Some Interesting Facts…

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Although many are finding fault with all sides for the breakdown of the Kerry negotiations – we are in the blame game period – I just encountered a critical piece of information. Peace Now (Shalom Achshav) in Israel, the premier monitor of settlement construction in the West Bank, just released a summary of settlement planning and construction activity that took place over the Green Line during the 9 months of the Kerry negotiations. Here is an excerpt (bold type is from the original):

During the 9 months of Secretary Kerry’s efforts in the region, the Netanyahu Government promoted plans and tenders for at least 13,851 housing units in the settlements and East Jerusalem – an average of 50 units per day and 1,540 units per month.

The 13,851 units include:

1 – Tenders for 4,868 units – 2,248 of them in West Bank settlements and 2,620 units in East Jerusalem. (There were also tenders for another 1,235 units in re-issued tenders, where the tenders are calls for bids to buy units that weren’t sold in previous tenders).

2 – Promotion of plans for 8,983 units – 6,561 of them in West Bank settlements and 2,422 in East Jerusalem.

The average yearly number of tenders was 4 times higher compared to previous years.

 Doubling the number of construction Starts:

According to the Israeli CBS data, in the second half of year 2013, some 828 new units were started to be built in the settlements, while at the equivalent time in 2012, only 484 units started. (the CBS data does not include the first three months of 2014).

Click here to read the full report with additional statistics.

This new construction also included legalizing some previously “illegal” settlements and the establishment of new ones. Assuming an average family of 4 for each housing unit (this is a conservative figure for settlers), these 13,851 new housing units would ultimately mean an additional 55,400 people living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – roughly a 10% population increase from just nine months of planning activity.

From the perspective of Palestinian towns and villages, where residents have seen Israeli settlements sprout like mushrooms on the surrounding hilltops while their farmland is taken and their lives further impoverished and restricted, this increased settlement activity created intolerable facts on the ground. Although some blame can be apportioned to all sides, it is no wonder that the Palestinian leadership found it politically impossible to continue and finally gave up, choosing instead to pursue other avenues.

As Peace Now stated in their summary of the report, “[This settlement activity showed] …not only that the construction and the announcements of settlements were destructive for the American efforts and for the faith between the two sides, it also created facts on the ground that proved more than anything else that the Netanyahu Government did not mean to go for a two state solution but rather acted in order to strengthen the Israeli control over the Occupied Territories.” 

It is facts and actions like this that will provide traction for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Supporters of Israel will have less and less credibility to counter that.

 

 

 

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Gatekeepers

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Run, don’t walk, to see the academy-award nominated Israeli film “Gatekeepers,” slated for release in the USA today. Go with your friends to see it, especially those on the right or in the center – or those who may not be familiar with what has occurred in Israel these past decades.

The film consists of interviews with all six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who are still alive. These men were responsible for intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza, for fighting terrorism, for helping to put down the intifadas, and for enforcing the occupation. Their knowledge and insight are unequaled. They are not naïve about the threats that Israel faces but their comments are gripping.

The film addresses two main topics. The first deals with the moral quandaries of fighting terror and trying to save Israeli lives. They describe in excruciating detail the choices they had to make, understanding the line they were walking. Their statements are illustrated with archival footage of past events, including videos of rocket attacks on vehicles carrying terror suspects along with graphic images of the aftermath of terror attacks, which bring to life the dilemmas and challenges they faced.

But the emphasis of the latter part of the film is even more enlightening. Uniformly they castigate the political leadership of Israel for lacking strategic vision, for concentrating on short-term tactics without paying attention to the long-term ramifications. These men dealt with all the political leaders for decades, on both the right and the left, and they are unsparing in their criticism. They, who were charged with enforcing the occupation, oppose it and believe that Israel is headed for disaster.

There have been some excellent reviews of the film. I recommend this one from The American Prospect by Jerusalem-based Gershom Gorenberg, the leading historian of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and author of one of the best recent books about Israel “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg does a good job of putting the film into a larger political and historical context.

This weekend’s Daily Jewish Forward also reviewed the film but offered some fascinating additional background. (Click here to the read the full article.) The perspective of these former Shin Bet directors can best be summed up by these observations from J.J. Goldberg, the reviewer:

Yes, they say, we abused suspects and killed bystanders. Our job was to stop terrorists, and we did. But they insist Israel has another option. It can extricate itself from the endless cycle of terrorism and repression by negotiating peace with the Palestinians and ending its occupation of the West Bank.

It’s possible, they say. There is a partner on the other side that’s prepared for peaceful coexistence. Israel tells itself there’s no partner only because its leaders don’t want to give up the territories. They’re barreling toward disaster.

Again, these are not leftist Israel-haters talking. They’re the heads of Israel’s security service, the men tasked with penetrating the Palestinian mind, knowing what to expect and how to respond. That’s why it’s hard to watch. If you’ve spent a lifetime hearing that Israel desires only peace but its enemies are sworn to its destruction, this turns your world upside-down.

But the Forward reviewer goes beyond a typical review. He actually checked if the film accurately portrayed the opinions of these men or if the truth was left on the cutting room floor.

I phoned a couple of the security veterans who appear in the film. Did the film accurately reflect their views, I asked, or were they distorted by the filmmaker’s agenda?

“It completely reflects my views,” said Yaakov Peri, who headed the agency from 1988 to 1994. “We discuss these things among ourselves. We all agree.” Peri reminds me, as he’s told me before, that every ex-Mossad chief and most former army chiefs feel the same way.

But wouldn’t the film have been better if it concentrated on moral dilemmas and avoided politics? “If it had, there would have been no point to the film,” said Ami Ayalon, who headed the agency from 1995 to 2000.

“The six of us reached our opinions from different personal backgrounds and different political outlooks, but we’ve all reached the same conclusion,” Ayalon said. “Many Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional opinion. We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”

Like I said, run to see this film. Tell your friends to go. These men have credibility that few can equal. Maybe it will help lead to change.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

The Palestinian Security Services and a Third Intifada?

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One of the only success stories of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Israeli government has been the American-backed Palestinian National Security Services, a uniformed security force of the Palestinian Authority. Since 2005 at a base in Jordan, the US government has spent hundreds of million of dollars training thousands of officers who were then stationed throughout Area A, the parts of the West Bank under exclusive Palestinian control. (Click here and scroll down a bit for descriptions of Areas A, B, and C.)

In partnership with the Palestinian Civil Police, the Israeli army and the Shin Bet, the security service has thwarted terrorist attacks, uncovered weapons labs and arrested suspects, disbanded armed gangs, and contained demonstrations against both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli policies. Despite criticism of some of its tactics and goals, it has restored a sense of law and order to the major Palestinian cities, where not too long ago anarchy reigned, and close coordination with Israeli authorities have helped create a sense of safety and calm in Israel.

But recent policies by the Israeli government threaten this security cooperation.  In a post on the Daily Beast titled “The Future Of Palestinian-Israeli Security Cooperation,” columnist Dan Fleshler alleges that Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation is on the verge of falling apart.

Palestinian Authority security forces, trained in Jordan with American assistance, have been protecting Israeli lives and ignoring derisive claims that they are collaborators not because they want to collect salaries; instead, they want to build an institution necessary for statehood and to allay Israeli fears about relinquishing the West Bank. Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority advisor, told me that the work of the security services “was predicated on a path leading to liberation and a new state. Soon, very soon, if it is clear that is not happening, they will feel like suckers enforcing the occupation, and this security regime—like the Palestinian Authority itself—could dissolve.”

In the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary, Gatekeepers, – a must-see film slated for a February 1st release in the USA – a former director of the Shin Bet states that he was  given the same warning by a senior level Palestinian official.

Ynetnews.com reported in December that “The IDF and the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have been enjoying a relatively good operational relationship over the past few years, but military sources told Ynet Tuesday that cracks have been appearing in the security relations’ proverbial veneer.”

Although cooperation mostly continues for now, the article went on to report what is happening in the face of rising demonstrations in the West bank.

Sources on both sides agreed that the Palestinian security forces are stepping up their vigilance vis-à-vis rioters in the need to restore order to the Palestinian street – and not necessarily their desire to cooperate with Israel.

The Palestinian leadership is livid with Israel over the government’s decision to suspend the transfer of levies to Ramallah, as a significant part of the taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA fund its security forces. The suspension, prompted by the UN’s status upgrade, has resulted in delayed wages.

“If the troops think that they’re not going to get paid, we’ll have a serious problem on our hand. It will affect everything, including the security collaboration,” a Palestinian source told Ynet.”

An Israeli official expressed the same concern, adding that the PA is in dire financial straits.

It is not only Israel that is withholding funds. The US Congress has prevented the transfer of $450 million in budgeted US aid. That would close the $400 million fiscal gap that the Palestinian Authority faces as it runs out of money to pay for salaries and basic services.  In a rational world withholding these funds would seem absurd given that only Hamas would gain from the demise of the Palestinian Authority. But it seems that Congress has its own political logic.

In my first blog column last week since returning to Israel, I posted comments by a senior level IDF commander on the West Bank and a former director of the Shin Bet who both stated that a third intifada was about to start, or already had. So far these are mostly demonstrations protesting arrests, theft of Palestinian lands, or settler attacks. The Israeli army often reacts violently – last week 53 Palestinians were injured in these clashes. How much worse will that be if the Palestinian security services are no longer willing or able to cooperate with Israel? What will happen if the situation on the West Bank continues to deteriorate to the point where the populace reaches the point of desperation, where it feels it has nothing to lose?

The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) held a conference call  in December with Colonel P.J. Dermer  and Steven White, former advisers to the American-backed training program of the  Palestinian National Security Services. They recently returned from a trip to the region where they met with senior level Palestinian and Israeli officials. I have pasted in below some of their comments but first I offer a few caveats. These are American officials so their perspective is American centric. Also, the situation is changing daily on the West Bank and recent developments – Palestinian statehood recognition by the UN, the massive Israeli response of constructing 9,000 additional housing units over the Green Line, the deteriorating economic situation, and the continuing settler and IDF violence against Palestinians and their property  – may have consequences that are hard to foresee. Let’s keep in mind that the first intifada in the 1980’s was a spontaneous uprising, catching leaders and observers on all sides by surprise.

Colonel P.J. Dermer: Good security cooperation cannot carry the day, cannot make peace, cannot be the deciding factor, and we’re starting to see the results of where you have great security cooperation over the last few years now run head-on into a moribund diplomatic and political peace process.

Steven White: But let me just say I think setting the stage, and I think P.J. [Colonel Dermer] would agree with me that the overarching theme, if you will, that we took away from our trip was the absolute hunger for American leadership on this issue. We heard from officials on the ground from both Israelis, including senior IDF, senior Ministry of Defense, Shin Bet, and senior political officers within the Palestinian security services, and then some old friends from the Quartet and the U.N., [that American leadership] is lacking.

There is no American influence on the ground as we speak. And that’s not myself or P.J. just talking. That’s directly what we heard from our interlocutors…. I came away with a distinct feeling that they enjoyed talking with us because they felt it was the first time that they were talking to Americans in a long time who actually understood the breadth of the problem and thus, you know, the realities of what they were having to deal with day in, day out, on the ground.

 You know, with respect to the third intifada question, I personally do not think that we are right now on the verge of the outbreak of a third intifada.

But I have a to caveat that. The caveat is that, quite literally, when you look at the economic situation in the West Bank, the lack of a political horizon, the lack of U.S. diplomatic engagement, you know, the state of affairs within the Israeli body politic, upcoming elections, the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud– Pillar of Defense, whatever you would like to call it, you know, and the slight uptick now on the dignity factor vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza — all of the embers for the eruption of a third intifada are there. Everything is in place for one to erupt.

But it hasn’t yet. So, the question, I think, before us, but even more so, before our administration, is, you know, do we act now while these embers are embering, you know, to try and stop it before it happens, do we try and stop it after it erupts, or are we just going to sit back and let it burn?

…. we need to stem the bleeding on the economic situation in the West Bank. It’s probably the most dire now that I’ve ever seen it.

…my personal opinion is that basically the Obama Administration decided to pull chocks on this problem set after the reaction it got from both Congress and the Senate, and also Bibi Netanyahu in the White House in May of 2011. Then we heard from a senior official in a closed forum that that was exactly the case, that the president had basically said, he gave it a good shot but people weren’t interested. So, he was basically walking away, punting the ball to the Quartet and that he would focus on his reelection.

Obviously, you’ve seen what’s happened with Congress. Up to now they’ve continued supporting security financially, but they shut off a good bit of money that was related to basically the Palestinian people on the West Bank.

So, I think we’ve all got to ask ourselves a question: Are we better off with a functioning Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that says it believes in the two-state solution or are we willing to let it die? And that’s a question that I’ve not seen Congress legitimately ask itself. And it’s not one that I’ve seen the administration vocally ask.

IPF Interviewer: Well, P.J., do you agree with this? Do you think the economic is front and center? 

Colonel P.J. Dermer: To a degree, yes. I mean, let me add it to your question and tie it in to the question about intifada. I mean, it’s worse, in a way, because the PA is, again, not functioning. Fayyad [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad] intended with this great, grand gesture announcement about three years ago now, and for myriad reasons — you know most of them — it is affecting the status of play in the Palestinian security services, because they are feeling the pinch for salaries, budgets, logistics, operating capabilities, i.e., they can’t put all their vehicles on the road, they can’t refuel all their vehicles in a timely manner right now, according to some of the commanders we talked to.

So, in a sense of the Palestinian Authority not being able to operate economically, that is now delving down into the issue of how the Palestinian security services operate.

Well, in their eyes, it’s to keep law and order but not necessarily for the state of Israel. They have their own issues to worry about. If they can’t perform their functions as they’re supposed to, as a burgeoning nation state, then what is the exact role of the Palestinian security service?

They do have a good reputation in the West Bank. That’s a positive development in U.S. history, but at the end of the day, they’re not there to fight Palestinians. They’re there to keep basic law and order. And this is a burgeoning dilemma, with or without the economic situation, but with the economic situation pressing on them, it adds to the dilemma in the West Bank.

The general populace, though, I will argue, still remains pretty apathetic because they don’t see where it’s getting them. You know, two intifadas (inaudible) for them. There’s nowhere else to go. 

Steven White: I met with a former– well, still current IDF, but now he’s in the Ministry of Defense, who had always played his cards very close to the bone when it came to discussing the actions of his government vis-a-vis the actions of the IDF or the Defense Ministry or the Shin Bet.

This time, it was wholly different, and he began the conversation with, well, it appears my government’s doing everything it can to put a bullet through the head of [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority without any thought whatsoever as to what follows.

The security officials, along with past guys like myself and others, are arguing that, you know– I’m sorry, let me put it another way: We asked a senior IDF general, you know, just what was it that we accomplished, really, from 2007 to probably 2010? 

And his answer was, “My job was to tactically set the ground where my government, the government of Israel, could negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife against its neck. He continued that I consider that I successfully delivered that. With American help, with Palestinian help, we delivered that. But unfortunately, my government has not chosen to take the strategic, long-term view or to build upon that,” end of quote.

 …. if you look back to 2008, and the operation in Gaza then, the West Bank was relatively a yawn. The IDF pulled out two brigades from the West Bank to send to Gaza. 

 The economic situation on the ground was beginning to thrive. There was a political horizon. People were at the negotiations table, you know? And the response in the West Bank to what was happening in Gaza was virtually nothing.

 You look at what happened now– the economics are in the toilet. There is no political process. There is no political horizon. And is it any wonder that people would roll themselves back to the dignity thing with regard to the supposed great victories that Hamas won for the dignity of the Palestinian people, when everything else is missing to counteract that argument?

For the full interview transcript, go to http://www.israelpolicyforum.org/interview/pj-dermer-and-steven-white-west-bank-security-situation

The West Bank in Israel

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Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

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 from 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 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?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

The Transformation of an Israeli Soldier

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This column is part of a series of narratives that offers insight into the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This story is drawn from the archives of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants who are committed to non-violence and ending the occupation. In the past month I have posted several other narratives here, here, and here.

The narrative below is from Chen Alon who is a theater director and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Chen served for four years in the Israeli army and then for 11 years as an operations officer in the reserves. Later, he refused to serve in the occupied territories and as a result served time in jail. The turning point for him was when he was ordered to participate in the demolition of a Palestinian home because it lacked a building permit. For background on this aspect of the occupation, click here to read a recent post.

 

My grandfather immigrated to Palestine before the Second World War because he was a Zionist.  He was the only member of his family to escape the gas chambers of Poland, and so I was brought up with the belief that Zionism literally saved my family. It was not a theoretical concept. I believed that our Jewish state was surrounded by enemies who wanted to destroy us and that men like my father, who fought in the 1967 war, were there to protect us. However, when my father came back from the Yom Kippur war in 1973, he was deeply psychologically damaged and from a very young age I was exposed to his trauma. I went into the army wishing to fix things, but instead I got locked into the same cycle.

I was drafted in 1987 at the beginning of the First Intifada. I call myself an “occupation scholar” because I was sent everywhere and did everything. The most difficult thing of all was the arrests.  One night I remember we had to meet an agent from the security forces to find a wanted terrorist.  My men surrounded a house and as we entered with our flash lights I saw people sleeping on mattresses all over the floor. Then I saw the agent wake someone up and take them to the jeep. It was a 10-year-old child. ‘Can this be the wanted terrorist?’ I asked myself.

Then, in 2001, came the Second Intifada, when Palestinians used arms, not stones. I knew as a reservist I would now be called to respond with tanks, not batons. The strategy was to siege and block everything. The Palestinian villages became like prisons, with one main exit in and out. On one occasion I was at a roadblock being asked to allow a taxi full of sick Palestinian children, who didn’t have a permit, through to the hospital in Bethlehem. At the same time, I got a phone call from my wife who told me she was having problems picking up our three-year-old daughter from kindergarten. So there I was, standing on a sand blockade talking to my wife, while sick Palestinians were waiting in the car, and suddenly I couldn’t bear it any more: on the one hand being a kind, devoted father, and on the other hand being so callous with these people. Were these children nothing more than potential terrorists? My children were human, and yet we had dehumanized the Palestinian children. I began to realize that in the de-humanizing of the other, you begin to de-humanize yourself.

That night we got the order to demolish a Palestinian house. I presumed it must belong to a terrorist, but in fact we were demolishing it because the owner had built an illegal balcony. This is how a civil legal mission becomes a military operation. We came with two platoons, a bulldozer and three tanks, and not surprisingly the operation deteriorated into a fierce battle, with the local Mosque calling people to defend the house and to rise up against the Israeli invasion. It was a crazy situation. I knew from then on that this was the last time I could do such a thing. And when I heard about reservist officers and combatant soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories, I signed their petition. Over the course of two years we became very active trying to convince Israeli society that the occupation was wrong. We wanted to initiate civil disobedience.

When I decided to publish my name as a refusnik, I went to warn my parents because I knew it would be a big scandal. My mother’s reaction was to say, ‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ I thought this was strange because in the army I’d been under constant attack and in far more danger. There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.

Then one day I was in Ramallah telling my story to Palestinians and a person in the audience asked me directly, ‘Are you asking us to forgive you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t forgive myself, nor do I ask for forgiveness.’ For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions – it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression. Israelis need to take responsibility for the Nakba of 1948, just as the Palestinians need to take responsibility for the crazy strategy of suicide attacks.

Strange Comrades: Gershom Gorenberg and Israeli Singing Star Noa

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What would the Talmud say about the suppression of public debate over Israeli policies in the American Jewish community? This is the question posed by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg in “An Open Letter to American Rabbis” in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. Gorenberg , who made aliyah 35 years ago, wrote “The Unmaking of Israel,” a highly readable book chock full of facts that make a powerful case that the occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israeli democracy. But in this Letter, he shifts his attention to America and expands on a theme that Peter Beinart focused on in his recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” – the stifling of criticism in the American Jewish community about Israeli government policies. But Gorenberg uses an interesting twist, drawing on a Talmudic text to illustrate that healthy debate is an essential part of the Jewish tradition and that limiting debate undermines that heritage.

Along similar lines, a controversy has recently erupted around the Israeli singing star Achinoam Nini, also known as Noa, for her participation in an alternative Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) commemoration on April 24th. Last weekend she posted a moving column which illustrates what can happen to public figures in Israel today who dare to act contrary to the expectations of the right-wing ideologues. (I attended the event where Noa performed and wrote about it in a short blog post on April 25.)

I wish it were possible for every rabbi and Jewish communal leader in America to read these columns by Gorenberg and Noa. It might lead to more open and informative conversations.

Home Demolitions: A Challenge to Israel’s Moral Credibility

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“I still remember the day the Israelis destroyed our house. It was the last day of Ramadan…. Suddenly we heard some noise outside, and when my father looked out from the window, he saw the Israeli tanks in front of our building. I started crying and shouting. I knew they came to kill us….” Young Palestinian boy before his home was demolished

Of all the policies of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, home demolitions are one of the most disturbing. Since the year 2000, almost four thousand Palestinian homes, farm structures and other buildings were wrecked. These were “administrative demolitions,” having nothing to do with security or war. Last year, over one-thousand men, women and children were made homeless when their homes were destroyed along with most of their belongings. These demolitions occur without prior notice. There is just a knock on the door, sometimes even in the middle of the night as happened in the village of Anata last winter. The soldiers and bulldozers are outside, and the residents are ordered to evacuate immediately. Sometimes they are given a few minutes to grab whatever belongings they can. Sometimes they are prevented from doing so. Whatever is left behind is destroyed, buried under the rubble.

West Bank Palestinian house before it was demolished. See below for after demolition.

The result is a total loss of the most important asset the family has. Most of these families are poor to begin with. The demolition completes their impoverishment, leading to a psychological trauma with lasting physical and mental health impacts. And to add insult to injury, they often are fined tens of thousands of shekels to pay for the cost of the demolition.

West Bank house pictured above after it was destroyed.

This destruction occurs because Palestinians have constructed or renovated their homes, farms, and businesses without obtaining building permits. The catch-22 they face is that it is almost impossible for them to obtain building permits.

Some readers may find this information troubling.  Which brings up the question of why I am writing about this material at all.  My hope is that readers will forward this information on so as to inform as many others as possible about these practices. This is how pressure can be brought to bear on American and Israeli government and community leaders to take action to change these practices.

Background on Demolitions

The West Bank is divided into three areas.

  • Area A: 18% of the West Bank land. Under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority.
  • Area B: 21% of the land. Under joint Israeli-Palestinian control. Israel and the Palestinian Authority jointly control the security and law enforcement in this area while the Palestinian Authority controls certain administrative functions.
  • Area C: 61% of the land. Under the complete control of Israel.

In addition there is East Jerusalem, the eastern half of the city that was conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. This, along with 28 nearby Palestinian villages, was annexed into the Jerusalem municipality immediately after the war, becoming part of Israel.

Palestinian administered Areas A and B are divided among 200 separate communities, the vast majority of which are less than one square mile in size. All of these areas are separated by Israeli controlled Area C land. Thus the parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority are fragmented, discontinuous enclaves that inhibit effective governance and economic development. The map looks like Swiss cheese. Most of the vacant land near communities that would normally be used for the natural expansion of villages is designated as Area C, unavailable to the Palestinian residents living right next to it.

Map of the West Bank showing Palestinian administered Areas A & B (beige color) and Israeli controlled Area C (Brown color). Notice how Palestinian controlled areas are isolated, discontinuous enclaves.

Israeli policies prohibit Palestinians from building in Area C. New construction must conform to the master development plans that are produced by Israeli authorities. Unfortunately, Palestinian communities have been left out of the master plans so Palestinian construction is permitted in just 1% of Area C.

In East Jerusalem, the situation is slightly better. Palestinians are allowed to build on 13% of the land. However, that land is already densely populated with little room for new construction. Plus, although technically they are allowed to apply for a building permit, bureaucratic procedures are onerous, expensive, and entail lengthy delays (sometimes years).

94% of building permit applications in Area C and East Jerusalem have been rejected in recent years. The result is that housing becomes overcrowded and unlivable as families grow, businesses cannot expand, and Palestinian villages cannot legally build even essential infrastructure to meet their communities’ basic needs.

Demolitions occur because Palestinians build or renovate existing structures without building permits. Even major repairs, such as replacing an old leaky roof, requires a building permit. For individual Palestinians, the choice they face is to give up their homes and move to Area A, or to build and take the chance they will avoid demolition. Most choose the latter because they don’t want to leave their homes within a close-knit community of social and family ties.

Ruins of West Bank house demolished in 2012.

In addition to Palestinians, 510,000 Jewish Israelis live beyond the Green Line, the former Israeli border before the 1967 Six-Day War. Of these, about 200,000 live in large and rapidly expanding Jewish neighborhoods that ring the outskirts of East Jerusalem, creating a barrier between Palestinian neighborhoods and the rest of the West Bank. See a previous blog post to visualize this better.

The remaining 310,000 Jewish settlers live in Area C in 250 Jewish settlements, of which about 100 were illegally built according to Israeli law. Large numbers of additional illegal housing units each year are constructed without building permits on Palestinian claimed land. Despite their being illegal, the government connects them to the electric grid and water system, builds access roads, provides army protection, and residents enjoy all the benefits of Israeli citizenship. The neighboring Palestinians in Area C have few of these benefits and are governed under a separate military and judicial system.

Home Demolitions in Area C

This year through April 17, the United Nations reported 209 structures were destroyed – 25 were demolished just last week – making 418 people homeless (click here to download the latest weekly report of demolitions, plus political-related violence and injuries, in the West Bank). Here is a recent example of a home demolition described in the April 16th edition of Haaretz.

“On Monday, March 26, 2012, darkness fell on Khabis Sawaftah’s family. While the family members were busy with their morning tasks, two bulldozers, 12 vehicles from the Civil Administration, Border Police personnel and about 40 additional soldiers descended upon them, ordering them out of their home. Khabis, his wife and their five children stood 20 meters away, with the soldiers standing between them and their house. The family watched Civil Administration personnel dump their belongings – sacks of lentils and rice, blankets and mattresses, schoolbooks and clothing – all tossed around as if they were garbage.”

It took 40 minutes to demolish Khabis’s home. He is a poor farm worker tending groves of date palms. After the demolition, the Red Cross provided his family with a small plastic tent. Other than that, they were left on their own. The Jewish reporter who wrote this story described Khabis’s 13 year-old son looking at her with intense hatred since she belonged to the people who destroyed his life.

The pace of demolitions is rapidly increasing. In 2009, 275 structures were demolished, including 116 homes. In 2011, the number doubled to 622 structures demolished, including 222 homes.

Human rights organizations allege that home demolitions are just one piece of a larger strategy to force all Palestinians out of Area C to the isolated, urban cantonments in Area A controlled by the Palestinian Authority or to leave the West Bank entirely. This would make room for the uninhibited expansion of Jewish settlements where construction continues at a rapid pace. In many cases, home demolitions occur within sight of construction in Jewish settlements – Click here to see a video of an example.

The Aftermath of Demolitions

Thousands of Palestinian homes are issued demolition orders. However, it can take years, even decades, before they are actually demolished. This leads to a life of prolonged stress and uncertainty, culminating in a traumatic event when the army and bulldozers show up without advance notice. Demolitions lead to prolonged homelessness or moving away. Those with large enough social networks often break up their families by dispersing members among far-flung relatives and friends for long periods. This leads to psychological and physical health issues for the children and parents, affects school performance, and destroys the family’s integrity. The devastating financial loss of the physical home and their belongings can never be recovered.

“There was no opportunity to remove our furniture,” recalled Ahmad, “and we had 15 minutes to get our important papers. It was so difficult – we had no recourse, no court [of appeal], no choice but to see our home demolished. That night we slept in the street, since the soldiers turned the place into a closed military area. [Afterwards], we stayed with family and the neighbors – by god, we spread ourselves between aunts and uncles. The family was dispersed, and this deeply affected us.”

“One of the most difficult things [to experience] is to be in a house, then to be on the pavement. How can this be true? There is no clothing, no money…There is no money to buy anything.”

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Click the links below to watch two short videos about demolitions.

and

Punitive Demolitions

A widespread perception is that houses are demolished because terrorist suspects or wanted persons were living there. The objective is to create a deterrent. In fact, after 1,500 homes were destroyed for this reason since 1983, the army stopped these demolitions in 2005 because they concluded the strategy was ineffective. Besides destroying the lives of thousands of people, without trial and without proving culpability (many families did not realize someone living with them was involved with terrorism or that the person was wanted for other non-violent opposition activities), these demolitions also were a form of collective punishment which is prohibited by international law.

A Concluding Narrative

Since it is the human element that makes the policy of home demolitions so unsettling, I will end with a narrative about Manal, a pregnant woman with five children who was renting an apartment in East Jerusalem near her parents. Her story includes many typical characteristics of demolitions.

“It was November 2008,” recalls Manal. “I was six months pregnant with my youngest child. On that morning I was having breakfast at my parent’s house and my daughters…were at school. I received a phone call at about 10:00 a.m. from one of my neighbors saying: ‘Come home! They’re about to demolish your house.’ I didn’t believe her but left my mother’s house and ran back to my house. On the way back, I saw many police and soldiers around the house. There were perhaps five jeeps and about 30 police and soldiers standing around the house. The owner of the house [the landlord] was arguing with them, saying that he was waiting for the [court] paper to stop the demolition. But then, after about an hour of waiting, two bulldozers that were there started to demolish the house….”

“Everything that I owned was in the house, my clothes and the girl’s clothes, school books, kitchen things, and most importantly, medical records and equipment for my daughter, Hayat (13), who suffers from a heart condition.  I begged the soldiers to allow them to let me take my personal possessions out of the house. I said I don’t care about the house, that I only wanted my things,” remembers Manal. “They refused to let me into the house, but they sent some men in who took out a few things – a couple of couch beds, a refrigerator and the TV, which were the first things they would have seen when they walked in. They just threw them out of the house – breaking the legs on the couch beds. I couldn’t do anything about it. – I had a severe headache and felt like I couldn’t walk.”

“It took about an hour-and-a-half for the Israelis and their bulldozers to destroy the house. The whole house collapsed on top of our things so we couldn’t get anything else out…. My daughters found out that their home had been demolished on their way home from school….”

…The family had to move back in with Manal’s parents. “It was very crowded,” she says, “and my husband didn‘t want to come and visit us there because there was no space. Me and my daughters slept in one room, the living room. It was very difficult. My children’s school performance suffered – they couldn’t study because there was no space and too much noise with so many people. The only person working in the house was my brother who supported us all,” says Manal.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

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