Friday, November 13, 2015

The Terrorist Grandmother, the Terrorist Child and Harry Potter

The following was written before the horrible events in Paris tonight. It is far too early to predict what the effects over here will be. As it happens, these events have touched me personally – close family members, on holiday, were in a Paris restaurant this evening - close enough to clearly hear the shooting, fortunately far enough not to be hit.

“It's not an intifada." Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon insists and reiterated that this is not an intifada, that an intifada is something entirely different. Currently, the Israeli media remain convinced. They do not call it an Intifada, they continue to call it “The Wave of Terror". A wave of terror that lasts and lasts and lasts and whose end no one can see. But in fact, does it make so much difference exactly what it is called? What is clear is that Palestinians in increasing numbers, regardless of gender and age and social background, are rising up against the Israeli occupation which is quickly approaching its fiftieth anniversary.

A week ago at Halhul Junction, north of Hebron, Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing the 72-year-old Thawarat Ashrawi of Hebron while she was driving her car. According to the soldiers Ashrawi, a widow and grandmother, had tried to run them over in her car, and they had therefore acted in self defense. This was taken up unhesitatingly by the Israeli media, who were quick to define her as a terrorist "even if one with a rather unusual profile." Palestinians trying to cast doubt on the official Israeli version were rejected out of hand - "It seems that the desire to carry out attacks is stimulating not only the young but also their grandparents. There can be no doubt of her complicity, after all she was a member of a terrorist family, her late husband was killed by soldiers in Hebron during the first Intifada." (In those days there had been no doubt about using the term "Intifada”…)

Thawarat Ashrawi  a few months ago - photo: Resist4pal

Rasha Awissi, 23-year-old student from Qalqilya, was killed by soldiers at the Eliyahu Checkpoint west of her hometown - two weeks before the time she was going to get married. The soldiers said she had tried to stab one of them. In the letter found on her body Awissi wrote: "I don’t know what will happen to me at the end of the road. I am doing this with a clear mind, because I can’t stand any more what I see. I am doing it for the defense of my homeland, to protect the boys and the girls. I'm sorry for what will happen to me, I'm sorry that this is the way I will end. Father, Mother, my brothers and sisters, please forgive me for what I am going to do. I love you all. Especially my fiancé." The letter was widely quoted in the Israeli media - especially as conclusive proof in this case there was indeed an attempt to harm soldiers. 

The 14 year old Ali Alkam, a resident of the Shuafat Refugee Camp in northern Jerusalem, tried on his way home from school to stab a Light Rail security guard. "I did it to avenge the killing of my cousin by soldiers" he said in police interrogation. His brother Muawiyyeh Alkam, 11, who also participated in the stabbing attempt, could not speak and explain himself and his actions. He was shot by the security guard, and was taken to hospital in serious condition, sedated and on a respirator. The headlines had much to say about "The 11-year-old terrorist" and commentators expressed their concern about the fact that children aged 11 are not criminally responsible – which meant that “the Palestinians might have found a legal loophole”. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has promised to try to plug this loophole, and look for legal ways to lower the age of criminal responsibility.

And immediately after the 11-year-old terrorist, the headlines shifted to the Undercover Unit, the celebrated Mista’rvim soldiers who know how to dress up as Arabs and mislead Palestinian passers-by until the moment they pull out their guns and charge. This time they have surpassed themselves when penetrating into the Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron and there detaining (or kidnapping – terminology depends on who does the reporting...) the 20-year old Azzam Shalaldeh, suspected of stabbing and wounding an Israeli settler two weeks ago. Abdullah Shalaldeh, Azzam's cousin, tried to resist the soldiers and was shot dead on the spot. Israeli media praised the resourcefulness and creativity of the undercover troops, one of whom was dressed up as a heavily pregnant woman and put on a wheelchair, while others pretended to be relatives of the "woman" and so manage to penetrate deeply into the hospital without arousing suspicion. The concern was raised that once the Palestinians published the footage taken by the hospital security cameras, the faces of undercover soldiers will be become known and their usefulness be at an end. But a specialist reassured TV viewers, "Their talent for acting and disguise is virtually unlimited undercover, next time they will look very different, completely unrecognizable”.

To the growing collection of photographs fitting into the genre of "The Pornography of Death" were added the photos of the pools of blood covering the floor of the Al-Ahli Hospital, which were published by several media outlets and spread with lightning speed through the social media.

Unlike other cases, the undercover soldiers did not take with them the body of Abdullah Shalaldeh, the cousin shot to death. His funeral was organized within hours, with a crowd of thousands following his coffin and chanting calls for revenge. In the following days there were more demonstrations in Hebron’ leading to clashes with Israeli forces. When soldiers shot at one of these, another young man was severely injured and taken to the same Al Ahli Hospital, where he died of his wounds. In his funeral were renewed calls for revenge. While I was writing this article an armed Palestinian was waiting at the side of the road, a few kilometers south of Hebron and opened fire at a car of Israeli settlers. Two settlers – a 40-year-old father and his 18-year old son - were killed. The army began conducting extensive searches in all the surrounding villages, and on the news there was an ominous talk of “the need to impose limitations on the Palestinians’ freedom of movement”.

”It is time to start calling it an Intifada" wrote the military commentator Amos Harel in Haaretz, noting that the IDF Supreme Command has already concluded that the forces of the regular army would not be enough. Four battalions of reservists have already been mobilized, and the army plans to bring tens of thousands more of reservists in the coming year, working on the assumption that the confrontation will last a long time. Meanwhile, TV broadcast a long favorable news item on the young women combat soldiers who take a major part in standing at the checkpoints during the day and raiding deeply into the villages at nighttime. “This is women’s empowerment at its best, a Feminist dream come true” gushed the reporter.

And amidst all the events of this week, the Israeli Prime Minister met with The President of the United States. Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu was asked for the meeting to take confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians, so as to help calm down the situation. The Inner Cabinet met and duly resolved to increase the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, approve zoning plans for a number of Palestinian villages where hitherto houses had been destroyed as having been “built without a permit”, and allow the establishment of a Palestinian cell phone system which the Israeli authorities had delayed for many years. "These measures will help to separate the terrorists and inciters of violence from the silent majority of Palestinians, who just wants to live their daily life" announced the PM. But he firmly refused any idea of a settlement freeze as a good will gesture to the Palestinians, explaining that any attempt to go in this direction would immediately lead to the collapse of his government.

Obama will not press on the issue of a settlement freeze. In fact, he just did not press. Both Netanyahu and Obama had an interest in presenting to the media a show of reconciliation after their head-on confrontation over the agreement with Iran. So the meeting was held – “very good meeting" (according to Netanyahu) or "an OK meeting" (Obama). It was agreed that Israel would receive an increased military aid package from the US, the details to be negotiated later.  On the Palestinian issue, Obama condemned the violent attacks by Palestinians on innocent Israeli civilians (not mentioning attacks by Palestinians armed with knives on Israeli soldiers armed with rifles). Netanyahu, for his part, declared himself to be “still committed to the vision of peace, based on the principle of two states for two peoples". So that no one will take this statement too seriously, a clarification was published in a banner headline of "Israel Today", the PM’s personal newspaper - "Netanyahu: there is no peace, because of the Palestinians – when we meet leaders ready to recognize a Jewish state, there will be peace”.

The most interesting part of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu was the media briefing by the President's top aides ahead of his meeting with the Israeli PM. White House Middle East Coordinator Rob Malley told reporters not to hold out for a major announcement: "For the first time since the first term of the Clinton Administration, we face a reality where the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution is not in the cards for the remaining time [of the Obama presidency].”

”Since the first term of President Bill Clinton." It was in Clinton’s first term that the Oslo Agreement was signed with a burst of hope and enthusiasm on the White House lawn. A historic handshake took place in front of the cameras between the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for whose assassination the twentieth anniversary was marked last week at a mass rally in Tel Aviv, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat who died ten years later under circumstances that remain controversial, with his headquarters surrounded and besieged by Israeli soldiers. Over the twenty-two years since that handshake, the Americans kept to the same format – trying again and again to get Israelis and Palestinians sitting at the negotiating table, in the hope and expectation an agreement will result. Apparently, Washington has now arrived at the conclusion that this model is bankrupt. You can push the Israeli government to sit down at the negotiating table - this does not necessarily mean any real intention or inclination to end the occupation.

What, then, is the conclusion? The radical columnist Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man has a clear answer: Netanyahu has won. By accepting that the two-state solution will just have to wait until Israel is ready to accept it, the White House has effectively conceded to Netanyahu's strategy: declare support for two states - in theory - while continuing to deny Palestinians their most basic rights and liberties”.

This, however, is not the only possible interpretation. It might be more than a coincidence that two days after the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, the European Union at long last made the decision which had been talked about for several months already. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, adopted the guidelines for marking products from settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, presented at retail chains all over the continent. Under the guidelines, a product’s origin in a settlement should be clearly marked with the words "Product of the West Bank (Israeli settlement)" or "product of the Golan (Israeli settlement)." Omitting this essential geographical information would constitute misleading the consumers. The guidelines would be binding in regard to fruit and vegetables, wine, honey, olive oil, eggs, poultry, organic products and cosmetics. In addition, the Guidelines document states that the EU does not recognize Israeli sovereignty beyond the 1967 lines, regardless of the status of those territories under Israeli law, and that regulations and legislation in Europe should reflect this position. Enforcement of the guidelines will be entrusted to the authorities in the 28 EU Member States

Nowhere in the European resolutions is the word "boycott" mentioned. No ban of any kind was imposed on the entry of settlement products to the European market, the decision whether or not to buy them left entirely to the personal preference of the European consumers. Nevertheless, from ministers and Knesset Members of the Netanyahu Government, as well as  parts of the “Opposition" came the highly predictable chorus of angry responses: “A reward to terrorism!" “An anti-Israeli and and anti-Jewish resolution!" "European hypocrisy and hatred for Israel!", "Anti-Semitism!", "Reminiscent of the Nazi Yellow Star!" "We should impose a counter-boycott of European products!". The most sophisticated response were self-righteous expressions of commiseration with Palestinian workers employed in the settlements, who might now lose their jobs. David Lahyani, head of the Jordan Valley settlers – who are the ones most involved in agriculture – said that “in fact the boycott began long ago. Until about six years ago, Europe was taking up some 80 per cent of everything we produce, about 450 million Shekels a year. But it dropped to 10 to 20 percent nowadays - the UK has started marking products already eight years, the EU does not recognize our certificates for organic produce, does not recognize our veterinary certificates, even before the latest decision they have found plenty of ways to hurt us”.

Obama refused to condemn the action of the Europeans, and in fact gave it his backing: "The United States opposes a boycott of Israel, but the European decision should not be considered a surprise, in light of the continued Israeli settlement construction. We understand that the goal is to provide EU consumers with correct information about the origin of products, as required by European law. The EU made it clear that the measures do not constitute a boycott and that the EU opposes a boycott of Israel. The EU does not regard the settlements as part of Israel. Neither does the United States.”

26 United States Senators signed a letter of protest addressed to the European Union. In this case, it is the number which is significant. 26 Senators who signed mean, by definition, that 74 Senators did not sign. It seems that AIPAC, battered in the hopeless struggle against the agreement with Iran, lost the ability it once had to obtain the signatures of at least 80 Senators on virtually any text it chose.

In the UK, there was in recent weeks a particularly stormy debate about the boycotting of Israel. Petitions and counter-petitions were published in the British press. London Mayor Boris Johnson held a highly publicized visit to Israel, where he dismissed the adherents as “a very small minority of foolish corduroy-jacketed lefty academics”, while in the streets of his city there were stormy demonstrations protesting the participation of British chefs in the “Round Tables Culinary Show” sponsored by the Israeli government and the Tel Aviv municipality. An opinion poll conducted among British Jews indicated an increasingly sharp criticism of Israeli government policies,  particularly among younger people. A quarter of those polled expressed their support for economic sanctions against Israel, if that would help achieve peace in the Middle East.

JK Rowling, author of Harry Potter books, was inadvertently caught in the eye of the storm when she signed a petition opposing a cultural boycott of Israel and called instead for “a cultural dialogue". She was flooded with angry protests of Harry Potter fans, who compared Israel with the evil wizard Voldemort. Vainly did Rowling try to appease the angry readers by expressing solidarity with the Palestinians: "The Palestinian community has suffered untold injustice and brutality. I want to see the Israeli government held to account for that injustice and brutality. Boycotting Israel on every possible front has its allure. It satisfies the human urge to do something, anything, in the face of horrific human suffering. What sits uncomfortably with me is that severing contact with Israel’s cultural and academic community means refusing to engage with some of the Israelis who are most pro-Palestinian, and most critical of Israel’s government. Those are voices I’d like to hear amplified, not silenced. A cultural boycott places immovable barriers between artists and academics who want to talk to each other, understand each other and work side-by-side for peace.”

Rowling's position in favor of the Palestinians caused great disappointment in the Israeli mass media. Yedioth Ahronoth published an extensive news item entitled "Harry Potter no longer on our side" – while at the same time, many pro-Palestinian fans continued to attack Rowling for her “unforgivable” opposition to boycott.

In one well-known episode of the Harry Potter series, the British Prime Minister discovers that there are in his country real magicians and wizards, capable of doing powerful magic. Naively, he thinks that a solution was found to all the Kingdom’s problems: "You can do magic, you can do anything!". The head wizard is quick to dampen his enthusiasm: "Unfortunately, Mr. Prime Minister, the other side can do magic, too”…