2003

Guardian Weekly – 19 December 2003 Weekends in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, are often a dismal prospect. For more than a decade a night out has entailed either leaving town or visiting a pub known locally as the Frank Sinatra, housed in a drab building paid for by the singer […]

Email from Nazareth

15 December 2003

Through the dark nights of the intifada, the gigantic illuminated spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation has glowed brightly in the centre of Nazareth like a beacon of inextinguishable hope. The basilica, the biggest in the Middle East, is built over a grotto believed to have been the home of Joseph and Mary and the place where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to tell Mary she was bearing the son of God. This Christmas the two cities associated with Jesus – Nazareth, in Israel, and Bethlehem, in what might one day become Palestine – will be shunned again by pilgrims. The nativity festivities will have to wait for another day, and a far-off peace. But the story of Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood, is not just of interest to pilgrims. The hills and the valley in which we know it has nestled for the past 2,000 years are revealing an older, but sadly neglected, record of human history, of our species’ struggle to survive and its search for meaning.

Lessons of history

27 November 2003

Two items of news broke simultaneously this month. The first concerned an apology by a member of the German Parliament, Martin Hohmann, for remarks in which he suggested that Jewish communities in Europe shared a historic “guilt” with the Germans and other nations for the events of the 20th century, a comment which predictably provoked denunciations of Hohmann for being anti-Semitic. The second report was of a survey of various publics in the European Union which showed that a convincing majority, 59 per cent, judged the actions of Israel to be the gravest threat to world peace, knocking more familiar bogeymen like North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran from the top slot.

A recent attack on a Knesset member underscores the country’s hostility towards calls for transparency in Israel’s weapons of mass destruction programme. At midday on Friday, 24 October, Issam Makhoul, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, and his wife Suad got into their two cars outside their home in the centre of Haifa. Issam Makhoul reversed his Knesset-supplied Ford out of the driveway as his wife started the engine of the family Honda to collect their twin children from school. Seconds later an explosion flooded Suad Makhoul’s car with flames. She leapt from the vehicle moments before the fire could engulf her.

Sally Azzam, 23, a student from the Arab city of Nazareth in northern Israel, tells me fondly of a recent holiday to neighboring Jordan. A highlight was being able to smoke a nargilleh, or water pipe, in cafés and restaurants, anonymous among the local women who do the same. Smoking for unmarried women, at least in the Jordanian capital Amman, is chic. But for Azzam it represents a small feminist victory for Jordanian women, one of the battles she fears is being lost back home. In Israel, a country in which Jewish women take for granted most Western freedoms, young Arab women are facing a resurgence of social and moral controls that even their mothers might have balked at. And in this, maybe there is a lesson for those who believe that the West can impose its values unthinkingly on other civilizations.

The roadside signpost bearing the information “Facility 1391” was removed months ago. Now there is nothing to identify the concrete fortress guarded by two watchtowers that sits atop a small wooded hill overlooking a kibbutz in central Israel close to the Green Line, the border with the West Bank until 1967. The site’s location is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Israel: it is not marked on maps, it is erased from aerial photographs and military censors reject publication of any identifying details in the local media. But this summer the Israeli government, under pressure from the courts, admitted that Facility 1391 serves as a “secret prison,” what one local newspaper termed “Israel’s Guantanamo,” in a reference to the Camp X-Ray jail for Al-Qaeda and Taleban captives run by the United States on occupied Cuban territory.

Israeli academic Jeff Halper has coined the phrase “the matrix of control” to describe the system of settlements, outposts, bypass roads, confiscated land masquerading as national parks, military zones, checkpoints and now hundreds of kilometres of a “separation wall” that together effectively entrap the Palestinian population in ghettoes across the West Bank and Gaza. Halper’s point is to explain how Israel uses non-military tools — planning laws, architecture and geography — as well as military hardware to herd Palestinians into the spaces it allocates them: the “Bantustan” homelands familiar from apartheid South Africa.

FACILITY 1391, a concrete fortress in central Israel on a rise overlooking a kibbutz, is almost obscured by high walls and fir trees. Two watchtowers give armed guards extensive views of surrounding fields. From the outside it looks like many other police stations built by the British in the 1930s across the Mandate of Palestine. Today many serve as military bases, their location revealed by signposts showing only a number. Facility 1391, close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, is different. It is not marked on maps, it has been erased from aerial photographs and recently its numbered signpost was removed. Censors have excised all mention of its location from the Israeli media, with the government saying that secrecy is essential to “prevent harm to the country’s security”.

Is this where Jesus bathed?

22 October 2003

A shopkeeper running a small souvenir business in Nazareth has made a sensational discovery that could dramatically rewrite the history of Christianity Elias Shama’s small souvenir shop in Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood, barely catches the eye. Tourists usually pass by it on their way to the neighbouring Mary’s Well church, claimed by the Greek Orthodox church as the site where the Archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was carrying the son of God. Before the Palestinian intifada erupted three years ago, the shop did a steady trade selling the usual pilgrim fare……..

Beit Fauzi Azar, my home for the past two years, is one of the “hidden palaces” of Palestine, according to the Israeli conservation expert Sharif Sharif. These mansions, built in the late 19th century, are one of the few windows left on Palestinian society from before the advent of modern Israel. In the old quarters of Acre and Nazareth in the Galilee, in the Arab sections of Jaffa and Lod in east Jerusalem, in Gaza City and in the casbahs of the West Bank cities of Nablus and Bethlehem, there are still a smattering of these living museums. The most famous is Orient House, the PLO’s headquarters in Jerusalem until it was shut down by Israel during the intifada.

August is known to journalists as the “silly season”—when editors struggling to fill space ask their staff to spice up run-of-the-mill stories with drama or humor. By every journalistic yardstick, the Israeli media’s recent report of a “children’s summer camp of terror” was a silly season story. None of the journalists, however, were smirking as they delivered the punchline. They were all deadly serious. The report originally surfaced July 30 on the Channel 10 news. The station “revealed” that 300 Israeli Arab children—from the community of one million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship—were being trained to become terrorists at a summer camp in the village of Kabul in the western Galilee.

Democratic injustice

25 September 2003

Al-Ahram Weekly – 25 September 2003 I am loath to put pen to paper again to continue a debate with Ran HaCohen that doubtless appears more than a little self- indulgent to many outsiders. Maybe we do sound like two birds singing from the same tree limb, as one of Al-Ahram Weekly’s more compulsive Zionist […]

Shoot to kill

11 September 2003

Wissam Yazbak, at rest in a Nazareth cemetery, cannot tell the story of what happened to him nearly three years ago, on the night of 8 October 2000. That evening a mob of several hundred Israeli Jews from the neighbouring town of Nazareth Ilit marched on the eastern quarter of Nazareth, many armed with guns and chanting “Death to the Arabs”. As the mob attacked the first Arab homes, Nazareth’s mosques called on local residents to defend their town. In the pressure cooker atmosphere of the first days of the Intifada, when communal war between Israel’s Jews and Arabs was in the air, the residents made their way uphill from the centre of town to the road that separates the Jewish and Arab Nazareths.

After a wait of three years, including 12 long months of silence as the final report was being drafted, the Or commission of inquiry into the shooting dead of 13 Arab citizens in the Galilee by the Israeli police at the start of the intifada issued its verdict this week. Theodor Or’s 781-page report, published on Monday, severely criticized several senior police officers, including the former national police chief, Yehuda Wilk, and his commander in the Galilee, Alik Ron, as well as reprimanding the former prime minister Ehud Barak and his public security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami. All were implicated to varying degrees in the decision to allow police officers to use rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition as a first line of defence in controlling demonstrations in the country’s north.

Even as a young girl in Wimbledon Susan Nathan knew she would one day move to Israel. But why did she choose to settle in the Arab town of Tamra? She explains to Jonathan Cook
She makes an incongruous figure, waiting in front of the central mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tamra. There is no danger I will miss her. She has short blonde hair, in contrast to the rest of the women who cover their dark hair with scarves, and is wearing a loose-fitting floral kaftan, better suited to the streets of Wimbledon, her former home, than here in the Middle East. The difference runs much deeper than mere looks: Susan Nathan is the only Jew among 25,000 Muslims in Tamra, one of the country’s dozens of Arab communities whose council is run by Islamic fundamentalists.

Crossing the divide

21 August 2003

She is an incongruous figure waiting infront of the large central mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tamra for my arrival. There is no danger I will miss her. She has short blond hair, in contrast to most of the women who cover their heads with scarves, and is wearing a loose-fitting, floral kaftan that would be less out of place on the streets of Wimbledon in south London, her former home, than here in the Middle East. But the difference runs much deeper. Susan Nathan is the only Jew in Tamra, living among 25,000 Muslims in a town run by Islamic politicians. More than this, she is one of only two Israeli Jews known to have crossed the ethnic divide in Israel to live in one of the country’s dozens of Arab communities.

Eyes wide open

21 August 2003

In these pages recently (Al-Ahram Weekly, 7 – 13 August) the left-wing Israeli academic and journalist Ran HaCohen argued that most Israelis had almost no idea what their government and army were doing in their name in the occupied Palestinian territories. “The Israeli public is kept in the dark about what is happening just a 20-minute drive from Tel-Aviv, or just across (and even within) the municipal borders of Jerusalem,” he wrote in an article headlined “Eyes Wide Shut”. HaCohen’s usually admirable qualities as an analyst of the situation inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza appear to have deserted him on this occasion. Let us examine how plausible the assumptions he is making about the “Israeli public” really are.

JERUSALEM: Israel faced a stinging rebuke last week from a United Nations watchdog body for passing a law two weeks ago, days before the Knesset’s summer recess, that bans Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from living together in Israel. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Israel to revoke the law immediately, adding that it “raises serious issues” about whether Israel is violating an international human rights treaty it ratified in 1979. The panel, comprising 18 human rights experts from around the world, is due to issue a periodical report assessing Israel’s compliance with the treaty in December but was so concerned by the new law that under emergency procedures it rushed out an early statement criticizing the legislation.

Absent voices

14 August 2003

As Sharon manoeuvers in the shadow of the roadmap, the shortcomings of the mainstream Israeli peace camp have never been more evident. This Saturday a convoy of Jewish and Arab Israeli peace activists will venture into the olive groves of Anin, a Palestinian village in the northern West Bank close to the pre-1967 border with Israel. They will be there to help Anin’s farmers prepare for the autumn harvest, hoping to use their Israeli citizenship to defy military restrictions and reach more than 2,500 acres of fields that have been off-limits to the villagers since Israel recently erected its apartheid wall. The trip is not without risk: only two weeks ago, international demonstrators who joined the villagers to protest against the wall were shot by Israeli police and soldiers.

The forgotten prisoners

14 August 2003

Early one morning two years ago, as the fields below the small hilltop town of Deir Hanna in the central Galilee soaked up the dawn light, Diana Hussein’s life changed for ever. Woken by violent knocking at the front door, the 43- year-old school nutritionist found several dozen armed Israeli police surrounding her house. They were looking for her 16-year-old son Rabiah, asleep inside. For an hour and a half, five men searched his bedroom, looking through photos, opening up his collection of radios, confiscating his Umm Kulthoum tapes and trawling through files on his computer. All they found of note was a screensaver that read “Rabiah Saleh Hussein from Deir Hanna in occupied Galilee”, a reference to the capture of the Galilee in the 1948 war that founded Israel.

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