Coming Home to Roost

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There was a race riot in Tel Aviv on Wednesday evening. Shops wrecked, people beaten on the street, car windows smashed, and black people cowering in their homes as the mob banged on their doors and the bars over their windows. Army radio called it a “pogrom. (Click here for photos.)

The riot was instigated by mainstream Knesset members at an earlier anti-African refugees rally attended by 1,000 people. Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement by Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home….” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As author Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Recently there have been several incidents of Molotov cocktails thrown at African homes and businesses in Tel Aviv, and 11 young people were arrested for attacking refugees with clubs. This follows a vicious multi-year campaign by the government demonizing African asylum seekers that I described in a previous blog post on March 10.

Unfortunately, this type of vigilante violence is becoming pervasive in the West Bank as well. Jewish settler violence against Palestinians is skyrocketing and becoming routine. They act with impunity as few ever get prosecuted. This week settlers were caught on video shooting Palestinians while nearby Israeli soldiers passively looked on and did nothing to stop them.

To understand what it is like to be in the middle of the violent passions being stirred up, read this column from Haaretz reporter Ilan Lior for an eyewitness account of what it was like to be caught in the Tel Aviv riot.

It started as a legitimate protest, and then it went out of control. The masses understood the message: the time for talking is over – it’s now time to act.

I have been a journalist for ten years. I’ve covered terror attacks, funerals, car accidents, and protests. I’ve seen fury, frustration, despair, and sadness in a variety of places and forms. But I’ve never seen such hatred as it was displayed on Wednesday night in the Hatikva neighborhood. If it weren’t for the police presence, it would have ended in lynching. I have no doubt. Perhaps a migrant worker would have been murdered, perhaps an asylum seeker, or maybe just a passerby in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It started as a legitimate protest. South Tel Aviv residents objected to the government’s policy, or more accurately, the government’s lack of policy. Over the course of a few years, tens of thousands of Africans have made their way into the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Residents call them infiltrators, others call them refugees or asylum seekers. The Africans have made life in south Tel Aviv hellish, according to the residents.

A demonstration of hatred took place on the stage. One after another, residents took the stage to tell horror stories of violence perpetrated by the infiltrators. Some called for extreme action and even violence. “Bibi, I’m taking the law into my own hands,” warned one of the residents. Protest organizers, among them a city councilman, Shlomo Maslawi, attempted to tone it down and calm the crowd. We must not turn to violence, they said.

The Knesset members were not interested. Believe it or not, they fanned the flames. “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body,” said Miri Regev, (Likud). “All the left-wingers that filed petitions in the Supreme court should be embarrassed – they stopped the expulsion,” she added.

Michael Ben Ari joined in on her incitement. “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over,” said Ben Ari (National Union), exciting the crowd. He also pointed a finger of blame at the left-wingers, and “tzfonbonim” (Israeli slang for affluent, stuck-up residents of north Tel Aviv).

Regev and Ben Ari did their part. The protest went out of control. The masses understood the message: Talk is over, it’s time to act. Now is the time to take the law in to our own hands, to get violent, to release our rage. Some members of the migrant community passed by, scared, while others say they were afraid to leave their houses. The protesters, they believed, are just waiting for the right time to strike.

Just moments after Ben Ari’s speech, I found myself in a surreal situation. “You’re a left-winger that throws rocks at soldiers at checkpoints,” one protester called at me. “You’re a traitor, we’ll finish you,” threatened another. I tried to explain that I was a journalist, and not a left-wing activist, that I’ve never protested at checkpoints, nor thrown a rock at anyone. I told them that I came to give a voice to the residents’ calls, to their struggles, and to pass the message on to those who make decisions. No one listened.

The situation started to deteriorate very quickly. The threats became more intense, hands were thrown in the air, one of the protesters pushed me, another snatched my notepad and threw it in the air. “You’re making a mistake,” I said, desperately trying to stop the carnage. Border Patrol officers saved me, escorting me off to the side. “I recognize you. I’m a bus driver. I saw you throw rocks at soldiers at a checkpoint last week,” said one woman, running amok. “You’re mistaken, they’re deceiving you,” I answered. “I’ll get you,” she threatened, in front of the uniformed officers.

A short time after, she was joined by another protester, then another, then another. The officers decided they needed to get me out of there, and fast. They began to push me down Hahagana street. “Faster, they’ll murder you,” the frightened officers told me. I looked behind me. Hundreds of people had begun to chase me. It was clear to me that the small police presence would not be able to deal with the masses. Some of them caught up. One grabbed my shirt, and ripped it, while threatening to murder me. For the first time, I saw true hatred in the eyes of another person.

The officers pushed me into a patrol car, in an attempt to protect me. The patrol car became the center of the chaos. The masses surrounded it, protesters banged on the doors and windows, rocked the car from side to side. “Traitor,” they yelled.

The hardship of south Tel Aviv residents is real. No one denies that. These are weak neighborhoods, forced to take on a population with nothing, engaged in a daily struggle for survival. But that’s only part of the story. On Wednesday, everyone with black skin was labeled an enemy. These Knesset members are largely responsible for turning the words into acts. They cannot shake off that responsibility. The harsh violence against passersby that happened to have black skin is a direct result of their wild incitements. The incitements on Wednesday are the start of a slippery slope. It is best to stop it as early as possible. If the public leaders and neighborhood officials won’t take responsibility, someone could pay with their life. The writing is on the wall, in black and white.

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A Former Member of the Shin Bet: His Story

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From Roni Segoly, former member of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency):Controlling by force doesn’t just harm the occupied nation but the occupier as well. The violence penetrates back to us…and all the values that we were educated on are trampled over in the occupied territories. We need to free ourselves from the occupation maybe even more than the Palestinians need to free themselves. We cannot be the ‘only enlightened democracy in the Middle East’ when people of a village that is only 10 minutes from where I live are prevented minimal human rights by my own country, just because of their origin.”

This is the second in a series highlighting the personal stories of members of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. Two weeks ago I posted the story of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian who was one of the co-founders of the organization. His moving story exemplifies the experience of living under Israeli rule.

Today I am highlighting the story of Roni Segoly, an Israeli who spent much of his career with the police and the Shin Bet in the occupied territories. He describes how his worldview, the belief in the “absolute justice” of the Israeli occupation, began to crumble when he had the insight that the Palestinians were simply demonstrating for their freedom – and how their striving resembled his heroes in the Jewish underground who had fought the British during the mandate period. It was as if the scales fell from his eyes and he viewed the world through different glasses. Slowly Roni came to this conclusion: “You cannot rule another nation for a long period of time and there is no way to lead a humanitarian occupation. There is no way to be evil to others without letting this evil penetrate into our lives.

Here is his story.

My name is Roni and in August 2007 I joined the organization Combatants for Peace. Since then I have been an active member and this is My Personal Story.

I grew up in Jerusalem in the 70s, the years of the feeling of euphoria after the Six-Day War. I was a youngster and like most of the youth my age, I joined a youth movement. The movement I joined is called Beitar, the movement of the Herut party, which later became the Likud party. I was a right-wing teen and participated in rallies, which supported the building of settlements, which had just started popping up on the hills of the West Bank, while the government shut its eyes.

During that time, my belief was based on the fact that we had just freed holy lands. By chance there was a group of people living there who claimed that they were a nation. A different solution had to be found for them in the Middle East, there are 22 other Arab countries to where they can go, the absolute justice was with us.

In 1975 I joined the IDF and served in an outpost in the Gaza strip. During my service, the Likud party came into power for the first time, and the feeling of my friends and I was that if we were stubborn enough, the Palestinians would give up and leave or accept our authority. We believed that there was no other way.

After I finished my army service I started working for the police in the Department for Minorities in Jerusalem. For the first time I actually had to deal with Palestinians. I learned their language and customs and I remember how we used to play cat and mouse with the citizens of East Jerusalem. They would try and demonstrate their nationalism in any way possible. They would paint their cars with their flags’ colors and we would fight against any sign of nationalism with persistence and aggressiveness. Needless to say, raising of a Palestinian flag was a serious crime.

In 1983 I left the police forces, and joined the Israeli secret service (Shabak), where I served until 1994 in the occupied territories in different positions where their main aim was fighting terror.

If I look back on where I was then and where I am today, obviously it was a long process. I didn’t wake up one morning with a new political understanding. It was a process that started years ago, in its midst I found myself dealing with large cracks forming in the belief of the righteousness of my way, of my country, and the gap widened until I couldn’t carry on wavering on both side. I chose a way that seemed more natural to me, one that promotes peace and equality.

The best way to describe the way in which change happened in me is to refer to a few points of reference in my past.

During the end of the 80s’ the first uprising (‘Intifada’) broke out. This was truly a national uprising and it even took the Palestinian organizations time to figure out what was happening, to come to sense with it and to control the masses. During the first weeks the real heroes were the masses. In many places on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip the masses marched fearlessly towards the IDF. For the first time I encountered youngsters and adults that picked their heads up, their eyes were sparkling and they were filled with pride and persistence, they believed that they were creating their country, that nothing could stop them. And as for myself, I who was working in the secret service, met not with terrorists (for those people it was obvious who is good and who is bad) but with a nation that was rebelling. Suddenly I caught myself, I who in my childhood had dreamed of the Jewish underground heroes, dreamed of their fight against the British occupation, they were prepared to sacrifice themselves to be freed from being an occupied nation, and suddenly I was on the other side of this equation, and this was the first fracture that started crumbling my belief. My duty was not an easy one even if I still believed we were defending our country, and still there was a gap between the fact that you had to be evil to someone during your job, and then come home to peace and quiet, have a bath and hug your wife and kids. This gap is very difficult to deal with, but when you start doubting what you are actually doing, it becomes completely unbearable.

The second point I would like to address is the house where I grew up. I was born in Baqa neighborhood in Jerusalem (this is the Arab name of the neighborhood that is used until today). I grew up in an Arab house, which to me meant a house with high ceilings, nice tiled floors and thick walls. The fact that in the past Arabs lived there didn’t occur to me at all. In 1967 right after the Six-Day War, when I was 10, a few Arabs knocked on our door, and they told us in broken English that they used to live in the house once, and they asked to see it. That was an embarrassing and strange situation, what do we do? And what do they want? I mean this house is obviously ours. Anyways we let them in, they looked around and left, and we haven’t heard from them since. I presume we weren’t very kind to them. This moment has been engraved in my memory ever since.

In 2006 I went with my mother to Romania to see where my roots were. In other words, where she ran away from after the Second World War. We went to the tiny remote village where she was born. It was a deserted village in the northern part of the country and we looked for the house she used to live in. Today, obviously Romanians inhabit it since there are almost no Jews left in the area. We didn’t find the house, so we knocked on the door of a neighboring house. Someone opened and asked what we wanted? We explained and they were very unfriendly. Then I suddenly realized, this is an identical story to the one that happened in my childhood, with the original residents of the house I grew up in.

Both people, Palestinian and Israeli, are connected to each other through history, and our stories are so similar that it’s nearly impossible to understand. We, children of refugees from Europe, fulfilled our dream of a Jewish state by making another nation into refugees. We, who have been a driven minority for our entire history, are ruling another nation today. The fact that our only way of ruling them is oppressing them, on the one hand and preventing them any ability for nationalism or equality on the other. How come we have changed our skin and in what manner are we managing to justify it to ourselves?

This story doesn’t have good guys or bad ones, just stories that intertwine with each other.

The third point of my story concerns the time I lived abroad. During the years 2000-2007 when I lived abroad, it enabled me to get a different perspective on the life in the Middle East. I found out that there are more nations that have fought one another in this world but have found peaceful ways to live together and look forward to a better future. In 2007, at a time close to my return, I saw a video clip of an opening of a sewage pipe near the settlement Efrat. In order to do so they had to uproot an olive grove of a neighboring Arab village. The inhabitants of the village appealed to the supreme court of justice but lost the case. The video showed the picture of the exact moment that the trucks entered the grove. I saw in this video two scenarios that in my opinion closed the picture of the transformation I had been going through during the last few years. The first was a picture of the Palestinian farmers standing helpless and crying, but what caught my heart was the fact that on their side were young Israelis that were hugging them and crying together with them. I didn’t know this type of solidarity. A second picture that was engraved in my head was of the soldiers that were guarding the bulldozers, walking beside them with clubs in their hands, feeling like kings. My son was supposed to go into the army the following year and the thought of it shocked me.

It took me a while until I was able to tell this story. It took me time until I was able to explain to myself what was happening here. I am sure in the justice of our way, I know that I belong to a minority here in Israel, but we are determined. You cannot rule another nation for a long period of time and there is no way to lead a humanitarian occupation. There is no way to be evil to others without letting this evil penetrate into our lives.

I feel that we are the true bearers of the spirit of Judaism, which means that one needs to acknowledge the right of another even if they aren’t Jewish. The Israeli policy in the occupied territories has been established and based on controlling, stealing and politically oppressing another nation. The magic word for it is “security” but all these aren’t phrases of Judaism and what my country signifies at the moment towards the Palestinian people and to a big part of the world is the ugliest side of humanity.

I am not sure how most of the citizens in this country ignore the situation, and this includes some of my friends and family. How could they be more worried about the starving animals in the zoo in Gaza during the war, than the hundreds of children that were killed by us during the war? We are carrying with us the slogans of laws and security for nothing and on the West Bank, we signify the exact opposite to Judaism and Zionism.

As I understand this reality, neither side (Israeli or Palestinian) will give up; we won’t go back to Europe and they won’t leave the area. We don’t have the ability to control another nation which is half of our size, it is just not possible. Not by force, not by financial repression, and not in any other manner. And there is no way that one can hold a democratic government when under its occupation you have millions of people that don’t have equal rights. The same way that in South Africa you couldn’t have a democratic government while there was apartheid.

Controlling by force doesn’t just harm the occupied nation but the occupier as well. The violence penetrates back to us as our economy can’t strive forever, and all the values that we were educated on are trampled over in the occupied territories. We need to free ourselves from the occupation maybe even more than the Palestinians need to free themselves. We cannot be the “only enlightened democracy in the Middle East”, when people of a village that is only 10 minutes from where I live are prevented minimal human rights by my own country, just because of their origin.

Assessments of different struggles in the world always show that it ends in negotiation and some compromise.

Dezmand Tutu said “ A man is a man when he approves of others as human beings” and old Hillel said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” .

Sometimes people say that I have a gentle soul (we call it ‘Yefe Nefesh’ in Hebrew), even though this statement has become a derogatory statement to say that leftists are ‘Arab lovers’. I am actually proud of this term, exactly in the same manner that I see myself as an Israeli patriot.

Good News, Bad News, and some Intriguing Political Analysis

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There was lots of interesting news during the past several days while I took a short vacation to drive through the Galilee where, after this winter’s torrential rains, yellow and blue wildflowers cover the hillsides and some areas resemble the dark, green woods of New England. So here are three items that make for interesting reading.

Supreme Court ruling on Migron

This is good news if you care about the rule of law in Israel and the importance of enforcing Supreme Court decisions. In 2006 the court ordered that the illegal settlement of Migron be evacuated and the land be returned to its rightful Palestinian owners. This was followed by 6 years of delays and government inaction. Recently, an agreement was reached between the government and the settlers, without consulting the Palestinian landowners, that would have delayed the evacuation until 2015. Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected this agreement and unanimously ordered that Migron be demolished by August 1st. Click here for key excerpts from the justices’ decision.

Migron settlement. Credit: Reuters

Despite settler claims to the contrary, Migron was a clear-cut case. Here is a 2008 article describing an Associated Press investigation of the settlers’ claims of ownership. One of the documents presented to the court was a bill of sale by a Palestinian farmer, Abdel Latif Sumarin, that was signed and notarized in 2004. Unfortunately for the settlers, Mr. Sumarin had died over forty years earlier in 1961. The notary, who is based in California where the fictitious sale was purported to have occurred, also declared his signature was fraudulent. See the article for more details.

Of particular note, and perhaps more indicative of the attitudes behind the settlers’ actions and the government’s policies, is a reference at the very end of the article to Itay Harel, a settler who lives on that particular plot of land:

“Itay Harel, a social worker who lives on the Sumarin plot in Migron, insisted the sale was legitimate, although he refused to discuss it in detail. He also made clear that from the settlers’ perspective, the sale was beside the point.

‘This land belongs to the people of Israel, who were driven off it by force,’ Harel said, referring to the defeat and exile of the Jews by Rome in A.D. 70. He said no Palestinian had a rightful claim to any part of the West Bank.

‘Anyone who claims the land is his is lying, and it is said that if you lie enough times, you start believing it,’ he said.”

Israeli Politicians and defense officials are scrambling to figure out where to move the settlers and how to avoid a violent confrontation with their supporters. Even worse for the government, this might open the door to many other court decisions that settlements have been built on privately owned Palestinian land and must be evacuated. We can expect that the Knesset will attempt to address this issue. Today’s newspaper reported that already there are bills under consideration that stipulate “if a community [Jewish settlement] is erected on private land in good faith, after a certain number of years the rightful owner cannot evict residents but can demand compensation.” So far these bills have been blocked but Migron is a game changer.

Riot in a Shopping Mall

One week ago 300 fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team descended on the Malha Shopping Mall in Jerusalem to celebrate the team’s victory in a game. They stood on tables and chairs, screaming “Death to the Arabs” and then proceeded to attack the Arab workers in the mall.  As one shop owner said, “…they beat the hell out of them.” Arabs were hurled into shops, smashed against plate glass store windows, and chased up and down the escalators. The entire riot was captured on the closed circuit video cameras in the mall. A very large contingent of police eventually arrived 40 minutes later and cleared the mall. Then nothing was done. No one was arrested or prosecuted despite the video evidence. The media ignored the incident until the Haaretz newspaper broke the story five days later last Friday. Click here for more details.

A frame of Beitar fans in the Malha Shopping Mall taken from a video clip.

Over the weekend, the police were scrambling to do damage control, claiming there will be a thorough investigation and that the perpetrators will be prosecuted. One can only imagine the police and media response if 300 Arabs had invaded a shopping mall and then chased and beat Jewish workers.

The problem is that the lack of police follow-up is not unique. I documented a long history of police ignoring violence against Arabs in East Jerusalem in a February blog post. The situation is especially egregious in the West Bank. The human rights NGO Yesh Din reported that over 90% of police investigations into settler violence against Palestinians resulted in no indictments (97% resulted in no indictments if the crime was limited to destruction of Palestinian property). Even worse, as I reported in the February blog post about East Jerusalem, it is often the Palestinians themselves who are arrested if they file complaints. Click here for an example.

Why the Israeli public votes as it does

Here is a thought-provoking article which argues that the political status quo of the West Bank occupation is a rational choice that the Israeli public has chosen, given today’s environment. The article offers an intriguing explanation for why the Likud and Netanyahu are so popular right now, despite polls that show many Israelis would like to end the occupation.

The Negev: A Bedouin Village versus a JNF Forest

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There was a clear blue sky after many days of rain when we drove to Al-Arakib near Be’er Sheva down in the Negev. The air was cool but the sun was strong. All around us the desert was in bloom as we turned onto the dirt road, passed a small cemetery on the left and pulled up before a large three-sided Bedouin tent. In the distance I could see groves of trees on higher ground. But the surroundings around the tent were barren, just sandy ground and rocks. I was soon to find out why.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-negev-a-bedouin-village-versus-a-jnf-forest

From Africa to Tel Aviv, Part 3: Demonizing Asylum Seekers

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In my prior two posts (here and here) I described the plight of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv and how the Israeli government is not fulfilling its legal and ethical responsibility to protect their human rights. I explained how it’s not abiding by the stipulations in the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees that the first Israeli government helped develop. Instead, the current government has instituted draconian policies denying the vast majority of refugees the right to file for asylum while restricting their right to work and withholding material support. This is creating a humanitarian crisis on the streets of Tel Aviv. Hunger and hopelessness are spreading, which will affect not just the refugees themselves but will create social problems for the broader Israeli society.

In this column I will describe how the government has justified these policies by demonizing the asylum seekers and convincing the public that they are a threat to the country.

The Implications of the Words We Use

Until a few years ago, the Africans were referred to as refugees or asylum seekers. Although the government did very little for them, they were not vilified. That has now changed. Government ministers and Knesset members have begun a campaign of redefinition to call them “infiltrators,” a term that for many decades was used to describe armed Arab terrorists crossing the border from neighboring countries.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/from-africa-to-tel-aviv-part-three-demonizing-asylum-seekers/

From Africa to Tel Aviv, Part 2: Draconian Government Policies

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In my prior post I described the plight of African refugees in Levinsky Park in downtown Tel Aviv where many hundreds, ill clothed and hungry, face a record-breaking cold and rainy winter. Last week was no exception when I visited the park one night. It was chilly but thankfully it wasn’t raining.  That was about to change as a major storm was blowing in with high winds, temperatures dropping into the 40’s (Fahrenheit), and four days of hard, steady rain forecast. The refugees were standing in line for a meal of soup and bread, the only food for many of them all day. Most were wearing sweatshirts and light jackets, some with hoods. Some had thin blankets wrapped around their bodies and over their heads.

This situation will only get worse as more asylum seekers, fleeing war in Sudan and persecution in Eritrea, cross the Israeli border. For years now the Israeli government has ricocheted between periods of draconian policies targeting the refugees and periods of simply ignoring the problem.  Now the number of refugees has grown too large to ignore – an estimated 40,000+ asylum seekers – and the government is instituting the most oppressive refugee policies in its history.  The objective is to make life so unbearable that others won’t follow in their footsteps.

To read more about the government’s response to this crisis, see http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/from-africa-to-tel-aviv-part-two-draconian-government-policies .

From Africa to Tel Aviv, Part 1

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It was 6:45 a.m. when I arrived at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, across from the central bus station. I was bundled up in a coat, scarf, ski hat, and gloves, opening and closing my black umbrella every few minutes as the rain started and stopped.

The refugees were just getting up. In the playground shielded by a large tarpaulin stretched high above to offer shade in hot weather, the men were rolling up their blankets and sleeping paraphernalia, piling them up in a big pile under some clear plastic sheeting to keep them dry. When I walked onto the playground I saw the play surface was old and soggy with large scattered holes. Later I learned that large rats live down there which come out at night, sometimes biting the refugees sleeping there.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/from-africa-to-tel-aviv-part-1/

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