Saturday, August 31, 2013

Gas masks and dancing soldiers

 "The U.S. Army awaits orders reads one headline." “The countdown has started" announces another; on a photo of submarines and aircraft were superimposed Obama and Assad facing each other, like two in a Wild West showdown.  

Israeli citizens were not impressed by experts telling them that there is only a "low probability" of a Syrian attack on Israel in retaliation for an American assault. The demand for gas masks immediately jumped up, and there was revealed again what was already known - that the government had not taken care to provide enough masks for all Israeli citizens. Personally, I did not join the race. After all, since the end of the First World War nobody in the world has used chemical weapons against an enemy who could respond in kind… 

Meanwhile, the countdown slowed down a bit after the British Parliament's vote and accelerated again with the speech by  Secretary of State Kerry. A speech rather similar to  the "smoking guns" speech which Colin Powell delivered at the UN ten years ago on behalf of George W. Bush  – with not a trace of those Smoking Guns found after the Americans invaded and occupied Iraq. But that does of course not mean that again now the evidence is false.

Had Obama been really enthusiastic to intervene in the Syrian Civil War, he could have found plenty of reasons and justifications for his actions in the gory acts of Bashar Assad over the past two years - even before the massive use of gas in the suburbs of Damascus . But this is a president who prides himself on having brought American troops back from Iraq and who prepares to evacuate Afghanistan as well. He certainly does not wish to wade into a new, particularly murky, Middle Eastern swamp. In fact, over the past year Obama had chosen to overlook several instances of the "minor" use of gas resulting in "only" dozens of casualties

Still, it is hard to see how Obama can avoid adhering to the Red Line set by himself, and ignore the harrowing photos of children suffocated to death which flooded the global media . Unless ... unless the unexpected happens when Obama comes to Russia on his scheduled visit in the middle of next week. Unless the Americans and Russians overcome the Cold War which has returned to our world also without Communism , and Obama and Putin roll up their sleeves and impose some kind of political solution on their respective clients in Syria. Or at least a more or less stable ceasefire, which would save the lives of many. What are the chances of that? Higher or lower than the likelihood that superpower intervention will lead to an end of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

And meanwhile, what is really going on between Israel and the Palestinians? Over the decades, Israeli governments have always tried to exploit situations where the spotlight was directed elsewhere , and create new accomplished facts while the world was not looking. In 1956, when international attention was focused on the Soviet invasion of Hungary, David Ben Gurion – supported by Britain and France - launched a war against Egypt and occupied the Sinai. And in 1981, when the Polish government moved to suppress Solidarność, Menachem Begin was quick to enact within a single day the annexation of the Golan Heights

Uri Ariel, Minister of Housing and Construction in the Netanyahu government, tried his best to continue the tradition. With the world focused on Syria, he inaugurated a new settlement called "Leshem" , in the northern part of the West Bank, where forty settler families entered solemnly into their new homes . The guest of honor at the ceremony was the minister, and his words left no room for doubt : "This is a moving occasion, the laying down of one more brick in the building of the Land of Israel. Let me say it in the clearest way: I'm here in order to build you a home. We are building here in Leshem another  300 housing units. The Jewish People needs apartments everywhere in the country, and we can meet everybody’s needs! This is the right thing to do, from the  Zionist as well as the socio-economic point of view. Anyone who is present here today can understand why the two-state vision is unrealistic and will not happen. It should be obvious to any thinking person: there will be no two states west of the Jordan River. Such a thing will not happen. Even if we are involved in negotiations, this is not on the agenda”. 

And of course, Minister Uri Ariel did not neglect  to claim the moral high ground and from that location arouse the conscience of the world against the war crimes taking place in Syria. “Go to the murderous doctor of Damascus and leave alone the Israeli settlement enterprise.” 

There is no doubt that  the ongoing atrocities in Syria had the effect of distracting the world from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Indeed, the media did not pay much attention for example to what happened this week in the Kalandia Refugee Camp north of Jerusalem

Entanglement" the military authorities called it. "A detention operation which had gone wrong”. Every night the army goes out on such operations, five to ten of them at various locations throughout the West Bank. The goal is not to engage in all-out confrontations with the Palestinians. Rather, the soldiers are to arrive in the wee hours of the night to the door of a “wanted” person and as quickly as possible get him, bound and blindfolded, into the waiting military car . In many cases the force is able to leave the area before the neighbors are aroused and get the detainee to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure" at the facilities of the Shabak Security Service. One hardly hears about such routine operations

But for the second time within one week such a routine detention went wrong, and local residents rallied and took to the streets at this nightly hour and actively expressed their opposition to the arrest of a neighbor by the occupation army’s soldiers. As per routine, the force came to the Kalandia Refugee Camp to arrest a “wanted” Palestinian, in this case a person who had just a month ago been released from prison in Israel . On what charges was he wanted ? This we cannot know. The regulations issued by the Commanding General (Center), who is since 1967 the sovereign legislator in the West Bank, do not require detaining officers to inform the detainee what he is suspected of, nor does he have the right to call a lawyer

Some unfortunate disruption happened and the operation did not proceed smoothly. Within minutes the Kalandia Camp was aroused. The soldiers - artillery soldiers converted into detentions troops – faced a large and angry crowd , first numbering some three hundred and swiftly increasing to as many as 1500. "There was a very violent riot, the military jeeps were pelted from the roofs with stones, iron bars, and even burning carpets and washing machines" stated the military communiquי. Whereupon the soldiers opened fire and killed three residents of the camp - Jihad Aslan, 21, Yunis Jahjuh, 24, and Rubin Zayed, 34.years old and a father of four

It was an act of self-defense" said the IDF Spokesperson – which does have some plausibility, as long as one assumes that the Israeli military has the right to enforce its rule. Probably, the  Palestinians in Kalandia saw themselves as acting in self-defense against armed intruders, representatives of an oppressive occupation rule which had imposed itself on them for 46 years. But such a way of seeing things did not get expressed in the Israeli media.

Coincidentally or not, the settlement inauguration by Minister Uri Ariel and the deadly raid on Kalandia both occurred on the day before the scheduled third meeting in the series of renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. There was an angry mood among Palestinians, and the bureau of President Mahmoud Abbas announced the cancellation of the negotiations meeting: ''The string of Israeli crimes, and the continued settlement activities, constitute a clear message about Israel’s true intentions regarding the peace process.” In the end , the meeting did take place on that day. In fact, it was the first time that the peace talks were held in Palestinian territory, in Jericho

What was said there, in the peace talks held at the same time that three funerals were held in Kalandia? What was the atmosphere? By the rules prescribed by the Secretary of State John Kerry, the lid was kept on and no information given to the media. In fact, the media did not show any great interest in what was kept hidden. And probably John Kerry himself, the man who initiated and pressured Israelis and Palestinians to meet and talk, was this week busy with other things and only skimmed the report submitted to him of the meeting in Jericho.

On the following day, however, news came of a very different and unexpected kind of a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians.  A group of combat soldiers of the Rotem Battalion of the Givati ​​Brigade patrolled the Ja’bari Neighborhood of Hebron. Suddenly they heard, coming from a Palestinian wedding held in one of the houses, the famous  “Gangnam Style” of the South Korean singer PSY. The song which had swept young people across the globe,  regardless of religion, race and nationality, also swept the patrolling soldiers. Against orders and in contravention of their set task, the soldiers decided to enter the hall and join dozens of celebrating young Palestinians. These were from the Jabari Clan who are defined by the military authorities as “Hamas supporters”, but who did welcome the soldiers and invite them to join the dance.

The publication of this event  on Channel 2 of Israeli TV, and especially the video showing soldiers carried on the shoulders of dancing young Palestinians,  aroused the ire of the military authorities. Unlike the soldiers who shot and killed at Kalandia, defined as having acted in accordance with the military orders and regulations, the entire patrol of dancing soldiers from Hebron were suspended and are expected to be punished severely. "This is a very serious incident. The soldiers are being interrogated, the brigade and battalion commanding officers are conducting an investigation and the soldiers will be treated accordingly”. 

The event could have ended differently, the military authorities asserted. The young Palestinians might have also attacked the soldiers who entered the wedding celebration, to injure or kill or kidnap them. Not a completely baseless assertion . Still, what did happen was different. For a single moment, the soldiers did not come to the Palestinians as occupation troops but as fellow young fans of the South Korean PSY . And for that moment , the Palestinians received them as such