The global sound of fury and shock heralded by the win of Donald Trump as the new U.S. President wasn’t heard in Israel. A poll, released in early December by the firm Dialog, found that 83 percent of Israelis viewed Trump as “pro-Israel” and hoped he would support their government’s position on expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In February 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was planning to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to keep out Palestinians and Arab states’ citizens. “In our neighborhood, we need to protect ourselves from wild beasts,” he said.
This discriminatory attitude is not just limited to politics but is both mainstream and widely accepted in Israel. For example, members of the far-right extremist group Lehava are strictly against any interaction between Jews and Palestinians. They roam the streets of Israel assaulting Arabs, and Israel does little to stop it. The group’s Hebrew stickers on Jerusalem streets read: “Beware the goys [a derogatory term for non-Jews]: they will defile you.”
Israeli security firms are excited about Trump’s win. They see dollar signs in the U.S., Europe and beyond as Western nations struggle to manage a huge influx of refugees and Muslims from the Middle East, Africa and Western Asia. Israel is viewed as an expert in the fields of counter-terrorism, surveillance, fences, sensors and militarization of borders.
In 2015, Israel reported $5.7 billion of defense industry exports. Arms sales especially soared to Europe, growing from $724 million in 2014 to $1.63 billion in 2015, amid growing concerns over refugees and terrorism. Equipment included aerospace, radar, drones and intelligence systems. Israel and its defense firms hope that surging interest in their products will counteract any negative economic impact from the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
When contacted for a comment, the Israeli Ministry of Defense refused to talk about its collaboration over countering possible threats related to refugees and terrorism.
“Unfortunately, as a rule, the Ministry does not comment on defense relationships with other countries,” it said.
Israel-based Magal Security Systems, the world’s biggest provider of perimeter security technology has global experience in using technology to keep out the unwanted and saw its share price soar following Trump’s victory.
The company’s chief executive, Saar Koursh, was recently quoted by the Financial Times saying he wanted to work on Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
“If Mr. Trump builds a fence or a wall, we believe our technology will definitely be a benefit,” he reportedly said.
Hagai Katz, Magal’s Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, explained that his firm is involved in securing all of Israel’s borders including those with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. The “smart fence” around Gaza, “battle-tested” is attractive to clients, works with Israeli video cameras, satellite monitoring, ground sensors and motion detectors.
The close-to two million citizens of the Gaza Strip live in a large, open-air Israeli-imposed prison, with the U.N. fearing the territory will be uninhabitable by 2020. A recent visit to Gaza showed a population with virtually no freedom of movement.
A Magal client list, confirmed by the corporation as up to date, shows hundreds of partners developed over its more than 43 years in the business. This includes security for civilian airports in China, Colombia, the U.S., U.K. and Mexico, seaports in Israel, Canada and Kenya, utilities in Australia, Chile and Morocco, oil and gas facilities in the Gulf, Italy and Nigeria and nuclear sites in the U.S. Furthermore, there are countless commercial projects across the world, prisons, militaries (including in Bahrain) and borders including India and Pakistan, Minnesota in the U.S., Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as Slovakia and Ukraine.
A new Magal promotional brochure explains to potential clients that the main challenge in stopping “infiltrators” in Europe is gathering intelligence and establishing early warning systems.
Katz said that Israel’s “smart fence” with Egypt, five metres high with barbed wire, military posts and a quick reaction force, is the “most relevant for Europe because it’s concerned with illegal immigration.” He explained that there were five “D’s” for an effective smart fence: demark the border, deterrence, detection, delay and defeat.
“In the case of illegal immigration,” Katz explained, “deterrence is the most important thing because you don’t want to cope with the problem when somebody crosses [a border].” When a Magal spokesman was asked if fences and monitoring borders were a solution to the refugee crisis or simply a profitable outcome, Katz said: “If you really want to solve it, you need to be aggressive and determined. Nobody likes to use fences. The landscape looks ugly. It’s against the idea of open borders.”
He added that Hungary, perhaps the most antagonistic nation towards refugees in Europe, had only constructed a “dumb fence,” without technology or sensors. This “doesn’t solve the problem but moves it from one country to another.”
Although Katz said that a number of European nations had contacted Magal to get quotes on border security – the cost is up to $5 million per kilometre of physical fence – “most of the European countries have not decided to do this. They believe they can cope with the problem without decisive actions.” Katz saw expansion opportunities in Africa (Magal is competing to build a wall between Kenya and Somalia, at a cost of over $15 billion), Eastern Europe and former Soviet states.
Other Israeli companies are also in the border monitoring business. Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defence contractors and experts in drone manufacturing, are working on the U.S./Mexico border. The sandy terrain near Nogales, Arizona, the second-largest border-patrol station in the U.S., has an Elbit-built radar system. The company’s head, Bezhalel Machlis, told the Financial Times in July that he was excited about the worldwide trend towards increased military budgets.
The Israeli military tests Elbit equipment before they are sold to agencies worldwide, where Palestinians living under occupation are used as guinea pigs for Elbit’s technology.
It is worth noting that the global interest in Israeli strategies to control borders is more than just a desire for technological experience. Trump’s election and the growing support for far-right political parties and movements across Europe reveal an ideological alliance that connects Israel’s burgeoning militarized settler movement with the white nationalist agenda.
This was perfectly articulated in December at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, silenced Rabbi Matt Rosenberg by suggesting Zionism and Jewish continuity required discrimination and isolation to thrive.
“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer asked. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move in to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that? Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate.”
A few weeks earlier, Spencer had praised Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and questioned whether “Israeli nationalists might want to help finance the far right in Europe and North America.” In July, he told the U.S. website Mondoweiss that he admired Israel as “a homogenous ethno-state.” During the Trump inauguration in Washington DC, Spencer was punched in the head by an anti-fascist protestor. He remains a divisive figure, opposed by many Jews, who craves separation of the races.
However, Spencer perfectly understood why many white nationalists, in the U.S., Europe and globally, have become ardent Israel supporters. Demographically, maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel is only assured by treating its Arab population as second class citizens. This is what most white nationalists admire in Israel, a willingness to brutally suppress another people to keep the state racially pure. Nationalists want the U.S. and Europe to behave similarly towards Muslims and refugees, groups that, in their view, are diluting the purity of the world’s superior Christian population.
David Sheen, an Israeli-based, independent journalist focusing on racial and religious conflict in Israeli society, said that “Israel’s leaders make brazen statements about their intentions to rule all the land, from the river to the sea, and to make Jewish supremacy paramount, demoting democratic principles to secondary status. They have already forced out over a third of the country’s African refugee population, and are on track to complete the cleansing over the next decade, if not less than that…There is no serious force at present, either within Israeli society or outside of it, that is capable of halting, or even of slowing down, Israel’s descent from flawed ethnocracy into full-on folkism.”
This logic has seen neo-Nazis and far-right extremists from Europe and the U.S. welcomed to Israel with open arms. Austria’s far-right, Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strach, visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial in April and met with members of the governing Likud party. His motives, according to press reports, were to make him “kosher in Israel” and acceptable to world leaders. Strach spoke of the “the Judeo-Christian West”.
“If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails,” he said. Israeli settler leaders happily overlooked his neo-Nazi past and praised his unwavering support for Israel.
Among some French and German far-right movements online there is extensive support for Israel and its posture towards Muslims and Arabs. Largely written in the local language, and ignored by the Western media, far-right websites revel in Islamophobia as a perceived state policy in Israel and urge Europe to copy it.
One German website, PI News, claims to be “news against the mainstream” and backing “America, Israel, basic and human laws and the fight against the Islamization of Europe.” German Holocaust deniers visited Israel’s Holocaust museum and travelled around Israel in 2016 talking about blowing up mosques and embracing the settler movement. The group, from popular anti-immigrant parties, believed that radical Islam was the common dominator between themselves and Israel.
Such rhetoric is now politically popular across the West and it’s not hard to see why Israel, building fences and walls around itself, is the model. Companies such as Elbit and Magal are reaping the benefits.
Many Europeans now oppose Israel’s colonization policies and advocate boycotts against the Jewish state. However, Strach and his party, founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, are leading a wave of far-right solidarity with Israel across Europe and the world. From Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to key players in the Trump administration, backing Israel and its draconian policies against Muslims, refugees, Palestinians, Arabs and black Africans is the new litmus test for the authoritarian right. Israel’s political and business elites, largely in sync with these views, have brilliantly exploited and monetized Western fears over minorities.
Trump’s chief strategist, of course, is Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the far-right Breitbart website that has published countless derogatory articles on Muslims, woman and Jews but earned praise (along with some opposition) for its Zionist stance from some of the leading U.S. – Zionist organizations. For them, anti-Semitism is irrelevant so long as Israel is given unconditional support.
It’s a dangerous and self-defeating stance that endangers Jews worldwide though there’s a long history of Zionist groups working with fascist groups in Israel and globally. Historically, neo-Nazis and white nationalists loathed Jews but today it’s not unusual to see the Israeli flag being waved at a far-right, Pegida rally in Germany or an event organized by Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP).
Former Israeli politician, Aryeh Eldad, from the far-right National Union Party, who once advocated the shooting of anybody who crossed Israel’s border with Egypt and is friends with far-right, Dutch politician Geert Wilders, says Israel has key lessons to teach the world.
Eldad believes that it was a mistake to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as territorial with the refugee issues facing Europe since Islam is the problem.
He adds that refugee and Muslims’ high birth-rate would soon extinguish European Christians.
“If they [Europeans] want to keep their national and cultural identity…they will have to prevent further waves of immigrants because they will not be assimilated…We [Israelis] are idiots if we think it isn’t a religious war or clash of ideologies,” he said in a recent interview.
Eldad’s solution included expanding Israeli settlements, which he viewed as “legal” and “necessary,” as well as fortifying Israeli borders. Europe had to respond similarly, he argued, and repel the wave of migrants. Otherwise, it would continue being a “suicidal society,” determined to be overrun by Islam.
During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yosrah Kafarnah feared for her family’s life. Situated in Beit Hanoun, a town close to the Israeli border that was the site of fierce fighting throughout the seven-week war, they fled to a nearby school for protection. Run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), Kafarnah was with her husband, Imad, and their two children. Israel attacked the school so they went to another one. “Gazans thought that UNRWA spaces were safe,” she tells me.
“I was scared when I saw fighting between Israel and Hamas,” she says, now sitting in her caravan, a temporary home made of tin that became semi-permanent. An Israeli surveillance blimp hovers in the sky as Imad explains how he carried injured people to hospital during the bombardment. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
A 2015 UN report found that Israel struck seven sites designated as civilian shelters in the 2014 Gaza war, killing 44 Palestinians and injuring 227. No Israelis have been charged for these incidents, or any attacks, during the war.
Beit Hanoun was particularly badly hit in the 2014 conflict and 70 per cent of its housing became uninhabitable. Today, sand, rubbish and discarded clothes remain strewn across the ground but the UAE, Qatar and the Maldives have funded some reconstruction. The Kafarnah family, like many I meet, live in shoddy caravans that are bitterly cold in the winter and extremely hot in summer.
The UN provides the bare minimum of oil, milk and wheat flour every three months, while the ruling Hamas government distributes a small amount of cash every quarter.
It is a desperate existence. Imad is unable to work due to a decade-old injury and he doesn’t want his wife to work because of the potential gossip in the community if she talks to unrelated men. It is a deeply conservative and religious area where men and women, who are not family, rarely mix. The couple have decided not to have another child because of their financial situation.
The precariousness of their existence deepened after Hamas recently ordered them to leave the caravan by the end of last month, because they want to build a market at the location. “I refused to sign the eviction papers,” Yosrah says. “Our caravan is in good shape and we are not told where to go. We cannot pay rent [at another place].”
Families in Beit Hanoun, many with up to 10 children, were told by the UN and Hamas after 2014 that they would have their houses rebuilt, but Israel and Egypt’s crushing siege of almost 10 years of the Gaza Strip ruined those plans. Furthermore, political infighting between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), corruption within Hamas and the UN, and a reconstruction plan that was arguably designed to fail from the beginning, have all contributed to today’s parlous state of affairs.
Gaza has experienced three wars in the past decade, each more devastating than the last. I last visited Gaza in 2009, six months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. I found an enclosed territory and population struggling to adapt to Hamas rulers and recovering from devastated homes and lives.
The 2014 conflict, that killed more than 2,250 Palestinians – hundreds of them children – and left thousands permanently injured, along with the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, still reverberates in Gaza; another war, just around the corner, is always feared.
According to the UN, more than 96,000 housing units were either destroyed entirely or in part during the 2014 war. During the conflict, 500,000 people – one quarter of the population – were internally displaced with nowhere to go.
In a report last year, the UN feared that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” within five years on current economic trends (though many Gazans worried it would happen earlier). Unemployment is at least 44 per cent and three-quarters of the population are threatened by hunger.
These struggles are ubiquitous across Beit Hanoun and the Strip. Farmers tend their small fields while dealing with frequent Israeli gunfire. Skin diseases appear on children’s arms and legs due to unhygienic conditions. Inside dirty caravans, cockroaches scurry around boxes of food. Disabled children barely leave their rooms because their families cannot afford care. One mother tells me that she often refused to send her son to school in the winter because his clothes were always wet. I see horrible scarring on a child’s buttock after a makeshift fire ran out of control. Cancer rates are up and bed wetting for children is common.
The social fabric of society is strained. The NGO Aisha Foundation reports that sexual abuse and domestic violence are soaring and yet the Hamas government wants to restrict public discussion about it. Executive director Reem Frainah says “women are not enslaved here”, but also that “there’s no equality between men and women. There are no laws to determine boundaries between the genders.”
In another caravan, with rotting floors, fraying equipment and dangerous gas stoves, Samaher Al Shenbari was recently told by Hamas that her dwelling would be destroyed to make way for a wedding hall. She opposed the forced relocation because there was nowhere to go. She says many of her family’s children have not accepted that their home was destroyed during the 2014 conflict and they suffer psychologically and physically because of the loss. “We want a new house,” she tells me. “We want all our families living together in one home.” She talks with a newborn baby cradled in her arms.
The Gaza Strip is unlike anywhere else in occupied Palestine. Its two million residents were punished after 2006 for voting the “wrong” party into power. Hamas defeated the American- and Israeli -backed PA and, since 2007 when Hamas assumed power, Egypt and Israel have imposed a stifling economic blockade on the territory, restricting goods and the movement of people. This year has seen a precipitous decline in Israeli permits granted for Gazans to leave and Egypt’s Rafah border is rarely open. Exports are minimal and the import of essential building materials is negligent. Economic activity barely operates because Israel has rescinded countless permits for businesspeople entering and leaving Gaza.
I meet countless Gazans who are literally trapped, constantly refused permission to travel abroad or into Israel to study, live or seek medical care. After Israel recently charged a Palestinian man in Gaza from the Christian charity World Vision with diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas – allegations challenged by his employer and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – Israel tightened its travel restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza working for NGOs.
Some Gazans, who can afford it, pay bribes to Hamas and Egyptian officials to put them at the top of the list when the Rafah crossing occasionally opens. Birth rates have declined in Gaza due to the hardships.
After the 2014 war, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) was established by the UN, Israel and the PA to facilitate rebuilding. The main donors are the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Britain and South Korea. NGO Aid Watch Palestine, which calls for the GRM to be replaced by a more accountable system, has assessed that “the GRM transfers enforcement of Israel’s policing to the UN and the PA, thus making the UN and the PA involved with Palestinian human rights violations, particularly the blockade on Gaza, which is a form of illegal collective punishment”.
Aid Watch co-director Haneen Elsammak tells me in Gaza that her group was started after the 2014 war because it was always foreign NGOs along with international groups, and not Palestinians, following the massive amount of aid money flowing into Gaza. Palestinians were rarely given control over their own lives.
UNRWA director in Gaza, Bo Schack, refuses to use the term “collective punishment” with me when describing the situation in Gaza. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam all condemn the blockade as “collective punishment”. He notes the UN in the past 12 months has rebuilt 1,300 homes and provides rent money to many residents. He acknowledges a US$70 million (Dh257m) shortfall for vital activities at a time when the Middle East is suffering multiple conflicts.
Schack says that when he started his job in Gaza in 2015, 850,000 Palestinians were receiving food assistance. “Today we are almost at one million,” he explains, “and that means we are supporting half the total population of Gaza.”
Israel is tightening its blockade on Gaza and in the last months has barely allowed any materials in at all, including cement and civilian infrastructure. Many builders tell me that they have fired countless workers this year because there is no work.
Contractor Saadi A S Salama says employees come to him crying because they desperately needed work to support their families. Private contractors have protested in the streets over the lack of goods getting through the borders.
Why has reconstruction largely failed? Engineer Ali K Abu Shahla says in his office in Gaza City, after spending decades working with Palestinian authorities, that, “even today, there is no plan for Gaza reconstruction”. He attended a key meeting in Jerusalem after the 2014 war where a process was drafted to reconstruct Gaza. However, it was proposed to include six people from the West Bank and only one from Gaza.
“I asked [then] why people involved were not from Gaza, why the major individuals had no experience or eyes and ears in Gaza,” he says.
The PA and Israel had little interest in helping the people of Gaza in the faint hope that a desperate population would overthrow the ruling Hamas regime.
To get a new home approved is still a tortuous process. Coordinates of the new property are sent to a committee and a group of both Israelis and Palestinians must approve it. According to Abu Shahla, “Israel has no right to veto properties but they keep projects ‘under construction’ for months and years”.
This committee allows Israel to know the GPS coordinates of all new structures, which many locals say could be used by Israel as targets in any future war, along with every contractor’s name and address.
The “dual use” list includes thousands of goods that Israel claims can be used for military purposes, but Israeli NGO Gisha argues that it “includes items whose use is overwhelmingly civilian and critical for civilian life”. Cement, steel and other major construction materials are allowed to enter Gaza by Israel if they are produced by Israeli companies. Israel is profiting after causing the bulk of Gaza’s destruction, and heavily taxing the goods they allow in.
Khalil Shaheen, director of economic and social rights with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, condemns the “dual use” list as inhumane. “Hamas may be using materials for tunnels, but what can I do as a Gazan civilian?”, he asks me. “Should I wait 15 years for a new home? Israel has a legal responsibility to protect civilians.”
A former NGO director for Gaza explains the Israeli rationale: “Their policy and approach is to put Gaza on the starvation diet and make things bad, but not so bad that it would lead to revolution or [a] swing of support in their favour internationally.”
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman recently told a Palestinian newspaper that Israel was willing to lift its blockade on Gaza, “if Hamas stops digging tunnels, rearming and firing rockets”. He claimed Israel would build an airport, port and industrial areas.
The future of Gaza remains tenuous. With Hamas leadership elections early next year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his 80s, and Israel reaching 50 years occupying Palestinian lands in 2017, Palestinian autonomy feels like a distant dream. Gaza’s humanitarian crisis reveals that without stronger international pressure, the territory will wither.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in East Jerusalem.
The squalid guest house sits alongside a main road in South Sudan. Every night migrants arrive but few of them stay very long. They’re mostly men from Eritrea or Ethiopia who have fled racism and imprisonment in Israel looking for a better future. They stay in single rooms with a dirty mattress, searching for people smugglers for overland passage to Sudan and then Libya. Europe is the ultimate destination. They know the risks, from ISIL militants to corrupt police officers, but feel they have nothing left to lose.
Less than 30 minutes from Juba, the South Sudanese capital, the area of Shirikat is their unofficial home. The day before I visit, eight men arrive late at night and depart early in the morning for Khartoum, one step closer to taking a boat across the Mediterranean.
South Sudan has become one of the most unlikely sources of migrants, likely to be in the thousands, who are dying in unprecedented numbers this year in rickety boats heading for Italy or Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than a fifth of the 26,200 migrants who crossed the sea to reach Italy from January to April this year were originally from Eritrea.
In Shirikat, barefoot children run through muddy puddles while Indian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese men sit around all day looking for any way to make money. It’s usually manual labour from washing dishes to lifting concrete on a building site. The heat is debilitating. Goats wander the dirty pavement and look for food. Migrants smoke shisha and play cards in a small motel behind a timber yard. For US20 cents, people can rent a small, tin shower block and wash themselves.
Yared Tekletsion is a relative success story. Born in Eritrea and 24 years old, he lived for three years in Tel Aviv as a sous chef. We meet in a seedy bar during the day with South Sudanese men sitting drinking on plastic chairs. “I never thought I would stay in Israel,” Tekletsion says. “I felt racism from the Israeli police and people every day. I have many Eritrean friends in Israel and racism makes them scared. They just work and go to church.”
Tekletsion fled Eritrea after beginning his mandatory army service and realising that he would never be free in his own country. The nation is one of the most repressive in Africa, restricting speech, the media and movement.
His path to Israel took him through Sudan, Egypt and Sinai. Years later he accepted an Israeli government offer to leave for Uganda and then made his own way to Juba.
“Life in South Sudan is good,” he tells me. “In Israel they didn’t want others [non-Israelis] to succeed but here nobody asks for my papers. I’d like to go back to Israel on holiday and give advice to my fellow Africans there; don’t go to Europe, it’s too dangerous, come here and find a job.”
Tekletsion, a Christian and irregular Sunday churchgoer, runs a building supplies business. He says it’s hard to convince new arrivals from Israel to stay in South Sudan because the country is poor with few services or employment opportunities.
South Sudan, the world’s newest state after declaring its independence in 2011, is facing a humanitarian crisis. Millions are displaced due to ongoing fighting, the economy has collapsed, tens of thousands have been killed since hostilities began in December 2013, children are recruited to fight, rape is endemic and food insecurity affects at least half the population of 11 million people.
Israel views South Sudan as a willing recipient of its surveillance equipment and defence and weapons technology. In 2013, South Sudan announced it would sell oil to Israeli companies.
Israel has maintained a close relationship with the South Sudanese for decades, especially after the 1967 Six Day War, when rebel leaders sought advice from Israel for their fight against northern Sudan. South Sudanese leaders were impressed with Israel’s military success. In the following decades Israel armed the Christian South Sudanese against the Muslim north, a country today that does not recognise Israel and allies itself with Iran (though this year’s Saudi-led strikes on Yemen have pitted Iranian interests against Sudanese ones because Khartoum has sided with Saudi Arabia). After 9/11, the United States joined Israel in massively strengthening its ties with South Sudanese rebels against a northern neighbour who had sheltered Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.
In the 2000s, with fighting raging across Sudan, many South Sudanese fled to safety in countries such as Australia and Israel. Dislike of African migrants soared in Israel, leading to growing moves to expel them. “We’re not in Tel Aviv, we’re in Africa!” shouted a Jewish protester in Tel Aviv during an anti-refugee rally in 2011. The Israeli government continued to back South Sudanese claims for independence while urging their people to return home.
But with little infrastructure in Juba, poor health care and education, as well as ongoing insecurity, South Sudanese migrants rightly believed they were owed protection. Israel disagreed despite many of the young asylum seekers never having seen South Sudan and viewing Israel as their home.
Robel Kosu doesn’t share Tekletsion’s optimism. Another Eritrean migrant who arrived in Juba four months ago, he spent six years in Israel working various jobs. The police regularly harassed him and he protested with his fellow Eritreans. At 25 years old, he is now desperate to leave Juba and get to Europe. He spends his days fighting off malaria and sitting outside a hardware shop watching the world go by.
Like Tekletsion, he left Israel voluntarily but was given US$3,500 (Dh12,900), flown to Rwanda, then told to leave by Rwandan officials, transported by bus to Uganda and then urged by fellow Eritreans to try South Sudan. “Israeli officials told me that it’s better for you to leave but Africa is a bad place,” he says.
His story matches the many others from migrants I hear in Juba, a path from Israel to South Sudan with corrupt officials, kidnapping threats and no work papers. Nearly every migrant I meet wants a future in Europe and doesn’t fear drowning in the Mediterranean.
Without identification or a passport, Kosu says that his life is in limbo. He hasn’t seen his parents or most of his siblings for years. “I feel like an outlaw. In Africa we have poor minds. I want to live where I am free, like Europe, America or Australia.”
Israel has a black, African population that it desperately wants to expel or ignore. There are about 46,000 asylum seekers in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. They face institutional racism from the government, judiciary, army and public. In a 2012 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index, a majority of Israelis agreed with a statement by Likud member of the Knesset Miri Regev, the newly appointed minister for culture and sport, that Africans are a “cancer in the body” of the nation. Thirty three per cent of people believed that violence against Africans was justified. Large protests by Ethiopian Jews, held in Tel Aviv in May, highlighted the racism shown by police towards them. It’s not just Palestinians feeling the brunt of state persecution.
Israel houses thousands of African refugees indefinitely in the Holot detention centre and Saharonim prison in the Negev Desert. Conditions are grim. One man inside Holot, Adil Aldao from Darfur, describes it as a “concentration camp” where food is unhealthy and stimulation is limited. “My freedom is buried in Holot,” he says.
Israel gives African migrants 30 days to leave, rarely accepting their refugee claims. Israel has only ever accepted a handful of Eritrean and Sudanese migrant claims; the recognition rate is less than 1 per cent over the past six years. The alternative is long-term detention. More than 9,000 asylum seekers have left Israel since 2013 and Israel claims this is due to its “voluntary return” programme. In reality, the government has signed secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda and flies people to these destinations pledging job assistance and financial support. Ugandan journalist Raymond Mujuni exposed in late 2014 that Uganda had signed a deal with Israel to take thousands of its unwanted migrants in exchange for weapons and agricultural knowledge.
All the Africans I interview in Juba and a recent report by two Israeli NGOs both find empty promises to migrants by the Israeli authorities as they face abuse by people smugglers and risk of kidnapping and death.
Israel was one of the first countries to welcome South Sudan’s independence in 2011. In 2012, they sent over 1,000 migrants back to Juba and Israel continues to deny that the remaining South Sudanese in their cities are refugees, treating them poorly. The first South Sudanese ambassador in Tel Aviv was appointed in 2014. Ambassador Ruben Marial Benjamin ignored numerous requests for comment.
Israel’s main interest appears to be selling arms to South Sudan. It overlooks its blatant human rights abuses, a tradition that has seen brutal African militaries armed and trained for decades. Israeli defence exports to South Sudan are stable and the South Sudanese army is using Israeli weapons. A South Sudanese delegation is visiting Israel in June to attend the country’s leading defence expo. Israeli Meretz politician Tamar Zandberg recently demanded that Israel cease selling weapons to Juba and follow a European Union arms embargo.
The South Sudanese government tells The National that there is no formal agreement between the nations to accept refugees from any country. Thousands have arrived in the last years without any state support.
A handful of dedicated advocates in Israel and South Sudan are working with the affected communities to help. After the South Sudanese community was deported from Israel, Israeli Rami Gudovitch co-founded the Come True project, under NGO Become, a sponsorship programme funding the education of 120 deportee children at the Trinity boarding school in Uganda. The group has plans to establish a similar school in Juba.
“I believe it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make his effort to make the lives of refugees bearable,” Gudovitch says. “My country, Israel, was formed by refugees fleeing from the Nazis while the world turned its back to them … Every single European person who chose to protect and assist Jewish refugees in the Second World War is being remembered by the survivors and their families and friends. Helping refugees is a moral opportunity of the highest degree.”
In Juba, Hakim Monykuer Awuok has formed a partnership with Gudovitch to build a closer relations between Israel and the South Sudanese migrants who lived in Israel. An employee of the ministry of education and co-founder of NGO Empower Kids, Awuok tells The National that he believes Israel should treat its migrants with respect. “It’s a waste of such talented people to be deported here from Israel,” he says. “Building a school is one way to help them.”
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian columnist and author based in South Sudan.
My Guardian investigation is published today:
Robel Tesfahannes spends his days looking for work in Juba. An Eritrean who recently arrived in South Sudan after six years in Tel Aviv, Tesfahannes is one of a new wave of refugees forced out of Israel by the country’s increasingly tough stance towards migrants.
He is covered in tattoos, including a message on his right arm to Israelis: “I hate them but I can’t live without them.” Tesfahannes says that with “no money I have no aims. But you have to keep moving, always. I live risk to risk.”
Tesfahannes left Eritrea in 2008, fleeing mandatory military service in a regime that tolerates no dissent, and travelled through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt before arriving in Israel. He says he was briefly imprisoned before being released into the community.
“The Israeli government said bad things about us Africans,” he says, “and I felt Israelis looked at us suspiciously.” He alleges that he was routinely harassed by Israeli police and eventually decided that he had to leave.
The country recently announced a deal with Rwanda to deport Eritrean and Sudanese migrants there, claiming they would be given visas and allowed to work. In return, Rwanda would receive economic benefits.
But Tesfahannes says the promise of work and security never materialised.
Instead his journey from Israel to the world’s newest nation was a tortuous one. Given $3,500 (£2,200) in cash on departure by Israeli officials, he was flown to Rwanda earlier this year with 10 other Eritreans.
Tesfahannes says he was given three nights’ accommodation in Kigali before being told by a Rwandan official that he had to pay $150 (£98) to secure safe passage to Uganda. No work opportunities were ever discussed, he said.
With no identification, passport or money, the 25-year-old is in limbo, dreaming of making the journey north to Europe.
Until recently, Israel provided a one-off monetary incentive for asylum seekers to leave the country voluntarily if they signed a document giving their written consent.
Now the state will give them 30 days to leave; those who refuse will face a hearing that could lead to indefinite detention.
A report recently published by two Israeli NGOs supported Tesfahannes’s claim that African migrants sent from Israel to Rwanda, Uganda or elsewhere in Africa under the new policy are given no work rights or protections when arriving.
“The fees for two nights’ stay at a local hotel in Uganda are paid for by the state of Israel. After that, the asylum seekers are asked to leave,” the report says, “with no identification documents and no possibility of proving where they have come from”.
A day after a boat sank in the Mediterranean in April causing the deaths of 700 migrants, the country’s transportation minister Yisrael Katz said that the drownings justified Israel’s policy and its fence along its border with Egypt “which blocks the job-seeking migrants before they enter Israel”.
Last Sunday in Tel Aviv thousands of Israelis and ethnic Ethiopians protested to highlight the racism against Africans, after a video emerged showing a black Israeli soldier being assaulted by a policeman.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon denies that the country harasses migrants: “African migrants in Israel are treated fairly and humanely,” he said. “The police intervenes when Israel’s laws have been broken. It does so with restraint and acts under legal scrutiny.”
A spokeswoman for the Rwandan directorate of immigration declined to comment on the allegations, while Uganda has denied any agreement with Israel to receive migrants.
Tesfahannes says that he came to South Sudan because other Eritrean migrants in Kampala told him it was a safer place to stay before making the move towards north Africa, and eventually Europe.
In Juba, Tesfahannes has little money. A brother still working in Israel has sent him some US dollars, but he has few friends and no family here. His tattoos have scared off potential employees. “I’m like a dog,” he says. “In Africa dogs are shot and killed, we’re like animals. Dogs are not killed in Europe.”
The majority of migrants arriving in South Sudan from Israel live in Shirikat, a poor area near the capital city, on the road to Uganda. In the single, dirty rooms of a guesthouse people-smugglers arrange the dangerous trip to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, one stop on the way up to Libya.
Tesfahannes acknowledges that he may have to stay in South Sudan if he can’t raise the funds to leave. “I’m not scared of drowning in the Mediterranean,” he says. “God decides my fate. I want to have a wife and kids one day if I don’t die first.”
South Sudan, a country riven by civil war with millions facing food insecurity, is ill-prepared to handle this influx of outsiders. The government does not know how many Africans are crossing its borders, though Eritreans in Juba say it’s in the thousands, with more on the way.
Tesfahannes, who lives in a tiny hotel room for US$3.50 a night, wants to work and leave Juba as soon as possible. “Even with a rich mind, with no money you are nothing here.”
My weekly Guardian column:
Libya was sold as a glorious, liberating war. London’s Tory mayor Boris Johnson wrote in March 2011 that the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi was “of course … a good idea”. He was cautiously optimistic that a Western-led military campaign would not be a “disaster” like Iraq in 2003. “What kind of democracy do we hope will bloom in the desert soil, after decades in which political parties have been banned?” he mused.
Johnson was joined by a host of world leaders, journalists and humanitarian interventionists calling for overwhelming firepower to be deployed against the Libyan army. The western-backed Misrata militias killed Gaddafi and optimism about Libya’s future was in the air. The subject of Libya and the left was much-canvassed, including by Australian writer Guy Rundle, who wrote:
“For my money once a request was made for support [from Libyan rebels], and in explicit terms, honouring it was simply delivering on an implicit promise made by the notion of international solidarity.”
Current events prove this sentiment was badly misplaced, if not naïve. Libya is now divided by civil war, armed groups roam the streets and violence is ubiquitous. The United Nations and American ambassador have fled.
The New York Times last weekend explained the failure of the intervention instigators to invest enough time and energy in nation-building. “In the absence of a strong government,” journalist Kareem Fahim wrote, “a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centred on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Gaddafi and never put down their arms.”
The delicate job of constructing an inclusive democracy since the fall of Gaddafi has been complicated by the extremism of Islamist forces, incompetence and corruption in the political class and the shift in global interest to other conflicts. Amnesty International reported just before the 2012 election that democratic institutions were weak, and were struggling to cope with the Misrata militias, who were engaged in ethnic cleansing and conducting arbitrary arrests and torture. This report was barely covered in the global press.
Libya is mostly ignored today because foreign correspondents are busier than ever. Although an army of brave freelancers and citizen journalists are invaluable when it comes to covering war, mainstream resources are dwindling. In a new book by reporter Anjan Sundaram, on his experiences as a stringer in Congo, he explains how the site of one of the worst genocides in modern times was largely ignored by editors in Western capitals.
“The Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world”, he argued recently in the Times. “We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.”
Libya has suffered this fate. After initial fascination with the Arab Spring reaching Tripoli, media interest dwindled and moved onto other places, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Palestine. There was little talk of the pragmatic reason London, Paris and Washington wanted access to Libya: huge oil reserves.
With chaos now descending across the state, and Libyan weapons spreading to Syria, Mali and beyond, the silence from those who backed the 2011 war is deafening. They’ve simply moved onto the next conflict, the next place to advocate intervention, the next editor and journalist guaranteed to completely ignore their record of backing the last disaster. Amnesia and eternal forgiveness are hallmarks of corporate punditry.
One of the leading arguments in favour of bombing Libya and overthrowing Gaddafi was the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It was constantly cited as a key justification for assisting the beleaguered Libyan population. David Cameron, the British prime minister, and former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, were just two of the prominent advocates of R2P in 2011.
Three years on, the crisis in Libya barely rates a mention, and R2P reeks of selective application. When British journalist Mehdi Hasan asked French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, a supporter of Western military action against Muslim states, whether he took any responsibility for the troubles in Libya in 2013, he ducked and weaved. He preferred to boast of his desire to bomb Syria. When asked whether a military force should be stationed in Palestine to defend its civilians, he admired Israel’s inherent humanity.
I feel like I’ve been writing this same column for over a decade, reminding politicians, journalists and commentators that the internet is the ultimate record of their advocacy for violence against unarmed peoples in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Libya. With a record like this, it’s no wonder humanitarian intervention is associated with creeping colonialism.
We never hear any R2P backers pushing for a military intervention in Gaza to protect the Palestinians from Israeli missiles. Nobody is talking about protecting Egyptian civilians from the brutal, US-backed dictatorship in Egypt. Barely a word is raised to protect the repressed activists in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s dressed up as solidarity, a responsibility to protect, or an intervention to prevent breaches of human rights, from Iraq to Libya these are grotesque experiments on helpless civilians, the conclusions of which are clear for us to see.
My essay in New Matilda is here:
As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein
The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.
Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.
The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.
It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.
The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.
Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.
It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).
None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.
The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.
The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.
The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.
It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.
Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.
They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.
Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).
Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.
Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.
Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.
The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?
Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.
The role of corporate media is to serve powerful business interest and advertisers; serving the public good ain’t really a serious consideration.
New data from the US is both disturbing and unsurprising and shows even more reason why alternative and indy media must grow in power (via IPS):
If people outside the United States are looking for answers why Americans often seem so clueless about the world outside their borders, they could start with what the three major U.S. television networks offered their viewers in the way of news during 2013.
Syria and celebrities dominated foreign coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS – whose combined evening news broadcasts are the single most important media source of information about national and international events for most Americans. Vast portions of the globe went almost entirely ignored, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.
Latin America, most of Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia apart from Afghanistan, and virtually all of East Asia – despite growing tensions between China and Washington’s closest regional ally, Japan – were virtually absent from weeknight news programmes of ABC, NBC, and CBS last year, according to the report, which has tracked the three networks’ evening news coverage continuously since 1988.
Out of nearly 15,000 minutes of Monday-through-Friday evening news coverage by the three networks, the Syrian civil war and the debate over possible U.S. intervention claimed 519 minutes, or about 3.5 percent of total air time, according to the report.
That made the Syrian conflict and the U.S. policy response the year’s single-most-covered event. It was followed by coverage of the terrorist bombing by two Chechnya-born brothers that killed three people at the finish line of last April’s Boston Marathon (432 minutes); the debate over the federal budget (405 minutes); and the flawed rollout of the healthcare reform law, or Obamacare (338 minutes).
The next biggest international story was the death in December of former South African President Nelson Mandela (186 minutes); the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and its aftermath; the coverage of Pope Francis I (157 minutes, not including an additional 121 minutes devoted to Pope Benedict’s retirement and the Cardinals’ conclave that resulted in Francis’ succession); and the birth of Prince George, the latest addition to the British royal family (131 minutes).
The continued fighting in Afghanistan came in just behind the new prince at 121 minutes for the entire year.
The strong showings by the papal succession, Mandela’s death, and Prince George’s birth all demonstrated the rise of “celebrity journalism” in news coverage, Andrew Tyndall, the report’s publisher, told IPS. He added that “a minor celebrity like Oscar Pistorius (the South African so-called “Bladerunner” track star accused of murdering his girlfriend) attracted more coverage [by the TV networks – 51 minutes] than all the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the  months before Mandela’s death.”
An average of about 21 million U.S. residents watch the network news on any given evening. While the cable news channels – CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC – often get more public attention, their audience is actually many times smaller, according to media-watchers.
“In 2012, more than four times as many people watched the three network newscasts than watched the highest-rated show on the three cable channels during prime time,” Emily Guskin, a research analyst for the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project, told IPS.
As in other recent years, news about the weather – especially its extremes and the damage they wrought – received a lot of attention on the network news, although, also consistent with past performance, the possible relationship between extreme weather and climate change was rarely, if ever, drawn by reporters or anchors.
Last year’s tornado season, severe winter weather, drought and wild forest fires in the western states constituted three of the top six stories of the year, according to the report. Along with the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, those four topics reaped nearly 900 minutes of coverage on the three networks, or about six percent of the entire year’s coverage.
“A major flaw in the television news journalism is its inability to translate anecdotes of extreme weather into the overarching concept of climate change,” noted Tyndall. “As long as these events are presented as meteorological and not climatic, then they will be covered as local and domestic, not global.
“An exception in 2013 was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines,” he noted. That event captured 83 minutes of coverage among the three networks, making it the single biggest story by far out of Asia for the year.
By comparison, the growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea – which many foreign-policy analysts here rate as one of the most alarming events of the past year if, for no other reason, than the U.S. is committed by treaty to militarily defend Japan’s territory – received a mere eight minutes of coverage.
Two other major U.S. foreign policy challenges received more coverage. North Korea and the volatile tenure of its young leader, Kim Jong-un, received a total of 87 minutes, including 10 minutes to visiting basketball veteran Dennis Rodman, of coverage during 2013.
Events in Iran, including the election of President Hassan Rouhani and negotiations over its nuclear programme, received a total of 104 minutes of coverage between the three networks over the course of the year, nearly as much attention as was given the British royals.
Libya received 64 minutes of coverage, but virtually all of it was devoted to the domestic controversy over responsibility for the September 2012 killings of the U.S. ambassador and three other officials there. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and the civil war and humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic received no coverage at all.
As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict which Secretary of State John Kerry has made a top priority along with a nuclear deal with Iran, it received only 16 minutes of coverage in 2013. “Palestine has virtually disappeared from the news agenda,” noted Tyndall.
The idea that the Western powers want freedom and democracy in the Middle East is a joke that’s not lost on the Arabs living there.
Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books, outlines brilliantly today’s messy region:
One evening in January at a hotel bar in Manhattan, I tried to ingratiate myself with an officer from Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations. Munira (not her real name) was a former student of a friend of mine. She was also a regime insider, close to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, one of the royal family’s more reform-minded figures. I thought she might help me land a visa to Bahrain, which had all but shut out Western journalists since the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. I can’t have been very persuasive. She promised to ‘assist your quest in any way’, but soon stopped replying to my emails. My visa application was never answered.
The protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, Munira told me that evening, were not fighting for constitutional reform or democracy; they were agents of Iran and Hizbullah. When they called for a republic, they meant an Islamic republic along Iranian lines where drinking would be banned and modern women like her would be forced to cover themselves. Fortunately, she had been rescued by troops from a country where drinking is already banned and women like her are forced to cover themselves. For Munira, the arrival in March 2011 of more than a thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia, via the King Fahd Causeway between the Eastern Province and Bahrain, was a humanitarian intervention. Thanks to the support of its neighbours – and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain – her tolerant, cosmopolitan, pro-Western kingdom had narrowly foiled a plot hatched in Tehran and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
I mentioned that the government-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in its report to King Hamad, had explicitly rejected claims of Iranian involvement in the protest movement. Whether or not they were directed from Tehran, Munira replied, the protests represented a Shia bid for power, and therefore a threat to the Sunni-led kingdom. Now that she had seen ‘terror’ in Manama – her word for the largely non-violent campaign of civil disobedience – she understood Israel’s need for stern measures. She had outgrown her youthful infatuation with the Palestinian cause, especially since Israel had proved itself a friend of Bahrain: ‘Our relations with Mossad are very good.’ Together, Israel and the Gulf monarchies were defending the region not only against Iran, but against the no less insidious influences of the Arab Spring.
Munira may have been overstating things for my benefit: what better way to win over an American Jewish journalist than to praise the Jewish state? Still, recent developments in the region – from the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt to the impending strike against Syria – have confirmed that she was saying openly what many leaders in the Gulf privately believe.
Israel and the Gulf states do not have official diplomatic relations, but they have been developing closer ties over the last two decades. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the Gulf states lifted their boycott of countries that traded with Israel; a few years later, Israel opened trade missions in Qatar and Oman. The two top exports from Israel to the Gulf – sold through third parties and shell companies – are security equipment and technology. When Aluf Benn published a report in Haaretz of Israeli arms sales to Arab and Muslim countries earlier this year, there were ferocious denials from Egypt and Pakistan, but not a word from the United Arab Emirates over its buying of drone technology.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a two-state settlement based on Israel’s 1967 borders, in return for full economic and diplomatic normalisation. This spring, Riyadh reaffirmed the 2002 proposal, even accepting the need for land swaps, a further concession to Tel Aviv. Israel has never responded to the proposal. Nor did it show much sensitivity to the amour propre of its friends in the UAE when Mossad assassinated Hamas’s security chief in a Dubai hotel room in 2010. But Israel has relaxed its opposition to arms sales from Washington to the Gulf states, and shared intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities – the concern which, along with the insurgent force of Arab populism, has sealed their alliance.
That alliance has deepened since the fall of Mubarak. No one was more furious at Obama’s betrayal of a loyal client than the Israelis – well, no one except the Saudis. Not only had Mubarak been a redoubtable ally against Iran and Hamas; he had protected Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation seen by Riyadh and the UAE as a force of subversion throughout the Gulf. The Saudis are religious but they are not sentimental. Given a choice between a dependable secular autocrat like Mubarak and an Islamic populist movement with regional ambitions that might challenge their own, they have always chosen the former. Since the fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, the Saudis have fought the wave of insurrectionary movements by supporting conservative religious forces, particularly Salafi groups, and by stirring up sectarian tension.
Israel, too, prefers autocratic neighbours: countering Arab populism has been a pillar of its foreign policy since 1948. It has also tried to stoke sectarian tension in the Arab and Muslim world, supporting Maronite influence in Lebanon and encouraging irredentist groups in Iran and Iraq. But Israel’s ability to influence the domestic politics of Arab countries is limited. It cheered on General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he threw out Morsi, suspended the constitution and accused Hamas of trying to destabilise Egypt – as the Americans discovered when they tried in vain to restrain the Egyptian army, the generals and Israel were in constant contact during the coup – but couldn’t offer much in the way of material support. It was left to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step in with extravagant offers of assistance, while urging Sisi to show the Brothers no mercy. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pro-Israel lobbyists fought any attempt to suspend military aid to the Egyptian generals. One former American official with excellent ties to the Saudis called it a ‘game of charades, with communication between the players by mime’.
The Israelis and Saudis played the game well – much better than Obama, whose grudging acceptance of the coup has not prevented him from being vilified in Cairo by the military regime’s supporters. (The posters in Cairo of Obama with a jihadi beard look much like the racist caricatures of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ that used to run in right-wing Israeli tabloids.) Indeed, one could argue that Israel and Saudi Arabia are now closer to each other in their views of the region than either of them is to the United States. The Saudi-Israeli support for the coup in Egypt challenges a central tenet of American policy in the Middle East: that stable government and peace depend on democracy. US support for democratisation is of course limited, and contingent on alignment with American objectives, but in principle the US has supported the integration of Islamist parties. The Americans were not in cahoots with the Brothers, contrary to the rumours in Cairo, but they fear that Sisi’s crackdown will drive Egypt’s Islamists toward violence, and that America might become a target. It is not an unreasonable fear.
The Guardian’s Seumas Milne on the seemingly inevitable war against Syria:
All the signs are they’re going to do it again. The attack on Syria now being planned by the US and its allies will be the ninth direct western military intervention in an Arab or Muslim country in 15 years. Depending how you cut the cake, the looming bombardment follows onslaughts on Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali, as well as a string of murderous drone assaults on Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
The two former colonial powers that carved up the Middle East between them, Britain and France, are as ever chafing for a slice of the action as the US assembles yet another “coalition of the willing”. And as in Iraq and Sudan (where President Clinton ordered an attack on a pharmaceuticals factory in retaliation for an al-Qaida bombing), intelligence about weapons of mass destruction is once again at the centre of the case being made for a western missile strike.
In both Iraq and Sudan, the intelligence was of course wrong. But once again, UN weapons inspectors are struggling to investigate WMD claims while the US and its friends have already declared them “undeniable”. Once again they are planning to bypass the UN security council. Once again, they are dressing up military action as humanitarian, while failing to win the support of their own people.
The trigger for the buildup to a new intervention – what appears to have been a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta – certainly has the hallmarks of a horrific atrocity. Hundreds, mostly civilians, are reported killed and many more wounded, their suffering caught on stomach-churning videos.
But so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, including the Syrian rebels, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The Damascus government and its international backers, Russia and Iran, blame the rebels.
The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it’s hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for escalation.
For the same reason, the rebel camp (and its regional sponsors), which has been trying to engineer a western intervention in the Libya-Kosovo mould for the past two years to tip the military balance, clearly has an interest in that red line being crossed.
Three months ago, the UN Syria human rights commission member Carla Del Ponte said there were “strong concrete suspicions” that rebel fighters had used the nerve gas sarin, and Turkish security forces were reported soon afterwards to have seized sarin from al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front units heading into Syria.
The arms proliferation expert, Paul Schulte, of King’s College London, believes rebel responsibility “can’t be ruled out”, even if the “balance of probability” points to the regime or a rogue military commander. Either way, whatever Colin Powell-style evidence is produced this week, it’s highly unlikely to be definitive.
But that won’t hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria’s grisly struggle for power. A comparison of their response to the Ghouta killings with this month’s massacres of anti-coup protesters in Egypt gives a measure of how far humanitarianism rules the day.
The Syrian atrocity, where the death toll has been reported by opposition-linked sources at 322 but is likely to rise, was damned as a “moral obscenity” by US secretary of state John Kerry. The killings in Egypt, the vast majority of them of civilians, have been estimated at 1,295 over two days. But Barack Obama said the US wasn’t “taking sides”, while Kerry earlier claimed the army was “restoring democracy”.
Great US indy journo Max Blumenthal loves taking on media myths, right-wing racism and bullshit. He’s his latest (via Mondoweiss):
On August 22, 2013, several hundred Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans hit the streets of Washington DC to show their support for General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and the regime that overthrew the elected President Mohamed Morsi in a military coup on July 3. This footage was shot outside the Egyptian Embassy.
One day the Palestinian people will rise up against their occupiers. I hope this day comes soon.
It’s true that this scenario seems unrealistic right now. The Palestinians are still bleeding from the second intifada, which only brought disaster upon them (and the Israelis). They are divided and torn, with no real leadership and lacking a fighting spirit, and the world has tired of their distress. The Israeli occupation seems as strong and established as ever, the settlements are growing, and the military is in complete control, with all the world’s governments silent and indifferent.
On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine that this scenario will not materialize. To our south, the Egyptian people are struggling over the nature of their regime, in a way that can only inspire awe. To the north, the Syrian people are also doing this, albeit in a much crueler fashion. Could it be that only the Palestinian people will forever bow their heads, submissively and obediently, to the Israeli jackboot? Don’t make the minister of history laugh.
The regimes against which most of the Arab nations are rebelling were generally less brutal than the regime of the Israeli occupation. They were also less corrupt, in the broad sense of the word. Most did not take over the lives of their subjects day and night, did not so drastically restrict their movement and freedom, did not systematically abuse and humiliate them in the manner of the Israeli regime. Moreover, they were not foreign regimes.
Therefore, the events at Tahrir Square will surely be replicated one day in Ramallah’s Manara Square. The masses will flood the Unknown Soldier’s Square in Gaza, push into Police Square in Hebron and storm all the checkpoints along their way. It is hard now to imagine it happening, but it is even more difficult to imagine that it will not.
From Jenin to Rafah, they are enviously watching the wonders of Tahrir Square. Can anyone seriously think these scenes and this spirit will not affect Balata? Not sweep through Jabalya? The first is under Israeli rule, while the other is supposedly controlled by Hamas, and yet residents of the two places cannot even meet with each other. How much longer will they accept this?
Yes, it will happen one day. The masses will rise up against the settlements and checkpoints, against the army barracks and the prisons. And at that point, the Israeli Arabs will no longer stand idly by. They are also watching what’s happening at Tahrir Square and also realize they deserve a different regime and a different country.
It seems to happen when you least expect it. No Military Intelligence report will predict it, and no Shin Bet field coordinator will warn about it. The defense minister will act shocked, the prime minister will convene urgent consultations, and the finance minister will post something on Facebook. The president of the United States will call for calm, and who knows, maybe will send a special envoy. The world’s most powerful and especially most moral military will try to restore order, but the new order will assert its control over the army as well.
As with other unjust and evil regimes, which are always destined to fall, this regime also will fall – it’s just not clear when and how. Sometimes these regimes fall in the wake of terrible bloodshed, as in Syria, and sometimes they fall on their own, like a tall tree whose trunk has rotted, as happened in the Soviet Union, South Africa and Eastern Europe. One day it will happen here, too; there is no other way.
It would be best that this day come soon; too bad it hasn’t come yet. The Israeli public, which didn’t know how to end its occupation regime on its own, will also act surprised, and offended. Again they will say that “there’s no partner,” that “they’re like animals,” but no one will take these statements seriously. Israel will again play the victim, but few will be able to identify with it anymore.
Why is it best that this happens soon? Because as time passes, the damage and rage accumulate. Because there is no chance that Israel will end the occupation voluntarily. Because justice cries out for it to happen. Because whether the solution is one state or two, an Israel that isn’t an occupier, that is just and egalitarian, will be a different and infinitely better place to live.
My following article appears in today’s Guardian Australia:
Politicians and journalists ignore public opinion at their peril. Less than two weeks after the explosive revelations by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden on the creation of a privatised, American surveillance apparatus, a TIME poll finds a majority of Americans support the leak, and Snowden receives a higher approval rating than US citizens view Congress. History has also been kind to one of the great leakers in history, the Pentagon Paper’s Daniel Ellsberg (who backs Snowden, too). Never under-estimate the public’s desire to discover what the state is doing in its name.
In Australia, however, the story has barely caused a ripple. Attorney general Mark Dreyfus refuses to acknowledge that Canberra receives information from the Prism system, instead saying that Australians should rest easy and feel protected by the warm glow of intelligence sharing with Washington. In reality, evidence has emerged that the Labor government is building a massive data storage facility to manage massive amounts of information from the US. Unsurprisingly, the US claims its monitoring is proportionate and legal, despite some members of Congress having no idea of the scope of the secret programs.
This is spying by any other name – and Snowden makes clear that everybody is doing it, despite protestations from Australia and America that only China is unleashing constant cyber attacks (Foreign Policy recently revealed that the NSA hacks into Chinese systems).
Dreyfus tried to appease whatever public anger exists – and thus far it’s been muted – by calling an inquiry into protection of information in the digital age. The Federal Greens rightly want far greater transparency on government surveillance, knowing that both Labor and the likely incoming Liberal government have spent decades colluding on ever-expanding powers of security services to monitor and track citizens with little accountability. Don’t expect support from the privacy commissioner, either, who shrugged his shoulders and implied in a statement that national security should trump privacy. Nothing to see here, move along now.
It’s shocking that so few Australians even know about the existence of the intimate intelligence sharing known as “five eyes” between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Trust the system, we’re told by The Australian’s editorial last week; it isn’t just “extreme libertarians” who question the prevalence of the surveillance state. Australia’s role as a US ally should never be to blindly accept dictates from Washington though if history is any guide Canberra sits too comfortably under America’s hypnotic war machine.
If this current assault on our communications isn’t bad enough, the growth of internet censorship and the private companies that back it is a growing issue across the world, including Australia and Asia-Pacific. Although Labor’s plans for web filtering were squashed, it’s inevitable that such calls will grow in the coming years, as is already happeningacross the globe. Besides, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are just some of our neighbours that proudly restrict access for their citizens.
Democracies are increasingly being pushed into a pincer move of censorship and surveillance that would be impossible without the co-operation of private firms making billions in profits. The US hires corporations to monitor social media; Israeli-linked companies have been essential in assisting the NSA spying program as well as, in one case, selling Big Brother monitors to Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.
Snowden’s NSA revelations only touched the surface of the deep collaboration between government and outsourcers. US journalist Tim Shorrock estimates that about 70% of America’s intelligence budget is spent on private industry since 9/11. The extent of the NSA’s cyber army is enough, according to a feature in Wired, to “launch devastating cyber attacks”.
Whistle-blowers are an essential part of any democracy, despite the bleating of officials in Canberra, London and Washington. Governments are only outraged when embarassing leaks are finally unveiled; they continually give details to the press that makes them look strong.
The largely supine response of the Australian parliament to the Prism revelations – with opposition spokesman Malcolm Turnbull being a notable exception – proves how far this country is from proudly displaying an independent streak. Global surveillance, along with internet censorship, is a threat to both our personal freedom and ability to communicate openly.
The post 9/11 world has taught us that states exaggerate threats to scare citizens into acquiescence. Multinationals have picked a side and it’s the bottom line. Shining a light on the NSA and its global couriers is a public service that is only opposed by those with a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark.