Saturday, July 25, 2015

A traffic jam in the middle of the desert

The rendezvous was scheduled for 11:30 am, outside the Arlozorov Street Railway Station in Tel Aviv. I arrived at 11:35. "Three buses have already been filled, but don’t worry – the fourth bus will soon arrive" said the organizers’ representative. "There will be a place for anyone who wants to go to the protest in Susiya."

It is long since there was such a wide response to a call for a demonstration in the wild West Bank. Among the passengers could be seen quite a few long-time activists who had however not been seen in recent years. Why did the case of Susiya evoke so much attention, in Israel and throughout the world? (Circulating on the bus was the current New York Times op-ed page, featuring a moving personal story of a Susiya resident). This tiny threatened village is in every way worthy of support and solidarity - but in the past, quite a few instances of no less outrageous injustice have been perpetrated and met a virtually complete indifference and silence. One can never know in advance which particular case will become the focus and symbol of a struggle.

Little more than an hour's drive separates the vast metropolitan Tel Aviv from the godforsaken hamlet of Susiya in the middle of the desert. First the travel is along congested intercity highways – then, through back roads which become ever more narrow and in bad repair, the further one continues to the east and south. Somewhere, without noticing, the Green Line is crossed into the territory where there is not even a semblance of democracy, where the landscape is predominantly brown rather than green - apart from the occasional green patch of a settlement, which had the privilege of being connected to the Israeli water system.

At the end of the trip, the narrow road forks, and the sign to the right side says "Susiya" - but nevertheless, we turned to the left. The sign erected by the military authorities refers to the other Susiya – the Israeli settlement Susiya, which claims to be the continuation of a Jewish village of the same name which existed on this location during the Roman and Byzantine period. "Come and see Susiya - an ancient Jewish town" says the sign on the road we had not taken.

The Jews who lived here 1,500 years ago had lived in caves. In the Twentieth Century, Palestinians had been living in these same caves, until in 1986 the army came to expel them and turn the caves into an archeological site managed by the settlers. The Palestinians had to move to miserable shacks erected on what was left of their land. Is it possible that they actually were the descendants of those who resided in those caves in the Fifth Century? At the beginning of the Zionist Movement, David Ben Gurion promoted the idea that at least some of the Arabs in this country are descendants of Jews who lived here in the past, and who at some time were converted to Islam and started speaking Arabic. In 1918 Ben Gurion even published an entire book on this subject, in cooperation with the future President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, including detailed historical documentation to support this theory. But before long it became clear that, even if some of the Palestinians’ ancestors had been Jewish, at present they have no interest whatsoever in being Jewish or promoting the Zionist Project. So, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues lost interest in further discussing this issue.

In the direction of Palestinian Susiya there was no road sign. For the Israeli authorities, it simply does not exist. "The competent military authorities take the position that there had never existed an Arab village named Susiya" stated on the Knesset floor Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, of the Jewish Home Party. "Palestinian structures were built without permits on that location, and were demolished during the 1995-2001 period. Illegal construction continued, against which demolition orders were issued. In May 2015 the Supreme Court rejected a petition by the Palestinians for an interim injunction against the demolition of these structures."

There are no road signs, but it is not difficult to find Palestinian Susiya, with the Palestinian flag painted on rocks along the road. Four buses arrived from Tel Aviv and three from Jerusalem, plus quite a few private cars, and a minor traffic jam was created in the middle of the desert. "Pay attention, it is now the hottest hour of the day, it's one of the hottest places in the country, and there is almost no shade" warns the young woman in charge of my bus. "Please be sure, all of you, to cover your heads and take water with you. For those who have not brought it with them, we provide bottled water". On a low ridge above the bus could already be seen a human stream winding its way towards the rally.

The concrete cover of a rainwater collection cistern has become a makeshift podium, with several loudspeakers and a Palestinian flag flying. When the group from our bus arrived, the speeches were already under way, in a mixture of Arabic, English and Hebrew. "67 years after the Palestinian Nakba, it is still going on! They want to expel the residents of Susiya from their land! Are we going to let them do it?" cried former Palestinian Minister Mustafa Barghouti, eliciting a loud chorus of "No! No!". "After the Apartheid regime in South Africa fell, Nelson Mandela said that the fight is not over, the next part is the Palestinian struggle. We are here, we are struggling. We will go on struggling until Palestine is free!" (Chanting in Arabic and English "Free Palestine! Free Palestine! Free, free Palestine! "

Susiya resident Nasser Nawaj'ah, a leader activist of the struggle, spoke in Hebrew to those who came from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: "Welcome to Susiya, all of you, welcome to Susiya, the fighting Susiya which will not give in! Our struggle is already going on for decades. In 1982, they erected the settlement of Susiya on our land. In 1986, they expelled us from the caves and turned them into an archaeological site of the settlers, then we moved to the farmland, all what was left to us. In 2001, they destroyed everything and drove us away, but we came back and set up our village again. You are most welcome here, we are grateful for the solidarity and support of all those who have come here. You are the other face of Israel, the face which is different from what we see of the soldiers and settlers who come to us every day. You give us hope, the hope that we can still live together, Palestinians as Israel's neighbors in peace."

He was followed by Professor Yigal Bronner, who teaches history of India at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a prominent activist of the Ta'ayush Movement, which is active already for many years in support of the residents of the South Hebron Hills. "We are here in Susiya. What is Susiya? Not much. Some cisterns which the army had not filled with dirt, a few sheep which the settlers have not yet stolen, some olive trees that have not yet been cut down. What is Susiya? Susiya is 350 people who hold on to the land, clinging and clinging and holding on and not giving up, because it's their home. Quite simply, this is their home. Opposite us is the other Susiya. The Susiya which is armed and surrounded by a fence, which is connected to to water and electricity and sewage and has representatives in all the corridors of power, and it wants to grab what little is left of this Susiya where we stand. Susiya against Susiya, this is the whole story. The Palestinian Susiya has no soldiers and no police and no representatives in the Knesset and in fact it does not have the vote. But it has us. We are here to stand with Susiya and we will not leave. We will do everything we can to be here and prevent the destruction. And if does take place, we will be here the next morning to rebuild, together with the residents. Susiya is not alone! "(Chanting of "Susiya, Sussiya do not despair, we will end the occupation yet!" in Hebrew and "Yaskut al Ikhitlal", "Down with the Occupation" in Arabic.
"It is very important that you all came here, it is important to continue the struggle. There will be here another demonstration next Saturday, and on August 3 at 9:00 am there will be the hearing on the appeal of Susiya at the Supreme Court. It is very important to be there! Susiya is not alone! Susiya is not alone!"

After the speeches - the march to the edge of the ridge. "For anyone who feels badly affected by the heat and sun, there is a tent with shade and plenty of water. Don’t get hurt unnecessarily. And now – forward!"

Together with the Palestinians, locals and those who especially came, we all moved ahead to the rhythmic beating of the "Drummers Against the Occupation", and the heat did not seem to reduce their energy and enthusiasm. Above the crowd were waving the placards of "Combatants for Peace", one of the demonstration's organizers, with the caption "There is Another Way" in Hebrew, Arabic and English.  "Though shalt not rob thy fellow" read the big sign carried by Rabbi Arik Asherman, who already for many years did not miss any demonstration, "Rabbis for Human Rights" being another of the protest initiators. Other Biblical slogans: "Have we become the like of Sodom, did we assume the face of Gomorrah?", "Save the poor his robber, protect the miserable from the heartless despoiler" "By 
Justice shall Zion be redeemed", "Each shall sit in content under his vine and his fig tree."

A five years old Palestinian girl held upside down a large sign in Hebrew reading "No more land grab!". One of the Israelis drew the attention of a woman in traditional Palestinian dress, apparently the grandmother. The granddaughter, laughing, turned the sign to the correct direction before the press photographers arrived at this part of the march. Near was walking a strapping young man wearing a T-shirt of the FC St. Pauli soccer club of Hamburg, Germany, whose fans are known for their fight against racism, and next was a woman whose shirt proclaimed "Stop the Pinkwashing!", protesting the cynical use made of LGBT people by the government international PR apparatus ("Hasbara"). The text on the bag of a veteran Jerusalem activist referred to the elctions earlier this year: "We did not succeed in throwing Netanyahu out, which is very harsh and painful, but at least let him keep his paws off Susiya!"

At the end of the march, dozens lifted with great effort a 30-metre long sign reading: "Susiya is Palestinian, and Palestinian it will remain!". When the buses on the way back passed the official sign about "The ancient Jewish town" we could see it at the top of the ridge above the road.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Life and Death

Sharon Gal is the latest among the long string of Israeli journalists who moved over to a political career. Immediately upon being elected to the Knesset he found a convenient hobby horse to ride – the call for introducing the death penalty for Palestinians "terrorists". At the same time as tabling a bill to that effect, Gal also placed on Facebook a selfie photo of himself holding a sign reading "I, too, am in favor of Death to Terrorists" and called on others to join in – and indeed, quite a few others posted similar photos of themselves, among them young children. Former Knesset Member Moshe Feiglin, who failed to gain election to the current Knesset, won a precious minute of media attention by declaring himself a volunteer hangman, ready and willing to perform executions with his own hands.

To Sharon Gal's surprise and chagrin, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded quickly and decisively – completely forbidding members of the ruling Likud Party to support the Death Penalty Initiative and removing it from the agenda in one fell swoop. In fact, this should not have come as a surprise, considering that for already decades the Israeli security services and IDF high command are firmly opposed to pronouncing the death penalty on Palestinians. That refers, of course, to a death penalty imposed publicly by a regular court of law, when months or even years might pass between the issuing of the verdict and its implementation in practice – more than enough time for the condemned person to become the focus of world-wide attention and for mounting pressures to avert the execution.

Only once did the State of Israel try to go this way, when in 1965 Mahmoud Hijazi – a Fatah member who had infiltrated into Israel and unsuccessfully tried to blow up an agricultural installation - was sentenced to death by an Israeli military court. The case generated enormous publicity and controversy, particularly due to the high-profile involvement of the sensationalist French-Algerian lawyer Jacques Vergès. Eventually, the authorities were forced to commute Hijazi’s punishment, and in 1971 he was released in a prisoner exchange. Ever since then, all branches of the Israeli security establishment are determined not to repeat this experience.

All this does not apply to extra-judicial executions, carried out without any prior notice, such as the killing these days of 17-year old Palestinian Muhammad 'Ali-Kosba by Colonel Yisrael Shumer. At first it was claimed that the shooting was a justified act of self-defense, as the officer and the soldiers under his command were in life danger. Yair Lapid, a prominent leader of the Israeli parliamentary "opposition", declared that "Full backing and support should be given to an officer who shot and killed a terrorist throwing rocks at his car. Rocks can kill, and soldiers need to be able to defend themselves".

After a week, the Human Rights organization B’Tselem attempted to spoil the party by publishing footage from the security camera of a Palestinian gas station near to where the shooting had taken place. It showed that though the boy did throw a stone at the windshield of the colonel’s jeep, he then fled with other teens – whereupon the colonel and his soldiers pursued on foot, fatally shooting the boy in the back from a distance of some ten meters, at a time when he posed them no threat. However, the revelation made no real change in the sweeping expressions of support made by senior military officers and politicians.

It was summed up neatly by Adi Arbel of the "Institute for Zionist Strategies": "A person who threw a rock at a car once would do it again. The first time he attempted murder justifies shooting him even during his escape, and if he accidentally dies, too bad. His being dead prevented his doing it again, for which the shooter deserves a commendation. With truly moral rules with regard to opening fire, there is really no need for a law to prescribe the death penalty." What do Arbel and his fellows in Institute for Zionist Strategies think about several incidents in which Israeli settlers hurled stones at the soldiers who were supposed to protect them, in some cases attacking senior officers? As far as can be ascertained, in such cases the Institute does not recommend shooting to kill.


Tiptoing around the elephant

On the evening before the Iran accord became an official fact, heads of the Likud Party were given summary messages which they were to repeat on all media interviews as soon as news from Vienna would confirm the signing of the agreement. And so it came to pass. "Israel Today" aka the Bibinews came out with the banner headline "An Agreement of Eternal Disgrace", and government speakers went on a media blitz, carefully reiterating the prepared messages: 1. The agreement is bad, very bad, terrible, an abject surrender agreement, a new Munich Agreement, Obama is the new Chamberlain appeasing the new Hitler in Tehran etc. etc. 2. Were it not for Netanyahu and his tireless efforts for the country, the situation would have been far worse, far more devastating. 3. The opposition parties and their leaders should feel ashamed of not having sufficiently supported Netanyahu in the past, and of criticizing him in the present moment when the grave situation mandates that everybody rally patriotically around the Prime Minister.

The third talking point turned out to be particularly effective. Yitzchak Herzog, head of the Labor Party/ Zionist Unity which is supposed to be the main opposition party, announced himself in complete agreement with the PM’s harsh criticism of the agreement with Iran, declared that "On issues of National Security there is no government and opposition" and announced his intention to go out on a PR mission in the United States and campaign against the agreement. In fact, Herzog volunteered to play the role which the Foreign Minister in Netanyahu's cabinet is supposed to perform, prompting rumors that he will soon receive the official title as well (so far, Herzog vehemently denies it...).

"What kind of agreement is this? The agreement gives Iran 24 days' notice before an inspection in their nuclear facilities. 24 days is more than enough to hide what is going on there!" warned the prime minister. As is well known, it is already much more than 24 years since US President John F. Kennedy demanded that Israel allow periodical inspections at the nuclear reactor in Dimona - a demand which at the time caused a serious crisis in relations between Israel and the United States (though it was kept mostly secret). More than twenty four years have also passed since Mordechai Vanunu conducted a completely informal and unauthorized inspection there and published his findings in the international press – for which he spent eighteen years in prison, and is up to the present forbidden to leave the country or meet with foreigners, so as to prevent him from reiterating publication of his 1985 findings. However, the Israeli nuclear arms are not – nor are they going to be - part of the ongoing debate on the Iranian agreement. It can be assumed with virtual certainty that also in the future, debaters will tiptoe around this big elephant in the middle of the room.

As things now look, over the next two months Netanyahu will devote all his time and energy to a tireless struggle in his favorite milieu, i.e. American domestic politics. All that remains of Israel’s influence and prestige will be invested in a no holds barred confrontation with the President of the United States, an effort to mobilize at all costs thirteen Democrat Senators who would agree to cross the lines, overcome a Presidential veto, and cause a crushing defeat to a President of their own party and a major victory to their Republican foes . This titanic struggle will occupy the next two months, the time period set for Congress to review the agreement with Iran.

According to this timetable, the dramatic vote will take place on Capitol Hill exactly in mid-September – which would coincide neatly with the opening of the UN General Assembly, the time when new initiatives might come up with regard to the Israeli occupation which is fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary. And then? Would Obama feel exhausted from the tremendous struggle and disinclined to start a new one - or vice versa, full of anger and bitterness at the Prime Minister of Israel and ready to totally confront him also on the Palestinian issue?

Teachers’ dilemma

On July 21 in Ottawa, Canada, the issue of relations between Israel and the Palestinians will figure on the agenda of the conference of Education International, a worldwide federation incorporating no less than
321 trade unions of teachers and educational workers from 162 countries. Towards the conference, the teachers 'unions from the United Kingdom and South Africa introduced sharply worded draft resolutions, particularly with regard to the widespread killing and destruction in the Gaza Strip last year and especially their severe impact on children and youths - culminating with an official call upon all teachers' unions worldwide to promote a boycott of the State of Israel.

At a preliminary meeting in Brussels last month, the representatives of the Israeli Teachers’ Union conducted a bitter struggle against the British and
South African proposals. Eventually, it was agreed that the conference would not adopt new resolutions on the Palestinian issue, but only reaffirm the resolutions already adopted on this issue at the previous conference, in 2011.

However, in order to get this result, the Israeli teachers had to agree to themselves endorse the resolutions adopted in 2011. These included statement that "The continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the existence of illegal Israeli settlements there and their impact on the lives of Palestinians, including [denial of] access to water, along with the siege of Gaza, impose severe constraints on the potential for Palestinian economic and social development." Also endorsed was the call for the 700 kilometer Wall to be removed, in accordance with the decision of the International Court of Justice of July 2004 and the expression of "Concern at the inhuman treatment of Palestinian child prisoners as documented by DCI (Defense of Children International)".

Two weeks later, somebody leaked to Channel 10 Israel TV the text of the resolutions embarassing the Teachers' Union, which represents 150,000 Israeli teachers including teachers at schools in the West Bank settlements... Sensational headlines appeared in the press: "Stop press: Teachers Union signing a call for a boycott of the settlements!" "Teachers' Union supports a Palestinian state" and more in the same vein. Immediately there were the predictable outraged reactions from the right side of the political spectrum, and even threats by National-Religious teachers to altogether quit the Teachers Union. The Union representatives defended themselves: "By signing the document we prevented a boycott of Israeli teachers by their foreign colleagues, we prevented a far sharper anti-Israeli resolution. Among other things, we prevented a recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return and a condemnation of the Israeli Air Force bombing in Gaza. True, even the remaining resolutions are harsh, but we all know how things stand in the international arena". And the Teachers' Union made a pledge: "We presented all the relevant data before the professional bodies at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. We will act responsibly and in accordance with their recommendations." So, in four days the Israeli teachers' representatives will show up at the huge convention hall in Ottawa, caught in a vise. How will they vote?

Susiya again

The removal of the fearsome bulldozers which appeared near the village of Susya in the Southern Hebron Hills two weeks ago turned out to be a strictly temporary respite in the military government’s plans of destruction. On July 12, the military authorities summoned Susya villagers to a meeting, where an official informed them that postpopnement of the demolitions had been a humanitarian gesture on the occasion of Ramadan, and that the demolition of nearly half of the buildings in the village would be carried out immediately after the end of the Muslim holy month. The military officials spoke candidly of the "virtually irresistible" pressure put on them by settlers from settlements near to Susya and by the settler association "Regavim" ("Clods of Earth"), clamoring for "the illegal houses" to be destroyed with no further delay.

Thereupon, B’Tselem and the Rabbis for Human Rights sounded the alarm, activists from Jerusalem called for the continuous presence of Israelis at Susya to try to prevent or at least delay the destruction, and it was resolved to hold there a joint demonstration of Israelis and Palestinians on Friday July 24. In the United States, the call was joined by Donna Baranski’s "Rebuilding Alliance" and Jewish Voice for Peace". Signatures were collected on a petition calling upon Secretary of State John Kerry for urgent intervention. Anna Eshoo, Member of the House of Representatives from California - who has a special relationship with the Middle East, being a member of the Assyrian Church based in Iraq – added her voice to the call to avert the destruction of Susiya.

And indeed, the US State Department did find time for Susiya among all the hot issues on the international agenda.

"We’re closely following developments in the village of Susiya in the West Bank, and we strongly urge the Israeli authorities to refrain from carrying out any demolitions in the village" said U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby. "Demolition of this Palestinian village or of parts of it, and evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be harmful and provocative. Such actions have an impact beyond those individuals and families who are evicted. We are concerned that the demolition of this village may worsen the atmosphere for a peaceful resolution and would set a damaging standard for displacement and land confiscation, particularly given settlement-related activity in the area. We urge Israeli authorities to work with the residents of the village to finalize a plan for the village that addresses the residents’ humanitarian needs."

This should be more than enough to deter Netanyahu, but nevertheless, it is important to maintain a presence at Susiya during the coming weeks.

P.S. : Adi Arbel, whose words in favor of killing stone-throwers were quoted on this page, requested to note down that these remarks were made on his personal behalf only and not in the name of the Institute for Zionist Strategy where he holds a position. Further, with regard to the possibility of soldiers shooting at stone-throwing Jews, he quoted what he had written on Facebook in response to a question on this precise point  - stone throwing by settlers / Ultra-Orthodox, he had written  explicitly: "Whoever throws a stone at a moving vehicle should be shot Very simple. If he dies – that’s his problem. He had asked for it". Adi Arbel is indeed consistent – still I  doubt whether he would actually call for a soldier who shot a settler to death to be given a commendation. I certainly doubt very much that others on Arbel’s side of the political spectrum would take such a stance. In any case, it's not going to be put to the test – soldiers refrain even from detaining  settlers – all the more, God forbid, from shooting them.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Celebrations at Syntagma - bulldozer games in Susiya

Athens, Juy 5 - photo IBTimes

This week we were all Greeks. The Israeli media traced the intricacies of Greek political life with nearly as much detail as it gave to our own politicos. The woes of the Greek economy were described side by side with the intensive struggle over the monopoly which tycoon Yitchak Tshuva established over the Israeli offshore natural gas deposits.

As on everything, Israelis took vehement positions on the Greek issue (“They are lazy parasites, living off other people’s money!” “Nonsense, the Greeks already paid the original debt long since, but with the usurious interest put on the debt they are forced to pay and pay and pay, bleed endlessly”).  
The night of the Greek referendum, with the massive “No” vote completely confounding the pollsters, was for many of us a rare moment of uplifting exhilaration.  On TV we could see the celebrating crowds in Athens’ Syntagma Square,– facing terrible crisis ahead yet exultant with their country’s defiant gesture. Above the dancing crowd were waving an enormous number of Greek national flags. In a country which holds no occupied territory and whose army is not oppressing another people, it is possible to be at one and the same time a principled, militant left-winger and an ardent, flag-waving patriot…
Here follows a rather long excerpt of what Knesset Member Dov Khenin wrote: 
"This week’s Greek revolt stunned the world. Greek citizens dared to reject the diktat of the European establishment and chose to take an unknown course, a new path that poses many risks. The Greek crisis came from the long-term control of a corrupt political-economic oligarchy, in which right-wing conservatives and centrist ‘social democrats’ were partners. When the crisis erupted five years ago, the Greek oligarchy agreed to the European establishment’s radical austerity program, which harmed everything in Greece except the oligarchy itself. Unemployment and social distress increased to unprecedented proportions. 
Then, at the end of January this year, Syriza was elected. It was elected not to continue the previous policies, but to advance an alternative to austerity – a policy of economic recovery and a more equitable distribution of the burden. And now – what a surprise! – the Greek left apparently plans to actually do what it promised to do before it was elected. Such a left in power is naturally seen as a political threat to the entire European establishment, to its financial institutions and their representatives in the political system. From the start the Greek crisis was used as a political tool to subdue the Greek left for all to see. That’s why all the logical proposals made by Greece were rejected, proposals that had the support of some of the world’s leading economists, including Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.
So what’s a left-wing government meant to do in such a situation? The Syriza leadership thought that the European dictates must be rejected, but given the great risks and legitimate concerns, it decided to take the question to the people through a referendum. Underlying the choice of a referendum is a perception of the relationship between democracy and socialism. Syriza demonstrated with its actions that it has learned the most important lesson from the socialist experiments of the 20th century, and that’s that one cannot differentiate between socialism and democracy. 
Along with illustrating the necessary connection between real socialism and democracy, the Greek story also reveals the deep contradiction between democracy and contemporary capitalism. How correct for our times is the statement by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies that, ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’”
Still, however exasperated one might feel with the capitalist Eurozone, few would want to see the edifice of European Union crumble and collapse. After all, the EU has brought decades of peace to a continent which had known centuries of bloody wars and conflicts, nationalism in its most oppressive and murderous forms.
With the repeated disappointments and rebuffs which Israeli peace-seekers had from Obama since the the great euphoria of his election in 2008, we had entertained the slender hope of a daring European initiative to end the occupation, with the tacit support of the White House. In the past half a year, this centered on the declared intention of France to present a resolution in the UN Security Council, declaring the June 4, 1967 lines to be the basis on which the future border between Israel and Palestine should be based and setting a timetable by which Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians should be concluded – failing which, France (and possibly other European countries) would proceed to recognize Palestine. It was speculated that the Obama Administration, given its ongoing fight with Netanyahu, would refrain from vetoing the French proposal.
We were told to wait patiently for this scenario to materialize – first, the Israeli elections had to be allowed to take place, with nothing which could be construed as “interference in internal Israeli affairs”. Then, with Netanyahu victorious and re-installed in power, we were to wait for the elusive agreement with Iran, which at present takes up the full attention and energy of the relevant diplomats and decision makers. But we were assured from Paris that the resolution will be duly tabled by this year’s UN General Assembly  in September.
This week, however, the French initiative seems to be losing steam. Very similar accounts were given by such disparate persons as 'Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Palestinian Authrity’s Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. According to both, the French found that the Americans would only let the French resolution pass if its contents were considerably “watered down” – in which case, the Palestinians would consider it useless. With this added to the vehement opposition of Netanyahu, the French seem to be losing heart. Which leaves us stranded without much of a glimmer of hope on the arid diplomatic horizon, on the 48th year of stifling occupation and on the first anniversary of the last year’s devastating Gaza War.
A few days ago, activists observing the situation on the South Hebron Hills noticed militaty trucks bearing fearsome giant bulldozers heading towards the small community of Susiya. Susiya had long been living under the constant threat of demolition and destruction. Its very  existence was ruled to be “illegal” by the Israeli military authorities, its meager plot of land coveted by the nearby Israeli settlement which is also named “Susiya”. The situation of Susiya had become desperate on May 6 this year, when Israeli Supreme Court Judge Noam Sohlberg (who himself lives in a West Bank settlement) rejected out of hand a petition submitted by Rabbis for Human Rights on behalf of the Susiya villagers. Justice Sohlberg (to give him his correct judicial title) refused to grant a stay of execution, and authorized the army to raze Susiya at their convenience. The army usually does not issue advance notices in such cases.
After the bulldozers’ photos were put on the net, activists spread an urgent action alert, to which was added weight by the demarche of European diplomats, several of whom visited Susiya in the past weeks and called upon the Israeli authorities to avoid destroying the village. Whatever happened behind the scenes, the fearsome bulldozers were not unloaded from the trucks. After two days a clarification was made: it was all part of maneuvers by the IDF Engineering Corps, the placing of bulldozers near Susiya had been completely coincidental, and anyway if and when Susiya is demolished a completely different type of bulldozer would be deployed. And so it remains, as of this evening.
Whatever the EU’s faults, Susiya’s 340 inhabitants, still with a roof over their heads, have a reason to feel grateful.

This week, a call landed in our boxes: 


As the one-year mark approaches since Operation Protective Edge began, we call on our government to return to the negotiating table. The war did not bring an end to the conflict nor did it bring us more security. A diplomatic agreement is the only real hope for a secure Israel.

Here’s how we plan to deliver that message this summer: Women Wage Peace will mark the 50 days of last year’s war (July 8 – August 26) with “Operation Protective Fast.” Each day women

will fast for 50 hours each (or 25 for those who so choose) in a tent set up across from the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Our tent will also be a site for presentations and discussions.

As reported by Michael Salisbury-Corech of the +972 alternative news website, “at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, nearly 30 women are sitting on mattresses, surrounded by banners calling for peace negotiations. One of their shirts reads ‘Women waging peace’ and ‘Stopping the next war!.’ Some of them hold signs that read: “Fasting!” Despite the uniform dress, the women come from different backgrounds: some are Arab, some religious, some Mizrahi, others Ashkenazi.

Yael Trader, one of the activists at the protest camp, the reasoning behind the fast: “We wanted to do something significant, because since the last war there has been no process toward an agreement. The last war broke me because of the force that was used, as well as how strong the Israeli consensus was. It frightened me because the common conception here is that only force will solve our problems, and it was clear to me that this doesn’t work. I was close to asking myself whether I can continue to live here. The only remedy for my desperation was to get up and do something.”



Friday, July 3, 2015

About a fishing boat and sitting ducks

The Swedish fishing boat "Marianne", with a crew of international activists and a cargo of humanitarian supplies, had spent a month and half at sea en route from Sweden to Gaza. She hardly touched at any port on the way, as that could have led to her being detained. Indeed, even in the midst of a head-on confrontation with the EU, the Radical Left government of Greece continued a tacit agreement made with Israel by a previous government, and made trouble for two other boats seeking to join in breaking the siege of Gaza.

Eventually, the Marianne was boarded by Israeli naval commandos and towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod, but the Israeli media and political system seemed determined to keep a low profile on all this. Partly, of course, because the activists on board kept their pledge and offered no physical resistance, so there was no spectacular shootout on the high seas. Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the activists for "going to Gaza rather than Syria" and "supporting the terrorist Hamas" - but it was in fact a rehash of a similar text already published last year and the year before. Asher Shechter of Ha’aretz pointed out the Orwellian logic of the government saying: "There is no blockade on Gaza, and if you violate it you will be arrested."
In fact, Israel itself is known to be in the midst of intensive negotiations with Hamas. And, following the alarming news of a massive offensive by ISIS/Da'esh on the Egyptian army in Sinai, the respected former general and government advisor Giora Eiland said in a radio interview: "Strange as it may seem, it is in Israel's interest to bolster the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as a bulwark against ISIS."
On the same day that the Marianne was taken over, the government gave in to Palestinian hunger striker Hader Adnan, promising not to extend his administrative detention in exchange for him ending his hunger strike. As on several previous cases - including one earlier involving Adnan himself - the Israeli military and security establishment feels that the price of a Palestinian hunger striker dying in Israeli custody is prohibitive. Indeed, such an event might set off the dreaded Third Intifada.
To prevent Palestinian detainees from using this means of struggle, the government prepared a law providing for the force feeding of hunger strikers. However, the Israeli Medical Association, headed by Dr. Leonid Edelman, has taken a brave and principled position: "The force feeding of hunger strikers is a form of torture. It is against basic medical ethics, and we would instruct all doctors to break such a law and disobey this kind of order."
A Third Intifada has not (yet?) broken out. But an increasing number of Palestinians, not belonging to any organization and therefore difficult to detect in advance, are taking action by whatever means they find available. In one such attack this week a young settler, called Malachi Rosenberg, was killed by bullets shot at his car. Even discounting the propagandistic tone of what was written about him in the mass-circulation papers, he personally seems to have been a decent young man, except for the fact of his living at an armed settlement enclave in Occupied Territory - and that decision had been made by his parents rather than by himself.


Settlers complained of "being sitting ducks when traveling the roads of Judea and Samaria" and demanded "firm action." Netanyahu immediately ordered the sealing of the East Jerusalem home of a Palestinian who attacked a synagogue last year and was then killed. The family, who had no known part in the attack on the synagogue, was thrown into the street.

At Malachi Rosenberg's funeral, Education Naftali Bennett said: "This wonderful child of ours, truly an angel ]alluding to the meaning of his first name[, was concerned with life, while our enemy is concerned with death. While we play according to humane Jewish moral laws, they act as bloodthirsty beasts." On the same day, in Geneva, the Israeli Ambassador walked angrily out of the session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. On its agenda was the report on the killing of more than 1400 civilians - a third of them children - in last year's Gaza War. "This report, this whole proceeding, is pure antisemitism. Israel is being singled out, like Jews were singled out and forced to wear a Yellow Star."
Outside the Geneva hall, the Ambassador was greeted by several hundred Jewish and Christian supporters, who had come there from Switzerland, France, Germany and Hungary - to wave Israeli national flags and hold up big signs: "I support Israel! I support democracy!" They also sung the famous peace song - the same which is sung at the (now rare) rallies of the Israeli peace movement, and which Yitzchak Rabin sang less than half an hour before he was assassinated. The words, which aroused controversy more than once during the last thirty years, sounded rather insincere in this setting.
An item which got strangely little attention: The City Council of Amsterdam rejected a proposal to enact a Twin-City agreement with Tel-Aviv - prominent party representatives citing Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. We have evidently come a long way since 1973, when the Dutch were the quintessential friends of Israel, targeted by an Arab oil boycott. Future historians might well count this as the most significant of all the events enumerated here.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Of abductors and actors and censors

 "The question is not of the Freedom of Expression but rather of the Freedom of Financing. Does a country have to pay for presenting a play about a man who kidnapped and killed a soldier?" So said Culture Minister Miri Regev yesterday, at the height of a stormy confrontation with some of Israel’s most well-known artists.

Indeed, does a country have to finance such a play? Well, the answer seems to depend on who kidnapped and who killed which soldier.

1) Abduction in 1947

On July 11, 1947, two British Army sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, went to a cafe in the city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. On their way back to camp they were captured by a unit of the National Military Organization (Etzel or Irgun), a radical Zionist underground which was at the time engaged in a head-on confrontation with the British Mandate authorities. The two sergeants were sedated with chloroform and taken to a hiding place in an inactive diamond polishing plant. When waking up they were told by their captors: "You have been detained by the National Military Organization, as hostages for the three Jews sentenced to death by a British military court. Your government’s conduct will determine your fate."

The kidnapping aroused a major storm of reactions in Mandatory Palestine and in Britain itself. The British Army imposed a curfew on Netanya and conducted two weeks of intensive searches, but failed to find the hiding place. The families of the two soldiers pleaded with the kidnappers to spare their lives. Mervyn Paice's father even sent a letter addressed "To the Commander of the Irgun, Palestine" which against all odds reached its destination – being found by a postal clerk who sympathized with the underground and duly delivered to Irgun commander Menachem Begin.

The father begged for the life of his son, "an innocent young man, who was caught in a tragic situation and who had never been opposed to Zionism." Begin's response was broadcast on the clandestine "Voice of Fighting Zion" radio station: "A British citizen has contacted us with a request to spare the life of his son – a spy in the service of the occupier, who was sentenced to death by a court of the underground. We, the soldiers of Israel, well understand the sentiments of a father anxious for his son. We too are the sons of fathers and the fathers of sons. As God is our witness, it is not we who wanted the escalating bloodshed plaguing our country, plundered and occupied by tyrants who thirst for oil and blood. But we are not the address, Mr. Paice. Go to them, to Downing Street, and tell them what they should be told by all British fathers whose sons were recruited to perform the most disgraceful task in the history of the world. Tell the British Government: it is you who are responsible for the life of my son".

After a stormy debate in the British Parliament, in which Opposition Leader Winston Churchill demanded "An iron hand to suppress the terrorists in Palestine", the High Commissioner for Palestine approved the death sentences passed on three Irgun members. At dawn on July 29, 1947 they were hanged at the Acre Prison. Thereupon, the Irgun's Chief of Staff Haim Landau instructed the organization's Operations Officer Amichai Paglin to carry out the immediate reprisal hanging of the two sergeants. Paglin arrived in Netanya with four of his men, and informed the two sergeants that the National Military Organization’s court had sentenced them to be hanged by the neck, on charges of "Ilegal entry into our homeland and membership in a British criminal-terrorist organization known as ‘The British Army of Occupation in Eretz Yisrael’ which is responsible for: depriving our people of the right to life, cruel acts of oppression, torture, the murder of men, women and children, murder of Prisoners of War, some of them wounded, and the expulsion of Hebrew citizens from their country". After reading the verdict to the two sergeants, Paglin oversaw all details of the hanging ceremony, confirmed that the two were dead, and organized transport of their bodies to nearby woods where they were found by the British on the following day.

In fact, the two sergeants had been sympathizers of the Zionist enterprise and had actually passed British military information to the Hagana militia, the Irgun’s rival. Only many years later, in 1981, did it come out that Clifford Martin had actually been a Jew as defined by Jewish religious law – since his mother, Fernanda, was a Jewish woman originally from Cairo. Apparently, Martin did not mention this fact to his captors and did not try to thereby save his life.

Amihai Paglin who oversaw the hangings, Chief of Staff Haim Landau who gave the order, and their supreme commander Menachem Begin, were never apprehended by the British and did not undergo any punishment for these acts. Following the sergeants’ hanging, British soldiers rampaged through Tel Aviv, killing five random passers-by, and there were also violent attacks on Jews in Britain. However, the Irgun people directly responsible emerged unscathed. They took pride in their action having brought to an end the British "hangings policy" and in its having been instrumental in getting the British to definitely quit Palestine.

As is well-known, Menachem Begin was much later elected Prime Minister of Israel and also got the Nobel Peace Prize. "Immediately after forming my cabinet, I appointed Amihai Paglin to be my Adviser on Anti-Terrorism, to oversee the struggle against Arab terrorism" Begin recalled. "It was a natural choice. There was no one better qualified. He was a legendary figure, he had suddenly appeared like a shining star, from among the storm clouds of the independence war waged by the Jews in the Land of Israel. It was he who made the National Military Organization into a formidable war machine, hitting the British relentlessly and mercilessly. The deeds of this wonderful young man, undoubtedly a military genius, will be remembered by the British as long as the earth will bear them. Unfortunately, he was my Adviser on Anti-Terrorism for just a few months before the terrible traffic accident which took him from us so prematurely - but even in these few months he was able to do great things..."

In a newspaper interview shortly before his death, Paglin referred to the sergeants’ hangings. "It bothers me more than any of the other two hundred operations I had carried out as Chief Operations Officer of the National Military Organization. When you think of two helpless people, their faces covered, being hanged right in front of you, you know you've passed beyond the limit. This is not war, it leaves a stain, it remains on your conscience... But I had no choice. Even today, I would have carried out the very same operation, I would do it all over again if the need arose again. "

In Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva and several other Israeli cities, streets are named for Amihai Paglin and for the Irgun’s Chief of Staff Haim Landau, who eventually had a distinguished political career and served as a cabinet minister in several Israeli governments. Also named for Landau are the bridge over the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv and Route 5 ("Trans-Samaria Highway" or " Haim’s Road") leading to Ariel and several other West Bank settlements.

Where the two British sergeants were kidnapped in Netanya, Irgun veterans placed a memorial plaque celebrating the heroism of the kidnappers.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written a theater play about the Sergeants’ Affair. Nor is there a play about the life of Amihai Paglin –

though his career provides a lot of potential material, allowing for many possible interpretations: a hero, a villain, a tormented soul…

2) Abduction in 1984

Moshe Tamam was born in 1965 at Havatzelet Hasharon, near Netanya, to a Jewish family from Libya which came to Israel in the 1950’s. In May 1983 Tamam joined the IDF, was assigned to the Engineering Corps, underwent courses in mine-laying and explosives and became an instructor on the operation of heavy machinery. On August 6, 1984 he went on leave, met his girlfriend and accompanied her to her home in Tiberias, and in the evening took the return bus from Tiberias to Tel-Aviv. At the Beit Lid Junction he got off the bus - and disappeared.

As it turned out later, Moshe Tamam was captured by a unit of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), which intended to smuggle him to Syria and then seek to exchange him for the release of their comrades held in Israeli prisons. But the attempt to cross the Syrian border failed and Tamam’s captors shot him to death. His body was found near the West Bank settlement of Mevo Dotan, with a bullet hole in his chest. He was 19 years old.

Moshe Tamam’s family erected a monument for him at Havatzelet Hasharon where he was born and grew up. They also set up a memorial website where the following is recounted: "Moshe loved the seashore and the sandstone rocks that rise from the coast. He loved plants and animals, birds, dogs, cats and horses. He was a handsome young man, affable and hard-working, who loved to help others and soothe family quarrels. He had a fine voice and loved to sing in public. He had a gentle and sensitive soul. His sense of humor won the hearts of all, children and adults. In times of trouble he gave generous support to all who needed it."

As Mervyn Paice's father wrote of his own son, Moshe Tamam was by all indications "an innocent young man, who was caught in a tragic situation". By chance, the Netanya Military Cemetery where Moshe Tamam was interred is very near to the woods where the two hanged British sergeants were found thirty seven years earlier.

In 1986 the Israeli security services captured Tamam’s abductors, who turned out to be Arab citizens of Israel from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Walid Daka admitted under interrogation that he had been a member of the squad, but claimed that he had not been directly involved in the killing of Moshe Tamam. The Lod Military Court rejected this assertion and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

In one of the letters he sent from prison Daka told of the motives which had led him to join the DFLP: "I could have continued my life as a house painter and gas station attendant, as I did until my arrest. I could have married one of my relatives and have seven or ten children with her. I could have bought a truck. All this was a distinct possibity. But there were the horrors of the war in Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres, and they had shocked me. To stop feeling that shock, to fall into numbness in face of all these horrors - that's my definition of the ultimate nightmare. That would be an utter surrender".

In the later 1990’s Walid Daka conducted a long struggle over the right to marry Sana Salameh, a young woman from the village of Tira who began visiting him in prison in 1996, and who took the decision to tie up her life with a prisoner whose time of release (if ever) remains unclear. Following an eight-month negotiations with the Israeli Prison Service they managed to hold the wedding ceremony in the prison. They failed, however, in the struggle for an opportunity to be alone together and try to produce a child. The Nazareth District Court ruled that "any direct contact between Daka and his wife would constitute a threat to state security." Nor was it of any avail to cite the precedent of Yigal Amir, who had murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and who was allowed both to marry and to beget two children. (Amir is even allowed to phone his younger son and read to him a bedtime story, as seen in a documentary film which is also the subject of hot controversy at present…)

Thus, for nearly twenty years already, the married life of Walid Daka and his wife Sana consists of a bi-weekly meetings across iron bars where they talk about "personal matters, prison life, and a lot of politics". Last year, Daka was due to be released after 27 years in prison. He was among the last group of prisoners, held since before the Oslo Accords, whose release Netanyahu had promised to Secretary of State Kerry. At Baqa al-Gharbiyye his family already prepared a welcoming party - but Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home threatened a coalition crisis, Netanyahu canceled the prisoner release, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed and Prisoner Walid Daka remained behind bars.

3) Theater play in 2015

Playwright Bashar Murkus wrote the play "The Parallel Time" which deals with a Palestinian security prisoner named Wadia, who is secretly constructing an Oud, traditional Arab stringed instrument, which he hopes to play at his own wedding with his beloved Fida. "The two of them are in a constant struggle with the Israeli establishment and the courts, to have their marriage permitted" reads the brief presentation. "The Parallel Time seeks to explore the meaning of a person being a prisoner. It attempts to uncover the human side of the prisoner, look beyond the clichי which makes him a symbol and a statistical data, obscuring his being a person with a life story, dreams and desires."

Murkus states outrightly that his play was inspired by the true story of of Walid Daka and Sana Salameh, but he flatly denies that this in any way constitutes support for or endorsement of the kidnapping and killing of Moshe Tamam. In fact, Murkus this week started libel proceedings against Culture Minister Miri Regev, demanding 300,000 Shekels in compensation for her attributing to him such an endorsement.

The name "The Parallel Time" is derived from one of Walid Daka’s letters: "I am writing to you from The Parallel Time. We do not use your time measurements of minutes or hours, except at the moments when our time meets your time at the visitors’ window. One of the intifada youths who came visiting told us that many things have changed during your time, that your phones no longer use dials and even the car tires are not like those we knew. But we are stuck in The Parallel Time, the time before the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union. We are here from before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the First Gulf War and the Second one, before Madrid and Oslo..."
Inspection by a prison guard - scene from "The Parallel Time,"
Photo: Wael Wakim

For several months there was no special public attention to "The Parallel Time", presented in Arabic with a Hebrew translation by the Al-Midan Theatre of Haifa. The government committee which approved the allocation for the theater did not see anything wrong with a play about a prisoner who dreams of getting married and builds a musical instrument in his prison cell. The situation changed drastically due to the efforts of Shamai Glick, a 27-year old Jerusalemite who in the past year appointed himself censor over cultural and artistic life in Israel. The energetic Glick had exhibited a remarkable detective talent for locating plays, films, performances and exhibitions which were in his judgment "unpatriotic", and also a considerable talent in lobbying and pressuring establishment bodies to stop public funding for such.

It was Glick who uncovered the link between "The Parallel Time" and the real-life experience of the prisoner Walid Daka. He drew the attention of various far right groups, which for their part got Tamam Family members to be involved in the campaign and use the considerable moral authority which bereaved families enjoy in the Israeli society. An unruly demonstration outside the theater and several strongly-worded letters to members of the Haifa City Council sufficed to get Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, a Labor Party member, to freeze financing for the Al-MidanTheater "pending the conclusions of a special public committee established to review the issue." By the way, Glick himself, who had started the whole thing, had never seen the play: " I live in Jerusalem, I did not have time to get to Haifa, and besides, why should I see such filth?"

To begin with, the Ministry of Culture – second source of institutional financing for the Al-MidanTheater – was in no hurry to respond to the pressure of Glick and his fellows. "The Ministry of Culture supports more than 800 organizations and cultural institutions, in accordance with the criteria set by law. The Ministry does not take part in the program decisions of supported bodies and is not entitled to interfere even in cases where it does not agree administrative decisions or artistic content. It should be emphasized that the Ministry has full understanding for the Tamam Family's anger, but the decision rests with the theater management alone".

Such was the position of the Ministry of Culture under the previous minister, Limor Livnat - herself not always a paragon of liberalism or tolerance. Things changed with the coming of the new minister, Miri Regev, who had been the Chief Military Censor, and who announced her full intention to engage in censorship also in her new role: "I'm all for cultural and artistic pluralism. The artists can have no better partner than me, as long as they lay off the occupation and politics".

And what about artists who insist on having the occupation and politics within the framework of their art? With them the minister is in direct and total confrontation which had been steadily escalating over the past two weeks,

reaching its peak (as of now...) at the Theater Awards ceremony held in Tel Aviv which included a protest by actors with gags on their faces, the speeches of almost all prize winners including, sarcastic references to the minister. And none other than veteran actress Gila Almagor interrupted the minister’s speech with angry heckling when Regev was justifying the termination of funding to the Al-MidanTheater - and the minister herself interrupting with angry heckling the speech of award winner Liora Rivlin who spoke of the Palestinians living under occupation and seeking liberation, and of the obligation of Israeli artists to remember them.

That was the occasion when Minister Regev stated: "The question is not of Freedom of Expression but rather of the Freedom of Financing. Does a country have to pay for presenting a play about a man who kidnapped and killed a soldier?" A good question. Fortunately, as of this moment no theater seeks to present a play about the life of Amichai Paglin, and thus the minister is spared an agonizing dilemma.