Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and his security minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, were warned last night by a panel of judges that they are under suspicion of acting illegally during its investigations into events at the start of the intifada. The commission, headed by Justice Theodor Or, sent both men letters advising them to prepare for more investigation. It has powers to recommend prosecutions for those it warns. Mr Barak’s government fell in February last year after his negotiations with the Palestinian leadership failed to reach a peace agreement. His challenger, Ariel Sharon, defeated him by a large margin.
Israeli Tourism Minister Benni Elon has been warned by the Shin Bet security service of a Palestinian plot to murder him, according to a report on Israeli radio last week. The Shin Bet has urged Elon, who has been in the job since November, to move out of his West Bank settlement home. He inherited the portfolio from Rahavam Zeevi, who was killed by gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in October in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s leader, Abu Ali Mustafa. The elevation of two successive tourism ministers to the top of the Palestinian militants’ hit list has nothing to do with the ministry’s influence on the course of the Intifada — which is marginal, at best.
Fifty-two reservists in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) signed a letter in the press last week saying they would refuse to implement government policies in the occupied territories — or, as they phrased it, “take part in the war for the peace of the settlements.” “We will not continue to fight beyond the Green Line [Israel’s 1967 border with the West Bank] in order to rule, expel, destroy, blockade, assassinate, starve and humiliate an entire people,” they said. The soldiers, emphasising their commitment to Zionism, said they were still prepared to take part in missions to defend Israel. The reservists’ letter has prompted the first national debate about the legitimacy of the occupation — and the methods being used by the army against Palestinians — since the start of the Intifada 16 months ago.
Israel’s tourism minister thinks Gush Katif will prove ideal for the holidaymaker in search of a sun-soaked Mediterranean beach away from the crowds. But there is a drawback: Gush Katif is an illegal settlement in Gaza, protected by barbed wire fences, armed soldiers, military watchtowers and checkpoints.
Like thousands of other Palestinians, Abed Al-Rahman Al-Ahmar tasted the bitter fruits of Israeli occupation during the first Intifada when he was jailed without trial for throwing stones at soldiers. But in the years of the Oslo peace process and now during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the 34-year-old human rights worker from Bethlehem has been learning an even harsher lesson about Israel’s policy on human rights for Palestinians. Arrested in May last year in Jerusalem, Al-Ahmar has been held in “administrative detention,” Israel’s term for imprisonment without trial or charges, for nine months. The only information his lawyer, Allegra Pacheco, can get from the Shin Bet security service is that he is considered a danger to the Israeli public.
The principle of press freedom was reformulated by Israel last week when it announced to international news organisations that the Palestinian journalists they employ are to be refused both press accreditation and entry into Israel. The tough line was officially admitted only after media groups, including news agencies Reuters and the Associated Press and leading European and American television companies such as the BBC and CNN, protested to the authorities that their Palestinian staff were being denied press cards. The row erupted shortly before the Israeli army’s attempt to silence Voice of Palestine radio by bombing its five-storey building in Ramallah. The station was back on the air a few hours later, transmitting from a secret location.
Until the Intifada began 16 months ago, the Basilica of the Annunciation attracted queues of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe each day. But for the past three months, the peace inside the church has been shattered by pneumatic drills and bulldozers digging in the neighbouring car park, as well as the five-times-a-day call to prayer by the local sheikh using a loudspeaker mounted on a makeshift pulpit of palm leaves.
When the Arab village of Al-Naim got its first junior school two years ago – a caravan – the teacher spent the first day explaining to her 35 new charges what a toilet was. It was the first one they had ever seen. Al-Naim and its 700 inhabitants are all Israeli citizens living a few miles from Haifa, one of the country’s most modern and vibrant cities.
The town in the Galilee, in which Christ grew up, has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases and glossy Rudolph the Red- Nose Reindeers gently swaying in the cool breeze of winter. Silver trees and artificial snow are in almost every window. Competing for attention as dusk fell last week on Paul VI Street were the constant explosions of firecrackers thrown by children celebrating the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which this year coincided with the build-up to Christmas. Parents marked the occasion in more subdued fashion by snaking long strings of green lights — the colour associated with Islam — along their balconies and windows.
The town in Galilee in which Christ grew up has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases swaying in the cool breeze of an Israeli winter.
The Labour Party — in its current guise and earlier incarnation as Mapai — has ruled Israel for most of the country’s 53 years. But, since Ehud Barak’s huge 25- point defeat in last February’s elections, ideological and political infighting has torn the party apart. Today there are almost as many separate voices in the party as there are Labour members in the Knesset. The fate of Labour has been inextricably tied to the success of the peace process ever since its late leader Yitzhak Rabin declared his conversion to the cause of peace with the Palestinians at Oslo in 1993. Now with that process in tatters, the party is adrift and directionless as its traditional rival, Likud, rallies the Israeli public to a new cause, that of war.
Drivers arriving in Tel Aviv are being greeted with a giant message of reassurance. Some 24,000 light bulbs have been draped over one of the Azriela Towers — Israel’s very own version of New York’s now-departed Twin Towers — to form a huge Star of David. The Azriela company is also handing out 25,000 miniature Israeli flags and half a million stickers bearing a slogan demanding steadfastness from the Israeli public: “It’s up to us.” The purpose of all this jingoism, says the firm, is to prevent the country yielding to “an exaggerated prophecy of destruction that will become self-fulfilling.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is surely delighted: he believes that Israelis need to demonstrate the same patriotic spirit that has so rapidly infected the American public realm since 11 September.
Said Rabih received his letter from the army last March, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Like thousands of other young Israelis, he was told that he was being called up for three years of military service. But eight months later, Rabih is still a civilian and determined never to wear the uniform of his country’s army – even though he faces a lengthy jail sentence should the authorities catch up with him. And sooner or later they will. The next time he is stopped for a spot-check his identity card will give him away – clearly marked are both his date of birth and the word “Druze.” Since 1956 Israel’s 80,000 Druze have been required by law to do military service alongside Jews. The country’s other Palestinian communities – Muslims, Christians and Bedouin – are exempted.
The banging by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the door for entry to the coalition against terror has grown deafening in the past weeks. After his meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington on Sunday, which coincided with a weekend of the worst violence inflicted on Israel since 1996, he was finally admitted. Sharon wasted no time in launching his own single- handed war on terrorism on his return from the US the next day. But his target was not Hamas, the group responsible for the weekend’s spate of suicide bomb attacks — two plus a car bomb in the heart of West Jerusalem and another on a bus in Haifa — that left 26 Israelis dead and at least 275 injured. Instead his goal was the political and personal destruction of the Palestinian Authority leader, Yasser Arafat.
Last week saw a crucial moment in the 14- month-old Al-Aqsa Intifada, launched in late September 2000 by the outpouring of Palestinian anger at Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to Haram Al-Sharif. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who headed the Israeli cabinet when the Intifada broke out, took the witness stand over their role in a spate of Palestinian deaths that spurred on the Intifada. Both Barak and Ben Ami were giving evidence to the Or Commission, a judicial inquiry investigating the slayings of 13 unarmed Palestinian-born Israeli citizens by police in the country’s Galilee region. It is the first time either Barak or Ben Ami have been officially questioned about the event, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the start of the uprising.
Nimer Sultany leans forward to reveal the wound to the top of his head. Still visible through his cropped hair, more than two weeks after the Israeli police kicked him and hit him with batons, is a large, bloodied gash. “This,” the young lawyer says, “is how the police deal with us when we demonstrate non-violently.” Seated under the billowing plastic sheeting of his town’s protest tent, Sultany points to the bulldozers 50 metres or so away, close to where he was attacked by the Yassam, an elite unit of the Israeli police. “They were like wild dogs. They just laid into us all; women, children, it didn’t matter.” Hundreds of demonstrators, including students, local farmers, Arab members of the Knesset and activists from Jewish environmental groups, turned out on 30 October to protest at the confiscation of the town’s fields on the outskirts of Tira in central Israel.
Israel’s “Margaret Thatcher” is forcing more than 370,000 Palestinian students to learn Zionist values and salute the Israeli flag. Jonathan Cook writes from Nazareth Head teacher Faisal Taha raised the Israeli flag over his dilapidated secondary school in Nazareth last week for the first time since the outbreak of the Intifada. There was nothing nationalistic, or even voluntary, about the act. Had he not done so, the school risked losing thousands of dollars in funding. Taha stopped flying the flag in October last year in response to anger from pupils and parents at the slayings of 13 Arab citizens of Israel by the police in the Galilee, including three deaths in Nazareth itself. Local education officials objected to his decision and withheld a $9,500 grant.
The Israeli leadership was steering a collision course with its Palestinian minority this week when it stripped Knesset member Azmi Bishara, one of the country’s most outspoken critics, of his parliamentary immunity in order to put him on trial for treason. The decision allows Bishara to be prosecuted in the criminal courts for his political comments.
The spotlight of Israel’s judicial investigation into the killings of 13 Palestinian civilians last October, at the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, has shifted its focus from the police to the political leadership. The early sign of this shift were that the minister responsible for the security forces at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was distancing himself as much as possible from the actions of his police officers. Five months of police testimony to the Or Commission have brought revelations of execution-style killings by officers and the deployment of a sniper squad, which is usually used against terrorists.
For good reason 67-year-old cemetery keeper Abrahim Iassa tends the graves on a hillside overlooking the village of Biram with an unusual degree of dedication. “At the moment,” he says, “there is only one way I will be allowed to return to my village — in a coffin. I’m an old man but Israel thinks I am a security threat as long as I’m alive.” He is not alone. The 1,000 original inhabitants of Biram, located in the Upper Galilee, have been waging a 53-year battle with successive Israeli governments to be allowed to return to the land from which they were evacuated during the 1948 war.