Tag Archives: bds

Israeli democracy, or the lack thereof: a conversation with Alternet’s Joshua Holland

I recently spoke to Alternet’s Joshua Holland about law and politics in Israel. Our conversation focused on the image of Israel as a Western style democracy coping with legitimate security concerns versus the reality of Israel as an ethnocratic state managing its demographic peril through authoritarian measures approved by the Jewish majority. The discussion can be heard here. Below is a transcript via Alternet:

Joshua Holland: Max, I don’t want to talk about Iran today. I don’t want to talk about the Israeli lobby in the United States, and I don’t want to talk about the Occupation. I want to talk about something I don’t think gets enough attention in this country, which is the sharp rightward turn of the Israeli government.

One of the great non-sequiturs of our political discourse is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And I say it’s a great non-sequitur because it’s usually used as a response to, for example, criticism of the Occupation. You say this Occupation is terrible, and people say it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.

Anyway, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, accused Benjamin Netanyahu recently of, “an attempt to transform Israel into a type of dictatorship.” Kadima lawmakers said that recent legislation passed by the Knesset represented, “the gravest challenge to democracy since the establishment of the state in 1948.” Tell me about the sharp rightward lurch. When did this happen, because I remember when I was a kid Israel was almost a socialist country.

Max Blumenthal: Well, by not wanting to talk about Iran you’re an anti-Semite and I condemn that.

JH: Max, I’m a self-loathing Jew — please get this straight.

MB: Part of Netanyahu’s goal in focusing on Iran is taking the Palestinian question off the table, and so it’s good that you’re talking about this. Israel has never been a democracy in the sense that we think about a democracy. It’s a settler, colonial state that privileges the Jewish majority, which it created through violent methods of demographic manipulation over the indigenous Palestinian outclass.

That’s true even inside Israel. So when you hear people like Tzipi Livni — who is for now the head of the Kadima Party but soon to be ousted, and actually came out of the Likud Party and was aide to Ariel Sharon – when you hear liberal Zionists, people on the Zionist left, warning that Israel is turning into a fascist state what they’re talking is the occupation laws creeping back over the green line, and that these right-wing elements are actually starting to crack down on the democratic rights that have been afforded to the Jewish majority inside Israel. So Jews who are left-wingers, who are dissidents and speak out against state policy are actually beginning to feel a slight scintilla of the kind of oppression that Palestinians have felt since the foundation of the state of Israel. That’s where this criticism is coming from.

I think we really need to get beyond the discourse of occupation and the discourse of fascism, and instead to talk about institutional discrimination and apartheid, which is what has been present since the foundation of the state of Israel.

JH: Now I want to talk about some of the specific measures that have been proposed, some of which have passed. There are some things that have been pulled back or tabled temporarily due to international pressure, and other have actually gotten through and become law. Tell be about the crackdown on NGOs.

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The Palestinian Authority’s UN statehood bid: an exercise in futility?

Last week I attended a discussion on the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the UN by Susan Akram, a Boston University School of Law professor who is a leading expert on refugee issues and international law. Akram delivered a withering assessment of the PA’s statehood campaign at the UN. She focused her lecture on contrasting the PA’s strategy with Namibia’s, demonstrating how Nambia managed to achieve independence despite its initial designation by the UN to be one of the least likely colonial mandates to attain the status necessary for statehood, and despite a prolonged occupation by apartheid South Africa. Nambia and its supporters filed a steady stream of submissions to the International Court of Justice, winning decisions that confirmed the illegality of South Africa’s occupation while demanding sanctions on South Africa. Thus Nambia established a legal framework guaranteeing that any UN resolution granting it statehood would also establish its full independence.

In contrast, the PLO and PA accepted the formula of a negotiated land for peace, allowing the UN Security Council to relegate Resolution 194, the right of return resolution that guarantees individual, inalienable Palestinian rights, to “final status” talks (the UN’s acceptance of Israel as a member state in 1949 was contingent on its fulfillment of Res 194). Since Israel’s occupation of Palestine began, the Palestinian Authority has made only one request for an advisory opinion from the ICJ, when in 2004 it challenged Israel’s right to build the separation wall across the Green Line. Though the PA received a favorable ruling, it did nothing to enforce the ruling — no mobilization of civil society or demand for sanctions. In fact, despite the ICJ’s recommendation, the PA rejected the Palestinian civil society call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.

Akram said the PA’s failure to enact a strategy of “soft and hard law” had left an array of questions about the upcoming Palestinian statehood resolution unresolved, casting serious doubt on the whole endeavor. She enumerated some the key unresolved issues:

1. What do the 150 UN member states who vote for the resolution do with the recommendation? Do they afford Palestine full representation or representative status? Where will their embassies be? Since Israel will refuse to allow foreign embassies in East Jerusalem, will they instead be in Ramallah, and if so, does that mean that Ramallah is the future capitol of a Palestinian state? Will passports be issued to Palestinians and will they receive full consular intervention if they require it abroad?

2. What will be the recognized population of Palestine? Will it include Palestinians in the diaspora? In the West Bank and Gaza? Inside Israel? The refugees? If it does not include the refugees, do they then lose the legal right to return to their property and land confiscated by the state of Israel? None of these questions have been answered and the consequences are enormous.

3. If Palestine will be considered a legitimate state on the diplomatic front, it will not have relations with states that refused to recognize it. That means it would not have relations with the United States. How does that impact Palestine’s status at the International Court of Justice or the UN, where the US and Israel could prevent its admission to the Human Rights Council?

4. What can Palestine do to enforce the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and its territorial integrity in the absence of Israeli withdrawal and the backing of the US? The issue of enforcement has not been addressed through the statehood resolution.

5. Even if new avenues open for legal recourse against the Israeli occupation, Israel does not recognize the International Court of Justice’s authority and the United States will block any efforts to bring Israeli defendants to the ICJ for crimes they committed against Palestinians. So in real terms, what can Palestine do? Further, if Palestine becomes a member of the UN, it could table and introduce resolutions, but does this represent a change in the observer status the PLO has enjoyed since 1974? It does not.

6. Do Palestine’s security forces become a legitimate military force with all the benefits that it entails? Can they purchase arms as all state military forces do? If Israel refuses to accept members of the Palestinian military as legitimate soldiers than the status quo of captured Palestinian soldiers being treated as terrorists remains.

The consequences of statehood without real independence are enormous, Akram said. In the absence of a strategy based on hard and soft law, the PA’s statehood resolution bid could be an exercise in futility. While Namibia relied on a protracted legal battle for 40 years along with armed struggle and a political/media strategy to lay the foundation for its independence, Akram warned that the outcome for Palestine is highly uncertain.

Omar Barghouti: J Street’s Ben Ami has Jews-only policy on BDS debates

Last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” For those who don’t know, Barghouti is one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters, basing his advocacy on a platform of human rights and international law while explicitly rejecting arcane ideology. His book offers the most in-depth and accessible analysis to date of the movement, its history, and why it is gaining so much momentum. Read an excerpt here.

During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: “We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”

Barghouti joked, “Why would BDS have anything to do with Palestinians?” He went on to describe Ben-Ami’s policy as racist.

Last December, I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society. If I had known at the time that J Street had an alleged policy of refusing to debate with non-Jews, especially Palestinians, I would not have participated at all.

Another person told me about J Street’s “don’t debate Palestinians” policy, but did not authorize me to report it at the time. The source explained that the policy resulted in the Jews-only debate at J Street’s annual policy conference in February, where Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS against opponents Bernard Avishai and Ken Bob of Ameinu.

It is worth noting that after the debate, Bernard Avishai took to his blog to tell a certain member of JVP (he left the person unnamed) that “you remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party.” Avishai was apparently upset that the JVP member had asked him how he could argue against divesting from multinational companies and Israeli institutions that profit from the occupation while supporting a boycott of the settlements. It is unusual for someone of Avishai’s intellectual caliber to stoop so low to rebut a simple question about tactics. His response makes me wonder if the opponents of BDS, especially those who define themselves as politically liberal, are simply overwhelmed by events in Israel and Palestine.

To J Street’s credit, it is the only major pro-Israel group I know of that will debate BDS at all. None of the other established pro-Israel groups have participated in debates and none seem likely to do so in the near future. Last week, the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to a demand by the campus Hillel house for a “dialogue session” by requesting a debate instead. SJP’s leadership told Hillel’s director that he could choose the topic, time and place of the debate. Hillel refused the proposal. Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?

On Land Day, the Jewish National Fund’s Racist Legacy is Exposed

“The complete evacuation of the country from its other inhabitants and handing it over to the Jewish people is the answer.”

–Jewish National Fund director Yosef Weitz, March 20, 1941

“The Jewish National Fund is the caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners – Jewish people everywhere.”

–Jewish National Fund mission statement

The first pogrom against Al Arakib, courtesy of the Jewish National Fund (photo by Active Stills)

The first of 21 pogroms against Al Arakib, courtesy of the Jewish National Fund (photo by Active Stills)

Today is the 35th anniversary of the Land Day massacre by Israeli soldiers of unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrating against the expropriation of their farmland in the Galilee and the expansion of Jews-only settlements around their villages. According to Hatim Khanaaneh, a renowned doctor and activist whose memoir, “A Doctor In Galilee” is the best first hand account I have read of official Israeli discrimination against its Palestinian citizens, soldiers from the Golani Brigade celebrated the massacre in a nearby Jewish moshav by dancing and singing “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Land Day massacre electrified the Palestinian national movement inside Israel and popularized Toufiq Ziad’s poem, “Ounadikom” (I call out to you), an enduring cry of anti-colonial resistance that was recited this January in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by Waseem Wagdi.

On this year’s Land Day, the Jewish National Fund distributed a series of hysterical fundraising appeals and press releases that highlighted the organization’s sense of desperation. The letters are full of schnorring and devoid of content, as the JNF has no response to the factual arguments of its critics or to the reports of its recent abuses in the Negev. Instead, the organization has called for a “Stop the Hatred Day” and concocted a new slogan: “They destroy, we build.” Of course, anyone who is familiar with Al Arakib knows that it is the JNF that destroys and the indigenous Bedouins who rebuild.

Since it was founded in 1901, the JNF has been at the forefront of ethnic cleansing in Palestine. And now the group’s machinations are being exposed and countered through an effective, non-violent campaign based on a simple appeal to human dignity, international law and basic rights. It is no wonder its leadership is so defensive and desperate.

The excellent Israeli documentary “The Diaries of Yosef Nachmani” used the memoirs of one of the JNF’s top officials to expose the organization’s role in forcing Palestinian farmers off their own land, often through trickery and manipulation. JNF director Yosef Weitz was instrumental in hatching Plan Dalet, the campaign to ethnically cleanse at least 400 Palestinian villages and expel their residents in 1947 and 1948. After the war of 1948, Weitz orchestrated the planting of hundreds of thousands of non-native trees west of Jerusalem to cover up the scores of villages that had just been ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias. Today those trees look as natural to the landscape of the Judean Hills as the hair plugs on Joe Biden’s scalp.

The Land Day protests were sparked by the Israeli government’s “Judaization” of the Galilee, a plan that led to mass expropriations by the Israel Land Authority (ILA). Through a 1960 law, ILA was required to allocate half of the seats in its council to the JNF. A law the following year clearly stated the JNF existed “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands and properties.” In other words, the JNF openly discriminated on the basis of ethnicity. Having acquired 70 percent of its land through confiscations from Palestinian refugees and present absentees through the Absentee Property Law of 1950, the JNF became a key mechanism for expropriation and ethnic cleansing under the guise of developing Israel for its Jewish citizens.

The 1995 Supreme Court Ka’adan ruling forbade the ILA from leasing land exclusively through the JNF. The court made its ruling on the grounds that the JNF openly discriminates against non-Jews. However, a Knesset vote in 2007 undermined the ruling, prompting the Israeli newspaper Haaretz to editorialize: “The Jewish National Fund’s land policy counters the interests of the state and cannot discriminate by law against the minority living in Israel.” (The title of the editorial was, “A Racist and Jewish State.”)

Today, though the ILA is able to sell some of its land to private developers, the JNF still controls 6 of 13 seats on the ILA’s council while maintaining numerous arrangements for land swaps with the state. With the ILA in possession of 93 percent of Israel’s land, the JNF remains in a prime position to dictate how the Galilee and Negev are “Judaized.” But as Alaa Mahajneh of the Palestinian-Israeli legal rights center Adalah points out, the increasingly complex arrangements make legislating equality from within the Israeli legal system even more difficult.

In recent years, the JNF has focused its efforts on an area in the Negev known as Al Arakib. It is the ancestral home of the Al Touri Bedouin tribe. In 1951, the Bedouins were removed from their land by the Israeli army, which told them they could return once it completed a series of training exercises. Years passed until the tribe came back, but by then they were considered “present absentees” thanks to the aforementioned Absentee Property Law. This meant that they were internal refugees with no rights to their own land, even if they had property deeds. Their land had been transfered into the hands of the Development Authority, the custodian for confiscated land at the time, and then handed over to the ILA, which eventually authorized the JNF to do what it does best: ethnic cleansing.

Nuri El Okbi, a veteran Bedouin rights activist from Al Arakib, attempted to move back to his family’s property, where the ruins of his father’s house lay. Not only did El Okbi have land deeds his parents had saved in a halvah box to prove their right to the land, he had aerial photos dating from 1947 that clearly showed his family’s home and fields. Each time he encamped there, however, Israeli police officers removed him by force. After the 40th attempt to return, El-Okbi received a restraining order forbidding him from setting foot on the land he spent his childhood. He can not return because he is not a Jew. In other countries during other times, this was considered apartheid.

Since the JNF has set its sights on Al Arakib, the village has been destroyed 21 times. Israeli police have used rubber bullets, percussion grenades, teargas, batons and bulldozers against women, children, and the elderly — all unarmed — in their effort to remove the Bedouin un-people from the area so the JNF can go to work. During the first destruction of Al Arakib, a squad of Israeli high school age students were hired to remove belongings from the homes of Al Arakib residents — the “Summer Camp of Destruction.” The students vandalized homes in the process and reportedly belted out the familiar “Am Yisrael Chai!” when the bulldozers moved in. ILA bulldozers accompanied by riot police have attempted to destroy and desecrate the Al Arakib cemetary, which contains graves more than a century old. And recently, the Israel State’s Attorney Office has announced plans to sue the residents of Al Arakib for $1 million shekels for the demolition of their own homes.

To complete its project in and around Al Arakib, the JNF has accepted millions of dollars in funding from a racist and anti-Semitic evangelical broadcasting network, GOD TV, that openly propagates End Times theology demanding that all Jews to convert to Christianity or suffer in an “everlasting lake of fire.” With the JNF’s help, GOD TV’s huckstering CEO Rory Alec will be able to fulfill his mission of “redeeming the land for Christ” by building “GOD TV Forest” on the ruins of Al Arakib. Meanwhile, Alec has lavished money on Givot Bar, a Jewish town in the area that is likely to benefit from the newly approved Communities Acceptance Law allowing small communities to openly discriminate against applicants on the basis of ethnicity and sexual orientation (and it is unlikely that blue collar Mizrahi Jews will be able to afford the 5000 Shekel application fee Givot Bar requires).

Recently, the Australian television news show Dateline produced an excellent report on Al Arakib. Dateline told the story of El Okbi, comparing him to the Australian aboriginal rights advocate Eddie Mabo, who won a landmark court case eliminating the white colonists’ legal fiction of Terra Nullius, a concept that still forms the basis of Israeli land confiscations.

Dateline then interviewed Shlomo Szizar, an official from the JNF’s bureaucratic parent, the ILA. In three lines, Siza summarized the logic of the JNF and the Zionist movement that brought it into being: “Every year, [the Bedouins] invade and we remove them. They invade and we remove them. We’re not going to let this land be invaded.”

Having turned the indigenous people of Palestine into “invaders” in their own land, the JNF’s leadership insists that their intentions are good. “I can tell you one simple thing,” JNF CEO Russell Robinson wrote in a March 28 email newsletter. “No other organization is doing anywhere near as much as JNF is to help enhance the quality of life for this [Bedouin] population.”

Go here and here to take action to stop the JNF.