Saturday, May 4, 2013

Drones, knives and peace initiatives

This week, the Israeli drones went back into action in the skies of Gaza. The 29-year old Haitham Mis-hal, who had worked as a guard at the Shifa hospital, was shot from the air while riding a motorcycle and died instantly. When the ceasefire was signed half a year ago, Israel took the obligation not to carry out any more “targeted killings”. But the new Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon asserted that Mis-hal had been responsible for – or at least in some way involved with – a rocket attack out of Sinai on the Israeli resort of Eilat. No proof was given or offered for this assertion, based on unnamed confidential sources, and which Israelis in general took on faith.

It did come out that Mis-hal had been a member of Hamas and broke away to join a more radical group because of dissatisfaction with what he considered Hamas’ passivity in face of Israeli aggression. In fact, Hamas chose not to undertake the habitual form of retaliation for his assassination, i.e. the shooting of missiles at Israeli territory, but contented itself by lodging a strong complaint with Egypt, since the Gaza War half a year ago the guarantor of the cease-fire – a forbearance which Israeli public opinion mostly failed to notice or appreciate.

Later that day the life of a settler came also to an end. Evyatar Borovsky, who was nearly the same age as  Haitham Mis-hal, was stabbed to death at a road junction on the West Bank south of Nablus. Borovsky had been an actor, and had gone to live at the settlement of Yitzhar -  which is not especially known as a focus of cultural activity and rather has a reputation for particularly wild and violent acts towards Palestinians who happen to live in its vicinity.

On hearing the news  Borovsky’s fellow settlers cried out vociferously that the authorities’ failure to treat stone-throwing as terrorism was to blame for things getting worse. In proof of which the settlers proceeded to engage in a particularly heavy bout of …stone-throwing, at Palestinian school buses carrying girl students. From there they proceeded to the widespread and indiscriminate setting on fire of Palestinian fields, olive groves and cars.

In the midst of all this came the message that a delegation of the Arab League visited Washington, invited by Secretary of State Kerry in furtherance of his efforts to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis and Arabs.  The Arab delegates had reiterated the commitment of all Arab states to their peace initiative, dating back to 2002, offering once again to make peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967. Remarkably, they added their consent to small, mutual swaps of territory whereby Israel could retain some of the settlements it had built , in return for giving up an equivalent amount of land within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of Prime Minister Netanyahu to this piece of news was tepid, to say the least. For Netanyahu does not desire an agreement based on the 1967 borders, with only small bits of the West Bank retained by Israel and paid for with equal-size bits of Israeli territory. Netanyahu wants to keep in Israeli hands large parts of the West Bank, without paying for them at all. In particular, he is determined to keep the Jordan Valley, which constitutes about a third of the West Bank.

Veteran commentator Shalom Yerushalmi wrote this week on the pages of Ma'ariv: "On Tuesday, the Prime Minister of Qatar declared that the Arab countries are willing to make peace with Israel and in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including territorial swaps. The Jordan Valley is a vast area, hundreds of square kilometers. It is filled with land mines since 1968, the time when the army was pursuing terrorists who infiltrated from Jordan. Whole monasteries were evacuated and stand abandoned near the Baptism Site on the Jordan River, sacred to Christians. You may ask, why are the minefields not removed nowadays, in order to extend the touristic sites? The answer is quite simple: If the land is made free, the churches and the Palestinians will claim it. Israel does not want to evacuate land in the Jordan Valley. To the contrary, Israel wants to stay there forever." And what would Secretary of State Kerry and President Barack Obama say to this Israeli aspiration?

And while all this is going on, Natan Blanc nears his hundred and fiftieth day in prison. Since last November, Blanc had been going regularly in and out - and immediately back into - the military prison system. Again and again he is ordered to enlist, again and again reiterating to military officers his reasons for refusing that order: that already for forty-six years the State of Israel is ruling by force millions of disenfranchised Palestinians, willing to grant them neither independence nor the right to vote in its own democratic elections; that the body known as the Israeli Defence Forces was in charge of daily implementing this oppression of the Palestinians; and that he, Natan Blanc of Haifa, was unwilling to take part in this. The officers listened impassively, again and again sending him to spend yet a few more weeks in Military Prison 6 at Atlit – though by now they must realize that he is not very likely to change his mind.

This Friday was the fourth (or perhaps fifth) time that a crowd of activists organized by the Yesh Gvul movement climbed the mountain overlooking Prison 6, to call out words of support and solidarity which were very audible in the courtyard below. 
This time, Natan Blanc also got support from an unexpected source – Egyptian activists who support Conscientious Objectors in their own country took up his case as well, in a demonstration held at Talaat Harb square in Cairo. The Egyptian army’s oppressive role at various moments in the country’s turbulent last two years increased the disinclination of Egyptian youths to enter its ranks.

The Egyptian CO movement has long been championing two objectors - Emad Darawi and Mohammed Fathi  - who refused to join the army and under a draconian Egyptian law were placed in an impossible situation: without a document of discharge from the army, they can’t get a job, can’t study in a university and can’t have a passport – and in addition, the army can arrest and try them at any moment it chooses. They Egyptian objectors felt a natural sympathy and solidarity for Natan Blanc – and their own photos and names were displayed on placards carried in the Israeli protest at Military Prison 6.

Will the governments and general societies ever make a significant move to improve the situation? In any case, activists will go on struggling.