September 2009

Nine months after he helped to organise protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza, Samih Jabareen is a prisoner in his home in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, an electronic bracelet around his ankle to alert the police should he step outside his front door. The 40-year-old actor and theatre director is one of dozens of Arab political activists in Israel who have faced long-term detention during and since Israel’s winter assault on Gaza, in what human rights groups are calling political intimidation and repression of free speech by the Israeli police and courts.

Demands from Israel’s chief commander this month that all Israeli citizens should be required to perform national service has turned the spotlight on a rarely discussed group of soldiers: members of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Though no official statistics are available, an estimated 3,000 of Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens have broken one of their society’s biggest taboos and are currently serving, often as combat troops on the front line of the conflict with their Palestinian kin, in the occupied territories.

A local authority in Israel has announced that it is establishing a special team of youth counsellors and psychologists whose job it will be to identify young Jewish women who are dating Arab men and “rescue” them. The move by the municipality of Petah Tikva, a city close to Tel Aviv, is the latest in a series of separate – and little discussed – initiatives from official bodies, rabbis, private organisations and groups of Israeli residents to try to prevent interracial dating and marriage.

An ill-fated light railway under construction in Jerusalem was originally heralded by Israeli officials as a way to cement the city’s “unification” four decades after the city’s Palestinian half was illegally annexed to Israel. But the only unity generated among Jewish and Palestinian residents after four years of disruptions to the city’s traffic and businesses is general agreement that the project is rapidly becoming a white elephant.

Israeli peace activists are planning to ratchet up their campaign against groups in the United States that raise money for settlers by highlighting how tax exemptions are helping to fund the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Gush Shalom, a small peace group that advocates Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, is preparing to send details to the US tax authorities questioning the charitable status of several organisations.

Yunis al Masri was luckier than his brothers from Gaza. Although the truck that ploughed into their car as they travelled to work in Israel 24 years ago killed Jaber and Kamal instantly, Mr al Masri survived with shattered bones, internal bleeding and brain damage. Certified as disabled, he is entitled to a monthly allowance of $800 from Israel’s National Insurance Institute to support his wife and 10 children. In early January, however, the transfers of disability benefits stopped arriving in his bank account. About 700 other injured workers are in the same situation.

The accelerated pace of Gaza’s economic asphyxiation since January, when the Bank of Israel cut ties with the tiny enclave, has highlighted the degree to which Israel has engineered the Gaza Strip’s absolute financial dependency on its larger neighbour. The Harvard political economist Sara Roy has characterised Israel’s long-term policy towards Gaza as one of “de-development”, or “the systematic and progressive dismemberment of an indigenous economy by a dominant one”.

The increasingly harsh political climate in Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government has prompted the leadership of the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens to call the first general strike in several years. The one-day stoppage is due to take place on October 1, a date heavy with symbolism because it marks the anniversary of another general strike, in 2000 at the start of the second intifada when 13 Arab demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli police.

The Israeli government has launched a television and Internet advertising campaign urging Israelis to inform on Jewish friends and relatives abroad who may be in danger of marrying non-Jews. The advertisements, employing what the Israeli media described as “scare tactics,” are designed to stop assimilation through intermarriage among young Diaspora Jews by encouraging their move to Israel.

Liberal journalists in our mainstream media are always outraged at any suggestion that their reports or views are in any way influenced by the threat of retaliation from powerful interests. Students of the media are taught that in Western democracies journalists on serious newspapers seek the truth and, except in the case of the odd bad apple, refuse to submit to intimidation. Israel offers a particularly interesting test case in this regard.

The hyperventilating by Israel’s leaders over a story published in a Swedish newspaper last month suggesting that the Israeli army assisted in organ theft from Palestinians has distracted attention from the disturbing allegations made by Palestinian families that were the basis of the article’s central claim. The families’ fears that relatives had body parts removed during unauthorized autopsies performed in Israel have been overshadowed by accusations of a “blood libel” directed against the reporter, Donald Bostrom, and the Aftonbladet newspaper.