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.

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 3 March 2014

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

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

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

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

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention 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”.  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.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in 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, 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, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

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.

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 their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

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.

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. 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.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

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

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Beauty in the eye of the political storm

 
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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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Reading between the lines of the Middle Eastern media

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its bottom ranking in the Press Freedom Index, the Middle Eastern media is freer than it appears at first sight.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Despite all the sacrifices made by citizens and journalists across the Middle East and North Africa, the region has come in bottom of the global media freedom league, according to the recently released 2013 Press Freedom Index (PFI).  

Though not entirely surprising, this unenviable distinction is a dispiriting reality check for how far the region still has to go before it delivers the freedoms coveted and demanded by its citizens – at least, that is how the current situation as reflected by the PFI league table seems at first sight. 

The bottom 10 contains two Middle Eastern countries: Syria (placed in 176th position) and Iran (174th). Surpassed only by the truly terrible trio of Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, Syria, which for decades has not been a bastion of media freedom, has seen its track record worsen significantly ever since it erupted into a bloody civil war in which journalists, like civilians, have been targeted, mainly by the government, but also by opposition forces. 

In all, four journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, and a further 41 media professionals and netizens were imprisoned. This made Syria the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters sans frontiers (RSF), the organisation behind the index.  

As an indication of the sorry state of the region, the highest scoring MENA country only managed 77th place. Surprisingly for many, this number one spot goes not to Israel, the self-styled only democracy in the Middle East, nor to Lebanon, long regarded as the capital of the freest Arab press and its most vibrant publishing sector, but to the small emirate of Kuwait. 

In addition, despite having a population of just 2.8 million, Kuwait is home to a broad range of quality dailies and weeklies of varying political stripes and, according to RSF, the most liberal press legislation in the region.  

While Kuwait seems to be for the large part practising and not preaching when it comes to its media, the same cannot be said for nearby Qatar, which occupies the 110th position in the PFI ranking. While al-Jazeera, which often exhibits greater editorial freedom than certain segments of the Western media, has revolutionised the Arab world’s staid media, providing those who previously had no access to a free media an open window on the world, and has been boldly and enthusiastically at the frontline of the revolutionary wave sweeping the region, the domestic media in Qatar remains tame and subservient to the ruling elite. 

This has resulted in Qatar suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance, with the government at once defending al-Jazeera’s editorial freedom, even occasionally to the detriment of relations with Arab and Western allies, yet not tolerating dissent from its domestic media. Likewise, this daring channel which walks the walk abroad dares not talk the talk at home, exhibiting “restraint, even self-censorship”, in the words of RSF. Or as one journalist friend put it, “al-Jazeera’s motto is to speak truth to power, except the one that pays the bills”.

Defenders of al-Jazeera sometimes claim that the news channel is not practising self-censorship when it comes to domestic Qatari affairs but rather that the tiny land of 1.7 million is a backwater where little of interest to regional and global viewers ever happens. While there is some merit to this view, there are plenty of Qatar-related issues that would interest a broader audience, such as its restrictive media laws, its sluggish progress towards democratisation, not to mention the controversial presence of a US airbase there.

The ultimate test of al-Jazeera’s vaunted independence would be how it would report on events if Qatar caught the revolutionary bug. Possible indications of how this might play out are provided by neighbouring Bahrain, whose uprising, Bahraini opposition figures complain, has received relatively little coverage.

In fact, since the Arab Spring broke out, a wave of allegations, including from discontented ex-reporters with the network, has emerged that al-Jazeera’s once enviable independent stance has become increasingly subservient to backroom manipulation from the palace, including, in an echo of the traditional practices of state-owned Arab channels, the re-editing of a report on a UN debate on Syria to lead with the comments of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – you know, the hereditary leader who deposed his father to gain power over that backwater which doesn’t normally merit media coverage.

Despite its poor showing, Qatar is still two places ahead of Israel (112th place). This low ranking is bound to bewilder, bemuse and even anger many Israelis. But I believe it is both justified and unjustified.  

It is justified because of military censorship and the severe restrictions Israel imposes on Israeli, Palestinian and foreign journalists working in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition, the Israeli military bombed two buildings housing media in Gaza during last November’s Gaza conflict.  

Moreover, not only are Israeli journalists not allowed to operate there, Palestinian journalists are often harassed. It sometimes seems that Palestinian journalists are under siege from all directions, faced as they are with the double whammy of Israeli and domestic repression, especially in Gaza. Fortunately, as Fatah and Hamas try to mend fences, the situation is improving slowly, and Palestine has risen eight places to the 146th spot.

Israel’s handling of the media in the West Bank and Gaza caused its ranking to plummet 20 positions because RSF decided to combine the “Israel extraterritorial” score with its domestic one. Some will cry foul at this apparent sleight of hand, but Israel, as an occupying power, has responsibilities to guarantee fundamental rights in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, if Israel can consider making denial of the occupation an official policy, then why can’t RSF hold it accountable?

Even without including the extraterritorial element, Israel would still rank an uninspiring 92, way, way, way below its declared obligation of being a “light unto the nations”, as David Ben-Gurion claimed.

That said, RSF readily acknowledges that Israeli journalists “enjoy real freedom of expression”. And from my experience working with Haaretz and other Israeli media and the time I spent practising my profession in Jerusalem, I would broadly agree. Personally, I have never had my work censored and I have been given space to express some ideas very critical of Israel.

Even dissidents acknowledge Israel’s pluralistic tradition, at least towards its Jewish citizens, though they express fears about the spate of new anti-freedom laws that have been passed recently, such as the anti-boycott law currently before the Supreme Court, and the ‘Nakba Law’, which outlaws  the commemoration of what Palestinians and Arabs call the ‘Catastrophe’ of 1948 in public institutions. 

“When I studied [the Nakba], I didn’t face the law, I didn’t face the secret service, I faced the community,” the dissident Israeli academic Ilan Pappé told me in an interview some months ago. Though he acknowledges that the Israeli system once tolerated a broad margin of dissent, this, he fears, is changing. “[Israel] is becoming a mukhabarat state. I mean Israel is becoming a state of the old Middle East, of the old Arab World.” 

A surprising number of Israelis I know share this idea of regional convergence. And there are plenty of signs that the Arab world is catching up with Israel – and in a way that this index cannot capture.

Although Kuwait scores the highest in the PFI, I believe the greatest promise for a free media lies not in the Gulf but in the revolutionary states, especially Egypt (158th place) and Tunisia (138th).

This is because certain intangibles cannot be captured in the PFI’s subjective scoring system, based as it is on the assessments of various local and International observers, which means that countries with a more critical culture could score more poorly than countries which are less critical. It also does not take into account qualitative criteria, such as the actual content, as well as the plurality, accuracy and scope of the reporting and commentary in the media, and its daring.

This translates into the fact that although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,”  Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

Mubarak, the military, Morsi and his Muslim Brothers have all tried to revert to politics as more or less usual, proving that denial is more than a river in Egypt. But despite their best efforts to do their worst, the genie is out of the bottle. And it is this revolution of the mind and heart, and whether it can be sustained, that holds the key to the future of the region.

Surprising as it may sound, Israel’s domestic arrangement was once held up by Arab reformers as an example of the freedom they should strive for – and they are striving for that liberty. Today, it is the turn of Israelis to learn from their neighbours and overcome their complacency to defend their hard-won rights from further corrosion and turn the tide back.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 11 February 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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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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The art of Palestinian resistance

 
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Can art help the Palestinian struggle or is it a preoccupation those living under occupation can ill-afford?

Monday 3 December 2012

Although the Palestinians have a rich and varied cultural heritage, art and culture has fallen victim to the conflict. For example, in East Jerusalem, where I live, Israeli clampdowns since the second intifada, the construction of the separation wall, as well as a lack of resources, have led to such a decline in what was once the Palestinians’ cultural capital that it no longer even had a functioning cinema until earlier this year.

“We have a cultural vacuum and it is because the occupation has erased our identities,” believes Rima Essa, a Palestinian film director and the curator of the new cinema at the Yabous Centre, which is located in the former premises of the al-Quds cinema.

However, in recent years, the artistic and cultural communities have been finding new ways to regroup and reclaim their fragmented creative space. Palestine’s physical and political fragmentation is mirrored in the cultural scene, where artists and institutions often work in isolation. To address this, seven Palestinian cultural organisations have joined forces to organise a new festival, Qalandiya International, which ran across the West Bank for the first half of November.

Qalandiya is the point where three physical realities of the plight of Palestinians converge: a massive military checkpoint-cum-de-facto-border-crossing, a monstrous concrete wall, and a decades-old refugee camp which has evolved into a poor slum area where disillusioned and disgruntled youth clash regularly with Israeli forces.

But it wasn’t always this way. Qalandiya was once just a sleepy Palestinian village (which still exists) perched between Jerusalem and Ramallah. It was also home to mandate Palestine’s first international airport, its portal to the outside world.

This conflicting symbolism – despair and hope, freedom and subjugation, escape and imprisonment – made Qalandiya the ideal name for the biennial festival. “It represents our history and suffering,” says Jack Persekian, the artistic director of the festival and the founder of the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The festival features a wide range of art – from video and installation to painting and literature – and architecture, including walks and talks, organised by Riwaq, an NGO that seeks to document and conserve Palestine’s architectural heritage, which has incorporated its own biennial into Qalandiya International.

Houses under renovation in the old town of Dhariyya. Photo:@Khaled Diab.

I joined a tour to Dhahariya, where Riwaq has implemented an ambitious project to restore and conserve this small town’s historic centre, constructed around an ancient Byzantine fort.

It is said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But the locals proved to us that “dancing about architecture” is not such a bizarre concept, when schoolchildren put on a performance of the traditional Palestinian dabke dance in honour of the revival of their old town, which had previously lay crumbling and almost entirely abandoned.

With a court house, a community centre, and even a local, grassroots radio station, the first of its kind in southern Palestine, life has returned to the Dhahariya’s historic centre. People I encountered on the streets appeared to be very proud of the architectural and cultural renaissance which has visited their village, including the new broadcaster, manned almost entirely by young volunteers, set up entirely for them. “Dhahariya is a marginalised community and we give it a voice,” said a young male presenter.

Dancing about architecture. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Everywhere you walk on the streets, you hear our station playing,” added his female colleague proudly.

Dhahariya is one of the poster villages for Riwaq’s project to restore 50 historic town and village centres which together represent 50% of Palestine’s built heritage, explained Riwaq’s co-director Khaldun Bishara. This novel approach, which I feel can be employed in other places where resources are tight, seeks to arrest the decline in Palestine’s cultural heritage, which has been accelerated by the Israeli occupation, inadequate legislation, overcrowding and a culture that still tends to value the new over the old, Bishara elaborates.

Although Riwaq’s work is not overtly political, against the bitter backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, architectural heritage and archaeology are, at least implicitly, highly politicised. But there is far more to it than politics.

Suad Amiry – the founder of Riwaq who has become a well-known writer around the world since publishing her acclaimed humorous diary of daily life under siege in Ramallah during the second intifada, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law – says that what inspired her to enter conservation was the “organic connection” she felt with traditional Palestinian architecture, which she believes blends seamlessly into the landscape and is more in tune with nature, the climate and people’s needs than modern building styles.

But it is not just about aesthetics, it is about communities, Bishara insists, outlining how Riwaq pursues a holistic approach to their restoration projects – which takes into account cultural and economic factors – to ensure that the restored centres become living spaces and not open air museums.

He adds that the Riwaq approach transforms restoration and conservation into a highly effective job creation and skills building mechanism. “Per dollar, our projects create more work than most comparable development activities,” he told me, “and we equip people with useful skills they can then exploit elsewhere.”

On touring other parts of the Qalandiya International festival, I was genuinely impressed by some of the art and a few of the venues. One new venue in the troubled old city of Jerusalem was a derelict tile factory which, through creativity, has been reinvented and reborn as a haunting and evocative exhibition space.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Inside are installations about the “parallel time” experienced by a Palestinian prisoner of conscience who has spent most of his adult life in Israeli prisons, a Muslim father and son in Bethlehem who make crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims, and two “incidental insurgents” who go on a road trip through the West Bank ghetto.

Creative as such endeavours are, sceptics might wonder what difference art can make to change the reality on the ground and whether it is a preoccupation that Palestinians can ill afford amid the realities of occupation. “If art were only concerned with aesthetics, I would say this was right,” asserts Persekian. “By giving young artists and innovators the chance, they can present new ideas for exiting this impasse.”

Personally, I have been impressed by the active role young artists are playing at the grassroots level, from the street art on the separation wall to the highly successful graphics of blindfolded Palestinian prisoners in brown smocks which were used as profile pictures by many Facebook users to express solidarity for hunger strikers in Israeli prisoners. That is not to mention the pop artists, such as the hip hop group Dam who have just released a song against honour killings, and stand-up comics.

For his part, Persekian is convinced that Palestinian art, which he says once sat on the sidelines and sufficed itself with observing, interpreting and expressing the Palestinian demise, now stands at the very heart of the Palestinian struggle. “Young artists have become an inseparable component of much of what is going on in the country,” he says.

Persekian may well be right about the mainstreaming of art and culture, but I feel this is somewhat unfair to previous generations. Take Ghassan Kanafani. Not only did his stories have a profound influence in shaping modern Palestinian consciousness, he was also politically active with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, something he paid for with his life.

But there are those, even among Palestinians, who believe that art and politics should not mix. “Art is art. I try to do art for art’s sake,” Nasser Zalloum, an expatriate Palestinian artist exhibiting at the festival, told me.

Regardless of whether or not art can really be divorced from politics, Palestinian art is intimately and inseparably linked to the Palestinian cause. Once the Palestinian people gain their freedom, then their art too can be liberated from politics. I look forward to that day.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 November 2012.

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