Beauty in the eye of the political storm

 
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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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Muhammad al-Durrah and the other ‘blood libel’

 
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By suggesting that Muhammad al-Durrah’s death was staged, Israel’s government may not be the victim of a ‘blood libel’ but the originator of one.

Thursday 30 May 2013

The official report by an Israeli government-appointed panel into the death of Muhammad al-Durrah more than a dozen years ago in Gaza, at the start of the second intifada, took me right back to my school days. It reminded me of bullies who, when reproached for an act of violence, would claim flippantly: “I didn’t hit him, sir, he walked into my fist.”

After analysing the raw footage of the incident, the panel concluded surreally that not only was the 12-year-old miraculously not hit by the flying bullets, like a character out of The Matrix, but also that “at the end of the video… the boy appears to be alive”.

This conforms to the long-established so-called “maximalist” Israeli narrative of the incident, which claims that the whole episode was staged and that Muhammad al-Durrah was not killed at all or was murdered in cold blood by the Palestinians to discredit and “de-legitimise” Israel.

Taking a leap of illogic perhaps more daring than the panel’s far-fetched assertion that dead boy’s can walk, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon claimed that the iconic incident was a “blood libel attributed to us”.

Though the old Christian European blood libel has gained some currency in the Middle East in recent decades, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that the IDF had killed al-Durrah to siphon off his blood to bake matzah, or unleavened bread, for Pesach.

Even if al-Durrah’s death has been used for propaganda purposes, Israel is not a defenceless victim here, though its status as the odd one out causes its crimes to be amplified in a neighbourhood where horrendous human rights abuses are, sadly, commonplace.

Unlike the Jews of yesteryear, who were largely defenceless victims, Israel possesses enormous power and a steely determination to unleash it, as reflected in the fact that al-Durrah was not an isolated incident, and around a thousand Palestinian minors were killed by Israel during the second intifada.

Despite allegations to the contrary, the Muhammad al-Durrah episode’s potency lies not in its conformity to ancient anti-Jewish prejudices – on the contrary, the unflattering stereotype of the Israeli Jew as ruthless warrior bears little resemblance to traditional depictions of Jews as cowardly yet cunning, underhanded and deceitful.

Like the defining images of the terrified Jewish boy raising his hands in the Warsaw ghetto or the naked, screaming Vietnamese girl doused in napalm, the al-Durrah icon’s true power lies in its ability to represent all those otherwise faceless children who needlessly have their lives cut short in conflict. It also appeals to our intrinsic human protectiveness towards the young, innocent and weak.

Little wonder then that Muhammad al-Durrah’s crouched figure and frightened features have adorned posters and stamps, and streets and parks have been named after him. “Muhammad is not just my son, he’s the son of the entire Palestinian nation,” Jamal al-Durrah describes.

Even if there was anti-Jewish prejudice in some of the propaganda purposes to which the dead boy’s image has been used, is Israel’s alternative version of events any better?

Sadly not. You could say that, in some ways, the “maximalist” Israeli version reads like an adapted blood libel in reverse. The idea that a father would be heartless enough to agree to his son’s murder, or at the very least be parted from him for life, just to incite others to kill Jews is not only insulting, it is also troublingly dehumanising of a largely defenceless and hostage civilian population.

I wonder what kind of extra chains of grief and sadness this slander has twisted around Jamal al-Durrah’s mourning heart, and what the reawakening of Muhammad’s memory did to the emotional wound that may stop bleeding but will never heal.

As a father myself now, I can imagine the devastation the loss of a son in such circumstances is bound to result in. I can picture the recurring nightmares, the endless replaying of the scene, the unanswerable, nagging questions. What if we hadn’t gone out that day? What if I’d taken a different route home? What if I’d never gone to that stupid auction? And the most gutting question of all: why him and not me?

There’s even a part of Jamal al-Durrah, the fatherly part, that would be relieved if the panel were right, and that a 25-year-old version of Muhammad is alive and well somewhere in the world, even though he knows his son lies buried in Bureij camp and he’s willing for DNA samples to be taken to prove it.

“I wish [the Israeli] story was true. I wish that Muhammad was with us now,” he said in an interview in which he gave his version of events.

If Israel is serious about getting to the truth, it should take up al-Durrah senior’s suggestion to launch an independent international investigation, as well as to investigate the hundreds of other Palestinian children who were killed.

Arabs and pro-Palestinians have interpreted the report as little more than cynical political spin designed to cover up a damaging incident, described by some as Israel’s “greatest PR failure”.

Although the propaganda and media war was undoubtedly a factor, as was the possibly irresistible temptation to besmirch the arch-enemy, I’m not convinced that this fully explains the psychology behind this fantastical document.

After all, the IDF did initially admit culpability for the incident, which was a far wiser course of action than the current farce, as would have been an independent investigation and possible trial of the wrongdoers.

The timing of the investigation is also telling. Why, a dozen years later, disturb the dead and remind the world of an incident it was in Israel’s own self-interest to let fade in the mists of time?

Part of the reason is the very human, if unappealing, tendency, especially among the powerful, to believe their side is right, even when it is wrong. This can be seen in the Western practice of describing even attacks on its military personnel in countries it has invaded as “terrorism” or in Arab sympathy in conservative quarters for suicide bombers.

Beyond this, there is the ideological hardening of the settler-friendly Israeli government which, despite mounting global public opposition, remains unhindered in its project to make Greater Israel a fact on the ground. This is reflected in the increasingly surreal and absurd committees appointed by the government, such as the one which declared that the occupation does not exist. And if there is no occupation, then it follows that it can have no victims, even innocent children.

More fundamentally and more broadly, in Israel, there is the collective paranoia borne of historical trauma – especially the near extinction of European Jewry and the uprooting of Middle Eastern Jews in the 20th century – that can make even far-fetched conspiracy theories seem plausible to many.

But if Israel is to create a better future reality for itself, it must come to grips with current reality and start an honest conversation about a realistic way forward.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 May 2013.

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

Barack Obama’s plan to “listen” when he visits Israel and Palestine is not enough, the US president must act to launch a people’s peace process.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Official White House photo by Pete Souza. www.whitehouse.gov

Sages through the ages have told us that listening is a virtue – and US President Barack Obama is apparently heeding their advice. According to the new US Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama “wants to listen” during his upcoming visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this spring.

But is this wise?

“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry explained. And more recently, a senior US official noted: “The Israelis and Palestinians must decide what they want to do, and we’ll be happy to help.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a sensible course of action. One of the things the United States is most regularly criticised for is its dictatorial foreign policy tendency to impose its will on smaller countries.

In addition, the sympathetic and optimistic might read into Obama’s reticence a judicious and prudent silence. After all, if Washington plans to (re-)launch a serious new bid to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama may be keeping his cards close to his chest, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of peace and the potentially dire consequences of further failure.

But judging by Obama’s first term and the state of the union speech inaugurating his second – in which the only mention of the Holy Mess was the president’s reiteration of his oft-repeated pledge to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace” – “listening”, the sceptic in me is tempted to conclude, sounds a lot like code for inaction and maintaining the status quo.

And maintaining the status quo has been the hallmark of Obama’s presidency, as I predicted even before he became president and after his famous Cairo speech.

“The visit will be a good opportunity to reaffirm the strong and enduring bonds of friendship between Israel and the US,” Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. And in case anyone was in any doubt that this would be more than a photo-op, Obama will be feted wherever he goes and offered the Presidential Medal of Distinction during his visit – perhaps in an effort by Shimon Peres to exercise damage control following Binyamin Netanyahu’s disastrous attempt to influence the U.S. electoral process.

And if media reports are to be believed, security, or at least the illusion of it, will trump peace. The American president, Israel’s Channel 10 has claimed, intends to tell Netanyahu that a “window of opportunity” for a military strike on Iran will open in June 2013.

So, rather than chart a course towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Obama’s visit could trigger a plunge towards regional conflict. Meanwhile, the true “window of opportunity” and key to Israel’s future security, the Palestinians, will be ignored, relegated to non-issue status, even if they deserve their freedom and dignity, rather like they were during the Israeli elections.

However, Palestinian impatience and frustration is simmering near boiling point – with renewed talk of a third intifada, though a full-scale uprising has yet to erupt – as reflected in the collective prisoner hunger strike and demonstrations to end detention without trial following the death in Israeli custody of Arafat Jaradat.

But inaction on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not an option – at least not for anyone desiring a better and fairer future, and avoiding future escalations of the conflict. In addition, if Obama wishes to secure a lasting legacy for his presidency and to earn the Nobel peace prize he was prematurely awarded, he must do more than listen. He must take robust action.

But what can and should the American president do?

Well, freed of the spectre of re-election, Obama has the space, if he so wishes, to work towards radically redefining the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, in my view, is for him to announce publicly that the failed, discredited and ineffective Oslo process will be abandoned.

One reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. To address this shortcoming, Obama should announce his intention to turn peace mediation into a truly multilateral process not only by giving the toothless Quartet real teeth but also by bringing in the Arab League and other influential and important members of the international community.

In order to focus the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships’ minds, Obama should harness and mobilise all the diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks at his disposal – and encourage international partners to do the same.

For example, he should significantly downsize US military aid to Israel – though this seems highly improbably, given new Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s assurances that American military assistance would continue, even as the United States hangs precariously off a fiscal cliff – and security assistance to the PA. Obama should also make continued aid to both sides contingent on progress towards peace. In Gaza, where far too many sticks have been deployed, inhumanely and ineffectually, Obama should offer to end its destructive international isolation and he should start a dialogue with the Hamas leadership – perhaps even visiting the Strip, which would be a huge symbolic act of peace and conciliation.

Of course, as decades of foreign meddling going back to the 1947 partition plan and before have clearly demonstrated, there can be no lasting resolution without broad domestic buy-in, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

This involves forcing the leaders on both sides – who are blighted with serious visionary myopia, lack courage, represent too many vested interests, and suffer from ideological paralysis and ineptitude – to take action by giving representatives of every strata of Palestinian and Israeli society seats at the negotiating table.

This may seem like a recipe for chaos, disaster and deadlock, but I am convinced that direct public dialogue and participation is essential if this impasse is ever to be overcome. One factor that has held back a peace deal, even at the most pragmatic and optimistic of times, is the fear that the negotiators would not be able to sell the agreement to their respective constituencies, particularly the radical elements among them.

By involving the public from the start, the entire process is given democratic legitimacy and ensures that there will be a groundswell of popular opinion for any accord when it comes time to sign on the dotted line.

Moreover, such a process would allow an honest public debate to emerge, within both societies and between them, which would most likely strengthen the hand of moderates and pragmatists, allowing the emergence of robust pro-peace alliances, and would shed light on who the true villains of the peace are.

Most importantly perhaps, public involvement would challenge the current levels of endemic popular apathy, cynicism, distrust and despair by empowering people to take direct responsibility for their future, and that of their children. And with apathy and despair, the best allies of extremists, out of the way, pragmatism and moderation might finally win the day.

Some might wonder how on earth you’re going to get two such fractured and divided societies, not to mention determined foes, to agree on the colour of the stationery, let alone the outlines of a comprehensive peace deal.

Well, poll after poll after poll keep suggesting to us that the public in Israel and Palestine are more sensible than their leaders, so it’s time to put that hypothesis to the test. Moreover, “comprehensive” is unlikely to happen, because as bitter experience shows, no wand exists to magic away decades of animosity and wrong turns.

Instead, we should take an immediate and incremental approach. Anything agreed on by the majority of people on both sides, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, should be put to an immediate referendum and implemented straight away. This would gradually improve the situation, create positive momentum, and build a house of peace, shalom, salom, or even salom, one brick at a time.

“All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear,” Obama said in Cairo, at the beginning of his first term. I hope he lives up to this responsibility by supporting and facilitating a peace of the people, by the people and for the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 2013.

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Egypt’s rebels without a pause

 
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By Khaled Diab

The failure of Egypt’s new leaders to address the needs and aspirations of young people means the revolution will not stop until there is real change.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has set his successors a hard act to follow… he managed the remarkable feat of going from hero to zero in little more than 24 hours.

After days of escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence that threatened to spill over into a full-blown war and even a wider regional conflict, Morsi bucked the expectations of doubters and succeeded in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza, eliciting a freak chorus of praise from all sides of the trenches: from Hamas, Israel, many Egyptians and even the United States.

The acclaimed ceasefire, which avoided the death, destitution and destruction of the Gaza war of 2008/9, went into effect on Wednesday 21 November. Rather than rest on his laurels for a while and bask in the glory of Egypt’s minor diplomatic victory – which highlighted and underscored the power of diplomacy over violence – Morsi decided to seize the moment.

No sooner had the Israeli missiles and Palestinian rockets fallen silent than the Egyptian president decided to drop a massive political bombshell on the home front. A day after the ceasefire, on November 22, Morsi delivered a declaration which effectively immunises him and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly – which then hurriedly approved Egypt’s controversial draft constitution pending a referendum – from legal challenges from the judiciary or opponents.

Although Morsi insisted his move was a temporary measure, which would last only as long as it took for the new constitution to enter into force, and was designed to “protect the revolution”, opposition figures and revolutionaries were unconvinced, describing the President’s ambitions as being that of a “new pharaoh” and the declaration as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Many in Egypt saw the timing of this move as more than just a coincidence, with some going as far as to suggest that Morsi had received a nod and a wink from visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to launch his bid to become Egypt’s new, American-backed dictator-in-chief.

We do politics differently now

Although Washington seems to look favourably on Morsi as the lesser of many evils for American regional interests, what seems the most likely is that the Egyptian president decided to reward himself for his success and prematurely cash in on his unexpected moment of popularity both within and outside Egypt by indulging in an impulsive act of flagrant opportunism – which has backfired spectacularly.

But even if the president has now, under immense popular pressure, reversed his decree, though not many of its rulings, he betrayed a seriously flawed understanding of the republic of which he has become the first democratically elected leader: the majority of Egyptians did not vote for dictatorship, and the Egypt that accepts autocracy is, like the past, a foreign country: we do politics differently now.

Most Egyptians, particularly the youth who spearheaded the revolution, no longer have the stomach for a “new pharaoh”, especially after all the sacrifices they have made to win their freedom (even if it is only partial, for now), and have developed a strong appetite for greater people power.

That is why Morsi’s attempt to impersonate ousted former president Hosni Mubarak was met by widespread contempt, opposition and anger… and in that longstanding Egyptian tradition, mockery and humour, such as the teenage protesters who placed a surgical mask on a statue in Cairo of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, presumably to protect his bronze eyes and lungs against the stinging, suffocating effects of teargas.

Since the fateful decree, millions of Egyptians have poured out on to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Mahalla and other towns and cities across the country to protest Morsi’s actions and the referendum, slated for Saturday 15 December, on the draft constitution which reformist Egyptians see as undemocratic and non-inclusive.

So many protesters came out to reoccupy Tahrir that one wit demanded the expansion of the world-famous square in anticipation of future missteps by the Egyptian president.

And in scenes reminiscent of Mubarak’s final days, the crowds chanted: “The people want to bring down the regime”, and vowed that they would not vacate the square until their demands were met. “Morsi has done in less than five months what it took Mubarak 30 years to achieve. With this latest move, he has messed up big time,” one young Egyptian diplomat observed. “I think his days are numbered.”

The new wave of protests has led to speculation as to whether Egypt’s stalled revolution has resumed. To me, it looks like we are entering the third phase of revolt: the first was against Mubarak, the second against the generals who replaced him, and now people are regrouping to take on Morsi and his Islamist cohorts.

Revolutionary generation

To many, the battle lines in the current standoff are between Egypt’s new Islamist rulers and the disgruntled secular opposition who had started the revolution but were apparently unable to finish it. While this Islamist-secularist division is partly true, it oversimplifies an extremely complex situation of overlapping alliances and rivalries.

Other battle lines include pro-revolution versus anti-revolution, rich-poor, women-men, democratic-autocratic, neoliberal-progressive, socialist-conservative, etc. Throughout nearly two years of upheaval and change, one of the most constant divides has been a generational one, between the more privileged older strata of society and the more marginalized youth. This is reflected in every opposition movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose younger, more liberal, pro-revolutionary members broke away from the anti-revolutionary elders last year to join their fellow revolutionaries on the streets and squares of Egypt.

As was the case in February 2011 against Mubarak and in November 2011 against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), though people of all backgrounds and ages were out on the streets, the bulk of the protesters were young. “I just want to say how brave these young kids are,” one protester, Ahmed, said upon returning from Tahrir Square. “Not even the choking tear gas was able to stop them from fighting for their freedom.”

The predominantly youthful nature of the protests is a natural by-product of Egypt’s young population – with more than half of Egyptians born after Mubarak came to power in 1981 – and the ongoing marginalisation of young people by the establishment, whether official or opposition. Although many young Egyptians have found success in all walks of life, politically they still occupy the fringes, leaving the main arena open to them the democracy of the street and the utopian possibilities raised by the egalitarian, if short lived, tent Republic of Tahrir last year.

“I believe Egypt’s political revolution is the product of Egypt’s ‘social revolution’,” says Nael Shama, an Egyptian political researcher and columnist. “This young generation is very dynamic and rebellious. They break taboos, revolt against prevailing institutions, norms and mindsets, and heavily assert their presence in public spaces, which usually puts them on a collision course with the official establishment.”

Although it is true that the Egyptian revolt started in January 2011 on the back of its sister revolution further west, events in Tunisia really only provided the spark of hope and inspiration required to trigger the chain reaction which shifted the existing movements for democratic and revolutionary change from the margins of Egyptian society right to its very heart.

During the decade preceding the revolution, calls for change were gathering pace, as reflected in the greater daring civil society and the opposition exhibited towards Mubarak and his men. In a society where criticising the president was once tantamount to political sacrilege, and like cardinal sins carried hefty consequences for the “sinner”, it was remarkable that an entire political movement existed, Kefaya (Enough), which united activists of all political stripes under the single platform of openly demanding that Mubarak step down. It even forced him, in 2005, to organise Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, even if it was hardly free and fair, and this was an early sign of radical change in the making.

Even though Kefaya’s leadership, like much of Egypt’s established opposition, was dominated by older secularists, it had a strong youth element. Moreover, young people came into their own when they pushed beyond the consensus position of the opposition – which called for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and rejected Gamal Mubarak’s suspected plans to take over power from his father – and set up a movement to agitate for more far-reaching social and economic justice. For example, the 6 April Youth Movement, which is credited with being one of the main driving forces behind the 25 January revolution, was originally established, in the spring of 2008, by young activists, most of whom were well-educated and had not been political beforehand, as an expression of solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla al-Kubra.

Moreover, the revolution of the mind, which had been building up gradually in the years prior to the revolution and which exploded in the regime’s face in January 2011, was nowhere more apparent than among youth, who have surpassed their elders in their confidence and courage and their determination to overcome the traditional fear and deference which has paralyzed Egyptian politics and society.

When people think of politically conscious and active youth, their minds tend to wander towards universities, and despite the Mubarak regime’s studious efforts to depoliticise Egyptian student life and the many years of apathy and indifference this spawned, campuses played, as they had in the anti-colonial period, a crucial role in young people’s political formation.

But the radicalisation of youth did not stop at the university gate. Despite or perhaps because of the poor education Egyptian public schools generally provided and their reputation for creating conformity in young minds, Egypt’s state-run school system was unwittingly producing a generation of politicised youth under the regime’s radar, as groundbreaking research carried out by Hania Sobhy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convincingly demonstrated.

And this rebellion and disaffection is hardly surprising, given the non-curricular lessons on class, youth exclusion, corruption, arbitrary and harsh punishment and the importance of connections and nepotism pupils receive in school. “The school gives very practical and concrete citizenship lessons to children, lessons about their differentiated entitlement to rights,” describes Sobhy.

One boy who spoke to Sobhy demanded portentously: “To fix things, everyone has to be removed…We need all new people.” As a foretaste of what was to come, less than a month before revolutionary fever gripped the entire country, pupils at semi-private state schools known as national institutes went on strike and organised sit-ins and marches in opposition to a ministerial decree they believed threatened their schools.

The sport of revolution

But perhaps the most surprising breeding ground for revolutionary fervour was not the education system, but sport. Around the world, football fans are rarely associated with politics, and soccer, in fact, has traditionally been regarded as a tool for channelling disaffection and discontentment into harmless club loyalty. But in a country where the government had managed to shut down all outlets for youth discontentment besides the mosque and (later) the internet, many of those who did not find Islamism appealing turned the stands of their favourite football clubs into political salons.

The Egyptian Ultras, as these politicised supporters are known, have truly put the fanatic, in the most positive sense of the word, back into fan. As someone who only has a passing interest in football and finds the petty tribalism of fan culture unappealing, the passion, commitment and courage of the Ultras during the 18 days it took topple Mubarak, and the vital role they played in holding on to Tahrir during the infamous “Battle of the Camels”, has filled me with a great deal of respect for these young idealists.

And the Ultras’ willingness to put their lives on the line for the cause of freedom has helped sustain and revive the revolution when it looked set to falter amid harsh repression. “I think the battles and clashes have kept the revolution alive, in the sense that they materialised the feeling, which persists, that there is still something to fight for (both in the pessimistic sense of ‘we’re not there yet’, and in the sense of not giving up hope),” observes Alya El Hosseiny, a 23-year-old Egyptian graduate student.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Ultras as simply urban warriors, as I discovered for myself at one of their sit-ins. The protest was well-organized and self-policed, and the participants were good-humoured despite their obvious anger at the lack of progress. They sang and danced to a whole repertoire of newly coined revolutionary songs, from the thunderingly defiant to the mockingly ironic. In one sarcastic song, they advised fellow citizens “Keep your head down, hang it low, you live in a democracy, you know.” Given the machismo of football, the Ultras themselves are all men, but there were also plenty of women in the crowd, from the hip and modern to the hip and traditional.

And the longer things change without really changing, the more the aspirations for change will grow. Mubarak and the generals of the SCAF have already learnt this lesson the hard way, but the Islamists are intent on repeating the same errors: the more they try to suppress and contain Egypt’s new revolutionary spirit, the wider it spreads. In fact, the sustained campaign to put the brakes on the revolution has only widened resistance to the previously unpoliticised and the even younger.

“What we’ve seen [in the latest confrontations] are very young people, including children, fighting the police,” says Wael Eskandar, a Cairo-based journalist who follows the revolution closely. “Not all of them are particularly aligned with what we think is the revolution, but such a generation is learning not to accept the status quo and to revolt against injustice.”

A revolution in search of a leadership

Over the past nearly two years, so much change has taken place that there are those, in Egypt and beyond, who wonder why there are still such large-scale protests, especially amongst the young. Not only has Mubarak been removed and the army increasingly sidelined, but Egyptians got to go to the ballot box to select their first ostensibly democratically elected parliament and president.

Part of the reason is that much of the change has been superficial and has not delivered the fundamental freedom, equality and economic opportunity young Egyptians yearn for. “The youth revolts but the leadership is still ancient. The youth want change yet the leaders cannot walk away from their comfort zone,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger.

“Young Egyptians have more than once demonstrated that their aspirations are greater than the elite, that their vision is more farsighted, and that they are more willing to sacrifice for the cause,” echoes Nael Shama. “It looks as if the young live in a different time zone from the one within which the largely conventional political elite operates.”

In the eyes of many young revolutionaries, Egyptians have so far effectively substituted one set of fossilized leaders for another. The former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the semi-autocratic Mubarak years has made way for the authoritarian-inclined Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wannabe-dictator Mohamed Morsi – with the only key difference being that one leaned more towards secularism, while the other is inclined more towards religion – but Egypt has changed, so its new rulers do not have the same room for manoeuvre as their predecessors.

Moreover, though young Egyptians started the revolutionary juggernaut rolling and arguably suffered the greatest pain for the revolution, they have seen precious few gains to date. Not only have they been largely excluded from the official political landscape by their elders, the country’s new leadership has shown little interest in empowering the very people who brought them to power, beyond paying lip service to their courage.

To add insult to injury, Egypt’s draft constitution – which is a wonderful document if you happen to be a conservative, middle-aged, male Muslim – takes a patriarchal and paternalistic attitude not only towards women but also young people, despite its insistence that Egypt’s is a “democratic regime” based on “equal citizenship”.

Joining the political party

Part of the reason for the continued relative disenfranchisement of young people, as well as secular revolutionaries in general, is their lack of political experience in comparison with the savvy veteran Islamists. This was compounded by the divisions and rivalries within revolutionary ranks, eloquently and tragically expressed in the splintering of the April 6 Youth Movement into two rival groups.

“At the beginning, young people had a clearer vision of what they wanted, which was to topple Mubarak and the old regime, and see some change in the country,” notes Lamia Hassan, a young journalist and filmmaker based in Cairo. “But as soon as this was over and the revolution was first hijacked by the military then later by the Islamic groups, the youth started to lose their way a little bit and were less [certain] about what they had to do to keep it alive.”

The reason for this disarray is partly due to the failure of a clear leader or group of leaders to emerge to steer the revolution. While the leaderless nature of the early uprising was a key factor in its success because it made it almost impossible for the regime to shut the revolt down, this one-time asset has turned into a liability.

“Yes, it’s the revolution of youth and the Egyptian people but they do not have a leader – an agreed upon leader. But the country needs a president and a whole cabinet of revolutionary leaders,” asserts Rakha. “In the 1952 coup, the officers had a president, a cabinet, and an array of consultants ready to replace the toppled king and his entourage. The 1952 revolution was disastrous on many fronts but at least they got that part right,” she adds.

To move out of the current intergenerational impasse, young revolutionaries need to become better organised and politically savvy, not just at toppling regimes but at building a new and better state for all Egyptians. In addition, the new political elite must realise that their future and that of Egypt’s is in the hands of young people, and so they must start sharing power with and creating opportunity for the new generation.

“To be effective, and even to survive, political forces (both old and new) need to understand the youth and incorporate their ideas and visions into their political doctrines and plans of action,” concludes Shama.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This essay first appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal on 13 December 2012 and was set to appear in its special print edition on the younger generation.

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Israel and Gaza: When attack is the worst form of defence

 
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By Khaled Diab

As the fog of war distort people’s vision and compassion, can Israeli and Palestinian reject the strategy of violence offered by their leaderships?

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Just days before the current escalation in violence, I encountered a young Gazan art student living “illegally” in the West Bank because Israel would not allow her to change her address.

With her precarious existence as a kind of fugitive in her own land, which had made her unable to visit her besieged hometown for over seven years, and in light of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its 2008-9 invasion, I asked her how she felt about Israelis.

“I am a human and believe in humanity, regardless of religion, nationality or race. We are all humans. I will not let this affect me,” the art student said, surprising me with the simple intensity of her conviction, as her Jewish-American friend listened in, even though she did not understand a word of what we were saying.

As I watch with rising alarm the fog of imminent war distort people’s vision and compassion, I cannot help but recall this conversation. I wonder whether this young woman is managing to cling on to her admirable compassion and humility, when those around her are losing theirs, or has it too fallen victim to this senseless confrontation?

The first victim of war, it is rightly said, is truth, but its second casualty is humanity. The demonisation, hatred, vitriol and jingoism that has been fired indiscriminately and disproportionately in recent days has been troubling. Personally, though I have felt fury at Israel’s vicious “send Gaza back to the middle ages” military offensive against a captive civilian population – not to mention anger with Palestinian militants for also targeting civilians – I am determined not to allow this to darken my view of ordinary Israelis.

This latest conflagration confounded me but it did not surprise me.

It did not surprise me because we have been here before – in 2006 in Lebanon and 2008-9 in Gaza, to name just two examples, when the Cain of senselessness murdered the Abel of sensibility. The timing was also no big surprise. The smokescreen of military confrontation is a powerful political ploy because it can turn political villains into heroes and discontented citizens into loyal soldiers, silencing growing dissent in the ranks – although it can backfire or blow up in its user’s hands, as discovered by Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2009.

Although this brewing war is ostensibly about the security of Israel, it is, in reality, more about the insecurity of the Israeli government at the ballot box, faced as it has been with growing social unrest, economic dissatisfaction, widening inequality and increasing public fury at the fiscal black hole opened up by settlement subsidies. How else can we explain Israel’s infuriating decision to murder its “subcontractor” in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari, who was, reportedly, on the verge of sealing a permanent truce with Israel?

On the other side of the fence, Hamas has been facing growing popular discontent – with a recent poll suggesting that it would receive just 31% of the popular vote in Gaza, and considerably less in the West Bank, if suspended elections were held – particularly since the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, and especially amongst young people. Although it was elected for its apparent lack of corruption and cronyism, now that Hamas is the uncontested master of Gaza, it has been guilty of severe abuses of power and human rights violations. Hamas is also far less tolerant of dissent than Fatah.

Though the current fighting does not surprise me, it does confound me. It confounds me because if Israeli and Gazan leaders are truly sincere in their claims that they seek to defend their people, then why have they not yet recognised that attack is the worst form of defence, at least in this conflict?

What have Israel’s many long campaigns of violence against Hamas achieved? The previous Gaza war did not accomplish its intended objective of destroying Hamas, nor did it halt the flow of rockets into Israel. All it succeeded in doing was to increase the quotient of human misery in Gaza, and with it the measure of hostility and distrust towards Israel among Palestinians and Arabs. This current campaign is about restoring “deterrence”, we’re told, but the greatest deterrent effect it is likely to have is to deter even more of the world from viewing Israel with sympathy or compassion.

More broadly, Israel’s other attempts to destroy Hamas by other means have backfired spectacularly, and though they may serve the interests of extremists, they do little to enhance the security and well-being of ordinary Israelis.

Take the blockade on Gaza. While it has been very effective at increasing the destitution and despair of the average Gazan, it has done very little to weaken Hamas’s hold on power. In fact, tightening the screws on the Strip has led us from a situation in which Hamas had to share power with Fatah – and signal its willingness, now that it was actually in power, to act more pragmatically – to one in which the Islamist movement became the only show in town in Gaza and its position has re-hardened.

Hamas’s violence has also paid precious few dividends to the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people in general. Though some see Hamas’s behaviour as a heroic form of resistance against the humiliation and oppression of occupation, what good has this supposed heroism done Gazans or the Palestinian cause? Ever since Hamas tacitly joined forces with extremists Israelis to assassinate the (admittedly flawed) peace process, Israel has seen to it that the situation of Gazans has deteriorated immensely.

That is not to say that resistance is futile. On the contrary, if Palestinians are to secure their human rights, resistance is necessary. But in a situation where they are by far the weaker party militarily, they will never be able to match Israeli firepower, so they need to unleash the most potent weapon in their arsenal: peaceful people power, which is more suited to the political nature of the conflict.

The relative potency of this weapon can be seen when you compare the peaceful first intifada with the violent second intifada: the first uprising effectively brought Israel to its knees, while the second brought the Palestinians to theirs. And since the second intifada died down Palestinian peace activists have been rediscovering and reasserting the power of non-violent resistance.

While non-violence has received a lot of attention in the Palestinian context, when it comes to Israelis, it has received precious little. This is reflected in the fact that while most Israelis agree, and urge, the Palestinians to abandon violence, they cling on to the right to use it themselves, as illustrated by the overwhelming support for the previous Gaza war among the Israel public.

But the rejection of violence is as important a creed for Israelis as it is for Palestinians, even if they are militarily the more powerful. In this asymmetric conflict, there can be no winners because the more Israel destroys, the more it bolsters Palestinian determination to resist and the more it isolates itself internationally. More importantly, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ultimately political, and not military, it cannot and will not be decided on the battlefield, no matter how long the hawks deny this basic law of nature.

Recognising this important truth, a  resident of a kibbutz near the border with Gaza urged the Israeli government, despite the rockets which have landed in her backyard: “If you want to defend me… try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney.”

In my view, the best way to defend the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is through a complete rejection by the public of violence, not only that committed by the other side, which is easy, but also, more significantly, that perpetrated by your own. Once the cycle of violence is broken for long enough, the two sides can gradually shift from resistance of the other to coexistence with one another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 November 2012.

 

 

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Settlers for Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

Israeli settlements are one of the greatest obstacles to peace, but could settlers also help build a Palestinian state?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank revealed that the “Israeli government rejects the two-state solution” and that if no action was taken urgently, the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel would become “extremely difficult if not impossible”.

It is not only Palestinians who see Israeli settlements as one of the main obstacles to peace – the international community does too, as do many Israeli peace activists. Personally, I have been convinced for many years now that the race against space to implement the two-state solution has been lost.

Today, more than half a million Israeli settlers live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In what the Oslo Accords calls Area C – which makes up 60% of the West Bank and would provide the bulk of the land upon which the Palestinian state would be built – there are currently twice as many settlers as Palestinians (300,000 v 150,000), and Israel controls 70% of this territory.

Despite these facts on the ground, there is a small but growing group of religious settlers who believes not only that they are not an impediment to peace, but that they can help build it. This movement is led by the charismatic and influential Rabbi Menachem Froman.

Rabbi Froman cuts an unlikely figure as a peace activist. He is an ideological settler, yet believes in the two-state solution along the pre-1967 Green Line. He is one of the founders of the messianic, religious settler movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and supports continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, yet believes in and promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs.

Adding to his maverick credentials, Froman was friends with the late Yasser Arafat and met regularly with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He is also close to Abbas, meets regularly with Binyamin Netanyahu, and negotiated, along with Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, which would have ended the blockade on Gaza, to which the Islamist group agreed but Israel simply ignored.

This renegade rabbi so intrigued me that I visited him, along with an American-Israeli filmmaker making a documentary about this enigmatic figure, in his modest home in Tekoa, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem.

So, how does Rabbi Froman propose to square the circle between his support for Jewish settlements and Palestinian statehood? Religious Muslims and Jews believe, he says, “that this land is holy… that this land belongs to God. This can be a very strong basis for peace”.

In his view, since it is the land itself that is holy and not the political structure governing it, settlers should be given the choice to become part of a Palestinian state or move to Israel. Froman also believes that the presence of an Arab minority in Israel and a Jewish minority in Palestine would have the additional benefit of promoting tolerance and understanding between the two neighbouring countries.

The Palestinian Authority has, on a number of occasions, floated the possibility that Israeli settlers can be given the option to live under Palestinian sovereignty. However, this option elicits fears. Palestinians worry that the settlers would remain Israeli citizens and hold on to their privileged status, as well as possibly provide Israel with an excuse to carry out military incursions, even invasions, at will on the pretext of looking after the interests of the Jews there.

I asked Rabbi Froman whether, in his vision, the settlers would become Palestinian citizens and live according to Palestinian law, and whether the settlements would become mixed neighbourhoods for all. “Yes, yes, yes,” he responded emphatically. “The keyword here is to be open, to be free.”

Froman’s vision chimes with that of some pro-Palestinian Israeli leftists. However, even many of Rabbi Froman’s neighbours – such as the American settler who expressed his disapproval of the Rabbi’s politics to us when we asked him for directions – do not agree with him. Economic settlers are unlikely to want to become Palestinian citizens, though they could more easily be persuaded to move under the right conditions.

Ideological settlers, who generally see the land and Israel’s control over it as vital, do not share Froman’s vision. “I reject the two-state solution,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the radical settlers in Hebron, told me some months ago. “I want to live in Israel. I came to live in Israel, under Jewish leadership. I didn’t come to live under the rule of anybody else, certainly not an Arab.”

“The question is not the Palestinian attitude,” Rabbi Froman freely acknowledges. “The question is the Israelis: if Israel and Israeli settlers are ready to be part of the Palestinian state.”

But he believes that, once they overcome their fear and distrust, people can be persuaded. “It’s all a matter of confidence,” the rabbi insists, his bright blue eyes glimmering energetically in his ailing frame, as his body gradually succumbs to cancer. And it is building this foundation of trust that the rabbi is dedicating his remaining time to. “I have not got long now,” he reflects sadly.

Rabbi Froman is also a strong believer in the power of religion to help resolve the conflict and build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. This, you could say, was something of a revelation to me, as I have long viewed religion, though it is often only used as a pretext by fundamentalists, as a major stumbling block on the path to peace – it is what I call the “God veto”.

In fact, Froman believes that one major factor behind the failure of the peace process is that it ignored or did not pay enough attention to the religious dimension. “[Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin used to say to me: ‘I and you, Hakham [Rabbi] Froman, can make peace in five minutes, because both of us are religious.’”

The very idea that an Orthodox rabbi and an Islamist sheikh would engage in dialogue, let alone believe that they can resolve a conflict that has defied everyone else for decades, is likely to confound both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the renegade rabbi observes. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Despite his fine words, I left the meeting sceptical that Froman’s vision would, especially in the current climate, attract many takers. However, our encounter did drive home some important lessons: the situation is never black and white, peacemakers can be found in the most unlikely places, and that we must understand the obstacles to peace if we ever hope to remove them.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 12 October 2012.

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Ill-gotten pains

 
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By Khaled Diab

Children are the innocent victims and future perpetrators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For their sake, a political solution must be found.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Two attacks in August have shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. First, there was the firebombing of a taxi in the West Bank, believed to have been carried out by settlers, which injured six members of a Palestinian family, including two critically.

The second attack, widely described as a lynching, occurred just hours later in downtown West Jerusalem, where a mob set on a small group of young Palestinians, beating Jamal Julani to within an inch of his life. Some reports even suggest that Julani would have died had it not been for the intervention of an Israeli medical student, who resuscitated him.

Despite recriminations, these two tragedies have resulted in a rare moment of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the vast majority of whom are disgusted by the attacks, with even senior figures in the normally anti-Palestinian Likud strongly condemning the actions.

Much of the public debate has focused on whether these attacks were surprising and if they constituted “terrorism”, but one interesting aspect which has largely eluded discussion is the alleged perpetrators’ ages. In both incidents, the suspects who have been arrested so far are minors.

Although this may shock many, it is not really that surprising when one scratches a little beneath the surface. Adolescence is a tough phase to live through in the best circumstances. It is a period when the uncertainties of physical metamorphosis and its accompanying identity crises lead some to take shelter in the certainties of black-and-white beliefs, and it is also when hormonal upheavals can surge up into eruptions of aggression and recklessness.

Add to this a few measures of old-fashioned tribalism, stoked by deep-seated racism – as reflected by one suspect in the “lynching” claiming that Julani “could die for all I care – he’s an Arab” – and dehumanisation that decades of conflict create, and you have a highly combustible and volatile brew.

Moreover, the toxic political environment, in which young people seem to be guaranteed cradle-to-grave conflict, plays a significant role in poisoning young minds. Not only does this toxicity drive youngsters towards lashing out at the “enemy”, it might also be pushing them towards generally more aggressive and violent behaviour.

According to a new study – which was conducted by a team of American, Israeli and Palestinian researchers – there is a correlation between violent behaviour in Palestinian and Israeli children and their exposure to political violence, especially for those who witness it from a very young age. This phenomenon is “more severe” than a contagious disease, one of the American academics behind the study claimed.

“It is well known that there are victims in every war, but mostly we think of direct victims,” said Simcha Landau, one of the Israeli scientists involved. “But we found that children who are exposed to violence are indirect victims, and that exposure to violence has results on the ground.”

Other studies have revealed that, while the conflict affects Palestinian children disproportionately, neither side is immune to its psychological trauma. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is, sadly, far too common among children on both sides of the Green Line. PTSD is particularly bad during periods of increased violence or in hotspots like Gaza, where the highest incidence is reported, and its Israeli neighbour Sderot.

As someone who grew up in peaceful societies, I can hardly fathom what childhood must be like for a Gazan child who has had to live through the incomprehensible devastation and terror of invasions and incursions, blockade and bombardment, demolitions and destitution. Likewise, I can only begin to comprehend the terrifying fear and confusion a child in Sderot – where the economic destitution suffered there is not a million miles away from that in Gaza – must experience when confronted with the regular whistling of air raid sirens, the long hours spent in bomb shelters and the barrages of inaccurate Kassam rockets – which, though puny when compared to Israel’s formidable arsenal, are nonetheless traumatic.

Although I have little sympathy for their elders, life for the offspring of radical settlers must, on so many levels, be horrendous. Not only have they, like children in general, no say in where they are born and little chance to move away even if they want to, they find themselves, inexplicably to their young minds, living in heavily guarded fortresses as unwelcome invaders and indoctrinated to hate their neighbours.

Despite the detrimental effects of political violence on children and its highly dubious efficacy in resolving this longstanding dispute, it remains alluring to influential groups on both sides. Why is this?

Part of the reason is the simple cyclical nature of violence – with one act begetting another, with every attack a “response” to an earlier atrocity or outrage – especially in such an apparently intractable context, where squaring the circle of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian demands has eluded all.

But beyond that there is an ideological and psychological underbelly. Although violence has been generally low intensity – the total death toll over the past century is less than a bad week in the trenches of World War I – it has been a terribly entrenched facet of the conflict, guaranteed to flare up into major confrontations at regular intervals.

This is partly because modern Jewish and Arab nationalism were born at a time when violence and militarism were glorified and fetishised, and they haven’t been able to move beyond this significantly. Even though non-violence has made significant headway, it has not yet laid down deep roots, with Israeli pacifists making exceptions for futile acts of destructive violence that they regard as legitimate, such as the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and Palestinian advocates of non-violence stressing to their critics that armed resistance targeted at non-civilians, though legitimate, has become ineffective.

Perhaps paradoxically, the fixation on violence is borne out of a sense of weakness and vulnerability on both sides. Though Israel enjoys unchallenged military superiority, the historic weight of enduring regular oppression, pogroms and the Holocaust, not to mention (diminishing) regional rejection, casts a long shadow over the Israeli psyche. Ideologically, this sense of insecurity has translated into Zionism’s determination to create the muscular, tough Jew and the conviction among many Israelis that overwhelming force is the answer to everything, and those who question the wisdom of this are dismissed by hawks as weak ditherers and self-haters. In violence, there is redemption for past weakness and prevention of future catastrophe.

In a similar vein, Palestinians for centuries have lived like strangers on their own land, ruled from distant imperial capitals and controlled by oft-cruel governors who cared little for their well-being and treated them like chattel to be profited from, especially during the brutal death throes of the once tolerant Ottoman Empire. When the British took over Palestine, instead of granting it independence, and promised it too, at least in part, to the Zionists, this led to the conviction among Palestinian radicals that “what was taken by force can only be regained by force”, and the humiliating string of defeats has made the redemptive power of force all the more alluring in the minds of extremists, especially since moderates have so far failed to deliver any significant successes.

 However, these beliefs and attitudes are highly destructive because in a political conflict of this nature only enlightened political solutions can work, while violence only begets more violence as it draws new generations into its unforgiving vortex. For the sake of the children and future generations, Israelis and Palestinians must unequivocally reject violence, not because they are cowards, but because they are brave. It takes true courage to lay down your arms and open your arms to embrace your long-time enemy in peace.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2012.

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Nearly sisters: the common cause of Israeli and Palestinian women

 
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By Khaled Diab

The fog of war obscures the similar challenges facing women in Israel and Palestine and how the conflict hinders them from finding common cause.

Monday 13 August 2012

A photo of a presumed Israeli soldier exercising her right to bare arms – and legs and midriff – with a machine gun slung casually over her shoulder has gone viral.

While supporters of Israel have seized on this image to talk up the virtues of the IDF, pro-Palestinians are bound to view this as an attempt to sex up the ugly reality of the harsh occupation – after all, regardless of how “sexy” an assault rifle-bikini combo on a Tel Aviv beach seems to distant voyeurs, relocate it to a West Bank checkpoint, and it rapidly loses its questionable charm.

As the proud ‘Only in Israel’ caption accompanying the snapshot clearly demonstrates, this modern-day Jewish Amazon confirms Israel’s image amongst its cheerleaders as the land of tough, independent and sexy women who are every bit their men’s equal, unlike those oppressed, repressed and depressed Arab women.

Of course, like with all myths, there is a kernel of truth to this. Secular Israeli women are, judging by what I’ve seen, probably the most independent and empowered women in the Middle East, but their Palestinian “sisters” are hardly pushovers, as I’ve found out for myself through encounters with eccentrically philosophical doctors and capable professionals, frontline activists, articulate artists, and more.

Besides, there is, quite literally, another Israel. Only 60-odd km away from “decadent” and “hedonistic” Tel Aviv, lies “holy” Jerusalem, a theocratic stone’s throw away from Tehran. In the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, where vigilante modesty patrols intimidate the streets, women must dress modestly, are segregated from men during religious festivals, often occupy the back of the bus, and their ‘offensive’ form is effaced from posters.

The main difference between Jewish and Muslim (and Christian too) patriarchy in the Holy Land is less one of substance and more about fashion – hijabs vs wigs and scarves. For moderately religious Jews, shorter skirts are ‘in’ and trousers are ‘sin’, while the fashion-conscious ‘muhajaba’ will don skin-tight jeans but not bare any part of her legs.

But fashion tastes amongst the ultra-conservative are converging, as reflected by the tiny but growing minority of Jewish women choosing to dress in Islamic-style black niqabs and loose gowns to protect their “chastity”. The Rabbinate has become so alarmed by this development that it has condemned this practice as a form of veiled sexual deviancy, though the leader of the “Jewish burqa” movement insists that it is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Of course, the public role some women play in fundamentalist Jewish and Islamic movements could be viewed as an emancipation of sorts, even if they do preach what secularists like myself view as the subjugation of women, but which they see as respect and honour.

Besides, even among secularists, chauvinism is not always far beneath the surface. Take the supposedly emancipating image of the bikini-clad soldier. While male fighters tend to be celebrated for their courage and bravery, the fawning, fondling hand of misogyny ensures that this “hot chick” is praised for her “Guns’n’Buns” and for putting the “ass in assassin”.

Similarly, while hard-talking male journalists the world over are often widely admired, even by their detractors, it can be a different story for women. Lisa Goldman, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the independent leftwing +972 magazine, complained of the naked misogyny and the very personal nature of the attacks she has to endure from opponents. “The criticism directed at me is harsher than that directed at my male colleagues who often write more radical stuff than I do,” she told me.

Now back to the machine gun. The spectacle of women bearing arms in the Middle East is hardly unique to Israel (where women, with the exception of one infantry battalion, are actually not allowed to serve in combat), though in the Arab context, such as in Algeria, it has tended to be as paramilitaries.

The “poster girl” of Palestinian armed resistance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, heading from Rome to Athens – though it should be pointed out that she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, the passengers. Although Israelis regard Khaled as terrorism personified, photos of her – smiling enigmatically or staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin – have become iconic in many Palestinian circles.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, and in a similar vein to early secular Zionism, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

The unfolding reality of the conflict has both empowered and weakened women on both sides. An example of this is how Palestinian women have been empowered enough to take to the streets to protest the occupation but are, along with their families and male comrades who “let” them go out, mocked mercilessly by conservatives for emasculating the struggle and trying to usurp what should be men’s work, activists have told me.

And things are not improving or are getting worse, especially in Gaza.

“Palestinian women are highly educated but the positions they occupy are not commensurate to their abilities,” says Nancy Sadiq, who runs a pro-democracy and peace NGO, Panorama, in Ramallah. “At meetings or conferences, I am invariably one of the only women there.”

“In general, a woman tends be to a second-class citizen, whether here or in Israel, though Israeli women have better legal, social and economic rights. The difference is one of degree,” she adds.

In fact, machismo has been prevalent in Zionism which, after all, has sought to craft the tough and muscular new Jew who would never again go like a “lamb to the slaughter”. Even the ostensibly egalitarian kibbutzim were not able to dispel fully the spectre of traditional gender roles. This was something which shocked my compatriot, the maverick adventurer Sana Hasan, the first Egyptian civilian to visit Israel, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the two countries were still in a state of war. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical,” she wrote.

The conflict has threatened the gains Israeli and Palestinian women have registered, partly due to the rise in importance of “traditional values” and the religious fundamentalism which it has engendered. Though fundamentalism is partially a reaction to the insecurity bred by modernity, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is also a response to victory and defeat.

Fundamentalists and religious conservatives often connect Arab weakness to “immorality” and displeasing God. And returning to the “straight path”, in this worldview, involves restoring women’s “honour”. In addition, living under the autocracy of occupation, much like living under dictatorship, robs people of their freewill and men of their perceived “manhood”, leading many to exercise control over all that’s left to them: women and children.

But Israel’s victories and might have not enabled women to cast off the suffocating straitjacket of religious patriarchy. On the contrary, the idea that the whimsical Abrahamic God is apparently smiling on Israel has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, much of it messianic in nature. As the demographic balance between “secular” and “religious” gradually shifts in the latter’s favour, the importance of women living by the laws of the Torah and Halakha is growing. Although Orthodox women now have the opportunity to study Rabbinic texts and train in particular areas of Jewish law, the basic outlines of the traditional patriarchy still remain intact in religious circles.

The fog of conflict obscures the fact that the gender wars in Israel and Palestine are remarkably similar, and that Arab and Jewish women share much in common in their struggle against the patriarchal order. In a less polarised context, women on both sides of the divide might have found common cause in their struggle against the wave of increasingly rigid religiosity, and its accompanying gender restrictions, engulfing both societies.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 9 August 2012.

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Principle and pragmatism demand end to Gaza blockade

 
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By Khaled Diab

Both humanity and self-interest should compel Israel to end its inhumane siege of Gaza.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Last Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Israel’s imposition of a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. Although the land, sea and air blockade has not made Israelis any safer or enhanced Israel’s security, it has had a clear humanitarian and economic impact on Gazans.

Take Khaleel Zaanin, 45, a once-thriving Palestinian farmer who has been reduced to subsistence farming because most of his land (37 out of almost 45 acres) falls within the buffer zone, or access restricted area, which Gazans are not allowed to enter.

“I had a great business in citrus, my life was very good. I used to employ 30 workers and export to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank,” recalls Zaanin, who is one of a number of Gazans profiled by a coalition of international development agencies. “Now, I work by myself, just planting vegetables for local sale.”

Zaanin’s situation is hardly unique. In fact, an estimated 35% of Gaza’s already limited arable land and most of its fishing waters lie within the buffer zone. In addition, the Israeli blockade, through severe restrictions on imports and exports, has triggered the almost complete collapse of Gaza’s industrial sector.

One study estimates that the blockade costs Gaza’s 1.6 million residents, over half of whom are children, nearly $2 billion a year. This has created a dependence on aid where little existed before. A decade ago, only one in ten Gazans required assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees. Today, some three-quarters are dependent on aid for their survival.

The service sector has been affected just as badly as manufacturing, with perhaps the only people turning a handsome profit being those who run the smuggling networks. Small businesses have been hit hard, with many going under and even the most resourceful entrepreneurs struggling to stay afloat.

Consider Hind Amal, a divorcee and mother of four, who runs a beauty supply store as part of her grand plan to “move forward” and “be a provider and role model for my children”. Her business was such a roaring success after she first set it up in 2006 that she was able to pay back the loan she had taken out to set it up and turn a profit.

However, the blockade meant that she was unable to import the cosmetics her business sold and her customers could no longer afford them. With necessity driving this mother to invention, Amal started producing her own homemade cosmetics in a bid to keep her head above water and provide for her family.

Though the Israeli public tends to associate Gaza with dangerous men in beards and blood-curdling fanaticism, the vast majority of the Strip’s residents are very ordinary people living under the extraordinary circumstances of almost complete isolation from the outside world.

In fact, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the average Gazan are so mundanely human that it would be difficult for Israelis not to be able to relate to them. “My dream is for the Gaza airport to open again, to have open borders so we can travel,” admits Alaa al-Najjar (23), and not because he wishes to go on holiday or see the world, but “to get treatment for my brother whom I love very much”.

Like for Israelis, family is foremost in the minds of Palestinians in Gaza. “My dream was to give [my five children] a good and decent life. But I couldn’t do any of that,” says Jamal al-Za’aneen (60) who regrets that he was unable to help his children get married and find homes for themselves.

On the back of the blockade and following the pummelling Gaza received during what Israel calls Operation Cast Lead, the Strip is suffering a severe housing crisis. International organisations estimate that Gaza needs at least 71,000 additional housing units, mainly to accommodate natural population growth, but also to rebuild homes destroyed during Israeli military operations. For example, one recent survey found that 15,000 people who lost their homes during Operation Cast Lead remain displaced.

And it is this very tragic human impact of the blockade that should appeal to the common humanity that stretches across even enemy lines and awaken Israelis from their lethargy towards the crimes being committed in their name in Gaza.

Since Israel imposed its blockade, there has been a heated debate over whether or not it is illegal. Questions of legality aside, the real question should be whether or not it is just. As someone who opposes collective punishment, including the blanket Arab cultural boycott of Israel, I believe the blockade is unethical and immoral.

Of course, there will be those who will immediately raise objections and say that the embargo is only in place to protect Israel’s security. Though Israeli concerns over the safety of communities bordering Gaza are valid, how exactly does banning tinned fruit while permitting tinned meat and tuna protect Israel? Is the mighty IDF worried that Palestinian militants, short on rockets, will start firing expired peach chunks across the border?

There are those who argue that the blockade is in place to contain or even destroy Hamas. If that is the intention, then the plan has dramatically backfired. Tightening the screws on Gaza led from a situation in which Hamas won 44.45% of the votes and had to share power with Fatah to one in which it became the only show in town in Gaza. This is partly because, as Israelis well know from personal experience, a people which feels that it is unfairly under attack tends to close ranks and band together.

Additionally, economic destitution and despair usually lead to greater radicalisation and extremism, not the opposite. It is in Israel’s interest to live next door to Palestinians who are materially comfortable and in contact with the outside world.

Moreover, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, yet what effect have these had? Far more productive, as even a growing number of Israelis are now arguing, would be to engage with Hamas and empower the pragmatists within the movement who are willing to accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.

Israelis pride themselves on their sense of morality, which they believe the world unfairly ignores. Well, it is time for them to display this sense of Jewish integrity and demand en masse that their government lift the blockade. It’s the only principled thing to do – and it is in Israel’s own self-interest to boot.

In a short story by an Israeli boy from Sderot, he imagined accidentally flying his remote-controlled plane over Gaza where he inadvertently bombed – or, more accurately, bon-bonned – the Palestinians with his payload of sweets, which led to such joy that everyone dropped their weapons, and peace reigned.

Though this may appear “naïve” to seasoned and cynical adults, this boy had the right idea: the key to this conflict lies in human kindness not inhumane hostility.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 20 June 2012.

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