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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Hebron settlers: “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

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By Khaled Diab

 Hebron settlement is as important as Tel Aviv, Israel is obliged to protect it and what Arabs lost in war should not be returned, says spokesman.

Monday 9 January 2012

Khaled Diab: What I’m gathering from what you’ve been saying is that you feel there’s a lack of understanding, comprehension and empathy and, even sympathy, towards your community and its aspirations. But how about if we turn the tables, do you feel your community understands and comprehends and empathises with mainstream concerns, such as, for example, you said that you were about 800 people here, yet you need several hundred, or a couple of thousand, soldiers to protect your presence here? Quite a lot of mainstream Israelis are relatively bitter about that. And how about the wider concerns, that your presence here has a humanitarian impact on the Palestinian population of Hebron.

David Wilder: That’s a big question, so let’s chop it up. Let’s start with the first part of the question. In terms of the military. First of all, it’s important to understand that the community here is here with the… the community here was re-established with the express consent and approval of the Israeli government. In other words, it’s not a pirate community. So, it’s real, it’s official, it’s not, you know, where somebody came in and they put up a tent, and then we grew and reached…

But the early settlers after the 1967 war, weren’t they like that?

We first came back… we came in 1968. People rented a hotel and then the Israeli government moved them to a military compound, and they lived there for two and a half years. After that, Kiryat Arba was established by the Israeli government, by Moshe Dayan, and they moved up there.

In 1979, a group of women and children moved into Hebron, to Beit Haddasa, which was a Jewish building, it was built by Jews in 1893 as a medical clinic which was used by both Jews and Arabs in Hebron. At that time, it was empty. The prime minister then, Menachem Begim, wasn’t overjoyed that they were there but he didn’t throw them out. He made their living conditions extremely difficult, but he didn’t expel them.

In 1980, following a terrorist attack here, when six men were killed, the Israeli government voted and re-established officially a Jewish community in Hebron. And a lot of, not all of, the buildings… but some of the buildings here, the rebuilding or the renovations, were done with funding from the Israeli government. So it’s something that’s real and official, ok.

The fact that there are people who don’t like it, you know. I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down and throw everybody out? No. I like this; they like that.

In terms of the military presence here, the Israeli military, or the Israeli government, has policies whereby they protect Jews wherever they are. And there are Jews here, so they also have to be protected. When I came to Israel in 1974, you didn’t have in Jerusalem security guards at bus stops, checking people getting on buses to make sure they’re not carrying bombs to blow up people on the bus. It’s a tremendous outlay to have security people at bus stops, you know, but Israel did it because it was a necessity. And the same thing is true in Hebron.

First of all, I’m not responsible for the fact that there are only 850 people here. The property that we have is full. If we’re allowed to build in Hebron on the property that we own, then we could have more people here. If we could buy from Arabs that want to sell us property, we could have more people. But as you’re very much aware, PA law says that Arabs who sell property to Jews will be summarily executed – it’s a capital crime [Ed: the PA has not actually executed anyone for this offence]. And they do it, so most Arabs, they’re not looking, you know, for all those virgins up there in the sky, so they don’t do it, because they’re not really interested in getting killed. It’s a very difficult procedure.

The military that is here have several different functions. They’re here to protect me, for sure. They’re also here to protect you, and all the other people that come here to visit, because we have a lot of people that come in to visit. Today, there’s a group of 400 people here.

But, as far as I’m concerned, the most important role of the military here has absolutely nothing to do with us. When Hebron was divided in 1997, the Hebron Accords, Israel pulled out of most of the city. It was given entirely to Arafat, and we pulled everything out. When we did that, the other side of Hebron turned into a terrorist nest, and you had people running around Israel from Hebron blowing themselves up, in Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva and Haifa. There was a soccer team, a football team, in Hebron that they all turned into suicide bombers. There was an article about them in Newsweek.

In other words, when there was no Israeli intelligence, no Israeli security, on the other side of the city, it just, you know, it turned into a breeding ground for terrorism. And the same thing happened in Jenin. It happened in other places. And it cost us. It cost us a lot of lives. The Israeli military, as far as I’m concerned is here at least as much for, if not more, to protect the people in Tel Aviv than they are to protect me. Because if they can prevent someone from building a bomb and getting out to Tel Aviv or wherever they want to go to blow themselves up, then that’s certainly no less important than making sure that I’m safe and you’re safe. And that takes soldiers, you know.

Well, you can say that, if we pulled out of all of Hebron. Great! Well, then let’s just look at… if we want to learn a little bit from our recent past, we did that in Gush Katif. We pulled out of Gush Katif and we got 10,000 rockets back into Israel from what we gave them.

And you regard that as a pullout? I mean, the military is still in there.

They pulled out. They pulled out entirely.

Yes, but the military presence of Israel is still there. There’s the whole no-man’s-land. There’s the perimeter. There’re regular raids. The borders and economy are controlled by Israel.

No, no, of course not. The only reason you have raid is stop them throwing rockets at us. When we pulled out, the idea was… the Europeans invested a lot of money there. The Israelis who were down there, they had initiated and developed tremendous flower industries and the Europeans bought a lot of the hothouses that they used, which were… I don’t understand the field at all, but they were very sophisticated… So that the Arabs who then inherited what we left would be able to use them, and they destroyed them. They took them apart; they destroyed them.

When Israel pulls out of areas, they’ve turned into terrorist bases which have wreaked havoc in Israel proper, ok. I’m not talking about what they try to do in Hebron. I’m talking about what they try to do to people in Tel Aviv – and that, I think, is a major reason why the military is here and why the numbers have to be where they’re at.

So that’s the first part of the question. The other part of the question is dealing with… you asked me about, you know, well, there are people that don’t like us here… So, there are people that don’t like us, so what?

The concept of Hebron – i.e. Jews with horns and tails who breathe fire and eat one Arab for breakfast and two for lunch and three for dinner with the blood dripping off from your moustache from the one you’ve just finished – that’s the vision that people have. And they come in and it’s not like that. When I used to give tours… I still give tours but a different kind of tour… We would start in Kiryat Arba and the bus would come in and I’d just go around Kiryat Arba in the bus before coming down here into Hebron. And I used to watch people’s faces, and they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe they were in Kiryat Arba, because Kiryat Arba is a settlement, and you know what a settlement is, a settlement is some tents, right? But that’s what people thought, that was the vision they had.

And a lot of Israelis who come in, not for a political tour, they can ask questions if they like, but forget the politics, just the historical element, the religious element, what Hebron means to the Jewish people, whether you’re religious or you’re not religious, it doesn’t make any difference. Everybody has a heritage, and they see it and they hear a little bit, and all of a sudden (clicks fingers): this isn’t what they taught me about Hebron. And it’s a totally different image. And that’s when mainstream Israelis who say may be we shouldn’t be here start saying, may be we should be. And we’ve had that happen.

It happened not so long ago. A major Israeli television entertainment personality was here and, after he was here, he said, yeah, there are problems with the community here and there, but we can’t leave Hebron, you know, and that happens when people see it, when they’re here, when they start to feel it a little bit. And we see that happen time and time and time again. It’s not an isolated kind of a thing.

To touch on something you said in passing about the taboo amongst Palestinians towards selling property to Israeli Jews. How does the community here and other groups among the Jewish community feel about selling land to Arabs, Palestinians? Look, if a Palestinian came and asked to buy your land…

Ok, look, there’s a major difference between what I like and what I don’t like and what is legally acceptable. I can say that I don’t like it, I can even oppose it, but the Supreme Court just ruled, up north in one of the moshavim, that when they had a tender to buy property, there was an Arab couple that wanted to buy and the community wouldn’t let them, the Supreme Court said you have to let them, you have to sell it to them, cuz they’re no different than anybody else.

Legally, according to PA law, which is based on Jordanian law, an Arab that sells property to a Jew is to be killed. Israeli law doesn’t say that. There can be reasons why yes and why know; there can be security elements; there can be all sorts of elements.

We used to have here, many years ago… They were building outside here, and there were Arab workers. One day, an Arab came inside here, with a gun, and he pulled them all together and told them if you come back here tomorrow, I’ll kill you. That was an Arab telling the Arabs. The next day nobody showed up.

In other words, there can be differences of opinion – pro, for, against, whatever – and that’s all legitimate. But when you take that and legalise it, and you say the law is…

But isn’t there a law, a form of legalisation, that says Israel officially owns all the land of Israel, like the Israeli government…

I wish that was true, but it’s not. I mean, you can ask me religiously what I believe, but in terms of what’s on the books, the president of the Supreme Court ruled, much to my own personal differing of opinion or opposition, but she’s the president of the Supreme Court, not me – at least, for a little while longer, she is. She ruled that any land that’s not registered as being owned by the Israeli government or the state of Israel belongs to the Arabs. Now I don’t know where she gets that from. But it’s just the opposite of what you just said.

There is land that’s owned by Arabs, I know that, and there’s land that isn’t. There’s land that’s owned by Jews, that’s owned by Arabs, there’s state-owned land. In any country in the world, there’s state-owned land.

And you think land captured by conquest is legitimate property?

You’re asking about…

Like what, for example, the international community regards as occupied territory?

Like the Jordanian conquest of 1948. The land that they took in 1948 by conquest. Is that legally theirs or not?

Or the land that Israel took in 1967. I mean, in all cases.

First of all, you see one of the anomalies of the conflict today is that there’s almost a given that violence, or different levels of violence, committed by one side is legitimate and accepted and understood and justifiable, and from the other side it’s not. There are consequences. If somebody declares war, or forget the war, if somebody walks into my office, and I start beating them up. You walked into my office just now and you said, my name is Khaled, and I jump on you and start hitting you, and you sue me, ok. You sue me for a million shekels. You take me to court. Then I’m going to have to pay the consequences for beating you up. May be you beat me up too. But I have to pay for what I did. It’s my problem. It might have hurt you, but I have to pay the consequences for what I did.

If somebody starts a war with you, then there are consequences for that. People can’t declare war and figure that even if they lose, they’re not going to have to pay a price. You know, when you say, as Nasser said, we’re going to throw them into the sea and, you know, he made a pact with the Syrians and the Jordanians, and he said, you know, let’s finish them off.

In 1967, the prime minister was Levi Eshkol…

But didn’t Israel start the 1967 war or don’t you regard that Israel started it?

I don’t know. The history books that I have say that Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran. That’s an act of war. The United Nations left. You know, that’s an act of war. The fact that he closed the Straits of Tiran, that he put a blockade on Israel, and said we’re going to throw you into the sea, formed a military pact with the Syrians and the Jordanians, I think that’s pretty much an act of war.

When Levi Eshkol was prime minister and he sent representatives from the state of Israel, including Golda Meir, to Hussein in Jordan saying to him, we don’t want anything, just leave us alone – we have enough to worry about up north and down south, just leave us alone. We’ll leave you alone, you leave us alone. And his response was to start shelling Jerusalem. He started shooting missiles from Jordan into Israel.

So, what, he thought he was going to do that and we were going to just ignore him? May be he thought that we would be finished, that they would defeat us and he would get everything. He wouldn’t just have East Jerusalem, he would get West Jerusalem too and a little bit more. But it didn’t work like that. You can’t start a war and expect that, if by chance you lose the war, it’s not going to cost you anything.

We came into Judea and Samaria and Gaza as a result of that war. And we stayed. Today, when people talk about the Geneva Convention and civilians and all of that, there are many different responses to all of those questions. The first one is, of course, if you want to say that we’re not allowed to be here, or that we’re occupying this, then who’s the legal owner, so to speak?

In other words, back in 1974 or 1975, Hussein relinquished all claims to Judea and Samaria. He said, I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s not mine any more.

But he relinquished them to the Palestinians, not to Israel.

No, he said, it’s not mine.

And he voted for the Palestinians, the PLO, as the representatives of the interests of the Palestinian people.

But that doesn’t mean just because he said so that it belongs to them. I mean, like, you know. The questions involved… I mean, legally, I don’t have any problems with international law. I mean, there are no problems. But if we take a place like Hebron, ok, and we take… I mean, right now, there was a… You know, for 700 years, Jews and Christians had no access to Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Is that true?

Oh, yeah, unfortunately it’s true. In the year 1267… In 1260, the Mamluks pushed out the Crusaders. The Crusaders came in about 1100. And, ironically, the Crusaders in Hebron threw out the Jews. It was the first time I know of in a long, long time that there hadn’t been Jews in Hebron.

In 1260, the Mamluks threw out the Crusaders and let the Jews back in. The Mamluk emperor was a guy called Baybars and he closed off Temple Mount and, as an aside, he closed of Machpelah. He said, it’s a mosque. And for 700 years, we couldn’t go inside. There used to be stairs on the eastern wall. Jews could go up to the seventh step. That’s as far as we could go. They started to let Christians back in in the early to middle 1900s. Jews couldn’t go in. And for hundreds and hundreds of years, there were stairs on the eastern wall and Jews could go up to the seventh step.

And it’s only since we came back, is that side accessible to anybody. Anybody who wants to can go in. There are different sides, and this for this, and that for that, but anybody that wants to can go inside, with very, very few exceptions. Today, and you can read it, I’m writing about it now, the Arab mayor of Hebron… I say it to people all the time, but nobody really believes it, but now he’s said it… He said it, you know, and it was printed by, in Time magazine, by a writer who’s not a big friend of ours, so if he writes that’s what they said, then I think he’s accurate. The Arab mayor of Hebron today says that if he ever controls it, he won’t let Jews back in. He says it’s a mosque, always has been, always will be. He said, you know, we’ve been there as a mosque since, you know, 1260 or 1400 or whatever date.

If we’re not here, then there’s no access. It’s gone.

So, you feel yourselves to be guardians of the Jewish heritage of Hebron?

We… Let’s put it this way, if there wasn’t a Jewish community in Hebron today, it doesn’t matter whether I’m here or somebody else is here, if there wasn’t a Jewish community in Hebron today, Machpelah would’ve been lost a long time ago. We would’ve lost Machpelah in 1997. Arafat demanded it then, and they wouldn’t give it to him. And the people who wouldn’t give it to him weren’t rightwing extremists like me, they were leftwing extremists. Bu they were the ones running the show, and they took to Arafat the numbers, and they said this is how many Jews are visiting and how many Arabs are visiting. We can’t give it away, we can’t give it to you, there are too many Jews that go visit, and those numbers keep growing.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II -  From secular America to religious Hebron

Part III – “We are not extremists”

Part V – Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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Israeli freedom riders

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By Khaled Diab

Following the successful Palestinian ‘freedom rides’, it’s time for Israeli ‘freedom riders’ to cross the barriers between the two peoples.

Friday 2 December 2011

Drawing inspiration from the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, a group of six Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ – dressed in the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – boarded an Israeli bus bound from the West Bank to Jerusalem.

Their mission: to defy the Israeli military’s restrictions on West Bank Palestinians entering East Jerusalem, as well as a general protest against the occupation and the limitations it imposes on their freedom of movement on the land earmarked for their future state.

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed, at first spiritually, for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the ‘holy city’ carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” one of the freedom riders, Nadeem al-Shirbaty, who works as an ironsmith and activist in Hebron, told me.

After a number of failed attempts, the Palestinian activists, accompanied by a large pack of journalists, managed to get on a bus, but were blocked from entering Jerusalem at the Hizma checkpoint. “If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” another freedom rider, Bassel al-Araj, a pharmacist from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, confided to me on the bus while various police and army units standing outside debated what to do.

Though the protesters were ultimately dragged off the bus and arrested, they view their action as having been a great success because it drew international attention to their plight in a peaceful and non-violent manner. They vow to continue and scale up their campaign of civil disobedience.

In addition to the legion of journalists, a number of Israeli activists were also on the bus. They had come in solidarity with the freedom riders and to help spread the word, though they refused to comment on the record with me because they argued that this was a Palestinian action and they did not want to draw attention away from it.

But there is an Israeli angle. Despite the easing of the restrictions imposed during the second intifada, Israelis, with the exception of Palestinian-Israelis, are still barred from entering Area A – made up mostly of the major Palestinian urban areas in the West Bank – and Gaza.

Naturally, the restrictions on Israelis are far less severe than those suffered by Gazans, who live under a blockade, and West Bank Palestinians, who have to weave their away around settlements, settler roads, and land designated as ‘military areas’, not to mention the regular closures and curfews.

Nevertheless, I believe it is time for Israeli peace activists and concerned citizens to become freedom riders themselves to defy this unfair restriction which entrenches the segregated reality between the two peoples, enabling extremists to take advantage of the darkness and demonise at their leisure. It would also enable Israelis to express solidarity with their Palestinian neighbours and raise Israeli public awareness of the reality in the occupied territories.

Israeli activists I have canvassed generally reacted positively to the idea. The poet, publicist and social activist Mati Shemoelof said: “I think it is a really great idea that will help challenge the myths and misconceptions that Israelis have about Palestinians and highlight, through direct action, the reality of segregation.”

The myths and misconceptions that Shemoelof thinks Israeli freedom riders can counter include the widespread Israeli belief that Palestinians enjoy sovereignty but cannot govern themselves, which can help explain the paradoxical attitude that more than half of Israelis want to return the occupied territories but have not mobilised to do so.

Another common misconception is that Palestinians do not know the meaning of non-violent protest. “Most of the Israelis after the second intifada refuse to believe that the Palestinian can be our friends. They see them as Hamasnics. Israelis can’t relate to Palestinian life because of mass media demonisation.” This common fear is part of the reason why many Israelis, either explicitly or implicitly, support the draconian restrictions imposed on Palestinians and are not willing to travel to Palestinian areas.

One Israeli I spoke to insisted that any plans to organise Israeli freedom riders must be “coordinated with Palestinians and not seen as an Israeli civilian invasion of sorts”.

Palestinian activists I have spoken to say that all the ramifications and implications of the action, as well as its political messaging, must be studied carefully before they would be willing to lend their support to such Israeli freedom rides. They are concerned that such an initiative could be hijacked or misused by settlers and extremists to justify the occupation. “It could suggest that there is equivalence between the plight of Palestinians living under occupation and the situation of Israeli settlers,” one concerned activist said.

Naturally, there are Israelis who disregard the restrictions regularly. On the hostile side, there are the militant settlers out to perpetrate ‘price tag’ attacks on Palestinians and their infrastructure.

On the friendly side, numerous activists and well-meaning citizens travel to Area A without a permit. For example, Yuval Ben Ami, who blogs at +972, recently travelled quite extensively through the West Bank, including to troubled Hebron, where he was surprised by the warmth of the welcome he received from locals, but was eventually arrested by hospitable Palestinian police who plied him with sweet coffee and handed him over to the Israeli authorities.

Standing on the roof of a massive shopping mall, he reflects: “I am thrilled, slowly getting my bearings. The ability… to compare and contrast wounded Hebron with breathing Hebron, is priceless for me. I have never held a more powerful tool for understanding the meaning of the occupation and the actual extent of the damage it causes.”

Gershon Baskin, the co-founder of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information and a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, also travels regularly to Area A: “I do travel all over the West Bank and I never ask a permit for myself. I don’t think I flout [the restrictions] but I am not willing to ask for a permit for myself.” He expressed his willingness to participate in actions which challenge the system.

These piecemeal efforts to circumnavigate the restrictions will not challenge the status quo. What is required is a convoy of Israeli freedom riders travelling openly and conspicuously, with the bells and whistles of banners, placards and T-shirts.

It is my view that one of the main stumbling blocks on the path to peace is the absence of true human contact between Israelis and Palestinians – for whom the vast majority of encounters are negative ones between occupier and occupied – which creates fertile ground for fear, distrust and hatred.

Israeli freedom riders can help overcome this psychological barrier by crossing, in peace and compassion, the physical barriers separating the two peoples. Whatever ultimate resolution to the conflict prevails, the close physical proximity of Israelis and Palestinians will require close co-operation, and freedom riders can help drive the two sides a mile closer.

This article was first published by The Jerusalem Post on 28 November 2011.

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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Palestine@UN: From national to civil rights

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By Rachel Lever

As the two-state solution enters its final death throes, it is time for campaigners to switch their demands to equal rights in a single democratic state.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Mark Twain once asked, on hearing news of the death of a less-than-dynamic American politician, “How did they know he was dead?” What we are now asking about the two-state solution is: how will we know it is dead?

The formula of two states for two peoples has been so dead for so long that it has been dubbed the “undead”. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be will never declare the death of the two-state solution.  

Israel’s establishment will not do it because it has been a brilliant cover for the acquisition of the West Bank and the throttling of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority will not do it because their status and salaries depend on it. Washington will not do it because they think their votes depend on it. Israel’s “peace camp” will not do it because their illusions depend on it. And most Palestinians will not do it because they feel that a state, however limited and nominal, is their only hope of getting some control over their destiny.

UN tactic to resurrect the undead 

As for the UN recognition tactic intended to resurrect the two-state option, it might gain Palestinians a better bargaining position for a separate state. But this bargain would cost the Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, and leave Palestinians inside Israel open to further ethnic cleansing. 

And how many of the countries that will vote for recognition have committed themselves to supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to isolate Israel until it ends its military rule over the new “state” they’ve just voted to recognise and until it fulfils the provisions of various UN resolutions? Has the PA even asked them to apply such sanctions? 

Kick-start without the kick 

The UN bid did seem to promise a bit of a departure from the tired old business-as-usual negotiations. It was still a two-state compromise, but its highlight was to insist, and get it voted on at the UN, that Palestine’s territory consisted of nothing less than the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem (as it stood pre-1967) as its capital. 

 Israel was, of course, dead set against this, and also hated the short-circuiting of negotiations and the bad behaviour of its prisoner appealing to the UN over its head. 

Now this has apparently been junked, Haaretz reported, and the whole concept drastically watered down in a new draft “crafted” by the Fatah leadership. Now, instead of recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders, it will say that the permanent borders will be determined by, yes, you guessed, negotiations with Israel “based on” the borders of 4 June, 1967. This is the position the negotiations were at five years ago. 

The idea is to make the resolution so feeble that even the United States and Israel could vote for it. So after all the excitement, what is the point of it at all? 

Another revealing comment from the Haaretz report noted that: “This approach made it possible to enlist the support of leading moderates in Hamas, who claim that recognition of the 1967 borders before the signing of a final-status deal means waiving the claim to the right of return.” So their only worry was that it would be given away cheaply at the start of the process rather than sold for a price at the “final status” point.

The two-state roadblock

This dead, useless and hazardous project to repartition historic Palestine stands four-square in the way of a perfectly feasible political solution that reunites the country based on universal human rights, an equal democracy, multicultural tolerance, and reconciliation. All of which could add up to real and lasting peace. 

This whole, complete and single state would have no internal borders. It would need no high-profile evictions of dangerous, armed and militant settlers (who have just vandalised an IDF base as a “price-tag” for losing three houses); no security arrangements, and no “population transfers” or land swaps. Palestinian refugees could be welcomed back to help build a new society. Jerusalem would be a united city, liberated from shameful ethnic cleansing and the racist rewriting of its history – house by house and street by street. 

Those who say this is impossible because of racial or communal hatred are simply pandering to such hatred. All evidence shows that separation, and unjust separation especially, serve to inflate fear and hatred.

A constitution created jointly would guarantee the most beneficial rights, and respect and nurture of the variety of identities, because its joint authors will insist on them on behalf of those they represent. Equality means what’s “good for the gander is good for the goose” – no exceptions, no double standards. 

The new country would no longer be a Jewish state. But it will still remain a very Jewish country in the best sense, finally able to reclaim Judaism’s core values that command us to respect “the other”. 

To ensure that the state will treat all cultures and faiths equally, there has to be strict separation of “church and state”. This principle has been tried and tested over hundreds of years in secular democracies, and withstood strong organised religion, even where one faith is dominant. 

A country with two strong faiths would have cast-iron defences for its constitution. In Israel and Palestine and among potential incomers, exiles, and expats, only a small minority is known to favour any state-enforced religion. It is not credible that such a constitution could be overturned if it required a massive, popular, across-the-board majority of all communities in a referendum. 

By far the strongest guarantee is that all the people would have an equal stake in the new state, and an equal interest in making it work and isolating rejectionists and extremists on either side. And a one-state solution is fast: work to create a merged society could start very quickly, transforming the political landscape from day one. Many joint projects will have been created as part of the struggle and ahead of formal transition. Some exist now, already forging strong bonds.

Anyone can see that the two-state train has been sitting up against the buffers for decades now, with the one-state express stuck behind it. The big problem has been opening up the line to let the fast train through.

A common scenario outlined by a number of historians, politicians (including Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert) and Israel’s own leading think-tank Reut is that once the two-state option is closed off, Palestinians will start to demand civil rights in one country. 

Ethnocracy or democracy?

Israel calls itself Jewish and democratic, and obsessively seeks to maintain this strange hybrid by fiddling the franchise so that it will always have a massive ethnic majority. Its  complicated and flexible “apartheid” system, helped by the zones set up in the Oslo “peace process”  allowed it to take the West Bank land but leave the Palestinians there without a vote, which means they effectively live in a military dictatorship.

But if the zones and borders are taken away, all this will be in full view, and Israel will be left with the choice of Jewishness (by openly denying the franchise to people who share the country) or democracy, which will end the present guaranteed ethnocracy, whose establishment and maintenance have called forth massive and continuing ethnic cleansing. Already, the issue is up for debate, as a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law has been tabled under which, if there is a choice, democracy must lose out. 

Choosing democracy

A grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to zones and borders, and waving the banner of equality under one law and universal franchise, could drive a wedge into Israeli thinking, separating those who choose democracy from those who prioritise Zionism. 

The universalism of this demand makes it far more powerful than national demands which are, after all, stuck behind their national boundaries. Civil rights slogans can penetrate into the liberal hearts of the majority ofIsrael’s Democrat-voting American Jewish outriders, weakening Israel’s lifeline lobby in Washington. 

Civil rights demands can get under the skin of the fervent old Zionist peace campaigners who thought the two-state solution would return Israel to its supposed days of innocence before 1967. And they can make big inroads into Israel’s mass movement that is campaigning for social justice – but only on its side of the Green Line. 

Switching the points: from statehood to rights

In any other context, a demand for the right to vote would be obvious. But here it is a demand to vote in national elections for the Knesset, in what amounts to de facto (if, hopefully, temporary and transitional) acceptance of Israel in its current form.

So switching the points and turning the struggle around from demanding statehood (however nominal and symbolic) to demanding votes in the occupier’s state will not be easy.

Israel’s adamant and threatening opposition to the UN vote has made the compromise of 22% of historic Palestine look like a great act of defiance. Whereas the truly radical demand, for an equal share in and equal right to all of Israel-Palestine, looks uncomfortably like the ultra-Zionist demand for annexation. 

 A civil rights movement could also help to create a new, elected and accountable Palestinian leadership that stands its ground and speaks with one voice, and which might appeal across the national divide not by compromising and cringing but by expressing the inclusive and anti-racist values that are already gaining ground in the grassroots struggles. 

There may not be a better time than the September UN vote to declare that with the blocking of statehood comes the final death of the two-state solution, and to start the turn from a national territorial struggle to a fight for  one person, one vote, one law, for no borders and no more barriers.

At a time when a brave minority of Israel’s J14 protests, such as Tent No.1948, are trying to connect the “social justice” demands and concerns with the Palestinian struggle, what better way to start a one-country civil rights movement or party than to raise the same demands for social justice from the other side?

Ideally, the organisations that have questioned the value of the UN bid will now get together with others and put out a joint call immediately after the vote, titled, in the words of Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat, “Statehood blocked: equality struggle ahead”.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Egypt and Israel: cold peace or cold war?

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By Khaled Diab

Relations between Israel and post-revolution Egypt are proving tetchy – but ordinary people hold the keys to peace.

Friday 2 September 2011

It was a tense week in Egyptian-Israeli relations. It all started when unknown assailants crossed from Sinai to carry out a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks in southern Israel, which left eight Israelis dead.

Terror was met with more terror and counter-terror, as Israel bombed embattled Gaza, leading to the deaths of at least 14 people, despite the absence of evidence that Gazans were behind the attack (some of the alleged perpetrators appear to be Egyptians), and Islamist militants in Gaza fired their Grad rockets into southern Israel.

In a reckless act that could have escalated the situation dangerously, Israeli troops – in a gunship that crossed the border, according to Egyptian security sources – also killed three Egyptian army and police personnel, apparently by accident.

Fortunately, Egypt refrained from taking a leaf out of Israel’s book and did not give chase across the border to apprehend the killers. Instead, it sensibly decided to follow the diplomatic track and demand an apology and a joint investigation into the incident. A statement announcing the withdrawal of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel was later retracted.

Though military tensions seem to have subsided, an escalating war of words is brewing between Egypt and Israel. In Israel, in addition to anger, grief and a desire for vengeance, allegations are flying that Egypt has “lost control” of Sinai. For its part, Egypt counters that the Israeli security apparatus was pretty much caught with its pants down in its failure to protect its borders. There is also a widespread foreboding that this is just a taste of things to come in post-revolution Egypt.

Egypt has also been gripped by anger, grief and calls for vengeance. Outraged protesters have spent days besieging the Israeli embassy – with one even climbing 21 storeys to replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one – to demand the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador and the severing of ties.

So, what does the future hold for Egyptian-Israeli relations in light of this latest spat, the Egyptian revolution, the current hardline Israeli government and Palestinian plans to go to the UN next month to seek international recognition? Will the cold peace endure, escalate into a new cold war or warm into a big thaw?

At this juncture, it is very hard to tell which way the wind will blow. My reading of the situation – which I elaborated on at a recent conference – is that in spite of this recent flare-up the Egyptian-Israeli status quo will remain essentially unchanged, though relations between the two governments are likely to grow frostier.

A democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood is likely to collaborate less with Israel on security issues, such as the Mubarak’s regime’s unpopular involvement in the Gaza blockade, and might, I have argued, act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. In fact, some analysts and diplomats have concluded that the attack on Gaza was cut short out of fear of straining relations with Cairo further.

In my view, Israeli fears that a more radical regime, probably led by the Muslim Brotherhood, would “tear up” the Camp David peace accords are unfounded. Not only is the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood a lot less than doomsayers have been warning – a recent poll showed its approval rating to be just 17% – now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s official opposition to peace with Israel, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be decided by “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”.

Moreover, the anger on the streets and the strong anti-Israeli stance taken by opposition politicians and ordinary Egyptians notwithstanding, there is little appetite in Egypt to return to the bad old days of confrontation. A number of recent polls, including this one, show that the vast majority of Egyptians are in favour of maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

Even radical critics of Israel, such as the popular novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who famously refused to have one of his best-selling novels translated into Hebrew, has not called for the reneging of the accord.

Instead, he has demanded that Egypt renegotiate the articles relating to the presence of Egyptian troops in the Sinai. Perhaps al-Aswany will be disappointed to learn that senior figures in the Israel Defence Forces are, following last week’s attack, in full agreement with this suggestion.

It may take two to tango but in the case of Egyptian-Israeli relations, the dance is a three-way one, with the Palestinians making up the hate triangle. Despite the generally pessimistic tone of the Israeli discourse on the Egyptian revolution, Israel is not a passive bystander and can do much to improve future ties with Egypt, namely by working towards or reaching a just resolution with the Palestinians, the thorn in the side of Egyptian-Israeli ties.

Next month’s Palestinian bid to go to the UN should not be read as an act of hostility but as a desperate plea for freedom and justice, albeit a misguided one – something that an increasing number of Israelis are growing to realise. Sadly, such enlightenment is not shared by the ideologues currently leading the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership; both the PA and Hamas benefit in their own warped ways from the status quo.

With such inertia, what can be done to change the dynamics of the situation for the better? I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just sit back and wait for their ineffective leaders to do something or wait for the arrival some unknown saviour.

Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation, through mass, peaceful joint activism. Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and help facilitate and mediate such a “people’s peace”.


This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. Read the related discussion here.

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Love thy neighbouring enemy

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By Khaled Diab

Recognising the good qualities of the other side can be a first step to healing Arab-Israeli wounds.

Friday 2 September 2011

The recent coordinated terror attacks in southern Israel were a tragedy and my condolences go out to the bereaved families and friends of the victims. Continued violence is not the answer to this conflict, and targeting civilians is a war crime, and for good reason, regardless of who commits it or why.

While Israeli grief and anger are understandable, Israel’s predictable decision to respond to terror with terror is not, especially since, in this decades-old conflict, every ugly action is seen as a justified reaction to a perceived uglier precedent by the other side.

Bombing Gaza, like the cruel blockade against the Strip, is a form of indefensible collective punishment made all the more unjust by the fact that Israel decided Gazans were guilty until proven innocent, even though evidence is emerging suggesting that the unknown attackers were probably not Palestinians.

Equally predictably, Islamic militants in Gaza responded with a barrage of primitive and inaccurate rockets against civilian targets, another form of unjustifiable and counterproductive collective punishment.

In addition, Israel’s decision to trample over Egypt’s sovereignty, shooting dead a number of border guards in the process, was not only illegal but incredibly reckless. What if Egypt had decided to respond in kind and follow Israel’s example by crossing the border to apprehend the killers?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about that because Egypt responded sensibly and called for an apology and a joint investigation into the incident – something Israel should have done after the attacks from Sinai.

What this futile and bloody exchange of fire illustrates is that an eye for an eye achieves nothing except to create the kind of blind rage that keeps the bloody cycle of conflict turning. That is why I believe that Palestinians and Israelis should reject all forms of violence and not just that committed by the other side.

The last few days have also set in motion an ugly war of words between Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians. With so much animosity and hate in the air, as an antidote, I would like to invite Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs to engage in a thought experiment in which they write a short passage on what they admire and respect about the other side.

Here are my suggestions.

In a little over six decades of existence, Israel has built itself into a prosperous, democratic and technologically advanced society, not to mention a cultural melting pot. The successful revival of the Hebrew language, used only liturgically for centuries, also has to count as an impressive success story.

All of this is made the more remarkable by the fact that Israel has achieved this against the backdrop of being in a constant state of conflict and following the near-extinction of European Jewry.

While a number of Arab regimes traditionally used the conflict with Israel and other security threats to limit freedoms, Israel has managed to build a fairly vibrant democracy, especially for its Jewish citizens, despite the passage of some repressive legislation in recent years, such as the Nakba and the anti-boycott laws.

Moreover, despite the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian-Israelis enjoy, unofficial discrimination notwithstanding, more or less equivalent rights as their Israeli compatriots and greater than most Arabs elsewhere in the region.

By Middle Eastern standards, Israel traditionally has an admirable record on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent, though its media freedom ranking has taken a battering in recent years (93rd out of 178 countries) due to military censorship and restrictions on the movement of international and Israeli journalists. The gap between it and some of its Arab neighbours is also narrowing in light of the Arab Spring.

This respect for freedom of thought, along with a culture that prizes originality and creativity, has transformed this small country into the Middle East’s science and innovation powerhouse. One recent index ranked Israel 14th in the global innovation stakes, while another placed Israel in the top group of ‘global innovation leaders’.

On the individual level, though Israelis can behave with an overconfident swagger and be direct to the point of rudeness, there is a refreshing honesty in their manner and beyond this lack of surface gloss lies a keen sense of Mediterranean warmth and hospitality. Mixed in with this individualism is a traditional Jewish sense of solidarity that kicks in especially in times of need.

Steadfastness is perhaps the word that best captures the spirit of the Palestinian experience over the past 60-odd years, whether in exile or under Israeli control, and a sense of loss and irretrievably lost worlds, similar to that felt by the remnants of European Jewry, permeates through Palestinian art, culture and conscience.

Palestinians have been betrayed and let down by just about everyone, yet they remain resolute survivors and resourceful adaptors. This is reflected in the daily struggle of West Bankers and Gazans to live in dignity, and for the most part peacefully strive for freedom, amid the hardships and degradation of occupation.

Despite having to endure the double oppression of occupation and domestic repression, Palestinians demonstrate an admirable level of determination to advance themselves as individuals and as a nation. A number of prominent Palestinian tycoons, including the “Palestinian Rothschild” Munib al-Masri, have even taken a leaf out of the Zionist manual and are engaged in quiet background “nation-building” in preparation for their eventual independence.

This determination in the face of adversity is reflected in the fact that Palestinians, despite restrictions on their access to education, are said to be the most-educated people in the Arab world. This is particularly so in the Palestinian diaspora which is gradually growing to resemble its Jewish counterpart in terms of education and economic well-being.

For instance, without the massive exodus of Palestinian professionals, intellectuals and entrepreneurs to neighbouring Jordan, the country may have remained a backwater, rather than the relatively prosperous and modern society it has become. Prior to their expulsion from Kuwait, Palestinians played a pivotal role in that emirate’s development. Further afield, Palestinians in the United States, along with Arab-Americans in general, are the most-educated and best-paid minority, according to a recent survey.

Similarly to Israel’s political landscape, Palestinian politics, though less free, have traditionally been dominated by secularists, despite a parallel rise of religious extremism on both sides in recent years. One of the reasons behind this long secularist tradition is the pluralistic nature of the Palestinian population, which is not only divided between Muslim majority and a significant Christian minority, but is made up of numerous ethnic groups.

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have a proud tradition of integration and tolerance that, if utilised successfully, can bode well for a future of coexistence.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2011.

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