Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jeff Halper, an Israeli oleh for most of his life, sat across a table, his thick white beard belying the tempered rage beneath at the injustice of living in a state that privileges him simply for being a Jew.

“It’s assymmetrical warfare,” he says, describing the difference between dispatching a kid to blow up a bus versus blitzing it with an Apache. For him, zero difference.

JH: Obama, too, is falling into this [language trap]. Wait a minute: how can it be warfare if one side doesn’t have an army? I mean, doesn’t warfare assume two armies? So it’s trying to justify a state attacking a civilian population under occupation and siege.… If it’s warfare now you’ve got the principle of distinction which we don’t like because we can’t shoot who we want to shoot.… The thing gets very dicey.

AC: The human rights issue obviously has to go both ways. You have human rights, we do too—

JH: But human rights doesn’t ignore the issue of power. What happens in a situation where you have a state that’s oppressing another people?

“We reject the ‘both sides’ discourse,” he declared. “It creates a false symmetry. There’s no symmetry here.” “The Palestinians aren’t occupying Tel Aviv,” he added.

A piece of conventional wisdom, according to the information to which I have always been accustomed as well as fed, is that the purpose of the wall/fence, which now snakes around big chunks of the West Bank, is to prevent terror. “No,” says Jeff.

JH: It [the idea for a barrier] was suggested by Ehud Barak, Haim Ramon and Shlomo Ben-Ami in 1999.… Barak said to Arafat [during the Camp David talks], If you’re not more forthcoming with us, we’re going to do things unilaterally. The official name of the wall, do you know the official name? Separation barrier. Security was a way they tried to sell it to the Israeli public.

My next question addressed the claim that it kept out waves of bombers from Israel. Jeff was emphatic. “There’s no way to isolate—today, only about 60 percent of the wall was built,” he said. “It was decided to not even finish the wall.

“The whole point of the wall,” he continued, “was to demarcate a border. To create these cantons. You have enough of that done,” motioning over pages of maps, “you don’t have to build anymore. There’s big parts of this you and I could walk through freely—the wall doesn’t seal anything.”

As for the factors that stopped the piguim (to use the Hebrew parlance), Jeff adduced a number of them unrelated to the concrete slabs and watchtowers: “There haven’t been attacks for years, because of a wall? Is that because the Palestinian Authority now has a militia, an American-trained militia that’s keeping law and order? Is it because the Israeli Army is active? Is it because you have a de facto ceasefire with Fatah all these years?”

“You’d have the same situation today if there was no wall,” he declaimed. “The wall is what’s generating a lot of the hatred.” He drew attention to one map in which were depicted “the fingers,” sections that were built with the express purpose of annexing settlement blocs. The barrier closely hews to the Green Line (’67 border) in the north, until you get to Umm al-Fahm, incidentally the most populated Arab city in Israel. There’s a suspicion, Jeff said, that in the final border settlement Israel would adjust the border so places like that would become part of Palestine.

AC: It would make sense if you support the boycott movement.

JH: We’re one of the leaders of the boycott movement. We were the first Israeli organization to come out with a statement… we started with a selective boycott. The idea was to boycott companies that were profitting from the occupation.… [Israel] doesn’t label settlement products as settlement products, it labels them as “Made in Israel,” which is illegal. For example, it will take Ahava [skin] cream from the West Bank and it’ll package it inside Israel.

…Why separate occupation from Israel? In other words, if you’re going to boycott Sudan, there’s an international boycott of Sudan. You don’t boycott companies doing business in Darfur. You boycott Sudan, [they are] responsible for what’s going on in Darfur.

AC: …Hasn’t the Sudanese government done far worse things? They massacred 400,000 people.

JH: It’s hard to compare oppressions. … We deal with our country, and other people deal with theirs.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

SDEROT — A small community of about 20,000 souls is lacquered in concrete, sitting about a mile away from a densely populated open-air prison, which seen from afar — sitting on a couch perched atop a lookout point/dune — does not show what may be happening inside it. (Binoculars were not available.) Founded in 1951 as a development town for recent immigrants from Arabic countries and North Africa — who are called Mizrachim — Sderot has suffered and endured thousands of rocket attacks from the prison, whose wardens wish the inhabitants of Sderot (and all of the Hebrew republic) a speedy farewell into oblivion.

A playground with no children playing; a town center with no town life; business barely staying above water. These are just instances that illuminate the legacy of a psychological trauma that has now raised an entire generation under red alert. You have fifteen seconds; run for your life. There is suffering on both sides of this tragic, absurd conflict. No more to say right now.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The following is the second part of my interview with Jeff Halper (part one is back here), co-chair of ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions). The third will follow soon.

AC: Wouldn’t a two-state settlement mean that one side would be homogenously Jewish and one side would be homogenously Arab?

JH: No, because the Palestinian citizens of Israel, twenty percent of the population, wouldn’t leave. You have 20 percent that are Arab inside Israel, plus you’ve got here at least another five percent of the population that’s Russian that isn’t Jewish—

AC: According to the Rabbinate, about 300,000 of them or so.

JH: They’re not Jewish. So you’ve got 25, maybe up to 30 percent, of the population of Israel that isn’t Jewish.

AC: Including the territories?

JH: No, without the territories. With the territories you’ve got 50 percent.… If you take the 20 percent who are Arab citizens of Israel, add another five percent who are Russians and… about 30,000 Ethiopians who aren’t really Jewish.

AC: They’re a lost tribe.…

JH: A lot of them are going back to the churches now. Plus the children of these foreign workers. And what isn’t figured is emigration… between 800,000 and a million Israelis have left permanently.

AC: At least 700,000.

JH: So, that’s not figured in… let’s say that, conservatively, 25 percent of Israelis are not Jewish. So what does that mean, a Jewish state? You have a flag [with] the Star of David, so you exclude a quarter of the population? The African-Americans are only 20 percent of the population. So it’s like saying, America is a county for White people; now you Black people can stay and have citizenship—

AC: …It’s a nation for the White people.… I would agree but white people haven’t faced centuries of persecution and hatred.

JH: Yeah, but most Jews never became Zionists. Zionism represented a tiny fraction of the Jewish public.

AC: Until World War II.

JH: No, even after World War II. Even today, 70 to 75 percent of Jews don’t live in Israel.

AC: Seventy percent?

JH: …Five and a half million Jews in Israel.

AC: And worldwide it’s about 13 million… could be sixty percent. I don’t know if it’s as high as seventy-five.

Laughing, I said, “I don’t want to quibble over a few percentages.” “But the majority don’t live here,” Jeff said, adding, “they could!” My reply was, “Isn’t that because of the security situation?”

JH: What’s your commitment to the country if you’re not here when it’s dangerous…? My parents, and my brother and sister, are Americans. One percent of American Jews came to Israel [to live permanently]. There are 60,000 American Jews here, the vast majority of whom are Haredim.

AC: Who, by the way, are historically very anti-Zionist.

JH: Who are anti-Zionist. So let’s say the majority of that one percent are anti-Zionist! Meaning that, let’s say ninety-nine point five percent of normal American Jews never came here. They never came here.

AC: Well I’m not a fan of what are called ‘armchair Zionists,’ you know, Alan Dershowitz.

JH: He’s not a Zionist at all. What makes him ‘Zionist’?

AC: They claim to be, that’s it.

After some rambling here was allowed to go on, this reporter tried to get to the point. “Is there any justice to—not in the sense of an exclusivist kind of state, where you exclude anyone who isn’t Jewish—but some sort of homeland where the Jewish people have a country of their own?” He smelled racism in this, and pointed to a republican example. Take France, he said.

JH: The French people have a right to self-determination but to be French you could be an immigrant, you could be Jamiacan, from Martinique, all over the world. In other words, French self-determination could mean white people who’ve lived in France all these years… whoever has an Israeli passport, this is one of the few countries where your passport doesn’t match your—

AC: There’s no Israeli nationality, you’re Jewish.

JH: You’re Jewish or you’re not Jewish.… Yes, there is a place here for Jews. I mean, I came here. And it’s meaningful. But the only sustainable form of nationalism for Jews here is what’s been called cultural Zionism. Cultural Zionism has a very long history—

AC: Ahad Ha’am—

JH: Ben-Yehuda, Henrietta Zol, Buber.… That’s the idea, that you can speak Hebrew, I mean even if this becomes a binational state, or a state of all its inhabitants or its citizens which is has to be… it doesn’t mean that we stop speaking Hebrew. It doesn’t mean that you close the Hebrew University. It’s not an either-or—when South Africa went to Black-majority rule, Afrikaners stayed.

AC: They didn’t get wiped out.

JH: There’s Afrikaner universities, Afrikaner newspapers.

AC: There is a fear among Israelis [that] if it becomes ‘binational’ or whatever that They—the evil Arabs—are going to destroy us. Is that an irrational fear?

JH: Of course. It’s the same thing in South Africa. They said, ‘There’s going to be bloodshed, the Blacks will never accept’ [and] part of it is because of what we’ve done to them. For Israeli Jews, they know what we’ve done to the Palestinians. Their idea that we can massacre them, that we can expel them, occupy them and somehow they’ll live with us?

AC: I can’t help but notice that you’re excluding suicide bombing, things they did to us.

JH: Yeah, but I see that as resistance. See, what’s missing in the Israeli framing of this is occupation. The word is never used, it’s like these people are mugging us. You’re walking down the street, and Boom! there’s a suicide bombing, well wait a minute. Why are there suicide bombers? The Palestinians aren’t famous in history for being assassins and terrorists. Why are there suicide bombers? Well, you go back to occupation. And part of it is that we refuse to take responsibility, we try to blame them all the time.

AC: So, I’m trying to understand what—

JH: If you end the occupation, you end the sources of suffering.

AC: I want to understand what you’re saying. Thankfully this hasn’t happened in a while, but when a bomber would get on a bus and blow innocent civilians to smithereens, that’s a legitimate form of resisting occupation—

JH: No, I don’t say it’s legitimate. It’s attacking civilians, which is not legitimate. But it’s resistance. There’s a reason, there’s a rationale for it. There’s a logic to it, there’s a political context to it that you can’t ignore. Why is that important? Because if Arabs are just killers, and that’s the way they are, which is the way Israelis look at it, they’ll continue to kill us. If you say, Wait a minute, no, suicide bombing is coming out of political oppression, then once you end that political oppression, you’ll end suicide bombing. That’s a whole different scenario.

… You can’t say to people, You can’t resist occupation, oppression. People have a right to oppose, even violently, oppression.

AC: So if they kept to the tactics of the first Intifada, where they were throwing stones at tanks and things like that.

JH: Or shooting a soldier. See, we still call that terrorism. What happened to Gilad Schalit… was a legitimate act of capturing a soldier.

AC: It’s called a kidnapping.

JH: And we call it kidnapping. We use criminal language because it decontextualizes.

AC: I thought the reason was because the military and civilian life is so intertwined here.

JH: There’s a guy named Asa Kasher… he’s writing very dangerous stuff. He’s the ethicist for the Israeli Army. He’s trying to say, There isn’t any such thing as a soldier, [because] a soldier is just a civilian in uniform. In that way then, that’s the way of avoiding the military, and then he goes one step further: they, our enemies, aren’t soldiers.… Israel is trying to eliminate in international law the principle of distinction.

“A fundamental principle of warfare,” Jeff continued, “is that you distinguish between civilians and combatants.”

JH: Israel is trying to eliminate that [distinction]. First of all, our combatants are really civilians and what you call your civilians are really combatants. That’s where ‘terrorism’ is a slippery slope.

AC: …One anticipated counter-argument is that Israelis wouldn’t detonate themselves and that’s the difference—

“We don’t have to,” he quipped, chuckling. “We have an army.”

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

One year has passed marking the Goldstone report’s release into the public, arriving on the bloodied heels of the flotilla incident, the NPT review’s demand (backed by the US to some extent) to inspect Israeli reactors and a string of economic and cultural boycotts representing a growing, alarmingly mainstreaming movement. Every time there is a new diplomatic crisis, which seems to come every other week, a set of talking points materialize, even before any facts which may be inconvenient to the party line surface, to serve the function of damage control, depending on the type of situation.

Goldstone? Unbalanced: international law is designed to make us look bad. What the NPT people, led in its current rotation by the Egyptians, are doing to an NPT non-signatory? Unfair: inspect Iran’s stockpiles to uncover their hidden weapons. The boycotts? Unreasonable: no one seemed to like Elvis Costello anyway. The flotilla melee? Unconscionable: what legal right did that convoy have to break into our sovereign waters and launch RPGs at our soldiers? Israel can simultaneously be the bad child of the world and do no wrong.

Professional nudnik Gidon Levy wrote that his country is “quickly becoming completely isolated. This is a place that turns away intellectuals, shoots peace activists, cuts off Gaza and now finds itself in an international blockade. Once more yesterday it seemed, and not for the first time, that Israel is increasingly breaking away from the mother ship, and losing touch with the world — which does not accept its actions and does not understand its motives.”

Or as Ari Shavit wrote, “The Turkish ship Mavi Marmara was no Exodus. It carried not Holocaust survivors but provocateurs, many of them extremists.”

[Ironically, one of the people who planned to take part was in fact a survivor, an 85-year-old woman named Hedy Epstein; according to the AP, she decided not to go and remains in Cyprus.]

Shavit, a sharp and combative interviewer, added that “a series of baseless decisions on the part of the prime minister and the ministers of defense and of strategic affairs turned the Marmara into a Palestinian Exodus. With a single foolish move, the Israeli cabinet cast the Muslim Brotherhood in the role of the victim and the Israel Navy as the villain and simultaneously opened European, Turkish, Arab, Palestinian and internal Israeli fronts. In so doing, Israel is serving Hamas’ interests better than Hamas itself has ever done.”

It ought to be noted that internal Israeli front is a euphemism for the Arab minority, of which its leadership, according to a report filed by Khaled Abu Toameh, is warning of a new uprising. “Protests erupted in various places, including Umm el-Fahm, Nazareth and Sakhnin, where demonstrators burned tires and chanted slogans condemning the IDF operation,” Toameh wrote.

There does not appear to be any consensus even within Israel except for the perception that the civilian leadership and military commanders seriously fucked up and, as a corollary, Israel is now in more hot water than ever before. Another theme is that the real perpetrators were the terrorist Jew-haters who wanted to give food and something called medicine to the pampered denizens of free Gaza.