2005

Natan Zada had recently moved to the West Bank settlement of Tapuah, where, it was later reported, he had fallen in with the far-right Kach movement. Formally outlawed by the Israeli government, Kach expounds a virulently racist ideology demanding the removal of all non-Jews from the Land of Israel. Once his bus had arrived in Shafa ‘Amr, Zada set his M-16 on automatic and put his beliefs into practice. He killed the driver and three passengers, and wounded another 12, before being overpowered and then beaten to death by angry townspeople

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon strode up to the podium at the UN General Assembly on September 15, 2005 to deliver a speech recognizing the Palestinians’ right to statehood, government officials back in Jerusalem were preparing to draw a firm line under unfinished business from the start of the Palestinian uprising, five years earlier. The Justice Ministry held a muted press conference three days after Sharon’s speech to publish the findings of its investigation into the deaths of 13 unarmed demonstrators — 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel and one Palestinian laborer from Gaza — at the hands of the northern police force in the first week of October 2000. In the warm afterglow of the prime minister’s New York appearance, hardly anyone noticed the publication of the Justice Ministry report on September 18.

Until last weekend, Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens had stayed well out of the debate about the country’s imminent disengagement from Gaza. “It’s not our story,” they would say when pressed. “This is an entirely Jewish conversation.” While for months Jewish car drivers have been flying blue and orange ribbons – showing respectively support for and opposition to the disengagement – car aerials in Israel’s Arab towns and villages remained bare. That is no longer the case. At the weekend, Arab drivers in the Galilee could be seen flying black ribbons to commemorate the deaths of four Arabs shot dead on a bus last Thursday afternoon by a Jewish extremist with his Israeli Army-issued rifle. Now Israel’s Palestinian citizens are part of the conversation, whether they like it or not.

The letter one reporter in Israel wishes he could send news editors who ask him to cover the disengagement:

Dear Editor,

Many thanks for your email asking me to cover the Gaza disengagement for your publication. I was surprised to hear that you needed someone “already on the ground in Israel”, as you put it, and will not be among the publications sending a correspondent to cover the disengagement from Gaza. I know that some 3,000 foreign journalists are expected to descend on Israel in the coming days.

Maybe I should learn to be less sensitive but when director Eran Riklis arrived in Nazareth last month for the screening of his much-garlanded film “The Syrian Bride”, he got off on the wrong footing the moment he walked through the door. A handful of Nazerenes had been invited to a film studies workshop, keen to see an Israeli movie that has won universal praise, as well as more than a dozen awards, for its uplifting and supposedly non-partisan message: that we must never let go of our humanity or our dignity, even in the face of the brutalitising effects of the Middle East conflict.

This week the Israeli soldier who shot and killed Tom Hurndall, a 22-year-old British peace activist, in Rafah in the Gaza Strip was convicted by an Israeli court of manslaughter. The judgment was a belated and incomplete victory for Tom’s parents, Anthony and Jocelyn Hurndall, who had been involved in a two-year battle against the Israeli authorities to bring their son’s killer to justice. They believe responsibility reaches much higher up the chain of authority to Israeli commanders who have approved a reckless policy of targeting Palestinians, whether armed or not.
Despite more than 1,700 Palestinian civilians having been killed by the Israeli army in this intifada, according to figures from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, few soldiers ever account for those deaths. Only 90 investigations by the army have been held, leading to seven convictions of soldiers, three for manslaughter and none for murder. The longest sentence so far has been for 20 months.

I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read Uri Avnery’s recent offering, “Death of a Myth”, about the deathbed confession of Naomi Shemer regarding “Jerusalem of Gold”, her song that became a second Israeli national anthem after the Six-Day War of 1967. The Israeli public was apparently duped: Shemer had plagiarised the song from a Basque lullaby. As Avnery implicitly admits, no one was more fooled than he. At the time, he was a member of the Knesset and unsuccessfully tried to pass a law to have the song replace the national anthem, “Hativkah” or “The Hope”.

In early March, the Electronic Intifada published a story about Ali Zbeidat and his family, Palestinian citizens of Israel whose home in the Galilee is threatened with demolition by a Jewish regional council called Misgav. For a decade Misgav has been seeking to prevent Ali, his Dutch wife Terese and their two teenage daughters, Dina and Awda, from living on land that has belonged to his family for decades. Using discriminatory land laws, the regional counicl has claimed jurisdiction over their land, even though it is located inside the Arab town of Sakhnin. The story, which received wide publicity, so deeply embarrassed the mayor of Misgav, Erez Kreizler, that he issued a statement denying the story’s truth and accusing the family and Sakhnin municipality of running a campaign of misinformation to denigrate Misgav and the state of Israel.

Crowing over his success in breaking up the old Arab order, President George W. Bush has been strongly hinting that the first shoots of democracy pushing up through the sands of the Middle East will soon blossom into peace. Truly representative Arab leaders, we are assured, will put away the qassam and katuysha rockets and embrace their former enemies. The model – at least in the thinking of the White House – is the peace process supposedly under way between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, sealed in a handshake last month at the Sinai beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon are now doing business because both speak the same language of democracy – or so the Bush argument runs.

You won’t hear about the story of my Palestinian friend Ali Zbeidat and the threatened demolition of his “illegal” home, either from the hundreds of international correspondents in Jerusalem or from the Hebrew media – not even from those remarkable Israeli journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, two lone beacons inside Israel in the campaign for justice for the Palestinians. None of them will tell you about the story of Ali’s family and the imminent physical and financial ruin of their lives by Israel, even though Ali’s plight is far from unique. There are tens of thousands of other Palestinians in the same desperate situation as Ali, living in homes Israel defines as illegal.

While the aggressive language of many among Gaza’s 7000 Jewish settlers is making Israeli officials nervous, the government is far more fearful of the response of the wider settler population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They number at least 400,000, a significant proportion of them hardline religious Jews who have little time for realpolitik or compromise. They believe they are doing God’s work in settling land that was promised the Jews in the Bible. “Enough with the embraces and love,” Oz Kadmon from Kafr Darom said. “[Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is a belligerent man and he must be addressed in the language he understands.”

The latest legal maneuvers by the Israeli government to confiscate Palestinian land in East Jerusalem have rightly caused outrage, even among senior Israeli officials.
Last summer, it emerged that the government secretly resurrected a 55-year-old piece of legislation drafted in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Using the 1950 Absentee Property Law, Israeli officials have the right to seize the holdings of any Palestinian landowner they define as “absent.” The renewed application of the law came to light only after an Israeli lawyer pressed the army for a promised entry permit into Israel for his client, Johnny Atik, a Bethlehem farmer who needed to reach his fields.