Tag Archives: tel aviv

Israeli mercenary firm proposes “violent action” against African refugees

The Israeli daily Maariv recently reported [in Hebrew] that BTS, a mercenary firm run by a former Israeli army colonel and veteran bodyguard, Beni Tal, proposed to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai a plan to violently expel thousands of African migrant workers and refugees living near Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

According to Maariv, Tal told Tel Aviv municipal representatives he would gather intelligence on the African migrant population before sending in hundreds of security guards to cuff them and ship them away on buses or trucks. “This should be a very violent action,” Tal said.

“I have never seen a place so violent, not even in the roughest parts of New York,” Tal remarked. “So we need to bring in guys who are not afraid of anything, put people on trucks, and within six months return the bus station to its residents… This population [Africans] is very problematic.”

Though the Tel Aviv municipality ultimately rejected Tal’s proposal, Maariv reported that a municipal official brought the plan up in a meeting of the Israeli Knesset’s Special Committee regarding Foreign Workers. The representative claimed he raised Tal’s proposal merely to highlight the supposed severity of the situation in southern Tel Aviv.

I have spent countless hours in Tel Aviv’s central bus station and in the surrounding Neve Shaanan neighborhood, where much of the city’s migrant worker population lives. The only people who have ever threatened me there were plainclothes agents from Israel’s Oz Unit, which routinely accosts and arrests migrants around the bus station, and who once stopped me by the bus station to demand proof I was in the country legally.

The neighborhood may be impoverished and overcrowded, but it is hardly dangerous by urban American standards. When a Maariv reporter confronted Tal with the fact that crime in Neve Shaanan was no higher than anywhere else in the city, he protested that the statistics were false, but was unable to produce evidence to support his point.

Some migrants from Africa have arrived in Israel to occupy the menial jobs that Palestinians performed before they were tucked behind a separation wall and Gaza was completely besieged. They are the glue that holds Tel Aviv together, washing dishes, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, and changing children’s diapers so the city’s Jewish residents can enjoy the First World, Eurocentric lifestyle they have come to expect. Others arrived from Africa fleeing war and civil strife. By some estimates, 60 percent of Sudanese migrants are eligible for asylum status.

David Sheen’s devastating video documentary [above] illustrates how Israel’s draconian approach to African refugees is rooted in deeply ingrained racist attitudes and an official policy of countering demographic threats. Sheen’s report highlights how security concerns were manufactured to establish a pretext for enforcing the state’s exclusivist priorities against those condemned as “infiltrators.”

The recently passed “Prevention of Infiltration Bill,” which mandates a three year prison sentence without trial for illegal migrants, was nothing more than an amendment to the pre-existing 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law” enacted after the Nakba to prevent Palestinian refugees from reuniting with their family members inside the newly created state of Israel. As Israeli human rights activist Leehee Rothschild wrote, “At the end of the day, the justification for both the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law as well was the new amendment is one and the same – the maintenance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

Last month, Israel began construction on what will be the world’s largest detention center. Labeled by none other than Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as a “concentration camp where people are warehoused,” the prison will sit in the Negev Desert on the grounds of what was once Ketziot Prison, a detention camp for Palestinian detainees staffed by the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The new super-jail is being erected for the sole purpose of containing migrants and asylum seeking refugees fleeing from Africa.

Describing the desert prison as a “humanitarian solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified its construction on the grounds that African refugees threaten to “change[] the character of the state.”

This was originally published at Al Akhbar English

J14 and the Calamity of Hope: a response to critics

On August 26, Joseph Dana and I published an article, “Israel’s Exclusive Revolution,” bringing extensive reporting together with an analysis of Israel’s separation principle to describe the July 14 protest movement’s (J14) cognitive dissonance regarding the occupation. So far, no one — not one single person I know of — has responded to our article about the ongoing July 14 protests with facts of their own or anything resembling a reality-based analysis. Instead, our critics have replied with a mixture of personal attacks and emotion-laden, dreamy visions of the way things could be.

Noam Sheizaf wrote in a piece criticizing our article, “The important issue is not where the movement starts but where it leads, and in my view, this is still an open question… So there could, potentially, be mass change. This is the reason for the relative hope I see in this protest.” As with Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which has left most of his formerly love-struck liberal supporters feeling angry and abandoned, hope was all you needed.

It is true that there could be mass change (I presume Noam was referring to a mass Israeli movement to end the occupation of Palestine and official discrimination against Palestinian citizens and non-Jewish residents of Israel), but Dana and I did not find very much evidence that it was on the way. So we reported what we learned based on our coverage of events and interviews with key players in the J14 movement, including Palestinians. We aimed to portray J14 — and by extension, Israeli society —  as it was and not as it could be.

Sheizaf, who is not only a friend but one of the better  journalists covering Israeli politics, responded to me and Dana’s article by accusing us of “cherry-picking.” He did not produce any reporting or factual analysis to set us straight, however. Most disappointingly, Sheizaf felt compelled to distort our conclusions, claiming that we said “J14 was some sort of right-wing movement.” I challenge Sheizaf to produce any evidence that we wrote or even suggested that. If he can not, he should immediately retract his false claim.

On August 31, the normally insightful Gabriel Ash published a piece that read like a mimeograph of the criticisms that had already been leveled against Dana and I. After completely concurring with the substance of our analysis, writing, “Everything [Blumenthal and Dana] say about the limitations of the protest movement, I agree [with],” Ash lambasted us for not focusing on the supposed “process” of “changing Israeli consciousness.” He pointed to nothing factual to support his claim that such a process was underway and did not attempt to explain what the process was. He did no reporting and offered very little reality-based analysis. In the end, the thrust of his criticism was that we did too much reporting, and not enough dreaming about the way things could be.

When Ash attacked our reporting, he did not do so by engaging with the substance of what our sources told us, but by complaining that we talked to the wrong sources. Never mind that we interviewed some of J14’s original organizers, or that the mainstream of the protest is based on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. And never mind what anyone actually told us. According to Ash, the people we interviewed were not valid sources because some of them were middle class Ashkenazim. Like other critics, Ash didn’t like what we found, so he attacked us for not looking somewhere else. Then, after proclaiming his distaste for “pop psychology,” Ash accused us without any factual basis of seeking to interview only “people who are like [ourselves].” This was a comical statement considering that we featured long quotes by Palestinian citizens of Israel and based our overarching analysis on countless conversations we had with Palestinians. So was Ash saying that Dana and I are Ashkenazi Palestinians? Or was he just refusing to acknowledge the substance of what our Palestinian sources told us about J14?

For those living in a region consumed with conflict and war, the tendency to cling to irrational hopes and evanescent solutions is completely understandable. But it is also dangerous, especially when utopian aspirations are projected onto a mass movement with deliberately vague politics and clear limitations. Not all social justice movements lead the way to progressive change. In fact, some ultimately produce the reverse effect. Saul Alinsky’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which transformed into a base of support for the segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, is but one example of a dramatic social movement that turned reactionary. And after just a month and half of demonstrations, some of J14’s liberal-left activists have revealed an ugly, parochial mentality that has brought the movement’s latent ethno-nationalism closer to the surface.

Just weeks after the Israeli government detained scores of international Palestine solidarity activists at Ben Gurion International Airport for declaring their intention to volunteer in the occupied West Bank, the left-wing Israeli writer Yossi Gurvitz authored an uncharacteristically incoherent screed in which he declared that the “the ad hoc alliance” with “international left-wing activists…should end.” Addressing his rant to me, Dana and Ali Abunimah (though he didn’t mention us, we were the only J14 critics he linked to), Gurvitz claimed that “we’re not dealing with leftist [sic], but Palestinian right-winger. [sic]” Gurvitz’s broadside was an extension of his outbursts on Twitter, where he has attacked Abunimah, a Palestinian whose family was expelled from Lifta in 1948, as a “foreigner inciting natives,” bizarrely comparing him to Avigdor Lieberman. When I informed Gurvitz that Abunimah’s family was ethnically cleansed and that he is not allowed to return to their home, Gurvitz gloated, “If you ask Palestinians to reject moderate positions, you should be ready to pay the consequences.” Then, stepping into the role of the New Jew who had demonstrated his authenticity by “redeeming” the land, Gurvitz tweeted at me that my criticisms were not valid because I was a “tourist.” He thus appropriated the condescending talking point that has become a hallmark of Israeli hasbara: “You have to understand, it’s very, very complicated.”

While several other left-wing Israeli activists revealed ignorant, borderline racist views in Twitter exchanges with diaspora Palestinians, Gurvitz’s outbursts were in a class of their own. Gurvitz has covered the conflict for years, garnering a sizable following of readers who enjoyed his trenchant critiques of Israeli politics and military affairs. He seemed enlightened, informed about the history of the conflict and fully aware of the oppression Israel meted out against Palestinians on a daily basis. But once the “process” of J14 began, another side of Gurvitz emerged. As soon as Abunimah and others reminded Gurvitz that a movement that officially ignored Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps could not expect their solidarity, Gurvitz lashed out at them with visceral, almost inexplicable loathing. How long had Gurvitz harbored so much resentment for Palestinians? No one besides him really knows. But what is clear — and utterly tragic — is that his feelings were always there, lurking just beneath the surface. And now the mask is off.

While the “process” J14 initiated may have generated positive results in some areas, it has clearly been painful for Israelis like Gurvitz. Through their interaction with activists from the outside world, Gurvitz and others have been reminded that they are not citizens of a normal society, but players in a system that dominates and oppresses millions of people. They can sense through these exchanges that the discriminatory ideology of the state of Israel is a stain on their identity, and it hurts them. But instead of casting it off and redoubling their efforts against it, they hold on to the ideology and deploy it as a weapon against those “foreign” Palestinians and “tourists” who have denied them the sense of normality they yearn for. They want the occupation to go away for a little while so they can wage their “internal” struggle in the city Gabriel Ash once labeled “Colonial Tel Aviv.” But when Rothschild Boulevard empties out and the tents disappear, it will still be there. And then, they are going to have a whole lot of explaining to do.

The Exclusive Revolution: Israeli Social Justice and the Separation Principle

The following piece was co-authored by Joseph Dana. A shorter version recently appeared at Alternet.

The men and women who set out to build a Jewish state in historic Palestine made little secret of their settler-colonial designs. Zionism’s intellectual author, Theodor Herzl, described the country he envisioned as “part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” “All the means we need, we ourselves must create them, like Robinson Crusoe on his island,” Herzl told an interviewer in 1898. The Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue, Berl Katznelson, was more blunt than Herzl, declaring in 1928, “The Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquest.” More recently, and perhaps most crudely, former Prime Minister and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the goal of Zionism as maintaining “a villa in the jungle.”

Those who dedicated themselves to the formation of the Jewish State may have formulated their national identity through an idealized vision of European enlightenedness, but they also recognized that their lofty aims would not be realized without brute force. As Katznelson said, “It is not by chance that I speak of settlement in military terms.” Thus the Zionist socialists gradually embraced the ideas of radical right-wing ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky, who outlined a practical strategy in his 1922 essay, “The Iron Wall,” for fulfilling their utopian ambitions. “Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population,” Jabotinsky wrote. “This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population — an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs.” According to Jabotinsky, residents of the Zionist yishuv (community) could not hope to enjoy a European standard of life in the heart of the Arab world without physically separating themselves from the natives. This would require tireless planning, immense sacrifice and no shortage of bloodshed. And all who comprised the Zionist movement, whether left, right, or center, would carry the plan towards fulfillment. As Jabotinsky wrote, “All of us, without exception, are constantly demanding that this power strictly fulfill its obligations. In this sense, there are no meaningful differences between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’”

One of the greatest misperceptions of Israeli politics is that the right-wing politicians who claim Jabotinsky’s writings as their lodestar perpetuate the most egregious violence against the Palestinians. While brimming with anti-Arab resentment, the Israeli right’s real legacy consists mostly of producing durable strategies and demagogic rhetoric. The Labor Zionists who dominated Israel’s political scene for decades bear the real responsibility for turning the right’s ideas into actionable policies. The dynamic is best illuminated by the way in which successive Labor Party governments implemented the precepts outlined in Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” under the cover of negotiations with the Palestinians. As early as 1988, the Laborites Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Ramon were advocating for the construction of a concrete wall to separate the Palestinians from “Israel proper.” When Rabin declared his intention to negotiate a two-state solution with the PLO, his supporters adopted a slogan that had previously belonged to the right-wing Moledet Party: “Them over there; us over here.” Then, when Rabin placed his signature on the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel began surrounding the Gaza Strip with electrified fencing while revoking Palestinian work permits by the thousands.

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Who’s afraid of the cultural boycott?

This piece was co-authored by Joseph Dana.

The day after the American pop star Macy Gray announced controversial plans to perform in Tel Aviv in March, we sat down for a drink at Pua, a bar nestled in the heart of one of Jaffa’s most gentrified neighborhoods. When the waitress, a sociable 20-something resident of the city’s burgeoning young Jewish community informed us of a new brand of beer the restaurant was carrying, we wondered based on rumors we had heard if it was brewed in a settlement in the Golan Heights. The waitress, who was clearly offended, vehemently denied that it was “a settlement beer.” She reassured us that the owner of the restaurant was “a real Tel Aviv type guy,” and as such, “would not carry such a product.”

We were confused. “What exactly is a Tel Aviv type guy?” we asked her. When she returned to our table with two European beers, we asked for more information about the owner and a conversation began. She informed us that the owner of the bar ‘just keeps to himself and his friends in Tel Aviv’. She told us that he was not interested in politics and just wanted to live his life. We asked about her ideas on politics and the occupation. “I am a photographer. I used to go to Bil’in but it is violent.” She continued, “Now I just spend time with my friends and try to be a good person. I can’t take trying to change anything anymore.”

When asked for her opinion on BDS, her response was short and quick: “You can’t fight evil with evil.” She insisted that every boycott in history was wrong. We pressed her gently on the issue of boycotts (what about MLK’s Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the boycott of apartheid South Africa?) but it was clear that she was unwilling to go deep into the issue. She knew about the Occupation, the settlements, the racism that was rising like a tidal wave all around her, but she had deliberately cloistered herself inside a quaint European-style bar and Tel Aviv’s cosmopolitan lifestyle. Perhaps she could have contributed to the fight for a real democracy in Israel and justice for Palestinians living under occupation, but she had surrendered to the culture of apathy sanctioned by an entitled elite.

We began to understand the power of the cultural boycott in disrupting the apathy that pervades middle class, urban Israeli society. Apathy allows Israelis to live in comfort behind iron walls while remaining immune to the occupation and innoculated from its horrors. The culture of apathy allows them to watch the news and let out a groan of concern without thinking seriously about political engagement. In the case of the waitress at Pua, her apathy enabled her to witness the brutal military repression of legitimate political protest in the West Bank, only to return home to Tel Aviv and ignore her culpability.

The cultural boycott forces Israelis to deal with Israel’s behavior towards Palestinians by targeting them where it counts most: in the heart of their affluent comfort zones. The extreme right of Lieberman and the settlement movement must be confronted and exposed, but they are only the most extreme representation of an official ideology of racism towards Palestinians and the Arab world. They have grown and metastisized through fervent political activity, charisma and demagogy, while the “Good Israel” of Tel Aviv sits by impassively, and even cynically, watching the waves roll in while their society goes over the brink. It is the culture of apathy that supplies oil to the Occupation Machine.

Many Ashkenazi citizens of Israel have a second passport, allowing them to travel to and receive benefits from Western countries. They have developed an easy escape valve from the oppressive and violent manifestations of Jewish nationalism. Meanwhile, Palestinians live under a matrix of control devised inside US and European-funded Israeli universities and high tech research centers. An elaborate network of walls, electrified fences, biometric scanning devices, predator drones and collaborator networks ensures that each aspect of their lives is dominated by the Occupation. Because Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are forbidden from living where they choose with West Bank spouses, even their love lives are occupied. How would our waitress at Pua react if her life was subject to such crushing limitations?

We have often heard the argument that Macy Gray and other artists thinking about boycotting should perform in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. This commonly held idea not only reinforces concepts of segregation between Jews and Palestinians, it misses the point of the Palestinian boycott call entirely. The cultural boycott is designed to undermine the normalization of Israeli society. Palestinians do not necessarily want to see rock shows in Ramallah, they want to bring an end to the occupation. The 170 Palestinian civil society organizations who crafted the BDS call concluded that the most realistic non-violent means for ending the occupation was to force Israelis to live with the full responsibility of their actions. This was one of the ideas behind the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and one of the reasons why organizations like the South African Artists Against Apartheid now work to achieve the same goals in Israel.

My colleague and peer, Noam Shiezaf, published a thoughtful piece on this site arguing that Macy Gray should request that a certain number of tickets be sold to Palestinians in the West Bank for her Tel Aviv performance. The Palestinians would buy the tickets and then Israel would refuse their entrance to Tel Aviv. This would then provide a suitable subtext for Macy Gray to cancel her show.

The idea is clever but raises an important question: why would Macy Gray need to create a subtext to cancel? Doesn’t the longest military occupation in history provide a suitable enough reason to boycott? Furthermore, Israel would be able to correctly point out that Palestinians from the West Bank, by and large, are not allowed to enter Tel Aviv due to the sovereign laws of entry and exit to the State of Israel. Thus, the stunt would accomplish little more than reinforcing the notion that a militarized and radicalized Israeli society is perfectly kosher. And by circumventing the substance of the Palestinian BDS call, it allows critics to paint the cultural boycott as a form of collective punishment.

Too much of the commentary about BDS addresses the movement in a vacuum. The fact is, BDS is an integral part of Palestinian non-violent tactics. Quite simply, BDS is the globalization of Palestinian non-violent action against Israel’s occupation. So why do certain Jewish organizations from the United States and Israeli liberal Zionists lend rhetorical support to the joint nonviolent struggle in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere, while demonizing the call for BDS as borderline anti-Semitic and beyond the pale of reasonable people? Would the leaders of these organizations sit with the Palestinian families forcibly evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and tell them that their tactics are illegitimate?

It is easy to wash your hands of moral responsibility by participating in noble but ultimately doomed battles against the Occupation Machine. Confronting your own personal responsibility in allowing the crisis to reach such a terrible juncture is much harder, if not impossible, for too many. Perhaps the hardest step for the left-wing of the Jewish Establishment is ceding control of the debate while Palestinians assume the lead in their own struggle for freedom.

If the international community and especially the American Jewish community is unwilling to allow Palestinians a global form of nonviolent resistance against Israel’s occupation, what is left for the Palestinians to do? If violence is out of the question – it is certainly a terrible option for everyone — should Palestinians simply allow the Occupation to sweep them away like dust?

This is the question posed by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish in his famous poem, “The Earth Presses Against Us.” “Where should we go after the last border? Where should birds fly after the last sky?” he asked. BDS may not be a panacea, but it at least ensures that for the Palestinians a horizon darkened by occupation can be extended until a just solution comes into view.

Should Macy Gray perform in Tel Aviv? Ask Said Amireh of occupied Ni’lin

I put this question to my friend Said Amireh, a 19-year-old resident of the occupied West Bank town of Ni’lin. He said he’d like to see her perform in Tel Aviv, but he can’t. Why? Because his town is imprisoned behind the Israeli segregation wall. Meanwhile, the residents of the illegal Jews-only settlement of Hashmonaim who live just meters away, on the other side of the wall, travel to and from Tel Aviv on special bypass roads, and have annexed thousands of dunams of Ni’lin’s land.

Said is a participant in Ni’lin’s weekly unarmed demonstrations against the wall (see what it’s like here). Since the town rose up, the Israeli army has killed four of its residents, while injuring and jailing hundreds of others. Said was jailed for four and half months, then had to drop out of school and go to work when his father, Ibrahim, was imprisoned under specious charges of “incitement.” I attended one of Ibrahim’s trials in the Israeli military court at Ofer, and watched a military prosecutor and military judge railroad him despite scant evidence that he had committed any crime beyond organizing unarmed resistance against his dispossession.

“When I try to work my land,” Ibrahim Amireh said at the conclusion of the trial, “the Occupation comes and takes it away. When I try to resist them taking it away, the Occupation arrests me and puts me in jail. What else can I do?”

The South African Artists Against Apartheid has issued a letter to Macy Gray demanding that she take into account the voices of people living under occupation like Said and reconsider her trip to Tel Aviv:

We are writing to you to encourage you to reconsider performing in Israel. You might wonder what purpose refusing to perform in Israel (in line with the cultural boycott call) might serve? As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing to an end the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change – this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.

Inspired by the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians have called for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of Israel. As you are aware, this call has been actively supported by some Israelis as well. The aim of the campaign is not to target Israeli civilians, but to draw attention to the unjust acts that the Israeli state commits on a daily basis in their name.

The belief that cultural activities are “apolitical” is simply a myth. Artists have greater followings than politicians do; millions of people admire them and look to them as role models. They have a moral obligation to stand up against injustice all over the world. By performing in a country whose government systematically makes life unbearable for a targeted group of people is to ignore all sense of justice and morality and creates the impression that “it’s none of my business, I’m just here to entertain”…