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.

Arab legislators aren’t equal

29 October 2002

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.

Unwelcome citizens of a racist state

26 October 2002

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.

Democracy within the tribe

24 October 2002

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

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.

Israel’s broken promise seals a village’s fate

9 October 2002

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.

Heavy price for occupation and resistance

26 September 2002

The luxury Renaissance hotel in Nazareth, completed only months before the outbreak of the Intifada, is perched on a dramatic cliff above the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee. Designed to accommodate pilgrims visiting the town in which Christ was raised, there are 250 air-conditioned rooms, a large outdoor swimming pool, and bars and restaurants with spectacular views of Mount Tabor. But the Renaissance, like most hotels in Israel, has barely had an occupant in the past two years. This month the management announced that it was to be put to new use. It is to become a detention centre for foreign workers, mainly Thais, Filipinos, Koreans and Nigerians, whose work permits have expired and are due to be deported.

The impossible state?

26 September 2002

PLO officials have completed their first maps of the West Bank detailing Israel’s plans for its 360km security fence and have concluded that Israel is rapidly destroying any negotiating options for the Palestinians, particularly over the long- running stumbling block of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Task Force, working for Abu Mazen’s negotiation affairs department, which presented Palestinian positions at the Camp David and Taba talks, says the completion of the electronic fence will make the realisation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible. President George W Bush has repeatedly stated that he favours the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

A Nelson Mandela for the Palestinians?

24 September 2002

JERUSALEM: Back in January when Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank’s Fatah leader, was still a free man, he penned a commentary in The Washington Post (IHT, Jan. 18) which rather exaggerated the likelihood of his death. Warning that he would probably pay with his life for his advocacy of the Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation, he concluded: “So let my position be clear in order that my death not be lightly dismissed by the world as just one more statistic in Israel’s war on terrorism.” But Barghouti is not resting in a Palestinian cemetery, another victim of targeted assassination. Instead he is on trial, surrounded by the world’s media, charged with terrorism offenses.

Flexing democratic muscles

19 September 2002

It was the final nail in Yasser Arafat’s coffin, or so some observers in Israel confidently asserted. The forced resignation of all 21 members of Arafat’s cabinet, effectively the collapse of his government, was the dramatic climax to the three- day meeting of the Palestinian Parliament, the Legislative Council, in Ramallah last week. Arafat had suspected that he would face grievances from the delegates, who have had to endure enforced impotence during most of the Intifada, unable to meet or voice growing complaints about Arafat’s autocratic style, the widespread corruption among his ministers and the Palestinian failure to stop or challenge Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities.

The ‘enemy’ within

12 September 2002

Israel’s lengthy Or Commission ended hurriedly last month, as Arab lawyers produced last-minute evidence of ministerial cover-ups, political intrigues and a secret police document suggesting that commanders had adopted a policy of treating the country’s Arab minority as an enemy since 1994, in what were the early days of the Oslo peace process when Israel was supposed to be reaching a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. The inquiry, which has been taking place over the past 18 months, has been examining events at the start of the Intifada in early October 2000 when the country’s police force shot dead 13 Palestinian citizens.

Email from Jericho

26 August 2002

A huge, modern glass edifice dominates the entrance to the West Bank city of Jericho. Two years ago, before the outbreak of the intifada, it was a magnet for thousands of Israelis, who were drawn each weekend to its gaming tables. They were waited on by more than a thousand Palestinians, who staffed the bars and roulette wheels, while hundreds more pampered the Israelis staying at the neighbouring five-star Inter-Continental hotel. Today the Oasis casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a hotel room has been slashed to entice visitors but the guests, invariably diplomats, rarely outnumber the eight staff who keep the place ticking over until better times return.

Reservations reborn

15 August 2002

The scores of corrugated zinc shacks that form the village of Wadi Al-Naam, south of Beersheva, almost visibly vibrate to the humming of thousands of volts of electricity that surge through the power lines overhead. There are as many pylons to be found here as homes. The population of 3,900 Bedouins, who have lived on this land and farmed it since well before the creation of the state of Israel, have been left in no doubt of how much their presence at the site is valued. Over the past decades the state’s planning authorities have turned Wadi Al-Naam into the bleakest of environmental blackspots. To the west of the village has been built a vast chemical dump, Ramat Hubab, the site at which all of Israel’s toxic chemical waste is disposed.

Israel’s Vietnam

8 August 2002

The small fleet of light aircraft swept in low over the northern Negev on a clear spring morning bearing a message from the Israeli government for the region’s Bedouin farmers. The planes released their load of toxic chemicals, stored in canisters under the wings, a hundred feet or so above fields of cereal crops. A fine mist settled on the plants, darkening each stalk over the next few days until it shrivelled and died. Over some areas, the pilots paid scant attention to where they were spraying: 1000 students at the Al-Amar school in the village of Chirbe Alutan, close to farming land, also received a dose of the pesticide, although no one was sent by the authorities to check on the effects.

Punishing blood ties

25 July 2002

Israel’s latest plan for cracking down on suicide attacks managed the seemingly impossible: it lined up the whole international community, from the Arab League to the United States, against Israel and its policy of exiling the families of Palestinian militants. For several weeks the Israeli security cabinet and the army had been secretly discussing ways to deter suicide bombers. The proposals included trying to block the transfer of money from Arab states to the bombers’ families and arresting Palestinian clerics who support attacks against Israel. The hard-liners in both the cabinet and the military, however, were seeking harsher and more direct retaliation against the families, including deporting them abroad, possibly to Jordan, and extending the military practice of demolishing their homes. Some officers argued that this was the only way to make Palestinians think twice before enlisting on suicide missions.

Restricting humanitarian aid

18 July 2002

Eva Rimsten, a 34-year-old Swedish lawyer, arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on an early morning flight on 24 June. She had with her a letter from one of the leading humanitarian organisations in Gaza, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, explaining that she was a volunteer specialising in children’s rights. The centre’s legal investigations of human rights violations committed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have earned it an international reputation. But Rimsten never made it to Gaza. In fact she never made it beyond passport control. Asked the purpose of her stay, she showed officials the letter.

The walls around Jericho

11 July 2002

Two years ago, before the outbreak of the Intifada, several thousand wealthy customers, mainly Israelis, gathered each weekend to play the tables of the Oasis casino in Jericho. More than a thousand Palestinians staffed the bars and roulette wheels, and hundreds more pampered the guests staying in the 181 luxurious rooms of the attached Inter-Continental hotel. Today the casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a room at the hotel has been slashed in an attempt to entice foreign visitors, the only people still allowed unfettered access to the oldest city in the world. But the guests, invariably diplomats, rarely outnumber the eight staff who keep the place ticking over until better times return.