2010

Jonathan Pollak, one of Israel’s most prominent political dissidents, is no stranger to dangerous situations or arrest in the occupied territories. In seven years of joining Palestinians in their weekly stand-offs with the Israeli army at sites in the West Bank, where the separation barrier is being built, he has been arrested “too many times to count”, he said. He has been injured several times. This week, he received his first jail sentence for participating in a mass bicycle ride in Tel Aviv.

Half a million trees planted over the past 18 months on the ancestral lands of Bedouin tribes in Israel’s Negev region were bought by a controversial Christian evangelical television channel that calls itself God-TV. A sign posted a few kilometres north of Beersheva, the Negev’s main city, announces plans to plant a total of a million trees over a large area of desert that has already been designated “God-TV Forest”.

The pretty two-storey home with a red-tiled roof built by Adel and Iman Kaadan looks no different from the rows of other houses in Katzir, a small hilltop community in northern Israel close to the West Bank. But, unlike the other residents of Katzir, the Kaadans moved into their dream home this month only after a 12-year battle through the Israeli courts. The small victory for the Kaadans, who belong to Israel’s Palestinian Arab minority, dealt a big blow to a state policy that for decades has reserved most of the country’s land for Jews.

Israeli police have been criticised over their treatment of hundreds of Palestinian children, some as young as seven, arrested and interrogated on suspicion of stone-throwing in East Jerusalem. In the past year, criminal investigations have been opened against more than 1,200 Palestinian minors in Jerusalem on stone-throwing charges, according to police statistics. That was nearly twice the number of children arrested last year in the much larger Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

Jews must not rent homes to “gentiles”. That was the religious decree issued this week by at least 50 of Israel’s leading rabbis, many of them employed by the state as municipal religious leaders. Jews should first warn, then “ostracise” fellow Jews who fail to heed the directive, the rabbis declared. The decree is the latest in a wave of racist pronouncements from some of Israel’s most influential rabbis.

The Wikileaks disclosure this week of confidential cables from United States embassies has been debated chiefly in terms either of the damage to Washington’s reputation or of the questions it raises about national security and freedom of the press. The new disclosures, however, provide a more interesting and useful insight. Underlying the gossip and analysis sent back to Washington is an awareness from many US officials stationed abroad of quite how ineffective — and often counter-productive — much US foreign policy is.

While Washington struggles to kick-start the troubled Middle East peace talks, Israel has been working quietly over the past few weeks to sabotage the US efforts with a series of measures targeting the most incendiary issue of all – Jerusalem. The latest move was the passage of a law requiring a national referendum before occupied East Jerusalem can be handed over to the Palestinians, who demand it as the capital of their future state.

Top Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, are engaged in “very serious” discussions about whether to abandon negotiations with Israel and seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, a senior Palestinian official said yesterday. The official said there was momentum building among senior Palestinian political figures to act on a long-standing threat to bypass the current peace process, which has stalled, and ask the UN Security Council to recognise Palestinian statehood.

Watching the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians drag on year after year without conclusion, it is easy to overlook the enormous changes that have taken place on the ground since the Oslo Accords were signed 17 years ago. Each has undermined the Palestinians’ primary goal of achieving viable statehood.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is in the United States this week, but few observers expect an immediate or significant breakthrough in the stalled peace talks with the Palestinian leadership. In public, Mr Netanyahu maintains he is committed to the pledge to work towards the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian state. But so far he has proved either unwilling or unable to renew even a partial freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, last week declared Safed “the most racist city in the country”. The unflattering, and hotly contested, epithet follows an edict from Safed’s senior rabbis ordering residents not to sell or rent homes to “non-Jews” – a reference to the country’s Palestinian Arab citizens, who comprise a fifth of Israel’s population.

Publish it not

1 November 2010

Israel needs to maintain its credibility in the U.S. because that is the source of its strength. It depends on billions of dollars in aid and military hardware, almost blanket political support from Congress, the White House’s veto of critical resolutions at the United Nations, and Washington’s role as a dishonest broker in the peace process. For that reason Israel makes significant efforts to put pressure on journalists. It also targets their news editors “back home” because they make appointments to the region, set the tone of the coverage, approve or veto story ideas, and edit and package the reports coming in from the field.

Israeli police injured two Arab legislators on Wednesday in violent clashes provoked by Jewish right-wing extremists staging a march through the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Haneen Zoabi, a parliament member who has become a national hate figure in Israel and received hundreds of death threats since her participation in an aid flotilla to Gaza in the summer, was among those hurt. Zoabi reported being hit in the back and neck by rubber bullets as she fled the area.

A new opinion poll reveals not only a further shift rightwards in popular Israeli attitudes but also hints at the reasons for Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuing inflexibility in peace talks with the Palestinians. The latest survey, published last weekend, found that 37 per cent want to deny non-Jewish citizens voting rights, and 69 per cent support proposed legislation requiring a loyalty pledge from non-Jews to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.

As US-sponsored peace talks have stalled over the issue of settlements, Israel’s national police force has revealed that it is turning to the very same illegal communities in its first-ever drive to recruit officers from among the settlers. The special officer training course includes seven months of religious studies in an extremist West Bank settlement. The programme has provoked widespread concern among Israel’s 1.3 million Palestinian citizens, a fifth of the population.

In all likelihood, I will be one of the very first non-Jews expected to swear loyalty to Israel as an ideology rather than as a state. Until now, naturalising residents, like the country’s soldiers, pledged an oath to Israel and its laws. That is the situation in most countries. But soon, if the Israeli parliament passes a bill being advanced by the government, aspiring citizens will instead be required to uphold the Zionist majority’s presumption that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state”.

Israel secretly staged a training exercise last week to test its ability to quell any civil unrest that might result from a peace deal that calls for the forcible transfer of many Arab citizens, the Israeli media has reported. The drill was intended to test the readiness of the security service to contain large-scale riots by Israel’s Arab minority in response to such a deal. The transfer scenario echoes a proposal by Avigdor Lieberman for what he has called a “population exchange”.

A ghost haunted the meeting of the Arab League in Libya, as its foreign ministers decided to give a little more time to the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That ghost was the Camp David talks of summer 2000, when US President Bill Clinton publicly held Yasser Arafat, the then-Palestinian leader, responsible for the breakdown of the negotiations, despite an earlier promise to blame neither side if they failed.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has insisted from the launch of the current peace talks that the Palestinians set no preconditions, while making his own precondition the centrepiece of negotiations. Mr Netanyahu has said talks are futile unless the Palestinians and their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, first recognise Israel as a Jewish state. “I recognised the Palestinians’ right to self-definition, so they must do the same for the Jewish people,” he told American Jewish leaders recently.

The disclosure of the details of a letter reportedly sent by President Barack Obama last week to Benjamin Netanyahu will cause Palestinians to be even more sceptical about US and Israeli roles in the current peace talks. According to the leak, Obama made a series of extraordinarily generous offers to Israel, many of them at the expense of the Palestinians, in return for a single minor concession from Netanyahu: a two-month extension of the partial feeze on settlement growth.