Monthly Archives: July 2010

The “Summer Camp Of Destruction:” Israeli High Schoolers Assist The Razing Of A Bedouin Town

AL-ARAKIB, ISRAEL — On July 26, Israeli police demolished 45 buildings in the unrecognized Bedouin village of al-Arakib, razing the entire village to the ground to make way for a Jewish National Fund forest. The destruction was part of a larger project to force the Bedouin community of the Negev away from their ancestral lands and into seven Indian reservation-style communities the Israeli government has constructed for them. The land will then be open for Jewish settlers, including young couples in the army and those who may someday be evacuated from the West Bank after a peace treaty is signed. For now, the Israeli government intends to uproot as many villages as possible and erase them from the map by establishing “facts on the ground” in the form of JNF forests. (See video of of al-Arakib’s demolition here).

“]Israeli high school age police volunteers lounge on furniture taken from an al-Arakib family's home. All photos by Ata Abu Madyam of Arab Negev News.

Moments before the destruction of the Bedouin village of al-Arakib, Israeli high school age police volunteers lounge on furniture taken from a family's home. [The following four photos are by Ata Abu Madyam of Arab Negev News.

One of the most troubling aspects of the destruction of al-Arakib was a report by CNN that the hundreds of Israeli riot police who stormed the village were accompanied by “busloads of cheering civilians.” Who were these civilians and why didn’t CNN or any outlet investigate further?

I traveled to al-Arakib yesterday with a delegation from Ta’ayush, an Israeli group that promotes a joint Arab-Jewish struggle against the occupation. The activists spent the day preparing games and activities for the village’s traumatized children, helping the villagers replace their uprooted olive groves, and assisting in the reconstruction of their demolished homes. In a massive makeshift tent where many of al-Arakib’s residents now sleep, I interviewed village leaders about the identity of the cheering civilians. Each one confirmed the presence of the civilians, describing how they celebrated the demolitions. As I compiled details, the story grew increasingly horrific. After interviewing more than a half dozen elders of the village, I was able to finally identify the civilians in question. What I discovered was more disturbing than I had imagined.

Israeli police volunteers go through the belongings an al-Arakib family

Israeli police youth volunteers pick through the belongings an al-Arakib family

Arab Negev News publisher Ata Abu Madyam supplied me with a series of photos he took of the civilians in action. They depicted Israeli high school students who appeared to have volunteered as members of the Israeli police civilian guard (I am working on identifying some participants by name). Prior to the demolitions, the student volunteers were sent into the villagers’ homes to extract their furniture and belongings. A number of villagers including Abu Madyam told me the volunteers smashed windows and mirrors in their homes and defaced family photographs with crude drawings. Then they lounged around on the furniture of al-Arakib residents in plain site of the owners. Finally, according to Abu Matyam, the volunteers celebrated while bulldozers destroyed the homes.

“What we learned from the summer camp of destruction,” Abu Madyam remarked, “is that Israeli youth are not being educated on democracy, they are being raised on racism.” (The cover of the latest issue of Madyam’s Arab Negev News features a photo of Palestinians being expelled to Jordan in 1948 juxtaposed with a photo of a family fleeing al-Arakib last week. The headline reads, “Nakba 2010.”)

According to residents of al-Arakib, the youth volunteers vandalized village homes

According to residents of al-Arakib, the youth volunteers vandalized homes throughout the village

The Israeli civilian guard, which incorporates 70,000 citizens including youth as young as 15 (about 15% of Israeli police volunteers are teenagers), is one of many programs designed to incorporate Israeli children into the state’s military apparatus. It is not hard to imagine what lessons the high school students who participated in the leveling of al-Arakib took from their experience, nor is it especially difficult to predict what sort of citizens they will become once they reach adulthood. Not only are they being indoctrinated to swear blind allegiance to the military, they are learning to treat the Arab outclass as less than human. The volunteers’ behavior toward Bedouins, who are citizens of Israel and serve loyally in Israeli army combat units despite widespread racism, was strikingly reminiscent of the behavior of settler youth in Hebron who pelt Palestinian shopkeepers in the old city with eggs, rocks and human waste. If there is a distinction between the two cases, it is that the Hebron settlers act as vigilantes while the teenagers of Israeli civilian guard vandalize Arab property as agents of the state.

The spectacle of Israeli youth helping destroy al-Arakib helps explain why 56% of Jewish Israeli high school students do not believe Arabs should be allowed to serve in the Knesset – why the next generation wants apartheid. Indeed, the widespread indoctrination of Israeli youth by the military apparatus is a central factor in Israel’s authoritarian trend. It would be difficult for any adolescent boy to escape from an experience like al-Arakib, where adults in heroic warrior garb encourage him to participate in and gloat over acts of massive destruction, with even a trace of democratic values.

Youth volunteers extract belongings from village homes as bulldozers move in

Youth volunteers extract belongings from village homes as bulldozers move in

As for the present condition of Israeli democracy, it is essential to consider the way in which the state pits its own citizens against one another, enlisting the Jewish majority as conquerers while targeting the Arab others as, in the words of Zionist founding father Chaim Weizmann, “obstacles that had to be cleared on a difficult path.” Historically, only failing states have encouraged such corrosive dynamics to take hold. That is why the scenes from al-Arakib, from the demolished homes to the uprooted gardens to the grinning teens who joined the mayhem, can be viewed as much more than the destruction of a village. They are snapshots of the phenomenon that is laying Israeli society as a whole to waste.

After the youth clear out the homes, the police move in...

...and the destruction begins

...and the destruction begins

IDF Report Confirming Goldstone’s Key Findings Is Suppressed Inside Israel

An IDF report quietly submitted to the UN two weeks ago confirms shelling a UN compound with white phosphorous shells

An IDF report quietly submitted to the UN two weeks ago acknowledges the IDF's shelling of a UN compound with white phosphorous shells. Previous Israeli reports denied such instances occurred.

A report quietly submitted by IDF Military Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit to the United Nations two weeks ago regarding Israel’s conduct during Operation Cast Lead confirms the key findings of the Goldstone Report. The report (full version here), which documents 150 ongoing investigations, has outraged the Israeli Army. “It looks as though they were frightened by Goldstone,” remarked an IDF officer. Another military official expressed anger that after a previous IDF report asserting the legality of shelling civilian areas with white phosphorous, a chemical weapon, the Mandelblit report has issued recommendations limiting the munition’s use. “It looks like tying your own hands behind your back. Why should a weapon with which there is no problem be limited?” the official asked.

Mandelblit’s confirmation of the IDF’s use of white phosphorous in Gaza against a UN compound is one of his report’s most remarkable admissions. He has directly contradicted a lie told over and over again to the Israeli public in the immediate aftermath of Cast Lead, and repeated in an April 2009 IDF report, that “no phosphorous munitions were used on built-up areas.”

Discussion of white phosphorous use is buried in the body of the report, on page 21 in a section on the UNRWA Field Office Compound:

One of the most widely reported incidents during the Gaza Operation involved the UNRWA field office compound, where three individuals were injured and significant property damage resulted from the use of smoke-screen munitions containing white phosphorous. Additional damage occurred due to the use of high explosive shells in the vicinity of the compound.

Besides the deployment of white phosphorous munitions, the Mandelblit Report acknowledges that the IDF Military Advocate General has launched a criminal investigation into the killing of 26 members of the Al-Samouni family (p. 6); that the army may have used human shields (pp. 9-11); knowingly shelled a UNRWA school filled with children in order to neutralize a single enemy mortar launcher, causing large-scale civilian deaths in the process; knowingly attacked a mosque with “powerful” missiles in order to kill two unknown terrorist “operatives” (p. 17); bombed a police graduation ceremony (p. 19), killing four civilians in the process (according to Goldstone the IDF killed 9 civilians and 99 cops); killed a civilian raising a white flag (p. 22); fired on a horse-drawn carriage carrying wounded civilians, killing a number of people in the process (p. 24); fired flechette-filled tank shells in the immediate vicinity of a “condolence tent,” killing civilians in the process (p. 25); bulldozed the Sawafeary Chicken Coops (pp. 27-28) in order to obtain “a clear line of sight” for soldiers in the area; destroyed a cement packaging plant in a vain search for tunnels (p. 29); destroyed a series of factories, claiming it “did not know the structures were used to produce food products” (p. 30); and implicitly acknowledged that it destroyed private property (p. 33).

Although Mandelblit lays the blame for many killings at the feet of IDF commanders, he invokes the army’s firing policy to justify the killings. So long as soldiers claimed in their testimonies that they may have seen enemy operatives in the area (Mandelblit acknowledges extreme difficulty gathering testimony from Palestinian victims), he was able to claim that the soldiers followed the “Law of Armed Conflict.”

What is the Law of Armed Conflict? It is a set of combat guidelines specially refined for IDF army operations by Israeli military philosopher Asa Kasher. In defining his version of the law, Kasher wrote, “the responsibility for distinguishing between terrorists and noncombatants is not placed upon [Israel’s] shoulders.” He added, “Sending a soldier [to Gaza] to fight terrorists is justified, but why should I force him to endanger himself much more than that so that the terrorist’s neighbor isn’t killed? From the standpoint of the state of Israel, the neighbor is much less important. I owe the soldier more. If it’s between the soldier and the terrorist’s neighbor, the priority is the soldier. Any country would do the same.” In other words, the killing of civilians is justified according to Israeli military regulations if a soldier is able to establish having felt a sense of danger.

It is unclear whether Mandelblit’s report will lead to a roll-back of Kasher’s rules of engagement. The report’s recommendations have already been met with fierce resentment from the IDF’s officer corps, so it might be unrealistic to expect that they will ever be put into practice, especially since Israel seems to be gearing up for a potentially bloody campaign in urban areas in Southern Lebanon. The report’s real value, then, is as a confirmation of Goldstone’s key findings. Even as the most conservative investigation of IDF conduct during Cast Lead, Mandelblit exposed a consistent pattern of destruction of Palestinian civilian infrastructure and disregard for civilian life.

Unfortunately, the devastating findings contained in the report have not reached the Israeli mainstream. Articles about the report are buried deep in Israeli newspapers while according to Yedioth Aharonoth, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has refused to make it available on its Hebrew website (it’s only on the English site).

Maariv columnist Ofer Shelakh was one of the few Israeli public figures to address the official silence following Mandeblit’s release. He wrote in a July 23 column about both the IDF’s Mandelblit report and Eiland report on the Gaza flotilla (no link; from a Hebrew only translation from p. 23 of the Maariv weekend supplement):

What is the truth and why suddenly do we reply to the UN in terms different from those offered to Israel’s citizens? The same applies to the legal procedures taken against IDF officers, the trial of the Commander of the Gaza brigade, the investigation of former Giv’ati brigade commander Ylan Malka, of which we hear only from Israeli replies to foreign authorities.

It seems that according to the decision-makers in Israel’s Defense system we don’t want to know, we don’t have to know or we agree that all this is merely for foreign consumption, to repel anti-Israel criticism. Israelis prefer to think that the IDF operates brilliantly, that its commanders make no mistakes, and that its firing policy is considerate and moral, and that the problem in “Cast Lead” was the firing policy rather than the decisions of the local commanders.

Maybe this cynical approach to the Israeli public is justified. It is a fact that no public outcry arose after the black picture emerging from [the Eiland Report], but in the IDF, certainly among its medium ranks, many understand the damage this causes to the standards of telling the truth, and of telling the whole truth.

“If I Gave Them Guns They Would Shoot Me.” An Interview With MK Haneen Zoabi

This interview originally appeared at Electronic Intifada:

On 13 July, the Israeli Knesset voted by a large margin to strip the parliamentary privileges of Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Palestinian Israeli party Balad. The measure was a punishment for Zoabi’s participation in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As described in the Israeli daily Haaretz, during the raging debate, Member of Knesset (MK) Anasatassia Michaeli rushed toward Zoabi and handed her a mock Iranian passport with Zoabi’s photo on it. “Ms. Zoabi, I take your loyalty to Iran seriously and I suggest you contact Ahmadinejad and ask him to give you an Iranian diplomatic passport that will assist you with all your diplomatic incitement tours, because your Israeli passport will be revoked this evening,” said Michaeli, who is a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s explicitly anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party.
The debate over revoking Zoabi’s parliamentary privileges was nearly as rancorous as her appearance at the Knesset speaker’s podium in the immediate wake of the Flotilla massacre. While Zoabi attempted to relate her experience on the Mavi Marmara, where she coaxed Israeli commandoes to stop shooting and beating passengers, Knesset members from a broad array of parties leapt from their chairs to shout her down. “Go to Gaza, traitor!” shouted MK Miri Regev of Likud. “One week in Gaza as a 38-year-old single woman and we’ll see how they treat you!” barked Yohanan Plesner of the supposedly centrist Kadima party. Finally, Moshe Mutz Matalon of Yisrael Beiteinu lamented that the Israeli commandoes “left only nine floating voters.”

I met Zoabi at her office in the bustling center of Lower Nazareth on 12 June. While preparing a spread of biscuits and chocolates for me, she told me that a reporter from Nablus who met her earlier in the day had been detained at a checkpoint and had her laptop seized. Zoabi was convinced that the Shin Bet (Israel’s General Security Service) was monitoring her communications and movements as it does with many Balad Party leaders. Despite the tense climate and violent threats against her, she spoke without restraint about her experience on the Mavi Marmara, the predicament of Palestinian members of the Knesset, and what she considered the fascist direction of Israeli society.

Max Blumenthal: Were you surprised to be greeted with such hostility when you returned to the Knesset after the flotilla incident?

Hanin Zoabi: I was not so surprised. I expected to be called traitor, to be asked, “Where are your knives?” Or to be told, “You are the one who killed them!” But they shouted at me without any political argument and such shallowness. I thought, this couldn’t be a parliament, these are just gangsters. If I gave them guns, they would shoot me. I said the soldiers on the flotilla treated me more respectfully than them. At least after the soldiers killed nine people they tried to ask me for help.

MB: What does the attack on you in Knesset say about Israeli democracy?

HZ: Israel has a general atmosphere of a fascist state that has no critical sense even of its image in the world. It used to be sensitive to its image of democracy. [Knesset Speaker Reuven] Rivlin wants a liberal state and wants others to believe Israel is a democracy. But listen to what they are saying in the Knesset: that we should only pay attention to what we want to; it’s not important to pay attention to the goyim. We must believe we are the victim as if victimhood is an ideology.

MB: Are you concerned about threats to your physical safety?

HZ: This is a dangerous time and it is dangerous for Jamal [Zehalka] and others in Balad. I am worried but what worries me more is not the personal threats but the long term political effect of this campaign because it represents a delegitimization of our party and our political platform.

MB: What about the planned measure in the Knesset to strip you of parliamentary privileges?

HZ: The three parliamentary sanctions are nothing — I mean nothing — because I can still use my civic passport.

MB: When you were attacked in the Knesset, I was reminded of an incident in 1949, when the first Arab member of Knesset, Tawfiq Toubi, took to the floor to denounce Israeli army brutality against Palestinian villagers living under military rule. Jewish members of the Knesset went crazy just as they did against you, but Toubi was defended by one of Israel’s most prominent cultural figures, the socialist poet Nathan Alterman. Did any prominent Israelis speak up in your defense, and if not, why not?

HZ: Hardly anyone spoke up for me. Jamal [Zehalka] said the Knesset is the worst we’ve ever had. The guards and the workers who’ve been around the Knesset for 30 years said it’s never been this racist before. I think when you have a government led by the likes of [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman it means that the extremists are not the margins of the Knesset, they are the mainstream. Those who shouted at me were from Kadima, not from the extreme right. Even [the traditionally left-wing party] Meretz is becoming very center. And because of this it has lost power.

[Knesset Speaker] Rivlin was more afraid of hurting the image of the Knesset than of my rights being violated. There are no limits and the famous slogan of Lieberman is now the slogan of everyone: “Citizenship depends on loyalty.” He of course means loyalty in a fascist sense. Even when [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai asked to revoke my citizenship there was only one article in the Israeli media saying that this was crazy. What kind of state is this? I read just one article about this!

[Yedioth Aharanot columnist] Amnon Levy was the only one who defended me. He said what’s happening is so absurd, you should thank Haneen that she is serving in this Zionist Knesset. You should thank the Palestinians for participating in our game.

MB: Is the anti-Arab atmosphere inside Israel a new phenomenon or the acceleration of a process than began some time ago?

HZ: This is not a new process, and it didn’t begin after the flotilla. It really began after the second intifada, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Israelis went to demonstrations not to rally about internal issues but to support the intifada. This was a clear message for Israelis that the state had failed to create the model of the new “Israeli Arab.” This is what the state was trying to do, trying to create us an Israeli Arab, someone who was not 100 percent Israeli because we were not Jews but of course not 100 percent Arab either. We were told we could preserve our language and our culture but not our historical memory, our culture, or our identity except on an emotional, romantic level. Essentially we couldn’t be Palestinian.

The second intifada was the turning point. It told Israel that it might control the schools, our history and the media but they couldn’t stop us from asserting our identity. This led directly to the declaration of Yuval Diskin, the Shin Bet director, who said in 2007, we will fight against any political activity that doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state even if the activities are conducted openly and democratically. He clearly was referring to Balad when he said this. By the way, no Israeli paper was shocked by his statement.

MB: The founder of the Balad Party, Azmi Bishara, was forced into exile after being accused of spying for Hizballah. Ameer Makhoul, the Palestinian civil society leader in Israel, has been placed under administrative detention and is facing similar accusations. Omer Said and many other activists are under investigation by the Shin Bet. What is the government trying to accomplish by its crackdown?

HZ: They are trying to establish borders on our political identity and say that we cannot have relations with the broader Arab world. They want to redefine the margins of democracy to exclude any political program that calls for full equality. We are calling for equality without Zionism. This is what the Balad Party says. The fact is, to demand full civic and national equality is actually to demand the end of Zionism. So we don’t hate Zionism. Zionism hates democracy.

If the state continues in the direction it is going it will actually change the rules of the game. Balad says there are clear margins of democracy. We believe in democratic values and the system and we will utilize these margins of democracy in order to suggest our vision of full equality. If Israel wants to delete these margins so my vision can no longer be legitimate in the Israeli scene I think a totally different game will develop between us and the state. In this way, the state is pushing us to a crisis. If they disqualify Balad then no Arab party would enter the Knesset and this would provoke a huge crisis. Arabs without a parliamentary role would result in a different kind of relationship between us and the state. This would be the end of democracy. But we know this is what a Jewish state will lead to — the end of democracy is an inevitable outcome.

MB: How did your prominence after the flotilla impact the situation of Palestinians in Israel?

HZ: It is possible that the flotilla was the beginning of a new historical moment. Israel enjoys keeping us [Palestinians in Israel] out of the agenda of the world. They oppressed us behind the scenes just as they conducted the Nakba behind the scenes. They continued to limit our identity and the world didn’t treat us as part of the Palestinian issue because it believed that Israel was a democracy and we were only part of it. The world only looked at the siege of Gaza. So what the Knesset did by attacking me was they showed the world who they really are. And if the world starts to pay attention, especially the part of the world that doesn’t traditionally support the Palestinians and believes Israel should be a real democracy, I hope they see from the flotilla and its implications that Israel has a deep structural problem, not a problem of policies. The problem is not an extremist government. The problem is that the largest threat to Zionism is democracy. This is the issue.

The Crazy Horse

“The Strong Horse” author Lee Smith has a piece at Tablet accusing Phil Weiss, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Stephen Walt, Robert Mackey, and Jim Lobe (along with the publishers of their blogs) of “using the internet to make anti-Semitism respectable.” I read the piece twice and could not find any instances of “Jew baiting” by Smith’s targets. Smith couldn’t either, so he instead highlighted a few screeds by semi-literate and mostly anonymous comment trolls. Then he turned to Jeffrey Goldberg for commentary. “These guys don’t even understand what ancient terror they’re tapping into,” Goldberg complained, seemingly suggesting that because of the Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites in Egypt-land, the pogroms, and the Holocaust, bloggers must not print trenchant critiques of Israeli policy.

Behind Smith’s crude invective lies a deep concern that non-Zionist academics, bloggers and reporters have secured platforms for their views at major online media outlets and inside the academy. They are effectively challenging his Orientalist perspective on the Middle East, which holds that, for instance, the “bloody and violent culture” of Arab leaders is the sole source of violence in the region. There was once a time when such views prevailed in the academy, and when criticism of Zionism was easily dismissed as a cover for anti-Semitic hatred. Smith seems keenly aware that the times are changing, even if his arguments read like the somnambulistic babbling of Alan Dershowitz from ten years ago.

Smith’s rant reflected the same insecurity of those who engineered the campaigns to keep Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu El-Haj from receiving university tenure and who lashed out at Barnard and Columbia once they failed. Indeed, the true targets of his resentment are not fringe anti-Semites but symbols of the intellectual mainstream, from Harvard University to Farrar, Straus and Giroux to the New York Times. These institutions are answering the widespread demand for factual challenges to outmoded, Orientalist views on the Middle East. And all Smith can do is pound his desk from inside the right-wing intellectual hothouse of the Hudson Institute. I can only imagine his frustration.

Bombshell Report: 550 IDF Officers And Soldiers Interrogated About Possible War Crimes In Gaza

Former Givati Brigade commander Ilan Malka is among the IDF officers under investigation for war crimes in Gaza

Former Givati Brigade commander Ilan Malka is among the IDF officers under investigation for war crimes in Gaza

On July 18, a bombshell report appeared in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot. The article, which has only been published in Hebrew and was buried on page 8 as a small news item, stated that 550 officers and soldiers who participated in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 have been questioned by IDF military police about possible war crimes the IDF committed during Cast Lead. Among them is the former commander of the Givati Brigade, Ilan Malka, who was interrogated for an air strike that resulted in the killing of 21 members of one family in Gaza City. At least one other soldier is accused of using human shields, or “use of neighbor” tactics. In fact, nearly all battalion commanders who participated in Cast Lead have been interrogated regarding their conduct. Maybe Judge Goldstone wasn’t so crazy after all.

A full translation of the article is below:

YEDIOT AHARONOT      Sunday, July 18, 2010  page  8

Officers under interrogation


By our military correspondent  Yossi Yehoshua

Brigadier  Ilan Malka is not alone. More than 550 officers and men of IDF who participated in the “Cast Lead” operation have been interrogated by the investigative military police of the IDF in the last 18 months.

Last Friday “Yediot Aharonot” wrote that former GIV’ATI  brigade commander [Ilan Malka  A.O.] will be interrogated about an aerial attack in “Cast Lead” that killed 21 members of one [Gaza  A.O.] family. It now turns out that hundreds more were interrogated, some more than once. Among the interrogated are almost all battalion commanders who participated in the operation and dozens of soldiers in regular service and in the reserves.  It is a number without precedent in any other [Israeli  A.O.] operation or war. Senior officers expressed their worry that this will create a situation in future wars where commanders in the field will think twice before carrying out problematic operations, due to fear of legal steps taken against them later.  Battalion and platoon commanders who participated in “Cast Lead” find it difficult to go through the interrogations.  One battalion  commander said he had to spend his few days of Leave in interrogation chambers instead of with his family.  He said “Even if they try to deny it the damage caused to commanders is immense” adding “It is an unpleasant feeling to risk your life for your country and then be interrogated about it again and again”.

So far the interrogations gave rise to a considerable number of disciplinary – and legal – steps.  The most serious one was taken last week when the Chief Military Prosecutor, Aloof Avihai Mandelblit, decided to charge a Giv’ati soldier for committing murder.  On another occasion he decided to court-martial a Golani battalion commander for ignoring IDF instructions forbidding “use of neighbor” tactics.

(My note: “Use of neighbor” tactic is the act where soldiers preparing to enter a suspected house force the neighbors to walk in front of them as a human shield.)

Birthright Israel’s Hill of Shame

Students on a Birthright Israel-style trip post with Givati Brigade jeeps by the Gaza border. All photos by Kali Harper.

Tourists on Birthright Israel-style trip pose with the Givati Brigade by the Gaza border. All photos by Kali Harper.

Last week I toured the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza perimeter with the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit founded by Sami Awad, the nephew of non-violent resistance guru Mubarak Awad, whose Gandhian tactics were rewarded by the Israeli government in 1988 with an expulsion order.

Our guide for part of the day was Eric Yellin, an Israeli-American resident of a community near Sderot, the Israeli city that has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza. Since the conflict escalated, Yellin has organized dialogue groups between residents of his city and Gazans through the group Other Voice. Despite his good works, Yellin is not likely to win Sderot’s next mayoral election. His neighbors were furious with him, he recalled, when he attempted to convince them that carpet bombing the Gaza Strip would not have a positive outcome for either side.

“For most Israelis, what I’m doing is insane,” Yellin said. “For them, Gaza is the ultimate evil.” He spoke to us inside a hall in Sderot named for a local girl killed in a rocket attack. The girl’s bereaved father, who owned the hall, told Yellin he could use it for free at any time if he thought his work would prevent a single loss of life.

Afterwards, Yellin took us to a hill above the Gaza Strip that served as one of the lookout points Israelis used as picnic grounds during Operation Cast Lead. While two ton bombs crashed into buildings in Gaza, some Israelis watched the assault with glee, lending the viewpoint the name, “The Hill of Shame.” While Yellin described conditions inside Gaza and discussed the rocketing of nearby communities, a bus filled with students from Argentina on a Birthright Israel-style tour pulled up to the hill.

The students rushed out of the bus and began taking photos in front of the Gaza landscape as though they were at the Grand Canyon. I asked a group of them what they thought of the people living inside the Gaza Strip. A girl looked at me, then at our group, then remarked about us in Spanish to her friends, “They’re Palestinians. Let’s get out of here.” Strangely, there were no Palestinians in our group; it consisted mostly of white people from the United States.

All of the sudden, a group of soldiers from the Givati Brigade motored up the hill to meet the Argentinian students. As soon as the soldiers emerged from their jeeps, they were surrounded by giggling girls eager to climb all over them and their jeeps. The guys, who were wearing the IDF t-shirts and hats sold in Jerusalem tourist shops, lined up for photos with the troops, who enthusiastically obliged.

More photos with the Givati Brigade

More fun with the Givati Brigade

I stood to the side and talked to a young soldier named Jan. He told me that even though Givati wasn’t the most prestigious unit to serve in, he was living out his dream to become a warrior. Of patrolling the refugee camps of Gaza, Jan said, “I like it. I’m defending my country and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” Though he said his service is rewarded with great respect by his family, “These days [serving in the IDF] is not as honorable as it used to be. We don’t have big wars anymore, just little actions here and there.” I asked him about the Occupation, the siege of Gaza, about keeping 1.5 million people in a virtual cage. “I think someday we could work it out,” he remarked, “but I have to say that today they are acting so barbarically. Really, there’s no other way.”

On June 28, Peter Beinart came to Jaffa to deliver an address about the failure of the Jewish Establishment. His speech, which was the highlight of a major New Israel Fund symposium with the somewhat trite title, “The Battle for Israel’s Soul,” was followed by a discussion between liberal Zionist icons including Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, who has been a fierce critic of the Goldstone Report. Beinart’s speech consisted of a recapitulation of his widely circulated essay in the New York Review of Books, lots of concern for disillusioned young American Jews who are leaving the tent for non-Zionist social contexts, and a lamentation that liberal Zionism — “a Zionism that loves Israel not just because Israel is a Jewish state, but because it’s a liberal, democratic Jewish state” — is dying. I wondered what the dozen or so Palestinian Israelis seated in the back of the auditorium thought of Beinart’s discussion of the Jewish crisis as an inter-ethnic conflict between good and bad Zionists.

During Q&A, Beinart was asked what he thought about Birthright Israel. While admitting that he didn’t know much about the program, he volunteered his opinion that “the work they’re doing is great.” I found this statement unusual if not slightly disturbing. Beinart had lambasted the ossified Jewish establishment of Abe Foxman, Alan Dershowitz and David Harris for selling young Jews on an anti-democratic, occupying and increasingly racist Israel, turning them off to Zionism in the process. Then in the next breath he offered high praise for Birthright Israel.

The Gaza Strip as the Grand Canyon

The Gaza Strip as the Grand Canyon

Over 250,000 Jews — an astoundingly high number — have passed through the Birthright program. During their tours, they are told as I was by an official guide at Dizengoff House during a Birthright trip in 2002 that, “one day there will be a wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Israel will be here to defend you.” Besides learning fanciful and discredited notions about the usefulness of fortress Israel in a dark, Jew-hating world, Birthright tourists are taught to worship the power of the IDF and are told that the army is in fact defending “the Jewish people” from an assortment of swarthy threats. Meanwhile they learn nothing about the culture of Palestinians and are expressly forbidden from meeting them. Instead of meeting Israeli peace activists like Eric Yellin, they receive a lecture from an Orientalist huckster (check out one of Birthright’s favorite speakers here) about Palestinian “incitement” and the threat of radical Islam. In their free time, Birthright tourists are urged to enjoy a Goldstar-sodden, Porky’s-style bachannal in the hope that they will someday contribute to a spike in the Jewish birthrate. Sleeping with a soldier, whether male or female, is especially encouraged.

Birthright is indeed doing a “great job” in selling young Jews on Israel and Zionism. But what is the impact of the program’s salesmanship? Are young Jews really being turned off by the eliminationist form of Zionism embodied by the Israeli government and promoted by figures like Abe Foxman, as Beinart claimed, or are they being indoctrinated by Birthright-style programs into embracing extreme nationalism without even knowing? If the photos I’ve posted from the Hill of Shame are any indication, Birthright Israel and programs like it have guaranteed a substantial pool of young recruits for the alter cockers of the Establishment to deploy as they like until well into the future.

“They Want To Legalize The Nakba:” Inside The Plan Against E. Jerusalem Civil Society

Muhammad Totah is one of three Palestinian legislators staging a sit-in to protest their ordered expulsion from East Jerusalem

Muhammad Totah is one of three Palestinian legislators staging a sit-in to protest their ordered expulsion from East Jerusalem

This piece originally appeared at Electronic Intifada.

On 9 July, as Israeli Border Police officers brutalized demonstrators at the weekly protest in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, forcing them away from a street where several homes had been seized by radical right-wing Jewish settlers, I visited the Jerusalem International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters just a few hundred meters away.

Though the din of protest chants and police megaphones could not be heard from the ICRC center, the three Palestinian legislators who had staged a sit-in there for more than a week to protest their forced expulsion from Jerusalem insisted that their plight was the same as the families forced from their homes down the street.

“All the Israeli steps in East Jerusalem are designed to evacuate Jerusalem of its Palestinian heritage,” remarked Muhammad Totah, an elected Palestinian Legislative Council member who has been ordered to permanently leave Jerusalem by the Israeli government. “Whether it’s through home demolition, taking homes or deporting us, the goal is the same.”

According to the Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, the three legislators are guilty of a vaguely defined “breach of trust,” ostensibly for their membership in a foreign government. The charge leveled against them recalls nothing more than the campaign platform of the far-right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which demanded the mass expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel. For this reason, the Israel-based legal advocacy group Adalah described the Israeli government’s actions as “characteristic of dark and totalitarian regimes” (“Motion for Injunction filed to Israeli Supreme Court to Stop Imminent Deportation Process of Palestinian Legislative Council Members from Jerusalem,” 15 June 2010).

The lawmakers’ problems began in 2006 when they ran for the Palestinian Legislative Council in the West Bank as members of the Change and Reform list, an offshoot of Hamas. Though the Israeli government allowed the men to campaign for office and vote for the Chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as soon as they were elected, Israel warned them to resign from office or face the cancellation of their status as residents of Jerusalem.

When they failed to heed the Israeli government’s demand, in June 2006, the men were arrested and sentenced to two to four years in prison. Two days after they were released, the Israeli police confiscated their identification cards and ordered them to leave Jerusalem for another part of the West Bank.

As a result of the expulsion orders, the first of their kind since 1967, the three lawmakers are virtual hostages in the city their families have lived in for generations — if they leave the Red Cross center they will be immediately arrested. Their colleague, Muhammad Abu Tir, is already in an Israeli jail cell. Despite having been separated from their families for years, they remain steadfast in their rejection of the government’s orders, fearing that their expulsion will open the door for mass deportations of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, along with the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in a peace deal a decade later. No country recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and the UN Security Council has declared repeatedly that Israel’s occupation of all the territories it seized in 1967 is governed by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, a treaty Israel was compelled to sign which specifically forbids an occupying power from expelling civilians from the territory it occupies. Thus the legislators’ expulsion has been issued in explicit violation of binding international law.

Totah told me that the Israeli interior ministry has a list of 315 members of Palestinian civil society in East Jerusalem — academics, lawmakers, activists — whom it plans to expel in the near future on charges of disloyalty to the Jewish state. “They are trying to legalize the Nakba,” Totah remarked, using the Arabic word Palestinians use to describe their mass expulsion from their homeland in 1948.

I talked with the 42-year-old Totah for a half hour in the leafy courtyard of the ICRC headquarters. He was visibly tired, having spent the past two days in meetings with British parliamentarians, the head of Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church and left-wing Israeli groups ranging from Anarchists Against The Wall to Gush Shalom. While a wiry young boy rushed around the yard, serving us a seemingly endless stream of Turkish coffee shots, Totah described to me his experience as a prisoner in his hometown:

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Palestinian Family Allegedly Beaten By Jerusalem Cops For Cheering For Germany

A member of the Barakat family displays the shirt he was wearing when a Jerusalem cop allegedly maced and beat him

A member of the Barakat family displays the shirt he was wearing when a Jerusalem cop allegedly maced and beat him

Why did the Jerusalem police react with such brute force to a non-violent protest last Friday in Sheikh Jarrah? According to Moshe Strol, a retired Israeli cop, the cops received politically motivated orders. In a response to former government attorney Michael Ben-Yair’s letter protesting police behavior in Sheikh Jarrah and activist Haggai Matar’s accusation of police discrimination against leftists and Arabs, Strol wrote (translation by Noam Sheizaf at Promised Land):

As a policeman, I was in thousands of demonstrations. I want to tell you, not in a politically correct way: in demonstrations of Arabs the finger on the trigger is very easy. Demonstrations of Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) are treated with kid gloves. Demonstrations of left-wing activists on Friday also means trigger-happy cops. Rightwing activists in the settlements which break olive trees and beat the Border Police are also treated with kid gloves.

These are orders from above. Don’t believe what police officers and the Police Minister say.

While I was filming the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration, I met Sari Nashashibi, a young reporter for the Arabic East Jerusalem news outlet, Panet. Nusheishibi alerted me to a story he had recently filed about an outrageous instance of police violence against a family of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Because the story was published in Arabic, it never registered outside of the region it occurred in. If true, the story adds more weight to the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators’ charge of police discrimination against Arabs and leftists. I had Nashashibi’s article translated [original here], so here it is in its entirety:

A family from Beit Safafa: The police assaulted us for no reason

Khaled Barakat from Beit Safafa told the correspondent of Panet and Panorama magazine that, “On Saturday evening, on the day of the Germany-Argentine match, while driving back from Bethlehem with my two sons, Ra’fat and Firas and my nephew Na’im, a police officer stopped us. He noticed that Na’im was not wearing his safety belt so he asked him for his ID. Na’im gave it to him and asked him to speed up fining him because we are in a hurry to go and attend the Germany-Argentine game.”

At that moment those in the car cheered with joy when Germany, the team they support, scored an early goal. When the police officer found out that they support Germany he quickly snatched a cigarette from the mouth of one of the four passengers as well as his pack of cigarettes and crushed both with his foot. Then, he quickly sprayed all those in the car with tear gas.

“When I asked, as a father, about the reason for spraying us with gas he said, “Because you support Germany.” He then started verbally assaulting us using very obscene words while beating us with a baton. He then called for back up and asked that it come quickly and we were taken to the police station.” Barakat said, adding, “They released me at night while the three young men were released the next day without a trial or bail.”

“ Of the physical and moral side-effects to being sprayed with gas, sworn at and arbitrarily arrested, is that we now suffer from constant anxiety and eye infections.” Barakat continued, “I suffer from different illnesses and I am incapable of sleeping because I saw my two sons and my nephew get beaten up while I was paralyzed due to that burning gas. We all, also, have burns in the face and the hair and feel emotionally drained due to the verbal assault on us.

The Panet and Panorama magazine correspondent contacted the office of the Jerusalem police spokesperson and this is the response we received:

“The driver was stopped to get a traffic ticket following which his sons got out of the car and began verbally assaulting and trying to attack the police personnel. This necessitated that they be restrained. They were arrested and the father was released the same night while the sons were released the following morning.

So it’s the Barakat family’s word against the word of the cops. There were no other witnesses. However, if any Palestinian tried to “attack” a police officer in Jerusalem, as the cops allege the Barakat family did, it’s highly doubtful that they would spend just a night in prison. In a more likely scenario, they would face more than ten years in prison. The police department’s version of events is simply not credible.

Police Brutality And Settler Violence In Sheikh Jarrah

sj girl copJERUSALEM — This Friday’s protest at Sheikh Jarrah was met with the most violent repression since the weekly demonstrations began. The Jerusalem police and Israeli Border Guard officers brutalized the three hundred non-violent demonstrators and arrested at least eight in response to the demonstrators’ attempt to protest in front of homes illegally seized from Palestinian families by radical right-wing Jewish settlers.

Though Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators have been arrested en masse in the past, the protest is often a mellow affair characterized by chanting, singing, and kibitzing among a few hundred Jewish Israeli leftists. However, this week the demonstrators demanded to enter the Simeon the Just compound that the police normally cordon off to everyone except settlers. Their intention was to highlight the unfairness of not only the right of settlers to throw Palestinian families out of homes they had lived in for 60 years, but to expose the police’s discriminatory practice of blocking the neighborhood off to supposedly protect the settlers. The police practice is eerily reminiscent of the Israeli Army’s apartheid policies in the West Bank city of Hebron, where access to Shuhada Street is forbidden to everyone except the radical settlers who have occupied the surrounding areas — even the Palestinians who live near the street must avoid it under threat of settler violence or arrest.

At first, a small group of demonstrators climbed a stone wall and sneaked through a backyard until they reached the neighborhood. They were followed by another group, and then another, until the street was filled with protesters. The police responded with massive force, attempting to push the demonstrators up a hill and back behind the cordon. The violence resulted in a spate of arrests which seemed to be carried out randomly; the police simply grabbed anyone they could get their hands on. For over an hour, Jerusalem cops shoved everyone in sight, including old people and a woman holding a small child (see the first video I posted). And yet, the police brutality could have been more extreme. If the demonstration had been supplemented by a significant contingent of Palestinian Israelis, there is little doubt that the violence deployed against it would have been exponentially greater.

While inside the cordoned-off neighborhood, I spoke with a young Palestinian woman who lives next door to a house seized by the settlers. She feared disclosing her identity, insisting to me that more publicity would put her family in danger. The woman told me that she was recently attacked by a group of teenage settlers while she returned late at night from university classes. The attack began when the boys shouted curses at her, prompting her to shout back. Then they surrounded her, punching and kicking her until she fell to the ground. After she screamed for help, some neighbors rushed from their homes and chased her assailants away. “Every day the settlers curse at us and make rude gestures,” the woman told me. “The reason they do it is obvious: they are trying to scare us so that we leave.”

A Jewish settler in Sheikh Jarrah watches the demonstration

A Jewish settler in Sheikh Jarrah watches the demonstration

The door of the woman’s house was covered with Stars of David painted by the settlers. As in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank, Jewish settlers spray paint Stars of David on Palestinian homes and businesses which they seek to occupy or which have emptied of their original residents. (This practice caused writer Judy Mandelbaum to wonder if the Star of David is becoming the “new swastika.”)  ”The police don’t do anything about this,” the woman remarked to me. “They have seen the attacks, they know they take place. But even if I did call them they would not arrest the Israelis. They only arrest us.”

Indeed, none of the settlers’ religio-fascist machinations could have been fulfilled without the full support of secular figures in the government, from the technocratic Barkat to the atheist Prime Minister Netanyahu to Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who just ordered his occupation army to seal off the windows of Palestinian homes located along the route to Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. The violence directed against the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators on Friday was just another snapshot of a settler-colonial state slamming its last remaining vestiges of opposition against the wall.

The Settlement Freeze That Never Was, And Never Will Be

Linda Forsell's photos of ongoing construction in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa expose the illusion of a settlement freeze

Linda Forsell's June 21 photos of ongoing construction in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa expose the illusion of Netanyahu's settlement freeze

With the Israeli settlement moratorium scheduled to expire on September 26, the right-wing parties in Israel’s coalition government are exerting maximum pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block the policy’s renewal. “Let’s get rid of the freeze and get back to building,” declared Israeli Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora Yuli Edelstein on Israel National Radio yesterday. “It’s our land anyway!” (Edelstein lives in the settlement of Neve Daniel).

Back in the US, the former Israel lobbyist and ex-Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk took to the Washington Post’s op-ed page to praise Netanyahu and Barack Obama for ensuring that “there were zero building starts in the West Bank settlements.”

During the week of June 21, I traveled through the West Bank with Swedish photojournalist Linda Forsell to document new settlement construction and the settlers’ theft of water from Palestinian towns. Forsell took a series of photos at Har Homa, a massive Israeli settlement towering over the Palestinian town of Beit Sarhour. Her photos show ongoing construction of hundreds of new settlement units — documents of the settlement freeze sham.

har homa2Netanyahu authorized the building of new settlement units just days after he announced the freeze in November 2009. He attempted to disguise new settlement construction by drawing a false distinction between the West Bank and “parts of Jerusalem” like Har Homa that actually lie outside 1967 lines. As Israeli government flack Mark Regev remarked in December 2009, “We’ve made a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our capital and will stay as such.” With a few exceptions, Obama allowed this scheme to go forward.

According to the Washington Post, Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu this week will have more to do with reassuring Jewish Democrats than with halting the wholesale colonization of the West Bank. As the Post’s Anne Kornblut reported, “The White House meeting will not dwell on some of the most difficult time-sensitive issues, including the expiration of a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in September.” This may mean an end to the settlement freeze, but it was only an illusion after all.