Marching for Gaza and towards the third intifada

 
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By Khaled Diab

Does the largest Palestinian protest in  recent memory, along with weeks of unrest sparked by Gaza and racist hate crimes, indicate that the long-expected next intifada is here?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 July 2014

It was billed as the “march of the 48,000”. Although the actual number was probably lower, with some estimates placing it at over 20,000, it was still the largest protest anyone could remember attending in many long years.

The demonstrators had come out in support of the people of Gaza, who have been under relentless Israeli military assault for the better part of three weeks, leaving at least 789 people dead, some three-quarters of whom have been civilians. The day of the protest also proved to be one of the bloodiest in Gaza, with well over 100 falling prey to the Israeli offensive, including at least 16 taking shelter in an UNRWA school.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Under the slogan “We are all Gaza,” people from all walks of life walked together from the Am’ari refugee camp in Ramallah to the Qalandia checkpoint… and onwards towards Jerusalem, the organisers wished.

Among the crowds were young and old, rich and poor, men and a surprisingly high proportion of women, not just the hip and revolutionary but also the mainstream muhajabat. People chanted slogans and sang songs in support of Gaza, with a small minority even singing about Qassams falling on Tel Aviv.

There was an ocean of Palestinian flags of all sizes being waved by the crowd, in a display of proud national identity targeted most likely at the hated symbol of the occupation towards which they were marching: the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, the barrier keeping Palestinians of the West Bank out of Jerusalem, unless they have a hard-to-come-by permit. There were also a handful of green Hamas flags.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we neared our destination, it was more like we were approaching the gates of hell. Thick clouds of black smoke were emanating from the area just before the checkpoint, the product it was clear of the dozens of large tyres which had been dropped off a truck as we’d passed earlier towards the starting point.

Like the majority of the crowd, we stopped short of the inferno and did not venture further, though we stayed as close as possible to see what was going on. A different variety of protester was rushing in to this uninviting hellhole: hardcore, young, almost exclusively male (though I thought I glimpsed a woman), faces concealed behind keffiyehs, masks, scarfs or any other improvised facial covering. Young men determined to get to Jerusalem that night.

In addition to the thick smoke, fireworks were being let off by protesters to confuse the riot police who, in turn, were firing flares, pointing menacing-looking and powerful lasers, shooting ample supplies of teargas and, most troublingly of all, they went so far as to shoot live rounds. As we stood there, a constant stream of wounded men was being carried away from the frontline and towards the ambulances.

At first, this was an orderly affair carried out solely by medics. But soon, as the casualties mounted, panicked, shaken young men were carrying out their own fallen, calling out desperately for ambulances and medical attention, which they soon received. We must have seen at least 50 wounded men pass us, including at least one that seemed to have a live-fire wound in his leg. In total, two died and 287 were injured that evening.

With our route to Jerusalem blocked and not wanting nor needing to take the path chosen by these daring and courageous youngsters, we hunted around for an alternative route. My friend, Ibrahim, suggested there must be a way around the clashes through the Qalandia refugee camp.

Finding a way through the warren of alleyways proved a challenge, but the locals were very helpful, from an old man who told us to scale a certain wall to a group of men who scored a lift with an AP cameraman for us. Despite our caution, we still got a couple of personalised teargas canisters shot in our direction when we got out of the car, forcing us to leap, choking into the first available vehicle that could take us to Hizma, and from there back to Jerusalem.

The large number of protesters at this demo, the numerous other protests and clashes going on that night and the following day – not to mention the weeks of unrest we have had since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens unleashed a wave of hate and crackdowns against Palestinians, culminating in the racist murder of a Palestinian youth – could be an indication that the long-expected third intifada is final here.

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Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

In order bring a halt to the multiplying human tragedy in Gaza, the Arab League should convene an emergency summit there. 

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Monday 21 July 2014

Sunday was the bloodiest day of fighting since Israel lauched what it calls Operation Protective Edge. In almost two week, some 375 Palestinians, including 270 civilians, and 20 Israeli, including 2 civilians, have been killed, according to the United Nations.

The Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby described Israel’s shelling of the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza which killed at least 62 Palestinians on Sunday as a “war crime“. Despite this, the League has done precious little to intervene, beyond holding a foreign ministers meeting last week and urging international protection for Gaza’s civilians.

Well, this is just where our fine Arab leaders can really throw their weight and show us their mettle by acting as human shields.

Instead of foreign ministers meeting to discuss Gaza in Cairo, the Arab League’s heads of state and government should gather in Gaza itself in what would certainly constitute an “extraordinary session” in both word and deed.

Like the courageous international activists holed up in a Gaza hospital to protect it against planned Israeli airstrikes, Arab leaders can become a highly potent and symbolic human shield to protect the vulnerable and captive population of Gaza.

Just picture the scene. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the two King Abdullahs and other Arab leaders pass through the hermetically sealed Rafah crossing in a long and snaking motorcade which is met by a weary but relieved crowd pleased that the Arab world has finally showed its solidarity with them in such a high-profile manner.

In a show of sympathy with the suffering population, they could also visit hospitals, destroyed homes and grieving families. This would not only win them plaudits in Palestinian circles but also with their own publics at home.

The deployment of such a top-level Arab peace corps would almost certainly bring about a ceasefire, as the possible death of a president or monarch would constitute too great a risk for Israel, which wouldn’t want to widen the scope of the conflict. As for Hamas, it would, after such a spectacular gesture, want to keep fellow Arab leaders on side as it seeks to emerge from its international and regional isolation.

On the Gazan-Israeli front, which is stuck in a short-play time loop that is gradually spiralling towards total disaster, a cessation of hostilities will not be sufficient to stop history from repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.

In Gaza, the assembled Arab leaders with a mandate from the rest of the Arab League should offer to help the UN assemble a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force which would be deployed along all Gaza’s borders. Its mission would be to stop the targeting of civilians, which constitutes a war crime for both sides, albeit of hugely varying magnitudes, since Israel has only had two civilian death so far.

The blue helmets would, first and foremost, protect Gaza’s vulnerable and besieged civilians from the wounding trauma of being trapped and under attack. In addition, the international force would protect the socially marginalised and economically deprived residents of southern Israel from the militant rockets which – though they have caused only a fraction of the deaths and damage that results from Israel’s far superior firepower – nonetheless have resulted in significant fear, especially among children. These civilians deserve to live in security.

More importantly, Gaza needs to emerge from its isolation, which is both inhumane and has caused a humanitarian disaster. At the extraordinary session in Gaza, Egypt should indicate that, for the sake of the people of Gaza and regardless of what Cairo thinks of the Hamas regime, it will unilaterally end its side of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while the Arab league would announce the creation of a special Gaza fund to rebuild the battered strip and its shattered economy. This should be the minimum Arabs aim for, and bringing Gaza into the Arab fold can be achieved without Israel’s acquiescence or co-operation.

Beyond this, the Arab League should demand Israel to follow suit and end its sea and land blockade of Gaza and any future military operations there, in return for guarantees that Gaza-based militants will stop attacks against Israel. The details of such a wide-ranging package can be hammered out in Cairo between representatives of Hamas and Israel, whom, given the hostility between the two sides, can convene separately under Egyptian auspices.

More fundamentally, the League could use this golden and highly symbolic opportunity in Gaza to go over the heads of Israel’s intransigent and extremist government to appeal directly to the Israeli electorate and public by re-floating its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel comprehensive peace in return for a comprehensive settlement.

It is highly improbable that the vision I have outlined here will have many takers or stands much of a chance of success, as there are too many barriers which stand in the way. These include the Israeli government’s intransigence and ultra-nationalism, Hamas’s re-emerging radicalism and traditional rejectionist stance towards peace efforts, despite its indication that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, divisions within Palestinian ranks, despite the recent national unity agreement, and the current turbulent and divided nature of the wider Arab world.

Nevertheless, what I seek to demonstrate with this thought experiment and wishful mental exercise is that, without creative and fundamental solutions to the Gaza question and the wider conflict, history will continue to repeat itself indefinitely, while the human tragedy will multiply and mushroom.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Daily News Egypt on 15 July 2014.

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From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

 
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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

The other tragedies make it is easy to forget Gaza. But with a humanitarian crisis and rising tensions, it’s time to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

These days it seems that Gaza only makes it on to the mainstream Western media’s radar when it involves rocket attacks or just simply rockets.

This was amply demonstrated this week, when the media took a brief break from Syria and the Ukraine to train their lens on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, Gazan militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, causing no casualties. Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike which killed three of its members a day earlier.

On Monday, Israel displayed an arms shipment it had intercepted which it said was Iranian and destined for Gaza.

Though this is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given Iran’s history of supporting Hamas, I find the claim unlikely, and that the arms were probably heading elsewhere. Firstly, relations between Iran and Hamas suffered a serious rift two years ago when Gaza’s leadership opposed Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the popular uprising against his regime, and efforts to mend fences have yet to deliver substantial results.

Tehran’s subsequent withdrawal of its financial support to the embattled Hamas government has caused enormous economic hardship for the Gazan population, over and above what it endures due to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. This is reflected in the 75% budget deficit Hamas announced for 2014, the regular 16-hour blackouts and the severe shortages Gazans must suffer.

Of course, it is possible that the arms were destined for one of Hamas’s more radical rivals, namely Islamic Jihad. However, the Israeli claim regarding the arms shipment also makes very little logistical sense.

The ship was intercepted in the Red Sea and IDF officials say that the arms were to be routed to Gaza overland via Sudan. This is a very risky and foolhardy proposition, and would almost certainly have guaranteed that the shipment was intercepted before it reached its final destination.

Port Sudan is over 1,300km away from Gaza and the huge expanse of mainland Egypt, which is hostile to Hamas, lies in-between. Any arms smuggler worth his or her salt would have docked somewhere in the increasingly lawless Sinai, where Islamist militants holed up there could’ve provided logistical support to get the weapons into Gaza – if that, indeed, was where they were bound.

Moreover, if Iran’s aim was to strike Israel, why bother with Gaza, whose border with Egypt has become more and more tightly sealed in recent months in the new regime’s bid to suffocate Hamas?

Israel identified the weapons onboard the seized vessel as being Syrian. Surely, it would have been much easier for Tehran to ask its ally in Damascus to fire these weapons into Israel across the Syrian border. If the attack was then blamed on Jihadist fighters, Iran would be able both to attack Israel by proxy while aiding its ally, Bashar al-Assad, in discrediting his enemies.

All this makes the Israeli claim that the shipment was destined for Gaza seem outlandish. So what is behind Israel’s insistence?

Part of the reason might relate to the atmosphere of public fear surrounding Iran in Israel, which does not invite a rational consideration of the evidence and facts.

For Israel’s leaders, political expediency seems to be a major factor. In his speech in Eilat, where the arms cache was presented to the international media, Binyamin Netanyahu sought to kill two birds with one stone.

First, he strove to stymie the growing rapprochement between Tehran and the West. “Just as Iran tried to camouflage this deadly weapons shipment, Iran camouflages its military nuclear programme,” the Israeli premier said, blasting Western leaders for their “hypocrisy” when “smilingly shaking hands” with Iranian leaders.

Second, the Israeli establishment used the arms shipment as an opportunity to fan the flames of distrust towards Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinians in general, partly to enrage and frighten a fearful domestic audience. “Each one of these rockets poses a threat to the safety of the citizens of Israel, each bullet and each rocket that was discovered had an Israeli address,” Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been quoted as saying.

This reflects Netanyahu’s own discourse on and attitude towards peace talks, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing actively through continuous shuttle diplomacy. If Israel signs a deal with the Palestinians “that peace will most certainly come under attack – constant attack by Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaeda and others,” the prime minister told the recent AIPAC annual conference.

And it isn’t just Kerry’s peace overtures that Netanyahu is resisting. Despite Washington’s own lethargy towards the humanitarian disaster zone that is Gaza, there is mounting international pressure to ease, or even lift, the blockade on the territory. Even the European Union is losing patience.

In a report released this week, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

But this is likely to fall on deaf ears in Israel, where public anger is simmering, blinding people to the true causes behind this dire situation.

It has long been my view that both principle and pragmatism demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It is the principled thing to do because collectively and severely punishing 1.7 million civilians is inhumane.

Pragmatic because such punishment is counterproductive. Although Gaza’stroubles pale in comparison with Syria’s, the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade have been building up over the years and continue to exact a heavy toll. Moreover, this has aroused little public protest in Israel, while the Egyptian public has gone from anger at the Mubarak regime’s complicity in the siege to cheering Egypt’s de facto leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as he raises the few drawbridges providing relief to this hostage population.

In Gaza, official unemployment runs at about a third of the population, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and almost a million of the Strip’s 1.7 million residents are expected to require food aid this year. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Although Israel has the right and duty to ensure the security of its citizens, Israel’s policy has failed to achieve any of its stated aims, and may even be radicalising a new generation of young Gazans who have seen nothing of Israel except its heavy boot. Egypt’s complicity in hurting a population only recently regarded as “Arab brothers” makes even less sense.

Besides, if it is a ceasefire that Israel is after, Hamas has respected the one brokered following the conflict of 2012.

This might suggest that Israel’s objectives go beyond stopping the rocket attacks and extend to destroying Hamas. But this is unlikely to work, as efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement — including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 — have only strengthened its grip on power.

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

In short, principle and pragmatism demand that both Israel and Egypt lift their inhuman and insane siege of Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

The outside world primarily see Palestinians as two-dimensional heroes or villains. A new generation of artists and writers is adding a vital third dimension, the human. 

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

Monday 3 March 2014

The Arab-Israeli conflict has cast such a long shadow over the Palestinians that it sometimes seems the outside world can only view this dynamic and diverse people through the prism of the conflict. This tension between the image of the Palestinian as freedom fighter, in one narrative, and as terrorist, in the other, distorts the far more important picture of the Palestinian as human being.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers who are challenging this superficial hero/villain dichotomy by delving deeper into the ordinary human experience, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.

In so doing, they are making the conflict the backdrop, rather than the central focus. “I have met people, many Palestinians, whom I have found quite heroic in a quotidian, no-glory kind of way,” reflects Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright. “They need to be fictionalised, as the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

And despite the temptation to communicate a “message,” Dabbagh has striven to avoid such two-dimensional flatness in her work. “I did start writing thinking [I have] a mission… but the more I wrote fiction, the more I realised that the message was dangerous,” she notes. “The characters have to live and breathe in a writer’s mind and rub off each other with love and conflict.”

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

And “love and conflict” are the themes of Dabbagh’s latest work, a BBC radio play. Although The Brick, which is set in Jerusalem, features checkpoints and permits, these provide the background scenery to a personal story of mundane routine pierced by shattering family revelations.

In Dabbagh’s well-received debut novel, Out of It, she also attempts this difficult juggling act of making the human speak louder than the sometimes deafening background drone of conflict.

Partly set in Gaza during the second intifada, the book strives to rise above the cacophony of conflict to delve into the human experience of a family of “returnees” trying to find escape, each in their own unique way – in England, in the Gulf or inside their minds.

Escapism, exile and return are, unsurprisingly, recurring themes in contemporary Palestinian literature, whether fictional or factual, as brought vividly and poetically, and sometimes humorously, to life by Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

But for real laughs, both tragicomic and absurdist, one should turn to architect-cum-writer Suad Amiry. Set during the second intifada in Ramallah, her debut autobiographical work blends dry, unvarnished humour with a sharp talent for storytelling.

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law hilariously juxtaposes two authoritarian figures restricting Amiry’s freedom: one a 91-year-old matriarch, the other a ruthless general-turned-politician in his 70s. “I ended up with two occupations, one inside the house, in the form of my mother in law, and another outside the house with Sharon’s army. And don’t embarrass me and ask which one was more difficult,” she joked on a long bus journey during which she reflected on life, architecture, politics and writing.

As if to answer her own question, Amiry adds, “Perhaps one day I may forgive you, the Israelis, for all the atrocities you have committed against us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law stay with me for 40 days under curfew – which felt like 40 years.”

sharonAs the Israeli army locked down Ramallah in 2002, Amiry’s mother-in-law was largely oblivious to the war zone around her, retreating into the protective shield of her marmalade-making routine. “In spite of the fact that we were under curfew, with no electricity and no TV, she still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us,” the perplexed daughter-in-law recalled.

To escape the fighting and curfew on the streets, Amiry mined this rich comedic material in e-mails sent out to her niece and friends which eventually became an unexpected hit when turned into book form, and not just in Europe but also in Israel.

The surreal moments Amiry recounts include a spontaneous outdoor “party” during which all her neighbours took to their roofs to bang on pots and pans in peaceful, if noisy, defiance of the curfew, and an incident in which she posed as her pet dog’s chauffeur to get into Jerusalem because Nura, the canine, had a Jerusalem pass while her mistress did not.

As if to prove that this was no beginner’s luck, Amiry, who is not only an architectural conservationist by profession but is also dyslexic, has followed up this success with highly innovative, original works.

In Nothing To Lose But Your Life, Amiry disguises herself as a man and embarks, with a group of illegal Palestinian workers, on an improbable, funny, dangerous and self-deprecating adventure into Israel in the dead of night. For her third book, she casts off her male disguise to explore life for middle-aged Palestinian women of the “PLO generation”, intriguingly titled Menopausal Palestine.

Efforts to reimagine the Palestinians through humour do not end with literature. A group of enterprising young Palestinians and Europeans is working on a humorous television soap opera, a genre long dominated by Egypt and Syria. “It’s a way of putting Palestinians on the map,” explains Pietro Bellorini, the director of the series. He adds that the production, which revolves around the lives and antics of an East Jerusalem family, will go beyond the serious but superficial Arab preoccupation with the occupation and familiarise the region with the funny and absurd side of life in this troubled and incredibly complex city.

Speed Sisters watermarkedLike Monty Python revolutionised the way we look at the crucifixion by reminding us to “always look on the bright side of life”, humour can play a powerful role in changing people’s consciousness through laughter. “We use humour because it is a very powerful tool,” Bellorini stresses. “It is a tool that allows you to say things that wouldn’t be accepted in a serious conversation.”

Beyond television, the visual and audiovisual arts are also doing their part to challenge prevalent perceptions. One recent example of this was a photographic project titled Occupied Pleasures, which attracted significant international media attention.

“Pleasures” is not a word most people associate with occupation. But the series features pleasurably unexpected images that shatter clichés, from hijabi women doing yoga on a West Bank mountaintop, to a tête-à-tête between a young man and his sheep in his car, to Ramallah girls getting ready for a night on the town, to Gazan bodybuilders striking poses, to a girl surfer waiting for a liberating wave to ride.

Speed Sisters Trailer (in Production) from SocDoc Studios on Vimeo.

Challenging prevailing stereotypes about Palestinian women has become a regular theme in numerous works. One prominent example is the documentary-in-the-making about the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s first all-female motor racing team.

“The first time I sat behind a steering wheel, I felt in control,” one of the Speed Sisters confessed to me. “Now every time I push down on the accelerator, I feel like a bird: free and fast. I feel like I want to move towards the future and break free of all the oppression and repression.”

Omar-posterThis longing to “break free” is, as you might expect, a common theme in Palestinian filmmaking, as captured in Elia Suleiman’s bleak and beautiful black comedy Divine Intervention, on love in the time of checkpoints.

Recent years have seen a surge in creative, critically acclaimed and award-winning Palestinian films. Even Hollywood seems to have, at least partly, overcome its traditional bias toward “reel bad Arabs” and has nominated the same Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad twice for an Oscar: for Paradise Now in 2006 and this year for his thriller Omar. Both delve into the human aspect of political violence, exploring the dark and the ironic.

“If you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world,” Abu-Assad told the audience at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The new constitution says Egypt is a “gift” that will “write a new history for humanity”. Should neighbours welcome or fear greater Egyptian influence?

Saturday 25 January 2014

For the past three years, Egyptian history has been in overdrive. After six decades with just four presidents, Egypt is already into its fourth leader since January 2011, and a fifth, possibly General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will take over the helm soon. In that same span of accelerated time, Egypt has seen a mind-spinning array of revolutions, counterrevolutions, anti-revolutions, coups, evolutions and devolutions… often simultaneously.

Needless to say, the past 36 months have been an emotional rollercoaster and space jump for Egyptians, especially those at the frontline of the revolution, but also for those, like me, observing from the sidelines.

Although I shun nationalism and the word  patriotism troubles me, during the 18 days it took to topple Hosni Mubarak, I was the proudest I’d ever been of my birth nationality. Despite dreading the hangover which would follow, I too was caught up in the euphoria of the moment, that “beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom”, as I wrote back then.

On this, the third anniversary of the mass uprising that has succeeded in mobilising millions again and again and again, the question on everyone’s lips is whether or not the Egyptian revolution has been defeated.

Though many have been reading the revolution its last rites, I am of the conviction that the uprising may have been contained for the time being, but the aspirations and it unleashed are uncontainable. And like “liberté, égalité, fraternité” survived to fight another day, “bread, freedom, dignity” will remain a rallying cry for generations.

Another question which has preoccupied many is what are the ramifications of events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, for the Middle East, and how will it shape or reshape Egypt’s regional role?

In some quarters of Egyptian society, the domestic issues the revolution has focused on have been rather too bread and butter for their tastes, and they dream of Egypt (re)gaining its regional clout.

This is reflected in the flowery, sometimes jingoistic preamble of the new constitution which takes poetic licence with Egypt’s place in the world. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile to Egyptians, and the gift of Egyptians to humanity,” reads the very first sentence of the constitution’s preamble.

Taking note of the conflicts between East and West, and North and South, which have torn apart the world, the founding document declares Egypt’s intention to help “write a new history for humanity”.

What is the likelihood that Egypt will fulfil these dizzyingly high aspirations?

Given that the world is a much bigger and more complicated place than at the dawn of civilisation and Egypt is only a middle-income, middle-sized country, any role it can play is bound to be limited, even at the best of times.

Nevertheless, many Arabs expect Egypt to play a central role in regional affairs. I am constantly surprised by the number of Palestinians I meet who regard Egypt’s natural position as the central player in the region, even repeating the tired platitude which I had once assumed was mostly a domestic comforter – that Egypt is the “Mother of the World”.

At one level, it is touching to observe how Palestinians, despite the multitude of problems they face, take such a keen interest in my country’s affairs, feeling elation for our successes and depression for our failures. “We have always looked to Egypt for inspiration and support,” one Palestinian I met recently told me.

The Israeli perspective is more complicated. Many Israelis, especially the young and progressive, voiced support for the Egyptian revolution and sent messages of solidarity, including in song, to the protestors, while the epicentre of the 2011 social protests in Israel, Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, was known as “Tahrir Square” to many demonstrators.

However, when it came to the Israeli political establishment, fear and fear-mongering were the order of the day. “I highly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will succeed, in a post-Mubarak democratic Egypt, of gaining complete control of the country through an Islamic counterrevolution,” I wrote before Mubarak’s downfall, in response to Israeli concerns that Egypt would become “another Iran”. “The cold Egyptian-Israeli peace would remain just as cool or may well chill a few degrees, regardless of the composition of a future democratic government.”

And as time would tell, when they gained power, the Muslim Brotherhood proved keen on maintaining the peace, for reasons of realpolitik. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi even earning accolades from Israel for his government’s mediation of the 2012 military confrontation between Israel and Gaza.

Moreover, today Egypt’s policies towards the Palestinians are even more in line with Israel’s than they were under Mubarak, and to greater public approval. Tragically, this has translated into Egypt becoming an even greater accomplice in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the vilification of Gazans, and whispers that the regime may be planning to do what has eluded Israel: topple Hamas.

Yet many Palestinians and Arabs still hold out hope that Egypt will play a benign role in the neighbourhood. “Egypt is the bellwether Arab state,” an Emirati journalist and commentator put it to me succinctly. And this “bellwether” role could explain why the Gulf has been pumping billions into the Egyptian economy – to keep the revolutionary bug at bay and to buy political leverage.

And once upon a time, Egypt was not only the most populous Arab country but also its wealthiest. This gave it automatic top dog status, with mixed results.

On the plus side, Egypt launched the Arab world’s first modernising project in the 19th century, has long been an intellectual and cultural dynamo, helped its neighbours resist imperialism in the 20th century, played a pivotal role in constructing a sense of post-colonial pride, and acted in solidarity with non-aligned countries everywhere.

But there is an ugly underbelly to Egypt’s regional influence, and ignorance of it or failure to appreciate it could have serious consequences. For example, even if Egypt was a major anti-colonial influence, it was also an imperial power in its own right.

Khedive Muhammad Ali may have freed Egypt from Ottoman rule but his son, Ibrahim Pasha, ruthlessly and bloodily built his father an empire which, at some point or other, encompassed the Hijaz, Sudan, parts of Anatolia, much of the Levant and Crete, with even Constantinople within military but not political reach. However, imperial Egypt proved as unpopular as any other imperial power in the conquered regions, particularly Sudan.

Following the 1952 revolution/coup, or revolutionary coup, Egypt became a powerhouse of anti-imperialism and pan-Arabism. It lent support to some countries seeking independence and provided inspiration to others, with millions dreaming that the Arab world could become a single nation under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

But the only actual attempt to realise this dream ended in both tragedy and farce. Even though Nasser did not want to enter into a union with Syria, the Syrian government, fearing a communist takeover, forced his hand.

Instead of the United Arab Republic being a marriage of equals, Nasser quickly destroyed Syrian democracy and turned it into the personal fiefdom of his most-trusted confidante, the highly incompetent Abdel-Hakim Amer – perhaps evoking bitter memories of Ibrahim Pasha amongst Syrians.

Then there was what many have called Egypt’s “Vietnam” in Yemen, not to mention the disasters of the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.

How much and what kind of a regional role or influence – and whether it will be benign or aggressive – Egypt will have in the coming years will depend on many factors. But it is certainly possible that, if elected president, al-Sisi, like many leaders during tumultuous times before him, will involve Egypt actively, perhaps even aggressively, in regional politics to distract attention away from pressing domestic issues or to fill the country’s empty coffers.

But rather than exporting the troubling brand of nationalistic chauvinism that has been emerging in recent months, what I’d like to see is Egypt sharing the irrepressible spirit of the Republic of Tahrir so that, together, the region can grow free.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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My enemy’s friend is… my ally

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood accuse each other of being American stooges while discreetly courting Washington.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 20th January 2014

The Egyptian revolution has overturned numerous pearls of traditional wisdom. By rising up in their millions against a corrupt and repressive leadership, Egyptians proved that they don’t believe “the eye should not rise above the brow,” that one should “keep out of harm’s way and sing to it,” or that “the door that brings in a draught should be shut tight for peace of mind.”

Not to be left out, the counter-revolution has also been redefining a number of ancient proverbs. No longer is the enemy of my enemy considered my friend. Rather, my enemy’s friend is, discreetly and surreptitiously, my ally. This paradoxical paradigm is nowhere more apparent than in the conflicting relationship of the two main competing factions – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – with the United States.

According to prevalent Muslim Brotherhood mythology, the downfall of President Mohamed Morsi was engineered by an unholy alliance consisting of the Egyptian military, led by Morsi-appointed General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Washington, and Israel cast in worst supporting role.

When I visited the pro-Morsi, Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp, which was murderously dispersed in mid-August, several of the protesters I spoke to were convinced that a US-Zionist conspiracy was afoot.

This was encapsulated in a poster which one of the protesters insisted on taking me to view, which featured Barack Obama, dressed as pharaoh, holding an al-Sisi dog on a short leash, with a Star of David bandanna round his neck.

Nevertheless, in a bizarre form of ideological dissonance, these same protesters were hostile towards local media and saw the Anglo-American press as their champions, with many calling on Washington and the West to take decisive action against the coup, and to reinstate Morsi.

And this contradictory position is not just one subscribed to by the Brotherhood’s rank and file. “America tried to abort the Egyptian revolution by spending $105 million on Egyptian and foreign organisations in a few months with the aim of causing chaos,” claimed Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council and the movement’s official spokesperson in Arabic.

Yet while in power, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood cosied up to Washington, as well as American and Western public opinion. “Contrary to the Brotherhood’s anti-American slogans, Morsi’s priority was to maintain good relations with Washington,” an Egyptian diplomat said.

And devoid as the Muslim Brotherhood proved of actual policies, despite decades of sloganeering and posturing, Morsi’s foreign policy “simply copied the Mubarak regime”, as one Egyptian analyst put it.

This keenness to please Washington was reflected in the Morsi government’s mediation of the military confrontation between Israel and Gaza in November 2012. This earned the former president plaudits from the United States, which he seemed to have interpreted as a green light to grant himself “absolute power”.

This has, of course, been fodder for the Muslim Brotherhood’s enemies. In a similar fashion to their Islamist opponents, pro-military Egyptians allege that it is Morsi, not al-Sisi, who is an American agent.

Some also subscribe to some pretty outlandish conspiracy theories that come straight out of the “Birther” handbook. For example, it is rumoured in some Egyptian circles that Barack Obama is a secret Brotherhood member and that the 2012 presidential elections were rigged, at the behest of Washington, in favour of Morsi.

And, according to this viewpoint, the conspiracy is far from over, as reflected by the controversy over statements made by former US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson. One lawyer has even gone so far as to file a complaint against Morsi’s wife, alleging that she is conspiring with the American administration to topple al-Sisi and sow sedition and terrorism in Egypt.

It is ironic that supporters of the institution which benefits from the greatest US support – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid annually – should cry conspiracy in this way.

Awareness of this contradiction could be partly behind the calls issued by Tamarod – the youth-led movement, whose name translates as Rebellion, which spearheaded the anti-Morsi protests – to reject American military aid.

At a deeper level, what is behind this paradox of “my enemy’s friend is my ally”?

One undeniable factor is America’s own behaviour. Although the US talks the talk when it comes to democracy, freedom and self-determination, Washington often walks roughshod over these principles when it considers its “vital interests” are at stake.

In Egypt’s case, that manifested itself in Washington’s longstanding support for malleable dictators, including Hosni Mubarak, and Anwar al-Sadat before him. Since the 2011 uprising, the Obama administration has tended to prefer “stability” over principle, weighing in behind the country’s strong man of the moment, whether it is Mubarak, Morsi, Field Marshal Tantawi or General al-Sisi.

Domestically, the instability and uncertainty that has reigned over the past three years has laid fertile ground for the emergence of conspiracy theories. Moreover, for their own historical reasons, both the secular and Islamist movements have striven to rid Egypt of foreign influence, whether it was Ottoman, British, Soviet or American.

This took off in earnest with another revolution almost a century ago, led by Egyptian centrist and rightist liberals, mainly al-Wafd. Not long after, Hassan al-Banna set up the Muslim Brotherhood, also to counteract British influence, but shunning al-Wafd’s secular liberalism in favour of conservative Islam. For leftists, the benchmark for secular, pan-Arabist independence was, at least ostensibly, set by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who spearheaded the 1952 revolution/military coup.

However, for all three streams, aspirations for complete sovereignty became tempered by realpolitik, and the realisation that any regime has a relatively low chance of survival without Washington’s blessing. Despite this, it remains politically expedient to cast aspersions that America is your enemy’s friend while, simultaneously, discreetly courting Washington as an ally.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 13 January 2014.

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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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