Saturday, April 25, 2015

Another kind of memorial

Thousands attending joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial
photo: Combatants for Peace

At last we know when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began. It started in 1873, exactly seventy-five years before the creation of Israel, and the first casualty in this conflict was Aaron Herschler. His name opens the official list of the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed in the line of duty. On Memorial Day every year, that list is broadcast on a special channel of Israeli TV, mournful music accompanies name replacing name on the screen until the whole list is run through, from 1873 to 2015. Also on the rest of the year, the List of the Fallen can be found online. 

This year Aaron Herschler was mentioned specifically in the Prime Minister’s  ceremonial Memorial Day speech. "The blood of our loved ones is soaked in the soil of Israel. Our  boys and girls fell on a mission to secure the existence of our nation. The first to fall was Aaron Herschler in 1873, when Arab rioters attacked a Jewish neighborhood here in Jerusalem. Aaron was a yeshiva student, he cut off his  studies in order to repel the rioters, he tried to catch them but they shot him and he was mortally wounded. He was the forerunner for all the fighters who came after him and defended their homes".

After the Prime Minister’s speech, diligent journalists went to the archives to find out more about that Aaron Herschler. Indeed, the case had been widely reported in the country’s first Jewish newspaper, which started appearance a short time before. According to the contemporary report, there had been no rioters attacking a Jewish neighborhood but simply Arab bandits, stealing  both from other Arabs and from Jews. They broke into the house of Aaron Herschler, 23-year-old yeshiva student, to steal money. Herschler tried to chase them and recover the stolen property. They did open fire, severely injuring him, and he died at the hospital a few days later.

In January 1873, when this incident happened, the Zionist movement was still in its infancy. Theodor Herzl, was a boy of thirteen in Budapest and had no idea that he would grow up to be a renowned Zionist leader. The first Zionist settlement in Israel, Petah Tikva, would be established only five years later. Aaron Herschler was born in Hungary and came to Jerusalem to attend a Yeshiva seminary and join the "Old Yishuv", the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community which for centuries lived among the Arab residents of Jerusalem under Ottoman rule. Members of the Old Yishuv were not enthusiastic about Zionism, to say the least.

What would Aaron Herschler have said if he could have known that a hundred and fifty years after his death there will be in this country a mighty state, with a mighty army. What would he have thought if he could know that  the army of this country would retroactively enlist him in its ranks, and that that county’s Prime Minister would hail him as the first among 23,320 soldiers who gave their lives for this country? And on the other hand , what would have those anonymous thieves said if could have known that the bullets which they fired at the young man pursuing them would be considered in retrospect as the first shots in a war which would last more than a hundred years, a conflict that would figure prominently on the agenda of international diplomacy and engage the attention of the American President and the leaders of Europe and Russia and China? 

Aaron Herschler was not the only shade from the past which Netanyahu conjured up. Also figuring in his speech was Shlomo Ben Yosef. Shlomo Ben-Yosef had been a member of the Jewish nationalist underground known as Etzel of Irgun, and on 21 April 1938 tossed a grenade at an Arab civilian bus on  Rosh Pina–Safed Highway, in revenge and retaliation for acts committed by Arabs in the same area. Ben Yosef was sentenced to death and hanged by the British Mandatory authorities, and  came to be considered a hero and martyr for his cause. In the state of Israel his face appeared on a postage stamp and streets were named after him in many cities. In a song written in 1939, poet Shlomo Skolski praised Ben Yosef and held him up as a model and inspiration for young Jews. The most well known words of that poem are "You don’t conquer the mountain top/If there is no grave on the slope." Those were the words which Netanyahu quoted in his speech on the occasion of Memorial Day 2015, and he too presented them as the model and recommended way of life for young contemporary Israelis.

"Our proud people this day bow down their heads and flag in the greatest of all gratitude to our loved ones who had fallen. Our persecutors and enemies change face, the battlefields remain virtually the same. The more the threats of our enemies to destroy our home increase, the more increases our determination to defend that home. Our spirit has not weakened throughout the years, it grows ever stronger. We have seen that great determination in this past summer in Operation Protective Edge - such courage and fellowship and  togetherness and sacrifice. Unfortunately, in the Middle East as it is we have to continue to fight for our place. Our place here is not to be taken for granted without such a sacrifice. Only through the Iron Wall, each stone of which is held by our sons and daughters in the IDF - only thanks to them can we go on living here and raise our children and grandchildren. Dear families, our loved ones who had fallen have all become the foundation stones of that Iron Wall.” 

The term "Iron Wall" is taken from a well-known 1923 article by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the ideological current from which today's Likud party emerged.  Jabotinsky argued that it was impossible for the Zionists of his time to hold dialogue and reach agreement with the country’s Arab inhabitants. Instead, he urged his fellows to concentrate on establishing a strong Jewish military force, strong enough that the Arabs would have no choice but to accept Zionism, paving the way for peace.  Evidently, Netanyahu believes that the same still holds nowadays, nearly a century later. Except that if the great force built up by Zionism and Israel in these hundred years was not enough to “convince” the Arabs, it is doubtful if anything ever will.  

Conspicuously absent from the speech of Israel’s Prime Minister was the word "peace" and the phrase "Our hand is always extended in peace to our neighbors," which Israeli Prime Ministers traditionally tend to include in their speeches - even if it often seems no more than lip service. It was the speech of a leader preparing his people for a total war without compromise, without presenting his listeners with the slightest hope of an end to the bloodshed ever. Among other things, this can be considered as finally dispelling the rumors and speculations of Netanyahu intending to invite opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog to join his cabinet and serve as a Foreign Minister who would present a moderate and dovish image to the world.
"We will serve the people from the opposition benches. It is from there we will topple Netanyahu" stated Herzog. "Netanyahu is scare-mongering, spreading poisonous propaganda. It worked in his elections campaign, but eventually it will stop working. With his right-wing  cabinet he is heading for a right-on crash into the wall. His government will get into a dead end, and then maybe the public will see sense".

At just the time that the Prime Minister delivered his speech of blood in Jerusalem, a completely different type of memorial event took place in Tel Aviv. It was the tenth time that an alternative Memorial Day ceremony was organized by the Israeli-Palestinian group of "Combatants for Peace", bringing bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who all lost their loved ones in the ongoing conflict together, let them tell their stories of the personal loss they experienced and comfort each other.

"The common Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony came out of the  initiative of a bereaved father, Buma Inbar," explains Avner Wishnitzer who lost his own son Yotam at Lebanon in 1995. "His intention was to make it possible for the bereaved families to mark Memorial Day while emphasizing a message of reconciliation and an action to prevent further bereavement. We are not strangers to pain. Many of us have served in combat units, have lost relatives and friends. But we must always remember that war is not a foredoomed fate but a personal choice. Precisely on this harsh day we call upon both sides to acknowledge the pain and the hope of those living on the other side of the fence, to try to prevent the next war. "

The first ceremony ten years ago was attended by some two hundred people. Since then the number of participants kept increasing by the year, this time  already reaching many thousands. A large hall was taken and filled to capacity, and many were left out and had to squeeze into adjacent halls where the ceremony was shown on large screens. Big screens attracted considerable numbers of viewers in the Palestinian territories, at several European locations and in California. Many others – in Israel, the Palestinian territories and wordwide, were watching at home via the Internet. Until the last minute there was a tension on whether the Palestinian bereaved families would be able to attend – a settler group tried to get their entry permits to Israel cancelled. But eventually, the Palestinians did arrive and were received with applause.

The Y-Net website concentrated on two of the bereaved parents who participated. Iris Segev of Rosh Pina describes her son Nimrod, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War, as a young man, full of life and laughter, with an ever-present smile. Jihad al-Sre’ir of Idna village near Hebron says his son that “My son  Ala’a was my heart”. Ala’a was killed in the village by IDF soldiers during Operation Protective Edge. Rather than bitterness and seeking revenge, they – like others of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Familes’ Forum – found they could share their pain. 

Iris’ son Nimrod, 28 years old at his death, was a  computer expert and held a senior position in Microsoft. "In fact, his position as an army reservist was in process of being shifted from a tank crew member to an army computer expert, and he did not have to go on a tank to Lebanon in 2006. But he insisted. His tank was hit by a roadside bomb which was immediately followed by Hezbollah anti-tank missile. The missile explosion killed all four tank crew members.

"My husband spoke to him on the phone just before he went back into Lebanon.   Nimrod said he did not believe he will live out this mission. He described exactly how it would happen. He said if the tank would hit a roadside bomb it would be immobilized, and then it will be a sitting duck for a missile. Hezi told him, 'If that's how you feel, get out! Put down the phone, get away, don’t return to the army.' Nimrod replied, 'That’s not the way I was brought up'. He also said that if we get a coffin, he will not be in it. ‘There will be three sandbags inside the coffin to give it a weight. I will not be in it, nothing will be left of me’. And that's exactly what really happened. Six months later, officers arrived and told us that parts of Nimrod's body parts were found in the morgue and we needed to do another burial. It was a nightmare. "

"For years  I just drifted, I could not find any meaning, either to my life or to the death of Nimrod. Four years ago I saw a TV documentary which shook me. It was called ‘A Heart from Jenin’, about Ismail Khatib, whose 12-year old son Ahmed was shot to death by the IDF fire. In the hospital, he decided to donate his killed son’s organs. The film documents the father’s meeting with the three families whose children received the organs – an ultra-Orthodox family from Jerusalem, a Bedouin family from the Negev and a Druze family from Peki'in ".

"The film opened to me a new, humane perspective on the other side. I especially wanted to thank Khatib for what he did. Also thank him for the sense of mission and understanding I gained from him, the understanding that I should not just sit passively grieving for my son, but  do something so that there will be no more bereaved mothers like me, on either side. That  there will be no more sons going out to be killed, none on our side or theirs. When I tried to get my letter to Khatib I found the Bereaved Families’ Forum. Immediately I knew I wanted to be a member of that forum.

Iris is involved in a project which brings together Israeli and Palestinian women - all of whom have lost children in the conflict. They speak at schools and community centers, conducting  dialogue, expressing their grief and giving a message of reconciliation.

“It is exactly bereavement which brings the desire for reconciliation. Nimrod died and I could not accept it. It did not make sense. I felt that what I want to do is not to stop others from going out and getting killed. It is unconceivable to me that mothers go on sending their children to the army and thinking it will not happen to them. I grew up in this country and took in the atmosphere we live by the sword and that we will not have a country if we don’t fight. But I do not want my son to protect me. I want to protect my son. The most important thing for me was to do all I can so that such things like this will not happen any more, that there will be peace. Palestinians come with me to the schools, we tell the story from the personal and human perspective. They are my friends. "

Jihad Ahmad al-Sre’ir, from the West Bank village of Idhna near Hebron, lost his son Ala’a in July 2014. He died nine days after being shot by soldiers with live bullets. Today Jihad al-Sre’ir is a member of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families’ Forum conflict and prays for an end to the conflict.

Ala’a was 21 when he died. "He was working in the village," says Jihad, "and the month of Ramadan was marked at the time. On that day he came home, and after 19:00 it was permissible to eat after fasting. The custom is not to go to sleep, but to eat a meal that lasts until the wee hours of the night. Around midnight, after we ate, Ala’a said he was going to visit his grandfather, who lives about 200 meters from our house. He went with his uncle, my brother, and there seemed to be no problems, everything was quiet. If there had been any  tensions, I wouldn’t have let him go out. We did not know that there were soldiers. There are large trees near the road. My brother said he heard someone say to them, 'Come here'. These were soldiers. There was a war on in Gaza, but in our village nothing was going on. I do not know why the soldiers suspected them. "

Ala’a was shot by IDF gunfire. "My brother said he heard two shots. One of the shots hit my son and smashed through his belly." He was taken to a hospital in Hebron, where he remained for nine days, and on July 29 died.

Until the incident Jihad used to work in Israel in construction and renovation jobs. “Four or five months after the death of my son I was forbidden to go out again. They took my approval, the note said ‘Forbidden by the General Security Service’. They killed our child and then they took away my job. Now I'm sitting at home. All my life I worked in Israel, I have friends there." (It is a standard policy of the Israeli authorities to deny permits to relatives of those killed, on the assumption that they might be inclined to acts of revenge.)

After the disaster, Jihad became a member of the Bereaved Families’ Forum. "Even before the disaster I had Israeli friends, with whom I keep in contact by  phone. We don’t want bloodshed. We want peace.  'God willing, let my son be the last’. Every night since then, I feel like it just happened. I still live for the moment, but pray to God to stop the conflict, for our children and yours. "

Jihad received a phone call from Osama Abu Ayash, one of the forum’s members on the Palestinian side, who invited him to Bethlehem, established his connection to the forum. "When I joined the forum. We went and sat with some Jewish representatives. Everyone had lost a relative. I said, 'To have peace, to have a future, I'm coming'. We exchanged phone numbers and since then we are in contact."

- Would it not have been more natural to seek revenge?

"God forbid. That is not the aim of Islam. I would just like whoever did it to my son to be brought to justice. At the forum we all sit together and talk. We understand each other, everyone had lost somebody dear".


 Memorial Day is immediately followed the Independence Day celebrations. The 67th Independence Day of the State of Israel, taking place on the 48th year of the occupation…

A great number of young people roamed the streets, watching fireworks and listening to loud music from the loudspeakers. Yearly, the State of Israel tries to recreate the atmosphere of the spontaneous enthusiasm which prevailed in the streets of Tel Aviv night after the UN adopted the Partition Resolution (1947). The new fashion which spread on this Independence Day were giant plastic hammers - almost as high as the kids holding them - decorated with Israel's national flag. The children ran through the streets, busily hitting  each other with these hammers.

Among the many flags that festooned Dizengoff Street, there suddenly shows a surprising item in a shop window: two relief maps hanging side by side – a map of Israel as it is now, with the Occupied Territories included, and next to it a map of pre-1967 Israel, within the internationally recognized Green Line borders, which are only rarely displayed nowadays. It was the Bauhaus Store, a shop dedicated usually to Tel Aviv's unique architecture and to nostalgic accessories of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Not really a store with a clear political agenda. But the two maps were hanging  in the window, side by side.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

A complicated chess game and a Liberty Holiday in military prison

In the beginning of this week, the far-right paper Makor Rishon published an exclusive report entitled "Germany gave the order not to visit Ma'aleh Adumim – because it is Palestinian territory". As was related, the international Jewish organization B'nai B'rith organized an Israeli visit by the German female soccer team FFC Turbine Potsdam, to culminate in a friendly match with a team of Israeli girls. The trip was funded from German Foreign Ministry's special budget for celebrating the fifty years’ anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. For the German girls’ pre-match training, the Israeli organizers found a suitable location in… Ma'aleh Adumim.
"Then followed an amazing and shocking development" recounted Ralph Hoffman, president of B'nai B'rith in Germany and Europe, "The German embassy in Israel sent email messages to the team managers and told them unequivocally to cancel the visit to Maale Adumim, stating that Ma'aleh Adumim is a settlement in Palestinian territory, and that a visit there will be a violation of International Law. Our representative in Israel immediately called the Embassy. He hoped to hear there's been some mistake or misunderstanding. But no, the diplomat told him explicitly that this was indeed the official policy!"
"I'm still upset" added the president of B'nai B'rith. "Can you imagine it? Seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and they behave like this. Is this friendship? Is this a way to treat Israel? If they behave like this in sport, how will they behave on other issues? What will they do to business people?"

Indeed, the German government, which spends hundreds of millions of Euros from the German taxpayers’ money to provide the Israel Navy with submarines capable of carrying nuclear missiles, dares to also require German soccer players who traveled to Israel at government expense to abide by International Law. What a nerve!
On the same day that this news broke out, there was a radio interview with Bonni Ginzburg, past goalkeeper of Israel national soccer team and presently a well-known sports commentator: "This evening our team faces a hard test with Belgium. The Belgians are among the best in the world. We would have to struggle hard for every chance at the ball. But I would be willing to have Israel suffer a harsh and humiliating defeat on the pitch, if only I knew that the Lausanne negotiations would fail and that this bad agreement with Iran will not be signed. In fact, the next morning’s news broadcast told of soccer team losing at 1: 0 to the Belgians, and of a seeming deadlock at the Lausanne negotiations.
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s old-new Prime Minister, once again demonstrated his talent of creating catchy sound bites and arousing waves of panic. On election day two weeks ago he had warned against "Arabs being bused in droves to the polls in order to bring the Left to power". This week, it was the turn of "The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen Axis" which Netanyahu proceeded to describe in the strongest terms: "The agreement being worked out in Lausanne would be intolerable, an existential threat to Israel and to the entire region and to the whole world. The Iranians are trying to take over the entire Middle East in a pincer movement. It is impossible to understand how representatives of the powers close their eyes to this aggression, when Iranian forces continue to occupy more and more territory in Yemen. The agreement which is emerging in Lausanne sends a message that there is no price to be paid for aggression – on the contrary, Iran's aggression is being rewarded". (Zvi Barel expressed in Haaretz some surprise at seeing Netanyahu being "strongly opposed to the occupation of territory and protesting the International Community’s inaction in face of that occupation. In Yemen, of course.)
Exactly a year ago, Secretary of State John Kerry experienced a bitter diplomatic failure, which Netanyahu probably remembers proudly. This time, Kerry and President Obama were determined to see it would not happen again. Even after the passing of the original deadline, 31 March, there continued over day and night the intense and crisis-ridden negotiations between the foreign ministers of the six world powers and of Iran. On Thursday night was announced the agreement, designed to halt Iran's nuclear program for ten to fifteen years. Minutes after the dramatic press conference in Lausanne, President Obama delivered a passionate speech in Washington, speaking of a historic deal which will make the world a safer place: "This is the right way, the best and safest way to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. And it is certainly preferable to a bloody war."
Obviously, Netanyahu was not pleased – the transatlantic call by which President updated Prime Minister on the agreement achieved was yet another in the ever-lengthening series of head-on confrontations between them. The Prime Minister was quick to convene his Inner Cabinet and pass a unanimous resolution characterizing the agreement as no less than "an existential threat to Israel." Evidently, in the coming months he intends to wage another running struggle on Capitol Hill, with the help of his Republican friends. House Speaker John Boehner, the impresario of Netanyahu's famous speech last month, visited the PM this week and promised his help. But as noted by Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, "The Republicans are happy for any occasion and excuse to bash Obama, but they would not want to be perceived in American public opinion as those who led the United States into a new war in the Middle East."

"Israelis tend to judge the agreement by their own standards, so they find it hard to believe that Iran would really give up its nuclear program" continues Barnea. "Israel, in a similar situation, would not give it up. Israel would play tricks. Why should Iran behave differently from us?". Actually, it's not a hypothetical question. Israel was indeed in a similar situation in the early sixties, facing President Kennedy. And indeed, at that time Israel did not give up its nuclear program, but rather played tricks. Eitan Haber, who was Chef de Bureau to Prime Minister Rabin and became a rather sober and cynical columnist, wrote even more openly: "Every beginner politician knows that where nuclear facilities are concerned, it is perfectly acceptable to cheat and deceive the whole world. A country which invests billions of its best resources in constructing nuclear plants would also be ready to invest hundreds of millions in fraud and deception. Iran will not give up. The concessions which Iran made during the talks in Lausanne were similar to the concessions of another country, a country which we all know very well – a country which outwardly exhibited exemplary behavior and got high marks, but still built first-class nuclear facilities and already for years and generations subsists on nuclear ambiguity." Netanyahu’s aforementioned triad "Iran-Lausanne-Yemen" does not include Dimona, nor does it rhyme.
According to several commentaries in the American press, especially in the Wall Street Journal, the nuclear deal with Iran is part of a much broader political initiative taken by President Obama - the final goal being to "do with Iran what President Nixon did in China" and make the rogue country into a key player in the system of US alliances in the Middle East. Compared with the murderous fanatic entity known as ISIS, which erupted with great force in the past year and whose trademark are ever-new execution clips released into the web, the broadly smiling Iranian diplomats at Lausanne seem the very epitome of moderation. Indeed, precisely during the talks in Lausanne came reports from northern Iraq on the significant success of the forces fighting to expel ISIS from the key city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein. Planes of the US Air Force launched heavy bombardments from the air, greatly aiding the pro-Iranian Shiite militias on the ground in penetrating to the center of Tikrit.
This direction in American policy is very worrying to Netanyahu - and also to Saudi Arabia, the United States’ long-standing ally. It is not by chance that, exactly during the talks in Lausanne, the Saudis formed an alliance of Arab and Muslim countries to go to war in Yemen and send planes to bomb the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. In these bombings American planes are not directly involved, although the US did announce its support for "the military operation designed to strengthen the legitimate Government of Yemen" and reportedly provided intelligence reports and satellite imagery to assist the Saudi bombers in locating their targets. Also this week the United States resolved to resume military aid to Egypt, resigning themselves to the fact that General Sisi, the Saudis’ ally, had an impressive success in crushing the buds of democracy which sprouted in Egypt four years ago.

(In the circuses of old it was common to feature the daring stunt of riding two galloping horses at once. How will Obama fare with such a stunt?)
And what about the Palestinians? Following the signing of the agreement in Lausanne, Secretary of State Kerry stated that there are greater threats than Iran to the security of Israel – namely, ISIS and the failure of peace efforts with the Palestinians. With regard to Iran, France was the power most skeptical about Iranian intentions, constantly pressing for tougher terms, and Netanyahu had pinned quite a bit of his hopes on the French. But conversely, on the Palestinian issue France intends, already in the near future, to submit to the Security Council a new, far-reaching draft resolution which would state unequivocally the principle of the 1967 borders as the basis for the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. And, to Netanyahu’s alarm, it is far from certain that the US would veto such a decision – indeed, it is even possible that the Americans would join it.
It was just a week that Obama launched his broadside, stating that he quite believed Netanyahu’s elections pledge to the extreme right voters – "there will be no Palestinian state during my term". Conversely, the President found it difficult to take seriously the pale retraction published by Netanyahu after the elections, declaring that he was not opposed to the principle of a Palestinian state, provided that it will remain a purely verbal statement and never, God forbid, become a reality. Netanyahu had also taken two concrete conciliatory steps: The Palestinians were given the hundreds of millions of tax money which Israel is collecting on their behalf in accordance with the Oslo Accords, which were held up at the Israeli Treasury for several months – this, provided that Palestinian do not submit a complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And in East Jerusalem, preliminary approval was given to the construction of thousands of housing units for Palestinians - the first decision of its kind since Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and which had been delayed for many years, right-wing officials holding key positions in the governmental and municipal bureaucracy. Though, to be sure, realization on the ground of that decision might take years - while for the sake of balance, bulldozers in the here and now embarked on construction of yet another neighborhood for Jews only...
Still, on April 1 the State of Palestine officially became the 123th adherent to the International Criminal Court, fully authorized to sue and initiate legal proceedings for any violation of International Law committed in the territory recognized by the UN as part of Palestine. That would apply both to civilians killed in the bombing of Gaza and to the expansion of settlements in the parts of the West Bank designated by the State of Israel as "State Lands". "We are preparing files on all these issues. We will start proceedings when the appropriate time comes" stated the veteran Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians. "I hope that the very fact of our ability to file such judicial proceedings will act as a deterrent and inhibiting factor affecting Israeli behavior on the ground, from now on."
Will the ICC membership indeed make a difference on the ground? For example regarding the issue of forced displacement about which Human Rights activist Niv Michaeli warns?

"Dear Friends, I recently joined B’Tselem as data coordinator responsible for handling communities at risk of forced displacement. There are dozens of such communities scattered throughout Area C in the West Bank: especially in the Jordan Valley, the South Hebron Hills and east of Jerusalem. Home to thousands of people, most of these small farming and shepherding communities have existed for decades. In recent years, they have been subjected to ever more persistent attempts by the Civil Administration and the Israeli military to expel them from their land under various pretexts. With a view to gaining greater understanding of these communities, I joined B’Tselem’s field researchers on a visit to the area. I saw the long, arduous journey villagers must undertake to get water; the mind-boggling gap between the rough conditions in which they live and the conditions in nearby settlements, sometimes mere meters away. Words and photographs are inadequate to depict this reality.
It is also hard to convey the feeling of uncertainty that permeates daily life in these communities, of knowing that at any given moment your home, source of livelihood or property could be demolished or confiscated and that you are powerless to prevent it. Two such incidents occurred this month alone: on 4 March, military and Civil Administration personnel came to Khirbet ‘Ein Karzaliyah in the northern Jordan Valley and – for the fifth time since January 2014 – demolished the homes of the community’s five families. Two weeks later, on 18 March, Civil Administration personnel demolished the homes and livestock pens of four families in Khallet Makhul, a nine-family community that has lived at that site for decades. The Civil Administration had previously demolished all of the community’s structures in 2013. The residents of these communities are entitled to live undisturbed in their homes, as are all people. The Israeli authorities’ repeated attempts to displace them must cease. "
In the meantime, the calendar has once again brought us to Passover, also nicknamed the Festival of Liberty – a holiday which Jewish tradition had set to commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt, thousands of years ago. Whatever its historical basis, the Exodus is certainly one of the great emancipatory texts of human culture, and has throughout history served as a source of hope and inspiration to people who dreamed of liberation from bondage. In particular, it was a source of hope and inspiration for Black Americans.
Over here, Passover will also this year be celebrated by the soldiers engaged in the daily routing of occupation and oppression. And Passover will be celebrated with special devotion by a thousand settlers living in an armed enclave at the heart of the city of Hebron. In the general elections two weeks ago, these thousand settlers had the vote – which was not given to two hundred thousand Palestinians living in the city all around them.
Passover this year will be marked behind bars, by four young Israelis who resolved to refuse being part of the system of occupation, oppression and colonization - Edo Ramon, Yehiel Nahmany, Effie Darshner and Yaron Kaplan. Each of the four has a different background and different specific reasons for the decision to embark on refusal: Ramon refuses to enlist out of a straightforward objection to the military's policy in the occupied territories; Darshner is an Anarchist; Nahmany is a Gandhian pacifist; Kaplan refused to go on being a soldier.

Edo Ramon: "I don’t believe that force and war can lead to anything other than death and suffering. All the more so when this is an army which claims to be made for defense but is the tool of bloodthirsty politicians, a body calling itself 'The most moral army in the world’ which holds millions of men and women under occupation, in violation of their most basic rights. I will not wear this army’s uniform and will not obey its orders. Such an obedience would mean submitting to injustice, indeed becoming its accomplice. That’s what I told the recruitment officer in Tel Hashomer."
Yechiel Nachmani wrote: "After thousands of years of violence and abuse, a new way must be found. We must get ourselves, get the world, out of this cycle where all are casualties. I see online videos on the behavior of soldiers in Hebron, and my small and simple mind can’t comprehend how anyone can think that such conduct can provide a solution. What are the chances of these children in the video to make peace, to love, after what they suffered that night at the hands of the soldiers? In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: 'By opposing hatred with hatred we do nothing but spread hatred’. I'm not willing to join a system in which the supreme value is the use of force. My challenge in prison is to find a way to overcome hatred for the military and for the prison guards, to find a way of loving them, too. They are human beings and always remains in them something which is deeper than any of their behavior, something which gives me the hope that they can change."

Effie Darshner, an Anarchist active in the Achdut ("Unity") group, was unable to send from prison a detailed message giving in detail his reasons for refusal to serve in the army – since he went on to also refuse to wear a military uniform while being in the military prison, which led to his being placed in isolation.

Yaron Kaplan has already served eighteen months in the army, and his experiences during that time seem to be what led him to decide that he was not willing to continue this service.
Next Monday (April 6) at 12:00 pm, there will be held at the gates of the Tel Hashomer Recruitment Center a vigil in solidarity with the imprisoned objectors. Protest organizers cite the traditional saying: "In every generation one must see himself as if he himself came out of bandage in Egypt."
Journalists play chess outside the conference hall in Lausanne, waiting for the results (photo:Reuters) 

Demolitions in the Jordan Valley (photo B'Tselem)
  Effie Darshner holding an Anarchist flag, shortly before his detention (photo: Achdut anarchists)
Military Prison 6 at Atlit, where refusers – and ordinary disobedient soldiers – are housed in big tents (photo:Yesh Gvul )

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Occupier's democracy

Holon, 8.30 am, Wed. March 18

A bitter morning. A morning of disappointment and dashed hopes, after a tense elections day and a long sleepless night.

No further need of discussing and debating whether or not an Israeli Labor Party government would be truly able to reach peace with the Palestinians, and if Yitzchak Herzog can become a good Prime Minister.

In the freshly printed issue of "Yediot Aharonot", Sima Kadmon writes: "Those who hoped to wake up to the dawn of a new day, will find themselves in yet another yesterday morning. The State of Israel is today getting the Super-Netanyahu, a master campaigner who in three days managed to transform his party’s negative momentum into a wild victory. But Netanyahu’s victory cannot hide the fact that Israel is split and polarized. For half of us, yesterday’s result was no less than a fist in the belly." (Of course, had we won it would have been a fist in the belly for the other half…)
Only yesterday morning (how far away that looks now) I listened to the Voice of Israel news bulletin reporting that "Supreme Court Judge Salim Jubran, Chair of the Central Elections Committee, visited the Ofer Military Base near Jerusalem in order to follow the voting of the IDF soldiers". The radio reporter had recoded Justice Jubran talking with two young women soldiers, who had been charged with preparing the camp’s Military Polling Station for their comrades-in-arms. The judge congratulated the two for their contribution to the popular decision-making process of Israeli democracy.

The reporter did not mention what is the Ofer Military Base and to what use the IDF is putting it. But it is not exactly classified information that Ofer is a Military Detention Center erected on a parcel of West Bank land near the city of Ramallah, designed for holding the Palestinians captured on the raids conducted every night into Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank. Many of them are held in Administrative Detention without trial. Needless to say, these imprisoned Palestinians have no share in the democratic process and cast no votes in the ballot box reserved for their guards. What was truly going through the head of Salim Jubran, the first Arab to ever get appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court?

photo Gadi Elgazi

It is already for forty-eight years that the State of Israel maintains this double system. On the one hand there is a multy-party parliamentary democracy in which the citizens of Israel – about eighty percent Jews and twenty percent Arabs – elect the government which governs them and the legislature which makes their laws; and on the other hand a military dictator called the Commanding General, IDF Central Command who is the almighty governor, legislator and judge who rules over the lives of millions of Palestinians, his authority not seriously impaired in the twenty years when the Palestinians were allowed to have a "Palestinian Authority" to whom the Commanding General deigned to delegate some limited authority.

Even we, who are totally opposed to this state of things and seek to change it, have become used to it. After every general elections the Central Elections Committee publishes the precise and detailed report of the results; we have gotten used to it that every time this report contains a column entitled "Hebron" which provides information of the votes cast by several hundred Israeli settlers living in an armed enclave at the heart of Hebron (invariably, they all vote for the extreme right). This column would, on the other hand, contain no reference to more than two hundred thousand Palestinians living in the city of Hebron, who have no vote or voice in Israeli elections.
In these elections we had a sweet illusion which lasted a few weeks. The illusion that the citizens of Israel, in majority vote under these rules of Israeli democracy, might freely vote to elect a government which would get its armes forces out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In that case, at long last, by the next elections all who are governed by the Government of Israel would also take part in electing that government. It had happened before in other countries, where those having the vote decided to terminate a colonial or military rule over others. But it was not to be – not in Israel, not in these elections.
Not that we had the illusion that the issue of the occupation and of the Palestinians under occupation, as such, would be at the focus of the Israeli voters’ attention. To the contrary, throughout the campaign it was clear that this was precisely the subject which Israelis avoid to mention by name. But there were good reasons to feel that most Israeli citizens have had enough of the rule of Binyamin Netanyahu. Especially, because of the socio-economic woes which in 2011 brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, and which were not seriously addressed also after that. And if the Labor Party were to come to power, even if due to other causes, perhaps its leaders would have also taken up the difficult and painful Palestinian issue.

So, what did happen here? Were all the dozens of flattering opinion polls fundamentally mistaken, in persistently showing the Labor Party ("The Zionist Camp" as it is now called) opening a gap ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud? Or were the polls accurate, as of last week, but "Wizard Bibi" did manage to reverse the trend and get Likud supporters to come out en masse, with his intensive inflammatory campaign of the last days? There is an international conspiracy against me, tens of millions of Dollars are coming is from Europe and especially from Scandinavia in order to finance a defamation campaign against myself and my wife in order to put the Left back into power and that they would give up territory which would be used by radical Islamists to construct missile bases. The rule of the Right-wing is in danger, the Arab voters are moving in droves to the ballot boxes, the Leftist associations are bussing them in, the Arabs are coming to the ballots, the Arabs are coming to the ballots, the Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming, Danger, Danger, Danger, Danger…

Certainly, there are going to be dozens and hundreds of detailed analyses of these elections. But the bottom line on this bitter morning is obvious and clear-cut: Netanyahu had gotten an unequivocal mandate, and he will be once again Israel’s Prime Minister. He had drawn into his own party most of the votes of his extreme right partners, creating a large and powerful Likud faction in the new Knesset. (Not that I shed any tears over various racists and nationalist demagogues in the smaller parties who got their wings clipped by Netanyahu’s clean sweep…).
In order to gain the extreme-right voters, Netanyahu needed to make an unequivocal declaration: "If I am re-elected Prime Minister, a Palestinian state will not be created". Clear cut. No more "Bar Ilan Speech, no more lip service, no more ambiguous formulations. The veteran Saeb Erekat – who, it seems, will not be negotiating with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians any time soon – reacted: "Clearly, the Palestinians have no partner for peace in Israel. Now, more than ever, the international community must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court. The first case to be brought by the Palestinians in the Hague is due in early April.

Meanwhile, there remains on the agenda the resolution of the PLO institutions to put an end to the cooperation of the Palestinian Security Services with Israel, a cooperation which is highly unpopular among Palestinians. This resolution has only the status of a recommendation – but now, President Mahmud Abbas might find it more difficult to ignore it. The Israeli Security Service has gone on record stating that ending of the Palestinians’ security cooperation might lead to instability and the outbreak of violent incidents throughout the West Bank. As will be remembered, in the beginning of this month, the army carried out large-scale exercises, simulating various scenarios of the outbreak of a new Intifada

Immediately upon formation of a new cabinet, Israeli Prime Ministers are in the habit of going to the White House. But Netanyahu is not a new PM, he is well known – and not particularly loved – in Washington. So what is going to be said in the Oval Office when Netanyahu goes there and declares outrightly his new position "No Palestinian state on my watch. Period"? What will happen in the State Department? In the European capitals? In the UN Assembly General, and in the Security Council, and on the next occasion when the issue of casting or not casting an American veto will come on the agenda? The task of the new Foreign Minister, to be appointed in Netanyahu’s cabinet, is not enviable (though several senior Likud ministers will anyway contend for the job…)

It can also be expected the words and acts of the new Israeli government might increase the tendency of civil society in various countries to call for a boycott of Israel. By coincidence, precisely on elections day Ha’aretz published an extensive article about Israeli artists who perform abroad, who increasingly encounter hostile reactions, and some of whom tend to hide or obscure their Israeli identity.

What kind of cabinet is Netanyahu going to form? With the elections results, he will have no difficulty in forming a governing coalition with what he calls "my natural partners", the whole collection of extreme-right, religious and ultra-orthodox parties (or what is left of them after Netanyahu’s blitz capture of their voters…). But facing such a government, it should be possible to form a big and strong parliamentary opposition – the Zionist Camp aka Labor Party, which did not attain power but did significantly increase its representation; the newly formed Joint Arab List, which managed to significantly increase the voting percentage among Israel’s Arab citizens; the Meretz Party, which was caught in between the last two, lost many voters but did manage to survive and get back into the Knesset; and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), headed by Ya’ir Lapid who was Netanyahu’s Finance Minister for nearly two years until being kicked out, and who insists upon being "not a Leftist but a Centrist". Could all of these work together in a concerted parliamentary opposition, harass the new Netanyahu Government from its first day and shorten its lifetime? Or would one of them be tempted to crawl into the cabinet and serve as Netanyahu’s fig leaf?

Knesset Member Stav Shafir, who got to the Labor Party from the 2011 social protest movement and who in the outgoing Knesset distinguished herself in an relentless struggle against the funding of West Banks settlements, was the first to regain her wits early this morning, immediately after the elections results have become clear. Appropriating on behalf of the left-wing parliamentary opposition the veteran slogan of the Israeli right-wing "The Eternal People is not afraid of a long and hard road" she wrote:
"Friends, this is not the time for self-pity. This is the time for hard works, maintaining militancy and hope, with the same determination and courage which were exhibited in earlier key moments of this country’s history.

It is the morning after, and it is not an easy time. These are not the results we expected. The Prime Minster had conducted a shameful campaign, systematically inciting hatred. A campaign of incitement against the media, incitement against the trade unions, incitement against the Arabs, incitement against the left. In other words, incitement against anybody who does not agree with him.

Nevertheless, our party, our camp, has become stronger. A large part of the public has expressed a complete lack of confidence in Bibi’s way. The challenge now facing us is to give expression to this wide section of the public, to offer it a leadership and a vision. And most important – to work together, out of the opposition benches, in order to build an alternative to the right-wing’s misrule, their violence and corruption.

Bibi’s new government will be a bad government. A government which would further inflame social polarization, which would isolate Israel in the world and will endanger Israel’s security. We will struggle against this government, relentlessly.

We must not let ourselves be drawn into internecine struggles. On the contrary: all forces which share the aims of Social Justice, Democracy, Peace and A Real Security must come together. We must present a clear and comprehensive vision, adhere to it and struggle for it with all our might.

Good Morning, Israel!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Redemption from the mouth of a leper

Photos: Motti Kimchi/AFP - Ynet

The final stretch. Four days to elections, and everything is still hanging in the balance, and nothing has yet been decided. Will Binyamin Netanyahu fall or remain in power? Will a new government  be established in Israel, or will it not? And if a new government does come about, will it bring about a significant change or will it prove nothing but bitter disappointment? Until the morning of March 18, we will not know, and maybe not then, either. In these last days I think a lot about something which happened on one night many years ago, and of its significance for the political upheaval which will or will not occur in the Israel of March 2015.

In the summer of 1971, the word "Intifada" had not yet entered the Hebrew language. In the papers of the time we could read of the army and security service launching “a large-scale anti-terrorism operation in the Gaza Strip", but the reports did not really go into the fine details. At the invitation of a high school classmate, I arrived one evening at a meeting in the damp basement of an old house in downtown Tel Aviv. Twenty youngsters were sitting there, and in front of us was a soldier in uniform, just returned from Gaza. He told us things that were not published in any newspaper. He told of the arbitrary beatings of by passers in the streets  of Gaza, sometimes using whips, of bulldozers razing houses and whole streets in the refugee camps, and also of extrajudicial executions.  "People are located according to blacklists, captured, shot in the head at point blank range, and the bodies are thrown into dry water holes". We, the high school students assembled in that basement, protested strongly. We did not believe it, we did not want to believe it. "That's not true! Our army does not do such things!". The soldier said, "It’s all true. I've seen it myself. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night”.

Then we produced on an old stencil machine which stood at the corner of the basement several thousand leaflets entitled "The Truth about what is happening in Gaza! Residents of Tel Aviv, read what the military censorship is hiding from you!". We went out, two by two, to spread the leaflets in the mailboxes of the sleeping city, one putting them in and the other keeping an eye for police patrol cars.
Sometimes I happen to meet  one of the others who had been there on that night, most of whom are no longer politically involved.  When I ask "Do you remember that evening with the soldier from Gaza?" the answer is invariably "Of course I remember, how can  you forget something like that?”
I will never know the name of that soldier who influenced my life. But by now I do know the name of the commanding officer who sent him on such tasks. The name of that commander, cleared for publication many years later, was Meir Dagan. Dagan was a confidant and personal friend of Ariel Sharon, then the General in charge of the IDF Southern Command, and he headed a secret unit called “Sayeret Rimon” which was in charge of dirty tricks in the Gaza Strip. At that time the operation was considered  a great success – though that success proved quite temporary, the Palestinians rising up again, with greater intensity, some years later. Meir Dagan continued to be among Sharon’s associates through various vicissitudes of military and political fortunes. After being elected Prime Minister, Sharon appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency. Most of what he did in the later part of his career is still classified information, but the clues which the media let drop made it clear that also after 1971 he managed to accumulate a lot of "blood on the hands”.
After completing his term as Mossad Director, Meir Dagan began to voice public criticism, ever more acute, of government policies. In particular, in the years when the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran stood conspicuously on the public agenda, Dagan placed himself in the vanguard of public opposition to any such offensive. At first it was a little surprising to see him in that role - then we grew accustomed to it.
Thus, on Saturday night a week ago, it was not a total surprise to find the same Meir Dagan as the keynote speaker at the rally held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square under the slogan "Israel Wants a Change," a rally designed to mobilize and focus the struggle for the overturn and replacement of Binyamin Netanyahu. Tens of thousands of people filled the square, overflowing into side streets, the largest most hopeful gathering of the Israeli Peace Camp for many years. Meir Dagan’s speech was greeted with prolonged clapping.
”I do not belong to any political party. I'm speaking as a soldier who wishes to do whatever is necessary and possible for the country to whose security I have devoted forty-five years of my life. I have no other ambitions. Israel is a country surrounded by enemies, but these enemies do not frighten me, I am frightened by our leaders. I am afraid of a leadership which has no determination and gives no personal example, which exhibits indecision and stagnation. For six years in a row Binyamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister, six years in which he has not taken any real initiative to change the face of the region, or create a better future. Why do you want to be in charge of our destinies if you are so afraid to take responsibility?
”On Netanyahu's shift, Israel waged the longest war since the War of Independence. For an entire summer Israel’s civilians huddled in air raid shelters under thousands of rockets, while the soldiers suffered heavy losses. And it ended with nil results - zero deterrence, zero political achievement.
 “The health care system is collapsing. The housing crisis is peaking. The gaps in income continue to grow, the periphery had never been so far behind the center. One in three children lives in poverty. 40% of Israelis can’t make ends meet. Israelis look and  see a national leadership which cares nothing about them. So, where are you going, Mr. Prime Minister? Why should a person seek a position of leadership when he does not want to lead? How is it that this country, which is far stronger than all other countries of the region put together, is unable to make a strategic move that will improve our situation? The answer is simple: we have a leader who is involved in one struggle only  - the struggle for his own political survival.
”I do not want to get to a binational state. I do not want an Apartheid state. I do not want to rule over three million Arabs. I do not want us to remain hostages to fear, despair and stagnation. I think it is time to wake up, I hope that the people of Israel will no longer be held frozen by fear, by the ever new  threats of which we are warned  day after day.
“I have a dream - to leave my three children and seven grandchildren a different  country. I dream that they will be able to devote their life to growth, development, realization of dreams – not to fighting for their homes. I would like to leave them a better life than the life I have lived. I would like to leave them a society which will root out discrimination and violence, which will take back its heritage and take up responsibility for its fate. A society which will ensure a real opportunity for all its citizens and will strive for true equality.
”To get out of our difficult situation, all it takes is a courageous leadership which is able to take decisions. Does anyone think that the country’s current leadership is such?". The crowd responded with a resounding “No!". "I would like to appeal to all those who still say that there is no alternative to Netanyahau. I speak as one who has worked personally with three different Prime Ministers, having  different styles of leadership, as one who knows many of the contestants in this elections. There definitely is a better alternative!”.  The crowd responded with chants of "Herzog, Herzog, Herzog!”.
In his long interview on Channel One TV, Meir Dagan reiterated much the same positions, but added something personal hitherto unknown. “This is a photo of my grandfather, who was the Rabbi of a small town in Poland. The German soldiers who murdered the town’s Jews have taken this photo of him a few minutes before killing him. It was found in a Nazi archive after the war." - "And what is your conclusion from this chilling story?" "Of course, I have an obvious conclusion, 'Never Again', that nowadays we can defend ourselves. But I think also of the other side of the story. How the Nazis took a unit of regular soldiers, who to begin with were not so  different from the soldiers of any other army, and made of them cold-blooded killers. With all the differences in the situations, this is a danger that any army must be aware of." There can be no doubt that Meir Dagan knows what he is talking about.
As the crowd around me on the square cheered Meir Dagan,  I recalled the soldier from 1971 and the improvised leaflets furtively spread in the mailboxes of Tel Aviv. If next week Yitzhak Herzog of the Israeli Labor Party is elected Prime Minister of Israel, he will have a great debt to Meir Dagan and to the speech delivered in the square a week and a half before elections day.
“But I will not take the news of redemption / If it comes from the mouth of a leper. /Let a pure one bring the news, let the pure redeem/ and if the pure prove unable/ then let me die among the ravages of the siege”. So wrote the poet Rachel Bluwstein in one of the most famous pieces of modern Hebrew poetry - her imagery based on the Biblical story of the besieged city whose inhabitants were reduced to starvation and cannibalism and to whom four despised lepers brought the message of the miraculous lifting of the siege.
I feel I can’t afford to be that squeamish. If a person who had shed a lot of blood and perpetrated many atrocities can at an advanced age become the standard bearer of the Peace Camp, I will not reject him.
Of Binyamin Netanyahu, his government and his friends and colleagues, there is nothing to expect - not even the slightest pinch of hope. The Herzog Government, if it gets established , may well disappoint us – only those of whom you expect something can let you down.  Let’s take the risk.