JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS yesterday at J Street's annual convention
Today at J Street’s annual convention, my friend and one-time debate partner Rebecca Vilkomerson, who is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, made the case for BDS against liberal Zionist opponents Ken Bob of Ameinu and writer Bernard Avishai. I was not at the conference, in part because I am speaking at Rutgers’ Palestine Awareness Week later today. But I have heard that the session was packed; according to Vilkomerson, a sizable portion of the room was with her.
Because it wasn’t videotaped, I have reproduced the full text of Rebecca’s opening remarks below. Note that she identified BDS as a Palestinian-led movement that forms the international backbone of the Palestinian non-violent strategy and is “part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region.” Building on these points, Vilkomerson questioned why there were no Palestinian members on the panel (the BDS movement’s mastermind, Omar Barghouti, has been mysteriously denied a visa to enter the US to promote his book about the boycott). In the end, however, she was grateful to J Street for simply hosting the discussion while the rest of the Jewish establishment — including Ameinu — demonizes BDS proponents and tries to change the subject.
Remarks to Jstreet BDS Panel
February 28, 2011
I just want to take a moment in appreciation of J Street for including this discussion at the conference. It is the most important conversation, in my mind, that we can have at this moment, and I thank you for having it.
I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is. BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.
Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (photo by Guy Botebia)
On December 13, 17-year-old Hamza Abu Eid was taken out of class and summoned to the principal’s office. “The Israelis are destroying your house right now,” the principal told him. “It is best that you remain here. The last thing we want is for you to have a confrontation with a police officer.”
But Abu Eid rushed to his family’s house, hoping to salvage whatever belongings he could. When he arrived, bulldozers from the Israeli Lands Authority had destroyed virtually everything — all seven homes belonging to the Abu Eid family were reduced to rubble. A black masked officer from the Israeli yassam (the anti-riot police) prevented Hamza from entering to attempt to save his belongings. Three refrigerators and a TV set were among the appliances that Hamza’s family lost in the demolitions.
In the end, 74 people were left homeless, including 54 children, forced to sleep under the open sky during the coldest period of the year. No government social workers arrived with assistance, nor did the state offer any temporary aid. The families gathered whatever belongings they could, pitched tents like so many Palestinian refugees have done in the past, and placed a sign over their land plot that read, “Abu Eid Refugee Camp.”
Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next their destroyed homes
Although the area now looks like the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza after Operation Cast Lead, it is located only 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv in the Abu Toq neighborhood of Lod. All of Lod’s Palestinian residents are citizens of Israel, however, they are treated by the state like foreigners, or worse, as a threat to the survival of Zionism.
For years, the Abu Eid family applied for permits to allow them to renovate their homes to accommodate their growing family. But the state zoned their neighborhood as agricultural land and refused their requests (for obvious reasons, applications for renovation and building permits are almost always denied to the Arabs inside Israel). Finally, the state ordered them to seek residency elsewhere because their homes were slated for demolition.
Directly beside the Abu Eid refugee camp, building has begun on a yeshiva that will be directed by an Orthodox rabbi from the United States named Yaakov Saban. And plans have been authorized to build a road directly through center of the neighborhood. Pressure of Palestinian Israelis of Lod to leave is intensifying as a result of the far-right takeover of the city’s municipality.
Widespread corruption led to the collapse of the elected municipality, enabling the Israeli Ministry of Interior to install an emergency government consisting of hand picked military officials. Because the ministry is controlled by Eli Yishai, the leader of the extreme right Shas Party (Yishai was singled out in the Goldstone Report for saying “we should bombard thousands of houses in Gaza”), the new municipality has taken the form of an openly racist cabal. “They are poor in culture, poor in behavior. No ambition,” the mayor of Ramle, a neighboring city, said of the Palestinians of Lod.
Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home
While as many as 30 demolition orders hover over the residents of Lod, and 42,000 such orders have been issued across Israel against Arab residents, Yishai has declared his intention to settle thousands of Orthodox Jews in the city. At the same time, Arabs in Lod claim they are forbidden from living in a giant new public housing complex built in the heart of the city.
I arrived at the Abu Eid refugee camp on January 25. At the end of Lod’s Helen Keller Boulevard, men sit around open fires sipping tea, while small children clamber in an out of tents erected beside piles of rubble, debris and shattered home appliances. A middle aged man named Riyah Abu Eid met me at the entrance and took me into the makeshift camp.
“This place was here before 1948,” he said. “They destroyed it because they said we had no permit. But we can’t get permits because we are ’48 Arabs. We asked many times and were denied every time. They say we are terrorists. But look around, this is the real terror. Throwing children into the street on the coldest day of the year — that is terror.”
According to Riyadh Abu Eid, many children from camp are unable to attend school because they are unable to concentrate. A nine year old girl who was especially traumatized has refused to leave her bed for days. Riyadh does not try to conceal his desperation. “We do not feel safe here,” he said. “We want to ask the United Nations and Obama for international protection from a fascist government that has proven capable of massacring the unarmed.” He added, “The days of 1948 have come again.”
The destruction leveled against the Palestinians of Lod highlights a growing trend in Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Increasingly, the state is replicating the brutal methods it applies in the West Bank against Palestinians across the so-called Green Line. “For years I’ve been trying to say, ‘Don’t think the Occupation will stop at the Green Line,'” Amiel Vardi, a Jewish Israeli activist who accompanied me to Lod, told me. “Now we see it’s not stopping. They’re using the same methods with the settlements, with the courts, and with the Shabak [Shin Bet] on both sides of the Green Line. Go to the Abu Eid camp or to Al Arakib and there’s absolutely no difference from what I see in the Hebron hills.”
In the unrecognized Palestinian-Israel village of Dahmash, located next to Lod, the family of Ali and Farida Sha’aban defended their home for two years from demolition. When I met them last July, the couple was camped in front, awaiting the bulldozer that could come at any time. “If there is a democracy in Israel, then why are we forbidden from living here?” Ali said to me. “You are from the USA?” he asked me. “Well, we are the Native Americans in this place.” Building plans by the Lod municipality will effectively close off all or most of the entrances to Dahmash; already a wall separates the village from a Jewish housing development next door.
Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban
On January 22, the Lod police violently arrested Ali, Farida, and five members of their family, accusing them of harboring illegal workers. Their detention in the city jail was unknown until Monday, when they were finally allowed to see a lawyer. A judge extended their imprisonment until Thursday on the grounds of secret evidence the Sha’aban family’s lawyer was not allowed to view — a tactic familiar to Israel’s military courts in the West Bank. Video allegedly showing the police kicking the Sha’aban’s while shouting, “Go to Gaza!” was shown during the court hearing.
Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel's claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."
Last night, a group of Jewish Israeli demonstrators, including many from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, joined the Abu Eid family and Palestinian activists from Lod, including members of the renowned rap trio Dam (“I broke the law? No the law broke me,” is a lyric from their song “Born Here”), in a protest march to the Lod police station to demand the Sha’aban family’s release. The demonstration consolidated Lod as a new node in the growing solidarity movement inside Israel. On Friday, the Abu Eid’s will participate in the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demo, which was joined last week by residents of Al Arakib, and has been frequently attended by Farida and Ali from Dahmash.
Back in the Abu Eid camp, I spoke to Hamza Abu Eid, the 17 year old high school student, about what his life has been like since his home was destroyed. “I get distracted when I’m in class now,” he told me. “Sometimes when I think about the aggressive way the police treated the women — one of them kicked my brother’s pregnant wife — I get so angry I can’t focus.”
Hamza said his family plans to buy trailers to live in until the state delivers them “a solution.” He said, “For now, we have no solution. I expect that I will stay in this life and it will keep going on. The government has done nothing for me but destroy my house. As a citizen, I have no rights.”
He added, “I see a future full of darkness.”
Despite being homeless and traumatized, Hamza said he is excelling in school. He told me had just received 92 out of 100 on a chemistry exam, and that he has near-perfect marks in biology. When he finishes high school, Hamza plans to pursue a career in economics or medicine.
“I know there is a hope,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”
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.
JERUSALEM — 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
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.