Monthly Archives: July 2010

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.