Saturday, March 15, 2014

“We are not Pirates – we are the Israeli Defence Forces”

“We are not pirates, we are the Israeli Defense Forces” – Yediot Aharonot, March 7, 2014

My involvement in political activity began many years ago , as high school pupil in Tel Aviv who came to volunteer at the elections headquarters of the “Holam Hazeh - New Force" party. It was a small party, holding but a single seat among 120 in the Knesset, and that single MK was Uri Avnery. It was an unconventional and highly dissident party, which struggled for the separation of religion and state, and which was the first to raise the idea of ​​establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after these territories were occupied in June 1967. Moreover, Uri Avnery was acknowledged, even by his staunch opponents , as a highly industrious Knesset Member. He made it his invariable practice to sit at all Knesset sessions without exception, even when the plenary was otherwise empty, and expressed great interest and considerable involvement even in deliberations of technical and boring issues (which often have the most influence on the daily life of ordinary citizens).

Starting from the next elections, it will no longer be possible for such an audacious and iconoclastic member to serve in Israel’s Knesset  and stand alone if need be, "One against 119 ". According to the law enacted this week by the tyrannical Knesset  majority, any new Israeli party which will arise in the future would need to pass a high hurdle and gain enough votes for at least four seats - otherwise all votes cast for it will be lost. A very high hurdle for those expressing innovative and unorthodox positions. Also veteran, long established parties which undergo a crisis, as happened to Meretz in the March 2009 elections, might now be wiped out and disappear from the political spectrum, given no breathing space to recover and regain the confidence of their voters. Of course, even now new parties might emerge from nowhere and soar to heights, as did Yair Lapid and his party in the last elections - especially if they take care to keep their message superficial and populist and not really binding. It would be poetic justice if Yair Lapid’s lucky streak would fade by the next elections and his party fails to pass the threshold he had himself raised... (Such things have happened before in Israeli politics, even to the party which had once been created by Lapid’s own father.)

Of course, as nobody bothered to hide, the new law primarily targets the Arab citizens of Israel, and aims at blocking the parties which represent them from gaining parliamentary representation. Unless these parties are to unite, or at least form an alliance to run jointly in elections despite the great ideological and practical differences between an Islamic party, a nationalist party and a  Communist party (which also upholds the principle of partnership between Jews and Arabs and sternly refuses to be classified as “an Arab party") .

Probably, in the next elections these parties will have no choice but to bridge their differences and form a joint electoral slate. There had been more than one case in Jewish History when, faced with an antisemitic offensive,   Jews were forced to cooperate with each other – left-wing Jews and right-wing Jews, religious and secular. Also other persecuted minorities in different countries had such occasions...

And just at the time that the tyrannical Knesset majority launched the offensive campaign to raise the electoral threshold, and the opposition united in an unprecedented protest act of boycotting the deliberations and vote, the ship Klos C entered the port of Eilat to the sound of fanfare. A ship flying a Panamanian flag and manned normal days by a Turkish crew and nowadays  replaced by a crew of Israeli Navy commandos which took it over at a distance of 1500 kilometers from the shores of Israel, in an intricate operation described in detail by all the Israeli media for five consecutive days. Waiting for the ship were some citizens waving flags, and Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and sundry senior military officers as well as foreign journalists, though not in the numbers which the PM’s bureau expected.

Everybody in the port watched the unloading and meticulous count of the loot: 40 rockets and 181 mortar shells and 400 thousand rounds for the Belgian 7.62 FN MAG machine gun. (As an IDF conscript, I had at one time been charged with the cleaning and lubrication of such a gun).  And the Prime Minister gave a speech expressing his irritation with the indifference and hypocrisy of the world, which failed to be duly shocked by the terrible crime committed by the Iranians who had sent the ship and its cargo. The veteran military correspondent  Amos Harel of Ha’aretz wrote: "At some moments during the  live government propaganda broadcast from the Eilat naval base in Eilat, the camera lingered on the face of Deputy Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot , and it seemed that the general would have rather been somewhere else. Senior officers told me that the operation to capture the arms ship had been a neat intelligence and operational success, but when marketed to the public and the media it was blown out of all proper proportions."

What might be remembered of this whole affair are the words of the commander of the naval force which captured the ship, quoted in a banner  headline on the "Yediot Aharonot" weekend  edition, "We have told the Captain: We are not pirates, we are the Israel Defense Forces." Such words of clarification were definitely required, because in the waters where the ship was captured there are indeed modern pirates who are in the habit of taking over  passing merchant ships . But these pirates are mainly poverty-stricken Somalis, sailing small boats out of godforsaken anchorages in their ruined homeland.  But these were warships of the navy of the state of Israel, a sovereign state in possession of weapons galore and even submarines armed with nuclear missiles...

Apparently, not much has changed in the world since the 16th century, when the famous Rabbi Yehudah Leib Modina lived in Venice and in his book “Tzemach Tzedek” (Tree of Justice) he quoted an already old legend: "In the olden days of Macedonian Alexander, it came to pass that the King’s Chief Henchman laid hands on one of the despoilers of the seaways that are called Corsairs, and brought him into the Royal presence. And Alexander did ask him, Why dost thou roam the sea to plunder and rob? Replied he, The King’s Majesty dost hold the globe entire to ransom with hosts innumerable, and in consequence a Great King art thou acclaimed, whereas I have but the single vessel and wherefore am I accounted a vulgar robber”.

This week was also the week in which IDF soldiers shot dead a Palestinian named Raed Zeiter at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. "He had tried to grab the weapon of a soldier, and was shot" said a brief statement sent to the media. Normally, this would have been the end of the story, at least as far as the Israeli public is concerned. Citizens of Israel usually take soldiers’ word without demur. Those were killed because they were about to fire a missile, and this one was killed because he threw stones, and she was killed because she came near to the border fence at night and this one was killed because the soldiers sincerely suspected him of being a terrorist and did not take a risk so a regrettable mistake occurred.  Only a handful of leftist Human Rights activists dare to dispute the Gospel handed down from the IDF Spokesperson’s bureau .

But soldiers are not always able to distinguish whom it is permitted to kill and whom not. In this case it turned out that the dead Raed Zeiter was not just an ordinary Palestinian, but a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship who had the position of a judge in Amman. Therefore, his killing caused a great stir in Jordan, and set off a wave of demonstrations and strengthened the hand of  the factions which have long since been displeased with the peace which their King maintains with Israel. Therefore, Netanyahu was quick to publish an apology and a statement of condolences and to promise to let the Jordanians share in investigating the circumstances of the incident. Maybe in this particular case somebody would take seriously an alternative to the soldiers’ version – i.e. that possibly it was not  the judge who had attacked the soldiers, but rather the lethal confrontation started with the soldiers roughly pushing and shoving the judge. If only all Palestinians were Jordanian judges...

The three who were killed this week in the Gaza Strip weren’t. "A terrorist squad liquidated" was the caption of the brief army communiqué. The three were about to fire a mortar, the IDF was quicker on the draw and killed them, an open and shut case. "The mortar shell might have fallen, God forbid, on a kindergarten. We can’t take chances” explained on TV the retired General  Yom Tov Samia, whose years of ruling the Gaza Strip with an iron fist made him a popular expert on Gazan affairs. But those reading the fine print found that there had been no kindergarten at risk. Rather, the Palestinians were  aiming at Israeli soldiers who had crossed the border fence and entered into the Strip and were performing there an unspecified task of military engineering.

Who, actually, could claim here the right to self defense:  the soldiers who penetrated into Palestinian territory or the Palestinians who sought to contest  their entry there? An interesting judicial case which, it seems, no experts in  International Law will be called upon to deliberate. What did happen was that in retaliation for the killing of the three, dozens of rockets were suddenly fired at Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza Strip border – the biggest flare-up since the 2012 ceasefire was signed. Within a few hours, the Israeli Air Force embarked on a counter-retaliation with a series of bombing raids across the Gaza Strip. "Air Force lands a massive blow on Gaza" boasted on the following morning the banner headline of “Israel Today", nicknamed Bibinews. However, it seems that somebody selected carefully the targets all over the Gaza Strip so as to ensure that this time there were no fatalities on the Palestinian side, making it easier to put an end to the escalation.

In his weekly column Amnon Lord, one of the columnists closest to Netanyahu's bureau, exhibited a rare glimmer of common sense: "Israelis love it when the Special Forces, the IDF at its glorious best, perform such fascinating tricks as capturing the Klos C on the high seas. But would they be able and willing to endure and expensive and possibly bloody war against Gazan terrorism?" Apparently, the assessments made by the government and the IDF top brass reached a negative answer to that question, and after some words of bravado and dire verbal threats, the relative calm resumed along the Gaza border, with no casualties on either side. And, a new precedent was set - not only with Hamas can the State of Israel negotiate indirectly via the Egyptians and reach agreement on a cease-fire; also with the Islamic Jihad is this definitely possible .

The new ceasefire came just in time for Israeli children in the border communities to hold on schedule their outdoor Purim Carnival. Also in Gaza life went back to what is considered normal there. For the time being, Gazans can still enjoy the luxury of having electricity for twelve hours in every twenty-four; once the stores of fuel donated to Gaza by Qatar run out, they would have to go back to eight hours’ electricity only in twenty four.  

And among the many events of this crowded week were also the fifty highschool pupils, boys and girls, who signed a new School Seniors’ Letter - the first in five years -  announcing  their refusal to join an army of occupation. "We, the undersigned, refuse to enlist, and the main reason for our refusal is our opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territories by the military” they started. “The Palestinians are living under the rule of the government of Israel, a rule they did not choose and did not consent to, and over whose laws and decision-making they have no recourse whatsoever. There is neither justice nor equality in such a situation. Military rule in these areas involves violation of Human Rights, and even acts which are considered war crimes under International Law . There are extrajudicial executions, administrative detentions without trial, torture, collective punishments and unequal allocation of such basic resources as water and electricity. Moreover, the problem with the military system is not limited to the harm caused to the Palestinian society, but also with a continuing seepage into the daily life of Israeli society as well. The military system shapes education in the schools and opportunities in the labor market, and inspires racism, violence and ethnic and gender discrimination in the Israeli society. We are also opposed to the oppressive and gender discriminative system inside the army itself. Any military service, in any form and function whatsoever, contributes to the perpetuation of this status quo. Therefore, following the dictates of conscience, we cannot be part in this system”.

Already for many decades, Israeli society has witnessed the appearance of a  new Shministim (Highschool Seniors) letter every few years. The first such letter, back in 1970, was quite modest, going no further than to express the signatories’ concern over the then Golda Meir Government’s lack of willingness to move towards peace. In these days even that was enough to arouse a great storm of outrage by politicians who voiced concern about the  poor education which the brash youngsters had gotten. Since the Seniors' Letter of 1981, such letters included a clear statement of intention to refuse military service in the Occupied Territories and a willingness to endure prison terms, and later generations of Seniors went to the extent of refusing military service altogether. Some graduates of the military prison system in previous cycles have helped with advice to the present youngsters, so as to save them   having to learn everything on their own.

Several of the youngsters were invited to speak in the media, and as usual in such cases were immediately subjected to a wave of outrage, including vulgar invective  on Facebook. Unusually, also a senior politician -  Finance Minister Yair Lapid – chose to personally confront the mischievous youngsters via Facebook, and they replied vigorously and unhesitatingly. "Spoiled kids" the Finance Minister called them, and compared them with the young Ultra-Orthodox who prefer holy studies to putting on uniforms. A demonstrably false comparison – under  the law whose enacting Lapid’s own party had initiated, ultra-Orthodox scholars will have at least another four years of full exemption from military service, while secularists who refuse to serve the occupation are bound in the here and now for cells in Military Prison 6 at Atlit. This morning, many of the new COs along with veterans of the refusal movement have climbed the mountain overlooking that prison, to shout words of encouragement to a present inmate. Musician Omer Saad had refused, like an increasing number of Druze youths, to take part in the conscription to which their community alone was singled out of Israel’s Arab citizens. Ever since, he had been going into the prison and out and in, again and again.

All the events of this crowded week seem to be the prelude for the meeting scheduled at the White House next Monday, between Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Barack Obama. Its results might largely influence the outcome of the diplomatic initiative led stubbornly by Secretary of State Kerry – to go forward against all odds, or to reach a final collapse amidst  mutual recriminations blame games, probably followed by a new cycle of bloodshed.