October 2002

Shocking Israel

31 October 2002

The fragile bond of trust between Israel and the country’s Bedouin was in danger of tearing apart over the case of a senior Israeli army officer accused of spying for Hizbullah, writes Jonathan Cook from Nazareth Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Hayeb, from the Bedouin village of Zarzir in the Galilee, was arrested six weeks ago but the secrecy surrounding this espionage case only lifted last week when he was charged in a Nazareth court. Hayeb, 40, is the most senior officer in Israel’s history to be accused of espionage and treason. According to the charge sheet, he passed military secrets to Hizbullah in return for drugs and money.

Israel calls itself the only democracy in the Middle East, a description readily accepted in the West. Only critics in the Arab world and a handful of radical Israeli academics have challenged this orthodoxy, observing that the country is really a democracy only if you are a Jew. Azmi Bishara, a former philosophy professor and now an Arab member of the Knesset, calls Israel a “tribal democracy.” Not included in the tribe, he says, are the country’s million Arab citizens, a fifth of the population. Although they have the vote, they have long complained that they are excluded from participation in the government. Since the mid-1990s they have campaigned for the Jewish state to become a state of all its citizens. The Jewish Israeli public and political establishment angrily oppose such reforms, claiming that they would destroy Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister whose approval of his political rival Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif two years ago unleashed the Intifada, recently gave his first full interview to an Israeli newspaper since his defeat at the polls in February 2001. Concerned only to justify his part in the events that led to the current violent confrontation between the Israeli army and the Palestinians, he refused to express regret or contrition. Of the much shorter-lived clash between the Israeli police and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, in which 13 members of the Arab minority were shot dead, he had nothing to say at all. Instead Barak told the Ha’aretz daily newspaper that he counted the violence that followed the failure to reach an agreement with Palestinian negotiators at Camp David, and a few months later at Taba, as a personal achievement.

Israel is a state for only some of its citizens, says a new report investigating violations of the political rights of the “Jewish State’s” Palestinian citizens. Report co-author Jonathan Cook sums up its findings Israel calls itself a democracy: by its own reckoning, the only one to be found in the Middle East. It is a self-description readily accepted in the West. It has fallen to critics in the Arab world and a handful of radical Israeli academics to challenge this orthodoxy, calling Israel an “ethnic democracy”, a democracy only if you are a Jew. Azmi Bishara, a former philosophy professor and Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, has made the same point more simply, calling Israel a “tribal democracy”.

Selling snakeoil

24 October 2002

Like a travelling salesman, US Middle East envoy William Burns arrived in the region at the weekend on the start of a 12-nation tour carrying in his briefcase a magic formula for ending the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His “Road Map” — a six-page draft document based on talks last month between the United States and its Quartet partners from Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — proposes a new diplomatic track for resuscitating the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and for creating a Palestinian state by 2005. The US plan, on which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was consulted at length during his two-day visit to Washington last week, sets out three stages for the gradual consolidation of Palestinian statehood over the next three years, building on a commitment President George W Bush made in a speech in June.

Selling anti-Semitism

18 October 2002

Hardly a day passes in Israel without another lengthy feature in the Hebrew press documenting the rapid reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe, with France and Britain invariably singled out as the worst culprits. For many months Israel’s liberal daily newspaper Haaretz has included a special compilation of reports on the “New Anti-Semitism” on its website. Some commentators have pointed out that Israel’s current preoccupation with anti-Semitism dangerously conflates two separate, and very different, trends: the first a harsher ideological climate in Europe towards Israel’s military assault on the Palestinians; and the second a wave of attacks on synagogues and Jews, often committed by Muslim youths angry at what they see as Western indifference to this assault.

BIRAM, Israel: Biram’s cemetery, nestling amid apple and olive trees in the rolling blue hills of the Upper Galilee in northern Israel, is carefully tended each day by Abrahim Iassa, 68, even though the village it once served no longer exists. The 1,000 Christian inhabitants of Biram were asked to leave their homes by the Israeli army in October 1948 – a few months after the establishment of the Jewish state – while soldiers cleared the area of enemy forces. Today, 54 years later, they are still waiting for permission to return. Iassa is increasingly pessimistic about his chances. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I think there is only one way they will let me back to my village – and that is in a coffin.”

Destroying the soul

3 October 2002

Damon sits atop a wooded ridge of the Carmel mountain overlooking the shimmering blue of the Mediterranean near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The view is the most pleasant part of a visit to the prison, an old farmhouse-turned-jail that was closed three years ago after the government deemed it unfit for human habitation. During the Intifada it has been hurriedly pressed back into service. Visiting times are fixed — sessions on Tuesday morning — but not strictly observed. A metal three door bars entry, leaving visitors to sit on the dusty ground by the whitewashed outer wall in the heat and glare of the late morning. It is difficult to know precisely how many Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli detention.

Olives and lives

1 October 2002

Isaac Shabati was back in the West Bank last weekend for the first time since he completed his Israeli military service in the reserves more than a decade ago. But this time he found himself on the “wrong” side of the ethnic divide of the occupation — with the Palestinians rather than the Israeli army. Shabati, a 54-year-old marketing manager from the village of Vradim in central Galilee, was among a small group of Israelis who had come to Kfar Yasuf to help protect Palestinian farmers with their olive harvest. The village, one of several close to Nablus that over the past month have been at the receiving end of violence from settlers, was the first to hit the headlines, at the start of October, when local settlers tried to steal the crop two weeks before the olives were ripe.