In September, I spoke at Sydney University alongside US academic Mark LeVine and Palestinian academic Lana Tatour on the realities in today’s Palestine/Israel. Many interesting comments and my thoughts (after living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years) start at 1:00:26:
During my 2012 visit to Afghanistan, researching the book and film, Disaster Capitalism, I spent time with the country’s reportedly last remaining Jew, Zablon Simintov, and filmed an interview with him. Living in the centre of Kabul, his house was a tiny apartment with a Christmas tree in the corner. Remarkably, he had remained safe during the civil war, Taliban years and post-US invasion period. He was a grumpy man. He managed a synagogue near his home, attended by Jewish, Western diplomats and aid workers based in the country. He said that these people brought him Jewish food such as matzoh on Passover. He lived a simple and poor life. This video shows Simintov praying in his small, one room apartment:
My latest book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, tackles issues related to privatisation, the war in Afghanistan, crisis in Haiti and the private prison industry. Here’s my interview, via my UK/US publisher Verso, conducted a few months ago in Brooklyn, New York and just posted now:
Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen is facing a major legal battle in Israel.
I’ve investigated the story in British outlet The New Arab:
Israel promotes itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak once described his nation as a “villa in the jungle“. But recent years have seen a major erosion of press freedoms in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and an Israeli Jewish public that wholeheartedly supports the suppression of independent media.
Palestinian journalists are routinely harassed and arrested. Palestinians are increasingly targeted on social media after Israel accuses them of incitement. Al Jazeera is now being threatened with closure. Israel’s communication minister Ayoub Kara claimed that Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain were his inspiration for trying to shut the Qatari news channel.
Israeli journalists aren’t immune. Being opposed to the decades-long occupation automatically makes you a target. Israel cannot maintain its control over millions of Palestinians without instituting a regime of control, intimidation, imprisonment and death. Occupation is brutal, unforgiving and now permanent.
Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen is the latest reporter to fall foul of Israel’s draconian political environment – and his case should be a wake-up call to a global community that still clings to the belief that Israel is a thriving democracy.
Sheen has contributed to The New Arab, Haaretz, Al Jazeera and others, and is one of Israel’s finest chroniclers of the state’s mistreatment of its Africans, and a consistent advocate of humanitarian principles.
He is being sued by an Israeli general, Israel Ziv, for writing about Ziv’s connections to the South Sudanese government led by President Salva Kiir.
Late last year, Israel’s Channel 2 discovered that Ziv’s company, Global CST, in addition to assisting and training security forces in South America, Eurasia and Africa, was advising Kiir to defend his beleaguered South Sudanese regime.
Kiir’s military stands accused of encouraging its soldiers to rape women during the ongoing civil war. Ziv and his colleagues allegedly suggested bringing a rape victim to the UN in New York, and giving Kiir the chance to blame these war crimes on traditional African culture. Ziv claims he was only working on agricultural projects in South Sudan.
The South Sudanese regime is guilty of rampant human rights abuses – including murder, rape and ethnic cleansing. Israeli companies have a dark and largely hidden relationship with the African state, selling weapons and surveillance equipment since the country’s independence in 2011.
I was based in South Sudan in 2015 and routinely heard about Israelis visiting to assist the state’s repression.
This fits into Israel’s aggressive policy to befriend African states, selling them arms and defence equipment, in the hope of better diplomatic support at the UN. Israel has also been sending African refugees to Rwanda and Uganda in an opaque process that’s causing immense trauma for the people being sent back.
I interviewed Eritrean refugees in South Sudan in 2015 who had been kicked out of Israel and left to fend for themselves in one of Africa’s poorest nations.
Tellingly, Ziv is pursuing Sheen – but not Israel’s Channel 2 (its report on Ziv is damning). It’s the very definition of a SLAPP suit which is “intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition”.
After the Channel 2 investigation aired last December, Ziv appeared on Israel’s Army Radio. One of the hosts, Amit Segal, asked Ziv: “So how did you get into a situation where you are sitting in a café… and in something like a parody of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you suggest how he [the president of South Sudan] can whitewash his crimes?”
Ziv chuckled. He was accused by a mainstream journalist of secretly plotting to manipulate world opinion, cover up crimes and was compared to the most anti-Semitic work in history, and yet Ziv did not sue Segal. Instead, he’s harassing Sheen.
Ziv has a history of disturbing behaviour and comments in both Palestine and the world’s trouble spots. As a former commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, he has smeared Palestinians as having a “society for whom lies are its truth”. He has blamed murdered peace activist Rachel Corrie for her own death at the hands of the Israeli army in 2003.
In 2002, Israeli media outlet Kol Ha’ir Weekly Magazine reported that Ziv pushed to close an inquiry into the killing of five Palestinian children in 2001, “an investigation that may question, among other things, Ziv’s own responsibility for the killing”.
Ziv is deeply connected with the Israeli political establishment – many former Israeli politicians have worked for his company, Global CST, and assisted in the repression of innocent civilians across Latin America.
According to Amnesty International, Ziv’s firm was witnessed training Guinean military forces in 2009. That same year, Guinean forces committed horrible human rights abuses. Israel has recently upgraded its relations with the African state.
Wikileaks’ State Department cables released in 2011 revealed that the US had major concerns with Global CST, claiming it “created problems” in Colombia and Peru. US ambassador to Bogota, William Brownfield, wrote that the company “had no Latin American experience and that its proposals seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs”.
Sheen, a friend and colleague, has spent his professional life highlighting the descent of Israeli society into state-sanctioned racism. His astute observations are increasingly rare in a country that celebrates the use of unaccountable violence against perceived enemies.
Most importantly, he has examined the growing tendency of Israeli military figures to profit from its brutal occupation of Palestinians. The Israeli state is now a global leader in providing military, strategic and political advice to nations determined to deter, stop, kill or imprison unwanted minorities.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has worked for years with his media allies trying to silence anti-occupation voices. Critical perspectives on the occupation, Palestinian self-determination, Zionism or Israel’s future are increasingly infused with indignant nationalism and rampant anti-Arab racism.
Sheen is a rare voice who should be celebrated, not silenced. The court case against him, beginning in September, should be carefully watched by global media watchdogs, fellow journalists and foreign governments as a test of the Israeli judicial system to fairly arbitrate between a powerful, former military man and an independent journalist.
It’s clear where justice lies.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist who has written for The New York Times, the Guardian and many others. He is the author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and has been reporting on Israel/Palestine for fifteen years.
My book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, examines companies and individuals making money from misery.
I was recently interviewed by the great US podcast, Disaster Politics, hosted by Jeff Schlegelmilch, Deputy Director of Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.
My interview begins at 35:13.
During my recent 1.5 years living in Jerusalem, I became friends with the great Israeli-Canadian journalist David Sheen. He’s one of the sharpest reporters on Israel’s far-right turn including the Jewish state’s war on African refugees.
He’s currently embroiled in a legal case in Israel that goes to the heart of that country’s increasing opposition to free speech.
Sheen is a respected reporter and analyst, one with a deep knowledge of Israeli society, who regularly investigates issues related to racism and human rights abuses.
Over the years, a number of investigations by the Israeli media have tied Ziv to some of the world’s ugliest regimes.
Sheen’s comments about Ziv were provoked by the latest such investigation, carried out late last year by Israel’s Channel 2 TV. It published transcripts of conversations between Ziv and his business associates in which they discussed rehabilitating the reputation of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan.
This was after the United Nations revealed that Salva Kiir had permitted soldiers under his command to rape women and children on a mass scale. Ziv and his team proposed exploiting a rape victim by bringing her to the UN General Assembly so that Salva Kiir could blame such war crimes on indigenous African tribal culture.
Despite being offered the chance on both Ch2 and Army Radio to deny the accuracy of the transcripts, Ziv declined to do so.
In a subsequent article Sheen wrote about the treatment of Africans by Israelis, he commented critically on Ziv’s behaviour. This is what he is being sued for, despite such criticism clearly being protected under the important right of journalists to comment fairly on matters of public interest.
This is not the first time Ziv has sought to silence journalists.
The Hebrew website Local Call received threats of litigation from Ziv over its reporting of his activities.
And in an extremely rare move, the Haaretz newspaper has removed from its websitefive investigative articles it published between 2009 and 2011 on Ziv’s business activities in Guinea and Abkhazia. Haaretz also parted ways with the reporter who wrote the articles after complaints from Ziv, and in circumstances none of those involved are prepared to talk about.
It is noteworthy that Ch2’s investigation revealed discussions between Ziv and his associates on ways that his company, Global CST, could manipulate and deceive the media about Salva Kiir’s brutal policies in South Sudan. Ziv appears to believe that journalists are there to serve his interests and not to act as independent watchdogs on power and its misuse.
Also noticeable is that Ziv is not suing a large organisation like Ch2 that published the original allegations and is equipped to defend itself in court. He is targeting an independent journalist as a way to intimidate other reporters. This is the very definition of a SLAPP suit, which is “intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition”.
It is important that the principle of journalistic freedom is upheld and that Ziv is not able to use the courts as way to exempt himself and his business activities from scrutiny, or from criticism. For that reason, we stand in solidarity with David Sheen and call on the court to dismiss the suit against him.
The show has gone viral. One clip, of fellow journalist John Lyons and I talking about the Zionist lobby’s pressuring of critical voices, has been watched nearly 100,000 times (and growing fast). It’s received international attention.
Back in 2014, I argued in The Guardian that Australia should suffer a sports boycott due to its illegal asylum seeker policies. I made the same point on this TV show and many people, with a few notable exceptions, welcomed the idea. Australian legal academic Dr Amy McGuire wrote a story in The Conversation around the issue.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been caught speaking privately against the European Union and its often critical stance towards Israel. In reality, the EU occasionally condemns the Israeli occupation of Palestine but continues to maintain very close ties with the Jewish state.
Today I was interviewed by Australian current affairs show, The Wire, about the issue.
We live in an age of filter bubbles. I’ve been commissioned by Germany’s Goethe Institute to discuss these issues online for the next month alongside Austrian journalist Robert Misik. Here’s the first entry that is distributed in 160 nations around the world (here’s the German version):
Once upon a time there were hopes that the Internet would democratize social discourse – but today the talk is mainly about fake news and filter bubbles whenever the subject turns to the question of how digitization influences politics. What can journalists do to regain the trust that has been lost? And what can ordinary people do to engage to a greater extent in discussions with one another again? Over the next few weeks, this will be debated here by the journalists Robert Misik from Austria and Antony Loewenstein from Australia. Their digital correspondence is postage-free – and open to all, so join in the discussion and give your opinion! Contradict! Ask questions! You can take part using the comments field on this page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #freepost. Geraldine de Bastion, who is chairing the debate, will contribute your comments to the exchange.Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv
Geraldine de Bastion: 4 December 2009 marked a paradigm shift on the Internet, as it was on this day that Google began creating personal profiles for every user and individually filtering search results. Internet activist Eli Pariser described this as the start of an “era of personalization”, coining the term “filter bubble” for it in his book Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.
This growing individualization is evident when we are presented with personalized advertising – and indeed when we use supposedly neutral tools such as search engines to navigate our way through the information medium number one; tools we have to use because otherwise the Internet would be simply impenetrable.
“Customized services” are omnipresent. Rather than being an encyclopaedia of world events, the Internet is more reminiscent of a special interest paper. In our social media profiles too, which should really be connecting rather than isolating us, we find ourselves faced initially with a kind of “one-way mirror”, as Eli Pariser describes it in his book. By watching what we click, algorithms learn more and more about us, and we get increasingly entangled in our own personal bias online: when surfing the web, users only see stuff that matches their profile, their worldviews and their convictions.
Some critics of this theory claim that the filter bubble is not a purely digital phenomenon, and that it is intrinsic in all of us from the start. We view the world through our own particular glasses, surround ourselves with like-minded people and read only things that confirm our own opinions.
So how do you perceive your filter bubble, online and offline? And do filter bubbles in fact exist at all?
Photo: Helena Wimmer
Robert Misik: Of course filter bubbles exist. That is not something that requires any discussion – it is rather a question of interpretation: do the filter bubbles in digital communication enclose and confine us to a greater extent than would otherwise be the case? If this is the question to be addressed, the situation is already more complicated. Modern societies are comprised of a large number of subgroups that differ from one another in terms of their ways of life, political persuasions, personal styles and so on. We have inner city dwellers, working class urban districts, middle classes in the suburbs, the super-rich in their favoured areas, big cities, small towns, villages … The people who live in these various sub-communities also have little contact with those in other sub-communities in real life – and when they do have contact, it tends rather to be on a superficial level.
Digital communication, be it in social networks, forums or other online media, reinforces this logic on the one hand while breaking with it on the other. Reinforced in the sense that, assuming we fit into the patchwork of a community with a particular set of opinions, we will find ourselves inundated with ever more messages that reinforce this community’s prevailing opinions. This entrenches our views and gives us tunnel vision. Yet that is of course only one side of the truth. We can see the opinions of others on a daily basis in the social media and forums – where we are confronted with attitudes that we might otherwise not even notice. That is something that is often overlooked when we talk about filter bubbles.
Photo: Reuben Brand
Antony Loewenstein: A key deficiency of modern society is lack of empathy for the underprivileged, a disease caused by experiencing our daily lives in a bubble. Too often what we read and don’t see online and what we hear and experience in our real lives reduces our ability to relate to others who look or sound different to us. It’s tempting to hate refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa if you feel economic and racial insecurity and are told by your trusted newspaper, TV host or friend that you should fear the “other” because they’re worsening your personal situation. Resisting this impulse requires widening what you consume and consider on a daily basis. This tendency existed before the rise of the internet and social media but it’s now easier to find your own tribe online.
I’ve experienced this in my own work. When I visit Gaza as a journalist and tell people that I don’t feel threatened as a Jew by locals or the Islamist government, the instant reaction is often suspicion because the media has fed a line for decades that Palestinians are inherently violent and Muslims want to kill all Jews. This lie can only be challenged by constantly explaining the truth and showing the fallacy of the position.
The rise of Donald Trump, Brexit and rampant nationalism in Europe, the US and Australia has made me spend even more time reading, listening and reporting on the movements that caused these political earthquakes. Contemptuously dismissing Trump won’t make his supporters disappear. I don’t personally know any Trump or Brexit voters, and nor do I associate with white nationalists who loathe Islam, but I’m drawn to exploring why many people are.
UPDATE: Week two’s question: What has been your experience: how can we seek and conduct constructive discourse outside the filter bubble?
Living and working outside our own filter bubbles requires us to first acknowledge that our own positions are inherently biased and should be challenged. I proudly call myself a liberal and yet I constantly feel disillusioned with the superiority expressed by ‘my side’ in political debates.
Take the 2003 Iraq war, arguably the most consequential conflict of the 21st century. Countless journalists, commentators and supposedly serious politicians around the world backed the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, including many progressively-minded people. They were catastrophically wrong and yet virtually none of these individuals have paid any political or career price for their hubris. Many of the same faces are now advocating the bombing of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. What this seminal experience taught me was that we need to question our own ‘side’ first, online and in person, while also disputing the mistruths and bigotry of our opponents.
Truth-telling can be powerful. If Wikileaks had existed in 2003, and it published the conversations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair conspiring and lying about the Iraq war, would the war have been stopped before it even begin?
The election of Donald Trump fills me with dread but I’m not suddenly more concerned about ‘fake news’ today than 15 years ago. Social media has undeniably fuelled our ability to feel connected and insulated from views we don’t want to hear but I’m far more worried about group think when it comes to questions of war and peace and the millions of lives that have been lost in the name of national security and fighting terrorism since 9/11.
We should aim to conduct constructive and insightful conversations with everybody online, personal abuse should be avoided, but it’s the height of arrogance to believe that only we have facts on our side and others, like Trump, Brexit or Marine Le Pen supporters, are all delusional.
UPDATE: Week three question: Do we need new tools to secure a digital agora?
UPDATE: Week four question: What would your demands be [for greater media education and diversity]?
We are drowning in public relations. Journalism is suffering. According to a recent study in the US, 15 years ago there were two PR people for every reporter in the nation. Today there are 4.8 PR people for every reporter. The result is that the general public is too often bombarded with press releases as “news” because there are too few journalists to analyse and investigate current events.
One way to address this worrying shift is for greater public funding into a wide range of journalistic endeavours but government-sponsored press isn’t the only solution. Escaping our filter bubbles must begin at a young age.
Universities and schools, starting at kindergarten, should emphasize media literacy and stress the importance of accountable and adversarial journalism. A healthy mantra to be repeated time and again is the famous expression by journalist Claud Cockburn: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”
Scepticism of all government and business claims is a healthy way to assess the news of the day. Don’t simply trust journalists because they’re in positions of privilege; they should earn it by producing work that enhances our understanding of society and brings empathy to the silenced or forgotten.
Despite the proliferation of social media in the last decade, personal contact with people is arguably still far more powerful in changing minds than re-tweeting a thought or sharing a Facebook post. Talk to people with differing views, attend talks with writers and politicians with whom you vehemently disagree and spend less time online.
Finally, some tips for healthy living: enjoy the sun, read a book, have a meal with a friend and don’t always Instagram what food you’re eating.
My book review in The National newspaper:
Twenty years is a long time to wait for new writing but in the case of Indian writer Arundhati Roy she’s remained deeply engaged with her country over the last two decades. After the huge success of her first novel, The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, Roy has transformed herself into one of the world’s most incisive observers of India’s supposed economic boom. Roy calls it a “lie”.
For her outspokenness on human rights, including abuses in Kashmir, Roy has faced criminal charges of contempt and sedition. She fled to London last year after fearing for her life. She has written in support of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and remains deeply opposed to injustice around the world.
In her new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy tells the story of a transgender woman, Anjum, who lives in a crumbling Delhi neighbourhood. After a massacre in Gujarat – India’s current prime minister Narendra Modhi stands accused of complicity in the killings of Muslims in the same state in 2002 – she flees to a cemetery and establishes a new life there full of colourful characters.
Alongside this narrative is a wider perspective set in Kashmir. As she recently told the Guardian, these two sections become one book because, “geographically, Kashmir is riven through with borders, and everybody in the book has a border running through them,” she said. “So it’s a book about, how do you understand these borders?”
Roy is scathing of India’s behaviour in Kashmir, accusing the military of torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances. It’s a place where darkness envelops its victims but also entrances its many visitors through natural beauty. As one character Musa is described: “He knew that Kashmir had swallowed him and he was now parts of its entrails … In the heart of a filthy war, up against a bestiality that is hard to imagine, he did what he could to persuade his comrades to hold on to a semblance of humanity, to not turn into the very thing they abhorred and fought against.”
Throughout the book, Roy conjures up imagery reminiscent of the finest magical realism of novelist Salman Rushdie but she never strays far from real life. In one striking passage, Roy utilises her wit and sarcasm to devastating effect, mimicking those who blindly admire or celebrate India (or any country?) without question: “Compared to Kabul, or anywhere else in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or for that matter any other country in our neighbourhood (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Syria – Good God!), this foggy little back lane, with its everyday humdrumness, its vulgarity, its unfortunate but tolerable inequities, its donkeys and its minor cruelties, is like a small corner of paradise.
Roy wants readers to understand that state-backed violence across India is central to economic benefits for the minority who have become enriched through destructive neo-liberal policies. One can’t happen without the other. This violence permeates the book because so many characters either suffer because of it or inflict it on the less fortunate. This could be physical or psychological and the author is often explicit in her descriptions. This is an India that’s far away from the glossy tourist brochures advertising a tranquil holiday at the Taj Mahal. This section could be written by any number of Indian critics about Roy herself, incensed that a citizen of their country dares to publicly shame the human rights abuses of the current and previous governments. Roy’s life is committed to those less fortunate than her, more marginalised and hated by the majority. It’s where the best writers should always be.
It’s hard not to be transported to India with Roy’s love and revulsion of her birth country. The book isn’t a dry exercise in political culture but a rich and detailed look at a nation that overwhelms visitors and citizens. Roy is unforgiving of its mainstream leadership but embraces the myriad of characters she has created.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a fascinating and complex book – about modern India that will challenge anybody who thinks they understand the world’s largest self-described democracy. Roy wants readers to be uncomfortable with characters that sparkle with humanity, wit and anger. It’s hard not to be seduced with a work that forces us to confront what populations in democracies routinely don’t see or choose to ignore. This is as relevant in India as in Palestine.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
My article in Australian magazine Crikey:
Less than one and a half hours from Jerusalem, Gaza is like a different planet, literally cut off from the outside world. Its 2 million residents, suffering huge electricity cuts, polluted water (a recent Oxfam report details Israel’s refusal to allow vital equipment into Gaza to fix infrastructure destroyed by the Israelis) and high unemployment (affecting both Gaza and the occupied West Bank) are often forgotten, seemingly doomed to be permanently separatedfrom the West Bank and Israel.
The 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem will be celebrated in Israel this week as liberation — biblically inspired. Palestinians remain under an Israeli regime of house demolitions, ever-expanding illegal settlements (there are now an estimated 700,000 settlers living in occupied territory) and strict controls over daily life. The Palestinian, political leadership is old, corrupt, complicit with Israel and out of touch.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in his 12th year of a four-year term. During his recent visit to the White House, both he and President Donald Trump spoke in motherhood statements about peace but offered no concrete path to create it. A just, two-state solution is dead on arrival; decades of Israeli settlement building killed it. The status-quo is one state, with one rule and law for Jews and another, less equal reality for Palestinians. Trump’s recent Middle East tour offered little more than weapons for Arab dictatorships.
Australia’s role in the conflict is small but significant. Successive governments in Canberra, both Labor and Liberal, though the latter has been more proudly belligerent in Israel’s corner, have offered carte blanche to Israeli actions.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrongly questions whether Israeli settlements are illegal under international law (they are, and a UN resolution in December proved that the entire world, except Australia and Israel, knew it). During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Australia, talk of “shared values” was in the air. This was fitting for two nations that ethnically cleansed their indigenous populations and have yet to fully acknowledge, let alone compensate, the victims.
Israel’s “separation barrier” divides Palestinian communities in Bethlehem. Photo by Antony Loewenstein
The effect of Australia’s obsequiousness towards Israel, yet another example of Canberra blindly following Washington’s lead around the world, is the danger of being both on the wrong side of history and out of step with public opinion. Israeli settlement expansion has pushed Palestinians in the West Bank to the brink. Australia and many Western nations have spent decades enabling this policy. Australia’s Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, spends his days channelling Israeli propaganda on social media and palling around with extremist, Israeli politicians. The result is a Jewish state that currently feels no pressure to change.
There are, however, signs of change. The latest poll in the US finds that two-in-five Americans now back sanctions against Israel, and Australian citizens, according to a recent Roy Morgan poll, are both opposed to Israeli settlements and supportive of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
During a recent visit to Gaza, my third since 2009, I witnessed a populationmore frustrated than ever before. With the threat of another war with Israel always on the horizon, many in the Israeli military and government are itching to bomb the Gaza Strip again. “Mowing the grass” is the euphemism used in Israel to describe this perennial obsession with attacking the area. The people in Gaza are unable to plan their lives because of it.
I met many locals who didn’t know if they’d be allowed out of Gaza. Israel routinely blocks departures for spurious reasons and the Egyptian border is mostly closed (reflective of leaders in the Arab world, who for decades have paid lip service to the Palestinian cause but done little to practically support it). It’s now not uncommon for couples to marry with one partner in Gaza and the other somewhere else, Skyping into proceedings. They hope to be reunited soon after the event.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Gaza today is the desire of so many people there to leave. After years of isolation, it’s an understandable feeling. Not convinced by the rhetoric or actions of the Hamas government, the party operates a police state in the territory, and distrusting Israeli intentions, finding a better home elsewhere is necessary, especially for young people. But the opportunity to depart is mostly blocked by forces beyond their control. Time passes, frustrations grow and lives are stunted. It’s a recipe for future conflict and radicalisation.
Family in Gaza displaced during the 2014 war with Israel. Photo by Antony Loewenstein
Sitting at her desk in Beit Lahia, Gaza, Aesha Abu Shaqfa battles to be heard above the sound of Israeli fighter jets roaring overhead. She worked as the executive director of the Future Development Commission, a local NGO committed to empowering women. It’s a lonely path in a territory devastated by war, Israeli and Hamas intransigence, misogyny and deprivation.
Wearing a red hijab, Shaqfa recently told me that one of her main goals was to reduce the prevalence of childhood marriage. “In our culture, girls having sex at 14 is not rape so we try and educate the girls about the challenges they will face [when married]”, she said. “Girls at 14 do not know about sex and they think marriage is sweet words, a pretty dress and make-up. The divorce rates of 14-18 year olds, for boys and girls, are rising.”
Domestic violence and sexual abuse against minors and adults are worsening because of regular Israeli attacks, social instability, conservative Islam and high unemployment.
Shaqfa, who is divorced from her second husband, acknowledged the huge challenges in Gaza for achieving gender equality. “I have three brothers and a father and only one of them can make sandwiches and tea,” she explained. “Here, women serve men.”
But she told me that big changes had occurred in the last years, a sentiment I heard echoed across Gaza, despite three wars with Israel since 2007, a repressive Hamas government and suffocating, 10-year siege imposed by Israel and Egypt. “More women are now finishing education, getting work and we’re trying to educate young girls at secondary schools about women’s rights,” she said.
I’ve been living in Jerusalem since early 2016 and returning regularly to Israel and Palestine since 2005. My first book, My Israel Question in 2006, challenged the myopic racism of the establishment, Jewish community and in 2013 I co-edited a collection, After Zionism, that outlined alternatives to discriminatory Israel.
Palestinians are rarely heard in the Israeli media as anything other than a security threat. Arab voices are almost invisible and most Israelis never meet a Palestinian except when they’re serving in the army.
Jerusalem is a divided city, with Palestinians in East Jerusalem subject to discrimination and constant house demolitions. Tel Aviv is a beachside city that’s known as a bubble away from the conflict. Decades of conflict, privatisation and disaster capitalist policies have resulted in poverty being one of the highest in the developed world.
Racism is state-backed and encouraged by the highest levels of the Israeli government, knowing it’ll receive domestic support. Bigotry and incitement against African refugees, Palestinians and minorities is common, reflective of a country that was light years ahead of Trump’s war on Muslims. Trying to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel, or Christian rule in the US, requires discrimination and exclusion. Such policies are the antithesis of liberal democracy. Far-right groups in the US and Europe, traditional enemies of Jews, are increasingly enamoured with Israel due to its hardline against Muslims. Israel often welcomes these new friends.
The Oslo peace accords, signed more than 20 years ago by then-US president Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian head Yasser Arafat, sealed Palestine’s fate, entrenching Israeli occupation as state policy. Today, Israel works hand in hand with the private military industry to sell and promote “battle-tested” weaponry for the global market. Privatising the occupation of Palestine has allowed the Jewish state to perfect the art of military control, assets for nations fighting refugees or insurgents.
This is not without controversy, with Israeli human rights lawyers pushing for transparency over arms sales to repressive states such as South Sudan. When I lived there in 2015, in the capital Juba, I regularly heard about Israelis visiting the country to liaise with South Sudanese officials. Its government stands accused of genocide.
The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War will be marked in illegal, Israeli settlements, a perfect place to commemorate colonial acquisition. A recent poll found that Israeli settlers are the most satisfied of all Israelis with their lives. Many liberal Israeli Jews I know are disillusioned with the situation and looking to leave; they have no hope that Israel’s future will be anything other than a far-right theocracy.
From the beginning of the 1967 occupation, voices of dissent were rare. Euphoria was in the air and dominating the Palestinians without full civil rights was defended as necessary. Little has changed since.
During extensive time with Jewish colonists in the West Bank last year, I found arrogance but surprising insecurity about their long-term situation. Yair Ben-David, living at Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements, told me that, “the Western world is at war with radical Islam”. He said Palestinians under occupation “know that Israel is the best place to live,” compared to the rest of the Arab world, and they should be grateful for their situation. “Only Israel is helping the Palestinians,” he claimed. We spoke on a hot day while sheep, goats and rabbits roamed around the settlement. Ben-David always carried a loaded gun.
Despite his knowledge that the Israeli army protected his settlement, and without them he would be unable to survive, he said that he was “greening” the environment for the sake of the Israeli state. If he were forced to leave, because of a peace deal with the Palestinians, he would “resist, though not with a weapon. I would eventually go.”
The situation feels hopeless on the ground but there are rays of hope. Israeli attempts to destroy the global Palestinian solidarity movement has failed. Jewish dissent in the US and beyond is surging, no longer content being associated with a Jewish establishment that offers uncritical backing of the Israeli state. A major step towards change will involve educating Jews and others that occupying the Palestinian people for 50 years isn’t the actions of a normal, healthy state. Without outside pressure, as many Israelis and Palestinians tell me, the situation will never change. Israel’s biggest supporters are increasingly the Christian far-right and far-right fanatics.
Occupying nations never give up power voluntarily. Remember, South Africa was economically squeezed for years before it capitulated and ended political apartheid. Israel is facing a growing global movement aiming for a similar transformation.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe
My investigation and analysis in The National newspaper on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine:
For the two million Palestinians living under siege in Gaza, every week presents new challenges. Electricity is now reduced to about four hours a day due to political infighting between Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas. Israel refuses to allow imports of the spare parts needed to fix the power plant that it bombed in 2012 and 2014, so the population suffers during the freezing winter and sweltering summer. Safe drinking water is often out of reach.
Unemployment is soaring, domestic violence against women is rising and freedom of movement, through Egypt or Israel, is restricted. During a recent visit, Gazans told me that they had never been more isolated from neighbouring states and the world.
The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War will be celebrated in Israel and is another signal that the occupation that began soon after this military victory is a permanent one. Nearly US$3 million (Dh11 million) has been allocated by Israel to celebrate this year’s anniversary and events will take place in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The 1967 war was the third between the Arab states and Israel. Tensions built throughout the 1960s, and after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered United Nations forces out of the Sinai and reoccupied it, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, the path to war was set. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched surprise attacks and within six days seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Today, the most visible and painful legacy of the war has been the fate of the Palestinians. Newly released documents show that Israel knew the international community would not formally approve, and instructed diplomats not to talk of annexation in East Jerusalem but of “municipal fusion”. Other previously-secret files reveal the arrogance and euphoria after the 1967 war. Prime minister Levi Eshkol advocated forcible transfer of Arabs under occupation and only a few voices worried about ruling over a population with few civil rights.
With the backing of the Israeli government and full support of Zionist politicians such as Shimon Peres – years later he framed himself as a peacemaker though he remained a western-friendly face of colonisation – Jewish, religious nationalists quickly established colonies, all illegal under international law. They justified them for Biblical and ideological reasons (claiming God gave Jews all the land of “Judea and Samaria”) and strategic considerations (the need to protect the Jewish state). Between 1967 and 1977, about 5,000 settlers moved principally into the Jordan Valley.
The United Nations estimates that Gaza could be unliveable by 2020 due to a decade of war and Israeli deprivation. Robert Piper, UN coordinator for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, told the Jerusalem Post in April that the situation was so dire, half the population in Gaza was “food insecure”.
Unemployment is one of the highest rates in the world. Israel has controlled the lives of Palestinians for 50 years now, with no end in sight.
From 1977 until today, regardless of who ruled Israel, settlements became state religion. There are now about 700,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel withdrew 8,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005 but maintains control of its land, sea and air borders.
Israel has instituted a discriminatory regime for Palestinians under occupation – hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned over the decades, with many killed (families are rarely given compensation when innocents are murdered), and settler violence against Arabs is both tolerated and encouraged by the Israeli army in the West Bank. Settlers live as if they are in the Wild West, stealing water and the best natural resources from the native population and often destroying their main source of income, olive groves.
In the city of Hebron, with 500 radical Jews and 200,000 Palestinians, Israel has segregated the communities, reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. American actor Richard Gere, who recently visited the town, remarked that, “it’s exactly what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go … You didn’t cross over if you didn’t want to get your head beat in, or you get lynched”.
The religious, nationalist movement has forced itself into all levels of the state and liberal Israelis have accepted this shift, migrated or become a tiny and ineffective opposition. It’s why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led initiative that aims to economically isolate the Jewish state, has become so effective in the past decade in highlighting the undemocratic nature of Israel. BDS argues that change will only come from strong and consistent outside pressure.
Since the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s, an arrangement that established a complicit Palestinian Authority deputised to police the West Bank for the Israelis while colonies grew exponentially, the world has seen peace conferences and endless negotiations. Washington’s role has been akin to “Israel’s lawyer”. The European Union and Arab League have not been able to change anything. The Jewish, Israeli public have shifted far to the right, and racism against black Africans, Palestinians and minorities is surging.
Israel is only democratic if you’re Jewish. A just, two-state solution was dead on arrival because Israel had no intention of ending its addiction to settlements. A recent poll of Israeli Jews conducted by Fathom, a British journal on Israel, found that many thought the settlements were part of sovereign Israel (they’re not).
This year, after 50 years of occupation, Israel faces little, real opposition to its policies but the moral and economic cost has been massive. On the 40th anniversary of the occupation, in 2007, Israeli estimated the cost of the enterprise since 1967 at more than US$50 billion (Dh184 billion), including security and civilian expenses.
The effect has been dramatic. The rate of poverty in Israel is the highest in the developed world; a quarter of the population and nearly one-in-three children are poor. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy recently wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, “a state that celebrates 50 years of occupation is a state whose sense of direction has been lost, its ability to distinguish good from evil impaired”.
A massive hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners, held illegally in Israeli prisons, began in April led by imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti. It aimed to highlight their poor treatment by Israel and remind the world that 800,000 Palestinians – 40 per cent of males – have experienced Israeli prisons since 1967.
Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians live under constant risk of house demolitions, Israeli army invasions, road closures and lack of adequate services. Israeli society is constricting. Prominent left-wing, human rights organisations, such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, are accused of treason by senior members of the Israeli government.
The situation on the ground feels hopeless. With the region in disarray, wars in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, terrorism by extremists and United States president Donald Trump’s unpredictability, justly resolving the Palestinian issue is not a likely priority. During Trump’s recent Middle East trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, he mentioned nothing tangible about Palestinian rights.
If the two-state solution is impossible, what are the alternatives? The status quo is assured with occasional and inevitable Palestinian resistance.
A fair one-state solution would give all citizens of Israel and Palestine equal rights and a vote in parliament. This option is refused by the vast majority of Israeli Jews and the Jewish diaspora because they want to maintain Jewish privilege.
Rawabi in the West Bank, the first planned, modern Palestinian city at a cost of $1.4 billion, with financial help from the Gulf, is mooted as a ray of light. However, during a recent visit, I saw a ghost town of modern apartment buildings with few residents or services. Palestinian businessman Bashar Masri envisages a population of 40,000, and when I visited, I saw families receiving tours of the area. It is close to Jerusalem and Ramallah and about 3,000 Palestinians currently live there.
A shopping centre, amphitheatre, equestrian area, winery, church, mosque and bungee jumping are all part of the vision. However, Rawabi has been entangled for years with Israel over issues of access roads, the electricity grid and a reliable water supply.
The lasting legacy of the 1967 war and Israel’s colonisation project is a dark reminder of the international community’s acceptance of the Jewish state because of Holocaust guilt, racism against Arabs and a fear of upsetting a key US ally. The result is one of the longest occupations in modern times, with no serious internal or external pressure to change the status quo.
The 1967 war was the third between the Arab states and Israel. The first took place in 1948. This war left the West Bank and East Jerusalem under Jordanian control, with the Egyptians in control of the Gaza Strip. The second, in 1956, resulted in Israel capturing the Gaza Strip and Sinai. But Israel was forced to give up the Sinai in 1957, when a UN force was deployed. Tensions remained high.
Israel in the 1960s was experiencing a recession while Arab nationalism surged across the region. The Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser generated huge support by talking about the “liberation” of Palestinian territory. Palestinian insurgent groups found support in Syria and Jordan, leading to Israeli military leaders urging a preemptive, Israeli strike.
Washington was consumed with the Vietnam War and refused to guarantee assistance, while Moscow was deeply concerned with Israel’s nuclear capabilities and urged an Arab attack.
In May 1967, Nasser ordered the UN force out of Sinai, signed a defence pact with Jordan and closed certain waters to Israeli shipping.
After much deliberation within the Israeli establishment, the Jewish state bombed the Egyptian Air Force on June 5, 1967, quickly destroying it. Egypt’s ground forces were neutralised days later. Victory was remarkably swift following considerable Arab military failures. In a mere 132 hours, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and Gaza, along with the Sinai, from Egypt.
Israeli euphoria filled the country and voices against the occupation of Palestinian territory were minimal. Many Israeli leaders claimed the Arabs under their control would soon regard them as benign rulers. The decision to capture East Jerusalem was taken purely for emotional reasons, not strategic considerations, because of the strong Zionist desire to unify the city under Jewish dictate.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem- based journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.