One year on: Gaza, life with hard labour

 
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By Khaled Diab

With rubble Gaza’s only growth industry, people are unable to pick up the pieces of their broken lives, face psychological ruin and dream of escape.

Gaza's rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza’s rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 10 July 2015

You can call them rubble rousers. Unlike the iconic image of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, these destitute men have found a new calling: navigating the many ruins of Gaza created by last summer’s war. With heavy hammers and pick axes, they smash away the concrete from around the steel rods, which are too valuable for the owners to allow these rummagers to take.

A train of horse- and donkey-drawn carriages makes its way to an industrial crusher that recycles Gaza’s rubble into gravel which can be used in repair and reconstruction work. Although a small cartload of concrete fetches only $2 and a collector can expect to net $5-6 for an 11-hour day after deducting food for his animal, there is no shortage of people “willing” to undertake this backbreaking labour.

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the World Bank reporting that Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world, reaching a whopping 60% among youth, not to mention all the people in work who are not being paid, rubble is one of the few growth sectors in Gaza’s besieged and battered economy, which is still largely sealed off from the outside world.

“What I make isn’t enough for anything,” admits Rushdie, a man who says he is 30 but looks about 45. “But this work gets me out of the house.”

Since the war, many young people have dropped out of school or college to help support their homeless and destitute families. “Before the war, I was studying mathematics at al-Quds Open University,” explains Mo’tasim, perched casually against his cart wearing a baseball cap, his cheery demeanor and smiley visage contrasting sharply with the ruins of Beit Hanoun which were pummeled heavily during the war.

“I’ve discontinued my studies for now because we need money,” he adds, explaining that his family had lost their home and were being housed in an UNRWA school until his brother got burnt in an accident. Now 15 of his family members are living together in a single room in a damaged building.

But you don’t need to be a mathematician like Mo’tasim to figure out that the situation in Gaza has become completely hopeless. When asked whether he had lost hope for the future, Mo’tasim laughed: “What hope? We had no hope to lose in the first place.”

Still, the young man has not abandoned his modest dreams of finishing his education and landing himself a dignified job. But like other youth in Gaza, the war has prompted him to do the maths and conclude that the only way is out. “If I got the chance, I’d leave Gaza and never return to Beit Hanoun,” Mo’tasim maintains.

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And Mo’tasim is no lone wolf, this urge to take flight affects young people of all walks of life. “I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” claimed one unemployed graduate who had borrowed money to pay smugglers to get him to Italy but was caught in Egypt and deported back to Gaza.

“To sit home and wait for death, that is the definition of injustice,” he emphasised.

And this sense of hopelessness and powerlessness is common. While the post-traumatic stress epidemic among Gaza’s children following the 2014 offensive has received wide attention, less visible is the impact of the conflict on grown-ups. “When you have an adult in the situation we have in Gaza,” says Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP),  “this creates a feeling of impotence.”

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who suffered just such a series of misfortunes when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Talk of post- or pre-trauma is futile, as trauma is constant and ongoing, not to mention multiple, some experts point out. This long-term, continuous stress has resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

The unending, prolonged psychological strain, along with reluctance to consult mental health specialists, also lead to somatoform disorders, which are phantom physical ailments caused by underlying psychological conditions, which cause the sufferer additional psychological distress.

Thanks to the work of the GCMHP and other programs, awareness is rising of mental health issues and the stigma is much less than before, says Zeyada.

But Zeyada warns that there is little he and his colleagues can do beyond providing the psychological equivalent of a band aid, as long as the underlying causes are not addressed. “Without an enhanced socio-economic and political reality, you can’t talk about mental health,” he notes. “Mental health in Gaza is connected to human rights.”

And if nothing happens? Not only will Gaza turn into a completely uninhabitable space, Zeyada argues, a lost generation of traumatised and terrified children will reach adulthood: “How are you going to convince this generation tomorrow that there can be something called peace?”

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 1 July 2015.

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One year on: Gaza’s hidden psychological ruins

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is not just the landscape that is scarred and devastated, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck teetering on the verge of psychological ruin.

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza is on the verge of psychological ruin. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 8 July 2015

At the Erez crossing.  Photo: ©Khaled Diab

At the Erez crossing. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Entering Gaza feels a little like infiltrating the world’s largest maximum security facility, home to 1.8 million inmates, living on 360 km² of land.

On the Israeli side of the high wall surrounding the imposing Erez crossing, there is a large field of magnificent sunflowers, which looks out of place in these bleak surroundings.

Small, impoverished, overcrowded and trapped between the deep blue sea and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Gaza is a stifling and suffocating place. Already confronted with a severe housing shortage before the Israeli military offensive in 2014, the displaced live in whatever available spaces there are: UNRWA schools, tents, heat-intensifying tinplate or zinc containers, with extended family and even in damaged buildings.

With reconstruction work stalled for lack of materials and funds, the deep scars left on the landscape by last summer’s brutal war have not even begun to heal. Almost everywhere you go, the remains and ruins of war are visible, even in Gaza city’s only upmarket neighbourhood, al-Rimal.

Posing in Shuja’iyya. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Shuja’iyya, which was flattened by Israeli forces and became an icon of the war, is still largely a rubble-strewn crater, where the skeleton of the odd building still stands drunkenly like a fallen house of cards. Bulldozers slowly remove the traces of destruction and young children play in the newly vacated spaces, asking us to take their photos.

Given the many rounds of destruction Gaza has endured, there is a sort of geology of devastation. The oldest artefact is the short-lived but once-gleaming Yasser Arafat International Airport. But like Palestinian dreams of freedom and independence, its Andalusian arches lie in ruins. Now a grazing ground for camels, this locked gateway to the world is a poignant symbol of Gaza’s current siege.

However, it is not just the landscape and architecture that are scarred and devastated, psychologically, Gaza is an emotional and mental wreck. “There is a high level of psychological pressure in the Gaza strip,” Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), told me.

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza airport, a grazing ground for camels. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On the surface, Gazans exhibit remarkable fortitude. But scratch a little deeper beneath the smiling, welcoming facades and you quickly find bubbling despair and overwhelming distress afflicting every segment of society.  “This is no life. No-one cares about us,” confessed Samer, a teenager forced to collect and sell rubble to help his now-homeless family.

With large families the norm, people seek whatever escape they can. Gaza’s teeming beaches are popular day and night, even in areas where raw sewage flows straight into the sea. “We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time,” says unemployed graduate Saleh Ashour, 24, describing a typical day.

Everywhere you turn, there are many, many children, but few genuine childhoods are visible. With the exception of flashy, brightly lit toy cars on the beach promenade and a few makeshift football pitches, there is little in the way of child’s play, but a rising amount of child labour. And these poor young souls, who make up the majority of Gaza’s population, are the most vulnerable psychologically. “Children are the most sensitive group and they are the most likely to be affected by the socio-political reality,” explains Zeyada.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And the trauma some have endured could buckle the toughest adult’s shoulders. Take Reda, 15, who lost her mother, a number of siblings and members of her extended family during an Israeli airstrike. Now she must care for her father and surviving siblings, while clinging desperately on to the memory of her mother. “My mum was my friend… I feel that she is talking to me,” the girl, who has shed 8kg since then, her appetite drained by dreams of eating the pizza her mother was preparing when disaster struck, told al-Mizan, a Gaza-based human rights organisation.

The trauma of loss has been tough on the adult population too. “I lost Arwa, the apple of my heart,” confesses Hamida, whose favourite niece perished with 18 other members of her family. “When I used to visit her, her smile would precede her and she would open her arms wide to hug me… Her drawings were so beautiful. I wish one had survived.”

But it is not just the trauma of war and the loss of loved ones which afflicts Gaza’s adult population. With unemployment at 44% (60% for youth), GDP at a quarter of what it would be without the blockade and real per-capita income a fifth of what it was two decades ago, according to the World Bank, the psychological impact of Gaza’s prolonged isolation is immense.

“The whole of life in Gaza is in a state of deterioration. There is no stability for anyone,” describes Hasan Zeyada.

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who became the patient as well as the doctor when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

This prolonged and continuing stress and trauma have resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

Displaced feelings of anger and frustration have also led to a growing level of domestic violence and more aggressive public behaviour, notes Zeyada.

“I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here,” says Saleh Ashour. “If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.”

Faced with this economic, social and psychological wasteland, large swathes of Gazan society are possessed with the overwhelming urge to take flight and escape. “If they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” said unemployed graduate Amer Teemah, 24. And true enough, even successful Gazan academics and journalists I met want to leave, temporarily, they say, but they fear they may decide never to return.

Teeman and his lifelong friend, Ashour, paid $3,500 each to smugglers to get them to Europe, but failed.

“You are condemned to be a failure before you can even start,” says a crest-fallen Teemah, who has no clue what to do now that his outlandish plans to build a new life in another land have failed, and only landed him in debt.

Despite the immense emotional and psychological strain, Gazans are remarkably tough and resilient survivors. Thousands continue to work, despite not having received a salary in months, and there is an air of relative law and order, considering the dire circumstances.

But if the status quo continues, Gaza faces the prospect of total psychological ruin, with unforeseeable consequences. Ultimately, Gaza’s psychological and emotional malaise is of an entirely manmade nature. “Many of the psychological problems in Gaza are reactive. They are a reaction to the present situation,” observes Hasan Zeyada. “That means that mental health in Gaza is connected to the political reality.”

Gaza’s cure lies in Israel and Egypt’s hands, who need to urgently seek counselling regarding their irrational paranoia towards the Strip. Catastrophe can be averted if the blockade is lifted, which will provide the Gazan population with what it desperately misses the most: hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 13 June 2015.

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The occupational handicaps of being Palestinian

 
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By Raya al-Jadir

Living with disability is always a challenge but if you’re a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation you are doubly handicapped. 

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Having lived my whole life with disability in different parts of the world, I thought I knew what most of the difficulties that any disabled person would experience. But in the places I have lived, the main issue I’ve encountered were societal attitudes, which almost exclude you from living an ordinary life. But what happens when you are not just fighting social prejudice, but also confronting a military occupation?

I was born in Mosul, Iraq, and spent the first 10 years of my life living there in a society that tended to reject anyone who was different, let alone a person with disability. As a child, I never encountered any other disabled person, which made me feel quite special but also taught me to rely on my inner strength to resist isolation and marginalisation. During my time in Mosul, Iraq was at war with Iran. But being a child under the protective wings of my family, I believed that, even in a conflict, my experiences were essentially no different to those of other children. With this in mind, I naively thought that the same probably applied in Palestine, but the reality is quite different.

However, I have come to learn that being disabled in a country that has been made ‘disabled’ by occupation and repression is a tough call. “We suffer double the sufferings of the people in Palestine,” asserts Latifa , a disabled young woman from Gaza in her late 20s whom I recently met, along with Suleiman, who is 21 and suffers from cerebral palsy.

Both Latifa and Suleiman receive support from a programme run by Medical Aid For Palestinians called ‘Rehabilitating people with disability to regain their rights’. The scheme aims to improve the quality of life for disabled Palestinians, to teach them to advocate for their rights and to promote positive attitudes towards them in the community.

For disabled Palestinians in general, there is a shortage of medical and health specialists, while their environment is largely not adapted to their needs. In such a situation, people with disabilities tend to feel powerless and at fault for their predicament. This is especially the case when it comes to education. People with hearing impairment have no access to university education and the visually impaired are deprived of some university degrees.

Within the occupied Palestinian territories, there is also a clear geographical disparity between the West Bank and Gaza. “[There is] no electricity available [but] you are still expected to climb up to the 5th floor, as even generators are not always working due to fuel shortages,” describes Latifa. “I have to walk long distances also because of the shortage of fuel for cars.”

During the 2014 war, the risk and danger for people with disabilities was much higher than for the able-bodied, Latifa explains, as it is much harder for the handicapped to evacuate their homes and seek shelter or move from the top floor to the basement. As Israeli bombs don’t differentiate between the disabled and the fit, this is tragically the nearest to equality that people with disability can often expect.

Moreover, Gaza’s disabled population ballooned as a result of the war. “Imagine you find yourself in a wheelchair overnight, or lose your limbs or eyesight, and you don’t know why this happened to you or how to adapt to it – all because you are born Palestinian,” Latifa says. “Plus mental health [problems] are also on the increase due to the psychological abuse that Palestinians have to endure on a daily basis because of the Israeli occupation.”

According to MAP, over 87% of Palestinians with a disability are unemployed and one third of them will never be able to get married. Over one third of Palestinians with a disability have never been to school, whilst many do not use public transport as it is not adapted sufficiently. It is these practical barriers which make living with a disability extremely hard under occupation.

MAP’s programme trains people with disability in how to campaign for specific rights and improve public awareness of the reality that the handicapped do not need pity, but need empowerment and enhanced accessibility, so that they can lead more independent, productive and fulfilling lives.  The programme also strives to help disabled people to campaign for equal opportunities and rights.

Before becoming involved with the programme, Latifa saw herself as having a “problem” and wanted to hide from people, block out her disability and try to live without confronting it. Today, she regards disability as a collective cause rather than a personal problem. Latifa firmly believes that society needs to provide help for people with disability to integrate. Strength comes in numbers so people with disability will have more of a chance to gain their rights if they all unite.

The long years isolation Palestinians, especially in Gaza, have suffered due to the occupation has led to a widespread unawareness of the opportunities and facilities that are available for people with special needs, or even that such people have “special needs”.

The situation is compounded by social prejudices, such as sexism, which is even more pronounced for disabled women.  This was exemplified in the case of Amal, whose grandmother refused the age-old Palestinian tradition of bestowing her name on her granddaughter because she was “deformed”.

Latifa is convinced that she faces more prejudice than her able-bodied sisters.  “We are not allowed to leave the house or go outside for fear of harassment,” she points out, adding that a disabled woman is often “not even considered suitable for marriage because a disabled woman represent a ‘problem’ that is inherited through the generations, who is not able to work or carry out her duties and is not ‘the perfect’ model.”

This extra sexism affects how disabled Palestinians relate to their disability, with a clear gender difference. While Suleiman was open and direct and had no qualms about telling me that he was born with Cerebral Palsy, Latifa refused to talk about her condition, seeing the question as an invasion of her privacy, insisting that “I am Latifa; a human and not a name of a condition.”  I sensed that Latifa was still not completely comfortable with her disability.

Despite all these efforts, Palestine is still a long way away from integrating its disabled citizens. Suleiman believes that stone is easier to shift than attitudes. “It is harder to change people than alter buildings,” he believes.

Young people should be the main focus of future initiatives, suggests Suleiman, so as to shape a generation that is more enlightened in its attitudes towards disabled people and their untapped potential.  Both he and Latifa prefers job-creation schemes to help disabled people enter the market and prove that their condition is no handicap. “I don’t want to rely on handouts. I want to be able to say I contributed to making something,” he insists. “This is how we are and we have rights,” he adds, stressing that being seen as charity cases “is demeaning.”

At the end of our encounter, I asked both Suleiman and Latifa about their dreams. Suleiman, the more confident one with a rather charming character, was the first to reply, saying he wished to become a political analyst. “You need to work and believe in yourself to convince others of your ability like I am working on achieving my dream of becoming a political analyst,” he said. Latifa refused to share her aspirations believing that it was a “private matter but being disabled does not mean we have different dreams”.

“Society is diverse and diversity is helpful in society,” she proffered instead. “Essentially, we are simple human beings: we love like you, we smile like you, when we are hurt, we cry … I long to live in peace and stop being labelled as a terrorist, I long for the day that Palestinians are not stopped at checkpoints.”

Finishing on a more hopeful note, Latifa recalled how, as she entered Israel on her way to London, she saw an Israeli bus full of children: “I smiled at them [and] they smiled back for one simple reason: we have one thing in common, humanity.”

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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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Spring of hope amid winter of despair

 
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By Khaled Diab

For Palestinians in Israel, the recent race for the Knesset was both the worst of elections and the best.

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

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

Monday 30 March 2015

It was the worst of elections. It was the best of elections. It was the winter of despair but also the spring of hope.

Such is the nature of Israel’s highly fractured and divided political landscape that election night can deliver a number of winners, as well as multiple losers.

Leftist Jews in Tel Aviv and elsewhere wandered around dazed and shell-shocked by the news that Binyamin Netanyahu had not only survived but that Likud had put a six seat lead between it and its nearest rival, the Zionist Union, despite what the polls had forecast.

Although Palestinians shared the left’s revulsion towards Netanyahu’s Velcro grip on power, compounded by the fear of what further damage a strong far-right alliance could cause them, Arab voters in Israel were also in high spirits.

In fact, there was jubilation in Nazareth and other Arab towns and villages at the news that a coalition of Arab (and progressive Jewish) parties had made the unprecedented achievement of finishing third in the elections.

Less than two months after it was formed, the Joint List – an unlikely and once-improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish progressive leftists and Islamists – had managed the previously unimaginable and become the Jewish state’s third-largest party.

This apparent unity in Arab political ranks spurred Palestinians in Israel, who had grown increasingly disillusioned and apathetic towards the political process in recent elections, to go out and vote, including many who had never done so before.

For example, Tamer Nafar of the socially aware and politically active Palestinian hip-hop band DAM recorded a pre-election video in which he raps about having never voted in his life, until now.

Some voters hoped that the Joint List would put Arabs on Israel’s political radar and force their Jewish compatriots to notice them. “I want Israelis to realise … that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East,” one voter asserted.

And the Joint List has certainly succeeded in putting Arabs on the Knesset’s map. “I’m delighted with their performance,” Diana Buttu, a prominent Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and activist, told me. “They ran an honest, democratic campaign, unlike Netanyahu’s.”

Netanyahu’s bid for re-election raised eyebrows and drew accusations of scare-mongering and racism, both from Jews and Arabs. In addition to his well-rehearsed and repeated warnings about the imminent and “existential threat” from notional Iranian nukes – which he has been rehashing at the American Congress since 1996 – Netanyahu talked, like a paranoid Middle Eastern despot, of an unholy alliance of foreigners and leftists out to unseat him.

Moreover, when polls forecasted that Likud was falling behind, Netanyahu sought to galvanise the party’s traditional but increasingly apathetic support base by tapping into its deepest prejudices, fears and anxieties. “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls,” he warned ominously, in one of the election’s ugliest moments. “Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

This contrasts sharply with the measured, inclusive campaign spearheaded by the Joint List’s leader and perhaps Israel’s fastest-rising political star, Ayman Odeh. With his background in the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party, he has moved the Arab coalition he heads away from identity politics and towards questions of universal social and economic justice.

“Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex,” he insists. “We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies.”

With Arabs being the most under-privileged segment of Israeli society, they are the focus of a 10-year programme devised by Odeh to narrow inequalities. “It’s a win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society,” he explained. Taking a leaf out of Martin Luther King’s civil rights handbook, Odeh even plans a march to Jerusalem to raise awareness of this programme.

Odeh’s Joint List also intends to champion the cause of their Palestinian compatriots in the occupied territories. “We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues,” he said. “And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.”

But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not holding their breaths for any improvements to their lot. While many praise the Joint List and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even endorsed it, Palestinians generally doubt the Arab coalition can overcome the ultranationalist, rightwing juggernaut.

Despite this, there is a line of thinking among Palestinian activists that the ideological honesty of a hard-right government may make life worse for them but it will work out better in the long term because it will lead to more international isolation for Israel and will prompt more countries to view it as a pariah.

“[This is] a much better outcome than the so-called leftwing government that disguises itself as a lamb with the cover of the international community, yet perpetuates the status quo and continued colony building in ‪‎Palestine,” one Jerusalemite said, reflecting this sentiment.

In Gaza, where the differences between most Israeli parties are hair-splittingly small, “people are not hopeful at all”, describes Majd Al Waheidi, a young journalist who rose to prominence during last summer’s war.

“[Ordinary] people in Gaza don’t really care or differentiate between Israeli parties… They say all of them are the same enemy who denies our rights and freedom,” she elaborates. “Maybe there’s a sense of frustration because Netanyahu has made it again but this frustration is only between intellectuals and experts who know the threat of Netanyahu on Gaza.”

Buttu is more upbeat. “I am under no illusions that the Joint List will be able to be miracle workers: the tide of racism is too high,” she says. “But they will push back and, as always, push for an end to Israel’s military rule, blockade over Gaza and colonisation of the West Bank.”

For the Joint List, the going will be both tough and unclear. “They face an uphill battle. They obviously won’t join any coalition, as they cannot be partners to the occupation but they will be front and centre in pushing back against the racist legislation,” adds Buttu.

On the other side of the aisle, even the Zionist Union is unlikely to reach out to the Joint List, even to block Netanyahu, if history is anything to go by, as no Arab party has ever been invited to join a ruling coalition before.

The best hope for the Joint List having any parliamentary clout is a “national unity” government (President Reuven Rivlin’s preferred outcome), which would leave it in the unprecedented position of leading the opposition. But if Netanyahu succeeds in his determination to form a rightwing, ultra-nationalist coalition, this would place the Zionist Union at the helm of the opposition, putting the Joint List out in the cold or, at most, in a supporting role.

Regardless of whether it leads the opposition or not, some are convinced that the Joint List will have negligible influence on Israel’s politics. “[It] is going to have zero influence through parliament on Israeli domestic or foreign policies,” the prominent Israeli dissident New Historian Ilan Pappé told me.

Conversely, the Joint List is likely to have a profound impact on Palestinian politics, argues Pappé. “The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian representatives in the Knesset are formations based on a certain Palestinian strategic logic that adheres to the two-state  solution as the only way forward,” he maintains. “As the chances and prospects of such a solution seem to disappear daily, we are all in need of a new strategy.”

And this new strategy? A civil rights struggle which will deliver “a true ANC-kind of leadership to follow and be part of, for a better future,” believes Pappé.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 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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Reel life in Palestine

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Filmmakers are moving away from the headline conflict to shed light on real life in Palestine as lived by actual Palestinians, both real and fictional.

photo (12)

Monday 19 January 2015

A scene from 'Eyes of a Thief'.

A scene from ‘Eyes of a Thief’.

The recent London Palestine Film Festival featured more than 40 works of film and video by Palestinian and international artists. What struck me the most is how many of the films screened shed a new and refreshing light on Palestine, showing that there is more to Palestinian society than war and occupation – there are people with stories to tell and lives to live.  As an outsider, it was also the first time I was exposed to the natural beauty of Gaza and the West Bank, something we rarely see on news report.

The UK premiere of Najwa Najjar’s West Bank thriller Eyes of a Thief (‘Eeyon al-haramieh) opened the festival. Set in a rather desolate location in the valley between Nablus and Ramallah, it stars the Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga, who needed a special permit for the four-week filming, and Algerian singer/songwriter Souad Massi. The film tells the story of a father searching for his lost daughter in the city while keeping a dangerous secret to himself.   Najjar’s psychological drama humanises the Palestinian resistance, showing the hero as a sensitive person who is seeking to find lost family, with hints of a forbidden love story, which makes him much more complex and much more human than the two-dimensional portrayals of Palestinians either as terrorists or as heroes. Najjar does not try to embellish Palestinian life, nor does she attempt to show the entire breadth of modern Palestinian history in a single film, but provides a glimpse of some aspects of Palestinian life.

A scene from 'Ramallah'.

A scene from ‘Ramallah’.

This was a common thread linking the films shown at the festival, as could be seen in a special triple-bill of films set in Ramallah. Flavie Pinatel’s Ramallah gives the audience a different perspective on the city we often see in the news. Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian territories, is portrayed as city that has many contradictions: the humour of its inhabitants, traditional crafts that rub shoulders with an intense nightlife of revelling youth. In this bustling city, a trace remains of its recent past as a pastoral village, and like many urban areas in the Middle East, Ramallah is a 21st century city torn between two worlds. Pinatel takes up the counterpoint to shoot an everyday portrait without drama. She reveals a city through funny, serious or unusual portraits of Ramallah’s inhabitants, in an attempt to depict it beyond its tragedy.

Roy Dib’s Mondial 2010 is a film on love and location. A Lebanese gay couple decides to go on a road trip to Ramallah which is recorded with their camera as they chronicle their journey. The viewers are invited through the couple’s conversations into the universe of a fading city, yet we never actually get to see the faces of both characters. Mondial 2010 is a discussion of borders in the modern-day Middle East, employing video as an apparatus to transgress boundaries that are imposed on people against their will. Essentially, it is a travel film in a trajectory that doesn’t allow travel, starring two male lovers in a setting where homosexuality is a punishable crime. Shot with a hand-held camcorder, Mondial 2010 borrows the aesthetics of a video travelogue. It normalises the abnormal in Palestine, and by doing so creates its own universe of possibilities, offering an alternative shift from the mainstream passive view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that places the victim/oppressor at the forefront of the produced imagery. This video glides over this conflict with an upper hand.  The couples in the film are not only defying cultural and religious norms through their homosexual relationship but they are also breaking the law by entering Ramallah. The relations between Israelis and Lebanese are governed by the 1943 Lebanese Criminal Code, which criminalises any contact with citizens of enemy states,  and the 1955 Lebanese Anti-Israeli Boycott Law.

A scene from 'Pink Bullets'.

A scene from ‘Pink Bullets’.

The rather strange Pink Bullets by Ramzi Hazbou stars Ali, who wakes up confused by the construction noise coming from outside and the disturbing dream he’s just had, which is the ultimate theme of his day as it continues to shudder along. The film failed to grab my thoughts and I could not see anything beyond a simple idea that it was trying to convey: that Ramallah is not just about politics but has a life of its own too.

The second triple bill of the night on Gaza proved to be more interesting. For most of the media, the Gaza Strip is a source of the most apocalyptic images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Striplife, produced by a group of Italian and Palestinian video makers is an extraordinary depiction of the everyday life of Gaza’s inhabitants prior to the latest escalation of violence. The film is a fresco of Gaza. We see men and women who resist, determined not to succumb to conditions of life that appear impossible, go about their day in Gaza.  The film begins with an inexplicable event that occurred overnight: dozens of manta rays washed up on the beach, with fishermen flocking to the shore to grab as many as they can. Meanwhile, the city wakes up. Antar a singer who dreams of rapping (prohibited in the streets) urges his brother to wake up. It’s a big day for him; he will be recording his first album that afternoon. Noor is putting her make up on; she will be appearing in front of the cameras. Jabber is already in the field, surrounded by gunfire. A demonstration is marching down the streets. Moemen Faiz, who was confined to a wheelchair due to an Israeli offensive, is a photographer who is there to do his work as a journalist.  The muezzin’s call to prayer echoes in the air, multiplied by the loudspeakers on the minarets. The members of the parkour team twirl around in a cemetery like in a dream. The film is a collective observational documentary that requires no commentary. It is not a film about Gaza, but with Gaza.

A scene from 'Tendid'.

A scene from ‘Tendid’.

Filmed in the wake of the 2008-9 war, Tendid (Condemnations) by Tunisian filmmaker Walid Matar takes place in a struggling corner café which gains an overnight popularity boost with the televising of the war.  The café becomes the melting pot and meeting point for the community’s men who are just as quick to pick sides for football as they are for religion, politics and war. The film, which has to be my favourite one out of all the films that I saw, takes satirical aim at the hollow nature of the many public and political statements of solidarity and condemnation issued at the time.

The final and shortest film of the night Shuja’iyah: Land of the Brave by Hadeel Assali was made during the recent war on Gaza, combining the artist’s images of home and community life in the district of Shuja’iyah with audio recorded in July 2014, as the neighbourhood came under devastating attack. The film shows Assali’s personal reflection on the meaning of “crimes against humanity” in the context of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, using footage of her family filmed in the summer of 2013 juxtaposed against audio from the summer of 2014.

Although the quality of the films was variable and some were not great, the festival succeeded in presenting Palestine’s human, social and cultural diversity. The featured works tackled daily issues and recognised the Palestinian people as individuals – as human beings with their own stories and circumstances – rather than a vague collective, an occupied nation.

 

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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A civil way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire

 
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By Khaled Diab

How do you end the Israeli occupation without ending the occupation? Through a struggle for equal civil rights for Jews and Arabs.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 24 November 2014

How do you annex territory without actually annexing it? How do you acquire the land without the people?

This is the dilemma with which the settler movement and its friends in successive Israeli governments have been grappling for years.

The latest move in this regard was when Israel’s Ministerial Committee voted overwhelmingly in favour of a draft bill to apply Israeli law in the settlements – only two ministers voted against the initiative: Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Although many Israeli commentators do not expect this bill to make it into legislation, what this overlooks is that Israeli legislation already applies in the settlements, though some more recent laws have not yet been turned into military regulations. The draft bill simply sets a 45-day deadline for this process.

In addition, though the settlements are formally under the military’s jurisdiction, the settlers themselves are effectively under the jurisdiction of Israel’s civilian courts, vote in Israeli elections, pay taxes to the Israeli treasury, etc. Meanwhile, their Palestinian neighbours who live in what is known as Area C live under martial law and their loves are governed by the army’s Civil Administration.

Despite the fact that a huge proportion of Israeli voters are opposed to annexing the West Bank, those behind the draft bill make no secret that it is part of their blueprint for creeping annexation.

“We came to the Land to apply Israeli sovereignty over it and to establish, within it, a Jewish state in its entire territory, gradually,” explained Knesset member Orit Strock of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the author of the draft bill, in a recent interview.

As part of this gradual process to win over a reluctant Israeli public and create facts on the ground to overcome international objections, Strock and her allies have 10 pieces of draft legislation in their arsenal which they are waiting for the right moment to unleash.

And her ambitions extend beyond Israeli settlements to the main Palestinian population centres of the West Bank. “History is always evolving and we are not giving up these areas, but rather, progressing and ascending one more step,” Strock maintained.

Unsurprisingly, the cabinet vote has stirred up protest and opposition in Palestinian circles. “This creates a political context where these settlements become a part of Israel,” slammed veteran Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath. “They are stealing the land, water, materials, and all natural resources in the West Bank.”

Sadly, however, Palestinian condemnations and protestations are unlikely to change the reality on the ground. In light of this, perhaps the time has arrived for Palestinians and their sympathisers in Israel to try another approach.

Instead of futilely seeking to stop the application of Israeli law in the settlements, Palestinians should demand that civil law is extended to cover them too. This will inevitably be regarded as a setback by Palestinians, who are seeking greater national sovereignty, not less. But the reality is that there is next to no chance that these national aspirations can or will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Under such circumstances, priority must shift to human well-being.

So doing would protect Palestinians against the iron fist of military rule, shielding them from arbitrary arrests, evictions and home demolitions. The application of Israeli law would also enable them to move freely within the West Bank, accessing those roads which are currently for Israelis only, and challenge the unfair military permit system which bars them from entering Jerusalem and Israel.

Gazans, who still effectively live under Israeli occupation, could also embark on a similar process. This may sound outlandish, especially to Israelis, but prior to the Oslo accords, Gaza and the West Bank were administered in the same way.  And since the peace process died years ago and even the life-support system to which it was hooked up has now given up the ghost too, it’s time to drop this masquerade and self-deception and abandon Oslo for a civil-rights platform.

In addition, the Palestinians of the West Bank should demand the right to live in the settlements, like some Jerusalemites already do in settlements which allow it, such as Pisgat Ze’ev, despite discrimination and local efforts to block them. Under such circumstances, the Palestinian urban areas, known as Area A, should also be opened up to Israeli Jews to be able to live there.

Such a campaign – which can be conducted on the streets, in the Israeli courts and even in the Knesset – could act as the first step in a full-scale civil rights struggle, which would eventually include full Israeli citizenship for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. This is bound to cause jitters in Israel, where people will interpret it as the death knell of the Jewish state, while many Palestinians are averse to the idea of becoming Israelis.

However, this should not be the case. To my mind, this is a pragmatic and necessary interim step to prevent disaster turning into catastrophe.  I call this the ‘non-state solution’ – which I outline in my new book, Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land – for a reason: because it is an interim solution that does not pre-suppose the final outcome of future peace efforts, and leaves the possibility open for a two-state or a binational-state model.

However, instead of questions of state and statehood, it focuses, for the time being, on the far more urgent matter of the state of the people. The situation today has become untenable, mainly for Palestinians but also for Israelis.

Palestinians live in marginalisation, fear and under severe and inhumane military restrictions which impinge on their freedom, safety, economic well-being and dignity. As the prospect of political violence grows, Israelis are living in greater insecurity, not to mention the high burden of the occupation, not only on citizens’ economic well-being, but also on the untold thousands of young people forced to police it.

Focusing on inclusive civil rights rather than national aspirations and divisive nationalism, is, for the foreseeable future, in everyone’s best interests.

Once everyone is empowered, enfranchised and equal, then a people’s peace process can commence in which the Israeli and Palestinian publics, long sidelined and ignored as players in efforts to forge a resolution, can all have their say.

Civil rights and a people’s peace process may sound like a pipe dream, and a dangerous one, to critics on both sides of the fence. But I disagree.

One of the great unseen and under-appreciated tragedies of this conflict – and to which I dedicate considerable attention in my book – is just how much in common Palestinians and Israelis actually have, and how the differences within each camp are actually far greater than the divergence between them. This ignored reality can act as a great unifier between the two sides.

The situation is speeding towards a very dark, cold and hostile night. Every effort is needed to change directions towards the sunrise unseen just beyond the horizon.

A new dawn will undoubtedly come, but the question is how long and frightening the night before will be.

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Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014,

On Amazon

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 November 2014.

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