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Activists from Tel Aviv: THE EXPLOSION

by Ahmed Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000 at 11:57 PM

From the great anti-mainstream, anti-capitalist, progressive "zmag". http://www.zmag.org

THE EXPLOSION

BY Adam Keller & Beate Zilversmidt

Tel-Aviv, October 3

We knew that it would come; in a way we saw it coming, and still - it took us by surprise. On the first Friday when we heard of "rioting" on Temple Mount - the morning after Sharon had paid a "visit " to the Al Aqsa Mosq - we still thought that this was a one day event, an outburst at an occasional offense, and maybe also a reminder like there had been before as to what the explosion would be like if the peace talks would come to naught. Gradually we start to realize that the big explosion is happening here and now. From talking to Palestinian friends it seems it also surprised them. Nobody had really expected that there would be such an overreaction by the police, whose only response to what started with stone throwing was shooting to kill.

On Saturday there were riots all over the Palestinian territories, which was the first day of Rosh Hashana (holiday marking the begining of the Jewish new year). Activists of Gush Shalom and Committee Against House Demolitions started calling each other, mobilizing within a few hours via phone and email a tiny vigil - including of course Uri Avnery - at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, with as its most remarkable event: a religious bypasser, supporter of the Shas Party, complaining "why did Sharon have to do it the day before Rosh Hashana. Now I can't go pray at the Wailing Wall."

On Sunday, Oct. 1, at 8.00 o'clock - after public transportation restarted at the end of the two-day Holiday, and after another day of violence and bloodshed - and the spreading of the terrible pictures of the killing of a so obviously innocent child. On the pavement in front of Dizengoff Centre, Tel-Aviv main shopping mall, as central a place as can be found to address the metropolitan public, we arrive, some forty peace activists. We know most faces, though some have not been seen for years. Different groups are represented: Gush Shalom, Committee Against House Demolitions, Hadash, Women for Political Prisoners, Nuclear Whitleblowers... in fact, many participants have overlapping organizational affiliations. Some have brought signs with them. Others take up marking pens and improvise their own slogans, sitting down on the sidewalk. Soon, two ragged lines take up position, holding both sides of the intersection. Sign after sign is displayed to the bypassers and the motorists halted at the traffic light: "Stop shooting!" - "Down with the Occupation" - "Stop the murder of demonstrators!" - "We have no children for unnecessary wars!" - "Get out of the Territories - Now!" - "Killing Palestinians is not the way to peace" - "Hands off Temple Mount" - "Sharon sets the fire, Barak kills" - "Enough blood has been shed" - "Yes to the 1967 borders" - "29 dead Palestinians on Rosh Hashana - Happy New Year!". We have come with some trepidation to this site. During the Intifada, on days similar to this one, peace demonstrators have more than once been violently assaulted on this very spot. But this evening there is nothing of the kind. There are, in fact, astonishingly few reactions of any kind. Most bypassers just glance at the signs and continue on their way. How are we to interepret this indifference? As lack of support for what the army and police are doing? As lack of moral concern? Probably a bit of both - and what does that say about Israeli society at the start of the Third Millenium?

A police patrol car stops by, then another one. A mild-mannered officer approaches the line. -"Who is your leader?" -"We have no leader". -"Who is responsible for this demonstration?" -"We all are". -"Who organized it?" -"The Internet". He scratches his head. For a moment he seems about to arrest us, or at least some. Then he goes back to the patrol car. Half an hour later, he comes again, accompanied by a female colleague. "Listen, you guys! Do you know that the whole of Jaffa has burst out in violence? More than half our force is over there, and here you are tying up two patrol cars. Can you not end this, so that we can go to reinforce our fellows over there?" We find it difficult not to laugh. Just before the officer came over we had held a quick consultation and decided to pack up the signs and go to Jaffa so as to stand in the way of the police which had reportedly started shooting the (not so innocuous) "rubber bullets".

Could the outbreak of spontaneous anger of Arabs in one of the most miserable slums in Israel be combined with the more measured protest of middle-class leftist Jews? But when we pile into taxis and private cars and arrive in the Ajami Quarter of Jaffa - a short distance, yet worlds away, from downtown Tel-Aviv - we find Yeffet Street, the main throughfare of Arab Jaffa, completely empty: pavements strewn with stones, many smashed windows, some scorched paches on the pavement, no demonstrators. At home on a later hour, we hear - among all the dispatches from further away - a report of "a new outbreak in Jaffa, ending the shaky ceasefire agreed between the police and the Jaffa Arab leadership". Of our own action, not a word. On such a day, editors do not seem to consider a demonstration without violence to be news.

Today (Monday) we are more than a hundred, outside the Defence Ministry. From the outside there is not much to see of the nerve centre of all that is going on in the Territories. But as soon as we take up positions on the parking lot opposite the main gate, an armed sodier in full battle gear crosses the street in between and approaches us, with a suspicious look on his face, talking quickly into a small communications device. A quite unusual sight. We demonstrate here quite often, and in general the only soldiers you encounter are unarmed office staff going out to grab a quick lunch.

Again, as yesterday, there responses are surprisingly mild. Not many pass here on foot, but the traffic on the narrow Kaplan Street is heavy and congested. Civilian and military drivers pass slowly and get a full sight of our ranked slogans, especially of the giant banners prepared by Gush Shalom and Hadash; they could hear the full-throated chanting "Peace - Yes! Occupation - No!" and "How many children did you kill today?". Yet the amount of heckling, the number of reactions of any kind, seems no greater than in vigils held here on normal days. At the very end, just as we are about to pack up, a lone TV crew at last appears. We discover, however, that it is of the Japanese Television. For the mainstream Israeli media, our protest is still non-existent.

A phone call from Jerusalem: some 170 people, mostly youths, had turned up for the simultaneous demo outside the Prime Minister's residence. That event had a quite complicated history. It was originally called by Peace Now; this movement seems, however, in crisis - many of its leaders shying away from any criticism of Barak, the Labour Prime Minister which practically all of us supported in last year's elections. The Peace Now manifesto published today in Ha'aretz apportioned blame for the violent outbreak between Sharon and the Palestinians, effectively clearing Barak of share. A few hours before it was to take place, Peace Now called off the action, apprehensive lest "radicals" like ourselves would appear with their own slogans and turn the protest in "unwanted" directions, Still, a dissident faction, mainly from the more militant youths, decided to hold the demonstration anyway, though not under the Peace Now name - and did it quite well, with help from Meretz youths as well as the Jerusalem activists of Hadash, the Bat Shalom women and Gush Shalom.

Another phone call - from Lili Traubman, Bat Shalom activist at Kibbutz Meggido in the north. They had their own women's vigil - right there, very near the storm center of the riots inside Israel. The Arab women who planned to join could not arrive - roads blocked by police - but expressed support on the phone and told of shootings and police brutality at their doorstep. Ten Bat Shalom women stood at the highway, with signs reading "Peace will win" and "Jewish-Arab parnership". They did get many reactions - no indifference at that part of the country. Some positive reactions, many hostile. In a sad harmony, some Jews and some Arabs had the same reaction: "Peace? What peace? There can never be peace with THEM!"

And so, it is late evening - another evening after a long day of escalation and violence and bloodshed which we could not stop. And how many hale young people, living and breathing at this very moment, will be in their graves by tomorrow night?

How did we come to be in this miserable situation - two months after the high hopes of Camp David, less than a week after Barak and Arafat met for what was described as a "highly cordial meeting" in the living room of the Israeli PM's private home? Obviously, the fuse was lit by the notorious Ariel Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud Party, in a calculated provocation - designed, at least in part, to bolster his position in the right-wing against the intended comeback of former PM Netanyahu. There was no need of the accumulated wisdom of the US State Department pundits to guess what would result from the trumpeted "visit" of a man whose entire military and political career consisted of fighting Palestinians and killing them. A visit to the sensitive Temple Mount/Haram A-Sharif Compound, made even more sensitive since the failure of Camp David. (To add insult to injury, it took place precisely on the anniversary of the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, a massacre carried out by the armed militias which Sharon as Defence Minister had let into these camps.

But it is far too easy to put the entire blame on Sharon - as the Americans and some Israelis do. The conflagration would not have started, if not for the decision of Prime Minister Barak to let Sharon trample into this sensitive spot, exactly at the moment when an a web of delicate international diplomatic formulas was being woven to find a mutually-acceptable arrangement for the holy place's future. In fact Barak - and the PM's second in command, Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, the prominent "dove" who holds a unique combination of the Foreign Affairs and Police portfolios - did more than let Sharon into the Mount. They provided the Likud leader with an escort of more than a thousand police and semi-military "Border Guards", effectively reconquering Temple Mount (actually, it was a far bigger Israeli force than that which originally conquered the place in 1967). Add to this the well- known fact that Israeli police in general, and its "Border Guards" in particular, tend to regard Arabs as dangerous enemies - and the result was inevitable.

Even that does not fully explain the extent and fast spread of the conflagration: forty Palestinians and four Israeli soldiers dead within a single weekend, with the number steadily rising by the hour; hundreds of wounded, many of them maimed for life; widespread riots all over the Palestinian Territories, often escalating into full-scale battles involving not only handguns but also anti-tank misslies, machine guns and helicopter gunships; the angery outburst spilling over to the Arab citizens of Israel itself, with large riots at practically all Arab population centers and the blocking of main highways.

By this evening, at least seven Arab citizens of Israel have been shot to death by "their" police force...

Such conflagrations do not result from a single provocation, gross and insulting as it may be. There had been quite a lot of fuel building up, mounting anger and frustration among the Palestinians. The normal routine of occupation, which rarely gets into the media:

another row of olive trees uprooted by order of the Israeli miltary governor; another settlement extending itself over a parcel of land which a Palestinian family had cultivated for generations; another rough search by Israeli soldiers at a roadblock; another late-night raid on a Palestinian home by Israeli "special units" - all made the more unenduarable when peace negotiations are supposed to be going on with the declared aim of putting a definite end to the conflict, and when Barak has managed to convince much of international opinion that "Palestinian intransigence" is to blame...

At Camp David, and ever since its failure, Barak has striven to block off the Palestinians' option of declaring independence unilaterally; using the particular conditions of the US elections year, Barak got the administration and Congress to take an openly biased position, condemning "a unilateral Palestinian step" while turning a blind eye to the ongoing settlement extention and other unilateral Israeli steps; also the United States' European and Japanese allies effectively withdrew their pledge to recognize the independence of Palestine. Barak had been striving to dictate rather then negotiate, repeatedly proclaiming that "the ball is in Arafat's court" and demanding that the Palestinians accept terms that - while more generous, on some issues, than offered by previous Israeli PM's - still fall short of the minimal Palestinian aspirations, especially with regard to Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Altogether, there was very much reason for all Palestinians - grassroots and leadership, Arafat's followers as well as those of the opposition factions - to feel frustrated and dissatisfied; Sharon's provoaction united them as nothing else could have.

Israel's Arab citizens had their own load of long-standing grieveances - decades-long discrimination in all spheres of life; an unemloyment rate double or more that in the Jewish sector; a government bureaucracy which treats them not much better than their brethern under occupation. And just recently, they have been stirred into anger by a series of inflammatory racist remarks uttered by Alik Ron, commander of the Gallilee Police. It might be more than a coincidence that Ron is rumored to be seeking a political career that he is known to have recently held a series of meetings with Sharon...

"The New Intifada", as Palestinians now call it, has changed the focus of public opinion, both in Israel and internatioanally. From the debate on diplomatic formulas it returned to the harsh reality on the ground - the reality of occupation, once again flooding the international TV screens. Particularly poignant episodes were seen in living rooms across the globe, such as the 12-year old boy Muhammad Al-Dura - caught with his father in a cross-fire outside Gaza City, desperately seeking shelter behind a small barrrel, and shot to death by the relentless fire of Israeli soldiers. (The soldiers claim they did not know it was a child.

For Israelis, a public debate was opened (or rather, reopened) by the death of two soldiers in defence of settlement enclaves, inhabited by religious- nationalist fanatics and located in the midst of Palestinian territory. "He sacrificed himself for Netzarim, for this settlement which is perhaps not at all necesasary" said on TV the cousin of David Biri, the soldier killed in a Palestinian ambush while on settler convoy duty. This kind of sentiment could, in time, develop into a mass movement which may sway government policies - as happened with regard to Lebanon - but it would take quite a bit of time and far too much bloodshed.

Is there still a chance of a more immediate solution, of a revival and successful conclusion of the negotiations which seemed moribund even before the present outbreak? Paradoxical and cynical as it may seem, earlier episodes in our region's history have shown vilolent outbreaks and confrontations serving as a catalyst to deadlocked diplomatic processes. The "Tunnel War", as the armed confrontations of September 1996 came to be known, bore much similarity to the present outbreak, both having an Israeli provocation around Temple Mount starting the immediate conflagration throughout the Palestinian territories - and in 1996 it ended with Netanyahu signing an agreement with Arafat and agreeing to withdraw from Hebron (most of Hebron, anyway). Earlier, it was the Yom Kippur war which broke a logjam in Israeli-Egyptian relations and eventually led to peace between the two countries and Israel's withdrawal from the whole of Sinai. But on more than one occasion, conflicts and violent confrontations have also been known to spiral uncontrolled, beyond what anybody planned or intended...

With all the carnage, both sides so far avoided anything irrevocable; the Israeli tanks placed around Palestinian cities have not been sent in - not even to relieve the sorely-pressed garrison at Joseph's Tomb, in the heart of Palestinian Nablus; and though Hamas fighters are reportedly taking active part in the fighting, there have been so far none of the spectacular terrorist attacks which can rouse the people of Israel's main population centers to fear and anger. Clearly, room is still left for renewed negotiations. Indeed the basic maxim of recent Israeli politics - that an agreement with the Palestinians is vital to Barak's political survival - is, if anything, reinforced by recent events. And the alternative ploy occasionally mooted by Barak aides - getting Sharon into a "National Unity Government" - has just become far more illegitimate, inside and outside Israel.

It is a tragic feature of what is going on now that at Camp David, Barak in principle agreed to give up many of the positions which are at present being ferociously fought over (for example, the settlement enclaves in the Gaza Strip). He agreed to give them up - but only at a stiff price of Palestinian retrocessions, some of them very unpalatable and others completely unacceptable to the Palestinian side. Will he now soften these positions, at least to some degree? Having gone already so far at Camp David, can he not simply get out of the occupied territories?

One can only hope and do what can be done, to protest and pressure. At the initiative of Gush Shalom, a venerable peace sticker, first published in 1982 with the slogan "Bring the Soldiers Back from Lebanon" and subsequently published again and again, was given a new lease of life. Now bearing the caption "Bring Them Back from the Territories", it should soon become a frequent sight in the streets of Tel-Aviv.

P.S. We pass on the request for instant financial help to the Makassad Hospital in East Jerusalem where the wounded have been streaming in. Because the situation is so desperate, and the need so immediate, please send donations by wire transfer (USD preferably) directly into their bank account. The account is at the Mercantile Discount Bank Ltd., Jerusalem, Salah al-Din Branch. The Swift Code is BARDiLit The Branch number is 638. Their account number is 400335.

Alternatively, you can send cash donations by mail to: Makassed Hospital P.O. Box 19482 Jerusalem

Or, if you, or anyone you know, is in a position to send surgical or pharmaceutical supplies, please contact the hospital directly at telephone number +972 2 627-0222. Ask to speak to Dr. Khalid, Director of the hospital.

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