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Cooking the Books: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the China Lobby and Cold War...

by Jonathan Marshall1 As influential contributors to national policy, intelligence professionals inevitably face strong political and bureaucratic pressures to shape their assessments to fit official...

One-sided Human Rights Council Vote on Syria

One-Sided Human Rights Council Vote on Syria

by Stephen Lendman

On March 28, UN Human Rights Council members voted 32 - 4 to renew investigating war crimes in Syria for another year. Eleven members abstained.

Washington, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco initiated the resolution. 

Other HRC members were bullied for support. Washington and Western partners threatened refusers with consequences. 

Russia, China, Venezuela and Cuba voted no. So-called investigations are biased. They're one-sided. They largely blame Assad for insurgent crimes. They do so duplicitously.

UK ambassador Karen Piece said three resolution aims include:

  • continuing to investigating human rights abuses;

  • condemning violators; and

  • supporting efforts to hold culpable parties accountable.

Doing so is almost entirely one-way. Victims are blamed for insurgent crimes.

Pierce lied saying: "We believe that this resolution represents a measured response to the worst human rights situation that this council has ever faced."

She stopped short of explaining her government's culpability. It's directly involved in Obama's war on Syria. So are other rogue EU partners, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Gulf states and Jordan.

Commission of Inquiry for Syria chairman Paulo Pinheiro prepared spurious lists of people and groups he holds responsible for Syrian crimes. It includes:

  • Syrian intelligence branches and officials;

  • government detention facility officials;

  • Syrian military commanders;

  • airport officials from which attacks are planned and executed; and

  • leaders of armed groups.

Syria's HRC envoy Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui called its resolution biased against his government. It's wrongfully blamed for Western-supported death squad crimes.

Russia's Foreign Ministry denounced the resolution, saying:

"For instance, while enumerating the violations of human rights, the resolution does not make any mention of violence on the part of rebels that was described in (HRC's) report in detail…"

It includes "mass executions, abductions of women and children, sexual violence, the use of children soldiers, mortar shelling of densely populated areas, as well as the terrorist acts committed by the groups making up the Syrian Free Army and closely linked to the Islamic Front."

Western nations call some groups committing atrocities and other high crimes Syria's "moderate opposition," Russia's Foreign Ministry added.

They're cold-blooded killers. Washington and rogue partners support them. They plan arming them more heavily. 

They intend recruiting larger numbers of like-minded extremists. They plan stepped up efforts to oust Assad. They likely intend Libya 2.0.

Russia's Foreign Ministry expressed concern about refusing Moscow's suggestion to condemn terrorism in Syria.

"The Russian side has been actively working with a group of co-authors and proposed a number of amendments for a balanced text," it said. 

"Most of our proposals, however, were not taken into account."

“This is despite the fact that the agreed counter-terrorism clause is in Resolution 2139 of the UN Security Council," it added.

Duplicitous HRC members exceeded their mandate. They urged Syria to accelerate eliminating its chemical weapons.

They're being disposed of responsibly. "The UN Council on Human Rights is not authorized to interfere in the process, to dictate priorities and decide which provisions of the Geneva communique need special attention," Russia's Foreign Ministry stressed. 

Western-supported Syrian violence claimed tens of thousands of lives. Many more were injured. Mostly civilians are affected.

Death squad invaders target Assad loyalists. Dozens die daily. Obama's war on Syria entered its fourth year. He bears full responsibility for mass slaughter and destruction.

He's waging multiple direct and proxy wars. He's ravaging one country after another lawlessly. He wants multiple imperial trophies collected.

He targets anyone considered a state enemy for extrajudicial assassination. He governs by diktat. He's got more death and destruction in mind.

He's waging war on humanity. He's doing it at home and abroad. He exceeds the worst of his predecessors. 

He's the greatest menace of our time. He threatens world peace. He risks global war. He's surrounded by likeminded neocon extremists.

They deplore peace. They promote war. They want unchallenged global dominance. They're willing to destroy planet earth to own it.

Lunatics think this way. They operate this way. They do so extrajudicially. They ravage and destroy countries indiscriminately. They falsely claim humanitarian intervention.

They're destroying humanity to save it. They infest Washington. They target Americans like others abroad. They tolerate no opposition. 

Anything goes is policy. Business as usual persists. Powerful interests control things. They partner with likeminded extremists. No one is safe anywhere with them around.

A Final Comment 

Israel is a lawless rogue state. It's the Middle East's most ruthless regime. It wages wars on Lebanon and Palestine. It bombs Syria. 

It gets away with murder and other high crimes too grave to ignore. Justice is systematically denied.

Israel's High Court most often is rubber-stamp. On March 30, RT International headlined "Israeli Supreme Court to hear war crimes case against top officials - report."

RT cited Jonathan Cook's article titled "Israel to consider war crimes case," saying:

Palestinian Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel lawyer Marwan Dalal brought charges. He's an Israeli citizen. 

He's the only Palestinian jurist "to have served as a senior prosecutor in one of the international criminal courts at The Hague in the Netherlands."

On April 2, Israel's High Court for the first time will hear evidence of Israeli war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza.

A 52-page petition was submitted. It addressed three Israeli operations. They include:

  • its preemptive 2006 Lebanon war;

  • its Operation Cast Lead Gaza aggression (December 2008 - January 2009,) and 

  • murdering nine Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza humanitarian mission activists in May 2010 in cold blood.

Evidence against Israel is overwhelming. Culpability is indisputable. Systematic coverup whitewashed it. Independent reports were denounced. 

Israel remains unaccountable for high crimes too grave to ignore. It's high time things changed. Don't expect Israeli Supreme Court justices to do it.

It won't matter either way. Israel does what it wants whatever they rule. It ignored the World Court calling its Apartheid Wall illegal.

It ordered it dismantled. It mandated compensation for victims. Justice was systematically denied. Lawless Israeli settlements expand exponentially.

Besieged Gazans struggle daily to survive. They endure slow-motion genocide. They live in the world's largest open-air prison. Multiple daily Israeli incursions target West Bank Palestinian communities. 

Nonviolent civilians are ruthlessly persecuted. Praying to the wrong God is criminalized.

Soldiers shoot children for target practice. Fishermen are attacked at sea. Settlers freely commit vandalism. Once in a while murder. Israeli security forces do nothing to stop them.

High Court justices will hear "strong factual and legal findings," said Cook. They're from public sources.

They include official Israeli inquiries. They implicate high-ranking military and government officials.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, current Justice Minister/former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and perhaps current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are vulnerable.

So are two former IDF chiefs of staff, a former domestic intelligence chief, and a former defense minister.

Dalal plans arguing that Israeli police are legally required to investigate charges relating to possible war crimes.

Prosecutors must order them. "The evidence is in the public realm and obliges Israeli prosecutors to order investigations," he said. 

"The failure to do so is unreasonable conduct and the court must rectify the matter."

Indisputable war crimes were committed. Clear evidence proves them. Claiming otherwise doesn't wash. Getting High Court justices to agree is another matter entirely.

Most often they rubber-stamp official policy. A conservative majority makes it more likely. B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said:

"There has been no discussion in Israel of the responsibility of high-ranking officials for issuing apparently illegal orders such as using white phosphorus in built-up areas, the adoption of flexible open-fire regulations, and a policy of targeting certain population groups, such as males over a certain age."

Rogue states operate this way. Israel is one of the world's most ruthless. It's a democracy in name only. Jews get a sham version. 

Muslims are considered subhumans. Israeli Arabs are considered fifth columns threats. Palestinians have no rights whatever. 

Institutionalized racism is official policy. Equity, peace and justice are non-starters. Jews alone have rights. 

Israel's gulag alone attests to its barbarity. Thousands of Palestinian political prisoners languish inside. Horrific treatment occurs daily.

Proper food and medical care are denied. Brutal treatment is standard practice. International law is systematically violated. Israel remains unaccountable for high crimes. 

Don't expect High Court members to hold culpable officials accountable. Don't expect Israeli war criminals to be punished. 

Business as usual persists. Long denied justice remains a distant dream.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected] 

His new book is titled "Banker Occupation: Waging Financial War on Humanity."

http://www.claritypress.com/LendmanII.html

Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com. 

Listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network.

It airs three times weekly: live on Sundays at 1PM Central time plus two prerecorded archived programs. 


http://www.progressiveradionetwork.com/the-progressive-news-hour

Palestinians in Israel: Squaring the circle

An interview with Jonathan Cook

Five Books – 25 February 2014
Interviewed by: Bethan Staton

Outside of the Middle East, many people understand Palestine to mean the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinians as the people living in these areas. But Palestinians who remained in Israel after the creation of the state in 1948 – when some 700,000 were displaced in the Nakba or catastrophe – now make up around 20% of Israel’s population. Could you explain a bit more about this community, and why it has been overlooked?

The difficulty for Palestinians remaining in what becomes Israel after 1948 is that the Palestinian national movement develops in exile, in the occupied territories and the neighboring Arab states. Palestinians in Israel are excluded and shielded from these developments and left in what amounts to a political and social ghetto. Israel strictly circumscribes their understanding of who they are and anything to do with their history, heritage and culture. Israel controls the education system, for instance, and makes it effectively impossible to talk about Palestinian issues there: you can’t discuss what the PLO is or the nakba, for example. This is designed to erode a sense of Palestinian-ness.

For most of the Palestinian minority’s history inside Israel, there’s also a reliance on the Israeli media, which won’t allow discussion of Palestinian identity either. In the state’s early years, Israel does not even refer to Palestinians as Arabs; they are described as ‘the minorities’, purely in sectarian or tribal terms as Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouin. It’s an innovation later on that the state recognises them as generic “Arabs”.

Another thing to remember is that the urban, educated middle class is destroyed in 1948. The elites are almost completely expelled. Nazareth is the only city where an urban population survives in any significant numbers. What you are left with is a series of isolated rural peasant communities, and these are not likely to a be the vanguard of a Palestinian national movement. So after 1948 we are already looking at an isolated, severely weakened Palestinian community within Israel, and it is very easy to manipulate this community, to strip it of its identity.

But this system of control starts to break down, first with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967. That releases the ‘virus’, as some would see it, of Palestinian nationalism to the Palestinians inside Israel. They start to reconnect with people on the “other side” in places like Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. Families are reunited. Palestinians in Israel begin to realise how much they have been held back, oppressed.

The shift is only reinforced later with Israel’s loss of control over the media. When Arabic satellite television comes along, for example, the state is no longer able to control what its Palestinian citizens hear and see. And Palestinians are provided with an external window both on the ugliness of the occupation and their own situation, and on the centrality of the Palestinian cause to the rest of the Arab world.

So in more recent decades have we seen an increase in the kind of literature that deals with these identity issues? And a change in how these issues are considered?

The greatest problem facing Palestinians inside Israel is how to respond to their situation. They are cut off, isolated, excluded from the centres of power and even from the self-declared identity of a Jewish state. They’re an alien, unwelcome presence within that state. So the question is: how do you respond?

There are two main possibilities: through resistance, whether violent or non-violent, whether military, political, social or literary; or through some form of accommodation. And herein lies the tension. And this is what is especially interesting about the Palestinians in Israel, because to remain sane in this environment they have to adopt both strategies at the same time.

You see this politically in the Israeli Communist Party, the most established of the non-Zionist parties Palestinians vote for. The Communist movement is a Jewish-Arab one, so its Palestinian members are especially exposed to this tension. It is no surprise that some of the leading figures of Palestinian literature and art in Israel have been very prominent in the Communist party. Emile Habiby, for instance, was the editor of the Communist newspaper Al-Ittihad. The tension is obvious in the philosophy of the Communist party, which supports the idea of Jewish-Arab equality but within the framework of a Jewish state. This is a very unusual kind of communism: one that still thinks it’s possible to ascribe an ethnic identity to the state and yet aspire to the principle of equality within it. Palestinian Communists have been struggling with this paradox for a long time.

How successful is the attempt at reconciliation? Is there continued belief in, and support for, a Jewish state?

A central tenet of the Israeli Communist Party is “two states for two peoples”. So who are the “peoples” being referred to? One is the Palestinian people. But what is the other? Is it the Israeli people or the Jewish people? For Israeli Jews at least, it is clearly the Jewish people. In fact, within Israel there is no formally recognised Israeli nationality – only a Jewish nationality and an Arab nationality. The idea of “two states for two peoples” is vague, and it’s meant to be vague to keep Palestinians comfortable within the Israeli Communist Party. But the implication is that we are talking about two states, one for the Palestinians and one for the Jews.

The Communist Party stands for elections as the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash). The implication is that peace (a Jewish state) is reconcilable with equality. This is very problematic: the Palestinian intellectuals at the forefront of the party try to evade this contradiction. But you can’t really fudge it, you can’t square the circle.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Emile Habiby ends up writing the quintessential character in Israeli Palestinian literature: Saeed the Pessoptimist. This character represents the tension the minority lives: pessimism imbued with optimism. The Jewish state is the situation you’re trapped in, that’s pessimistic; the optimism looks to the equality you think you can aspire to, despite the reality. Saeed is always trying to square the circle. This very much becomes a theme of Palestinian literature in Israel.

Somebody like the poet Mahmoud Darwish, on the other hand, chooses a side. He does not try to keep a foot in both camps. Darwish says ‘I’m with the resistance’, and he leaves.

Sabri Jiryis also left Israel, after the publication of his book The Arabs in Israel, which is on your list. Could you tell us a bit more about the book, which could perhaps serve as an introduction to the background to this context?

That’s right. The book came out in English in 1976, but in Hebrew it was published in 1966. That is a very important date: it marks the end of the military government, the first 18 years when Israel imposes a system of military rule over its Palestinian citizens, separate from the democratic system that governs the Jewish majority. It is rather like the system of military rule that operates in the occupied territories today. When Jiryis was writing, of course, he didn’t know the military government was about to end, but he produces the definitive book on that period.

Jiryis is a lawyer writing a largely academic book, and it’s the first of its type to be written by a Palestinian inside Israel. Interestingly, like several other prominent Palestinian writers, he chooses to write in Hebrew – as do, for example, Anton Shammas and Sayed Kashua. In resorting to the language of your oppressor, you accommodate. Jiryis is resisting through content, but the language he employs is an accommodation.

He is writing at the close of the military government, and giving a victim’s view of it. It tells the Palestinian side but it is accessible to the Jewish population. So the work is highly subversive. It is also a counterpoint to Jewish academics who are writing books about Palestinians inside Israel in this period, people like Ori Stendal, who works with the intelligence services. The Israeli ‘experts’ studying the minority, and this is true to this day, are mainly working within the security paradigm, trying to understand the threat posed by the ‘Arab Israelis’ and refining the system of control. Jiryis is doing the exact opposite: he is trying to expose and shame the system.

Many of the Palestinians in Israel who write of the horrors of this period end up leaving. We see this, for example, with Fauzi el-Asmar, a Palestinian poet and a contemporary of Jiryis, who is forced out. His writings and activism are subversive, and so the state jails him. In his book To Be an Arab in Israel, he recalls his interrogators telling him ‘We will only make your life easy once you sign this piece of paper to say you’re leaving’. The task here is to get him out of the country, because the last thing Israel wants is people who are defining and shaping an identity for Palestinians within Israel. El-Asmar ends up leaving and becomes an American academic. Jiryis, too, leaves and goes to Lebanon and joins the PLO there. Those who stay but want to keep their integrity keep trying to square the circle: accommodating on one level, while resisting on another.

And I guess this process has the effect of shaping the landscape of Palestinian literature and identity within Israel – making it more accommodating?

More pessoptimist! Nazareth and Haifa are the only two places where a Palestinian middle class, an intellectual elite survived. They had to find some way to be true to themselves as intellectuals, but they also had to find a way to accommodate with the oppressor. And the ways they accomodate are interesting: their subversion is subtle, ironic, and so on. Kashua ends up living among Jews, speaking Hebrew with his kids, half in the Jewish camp and half in the Arab camp, ashamed and proud of his Arabness at the same time. This is the eternal problem of the pessoptimist.

One also has to understand where this comes from: choice. Early figures like Jiryis end up leaving. The process of writing his book seems to resolve in his own mind his status. He confronts the problem of his half-citizenship and rejects it.

So the Jiryis book you have chosen is this book, the book he wrote in Israel before he left. What precisely does he produce before leaving?

He is like a political scientist examining a Kafkaesque situation. He is analysing these absurd laws that look like they are the foundations of a democracy while they are really the walls of a prison. He is trying to explain the paradoxes in the law, and in the wider concept of a Jewish and democratic state. The abuses of the military government simply clarify things.

Take, for example, the Fallow Lands Law, an Ottoman law adopted by Israel that requires landowners to farm their land. If they leave the land untended for more than three years, it can be taken by the ruler and reassigned to those who need it. Under the Ottomans, it is a piece of almost-socialist legislation.

Israel, however, totally subverts the law’s intent. Now the military governor has each Palestinian land owner in his malevolent grip. In this period, no Palestinian resident can leave his or her community without a permit from the military government. So the farmer who needs to get to his land to tend it must either accommodate with the military government (i.e. become a collaborator) or resist and lose his land. In short, he has two awful choices.

As a lawyer, Jiryis is trying to understand how these laws work, how they cohere, how they create a system of control. And he’s really the first Palestinian to try and do that. Another writer, Fauzi el-Asmar embodies the emotional, poetic, artistic response to the situation, but Jiryis grasps the dynamics of it and breaks down the complexity. Really he is describing Israel’s version of Apartheid.

As you said, the book documents the period of military rule, which came to an end in the 1960s. How do you think a reader coming to the book should understand those details in relation to what has happened since, and what the situation is today?

This is one of the things I find interesting about Jiryis. The book is an act of resistance: he was trying to produce a road map that would allow Palestinians to understand the nature of their oppression, so they could be better equipped to fight it. If you don’t understand a problem you can’t fix it, and what Jiryis is trying to do is make the hidden and veiled visible: he’s taking apart the clock to see how all the mechanisms fit. When people understand the system, they can challenge it, try to remake it.

What may not be clear to him when he is writing is whether the system is reformable or needs overthrowing. In the end, Jiryis sides with the military resistance: he goes off and joins the PLO in exile. Although he’s not a fighter, he takes a side. He’s no longer a Palestinian Israeli: he’s simply a Palestinian.

At the same time, though, he’s rooted to the idea of steadfastness, or sumud – this is another feature of Palestinian literature. As soon as Oslo is signed, he returns. In fact, he is the first of the PLO exiles to apply and come back to Israel under the terms of the Oslo Accords. But when he returns, he chooses to live in Fassuta, his ancestral village way up in the north, next to Lebanon. The place is really out in the sticks. But this is where he wants to be: it is his home, his village, his land.

This is very much a response to the peculiarity of Israeli citizenship, which lacks a corresponding Israeli nationality. For most citizens their nationality is Jewish or Arab. That means for Palestinians there is no common nationality that connects them with the Jewish population. And unlike Jewish Israelis, those with Arab nationality have no national rights, only inferior individual rights. In other words, Palestinians in Israel have a very deprived form of citizenship, almost like a guest worker. That creates a very strong feeling of insecurity, impermanence, temporariness: the antithesis of sumud. So they root themselves to a place. Jiryis is a good example of this. I think it is incredible for a man who was such a central figure in the legal establishment of the PLO to come back to the anonymity of Fassuta the first chance he gets.

Perhaps that would be a good time to mention Sayed Kashua’s Let it be Morning?

Sayed Kashua is a great example of the pessoptimist, especially in terms of the way he writes and what he writes about. He has developed a semi-autobiographical character over many years in the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz. He also has the only sitcom on mainstream Israeli TV written by a Palestinian, in which the main character Amjad tries to square the circle: he aspires to live in a Jewish community, to live like a first-class citizen, while constantly fearing that the pretence on which he has constructed his life will be exposed and shattered. Fear of exposure and humiliation drives him. In other hands it would be tragedy, but because Kashua has a wicked sense of humour it is uproariously funny.

It is never quite clear how much Amjad or Kashua’s other characters are really him. He is always playing around with identities, and this is another interesting feature of Palestinian art inside Israel, especially cinema. When reality is so strange, a hybrid documentary style – fact merged with fiction – helps to capture the truth while also offering the protection of distance. Humour does the same. Good cinematic examples of this are films like Hany Abu Assad’s Ford Transit or Eli Suleiman’s Divine Intervention.

Palestinian identity in this context has to be very fluid. One weakness of Jewish academic studies of Palestinians in Israel is that they ascribe the population linear identities. One professor, Sami Smooha, is famous for identity surveys in which he tries to assess whether the minority is becoming ‘more Palestinian’ or ‘more Israeli’. That is really wrong-headed: for Palestinians in Israel there has to be a fluidity of identity to cope with these terribly complex legal, political, emotional situations. And that’s reflected in the character of the pessoptimist.

In Let it be Morning there’s definitely a sense of tension between what the narrator wishes to be the case, and the reality of what’s going on in his life. When he returns from Tel Aviv to the Arab village where he grew up it’s difficult to tell what reality is, and what is coloured by his needs and desires. And the sense of everything slipping out of control is very overwhelming.

Let It Be Morning is unusual for Kashua because it is a serious, nightmarish work – it is the pessoptimist at his very darkest. There is a reason for that: Kashua is writing in the early days of the second intifada when things reached a nadir for Palestinians in Israel. They were living in Israel, often under threat from suicide bombings just like Israeli Jews, but at the same time constantly under suspicion as terrorists themselves from the Jewish population. This is precisely the problem faced by the narrator, a journalist like Kashua working for a Hebrew newspaper and who feels increasingly alienated from his workplace and the Jewish city where he and his family live. He craves a sense of security and so decides to return to his Arab village, right next to the West Bank.

But the relocation offers him no real comfort. He has become too Jewish after a 10-year absence to fit back into the village, torn itself between lingering patriarchal Palestinian traditions and the faux-modernity and materialism its residents aspire to as “half-Israelis”. Their constant accommodations and dependence on their state, Israel, are simply vulgar reminders of the narrator’s own more sophisticated efforts at the same. So the narrator finds himself a “dancing Arab” – the title of his first, seemingly very autobiographical novel – trying to please everyone, and failing dismally.

Survival for Palestinians depends on creativity and adaptability, and a sense of communal cohesion. This is at the heart of the concept of sumud (or steadfastness). But the village is put to an extreme test in Kashua’s book when it is surrounded by tanks and its inhabitants find themselves cut off from the modern world, Israel, and from the old world, Palestine. This is a clear metaphor for the Palestinians inside Israel: they are cut off from both sides. Suddenly the villagers are isolated, and their society and sense of solidarity quickly break down. They stop being a community and become instead competing families, capable of cruelty and inhumanity.

Kashua is playing with a very familiar nightmare scenario for Palestinians inside Israel – the continuing fear of transfer, the threat of being expelled this time, of not holding on to what was kept in 1948. This is something I did not understand until I was living here. There really is a tangible fear that at any moment they and their families could be transferred, that the war of 1948 never finished. This is a large part of the incentive for accommodation: there is a huge sword hanging over your head. You could be expelled; if you put a foot wrong, you could be out the door; the trucks are waiting.

In the book, Kashua seems to communicate an unsureness about the extent to which he’s cooperating or collaborating. The mechanisms and institutions of society are always working towards strengthening themselves. Just by participating in society you are necessarily a part of that, contributing to it. I’ve spoken to many people about this sense, even in the West Bank.

The difference in the Occupied Territories is that for Palestinians there the Israelis are basically the Shin Bet, the army, the police and possibly the settlers – agents of the state. These people appear as unfamiliar, hostile beings. When Palestinians encounter them, it is clearly a master-slave relationship.

Inside Israel it is different. If you are a Palestinian taxi driver in Israel you spend all day speaking Hebrew to people in the back of your cab. You are constantly accommodating, performing as the Good Arab. For most Palestinian youth in Israel this experience arrives as a shock when they start a first job or go to university. They move from a familiar place where all the children around them are like them, speaking Arabic, and then suddenly they are in a world where they are seen as something alien. Often they face hostility, contempt, aggression, subtle or otherwise, from those they must spend time with.

So one thing you often see with Palestinians in Israel is a need to declare their separateness, to make a statement about their identity. That may not necessarily be as a Palestinian; it can be a sectarian identity. So, for example, you see many young Muslim women wearing the hijab, while Christian girls walk around with a cross around their neck. People don’t want to be caught in embarrassing or humiliating situations. It is a way to avoid the danger of being accepted and then rejected, revealed as the Other.

The next book on your list is Hatim Kanaaneh’s A Doctor in Galilee. I guess this gives a very human perspective on some very practical issues and material manifestations of the situation now and historically, obviously through the context of healthcare.

Hatim is a friend, and he sought my opinion on the book while he was drafting it. I find his story, again, illustrative of the problems we’ve been talking about. His family realises he has a talent and they make major sacrifices to send him to Harvard to get a medical degree. This is at the end of the military government, and a very difficult time for Palestinians inside Israel. They are a very isolated community, cut off from the world, barely connected to the transport infrastructure, living in a ghetto, and Hatim makes this incredible leap to go and train as a doctor at Harvard.

Hatim, I think, embodies the qualities of the pessoptimist, even if a very self aware one, one who understands early on that he is trying to square the circle. He has a set of impressive skills, ones denied to other Palestinians in Israel, and acquired because his family suffered to make this possible for him. It is both a huge burden and a considerable weapon. So he wants to put his new skills to good use, to the benefit of his society. The pessimist understands the disastrous circumstances of his community, but the optimist wants to believe his community – and the relationships between Jews and Arabs – can be improved.

He is not simply fixing broken bodies, he is trying to create an infrastructure of public health care for his community. He’s trying to create sewage systems and bring fresh water into the villages, to liberate the inhabitants from the prisons created for them by the state. Israel is a modern country, but it has left the Palestinian villages a hundred years behind. Kanaaneh comes with the tools of modernity to save these villages. The optimist wants to believe this can be done, and that once Israelis see what Palestinians are capable of they will warm to them, see them as human, as equals.

Hatim’s struggle is conducted through the Health Ministry, where he rises to the most senior position ever held by a Palestinian citizen. He assumes he is going to break down the stereotypes, that he will win over the Jews as friends, and that when they revise their opinion of him they will do the same with the rest of the Palestinian minority. He is a man with vision and optimism, but he is trapped in a world that demands pessimism. He starts to see himself more and more as an Uncle Tom and to lose faith in the Jewish colleagues around him. He identifies the racism as so entrenched that he doubts there is a way to circumvent it. He becomes deeply disillusioned. But despite all that he chooses sumud as his act of part-accomodation, part-resistance.

I think the sense of responsibility among people to give back to one’s community is quite common, but in this context the feeling of being ‘unwanted’ within a state structure, so to speak, adds an element of feeling the need to justify one’s own existence. And in the book everything seems pretty hopeless at points. You get a real sense of banging your head against a brick wall.

When Hatim finally quits the Health Ministry, he sets up the first real NGO for Palestinians inside Israel with an international perspective, the Galilee Society. This is an act of subversion. He is trying to bypass Israel and go directly to the international community, because he realises that otherwise no help will be forthcoming from his own state. But at the same time it is not a completely rejectionist stance: he also knows he must work with Jewish society. By reaching out to the international community, he hopes to shame Israel into action.

So the potential for the community to create alternative structures to serve itself is limited, and when it comes to things like infrastructure and healthcare, the state is very necessary. And this makes cooperating and working with the state necessary.

He is resisting by setting up the Galilee Society, but he is also doing it within the framework of accommodation. He’s got a foot in both camps because that is the only option for those who stay. Leaving is a defeat for sumud, for steadfastness. That is why Palestinians see the need to come back to the place where they started: that is the only thing that distinguishes them from other Palestinians, it is the only strength they have.

You’ve also selected So What by Taha Muhammad Ali. It’s a selection of his poetry from 1971-2005. How does this deal with ideas of longing and return?

Taha Muhammad Ali was an internal refugee, or a “present absentee”, this gloriously Orwellian term Israel assigns to those who after 1948 are still present in Israel but absent from their property. Safuriya, his village, which is right next to Nazareth, represents this tension acutely – of presence and absence. Many of the refugees, like Taha’s family, fled to Nazareth and set up their own neighborhood called Safafri that overlooks the old, destroyed village. So they wake up in the morning and open the curtains to look out on the land that they lived on before they were expelled in 1948. He is so present he is almost there, but at the same time he is always absent. This is not an untypical condition: one in four Palestinians in Israel are present absentees.

Here you have another way of looking at the pessoptimist: the present and the absent. The present person is the optimist, the absent person is the pessimist. Some of the best Palestinian poets, including Darwish, were internal refugees, always living with this tension in their being.

Poetry has a very important place in the Palestinians’ artistic pantheon, and it becomes particularly powerful as a vehicle for the Palestinians because it speaks to the whole Arab world. People set poems to music, so it was more than literature, it became part of a wider Arabic culture. It was a way to tell the Palestinian story, the Palestinian sense of loss to the whole Arab world; it was the best kind of newspaper you could have and at the same time gave a sense that the loss of the Palestinian homeland was also a loss for all Arabs, a loss of independence and a sense of self respect that they all shared.

Darwish, the most famous Palestinian poet, faces the tension and stays inside Israel for quite a while. But in the end he, like Jiryis, cannot live with it. Taha Muhammad Ali is a pessoptimist. He does not have the heart for pure resistance. He prefers to find the middle ground, some kind of accommodation.

And how is that expressed in the poetry?

Famously he said ‘There is no Israel and there is no Palestine’, which is something you could never imagine Darwish saying. In fact, invariably there is from Taha a rejection of posturing, self-importance and, above all, a deep disquiet at all-consuming hatred, however justified it might seem by circumstance. In one poem,’Twigs’, he focuses on the things he remembers – small things, details like the taste of bread and water. It ends with an assessment that at our death “hate will be / the first thing / to putrefy / within us”. But at the same happiness is never quite present either. One of his lines, used as the title of a great biography in English, is “My happiness bears no relation to happiness”.

There is also a poem, Revenge, where he talks about how he wants to kill the man who stole his family’s home in 1948, thereby “expelling me into a narrow country”. He says “if I were ready – / I would take my revenge!” So for a brief, deceptive moment it seems as though he has found an inner voice of resistance. But in true Taha style he then subverts it all. He recites all the reasons why he would not be able to kill him, such as if the man had loved ones, or friends or even casual acquaintances who might miss him. But even that is not enough of a concession. He also argues that he would leave the man be even if he had no one who cared for or loved him. “Instead I’d be content / to ignore him when I passed him by / on the street – as I / convinced myself / that paying him no attention / in itself was a kind of revenge.” So here is the pessoptimist; a man who starts with grand talk of resistance, but in the end despite himself recognises a need to accommodate, to live with others, to refuse to bow to their level.

Do you think it’s as if there’s a sense of humanity – both in the sense of practical needs and sympathy for others – getting in the way of taking any kind of action?

Taha died a couple of years ago, but there are videos of him on YouTube. You see when he talks, there is a wonderful boylike mischief in his face, a kind of perpetual smile even as he talks about very sad things, the losses endured by himself and his family, and his community. There is an eternal optimism in tiny things: he says “the best drink is water and the best food is bread”. The tiny things in life can give you a great deal of pleasure, and maybe you have to focus on the small things because the big things are too depressing, too overwhelming.

But the day to day is so important because it keeps people going, and it’s also what keeps people accommodating, in a sense.

Taha had four years of formal education because his whole schooling was brought to an end by the Nakba. In 1948 the present absentees lose everything – it is year zero. Taha and his brothers start to rebuild their lives in Nazareth, selling bread from a street trolley. Eventually he opens a souvenir shop next to the Basilica, selling trinkets to tourists, and probably regales them with his stories too. But most of the time there is nothing to do. You can see shop owners like him today, sitting there or dozing or listening to the radio. But you can imagine Taha reading loads of poetry, teaching himself because he understands that only through poetry can he reclaim his voice and reach out to people with his stories.

As a self-taught poet, he finds his own language. Unlike Darwish, he does not use classical Arabic, the heavy, serious Arabic. Instead he uses the street language. He talks to the ordinary man and woman. He does not want poetry to be this big, weighty thing. The subject for him is not the grand Palestinian drama, but the small, inconsequential things that have been lost or destroyed, the efforts to rebuild on the personal scale, to take pleasure in the tiny things that survive. He seeks the reasons for optimism, love and compassion over the urge for hatred and revenge. There is a bitterness too but it must never be allowed to trump what really matters.

Your final book choice is Sleeping on a Wire, by David Grossman.

I felt we should have one work from an Israeli Jew, because they have done so much to shape Palestinian identity inside Israel. There are some great books on Palestinians in Israel, as well as some truly awful ones. I see David Grossman’s book as interesting because it is really the first attempt to grapple with the Palestinian identity issue in Israel from a Jewish perspective. I do not think it is entirely successful, and I have a problem with his politics, but it is clear he is trying to do it honestly, that he is seeking to understand.

The problem is that he is a liberal Zionist, and there is a constant tension between his liberalism and his Zionism. So the liberal in Grossman wants to understand the trauma that befell the Palestinians in Israel, wants to reach out to them, wants to understand them. But at the same time the Zionist in him fears what their narrative represents. So what happens in each chapter, like a nervous tic, which I find fascinating, is Grossman immersing himself in their stories deeply, allowing them to speak unmediated, but then afterwards he can’t stop himself from interpreting for them, or judging them.

So what’s the structure of this, what form does this take in the book?

It is a very common liberal Zionist position: the need to have the last word, and to create the framework of the narrative. His book is subversive because he is an Israeli Jew giving Palestinians the chance to tell their story, to explain their situation in great depth. He’s very good about letting Palestinians speak clearly and honestly and transparently, you sense that he’s not manipulating the conversations and he’s not editing out stuff, he just wants to hear, he gives you it all. But the context for this act of generosity is a Zionist one. He and his subjects are in a Jewish state, and it has to be one as far as Grossman is concerned. So however much he sympathises with the Palestinians, and however much he understands, however much he feels their pain: sorry, but at the end of the day the Jewish State is more important.

I found the book very frustrating, because he has this great ability to tell his subjects’ stories, but then the narrator, himself, comes in at the end to tell us what we should make of what we have just heard. He cannot leave it to us to make up our own mind; he has to create for us a prism to see through.

This is an important point when we talk about the tension faced by Palestinian Israelis: that profound tensions exist for Israeli Jews too. It’s a hard thing to face, with honesty, the problematic realities of a state that one supports and is a part of. Perhaps this is a different kind of struggle, of individuals coming to terms with the structures of their own privilege, and trying to accommodate difficult truths into a particular vision.

And I think this is a general problem for Israeli Jews: that the narrative of Palestinians, including or maybe especially those inside Israel, is too overwhelming, too threatening, too disconcerting, too guilt-inducing to cope with. Which is why most Israeli Jews won’t really listen. What is interesting about Grossman is he has enough emotional strength to hear it, but then needs to package it up in a way that he and his readers can cope with.

So do you think the book is valuable as a document of the Palestinian story in Israel, or as an example of attitudes towards that, of Jewish Israeli considerations of the issue?

I think it’s useful as both. Grossman’s motive was probably to write something that, because it was written by an Israeli Jew, would be accessible to people who find it difficult to hear the Palestinian narrative. He hoped to bridge a kind of social divide and help heal wounds.

The book is also a fascinating historical document. One chapter is dedicated to the Islamic movement in its early years, a subject little written about apart from in Arabic. It’s very interesting to see how the Islamic movement saw its role in the early 1990s, caught in a certain moment, at the end of of the first Intifada and just before Oslo. Or the unrecognised villages and their struggle at that time to live in a twilight world of being present and absent in a different sense: on the ground but off the map. Visible to the eye but invisible to Israeli bureaucrats, at least in terms of public services.

Grossman was writing at a moment when Israeli Jews were very pessimistic. Soldiers had been told by their prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to break the bones of Palestinians in the occupied territories to crush the first intifada. It was a time when Israeli Jews were realising that there was serious and organised opposition to the occupation, that their supposed benevolent rule was rejected by Palestinians.

The question of who the Palestinians inside Israel were, and how they were connected to these events, becomes important. Grossman is trying to reach out to the Palestinians in Israel to find some common ground, in the hope of defining an Israeliness. Possibly there’s an element of the security mentality – ‘let’s understand the enemy’. But he is too intelligent and sensitive just to be doing that. He is genuinely trying to find out whether some kind of accommodation can be reached, to ask: are they going to move closer to us, or further away? Because from a Jewish Israeli perspective, the Palestinians inside Israel are seen as the Achilles’ heel of the Jewish state.

At the beginning you alluded to a relatively recent sense of changing and developing Palestinian identity in Israel, through literature, media and so on. How are these books, which explore that, being received? And are things changing in terms of their relationship in wider Israeli society?

It’s an interesting question. Where’s Israeli Jewish society heading? If you look at the Israeli Jewish books about Palestinians in Israel they date from certain periods. In the late 1970s there is a rash of books written as a result of Land Day, when Palestinians in Israel engaged in a major confrontation with the state to stop confiscations of their land. Six demonstrators are killed during the protests. It’s a crisis for both sides: the Palestinians realise their citizenship is not real citizenship; and Israeli Jews appreciate that their rule over this group is contested. The lens through which this is seen is chiefly then a security one. How do we control them better? More books emerge during the 1990s, the Oslo period, because the question then is: what kind of citizenship can a Jewish state concede to the Palestinian minority after a peace agreement? How is the state’s security to be defined? Nowadays it seems to me Israeli Jewish society is much less interested in understanding Palestinians inside Israel.

Why?

I think now they are seen as more of a threat, and the chief interest is how to separate from them, not how to live with them. They are seen as a demographic problem, framed in the language of security. The issue is about “us”: how to protect the Jewish majority. This is the material of policy papers, not books.

Aside from that do you think the issues facing Palestinians within Israel are becoming more important in terms of wider questions about Israel and Palestine, and the possibility of a final settlement?

It is becoming clearer to Israel that Palestinians inside Israel are a key fault line in the peace process. Netanyahu has made the Palestinians’ recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for an agreement. So in terms of the peace process, Palestinians inside Israel are now a – if not, the – core issue.

During 1948 Israel created a demographic structure – through mass expulsions, and through laws to ensure that only Jews could immigrate – to guarantee that the state was and would remain incontestably Jewish. Now in the current peace talks, what Israel wants from the Palestinian leadership is for them to sign up to this, saying, we’re fine with it. And this is supposed to close the 1948 file, which is still an open file for the Palestinians. And this is why I think Palestinians inside Israel are seen increasingly less as a community in themselves and more as another one of the final status issues. The Palestinians’ fight inside Israel for equality and democracy ultimately risks creating a right of return – because real equality requires that Palestinians have the same rights of naturalisation as Jews enjoy under the Law of Return. And then you would have refugees returning and Israel’s Jewish majority being eroded.

And this puts another layer onto what you mentioned about accommodation: that’s a very big question resting on the shoulders of Palestinians in Israel. Yet as I mentioned earlier, I have the sense the reality of Palestinians living within Israel is not really recognised widely. When outsiders are introduced to the reality for the first time, they tend to find it puts everything in a very new perspective.

And it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming for everybody. The reason Grossman is reframing all the time is because it is overwhelming. The reason Sabri Jiryis and Mahmoud Darwish leave is because it’s overwhelming. The reason Taha Muhammad Ali and Sayed Kashua adopt the pessoptimist worldview is because it’s overwhelming. The reason Hatim Kanaaneh digs in his roots as deep as he can is because it’s overwhelming. And for outsiders it is overwhelming too; the reality is more complex and more paradoxical and more entrenched and more irreconcilable than anyone could have imagined.

It’s not just a case of drawing a better border. It’s much more complicated than that. It’s redressing decades and decades of injustice, and in doing so maybe creating new injustices. Because so many Jewish immigrants came and settled here and gave up lives elsewhere. What happens to them? You can’t just create a new set of injustices. How do you reconcile these problems? How do you square all these circles?

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Palestinians in Israel: Trapped in the ghetto

Al-Jazeera – 31 January 2014

Salah Sawaid remembers when this huddle of shacks was surrounded by open fields. Today, his views from the grassy uplands of the central Galilee are blocked on all sides by luxury apartments – a new neighbourhood of the ever-expanding city of Karmiel, here in northern Israel.

“We are being choked to death,” said Sawaid, Ramya’s village leader. “They are building on top of us as though we don’t exist. Are we invisible to them?”

His fears for the future have grown rapidly in the past few months, after a court ruled that the Bedouin village must be bulldozed to make way for Karmiel’s further expansion. The decision, the culmination of what Sawaid called “betrayals” by successive Israeli governments, ended a decades-old legal battle by the villagers to remain on their land.

Salim Wakim, the lawyer who represents the 45 families of Ramya, said the only avenue left was “popular struggle”.

Yoav Bar, an activist from the nearby city of Haifa, is among a small group of Jews who have supported the families. “The apartheid here could not be more apparent. You look at Ramya and the homes in Karmiel and you see how democratic Israel really is if you are not Jewish.

“Ramya is living under a siege, little different from the one against Gaza. It is designed to force them to leave.”

Divided neighbours

The contrast between the lives of the 180 inhabitants of Ramya and their neighbours in Karmiel is stark indeed.

Although the modern apartment buildings are now only metres away, the people of Ramya are living in a different era. They are denied connection to the electricity and water grids and other public services. Generators provide power for a few hours a day, and makeshift, above-ground pipes channel in a trickle of water.

Their 45 homes, classified as illegal by the Israeli authorities, are tin shacks or modest breeze-block huts. Anything else would be certain to be demolished, said Sawaid.

And yet the village’s purchase of the land was registered in the 1930s – before either Israel’s founding in 1948 or Karmiel’s creation 16 years later.

“We have the tabu [title deeds] for this land,” said Sawaid. “And yet Israel refuses to recognise our right to live here. They have made us criminals. They say we are squatters. It is nonsense.”

goat shed

The homes and goat sheds in Ramya are set to be bulldozed to make space for Karmiel’s continuing expansion.    Photo: Jonathan Cook

Confiscated land

Karmiel, today with a population of nearly 50,000, was built in 1964 on agricultural lands Israel confiscated from several communities, including Ramya, that belong to Israel’s Palestinian minority – the remains of the Palestinian people who avoided expulsion during the 1948 war.

Today, one in five Israeli citizens belong to this minority, a group that the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has described as “the forgotten Palestinians”.

The official aim in establishing Karmiel was to “Judaise the Galilee”, a government campaign to reverse the Palestinian minority’s demographic hold on Israel’s north by encouraging Jews to migrate and settle. They were offered incentives in subsidised land and housing.

Palestinian citizens have long claimed they suffer systematic discrimination and are denied basic rights. Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with Adalah, a legal centre for the Palestinian-Arab minority, said the discrimination was especially acute in relation to land.

Israel has nationalised 93 per cent of the country’s territory for the benefit of the country’s Jewish population, taking much of it from the Palestinian minority through mass confiscations, she said. Palestinian communities are left on slivers of privately owned land.

In addition, dozens of Palestinian communities inside Israel, such as Ramya, are not recognised by the state and the inhabitants’ “presence in their homes has been made illegal”, according to Bishara.

‘For Moshe, not Mohammed’

Bar and other activists joined the struggle to save Ramya after Israel’s high court ruled last year that the Bedouin must leave within 90 days. The group staged its first demonstration in December in front of Karmiel’s municipal building, followed by weekly protests in the city’s main shopping area.

The villagers have been handing out leaflets in Karmiel explaining their story to passers-by, in the hope they can win public opinion to their side.

But Dov Koller, a Jewish resident of Karmiel who helped set up a solidarity forum for Ramya, said most people in the city either did not care about Ramya’s plight or were opposed to living with the Bedouin villagers: ”The difficulty is that most of Karmiel’s residents don’t think equality is important for Arabs. Most of them are racist.”

The families in Ramya are being evicted so that a new neighbourhood of Karmiel – named for former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – can be expanded. Apartments marketed to the Jewish population will be built over Ramya’s homes, as well as the Bedouin goat sheds and a small plot of arable land the villagers have so far managed to cling on to.

Wakim said the racist policy of the municipality and the Israel Lands Administration, a government agency in charge of state land, was especially apparent in this case.

“Often Israel enforces demolitions against unrecognised villages on the grounds that it has refused to zone the land for development,” he said. “But here the motive is not even hidden. This land is zoned for development. It is just that the government wants Moshe to live here, not Mohammed.”

flats

‘They are building on top of us,’ says Salah Sawaid. ‘Are we invisible to them?’ Photo: Jonathan Cook

Eviction dressed as gentrification

Palestinian activists have noted a wider pattern of recent evictions enforced against Palestinian citizens still living in close proximity to Jews.

In the half-dozen so-called “mixed cities” in Israel – rare communities where residence is not segregated based on ethnicity – Palestinian citizens are being forced out under cover of gentrification programmes, said Bishara.

The homes of some 30 Palestinian families living in al-Mahatta, a neighbourhood of Haifa whose population has been declining for decades under pressure from official bodies, are to be demolished so the city’s port can be expanded. The last families in the nearby historic Wadi al-Siyah area are also facing eviction.

Similar stories are emerging in the cities of Acre and Jaffa.

Documents leaked to the Israeli media in December showed plans by the World Zionist Organisation – an international umbrella organisation of Zionist groups – to step up the Judaisation programme in the Galilee. The aim is to bring in 100,000 Jews over the next few years in what WZO officials termed “preserving our hold” on the region and creating a “demographic balance” – code, said Bishara, for trying to enforce a Jewish majority.

The Israeli Haaretz newspaper objected: “A state that encourages members of one people to settle in any region, while at the same time imposing harsh restrictions on the growth of the other, is acting in a racist manner.”

Secret expropriation of land

Ramya’s land was secretly confiscated in 1976, when the government of the day, led by Rabin, ordered the expropriation of much of the remaining agricultural land held by Palestinian communities in the Galilee.

Large protests led to Rabin sending in the army, which shot dead six unarmed demonstrators, an event still commemorated by Palestinians around the world each year as Land Day .

Although the general confiscation order was eventually rescinded, Wakim said the secret expropriation of Ramya’s lands remained in place.

Sawaid said the villagers first learnt that there was an eviction order against them 15 years later, in the 1990s, when the late Ariel Sharon, who was then housing minister, wanted to rapidly expand Karmiel.

He had decided to launch another wave of “Judaising the Galilee”, using Karmiel to house some of the hundreds of thousands of Jews migrating to Israel following the fall of the Soviet Union. The residents of Ramya were ordered to leave to make room for the new arrivals.

At the time, Adi Eldar, the city’s mayor since 1989, dismissed the villagers’ claims, suggesting that, even though they had settled in Ramya decades ago, they were still nomads at heart. They were, he said, “used to wandering. They are here today and there tomorrow”.

Fearmongering

Leviah Shalev, a spokeswoman for the municipality, said neither Karmiel nor Eldar were responsible for the government’s Judaisation policy.

“The official policy was to bring Jews to the Galilee. But we do not take a view about who lives in our city. Jew or Arab can buy a home here,” she said. According to the municipality, about three per cent of residents are “Arab”.

Koller, however, said Karmiel’s claim of treating Jewish and Palestinian residents equally was a lie. “If that is true, where are the Arabic-language schools, where are the traffic signs in Arabic, why is there no mosque here?” he said.

“The truth is that Karmiel officials cannot legally stop Arab families from buying a home here. But they do everything possible both to make sure they feel unwelcome and to prevent Jews from selling to them.”

In a sign of the growing opposition in Karmiel to Palestinian citizens buying homes, the issue took centre stage in recent local elections, with the main candidates raising fears of an Arab “takeover” of the city.

In 2010, Eldar’s deputy, Oren Milstein, set up an email “hotline” on which residents could inform on Jewish neighbours who were intending to sell to a Palestinian family. Milstein claimed he had managed to stop 30 such sales.

In the same year, Milstein also established a group of 150 volunteers called “the City Guard”, supported by the local police, that was authorised to demand that anyone entering Karmiel present their ID. Leftwing activists described the group as a “racist militia” trying to keep Palestinian citizens out.

‘Distortion of the truth’

Shalev, Karmiel’s spokeswoman, added that the Bedouin of Ramya had been offered a solution in 1995, when land was set aside for them in a special area near Karmiel. “The problem is not caused by us but by disagreements between themselves about how much land each family owns.”

Wakim said the municipality’s claims were a “distortion of the truth”.

“The offer was not implemented at the time and is now totally unsuitable for the community’s needs. Twenty years on, there is another generation of villagers and they need a housing solution too. Where are they supposed to live?

“The real problem is that Karmiel won’t let them live where they already are, as a recognised neighbourhood of the city and with the chance to build proper homes without the threat of demolition.”

Koller said that Karmiel had tried to create what he called a “ghetto” for the families. “It is described as ‘a special neighbourhood for minorities’. No Jewish families in Karmiel would agree to live in those conditions.”

The Israel Lands Administration, the government agency responsible for managing state lands, was unavailable for comment for this report.

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Israel and the dangers of ethnic nationalism

An interview with Jonathan Cook, by Joseph Cotto

Counterpunch – 4 November 2013

Cotto: What sort of general impact would you say Zionism has had on the Middle East?

Cook: Zionism was a reaction to the extreme ethnic nationalisms that dominated – and nearly destroyed – Europe last century. It is therefore hardly surprising that it mirrors their faults. In exporting to the Middle East this kind of nationalism, Zionism was always bound to play a negative role in the region.

Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, developing the concept of a Jewish state in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe in the late nineteenth century. One notorious incident that appears to have shaped his views was France’s Dreyfus affair, when a very assimilated Jewish army officer was unjustly accused of treason and then his innocence covered up by French elites.

The lesson drawn by Herzl was that assimilation was futile. To survive, Jews needed to hold firmly on to their ethnic identity and create an exclusivist state based on ethnic principles.

There is a huge historical irony to this, because Europe’s ethnic nationalisms would soon end up tearing apart much of the world, culminating in the expansionary German war machine, the Second World War and the Nazi death camps. International institutions such as the United Nations and international humanitarian law were developed precisely to stop the repeat of such a cataclysmic event.

Once in the Middle East, Zionism shifted the locus of its struggle, from finding a solution to European anti-semitism to building an exclusive Jewish homeland on someone else’s land, that of the Palestinians. If one wants to understand the impact of Zionism in the Middle East, then one needs to see how destabilising such a European ideological implant was.

The idea of ethnic-religious supremacism, which history suggests is latent in many ethnic nationalisms, quickly came to the fore in Zionism. Today, the dominant features of Zionist ideology in Israel are:

  • a commitment to segregation at all levels – made concrete in the separation wall across the West Bank;
  • a belief in ethnic exclusivism – Palestinian citizens inside Israel are even denied an Israeli nationality;
  • a kind of national paranoia – walls are built to protect every border;
  • an aversion, paradoxically given the above, to defining its borders – and with it a craving for expansion and greater “living room”.

All of this was predictable if one looked at the trajectory of ethnic nationalisms in Europe. Instead, we in the West see all this as a reaction to Islamism. The reality is we have everything back to front: Zionism, an aggressive ethnic nationalism, fed reactionary forces in the region like political Islam.

Cotto: If Israel adopted its pre-1967 borders, would this, in your opinion, contribute to the peace process?

Cook: Of course, it would. If nothing else, it would show for the first time two things: one, that Israel is prepared to exhibit good faith towards the Palestinians and respect international law; and two, that it has finally decided to define and fix its borders. Those are also two good reasons why I don’t think we will see Israel adopt such a position.

There is a further, implicit question underlying this one. Can a Palestinian state on 22 per cent of historic Palestine, separated into two prison-cantons with limited access to the sea, be a viable state?

No, I don’t think it can – at least not without remaining economically dependent on Israel and militarily vulnerable to it too. That, we should remember, also appears to have been the view of the international community when it tried to solve this problem more than 60 years ago. The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 gave the Jewish minority 55 per cent of historic Palestine to create a Jewish state, while the Palestinians, the majority of the population, received 45 per cent for an Arab state.

One doesn’t have to believe the partition plan was fair – as most Palestinians do not – to understand that even the Western-centric UN of that time did not imagine that a viable state could be created on 22 per cent of Palestine, or half of the “Arab state” it envisioned.

That is why I have long maintained that ultimately a solution to the conflict will only be found when the international community helps the two sides to find common ground and shared interests and to create joint institutions. That might be vaguely termed the one-state solution, but in practice it could take many forms.

Cotto: It is often noted that Palestinians live in far more impoverished socioeconomic conditions than Israelis do. From your standpoint, can this be attributed to Israeli aggression?

Cook: In essence, it is difficult to imagine it could be attributed to much else, unless one makes the racist assumption that Palestinians or Arabs are naturally lazy or incompetent.

In terms of Israel’s greater economic success, there are several factors to take into account. It receives massive subsidies from the US taxpayer – billions of dollars in military aid and other benefits. It has developed very lucrative hi-tech and homeland security industries, often using the occupied territories as laboratories for it to test and showcase its weapons and surveillance systems. It also benefits from the financial connections it enjoys with worldwide Jewry. Just think of the property market in Israel, which is artificially boosted by wealthy US and European Jews who inject money into the economy by buying an Israeli condo.

But equally importantly – as a just-published report from the World Bank concludes – it has prospered by plundering and exploiting Palestinian resources. The World Bank argues that Israel’s de facto annexation of 62 per cent of the West Bank, known as Area C in the Oslo Accords, has stripped any nascent Palestinian state of almost all its resources: land for development, water for agriculture, quarries for stone, the Dead Sea for minerals and tourism, etc. Instead these resources are being stolen by more than 200 settlements Israel has been sowing over the West Bank.

Israel also exploits a captive, and therefore cheap, Palestinian labour force. That both benefits the Israeli economy and crushes the Palestinian economy.

Cotto: Some say that Israel’s settlement policies directly encourage violence from Palestinian militants. Do you believe this to be the case?

Cook: Yes, of course. If you came armed with a gun to my house and took it from me, and then forced me and my family to live in the shed at the end of the garden, you could hardly be surprised if I started making trouble for you. If I called the police and they said they couldn’t help, you could hardly be surprised if I eventually decided to get a gun myself to threaten you back. If, when you saw I had a gun too, you then built a wall around the shed to imprison me, you could hardly be surprised if I used the tools I had to make primitive grenades and started lobbing them towards the house. None of this would prove how unreasonable I was, or how inherently violent.

Cotto: Many claim that, if Israel were to shed its Jewish ethnocentrism, Muslims and others nearby would adopt a more favorable opinion of it. Do you agree with this idea?

Cook: Ethnocentrism for Israel means that the protection of its Jewishness is synonymous with the protection of its national security. That entails all sorts of things that would be considered very problematic if they were better understood.

Israel needed to ethnically cleanse Palestinians in 1948 to create a Jewish state. It needs separate citizenship and nationality laws, which distinguish between Jews and non-Jews, to sustain a Jewish state. It needs its own version of the “endless war on terror” – an aggressive policy of oppression and divide and rule faced by Palestinians under its rule – to prevent any future internal challenge to the legitimacy of its Jewishness. It needs to keep Palestinian refugees festering in camps in neighbouring Arab states to stop a reversal of its Jewishness. And it has had to become an armed and fortified garrison state, largely paid for by the US, to intimidate and bully its neighbours in case they dare to threaten its Jewishness.

Ending that ethnocentrism would therefore alter relations with its neighbours dramatically.

It was possible to end similar historic enmities in Northern Ireland and in South Africa. There is no reason to believe the same cannot happen in the Middle East.

Cotto: If Israel were to cease being an ethnocentrically Jewish state, do you think it would be able to survive?

Cook: Yes. Israel’s actions have produced an ocean of anger towards it in the region – and a great deal of resentment towards the US too. And that would not evaporate overnight. At a minimum there would be lingering distrust, and for good reason. But for Israel to stop being an ethnocratic state, it would require a serious international solution to the conflict. The international community would have to put into place mechanisms and institutions to resolve historic grievances and build trust, as it did in South Africa. Over time, the wounds would heal.

Cotto: In the event that Israel were to end its ethnocentrically Jewish policies, do you believe that Islamist militants would hold less of a grudge against the Western world?

Cook: The question looks at the problem in the wrong way in at least two respects. First, Israel’s ethnocentrism – its exclusivity and its aggressiveness, for example – is one of the reasons it is useful to Western, meaning US, imperialism. Reforming Israel would indicate a change in Western priorities in the region, but that does not necessarily mean the West would stop interfering negatively in the region. Reforming Israel is a necessary but not a sufficient cause for a change in attitudes that dominate in the region.

Second, many Islamists, certainly of the fanatical variety, are not suddenly going to have a Damascene conversion about the West because Israel is reformed. But that should not be the goal. Good intentions towards the region will be repaid in a change in attitude among the wider society – and that is what is really important. When George Bush and his ilk talk about “draining the swamps”, they are speaking only in military terms. But actually what we should be doing is draining the ideological swamp in which Islamic extremism flourishes. If the Islamists have no real support, if they do not address real issues faced by Arab societies, then they will wither away.

Cotto: What do you think the future of Israel holds insofar as Middle Eastern geopolitics are concerned?

Cook: That is crystal ball stuff. There are too many variables. What can be said with some certainty is that we are in a time of transition: at the moment, chiefly economic for the West and chiefly political for the Middle East. That means the global power systems we have known for decades are starting to break down. Where that will ultimately lead is very difficult to decipher.

Joseph Cotto writes for the Washington Times.

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Hold onto Your Hats


ColdType Magazine
& The Reader

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Issue 79

HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS: Our cover story is a whimsical photo essay of barber shops in Johannesburg, South Africa, by Alon Skuy. We’ve also got two long book excerpts: the first – from James A. Mitchell’s The Walrus and the Elephants – offers a glimpse of John Lennon’s life as Hippy Messiah after his arrival in New York City in 1970; the second comes from David Swanson’s finely-reasoned War No More. We’ve also got conflicting opinions on whether Israel is or is not an Apartheid State from Uri Avneri and Jonathan Cook; while Chris Hedges wants to get the real class war started, David Edwards looks at the treatment of Glenn Greenwald by the British media, John Pilger writes about the new ‘Great Game’, and David Cromwell is intrigued by reaction to British comedian Russell Brand’s call for revolution. Plus much more.

BEING THERE: Our second offering, BEING THERE – 40-pages of street photography by ColdType editor Tony Sutton - shows that, despite what you may think, not all Canadians are boring.

Click here or on image above to download ColdType magazine

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Obama and the Blessing of Israel’s Government of Settlers

Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed.US President Barack Obama, left, and Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netayahu laugh during a welcoming ceremony upon Obama's arrival at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, March 20. (Photo: AP)

The US president’s trip this week may be historic – the first of his presidency to Israel and the Palestinian territories – but he did everything possible beforehand to lower expectations.

At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.

Any lingering doubts about Israel’s intentions were removed by the announcement of a new cabinet, hurriedly sworn in before the president’s visit. This government makes Benjamin Netanyahu’s last one, itself widely considered the most hardline in Israel’s history, look almost moderate.

Ynet, Israel’s popular news website, reported that settler leaders hailed this as their “wet dream” cabinet. Zahava Gal-On, leader of the opposition Meretz party, concurred, observing that it would “do a lot for the settlers and not much at all for the rest of Israeli society”.

The settlers’ dedicated party, Jewish Home, has been awarded three key ministries – trade and industry, Jerusalem, and housing – as well as control of the parliamentary finance committee, that will ensure that the settlements flourish during this government’s term.

There is no chance Jewish Home will agree to a settlement freeze similar to the one Obama insisted on in his first term. Rather, the party will accelerate both house-building and industrial development over the Green Line, to make the settlements even more attractive places to live.

Uzi Landau, of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisraeli Beiteinu party, has the tourism portfolio and can be relied on to direct funds to the West Bank’s many Biblical sites, to encourage Israelis and tourists to visit.

The new defence minister, who oversees the occupation and is the only official in a practical position to obstruct this settler free-for-all, is Likud’s Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff known for his ardent support of the settlements.

True, Yair Lapid’s large centrist party Yesh Atid is represented too. But its influence on diplomacy will be muted, because its five ministers will handle chiefly domestic issues such as welfare, health and science.

The one exception, Shai Piron, the new education minister, is a settler rabbi who can be expected to expand the existing programme of school trips to the settlements, continuing the settlers’ successful efforts to integrate themselves into the mainstream.

Far from preparing to make concessions to the US president, Netanyahu has all but declared his backing for Jewish Home’s plan to annex large parts of the West Bank.

The only minister with any professed interest in diplomatic talks, and that mostly driven by her self-serving efforts to stay popular with the White House, is Tzipi Livni. She is well aware that opportunities for negotiations are extremely limited: the peace process received just one perfunctory mention in the coalition agreement.

Obama, apparently only too aware he is facing an Israeli government even more intransigent than the last one, has chosen to avoid addressing the Knesset. Instead he will direct his speech to a more receptive audience of Israeli students, in what US officials have termed a “charm offensive”.

We can expect grand words, a few meagre promises and total inaction on the occupation.

In a sign of quite how loath the White House is to tackle the settlements issue again, its representatives at the United Nations refused on Monday to take part in a Human Rights Council debate that described the settlements as a form of “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Obama’s hands-off approach will satisfy his constituency at home. A poll for ABC-TV showed this week that most Americans support Israel over the Palestinians – 55 per cent to 9 per cent. An even larger majority, 70 per cent, think the US should leave the two sides to settle their future for themselves.

Ordinary Israelis, the US president’s target audience, are none too keen on his getting involved either. Recent survey data show that 53 percent think Obama will fail to protect Israel’s interests, and 80 per cent believe he will not bring progress with the Palestinians over the next four years. The mood is one of indifference rather than anticipation.

These are all good reasons why neither Obama nor Netanyahu will be much focused on the Palestinian issue over the three-day visit. As analyst Daniel Levy observed: “Obama is coming first and foremost to make a statement about the US-Israel bond, not the illegal occupation.”

That is also how it looks to most Palestinians, who have grown increasingly exasperated by US obstructionism. US officials who went to Bethlehem in preparation for Obama’s visit on Friday found themselves caught up in anti-Obama demonstrations. More followed in Ramallah on Wednesday.

Other Palestinians protested his visit by establishing a new tent community on occupied Palestinian land next to Jerusalem. Several previous such encampments have been hastily demolished by Israeli soldiers.

The organisers hope to highlight US hypocrisy in backing Israel’s occupation: Jewish settlers are allowed to build with official state backing on Palestinian land in violation of international law, while Palestinians are barred from developing their own territory in what is now considered by most of the world as the Palestinian state.

The unspoken message of Obama’s visit is that the Netanyahu government is free to pursue its hardline agenda with little danger of anything more than symbolic protest from Washington.

The new Israeli cabinet lost no time setting out its legislative priorities. The first bill announced is a “basic law” to change the state’s official definition, so that its “Jewish” aspects trump the “democratic” elements, a move the Haaretz newspaper termed “insane”.

Among the main provisions is one to restrict state funding to new Jewish communities only. This points to a cynical solution Netanyahu may adopt to placate the simmering social protest movement in Tel Aviv, which has been demanding above all more affordable housing.

By freeing up even more cheap land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he can expand the settlements, further eat away at Palestinian territory, silence the protests, and wrong-foot the opposition. All he needs is Obama’s blessing.

Jonathan Cook

US President’s Visit: Obama comes to Bless Israel’s Government of Settlers

netanyauobama

Those who hoped that Barack Obama would be arriving in Israel to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together, after four years of impasse in the peace process, will be sorely disappointed.

The US president’s trip beginning today may be historic – the first of his presidency to Israel and the Palestinian territories – but he has been doing everything possible beforehand to lower expectations.

At the weekend, Arab-American leaders revealed that Obama had made it clear he would not present a peace plan, because Israel has indicated it is not interested in an agreement with the Palestinians.

Any lingering doubts about Israel’s intentions were removed by the announcement of a new cabinet, hurriedly sworn in before the president’s visit. This government makes Benjamin Netanyahu’s last one, itself widely considered the most hardline in Israel’s history, look almost moderate.

Ynet, Israel’s popular news website, reported that settler leaders hailed this as their “wet dream” cabinet.

Zahava Gal-On, leader of the opposition Meretz party, concurred, observing that it would “do a lot for the settlers and not much at all for the rest of Israeli society”.

The settlers’ dedicated party, Jewish Home, has been awarded three key ministries – trade and industry, Jerusalem, and housing – as well as control of the parliamentary finance committee, that will ensure that the settlements flourish during this government’s term.

There is no chance Jewish Home will agree to a settlement freeze similar to the one Obama insisted on in his first term. Rather, the party will accelerate both house-building and industrial development over the Green Line, to make the settlements even more attractive places to live.

Uzi Landau, of Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisraeli Beiteinu party, has the tourism portfolio and can be relied on to direct funds to the West Bank’s many Biblical sites, to encourage Israelis and tourists to visit.

The new defence minister, who oversees the occupation and is the only official in a practical position to obstruct this settler free-for-all, is Likud’s Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff known for his ardent support of the settlements.

True, Yair Lapid’s large centrist party Yesh Atid is represented too. But its influence on diplomacy will be muted, because its five ministers will handle chiefly domestic issues such as welfare, health and science.

The one exception, Shai Piron, the new education minister, is a settler rabbi who can be expected to expand the existing programme of school trips to the settlements, continuing the settlers’ successful efforts to integrate themselves into the mainstream.

Far from preparing to make concessions to the US president, Netanyahu has all but declared his backing for Jewish Home’s plan to annex large parts of the West Bank.

The only minister with any professed interest in diplomatic talks, and that mostly driven by her self-serving efforts to stay popular with the White House, is Tzipi Livni. She is well aware that opportunities for negotiations are extremely limited: the peace process received just one perfunctory mention in the coalition agreement.

Obama, apparently only too aware he is facing an Israeli government even more intransigent than the last one, has chosen to avoid addressing the Knesset. Instead he will direct his speech to a more receptive audience of Israeli students, in what US officials have termed a “charm offensive”.

We can expect grand words, a few meagre promises and total inaction on the occupation.

In a sign of quite how loath the White House is to tackle the settlements issue again, its representatives at the United Nations refused on Monday to take part in a Human Rights Council debate that described the settlements as a form of “creeping annexation” of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Obama’s hands-off approach will satisfy his constituency at home. A poll for ABC-TV showed this week that most Americans support Israel over the Palestinians – 55 per cent to 9 per cent. An even larger majority, 70 per cent, think the US should leave the two sides to settle their future for themselves.

Ordinary Israelis, the US president’s target audience, are none too keen on his getting involved either. Recent survey data show that 53 per cent think Obama will fail to protect Israel’s interests, and 80 per cent believe he will not bring progress with the Palestinians over the next four years. The mood is one of indifference rather than anticipation.

These are all good reasons why neither Obama nor Netanyahu will be much focused on the Palestinian issue over the three-day visit. As analyst Daniel Levy observed: “Obama is coming first and foremost to make a statement about the US-Israel bond, not the illegal occupation.”

That is also how it looks to most Palestinians, who have grown increasingly exasperated by US obstructionism. US officials who went to Bethlehem in preparation for Obama’s visit on Friday found themselves caught up in anti-Obama demonstrations. More are expected today in Ramallah.

Other Palestinians protested his visit by establishing today a new tent community on occupied Palestinian land next to Jerusalem. Several previous such encampments have been hastily demolished by Israeli soldiers.

The organisers hope to highlight US hypocrisy in backing Israel’s occupation: Jewish settlers are allowed to build with official state backing on Palestinian land in violation of international law, while Palestinians are barred from developing their own territory in what is now considered by most of the world as the Palestinian state.

The unspoken message of Obama’s visit is that the Netanyahu government is free to pursue its hardline agenda with little danger of anything more than symbolic protest from Washington.

The new Israeli cabinet lost no time setting out its legislative priorities. The first bill announced is a “basic law” to change the state’s official definition, so that its “Jewish” aspects trump the “democratic” elements, a move the Haaretz newspaper termed “insane”.

Among the main provisions is one to restrict state funding to new Jewish communities only. This points to a cynical solution Netanyahu may adopt to placate the simmering social protest movement in Tel Aviv, which has been demanding above all more affordable housing.

By freeing up even more cheap land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he can expand the settlements, further eat away at Palestinian territory, silence the protests, and wrong-foot the opposition. All he needs is Obama’s blessing.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.

How 20 Tents Rocked Israel: Palestinians Take the Fight to their Occupiers

israelmap

When the Palestinian leadership won their upgrade to non-member observer status at the United Nations in November, plenty of sceptics on both sides of the divide questioned what practical benefits would accrue to the Palestinians. The doubters have not been silenced yet.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his diplomatic success. There have been vague threats to “isolate” Israel, hesitant talk of “not ruling out” a referral to the International Criminal Court, and a low-key declaration by the Palestinian Authority of the new “state of Palestine”.

At a time when Palestinians hoped for a watershed moment in their struggle for national liberation, the Fatah and Hamas leaderships look as mutually self-absorbed as ever. Last week they were again directing their energies into a new round of reconciliation talks, this time in Cairo, rather than keeping the spotlight on Israeli intransigence.

So instead, it was left to a group of 250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a “state of Palestine” might be given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate of the Sun.

On Sunday, in a sign of how disturbed Israel is by such acts of popular Palestinian resistance, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the the occupants removed in a dawn raid — despite the fact that his own courts had issued a six-day injunction against the government’s “evacuation” order.

Intriguingly, the Palestinian activists not only rejected their own leaders’ softly-softly approach but also chose to mirror the tactics of the hardcore settlers.

First, they declared they were creating “facts on the ground”, having understood, it seems, that this is the only language Israel speaks or understands. Then, they selected the most contentious spot imaginable for Israel: the centre of the so-called E-1 corridor, 13 square-kilometres of undeveloped land between East Jerusalem and Israel’s strategic city-settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank.

For more than a decade, Israel has been planning to build its own settlement in E-1, though on a vastly bigger scale, to finish the encirclement of East Jerusalem, cutting off the future capital of a Palestinian state from the West Bank.

The US had stayed Israel’s hand, understanding that completion in E-1 would signal to the world and the Palestinians the end of a two-state solution. But following the UN vote, Netanyahu announced plans to build an additional 4,000 settler homes there as punishment for the Palestinians’ impertinence.

The comparison between the Bab al-Shams activists and the settlers should not be extended too far. One obvious difference is that the Palestinians were building on their own land, whereas Israel is breaking international law in allowing hundreds of thousands of settlers to move into the West Bank.

Another is that Israel’s response towards the two groups was preordained to be different. This is especially clear in relation to what Israel itself calls the “illegal outposts” — more than 100 micro-settlements, similar to Bab al-Shams, set up by hardcore settlers since the mid-1990s, after Israel promised the US it would not authorise any new settlements.

Despite an obligation to dismantle the outposts, successive Israeli governments have allowed them to flourish. In practice, within days of the first caravans appearing on a West Bank hilltop officials hook up the “outposts” to electricity and water, build them access roads and redirect bus routes to include them. The spread of the settlements and outposts has been leading inexorably to Israel’s de facto annexation of most of the West Bank.

In stark contrast, all access to Bab al-Shams was blocked within hours of the tents going up and the next day Netanyahu had the site declared a closed military zone. As soon as the Jewish Sabbath was over, troops massed around the camp. Early on Sunday morning they stormed in.

Netanyahu was clearly afraid to allow any delay. Palestinians started using social media over the weekend to plan mass rallies at road-blocks leading to the camp site.

However futile the activists’ efforts prove to be on this occasion, the encampment indicates that ordinary Palestinians are better placed to find inventive ways to embarrass Israel than the hidebound Palestinian leadership.

Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi extolled the activists for their “highly creative and legitimate nonviolent tool” to protect Palestinian land. But the failure of PA officials, including Saeb Erekat, to make it to the site before it was cordoned off by Israel only heightened the impression of a leadership too slow and unimaginative to respond to events.

By establishing Bab al-Shams, the activists visibly demonstrated the apartheid nature of Israel’s rule in the occupied territories. Although one brief encampment is unlikely by itself to change the dynamics of the conflict, it does show Palestinians that there are ways they themselves can take the struggle to Israel.

Following the Israeli raid, that point was made eloquently by Mohammed Khatib, one of the organisers. “In establishing Bab al-Shams, we declare that we have had enough of demanding our rights from the occupier — from now on we shall seize them ourselves.”

That, of course, is also Netanyahu’s great fear. The scenario his officials are reported to be most concerned about is that this kind of popular mode of struggle becomes infectious. If Palestinians see popular non-violent resistance, unlike endless diplomacy, helping to awaken the world to their plight, there may be more Bab al-Shamses — and other surprises for Israel — around the corner.

It was precisely such thinking that led Israel’s attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, to justify Netanyahu’s violation of the injunction on the grounds that the camp would “bring protests and riots with national and international implications”.

What Bab al-Shams shows is that ordinary Palestinians can take the fight for the “state of Palestine” to Israel — and even turn Israel’s own methods against it.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

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Middle East Eye – 15 May 2015

Israel’s Palestinian minority is preparing to hold a “day of rage” to protest against a court ruling last week that cleared the way to destroy an entire Bedouin village so that it can be replaced by a Jewish town.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s decision marks the end of a 13-year legal battle by the 800 villagers of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev (Naqab) to prevent the establishment of the town on the site of their current homes.

The new town – also to be called Hiran – is expected to include 2,500 homes designated for ultra-nationalist religious groups closely identified with the settler movement.

Bedouin leaders and human rights groups criticised the judges for upholding what they termed “racist” government policies that gave weight solely to the housing needs of Israel’s Jewish population.

Fadi Masamra, director of the Regional Council of the Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), a body representing dozens of embattled Negev communities like Umm al-Hiran, said the village’s destruction would be viewed as a major assault on Bedouin rights.

“This is as clear a case of ethnic cleansing as one could imagine – and the courts have given their assent,” he told Middle East Eye. “The government is determined to clear us from as much of our land as possible and force us into ghettoes.”

Eviction for tens of thousands

There are widespread fears that the ruling will reopen the door to controversial legislation requiring the destruction of 36 Bedouin villages in the Negev the state has refused to recognise.

The Prawer Bill was put on hold by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government 17 months ago following mass protests by the Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of Israel’s population.

Tens of thousands of Bedouin face being uprooted and forcibly moved into a handful of government-planned towns in the Negev that are classed as the most deprived communities in the country.

The far-right Jewish Home party insisted on the legislation’s revival as a condition of its entry into the government coalition this month. One of its leaders, Uri Ariel, a settler in the occupied territories, was made minister in charge of Bedouin affairs.

In a sign of the increasing pressure being exerted on Bedouin communities in southern Israel, government officials demanded in a separate court case last week that dozens of families from another village, al-Araqib, be billed $500,000.

The sum is to cover the cost of repeatedly demolishing their homes. The villagers have resisted government efforts to evict them by rebuilding their homes more than 80 times over the past five years.

Dangerous precedent

Umm al-Hiran is one of 46 villages – home to some 100,000 Bedouin – that Israel has refused to recognise since the 1960s, leaving the inhabitants effectively criminalised.

While the Bedouin residents have Israeli citizenship, the state refuses to connect the villages to the water and power grids or provide access roads, health clinics and schools. All homes are under demolition order, forcing many villagers to live in tents or tin shacks.

The Supreme Court ruled last week that the residents of Umm al-Hiran had no right to their lands, even while Israeli authorities conceded that they had relocated the tribe to the dusty hills of the eastern Negev six decades ago. The villagers had been left landless in 1948 after the Israeli army destroyed their original homes.

Salim Abu Al-Kian, a 41-year-old resident of Umm al-Hiran who led the village’s struggle through the courts, told MEE: “We are being treated like criminals, even though we were placed here by the state. It seems our mistake is in not being Jewish.”

Maysanna Morany, a lawyer for Adalah, which represented Umm al-Hiran in court, said the judges had established a dangerous precedent by overlooking the social and political context of the case.

“The state did not try to argue, as it usually does, that there were important security or environmental reasons for destroying the village,” she said.

“The land will still be used for housing. But both the government and the court agreed that the residents of Umm al-Hiran should be evicted so that Jews can live in their place. That is clearly a racist policy, designed to promote the state’s Jewish character.”

‘Mark of Cain’

Bedouin leaders and the Follow-Up Committee, the main representative body of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, are due to meet in Umm al-Hiran on Sunday to formulate a response to the court decision.

The meeting will be held in the shadow of the 15 May commemorations of the anniversary of the Nakba – the Arabic world for “catastrophe” and a reference to the national disaster that befell the Palestinians in 1948 with the loss of their homeland.

Masamra of the RCUV said the court ruling was proof that the Nakba was not over.

The Palestinian leadership in Israel has grown increasingly concerned about severe land and housing shortages faced by the 1.5 million-strong Palestinian minority.

A one-day general strike was held last month following a new wave of house demolitions in Arab communities.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, a broad coalition of Arab political parties that is the third largest faction in the Israeli parliament, has made the housing crisis and Israel’s treatment of the Bedouin his top priorities.

In late March he led a four-day protest march from the Negev to Jerusalem, presenting the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with a proposal to make all the unrecognised villages legal.

Odeh called the failure to provide Bedouin children with water and electricity “a mark of Cain” on Israel.

Disastrous conditions

Israeli officials have been intensifying their campaign against the Bedouin since 2002, when planning authorities approved the founding of 14 Jewish communities in the Negev as part of efforts to strengthen what was termed “national resilience”.

The authorities have insisted that most of the Bedouin villagers relocate to half a dozen government-planned townships established decades ago.

Liad Aviel, a government spokesman for Bedouin affairs, told the Associated Press that the villagers of Umm al-Hiran had been offered housing a short distance away in Hura, east of Beersheva.

However, Ismael Abu Saad, an education professor at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, told MEE that all the townships lacked basic infrastructure and land for farming, and were at the bottom of the country’s social and economic tables.

“The quality of life in these towns is disastrous,” he said. “Poverty and unemployment are sky high, and services are almost non-existent.”

Despite the harsh living conditions in the unrecognised villages, and government pressure to move to the townships, only about half of the Negev’s 200,000 Bedouin have agreed to do so.

Emigration from townships

In recent years, Israeli authorities have grown increasingly concerned by the steady emigration of Bedouin from the townships back into the unrecognised villages, said Abu Saad.

“Any families who can return to their original villages are doing so,” he said.

“I have pointed out to the planning authorities repeatedly that if you want the Bedouin to stay in the towns, then you have to make it worthwhile to live there. Otherwise people will vote with their feet.”

Bedouin in the unrecognised villages argue that they should be allowed to continue their pastoral way of life as farmers and herders.

The villages are located either on land inhabited by the Bedouin for generations or on sites, as at Umm al-Hiran, to which they were moved after their expulsion from their original land following the 1948 war.

Israel rejects claims by the Bedouin to 800 sq km of the Negev – or about 5 per cent of the area – saying all of the Negev is state land.

Launching a fundraising campaign this week to help bring the Umm al-Hiran’s struggle to international attention, Adalah stated: “The court did not ask why the new town had to replace the Arab village, when there are vast and empty lands in the surrounding area.”

Morany said the court should have taken into account that state was expelling the villagers from their homes for a second time.

The judges had also ignored the decades of discriminatory government policies that had created major land shortages for all Arab communities, she added.

Land and housing shortages

Last month the Palestinian minority staged a one-day general strike to protest a renewed wave of home demolitions and a mounting housing crisis. Thousands took their protest to the streets of Tel Aviv.

At the same time, opposition from Jewish parties prevented Arab MPs from holding an emergency parliamentary session to discuss the housing problems faced by the minority.

A recent report by Adalah argued that housing shortages were “the result of deliberate, consistent, and systematic government policy”.

It noted that the 139 Arab communities recognised by the state had jurisdiction over only 2.5 per cent of Israeli territory after years of land confiscations. By contrast, 93 per cent of Israel was classified as state land, with much of it reserved only for the Jewish population.

Israel’s additional refusal to build a single new Arab community since 1948, and Jewish officials’ domination of the planning authorities, had led to an 11-fold increase in population density in Arab localities.

Further, the report observed, Arab communities had been overlooked in state-authorised construction projects. Of the 40,100 homes built last year, less than 5 per cent were in Arab towns or villages.

Worse, the report stated, a new four-year government programme to build affordable homes across the country did not include a single Arab locale.

Identifying with the settlements

In a dissenting opinion from her two colleagues in the Umm al-Hiran case, Supreme Court judge Daphne Barak-Erez proposed that the villagers be given the option to live in the new town of Hiran.

The Haaretz daily noted, however, that government efforts to reserve Hiran for the national-religious population – who identify closely with the settlement movement in the occupied territories – made that an impractical solution.

The first Jewish families due to move into Hiran are currently living in a temporary community they established in 2008 in nearby Yatir Forest in anticipation of Umm al-Hiran’s destruction. The 30 buildings were erected without permits.

Morany said that, contrary to their treatment of the unrecognised Bedouin villages, the authorities had turned a blind eye to the illegal status of the Jewish community. The homes there have been hooked up with water and electricity.

According to plaques on some of the homes, they have been donated by the Jewish National Fund USA, registered as a charity in the United States.

In a video posted by Adalah online, a spokesman for the Jewish group named Shmuel, who refused to be photographed, stated that he saw no difference between Israel and the occupied territories.

Morany said other videos showed that the families were sending their children to a school in a Jewish settlement a short distance away in the occupied territories.

Abu Al-Kian, of Umm al-Hiran, said the villagers would not give up. “We will continue fighting. We are not leaving even if they destroy every one of our homes.”

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Middle East Eye – 7 July 2014

Black, pungent smoke from burning tyres mixed with white, even more acrid plumes of tear gas to create an ugly grey smog eclipsing Nazareth’s most famous landmark, the imposing spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Clashes over the weekend between youths and police in Israel’s largest Palestinian city have not been seen on this scale since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in late 2000.

Then, thirteen of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, including three residents of Nazareth, were shot dead in the Galilee in a few days of clashes with police, who fired live ammunition and rubber bullets on mostly unarmed demonstrators.

Fourteen years later, long-simmering tensions have erupted once more into angry protests in an increasing number of Palestinian towns and villages across Israel.

Initially, they mostly followed the pattern of stone-throwing skirmishes with Israeli security forces that began last week in Jerusalem.

But, as anger mounted at the weekend, confrontations included the hurling of firebombs at police and the closure of several major roads that run past Palestinian communities in the country’s north and south. Dozens of protesters have been arrested since Sunday.

Waiting to explode

Ali Said, 25, a worker in a bakery next to the main entrance of Nazareth, where several hundred youths faced off with Israeli police on Saturday, said the clashes were triggered, as in Jerusalem, by the news of the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

Sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped from near his home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Shuafat and burnt alive, apparently in revenge for the abductions and murders last month of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.

Three of six Israelis arrested for the murder were reported on Monday to have confessed.

“People here are really shocked by this, and they need to let off steam,” said Said. “Relations between Jews and Arabs have got much worse in recent years because of this right-wing government. All it needed was a trigger like this for everything to explode.”

Said noted that a general mood of anger had been stoked in recent months by a rash of hate crimes committed by Israeli Jews against Palestinian communities, including attacks on mosques and churches.

That view received support at the weekend from Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence agency. He accused the government of being blinded by political illusions, including a refusal to recognise attacks by settlers in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as “blatant racism”.

Luna Zraik, who runs a restaurant in the Big Fashion shopping mall close to where the protesters and police fought, said she and many of the customers had a bird’s eye view of unfolding events from the mall’s parking lot on the roof.

“The police were shooting large quantities of tear gas. The youths hid their faces with the keffiyeh [a Palestinian scarf], waved Palestinian flags, and burnt tyres to close the road. They threw so many stones that by the end you could barely see the tarmac. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Terrified customers

Since the opening of Big Fashion four years ago, Nazareth has become a magnet for shopping for Israeli Jews from the surrounding area. The mall includes major international clothing outlets rarely found elsewhere in the country’s north.

“When tear gas started wafting into the mall, the Jewish shoppers, in particular, looked terrified,” said Zraik. “One woman said she was worried she would be killed if we didn’t help her to escape.”

Israel’s large Palestinian minority, comprising a fifth of the total population, has long complained of systematic and institutional discrimination. But five years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, with its inflexible approach to peace-making and hostile policies towards the Palestinian minority, have soured communal relations even further.

Commentators have noted that these latest clashes followed the collapse in April of US-sponsored peace negotiations, just as the Second Intifada broke out in the wake of the failed Camp David talks of 2000.

Among Palestinian communities in Israel, Nazareth has been one of the beneficiaries of Israel’s recent strong economic performance. But a sense of political hopelessness pervades Nazareth and the Galilee just as much as it does the occupied territories of Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Uneasy union

A four-lane highway, Road 75, is all that separates Nazareth, the minority’s unofficial capital, from Upper Nazareth, a city founded on Nazareth’s land reserves by Israeli officials decades ago in a failed attempt to create a commanding Jewish majority in the heart of the Galilee.

In recent years, despite a national policy of keeping Jewish and Palestinian citizens largely apart, at least residentially, the lives of the two communities have increasingly merged into an uneasy and unexpected union.

Jews now regularly shop and eat in Nazareth, while Nazareth’s residents, facing a mounting housing crisis caused by government planning policies, have started moving in ever larger numbers into Upper Nazareth.

So far, the violence sweeping Palestinian communities inside Israel – and to a lesser extent, Jewish areas – has not led to a fatality. In most cases, the Palestinian protesters’ anger has been directed at Israeli security forces or visible symbols of the state.

The fear, however, is that, should fighting erupt between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in places where they live or work together – such as in Nazareth and Upper Nazareth – things could rapidly deteriorate further.

On Sunday night, trouble flared again when a group of Jewish residents from Upper Nazareth stood next to Road 75 chanting “Death to the Arabs!”.

Nazareth’s youths faced off with them, hurling stones and firecrackers, including reportedly some that were thrown at a nearby fire station, one of the few official Israeli institutions in Nazareth.

On Monday morning, as Nazareth sunk back into a sleepy Ramadan fast through the difficult summer heat, there were few signs of the previous night’s troubles. The only clues were the steady stream of police vehicles patrolling Road 75, including an armour-plated water canon.

Iron fist

Israeli Jews in Upper Nazareth have been shocked deepest by reports of what occurred in Qalansuwa, a Palestinian town in central Israel – and close to the West Bank – that rarely makes the news.

There, youths created a roadblock on a nearby highway on Saturday and checked motorists to see if they were Jewish. In two cases, drivers were attacked, and had to flee. One had his car torched.

In Jerusalem, where the two communities also live and work in close proximity, especially given Israel’s policy of creating illegal settlements in the eastern, Palestinian half of the city, the roles were reversed. Mobs of Israeli Jews rampaged through the city seeking out Palestinian workers and taxi drivers to beat in revenge for the killing of the three teens.

Israeli security forces in Jerusalem have sought to contain the clashes with Palestinian youths mostly to the eastern half of the city. In Shuafat, where Abu Khdeir was kidnapped, as in Nazareth, youths have chiefly turned on symbols of Israeli rule and repression. They have thrown stones at police and damaged the light rail system that passes through their neighbourhood.

At the weekend, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, called for an “iron fist” to be used against the Palestinian protesters, whom he referred to as “terrorists”.

‘Not our country’

It was an approach that found favour with Nahum Pittarov, a 35-year-old warehouse worker from Upper Nazareth who, like Lieberman, traces his roots to Moldova.

“We are heading towards a third intifada,” he said decisively in the Kanyon mall, on the other side of the highway from Nazareth. Pittarov denied official statistics to argue that claims by Palestinian citizens of discrimination were unfounded. “They have better houses than us, and they get more money from the government.”

He added: “It’s like this is not our country. It is scary – I wouldn’t go into Nazareth at the moment. When the Arabs start their riots, who pays the price? Us. The police shut the streets so we can’t leave our homes, telling us it’s for our own safety.”

Although a commonly expressed fear, a third intifada may be further off than it appears to many Israeli Jews.

Samer Shtayyeh, a masters student from Jerusalem studying the role of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, thought a new intifada was unlikely.

“We are seeing the Palestinians of ’48 [the areas conquered by Israel in 1948] and those in Jerusalem taking the lead because the PA has no involvement there. In the West Bank, on the other hand, the PA are repressing all signs of protest. They don’t want another intifada any more than Israel does.”

Shtayyeh said the lack so far of a coherent political leadership meant that the protests would most likely remain weak and disorganised. “You need someone directing the anger to make it effective. If it stays this way, it will eventually peter out.”

Police brutality

Most observers agreed that the police’s behaviour in the coming days would be decisive. A video of paramilitary police in Jerusalem beating a cuffed and helpless 15-year-old Palestinian American, a relative of murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir, severely exacerbated tensions at the weekend.

But Said, in the Nazareth bakery, noted that generally the police had not been following Lieberman’s iron-first policy. They had so far handled the clashes more cautiously than in October 2000, when 13 Palestinian citizens were killed and hundreds wounded in a few days.

“This time they have mostly kept their distance to the edges of the city, letting the anger subside rather than storming in all guns blazing. They seem to be worried about inflaming the situation here further.”

In the Kanyon, a woman wearing Islamic headdress was getting her phone fixed at a stall run by a recently demobilised soldier. Ilan, who would not give his last name, served her without any visible animosity.

Only after she left did he quietly confide: “They are the ones who start the violence. The world doesn’t understand that. It’s only when we are under attack that we retaliate.”

There was the odd dissenting view. Marlene Mamistvalov, 28, a shop assistant in a kitchen equipment store, admitted she held opinions shared by few of her friends. “When people are afraid, on both sides, they do stupid things. All of us need to listen to each other more.”

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You can’t force-feed occupation to those who crave freedom

The National – 23 June 2014

For more than a month Israel sought to wriggle off a hook that should have snared it from the start. Two children, 17 and 16, were shot dead during Nakba Day protests near Ramallah, in which youths threw stones ineffectually at well-protected and distant Israeli military position.

Hundreds of Palestinian children have lost their lives over the years at the end of a sharpshooter’s sights, but the deaths of Nadim Nuwara and Mohammed Abu Al Tahir in Beitunia were not easily forgotten.

Israel’s usual denials – the deaths were faked, video footage was doctored, Israeli soldiers were not responsible, the youths provoked the soldiers, no live ammunition was used – have been discredited one by one. Slowly Israel conceded responsibility, if only by falling into a grudging silence.

A CCTV camera mounted on the outer wall of a carpentry shop provided the most damning evidence: it captured the moments when the two unarmed boys were each hit with a live round, in one case as the youth can be seen walking away from the protest area.

But rather than come to terms with the world as it now is, Israel wants to preserve the way it once was. It believes that through force of will it can keep the tide of accountability at bay in the occupied territories.

There has been no admission of guilt, no search for the guilty soldiers and no reassessment of its policies on crowd control or the use of live fire – let alone on the continuation of the occupation. Instead, 20 soldiers arrived last week at the store in Beitunia, threatened to burn it down, arrested the owner, Fakher Zayed, and ordered he remove the camera that caused so much embarrassment.

According to Israel, the fault lies not with a society where teenage soldiers can choose to swat a Palestinian child as casually as a fly. The problem is with a Palestinian storekeeper, who assumed he could join the modern world.

The nostalgia for a “golden era” of occupation was evident, too, last week in a policy change. Israel has rounded up hundreds of Palestinians in the hunt for three Israeli teenagers missing since June 12. Palestinian cities like Hebron have been under lockdown for days, and several Palestinians youths killed, while soldiers scour the West Bank.

But with the search proving fruitless, Israel’s attorney general approved the reintroduction of the notorious “ticking bomb” procedure.

In doing so, he turned the clock back 15 years to a time when Israel routinely used torture against prisoners. Israel may not have been alone then in using torture, but it was exceptional in flaunting its torture dungeons alongside claims to democratic conduct.

Only in 1999 did the country’s supreme court severely limit the practice, allowing interrogators one exemption – a suspect could be tortured only if he was a ticking bomb, hiding information of an attack whose immediate extraction could save lives.

Now Israel’s law chief has agreed that the Palestinian politicians, journalists and activists swept up in the latest mass arrests will be treated as “ticking bombs”. Israel’s torture cells are back in business.

Israelis have been lulled into a false sense of security by the promise of endless and simple technical solutions to the ever-mounting problems caused by the occupation.

This week, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hoped to find another “fix” for Palestinians who refuse to remain supine in the face of their oppression.

Mr Netanyahu is racing through a law to force-feed more than 100 Palestinian prisoners who are two months’ into a hunger strike. The inmates demand that Israel end the common practice of holding prisoners for months and sometimes years without charge, in what is blandly termed “administrative detention”.

Such prisoners, ignorant of their offence, are unable to mount a defence. And as it becomes ever clearer to Palestinian society that Israel is never going to concede Palestinian statehood, things that were once barely tolerated are now seen as unendurable.

Last week, the heads of the World Medical Association urged Israel to halt the legislation, which in a double bill of compulsion will require doctors to sedate and force-feed prisoners to break their hunger strike.

The WMA called the practice “tantamount to torture”. The legislation violates not only the autonomy of the prisoners but the oaths taken by the doctors to work for their patients’ benefit.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper warned that Israel was rushing headlong towards “a new abyss in terms of human rights violations”. And all this to prevent reality pricking the Israeli conscience: that Palestinians would rather risk death than endure the constant indignities of a life under belligerent occupation.

Israelis have yet to realise the dam is soon to burst. They still believe a technical fix is the way to solve ethical dilemmas continuously thrown up by the longest occupation in modern times.

Israel’s technical solutions work to an extent. They confine Palestinians to ever smaller spaces: the prison of Gaza, the city under lockdown, the torture cell, or the doctor’s surgery where a feeding tube can be inserted.

But the craving for self-determination and dignity are more than technical problems. You cannot force-feed a people to still their hunger for freedom.

Belligerent occupations – especially ones where no hope or end is in sight – engender evermore creative and costly forms of resistance, as the hunger strike demonstrates. A physical act of resistance can be temporarily foiled. But the spirit behind it cannot be so easily subdued.

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Israelis close their ears to reasons for kidnap

Middle East Eye – 20 June 2014

The apparent abduction of three teenagers – blamed by Israel on the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas – has provoked a wave of revulsion in Israel but almost no readiness to examine the causes of the incident or the appropriateness of Israel’s response.

The youths, one aged 19 and the two others 16, have been missing since they were seen hitchhiking in a settler area of the West Bank late on 12 June. A huge Israeli military operation, which has involved mass arrests of Palestinians, a lockdown of the city of Hebron and raids on hundreds of homes, has so far failed to locate them.

There are indications that tensions are rising rapidly. On Friday morning, a 16-year-old Palestinian was reported to have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a raid on the West Bank village of Dura, and another seriously injured during confrontations in Qalandia. Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have left six people, including four children, wounded.

But with most Israeli Jews welcoming Israel’s harsh response, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, Haneen Zoabi, discovered the cost of not joining the chorus of outrage. She was assigned a bodyguard this week after receiving a flood of death threats, but is also being investigated by state prosecutors for incitement.

In an interview, she refused to dismiss those who carried out the abductions as simple “terrorists”, describing them instead as people driven to desperate acts by living under occupation.

Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman responded by calling Zoabi a terrorist, adding: “The fate of the kidnappers and the fate of Zoabi, an inciter, should be the same.” A popular Israeli Facebook page, meanwhile, urged the army to “Shoot a terrorist every hour – until the boys are returned”.

Kidnapped Palestinians

Reflecting on the furore, Zoabi said she was “surprised” by the controversy “since the injustice inflicted on the other side is so much greater. There are thousands of abducted Palestinians in Israeli prisons.” She concluded: “Just as I want the kidnapped Palestinian prisoners to be freed, I want the [Israeli] boys to be freed.”

That kind of moral equivalence – however justified – is one very few Israeli Jews, or many in the international community, are willing to countenance. But if they hope to avoid a future of ever-escalating violence that sucks in both Israelis and Palestinians, they need to listen to Palestinians like Zoabi.

As Zoabi noted, Palestinian attempts to abduct Israelis are intimately tied to the issue of the 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, especially the nearly 200 of them held without charge in administrative detention. More than half of the latter group are nearly two months into a hunger strike to protest their continuing incarceration.

Palestinian groups have long seen abductions of Israelis as leverage to free prisoners, as occurred in dramatic fashion in 2011 with the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in return for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas five years earlier.

Gaining bargaining chips has become an even more valued goal since Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reneged in April on a promise to release a final batch of long-term prisoners. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, had engaged in months of fruitless peace talks in return for an agreement to free more than 120 prisoners.

In fact, Netanyahu has responded to the abductions not with a new wariness on the issue of prisoners’ rights but by massively adding to Palestinian grievances about the prisoners.

Mass arrests

The Israeli army is making mass arrests across the West Bank of politicians and anyone with the loosest connection to Hamas. It is also re-imprisoning many of the Palestinians who had been released in return for Shalit. The chances that any of the more than 350 people arrested so far have information on the abductions is highly unlikely, as even Israeli military analysts have conceded.

In addition, the government is racing through legislation to force-feed the hunger-striking prisoners, and has okayed the effective reintroduction of torture as standard procedure against the people it is arresting. This reverses a ruling 15 years ago by Israel’s supreme court that for the first time severely limited the use of torture.

Even more emotive in this case than the general issue of the prisoners is the matter of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children. Up to 700 pass through Israeli prisons each year, most held for throwing stones on evidence their lawyers have not seen, often based on forced confessions from the child himself or other children in detention. The conviction rate of minors stands at over 99 per cent.

Human rights groups note that Israel is the only country that systematically prosecutes children in a military court system.

The Israeli army’s night-time raids on Palestinian homes, in which children as young as 10 or 11 can be seized from their beds at gunpoint, and then transferred into prisons in Israel in violation of Israeli law, look every bit like abductions to most Palestinians.

Israelis and international observers might arrive at the same conclusion were they to watch the horrifying footage contained in a recent documentary on Australian television, Stone Cold Justice.

Nakba Day executions

So the slogan visible on T-shirts across Israel – “Bring back our boys” – could just as easily be worn by Palestinians in the streets of Ramallah or Nablus.

Israelis’ current expectations of Palestinian remorse for the abductions are also unlikely to stir much soul-searching among Palestinians. They wonder instead why there was so much less interest from either Israelis or the international community when Israeli soldiers executed, rather than abducted, two Palestinian children near Ramallah last month during Nakba Day protests.

Rather than evoking the outcry being heard now, most Israelis rejected the evidence clearly visible in video footage of the killings of Nadim Nuwara, 17, and Mohammed Abu al-Thahir, 16. Both were unarmed when they were shot. A recent autopsy confirmed what was already obvious: they were killed with live ammunition by Israeli sharpshooters.

Israel’s dangerous self-absorption – and its refusal to consider the wider political and military framework within which the abductions occurred – is only reinforced by the international response. World leaders who leapt to issue condemnations of the abductions have failed to offer similar denunciations of even graver Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, such as the Nakba Day killings.

Red Cross intervenes

Human rights organisations have performed no better. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the official arbiter of the Geneva Conventions, the bedrock of international humanitarian law, issued a statement urging the three Israeli teenagers’ immediate release.

But the Red Cross carefully avoids making critical statements about Israel’s many war crimes in enforcing the occupation. As was expected, the Red Cross refused requests to issue a similar call for Israel to release the Palestinian children it is holding.

What the international responses have overlooked is the context for Palestinian acts of violence, such as the abductions: Israel’s nearly half-century of belligerent occupation. That is a continuous and inciting act of violence against the Palestinian people, to which they sometimes react with their own, more limited acts of violence.

Instead of facing this fact, Israel has responded by putting its military boot even more firmly on Palestinians’ throats. It is now exploiting outrage at the abductions to justify eradicating Hamas’ political presence in the West Bank, even though so far there is no evidence linking the kidnappings to Hamas. (With the assistance of the Palestinian Authority’s security services, Israel arrested most of Hamas’ military leaders in the West Bank following the capture of Shalit in 2006.)

Weakening Hamas

Israel has not even tried to hide its intentions. One senior commander, Nitzan Alon, said this week: “Hamas will come out of this confrontation weakened both strategically and operationally. We’ll continue weakening them for as long as it takes.”

Israel’s economy minister, Naftali Bennett, was more forthright: “We will turn membership in Hamas into an entry ticket to hell.” While Alex Fishman, an analyst with close ties to the security services, said Israel was treating this as a “one-time operational opportunity” to “castrate” Hamas in the West Bank.

According to the Israeli media, Israel’s intention is not only to arrest the Hamas leadership in the West Bank, including its political leaders, and break up its charitable networks, but also to exile the West Bank leadership to Gaza. In short, Israel intends to interfere directly in Palestinian politics, guaranteeing a one-party statelet – under the Fatah party of Abbas – in the West Bank and restricting Hamas to the tight confinement of Gaza.

Given that the Palestinian factions recently agreed to a unity government, and are preparing for elections in the coming months, Netanyahu is actually intending to prise apart the Palestinian reconciliation and strip Palestinians of the chance to elect their leadership. Or as Israeli military analyst Amos Harel wondered of the current operations’ goals: “Will the campaign go on until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas publically renounces the agreement with Hamas?”

‘Gates of hell’

Netanyahu is again having his cake – refusing to engage in real negotiations on Palestinian statehood – and eating it: upending Palestinian efforts to seek other diplomatic options to end the occupation. It is confirmation that Netanyahu is the one, far more so than the abductors, who is threatening any chance of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that expulsions from the West Bank to Gaza would “open the gates of hell”. Another Hamas official has warned more realistically that another intifada – or uprising – is coming, and will be ignited “when enough pressure is exerted on the Palestinian people”.

But the trickier question for Palestinians is what strategies of resistance do they really have? And herein lies the paradox.

Because, as Israel has confined them to ever smaller spaces inside the occupied territories, Palestinians have found the tools available to them to resist more and more restricted too. This is particularly apparent in Gaza, where militants have adopted a strategy of rocket fire into Israel – to much condemnation around the world – largely because there is no enemy to confront directly. A war against the drones hovering out of sight above, watching, is not yet feasible.

As Haneen Zoabi suggested in her interview, abductions of Israelis are a weapon of the weak, a way Palestinians can strike back against those stealing their lands without risking the suicidal course of taking on the might of the Israeli army.

Hi-tech surveillance

But Israeli intentions to weaken the formal political-military structures in Palestinian society represented by Fatah and Hamas will not make acts of opportunistic violence like the abductions of the Israeli teenagers less likely. In fact, it can be expected to make such incidents more common.

Bureaucracy-heavy groups like Fatah and Hamas, dependent on centralised planning, have found it increasingly difficult to act against Israel in an era of hi-tech surveillance. The preparations for resistance operations have invariably left a footprint visible to Israeli intelligence.

Instead, there are indications that much smaller cells, largely independent of these traditional structures, are starting to emerge, possibly based around families, where the bonds of loyalty are tighter and less likely to be penetrated by Israel.

Israel’s difficulties solving the current abductions suggest that just such a cell may be behind this operation. Breaking apart Hamas and Fatah, and thereby weakening them, could simply accelerate this process.

Such developments promise a treacherous future for Palestinians even more than Israelis. Samir Awad, a politics professor at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, has observed that the collapse of political factions could lead to what he calls the “Aghanistanisation” of the occupied territories, with tribal warlords taking over small enclaves that become their personal fiefdom.

Meanwhile, analyst Chemi Shalev warned recently that the abductions were pushing Israelis to the edge of a collective “insanity”, overwhelmed by self-righteousness and intolerance, “a society losing its grip”.

The public hounding of Zoabi for speaking a few simple truths is a further sign that most Israelis would rather continue living in dangerous denial than confront the destructive reality of the occupation.

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Bedouins defiant despite Israel eviction plan

Al-Jazeera – 14 June 2014

Israeli security forces entered the embattled Bedouin village of al-Araqib in the Negev on June 12 to evict a handful of families who had sought sanctuary in the community’s graveyard.

Bulldozers tore down an improvised mosque, caravan and several shacks that had been set up in the cemetery by 30 residents after the rest of the village had been destroyed dozens of times over the past four years.

“Hundreds of security forces stormed the cemetery, a place where my father and grandfather are buried,” Awad Abu Freih, a village leader, told Al Jazeera. “Israel has no shame. It has violated our sacred land.”

Thabet Abu Ras, an expert on Israeli land policy at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, said the invasion of the cemetery was a “dangerous escalation” by the government. “It will provoke a severe reaction. The government has only one policy towards the Bedouin: force and more force.”

Al-Araqib, which is located a few kilometres north of the Negev’s main city, Beersheva, has become a symbol of the struggle by tens of thousands of Bedouin to win recognition for dozens of communities the government claims are illegally built on state land.

Abu Ras said Israel considered al-Araqib a test of its determination to move the Bedouin off their tribal lands and into “townships” built specially for them decades ago.

“The government fears al-Araqib. Other Bedouin look to it for inspiration,” he told Al-Jazeera. “They see the villagers are refusing to leave their land despite the now 70 demolitions.”

Eviction orders, issued last month and posted on the mosque, included the names of two Bedouins buried in the cemetery, prompting fears that the Israeli authorities might also be planning to demolish the graveyard.

Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said several structures had been removed, but the graves would not be destroyed.

‘Graveyard desecrated’

Israeli police had been regularly visiting the cemetery since March, taking photographs and measurements, said Haia Noach, director of Dukium, an Israeli organisation campaigning for equal rights for the Negev’s Bedouin.

Rabbis for Human Rights had described the earlier intrusions as a “desecration of sacred ground”.

Dozens of Bedouins, including two members of the Israeli parliament, backed by solidarity activists, had joined the families on June 11, in preparation for the eviction orders taking effect the next day.

The villagers of al-Araqib began burying their dead in the cemetery exactly a century ago. Abu Freih said: “It is the clearest proof that, contrary to the state’s claims, our ancestors were settled here well before Israel’s creation in 1948.”

Land claims by Bedouin relating to nearly 1,000sq km of the Negev are yet to be settled by Israel’s highest court, despite years of legal battles.

But al-Araqib’s families received a tentative fillip this month when the Supreme Court appeared reluctant to back the government’s argument that the Bedouin were “trespassers”.

It recommended instead that officials engage in a “fair” mediation process over Al-Araqib’s lands, possibly establishing a precedent for some 35 other villages in the same situation.

Court pre-empted

The government has said it will respond to the court’s proposal in the next few weeks. Abu Freih said the evictions from the cemetery were intended to “pre-empt” the court’s decision.

At the time of the village’s first demolition in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warned that the rapid growth of the country’s Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of the population, posed a “palpable threat” to the state’s Jewishness.

The Bedouin have one of the country’s highest birth rates and now number 200,000 in the Negev, more than a quarter of the total population there despite waves of state-sponsored Jewish migration.

Netanyahu told his cabinet a possible consequence might be that “different elements will demand national rights within Israel, for example, in the Negev, if we allow for a region without a Jewish majority”.

The Negev constitutes nearly two-thirds of Israel’s recognised territory, and much of it is reserved for military purposes, including Israel’s nuclear reactor and its secret nuclear weapons programme.

In 2011, Netanyahu’s government approved a plan by a senior security official, Ehud Prawer, to forcibly remove up to 70,000 Bedouin from their villages and urbanise them in seven Bedouin townships built in the 1970s and 1980s. The townships, including the largest, Rahat, languish at the bottom of all Israeli social and economic tables, according to figures compiled by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Abu Freih said the goal was to empty the Negev of Bedouins so that Jews could settle in their place. “The state wants us out, but we will continue to rebuild. We are not leaving.”

Prawer Plan rethought

Following widescale protests by the Bedouin, Israel officially shelved legislation to implement Prawer’s recommendations late last year. However, Yair Shamir, the agriculture minister, has been charged with reintroducing the plan.

“There is a lot of frustration in the government that it did not succeed in passing the Prawer Bill,” said Abu Ras. “My suspicion is that they are now planning to implement it on the ground without legislation. For them al-Araqib is a ‘hot spot’ – a village they need to make an example of.”

In a possible sign of the internal disputes within the government, Doron Almog, Netanyahu’s senior official dealing with Bedouin affairs, resigned his post last weekend. He declined to state his reasons.

Before the wave of demolitions began in summer 2010, al-Araqib was home to more than 300 Bedouin. The few families that remained had hoped the cemetery would offer them protection.

The residents of al-Araqib have been struggling to be allowed to return to their village since they were forcibly relocated in 1951, during a lengthy period of military rule in the Negev. Their land, along with that of many other Bedouin communities, was reclassified as belonging to the state.

The villagers were eventually resettled in Rahat, only a short distance from al-Araqib. But faced with severe overcrowding there, as well as a lack of infrastructure and jobs, many families began moving back to al-Araqib in the late 1990s and tried to revive their pastoral way of life.

Yusuf Abu Zaid, a resident of al-Araqib now living in Rahat, said many families had found it too difficult to endure four years of demolitions and had moved back to the township. “But we keep our connection by returning at the weekends and in the evenings,” he said.

Forestation programmes

Only about half the Negev’s 200,000 Bedouin have agreed to live in the townships.

In the region’s master plan, much of al-Araqib’s land has been designated for two large forestation programmes. One honours the international community’s ambassadors to Israel, while the other has been paid for by a Christian evangelical TV station called GOD-TV.

Abu Freih said other parts of the village’s lands had been secretly settled by Jews in 2004. In a night-time operation, the government and an international Zionist charity, the Jewish National Fund, set up caravans that subsequently became an exclusively Jewish community known as Givot Bar.

In 2002 Israel began a policy of annually spraying herbicide on al-Araqib’s crops, in an attempt to move the villagers off the land. The practise was stopped in 2007 after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal.

In a test case currently before Israel’s Supreme Court, a former resident of al-Araqib, Nuri al-Uqbi, has been presenting documents and expert testimony to show that his ancestors owned and lived on the village’s lands many decades before Israel’s establishment in 1948.

In 2010, a Beersheva judge rejected al-Uqbi’s case, backing the government’s argument that his tribe had no ownership claim on the land.

This month, however, three Supreme Court justices sided with al-Uqbi’s lawyer, agreeing that government should enter a six-month mediation process to reach a “fair solution”.

Oren Yiftachel, a geographer at Ben Gurion University, said the case was the first time the Supreme Court had examined historical documents relating to Bedouin land claims.

He added: “Sixty years of Bedouin dispossession in general – and the Uqbis’ dispossession in particular – were based on a judicial and historical falsehood”.

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Difficult tests await the new Palestinian unity government

The National – 9 June 2014

In last week’s celebratory atmosphere as the Palestinian unity government was sworn in, ending a seven-year feud between Fatah and Hamas, it was easy to overlook who was absent.

Hamas had agreed to remain in the shadows to placate Washington, which is legally obliged to refuse aid to a government that includes a designated terrorist group. The new Palestinian cabinet looked little different from its predecessor. Hamas’s input was limited to three independents, all in low-level ministerial positions.

And because this transitional government is still operating within the confines of Israeli occupation, the three ministers from Gaza were refused permits to travel to the West Bank for the swearing-in ceremony.

The appointment of a temporary government of technocrats is likely to be the easiest phase of the reconciliation agreed in late April. The deal has endured so far because Hamas, in even more desperate straits than its rival, Fatah, has capitulated.

For that reason, the US and most of the world hurried to offer their blessing. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, made dire warnings about the “strengthening of terror” and approved 3,300 settler homes to punish the Palestinians.

A far trickier stage is still to come: the Palestinian cabinet under President Mahmoud Abbas needs to oversee a bitterly contested national election between Fatah and Hamas.

The elections, expected next year, are vital. Palestinians have had no say in who rules them since 2006, when Hamas was victorious. A year later, Hamas and Fatah created separate fiefdoms in Gaza and the West Bank. Both need to prove their legitimacy at the ballot box. Should voting take place, and Hamas win again, the US and others can be expected to boycott the new government as they did back in 2006.

Other aspects of the earlier election’s conduct are instructive. In the months prior to voting eight years ago, Israel initiated a wave of arrests of Hamas leaders in an attempt to disrupt the democratic process. Israel also hoped to block voting in occupied East Jerusalem, which it considers part of its “eternal, indivisible” capital. But the White House – realising a ballot without Jerusalem would lack credibility – pressured Israel into grudging acquiescence.

Less well remembered is that Fatah quietly conspired with Israel to try to postpone the national vote. Fearing that Hamas would sweep the board, Fatah hoped to use Israeli intransigence in Jerusalem as the necessary pretext to delay the wider elections to a time more favourable to its candidates.

Mr Netanyahu has already announced that he will not allow an election in East Jerusalem, as well as indicating that Hamas will be barred from running elsewhere. That is hardly surprising: Israel has spent the past eight years eradicating Hamas from Jerusalem by jailing its leaders or expelling them.

But Fatah’s behaviour in 2006 hints at an even bigger obstacle to consummating the reconciliation. The reality is that Hamas and Fatah have entered the process only out of mutual despair.

Hamas’s political and geographical isolation in Gaza has plumbed new depths since the Egyptian regime turned hostile. Blockaded on all sides, Hamas has seen its support erode as the enclave’s economic crisis has deepened. A deal with Fatah seems the only way to open the borders.

The credibility of Fatah and Mr Abbas, meanwhile, has been steadily undermined by years of cooperation with Israel – all while the settlements have expanded – in the hope of extracting a concession on statehood.

Mr Abbas’s new strategy – creating a momentum towards statehood at the United Nations – requires that his government-in-waiting establish its democratic credentials, territorial integrity and a national consensus behind the diplomatic option.

The priority for Mr Netanyahu is not only to void the elections but to weaken the two sides’ commitment to unity by punishing them for their insolence. He can do so given Israel’s control over all aspects of Palestinian life.

Israel has begun not only with another fierce round of settlement building, but by declaring war on the Palestinian economy, refusing to accept shekel deposits from Palestinian banks, and by imposing collective daily blackouts on Palestinians for unpaid bills to Israel’s electricity company.

Mr Abbas, now responsible for paying the salaries of tens of thousands of public employees in Gaza each month, will be even more vulnerable to Israeli threats to refuse to transfer tax and customs revenues. It emerged yesterday that Israel is also lobbying foreign capitals to hold the Palestinian president directly responsible for any rockets fired from Gaza.

Hamas faces a no less difficult period ahead. If it strays too far from Fatah’s dictates, it will be blamed for destroying the unity pact, but if it adheres too close to Fatah, it will lose its identity and risk being outflanked by more militant groups like Islamic Jihad.

Samah Sabawi, a political analyst, observed of the unity government: “What we need more than ministries and authorities is resistance and liberation.” The unity government – whether of technocrats or elected officials – will still operate within the limitations imposed by Israel’s occupation.

In fact, the unity government simply breathes new life into the illusion – created by the Oslo accords of two decades ago – that good governance by the Palestinian Authority can change the Palestinians’ situation for the better.

In practice, such governance has entailed submitting to Israel’s security demands, a Palestinian obligation Mr Abbas termed “sacred” last week.

As Ms Sabawi suggests, an occupied people needs not better rubbish collection or street lighting but an effective strategy for resistance.

Palestinians will not benefit from a PA that polices the occupation simply because it becomes more “unified”. Rather, their struggle to attain real freedom will grow that bit more daunting.

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Christians object to serving in Israel’s army

Al-Jazeera – 5 June 2014

The leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority are stepping up opposition to Israeli government plans to recruit Christians into the military with a specially convened congress tomorrow.

The congress, due to be held in the Galilee town of Sakhnin, will include all the minority’s political factions. It follows an announcement in April from the Israel Defence Forces that all Christians would receive call-up papers on graduating from high school. An initial batch of 800 papers is due to be issued in the coming weeks.

“The congress will make clear that there is a national consensus against serving in the military and the government has crossed a red line,” said Nadim Nashef, director of Baladna, a youth movement that has led opposition to the government drive.

The Israeli military has insisted that the notices will be treated as an “invitation”, but Nashef said it was widely assumed that Israel intended to impose a compulsory draft at a later stage. Unlike Israeli Jews, most of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, comprising a fifth of the country’s population, have been exempted from conscription since the state’s establishment more than six decades ago. Many in the minority fear the change in official policy is intended to fuel tensions with their Muslim compatriots, as part of a “divide and rule” policy.

Netanyahu’s support

Netanyahu personally backed enlistment for Christians after a Nazareth priest, Jibril Nadaf, went public with his support 18 months ago. Last summer, Netanyahu held a press conference with Nadaf at which he said: “The Christian youth must be allowed to go into the IDF. You are loyal citizens who want to defend the country, and I salute and support you.”

The congress takes place as Palestinian leaders have expressed disappointment that Church leaderships have failed to take a decisive stand against Israel’s enlistment drive. There had been widespread hopes that Pope Francis’ visit to the region last month would provide an opportunity for him to speak out gainst the move.

However, the pope made no mention of the issue during his three-day visit. He has yet to respond to a letter sent to him in February by Basel Ghattas, a Christian member of the Israeli parliament. He also broke with the precedent set by predecessors by not venturing to the Galilee, where most of Israel’s 130,000 Palestinian Christians live.

Hana Swaid, the only member of the Israeli parliament from the Roman Catholic community, said he was “astonished” that the Pope had not made time to meet with him or other leaders of the Christian community. “Army service will only add to the pressures on the Christian community here. It makes it even more likely that Christians will leave the region, seeking to make a new life overseas,” Swaid said.

He added that recent threats from Jewish extremists against the Christian community, including a wave of attacks on holy sites, had further contributed to feelings that life was not safe for religious minorities in Israel.

Murky dealings

Ghattas told Al Jazeera that the Greek Orthodox Church had demonstrated a similar reluctance to intervene.

Last month, hopes were briefly raised when Isa Musleh, a senior official with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, announced that Nadaf had been sacked. He issued a statement saying: “We warned him before to keep to his priestly duties and not to interfere in matters of the army.” But the Patriarch himself, Theophilos III, is reported not to have enforced the decision, with Nadaf advised instead to keep a low profile.

“The Patriarch knows Netanyahu has made this his personal cause and is afraid the Church will face severe sanctions if he is seen to be punishing Nadaf,” Ghattas said. He added that the Church leaderships had many “complex and murky interests” in Israel, especially concerning ownership of land, tax affairs, and the need for clerical visas.

Bishop Isychios, a spokesman for the Patriarch, declined to respond to questions, including on whether Nadaf had been sacked. Nadaf has since become the spiritual leader of a Forum for Christian Recruitment, established by a small group of Christians who volunteer in the Israeli military. He has been widely feted by the Israeli right.

The Forum’s spokesman, Shadi Halul, a reserve paratrooper, told Al Jazeera that it was natural for Christians to want to serve Israel. “We are part of this country. Israel protects us and offers us the chance to live in peace in the region.” He said most Christian leaders in Israel lived in fear of the Muslim population, which comprises 80 percent of the Palestinian minority. Referring to sectarian fighting in neighbouring Syria and Egypt, he said: “Our [Christian] brothers are being persecuted and slaughtered only a short distance away.”

Mock checkpoint

According to the IDF, about 2,000 Christians reach the age of conscription each year. Despite the government’s promotion of enlistment, only about 150 Christians are reported to be serving. Riah Abu el-Assal, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, said the Forum represented only a very small minority of Christians in Israel. “The reality is that most Christians do not want to serve and will not respond to the call-up.”

Opponents of enlistment among the Palestinian minority have staged a series of protests.

In April, youths in Nazareth took over a central square dressed as soldiers and harassed passersby at a mock checkpoint to highlight what military service entails. A pamphlet warned that Israel wanted to achieve “the disintegration of the Palestinian national minority into warring sects”. A similar demonstration took place in the city of Haifa a fortnight ago.

Last month, Ghattas interrupted a meeting of the parliament’s interior committee to which Nadaf had been invited, calling him a “traitor” and “agent for the Shin Bet”, a reference to Israel’s secret intelligence service. He told Al Jazeera that the government was cracking down on any criticism of Nadaf, including by calling in people for interrogation. “It is like we have gone back to the 1970′s when the Shin Bet sought to control our political life,” Ghattas said.

Critics arrested

There have been several demonstrations on university campuses. During one at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in April, three students were arrested.

A political activist in central Israel, Ghassan Munayir, was also arrested in April after posting on Facebook photographs of Nadaf and other Christians meeting the finance minister, Yair Lapid, to discuss drafting Christians. He was released on house arrest, but only after agreeing to the confiscation of his computer and phone.

Ghattas said the police had disrupted efforts to hold protest meetings in Christian communities by threatening to revoke the licence of any public venue owner who agreed to host them.

Palestinian leaders in Israel are also concerned by related efforts to establish a separate legal status for Christians and Muslims. In February, the parliament passed a law that, for the first time, provides recognition of Christians as a separate minority from Muslims.

Yariv Levin, who drafted the law and is a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Israeli media that the legislation was meant to “connect us [the Jewish majority] and the Christians”. He added: “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

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Israel plans to outlaw Islamic party

Middle East Eye - 4 June 2014

Israel is preparing to shut down the most popular Islamic party among its large Palestinian minority, apparently hoping to exploit the rising tide of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told his cabinet last week that the northern branch of the Islamic Movement should be outlawed as a terror organisation, according to a leak published in the Israeli media.

Netanyahu has reportedly already established a ministerial team to examine banning the movement, which is led by Sheikh Raed Salah. Three sources at the cabinet meeting provided confirmation to the Haaretz newspaper.

The planned crackdown coincides with claims by the Israeli security services that the Islamic Movement is cooperating with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic faction that rules Gaza, to help the latter retain influence in East Jerusalem.

“Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians, in Israel and the occupied territories, that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

Strengthen terror

Israel has intensified its attempts to isolate and weaken Hamas since the Gaza group signed a reconciliation deal in April with Fatah, the party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is fearful that the agreement may bolster Palestinian efforts in the international arena towards statehood.

The formal declaration this week of a Hamas-Fatah unity government prompted Netanyahu to warn: “This will not strengthen peace; it will strengthen terrorism.” Ahmad Saadi, a Palestinian political analyst, said moves against the Islamic Movement should also be seen as part of a wider attack on the political representation of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.

He noted that Israeli parliament had raised the electoral threshold in March to the point where it was doubtful any Palestinian parties could be elected. “Israel would prefer that there is no Arab leadership of any sort organising the community.”

Al-Aqsa in danger

The Islamic Movement, in particular, has been successful in challenging key Israeli policies at the highly sensitive site of the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem and among the Bedouin in the Negev region.

Israel has been seeking to strengthen its control over the mosque site, which it refers to as the Temple Mount because it is assumed to have been built over two long-destroyed Jewish temples. Salah has mobilised tens of thousands of Muslim followers in Israel to take an active role there under the campaign slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger”. In recent weeks, following the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks late April, there has been a spate of violent clashes between young Muslims and Israeli security forces at the site.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement’s popularity has soared among the Negev’s Bedouin in recent years. Israeli officials have blamed the movement for being behind mass protests last year that scotched controversial legislation to move 40,000 Bedouin off their ancestral lands to make way for Jewish communities. “Judaisation of Jerusalem and the Negev are big issues for the Israeli right,” said Saadi.

Israel not recognised

In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement split into two branches. A southern wing is represented in the Israeli parliament, while the northern branch refuses to recognise Israel and does not participate in national elections.

Although the Islamic Movement has ideological sympathies with Hamas, Salah has publicly disavowed violence.

The movement’s popularity among the Palestinian minority is based largely on its charitable and welfare work, and on an image of Salah as incorruptible and persecuted by Israel.

He has been arrested many times. On several occasions charges have been later withdrawn or convictions secured with evidence provided solely by security officials.

Last month Salah was fined £1,500 for obstructing security officials, after he tried to stop his wife being strip-searched three years ago as the couple returned from a trip to Jordan. Zahi Nujeidat, a spokesman, said the Islamic Movement’s legitimacy derived from its wide support. “We do not need a licence from the government. We will stick to our principles and not be intimidated.”

Comparison with Kach

At last week’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu compared the northern wing of the Islamic Movement to Kach, a Jewish extremist group that was declared a terror organisation in 1994. That was shortly after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 28 Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.

“There was no problem outlawing Kach, so there ought to be no problem doing this in the case of the Islamic Movement,” the Israeli prime minister reportedly told his ministers.

He was backed by the transport minister, Yisrael Katz, who noted that the Muslim Brotherhood had been designated a terror organisation in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “Only in Israel do they [the Brotherhood] freely incite against the existence of the state. There has to be a stop to that,” he said.

Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organisation, said: “Israeli decision-makers are seizing an opportunity to act on long-standing concerns about political Islam. Given events in Egypt, the timing is convenient.”

Saadi said the success of anti-Islamic parties in last month’s European elections may also have spurred Netanyahu into action.

Democracy at risk

According to the Israeli media, a ban on the Islamic Movement has been delayed by the justice ministry, which is concerned that the decision might not survive a petition to the Israeli supreme court.

Ghanem dismissed the suggestion that the Islamic Movement could be compared to Kach.

“Kach was a racist organisation with a clear intention to harm Arabs individually and collectively. It is still active and carrying out attacks through its supporters in the settler movement. Kach is a real threat, not the Islamic Movement.”

That assessment was shared in a Haaretz editorial, which feared that a ban would redefine terror in a way that “puts the principles of democracy at risk”. It noted that Netanyahu had refused to classify as terror organisations Jewish extremist groups that in recent years have been attacking Christian and Muslim sites in Israel and the occupied territories.

As a result of the hostile regional climate in the past few years, the Islamic Movement had adopted less radical and confrontational positions than a decade ago, said Ghanem.

“It espouses a political view of what kind of state Israel should be – a position different from, but certainly no more extreme than, that taken by some members of Netanyahu’s government.” Both wanted their own religious-ethnic group to dominate, he said.

Hamas link?

Leaks from last week’s cabinet meeting were followed by reports that a Hamas leader, Mahmoud Toameh, had revealed during interrogation that his group was directing money to the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Toameh, who was arrested at an Israeli-controlled crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on 14 April, reportedly said Hamas was paying youths from the Islamic Movement to study at seminaries in the al-Aqsa compound.

According to the Israeli media, the youths were chiefly employed to fight with Israeli police and “harass Jews” – a reference to mounting tensions over an influx of Jewish extremists trying to pray at the compound.

Zalzberg said Israel was worried that religious activism at the al-Aqsa compound of the kind promoted by the Islamic Movement might lead to intensified clashes with Israeli police that could damage relations with Egypt and Jordan.

Both Hamas and the Islamic Movement have been concerned that most Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza are unable to reach the al-Aqsa site because of Israeli movement restrictions, leaving the compound vulnerable to an Israeli takeover. Israeli politicians recently tried to introduce legislation to force Islamic authorities to share control of the site with Israel.

Hamas leaders have been barred from occupied East Jerusalem in recent years too. Following Palestinian national elections in 2006, three legislators from Jerusalem had their residency revoked and were expelled to the West Bank. In their absence, the Islamic Movement has taken an increasingly prominent role in Jerusalem and at al-Aqsa.

Anti-Israeli crusade

Moshe Arens, a former defence minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, wrote this week that Salah’s party was “far more dangerous” than either Hamas or Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shiite group that Israel engaged in a month-long war in 2006. He called it “an enemy within” that was “gradually mobilising the Muslim population in Israel in an anti-Israeli crusade”.

Discussions on outlawing the Islamic Movement took place as the cabinet approved plans to set up a ministerial committee to examine the economic development of Israel’s Palestinian minority. It will be headed by Yaacov Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service.

Zalzberg said the committee was intending to create a distinction between loyal and disloyal Arab citizens.

“The government’s strategy is to offer incentives to those who are considered loyal, and limit the rights of groups not seen as acting in accordance with the state’s objectives.”

Last week the Islamic Movement announced that it had discovered bugging equipment on a phone line in Salah’s office recently installed by Israel’s national telecom company.

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Israel’s Christians need all the support they can get

The National – 25 May 2014

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Holy Land five years ago, Israel heightened its security, gladly emphasising the potential threat he supposedly faced in Israel from Muslim extremists.

As his successor, Pope Francis, arrived in Israel on Sunday, security was no less strict. Some 9,000 police had been drafted in to protect him, Christian institutions were under round-the-clock protection, and the intelligence services were working overtime. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations had turned “the holy sites into a military base”.

On this occasion Israel has been less keen to publicise the source of its fears, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamists but Jewish fanatics linked to Israel’s settler movement.

Last month, they issued a death threat to the Roman Catholic bishop of Nazareth and his followers, while recent weeks have seen clergy attacked, churches and monasteries defaced with offensive graffiti and cemeteries desecrated.

The building where the pope is due to meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday was daubed with “Death to Arabs and Christians”. Last Friday, a church in Beersheva was sprayed with “Jesus is a son of a bitch”.

Israeli police have arrested or issued restraining orders on several dozen Jewish extremists in the past few days. Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, has warned that “acts of unrestrained vandalism are poisoning the atmosphere”.

Indeed, the mood of intolerance has spread beyond a dangerous fringe. Hundreds of Israeli Jews demonstrated angrily in Jerusalem last week against the pope, while police barred Catholic authorities from putting up banners celebrating his visit, apparently fearful it could trigger wider protests.

The local Palestinian Christian population, both in the occupied territories and inside Israel itself, is feeling more embattled than ever – and not just from settlers.

In Bethlehem on Sunday, the pope made an unscheduled stop to pray by the monstrous concrete wall that has turned Jesus’s birthplace into a prison for its inhabitants. At a nearby refugee camp he was reminded that Israel bars the residents from returning to homes now in Israel.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has announced a plan whose barely concealed goal is to divide the large Palestinian minority inside Israel – pitting Christian against Muslim – by seeking to draft the former into the Israeli military.

Despite this pope’s popularity, there have been rumblings of dissatisfaction at his priorities on this brief, three-day trip. The official purpose is to mark the 50th anniversary of a meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras that ended a 1,000-year schism between Rome and the Orthodox Church.

The Vatican has emphasised that Francis’s trip is “absolutely not political”. His itinerary, which does not include time for a visit to the Galilee, where most Palestinian Christians are located, suggests the pope is not likely to offer his flock solace beyond the general hope he expressed in Bethlehem for a “stable peace” in the region.

The holy land’s Christians are an increasingly vulnerable minority.

Although Israel blames Muslim fanatics for the decades-long decline in the number of Christians, the truth is different. In repeated surveys, only a small minority of Christians blame Muslims for the exodus.

In part, the proportion of Christians has fallen over time simply because of their tendency to have smaller families than Muslims. But equally significant are Israel’s oppressive twin policies of belligerent occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a political system of exclusive Jewish privilege inside Israel.

All Palestinians, Muslim and Christian alike, have been harmed by Israeli rule. But Christians have been better able to exploit connections to western communities, giving them an easier passage out.

None of this fits well with Israel’s narrative of a clash between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam, or its desire to present itself as a unique haven as neighbouring Arab states sink into sectarian conflict. Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu claimed Israel was the only Middle East country to offer “absolute freedom to practise all religions”.

The reality, however, is that the settlers’ violence feeds off a religious and ethnic intolerance cultivated on many fronts by the Israeli state itself.

It starts early, with most Jewish children educated in religious schools that scorn a modern curriculum. Instead, they drill into pupils literal interpretations of the Bible that encourage Jewish chauvinism.

Israel’s programme of Holocaust education rejects universal lessons, preferring to nurture a sense of Jews as history’s eternal victims. Many Israelis believe they should be constantly on guard, and armed, against a world of antisemitic gentiles.

Hardline Orthodox rabbis, given control over large areas of Israeli life, have become sole arbiters of moral values for many Israelis. The government’s latest effort to pass legislation affirming Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” is designed to prevent any hope of a multicultural future.

And finally, decades of rule over Palestinians have been exploited by Israel to invest ever-greater Jewish religious symbolism in contested or shared holy places, most notably the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. Slowly, a territorial conflict is gaining the attributes of a religious war.

Local church leaders understand this well. In the run-up to the pope’s visit, Patriarch Twal asked pointedly: “What effect is created by official discourse on Israel being a state for one group only?”

The pope noted in Jordan on Saturday that religious freedom was a “fundamental human right”. That is certainly a message Israel’s leadership needs to hear stressed when Francis meets them on Monday.

A visit that eschewed politics to focus only on religion – elevating holy sites above the people who live next to them – would betray a Christian community that needs all the help it can get as it fights for its continuing place in the holy land.

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On Nakba Day, Israelis forced to confront a guilty secret

Counterpunch – 16 May 2014

For 66 years Israel’s founding generation has lived with a guilty secret, one it successfully concealed from the generations that followed. Forests were planted to hide war crimes. School textbooks mythologised the events surrounding Israel’s creation. The army was blindly venerated as the most moral in the world.

Once, “Nakba” – Arabic for “Catastrophe”, referring to the dispossession of the Palestinian homeland in 1948 – would have failed to register with any but a small number of Israeli Jews. Today, only those who never watch television or read a newspaper can plead ignorance.

As marches and festivals are held today by Palestinians across the region to mark Nakba Day – commemorating the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the erasure of more than 500 villages – Israelis will be watching.

In fact, the Israeli media have been filled with references to the Nakba for the past 10 days, since Israel celebrated its Independence Day last week. The two anniversaries do not quite coincide because Israel marks its founding according to the Hebrew calendar.

While Israeli Jews were trying to enjoy guilt-free street parties last week, news reports focused on the activities of their compatriots – the Palestinians who remained inside the new state of Israel and now comprise a fifth of the population. Estimates are that one in four of these 1.5 million Palestinian citizens is from a family internally displaced by the 1948 war.

More than 20,000 staged a “March of Return” to one destroyed village, Lubya, buried under a forest near Tiberias and close to a major Israeli highway. Long tailbacks forced thousands of Israeli Jews to get a close-up view as they crawled past the biggest nakba procession in Israel’s history.

For others, images of the marchers waving Palestinian flags and massively outnumbering Israeli police and a counter-demonstration by Jewish nationalists were seen on TV news, websites and social media.

The assault on Israel’s much cherished national mythology is undoubted. And it reflects the rise of a new generation of Palestinians no longer willing to defer to their more cautious, and traumatised, elders, those who directly experienced the events of 1948.

These youth see themselves as representing not only their immediate relatives but Palestinians in exile who have no chance to march back to their village. Many of Lubya’s refugees ended up in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, where they are suffering new horrors, caught in the midst of Syria’s civil war.

Palestinians in Israel are also being galvanised into action by initiatives like prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to legislate Israel as a Jewish state. They see this as the latest phase of an ongoing nakba – an attempt to erase their nativeness, just as the villages were once disappeared.

Palestinians are making a noise about the Nakba on every possible front – and not just on Nakba Day. Last week media around the world reported on one such venture: a phone app called iNakba that maps the hundreds of destroyed villages across Israel. Briefly it became one of the most popular iPhone downloads, connecting refugees through new technology. iNakba visibly restores a Palestine that Israel hoped literally to have wiped off the map.

The app is the initiative of Zochrot, an Israeli organisation that is jointly run by Jews and Palestinians. They have been finding ever more creative and provocative ways to grab headlines.

They arrange regular visits to destroyed villages that a growing number of curious Israeli Jews are participating in, often in the face of vehement opposition from the communities built on the rubble of Palestinian homes.

Zochrot has created a Hebrew information pack on the Nakba for teachers, though education officials ban it. Last year it staged the first Nakba film festival in Tel Aviv. It is also creating an archive of filmed interviews with Israeli veteran fighters prepared to admit their part in expulsions.

Zochrot also held last year the first-ever conference in Israel discussing not just the principle but how to put into practice a right of return for the millions of Palestinian refugees across the region.

Palestinian youth are taking up the idea enthusiastically. Architects are designing plans for new communities that would house the refugees on or near their old lands.

Refugee families are trying to reclaim mosques and churches, usually the only buildings still standing. Israeli media reported last month that internal refugees had been attacked as they held a baptism in their former church at al-Bassa, now swamped by the Jewish town of Shlomi.

Workshops have been arranged among refugee groups to imagine what a right of return might look like. Youth from two Christian villages, Iqrit and Biram, have already set up camps at their old churches, daring Israel to hound them out like their grandparents. Another group, I Won’t Remain a Refugee, is looking to export this example to other villages.

The size of the march to Lubya and the proliferation of these initiatives are a gauge of how Palestinians are no longer prepared to defer to the Palestinian leadership on the refugee issue or wait for an interminable peace process to make meaningful progress.

“The people are sending a message to the leadership in Ramallah that it cannot forget or sideline the right of return,” says Abir Kopty, an activist with the Lubya march. “Otherwise we will take the issue into our own hands.”

Meanwhile, progress of a kind is being made with Israeli Jews. Some have come to recognise, however reluctantly, that a tragedy befell the Palestinians with Israel’s creation. But, as another march organiser notes, the struggle is far from over. “That is a first step. But now they must take responsibility for our suffering and make amends.”

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Israelis slowly wake up to the Nakba

Middle East Eye – 15 May 2014

LUBYA, Israel – Palestinians are due to stage marches in both the occupied territories and Israel Thursday to commemorate the loss of their homeland 66 years ago – an event they call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe” – a little more than a week after Israeli Jews celebrated the anniversary of the Jewish state’s birth.

But for many Israeli Jews, it is becoming ever harder to mark their Independence Day without confronting the fact that Israel’s establishment created a new set of victims, said Eitan Bronstein, founder of Zochrot, or “Remembering”, an organisation dedicated to teaching Israeli Jews about the Nakba.

“Once, the Nakba was a non-issue for Israeli Jews. Many had never heard of it or didn’t know what the term meant. But now it is unavoidable. Israelis have to face it.”

Long excluded from the Israeli national discourse, the Nakba – and the ensuing destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages – is slowly forcing itself into the consciousness of ordinary Israelis. And that is creating new sources of tension and potential conflict.

Last week, as Israeli Jews held street parties celebrating Independence Day according to the Hebrew calendar, some 20,000 of their compatriots – Palestinians citizens of Israel – gathered in a forest half way between Nazareth and Tiberias. In the largest Nakba procession ever staged in Israel, they waved Palestinian flags as they marched to Lubya, one of more than 500 Palestinian villages destroyed in the aftermath of Israel’s creation.

As has become typical in recent years, the march produced a counter-demonstration: hardline Jewish nationalists staged noisy celebrations close by, fervently waving Israeli flags and trying to get as close to the march as police would allow.

‘Fifth column’

Scenes of the Nakba procession – all over social media, as well as the Israeli news – upset the Israeli right. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, and leader of Israel is Our Home party, called Palestinian citizens who joined the march “a fifth column whose aim is the destruction of Israel”. He added that their rightful place was not in Israel but “Ramallah”, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered.

Numbering 1.5 million, the Palestinian minority comprises a fifth of Israel’s population. Able to reach the destroyed villages, unlike most Palestinian refugees, they have increasingly shouldered the struggle to keep alive the memory of what was lost in 1948.

Most Israeli Jews, however, regard efforts to revisit 1948 as a threat to Zionism, said Bronstein. A long-standing consensus in Israel is that any concession to Palestinians on the refugee question could open the door to the right of return, destroying Israel’s Jewish character.

Im Tirtzu, a far-right youth movement opposed to what it sees as growing anti-Zionist influences on Israeli society, organised protests at several Israeli universities this week as Palestinian students tried to hold Nakba commemorations.

Matan Peleg, Im Tirtzu’s director, said: “The left is trying to promote these Nakba events to make Israelis feel guilty about our Independence Day. But Israelis aren’t falling for it. We know who started the war.”

Israel has long insisted that the many Palestinians left of their own accord or that their exodus was possibly even coordinated by Arab leaders. Palestinians in turn have always vehemently denied this narrative and insist that the civilian population was forced out.

Peleg said Israel respected the human rights of its Arab population more than any Arab state in the Middle East. “Israelis are made angry by the hypocrisy. When we see the Palestinian flag being raised, we know that they [those on the march] don’t want Israel to exist.”

Sights like those at Lubya are likely to fuel a “harsh” reaction from Israel, said Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian and expert on the events of 1948. “Unfortunately, we are likely to see more draconian legislation in the future and the possibility of brutal violence,” he said.

The Israeli parliament has already passed a law preventing any publicly-funded institution – such as schools, universities and libraries – from providing a voice to the Palestinian narrative of 1948.

New assertiveness

Pappe said an announcement last month by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of new legislation to define Israel in exclusively Jewish terms indicated further efforts to eradicate discussion of the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility.

Ziad Awaisi, one of the Nakba march organisers, said such moves were only galvanising the resolution of Palestinians on the refugee issue. “A new, young generation is ready to be more assertive about the Nakba and the rights of the refugees. They are willing to confront the Israeli authorities,” he said.

Estimates are that one in four Palestinian citizens of Israel belongs to a family expelled from its home in 1948, making them a potentially powerful force in Israel for a historical re-evaluation.

The “March of Return” has been held annually since 1998, each year to a different destroyed village. In recent years, the number of participants has swelled dramatically, with young families and youths playing an ever greater part.

The erased village of Lubya is covered by a pine forest known to the Jewish population as Lavi Park and nowadays chiefly visited by walkers, cyclists and families out for a barbecue.

Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament who has emerged in recent years as a stern critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, asked in a commentary last week: “Can the Nakba and Independence coexist in the same space?”

Calling Israelis ”insensitive”, he wrote: “All around the country, cemeteries were desecrated, holy places were turned into storerooms and animal pens, entire villages were wiped off the face of their tilled earth, and one person’s place of mourning and devastation became another’s place of leisure and holiday-making.”

Representing refugees

At Lubya, refugees spoke longingly of their desire to return to a village that was once home to nearly 3,000 Palestinians. Many were among the 750,000 Palestinians forced out of the new state of Israel in 1948 and into refugee camps across the region.

Awaisi said the large attendance at this year’s march may have reflected in part the fact that a significant proportion of Lubya’s refugees ended up in Yarmouk, a camp in Damascus that is now caught in the midst of Syria’s civil war.

“It is important that we show the refugees that we are active on their behalf, especially when the Palestinian leaders [based in Ramallah] grow ever quieter on the right of return.”

But, he added, local tensions were also driving a renewed interest in the Nakba. “The recent attacks on our communities, including mosques and churches, and the failure of the police to do anything, are a reminder to people that our presence here is under threat. This march was a way to say: We are here and we are not going anywhere.”

Nakba initiatives inside Israel are taking off on various fronts, adding to the tension with Israeli Jews.

Zochrot, or Remembering in Hebrew, is a small but growing organisation of Israelis – Jews and Palestinians – whose goal is to be “provocative”, said Raneen Jeries, the group’s media director. “We want to make them [Israeli Jews] angry. That is how we raise awareness. They have to take note of the history they were not taught at school.”

Map of destroyed villages

Last week Zochrot launched a phone app called iNakba, the first of its kind. In three languages, English, Arabic and Hebrew, it flags up on an interactive map all the Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, allowing users to locate them and share information.

Jeries said it had been an instant success, gaining thousands of downloads on its first day.

“Colonial regimes like Israel use maps as a political tool, to erase communities, heritage, even nations. But this app puts Palestine back on the map. With the help of users, it will create the most accurate map ever and reconnect the refugees to their villages.”

For the past decade Zochrot has been running regular visits for Israelis to the ruins of different villages, often buried under pine forests and hidden inside gated communities reserved for the Jewish population.

Zochrot has created a “nakba kit” for teachers, though it is barred from use in the classroom by education officials.

The group has also created an archive of filmed interviews with veteran Israeli fighters from the 1948 war, who admit their role in expelling Palestinians and, in some cases, participating in massacres. Most Israeli Jews are still taught a long-discredited narrative that Palestinians fled under orders from Arab leaders.

Last year Zochrot held the first-ever conference on the practical implementation of a right of return, at a time when most Israeli Jews still reject even the principle.

Holy places reclaimed

Groups of refugees inside Israel have been trying to reclaim mosques and churches, usually the only buildings still standing in the destroyed villages, defying Israeli orders that have typically declared the ruins “closed military areas”.

In two destroyed Christian villages in the Galilee, Biram and Iqrit, youths have set up encampments next to the surviving churches, daring Israel to force them out.

Such efforts are leading to confrontations.

Last month a refugee family that tried to hold a baptism in a church at al-Bassa, now the industrial zone of the northern Jewish town of Shlomi, was attacked. A group of Jewish residents reportedly called them “stinking Christians” and smashed the camera of the official photographer.

Shlomi’s mayor, Gabi Naaman, told the Haaretz newspaper that refugee families trying to renovate or use the church were “trespassing”. He added that the building was too dilapidated to be safe. “I will act to close the place down because it’s dangerous, and I will block any entry to it in the future.”

At other sites, such as at the historic mosque of Ghabsiyya, east of Acre, Israeli authorities have been trying to prevent refugees from using the building by sealing it off with razor wire and high walls.

According to Pappe, as Israelis are faced with the realities of 1948, there is likely to be an ideological entrenchment. “Israelis may admit the ethnic cleansing [of 1948] but then they say it was justified, or that the Palestinians were the successors of the Nazis, or that Israel was going to be exterminated.”

But Jeries insists that the work of the Nakba groups is only just beginning. “Israeli society now acknowledges the Nakba. But there is much more to be done,” she said. “Israeli Jews don’t yet want to take responsibility for it: to fix historical injustices and take back the refugees. It is going to be a long process.”

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Onward, Christian soldiers

Middle East Report Online - 13 May 2014

For the past 18 months the Israeli government has gradually raised the stakes in its campaign to pressure Palestinian Christians to serve in the Israeli military. In April, Israel upped the ante once again, announcing it would henceforth be issuing enlistment notices to Christians who have graduated from secondary school. This time, the Greek Orthodox patriarch responded, sacking a senior Nazareth priest, Jibril Nadaf, who had styled himself the spiritual leader of a small but vociferous group of Palestinian Christians who back the government campaign.

The enlistment drive began quietly in October 2012 with a clandestine “recruitment conference” arranged by the Defense Ministry to which Christian Scout groups, mostly from the Greek Catholic and Maronite communities, were invited. Then, in the summer of 2013, standing alongside Nadaf, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, went public. He declared at a press conference: “Members of the Christian community must be allowed to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). You are loyal citizens who want to defend the state. I salute you and support you. We will not tolerate threats against you and we will act to enforce the law with a heavy hand against those who persecute you.”

The April announcement was the first concrete step toward fulfilling Netanyahu’s vow, though for the time being the recipient will be able to treat the letter as an “invitation” rather than a formal draft notice. The military said it would begin by sending out 800 letters to Christians who had reached conscription age.

As the campaign proceeds, Israeli officials are watching carefully to see how the local Christian population responds and, more importantly, what reaction this effort provokes from the international community and church hierarchies.

The group of Palestinian Christians led by Nadaf has established a Forum for Christian Recruitment, which is advising the government on how to advance enlistment. Nadaf articulates their thinking: “We have broken through the barrier of fear. The time has come to prove our loyalty, pay our dues and demand our rights. Because the State of Israel is our heart, Israel is a holy state, a strong state, and its people, Jews and Christians alike, are united under one covenant.”

The overwhelming majority of Christians appear unpersuaded by such appeals and oppose military service, voluntary or otherwise. But Israeli officials employ a combination of pressures — arrests, threats of prosecution for incitement and civil suits for financial damages — to intimidate the scheme’s critics.

Meanwhile, church authorities inside Israel and abroad find themselves in uncomfortable territory, pushed by local congregants to act but loathe to antagonize the Israeli government. Both the Greek Orthodox Church, representing the largest Christian denomination in Israel, and the Vatican are heavily dependent on Israeli good will. Israel provides entry permits for priests and nuns to work in religious institutions, and mostly averts its gaze from the churches’ intentionally opaque tax and property affairs.

That may in part explain why appeals from Palestinian Christian leaders to Pope Francis to intervene during his May visit to the Holy Land have so far gone unheeded. For many months, the Greek Orthodox patriarch had also ignored repeated requests from the local community to defrock Nadaf. A spokesman revealed that senior clerics finally agreed to sack the priest. “We warned him before to keep to his priestly duties and not to interfere in matters of the army. When he did not heed our warning we held a meeting of the church court, which decided to sack him,” said ‘Isa Muslih.

Divide and Rule

Palestinian leaders in Israel, representing a minority of the country’s 1.5 million citizens, or one fifth of the population, view the government’s efforts to recruit Christians to the military as an elaboration of long-standing divide-and-rule policies.

Founded explicitly as a Jewish state, Israel has preserved the foundations of the Ottoman millet system, which gave each confessional group’s religious leadership exclusive control over personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce and burial. Having separated these confessional groups, Israel then granted preferential status to the Jewish community in many areas of the law, treating it as a part of a global Jewish nation and consequently entitled to national rights. Members of the Palestinian community are accorded only inferior sectarian or tribal identities: Muslim, Christian, Druze, Bedouin and Circassian.

Conscription has also been structured around these confessional identities. Israeli Jewish men are drafted for three years, and women for two, after graduating from high school, unless an individual is exempted on religious, physical or psychological grounds. Among the Palestinian minority, on the other hand, conscription has always been a hugely divisive issue.

Druze leaders signed an agreement with Israel in 1956 to draft all males from their community, which comprises one tenth of the Palestinian population. The tiny Circassian population followed suit. Both communities, vulnerable to sectarian fighting, preferred to seek the military patronage of the young state of Israel.

It seems there was little enthusiasm among the Israeli political and military establishments for conscripting Muslims. The Sunni Muslim population, today comprising 80 percent of the Palestinian minority, was seen as a potential fifth column, likely to ally with Israel’s enemies, whether Palestinian fighters in exile or neighboring Arab states. Giving the Muslim population military training and equipment was therefore ruled out.

In the state’s first decade, however, there were hopes that the small Christian community might be persuaded to agree to the draft. A key figure was George Hakim, the Greek Catholic bishop for the Galilee. He founded a Christian militia during the 1948 war, and many of his followers were allowed by Israel to return from exile in Lebanon at the end of the fighting. Hakim went on to transform the Greek Catholic Scouts into a Zionist youth movement, as a political counterweight to the joint Jewish-Arab Communist Party, which was the only mainstream non-Zionist movement permitted in Israel.

In 1958 Hakim considered signing an agreement on military service similar to what the Druze leadership had signed, but found little support among Christians. A photograph in Hillel Cohen’s book Good Arabs, on the early collaborators with the new state of Israel, shows Hakim seated next to Druze leader Sheikh Amin Tarif at an IDF parade marking Independence Day in 1959.

Instead, the Christian and Muslim communities received a general exemption from the draft. There is a provision for members of either community to volunteer, though communal leaders actively discourage such service.

The Bedouin, physically isolated from the rest of the Palestinian minority in their separate and heavily deprived villages, often in the semi-desert Naqab (Negev) region, have been among those most likely to volunteer, usually as trackers. Like the Druze, many were persuaded by a discourse that presented military service as proof of loyalty to the state and, consequently, a way to gain benefits and access to jobs. But in recent years the number of Bedouin volunteers has slowly declined, as the Bedouin come to understand that service rarely offers them escape from social and economic marginalization and strengthen their connections to external political actors, particularly the Islamic Movement.

Israel’s Model Christians

Israel’s intention is to end the current arrangement for the Christian community. Like the Druze, Christians account for about one tenth of Israel’s Palestinian population. Christian supporters of the enlistment campaign hope to reach an agreement with the government that would mirror the one between the state and the Druze.

In return for their conscription, the Druze are recognized as possessing very limited attributes of nationhood: Their ID cards identify them as “Druze” rather than generic “Arabs”; and they have their own education system, separate from the Arab one, emphasizing a narrative of Druze history that presents their community — and their allies, the Jews — as oppressed for centuries by Muslim rulers.

In practical terms, the benefits of military service for the Druze are chiefly individual rather than communal. After conscription, many are recruited to the prison service, where most work as lowly warders, or to the Border Police, a much-feared paramilitary force that operates in both Israel and the Occupied Territories. Most significantly, former Druze soldiers get preferential access to the scarce plots of land made available to the Palestinian minority. For many, given discriminatory land allocation and planning systems, it is their only hope of building a home legally.

Shadi Khaloul, a former Israeli paratrooper and spokesman for the Forum for Christian Recruitment, speaks of Christians needing to “live freely [and] rediscover our identity and history.” He highlights the importance of establishing a separate school system for Christians, reviving and teaching in the ancient and near-extinct language of Aramaic, which, like Hebrew, preceded Arabic in the Levant.

Khaloul is the model for the new Christian the Israeli government wants to cultivate. His grandparents were “present absentees,” or internal refugees, expelled in 1948 from the mostly Maronite village of Kafr Bir‘im in the Upper Galilee, one of the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed during and after the war. Refugees from Kafr Bir‘im — along with those of another Christian village nearby, Iqrit – have battled without success to be allowed to return to their villages, based on a written promise by the army that their “evacuations” in 1948 were temporary. But Khaloul is not affiliated with this effort and indeed bears no obvious grudge over his family’s dispossession. Rather, he believes, exaggerated loyalty to the state is the best route to regaining his rights. He is fiercely proud of what he views as a native Judeo-Christian identity that predates the Arab conquests of the Holy Land.

His family, like many others from Kafr Bir‘im, ended up nearby in the village of Jish. But Khaloul refuses even to acknowledge this village’s Arabic name. For him, it is the ancient community of Gush Halav, and his identity is Maronite-Aramaic rather than Arab. Khaloul argues that the Maronites and Jews share the language of Aramaic and that both communities suffered persecution at the hands of Muslims for hundreds of years. Following pressure from Khaloul, Jish schools became the first in Israel to offer Aramaic classes until eighth grade, paid for by the Education Ministry.

Listening to Khaloul, one can understand why Israel has chosen this moment to push Christian military service. “We are part of Israel and it is important that we keep our country strong, especially when our brothers are being persecuted and slaughtered only a short distance away [in Syria and Egypt].”

The 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath provoked genuine fear among many Palestinians in Israel, especially Christians. They believe that these events demonstrate how easily communal relations can break down and turn to violence without strong state structures in place. Given its virile army and its financial and diplomatic support from the United States, Israel seems, at least to some, like the only reliable oasis of calm in the region.

Benjamin Netanyahu is keen to play on these fears. In a Christmas video message to local Christians, he referred to Christians as “loyal citizens” and urged the youth to enlist, adding that the Forum would “grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them.”

Hana Suwayd, a Christian member of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, was among those who read the prime minister’s comments as endorsing the formation of Christian militias. “He is trying to sell this to Christians with the idea that Israel will arm and train you to defend yourself against your Muslim neighbors.”

Suwayd and others are only too aware where such scare tactics could lead, as illustrated by a notorious incident a decade ago in the village of Rama in the central Galilee. There, a knife fight in which a Druze youth was fatally stabbed by a Christian teenager led to a campaign of intimidation of the village’s Christian population, culminating in Druze soldiers firing an anti-tank missile at the local church.

Nazareth Center Stage

Palestinian leaders in Israel regard Netanyahu as the driving force behind the military enlistment campaign. It was on Easter 1999, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, that simmering sectarian tensions in Nazareth exploded into street fights between Christians and Muslims.

The conflict had been stoked by a series of cynical government interventions in the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s visit for the millennium. Netanyahu set up two ministerial committees to arbitrate in a dispute over control of a public square next to the city’s main holy site, the Basilica of the Annunciation. In an unprecedented decision, the government overruled the local municipality and backed the efforts of a group of Muslims to build a large mosque next to the Basilica. Planning permission was never granted, and the mosque was never built. But the initial government ruling ensured that sectarian strife mounted for many months, fueling tensions that have not entirely abated to this day.

The latest campaign to recruit Christians to the military is seen as an extension of Netanyahu’s earlier efforts. And again Nazareth, the effective capital of Palestinian citizens of Israel, has been thrust onto center stage. Home to the largest community of Christians in Israel, the city of 85,000 also has a two-thirds Muslim majority. Sectarian conflict here reverberates throughout the Palestinian minority.

The main political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel have staged protests in the city, including one in April at which youths dressed as soldiers and carried toy rifles. They declared the area a closed military zone, setting up barbed wire and a mock checkpoint. The “soldiers” then acted out a show in which they harassed other youths as a way to highlight what military service in the Occupied Territories entails. A pamphlet handed out to passersby warned that Israel wanted to achieve “the disintegration of the Palestinian national minority into warring sects.”

The Higher Follow-Up Committee, the main political body representing the Palestinian minority, has also called for a major rally against the enlistment drive on May 17. Other leaders have urged Christian youngsters publicly to burn their call-up papers.

In addition to the Forum for Christian Recruitment, Nadaf’s followers have established in Nazareth the first joint Christian-Jewish political movement, called Bnei Habrit, or Children of the Covenant. It is led by Bishara Shlayan, a former merchant navy captain, whose uncle, Ihab, is the Defense Ministry’s adviser on Christian issues. Ihab Shlayan initiated the October 2012 conference to encourage Christian Scouts to join the military.

The party’s public platform is so far largely restricted to encouraging Christian enlistment and supporting Israel as a Jewish state. It has also launched a plan to erect a 100-foot statue of Jesus — modeled on Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer — on the Mount of Precipice, overlooking the city. The tourism minister, Uzi Landau, is reported to have given the project his blessing. Shlayan says the statue will be a “symbol of love and peace.”

From the start Israeli officials have sought to make examples of any prominent opponents of the enlistment drive.

Leaders from the Christian community in Nazareth heavily criticized the government’s original recruitment conference and Nadaf’s participation after details emerged in late 2012. Abir Kopty, a former Nazareth councillor and prominent blogger, and ‘Azmi Hakim, then head of the Greek Orthodox council, the Orthodox community’s political leadership, were called soon afterward for interrogation by the Shinbet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service. They were accused of incitement to violence and told to sign statements promising not to refer to Nadaf by name again. In what appeared to be an attempt at further intimidation, they were required to provide a DNA sample — in violation of Israeli law, according to Adalah, a legal organization for the Palestinian minority.

Israel’s Palestinian Knesset members have also rounded on Nadaf and his supporters, accusing them of being collaborators. Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and head of the Knesset’s interior committee, responded by calling the MKs “Trojan horses” and urged the police to investigate them for incitement against Nadaf. The MKs’ parliamentary immunity has so far scotched such efforts. But Hakim and the Greek Orthodox council are now facing a civil action for harassment and defamation from Nadaf, who is suing each for $170,000.

Other protests have also been treated with the “heavy hand” promised in 2013 by Netanyahu. Police broke up a silent protest against Christian enlistment held by students on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Three students were arrested.

And Ghassan Munayyir, a 44-year old political activist from the city of Lod in central Israel, was arrested in April after posting on Facebook photographs of Nadaf and other Palestinian Christians who met the finance minister, Yair Lapid, to discuss the introduction of a draft for Christians. Munayyir had commented: “For the sake of freedom of speech and transparency, the faces and names of the ‘honorable’ who appear in the following photos are the same ones who want to enlist your sons against your people. Remember this.” According to the police, these words constituted a “threat.” Munayyir was released to house arrest, but only after agreeing to the confiscation of his computer and phone.

Sowing Discord

At the same time that Netanyahu and Nadaf promote enlistment, a political ally of Netanyahu’s is pushing for the creation of a new Christian national identity, echoing the status already assigned to the Druze.

Yariv Levin, chairman of the ruling Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction, began by introducing a law, passed in February, that for the first time distinguishes between the rights of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The measure is a minor one: It provides Christians with separate representation in the national employment advisory council. But it lays the foundations for a much grander scheme declared by Levin to create a Christian nationality, leaving the traditional “Arab” one to refer to Muslims only.

Levin makes no secret of his motives. In a February 14 interview with Haaretz, he said his legislative initiatives were meant to “connect us [the Jewish majority] and the Christians…. They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

Hanin Zu‘bi, a Palestinian MK, believes that the enlistment campaign is a sign of the Netanyahu government’s desperation: “It understands that our Palestinian identity has strengthened over the past decade and is doing everything it can to weaken us as a community. Netanyahu is effectively creating a loyalty test — serving in the army — that is required only of Christians. The implication is that Muslims are, by definition, disloyal.”

Providing additional help is a far-right youth group, Im Tirtzu. It is best known for waging a campaign of intimidation against “leftist trends” in schools and universities, working closely with senior Likud officials. It was involved, too, with the October 2012 recruitment conference and has been providing organizational and financial help to the Forum for Christian Recruitment ever since. Im Tirtzu is reticent about divulging its funding sources. But investigations by the Israeli media show that in 2008 and 2009 it received donations of over $100,000 from Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist organization led by US pastor John Hagee, a close ally of Netanyahu’s.

Despite the government’s aggressive promotion of the enlistment drive, the figures for new recruits are not terribly impresssive. According to the IDF, about 2,000 Christians reach the age of conscription each year. Currently, 150 are reported to be serving. The numbers volunteering since the launch of the enlistment campaign have risen marginally, from about 40 per year to around 50.

In another sign of the enlistment movement’s lack of a popular base, Shlayan’s new party avoided fielding candidates in Israel’s 2014 municipal elections, even in Nazareth.

Nonetheless, the success of Netanyahu’s enlistment campaign is probably not best measured in the number of new recruits it secures. His government in the late 1990s had no interest in upsetting the Vatican by building a mosque provocatively close to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Success could be gauged by the extent of the conflict the proposal generated, not the mosque’s realization.

And so it is with the draft of Christians. Netanyahu does not need many Christians to sign up for military service to sow discord, both between the various Christian denominations and more generally between the Christian and Muslim communities. And with the careful use of legislative changes, the government may think it can gradually prise apart Christians and Muslims, whether they approve or not.

Nazareth’s two recent divisive and closely run municipal elections serve as a warning of things to come. In the current climate, it was inevitable that the two main candidates would be seen by some of their followers as representing confessional rather than political identities: The long-time mayor, Ramiz Jaraysi, of the Communist-allied Democratic Front, is Christian, while his challenger, ‘Ali Salam, his former deputy who ran as an independent, is Muslim.

In the first election, in October 2013, Salam won by a handful of votes, a victory that was overturned a short time later after Jaraysi’s party demanded a recount. Jaraysi insisted on counting an envelope of postal ballots that had not been properly signed by election officials. Jaraysi’s win was secured by these votes, which — embarrassingly for him — were mostly from Nazareth’s volunteer soldiers, many of them probably Christian. As claims and counter-claims from both parties mounted, Israel’s supreme court ruled that a new election must be held.

That contest took place in March, and Salam won with a near two-thirds majority in an election in which sectarian sentiments came even more obviously to the fore. Salam has quickly tried to calm Christian concerns, including among his first decisions a declaration of March 25 — Annunciation Day — as a citywide holiday and the naming of a neighborhood as the “Virgin Mary Quarter.”

But as Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, a youth movement in Haifa that is leading opposition to Christian enlistment, has observed, Salam’s actions are likely to be counterproductive, only reinforcing sectarian politics.

Most of the Palestinian leadership in Israel has interpreted the enlistment drive as primarily a renewed effort at divide and rule. Should Netanyahu succeed, he will have reversed the long-term commitment of Israel’s Christian and Muslim communities to unity. That would have damaging repercussions for the minority’s political institutions like the Higher Follow-Up Committee and its secular parties that cut across the sectarian divide.

‘Clash of Civilizations’

But there are signs that another, deeper goal may be motivating the government’s campaign to enlist Christian soldiers.

For many years Netanyahu and the Israeli right have cultivated ties to Christian Zionist movements in the US. The two sides have found mutual interests in an alliance. For Christian Zionists, Israel’s support is vital to realization of an “ingathering” of Jews to advance the supposed Biblical prophecy of the end of days and the return of the Messiah. For Israel, Christian Zionists have added lobbying clout in Washington and invested usefully in settlement projects in Jerusalem and other religious sites in the West Bank.

But surprisingly, until recently, Christian Zionists had had no visible involvement with or meaningful impact on the Christian Palestinian population in Israel.

Historically, Palestinian Christian leaders, far from adopting Zionist positions, have taken a prominent role in Palestinian national movements, whether through figures like George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or Azmi Bishara, who led the political campaign inside Israel to end its status as a Jewish state. Religious leaders, too, like Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic archbishop of the Galilee, have had a profound effect on educating Christian communities abroad about the injustices perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinian minority. Books like his Blood Brothers or Anglican bishop Riyah Abu al-‘Assal’s Caught in Between became seminal texts for many pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Christians in Israel are also advocates for international campaigns against Israel, using their connections abroad, for example, to promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement now championed by some overseas churches. Israel has become increasingly unnerved by what it terms “delegitimization,” with some believing this effort could soon be the biggest threat facing Israel.

None of this history fits comfortably with the Manichean thinking of the Israeli right, which presents Israel as sitting on the fault line between a Judeo-Christian west and the barbarian hordes of the Islamic east. Or as Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, explained, a Jewish state should act as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Better for Netanyahu and the right if Palestinian opposition to Israel is limited to Islamic extremists.

In so far as is possible, the Israeli right may be hoping to reposition Palestinian Christians on Israel’s side of the divide, through a mixture of financial incentives, legislated privileges and mounting sectarian pressures derived from a presumed Muslim backlash. If such is the goal, then Christian Zionist movements in the US may be key allies, not least because of their deep pockets. Christian Zionists have been involved in supporting Israel for some time through organizations such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and evangelical broadcasters like GOD-TV. The latter network features Nasir Siddiki, a British preacher who converted to Christianity from Islam, and Benny Hinn, the Jaffa-born, Texas-based evangelist whose regular tours of the Holy Land enjoin participants to “experience Israel.”

But signs of involvement by US Christian Zionists in Nazareth and surrounding communities have also started to come to light. The first group of Palestinian Christian Zionists was recently established in the town of Kafr Yasif, near Acre. They are reported to have ordained a former Anglican priest as their bishop. Rumor has it that they are receiving overseas funds. There is the relationship between Im Tirtzu, Nadaf’s Forum and John Hagee. And Nazareth, after decades of central government opposition to establishing a university in the city, is now in line to be the home of a large branch campus of Texas A&M University, funded by donations raised by Hagee. This deal was dropped on Nazareth following behind-the-scenes negotiations involving President Shimon Peres and reportedly personally approved by Netanyahu. Local officials are not displeased, as the campus will bring an investment up to $100 million. The reality is, however, that the chief local beneficiaries will probably be Christian (as was the case with the massive injection of government funds in advance of the papal visit in 2000). Muslims in Nazareth may therefore resent the project.

It may be that Netanyahu hopes these financial ties will give incentive to some parts of the Palestinian Christian population, or its leaders, to move closer to support for Israel, along the lines of the Druze community. Universal backing from Palestinian Christians is unnecessary; noisy divisions within the community would be enough to underscore the Israeli right’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. With religious leaders like Nadaf at his side, Netanyahu can make a plausible case that brave Christians are speaking out while others are keeping a low profile for fear of retribution from the Muslim extremists among whom they live.

This argument, in the Israeli right’s thinking, could be an important weapon in weakening support among Christians overseas for BDS and other “delegitimization” campaigns. But along the way, such insinuations may intensify sectarian tensions between Palestinian Muslims and Christians to a breaking point. And that may be enough to ensure that Netanyahu’s clash of civilizations thesis becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

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As world opinion turns, Israeli soldiers parade their tyranny

The National – 11 May 2014

Israel is facing its first digital mutiny in the ranks. And the issue fuelling the soldiers’ discontent could not be more revealing about the self-harming character of Israeli society.

This month, a social-media campaign went viral in defence of David Adamov, an Israeli conscript caught on camera pointing his cocked rifle at a 15-year-old Palestinian in Hebron who dared to argue with him. He also threatened to put “a bullet in the head” of another young Palestinian for filming the confrontation.

Outraged by media reports that Adamov had been jailed for 20 days, hundreds of male and female soldiers posted photos on social media sites holding placards in front of their faces – to avoid punishment – expressing support for their comrade in arms.

Within hours, a Facebook page backing Adamov had attracted more than 100,000 likes. A senior government minister, Naftali Bennett, joined the outcry, declaring on his own page that the soldier “did the right thing”.

The ironies mounted as the campaign unfolded. Fellow soldiers have styled Adamov “David of Nahal”, a reference to his army brigade and, it seems, an allusion to the Bible. In his supporters’ eyes, Adamov is the victim-hero of an unlikely ­Goliath – a mouthy, unarmed Palestinian minor.

The military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, has admitted that the incident raises matters of “military ethics”, but only because of the insubordination expressed in the ­social media campaign, not because of Adamov’s misuse of his firearm. And more revealing still, the army responded to the uproar by pointing out that Adamov had not been jailed for abusing the Palestinian youth but because, in an unrelated matter, he assaulted his commanding officer.

The Nahal brigade had been in the news a few weeks earlier. Its soldiers were discovered to have designed and printed a graduation T-shirt with a hate-filled message for Palestinians. The shirt featured an image of a Nahal soldier in the city of Nablus above the slogan “Nablus, we’re coming!” and a warning to Palestinian mothers that their sons’ fate would be decided by the brigade.

The problems at the heart of these two incidents were underscored in a recent Amnesty International report titled Trigger Happy. The human rights group identified a disturbing pattern of behaviour: Israeli soldiers were targeting unarmed Palestinians, including children, with live ammunition, in some cases as they fled. Amnesty called the army’s use of force mostly “unnecessary, arbitrary and brutal”.

Amnesty found that, after a lull in Palestinian deaths following the end of the second intifada in the mid-2000s, the rate of killings and injuries is dramatically on the rise.

Unlike the situation a decade ago, Palestinians were often being killed at largely non-violent demonstrations against land confiscations. Stone throwing, even when it posed no danger to soldiers, was routinely greeted with live ammunition.

Amnesty described army investigations into the killings as “woefully inadequate”. It could not identify a single soldier who had been convicted of the “wilful killing” of a Palestinian in the occupied territories in the past 25 years.

Of course, in no period in its history did the “most moral army in the world” come close to justifying its self-promoted reputation. But the transformation of the occupation into a permanent state of affairs, as well as recent technological innovations, appear to be making a dire situation even worse.

What the Amnesty report highlights is an entrenchment of prejudices shared equally by the higher and lower ranks. It has not helped that over the past decade extremist settlers have come to dominate the officer class.

Palestinians, including children, have become dehumanised in the eyes of Israeli society. And long-standing impunity means soldiers understand that reckless or malevolent behaviour will rarely if ever land them in trouble.

Paradoxically, technology – particularly cameras in mobile phones – has only compounded these ugly trends.

Shortly after the Adamov incident, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a press conference to deplore young Israelis’ obsession with their phones and the “selfie”, arguing that Israeli youth were “slaves” to technology.

Although he did not set out his reasoning, it is not too difficult to fathom. Israeli soldiers, like teenagers around the world, love to boast online about their exploits. The difference is that some Israelis posing for a selfie may be committing a war crime as they do so.

Young Palestinians are using their smartphones for similar purposes: to document their abuse and humiliation at the hands of armed ­Israeli teenagers. The ensuing photos and videos now feed the outrage of a watching world and regularly embarrass Israel’s image-makers.

Strangely, Israeli soldiers are behaving no more cautiously. In fact, they seem to be exaggerating their cruelty for the reality show that is their military service. And their commanders, faced with endless discomfiting episodes, seem more committed than ever to avoid setting a precedent by punishing them.

Possibly through overexposure, wider Israeli society seems to have rapidly become more inured to this kind of gratuitous violence.

The paradoxes run deeper still. The ever greater transparency of the occupation fuels the soldiers’ sense of victimhood and oppression. If they are now to be denied the title of “the most moral in the world”, then they seem to believe their army ought to be dubbed “the most misunderstood”.

This mirrors a more general ideological shift to the right in Israeli society as global sympathy for the Palestinians grows. The world may consider us oppressors, say Israelis, but we refuse to act the part of the guilty: we will proudly parade our tyranny instead.

Israeli society, like its soldiers, is caught in a self-destructive cycle: its very sensitivity to criticism pushes it ever more resolutely towards outcast status.

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Double standards for citizens of Israel

Middle East Eye – 5 May 2014

The arrest of a journalist and several political activists in Israel over the past few weeks has provoked a troubling debate: are laws applied differently depending on whether a citizen is Jewish or not?

It is a question more often raised in connection with the occupied territories, where Israel operates two legal systems for much of the population – a civilian one for Jewish settlers, and a much harsher, military one for Palestinians.

But recent, well-publicised arrests in Israel suggest that Palestinian Arab citizens, who comprise a fifth of Israel’s population, also face what Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University, calls a form of “legal apartheid”, despite their citizenship and the fact that they are living under the same set of laws.

Particularly controversial was the arrest last month of Majd Kayyal, a journalist from Israel’s Palestinian minority who was seized at a border crossing on his return from a visit to Lebanon. He had travelled using special travel documents from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

He was held incomunicado for five days, accused of a serious security offence and denied access even to lawyers. He was eventually released to house arrest when it became clear that Israeli authorities had no evidence he had breached security.

Several senior Israeli Jewish journalists came to his defence, pointing out that they too had visited “enemy states”, using an alternate, non-Israeli passport, but had never been interviewed, let alone arrested and threatened with prosecution.

‘Suspected in advance’

Zvi Barel, a Middle East analyst for Israel’s Haaretz newapaper, said Israel had two standards, one for Israeli Jews and another for the Palestinian Arab population: “Arab journalists are suspected in advance of having one purpose for visiting an enemy state – espionage, giving information or ‘contact with a foreign agent’. An Israeli Arab journalist is seen first, and last, as an Arab.”

According to lawyers, journalists and human rights groups, the spate of arrests gives the lie to a comment made by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week as he unveiled plans to introduce legislation defining Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”.

He vowed discrimination would receive no legal sanction. “Israel will always preserve full equal rights, both personal and civil, of all citizens of the state of Israel, Jews and non-Jews as one.”

In fact, more than 55 laws in Israel explicitly discriminate between Jews and non-Jews, according to a database established by Adalah, a legal organisation for Israel’s Palestinian minority.

But the latest cases show that, even when the law is neutral, it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion by Israeli authorities too, including the police and state prosecutors.

Netanyahu’s promise came as Ghassan Munair, a 44-year-old political activist from the city of Lod in central Israel, was arrested after posting on Facebook photos of a group of Israeli-Palestinian Christians meeting a government minister to discuss the introduction of an army draft for Christians.

An announcement last month by the army that it would be sending notices for the first time to all Christian school-leavers to encourage them to volunteer has shocked many in the Palestinian minority. The move is widely seen as an attempt to divide Palestinians in Israel, turning Christians and Muslims against each other.

Munair told Haaretz that his arrest was designed to intimidate critics of the draft into silence.

Heavy-handed arrests

A similar interpretation was read into the Israeli police’s heavy-handed arrest last week of three Israeli-Palestinian students who held a silent protest against the draft on Hebrew University’s campus in Jerusalem.

Lawyers for Munair, who was forced to hand over his computer and phone to police before being released to house arrest, said he had not broken any laws.

“What he did was to name and shame those present at the meeting by publishing an official photo. There were no words that could be interpreted as a threat in his post,” said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer from Adalah.

She added that social media sites in Israel were crammed with “hate-filled incitement against Arabs” from Israeli Jews, but no arrests were made. “His case and others like it are entirely about the state using the law as a political tool. They want to send a message: don’t even consider criticising those who support government policy, or you’ll be in trouble.”

Kayyal’s arrest has been widely seen as politically motivated too. Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, used a draconian gag order to try to conceal their investigations on suspicion he had “contact with a foreign agent”, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

The 23-year-old journalist had attended a conference in Beirut to celebrate the 40th anniversary of As-Safir newspaper, for which he is a correspondent. He told Middle east Eye that he had not concealed his visit, posting updates to his Facebook page while there and writing about the event for an Arabic website.

Aggressive interrogation

Aspects of his case, in addition to the arrest, have disturbed observers:

  • The denial of access to lawyers is a feature of the legal system chiefly used against Palestinians, most often in the occupied territories but also in Israel too. As journalist Dimi Reider observed, it almost never applies to Jewish citizens.
  • Between aggressive interrogations, Kayyal was confined to a underground cell with a bright light on 24 hours day, a method considered by some to be torture. The technique is intended to disorientate and confuse suspects, making them feel isolated, lose a sense of time and grow hopeless.
  • Sweeping gag orders, barring the media from reporting an arrest, are normally reserved for the gravest national security cases. In Kayyal’s case, it was revoked only after blogs overseas publicised his arrest, leading to uncomfortable questions from reporters at a US state department press briefing.

After Kayyal passed a polygraph test, the charge of contact with a foreign agent was dropped. He was released to house arrest, and barred from leaving the country or speaking to anyone outside Israel. Prosecutors are still considering whether to charge him with “visiting an enemy state”, which could land him with a four-year jail sentence.

Following his arrest, a Shin Bet spokesman was reported saying: “A suspicion arose that he was recruited by a hostile organization.”

‘Desperate questions’

But Kayyal said it was clear early on from their “desperate questions” that the Shin Bet had no evidence he had met a Hizbullah agent. “They even started saying they knew I had thrown stones and written graffiti during the October 2000 protests [in support of the second intifada]. I pointed out I was nine at the time.”

Nonetheless, the Shin Bet persevered.

“What they hoped for was a confession. They wanted to break me,” he said. “I reached the point where I just wanted them to open a window in the interrogation room so I would know whether it was day or night. And then you start to fear you will never get out or what you might say just so that the nightmare ends.”

Although he said he appreciated the support of his Jewish colleagues, he noted that they waited until it was certain he had had no connection to Hizbullah. “There was still an assumption from them that, as an Arab, I had likely committed a security offence.”

Amal Jamal, who heads Ilam, a Nazareth-based centre advocating greater fairness and pluralism in the Israeli media, said: “It is clear in the way the law is applied that officials regard Israeli citizens who are Palestinian as guilty until they can prove they are innocent.”

Emergency regulations

The prohibition on visiting an enemy state derives from the 1948 emergency regulations, many of them inherited by Israel from the British.

Kayyal said the law was “illegitimate” in his eyes, as it prevented Palestinian citizens from fulfilling a natural need to connect to the Arab world. “Israel wants me like a bird in a cage. But I don’t just live to eat. I need a cultural life, I need to have a relationship with my Arab cousins, to find a place where I belong.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said Israeli Jewish journalists who broke the law “receive much acclaim for what is considered brave and professional journalism”. It added that, in applying the law only to Palestinian citizens, Israel was using “an improper method for monitoring and controlling [their] movements.”

Wadea Awawdy, editor of the Hadith al-Nass newspaper who joined the petition against the gag order in Kayyal’s case, said such connections were critically important for Palestinian journalists and politicians in Israel.

“Our role must be to understand our region, to provide real information about the conflicts we report on, to represent our readers and help provide them with meaningful insights. To do that we need to be engaged with the Arab world.”

He particularly lamented Israel’s refusal for the past seven years to let any Israeli journalists – including those from the Palestinian minority – enter Gaza. “The siege of Gaza is also about denying us mutual contacts and information, using security as a pretext. As journalists we have to wage a war against these rules, and be ready to pay a price.”

Guilty until proven otherwise

Zaher, the Adalah lawyer, criticised Israel’s use of the “contact with a foreign agent” provision in the Penal Law. Used almost exclusively in security cases involving Palestinian citizens, it is unique in that it requires defendants to prove their innocence.

It is unclear who counts as an “agent” – a friend or relative of a Hizbullah member, for example? And in practice, the simple act of meeting such an “agent” is usually considered proof enough for a conviction in an Israeli court, even if no security-related damage was caused.

Several prominent Palestinian citizens have fallen foul of this law, including most recently Said Naffaa, a former member of the Israeli parliament, who led a delegation of Druze religious leaders on a tour of holy places in Syria in 2007.

Others have included Amir Makhoul, a Palestinian civil society leader who headed the boycott movement in Israel, and Mohammed Kanaaneh, leader of Abnaa el-Balad, a political movement that rejects participation in Israeli elections.

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Anti-Palestinian arson attacks on the rise

Al-Jazeera – 1 May 2014

This week, Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nazareth had a note delivered at his home, warning that he and his followers had until May 5 to leave the “land of Israel”. On Tuesday April 29, Israeli police announced that a Jewish man from Safed had been arrested after delivering the note.

In a similar incident, vandals also targeted a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee that marks the site where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. A cross was smashed and several pews damaged.

“The Christian community feels increasingly threatened,” Samuel Barhoum, the Episcopalian archdeacon of Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera. “We see that Israel is going further and further to the right. It does not matter whether you are Muslim or Christian, in these people’s eyes we are the enemy.”

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population, and raised fears that Israeli right-wing extremists are growing bolder as they shift attention to targeting Palestinian areas inside Israel.

One such incident took place in Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Palestinian city in Israel.

‘Dangerous epidemic’

On April 18, Palestinian worshippers, arriving at the Araq al-Shabab mosque in Umm al-Fahm for morning prayers, discovered the mosque had been the target of an arson attack. The doors, according to Jamil Mahajana, the local imam, were still smouldering and the words “Arabs out!” had been sprayed nearby.

The attacks prompted Amir Peretz, a dovish minister in Israel’s government, to speak out, warning that violence by Jewish extremists had become a “dangerous epidemic”.

Palestinians have been protesting against the attacks and demanding action. This week, some 2,500 residents of Fureidis, a town south of Haifa, marched to demand action from the police and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the day after a local mosque was defaced with a Star of David and graffiti saying “Shut down mosques”. Some 20 cars parked nearby had their tyres slashed.

The protesters chanted, “Netanyahu is a coward” and “Racism is spreading.”

Mohammed Barakeh, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament who led a protest last week in Umm al-Fahm, personally blamed Netanyahu for the spate of attacks.

“Extremist groups are being encouraged by Netanyahu’s constant sloganeering that Israel is a Jewish state, suggesting that an Arab population has no right to be here,” Barakeh told Al Jazeera.

“The extremists see Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel’s Jewishness a central demand in the peace talks. They see the racist legislation his government adopts. They see the police do nothing to tackle this phenomenon. And they conclude that the government quietly approves of their behaviour.”

Price-tag campaign

In January, a report by a United Nations agency, OCHA, documented 2,100 incidents of settler violence in the occupied territories alone since 2006.

Right-wing extremists describe violence against Palestinians, whether in the occupied territories or in Israel, as “price tag” attacks. The term is meant to indicate that there will be a cost to Palestinians if either the power of the settlers is challenged or the Palestinians seek diplomatic concessions from Israel.

The first major price-tag attack inside Israel occurred in late 2011, when a mosque in the Galilee village of Tuba-Zangaria was set on fire. No one has been charged for the attack.

There may be several possible triggers for this current wave of attacks, including the Israeli right’s concern that the peace talks, which formally came to an end this week, do not make headway. Jewish nationalists are also reportedly angry at the impending visit of the pope.

Israeli officials have indicated recently that they intend to take price-tag attacks more seriously, after several outbreaks of violence by extremist settlers against Israeli security forces. In the most recent incident last month, police were beaten as they tried to demolish unauthorised buildings in the militant settlement of Yitzhar.

‘Acts of terror’

In response, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said he was considering – for the first time – using administrative detention orders against right-wing extremists. That would allow them to be locked up on secret evidence, as is currently the case with the Palestinians.

However, the government has so far refused to categorise settler violence as “acts of terror”, which would give the security forces stronger powers. During a cabinet debate on the subject last summer, Netanyahu reportedly said such a move would be a diplomatic mistake, encouraging observers to draw a comparison between the settlers and the Palestinian movement Hamas.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli police, confirmed that there has been a recent “escalation” in violence by hardline nationalists inside Israel, as well as in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Rosenfeld denied that the police were not doing enough to stop the attacks. A special task force was established last year to investigate price-tag attacks. Its activities, however, are limited to the West Bank. Police say they face serious difficulties in tracking down suspects.

“There is no network planning these incidents. They are sporadic and committed by individuals who often decide on the spur of the moment to carry out an attack,” said Rosenfeld.

Calling the attacks “unsettling”, Netanyahu promised that the government would invest more resources, including bringing in the Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence service that is more commonly used against Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders, however, accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to attacks by Jewish extremist groups. “If these crimes were being committed by Palestinians against Jews, the culprits would be caught within hours or days,” said Awad Abdel Fattah, a member of the Higher Follow-Up Committee, the main political body for Palestinians inside Israel.

“But no one is protecting us from these attacks. The police and the government see us, not these extremists, as the enemy,” Abdel Fattah told Al Jazeera.

Red line crossed

Barakeh said the attack on a large Palestinian city like Umm al-Fahm was seen as crossing a red line and showing a greater confidence among the extremists.

It is not the first time that Umm al-Fahm has attracted the attention of hardline nationalist groups. The city has also been the focus of a campaign by far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He wants to redraw Israel’s borders to strip some 250,000 Palestinians, including the city’s residents, of their citizenship.

In unfortunate timing for Israel, the US State Department published its annual Country Report on Terrorism this week, noting that “price tag” attacks in Israel and the occupied territories had gone “largely unprosecuted”.

Abdel Fattah said Palestinians in Israel were increasingly concerned that official inaction over these attacks could encourage “another Eden Nathan Zada” – a reference to a settler who opened fire on a bus in the Palestinian town of Shefaram in 2005, killing four passengers and wounding 12 more, apparently as a protest against the disengagement from Gaza.

Abdel Fattah pointed out that the Follow-Up Committee had no trust in the police. Instead, it had decided to establish local popular committees in Israel to organise night-time patrols that would guard communities. They would be modelled on similar committees operating in parts of occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Zahi Njeidat, spokesman for the Islamic Movement in Israel, sharply criticised the police for failing to make progress in the arson attack on Araq al-Shabab mosque. “These are terrorist attacks,” Njeidat told Al Jazeera. “The goal is to make us feel like we have no security in our homes and in our communities, so that we will leave. This is about carrying out our transfer, but we are staying put.”

Last year, according to OCHA’s figures, there were 93 attacks by settlers that resulted in injuries to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“Our fear is that, if these extremists see that nothing is being done to stop them [in Israel], they will move from attacks on property to attacks on people,” Abdel Fattah said.

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Israel tightens grip around al-Aqsa mosque

Al-Jazeera – 23 April 2014

A right-wing Israeli settlement group has been put in charge of two controversial new projects to develop the area around al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the compound of holy sites that includes al-Aqsa mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.

Elad received planning approval this month to develop a huge visitors’ centre, called the Kedem complex, in a former car park just outside the Old City walls in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. While the visitors’ centre will give Elad a base less than 20 metres from the Old City, a second project could extend its reach to the retaining wall of al-Aqsa mosque itself.

Al-Haram al-Sharif compound has been the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land since Israel occupied Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Tensions have been heightened recently, as extremist Jews have begun entering the compound in larger numbers, with quiet backing from Israeli officials. The groups have sought to overturn a long-standing rabbinical prohibition on praying on the Temple Mount.

Israeli housing minister Uri Ariel, a hardline settler himself, chose Elad to manage an area known as the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, immediately south of the Western Wall. Renovations there will extend the prayer area for Jews. Last week, the Jerusalem Magistrates Court put Elad’s management of the park on hold until it ruled on the deal.

Yehudit Oppenheimer, director of Ir Amim, an Israeli group advocating fair treatment for Palestinians in Jerusalem, said the Kedem complex was the final piece Israel needed to secure its complete control over the area around al-Haram al-Sharif: “Now tourists will enter from Jaffa Gate [an entrance from West Jerusalem into the Old City], walk through the Jewish quarter, see the Western Wall, visit the City of David and get their information from the Kedem complex,” she told Al Jazeera.

She said the experience would reinforce both the idea of Israel’s physical control of the area and a hardline nationalist narrative associated with Israel’s far right. “The sites and signs will look Israeli; all the information and tours will consolidate an exclusively Jewish narrative,” Oppenheimer said. “Most Israeli and foreign tourists will have no idea that they are in Palestinian territory. It will feel to them like they are still in Israel.”

Israeli authorities have already given Elad large areas of Silwan, even though it is located in occupied East Jerusalem, to excavate an archaeological park called the City of David, disrupting the lives of 35,000 Palestinians. Elad had helped some 300 settlers take over Palestinian homes in the area, creating armed encampments around the park, according to Ahmed Qaraeen, a Silwan community leader.

The City of David is the only example of a private organisation gaining control of a national park in Israel, giving it effectively governmental powers. Normally, an archaeological park would be jointly run by the Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority. Israel’s High Court backed the special arrangement with Elad in 2012 after receiving assurances that its work would be closely supervised by the Parks Authority. An internal report from the authority in January, however, revealed the promise was ignored and Elad had unchecked control over the City of David and provided almost all of the information and tours to visitors.

According to Kais Nasser, a Palestinian lawyer who represents “The Islamic Council within the Green Line”, a coalition of Islamic groups inside Israel, allowing Elad to develop the two sites is “outrageous”.

“It is an organisation with a clear agenda to bring settlers into Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem. Now its control will reach right up to the limits of the mosques,” Nasser told Al Jazeera.

Last month, European Union diplomats in Jerusalem warned in an internal report leaked to the Israeli media: “There remains a significant risk that incidents at this highly sensitive site, or perceived threats to the status quo, may spark extreme reactions locally as well as across the Arab and Muslim world.” They were especially concerned that changes by Israel might serve as a prelude to dividing control of the al-Haram al-Sharif compound, or to offering separate prayer times for Muslims and Jews.

That would echo what happened in Hebron, where extremist settlers were given rights over part of the Ibrahimi mosque – or what Israelis call the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site quickly turned into a flashpoint that is remembered for the massacre of Muslim worshippers by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994.

Daniel Seideman, a lawyer who is an expert on Israeli policies in Jerusalem, said the Israeli government was increasing its efforts to create “settlement enclaves” in Palestinian neighbourhoods and thereby “Hebronise Jerusalem”.

Elad’s visitor centre is expected to substantially increase the number of Israeli and foreign visitors to the City of David. The Jerusalem municipality, which backed the project, has said the Kedem complex was the cornerstone of its efforts to increase the number of tourists to the City of David to “some 20 million annually”. Tourism to the site has grown quickly over the past decade, with the number of visitors rocketing from 25,000 in 2001 to some 500,000 today.

Uniquely, the new visitor centre, which will reportedly be more than 16,000 sq m, is to be built over important archaeological remains that have been excavated over the past decade.

“Elad says the building will protect these remains, but the reality is that they will inevitably be damaged. Nowhere else in the world would you find a site of this importance being treated this way,” said Yonathan Mizrachi, head of Emek Shaveh, an organisation of Israeli archaeologists opposed to using archaeology for political ends.

The Jerusalem municipality was unavailable for comment.

Zeev Orenstein, a spokesman for Elad, denied suggestions that the Kedem complex would promote an exclusively Jewish narrative of Jerusalem. He said it would exhibit the “antiquities of the many civilisations that once inhabited ancient Jerusalem… in a way in which all people will be able to appreciate their significance”.

Community activists in Silwan, meanwhile, warned that their homes were being physically damaged by the excavations, some of which extend under their houses. Qaraeen, who lives a few metres from the intended site of the Kedem complex, said his home – like many in Silwan – was subject to a demolition order.

“The municipality says we cannot have planning permits because Silwan lacks a master plan. And yet this massive visitor centre can get planning approval from the municipality and the planning authorities, even though it is supposed to be in a national park. Elad is like a state within a state – different rules apply.”

He added that Israel was trying to force Palestinians into “ghettos”.

“None of us can get permits to create businesses, such as a restaurant or guest house, to benefit from the tourism. Israel wants to make sure visitors don’t interact with us or hear our stories.”

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All is not lost for Palestinians, even if talks hit the buffers

The National – 22 April 2014

There is exactly a week to go until the formal deadline set for the conclusion of the Middle East peace talks arrives. Although both are desperate to see the back of the negotiations, Israel and the Palestinians will face renewed pressure from the United States in these last few days to save Washington’s face by spinning out the process a while longer.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told visiting Israeli MPs last week that he is ready to extend the talks until the end of the year on one condition: Israel commits to discussing final borders first, a subject Israeli has previously avoided.

Whether or not the US can string out this futile exercise a little longer, the next stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already come into sharp relief. Mr Abbas will deepen international recognition of Palestinian statehood, over the vehement objections of both Israel and the US.

It was hardly surprising then that, when Israel broke the terms of the talks late last month by refusing to release Palestinian prisoners, Mr Abbas submitted applications to join 15 international treaties.

The logic behind the Palestinian move is well-known: to gather ever greater legitimacy for statehood in the international arena, slowly turning Israel into a pariah nation for refusing to end the occupation.

This manoeuvre appears to be heading towards their joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) – thereby exposing Israelis to potential war crimes prosecutions.

The 15 conventions place a greater burden on the Palestinians than their occupier Israel, requiring, for example, that they protect the rights of women, children and the disabled and renounce torture, arbitrary arrest and the suppression of free speech. US criticism of the Palestinian move plumbed new depths of cynicism, and provoked harsh rebukes from leading human rights organisations.

Furthermore, none of the treaty bodies considering the Palestinians’ applications will suffer directly as a result. Because they do not receive direct US funding, they cannot be sanctioned by Washington, as happened when Unesco admitted Palestine in 2011.

Israel responded by severing most coordination with the Palestinians, as well as declaring that the monthly $100 million tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf would be withheld. But, as one commentator noted, Israel’s withholding of tax revenues was nothing more than pure spin.

Mr Netanyahu made the announcement after March’s revenues to the Palestinians had cleared. The threat won’t become tangible until late next month, when talks may have resumed anyway.

That both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are pulling their punches suggests that their real priorities are not to genuinely threaten each other but to pander to domestic audiences, which expect tough measures.

The truth is that Israel and the Palestinian leadership are so deeply enmeshed in an uncomfortable tango that neither has an easy way to extricate itself without leading to the demise of the body they both desperately cling to: the Palestinian Authority.

The biggest paradox of the two-decade peace process is that Mr Abbas is using a vehicle to realise his goal – statehood – that is incapable of bringing him to his destination.

One need only conduct a small thought experiment to understand the implications of the route the Palestinian president is travelling. The nearer he gets to real statehood, or a prosecution against Israel for war crimes, the more certain it is that Israel and the US will pull the plug on the PA. The PA exists only on licence from Israel, the US and Europe.

But if the PA never becomes more than a security contractor for the occupation, then it will be brought down eventually by the wrath of the Palestinians themselves. That day may be fast approaching. One Palestinian minister admitted last week that the PA’s outlook was gloomy: “We’re a government that cannot govern.”

So if the PA’s strategy is doomed, what other options lie before the Palestinians? Across in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are jostling to champion another forlorn strategy: liberation through armed struggle. Yesterday, half a dozen rockets were fired into Israel. The reality, however, implicitly acknowledged in their intermittent and muted efforts to fight a distant Israel from inside their prison, is that they cannot win against Israel’s superior military might. In the past armed resistance only galvanised international sympathy for Israel.

With the Palestinian leaderships committed to hopeless strategies, a third way has begun to emerge. Israelis themselves are starting to recognise the danger. The historian Zeev Sternhell warned last week that with Israel’s demand for “unconditional surrender” from the Palestinians, “the road to South Africa has been paved”.

The most disturbing scenario imaginable for Israel is on the horizon: a campaign of popular non-violent resistance by Palestinians. It needs no formal leadership and its simple demand – equal rights – is one Israel and the US will struggle to counter. Israel’s arsenal may be well-stocked but it has no weapons to defeat such a campaign.

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Sectarian tensions on the rise in Nazareth

Middle East Eye – 8 April 2014

A mayoral election held last month in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s large Palestinian minority, has sent shockwaves through the city.

Ramez Jeraisi, the incumbent for the Communist-backed Democratic Front, was heavily defeated, ending the party’s near 40 years of continuous rule.

The result, however, marked more than a change of mayor. Despite efforts by the two candidates to focus on local policy, ugly undercurrents of sectarianism swirled around the campaign.

The defeated long-time mayor is Christian, while the winner, Ali Salam, Jeraisi’s deputy for many years before running as an independent, is Muslim.

Social media quickly became a battleground. Some of Salam’s supporters accused the Democratic Front under Jeraisi of becoming little more than a protector of Christian privilege, while Salam’s detractors accused him of riding a wave of Islamic chauvinism.

The fault lines in Nazareth are even more complex than for much of the rest of the Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of Israel’s population. Although the city has the largest concentration of Christians in Israel and serves thousands more in surrounding villages, it also has a two-thirds Muslim majority.

The rise in sectarian sentiment, most local analysts agree, can be understood only in the context of a wider political climate being fomented by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In recent months, the Israeli right have unveiled plans to create for the first time separate Christian and Muslim national identities, bestowing different rights on each group. Even more controversially, Netanyahu has personally backed a campaign to encourage Christians, but not Muslims, to serve in the Israeli army.

“Israel is making a renewed effort to fragment Palestinian society,” said Haneen Zoubi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, who ran for the post of Nazareth mayor in the first, inconclusive election in October.

“It understands that our Palestinian identity has strengthened over the past decade and is doing everything it can to weaken us as a community.”

Netanyahu has trumpeted an early success, claiming that the number of Christians volunteering to join the military, though still small, is rapidly rising.

According to Zoubi, Netanyahu is using the issue of army service as a way to quietly implement the policy of his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose campaign slogan “No citizenship without loyalty” suggested that the minority’s citizenship should be conditional.

“Netanyahu is effectively creating a loyalty test – serving in the army – that is required only of Christians. The implication is that Muslims are, by definition, disloyal,” Zoubi said.

Some 80% of the Palestinian minority in Israel are Muslim, compared to just 10% who are Christian, with a similar proportion Druze.

Druze leaders were persuaded to agree to a draft of their community in the state’s early years. But both Muslim and Christian leaders have adamantly opposed conscription, arguing that they should not be expected to oppress their Palestinian kin in the occupied territories.

The current tensions in Nazareth, said Mohammed Zeidan, director of the local Human Rights Association, have their origin in events in the late 1990s, when the Israeli government backed plans to build a large mosque next to the city’s landmark church, the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Zeidan said it was no coincidence that government meddling, then as now, was presided over by Netanyahu. In his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu appointed two ministerial committees that approved the mosque plan, culminating in street fights between Christians and Muslims.

On this occasion, however, most Christian and Muslim leaders have hurried to try to extinguish the sectarian flames.

Riah Abu el-Assal, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and a resident of Nazareth, said: “The government thinks it can set Christians and Muslims against each other but this time it won’t work.” He and several other prominent Christians backed Salam’s campaign for mayor.

Confounding his critics, Salam has sought to reassure Christians. One of his first measures last month was to declare as a citywide holiday for Annunciation Day – marked on March 25 by local Christians as the anniversary of the angel Gabriel’s supposed announcement to Mary that she was carrying the son of God.

Salam has also accepted a proposal from Abu el-Assal to rename a neighbourhood the “Virgin Mary Quarter”.

However, Nadim Nashef, director of Baladna, a Palestinian youth movement in Israel, feared that these moves would also serve to fuel religious differences. “We desperately need leaders who can rise above this kind of sectarian politics,” he said.

In late February the Knesset passed the first law that explicitly distinguishes between the rights of Christian Palestinians and their Muslim compatriots in Israel. It provides Christians with separate representation in the national employment advisory council.

Although a minor measure in itself, the law is seen by its authors as a prelude to much more significant legislation separating the two religious communities.

Yariv Levin, who drafted the law and is a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has said the next bill will create an official Christian “nationality”, separate from the traditional Arab one Israel has ascribed to both religious groups.

Levin has made no secret of his motives. In a recent interview, he said the new law was meant to “connect us [the Jewish majority] and the Christians”, adding: “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”

Nashef said the Israeli right wing had seen a chance, in the wake of the regional turmoil created by the Arab Spring, to exploit Christian fears of their vulnerability as a religious minority.

Such fears have persuaded a small number of Christians that they would be better off throwing in their lot with the Jewish majority, said Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian Christian Knesset member.

Netanyahu has been emboldened in his efforts to recruit Christians to the military since winning backing from a prominent Nazareth priest.

Jibril Nadaf, from the Greek Orthodox community, the largest Christian denomination in Israel, has become spiritual leader to a newly established Forum for Christian Recruitment, led by a handful of Christian families that have a tradition of volunteering for the military.

Shadi Halul, a lieutenant in the Israeli paratrooper reserves and spokesman for the forum, said: “We are part of Israel and it is important that we keep our country strong, especially when our brothers are being persecuted and slaughtered only a short distance away [in Syria].”

Halul added that Christian leaders in Israel had lived too long in fear of Muslims. It was time for Christians to “live freely, rediscover our identity and history, and be able to a teach Aramaic”, the ancient language of the region, in a school system separate from Muslims.

The forum has found allies in Im Tirtzu, a Jewish youth organisation that was recently described by a district court judge as having “fascistic” elements.

Im Tirtzu has been reticent to divulge its funding sources. But investigations by the Israeli media reveal that in the past it has received substantial sums from a Christian Zionist organisation in the United States, as well as from a close political ally of Netanyahu’s.

Azmi Hakim, the outgoing head of Nazareth’s Orthodox Council, the political leadership of the Greek Orthodox community, said that Nadaf and his movement did not represent a meaningful trend. He noted that only “a few dozen” attended a demonstration last month outside the European Union embassy in Tel Aviv appealing for European intervention in the region to help Christians.

“The government wants to build up this group to make them look important,” he said. “The danger is that we as a community believe the spin and relations between Christians and Muslims deteriorate as a result.”

Ghattas wrote to the Pope in February urging him to help end what he called Israel’s “divide-and-conquer policy” during his scheduled visit to Israel next month.

He said: “Israel wants to use army service to undermine the unity of our community and create strife.”

Such fears were heightened by a special Christmas message from Netanyahu in which, according to some observers, he appeared to favour the formation of a Christian militia. He said the forum would “grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them.”

Netanyahu added that anyone acting against the enlistment drive would be “severely judged”.

Hakim said he had been called in for an interrogation by the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service, after publicly criticising Nadaf. Hakim is due in court in May after Nadaf launched legal proceedings against him for defamation and harassment. Hakim said he and the council were each facing demands for $170,000 damages.

Haneen Zoubi, the Knesset member, ascribed Jeraisi’s defeat to a failure by the Democratic Front to modernise Nazareth over the past 20 years. “It was easier for some in the party to run a negative campaign and spread scare stories. Now with Ali Salam as mayor, there is a chance to demonstrate that those fears are illusionary.”

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As peace talks falter, Israel’s intentions become clearer

The National – 6 April 2014

There was a mad scramble by Washington last week to prevent the seemingly inevitable – an implosion of the Middle East peace talks. In a last-ditch effort to stop Israel reneging on a promise to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners, the US briefly threw in possibly the biggest bargaining chip in its hand: the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

With Israel still dragging its feet, an infuriated Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas submitted applications to join 15 United Nations conventions, thereby reviving a campaign to win international recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Although Washington will continue quietly arm-twisting the two sides a little longer, President Barack Obama is reported to be worried that US diplomacy is starting to appear “desperate”.

The negotiations’ failure could prove an important clarifying ­moment, signalling the effective demise of the two-state solution.

Both the US and Israel have come to rely on the endless theatrics of the two-decade peace process. Settlement freezes, prisoner releases, rows about Palestinian Authority funding and, of course, intermittent negotiations have served as useful distractions from the main developments on the ground.

As Bassem Khoury, a former Palestinian Authority minister, observed last week: “Israel hasn’t changed. It is the same colonial entity pursuing the same ethnic cleansing policies it did for decades.”

That was also the little-noticed conclusion reached by Richard Falk as he stepped down last month as the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories. In line with warnings he has issued in his UN post for the past six years, Mr Falk, a professor emeritus in international law at Princeton University, said Israeli policies were designed to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from the occupied territories, and especially East Jerusalem, the expected capital of any Palestinian state.

Mr Falk noted that Israel had cynically exploited the peace process to expand its settlement programme, as it did again during these past nine months of talks.

In his meeting last month with Mr Obama at the White House, Mr Abbas unveiled a map showing that Israel had approved more than 10,000 settler homes since the talks began. That number has grown further, with Israel unveiling 2,000 more, including 700 last week in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo.

For every settler home built, Palestinians lose territory needed not only for a state but also to keep individual families living where they are now. The innocuous term “settlements” conceals their true role: as Israel’s primary vehicle for ethnic cleansing Palestinians through dispossession and harassment.

Washington welcomed Mr Falk’s departure, calling him a “noxious” presence. But his warnings have been echoed by others, including Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations. Mr Falk’s findings were also confirmed by a usually circumspect group: European Union diplomats. A leaked joint report by EU consulates in the occupied territories observed that ethnic cleansing was advancing at an ever-accelerating pace in East Jerusalem.

The diplomats’ immediate concern is a “conflagration” as Israel’s extreme right is allowed ever greater access to the supremely sensitive site of the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Pushing to be given prayer rights there, the Israeli right hope they can eventually win from their government a partition of the site, as occurred earlier at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. There, the settlers’ control has effectively turned the once-thriving centre of Hebron into a Palestinian ghost town.

In East Jerusalem, Israel’s ethnic cleansing policies are at their most intense. As the EU notes, Palestinians have been starved of municipal funds, deprived of schools and blocked from commercial activity, and are leaving, heading for the greater security of West Bank cities.

In recent weeks, Palestinians in sections of East Jerusalem have even discovered that, despite its claims to treat Jerusalem as its “unified capital”, Israel has stopped supplying them with water.

Official data provide clues to Israel’s real intentions. This year’s first-quarter figures show that Israel sold more land to settlers for house building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than it did for construction inside Israel itself.

Last week a Knesset committee effectively stymied efforts to force the government to disclose how much it is spending on settlement construction. Nonetheless, left wing legislators managed to extract partial treasury figures showing that the settlement budget has increased by at least $143 million (Dh525m) over the past six months, during the height of talks with the Palestinians.

In another sign of how Israel has been entrenching the settlements while paying lip-service to a peace process, the Israeli media revealed that 24 major infrastructure projects had been approved for the West Bank. They include more than $57 million for new settler roads and the first planned train service linking the settlements to Israel.

Israeli dispossession policies are not limited to the occupied territories. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s plan to redraw the borders to strip part of Israel’s large Palestinian minority of its citizenship received a major fillip last month. For the first time government lawyers rejected the opinion of international law experts and gave their blessing to what the liberal Haaretz daily called Mr Lieberman’s programme of “ethnic cleansing” of its own citizens.

If negotiations collapse, it should be clear that, while both sides were supposed to be talking, one side – ­Israel – was vigorously and unilaterally acting to further its goals.

It now seems the Palestinian leadership will respond in kind, by pushing their bid for statehood at the UN. Israel has already threatened “punitive measures”, meaning things are likely to turn yet uglier. But the era of wishful thinking may finally be coming to an end – and that will be progress in itself.

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The Israeli spy and Palestinian peace talks

Al-Jazeera - 3 April 2014

US using Jonathan Pollard as a bargaining chip raises the stakes in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations

Reports that Washington was offering to free Israel’s most notorious spy, Jonathan Pollard, as part of an unorthodox prisoner exchange has provoked feverish excitement in Israel.

US security officials have always objected to releasing Pollard early, after he was jailed 29 years ago for passing thousands of classified documents to Israel while serving in US naval intelligence. Pollard is eligible for a parole hearing next year.

The move appeared to be the sweetener in a last-ditch effort by US President Barack Obama’s administration to prevent the demise of current peace talks on April 29. Washington wants to persuade Israel and the Palestinian leadership to extend the negotiations timetable till at least the end of the year.

Neve Gordon, an Israeli political scientist at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, said the Israeli right had turned Pollard into a “powerful symbol”.

“The right asks: How can we leave Pollard rotting in prison – and not just any prison, a US prison? Most Israelis feel Pollard has been in jail too long and suffered too much. It feels like a horrendous act of vindictiveness by the US.”

Pollard, an American Jew, was given Israeli citizenship in 1995 and his role as a spy officially was confirmed by Israel three years later. Requests for clemency have been rejected by previous US administrations.

The Obama administration was said to be considering freeing Pollard in return for Israel’s agreement to carry out a promised release of 26 Palestinian prisoners due last weekend.

After Israel failed to deliver, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the United Nations this week to become a signatory of 15 international conventions, apparently reviving the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to win international recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The US deal, it is reported, would also require Israel to release hundreds more Palestinian prisoners and implement a temporary freeze on settlement building.

Buying time

The possibility of Pollard being used as a bargaining chip has upset many commentators. A New York Times editorial called the move “lamentable“, while The Washington Post wondered why the US was the one “offering its own concessions” to keep the two sides talking.

Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and former adviser to Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister during the Camp David peace talks in 2000, said Obama’s chief concern was keeping the negotiations going.

“This deal has been put together not to advance a two-state solution but to buy time, to keep a ‘non-process’ rolling a few months more so that the Obama administration can get past the elections.”

Although the reports that Pollard might soon be handed over were welcomed in Israel, analysts warned there was a danger it could rub salt into a still-festering wound. Writing in Haaretz newspaper, Anshel Pfeffer noted: “A national carnival around the liberated spy will cause new damage to the relationship with Washington.”

Alpher concurred, saying the right had turned Pollard into a “martyr”. “They have presented him as a persecuted Jew, suggesting that it is Israel’s duty to save him.”

Pollard appealed unsuccessfully to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005 to have himself recognised as a “prisoner of Zion“, a title that more usually refers to Jews who were imprisoned by the Soviet Union to prevent them from emigrating to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been closely identified with the campaign to win Pollard’s release. Although recent Israeli prime ministers have quietly lobbied Washington on Pollard’s behalf, Netanyahu became the first to risk incurring the White House’s ire by making a public call for clemency in early 2011.

He also raised the matter with the White House in 2010 during an earlier round of peace talks, proposing a continuation of a partial settlement freeze in return for Pollard’s release. On that occasion, talks broke down.

In a sign of the consensus over Pollard, 106 of the 120 legislators in Israel’s parliament signed an appeal to Obama last December urging him to release the spy as a “humanitarian gesture“. Those not signing were mostly Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset.

At that time, Israel’s Channel 10 TV station quoted an unnamed White House source saying Obama’s view was that “Pollard committed a very serious crime, and he has no intention of releasing him”.

Strong obligations

During Pollard’s plea bargain before he was sentenced in 1987, it emerged that he had been paid at least $50,000 by Israeli handlers for information. Pollard told the court he had passed on “360 cubic feet” of documents over a 17-month period, reportedly to South Africa and Pakistan as well as Israel.

The information is believed to have included the location of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s headquarters in Tunisia, which Israel bombed in 1985, killing 35 people, and reports on Soviet arms shipments to Arab states. He is also reported to have revealed details of how the US operated its intelligence-gathering satellites.

According to US media reports, some of the classified documents may have found their way to the Soviet Union, probably in exchange for the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel.

Netanyahu’s support for Pollard had won popular backing, said Alpher, because most Israelis felt a strong obligation to Pollard, even if it meant antagonising the US. “It’s deep in the Israeli culture not to leave behind someone who is wounded or captive, whatever the circumstances.”

But the right, he added, had gone further, creating the impression that he is “being held in unreasonable conditions, that he is being singled out by the US”. There was, he added, an implication that the American treatment of Pollard was driven by “anti-semitism”.

That served the right’s cause, he said, justifying their refusal to make territorial and political concessions in peace talks.

Pfeffer noted that while in prison, Pollard had adopted the hardline positions of the Israeli extreme right. His thinking, Pfeffer said, had been affected by what he called a stream of visits by “far-right Israeli politicians and settler rabbis”.

In 2009, Pollard was reported to have opposed a prisoner deal to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for five years by Hamas. He suggested Israel instead made a list of Hamas prisoners in its jails so that it could “kill one of them every day until they release Gilad”.

The Pollard campaign has been bolstered among the Israeli public by the publication late last year of documents, originally leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the US had spied on its closest allies, including Israel. Israelis sensed a double standard from Washington, said Neve Gordon.

Political pawns

Gordon added that Netanyahu would benefit from Pollard’s release. “Pollard has come to represent for Israelis a sense of our own powerlessness, even with our friend the US. If Netanyahu manages to get him freed, it will strengthen his political position.”

The biggest carrot that might keep the Palestinians at the talks, meanwhile, would be a promise from Israel to release the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is widely seen as Abbas’ heir apparent.

Last week’s cancelled prisoner release was always likely to be contentious for Israel, because it included 14 members of Israel’s large Palestinian minority.

Alpher said the arrangement put a question mark over who the 14 prisoners owed their allegiance to – Israel or Abbas? “That plays straight into the hands of people like [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, who says Israeli Arabs are not loyal and cannot be trusted.”

Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners’ rights organisation based in Ramallah, warned it was difficult to trust Israel in such deals.

It noted that, as part of a 2011 prisoner exchange for Shalit, Israel agreed to release a first batch of 477 Palestinians in October that year. Over the next two months, the organisation documented some 470 new arrests across the West Bank.

Gavan Kelly, a spokesman for Addameer, said: “Israel gives with one hand and takes with the other. On this occasion too, Israel can agree to free Palestinians and then make more arrests or re-arrest those it releases.”

According to Addameer, 5,000 political prisoners are in Israeli jails, including more than 130 who have never been charged.

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Israel to consider war crimes case

Al-Jazeera – 29 March 2014

For the first time Israel’s Supreme Court is set to consider evidence on April 2 that senior Israeli political and military officials committed war crimes in relation to major military operations in Gaza and Lebanon.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister, are among the high-level figures accused of breaking the laws of war when they launched attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and on Gaza in the winter of 2008-09.

The allegations have been levelled by Marwan Dalal, the only Israeli lawyer to have served as a senior prosecutor in one of the international criminal courts at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Dalal, who spent three years as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, belongs to Israel’s Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of the country’s population.

He said he had based his petition to the court on “strong factual and legal findings” from public sources, including the reports of Israeli official inquiries.

His evidence includes statements from senior Israeli officials in which they appear to implicate themselves in actions – including killing, collective punishment and attacks on civilian infrastructure – not justified by military necessity. Such acts are breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as Israeli law.

Dalal will argue before the court that the Israeli police are required to investigate the evidence in preparation for possible indictments for war crimes.

“The evidence is in the public realm and obliges Israeli prosecutors to order investigations,” he said. “The failure to do so is unreasonable conduct and the court must rectify the matter.”

Official ‘impunity’

The action is the first brought by Dalal under the auspices of Grotius, an organisation he founded last year to collect information on war crimes. Although Grotius’ focus is on Israel and the occupied territories, it has also provided information to the special tribunal for Lebanon, investigating the killing in 2005 of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The 52-page petition relates to three major military operations launched by Israel over a four-year period, in which many of the same officials were involved: the war against Lebanon in summer 2006, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008, and a naval attack in international waters on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.

Israel has become increasingly fearful that its officials may face prosecutions for war crimes, either in third countries or, since the United Nations’ vote in 2012 to upgrade the Palestinians’ membership status, at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

One of the conditions insisted on by Israel and the US before launching the current peace talks, was that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas promise not to apply for membership of international bodies, including The Hague court.

The Israeli legal system has launched a handful of criminal investigations into the actions of relatively low-ranking soldiers involved in Cast Lead. The three-week operation killed some 1,400 Palestinians, of which only 400 have been identified as fighters.

Of the criminal prosecutions, the longest sentence, at seven and a half months, was imposed on a soldier who stole a credit card.

Israeli prosecutors have so far not considered the evidence of war crimes committed by its leaders.

‘No discussion’

Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, an Israeli organisation that documents human rights abuses in the occupied territories, said the impunity of senior Israeli officials was a great concern.

“There has been no discussion in Israel of the responsibility of high-ranking officials for issuing apparently illegal orders such as using white phosphorus in built-up areas, the adoption of flexible open-fire regulations, and a policy of targeting certain population groups, such as males over a certain age.”

Dalal has had previous high-profile successes against the Israeli military in Israel’s Supreme Court. In 2005, the court ordered the Israeli army to stop the practise of using Palestinians as “human shields” during military operations.

Grotius has sent an advisory paper to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah detailing the status of Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories as a war crime.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al Jazeera in February that the Palestinians’ first approach to the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be to ask it to investigate Israeli officials for sanctioning the construction of settlements and moving Israelis into the occupied territories.

Sharon Weill, an international law expert at the Sciences Po in Paris, said that the ICC is only authorised to consider war crimes that occur after a party ratifies its establishing treaty, the Rome Statute.

“It seems clear that in international law the settlements are a war crime and an ongoing one as they are being continuously built and expanded. So the Palestinians could bring a case after they decide to join the ICC.”

Dalal conceded that he expected “judicial resistance” in Israel to his current petition.

In 2003, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from Yesh Gvul, a group of Israeli combat veterans who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, which argued that the head of the Israeli air force should be investigated for breaches of international law.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Dan Halutz had approved dropping a one-tonne bomb on a residential district of Gaza in 2002 that killed 14 people, many of them children.

However, Dalal and other leading lawyers note that refusal by the court to order an investigation could suggest that Israel lacks a reliable domestic procedure for holding officials accountable for war crimes.

Universal values

Several countries, including most prominently, the UK, the Netherlands and Spain, have adopted the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows them to prosecute war crimes that took place outside their territory and did not involve any of their nationals.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer who was involved in the Yesh Gvul petition, said: “A case that indicates Israel is unwilling to seriously investigate or bring to justice officials whose decisions appear to have violated international law can help outside actors seek their own legal remedies.”

In addition to Olmert and Livni, the petition names two former military chiefs of staff, along with a former domestic intelligence chief and a former minister of defence.

According to Dalal, factual evidence of war crimes is provided in official Israeli reports produced by the Winograd inquiry into the 2006 Lebanon war and the two Turkel inquiries into the 2010 attack on the aid flotilla.

Dalal also drew on the extensive research of UN-appointed investigations, including the Goldstone commission into the attack on Gaza in late 2008, and two commissions, led respectively by Karl Hudson-Philips and Geoffrey Palmer, into the flotilla attack.

In the case of the 2006 Lebanon war, for example, Dalal cites several statements that implicate Halutz, the then-military chief of staff, in policies of collective punishment and targeting civilian infrastructure.

Some 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the month-long war, of which the majority were civilians. The UN children’s charity UNICEF has estimated that nearly a third of the dead were children under the age of 13.

In the Winograd inquiry, Halutz is quoted as saying, shortly after two soldiers were captured by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, his forces “should operate on two levels, against the state of Lebanon and against Hezbollah without leaving anyone immune from targeting. This is the meaning of deterrence.”

The same day, the media reported him issuing similar threats to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years”, unless the soldiers were returned.

The Winograd report cited him telling the prime minister the next day: “The main objective is to make Lebanon take a stance [against Hezbollah] by targeting infrastructure.”

Dalal said: “The Winograd report clearly shows that the military and political leadership either intended to hurt civilians in Lebanon or at the very least had a disregard for their safety. From their statements we can show both an intention and operational results that accorded with that stated intention.”

Halutz and Olmert, who ordered the attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, recently announced that they would be setting up a new consultancy firm expected to offer advice on defence matters.

‘Uncomfortable’ allegations

The UN’s Palmer Commission into the killing by Israeli naval commandos of nine humanitarian activists aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza in May 2010, found evidence that suggested most of the victims had been executed.

In its prepared response to the court, the Israeli justice ministry stated: “Our position is to recommend the rejection of this petition because the accusations are too general, they lack a minimal foundation in factual evidence, while the events are now far in the past, as well as being unrelated to each other.”

Israel has claimed that efforts to prosecute its officials are part of a campaign of delegitimisation it terms “lawfare“.

It has also pressured European countries to change their universal jurisdiction laws. Its concerns were heightened in 2009 by the decision of a London court to issue an arrest warrant for Livni in connection to Operation Cast Lead. The warrant was revoked when it emerged that Livni was not in the UK.

Earlier, several senior Israeli military commanders, including Halutz, were forced to cancel visits to the UK for fear of being arrested.

Under pressure from Israel, Britain altered its rules in 2011, giving the head of the state prosecution service the power to overrule a court decision to issue an arrest warrant for a visiting official.

Weill said it would be difficult to get either the ICC or countries with universal jurisdiction laws to investigate Israel because political considerations tended to overshadow legal ones.

“It is hard to persuade Western countries that a state like Israel, which is seen as a similar kind of democracy, has a failing legal system, incapable of conducting proper investigations.”

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When the peace process grinds to a halt, what then?

The National – 23 March 2014

For the first time since the US launched the Middle East peace talks last summer, the Palestinian leadership may be sensing it has a tiny bit of leverage. Barack Obama met the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington last week in what Palestinian officials called a “candid and difficult” meeting. The US president hoped to dissuade Mr Abbas from walking away when the original negotiations’ timetable ends in a month.

The US president and his secretary of state, John Kerry, want their much-delayed “framework agreement” to provide the pretext for spinning out the talks for another year. The last thing the US president needs is for the negotiations to collapse, after Mr Kerry has repeatedly stressed that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is imperative.

The US political cycle means Mr Obama’s party is heading into the Congressional midterm elections this autumn. A humiliating failure in the peace process would add to perceptions of Mr Obama as a weak leader in the Middle East.

Renewed clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in the international arena would also deepen US diplomatic troubles at a time when Washington needs to conserve its energies for continuing negotiations with Iran and dealing with the fallout from its conflict with Russia over Crimea.

Mr Obama therefore seems committed to keeping the peace process show on the road for a while longer, however aware he is of the ultimate futility of the exercise.

In this regard, US interests overlap with those of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has been the chief beneficiary of the past eight months: diplomatic pressure has largely lifted, Israeli officials have announced an aggressive programme of settlement building in return for releasing a few dozen Palestinian prisoners and the White House has gradually shifted ground even further towards Israel’s hardline positions.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have nothing to show for their participation, and have lost much of the diplomatic momentum gained earlier by winning upgraded status at the United Nations. They have also had to put on hold moves to join dozens of international forums, as well as the threat to bring Israel up on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.

Mr Abbas is under mounting pressure at home to put an end to the charade, with four Palestinian factions warning last week that the Kerry plan would be the equivalent of national “suicide”. For this reason, the White House is now focused on preventing Mr Abbas from quitting next month – and that requires a major concession from Israel.

The Palestinians are said to be pushing hard for Israel’s agreement to halt settlement building and free senior prisoners, most notably Marwan Barghouti, who looks the most likely successor to Mr Abbas as Palestinian leader.

Some kind of short-term settlement freeze – though deeply unpopular with Mr Netanyahu’s supporters – may be possible, given the Israeli right’s triumph in advancing settlement-building of late. Mr Abbas reportedly presented Mr Obama with “a very ugly map” of more than 10,000 settler homes Israel has unveiled since the talks began.

Setting Mr Barghouti free would be an even harder pill for the Israeli government to swallow. Cabinet ministers are already threatening a mutiny over the final round of prisoner releases, due at the end of the week. But Israeli reports yesterday suggested Washington might consider releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, possibly in return for Israel freeing more Palestinians, to keep the talks going.

Simmering tensions between the US and Israel are suggestive of the intense pressure being exerted by the White House behind the scenes.

Those strains exploded into view again last week when Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defence minister, used a speech to lambast Washington’s foreign policy as “feeble”. In a similar vein, he infuriated the White House in January by labelling Mr Kerry “obsessive” in pursuing the peace process. But unlike the earlier incident, Washington has refused to let the matter drop, angrily demanding an explicit apology.

The pressure from the White House, however, is not chiefly intended to force concessions from Israel on an agreement. After all, the Israeli parliament approved this month the so-called referendum bill, seen by the right as an insurance policy. It gives the Israeli public, raised on the idea of Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive and “eternal capital”, a vote on whether to share it with the Palestinians.

Washington’s goal is more modest: a few more months of quiet. But even on this reckoning, given Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence, the talks are going to implode sooner or later. What then?

Mr Obama and Mr Kerry have set out a convincing scenario that in the longer term Israel will find itself shunned by the world. The Palestinian leadership will advance its cause at the UN, while conversely grassroots movements inside and outside Palestine will begin clamouring for a single state guaranteeing equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Israel’s vehement and aggressive opposition on both fronts will only serve to damage its image – and its relations with the US.

An unexpected voice backing the one-state solution emerged last week when Tareq Abbas, the Palestinian president’s 48-year-old son, told the New York Times that a struggle for equal rights in a single state would be the “easier, peaceful way”.

Bolstering Washington’s argument that such pressures cannot be held in check for ever, a poll this month of US public opinion revealed a startling finding. Despite a US political climate committed to a two-state solution, nearly two-thirds of Americans back a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians should a Palestinian state prove unfeasible. That view is shared by more than half of Israel’s supporters in the US.

That would constitute a paradigm shift, a moment of reckoning that draws nearer by the day as the peace process again splutters into irrelevance.

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The Second Amendment: A Symbol of Freedom or An Invitation to Violence?

John Whitehead  RINF Alternative News "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and...

The Second Amendment: A Symbol of Freedom or An Invitation to Violence?

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” — The Second Amendment to the US Constitution You can largely determine where a person will fall in the debate over gun control and the Second Amendment based […]

New report details ‘brutal’ Israeli policies

Al-Jazeera – 27 February 2014

The first bullet struck 16-year-old Samir Awad in his left leg. He staggered away as fast as he could, but was too slow. A second round slammed into his left shoulder, exiting from the right side of his chest. Then, moments later, a third bullet penetrated the back of his skull and exited from his forehead.

The live rounds were fired by a group of Israeli soldiers guarding a section of Israel’s separation barrier built on the lands of Samir’s village in the occupied West Bank. The wall has been used by Israel to make large areas of the town of Budrus’ farmland inaccessible to the villagers.

On the day he died in January 2013, Samir and his friends had celebrated the end of the school term by walking into the hills along a path close to the steel barrier, said Ayed Murrar, head of Budrus’ popular struggle committee. An army patrol, laying in wait, ambushed them. Samir was grabbed as his friends fled. When moments later he managed to break free, the soldiers opened fire.

Samir’s friend, Malik Murrar, who witnessed the shooting, said: “How far can an injured child run? They could easily have arrested him. Instead they shot him in the back with live ammunition.”

Samir’s story is one of several harrowing accounts of killings of Palestinian civilians told in a report “Trigger-happy“, published Thursday by Amnesty International.

The international human rights organisation said the evidence suggests Samir’s death was an extra-judicial execution, which constitutes a war crime under international law.

“It’s hard to believe that an unarmed child could be perceived as posing imminent danger to a well-equipped soldier,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Dozens killed, hundreds wounded

The report identifies a pattern of behaviour by Israeli soldiers of shooting live ammunition at unarmed Palestinians, sometimes as they are fleeing. Over the past three years of Amnesty’s study, dozens of Palestinians have been shot dead in the West Bank and hundreds seriously wounded. Thousands more have sustained injuries from rubber-coated bullets and tear gas.

The number of casualties rose dramatically last year, with 25 Palestinians in the West Bank, four of them children, killed by live rounds – more than the total in the previous two years of the study combined.

Many were targeted during largely non-violent weekly demonstrations in more than a dozen Palestinian villages in the West Bank against the separation barrier Israel has built on their land. The wall has entailed the confiscation of hundreds of hectares of farmland on which the inhabitants depend.

Ayed Murrar attributed the rise in killings to a fear in the army that unrest is growing in the occupied territories and may lead to a new intifada, or popular uprising, against the occupation.

“They want to make an example of us to stop others from adopting our way of mass protest against the occupation. They want to keep us submissive and passive.”

Last summer Nitzan Alon, the Israeli commander in charge of the West Bank, warned that Israel was facing a wave of unrest unless peace talks were revived.

‘All kinds of resistance’

But as the recent US-brokered negotiations have faltered, senior Palestinian officials in the West Bank have called for a return to “all kinds of resistance” against Israel, including popular protests. Last Friday dozens of Palestinians were reported to have been injured by Israeli soldiers firing rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters against demonstrators opposed to Israel’s wall.

Other kinds of popular protest have also emerged over the past year, including Palestinian groups setting up encampments to reclaim land Jewish settlers have grabbed in Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank.

In the latest example this month, soldiers beat and arrested protesters as they removed a camp named Ein Hijleh in the Jordan Valley, which had been established to highlight Israeli efforts to annex the valley as part of the peace talks.

And 13 Palestinians in Hebron were injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers last week when 2,000 demonstrators marched down Shuhada Street, the city’s main street, which Israel has closed to Palestinians for the past 20 years.

The Amnesty study did not include Gaza, where Israel usually claims Palestinian civilians killed by its forces were “collateral damage” during military operations. The report notes that this context of armed conflict does not apply to the casualties in the West Bank.

In many West Bank locations, said Amnesty, Palestinian residents face “collective punishment”, with Israeli forces declaring areas to be “closed military zones”, blocking access roads, launching night raids where sweeping arrests are made, using excessive force against protesters and bystanders, and damaging residents’ property.

Amnesty says Israeli soldiers’ decision to fire live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at Palestinian civilians who pose little or no immediate threat to them raises troubling questions about the army’s undeclared rules of engagement.

Stone-throwing

The report dismisses claims by the Israeli military justifying its harsh actions on the grounds that Palestinians have thrown stones at soldiers. It said “stone-throwing poses little or no serious risk to Israeli soldiers”, and chiefly serves as an “irritant”. The stones are thrown from too far away to harm the soldiers, who in any case are usually too well-protected to suffer injury.

Israeli human rights groups have long criticised the army’s repressive methods towards Palestinian protests against the occupation. In the late 1980s, during the first popular uprising, Israel’s defence minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, publicly urged soldiers to “break the bones” of any Palestinians they caught.

During the early stages of the second intifada, beginning in late 2000, the Israeli army again resorted to massive use of force. In three weeks during October 2000, before Palestinian factions started taking up arms, Israeli military records show soldiers fired one million live rounds.

Amnesty describes the Israeli army’s use of force against Palestinians in its three-year study as “unnecessary, arbitrary and brutal”. It adds that in all the cases it examined, including Samir’s death, there was no evidence the Israeli soldiers’ lives were under threat.

“The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers – and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators – suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy,” Luther said.

Shot in the back

In addition to 45 unarmed Palestinians shot dead with live ammunition over the past three years, many of them at protests, another 261 have been seriously injured, including 67 children. Several were shot in the back, indicating they had been targeted as they were fleeing.

Many more civilians have been injured by means other than live rounds. Amnesty cites as “astonishing” the fact that in three years Israeli soldiers have wounded 8,500 Palestinians with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas. Among that number were 1,500 children.

Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem, an Israeli group monitoring abuses in the occupied territories, said her organisation had been distributing video cameras to Palestinians as a way to help document the use of violence by soldiers and settlers. In December, B’Tselem released video footage shot by Muhammad Awad, a Palestinian in the village of Beit Ummar, showing a soldier firing a tear gas canister into his chest. He had to be treated in hospital.

Amnesty criticises the lack of proper investigations by the army of the many incidents it records, calling the response “woefully inadequate” and lacking in “independence and impartiality”. The human rights group says it cannot identify a single case of a member of the Israeli security forces being convicted of “wilfully killing” a Palestinian in the occupied territories for the past 25 years.

According to figures compiled by Yesh Din, another Israeli human rights group, only four soldiers have been convicted of negligent manslaughter and another of negligence in the past 13 years. None was discharged from the army or received a prison sentence of more than a few months.

Michaeli was herself injured last July when a police officer fired a rubber-coated bullet at her from close range while she was filming a demonstration in Nabi Saleh.

“It’s clear there is a policy from the commanders of turning a blind eye when open-fire regulations are violated. When I recently spoke to the officer investigating my case, he said that there had been no developments – that was six months after the events happened. When the security services know the policy is to do nothing, there is no deterrence.”

Requests by Amnesty to meet army officials to discuss the cases in its report were rejected. The Israeli defence ministry was unavailable for comment when approached by Al Jazeera.

An Israeli army statement said: “The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] holds itself to the highest of professional standards and trains and equips itself as such. When there is any suspicion of wrong doing, or breach of discipline, the IDF reviews, investigates and takes action where appropriate.”

Numbed to aggression?

A recent academic study of Israeli soldiers’ testimonies suggested their operational routines quickly numbed them into treating harassment and aggression towards Palestinians as normal. The young soldiers came to enjoy a sense of power and their ability to impose “corrective punishment”.

Avner Gvarayahu of Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who compile testimonies of soldiers’ abuses, agreed. He said the real rules of engagement issued by commanders were “flexible” and allowed soldiers to open fire on civilians.

“Soldiers are educated by the army to see the conflict as a zero-sum game: It’s either us or them. Then every Palestinian comes to be seen as a threat, as a potential terrorist, whether they are young or old, man or woman, able-bodied or disabled. They are all the enemy.”

Gvarayahu, who once commanded a special operations unit, said the army command also approved of what he called “revenge attacks”, raids on random Palestinian communities in retaliation for the deaths of Israelis. “There is no way these kinds of attacks can be carried out by ordinary soldiers without authorisation from the very top. I think the decision even comes from the political level.”

He said political and military leaders established the norms of behaviour within the army.

“Remember that the current defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, when he was the chief of staff [in 2002], said the army’s job was to ‘burn into the consciousness’ of the Palestinians their defeat. The only aim one can infer from that is that the army’s role is to use force to make the Palestinians weak and compliant.”

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Why Israelis are content to live in a bubble of denial

The National – 25 February 2014

The 24-hour visit by German chancellor Angela Merkel to Israel this week came as relations between the two countries hit rock bottom. According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine last week, Ms Merkel and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netan­yahu have been drawn into shouting matches when discussing by phone the faltering peace process.

Despite their smiles to the cameras during the visit, tension behind the scenes has been heightened by a diplomatic bust-up earlier this month when Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament and himself German, gave a speech to the Israeli parliament.

In unprecedented scenes, a group of Israeli legislators heckled Mr Schulz, calling him a “liar”, and then staged a walkout, led by the economics minister Naftali Bennett. Rather than apologising, Mr Netanyahu intervened to lambast Mr Schulz for being misinformed.

Mr Schulz, who, like Ms Merkel, is considered a close friend of Israel, used his speech vehemently to oppose growing calls in Europe for a boycott of Israel. So how did he trigger such opprobrium?

Mr Schulz’s main offence was posing a question: was it true, as he had heard in meetings in the West Bank, that Israelis have access to four times more water than Palestinians? He further upset legislators by gently suggesting that Israel’s blockade of Gaza was preventing economic growth there.

Neither statement should have been in the least controversial. Figures from independent bodies such as the World Bank show Israel, which dominates the local water supplies, allocates per capita about 4.4 times more water to its population than to Palestinians.

Equally, it would be hard to imagine that years of denying goods and materials to Gaza, and blocking exports, have not ravaged its economy. The unemployment rate, for example, has increased 6 per cent, to 38.5 per cent, following Israel’s recent decision to prevent the transfer of construction materials to Gaza’s private sector.

But Israelis rarely hear such facts from their politicians or the media. And few are willing to listen when a rare voice like Mr Schulz’s intervenes. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial.

Mr Netantahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side – both physical and bureaucratic – to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbours, foreign workers and asylum seekers.

Inside Israel, the government is seeking to silence the few critical voices left. The intimidation was starkly on display last week as the supreme court considered the constitutionality of the recent “boycott law”, which threatens to bankrupt anyone calling for a boycott of either Israel or the settlements.

Tellingly, a lawyer for the government defended its position by arguing that Israel could not afford freedom of expression of the kind enjoyed by countries like the US.

Illustrating the point, uproar greeted the news last month that a civics teacher had responded negatively when asked by pupils whether he thought Israel’s army the most moral in the world. A campaign to sack him has been led by government ministers and his principal, who stated: “There are sacred cows I won’t allow to be slaughtered.”

Similarly, last week it emerged that a Palestinian from East Jerusalem had been interrogated by police for incitement after noting on Facebook that his city was “under occupation”.

Outside Israel, Mr Netanyahu is indulging in more familiar tactics to browbeat critics. Tapping European sensitivities, he accused those who support a boycott of being “classical anti-semites in modern garb”. He justified the allegation, as he has before, on the grounds that Israel is being singled out.

It looks that way to Israelis only because they have singularly insulated themselves from reality.

Western critics focus on Israel because, unlike countries such as North Korea or Iran, Israel has managed to avoid any penalties despite riding roughshod over international norms for decades.

Iran, which is only suspected of secretly developing nuclear weapons, has been enduring years of savage sanctions. Israel, which has hidden its large stockpile of nuclear warheads from international scrutiny since the late 1960s, has enjoyed endless diplomatic cover.

Contrary to Mr Netanyahu’s claim, lots of countries have been singled out by the United States and Europe for sanctions – whether diplomatic, financial or, in the case of Iraq, Libya and Syria, military.

But the antipathy towards Israel has deeper roots still. Israel has not only evaded accountability, it has been handsomely rewarded by the US and Europe for flouting international conventions in its treatment of the Palestinians.

The self-styled global policemen have inadvertently encouraged Israel’s lawbreaking by consistently ignoring its transgressions and continuing with massive aid handouts and preferential trade deals.

Far from judging Israel unfairly, Mr Schulz, Ms Merkel and most other western leaders regularly indulge in special pleading on its behalf. They know about Israel’s ugly occupation but shy away from exercising their powers to help end it.

The reason why popular criticism of Israel is currently galvanising around the boycott movement – what Mr Netanyahu grandly calls “delegitimisation” – is that it offers a way for ordinary Americans and Europeans to distance themselves from their governments’ own complicity in Israel’s crimes.

If Mr Netanyahu has refused to listen to his external critics, western governments have been no less at fault in growing impervious to the groundswell of sentiment at home that expects Israel to be forced to take account of international law.

Both Ms Merkel’s diplomatic niceties and her shouting matches have proven themselves utterly ineffective. It is time for her and her western colleagues to stop talking and to start taking action against Israel.

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Spotlight shines on Palestinian collaborators

Al-Jazeera - 17 February 2014

Fadi al-Qatshan is one of the latest casualties of a war taking place in Gaza’s shadows, as Israel seeks ever more desperate ways to recruit collaborators while Hamas, the Islamic movement ruling Gaza, enforces tough counter-measures.

The 26-year-old graduate died in November. He was killed not by a bullet or in a missile strike, but when a simple piece of medical hardware – an implant in his heart – failed. His repeated requests to the Israeli authorities over more than a year to be allowed out of Gaza for medical treatment had gone unheeded.

According to his family, Israeli security services knew his life was in danger but denied him a permit to attend a medical appointment at a hospital in East Jerusalem. Gaza’s own hospitals, in crisis after years of Israel’s blockade, warned him they could no longer help.

Following a request for a travel permit, his family says al-Qatshan received a call from someone identifying himself as from the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service. Speaking in Arabic, the man said he knew the device in his heart “might explode any minute”. He was urged to “cooperate” in return for a permit.

Al-Qatshan was told he could call the mobile phone number on his screen and arrange an appointment at Erez, the Israeli-controlled crossing that is the only way for ordinary Palestinians to exit Gaza. The agent reportedly rang off with the words, “See you in Tel Aviv”, Israel’s large coastal city. Al-Qatshan sealed his fate by deleting the number.

‘Terrible choices’

Issam Yunis, director of Al-Mezan human rights organisation in Gaza City, says his group regularly records cases of Palestinians in desperate need of medical treatment being approached to collaborate. “The choice for these patients is really a terrible one. It is to cooperate with Israel or die in Gaza.”

Although Israel is suspected of recruiting tens of thousands of Palestinians as collaborators since its creation in 1948, the practice has rarely attracted more than superficial attention. Palestinians are ashamed that cooperation with the Israeli security services is widespread, while Israel is loath to draw attention to the systematic violations of international law at the root of its system of rule in the occupied territories.

But the issue of collaboration is finally emerging from the shadows, assisted in recent months by a spate of films addressing the subject.

In the running for an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony next month is Omar, a Palestinian film that places the awful dilemmas faced by collaborators at the heart of its love story.

Omar nudged out of the competition Israel’s own entry, Bethlehem, which features a similar story about the fraught relationship between a Shin Bet agent and a young Palestinian informant.

And last month the audience award at the Sundance Festival went to the Green Prince, an Israeli documentary based on the memoirs of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas leader in Gaza who channeled information to the Shin Bet for 10 years before fleeing to the United States. His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was recently released from an Israeli prison.

With Palestinian collaborators a hot topic in Hollywood, they are also in the spotlight in the occupied territories.

A missile strike that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in November 2012 – the opening salvo in Israel’s eight-day attack on Gaza known as Operation Pillar of Defence – has been widely ascribed to intelligence provided by a collaborator.

In response, Hamas carried out public executions of several suspected informants in the streets of Gaza City, including dragging the body of one behind a motorbike.

‘Tightly classified’

According to Hillel Cohen, who has researched Israel’s recruitment of collaborators since the state’s earliest years, the extent of the problem is difficult to assess. Israel keeps most of the archives on its intelligence operations in the occupied territories “tightly classified”.

The use of collaborators, he says, was probably most extensive in the 1970s and ’80s, before Israel handed over areas of the occupied territories to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords and before the advent of today’s more sophisticated surveillance technology.

Nonetheless, the practice has far from ended.

“Israel still needs people on the ground,” says Cohen. “If they want to place a bomb in a car or supply a phone with a hidden tracking device, someone has to do it. The technology can only help so much.”

According to Saleh Abdel Jawwad, a politics professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, there are many different types of collaborators.

In East Jerusalem, for example, where Israel hopes to prevent any future Palestinian control of the city, a feature of life are the “land dealers”, Palestinians who buy land in strategic areas, secretly on behalf of settler organisations.

Israel also uses economic collaborators, who, for example, act as contractors for Israel in selling its products in the occupied territories. Israel has also tried to recruit political collaborators, in an effort to place them in charge of Palestinian communities or weaken candidates Israel opposed.

But Israel prizes most highly the recruitment of active members of Palestinian national organisations, who can provide reliable information on resistance operations or the movements of Palestinian leaders.

Typically, these collaborators are “turned” after their arrest. They may agree to cooperate under torture or as a way to receive a reduced prison sentence, said Morad Jadalah, a researcher with Addameer, a prisoners’ rights organisation in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Children recruited

But the most common type of collaborator is the informant, who provides general information about the activities of political groups or the movement of individual activists, as well as the names of those taking part in demonstrations.

Jadalah says when Palestinians are arrested, as they try to cross a checkpoint or during a raid on their village, the weakest and most vulnerable – often children – are targeted during interrogation with a mix of threats, violence and inducements.

Long jail terms and the use of administrative detention – imprisonment on secret charges – are the most obvious threats, but there are other ways to pressure Palestinians in detention, says Jadalah.

“The interrogators may beat them, or threaten to beat or rape their mother or sister, or arrest a close relative. They usually already know something about the family, so they can threaten, for example, to revoke the father’s work permit. They may even threaten to spread rumours that the family are already acting as informants.”

In other cases, the Israeli security services may offer inducements. “Israel controls most people’s lives, including their ability to work and move around. Between 30 and 40 per cent of adults are unemployed. That gives Israel the leverage it needs to recruit collaborators.”

According to Jadalah, the Israeli security services usually want general information about the neighbourhood where the collaborator lives, or details about a specific person.

Reports suggest in recent years the Shin Bet has been using arrested children to gain information about the leaders of non-violent resistance movements in the West Bank. They have shown special interest in villages such as Bilin, Nabi Saleh and Budrus where well-publicised protests are trying to stop Israel’s efforts to build the separation barrier on Palestinian land.

Cohen says the benefit to Israel of controlling an extensive network of collaborators is not limited to the information they pass on.

“It encourages the atomisation of Palestinian society. It fosters mistrust within the society and between members of the political movements. When everyone becomes a potential suspect, political passivity is encouraged. That is, in fact, the main goal.”

‘Infiltrated society’

Yunis, of Al-Mezan, agrees: “We are an infiltrated society. When there is so much suspicion, organised and effective resistance to the occupation becomes extremely hard.”

In addition, Jadalah blames the Palestinian Authority for setting a bad example. “When it is clear that our leaders are working with Israel on ‘security cooperation’ and that they look to Israel for protection, a very powerful message is sent to Palestinian society that only Israel can offer such guarantees.”

Hamas, apparently fearful of its inability to organise in the face of extensive collaboration, has officially waged war on Gaza’s informants.

Early last year it offered a brief amnesty to existing collaborators, many of them recruited before Israel’s 2005 disengagement, allowing them to turn themselves in in return for lenient sentences and financial help for their families. However, it has vowed a policy of zero tolerance since.

Faced with a shrinking pool of collaborators in Gaza, says Yunis, Israel has increased its use of electronic surveillance, especially drones. But it has sought new ways to recruit collaborators too.

That includes exploiting increased opportunities to reach Palestinians in Gaza indirectly, through social media. In particular, youngsters, often those without jobs or whose families are in dire need, are approached via Facebook or receive a call to their mobile phone.

“The caller might introduce himself as a businessman and says he can help them to get a permit out of Gaza. Once they attend the meeting, they are ensnared,” says Yunis.

Fishermen are also reported to have been targeted since Israel tightly limited the extent of the waters they are allowed to fish. When they cross out of that zone, they can be picked up by a naval patrol and taken for interrogation in Israel. There they can be pressured to turn informant.

‘Desperate’ situation

But the most wrenching cases, says Hamdi Shaqura, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, occur with patients such as al-Qatshan who need urgent medical treatment.

Because they are among the few cases that Israel still treats as humanitarian, they and the relative that accompanies them present the Shin Bet with a rare opportunity to try to recruit a collaborator directly.

“These permits from Israel become a tool for blackmail. It is a serious violation of international law. Because Israel still occupies Gaza, the welfare of these patients is fully its responsibility. Israel is obligated to facilitate their movement and access to proper healthcare.”

According to the World Health Organisation, about 150 patients from Gaza were called for a security interrogation by the Shin Bet last year, including a 16-year-old girl in November. In most cases they were denied a permit afterwards.

Israel also arrested five patients at Erez and six of their companions over the course of last year. They included Mohammed Saber Abu-Amsha, a 33-year-old patient with damage to his eyes, who has been held in prison in Israel since his arrest on December 4.

Amal Ziada, a researcher for Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, said her organisation was hoping to launch a new campaign to raise awareness among the Israeli public of the pressures being used against medical patients.

That included lobbying members of the Israeli parliament and taking high-profile cases to the Israeli supreme court.

“What these patients go through is a kind of torture,” she said. “The danger is that some of them avoid seeking medical treatment because they are afraid. They are worried about being arrested, or the suspicion among other Palestinians that they may have collaborated if they receive a permit.”

Guy Inbar, spokesman for COGAT, the Israeli military unit that coordinates civilian matters in the occupied territories, said he awarded permits to Palestinians for medical treatment based only on medical need and the applicant’s security record.

A senior Israeli security official said the accusation that Israel used the permit system to recruit collaborators was “baseless”. “There have been many recent instances where terror organisations have manipulated people needing humanitarian help so that they assist in carrying out terror operations.”

No welcome

According to an Israeli human rights lawyer, Yadin Elam, most of the collaborators whose cover is blown and manage to flee the occupied territories do not receive the warm welcome in Israel they may have expected.

Israeli authorities divide collaborators into two groups, he says. Important collaborators, categorised as sayanim, or helpers, fall under the responsibility of the defence ministry and receive a salary and status inside Israel.

But most collaborators who reach Israel – numbering a few hundred, according to Elam – are classified simply as “threatened people”, referring to the fact that they might be killed if they return to Palestinian areas.

Elam says Palestinians in this latter category are usually left in a desperate situation, sometimes given a temporary permit to stay for a few months, but denied permits for their immediate family or the right to work. Typically they live underground in Israel with their families and drift into crime.

Elam says these collaborators’ insecurity, and their frequent arrests, provide an ideal opportunity for Israel to keep up the pressure.

“When things are so desperate, it is easier to persuade the family, including the children, to continue working for the intelligence services.”

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The tide turns against Israel

Counterpunch – 13 February 2014

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rarely been so politically embattled. His travails indicate the Israeli right’s inability to respond to a shifting political landscape, both in the region and globally.

The context for his troubles was his commitment in 2009, under great pressure from a newly elected US president, Barack Obama, to support the creation of a Palestinian state. It was a concession he never wanted to make and one he has regretted ever since.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has exploited that pledge by imposing the current peace talks. Now Netanyahu faces an imminent “framework agreement” that may require him to make further commitments towards an outcome he abhors.

Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, is not helping. Rather than digging in his own heels, he offers constant accommodation. Last week Abbas told the New York Times that Israel could take a leisurely five years removing its soldiers and settlers from a key piece of Palestinian territory, the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian state would remain demilitarised, while Nato troops could stay “for a long time, and wherever they want”.

The Arab League is another thorn. It has obliged by renewing its offer from 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative, that promises Israel peaceful relations with the Arab world in return for its agreement to Palestinian statehood.

Meanwhile, the European Union is gently turning the screws on the occupation. It regularly trumpets condemnation of Israel’s settlement-building frenzies, including last week’s announcement of 558 settler homes in East Jerusalem. And in the background sanctions loom over settlement goods.

European financial institutions are providing a useful barometer of the mood among the 28 EU member states. They have become the unexpected pioneers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, with a steady trickle of banks and pension funds pulling out their investments in recent weeks.

Pointing out that boycotts and “delegitimisation” campaigns are only going to gather pace, Kerry has warned that Israel’s traditional policy is “unsustainable”.

That message rings true with many Israeli business leaders, who have thrown their weight behind the US diplomatic plan. They believe that a Palestinian state is the key to Israel gaining access to lucrative regional markets and continued economic growth.

Netanyahu must have been disconcerted by the news that among those meeting Kerry to express support at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month was Shlomi Fogel, the prime minister’s long-time intimate.

Pressure on these various fronts may explain Netanyahu’s hasty convening last weekend of his senior ministers to devise a strategy to counter the boycott trend. Proposals include a $28 million media campaign, legal action against boycotting institutions, and intensified surveillance of overseas activists by the Mossad.

On the domestic scene, Netanyahu – who is known to prize political survival above all other concerns – is getting a rough ride as well. He is being undermined on his right flank by rivals inside the coalition.

Naftali Bennett, the settlers’ leader, provoked a chafing public feud with Netanyahu this month, accusing him of losing his “moral compass” in the negotiations. At the same time, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister from the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, has dramatically changed tack, cosying up to Kerry, whom he has called “a true friend of Israel”. Lieberman’s unlikely statesmanship has made Netanyahu’s run-ins with the US look, in the words of a local analyst, “childish and irresponsible”.

It is in the light of these mounting pressures on Netanyahu that one should understand his increasingly erratic behaviour – and the growing rift with the US.

A damaging falling-out last month, following insults from the defence minister against Kerry, has not subsided. Last week Netanyahu unleashed his closest cabinet allies to savage Kerry again, with one calling the US secretary of state’s pronouncements “offensive and intolerable”.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted her displeasure with a shot across the bows. The Israeli government’s attacks were “totally unfounded and unacceptable”, she noted. Any doubt she was speaking for the president was later dispelled when Obama praised Kerry’s “extraordinary passion and principled diplomacy”.

But despite outward signs, Netanyahu is less alone than he looks – and far from ready to compromise.

He has the bulk of the Israeli public behind him, helped by media moguls like his friend Sheldon Adelson who are stoking the national mood of besiegement and victimhood.

But most importantly he has a large chunk of Israel’s security and economic establishment on side too.

The settlers and their ideological allies have deeply penetrated the higher ranks of both the army and the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret intelligence service. The Haaretz newspaper revealed this month the disturbing news that three of the four heads of the Shin Bet now subscribe to this extremist ideology.

Moreover, powerful elements within the security establishment are financially as well as ideologically invested in the occupation. In recent years the defence budget has rocketed to record levels as a whole layer of the senior military exploits the occupation to justify feathering its nest with grossly inflated salaries and pensions.

There are also vast business profits in the status quo, from hi-tech to resource-grabbing industries. Indications of what is at stake were illuminated recently with the announcement that the Palestinians will have to buy from Israel at great cost two key natural resources – gas and water – they should have in plentiful supply were it not for the occupation.

With these interest groups at his back, a defiant Netanyahu can probably face off the US diplomatic assault this time. But Kerry is not wrong to warn that in the long term yet another victory for Israeli intransigence will prove pyrrhic.

These negotiations may not lead to an agreement, but they will mark a historic turning-point nonetheless. The delegitimisation of Israel is truly under way, and the party doing most of the damage is the Israeli leadership itself.

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Cracks in the alliance: Finally daylight between Israel and US?

Common Dreams – 22 January 2014

Things have come to a strange state of affairs when Washington regards Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister, as the voice of moderation in the Israeli cabinet.

While Lieberman has called the soon-to-be-unveiled US peace plan the best deal Israel is ever likely to get, and has repeatedly flattered its chief author, US secretary of state John Kerry, other ministers have preferred to pull off the diplomatic gloves.

The most egregious instance came last week when Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on the man entrusted by President Barack Obama to oversee the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a private briefing, disclosed last week by the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, Yaalon called Kerry “obsessive and messianic”, denounced his peace plan as “not worth the paper it was written on”, and wished he would win “the Nobel prize and leave us alone”.

Yaalon could hardly claim he was caught in an unguarded moment. According to reports, he has been making equally disparaging comments for weeks. Back in November, for example, an unnamed “senior Israeli minister” dismissed Kerry’s ideas as “simply not connected to reality … He is not an honest broker.”

On this occasion, however, Washington’s response ratcheted up several notches. US officials furiously denounced the comments as “offensive” and demanded that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly slap down his minister.

But what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise. It was only on Yaalon’s third attempt, and after a long meeting with Netanyahu, that he produced a limp statement of regret “if the secretary was offended”.

Also showing no signs of remorse, Netanyahu evasively suggested that disagreements with the US were always “substantive and not personal”.

With the diplomatic crisis still simmering, Yaalon returned to the theme late last week, telling an audience in Jerusalem that the US and Europe had a “misguided understanding” of the Middle East and denouncing a “Western preoccupation with the Palestinian issue”.

Not suprisingly, the Palestinian leadership is celebrating the latest evidence of Israel’s increasingly self-destructive behaviour. Such outbursts against Kerry will make it much harder for Washington to claim the Palestinians are to blame if, or more likely when, the talks collapse.

The Israeli government is not only hurling insults; it is working visibly to thwart a peace process on which the Obama administration had staked its credibility.

Netanyahu has kept moving the talks’ goal posts. He declared for the first time this month that two small and highly provocative settlements in the West Bank, Beit El and a garrisoned community embedded in Hebron, a large Palestinian city, could not be given up because of their religious importance to the “Jewish people”.

That is on top of recent announcements of a glut of settlement building, ministerial backing for the annexation of the vast expanse of the Jordan Valley and a new demand that Palestinians stop “incitement”.

Even Obama appears finally to be losing hope, telling the New Yorker this week that the chances of a breakthrough are “less than fifty-fifty”.

While Netanyahu may act as though he is doing the White House a favour by negotiating, he should be in no doubt of his dependence on US goodwill. He received a timely reminder last week when Congress voted through a $3.1 billion aid package for Israel in 2014 – plus hundreds of millions of dollars more for missile development – despite the severe troubles facing the US economy.

In part, Netanyahu’s arrogance appears to reflect his personality – and a culture of impractical isolationism he has long nurtured on the Israeli right.

With Washington pushing firmly for engagement with the Palestinians, this has started to rebound on him. Israeli analysts have noted his growing insecurity, fearful that any concessions he makes will weaken him in the eyes of the right and encourage challengers to the throne. That explains some of his indulgence of Yaalon.

But his ideological worldview also accords with his defence minister’s.

It is hardly the first time Netanyahu has picked a fight over the peace process. In Obama’s first term, he waged a war of attrition over US demands for a settlement freeze – and won. He even dared publicly to back the president’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 elections.

In unusually frank references to Netanyahu in his new memoir, Robert Gates, Obama’s defence secretary until 2011, recalls only disdain for the Israeli prime minister, even admitting that at one point he tried to get him barred from the White House. He writes: “I was offended by his glibness and his criticism of US policy – not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition.” He also calls Netanyahu an “ungrateful” ally and a “danger to Israel”.

But the problem runs deeper still. Just too much bad blood has built up between these two allies during Netanyahu’s term. The feud is not only over Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians but on the related matter of US handling of what Israel considers its strategic environment in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Netanyahu is angry that the US has not taken a more decisive hand in shoring up Israeli interests in Egypt and Syria, and near-apoplectic at what he sees as a cave-in on Iran and what Israel claims is its ambition to build a nuclear weapon.

He appears ready to repay the White House in kind, rousing pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington to retaliate on almost-home turf, in Congress, through initiatives such as a bill threatening to step up sanctions against Iran, subverting Obama’s diplomatic efforts.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran US Middle East peace negotiator, recently described the Israeli-US relationship as “too big to fail”. For the moment that is undoubtedly true.

But in his New Yorker interview, Obama warned: “The old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?”

That warning is a double-edged sword. It is doubtless directed chiefly against those, like Iran and Syria, that are seen as threatening western interests in the Middle East. But Israel is no less a part of the “old order”, and if it continues to cramp US efforts to respond effectively in a changing region it will severely test the alliance.

It looks as if the cracks between Israel and the US are only going to grow deeper and wider.

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Netanyahu rolls out new roadblock to peace

Al-Jazeera – 19 January 2014

To the surprise of observers, given the many issues blocking progress in the current Middle East peace talks, Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to an agreement.

This demand is relatively new to the peace process, having made its debut in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood.

In 1993, in the run-up to the signing of the accords, Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, wrote a letter to the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, officially recognising Israel. In return, Rabin recognised the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the representative of the Palestinian people.

But such recognition no longer appears enough for Israel.

While former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert first mooted Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state at the brief revival of peace talks in Annapolis seven years ago, it has become a cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy only since Benjamin Netanyahu took office.

In recent months he has reiterated that Palestinian recognition of Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” is the “real key for peace” and an “essential condition” for an agreement. In a video message to the Saban Forum in Washington last month, Netanyahu stated that the core of the conflict was “about one thing: The persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly rejected such a provision in a final agreement. He wrote letters last month to both US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that included his objections.

This month Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the PLO, characterised Israel’s demand as an attempt to “legalise racism”. She added that Israel wanted to “create a narrative that denies the Palestinian presence, rights, and continuity on the historic Palestinian lands”.

Impossible demand

Many Palestinian analysts suspect that Netanyahu, long identified with the hawkish right, has only raised this new condition to stymie chances of the talks progressing further.

Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agrees, saying Netanyahu introduced the demand as a “cynical spoiler”. He added, “It is a ridiculous demand because even Israelis are not agreed on what it means to be a Jewish state, or even who is included in the definition of the Jewish people.”

Like many other observers, Ezrahi believes that Netanyahu has imposed the condition because it puts Abbas in “an impossible position” on several fronts.

It would require him to sacrifice the rights of Palestinian refugees, expelled during the founding of Israel in 1948, to return to their former lands. It would undermine the struggle of Israel’s large Palestinian minority for equality. And it would confer Palestinian consent on the erasure of their narrative of the events of 1948.

“For all these reasons,” says Jamal Zahalka, a member of the Israeli parliament representing the country’s Palestinian minority, “no Palestinian leader could ever agree to this demand.”

However, much to the consternation of the Palestinian leadership, the US diplomatic team led by Kerry, that is overseeing the current peace talks, appears to have taken Netanyahu’s new condition to heart.

Israeli officials have said that Kerry intends to include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in his so-called “framework proposal”, which is supposed to lay out the contours of a final peace agreement.

Israel has also been lobbying European leaders to recognise it as a Jewish state. Zahalka says that in meetings with European governments he has heard an increasing readiness to do so.

Kerry is expected to unveil his peace plan to both the Israelis and Palestinians in the coming weeks, with the talks due to finish at the end of April. However, Israel is said to have requested that the negotiations continue for another year.

In a sign of how quickly the recognition demand has risen to the top of the agenda, Kerry is widely reported to have sought the backing of Arab states for the inclusion of this provision in a final agreement, during a meeting of the Arab League’s foreign ministers in Paris on January 12.

International pressure

Beforehand, he also travelled to Amman and Riyadh in what Israeli officials said were efforts to lobby King Abdullah of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Israel’s behalf.

According to several reports, Kerry is seeking to add recognition of Israel as a Jewish state into the Arab Peace Initiative, unveiled by Saudi Arabia in 2002. The plan, which Israel has ignored for more than a decade, offers Israel peace with the whole Arab world in return for its agreement to create a Palestinian state.

The Times of Israel said Kerry hoped that Abbas might concede recognition if he comes under enough pressure from other Arab leaders.

Without recognition from the Palestinians, Haaretz reported, Kerry believes “he will find it very hard to get Netanyahu either to agree to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines or to demonstrate flexibility on the issue of [Israeli] security arrangements”.

However, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki said Kerry had been rebuffed at the Arab League meeting on the recognition issue. “The Arab states will never recognise a Jewish state,” he told Radio Palestine after the Paris meeting.

So what is at stake for both sides if the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state?

For Netanyahu, what started as a cynical ploy, says Ezrahi, has become a matter of growing strategic importance in his eyes. “Now it seems he really believes in this condition.”

“It helps Netanyahu that it is very popular with the Israeli public,” adds Amal Jamal, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University.

One the one hand, it provides Netanyahu with an ideological basis for asserting Israeli claims to more areas of the West Bank that were intended to be in a future Palestinian state.

Last week it emerged that Netanyahu wants Kerry to add at least one more settlement, Beit El, near Ramallah, to the three so-called blocs – Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim – Israel has long demanded. Netanyahu recently stated that the settlements of Beit El and Hebron, which contain a few hundred settlers in the midst of a large Palestinian city, are “important to the Jewish people” because of their Biblical significance. He added that an “agreement cannot erase the state of Israel’s rights or the rights of the Jewish people”.

The other main advantage, says Ezrahi, is that it cements the inferior rights of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the total population.

Enshrining discrimination

He notes that Ehud Barak, who was prime minister when Israel and the Palestinians tried to negotiate a final status agreement at Camp David in 2000, insisted that the Palestinians sign an end-of-claims clause. “Netanyahu has done something much cleverer but more problematic. His demand for recognition implies the institutionalisation of discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority.”

That is in part because Israel’s Jewish self-definition, as Moshe Machover, a British-Israeli philosopher, has noted, is designed to enshrine it as the “state of the entire Jewish ‘nation’: not just of its own Jewish citizens, but of all Jews everywhere”.

That would entitle Jews anywhere in the world, even those without citizenship, access to greater rights inside Israel than those of citizens who belong to the Palestinian minority.

Zahalka takes a hard line on the recognition issue. “Some in the PA say they are happy not to interfere in how Israel defines itself. They think it is okay for Israel call itself whatever it wants. I don’t agree with that.”

He says Israel’s current status as a Jewish state means that many of the Palestinian minority’s rights have been effectively revoked. “Lots of discriminatory laws and policies derive from the state’s Jewishness. The Palestinian leadership has no right to disqualify our struggle for equality.”

Kerry is said to be considering a formulation to allay the fears of the country’s Palestinian citizens. Al-Ayyam newspaper reported that a clause might be inserted into an agreement recognising Israel “as the nation-state of the Jewish people, without prejudice to the civil rights of Israeli Arabs”. But Zahalka is not placated. “Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that the rights of non-Jewish citizens will be protected, but we know that in practice the promise was meaningless.”

Ezrahi adds that Kerry may be under the impression that Israel would be willing to pass legislation to guarantee the equality of its Palestinians citizens. “In reality, I don’t see any indications that Netanyahu and the right would be prepared to do so.”

As an indication of Netanyahu’s priorities, Zahalka points to a measure announced this month by the Israeli prime minister to raise the electoral threshold at the next election for parties to enter the Knesset, from 2 to 3.25 percent. Most observers believe one of his motives is to make it difficult for the small anti-Zionist parties popular with the Palestinian minority to win representation.

Jamal says Netanyahu has little to lose from continuing to push the recognition issue. “It puts the ball firmly in the Palestinians’ court. If they refuse, he can argue that it was they who sabotaged the peace process. They will then be the ones to face pressure from the US and Europe.”

Like other analysts, Jamal sees little chance of the talks heading to an agreement, given how far apart the two sides are.

Netanyahu, even if he wanted to make a deal, has no political backing for it, he says. “Even if the far-right parties quit and the Labor and Meretz parties replaced them in the coalition, Netanyahu has the positions of his own Likud party to worry about. He simply has no room to make concessions on even the most minimal demands being made by the Palestinians.”

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Israel: Divide-and-conquer in Nazareth?

Al-Jazeera – 17 January 2014

Mounting efforts by Israel to divide its large Palestinian minority along sectarian lines have heightened fears that the Biblical city of Nazareth may be about to return to the scenes of violent clashes witnessed 15 years ago.

Tensions in the city, the hometown of Jesus and a destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, have risen sharply in recent months after the Israeli government unveiled plans to encourage Christian school leavers to serve in the military.

Although Nazareth and its surrounding villages are home to the bulk of Israel’s 130,000 Palestinian Christians, the city itself has a Muslim majority.

The local leadership has accused the government of Benjamin Netanyahu of pursuing a “colonial policy of divide and rule” towards the country’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, who comprise one-fifth of the population. “Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game, seeking to inflame tensions so that he can pit Christians against Muslims and weaken us as a community,” said Hanna Swaid, a Christian representative in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Swaid said the Israeli government was playing on fears sparked by the deteriorating situation for Christians in neighbouring states, especially in Syria and Egypt. About one-tenth of the Palestinians in Israel are Christian.

Christians in the military?

Of chief concern to Swaid and other community leaders is a plan announced last year by Netanyahu to end the exemption for Christians on serving in the military.

Christians and Muslims have long refused to enlist, arguing that they do not want to assist in what they regard as the oppression of fellow Palestinians in the occupied territories. In a special video message released on Christmas Eve, Netanyahu referred to the local Christian population as “loyal citizens” and urged the youth to enlist. Most controversially, he added that a political movement recently founded in Nazareth to lobby for Christian conscription would ensure “protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves”.

Swaid said: “The implication from Netanyahu is that he supports the establishment of Christian militias. He is trying to sell this to Christians with the idea that Israel will arm and train you to defend yourself against your Muslim neighbours.”

In a related move this month, it emerged that Yariv Levin, chair of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, had proposed a new classification of “Christian” on identity cards. That would effectively create a special Christian nationality, leaving only Muslims to be identified as “Arabs”. Levin has said he sees the move as a prelude to creating a special education system for Christians separate from the current Arab one.

Meanwhile, a small group of Christians in Nazareth allied with the government, and led by an Orthodox priest, has declared its intention to build a 30-metre-high statue of Jesus on a hill overlooking the city, in an effort to create an Israeli version of Rio de Janiero’s imposing figure of Christ the Redeemer.

Threatening to further strain relations is a recent agreement by the government to establish a branch of a US university in Nazareth, using funds raised by Christian Zionists. Their leader, John Hagee, who is known to be close to Netanyahu, has been a longtime financial supporter of settlements in the occupied territories.

Finally, Nazareth is still reeling from a mayoral contest in October in which the two front runners were separated by a handful of votes. Although Ramez Jeraisy, a Christian and the mayor for the past two decades, and his Muslim challenger Ali Salam represent non-sectarian parties, the highly contested result has exacerbated tensions.

Jeraisy is receiving police protection after gunshots were fired at his house last week. A short time later a Nazareth youth was arrested for incitement after posting a cartoon of Jeraisy being shot dead.

The sensitive relations between the two religious communities in Nazareth are in part a legacy of the 1948 war that established Israel. As the advancing Israeli army expelled Palestinians from villages in the Galilee, some refugees fled to Nazareth seeking sanctuary. The influx of Muslims permanently altered the demographic balance of the city.

Sectarian conflict

Today, Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel with 85,000 inhabitants, has a two-thirds Muslim majority. Although Israel has tightly limited the city’s room for expansion, Nazareth serves a surrounding population of a quarter million and is viewed as the unofficial capital of the Palestinian minority.

Sectarian conflict in Nazareth first came to public attention in the late 1990s, when Netanyahu was also prime minister. He was widely blamed at the time for inflaming tensions in the city. On that occasion, the government intervened in a dispute over an empty lot next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the enormous church marking the spot where many Christians believe an angel told Mary she was carrying the son of God.

As the city prepared for a visit by Pope John Paul II to celebrate the millennium, a group of Muslims claimed the site was land belonging to an Islamic trust before 1948 and should be used to build a large mosque. In an unprecedented decision, two ministerial committees set up by Netanyahu agreed to the mosque project. Tempers flared, and by Easter 1999 street fights between Christians and Muslims made headlines around the world.

In the end, the government stopped the mosque from being built and instead developed it as a public square. Nonetheless, the site is still a source of simmering tension, with several hundred Muslims using it for midday prayers every Friday.

Many Nazareth residents have grown increasingly fearful that the city may be heading back to the dark days of the late 1990s. “Netanyahu has form on this issue,” said Mohammed Zeidan, the head of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth. “His fear is that we as a community, especially the youth, are becoming more organised and united, as well as more effective at exposing the discriminatory policies of the state.”

Zeidan highlighted the recent success of mass protests that forced Netanyahu to shelve a government scheme, the Prawer Plan, to expel tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in the Negev. “He sees the community as a problem and the best way to deal with us is to set us at each other’s throats.”

The issue of Christian enlistment first surfaced a year ago, when the defence ministry quietly staged a conference on the issue in the neighbouring Jewish city of Upper Nazareth. Christian Scout movements were invited – and to the consternation of many Christians, three local priests also attended.

Currently among the Palestinian minority, only young men from the small Druze community are conscripted, after its leaders signed an agreement with the state in the 1950s. A few hundred more Palestinian citizens, both Muslims and Christians, volunteer for military service. However, the overwhelming majority are Bedouin, needed by the army as trackers.

Officials have recently talked up claims that the enlistment drive has led to a spurt of Christian recruits. However, a defence ministry official told the Associated Press last month that Christian volunteers had risen only marginally, from 40 a year to between 50 and 55.

‘Israel takes care of us’

Leading Christian support in the city for the government’s initiative is Bishara Shlayan, a 58-year-old former merchant seaman and the brother of the defence ministry’s officer in charge of Christian recruitment. He has set up a Christian-Jewish political movement, called the Covenant of Flags, with a logo featuring an intertwined Cross and Star of David. Jeraisy, Nazareth’s longtime Christian mayor, has called Shlayan a “collaborator”.

But, according to Swaid and Zeidan, Netanyahu has been emboldened by his success in securing the support of a prominent Greek Orthodox priest in Nazareth. Gabriel Nadaf, aged 40 and a former spokesman for the Jerusalem Patriarch, recently stated: “Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state.”

However, Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox community council in Nazareth, said there was almost no support for Nadaf or Shlayan. “They are a tiny minority but they are able to make a big noise because the government is giving them a lot of support and trying to create the impression that they represent a trend.” He added that the danger was that this could be the trigger for deteriorating relations between the two religious communities.

Levin, who has proposed a new “Christian” nationality on ID cards, said he was responding to pressure from Christians. “This is the only place in the Middle East where they have security and freedom of worship,” he said. “Many Christians don’t want to be known as Arabs.”

Following their agreement to conscription, the Druze were assigned a separate nationality, as well as an education system designed to inculcate “Zionist values”.

Shlayan welcomed Levin’s proposal, saying: “We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of each other.”

‘Used by the government’

Swaid said, “These people are being used by the government. A few Christians like Shlayan have bought into the false promise that if they serve they will get special favours. But we only need to look to the situation of the Druze. Their youth have been conscripted for decades and yet their communities are in much worse state even than that of the Christians.”

Claims by Nadaf that he has been the target of a hate campaign in Nazareth, including an attack on his teenage son, have been widely reported in the Israeli media. Nadaf’s leading critics, including Nazareth Christians, have been called in for interrogation by the police and warned that they are under investigation for “incitement to violence”.

Hakim said he had been called for interrogation on three occasions since he and the Orthodox council originally denounced Nadaf last year. He was also phoned by the domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, two hours before the council met to issue a statement against Nadaf. “They warned me, ‘This is bigger than you or the council.’ They told me not to get involved.”

Swaid said Israel’s real attitude towards the local Christian population was revealed following a request he submitted to the Knesset Speaker last month to place a Christmas tree in the parliament building. His request was rejected, with the speaker arguing that the Christian symbol would cause “offence”.

“I saw this as a test of whether Israel was prepared to give a sign of goodwill towards its Christians and to behave like a tolerant, multicultural state – in the way it expects other states to act towards Jewish minorities. The truth was clear. Whatever it says, Israel has no special sentiments towards Christians.”

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Factory Farms Are Accelerating an Antibiotics Nightmare

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The legacy of Ariel ‘the bulldozer’ Sharon

Al-Jazeera – 11 January 2014

It is easy to forget, with eulogies casting him as the unexpected “peace-maker”, that for most of his long military and political career Ariel Sharon was known simply as The Bulldozer. That is certainly how he will be remembered by Palestinians.

His death was announced on Israeli army radio on Saturday. He was 85 years old and had been comatose since 2006.

Mikhael Warschawski, a founder of the joint Israeli-Palestinian advocacy group the Alternative Information Centre, describes Sharon as one of only two “political visionaries” in Israel’s history, along with the country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

“Yes, he was brutal, but he was more than that,” Warschawski said. “Like Ben Gurion, and unlike modern politicians such as current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was uninterested in petty party politics. He had a project he would not be distracted from – a view of what Israel is and what it should be.”

That vision was ultimately forged by Sharon’s military and political experiences.

Military philosophy

According to Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, Sharon created Israel’s modern “military norms” through his founding of a secretive “retribution squad”, named Unit 101, that operated through the 1950s and 1960s.

In Israel’s early years, Unit 101 carried out reprisals against Palestinian fighters across the armistice lines, in an attempt to deter future enemy raids into Israeli territory. In practice, however, the price was paid as much by civilians as fighters.

Later, as defence minister, Sharon would be the moving force behind the decision to invade Lebanon in 1982, as a bloody way to expel the Palestinians from their strongholds there and destabilise a northern neighbour.

Along the way, and in the spirit of Unit 101, his commanders oversaw the horrific massacre of hundreds, and more likely thousands, of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Israel’s Phalangist allies – an event for which an Israeli inquiry found him “personally responsible”.

Today, Sharon’s military philosophy is reflected in the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine – its policy in recent confrontations to send Israel’s neighbours in Gaza and Lebanon “into the dark ages” through massive destruction of their physical infrastructure.

But his military thinking chiefly served political ends.

According to Warschawski, Sharon explicitly refused to accept that the 1948 war that established Israel was over. As a result, he rejected efforts to define the extent of Israel’s territorial ambitions.

Instead, says Warschawski, Sharon upheld a view that “the borders are wherever Israelis plant the last tree, or plough the last furrow”. It was a philosophy of creating change and new realities through bold action; in practice it involved taking as much as land from the Palestinians as possible.

The late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling famously coined a term for Sharon’s policy: politicide. In this view, Sharon’s goal was to create conditions that “lower Palestinian expectations, crush their resistance, isolate them, make them submit to any arrangement suggested by the Israelis, and eventually cause their ‘voluntary’ mass emigration”.

But Sharon saw this as a long-term process. “He wanted to delay an agreement for at least 50 years,” says Warschawski. “In his view, Israel needed as much time as possible, time to implement his vision.”

‘Father of settlements’

As US Secretary of State John Kerry recently headed back to the region to re-energise peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev observed that “Sharon’s spirit hovers” over the proceedings:

“Sharon, the ‘father of settlements’ had probably done more than anyone – certainly more than Netanyahu – to erase the 1967 borders, separating Israel and the occupied territories, from the map and to undermine the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

In his early political career, Sharon used various lowly goverment positions to work out his grand vision. In the early 1980s he established exclusive Jewish communities, known as the star points, along the Green Line to erase for Israelis the physical distinction between Israel and the West Bank and bring the settlements “back into Israel”.

At the same time, inside Israel, he devised ever-more inventive land-grabbing schemes to ensure Israel’s own large Palestinian minority was barred from living in most areas of the country. Exclusive Jews-only communities became part of a renewed “Judaisation” programme in the Galilee and Negev, symbolised by the vast private ranch he built for himself in the Negev.

A proposal revealed by Sharon in 2003 to dispossess the Bedouin of their ancestral lands in the Negev was the genesis of the Prawer plan, adopted by Netanyahu – if, for now, temporarily on hold – to force tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes.

After years of helping to establish settlements in the occupied territories, Sharon vigorously opposed the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993.

Five years later, as the final-status talks neared, he urged young settlers to “run and grab as many hilltops as they can” in an attempt to foil any hope of a Palestinian state being conceded.

His injunction spawned more than 100 so-called “outposts”, whose fanatical inhabitants – known in his honour as the hilltop youth – are today responsible for the campaign of terror, the so-called “price-tag attacks”, that are slowly driving Palestinians out of most of the West Bank, concentrating them into the cities.

Operation Defensive Shield

Later, as prime minister, Sharon more directly reversed Oslo by launching Operation Defensive Shield, a reinvasion of areas that were supposed to have been passed to the control of a Palestinian government-in-waiting, the Palestinian Authority.

He would finally pen the Palestinians into a series of enclaves by approving and starting construction of a 700km steel-and-concrete “separation barrier” across the West Bank.

The wall he began has dramatically expanded in subsequent years to become a series of fortifications – from new wall-building ventures such as the recent bid to separate Israel from Egypt to missile defence systems like Iron Dome – designed to turn Israel into an invulnerable “Jewish fortress”.

Yet, in the months before he fell into a long-term vegetative state in early 2006, many analysts were all too ready to revise their assessments of Sharon. In death, he is again being feted as the military hawk who ended his days a “man of peace”.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, according to Klein and Warschawski.

The reason cited for reassessing Sharon’s legacy is his decision to withdraw some 7,000 Jewish settlers, as well as the soldiers protecting them, from the Gaza Strip, in the so-called “disengagement” of 2005.

This move was widely interpreted as Sharon’s first brave step in a process intended to end the occupation so that a Palestinian state could be born. In reality, however, it represented something equally dramatic but far more cynical.

Warschawski says the disengagement marked a strategic shift in Sharon’s thinking, one still influencing Israel’s approach to the occupied territories.

“Sharon finally accepted that the Palestinians could not be made to disappear. He wanted a Greater Israel but understood that he could not expel the Palestinians to achieve it.”

He also understood, adds Klein, that Israel could not afford to maintain, long term, a direct reoccupation of the West Bank – either in terms of the financial cost or the expected price in soldiers’ lives.

Instead, Sharon devised what Warschawski calls the “Swiss cheese model”. “He treated the region like a big block of Swiss cheese, with Israel as the cheese and the Palestinians as the holes. Any bits he did not care about could belong to the Palestinians. It was about creating cantons, and the largest was Gaza.”

Sharon appreciated, says Klein, that the disengagement was a boon to Israel’s image, looking, as it did to many outsiders, like an end to the occupation of Gaza and a prelude to similar moves in the West Bank.

Instead, the occupation of Gaza continued, but from arm’s length.

‘Sharon’s real enemy’

The reality, adds Klein, was that the disengagement set in motion two achievements that severely harmed Palestinian interests.

First, it helped to undermine Palestinian nationalism – the real enemy for Sharon.

By withdrawing from Gaza, observes Klein, Sharon entrenched its physical separation from the West Bank. Parallel moves, banning the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic movement Hamas from East Jerusalem, would further isolate the Palestinians into three disconnected territories.

Today, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are increasingly losing a sense of an overarching national project, and are instead developing along different political trajectories.

The physical separation has usefully divided the Palestinian national movement, with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority nominally in charge of the West Bank, Gaza run by Hamas, and an orphaned East Jerusalem struggling under hostile Israeli rule.

Second, Sharon was able to focus on the West Bank – the real prize – and his efforts to turn the Palestinian Authority from a government-in-waiting into a “sub-contractor” of the occupation. The key to this was manipulating the succession so that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be followed by the weak Mahmoud Abbas.

“After he disengaged from Gaza, Sharon preferred that a strong group – Hamas – take control internally to prevent chaos,” says Klein. “But in the West Bank he did not want a strong leader. That was why he was so against Arafat, who he saw as a demon.

“Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002] was about crushing the Palestinan Authority. When he later succeeded in bringing Abbas to power, he knew he would co-operate on security matters, that he would serve as a sub-contractor. In that way, Israel got to control all of the West Bank.”

Warschawski, however, points out that Sharon fell into a coma too early to have forseen many of the events that now overshadow current peace efforts.

“The world has changed since then, as has this region. There has been the decline of US hegemony, and the return of Russia as a regional power. China and India are also waiting in the wings. And then the Arab revolts have to be accounted for. Sharon saw none of that coming.”

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Why Expanding Social Security Is Crucial to Addressing Inequality in America in 2014

The political pendulum is swinging away...

Israel’s education system peddles intolerance and lies

The National – 7 January 2014

John Kerry spent last week testing the waters with the Israelis and the Palestinians over his so-called framework agreement – designed to close the gaps between the two sides. But the issues he is trying to resolve appear more intractable by the day.

As he headed to the region, Israel’s hawkish cabinet ministers gave their blessing to legislation to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the West Bank that might otherwise be the Palestinian state’s economic backbone and its sole door to the outside world. On Sunday, as Mr Kerry left, the defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, argued that peace was impossible as long as the Palestinians and their schoolbooks “incited” against Israel, even quoting from a government-compiled “Palestinian incitement index”.

The hyperbole overshadowed two Israeli surveys that might one day provide a yardstick by which to judge an equivalent “Israeli incitement index”.

An opinion poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe the conflict’s Palestinian narrative – including the nakba, the great dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 to create Israel – should be taught in schools.

This flies in the face of Mr Netanyahu’s own view. His government passed a law in 2011 banning public institutions from giving a platform to such commemorations.

The other study demonstrated that when Jewish students are exposed to spoken Arabic at an early age, between 10 and 12, they hold far less hostile and stereotypical views of Arabs. Currently, many Jewish students never learn Arabic.

With the experimental programme employing teachers from Israel’s large Palestinian minority, the study noted that for most of the Jewish children it was the first time they had developed a close relationship with an Arab.

The education ministry, however, was reported to have waved aside the findings and is apparently failing to fund the existing, small programme, let alone expand it.

This is no oversight. Successive Israeli governments have carefully engineered the structure of Israeli society to ensure that Jewish and Palestinian citizens are kept in separate linguistic, cultural, educational and emotional worlds.

The reasoning is not hard to discern. The last thing Israeli leaders want is for Jewish and Palestinian citizens to develop shared interests, forge friendships and act in solidarity. That would start to erode the rationale for a Jewish state, especially one premised on the supposed need of the Jews to defend themselves from a hostile world – Israel’s self-image as “the villa in the jungle”.

In short, a Jewish state’s future precisely depends on the anti-Arab stereotypes inculcated in young Israeli minds.

It may not therefore be coincidental that, as Israel has faced increasing pressure over the past 20 years to make peace, the separation of Jews from Palestinians has entrenched.

Today, most Israeli Jews rarely meet a Palestinian, and especially not one from the West Bank or Gaza. It is easy to forget that before the 1993 Oslo accords, many Israeli Jews regularly ventured into Palestinian areas, to shop, eat and fix their cars. Palestinians, meanwhile, were evident in Israeli communities, even if only as builders or waiters. It may have been a very unequal, even colonial, encounter but it made it hard for Israelis to demonise their neighbours.

Such contacts are now a distant memory. And that is precisely how leaders like Mr Netanyahu want to keep it.

Inside Israel, the direction of policy is the same. In recent weeks, the government has insisted on raising the electoral threshold in a barely concealed effort to rid the parliament of Arab parties. Legislation is also being revived to tax into oblivion human rights organisations, those that give a voice to Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

At the weekend, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, argued that a peace agreement must include disappearing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens by transferring their homes to a future, but very circumscribed Palestinian state.

Palestinian legislator Ahmed Tibi’s complaint that Palestinian citizens were viewed by Israel’s leaders as nothing more than “chess pieces” goes to the heart of the matter. It is easy to dehumanise those you know and care little about.

Israel’s separation policy – and its security justifications – requires not only that Jews and Palestinians be kept apart, but that Palestinians be confined to a series of ghettos, whether in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza or Israel.

These divisions are the cause of endless suffering. A recent study of Gaza, the most isolated of these ghettos, found that a third of Palestinians there were physically separated from a close relative. Israeli-imposed restrictions force Palestinians to forgo marriages, learn of relatives’ deaths from afar, miss college courses, and lose the chance for medical treatment.

The prioritising of Israelis’ security over Palestinians’ freedom was a central weakness of the Oslo process, and the same skewed agenda pollutes the current peace talks.

In a commentary for the Haaretz newspaper last week, Gadi Shamni, a leading general, set out at length the many military reasons – quite apart from political ones – why Israel could never risk allowing the Palestinians a viable state. On the army’s best assessments, he argued, Israel would need to control such a state’s borders and much of its territory, including the Jordan Valley, for a period ranging “from 40 years to forever”.

The reality is that no arrangement on earth can guarantee protection for those in the villa from the beasts lurking outside. Either it is time to abandon the villa, or to start seeing the jungle as a forest to be explored.

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Israel aims to silence growing international criticism with Texas A&M deal in Nazareth

Mondoweiss – 3 January 2013

Two months ago officials from Israel and Texas made an unexpected announcement, unveiling an ambitious plan to build in Israel the first branch of an American university, at a probable cost of $100 million.

The greatest surprise of all was the location: Texas A&M University, one of the biggest in the US, is set to open its new campus in Nazareth, a town of 80,000 in the Galilee, home to the largest community of Christians in Israel and the unofficial capital of the country’s Palestinian minority.

Israel hopes to accomplish several goals from the venture: silence international criticism for its having the highest levels of poverty and inequality among the advanced economies; drive a wedge further between Palestinian Christians and Muslims; stymie efforts by Palestinians in Israel to win educational autonomy; and strike a powerful blow against mounting pressure from the movement for an academic and cultural boycott.

Since Israel’s creation more than six decades ago, Palestinian citizens, who today number 1.5 million and comprise a fifth of the total population, have complained of systematic discrimination and marginalisation in a self-declared Jewish state.

Nazareth has been campaigning to host the country’s first Arab university for 30 years, but has faced adamant opposition from successive Israeli governments, which have rejected any cultural or educational autonomy for the minority. Even in the separate school system for Palestinian citizens, Jewish officials maintain strict control over the most trivial aspects of the curriculum.

But Israel seems to be changing tack in dramatic and high-profile fashion. The government is now hurriedly preparing to overturn a law against the establishment of foreign campuses in Israel so that the university can open in Nazareth on schedule, in October 2015.

Bridge to peace?

At a ceremony on October 23 in Jerusalem, Texas governor Rick Perry and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, signed an agreement committing Texas A&M to assist in raising funds for the new university, which has been christened the “Peace Campus”.

As its name suggests, the Nazareth branch is being sold as an initiative to help build bridges in a troubled region. Both sides are keen to highlight that the intake of students will be drawn from Israel’s Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations, as well as attracting overseas students. There is even improbable talk of Palestinians from the occupied territories or Arabs from the wider Middle East attending.

At the signing ceremony, Perry said: “We want to see the Nazareth branch as a means to preserving peace and building understanding between cultures.”

Understandably, Nazareth officials have mostly welcomed the move, not least because it will inject much-needed investment and capital into a city that has long been starved of public funds.

But as the dust settles on the deal, questions are being raised about what really lies behind this unexpected reversal of Israel’s long-standing policy towards its Palestinian minority. Is the deal as straightforwardly a good thing as it looks?

It rather depends who is answering the question.

Raja Zaatry, director of Hirak, a Nazareth-based centre campaigning for greater access for Palestinian citizens to higher education, calls the deal “not a good scenario”, and one that has “the potential to be dangerous”.

Zaatry and others’ fears relate to a strange brew of Israeli interests in the Nazareth deal: from its economic concerns as a member of the club of wealthiest nations, to its growing ties to the Christian Zionist far-right in the US, as well as its long-standing policy of internal colonialism towards the Palestinian minority.

Suspicions among Nazareth officials of Israeli bad faith have only been intensified by the fact that negotiations were conducted without their participation. Instead the deal was agreed, after talks behind closed doors, by Peres and the Israeli education minister, Shai Piron, on one side and Perry and the Texas A&M chancellor, John Sharp, on the other.

Speaking at a press conference after the signing ceremony, Perry called the Nazareth campus “an offshoot of this long-term courting of each other.” And yet the courting stage has been highly furtive.

For Nazareth’s leadership, the deal was effectively dropped into its lap unannounced – and the day after nationwide municipal elections, following a period when all the minority’s politicians had been greatly distracted by local matters.

Similarly, it appears most officials at Texas A&M were caught equally off-guard. At least some members of the university’s board of regents, which is supposed to approve and oversee major projects, found out about the impending agreement only from the local media.

Need for economic growth

Israel’s desire to get Texas involved in effectively subsiding the higher education of its Palestinian minority can probably be explained in part by pressures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Israel joined the OECD, an exclusive club of the 35 most developed economies in the world, in 2010, chiefly as a way to open the door to foreign investment and lower credit ratings.

But it has faced a series of critical OECD reports that have painted a picture of a strong economy – one bolstered by significant recent finds of natural gas in the Mediterranean – damaged by social cohesion indicators among the worst in the OECD. Israel, for example, has the OECD’s highest rate of poverty, at 20 per cent, beating even Mexico.

The Israeli right has sought to blame two communities for the country’s poor performance in these indices: the Jewish ultra-Orthodox and the Palestinian minority. Both communities generally have low educational qualifications, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty.

The OECD has warned that these factors could undermine Israel’s attractiveness to investors and its scope for long-term economic growth.

But there are very different reasons for the economic weakness of the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian minority. The former have chosen a religious lifestyle that rejects secular education and greater economic integration; in the case of the Palestinian minority, as Israeli politicians recognise – at least in private – its social and economic woes have been imposed from without.

At a meeting this month with Angel Gurria, the head of the OECD, Netanyahu promised things would change. “Creating growth is the critical thing that we are committed to.”

In that spirit, Israeli billionaire Stef Wertheimer opened the first industrial park in Nazareth in the summer, after bureaucratic hurdles placed in the way of the project for years were belatedly lifted. He plans to take advantage of the thousands of jobless Palestinian graduates who trained in hi-tech but have been unable to find Israeli companies willing to employ them.

The opening of a university in Nazareth appears to be part of the same trend, according to Zaatry. Israel wants to improve its economic credentials by tapping the potential of the Palestinian minority, without having to redirect state funds away from the Jewish population.

Christian Zionists intervene

Other aspects of the arrangement, however, have set off alarm bells, most especially the news that Texas A&M will not be providing the money directly. Fund-raising will be undertaken at least in part by US evangelicals, led by John Hagee.

Hagee is the founder of Christians United for Israel, a Christian Zionist organisation with more than a million supporters in the US that is best known for raising money to help extremist settlements in the West Bank, which are intended to destroy any chances of a peace agreement.

Christian Zionists support Israel’s Jewish population unreservedly in the hope that by encouraging all Jews to come to Israel they can advance a supposed Biblical prophecy of an end of times, in which the Messiah returns.

Given his oft-expressed disdain for Palestinians in the occupied territories, why is Hagee transforming himself into the economic and educational saviour of Palestinians in the heart of Israel?

In fact, Hagee appears to have been at the forefront of the negotiations over the Nazareth campus. He has even boasted that it was he who engineered the first meetings between Texas A&M and the Israeli leadership. Hagee is known to be close to Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Christian Zionist motivations for the deal are not hard to identify. Governor Perry has a strong evangelical following, and may be hoping that the Nazareth campus will help boost his credentials with the wider Christian Zionist movement in the US if, as expected, he seeks the Republican party’s next presidential nomination.

Sharp, Texas A&M’s Catholic chancellor and a former college roommate of Perry’s as well as long-time friend of Hagee’s, has sounded more than a little Christian Zionist in his utterances. He told the New York Times the Nazareth campus was a realisation of a passion: “I wanted a presence in Israel. I have felt a kinship with Israel.”

Jennifer Rubin, a neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post, indicated this month a possible reasoning by the US right in promoting the deal. She noted that it was revealing that Texas, “the heartland of America, especially among evangelical Christians”, rather than New York, home to many US Jews, was behind the deal.

“Americans to a greater degree than ever before identify with and support Israel, both for religious reasons and in recognition of our common defense against Islamic jihadists,” she wrote. “In Texas, as in so many other places in the United States, the idea of divesting in, boycotting or condemning the Jewish state, our best and arguably only stable ally in the region, is anathema.”

Certainly, for Israel and its supporters the establishment of a university in a Palestinian community in Israel will be a useful weapon in its arsenal against the growing pressure for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), especially on US campuses.

This is one of Zaatry’s concerns. He observed: “Israel’s reasoning for advancing a university in Nazareth is at least in part Zionist: to show how democratic Israel is and to silence its critics. That is useful in fighting BDS.”

The fight for autonomy

And then there is the matter of educational autonomy. Palestinian leaders in Israel have been lobbying for funding for a university in a Palestinian community, ideally one that offers courses in Arabic, since the early 1980s.

This has been a priority for several reasons.

The Palestinian population is heavily under-represented in Israeli higher education because of a raft of discriminatory practices, including psychometric tests and exam score-weighting that skew results towards Hebrew-speakers.

Many potential Arab students are also deterred from pursuing higher education in Israel when faced with the inevitable culture shock and educational disadvantage of entering an exclusively Hebrew-speaking environment.

In addition, the location of colleges only in Jewish communities makes finding accommodation extremely difficult for Palestinian students, both because of the practice of reserving dormitory places for former soldiers and because private landlords are averse to renting property to Palestinian citizens.

And finally, an Arab university is regarded as a vital necessity in helping young women from more conservative, especially religious, families break into higher education. Israeli officials have long been advised that such families are loath to allow daughters to live away from home when it requires moving to a Jewish community, where moral standards are seen as laxer.

As a result, only 11 per cent of the student body is from the Palestinian minority, even though Palestinian citizens account for about quarter of the age group that dominates Israeli higher education. The problem has become especially acute in recent years, with a third of all Palestinian students now opting to study abroad, usually in Jordan, rather than struggle through the many obstacles placed in their way in Israel.

Nonetheless, said Zaatry, efforts by the Palestinian leadership in Israel to make higher education more attractive have been consistently stymied by Israeli education officials.

In 2003 Elias Chacour, the Greek Catholic archbishop of the Galilee, set up a small college, Mar Elias, in his hometown of Ibilin. Spurned by the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE), Chacour, a Nobel peace prize nominee, made a deal with Indianapolis University, a private Methodist school, to become an overseas campus.

Despite this assistance, Mar Elias was constrained by funding difficulties and a series of Israeli bureaucratic restrictions. It remained a tiny college, teaching a few dozen students, until it closed in 2009, when Israel outlawed arrangements of the kind between Mar Elias and Indianapolis.

However, the core staff re-established the campus in Nazareth, this time as the independent Nazareth Academic Institute. Despite becoming the first Arab higher education institution ever to receive accreditation in Israel, the CHE immediately sought to hamper its operations.

A siege on Nazareth Institute

The Institute, which is allowed to offer just two degree courses, chemistry and communications, is the only recognised college of higher education in the Galilee denied state funding. Bishara Kattouf, one of the Institute’s directors, said: “It seemed clear that the Council [for Higher Education] refused funding because we are an Arab college. It has been a huge struggle to raise the money privately.”

It was also made a requirement of accreditation that the Institute run a compulsory course on “peace studies” for all students.

The OECD has been lobbying Israeli authorities to upgrade the Nazareth Institute’s status since 2010, without success.

That year the Institute’s president, George Knaza, admitted that the Council for Higher Education only agreed to recognise his college following a commitment that he not seek state assistance, “I guess the council hoped we’d die from lack of funding, but we have a very strong drive for life. If we want to develop and contribute to Arab society, we have to have state support. This should also be a state interest.”

In the meantime, while arguing there was no public money available for a university in Nazareth, the CHE upgraded Ariel College, making it the first university located in a settlement. Ariel is so deep inside the occupied territories that annexing its land to Israel would effectively cut the West Bank in two.

Ariel university, which the CHE has awarded a $125 million budget, has been encouraged to recruit Palestinian citizens from nearby communities inside Israel, such as Kafr Qassem, to blunt criticism that the university practises a form of apartheid by excluding Palestinians in the occupied territories from its programmes.

This summer, in an apparent effort to keep up the pressure on the Nazareth Institute, the CHE refused to award degrees to its first-ever graduating class. Kattouf said: “It’s ridiculous. We were told our financial situation is too unstable. But it is only unstable because the Council refuses to help us with funding.

“We have big ambitions for the Institute and there is a lot of local demand but without help from the state our development will always be very slow.”

Until now the CHE has also stood in the way of approving the building of a dedicated campus for the Institute. It has maintained its opposition even though a plot of land, on the lower slopes of the Mount of Precipice, is available and Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian tycoon from Nablus in the West Bank, has committed to funding the construction.

Largely overlooked in the coverage of the Texas A&M deal is the fact that the only way the US university can set up a campus in Israel is by partnering with an Israeli college, as degrees must be issued by the CHE to remain within Israeli law. Texas is therefore reliant on Nazareth Institute to make the agreement possible.

But equally the Institute needs Texas if it ever wants to solve its problems of funding, approval of a campus, and the ability to award degrees. Privately, Nazareth Institute officials admit they are in no position to resist the deal. It has been presented as a sink-or-swim offer.

Zaatry noted: “The government effectively waged a war of attrition against the Institute. It thought they wouldn’t survive long, given that they have to subsidise every student by 20,000 shekels [$5,600] a year. It has been surprised by their staying power.”

Nonetheless, there are real concerns about what will be left of the Nazareth Institute once the deal is implemented. It currently has about 120 students, compared with 58,000 at Texas A&M. After the merger, student numbers at the Nazareth campus are set to rocket to 10,000 within a decade. The suspicion is that the Nazareth Institute will be entirely subsumed, with Texas and the CHE calling the shots.

Suher Basharat, dean of students, has hinted that the new arrangement was far from the ideal solution. “We hoped and wanted to be an Israeli academic institution in every respect, not a branch [of a foreign university],” she told the Haaretz newspaper.

Dangerous downsides to deal

No one in Nazareth wants publicly to be seen opposing too strongly a project that is expected to bring to the city investment and potentially many jobs.

But there are growing suspicions that Israel may have preferred this option because, while it is likely to strengthen a small middle class within the Palestinian minority economically, it is also likely to have two significant negative repercussions. The deal will weaken the minority’s key ambition for cultural and educational autonomy, and it risks dangerously inflaming tensions and divisions along sectarian lines.

With the Texas deal secured, Israeli education officials have effectively averted the mounting pressure posed by the Nazareth Institute, as well as the Palestinian minority’s leaders and the OECD, to concede educational autonomy in the shape of an Arab university.

What the final arrangement between the Nazareth Institute and Texas will look like in practice is still far from clear. But the indications so far are that, in line with the signing ceremony, Texas and Israeli officials will reserve for themselves exclusive control. According to media reports, the language of tuition will be English, and Texas A&M will decide – presumably in conjunction with the CHE – on courses and on staff recruitment.

Having a university in Nazareth should – at least theoretically – make it easier for young Palestinian women to study, but it is unlikely to address another, more pressing concern. If Palestinian students feel deterred from higher education by the difficulties of studying in Hebrew, their second language, it is far from obvious they will be encouraged by the chance to study in their third or fourth language, English. Given that they will be competing with Israeli Jews and overseas students, they are likely to be at a distinct disadvantage.

The fear is that the Nazareth campus will do little to extend the number of Palestinian students entering higher education beyond the current narrow circle of those drawn from middle-class families already accessing higher education.

But even more disturbingly, the heavy influence of Christian Zionists on the agreement could have profound ramifications for Christian-Muslim relations in the city, which are already on a knife edge.

A history of divide and rule

Nazareth, though a holy place to Christians, is a city with a two-thirds Muslim majority – one of the legacies of the 1948 war that established Israel by dispossessing and expelling Palestinians from their historic communities. A significant number of refugees from neighbouring Muslim villages fled to Nazareth for sanctuary, overnight altering its demographic balance.

Since then, Israel has repeatedly tried to inflame tensions between the two communities, especially in Nazareth.

The most notorious flare-up occurred in the city in the late 1990s, after the government – then, as now, led by Netanyahu – made an unprecedented decision to back a provocative scheme by a local group of Muslims to build a huge mosque in a public square next to Nazareth’s main Christian holy site, the Basilica of the Annunciation.

In fact, the government never issued the necessary planning permit and later went on to destroy the mosque’s foundations. But the damage had already been done: by Easter 1999 Christians and Muslims were fighting in the streets over control of the site.

Netanyahu seems again to be in the mood to stir up tensions, apparently as part of Israel’s long-standing divide-and-rule approach to Palestinians, both in Israel and the occupied territories.

His timing seems to have been inspired by the Arab Spring, with Israel now promoting a self-serving argument that Christians in Israel should wake up to the dangers of regional persecution from Muslims.

In August Netanyahu announced a new government initiative to end the exemption of Christians from serving in the Israeli military. Until now, only the small Druze community has served, with both Muslims and Christians refusing the draft.

On this view, as Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox community council in Nazareth argued, Christians are encouraged to identify with and seek protection from the Jewish state. “Israel is telling young Christians that the military will arm them and teach them how to fight. For some, it can be a seductive message.”

Muslims and many Christians are deeply concerned this could be the trigger for renewed strife between them.

‘Zionising’ Palestinian Christians

As part of Netanyahu’s meddling, he appears to be encouraging greater involvement from Christian Zionists in the region.

In the summer Bishara Shilyan, the brother of the Ministry of Defence’s adviser on Christian recruitment, established a Christian-Jewish political movement in Nazareth, the first-ever such party.

Hakim believes Shilyan is receiving funds from a group of local Palestinian Christians in the town of Kafr Yasif, north-west of Nazareth, who have allied themselves to Christian Zionism. Behind them, it is widely assumed, stands US Christian Zionist money.

Allison Deger reported in Mondoweiss last month on a venture by US Christian Zionists to sell small plots of land for $1,200 a time between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, as a way to strengthen an evangelical broadcasting network based in Jerusalem and Texas.

How the Holy Land Dream Company has acquired the plots, given that 93 per cent of land in Israel is state-owned and can only be leased by Jews, is so far unclear.

Other evangelical channels have recently established themselves in Jerusalem, including God-TV. It is working closely with the Jewish National Fund, a semi-governmental agency, to plant a forest in the Negev to displace Palestinian Bedouin from their ancestral lands.

Is the Christian Zionist team behind the Peace Campus in Nazareth – Pastor Hagee, Governor Perry and Chancellor Sharp – playing a tangential role in these developments?

One possibility is that Netanyahu and the Israeli right may hope to promote closer involvement by US evangelicals in the lives of the Palestinian Christian community in Israel. That could be potentially useful in undermining the revival of Palestinian nationalism inside Israel that followed the collapse of the Oslo Accords from 2000 onwards.

Palestinian Christians have traditionally been at the forefront of the Palestinian national movement, both in Israel and the occupied territories. They have thereby discredited claims from Israel that it stands on the fault line of a clash of civilisations between a Christian-Jewish west and a Muslim east.

The outlines of a possible Israeli strategy in response may be emerging, one that requires both strengthening the role of Christian Zionists in the Holy Land – with a university campus in the heartland of the Christian population in Israel – and demanding military service from local Christians.

That way, Netanyahu and the right may hope they can start to erode local Christians’ identification as Palestinians and generate new sources of conflict between the Christian and Muslim populations.

The “Zionisation” of local Christians would be a major achievement for the Israeli right. Not least it would clear the path for US evangelicals to claim they represent the true interests of Christians in the Holy Land.

Possibly even more importantly, it would isolate overseas churches that have traditionally shown solidarity with the Palestinians. Some of them are starting to take a lead in the promotion of the BDS campaign and what Israel characterises as a campaign of “delegitimisation” – another strong reason for Israel to want to recruit local Palestinian Christians to its cause.

The Nazareth campus may mark a change of tactic by Israel. But it seems the same cynical strategy is alive and kicking.

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The US plan makes a viable Palestinian state untenable

The National – 17 December 2013

In recent days, US and European diplomats have been engaged in a frenzy of activity on the Israeli-Palestinian front, before they settle down for the usual two-week Christmas hibernation.

A sense of urgency looms because Washington is supposed to unveil next month its so-called “framework proposal” for the creation of a Palestinian state, in a last desperate effort to break the logjam in negotiations. For this reason, the outlines of the US vision of an agreement are finally coming into focus. And, as many expected, the picture looks bleak for the Palestinians.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, who has invested much of his personal standing in a successful outcome, has grown increasingly forthright that an agreement hinges on satisfying Israel’s security concerns, however inflated.

During a speech to the Saban Forum in Washington this month, Mr Kerry said President Barack Obama’s highest priority was Israel’s “ability to defend itself, by itself”. Shortly afterwards, Mr Kerry headed back to the region to show Israeli and Palestinian officials what he meant.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was reportedly incensed by the US proposal. In recent days PA spokesmen have accused Mr Kerry of “appeasement” and of failing to be “a neutral mediator”.

The criticism looks more than justified. Under cover of a vision for peace, the US secretary of state is offering an Israeli security plan at the expense of meaningful Palestinian statehood.

That is not entirely surprising given that the plan was drafted by John Allen, a general formerly in command of US forces in Afghanistan, who has spent months quietly liaising with Israeli counterparts.

The main sticking point is the Jordan Valley, an area that was expected to comprise nearly a quarter of a future Palestinian state.

Gen Allen has indulged an Israeli demand that it be allowed to continue a long-term “military presence” in the Jordan Valley, with a reassessment by the US in 10-15 years’ time.

That is a retreat from Washington’s earlier commitment at the Annapolis talks of 2007 that no Israeli soldiers would be stationed in the West Bank following an agreement. Security guarantees were to be provided instead by Nato troops, under US command.

The new proposal should be a deal-breaker. The valley is a vital resource for the Palestinians, one they have been effectively stripped of for decades by Israel’s exaggerated “security needs”.

The Jordan Valley offers the only land border in the West Bank that would be potentially under Palestinian control. It is one of the few remaining undeveloped areas, making it a possible site to which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees could return. And its lands are fertile and warm all year round, making it highly productive and a likely engine for the Palestinian economy.

According to Gen Allen’s plan, Israel’s security also requires that Palestinian security forces be only lightly armed, that it has control over the airspace and all borders, and that the US install spying technology – euphemistically called “early warning systems” – throughout the West Bank.

In other words, the US vision of a Palestinian state looks remarkably like the model Israel has already implemented in Gaza.

One need only listen to the words of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from a decade ago to understand his role in this new plan.

In 2001 Mr Netanyahu spoke to a group of settlers in the West Bank at a meeting that was secretly filmed. There he boasted that during his earlier premiership, in the late 1990s, he had halted the peace plan of that time, the Oslo Accords, through what he termed a “trick”.

He foiled a Palestinian state’s creation by agreeing to limited withdrawals from Palestinian land while insisting on the retention of the most significant areas, especially the Jordan Valley, by classifying them as a “specified military site”.

Mr Netanyahu told the settlers: “America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction.” Those words now seem prophetic.

In rejecting the US plan, Mr Abbas appears to have the backing of his people. A poll published this week showed only 19 per cent believed the talks would lead to an agreement.

So, given the essential conflict between Israel’s “security” requirements and the Palestinian demand for statehood, how does Mr Kerry intend to proceed?

That too is becoming clear. The task of making Israel and the Palestinians play ball is being subcontracted to the European Union. That makes sense because, as the main subsidiser of the occupation, the Europeans have major financial leverage over both parties.

Earlier this month the EU brandished its stick. It warned that it would stop financing Mr Abbas’ Palestinian Authority if no agreement had been reached by the end of the talks.

Though widely seen as a threat directed towards Mr Abbas, whose political power base depends on EU money paying tens of thousands of PA workers each month, it was equally aimed at Mr Netanyahu. Were the PA to be wound up, the huge costs of running the occupation would again fall to Israel.

The 28 European member states have also warned Israel that should it carry on building settlements in the coming months, they will officially blame it for the talks’ failure.

On Monday, Europe unsheathed its carrot. It is offering both Israel and the Palestinians a major aid package and an upgrade in economic relations to the EU, conferring on them a status of “special privileged partnership”. This would reportedly bring each side huge trading and security benefits.

However vigorous the EU’s arm-twisting, the reality is that the Palestinian leadership is being cajoled into an agreement that would destroy any hopes of a viable Palestinian state.

Mr Abbas is said to have viewed the US plan as “worse than bad”. His agreement to it would be worse than disastrous.

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Syria: Media Disinformation, War Propaganda and the Corporate Media’s “Independent Bloggers”

A glaring example of one of the major pitfalls emerging in supposed “new media” has arisen during the conflict in Syria. Most notably in...

As Bedouin villages are destroyed, so too are hopes for Palestinian peace deal

The National – 10 December 2013

As United States envoys shuttle back and forth in search of a peace formula to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a matter supposedly settled decades ago is smouldering back into life.

In what was billed as a “day of rage” last month, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets to protest against a plan to uproot tens of thousands of Bedouin from their ancestral lands inside Israel, in the Negev.

The clashes were the worst between Israeli police and the country’s large Palestinian minority since the outbreak of the second intifada 13 years ago, with police using batons, stun grenades, water cannon and arrests to deter future protests.

Things are only likely to get more heated. The so-called Prawer Plan, being hurried through parliament, will authorise the destruction of more than 30 Bedouin villages, forcibly relocating the inhabitants to deprived, overcrowded townships. Built decades ago, these urban reservations languish at the bottom of every social and economic index.

Bedouin leaders, who were ignored in the plan’s drafting, say they will oppose it to the bitter end. The villages, though treated as illegal by the state, are the last places where the Bedouin cling to their land and a traditional pastoral life.

But the Israeli government is equally insistent that the Bedouin must be “concentrated” – a revealing term employed by Benny Begin, a former minister who helped to formulate the plan. In the place of the villages, a handful of Jewish towns will be erected.

The stakes are high, not least because Israel views this battle as a continuation of the 1948 war that established a Jewish state on the ruins of Palestine.

Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, argued last week that the fight over the Negev proves “nothing has changed since the days of the tower and stockade” – a reference to heavily fortified outposts the Zionists aggressively built in the 1930s to evict Palestinians from the land they had farmed for centuries.

These outposts later became land-hungry farming communities that gave the Jewish state its territorial backbone.

Mr Lieberman’s view reflects that of the government: “We are fighting for the lands of the Jewish people, against those who intentionally try to rob and seize them.”

The labelling of the Bedouin as “squatters” and “trespassers” reveals much about the intractability of the wider conflict – and why the Americans have no hope of ending it as long as they seek solutions that address only the injustices caused by the occupation that began in 1967.

In truth, both Israel and the Palestinians understand that the war of 1948 never really finished.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer specialising in Israeli land issues, has called the Prawer Plan a “second nakba”, in reference to the catastrophic events of 1948 that stripped the Palestinians of their homeland.

Israel, meanwhile, continues to conceive of its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens – however peaceable – as just as alien and threatening to its interests as the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The roots of the Prawer Plan can be traced to one of Zionism’s earliest principles: “Judaisation”. There are cities across Israel, including Upper Nazareth, Karmiel and Migdal Haemek, founded as Judaisation communities next to large Palestinian populations with the official goal of “making the land Jewish”.

Judaisation’s faulty premise, in the pre-state years, was the fantasy that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Its sinister flip side was the cheery injunction to Zionism’s pioneers to “make the desert bloom”, chiefly by driving out Palestinians.

Nowadays, the term “Judaisation”, with its unpleasant overtones, has been discarded in favour of “development”.

There is even a minister for “developing the Negev and the Galilee” – Israel’s two areas with large concentrations of Palestinians. But officials are interested only in Jewish development.

Last week, in the wake of the clashes, the Israeli Haaretz daily published leaked documents showing that the World Zionist Organisation – an unofficial arm of the government – has been quietly reviving the Judaisation programme in the Galilee.

In an effort to bring another 100,000 Jews to the region, several new towns are to be built, for Jews only, dispersed as widely as possible in contravention of Israel’s own national master plan, which requires denser building inside existing communities to protect scarce land resources.

All this generosity towards Israel’s Jewish population is at the expense of the country’s Palestinian citizens. They have not been allowed a single new community since Israel’s founding more than six decades ago. And the new Jewish towns, as Arab mayors complained last week, are being built intentionally to box them in.

For officials, the renewed Judaisation drive is about asserting “Israeli sovereignty” and “strengthening our hold” over the Galilee, as if the current inhabitants – Israeli citizens who are Palestinian – were a group of hostile foreigners. Haaretz more honestly characterised the policy as “racism”.

Judaisation casts the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in zero-sum terms, and thereby makes it unresolvable. In considering its Palestinian citizens, Israel speaks not of integration, or even assimilation, but of their enduring status as a “fifth column” and the Jewish state’s “Achilles heel”.

That is because, were principles of justice and equality ever to be enforced, Palestinians in Israel could serve as a gateway by which millions of exiled Palestinians might find their way back home.

With the policy of Judaisation revoked, the Palestinian minority could end the conflict without violence simply by pulling down the scaffolding of racist laws that have blocked any return for the Palestinians since their expulsion 65 years ago.

This is why Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands as part of the current peace negotiations that the Palestinians sanctify the Judaisation principle by recognising Israel as a Jewish state. It is also why the talks are doomed to failure.

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Will Israel ‘come to terms’ with Iran deal?

Al-Jazeera – 30 November 2013

The recent agreement in Geneva between the world’s major powers and Iran over its nuclear programme is a bitter pill that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spent much of the past week choking on.

For much of the past decade, Netanyahu has been leading the chorus of doom about Iran, warning of the imminent threat posed by its supposed pursuit of a nuclear bomb.

Seven years ago, as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu issued one of his characteristic warnings: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.” The leadership in Tehran, he added, was “preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state”.

Despite the available intelligence, almost all politicians in Israel publicly share the assumption that Iran is close to secretly building a nuclear warhead, with many further claiming that Tehran’s first priority will be to destroy Israel. More generally, an Iranian bomb is seen as a threat to Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, and likely to give Iran much greater influence both in the region and in Washington.

There is also the fear that an Iranian bomb might push Arab states to pursue their own nuclear arsenals, further eroding what Israel calls its “qualitative military edge”. It emerged this month that Saudi Arabia has been in talks with Pakistan about acquiring a nuclear weapon.

‘Existential’ interests

Netanyahu has therefore been able to cast himself as the defender-in-chief of the Israeli interests that he describes as “existential”. He, more than anyone else, has dared to risk souring relations with the White House over the issue. The prime minister is also reported to have seriously considered a go-it-alone military strike against Iran, but was prevented by vehement opposition from most of Israel’s military and security leadership.

So when news of the deal emerged, secured in large part through months of back-channel negotiations that Israel knew nothing about, Netanyahu could barely contain his anger. He labelled the deal, which mildly eases the current sanctions in return for concessions from Iran on its uranium enrichment programme and increased international oversight, as a “historic mistake”.

“Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world,” he said. This interpretation has been widely echoed by Israeli pundits and commentators, many of whom have adopted the analogy of the appeasement of Hitler by Western leaders at Munich in 1938.

Senior government ministers went on the offensive too. Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and leader of the right-wing, pro-settler Jewish Home party, warned US television viewers that the agreement was a prelude to “a nuclear suitcase” blowing up in New York and Madrid within five years.

Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right foreign minister, joined the prime minister in condemning the deal and hinting that Israeli military action was still possible. “We have to be serious enough to take responsibility for our fate,” he said. “As always, all options are on the table.”

Coming to terms?

But there are already strong signs that Netanyahu and his ministers are rethinking their initial, confrontational stance towards the US. Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, who was until recently Netanyahu’s defence minister and shared his hawkish policy on Iran, said Netanyahu was showing signs that he was coming to terms with the outcome in Geneva.

The six-month interim agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – the so-called P5+1 – is a “done deal”, said Alpher. “Netanyahu has nothing to gain now by frowning and sounding off angrily at the Americans. He will just create an unnecessary confrontation. He is too clever for that. I expect him now to spin the agreement his way.”

Furthermore, Netanyahu is again reported to be facing opposition behind the scenes from his military and security advisers. Although most of them believe Iran poses a threat to Israel, they are reported to be against any unilateral action, especially if it runs counter to US wishes.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, urged Israelis not be taken in by the general mood of gloom. “If this were the final agreement, then it would really be a bad agreement, but that’s not the situation.”

Similarly, Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser, recently told the New York Times: “Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.”

According to Alpher, Netanyahu is already making clear the two main ways in which he will try to turn the agreement to his advantage, thereby avoiding damage to his image with the Israeli public and the international community. “He is trying to explain that the deal reached in Geneva, however bad, is much better from Israel’s point of view than the one nearly agreed a short time earlier. He can then take the credit for that.

‘Israel intends to be a player’

“And he needs to prepare for the next round of talks in six months’ time to ensure Israel’s position is well-represented. At the same time, he can ready his ammunition to tell the world ‘I told you so’ if the deal unravels.”

Indications emerged this week that Netanyahu was softening his tone, following a telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama on Sunday. British Foreign Minister William Hague conveyed the sense of that conversation, when he suggested that Netanyahu had been warned not to take “any steps that would undermine this agreement”.

The next day the Israeli prime minister announced he was sending a team, headed by his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, to meet with US counterparts to discuss the nature of a future permanent agreement. Similar meetings are due to take place in the next few weeks with Britain, France and Germany.

An official close to Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post newspaper bluntly: “Israel intends to be a player.” A leading Israeli columnist has termed the period before the permanent agreement Israel’s “six-month war”.

According to observers, much of that effort will concentrate on using intelligence – real or otherwise – to suggest Iran is not complying with the agreement, allowing Netanyahu to emerge vindicated.

What most Israeli observers agree on is that Netanyahu will not launch a military attack to try to sabotage the deal. Amos Harel, the military correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, said: “As long as there is such sweeping international support for the interim agreement, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would be political and diplomatic suicide.”

Pressuring Congress

Less clear is whether Netanyahu will use Israel’s hawkish political lobby in Washington, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to arm-twist Congress into a confrontation with Obama when legislators return next week from their Thanksgiving break. Alpher said he believed Netanyahu would not risk “further battering US-Israel relations”, though he conceded this might be “wishful thinking”.

Uri Savir, a former Israeli diplomat and the director of the Peres Centre for Peace, agreed, saying that further erosion of relations with Washington, Israel’s main patron, would be “more dangerous than anything that Iran can threaten us with”.

Despite these warnings, AIPAC published a memo in the wake of the agreement that called for Congress to “legislate additional sanctions”. However, AIPAC appears only to be demanding the threat of extra sanctions as a stick to extract further concessions from Iran, and possibly from the White House, when negotiations on a final agreement begin next year.

In a sign of US efforts to maintain common ground with Israel on Iran, Time magazine reported on Thursday that the two countries would stage a large joint military exercise in May as the interim agreement expires.

“The strategic decision is to continue to make noise,” an unnamed high-ranking Israeli officer was quoted as saying. “[The exercise is] going to be big. … It will send signals both to Israel and to the Iranians that we are maintaining our capabilities in the military option. The atmosphere is we have to do it big time, we have to do a big show of capabilities and connections.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Israel next week, reportedly to smooth relations and further cooperation between the two countries.

Fear of a ‘break-out state’

The Israeli media have reported that Netanyahu’s most pressing concern now is to ensure that a permanent agreement forces the Iranians to renounce their rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to any nuclear programme, including their current civilian one. Israel claims that any nuclear capability would give Tehran the ability to become what it terms a “break-out state”, with the potential to quickly convert its nuclear energy programme into a military one.

Netanyahu told his Likud party this week that a future accord “must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability.”

Israel is said to want Iran to destroy all its existing centrifuges, transfer its stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country, close the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow and stop work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. This differs from the US position, which so far has been committed to allowing Iran a limited uranium enrichment programme.

One final question posed by the interim agreement is how it could affect Israel’s other great point of contention with the White House: the current peace talks with the Palestinians. Here opinion is divided. Harel believes Obama’s success on the Iranian and Syrian fronts could embolden it to tackle the issue of a Palestinian state, either putting pressure on Israel to make concessions or imposing its own solution.

But Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst, believes the US clash with Israel over Iran might push it in a different direction. “Coming out of the current public confrontation, the last thing that the White House might want is another war of words with Israel. This line of thinking might mean that the United States will try to make it up to Israel.”

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Gaza: Life and death under Israel’s drones

Al-Jazeera – 28 November 2013

There are many things to fear in Gaza: Attacks from Israel’s Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets, the coastal enclave’s growing isolation, the regular blackouts from power shortages, increasingly polluted drinking water and rivers of sewage flooding the streets.

Meanwhile, for most Palestinians in Gaza the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to their lives is the constant buzz of the remotely piloted aircraft – better known as “drones” – that hover in the skies above.

Drones are increasingly being used for surveillance and extra-judicial execution in parts of the Middle East, especially by the US, but in nowhere more than Gaza has the drone become a permanent fixture of life. More than 1.7 million Palestinians, confined by Israel to a small territory in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are subject to near continual surveillance and intermittent death raining down from the sky.

There is little hope of escaping the zenana – an Arabic word referring to a wife’s relentless nagging that Gazans have adopted to describe the drone’s oppressive noise and their feelings about it. According to statistics compiled by human rights groups in Gaza, civilians are the chief casualties of what Israel refers to as “surgical” strikes from drones.

“When you hear the drones, you feel naked and vulnerable,” said Hamdi Shaqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza City. “The buzz is the sound of death. There is no escape, nowhere is private. It is a reminder that, whatever Israel and the international community assert, the occupation has not ended. We are still living completely under Israeli control. They control the borders and the sea and they decide our fates from their position in the sky,” said Shaqura.

The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Suffer the children

The sense of permanent exposure, coupled with the fear of being mistakenly targeted, has inflicted deep psychological scars on civilians, especially children, according to experts.

“There is a great sense of insecurity. Nowhere feels safe for the children, and they feel no one can offer them protection, not even their parents,” said Ahmed Tawahina, a psychologist running clinics in Gaza as part of the Community Mental Health Programme. “That traumatises both the children and parents, who feel they are failing in their most basic responsibility.”

Shaqura observed: “From a political perspective, there is a deep paradox. Israel says it needs security, but it demands it at the cost of our constant insecurity.”

There are no statistics that detail the effect of the drones on Palestinians in Gaza. Doctors admit it is impossible to separate the psychological toll inflicted by drones from other sources of damage to mental health, such as air strikes by F-16s, severe restrictions on movement and the economic insecurity caused by Israel’s blockade.

But field researchers working for Palestinian rights groups point out that the use of drones is intimately tied to these other sources of fear and anxiety. Drones fire missiles themselves, they guide attacks by F-16s or helicopters, and they patrol and oversee the borders.

A survey in medical journal The Lancet following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s month-long attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, found large percentages of children suffered from symptoms of psychological trauma: Fifty-eight percent permanently feared the dark; 43 percent reported regular nightmares; 37 percent wet the bed and 42 percent had crying attacks.

Tawahina described the sense of being constantly observed as a “form of psychological torture, which exhausts people’s mental and emotional resources. Among children at school, this can be seen in poor concentration and unruly behaviour.” The trauma for children is compounded by the fact that the drones also disrupt what should be their safest activity – watching TV at home. When a drone is operating nearby, it invariably interferes with satellite reception.

“”It doesn’t make headlines, but it is another example of how there is no escape from the drones. Parents want their children indoors, where it feels safer and where they’re less likely to hear the drones, but still the drone finds a way into their home. The children cannot even switch off from the traumas around them by watching TV because of the drones.”

Israel’s ‘major advantage’

Israel developed its first drones in the early 1980s, during its long occupation of south Lebanon, to gather aerial intelligence without exposing Israeli pilots to anti-aircraft missiles. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, said drones help in situations where good, on-the-ground intelligence is lacking. “What the UAV gives you is eyes on the other side of the hill or over the border,” he said. “That provides Israel with a major advantage over its enemies.”

Other Israeli analysts have claimed that the use of drones, with their detailed intelligence-collecting abilities, is justified because they reduce the chances of errors and the likelihood of “collateral damage” – civilian deaths – during attacks.

But, according to Inbar, the drone is no better equipped than other aircraft for gathering intelligence or carrying out an execution.

“The advantage from Israel’s point of view is that using a drone for these tasks reduces the risk of endangering a pilot’s life or losing an expensive plane. That is why we are moving towards much greater use of these kinds of robots on the battlefield,” he said.

‘Mistakes can happen’

According to Gaza human rights group al-Mezan, Israel started using drones over the territory from the start of the second intifada in 2000, but only for surveillance.

Israel’s first extra-judicial executions using drones occurred in 2004, when two Palestinians were killed. But these operations greatly expanded after 2006, in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from Gaza and the rise to power of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.

Drones, the front-line weapon in Israel’s surveillance operations and efforts to foil rocket attacks, killed more than 90 Palestinians in each of the years 2006 and 2007, according to al-Mezan. The figures soared during Operation Cast Lead and in its aftermath, with 461 Palestinians killed by drones in 2009. The number peaked again with 199 deaths in 2012, the year when Israel launched the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence against Gaza.

Despite Israeli claims that the intelligence provided by drones makes it easier to target those Palestinians it has defined as “terrorists”, research shows civilians are the main victims. In the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation, 36 of the 162 Palestinians killed were a result of drone strikes, and a further 100 were injured by drones. Of those 36 killed, two-thirds were civilians.

Also revealing was a finding that, although drones were used in only five percent of air strikes, they accounted for 23 percent of the total deaths during Pillar of Defence. According to the Economist magazine, the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, which triggered that operation, was carried out using a Hermes 450 drone.

Palestinian fighters report that they have responded to the constant surveillance by living in hiding, rarely going outdoors and avoiding using phones or cars. It is a way of life not possible for most people in Gaza.

Gaza’s armed groups are reported to be trying to find a way to jam the drones’ navigation systems. In the meantime, Hamas has claimed it has shot down three drones, the latest this month, though Israel says all three crashed due to malfunctions.

Last week, on the anniversary of the launch of Pillar of Defence, an Israeli commander whose soldiers control the drones over Gaza from a base south of Tel Aviv told the Haaretz newspaper that “many” air strikes during the operation had involved drones. “Lt Col Shay” was quoted saying: “Ultimately, we are at war. As much as the IDF strives to carry out the most precise surgical strikes, mistakes can happen in the air or on the ground.”

Random death by drone

It is for this reason that drones have become increasingly associated with random death from the sky, said Samir Zaqout, a senior field researcher for Al-Mezan.

“We know from the footage taken by drones that Israel can see what is happening below in the finest detail. And yet women and children keep being killed in drone attacks. Why the continual mistakes? The answer, I think, is that these aren’t mistakes. The message Israel wants to send us is that there is no protection whether you are a civilian or fighter. They want us afraid and to make us turn on the resistance [Palestinian fighters].”

Zaqout also points to a more recent use of drones – what has come to be known as “roof-knocking”. This is when a drone fires small missiles at the roof of a building to warn the inhabitants to evacuate – a practice Israel developed during Operation Cast Lead three years earlier, to allay international concerns about its repeated levellings of buildings with civilians inside.

In Pillar of Defence in 2012, 33 buildings were targeted by roof-knocking.

Israel says it provides 10 minutes’ warning from a roof-knock to an air strike, but, in practice, families find they often have much less time. This, said Zaqout, puts large families in great danger as they usually send their members out in small groups to be sure they will not be attacked as they move onto the streets.

One notorious case occurred during Cast Lead, when six members of the Salha family, all women and children, were killed when their home was shelled moments after a roof-knocking. The father, Fayez Salha, who survived, lost a case for damages in Israel’s Supreme Court last February and was ordered to pay costs after the judges ruled that the attack was legitimate because it occurred as part of a military operation.

A US citizen who has lived long-term in Gaza, who wished not be named for fear of reprisals from Israel, said she often heard the drones at night when the street noise dies down, or as they hover above her while out walking. “The sound is like the buzz of a mosquito, although there is one type of drone that sometimes comes into view that is silent,” she said.

She added that she knew of families that, before moving into a new apartment building, checked to see whether it housed a fighter or a relative of a fighter, for fear that the building may be attacked by Israel.

Shaqura said the drones inevitably affect one’s day-to-day behaviour. He said he was jogging early one morning while a drone hovered overhead.

“I got 100 metres from my front door when I started to feel overwhelmed with fear. I realised that my tracksuit was black, the same colour as many of the fighters’ uniforms. I read in my work too many reports of civilians being killed by drones not to see the danger. So I hurried back home.”

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Netanyahu’s peace gesture is meant to extract concessions

The National – 26 November 2013

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made what was presumably intended to sound like a historic peace gesture towards the Palestinians last week.

He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament, echoing Menachem Begin’s invitation to Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1977. That visit was the prelude to a peace agreement concluded the following year between Israel and Egypt.

Should Mr Abbas accept, it would pose a dilemma for his host. According to Israeli law, the right of foreigners to address the parliament is reserved to visiting heads of state.

As one Israeli commentator pointedly observed, Mr Netanyahu would have either to hurriedly change the law or to recognise Mr Abbas as the head of a Palestinian state. We can assume he is about to do neither.

In reality, Mr Netanyahu’s offer was as hollow as his previous utterances about Palestinian statehood.

Begin, a rightwing hawk too, welcomed Sadat to the parliament, where Israeli legislators listened intently to the Egyptian leader’s vision of peace.

More than 35 years later, Mr Netanyahu and his cohorts are not in the least interested in Mr Abbas’s terms for an end to the conflict, even in the midst of the current nine-month peace talks. They want him to come only if he is ready to concede terms of surrender – recognising as a Jewish state whatever enlarged borders Israel demands.

Coincidentally, the Israeli prime minister made his insincere offer while French president Francois Hollande was in the parliament calling for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr Hollande was wildly feted during his three-day visit to Israel, if less so during his half-day meeting with Mr Abbas in Ramallah, but his public statements offered little more than platitudes.

Saying he favoured “two states for two peoples”, Mr Hollande warned each leader that they would have to make sacrifices: the Palestinians by abandoning the dream of the refugees’ return, and Israel by ending settlement-building.

The problem is that Mr Netanyahu is not listening even to his friends. This month his housing minister, Uri Ariel, unveiled plans for 24,000 new homes in the occupied territories, the largest spike in construction in more than a decade.

The proposals include 1,200 homes in the so-called E1 area of the West Bank, a strategic strip of land next to Jerusalem that would further erode the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. Washington views Israeli development there as a stake through the heart of the peace process.

Facing pressure from the White House, Mr Netanyahu put the plans on ice but has not cancelled them. On Sunday, a new batch of more than 800 settler homes was approved.

The serial humiliation has proved too much for Palestinian negotiators, who have proffered their resignations. Mr Abbas, however, has promised the United States that he will participate to the bitter end of the talks, due in April.

Strangely, Mr Netanyahu’s offer to Mr Abbas to follow in Sadat’s footsteps came as the CIA declassified documents from the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt. They provide an illuminating window on the current negotiations.

The then-US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, privately warned that Israel had less interest in reaching a deal than either Sadat or the US president of the time, Jimmy Carter. “The risk,” he wrote to Mr Carter, “is that you could lose control of the talks and be diverted from the central issues either by Begin’s legalisms or Sadat’s imprecision.”

An almost-verbatim memo should have been sent to Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, before these peace talks began last July. Instead the White House has kept its distance, leaving Israel to dictate both the agenda – Israel’s security – and the molluscular pace.

Aware that no progress has been made, the US is finally preparing to put forward a “framework proposal” in January in the hope of extracting a deal by the April deadline.

There has been speculation that, following the deal struck between the world’s main powers and Iran at the weekend over its nuclear programme, Mr Obama will finally be emboldened to stand strong against Israel and Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence towards the Palestinians.

Any optimism is likely to prove misplaced. It emerged last week that Martin Indyk, US envoy to the talks, had quietly recruited to his team David Makovsky. His roots, like Mr Indyk’s, lie in the hawkish pro-Israel political lobbies that have dominated Washington for decades.

In the summer, Mr Makovsky used a column in the New York Times to berate the European Union for failing to “talk tough” to the Palestinians and dispel their hopes of return for the refugees.

Mr Makovsky has probably been chosen because of his expected usefulness in the talks’ impending endgame. Specialising in the kind of detail valued by Mr Brzezinski, he has drawn up precise maps designed to provide the basis for a final agreement, one premised on extensive land swaps.

Israeli leaders have shied away from setting down on paper their vision of a Palestinian state precisely because they know it would not look much like any kind of state. Mr Makovsky is not so reticent.

His maps annex to Israel the vast majority of the illegal settlements in the West Bank, leaving a series of fingers of Israeli territory throttling a future Palestinian state and compensating the Palestinians with areas of desert, mostly near Gaza.

As the Israeli analyst Noam Sheizaf has observed, Mr Makovsky’s guiding principle in drafting these maps has been “to satiate Israel’s growing appetite for land”.

Washington has learnt nothing from its past success with the Egyptians nor from its more recent failures with the Palestinians. Mr Makovsky may add some necessary clarity, but it is exactly the kind of detail no credible Palestinian leader can ever be persuaded to accept.

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Common chemicals destroying humanity, suggests prominent journalist

Jonathan Benson Natural News November 22, 2013 They are literally all around us, yet most people are unaware of their invasive presence: chemicals, and especially the hormone-mimicking...

Israel’s ‘exceptionalism’ and the UN

Al-Jazeera – 18 November 2013

Israel is again at the centre of moves to challenge key agencies at the United Nations, as it lobbies to prevent the Palestinian leadership from gaining more of a foothold in global forums.

Israel ended a 20-month boycott of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last month, under pressure from Western allies that it should return to a review process designed to monitor the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

However, Israel did so only after securing promises of reforms that human rights groups fear will further weaken international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.

The UNHRC has regularly and harshly criticised Israel’s human rights record in both the occupied territories and inside Israel. It has also set up several fact-finding missions, including the Goldstone inquiry into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, that have accused Israel of war crimes.

The Israeli government is reported to be celebrating its success in dictating the terms of its return to the UNHRC. Its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Eviatar Manor, stated last month at Israel’s hearing: “Israel’s unfair treatment must come to an end. I hope our appearance here today will go a long way to restore equality and fairness regarding Israel in Geneva.”

Palestinian human rights groups fear that, in practice, this will mean significantly diminished scrutiny of Israel’s occupation.

“The mechanisms for holding Israel to account were already weak but now these changes are weakening them even further,” said Gavan Kelly, a spokesman for Addameer, an organisation supporting Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

“All indications are that behind the scenes an agreement has been reached to ensure Israel is not heavily criticised at the next session of the UNHRC in March. From the point of view of defending Palestinian rights, things are not looking good.”

Overdue

Meanwhile, the US and Israel last week ignored a final deadline to pay their membership dues to another UN organisation, thereby surrendering their voting rights in educational, scientific and cultural matters.

The pair suspended their contributions two years ago in protest at the decision by the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to allow the Palestinians to accede.

Washington’s $80 million annual contribution had covered nearly a quarter of UNESCO’s budget, and its retaliatory action has plunged the organisation into financial crisis, undermining many of its projects worldwide.

Kelly and other human rights workers argue that Israel is seeking to “intimidate” other international forums to deter them from giving the Palestinians a high-profile platform.

Brad Parker, a lawyer with the Palestine branch of Defence for Children International, said Israel was demanding a policy of “exceptionalism”.

“The international community is not treating Israel unfairly. Israel is simply being treated and recognised as the persistent human rights violator that it is,” he said.

The latest moves at the UN come in the wake of an agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to revive peace talks. Under US pressure, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised he would not turn to international bodies for the duration of the negotiations, which are due to end in April next year.

International recognition

Israel and the US have viewed with alarm the possibility that the Palestinians may seek to join other international bodies in addition to UNESCO. They are entitled to do so after Palestine was recognised a year ago as a non-member state by an overwhelming majority at the UN General Assembly.

Abbas was forced to pursue that route after the US made clear it would exercise its veto on any application to the Security Council for full UN membership.

According to various media reports, both Israel and the US are especially worried that the Palestinians might apply to become a party to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, an independent judicial body the UN helped to establish.

They could then refer Israel to the ICC for allegations of war crimes to be investigated. That could include Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza, but the Palestinians are most likely to seek a ruling against Israel on the issue of its continuing settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israeli settlement-building has become a key point of contention during the peace talks, with announcements from Israel of plans to build thousands of new homes.

Last week the Palestinians’ chief negotiators, Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, were reported to have submitted their resignations to Abbas, accusing Israel of “an unprecedented escalation of colonization and oppression against Palestine and the Palestinian people”.

Israel severed its ties with the UNHRC in March last year after the council decided to establish a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel’s settlement-building.

An earlier mission, under Judge Richard Goldstone, infuriated Israel by investigating Operation Cast Lead, its attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09 that led to the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians. The final report by Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

Israel also refused to cooperate with another UNHRC fact-finding mission into Israel’s attack on an aid flotilla to Gaza in 2010, in which nine human rights activists were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters. The mission concluded that the Israeli military broke international law and that there was evidence to begin prosecutions for breaches of the Geneva Convention.

Stymying investigations

Similarly, Israel denied entry to the mission investigating settlements, forcing Palestinian human rights groups to travel to Amman in Jordan to meet the UN team.

The final report, released last January and adopted by the UNHRC in March, warned that Israel could be brought before the International Criminal Court for transferring its citizens into occupied Palestinian territory.

The Human Rights Council, which was established by the UN in 2006, has appointed Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, as special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied territories.

Falk, who has described Israel’s policies as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”, has been repeatedly blocked by Israel from gaining access to the territories.

Israel failed to attend the session of the UNHRC reviewing its human rights record last January, becoming the first state ever to refuse to appear.

Each of the 193 UN member states is obliged to submit to an examination by other states of its human rights record – known as the Universal Periodic Review – every four-and-a-half years.

After a series of delays, Israel agreed to appear at the end of last month. Western states, especially the US and Germany, strenuously lobbied Israel to persuade it to submit to the review, fearing that Israel’s non-cooperation would set a precedent other states might follow.

“The problem is that Israel was not sanctioned for its failure to appear in January, as it should have been,” said Fadi Quran, a lawyer with al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation in Ramallah. “Instead it made demands to the UNHRC for changes, and our fear is that it will get its way.”

Palestinian human rights groups note that Israel appears to have secured two concessions from Western member states in the UNHRC that threaten to further erode its accountability.

First, Israel has demanded that it be allowed to join the group representing Western states in Geneva, apparently in the belief that this will provide it with the collective protection of the US and European states. Among the group’s members, only Turkey is believed to be holding out against Israel’s inclusion.

“For Israel, it is a public relations tool to be with the liberal democratic countries,” said Quran. “It wants to be seen as ‘Western’, not to be viewed as an occupying state imposing apartheid and colonial rule on the Palestinians.”

‘Item 7′

More significantly still, Israel has also insisted that the US and Europe not participate in a standing agenda at UNHRC sessions known as “Item 7″, designed to maintain continuous scrutiny of Israel’s occupation.

“Item 7″ was the basis for establishing the three recent fact-finding missions, and Palestinian human rights organisations fear that if Western states withdraw their support it will undermine what little international oversight currently exists of Israel’s occupation.

John Dugard, a South African professor of international law and Falk’s predecessor as special rapporteur, said Israel had been trying to have Item 7 removed for years because it “rightly gives Israel a status akin to that of apartheid. I hope the Western states will not give in to Israel’s blackmail as this will give Israel a legitimacy it so richly does not deserve.”

Kelly said Palestinian human rights organisations had also heard that Israel would be given “an easy ride” at the next session of the UNHRC in March, when it is due to be presented with recommendations to improve its human rights record.

“In 2008, when Israel faced its first review, it received lots of recommendations and basically it ignored them all. Israel is already doing whatever it wants and with impunity.”

At Israel’s UNHRC hearing on October 29, the Palestinian envoy, Ibrahim Khraishi, said Israel’s renewed participation had “no value” and that Israel wanted to be able to pick and choose when to accept scrutiny.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has also expressed concern at Israel’s continuing refusal to recognise its obligations to uphold international law in the occupied territories.

Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director, called Israel’s appearance at the UNHRC a “positive step” but said Israel needed to do more.

“Israel should now … start working with the UN’s human rights team in the West Bank and stop blocking visits from UN rights experts,” she said.

The US, meanwhile, sought to downplay Israel’s human rights violations towards the Palestinians at the UNHRC hearing.

The deputy ambassador to the UN, Peter Mulrean, praised Israel for its “strong commitment and track record in upholding human rights, political freedom and civil liberties”. His chief criticism was levied at religious coercion inflicted on secular Jewish citizens by the Orthodox rabbinate.

Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for the fifth of the Israeli population who are Palestinian, said Israel’s human rights record had deteriorated towards Palestinians in Israel, as well as the occupied territories since the last review in 2008.

“The general political drift rightwards and the dramatic increase in discriminatory legislation initiated by the Benjamin Netanyahu government have contributed to making things much worse.”

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Israel’s gains from the death of Arafat cannot be ignored

The National – 12 November 2013

It seems there are still plenty of parties who would prefer that the death of the long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat continues to be treated as a mystery rather than as an assassination.

It is hard, however, to avoid drawing the logical conclusion from the finding last week by Swiss scientists that the Palestinian leader’s body contained high levels of a radioactive isotope, polonium-210. An inconclusive and much more limited study by a Russian team published immediately after the Swiss announcement also suggests Arafat died from poisoning.

It is time to state the obvious: Arafat was killed. And suspicion falls squarely on Israel.

Israel alone had the means, track record, stated intention and motive. Without Israel’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, it may be impossible to secure a conviction in a court of law, but there should be evidence enough to convict Israel in the court of world opinion.

Israel had access to polonium from its nuclear reactor in Dimona, and has a long record of carrying out political assassinations, some ostentatious and others covert, often using hard-to-trace chemical agents. There is also plenty of evidence that Israel wanted Arafat “removed”. In January 2002, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s military chief of staff, was caught on a microphone whispering to Israel’s then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, about Arafat: “We have to get rid of him.”

With the Palestinian leader holed up for more than two years in his battered compound in Ramallah, surrounded by Israeli tanks, the debate in the Israel government centred on whether he should be exiled or killed.

In September 2003, the cabinet even issued a warning that Israel would “remove this obstacle in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing”. The then-deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, clarified that killing Arafat was “one of the options”.

What stayed Israel’s hand – and fuelled its equivocal tone – was Washington’s adamant opposition. After these threats, Colin Powell, the US former secretary of state, warned that a move against Arafat would trigger “rage throughout the Arab world”.

By April 2004, however, Mr Sharon declared he was no longer obligated by his earlier commitment to George Bush not to “harm Arafat physically”. “I am released from that pledge,” he said. The White House too indicated a weakening of its stance: an unnamed spokesman responded feebly that the US “opposed any such action”.

So what about motive? How did Israel gain from “removing” Arafat? To understand Israel’s thinking, one needs to return to another debate raging at that time, among Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership was split into two camps, centred on Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, then Arafat’s heir apparent. The pair had starkly divergent strategies for dealing with Israel.

In Arafat’s view, Israel had reneged on commitments it made in the Oslo accords. He was therefore loath to invest exclusively in the peace process. He wanted a twin strategy: keeping open channels for talks while maintaining the option of armed resistance to pressure Israel. For this reason, he kept a tight personal grip on the Palestinian security forces.

Mr Abbas, on the other hand, believed that armed resistance was a gift to Israel, delegitimising the Palestinian struggle. He wanted to focus exclusively on negotiations and state-building, hoping to exert indirect pressure on Israel by proving to the international community that the Palestinians could be trusted with statehood. His priority was cooperating closely with the US and Israel in security matters.

Israel and the US strongly preferred Mr Abbas’s approach, even forcing Arafat for a time to reduce his own influence by appointing Mr Abbas to a newly created post of prime minister.

Israel’s primary concern was that, however much of a prisoner they made Arafat, he would remain a unifying figure for Palestinians. By refusing to renounce armed struggle, Arafat managed to contain – if only just – the mounting tensions between his own Fatah movement and its chief rival, Hamas.

With Arafat gone, and the conciliatory Mr Abbas installed in his place, those tensions erupted violently into the open – as Israel surely knew they would. That culminated in a split that tore apart the Palestinian national movement and led to a territorial schism between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza.

In Israel’s oft-used terminology, Arafat was the head of the “infrastructure of terror”. But Israel’s preference for Mr Abbas derived not from respect for him or from a belief that he could persuade Palestinians to accept a peace deal. Mr Sharon famously declared that Mr Abbas was no more impressive than a “plucked chicken”.

Israel’s interests in killing Arafat were evident after his death. Not only did the Palestinian national movement collapse, but the Palestinian leadership got drawn back into a series of futile peace talks, leaving Israel clear to concentrate on land grabs and settlement building. Contemplating the matter of whether Israel benefited from the loss of Arafat, Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani observed: “Hasn’t Abu Mazen’s [Abbas] exemplary commitment to Oslo over the years, and maintenance of security cooperation with Israel through thick and thin, already settled this question?”

Mr Abbas’ strategy may be facing its ultimate test now, as the Palestinian negotiating team once again tries to coax out of Israel the barest concessions on statehood at the risk of being blamed for the talks’ inevitable failure. The effort already looks deeply misguided.

While the negotiations have secured for the Palestinians only a handful of ageing political prisoners, Israel has so far announced in return a massive expansion of the settlements and the threatened eviction of some 15,000 Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

It is doubtless a trade-off Arafat would have rued.

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Syria Analysts, Impartial? Not likely. Think Tank Commentators Posing as Objective Scholars

As is evident with the vast majority of coverage on the Middle East, the analysis used to bolster media narratives on Syria is predominantly...

Israel to drill for oil in the West Bank

Al-Jazeera – 2 November 2013

Israeli investors had reason to celebrate last month with the news that Israel may soon be joining the club of oil-producing states, in addition to its recent finds of large natural gas deposits off the coast.

Shares in Givot Olam, an Israeli oil exploration company, rallied on reports that it had located much larger oil reserves at its Meged 5 site than previously estimated.

The company, which says it has already sold $40m worth of oil since the Meged field went operational in 2011, now believes that the well is sitting on exploitable reserves of as much as 3.53 billion barrels – about a seventh of Qatar’s proven oil reserves.

Only one cloud looms on the horizon. It is unclear how much of this new-found oil wealth actually belongs to Israel. The well sits on the so-called Green Line, the armistice line of 1948 that formally separates Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories.

According to Palestinian officials, Israel has moved the course of its concrete and steel separation wall – claiming security – to provide Givot Olam with unfettered access to the site, between the Israeli town of Rosh Haayin and the Palestinian village of Rantis, north-west of Ramallah.

Dror Etkes, an Israeli researcher who tracks Israeli activities in the West Bank, said the Meged site was “a few dozen metres” inside the Green Line.

Israel and Givot Olam, however, have made access difficult, arguing that Meged 5 is affected by an Israeli military firing range next to it on the other side of the Green Line, in occupied Palestinian territory. In the past, Israeli media have been barred from filming or photographing the site.

Etkes, however, said he was unaware of any military training ever having taken place at the firing range.

But what seems clear is that the oil field extends over a very large area, with much of the reserves believed to lie under Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Oil in the occupied territories

Although the Israeli energy and water ministry declined to comment publicly on Meged 5, a senior official privately told Al Jazeera that the field extended at least 125 sq km, and possibly as much as 250 sq km.

According to the Oslo accords, Israel is obligated to coordinate any exploration for natural resources in shared territory with the Palestinian Authority, and reach agreements on how to divide the benefits.

Ashraf Khatib, an official at the PA’s negotiations support unit, said the Meged oil field was part of Israel’s general “theft of Palestinian national resources”.

“The problem for us is that the occupation is not just about settlements and land confiscation. Israel is also massively profiting from exploiting our resources. There’s lots of money in it for Israel, which is why the occupation has become so prolonged,” he said.

Last year, when Meged 5′s reserves were believed to be 1.5 billion barrels – less than half the current estimates – Jamil al-Mutaur, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority, threatened to sue Israel in the international courts for its unilateral operations at Meged.

Gidon Bromberg, director of environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East, said his group would submit questions to the Israeli government about Meged 5.

“If there are reserves of oil under the occupied territories, then absolutely Israel must talk to the Palestinian Authority about any exploration being undertaken to extract them,” he said.

The expectation of a dramatic increase in future profits for Israel from drilling at Meged 5 comes shortly after the World Bank issued a report arguing that Israel was destroying any hope that a future Palestinian state could be economically viable.

Israeli ‘chokehold’ of Area C

According to the World Bank, Israel’s occupation is preventing the Palestinians from exploiting key natural resources, either by plundering them for itself or by making them inaccessible to Palestinians through movement restrictions and classifying areas as military zones.

The World Bank report did not include the Meged oil field among the Palestinian natural resources it listed. A spokeswoman said there had not been enough data available for its researchers to assess the significance of the oil field.

In the report, the World Bank focuses on a large area of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo Accords, which continues to be under Israel’s full control and where Israel has built more than 200 settlements.

Area C, comprising nearly two-thirds of West Bank territory, includes most of the Palestinians’ major resources, including land for agriculture and development, water aquifers, Dead Sea minerals, quarries, and archaeological and tourism sites. It is also where much of the Meged reserves are likely to be located.

Israel’s energy and water ministry is led by Silvan Shalom, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a supporter of Israel’s settlement programme in the West Bank.

Naftali Bennett, who is the trade and industry minister and the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, has repeatedly called for Israel’s formal annexation of Area C.

According to the Bank’s research, the Palestinian Authority could generate at least $3.4bn in extra income a year if given full control of Area C – though that figure does not take account of the expected boom in oil revenues.

The World Bank spokeswoman said the figure was “very conservative” as there were some resources, such as the oil field, for which its researchers had not been able to collect data.

Nonetheless, even the income from resources identified by the World Bank would increase the PA’s GDP by a third, reducing a ballooning deficit, cutting unemployment rates that have reached 23 percent, easing poverty and food insecurity and helping the fledgling state break free of aid dependency.

But none of this could be achieved, said the Bank, as long as Israel maintains its chokehold on Area C – or what the Bank calls “restricted land”.

Mariam Sherman, the World Bank’s director in the West Bank and Gaza, said: “Unleashing the potential from that ‘restricted land’ … and allowing Palestinians to put these resources to work would provide whole new areas of economic activity and set the economy on the path to sustainable growth.”

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, revived peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians this summer after promising the PA that it would help raise $4bn to invest in the Palestinian economy, much of it directed at projects in Area C.

However, the World Bank report suggests that Israeli movement restrictions in Area C and its refusal to issue development permits make ventures there too risky for Palestinian investors.

Khatib said: “The PA is facing a $2bn deficit and desperately needs to invest in major projects taking advantage of our natural resources. That is the only way to end the PA’s dependence on international aid.”

Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has said he is pursuing “economic peace” with the Palestinians in the occupied territories in lieu of diplomatic advances. The PA, by contrast, characterises Israel’s policy as one of “economic warfare” against Palestinians.

Israel’s long-standing policy towards resources in the occupied territories suggests it is unlikely to honour its obligations under international agreements on the spoils from the Meged oil field.

Etkes said: “The reality is that Israel is enjoying the economic fruits of the occupation by exploiting resources that belong to the Palestinians.”

Previous resource extractions

In the case of the region’s main aquifers, which lie under the hills of the West Bank, Israel has demolished hundreds of Palestinian wells to maintain its exclusive control over water resources. Settlements and military bases have been located over the main extraction points.

A report by al-Haq earlier this year showed that Israel took 89 percent of the total water withdrawn from the West Bank aquifer, leaving the Palestinians with only 11 percent. As a result, Israelis had on average 300 litres of water a day each, compared with just 73 litres for Palestinians – below the 100 litres per capita recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Regarding another key resource, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that a dozen Israeli firms should be able to continue extracting stone for construction from West Bank quarries, because Israel’s occupation was no longer considered temporary but had become “prolonged”.

The ruling was widely criticised by legal experts, who argued it ignored prohibitions on resource theft in international law, including the 1907 Hague Convention.

The PA has estimated the annual value of the stone quarried by Israel at $900m.

Meged 5 would not be the first time Israel has been found to have plundered its neighbours’ oil reserves.

In 1975 it emerged that Israel had been drilling at the Abu Rudeis field following its occupation of the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 war. The oil field supplied two-thirds of Israel’s domestic needs before Israel was forced to hand back the wells to Egypt.

Israel continued to try to exploit Sinai’s oil, drilling further south at the Alma field but had to return those wells too when it signed the Camp David peace agreement with Egypt in 1979.

Hundreds of sites inside Israel and the occupied territories were surveyed for oil in subsequent years without significant success – until the Meged find.

Israel’s announcement in recent years of discoveries of large natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean has increased tensions with neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, which has claimed that Israel is drilling in areas where maritime borders are disputed.

Two deposits, named Tamar and Leviathan, are expected to make Israel a gas exporter by 2016.

The Palestinians have located their own significant gas field just off the coast of Gaza. In 2000, the then Palestinian president Yasser Arafat declared the site “will provide a solid foundation for our economy, for establishing an independent state”.

However, Israel has repeatedly stymied efforts to extract the gas, arguing that the profits would be used to fund terrorism. Instead, the Palestinians have continued to be dependent on Israel for meeting their energy requirements

Since 2009 Israel has also violated the Oslo accords by reducing Palestinians’ access to Gaza’s maritime waters, from 20 nautical miles to three.

According to one analyst, Anais Antreasyan, the most plausible interpretation of Israel’s actions is that it hopes eventually to “integrate the gas fields off Gaza into the adjacent Israeli offshore installations”, thereby “blocking Palestinian economic development”.

In the view of Atreasyan and others, Israel’s aim is to prevent the emergence of the kind of independent Palestinian economy that would follow if the Palestinians were able to tap lucrative income streams from the gas fields off Gaza and the likely oil under the West Bank.

“This way,” Khatib said, “Israel can more easily keep the Palestinians struggling from day to day, just to survive economically.”

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Peace process is doomed to fail while Israel stalls for time

The National – 29 October 2013

Whatever happened to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? You could be forgiven for thinking everyone packed up shop a while ago and forgot to inform you. There’s been barely a peep about it since the revival of talks was greeted with great fanfare back in July.

The negotiations, which have been conducted in a fug of secrecy, flitted briefly back on the radar last week when the US secretary of state, John Kerry, met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what the media called an “unusually long”, seven-hour meeting in Rome.

Much of the conversation was held in private, with not even officials present, but, according to reports, discussions concentrated on the revived peace process. Mr Kerry, concerned about the lack of tangible progress, is believed to have tried to pin Mr Netanyahu down on his vision of where the nine-month negotiations should lead.

Mr Kerry’s intervention follows weeks of mounting Palestinian frustration, culminating in rumours that the talks are on the verge of collapse. After a meeting with Mr Kerry in Paris, an Arab League official, Nasif Hata, added to the desultory atmosphere, saying there were “no positive indications of progress”.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, on a tour of European capitals last week in search of diplomatic support, tried to scotch suggestions that the talks were at a “dead end”. They were “difficult”, he admitted, and after nearly three months of meetings the two sides were still “at the beginning of the road”.

But privately his officials have expressed exasperation at Israel’s inflexibility and the miserliness of its opening positions. Earlier this month the Al Hayat newspaper reported that Israel had refused to discuss the key issue of borders, instead focusing exclusively on its own security concerns.

None of this is surprising. At Israel’s insistence, the talks have been entirely shielded from public view. Privacy, Israel argued, would ease the pressure on the two parties and give them greater room to be forthcoming and creative.

The reality, however, is that the lack of scrutiny has allowed Israel to drag its feet. Israel’s lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, has already warned that the talks’ timetable is likely to overrun.

Similarly, US envoy Martin Indyk was supposed to be Mr Kerry’s eyes and ears in the talks. Instead he spent the first two months locked out of the proceedings, apparently again at Israel’s instigation.

Secrecy, Israel hopes, will give it the cover it expects to need when – as seems certain – the talks end inconclusively, or the Palestinians storm out. Widespread ignorance about developments can be exploited to cast the Palestinians as the treacherous party, as occurred following the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.

But belatedly we are seeing a little of the leadership role Washington promised. Mr Indyk is said to be now actively involved. The rate of meetings between the negotiators has been stepped up sharply in the past two weeks. And last week’s meeting in Rome suggested that the US hopes to pressure Mr Netanyahu either into making a big concession or into beginning the face-to-face talks with Mr Abbas that this process is supposed eventually to lead to.

According to Mr Hata, the US has also promised the Arab League it will “take action” if there is no breakthrough by January, presenting “viable suggestions for ways to end the thaw”.

But whatever Mr Netanyahu told Mr Kerry in private last week, few believe the Israeli prime minister is really ready to seek peace. Earlier this month he set out in public his vision for the talks, in a follow-up to his famous speech in 2009, when, faced with a newly installed US president, Barack Obama, he agreed to a two-state solution.

This time, speaking from the same podium, he sounded in no mood for conciliation. “Unless the Palestinians recognise the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace,” he said. He denied the “occupation and settlements” were causes of the conflict, and insisted on Israel’s need for “extremely strong security arrangements”.

It is this kind of uncompromising talk that has discredited the negotiations with those outside the White House.

Last week Yuval Diskin, a recent head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, warned that there was no realistic prospect that “the Israeli public will accept a peace agreement”. Israelis’ distrust of the negotiations is fuelled by the constant opposition of government ministers.

In a further show of dissension, they have backed a bill that would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority before Israel can even broach at the talks the key issue of dividing Jerusalem. If passed, the legislation would turn the negotiations into a dead letter.

On the other side, Hamas has grown emboldened. Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister in Gaza, has called on Palestinians to renew a “popular uprising”, just as a 1.5km tunnel Hamas had built into Israel was exposed.

In the West Bank, a spate of attacks and killings of Israelis over the past few weeks – after a year without the loss of a single Israeli life from the conflict in 2012 – has provoked wild speculation about whether a Palestinian uprising is imminent. A Palestinian driving a bulldozer who went on a rampage through a military base near Jerusalem only reinforced the impression.

Conveniently, Mr Netanyahu has exploited widespread opposition to the next round of Palestinian prisoner releases, due tonight – the carrot to keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table – to justify plans for yet more settlement building.

All indications are that these talks, like their predecessors, are doomed to fail. The question is whether the Palestinians have the nerve to unmask the charade. If not, Israel will use the peace process as cover while its settlements devour yet more of the Palestinian state-in-waiting.

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How come Uri Avnery knows so little about Israel, or apartheid?

Palestine Chronicle – 28 October 2013

Yes, I know. Uri Avnery has achieved many great things as a journalist and a peace activist. He has probably done more to educate people around the world about the terrible situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and for longer, than any other single human being. And, to boot, he’s celebrating his 90th birthday this week. So best wishes to him.

Nonetheless, it is important to challenge the many fallacious claims Avnery makes to bolster the arguments in his latest article, dismissing the growing comparisons being made between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

There is much to criticize in his weakly argued piece, based on a recent conversation with an unnamed “expert”. Avnery, like many before him, makes the mistake of thinking that, by pointing out the differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, he proves that Israel is not an apartheid state. But this is the ultimate straw-man argument. No one claims Israel is identical to South Africa. You don’t need an expert to realize that.

When people call Israel an apartheid state, they are referring to the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. According to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid comprises inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.

So what color the victims of apartheid are, what proportion of the population they constitute, whether the economy depends on their productive labor, whether the early Zionists were socialists, whether the Palestinians have a Nelson Mandela, and so on have precisely zero relevance to determining whether Israel is an apartheid state.

A key distinction for Avnery is between “Israel proper” and the occupied territories. In the territories, Avnery admits, there are some parallels with apartheid South Africa. But inside Israel, he thinks the comparison is outrageously unfair. Let’s set aside the not-insignificant matter that Israel refuses to recognize its internationally defined borders; or that one of its major strategies is a colonial-style divide-and-rule policy that depends on establishing differences in rights for Palestinians under its rule as a way to better oppress them.

Avnery’s motives in highlighting this territorial distinction should be clear. He believes the occupation is a crime and that it must end. But he also believes that Israel as a Jewish state should continue after the occupation ends. In fact, he sees the two matters as inextricably tied. In his view, Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish state depends on severing it from the occupied territories.

This concurs with fairly standard liberal Zionist ideology: segregation is seen as offering protection from demographic threats posed by non-Jews to the future success of the Jewish state, and has reached its apotheosis in the building of the West Bank wall and the disengagement from Gaza. Avnery is simply one of the most humane proponents of this line of thinking.

But for this reason, as I have argued before, Avnery should be treated as an unreliable mentor and guide on matters relating to Palestinians inside Israel – the group that is hardest to deal with under a strictly segregationist approach.

Avnery is unlikely to treat criticism of “Israel proper”, such as the apartheid comparison, based on the merits of the case. He reacts defensively. Admitting that Israel is an apartheid state inside its internationally recognized borders would undermine the legitimacy of his prized Jewish state. It would indicate that his life’s work of campaigning for the creation of a Palestinian state to preserve his Jewish state was misguided, and probably harmful.

The most outrageous claim Avnery makes in the article, precisely to deflect attention from the problem of a self-defined Jewish state and its relations with a large Palestinian minority, is the following:

On the whole, the situation of the Arab minority inside Israel proper is much like that of many national minorities in Europe and elsewhere. They enjoy equality under the law, vote for parliament, are represented by very lively parties of their own, but in practice suffer discrimination in many areas. To call this apartheid would be grossly misleading.

One does not need to concede that the comparison with apartheid is right, both in the occupied territories and inside “Israel proper” – though I do – to understand that it is, in fact, Avnery who is being grossly misleading here.

There is no sense in which Israel’s treatment of its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens is comparable, as Avnery argues, to the situation of national minorities in European states. Palestinian citizens do not simply face unofficial, informal or spontaneous discrimination. It is structural, institutionalized and systematic.

Here are a few questions Avnery or those who agree with him need to answer:

  • Which European states have, like Israel, nationalized 93 per cent of their land so that one ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jewish citizens) can exclude another ethnic group (Palestinian Arab citizens)?
  • Which European states operate vetting committees, enshrined in law, in hundreds of rural communities precisely to prevent one ethnic group (Palestinian Arabs) from living in these communities?
  • Which European states have separate citizenship laws – in Israel’s case, the Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952) – based on ethnic belonging?
  • Which European states have designed their citizenship laws, as Israel has done, to confer rights on members of an ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jews) who are not actually yet citizens or present in the state, privileging them over a group (Palestinian Arabs) who do have citizenship and are present in the state?
  • Which European states have more than 55 laws that explicitly discriminate based on which ethnic group a citizen belongs to?
  • Which European states, like Israel, defer some of their sovereign powers to extra-territorial bodies – in Israel’s case, to the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund – whose charters obligate them to discriminate based on ethnic belonging?
  • Which European states deny their citizens access to any civil institutions on personal status matters such as marriage, divorce and burial, requiring all citizens to submit to the whims and prejudices of religious leaders?
  • Which European states do not recognize their own nationality, and make it possible to join the dominant national group (in Israel’s case, Jews) or to immigrate only through conversion?

Maybe Avnery can find the odd European state with one such perverse practice, or something similar. But I have no doubt he cannot find a European state that has more than one such characteristic. Israel has all of these and more; in fact, too many for me to enumerate them all.

So if Israel inside its recognized borders is nothing like European states or the United States, or any other state we usually classify as democratic, maybe Avnery or his supporters can explain exactly what kind of state Israel is like.

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Truthdigger of the Week: Russell Brand

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/truthdigger_of_the_week_russell_brand_20131026/ Posted on Oct 27, 2013 ...

Truthdigger of the Week: Russell Brand

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/truthdigger_of_the_week_russell_brand_20131026/ Posted on Oct 27, 2013 ...

America’s New Employment Reality

Students at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minnesota learning about different types of stitches. (Photo: Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times) For years people...

Israel’s elections bring ‘racism’ to the fore

Al-Jazeera – 21 October 2013 13:23

In some parts of Israel, voters in Tuesday’s elections will be casting a ballot not on how well their municipality is run but on how to stop “Arabs” moving in next door, how to prevent mosques being built in their community, or how to “save” Jewish women from the clutches of Arab men.

While the far-right’s rise in Israeli national politics has made headlines, less attention has been paid to how this has played out in day-to-day relations between Israeli Jews and the country’s Palestinian-Arab minority, comprising a fifth of the population.

According to analysts and residents, Israel’s local elections have brought a tide of ugly racism to the fore, especially in a handful of communities known as “mixed cities”, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity.

Jewish parties, including local branches of the ruling Likud party, have adopted openly racist language and fear-mongering suggesting an imminent Muslim takeover of Jewish communities in a bid to win votes.

“Israeli society has become more and more racist, and the candidates are simply reflecting this racism back to voters knowing that it will win them lots of support,” said Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth.

Last week, as electioneering intensified, Salim Joubran, an Arab judge, stepped in to ban adverts by the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the cities of Karmiel and Tel Aviv.

Joubran, who is the first Arab in Israel’s history to chair the Central Elections Committee, which oversees elections, said the ads were “racist and almost certain to hurt the feelings of Arab Israelis and disrupt public order”.

In doing so, Joubran overruled the advice of the attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, who had argued that the committee had no authority to regulate online ads and posters.

‘Gentrifying’ neighbourhoods

Notably, Netanyahu and his ministers have refused to condemn or distance themselves from the campaigns run by their local branches.

In Jaffa, the commercial capital of Palestine before Israel’s creation in 1948 and now a mixed suburb of Tel Aviv, Likud ran ads against local Muslims. A third of Jaffa’s population are Palestinian, but they face increasing pressure to leave under a programme of “gentrifying” neighbourhoods.

One ad – using the slogan “Silence the muezzin in Jaffa? Only Likud can” – echoed threats Netanyahu made in late 2011 to ban mosques from using loudspeakers to call Muslims to prayer.

A Likud party spokeswoman declined to comment on Joubran’s criticisms.

Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajwa, an imam in Jaffa, said: “This is a racist campaign but we must not forget that those who promote hatred against Muslims and Christians in Jaffa are simply following the lead of the government.

“It is a great impertinence to tell us we need to silence our mosques. We were here – and so were our mosques – long before Israel’s creation. If they don’t like it here, they are welcome to leave.”

Another poster, implying that Palestinian citizens are not loyal to Israel and that Likud would intensify moves to remove them from the city, said the party would “Return Jaffa to Israel”.

Joubran similarly banned a phone ad used by the Likud party in Karmiel, a so-called “Judaisation” city in the Galilee designed to bring Jews to a region with a large Palestinian population.

Jewish residents had received a recorded phone message from someone calling himself “Nabil” inviting them to a fictitious cornerstone-laying ceremony for a new mosque in the town.

Karmiel’s Palestinian residents, believed to number less than 2,000 in a city of 45,000 people, say they have not even proposed that a mosque should be built in the city.

Koren Neuman, head of Karmiel’s Likud electoral list, said the election committee’s decision was unjustified.

“Our message is that we want to keep our city Jewish-Zionist. That, after all, is the mission of the state of Israel. We’re not against anybody. But Karmiel is supposed to be a Jewish city and we must not allow its character to be changed.”

He added that at meetings with voters, “the fear that is raised is that the city will become mixed”, and there would one day be an Arab mayor.

‘Take our women’

Naama Blatman-Thomas, a local political activist, said Jewish parties in Karmiel had resorted to “dirty tricks” in response to the emergence of a joint Jewish-Arab party, Karmiel Rainbow, contesting the council election.

“When I have spoken to Jewish residents, the narrative in their minds is that their city is under threat of a takeover, that the Arabs will take our women, and so on. The views expressed in Karmiel are part of a much wider trend across the Galilee.”

Most communities in Israel are segregated on an ethnic basis.

However, in recent years Palestinians in the Galilee have started migrating to Judaisation cities such as Karmiel in growing numbers because Israeli land policies have deprived their own communities of land for new house construction, said Zeidan.

In rural communities such as the kibbutz and moshav where housing is available, vetting committees have been put in place to ensure housing is off-limits to Palestinian citizens.

But in cities such as Karmiel, homes are available for purchase if Jews will sell to Palestinian citizens. Blatman-Thomas, who is researching segregation policies in Karmiel for her doctorate, said Jews were emigrating from the city because of a shortage of employment opportunities, opening the way to Palestinians from the surrounding towns and villages to buy apartments.

Recent surveys show a strong aversion from many in the Jewish public to living in shared communities. According to the annual Israel Democracy Index, published this month, 48 percent of Jews would not want an Arab neighbour, while 44 percent favoured policies to encourage Palestinian citizens to emigrate from Israel.

Such sentiments have received official backing from municipal rabbis. More than 40 signed a decreein 2010 that Jews must not sell homes to non-Jews.

At that time, Karmiel’s deputy mayor, Oren Milstein, set up an email “hotline” on which residents could inform on Jewish residents who were intending to sell to Palestinian families. Milstein claimed he had managed to stop 30 such sales.

Dov Caller, a spokesman for Karmiel Rainbow, said the city’s attractiveness to Palestinian families in the area was a reflection of the discrimination they faced in their own communities.

“When they have the right to land for development, their own industrial zones, gardens, sports centre and decent schools, then Karmiel won’t be the only option available to them.”

‘Bleeding-hearts’

Similar tensions have erupted in Upper Nazareth, a Judaisation city built in the 1950s to contain the growth of Nazareth, the Biblical city of Jesus’ childhood.

Over the past decade, large numbers of Christians and Muslims have moved into Upper Nazareth, with some estimates suggesting of the city’s 55,000 population a quarter may now be Palestinian citizens, most of them from Nazareth.

The mayor, Shimon Gapso, has erected large Israeli flags at every entrance to the city in the run-up to the election, in a move he said was designed to make clear that Palestinian citizens were not welcome in Upper Nazareth.

Raed Ghattas, one of two Arab members of the local council, said Gapso’s whole election strategy had been based on a hatred of Arabs. “There are four candidates for mayor – for us, it is a matter of which one is the lesser evil. But Gapso is definitely the worst of a bad bunch.”

Earlier this year Gapso issued a pamphlet to residents warning: “This is the time to guard our home! … All requests for foreign characteristics in the city are refused.”

He has rejected building a church or mosque, allowing Christmas trees in public places or, most controversially, building an Arab-language schoolfor the 2,000 Palestinian children in the city.

Gapso stoked tensions further during the election by running a bogus election campaign using posters urging voters to “Throw the mayor out” that quoted prominent Palestinian politicians in Israel denouncing him.

Haneen Zoabi, a parliament member who is running for mayor of neighbouring Nazareth, was quoted as saying: “Upper Nazareth was built on Arab land. We will fight to the end against Shimon Gapso’s racism. [Send] the racist home; Arabs to Upper Nazareth.”

Defending his election campaign in an article in the Haaretz newspaper under the headline “If you think I’m a racist, then Israel is a racist state”, Gapso accused his critics of “hypocrisy and bleeding-heart sanctimoniousness”. The important thing, he wrote, was that his city “retain a Jewish majority and not be swallowed up in the Arab area that surrounds it”.

In another interview, he said: “95 percent of Jewish mayors [in Israel] think the same thing. They’re just afraid to say so out loud”.

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For years, the dismantling of Yugoslavia was no more than a half-completed job in the eyes of Western leaders. The United States and Western...

Court nixes push for ‘Israeli nationality’

Al-Jazeera – 18 October 2013

A court decision this month that rejected Israelis’ right to a shared nationality has highlighted serious problems caused by Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, say lawyers and human rights activists.

A group of 21 Israelis had appealed to the Supreme Court to demand the state recognise their wish to be classified as “Israeli nationals”.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, authorities have refused to recognise such a nationality, instead classifying Israelis according to the ethnic group to which each belongs. The overwhelming majority are registered as either “Jewish” or “Arab” nationals, though there are more than 130 such categories in total.

Critics say the system, while seemingly a technical matter, has far-reaching effects. The citizenship laws, they say, undergird a system of systematic discrimination against the one-fifth of Israel’s population who are non-Jews – most of them belonging to Israel’s Palestinian minority.

Some observers also fear that the court ruling, which effectively upheld Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, will strengthen the aversion of Israel’s right-wing government to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for reaching a peace agreement.

‘I am an Israeli’

The case was brought to court by the “I am an Israeli” movement, led by Uzi Ornan, a retired linguist from northern Israel. The group, which includes both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, argued that they should be allowed to change their nationality to “Israeli”.

“This ruling is very dangerous,” said Ornan. “It allows Israel to continue being a very peculiar country indeed, one that refuses to recognise the nationality of its own people. I don’t know of another country that does such a thing. It is entirely anti-democratic.”

The “I am an Israeli” movement objects to Israel’s system of laws that separate citizenship from nationality. While Israelis enjoy a common citizenship, they have separate nationalities based on their ethnic identity. Only the Jewish majority has been awarded national rights, meaning that Palestinian citizens face institutionalised discrimination, said Ornan.

He added: “It tells the country’s Arab citizens that they have no real recognition in their own country – that they will always be treated as foreigners and they will always face discrimination.”

Others view the ruling more positively. Anita Shapira, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, said creating a new category of “Israeli national” would undermine the Jewish essence of the state and alienate Jews from other countries who felt a connection to Israel through a shared religion.

“The attempt to claim that there is a Jewish nationality in the state of Israel that is separate from the Jewish religion is something very revolutionary,” she said.

The “I am an Israeli” movement’s petition was originally heard and rejected in 2007 by a district court in Jerusalem. The group then appealed to the Supreme Court, the second time that Israel’s citizenship laws have been challenged in this venue.

In the first hearing, in 1971, Justice Shimon Agranat ruled that it was “illegitimate” so soon after Israel’s founding for the petitioners to “ask to separate themselves from the Jewish people and to achieve for themselves the status of a distinct Israeli nation”.

Though more than 40 years had passed, that position was largely upheld in the new ruling. Asher Grunis, the head of the Supreme Court, decided: “The existence of an Israeli ethnic nationality has not been proven.” Another judge who heard the case, Hanan Melcer, warned that conceding such a nationality would jeopardise “the Jewish and the democratic nature of the state”.

Unequal treatment?

However, legal analysts have drawn the opposite conclusion. Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, wrote in the Haaretz newspaper that the court’s decision “will continue to obscure the possibility of having real democracy in Israel”.

Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah, a legal rights group for the Arab minority in Israel, said the state’s refusal to recognise a shared nationality stripped Palestinians inside Israel of equality in most areas of their lives, including access to land, housing, education and employment. “It is also disturbing that Israeli law treats Israel as the Jewish homeland for Jews everywhere, even those who are not citizens of Israel,” he said.

Jabareen said this was achieved through the 1950 Law of Return, which allows Jews anywhere in the world to come to Israel and gain automatic citizenship.

Israel used another law – the Citizenship Law of 1952 – to belatedly confer citizenship on the Palestinians who remained on their land following the 1948 war that established Israel.

The Law of Return effectively provides an immigration policy only for Jews. Under the terms of the Citizenship Law, only a few dozen non-Jews – those who marry an Israeli citizen – qualify for naturalisation every year.

Israel passed another law in 2003 that bars most Palestinians from the occupied territories and Arabs from neighbouring states from being eligible to naturalise, even if they marry an Israeli.

At the time, officials said the law was needed to prevent terrorism, but most observers believe the legislation’s real aim was to prevent what Israelis call “a right of return through the back door” – the fear that Palestinians would use marriage to Palestinians inside Israel to win citizenship and thus erode the country’s Jewish majority.

Ornan and others complain that the ethnic and religious basis of Israeli citizenship is further accentuated by Israel’s adoption of arcane personal status laws dating from the Ottoman period. There are no civil institutions dealing with most areas of Israelis’ private lives, forcing citizens to be identified with their religious community. Civil marriage, for example, is not possible inside Israel, and anyone marrying across the religious divide must marry abroad, typically in Cyprus, and then register the marriage upon their return.

Civil rights groups such as “I am an Israeli”, as well as the Palestinian minority’s political parties, have been trying to challenge the citizenship laws, arguing that they are the key to Israel’s system of structural discrimination.

Adalah has established an online database showing that Israel has more than 55 laws that explicitly discriminate between Jewish and Palestinian citizens. This number has grown rapidly in recent years, said Jabareen, as the Israeli right-wing has been forced to legislate many established but uncodified discriminatory practices that were under threat of being ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

In one recent example, Netanyahu’s government passed the Admissions Committee Law in 2011, to prevent the Supreme Court ruling against vetting committees that have long denied Palestinian citizens access to hundreds of communities controlling most of the land in Israel. The government acted after a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Adel Qaadan, spent two decades in a legal battle to be allowed into one such community, Katzir. Qaadan was among the petitioners who lost this month’s case to be recognised as an Israeli national.

Growing divide

The court ruling highlighted the growing divide between the ruling right-wing coalition on one side, and civil rights groups and the Palestinian leadership in Israel on the other.

Since the mid-1990s, the Palestinian political parties have increasingly challenged Israel’s claim to be a “Jewish and democratic state”. Instead, they have demanded that Israel be reformed into what they call a “state of all its citizens”, or a liberal democracy.

Leading Israeli politicians, including a recent prime minister, Ehud Olmert, have admitted that discrimination against Palestinians exists. However, they have suggested that it is informal and similar to the discrimination faced by minorities in many democratic western countries.

Civil rights groups, on the other hand, claim that the discrimination is structural to Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. One member of parliament, Ahmed Tibi, has pointedly commented: “This country is Jewish and democratic: Democratic towards Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.”

A survey published this month by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 49 percent of Israel Jews supported giving more rights to Jewish citizens than to Palestinian citizens. The same survey found that barely more than one-quarter of Palestinian citizens felt a sense of belonging to Israel.

Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, has officially defined the campaign for a state of all its citizens as “subversion”. It has also said it will “thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law”.

The main proponent of this campaign, Azmi Bishara, who led the Balad party, was accused of treason by the Shin Bet a short time later and forced into exile.

‘No citizenship without loyalty’

In recent years, the Israeli right-wing has grown increasingly concerned about challenges to the state’s Jewishness. The Yisrael Beiteinu party – led by Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign affairs minister and a political ally of Netanyahu – has lobbied for loyalty laws to restrict the Palestinian minority’s political activities. In the past two general elections, Lieberman has campaigned under the slogan, “No citizenship without loyalty”.

Over the summer it was announced that members of Netanyahu’s coalition government were drafting a basic law that would formally define Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people”.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the bill would allow only Jews the right to national self-determination, Hebrew would be the only recognised language, and Jewish religious law would be used as guidance in Israeli courts. Haaretz has argued that the bill would institute “apartheid” in Israel and turn the state into what it called a “Jewish and racist state”.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s government has also established a “Jewish Identity Administration” to work in Jewish schools. It is headed by Avichai Rontzki, a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces who at the time was accused of bringing more extremist religious views into the military.

The administration’s stated aim is to “restore the State of Israel’s Jewish soul” by teaching pupils to “love the Jewish homeland”. According to leaks to the Israeli media, Berman Shifman, a consultant who advised the goverment on the new unit, warned that the key idea behind the administration was “taken from fascism, not from the field of education”.

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The Childcare Nightmare

While I’m chasing eleven 2 year olds, who are buzzing on sugary breakfast food they were either given at home or at this state subsidized childcare facility, I’m hoping it doesn’t rain so we can go outside. I’m also trying to convince myself outdoors is better than indoors with this many kids. The playground is larger so it is harder to keep track of them outside where danger seems to lurk around each corner. Although childcare workers scan the playground early each morning for dangerous items–like the wood post with rusted nail that once made it into a child’s hands–the kids always manage to find danger. When I started this work, I never thought I would dread working with toddlers.  Now I can’t work under the current legally acceptable conditions at most local facilities for moral reasons. Welcome to the childcare work nightmare, where the light at the tunnel of your long days is barely visible through the sentimental or denial laden shadow cast on the concept of childcare (and the real shadow cast by your empty bank account).

It takes an unique set of circumstances to render outdoor time with children something to dread, but the “Learn and Grow Center” of northwest Florida, where I worked for a few months, did just that to me. Realizing I have nothing special to look forward to in my day– except the sometimes seductively quiet nap time–I am reduced to simply maintaining (the appearance of) classroom control. I do not want to lose my temper with these kids. It’s not their fault many have developed two primary childcare survival instincts: dog piling and biting. I am also trying not to say the word “no” every few seconds, instead using positive redirection while following my “lesson plan” tacked up on the classroom bulletin board. The schedule says “Circle Time” but from the look of things you would think it read “Dogpile Time.”

Quick, here comes the boss who drops by almost every day. I’ll put on the hokey pokey, grab a few hands, and look ecstatic–just like the hired models in childcare ads. If she walks in on a problem, like a bite attack, she’ll chalk it up to either my lack of toddler classroom experience or increased behavioral problems due to marital (financial) problems at the child’s home. I was initially impressed by my boss’ sensitivity toward her clientele, but now I scoff at her sensitive insights. After all, she keeps her own workers so underpaid they can’t even afford to keep their own kids in this, or any, childcare facility.

Crap. Cinder is about to tear up books at the reading corner. Remember, positive redirection–the behavioral mantra of the childcare industry. “Hey Cinder, I’m glad you like books, but everyone else is getting ready to go outside and play… Now’s not the best time to dump all of our…Cinder! It would be much nicer if…” Never mind Cinder. Jimmy just bit Alex on the cheek when I was “redirecting” Cinder, and now there’s an incident report to do. Furthermore, Nixen, who’s had diarrhea all week and should be at home, just blew a gasket all over his jeans. It seeped onto the floor where Ashley accidentally stepped in it with her silky white monogrammed Easter shoes. Her mother, who spends much of her meager paycheck on her daughter’s thematic holiday wardrobe, is going to complain to my supervisor later. I want this day to end early although I really need the money ($8.50/ hour), but this is the day I close. The fact that tomorrow someone else will be closing (which has me losing $10.00 that day) is the only comfort I can conjure up for myself here.

After my high school English teacher job in a special needs voucher school ended (see my previous post on Florida’s Vulturous Voucher Program), I decided to continue my field research on Florida education by going to the source of the problem: early childhood education. I wanted to work with 2 year olds since they are at such a challenging, formative age, so I took a job as a 2 year old classroom teacher at one of my town’s only state subsidized childcare centers. I went in like a dedicated soldier with a cause: I wanted to Montessori-cize and Waldorf-ize these childcare centers, giving poor kids what they deserve–an awesome head start. But it took only a week or so to realize that just because there’s a will doesn’t mean there’s a way. I may have only worked in one subsidized center, but when comparing notes with other workers who have worked at many more in their exhausting careers, I have concluded that what I encountered is generally the norm, not the exception. For contrast, I then worked at a non-subsidized private childcare center that caters to some of the county’s wealthier owning class families, including a prominent Republican politician’s family. “Class war at your childcare door,” I joked about my latest incarnation of employment. Although the private center had less behavioral problems, the same labor problems loomed at both venues due to a toxic combination of state standards and owners’ greed. Until we eliminate the profit motive in childcare, positive and progressive childcare experiences (and rewarding employment opportunities working with kids) will remain largely determined by parental incomes.

There’s a popular simplification that bad childcare environments emerge from government or individual negligence. Consider the premise of Jonathan Cohen’s widely circulated New Republic article, “The Hell of American Day Care”. This article uses an unusual–and highly sensationalistic–home care provider tragedy as a springboard to call for more childcare industry regulations and inspections. Jessica Tata was a licensed Texas home care provider who left sleeping children behind to make a Target run. She also accidentally left a pan of oil on a lit stove top. The pan caught fire, and while she was gone the house went up in flames–killing four out of seven children in her custody. Cohen’s example of home care neglect is quite an attention grabber, but it does little to illustrate the daily factors encumbering the achievement of accessible, quality childcare for millions.

One of these factors is the changing socio-economic roles of women. To be fair, Cohen’s article acknowledges the need for something women’s movements have always prioritized: affordable, quality childcare. There’s resistance to viewing childcare as work (as opposed to something done out of love by eager parents or family members), and this resistance translates into policy. That childcare responsibilities frequently fall to women presents further complications as more women’s economic roles have changed in the post-war decades. Cohen’s answer of more childcare facility inspections works well for the inevitable panic after an unimaginable horrific event, like a childcare fire, occurs. But it does little to address the insidious structural neglect that is the hallmark of childcare culture in America. Sensationalizing these problems by focusing on unusual accidents distract us from key mundane factors such as classroom ratios, set by state governments, that spawn related profiteering practices.

Irrational Ratios: Eleven 2 Year Olds??!!

Usually, when the topic of poor quality in an occupation arises, logic suggests raising wages produces worker incentives. But the childcare nightmare is not simply about inducing worker motivation through compensation. Because it’s our precious angels we’re serving to hardworking parents, not a bucket of fried chicken we’re serving to hungry customers, childcare wages usually hover just over minimum wage. And don’t get me wrong, more money would help the problem. But childcare struggles would still exist if the hourly wage was higher simply because optimal conditions required to successfully do the work are lacking at so many facilities.

In my experience, classroom ratios are the main source of the childcare nightmare. (Meanwhile, websites like http://www.classsizematters.org devote resources to arguing the same thing about K-12 education.) Most childcare struggles I perceived emerged from the fact that both facilities kept to the maximum number of children legally allowed in each classroom. This is a big problem; Florida allows the jaw-dropping number of eleven 2 year-olds to one childcare teacher. Eleven terrible 2′s! And they are learning to go to the bathroom and talk at this sensitive age: taught largely by workers.

Consider one coworker case study. The private childcare where I worked employed Hannah, a dedicated 2 year old teacher who keeps a clean classroom, communicates well with parents, and pays out of pocket for her own carefully thought out supplies and activities. Hannah makes $9.50/ hour–which is at the high end of the county’s childcare wage spectrum. But the fact that Hannah makes more than her colleagues at other facilities doesn’t overshadow that she manages a “classroom” of eleven toddlers in the process of learning to talk and use the toilet. Some don’t talk really well, some yell. Some can go on their own already and some haven’t figured out that they should poop sitting down. We have quiet standing up poopers, talkative panty wearers, and about every other imaginable combination. Over time, because of ratios, a relatively higher paying position at an “elite” facility didn’t deter Hannah from walking off the job without notice. Exasperated, she just up and quit one day!

Inter-Classroom Rationing: Someone’s Going Home

Childcare facility owners and supervisors choose to enforce the maximum classroom ratios–the root evil in this industry. These irrational ratios breed another common practice that can be avoided by simple administrative principles of fairness to employees and children: inter-classroom rationing. At both facilities, the supervisors’ main objective was to monitor the number of children in the room, shifting them to other rooms with the goal of taking a teacher off the clock. (This practice ensures worker hours are never absolutely guaranteed unless you are in some kind of favor with management.) If the private childcare had a low turnout one day, the supervisor would also move children to eventually create an empty classroom. The main difference between the two facilities was that the private facility supervisor wasn’t as frantic about this as the state funded facility supervisor.

Moving children was the main vibe of my interactions with my state funded supervisor. “How many ya got?” she would bark at me as I meandered my way outside with always eleven (sometimes more) toddlers in tow. Yes, we were sometimes over ratio– an occurrence only to be avoided because of surprise state inspections, not out of fairness to me or the children involved! If I was momentarily under ratio it wouldn’t last long before the Shifty-Eyed Bean Counter supervisor would show up with more children from another classroom: they were always moving kids away from continuity with their teachers, peers, and a familiar classroom space. When arriving to work each day, no childcare worker automatically knows how many children will be there or the duration of each child’s stay. Creative managers could do something really cool in this instance: they could acknowledge how hard the work is and send a worker home early– with pay. But the owner would never have that!

When I first worked in childcare, I marveled at inter-classroom rationing because it contradicts all common sense. It also contradicts the core child development philosophy encountered in state required on-line employee training courses that workers usually pay for themselves. Remember, these are children, not buckets of fried chicken, so childcare workers need to accomplish 40 hrs. of outside training within a year.  Amid poverty, a chaotic schedule, and exhaustion otherwise, the state’s idealistic childcare philosophies are espoused to the low-wage workers already in the daily trenches. Childcare workers are required to suffer through pedantic, often hilariously cliche and idealistic, on-line courses (although not everyone has access to home computers!), and then carve out weekend morning time to be tested in person. The carrot dangling at the end of that stick is a possible, not always guaranteed, small wage increase once coursework has been completed.

Childcare teachers are expected to institute premeditated lesson plans and develop bonds with the children assigned to their classrooms. But this proves extremely difficult when a supervisor interrupts circle time to move children around. At the state funded facility, nap time was pure chaos because workers were breaking for lunch and you could have one or more children from another classroom. Somehow they ended up in your room for nap time and they need pacifiers and blankets stored in another room. They’re balling their eyes out, but no one is around to help at the moment except you. On a busy or under-staffed day, a worker may not get her own bathroom break. Adult diapers aren’t an option here: too expensive!

Plastic Food

Another profiteering practice at both facilities is providing cheap bland food that is almost the nutritional equivalent of the abundant plastic toys that graced both classrooms. Contrary to the employee training on nutritional ideals, I never saw a bright green item served for lunch at the state funded daycare (unless canned grayish peas count), and there were countless days when everything served was a muted yellow or white.  I recall one particularly lackluster lunch of ramen noodles with a lumpy cream sauce, applesauce, a few pieces of canned chicken, and milk. State funded childcares qualify for federal food funding, but if they stay under their projected federal budget while ostensibly complying to nutritional guidelines–they can pocket the price difference. At the private center, the kids brought their own lunches and snacks. A guaranteed snack was also provided that was no different than the subsidized snacks: animal crackers, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies… I never saw an apple slice or carrot stick at either facility unless a child brought it from home or it was in the toy bin.

State funded childcares are required to have developmentally appropriate toys. This includes plastic kitchenettes with plastic food that inevitably ends up in 2 year old mouths. (How confusing since plastic food toys probably didn’t taste much different than real food served!)  There was miniature plastic furniture they are only allowed to sit on–yeah, right. At both places plastic boxes sat on shelves filled to the brim with plastic figurines. At the private facility, the toys were almost the exact same, except they had more. They also had an unlimited donated supply of old mobile and cell phones. In one employee training, it is explained that kids like to emulate adults, so we should provide plastic phones, computers, stoves…and food.  If we really want to encourage children to emulate their parents why not provide play areas where they can drop their kids off at overcrowded childcare centers that serve nutrient deficient foods?

I cringed when I entered the private facility’s 2 year old classroom to encounter toddlers hobbling around throwing old clunky cordless phones at each other. At both centers, the more is better philosophy reigned supreme when it came to toys. The outdoor play space at the state funded facility was inundated with old kitchenettes, wobbly shopping carts, and other cast off items. The private facility’s minimalist outdoor area was graced with white sand, swings and slides: one major difference between the two places for which I was grateful. But indoors, it was as if the sheer number of toys per classroom would make up for the chaos that otherwise ensued in facilities driven by irrational ratios, high employee turnover, and children’s hunger, thirst, and general anxiety/ depression.

Until childcare is perceived as a social necessity, chaos is sure to continue at most facilities driven by indefensible class size ratios and individual shameful greed. Sometime before the federal government shutdown overshadowed other policy discussions, Obama paid lip service to expanded, universal early childhood education.  But don’t be misled to think that this move will escape the same greedy talons of those education companies claiming the expertise to “redirect” K-12 public education today. It’s all part of a big immoral corporate grab. Parents and allies of the young, be very afraid.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. is an independent scholar doing ethnographic research on education in the Florida panhandle—for the time being.  She can be reached at [email protected].

The Childcare Nightmare

While I’m chasing eleven 2 year olds, who are buzzing on sugary breakfast food they were either given at home or at this state subsidized childcare facility, I’m hoping it doesn’t rain so we can go outside. I’m also trying to convince myself outdoors is better than indoors with this many kids. The playground is larger so it is harder to keep track of them outside where danger seems to lurk around each corner. Although childcare workers scan the playground early each morning for dangerous items–like the wood post with rusted nail that once made it into a child’s hands–the kids always manage to find danger. When I started this work, I never thought I would dread working with toddlers.  Now I can’t work under the current legally acceptable conditions at most local facilities for moral reasons. Welcome to the childcare work nightmare, where the light at the tunnel of your long days is barely visible through the sentimental or denial laden shadow cast on the concept of childcare (and the real shadow cast by your empty bank account).

It takes an unique set of circumstances to render outdoor time with children something to dread, but the “Learn and Grow Center” of northwest Florida, where I worked for a few months, did just that to me. Realizing I have nothing special to look forward to in my day– except the sometimes seductively quiet nap time–I am reduced to simply maintaining (the appearance of) classroom control. I do not want to lose my temper with these kids. It’s not their fault many have developed two primary childcare survival instincts: dog piling and biting. I am also trying not to say the word “no” every few seconds, instead using positive redirection while following my “lesson plan” tacked up on the classroom bulletin board. The schedule says “Circle Time” but from the look of things you would think it read “Dogpile Time.”

Quick, here comes the boss who drops by almost every day. I’ll put on the hokey pokey, grab a few hands, and look ecstatic–just like the hired models in childcare ads. If she walks in on a problem, like a bite attack, she’ll chalk it up to either my lack of toddler classroom experience or increased behavioral problems due to marital (financial) problems at the child’s home. I was initially impressed by my boss’ sensitivity toward her clientele, but now I scoff at her sensitive insights. After all, she keeps her own workers so underpaid they can’t even afford to keep their own kids in this, or any, childcare facility.

Crap. Cinder is about to tear up books at the reading corner. Remember, positive redirection–the behavioral mantra of the childcare industry. “Hey Cinder, I’m glad you like books, but everyone else is getting ready to go outside and play… Now’s not the best time to dump all of our…Cinder! It would be much nicer if…” Never mind Cinder. Jimmy just bit Alex on the cheek when I was “redirecting” Cinder, and now there’s an incident report to do. Furthermore, Nixen, who’s had diarrhea all week and should be at home, just blew a gasket all over his jeans. It seeped onto the floor where Ashley accidentally stepped in it with her silky white monogrammed Easter shoes. Her mother, who spends much of her meager paycheck on her daughter’s thematic holiday wardrobe, is going to complain to my supervisor later. I want this day to end early although I really need the money ($8.50/ hour), but this is the day I close. The fact that tomorrow someone else will be closing (which has me losing $10.00 that day) is the only comfort I can conjure up for myself here.

After my high school English teacher job in a special needs voucher school ended (see my previous post on Florida’s Vulturous Voucher Program), I decided to continue my field research on Florida education by going to the source of the problem: early childhood education. I wanted to work with 2 year olds since they are at such a challenging, formative age, so I took a job as a 2 year old classroom teacher at one of my town’s only state subsidized childcare centers. I went in like a dedicated soldier with a cause: I wanted to Montessori-cize and Waldorf-ize these childcare centers, giving poor kids what they deserve–an awesome head start. But it took only a week or so to realize that just because there’s a will doesn’t mean there’s a way. I may have only worked in one subsidized center, but when comparing notes with other workers who have worked at many more in their exhausting careers, I have concluded that what I encountered is generally the norm, not the exception. For contrast, I then worked at a non-subsidized private childcare center that caters to some of the county’s wealthier owning class families, including a prominent Republican politician’s family. “Class war at your childcare door,” I joked about my latest incarnation of employment. Although the private center had less behavioral problems, the same labor problems loomed at both venues due to a toxic combination of state standards and owners’ greed. Until we eliminate the profit motive in childcare, positive and progressive childcare experiences (and rewarding employment opportunities working with kids) will remain largely determined by parental incomes.

There’s a popular simplification that bad childcare environments emerge from government or individual negligence. Consider the premise of Jonathan Cohen’s widely circulated New Republic article, “The Hell of American Day Care”. This article uses an unusual–and highly sensationalistic–home care provider tragedy as a springboard to call for more childcare industry regulations and inspections. Jessica Tata was a licensed Texas home care provider who left sleeping children behind to make a Target run. She also accidentally left a pan of oil on a lit stove top. The pan caught fire, and while she was gone the house went up in flames–killing four out of seven children in her custody. Cohen’s example of home care neglect is quite an attention grabber, but it does little to illustrate the daily factors encumbering the achievement of accessible, quality childcare for millions.

One of these factors is the changing socio-economic roles of women. To be fair, Cohen’s article acknowledges the need for something women’s movements have always prioritized: affordable, quality childcare. There’s resistance to viewing childcare as work (as opposed to something done out of love by eager parents or family members), and this resistance translates into policy. That childcare responsibilities frequently fall to women presents further complications as more women’s economic roles have changed in the post-war decades. Cohen’s answer of more childcare facility inspections works well for the inevitable panic after an unimaginable horrific event, like a childcare fire, occurs. But it does little to address the insidious structural neglect that is the hallmark of childcare culture in America. Sensationalizing these problems by focusing on unusual accidents distract us from key mundane factors such as classroom ratios, set by state governments, that spawn related profiteering practices.

Irrational Ratios: Eleven 2 Year Olds??!!

Usually, when the topic of poor quality in an occupation arises, logic suggests raising wages produces worker incentives. But the childcare nightmare is not simply about inducing worker motivation through compensation. Because it’s our precious angels we’re serving to hardworking parents, not a bucket of fried chicken we’re serving to hungry customers, childcare wages usually hover just over minimum wage. And don’t get me wrong, more money would help the problem. But childcare struggles would still exist if the hourly wage was higher simply because optimal conditions required to successfully do the work are lacking at so many facilities.

In my experience, classroom ratios are the main source of the childcare nightmare. (Meanwhile, websites like http://www.classsizematters.org devote resources to arguing the same thing about K-12 education.) Most childcare struggles I perceived emerged from the fact that both facilities kept to the maximum number of children legally allowed in each classroom. This is a big problem; Florida allows the jaw-dropping number of eleven 2 year-olds to one childcare teacher. Eleven terrible 2′s! And they are learning to go to the bathroom and talk at this sensitive age: taught largely by workers.

Consider one coworker case study. The private childcare where I worked employed Hannah, a dedicated 2 year old teacher who keeps a clean classroom, communicates well with parents, and pays out of pocket for her own carefully thought out supplies and activities. Hannah makes $9.50/ hour–which is at the high end of the county’s childcare wage spectrum. But the fact that Hannah makes more than her colleagues at other facilities doesn’t overshadow that she manages a “classroom” of eleven toddlers in the process of learning to talk and use the toilet. Some don’t talk really well, some yell. Some can go on their own already and some haven’t figured out that they should poop sitting down. We have quiet standing up poopers, talkative panty wearers, and about every other imaginable combination. Over time, because of ratios, a relatively higher paying position at an “elite” facility didn’t deter Hannah from walking off the job without notice. Exasperated, she just up and quit one day!

Inter-Classroom Rationing: Someone’s Going Home

Childcare facility owners and supervisors choose to enforce the maximum classroom ratios–the root evil in this industry. These irrational ratios breed another common practice that can be avoided by simple administrative principles of fairness to employees and children: inter-classroom rationing. At both facilities, the supervisors’ main objective was to monitor the number of children in the room, shifting them to other rooms with the goal of taking a teacher off the clock. (This practice ensures worker hours are never absolutely guaranteed unless you are in some kind of favor with management.) If the private childcare had a low turnout one day, the supervisor would also move children to eventually create an empty classroom. The main difference between the two facilities was that the private facility supervisor wasn’t as frantic about this as the state funded facility supervisor.

Moving children was the main vibe of my interactions with my state funded supervisor. “How many ya got?” she would bark at me as I meandered my way outside with always eleven (sometimes more) toddlers in tow. Yes, we were sometimes over ratio– an occurrence only to be avoided because of surprise state inspections, not out of fairness to me or the children involved! If I was momentarily under ratio it wouldn’t last long before the Shifty-Eyed Bean Counter supervisor would show up with more children from another classroom: they were always moving kids away from continuity with their teachers, peers, and a familiar classroom space. When arriving to work each day, no childcare worker automatically knows how many children will be there or the duration of each child’s stay. Creative managers could do something really cool in this instance: they could acknowledge how hard the work is and send a worker home early– with pay. But the owner would never have that!

When I first worked in childcare, I marveled at inter-classroom rationing because it contradicts all common sense. It also contradicts the core child development philosophy encountered in state required on-line employee training courses that workers usually pay for themselves. Remember, these are children, not buckets of fried chicken, so childcare workers need to accomplish 40 hrs. of outside training within a year.  Amid poverty, a chaotic schedule, and exhaustion otherwise, the state’s idealistic childcare philosophies are espoused to the low-wage workers already in the daily trenches. Childcare workers are required to suffer through pedantic, often hilariously cliche and idealistic, on-line courses (although not everyone has access to home computers!), and then carve out weekend morning time to be tested in person. The carrot dangling at the end of that stick is a possible, not always guaranteed, small wage increase once coursework has been completed.

Childcare teachers are expected to institute premeditated lesson plans and develop bonds with the children assigned to their classrooms. But this proves extremely difficult when a supervisor interrupts circle time to move children around. At the state funded facility, nap time was pure chaos because workers were breaking for lunch and you could have one or more children from another classroom. Somehow they ended up in your room for nap time and they need pacifiers and blankets stored in another room. They’re balling their eyes out, but no one is around to help at the moment except you. On a busy or under-staffed day, a worker may not get her own bathroom break. Adult diapers aren’t an option here: too expensive!

Plastic Food

Another profiteering practice at both facilities is providing cheap bland food that is almost the nutritional equivalent of the abundant plastic toys that graced both classrooms. Contrary to the employee training on nutritional ideals, I never saw a bright green item served for lunch at the state funded daycare (unless canned grayish peas count), and there were countless days when everything served was a muted yellow or white.  I recall one particularly lackluster lunch of ramen noodles with a lumpy cream sauce, applesauce, a few pieces of canned chicken, and milk. State funded childcares qualify for federal food funding, but if they stay under their projected federal budget while ostensibly complying to nutritional guidelines–they can pocket the price difference. At the private center, the kids brought their own lunches and snacks. A guaranteed snack was also provided that was no different than the subsidized snacks: animal crackers, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies… I never saw an apple slice or carrot stick at either facility unless a child brought it from home or it was in the toy bin.

State funded childcares are required to have developmentally appropriate toys. This includes plastic kitchenettes with plastic food that inevitably ends up in 2 year old mouths. (How confusing since plastic food toys probably didn’t taste much different than real food served!)  There was miniature plastic furniture they are only allowed to sit on–yeah, right. At both places plastic boxes sat on shelves filled to the brim with plastic figurines. At the private facility, the toys were almost the exact same, except they had more. They also had an unlimited donated supply of old mobile and cell phones. In one employee training, it is explained that kids like to emulate adults, so we should provide plastic phones, computers, stoves…and food.  If we really want to encourage children to emulate their parents why not provide play areas where they can drop their kids off at overcrowded childcare centers that serve nutrient deficient foods?

I cringed when I entered the private facility’s 2 year old classroom to encounter toddlers hobbling around throwing old clunky cordless phones at each other. At both centers, the more is better philosophy reigned supreme when it came to toys. The outdoor play space at the state funded facility was inundated with old kitchenettes, wobbly shopping carts, and other cast off items. The private facility’s minimalist outdoor area was graced with white sand, swings and slides: one major difference between the two places for which I was grateful. But indoors, it was as if the sheer number of toys per classroom would make up for the chaos that otherwise ensued in facilities driven by irrational ratios, high employee turnover, and children’s hunger, thirst, and general anxiety/ depression.

Until childcare is perceived as a social necessity, chaos is sure to continue at most facilities driven by indefensible class size ratios and individual shameful greed. Sometime before the federal government shutdown overshadowed other policy discussions, Obama paid lip service to expanded, universal early childhood education.  But don’t be misled to think that this move will escape the same greedy talons of