A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

—–

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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The case for non-violence in Israel-Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 20 October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Israel declares war on peaceful activism

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Israeli government fears and combats peace and rights activists with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 October 2016

Anyone who has met the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Brigitte Herremans, the Middle East policy officer at Belgian Catholic charities Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi, would be confounded to hear her labelled as a threat to public security and order.

But that is exactly how authorities at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport described her as they deported the Belgian peace activist and charity worker –while the founder of the pro-Israeli right NGO Monitor called her a “radical leader of political warfare”.

Like so many times before, Herremans had landed in Israel, earlier this month, to take a group of Belgians on a familiarisation tour of Israel and Palestine, where they would get the opportunity to see, first hand, the situation on the ground and to meet local Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

But this time was to prove to be different. Following a three-hour detention, including a brief interrogation, Herremans, who had refused to divulge the names of her Palestinian and Israeli contacts, was put on a plane back home and banned from entering Israel for a decade, while the group she had been leading was allowed into the country.

“Unfortunately, I was aware that I might be refused entry to Israel, this time,” Herremans told me following her return to Belgium [see full Q&A here], citing “the Israeli government’s growing animosity towards NGOs and the increasing attacks by groups such as NGO Monitor”.

Established in 2002, NGO Monitor claims to “promote accountability” and “informed public debate” of the activities of international and local NGOs.  But “accountability” seems to mean accepting the narrative and policies of Israel’s extreme right government unquestioningly and uncritically.

NGO Monitor’s charge sheet against Herremans and Broederlijk Delen includes providing miniscule funding to a number of NGOs promoting human and legal rights and allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which Broederlijk Delen does not actually do, according to Herremans.

Other presumably insidious and heinous acts exposed by NGO Monitor include organising an expo on the terrifying theme of ‘Peaceful resistance in Palestine and Israel’.

This is something that has long miffed me. The Israeli right repeatedly and harshly criticises Palestinians when they engage in violent resistance and terrorism and claim that their enemy only understand the language of violence.

Yet when Palestinians use the language of peaceful activism and non-violence, a process of deep-seated distrust and paranoia, combined with wilful distortion and twisting, translate these actions into the lexicon of terrorism and warfare.

This is because hitting someone who refuses to hit back exacts a heavy burden on human conscience and makes the hitter look and, deep down, feel like a thug and a bully. In contrast, rocket attacks from Gaza or knifings in the West Bank make it far easier to justify violence and oppression to oneself and the world.

That explains why the Israeli government, like many regimes in the region, fears and combats critical elements of civil society, especially leftist and rights groups, who are armed with little more than their consciences, with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Even uncontroversial charities, which actually indirectly help Israel by cleaning up the mess caused by its wars and improving the lives of Palestinians have fallen foul of this growing paranoia. For example, America’s largest Christian charity, World Vision, has been forced to suspend its operations in destitute Gaza because its manager there is accused of having funnelled funds to Hamas which are more than double the organisation’s budget there.

On the legislative front, the Knesset recently passed the contentious and controversial “NGO law”, which appears to single out left-wing and rights groups as treacherous agents of insidious foreign powers, rather than expressions of internal dissent and opposition to an unjust and unsustainable situation.

“These efforts are aimed at crippling the activities of and silencing the voices of organisations dedicated to critiquing Israeli government policy and actions,” notes Nadeem Shehadeh, a lawyer with Adalah, the first Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel.

In addition to Jewish-Israeli anti-occupation groups, Palestinian civil society and political parties have been a central target of these efforts, points out Shehadeh, referring to a spate of legislations in recent years, including the so-called “Nakba Law” of 2011 and the raising of the Knesset voting threshold in 2014. This was meant to sideline Arab parties but had the unintended effect of forcing them to unite under the conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh.

“The current political environment in Israel suggests that these efforts are not about to subside but are rather enjoying a distinct upswing,” observes Shehadeh. And as Palestinian activists, and their Israeli and international allies, increasingly resort to what has been dubbed “lawfare”, Israel’s clampdowns and crackdowns are likely to intensify over the coming years.

Moreover, years of demonising and stigmatising anyone who criticises or opposes Israel’s occupation and the abuses it leads to, no matter how benignly done, has created an extremely toxic atmosphere in which right-wing radicals and fanatics feel justified in using or threatening violence.

Targeted groups include the internationally respected human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which collects the testimonies of Israeli soldiers with the aim of exposing the reality of the occupation.

Palestinian rights groups, such as Al Mezan in Gaza and Al Haq in the West Bank, have also been receiving an alarming level of threats targeted at staff and their families, which have included photos of their houses to flowers delivered to their homes.

Despite the increasing dangers involved, brave Palestinian and Israeli activists continue their efforts to oppose the occupation peacefully and to advance efforts to build a robust and resilient peace, no matter how far off and elusive it seems from where we stand today.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 September 2016.

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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Podcast: Palestine’s poster girls

 
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By Khaled Diab

 The changing depiction of women in Palestinian political art reflects the shifting perceptions of their role and position in society.

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Tuesday 26 January 2016

The word ‘hermit’ usually evokes images of men with overgrown beards living in a cave, up a hill or battling spiritual demons in the desert.

But in hermetically sealed, overcrowded and ultraconservative Gaza, the allure of ascetic isolation stretches to the young and artistic woman. In a territory, where the ruins outnumber the intact buildings, where many families live 10 to a room or out in the open, being able to withdraw within, into your own private shell, can feel like a luxury.

“An artist without sufficient liberty is not able to practise her art,” Nidaa Badwan tells me. “My room was the only place in Gaza where I could practise my art.”

Living under the twin confinements of the Israeli blockade and bombings, as well as Islamist rule, which saw Hamas’s morality police arrest Badwan for an outdoor performance she once gave, the young artist, 28, decided on the path of self-imposed isolation.

Hidden away inside her creative solitary confinement cell, measuring barely 10 square metres, Badwan creates art. She takes selfies that resemble classical portraits, in their rich compositions of colour and texture.

“I focused on the expressions of the body and it’s language,” Badwan explains. “I tried to create homogeneous communication and dialogue between me, my ideas, my body movement, and all of the elements and colours of the photography.”

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

Photo: ©Nidaa Badwan

The results are eye-catching. One photo, or portrait, shows Nidaa in tight black leggings doing a faux ballet move in a dimly lit studio. The same leggings feature in another image of her sitting on an improvised swing made out of an old tyre suspended between two ladders, looking defiantly, even regally, to one side, while she buttons up her shirt. Another image portrays her looking into a pocket mirror while applying rouge to her blood-red lips. Some images are of the artist-at-work variety, while others show Badwan’s dreams of different professions she’d like to do.

These and other portraits featured in Badwan’s first exhibition in 2015, ‘100 Days of Solitude, which met with critical acclaim. Nidaa explained to me that, in her work, she introduces a different, alternative image of Palestinian and Gazan women but that she wasn’t out explicitly to challenge stereotypes. “I simply expressed myself through my art,” she stresses.

Nevertheless, this private self-expression is subversive. Outside the four walls of Badwan’s studio a very different reality exists.  Strict rules dictate what a “good” Palestinian woman should look like and how they should be represented. “Society does not see women, imagine what they think,” observes Nidaa.

hijab2This was driven home to me during an encounter with a group of young female and male writers in Gaza city. Our conversation shifted to how the hijab is often misrepresented in the West as solely a tool of female subjugation. One of the young men in the group provocatively asked me my personal attitude towards the headscarf. Even my diplomatic answer, that I did not approve of it but that I respect women who don it voluntarily, elicited a storm of outrage, among the women more than the men.

Although many women who wear the hijab out of conviction see at as empowering, this is not how the Islamist patriarchy regard it. I was reminded of this sitting at the front of the distinctive green-and-white buses which serve the Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. I was unsettled by faceless twin sisters who stood side by side on the glass panel behind the driver and stared at me eyelessly.

These poster girls for the hijab advise our “Muslim sisters” on how to wear the Islamic headdress and clothes “correctly” in order to be “decent believers”. Not only does this poster, likely produced by a committee of conservative men, presume to tell women what they should wear, it depicts them as minions without faces. Though the faceless caricature is probably supposed to illustrate piety and modesty, its underlying message is that women should be invisible, neither heard nor seen, except discreetly and demurely.

But this has not always been the case. Despite the Islamist preference for feminine coyness, defiant women have long been a staple of Palestinian political art, especially on the left.

The poster girl of that muscular defiance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, which was heading from Rome to Athens. One iconic image captures her staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin.

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

For a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when Palestinians finally took their cause into their own hands, there was a sense, in the minds of the revolutionaries, that the sky was the limit for Palestinian women.

Nothing reflects that better than the political iconography of the time. Women were depicted as powerful warriors at the forefront of the Palestinian cause.  The graphical ground shifted.

PFLP woman rifle

Source: http://www.palestineposterproject.org/

Interestingly, a PFLP poster from 1968, designed by revolutionary novelist Ghassan Kanafani, features only a woman carrying a rifle, with no man in sight. A year later, another poster depicts only a horse with a woman alongside it firing a bazooka.

The subliminal message of this period seems to be that the men failed to liberate the Palestinians, so now it was the women’s turn. This was almost explicitly spelt out in a poster from 1970 which, in calling for “revolution until victory”, only featured a single woman with a rifle in different poses.

As the Palestinians shifted away from armed struggle and towards non-violent resistance, the prominence of women only grew, despite the slowly rising tide of political Islam. Posters produced during the first intifada often featured figures who were androgynous, and a few were dedicated solely to women, such as one which informs us of how Palestinian women were on the frontlines of the intifada.

“It is going to be very difficult to send these women back to the kitchen or to relegate them to the class of second-rate citizens,” Hanan Ashrawi, the prominent activist, academic and politician who made her name during that uprising.

Despite the massive gains by Islamists and conservatives, the subversive, female-centric art of the late 1960s and 1970s is making a comeback – as if to say to them, “Look, your misogyny and religiosity has also failed to liberate us.”

A new poster, produced during the current upheavals, features a drawing of a woman with her hair and face covered up. But this is not for religious reasons, as reflected in the Palestinian kefeya doing the covering. It is to conceal her identity, for she is an intifadista, as conveyed by the slingshot, Molotov cocktail, knife, rocks and rose in her satchel.

This provoked a backlash from conservatives, who posted hundreds of misogynistic comments on social media bizarrely and surreally protesting the tight clothes used in the image, and demanding that fathers and brothers should keep their womenfolk away from protests and clashes.

But Hanan Ashrawi’s political heirs, a new generation of young and determined women, are refusing to be cowed, and are determined to take on both the occupation and the patriarchy. Nidaa Badwan is doing it by carving out her own private-public artistic protest space. Other women are claiming and reclaiming public spaces.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This report was first broadcast on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on  January 2016.

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Israel’s six-state reality

 
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By Khaled Diab

Netanyahu must dismantle the six states within a state Israel has created and grant every Arab and Jew full equality.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Tragedies are a time for soul-searching and deep reflection for some. For others, it is an opportunity to make political capital and to fan the flames of hatred.

Binyamin Netanyahu tends to fall squarely into the latter category. At a Tel Aviv bar where what authorities believe to be a terror attack took place leaving two dead and seven wounded, the Israeli prime minister took aim at the 21% of Israel’s citizens who identify as Palestinian or Arab.

He demanded “loyalty to the state’s laws from everyone”, claiming that Arab areas of Israel were crime-riddled, lawless and radicalised enclaves. While crime is a greater problem in Arab towns and villages than in Jewish ones, this is partly due to decades of neglect from the state, which has been more interested in the security threat Palestinians in Israel potentially pose than to the threats posed to them.

Although Netanyahu praised the swift Arab condemnation of the attack, he swiftly returned to his comfort zone when he said: “We all know that there is wild incitement of radical Islam against the state of Israel within the Muslim sector.”

While incitement does occur, what Netanyahu is wilfully ignoring is that the vast majority of Palestinians in Israel are peaceful and obey the laws of a state which increasingly discriminates against them and this despite being citizens of a country which erased their homeland and occupies their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza.

More insidiously, while condemning incitement when committed by Palestinians, Netanyahu, in contrast to the moral courage displayed by President Reuven Rivlin, is silent about, excuses or even defends the Jewish inciters in Israel, many of whom are members of his party or coalition.

In some cases, he even promotes them. Take the firebrand of the far-right Jewish Home party, Ayelet Shaked. Despite her track record of incitement, including during the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu appointed her justice minister, without betraying a hint of irony. In this capacity, she has widened her net to include not only Palestinians, but also the Israeli supreme court and leftist NGOs.

Incitement also helped Netanyahu win the 2015 election, when he warned supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger” because “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves” as part of a sinister leftist plot involving “left-wing NGOs [who] are bringing them in buses.”

In fact, the smooth-tongued Bibi, as his supporters affectionately call him, has a long track record of dangerous incitement. Leah Rabin, for one, had no doubts that Netanyahu, along with other members of the hard right, was responsible for creating the toxic atmosphere of hate which facilitated the assassination of her husband, Yitzhak Rabin.

Despite his two decades at the wheel of the juggernaut driving Israel off a cliff, Netanyahu had the audacity to tell Arabs at the weekend: “Whoever wants to be Israeli must be Israeli all the way.”

Like far-right rhetoric elsewhere, his comments imply that citizenship for the majority is an inalienable birth right, no matter how much they undermine the state, while for marginalised minorities it is a favour which must be earned and for which they must constantly express gratitude.

“I will not accept two states within Israel,” Netanyahu insisted, suggesting that Palestinian-Israelis are a state within a state.

What Netanyahu’s self-righteous rhetoric overlooks is that Israel, when you include all the territory it controls, is composed, according to my count, of at least half a dozen unequal states. At the top of the pyramid sit Israeli Jews, though they are also subdivided according to ethnicity and class.

Then there are the Palestinian and Arab citizens of Israel who theoretically have equality with their Jewish compatriots and enjoy it in the more enlightened corners of society. However, this is undermined by the legal system – which contains at least 50 laws which discriminate against Arabs, according to the legal centre Adalah – as well as other forms of racism and discrimination.

Although Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, its Palestinian inhabitants live under the precarious status of “permanent residents”, thereby turning natives into immigrants, and allowing the state to strip them of that status on the flimsiest of pretexts.

However, Jerusalemites do enjoy social security coverage, freedom of movement and the right to work in Israel. Their compatriots in the West Bank, on the other hand, face severe restrictions, live under martial law (except in Area A, where the PA possesses notional authority), reside behind walls, barriers and fences, and eek out an existence under the shadow of settlements.

In contrast, settlers occupy a legal grey zone, where they live on Palestinian land but enjoy the protection of Israeli law and the military. Ideological settlements are more akin to the lawlessness Netanyahu attributed to Arab towns in Israel, because of the Israeli authorities reluctance to bring violent settlers to justice which, in the words of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “creates impunity for hate crimes, and encourages assailants to continue”.

At the bottom of the pile lies Gaza, which is almost hermetically sealed by Israel and Egypt, and forgotten except in times of war. Israel controls Gaza’s territory militarily, but without any boots on the ground, and takes no responsibility for this occupation.

If Netanyahu really wants everyone to be “Israeli all the way”, he needs to move beyond self-righteous posturing to a rights-based posture. He must dismantle the six states within a state that his country has created and grant every Israeli and Palestinian, every Arab and Jew, full equality before the law and full citizenship.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 January 2016.

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When Palestinian women take up arms

 
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By Khaled Diab

The shock elicited by Palestinian women taking up arms is due to local sexism and orientalist stereotyping, not historical or social reality.

A political poster from 1971. Source: www.palestineposterproject.org

A political poster from 1971.
Source: www.palestineposterproject.org

Friday 18 December 2015

Random stabbing attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians have become a defining feature of the current wave of violence and protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of these attacks were carried out by young people aged under 25.

One aspect which has triggered a great deal of confusion and shock – both among Palestinians and abroad – is that a high number of attacks were perpetrated by young women. A fifth of attackers or alleged attackers were women, according to one estimate.

But is this surprise justified?

In my view, the incredulity these attacks have evoked is due to the intersection between sexism and orientalism. It is remarkable just how much the stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim women entertained by the local patriarchy and orientalists overlap. For both, the Arab woman is passive, weak and submissive, but the reality is very different.

Pal women outside high commissionAlthough it tends not to stick enough in the collective memory, Palestinian women have been involved in their national struggle since its very inception. An old black-and-white photo from the 1920s featuring Palestinian women protesting outside the British high commissioner’s office in Jerusalem illustrates this reality eloquently.

Even though the involvement of Palestinian women has largely been in the peaceful aspects of the struggle, their participation in armed resistance and other forms of political violence – including terrorism – goes back decades, from the hijackings of the 1960s and 1970s to the suicide bombers of the second Intifada.

For example, Dalal Mughrabi, who trained as a nurse, went from saving lives to taking them. At the tender age of 19, she led a “fedayeen” operation from Lebanon into Israel, leaving a devastating trail of 38 dead Israeli civilians, including 13 children.

That an “angel of mercy” can turn into an “angel of death” is shocking to the sensibilities of many. But that is only the case if you subscribe to the prevalent gender myths that women are somehow gentler and more peaceable than men because of their central biological role in creating life.

However, the reality is that vengeance, anger and violence are human traits that affect men and women alike. The fact that women commit fewer acts of violence is not, in my opinion, due to their intrinsic nature, or that men are overrun with testosterone, but because of the greater social constraints placed on women, especially in traditional societies.

Equally unconvincingly, some women believe that their gender can make them more radical than men. “Women give life […] When they are involved, they are more faithful to the revolution because they defend the lives of their children too,” said Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, who has become the icon of Palestinian armed resistance, even though she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, any passengers.

Whatever role gender does or does not play in the commitment of Palestinians to their cause, the conflict is usually gender-neutral and does not distinguish between men and women.

“Living under occupation has direct impacts on the ability of people to live ‘normal’ lives,” explains Nadia Dabbaghh, a child and adolescent psychologist who has researched the psychological effects of the conflict on youth. “This can lead to a sense of frustration in both men and women.”

However, that frustration can manifest itself differently in men and women due to the differences in social expectations and their defined roles. “In my research, I found men could feel powerless and frustrated – unable to do what they felt they needed to do as men,” notes Dabbagh.

This shows how young men can also be the victims of the patriarchy, which is designed primarily to serve the “alpha dog” male. But the primary victims are women. Palestinian women live not only under the oppression of the Israeli occupation, but also the repression of a male-dominated society which insists that an entire family’s reputation hangs on the fragile thread of their hymens and safeguarding this “honour” requires imposing draconian restrictions on women.

This higher level of desperation can make the line between the political and the personal vaguer in the case of women than men. In Dabbagh’s informative and taboo-breaking study Suicide in Palestine, she found that some troubled women sought a more “honourable” path to taking their own lives.

“Rather than bring shame or dishonour to their entire family and even their community by running away or committing suicide, these women sought escape through an act that would by and large be viewed as patriotic,” she wrote.

This was illustrated by a suicidal young woman who Dabbagh interviewed named Aisha, who had been abused by her siblings and during her two marriages. During the second Intifada, Aisha tried to attack a female soldier armed with nothing but a blunt razor blade, landing her in an Israeli prison, where she unexpectedly found escape and comfort.

“At the beginning it was difficult, but I could rest. It was better than outside. I would prefer to go back,” admitted Aisha.

In addition to their political and personal motivations, Abusif regards the recent wave of female stabbings as partly being an indirect revolt against the patriarchy. “It’s a rebellion against society also. They’re fighting for gender equality,” she notes.

This is reflected in the newfound assertiveness of religious women. While more secular women have long claimed they will never be “sent back to the kitchen”, in the words of Hanan Ashrawi who rose to prominent during the first Intifada, their religious sisters have only recently been tentatively stepping out of the home.

“Palestinian women have played a central role in the ‘Jerusalem Intifada’ and they ignited its first spark, via the Murabitat at al-Aqsa,” Rajaa al-Halabi, who heads the Islamic women’s movement in Gaza, said in an interview in Arabic.

Women played a similarly central role in the first Intifada, but were marginalised and side-lined during the second. If this, indeed, proves to be a third Intifada, I hope it ends up resembling the first, in which Palestinians exploited the power of peaceful resistance to bring about revolutionary change from the moral high ground.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 9 December 2015.

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