Saturday, June 8, 2013

John Lennon and the knock on the door at the wee hours

Last Saturday night, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Tel Aviv. Two demonstrations had been scheduled for the same evening. One was held to mark the forty-sixth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, forty-six years of an oppressive military regime imposed on millions of people, and the continuing robbery of their lands. The second demonstration was held to protest the increase in VAT which came into force that night, a regressive and manifestly unjust tax raise which imposes the burden of closing the huge budget deficit mainly on the poor and the weak and the have-nots.

Great effort has been made to coordinate the two demonstrations. Different hours were set so that activists full of energy and motivation would not have to choose, but would be able to take part in both. The end point of the anti-occupation march, at the Likud Party headquarters on King George Street, was but a short walk away from the anti-VAT rallying place at Habima Square. And indeed, quite a few people went directly from one demonstration to the other,  carrying signs proclaiming that there can be no Social Justice without Ending Occupation and Oppression, and that social injustice and abject poverty are a fertile ground for demagogues who incite desperate masses to war and racism, and that the two issues are inseparably intertwined.

Inseparably? Journalists were present in both demonstrations, and the photographers did their work and captured a representative sample of the signs and posters and chanting crowds. But when this material got to the editorial offices, it did get completely separated. The protest against VAT got sympathetic coverage and large photos in several newspapers on the next morning. And the second demonstration? Was there another demonstration? Against the occupation? The occupation is not news, it is very old news. Precisely forty-six years old.

Anyway, for the Israeli media this week was mostly a Turkish week. "The Turkish Spring!" cried huge headlines in the Israeli press. Every day saw an extensive update on the unfolding protests at Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul, accompanied by huge photographs of heroic young Turks holding their ground amidst the barrages of tear gas. Of course, there were plenty of cartoons and commentaries mocking and jeering at Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, the man that Israelis have grown fond of hating.

And what would happen in a week or two, when Turkey falls down in the news ratings? It is likely that, in at least some of the papers, we will see on the same page renewed complaints about failure of the army to subdue the brazen  young Palestinians, followed by belligerent demands to change the rules of engagement and let soldiers move beyond salvos of tear gas and go over to using live ammunition.

The precise date of the beginning of the occupation - June 5th - passed without more than a whisper. It was not a round number - and the occupation is after all a banal topic, so often rehashed that there is little new to say about it. Fortunately, early June is also the time of the Hebrew Book Week, and in honor of the Book Week some newspapers took the trouble of interviewing Hebrew writers. David Grossman was able to take advantage of having the floor to squeeze in a few words about "The huge elephant which is standing for 46 years already in the middle of our room. Israelis find all kinds of ways to manage their lives around this animal. "

Professor Ze'ev Tzahor of Ben-Gurion University found an opportunity to tell personal memories and show that still we do not know all of what happened then, 46 years ago, and how critical decisions were being taken.

"On the third day the Six Day War, I was part of the Fifth Brigade as it crossed the Green Line. We went in Nablus, but the city entrance was blocked by skeletons of Israeli tanks which were burned accidentally by friendly fire. We turned back and established a temporary camp at the Anabata Junction. A soldier who was a teacher in civilian life excitedly told us that Anabata was the same as the famed Anathoth from the Bible . The response to this revelation was immediate: an urgent command conference was called up in the command tent at whose entrance was placed a sign reading “Anathoth”.  Major Ra’anan Lurie, a well known cartoonist and graphic artist, was appointed governor of Anabta and got the order to immediately expel the residents and destroy their homes. Lurie refused, but there was no problem in finding a volunteer who enthusiastically agreed to carry out the order.

A long caravan of refugees was winding its way down from the destroyed town to the junction -  first cars, then horse-drawn wagons, and followed by a long line of pedestrians. Last walked a man carrying his crippled mother on his back. And  as they passed near us, they crossed with another caravan of refugees from Qalqilya, which was also being destroyed at that time.

We watched in shock the refugee caravans. Even those of us who felt the destruction had been justified admitted that it was a harsh thing, and took part in handing army food rations to the passing refugees. Suddenly came the news that "Temple Mount is in our hands." The chain soldiers passing rations to refugees disintegrated, some bursting out gleefully dancing while others decided to use the battalion’s cars to help old and sick refugees go to the nearby village of Ramin, out of sight of the destroyed Anabta.

The real heroes of those event are those who decided to tell. Dan Frank of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel contacted Meir Yaari, leader of the Mapam Party. A brave officer who was later dubbed "traitor" used an IDF communications set to get word to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. We don’t know exactly what happened then, but the next day we were called for a new  command conference and this time the order was to immediately rebuild the destroyed houses. We did not see the trek of the refugees back home, by then we were on our way to the Wailing Wall. "

So far the words of Ze'ev Tzahor in his article "On the ruins of Anabta" published in Yedioth Ahronoth last Tuesday (June 4). Indeed, the residents of Anabta were lucky that this unknown traitor with his radio was there to help them. Had several days or several weeks been allowed to pass, the expulsions and the destruction of their town would have become an “accomplished fact”, and its perpetuation a matter of national security and national honor, and not much later an Israeli settlement would have been set up on the site. By now, it would have been talked of as “irreversible”. As happened in many other places. As happened at exactly that time in the three villages of the Latrun Panhandle, Emmaus, Yalu and Beit - Nuba,  and at the Mughrabi Neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem, and at several villages in the Jordan Valley (where, nowadays, the authorities continue their effort to destroy what they missed 46 years ago…).

This is what happened then, when the occupation began.  What happened in those territories this week? Nothing dramatic, just  arrests and nightly detentions like always. On the precise night of the occupation’s 46th birthday - very late at night, or maybe very early in the morning - soldiers entered Ramallah and reached the house of Abdul-Jabbar Al-Foqaha, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who had already been incarcerated last year, and took him off to another term of detention whose length no one knows except perhaps some interrogators of the Israeli Security Service. In the Palestinian Territories, Israel does not recognize Parliamentary immunity.

And at Arub Refugee Camp, the soldiers came to arrest Mohammad Hasan ‘Aadi, 21 year old, for whom too this was not the first detention. And in the Al-Fawwar  refugee a whole military detachment arrived on jeeps to arrest one 14-year-old boy named Mohammad Yousef Jawabra, who was cuffed and blindfolded and taken away. And at the village of Um Slamouna south of Bethlehem the 19 year old Ali Ahmad Taqatqa was detained and the Taqatqa Family’s home was damaged during the soldiers’ very intensive search. The  list of detainees which can be found on the Palestinian news websites goes on and on, but how many Israelis would take the trouble to enter and read it?

There was a time when the IDF used to publish every morning  the number of the passing night’s detainees. Only the number, not their names or any other information. This number of the night’s detained Palestinians was usually on the first news broadcast of the morning, heard by early risers who turn on the radio the moment they jump off their beds. But it is a long time already that  the IDF has ceased to publish these statistics. It is already a long that the citizens of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, no longer know anything about it. They really do not know that Palestinians under Israeli occupation, like people who live under any other dictatorship, live in constant apprehension of the knock at the door in the wee hours of the night.

The sun rose that morning, and the new detainees who were taken from their homes and their beds have already reached the Security Service interrogation centers where senior interrogators were deliberating which of them would merit a stint of a special treat under “moderate physical pressure”. It was at that time that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mounted the Knesset podium. He had been called there to answer the firm demand of opposition Members, who wanted to know what the government's position was regarding the long standing Peace Initiative of the Arab League, also known as the "Saudi initiative". According to that initiative, all Arab countries would sign peace treaties with Israel on condition that Israel end its occupation of all  territories which have been occupied by its armed forces in the past 46 years.

When the Arab countries put this proposal on the table for the first time, at the Beirut Summit of 2002, the occupation was just  35 years old. Since then,  the Arab Peace Initiative was annually reconfirmed by the Arab League, year after year, and is still on the agenda though no Israeli government ever bothered to give it serious attention. Even at the special Knesset debate convened for this specific purpose, Netanyahu said nothing clear about the Arab Peace Initiative and whether he is willing to see in it a basis for negotiations. Nor did he say if he would stop construction in the settlements and the establishing of facts on the ground at the same time when the future of this ground was being negotiated on. And also said nothing about  whether or not his government was ready to release some hundred prisoners, many of them elderly and infirm, who are held since before the Oslo Agreement was signed in 1993 (which included an Israeli commitment to release these same prisoners).

So what did Netanyahu say in the special debate held at the request of the Knesset opposition? Well, he again called upon the Palestinians to return to negotiations and to trust to it that  at the negotiating table they would discover an Israel completely different from one which knocks on their doors in the wee hours of the night. And cheerfully the Prime Minister quoted the words of a well-known song which had once been the unofficial anthem of the protest movement against the Vietnam War: Give Peace a Chance!

Was this what John Lennon meant?

Soon, maybe even next week, John Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States, is due to come here again. He had just warned Israel’ rather sternly, that the status quo is unsustainable. He will probably go to the Netanyahu with a series of questions similar to those posed by the Knesset opposition. What would John Kerry do when the Prime Minister of Israel answers him by quoting Beatles’ songs? Would he just wring his hands and return to Washington in disgrace? Would he just assign blame for the failure, and on whom?

Should Netanyahu continue and increase settlement construction, and Kerry's efforts finally fail, the Palestinians may take up their last remaining diplomatic recourse  and turn to the International Court of Justice. And as published in press headlines this week, European Union leaders warned Netanyahu that their patience is running low and that they may support the Palestinians in the  Hague. All of which is indeed a cause of concern to decision makers in our country’s government,  but … let’s cross the bridge when we get to it.

Meanwhile, yesterday morning the Gay Pride Parade was held in Tel Aviv – bigger and more colorful than ever, with a record number of commercial companies to sponsor it. The Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade had come a long long way from its humble beginnings as very bold and daring act of a few hundred radical daring hostile streets at the time when homosexual relations were an act punishable under Israeli law. Nowadays, the Pride Parade is warmly embraced by the municipal and governmental establishment. It is an essential component of the worldwide hasbara PR campain, praising in ten languages the liberal and gay-friendly Tel Aviv.

Already many days before the big event, the streets of Tel Aviv were full of six-coloured Rainbow Flags. In every corner were piles posters and brochures in English and Hebrew meant for the expected flood of gay visitors and tourists. "One hour of chill on the one and only Gay Cruise. Sail off from the ancient port of Jaffa into the sparkling blue water of the Mediterranean. And the next morning, a day's tour of Jerusalem. Don’t miss the opportunity to see Wailing Wall, the Arab market and the Wonderful, Magical City of David. "

The Wonderful, Magical City of David? Wait, have the organizers of this tour, tailor made for the international gay community, forgotten that the important archaeological site known as “The City of David" has already long since been passed over to the exclusive management of an association of National-Religious settlers known as Elad. These people definitely take the Bible very seriously and very literally. Especially, the part about God's promising the Promised Land to His Chosen People, which the Elad people see as licence and commandment to throw Palestinian out of homes in Silwan where King David supposedly had his palace 3000 years ago. But, they also seem to take very seriously and literally what God had to say about the mortal sin known as “Sodomy”…”

Well, one can only hope that the Elad settlers in control of The Wonderful, Magical City of David would not spoil the major  campaign planned by the government’s leading PR talents.