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Roane Carey | The Nation

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Roane Carey

Roane Carey

Middle East politics and American foreign policy.

Why Occupy AIPAC?


President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, May 20, 2011, prior to last year's AIPAC Policy conference in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Every year, in an impressive display of raw lobby power, the AIPAC Policy Conference descends on Washington. And every year, a huge number of senators and congressmen from both parties, as well as the American president, compete to see who can be the most obsequious toward what AIPAC falsely calls “the pro-Israel movement.” 

Never have the stakes been higher. It’s well known that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to go to war with Iran. He would like the United States to do the job or join Israel in an attack, or, at the very least, not stand in Israel’s way. On the eve of this year’s conference, Netanyahu gave new meaning to the word chutzpah by letting it be known he’ll demand Obama’s guarantee that Washington will go to war if Iran’s nuclear program advances beyond specific “red lines”; see these reports by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid and the Guardian’s Chris McGreal.

Bibi is playing a high-stakes intimidation game: he knows he can count on Congress to follow the AIPAC line, as it has for many years. Legislators from both parties are already demanding White House cooperation with Israeli war aims. And he may be betting that he can make Obama pay a price this November if the president doesn’t cooperate. The fact that former Mossad director Meir Dagan and other Israeli security experts, as well as US military officials like Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Martin Dempsey, are worried about the catastrophic consequences of such a war seems not to have swayed Bibi in the least.

Why is Netanyahu so certain he can sway an American president? Partly because of the power of AIPAC (in league with a broad circle of AIPAC affiliates, including the Christian Zionist lobby), which has for decades worked assiduously to keep Congress closely aligned with the most belligerent Israeli policies, chief among them the illegal colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories, now in its forty-fifth year. Legislators who get out of line are targeted in their re-election campaigns, and the lobby and its close allies use McCarthyite tactics to intimidate the press and policy circles. Infamous recent examples include smears against the Center for American Progress and Media Matters by former AIPAC-er Josh Block, which was amplified in the broader media, and by an outfit called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which ran a grotesque full-page ad attacking CAP and Media Matters in today’s New York Times.

It’s time for this to stop. In fact, it’s time to Occupy AIPAC. This weekend, CODEPINK Women for Peace, along with the Institute for Policy Studies, Just Foreign Policy, the US Palestinian Community Network, Interfaith Peace-Builders and Jewish Voice for Peace, is organizing a summit in Washington at the same time as the AIPAC Policy Conference. Endorsed by more than 100 organizations around the country, the summit is going to shine a spotlight on AIPAC’s abusive practices and discuss a more rational Middle East policy, for both Israel and the United States.

Opposition to AIPAC within the Jewish community has been growing for years; the emergence of the liberal counter-lobby J Street, along with courageous media voices like my comrades at Mondoweiss, is a testament to that. And never has the grassroots American movement against the occupation been so strong, as witnessed by the growth of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and the BDS movement, as well as Students for Justice in Palestine on college campuses. And yet the stranglehold of AIPAC and its clones on US government policy seems as toxic as ever. If that stranglehold isn’t broken soon, we may become embroiled in yet another war.

Why Occupy AIPAC?

 Every year, in an impressive display of raw lobby power, the AIPAC Policy Conference descends on Washington. And every year, a huge number of senators and congressmen from both parties, as well as the American president, compete to see who can be the most obsequious toward what AIPAC falsely calls “the pro-Israel movement.”

Never have the stakes been higher. It’s well known that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to go to war with Iran. He would like the United States to do the job or join Israel in an attack, or, at the very least, not stand in Israel’s way. On the eve of this year’s conference, Netanyahu gave new meaning to the word chutzpah by letting it be known he’ll demand Obama’s guarantee that Washington will go to war if Iran’s nuclear program advances beyond specific “red lines”; see these reports by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid and the Guardian’s Chris McGreal.

Bibi is playing a high-stakes intimidation game: he knows he can count on Congress to follow the AIPAC line, as it has for many years. Legislators from both parties are already demanding White House cooperation with Israeli war aims. And he may be betting that he can make Obama pay a price this November if the president doesn’t cooperate. The fact that former Mossad director Meir Dagan and other Israeli security experts, as well as US military officials like Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Martin Dempsey, are worried about the catastrophic consequences of such a war seems not to have swayed Bibi in the least.

Why is Netanyahu so certain he can sway an American president? Partly because of the power of AIPAC (in league with a broad circle of AIPAC affiliates, including the Christian Zionist lobby), which has for decades worked assiduously to keep Congress closely aligned with the most belligerent Israeli policies, chief among them the illegal colonization of the occupied Palestinian territories, now in its forty-fifth year. Legislators who get out of line are targeted in their re-election campaigns, and the lobby and its close allies use McCarthyite tactics to intimidate the press and policy circles. Infamous recent examples include smears against the Center for American Progress and Media Matters by former AIPAC-er Josh Block, which was amplified in the broader media, and by an outfit called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which ran a grotesque full-page ad attacking CAP and Media Matters in today’s New York Times.

It’s time for this to stop. In fact, it’s time to Occupy AIPAC. This weekend, CODEPINK Women for Peace, along with the Institute for Policy Studies, Just Foreign Policy, the US Palestinian Community Network, Interfaith Peace-Builders and Jewish Voice for Peace, is organizing a summit in Washington at the same time as the AIPAC Policy Conference. Endorsed by more than 100 organizations around the country, the summit is going to shine a spotlight on AIPAC’s abusive practices and discuss a more rational Middle East policy, for both Israel and the United States.

Opposition to AIPAC within the Jewish community has been growing for years; the emergence of the liberal counter-lobby J Street, along with courageous media voices like my comrades at Mondoweiss, is a testament to that. And never has the grassroots American movement against the occupation been so strong, as witnessed by the growth of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and the BDS movement, as well as Students for Justice in Palestine on college campuses. And yet the stranglehold of AIPAC and its clones on US government policy seems as toxic as ever. If that stranglehold isn’t broken soon, we may become embroiled in yet another war.

 

Israel's Piracy

 An ancient proverb holds that the gods first drive mad those whom they wish to destroy. What madness could have driven the Israeli government to order its navy to attack, in international waters, a flotilla of ships full of human rights activists, MPs from governments around the world, a Nobel Prize winner and two former US diplomats?

What was there to gain, in either strategic or PR terms, from killing civilians—as of this writing, at least nine and as many as twenty are dead, along with several dozen injured—who were delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid for the 1.5 million people of Gaza imprisoned behind an Israeli blockade? As Glenn Greenwald put it, “If Israel’s goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it’s hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.”

Indeed, the repercussions could be extremely damaging for Israel. Demonstrations broke out in cities around the world, including New York. Embassies condemned the attack and recalled ambassadors, while the UN Security Council demanded an end to the Gaza blockade. The UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, said, “It is essential that those Israelis responsible for this lawless and murderous behavior, including political leaders who issued the orders, be held criminally accountable for their wrongful acts. Israel is guilty of shocking behavior by using deadly weapons against unarmed civilians on ships that were situated in the high seas where freedom of navigation exists, according to the law of the seas.” Falk said “It is time to insist on the end of the blockade of Gaza.” In a predictably contemptible statement, Washington’s representative to the UN, after expressing “regret” for the loss of life, managed to blame the victims, saying delivery of aid by the sea “is neither appropriate nor responsible.” (How else were they supposed to give it, when Israel is enforcing a blockade by land?)

The attack may have irreparably damaged Israel’s ties with Turkey, a key regional ally and power broker with whom relations were already strained. Tens of thousands demonstrated across the country, with crowds trying to storm the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. No wonder, since the majority of passengers on board the largest ship in the flotilla were Turkish, and much of the aid was given through a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation. Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan didn’t mince words. “This action,” he said, “totally contrary to the principles of international law, is inhumane state terrorism.”

There will be internal repercussions as well. Israel’s Palestinian citizens, over 1 million strong and some 20 percent of the population, were at a boiling point amid rumors that the head of the country’s Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, was injured, perhaps seriously, in the Israeli assault. Demonstrations erupted in heavily Arab cities across Israel, and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has called a general strike. Tensions are high, as everyone in Israel remembers the dark days of October 2000, when massive sympathy demonstrations across the country at the beginning of the second intifada elicited a brutal response from the security forces, who killed thirteen unarmed protesters.

In an insightful piece in Israel’s Ha’aretz, Bradley Burston said, “We are no longer defending Israel. We are defending the siege. The siege itself is becoming Israel’s Vietnam.… We explain, time and again, that we are not at war with the people of Gaza. We say it time and again because we ourselves need to believe it, and because, deep down, we do not.” (For more on the history and devastating effects of the blockade, read this recent Nation report by Gaza expert Sara Roy.)

The Israeli government may have thought the brutality would finally put a stop to the Free Gaza Movement, which has been sending ships to break the blockade since the summer of 2008 (this latest flotilla, by far the largest, was the ninth). But it is underestimating the courage and tenacity of people like Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, who helped found the International Solidarity Movement almost ten years ago and who have been key organizers in the Free Gaza Movement. When I talked to Shapiro earlier today, he emphasized the unprovoked nature of Israel’s attack. “It could have just allowed the boats into Gaza,” he said. He also criticized Israel’s complete lockdown of information about the fate of those killed, injured and detained. “It seems they don’t want witnesses to see the injured. Lawyers, including Israeli lawyers, and embassy officials have not been allowed to see or talk to the detainees.… The fact that they haven’t released names shows they have something to hide. Huwaida, my wife, was on board, and I have no idea what happened to her.” 

The Goldstone Report on Gaza

The recently released UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission on the December-January Gaza conflict, released on the eve of Barack Obama's attempt to jump-start comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, was but the latest in a series of investigations, most of them by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Like its predecessors, the so-called Goldstone report, named after chief investigator Richard Goldstone, is devastating in its critique of Israeli actions: indiscriminate use of firepower; deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian structures, including hospitals, schools, mosques, water and sewage plants, and rescue vehicles; use of white phosphorus munitions in built-up areas; use of human shields; abusive treatment of detainees; imposition of a blockade on Gaza before and after the attack itself--the report concludes that Israel violated international humanitarian law, committed "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons," and war crimes, possibly even crimes against humanity. The courageous Israeli journalist Gideon Levy summed it up well in Haaretz: it was "an unrestrained assault on a besieged, totally unprotected civilian population which showed almost no signs of resistance during this operation."

Perhaps most damning of all was the testimony of some thirty Israeli veterans of the operation gathered by the organization Breaking the Silence, published in a booklet in July and cited by the Goldstone report. According to the booklet's introduction, "The majority of the soldiers who spoke with us are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF.… The stories of this publication prove that we are not dealing with the failures of individual soldiers, and attest instead to failures in the application of values primarily on a systemic level." The testimony is chilling: "Fire power was insane"; "if you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot. These, essentially, were the rules of engagement. Shoot if you like"; "Houses were demolished everywhere.… We didn't see a single house that was not hit"; "whole neighborhoods were simply razed because four houses in the area served to launch Qassam rockets"; "You know what? You feel like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants. Really. A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people."

Predictably, the Goldstone report was met by a wave of angry denunciations from the Israeli government--which had refused to cooperate with the investigators--and most of the Israeli media. The mainstream media here have downplayed the investigation's significance; news coverage has been sparse, and not one major US daily has seen fit to editorialize on it (unless you count a nasty little screed from the New York Daily News calling the report a "blood libel against Israel"). And US pundits and politicians--including UN ambassador Susan Rice, who called it "unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable"--have been overwhelmingly critical.

But it's not so easy to dismiss these findings. For one thing, the nearly 600-page report is carefully documented and comprehensive, and is based on field visits, public hearings, almost 200 individual interviews, photos, videos, satellite imagery and a review of more than 300 other reports. For another, its head, Goldstone, is one of the most respected and experienced international jurists, having served as a justice on South Africa's Constitutional Court and chief UN prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

And then there are Goldstone's personal connections: he's Jewish and, according to his daughter, herself an ardent Zionist who lived in Israel for six months, he's "a Zionist and loves Israel." Indeed, she said of her father, who serves on the Board of Governors of Hebrew University, "I know that if he thought what he did would not somehow be for the sake of peace for everyone in Israel or that it would have hindered such efforts, he would not have accepted the job."

Before taking it on, Goldstone insisted on expanding the mission's mandate so that it cover Palestinian acts; far from being one-sided, the report concluded that Hamas rocket and mortar barrages on southern Israel were "indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population," acts that "would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity." International law expert (and Nation editorial board member) Richard Falk has concluded that "no credible international commission could reach any set of conclusions other than those reached by the Goldstone Report on the central allegations."

Falk points out that there are good reasons for Israel's panicked reaction. In addition to the report's balance and the credibility of its chief, Goldstone recommends that Israel and Hamas carry out serious, comprehensive investigations of their own into the alleged crimes, and that if they do not do so within six months, the UN Security Council should consider referring the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That's highly unlikely, given US veto power in the Security Council. But the report will further diminish Israel's reputation and will probably strengthen the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. In his column on the report, Gideon Levy darkly concludes, "On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Israel, deservedly, is becoming an outcast and detested country. We must not forget it for a minute."

 

Boycott Israel?

Mention boycott in a discussion of Israel, and chances are you'll find yourself the butt of vicious attacks. Israeli professor Neve Gordon elicited just such denunciations when he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last Thursday in support of the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS (read Naomi Klein's January Nation column supporting BDS here). After Gordon's op-ed was published, several Members of the Israeli Knesset demanded his firing. The president of Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, where he teaches, said he should seek employment, and a home, elsewhere. And he's received death threats.

Nation readers, particularly those who follow the Israel-Palestine conflict, will recognize Gordon as a longtime contributor to this magazine (disclosure: I've worked with Neve for years as his editor and am a friend as well). He didn't come by this position lightly. As he explains in the op-ed,

 

It is indeed not a simple matter for me as an Israeli citizen to call on foreign governments, regional authorities, international social movements, faith-based organizations, unions and citizens to suspend cooperation with Israel. But today, as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.

 

I say this because Israel has reached a historic crossroads, and times of crisis call for dramatic measures. I say this as a Jew who has chosen to raise his children in Israel, who has been a member of the Israeli peace camp for almost 30 years and who is deeply anxious about the country's future.

 

Gordon then drops another word, apartheid, that seems to function as a red cape before the enraged bulls of the right-wing, ultra-Zionist camp:

 

The most accurate way to describe Israel today is as an apartheid state. For more than 42 years, Israel has controlled the land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. Within this region about 6 million Jews and close to 5 million Palestinians reside. Out of this population, 3.5 million Palestinians and almost half a million Jews live in the areas Israel occupied in 1967, and yet while these two groups live in the same area, they are subjected to totally different legal systems. The Palestinians are stateless and lack many of the most basic human rights. By sharp contrast, all Jews -- whether they live in the occupied territories or in Israel -- are citizens of the state of Israel.

 

Gordon gets to the heart of the matter: "The question that keeps me up at night, both as a parent and as a citizen, is how to ensure that my two children as well as the children of my Palestinian neighbors do not grow up in an apartheid regime." After weighing the one-state versus two-state solution to the conflict and concluding that for now the latter is the more feasible, he argues that there is only one way to reach that goal:

 

I am convinced that outside pressure is the only answer. Over the last three decades, Jewish settlers in the occupied territories have dramatically increased their numbers. The myth of the united Jerusalem has led to the creation of an apartheid city where Palestinians aren't citizens and lack basic services. The Israeli peace camp has gradually dwindled so that today it is almost nonexistent, and Israeli politics are moving more and more to the extreme right.

 

It is therefore clear to me that the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel is through massive international pressure. The words and condemnations from the Obama administration and the European Union have yielded no results, not even a settlement freeze, let alone a decision to withdraw from the occupied territories.

I consequently have decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that was launched by Palestinian activists in July 2005 and has since garnered widespread support around the globe. The objective is to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are granted the right to self-determination.

In Bilbao, Spain, in 2008, a coalition of organizations from all over the world formulated the 10-point Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign meant to pressure Israel in a "gradual, sustainable manner that is sensitive to context and capacity." For example, the effort begins with sanctions on and divestment from Israeli firms operating in the occupied territories, followed by actions against those that help sustain and reinforce the occupation in a visible manner. Along similar lines, artists who come to Israel in order to draw attention to the occupation are welcome, while those who just want to perform are not.

 

The firestorm wasn't long in coming. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar called Gordon's article "repugnant and deplorable," and several other MKs, along with one far-right political party (National Union), demanded that Gordon be fired; never mind that he's a tenured professor voicing a carefully reasoned opinion on an issue directly relevant to his specialty. Even worse, the president of BGU, Rivka Carmi--instead of standing by a member of her faculty and defending a fundamental tenet of academic freedom--joined in the attack. "We are shocked and outraged by [Gordon's] remarks, which are irresponsible and morally reprehensible," she said, adding, "Academics who entertain such resentment toward their country are welcome to consider another professional and personal home."

What's truly shocking is for a university president to call, essentially, for the exile of one of her own faculty members and to turn the principles of academia, and reality, on their head by claiming Gordon's views are an "abuse [of] the freedom of speech prevailing in Israel and at BGU." No doubt Carmi was shaken by a letter she'd received from the Israeli consul-general in LA, Yaakov Dayan, who said some BGU benefactors were threatening to withhold donations.

Fortunately, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has condemned BGU and is standing by Gordon. You should too, by writing a letter to the president of BGU and the education minister backing him--and you don't have to support his position on the boycott question to do so. Read Stephen Walt's wise comments in Foreign Policy; Walt is against BDS but stands by Gordon's right to express his opinion and warns against the chilling effect the attacks on him will have.

I'll give the last word to Gordon, who was quoted Sunday in Ynetnews:

 

From the responses to the article it seems most people don't have the courage to discuss the main issues: Is Israel an apartheid state? How can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved? Is the settlement project good for Israel or will it cause the state's destruction? It's easy to criticize me while evading the tough and important questions.

 

 

The Rape of Gaza

How would you feel if you found out that an American school, paid for with your tax dollars, was bombed and completely destroyed by a US ally? This happened in Gaza just a few months ago, during Israel's now-infamous Operation Cast Lead.

I've been touring Gaza for the past three days as part of a Code Pink delegation, and the concrete rubble and twisted rebar of the American International School in Gaza is just one of the many horrifying images we've seen on this trip. The school, which taught American progressive values to Palestinian kids in grades K-12, was bombed by US-supplied Israeli F-16s in early January. The Israelis claimed, without supplying evidence, that Hamas fighters had fired rockets from the school. Now several hundred kids have not only lost the school they dearly loved; they have been given a very different lesson in American values, one no doubt unintended by the school's founders and teachers.

The people of Gaza suffered immensely from the Israeli assault, which not only killed some 1,400 and injured 5,000 but destroyed or heavily damaged mosques, schools, hospitals, universities, and industrial and other business establishments, in addition to thousands of private homes. Dr. Marwan Sultan, who practices at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya, told me his hospital was so damaged they had to send all patients to al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City--which was itself damaged. The bombing of one school in Beit Lahiya killed about forty kids and injured a hundred, Sultan told me. He saw scenes of death and mutilation that still give him nightmares. Thousands are living in tent cities all over the Strip, and the entire population of Gaza is being strangled to this day by a blockade that is choking off any possibility of reconstruction or recovery.

Make no mistake about it: the blockade, directly enforced by Israel and Egypt but conspired in by their superpower patron in Washington, is a continuing act of war against an entire civilian population of 1.5 million, a form of collective punishment and a crime against humanity. John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which officially invited Code Pink to come to Gaza, told our delegation that billions in aid had been promised in the wake of Israel's massacre, but so far nothing had arrived. Our delegation, he said, is the first concrete action of solidarity with an oppressed, long-suffering population. Four months after a devastating conflict, he added, the siege continues. "The first thing we need to see is the opening up of crossing points and an end to collective punishment because of the political failures and security problems created by a few." It's a matter of life and death, he said, "and we're running out of time…. The people of Gaza are asking for help, justice and the rule of law."

Code Pink--whose organizers, I might add, have done a fabulous job in arranging this tour--is urging Obama to break the siege himself by visiting Gaza on his Middle East tour. That's not likely to happen, of course, but the least he could do is demand an end to the blockade. He's more likely to do so if Americans put on the pressure. Readers: it's your turn.

 

Prussia on the Mediterranean?

It is an assumption almost universally acknowledged among the liberal American intelligentsia that while the Israeli occupation is repressive and abhorrent, Israel itself is an open, fully democratic state with a lively, argumentative and very free press.

Perish the thought. After spending three months in Israel on a fellowship, I can say that nearly every member of the liberal Israeli intelligentsia I've talked to says something quite different: that their country's media are seriously diseased, failing to provide the minimal level of fair reporting and serious critical inquiry that are crucial pillars of an open society.

Americans who don't read Hebrew or watch Israeli television news may get a skewed view of the spectrum, assuming that Ha'aretz, the smaller-circulation daily read mostly by intellectuals and the political classes--and foreigners, who devour its English-language edition online--is representative, and that critical columnists and reporters like Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar and Amira Hass are sprinkled throughout the Israeli media. It isn't, and they aren't. The larger-circulation dailies Yediot and Ma'ariv, as well as the Jerusalem Post and television news, are tilted much more to the right--just like the mainstream US media, which certainly have nothing to teach Israel in this regard.

And as for being an open, fully democratic state, most people I talk to speak of a chilling of dissent in recent years, running in parallel with the election of increasingly right-wing governments. The nadir came during the recent Gaza "war." I've seen a microcosm of this myself here in Beer-Sheva, at Ben-Gurion University. A few days ago, Noah Slor, who is in the graduate program in BGU's department of Middle Eastern studies, was arrested by police at the request of campus security and detained for several hours for quietly handing out leaflets opposing a bill now before the Knesset that would make it a criminal offense to commemorate Nakba Day (the day in May when Palestinians mourn the catastrophe of their dispossession and expulsion, which for Jews is a celebration of independence). She was doing this in a spot right outside the main campus gate, where students traditionally hand out everything from party announcements to information about political rallies, with never a bother from security.

Student activists and professors attest to a pattern of politically motivated harassment by campus security. Indeed, Slor, an activist with Darom le Shalom (the South for Peace), a recently formed group of Arabs and Jews in the Beer-Sheva area who "struggle against racism and for equality and coexistence between Arabs and Jews," told me that at the time of her arrest, a security officer told her, "Listen, don't pretend you're so naïve--I've seen you in past demonstrations. Everything is recorded and written, everything is documented." She can't prove it, but she's convinced security went after her because she was protesting the Nakba Day legislation; "that was the subtext," she told me.

The students were not going to take this sitting down. That same night, about sixty or so held a demonstration protesting the arrest, gathering at a university ceremony attended by the board of governors and other dignitaries. The students put masking tape over their mouths and held up signs saying "The Security Department Runs the University" and "Security Department = Secret Police." (In a response to questions about the incident, university spokesperson Amir Rozenblit said students are not allowed to distribute fliers on campus--why in the world not?--and that Noah was handing them out "in an area considered part of the campus"--even though it was outside the main gate. He also claimed one security guard was detained as well as Noah.)

The stifling of dissent was pervasive during the Gaza campaign. Nitza Berkovitch, a BGU sociologist, said, "I think the media was completely and truly mobilized. There was complete support of the war." A few days after the start of the war, in late December, a group of Arab and Jewish students held a peaceful demo against it. The police soon arrived and demanded that they disperse. They agreed, but as they were folding their signs, several were tackled by police, dragged to cars and held for hours, accused of "rioting." There was another demonstration in mid-January, this one even more moderate, with people holding signs calling for peace and an end to violence on both sides. Again, the same thing happened: dozens of police arrived and roughed up the crowd, arresting several. One BGU student, Ran Tzoref, was put under house arrest for a month.

Harsh repression of Palestinian citizens is a deeply engrained practice in Israel. Recent incidents indicate there may be a loosening of constraint on repression of Jewish dissent as well. Hundreds of Israelis were arrested for protesting the Gaza campaign, probably most of them Palestinian but many Jewish as well. Tzoref told me, "I was in protests in the occupied territories, and they acted the same here. For me it was shocking that riot police came to the university and attacked us. This was never done before, not on this scale." Berkovitch said, "It was like I was in a South American dictatorship. It was as if an arbitrary order had been given nationwide that a certain number of people needed to be arrested--it was a simple matter of intimidation."

Certainly the Gaza campaign brought out the worst in the apparatus of repression, which was fueled by a public mood of vengeance and hatred of Palestinians, which was itself heightened by the Hamas rocket barrages. (Berkovitch told me that many passers-by at the January demonstration shouted abuses at the protesters, calling them traitors and saying things like "Jews should kill more Arabs." "So much hatred I've never encountered in my life," she said.) The trend is worrying, but it should be emphasized that in general, Israeli Jews, unlike Palestinians, still enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom to speak out on almost any issue.

With a far-right government that is not only determined to avoid serious negotiations with the Palestinians but is actively promoting settlement growth; that shows all the signs of preparing for war against Iran and is actively stoking public paranoia on that front; that increasingly sees Palestinian citizens as a menace, as the enemy within, the contradictions of a nation that claims to be both Jewish and democratic are fraying. How can a state that imprisons 4 million Palestinians behind ghetto walls, bypass roads and a blockade, and treats another 1.5 million as second-class citizens, be democratic? BGU geography professor Oren Yiftachel calls Israel an ethnocracy (the title of a recent book of his); the late Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called it a "Herrenvolk democracy." Whatever you call it, if Israel continues along its current path, the repression will necessarily intensify, and the avenues for free expression will become ever more constricted. The old joke about Prussia was that it was an army masquerading as a state. Is Israel destined to become Prussia on the Mediterranean?

 

Cultivating Peace in Palestine

In the days leading up to Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, announced that it would seek a bill in the Knesset banning Palestinian citizens of Israel--now 20 percent of the population--from commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), their way of marking the founding of Israel, which involved the expulsion or flight of some 750,000 Palestinians.

Thousands of Palestinians--in the occupied territories, in Israel and in refugee camps all over the Arab world--ignored Yisrael Beiteinu's bluster and turned out for Nakba Day rallies, insisting on the right of refugees to return to their homes, a demand that is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In a speech in the stadium at the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kana, Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, declared, "We are the ones who will remain on our land; it is the occupation that will soon disappear." Speaking of the occupation, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians in the territories as soon as possible, as any delay would bring about a binational state, which she called "a strategic threat, no less menacing than any other threat."

The fact is that even aside from the occupation, Israel is already a binational state--increasingly, a multicultural state--albeit one that is dominated by one ethnic/religious group. What if, instead of talking past one another, Jews and Palestinians were to take a step toward admitting this reality by acknowledging the other's historical narrative and trying to live together? It turns out that some are doing this, and in very interesting ways. I recently attended the sixth annual "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering near the northern city of Haifa, a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews "designed to respect and commemorate the pain and loss on both sides." Sponsored this year by Beyond Words, a nonprofit organization that empowers Arab and Jewish women to work for social change and peace, the event featured a history lecture, recollections of the 1948 expulsion from Ramle by a Palestinian who experienced it and of the Holocaust by a survivor, personal testimonies of loss in a common grieving ritual, and breakout workshops, as well as music, dance and prayer.

It may be hard for Americans to comprehend just how threatening such an event is perceived in Israel--by both Jews and Palestinians. Many of the former find it nearly treasonous that on two consecutive days considered nearly sacred--the Day of the Fallen and Independence Day, when throughout the country everything comes to a screeching halt for two minutes as sirens sound--fellow Jews would go out of their way to acknowledge those who consider the time of Jewish national liberation to be a catastrophe. And just as many Palestinians are no less irritated that their dispossessed brethren, who endure continuing discrimination as second-class citizens, would commune with a people who celebrate what is for Palestinians a time of defeat and expulsion. But that's just the point: the participants don't presume to furnish a "solution" to the conflict, nor do they expect to synthesize the two vastly different national experiences into a unified whole. The idea, rather, is that in a society where the two opposing narratives almost completely negate the legitimacy of the other, simply to come together, to listen to the other, to accept the other's narrative as at least somewhat legitimate, is a crucial step in the healing process necessary to ending the conflict.

Another bridging of the narratives is being carried out by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), a nonprofit established in 1998 by Palestinian and Israeli researchers whose "purpose is to pursue mutual coexistence and peace-building through joint research and outreach activities." A particularly noteworthy PRIME endeavor is the "Dual-Narrative History Project." Co-directed by Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and the late Professor Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University (Bar-On's mantle was recently inherited by Ben-Gurion's Professor Shifra Sagy), the goal is "to ‘disarm' the teaching of Middle East history in Israeli and Palestinian classrooms" by developing, with a group of Palestinian and Israeli historians, textbooks that have parallel historical narratives, Israeli on one side of the page and Palestinian on the other, to be taught to high school students. There's a blank space in the middle of each page for student comments.

The goal of the textbooks is to expose to each student population the history of the conflict as seen through the eyes of, and as taught by, the other. The project believed that at this stage of the conflict, the sides are too polarized to be able to produce a single narrative. But the hope is that in educating each side about the other's history, they will "break down stereotypes and build more nuanced understandings." So far three books have been produced, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, covering key periods, including the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the 1948 war, the 1967 war, the first intifada and so on. The remarkable thing about this cooperative venture is that it got started at the height of the second intifada, a time of extreme violence when it was difficult for the program directors just to meet, let alone produce a textbook that highlighted fundamental differences. The books have been used on both sides, exposing hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli high school kids to a different narrative, although neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian education ministries have given official approval to the books.

A third attempt to bridge the gap between the two peoples is Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality. Based in Beer-Sheva in Israel's southern Negev Desert, the Hagar Association has established a bilingual preschool and kindergarten in an attempt to overcome the extreme segregation of Jewish and Arab communities in Israel. The people of Hagar believe that "creating such a shared bilingual educational framework can promote knowledge and understanding of the ‘other's' heritage, religion and customs, and thus help to bring about positive change in the region." The school has equal numbers of Arabs and Jews, and every class has two teachers, who give instruction in Arabic and Hebrew. This is almost unheard of in Israel, where as a general rule Palestinian and Jewish kids attend different schools. Until the founding of Hagar, there was not a single school in the South where Jewish and Arab children could learn together (25 percent of the Negev population is Arab). But Hagar's goals extend well beyond that of bilingual, high-quality education for kids; the community brings together parents and other members of the Beer-Sheva community in a broader social network that includes picnics, adult language instruction, and artistic and other cultural events. This partly comes from an understanding that the education of children should be a community-wide effort, but also from the recognition that overcoming barriers of segregation and mistrust requires a multifaceted approach that integrates all areas and ages of life, including work, education and cultural and leisure activities. Hagar has had to overcome many difficulties, not least the upsurge in mistrust stemming from the recent Gaza military operation and Hamas rocket barrages, which reached Beer-Sheva. One testament to Hagar's success is that the bonds formed over the past two years were not broken by the bloodshed; indeed, Hagar is now expanding its program for the 2009-10 school year to include first grade.

Certainly none of these cooperative efforts can be a substitute for peacemaking on the diplomatic level--a step made all the more difficult by an obstructionist Israeli prime minister. In his first meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu refused to support a two-state solution, instead calling for limited Palestinian self-government, insisting that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and making no promises to limit growth in settlements, let alone withdraw them. Resolution of the conflict is impossible without addressing its root causes: a brutal Israeli occupation and ongoing colonization now in its fourth decade in the territories, and systemic, legally sanctioned discrimination in Israel proper. But grassroots attempts to cultivate the seeds of cooperation can help further the larger goal, and make the transition to genuine peace more bearable.

 

Netanyahu's Fig Leaf

So finally, after weeks of seamy backroom maneuvering, Benjamin Netanyahu has formed the new Israeli government, so bloated with ministries doled out as party favors that it was beginning to look as if Bibi would name a Minister of Public Toilets, or perhaps Deputy Premier for Parking Violations, just to placate dissatisfied rivals from his restless Likud stable.

Kadima leader Tzipi Livni made the mistake of assuming that Labor, in particular leader Ehud Barak, still retained some smidgen of principle and would thus stand by its avowal not to take part in a government liberally stocked with rejectionist bigots like Avigdor Lieberman. She should've known better. There may be a few decent souls left in the party, but common references to it, especially in the US media, as "center left" are laughable and have been for some time, as Daphna Baram pointed out recently in the Guardian.

Barak himself has always been a rejectionist warrior. As chief of staff of the army in the early 1990s, he opposed the Oslo Accords. As prime minister in 1999-2000, he approved a massive increase in settlement construction and then destroyed what remained of the Oslo process by making outrageous demands of the Palestinians at Camp David. Then, in response to overwhelmingly unarmed rioting after Ariel Sharon's provocative peacock-strut on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Barak ordered a murderous fusillade of live ammunition to suppress demonstrations all over the territories.

Not only has Barak consistently opposed serious negotiations with the Palestinians, he's not even a good military strategist, despite being Israel's most highly decorated soldier. As defense minister in Ehud Olmert's now deceased government, Barak just oversaw the disastrous Gaza massacre, now condemned round the world as involving multiple war crimes (see the devastating February 11 report, A/HRC/10/20, by Nation editorial board member and UN Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk). All that, and the campaign didn't even seriously damage Hamas's rocket capability.

So what kind of government is Bibi leading? Observers should keep an unpleasant fact in mind as they wade through the media verbiage: Netanyahu and his partners have no intention of engaging in serious negotiations--and there should be no illusions that Barak or the other Labor cabinet members will put a serious brake on this. The new government will do everything it can to kill any chances of a two-state solution, including acceleration of settlement construction. See Helena Cobban's posting on our site about the latest spate of house demolitions in East Jerusalem. And Israeli Army Radio has reported a secret agreement between Netanyahu and Lieberman to build 3,000 units of housing in the crucial E1 area, between East Jerusalem and the giant Ma'ale Adumim settlement. The colonization of E1 would cement the bantustanization of the West Bank, not only severing the Palestinian northern West Bank from the southern but choking off Palestinian access to Jerusalem, the necessary capital of any future state.

Barak was recruited to the cabinet to serve as a fig leaf for Western governments and leading media, which desperately crave the appearance of a peace process, since even they would not be able to continue the now-years-long pretense in the face of a government composed solely of Bibi and thugs to his right like Lieberman. There's collusion on almost all sides, actually: Israel needs the fig leaf both to satisfy Western diplomats and to help ease upgraded status with its largest trading partner, the EU. The Obama administration needs the fig leaf to avoid incurring the draining confrontation with the AIPAC and Christian Zionist crowd (and their cutthroat brethren in the blogosphere) that might arise as a result of tensions between the administration and an openly recalcitrant Israel. And, perhaps most pathetic of all, Mahmous Abbas and his cohort in the Palestinian Authority leadership desperately need to keep alive the possibility of negotiations, because without that, their last shred of credibility--their very raison d'etre--would disappear.

It looks pretty bleak, but one recent diplomatic demarche would at least provide bipartisan cover for Obama to press for serious talks, in contrast to the 2007 Annapolis charade: under the auspices of Henry Siegman's U.S./Middle East Project, a heavyweight crew of former diplomats and think tankers, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Paul Volcker, James Wolfensohn and Chuck Hagel, has submitted to President Obama "A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement."

The document calls for putting serious pressure on all parties to begin accelerated negotiations toward a solution roughly along the lines of most recent two-state proposals: Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with only minor and reciprocal adjustments allowed; division of Jerusalem, with Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, and unimpeded access from both sides to their respective holy sites in the Old City; a resolution of the refugee problem "consistent with the two-state solution," i.e., that would not allow general return to Israel but would acknowledge the injustice of the expulsion and provide generous compensation for resettlement in the new state of Palestine or elsewhere. There's plenty to argue about in these elements, as in other details of the plan, but there's little denying that something along these lines is the only chance for survival of the two-state solution.

The question is, Does Obama have the guts to adopt and forcefully push it--and threaten serious repercussions if he encounters obstruction? The recent Chas Freeman episode isn't exactly encouraging, but we're still testing the mettle of this president. He may yet surprise us.

 

Palestinian Revolution?

On Friday I went to the anti-separation wall demo in Ni'lin in the West Bank, the same village where International Solidarity Movement activist Tristan Anderson was critically wounded last week. Several hundred villagers were accompanied by Jewish Israeli activists (most with Anarchists Against the Wall ) and ISMers, plus a few journalists like me. The IDF started firing tear gas at us even before we got close to the wall. The shebab (Palestinian youth) responded with stones, and the game was on: back and forth street battles, with the soldiers alternating between tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and occasional live ammunition, often fired by snipers, and the shebab hurling their stones by slingshot against the Israeli Goliath.

The IDF often fires tear gas now with a high-velocity riflethat can be lethal, especially when they fire it straight at you rather than pointed up in the air. Pointed straight, it comes at you like a bullet. That's what seriously wounded Anderson. I saw these projectiles coming very near us, and saw how dangerous they could be. Not to mention the live ammo they occasionally fired--but they fired live rounds only at the shebab, never at the Jews or internationals. After a few hours, the clashes died down. Six were injured, one critically. Me, I just coughed and teared up from the gas on occasion. (In simultaneous demos in the nearby village of Bi'lin, three were injured, including two Americans.)

I mistakenly thought the army would be less aggressive on Friday, and not only because of the negative publicity surrounding the shooting of Anderson (the killing of Palestinians is of course routinely ignored in Western media; in Ni'lin alone, four villagers have been killed in the past eight months, with hundreds injured). The day before Friday's march, revelations from Israeli veterans about war crimes they'd committed in the recent Gaza campaign made world headlines .

As villagers prepared yesterday's march, Jonathan Pollock, a veteran activist with AATW, showed me where Anderson was standing when he was shot and where the IDF soldier was standing who shot him, just up the hill. The soldier had fired a high-velocity tear-gas canister at close range--what looked to me like about fifty or sixty meters--directly at Anderson, hitting him in the head. It was hard to imagine the intention could have been anything other than to seriously maim or kill.

The courage and steadfast resistance of the people of Ni'lin, and many other West Bank villages just like it that are fighting the wall's illegal annexation of their land, is truly remarkable. Every week, for years now, West Bank Palestinians have stood up against the world's fourth-most-powerful military machine, which shows no compunction about shooting unarmed demonstrators. This grassroots resistance--organized by the villagers themselves, not Fatah or Hamas--has gotten little publicity from the world media , which seem to prefer stories about Hamas rockets and the image of Palestinians as terrorists.

The village protests against the wall are inspiring, and not just because they've continued for so long, against such daunting odds. The villagers recognize the power and revolutionary potential of mass, unarmed resistance, and the shebab with their slingshots hearken back to the first intifada of the late 1980s and the "children of the stones," when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were directly involved in the struggle against the occupation. The Israeli government knows how difficult it is to suppress that kind of mass resistance, which is why it has used such brutality and provocation against the villagers. The army wants to shut this uprising down before it spreads, and would like nothing more than for the villagers to start using guns, as the IDF is certain to win a purely military confrontation. The other inspiration of this struggle is the courage and solidarity of the Israeli and ISM activists. They risk their lives day after day, and the villagers appreciate it. I saw signs in Ni'lin praising Tristan Anderson, who, just like Rachel Corrie six years ago, was willing to sacrifice his life for Palestinian justice.

 

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