Saturday, October 29, 2011

Where did this mess come from?

And again, for the thousandth time, escalation on the Gaza border. They fired missiles at us and we bombed and killed five of them, and they fired more missiles and this night the Air Force will return to Gaza and bomb again. Quite by chance, all this is happening just on the evening when the Social Protest Movement gets up from its slumber and back to the streets.

What the hell? Why now? We had months of quiet on the Gaza border when the prisoner exchange was being negotiated and finalized, and we carried it out, and our Gilad came back home, and of the Palestinians prisoners those who were released were lucky and the others will have to wait another ten or twenty years, and the box called Gaza was closed and locked up again. And we have sent prisoners from the West Bank to Gaza because it's too dangerous to let them go home. And to their families we did not give permission to travel to Gaza to visit the sons which they have not seen for ten years and more. No, this is not really a security risk - but it's a matter of principle. Everyone should see and know who is the boss here, everyone should know that Israel holds the keys to the Gaza Strip and without our approval, no one will enter or leave the Gaza Strip. Oh yes, there were some human rights groups who said that since Gilad Shalit is released, now is the time to lift the siege on Gaza. Really, what do these leftists understand? Gilad Shalit is Gilad Shalit and the siege is the siege, there is no connection. The siege stays, just as it was, and please stop this chattering. And now suddenly they are shooting at us from Gaza and rockets are launched. The whole of South Israel runs to the air raid shelters. What the hell? What did we do to them? So we killed five, so what? These were terrorist bastards, they got what they deserved! If they dare to fire, we should teach them a lesson, to bomb and bomb more and more, shoot and kill and kill. Then they will learn a lesson and launch no more missiles. And if it actually puts them in a mood of defiance  and they actually respond with even more missiles? Well, Israel is not helpless, the Air Force armories are choke-full of sophisticated bombs with a great destructive power, we should bomb and bomb and bomb, hurray for our armed forces!

In the meantime, in Beersheba the Social Protest rally was already cancelled. .A net profit,  let them stay in the vicinity of their air raid shelters, not take to the streets to chant about Social Justice. Enough is enough!

Egg and Chicken

Why is a siege imposed on Gaza? Why do you ask, it's perfectly clear, would answer the common citizen on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They shoot missiles at us, they make hell for us, so teach them a lesson until they stop shooting missiles. What is unclear here?

Why are rockets fired on Ashdod? Why do you ask, it's perfectly clear, would answer the common citizen on the streets of Gaza and Rafah. They shoot missiles at us, they make hell for us, so teach them a lesson until they lift the siege. What is unclear here?

So how to get out of this impasse? Well, just a short time ago, with the prisoner exchange we had an example of how to solve difficult and painful problems between us and the people of Gaza. To talk and negotiate, and offer proposals and counter proposals and come to a more or less mutually satisfactory agreement. And if is not possible to sit face to face at the table,  then we can find a mediator to take messages from side A to side B and back. The Egyptian mediators who helped with the exchange are already quite familiar with the route from Tel Aviv to Gaza and back ...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Who do we talk to?

Several months ago, a reconciliation agreement was signed between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. It was agreed to end the long conflict between them, with the intention of establishing a single government to represent all Palestinians and hold new elections in which Palestinians will be able to freely express their wishes. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a furious reply, stating that if the Palestinian reconciliation agreement implemented and a government established which includes Hamas, Israel would immediately sever all contact with the PA and no longer regard it a partner for negotiation (if and when negotiations resume...) .

As we know today, at almost exactly the same time there was a major breakthrough in the negotiations conducted the same Binyamin Netanyahu with the same Hamas movement, regarding an exchange of prisoners. A new Hamas proposal,  passed on to the  government of Israel, has indicated a significant degree of flexibility, and paved the way for implementing the exchange last week and the home-coming of Gilead Shalit.

There is something strange here, not entirely consistent. It is no surprise that in the opinion  poll conducted last week among  a sample of Israeli citizens,  no less than 79% expressed themselves in favor of Israel embarking on official negotiations with Hamas, also without resorting to Egyptian or German mediators. Of course, the results of an opinion poll are not binding on the government. Yet what would Netanyahu say if and when the Palestinians actually establish a joint government of Fatah and Hamas? "No, no, out of the question. We will never, never talk to these people, we are opposed in principle totalks with Hamas?" It somehow does not sound quite believable.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Congratulations, first of all, to Gilad Shalit, who will at long last come out of captivity, from darkness into light, from total isolation into the maelstrom of politicians and the media. (It is to be hoped that he would be given a bit of time to be in private with his family, and that he would once upon a time get the chance to live the normal life of an ordinary young person.)

Congratulations also to his parents, brother and grandfather, the devoted and stubborn family members who refused to give up and struggled and demonstrated and mobilized masses and eventually managed to move even the government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

Congratulations also to a thousand and twenty-seven Palestinian prisoners who will also come out of captivity, from darkness to light, and to the families who missed their sons and daughters no less than did the Shalit Family, and demonstrated again and again for many years and stood in public squares waving signs and photos (and were almost never seen in the communications media of the State of Israel).

Congratulations to all of us, that an agreement was signed which makes many hearts glad in Jerusalem as in Gaza, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. A practical, empirical example that a "Zero Sum Game" is not the only game in town. That there could well be an agreement which is acceptable and welcome to both sides. "We did not surrender to Hamas, nor did we force them to surrender" were the words of Yoram Cohen, head of the Shabak Security Service.

Congratulations to all of us, for having gotten a practical demonstration that it is possible to negotiate - not only with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, but also with Hamas - and reach a successful conclusion. It is possible – if we seriously mean the negotiations to succeed and end with an agreement and that the agreement will be implemented in reality. Not what we have seen so many times: a show of negotiations, handshakes and photo opportunities for the media and announcements about a "Peace Process" which never gets anywhere, while the reality of the occupation continues and the oppression deepens, and the settlements expand.

If we seriously want to reach results, the show can be dispensed with. No need of photographers, it is not even indispensable to sit around one table. It would be enough for an Egyptian or German mediator to pass from one side to the other, deliver proposals and counter-proposals. If we really want to achieve a result, this is quite enough – today we have the proof.

If we really want, there can be peace between the sovereign State of Israel and the sovereign State of Palestine. And with peace, there would be no reason for Palestinians who were released from prison to commit acts of violence against Israel (also not for Palestinians who hadn't been in prison). And Palestinians would also be able to stop worrying about armed Israeli soldiers and settlers, and of tanks and drones and fighter planes and gunboats. And it would be possible to implement very deep cuts in the defense budget and divert a great deal of money to social causes, and no longer would officers and politicians be able to cry out at such cuts and threaten us with grave and terrible dangers.

Not realistic?

It will only happen when we make it happen. When we demand it with loud voices from many, many throats.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Born on the day war broke out

Observations on Yom Kippur 2011 (1)  

Again, like every year since 1973, Yom Kippur provided an opportunity to once more remember that war and the way it took the State of Israel by surprise, and for again finding soldiers and officers whose stories of heroism were not yet published in previous years, and for newspaper headlines  quoting the Army Chief of Staff and his senior officers regarding the best way to win the next war. And because there had just been in this country huge demonstrations demanding to seriously deal with social issues,  including a demand to cut the defense budget, this year's Yom Kippur provides a golden opportunity for supporters of the military establishment to prepare a counter-attack, urging that not a single penny be  cut .

"Yediot Aharonot" found an original angle: interviewing 38-years old  military officers, who were born during that war. Such as Lieutenant Colonel  Amihai Segal, who was born exactly on its first day. He commands  the   Netzach Yehuda Battalion in the Kfir Brigade - the brigade which was established specifically to maintain Israeli rule in "Judea and Samaria" and whose soldiers go out every day, and especially every night, to detain people in the Palestinian cities and villages. Like many officers of the brigade, he and his family live in the settlement of Eli, where they found "a community which is very supportive and helpful." Lieutenant Colonel Segal is not much concerned about the fact that thirty-eight years after the war raging on the day he was born, the state of Israel has not yet reached  peace with its neighbors, and that military officials talk about the next war in terms of "when" rather than "if." In the eyes of Lieutenant Colonel Segal, there are problems and national objectives more important than peace.

Who still remembers that the Yom Kippur War could have been avoided, and that in 1978, Israel signed the peace agreement with Egypt which could have been signed already in 1970?  This is a lesson which only a few hint at.

Boycott and boycott

Observations on Yom Kippur 2011 (2)

The had never been a better time for consumer boycotts in Israel. The boycott against the dairy giant "Tnuva" resulted in a significant lowering in the price s of its products. The boycott organizers are now seeking the most effective next target, and newspaper commentators highly praise them on the successful initiative which at last managed to get the Israelis out of their traditional indifference.

And also the initiators of the Israeli tourism boycott of Turkey celebrated a small victory this week. The Turkish government decided to call back the tourism attache from its Tel Aviv Embassy. Until two years ago, hundreds of thousands Israeli tourists were going to Turkey, and their numbers were on the rise. Now, it is down to almost zero. Why waste money on a tourism attache when there is no tourism?

Only one kind of boycott is strictly outlawed in Israel. According to the law passed in the Knesset during a dramatic night session a few months ago, every Israeli person or organization daring to call for boycott of settlement products runs the risk of a lawsuit which might render them bankrupt.

The day after the passing of that law, an appeal was lodged by Gush Shalom - whose spokesperson I happen to be. The petition sought to have the new law ruled altogether invalid, due to its instituting a gross discrimination between boycott and boycott, protest and  protest, and its constituting a severe infringement of the freedom of expression, assembly and political activity.

The Justices gave the state sixty days to reply to this petition. The State Attorneys did not rush to answer. Last week the sixty days were over, and on the last day the State Attorney's Office simply asked for a further sixty days to reply.

As a matter of fact, no wonder that the attorneys have a difficulty in formulating their answer – they who are charged with the thankless task of defending in court the Netanyahu Government's policies and the legislation that gets passed by the right-wing majority in the Knesset. Already in advance, the State Attorneys several times addressed directly the Knesset Members, pleading against such a doubtful law and warning that it "verged on the red line".

A green light and a red light from Sweden

Observations on Yom Kippur 2011 (3)

This week Professor Dan Shechtman received the phone call which all scientists dream of, a call from Sweden announcing his winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A day of joy and pride for Professor Shechtman and the scientific community in our country and for Israel in general – especially that in recent years the number of Israeli citizens getting Nobel Prizes far exceeds the proportion of Israelis in the world population.

And almost exactly on the same day we also received another message, a less pleasant one, from Sweden, where 218 professors and lecturers signed a petition calling for the severing of all ties with Israeli universities, until the State of Israel ends the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Specifically, professors at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm called upon the management of their Institute to cease cooperation with the Technion in Haifa - where Professor Shechtman works - because of the Technion's close relations with the IDF and Israel's defense industries, with some Technion scientists busy developing new weapons systems.

This problem Israeli scientists will not be able to solve, however bright they may be. Ending the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, which blackens the name of Israel all over the world, is a task resting on the shoulders of the government and the political leadership.

No celebrations in jail

Observations on Yom Kippur 2011 (4)  

On this Yom Kippur, as on the preceding one, is spent by Gilad Shalit's parents in a tent outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. The price for the release of Shalit from Hamas captivity is known. The list of prisoners whose release the Palestinians require in exchange for Shalit is already for years in the possession of the Government of Israel - but the Prime Minister is not willing to pay the price.

Several months ago,  Benyamin Netanyahu found a replacement. In  a dramatic speech which made newspaper headlines, he announced that "The celebrations by Palestinians prisoners  in Israeli prisons are over" and immediately the prison authorities began to worsen the conditions for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons: eliminating the possibility of academic studies by correspondence, limiting the newspapers which they can read and the television channels they can watch, and placing many of them in isolation, almost totally separated from other prisoners and the outside world. And all of this is of course in the name of the isolated prisoner Gilad Shalit, held somewhere in Gaza.

Several months passed of the new tough policy in the prisons and detention camps. And as one might expect (and as has been predicted by people who know a bit about these matters), the release of Gilad Shalit did not move an inch forward, and there was rising bitterness among Palestinians prisoners whose conditions were far from "a celebration" even before, and a prisoners' hunger strike began to gather momentum.
The Israeli media hardly reports it. Israeli citizens in whose eyes it is all about "terrorists" and "murderers" couldn't care less. But among Palestinians, where almost every family has a person sitting today in an Israeli prison and / or some who have done time in the past, the hunger strike has an enormous resonance.

It's been done before, at regular intervals since Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in 1967 and began to imprison Palestinians who expressed their opposition to this rule in various forms (by the way: not all of them by violent means). Every few years, somebody decided to exacerbate the conditions and "end the celebration", and always, soon afterwards a hunger strike started which caused unrest and tension in the prison itself as well as outside it, and eventually the authorities decided to quietly stop the worsening of conditions and restore the former situation. And so it probably will be again, now.

And Gilad Shalit? He will hopefully still be released, and return  to his loving family, and happy celebrations will take place all over the country. As soon as the government decides to cut a deal and pay the price required.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The end of the Oslo years

Whatever will happen in the coming months, one  thing is clear: the status quo of the last two decades  is dead.

The confrontation of Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu on the United Nations podium took place eighteen years, almost to the day, after an earlier encounter of Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

It was in September 1993 that Itzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, and hope was in the air, and peace seemed imminent. An interim agreement had been signed, under which a Palestinian Authority with very limited real authority and power was established as a strictly interim measure for a clearly defined period of five years. An explicit time table was set, under which a definite agreement was to be negotiated and signed and a fully independent State of Palestine come into being no later than May 1999.

And Rabin was assassinated, and Arafat died in circumstances which remain controversial, and very many Israelis and an even far greater number of Palestinians and quite a few others died in various horrible ways. And Palestine was not established in May 1999, nor on various later deadlines which were set and not enforced. And settlements in the Occupied Territories expanded to about twice the size which they had on September 1993, and the yoke of occupation weighs upon the Palestinians at least as heavily as it did eighteen years ago. And in Israel's latest opinion poll, more than half those asked said they did not believe peace would ever be achieved.

Should you ask a chance passer by on the streets of Tel Aviv what went wrong, he or she would probably answer – to the best of their knowledge - that Israel had been very generous to the Palestinians and that they have answered by terrorism and the hurling of missiles. Should you put the same question in the streets of Ramallah, you would most likely get a similarly sincere answer that it was the Palestinians who had made enormous concessions and that Israel answered with ever harsher occupation and settlement expansion – not to mention the three-week bombing of Gaza. In essence, both alike would say "we tried to make peace with them, we made every effort, but they only want to kill us and take our land" – differing only with who are "we" and who are "they".

After the elections of 1992, which brought Rabin to power, the ousted Prime Minister Shamir mourned: "We could have continued talking for another ten years and meanwhile extended the settlements". But even though Rabin came to power and for a time the term "peace process" seemed to have a real content, ultimately it was Shamir's vision which won out. Israel has been doing as he said, already for twenty years (and Netanyahu would not mind doing it for another twenty at the least).


In the halcyon years of Oslo, the agreements had raised hope among the majority of Palestinians as among the then flourishing Israeli Peace Camp, while the settlers and their allies opposed them vociferously. I can still remember the time when streets were full of extreme right stickers voicing the strident demand to "Prosecute the Oslo Criminals". It is the irony of history that with the passage of the years attitudes changed greatly, albeit subtly and without an open proclamation. 

The situation which was intended to be temporary and last no more than five years had been extended indefinitely. The Palestinian Authority is limited to isolated enclaves, comprising only 42% of the West Bank. Even there, its security forces are  obliged to maintain "security cooperation" and stand aside when Israeli forces come raiding at any hour of the day or (especially) the night, arresting whoever they want and hauling them off to interrogation with "moderate physical pressure" by the Israeli security services.

The rest of the West Bank is defined as "Area C" which Israeli government and settlers regard as their own – to plant and extend settlements, to grant (rather, refuse to grant) building permits to Palestinians and demolish homes built without such a permit, to dig for water and reserve the lion's share of it to Israeli settlers (and Israeli  citizens in Israel's population centers). Israelis can assert that Palestinians already have their own self governing authority, complete with president and prime minister and cabinet and parliament, even while any 19-year old Israeli corporal at a roadblock on the Ramallah-Nablus Highway has far more concrete power in Palestinian daily life than the Palestinian President and Prime Minister combined.

No wonder that Israeli right wingers, also among the settlers, concede that from their point of view the best practical option for the future would be "just to continue the present situation" – the situation created by Oslo. No wonder that  Palestinians increasingly came to resent to the Palestinian Authority which had once aroused their hopes, to regard it as a hindrance to the achievement of their national aspirations, in effect a body collaborating with the Israeli occupation. No wonder that some Palestinians called explicitly for the Palestinian Authority to be disbanded, and many other would not shed a tear at its passing.

What can President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and their ministers and officials do to dispel such feelings among their constituents and regain their credibility? In essence, only one thing would do: to give concrete proof that the situation created by Oslo is indeed temporary and that it could and would be replaced by an end to the occupation and full Palestinian statehood. 

To be sure, no such reassurance could be given by a new round of negotiations, yet another photo opportunity with the President of the United States ceremoniously spreading his protective wings over handshaking Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a hollow pretense to impartiality. Not after eighteen years when the term "peace process" had become a sad joke among Palestinians and Israelis alike.

And so, there came up the Idea of Palestinians in general – and the Palestinian Authority in particular - ceasing to wait for handouts from a tightfisted Israeli government of from a US on whose internal politics the same Israeli government  maintains a stranglehold. The idea of the Palestinians taking their fate in their own hands, breaking by their own effort out of the decades-long stalemate. Boldly going to the UN to demand recognition of their sovereign statehood – as Israel's sovereign statehood was recognized more than six decades ago, as sovereign statehood was recognized for no less than 193 nations around the world. To voice this demand and basic aspiration, neither asking nor needing anyone's permission and authorization, steadfastly persisting in it also in the teeth of a very manifest and prolonged displeasure from the American superpower.   .

So far, it had been an enormous publicity success, putting for months the Palestinian plight on the global agenda, and forcing everybody – Netanyahu, Obama, the European leaders – to respond to and grapple with a Palestinian initiative. This much they have achieved, even if the statehood bid itself is quashed by an outright American veto or by behind the scenes machinations and pressures on weak nations which happen to hold a crucial Security Council seat. Unflinchingly facing up to the American pressure has – at least for the time being – greatly increased the popularity of Mahmoud Abbas, never a particularly charismatic leader.

For its part the United States – and President Obama in person – pay a high diplomatic price for a right or wrong support to the government of Israel. For a manifestly biased presidential speech at the UN, which flatly contradicted Obama's previous positions and was warmly endorsed by Netanyahu's thuggish Foreign Minister Lieberman. Followed a weak later by the US offering a week lip service condemnation for Netanyahu's construction of a new 1100 "Jewish only" housing units in East Jerusalem, while the Palestinians were very concretely punished for the temerity of seeking statehood with Congress withdrawing US$200 million of already dedicated aid.

Altogether, the United States very thoroughly discredited itself and exhibited, clear for the entire world to see, its unfitness for the role of sole Middle East mediator which was established already by Kissinger in the 1970's. All the more so as the manifestly biased position was taken by none other than President Obama, of whom there had been expectations for something better (from the point of view of the Israeli right wing, for something worse).

French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who took the UN podium after Obama, got considerable international attention when stating that "We must stop believing that a single country, even the largest, or a small group of countries can resolve so complex a problem”. Never in decades was there such a clear call for a more objective mediator to take up the role of arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, Obama himself – whose own diplomatic efforts ended in such dismal failure and who has many other urgent issues on his plate – might not really object to somebody else taking up this hot potato.

Yet, where can an effective and impartial alternative arbiter be found, strong and decisive enough to enforce compliance? Can the Europeans – far from united, and mired in their own deep economic crisis – take up this role? What would happen if the appeal to the UN turns out to have brought the Palestinians no concrete result, no real step towards emancipating themselves of the occupation's suffocating presence?

Abu Mazen's dramatic speech at the UN included a passage which got virtually no attention in any of the Israeli media, completely overlooked by the hordes of commentators and analysts: "“This settlement policy threatens to also undermine the structure of the Palestinian National Authority, and even end its existence.” In an interview to Alquds newspaper, Abbas was more explicit: “I will return to the Palestinian leadership, which will make a decision on whether the time has come for Israel to re-assume its responsibility as an occupying authority.(…) We will not keep the Palestinian Authority as a mere name."

In short, the interim period - which the Oslo Agreement envisaged as lasting five years and which various Israeli governments managed to prolong into eighteen – seems to be drawing to an imminent end. Things will not remain as they were before Abbas made his appeal to the International Community. The Palestinian Authority might be upgraded to a fully sovereign state, or it might disappear, leaving a vacuum and completely unpredictable new situation in its place.