Friday, June 13, 2014

Pride and predicament

Many years ago I attended the first Gay Pride Parade held in Tel Aviv. A fellow student  at the History Department, a lesbian who "came out" about a year earlier, asked me to come and take part. The organizers were quite apprehensive. At the time, homosexual relations were still illegal in Israel, under a British law which had been abolished in the UK itself. Though the Attorney General no longer filed charges under this law, the police still often  acted violently towards homosexuals. At that first Pride Parade we were several dozen people, feeling very isolated in the huge square in front of the Town Hall. There was no overt hostility from passers-by, but certainly also no manifestations of sympathy or support.

"Tel Aviv is marching towards equality"

This morning, several decades later, again a Gay Pride Parade in Tel Aviv. As has been the case for quite a few years already, it was held under the very enthusiastic auspices of the Tel Aviv Municipality, which took care a week in advance to decorate the entire city with colorful Pride Flags. At the point of departure, Mayor Huldai made a festive greeting to the crowd, estimated by organizers at one hundred and twenty thousand. Participants then embarked on “a colorful parade, a rainbow carnival, a joyful and positive protest at the still remaining forms of discrimination against the Gay Community." The annual Gay Pride Parade through the streets of Tel Aviv became a prime global showcase of Israel – the democratic liberal and open Israel, stronghold of democracy in the Middle East. No wonder that a special effort was mounted to bring to Tel Aviv a record number of gay tourists, especially for the parade - about twenty-five thousand of them from all over the world.

And just at the time when the parade of joyful and positive protest moved  through the streets of Tel Aviv, a bit less joyful protest took place at the Mosques Compound in East Jerusalem (Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif), one of the most sensitive points in our region. After the noon prayers, hundreds of worshipers marched in support of the Administrative Detainees on hunger strike in Israel's jails. This quickly developed into mass confrontations with the police. The Special Forces began firing stun grenades and rubber-coated metal bullets as well as beating protesters with batons. Some of the Palestinians barricaded themselves in the mosque, whereupon the police fired in pepper gas grenades, whose effect is particularly severe in enclosed spaces. Journalists and ambulance crews were not immune to the police shooting, either.

Today's confrontations ended with relatively moderate results - twenty-eight Palestinians injured and eight arrested. The settlers and their friends are now preparing the ground for the next outbreak. Tisha B'Av, the traditional Jewish Day of Mourning over the destruction of the Holy Temple - which had stood in that location a bit more than one thousand and nine hundred years ago - some religious-nationalist-messianic groups intend to “take strong action in order to to get a Jewish grip over this Holy Place." So,  Tisha B'Av this year will probably also be a hot day in Jerusalem.

Day before the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv, a bit less prideful  event took place in the arid area of the Negev northwest of Beersheba. From the morning until noon, large police forces, Israel Land Authority personnel, and bulldozers were engaged in systematically destroying the cemetery compound at the Bedouin village of Araqib.

The Government of Israel does not recognize the existence of the village of Araqib or any property rights whatsoever which the Bedouin residents might have over this land. As far as the authorities are concerned, all of the hundreds of Bedouins who cling tooth and nail to the soil of Araqib are illegal squatters on state lands, who are to be evicted and expelled. The state has many times destroyed the village of Araqib, and each time the residents rebuild it - or at least set up some huts where their houses had stood. But until now, the forces of destruction did not touch the cemetery where residents have been buried over generations, including many who died long before a state called Israel was established.

In accordance with new eviction orders, which were approved in court at the end of a judicial wrangle of appeals on appeals, police and bulldozers destroyed the fence that surrounded the cemetery complex, and opened the way to break in and destroy the huts erected by the residents Araqib among the graves of their ancestors. The residents - along with volunteers who came from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem late on the previous night - were rounded up by police and concentrated in the structure of the mosque adjacent to the cemetery. In the afternoon, after the huts were destroyed along with the sheds for sheep and goats and the water tanks, residents and volunteers were ordered to vacate the enclosure in order to facilitate demolition of the minaret which was erected last year. Some of them refused to leave and police arrested eight of them - six local Bedouins, and two volunteers, Rabbi Arik Asherman and Yuval Halperin. After the detentions and the removal of the people, the  minaret was destroyed. The rest of the mosque structure was spared. At least for the time being.

Meanwhile, Israel has a new president, after a very stormy – and rather smelly - elections process. The powerful emotions aroused were inversely proportional to the actual power and authority which the President of Israel yields. One by one, candidates were forced out of the race when various skeletons which they had in the cupboard were exposed. In the aftermath we have a new president  named Reuben “Ruvi” Rivlin who has the good reputation of an honest and fair man, who sincerely cares about democratic freedoms in Israel including the rights of the Arab minority. At the same time, he is also known as a staunch supporter of the Greater Israel ideology who wholeheartedly supports the settlers, and that in former position as Knesset Speaker he had lashed out furiously against the actors who had followed the dictates of their conscience and refused to perform at the "Hall of Culture" of the Ariel settlement on the West Bank.

Which of these two sides of the man is going to be the more significant in the career of the new President? Time will tell. Perhaps the most important will be the only moment when the President of Israel wields a significant political authority – the time just after general elections when the president must decide which  Knesset Member form which party is to be entrusted with forming the new cabinet. Will that be a moment when a bitter rivalry will come to light – the rivalry between the new President Rivlin and the veteran Prime Minister Netanyahu, both (at least officially) members of the same party?

Anyway, it is hard to expect that President Rivlin, with all his declared support for democratic freedoms, would raise his voice against the institution of Administrative Detentions without trial, which has been used in Israel since its inception (in fact, Israel inherited also this from the legal system of the British Mandate). Every night, military forces raid villages and cities on the West Bank and take Palestinians to prison according to detention lists prepared by Israeli secret services. Approximately ten percent of these detainees are placed under Administrative Detention, based on an arrest warrant signed by a military officer and authorizing the placing of a person behind bars without trial or charge of any kind, other than the general statement that "the above mentioned person poses a threat to security".

 In the past, some Administrative Detainees held personal hunger strikes, and were invariably set free at the moment when the prisoner was on the verge of death – as the authorities were apprehensive of riots breaking out upon the detainee’s death. But this time it is a collective hunger strike by all Administrative Detainees, and their demand is to be released as a group - and further, that Administrative Detentions be altogether abolished, and that Palestinians be placed in Israeli jails only under the verdict of a judge, for specific offenses which had been proven in court. In the Security Services’ eyes, the Palestinians had this time gone too far. They recommend that it would be better to take a tough stance now and risk also the death of hunger strikers and the riots which would follow; even better, break the hunger strike by force feeding. This week a bill passed its first reading in the Knesset which would permit the forced feeding of hunger strikers - though doctors who would implement that action might be charged by the Medical Association with a serious violation of medical ethics and possibly they could also be liable to prosecution for violating International Law.

"A hunger strike is a weapon of the weak" wrote this morning the Yediot Aharonot columnist Yoaz Handel, who is far from being identified with the Israeli Left. "In 1909, Marion Dunlop was imprisoned after writing graffiti criticizing the King of England on the wall of the Parliament building. Marion was a feminist who wanted women to have the right to vote, and en route she also invented the right to hold a hunger strike. Her example was followed by Irish freedom fighters, by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and also by terrorists and criminals” Handel adds. “Hunger proved to be effective, regardless of religion and state. The self-imposition of death in prison has become a threat to democratic governments, and sometimes even to those that are not. In Israel, the hunger strikes of Palestinians become part of the struggle for hearts and minds. The controversies are over photos and body counts. Any footage of a shooting starts a debate on the international arena, each dead prisoner becomes a symbol for the organizations that seek to  de-legitimize Israel. (...) The security apparatus is opposed to another agreement with the hunger strikers. It would convey a problematic message. Every prisoner release entails further releases. The choices facing Israel are to force-feed them or to let them die. Both are bad choices, both will be used to condemn Israel. "

Coincidentally or not, just this week a major international campaign reached its peak, targeting the big British security company G4S, which is involved in providing logistical support to the Security Services and Prison Authority of Israel. An impressive list of public figures called upon the company to sever such ties - and should it refuse they called upon other companies to withdraw their investments from G4S. This morning the campaign reported a success in terms of both propaganda and actual results: the famous Bill Gates of Microsoft and his wife Melissa last week announced their decision to significantly reduce their investments in G4S, and after several more days of deliberation and public pressure they have decided on complete divestment of all they had put into G4S – to wit, 184 million dollars. "The choices facing Israel are to force-feed hunger strikers or to let them die. Both are bad choices, both will be used to condemn Israel" wrote Yoaz Handel. Both options will strengthen and empower public campaigns of this kind, worldwide.

While I was writing this article, a new issue came up, which at least in the Israeli media takes immediate precedence over everything else: Three boys studying at a religious seminary in the settlement of Alon Shvut on the West Bank have disappeared, apparently kidnapped when trying to hitchhike close to midnight on a dark highway. From then on, the army and security services launched a very intensive effort to find the boys, and all the Palestinian towns in the southern West Bank are undergoing a massive military invasion and house to house searches. What did happen to them? Who captured them? Is there an intention to try exchanging them for prisoners and detainees in the Israeli prison?

So far, nothing is known - but Prime Minister Netanyahu has already found the culprit: "Abu Mazen is responsible for the welfare of the boys, all this is the result of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas." President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) noted that the boys appear to have been kidnapped from an area under exclusive Israeli security control, and that the Palestinian security personnel under Abu Mazen’s orders have been instructed to take an active part in searches. Netanyahu did not care for all that. The PR and propaganda line accusing Abbas of anything and everything which might happen on the ground was pre-determined long ago.

Shimon Peres, who will soon end his term as President of Israel, does not share in this tendency to direct an accusing finger at Abbas. Earlier this week, Peres took up the Pope’s invitation to come to the Vatican along with the Palestinian President, and take part in an interfaith prayer for peace in our region

Indeed, after everything else failed, why not pray.