The missing link: Re-connecting Gaza with the West Bank

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gaza and the West Bank are effectively on different planets. Connecting them must be part of any lasting solution and would make a world of difference.

It is hard to believe today but Gaza was once a magnet for Palestinians from the West Bank, as well as Israelis.

It is hard to believe today but Gaza was once a magnet for Palestinians in Israel and from the West Bank, as well as for Israelis.

Monday 4 August 2014

Although there is a tendency among many Israelis to view Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as being distinct and separate groups, Palestinians themselves do not share this view and regard themselves as constituting a single nation.

And Israel’s devastating and deadly onslaught in Gaza has resonated with Palestinians everywhere, leading many to declare “We are all Gaza now”.

Many Palestinians – in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and diaspora – have long been great admirers of Gazan steadfastness and glorify its people’s perceived irrepressible resistance and defiance, despite the enormous human cost this involves. “Every time [Gaza] explodes… it scratches the face of the enemy,” wrote the late Mahmoud Darwish, popularly regarded as Palestine’s national poet, back in 1973. “Gaza is the vicious lesson and the radiant example for enemy and friend alike.”

Given that the majority of the tiny strip’s population (1.2 million) are refugees from what is today Israel, a large number of Palestinians in Israel have family in Gaza, making the connection intimate and personal.

“You don’t fully comprehend the pain and anger until your own family is hit,” said one Palestinian I know from al-Tira. Her uncle in Gaza had his house destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Although they survived, they are now homeless with war raging all around them.

In Jerusalem and the West Bank, fewer people have family ties with Gaza, but they do possess a powerful sense of common nationhood and inter-Palestinian camaraderie, despite the separation imposed on them by Israel.

This is reflected in the almost-daily protests and clashes in solidarity with Gaza, as well as the largest Palestinian demonstration in recent years. In fact, it looks like the long-expected third intifada may have finally arrived and one of its sparks was Gaza.

That said, and despite the restrictions, there are some Gazans who live in the West Bank – to study, work or marry – and West Bankers who live in Gaza, usually for the purpose of marriage.

But the restrictions imposed on such movement are so draconian that they tear families apart. Even though the West Bank is, at its nearest point, just 40km away from Gaza, it might as well be in another galaxy. “Gaza and the West Bank seem like two separate and distant planets, with no way of getting from one to the other,” Maha Hijawi, who was born in the Gaza Strip and now lives with her husband and children in the West Bank, was reported as saying in a recent B’Tselem report.

“I’m raising the children alone, without their father by my side,” complains Maisoun Haj Ali whose husband moved to the West Bank for work in 2008 but has been unable to reunify his family since. “I suffer, because the children talk about him every day, asking when we’ll go and live with him.”

And even celebrity does not help. For instance, the professional footballer Suleiman Obeid, who plays at both club and national level, was permitted to move to the West Bank in 2008 to play for a team there but his family were not allowed to join him. “Wanting to hug your baby and play with him, or when you think about sleeping with your wife or having more kids. These are basic needs that are a given for every person or husband,” observes Obeid.

Obeid has to make do with daily phone calls and the Web to keep in touch with his family. But this too comes at an emotional cost. “Every phone call or contact that we have, I feel pain, I feel heartbroken…Your eyes can see but your hands can’t touch.”

For people like Obeid, the current situation must be intolerably painful, not knowing how safe his family is, powerless to fulfil every parent’s natural instinct, to protect his kids from harm and the ugliness of the world.

The situation was not always like this. Although current generations may find it hard to conceive, for the first two decades following Israel’s conquest of Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians had almost complete freedom of movement. In fact, Gaza was once a prized beach and shopping retreat, not just for Palestinians but also for Israelis. Older Palestinians I meet speak fondly of the times they could just get in their cars or on a bus and go to Gaza.

These times are unlikely to return in any foreseeable future. Nevertheless, I am convinced that any durable and sustainable solution to the recurring confrontations between Israel and Gaza, and the repeated and compounding human tragedies it causes, is not only to lift the inhumane Israeli-Egyptian blockade but also to link Gaza with the West Bank.

The Oslo accords recognises the West Bank and Gaza are a single, integral territorial unit, but this has remained a dead letter. One major sticking point has been how to connect the two territories, since a chunk of Israel lies between them. However, there are numerous workable blueprints for building a “safe passage” which both connects the Palestinians and guarantees Israel’s security from attack.

Even without a comprehensive peace agreement, Gaza and the West Bank must be physically, politically and administratively linked up to enable them to re-integrate their societies and economies. This will not only help end Gaza’s harmful and counterproductive isolation, it would also enable the Palestinians to take a further step towards self-rule and self-determination.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 28 July 2014.

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Marching for Gaza and towards the third intifada

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 July 2014

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 21 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Blood is thicker than war

 
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By Khaled Diab

The horrific murders of Israeli and Palestinian teens should drive home how violence is futile and burdens coming generations with future bloodshed.

Angry residents of Shuafat in East Jerusalem clash with Israeli police.  Photo: ©Ibrahin Husseini

Angry residents of Shuafat in East Jerusalem clash with Israeli police.
Photo: ©Ibrahin Husseini

Friday 4 July 2014

Death is in the air, hate is on the airwaves and there is an air of dread, with everyone expecting bad times ahead – the question being just how bad. And at the symbolic, emotive heart of the situation lie four teenagers, three Israelis and one Palestinian, though he is not the first die since this crisis erupted.

Ever since the abduction of three Israeli youth – Gilad Shaar (16), Naftali Fraenkel (16), and Eyal Yifrach (19) – underlying tensions have spilled over. But I will not go into them here. Suffice it to say that a volatile, unsustainable situation received a trigger which is tipping it over the precariously balanced status quo.

The genuine grief felt by Israelis for their compatriots and the solidarity they expressed for the boys’ families is understandable. The ripostes by many Palestinians that these were settlers on occupied territory, or, more crucially, that far more Palestinians suffer, including all those prisoners of conscience effectively kidnapped by the state, is missing the point.

Regardless of the right or wrong of the political situation they found themselves in, these were kids and, as a father, I can empathise with their families and sympathise with the grief their disappearance inflicted.

Moreover, it is generally accepted that just resistance does not target civilians – and these teens were clearly civilians. But targeting civilians, as well as collective punishment, is what Israel also does, in spades. In fact, the investigation into the kidnappings saw the mass arrest of Hamas members, not to mention some closures.

At a certain level, Israel’s collective grief and sense of joint anguish was admirable and even commendable, if there weren’t such an ugly underbelly: the mass hysteria and hatred this unleashed. While it is understandable that this kind of high-profile act should elicit fear, to listen to some Israelis speak, you might be excused for thinking that the kidnappings, tragic as they were, represented an existential threat to the entire nation.

Whereas the reality is that thousands upon thousands of Israelis live in close proximity to Palestinians and in safety. Take Sheikh Jarrah where I live. Even at the highest points of this crisis, I’ve seen the local hardcore settlers walking around the neighbourhood unprotected and unmolested.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the whole tragic affair is the unseemly political opportunism of radicals on both sides. The Israeli government used the abductions to provide it with moral cover to crackdown on its arch-enemy Hamas, and even to sabotage the recently born Palestinian national unity government.

For its part, Hamas juggled with the elusive ingredients for having its cake and eating it. While denying any involvement in the kidnapping, it called the abductors “heroes” and criticised the PA for co-operating with Israel in the investigation. At the same time, embattled and broke, Hamas has been discreetly trying to lower tensions so as to avoid a confrontation with Israel, and has cracked down on radical militant groups to keep the peace. In fact, Israel and Hamas are enemies in words but quite often not in deeds.

After a hunt that lasted nearly three weeks, the bodies of the three Israeli teens were located. While the families dealt with their pain and grief, and many Israelis joined them in their mourning, a wave of hate has overtaken numerous segments of Israeli society.

Even otherwise sensible Israelis have succumbed to the atmosphere of rage. “Burning hate and no regard for lives can’t be countered with concerts,” one Israeli I know commented, as if Israel’s military had turned their guns into rock guitars. “It has to be countered with an iron fist and firm knowledge that murderous actions will have ramifications beyond their wild[est] imagination.”

Extremists angrily called for “revenge” and “death to Arabs” and numerous “price tag” hate crimes have been reported. That’s not to mention the deafening cries across the political spectrum, with the exception of Meretz, for military action against Hamas and the destruction of the movement.

I came face to face with this racist sentiment on West Jerusalem’s central Zion Square. A number of radical settler youth had set up a memorial for the dead teens but had fashioned the candles into the Hebrew for “Death to Arabs”, a bystander informed me. Being an Arab myself, but apparently not obviously one, it was rather surreal to be witnessing people demanding an end to my life simply because of an accident of birth.

It was also heartening to see bystanders not pass this kind of incitement by passively and a war of words broke out between opponents and supporters of, as the Cure would put it,  killing an Arab. One courageous middle-aged women who looked like an ageing hippy stepped into the fray and tried to re-arrange the offensive candle arrangement, only to be met with shouting and chants from the opposing side.

Around the corner from this hate fest was a rally, organised by Tag Meir (Light Tag), an organisation which combats price tagging, which paid tribute to the slain teens and to reject racism and hate crimes. I was pleased that so many from different backgrounds, though the crowd was largely young and middle-class, had come, but what were a few hundred doves to do against the deafening wails of the hawks. In addition, the opposition generally was to vigilantism, and was not targeted against violence perpetrated by the state, no matter how unlawful or counterproductive.

To date, these sentiments and efforts have done little to counteract “price tag” hate crimes, which the Israeli authorities have been reluctant or even unwilling to pursue, especially when targeted at Palestinians in the West Bank.

Hours after the bodies of Yifrach, Fraenkel and Shaar were found, another teen also vanished. But this time it was a Palestinian, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was snatched on his way to dawn prayers from outside the family home, which is just 20 steps from the mosque.

When Abu Khdeir’s charred corpse was discovered in the Jerusalem Forest, Israelis who immediately leapt to blame Palestinians, and specifically Hamas, for the earlier abduction, suddenly changed their tone and started to caution against jumping to conclusions about the perpetrators, while Palestinians who had been taking a wait-and-see attitude pointed an immediate finger at the settlers.

The comforting embrace of conspiracy theories also took hold in numerous Israeli circles, as it had done beforehand with a significant number of Palestinians, with people desperately looking to blame everything, including making assumptions about the boy’s sexuality and how his family would react to it, but their own. Echoing earlier Israeli conspiracy theories regarding Muhammad al-Durrah, some Palestinians I have encountered are convinced that the death of the three Israeli teens was staged or was a black-flag op.

Anger at the murder, a recent chain of price tag attacks against Palestinians and the recent Israeli military crackdown, normally sleepy Shuafat erupted into a wave of rage unseen in the quiet suburb for many long years, with the whirring of helicopter blades, the echoing of sirens and the boom of police fire going on late into the night.

 

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The morning after, I cycled down to the tranquil neighbourhood which we had called home for the better part of two years to the aftermath of rage. There was still a heavy police presence. They had cordoned off the main road and were only allowing locals in, but the police just let me slip by with baffled expressions directed to this figure on a bicycle with a child seat on the back.

The tram stop was destroyed, the glass shattered, the ticket machines burnt. Debris was strewn everywhere, most shops were shuttered, and a couple of buildings defiantly flew Palestinian flags which are banned in Jerusalem.

I dropped by to check on four-year-old’s spiritual “Tetah”, his surrogate grandmother in Jerusalem who was not only a neighbour but like family. The 92-year-old was very troubled by events and shaken. “I am afraid to open my door to strangers,” she told me. “We used to think that Shuafat was a shelter from all the troubles around us, but it seems nowhere is safe.”

She remenisced over better times: “We used to live next door to Jews in West Jerusalem. We used to socialise with each other, buy things from each other, visit each other’s homes. My father’s home was near the Jewish cemetry and I never once felt fear. But now I am frightened.”

It shocked me to discover that I know the father of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, but knew him as Abu al-Rae’d, the name of his oldest son. He is the electrical contractor who installed and maintains the electrical installations in our building. Mohammed, a quiet, reserved and hard-working boy has even been in our building and flat, helping his father and older brother out.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Abu al-Raed was standing in a startled daze outside his shop in Shuafat, amid the rubble of his grief and the wreckage of the previous night’s fury. The poor man didn’t have a moment’s rest the day before: hours of interrogation then a riot outside his front door till late into the night. After offering him my condolences, he told me in disbelief how Mohammed was abducted from outside the shop on his way to dawn prayers at the mosque, which is no more than 20 steps away.

I had so many questions I wanted to ask him, but decided to refrain out of respect for his grief and the immense pressure he has been under, including the constant buzzing of the media around him. After hearing what happened from a man in such clear anguish and pain, I find it hard to believe the alternative theories being circulated, though I hope the police will investigate this murder impartially, thoroughly and dedicate to it all the resources it merits so as to get to the truth.

The seating area for the funeral has already been set up and I was invited to join the mourners. Abu al-Rae’d told me that he hoped Mohammed’s body would be released today so that they can bury him. RIP Mohammed and may your family too find peace amid their grief.

The street in front of the Abu Khdeir’s building was seemingly the focal point of the clashes, with the greatest destruction around it: make-shift barricades, smoking rubbish skips, etc. I found this to be quite insensitive towards the grieving family who have enough on their plate, not to have to deal with violence on their doorstep.

Moreover, the rioting seems to go against the bereaved family’s wishes. Not just that, the father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, has called for calm and a stop to senseless violence. Having tasted the pain of such unnecessary loss of someone so young with his life ahead of him, Abu Khdeir does not wish such a fate even upon his people’s enemy.

“I am against kidnapping and killing. Whether Jew or Arab, who can accept the kidnapping and killing of his son or daughter?” he said. “I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”

Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the murdered Israeli teens, shared Abu Khdeir’s parental sentiments. “If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalist reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act,” she wrote immediately upon learning the news.

In a clear sign that she did not wish to see any self-appointed avengers take it as their mission to avenge her son’s death, she Fraenkel: “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder.”

The noble and human sentiments expressed by these sorrow-stricken parents points to a better path ahead: the full rejection of violence – whether carried out by the Israeli army, Palestinian militants, as well as Arab or Jewish terrorists – and its immediate and unconditional condemnation, especially when committed by one’s own side.

Objections will immediately be raised on both sides, especially among Israelis who seem to think that state violence is somehow more justified than its non-state counterpart, even though the damage military action inflicts is far greater and it hurts and kills more civilians. But as many Palestinians have (re)discovered, especially after the bloodiness of the Second Intifada, non-violence is far more effective – and subversive.

Nevertheless, the mentality persists on both sides, fuelled by each side’s particular history of trauma, weakness and oppression, that acting tough through armed struggle can somehow resolve this conflict. But the evidence is against them.

Although I am a pacifist, I am not naïve. I know there are times and places where violence is unavoidable. However, Israel-Palestine, today, is not one of these times or locations.

Over the past century, the two sides have thrown everything they have at each other, but neither has prevailed. Palestinians and Israelis, each in their own way, are formidable adversaries who will not be broken, and so violence is futile.

In short, force of arms cannot solve what is a political, social, class and religious conflict. The peaceful hand of unarmed resistance and arm-in-arm coexistence is the only way.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An updated version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post on 8 July 2014.

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The power of Palestinian literature to write wrongs

 
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The power of Palestinian literature lies in its ability to make a word of difference, gradually shifting perceptions and, through them, reality.

Palfest

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which took place last week, was held in five different cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Haifa. Into its seventh edition, this year’s PalFest, despite being run on a shoestring, attracted prominent Palestinian, Arab, European, American, Asian and African names.

PalFest has managed to skirt around the movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli military to field a diverse programme including readings, theatrical performances, music, panel discussions and workshops.

The festival’s slogan is “the power of culture over the culture of power”. This echoes the ancient adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which has been recycled in various forms since at least the Assyrian sage Ahiqar in the 7th century BC.

But in a world where the sword – or more accurately the gun, the missile and the jet fighter – so often silences the word, it is easy to view literature’s power to write wrongs with scepticism and, hence, regard it as a preoccupation people living under occupation can ill afford.

Even the late Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet and one of the main architects of modern Palestinian consciousness, was not immune to such doubts. “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Despite these misgivings, the culture of power does sometimes feel insecure in the face of the power of culture.

Although Israel, alongside Lebanon, probably has the freest literary scene in the Middle East, this freedom often does not extend to the Palestinians. This was on ample display during the second edition of PalFest in 2009, when Israeli police tried to stop the Jerusalem leg of the festival from taking place, prompting the French Cultural Centre and British Council to step in to save the day.

This demonstrates that the pen can sometimes intimidate the sword.

In my view, the power of literature lies in its ability to make a word, rather than a world, of difference. It doesn’t cause dramatic, immediate change in the real world, but it can gradually shift perceptions and consciousness and, through them, reality.

Literature can and does play a number of vital roles in the context of the Palestinian struggle. For instance, whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction, it is a peaceful means of resisting Israel’s military machine, both by boosting morale and highlighting the plight of Palestinians.

Traditionally, Palestinian literature has served the function of chronicling the dispossession of the Palestinian people and of keeping their memory and identity alive. This is epitomised not only in the poetry of Darwish but also in the defining short stories and novels of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972 in Beirut by, many suspect, the Mossad.

Literature is also, as Darwish pointed out, a vehicle for humanising the Palestinians. This is not only in the eyes of those who regard them as two-dimensional villains but also those who see them simplistically as superhuman heroes or poor victims.

A new generation of writers and other artists has taken it as their mission to highlight this ordinary human experience, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. Such run-of-the-mill Palestinians “need to be fictionalised,” in the view of Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright, because “the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

Literature can also be a conduit for self-reflection and criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian society itself. An example of this was presented at PalFest by Palestinian-American poet Susan Abulhawa when she recited a poem from her collection My Voice Sought the Wind, in which she reflects on the equal sacrifices women must make for the cause but the unequal returns they receive:

The first time your husband hit you

It nearly knocked the country off your back

Literature is also a means of displaying solidarity. “Your very presence here signifies your support in these times of isolation,” Michael Sansour, the executive vice-president of Bethlehem University, one of the venues of the festival, told the assembled writers and journalists.

Caught between the walls imposed by the Israeli occupation and Arab reluctance to scale them, Palestinians have been incredibly isolated not only from the wider world, but even their own neighbourhood. PalFest, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, was created partly to remedy this.

But literature is not just about resistance but can also pave the way to coexistence by bridging the chasm of perception and misconception between the two sides.

“[Elias] Khoury’s Bab al-Shams influenced my thinking lots, as did Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks,” observes Shuli, an Israeli acquaintance. “They further fleshed out things that I sensed but couldn’t prove with statistics and history, filled gaps.”

This bridge-building potential is well embodied in the unlikely friendship and intellectual companionship between the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic whose research brought Mahfouz into the international limelight.

But, above all, the writer can imagine a better tomorrow. “I dream of the day when,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh, “thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 4 June 2014.

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Gunship diplomacy, rockets and Gaza’s forgotten tragedy

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 15 March 2014

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 3 March 2014

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

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

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

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

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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From peace now to peace how

 
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By Khaled Diab

As John Kerry’s efforts appear doomed, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists are left with an impossible challenge: peace how? Ask the people.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month,  Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinian negotiators are in open mutiny against Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic” Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And to me it is unclear just how Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race against space for the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new or imaginative to the table.

This has left peace activists contemplating peace how more than peace now. “Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” confesses Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”

“And Kerry has no Plan B,” she added for emphasis.

Sadiq co-organised the recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations, where the mood struck me as being similarly dour.

Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds – from secular types whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or colourful headscarves. There was even a man with a Moshe Dayan-style eye-patch.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. “Peace is too dear to be left to politicians,” as one speaker put it.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one major overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, the sabotaging of which, the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of  the motivation behind his Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis disastrously supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible… because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, side-lining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Baskin’s optimism that Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals which garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure which the majority on both sides vote for should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Nancy Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2014.

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Can Egypt start a new chapter of Middle Eastern history?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 25 January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 January 2014.

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