Saturday, May 2, 2015

At this square in the heart of Tel Aviv…

Now it's official: Mohammed Deif lives - and he has resumed his activity in the military wing of Hamas. The State of Israel did not succeed in "eliminating" him.

Last summer, Deif was the man that Israeli citizens most loved to hate. During the long decades of conflict between Israel and its neighbors in the region, there were many earlier people who filled that slot: The Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Palestinian Yasser Arafat, the Lebanese Hassan Nasrallah, the Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. People who greatly differed from each other in ideological orientation and their political and/or military position, but each in turn was depicted as the Devil Incarnate by Israeli government ministers and Israeli media and general Israeli public. So, in 2014 it was the turn of Mohammed Deif. It was Mohammed Deif whose photo was placed in Israeli newspapers in the bulls-eye position of a bright-red target board. Senior military commanders and government ministers yearned publicly for his death, their words being echoed by ordinary citizens queuing at a bus station.

On 19 August 2014, after several weeks of futile war and destruction which didn’t stop the Gaza rockets, a sensational piece of breaking news flooded the Israeli media. "Mohammed Deif liquidated! Strategic gain in the war against Hamas!"

As the commentators said, Israel’s Security Services had gone looking for Mohammed Deif’s vulnerable spot - sought and duly found one. Even such a diabolical villain, it turned out, occasionally wants to spend some time with his wife and children. An informer planted with great painstaking effort within the ranks of Hamas told the Israeli Security Services the exact time and place when and where Deif was going to meet his family. In feverish consultations at Israel‘s highest echelons, it was concluded that the aim: to get rid, once and for all, of the terrible Mohammad Deif - justified the means: killing along with him also his wife and children and neighbors. And thus the helicopters duly took off into the skies of the Gaza Strip and shot their missiles, within seconds making a high-rise building into a pile of rubble. Buried under the ruins were Deif's 27-year-old wife Widad, his 3-year-old daughter Sara, his 7-month-old son Ali, and several Palestinian civilians unfortunate enough to have lived in adjoining apartments.

The jubilation in the media did not last long. After about a day, hints of confusion and doubt penetrated into the headlines - "Mohammed Deif - Dead or Alive?", "Hamas denies assassination of Deif", "Did the Cat with Nine Lives manage to survive, also this time?". Mohammed Deif was in no hurry to dispel the haze. Only now, nine months later, did it became unequivocally clear that he is indeed alive and that senior IDF commanders had in vain stained their hands with the blood of a woman and her two small children.

At the moment, Mohammed Deif and the Gaza Strip are not really at the news focus in Israel. Some commentators do talk about negotiations taking place, somewhere behind the scenes, between the government of Israel and the Hamas leadership, in order to reach agreement on a "long-term truce" which would include a "significant easing" of the suffocating siege of Gaza. "Nowadays, there is only one player in the Middle East arena, perhaps in the entire world, who is interested in preserving Hamas rule in Gaza. That player is the Government of Israel," wrote veteran commentator Avi Issacharoff. "Everybody else - Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, the EU, the Arab states and the United States - all of them would like to see the Palestinian Authority replacing Hamas in Gaza. But Israel sees things differently, and largely cultivates continuation of the Gaza status. The Prime Minister's bureau in Jerusalem sees a low probability of getting the Palestinian Authority to regain control of the Gaza Strip. As long as Hamas keeps quiet and doesn’t escalate the situation, continued Hamas control seems to be the least evil for the Gaza Strip - compared to a situation of chaos or a renewed direct Israeli occupation of the Strip."

Is the Netanyahu government willing to go as far as the construction of a floating port off the coast of Gaza, under the supervision of NATO countries - as proposed by the Turkish and the Qatari mediators? In the meantime, it seems not - easing the closure is feasible, but only with Israel keeping its hand on the switch and able to cut off everything at any moment.

And what of the widowed and bereaved Mohammed Deif? For the time being, he is building up and strengthening Hamas' military wing, but is wary of exercising it in practice. In fact, one of the units under his command is currently in charge of blocking any attempted attack on Israel by one of the rogue organizations active in the Gaza Strip. Maybe in a year he will become once again "The Man You Love to Hate"? Who can tell…

The news focus of this moment is somewhere else entirely – the distant Nepal, on the other side of the continent of Asia, struck by a terrible earthquake. The Israeli media, which usually does not carry much international news, had this week hardly place for anything else.

Nepal is a favorite destination for Israeli tourists and hikers, hundreds of whom were caught in the disaster areas, especially backpackers who sought to refresh themselves after three years of military service. Young people like Or Asraf, an Israeli still missing in Nepal. Or Asraf, 22, was a soldier in the ranks of the elite Sayeret Egoz, went to Gaza last summer and was wounded during the bloody battle which left piles of rubble where the Shuja'iya Neighborhood of Gaza used to be. After recovering and being discharged from the army he embarked on a backpacking trip in Nepal. After a week of searching failed to discover his whereabouts, his former comrades-in-arms set out to Nepal to join the search.

"You are the true face of Israel," Netanyahu told members of the IDF rescue mission leaving for Nepal, and the Israeli public relations campaign around the world worked feverishly to provide full details of Israel’s great humanitarian act. Also the Prime Minister of Nepal phoned his Israeli counterpart, in order to give warm thanks for the modern and well-equipped field hospitals, which began operations within hours of landing in Katmandu and immediately performed emergency operations.

In the rural disaster areas of Nepal, not all shared this enthusiasm - especially when they discovered that the helicopter loaned to the Israeli mission by the Nepalese army was charged only with extracting trapped Israeli tourists and was not ready to have Nepali citizens on board. "We were almost lynched, there at the top of the ridge" said Shahar Zakai, one of the Israeli travelers saved by the helicopter. "They used sticks and stones and even grabbed us by the neck. People who have lost everything; they behaved like wounded animals; they just wanted to survive."

Meanwhile, in the shadow of Gaza and Nepal, Netanyahu gets closer to finally forming his cabinet - the fourth Israeli government which he is going to lead. Following complex negotiations and arduous maneuvers, it seems - among other things - that Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett will be the next Minister of Education. Bennett is taking up the Education Portfolio in bitterness and unwillingness – he had his heart set on higher things. In fact, he wanted to be Defense Minister of Israel, or at least the Foreign Minister.

The main slogan of the elections campaign which Bennett conducted earlier this year was "Enough! We have stopped to apologize!" And he did much to explain: "We stopped apologizing for the fact that we love the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Torah of Israel. Why is the world picking on us, with all the terrible things that happen around us? The reason is that we do not send out a clear message - the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people and only to the Jewish people. There is a lot of pressure on Israel to establish a Palestinian state. There should be a clear and unapologetic answer: We will not give away a single Israeli meter as part of some crooked deal. The way to avoid war is not by being nice and feeding the monster with pieces of territory. It's a nice theory but reality is different. The world despises a country which gives up its own dignity. The world despises a country which gives up territory. The world respects a country which stands up for itself. This is our country, our patrimony. When I go around in the Land of Israel, I feel in its soil the footprints of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our Patriarchs, our Fathers, who had walked right here. Very simply, this is the Land of Our Fathers, and that is what we should tell the whole world - and stop apologizing! "

This is the world view which Naftali Bennett wanted to implement as a Defense Minister in charge of managing the military power of Israel. That authority Netanyahu was not willing to entrust to him, but Bennett could at least comfort himself with an intensive four-year educational program instilling his views into Israeli pupils.

On Tuesday, thousands of the Arab citizens of Israel flocked to the Rabin Square in Tel Aviv – as did Jewish Israeli peace and human rights activists. We had come to protest against the demolition of homes which were declared "illegal" - and more fundamentally, against a long-standing discriminatory government policy which holds up approval of zoning master plans in Arab areas, thereby denying to many Arab citizens the option of building legally, even on their own privately owned land.

The immediate cause for the demonstration and for the general strike held on the same day throughout the Arab Sector in Israel was the destruction of three houses in the village of Dahamash, between Ramle and Lod, about two weeks ago. Arafat Ismail, resident of the village, tried to explain the misery of daily life in Dahamash. "When we tell people about the village, they think we are in the back of beyond. They don’t understand that it's right here, a few minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv. Those who visit us feel they have come to a different world, that we are in the Third World. We just want to live in peace on our land and in our homes." Next to him stood Sheikh Sayah al-Touri, nicknamed "The Al-Arakib Sheikh ", who had become one of the symbols of protest against demolition of homes in the "unrecognized" Bedouin villages in the Negev: " "Already for months we sleep in the village cemetery, because they destroyed everything else. More than seventy times, Al-Arakib was destroyed, but we do not give up. Every time they demolish we build new huts to sleep in. We will not surrender!" Iyad Khatib, who lives in the area between the towns of Qalansawe and Taibeh, northeast of Tel Aviv, said that near his home a protest tent was erected, the constant focus of activity. He said, "In our compound there are dozens of houses which were built out of real distress - because we have nowhere to live. Now there are demolition orders against all these houses, which can be implemented at a moment’s notice. We can’t know when they will decide to raid us and begin demolitions. It is very difficult to live with the feeling that at any moment you might lose your home. I came here, to the square, to ask people, Jews and Arabs: come to visit us, see what state we live in. No one is looking to break the law, but we will not let the law trample us. We are charged with having built on agricultural land, but to change the zoning and get a legal approval - maybe it would be my grandson who gets the permit. The foot-dragging is already going on for decades."

Professor Gadi Algazi of the History Department at Tel Aviv University, an activist of the Tarabut movement, reiterated in his speech that this is a struggle touching upon everybody, not just upon the Arab population. "As Jewish citizen who enjoys a privileged position in this country, I am grateful to the Palestinians in Israel for the vision behind the organization of this demonstration, the long-term vision, the vision of building a shared home for everyone. The government of Israel is talking to its Arab citizens in the language of bulldozers. Its bulldozers thirst for destruction. Behind every bulldozer there is an official and behind every official there is a minister. Behind every destroyed house there is a family, a family which wants to live a normal human life. Every destroyed house should be rebuilt! There is a political party called the Jewish Home Party which wants to build a state for Jews only, to build a Jewish home on the ruins of the Arab home . Here, at this square in the heart of Tel Aviv we say, loud and clear – there won’t be a home for the Jews if the Arabs don’t have their own home! We are building a common home, a home for everybody."

Photo: Ynet / Motti Kimchi