Friday, March 28, 2014

Riding missiles on the Rabin Square

In the 1980s the municipality of Tel Aviv used to invite the IDF Armoured Corps to bring into town dozens of tanks every year, put them in the big square opposite the town hall. The public used to come in great numbers to  The Square of the Kings of Israel. Children especially enjoyed climbing on the tanks and hanging from the cannons. Some of them even succeeded to be photographed with their finger on the trigger of a machine gun. 

Years have passed and the annual tank exhibition got out of fashion. Indeed, the armoured corps as such fell out of favour when already for decades the IDF did not any more fight against another regular army. Also the 18-year olds who volunteer for the armour discovered that most of the time the army is taking them out of the tanks and sends them on foot to maintain checkpoints on the roads of the West Bank, and shoot tear-gas at young stone throwers. Meanwhile, the square in the heart of Tel-Aviv became identified mainly with mass peace demonstrations, and with the great hope which flared up for a moment at the Oslo Agreements. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated at this square behind the town hall, the square since that day bearing his name.

And again, years have past with continuing occupation and extending settlements and  Palestinian resistance continuing as well. And the hope died down, with only some glowing ambers  left here and there, and a rather stubborn American Secretary of State.     
On the occasion of The Israeli Science Day, the military exhibition for the pleasure of the city's children  returned this week to the square in the heart of Tel Aviv. 

Not tanks this time. This year was brought to the square and presented proudly, the Iron Dome missile system which is intended to intercept short-range missiles. And at the firm demand of the competing producer of the Arrow Missiles, also its anti-missile missiles are part of the exhibition. The development of the middle range missile against missile, called Magic Wand, is not yet completed and it will have to wait for next year. Foreign sources have already for years told that Israel possesses its own offensive missiles, named 'Jericho', which can carry nuclear warheads to any point in the middle East and quite a bit beyond. However, Israel never admitted their existence, and certainly they are not included in the exhibition.

It is difficult for children to climb on vertically exposed missiles, but at least there was made available a photo opportunity where they could get photographed as if riding a missile high in the sky. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Small Bang

On the same day that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came to meet President Barack Obama of the United States at the White House,  and when President Valdimir Putin of Russia announced that as far as he is concerned  the Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, news came out which excited the world of science and managed to get some attention even from those who are not involved in physics. 

The subtle observations of the telescope mounted in the fresh Antarctic air had provided confirmation and empirical proof for the hypothesis that about fourteen billion years ago our universe was less than the size of a single atom, that it had exploded in a Big Bang and began to expand and expand and expand and still continues  expanding. "The confirmation of the theory means that the universe which we can see, spanning  over 14 billion light years with hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal corner in a far vaster cosmos whose size, structure and ultimate fate are unfathomable" was how the scientific editor of  Ha’aretz tried to explain it.

To the Bedouin citizens of Israel who reside at a small dot in the Negev desert called the village of El Arakib, the size and age of the universe take a definite second place to the police and government demolition teams which visit Arakib again and again. Next time, so they threatened, they will also demolish the village cemetery, which hitherto remained untouched.

Among the living beings known to us, the ants are the only ones, except for human beings, who are in the habit of going to war. Not one against one or two against two, but thousands and tens of thousands, whole armies of ants going into battle and resorting to sophisticated tactics and strategies to defeat the opposing nest 's army.

When I was ten or eleven, I and the other neighborhood kids witnessed ants at war. The entire backyard was full of ants, thousands of ants engaged in a life and death struggle. The modest backyard of our house on Philon Street in the Old North of Tel Aviv, which a human could cross in one minute, was for the ants Homeland and Fatherland and Promised Land and Holy Land and Occupied Territory and Liberated Territory for whose sake it was definitely worthy to sacrifice one’s  life. Ilan, our neighbors’ son, gathered some ten ants and dumped them in another corner of the yard. To our eyes they all looked the same, but they could instantly recognize who is a friend and who is a foe, and after a moment of confusion they renewed their battle. When we went to sleep the ants’ battle was still going on intensively.

The next morning the yard was completely empty of them, not a single ant anywhere in sight. After about a week, ants appeared again in the yard -  engaged in ordinary ant daily life activities, gathering food and returning in a long convoy to the nest. Were these the indigenous ants who had lived here long before and who had heroically repelled the invaders of their country? Or were they conquerors and settlers taking control of newly conquered territory? There was no way of knowing, to the eyes of human beings all these ants looked the same.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

“We are not Pirates – we are the Israeli Defence Forces”

“We are not pirates, we are the Israeli Defense Forces” – Yediot Aharonot, March 7, 2014

My involvement in political activity began many years ago , as high school pupil in Tel Aviv who came to volunteer at the elections headquarters of the “Holam Hazeh - New Force" party. It was a small party, holding but a single seat among 120 in the Knesset, and that single MK was Uri Avnery. It was an unconventional and highly dissident party, which struggled for the separation of religion and state, and which was the first to raise the idea of ​​establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after these territories were occupied in June 1967. Moreover, Uri Avnery was acknowledged, even by his staunch opponents , as a highly industrious Knesset Member. He made it his invariable practice to sit at all Knesset sessions without exception, even when the plenary was otherwise empty, and expressed great interest and considerable involvement even in deliberations of technical and boring issues (which often have the most influence on the daily life of ordinary citizens).

Starting from the next elections, it will no longer be possible for such an audacious and iconoclastic member to serve in Israel’s Knesset  and stand alone if need be, "One against 119 ". According to the law enacted this week by the tyrannical Knesset  majority, any new Israeli party which will arise in the future would need to pass a high hurdle and gain enough votes for at least four seats - otherwise all votes cast for it will be lost. A very high hurdle for those expressing innovative and unorthodox positions. Also veteran, long established parties which undergo a crisis, as happened to Meretz in the March 2009 elections, might now be wiped out and disappear from the political spectrum, given no breathing space to recover and regain the confidence of their voters. Of course, even now new parties might emerge from nowhere and soar to heights, as did Yair Lapid and his party in the last elections - especially if they take care to keep their message superficial and populist and not really binding. It would be poetic justice if Yair Lapid’s lucky streak would fade by the next elections and his party fails to pass the threshold he had himself raised... (Such things have happened before in Israeli politics, even to the party which had once been created by Lapid’s own father.)

Of course, as nobody bothered to hide, the new law primarily targets the Arab citizens of Israel, and aims at blocking the parties which represent them from gaining parliamentary representation. Unless these parties are to unite, or at least form an alliance to run jointly in elections despite the great ideological and practical differences between an Islamic party, a nationalist party and a  Communist party (which also upholds the principle of partnership between Jews and Arabs and sternly refuses to be classified as “an Arab party") .

Probably, in the next elections these parties will have no choice but to bridge their differences and form a joint electoral slate. There had been more than one case in Jewish History when, faced with an antisemitic offensive,   Jews were forced to cooperate with each other – left-wing Jews and right-wing Jews, religious and secular. Also other persecuted minorities in different countries had such occasions...

And just at the time that the tyrannical Knesset majority launched the offensive campaign to raise the electoral threshold, and the opposition united in an unprecedented protest act of boycotting the deliberations and vote, the ship Klos C entered the port of Eilat to the sound of fanfare. A ship flying a Panamanian flag and manned normal days by a Turkish crew and nowadays  replaced by a crew of Israeli Navy commandos which took it over at a distance of 1500 kilometers from the shores of Israel, in an intricate operation described in detail by all the Israeli media for five consecutive days. Waiting for the ship were some citizens waving flags, and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and sundry senior military officers as well as foreign journalists, though not in the numbers which the PM’s bureau expected.

Everybody in the port watched the unloading and meticulous count of the loot: 40 rockets and 181 mortar shells and 400 thousand rounds for the Belgian 7.62 FN MAG machine gun. (As an IDF conscript, I had at one time been charged with the cleaning and lubrication of such a gun).  And the Prime Minister gave a speech expressing his irritation with the indifference and hypocrisy of the world, which failed to be duly shocked by the terrible crime committed by the Iranians who had sent the ship and its cargo. The veteran military correspondent  Amos Harel of Ha’aretz wrote: "At some moments during the  live government propaganda broadcast from the Eilat naval base in Eilat, the camera lingered on the face of Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot , and it seemed that the general would have rather been somewhere else. Senior officers told me that the operation to capture the arms ship had been a neat intelligence and operational success, but when marketed to the public and the media it was blown out of all proper proportions."

What might be remembered of this whole affair are the words of the commander of the naval force which captured the ship, quoted in a banner  headline on the "Yediot Aharonot" weekend  edition, "We have told the Captain: We are not pirates, we are the Israel Defense Forces." Such words of clarification were definitely required, because in the waters where the ship was captured there are indeed modern pirates who are in the habit of taking over  passing merchant ships . But these pirates are mainly poverty-stricken Somalis, sailing small boats out of godforsaken anchorages in their ruined homeland.  But these were warships of the navy of the state of Israel, a sovereign state in possession of weapons galore and even submarines armed with nuclear missiles...

Apparently, not much has changed in the world since the 16th century, when the famous Rabbi Yehudah Leib Modina lived in Venice and in his book “Tzemach Tzedek” (Tree of Justice) he quoted an already old legend: "In the olden days of Macedonian Alexander, it came to pass that the King’s Chief Henchman laid hands on one of the despoilers of the seaways that are called Corsairs, and brought him into the Royal presence. And Alexander did ask him, Why dost thou roam the sea to plunder and rob? Replied he, The King’s Majesty dost hold the globe entire to ransom with hosts innumerable, and in consequence a Great King art thou acclaimed, whereas I have but the single vessel and wherefore am I accounted a vulgar robber”.

This week was also the week in which IDF soldiers shot dead a Palestinian named Raed Zeiter at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. "He had tried to grab the weapon of a soldier, and was shot" said a brief statement sent to the media. Normally, this would have been the end of the story, at least as far as the Israeli public is concerned. Citizens of Israel usually take soldiers’ word without demur. Those were killed because they were about to fire a missile, and this one was killed because he threw stones, and she was killed because she came near to the border fence at night and this one was killed because the soldiers sincerely suspected him of being a terrorist and did not take a risk so a regrettable mistake occurred.  Only a handful of leftist Human Rights activists dare to dispute the Gospel handed down from the IDF Spokesperson’s bureau .

But soldiers are not always able to distinguish whom it is permitted to kill and whom not. In this case it turned out that the dead Raed Zeiter was not just an ordinary Palestinian, but a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who had the position of a judge in Amman. Therefore, his killing caused a great stir in Jordan, and set off a wave of demonstrations and strengthened the hand of  the factions which have long since been displeased with the peace which their King maintains with Israel. Therefore, Netanyahu was quick to publish an apology and a statement of condolences and to promise to let the Jordanians share in investigating the circumstances of the incident. Maybe in this particular case somebody would take seriously an alternative to the soldiers’ version – i.e. that possibly it was not  the judge who had attacked the soldiers, but rather the lethal confrontation started with the soldiers roughly pushing and shoving the judge. If only all Palestinians were Jordanian judges...

The three who were killed this week in the Gaza Strip weren’t. "A terrorist squad liquidated" was the caption of the brief army communiqué. The three were about to fire a mortar, the IDF was quicker on the draw and killed them, an open and shut case. "The mortar shell might have fallen, God forbid, on a kindergarten. We can’t take chances” explained on TV the retired General  Yom Tov Samia, whose years of ruling the Gaza Strip with an iron fist made him a popular expert on Gazan affairs. But those reading the fine print found that there had been no kindergarten at risk. Rather, the Palestinians were  aiming at Israeli soldiers who had crossed the border fence and entered into the Strip and were performing there an unspecified task of military engineering.

Who, actually, could claim here the right to self defense:  the soldiers who penetrated into Palestinian territory or the Palestinians who sought to contest  their entry there? An interesting judicial case which, it seems, no experts in  International Law will be called upon to deliberate. What did happen was that in retaliation for the killing of the three, dozens of rockets were suddenly fired at Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza Strip border – the biggest flare-up since the 2012 ceasefire was signed. Within a few hours, the Israeli Air Force embarked on a counter-retaliation with a series of bombing raids across the Gaza Strip. "Air Force lands a massive blow on Gaza" boasted on the following morning the banner headline of “Israel Today", nicknamed Bibinews. However, it seems that somebody selected carefully the targets all over the Gaza Strip so as to ensure that this time there were no fatalities on the Palestinian side, making it easier to put an end to the escalation.

In his weekly column Amnon Lord, one of the columnists closest to Netanyahu's bureau, exhibited a rare glimmer of common sense: "Israelis love it when the Special Forces, the IDF at its glorious best, perform such fascinating tricks as capturing the Klos C on the high seas. But would they be able and willing to endure and expensive and possibly bloody war against Gazan terrorism?" Apparently, the assessments made by the government and the IDF top brass reached a negative answer to that question, and after some words of bravado and dire verbal threats, the relative calm resumed along the Gaza border, with no casualties on either side. And, a new precedent was set - not only with Hamas can the State of Israel negotiate indirectly via the Egyptians and reach agreement on a cease-fire; also with the Islamic Jihad is this definitely possible .

The new ceasefire came just in time for Israeli children in the border communities to hold on schedule their outdoor Purim Carnival. Also in Gaza life went back to what is considered normal there. For the time being, Gazans can still enjoy the luxury of having electricity for twelve hours in every twenty-four; once the stores of fuel donated to Gaza by Qatar run out, they would have to go back to eight hours’ electricity only in twenty four.  

And among the many events of this crowded week were also the fifty highschool pupils, boys and girls, who signed a new School Seniors’ Letter - the first in five years -  announcing  their refusal to join an army of occupation. "We, the undersigned, refuse to enlist, and the main reason for our refusal is our opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territories by the military” they started. “The Palestinians are living under the rule of the government of Israel, a rule they did not choose and did not consent to, and over whose laws and decision-making they have no recourse whatsoever. There is neither justice nor equality in such a situation. Military rule in these areas involves violation of Human Rights, and even acts which are considered war crimes under International Law . There are extrajudicial executions, administrative detentions without trial, torture, collective punishments and unequal allocation of such basic resources as water and electricity. Moreover, the problem with the military system is not limited to the harm caused to the Palestinian society, but also with a continuing seepage into the daily life of Israeli society as well. The military system shapes education in the schools and opportunities in the labor market, and inspires racism, violence and ethnic and gender discrimination in the Israeli society. We are also opposed to the oppressive and gender discriminative system inside the army itself. Any military service, in any form and function whatsoever, contributes to the perpetuation of this status quo. Therefore, following the dictates of conscience, we cannot be part in this system”.

Already for many decades, Israeli society has witnessed the appearance of a  new Shministim (Highschool Seniors) letter every few years. The first such letter, back in 1970, was quite modest, going no further than to express the signatories’ concern over the then Golda Meir Government’s lack of willingness to move towards peace. In these days even that was enough to arouse a great storm of outrage by politicians who voiced concern about the  poor education which the brash youngsters had gotten. Since the Seniors' Letter of 1981, such letters included a clear statement of intention to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories and a willingness to endure prison terms, and later generations of Seniors went to the extent of refusing military service altogether. Some graduates of the military prison system in previous cycles have helped with advice to the present youngsters, so as to save them   having to learn everything on their own.

Several of the youngsters were invited to speak in the media, and as usual in such cases were immediately subjected to a wave of outrage, including vulgar invective  on Facebook. Unusually, also a senior politician -  Finance Minister Yair Lapid – chose to personally confront the mischievous youngsters via Facebook, and they replied vigorously and unhesitatingly. "Spoiled kids" the Finance Minister called them, and compared them with the young Ultra-Orthodox who prefer holy studies to putting on uniforms. A demonstrably false comparison – under  the law whose enacting Lapid’s own party had initiated, ultra-Orthodox scholars will have at least another four years of full exemption from military service, while secularists who refuse to serve the occupation are bound in the here and now for cells in Military Prison 6 at Atlit. This morning, many of the new COs along with veterans of the refusal movement have climbed the mountain overlooking that prison, to shout words of encouragement to a present inmate. Musician Omer Saad had refused, like an increasing number of Druze youths, to take part in the conscription to which their community alone was singled out of Israel’s Arab citizens. Ever since, he had been going into the prison and out and in, again and again.

All the events of this crowded week seem to be the prelude for the meeting scheduled at the White House next Monday, between Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Barack Obama. Its results might largely influence the outcome of the diplomatic initiative led stubbornly by Secretary of State Kerry – to go forward against all odds, or to reach a final collapse amidst  mutual recriminations blame games, probably followed by a new cycle of bloodshed.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Until the last secular soldier

Last Friday, the inhabitants of Bil'in marked nine years since the beginning of the struggle which had turned Bil'in from one Palestinian village among hundreds into a household word. On February 20, 2005, bulldozers had began uprooting olive trees on the designated route of the Separation Fence/Wall/Barrier on the land of Bil'in. That same day, the villagers held their first demonstration against the Wall - the first in the line of demonstrations which were since then held every Friday, with the villagers and those who came to stand with them encountering  countless volleys of tear gas and rubber-coated metal bullets. Two residents of Bil'in, Bassam Abu Rahma and his sister Jawaher, paid with their lives. Many others sustained serious injuries or spent considerable time in Israeli detention.

The purpose of the construction of the fence along the route designated for this sector was clear and obvious: to cut off half of Bil'in’s farmland and make it available to the Israeli settlement of Modi'in Illit. Modi'in Illit is the largest settlement in the West Bank, a real city, having some thirty thousand inhabitants and its mayor speaking about future plans to reach the figure of three hundred thousands.  The Bil'in residents appealed to the Supreme Court in Jerusalem.  and after years of deliberation the judges ruled that the land in which the settlers had not yet built would be returned to the residents of Bil'in, while the settlers could retain possession of the part where the olive trees had already been uprooted and neighborhoods of crowded four storey building erected (without  building permits and in violation of both Israeli and International law ). Two further years of foot-dragging by the army were needed until the Supreme Court ruling was actually implemented and the villagers regained about a third of the land which was stolen from them. Residents decided not to leave it at that, but continue their popular struggle until the Fence would fall, all village land given back and the occupation ended.

Group photo of the Belgian delegation in Bil’in

The Nine Years’ Anniversary Demonstration was a bit larger than usual, with the participation of a group of specially-arrived Belgian activists, but it was not really extraordinary. Like every Friday, hundreds of people concentrated near the mosque in the center of Bil'in, beat drums and waved flags and placards and marched towards the Wall. Once there, a confrontation soon developed between soldiers shooting tear gas and stone-throwing youths. Most of the time, demonstrators could only see the soldiers as anonymous figures clad in helmets, who rose for a moment behind the wall,  fired another volley of gas and bent down again . Only briefly was there a kind of dialogue: "Now, now , that’s enough, go home!" Called one of the soldiers . "This is our home! " answered one of the village youths in Hebrew. The soldier responded with some more tear gas.

A  video from the Bi’lin demo on Feb. 28, 2014, prepared by David Reeb 

 The conscript soldiers standing on the Separation Wall and firing tear gas had arrived there from towns and villages from all over Israel. There is one place from which none of them came: the huge settlement of Modi'in Illit to whose protection they were stationed. Modi'in Illit is a Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) settlement. Strange as it may sound, the residents of Modi'in Illit define themselves as “Anti-Zionists”.  That is, they have no objection to living on land which was taken by force from Palestinian villagers and getting the protection of the Zionist army against the anger of the original landowners, but they have objections - very strong objections indeed - to serving in the army which protects them.

Two days after the demonstration where Bil'in residents encountered barrages of tear gas, a bus convoy set out from the other side of the Wall to join the mass Ultra-Orthodox rally held in Jerusalem to protest against the new law which is supposed to apply to them the duty of military service. " Please don’t try to force us to join the army” pleaded one of the young Modi'in Illit settlers who talked to a radio reporter at the rally. "We want to dedicate our lives to the study of the Holy Torah, to Torah studies and nothing else. If you force us to go to the army it would be like taking fish out of the water."

"Torah study is crucial to the future of the Jewish People, it is no less important than the army" said in the same radio broadcast Knesset Member  Yisrael Eichler, one of the most prominent speakers of the Ultra-Orthodox camp. "For example, President Obama is now plotting to take away the Land of Our Ancestors in Judea and Samaria. If Torah scholars do not pray and ask for God's mercy and intercession, who will save us? ". Veteran radio broadcaster Arye Golan asked: "So, you are supporting a right-wing political program, and you want to fight for it until the last secular soldier? " "God forbid!” reacted the unperturbed Eichler. “We are praying every day for the soldiers, praying that they will all return safely from their tasks."

Apparently, what was is also what will be. The new law would apply the duty of military service to the ultra-Orthodox only in four years - and many are skeptical that it will ever be implemented.

So for quite a long time still the Ultra-Orthodox Modi’in settlers can continue, on Bil'in lands, to study the holy Scriptures under far from holy army protection.