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.

Racism reinforced

7 August 2003

Morad as-Sana and his wife Abir returned home from their honeymoon in Istanbul last Saturday to the news that the Israeli parliament had passed a law two days earlier that will make their planned life together impossible. As the young couple crossed back over the land border from Jordan to Israel, they parted ways: Abir to her family in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and Morad to his apartment in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva. Neither knows when they will be able to see one another again. The enforced separation is the result of legislation rushed through the parliament last week on the orders of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, before the Knesset’s summer recess this week. Sharon made the new law — an amendment to the Citizenship Law barring Palestinians from joining a spouse to live in Israel — a vote of confidence in his government.

Declining to Intervene: Israel’s Supreme Court and the Occupied Territories

4 August 2003

In its annual report issued in July 2003, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) painted a familiar yet surprising picture of Israeli army maltreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. A wide range of army practices — from house-to-house searches in villages to “targeted killings” of Palestinian militants — came in for harsh criticism, unusually harsh by the standards of the mainstream human rights group. “Most of the abuses occur not as a result of operational necessity on the part of the army,” the report continues, “but from vindictiveness on the part of soldiers, who receive implicit approval to denigrate the dignity, life and liberty of innocent Palestinians.” ACRI goes on to cite army data revealing that most incidents of possible abuse, including most shooting deaths, are never investigated.

Targeting Haram Al-Sharif

31 July 2003

Israeli police sealed off areas around the Old City in East Jerusalem last Friday in an attempt to severely limit the number of Muslim worshippers reaching the mosque compound of the Haram Al- Sharif to pray. Of those who got past the cordons, only Muslims over the age of 40 were allowed to enter the area, which contains Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques. Officials said they had imposed the measures to prevent rioting at Friday prayers, the occasion for past violent confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces.

Challenging the democracy and legitimacy of Israel

22 July 2003

Confronted by a new generation of Arab-Israeli leaders challenging the Jewish state’s claim to be democratic, Israeli authorities have stepped up their battle to control the country’s indigenous Arab minority according to leading Israeli analyst Asad Ghanem. The two most charismatic figures among the Palestinian minority, Islamic leader Sheikh Raed Salah and secular nationalist Azmi Bishara, have been victims of concerted campaigns aimed at delegitimizing them as politicians, and charging them with criminal offenses. Both have fallen foul of the political establishment due to their skills in articulating opinions that challenge the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

Israeli judges too meek to dispense justice

12 July 2003

The Israeli Supreme Court heard three major cases this week involving army policies in the Occupied Territories, which, according to human rights groups, either grossly violate the individual rights of Palestinians or inflict unfair collective punishment on the civilian population. In separate hearings, Israeli and Palestinian lawyers asked the judges to ban extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian leaders, to end the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and to lift the curfew that has been in place in Hebron for the past six months. In the Hebron case, the judges rejected outright the grounds for the petition, which argued that the continuous curfew prevents the city’s 120,000 inhabitants from safely getting food and medicines. Instead the court accepted the army’s claim that the measure was necessary to allow soldiers to carry out operations against “terrorist cells.”

The holy war Israel wants

11 July 2003

The inhabitants of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, often talk of the “invisible occupation”: although they rarely see police — let alone soldiers — on their streets, they are held in a vise-like grip of Israeli control just as much as their ethnic kin in neighbouring Palestinian cities like Jenin and Nablus are. In September 2000, for example, when Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, including Nazarenes, demonstrated against Ariel Sharon’s visit to the mosque compound in Jersualem — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount — 13 of their number were shot dead by police in four days. Not a single protester had been armed.

Sharon targets homegrown Islamists

8 July 2003

Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon has been quietly flexing his muscles against Israel’s two Islamist movements in recent weeks, leading one of the organization’s political leaders to call the crackdown a “declaration of war on Islam.” Last week Sharon sent hundreds of heavily armed policemen into the center of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, to demolish the foundations of a mosque being built there, in a dramatic strike against the southern Islamic Movement. The party’s leader on the city council, Salman Abu Ahmed, was among half a dozen Muslims arrested at the site.

Isolating Jerusalem

3 July 2003

History was made last month in Jerusalem’s municipal elections when the city elected its first ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, backed by a majority bloc of religious representatives on the city council. It was an outcome that reflected two of the key demographic factors that have been shaping life in the city since the war of 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, including the eastern half of Jerusalem, and began “unifying” the city as its capital. The first was the decision taken by the Israeli leadership in the aftermath of the war to tighten its hold on Jerusalem, and the surrounding area, by transforming the city from a historic and religious symbol for the Jewish people into the concrete heart of the modern Jewish state, pumping the settlement project deep into the occupied West Bank.

Divide and destroy

3 July 2003

Hundreds of heavily armed special forces sealed off the centre of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, yesterday, as the foundations of a large mosque being built next to one of the Middle East’s holiest churches was demolished. The invasion began shortly before 5am, as Nazareth was still sleeping. The first warning was the drone of a police helicopter overhead followed at about 5.30am by a voice — quickly cut short — calling over the mosque loudspeakers on Nazarenes to defend their city. In the heart of the Nazareth, riot police and government officials sealed off the main road, arresting several religious leaders who tried to defend the site, including the deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed. Then three bulldozers began tearing apart the concrete of the mosque’s base, watched from behind cordons by a growing crowd of onlookers.

Roadblocks get in the way of peace road map

28 June 2003

At the checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank town of Qalqilya, Monder Nazzar was slumped over the wheel of his ambulance. His 19-year-old patient, Ahmed, was next to him in the passenger seat, creased up in pain from a gastric infection. Behind them, lying on a stretcher, was Ahmed’s mother, looking pale and dazed. “We’ve been sitting here half an hour while the soldiers check our papers,” Nazzar said. He had brought his patient from the nearby city of Nablus for emergency treatment via bumpy back roads to avoid as many checkpoints as possible along the way. “He’s in agony from all the movement and his mother is car sick,” he said.

Familiar terrain

19 June 2003

The roadmap looked dead last week, wrecked by the combined actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the militant Palestinian factions as they launched a series of tit-for-tat strikes. This week, following heavy American pressure, the roadmap was resuscitated. But while the words of the document remain unchanged, its guiding spirit has emerged in much sharper relief. The lofty vision articulated at Aqaba on 4 June, when Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas promised to force their two nations onto the path of peace and reconciliation, has been replaced by much more familiar terrain as the Palestinians found themselves once again hostage to joint political manoeuvrings by the US and Israel.

Whose security?

12 June 2003

It took only two days from last week’s handshakes at the Aqaba summit between US President George W Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, setting the seal on the latest peace initiative for the Middle East, for the folds of the so-called “roadmap” to start falling apart. The plan, building on President Bush’s speech of last summer, is designed to create a “viable” Palestinian state living alongside a “secure” Israel by 2005. But the moment the summit closed, Israel and the three most active armed Palestinian groups succeeded in erecting a series of roadblocks that make the route ahead look impassable.

Dummy outposts

6 June 2003

More than 1,000 Israeli police officers and soldiers struggled all day last week to remove an “illegal” outpost — home to 10 settlers — on a hilltop south of the Palestinian city of Nablus. Hundreds of other settlers, mainly Jewish religious extremists, came to defend Mitzpe Yitzhar after a court order preventing the dismantling of the site was finally lifted on Thursday. It was the first inhabited settlement to be taken down. It looked — and was meant to look — like a turning point in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s relationship with the decades-old settlement project in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Overseeing the disintegration

6 June 2003

Israel’s veteran politician, 79- year-old Shimon Peres, donned the mantle of Labour Party leader once again last week. Famously, Peres has led Labour five times into elections and never won, although for extraordinary reasons he has been prime minister twice. Peres won against two minor figures last Thursday with 49 per cent of the central committee vote, a lukewarm endorsement for a man widely seen as a holding measure while the party struggles to rehabilitate itself. Fewer than half of the 2,400 committee members turned out to vote. The internal election was forced after Labour Chairman Amram Mitzna resigned in early May, following a humiliating general election defeat on 28 January at the hands of incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Democracy’s oasis – a mirage

5 June 2003

Israel’s image as a democratic state took a further heavy battering last week as two separate reports were issued, the first by Amnesty International into Israeli military policies in the occupied territories, and the second by a United Nations watchdog monitoring Israel’s commitment to human rights. Both reports follow on the heels of a survey last month by the Israeli Democracy Institute, an academic think-tank in Jerusalem, that ranked Israel close to bottom of 32 countries in terms of the value its politicians and citizens put on democratic participation. The results showed a particularly weak identification by the Jewish majority with the values of pluralism, with 53 per cent believing Arabs should be denied equal rights and slightly more, 57 per cent, wanting Arabs transferred out of the country. Only 77 per cent of respondents thought democracy was the best system of governance.

The new anti-Semitism?

3 June 2003

Anti-Semitism, like some plague-inducing virus, is “evolving” — or so warns Holocaust scholar Daniel J. Goldhagen. His article is one of the latest contributions to a growing body of reports by American and Israeli journalists and research centers purporting to show that a powerful new strain of racism is sweeping the globe. None of the authors is as disinterested as he claims: each hopes to silence criticism of both Israel and the muscular Zionist lobby groups within Washington that support Israel.

A 1,000-kilometer fence preempts the road map

27 May 2003

JERUSALEM: A humorous e-mail circulating on the Internet explains the “law of diminishing territorial returns” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first attempt at partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs, undertaken by the United Nations in 1947, resulted in the Palestinian majority being offered 47 percent of its historic homeland, with the rest allocated to a new Jewish state. The Palestinians rejected the plan and the ensuing war established Israel. The Palestinians had to wait 46 years for the next offer: Under the 1993 Oslo accords, the Palestinians were to receive 22 percent of their homeland – the territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

The real target

22 May 2003

It was an operation organised with the kind of ruthless precision needed to capture Osama Bin Laden. In the early hours of Tuesday 13 May, hundreds of armed Israeli police and security officials massed at different locations in northern Israel and snatched senior members of the country’s largest Arab organisation. The biggest catch was netted in the Jewish town of Hadera. Sheikh Raed Salah, the nearest thing Israel’s Muslim citizens have to a spiritual leader, was arrested as he lay in a hospital room at the bedside of his terminally ill father, who died only hours later. The security forces had not forgotten to bring an escort of television crews and photographers who dutifully captured the scene as Salah was led away, in the white T-shirt he was sleeping in, for interrogation.