Is there a crack in the wall?

“Getting inside the official Israeli mind is a worthwhile, if lurid, experience,” the late Edward Said wrote in his article “Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony.” This is what it feels like when one is trying to understand the Middle East peace process that never seems to lead to anything. Observing this never ending saga, one can hardly help reaching the realization that peace is not a priority for Israel, and indeed Israeli governments have made no secret of the fact that a peace that precludes Israel’s complete control over historic Palestine is of no interest to them.

There is not a shred of evidence that can support Israeli claims of wanting to achieve peace based on the division of historic Israel/Palestine into two independent states. Israel has skillfully used the last 40 years to strengthen its hold on the areas occupied in 1967 and create a de facto apartheid state in all of Israel/Palestine. Consecutive Israeli governments bluntly use the so-called peace process to cover up expansion into the West Bank and execution of what has been called the slow genocide of the Palestinian people.

The decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to move the separation barrier and return land back to the people of Bil’in brought a sense that justice was carried out. Indeed this decision may constitute the first crack in the separation wall, and even to an extent a crack in the armor of the almighty Israeli “defense” forces. The leaders of the struggle held fast and did not compromise their objectives or their integrity and they have much of which they can proud. However, it is unlikely that the barrier will be moved or the land returned. 

For the last 60 years Israel has been intent on “The obliteration of an entire people by slow systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder and the stifling of everyday life” to use the words Edward Said. No branch of the Israeli government will admit to the illegitimacy of the occupation of Palestine; they will never admit to crimes they committed like the theft of land or the murder of innocent civilians and consequently, the “Defense” Department will not be bound by a Supreme Court’s decision that goes against its intent. 

At the same time it is important to note that this behemoth of a system called the Israeli “Defense” Forces is showing signs of crumbling. The Israeli military of today is not unlike the Red Army during the final years of the Soviet Union, where all that was left was the appearance of a superpower. The Israeli military is plagued by a severe lack of motivation among young recruits and increased numbers of young people avoiding the otherwise mandatory draft; according to recent stories in the Israeli press drug abuse is rampant everywhere in the army and particularly among Israel’s combat “elite” units. While the drug problem is not new (drugs were rampant in the IDF even 20 years ago) its use among combat units involved in daily operations is reported to have dramatically increased. This is hardly surprising if we consider the fact that “combat” is another word for abuse, murder and displacement of unarmed civilians. 

To compound this, the IDF was severely defeated last summer during its assault on Lebanon. It was a military as well as a moral defeat, and Israel’s commanders were totally humiliated by Hizballah. In Gaza the military has also proven to be inept. Even with massive use of force the IDF cannot stop the rockets launched from Gaza into Israel. Only recently several dozen new army recruits were injured by a rocket that fell in a large army base near Zikkim, just north of Gaza. And finally, with all of their intelligence the IDF is incapable of finding the soldier Gilad Shalit who is being held captive in Gaza. In light of all this, can there be any wonder that Israeli officers find diversion in drugs?

Edward Said refers to the Israeli military as “brigades of willing executioners,” and frankly, one cannot blame him. In a recent story in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot a young tank commander describes a “battle” against three suspected “gunmen” near the wall that imprisons Gaza: “the first one was caught in the chains of my tank (and crushed to death), the second we nailed and the others escaped.” The young lieutenant is congratulated by his commanding officer for courage and resourcefulness but warned that a tank should shoot from 1.5 km and not at close range. “This was practically hand-to-hand combat,” says the commander. 

One has to wonder, if these “gunmen” were only suspects why they were executed. If indeed they were armed, how was it that the tank managed to get so close? But the larger question answered in this particular report is this: Why are Israeli tanks still in Gaza? According this report, Israel claims 300 meters inside Gaza as a security zone (on the Gaza side of the wall) and will not permit anyone to come near.

As we engage in this lurid experience of trying to understand Israel, we cannot escape the conclusion that Israel has no intention to end the occupation. There is no plan to release Palestinians from their bondage or allow the emergence of a democracy that includes Palestinian freedom. The joint, nonviolent struggle must therefore continue until full equal rights for both people are achieved in all of Israel/Palestine. It will be an uphill battle. Just they did in Bil’in, the savage beast that is the Israeli military will react to nonviolence with as much violence as it possibly can.

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The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall 
Miko Peled, The Electronic Intifada, 12 June 2007 

As I write these words, I realize it is 5 June 2007. I remember that day in June 40 years ago vividly; I was five years old and my father, Matti Peled was a general in the IDF, my brother a lieutenant in the armored corps. We believed that they were part of a long line of Jewish heroes that includes Joshua, King David, the Maccabees and now the IDF; they all had God on their side and were destined to be victorious. Today people around the world talk about the day that the war “broke out,” as though war is an entity with a life of its own. But wars rarely break out; they are meticulously planned and carried out by people with the worst intentions. This particular war completed Israel’s domination over Palestine, domination for which there seems no end in sight. And today, as my father and several other concerned Israelis predicted forty years ago, young Jewish boys who were raised on the principles of the Jewish democracy, willingly carry out the despicable duties of an occupation army.

The difficulty a writer faces in writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is buried in decades of mythmaking. Most writers and readers are still in awe of the Zionist narrative and are either afraid or lack the tools with which to challenge it. Even people with experience in Mideast politics like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Dennis Ross, still claim that if only America pursued the right foreign policy or the Palestinians had different leaders then the Palestinian people would have a state of their own and Israel would be living in a state of peace and security. Clearly they do not see the writing on the wall.

Jamil Hilal’s book Where Now for Palestine, the Demise of the Two State Solution(published by Zed Books) is like the biblical Daniel interpreting the writing on the wall. Thorough and compelling, this book contains eleven illuminating essays with razor sharp analysis on the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the demise of the two-state solution. 

“The policy imperatives of political Zionism have been oriented towards occupying land with no, or the minimum of, Palestinians.” Hilal writes, and indeed, from the earliest days of the Zionist enterprise Zionist strongman David Ben Gurion made it clear that this was a zero sum game: Us or them, there will be no compromise on the issue of land. To guarantee the success of his plan to win the land and get rid of its people he orchestrated Israel’s massive military buildup. 

Today’s policies of aggression and expansion are part of the legacy of Ben Gurion, and as Ilan Pappe writes: “occupation proceeds from the same ideological infrastructure on which the 1948 ethnic cleansing was erected.” The last 40 years have provided ample opportunities to move forward with the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but no Israeli government was ever willing to give up the land. Instead, Israel continues to allocate massive resources to further its military buildup and expand the settlements in the West Bank. Jamil Hilal sums it up when he writes: “Israel’s policy has amounted to a systemic negation of the basic conditions necessary for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.” As the layers of myth are uncovered we are struck by the realization that it is inconceivable that a Zionist government will be willing to share the Land of Israel. 

The debate regarding the future of Israel/Palestine is becoming more widespread but unfortunately this is happening mainly outside of Israel. In as much as any discussion exists within Israel it is on the fringes of the Israeli left and among Palestinians, but rarely together. The recent debate between historian Ilan Pappe, who also contributed to this book, and veteran peace activist Uri Avneri, is noteworthy. During the debate, Pappe argued that the two-state solution is neither a viable nor a desirable solution and that effort needs to be exerted to create a secular democratic state in Israel/Palestine. Avneri, in an effort to support his claim that Israelis and Palestinians cannot possibly live as citizens with equal rights under one democratic state resorted to the following argument: “The inhabitant of Bil’in will pay the same taxes as the inhabitant of Kfar-Sava? The inhabitants of Jenin will enact a constitution together with the inhabitants of Netanya? The inhabitants of Hebron and the settlers will serve in the same army and the same police force, shoulder to shoulder, and will be subject to the same laws? Is that realistic?” If history has shown us anything it is this: It is not realistic to expect that any Zionist government will ever give up land, so we find the two people living in one state but governed by very different laws. 

To gain control of the enemy and rally its own troops, so to speak, Israel set out and accomplished two major tasks: The fragmentation of Palestinian society on the one hand and the alienation of Israelis towards Palestinians on the other. Sharif Elmusa explains it like this: “Rationalization of the necessity for a Jewish majority in Israel requires the Arabs to be pictured darkly, bent on the annihilation of the Jews, and as culturally incapable of forming democratic, pluralistic systems”. Indeed, recent research by Nurit Peled Elhanan substantiates this claim. She has shown that the trend in Israeli textbooks is to show the “Arabs of Israel” as the Palestinians are called, as poor, uneducated, untrustworthy and bent on killing Jews. 

However, the reality is that the Palestinians in Israel, as in other countries, have always been peaceful, hardworking, educated, and socially and politically active. For decades Palestinian leaders have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to reach a negotiated agreement with Israel; Palestinian democratic institutions have proven themselves effective and representing the people’s wishes both before and after Oslo; and the most striking example to contradict the stereotype of Palestinians in Israel is Gaza: 80 percent of the people live below the poverty line, the government is incapacitated, and with little help from the outside world the literacy rate remains well over 90 percent. 

For several decades Israel has been using extrajudicial assassinations and other, less lethal means to destroy and to delegitimize the Palestinian leadership. One of its biggest achievements in this regard is the Oslo agreement. Karma Nablusi writes that prior to Oslo the PLO represented Palestinians who live within Palestine and those in Al Shatat, outside Palestine. Today there is no representation and no body within which Palestinian voices outside of Palestine can be heard. By containing the PLO within the PA, Oslo succeeded in diminishing the representation for Palestinians outside Palestine and by doing so in effect took the refugee problem and the right of return off the negotiating table. Now the very future of the PA is unclear and Israel is on the verge of yet another victory: the complete destruction of Palestinian political representation.

One point which all the contributors to this book raised is that the so-called peace process, rather than lead to a resolution, is enabling Israel to destroy Palestine. So the question that begs to be asked is what now for Palestine? Hilal writes: “Neither Fatah nor Hammas has put forth a strategy for a national struggle that deals with the situation after the collapse of Oslo.” According to Ziad Abu Amr: “The PA is becoming a facade hiding an actual Israeli occupation, and a tool helping Israel regulate its occupation.” These are serious charges and they are being laid at the feet of today’s Palestinian leadership. Jamil Hilal further suggests: “The Palestinian movement should articulate a detailed proposal for a bi-national state, and begin to canvas for such an idea among Palestinians, and, more importantly, among Israelis.” But, in its daily struggle to stay alive, the Palestinian leadership too fails to see the writing on the wall.

People in the West buy into the Israeli narrative because Israel has created an almost fool-proof system that keeps it in control of the Palestinians and of the media. As Husam Mohamad states: “The present peace efforts lay most of the blame for the violence on the victims rather than the perpetrators.” Israeli violence is never seen as the cause for the impasses. Qassam rockets falling in Israel are terrorist attacks that cannot be tolerated, whereas the devastation caused by Israel in Gaza and the loss of innocent Palestinian lives is reported as justifiable retaliation. As long as the relations between the two sides are characterized by the imbalance of power, there can never be meaningful negotiations. Only once the occupation is dismantled and the continuous threat of Israeli attacks is lifted, can Israelis and Palestinians work together and resolve the conflict peacefully. 

If Israel has its way things will get progressively worse for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. This book suggests a clear and courageous direction by which both people should move forward together: Dismantling the PA and establishing a democratic, secular state in all of Israeli/Palestine that will protect the national rights of all its citizens and will focus on human rights. 

For sixty years Israelis have been living as occupiers in Palestine. From the day it was established, Israel has been governed by an extremist, uncompromising political movement with a colonialist agenda. In this book, Jamil Hilal and ten other brilliant writers offer Israelis a way to be liberated from the daunting, self-destructive task of policing an occupied nation: “A secular democratic state with no distinctions between citizens according to religion, ethnicity or national origin.”

It’s Time We Visit Gaza

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one area where liberals and neo-conservatives in America find common ground. From Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton all the way to George Bush and Condoleezza Rice one and all are united in supporting Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people and their land.

The criticism of Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is a case in point. The hysteria on the Right is not worthy of repetition, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outdid herself by issuing a statement that: “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression.” Wrong to suggest? Here is something right to suggest: Madam Speaker, it is time for you to visit Gaza.

In The Tribes Triumphant, arguably one of the best books ever written about the Middle East, journalist Charles Glass describes children in Gaza on their way to school: “… little girls with white fringe collars, boys leading their younger brothers … with canvas bags of books on their backs, hair brushed back and faces scrubbed … Thousands and thousands of children’s feet padding the dusty paths between their mother’s front doors and their schools … Beautiful youngsters so innocent that they could laugh even in Gaza.”

Glass reveals that 56.6 percent of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza (if you can call it living) are under the age of 18. That means 792,400 children; Gaza has no cinemas, no theatres, no concert halls, and no space for entertainment or amusement. Where then do these children play? Israel controls all access to, from and within Gaza, never allowing these children to see the world outside this tiny crowded strip of sand they call home. If this, Madam Speaker, is not ethnically based oppression, what is?

“Gaza First” was the slogan that got the Oslo accords off the ground in the early 1990s. Today, as innocent, unarmed men, women and children in Gaza are imprisoned, starved and killed by Israel in broad daylight, its obvious that it, meaning the Oslo agreement, was another nail in the coffin of a just and lasting peace. Then came Sharon’s Gaza disengagement, which was a disingenuous claim by Israel to make “concessions for peace”. Pretending to pull out of Gaza for the sake of peace, Israel tightened the noose around Gaza and its people while freeing itself from any obligation for the welfare of the people of Gaza.

People call Gaza a hotbed of terror, neglecting, or perhaps refusing to see that people in Gaza are attempting, albeit in all futility, to resist the terror under which they are forced to live. Close to one million of Gaza’s 1.4 million residents are refugees or descendents of refugees forced out of their homes from other parts of Palestine only to be imprisoned and impoverished in Gaza. In The Roadmap to Nowhere Tanya Reinhart writes: “Since 1967, 280,000 people in Gaza have passed through Israeli prisons, detention cells and interrogation rooms.” The connection cannot be overlooked: Residents of Gaza have made a name for themselves in resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine even before 1967 and they have paid dearly for this resistance.

On 11 December 2006 Jan McGirk described in The Independent the effects of Israeli terror on the children of Gaza: “No sane child can remain unaffected by the mayhem of Gaza Strip. Playmates frequently are killed or maimed: at last count, Israeli guns had slain 88 Gazan children and wounded another 343 between mid-June and December, 2006” She further writes that “In Gaza’s grim conditions, mothers find it hard to tell if their offspring are crying out of fright, pain or misery. But when normally bickering brats fall silent, it’s the first sign of mental scars from being constantly scared.” She adds, “Muhammad, who would hit smaller children or shatter cups when he did not get his way, eventually revealed in an after school meeting that two IDF soldiers had executed a young man right in front of him.”

In America people still speak of a “peace process”, and the situation in Gaza and in the West Bank is characterized as a conflict between two people who can’t find a fair compromise. Few dare to mention that the only process that is taking place is oppression for the sake of expansion. Palestinian children are imprisoned, traumatized, starved and murdered so that Israeli can maintain its hegemony over the: “Land of Israel”.

Gaza is collateral damage, the children of Gaza are of no consequence and the leaders of the enlightened, democratic Western world could not care less. But in spite of its enormous military might Israel’s authority over life in Gaza can be must be defied. People conscience must act so that the ethnically based oppression, of which House Speaker Pelosi says it is wrong to accuse Israel, must be brought to an end.

Shades of Grey: Nusseibeh’s “Once Upon A Country”

 

The recent so-called peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, reminds me of a time in early 1995. Then, as the cancer was taking over his otherwise perfectly healthy body, my father Matti Peled gave an interview that became the weekend cover story for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. The headline for the story was: “Rabin Does Not Want Peace.” This was in the midst of the Oslo euphoria when Rabin was The Man of Peace. This headline sealed the relationship between Rabin and my father, two men of steel who for thirty years had fought side by side, and worked together to build the Israeli army and then in 1967 lead it to the final conquest of the “Promised Land.” Rabin never called to say farewell to my dying father as other comrades in arms did nor did he come during theShiva, the traditional seven days of mourning, to express his condolences. Eight months and three bullets later Rabin himself was dead.

At the time, people were shocked when my father said that Rabin’s government had no intention of allowing the Palestinians to establish an independent state. Some even attributed his words to his old age and ailing body. But that was not the case at all. The Oslo accords were flawed, and he knew it then because he took the time to read them. Arafat agreed to recognize the state of Israel and in return he got an agreement to a step-by-step process towards an objective that was never clearly defined. Arafat’s willingness to agree to this exhibited a great deal of faith and courage for which he never received credit. There were others, like Edward Said, who had read the accords and refused to be blinded by exhilaration of the moment. The bottom line was this: Rabin, the man who swore to break their bones, was not going to let Palestinians establish an independent state of their own.

Sadly, it seems that today Abu Mazen is making the same mistakes as his predecessor: Participating in a process that gives Israel credibility but is ill defined and promises nothing for the Palestinians. In his new historical autobiographyOnce Upon A Country, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, who many accuse of selling out due to his comments regarding the right of return, shows how Israel never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He shows that neither Rabin, or Barak or any other Israeli prime minister had ever intended to make peace with the Palestinians. Their intention was, and still is, to turn the Palestinian people into “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the Jewish state that was established on the ashes of a country that, as the book title suggests, once upon a time existed.

In this book, Nusseibeh highlights the shades of grey in a conflict that most people prefer to see in black and white. He writes to the Israelis as much as he writes about them. He sums up his feelings about the Israeli people when he describes his first encounter with day-to-day Israelis: “they were normal people just like us.” His first impression was that there was no reason why he “couldn’t live in the same democratic, secular state with these people who had cut in line for a taxi.” The Israelis, however, want the land for themselves and they see no reason why they should live in a country with him in it.

Nusseibeh’s book makes a strong case for the rights of his people, whose wisdom, traditions and sense of dignity he extols. He writes about the Palestinian existential ties to Jerusalem, which are clear and obvious to Palestinians but in the so-called “Judeo-Christian” world these ties are conveniently overlooked. Little is known in the West and in Israel of the deep historical and cultural ties that Muslims in general and in particular Palestinians have to Jerusalem. Nusseibeh writes: “You see this in our literature, our symbols, and our language, in the city’s architecture, its climate … all of these formed us as a people.” Nusseibeh then summarizes the reality of today’s Jerusalem: “the long term Israeli plan to degrade Arab Jerusalem into a ghetto of a greater Jewish city.”

The book describes the history and the richness of the Arab culture of Palestine and while this too is obvious to Palestinians and to people in the Arab world, it is not at all clear for others. People in Israel and the West know little if anything about the Arab culture and history of Palestine. Israelis for example learn very little about what happened in Palestine in the two thousand years between the destruction of the Second Temple and the establishment of the Zionist movement.

Nusseibeh also illuminates aspects of Islamic thought and traditions that are rarely brought up in today’s discourse on Islam: elements of openness and inclusion. “At the deepest metaphysical levels, Jews and Arabs are allies,” he says and he adds, perhaps alluding to the inevitability of a shared future based on the shared past, “any attempt to separate them is a product of the modern European myth of a ‘pure’ nation purged of outsiders.”

Even on religion, arguably the most contentious of the issues we face, Nusseibeh points to the grey area in which we can find common ground. Contrary to what many in the West think, the violence that plagues our land is not the fault of our respective religions, even though they claim deep ties to the land. As Nusseibeh sees it, the problem lies in the policies represented by leaders such as the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the one hand, and the slain Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on the other, both of whom use religious sentiment to their own political ends. Hamas he says, may well “bristle at the thought of the enemy being the source of our identity as Muslims. But the religious fanatics can eradicate the Jews from Jerusalem only by first doing violence to Islam.”

Nusseibeh goes on and confirms our common bond with the story of the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem but entered the holy city unarmed. Then, with the help of a local Jewish man, Omar found the site of the Jewish temple, which was used as a rubbish dump, and together the two men cleaned the rubbish off of this holy site with their robes.

If religion will have its say regarding the future of the 10 million people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, then it might as well be part of the solution, rather than the oil feeding the fire. Nusseibeh suggests that “despite Hamas, Islam may well be part of the solution to healing our terribly violated land. The fanatics like to hold up the Koran [sic], they just don’t like to read what it says about the Jews and Jerusalem, Israelis would similarly be wise to read what their own prophets have to say about oppression.” Indeed they would, and indeed between Muslims and Jews there are more bonds than differences.

Another example of the bond that ties our two cultures exists in the story of Abraham the patriarch preparing to sacrifice his beloved son. The story exists in both the Torah and the Qur’an; in the Torah the beloved son is Isaac and in the Qur’an it is Ishmael. But that is less significant; what is significant is that in both holy books, the Almighty God does not allow Abraham to slaughter the boy. In both cultures, the prohibition to sacrificing our children comes directly from God. Whether it is for religion or for land, if we are to fight we would all do better to heed this commandment and use nonviolent means to achieve our goals, rather then send our young to kill and be killed. 

Another aspect of Palestinian life that is rarely talked about, and that is highlighted in this book is that of the Palestinian political prisoners. Although they currently number around ten thousand men, women and even minors, little is said of this remarkable facet of the Palestinian struggle: local leaders and activists who sit in Israeli prisons have been part and parcel of Palestinian political life since the occupation began. Nusseibeh calls them “one of our greatest national success stories.”

The list of Palestinian leaders Israel has murdered is too long to count and that of those wasting away in Israeli prisoners is longer still. Israel has created an entire penal system for the purpose of the so-called “security” prisoners. Through this system, Israel has over the span of forty years violated practically every international law regarding political prisoners, by denying them their rights as human beings and as freedom fighters.

As we look forward, we are faced with two options: as Nusseibeh puts it, from the Palestinian perspective, “Either we get our state or they will have a battle for equal rights on their hands.” Among Palestinians, he writes “readiness for a two-state solution is not a permanent fixture” and if Israel does not act soon to allow an independent Palestinian state “Israelis might have an anti-apartheid campaign on their hands.” Today the anti-apartheid campaign seems almost inevitable.

Either way the future has to be determined by the two sides as equal partners. As long as the occupation exists and the Israeli military has the upper hand there can be no equality. Clearly, it’s going to be an uphill battle to end the occupation, but Nusseibeh’s experience shows that a serious nonviolent campaign can yield results. As he puts it: “Israelis had nothing in their repertoire to defeat a dedicated nonviolent campaign of civil disobedience” and apart from using excessive force, they still don’t.

Our two nations have been manipulated and lied to for a very long time, and the gap is deep as the wall is high. Still, as improbable as it may seem today, what this book suggests is true: what we as Israelis and Palestinians have in common is far greater than the issues that divide us. We now need to join hands, tear down the wall and work together to determine our future as equal partners. As I look back to 1995, I can’t help remembering that among those who called to wish my dying father a speedy recovery was the late Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat.