Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yet another casino

Two newspapers compete for the title of the most well-read paper in Israel - the veteran "Yediot Ahronot", which began to appear even before the establishment of the state, and "Israel Hayom" (nicknamed "The Bibinews”) which was established in competition a few years ago.

Their competition is not on precisely equal terms - "Yediot Ahronot" is a commercially successful business. Its readers pay five shekels in cash at the stall or take out a subscription; advertisers pay the fees appropriate to its widespread circulation. On the other hand, "Israel Hayom" is distributed free on the streets and its advertising fees are extremely low. This newspaper would have gone bankrupt long ago if not for the constant flow of millions of dollars every month from its owner, the gambling magnate and Netanyhau’s big friend Sheldon Adelson, who owns a large empire of casinos, especially in Macau, China. (A recent news item disclosed that Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to obtain for Adelson the franchise for yet another casino, in Japan - but the Japanese were stunned by the request and rejected it out of hand.)

Of course, there is a political difference between the two newspapers. "Yediot Ahronot" is considered to be very hostile  to Netanyahu. In the past week it devoted much space to the scandals related to Sara Netanyahu,  the Prime Minister's wife, who was among other things accused of recycling empty bottles which are property of the state and taking the proceeds to her own pocket. "Israel Hayom"  strongly condemned "Yediot Ahronot" and declared its rival to be "The Pillar of the Leftist Media". Of course Israel Hayom supports enthusiastically and without reservation all of the Prime Minister’s positions, and the headlines of the freely distributed paper often look like pure elections propaganda. (After all, that's exactly what Sheldon Adelson expects for the substantial sums he pours into the free daily.)

Still, on one issue "Yediot Ahronot of the leftist media” and “Israel Hayom” of the staunch Bibi fans plaid the same tune, as two instruments in a harmonious orchestra. On Tuesday, the Israeli Defense Force awarded decorations and commendations to soldiers who have excelled during the last summer’s fighting in the Gaza Strip. In both "Yediot Ahronot" and “Israel Hayom”, the editors considered this ceremony as the main news of the day, and the two papers carried identical banner headlines: "We Salute!" under which appeared photos of the soldiers whose bravery got properly recognized. On the inside pages there were extensive items giving at length the personal stories of individual soldiers, under such headings as "The face of the beautiful Israel" and “Thank you, our Heroes".

"Yediot Ahronot" chose especially to focus on the personal story of a combat medic who during the fierce battle at Gaza’s Shuja'iyya Neighborhood saved at the last moment the life of his seriously wounded commanding officer. Of course, as is habitual in such accounts, there appeared at the end of the article the medic’s self-effacing words: "I do not consider myself a hero, not at all. I just  did my duty, nothing more."

"Yediot Ahronot"? The Battle of Shuja'iyya? This reminds me of something. One day after that battle, Gush Shalom tried to publish in  Yedioth Ahronoth  a paid ad with the following text: "Enough! The bodies of civilians are piling up in the streets of Gaza. Dozens of children were killed. Israel is sinking into a new swamp in Gaza. Enough! We must end the bloodshed and lift the siege of Gaza.  There are no military solutions. Only negotiations can achieve a quiet border ". The advertising department of "Yediot Ahronot" refused to take it  ("We don’t publish political ads"). Of course, also this week, in publishing the detailed stories of soldiers from that war, the newspaper did not find it necessary to make any mention of the bodies of civilians and children which were strewn on the streets of Shuja'iyya (and of several other locations in the Gaza Strip).

Investigation in depth of the darker sides of the war in Gaza is left to others,  such as the commission of inquiry appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Israeli media did carry this week some exciting news about this investigation. Not about the findings of the investigation, which have not yet been completed, but for the resignation of the commission’s chair – the Canadian jurist, professor William Schabas. This was hailed in the headlines as "a resounding success for Israeli diplomacy!" The diligent researchers employed by the government  of Israel discovered that in the past Professor Schabas wrote for the PLO a legal opinion on the Palestinian attempts to gain recognition at UN institutions – and hence, that he was not an unbiased investigator. In order to let the debate stay focused on what happened in Gaza rather than on his own personality, Professor Schabas chose to  announce his resignation. But sober Israeli commentators suggested "not to rejoice too soon", since "Schabas resigned, the report will be written also without him, and the State of Israel will not look good there."

 "The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is a biased and prejudiced body, it deals with Israel more than with any other country. We should reject out of hand any report published by it" declared the angry Prime Minister Netanyahu. Indeed, the Human Rights Council is not made up of Human Rights activists; like other UN institutions, it is composed of Ambassadors appointed by the governments of UN Member States, and each of these governments has its own specific agendas, interests and various considerations as to what should be investigated and what should not . Those who sit there clearly find it easier to unite around the demand to investigate the IDF's misdeeds than to look into those of various other armies (though since the start of the civil war in Syria, the Human Rights Council issued several sharp condemnations of the Assad regime).

If the investigations of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations are biased and prejudiced, what of the investigations which the State of Israel conducts of itself, of its own army and soldiers? Also there, it is difficult to discern an objective and unbiased investigation. True, the IDF military police did uncover several cases of soldiers looting money and valuables from Gaza Palestinians, and these seem about to stand trial ("A soldier who during a battle devotes his time and energy to searching for valuables and putting them in his pockets, is not only acting immorally but also deserts his comrades-in-arms and betraying his duty to devote his full attention to the fighting").

But when some brazen military police investigators sought also to look into the orders and circumstances which to the massive artillery bombardment of civilian neighborhoods and dozens of civilian bodies lying in the streets, there was a very loud outcry. Hundreds of retired officers came out in protest at the idea of an investigation - or, God forbid, a prosecution – of their fellows still in service ("It is inconceivable that an officer giving operational orders in battle would need to seek advice from a lawyer!"). Minister Naftali Bennett came out in outspoken defense of "the soldiers and officers, Our Heroes" and took up the slogan “We have stopped apologizing!" as the centerpiece of the elections  campaign conducted by his Jewish Home Party. Also Defense Minister Moshe " Boogie" Ya'alon expressed "his firm hope" that no investigation be opened  against IDF officers regarding their operational activities in Gaza. And which   military police investigator or military prosecutor would be bold enough to spoil the firm hopes of the Defense Minister?

And so, the clock continues to tick towards the moment when the State of Palestine’s adhesion to the Rome Statute comes into force, enabling the Palestinians to file charges at the International Criminal Court against Israeli officers, for acts committed in territory which is internationally recognized as part of the State of Palestine. It would be rather difficult for the State of Israel to rebut  such charges on the grounds that Israel itself has already carried out a comprehensive and independent  investigation of the cases in question. But, anyway, it seems likely that the Palestinians would focus more on an issue where Israel has an even more difficult case where international law is converned:  itsf involvement in the establishment of settlements in Occupied Territory.  

Meanwhile, the neighborhood of Shuja'iyya remains devastated and ruined, as are several other locations in the Gaza Strip. Building materials enter Gaza only by a thin trickle, and last week UNRWA announced the termination of its assistance to those trying to reconstruct their homes; very little was actually provided, of all billions promised by many countries for rebuilding the Gaza Strip promised. In last month’s intensive storm and bitter cold wave, several homeless Gazans froze to death – which did not get much media attention. This week, after a new series of attacks on Egyptian troops in Sinai, General Sisi tightened once again the Egyptian part of the siege of Gaza, which just happens to complement and reinforce the Israeli part of the blockade. (Was Hamas or any other body in Gaza involved in the Sinai attacks? Probably, Sisi did not really conduct any intensive inquiry...). Out of the Strip come cries despair and dire warnings - "Gaza is on the verge of explosion."

The girl Malak al-Khatib also suffered greatly from that cold wave, being held at a cell in Hasharon Prison, dressed only in the light clothes which she wore at the time of her arrest. A 14 years old eighth-grader at Beitin village near Ramallah, she was arrested on the last day of 2014 near her school, and was charged with having thrown stones at Israeli soldiers. Hurling stones at soldiers is a common act among young Palestinians under Israeli occupation (although, in most cases, by boys). Malak al-Khatib was questioned without the presence of either parents or lawyer - a regular occurrence in the Occupied Territories, even though it contravenes the international rules concerning the interrogation of minors.

The interrogators also accused her of carrying a knife in her school bag with the intention of stabbing soldiers, and warned that if the knife were added to the charge sheet it would result in a years-long imprisonment.  In fact, no one ever saw the alleged knife. Malak al-Khatib, a 14 year old girl alone in the interrogation room and the cold cell and having no access to legal advice, agreed to sign a "plea bargain" and admit to throwing stones. The deal was brought before the judges of the military court at Ofer Camp, and in less than five minutes the trial was over and she was sent to two months’ imprisonment. It is not sure that the case of Malak al-Khatib is the most horrific thing that happened in the Palestinian territories in recent times - but as sometimes happens, she became a symbol and gained a lot of attention, even in the  newspapers of faraway Pakistan and Algeria (but not in the Israeli media, too  busy with other issues...)

A few days ago a protest vigil was held in Tel Aviv, on the sidewalk between the towers and helipad of the Ministry of Defense on one side and on the other the Sarona Compound, newly-inaugurated center of the city’s nightlife. About a hundred activists turned up, among them Knesset Members Dov Khenin and Haneen Zoabi of the joint electoral slate which brings together the political  forces representing the Arab population in Israel (and Jews who feel solidarity with that population). Signs were spread out : "Free Malak al-Khatib!" / "150 minors in prison - stop!" / "Close down the Ofer Prison, dismiss the Judges of the Occupation!" / "Down with the Occupation!".

Three boys and one girl walked past the protesters, leading their bikes. "What is this about?" asked one of them. "We are demonstrating here to protest the imprisonment of a girl, a girl the same age as you. Come, join us!". The boys looked at the signs, smiled sheepishly and moved on.

 "Boogie, Boogie, hey hey hey – how many kids did you kill today!". This chant, originating at American protests against Vietnam War, had already been taken up at Israeli protests many years ago, inserting either the name or the nickname of the current Defense Minister, as best fits the rhyme. "It's not exactly the most appropriate slogan for today" say some of the participants. After consultations the chant is changed to “how many kids did you arrest today!" and after a moment to “how many kids did you kidnap today!" – which was kept up until the moment of dispersal. "He calls it arrest or detention, as far as we are concerned it is a plain kidnapping" emphasized Dr. Anat Matar of the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University, a veteran protester.
And there was another well-known chant: "Boogie, Boogie, it is no joke – go to Hague, to the dock!”. Somehow, today this seems just a bit little less of Science Fiction than on the previous occasions when this chant was heard.