 borders and Mahmoud Abbas agreed immediately and Netanyahu burst out in a furious attack in  Congress and got a standing ovation and Obama shelved all the ideas and plans until after the election. After the elections is today.

Yesterday "Yediot Ahronot" had a large headline: "Netanyahu fearful of an Obama victory". Below it was written: "Tension in Israel towards the US  elections. Due to Netanyahu's support for Romney, the PM's aides are apprehensive that Obama, if re-elected, might take vengeful steps. To the contrary, a Romney victory would put the wind in the Prime Minister's sails.   (...) Officials believe that Obama's anger against Netanyahu is so great that Obama would try - indirectly and perhaps also directly – to sabotage  Netanyahu's elections campaign in Israel. There is concern that during the [Israeli] campaign, Obama would voice public criticism of Netanyahu and embarrass him. In addition it is feared that Obama would stop providing automatic backing to Israel in international forums dealing with Israeli policy in the Territories. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a private conversation that in her opinion, after the Israeli elections there would  appear an opportunity to revive the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the Obama Administration will be deeply involved if the President wins a second term.

At noon today, Netanyahu sent Obama a letter of congratulations (what else could he have done?)

Last week I expressed the hope that it might be the American voters would make for the State of Israel the decision which our political system is evading for forty-five years already.  Not everyone who read it was enthusiastic about this passage. Some argued that I was spreading false hopes and that President Obama and his party would never seriously confront Netanyahu, neither in his first term nor in the second one.

It is quite possible such criticism would prove justified; that also this time, Obama would disappoint those who still cherish hopes, Israelis and Palestinians and others of good will who care about the future of this country and this region. It is quite possible. But it is also possible that he would surprise and astonish the sceptics, as yesterday he surprised and astonished the US Republicans and their Israeli supporters and the learned commentators who prematurely wrote him off.

At least, now we will get to check all this empirically.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A week of democracy

This year there was a fierce struggle over the character of the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin. Those who emerged with the upper hand, especially the youth movement identified with the Labor Party, decided to make a drastic change in the rally's content and agenda.

It was nineteen years ago that Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, shook the hand of Yasser Arafat, Head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A ceremony on the White House lawn aroused great hopes, which since then dashed again and again. Seventeen years ago to the day, on November 4, 1995, three shots sounded in a square at the heart of Tel Aviv and Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for that handshake.

Every year since then, tens of thousands are gathering in this same square to commemorate that murder. At such rallies, speakers used to talk of a life work which was cut off prematurely, and about the peace which was not concluded and the occupation which did not come to an end. Often, also, they pointed an accusing finger at the opponents of peace and supporters of the occupation, at later Prime Ministers who failed to follow through on what  Rabin had started. Quite naturally, there were those who felt they had no place in the Rabin memorial rallies – those who did not want this peace – not during Rabin's life nor after his death, those who do not want the occupation to ever end, and who  want the settlements to continue intact for generations to come.

This time, however, things would be different.

"This is not about the traditional division of Left and Right. There will come all who are united in demanding  that democratic decisions be respected. The memory of the Rabin murder will provide the impetus for creating a Jewish and democratic state, it will provide the motivation for struggle against all forms of racism, against any incitement to bloodshed (...). We believe and hope that focusing the rally on such fundamental issues, rather than on a wistful longing for the policies of Rabin, will in the long run facilitate the attendance of the rally by broader audiences. Anyone to whom Israeli democracy is precious would find it possible to attend - not just the specific and limited section of public which attended the rallies in the past years."

Among the crowd which gathered at the Rabin Square last Saturday night - about twenty to twenty-five thousand according to police estimates - it was difficult to find representatives of public currents other than those which had been there also in the past , those who come to demonstrate for peace and against the occupation and settlements.
But on the podium there were indeed several speakers of a kind not seen before in Rabin Memorials. For example Rabbi Avi Gisser, Rabbi of the settlement of Ofra.

Ofra was established in 1975, much of it on Palestinian private lands. The  settlement movement of the time, known as Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) considered its creation to be a major breakthrough.  Literally a breakthrough: settlers for the first time (but certainly not last) breaking into the heart of the densely populated Palestinian territory and establishing themselves there. Ofra is the informal capital of the ideological settlers, who believe that Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish People by virtue of Divine Promise and Historic Right. Many of their lay and spiritual leaders live there to this day.

Rabbi Gisser, coming from Ofra to the Rabin Square, knew that he was not on his home ground.  Indeed, when he got the podium there was an outburst of  boos and catcalls. One may credit Gisser for having taken care to prepare a speech fitting the circumstances and the expectations of those who invited him. "The Arabs are the children of Abraham, too. It is an absolute imperative upon us to love all who were created in God's image. We have absolutely nothing to do with those who preach hatred of human beings. The Torah which we Jews hold dear does not permit bloodshed. Anyone who denies that has no part in Torah of Israel."

It may well be that all that was said in complete honesty. That, indeed, Rabbi  Gisser is staunchly opposed to such books as "The King's Torah" which specify the circumstances when the killing of Gentiles would be permissible and even praiseworthy, to the rabbis who publish such books and to the ardent supporters who read them and go out of in the night to set on fire olive trees and mosques as well as churches and monasteries. But what of a political solution? What would be the fate and future of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule for 45 years already? What of the residents of Ramallah, the Palestinian city located about five miles southwest of Ofra which Gisser never visited? Are they part of the Israeli democracy for whose defence the rally was held? Well, Gisser and other speakers of a similar political coloration had agreed to speak at the Rabin Memorial Rally on condition that it would not "go into politics" and would not offer political solutions. "We must make sure that the debate on the future of the land does not tear society apart", he told his audience on the square. Perhaps this debate should be dropped altogether. Perhaps we should move on to other issues in the conduct of Israeli politics in general and the current elections campaign in particular?  Shelly Yechimovich, leader of the Labor Party who attended the rally though she did not speak from the podium, would certainly agree.

On the next day, the Knesset held a special session in memory of Rabin. Speaker Reuven Rivlin chose to open the discussion by emphasizing the ideological dispute between him and the late Rabin. "Rabin's political legacy was clear: to seek separation of the peoples by dividing the country and creating two separate entities. I disagreed with Rabin then and I still disagree with him today. I believe that the whole concept is erroneous. It is not applicable in the territory between the Jordan and the sea. It can be said that the idea of ​​separation has failed. Is has not gotten into the hearts of the two peoples." But if division and no two separate entities, what should there be instead? A single democratic state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan? Letting the Palestinians vote in the next Knesset elections, or those after the next? This question was asked by Knesset Members and newspaper columnists in the stormy debate which developed. Rivlin did not see fit to answer.

The Likud Party, Rivlin's party, does not much concern itself with the Palestinians and their rights and whether they would be given a vote in decisions which will determine their fate. Basically, anyway, the members of the Likud Conference themselves were not given much of a choice. The terms of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the his new-old partner Avigdor Lieberman were not presented to them, nor were they given the chance for a secret balloting on this agreement. And there was such overt pressure that quite a bit of courage was needed to vote against. A bit like the elections which Vladimir Putin held in Russia a few months ago, to which the partner Lieberman gave his stamp of approval, going especially to Moscow for the purpose...

On the day following, Monday, the spotlight shifted momentarily to Yair Lapid, the rising star of Israeli politics whose new party's name assures us that "There is a Future".  As the venue for talking about this future Lapid chose the  settlement of Ariel in the northern West Bank. The same settlement which got headlines when hundreds of Israeli actors and theater people announced their refusal to perform in its "Hall of Culture", asserting that there can be no real culture in an armed enclave at the heart of an Occupied Territory. Only recently Ariel was at the focus of a new dispute, about whether the college in this settlement should be upgraded to a full university and get enormous budgets and resources.  As he clearly showed Yair Lapid  opposes the boycott of Ariel. In general, he "does not know any map in which Ariel does not belong to the State of Israel." The same with the Ma'ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlements to the south. And not to mention United Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, where two hundred thousand Palestinians would continue to live under Israeli rule and settlers would go on taking over their homes. But Yair Lapid certainly does support separation from the Palestinians and has pledged himself not to enter any government which does not embark on negotiations with them. What would be the subject of such negotiations? What exactly would be offered to the Palestinians? In fact, no one really pressured  Yair Lapid with such tough questions.

In any case Yair Lapid quickly dropped from the headlines, which shifted to another  new star Moshe Kahlon. Moshe Kahlon, Minister of Communications with a social conscience, stood for several days with one foot outside the Likud Party. The polls predicted great things for the independent new party that he thought of setting up. The man who struggled mightily against the cellular phone companies and thanks to whom we can all pay less to the bastard tycoons. And this was just the beginning of the great social struggles that he would lead. Labour Party leader Shelly Yechimovich rushed to congratulate Kahlon for his impending departure from the Likud: "I think Kahlon is an excellent representative of the public. His entry into the political arena promotes exactly what I'm struggling for: breaking the dichotomy between the political Right and Left. Two blocks no longer, it's all a mental fixation. We  need to have a new perception of what a political party is. "

And what does this excellent public representative, the man who breaks the dichotomy between Left and Right, have to say about the occupation and the Palestinians? Well, among the settlers he is a very welcome and respected guests, who supports all their demands and protests that the amount of construction in the settlements is not enough. And when asked about the Palestinian appeal to the UN, the social champion Moshe Kahlon had a decisive and  incisive crushing answer: "If the Palestinians get a recognition of statehood from the United Nations, we should immediately annex all the Territories, the very same day. You declare a state? No problem, we also make a declaration. As the kids say - you started it." Does the annexation of Palestinians include the vote in Knesset elections? No one asked Kahlon this question, though most probably such was not exactly his intention.

Activist Amir Shibli, who regularly prepares cartoons and montages and distributes them on the net cartoons, proclaimed Moshe Kahlon and his party (if any) as a good electoral choice for those who want to text cheaply and at the same time keep four million people without basic civil rights. However, by the  latest news, Kahlon now prefers not to run. What a pity.

Last but not least in this week's march of democracy is none other than Natan Sharansky. The man who many years ago was struggling bravely for Human Rights in the Soviet Union and later headed the party which sought to represent the Russian-speaking  Israelis, until Avigdor Lieberman undercut it. Who currently heads the Jewish Agency, a respected institution which usually triggers a yawn with the average Israeli. And this week he recalls his good old days when former U.S. President George W. Bush basked in Sharansky's doctrine of spreading democracy around the world and was influenced by it in his decision to invade Iraq and bring there the blessings of democracy. And so did the champion of democracy write:

"The West must make financial and diplomatic support conditional upon  obtaining concrete evidence of democratic reforms and respect for Human Rights. In this there is no place for selectivity. It must be a coherent, uncompromising policy extending over many years. It must be implemented with the same determination for everyone - from Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority to Egypt and Libya."(Maa’riv, November 1, 2012)

No place for selectivity? All countries that receive aid from the West, with no exceptions? Does that really mean that Natan Sharansky, Head of the Jewish Agency and a good friend of Binyamin Netanyahu, calls upon the United States to halt all financial and diplomatic aid to Israel, as a means of pressuring Israel to accept basic democratic norms of behavior and cease to occupy and oppress millions of people? No need to exaggerate, of course. No one even imagines asking Sharansky such questions.

Still, perhaps it is the voters in the United States who will decide. Exactly they, many of whom cannot point out in the map the location the Middle East and who are far more concerned with the unemployment situation in the Midwest.  Perhaps it is they who, this coming Tuesday, will take the decision which Israeli politicians avoid. Maybe it will be the American voters, by re-electing Obama, who will enable their president – if so he wants - to end the occupation and not let it roll on sedately to its fiftieth anniversary.

Certainly, when you conduct an elections campaign over the heads of the Palestinians and presume to determine their fate without asking them, you can't really complain if the decision is taken also out of your own hands.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ammunition Hill and the not theoretical occupation

Eighty years ago, the British Mandatory government founded a Police Academy near the Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood in the eastern part of Jerusalem.

In the 1960's the Jordanian army established in the same location, then near the front line bisecting Jerusalem, a well-fortified military position.

In June 1967 this place, called "Ammunition Hill" by the fighting soldiers, was the scene of a harsh and bloody battle, around which an enduring myth of heroism was created – a battle which many military historianss consider to have been completely unnecessary. Of the famous song written about this battle, there remained in the Israeli collective memory especially the words "I don't know why I got a medal. I just wanted to get home safely. "

Every year, on the day known as "Jerusalem Day", there is held in this location a formal ceremony with the participation of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and the senior generals of the Israeli armed. Always on this occasion, the Prime Minister makes a speech full of rhetoric and vows that  United Jerusalem will always be Eternal Capital of Israel. In the Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood nearby, which was occupied by the Israel Defense Forces several hours after that titanic battle, settlers listen to the live broadcast of the PM's speech  in the Palestinian homes which they have seized.

A few years ago there was at Ammunition Hill a meeting between veteran Israeli and Jordanian soldiers who survived the battle (Thirty Six Israelis had been killed in it, and over seventy Jordanians). They talked to each other quite amicably and none of them used any nationalist cliches.

Morial Rothman had no particular intention to add another chapter to the history of Ammunition Hill. It was the military authorities who determined this as the point to which young Jerusalemites should report when their call-up orders come due.

Moriel Rothman was born in Israel 23 years ago, long after the famous battle on Ammunition Hill. As a child his family moved to the United States where he grew up. He returned to Israel at the age of eighteen, and soon became involved in political activism, meeting Palestinians and taking part in actions against the occupation. The Palestinians in the village of Susiya at the South Hebron Hills, persistently clinging to their piece of land and their miserable homes, seemed to him “more Jewish” then the settlers seeking to expel them and the soldiers aiding the settlers -  carrying the historical heritage of Jews striving to maintain their communal life during centuries and millennia of dispersal and persecution.

Moriel Rothman at Susia – a video

At just the time when Rothman saw more and more soldiers in their daily activities, shooting tear gas and stun grenades and sometimes live ammunition at Palestinians, the army found out that there was an Israeli citizen who had returned from the United States and reached the age of 23 and has not yet done military service. Thus Moriel Rothman duly got a call-up order instructing him to report to the memorial site at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 8:00 am, and there board a military bus and embark on his term of military service.

Moriel Rothman arrived precisely at the time set, accompanied by a group of activists and friends - but not in order to don the IDF uniform. In his pocket was a letter he had prepared beforehand:

''It cannot be said lightly, the time has long passed for gentle language and “hear-able” rhetoric: The Occupation is cruelty and injustice manifest. The Occupation is anti-God, anti-Love and staggeringly, constantly violent. The Occupation is based on a system of racial/ethnic separation that does, in fact, resemble South African Apartheid and segregation in the Southern United States until the 1960s. And this “temporary” Occupation is not “on its way out,” but is rather growing in strength every single day. There is almost zero political will within Israel’s government to end it, and the Israeli public has largely accepted the status quo, in which the occupation is basically a theoretical question, and one of which many have grown tired. But the occupation can only be theoretical if you are not occupied, and thus my refusal to support the occupation by serving in the IDF is also an act of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation."
At this moment when I am writing, Moriel Rothman is behind bars the Military Prison Six, contributing his modest part in the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

So, is there an occupation? Are these territories under occupation? Anyone who follows events on the ground, who witnessed even once a confrontation of soldiers (and/or settlers) with Palestinians, cannot really doubt it. The International Court of Justice, established by the International Community as the authorized interpreter of controversial issues of International Law, stated unequivocally that the West Bank is indeed an Occupied Territory. Therefore, it is subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention which forbids an Occupying Power from settling its citizens in the Occupied Territory.

In Israel, however, there are those who think differently. The fact is that a committee of distinguished Israeli jurists, headed by former Supreme Court judge Edmond Levy, had sat down and composed a detailed report stating that this territory is not occupied at all. In a burst of creative energy, Justice Levy and his fellows composed their own unique brand of International Law which would have seemed completely incomprehensible to International Court of Justice. In International Law according to Edmond Levy the territory is not occupied at all, but is an exclusive hereditary property of the Jewish People, and therefore Israeli settlement there is legal and strictly kosher. Accordingly, the Government of Israel should remove every remaining obstacle on the expansion and intensification of the settlement enterprise, and block as much as possible the access of Palestinian upstarts who dare to turn to the courts after their land was robbed in broad daylight.

Already in June this year, Justice Levy and his colleagues submitted their conclusions to Prime Minister Netanyahu. And though it was Netanyahu who appointed them, he seemed a bit scared of the conclusions and of what might happen if they are formally adopted. For, after all, if this territory is not occupied, that what is it? Is it part of Israel? And if it is part of the State of Israel, and if Israel is a democratic country, then where are the Knesset Members representing in Israel's parliament the residents of Nablus and Ramallah and Hebron? And if it is not Israeli territory and also not occupied, what is it? All sorts of questions would immediately pop up to which no Israeli government since 1967 tried or wanted to give a clear answer, nor did Judge Levy provide such an answer.

So, since June the Levy Report lay unopened in the archives. The settlers and their political friends protested and demanded that it be adopted forthwith. But last month Netanyahu decided to call early election and immediately tremendous power struggles entered the fray. Within the Likud Party the settlers have gained significant power, and have an impact on the result if internal party elections. So, Netanyahu suddenly announced that he would soon bring the Levy Report to government approval. No, not the fundamental assertion that the territory is not occupied. Only the practical conclusions helping and facilitating the settlement enterprise. But it turned out that also this could  create too many political and judicial complications.

And so the idea of adopting the Levy Report was again shelved. Instead, the Prime Minister got a brilliant political idea and made the dramatic announcement which captured the headlines in our country over the past few days – the joint electoral slate between the ruling Likud Party and the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - the nearest in the Israeli political scene to meet the criteria set by Political Science for a Fascist party. No, Lieberman does not really care about Judge Levy's report. International law in all its forms is not really interesting to the Foreign Minister of the State of Israel. In a TV interview celebrating his intimate new partnership with the Prime Minister,  Lieberman announced that it was just no use talking about and deal with the Palestinian question. We know that we have no Palestinian partner and probably never will have such a partner, so for the foreseeable future we can do in these territories as we please and not bother too much about legal theories and legal niceties. Plain and simple.

In the meantime, what of the Palestinians themselves? Last week, Israeli drivers were surprised when traveling on Highway 443 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, when suddenly dozens of Palestinian protesters burst in, carrying banners and placards and blocking the highway. Palestinians? Why should they appear there?

Those who know the issue are aware that this highway is passing through the West Bank, that it was built on land expropriated from Palestinian villagers living nearby,  that these people were denied the possibility of travelling on the highway which was built on their land, and that when the Supreme Court ruled that they should be allowed to travel on it a ploy was soon found to deny it in practice. But ordinary Israeli citizens got the impression that this was just an Israeli highway connecting two Israel cities. Especially since along the highway were built walls concealing the nearby Arab villages, and on them were painted for the benefit of the Israeli drivers pastoral landscapes with no Arabs in them. Suddenly, the reality behind the walls burst out onto the highway for a  while, until soldiers arrived with their stun grenades and tear gas canisters.

And a week later - another unpleasant surprise. Palestinians carrying flags, together with international volunteers, penetrated into the shop established by the Rami Levi supermarket chain at the settlement of Sha'ar Binyamin, and raised inside the store their placards: 'Boycott of settlement products" and "As long as  Palestinians get no justice, settlers and Israelis will not have a normal life" . And again the soldiers came quickly with stun grenades and tear gas.

Both times, at the studio of Israel's State TV, commentators admitted that the Palestinians have managed to "gain the element of surprise" and that this was a grave failure of the Israeli Intelligence Services. This phenomenon seems to have aroused concern among commentators and the military high command. In some ways they find it even more worrying than the repeated rounds of shooting along the Gaza Strip border. Precisely because the demonstrators on Route 443 and at Rami Levy  supermarket did not use violence and it would be  quite hard to accuse them of terrorism.