May 17, 2008
On Independence Day, Israeli Arabs Reminded of Their Place
by Jonathan Cook
It has been a week of adulation from world leaders, ostentatious displays of military prowess, and street parties. Heads of state have rubbed shoulders with celebrities to pay homage to the Jewish state on its 60th birthday, while a million Israelis reportedly headed off to the country's forests to enjoy the national pastime: a barbecue.
But this year's Independence Day festivities have concealed as much as they have revealed. The images of joy and celebration seen by the world have failed to acknowledge the reality of a deeply divided Israel, shared by two peoples with conflicting memories and claims to the land.
They have also served to shield from view the fact that the Palestinians' dispossession is continuing in both the occupied territories and inside Israel itself. Far from being a historical event, Israel's "independence" – and the ever greater toll it is inflicting on the Palestinian people – is very much a live issue.
Away from the cameras, a fifth of the Israeli population – more than one million Palestinian citizens – remembered al-Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948 that befell the Palestinian people as the Jewish state was built on the ruins of their society.
As it has been doing for the past decade, Israel's Palestinian minority staged an alternative act of commemoration: a procession of families, many of them refugees from the 1948 war, to one of more than 400 Palestinian villages erased by Israel in a monumental act of state vandalism after the fighting. The villages were destroyed to ensure that the 750,000 Palestinians expelled from the state under the cover of war never return.
But in a sign of how far Israel still is from coming to terms with the circumstances of its birth, this year's march was forcibly broken up by the Israeli police. They clubbed unarmed demonstrators with batons and fired tear gas and stun grenades into crowds of families that included young children.
Although most of the refugees from the 1948 war – numbering in their millions – ended up in camps in neighboring Arab states, a few remained inside Israel. Today one in four Palestinian citizens of Israel is either a refugee or descended from one. Not only have they been denied the right ever to return to their homes, like the other refugees, but many live tantalizingly close to their former communities.
The destroyed Palestinian villages have either been reinvented as exclusive Jewish communities or buried under the foliage of national forestation programs overseen by the Jewish National Fund and paid for with charitable donations from American and European Jews.
There have been many Nakba processions held over the past week but the march across fields close by the city of Nazareth was the only one whose destination was a former Palestinian village now occupied by Jews.
The village of Saffuriya was bombed from the air for two hours in July 1948, in one of the first uses of air power by the new Jewish state. Most of Saffuriya's 5,000 inhabitants fled northwards towards Lebanon, where they have spent six decades waiting for justice. But a small number went south towards Nazareth, where they sought sanctuary and eventually became Israeli citizens.
Today they live in a neighbourhood of Nazareth called Safafra, after their destroyed village. They look down into the valley where a Jewish farming community known as Zippori has been established on the ruins of their homes.
This year's Nakba procession to Saffuriya was a small act of defiance by Palestinian citizens in returning to the village, even if only symbolically and for a few hours. The threat this posed to Israeli Jews' enduring sense of their own exclusive victimhood was revealed in the unprovoked violence unleashed against the defenceless marchers, many of them children.
Like many others, I was there with a child – my five-month-old daughter. Fortunately, for her and my sake, we left after she grew tired from being in the heat for so long, moments before the trouble started.
When we left, things were entirely peaceful. Nonetheless, as we drove away, I saw members of a special paramilitary police unit known as the Yassam appearing on their motorbikes. The Yassam are effectively a hit squad, known for striking out first and asking questions later. Trouble invariably follows in their wake.
The events that unfolded that afternoon have been captured on mostly home-made videos that can be viewed on the internet. The context for understanding these images is provided below in accounts from witnesses to the police attack:
Several thousand Palestinians, waving flags and chanting Palestinian songs, marched towards a forest planted on Saffuriya's lands. Old people, some of whom remembered fleeing their villages in 1948, were joined by young families and several dozen sympathetic Israeli Jews. As the marchers headed towards Saffuriya's spring, sealed off by the authorities with a metal fence a few years ago to stop the villagers collecting water, they were greeted with a small counter-demonstration by right-wing Israeli Jews.
They had taken over the fields on the other side of the main road at the entrance to what is now the Jewish community of Zippori. They waved Israeli flags and sang nationalist Hebrew songs, as armed riot police lined the edge of the road that separated the two demonstrations.
Tareq Shehadeh, head of the Nazareth Culture and Tourism Association whose parents were expelled from Saffuriya, said: "There were some 50 Jewish demonstrators who had been allowed to take over the planned destination of our march. Their rights automatically trumped ours, even though there were thousands of us there and only a handful of them."
The police had their backs to the Jewish demonstrators while they faced off with the Palestinian procession. "It was as if they were telling us: we are here only for the benefit of Jews, not for you," said Shehadeh. "It was a reminder, if we needed it, that this is a Jewish state and we are even less welcome than usual when we meet as Palestinians."
The marchers turned away and headed uphill into the woods, to a clearing where Palestinian refugees recounted their memories.
When the event ended in late afternoon, the marchers headed back to the main road and their cars. In the police version, Palestinian youths blocked the road and threw stones at passing cars, forcing the police to use force to restore order.
Dozens of marchers were injured, including women and children, and two Arab Knesset members, Mohammed Barakeh and Wassel Taha, were bloodied by police batons. Mounted police charged into the crowds, while stun grenades and tear gas were liberally fired into fields being crossed by families. Eight youths were arrested.
Shehadeh, who was close to the police when the trouble began, and many other marchers say they saw the Jewish rightwingers throwing stones at them from behind the police. A handful of Palestinian youngsters responded in kind. Others add that the police were provoked by a young woman waving a Palestinian flag.
"None of the police were interested in stopping the Jews throwing stones. And even if a few Palestinian youths were reacting, you chase after them and arrest them, you don't send police on mounted horseback charging into a crowd of families and fire tear gas and stun grenades at them. It was totally indiscriminate and reckless."
Clouds of gas enveloped the slowest families as they struggled with their children to take cover in the forest.
Therese Zbeidat, a Dutch national who was there with her Palestinian husband Ali and their two teenage daughters, Dina and Awda, called the experiences of her family and others at the hands of the police "horrifying."
"Until then it really was a family occasion. When the police fired the tear gas, there were a couple near us pushing a stroller down the stony track towards the road. A thick cloud of gas was coming towards us. I told the man to leave the stroller and run uphill as fast as he could with the baby.
"Later I found them with the baby retching, its eyes streaming and choking. It broke my heart. There were so many families with young children, and the police charge was just so unprovoked. It started from nothing."
The 17-year-old boyfriend of Therese Zbeidat's daughter, Awda, was among those arrested. "It was his first time at any kind of nationalist event," she said. "He was with his mother, and when we started running up the hill away from the police on horseback, she stumbled and fell.
"He went to help her and the next thing a group of about 10 police were firing tear gas cannisters directly at him. Then they grabbed him by the keffiyah [scarf] around his neck and pulled him away. All he was doing was helping his mother!"
Later, Therese and her daughters thought they had made it to safety only to find themselves in the midst of another charge from a different direction, this time by police on foot. Awda was knocked to the ground and kicked in her leg, while Dina was threatened by a policeman who told her: "I will break your head."
"I've been on several demonstrations before when the police have turned nasty," said Therese, "but this was unlike anything I've seen. Those young children, some barely toddlers, amidst all that chaos crying for their parents – what a way to mark Independence Day!"
Jafar Farah, head of the political lobbying group Mossawa, who was there with his two young sons, found them a safe spot in the forest and rushed downhill to help ferry other children to safety.
The next day he attended a court hearing at which the police demanded that the eight arrested men be detained for a further seven days. Three, including a local journalist who had been beaten and had his camera stolen by police, were freed after the judge watched video footage of the confrontation taken by marchers.
Farah said of the Independence Day events: "For decades our community was banned from remembering publicly what happened to us as a people during the Nakba. Our teachers were sacked for mentioning it. We were not even supposed to know that we are Palestinians.
"And in addition, the police have regularly used violence against us to teach us our place. In October 2000, at the start of the intifada, 13 of our unarmed young men were shot dead for demonstrating. No one has ever been held accountable.
"Despite all that we started to believe that Israel was finally mature enough to let us remember our own national tragedy. Families came to show their children the ruins of the villages so they had an idea of where they came from. The procession was becoming a large and prominent event. People felt safe attending.
"But we were wrong, it seems. It looked to me very much like this attack by the police was planned. I think the authorities were unhappy about the success of the processions, and wanted them stopped.
"They may yet win. What parent will bring their children to the march next year knowing that they will be attacked by armed police?"
The Origin of the Palestine-Israel Conflict
Published by Jews for Justice in the Middle East
As the periodic bloodshed continues in the Middle East, the search for an equitable solution must come to grips with the root cause of the conflict. The conventional wisdom is that, even if both sides are at fault, the Palestinians are irrational "terrorists" who have no point of view worth listening to. Our position, however, is that the Palestinians have a real grievance: their homeland for over a thousand years was taken, without their consent and mostly by force, during creation of the state of Israel. And all subsequent crimes—on both sides—inevitably follow from this original injustice.
This paper outlines the history of Palestine to show how this process occurred and what a moral solution to the region's problems should consist of. If you care about the people of the Middle East, Jewish and Arab, you owe it to yourself to read this account of the other side of the historical record.
No Middle East Peace Without Tough Love
By Henry Siegman
25/04/08 "Al-Hayat" -- - We now have word that Tony Blair, envoy of the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia and the United States), and German Chancellor Angela Merkel intend to organize yet another peace conference, this time in Berlin in June. It is hard to believe that after the long string of failed peace initiatives, stretching back at least to the Madrid conference of 1991, statesmen and stateswomen are recycling these failures without seemingly having a clue as to why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more hopeless today than before these peace exercises first got underway.
The scandal of the international community's impotence in resolving one of history's longest bloodlettings is that it knows what the problem is but does not have the courage to speak the truth, much less deal with it. The next peace conference in Germany (or in Moscow, where the Russians want to hold it) will suffer from the same gutlessness that has marked all previous efforts. It will deal with everything except the problem primarily responsible for this conflict's multi-generational impasse.
That problem is that for all of the sins attributable to the Palestinians - and they are legion, including inept and corrupt leadership, failed institution-building and the murderous violence of the rejectionist groups-there is no prospect for a viable, sovereign Palestinian state primarily because Israel's various governments, from 1967 until today, have never intended allowing such a state to come into being.
It is one thing if Israeli governments had insisted on delaying a Palestinian state until certain Israeli security concerns were dealt with. But no government that is serious about a two-state solution to the conflict would have pursued without let-up the theft and fragmentation of Palestinian lands that even a child understands makes Palestinian statehood impossible.
Given the overwhelming disproportion of power between the occupier and the occupied, it is hardly surprising that Israeli governments and their military and security establishments found it difficult to resist the acquisition of Palestinian land. What is astounding is that the international community, pretending to believe Israel's claim that it is the victim and its occupied subjects the aggressors, has allowed this devastating dispossession to continue and the law of the jungle to prevail.
As long as Israel knows that by delaying the peace process it buys time to create facts on the ground that will prove irreversible, and that the international community will continue to indulge Israel's pretense that its desire for a two-state solution is being frustrated by the Palestinians, no new peace initiative can succeed, and the dispossession of the Palestinian people will indeed become irreversible.
There can be no greater delusion on the part of Western countries weighed down by guilt about the Holocaust than the belief that accommodating such an outcome would be an act of friendship to the Jewish people. The abandonment of the Palestinians now is surely not an atonement for the abandonment of European Jewry seventy years ago, nor will it serve the security of the State of Israel and its people.
John Vinocur of the New York Times recently suggested that the virtually unqualified declarations of support for Israel by Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are "at a minimum an attempt to seek Israeli moderation by means of public assurances with this tacit subtext: these days, the European Union is not, or is no longer, its reflexive antagonist." But the expectation that uncritical Western support of Israel would lead to greater Israeli moderation and greater willingness to take risks for peace is blatantly contradicted by the conflict's history.
Time and again, this history has shown that the less opposition Israel encounters from its friends in the West for its dispossession of the Palestinians, the more uncompromising its behavior. Indeed, Olmert's reaction to Sarkozy's and Merkel's expressions of eternal solidarity and friendship have had exactly that result: Olmert approved massive new construction in East Jerusalem- authorizing housing projects that were frozen for years by previous governments because of their destructive impact on the possibility of a peace agreement-as well as continued expansion of Israel's settlements. And Olmert's defense minister, Ehud Barak, declared shortly after Merkel's departure that he will remove only a token number of the more than 500 checkpoints and roadblocks that Israel has repeatedly promised, and just as repeatedly failed, to dismantle.
That announcement shattered whatever hope Palestinians may have had for recovery of their economy as a consequence of the seven billion dollars in new aid promised by the international donor community in Paris last December. In these circumstances, the donor countries, not to speak of the private sector, will not pour good money after bad, as they so often have in the past.
So what is required of statesmen is not more peace conferences or clever adjustments to previous peace formulations, but the moral and political courage to end their collaboration with the massive hoax the
peace process has been turned into. Of course, Palestinian violence must be condemned and stopped, particularly when it targets civilians. But is it not utterly disingenuous to pretend that Israel's occupation-maintained by IDF-manned checkpoints and barricades, helicopter gunships, jet fighter planes, targeted assassinations and military incursions, not to speak of the massive theft of Palestinian lands-is not itself an exercise in continuous and unrelenting violence against more than 3 million Palestinian civilians? If Israel were to renounce violence, could the occupation last even one day?
Israel's designs on the West Bank are not much different than the designs of the Arab forces that attacked the Jewish state in 1948 - the nullification of the international community's partition resolution of 1947. Short of addressing the problem by its right name-something that is of an entirely different order than hollow statements that "settlements do not advance peace"-and taking effective collective action to end a colonial enterprise that disgraces what began as a noble Jewish national liberation struggle, further peace conferences, no matter how well intentioned, make their participants accessories to one of the longest and cruelest deceptions in the annals of international diplomacy.
Henry Siegman, director of the US/Middle East Project in New York, is research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Siegman is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.