Saturday, May 16, 2015

A circus in Jerusalem and cinema among the Gaza ruins

"If you can’t ride two horses at once, you better get out of the circus," wrote John le Carré in one of his books. In his context, of course, the term "circus" referred to the ironic nickname by which British intelligence agents call their service.

Cinema festival in Gaza - photos: Masmerim quarterly
"No decent political leader would join the Netanyahu Circus, this last-minute cabinet hanging on the most slim of parliamentary majorities which you formed for the sole purpose of perpetuating your rule” stated opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog during the tense debate when the new government was sworn in. "You did not appoint a Foreign Minister, you keep that portfolio vacant “as a deposit” - in the hope of still getting myself and my party to join in a government hanging by a thread, a government struggling on a tightrope like an acrobat in the circus. No use. Foreign affairs are too important to leave untended, you should tonight appoint a Foreign Minister from your own party, to hold that ministry for as long as your cabinet lasts. It would be best for the future of Israel when this circus cabinet which you narrowly formed not be sworn in at all – and if sworn in today, that its days be short. For the future of Israel, the opposition which I head will strive to have a new cabinet formed in Israel, a cabinet not headed by you."

Netanyahu insists on keeping the Foreign Affairs portfolio in his own hands, even at the cost of a bitter confrontation with Gilad Erdan, hitherto his closest confidant, who had expected to get the Foreign Ministry as a reward for years of dedicated service to Netanyahu in both inter-party and intra-party struggles. Evidently Netanyahu still entertains the hope that sooner or later Herzog would relent, take up the position of Foreign Minister and present to the world a "sane" and “moderate” image behind which extreme right-wing policies could be carried on - as did  Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni in the previous Netanyahu cabinets.

"If you lay a hand on the Supreme Court, you will find me confronting you – with an enormous following at my back" continued Herzog. "If you lay a hand on minorities in the Israeli society, as you did in the last election campaign, if you talk to them and about them as you spoke on elections day, you will find me confronting you – with an enormous following at my back. The Prime Minister of the State of the Jews must not discriminate against citizens on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or skin color". If Herzog does keep his word and leads the opposition along the lines laid down in this maiden speech, he will be entitled to the apologies of many observers and commentators who had expressed a cynical doubt of his commitment to maintain the struggle.

Netanyahu has appointed three women to ministerial positions in his cabinet. Gila Gamliel got the longest title ever bestowed on an Israeli cabinet minister: Minister for Senior Citizens, Gender Equality, Equality of Minorities, and the  Advancement of Young People and Pensioners". Personally, her appointment  did not arouse public opposition. Opposition Knesset Members – especially the women among them - expressed even sympathy for her and the hope that she would have at least a measure of success in realizing at least some of the goals expressed in the long name of her new Ministry. In contrast, the announced  appointment of two other new women ministers - Miri Regev as Minister of Culture and Ayelet Shaked as Minister of Justice – did provoke widespread public uproar, and not without reason.

Miri Regev had had a successful military career, holding the position of Chief Military Censor, and then of IDF Spokesperson, at the rank of Brigadier-General - achievements which at the time gained her the reputation of a strong assertive woman. As a Knesset Member she became known mainly for repeated bouts of crude racist demagoguery - against Arab citizens of Israel (in particular, against the Arab woman Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi) and most particularly against refugees from Africa who maintain themselves with in the slums of south Tel Aviv. "The Sudanese are a cancer in our body, they should be sent back where they came from. The situation in south Tel Aviv is unbearable, I want to see the Saharonim Detention Center brim-full of 7000 infiltrators and illegal immigrants en route to deportation” declared Regev in a speech to an unruly crowd in south Tel Aviv. Immediately afterwards, Regev’s listeners started rampaging through the streets, beating up any black-skinned person they encountered. Of course, Regev announced immediately that that had not been her intention at all.

On Uri Weiss’ blog I found the following comment: "There are some who view positively the successful military and political career of Miri Regev - on Feminist grounds. They should be reminded that Regev was instrumental in  formulating the procedure of “Hot Return”, under which soldiers in the border area were instructed to immediately return to the Egyptian side any African refugees trying to enter Israel. Often, women refugees who were returned to the Egyptian side immediately fell victim to gang rape by Egyptian soldiers waiting on the other side”.

This practice of "Hot Return" was disliked by some of the soldiers who were charged with enforcing it. In the last recorded case, the Israeli troops did  return eighteen male black "infiltrators" to the Egyptian side of the border, but refused to deport the three women who had been with them - especially since the Egyptian soldiers waiting on the other side of the border have shown with unmistakable hand gestures their intentions regarding the women.

Ultimately, the entire "Hot Return" procedure was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Thereupon, an alternative procedure was formulated, whereby the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees were detained without trial and sent to the "open prison" of Holot deep in the Negev desert, with government officials coming and pressuring them to sign their consent to "voluntary deportation”. Three Christian refugees from Eritrea agreed to sign such a form and were put on a plane to Rwanda. From the airport there, they were deported again, eventually ending up in Libya - where they fell into the hands of ISIS militants who included them in a group of summarily executed Christians.

The ISIS video depicting the killings was seen by people who had known the three in Israel, both other refugees and members of the Israeli refugee aid organizations. The aid organizations held a protest rally in central Tel Aviv, under the slogan “No more deporting of refugees to their deaths!”. For her part, Miri Regev convened a special meeting of the Knesset Interior Affairs Committee “to inquire into  the sources of funding of the refugee aid organizations",  since “these organizations are undermining the Jewish character of Israel”. Such are the main qualifications which Miri Regev brings to her new role as Minister of Culture of the State of Israel.

The refugee aid organizations have twice filed appeals with the Supreme Court against the law which authorizes the protracted detention without trial of  asylum seekers. Twice did the judges rule the law to be unconstitutional and in contravention of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, but the right-wing majority in the Knesset for the third time enacted the Refuge Detention Law, with minor changes. Now pending before the Supreme Court is another appeal by the refugee aid organizations, and within a few months the judges will have to decide whether or not to once again overturn that law.

This is where Netnayhau’s second new woman minister comes in - Ayelet Shaked, Minister of Justice (originally slated to be Minister of Culture, before managing to upgrade herself in the fierce cabinet-forming negotiations). Shaked's public profile of polite and civilized talk is very different from that of Miri Regev. Ahead of taking up her new appointment, the new Justice Minister went on record stating her “great esteem for the judges of Israel’s Supreme Court, whose high reputation is world-wide," but added in passing that she would act "to prevent the Court from interfering in the work of the Knesset." She also noted that in making new appointments to the Supreme Court she would give preference to “conservative judges who avoid undue intervention with the  actions of the Executive and Legislative Branches" rather than "over-activist  judges”.

This was more than a hint to the two legislative acts which Ayelet Shaked had been promoting long before she got a chance to penetrate into the nerve center of the Israeli legal system. The first is the "Overcoming Clause" which - in case of the Supreme Court ruling a law to be unconstitutional or in violation of Human and Civil Rights - would authorize the Knesset to nevertheless re-enact the offending law. A second Shaked initiative would be a change in the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which would give politicians in general - and right-wing politicians in particular – a far bigger role in the appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court.

Are the Supreme Court judges intimidated and frightened by all this? Maybe they are. First, the court dismissed the appeal against the "Boycott Law" which was passed by the Knesset four years ago. By majority vote, the justices ruled that voicing a call for a boycott of products made at a settlement in the Occupied Territories is “tantamount to calling for a boycott of the State of Israel itself" - and that therefore,  it is permissible to institute judicial proceedings against anyone making such a boycott call and  demand substantial sums for “damages caused by the call for boycott”. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein went further, quoting from the traditional Passover liturgy the words "in every generation, enemies rise up to annihilate us…

Justice Rubinstein, along with his colleague Neil Hendel, also took part in the decision to reject the appeal by residents of the “unrecognized” Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev. The court ruling in effect enables state  authorities to completely destroy and raze the village, in order to make place for a Jewish community (specifically, a Jewish religious community) which  would also be called Hiran. It was no avail to the Hiran residents to point out that they have lived continuously on that location in that place since 1956, nor that on that year they had been transferred there by the authorities of the State of Israel when Kibbutz Shoval was established on their original lands. The judges ruled that the Bedouin residents are to be considered illegal squatters  who have no right in the land and whom the state may remove at its sole discretion. And within a single day, a virtually identical ruling was made by Justice Noam Solberg, who rejected an appeal by residents of Susya in the South Hebron Hill and authorized the state to demolish their homes and give over the land to the nearby Israeli settlement – which is also named Susya.

The difference - at least theoreticall:  Hiran is a village within the internationally recognized sovereign territory of the State of Israel, whose  residents are legally Israeli citizens for all intents and purposes, while Susya is in Occupied Territory under Israeli military rule. But as the veteran Amira Hass noted on the pages of Ha’aretz, the fact of an identical policy of dispossession being implemented on both sides of the Green Line (pre-’67 border), in both cases authorized by the Supreme Court with identical arguments, gives greater credence to those who regard the State of Israel - from foundation in 1948 until the present day – as a predatory entity bent on limitless oppression and dispossession. Hass expressed doubt on whether the Supreme Court can still be regarded as a bastion of Civil and Human Rights threatened by malevolent politicians, pointing out that Justice Solberg who rendered the ruling on Susya lives himself in a West Bank settlement.

In its latest ruling (so far) the Supreme Court has granted its approval to the “Dance of the Flags”, the traditional annual march held by young settlers and their sympathizers on “Jerusalem Day". That date marks the anniversary (according to the Jewish calendar) of the 1967 regarded by celebrants as “The Unification of the City of Jerusalem” (in the other narrative, as the time when  Palestinian East Jerusalem was occupied and annexed by Israel without asking or getting the consent of its inhabitants). To mark this happy day, the Religious Zionist youths tend to march in their thousands through the alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem, waving Blue-and-White flags, with many of them taking this opportunity to also chant "Death to the Arabs!", kick at the locked doors behind which Old City residents are hiding, and smash any Arab property in their path. Towards "Jerusalem Day" which will fall on 17 May this year, the "Ir Amim" (City of the Peoples) association appealed to the Supreme Court to change the route of the Dance of the Flags and divert it away from Arab populated areas. The judges ruled that although chants of "Death to the Arabs!" constitute a criminal act, that "in view of the police undertaking to prevent incitement and sedition, it would be possible to maintain the march’s traditional route."

The Israeli authorities’ intention to demolish and raze the village of Susya might be the first test case which the Palestinians would present to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The State of Palestine - recognized as a sovereign political entity by the Un General Assembly, though not yet established in practice on the ground – has gained membership of the International Court, but so far had not yet lodged specific complaints about particular Israeli acts. It might be that precisely the destruction and expulsion of a small impoverished rural community - which had never taken part in any violent activity and none of whose members engaged  even in stone-throwing at the height of the First or the Second Intifada - might prove a very difficult challenge for even the best legal counsel which the Government of Israel could muster.

Several reports from various sources indicate that Israel’s "Diplomatic Tsunami", of which commentators and politicians have long warned,  is indeed approaching. An official Vatican document made clear that from now on the  Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with the State of Palestine - no longer  with the Palestine Liberation Organization, as was the case for many years. Thus, the  Catholic Church, headed by the popular Pope Francis, joins with the Swedish government which recognized the State of Palestine a few months ago and inaugurated a Palestinian Embassy in Stockholm.

At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the strategic dialogue meeting held annually between the foreign ministries of France and Israel's became the scene of tense confrontation and conflict between opposing senior diplomats. The main bone of contention was the initiative of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to promote in the UN Security Council a new resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The French draft resolution is expected to include such principles as establishing the boundaries of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with land swaps, Jerusalem as the capital of two states, setting a timetable for ending the negotiations and the convening of an international peace conference. The inclusion in the French draft of a formula providing for some form of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state did not appease the Israeli diplomats, who leveled harsh words at their French counterparts, and were answered in kind.

The French foreign  minister recently accepted an American request to stall the process until after the completion of the nuclear agreement with Iran on June 30, but he is determined to bring the resolution to a vote a in the Security Council in September, when the UN Assembly General  is due in New York. According to rumors circulating in the corridors of power, the Americans would not block the French initiative - and might even openly support it. Officially, the US Administration announced its desire to "work with the new Netanyahu Government" and ask it to provide practical evidence of  its commitment to Two State Solution - but  Obama soon followed it with stating explicitly that he does not expect a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian deal in the coming year. The European Union reiterated the request, with its Foreign Affairs High Representative Federica Mogherini due to visit Jerusalem next week.

In fact, there is no real need to conduct any in-depth examination of Netanyahu’s intentions. Just before the elections, Netanyahu announced explicitly that "a Palestinian state will not be established on my watch." After the elections he issued a clarification which made little difference for the bottom line: "In principle I am still in favor of a Palestinian state, but in practice it is not feasible in the current situation in the Middle East." The term "Palestinian State" was conspicuously absent  from the new Netanyahu Government’s program. While paying some lip service to “promoting the negotiations process”, the program commits the Netanyahu government to "preserving Israeli national, security and historical interests." This formulation can imply the preservation of Israeli rule not only in every location defined by the IDF as 'needed for state security", but also in locations where Jews had lived in one historical period or another - which would leave very little, if anything, to the Palestinians.

In the absence of a fig leaf in the form of Herzog in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, international pressure is expected to rise, focusing on such demands  as the freezing of settlement construction and/or an end to Israeli army night raids and detentions in the A area of the West Bank, which is supposed to be under full Palestinian control. "If the Americans make such demands after the conclusion of their negotiations with Iran, it would be out of personal vindictiveness against Netanyahu and wanting to topple him" said an  unidentified senior Likud party official on the radio. Ofir Akunis, one of the new young ministers appointed by Netanyahu, expressed his concern that “a difficult situation on the international arena is in store for Israel," and expressed hope that due to this situation Herzog might yet be mollified and consent to join the government and save the situation... Outgoing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, once Netanyahu's close partner and now his foe, stated: "This new  government is living on borrowed time.  It can’t withstand the international pressure which already began and which will increase in September. You can already see the impact on the ground. The   Palestinians are not only turning to The Hague, but also asking FIFA to expel us."

Indeed, the most immediate Palestinian move is that led by Jibril Rajoub,  head of the Palestinian Soccer Federation, and a senior Palestinian politician, asking the International Soccer Federation (FIFA) to vote on a Palestinian proposal to  suspend Israel's membership and prevent Israeli soccer players from participating in international contests. The vote is due on May 29. According to FIFA rules, authorizing a suspension requires a 75% majority of the delegates present at the vote. The Palestinians would probably find it hard to mobilize such a large majority among the participating soccer associations. However, even a Palestinian majority falling short of that would cause great embarrassment to Israel.

Rajoub comes to the FIFA Congress armed with a long list of charges: Israel restricts the freedom of movement of Palestinian soccer players between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as abroad, restricts the entry of soccer teams from the Arab and Muslim World to play in the Palestinian Territories, causes damages to Palestinian soccer facilities and imposes restrictions on the importation of soccer equipment from abroad – and also that soccer matches in Israel are often the scene of blatant anti-Arab racism, especially where the notorious Beitar Jerusalem Club is involved. But the charge which the Israeli Soccer Association might find the most difficult to handle is that five clubs based in West Bank settlements have been admitted to the Israeli Association, despite its being an Occupied Territory where the Israeli association has no authority. Could it be that exactly when the power position of the settlers in the Government of Israel has reached a new peak, the government would dare to stop the activities of the settler soccer teams in order to save Israeli soccer as a whole?

A Foreign Ministry official said that an Israel suspension from FIFA could have   far-reaching consequences, much beyond the damage caused to the Israeli soccer teams. He said such a move could create a precedent that would give a boost to similar moves in other international sports organizations - and to moves to boycott Israel in general. It can be remembered the sports boycott which had been imposed on South Africa was one of the deciding factors that led to ordinary white South Africans accepting the need to terminate Apartheid...

Meanwhile, just in this week when Miri Regev was appointed to the position of Israel’s Minister of Culture, there took place an extraordinary cultural event in the Gaza Strip. As reported by the Masmerim Quarterly, a documentary film festival opened in what had been until last summer the Shuja'iyya Neighborhood in eastern  Gaza. The festival includes 28 films from different countries, on the theme of Human Rights. Posters announcing the festival were hung on the remains of destroyed buildings, the films themselves projected on a white sheet stretched across a broken wall.

With “the generosity of rich beggars”, the Karama Film Festival deployed sixty meters of Red Carpet through the ruins. Hundreds responded to the invitation. Khalil Al-Mozain, Palestinian film director and one of the initiators, says that one of the messages issuing from the three-day festival is that Gaza residents are ripe for the reconstruction operation promised by dozens of First World countries, which so far failed to arrive.
"We invite those who lost their homes to walk along our Red Carpet " said Al-Mozain to the Chinese News Agency. "Normally, it is Kings and Presidents or famous movie stars who walk on a Red Carpet. No less deserving of this honor are the residents here, still suffering great deprivation”.

It is not clear from the report how the organizers got the actual films for their  festival. Israel has not boasted of giving any assistance, and the Egyptians have long since lost the keys of the Rafah Crossing. On the other hand, with the special magic Red Carpet of this film festival, the riddle of how the films got there is the least intriguing.


Jerusalemites will not keep silent in the face of racism!

Stop the March of Hate on Jerusalem Day!

We will be standing in protest against racism on Safra Square, in Jerusalem's Jaffa Street, at 5:00 pm on Sunday May 17, 2015.

The Flag Dance Parade on Jerusalem Day has become a focus for extremist groups, disseminating hatred, racism and violence.

The march through the streets of the Eastern city, particularly in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, is routinely accompanied by racist slurs and insults,  destruction of property and physical violence against the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Year after year, the Jerusalem police and municipality fail to take any real steps to stop the violence and incitement. In the past stormy summer, violence and racism threatened to completely dominate and overwhelm the public sphere. This year we say a loud and clear No to the violence, the hatred and the incitement which threaten the delicate fabric of daily life in Jerusalem.

This year we will manifest a significant, nonviolent presence on the street. We will remind the inhabitants of Jerusalem that there is another way. We will not stand silent in the face of racism!

No to the parade of violence and incitement passing through the Muslim and Palestinian neighborhoods!

Yes to tolerance and coexistence in our city!

Dance of the Flowers vs. Dance of the Flags

Tag Meir is excited to help an initiative of Jerusalemites who have decided to put an end to racism in the city.

Tonight, following the march of the flags for Jerusalem Day, we are going to march in the old city of Jerusalem and distribute flowers to all residents of the Old City.

We want to show the faces of Jerusalem residents who want to live together peacefully and crave to see better days of love between all the people of the city.

We are going to paint the Old City - its streets, stores, allies and people with a lot of flowers, colors and love.

We will meet at 6pm at Safra Square (by city hall) where you will be able to take your flowers and we will walk from Tsahal square towards Damascus Gate and Jaffa Gate.

If you truly care about this city, on all its residents, join us and spread the word.