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Remembering Juliano Mer Khamis

Juliano Mer Khamis was killed yesterday by a gunman in Jenin. I met him on a number of occasions. He exuded a unique charisma that was bound up with unpredictable rage and spontaneous joy. Gideon Levy has done justice to his legacy in a short but powerful obituary.

My friend Jen Marlowe helped create this video about Juliano’s work with the Jenin Freedom Theater. Watching it is all anyone needs to do to understand how much of a void his murder has created:

Juliano’s documentary, “Arna’s Children,” is the best film I have seen about the occupation. There is really no other film that approaches its emotional impact or captures the way in which the trasher of the occupation methodically destroys the lives of everyone in its path — and how those in its way resist it no matter what. So here it is, a testament to the genius of Juliano, the courage of his mother, who founded the Jenin Freedom Theater in 1988, and the humanity of the children of Jenin:

Juliano was born to a Jewish Israeli woman, Arna Mer, who dedicated the last years of her life to challenging the occupation, protesting at checkpoints and traveling to and from the Jenin refugee camp, even while in the terminal stages of breast cancer. His father was a Palestinian Christian bureaucrat, Saliba Khamis, who met Arna in the Israeli Communist Party, which was for decades the only party in Israel that promoted co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Mer and Khamis named their son after Salvatore Giuliano, a strikingly handsome, swaggering Italian bandit who led a small band of landless peasants against powerful oligarchs, earning himself a reputation as “the Italian Robin Hood” and eventual media stardom.

After making Arna’s Children and appearing in films like Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (not the best Gitai film but still worth watching), Juliano set out to revive his mother’s Jenin Freedom Theater. The theater had been in ruins since the Israeli army destroyed it while reducing Jenin to a post-apocalyptic moonscape of destruction. Once the Second Intifada was crushed, the camp was transformed into a laboratory for Tony Blair and General Keith Dayton’s cynical security plan. Now Jenin was ringed by electrified fences, a virtual prison inhabited by thousands of children with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Juliano’s return to Jenin was a rebuke to the promise of former Israel Labor Minister Shlomo Benizri to “convert the life of Palestinians into hell,” as he restored a creative outlet for a generation the occupation had sought to demoralize and destroy. In turn, he brought young Israelis (including Palestinian Israelis) and international activists over the Green Line to help him build the theater, promoting a model of co-existence based on solidarity with the Palestinian grassroots.

With assistance from Zacharia Zubbeidi, a former leader of the armed insurgency during the Second Intifada, the theater allowed young people from the camp to take aim not only at the occupation, but at the internal problems plaguing Palestinian society. The next Intifada would consist of theater, music, poetry — the struggle of a dispossessed, dehumanized generation asserting itself through culture. That was Juliano’s vision.

Through their work in the theatre, young Jenin residents challenged traditions and entrenched social mores like corporal punishment and the relegation of young women to secondary social roles. “For me freedom is the occupation ending and the army leaving,” a young boy who participates in the theater said. “But it’s also playing snooker and not having anybody hit me.”

Juliano’s final play, a production of “Alice in Wonderland,” was filled with themes and symbols that explicitly challenged patriarchal authority. I wish I had traveled to Jenin with Matan Cohen when he invited me to see the play; the reviews I heard from those who attended it were glowing.

Was Juliano’s murder motivated by religious extremism? For now no one knows. The theater has been attacked with molotov cocktails and Juliano has been denounced as a Zionist agent by militant elements. He knew the risks of his work and was committed enough to risk paying the ultimate price.

“At the end, there’s a feeling that the spirit [of freedom] is already here, it’s already seeded,” he said during an interview in Jenin. “And I don’t believe that someone or anyone can stop it.”

Watching Miral: An unflinching but flawed look at Israel’s occupation

I saw Julian Schnabel’s film “Miral” a few months ago at a private screening but did not write about it at the time. The film had been billed to me as a “game changer” that would finally present a sympathetic portrayal of the Palestinian struggle, but I was not very excited or impressed by what I saw. Considering how jaded I have become about potential “game changers” (why hasn’t the game changed yet?) and how many films I have seen about and by Palestinians, I might not be the best person to evaluate the film as a vehicle for educating the American public. After spending nearly two months reflecting on the Miral, I concluded that despite its many flaws, it represents a valuable and timely contribution.

Miral’s plot focuses on Hind Husseini, daughter of Palestinian aristocracy and founder of the Dar El-Tifel orphanage, which originally housed the children of the victims of the Deir Yassin massacre. Thus Schnabel depicts the Nakba, a first in a major American film, however, he does it with minimal context and explanation. Why did Israel evict 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes and their land? The answer explains the roots of the conflict, yet the history remains unknown to most in the West.

Next, viewers are introduced to Miral, whose mother was so traumatized by the events of 1948 and by the sexual abuse visited on her by her father that she committed suicide. Miral’s character, played in mediocre fashion by Frieda Pinto, who could not seem to drop her Hindi accent (her performance reminded me of Kevin Costner’s Midwestern-accented Robin Hood), is based on Rula Jebreal, the author of the novel “Miral.” As the wife of Schnabel, Jebreal apparently convinced him to turn her book into a film. As in the movie, Rula was sent by her widowed father to live and study at Dar El-Tifel. There she was schooled along with dozens of girls (including the writer Susan Abulhawa) to be the cream of Palestinian society, and to educate the left-behinds in the refugee camps.

Having moved through the Nakba and the occupation of Jerusalem in 1967 — and there viewers see a rare acknowledgment of Palestinian terrorism as a tactic employed in the grand tradition of anti-colonial resistance — the film culminates with the War of the Stones, known in the West as the First Intifada. “Intifada means stand up straight,” Miral tells one of her classmates as riots spread from Gaza to the West Bank. I thought this line was a touch corny, but then again, when has a mass Western audience seen the Intifada depicted as anything other than a Jew-hating terror fest?

It is during this section that Schabel shows his strengths. Though he tends to sacrifice narrative depth for powerful imagery (“Basquiat” felt like a two hour long music video), Schnabel’s fixation on aesthetics resulted in Miral’s most subversive scenes. As Miral becomes increasingly involved with PLO activists, she is immediately swept up by thrasher of the Israeli occupation. Schnabel unflinchingly depicts her torture at the hands of a Amazon-like female Shabak agent, something that has happened to hundreds if not thousands of young Palestinian women in Israeli prisons. And he recreates scenes of Israeli home demolition that were so true to life I had flashbacks to Al-Arakib, where I watched Israeli bulldozers level an entire village while a phalanx of soldiers forced its Bedouin residents away from their crumbling homes.

The brief but vivid depictions of common Israelis prompted flashbacks of daily life in Israel, from the pinched lipped Jewish redneck on the Jerusalem city bus who blurts out racial slurs at the nearest available Arab; to the smug Israeli general who corrects Miral when she identifies herself as Palestinian, informing her that she is in fact an “Israeli Arab;” to the free spirited Tel Avivian youths who are more than happy to party with an attractive Palestinian girl like Miral — and who pat themselves on the back for doing so — but would do nothing to help her struggle for their liberation. During the time I spent inside Israel, I met all of these characters again and again.

Unfortunately, for all of Miral’s strengths, the film completely collapses in its final minutes as viewers are introduced to the Oslo Accords. Schnabel presents the US-brokered effort as a sincere attempt at peace and not the Trojan Horse for permanent occupation that Israel’s subsequent actions exposed it to be. It is disappointing that Schnabel chose to portray the peace process as some sort of panacea, with Yitzhak Rabin appearing on screen before cheering throngs to declare that “we are making peace,” when it has only enabled Israel to deepen its occupation and create more facts on the ground with the stamp of Western approval. Anyone who has taken a cursory glance at the Palestine Papers would have a hard time disputing that the peace process is a sham. I know American moviegoers yearn for moral clarity and golden sunsets, but Schnabel should have avoided propagandizing in favor of a discredited political process — or any “solution,” for that matter. The stories he and Jebreal presented of Palestinian women living under occupation and apartheid were powerful enough to stand on their own.

After Itamar: Exploring the cynical logic that makes everyone a target

Everyone is rushing to condemn the gruesome murder of a family in the illegal Israeli settlement of Itamar. Even President Barack Obama felt compelled to offer his “unequivocal condemnation” of the murders. For what it’s worth (very little), I offer my own denunciation of the killings. Murdering kids can not be justified on any human level. However, even if the motives of the killer seem obvious to everyone, journalists covering the incident must be reminded there is no hard evidence that a Palestinian terrorist committed the crime. No viable armed faction has taken credit, and Israeli police are even treating Thai workers as suspects.

Itamar is heavily guarded, surrounded by an electrified fence, and monitored 24/7 by a sophisticated system of video surveillance. Yet there is no video of the killer. Like it or not, until the identity of the killer is confirmed, the murder can only be described by journalists as an “alleged terror attack.” Legitimate outrage is no excuse to flout the basics of journalism 101.

Given the amount of violence visited upon local Palestinians by the residents of Itamar and nearby settlements, I will not be surprised if the killer turns out to be a rogue Palestinian bent on revenge. In one instance documented in 2007, settlers from Itamar stabbed a 52-year-old shepherd named Mohammad Hamdan Ibrahim Bani Jaber to death while he tended to his flock. Routine attacks from Itamar have prompted the near-total evacuation of the village Izbat Al Yanoon, while settlers from nearby Jewish colony of Yitzhar have staged homemade rocket attacks on local Palestinians and torched their mosques. As I have reported, Yitzhar is home to Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, author of the notorious “Torat Hamelech,” which uses rabbinical sources to justify the killing of non-Jewish civilians, including children, in combat situations.

Medical Xray of live ammunition lodge in the skull of Ussayed Qadous, shot at point blank range by Israeli troops near Itamar in 2010

Medical x-ray of live ammunition lodged in the skull of Ussayed Qadous, shot at point blank range by Israeli troops near Itamar in 2010

A year ago in nearby Palestinian farming villages Awarta and Iraq Burin, Israeli soldiers were accused of executing local youths during riots against settlement expansion. As Jesse Rosenfeld reported, despite the clear evidence of execution style killings, none of the soldiers who held the Palestinians in custody at the time they were shot were convicted of any crimes. And to my knowledge, no official American response followed. Thus the besieged villages near Itamar have been left without any recourse or legal means to redress their harassment and murder.

Israel’s method of occupation and its military rules of engagement — which are supported by the US in spirit and through acts like the recent UN settlement resolution veto — openly skirt international law, eliminating any outside mechanism for mediating conflict or redressing the grievances of civilians harmed by war. Under these terms, where distinctions between civilians and combatants are deliberately blurred in order to deepen Israel’s control over land gained through military conquest, horrific attacks like the kind allegedly witnessed in Itamar become all the more possible.

To establish an ethical basis for military operations aimed at consolidating the occupation, the Israeli army has turned to Zionist academics like Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Asa Kasher. In the service of the army, Kasher churned out elaborate manifestoes justifying Israel’s tactics during Lebanon II and Operation Cast Lead. Kasher’s concepts of warfare are best defined by his explicit justifications for killing unarmed civilians in any instance when an Israeli soldier believed that they were in danger. Kasher strained his logic to the point that he highlighted the 2004 US invasion of Fallujah in Iraq, when American troops fired white phosphorous shells into the city center and demolished hundreds of homes, to justify Israeli actions in Gaza. “If it’s between the soldier and the terrorist’s neighbor, the priority is the soldier,” Kasher said. “Any country would do the same.”

Another academic with close ties to the Israeli military-intelligence apparatus, Professor Arnon “the Arab Counter” Soffer of Haifa University, urged the army to massacre Palestinian civilians after the withdrawal from the illegal settlement of Gush Katif in Gaza. Soffer, who devised the separation wall policy in order to confine the Palestinians of the West Bank to what he called “three sausages,” reasoned that mass murder was the only way to maintain the security of the Southern Israeli perimeter communities while avoiding political concessions to the Palestinians of Gaza.

Prof. Arnon Soffer: "Kill, kill, kill."

Prof. Arnon Soffer: "Kill, kill, kill."

“When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Soffer argued. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.” And that is exactly what Israel did when it followed Soffer’s logic in Operation Cast Lead. (Note the use of the word “animal” in Soffer’s language and in the language of Israelis responding to the murders in Itamar; the word is essentially a signal to kill Palestinians indiscriminately).

While Soffer and Kasher have both served as outside consultants for Israeli governments and the army, another advocate for slaughtering Palestinian civilians, Yaakov Amidror, has been appointed to serve as Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor. “That’s a totally illegal order,” Amidror once snapped at Israeli news anchor Haim Yavin, who had said that Israeli soldiers were instructed to avoid civilian casualties in Lebanon. “What should be said is ‘kill more of the bastards on the other side, so that we’ll win.’ Period.” Amidror has criticized Kasher for formalizing the army’s ethical code — “I said this should remain unwritten, so there wouldn’t be anything written, as [then] it would become technical,” he declared — and even called for the on-site execution of Israeli soldiers who refused to advance in battle. (Amidror also happens to be a religious settler who lives in the West Bank.)

Kasher, Soffer, and Amidror’s arguments relating to the killing of civilians are eerily similar to those advanced in a halakhic context by religious nationalist rabbis. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira of Yitzar, a settlement that neighbors Itamar, has written in his book “Torat Hamelech” that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and should be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations.” A guide for anyone pondering when killing goyim is permissible, the book has been described by Rabbi Dov Lior of the settlement Kiryat Arba as “very relevant, especially in this time.” Lior, who has said that “gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring,” is also a firm advocate of slaughtering Palestinian civilians. In 2008, when the IDF’s chief rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Ronski, brought a group of military intelligence officers to Hebron for a special tour, he concluded the day with a private meeting with Lior, who reveled the officers with his views on modern warfare: “no such thing as civilians in wartime.” (For his part, Ronski has urged Israeli troops to show Palestinian civilians “no mercy.”)

National Security Advisor appointee Yaakov Amidror: kill civilian "bastards" and shoot non-compliant soldiers on the spot

National Security Advisor appointee Yaakov Amidror: kill civilian "bastards" and shoot non-compliant soldiers on the spot

So what is the difference between rabbis like Lior and Shapira and secular academics like Kasher and Soffer? I put this question to a 20-something settler (he is the last guy I interviewed in this video) during a rally in defense of the publication of “Torat Hamelech.” “Well, the difference is that someone like Kasher is speaking from his kishkes [guts],” the settler told me. “But Yitzhak Shapira is speaking from Torah; he’s speaking from Hashem.” In other words, the philosopher and the rabbi share a philosophy that justifies killing non-Jewish civilians, but the ethicist uses rational arguments rooted in secular Enlightenment thought, while the rabbi claims to be translating for God from ancient documents. In the end, both are working to cultivate an environment in which legal and moral protections for civilians are discarded in order to advance the maximalist goals of Jewish nationalism.

During his opening statement in his debate against Judge Richard Goldstone at Brandeis University on November 5, 2009, former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold claimed that the Goldstone Report was in fact an attack on Israeli society. In a section entitled “Maligning Israeli Society,” Gold and Lt. Col. Jonathan Dahoah Halevi wrote: “The language used by the UN Gaza report — and the gravity of its allegations about “deliberate” Israeli attacks on civilians — maligns Israeli society as a whole, for the Israel Defense Forces is a citizen’s army, an army which is made up of the people of Israel.”

In Gold’s own words, there is no difference between Israeli civilians and soldiers — the army is society. Without knowing it, Gold deployed the very same argument Palestinian militant factions have used to justify suicide attacks inside Israel and the murder of the children of settlers in the West Bank. Thus Gold revealed the extent to which the process of comprehensively militarizing Jewish Israeli society — a central goal of Zionism since the days of Joseph Trumpeldor — had obliterated the distinction between civilian and combatant, transforming every human being into a possible target.

In such an environment, horrific violence against the innocent is not only possible, but inevitable. Of course, most of the violence will be meted out against the Palestinians, who live under a seemingly permanent occupation with negligible deterrent capacity and no political rights. But Israelis must also live in this moral wasteland and face the depressing consequences. Having to someday accept that they were responsible for its creation might be the cruelest fate of all.

In Israel, Non-Violent Solidarity Activist Goes to Prison, Anti-Gay Terrorist Gets Community Service

Jonathan Pollak, bearing a Steve Biko t-shirt, awaits his sentence in a Tel Aviv court

Jonathan Pollak, bearing a Steve Biko t-shirt, awaits his sentence in a Tel Aviv court

On December 27, Anarchists Against the Wall co-founder Jonathan Pollak was slapped with a three month prison sentence for illegal assembly. He was convicted by an Israeli magistrate judge for his participation in a January 2008 Critical Mass bike ride through the streets of Tel Aviv in protest of Israel’s brutal military assault on the Gaza Strip. Though Pollak was offered community service, he accepted prison time because he was convinced that he had done nothing wrong.

The day before Pollak was sentenced, an Israeli judge handed down a sentence of six months of community service to Michael Naky. Naky’s crime? He helped devise and detonate a pipe bomb in order to kill as many homosexuals as possible at the 2007 Jerusalem gay pride parade.

In a single day in Israel’s kangaroo courts, a right-wing terrorist was sentenced to a few months of street cleaning while a non-violent activist dedicated to stopping the occupation was jailed under the most specious charges. And while Pollak’s sentencing was reported with great fanfare in Israel’s major papers, Naky’s passed below the radar (Yedioth devoted just six lines). The contrast in punishments represented just another symptom of a sick society unwilling to face the Molock in the mirror.

The state has made little effort to disguise the political nature of Pollak’s prosecution. He was not a ringleader of the Critical Mass protest, nor did he behave in an unusual manner. He simply rode his bike slowly, disrupting the normal flow of traffic along with dozens of demonstrators. However, the police recognized him as a prominent organizer of unarmed protests against the Israeli military repression in the West Bank, singled him out and arrested him.

I have documented Pollak’s actions at protests across the West Bank, where he spends most of his weekends, and I witnessed the respect he has earned from the residents of besieged Palestinian villages who count on him as their liaison to the outside world — a realm that the state of Israel has largely forbidden them from interacting with. Last summer, Pollak helped me gain entry into Ofer Military Prison to witness the show trials of Palestinian popular committee members who organize the unarmed protests against the Israeli segregation wall. He has done the same for numerous European diplomats, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who declared after a harrowing tour of the Israeli Occupation that Pollak helped arrange: “Popular resistance to the Occupation is the sole remaining possible alternative for the Palestinians to achieve their rights and avoid armed struggle.”

It is clear why the Israeli justice system acted in such a draconian fashion against Pollak: His activism is making an impact against the Occupation.

Association for Civil Rights in Israel chief legal counsel Dan Yakir described the political nature of Pollak’s prosecution succinctly when he said, “The fact that Pollak was the only one arrested, even though he behaved just like the rest of the protesters, and the fact that bicycle demonstrations are usually held without police involvement raises a strong suspicion regarding personal persecution and a severe blow for freedom of expression, just because of his opinions. A prison sentence in the wake of a protest is an extreme and exaggerated punishment.”

Naky’s lenient sentencing appeared to have been influenced by politics as well, especially when viewed in light of the state’s treatment of other right-wing terrorists. Chaim Pearlman, a fanatical settler suspected of stabbing to death three Palestinians in cold blood, was set free after a month in Shin Bet custody. And Jack Teitel, another Jewish settler convicted of randomly murdering several Palestinians and attempting to kill the Israeli left-wing intellectual Zeev Sternhell (Teitel also planned to attack the 2006 Jerusalem gay pride parade), was allowed to plead insanity and ruled unfit to stand trial.

The Israeli justice system has extended no such privileges to Palestinians like Ibrahim Amireh or Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, who rot in Israeli military prisons for resisting their dispossession through unarmed protest. And the state is leveling every legal weapon at its disposal against activists like Pollak, who declared at his sentencing hearing: “I will go to prison wholeheartedly and with my head held high. It will be the justice system itself, I believe, that ought to lower its eyes in the face of the suffering inflicted on Gaza’s inhabitants, just like it lowers its eyes and averts its vision each and every day when faced with the realities of the occupation.”

Confronting the Hebron Settlers in New York

Jewish settler graffiti painted on door of Palestinian home in Hebron's H2 apartheid zone (photo by me)

Jewish settler graffiti painted on door of Palestinian home in Hebron's H2 apartheid zone (photo by me)

On November 16, the Hebron Fund, a tax exempt 501 c-3, held its annual fundraising dinner at Chelsea Piers. The Hebron Fund named its gala “The Hebron Aid Flotilla,” deliberately mocking the massacre of 9 activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The event consisted of a few hundred supporters — and residents — of the most racist, violent Jewish settlements in the West Bank cruising around New York for a few hours. To paraphrase Benjamin Netanyahu, this was no love boat. I do not think it is much of an exaggeration to describe the Hebron settlers as the Ku Klux Klan of Israel. These are the people who celebrated Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, who hailed Baruch Goldstein as a gever, who routinely terrorize and attack defenseless residents in Hebron’s H2 apartheid zone, and who abuse the Star of David as a symbol of Judeo-fascism, painting it on the doors of the Palestinian homes and shops they have forcibly closed.

I stood with about 100 demonstrators outside Chelsea Piers in silent protest of the Hebron Fund’s cruise. A group from J Street’s campus division protested nearby, but would not stand with us, which was weird but not unexpected. Regardless, it was nice to see that a few liberal Zionists were willing to back up their talk about removing settlements to make a Palestinian state possible. I hung around for an hour with good people like Joseph Dana, Noam Sheizaf, Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, Emily Henochowicz, Rebecca Vilkomersen, the Bitar family, Daniel Levy, Daniel May and a former Givati brigade soldier who turned his back on the occupation and now wears a Cynthia McKinney button emblazoned on his IDF uniform.

After the demo petered out, Joseph and I decided to gather up as many people as we could to speak to the Hebron Fund organizers directly. We found about 12 people still milling around; not many, but enough for a minyan. As soon as we reached the Hebron Fund’s registration desk, the group’s director, Yossi Baumol, began screaming about a series of prank phone calls he had received in the past few days. An activist who goes by the alias of Harrabic Tubman and who co-founded the Palestine solidarity/hip-hop network Existence is Resistance, which promotes the music of Palestinian hip-hop queen Shadia Mansour, confronted Baumol with his cheerleading for a settler leader’s decision to run over a 10-year-old Palestinian boy with his car in Silwan, Jerusalem. I told Baumol he should be ashamed to be raising money in public. For some reason this prompted him to launch into a bizarre rant that concluded with his announcement that he was a liberal. (Arthur Schlesinger has nothing on this guy!) Then, like the settlers of Hebron, Baumol scurried away behind a phalanx of security guards. See it for yourself above.