Tag Archives: West Bank

A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives

Accusing the other side in a debate of a hidden agenda never gets us anywhere.  So let’s just not.

In the Israel/Palestine debate, there’s a trap that both sides fall into, repeatedly – and I’m no exception – which makes it more of a mud-slinging event than a discussion.  In a nutshell, the trap is claiming the other side has a hidden agenda.

I propose we all try to avoid this trap, for everyone’s sake.  To make that possible, let’s take a quick look at what it is, and how to avoid it. Continue reading A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives

Some more thoughts on exclusion, BDS and the housing protests

I got two comments on yesterday’s post via Twitter:

If @ & #j14 won't distinguish between Ariel & "Israel proper," why should anyone? Full #BDS now more than ever. http://t.co/e3Ft9IG
@MaxBlumenthal
Max Blumenthal
@ @ Let's get things straight in name of Social Justice: Settlers are criminals.

I have some more thoughts on this.

I

The strategy of exclusion, of which BDS is one example, is a tricky thing. It is effective when the excluder is (potentially) stronger than the excluded, on some dimension. International BDS is an effective strategy because it can actually hurt Israel: it can deprive Israel of services (such as a European-made tram system), entertainment, and a general feeling of legitimacy and business-as-usual. Boycotting products of the settlements within Israel is the same thing again on a smaller scale: if many in the Israeli market boycott settlement products, Israeli factories in the West Bank move back into Israel, and it’s no more business-as-usual. For a European boycott of the settlements to have an effect you would hardly need a couple percent of the European market to adhere to it. But would the EU care if the settlers decided to boycott all European products? Even if all 300-odd thousand of them strictly adhered to the boycott, it would hardly register, never mind causing some shift in EU policy.

II

Although the housing protests are the strongest thing we’ve ever seen in Israel, garnering more support than any political party could ever dream of, it would be foolish to assume that this strength is of the same kind as the EU or US’s economic and political power, which makes BDS effective. The housing protest is strong only because it has managed so far not to step on anyone’s toes too hard. In Israel, that is an astounding achievement. If a prominent part of the protest movement1 should pick a fight with the people of Ariel for the sake of total BDS, the movement’s strength may very well dwindle rapidly. The movement may even splinter. The movement boycotting Ariel would quickly become meaningless because not all tent cities would accept the boycott and it would suddenly just be a few isolated left-leaning groups going on about the settlements as usual.

III

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. BDS is an impressive and important tool, but it is not the only tool, certainly not the only tool available to Israelis who have the time and energy for political activity. The housing protests have to navigate the many illogical and contradictory conceptions prevailing in Israeli societies, and despite a majority opposing the settlements (in polls, at least), it is also a mainstream idea that Ariel is practically part of Israel and here to stay. (This stems from people not bothering to look at maps [PDF] or thinking these things through. Ariel has absolutely got to go in a two-state solution.)

Total inclusiveness, even of ideological settlers, drunks and lunatics, is probably the only way this movement can survive.2

IV

The fact that some so-called “leaders” of the movement fail to speak out against the occupation does not mean the movement ignores the issue or enables it. Actual discussions in the tent cities often turn to the occupation, and this movement has given the Israeli left more sympathy and more people willing to listen than anything else since at least the mid-nineties. But this too is different from one tent city to another, and it’s very hard to tell what the movement as a whole thinks. I doubt the movement as a whole agrees on anything except that the cost of living and the inequalities within Israeli society are unacceptable.

V

This movement is surprisingly open to criticism. Simply finding excuses to write it off and attack all those who support it will not get your issue addressed. If you think the movement should take a stand regarding the settlements, you have to either go to its assemblies or at least write something that actually tries to convince them. As Max probably knows, it takes a lot of explaining to get typical Israelis to even begin to understand BDS. Don’t take it for granted and just attack this whole decentralized thing for not following the methods you support. Engage the people involved in action and decision-making. You might even convince j14.org.il to list settlements separately from Israel proper if you actually try.

VI

I should note that despite my disagreement with Max, I’m sick of exclusion being the only kosher leftist tactic, and will continue to consider him an all-round good guy (as I consider other opponents of the West Bank apartheid). I will also continue to follow his blog and Twitter feed and list him on this site’s list of links. (I’m doing this as a favor to myself; I know nobody really cares who I like, follow or link to.)

Footnotes

  1. j14.org.il is just a part of the movement – it is a decentralized uprising with no real center, leadership, or hierarchy, despite what the press may say []
  2. As far as I know, the only thing excluded is exclusionary messages: when extreme racist settlers showed up on Rothschild, they were eventually kicked out for having shirts reading “Tel-Aviv for Jews [only]” and other exclusionary slogans. The only thing that’s not tolerated is open intolerance. []

A response to Max Blumenthal: Social justice for all, even settlers, is a good start

A neighbourhood in Ariel.
As much as settlements may remind of us of evil death robots, they are nonetheless home to human beings, many of whom are victims as well as criminals. (Image via Wikipedia)

Max Blumenthal has been raging against the official inclusion of the massive, strategically placed settlement of Ariel in the #J14 housing protest movement. (See Max’s Sunday post and Twitter stream.) I have to strongly disagree with his position, and I would argue that social justice for all, even the settlers, is a good goal and a good start.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve been following Max’s blog for months and this is the first time I ever strongly disagree with him; I think Max is an excellent journalist and activist and I believe we share many core values. I also agree with his assessment that the settlements, Ariel in particular, are unacceptable on multiple levels: they are built on stolen land, make people’s lives miserable (to put it mildly), and have done much to intensify and prolong the conflict.

However, the fact that the residents of Ariel are part of a horrendous crime does not mean they are not the victims of the Israeli socio-economic and political system along with the rest of us. No doubt, any person who knowingly makes the choice to move there is making themselves part of the occupation. But the fact that the settlements have grown so slowly despite massive government support, and the fact that only about a third of the West Bank settlers are ideological, tells me that the West Bank is hardly anyone’s first choice for location. Since stolen land tends to be the cheapest kind, especially when it’s also subsidized, there has always been a strong economic incentive to move to the settlements. The people who end up making that choice are people who, like the rest of us, were not able to achieve the standard of living they aspired towards, but made a dubious choice (one supported by many vocal members of society and government.)

Let me be clear: nothing can justify the choice to be part of the colossal crime of the settlements. But making that wrong choice does not make a person or their family less of a victim.1

But making this about the wrongs perpetrated or perpetuated by different parts of Israeli society is the wrong way to go. I’d say it plays right into Netanyahu’s hands, and goes along perfectly with the economic and social system of Israel, pitting sectors of the populations against one another. If Netanyahu had his way, J14 would exclude the settlers (alienating big parts of the right), it would exclude non-Jews (alienating big parts of the left) and it would be almost entirely a movement of spoiled young Ashkenazis whose parents and grandparents were part of the old elite (alienating almost everyone else). With that kind of movement, Netanyahu could just sit tight and wait for it to blow over.

But since the movement is radically inclusive – going both against mainstream prejudice (e.g. that the Arabs are not part of this society) and the prejudice of many activists (e.g. that all settlers are the enemy) – it is able to actually achieve something, and so far has not made an enemy of any major sector of society. Only the government and some far-right nationalists seem strongly against the whole thing. And this openness is undermining vital underpinnings of the occupation – whether J14 acknowledges the connection or not.

How? First and foremost, it has ended the prevailing apathy in much of society and made it possible to discuss almost anything. People are very publicly talking about racism, the division of resources, even the use of “security” to silence social movements, and many people are actually listening. This won’t end the occupation tomorrow or in a month, but then nothing else could, either. In the longer run, it sets the stage for major changes to happen, and we may find many more people willing to listen than we did before. The movement  seems to be redefining “left” and “right” so that for many people, being a “leftie” isn’t the absolute worst possible thing ever anymore.

Moreover, the movement’s focus on the division of resources will make it very difficult for future governments to act as if the settlements are the only part of the country worth their attention (as this government sometimes has). The movement may well work against the interests of the settlement movement while at the same time working in the interests of individual settlers. These interests are not identical.

Finally, with general welfare now at the center of the public agenda, and general disillusionment about the government’s narrative, many people will be reminded of how peace is in their own interest and refuse to buy excuses for maintaining the current line of policy.

I think it is unrealistic to expect immediate solutions from J14 – whether for social issues or political ones. There’s a lot of work ahead and absolutely nobody can predict how things will go. But looking for excuses to distance oneself from J14 plays only into the hands of the status quo.2

Footnotes

  1. In the same way, the generation that started this country was both victim and perpetrator, and the two do not cancel each other out — the victimhood does not cancel out the atrocities as the right would have it, and the atrocities do not cancel out the victimhood as some in the far left would have it. []
  2. And anyone who doesn’t see their position or background represented in the movement should stop whining, go out and make their voice heard. The only thing stopping you is you! []

Fear and tear gas in Nabi Saleh

(June 10, 2011)

Today I had a small taste of confronting the Israeli occupation from the Palestinian side, and I confess that even my brief exposure was traumatic.

Heeding the invitation of my friend Gershon Baskin for Israelis to join him at the weekly non-violent protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, in the hope of mitigating the brutal force the Israeli army exerts against the protesters, I set out early Friday morning with most of the things on the list Gershon sent me – food, water, sunscreen, a towel against tear gas – in my backpack, and a sense of foreboding in my heart.

When I said I was afraid of being hurt, Gershon replied “you’re right. It can be dangerous.” He had no words of comfort, except for repeating that he was going to call the army command before the demonstration started and tell them that dozens of Israeli supporters were going to march with the Palestinians, and ask them to take that into consideration.

As planned, we arrived at 8 a.m. for the 1 p.m. event, hoping to get into the village before the army sealed it off. But it was too late: soldiers blocked the entrance and waved us off. They had also put up a sign declaring the village “Area A” – under control of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords, which Israeli law forbids Israelis to enter. The village is really Area C, which Israelis are allowed into. The sign was a lie. We parked a ways up the road and then the dozen or so activists who had arrived hiked into the village through the fields for twenty minutes. On the way, Gershon advised us to speak quietly and silence our phones. The village had been declared a “closed military area,” and we were violating the law.

We soon found out that two activists who tried to enter the main way were arrested and charged with “attempting to break through an army barricade.”

After gathering in the village square, we were invited to the home of one of the village leaders, a friend of Gershon’s, with whom he had coordinated our solidarity visit. Over coffee in his spacious salon our host briefed us about the village’s struggle to reclaim its land on which the settlement of Halamish was built. He said the Israeli High Court ruled in their favor but they never got their land back or were allowed access to their fields abetting it. Settlers took over Nabi Saleh’s spring and for the past two years the villagers had tried to march to it every Friday but had been held back by the army.

Gershon told us that at first a lot of Israelis had signed up for this action, but as the week went on they started cancelling out of fear. He said he didn’t blame them. I didn’t either: after being the first one to sign up, as Gershon told me, out of a sense of outrage at the army’s brutality and my wish to join the campaign to challenge it, my fear took over. As the day neared I slept worse every night, and the last night I hardly slept at all.

While we waited for the march, there was less talk of principles of non-violent resistance than of practicalities: what to do against tear gas and how to behave if arrested. My friends and I agreed we were here to make a point by our presence but our cowardice would keep us at the back of the crowd where we would be less exposed. I kept thinking of my family worrying about me at home and couldn’t wait for it to be over, even before it started. An Israeli journalist who was with us felt that we were insufficiently welcomed by the villagers, that they could have been more appreciative of the effort and gesture we made in coming out. An activist answered her that it wasn’t for us to tell the Palestinians how to behave. I admit I had also expected a little more visible appreciation for what in my society is an extraordinary show of solidarity with those most Israelis see as enemies. But when I considered how badly they had been treated by Israelis for so long – and where were we then? – I understood their complex feelings. Besides, they did welcome us into their homes and tell us they would do everything they could to protect us.

In one of the homes we visited, our host told us his 19-year-old daughter had been beaten up by Israeli border police last month and put in the hospital. In an unusual turn of events, the police were put on trial and she was summoned to testify against them. When the same young woman admired my new wide-brimmed straw hat, I gave it to her in exchange for her showing me how to wrap my scarf around my head Palestinian-style. An activist offered me jasmine perfume to spray on the front of my scarf as an antidote to the anticipated tear gas. Another advised us to buddy up and a third said the most important thing about tear gas was not to panic.

As the event drew near, Gershon made his phone calls to the army but was not successful: at the two offices he reached – the local and regional commands – he was unable to speak to the officers in charge and left messages with unreliable-sounding young soldiers. It looked like the central plank of his initiative – informing the army of our presence and asking them to be gentle – was falling apart.

At 1:15 people started streaming out of the mosque and amassed for the march. A young man with a megaphone said a few words and I translated for my fellow activists: “Today we are marching for the martyrs who died on Israel’s borders with Syria,” referring to a protest earlier in the week. We looked at each other in confusion. Weren’t we marching for an end to the occupation and allowing the villagers to access their spring?

We didn’t have long to ponder this because within 100 meters and 60 seconds the first tear gas canister was fired from far off at the entrance of the village into its center. Immediately everyone started running back, away from the soldiers, but, as it happened, towards the tear gas: it had landed behind the group, and the only way to get away from it was to run right through it. I found myself with two of my buddies, one particularly affected and, sure enough, panicky. Although I too was gagging and tearing, this put me in the position of being the abler one and my attention was on helping my friend. The three of us found our way to the home we had been invited to use for shelter, and there we were cared for until we felt better. Our hosts had much experience with gas, as it was used in the village in large quantities every week and often fired at or into homes. When this happened, the effect lingered for days. Sometimes, furniture caught fire.

As we left to rejoin our comrades, our host said “please remember us and come back not only in situations like this, but to visit us.” I promised to remember but doubt I will visit.

Outside we could hear the repeated pounding of canisters being fired at a distance, but we stayed in the village center while the confrontation was elsewhere. I informed my friends that I had had enough, I really couldn’t take it anymore, and was ready to go home. They were too, but it was not at all clear there was a safe way out of the village: the army was likely to spread gas everywhere, even in the fields. I felt trapped and hunted. There was nowhere safe to go. It was also clear that there was nothing I could do or say, and it didn’t matter who I was: the military machine was proceeding apace, and its orders were to act relentlessly to contain and especially deter the Palestinian resistance. Activists observed that not only did the presence of Israelis not make things better, it had apparently made things worse. Huge amounts of tear gas were fired for hours and several activists and villagers were evacuated by ambulance.

We were told the village was sealed and there was indeed no safe way to leave. But my friend and I got lucky and got a lift out with a BBC van that had managed to enter the village with its press privileges.

The terror of being exposed to physical harm did not leave me for hours. I know I am not brave in that way. Besides a relatively mild whiff of tear gas I was not even hurt. But worse was the feeling of being trapped and threatened. The activists who have been experiencing this regularly for years can laugh, and the Palestinians who have no choice can scoff at my delicacy. After all, I can decide that I did my bit for the struggle, this is not for me, and go on to entertain my friends with stories of my little adventure. But if I multiply my brush with fear a million times over, I think I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be under military occupation, having no voice and living under the constant threat of violence day in and day out.

In the comfort of my home in Jerusalem, I wonder if the jasmine is blooming outside, or if that scent rising up from my neck is just lingering in my imagination.

In Israel, denial isn’t a river

Written on March 30

Demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah.
Demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah. Even the fiercest anti-occupation activists benefit from the state of things.

I am on my way to Augsburg, where I will be giving two talks about democratic education. But while my the train heads to Southern Germany, my mind is in the Middle East, where my involvement in democratic education began, where people are killing one another, perpetuating the conflict while convincing themselves and each other that they are acting to end it.

After preparing notes for tonight’s talk, I watched Occupation 101, a pro-Palestinian (but not anti-Israeli) documentary. As always when confronted with a non-Israeli, non-Zionist view of the conflict, watching the movie was highly uncomfortable. As much as I read and write about my country’s wrongs, there’s still something deeply unpleasant about having it criticized from without. I found myself constantly checking how much longer the movie runs, but managed to watch through to the end, feeling it was important to see that side of things. The movie is not perfect, but I do recommend it. It illustrates the horrors of our conflict, including Palestinian terrorism, but focussing on the unimaginable ongoing suffering of the Palestinians.

Many Israelis are going to dislike what I’m about to write, but it has to be said: Israeli existence is a state of denial. From the violent ideological settler to the fiercest anti-occupation activist, every Israeli profits from the state of things (me and my family included, of course). Not only do we profit, but one had best not think about what previous generations have done to ensure we do so well. It is utterly awful to think about the (few?) massacres and the destruction of (many!) villages1 that led to the fleeing of so many Palestinians and subsequently to the post-1948 situation, in which Jews are a vast majority within sovereign Israel. It is particularly awful to think about because it stands in such stark contrast to the kind of society that has developed within that land in these past 63 years. How can we understand our existence as a fundamentally cosmopolitan, modern, diverse society while thinking about what was essentially an ethnic cleansing, one understood as such by its perpetrators (who may have used the euphemism “Judaization”)?2 And how can our limited human minds possibly reconcile between the terrific life one can lead in Tel Aviv and the hellish desperation of Gaza refugee camps?

The answer is that we, all of us, every single Israeli, try to reject agency over the bad things.3 Personally, my way of rejecting agency has been to leave the country and, for a while, try not to know about what goes on there. (This blog is a testament to the failure of that approach.) For many on the Left, the way is to blame the mainstream, or the Right, or the settlers. For the center, I guess the way is to blame the “extremists” on both sides, particularly ideological settlers and Palestinian terrorists. For the Right, the way is apparently to blame the Palestinians and occasionally the Left.

But blaming other people, whether or not they are factually to blame, is counter-productive to improving the situation. No one group is entirely to blame for the conflict or its continuation — not the terrorists, nor the settlers, nor the governments, nor Israelis in general, nor Palestinians in general. When we blame others, we deny our own ability to change the situation. This absolves us for all those many moments in which we did nothing to stop the conflict, all the myriad ways in which we benefitted from the situation. It allows us, with clear conscience, to continue standing by while the conflict persists, to continue to benefit from the Israeli economy that thrives on it. Unfortunately, this is necessary to some degree, because tossing and turning all night for shame and guilt certainly won’t help our ability to change things.

However, the least we can do is to acknowledge reality, warts and all. Reality is that, one way or another, our side used force to cause hundreds of thousands of people to leave the land in 1947-8.4 Reality is that our side has never treated the Arabs under Israeli control equally — inside or outside of our borders, with or without citizenship. Reality is that we have been part of making the lives of a few million people incredibly difficult over generations. Reality is that while we have a state, the victims of ’48 and their offspring are for the most part consigned to life of destitute poverty in refugee camps.5

Make no mistake: one can acknowledge these basic, undeniable realities while holding any opinion on the political spectrum. One may hold that all of these realities are justified because of a Biblical claim to the land or the necessity of a Jewish nation-state. One may hold that these realities were the right and just response to violence and pressure towards Jews and towards Israel. Or one may hold that these realities obligate us to make amends and seek ways to right our wrongs. But we will make no progress while in denial of reality.

 

A final note

I don’t know my way around Palestinian politics, but it’s fair to assume similar issues apply there. I imagine those in favor of violent resistance — which keeps the conflict alive and heated — claim they have no choice and are forced into this course of action. I’m sure many Palestinians are in denial of the suffering violent resistance has caused, or simply choose to see that suffering as a necessary price for their liberation. But due to my near-total ignorance, I’ll leave it to Palestinian activists to deal with Palestinian denial and continue to focus on the Israeli side.

Footnotes

  1. Yuval Ben-Ami at +972 recently found a curious old map documenting some of these. []
  2. Apropos Judaiziation, Max Blumenthal has a pretty good overview of the Jewish National Fund’s role in this ongoing project. []
  3. Emily L. Hauser has an excellent post on this topic. []
  4. Whether or not there were massacres, whether these people could be said to have been driven out or merely to have fled, and whether or not they considered themselves Palestinians at the time. []
  5. As is often pointed out, this could have been resolved by our Arab neighbors offering them citizenship and housing. But clearly they are no more disposed to offer these to the refugees than we are. []

The occupation defiles the Holy Land

Barbed wire near the south edge of the West Bank

Yesterday morning, me and my mother embarked on a tour of the South Hebron Hills guided by Breaking The Silence. I highly recommend the tour, if you ever have an opportunity to take it. I was impressed at how positive it was. No anti-Zionistic sentiment seemed to be involved, just a sense of collective responsibility. During the tour, one of the things that repeatedly struck me was how beautiful the West Bank is — and what an eye-sore the occupation is, with its soldiers, vehicles, barriers and all.

Just now I was at the weekly demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, and again I was struck by the ugliness of the occupation. The Palestinian houses seem to be in much better shape than the homes occupied by settlers, which in one case sported badly graffiti’d stars of David all around its door.

I can easily understand why someone would want to build a house on the West Bank and live there, somewhat in isolation, surrounded by the charming hilly landscape. The thought is quite tempting, really.

But what are we doing to this country? The occupation disrespects not only the people who live here, but the very land itself! How do self-professed lovers of Israel support the regime that scars the landscape with vandalism and the colors of concrete and steel, jeeps and uniforms? You’d expect them to take better care of what they call a Holy Land.

Do those in favor of the settlements and occupation have some kind of fetish I’m not aware of, or are they simply intent not only on performing ugly deeds but on deforming a beautiful landscape?

Settlement construction as counter-attack?

A lot has already been said about the despicable murder of a sleeping family in the settlement of Itamar on Friday night. A lot has also been said about what has been said about the murder. In particular, I’d like to point to Dimi Reider’s critique over at +972 about the lousy response from most of the activist Left, and to the pointed words of Rehavia Berman (Hebrew), with which I agree entirely. (As he says, the state has to, unfortunately, apprehend the murder, try them, and let them rot in jail — “unfortuantely” because the barbarous killer deserves to be tortured extensively and left alive, perhaps after removing some useful organs like hands, feet and eyes. But alas the state has no right to do that kind of thing and really shouldn’t exercise justice in that way.)

I just wanted to point out something particularly intriguing: the government’s lightning-fast decision to approve a bunch of new settlement houses in the West Bank in response to the heinous attack. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time the Israeli government admits that construction in the settlements is an attack against Palestinians. How surprising that they aren’t constructed purely out of love of the land!