Category Archives: TV news

Peace in the rear-view mirror and over the horizon

“My answer to racism! The Joint List”

Tonight (March 17 2015) it’s probably too early to say for certain what the next Israeli government will look like, but according to the exit polls and the first actual results of the election today, it’s almost certain that Netanyahu will form the next government. And in his victory speech, he promised that it would be a nationalist government. It is certainly too early to explain his and his Likud party’s surprising recovery in the few days preceding the election from their low standing in recent opinion polls. Likud activists were calling Netanyahu a “magician” at their victory celebrations. What sort of magician he is and what sort of national(ist) government he will head can be surmised from a couple of Netanyahu’s moves in his almost single-handed reversal of fortune.

First there is Netanyahu’s declaration that “there will be no Palestinian state on his watch.” That there will not be a Palestinian state and hence not a “two state solution” under his rule should come as no surprise to anyone. But this undiplomatic declaration probably helped Netanyahu bring some of his base support back home. Of course it also depletes any remaining international credit he still had for his 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University for those who were taken in by his sleight of mouth in which he appeared to support the principle of a two state solution. But after this election trick Netanyahu will have lost the fig leaf that protected him from European Union moves towards sanctions of some of Israel’s occupation activities. And of course the Palestinian Authority really has nothing to lose in intensifying its diplomatic campaign against the occupation and for recognition of Palestine as a state. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and Netanyahu may have more dark magic up his sleeve.

If it look like a racist and talks like a racist …

Second (yesterday) was Netanyahu’s overt racism, when he used his Facebook page to rouse his base to come and vote because the Arabs were being mobilized to come out and vote, being bused to the polls by “the Left”. He might as well have been warning white supremacists that the n***ers were being brought to vote by the lily-livered liberals who wanted to hand them God’s own country. Racist incitement is indeed dark magic.

If peace, in the senses of independence for the Palestinian people and civil equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel is already vanishing in the rear-view mirror, where is there a glimpse of peace over the horizon? Well, if you were watching Israeli TV tonight, you wouldn’t know because the third biggest list “the Joint List” didn’t feature in any of the election coverage. The Joint List is an unlikely alliance of Arab-Jewish socialists, Palestinians who claim rights as a national minority in Israel and Islamists, forced together by a recent law that would have prevented them from passing the electoral threshold. But under the superb leadership of Ayman Odeh, who campaigned on behalf of all of Israel’s downtrodden and against Netanyahu’s government’s racism by invoking Martin Luther King, it has the possibility not only to secure effective representation for the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Palestinian Arabs, but also to constitute another start to a movement of democracy, justice and peace. It’s not here, but when I wake up tomorrow morning, I hope to still believe that in spite of Netanyahu’s dark magic, it is somewhere over the horizon.

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Cease-force now: practising peace by documenting violence

The big news this weekend about peace between Israel and Palestine is US Secretary of State, John Kerry’s announcement that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have reached an agreement that ‘establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations’. Big news, then, that there might be another breath of life left in the Oslo process, and that if the direct talks actually start, at some point Israel will release some long term Palestinian security prisoners. At present there is much speculation and comment about the character of this agreement, about whether the talks about talks will even get as far as a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and as to whether the discussions will do more harm than good. Earlier in Kerry’s intensive diplomatic process, I suggested that it promotes only pseudo-peace, turning peace into a dirty word.

Rather than focusing on the ‘big news’, I prefer to pay some attention to events over the week that attracted much less attention. During the recent build up to Kerry’s announcement, there were two small achievements in efforts to build a just peace through non-violent action. Video footage of the detention of five-year old Palestinian boy Wadi’ Maswadeh in Hebron, recorded by fieldworker Manal al-Ja’bari for B’tselem, kicked up enough of a storm on conventional as well as social media for the Israeli army to admit that:

“We made a mistake during the event, both in detaining the boy and detaining his father,” GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon told commanders during an operational assessment conducted in the command.

The Israeli army’s acknowledgement of its error, reported in Ha’aretz a week over so after the incident, differs significantly from its initial response to the video:

We regret that B’Tselem has chosen – on a regular basis – to distribute videos of this kind to the media before clarifying the issue with the army first.

The military’s admission of error in this incident also comes after B’Tselem Director Jessica Montell sent a letter to the Legal Adviser to Judea and Samaria, stating:

The footage clearly shows that this was not a mistake made by an individual soldier, but rather conduct that, to our alarm, was considered reasonable by all the military personnel involved, including senior officers.

Border Police statement on Channel 10 news.

Border Police statement on Channel 10 news.

A second small achievement last week was also the fruit of video documentation by activists of the excessive use of force by Israeli occupation forces, which was then circulated more broadly. On July 15th there were protests across Israel and Palestine against the Prawer plan, approved by the Israeli Knesset on June 24th 2013. The plan will result in the destruction of 35 ‘unrecognized’ Arab Bedouin villages, the forced displacement of about 40,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel, and the dispossession of their historical lands in the Negev, in the south of Israel. Most of those demonstrations were met with violence by the authorities, including one held at Damascus Gate. In a video recorded by a Ta’ayush activist, military border police run amok in East Jerusalem, knock over food stalls set up during the Ramadan fast, bust into people waiting in a bus queue, and push into a group of medical workers on stand-by. The video was picked up by Israel’s Channel 10 news, which pressed the Border Police for a response. Not quite an admission of fault, their statement notes that the behaviour of some of the soldiers does not match the values expected of the Border Police, promising a further enquiry.

In both cases, the achievement is quite minor. Despite acknowledgement that detaining children below the age of criminal responsibility is illegal, the army continues to do so in Hebron, as this video shows.  As for changing the intense restrictions on Palestinians in Hebron that stifle civic life – that is not even on the agenda of the occupation authorities. Moreover, as Gideon Levy reports, Wadi’ Maswadeh has already been traumatised by his experience. It is doubtful that the Border Police’s internal inquiry will change how they respond to demonstrations in East Jerusalem. Perhaps coincidentally, B’tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli was shot at close range and injured by a rubber-coated bullet fired by the Border Police while documenting a weekly demonstration at Nebi Saleh, in the West Bank, on Friday July 19th. Nor has there been any backtracking by the Israeli government on the Prawer plan. Instead, on July 16th, the day of the Jewish 9th of Av fast that commemorates the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, another unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev, Al-Arakib, was demolished for the 53rd time.

In both cases, activist documentation of the use of force by occupation authorities has not only exposed that violence locally and internationally, but has prompted those authorities to admit that something is amiss. The activists, who practice non-violence and uphold human rights, have taken a small step in decreasing state violence. In doing so, they bring peace closer by a small increment, because they open up a non-violent path out of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. They increase the chances for a future peace by practicing and promoting peaceful ways not only of resisting the occupation, but also for the occupation forces to counter that opposition. Non-violent action is an embodiment of the peace that negotiators try to achieve. It is also an education for the occupation forces, a set of small lessons about acknowledging the humanity of the Palestinians and other protestors, about treating five year old boys as children not weapons, and about allowing people on an East Jerusalem street to eat and travel at the end of a fast day.

One would hope that such lessons could be learned and implemented while negotiations about peace negotiations are being held in Jerusalem, Amman, Ramallah and Washington. Just as we expect there to be a ‘cease-fire’ as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict go on, we should expect and demand that all use of force to carry on the occupation – demolitions, expulsions, arrests, travel restrictions – also be suspended. There is no such ‘cease-force’, and hence the small, non-violent steps to peace taken by activists to reduce repression by occupation forces are more concrete steps to peace than those reported in the main headlines.

Too Late for Two States? A Stale Debate Makes News

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

I’m not a fan of Israel’s Channel 2 news, but I watch it online precisely for the reasons that I dislike it. Its broadcasts exemplify wonderfully Israel’s ‘extreme centre’, the mainstream, consensual  prejudices, defensiveness and self-righteousness of Israel’s ‘white tribe’, its Jewish, Ashkenazi, middle class. It is (not coincidentally) the channel on which Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid used to host a talk show, and then the ‘Friday Studio’ news magazine programme. That honour is now held by Danny Kushmaro, who this week (31 May 2013) filed his own extended report: ‘Two States: Have We Missed the Opportunity?’ As one of his interviewees, academic and former politician Meron Benvenisti, pointed out, the significance of the report is that it raises the question of whether a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is possible, and explains to the viewers that this is a stale (literally ‘mouldy’) debate.

It is indeed a stale debate for Benvenisti, who made the case as long ago as 1984 in his West Bank Data Project report that the Israeli settlement project in the Palestinian Occupied Territories is irreversible and that there could be no divided sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. However, for Kushmaro this is newsworthy. He framed his recorded report from the studio by presenting  as obstacles to the two state solution the presence of 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, along with the lack of political leadership on both sides,.

Ostensibly, the point of the report is to contrast the official Israeli government policy of ‘two states for two peoples’ with its impossibility. The first point is established through a series of clips of footage in which Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Shimon Peres all state their support for the two state policy. Netanyahu does so thrice, once in English for good measure. The case that the opportunity for two states has passed (or that it never existed) is made in three interviews, the first being with Meron Benvenisti, whose skepticism about it predates its adoption by the mainstream Israeli peace camp, especially Peace Now, during the first intifada. Retired politician Yossi Sarid represents the mainstream left, telling us from his living room that ‘the State of the Land of Israel’ has defeated the ‘State of Israel’, that ‘we’ have all been defeated as the settlers are leading us to the ‘end of the Zionist dream’. While he still hopes for another ending, he fears that as far as two states go, ‘the train has already left the station’. For the politically illiterate, he adds that Netanyahu’s declared acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel was a ‘statement of political charlatanry’. Former Defence Minister Moshe Arens concurs in his interview that the settlers have won, but he has consistently opposed Palestinian statehood. Additional support for the case is made by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, whose point in a brief interview is that while most Palestinian still support a two state solution, they no longer believe it is a practical possibility, and by leading Fatah official Abu Ala, who in a short clip says that if the two state approach has failed, there will be one state.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, himself a settler, makes a hapless case for the official government line, undermining it by pointing out that it is only a theoretical issue, a matter for Israelis to discuss among themselves, given the condition of the ‘Palestinian side’. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni sounds more convincing when she insists on her commitment to the two state solution as the only way to sustain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, despite the difficulties and complexities. Yet, she seems to have been interviewed in the lobby of the studio, as if to indicate that her formulaic statements belong in the never-never land of no progress on peace talks, alluded to in Elkin’s interview, so long as there is ‘no partner for peace’. The issue is, she says, to get into the negotiation room, but she is not in a room herself. The most forceful arguments for the two state approach came for the studio pundits, especially Amnon Abromovich and Udi Segal, commenting after the report. The former claimed the naysayers had formed a link between extreme left and right, which is just what someone from the extreme center would say. The latter managed to make it sound as if he was arguing with him, while insisting that there is no alternative to the two state solution, that former rightists such as Olmert and Netanyahu had come to accept it, that when push comes to shove Israel will make the decision and withdraw, that it is unthinkable that a Palestinian from Nablus would become a citizen of Israel, and that those settlers living outside the settlement blocs (which contain about 75% of the settlers on about 4% of the West Bank) who do not wish to leave can stay. Whatever point Danny Kushmaro had tried to make in his report, they were having none of it. After all, how could they be considered experts if they changed their minds after 13 minutes of footage?

There is certainly much missing in the report, such as a graphic telling us what are the cost of Israeli government support for the settlements, and the additional costs of occupation, including building and maintaining the separation wall. The most significant omission is the range of debate within Israel (as well as Palestine) about alternatives to the two state solution. For example, in the summer of 2012 there was a whole issue of the political science journal Public Sphere, published by Tel Aviv University, dedicated to the question of a single state as a utopia or emerging reality. Kushmaro’s report pitted Benvenisti against the Israeli left, but there is a vibrant if small left which since the collapse of the Oslo process has been discussing with some intensity the question of what sort of political entity should replace Israel and its military occupation: a bi-national state, a federal or confederal arrangement, a unitary state of civil equality, or even no state at all. That is not a stale debate, but one worthy of its own Friday evening extended coverage.

Visually, however, the report seemed to be making another case too. Although the number of 350,000 Israeli settlers is repeated in a graph several minutes into the report, the camera favours the physical existence of the settlements as evidence of the irreversibility of the settlement project. Settlements are shown as the backdrop to Meron Benvenisti’s interview, from a viewpoint where he could show how in the area between East Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim known as E1, wherever one can see trees there is an Israeli settlement. Ze’ev Elkin also points out his own settlement and neighbouring ones during his interview from a similar vantage point, as the camera sweepingly takes possession of the land. When the figure of 42 milliard shekels (over $11 milliard) is cited as the cost of evacuating 70,000 settlers, it is displayed on screen against a background of settlements seen from afar and above. When it is suggested at the end of the report that perhaps a new solution to the conflict is needed, we see settlement building activity, to which we return, complete with heavy machinery and then a shot of a multi-storied set of dwellings built on a hillside, at the very end of the report, which concludes that with each passing day the two state solution becomes less possible. Oddly, the report only shows settlers in footage of them being removed by Israeli authorities from the Gaza settlements. Once, we see such scenes during the interview with Moshe Arens who refers to the ‘uprooting’ of those settlements as a national trauma, while patriotic music plays in the background. We see similar scenes, as well as the forced evacuation of a small hill-top settlement, when the report emphasises how difficult it would be to remove tens of thousands of settlers. Settlements appear in the report to be concrete manifestations of possession of the land, scoped from other points of visual mastery of the landscape, not places where people live.

By contrast, on the occasions when we are shown Palestinian areas of the West Bank, we see streets full of cars and people, first when we are told that the Palestinians would not accept the removal of only 70,000 settlers, but at least 150,000, and then as the backdrop to a couple of vox pop pieces in which two Palestinian men from Ramallah state that 19 years of negotiations have brought no progress and that they would prefer rights and equality under Israel (backing up Shikaki’s assessment). The other typical shot of the Palestinian areas is of graffiti-covered walls (not only the separation wall). Twice we see Arafat’s iconic face, once when the commentary says how many more settlers the Palestinians want to go (as if Arafat is the cause of such ‘intransigence’). His other appearance comes at the point in Kushmaro’s voice-over when he says that the Palestinian Authority is on the point of financial collapse. Along with Arafat’s portrait, we see shots of Palestinian flags and maps on the walls. So, it seems that the Palestinians live in crowded streets, hemmed in by walls decorated by nationalist sentiment. Empty Israeli settlements shot from afar; busy Palestinian streets filmed up close. Somehow, the camera (the shots, the editing, the soundtrack) cannot help but reiterate that whatever the political solution may be, what we see before us is alien settlement and an occupied people.