Saturday, July 18, 2015

Life and Death

Sharon Gal is the latest among the long string of Israeli journalists who moved over to a political career. Immediately upon being elected to the Knesset he found a convenient hobby horse to ride – the call for introducing the death penalty for Palestinians "terrorists". At the same time as tabling a bill to that effect, Gal also placed on Facebook a selfie photo of himself holding a sign reading "I, too, am in favor of Death to Terrorists" and called on others to join in – and indeed, quite a few others posted similar photos of themselves, among them young children. Former Knesset Member Moshe Feiglin, who failed to gain election to the current Knesset, won a precious minute of media attention by declaring himself a volunteer hangman, ready and willing to perform executions with his own hands.

To Sharon Gal's surprise and chagrin, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded quickly and decisively – completely forbidding members of the ruling Likud Party to support the Death Penalty Initiative and removing it from the agenda in one fell swoop. In fact, this should not have come as a surprise, considering that for already decades the Israeli security services and IDF high command are firmly opposed to pronouncing the death penalty on Palestinians. That refers, of course, to a death penalty imposed publicly by a regular court of law, when months or even years might pass between the issuing of the verdict and its implementation in practice – more than enough time for the condemned person to become the focus of world-wide attention and for mounting pressures to avert the execution.

Only once did the State of Israel try to go this way, when in 1965 Mahmoud Hijazi – a Fatah member who had infiltrated into Israel and unsuccessfully tried to blow up an agricultural installation - was sentenced to death by an Israeli military court. The case generated enormous publicity and controversy, particularly due to the high-profile involvement of the sensationalist French-Algerian lawyer Jacques Vergès. Eventually, the authorities were forced to commute Hijazi’s punishment, and in 1971 he was released in a prisoner exchange. Ever since then, all branches of the Israeli security establishment are determined not to repeat this experience.

All this does not apply to extra-judicial executions, carried out without any prior notice, such as the killing these days of 17-year old Palestinian Muhammad 'Ali-Kosba by Colonel Yisrael Shumer. At first it was claimed that the shooting was a justified act of self-defense, as the officer and the soldiers under his command were in life danger. Yair Lapid, a prominent leader of the Israeli parliamentary "opposition", declared that "Full backing and support should be given to an officer who shot and killed a terrorist throwing rocks at his car. Rocks can kill, and soldiers need to be able to defend themselves".

After a week, the Human Rights organization B’Tselem attempted to spoil the party by publishing footage from the security camera of a Palestinian gas station near to where the shooting had taken place. It showed that though the boy did throw a stone at the windshield of the colonel’s jeep, he then fled with other teens – whereupon the colonel and his soldiers pursued on foot, fatally shooting the boy in the back from a distance of some ten meters, at a time when he posed them no threat. However, the revelation made no real change in the sweeping expressions of support made by senior military officers and politicians.

It was summed up neatly by Adi Arbel of the "Institute for Zionist Strategies": "A person who threw a rock at a car once would do it again. The first time he attempted murder justifies shooting him even during his escape, and if he accidentally dies, too bad. His being dead prevented his doing it again, for which the shooter deserves a commendation. With truly moral rules with regard to opening fire, there is really no need for a law to prescribe the death penalty." What do Arbel and his fellows in Institute for Zionist Strategies think about several incidents in which Israeli settlers hurled stones at the soldiers who were supposed to protect them, in some cases attacking senior officers? As far as can be ascertained, in such cases the Institute does not recommend shooting to kill.


Tiptoing around the elephant

On the evening before the Iran accord became an official fact, heads of the Likud Party were given summary messages which they were to repeat on all media interviews as soon as news from Vienna would confirm the signing of the agreement. And so it came to pass. "Israel Today" aka the Bibinews came out with the banner headline "An Agreement of Eternal Disgrace", and government speakers went on a media blitz, carefully reiterating the prepared messages: 1. The agreement is bad, very bad, terrible, an abject surrender agreement, a new Munich Agreement, Obama is the new Chamberlain appeasing the new Hitler in Tehran etc. etc. 2. Were it not for Netanyahu and his tireless efforts for the country, the situation would have been far worse, far more devastating. 3. The opposition parties and their leaders should feel ashamed of not having sufficiently supported Netanyahu in the past, and of criticizing him in the present moment when the grave situation mandates that everybody rally patriotically around the Prime Minister.

The third talking point turned out to be particularly effective. Yitzchak Herzog, head of the Labor Party/ Zionist Unity which is supposed to be the main opposition party, announced himself in complete agreement with the PM’s harsh criticism of the agreement with Iran, declared that "On issues of National Security there is no government and opposition" and announced his intention to go out on a PR mission in the United States and campaign against the agreement. In fact, Herzog volunteered to play the role which the Foreign Minister in Netanyahu's cabinet is supposed to perform, prompting rumors that he will soon receive the official title as well (so far, Herzog vehemently denies it...).

"What kind of agreement is this? The agreement gives Iran 24 days' notice before an inspection in their nuclear facilities. 24 days is more than enough to hide what is going on there!" warned the prime minister. As is well known, it is already much more than 24 years since US President John F. Kennedy demanded that Israel allow periodical inspections at the nuclear reactor in Dimona - a demand which at the time caused a serious crisis in relations between Israel and the United States (though it was kept mostly secret). More than twenty four years have also passed since Mordechai Vanunu conducted a completely informal and unauthorized inspection there and published his findings in the international press – for which he spent eighteen years in prison, and is up to the present forbidden to leave the country or meet with foreigners, so as to prevent him from reiterating publication of his 1985 findings. However, the Israeli nuclear arms are not – nor are they going to be - part of the ongoing debate on the Iranian agreement. It can be assumed with virtual certainty that also in the future, debaters will tiptoe around this big elephant in the middle of the room.

As things now look, over the next two months Netanyahu will devote all his time and energy to a tireless struggle in his favorite milieu, i.e. American domestic politics. All that remains of Israel’s influence and prestige will be invested in a no holds barred confrontation with the President of the United States, an effort to mobilize at all costs thirteen Democrat Senators who would agree to cross the lines, overcome a Presidential veto, and cause a crushing defeat to a President of their own party and a major victory to their Republican foes . This titanic struggle will occupy the next two months, the time period set for Congress to review the agreement with Iran.

According to this timetable, the dramatic vote will take place on Capitol Hill exactly in mid-September – which would coincide neatly with the opening of the UN General Assembly, the time when new initiatives might come up with regard to the Israeli occupation which is fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary. And then? Would Obama feel exhausted from the tremendous struggle and disinclined to start a new one - or vice versa, full of anger and bitterness at the Prime Minister of Israel and ready to totally confront him also on the Palestinian issue?

Teachers’ dilemma

On July 21 in Ottawa, Canada, the issue of relations between Israel and the Palestinians will figure on the agenda of the conference of Education International, a worldwide federation incorporating no less than
321 trade unions of teachers and educational workers from 162 countries. Towards the conference, the teachers 'unions from the United Kingdom and South Africa introduced sharply worded draft resolutions, particularly with regard to the widespread killing and destruction in the Gaza Strip last year and especially their severe impact on children and youths - culminating with an official call upon all teachers' unions worldwide to promote a boycott of the State of Israel.

At a preliminary meeting in Brussels last month, the representatives of the Israeli Teachers’ Union conducted a bitter struggle against the British and
South African proposals. Eventually, it was agreed that the conference would not adopt new resolutions on the Palestinian issue, but only reaffirm the resolutions already adopted on this issue at the previous conference, in 2011.

However, in order to get this result, the Israeli teachers had to agree to themselves endorse the resolutions adopted in 2011. These included statement that "The continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the existence of illegal Israeli settlements there and their impact on the lives of Palestinians, including [denial of] access to water, along with the siege of Gaza, impose severe constraints on the potential for Palestinian economic and social development." Also endorsed was the call for the 700 kilometer Wall to be removed, in accordance with the decision of the International Court of Justice of July 2004 and the expression of "Concern at the inhuman treatment of Palestinian child prisoners as documented by DCI (Defense of Children International)".

Two weeks later, somebody leaked to Channel 10 Israel TV the text of the resolutions embarassing the Teachers' Union, which represents 150,000 Israeli teachers including teachers at schools in the West Bank settlements... Sensational headlines appeared in the press: "Stop press: Teachers Union signing a call for a boycott of the settlements!" "Teachers' Union supports a Palestinian state" and more in the same vein. Immediately there were the predictable outraged reactions from the right side of the political spectrum, and even threats by National-Religious teachers to altogether quit the Teachers Union. The Union representatives defended themselves: "By signing the document we prevented a boycott of Israeli teachers by their foreign colleagues, we prevented a far sharper anti-Israeli resolution. Among other things, we prevented a recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return and a condemnation of the Israeli Air Force bombing in Gaza. True, even the remaining resolutions are harsh, but we all know how things stand in the international arena". And the Teachers' Union made a pledge: "We presented all the relevant data before the professional bodies at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. We will act responsibly and in accordance with their recommendations." So, in four days the Israeli teachers' representatives will show up at the huge convention hall in Ottawa, caught in a vise. How will they vote?

Susiya again

The removal of the fearsome bulldozers which appeared near the village of Susya in the Southern Hebron Hills two weeks ago turned out to be a strictly temporary respite in the military government’s plans of destruction. On July 12, the military authorities summoned Susya villagers to a meeting, where an official informed them that postpopnement of the demolitions had been a humanitarian gesture on the occasion of Ramadan, and that the demolition of nearly half of the buildings in the village would be carried out immediately after the end of the Muslim holy month. The military officials spoke candidly of the "virtually irresistible" pressure put on them by settlers from settlements near to Susya and by the settler association "Regavim" ("Clods of Earth"), clamoring for "the illegal houses" to be destroyed with no further delay.

Thereupon, B’Tselem and the Rabbis for Human Rights sounded the alarm, activists from Jerusalem called for the continuous presence of Israelis at Susya to try to prevent or at least delay the destruction, and it was resolved to hold there a joint demonstration of Israelis and Palestinians on Friday July 24. In the United States, the call was joined by Donna Baranski’s "Rebuilding Alliance" and Jewish Voice for Peace". Signatures were collected on a petition calling upon Secretary of State John Kerry for urgent intervention. Anna Eshoo, Member of the House of Representatives from California - who has a special relationship with the Middle East, being a member of the Assyrian Church based in Iraq – added her voice to the call to avert the destruction of Susiya.

And indeed, the US State Department did find time for Susiya among all the hot issues on the international agenda.

"We’re closely following developments in the village of Susiya in the West Bank, and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village" said U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby. "Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative. Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted. We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area. We urge Israeli authorities to work with the residents of the village to finalize a plan for the village that addresses the residents’ humanitarian needs."

This should be more than enough to deter Netanyahu, but nevertheless, it is important to maintain a presence at Susiya during the coming weeks.

P.S. : Adi Arbel, whose words in favor of killing stone-throwers were quoted on this page, requested to note down that these remarks were made on his personal behalf only and not in the name of the Institute for Zionist Strategy where he holds a position. Further, with regard to the possibility of soldiers shooting at stone-throwing Jews, he quoted what he had written on Facebook in response to a question on this precise point  - stone throwing by settlers / Ultra-Orthodox, he had written  explicitly: "Whoever throws a stone at a moving vehicle should be shot Very simple. If he dies – that’s his problem. He had asked for it". Adi Arbel is indeed consistent – still I  doubt whether he would actually call for a soldier who shot a settler to death to be given a commendation. I certainly doubt very much that others on Arbel’s side of the political spectrum would take such a stance. In any case, it's not going to be put to the test – soldiers refrain even from detaining  settlers – all the more, God forbid, from shooting them.