Israel-Palestine: a book of the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Israel-Palestine, a peace without the people has left two peoples without peace. That is why I am writing a book about these most intimate of enemies.

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 November 2013

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become overshadowed by the tumultuous upheavals gripping the Middle East, the US Secretary of State has created something of a stir with his stated determination to revive the defunct and dysfunctional peace process.

John Kerry even warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a third intifada, if it failed to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians. Presumably to avoid such an outcome, Washington reportedly plans to push through its own peace deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Even if the uncharacteristically stern tone Kerry adopted with Israel’s intransigent government is sincere, I cannot help but think that the Secretary of State is flogging a dead horse.

As I’ve argued on numerous occasions before, the Oslo framework has been a spectacular failure. This is for a host of reasons, including the fact that Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, as well as poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace” and to put in place a “permanent status”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution. The best we can hope for is little pieces of peace, shards of shalom or slices of salam, as the two sides gradually navigate the minefield towards conciliation.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, inside-out nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me (at least since the conflict began), I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly. I have had many adventures and misadventures. Although as an Arab my instinctive sympathies are with the Palestinians, as a humanist, I have also nurtured empathy and sympathy for Israelis. To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

Along the way, I have made many good friends on both sides, and probably some enemies, though on the whole Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than there hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Another book, the weary reader might ask? It is true that, even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East – some might say, the entire world.

But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

The unusual nature of my enterprise has made publication a tough challenge, given the polarised nature of the Israel-Palestine publishing industry. Although I have written some 65,000 words and am two-thirds of the way through my manuscript, I have yet to find a publisher who will actually publish it.

A number of publishers have expressed initial interest and praised the manuscript, but have shied away from actually committing to publishing it. This is partly due to the (unintentionally) controversial nature of my work and partly due to the crisis afflicting the industry which has made editors reluctant to try the untested. Perhaps the path to follow, and one that will guarantee my editorial and political independence, is to self-publish, despite its reputation as a vanity outlet.

Whether I find a publisher or not, I am determined, with the help of family, friends and supporters, to finish what I have begun and to make whatever modest contribution I can to the quest for peace, by the people and for the people.

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter. This article first appeared in The Daily Beast on 13 November 2013.

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Israel, the puppet master with no strings

 
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By Khaled Diab

Why is Israel, despite being a minor player, is seen by so many Egyptians and others in the region as the master puppeteer behind the crisis in Egypt?

Thursday 29 August 2013

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with "beautiful hair"?

Is this man the mastermind behind the crisis in Egypt or is he just a philosopher with “perfect hair”? Photo: Itzike

When news emerged that Hosni Mubarak was to be released from prison, I joked that Egypt was actually in the throes of a grand plot to punish the Egyptian people for having dared to topple their dictator. Part of this ‘conspiracy’ was the planting of provocateurs – Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mohammed Morsi and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – to lead the country off a cliff.

Of course, I was sarcastically expressing my frustration at the incomprehensible magnitude of the incompetence displayed by Egypt’s leaders, the shattering – one shard at a time – of the Egyptian people’s dreams of revolution, as well as mocking the improbable conspiracy theories that have been floating around.

One of the most outlandish was the assertion by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps trying to fill a little of the void left by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel was behind the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

His evidence? A Jewish-French intellectual, unnamed by Erdoğan, who said, in 2011, that the Muslim Brotherhood would not take power, even if elected, because “democracy is not the ballot box.” The intellectual in question, an aide later revealed to AP, was none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Unfortunately, Erdoğan did not elaborate on how BHL, as he is often called in France, came to work for the Israelis. Nor did he explain how Lévy managed to brainwash millions of Egyptians into coming out to the streets to demand Morsi’s departure, providing the army with the necessary cover and support to mount its coup, or what inside track the French philosopher enjoys with General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Although this conspiracy theory may actually appeal to Lévy’s over-inflated sense of himself – whose shallow philosophy has been described as “God is dead but my hair is perfect” – he is not a one-man intelligence agency. In fact, he is little more than the French equivalent of the “liberator of Kabul” John Simpson and “gut feeling,” “cab driver told me,” world-shaper Thomas Friedman.

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In fact, anyone who actually watches the YouTube video can see that Levy is taking part in a panel discussion and is expressing his view that even if the Brotherhood won at the ballot box, he would not personally regard this as democratic. “Democracy is not only elections, it is values,” he asserted.

But, sadly, Erdoğan is not alone in spreading absurd rumours of this kind. In Egypt itself, there are some people in most camps who allege that Israel, usually in collaboration with the United States, is the master puppeteer behind the crisis there. For instance, one poster at the Rabaa protest shows US President Barack Obama dressed as pharaoh leading al-Sisi like a dog wearing a Star of David collar, while another –  which has stirred controversy in Egypt –  shows a Star of David stamped on the neck of a soldier. On the other side of the political spectrum, a caricature that appeared in a leading newspaper shows pro-Morsi protesters asking how to say “Occupy Egypt and save us”  in Hebrew.

This attitude strikes me as being particularly pronounced and most vitriolic in the pro-Morsi camp. “America and the Zionists were against Morsi. But they will fail in their project,” said one protester at the Raba’a al-Adawiya sit-in, which I visited days before it was violently dispersed.

One outspoken young man who pushed through the crowd to speak to me claimed shockingly, outrageously and preposterously: “Hitler killed the Jews for his people. Al-Sisi is killing his people for the Jews.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those in the pro-military camp who believe that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are agents of the United States and Israel.

It may be news for many Israelis to learn that, while still in power, Morsi, who is most famous in Israel for describing Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”, was described as a “Zionist” by one prominent anti-Brotherhood, secular cleric.

Riding the wave of suspicion toward the United States and Israel, the youth-led Tamarud movement, which helped spearhead the opposition against Morsi with a petition signed by millions calling for his departure, has launched a new petition campaign demanding the cessation of US aid and the cancellation of the Camp David accords, which would enable Egypt to fix its “broken” sovereignty.

Many Israelis and Jews will see this as yet another sign of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s irredeemable anti-Semitism. Although racism and prejudice, bred partly by generations of conflict, are certainly a factor, the reality is far more complex and nuanced.

Like Syria before it, Egypt has become a proxy political battleground for numerous regional and international players, with the biggest hitters being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey. And the fog of conflict ensures that along with real-world conspiracies, outlandish conspiracy theories also float around.

However, compared with these other players active backing of one side or the other, and even both, Israel’s role has been a passive, backseat one. If that is the case, why is Israel included among the top league of foreign meddlers, movers and shakers in Egypt?

Part of the reason is the perception that Israel is Washington’s loyal regional lapdog – or, more outlandishly, the tail that wags the dog – and as anti-American sentiment grows, Israel suffers by association.

In addition, there is the long history of actual plots in which Israel was involved – from the Lavon Affair and the Suez war to Netanyahu’s shuttle diplomacy to defend Mubarak – that gives fantastical conspiracy theories a superficial sheen of credibility.

Another factor is the emotive weight of utilising a decades-old enemy as a powerful weapon for discrediting political adversaries, which has been a long tradition in the Arab world – though more and more Egyptians are becoming sceptical of them.

However, the danger is that this distorts the reality of the situation. In fact, what’s happening in Egypt, in my view, is more a “clash within civilisations” than between them. This is illustrated in the United States’ overriding interest in “stability” to protect its interests, and that is why Washington backs the army right or wrong, because it incorrectly sees the military as Egypt’s only guarantor of stability.

The mutual dehumanisation and demonisation that has been going on for generations has sadly made Arabs and Israelis all too willing to believe the most implausible, inhumane theories about each other. This is reflected in how a significant number of Arabs have adopted the ancient Christian idea of the Jewish “blood libel” and how a large number of Israelis have reversed that blood libel and utilised it against the Palestinians, as demonstrated in the recent al-Durah affair.

But there is a danger to this. By attributing to your enemies a subhuman character and superhuman powers, you propel them out of the real world and into the realm of otherworldliness, leading to the untrue conviction that you are powerless to transform foe into friend and war into peace. But at a time when populism is more important than wisdom, suggesting that your common enemy is your opponent’s “friend”  is just too tempting an opportunity to miss.

 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 27 August 2013.

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Muhammad al-Durrah and the other ‘blood libel’

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

Thursday 30 May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 May 2013.

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Obama, enough listening, it’s time to act

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Wednesday 13 March 2013

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

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

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

But is this wise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what can and should the American president do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2013.

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Palestinian liberation through the Israeli ballot box

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.

Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.

This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.

In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”

And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.

Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.

“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.

However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.

In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.

One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.

In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.

“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.

It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.

However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.

“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”

Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.

And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.

There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2013.

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Israeli elections: When there’s nothing left to lose

 
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With Israel expected to elect its most right-wing government ever, what can progressive Arab and Jewish voters do to challenge the status quo?

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Polls predict that Israel’s ultra-nationalist and religious right will walk away with Tuesday’s elections, and that the subsequent coalition may well be even further to the right than the current one.

A dispassionate perusal of Israel’s situation would reveal the urgent and desperate need to narrow and bridge the growing gap in Israel between the have-loads and the have-nots and to build bridges across the enormous chasm separating Israelis from Palestinians, both within Israel and in the occupied territories.

Yet the right seems bent on widening these splits with its hardcore nationalistic discourse, the casual racism of many of its leaders and its determination to further entrench and broaden the settlement enterprise.

It is distressing and depressing to witness Israel’s continued drift to the right. This is reflected in how parties which were once considered rightwing are now regarded as centrist and in how quickly the “loony” fringe parties become mainstream, as embodied in the meteoric rise of HaBayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett and in how Avigdor Lieberman, who once famously called for the bombing of Egypt’s high dam and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea, managed to become Israel’s face to the outside world.

The hardening of the right, mixed with the weakness and disarray of the left, has resulted in massive disillusionment and alienation in the ranks of Palestinian-Israelis and, albeit to a lesser extent, among progressive Israeli Jews, many of whom have “defected” rightwards.

This has translated into widespread apathy towards Tuesday’s vote, with surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters will cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. Expressing a widespread sentiment in his community, one voter from Umm al-Fahm explained the reasons for his abstention: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

Even many of the politically aware and young who are as comfortable, sometimes more so, in Hebrew as in Arabic, feel there is nothing left to vote for.

“I don’t believe I will be voting in these upcoming elections,” admits Mimas Abdel-Hay, a student of government at a private Israeli institution, despite having recently become a political representative for a new party called Hope for Change. “Although this might show weakness or indecisiveness, I never felt like I had a say.”

Faced with such a bleak political landscape, is there anything progressive Arabs and Jews in Israel can do to challenge or protest against the status quo?

Rather than simply abstaining as individuals from voting, some Palestinians in Israel have actively called for a collective boycott of the vote.

But whether it is understandable disillusionment at their growing marginalisation or principle that keeps Arab voters away, I personally believe the only thing worse than participating in this unrepresentative electoral fight is not participating.

While mainstream Israeli parties are largely ignoring the Arab electorate, Arab politicians, as well as the joint Jewish-Arab Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), have been working to convince sceptical voters to turn out on Tuesday and make their voices count.

“In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote. In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life… In only one thing there is equal rights: the day of the election,” Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List said in an interview.

“A boycott now is an act of weakness, not an act of active struggle. We would be out of politics,” asserts Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party, the first woman to represent an Arab party in the Knesset, despite having experienced efforts to disqualify her from the current elections.

Although television producer Hamodie Abonadda will not be voting for Balad but rather Hadash, his assessment of the consequences of staying away from the elections is similar to Zoabi’s. “Not voting is a very harsh statement one makes when living in an environment of equality,” he maintains.

Abonadda describes Palestinians in Israel as being victims twice over: of exclusion by the Israeli political establishment and then of being blamed for the apathy and indifference this engenders. “This has made the victim guilty of being a victim… The 1948 Arabs must stop being the victim and rise up and change the Israeli reality with their votes,” he urges.

But this raises the tricky issue of who to vote for. Like progressive Jews, many Arabs in Israel feel poorly represented by the parties that speak in their name. While many Arab politicians focus their attention on nationalistic questions and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a  survey by Haifa University found that 57% of Palestinian-Israeli voters were most concerned with “bread and butter” issues, such as welfare, discrimination and rising crime, while only 8% cited the conflict.

Some also describe discourse as a challenge. “The problem I have is with the way the Arab politicians reach out to the Israeli public. They never speak in a way the Israelis can relate to or understand,” believes Mimas Abdel-Hay. “We are a minority, and in order to be heard, we have to play this game wisely,” she suggests.

“Playing the game wisely” should involve finding common cause with likeminded Israeli Jews as part of a broader struggle for greater socio-economic equality between not only Jews and Arabs, but also within Jewish society itself.

One politician out to do just that is Asma Agbarieh, leader of the socialist, Arab-Jewish Da’am party, who is the first Arab woman to head a party in Israel and has been enthusiastically heralded by some as the “new hope” for the Israeli left.

Her vision? “To talk about Jews and Arabs, about socialism, social justice. They thought I was dreaming, that all Arabs hate Jews and all Jews hate Arabs. And I know that’s not true. At a certain point, because reality is crushing you, because it empties your pockets and kills your children, you start to think,” Agbarieh told Haaretz in an interview.

And, although Da’am attracted less than 3,000 votes in 2009, Agbarieh’s message is finding resonance and has caused a surprisingly large number of people to “start to think”.

“I’m pretty captivated by her and her charismatic activities and ideas,” confesses Harvey Stein, an Israeli-American filmmaker based in Jerusalem. “I think Jews and Arabs must come together to fight those things – the question is, how can this feeling that me and a small group of people are feeling become popular enough to be politically meaningful?”

For Stein, the litmus test will be whether Da’am can gain enough votes to cross the electoral threshold and win even one seat in the Knesset. Up until recently, this seemed like a big ask, but the ground seems to be slowly shifting in Agbarieh’s favour.

But even if Da’am does win a seat in the Knesset, what difference will that make, some may rightfully ask?

In my view, a small victory like this will have enormous symbolic significance: for the first time, a Palestinian woman will be leading an elected Israeli party on a joint Jewish-Arab platform.

This, along with other joint action, could help improve the socio-economic situation of the marginalised in Israeli society, whether Arab or Jewish, especially if Jerusalemite Palestinians overcome their reservations and also start demanding their right to vote. It could also slowly redefine the conflict and pave the way to its eventual resolution from the grassroots up.

 

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 21 January 2013.

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Humanising the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

My time in Israel and Palestine, where everything is politics, has taught me that it is the human that  is holy, not the land.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair.  Photo:©Katleen Maes

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party should be a simple, even mundane affair. Photo:©Katleen Maes

Everything is politics, the German novelist Thomas Mann once wrote, and my sojourn in Jerusalem has convinced me that this truism is nowhere truer, at least for me as an Egyptian, than in the Holy Land.

In any normal context, a toddler’s third birthday party, which was doubling up as his parents’ farewell do, should be a simple, even mundane affair. But then, that same week, Gaza happened.

This not only raised the question in our mind of whether it was appropriate to be having fun while war was potentially brewing just a few dozen kilometres down the road, the prospect of having Palestinian and Israeli guests – and plenty of international observers – under the same roof suddenly seemed not just a possibly tense experience, but a potentially explosive encounter.

Despite the dangerous escalation in the war of words and the pulling of rank going on outside, the get-together passed without incident and surprisingly cordially, though the situation kept some of those coming from the West Bank or the coast away.

Afterwards, I felt a sense of relief. For me, as an Egyptian, the situation is sensitive at the best of times. In a context where any contact with Israel or Israelis is widely regarded in Arab circles as a form of unacceptable “normalisation” and the presence of Arabs is often viewed with suspicion or even hostility by Israelis, living in Israel-Palestine is a politically charged affair.

Residing here teaches one that everything is political and politics is everywhere: from choosing where to live and shop, to deciding where to go and who to befriend, not to mention what to call things, since vocabulary is not just idle semantics, but can act as a powerful weapon of negation and denial.

Everything is politics, including the decision to move to the Helly Land. For many years now, I have been convinced that the Arab fixation on normalisation and the Israeli obsession with ghettoisation have distracted attention away from the equally important question of humanisation. This lack of contact empowers extremists to continue their demonisation of the other side and use this to further their rejectionist agendas.

Being here makes you realise that even clothes – from the type of kippa a Jew wears to the traditional Palestinian keffieyeh – speak the language of politics and make far more than just a fashion statement. I’ve always been something of an unorthodox dresser, but since moving to Jerusalem I’ve learnt that white and black, and my affection for headgear, are really quite orthodox.  My wife has also had her notions of fashion redefined. She has discovered that one of her preferred strategies for dealing with the Middle Eastern heat and sun – a cotton scarf tied, gypsy-style, around her head and a loose skirt or a dress – whereas elsewhere it can lie somewhere between the hip and the hippy, here it is associated with the Hilltop Youth and their gung-ho Wild West Bank ways.

Living here also reveals you that the political can also gradually become normal, ordinary, mundane, even humdrum – or, at the very least, an occupational hazard, so to speak. For example, we have raised our three-year-old son, Iskander, for the greater part of his life in Jerusalem.

He went, sometimes on a politically controversial tram, to a crèche in the old city, a stone’s throw away from the holiest, and hence highly politicised, sites in monotheism, past heavily armed soldiers. Iskander not only learnt to speak Arabic more like a Palestinian than an Egyptian, he also picked up some Hebrew phrases, calls money, including euros, “shekels” and even sings “Frere Shekel” instead of “Frère Jacques”. Being an egalitarian toddler, he bombarded Palestinians and Israelis indiscriminately with affection and mischief.

Whenever a military fighter jet or Apache gunship flew overhead – which was with saddening regularity during our last days in Jerusalem – my son would point up to the sky excitedly and shout “plane” or “heli’topter”. Although I pretended to share his excitement, I was privately grateful that he did not have to grow up in Gaza, where the sound of aircraft does not represent a distant and intriguing toy, but a near and deadly danger, or in nearby Sderot where the whistling of rockets does not indicate a fun fireworks display but the muffled sound of a randomly falling rocket heard from the dark confines of an air raid shelter.

However, one thing I will never grow accustomed to is the ugly monstrosity of the wall and the checkpoints and what they represents in terms of segregation, confinement and dispossession.

Then there are the psychological walls and emotional chasms. Trying to bridge these or to infiltrate and occupy the emotional, psychological and political no-man’s land in such a deeply entrenched conflict, as anyone who has tried it will attest, leaves you exposed to both friendly and unfriendly fire.

It also raises the thorny ethical dilemma for me as an Arab – even though I do to strive to be an inclusive, progressive humanist –  of exactly which Israelis I should engage with and befriend.

Although I have not shied away from meeting and dialoguing with Israelis of all political stripes, including extremist and radical settlers, deciding who it is kosher to socialise with or befriend is a trickier affair. Though it is unfair to blame and boycott Israelis for Israel’s excesses and transgressions, should one only socialise with and befriend Israelis who oppose Israel’s repressive policies towards the Palestinians or should differences on these issues not represent a barrier to personal relations? Can friendship and companionship be divorced from politics, especially when, say, an Israeli’s support for military action in Gaza or the wall or settlement building indirectly enables the government to kill and harm Palestinian civilians? Similarly, how should one relate to Palestinians who are sympathetic with, say, the targeting of Israeli civilians?

On a more practical daily level, it can be emotionally and morally challenging to witness the harsh realities of life under occupation for Palestinians, and to enjoy greater access to their homeland than they do, and then to go and hang out with Israelis, who suffer no such restrictions.

Despite this disparity in the power dynamics, there is a growing minority of Palestinians and Israelis who no longer wish to live in the trenches and believe that co-operation, co-existence, and co-resistance will eventually help bring down the real and virtual walls keeping the two peoples apart.

One thing my presence here has driven home to me is that, once you strip away the ethno-tribalism of the conflict, you find that not only are both sides an incredibly heterogeneous mix of peoples, but also that likeminded Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than with their compatriots. And that is why, for instance, secular, progressive, pacifist Israelis and Palestinians have more in common with each other than they do with their conservative, rejectionist, religious compatriots.

Despite the hostile political climate, over the nearly two years of my residence, I experienced a generally warm welcome and remarkably little hostility from ordinary people.

The fact that Egypt is the capital of Arab pop culture and cinema casts a certain glamour upon the only flesh-and-blood Egyptian many Palestinians have ever met, even if I can’t act or sing to save my life, and the Egyptian revolution confers a certain street cred, even though I played no part in that courageous popular uprising beyond writing about it.

Despite the Arab boycott movement, most Palestinians I met, especially in remoter areas, were supportive of my presence and thrilled that a fellow Arab had actually made the effort to come and live by their side rather than grandstand from a distance. And I have been rewarded with touching insights into the meaning of steadfastness, adaptability, as well as peaceful resistance through simple insistence on and persistence with daily life against all the odds. One thing that is striking to the outsider is the powerful lust for life and surprising good humour Palestinians sustain despite decades of tragedy and loss.

For many Israelis, the very exoticness and unexpectedness of having an Arab in their midst softens the tough and rather abrasive public exterior to reveal a hospitable and friendly private side which is not immediately apparent to the stranger, and places Israelis culturally in the Middle Eastern fold. All the doors that have opened to me have helped me form a human picture of who Israelis are, in all their dizzying diversity, and, despite Israel’s contemporary role as oppressor and occupier, how humane so many Israelis actually are.

It is these missing nuances and my conviction that the only peace process that will work is a grassroots people’s peace that has prompted me to write a book not about the politics or the history of this conflict, but about the ordinary folk who find themselves in these extraordinary circumstances.

Seeing the human face of both sides makes me painfully aware of perhaps the greatest tragedy in this conflict: the politicisation of the people. Palestinians and Israelis, albeit to varying degrees, have for generations been viewed and treated as collective causes whose rights to peace and security as individuals are subservient to the claims of the collective to the land.

But it is my belief that if anything should be treated as holy in this unholiest of messes it is the people and not the land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 12 December 2012.

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Occupational hazards in the West Bank

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the world’s attention was turned to Gaza, stealthier military manoeuvres in the West Bank were pushing more Palestinians off their land.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Bedouin children in the northern West Bank face a precarious future. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we turned off the road, there opened up before us a vista of the most exquisite and rugged splendour. Hugged on both sides by majestic mountains, the valley we drove through stretched as far as the eye could see with barely a manmade structure to distort the view, unlike in much of the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.

A few kilometres in, we finally arrived at our destination, which was about as remote as you could possibly get in the densely populated West Bank: a tiny Bedouin community in Wadi al-Maleh in the northern Jordan Valley. As we pulled up, we were first greeted by dozens of goats, followed by the children, then the adults, mostly women, because the men were out at a funeral.

Behind the idyllic beauty of the scene, there lurked an ugly reality. First, there was the community’s obvious poverty: living in makeshift tents, with no electricity and with water at a premium because it has to be trucked in, not to mention the children who have to walk about 10km each way to the nearest road so that they can go to school, which eats at least a couple of additional hours out of their day, and means they set out at sunrise and often return just before sunset.

But all this pales into insignificance when compared with the imminent threat facing the community – mostly made up of a clan called Turcoman – of being pushed off the land they have lived on and worked since they were displaced during the 1948 war from the coastal areas of what is today northern Israel. Wadi al-Maleh is home to several such threatened communities, some Bedouin and others sedentary farmers, each numbering around 50-100 people.

The Bedouins I met there – whom I had come to train in ways of better communicating their plight – told me that they had received demolition and eviction orders from Israel’s Civil Administration and that a number of tents had been torn down by the army to show that it meant business. One said that they had even been threatened with the confiscation of their economic mainstay, goats, if they did not up sticks. “Where are we going to go and how are we going to survive without our goats?” the community’s matron figure asked in distress.

The ostensible reason for this community’s planned displacement is because the Bedouins live in whatIsrael has declared to be a closed military zone, a designation which applies to about a fifth of the total surface area of the West Bank, affecting some 5,000 residents. The locals reported that the Israeli and American militaries had recently taken part in joint manoeuvres on the other side of a nearby mountain.

Across the Jordan Valley, numerous communities received eviction orders just ahead of the joint exercises. Although the orders do not specify the nature of the training exercises, activists are convinced that the manoeuvres in question are the joint US-Israeli ones. If this is the case, this would make the United States complicit inIsrael’s illegal use of occupied land.

Under international law, Israel has no right to designate any part of the West Bank as a military zone because this, like settlement building, is not permitted on occupied land, despite the inventive efforts of government-appointed Israeli legal experts to argue away the existence of the occupation and frame it as little more than a Palestinian preoccupation.

Wadi al-Maleh may be a remote community, but its situation is far from isolated. All over Area C of the West Bank – which, according to the Oslo accords, is under full Israeli military and civil control – and in East Jerusalem, homes are being demolished, people are being evicted and communities are slowly disappearing, and at an increasing rate.

So far in 2012, over 550 Palestinian-owned homes and other structures were demolished in these areas, displacing more than a thousand people, the UN reports. Similarly, last year, Israel demolished 622 structures, more than 40% than the year before, displacing almost 1,100 people, more than half of whom were children.

Since I moved to Jeusalem last year, I have visited numerous threatened communities, and I always depart with a sense of bewilderment at how people can survive in such circumstances. Many are engaged in years-long legal battles to be allowed to stay where they are, or are haunted by the spectre of losing their homes.

They live with the uncertainty that their children may well not have a school to attend later in the term, while they are often unable to work because of movement restrictions or because they cannot reach their land. Others are largely cut off from the rest of society by the wall, while many face regular harassment from settlers.

While lack of mobility is tough for anyone, it takes a particularly bad toll on the Bedouins, who feel it is their heritage, even their birth right, to roam free, and I have heard numerous complaints from them about how caged in and trapped they feel. On a more practical level, this also affects their livelihood, as they have little land left on which to graze their livestock.

The sense of powerlessness this creates can leave enormous emotional scars. “We feel constant guilt towards our children, and wonder if they ask themselves, ‘Why did you bring us into this world?’” admitted one father in Izbat al-Tabib, a village near Qalqilya, which suffers from most of the problems I outlined above. “We feel powerless to improve the situation of our children or even to protect them. Can you imagine how difficult that is for a father to bear?”

These words shook me hard. Yes, I could imagine how devastating it would feel to raise our three-year-old in such unenviable conditions, but I thanked my lucky stars that all I was being asked to do was to imagine, and not actually to experience, the soul-destroying reality of witnessing my son being denied his childhood.

Youth is also no barrel of laughs, when you have no prospects, no job, nowhere to go, and perhaps even no one your age to hang out with. “At night, I ask myself, ‘What have I done today?” I realise nothing,” confesses Salama, a young Bedouin who lives on the outskirts ofJerusalem. “Sometimes, I just want to do something, so I knock something down and rebuild it.”

On a more political level, Area C is the only contiguous territory in theWest Bank, which is not only home to the majority of Palestinian agricultural land but would also provide the bulk of the space upon which a future Palestinian state would be built.

By building in Area C and in East Jerusalem, Israelis driving the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, and with the United Statesnot only providing $3 billion in free military hardware to Israelbut also apparently co-training in the occupied West Bank, Washingtonis supplying the hammer. This is not just a tragedy for Palestinians but problematic for Israelis, as Israel’s own statistics now show that Jews have become a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 December 2012.

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

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Wednesday 21 November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

 

 

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Settlers for Palestine

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 16 October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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