The case for non-violence in Israel-Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although violence is all too often the path of least resistance, Israelis and Palestinians urgently need to navigate a peaceful path out of the quagmire.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 20 October 2016

Two recent incidents in Gaza demonstrated the stark choices being made by those opposed to the Israeli blockade of the territory: the way of the olive branch or of the bomb.

The first involved a group of 13 courageous international peace activists, all of whom were women, including an Irish Nobel peace laureate, a former South African Olympic athlete and a retired American colonel. They were on board a small yacht with the grand name of the Zaytouna-Olivia flotilla, which sought “to break the blockade and celebrate on the shores of Gaza,” according to Wendy Goldsmith, a Canadian on board. Instead, and as was expected, the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla while it was still in international waters and forced it to dock in Ashdod.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown Salafist group fired a rocket into Israel, which landed claiming no casualties, in the name of their “oppressed brothers and sisters” living under Israeli occupation. As has become routine in such incidents, Israel struck back hard with its superior firepower, bombing numerous targets in Gaza, also with no casualties.

But neither of these incidents would have occurred had Israel and Hamas reached a fair deal to lift the blockade on Gaza.

For all the efforts of mediators and go-betweens and all the reports of planned or indirect negotiations, there has been little or no perceptible change to the status quo since the ceasefire of 26 August 2014, except for the continually deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in besieged Gaza. War has cost the Strip at least three times its annual GDP and the Israeli blockade has shrunk the economy to a quarter of the size it would have been.

Even these pitiful efforts to carry out a dialogue have been condemned by the hawks, such as far-right Israeli politicians, including current Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and fringe militant groups in Gaza, who prefer war-war to jaw-jaw. Sadly, the ingredients for an explosive new war are packed into a rapidly decaying toxic status quo; all that is missing is the spark.

At the core of the Gaza quagmire is a fundamental misunderstanding of what war and political violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Whenever violence flares up or war unleashes its ugly devastation, Israeli and Palestinian hawks take wing to persuade large portions of their populations that there is no choice but to take up arms and that, this time, a decisive blow, which never actually materialises, will be dealt to the enemy and victory assured.

This attitude is particularly prevalent when it comes to Gaza. For instance, the 2014 war enjoyed almost universal support in Israel, as did the earlier 2012 conflict.

On the other side of the divide, not only did a majority of Palestinians believe, shortly after the end of the 2014 war, the Hamas rhetoric that it had defeated Israel, 86% supported the resumption of rocket attacks if Israel did not lift its blockade of Gaza.

This jingoistic attitude was not just the statistical quirk of overzealous pollsters but reflected a palpable reality. I was taken aback by the antagonism and hostility expressed by normally sensible and moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices I knew, or the wave of attacks my criticism of the war and my advocacy of non-violence provoked at the time.

And these polls hint at one war aim that is never publicly articulated. Both Hamas and the Israeli government may shoot at each other, but these are only proxy targets for the enemy they seem to hate even more than the other side: the Israeli left and centre, on the one hand, and Fatah and the non-Islamist parties, on the other. There’s nothing like a war to silence Netanyahu’s and Hamas’s critics and boost their popularity – at least for as long as the war lasts.

Beyond the cynical manipulation of fear and hatred for short-term gain, there also exists a fundamental misunderstanding of the other side’s mentality – and of human nature itself. There is a widespread conviction among Israelis and Palestinians that the other side only understands the language of violence and, hence, the only way to get them to prick up their ears is to give them a bloody nose, or worse.

But all this achieves is that it breeds a surfeit of bitterness, hatred and outrage on the other side – and the greater the devastation, the greater the resulting determination to seek vengeance. Peaceful resistance and activism, on the other hand, are far more powerful weapons, as was demonstrated by the flotilla.

While the Salafist rocket unlawfully targeting civilians provoked destructive airstrikes and gave Israel a fig leaf for its militarism and unjust blockade, the flotilla caught the entire world’s eye and made Israel look like a bully. This may help explain why some on the Israeli right seem to fear peaceful activism more than violent extremism.

Paradoxically, although this cyclical violence almost invariably fails, its credibility remains undiminished. This is because every shot fired at the enemy eliminates the doves at home who are either shot down in the crossfire or morph into hawks. Bloodshed also strengthens the hands of extremists and fragments the political landscape, until violence becomes the path of least resistance, rather than last resort.

However, if Israelis and Palestinians are to consider abandoning the way of the sword and pursue the way of the word, this moral murkiness and relativism needs to be abandoned by the people who should constitute society’s living conscience.

Just as the ingredients for devastating, outright war are there awaiting yet another spark, the components for navigating a relatively non-violent path out of the impasse are also in place.

Despite the impulse of closing ranks during times of war, a minority of Israeli and Palestinian activists and individual citizens opposed both Israel and Hamas during the Gaza war. Enduring allegations of being sellouts and traitors, not to mention threats to their person, some went as far as to make their criticism public in a number of small anti-war protests.

In addition, movements like Combatants for Peace (which was the subject of a moving documentary), which brings together Israeli and Palestinian refuseniks, reject violence perpetuated by both sides and believe not only that the occupation must be resisted peacefully but that it must be actively opposed by Israelis of conscience as much as it is by Palestinians.

And despite the risks involved and the increasingly shrill opposition to co-operation and co-resistance, Palestinians and Israelis of conscience continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against the occupation in myriad ways, from collaborations to improve daily life to the weekly joint protests in villages like Bil’in.

I regularly pass and, on occasion have joined, the small group of joint protesters in Sheikh Jarrah who come together every Friday, come rain or heatwave, violence or quiet, to oppose in silence the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem.

So long as these courageous, determined voices remain, no matter how relatively few, hope will continue to flicker. However, I, like so many disillusioned observers, fear that its weak heat may be extinguished, with the worst-case scenario being a multi-fronted Syria-like conflict, involving not just war between Israelis and Palestinians, but also violent civil conflict within each society, as growing polarisation and animosity tears them apart.

Nevertheless, I still hold out hope. As war and violence continue to prove their ineffectiveness, the ranks of those seeking a peaceful alternative path to peace will likely swell over the coming years.  Their power will be unwittingly amplified by the crumbling of the ossified occupation. Although it may appear solid and durable today, the reality of the occupation is more that of a wall of cards than an impenetrable fortress.

As has occurred so many times in the past, once enough people decide, together, to act as a popular opposition, it will be enough to bring the edifice crashing down. This will clear the way for a future founded on, rather than undermining, the potential of two gifted and diverse peoples.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 6 October 2016.

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Lieberman, Netanyahu and Dr Strangelove

 
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The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister is like the plot of a nihlistic black comedy.

Image design: Khaled Diab

Image design: Khaled Diab

Thursday 9 June 2016

To Arabs, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister sounds like it could be the plotline of a 21st-century Israeli adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s classic, Dr Strangelove, but without the laughs.

After all, this is a politician who has casually suggested, on a number of occasions, that Israel should bomb the Aswan High Dam, reportedly for what he perceived as Egypt’s  support of Yasser Arafat and the, at the time, hypothetical redeployment of Egyptian troops to the demilitarized Sinai.

If I were someone who took the statements of politicians at face value, then this threat would terrify me. If by bombing, Lieberman meant the destruction of the dam, then that would likely lead to the certain death of millions of my compatriots, including family and friends, who would be swept away in a huge tsunami-like tidal wave.

Even though such destruction is impossible short of multiple nuclear strikes, engineers say, this has become Lieberman’s most famous and infamous outburst in Egypt, given its genocidal implications, with most articles in the Egyptian media about his new position mentioning it.

Another Egyptian media fixation is on Lieberman’s brief “career” as a nightclub bouncer, suggesting that Moldovan immigrant is some kind of brainless thug. While certainly thuggish, he is highly intelligent and shrewd. After all, his stint as a bouncer was while he was a student at the Hebrew University and he guarded the doors of a student club.

Lieberman, whose writer father imbued him with a love of Russian literature, once reportedly dreamed of becoming a poet. And like numerous frustrated artists before him who turned to extremist politics, one can only wonder how much better things would have been for Lieberman and the world had he made it as a writer.

Of course, few Egyptians have taken seriously Lieberman’s threat to undam the forces of annihilation on their country. However, the fact that Lieberman’s past statements are coming back to haunt him reflect that words are not just empty sounds that travel no further than the echo chamber of Yisrael Beiteinu supporters.

His bomb-laden bombast is, nevertheless, more than simple bluster, it reflects a deeper malaise: Lieberman’s ideological and instinctive hatred of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. This is reflected in his consistently hawkish stance, which seems, for instance, to have tipped the balance towards outright war in Gaza in 2014, through Lieberman’s rivalry with Netanyahu and his constant mockery of the prime minister as a weakling unwilling to use sufficient force.

And it is this radical streak which troubles Egyptian and Arab commentators the most. Lieberman has, over the years, demanded that Israel go to war not only with Gaza, but also to exercise extreme violence against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Palestinian prisoners. He has also advocated the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their towns to a future Palestinian state, demanded professions of “loyalty” from Arabs in Israel and suggested that those who are “disloyal” should be beheaded.

This has raised fears among many Arab observers that Lieberman will exploit his defence portfolio to advance a belligerent, militaristic approach that will pull Netanyahu’s already extremist government to the outermost reaches of the far-right.

Some analysts are convinced that by handing over Israel’s army to Lieberman, Binyamin Netanyahu is deftly torpedoing the latest Arab peace overtures, this time coming from Egypt, not to mention international efforts, namely from France, without putting himself directly in the firing line.

Just days before the announcement was first made, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi extended a hand to Israel, promising a “warmer peace” if Israel would only “resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers”.

This led some commentators to view the apparently unhinged choice of Lieberman for the defence portfolio as a move intended to humiliate Sisi and the Arab League. “[Israel] is sticking its tongue out to all the Arabs,” Hassan Nafie, an Egyptian professor of political science, was quoted as saying. “Israel sees peace initiatives as coming from a position of weakness and surrender.”

However, for many Arabs, and especially Palestinians, Lieberman is simply a case of “business as usual”. “They are all Lieberman,” wrote Palestinian journalist Awni Sadiq in reference to Netanyahu and his far-right coalition.

Some see any change of personnel as irrelevant because Netanyahu, the nearest Israel has come to a dictator and whose endless tenure reflects the wisdom of term limits imposed elsewhere in the world, ultimately calls the shots. “At the end of the day, it is Netanyahu who decides more than anyone what is Israel’s policy in war and in peace,” wrote Ashraf al-Arjami in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.

While I comprehend the depths of Palestinian disillusionment at settlement expansion, movement restrictions and the long series of extremist governments from which this attitude emanates, I can’t help feeling that it is misguided. Although it is possible that it will be business as usual and, charged with actual security authority, Lieberman will learn to temper his ultra-extremism, but we must not underestimate his potential to cause enormous damage.

With the defence ministry at his mercy, Lieberman may well exert every effort to neutralise the Israeli army’s newfound role as pragmatic moderator and conscience to a civilian leadership that has lost its grasp of reality and now occupies a (self-)destructive bubble.

This is reflected in Lieberman’s bill to reintroduce the death penalty for Palestinians convicted on terrorism charges, while his open support of a soldier caught on film murdering in cold blood an incapacitated stabber in Hebron suggests that the practice of extra-judicial execution of Palestinian attackers is likely to escalate under his watch.

As we approach the second anniversary of the last Gaza war, and as tensions between Israel and Hamas rise, another war could be in the making. And, sadly, with Lieberman at the helm, the devastation and bloodletting of the next bout could potentially make the 2014 war seem like a minor skirmish.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 2 June 2016.

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Netanyahu and the Middle East: The risky business of “business as usual”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu’s re-election promises “business as usual”. But this is an extremely risky venture on the Iranian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian fronts.

'Business as usual' following Netanyahu's re-election is a risky venture.  Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

‘Business as usual’ following Netanyahu’s re-election is a risky venture.
Image: https://twitter.com/netanyahu/status/572859186972766209

Monday 30 March 2015

Despite the hope of change entertained by the Israeli left, the recent elections in Israel have confirmed Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud as the largest party.

As Netanyahu strives to cobble together a hard-right coalition – against the earlier wishes of President Reuven Rivlin who wanted a “national unity” government – he is driving yet another nail into the coffin of the two-state solution, as the settlement juggernaut continues its unstoppable momentum, further derailing the prospects for peace.

The future looks bleak for the Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians in the West Bank are likely to see more of their land disappear under the foundations of new settlements and more of their civil rights trampled under the boots of the occupation.

In Israel and Jerusalem, the rising tide of anti-Arab sentiment is likely to surge in light of the clear race-baiting that occurred during the elections. One notorious incident involved Netanyahu, who tried to get right-wingers to flock to voting stations by tapping into their deepest anxieties and prejudices with his warning that “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls.” Earlier, outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded like a wannabe recruit to the Islamic State (ISIS) when he suggested that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

But the massing dark clouds have contained some slivers of silver lining. Despite the grim mood in progressive circles, some Israeli leftists are consoling themselves that, collectively, the left has become a little stronger in this election and the right has weakened.

Some Palestinian commentators and observers believe that Netanyahu, with his explicit dismissal of the two-state solution and his vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, will force the West to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take more robust action to bring about a resolution.

While there are plenty of signs of disappointment, anger and soul-searching in Washington and other Western capitals – which are bound to grow in light of the latest Israeli spying scandal – it is not a foregone conclusion that anything fundamental will change. The USA and Europe may find a novel way to fudge the issues, while paying lip service to the long-deceased peace process. Another possibility is that Washington and the EU may simply disengage from the process, as they fight fires elsewhere.

Galvanised by their increasingly embattled position and right-wing efforts to sideline them politically, the long-divided Arab parties in Israel joined forces, with spectacular results. Under the charismatic and conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh, who also tried to reach out to Jewish voters, the Joint List managed the unprecedented feat of becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.

With the ongoing Israelisation of the occupied territories and international inaction, on the one hand, and growing Palestinian rights-based activism, on the other, the next Knesset could mark a turning point for the conflict in which the two-state option is abandoned in favour of a civil rights struggle for the foreseeable future.

In the wider region, Netanyahu’s re-election is likely to spell “business as usual”, short of some radical, unexpected upheaval. The Middle East is caught up in other crises, such as the civil war in Syria, the continued unravelling of Iraq, Arab-Iranian rivalry, the growing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), and now the war in Yemen, as well as simple survival for most of the region’s regimes.

In such a climate, Netanyahu offers Middle Eastern leaders a form of perceived stability, in the shape of the “devil you know”. Arab leaders will occasionally condemn Israeli excesses and urge Netanyahu to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative, but inaction will be the norm.

However, the status quo is extremely volatile, and so “business as usual” could easily lead to more Israeli-Palestinian violence and war, as witnessed last summer, which could quite easily spiral out of control next time.

Israel’s war against Hamas plays well in places like Egypt, where the once-allied Muslim Brotherhood has been demonised, persecuted, banned and declared a “terrorist organisation”. When it comes to Iran, Israeli, Saudi and Iranian hardliners, though for different reasons, find themselves bizarre and coincidental allies of convenience in their opposition to a possible nuclear deal.

Regionally, it is the Iran-Israel axis that is potentially the most volatile and unpredictable. Though both sides have thus far limited their animosity to the rhetorical sphere and proxy clashes, this contained confrontation carries the risk of spinning out of control.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a new far-right government in Israel will seek to deflect internal opposition and dissent, as well as divert Western attention, by ratcheting up the public fear quotient of the “existential threat” posed by the Ayatollahs.

Likewise, in Iran, hardliners may try to derail the cautious and conciliatory path being pursued by Hassan Rouhani, and undermine his more moderate presidency, possibly by painting him as an appeaser of America and Israel.

This is likely to happen as elections to select a new Assembly of Experts and a new parliament in 2016 loom ever closer. With the ailing Ayotollah Ali Khamenei and his latest powerful conservative ally, the new leader of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, determined to block moderates, Rouhani’s job is likely to get much tougher.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would help to reduce this pressure by giving Rouhani a visible victory and enabling Iran’s staggering economy to recover. However, this is opposed by Netanyahu and influential Republican hardliners in Washington.

It is my view that Iran can gain the upper hand and the moral high ground by abandoning its nuclear ambitions in favour of solar and other renewable energies. If the only reason Iran is carrying out nuclear research is truly to ensure its energy security and prepare for its post-oil future, then renewables are much more promising.

Nuclear power is not only dirty, dangerous and extremely expensive, investing in it will make Iran forever dependent on others, both for the supply of raw materials and for technology. With an abundant supply of sunshine, Iran can be self-sufficient in solar power. In addition, if it diverts the billions it is investing in nuclear energy to renewables, it can quickly become a regional leader in this extremely important and profitable emerging sector, and perhaps eventually even a global one.

But pride at backing down to Western pressure, paranoia, nuclear envy, and hardline pressure make this path improbable, at best.

For its part, to avoid the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, whether with Iran or an Arab country spurred to catch up, Israel should enter its own nuclear arsenal into earnest negotiations for a WMD-free region – an offer that the rest of the region has had on the table for decades.

But pride, paranoia, existential angst and the fear of being seen to back down make this scenario too extremely unlikely.

Though “business as usual” is the path of least resistance on the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Iranian axes, they are also risky enterprises as the old equilibriums shift.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 25 March 2015.

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The mystery of Arab joy at Netanyahu’s re-election

 
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By Khaled Diab

When Netanyahu’s election victory was declared, rather than grieve, Arabs in Israel were out on the streets celebrating. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Dashing the hopes and wishes of the Israeli centre and left, the rightwing Likud party came out as the top party in the country’s notoriously fractured political system, which would give those of Italy and Belgium a run for their money.

Despite the depressing prospect of another Netanyahu-led hard-right coalition, rather than mourning, Palestinians in Israel are in a celebratory mood. In the northern city of Nazareth, for example, motorists beeped their horns as if on their way to a wedding.

The reason for their apparently paradoxical jubilation had nothing to do with the Likud or Netanyahu but was related to the unprecedentedly strong showing of the Arab-dominated Joint List. “This is an excellent result because it represent a renewed vote of confidence from Arab citizens to their representatives,” reflected a friend from Nazareth.

And two men were to thank for this “vote of confidence” and the large Arab turnout following years of apathy.

One was Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. The outgoing foreign minister initiated legislation to raise the electoral threshold which was widely interpreted as a bid to muscle out Arab parties, who tend to draw fewer votes than their Jewish rivals, from the Knesset. This, along with his and the far-right’s vitriolic anti-Arab rhetoric, pushed these small parties to form an unlikely alliance, the Joint List, between Palestinian nationalists, Arab and Jewish progressives, not to mention Islamists.

The other was the lawyer-turned-politician from Haifa, Ayman Odeh, who came from relative obscurity to lead a charismatic campaign for the Joint List which had some observers describing him as the most exciting Arab politician in the Middle East.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” explained Ayman Odeh in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

And with Arabs making up the bulk of Israel’s under-privileged, the Joint List has devised a 10-year plan to close the socio-economic gap between them and the mainstream. “We intend to march on Jerusalem… to raise awareness of our 10-year plan and demand justice and democracy,” Odeh declared, echoing civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King.

Another important plank is strident opposition to the occupation in an Israel apathetic towards its subjugation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and fixated on “managing” the conflict. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” Odeh observed.

It is unclear how successful the Joint List can be in its declared goals when faced with a possible ultra-nationalist rightwing coalition or a status-quo-friendly “national unity” government. But one thing is clear: the Joint List’s success at the ballot box has finally and belatedly put Palestinians in Israel on the political map in which they may end up leading the opposition.

This carries the potential of being a game-changer and future historians may look back at this time as being the turning point when the Palestinian struggle began to morph into a civil rights movement.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Corriere della Serra on 19 March 2015.

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Voting for Palestinian liberation

 
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By Khaled Diab

Active and effective Arab political participation in the next Knesset can be a game changer, shifting the Palestinian struggle towards civil rights.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

In the run-up to the Israeli elections, media speculation focused on whether or not the voute would help or hinder the quest for peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Personally, I didn’t expect the ballot to have any profound effects on the status quo of the headline conflict. However, missing from this equation, as so often is the case, was what the elections mean for Israel’s Arab minority, which constitutes a full fifth of the country’s population.

At first sight, their situation appears to be the very definition of a no-win situation. “I have yet to make a decision regarding which would be the best of two evils – a Zionist Camp government or a Netanyahu government,” Mimas Abdelhai, a young university student from al-Tirah, which lies in what is known as the “Arab triangle”, told me before the election. “The more racist the Israeli government gets, the more the international arena understands Palestinian suffering.”

This reflects the widely held conviction among Palestinian-Israelis that, when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizens, the main difference between the Israeli centre(-left) and the right is one of honesty. This broad-based anti-Arabism manifested itself, among other things, in the recent witch hunt against Balad Knesset member Haneen Zoabi.

Many Palestinian citizens of Israel with whom I spoke felt torn about the issue of casting a ballot. “I haven’t decided if I’m going to vote or not, but previously my idea was that we all should boycott the elections, and stop giving Israel the image of being a ‘democracy’ it markets to the world,” said Sahar Issawi, who is from the north but works for an NGO in Jerusalem.

Drawing on traditional Arab anti-normalisation rhetoric, there are those who urged Palestinians not to vote. Describing casting a ballot as “an effective stamp of approval for Israel’s discriminatory regime,” Haifa-based activist Waad Ghantous called for an Arab boycott of the election and the construction of “shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression”.

With incendiary, rightwing anti-Arab racism at fever pitch – such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent suggestion that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe” – it is understandable that Palestinians in Israel should feel the urge to reject rejection.

However, it is my conviction that the only thing worse than voting is not voting. While voting in elections for a Knesset which they feel actively isolates them may seem like folly, not voting is reckless because it would effectively involve Arab voters exiling themselves into self-imposed isolation, leaving the arena wide open for the far right to continue its campaign of creeping disenfranchisement.

Instead, Israel’s Palestinian minority should use its demographic strength to force Israel to sit up and take notice. “I intend to vote,” insists Amir Ounallah, a Haifa-based IT entrepreneur. “I want Israelis to realise… that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East.”

And the higher Arab voter turnout (63.5% v 56% in 2013), combined with the joining of forces between Arab parties under the umbrella of the Joint List, has certainly caused the Israeli mainstream to take note, both positively and negatively, as reflected in Netanyahu’s scaremongering tactic to draw rightwing voters by claiming: ” “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

The Joint List, an improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish leftists and Islamists, was formed out of a recognition of the growing common threat facing Palestinians in Israel. Active participation in the political process may help block the raft of discriminatory legislation which the Knesset has been passing recently, the latest of which is the draft “Jewish state” basic law.

“All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble,” the eloquent head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh of the communist-leaning Jewish-Arab Hadash party, said in an interview prior to the vote.

In Israel’s notoriously fractured political landscape, the relatively high Arab voter turnout has ensured that the Joint List is now in the unprecendented position of being Israel’s third largest party, which was forecasted by most pre-election polls.

But electoral success is unlikely to have any effect on the fundamentals of the situation, many fear. “Since the United List will have no impact, to my mind, whatsoever on Israeli politics, it will enhance and accelerate the search for an alternative strategy for the Palestinians,” Ilan Pappé, the ground-breaking Israeli historian and activist, told me.

Personally, I believe that high-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation Arabs, who are one of the poorest segments of society, endure in Israel.

In addition, with the Oslo blueprint for a two-state solution looking more and more like an illusion or even a delusion, I believe that the struggle for equality being waged by Israel’s Arab minority could point the way to the future.

Like Pappé, I think the most effective, and perhaps only, path forward to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a civil rights struggle. In my book, I call this the “non-state” solution, in which talk of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a joint Arab-Jewish struggle for human rights and human dignity.

This would involve Jerusalemite Palestinians, West Bankers and Gazans following the lead of their brethren in Israel, and joining forces with them, to demand full rights and equality under the Israeli system.

Once this is achieved, then a popular peace process involving everyone can be launched with the aim of forging a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 March 2015.

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Gaza’s forsaken and forgotten people

 
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Gaza’s humanitarian disaster and the rising tensions there are forgotten by the world. Principle and pragmatism demand an end to the blockade.

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rockets. Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound arms shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It has also uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which says could’ve been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40%, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80% of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

Personally, I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it.

The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide iron-cast assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas.

But Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement – including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 – have only strengthened its grip on power.

Besides, even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel and Egypt’s security he concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”. “I also want to make a strong appeal for export to resume because the lack of export is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

If the  status quo stays in place, the ever worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in The National on 2 April 2014.

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Israeli elections: When there’s nothing left to lose

 
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With Israel expected to elect its most right-wing government ever, what can progressive Arab and Jewish voters do to challenge the status quo?

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Polls predict that Israel’s ultra-nationalist and religious right will walk away with Tuesday’s elections, and that the subsequent coalition may well be even further to the right than the current one.

A dispassionate perusal of Israel’s situation would reveal the urgent and desperate need to narrow and bridge the growing gap in Israel between the have-loads and the have-nots and to build bridges across the enormous chasm separating Israelis from Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories.

Yet the right seems bent on widening these splits with its hardcore nationalistic discourse, the casual racism of many of its leaders and its determination to further entrench and broaden the settlement enterprise.

It is distressing and depressing to witness Israel’s continued drift to the right. This is reflected in how parties which were once considered rightwing are now regarded as centrist and in how quickly the “loony” fringe parties become mainstream, as embodied in the meteoric rise of HaBayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett and in how Avigdor Lieberman, who once famously called for the bombing of Egypt’s high dam and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, managed to become Israel’s face to the outside world.

The hardening of the right, mixed with the weakness and disarray of the left, has resulted in massive disillusionment and alienation in the ranks of Palestinian-Israelis and, albeit to a lesser extent, among progressive Israeli Jews, many of whom have “defected” rightwards.

This has translated into widespread apathy towards Tuesday’s vote, with surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters will cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. Expressing a widespread sentiment in his community, one voter from Umm al-Fahm explained the reasons for his abstention: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

Even many of the politically aware and young who are as comfortable, sometimes more so, in Hebrew as in Arabic, feel there is nothing left to vote for.

“I don’t believe I will be voting in these upcoming elections,” admits Mimas Abdel-Hay, a student of government at a private Israeli institution, despite having recently become a political representative for a new party called Hope for Change. “Although this might show weakness or indecisiveness, I never felt like I had a say.”

Faced with such a bleak political landscape, is there anything progressive Arabs and Jews in Israel can do to challenge or protest against the status quo?

Rather than simply abstaining as individuals from voting, some Palestinians in Israel have actively called for a collective boycott of the vote.

But whether it is understandable disillusionment at their growing marginalisation or principle that keeps Arab voters away, I personally believe the only thing worse than participating in this unrepresentative electoral fight is not participating.

While mainstream Israeli parties are largely ignoring the Arab electorate, Arab politicians, as well as the joint Jewish-Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), have been working to convince sceptical voters to turn out on Tuesday and make their voices count.

“In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote. In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life… In only one thing there is equal rights: the day of the election,” Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List said in an interview.

“A boycott now is an act of weakness, not an act of active struggle. We would be out of politics,” asserts Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party, the first woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, despite having experienced efforts to disqualify her from the current elections.

Although television producer Hamodie Abonadda will not be voting for Balad but rather Hadash, his assessment of the consequences of staying away from the elections is similar to Zoabi’s. “Not voting is a very harsh statement one makes when living in an environment of equality,” he maintains.

Abonadda describes Palestinians in Israel as being victims twice over: of exclusion by the Israeli political establishment and then of being blamed for the apathy and indifference this engenders. “This has made the victim guilty of being a victim… The 1948 Arabs must stop being the victim and rise up and change the Israeli reality with their votes,” he urges.

But this raises the tricky issue of who to vote for. Like progressive Jews, many Arabs in Israel feel poorly represented by the parties that speak in their name. While many Arab politicians focus their attention on nationalistic questions and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a  survey by Haifa University found that 57% of Palestinian-Israeli voters were most concerned with “bread and butter” issues, such as welfare, discrimination and rising crime, while only 8% cited the conflict.

Some also describe discourse as a challenge. “The problem I have is with the way the Arab politicians reach out to the Israeli public. They never speak in a way the Israelis can relate to or understand,” believes Mimas Abdel-Hay. “We are a minority, and in order to be heard, we have to play this game wisely,” she suggests.

“Playing the game wisely” should involve finding common cause with likeminded Israeli Jews as part of a broader struggle for greater socio-economic equality between not only Jews and Arabs, but also within Jewish society itself.

One politician out to do just that is Asma Agbarieh, leader of the socialist, Arab-Jewish Da’am party, who is the first Arab woman to head a party in Israel and has been enthusiastically heralded by some as the “new hope” for the Israeli left.

Her vision? “To talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, social justice. They thought I was dreaming, that all Arabs hate Jews and all Jews hate Arabs. And I know that’s not true. At a certain point, because reality is crushing you, because it empties your pockets and kills your children, you start to think,” Agbarieh told Haaretz in an interview.

And, although Da’am attracted less than 3,000 votes in 2009, Agbarieh’s message is finding resonance and has caused a surprisingly large number of people to “start to think”.

“I’m pretty captivated by her and her charismatic activities and ideas,” confesses Harvey Stein, an Israeli-American filmmaker based in Jerusalem. “I think Jews and Arabs must come together to fight those things – the question is, how can this feeling that me and a small group of people are feeling become popular enough to be politically meaningful?”

For Stein, the litmus test will be whether Da’am can gain enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and win even one seat in the Knesset. Up until recently, this seemed like a big ask, but the ground seems to be slowly shifting in Agbarieh’s favour.

But even if Da’am does win a seat in the Knesset, what difference will that make, some may rightfully ask?

In my view, a small victory like this will have enormous symbolic significance: for the first time, a Palestinian woman will be leading an elected Israeli party on a joint Jewish-Arab platform.

This, along with other joint action, could help improve the socio-economic situation of the marginalised in Israeli society, whether Arab or Jewish, especially if Jerusalemite Palestinians overcome their reservations and also start demanding their right to vote. It could also slowly redefine the conflict and pave the way to its eventual resolution from the grassroots up.

 

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 21 January 2013.

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