Saturday, May 25, 2013

Of malignant hatred and a law of theft

Last Monday afternoon there landed in my email box a message from somebody who is in the habit of corresponding with me every few days, expressing opinions in which moderation and tolerance are conspicuously absent. This time he wrote with glee "Look what your Bedouin friends did this time, already four deaths in the terrorist attack on the Be'er Sheba bank."

I quickly went into the news websites and found extensive reporting on the horrific events unfolding at the Bank Hapoalim branch in Be'er Sheba.

The body of the article had nothing about the ethnic identity of the perpetrators (at the time it was thought there were two). But the talkback windows below were full of dozens of responses by people who already knew as a fact that they were Bedouins, and who were indignantly protesting that the "leftist media" was "concealing" this fact. And thence the right-wing talk back artists proceeded to make various imaginative suggestions about what should be done to the perpetrators, to their families, to their entire tribes, and to all Negev Bedouins in general.

By evening it turned out, clearly and unequivocally, that the bank killings had been the result of a revenge spree by a completely kosher Jewish citizen of Israel (and a former IDF officer, to boot) and the vocal right wingers reluctantly let go the prey they thought they had. One of them wrote, "OK, you won this time, dirty leftists”. But they'll be back, no doubt.

The outpourings of hatred against the Negev Bedouins don’t stop even for a day. You find them not only in the talk backs but also in some of the commentaries on the opinion pages themselves, and in the slant of supposedly objective news items, and also in daily conversations one overhears on a bus or at street corners. The Bedouin are thieves, The Bedouins are violent, The Bedouins build new mosques all over the Negev, The Bedouins take over state lands, The Bedouins are a demographic threat, their camels cause road accidents, Hit the Bedouin and Save Israel!. How did such a malignant and vociferous hatred spring up in the Israeli society?

It was not always so. From my Tel Aviv childhood in the 1950s and 1960s I can’t  recall anyone expressing hatred towards Bedouins. We learned of them as exotic and interesting people, wandering the desert and riding camels. On one visit to Be'er Sheva I was delighted to have a few minutes’ ride on one of these camels, and the Bedouin who led it looked  just like the picture in the school textbook.

Of course, no one bothered to tell elementary school students in Tel Aviv (or  adults, for that matter) about what really happened in the Negev in those years. We were not told that although the Bedouins had hardly taken part in the war of 1948, the state of Israel nevertheless treated them as defeated enemies. They were placed under an oppressive military government and many of them expelled across the Jordanian or Egyptian border. Those who remained within Israel were concentrated by force in a single small part of the Negev which was called “The Sayag” (what would have been called “a reservation” had they been Indians in America). Bedouin villages in other parts of the Negev were razed to the ground and Jewish pioneers came to take up this land and build on it kibbutzim and moshavim and in short "make the desert bloom."

This was the time when a Bedouin youth named Nuri al-Ukbi, who would become the pioneer of the Bedouins’ Civil Rights struggle, got a firsthand experience of expulsion from his home village, Al- Arakib. The Sheikh, Nuri’s father, had expressed support for the young State of Israel as soon as its soldiers came to his village, and hoisted the Blue and White flag when the Tribal Court was in session at his residence. Even so, the soldiers came in 1951 and expelled him and his family and his entire tribe and forced them to move to another location designated for them by the army, many miles away.  The village lands were registered as “State Lands" as had happened to all Bedouin lands. Later, the authorities began denying that any such village had ever existed. Only in the yellowing records of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior were left references to a polling station being placed at  Al-Arakib Village during the first Knesset elections in 1949.

That was also a crucial time for a young kibbutznik  named Oded Pilavsky, who came to settle in the Negev as a pioneer and a believer in Zionism and Socialism and The Brotherhood of Nations. Pilavsky was sent by his Kibbutz to take part in harvesting the fields which had been planted by the neighboring Bedouins and which were left "abandoned" when the army removed these Bedouin and took them far away. It was this event which pushed Pilavsky to leave the kibbutz and altogether break off with Zionism and spend the rest of his life, until his death last year, in the ranks of the radical left in Israel.

All of that was known only to few in the general society. We grew up with the myth of the nomadic Bedouin wandering the vast desert on camel's back, here today and faraway tomorrow. And of course such a nomad could not own any land - and why would he need such ownership, anyway? Almost no one knew that already for centuries the Negev Bedouins were no nomads. Already for centuries they had been settled on well-defined plots, and cultivated them with boundless devotion to make the most of the scanty rainfall at the edge of the desert. Each tribe, and each family within the tribe, and each individual within the family, knew exactly where their plot of land was and what were its boundaries.

Successive rulers over the country, the Ottomans followed by the British, had recognized Bedouin ownership of their lands. In fact, usually there were not so many others interested in these lands – and if somebody did want to buy them, they paid the Bedouin owners the full price, under the tribal land laws. So did also the Jewish National Fund, when during the British Mandate it purchased Negev lands for the Zionist movement. But that was before the State of Israel was established, when at the stroke of a pen Bedouin land ownership was nullified and all their lands declared to be "state lands” – making all Bedouins living on them into “squatters”.

This constitutional coup had already been going on, out of sight, in the 1950s.
But hatred of Bedouins there was not at this time. Why should anyone hate a handful of camel-riding exotic nomads? But in the 1970s and 1980s the situation began to change. First of all, the Bedouins themselves were changing. They no longer lived under a military government, and more and more they began to organize and demand their rights. And an increasing number of young Bedouins were able to get to university and gain an academic degree, though it was much more difficult for them than for their Jewish Israeli contemporaries.

Furthermore, the number of Bedouins rose rapidly, a poor community with a very high birthrate, and they were no longer the small handful left in the Negev in the aftermath of 1948. And this increase alarmed those who are obsessed with the “demographic balance”, a type of accountants busy with constant calculations in which all Jews are entered on the credit side and all Arabs on the debit, and similarly any house in which a Jew lives and any acre cultivated by Jews is considered a gain while any Arab house or acre constitute a loss. Many of Israel’s decision makers are always busy with making such accounts, regardless of which political party got to form the current government.

At that time an attempt was made to concentrate the Bedouins in townships, and let them take up as few acres as possible on the ground. This was presented as a benevolent gesture by a government seeking to do its best for the Bedouins. But the townships were overcrowded and lacked sources of livelihood, quickly becoming mired in poverty and distress. Those who were tempted to go there were required to give up what remained of their land and traditional way of life, and who have not yet moved did not feel any great urge to do so.

The  scattered Bedouin villages were declared "unrecognized villages”, where all buildings are considered illegal by definition, and there is no way to get a building permit. From time to time bulldozers come to demolish the houses, and a law passed at the initiative of right-wing Knesset Members made it illegal to connect "illegal houses" to electricity, water or sewage – dooming generations of Bedouins to grow up without access to such facilities.

At the same time, the government embarked on an extensive effort to induce  Jews from the center of the country to settle in the Negev and increase the Jewish majority there. Since nowadays there are fewer idealistic pioneers who want to establish a kibbutz or a moshav, the government encourages the establishment of "family farms." Any Jewish Israeli family finding in themselves a bit of Zionist pioneering spirit can get a very nice house in the  Negev for next to nothing, linked of course to water and electricity and sewage at government expense, and surrounded by a plot of land larger than that available to an entire Bedouin tribe. For its part the media published feature stories praising and paying tribute to these modern pioneers.

And this is probably the time when Bedouin hatred began to permeate the Israeli Jewish society. It trickled down from politicians who began to find in it a convenient  tool for career advancement. For example, Pinni Badash started his political career as a member of the Tzomet Party, whose leader Rafael Eitan once spoke of Arabs as "drugged cockroaches running around in a bottle". Eitan is long since gone and his party is but a fading memory, but Pinni Badash remains the long-standing mayor of Omer, the affluent suburb of Be’ersheba. And indeed, he made a name for himself in the fight against the Bedouins, in particular in relentless efforts to expel members of the Tarabin Tribe whose impoverished village hindered the town’s expansion. Eventually he did get rid of them, clearing the space for a very lucrative and prestigious real estate development project. Subsequently he won handsomely the municipal elections, following a  campaign in which he voiced dire warnings about the serious threat posed by Bedouin land thieves who take over state lands.

Then came the moment when the government established a Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Eliezer Goldberg to look into the Bedouin problem.  Goldberg did grapple with the issue and even took the trouble to hear the opinions of some Bedouins. The Goldberg Commission's conclusions included a recommendation to recognize at least a large part of the unrecognized Bedouin villages and give them official status, building permits and basic services such as water and electricity.

The Bedouins were not entirely enthusiastic about the Goldberg Commission's conclusions,  but also did not reject them outright. But there were government officials that very much disliked them. Ehud Prawer was appointed by the Prime Minister to review the recommendations and improve them, and he did a thorough job of deleting any item that might be remotely acceptable to the Bedouins.  And National Security Yacov Amidror declared the matter of the Bedouins to be a serious national security issue, and he got to make still further changes and improvements.

The program eventually left after all these changes no longer included the option of recognizing existing villages. Instead, it included the offer to each individual Bedouin to come and apply for a plot of land, which the government might grant him at an unspecified location according to an extremely complicated table of calculations. It is far from sure that even the officials who drew it up completely understand it), with the underlying basic assumption that the Bedouins have no title to any land and therefore anything given them would be a special favor. Anyone refusing these generous offers and insisting upon sticking to his land would be liable to up to two years’ imprisonment and the loss of further entitlement to land. The number of Bedouins who would be forcibly evicted from their land is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000.

Bedouin organizations got together with Jewish activists who supported their cause, to cry out in protest against the Prawer Plan. Prime Minister Netanyahu then appointed Minister Benny Begin to examine the program again and meet with Bedouins and propose amendments and changes. And Begin, whose political career was nearing its end, did present a revised and improved plan, and stated that its purpose was to ensure the welfare of the Bedouins and provide humane living conditions for their children. He then added that "where possible" recognition would be given to existing villages. However, Human Rights organizations which examined minutely the fine print and the technical clauses and sub-sections concluded that there was no fundamental difference from the Prawer Plan and that tens of thousands would still be uprooted and expelled from their land.

When the cabinet approved the Begin Plan, the right wing protested vociferously, their cri de coeur reverberating in the banner headlines of the twin Ma'ariv and Makor Rishon newspaper. They bitterly accused Begin of having sold out to the Bedouins and warned that Israel was abut to lose the Negev. Their representatives in government demanded that the plan be drastically changed and the far-reaching concessions made to the Bedouins be removed. And indeed the plan was approved at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation only after the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lapid promised the ministers of the Jewish Home Party that the amount of land to be given to the Bedouins will be cut drastically so as to ensure that the Jewish State of Israel will continue to hold on firmly to the Negev.

And that is the "Law on Bedouin Permanent Residence" which the Government of Israel intends to bring to its first reading in the Knesset on Monday, 27 May 2013. In preparation for this important event, last Thursday there arrived a big entourage at the Bedouin village Atir, which is located in the North-Eastern Negev, not far from the Yatir Forest and from the Green Line. Representatives of the Israel Lands Administration and the Green Patrol came there, accompanied by hundreds of police. Within hours, they destroyed eighteen buildings and uprooted hundreds of olive and fruit trees, leaving dozens of people homeless. They also loaded on trucks and took away agricultural equipment of all kinds as well as household items, among them lifesaving medical devices for children.

It was, it seems, an effort to signal to the Bedouin villagers the merciless fate which they might expect once the law is enacted. Specifically, a similar fate to that of Atir is also in store for its neighboring village of Umm Hiran, which is to be razed, its site to be used partly for building a new Jewish community and partly for extension of the Yatir Forest by the JNF.  After the work of destruction is ended and the construction and forestry work completed, tourists might be invited to see how once more the desert is made to bloom.

This morning, as I sit here writing, a great “procession of protest and outcry” is setting out from the community center at Bedouin town of Rahat and moving through the streets. Protesters are led by residents of  Arakib, who had undergone several times the trauma of destruction and displacement but did not give up their village, rebuilding it again and again. At the end of the procession, Bedouins and Jewish activists intend to go to Atir, to rebuild  destroyed houses and plant new olive trees to replace those which were uprooted.

Days before the expected vote in the Knesset the case was taken up by the Avaaz organization. Avaaz is known for its energetic campaigns against notorious acts of injustice around the globe and has already succeeded in some cases to influence the policies of various governments.  The present campaign aims at  stopping at the last moment the dispossession and destruction planned by the Israeli government against its Negev Bedouin citizens.

And what if the law does pass its first reading, and second and third ones as well, and comes to implementation in the field?

Itzchak Aharonovitz, Minister of Public Security, has stated that he would undertake enforcement of this law only provided that the Ministry of Finance undertakes to finance the hiring of a two hundred and fifty new policemen.

Two hundred and fifty extra police to enforce this draconian law all over the Negev? The minister must be an optimist. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Stone Age

A few weeks ago a military judge, Major Amir Dahan, acquitted four Palestinians of the charge of “attempted murder by throwing stones at vehicles”. He stated that "throwing stones can, under some circumstances, have the character of a lethal offence, carrying the near certainty of a danger to human life - but under other circumstances it might be no more than a prank without the potential of serious damage, by a young person who had barely crossed into the age of criminal responsibility".

This verdict angered Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home party, who said in the beginning of last week: "This is no way to render judgment in  Israel. It is about such things that we daily utter the prayer “O restore our judges, as of old”. We should not tolerate even one stone. We must not forgive even one stone . A stone kills".

Later this week, the head of the party joined Ariel. The well known Naftali Bennett, Minister of Economy, made a public call to change the rules of engagement so as to allow soldiers a much lighter trigger finger when facing Palestinians, since "travelling the roads of Judea and Samaria has turned into hell."

The press tycoon Shlomo Ben-Zvi, who a few months ago bought the failing "Ma'ariv" paper, also joined the fray. Already for several days the Ma'ariv headlines are mainly concerned with the stone age which had descended on the West Bank. Ma'ariv devotes pages upon pages to the cry of the settlers, stridently demanding that soldiers finally start shooting and killing  stone throwers. The paper’s reporters gathered the shocking testimonies of soldiers asserting that their hands are tied behind their backs by the military orders. "The best guys, the best fighters, salt of the earth", reporter Chen Kutas- Bar called them.

Also columnist Adi Arbel of the Institute for Zionist Strategies added his own account of a terrible event he had witnessed. Last week, at noon of the  celebrated Jerusalem Day, several VIPs of the Israeli right wing camp went to the settler enclave at the heart of Silwan Village, to get there the Moskowitz Prize from the multi-millionaire Irving Moskowitz - the well known settler patron who for this occasion left for two days his flourishing gambling business in California. It happened that on their way to this event, the settlers and their friends went through the Palestinian neighborhood of A-Tur on Mount Olive, where a boy of about 18 threw a stone at their bus. And alas, laments the Zionist strategist, nothing happened to this boy , no policeman and no soldier thought of pulling a weapon and opening fire on him. Adi Arbel’s sad conclusion: even after 46 years, East Jerusalem is not under Israeli sovereignty. Well, with that I am not going to dispute. 

And what about when settlers gather alongside the highway and throw stones at each passing Palestinian car? What happens when they aim a whole  barrage of stones at a school bus full of Palestinian girl pupils and wound some of them? Should that, too, be treated as a case where even one stone could not be tolerated or forgiven, because "a stone kills"? Is that also the kind of situation where the rules of engagement should be changed and soldiers’ fingers become more loose on the trigger? Or perhaps this is exactly the case where stone-throwing is indeed no more than a prank without the potential of serious damage? Well, it’s no use to pose too many questions to the honorable minister Uri Ariel and to the honorable minister Naftali Bennett and to Ma'ariv publisher Shlomo Ben-Zvi and his well-trained reporters.

By coincidence or not, it was just this week that a military court was hearing the case of a soldier who did not feel that his hands were tied and who had no  particular problem to tighten his finger on the trigger. On 12 January this year - just in the midst of the Israeli elections campaign in which hardly anyone mentioned the Palestinians - this soldier (whose name is not published) was stationed in South Hebron Hills at a point where Palestinians are habitually trying to cross into Israel and find work. Many of them do succeed in their attempt. Unfortunately for the 21-year old Uday Darwish of the town of Dura, this particular soldier did open fire and he was hit and died a few hours later in the hospital, his funeral attended by thousands.

This particular soldier did not assert that army regulations had bound his hands. "This is the first time I encountered a shooting event, it never happened to me before. I never before got to such a situation of standing in front of 30 people I don’t know. Earlier we had been on the border of Egypt where a lot of Sudanese were passing we were always warned that in any group of Sudanese who come to Israel there is the hazard that one would be wielding a stabbing knife or wearing an explosive belt or something like that. " (As a matter of fact, among  tens of thousands of Sudanese who arrived in Israel until now there had never been any such case...)

The Prosecution wants to treat this case severely, and therefore impose a full  nine months’ imprisonment and also demote the soldier one notch, from Staff  Sergeant to an ordinary Sergeant. However, the soldier's attorney, Yechiel Lamesh, asked the court to content itself with a term of three months, since "We should send a message to the fighters who risk their lives for us. We should understand and make it clear to them that to err is human and that an error, even a severe one, need not draw upon them the full severity of the law .” The defense attorney also asked that his client not be demoted, so as not to hurt the honor and dignity of this fighter of the Israel Defense Forces.

So, what the appropriate punishment for a soldier who shot and killed (not on purpose) a Palestinian worker who was going to sustain his family? Three months,  or nine months, or something in between? Will he be demoted by one notch, or would the court take care not to hurt his honor and dignity? The Court is to convene again at the end of the month and make clear if they take up the prosecution’s case or that of the defense.

But what about one who did not shoot and did not kill anyone and who in the first place refused to join the army of occupation and wear its uniform and swear allegiance to it? One who altogether refused to get himself into a situation where he would stand armed in front of thirty people whom he has never seen before and have their lives and deaths at the mercy of his finger on the trigger? What is the proper punishment for such a crime of refusal? Half a year? A year? Two years? That is not yet clear.

Half a year has already passed since Natan Blanc arrived at the IDF Recruitment Center on his call-up date, November 19, 2012, and provided the recruitment officer with a detailed and reasoned letter setting out the reasons  for his refusal to enlist. Half a year in which he is going in and out of Military Prison 6, in and out, in and out, in and out and in again.

The army chose not to bring him to a military court, whose proceedings are held in public and where the defendant can have a defense attorney and set out legal arguments and also express from the dock a conscientious and principled position. Instead, Natan Blanc is being repeatedly brought before a military officer who had been authorized to serve as a Judging Officer. A trial by a Judging Officer is a much simpler and easier affair - without the presence of any public, without lawyers and without witnesses and without any complicated legal procedures. Court is held in the normal office of the Judging Officer, with nobody present except the judge and the defendant, and usually lasts all of three to five minutes. In exceptional cases it can drag on up to ten minutes. Natan Blanc has already passed through very many such mini-trials, being sent to jail sometimes for two weeks, sometimes three weeks,  sometimes a month. Each time he gets out of jail and is given another order to enlist and returns again to the office of the Judging Officer. So far he already accumulated 150 days behind bars, which is definitely not the end.

Yesterday, Friday, May 17, 2013, Natan Blanc celebrated his twentieth birthday behind bars at Military Prison 6 in Atlit. The activists of the Yesh Gvul movement came in the afternoon to celebrate with him on the mountain opposite the prison, whose summit was seen from the prison yard by several generations of refusers since the first Lebanon War in 1982. "Let's celebrate! Come with your friends, bring refreshments and party accessories, especially those which can be seen or heard from very far: balloons, ribbons, signs, noise makers, whistles etc. " was written in the invitation.  On Tuesday there will be another demonstration, held in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and the case of Blanc also gets increasing international attention.

Blanc told the military officers and judges that, once released from the army (and jail) he is going to do civilian service at the Magen David Adom medical rescue service. But when is that going to happen? The office of the IDF spokesman was not very forthcoming "A person liable for military service, whose application for exemption on grounds of conscience is denied, must perform a term of military service as set out in the Defense Service Act. One who refuses to do would be treated in accordance with the regular procedures." Period.

It may very well that the soldier who killed Uday Darwish will be set free earlier.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Never a dull moment in this crazy country

Headlines in Israel’s newspapers earlier this week spoke of the "Winds of War", and the Haifa Airport was closed for several days because the Air Force decided to clear civilian traffic off the airspace in the north. An elderly couple, friends of my parents, called me in a panic at a very late hour: "Did the war start?" They heard an unusual lot of airplanes going above their home, and did not get much sleep that night.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu was a child, did no one ever tell him that to play with fire is dangerous? You may get badly burned,  or ignite a big conflagration.

But the war did not start this week, and those who played with fire did not get  burned.  At least for now. A series of bombing was launched into Syria in order to destroy “Tiebreaker Weapons" before these could be transferred to Lebanon. (Were these truly "Tiebreaker Weapons"?" Several experts cast serious doubts on this.) Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon and the IDF High Command were all betting that President Bashar Assad has too much trouble with his homemade enemies, and that he would decide to hold back even in face of a public humiliation and a gross violation of Syrian sovereignty by a series of bombings carried out by the Israeli Air Force  not so far from his Presidential Palace. Indeed, the Israeli attack was not answered by a barrage of missiles from Damascus, and after two days the alert was scaled down.

What however did happen is that after precisely forty years, there came to its end the Syrian Government's commitment to prevent attacks against Israel from its territory, a policy which had made the Golan Heights into Israel’s most quiet border of the State of Israel. Bashar Assad now formally invited any interested armed group to penetrate the border at its discretion - and indeed, several such groups, from among both Assad’s friends and his foes, might well take advantage of the opportunity. The United Nations has already announced the evacuation of its observers who had helped keep this border stable over the past four decades.

Meanwhile, what of the massacres frequently occurring in Syria? Well, that's not really a matter of concern for the State of Israel (except when the PM needs a stick with which to beat Human Rights activists who dare to say a word about the Palestinians...) 

Anyway,  enough unto the day. For the time being, the situation on the Syrian border is gone from the headlines, which were taken up instead with the new state budget, and the austerity policy decrees introduced by the new Finance Minister Yair Lapid.   His middle class voters are shocked and frustrated by the severe harm which these decrees would cause them. But do Lapid’s voters have a real reason to feel disappointed, or could they have known in advance that such would be his policies?

After all, even before the elections many articles were published describing the  new budget being prepared by the Finance Ministry officials, and already on the same day that Lapid was appointed Finance Minister in Netanyahu's new cabinet was it predicted that such would be the budget he will submit. 

And what will happen tonight at nine o'clock in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, the focus of the social protests of two years ago? Will the masses again come out in the protest planned for tonight at quite a few locations all over the country?

In Israeli public opinion it is customary to maintain a water-tight division between socio-economic struggles and the question of wars and military preparations. Eyal Gabai, who was until recently Netanyahu’s Chef de Bureau and knew everything that was going on, broke a bit of the hermetic partition and said that last year there had been  preparations for a war against Iran, which did not take place (at least, not last year), and these preparations had cost about ten billion Shekels. Which happens to be a big part of the "Budgetary Abyss" to fill which the citizens of Israel (not necessarily the richer ones) will have to pay more taxes and receive less social services. Gabai’s remarks were made on a live radio program, but somehow did not get much of an echo.

Finance Minister Lapid then stated in a live broadcast of his own that the new budget he had prepared (or that was prepared for him by the Treasury officials)  would "take out of everybody’s pockets, not just those of the middle class" . There were those who objected the budget would not really touch the settlers and the settlements and the settlement budgets. But this is, after all, no more than the worn out argument of the leftists. 

What of the military budget? Is it really going to be cut? And if it is, will the cuts not be returned with compound interest as soon as a new military emergency of one kind or another catches the headlines again? We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister went off to China and looked from a distance at the budget turmoil and was perhaps not so sorry to push Lapid to the front. Relations with China are of strategic importance to Israel, Netanyahu reiterated, perhaps looking forward to a future time when the international balance of power changes and the United States no longer dominates the world and an Israeli PM who had just finished forming a new cabinet will rush off to Beijing before flying to Washington. In the meantime, China's President rushed to publish, on the day before his Israeli guest arrived, a detailed plan for peace in the Middle East, which includes establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. On the other hand, he also signed many economic contracts which Netanyahu said would give a big boost to the Israeli economy. And is that the best way to make the government of Israel take the Chinese peace plan seriously?

Netanyahu’s most profound impression in this visit seems to have been the Great Wall of China. To most visitors this is no more than an impressive tourist site, nearly two thousand years old, but Israel’s Prime Minister found there a lot of practical, present-day ramifications.  "As the Chinese defended themselves and barricaded themselves behind the Great Wall, so we will continue to fortify ourselves along the southern border, at the Golan Heights and on all fronts" stated the PM as he went though the windings of the old impressive wall. Maybe a historian with a bit deeper knowledge of Chinese history would have told Netanyhau that the Great Wall had not always been enough to protect the Chinese, and that some scholars consider seclusion behind the Wall and isolation from the outside world as having had serious negative effects on China. But probably the guide provided to the entourage of Netanyahu did not enter into such nuances.

And while the Prime Minister toured China and occasionally sent messages to the Israeli media, Jerusalem Day was celebrated in Jerusalem, the Eternal Unified Capital of Israel, marking the forty-sixth anniversary of Jerusalem’s Liberation and Unification in 1967. At least, that's how the official statement from the Jerusalem municipality put it, being echoed in some enthusiastic media reports of "A city full of flags." Nearly only on the pages of "Haaretz" was it reported that the masses of Blue-and-White flags were held aloft by a mass of national religious youths, many of whom arrived in Jerusalem in organized rides from settlements all over the West Bank, and marched through the Old City hurling insults at every bypassing Arab they encountered. Barak Shemehs, a Jerusalemite peace activist, sent out a message on Facebook which deserves to be quoted here:

"Many sectors and communities in the Israeli society have their own distinctive holidays, such as the Kurdish Jews’ Saharana or the Moroccans’ Mimuna. The National Religious have taken Jerusalem Day for their own special and distinctive holiday. This is the most important date on the calendar of their education system. Climax - a parade through the streets of the Muslim Quarter of an  occupied Old City, with the shutters closed, and inside the houses parents consolate their children, reassuring them :'lt will soon be over, they will go away and stop harassing us. (...) The nationalist Flags’ Parade closes off the city for hours, the unilateral “Unification” celebrations preventing  many people from returning to their homes. Jerusalem is not a united city. It is a divided city, at least one third of its residents facing severe discrimination,  political persecution, racist harassment, hate crimes, settler associations  taking over homes, harassing municipal bailiffs, lack of building permits, lack of infrastructure – all this  in addition to the usual difficulties in making a living and raising children. "

On Jerusalem Day this year, as on previous years, Israel’s National Police strongly  "adviced" the Palestinians in the Old City to close their shops and stay indoors and wait out the raging storm of young dancers holding Blue-and- White flags abates in their streets. But this year, unlike previous years, there were young Palestinians who did not follow the police directives and who celebrated a Jerusalem Day of their at the Damascus Gate, center of Old City life, holding aloft the Palestinian  Red-Green- Black-and-White, and police came rushing to disperse them. On  Israeli TV there was a reference to "riots marring the joy of the Jerusalem Unification celebrations" .

The Shamasnah family in the Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood of East Jerusalem is far from sure that next year they will have even the option of closing themselves up in their home while the settlers and their flags come flooding the street. Settler associations have marked the family home as next in line to be taken over, using various sophisticated legal arguments and tricks and a manifestly unfair system of land ownership laws. It already happened to several families whom the police expelled from their homes late  at night and by the morning the settlers had already taken possession and raised the Blue-and-White flag on the roof.

In a bit more than a week - on May 20, at 9:00 am – the Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the Shamasneh Family. Yesterday morning, there were in several  locations around the world demonstrations to express solidarity with the family. In Jerusalem, protesters gathered in Independence Park, opposite the U.S. Consulate. As it happened, just as they stood there with signs in Hebrew and Arabic and English stating "No to deportation in Sheikh Jarrah", the radio carried the report that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be here in two weeks’ time - to once more try to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and restart the stalled peace process. And it also happens that the Secretray of State’s plane is scheduled to land at Ben Gurion Airport precisely twenty four hours after the deliberations on the Shamasneh Family home.  

Is the Secretary of State able and willing to prevent this impending expulsion,  even before opening his suitcase to pull out the veteran Arab Peace Initiative which had been on the table since 2002 and about which Binyamin Netanyahu is far from enthusiastic? If he is not, perhaps it would be best for Kerry to board the plane right back to Washington and submit to President Barack Obama a report consisting of four French words: "Aprטs nous le dיluge!".

Note: I have written a lot about this crazy week and did not touch even in a nutshell half of the crazy things which happened. For example, the program for settling the Bedouins adopted by the government, which seems to imply expulsion of 30,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel and destroying dozens of "unrecognized" villages and for whose realization the Minister of Public Security demands the recruiting of 250 new police officers (a very optimistic assessment of the force required). And the Governance Bill which passed its preliminary reading which would place many obstacles on the ability of the parliamentary opposition to act against the government on the Knesset floor and on the ability of small parties to enter the Knesset in the first place. And the "Jenin, Jenin Law", named after a controversial documentary film and designed to prevent the future creation of such films, since their maker might face libel suits for having "defamed the Israel Defense Forces." And the uprooting of nearly a hundred olive trees at the small village of Twani  in the South of Hebron Hills and the nasty graffiti left there by settlers. And the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking joining the lengthening list of international VIPs who no longer feel comfortable about popping in for a visit to this country of ours, and the jokes in bad taste, jokes which some people who call themselves "friends of Israel" told of this man, who suffers from such a severe disability and has been able to overcome it in such a remarkable way.  And the great confrontation which took place at the Wailing Wall because a lot of people who consider themselves as religious and as having a right of possession over this site were ready to resort to violence at the sight of women wearing such Jewish religious symbols as prayer shawls and phylacteries which are supposed to be reserved for men only. And last but not least, the proposed government bill which would prohibit migrant workers from Africa to transfer money to their families – a bill supported by the illustrious Finance Minister Lapid.

And so ends another crazy week in a crazy country - and would next week be any less crazy?

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.