Friday, December 27, 2013

About goodies, baddies and two little girls

Communications media are an integral part of society. They reflect but also shape the common conceptions of their society. Societies at war cultivate the perception that we are the Good Guys.  It is this perception which facilitates the use of weapons, making it easier for the Good Guys to kill the Baddies facing them. Our fighters are heroic and humane soldiers, theirs are terrible monstrous terrorists. Our dead civilians were innocent victims of cruel  murder, theirs are unfortunate mistakes, collateral damages . And even our  children are sweeter and far more precious than theirs.

1 ) November : Avigail, two years old, from Jerusalem

It was a month ago, on the night of November 28, 2013. Shirin Ben Zion , resident of the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood in East Jerusalem, returned  home in her car, with her  three children in the back. On the road separating the Israeli Armon HaNatziv neighborhood from the Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher, stones were thrown at the car. One of the stones hit the head of the two year old Avigail. The terrified mother rushed her to medical treatment. Emergency services reported later that evening that "the toddler is not in life danger, she was conscious and in a stable condition when hospitalized in the trauma unit of Hadassah Hospital."

Armon HaNatziv is one of a string of Jewish neighborhoods founded in the early 1970’s in East Jerusalem, recently conquered and annexed to Israel, with the aim of "creating facts on the ground ", "thickening the Jewish population” and creating “a Jewish ring” all around the Old City.  Armon HaNatziv was built on a large area expropriated in 1970 from the Sur Baher  Palestinians, who until then used this area to pasture their  herds . There was some friction between the Palestinian residents and the Israelis living on their former land, flaring into violence during the First and Second Intifada and again in the past year. Outside the borders of Israel, such neighborhoods as Armon HaNatziv are  considered as Occupied Territory, and were counted as such in the EU guidelines which recently got to the headlines. But Shirin Ben Zion was not aware of all that, when she moved with her ​​husband and children at a relatively quiet time two years ago. To her, as to most Israelis, Armon HaNatziv is no more than an ordinary Jerusalem neighborhood where housing prices happen to be lower than otherwhere.

The injury of toddler Avigail Benzion immediately got the headlines, and newspapers competed with sensational formulations: "Toddler Injured in Terrorist Attack", "Stone Terrorism On The Rise", "Intolerable Escalation On Jerusalem Seam Line". Little Avigail's picture appeared on every front page, and extensive interviews were published with the distraught mother (who plans to move to another neighborhood as soon as possible) and with other family members who told how they heard the devastating news .

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat , recently re-elected in elections which Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem completely boycotted, hurried to the hospital to visit the toddler and make a statement to the numerous press representatives present: "This is intolerable. The punishment for throwing stones should be increased, a stone is a weapon, pure and simple."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that "the security forces will take all measures to get the bastards who hit little Avigail". Already in the wee hours of the same night , detectives arrived at the homes of four young Palestinians in Sur Baher and took them into custody on suspicion that they were the perpetrators. The capture was reported with great satisfaction on the following morning, and no journalist expressed the slightest doubt about the detainees’ guilt.

Three days later, the media reported the good news that Little Avigail was discharged from the hospital, apparently without long-term injury although she would remain under medical observation. Thus, more or less, ended this story and the media spotlights shifted elsewhere.

2 ) December: Hala, three years old, from Gaza

It was a week of escalation in the relations between Israelis and Palestinians . Last weekend, the 23-year old Nafi A-Saadi was killed in Jenin Refugee Camp when the Palestinian inhabitants brazenly dared to oppose a late night raid and detentions by Israeli soldiers. At Qalqiliya, the 28-year old Saleh Yassin was killed under similar circumstances . And Odeh Hamad, 27, killed when he approached the border fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. The Palestinians say he just wanted to collect junk metal for recycling, which was his source of livelihood, while according to the military he was trying to sabotage the fence. Anyway, he entered the area of three hundred meters from the fence, and under the rules established by the IDF anyone who does that is liable to an immediate death penalty .

These cases got hardly any mention in the Israeli media, which did report on Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the following days.  An explosive device was placed on a bus in Bat Yam, and due to the vigilance of passengers and driver detonated without casualties. On the next day Ramy Ravid, 41 , a settler who served as a community policeman in the Geva Binyamin settlement near Ramallah, was stabbed in the back while directing  traffic at the entrance to the settlement, but luckily the knife missed his vital organs. And on the following day, the 22-year old Salah Abu Latif, a civilian contractor from the town of Rahat in the Negev working for the Israeli Defense Ministry went to repair the Gaza border fence order to earn money to buy a house and get married, was fired at by an anonymous Palestinian sniper, and was killed on the spot.

Salah Abu Latif was a Bedouin from the Negev, a community targeted by the government plan to displace tens of thousands of its members from their homes and lands. Just a few weeks ago, Bedouin demonstrations were dispersed with great police violence, with some of the detained demonstrators – Bedouins of Abu Latif’s age - still behind bars in a particularly prolonged detention. Abu Latif had been killed as a civilian employee of the military. The Government of Israel decided that the killing of an Israeli citizen cannot be tolerated, and ordered the army to take immediate retaliation.

As noted by veteran commentator Alex Fishman, there has long existed an explicit directive by the Army Chief of Staff and the Commanding General South, to be effected when such reprisals are called for, entitled "Zero Collateral Damage". I.e., the targets and weapons for a retaliatory action should be carefully selected so as to avoid harming non-combatants .

Among other things, it is well known that the guns installed on tanks are effective and appropriate means of doing battle with other tanks, but their use otherwise is likely to culminate with "Collateral Damage". For reasons which remain unknown (and it is far from sure that anyone would ever try to investiagate them) it was decided that firing tank shells would be  a quick available retaliation for the death of Salah Abu Latif. A tank crew was instructed to fire a few shells in the general direction from which the sniper had shot (and from where he had long since departed) .

The Al Buheiry Family owns a small chicken farm east of the Maghazy Refugee Camp  in the central Gaza Strip. One of the tank shells scored a direct hit on the family home. Three year old Hala Buheiry was killed on the spot by shrapnel in her head. He brother Bilal, also three years old, was wounded as were the six years old Muhammad and the children’s mother.

In the Israeli newspapers of the next day it was very difficult to find any trace or reference to the death of three year old Hala Al Buheiry. Her photo did not appear on the front pages, nor was it to be found on any page. Also in the banner headlines telling of the army’s retaliation in Gaza her death was not mentioned.  Those who read newspaper reports carefully without missing a word could find, buried inconspicuously among many other details, a reference that "the Palestinians assert that a child of three was killed”. Not an objective fact. It is something which the Palestinians assert.

What was the name of the girl? Who were the members of her family? How did it happened, exactly? Those who wanted such needed to access the Palestinian news sites. Technically, that is very easy for anyone whose computer in connected online, a click with the computer mouse is enough . But very few Israelis even consider looking in Palestinian news sites .

What did get the wide attention of the media were the reports of a high alert in the Gaza Border region, in expectation of a Palestinian retaliation. Long-suffering border communities made feverish preparation, and the army  placed batteries of the Iron Dome anti-missile-missile as far away as Be'er Sheva, and that army prepared for a new round of major. But in recent weeks the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have already suffered greatly from the devastating combination of torrential rains and floods, of the long standing Israeli siege and of the Egyptian military regime’s manifest hostility towards the Hamas government in Gaza.  From the Strip came only a symbolic response to the death of the little Hala Al-Boheiry, two rockets fired at night towards Israeli fields, causing no casualties or damage. Escalation was halted . At least in that sector, at least for the time being.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Israeli heel of Achilles

Written Dec. 17, in Dutch, by Beate Zilversmidt  for "Een Ander Joods Geluid" (A different Jewish Voice)

Europe starts at last to show some muscle regarding the aim of "peace in the Middle East." The beginnings we saw in the official exclusion of the Israeli settlements from the lucrative Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation project, formulated in a document which the government of Israel finally co-signed.

Then, there was the controversial canceling (by Holland) of festivities planned for the state visit to Israel of Dutch PM Rutte. It was about the inauguration of equipment donated by the Dutch taxpayer which quickly scans truckloads of fruit and vegetables, thus circumventing the Israeli obstacles for export from Gaza. But still the strawberries were not let through and it turned out that the obstacles were not just security considerations, as asserted earlier.

Soon afterwards - another reason to be proud of Holland: the decision by the  Vitens Company not to embark on cooperation with the Israeli water company Mekorot, which is exploiting Palestinian resources. While the Dutch government not yet blacklisted Mekorot, the Vitens directorate seems to expect that measures against business involvement with the settlements might acerbate in the future.

And today I read in Haaretz that the ambassadors of the five biggest EU states jointly visited the Israeli Foreign Ministry and warned against further plans to expand building in settlements. So far, after every positive gesture squeezed from Israel, such as releasing prisoners, the ultra-right was pacified by the Netanyahu government with building plans.

These are badly needed points of light. With an impossible Israeli government and a declining superpower America, it is the time of doom scenarios.

But ... there are also signs that the Obama rule is making the transition of U.S autocracy to the broadening of power. Without cooperation with Russia there would not have been achieved an agreement about Syria's chemical weapons, nor about Iran's nuclear process. And, apparently, Washington holds the opinion that without cooperation with Europe nothing will come of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama and Kerry preserve for themselves the role of "good cop" - for reasons of internal American politics. To Europe falls the task of swaying the stick.

There are those in Israel who see it coming and try to escape from Israeli isolation by strengthening ties with China. But it is a question whether that would keep Israelis happy.

It's not only academics for whom access to the Western World is a high priority. Israel's sport scene is particularly Europe oriented. So far, Israeli footballers and fans feel quite at home there. But perhaps that's where the Israeli heel of Achilles is located.

Friday, December 13, 2013

‘Security’ or hidden motives? A video answer

I intended this week to write about what is going on in the so much debated Jordan Valley.  Is the Jordan Valley really needed for Israel’s security? How could Israeli troops, stationed there, help against missiles which target Israel's cities? Just an old-fashioned military concept? Or are there hidden motives at work?

Instead of writing about it, I post the following video, provided by 'Israel Social TV' – Hebrew-spoken with English subtitles

Saturday, December 7, 2013

And then came the Bedouin Day of Rage

The media usually weren't interested. "So the Bedouins are demonstrating again? Against the Prawer Law? You mean this law of Minister Begin? And also Jews will demonstrate with them? A few leftists perhaps. How do you call this village where they demonstrate? I never heard of such a place. An unrecognized village? Well then, who can recognize it. Twenty kilometers from Beershebah? I see. Tomorrow evening at seven? Well, we'll see if we have somebody free. Say, why are the Bedouins crying so much, anyway? The government wants to give them modern houses, what's wrong with that. What do you say? They are going to be expelled from their lands? Tens of thousands? But Bedouins are nomads. Nomads don't have lands. What do you say? Bedouins aren't nomads? But everybody knows Bedouins are nomads. No matter, say, is there going to be something hot in this demonstration? Some clash, something sexy? What? You are not planning to clash with the police? No action? Well, I will see whether we have somebody free in the South at that time. Bye."

On lucky occasions, a photo did make it into the back-pages: a sheikh in traditional clothing, and behind him young Bedouins in jeans together with students from Tel-Aviv University holding signs "Prawer will not pass!" in Hebrew and Arabic. But it quite often happened that a demonstration - even a big one - took place without the Israeli public knowing about it even by a hint.

Politicians and commentators were heard saying that this was a good law which would greatly benefit the Bedouins and what a pity it was that the ingrates did not grasp this. There were also who said that the law would give the Bedouins far more than they deserved, that indeed they deserved nothing at all,  since the Bedouins “are taking over State Lands and building on them illegally " and “constitute a demographic threat" and “organized crime is rampant among them " and so on and so on. " State Lands" was the term commonly used, which is their status under Israeli law.  

The Bedouins tried their best to reiterate that they had lived in the Negev centuries before Israel dreamed of being born, that land ownership by every tribe and every family within each tribe had been determined by Bedouin Tribal Law and has been recognized by the many changing rulers who had power in this country. For example, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II had not always been a paragon of enlightenment in his conduct, but when he decided to build the town of Beersheba in the middle of the desert he made ​​sure to buy the land from its Bedouin owners at full price. When the land came under British rule, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill came to Jerusalem in March 1921, where he met with a delegation of Bedouin sheikhs and assured them that the tribes’ ownership over their lands would be respected and that land ownership cases in the Negev would be adjudicated according to Bedouin Tribal law - a promise which was honored until the day when the last British High Commissioner sailed away. Also the Zionist movement at the time, when seeking to set up Kibbutzim in the Negev, saw no problem in approaching  Bedouin land owners, paying for the land and signing with them deeds of sale.  

Only when the Negev became part of the newly founded Israel was the legal situation changed and with a stroke of the pen all Bedouin lands became State Lands, a property of the Government of Israel earmarked for the settlement of Jews. Overnight, the Bedouins became "intruders" and "squatters" in their own ancestral lands, and many of them were expelled in the early 1950’s. Some were transferred by force beyond the borders, and those who remained inside Israel were concentrated in a small area called "The Sayyag”. It is from this small remnant that the "Prawer Law " would expel them.

The facts of this history had been written down by Bedouins with a university education and by several Human Rights organizations.  This was published in articles and brochures and internet websites as well as in several thick tomes, full of documents and photos. But all this stuff reached mainly those who were  convinced already. Most citizens of Israel neither knew nor cared.

The Prawer Law’s  public relations were greatly helped by its being identified  with former minister Benny Begin, a man with a reputation for honesty and integrity who was considered a Liberal by Likud Party standards – which led other Likudniks, who have no fondness for Liberals, to terminate Begin’s career early this year.  The “Regulation of Negev Bedouin Settlement Act", to cite its official name, was Begin’s swan song. He gave repeated assurances  that his bill was drafted in consultation with Bedouins; that it was designed to help them and improve their conditions and to give their children better opportunities in life. It is quite possible that Begin himself honestly believed so.

But Human Rights activists have examined the text of the bill presented to the Knesset and found that, as in many cases, "the devil is in the details." When the details were looked into, it emerged that the bill which Begin introduced in the cabinet and the Knesset was virtually identical with that proposed a year earlier by Ehud Prawer, former military officer and a senior official of the Prime Minister’s bureau.

The bill states that any Bedouin may file a request for a piece of land to be registered in his name and that "whenever possible" this would be the land on which he is living at present. But what will determine whether this is "possible" or "impossible"? The bill does not say. And where will those who are moved get alternative land? Would it be in one of the Bedouin townships, very densely populated and poverty stricken, where the State of Israel already concentrated tens of thousands of Bedouins in the seventies? On this, too, the bill remains  silent.

What does appear very explicitly is the penal clause: a Bedouin dissatisfied with the deal offered him could not challenge it in court - and if insisting on remaining at his current location, he would be evicted by force and might be liable to as much as two years’ imprisonment. At the cabinet meeting where the bill was adopted as an official policy of the Government of Israel, the estimate was made that implementation of the law would necessitate the recruiting of  several hundred new police officers. By now, even without the law being finally adopted, the officers have already been recruited and a new police unit,  called "Yoav " has already started operations in the Negev Bedouin villages.

How many of the thirty-five “Unrecognzied Villages”, which have existed for many years though denied links to water and electricity, are condemned by the Prawer Law to be demolished and razed to the ground? No one knows. How many residents would be expelled? No one knows this, either. The figure of thirty to forty thousand, mentioned in various demonstrations and protests, is only a reasonable estimate. To be more precise, somebody – or a few select somebodies – might know. Already for some time, journalists with good sources in the corridors of power tell of a map depicting exactly what the consequences of the Prawer Law would be on the ground, which villages would be destroyed and which would survive. But this map, if it exists, is kept a closely guarded secret, as if it were a top secret military document. Certainly no one had presented it to the Knesset Members who are expected to vote on this bill.

By the way, it might be that the similarity to military secrecy is not completely coincidental, considering that most of the government officials involved in the issue have an extensive military past. In charge of the implementing the Bedouin Resettlement Project is none other than Major General ( Ret.) Doron Almog – the same Doron Almog who in 2005 fled in haste from Heathrow Airport in London when being told that a British arrest warrant had been  issued against him on suspicion of war crimes, because of his involvement in the destruction of fifty Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip .

The Bedouins have very many good reasons for protesting and crying out with all their might against this bill, but until this week their cry did not really reach the ears of the general public. Out of Israel, it got a bit little more of an echo. In  many places there were protest demonstrations at Israeli embassies and institutions (including some by young American Jews ). Quite a lot of people went into YouTube to view “Fiddler Without a Roof”, the video produced by " Rabbis for Human Rights and featuring Theodore Bikel , well known for portraying Tevye  in “Fiddler on the Roof”. " A comparison is drawn between the expulsion of the Jews from the shtetl of Anatebka in Czarist Russia - with which the musical ends - and the expected expulsion of the Negev Bedouin, touching many sensitive strings.

Also the European Parliament held a special session on the Prawer Law and its implications. This did get covered in the Israeli media, mainly in a tone of exasperation at the European interference in internal Israeli affairs and broad hints that this was due to anti-semitism.

The Prawer Law rolled forward through the Israeli legislative system – approved in its First Reading after a tense and heated debate and going on to the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee – towards final approval and entry into the statute books of the State of Israel and implementation on the ground by the hundreds of police officers who were already been recruited. But then the ​​government of Binyamin Netanyahu went one provocation too far. A few weeks ago the ministers went southwards to the Negev and held a special cabinet meeting at Kibbutz Sde Boker, where Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion lived in his last years and where he is buried. So as to celebrate Ben Gurion’s heritage, a special “Facing towards the Negev” governmental program was adopted. Its centerpiece would be the demolition and complete razing of the Bedouin village of Umm Al Hiran and the creation on its site of a  a Jewish community called - how original – Hiran. A kind of appetizer towards the main course to be served once the Prawer Law is enacted by the Knesset. The intended new residents of Jewish-Hiran-to-be have already been selected and are getting ready to move in. Interestingly, they are religious-nationalists, mostly young settlers who will be coming directly from settlements on the West Bank. "The Negev is Eretz-Yisrael, too, and it is incumbent on Jews to settle there." said their leader on the radio. " I don’t understand all this fuss.  When we went into Judea and Samaria, Peace Now called upon us to go down to the Negev instead. Now we are really going there. Has that become forbidden, too?" Yes, mister settler, also within the Green Line stealing somebody else’s property is a morally unacceptable act.

The Umm al-Hiran affair was the spark which set off the  “Bedouin Day of Rage", on November 30, 2013 – a date which might well go down in the history of the Bedouins in Israel, and not only theirs. There was a major demonstration of Bedouins and their supporters at the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev, as well as solidarity protests in Haifa and Jaffa and  Taybeh and the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. And the media editors were certainly not disappointed this time. These demonstrations were very hot indeed, with a lot of "action " .

"A policeman grabbed a girl by the throat, right near me. When I tried to convince him to leave her alone, he hit me in the leg with his club” wrote veteran activist Alma Biblash a few hours after returning from Hura. "Another officer grabbed me by the arms and dragged me away. A moment later the second policeman grabbed a little boy standing next to me, and stuck his face hard into the ground, screaming and threatening to kill him . A young woman called out “Relax, stop beating everybody!”. He slapped her hard in the face and she fell. They started spraying the crowd with a strong stream of stinking water, and I run and run to get away from this horrible smell. A man ran near me. Suddenly the mounted police came, throwing him up into the air. I hid behind a parked car with stun grenades exploding all around. At a quiet moment I decided to go back again towards the buses. On the way I saw a crying child on the floor, I told him it was dangerous to sit there like this, but he did not hear me or maybe did not understand Hebrew . Finally he got up and ran with me. Suddenly somebody called him, he recognized the voice, snatched away his hand and run off. Finally I got back on the bus, more or less a safe place. One friend came in with a swollen face, another with a deep gash in her back, blood on her face and her shirt. Some who were at the demonstration did not return, they were left in police detention. Some had been taken off to detention in ambulances . "

The next day, the Bedouin made the headlines in every newspaper in Israel. "Riot, Disturbances, Clashes". "Bedouins take to the streets." "Bedouins burst out in furious demonstrations." "Bedouins rioted and rampaged." "Violence in the Negev." "Bedouins threw stones at police officers". " Brutal police violence against Bedouins, children and youths dragged on the pavement". “The Negev is exploding". “Is The Third Intifada starting - in the Negev?". The angles of coverage were different and contradictory, but certainly a few hours of clashes in front of clicking cameras did what a year of peaceful protests never did. The Bedouins and their problem with the Prawer Law got to the top of the public agenda .

"This was only a minority of radical law-breaker, the Bedouin silent majority supports the government’s plan. We will not yield to violence" declared PM Netanyahu. Also President Peres declared his support for going on with the legislation as “the best available solution”. But precisely Netanyahu’s partners on the far right seem to have a different opinion. "Bennett and Lieberman agreed to torpedo the Bedouin Law " announced a banner headline in Ma’ariv”. As the reporter noted, there is only a narrow margin in the Knesset separating the left-wing which opposes the Prawer Law and the government supporters. If it will also be opposed by two major right wing parties, Naftali Bennet’s “Jewish Home” and Avigdor Liebarman’s “Israel is Our Home”, it would be a death blow to the Prawer law. "This law was a personal project of Benny Begin. Begin assured us that the Bedouins will support it. Now we see the Bedouins are violently resisting it, so why should we support it? Why should we give them anything at all? We will teach the Bedouins a lesson,  torpedo this law and then go on to defend the lands of the Jewish Nation, with no concessions. No holds barred" said KM Robert Iltov, Lieberman's representative .

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a veteran Human Rights activist, compared the “punishing" of the Bedouins by torpedoing the Prawer Law  with the story of  the mischievous "Br’er Rabbit" in Black American folklore, who tricked his enemies bent upon punishing him and made them throw him into the thicket of thorns which was his home.

And seriously - with or without the Prawer Law , the struggle for the rights of the Negev Bedouins has just begun.

Stop the Begin-Prawer Law -

Demonstration in Tel - Aviv
Today , Saturday , December 7, 2013 at 19:00
Ben-Zion Boulevard corner King George

We call:
No to the Begin-Prawer Plan!
No to displacement of 40,000 Bedouin from their homes!
No to the destruction of dozens of villages!
Yes to the alternative zoning plan formulated by the Bedouin community!!!
 Stand with the Bedouin Community! Come and be counted!

(signed) The Recognition Forum