Friday, September 8, 2017

An enemy image is a vital munition of war


1) A shooting in Hebron shakes the Israeli society
The following article is due to be published in German by Internationaler Versoehnungsbund, the Austrian branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR).

 

 On March 24, 2016, a young Palestinian named Abdel Fattah al-Sharif tried to stab the soldiers guarding an enclave of extreme-right Israeli settlers in the heart of the city of Hebron on the West Bank. The soldiers shot and severely wounded him. Eleven minutes later, another Israeli soldier arrived on the spot, named Elior Azaria. A medic by training, Azaria did not try to give medical help to the severely wounded man lying on the ground.  Instead, Azaria deliberately pointed his gun at al-Sharif’s head and shot at point blank, instantly killing him.

A field worker of the B’Tselem Human Rights group was able to photograph the entire event, on a hidden camera. The footage was later that day released to the Israeli and international media. Faced with this unequivocal evidence, the military authorities had no choice but arresting Azaria and starting military judicial proceedings against him – which they probably would not have done had this video footage not existed.   

This was by no means the first case in which an Israeli soldier or policeman deliberately killed an unarmed or disarmed prisoner. Nor was it the worst such case. Nevertheless, the Azaria Affair marked a very disturbing first in Israeli history. Never before did such a big part of the Israeli society rally to the complete and unequivocal support of a soldier who had killed an unarmed prisoner.

Extreme-right groups held incendiary demonstrations outside the military court when Azaria was brought there, chanting “He is a hero! Release him – kill the Arabs!”. Alarmingly, this was no fringe phenomenon. Opinion polls indicated that a great part of the Israeli public – a majority in some polls – failed to see anything wrong in what Azaria did.

It was of no avail that the Army Chief of Staff and the entire IDF High Command reiterated, again and again, that soldiers are authorized to shoot only in face of a threat, and that a disarmed opponent  must not be harmed; that soldiers are given unequivocal orders to that effect, and therefore a soldier acting otherwise must be punished for his disobedience.

Israelis have a habitual, deep-seated admiration for the country’s armed forces, usually tending to place greater credence in army generals than in civilian politicians. Not in this case, however. Whatever the generals said, large parts of the public continued to hold to an opposite doctrine – i.e. that “Arab terrorists deserve to die” and that soldiers could and should kill them “without  the formality of a trial” and regardless of whether they are armed or disarmed.
Outside the military court building, the extreme-right mobs started with chants jeering the IDF high command and sometimes voicing explicit threats against the life of Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot and other high-ranking officers.  

In the Israeli peace movement we had our own intensive debate. There were those who thought we should have our own strong presence outside the court building. Others felt it would be a mistake to be perceived as hounding one specific young man, however guilty he was, and that we should rather treat this affair as an indication of what prolonged occupation and oppression of the Palestinians is doing to the Israeli society.

Elior Azaria was born when Israel’s occupation rule over the Palestinians had already lasted for three decades - and when he was put on trial, the occupation was nearing its fiftieth anniversary. There were good reasons to regard Azaria as a pawn in the game of much greater forces, and not to endorse uncritically the High Command’s ’ position. After all, it was the generals who daily maintain the occupation, rather than a lowly Sergeant in Hebron.

Moreover, the generals were well aware that there were other soldiers, more than a few of them, had also killed disarmed prisoners – only without a camera present. The high publicity around the Azaria Trial helped create a far from accurate image of a morally upright army, holding its soldiers to high standards of behavior and making an example of a single “rotten apple”.

All of these bring me to reflect on the changes which fifty years of occupation had wrought in the Israeli public discourse and specifically in how Israelis perceive and refer to the Palestinians.

Shortly after the Six Day War ended in 1967, a book came out which at the time made quite a bit of a stir in Israeli public opinion. Called “Siah Lohamim” (“Talk of the Fighters”) it included the record of extensive interviews and discussions with dozens of young soldiers who had participated in the  June 1967 fighting.

A significant number of those interviewed – especially young Kibbutzniks, who at the time comprised a significant part of the IDF combat troops – spoke of nasty scenes and acts which they had witnessed, and in many cases participated in themselves. Many of them engaged in prolonged soul-searching, grappling with moral dilemmas over what they had witnessed or taken part in.

At the time, people further to the political left used to jeer at such soul-searching conducted after the war was over, using the term “Yorim Ubochim” (“Those who shoot and then shedding a tear”). Yet these fighters of the 1967 generation, grappling with moral dilemmas and a sense of guilt, compare favorably with later crops of combat troops who can be characterized as “Those who shoot and afterwards laugh”.

“When the bomb is released, I feel a slight blow against the plane’s wing. Nothing more”. So did Dan Halutz, Commander of the Israeli Air Force and afterwards Chief of Staff of all the Armed Forces, comment on the 2002 bombing in Gaza when a one-ton bomb was dropped in order to kill Salah Shehade, a senior Hamas man – and ended up killing fourteen civilians living in the same building. Halutz refused to express any regret or remorse. “A slight blow on the wing”, a phrase emblematic of complete and callous disregard for moral considerations, entered the Israeli public discourse side by side with the often-repeated sanctimonious assertion that “The IDF is the Most Moral Army in the World”.

All this can be traced to the corrosive influence of fifty years of occupation. It is now more than forty years since the Yom Kippur War, when Israel’s armed forces were last engaged in a “classical” war of army against army; none of the soldiers and officers now serving can recall taking part in that. Since then, Israel made peace with some Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) while others disintegrated, and their armies with them (Iraq, Syria, Libya). The Israeli army was left with the primary task of maintaining military rule over an occupied, restive population which again and again bursts out into all-out rebellion. The tasks which Israeli soldiers are given consist primarily of “restoring order” by violently dispersing Palestinian demonstrations and protests, and the capturing or outright killing of various terrorists/guerrillas/freedom fighters (or whatever name one may attach to them).

To this should be added the army’s role as facilitator or protector of  settlement activity on the West Bank. It is the army which declares parcels of land to be “State Lands” and hands them over to the settlers. It is the soldiers who arrive to enforce the decree, who stand guard as the land in question is made into “a closed military zone” and who lob tear gas grenades at the Palestinians who hitherto considered themselves its owners. And once the new settlement has been completed, soldiers stand guard at its perimeter day and night. Soldiers are instructed, whenever encountering a confrontation between settlers and Palestinians, to first of all come to the settlers’ help and only afterwards inquire what the quarrel was all about.

The up to date heroes, to whom new Israeli recruits are expected to look up  and try to emulate, are mostly those who had fallen in fighting “Palestinian terrorists” of one kind or another. And such a massive indoctrination does not fade off also when has ended the three years of obligatory military service. Attitudes and opinions acquired during military service often remain with a person in civilian life, too.

2) How hope turned into bitterness

There had been one great opportunity to fundamentally change Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians, break through the enemy images and indeed  end the enmity itself. It was totally missed, and indeed in many ways made things worse. In September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, signing an agreement which was supposed to lead to peace (and which many mistook for a peace agreement itself). At the time, there was a groundswell of support for peace, in both the Israeli and the Palestinian society – of which only a sad memory now remains.

 It would take an article longer than the present one to analyze in detail how and why the Oslo peace process  failed. Suffice it to say here that Oslo envisioned an interim period of limited Palestinian self-government, starting in 1994 and ending in 1999, which was supposed to end with a Comprehensive Agreement. Palestinians fully expected that this Comprehensive Agreement would  include an end to the occupation and the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state; Israelis expected a complete end of any manifestation of Palestinian and Arab hostility to Israel.

This might or might not have become a reality had Prime Minister Rabin not been assassinated. As it was, there never was any Comprehensive Agreement; the “interim” situation which should have ended in 1999 remains in 2017, and at least the present Government of Israel has no intention of ever changing it.

Instead of an independent state, the Palestinians are stuck with an almost completely powerless Palestinian Authority, a military occupation maintained with all severity, settlements continually expanding at the expense of Palestinian land, and a tight siege which suffocates the Gaza Strip’s economy and social life.  Instead of achieving peace, Israelis are faced with an intense hostility from the occupied Palestinian population, which on occasion bursts out into deadly violence, and which increasingly takes up religious themes and becomes mixed up with Islamic radicalism.

If remembered at all, the handshake of Rabin and Arafat which aroused so many hopes, is nowadays remembered as an act of deception and perfidy. That is, Israelis and Palestinians alike think of it as representing the deception and perfidy of the other side. “We wanted to make peace with them. We tried so hard, we made so many efforts, such huge concessions. But it was all in vain. They don’t want to make peace, they just want to kill us and take our land”. That is how both an average Israeli and an average Palestinian would likely sum up the last twenty years.

The creation and elaboration of monstrous enemy images is part of making war. Most human beings do have some basic reluctance to kill other human beings. In order to efficiently overcome such scruples and engage in the organized killing of others, human beings need to find some kind of justification. To have a way of convincing themselves that “we” are the Good Guys and “they” are the Baddies, that they are nasty people doing nasty things while we are good and righteous people who do good things – and therefore, it is right for us to kill them while it is a monstrous wrong for them to kill us.

Such a creation of enemy images has always been a necessity of war.   Whether fought with bows and arrows or with intercontinental ballistic  missiles, the enemy image is an indispensable munition of war. Israel is certainly no exception. Israelis have largely come to accept Netanyahu’s version: Peace with the Palestinians is impossible; the Palestinians seek to gain the entire land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and they will never accept a Jewish state in whatever borders; manifestations of Palestinian violence are just part of a worldwide “Islamic Terrorist  Wave”, no different than attacks in Paris, Manchester or Barcelona; therefore, giving up territory is of no avail, and the evacuated land would simply be used to launch missiles at Israeli cities.

Accepting this view of the situation leads to regarding the conflict as a matter of survival – “It is either us or them”. And of course, human beings who perceive themselves as fighting for survival can become more callous and unscrupulous. Even with Israel possessing the strongest army in the Middle East (and one of the strongest in the world), Israelis often tend to call up  images of the Holocaust, of gas chambers and crematoria. Young Palestinians who try to stab Israelis (and in most cases get killed before even getting near to an Israeli soldier) are magnified into the harbingers of “fanatic hordes,  coming to slaughter us all”.

3) Is oppression Feminist?

One of the most significant implications of the creation of enemy images concerns young Israeli women. Already at its foundation, Israel had enacted conscription of women, but until the 1990’s most women soldiers were simply uniformed secretaries. However,  in the past decade, the Israeli armed forces are making a considerable effort to involve female soldiers in combat duties - which includes, very prominently, involvement in maintaining military rule over the Palestinians. In the so-called “Border Guard” – the militarized police force charged with maintaining the day to day  routine of the occupation – women already constitute more than a third of the troops, and their proportion continues to rise every year.

Two women Border Guard officers had been killed in incidents at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem – a perennial “trouble spot”.  A massive propaganda campaign is conducted in the mainstream media to make these two fallen women soldiers into matchless heroines, the role models which young Israeli women should seek to emulate. Serving in the Border Guard and “fighting the Arab terrorists” is depicted as a the new form of “Women’s Empowerment”.

It is an effective propaganda, and a considerable number of young women are indeed induced to fill the ranks of the Border Guard. But there is also a growing number of young Israeli women who reject out of hand this form of “Feminism” and  “Empowerment”. There is an increasing number of young Israeli women who declare their total refusal to join and army of occupation and take part in the oppression of millions of Palestinian men and women.

Such refusers face the normal routine meted out by the Israeli army – being called up, declaring their refusal and being sent to a month in prison, then released and again ordered to enlist and again sent to another month behind bars and so on and on and on. Eventually, the army would get tired of it and let them go – but there is no way of knowing when that will be.

As I write, the latest two such refusers - Noa Gur Golan and Hadas Tal – are undergoing this process of repeated, open-ended imprisonment. “I know that my refusal, in itself, will not end the occupation” said the 18-year old Hadas Tal on the eve of going to prison. “I refuse because it is important not to let this oppressive system continue existing without offering resistance, in order to  raise awareness and create a public discussion.”

So long as the Israeli society can produce such young people, hope is not lost.




Elior Azaria, imprisoned for killing a disarmed, severely wounded Palestinian. 



Hadas Tal, imprisoned for refusing to join an army of occupation and take part in acts of oppression. 


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Is there any hope left?

The following was written for the September issue of "Jewish Socialist", magazine of the Jewish Socialist Group in London. 

The symbolic date of June 5, 2017 – fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians – had come and gone. It was marked by a reasonably large rally held at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, plus a few more political and artistic events. A week later, it was again occupation as usual. One more reason for doubts whether the Two State Solution is still a realistic option.

Can hundreds of thousands of settlers be removed from the West Bank, or did   their numbers already reach “a point of no return”? There had been some 8000 settlers in the Gaza Strip - and in 2005, having soldiers physically pick up each and every one of these settlers was a very big strain on the IDF resources. On the other hand, back in 1962, France’s De Gaulle did manage to remove a million and half French settlers from Algeria by the simple expedient of removing the soldiers and letting the settlers remove themselves. An Israeli De Gaulle (if we ever get one…) might be able to do the same on the West Bank.

A much bigger problem is that most Israelis no longer believe peace to be possible. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the Oslo Process, as actually carried out by actual Israeli governments, ended in miserable failure – though one can argue endlessly over why it happened and especially whose fault it was. So, if you define “Oslo” as “Peace” it would be is quite reasonable to conclude: “We tried to make peace, and it did not work”.  

As to the reason why it did not work, most Jewish Israelis have come to accept the official narrative: that  Israel made “great concessions” and “generous offers”, to which the Palestinians responded by suicide bombings and the lobbing of missiles; that Palestinian violence is  endemic, motivated by a blind hatred, part and parcel of a worldwide “terrorist wave”. Can counter-arguments be offered? Sure they can, but only a minority are willing to listen.

Opinion polls still indicate most Israelis willing to give up the Occupied Territories in return for peace – but they regard this as a hypothetical possibility only. If a peace deal were to be presented to the Israeli electorate as a done deal, it is likely that the majority would vote “yes”. But until and unless this happens, they would not lift a finger to bring it about – neither mass peace demonstrations, not a mass voting for peace-oriented parties. Which leaves us in the position of waiting for outside pressure.

From 2008 up to 2016 we kept hoping for Obama to have an all-out confrontation with Netanyahu – but every time when it seemed in the offing, Obama backed off. Had he let the UN Security Council condemn the settlements in the first month of his first term, rather than doing it as an ineffective parting shot by a powerless lame duck, things might have been different. But Obama didn’t. And the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner, never showed a real inclination to use its economic leverage – not even in times when the EU was in a much better shape than it is now.

So, is the Two State Solution dead? If it is, it means that the Solution is Dead, period. The idea of taking up instead the One State Solution – i.e., that Jewish Israelis rejecting a Palestinian State on the West Bank would be ready to embrace millions of Palestinians as their new fellow citizens of Israel – completely ignores the most basic realities of Israeli society and politics.

Yes, it is quite possible that the Solution is Dead. We are not living in a Hollywood film, and nobody guaranteed us a Happy End. It is quite possible that there will be no solution, that Israel will just go on becoming ever more oppressive, more racist, more nasty and disgusting – as long as Israel maintains its military superiority and as long as the US is able and willing to fully back Israel. (And when Israeli superiority and/or American backing come to an end, several outcomes can be conjectured – most of them nasty, too.)

Is there any cause for optimism? I can point to no strong, coherent, clear-cut cause. But some glimmers can be discerned in the dark.

* Netanyahu is deeply mired in corruption investigations, and his term seems near its end. There is no guarantee that he will be replaced by somebody better – but perhaps...  

* In the recent crisis around Temple Mount / Haram A Sharif Compound, the Palestinians for the first time used the methods of large-scale, non-violent civil disobedience – and it worked and gained them an important moral victory. This might have long-term results.

* Among many other drastic effects, the Trump Presidency might bring about a final discrediting of the American monopoly over mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. Eventually, a better, more even-handed mediator might emerge.

* Perhaps most important: An increasing number of American Jews, especially young ones, are strongly critical of Israeli government policies. The advent of Trump has widened the rift – most American Jews are disgusted and horrified by him, most Israeli Jews are rather pleased with Trump.  A historical precedent: one of the factors which made the Portuguese finally give up their colonial empire was coming under strong criticism from the Brazilians, with whom Portugal shares language and history…

* Today Hadas Tal, an 18-year old Israeli girl, begins her second month in the military prison, and her fellow refuser Noa Gur Golan is already on her third. The two of them reject the idea, widespread in the Israeli media and public discourse, that female soldiers’ participation in holding  down the Palestinians constitutes a form of “Women’s Empowerment”. Rather than take part in this kind of state-sponsored Feminism, Hadas and Noa  prefer to spend a prolonged period behind bars. So long as Israeli society can produce such young people…


Will these two flags ever fly, side by side, 
 at the border crossing between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Being a peace activist - after fifty years

(Written for De Brug, Amsterdam, where it will appear in Dutch)
I started being politically involved in the summer of 1969, when I offered myself as a volunteer to do menial work at the elections campaign headquarters of Uri Avnery’s "HaOlam HaZeh / New Force" Party. Uri Avnery, then a radical young Member of the Israeli Parliament, had been one of the first Israelis to call for creating a Palestinian state in the newly-occupied territories. As a matter of fact, it was not this which initially drew me to the party – but rather its opposition to "the rotten old parties" which dominated Israeli politics, as well as the call to separate religion and state. HaOlam HaZeh was, in fact, rather similar to the Dutch D-66 party, launched at much the same time. It was only gradually, over a period of some two years, that I fully accepted the idea of Israel making peace with the Palestinians and getting out of the Occupied Territories.


There was a key moment – an evening in 1971 when I was sitting with some twenty other youths in the a dingy basement of a house in downtown Tel Aviv, and heard a soldier in uniform who had just come from the Gaza Strip. He was telling of horrors: extrajudicial executions, the victims’ bodies thrown into dry wells; torture; soldiers beating up passers-by on the streets of Gaza "just for the fun of it"… We were shocked, we did not want to believe it, we said "This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!". The soldier said:"Yes, it is true. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night". Later that night, we went out with some three thousand leaflets, badly printed on an old stencil machine, which contained what the soldier had told. We put them into postboxes around Tel Aviv – "To let the people know what the government was hiding from them" – and looked behind our shoulders to make sure there were no police patrol cars in the streets.

There followed the daily exhausting routine of activism – distributing leaflets on street corners, endless debating with passers-by, going after midnight to write graffiti and paste inflammatory posters on the walls, visits to Palestinian villages, protest vigils of a few dozens outside government offices, sometimes a bit bigger demonstrations which required weeks of intensive preparations and sometimes had disappointing results…

 

Even if the going was difficult and there were many setbacks, for some decades we felt we were making a headway. PM Golda Meir said that "There is no such thing as Palestinians". Gradually, the idea that the Palestinians are indeed a people and deserve to have their own state became widely accepted in the mainstream of Israeli society, and Golda Meir’s opinion is nowadays held only by the extreme right lunatic fringe.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel and spoke on the Knesset podium, there was a month of peace euphoria. Peace stopped being an unattainable dream and became a concrete, real possibility, peace rallies grew from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands, sometimes to hundreds of thousands. When it became clear that Menachem Begin wanted peace only with the Egyptians and had launched an invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the Palestinians, there was for the first time in Israeli history an active grassroots anti-war movement, with large rallies on the streets and soldiers going to prison for refusing service in Lebanon and eventually the protest of soldiers’ mothers forcing the government to terminate the Lebanon adventure.

The outbreak of the First Intifada convinced many that continued occupation was both immoral and impractical. For decades, the PLO had been considered "a terrorist organization", and the activist and philanthropist Abie Nathan served two six-month prison terms for the "crime" of having met Yasser Arafat and shaken his hand. "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" was what Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said in the earlier part of his career, and he ordered soldiers to "break the bones of rioting Palestinians". Little did Rabin realize that eventually he himself would shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, in a blaze of worldwide publicity – or that he would pay for that courageous act with his life and become after his death the archetypal Martyr for Peace, at the focus of vast annual memorial rallies.

At the time when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat, we felt that our task was nearly done, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand and only a few last details needed to be worked out. Even after the assassination of Rabin, peace activists were far from losing heart. The first time that Netanyahu got elected, we in general regarded it as a regrettable accident to be soon corrected. Many of us considered Netanyahu an altogether illegitimate Prime Minister – a bit like many Americans consider Trump nowadays – and the three years of Netanyahu’s first term were stormy, full of intensive demonstrations and protests.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected, claiming to be Rabin’s successor and complete Rabin’s unfinished task. The fact that this claim got wide public credibility enabled Barak to give the Israeli peace movement the most grievous blow it ever suffered. In August 2000 Barak, Arafat and Clinton were closeted for intensive negotiations in Camp David. Opinion polls in Israel indicated that, if an agreement was reached and presented to the Israeli voters, it would have gotten at least 70% support and possible as much as 80%. A vast coalition was formed, including the Labor Party and more or less everybody to its left. Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), on whose behalf I took part in this coalition’s meetings, was the most radical and critical participant – but we, too, were ready to throw our full backing behind a Barak-Arafat deal. A full-scale campaign was planned in great detail. A very beautiful color poster was prepared, with a large dove and the words "Back the Agreement – Vote YES for Peace". Everybody in the room fell in love with it - If things had gone as we hoped, a hundred thousand copies would have been printed and everybody around the country would have seen them.

What did happen is that Barak came back with the announcement that he had made "generous offers" but the intransigent Arafat had rejected them, and there was "no partner". Shortly afterwards, Barak allowed Sharon to stage his provocation at the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the entire Middle East – resulting in 13 dead Palestinians, the outbreak of the bloody years of the Second Intifada, and the increasing isolation of the peace movement. There had never been a more difficult and uphill task, in all my years of peace activism, as the effort to convince Israelis that Barak’s "generous offers" had not been so generous at all. The general Israeli public just refused to listen, convinced that "Barak offered EVERYTHING to the Palestinians and they reacted with bloody terrorism and suicide bombings".

There was a partial upsurge in 2003, when hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians met in Geneva and signed a draft peace agreement – just needing the signature of the official leaders on the dotted line. But the crafty Sharon, Prime Minister by then, diverted this political energy into a unilateral move in Gaza. Israeli settlers were removed from the Gaza Strip, but direct military occupation was replaced by a suffocating Israeli siege of the Strip – and on the West Bank occupation and settlement expansion continued unabated. There followed several rounds of fighting in and around Gaza, shooting of missiles at Israel and large scale bombings by the Israeli Air Force – altogether cementing the feeling of ordinary Israelis that "peace is impossible" and that "every territory given to the Palestinians will just become a Hamas shooting pad".

And so we come to the present – the incredible fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which none of us really believed we would see. There was an impressive big rally on the Rabin Square, and numerous smaller protests and events are planned at various locations. But there can be little doubt that Netanyahu – now far more firmly seated than he was twenty years ago – fully intends to continue and perpetuate the occupation.

So why should we continue being active under these inauspicious conditions? For two overlapping reasons. Because it is immoral to occupy and oppress and dispossess another people – and when your country is committing injustice, to be silent is to be an accomplice. That would be true in any country – and doubly true in a country which prides itself as "The State of the Jewish People", given the centuries-long history of Jews suffering injustice and discrimination and persecution.

But also, we must continue to act and strive and protest and hope against hope because of sheer self-interest. Because Israel’s present course is a deadly threat to our future. As things now stand, the survival of Israel depends of three factors: On Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, on the American domination of the world and the United States being willing and able to give Israel unlimited political, military financial and diplomatic support. An undermining of any of these three would put Israel in very grave trouble. And history shows conclusively that no military superiority, regional or global, lasts forever – nor are there any eternal alliances.

Only a peace agreement, making Israeli a legitimate part of its geographical environment, can truly ensure our long-term survival. And only the Palestinians can sign such a peace.

Ultimately, the reason to continue being a peace activist in Israel is very simple: we just can’t afford to stop it.





Saturday, March 11, 2017

Women and the army

- with such rabbis, who needs Trump?
- women enter tanks and military prison

This week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein made a new provocative pronouncement. To the students whom he is educating and preparing for their term of military service in his pre-military academy at the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank, the Rabbi he told to "marry a warm woman, a religious woman who did not serve in the army" and embarked on a barrage of condemnations for the service of women in the IDF in general and  the military service of religious women in particular: "Our women are holy and chaste. What is the mission of a woman? The Talmud says it clearly: to bring up the next generation. That is their destiny. Only our holy women know how to do it. What is she going to be? Commander of an infantry company? Madness, this idea belongs in the lunatic asylum. They are making our girls crazy, recruiting them into the army. They go in as Jews, but they will not come out Jewish in the end. Their values and priorities will be totally disrupted; home-career, everything falling into confusion. It must not be allowed!"
Rabbi Levinstein was not religious in his youth, having "seen the light" as an adult, and he is very familiar with the Israeli secular society. He knew full well what the reaction would be for his making such a statement precisely on International Women's Day - just as six months ago, he knew what the response would be to the statement he made on the eve of the Gay Pride Parade ("Those perverts have broken with full steam into the army - and no one dares to open his mouth about it").
Indeed, the responses were immediate - women's groups issued a series of sharp condemnation of the Rabbi’s intolerable words, joined by secular politicians from various parties as well as parts of the religious community. Michal Nagen, who herself maintains a pre-military academy to prepare and encourage young religious women to join the army, wrote: "I was shaking with grief and shame at the words you uttered before the very Ark in your synagogue. I felt that God's name was being desecrated. I have had enough of men telling ‘the girls’ what they should do and think. The army is not your private property, Rabbi Yigal, as it is not the property of the liberal secularist or of the women. The army belongs to all of us, to the entire people. I cry for your students who laugh at your banter which insults their sisters, their women friends, and sometimes even their mothers at home."
In the big wave of vehement response, the women who enlist in the IDF - especially those who in increasing numbers join combat units and take up belligerent tasks –were held up as a shining example of women's empowerment as well as of Zionism and patriotism. "The warrior women of the IDF and the Border Police, as well as the heroic women police in the streets of Jerusalem, are taking an active part in safeguarding the security of Israel, they are part and parcel of the nation’s defense system, and we are proud of them" said Prime Minister Netanyahu. For his part, Defense Minister Lieberman said: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel, women have served in the IDF and contributed enormously to the security of Israel. Rabbi Levinstein damages not only the women but also  the heritage of the IDF and at the basic values ​​of the State of Israel. I intend to re-examine the status of Rabbi Levinstein and his competence to prepare young people for service in the Army."
Rabbi Levinstein, however, was not really bothered by all the fuss. He feels secure of his backing deep in the political establishment , which would prevent anyone touching the funding and official status of his pre-military academy. Like no concrete steps were taken after his inflammatory remarks about the homosexual perverts. Standing his ground, the Rabbi reiterated: "In recent years, a deep cultural process is taking place. A feminist approach is infiltrating the IDF, which is completely incompatible with Judaism." Other senior rabbis met with the cabinet ministers of the Jewish Home Party to ask their help in a counter-offensive: "The army is being stolen from us! The previous Standing Orders regarding women's service in the army, were formulated with the aim of reaching a consensus and maintaining dignity and respect for the divergent lifestyles of all who serve in the IDF. Now, there is a new and completely different set of Standing Orders, which were composed in secret, behind everybody’s backs. These are infused with radical liberal and feminist agendas prevalent on the extreme left. Trying to force religious people to serve in mixed units of men and women, contrary to Jewish law and to the Jewish lifestyle upheld by our ancestors for countless generations. The result would be to push them altogether out of the army. "
Also two hundred reserve officers who were disciples of Rabbi Levinstein gave him their public backing: "Recently, the Rabbi sounded a warning about the changes and the transformation in the military, particularly with regard to the integration of women in combat units. These changes might severely and painfully damage the army. Being highly familiar with the military system, we well understand the problems of which the Rabbi was speaking and the inherent dangers. The grave criticisms which he made come of a great heart, full of love and pain, having before his eyes nothing but care for the IDF and of the State of Israel. The Rabbi’s position reflects the opinions expressed by the greatest of Sages and the generations-long rulings of the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of integrating women into the army."
Amid this debate - almost forgotten the position of young Israeli women who have no shred of sympathy for Rabbi Levinstein and his ranting and who yet refuse to seek women’s empowerment via service in an occupation army, whose main function already for many years is to maintain an oppressive Israeli rule over millions of Palestinian men and women.
This week, the IDF Spokesperson published statistics on the immense efforts which the army makes to reduce the number of women soldiers serving as secretaries in military offices, and to move more and more of them to service in combat units. The idea of training women tank crews is still in the stage of an experiment which for the time being includes no more than fifteen women. However, in the Border Police, the military-police force handling the daily routines of maintaining Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, the number of women already reached 35 percent - more than a third. The trend is expected to increase, so that in future women will comprise a full half of the Israeli soldiers holding on roadblocks throughout the West Bank and late at night carrying out raids to remove"wanted terrorists" from their homes and transfer them to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure."  As it turns out, not all young women relish such a role.
Under the slogan in the "Neither secretary nor tank crew – a refuser and a Feminist", three young women this week repeated the ritual which the IDF forces upon those who were examined by the army’s "Conscience Committee" and ruled to be lacking a conscience. Again and again, those who refuse military service (male or female alike) are called to present themselves at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center. There, they are given an order to join the army, which they disobey and are promptly sent off to a month in jail - after which the ritual will repeat itself. The "Two Tamars", Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, have this week gone through this procedure for the sixth time. Atalia Ben-Aba, a refuser of a bit shorter seniority, was now sent to prison for the second time.  The military authorities took care to separate the three and send them to different prisons.
Vered Lee, reporter of Ha’aretz who was there, wrote: "Tamar Alon was radiant, inspiring optimism among the accompaniers. When asked where does she get her optimism, she laughs and replies: 'Also the girls imprisoned with me do not understand my optimism. They wonder how I can smile with such a long-drawn incarceration.' The other prisoners, she says, got there for going AWOL, for disciplinary offenses or for drugs.' Never before did they meet a real, actual leftist. They thought of us as traitors, enemies of the state. During our stay in prison, they learned to look at us differently, see us as human beings. Not that it was always easy. When we got to prison the first time we had a sudden shock to find ourselves behind bars. We felt suddenly alone. We asked ourselves again and again whether this act is significant, whether anyone cares. But yes, there are many who do care. "
Muhammad Awda of East Jerusalem, who is active in Combatants for Peace during the last nine years, said at the modest ceremony: " I realize that there are at this moment only three female objectors in the Israeli army, and no male ones. I see them and I salute them. I see them and I think about my daughter who is their age and who is also struggling for a just society. They deserve support, not only from the immediate family but from everybody. I'm speaking here, not only for myself but for many Palestinians who could not come and express support for you today, because of the policies of the occupation rule which denies them freedom of movement. We are proud of these young brave women, who are struggling for our rights and for justice and freedom. Thank you, from all of us! " He then added, with a smile: "We'll meet again in freedom. Freedom for all!"


The three refusers en route to another term in the military prison


A woman graduate of the Border Police training course, en route to the Occupied Territories

Friday, February 24, 2017

Scales of Justice


On September 13, 2015, young Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sur Baher in East Jerusalem threw stones at Israeli cars near the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, one of the Israeli neighborhoods built after 1967 on confiscated Palestinian land. A stone hit the car of Alexander Levlovitz, causing him to suffer a heart attack. Levlovitz began to convulse, swerved into a ditch and hit a pillar. He was seriously injured and died in hospital the next day.

There is no reason to claim that the Palestinians who threw the stones specifically meant to kill Alexander Levlovitz, of whom they never heard, nor that they at all intended to kill anyone. In fact, the vast majority of stone throwing cases end without casualties. Certainly, however, it can be argued that anyone throwing stones at moving cars is responsible for this act and should have taken into account that the outcome might be fatal.

By an intensive action of the Israeli security forces, the Palestinian stone throwers were apprehended. The 19 years old Abed Rabu Dawiat, described by police as "The stone-throwers’ ringleader" was charged with manslaughter. After lengthy legal proceedings, he signed a plea bargain whereby he got a term of eighteen years' imprisonment only. The Israeli media widely publicized the protests of the Levlovitz Family at the plea bargain and the leniency of punishment. "We had hoped for complete justice against my father's murderers. The judges should have been free to proceed to the full severity of the law, to impose the maximum penalty. I strongly object to the mitigation of punishment," said Nir, Levlovitz’s son.

On March 24, 2016, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a resident of Hebron, approached the Israeli soldiers guarding the settler enclave at Tel Rumeida, in the heart of Hebron. He stabbed one of the soldiers, and was then shot by other soldiers and severely injured. As clearly seen in footage taken by the hidden camera held by a field worker of the B'Tselem Human Rights organization, al-Sharif was lying on the ground, constituting no threat to anyone. A 19-year old soldier, Elior Azaria – a medic, arrived on the spot and deliberately aimed his weapon at the head of al-Sharif, shot and killed him .

Elior Azaria was detained by military police and charged with manslaughter. During the prolonged trial, the defense lawyers argued that Azaria felt subjectively threatened and suspected that al-Sharif was hiding explosives on his body. However, the evidence of Azaria’s commanding officer and of other soldiers who had been there convinced the court to dismiss such contentions out of hand. Rather, the judges ruled that Azaria had shot and killed al-Sherif out of seeking revenge and from the perception that "terrorists" should be killed without trial, whether or not they still pose a threat. This is a perception shared by quite a few people in Israel, some of them much older than the conscript soldier Elior Azaria, among them Knesset Members, cabinet ministers and newspaper columnists.

After the media reported that the prosecution was seeking to have Elior Azaria sentenced to three years in prison, his mother collapsed and had to be taken to hospital, full of fright and pain at the severe and cruel punishment facing her son. The media reported extensively on the difficult situation of the worried mother.

In the end, the judges resolved to impose on Elior Azaria a sentence of 18 months. Opposite the court room, hundreds of Azaria’s supporters demonstrated in protest of the severity of this sentence. Senior politicians from several Israeli political parties joined the protests and demanded an immediate amnesty to Azaria: "He already suffered enough, he should not have to sit in jail. End the story now, just send him home!"

Coincidentally or not, this week also saw the culmination of a long struggle over the appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court. Members of the Jewish Home Party have long asserted that Israel's judicial system is biased in favor of the Arabs and does not give due weight to national and patriotic considerations. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the same party, redressed this negative tendency, making a successful effort to change the composition of the Supreme Court and include more conservative judges, especially some who belong to the Religious-Zionist sector. A particular success was recorded with the appointment of David Mintz – a British-born jurist who came to Israel in 1970 and immediately moved to the West Bank settlement of Dolev. His judicial career has been marked by strict and rigorous treatment meted out to foreign nationals accused of illegal entry to Israel.

David Mintz’s neighbor at the settlement of Dolev is Knesset Member Moti Yogev, also a member of the Jewish Home Party. Yogev became known for his way of objecting to a ruling of Supreme Court: "We just need to go to the the Supreme Court with a D-9 bulldozer and raze it right off the face of the earth."

The new Supreme Court Justice David Mintz will not bulldoze the Supreme Court. He will enter by the main entrance and sit in judgment to consider petitions on human rights violations.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The bitter morning




So, the nightmare really came true.

After the East Shore polls closed at 2am Israeli time, I continued watching on CNN the unfolding drama, following the discussions of the elections experts, with their sophisticated maps and detailed knowledge of every county in every state. There were the initial moments when Hilary Clinton still seemed headed to win Florida and North Carolina. But then, in state after state the same specter was repeated: the vast red-colored regions of countryside and small towns overwhelming the embattled blue Democrat dots of the big cities.


Behind these red expanses on the CNN maps were the people whom Michael Moore depicted in his film: The workers left behind in "rust belts" when the industries went away to countries where the salaries are much lower. Embittered and hopeless, they were ready to embrace Donald Trump’s demagoguery and his promise to "Make America Great Again" – a vast tide under the surface, which the pollsters altogether missed.

In the time ahead of us there would be many recriminations. What if the Democrats had paid more attention and given better answers to the blue-collar workers who had once been their party’s mainstay? What if the Democratic Party had voted Bernie Sanders as its Presidential candidate? What if Hilary Clinton had not arrogantly taken Wisconsin for granted, but had bothered to pay that state some visits during the campaign? What if she had not cast herself for the second time for the role of The First Woman President, but rather promoted for that role a younger woman not associated with unsavory past affairs?

Many things are seen clearly in hindsight which should have been clear in real time, many roads not taken. The road which was taken has led to President-Elect Donald Trump making a jubilant victory speech to his gathered followers. How sincere were his conciliatory words? Would he be able - even if he wanted - to put down the flames of hatred which he had constantly fanned in his year of wild campaigning? Could he get rid of this blazing hatred, even if he tried? Does Trump have anything real to offer to the hopeless people to whom he gave a fleeting hope – and if he disappoints them, to whom and to what will they turn next?


Thinking of President Obama, being saddled with this very unwanted successor who personifies the undoing of all Obama stood for. Maybe this might increase Obama’s willingness to use his remaining two months in order to leave at least one final lasting legacy– i.e., removing the American veto and letting the UN Security Council adopt a binding resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for whatever it is worth.

Too thin a crumb of hope on a bitter morning.
 
 
 






The bitter morning

So, the nightmare really came true.

After the East Shore polls closed at 2am Israeli time, I continued watching on CNN the unfolding drama, following the discussions of the elections experts, with their sophisticated maps and detailed knowledge of every country in every state. There were the initial moments when Hilary Clinton still seemed headed to win Florida and North Carolina. But then, in state after state the same specter was repeated: the vast red-colored regions of countryside and small towns overwhelming the embattled blue Democrat dots of the big cities.


Behind these red expanses on the CNN maps were the people whom Michael Moore depicted in his film: The workers left behind in "rust belts" when the industries went away to countries where the salaries are much lower. Embittered and hopeless, they were ready to embrace Donald Trump’s demagoguery and his promise to "Make America Great Again" – a vast tide under the surface, which the pollsters altogether missed.

In the time ahead of us there would be many recriminations. What if the Democrats had paid more attention and given better answers to the blue-collar workers who had once been their party’s mainstay? What if the Democratic Party had voted Bernie Sanders as its Presidential candidate? What if Hilary Clinton had not arrogantly taken Wisconsin for granted, but had bothered to pay that state some visits during the campaign? What if she had not cast herself for the second time for the role of The First Woman President, but rather promoted for that role a younger woman not associated with unsavory past affairs?

Many things are seen clearly in hindsight which should have been clear in real time, many roads not taken. The road which was taken has led to President-Elect Donald Trump making a jubilant victory speech to his gathered followers. How sincere were his conciliatory words? Would he be able - even if he wanted - to put down the flames of hatred which he had constantly fanned in his year of wild campaigning? Could he get rid of this blazing hatred, even if he tried? Does Trump have anything real to offer to the hopeless people to whom he gave a fleeting hope – and if he disappoints them, to whom and to what will they turn next?


Thinking of President Obama, being saddled with this very unwanted successor who personifies the undoing of all Obama achieved. Maybe this might increase Obama’s willingness to use his remaining two months in order to leave at least one final lasting legacy– i.e., removing the American veto and letting the UN Security Council adopt a binding resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for whatever it is worth.

Too thin a crumb of hope on a bitter morning.