Friday, October 25, 2013

Of mayors and elephants

On the day after mayoral elections at a chance meeting peace and social activists from different cities exchanged experiences.

The Tel-Avivians among us felt frustrated by the fact that Mayor Ron Chuldai was re-elected, the man who prefers prestigious towers for the rich over affordable housing for ordinary people. The social protest movement of two years ago, starting from Tel-Aviv, manifested itself mainly by complete absence from the polls (instead crowding massively at the performance of Rihanna), 

Some Jerusalemites, for their part, have cast a protest ballot paper bearing the words "Down with the Occupation!" They could not express this in any other way - with the only choice being between the incumbent  Barkat who strongly supports settler activity in East Jerusalem, and the challenger Moshe Leon, who was nominated by the notorious Lieberman, and who called for creating a national park on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus "in order to prevent Arab construction there, because Arab construction will increase crime".

In Carmiel, there was a joint Jewish-Arab list which did not succeed to get into the city council, but did manage to confront racist phenomena and make it a significant issue during the elections campaign. 

The people of Givatayim were, as a matter of fact, happy about a local overturn in their city, and the unexpected victory of an independent oppositionist over a much-disliked incumbent.

For quite a bit of time we talked about these municipal elections -  not immediately plunging in occupation matters. But in the end, the elephant in the room could no longer be ignored. On the list of  the election results appear among the cities also such places as Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim, Karney Shomron and Kiryat Arba - settlements in the depths of the West Bank, which the election law considers full-fletched Israeli cities.

In Kiryat Arba Mal'achi Levinger, son of the notorious Rabbi Levinger, won a very narrow victory over a local rival. Not that we were really interested in the titanic struggle between settler candidates. We did enter a discussion on whether the settlement have  passed the point of no-return; on how to dismantle them if at all.  

I hesitantly mentioned the negotiations and Kerry's promise that they would be finalized within nine months. "From this pregnancy there will not a baby", said a veteran activist who had been struggling for peace even before 1967. "And if there will be, we will be sorry that there had been no abortion".

During the hours that Israeli citizens were invited to the polls, a life and death struggle was going on in the fields near the village of Bil'in on the West Bank. Many hundreds of soldiers on foot and in jeeps and in helicopters hovering above took part in a hunt for a single person: a 28-year old Palestinian named Muhammad Assi. He refused to surrender, hiding in a cave and from there returning fire to the soldiers, until bulldozers were brought in, destroying the cave and enabling the soldiers to shoot on him an anti-tank missile.

According to the army communique, Muhammad Assi was an activist of the Islamic Jihad, and was one of those who planned an attack on a Tel-Aviv bus on November 21, 2012, when the Israeli Air Force was bombing the city of Gaza. It seems that since the cease-fire in Gaza, he did not try further such attacks but according to the communique "he constituted during the past months a grave threat to military forces in Judea and Samaria". In the headlines on the mass circulation Israeli papers was expressed satisfaction with the "liquidation of the dangerous terrorist" and the success of the army to settle accounts. The term "liquidation" usually refers to an operation where it was decided in advance that the hunted person will not come out alive. And indeed, when a flesh and blood person is shot with a missile designed to penetrate the steel plating of a tank the result cannot be in any doubt.

Following these events in their fields, the youths of Bil'in who are rather used to skirmishing with the army, rose up to hours of  clashes. On them, the soldiers did not shoot anti-tank missiles, only very many salvos of tear-gas and rubber-coated metal bullets which sent several TV-crews to days of hospitalization. Only towards the evening the struggle in the fields of Bil'in ended - until  next time.

Also on the same election day, there was another struggle, in other fields. A smaller event than the manhunt, just a chase after shepherds. Shepherds from the tiny village of Ein el-Hilweh, which does not appear on any map,came close with their herds to the fences of the Maskiot settlement. Settler security officers arrived and started a chase, and alerted military forces to join them. The soldiers who soon arrived arrested two young shepherds, named Yasir Qadri and Jilal Adel. The other shepherds were warned by the soldiers never again to come near the settler fences. If it happens again, the army would not only arrest shepherds but also open fire on their sheep.

That godforsaken hamlet Ein el-Hilweh, not appearing on map - I was there bit more than a year ago, in July 2012, and here is what I then wrote:  

When the people of Ein al-Hilweh put their ears to the ground, they faintly hear the gurgling of water going through pipes underneath – pipes to which they have no access.  The water comes from a spring nearby, a spring which had sustained the life of this community for generations and indeed gave it its name - "Ein al-Hilweh" means  "The Sweet Spring" in Arabic.

The name still remains – but the spring itself, like almost all water sources in the Jordan Valley, has been taken over by "Mekorot", 
the Israeli governmental water company. The sweet spring has been enclosed and surrounded by fences, and industrious pumps installed to channel every single drop into the system of pipes.

Since these words were written nothing changed, except for a great increase of the army's pressure on isolated Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley - ever since the Jordan Valley became a top issue in the "peace talks." As it happens, exactly now these negotiations centre on the water issue. Dr. Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian negotiator, raised (and not for the first time) the unfairness of the division of water in the West Bank, asserting that Israel is taking for itself most of the water available. It was not published what was the reaction of Justice Minister Livni on behalf of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

One day later, Secretary of State Kerry invited Netanyahu to meet him in Rome, and asked him for his concept of the future borders and  what he suggests to overcome the deadlock in the talks. Seven hours the discussion lasted in which also participated the senior aids of both, and also the US ambassador to Israel and the Israeli ambassador to the US. But a lot of results there were not, at least to conclude from the prime minister's words at the concluding press conference. Like on many previous occasions, Netanyahu re-iterated his strong wish and desire for peace, at the same declaring that under no circumstances would he give up "territories vital for the security of Israel" (i.e. the Jordan Valley).

So, what is going to be the next step of Secretary of State Kerry, and how does he intend to reach an agreement within the stipulated 9 months? It seems that nobody asked that  question in the Rome press conference.