29 June 2007

29 June 2007 - Human rights in Israel at a crossroads?

Earlier this week in Ha’aretz, Lily Galili wrote about the 35th anniversary of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), and about the state of human rights activism in Israel more generally. As the occupation enters its fifth decade, ACRI and other groups are questioning their role and effectiveness. Are they merely a fig leaf for Israeli policy? Should they adopt a more radical course of action?

Amnon Rubenstein, a former Meretz leader, might argue that these are the wrong questions to be asking, and that activists should examine whether their politics are interfering with their principles. In two recent articles, he accused ACRI of using human rights as a “pretext” for a left-wing agenda, and suggested its recent submissions to international rights bodies were overly and unfairly critical of Israel.

I have to say that the human rights activists I’ve come across so far in Israel are almost uniformly patriotic. In addition to being warm and welcoming, everyone I have met has asked me enthusiastically whether I’m considering moving to Israel. At the same time, I’ve been struck by their sense of frustration with their work: they take pride in it, but seem to be wracked with doubt about its true worth.

They are not worried whether their criticism reflects poorly on Israel—quite the opposite: they are worried whether they are somehow complicit in Israel’s sins by participating in its legal system. For example, the fact that the Israeli government, and that defenders of Israel abroad (such as myself) often refer to Israel’s human rights culture as a mitigating factor seems to cause great consternation.

I’ve heard that Israel’s human rights organizations are even considering a boycott of the state—no more contact with the IDF or the Civil Administration in the West Bank or even the High Court of Justice, as long as the occupation continues. I guess the hope is that this will embarrass Israel and lead to a more intense campaign of international pressure that will result in Israel’s withdrawal from the territories.

This idea, it seems to me, is really awful. Strategically, it misunderstands the effect of international pressure. Many international human rights organizations today would be just as happy to see Israel disappear as to see the occupation come to an end. Israeli human rights organizations would quickly lose control of the agenda, and wake up to find they have weakened not only Israel but themselves within it.

The most direct victims of a boycott would be the very people that human rights organizations are ostensibly trying to help most—namely, the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who would be suddenly voiceless. Ordinary Israelis would also suffer, since there would be no one left to take up human rights cases within Israel itself on the wide variety of issues that have nothing to do with the occupation.

Perhaps the most important reason a boycott by human rights organizations would make no sense is that Israel cannot, by itself, solve the problem of the occupation, even if it wanted to. Even if you believe one side is wrong and the other right, that one side is able and the other side unable to make concessions, there are still two sides, and a unilateral boycott would not address the dynamic core of the conflict.

One could understand the boycott idea if human rights activists were being harassed, arrested, beaten or killed in Israel. But this is not the case. In fact, the Israeli government does not interfere in the work of Israeli human rights organizations in the slightest, even though some of these organizations, like Adalah, are fundamentally opposed to the country’s basic identity as a Jewish state.

Ironically, it is on the Palestinian side of the Green Line that human rights organizations are prevented by the government from doing their work—not by Israel, but the Palestinian Authority. Yet no one seems to be internationalizing the cause of human rights in the PA (though one Israeli group, Shurat HaDin, gives legal assistance to Palestinians accused of being Israeli agents against the PA).

The boycott idea is really the latest version of a debate that erupted in the Israeli peace movement in the 1980s, before the first intifada, between those who argued change required outright opposition to the state and those who argued for reform from within. And that, perhaps, was just a re-hash of the debate between those supporting Jewish sovereignty in the 1940s and the binationalists who opposed it.

This impulse might seem to be a form of self-hatred that is at the same time self-indulgence to the point of extreme, self-destructive narcissism. Yorum Hazony, surveying the history of this phenomenon, argues that the Jewish radicals have won the battle of ideas within Israeli society, even though they have failed at every stage to shape the physical reality. Perhaps that is happening in this case, too. But why?

Perhaps one answer is a kind of religious impulse that persists even in secular Israel, and which has been strengthened by Israel’s connection to socialism—the idea that what is self-denying is more authentic, that what is difficult is more real. It takes a special act of will to oppose your own country, your own class, your own human impulses. Those who do not are viewed, from this perspective--and view themselves--as failures and frauds.

And perhaps another explanation is the failure of the Jewish/Israeli encounter with the Arab “Other,” which some have reacted to by asserting their will, and others have reacted to by shrinking from themselves. In other words, since the Palestinians can’t make peace or build a state, some Israelis want to go ahead with their own national project anyway, while others turn their frustration inward.

Either way is tragic, but only one retains the possibility of a future, more successful encounter. That doesn’t make occupation OK, but the correct response to Palestinian failure cannot be to cause Israeli failure as well. Human rights lawyers, like doctors, have a duty to their profession and their clients. That is the ethic that should guide Israel’s rights groups now. If they boycott, they may never recover.

28 June 2007

28 June 2007 - "A very strange character"

Recently, South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils visited the Hamas leadership in Gaza and invited then-Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to visit South Africa. A few weeks later, following months of skirmishes in the streets of Gaza, in which both Hamas and rival Fatah committed war crimes, Hamas staged a coup d’état, launching a string of executions and prompting thousands of refugees to flee.

Kasrils has had nothing to say about any of that, but he did go on Channel Islam International, a Johannesburg-based radio station, to denounce Israel in familiar terms. Channel Islam is a noted source of radical propaganda and was reprimanded by the normally reticent Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa in 2002 for hate speech when it broadcast calls for Muslims to kill Jews.

At one point in Kasrils’s interview, he was asked to respond to something that I had posted on this blog—specifically, my criticism of his use of a government website to promote his personal views and campaigns. A friend of mine obtained a transcript of the interview—there are media monitoring services in South Africa that allow you to do that—which makes for interesting reading:

PRESENTER: Now Minister Kasrils, I know the views that you have held actually haven’t gone well with a number of people, they’ve actually looked at it as highly controversial as well, and just today I was actually passed a document where you know, somebody by the name of Joel Pollak, has been highly critical of you, and he says that Minister Kasrils claims to speak, you know, on behalf of the ANC, but he’s actually talking in his personal capacity using the Government office as his official website. How do you react to that?

KASRILS: Well that’s a load of rubbish. You see this Joel Pollak is a very strange character. He is writing from America. Do you know that when we organised in 2002, when we established Not in my Name I had given a speech in Parliament condemning Israel and made a call with Max Ozinsky to obtain the names of Jewish people who would support that statement.

This man, Joel Pollak arrived at my office pretending to be a supporter of this cause, its absolutely clear to me from his behaviour that he actually came here to be some kind of [a number of words unclear] Zionist, that he was an absolute hypocrite and fine, let him have the right, of freedom of expression, he can throw his sticks and stones at me, there are plenty of others who have done it, he is in good company with Verwoerd and Vorster and all the racists in the past who condemned me, from my student days. He is shrieking against the wind. What I express is an expression that is genuine, that is honest, that is my own particular conscience, and it has great support from within the ANC and the Government. He must look and see the speeches of both Premier, sorry the President in the, sorry the Minister in the President’s office, Dr Essop Pahad, and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Azziz Pahad, together with myself, just three weeks ago we spoke at a United Nations Conference in Pretoria on the Defence of the Inaliable Rights of the Palestinian People. They came out as strongly as me, and in fact they were castigated and attacked by the usual suspects of the Zionist Federation, Jewish Board of Deputies – attacked them. So, is Joel Pollak trying to say that the three of us now are somehow acting in some cunning manner to pretend to be expressing statements of the South African Government. Yes, there are certain statements that I will make. I happen as an individual to be very much in support of the worldwide campaign of boycott against Israel, I believe that’s an important weapon. The Government’s position, in fact the ANC’s position is not that, but they allow me as an individual with those strong feelings to express myself that way. They don’t curb me from making statements as a Government Minister.

I travelled to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza a month ago, both as Government Minister and as an ANC National Executive Committee member. The ANC accepts these things. Joel Pollak is an apologist for Zionism and for Israel, and I actually dismiss his statements with utter contempt, and I am sure that anybody who stands honestly in terms of justice will do the same.

Now we know why Kasrils can’t get the basic facts right in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He can’t even remember the basic facts of his own campaign against Israel. Kasrils and Ozinsky organized “Not In My Name” in 2001, not 2002; Kasrils’s infamous speech to Parliament was on the 23rd of October of that year and he formally launched his campaign at the District Six Museum on the 7th of December.

I did volunteer my help to Kasrils early in his campaign—not because I was “pretending to be a supporter” of the cause, but because I genuinely believed in the need for a peace movement among South African Jews. I was concerned, however, that such a movement should not attack the Jewish community or its institutions, and presented a memorandum to that effect to Kasrils and all present.

Later, after contributing several improvements to Kasrils’s “Declaration of Conscience,” I formally and publicly distanced myself from Not In My Name over the way in which Kasrils and Ozinsky were conducting their campaign. Not only did they persist in attacking the Jewish community in defamatory terms, but they insisted on attacking Israel in extremist terms, using gross distortions of the facts.

In late December, I was invited, along with analyst Hagai Segal, to debate Kasrils and Ozinsky at Habonim camp, near Hermanus. Kasrils and Ozinsky were so woefully unprepared that Ozinsky at one stage asked to borrow a map I had brought along. It was an entirely lopsided affair. Towards the end, each of us was given a chance to make a closing statement.

I stood up and said: “I can’t help but like these guys [at which point Kasrils leapt up to smile and put his arm around me], and I admire their contributions to the struggle against apartheid, but I feel that they’ve blown the chance to create a real pro-peace movement among South African Jewry, and instead they’ve just created another opportunity for people to attack Israel and the Jewish community.”

I sat down, and as the audience broke out into applause, Kasrils hissed under his breath: “Why don’t you just say, ‘Fuck you, guys’? That’s what you’ve always wanted to say, isn’t it?”

“What?” I asked, astonished.

“You’re a mole. You’re an infiltrator. That’s what you’ve been since the beginning.”

“What?” I asked again, confused.

Later, after the debate was over, I went up to him: “Minister Kasrils, I’m a 24-year-old freelance journalist. I’m not a—“

“It’s not me that says it,” he backtracked. “It’s other people.”

But that is what Kasrils believed, and still believes, because he can’t grasp the possibility that someone could be both pro-peace and pro-Israel—or pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel, or enthusiastic about post-apartheid South Africa but opposed to the ANC. He’s just a crude ideologue—and if it had been left up to the likes of him, the South African “miracle” would never have happened.

Kasrils goes mad anytime someone describes any criticism of Israel as antisemitic, even if the charge is well-founded—and yet he likens me to Verwoerd and Vorster, the architects of apartheid. (Would that make him Pol Pot, or Jabba the Hutt?) He never bothers to address the substance of my criticism, and in fact confirms my contention that he uses his government office and resources to speak “in his personal capacity.”

I suppose I might be “a very strange character.” But unlike Kasrils, I have never hobnobbed with terrorists or hung out with Stasi agents. I have never condoned human rights abuses I could have personally stopped, I have never led marchers to their deaths, I have never defended the Hitler-Stalin pact, and I have never offered military assistance to dictators that dispossess and murder their own citizens.

The only act I have cause to regret is lending my help to Kasrils, believing that he and his followers might be serious about peace. What hopeless naïveté! What a joke!

27 June 2007

27 June 2007 - The end of Palestine?

Martin Peretz, writing in the New Republic about the Hamas coup in Gaza, has declared: “This is the end of Palestine, the bitter end.” Is he right? I’ve heard similar opinions from other analysts, including some here in Israel, who are convinced that Abbas and Fatah are losers whose only interest is their own personal gain and who will not lift a finger to build a Palestinian state, much less defend Israel from terror.

What are the options if Peretz is right, and the Palestinians really have killed the two-state solution? With Gaza excluded, two new single-state solutions might become possible, in theory. One involves Jordan taking over the West Bank and offering limited self-government there. The other involves Israel formally annexing the West Bank, creating a larger Israel with a slight Jewish demographic majority .

There are three serious obstacles to the success of either of these ideas, even assuming that the demographic balance in the West Bank and Israel will remain as it is today (which it will not) and that Israeli can safely ignore the military dangers and humanitarian crises of a Hamas-run Gaza (which it cannot).

The first obstacle is that terrorism is as much of a threat in the West Bank as it is in Gaza, and will endanger whoever controls the territory. The second is that the goal of a Palestinian state is a fixture in international law and in the eyes of much of the world, though the Palestinians themselves have failed to actually create it.

The third obstacle is the looming confrontation with Iran, which is behind much of what has happened in the past eighteen months. Essentially, Iran now has forces on two Israeli borders, north and west. It would like to be able to threaten Israel via the Golan Heights and the West Bank as well, and Israeli withdrawals from either of these territories might give it the opportunity to do move into position.

The Iranian threat is equally an obstacle to the two-state solution. So we seem to be stuck. The only way out, it seems to me, would be for Israel to work together with Egypt and Jordan to administer Gaza and the West Bank. The first task of the triumvirate would be to disarm both Hamas and Fatah; at the same time, they could create new institutions to prepare for eventual Palestinian independence.

All is in flux—and no one here really knows what to do. Israel itself is in the midst of a huge leadership crisis. Its leading political candidates—Barak, Olmert, and Netanyahu—have all failed in the past and offer little that is new in the present. There are a few new faces coming forward, but they have been politically clumsy and strategically incoherent until this point. The region is rudderless.

It might seem absurd, in these circumstances, to talk about human rights, but the current situation highlights a two interesting aspects of the concept of human rights. The first is that human rights have to be politically neutral—or, more specifically, that they cannot afford to take sides in international or political conflicts. The “weaker side” they must protect is the individual human being.

To understand this, it is important to understand that the modern doctrine of human rights is largely a response to the Holocaust. The world saw the need to bypass national sovereignty in emergencies and affirm the rights of people who had no one to protect them when illegality had become the law in their own countries. Standing up for “national rights” often means leaving human rights behind.

The second interesting aspect of the human rights concept that emerges is that when states are compared on the basis of their human rights records, the most important criterion is the strength of their human rights institutions, not whether they are the aggressor or victim in a particular conflict. Only in states that have such institutions can human rights even be spoken of in a serious way.

Thus, from a human rights perspective, it may be completely irrelevant who controls the West Bank, as long as they uphold the rule of law. Whatever the political fate of the West Bank, extending the rule of law there may be the most important priority. The rule of law has deteriorated over forty years of occupation, intifada, corruption and misrule, and must now be—perhaps jointly—restored.

26 June 2007

26 June 2007 - The source of despair

I was sitting in a café in central Jerusalem a couple of nights ago when I overheard a conversation between a young Israeli man and a tall blond woman who seemed to be European. The discussion was mostly one-way, with the man talking and gesticulating while the woman took notes, and I assumed she was a journalist or possibly a student doing research. I would not have noticed had he not been so loud.

He was going on and on about all the problems in Israel—primarily the occupation, but also what he saw as the corrupt nature of Israeli identity, the abuse of Europe’s Holocaust guilt to fend off criticism, the dominance of religious groups in national life, et cetera—the usual tedious refrain. What really bothered me, though, was that he made himself out to be a victim, as if he were being persecuted for his views.

I was waiting for a friend, and when she arrived, I stood up and greeted her loudly: “Isn’t this a lovely evening, and such a great country, where you can sit in a café and talk the biggest load of bullshit about the place.” The journalist burst out laughing, which really made my evening. Even she could see that much of her subject’s story was contrived, and my outburst allowed her to express some relief.

But there was something real in what the young Israeli had been saying—not in the substance of his words, but in the feelings he was expressing. There really is a sense of despair and confusion among some Israelis. I have seen it among some of my co-workers, too. They are patriotic Israelis, even (especially?) when deeply critical of Israeli policies and certain Zionist ideas. Yet some of them feel they have lost hope.

The collapse of the Oslo peace process, the second intifada, and the Lebanon War all damaged Israeli self-confidence. The disengagement gave Israelis a sense of hope, a feeling that they were still masters of their own destiny, but the ascendancy of Hamas has undermined that feeling. In Gaza, there is no partner for peace; in the West Bank, there is a potential partner who has never been able to deliver.

By “partner” I am referring to the Palestinian leadership—for there are still millions of Palestinians who want peace with Israel. My friend and I met an Arab family walking with their children last night on the promenade above East Jerusalem last night. The kids greeted us in Hebrew and the parents spoke to us in English, telling us how badly they wanted peace and how much they believed in it.

I had similar conversations when I walked the promenade in 1999, when Ehud Barak had just come to power promising peace with the Palestinians and a withdrawal from Lebanon. In those heady days, everyone seemed to believe that peace was just around the corner. Now, almost no one seems to believe that, though most people seem to want it even more urgently than they did before.

I often think the source of despair is the failure of the Palestinians to build successful institutions that can uphold the rule of law, stop terror and prepare the way for sustainable statehood. I think many people on the Israeli left have trouble accepting this (though some, like Benny Morris, have aimed their frustration to its source), and so they turn their anger inward, against Israel, and themselves.

Yesterday the woman in the office next door spent the afternoon in tears. She is responsible for Bedouin affairs, and she was distraught at the destruction of the Bedouin village in the Negev. Normally, she told me, when the officials remove an illegal settlement, they do it on a Wednesday. This time, they did it on Monday, with an unusually large police force, in order to avoid encountering resistance.

This sort of thing really shocks and disturbs me, because this kind of action can’t be explained in terms of conflict with an external enemy. It is simply wrong. I’m not sure how I feel about the concept of the rights of “indigenous peoples,” because I believe that most of those group rights can be incorporated into existing concepts of individual rights. Regardless, the whole affair is rotten, and disturbing.

I asked one of my colleagues about it, and she said that Israel doesn’t really recognize the indigenous rights of the Bedouin. I asked her why, and she says she believes that Israel is racist, and that yesterday’s evictions were dictated by a desire to limit Arab land ownership and by an old Zionist dream of colonizing the Negev. Israel has granted Bedouins some self-government, she said, but still controls them.

I wasn’t sure what to say. We got onto a discussion of the Israel-apartheid analogy, which she said she believed in. I said that whatever the relevance of the analogy in creating public alarm about human rights abuses in the occupied territories, most people who used it didn’t want Israel to exist at all. She then said that she, too, thinks it would be better to have a single state, or at least not a “Jewish” state.

Talking to her further, however, I discovered that she believes that Jews have a right and a claim to the land of Israel; that she believes Jews are still victims of antisemitism; and so on. She shares many of the same views as me, but has come to different political conclusions—and this, I suspect, is because she sees things in terms of power imbalances, with the weaker side having claims over the stronger.

She admitted to me that this was a Marxist sort of view—and therein, perhaps, lies the problem. Israelis of both the left and the right seem to believe in a strong central government; few are genuine liberals of the Sharansky kind. All solutions are looked for in the state; all problems are blamed on the state; and if policies fail, then the state itself is in danger of failure. This muddles political thought.

Robert Nozick wrote about two ways of thinking about statehood: the invisible hand, of the Adam Smith variety, which sees political institutions as arising from the independent actions of individuals; and the hidden hand, which sees them as being created and manipulated by a powerful force behind the scenes. People here seem to think and behave according to the latter, across the political spectrum.

Today’s left and right are also obsessed with authenticity. And perhaps that is the source of despair, because none of the myths of the Middle East ever seem to come to fruition for anyone. But that was Arendt’s point, so long ago: the Zionist project gains its legitimacy not from the fact that Jews belong in Israel, but that they have achieved so much there. It is a success because of, not in spite of, its artificiality.

Despair comes from not being able to think, speak or articulate beyond notions of what is real or natural, beyond ideas of authorship and originality and sovereignty and right and statehood. In place of a humanistic way of thinking, which would be both more flexible and more concrete, and also more hopeful, I think Israelis have talked themselves into a corner. Perhaps the whole project needs re-framing.

25 June 2007

25 June 2007 - Knesset hearing on Hebron

Today I attended a Knesset subcommittee hearing on human rights in Hebron, which had been convened to discuss a report jointly filed by ACRI and B’Tselem. They allege that there has been a “quiet transfer” of Palestinians from the part of the city where Jewish settlers have been living since 1968. Some Arab families have begun moving away from the area since the IDF began closing streets and stores.

The closures and the departures began after a Jewish fanatic murdered dozens of Arabs in a local mosque, but began in earnest after the start of the second intifada, when violence again broke out between the two communities. The report alleges that the closures are intended to protect the settlers’ “racist” enclave, while the army says they are necessary to protect both Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

A lot of work went into the report, which included a thorough residential survey of the area. There are a few flaws—for example, it does not mention the centuries-old Jewish community in Hebron, which was evicted in a pogrom in 1929. This is perhaps a critical omission, since it makes it seem as though a Jewish presence in Hebron is illegitimate, and excludes some of the important historical context.

The report includes many moving accounts by Palestinians describing how the closures have affected their lives, as well as testimony by soldiers who witnessed the excessive use of force. There are also complaints that the IDF is lenient in enforcing the law when it comes to violations by Israeli settlers. The report asks the state to return Hebron to the status quo ante, pending the removal of the settlers.

Reading the 79-page document, I felt I disagreed with it in several basic respects. First of all, “quiet transfer” is not deliberate expulsion. It is a sad but inevitable response to a conflict in which both sides are to blame. Second, the IDF has an obligation to protect Israeli citizens if no one else can or will, and the fact that it does so is not necessarily “racist.” (Whether the settlers should have gone there in the way they did is another matter.)

The more I read, the more I became convinced that the Israeli army needs to do more to police lawbreakers among the settlers, and (of course) that the political leaders on both sides need to find a solution to the problem. But I became even more convinced that the real obstacle is not Israeli policy but the complete failure of the Palestinian leadership to protect civilians, Israeli or Palestinian, in the West Bank.

There are pragmatic solutions to the human rights abuses in Hebron, which occur on both sides, and which emerge from the underlying conflict. One is to create a Palestinian state that guarantees equal protection to all residents, including Jews in Hebron. Those settlers unwilling to live under this regime would be able to return to Israel but would no longer be able to call on the Israeli army and police.

Plan B, in the (unfortunate and likely) event that the Palestinian government would be unwilling and unable to guarantee the safety and equality of its Jewish citizens and residents, is for Israel to withdraw the settlers entirely. But this cannot happen until Hamas is neutralized as a military threat to Israel’s cities, which is unlikely to happen through negotiation, at least in the foreseeable future.

Not even ACRI and B’Tselem expect the Palestinians to deliver a new approach—one that upholds the rule of law and respects the historic Jewish connection to the city. So we are stuck with the status quo, which is largely in the hands of the IDF, and all that can really be hoped for in the absence of a stable political solution is that the quality of life of the local population might be improved somewhat.

The question that the chair of the committee kept coming back to all morning was: how can we make this better? The discussion never entertained the political and diplomatic issues I have described above; it was mired in disagreements over the substance of the report itself, including how many families had left Hebron, whether the army was even-handed in enforcing law, and what the law really was.

The discussion was chaotic, to say the least, with Members of Knesset (MKs) frequently interrupting the guest speakers and each other, and spectators also jumping into the fray at times. The attitude of the right-wing MKs was totally obstructionist, and one MK sought to destroy the credibility of the report by cross-examining the author, tripping him up over details that the report sought to clarify.

The left-wing MKs were equally vociferous, almost smug in their declarations of what was or was not international law, impatient with the testimony of the IDF officers present. The officers were quite impressive, never raising their voices to the politicians, illustrating their points with detailed maps, expressing concern for the human rights issues but firm commitment to their mission of protecting Israelis.

The actual discussion was fairly rudimentary, and not too different from the kind of shouting matches that emerge on university campuses in Europe and North America. The left-wing asserted that the Hebron settlement was illegal under international law, which forbids an occupying power from bringing in civilians. The right-wing countered that the settlers had come to Hebron on their own volition.

Some exchanges were rather ugly, especially over questions of law. “There is a dispute over that point!” “No there isn’t!” “Yes there is—there is a case before the courts right now!” “No there isn’t!” “Did you do your homework? Have you read the judgment?” “Have you read the judgment?” Through all this, the chair tried to maintain decorum and kept touting the merits of lively, democratic discussion.

The ACRI legal team had been pessimistic about the meeting beforehand; they feel vulnerable because they are, in effect, standing up for the other side, the enemy. But they seemed rather satisfied with today’s discussions, feeling they had gone to the heart of the issues at stake. Actually, I think the discussion evaded the central issues, and got bogged down in detail. But perhaps past meetings had been worse.

Several right-wing MKs pointed out that there were no settlers present to give their side of the story; one left-wing MK responded by saying that Palestinian residents of Hebron should also be invited to give theirs. That might help, but it won’t be enough to sort this out. I can understand the discouragement that human rights activists feel here sometimes—but perhaps they should rethink their strategy?

It says a great deal about Israel’s commitment to human rights that the Knesset held such a hearing at all. But I’m not convinced Israelis—left or right know how to tackle the complex human rights issues they face. There is also disturbing evidence of a certain persistent callousness in Israeli officialdom—as seen in the eviction of a Bedouin Arab village to make room for a future Jewish town in Israel.

On the activist side, there seem to have been a few examples lately in which groups like B’Tselem have actively begun criticizing Palestinian human rights abuses. Perhaps the detachment of Fatah from Hamas has provided the political cover for them to do so. But the paradigm they’re working in still seems to be weak-vs.-strong, as opposed to wrong-vs.-right, which is the more effective and enduring.

24 June 2007 - Are humans a human rights violation?

Over the weekend, I looked at Amnesty International’s latest report on the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, which my boss had asked me to examine. It’s a brief but thorough criticism of Israel’s policy in the territory, focusing on the security barrier, closures, settlement expansions, demolitions, attacks on human rights demonstrations, and the general legal and economic consequences of it all.

The report does not describe Palestinian violations against Israelis, including rocket attacks, suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, media incitement, abductions, and the general political and economic consequences of continued conflict. Nor does it describe the (possibly more brutal) violations of Palestinian human rights by other Palestinians on either side of the Fatah-Hamas divide over the past year or so.

There is a case to be made for dealing with Israel’s own abuses in isolation, since these might be the only ones falling under the jurisdiction of the Israeli legal system, and since Israel has to answer to her own moral conscience. Violations by Palestinians against Israelis and against each other have no bearing on Israel’s guilt, though they might explain the context and mitigate the punishment sought.

Even so, I find the report difficult to swallow. I can only agree with three, or perhaps four, of its seven recommendations to the Israeli government (1. End the closures; 2. Stop the construction of the security barrier; 3. Stop the expansion of settlements; 4.Stop demolishing houses unless militarily necessary; 5; Let Palestinian authorities control decisions regarding unlicensed houses; 6. Punish violations by Israeli settlers; 7. Investigate and punish violations by Israeli forces).

Of these, I can agree with numbers 4, 6 and 7 without hesitation, though I believe with regard to number 7 that the Israeli military does fairly thorough investigations of its soldiers’ conduct. I have reservations about the other four. Number 1 might have a real cost in terms of the security of civilians, both Israeli and Palestinians.

Number 2 is inappropriate in light of the hundreds of lives saved by the barrier, which the Amnesty report does not mention, though a different route (one along or closer to the West Bank border) might be more appropriate. Number 5 seems premature, since Palestinian authorities can barely provide the most basic services and the divided Palestinian administration is in disarray at the moment.

I can agree partially with number 3. I believe that the expansion of settlements should be stopped, since it is inimical to the final settlement of borders and to the trust necessary to negotiate a successful agreement. The report, however, calls for settlement expansion to be stopped as a “first step” towards removing all remaining settlers and settlements from the West Bank—never mind mooted land swaps.

I supported the disengagement from Gaza—not because I believed it would bring peace, but because I believed it was important for Israel to decide where its own borders were. It was unfortunate, in a way, that Israeli settlers had to be pulled out, even if it was wrong for them to settle there in the first place, because ideally the Palestinian government should have protected their rights within the Palestinian polity itself. Under the circumstances, they had to be removed, and they were.

The disengagement was successful in ending the Gaza occupation and proving to that Israel is prepared to sacrifice for peace. The credibility Israel thus earned has endured, and has been vital to the isolation of Hamas. Unfortunately, the Gaza disengagement did not improve Israel’s security, and in fact seemed to encourage Hamas in its successful political campaign of 2006 and in its ongoing terror attacks.

(It is also argued by some critics that the Gaza disengagement was wrong because it was unilateral. I disagree—first, because I believe Israel did not have a reliable partner with which to conduct a bilateral agreement; and second, because I believe it was important for Israel to make an independent decision to end the occupation, with or without mutual commitments from the other side, and clarify its plan B.)

There are certain aspects of Israel’s settlement policy that do seem to me to involve rights violations of various kinds, particularly the expropriation of Palestinian property and discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians by Israeli authorities (i.e. on the roads) in the West Bank. But I do not believe it is correct to view the presence of Israeli civilians itself in the West bank as a human rights violation.

A human being is not a human rights violation. The Fourth Geneva Convention seeks to prevent an occupying power from intentionally altering the demography of a territory through civilian settlement. Even so, the solution does not require the complete evacuation of such civilians. Rather, they should be granted rights as Palestinian citizens, so long as doing so does not threaten Palestinian sovereignty.

Why, as the late South African Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, once said, should the Palestinians territories be judenrein? Why should Israel or anyone else indulge xenophobia or antisemitism? If we expect Israel to protect the rights of its Arab minority, why should we not expect Palestine to protect the rights of its Jewish minority? If we believe in human rights, should we expect anything less?

I think that one reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued is that the world has continued to hold the Palestinians to a lower standard in terms of how they treat Jews, and how they treat each other. Failing to hold the Palestinian government to minimal standards of human rights and democratic accountability has encouraged violence and rejectionism, and prolonged suffering on both sides.

But back to Israel. Much of what Israel has done, and continues to do, in the occupied territories is objectionable. But we must ask why Israel has behaved the way it has. The report acknowledges that the system of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks increased after the second intifada began. Thus, some of the worst features, such as the security barrier, are a direct response to Palestinian violence.

The report hints at the fact that Israeli checkpoints also began increasing after the Oslo agreements. Partly this was also a result to Palestinian terror, which accelerated in the mid-1990s. Partly it was dictated by the agreement itself, which created a variety of different jurisdictions in the territories and did not allow the discontent of ordinary Palestinians (or Israelis) to feed back into the peace process.

There is also a degree—perhaps even a high degree—of Israeli culpability that extends beyond the accidental, the unintentional, and the reactive. It is a culpability suggested in an internal Israeli investigation, described in the Amnesty report, of how the government has quietly encouraged illegal outposts. Yet context is also important, and it is context that these reports somehow always seem to lack.

I have a feeling that there is something amiss in the whole human rights approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—something wrong at a theoretical and practical level, something that makes these reports seem as if they just don’t fit. I think it is important to include human rights in conflict resolution, because a peace that affirms human rights is more enduring, but the proper approach remains elusive.

21 June 2007

22 June 2007 - A free people

I was standing at the bus stop in Tel Aviv yesterday morning at 5:45, waiting for the #4 bus to rumble through the empty streets, when an ordinary car drove by in the opposite direction. The driver was a man with long, curly black hair, and as he drove he was being aggressively kissed by a gorgeous blond woman who was virtually sitting on his lap. The amazing thing was that he kept on driving straight.

Twelve hours later, I strolled through the empty streets of Emek Refaim, normally one of Jerusalem’s busiest districts. The road had been cleared for the Gay Pride Parade, and there were thousands of police on hand to prevent any violence with Haredi anti-parade protestors. The event apparently went off without incident, and the police joked with the marchers and each other as day wore on into evening.

There are certain aspects of Israeli life which are almost authoritarian. There is conscription—of both girls and boys—and then there is the dominance of religious authorities in family law. There is also, in the West Bank, an intricate system of control that prevents Palestinians from living what most of us consider a normal life (though it also may have prevented the Palestinian civil war from spreading).

And yet Israel is truly a freedom-loving nation. I don’t mean the astonishing openness of its politics, or the exuberance of its press, or the confidence of its judiciary. I mean the mores of the people themselves. Israelis have a certain swagger that Americans understand and admire. Taken to extremes, it leads to pushiness and recklessness, or worse—but it also fosters a robust, democratic spirit.

Defenders of Israel’s human rights record, myself included, often point out that it has a far better record than its neighbors (can you name another Middle Eastern country with a Gay Pride Parade?). But I don’t like such low expectations. In South Africa, they’ve let the government claim credit for achievements that sometimes predate the fall of apartheid (e.g. strong infrastructure) and rest on its laurels.

I think that Israel stands out even among democratic nations. And here perhaps my view is tainted by my strong personal and spiritual connection to the place. But a country where literally hundreds of thousands of citizens are armed to the teeth and yet so few people are killed by gunshot wounds has to have some unique quirk in its national character, some unique talent for combining freedom and responsibility.

My new colleagues at ACRI, whom I met today, might be inclined to disagree. I met them today, briefly, at their offices. I am going to be focusing specifically on human rights issues involving the occupied West Bank. I really am inhabiting the other side of the argument now—not intellectually, but vocationally. And I’m hoping to learn something, and perhaps even teach something. But it’s a tricky situation.

My boss at ACRI tells me that more and more Israeli human rights activists are picking up the apartheid analogy and using it to make their cases. I’m not opposed to that, because pointing out that a particular law or military order would have an apartheid-like effect is not the same as saying that Israel or its current policy is equal to apartheid; more importantly, it helps to defeat or prevent such measures.

What I do worry about is the imbalance. ACRI, like B’Tselem, does not criticize Palestinian human rights abuses, of which Hamas has been guilty dozens of times over in the past several days. They are focused on criticizing and stopping the bad things Israel does. That is good, as far as it goes—but it does not go far enough. It lacks historic context, strategic insight, political imagination, and even courage.

My new boss tells me that many people are getting so exasperated at the refusal of Israeli officialdom to acknowledge what is going on that they are considering taking their pleas to international tribunals. What a rotten idea. It makes me wonder if they have done enough to put their case forward, or—if so—whether some new, regional institution, connected to the peace process, might be more appropriate.

Human rights activism, all over the world, shirks responsibility for finding solutions. It is almost always a kind of crusade, couched in moral absolutes. The opposite extreme is no better; I can understand the exasperation of activists in cases where perpetrators and victims have been counterbalanced as if their role in a “conflict” was somehow co-equivalent. But something in between is the correct path.

The truth, it seems to me, is that human rights are actually empty. A right that is proclaimed to belong to everyone must still find a judge to enforce it. And if there is no (human) judge over the whole world, and such an omnipresent is not to be found, then the only way to enforce the right is for all of us to enforce it against each other. But if we did so, there would be no need to proclaim the right in the first place.

Look at the way so many so-called champions of human rights worship violence. Jimmy Carter continues to refer to Hamas as the democratically-elected government of Palestine (even after it defied and overthrew the democratically-elected executive). He recently blamed the U.S. for the civil war and said America should recognize Hamas because it is better than Fatah at imposing its will.

I digress. ACRI is set apart from the rest by the fact that it gives attention to the human rights of Israelis as well as Palestinians, even if it does not consider the culpability of the latter. My work in an organization that I disagree with in some respects at the outset is neither subversive nor impossible. It is a learning experience, which is the whole point of a legal internship, and the reason I am here.

21 June 2007 - Solstice arrival

I am writing from the 24-hr Yodvata restaurant in Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean shore. I should have been asleep in Jerusalem by now, except that my flight left Johannesburg five hours late. I took the last train from Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv and arrived in the middle of the dead hour, with nary a bus or train to be found for at least 90 minutes. So I took a taxi to the beach to watch the sunrise.

It’s still dark outside—no stars to be seen through the humid coastal haze and the light pollution, but it’s still night for another hour or so. My companions are a tribe of teenagers who are still bouncing around after a night on the town and asking me for cigarettes. It’s just a short while until dawn—this is the summer solstice, after all, the longest day (and shortest night) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

The flight was comfortable enough, except for the extremely loud conversation going on among a group of middle-aged Johannesburg moms who kept going on and on about whose wedding they were going to, whose sister knew whom, whose children were applying to practice medicine overseas and which relatives they hadn’t seen in years. I’d have been more irritated, except they reminded me of my own family.

A couple has just emerged from the sea, having evidently gone swimming in their clothes—the man clad in a pair of short denim cutoffs and the woman wearing her bra and a pair of black knee-length shorts. They snap a picture of themselves with a cellphone and move on. Once, on an early winter morning, I saw a Haredi couple change on the empty beach and enter the water holding hands. It was quite sweet.

A tinge of blue in the sky now. Often, on flights to Israel, people burst spontaneously into applause when the plane touches down. This time no one did, probably due to the late hour and the fact that there were few young people, other than tiny tots, on board. But people began clapping along and singing when patriotic songs began playing over the PA system as we taxied to the gate.

I felt like joining them, simply to make a point. When I was in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s most prominent public intellectuals, and the former head of the local Jewish community, came up to me and said: “I liked your letter in the paper. But Israel’s dead. It’s finished.” That’s the PC opinion among South Africa’s chattering classes, I suppose. Someone forgot to tell these kids here, waiting for the sunrise.

Indigo blue, now, lighter on the city side of the promenade than the beach side—of course, we’re facing west, silly. I study the English menu, which proclaims: “Yodvata in Town/Is proud to offer you/A genuine Israeli menu.” I’m tempted by the “Natural Morning”—fruit salad, yogurt, granola and honey—but they have that in South Africa, too; the veggies of the “Israeli Breakfast” might be risky at this hour.

I could order in Hebrew—it amazes me how quickly the language comes back to me, after not having used it for half a year or so. I can never really explain why I absorbed it so well, having only studied it at Jewish day school and for three years at my public high school. I guess I had a few opportunities to use it on trips to Israel and with Israelis. Somehow, Hebrew became hard-wired into my brain, I guess.

I read an Israeli paper on the flight—the plight of the Palestinian refugees from Gaza was a front-page story. Apparently hundreds of families have been flocking to the Erez checkpoint to escape Hamas’s reign of terror. There was another article about refugees—Sudanese refugees from the Darfur genocide. The headline claimed: “Especially as Jews, we cannot be indifferent.”

I wonder whether people in the rest of the world know that Israelis do care about human rights, even the rights of their supposed adversaries. I read a short primer on human rights law on the plane, as well, and felt quite skeptical about the whole business—not just because those noble laws are used to persecute Israel unfairly, but because many of them just seem so ill-conceived at the outset.

Much of what we know today as human rights law emerged from the reaction to the Second World War and the horror of Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews. The response of the international community was to establish a system of rules that could prevent the failures of the past and the hand-wringing that prevailed during the interwar period, in the time of the impotent League of Nations.

But these rules have not really been any more successful, it seems to me, than the old, limited protections. Did they help in Rwanda? Are they helping in Darfur? What has protected vulnerable groups and people from persecution has either been strong domestic political opposition or decisive military intervention, often by states acting in flagrant disregard of the niceties and protocols of international law.

What seems to keep the whole notion of human rights alive, in other words, is something beyond rules—a commitment to strength, a kind of fighting spirit, a combination of moral and physical courage. Can a state that embodies these qualities in its very essence protect human rights with regard to its own minorities, or to foreign citizens under its rule? That’s what I’m here to find out.

But first, I’m going to dip my hands in the ocean. The sky is a light blue now and the sunrise can only be minutes away. The first time I ever came to Israel, fifteen years ago, was a humid morning like this one, and I also woke up early. Then, my companions were the pensioners taking a morning dip. So it’s nice to be here now with a new generation whose voluble presence testifies to Israel’s enduring life.

20 June 2007

20 June 2007 - Returning to action

It’s been more than a week since I last updated this blog, and even longer since I posted my usual op-ed length essays. I’ve been on a “working holiday” for the past three weeks in California and South Africa, and now I’m en route to Jerusalem via Johannesburg to begin a legal internship with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), one of Israel’s foremost legal advocacy organizations.

Much has happened in the past several days that will change the future of the Middle East. Hamas has staged a coup-d’état in Gaza, splitting the Palestinian proto-state into two, with Fatah controlling the West Bank. The mask has now fallen; Hamas can no longer be described as a “democratically-elected” government, and no one can deny that the Palestinians are responsible for their own misery.

Of course, it is only a matter of time before the anti-Israel crazies start to claim that Israel is to blame. They will resort to the tedious argument that everything that happens in the conflict is Israel’s fault. Or—as many conspiracy theorists did after 9/11—they will argue that since only Israel could have benefited from such events, Israel must have been responsible. “Divide and rule,” they will shout.

But even some hardened anti-Israel commentators, like the Business Day’s resident cartoonist, have begun to realize that Israel was right to claim that there is no real negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. And Hamas apologists like South African “intelligence” minister Ronnie Kasrils—who gets annihilated by Benny Morris in today’s Cape Times—have been left with egg on their faces.

Yet the Hamas coup is far from good news. First of all, the violence may not be over. There will be more Palestinian bloodshed as the two sides try to wipe each other out in their respective strongholds. Israel or Egypt (or both) may be forced to intervene in Gaza to secure the border posts that Hamas has seized, in order to prevent Iran and other troublemakers from supplying it with further weapons and cash.

Second, the dream of a Palestinian state may be dying. It is hard to see how an independent Palestinian polity incorporating both the West Bank and Gaza is going to come into being any time in the near future. The most viable option on the table, in fact, may be a confederation between the West Bank and Jordan, which is an idea that even some Arab leaders are beginning to take seriously.

The consequences for peacemaking are profound. There is no hope of a deal with Hamas; any notion that it would become more moderate after taking power has now been thoroughly debunked. There may, however, be hope for a deal with Fatah in the West Bank, which might be freer to negotiate an agreement with Israel now that it is free of the albatross of Hamas.

There are also, already, dire human rights consequences. The Hamas regime in Gaza has already begun executing its opponents; Fatah is also carrying out death sentences in the West Bank. As bad as Israeli occupation was and is, Palestinian rule is turning out to be far worse. And unlike Israel, the Palestinians do not have the human rights activists or the legal system to protect the most vulnerable.

Over the next ten weeks or so, I will be blogging from Israel, reporting on my experiences as a human rights litigator-in-training in Jerusalem. In addition to my work with ACRI, I will be traveling around Israel and meeting with local and international dignitaries to discuss the latest developments with them. I’ll be updating this page six days a week with my observations and reflections.

I’ll also be working on two other projects. One is a research paper that I’m preparing with Harvard post-doc Sapir Handelman for a conference at the University of Utah in September. The paper is going to explore different options for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, focusing on successful models of negotiations in other conflicts and how they can be implemented in the Middle East.

The other project is research for a seminar that’s going to be taught by Professor Duncan Kennedy at Harvard Law School on the legal aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kennedy is a pro-Palestinian radical, and I was planning on taking his class anyway just to debate him when he asked me if I would help prepare the Israeli side of the argument. Cautiously, I accepted the challenge.

I’ll be using this blog to explore and expand ideas over the course of the summer. As always, comments and contributions are greatly appreciated. It’s long been a dream of mine to work in the human rights field in Israel, to learn firsthand about what is going on in the occupied territories and the Israeli justice system, and to engage in debates about the future of the region as history unfolds all around.

11 June 2007

11 June 2007 - Buthelezi defends the peace process

Following up on last week’s South African parliamentary debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi posted an excellent response in his weekly online newsletter, which is reprinted, in abridged form, in today’s Cape Times. Read the original version here. Coverage is also available at It’s Almost Supernatural, which has the latest on this story.

10 June 2007 – South African jihadists have to use Israeli wireless technology

South African telecommunications giant Telkom has brought in an Israeli company, Alvarion, to offer wireless access to South African customers. Alvarion’s press release is below, but I first heard of the boycott via the website of the jihadist Media Review Network, which will now have to use Israeli technology if it wants to post its anti-Israel propaganda using wireless. Ah, the irony.

Apr 25, 2007

Telkom South Africa Embarks on Nationwide WiMAX Network with Alvarion's BreezeMAX

Incumbent Provider to Deploy Alvarion’s WiMAX Network and Achieve Increased Broadband Services for Gauteng and Coastal Regions

Tel Aviv, Israel, April 25, 2007— Alvarion Ltd. (NASDAQ: ALVR), the world’s leading provider of WiMAX and wireless broadband solutions, today announced that Telkom SA Ltd., the provider of public switched communications services in South Africa, has selected its BreezeMAXTM 3.5 GHZ to roll out WiMAX networks as part of an ongoing deployment project for increasing wireless broadband services on a nationwide level. The first deployments are taking place in the highly urbanized province of Gauteng and along the coastal regions of the country.

Working with its local leading technology partner SAAB Grintek, Alvarion offers a fast and cost effective deployment process by means of its award-winning BreezeMAX platform and extensive proven field-experience. Taking part in the WiMAX rollout initiative, end users are expected to experience excellent and reliable network coverage, enjoying quick access and triple play services.
“As the key player in South Africa, we have chosen Alvarion and its WiMAX CertifiedTM BreezeMAX platform to ensure high quality broadband services to our customers,” said Alphonzo Samuels, Telkom’s Executive Officer for Broadband Technology. “We are impressed with Alvarion’s achievements in the WiMAX market in general, and the successful extensive network trials of BreezeMAX in South Africa in particular. We believe that Alvarion will play an important role in the future, as we aim to increase broadband penetration throughout the country in urban and rural areas alike.”

BreezeMAX complies with IEEE 802.16 standards and uses OFDM technology for advanced non-line-of-sight functionality. Its carrier-class design supports broadband speeds and quality of service, enabling carriers to offer triple play broadband services to thousands of subscribers via a single base station. Since its launch in mid-2004, BreezeMAX is the most popular WiMAX system in the world having been successfully deployed in over 300 installations, in more than 100 countries worldwide.

“We are proud to be selected by a market leading company as Telkom SA, and take an active role in their WiMAX initiative, which has just set out,” said Tzvika Friedman, president and CEO of Alvarion. “Offering reduced time to market, top quality service and a wide range of mobile WiMAX solutions; we look forward to upcoming potential deployments, as South Africa embarks on the vast opportunities of broadband services, in order to enable the citizens of Gauteng and coastal regions to benefit from fast access, triple play and more.”

About Telkom SA Limited
Telkom SA Limited is Africa's largest integrated communications company. Telkom provides public switched communication services in South Africa and offers fixed-line voice and data services, branded as Telkom. Telkom participates in the South African mobile communications market through its 50% shareholding in Vodacom, the largest mobile communications network operator in South Africa based on total estimated customers. Telkom’s infrastructure is composed of terrestrial, undersea and satellite communications and pathways, broadband circuits and connections that enable voice, data and video communication services.

Telkom has approximately 4.7 million telephone access lines in service as of March 2006. Telkom had consolidated operating revenue of R47.6 billion for the year ended March 31, 2006. Telkom’s subsidiaries include Telkom Directory Services (Pty) Ltd who provides complete yellow and white pages directory services as well as electronic services, and Swiftnet (Pty) Ltd. Swifnet trades under the name of FastNet Wireless Service and provides synchronous wireless access on Telkom’s X25 network, Saponet-P, to its customers.

About Saab Grintek
Saab Grintek is a leading empowerment technology group based in South Africa and recognized globally for its innovative high tech electronics, with a focus on ICT and enterprise solutions, aviation systems, energy management, tactical communications, communications intelligence, logistics support and global connectivity services.

About Alvarion

With more than 3 million units deployed in 150 countries, Alvarion (www.alvarion.com) is the world’s leading provider of innovative wireless broadband network solutions enabling Personal Broadband to improve lifestyles and productivity with portable and mobile data, VoIP, video and other services.
Leading the market with the most widely deployed WiMAX system in the world, Alvarion is leading the market to Open WiMAX solutions with the most extensive deployments and proven product portfolio in the industry covering the full range of frequency bands with both fixed and mobile solutions. Alvarion’s products enable the delivery of personal mobile broadband, business and residential broadband access, corporate VPNs, toll quality telephony, mobile base station feeding, hotspot coverage extension, community interconnection, public safety communications, and mobile voice and data.

As a wireless broadband pioneer, Alvarion has been driving and delivering innovations for over 10 years from core technology developments to creating and promoting industry standards. Leveraging its key roles in the IEEE and HiperMAN standards committees and experience in deploying OFDM-based systems, the Company's prominent work in the WiMAX Forum is focused on increasing the widespread adoption of standards-based products in the wireless broadband market and leading the entire industry to Open WiMAX solutions.

09 June 2007

09 June 2007 - Anti-Israel protests fizzle out

Ronnie Kasrils & Co. failed to make much of a dent this week, as their climactic anti-Israel rally in Johanesburg failed to reach 1000 participants. Low turnouts, in fact, plagued the entire week's events, despite the best efforts of the organizers to frog-march helpless and homeless black people into position at anti-Israel rallies and to control press coverage. Note that the man who ejected the Ha'aretz freelance photographer was none other than Salim Vally, former head of South Africa's Freedom of Expression Insititute.

07 June 2007

07 June 2007 - Goooooooal!

I couldn't resist returning to last year's World Cup for Ghana star John Paintsil's wonderful answer to false, Soviet-era notions of African hostility to Israel. An appropriate and timely response to Kasrils and the ANC and all the rest of the Israel-hating mob.

06 June 2007

06 June 2007 - South Africa's debate

As I write this, the Parliament of South Africa is debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for the umpteenth time. Kasrils is spewing more than his usual garbage, going so far as to deny Israel’s right to exist. Much of his speech is devoted to the evils of Zionism and the foundation of Israel in 1948, not the occupation or the events of 1967. At the end is a little disclaimer against anti-Semitism.

The response, from the Democratic Alliance, does not argue the point but tries to draw attention to the government’s hypocrisy, and to re-affirm support for an evenhanded policy. Since the DA represents both Jews and Muslims, it cannot afford to take a different line on this issue.

What follows is the text of Kasrils’s prepared speech, and the response of DA foreign affairs spokesperson Douglas Gibson. (I’ve included Kasrils’s footnotes to show how shoddy they are. He misspells names, quotes secondary sources improperly, leaves out page numbers and gets dates wrong. Even the citation to Mandela’s speech is incorrect! The Minister of Intelligence, indeed.)



Madam Speaker, Honourable members, this speech is dedicated to the memory of David Rabkin, South African freedom fighter, who died in Angola.

Forty Years ago this week Israel’s military unleashed lighting attacks against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, alleging provocations as justification for its strikes.

Within six days the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights had been captured.

Apart from the Sinai from which Israel withdrew in 1977; the other areas remain under Israeli military occupation and control to this day.

Whilst some justify Israel’s actions on the grounds of pre-emptive self-defence, the obverse was the truth. From the horses’ mouth we learn whom the aggressor was:

Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin stated: “I do not believe that Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 [1967] would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.”[1]

Menachem Begin, later Israel’s Prime Minister, reminisced that the Egyptian army deployment in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was about to attack Israel. “We must be honest” he explained. “We decided to attack him.”[2]

General Moshe Dayan explained that “many of the firefights with the Syrians were deliberately provoked by Israel.” He said that the kibbutz residents who pressed the Government to take the Golan Heights…did so less for the security than for the farmland…”[3]

These are clearly statements of an aggressor. Nevertheless, some claim that Israel is justified and obligated, from its birth as a state in 1948 in fact, to defend its land and people by force whenever necessary. But where is the morality in this? Fortress Israel, a militarist aggressive state, defends a stolen land that belonged to another people.

Moshe Dayan, unabashedly explained:

“Before [the Palestinians] very eyes we are possessing the land and villages where they, and their ancestors, have lived…We are the generation of colonizers, and without the gun barrel we cannot plant a tree and build a home.”[4]

Israel’s first Prime Minister “, David Ben Gurion, stated in the 1950s:

“Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them. Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, its true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis…but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we came here and stole their country.”[5]

Such statements contextualise Israel’s position and show it has not been interested in real peace terms. In 1897 the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, stated that once in power the aim would be to: “Spirit the penniless population (the Palestinians) across the borders.”[6]

Therein lies the fundamental cause of the conflict – lest anyone remains unclear. It stems from the Zionist world view – its belief in a perpetual anti-Semitism that requires that Jewish people around the world – a faith group – should have a national home of their own. The biblical narrative was evoked to proclaim Palestine as the promised land reserved exclusively for God’s “chosen people” and their civilizing mission. It sounds all too familiar as a vision the Voortrekkers had in this country. It gives rise to racism, apartheid and a total onslaught on those who stand in your way, whether blacks or Arabs or red Indians. Many Jews do not agree with this Zionist world view, and declare that being anti-Zionism and critical of Israel does not equate with anti-semitism.

Far from being a land without people, as Zionist propaganda falsely proclaimed, to attract and justify colonial settlement, the fact was that an indigenous people – the Palestinians – lived there, developed agriculture and towns since the Canaanite Kingdom over 5,500 years ago.

Indeed a delegation of skeptical Vienna rabbis traveled to the Holy Land in 1898 to assess the Zionist vision and cabled home: “The Bride is indeed beautiful but already married.”[7]

This did not deter the Zionists who plotted to abduct the bride and murder or expel the groom by whatever means necessary; and then defend what they had stolen at all costs by creating a supremacist Fortress State.

That exactly sums up the bloody and tragic history that befell the Palestinian people, and their Arab neighbours, at the hands of a rapacious, expansionist Zionist project that has been the source of war and untold suffering in the Near-East for the past sixty years, and is the root cause of the conflict that threatens the entire region and beyond.

With the adoption of the United Nations Partition Plan of November, 1947; a Jewish homeland was accorded 56% of the territory although they owned only 7% and were one-third of the population (most of whom had recently arrived as Holocaust refugees from Europe). The Palestinian majority were given 44% and were never consulted nor had they anything to do with the abominable suffering of the European Jews. The Zionists accepted partition with alacrity but never intended to honour the decision.

According to the Zionist’s strategy, which has become public record with the declassification of documents, the intention was to roll-out a systematic reign of terror, massacres, dispossession and expulsion. This drove out the Palestinian population in a horrific episode of ethnic cleansing that saw over 750,000 or two-thirds of the indigenous people at that time becoming penniless refugees, as Herzl had promised. By the 1949 Armistice the Israeli state had expanded to 78% of the territory.

That was almost sixty years ago. The result of Israel’s war of aggression of forty years ago this week, an extension of 1948, saw Israeli military occupation of the remaining 22% of the land.

The people within the West Bank and Gaza are literally imprisoned under the most unjust conditions suffering hardships and methods of control that are far worse than anything our people faced during the most dreadful days of apartheid. In fact any South African, visiting what amount to enclosed prison-ghettoes – imposed by a Jewish people that tragically suffered the Nazi Holocaust – will find similarity with Apartheid immediately coming to mind; and even more shocking, comparisons with some of the methods of collective punishment and control devised under tyrannies elsewhere. An Israeli cabinet Minister, Aharon Cizling, stated in 1948, after the Deir Yassin Massacre:

“Now we too have behaved like Nazis and my whole being is shaken.”[8]

If anyone has any doubt what the 1948 and 1967 wars were about, listen to Ben Gurion who stated in 1938: “after we become a strong force, as the result of the creation of a state, we shall abolish partition and expand into the whole of Palestine.”

And mark these words of Moshe Dayan:

“Our fathers had reached the frontiers which were recognized in the UN Partition Plan of 1947 [56% of the land]. Our generation reached the frontiers of 1949 [78% of the land]. Now the Six Day Generation [of 1967] has managed to reach Suez, Jordan and the Golan Heights. This is not the end.”[9]

Indeed the saga of agony for the Palestinians continues, inevitably creating insecurity for Israelis as well; because as we know from our own South African experience - injustice and repression generates resistance. It is no good blaming the victims when they hit back.

The Palestinian people’s fate clearly reflects that of South Africa’s indigenous majority during the colonial wars of dispossession of land and property, and the harsh discrimination and suffering of the apartheid period classified as a crime against humanity and violation of international humanitarian law. Israel is as guilty as the Apartheid regime. Israel’s conquest and occupation, with the latest land grab caused by its monstrous Apartheid Wall and continued construction of the illegal settlements has reduced the West Bank into several disconnected pockets amounting to 12% of former Palestine. No wonder that Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Tutu and others compare the situation to Apartheid and the infamous Bantustans – which gave 13% of land for South Africa’s indigenous people.

This people’s Parliament should be unanimous in calling for Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories – lifting the physical, economic and financial blockade and siege of Gaza and the West Bank – removing the physical impediments to the freedom of movement of Palestinians including the Wall and over 500 check-points - dismantling the illegal settlements – releasing 10 000 political prisoners (113 women and children amongst them) –- negotiating a just solution with the elected representatives of the Palestinian people and implementing the UN Resolutions, including Resolution 194 of 1948, concerning the Right of Return of the Refugees. These are necessary steps to create lasting peace, justice and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike, reinforced by international guarantees, so they may live in harmony. Since 1988, when Chairman Yasser Arafat and the PLO agreed to accept 22% of historic Palestine in the interests of peace they show they have been ready for negotiations.

Let us unanimously extend our solidarity and support to the forty-two members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including the Speakers of the West Bank and Gaza, who together with ten Ministers have been summarily detained without trial, most for nearly a year, by the Israeli security forces. This is a shocking illustration of Israel’s disrespect for Parliamentary democracy, the law and basic human rights so reminiscent of what we suffered under apartheid. We call for their immediate and unconditional release; and all prisoners held by both sides.

In support of these demands let us join with the people of our country, and the international Community, in the solidarity marches, rallies and demonstrations this week, the 40th Anniversary of Israel’s unjust occupation. And we make it clear to our Jewish community, these peaceful and disciplined actions, are aimed solely at that government. The struggle for freedom and justice is against a system and not a people.

Let me conclude with the words of President Mandela, who declared in 1998 during the visit to South Africa by Chairman Yasser Arafat:

”We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”[10]

[1] David Hirst – The Gun and the Olive Branch
[2] Naom Chomsky – The Fateful Triangle
[3] New York Times, May 11, 1977
[4] Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi – Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel
[5] Nathan Goldman – The Jewish Paradox
[6] The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, Vol 1, p 86
[7] Avi Shlaim – The Iron Wall
[8] Tom Seger – The First Israelis
[9] London Times, June 25, 1969
[10] Speech by Nelson Mandela at the Banquet in Honour of President Yasser Arafat of Palestine on 11 August 1998


It is amazing that for the second year in a row this parliament has managed to find time to debate the Middle East situation. We have still not found the time to debate the Zimbabwe situation or the report of the parliamentary mission to that country two or three years ago.

Zimbabwe impacts hugely and negatively on South Africa and our people. Several million Zimbabweans are in our country, many of them as illegal immigrants, living from hand to mouth. They have fled from the economic meltdown, the disaster and the mayhem in their own country.

The presence of these Zimbabweans impacts directly on our own people and creates competition for scarce resources and for services.

In contrast, the situation in the Middle East has no direct impact on South Africa but perhaps more significantly, South Africa can have no impact on the situation in Israel and Palestine. We care about the people of Palestine and of Israel. All of us, Government and Opposition, long for peace there, but our ability to influence the situation is very small.

It is becoming clear that the ANC, when it has the power to make a real difference, does little or nothing but when it has no power it rushes into conducting hot air debates and passing empty resolutions which will be ignored by everybody.

Today’s debate is nothing other than an abuse of the time of parliament. At a drop of a hat the ANC can give notice and within days we discover that parliament can assemble an hour early to debate an issue like this whereas debates about matters of national significance do not get parliamentary time. The DA has been trying to debate issues such as poverty, unemployment and crime, but none of these motions make in onto the order paper.

Another aspect which is perplexing is the fact that whereas such subjects for discussion generally do not result in motions, on both occasion that the ANC has forced this matter onto the parliamentary order paper they have proposed resolutions. This is not in terms of our ordinary parliamentary procedure and surely we do not want to have a situation where every subject for discussion results in a motion and divisions and whatever else follows.

In the circumstances I hereby move an amendment which reads as follows:

Notice of amendment:

I hereby give notice to amend the resolution as follows:

That this House

Regards the continuing crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine as one of the tragedies of our time;

Refuses to take sides between Israel and Palestine but calls upon them both to cease all violence;

Reiterates that it is only through a negotiated settlement with a safe and secure Israel and a safe and secure Palestine that this intractable problem will finally be solved; and

Calls upon the United Nations and all countries of goodwill to exert pressure on both Israel and Palestine to sit down together at the negotiating table to commence negotiations and to continue them for as long as is necessary.

One of the longest running and most painful conflicts of the 20th century was the situation in Northern Ireland. It took a miracle but it finally happened – the legacy of John Major and Tony Blair is a peaceful territory, co-existing side by side with the largely catholic Republic of Ireland and with Northern Ireland itself being governed jointly by Protestants and Catholics. Many doubted that this would ever be possible. It happened and if the Irish problem could be settled then the Middle East problem could be settled as well.

I am not saying that Ireland and Palestine are analogous. All I am saying is that the a melding of religion, of disputed land, of colonial overtones and of continuing violence made that problem a particularly difficult one.

We must resolutely refuse to import the angers, the hatred and the religious divide into our country. It is wrong to blame South African Jews for actions of the Israeli government. It would be just as wrong to blame South Africans Muslims for the Qassam rockets being fired at Israel.

We must remain equidistant and determined to help solve the problem.
The real contribution that South Africa can make to a peaceful resolution is not to attempt to persuade people there that our own experience can simply be transplanted. It cannot. South Africa’s contribution must be to help persuade the protagonists that the path of peace must be pursued. We must also use our influence on the Security Council of the United Nations to ensure that the pressure for peace negotiations is put on both Israel and Palestine.

We should instruct our Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Department to act accordingly.

06 June 2007 - Kasrils cheered for Nasser

Yesterday, I asked where Kasrils was forty years ago, during the Six Day War. Now we know: he was cheering on Nasser’s forces from a comfortable distance, supporting the Arab states’ goal of destroying Israel, reveling in the ignorant, hateful, self-indulgent glee that seized the Arab-Soviet bloc before reality set in.

It is worth remembering what Nasser’s declared war aims were, ten days before the fighting actually broke out:

“The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel. I probably could not have said such things five or even three years ago. If I had said such things and had been unable to carry them out my words would have been empty and worthless. Today, some eleven years after 1956, I say such things because I am confident.”

Now Ronnie is cheering for Hamas and Iran. As they say: aluta continua!

Thanks to the bloggers at It’s Almost Supernatural for the tip-off.

06 June 2007 - Some interesting products (not) to boycott

It turns out that one of the biggest consumers of Israeli goods in South Africa is—surprise, surprise—the government itself. In addition to all those computers with Intel chips, cell phones, Internet security programs, lifesaving pharmaceutical drugs, etc., etc., here are a few Israeli products bought by the South African government that it might not want to do without.

How about this Israeli-made tow truck, with neat side-hydraulic action? These are used to control illegal parking in Cape Town. OK, so this is not likely to be one of the most popular Israeli technologies out there, but the government uses it.

And hey, how about those passenger buses at South African airports? Have you ever seen stickers like the one below on the windows? Actually, the one below is just a random sticker I pulled off the web, but there are lots of Hebrew stickers on the buses at the airports, telling you not to throw trash out the windows or that you should give up your seat to the infirm. Guess where those buses are imported from?

This next one is not, technically, a government project, but one that certainly seeks to promote the government’s development objectives. Israel, together with corporate sponsors in South Africa, is teaching local farmers to use drip irrigation systems to improve crop yields, promote agricultural productivity, and improve environmental sustainability. Boycotting this means literally taking food off people’s plates.

So, guys… still want to boycott? I thought not. I guess the boycotters will just have to stoop to targeting Jewish-owned retailers like Pick n’ Pay. If they do, bear in mind that Woolworth’s sells excellent Israeli tomatoes, labeled as such.

05 June 2007

05 June 2007 - A tree for Ronnie

I’ve been on vacation for a bit, hence the lack of entries lately. But I’ve been following the news, and I decided that the best response to Red Ronnie and the ANC’s crazy boycott of Israel would be to plant a tree in Israel “In Celebration of Minister Ronnie Kasrils.” Where was he forty years ago today, one wonders?