Late last year I was interviewed from Jerusalem by veteran Australian journalist and campaigner Julie Macken, for her radio program Behind the Headlines, about “fake news” and my experiences as a journalist over the last decade in Israel/Palestine, South Sudan, Afghanistan and beyond. My interview begins around 15:50 (with a few scratchy sound issues via Skype):
The following article by Allison Kaplan Sommer appears in Israeli newspaper Haaretz today (PDF here: bds-ties-could-put-israel-based-australian-journalist-in-hot-water-israel-news-haaretz-com):
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein’s ability to live and work in Israel has been thrown into question due to his support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
The Government Press Office, which issued Loewenstein a press card last March, confirmed to Haaretz that his status as an accredited journalist is “currently under review by the GPO.” GPO director Nitzan Chen said that “As a rule, without a GPO card, and in the absence of a GPO recommendation to the Interior Ministry, a foreign correspondent cannot remain in Israel.”
Doubt was cast on the journalist’s credentials in the aftermath of a question he posed to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at a press conference for foreign correspondents on December 12.
Loewenstein identified himself as a freelance journalist writing for the Guardian, Newsweek and other outlets and challenged Lapid’s statement that Palestinians were to blame for the stalled peace process.
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, there are now 600,00 to 800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal,” he said. He then asked, “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying those things to millions of Palestinians and will there not come a time soon where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during apartheid?”
Lapid shot back that Loewenstein’s question was a “perfect example” of the belief that “we live in a post-truth, post-facts era” and that Loewenstein’s statements were “presumptions, not facts.”
Saying that Israel has accepted and the Palestinians have rejected the two-state solution, Lapid asserted that “the problem is that the Palestinians are encouraged by the Guardian and others saying we don’t need to do anything in order to work for our future because the international community will call Israel an apartheid country. Israel is not an apartheid country, it is a law-abiding democracy.”
The Loewenstein-Lapid exchange caught the eye of right-wing media watchdog and advocacy group, Honest Reporting, whose managing editor Simon Plosker said he was “surprised” to see Loewenstein participating in the event as a journalist. The organization’s blog subsequently published a post “exposing” Loewenstein. It charged that the man who describes himself on his website as a “Middle East based, Australian independent freelance journalist, author, documentarian and blogger” is in fact “a prominent anti-Israel activist in his native Australia and a public supporter of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement.”
The post linked and quoted a 2014 statement of support of BDS by Loewenstein, arguing that such views, stated publicly, as well as his other past activities, should disqualify him from possessing either a GPO card or membership in the Foreign Press Association. Honest Reporting also emailed the Prime Minister’s Office, which runs the GPO, challenging the decision made last March to grant Loewenstein press credentials that allow him to live and work in Israel for a year.
A few days later, a Jerusalem Post article reported that Loewenstein soon “may be forced” to leave the country. The Post article quoted Chen as saying, “We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity. We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff.”
Loewenstein vehemently disputes Chen’s charge that he provided insufficient information during his application process. He claims that when he obtained a GPO press card as a freelancer last March, he fully met the GPO criteria.
“It was a completely transparent process,” he says. “All of my work is online, I didn’t hide anything. I’m a freelance journalist, and all my work is available publicly.” Loewenstein’s articles (including two pieces in Haaretz) are listed and linked on his website.
“Attempts by far-right, extreme lobby groups to delegitimize me are deeply disappointing,” said Loewenstein, adding that they “reflect the increasingly restrictive space for critical voices in Israel and Palestine.”
He has heard nothing from the Government Press Office directly regarding clarification of his application or future status, and says he doesn’t know whether he will be informed of his fate before he attempts to renew his credentials in March, or if they will attempt to take them away earlier.
The press card he received in March essentially qualifies foreign journalists for a B-1 work visa. According to the GPO website, in order to obtain credentials, journalists must prove that their “main profession was in the news media” in the year preceding their application and that they “work for an approved media organization.”
Freelancers, the GPO rules say, “must prove that they arrived in Israel at the request of the media organization, for the performance of services in the field of news media for a period of at least one year and an express and binding work order/contract requesting these services” must be presented to the office.
Loewenstein says the charge that he cannot legitimately call himself a journalist worthy of GPO accreditation is absurd. “I am a journalist, I have been a freelance journalist for over 10 years. I work around the world,” he says.
He is rallying forces behind him to back his case to remain in Israel. A recent statement by the London-based Centre for Investigative Journalism supported Loewenstein, saying that the group was “deeply concerned with media reports from Israel that Antony Loewenstein’s work visa and freelance press credentials will not be renewed when they expire in March next year. In a democracy, critical voices are essential and should be encouraged, it is unacceptable that he may be forced to leave Israel because of his past statements. This is a free speech issue and we remind the Israeli government and its supporters that free speech is a cornerstone of any democracy; threatening to remove it is a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.”
A letter on his behalf from the Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union was sent to the Australian ambassador in Israel, the Israeli ambassador in Australia, and the GPO. Loewenstein said he approached the Australian embassy himself, but reported that he was told by an official there that Australia couldn’t interfere in internal Israeli affairs and would not assist him.
Plosker of Honest Reporting insists that his group’s campaign is not intended to quell free speech in the press and is unrelated to the exchange at the Lapid press conference. He contends that his organization has no issue with “journalists asking difficult questions of Israeli politicians.” It does, however “bother us that a known BDS activist was able to have access to press conferences as a member of the FPA and an accredited journalist with a GPO card.”
He differentiated between Loewenstein from “genuine journalists” who write critically about Israel for foreign outlets like the Guardian and suggested that the GPO’s requirements need to be reexamined.
“We wouldn’t want to see genuine journalists thrown out of the country … but we draw the line at BDS activism. That – BDS – isn’t aimed against government policies, that is something aimed against the state itself.” The BDS movement, he said, represents “an ultimate desire to see the end of Israel.” As such, he said “Israel authorities are under no obligation to actively assist” Loewenstein by giving him “what is effectively a work permit, giving him special access to official events, briefings, field tours.”
Plosker said he regretted the fact that the GPO’s public statement allowed Loewenstein to paint himself as a “martyr” and that it would have been preferable for them to remain quiet until March, and then refuse to renew his credentials.
Meanwhile, the Guardian was rapped by the far-left advocacy website Mondoweiss for “cowardly” distancing itself from Loewenstein. The newspaper’s Head of International News Jamie Wilson told Honest Reporting that “Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor” but that he ‘is not a news correspondent for the Guardian in Israel’.” Honest Reporting also claimed that it was informed that “Loewenstein has now been told to in future make sure he does not reference The Guardian at press conferences unless he is working on a direct commission.”
Loewenstein responded that he had never claimed to be a Guardian correspondent, but pointed out: “I’ve been a regular contributor to the Guardian since 2013, including as a columnist between 2013 and 2016, and have written more than 90 news and opinion pieces for them from Australia, Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Papua New Guinea and many other locations.”
When asked whether he regretted asking the question at the Lapid press conference that triggered the backlash, Loewenstein said. “I don’t regret asking the question, but I am disappointed with the response. It is deeply revealing about present-day Israel that increasingly discourages dissent … Real democracies don’t just tolerate dissent, they encourage it.”
The following statement was released this week by London-based, The Centre for Investigative Journalism, one of Britain’s leading journalism schools. The statement was then tweeted by one of the world’s leading press freedom groups, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):
Thursday 22nd December 2016
The CIJ is deeply concerned with media reports from Israel that Antony Loewenstein’s work visa and freelance press credentials will not be renewed when they expire in March next year.In a democracy, critical voices are essential and should be encouraged, it is unacceptable that he may be forced to leave Israel because of his past statements.
This is a free speech issue and we remind the Israeli government and its supporters that free speech is a cornerstone of any democracy; threatening to remove it is a slippery slope towards authoritarianism.
Loewenstein’s exemplary journalistic record, recognised by leading journalism bodies around the world, deserves to be supported. We hope other organisations dedicated to a free press and the protection of journalists follow suit and make a public statement.
Antony Loewenstein is an internationally recognised, independent journalist who has reported from some of the most challenging places in the world including Afghanistan, Honduras, South Sudan, across the Middle East, Gaza, Palestine/Israel and elsewhere.
He’s been published in the Guardian, New York Times, The Nation, Al Jazeera English and many others. He’s also the author of many books including the best-selling, My Israel Question and his latest book is Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe.
In the last 24 hours the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union, Australia’s leading media union representing the country’s best journalists, (I’ve been a member since 2003/2004), has sent the following letter to the Israeli Ambassador in Australia, the Australian Ambassador in Israel, Dave Sharma, and the Israeli Government Press Office:
His Excellency Shmuel Ben‐Shmuel
Embassy of Israel in Australia
6 Turrana Street
Yarralumla ACT 2600
20 December 2016
Antony Loewenstein is a member of our union and a well known freelance journalist in Australia.
We write to seek your assistance in ensuring he continues to receive appropriate support and accreditation to continue his journalism while in Israel.
We have been concerned by recent reports suggesting the Government Press Office in Israel may be considering either withdrawing or not renewing his accreditation. As an issue of free speech, any assistance you could offer would be greatly appreciated.
Chief Executive Officer
The following article appears in the Electronic Intifada by Ali Abunimah:
Israel is threatening to expel an Australian journalist in Jerusalem, accusing him of being a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The threat against Antony Loewenstein comes after the freelance journalist asked a question about Israeli apartheid at a press conference given by former government minister Yair Lapid, and after a campaign against him by the anti-Palestinian group HonestReporting.
“We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity,” Nitzan Chen, director of the Government Press Office, told The Jerusalem Post. “We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff. We will learn to check better so there won’t be such incidents in the future.”
Speaking to The Electronic Intifada, Loewenstein, who has won recognition for his reporting from South Sudan and Afghanistan, dismissed any suggestion he had misrepresented himself.
“I am an accredited freelance journalist which is how I presented my work to the Israeli government in March, which they accepted,” Loewenstein said. “I’m not here associated with any organization. I’m here as a freelancer, officially, so there’s been no misrepresentation by me, ever.”
The effective threat to expel Loewenstein comes a week after the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that this year Israel remained among the world’s worst jailers of reporters – all of those in its cells are Palestinians.
And earlier this month, Israel detained and expelled Isabel Phiri, associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches, claiming she too supports BDS.
Last week, Israel’s Shin Bet secret police barred entry to two leaders of a British Muslim humanitarian aid group, citing “security reasons.” The two officials from Muslim Hands were invited to the country by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz describes as “a nonprofit group that promotes coexistence, cooperation and equality between Jews and Muslims.”
In August, Israel’s public security and interior ministries set up a joint task force to deny entry to or expel foreign activists allegedly affiliated with organizations that support BDS.
This is part of a broader crackdown, whose primary targets are Palestinians.
On Friday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that it has been receiving a “worryingly high number of complaints” about Israel violating basic rights of Palestinian human rights activists.
It said that human rights defenders living under Israeli occupation “face daily violations of some of the most fundamental protections afforded by international human rights and humanitarian laws.”
The UN said peaceful protest and opposition to the occupation is effectively outlawed.
Loewenstein became a target after he asked a challenging question at a press conference last week to Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party that was formerly part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong, but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation,” Loewenstein began, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Pointing to the large number of Israeli settlers now in the occupied West Bank, Loewenstein continued: “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during apartheid?”
In response, Lapid attacked The Guardian, claiming that it and other publications are encouraging Palestinians to be intransigent.
It called him “an anti-Israel activist” and implied he had obtained his official Israeli press card and membership in the Foreign Press Association under false pretenses.
“Loewenstein is clearly incapable of reporting on Israel in a fair and objective manner,” HonestReporting asserted.
“Did Loewenstein gain his official press card by claiming to be a Guardian writer?” the group asked, effectively making an allegation without any basis.
HonestReporting took its campaign to The Guardian directly, complaining to the newspaper that “hiring Loewenstein was the equivalent of hiring a corporate lobbyist to be the newspaper’s business correspondent.”
This apparently elicited the desired response: The Guardian threw Loewenstein under the bus – presumably without speaking to him first.
According to The Jerusalem Post, The Guardian’s head of international news, Jamie Wilson, said that Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor but he “is not a news correspondent for The Guardian in Israel.”
And The Guardian’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Peter Beaumont, emailed HonestReporting that he had never heard of Loewenstein.
“The Guardian’s distancing itself from Loewenstein is a welcome development,” HonestReporting’s managing editor Simon Plosker said, adding that the Foreign Press Association should revoke Loewenstein’s membership and the Israeli Government Press Office should cancel his accreditation.
Loewenstein told The Electronic Intifada that he identifies himself accurately as a freelancer and author of several books, who contributes to many publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times and Newsweek Middle East.
Loewenstein noted that in the tight-knit world of foreign correspondents in Israel, it would be impossible to get away with misrepresentation: “It’s a pretty small place.”
But the smear did its job and now Loewenstein is a target for government expulsion for asking a challenging question of an Israeli leader.
In February, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned Israel’s intimidation of the international media, including threats to revoke the credentials of reporters who published headlines it didn’t like.
“It is virtually impossible to work as a reporter in Israel and the occupied territories without a press card,” the group’s executive director Robert Mahoney said. “The threat of withdrawing accreditation is a heavy handed approach at stifling unwelcome coverage.”
The following story appears today in Australian online magazine, Crikey, written by Myriam Robin.
One added point; I contacted the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv yesterday to ask for advice on my situation in the hope that they would speak out strongly and publicly in favour of free speech in a self-described “democracy”. I wasn’t expecting much. The official was weak, however, and said that Australia couldn’t interfere in internal Israeli affairs. It was a curious and revealing attitude because embassies constantly get involved in other country’s business. In this case, being a “friend” of Israel means staying silent:
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein could be kicked out of Israel after asking a critical question of a an Israeli politician at a press conference.
Loewenstein, a Jewish Australian critic of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians who works in Israel as a freelance journalist under a press card issued by the Government Press Office, asked the chairman of the secular centrist party Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, how he reconciled his democratic ideals with the treatment of Palestinians:
“There are now 600,000 to 800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal, including your good friends in Amona apparently,” Loewenstein is reported to have said. “Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?”
Lapid responded, according to the Jerusalem Post, by saying Lowenstein’s question was full of bad assumptions an example of “post-truth and post-facts”.
The question triggered an investigation into Loewenstein by Honest Reporting, which has the tagline, “Defending Israel from media bias”. The investigation “exposed” Loewenstein as a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. The movement, which many supporters of Israel say is anti-Semetic, urges consumers and governments to avoid Israeli products in protest of its treatment of Palestinians.
Overnight, the Jerusalem Post carried a report that said the Government Press Office’ director was “leaning against” renewing Loewenstein’s press card. Without it, the report states, he would not be able to remain in Israel.
“We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity,” GPO director Nitzan Chen told the paper. “We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff. We will learn to check better so there won’t be such incidents in the future.”
Loewenstein responded to the report on his website, saying that “truly free nations respect and encourage free speech. They welcome it.” Contacted by Crikey this morning, he added that he’d been in touch with the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv, who were rather unhelpful, telling him the Australian embassy couldn’t intervene in internal Israeli matters.
Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, and a host of other Australian politicians are currently in Israel.
I publish the following story, from today’s Jerusalem Post by Gil Hoffman, with little comment. It speaks for itself and follows last week’s faux controversy over me asking Israeli politician Yair Lapid a question about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
But a few remarks:
- For over a decade, I’ve been an independent journalist and best-selling author who has written for major media outlets from across the world, including the Guardian and New York Times, and I’ve worked and lived as an investigative reporter in some of the toughest places in the world including Afghanistan, South Sudan and Honduras. I’m currently based in Jerusalem as an accredited, freelance journalist – my freelance credentials were accepted by the Israeli Press Office this year as I’m not formally associated with any media group – and have published my work this year in many publications including Newsweek Middle East, the Guardian, The Nation and The National.
- Truly free nations respect and encourage free speech. They welcome it;
- Real democracies value diversity of opinion.
Here’s the story:
A journalist who has allegedly engaged in activity supportive of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement may not be able to remain in Israel, the Government Press Office told The Jerusalem Post exclusively on Sunday.
GPO director Nitzan Chen said he was leaning against renewing the press card of Antony Loewenstein, a Jerusalem- based freelance reporter who writes for The Guardian and other publications. If the card is not renewed when it expires in March, the Interior Ministry will not allow him to remain in Israel.
“We are leaning toward recommending that his work permit not be renewed due to suspected BDS activity,” Chen said. “We are checking the incident because unfortunately, the journalist did not give enough information to our staff. We will learn to check better so there won’t be such incidents in the future.
When told by the Post of the office’s intentions, Loewenstein responded that he had provided all the information required when his application for a press card was assessed last March.
“I didn’t hide anything, and to suggest the card was obtained in any other way is simply untrue,” Loewenstein said. “There was nothing hidden, and the GPO knows that.
There was nothing dishonest about it at all. In a free and open country, free speech is essential, as it is in normal democracies.”
Foreign Press Association chairman Josef Federman, who is the Associated Press’s bureau chief, said, “Mr. Loewenstein was accepted as an associate, nonvoting member of the FPA based on his career as a freelance journalist. While we do not endorse his views, we also do not screen our members for their opinions.”
Loewenstein noticeably directed what was seen as a hostile question toward Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at an FPA event last Monday.
“Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, 10 years, when you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?” he asked.
After the Post wrote about the event, Honest Reporting managing editor Simon Plosker investigated Loewenstein.
“He is a prominent anti-Israel activist in his native Australia and a public supporter of the BDS movement,” Plosker wrote. “His own blog includes a post titled Personally supporting BDS against Israel where he published a statement that he made at a BDS event in Sydney in 2014.”
At the rally, Loewenstein said, “BDS is growing and I’m proud to be part of a global movement that’s led by the Palestinians most directly affected.”
The Guardian distanced itself from Loewenstein. Its Jerusalem correspondent, Peter Beaumont, said he knew nothing about him.
The Guardian’s head of international news, Jamie Wilson, said Loewenstein was contracted to write comment pieces for Guardian Australia and remains an occasional comment contributor but he “is not a news correspondent for the Guardian in Israel.”
According to Honest Reporting, Loewenstein was told by the Guardian not to reference the publication at future press conferences unless he is working on a direct commission.
Lapid praised the GPO’s move. “Freedom of speech and freedom of the media are key in a democracy likes ours, but that doesn’t extend to BDS activists pretending to be journalists,” he said. “It harms Israel and it harms the media. This is another example of the lies of the BDS movement. We have a duty to protect ourselves from people who seek to demonize and delegitimize the State of Israel.”
Yesterday I attended a press conference in Jerusalem with one of Israel’s leading politicians, Yesh Atid leader, Yair Lapid. He’s a serious contender to be the country’s next Prime Minister. Like most politicians in Israel, he hates Palestinians, wants them to disappear and largely refuses to condemn settlers or settlements. Welcome to Israel in 2016.
I asked the following question:
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, there are now 600,00 to 800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal. Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying those things to millions of Palestinians and will there not come a time soon where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?”
This was Lapid’s response (already on his party’s Facebook page, the only response they thought was important enough from the conference to quote in full, and the comments below the video are racist and nutty):
It was a depressing and dishonest answer. Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of journalists in attendance were deferential to Lapid and asked him bland questions. Lapid is a man who proudly talks about building a wall around all Palestinians. Like in so many countries, most reporters rarely challenge establishment power; they’re afraid of losing access.
I was planning on releasing the video of Lapid’s response soon (I hadn’t posted anything online yet about my question and his response) when the Jerusalem Post called me last night and said they were going to run a story about it and would I like to comment? I’m not convinced it’s really a story but many Israelis and its politicians are deeply sensitive to any criticism.
I’ve been writing about Israel and Palestine since 2003, and visiting since 2005 (I now live in Jerusalem), and all that’s worsened is the extremism and vitriol of Israel supporters.
The Post story by Gil Hoffman is below. Note the predictably racist and crazy comments below the article. Soon after this story appeared, I started receiving racist messages from rabid Zionists. It’s a familiar pattern; criticise Israel and its occupation and upset the trolls:
International media outlets like The Guardian are responsible for discouraging the PA leadership from making concessions necessary to end their conflict with Israel, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said Monday in a meeting with the Foreign Press Association at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
Lapid responded to a question that he regarded as hostile from Antony Loewenstein, a Jerusalem-based freelance reporter who writes for the Guardian and other publications.
“You talked before about the idea that since Oslo, Israel has done little or nothing wrong, but the truth is that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the occupation. There are now 600,000-800,000 settlers, all of whom are regarded by international law as illegal, including your good friends in Amona apparently,” Loewenstein’s question began.
“Is there not a deluded idea here that many Israeli politicians, including yourself, continue to believe that one can talk to the world about democracy, freedom and human rights while denying that to millions of Palestinians, and will there not come a time soon, in a year, five years, ten years, where you and other politicians will be treated like South African politicians during Apartheid?” he asked.
Lapid responded by saying that the question was full of errors and calling it the perfect example of how this is an era that is “post-truth and post-facts.”
“It’s a declared policy of Israel that we need to go to a two-state solution and the ones who refused it were the Palestinians,” Lapid said. “The ones who call Jews pigs and monkeys in their school books are the Palestinians. The problem is that the Palestinians are encouraged by the Guardian and others saying we don’t need to do anything in order to work for our future because the international community will call Israel an apartheid country.”
Lapid said that Israel is not an apartheid country but rather a law-abiding democracy, and that unlike the Palestinian leadership, Israel was making sure the Palestinians’ human rights are protected.
“Why don’t you go to the Palestinian Authority or to Gaza and ask them about women’s rights, gay rights, Christian rights,” Lapid told the reporter.
Loewenstein told The Jerusalem Post that he found Lapid’s answer “deeply disappointing and dishonest.” He said Lapid “showed little difference between himself and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and was unwilling to say anything of substance about the current Israeli leadership.”
Responding to another question about his defense of the people of Amona, Lapid said there was a difference between supporting them and showing them empathy.
“Their life’s dream is falling apart, and they’re not the enemy,” he said.
But Lapid told the crowd that he was still planning on voting against the settlements regulation bill, which he said would hurt Israel in the international community and harm the stature of the Supreme Court.
“We can’t allow this in a democratic country,” he said. “It would have a hard time passing, and if it did pass, it would be disqualified by the Supreme Court and rightly so.”
According to one source present at the event, reporters shouted at Lapid for repeatedly refusing to criticize the prime minister, as is his policy when speaking to English-language media. But Reuters bureau chief Luke Baker denied that anyone shouted at him. When asked how he was different from Netanyahu, he said that when it comes to separating from the Palestinians, he “means business.”
“Separating from the Palestinians is essential for Israel’s future, and if I am in a position to do it, I will, because I am a patriot,” he said.
Later, at a meeting of the Yesh Atid faction, Lapid strongly criticized Netanyahu in Hebrew for his initiative to make political appointments easier. He said Netanyahu was not making an effort to help the poor but was instead trying to help his political cronies.
“What should a young person in Kiryat Shmona or Kiryat Gat who studied for a degree think when they find out that what matters to get work is political connections?” Lapid asked. “[Netanyahu] forgot the citizens of the state, because all that matters to our politicians is politics and political patronage positions.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog also criticized Netanyahu in his Zionist Union faction meeting. Referring to an interview the prime minister gave on the American show 60 Minutes, he said he was glad Netanyahu still supports a two-state solution when he is speaking in English.
Herzog’s Zionist Union rival, MK Erel Margalit, slammed him in an Army Radio interview Monday, calling him “not relevant at all” and saying that he is “not the opposition to Netanyahu but his coalition in-waiting.”
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.