Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Palestinian Houdini

[March 26, a postscript was added]

What is this? A UN fact-finding mission to inquire into the settlements on the West Bank? What, bother us again with settlements and occupation? Don't they know at the UN that we had long since left this issue behind us?

 – The social protest drew attention away from the occupation.

–The war against Iran, which will or will not take place, anyway distracted attention away from the social protest.

–The exchange of fire around on the Gaza border diverted attention away from the war against Iran.

–The war against Iran came back and again took the focus and made us forget the Gaza exchange of fire.

–The Toulouse killing spree diverting attention from the war against Iran and the Gaza exchange of fire and the social protest.

–And now, after all this, we go again to deal with the occupation and the settlements? The cabinet ministers of the Government of Israel are bothered and must neglect the really important things and enter once again into debates on this banal and well-chewed issue! Can't you find  something new, something original, to put on the agenda?

And besides, just last week the veteran and experienced commentator Ben Kaspit wrote in his weekly column in Ma'ariv newspaper: "Netanyahu deserves credit for what he did the last two years, when he managed to kill the Palestinian issue and place instead the issue of Iran at the top of the global agenda. This is an important, significant and  strategic achievement".

Can it be that such a clear, incisive statement would be disproven within less than a week? Could it be that Ben Kaspit and the other well-informed commentators have been all wrong? Netanyahu made confirmed kill of the Palestinian issue - and now this stubborn issue suddenly opens the coffin lid and rises out of the grave, in front of our boggling eyes? What is this, a new  Houdini? Really, can anyone explain what's going on here?

The history of Migron or: what is there to investigate?

In 2002, Israeli settlers in the area east of Ramallah complained of not having good reception on their cell phone. The phone company understood their plight and established for their benefit an antenna on a hill overlooking the Route 60, which is the main highway connecting the northern West Bank with the south.

The antenna was established on land owned by Palestinians from the nearby villages of Burqa and Deir Dibwan. Unlike in many other places in the West Bank, here the Israeli authorities do not dispute the land being privately owned by Palestinians - but the company did not bother to ask the landowners' permission to build the antenna. And then, a trailer was brought in, where a guard was placed to keep an eye on the antenna - a young settler from a nearby settlement. Then another trailer arrived, with another guard.  Then the guards felt lonely there on the hill and brought their wives and their children to live with them and participate in the guarding work. And then, more and more guards arrived - 45 in all, each of them living in a trailer of his own and sharing the guarding duty with his own wife and children. In order to have place for all the trailers of all those guards and their families, the Ministry of Housing of the State of Israel took care to plough up and flatten the hilltop area and pave several access roads and connect all trailers to electricity and water.

Then all the guards banded up to erect a perimeter fence, enclosing a considerable parcel of land in a wide circle on all sides of the antenna, so as to better guard it. The enclosed area was entirely in privately owned land of Palestinian residents, duly recorded in the land registry office and recognized by the State of Israel. When the landowners arrived, ownership deeds in hand, and tried to enter their land, they were warned by the antenna guards (and by the soldiers stationed there to guard the antenna guards) that anybody entering the closed military zone around the antenna would be liable to be detained or shot.

After about a year the Antenna Guards stopped calling themselves that, and formally announced that they have established a settlement outpost called Migron. The name Migron comes from the Bible, which recounts that at a place called so King Saul had conducted a heroic battle a bit more than three thousand years ago, and historians believe it was somewhere in the general vicinity of the hill with the antenna. And so, there was no more talking of guarding and preserving a cell phone antenna. Rather, residents of the sixty trailers regarded themselves as engaged  in a far more important and sublime guarding mission, i.e. to maintain and sustain an ancient Jewish tradition,  three thousand years old, and be worthy heirs to King Saul.

In 2003, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon solemnly promised to U.S. President George W. Bush that he would dismantle all settlement outposts established after 2001. Migron was definitely on that list, along with several dozen other outposts throughout the territories. But there had already been a previous  Israeli Prime Minister who said "I promised, but I did not promise to keep my promise." President Bush did not really press the issue, and the outpost of Migron remained intact and continued to expand, and in the nearby village residents were left with ownership deeds in hand.

And in 2006 the landowners, together with the Israeli Peace Now movement, appealed to the Supreme Court of Israel. And the wheels of justice went grinding very slowly and leisurely, and the judges were in no hurry to render a verdict. The State's representatives clarified to the court that there was no dispute about the trailers structures having been erected illegally, on land which did not belong to those now living in them and without the legal owners' consent. Therefore, the state duly issued demolition orders for these illegal structures.

After a year the State told the court that the demolition orders had not yet been carried out, as the military authorities faced manpower shortages and decided to give precedence to other locations. And when the judges inquired, after the passage of another year, it turned out that the manpower problem had not yet been resolved. Meanwhile, the government approached the Migron residents and offered to build them beautiful houses in another settlement if they consent to move there. But they rejected the offer out of hand and said that they would never abandon the legacy of King Saul and the location where the King fought and defeated his ancient enemies 3000 years ago.

In 2011 the Supreme Court judges have had enough and they issued a definite ruling, ordering the state to evacuate the Migron outpost no later than March 30, 2012. And the Migron settlers cried out bitterly that the state was about to destroy a prosperous and vibrant community and uproot children from their childhood homes, and that the Jewish people was about to lose their foothold on the patrimony of King Saul, Father of the Nation. And also, the settlers asserted that the Arabs living in Burqa and Deir Dibwan - who are the owners of the land -  that the ownership deeds in their possession were not valid and that the land had been granted in the 1960's by King Hussein of Jordan to his local favorites and that this royal favoritism should be annulled and disregarded.

And around the famous antenna the settlers banners reading "In Migron the war will start", and they enlisted the help of many Knesset Members who support the Netanyahu Government as well as several of his cabinet ministers. And all these threatened in earnest to undermine the stability of the government if, God forbid, the outpost is destroyed.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu  charged Minister Benny  Begin with mediating between the government and the Migron settlers, and Begin duly came up with a 'compromise' proposal. By the terms of this compromise, there shall be established a brand new settlement kilometers away, and its construction would last until November 2015, and until then the Migron settlers would remain at their present location, and when they move to their new homes the land would not be returned to the Palestinian owners but would remain in possession of the army, and the trailers would remain in place and some form of civil use would be made of them (Perhaps to house a new generation of antenna guards...)

At first the Migron settlers bitterly rejected out of hand this humiliating compromise, and reiterated that by no means  would they leave the patrimony of King Saul. But when  the target date drew near they announced that with an aching heart they do agree to the painful compromise, so as to avert a violent conflict. Two days ago, on Thursday  March 22, a representatives of the State and the settlers arrived together at the Supreme Court and asked the judges to accept and formally approve this compromise, in the cause of peace and of bringing people closer together.

By coincidence, that was the very same day that the United Nations Human Rights Council convened in Geneva and resolved to appoint a fact finding mission to look into the process of settlement construction by Israel and its impact on the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

In fact, the United Nations could save its time and resources. All that UN personnel need to do is read the story of the Migron outpost, available online for all to read.

Where does this de-legitimacy come from?

Recently I received a message from Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, detailing his experiences on a recent visit to Berlin.

(…) Everywhere I went in Berlin I met Israelis, A lot of Israelis live there now. I came to Berlin to attend an important and rare conference on the situation in the Middle East and Israeli- German relations. Why rare? Because in recent years Europeans are increasingly avoiding the holding of meetings or conferences on Israeli matters, which are certain to arouse severe reactions. Demonstrations, boycotts, harsh criticism, pressures, cancellations... Israel's  position and public image are in severe decline. More and more often, just in order to avoid embarrassing situations, the organizers avoid in advance any exchange ideas about Israel. "Why should we take up such a headache?" a  German holding a senior position in an important organization told me.

And when such events do take place, terrible criticism is flung in our faces,with such words as "Apartheid", "Anti-democratic Legislation" and "Racism". And even though we ourselves say these things inside the country - even more severely – it is not easy to hear it abroad, certainly not from Germans.

And what is most terrible is that  this criticism is largely justified. A friend told me during the conference about his organization's activities against the sealing of water wells of Palestinians in the West Bank, of which the European media is full of reports. I was not surprised. In recent months, almost every Member of the European Parliament I met in the Knesset had asked me why the IDF is sealing these wells. An unbearable story. With sprinklers splashing   away in a settlement which enjoys unlimited water supplies, the nearby  Palestinian village dries up, not even connected to the water pipes (which is the situation for a tenth of the population in the West Bank), and having its wells sealed up time and again. There is no way to "explain" and make "hasbara" for this story. It would be a waste of your time, I told a group of Israeli diplomats recently. You should tell the truth, here and everywhere: It is injustice, theft, dispossession.

The organizers of the conference, the Green Party's Heinrich Boll Foundation,  did make an effort to conduct the discussion in a fair way and avoid an overall stigmatizing of Israeli policy: to emphasize the friendship between Germany and Israel, to mention the activity of the Israeli peace camp, to recognize the many real difficulties faced by Israelis and Palestinians alike. But time after time, all this goodwill goes crashing down against the rock of the inequity of the settlements and occupation."

So far MK Nitzan Horowitz. And another report, from a person who is – to say the least – no friend to the peace movement in Israel. Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Ma'ariv newspaper, who just came back from a long lecture tour in the university campuses of the United States.

I tried to understand the evolving arena of the anti - Israeli, U.S. campuses.(...)" Most students on campus, and most of the lecturers, are far from really interested in the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Events such as the Israeli Apartheid Week do not draw mass participation. Most students are indifferent. That does not mean that we should be indifferent. Because the next generation of young Americans who become active, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, will be critical [of Israel] at best, and very hostile at worst.

(…)There are some issues on which we can effectively rebut the accusations. But it must be admitted that on one issue we can offer no real answer. The expansion of settlements. On this, it is not just the staunch anti-Israel camp which does not want to understand Israel's position. This also the friends of Israel - and they are still the majority – find it very difficult to stomach. If Israel wants peace, there can be no explanation for the expansion of settlements. Except for very marginal groups I have not met any American audience, on or off campus, which is willing to show understanding for this side of Israeli policy. Israel needs to decide if it wants a two-state solution, or is in favor of one single big state. We do not need to stop expanding settlements for propaganda purposes. We need this for existential reasons. "

So far, the words of Ben-Dror Yemini, as published a week ago in the newspaper and on his personal blog.

It should be noted that the Israeli government is not indifferent to the danger of the country's growing de-legitimacy in the world. In fact, the government has placed a special cabinet minister to coordinate the hasbara efforts and the  global campaign against de-legitimacy. This minister's name is Yuli Edelstein.  Of course, the minister himself lives in a West Bank settlement and is outspokenly proud of it.

[*] Postscript, March 26 

The "compromise" presented to the Supreme Court would have given the Migron settlers a further three and a half years' tenure on land to which they have no legal title whatsoever. After a three days' deliberation the judges, headed by their new President  Asher Grunis, threw this back in the government and settler leaders' faces. Instead, the Court made clear that the settlers must be out of there by August 1 this year, and that there would be no further delays.

This was the first real test of Grunis, who was made President of the Supreme Court by dint of tireless efforts by right-wingers throughout the past year. The Migron verdict must have been a bitter disappointment to those who worked so hard to get him there.

Grunis is known to dislike the invalidating of laws, the kind of act which could place the Judicial and Legislative branches of government on a direct collision course.

However, there was no special need to be a proponent of Judicial activism in order to discern that the Migron settlers' act was a manifest theft of somebody else's property, and that the state was clearly complicit in this theft. All that was needed this time was to be a bit of an honest judge.