Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"We failed."

Published also at Mondoweiss: ‘We failed’ (In which a Palestinian activist abandons the peace process) 

One of the advantages of return visits to Palestine over a period of years is to get a sense of the way the situation is developing over time.  Unfortunately, in coming here many times over the past ten years, the impression I have is of an constant deterioration of the political landscape and the palpable loss of hope for any short-term improvement.
Thousands greet Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian "Arab Idol" in Ramallah on July 1;  few Palestinians turn out for political demonstrations these days

As an activist, my first direct personal connection with Palestine came in 2002, before I ever visited the country.  In 2002 I helped to host a US tour of Palestinian trade-union representatives and organized a couple of speaking events in Boston.  I have kept in touch with them and spent some time with them almost every year since 2004 when I visited Palestine for the first time.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Meet Mr. Palestine

'Imad AbdulAziz
(June 29, 2013, published also at Mondoweiss)

I met Mr. Palestine today in Nablus. Really.

‘Imad AbdulAziz won the title Mr. Palestine in a body-building championship in the year 2000. As usual here, things get a little more complicated, even in a seemingly benign sport like bodybuilding.

‘Imad is 53 years old and he has been a member of the leftist Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) since his youth. As a consequence he has been arrested by the Israeli security services 17 times and he has spent a total of about 6 years in almost every prison in the West Bank and 1948 Israel. This also included a stretch of hard time in the outdoor detention facility in Israel’s Negev Desert.

‘Imad was never accused of any violent crime. The only “guns” he ever carried were between his elbows and his shoulders. Even now, somewhat past his prime, ‘Imad’s biceps are pretty impressive.

But under the Israeli occupation any kind of political activism was criminalized by the authorities. In fact, it’s hard to find any adult Palestinian man who has not spent time behind Israeli bars.

Like many, ‘Imad was repeatedly arrested under Israel’s “Preventive Detention” law. He recalls that once in 1985 he was re-arrested at his welcoming home party upon being released from prison.
He was also frequently tortured while under detention, including one time being shot in both legs and almost bleeding to death.

Somehow during all this ‘Imad managed to earn a degree in 1982 from An-Najah University in Physical Education, to marry and have six children – and continue to compete as a bodybuilder. In 2000 he topped the Palestinian team at an international meet in Baghdad, where he won the title of “Mr. Palestine.” He got a check for $10,000 from Saddam Hussein.

Since then ‘Imad has been the media spokesperson for the PFLP in Nablus, a position that has also gotten him in trouble with the Palestinian Authority. In 2004 he was arrested and detained for 17 days in a PA prison for speaking publicly about official corruption.

Today ‘Imad is the director of the Al-‘Amaria Secondary School. He walks with a noticeable limp from his gunshot wounds, but he has a sunny outlook, with a ready smile. And he can still make his pecs dance.

“You can’t get there from here.”

I have visited al-Khalil (Hebron) many time over the years, but this was the first time I traveled there from Jerusalem the, um, “non-Palestinian way.”
Orthodox Settlers waiting at bus stop near Jerusalem
The Central Bus Station is now easily accessible from the Damascus Gate via the new light rail system that seamlessly moves through both Occupied and 1948 Jerusalem neighborhoods.  The trams are operated by the French mega-corporation Veolia, which also runs several bus lines to the Israeli settlements and is the subject of an international boycott campaign. (Veolia, originally the French Compagnie Générale des Eaux  and later Vivendi, was a pioneer in the privatization of water utilities and other public services and operates in 77 countries around the world, including the US, where it runs several privatized municipal water and waste-water systems – and also the Easy Shuttle service from DC-area  airports.)

Egged Bus #160 goes direct to Hebron the via the settlements stretching south from Jerusalem and costs only 9 sheqels (about $2.50).  The comfortable air-conditioned bus is filled with Jewish commuters and shoppers.  There are few tourists and no Palestinians.  In theory anyone can take the bus, including Arab residents of Jerusalem, but in actuality few of them have any business in the Jewish settlements and they would have to walk a considerable distance from the bus terminus in Hebron and pass through a military checkpoint to reach the main commercial area of the city not under settler control.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Climate Change and Syria

The origins of the revolt against the al-Assad regime in Syria -- aside from foreign intervention which may have started very early --were driven at least in part by a severe drought over much of the country.  Farmers and their communities suffered, people migrated to the cities from the countryside. It was part of the mix that made politics in Syria very volatile and susceptible to social unrest exacerbated by foreign interests and the clumsy response of the regime.

This may be related to a recurring pattern in the region which goes back thousands of years.

I wrote about this a while ago:

The Changing Climate in the Middle East
[Title as submitted: 
You May Need a Weatherman to Know
Which Way the Wind Blows In Syria (and Beyond)]

Sunday, June 23, 2013

South African diplomat rejects Israeli "gift" of Apartheid trees

As reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, Israel National News, Sky News, Mail&Guardian, IOL, News24  and several other news agencies South Africa's ambassador to Israel, Mr Ismail Coovadia (who recently completed his term in Tel Aviv last December) has rejected and is returning a "gift" presented to him by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The former anti-apartheid activist, active member of South Africa's ruling party the African National Congress and long-time diplomat has cited Israel's "Apartheid" policies toward the indigenous Palestinians as the reason for his action. The "gift" was a certificate [find a copy here:] indicating that 18 trees would be planted in honour and in the name of the South African Ambassador by the Israeli parastatal, the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In a hard hitting letter, Coovadia writes:

"I have recently completed serving my term as the fifth Ambassador of democratic, non-racial South Africa to the State of Israel...regrettably, my permission was not sought [by the JNF nor the Israeli Government] to plant a tree/s in my or the name of the South African Ambassador on usurped land, the rightful land of the Palestinians and Bedouins. I reserve the right to the usage of my name...I have supported the struggle against Apartheid South Africa and now I cannot be a proponent of what I have witnessed in Israel, and that is, a replication of Apartheid."

"The 'Certificate' awarded to me by Mr. Rafael Barak, the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the backing of the JNF, is nothing less than an offence to my dignity and integrity. I was not a party to, and never will be, to the planting of '18 trees', in my 'honour', on expropriated and stolen land...I shall be returning the 'Certificate' to the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a humble request to remove the '18 my honour'."  

The gift 'Cetificate' to the former South African ambassador was co-signed by the controversial Israeli parastatal organization, the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF is the subject of a recently released documentary titled "Village Under the Forest" by Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Mark Kaplan and Cape Town based Jewish scholar, Heidi Grunebaum [Village Under the Forest will be re-screened at the Bioscope next Thursday at 19h30 in Johannesburg, more info:]. The film explores the role of the JNF in building the "South Africa Forest" over the Israeli-destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya (destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948, during the Palestinian "Nakba"). The JNF is celebrated by Israel and its supporters for its forest building work, however, the JNF is also criticized by human rights activists and experts for its involvement in the Israeli oppression and "ethnic-cleansing" against the indigenous Palestinian people, and specifically the construction of forests above Israeli-destroyed Palestinian villages in an attempt to erase traces of Palestinian life.

The JNF tries to operate as a charity in some countries including South Africa, but is coming under increasing protest by the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement for its involvement in the Israeli displacement, forced removals and oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people. Recently, after months of nationwide protests, South Africa's largest toy retailer, "Reggies", terminated its charity relationship with the JNF.

Let them eat. . . idols?

Many Palestinians are overjoyed that a singer from Gaza, Mohammed Assaf, won the Arab Idol contest last night.  It's nice for Palestinians to get some recognition and a little sympathy from the larger world community, but it won't make them free any time soon, unfortunately.
Story here:

Mohammed Assaf IS Arab Idol!!!

Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, a strikingly talented, charismatic, handsome, Gazan with a "golden" voice has just been chosen Arab Idol by millions of fans and viewers all over the world.
Mohammed Assaf's talents were recognized immediately by the judges as he was compared to one of the 4 greats of Arabic music , Abdel Halim Hafez, during his first audition for Arab Idol. Throughout the competition Assaf went on to capture hearts across the Arab world and beyond,  demonstrating a mastery of technique that led one of the judges to assert Mohammed was not only a Palestinian artist but a "son of all the Arab world."
Meanwhile. . .

Gaza Students Prepare for Finals Without Electricity

Amid all the political uncertainty and under extremely abnormal circumstances, Palestinian high school students both in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are taking their final high school tests known as Tawjihi...Yousef Aql, 17, is a Palestinian high school student who lives in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip. His family of 12, he says, is doing everything it can to provide a calm and conducive environment to help him pass his tests successfully.
The biggest challenge Aql has to deal with as a high school student in Gaza is electricity cuts. Students are extremely restricted by the availability of electricity when they want to study, and therefore are not free to study when they would like to.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sorry, I thought he was Palestinian. . .

Israeli Jewish man killed by security guard at Western Wall
Israeli man, 46, shot dead at the public restrooms adjacent to Western Wall plaza after yelling "Allahu akbar!" and moving to pull an object out of his pocket • Police spokesman says security guard suspected the man was a Palestinian terrorist. 
Other reports indicate that the security guard shot the victim 7-10 times.  Ever wonder why you rarely read about "Palestinian terrorists" being wounded by the Israeli police or army?  Apparently the practice is to shoot to kill, not disable.

Heart of Darkness

On a hillside in the settlement of Kiryat Arba, overlooking the large West Bank Palestinian city of al-Khalil -- known to Israeli Jews and most foreigners by its biblical name of “Hebron” – is the grave monument of Dr. Baruch Goldstein.

On the Jewish holiday of Purim, February 25, 1994, Goldstein, then a reserve officer in the Israeli army, walked into the Mosque of Ibrahim (the traditional burial place of the Patriarch Abraham) in uniform and with his army-issued weapon, opening fire on the Muslim worshippers. 29 people were murdered outright and 125 wounded before the survivors managed to disarm Goldstein and kill him on the spot.

For many far-right Israeli Jews and especially the settler movement Goldstein was a martyr to the cause of religious Zionism.  His grave in a ceremonial plaza overlooking the Palestinian town became a place of pilgrimage and celebration – to the great embarrassment of the Israeli government and many of its supporters in the US. 

The ceremonial plaza around the grave was ordered dismantled, but the park and monumental walkway leading up to his grave remain in place.  The park is dedicated to Meir Kahane, the US-born rabbi who was a founder of the violent Jewish Defense League and later the leader of the fascist Kach party -- which was so openly racist that it was eventually banned in Israel.  Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990, but today you can still find stickers and graffiti around Israel with the slogan “Kahane Lives” or in English “Kahane Was Right!” 

The Hebrew inscription on Goldstein's grave monument reads, in part:
“The revered Dr. Baruch Kapel Goldstein… Son of Israel.  He gave his soul for the sake of the people of Israel, The Torah, and the Land.  His hands are clean and his heart good… He was assassinated for the Sanctity of God”
The stones on the grave are customarily left by visitors to express their mourning.

During the annual observance of the Purim holiday, settlers gather at Goldstein's grave to celebrate his deed and sing songs in praise of the man they regard as a noble martyr.  One of the songs includes the verse: "Dr. Goldstein, there is none other like you in the world. Dr. Goldstein, we all love you… he aimed at terrorists' heads, squeezed the trigger hard, and shot bullets, and shot, and shot."

Then the settlers march down to pray at the Mosque/Synagogue of Abraham, accompanied by a  massive show of force by Israeli army troops. 

The 1994 Hebron Massacre launched a fierce outburst of violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories, which included the first suicide bombings carried out by Hamas within the 1948 borders.  

But in this case (Jewish) terrorism worked.  The ancient burial place of the Patriarchs, which had been converted into a mosque over a thousand years earlier was now divided into a Muslim and a Jewish section and made accessible to Jewish worshipers and foreign tourists.  

Ironically, it's impossible for anyone to visit both parts of the shrine at a single occasion, since people approaching the heavy security at the shrine must declare their religious affiliation and are allowed into one or the other section depending on their answer.  Muslims are not allowed into the Jewish section and Jews are not allowed into the Muslim section. Non-Jewish tourists can choose one or the other, but not both.  (I know this from a previous visit with my son to the Mosque side). 
On the day I was there, a large group of Swedish tourists, the men sporting incongruously small white Jewish kippot ("yarmilkas") given to them at the entrance. Jewish religious law does not require non-Jews to have their heads covered.
Meanwhile religious Jewish yeshiva students were chanting fervently and loudly just behind them.

Getting to Khalil/Hebron is also a different matter, depending on your religion or nationality, which I'll describe in another post.