Bearing Witness

Attacks on human rights groups that probe Israel’s Gaza offensive are an insult to reasonable public debate

The despicable attacks on human rights organisations investigating Israel’s Gaza offensive in January confirm Churchill’s observation: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” The mission led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone to investigate international human rights and international humanitarian law violations during Israel’s offensive, established by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is the latest victim. His findings are about to be made public. The knives have been out for the mission for months. Now they are being plunged into him and his colleagues. Until the report is out Goldstone can’t defend it. So the smears and misrepresentation are left free to pollute public discourse.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has assiduously responded to a deluge of scurrilous attacks on its credibility and staff, yet totally unfounded allegations – for example, about accepting Saudi government funding and failing to give a critical report to the Israel Defence Forces before releasing it to the public – are constantly being recycled. HRW messed up by failing to see that the nerdy and, to most people, disturbing hobby of its weapons expert Marc Garlasco (he collects German and American second world war memorabilia) could be used to discredit his role as author of highly critical reports of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza. But when this story broke last week, the equation implied in some allegations – “Nazi” object-collector plus “Israel-basher” equals “antisemite” – was baseless and defamatory. That he also worked on reports critical of Hamas and Hezbollah was ignored. As another excuse to attack HRW, and deflect attention from its reports’ findings, the Garlasco affair was a gift.

The human rights world is not beyond reproach. UNHRC has hardly been impartial on Israel. Goldstone accepted his role only after the council president agreed to the alteration of the mission’s mandate to cover all parties to the conflict, not just Israel. But mistrust alone does not explain the extraordinary scale of the attacks on human rights organisations, including all Israeli ones, for their reports on Israel.

In the 1970s, Jewish groups pressing the Soviets to allow Jews the right to leave the USSR worked with the human rights movement and based their arguments on human rights principles. But now the promoters of the concept of the “new antisemitism” – that Israel is the collective Jew persecuted by the international community – hold the international human rights movement largely responsible for it. Unable to face the fact that occupation and increasingly extreme rightwing governments turned Israel into the neighbourhood bully, and misreading the fallout for Jewish communities as abandonment by progressive forces and governments, many Jewish leaders and opinion-formers have become the human rights movement’s fiercest critics. With antisemitism framing this attack, reasoned argument becomes nigh on impossible.

Does it then come down to a matter of whose reputation you trust? If so would it be critics of human rights agencies like Alan Dershowitz, the prominent American lawyer who thinks torture could be legalised or Melanie Phillips, a columnist who calls Jewish critics of Israel “Jews for genocide”, and Gerald Steinberg, who runs NGO Monitor? Or Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, who is putting his considerable reputation on the line in taking the UNHRC assignment? Frankly, I don’t think there is a contest.

By declaring the reports of human rights agencies biased, the attack dogs are reinforcing the damage Israel is doing to itself. They put Israel in the company of serial human rights abusers that make the same complaint. And by refusing to respond to letters from HRW, denying the Goldstone mission entry to Israel, rubbishing testimony from Gazans unless it supports Israel’s version of the offensive, and allowing the army to investigate itself, Israel merely shows it cannot even tolerate reasonable criticism. This is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Goldstone, meanwhile, has attracted extra venom from some who label him a traitorous Jew. Would they say the same about another Jew, René Cassin, one of the prime drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Cassin was deeply influenced by the Holocaust, and the universal declaration was drawn up in direct response to it. It contains the bedrock principles upon which today’s human rights agencies base their work. Judge Goldstone is heir to Cassin’s legacy.

For NGO Monitor, Netanyahu and others attempting to discredit human rights agencies, Palestinian and Israeli human rights are in conflict. For Cassin, human rights were about morality; respect for the inherent dignity of all men and women. His vision, promoted by human rights bodies, offers hope for human progress. We owe it to Palestinian and Israeli alike to listen to Judge Goldstone with open minds – he might just bring us closer to the truth of what happened to human dignity in Gaza in January 2009.

* This article was written by Antony Lerman for  The Guardian, and was first pulished on Tuesday 15 September 2009.

September 19, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , | Leave a comment

UN says Israel should face war-crimes trial over Gaza

Report also censures Hamas but accuses Israelis of punishing entire population of the Palestinian Strip

Israel targeted “the people of Gaza as a whole” in the three-week military operation which is estimated to have killed more than 1,300 Palestinians at the beginning of this year, according to a UN-commissioned report published yesterday.

 A UN fact-finding mission led by the Jewish South African former Supreme Court Judge Richard Goldstone said Israel should face prosecution by the International Criminal Court, unless it opened fully independent investigations of what the report said were repeated violations of international law, “possible war crimes and crimes against humanity” during the operation.

Using by far the strongest language of any of the numerous reports criticising Operation Cast Lead, the UN mission, which interviewed victims, witnesses and others in Gaza and Geneva this summer, says that while Israel had portrayed the war as self-defence in response to Hamas rocket attacks, it “considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole”.

“In this respect the operations were in furtherance of an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience and for its apparent support for Hamas, and possibly with the intent of forcing a change in such support,” the report said. It added that some Israelis should carry “individual criminal responsibility.”

The 575-page document presented to yesterday’s session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was swiftly denounced by Israel. The foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the UN mission had “dealt a huge blow to governments seeking to defend their citizens from terror”, and that its conclusions were “so disconnected with realities on the ground that one cannot but wonder on which planet was the Gaza Strip they visited”.

The Gaza war began on 27 December 2008 and ended on 18 January 2009.

The UN report found that the statements of military and political leaders in Israel before and during the operation indicated the use of “disproportionate force”, aimed not only at the enemy but also at the “supporting infrastructure”. The mission adds: “In practice this appears to have meant the civilian population.”

The mission also had harsh conclusions about Hamas and other armed groups, acknowledging that rocket and mortar attacks have caused terror in southern Israel, and saying that where launched into civilians areas, they would “constitute war crimes” and “may amount to crimes against humanity”.

It also condemned the extrajudicial killings, detention and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees by the Hamas regime in Gaza – as well as by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – and called for the release on humanitarian grounds of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal abducted by Gaza militants in June 2006.

While the Israeli government refused to co-operate with the inquiry – or allow the UN team into Israel – on the ground that the team would be “one-sided”, Cpl Shalit’s father, Noam, was among those Israeli citizens who flew to Geneva to give evidence.

That said, the much greater part of the report – and its strongest language – is reserved for Israel’s conduct during the operation. Apart from the unprecedented death toll, the report says that “the destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a systematic policy by the Israeli armed forces”. The purpose was “to make the daily process of living and dignified living more difficult for the civilian population”.

The report also says that vandalism of houses by some soldiers and “the graffiti on the walls, the obscenities and often racist slogans constituted an overall image of humiliation and dehumanisation of the Palestinian population”. Hospitals and ambulances were “targeted by Israeli attacks.”

Amid a detailed examination of most of the major incidents of the war – albeit an examinations carried out five months after the incidents took place – it says that:

* The first bombing attack on Day One of the operation when children were going home from school “appears to have been calculated to cause the greatest disruption and widespread panic”.

* The deaths of 22 members of the Samouni family sheltering in a warehouse were among ones “owing to Israeli fire intentionally directed at them”, in clear breach of the Geneva Convention.

* The firing of white phosphorus shells at the UN Relief and Works Agency compound was “compounded by reckless regard of the consequences”, and the use of high explosive artillery at the al-Quds hospitals were violations of Articles 18 and 19 of the Geneva Convention. It says that warnings issued by Israel to the civilian population “cannot be considered as sufficiently effective” under the Convention.

* On the attack in the vicinity of the al-Fakhoura school, where at least 35 Palestinians were killed, Israeli forces launched an attack where a “reasonable commander” would have considered military advantage was outweighed by the risk to civilian life. The civilians had their right to life violated as under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). And while some of the 99 policemen killed in incidents surveyed by the team may have been members of armed groups, others who were not also had their right to life violated.

 * The inquiry team also says that a number of Palestinians were used as human shields – itself a violation of the ICCPR – including Majdi Abed Rabbo, whose complaints about being so used were first aired in The Independent. The report asserts that the use of human shields constitutes a “war crime under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.”

* This article was written by Donald Macintyre for The Independent and was first published on Wednesday, 16 September 2009.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Tel Aviv Party Party Stops Here

This column by Naomi Klein was first published in The Nation www.thenation.com

When I heard the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was holding a celebratory “spotlight” on Tel Aviv, I felt ashamed of Toronto, the city where I live. I thought immediately of Mona Al Shawa, a Palestinian women’s rights activist I met on a recent trip to Gaza. “We had more hope during the attacks,” she told me. “At least then we believed things would change.”

Al Shawa explained that while Israeli bombs rained down last December and January, Gazans were glued to their TVs. What they saw, in addition to the carnage, was a world rising up in outrage: global protests, as many as 100,000 on the streets of London, a group of Jewish women in Toronto occupying the Israeli Consulate. “People called it war crimes,” Al Shawa recalled. “We felt we were not alone in the world.” If Gazans could just survive, it seemed that their suffering could be the catalyst for change. But today, Al Shawa said, that hope is a bitter memory.

The international outrage has evaporated. Gaza has vanished from the news. And it seems that all those deaths-as many as 1,400-were not enough to bring justice. Indeed, Israel is refusing to cooperate even with a UN fact-finding mission headed by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone.

Last spring, while Goldstone’s mission was in Gaza gathering devastating testimony, the Toronto International Film Festival was making the final selections for its Tel Aviv spotlight, timed for the Israeli city’s hundredth birthday. There are many who would have us believe that there is no connection between Israel’s desire to avoid scrutiny for its actions in the occupied territories and the glittering Toronto premieres. I am sure that Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s co-director, believes that himself. He is wrong.

For more than a year, Israeli diplomats have been talking openly about their new strategy to counter growing global anger at Israel’s defiance of international law. It’s no longer enough, they argue, just to invoke Sderot every time someone raises Gaza. The task is also to change the subject to more pleasant topics: film, arts, gay rights-things that underline commonalities between Israel and places like Paris, New York and Toronto.

After the Gaza attack, as the protests rose, this strategy went into high gear. “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” Arye Mekel, deputy director-general for cultural affairs for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told the New York Times. “This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” And hip, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which has been celebrating its centennial with Israeli-sponsored “beach parties” in New York, Vienna and Copenhagen all summer long, is the best ambassador of all.

Toronto got an early taste of this new cultural mission. A year ago, Amir Gissin, Israeli consul-general in Toronto, explained that the “Brand Israel” campaign would include, according to a report in the Canadian Jewish News, “a major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand.” Gissin pledged, “I’m confident everything we plan to do will happen.” Indeed it has. Let’s be clear: no one is claiming the Israeli government is secretly running TIFF’s Tel Aviv spotlight, whispering in Bailey’s ear about which films to program. The point is that the festival’s decision to give Israel pride of place, holding up Tel Aviv as a “young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity,” matches Israel’s stated propaganda goals to a T.

Gal Uchovsky, one of the directors in the spotlight, is quoted in the festival catalog saying that Tel Aviv is “a haven [Israelis] can run away to when they want to forget about wars and the burdens of daily life.” Partly in response, Udi Aloni, the wonderful Israeli filmmaker whose film Local Angel premiered at TIFF, sent a video message to the festival, challenging its programmers to resist political escapism and instead “go to the places where it’s hard to go.” It’s ironic that TIFF’s Tel Aviv programming is being called a spotlight, because celebrating that city in isolation – without looking at Gaza, without looking at what is on the other side of the towering concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints – actually obscures far more than it illuminates.

There are some wonderful Israeli films included in the program. They deserve to be shown as a regular part of the festival, liberated from this highly politicized frame. It was in this context that a small group of filmmakers, writers and activists, of which I was a part, drafted The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration Under Occupation. It has been signed by the likes of Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler, Ken Loach and more than a thousand others. Among them is revered Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, as well as many Israeli filmmakers.

The counterattacks-spearheaded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the extremist Jewish Defense League – have been at once predictable and inventive. The most frequently repeated claim is that the letter’s signatories are censors, calling for a boycott of the festival. In fact, many of the signatories have much-anticipated films at this year’s festival, and we are not boycotting it: we are objecting to the Tel Aviv spotlight portion of it. More inventive has been the assertion that by declining to celebrate Tel Aviv as just another cool metropolis, we are questioning the city’s “right to exist.” (The Republican actor Jon Voight even accused Jane Fonda of “aiding and abetting those who seek the destruction of Israel.”) The letter does no such thing.

It is, instead, a simple message of solidarity, one that says: We don’t feel like partying with Israel this year. It is also a small way of saying to Mona Al Shawa and millions of other Palestinians living under occupation and siege that we have not forgotten them.

September 14, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Naomi Klein Shows You Can Boycott Israel Without Cutting Off Dialogue Over Palestine

* Article written by Cecilie Surasky for AlterNet, posted on September 1st, 2009.

 Few global-justice campaigns are more polarizing, even explosive, than the effort to use international boycotts, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its 42-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Just ask Neve Gordon.

Recently, Gordon, head of the political science department at Ben-Gurion University and a longtime peace activist, published a wrenching op-ed in the Los Angeles Times endorsing the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

After initially opposing the tactic, he became convinced, he wrote, that outside pressure “is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.”

He was braced for a backlash, but nothing like what he has faced over the past few weeks — members of the Israeli Knesset from a range of political parties called for his immediate sacking, the education minister called his article “repugnant,” and his university president threw him under the bus saying, “Academic personalities who feel this way are invited to look for an academic and personal home elsewhere.” She then hinted that his statement might have been an act of treason.

Clearly, BDS, part of the so-called South Africa strategy, crosses a line in the sand for many who believe that putting economic pressure on Israel is necessarily anti-Jewish.

But for proponents, BDS is a proven, nonviolent tactic that can pressure Israel to abide by international law, making an impact where various government efforts have failed and failed miserably.

Although Palestinian Civil Society made the BDS call in 2005, it gained momentum after Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza this past December and January.

Now it is undeniably growing, particularly in the arts world. Respected writers such as John Berger, Eduardo Galeano and Adrienne Rich have all endorsed it; and Israeli film festivals have faced a string of boycotts.

Most recently, the Toronto International Film Festival’s announcement of a special “city-to-city” celebration of Tel Aviv is threatening to turn the second most important film festival in the world (after Cannes) into a site of angry protests.

One of the most high-profile figures to endorse the call for BDS is Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, who typically enjoys overflow crowds, extensive media coverage and brisk book sales when she goes on international book tours.

When it came to publishing her latest best-seller, The Shock Doctrine, in Hebrew and Arabic, Klein decided the political situation in Israel and Palestine called for an entirely different approach.

In opposition to Israel’s occupation, she chose not to sign a traditional book deal with advances and royalties. Instead, she donated the book to Andalus, a publishing house that works actively against the occupation. It is the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew, something its founder Yael Lerer describes as “publishing as an act of resistance.”

Klein and Lerer also set out to craft a book tour that would honor the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel while also showing that boycotts need not cut off much-needed communication and dialogue.

With this in mind, Klein and Lerer, used the tour to draw attention to the boycott and the Palestinian struggle and to spark an internal Israeli dialogue about boycott as a way to pressure Israel to live up to international law.

Last month in Tel Aviv, I sat down with Klein and Lerer to ask about the goals, meaning and nuts and bolts of implementing a cultural boycott, and also why Lerer, a Jewish Israeli, is telling the world, “Please, boycott me.”

Here are some excerpts from that interview. — Cecilie Surasky

* * *

Cecilie Surasky: What is the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? Why are you supporting it?

Naomi Klein: Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: It’s a tactic with a very clear goal, to force Israel to comply with international law.

The call [for BDS] was made in 2005 by an extraordinarily broad range of Palestinian civil society groups, political parties, and trade unions. But it didn’t really start to gain an international profile until the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

In the midst of the war, the writer John Berger sent out a letter, signed by many prominent artists, mostly European, declaring their support for the boycott strategy. When that letter surfaced, I was in the middle of writing The Shock Doctrine, and I made a personal decision at the time that when the book came out, I wouldn’t do what I had done with the Hebrew translations of my previous two books, which was to publish with a fairly traditional commercial publisher.

Instead, I planned to do what John Berger was calling for, which was to find a way to publish in Hebrew that directly supports groups that are working to end the occupation. So that’s how I met Yael, who is anything but a traditional Israeli publisher, and who has been outspoken in her support of BDS, at genuine professional cost.

Surasky: You must have grappled with this idea of a cultural boycott. Many critics would say that it shuts down communication rather than opening it up. What brought you to take this step?

Klein: Well, it has to do with the fact that the Israeli government openly uses culture as a military tool. Though Israeli officials believe they are winning the actual war for land, they also feel that the country suffers because most of what the world hears about the region on the news is about the conflict: militarization, lawlessness, the occupation and Gaza.

So the foreign ministry launched a campaign called “Israel Beyond the Conflict,” which involves using culture, film, books, the arts, tourism and academia to create all kinds of alliances between Western countries and the state of Israel, and to promote the image of a normal, happy country, rather than an aggressive occupying power. That’s why we are always hearing about film festivals and book fairs with a special “Israel spotlight.”

And so, even though in general I would totally agree that culture is positive — books are positive and film is positive and communication is wonderful — we have to understand that we are dealing with a state strategy to co-opt all of that to make a brutal occupation more palatable.

There are other things that also fall into that category: the state of Israel has an open strategy of enlisting gay and lesbian rights and feminism into the conflict, pitting Hamas’s fundamentalism against Israel’s supposed enlightened liberalism as another justification for collective punishment of Palestinians (never mind the ever-growing power and intolerance of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews). It’s a very sophisticated strategy.

That means we have to come up with equally sophisticated strategies that defend culture and human rights on the one hand, but that, on the other, reject all attempts to use our work and our values to whitewash the ugly reality of occupation and segregation.

Surasky: You’ve done a book tour unlike any other book tour. Yael Lerer, your company, Andalus, published the book in Hebrew. On the face of it, there’s an inherent contradiction in coming to Israel-Palestine and doing a book tour while supporting a boycott. Yet you’ve managed to make that work. Can you explain?

Yael Lerer: Andalus has been dealing with this contradiction from the very beginning. We publish Arab writers that oppose “normalization” of the occupation — like we do. And we always try to find ways to deal with these contradictions.

Actually, this is the first time we have had a book tour, because our normal way of dealing with these contradictions is to translate the books but not hold any celebrations. Our writers never come here. So here we had this challenge for the first time.

We made the big launch of the Hebrew edition not in Tel Aviv but in Haifa, at an Arab theater, where our hosts were not Israeli official institutions, but Palestinian minority institutions. (As you know, there is a minority of 20 percent Palestinian within Israel.)

But this event was not aimed only at this community — we invited Israeli Jews to come as well. One could read everywhere in Hebrew, “Naomi Klein is coming to Haifa, come and hear her.”

At the same time, it was important to have the first book events in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, with the Arabic edition, and that before all the book events, Naomi participated in a demonstration in Bi’lin against the separation wall.

So we spoke to the Israeli public at the events and through the Israeli media. The book is available in Hebrew. But, at the same time, we expressed a strong anti-normalization position. We were not doing it like everything is normal.

Klein: And that’s the point. This is not a boycott of Israelis. It’s a boycott of pretending that everything is normal in Israel, because that’s what cultural producers are usually invited to do.

There has been a huge amount of misrepresentation about the boycott campaign, claiming that it is a boycott of Israelis, or Jews, or that it’s anti-Semitic. We are trying to address those misconceptions with this tour. There are some clear rules: We’re not going to work with a state-sponsored book fair, for instance. I have refused invitations to come to Israel, to speak at state-sponsored film festivals and things like that.

But If I were boycotting Israelis, I wouldn’t be in Israel engaging with Israelis. I would have stayed home.

One of the things we are trying to draw out with this tour is that for foreigners like me, however you choose to come to Israel, you are making choices, and you are taking a side. It’s possible to pretend that you are not, but that’s only because of Israel’s success in making the conflict invisible inside a carefully constructed bubble.

In my book there is a long chapter about Israel and the construction of the homeland security state. It looks closely at the companies that build the high-tech walls and fences and checkpoints and that keep Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in a state of constant surveillance.

It is because of the effectiveness of the homeland security sector that it’s possible to come to cities like Tel Aviv and be almost completely oblivious to what is happening in Ramallah, in Gaza. This state is like a giant gated community. It has perfected the art of constructing a security bubble, and that is, in a sense, its brand.

It’s a brand that is sold to Diaspora Jews like me. It says: “We can keep you safe, we can create, in a sea of enemies, a bubble of safety for you to enjoy, to have a wonderful beach holiday, to go to film festivals and book festivals — even as we bomb Gaza, even as we turn the West Bank into a chain of mini-Bantustans, surrounded by walls and expanding settlements, and roads Palestinians don’t have access to.”

These are two sides of the same coin: the bubble of normalcy, the brutality of enclosure. So it is not a politically neutral act to partake of that bubble.

This is a very important dialogue to have, and that’s why it was so important for us to publish the book in Hebrew — both to get the information out there, and to challenge people who are misrepresenting this tactic as being a boycott of Jews or a boycott of Israelis. We’re not doing that at all.

I donated the royalties to Andalus so that I’m not personally profiting from this, and I chose to work with Andalus because it is an activist publisher with a clear anti-occupation stand.

If the book does well, then it helps them to continue their work. The boycott campaign doesn’t ask people not to come to Israel or the Occupied Territories to share ideas and art — it asks that we do so in clear opposition to occupation and discrimination.

Surasky: And how has the Israeli media responded to the first pro-boycott book tour?

Klein: Not well. One of the contradictions we’re facing is that we really wanted to spark a debate in Israel, because while BDS is being debated in Europe and Canada, it’s almost invisible inside Israel; there’s real censorship around this issue.

Virtually the only perspective you hear is, “Oh, they’re just a bunch of anti-Semites, they hate Israelis, they hate Jews” — very, very distorted.

So our idea was to make it harder to distort by putting some facts on the ground and saying: “Look, we’ve translated this book, I’m here in Israel. Let’s have some of that dialogue and communication Israel is supposedly so intent on defending.”

What we’re finding is a lot of interest from Israelis but a huge amount of resistance from the Israeli media to just having the debate — both about the role of the security sector in lobbying against peace and the possible role of a boycott movement in creating new lobbies for peace.

Once I made my boycott position clear in Ha’aretz, a lot of media canceled on us, which doesn’t say much for the spectrum of debate, but it’s not all that surprising either!

Surasky: What is the objective of this campaign? What would you like to see coming out of this?

Klein: It’s modeled on the South Africa strategy that the anti-apartheid struggle used against South Africa very successfully in the 1980s. It had academic boycotts, cultural boycotts, consumer boycotts.

But the really big key economic lever was universities and municipalities divesting from companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa. The campaign started to be too costly for both South African firms and for Western multinationals with major investments in South Africa.

There was also a situation a little bit similar with Israel where you had a white minority in South Africa that very much saw itself as being part of Europe, of being part of the West. And suddenly they weren’t getting the American and European concerts they wanted, they weren’t getting the book fairs they wanted, and they didn’t like that.

So they put pressure on their government to make it stop, even though white South Africans felt self-righteous and enormously enraged by the boycotts and sanctions.

The hope is that these sorts of dynamics can work in Israel, because it is so important to the Israeli self-image that the country be seen as an honorary member of the E.U. or an adjunct to the United States.

When writers and artists stop participating in the Israeli government’s strategy to use culture to hide what’s on the other side of the concrete walls, Israelis may eventually decide that those walls are a liability and decide to take them down

Lerer: I completely agree. As an Israeli citizen, I need boycotts for two reasons.

First, I want Israelis to feel more strongly that everything is not normal. It means nothing for many self-identified left-wing Israelis to say, “It’s awful, what’s going on in Gaza and in Hebron,” while continuing their daily lives like everything is fine.

They go to the shows and they go to the concerts. These people are the elites in this country. These are the journalists that work at the newspapers. I want to move them. I want to shake these people up and make them understand they cannot continue their normal life when Palestinians in Qalqiliya [a West Bank city completely surrounded by the separation barrier] — only 15 minutes away from Tel Aviv — are in prison.

The second reason I need the boycott is because I lost the hope of creating change from within, which was what I tried to do as an activist for many years.

Twenty years ago, I could never have imagined this semi-apartheid situation. I care about the future in this place. I care about my fellow Israelis. I have a huge family here and many, many friends.

I know many people who don’t have any other passports and who don’t have any other options. I think that the solution for this place, the only possible future, is living together. Unfortunately, at this stage, I don’t see how this future can be achieved without international pressure.

And I think that boycott is a nonviolent tool that has already shown us that it can work. So I’m asking: Please boycott me.

Klein: I also think we need to be very clear: This is an extraordinarily asymmetrical conflict where the Israeli state is the biggest boycotter of all. The economy in Gaza and the West Bank has been utterly destroyed by closures.

Beyond shutting down the borders so producers in Gaza couldn’t get fruits and vegetables out, you had [over 200] factories in Gaza hit during the attack in late December and January. It was a systematic destruction of that economy to try to “teach Gaza a lesson” for having voted for Hamas. So, boycotts are happening.

The way I see BDS is that this is a tactic that we are resorting to because of Israeli impunity. There is an absolute unwillingness to apply international law to the Israeli state. Hamas has committed war crimes, but there is absolutely an international response to those crimes. [There is no response to Israeli war crimes, which are on an exponentially larger scale.]

We were just in Gaza. The thing that really struck me was the sense of shock among so many people that, even after the December/January attacks, even after hundreds of children were killed, there have been no actions taken by the international community to hold Israel accountable.

I mean, this was a display of utter impunity and disdain for international law, for the laws of war — which, by the way, were created in direct response to the Nazi atrocities of the second World War. And yet, not only are there no consequences for those crimes, but the illegal siege of Gaza is still on.

What BDS is saying is our governments have failed. The United Nations has failed. The so-called international community is a joke. We have to fill the vacuum.

I also believe this movement could be a game-changer in the United States. Let’s remember that a huge part of the success of the anti-apartheid struggle in the ’80s was due to popular education.

Once you said, “Our school or town should divest from apartheid South Africa,” you immediately had to have a big teach-in where you had to explain what apartheid was, and you had to make your case persuasively. And people were persuaded.

The Palestinian BDS call could play that kind of movement-building role today, giving people something concrete they can organize around in their schools and communities.

Whether he recognizes it or not, [President Barack] Obama needs the Palestinian struggle to be a popular, grassroots issue like the South African struggle was. He has taken very small steps to forge a new kind of deal with Israel, but he’s facing enormous push-back from the right. There has to be a counterpressure on Obama saying, “Actually, you’re not going far enough. Excuse me, no new settlements? How about no settlements, period?”

So the only hope of not just having him hold to this tentative position, but actually improving this position, is if there’s a popular movement that is very clear in its demands for Israel to abide by international law on all fronts, and that’s exactly what BDS is.

Surasky: How are Israelis on the left responding to the idea of a boycott?

Lerer: Something happened in the last war in Gaza in January. Five hundred and forty Israelis — including prominent academics, actors and filmmakers — signed a petition asking for international pressure on Israel.

One paragraph in this petition said that only boycott helped in the South Africa case. It was not yet a direct call for boycott, but it was a very important step. Now we are forming a new group of Israeli citizens who support the Palestinian call for boycott — Boycott From Within (BFW).

In 2005, we tried to arrange a group of artists to support the Palestinian call for academic and cultural boycott, and we failed. People told us, “How can we boycott ourselves? It is too difficult, it is too radical.” Many of these people have now signed the Gaza petition, and they are joining our new BFW group.

They understood that it’s not about boycotting ourselves, but about asking the international community, asking our fellow citizens everywhere in the world for action: Please help us by boycotting us.

Surasky: Let’s talk about specific examples of other people who are supporting this call.

Klein: Most artists do not know about the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, even though it comes from hundreds of Palestinian groups. We’re working within a context where Palestinian voices are virtually inaudible in the West.

So people will come to Israel to accept an award or agree to play a concert in Tel Aviv, and they don’t know that they are essentially crossing a picket line. Most don’t even know a call has been made for nonviolent resistance by a people who, let’s remember, have been utterly vilified for using any kind of armed resistance. I mean come on: If you reject armed resistance, and you reject boycotts and sanctions, what’s left? Online petitions? Do we really think that’s going to end the occupation?

But yes, some filmmakers who are politically active have decided not to participate in Israeli or Israeli-sponsored film festivals.

Ken Loach has pulled out of the Melbourne International Film Festival because it was sponsored by the Israeli government. The Canadian filmmaker John Greyson pulled a terrific film called Fig Trees from this year’s gay and lesbian film festival in Tel Aviv.

More recently, the Yes Men wrote a really thoughtful letter to the Jerusalem Film Festival explaining why they decided to pull their new film, The Yes Men Save the World, from the festival.

And now there is some talk of organizing a pro-BDS film festival in Ramallah, once again to boycott normalcy but to still get these films out there.

Surasky: I just read a criticism of BDS that said, “You’re not calling for a boycott of North Korea, or the United States for that matter because of Afghanistan or Iraq. So, that makes this anti-Semitic.” How do you address this criticism?

Klein: I’ve heard that too, but I’m not calling for a boycott of anyone. I am respecting a call for a boycott that has been made by hundreds of Palestinian groups.

I believe in the principle that people under oppressed circumstances have a right to self-determination. That’s at the heart of this struggle. This is a nonviolent tactic that has been selected by a broad range of civil society groups.

Iraqis, so far as I know, have not called for BDS tactics against the United States, though it would certainly be their right. And yet some people act as if I sort of made it up in my bedroom like, “who should I boycott today? Eenie-meenie-miney-mo, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, Israel!”

Once again, the only reason this can happen is because Palestinian voices are so effectively marginalized in the Western press.

By the way, most of the examples that are trotted out in these debates are examples where there are very clear state sanctions against these countries. So we’re not dealing with impunity as we are with Israel.

In this case, you need a grassroots project to fill in where governments have completely abdicated their responsibility to exert pressure on behalf of international law.

Lerer: But not only that — these countries don’t have these film festivals, and Madonna is not going to have a concert in North Korea.

The problem here is that the international community treats Israel like it was a normal, European, Western state. And this is the basis of the boycott call — the special relationship that Israeli universities have with European universities and with universities in the United States, which universities in Zimbabwe don’t have.

I do believe that Israel could not continue the occupation for one single day without the support of the United States and the European Union. The Western community supports the occupation. Like Naomi was saying, not doing something is the active thing.

Surasky: Some say, “This is not going to help. Israelis see themselves under siege, we Jews see ourselves under siege. It’s actually going to make Israelis less open to peace.”

Klein: It’s inevitable that, at least in the short term, it’s going to feed this Israeli feeling of being under siege.

It’s not rational, because in fact, what we’re dealing with is a context where Israel has been rewarded. If we look at these key years since the election of Hamas, when the siege on Gaza became utterly brutal and just undeniably illegal, trade with Israel has actually increased dramatically. There have been new special agreements launched with the European Union and Israel, with Latin America. Last year, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45 percent.

Even though Israel is being rewarded for this criminality and is getting away with just extraordinary violence, the feeling among many Israelis of being under siege is increasing.

The question is, do we just cater to this irrationality? Because if we just cater to it, that means we do nothing, we voluntarily surrender the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal.

Israel, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believes that the whole world is against it and that all the criticism it faces flows from anti-Semitism.

This is simply untrue, and as activists, we can no longer allow one nation’s victim complex to trump the very real victimization of the Palestinian people.

 

Cecilie Surasky is the deputy director for Jewish Voice for Peace.

September 5, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Village, Palestinians See Model for Their Cause

BILIN, West Bank — Every Friday for the past four and a half years, several hundred demonstrators — Palestinian villagers, foreign volunteers and Israeli activists — have walked in unison to the Israeli barrier separating this tiny village from the burgeoning settlement of Modiin Illit, part of which is built on the village’s land. One hundred feet away, Israeli soldiers watch and wait.

The protesters chant and shout and, inevitably, a few throw stones. Then just as inevitably, the soldiers open fire with tear gas and water jets, lately including a putrid oil-based liquid that makes the entire area stink.

It is one of the longest-running and best organized protest operations in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has turned this once anonymous farming village into a symbol of Palestinian civil disobedience, a model that many supporters of the Palestinian cause would like to see spread and prosper.

For that reason, a group of famous left-leaning elder statesmen, including former President Jimmy Carter — who caused controversy by suggesting that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank amounted to apartheid — came to Bilin on Thursday and told the local organizers how much they admired their work and why it was vital to keep it going.

The retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also on the visit, said, “Just as a simple man named Gandhi led the successful nonviolent struggle in India and simple people such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King led the struggle for civil rights in the United States, simple people here in Bilin are leading a nonviolent struggle that will bring them their freedom.”

Mr. Tutu, a South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke on rocky soil, surrounded by the remains of tear gas canisters and in front of coils of barbed wire, part of the barrier that Israel began building in 2002 across the West Bank as a violent Palestinian uprising was under way. Israel said its main purpose was to stop suicide bombers from crossing into Israel, but the route of the barrier — a mix of fencing, guard towers and concrete wall — dug deep into the West Bank in places, and Palestinian anger over the barrier is as much about lost land as about lost freedom.

Bilin lost half its land to the settlement of Modiin Illit and the barrier and took its complaint to Israel’s highest court. Two years ago, the court handed it an unusual victory. It ordered the settlement to stop building its new neighborhood and ordered the Israeli military to move the route of the barrier back toward Israel, thereby returning about half the lost land to the village.

“The villagers danced in the street,” recalled Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli lawyer who worked on the case for the village. “Unfortunately, it has been two years since the decision, and the wall has not moved.”

The village is back in court trying, so far in vain, to get the orders put into effect.

Ms. Schaeffer was explaining the case to the visitors, who go by the name The Elders. The group was founded two years ago by former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and is paid for by donors, including Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, and Jeff Skoll, founding president of eBay. Its goal is to “support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.”

Both Mr. Branson and Mr. Skoll were on the visit to Bilin, as were Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland; Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; and Ela Bhatt, an Indian advocate for the poor and women’s rights. Their visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories has also included meetings with young Israelis and young Palestinians.

Mr. Cardoso said that he had long heard about the conflict but that seeing it on the ground had made a lasting impression on him. The barrier, he said, serves to imprison the Palestinians.

Like every element of the conflict here, there is no agreement over the nature of what goes on here every Friday. Palestinians hail the protest as nonviolent, and it was cited recently by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, as a key step forward in the struggle for a Palestinian state. Recently, one of the leaders here, Mohammed Khatib, set up a committee of a dozen villages to share his strategies.

But the Israelis complain that, along with protests at the nearby village of Nilin, things are more violent here than the Palestinians and their supporters acknowledge.

“Rioters hurl rocks, Molotov cocktails and burning tires at defense forces and the security fence,” the military said in a statement when asked why it had taken to arresting village leaders in the middle of the night. “Since the beginning of 2008, about 170 members of the defense forces have been injured in these villages,” it added, including three soldiers who were so badly hurt they could no longer serve in the army. It also said that at Bilin itself, some $60,000 worth of damage had been done to the barrier in the past year and a half.

Abdullah Abu Rahma, a village teacher and one of the organizers of the weekly protests, said he was amazed at the military’s assertions as well as at its continuing arrests and imprisonment of village leaders.

“They want to destroy our movement because it is nonviolent,” he said. He added that some villagers might have tried, out of frustration, to cut through the fence since the court had ordered it moved and nothing had happened. But that is not the essence of the popular movement that he has helped lead.

“We need our land,” he told his visitors. “It is how we make our living. Our message to the world is that this wall is destroying our lives, and the occupation wants to kill our struggle.”

* This article was written by Ethan Bronner and first published: August 27, 2009 in the New York Times.

September 3, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The real Israel-Palestine story is in the West Bank

Israel’s targeting of civilian resistance to the separation wall proves the two-state solution is now just a meaningless slogan.

It is quite likely that you have not heard of the most important developments this week in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the West Bank, while it has been “occupation as normal”, there have been some events that together should be overshadowing Gaza, Gilad Shalit and Avigdor Lieberman.

First, there have been a large number of Israeli raids on Palestinian villages, with dozens of Palestinians abducted. These kinds of raids are, of course, commonplace for the occupied West Bank, but in recent days it appears the Israeli military has targeted sites of particularly strong Palestinian civil resistance to the separation wall.

For three consecutive days this week, Israeli forces invaded Jayyous, a village battling for survival as their agricultural land is lost to the wall and neighbouring Jewish colony. The soldiers occupied homes, detained residents, blocked off access roads, vandalised property, beat protestors, and raised the Israeli flag at the top of several buildings.

Jayyous is one of the Palestinian villages in the West Bank that has been non-violently resisting the separation wall for several years now. It was clear to the villagers that this latest assault was an attempt to intimidate the protest movement.

Also earlier this week, Israel tightened still further the restrictions on Palestinian movement and residency rights in East Jerusalem, closing the remaining passage in the wall in the Ar-Ram neighbourhood of the city. This means that tens of thousands of Palestinians are now cut off from the city and those with the right permit will now have to enter the city by first heading north and using the Qalandiya checkpoint.

Finally – and this time, there was some modest media coverage – it was revealed that the Efrat settlement near Bethlehem would be expanded by the appropriation of around 420 acres land as “state land”. According to Efrat’s mayor, the plan is to triple the number of residents in the colony.

Looked at together, these events in the West Bank are of far more significance than issues being afforded a lot of attention currently, such as the truce talks with Hamas, or the discussions about a possible prisoner-exchange deal. Hamas itself has become such a focus, whether by those who urge talks and cooption or those who advocate the group’s total destruction, that the wider context is forgotten.

Hamas is not the beginning or the end of this conflict, a movement that has been around for just the last third of Israel’s 60 years. The Hamas Charter is not a Palestinian national manifesto, and nor is it even particularly central to today’s organisation. Before Hamas existed, Israel was colonising the occupied territories, and maintaining an ethnic exclusivist regime; if Hamas disappeared tomorrow, Israeli colonisation certainly would not.

Recognising what is happening in the West Bank also contextualises the discussion about Israel’s domestic politics, and the ongoing question about the makeup of a ruling coalition. For the Palestinians, it does not make much difference who is eventually sitting around the Israeli cabinet table, since there is a consensus among the parties on one thing: a firm rejectionist stance with regards to Palestinian self-determination and sovereignty.

During the coverage of the Israeli elections, while it was clear that Palestinians mostly did not care which of the candidates for PM won, the reason for this apathy was not explained. Labor, Likud and Kadima alike, Israeli governments without fail have continued or intensified the colonisation of the occupied territories, entrenching Israel’s separate-and-unequal rule, a reality belied by the false “dove”/”hawk” dichotomy.

Which brings us to the third reason why news from the West Bank is more significant than the Gaza truce talks or the Netanyahu-Livni rivalry – it is a further reminder that the two-state solution has completed its progression from worthy (and often disingenuous) aim to meaningless slogan, concealing Israel’s absorption of all Palestine/Israel and confinement of the Palestinians into enclaves.

The fact that the West Bank reality means the end of the two-state paradigm has started to be picked up by mainstream, liberal commentators in the US, in the wake of the Israeli elections. Juan Cole, the history professor and blogger, recently pointed out that there are now only three options left for Palestine/Israel: “apartheid”, “expulsion”, or “one state”.

The path of the wall, and the number of Palestinians it directly and indirectly affects, continues to make a mockery of any plan for Palestinian statehood. Jayyous is just one example of the way in which the Israeli-planned, fenced-in Palestinian “state-lets” are at odds with the stated intention of the quartet and so many others, of two viable states, “side by side”. As the World Bank pointed out (pdf), land colonisation is not conducive to economic prosperity or basic independence.

In occupied East Jerusalem meanwhile, Israel has continued its process of Judaisation, enforced through bureaucracy and bulldozers. The latest tightening of the noose in Ar-Ram is one example of where Palestinian Jerusalemites are at risk of losing their residency status, victims of what is politely known as the “demographic battle”.

It is impossible to imagine Palestinians accepting a “state” shaped by the contours of Israel’s wall, disconnected not only from East Jerusalem but even from parts of itself. Yet this is the essence of the “solution” being advanced by Israeli leaders across party lines. For a real sense of where the conflict is heading, look to the West Bank, not just Gaza.

This article was written by Ben White for the Guardian and was first published on Friday 20th February 2009.

August 24, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Israeli soldiers admit ‘shoot first’ policy in Gaza offensive

Anonymous testimonies collated by Breaking the Silence also contain allegations that Palestinians were used as human shields.

Israeli soldiers who served in the Gaza Strip during the offensive of December and January have spoken out about being ordered to shoot without hesitation, destroying houses and mosques with a general disregard for Palestinian lives.

In testimony that will fuel international and Arab demands for war crime investigations, 30 combat soldiers report that the army’s priority was to minimise its own casualties to maintain Israeli public support for the three-week Operation Cast Lead.

One specific allegation is that Palestinians were used by the army as “human shields” despite a 2005 Israeli high court ruling outlawing the practice. “Not much was said about the issue of innocent civilians,” a soldier said. “There was no need to use weapons like mortars or phosphorous,” said another. “I have the feeling that the army was looking for the opportunity to show off its strength.”

The 54 anonymous testimonies were collated by Breaking the Silence, a group that collects information on human rights abuses by the Israeli military. Many of the soldiers are still doing their compulsory national service.

Palestinians counted 1,400 dead but Israel put the death toll at 1,166 and estimated 295 fatalities were civilians. Ten soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed.

Israel launched the attack after the expiry of a ceasefire designed to halt rocket fire from Gaza and crush the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the coastal strip.

Witnesses described the destruction of hundreds of houses and many mosques without military reason, the firing of phosphorous shells into inhabited areas, the killing of innocents and the indiscriminate destruction of property.

Soldiers describe a “neighbour procedure” in which Palestinian civilians were forced to enter suspect buildings ahead of troops. They cite cases of civilians advancing in front of a soldier resting his rifle on the civilian’s shoulder.

“We did not get instructions to shoot at anything that moved,” said one soldier. “But we were generally instructed: if you feel threatened, shoot. They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted.”

Many testimonies are in line with claims by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations that Israeli actions were indiscriminate and disproportionate.

Another soldier testified: “You feel like a stupid little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them. A 20-year-old kid should not have to do these kinds of things to other people.”

The testimonies “expose significant gaps between the official army version of events and what really happened on the ground”, Breaking the Silence said.

* This article was written by Ian Black, the Middle East editor for the Guardian newspaper and was first published on Wednesday 15 July.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking over Jerusalem

A couple of months ago I spent a fortnight in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement – activists who help Palestinians non-violently resist Israeli oppression. The most pressing of many issues during my stay was the attempts by an Israeli settler company, Nahalat Shimon, backed by the Israeli courts, to cleanse East Jerusalem of its Arab population, focusing its efforts at that time on the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

I spent a week sleeping on a floor in the house of the Hanoun family – a husband and wife and their three children. Longer-term activists were sleeping there as well, ready to document their inevitable eviction. Well, last Saturday at 5.30am the Israeli border police did come and forceably evict them (so forceably that the son Rami had to be taken to hospital). The activists were arrested, as were protesters who subsequently took to the streets. The Hanouns were offered a tent by the Red Cross.

Sheikh Jarrah is in a valley down from the American Colony hotel where Tony Blair stays in a luxury suite when visiting Jerusalem as the Quartet’s “Peace Envoy”. When you look out of the Hanouns’ window, you can see Blair’s hotel 30 metres away; Blair can probably see the Hanouns’ house during his morning swim. He has said nothing.

The most disturbing fact about Israel’s eviction programme is that when you look around East Jerusalem and the surrounding area there are considerable plots of land without homes. If they wanted to build new illegal settlements without kicking out Palestinians in the area they could do so. The targeting of Sheikh Jarrah and other areas is actually a process of racial purification, the transformation of East Jerusalem into a unified Jewish Jerusalem.

The Hanoun family have been the victims of terror for decades as they have fought off Israel’s attempts to take their homes. Maher Hanoun’s father was a refugee from the nakba (or “the catastophe”, as Palestinians call the founding of Israel in 1948). The Jordanian government gave them the property in 1956 as compensation and transferred the ownership to them in 1962. Maher was born in 1958 so has spent his whole life, and bought up all his children, in his home.

As in other parts of East Jerusalem, Maher was offered payment if he would go quietly. He refused. “This is my home,” he said to me. “I would never respect myself if I sold my home for money. They want to build a settlement on our hearts, on our dreams.”

Across the way, there is a makeshift tent where a 62-year-old woman now lives after settlers took over her house. Initially they only took two parts of her house so she was literally living next to them. Then she was kicked out. Her husband had a heart attack when their house was violently repossessed with the help of more than 50 soldiers (on the night of Barack Obama’s US election victory). After spending some time in hospital, her husband had another attack two weeks later and died. The family again refused money to leave their homes. “I don’t have a life now,” she said from her tent. “With my husband and house gone, there is no life. I just hope with the help of God that this occupation will stop and we can return to our homes.”

I don’t know what happened to this women in the eviction on Saturday night, but one report I read said even her tent had been destroyed.

The one good thing about the Netanyahu-Lieberman administration is that they are much more honest about their colonisation programme than their “centrist” predecessors. The Netanyahu administration is now willing to get rid of some “outposts”, in return for continued expansion in East Jerusalem and “natural growth” in existing settlements throughout the West Bank. That was the policy negotiated by Ehud Olmert and George Bush before the Annapolis conference in 2007. Netanyahu is just more honest in saying that it obviates the possibility of a Palestinian state.

Maher agrees: “I can’t see how we can have a capital if there is no land, no houses, no people,” he said.

The next stop in this attempt to cleanse the putative future capital of Palestine of its indigenous population is the Bustan area of Silwan which sits in the valley down from the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. When I first arrived in Israel I went on the City of David tour, which functions as a three-hour Israeli propaganda extravaganza (dressed up as an archeological experience). King David in Biblical lore is said to have been the first Jewish leader to settle the land in Jerusalem and his son King Solomon is said to have built the First Temple in 960 BC.

In 2005, some archeological finds purported to provide evidence that the lore was true. Now, the Israeli government wants to turn the homes of the people of Silwan into an archaeological theme park. Eighty-eight houses are due for demolition, home to about 1,500 Palestinians.

* This article was writen by Matt Kennard and first published in the Guardian news paper on  Wednesday 5 August 2009.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Peril of Forgetting Gaza

By Sara Roy, First published on Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The recent meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu  generated speculation over the future relationship between America and Israel, and a potentially changed U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Analysts on the right and left are commenting on a new, tougher American policy characterized by strengthened U.S. demands  on Israel.

However, beneath the diplomatic choreography lies an agonizing  reality that received only brief comment from Obama and silence from  Netanyahu: The ongoing devastation of the people of Gaza.  Gaza is an example of a society that has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution, its once productive population transformed into one of aid-dependent paupers. This context is undeniably one of mass suffering, created largely by Israel but with the active complicity of the international community, especially the U.S. and European Union, and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Gaza’s subjection began long before Israel’s recent war against it. The Israeli occupation – now largely forgotten or denied by the international community – has devastated Gaza’s economy and people, especially since 2006. Although economic restrictions actually increased before Hamas’ electoral victory in January 2006, the deepened sanction regime and siege subsequently imposed by Israel and the international community, and later intensified in June 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza, has all but destroyed the local economy. If there has been a pronounced theme among the many Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals who I have interviewed in the last three years, it was the fear of damage to Gaza’s society and economy so profound that billions of dollars and generations of people would be required to address it – a fear that has now been realized. 

After Israel’s December assault, Gaza’s already compromised conditions have become virtually unlivable. Livelihoods, homes, and public infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed on a scale that even the Israel Defense Forces admitted was indefensible. In Gaza today, there is no private sector to speak of and no industry. 80 percent of Gaza’s agricultural crops were destroyed and Israel continues to snipe at farmers attempting to plant and tend fields near the well fenced and patrolled border. Most productive activity has been extinguished.  One powerful expression of Gaza’s economic demise and the Gazans’ indomitable will to provide for themselves and their families is its burgeoning tunnel economy that emerged long ago in response to the siege. Thousands of Palestinians are now employed digging tunnels into Egypt – around 1,000 tunnels are reported to exist although not all are operational. According to local economists, 90 percent of economic activity in Gaza – once considered a lower middle-income economy (along with the West Bank) – is presently devoted to smuggling.

Today, 96 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.4 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. According to the World Food Programme, the Gaza Strip requires a minimum of 400 trucks of food every day just to meet the basic nutritional needs of the population. Yet, despite a 22 March decision by the Israeli cabinet to lift all restrictions on foodstuffs entering Gaza, only 653 trucks of food and other supplies were allowed entry during the week of May 10, at best meeting 23 percent of required need. Israel now allows only 30 to 40 commercial items to enter Gaza compared  to 4,000 approved products prior to June 2006. According to the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, Gazans still are denied many commodities (a policy in effect long before the December assault): Building materials (including wood for windows and doors), electrical appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines), spare parts for cars and machines, fabrics, threads, needles, candles, matches, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, musical instruments, books, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, milk products in large packages, most baking products, light bulbs, crayons, clothing, and shoes. 

Given these constraints, among many others – including the internal disarray of the Palestinian leadership – one wonders how the reconstruction to which Obama referred will be possible. There is no question that people must be helped immediately. Programs aimed at alleviating suffering and reinstating some semblance of normalcy are ongoing, but at a scale shaped entirely by the extreme limitations on the availability of goods. In this context of repressive occupation and heightened restriction, what does it mean to reconstruct Gaza? How is it possible under such conditions to empower people and build sustainable and resilient institutions able to withstand expected external shocks? Without an immediate end to Israel’s blockade and the resumption of trade and the movement of people outside the prison that Gaza has long been, the current crisis will grow massively more acute. Unless the U.S. administration is willing to exert real pressure on Israel for implementation – and the indications thus far suggest they are not – little will change. Not surprisingly, despite international pledges of $5.2 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction, Palestinians there are now rebuilding their homes using mud.

Recently, I spoke with some friends in Gaza and the conversations were profoundly disturbing. My friends spoke of the deeply felt absence of any source of protection-personal, communal or institutional. There is little in society that possesses legitimacy and there is a fading consensus on rules and an eroding understanding of what they are for. Trauma and grief overwhelm the landscape despite expressions of resilience. The feeling of abandonment among people appears complete, understood perhaps in their growing inability to identify with any sense of possibility. The most striking was this comment: “It is no longer the occupation or even the war that consumes us but the realization of our own irrelevance.” 

What possible benefit can be derived from an increasingly impoverished, unhealthy, densely crowded, and furious Gaza alongside Israel ? Gaza’s terrible injustice not only threatens Israeli and regional security, but it undermines America’s credibility, alienating our claim to democratic practice and the rule of law. If Palestinians are continually denied what we want and demand for ourselves – an ordinary life, dignity, livelihood, safety, and a place where they can raise their children – and are forced, yet again, to face the destruction of their families, then the inevitable outcome will be greater and more extreme violence across all factions. What looms is no less than the loss of entire generation of Palestinians. And if this happens – perhaps it already has – we shall all bear the cost.

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

This Blockade of Gaza, that is now in it’s third year, is clearly an act of collective punishment – which is outlawed under international humanitarian law. Again I ask, Why does the international community not hold Israel to account for this and many other violations of international law ?

July 13, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , , , | Leave a comment

An open letter to President Barack Obama

President Obama, I cried a few days ago as I marveled at your historic and amazing win. I couldn’t help it. It was amazing the way that you were able to transcend racial, ethnic, and age lines to bring Americans together. You inspired me to believe in the US again.

You see, I moved to the United States from Palestine in July 2001. History soon shaped my experience in the US, and I found myself in a country where being Muslim and Palestinian made me a threat. I survived the hate-filled stares on 9/11, the people calling me “Victor” since “Hammad” is “too hard to say.” I got searched for three hours at SFO airport as a suspected terrorist where I was not allowed to call my family or know my rights, and had my computer’s contents searched. A portrait of President Bush looked over me. For the seven years I have lived in America, President Bush has been in charge. The America I moved to was not the one I always imagined. The America of hope and opportunity turned out to be the America of discrimination and horrible public education.

Growing up in a small town near Ramallah in Palestine, I always had an image of an America of opportunity. An America where dreams come true and people are judged by their character, not skin color or background. I dreamed of the America where one’s religion didn’t define them. You see, I lived my entire life in an area where I was first judged by my perceived nationality and religion. As a Palestinian in an Israeli-occupied military zone, there was no opportunity. A green “hawiya” listing my Palestinian background and religion kept me in an open-air prison. There, I watched my classmates run out of school to escape hovering Israeli F-16s, and watched the police station next to my school get bombed. To get to school, about two miles away, took at least an hour. We had to take a taxi through back roads, in snow (yes, it snows sometimes in Palestine), rain, wind, and heat. I sat in the corner of an 8-person taxi to and from school each day. It wasn’t just the back roads that were built for Palestinian drivers that made us feel subhuman. (Israeli highways circling through the West Bank are reserved only for Israeli Jewish settlers who illegally are transferred and build “hilltop communities” on private Palestinian land). It was also the two checkpoints Israelis made me walk through to get from my Palestinian town to the next city where my school was located. It wasn’t seeing people beaten or spit on that got to me. It was that as a 13-year old, I had to walk for a quarter mile every day to cross through the checkpoint on a mountain and wait for another checkpoint to get me to school. The problem was that Israel’s “security” regime took away my sense of security. Israel’s web of 500 checkpoints in the West Bank alone was part of the reason my dad’s restaurant failed. My story is not unique and is filled with privilege. Most Palestinians my age have been shot at or arrested. 6 million Palestinians still live in refugee camps. I was also lucky, since I had an American passport—which was the only reason Israel sometimes looked at me as a human being. My family was able to leave. Most Palestinians aren’t.

Throughout this campaign, I have watched you distance yourself from your former colleagues and friends because of their Palestinian background. I watched Foxnews report on Palestinian Professors as “terrorists” and was disappointed that you had no comment on the subject. I stood by when you retracted your comment that “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” I stood by as you remained silent about those who called you “Muslim,” as if it were a slur. I understood you needed to get elected, and that as a Black man in the US, it wouldn’t be easy and that it wouldn’t make sense to stand up against the ignorance and racism that has been increasing against Muslims and Arabs in the US. I watched you deny being a “Muslim” but never heard you say that it shouldn’t matter if you were. I rooted for you to win the Democratic nomination and spent a weekend with friends campaigning for you in South Carolina. I was there when you won by a landslide, and rejoiced at your speech. I didn’t wash my hands for a few days after shaking yours.

 I am not a one-issue voter. I did not, DID NOT, vote for you because of your policy on Palestine and Israel. You see, if it was this issue that I judged you by, I would not have voted for you. I watched you give a hawkish pro-Israel speech at AIPAC the day after you won the nomination. I understood the state of US politics and the need for you to not take a controversial or new stance on an issue that would lose votes in the Jewish-American community that was already skeptical of this man whose middle name was Hussein.

However, I was still disappointed by the levels you sunk to appear as “Israel-loving” as possible. I listened with shock as you declared that Jerusalem should “Israel’s undivided capital.” Even President Bush did not try to change international law or take a stance on a final status issue without Palestinian and Israelis negotiating it. And was happy the next day when you clarified your remark.

I was working with young Palestinians in three West Bank refugee camps and used your story as inspiration for them to see hope in their future and to follow their dreams. These kids are third and fourth generation refugees living in crowded refugee camps, and waiting for any of their basic human rights to be implemented. Then, I saw the difference in your visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. You spent over 27 hours in Israel, visiting museums, civil society, different government organizations and religious sites. In the Palestinian areas, you spent half an hour at President Mahmoud Abbas’ compound, which caused many main streets in Ramallah to be closed for ordinary Palestinians. As if the checkpoints weren’t enough.

I wondered at the time whether you saw the Qalandia checkpoint as you were whisked through in your motorcade. Did you see the wall that cuts across the land? Did you see how tall it is? In Berlin you gave a speech a few days later saying: “When you, the German people, tore down that wall – a wall that divided East and West; freedom and tyranny; fear and hope – walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened.” How could you justify a wall that divides Palestinian territory, steals land, is not built on the green line, and is in some places twice as large as the Berlin Wall and four times as long? If it was about security, then the wall could have been built on Israeli territory and not around water sources and illegal settlements. 

Did you know that in a bakery in Ramallah, they prepared “O” pastries in your honor? You probably didn’t since you asked to leave Ramallah early to return to Tel-Aviv leaving behind a prepared Palestinian meal at Abbas’s compound. As a Christian, shouldn’t you feel disappointed that the Church of the Nativity, where it is believed Jesus was born, is cut off from Jerusalem by a wall that is 30 feet tall with multiple watch and sniper towers? You probably don’t know, since you didn’t visit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, where Palestinian Christians are emigrating in record numbers since the building of the wall and the impact on the local economy.

Then, I remembered what it was that you stood for and that caused me to become a supporter. I listened when you discussed hope and opportunity in the US. Speaking of race you said: “”the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding.”

I wonder if you also can apply this statement to your policy in Palestine. I didn’t speak up during the election, because I believe you ARE the best choice for America. Now, I ask whether you will stand for human rights and against discrimination?

This has nothing to do with so-called “shared values” with Israel. This isn’t about being pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. This is about being pro-justice for a better future in the Middle East. This is a way to address the base of many conflicts in the Middle East. This is to improve the moral standing of the US and to hold our “allies” accountable for their actions. It is about using our leverage to push an agenda of justice, peace, equality, and democracy.

Mr. President-elect, the day after your nomination, you chose Rahm Emanuel , an Israeli as your Chief of Staff known for his hawkish pro-Israeli politics. His father was involved in the Irgun, a Zionist terrorist organization that murdered British troops and Arab civilians in Israel. I wonder if you would have appointed an equally-qualified person who happened to be Muslim. And if that person’s father was involved in a bombing that killed 60 people, would it really not be an issue? The same father is quoted to have said to an Israeli newspaper (in an article with the headline: “Our man in the White House”): “”Obviously, he will influence the President to be pro-Israel. Why shouldn’t he do it? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floor of the White House.”

I am so proud of the United States for electing you as our President. I am proud to have voted for you. Now, I wait, along with millions in the US and around the world, to see if you will be different when it comes to Israel and Palestine. I genuinely hope you can hold Israel accountable for the more than 3 BILLION in aid we send every year. These are my tax dollars at work—lets make them work on bringing down walls and finding a lasting solution that allows for justice and freedom for Palestinians (which is not opposite to Israeli security). Lets improve our image and reputation in the Muslim and Arab world. Let’s not get muddled in President Bush’s “us vs. them,” and “axis of evil” bullshit.

Because we can change, extremists in the Muslim world can no longer use the argument that America wants to bring a new crusade. By voting for the son of a Muslim from Kenya, we have silenced the extremists. Now, lets do something fresh and positive to keep them silent forever. Let’s be the America of hope and justice.

* An open letter to Barack Obama by hammad hammad an American of Palestinian heritage.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Media | , , , | Leave a comment