Triumphant over flotilla, Netanyahu is stronger than ever

Posted: July 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

With no threat from his political rivals and no pressure from Washington, the Israeli PM is enjoying the best weeks of his career. Yet his rightwing politics are likely to bring a much bigger change than his supporters care to imagine

If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could have one wish, I guess it would be to conduct general elections tomorrow. Between the cheers of his obedient followers in Congress and his success in preventing the Gaza-bound flotilla from sailing to the Strip, the Israeli prime minister is enjoying the best weeks of his term, possibly of his entire career.

Unlike in the first two years of his term, Netanyahu finally seems in control. The Greek decision to prevent the flotilla from sailing has taken everyone by surprise, but as it turned out, the PM has been preparing the ground for some time.

Haaretz quoted yesterday  an Israeli diplomat saying that Netanyahu “Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the European Union.”  Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou returned the favor yesterday: As the American boat “Audacity of Hope” was about to leave the port of Athens, the authorities issued an order prohibiting all flotilla vessels from sailing. It is very unlikely that the Greeks would have dared stopping a Canadian or American ship without permission from their respective governments, so one could speculate that other administrations–and most notably, Washington—stood by Netanyahu’s side. For a politician often portrayed as hated and despised by world leaders, this is no small thing.

The Israeli morning papers are likely to praise the Prime Minister tomorrow. Netanyahu’s numbers are will go up again, and his coalition will become safer than ever before. Unlike in his first term, Netanyahu is now able to communicate his messages both to the center and to his base on the Israeli right. Politicians around Netanyahu recognize that. On Friday, dovish Likud minister Dan Meridor backed the PM in an interview to Maariv – and he is just one of the former rivals who now praise Netanyahu.

Kadima, the Knesset’s biggest party, failed so far to produce its own agenda, and its leader, Tzipi Livni, was revealed as a shallow politician. Besides repeating talking points regarding government policies, Livni did not make one substantial move that would challenge the government. Furthermore, the fight over Labor leadership has taken the predictable ugly turn, ensuring that the winner will get a fragmented and bitter party that would make his life miserable and suffer another blow at the elections.

Defense Minister Barak polls zero Knesset seats, which means he depends on Netanyahu for his political survival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waits the Attorney General’s decision regarding his corruption charges, and Shas’ Eli Yishay is too busy with the return of former party leader Aryeh Deri to cause the PM any trouble. As far as Netanyahu can see, the horizon is clear.

Netanyahu might be the strongest Israeli PM in the last two decades—stronger than Sharon and Rabin—despite not having their IDF record, charisma or leadership skills. He is for sure the best survivor: General elections are due to take place on autumn 2013, and by then, Netanyahu will be the longest serving Israeli PM since David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the Middle East has a strange way of turning your victories against you. Netanyahu has no vision, and his politics resemble troubleshooting. It’s no wonder that his goals are the subject of an endless guessing game.

It seems that ultimately, Netanyahu wishes to secure Israeli control over as much as possible of the West Bank, understanding that he won’t be able to control it all forever. If that is the case, his policies are likely to backfire: It was Netanyahu’s rejectionism that got the world’s attention to nature of the occupation; it’s his backing of the settlements that will ensure Israel is unable to force a quasi-state on the Palestinians (since there will be no room left for even this kinda of a state); it’s Netanyahu’s successful manipulation of the US Congress that proved the limits of the administration’s and the State Department’s ability to serve as an honest broker between Palestinians and Israelis and left Jews in the States torn apart and bitter; and it’s his coalition’s anti-democratic legislation that shows the need to an overhaul reform regarding the Jewish character of the Israeli state.

In short, The Prime Minister is winning every battle on his way to lose the entire war. As long as his poll numbers are high and his republican backers are happy, I guess he would be the last to care.

One final note: While everyone’s eyes were on the Greek ports, the people of Bil’in celebrated the removal of the security barrier erected by Israeli on their land six years ago. Back then, the thought that a few hundred villagers will be able to defeat the Israeli military establishment seemed delusional; now everybody is talking about the challenge of a Palestinian unarmed revolt. There are undercurrents at play which are not always easy to detect, and this is a lesson Netanyahu and his shortsighted admirers would do well to remember.


Among tear gas and injuries, Bil’in celebrates victory

Posted: June 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Hundreds gathered in the West bank village to witness the removal of the Separation Wall after more than six years of protest, but the IDF was in vindictive mood

Protesters march from Bil'in to the wall, June 24 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

Protesters march from Bil'in to the wall, June 24 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills)

Bil’in, West Bank – It was a hot Friday in Bil’in – one of those early summer days here that remind you what to expect come August. The crowd at the village’s center was unusually large: The weekly march to the fence—a protest which made this village an international symbol of unarmed resistance—was to take the form of a celebration, after the Israeli army has began moving the infamous barrier that separated Bil’in’s people from their land.

Some context: Instead of having its separation wall on the Green Line—the internationally-recognized border until 1967—Israel decided to have it run deep into the Palestinian territory, cutting through villages and neighborhoods, separating farmers from their lands and families from their loved ones, and most important, annexing to Israel lands which had excellent market value, for their proximity to the Israeli cities along the Mediterranean coastline. Under the pretext of “security concerns,” communities like Bil’in, Nil’in and Budrus saw their fields being taken away, olive trees uprooted, and valuable land annexed to nearby settlements.

Palestinian residents of these villages made two important choices: To fight for their lands—the source of most of their livelihood–and in doing so, to use popular, unarmed resistance. It wasn’t something new for Palestinians–general strikes and mass protests were common in the years leading to the first Intifada–only that this time, the Palestinian farmers weren’t alone: Almost from the beginning of the protest against the security barrier they were joined by international and Israeli activists.

You can read about the role these activists played in the struggle, and the effect it had on the Israeli society in this piece Joseph Dana and I wrote for The Nation a few months ago.

Every week, and sometimes every day, Palestinians and activists would march to site of the planned wall, confront the army and try to reach the lost lands. Some tied themselves to the bulldozers, while others sat on the road in front of it for hours. In places where the work was completed, the protesters tried to make it to the wall or the fence, occasionally crossing or cutting it. They were met with beating, tear gas, arrests and even live bullets.

A young Palestinian is seen injured during a protest against the wall in Bilin, April 2004 (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

A young Palestinian is seen injured during a protest against the wall in Bilin, April 2004 (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills)

Around the time the protest began, the people of Bil’in filed a petition to the Israeli high court, demanding the barrier be removed and their land returned to them. It was not an easy decision on their part: Petitioning to court is seen as recognition of the Israeli occupation and the authority of its institutions over the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, who have no civil rights or representation in those institutions. But the need to get even some of the land back overcame this argument.

The Israeli Supreme Court is a relatively liberal institution, but at the same time, it is extremely hostile to Palestinians – contrary to its public image, the court rarely rules against settlements or the army, and in most cases it wouldn’t even hear Palestinian petitioners. This time, however, even the Israeli court couldn’t ignore the obvious attempt to rob Bil’in’s people of their property. In a landmark verdict against the army and the defense ministry, the court ruled that the land was taken from Bil’in not to increase security, but to make way for the nearby mega-settlement Modi’in Ilit. It ordered a new barrier to be constructed in a route that would have some of the land returned to the people of Bil’in.

The court didn’t order the removal of Modi’in Ilit settlement, or the return of the land already built upon. It never does.

What happened next was even more shameful: the army didn’t carry out the verdict. Months and years passed, and the barrier–part fence, part wall—wasn’t moved. Only after an escalation of the demonstrations and a threat of contempt of court on behalf of the defense establishment, did the work on the new barrier begin.

A few days ago, after more than six years of struggle, the removal of the old security barrier near Bil’in began. the new barrier, already seen in the hills surrounding the village, will be a concrete wall.

All these years, the protest in Bil’in continued. Every Friday, dozens of Bil’in residents marched in the direction of their lost lands. Occasionally, some kids hurled stones at the soldiers, but most of the time the protest was peaceful and creative. Yet it was met with brutal oppression: Hundreds of people were injured. Two – a brother and a sister – killed. Warning – graphic images]. Dozens of Palestinians, many of them minors, were arrested and held without trial for months in military prison. At nights, the army raided the village’s homes (as seen in the video above, one of many), searching for suspects in “incitement” offenses, i.e. organizing protest.

One of these organizers, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, was tried for one year in military prison. When he finished his term, rather than releasing him, the army simply kept Abu Rahmah in prison, and meanwhile appealed the sentence. While serving his time, Abdallah met in prison his cousin, Adeeb, who was also arrested, tried and imprisoned. 99.8 percent of Palestinians’ trials end in conviction. Watch this emotional outburst by Adeeb in front of the soldiers in one of the protests:

Both Adeeb and Abdallah remained men of peace. Like the rest of the people of Bil’in, they didn’t let their persecution change them. During the worse days of the struggle, they kept declaring that they are fighting the army and the occupation, not Israelis or Jews. When Jawaher Abu Rahma died from IDF tear gas, her family and friends invited the Israeli activists to her funeral.

Here are some things Abdallah Abu Rahmah wrote in a public letter from Ofer military prison. The entire text can be found here. It’s more than worth reading.

I have been accused of inciting violence: this charge is also puzzling. If the check points, closures, ongoing land theft, wall and settlements, night raids into our homes and violent oppression of our protests does not incite violence, what does?

Despite the occupations constant and intense incitement to violence in Bil’in, we have chosen another way. We have chosen to protest nonviolently together with Israeli and International supporters. We have chosen to carry a message of hope and real partnership between Palestinians and Israelis in the face of oppression and injustice.

.

Tear gas, shot by the army, inside a bulldozer driven by a Palestinian protester, during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Tear gas, shot by the army, inside a bulldozer driven by a Palestinian protester, during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Politicians love to co-op success, so Bil’in saw visits from Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad and Israeli Palestinian MK Muhamad Barakeh prior to yesterday’s festive protest. There were around 40 Israelis present, and many international activists. A few hundred Palestinians led the march. A pickup truck with large speakers played music. At the village’s edge, a bulldozer joined the convoy—the people of Bil’in wanted to take part in dismantling the fence that had become the symbol of their misfortunes, and their lack of freedom.

The army had other plans. When the bulldozer approached the old fence, dozens of tear gas canisters were shot simultaneously at the crowd. Live fire was used to stop the bulldozer. A teargas grenade penetrated the driver’s cockpit. He barely made it out alive out. The rest of the crowd—unarmed and not threatening anyone—was sprayed with “skunk,” a stinking liquid, one of the most humiliating and dehumanizing crowd control weapons there is (and naturally, an Israeli invention). A few brave Palestinians in storm suits were trying to collect samples of the awful liquid (to be analyzed later, I was told), before collapsing from the effect of the smell and the gas. It all happened so fast that many members of the media didn’t have time to put on their gas masks and started chocking themselves.

Standing a couple of hundred meters back, I couldn’t open my eyes and could feel my throat burn. I figure the army shot around 60 or 70 canisters at the protesters.

A protester, injured from tear gas, lies on the ground during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

A protester, injured from tear gas, lies on the ground during the weekly protest against the Israeli wall in the West Bank village of Bilin, June 24, 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

As we walked back to the village, everyone around me was coughing and choking. Yet the spirit was high. The unbelievable violence – aimed against unarmed people, for the defense of a fence that is already been taken down (the new barrier is up and ready for a long time now), showed how scared and confused the army is, how lost it is because of the immoral and self-destructive mission it carries out.

In the next few days, the army will continue to dismantle the fence it so vigorously protected yesterday.

The people of Bil’in might continue the weekly demonstration. Even with the removal of the old barrier and the construction of a new one, much of their land won’t be returned to them. The simple fact is that as long as the occupation goes on, the Palestinians have every right to resist it.

Israeli army begins to remove parts of the separation barrier, Bil'in, June 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)

Israeli army begins to remove parts of the separation barrier, Bil'in, June 2011 (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)

Whether they chose to do so, or prefer to heal their community from the long struggle – it’s up to them. But the victory of Bil’in’s people—however partial or limited it was—has taught us a valuable lesson: Israel will have to either give up the occupation or to considerably escalate its methods for maintaining it, at a growing cost. Either way, the occupation’s days are numbered.

A protester in Bil'in, October 2009 (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

A protester in Bil'in, October 2009 (Photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)


Legendary Shas leader returning to politics, vows to promote peace

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , | Comments Off

A game changer? Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri has announced his return to politics tonight.

Speaking at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, Deri said: “In the State of Israel, one can make no contribution without political power, and I therefore decided to establish a movement. I’m coming back and I wish to use political power for the sake of unity and public responsibility.”

Deri said he will form a new movement. He won’t be able to match Shas’ machine, but his personal appeal might win him many votes. The common wisdom is that Deri can get between 5 to 7-8 Knesset seats, depending on the political circumstances and on the identity of other candidates.

Deri was the all-powerful leader of Shas in the late eighties and early nineties. For many secular Jews, he personified the rise of a new Orthodox threat, so only few mourned his conviction on corruption charges. The imprisonment of Deri was used by Shas for its biggest ever electoral success – 17 Knesset seats – but ironically, while Deri sat in prison, it was his rival Eli Yishai which used this power to secure his place in Israeli politics.

Under Yishai, Shas turned from the centrist party which supported the Oslo accord to an extreme rightwing movement, hostile to the peace process and second only to Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu in its undemocratic initiatives.

Deri, on the other hand, maintained his good ties with Kadima MKs and leftwing parties. The same camp who once rejoiced at his downfall now envisions Deri as the new messiah that could make Sephardic Jews support the peace process.

Is it possible? Could Deri be the game changer that will bring a center-left coalition into power? I find it hard to believe, but a person who met Deri recently told me “he is very serious on the peace process.”

Deri clearly aimed to this public when he told Ynet that:

“I’m not coming from a place of vengeance or ambition,” Deri said. “In every poll out there I get seven or eight Knesset seats, despite jail and all the other things that happened to me.”

Turning his attention to the peace process, the former Shas chairman said: “My great fear is wars. I never voted in favor of a war or military operation.” He added that his return is motivated first and foremost by a desire to bring the public together, “so that if we go into a peace process we’ll be united.”

2011 is not 1992, and there is no major force in Israel that could offer the minimum the Palestinians would settle with – certainly not Livni’s Kadima. Still, it is Deri, not Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid or any of the Labor’s candidates, which presents the real challenge to the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Yishy coalition (unnamed sources in Shas have already attacked Deri). And this on its own is something to congratulate.


Defying new law, Tel Aviv University to host Nakba commemoration event

Posted: May 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Tel Aviv University will host a Nakba commemoration event next week that might be seen as a violation of the new Nakba Bill. The new law forbids public events “that mark the birth of Israel as a day of mourning;” its violation could lead to a withdrawal of funds from a state supported institution or organization.

All universities in Israel, including TAU, are supported by the state.

According to the event’s Facebook page, the keynote speaker will be Palestinian MK from Hadash party, Mohammad Barakeh. He will be followed by Emil Habibi’s play “The Opsimist“, performed by Israeli-Palestinian actor Mohamad Bachri.

The Nakba event will take place on May 23. It is organized by Hadash students at TAU.

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Read more commentary, News, Images and videos on the Nakba Day’s events from +972 here.


Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba

Posted: May 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

A personal journey

The ruins of Lifta, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem (photo: Ester Inbar)

The ruins of Lifta, a Palestinian village near Jerusalem (photo: Ester Inbar)

A childhood memory: A group of kids and their teacher on a school trip. They are walking through excavations, listening to explanations from a tour guide about their ancestors who lived there two thousand years ago. After a while, one of the kids points to some ruins between the trees. “Are these ancient homes as well?” he asks.

“These are not important,” comes the answer.

Growing up in the seventies and the eighties you couldn’t miss those small houses scattered near fields, between towns and Kibbuzim and in national parks. Most of them were made of stone, with arches and long, tall windows. In other places they had cement walls. Sometimes all you could see was part of a stone fence, a couple of walls with no roof, or the rows of Indian fig that Palestinians used to mark the border of an agricultural field (it is one of history’s ironies that the Hebrew name of their fruit – the Sabra – became the nickname for an Israeli-born Jew).

Those pieces of the local landscape are gradually disappearing – partly due to the “development” trends which have left very few corners of this country untouched, but also due to a policy that is meant to erase any memory of the people who used to live in this land. But one can still find them sometimes, and in the most unexpected of places –the mosque, which stands between the hotels and expensive apartment towers on Tel Aviv’s beach, or a few homes behind Herzlia’s monstrous Cinema City complex.

As a kid, I never gave those ruins much thought. I loved history – but the history they taught us at school. I could probably have lead a tour of Massada at the age of 12, and one of my favorite books told the tragic story of the last convoy to Gush Ezion in ‘48, before it fell into Jordanian hands.

Once, also during elementary school, our class was supposed to go on a tour of Canada Park, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We had been there before – they told us of the crusaders who passed through the area and the caves and homes Jews lived in, and I still remember the explanation on the ways they used to make wine—but this time my mother didn’t want me to go. The park, she told me, stood on the site of the last two Palestinian villages that were destroyed by Israel. Not many remember this story – it happened right after the war in 1967. Imwas and Yallu were demolished under a direct order by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. The Hebrew Wikipedia entry states that unlike in ’48, the Palestinian residents were later compensated, but they weren’t allowed to return to their village.

I don’t remember if I ended up going on this trip or not.

Palestinian Nakba village Dana (Baysan), 2010 (photo: Noga Kadman / Zochrot.org)

Palestinian Nakba village Dana (Baysan), 2010 (photo: Noga Kadman / Zochrot.org)

I never heard the word Nakba before the nineties. It was simply not present in the Israeli language, or in the popular culture. Naturally, we knew that some Arabs left Israel in 1948, but it was all very vague. While we were asked to cite numbers and dates of the Jewish waves of immigration to Israel, details on the Palestinian parts of the story were sketchy: How many Palestinians left Israel? What were the circumstances under which they left? Why didn’t they return after the war? All these questions were irrelevant, having almost nothing to do with our history—that’s what we were made to think.

Occasionally, we were told that the Arabs had left under their own will, and it seemed that they chose not to come back, at least in the beginning. Years later, I was shocked to read that most of the notorious “infiltrates” from the early fifties were actually people trying to come back to their homes, even crossing the border to collect the crops from their fields at tremendous risk to their life – as IDF units didn’t hesitate to open fire.

We were made to think they were terrorists…

It’s hard to explain the mechanism which makes some parts of history “important” or some elements of the landscape “interesting.” I can only say that looking back, I understand how selective the knowledge we received was. But there is more to this. I think we all chose not to think about those issues. Even after the New Historians of the nineties made the term Nakba a part of modern Hebrew and proved that in many cases, Israel expelled Palestinians from territories it conquered in ’48, we were engaged in the wrong kind of questions, such as the debate on whether more Palestinian were expelled or fled. The important thing is that they weren’t allowed to come back, and that they had their property and land seized by Israel immediately after the war (as some Jews had by Jordan and Syria, but not in substantial numbers). Leaving a place doesn’t make someone a refugee. It’s forbidding him or her from coming back that does it.

A Palestinian man and a girl in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via Wikimedia, license CC)

A Palestinian man and a girl in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via Wikimedia, license CC)

For a short while in 2004-2005 I was writing book reviews for Maariv’s internet site, and for several other magazines. I don’t think that I was very good at that, and I still regret a couple of very critical reviews I wrote (I’ve since decided not to review fiction anymore). But I got to read some interesting books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

One of these books was “Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine” by Raja Shehadeh, which was translated to Hebrew by the big publishing house Yedioth Sfarim (despite the best efforts by both sides, the hatred and the war, ‏Israeli and Palestinian cultures are still linked to each other in so many ways). Shehadeh was born in Ramallah, the son of an affluent family from Jaffa who left town “for a couple of weeks” during the war and could never come back.

For years, his father would stand in the evenings on the hills of Ramallah and look west, at the aura of his beloved Jaffa.

In 1967, right after the war, an Israeli friend came to visit the Shehadeh family, and the father immediately asked him to visit Jaffa (Palestinians were allowed to travel freely in Israel until 1993). Only when they got there, did Raja’s father understand that his Jaffa was dead. All those years, he was looking at the lights coming out of Tel Aviv.

Maybe it’s because I live in Tel Aviv that this story had such an effect on me. I couldn’t get the picture of the family standing on Ramallah’s hills, looking into the darkness, out of my mind. I thought on the book’s title: who are the “strangers” mentioned there? Is it us, who, in our despair, invaded the Palestinian home, or is it the Palestinians, who found themselves displaced and lost, refugees in their own land?

(The false claim that Palestinians are strangers to this land and only got here because of the Jewish immigration is still pretty common with Israelis. Shehadeh meant it in an entirely different way).

Another Palestinian book I was asked to review was Muhammad al-As’ad’s “Children of Dew” (to the best of my knowledge, this one was never translated to English). The book is not really a memoir, but more of an attempt to reconstruct a picture of the author’s childhood in the village near Haifa out of his fragmented recollections, the stories of his mother and the legends of the village’s people. At the heart of the story is a long convoy of refugees, walking at night east, away from the advancing Jewish army – one of the most poetic and saddest description I’ve read, not because of the horror, but for the desperate attempt to understand what happened, how, and why.

Palestinian refugees in 1948 (photo: wikimedia, Israeli copyrights expired)

Palestinian refugees in 1948 (photo: wikimedia, Israeli copyrights expired)

I remembered Muhammad al-As’ad and Raja Shehadeh when last year I interviewed the Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, for a piece I did on prominent right-wing figures that were toying with the idea of a one state solution to the conflict. Rivlin, a Likud hawk, grew up in Jerusalem, which was a fairly mixed town before 1948, and certainly more than today. He understood Arabic and had Palestinian acquaintances.

At one point, the conversation reached the idea—popular with mainstream Israeli pundits—that it will be impossible to reach an agreement with the current Arab leadership, which still had many refugees (including Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed). According to this line of thinking, we should look for interim agreements because the next generation, who weren’t displaced themselves, might be more pragmatic.

“Nonsense!” Speaker Rivlin said. “Typical lefty patronizing… the left has always looked down on the Palestinians… [the Jews] remembered our land for 2,000 years, and now you want to tell me that the Palestinians will forget it in ten, twenty years?

“Believe me, they will remember.”

Rivlin does not advocate the right of return for Palestinians and one could also have doubts on the particular joint state he envisions for Jews and Arabs, but at the bottom of his thinking there is a very deep truth: The Jewish people are a living proof that a “refugee problem” won’t disappear for generations, even hundreds and thousands of years, and therefore can’t be ignored.

A Palestinian man watches a school in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via wikimedia. license CC)

A Palestinian man watches a school in a refugee camp, 1948 (photo via wikimedia. license CC)

The Israeli reaction to the mentioning of the Nakba is composed of several elements, each one of them contradicting the other. Some say that there was no Nakba. Then there is the line that suggests that people left on their own will. And if they didn’t – they deserve it, because the Arabs opposed the 1947 partition plan and declared war on the Jews. Finally, there are those who admit that Israel initiated mass deportation and prevented the refugees from coming back—they are even ready to recognize their tragedy, but they simply say that ethnic cleansings are part of the birth of almost every nation. That this is the way of the world – and the Palestinians should simply accept it. Ironically, the latter is the position of Benny Morris, the most well- known of the Israeli New Historian and the person who almost single-handedly proved the claims of forced deportations by the IDF in 1948.

This kind of political argument has recently started to lead to policy decisions, the most prominent of them being the Nakba Law. The original intention of the bill was to completely criminalize any mentioning of the Nakba (with a punishment of up to three years in prison for mentioning it), but this was too anti-democratic even for the current Knesset. The law that did pass forbids government-supported institutions from publicly commemorating the Nakba. The bill is very vague, and theoretically, it could be used to withdraw funds from a university who plans a debate on the Palestinian disaster. More likely though is that it will be implemented against Arab municipalities and institutions who attempt to hold memorial days or ceremonies for the Nakba. It is important to remember not only that some 20 percent of Israelis are Palestinians, but that many of them are refugees – the often-forgotten “internal refugees” who lost their homes and property but found themselves inside Israel at the end of the war.

Speakers for Israel abroad also take part in the Nakba-denial campaign, the latest example being the attempt by trustees of New York City University to refuse an honorary degree from playwright Tony Kushner because he associated the term ethnic cleansing with the birth of Israel. And a few months ago, the Palestine Papers revealed that the US State Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice asked the Palestinian delegation to the peace negotiations to forgo some of their claims regarding the refugees because “bad things happen to people all the time.”

Apart from being so insensitive on a basic human level, such actions—from the Knesset’s Nakba Law to the decision by CUNY’s trustees—ignore one important thing: that the Nakba is part of Israeli and Jewish history.

We have declared a war on our own past.

Memorial sign at the site of Wounded Knee Massacre, South Dakota (photo: Noam Sheizaf)

Memorial sign at the site of Wounded Knee Massacre, South Dakota (photo: Noam Sheizaf)

In 2008 I traveled to the US to cover the Democratic and Republican national conventions ahead of the American presidential elections. I love driving, so I decided not to fly from St. Paul to Denver but to rent a car instead. I decided to pass through every national site I could find on the way, from Mt. Rushmore to Clear Lake, Iowa, the place where the music died.

Among the places I planned on seeing was Wounded Knee, in the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Wounded Knee Massacre marked the end of the Native American resistance to the colonization of their land. I remembered reading about it somewhere, and when I saw on the map that the site has been designated a National Historic Landmark, I figured it must be worth a visit.

The problem was that I couldn’t find the place. I passed through the same spot a couple of times, but saw none of the things you would normally see in a national historical site in America. No flags, no museum, no book shop—not even a restaurant. Yet I was positive that I was in the right spot.

On my third attempt I spotted an old metal sign at the side of the road, and on a nearby hill, a tiny graveyard. A sign pointed to the sweet corn stand nearby, but there was nobody there and the window was closed. It was high tourist season.

The entire site was so deserted and sad you could almost feel the ghosts of the dead Lakota people there. Again, it was impossible not to think of the deserted ruins of the Palestinian villages scattered around my country. The American history is probably bloodier than the Israeli, and yes, bad things happen to people everywhere – but is this a reason to forget them? Doesn’t the Palestinian village of Sumail, less than a mile from Rabin square, right at the heart of Tel Aviv, deserve even a memorial site? The last few homes of Sumail are still there, right on one of the busiest junctions of Tel Aviv, but they are about to be destroyed soon, making way for new towers, and a new generation of Israeli kids will be taught in school that the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv was built on empty sand dunes.

The old cemetary at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (photo: Noam Sheizaf)

The old cemetary at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (photo: Noam Sheizaf)

Speaker Rivlin is right: The Palestinians won’t forget the Nakba. In many ways, it seems that with each year, the memory is just getting stronger. Meanwhile, all the attempts to forbid any mentioning of the Nakba are hurting Israel’s ability to understand our own history, and not just the parts of it that have to do with the Palestinians.

I was discussing these issues recently with a friend who has a passion for military history. Whenever he can, this friend goes to visit old battle sites looking for old bullets, coins and other modern relics. As part of his hobby, he’s gained a very thorough knowledge of the Nakba, and with time it has beome an obsession on its own for him. Still, he is what Israelis would call a moderate on the political spectrum. The only reason he is looking for these ruins, he tells me, is in order to know our own past. Naturally, he is furious with the Nakba Bill or the recent Anti-Nakba booklet a rightwing Israeli NGO has published.

Yesterday, I got an excited e-mail from this friend. This week he watched Charlie and Half, the Israeli cult comedy from the seventies which is always aired by one of the TV channels on Independence Day.

“It’s actually one of the best documentations of the Palestinians village Sheikh Munis,” he tells me. Charlie and Half, which tells the story of a Sephardic “wise guy,” was shot in Sheikh Munis, which became after 48′ one of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods, populated with Jews from Arab countries. Most of it is gone by now, destroyed to make way for luxury apartments and the new buildings of Tel Aviv University, but back in 1973, the year the film was produced, the original Palestinian houses and streets were very much present.

Watch, for example, the third minute of the film:

The way in which Jews from Arab countries were sent to live in Palestinian homes, only to be evacuated and literally thrown to the streets decades later as the value of the lands soared, is one of the Nakba’s interesting side stories. It’s also further evidence to the fact that forgetting the Nakba actually means not understanding our own history, not understanding ourselves.

Palestinian Nakba village Sumail, at the heart of Tel Aviv (photo: Deborah Bright / Zochrot.org)

Palestinian Nakba village Sumail, at the heart of Tel Aviv (photo: Deborah Bright / Zochrot.org)

It’s not just our sense of guilt for the Nakba that keeps haunting Israelis. In his introduction to Muhammad al-As’ad’s “Children of Dew”, the Israeli editor of the book, Yossef Algazi, who came to know al-As’ad in person, calls the author “A Wandering Jew of our time.” Meeting descendants of Palestinian refugees in the last few years, I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities between Jewish and Palestinian fates, and the sense of displacement the two people share. I think that our real problem with the Palestinians has to do with the feeling that we need to ignore their story in order to hold on to our identity as Israelis – when in fact, we would never feel “at home” without facing the wounds of the past.

“At the end of every sentence you say in Hebrew sits an Arab with a Nargilah (hookah) / even if it starts in Siberia or in Hollywood with Hava Nagila,” wrote the Israeli poet Meir Ariel in his song “Shir Keev” (“Song of Pain”). I think it’s the best political line written in Hebrew. It tells us that whatever we do, regardless of the political solution we chose to advocate or how powerful we might feel, our fate here will always be linked to the Palestinians’.

Denying the Nakba—forgetting our role in it and ignoring its political implications—is denying our own identity.


Knesset polls: The Israeli Right has the upper hand

Posted: May 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Financial paper Globes: Avigdor Lieberman’s party getting stronger; reaches 18 Knesset seats

Though we are still far from elections, two polls were published last week in the Israel media. According to both, if elections were held today, the Right-Orthodox block would have remained in power, possibly even getting stronger.

In Globes‘ poll from Sunday, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Israel Beitenu, goes up to 18 seats of the Knesset’s 120 (it has 14 currently) and the Likud reaches 29 seats (27 now). Kadima would have dropped from 28 to 26 seats and Labor to 8. Labor has won 13 seats in the last elections, but since split to two parties – Atzmaut, under Ehud Barak (5 seats) and Labor (8 seats). According to all recent polls Atzmaut, Barak’s new party, will be left out of the next Knesset.

Altogether, the right rises to 72 seats, while the center-left block drops to 48.

Yedioth Ahronoth’s poll, which was published last Friday, checked what would be the result for Labor under several potential leaders (following Barak’s departure, Labor will soon conduct new premieres). Amram Mitzna, who announced his candidacy this week, has the best result – 17 seats – but even together with Kadima’s 25 seats in this poll, the rightwing and Orthodox parties hold a majority of 62 seats. When Labor is under other leaders the Right is even stronger. Avigdor Lieberman polls 16 seats.

According to the same poll, a majority of the public (48 against 41) thinks that Israel should recognize an independent Palestinian state, while keeping the so-called “settlements blocks”; and a clear majority (53 percent) believes that Netanyahu should present his own peace plan in his visit to Washington this month, and include in it “significant concessions”.

Yedioth’s poll was conducted before the Palestinian reconciliation was announced, so these figures could have changed significantly since. Yet one could still draw two conclusions, which are at odd with the messages coming out of the PM’s office: First, Netanyahu’s coalition is stable, and if he calls new elections, he is likely to win them; second, the PM has a mandate from the public to make concessions – and it is his own choice not to do so.


The emergence of the new Israeli Left

Posted: March 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Left | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Joseph Dana and I have a cover story for The Nation this week on the Israeli activists who takes part in the unarmed protest in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We discuss the history of the joint struggle, its political significance and the challenges lying ahead.

Though we say it in the text several times, it’s important to remember that this is a Palestinian struggle, and the Israelis who take part in it are neither its leaders nor its leading strategists. Jonathan Pollak, whom we interviewed just before he started serving his prison sentence, made sure we understand that:

“The participation of Israelis in demonstrations, unfortunately, does make a difference,” says Jonathan Pollak, one of the first activists to take part in the demonstrations and now media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a Palestinian umbrella organization of local. “It makes a difference because of the racist nature of our situation. Open-fire regulations, for instance, are a lot more stringent, officially, when Israelis are present. It is, however, important to remember that we are not much more than a side note in the movement, and that it is the Palestinians who are at its center.

“People are often fascinated by the fact that a handful of Israelis cross the lines this way. But currently this is what we really are, a handful, and the real question, in my opinion, is, How come only so few do so? The sad answer is that most Israelis simply don’t care; to most Israelis, Palestinians simply don’t really exist.”

Still, I think that even those handful of activists, as Jonathan rightly refers to them, are important. The Israeli left is going through an ideological and generational revolution. The older generation – you can call it the Peace Now generation – is in decline, and new forces, ideas and tactics are emerging. In a very generalizing way, one could say that the new left is less committed to the Two-States Solution, more critical of Zionism and believes in direct action and cooperation with Palestinians and international activists. The new left is not represented in the Knesset; it mobilizes support through social networks and has reasonably good connections to human rights groups and none-governmental organizations.

The formative years of the older generation were the seventies. Back then, only few would dare discuss the idea of a Palestinian state or a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The big peace rallies came a decade later, with the Lebanon war and the Intifada, and leading activists from those days entered the Knesset in the nineties. The greatest political achievement of this generation was Oslo; that was also the beginning of its decline. In the next decade or two, the same process could happen with the new left.

It is interesting to hear what Avrum Burg, an old Peace Now activist and former Knesset speaker, has to say on those issues (that’s from the article at The Nation as well):

“In fact, the Israeli left never recovered from Rabin’s assassination (…) Later, Ehud Barak came and presented his personal failure in Camp David [in 2000] as the failure of the entire way. When the head of the peace camp declared that there was no partner on the other side, it opened the door for unilateralism (…) There was something unilateral in Zionism from the start, but it became the only way after Camp David… We built the fence unilaterally, and we left Gaza unilaterally. Barak brought us back to the days of Golda Meir, who denied there is such a thing as a Palestinian people.”

[…]

“The meaning of Zionism in Israel today is to be Jewish and not Arab,” says former Speaker Burg, who attends the protest in Sheikh Jarrah regularly… In that context, the left cannot go on calling itself Zionist. We should ask ourselves whether Zionist humanism isn’t a contradiction in terms these days. We should go beyond ethnic democracy and toward a real joint society, in which Jews and Arabs are really equal.”

I believe that the activists of Bi’lin and Sheikh Jarrah, isolated and marginal as they look today, would set the political tone for the Jewish left in the years and decades to come. In 15-20 years, we might even find some of them in Parliament.


Netanyahu gets back at Lieberman, NGO probe dies in Knesset

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The Knesset delivered some good news yesterday: The decision to form an investigative committee that would look into the work of leftwing NGOs has lost momentum and is likely not to be implemented. It seems that the second vote, necessary to confirm the probe, won’t even take place.

The NGO’s investigative committee won a clear majority a few weeks ago, when it was brought for the first of two votes. So what made Knesset members change their mind?

First, there was a backlash against the Knesset members from the left who failed to oppose the original bill (most of them simply didn’t show up for the vote). Then came  the biggest leftwing protest in years, which took place in Tel Aviv. The unusual turnout, organizers claimed, was largely due to the coming probe.

Around the same time, Kadima, still the biggest party in the Knesset, recognized an opportunity to embarrass Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni noticed the mounting opposition to the probe, and decided that all Kadima members would oppose it, thus making sure the second vote in the Knesset would be a close one.

The final vote was intended to take place next Monday. In order to win it, the entire coalition had to be mobilized. That included PM Netanyahu himself, who would have preferred not to be seen raising his hand in support of such a controversial measure. On top of this, four senior Likud members – Miki Eithan, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – made it clear that they would oppose the bill.

Now the vote was expected to be extremely close, probably falling one way or the other on a single vote. Suddenly, the pressure was on the coalition. Few more Likud members feared they were going to fail on both fronts: they would have their name on the list of supporters for the probe (something they weren’t too thrilled about), and still lose the vote.

Yesterday, Netanyahu surrendered, and freed all Likud members to vote as they wish. The move all but eliminated the chances to secure a Knesset majority, and Avigdor Lieberman – whose party came up with the idea of the probe – decided to postpone the vote in order to avoid an embarrassing loss at the Knesset.

—————————–

The background to these events is the growing rivalry between PM Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister. A few days ago, Lieberman humiliated Netanyahu (and not for the first time) by vetoing the appointment of his security adviser Uzi Arad as the ambassador in London. Some people think that letting the NGO prove die was Netanyahu’s way of getting back at Lieberman, by depriving him of a major political achievement. This move, however, might cause more voters from the right flank of the Likud to turn to Israeli Beiteinu.

The real winner of the day was Tzipi Livni. Kadima bet on opposition to the probe – and won the battle. After all the challenges to her leadership, it seems that Livni took control over her party, at least for the time being.

As for Netanyahu, just a month ago, after the split at Labor, it looked as if his seat was secured for the rest of his term. Not anymore. Netanyahu is at the mercy of Lieberman, and it seems that the Foreign Minister is getting impatient with him by the day. The only thing holding Lieberman from calling new elections is the Attorney General’s coming decision whether to press charges against him, due to be given in the next few weeks. My guess is that Lieberman will wait to see to see whether he is forced to resign from the government and go to court, and only then decide on the fate of this coalition.


Novelist Ian McEwan plays for both teams in East Jerusalem

Posted: February 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Settlements | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

The British author visited the Sheikh Jarrah protest – but also intends to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature from the patron of the city’s settlers, mayor Nir Barkat

Authors Ian McEwan and David Grossman at the Sheikh Jarrah protest (photo: Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah)

Authors Ian McEwan and David Grossman at the Sheikh Jarrah protest (photo: Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah)

The celebrated British author Ian McEwan joined today the weekly protest in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families have been evacuated from their homes to make room for Jewish settlers.

Ironically, McEwan arrived to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature from the hands of the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat. Mayor Barkat is one of the driving forces behind recent attempts to expand Jewish settlements and housing projects into Palestinian East Jerusalem. Currently, he even refuses to carry out an Israeli court order demanding the immediate evacuation of a house in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, illegally built by rightwing settlers. Many grassroots activists blame Barkat for the rising tension between Jews and Arabs in the city.

Before flying to Israel, McEwan rejected calls from a group called British Writers in Support of Palestine to turn down the Jerusalem Prize. In his replay he wrote:

“There are ways in which art can have a longer reach than politics […] Your ‘line’ is not the only one. Courtesy obliges you to respect my decision, as I would yours to stay away.”

The protest in Sheikh Jarrah started a year and a half ago, following the evacuation of two Palestinian families from their homes. Since then, more eviction orders have been issued, and construction began for a new housing project for Jews at the site of the old Shepherds Hotel, also in Sheikh Jarrah. Solidarity Sheikh Jarrah, which leads the protest in the neighborhood, has recently organized demonstrations in other parts of the city where Palestinians are threatened by eviction orders and by new municipal plans, among them in Silwan.


Following the storm: Netanyahu is at the mercy of Lieberman

Posted: January 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ehud Barak has ended his days as an independent politician, the peace process is officially over, and the fate of Netanyahu’s government is now at the hands of Israel Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman. A few notes following the political earthquake at the Knesset

1. Ehud Barak. The former leader of Labor effectively joined the Likud today. He did register a new party called Atzmaut (Hebrew for “independence”) but nobody seriously thinks that Barak and the four backbenchers who left Labor with him would run on their own in the next elections. Barak is not a good campaigner, and even if he was, his public image is in an all-time low. Most pundits estimate that Barak already has a promise from Netnayhu to continue serving as Defense Minister if the Likud wins elections again. Whether or not it’s true, this is the end of the road for Ehud Barak as an independent politician; from now on, his political fate is at the hands of Netanyahu.

2. Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is seen by some as the day’s winner, but in fact, all he did was cut his losses. Netanyahu needed Labor in his government to balance its rightwing elements and most notably, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. Recently, the PM reached the conclusion that Labor won’t last in his coalition much longer, so he decided to keep a minimum of loyal supporters and not lose the entire party. Instead of the 13 seats Labor held (out of which 8-9 were loyal to the coalition), Netanyahu was left with five. Not enough to match Lieberman’s 15, but still, better than nothing.

Netanyahu will enjoy a more stable coalition now. Together with Barak and his 5 Knesset Members, he has 66 MKs behind him, and four more members of the radical rightwing Ihud Leumi party that could be made part of the government in case of political troubles. As long as Lieberman and his 15 votes are with him, Netanyahu is safe.

3. Avigdor Lieberman is now the strongest politician in Israel. He holds what was the traditional position of the Orthodox parties: The block between the coalition and the opposition. Lieberman knows that, and he will make Netanyahu’s life miserable. Eventually, he might even bring the government down in a maneuver that should have more Likud votes go his way in the next elections. Polls have him approaching 20 seats, but Lieberman wants more. The wild card is the General Prosecutor’s decision whether to press charges against Lieberman, expected to be given in a few weeks. Lieberman, it seems, has already launched his counter-attack, claiming in a weekend interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that he is the victim of political persecution. Even if Lieberman is forced to resign, the fate of the government would remain in his hands.

4. Labor might split again, with some members deserting to Meretz or forming a new political party. Anyway, Kadima will continue to be the strong center-left force in the Knesset, with one or two more parties to its left.

5. The peace process is dead. In case anyone had any doubts, the day’s events made it clear that from now on, this government won’t be able to take even the tiniest step towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has used his political credit: The slightest indication that he is willing to consider concessions, and the rightwing elements in his party would have the government fall. The PM has no room to maneuver.

To renew direct negotiations the Kadima-Left block would need to come closer to 60 seats in the next elections (it has 50 now). It could happen if international pressure on Israel continues, and if the Obama Administration reveals Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians. This type of pressure could be effective, much in the way the confrontation with George Bush’s administration hurt PM Yitzhak Shamir in 1992′s elections and paved the way to Oslo.