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.
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
From its beginning, Israel’s settlement project was shrouded in secrecy. Newly uncovered documents from 1969, two years after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, revealed that the military censor was used to keep documents hidden that proved the establishment of illegal settlements.
After 50 years of occupation, Israel is a radically different country than in the late 1960s. Zionism, with a messianic and nationalist fervour, is in the ascendancy while liberal and more tolerant humanism is dying. Although Israel was celebrated by the global left as a socialist paradise, conveniently ignoring the roughly 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed during its founding in 1948, today’s Israel is entrenched in the belief that Israeli control of Palestinian land and resources is essential for its survival. Palestinians are barely heard in the Israeli media, their voices and views largely invisible. Many in the Israeli left are leaving, disillusioned with their country and its move towards an ethnocracy.
Supporters of the two-state solution are fearful that the occupation is now permanent. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation and yet liberal Zionists are desperate to maintain Jewish privilege. The “Decision at 50” movement is pushing for a referendum – for Israeli citizens only – on the fate of the West Bank. Its website calls on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask Israelis “whether Israel’s vision includes one state between the river and the sea or a two state solution”.
In theory, this sounds like a sensible idea but it’s a deeply flawed proposal. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are given no voice on their own future. After all, they bear the brunt of Israel’s military occupation. Secondly, Israelis have made it abundantly clear, over countless elections, that ever-expanding colonies in the West Bank and regular bombardments of the Gaza Strip are both necessary and morally defensible. World powers, despite occasional complaints, have done nothing to change this view including buying the latest Israeli weapons and technology battle-tested on Palestinians.
Living and travelling around Israel and Palestine, I regularly hear disparaging comments about Arabs by Israeli Jews, unwilling or incapable of imagining them as anything other than a threat to be neutralised and placed behind walls and fences. Palestinians and Israelis have barely any physical contact these days and the majority of Palestinians view Israeli Jews as brutish occupiers who steal their livelihood. They only see them as rampaging settlers or uniformed soldiers.
A recent article in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, revealed the mainstream Israeli mindset. Written by a former settler spokeswoman, Emily Amrousi, she longed for “the day we decided to win”.
“We made the decision to destroy terrorists’ homes with no advance warning”, she wrote. “We deported the families of terrorists. We wrapped the bodies of terrorists in pig skin. ‘They’ve gone crazy,’ everyone said. Yes, we had already gone crazy, when they murdered a young girl in her bed.”
After five decades of occupation, with no end in sight, no interest in establishing a Palestinian state or giving full rights to all Arabs, the international community has a decision to make. It can continue to indulge Israeli policies or take concrete action to change them through severing military or diplomatic connections.
Two-state backers are often called the “peace process industry” because they’ve been making money for decades writing opinion pieces and being hired by politicians to convince sceptics that peace is just around the corner if Palestinians capitulate and Israel removes a few settlements.
There are more than 500,000 settlers living illegally on Palestinian land. Moving them all is an impossibility. Besides, Israel feels no real pressure to do so.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sell themselves as Israel’s best friends but in fact they’re its worst enemies, funding its insatiable appetite for never-ending expansion. With many Middle East states consumed by civil war, freedom for Palestinians is now a fifth tier issue in the diplomatic community.
Could the occupation last another 50 years?
Quite possibly, if Israeli hardliners annex vast swaths of the West Bank, kick out Palestinians by stealth and continue selling to the world the methods, technology and ideology that celebrate the control of a people led by corrupt leaders.
Next year’s occupation anniversary will be marked with global protests, loud voices of opposition and harsh denunciations of Israel. But the occupation is permanent and sustainable unless Israeli Jews are made to pay an economic price for it. Daily life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation is barely discussed in the Israeli media. Colonisation is seen to be almost cost-free. A healthy society would never tolerate millions of people living under military rule.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist in Jerusalem
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
During this month’s Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, commemorating various disasters in Jewish history, thousands of Israelis marched along the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem and called for annexation of the occupied West Bank. Pro-settlement group Women in Green, founded in 1993 and “dedicated to safeguarding our God-given Biblical homeland”, spoke at the rally. Co-founder Yehudit Katsover told the Israeli government to build more settlements and claimed this wasn’t happening “because we’re afraid of pressure from the dwarf Obama … we don’t impose sovereignty because we fear the demographics”.
Other speakers, including Dov Kalmanovich, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, demanded countless more colonies across the West Bank. Former member of parliament Aryeh Eldad, who lives in an illegal settlement himself, told an cheering crowd that, “this curse of Palestine has been chasing us to this day. We must erase the name Palestine from Eretz Israel”.
A prominent member of the Israeli Knesset, Yehuda Glick, said: “We must make clear that all the talk about the chance for a Palestinian state is finished … we will proceed in imposing Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and anyone wishing to live in peace is welcome, and if they don’t we’ll use harsh measures against them.”
It’s easy to dismiss such comments as emerging from a far-right Zionist fringe, disconnected from the Israeli population. Some Israelis would certainly oppose these ideas as antithetical to peace with the Jewish state’s Palestinian neighbours and population. But the Israeli mainstream has moved sharply to the right in the last decade. A poll conducted by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute this year found that 72 per cent of Jewish Israelis did not consider Israeli control over Palestinians as “occupation”.
This profound state of denial is ubiquitous within Israeli society and its largely docile media. Life in the West Bank for Palestinians, let alone Gaza, is rarely examined in the press except in the context of how it impacts the ability of the Israeli Defence Forces to operate with impunity.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza. Today there are more than 400,000 Jewish settlers squatting illegally in the West Bank, with at least 200,000 more in East Jerusalem.
Oxford University scholar Sara Yael Hirschhorn released figures in 2015 that showed about 15 per cent of West Bank settlers, roughly 60,000 people, were American citizens. Dr Hirschhorn told a conference in Jerusalem last year that these people were “young, idealistic, intelligent and seasoned liberal Americans who were Zionist activists, and who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler movement”.
If the majority of Israelis don’t view their policies over the Palestinians as discriminatory and regard it as normal to control countless aspects of daily Palestinian life – from house demolitions to random checkpoints and arresting children in the middle of the night to expropriating Palestinian land for ever-expanding Israeli settlements – it’s important to understand how and why this narrative became so accepted. Israel’s settler movement has operated over five decades with strategic brilliance, occupying senior positions in all levels of the government and military.
I recently travelled around the West Bank, spending time with Israeli settlers and sleeping in their homes. I wanted to understand their world view, from the religious fanatics to the pragmatic occupier who craved cheaper housing (property is far less expensive in the West Bank than in Israel proper). The mood was mostly defiant, nobody feared being evacuated any time soon, if ever, and yet insecurity and arrogance permeated many of my conversations. Some feared an unlikely coalition of local and global journalists, leftists, politicians and NGOs forcing Israel to concede territory and divide the land. To anybody who spends a few hours travelling around the West Bank, however, it is clear that a just two-state solution is no longer possible.
Orthodox Jew Yair Ben-David lives with his family at Kashuela Farms near Gush Etzion settlement. Surrounded by sheep and goats, he told me that”Palestinians know that Israel is the best place to live.
“It’s better than life under Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. Be good and you will get a good situation as a Palestinian.”
Like virtually every settler I met, Mr Ben-David tolerated Palestinians living in a Jewish state but they had to be subservient to Jewish rule.
With such facts on the ground, it seems almost unimaginable that Israel’s occupation will not last for the foreseeable future. There are no serious forces pushing against it (though the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is growing in global strength).
But never-ending colonisation presents practical and moral questions: how to manage millions of disaffected Palestinians? Ethnically cleansing them to neighbouring states is logistically challenging (let alone ethically abhorrent) and yet I’ve long wondered if western and Arab powers would really care apart from issuing stern statements of opposition. They’ve spent decades doing little else.
Israel finds itself in a unique position. Situated in a region where nations are convulsing and disintegrating, the Jewish state advertises itself as an island of stability. Occupation barely bothers any Israelis enough to do anything concrete about it and the Israeli government is packed with politicians who crave annexing the entire West Bank.
In this scenario, Palestinians are trapped between their own corrupt leaders and Israeli intransigence. A third intifada is inevitable.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist in Jerusalem and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe
My interview in US magazine Truthout by Dan Falcone:
Dan Falcone recently interviewed journalist, blogger, filmmaker, activist and author Antony Loewenstein in East Jerusalem via Skype to discuss his current film project, Disaster Capitalism — inspired by his 2015 book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015), as well as a host of domestic and foreign issues impacting the West, the US and the world. In his film project, Loewenstein provides commentary on US involvement and influence in Haiti, Afghanistan, Gaza, Papua New Guinea and beyond. Loewenstein also draws parallels to Brexit and the national election in the US within his own research and work, and explains how those areas are relevant.
Daniel Falcone: I wanted to first ask you about the film that you’re making, Disaster Capitalism. I know that you’ve spoken a lot about the book, about your thesis, about the argument. Could you just tell me something about the film or where you are in the process of the film and what will the film convey differently from the book, if anything?
Antony Loewenstein: I started working on the book about five years ago, and I started working on the film at about the same time, and initially, I was working on my own. I was traveling to some of these places that are featured in the book, and decided I wanted to do a documentary about it. I didn’t know the shape of what that would look like. In 2012, I partnered with a New York-based filmmaker Thor Neureiter, and he and I have been working together ever since. He’s my film partner and we have been to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Haiti, twice each.
They’re featured in the book as well, but the film is different for a few reasons. One obviously touches on similar issues — people making money from misery, corporations, individuals in countries that are poor or developing. But a lot of the money ended up being unaccountable, and many Haitians themselves say to us, in the film, that “We never saw the money.”
We look at, in the film also — as I do in the book — the role of the Clintons, particularly Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Bill Clinton, of course — for those who don’t know Hillary and Bill actually had their honeymoon in Haiti in the mid-1970s. I only mention that because they have expressed a love for Haiti for decades, and what that love has actually meant though is, “I believe that Haiti should be exploited.” Until a few years ago, she was the face of putting in power the last prime minister, Michel Martelly, who was a dictator, essentially. He had no qualifications. He used to be a nightclub singer, and I’m not putting down nightclub singers, but he just had no experience in the political arena. The country, basically, has gone to turmoil since.
So the film shows communities, locally, who are suffering, and Papua New Guinea, in Bougainville, which is a small province or country to the north of Australia, it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, incredibly rich with natural resources, but in reality, like so many countries that are so wealthy, it’s incredibly poor because it’s been exploited by Australian and American and Canadian mineral companies, and Bougainville had a huge copper mine — it was the biggest in the world in the 1970s and ’80s — run by the large mineral company Rio Tinto, [which is in both] Australia and London.
There was a huge civil war over this mine. It was one of the most brutal civil wars in that part of the world, between Australia and Asia Pacific for years, but no one’s ever really heard of it. It’s not particularly known.
Outstanding work, thank you, Antony. In shifting gears a bit but perhaps related, how about the Brexit decision and other European countries that might follow suit. How is that pertinent in the realm of disaster capitalism in your estimation?
I think it’s really relevant. You know, I spend time in my book, not in the film, but in the book Disaster Capitalism, I spent quite a bit of time in the UK and looking at particularly the issue of immigration and how immigration is often being privatized and outsourced. What that means is that a lot of detention centers where immigrants are being imprisoned, essentially, run for profit. I think the Brexit decision was an interesting one.
On the one hand, I think the effect of it is going to be very negative for Britain, but at the same time, I had a great deal of sympathy, from a left-wing perspective of why people wanted to leave. I think the majority of people who wanted to leave and voted to leave were not going from a left-wing position from what I’ve read. What I’ve read and spoken to people is that there was profound degree of unease, concern, about the fact that in the last 30 years — which is something I talk about in my book — the British economy has not benefited the majority of the population, and it’s why then immigration is easily blamed for these problems.
So in line of what you’re saying in terms of Trump versus Clinton, the Trump populism, if you will, or his ethno-nationalism, is gathering support in terms of his foreign policy, where he’s trying to take advantage of this mistrust for neoliberals and institutions, and he’s not giving very constructive answers, and his base is given dangerous points of view to real concerns. Can you comment on this?
I agree, and just to be very, very clear again, this is not at all a robust defense of Donald Trump. He is using a clearly strong sentiment of an aspect of predominantly white Americans who feel totally disenfranchised from the US economy. That view is not illegitimate.
I think the people who support him don’t overly care about the fact that there’s not a great deal of detail behind his policies.
Hillary Clinton, to me, is a dangerous demagogue who also has learned nothing from history whatsoever and has made so many bad decisions on Iraq, on Libya, on many other cases. I’m not suggesting that someone like Trump would be better.
Clearly, I think it’d be wonderful that there’s a female president, yes, but surely that’s not the only important issue. How does she see women in Afghanistan? Does she think that Muslim women should be bombed in various Muslim countries? Yes, she does. That’s a less than feminist position.
They’re not leaving us with very good choices in the US; often the case.
Agreed. And if I was American, and I’m not for a second telling you how Americans should vote, I think, at the moment, I would probably vote for someone like Jill Stein who’s of the Green Party, who from what I read, has very interesting policies. They’re progressive.
When looking at a region like Gaza, how can disaster capitalism be pertinent in the Middle East and especially in terms of our relationship with Israel? For example, it seems like a lot of your work — I know you touch on warfare and the consequences of militarism, but it sounds like — what it reads to me as anyway — is your critique of imperialism and resource wars in addition to how we sponsor terrorism or military campaigns across the world, but how about specifically Gaza? Is the west essentially destroying that place only to build it back up and destroy it again and other regions that support the occupation?
The situation in Gaza is incredibly desperate. I have not been there for a few years. I was last there in 2009. I’m now based in East Jerusalem. Gaza is really almost the perfect example of the tacit failure of Israeli and US policy towards Palestinians — that there really is no great desire to resolve this issue. What I mean by that is, the circle status quo that exists between Israel and Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, is Israel doesn’t actually have a great desire to overthrow Hamas. They could overthrow Hamas in a day.
So Israel essentially believes, and the US gives uncontrolled and unlimited amounts of military support, which I might add has increased under Obama. This idea, somehow, that many in the Zionist community argue that Obama has been the worst president for Israel and a disaster, it’s a complete lie. The fact that settlements on the West Bank have no impact on the financial support that Israel has received.
The occupation is going to be 50 years old in 2017, next year. That’s in the West Bank. In Gaza, Israel in theory disengaged in 2005. As I said before, they still control the land, sea and air borders, which was always done in an incredibly bad and poor way, barely touches the surfaces of what Gaza needs.
It’s like an open-air prison. The border with Egypt is sealed virtually 99 percent of the time. The border with Israel is also mostly sealed. Very few Gazans can get in and out. So the effect that Israel, and with US and Western support, is backing, and funding and arming a permanent open-air prison, for no real strategic benefit, let alone humanitarian relief. It really depends how one views the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A lot of the Americans, when they watch the news media coverage of the Middle East, and they’re presented with a sampling — don’t really have an understanding of who the Palestinians are. They don’t know much about the Palestinians, but they see, I think, isolated acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers, and it’s a separate point to Israel “mowing the lawn,” or barricading a place like Hebron, the city that they recently did indeed block off. In other words, separate from the Israeli policy, there seems to be this marriage between what Israel does as justified because they are on the receiving end of Palestinian terrorism.
And people aren’t really able to distill the fact that Israel policy is going to carry on no matter what happens, whether there’s a stabbing, a kidnapping, an explosion, etc. People are correlating Israeli policy with actions of people on the other end of this for years. This isn’t just a media culture, but it’s in the educational system, higher education and people that study international relations. What do you think about the corporate media structure and how it delivers this picture to American society from the standpoint of what’s happening to the Palestinians?
Well, certainly, 9/11 has made this far worse, and even before then, but certainly become a lot worse since 9/11 in your country. The framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict is usually like this: Israel is defending itself. Israel was sort of sitting here minding its own business. Palestinians are aggressive. They’re angry. They’re stabbing us. They’re killing us. They’re blowing up buses in Tel Aviv. They hate us because we’re free, because we’re Jews, because we’re a democracy, whatever it may be.
That’s a fundamentally wrong and racist view. There’s no doubt that there is Palestinian violence against Israel. Yes, it happens. There are — not so much these days, but there have been suicide bombings and stabbings, and any attack, to me, against civilians is fundamentally wrong, and should stop. There’s an occupation that is happening. I’m living here in East Jerusalem. It’s happening right here, and it’s happening right down the road.
So in Israel the rhetoric — and in the US too is — Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-qaeda are all the same thing. They’re framed in all the same way, so when there’s, for example, a beheading of a journalist in Syria, or Iraq, by ISIS the last couple of years, many in the Israeli political elite and the media automatically tie that, and they say, “You see. The Arabs, they’re crazy.”
We’re still at a stage, in 2016, where we’re actually — are we not accepting it’s an occupation? Are we saying that it’s not permanent? Fifty years is permanent.
What are your thoughts on something like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) or the impact of the lobby? A lot of the criticism of Israel that I read shows the left sort of having these divisions within the progressive side in terms of criticizing the United States’ support of Israel and the occupation. How influential is the lobby? Are we more concerned with government decisions, media structures, or is the lobby the influential interest group? I see differences of opinion in terms of what question should we be asking and where do we apply a critical focus.
Also, in BDS, there’s a disagreement there too. How pertinent is BDS? Is that the most constructive response? I just see members of the left wing that are — I wouldn’t say feuding, but they disagree on the effectiveness of BDS, where do you come down on this?
Okay, two points there. There’s no doubt the Israel lobby is influential. It has power. AIPAC, which is America’s largest Israel lobby, at its conference a few months ago, and you see it’s powered by the people that are speaking there, which is pretty much all the top political leaders on the Democratic and Republican side, hundreds of Senators come, thousands of delegates, Jews and non-Jews, mostly Jews, but others too. They have influence. They have power. There’s no question about that. They push a very hardline position.
There are small groups. The group Jewish Voice for Peace is one that I have a lot of time for. They’re a lobby group of sorts. They’re liberal Jews. They’re based around the US. They have, I think, about 100,000 people signed up. They speak out very forcefully about occupation.
Let’s not forget, BDS was established, officially, in 2005 by Palestinian Civil Society, essentially saying to the world, “We’re living here under occupation. We’re asking you to please help us by not supporting any institution within Israel. That could be cultural. That could be academic.”
I think there is a desperate attempt now, in the US, to make BDS illegal. I don’t think we’re that far away from a very important test case that I suspect will go to the Supreme Court.
We’re talking about criticizing a policy which demonizes Palestinians for over half a century. Within Israel itself, BDS is not supported by the majority of Israel Jews. There’s no question about that.
Thank you, very much.
I’m now based in East Jerusalem as a freelance journalist and I was thrilled to recently secure the cover story in Newsweek Middle East (15 June edition) on Israel’s settler movement (+ here are my photos from the assignment):
Har Bracha vineyard is a Jewish business situated near Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Established in 2004, its location offers spectacular views. With an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jeep parked outside, owner Nir Lavi recently told me that he was proud of his livelihood cultivating grapes, because it proved that anti-Semitism would always fail.
“European anti-Semitism never dies,” he said. “Boycotts against us [Israel] show this.” He sells most of his products to Israelis and Jewish communities in the United States, “who have Shomron [greater Israel] in their hearts.” In response to growing global and local moves to boycott products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, Lavi opened a shop in Tel Aviv this year. He aimed to convince Israelis that the West Bank was a place of safety and legitimacy.
Last week marked the 49th year of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In 1967 Israel seized what is now termed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in an act of war. Soon after this war, illegal settlements—Israeli communities built on occupied ground—began to take shape, and some 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home to roughly 5000 settlers. During this period, settlements were mostly in the Jordan Valley and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, under a more right-wing Israeli government, that they began to expand in the West Bank. Now, nearly 700,000 settlers live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
On a daily basis, and in contravention of international law, Israel confiscates land and constructs settlements that run deep into Palestinian territory. Worse still, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other civilian structures, forcibly displaces and transfers Palestinian civilians and exploits the natural resources of the Palestinian land. Despite the widespread condemnations and calls for cessation, Israel continues its actions with impunity. The persistent confiscation of land, water, and other natural resources also violates The Hague Regulations of 1907, which prohibit an occupying power from expropriating the resources of occupied territory for its own benefit.
Earlier this year, U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro sparked unease when he noted that Israeli settlements have expanded; Israeli vigilantes murder Palestinians without fear of investigation or reprisal; and, in the occupied, Palestinian areas, Israelis enjoy civilian legal protections while Palestinians live under military rule.
Lavi told U.S. Jewish publication, The Algemeiner, in January that the aim of his shop was, “to show sympathy and patriotism at this time, and to connect to our fellow Israelis. We don’t mind where they come from, what their background is, or what’s their political agenda. We want us to be united.”
Har Bracha employee Alice Zeeman, a religious settler with seven children who was born in Germany and converted to Judaism in her teens, told me that the facility opened 20 years ago because “there was a prophecy.” After being evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, along with thousands of settlers in Gaza during the so-called “disengagement,” Zeeman was unequivocal about her Arab neighbours. “I shout at Arabs [because they kill Jews],” she said. “I don’t call them Palestinians. They’re our enemy. We cannot employ the Arabs here. In the vineyard, only Jews work. I don’t want to see Arabs dead but I just want them to live somewhere else in the Arab world. They can only live here if they accept Jewish rule. It’s in the Bible.”
Wearing a red headscarf and speaking with a slight German accent, Zeeman explained that one of her life missions was to have a large family. “I never listen to the news. I just keep on having children. One of the most important products of the settlements are children.” She disagreed with the idea of Arabs either working with her or building settlements. A common sight across the West Bank is Palestinians constructing Israeli homes, because they have few other job opportunities due to high unemployment and a traditional farming economy that has been crushed by the Israeli occupation. “Settlements should just be built by Jews,” Zeeman said. It was a view echoed by Lavi. “We only want to have Israelis build our community,” he said.
This is a story of how the settlers won. After nearly 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, its proponents have placed themselves in all levels of the Israeli state, guaranteeing institutional support for the continued expansion of settlements across the West Bank. It has rendered impossible any contiguous Palestinian state, the clear aim of the settlers and their enablers from the beginning. The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever possible.
I recently spent time traveling across the West Bank in the searing June heat talking to settlers, sleeping overnight in their houses and engaging on politics, daily life and Palestinians. I was given a unique insight into communities that mostly appear in the media as cartoon character extremists, blind ideologues or those seeking cheap housing (Israel encourages people to move to the West Bank by providing huge financial incentives and inexpensive accommodation). I witnessed all three, but also found people defiant in their beliefs, angered by what they perceived was global opposition to their lives fueled by anti-Semitism and confident that they were unlikely to be forced to leave their homes in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Jewish supremacy, the belief that Jews have the God-given right to control all the land in Israel and Palestine and the Arabs must submit to it, was ubiquitous throughout my travels. Paternalism merged with capitalism. Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the West Bank Barkan industrial park, told me that he hired 50 Palestinian workers because he gave “people hope. I need Palestinians and they need me.” He said that Europeans wanted to boycott his products and label them but today he was still able to sell freely across Europe.
There are around 1,000 Israeli companies operating in over a dozen industrial zones in the West Bank and about 25,000 Palestinians working in these facilities, usually making more money than if they were employed by Palestinian firms. Many Palestinian workers and unions oppose these jobs because they normalize the occupation and do nothing to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January criticizing Israeli discrimination for “entrenching a system that contributes to the impoverishment of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank while directly benefitting settlement businesses, making Palestinians’ desperate need for jobs a poor basis to justify continued complicity in that discrimination.”
“Europeans wanted to boycott my products,” Cohen said, “but they have a brain and see that I’m part of the solution and not the problem for the conflict.” One of his Palestinian workers, Abel, argued that, “if Europeans boycott us, it affects our livelihoods. We should bring Arab students here to see how co-existence is possible.” It was impossible to know if these were his real views—because his boss was standing beside him when he spoke.
In the company staff room, Cohen showed me a pin-board full of photographs where he said he took his Palestinian and Jewish employees on short holidays. He wasn’t overly worried about growing boycott threats against his factory from around the world because, as he told The Times of Israel in 2014, “If we let them [the Europeans] profit, in the end they’ll invest. The Europeans know one thing: Israel treats them well.”
At a briefing by the Shomron Regional Council, one of the largest in the West Bank, travel guide Boaz Haetzni proudly said that there were now roughly 430,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and appropriately 250,000 in East Jerusalem. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. “Settlements have negative connotations so we use the terms ‘towns’ and ‘villages’,” he said.
Haetzni was frustrated that Israeli outposts in the West Bank, mostly considered illegal even under Israeli law, “were not authorized because of American pressure. We live in an economically viable area but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to disturb this growth. Our area is the solution to Israel’s housing crisis but authorities are trying to stop us.” He attacked President Barack Obama for placing unfair restrictions on Israeli expansion and alleged that Netanyahu publicly praised the settlements—but in private instructed his officials to contain any new construction in the occupied territories.
Haetzni acknowledged that Arab residents lived in “parallel land and systems under a different economic system and often on different roads.” This form of racial and economic discrimination is why many critics of Israel compare it to apartheid South Africa. It’s also why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is rising in popularity across the world, especially on British and American campuses. A recent survey by Ipsos global market research found that one third of Americans and 40 percent of Britons backed a boycott of Israel, but problematically, many still viewed the tactic as anti-Semitic.
Over dips, vegetables and fresh bread, Haetnzi stated that the nearby Barkan industrial park was “the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are in peace—but we have still been boycotted by the Europeans and Palestinian Authority.” Like many settlers I met, Haetzni was obsessed with Jewish and Arab birthrates, proudly explaining that Jewish birthrates were soaring and could comfortably maintain a majority over Arabs in the West Bank for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics disagrees, having issued a report this year that found the number of Jews in Israel would equal the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories by the end of 2017.
It’s unsurprising that most settlers have no interest in leaving. They occupy some of the most fertile and beautiful parts of the West Bank. At the “Israel Lookout” in the Peduel settlement, the striking green and brown horizon included Tel Aviv through a heat haze and Ben Gurion International Airport. A young settler man serenaded his girlfriend with a guitar while sitting in a solitary wooden seat overlooking the view. The scene was tranquil and yet something was missing; Arabs were nowhere to be seen or heard. My guide Yehoshua Carmel, a friendly 30-year-old man born and living in Elkana settlement, acknowledged that it was “not normal to have Israeli soldiers around us all the time [for security]. I don’t want to live like this but it’s the only solution for now. If the IDF leaves here, it means that the government doesn’t want me to stay in this area. I would be very sad.”
I asked Carmel about settler violence against Palestinians, a constant threat and reality against Arab lives, farms and equipment, but he denied it was a problem and claimed the majority of attacks in the West Bank were by Arabs against Jews. “Maybe there are 50 fundamentalist Jews who want to use violence but most of us oppose violence,” he said. In July 2015, Palestinians in the village of Duma were firebombed by Jewish settlers and three members of the Dawabsheh family died including their 18-month old baby, Ali. Carmel questioned whether Jews could have committed such a grievous act. “It’s the wish of many around the world that the Duma murderers are Jewish,” he said. “It’s not terrorism if Jews did it; it’s murder. I won’t put the same terror label against Jews and Arabs. I’m religious and Duma was terrible. I’m praying it’s not Jews who did it.”
Israel’s settler movement has succeeded brilliantly in realizing its goals since 1967 due to a number of complimentary factors including decades-long persistence, Israel’s growing rightward shift, widespread distrust and contempt for Arabs and international support and complicity. The Jewish State’s backing of colonizing the West Bank has been prohibitively expensive, however. It was estimated by Israeli experts in 2007 to have cost US$50 billion since 1967 including security and civilian expenses.
Israel’s army has around 176,000 active duty soldiers and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has calculated that it takes nearly 100,000 soldiers to keep the West Bank under Israeli control. US$600 million is required to maintain the occupation every year. The World Bank says that the Palestinian economy loses US$3.4 billion a year due to Israel’s discriminatory practices.
After nearly five decades of settlement expansion, reversing the trend is currently impossible. Although American and European governments often issue stern criticisms of Israel when new settlements are announced, there’s no economic incentive or punishment for Israel to end the addiction to expanding its territory. According to a new report by the non-profit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Israel has destroyed US$74 million worth of European Union projects in Palestinian territory in 2016, but the Jewish state has received no more than a public rebuke. U.S. President Barack Obama was condemned throughout my travels across the West Bank as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, but his time in office has seen the greatest financial support for the Jewish state in the country’s history.
Yet another failed peace initiative was recently pushed by France. A meeting was held in Paris that resulted in a bland statement with vague intentions to pursue an international conference before the end of the year, and Israel dismissed it entirely. The Palestinian Authority, a corrupt and un-elected body residing in Ramallah that faces increasing opposition from its own people for decades of mismanagement and failure, welcomed the initiative but has no power to encourage it. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that faces a strangulating blockade from Israel and Egypt, are determined to hold onto power and avoid another devastating military conflict with Israel.
With Daesh, Syria, Libya and Iraq weighing the region down into protracted conflicts, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the key Middle East issue to be resolved. The ‘peace-process’ is dead, and Israel’s settler movement has capitalised on its demise; Netanyahu’s government has pro-settler politicians at every level including the recently appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
When resigning Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned in May of “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society,” his message was decades too late. Thousands of Israelis converged at a Tel Aviv rally in April to support a solider who had executed an injured Palestinian in Hebron and the mood of the crowd was extreme, with one sign copying the Nazi SS slogan, “My honour is loyalty.” Also attending were members of Jewish supremacist group El Yahud who often attack Palestinians and leftist Israelis.
This wasn’t a fringe crowd but accurately representative of Israel’s body politic in 2016 with prominent politicians attending the event, including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party. A headline in Israeli daily Haaretz recently read: “Neo-fascists Threaten the West. In Israel They’ve Already Arrived.”
The settlers are equally mainstream and cannot be dismissed as minor players. Supporters recently released a guide book for tourists, “Yesha is Fun: The Good Life Guide to Judea and Samaria” [Biblical names for the West Bank] that pushes a “new and unique type of boutique tourism…tens of years after the return of the People of Israel to the land of our forebears”. Israel’s Civil Administration, tasked with managing the West Bank, were recently exposed by Haaretz for secretly re-mapping large sections of the West Bank in attempts to massively expand settlements. Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, announced in late May that it would no longer file complaints to the IDF and Israeli police about Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, citing poor or non-existent investigations by Israeli authorities.
Although there are small moves within Israel to find possible solutions to the conflict—“Two States One Homeland,” a new, small group including left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and settlers, advocates two sovereign states with open borders—the general Israeli mood is one of defiance, and an acceptance of the status-quo. It’s why the settler movement is so comfortable with its position and has few fears for its future. A 2016 poll by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Israeli control over Palestinians was occupation.
It was a hot June afternoon when I reached Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements. Located near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I drove down a dirt track to find two Jewish families living in basic conditions in a partially cleared forest, with a simple campsite and two tipis for visitors. A website advertising the location said that, “putting it mildly, the Arab villagers in the area do not ‘like’ the presence of the farm. Hence there is round-the-clock security.” Herds of goats and sheep lived in large enclosures and I arrived to find a British, Jewish woman and her three children, all living in a nearby settlement, buying a few chickens as pets.
It was a peaceful environment. Head farmer Yair Ben-David, 38-years-old with four children, told me that he had moved to the area four years ago because the Israeli government only wanted Jews to protect the 2,000 donums of land. After the Jewish National Fund and mayor of Gush Etzion provided initial assistance to secure Jewish hold on the territory, Ben-David started developing the site. “It’s Jewish land,” he said. “Even if Palestinians have ancestors here, they don’t have a 2,000-year connection like us.” He was friendly with only one Arab man who lived in an adjacent village. “Sometimes it’s better to have no relationship [with Arabs] than a bad relationship,” he said. “Arabs know that Israel is the best place to live [in the Middle East].”
I joined Ben-David’s family and his related neighbours for a Sabbath meal inside a house made secure with water pipes and plastic sheeting. Hebrew blessings were given over the bread and the food consisted of salads, roasted chicken and vegetables, Shepherd’s pie, beans and quinoa. The children ate and then ran around the room, rendered freezing after the blaring air-conditioning could not be switched off during the Sabbath. Ben-David had timers to control the lights and hot plate for food, because he was religiously unable to do it during the Sabbath.
During the meal, we discussed relationships, the 2005 Gaza disengagement (“one of the saddest days in Israeli history,” one said), successive Gaza wars (I was told that the Israeli military was too cautious and overly worried about civilian casualties) and the boycott movement against Israel (it could only be explained as anti-Semitism, Ben-David said). The atmosphere was friendly and I sensed they welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics with somebody whose views opposed theirs.
After sleeping in a tipi, the following morning I accompanied Ben-David and two of his children to the gated outpost of Gevaot on a nearby hilltop to attend Sabbath prayers. It was held in a modern synagogue overlooking a playground paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey. A highly controversial outpost, in 2014 the Israeli government appropriated large tracts of private Palestinian land and illegally redefined it as Israeli state land. Today it houses around 35 families. Many of the residents were with special needs, including Down’s syndrome, and some of these men contributed to the gender-separated, morning prayers. A civilian, Jewish guard with a machine gun walked in and placed his weapon beneath him while he prayed. After the service, I saw four IDF soldiers relaxing near a settler home, playing with their caged animals, and enjoying ice-creams given to them by a settler woman.
The settlers have created an armed, garrison state with a frontier mentality. Defiant in their belief that God gave Jews the land and Arabs must submit to their rule or leave, their success over five decades of expansion is clear. Funded, insulated, protected and armed by the Israeli state, Israel’s present and future is being written by them. It’s a vision that guarantees ongoing racial tensions and Palestinian dispossession. The international community has known this for decades and done virtually nothing to stop it.
Australian Zionist lobby group AIJAC have been attacking me for over a decade for daring to challenge the Israeli occupation of Palestine and questioning their blind and obedient support for Israeli violence. Years ago they consistently tried to bully editors and publishers against publishing my work. It was a spectacular failure.
The pro-occupation organisation is increasingly marginalised in the public domain, along with public opinion, but this doesn’t stop them remaining loyal subjects of the Zionist state.
AIJAC’s latest attack emerged after my recent interview on ABC Adelaide in Australia about Israel/Palestine. Filled with factual errors, it’s worth quoting in full to show a sad demonstration of media monitoring in the age of Zionist desperation:
An unedifying love-in on ABC Radio 891 “Adelaide Evenings” (March 21) saw Peter Goers interviewing anti-Zionist activist and author Antony Loewenstein, who trotted out a litany of the sort of erroneous claims on which he has managed to build a career.
The mood was set from the outset with Goers introducing his guest saying, “I once wrote something that pleased Anthony Lowenstein and that pleased me very much.”
Loewenstein claimed, “Israel is the ultimate example of a country that plays by its own rules,” accusing it of ignoring “countless rulings in the International Criminal Court [ICC], every human rights group in the world – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN and others.”
There have been no such ICC rulings, which has never taken a case on Israel. Loewenstein perhaps means the 2004 International Court of Justice’s non-binding opinion on the legality of the security fence. If so, apparently one ruling becomes “countless rulings” in Loewenstein’s rhetoric.
Not content to miss out on the chance to also talk nonsense, Goers chimed in that the security fence is “750 kilometres of an eight-metre high concrete wall. Imagine if you woke up dear listener tomorrow and there was an eight-metre high concrete wall on your fence line, so your driveway and front door is now useless. This is… the conditions under which many thousands of people are living.” Loewenstein said it affected “millions in fact”.
“In fact” only 3 percent of the fence is concrete and it mostly runs along the Green Line demarcating the 1949 armistice lines. The concrete sections were determined by the incidence of Palestinian sniper fire during the Second Intifada. In most places it is made of wire with electronic sensors detecting potential infiltrators. It certainly does not leave “thousands” of people with their driveways and front doors cut off, nor does it directly affect “millions” unless your argument is that it affects every Palestinian in the West Bank. And it has unquestionably reduced terror attacks dramatically.
Loewenstein, who is currently based in east Jerusalem, was asked if he will “get into trouble because of your views in Israel?”
He responded, “Weeellll, I probably would”.
Israel is a democracy that supports free speech and activists there say even more extreme things than Loewenstein but do not get deported or arrested unless they are involved in criminal activity. From this he segued into a half-lucid, largely non-factual summary of the debate in Israel over how to respond to NGOs like Breaking the Silence which releases anonymous testimony of former soldiers, often offering scant detail and exaggerated claims to malign the IDF for political purposes.
The debate in Israel is over mere disclosure of the funding NGOs receive from foreign governments. Many NGOs support a one-state solution and the BDS movement, and receive most of their funding from European countries that supposedly oppose both.
Loewenstein tried to spin this debate as an attempt to “to shut down dissenting Jewish groups within Israel,” adding “I think you have a serious question about how you see democracy, if at all.”
A man who died too young. John Kaye was a New South Wales Greens MP and friend. I was asked to comment about him by Wendy Bacon in online magazine New Matilda:
“John was a friend, a trusted, funny, witty and principled man who also happened to be a politician. It’s hard to find that combination especially in an age of opportunistic political leadership. I fondly remember visiting John at his parliament house office over the years to discuss any number of issues. We never had a particular reason to meet except to share ideas, thoughts, and a laugh. Like me, he was appalled at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and wasn’t afraid to say so. His Judaism didn’t become blind tribalism for the Zionist cause, like for so many Jews.
“He was a politician in New South Wales, and cared deeply about the marginalised and less fortunate in our society, but he knew and understood issues far beyond Australian borders. Since the news of John’s passing, I’ve looked over our email correspondence and it’s filled with humour and affectionate mocking of Judaism and its traditions, passion for human rights and no tolerance for bigotry (from Christians, Jews or anybody else).
“During our dinners and lunches together (often with his partner, Lynne), John would regale me with news and gossip from inside the political beltway and we would laugh at the absurdity of it all, realising that a life in politics should be more than allegiance to dogma. I will miss his wit and dedication and know that Australia is much poorer without his fire and commitment. In my thoughts, John.”
My feature in US magazine Mondoweiss:
Palestinians in Jerusalem, and the state of the city itself, are routinely ignored in much international press coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While the rise in Jewish, religious fundamentalism is central to understanding the current state of Israel – a recent Reuters report on religious Zionism within governmental and military ranks provided a cogent explanation of Israel’s far-right, nationalistic turn – Jerusalem is a city increasingly turning against its Arab population.
Grassroots Jerusalem is an organization dedicated to challenging this situation.
Grassroots Jerusalem’s website is an online platform with partners from 80 community groups in 40 Palestinian communities of Jerusalem. A mapping section online is a unique tool to provide the Palestinian narrative routinely lost in mainstream Israeli society. Grassroots Jerusalem criticises the ways in which, “the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) designs and provides a variety of maps to International Non-Governmental Organizations. The UNOCHA maps leave the West side of Occupied Jerusalem blank and unrepresented and do not display the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages displaced during the Nakba of 1948 nor the Israeli colonies which replaced them.”
2016 is a time where the Arabic language is increasingly marginalized within Israeli life, leaving the roughly 20 percent of Palestinians within Israel excluded. Israel is destroying Palestinian homes and buildings in partially annexed Jerusalem. The Palestinian village of Kafr Walaja was targeted this month. A recent Haaretz report about the demolitions didn’t mention why such actions are now commonplace. +972 Magazine explained:
“Hundreds of people have lost their homes and entire communities are in danger of expulsion. Settler groups such as Regavim [run by Australian-Israeli Ari Briggs], along with people such as MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) have been putting pressure on the authorities to carry out the demolitions, whose entire purpose is to expel Palestinians from Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli civil and military control. The Jewish Home party’s formal plan is to annex Area C to Israel, leaving the rest of the Palestinians imprisoned in Areas A and B.”
One of the most insidious modes of disenfranchising Palestinians from their own territory is the Israeli use of alleged “breach of allegiance” to the Jewish state. A deliberate policy of forced displacement, Israeli officials have instituted a number of ways Palestinians can be slowly but surely reduced numerically to maintain a large Jewish majority. Munir Nuseibah, human rights lawyer and academic based in Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, recently wrote in Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, about the history of these policies and why they should be resisted:
“It is no longer enough for a Palestinian Jerusalemite to be actually living in Jerusalem and to maintain his/her center of life in the city. Palestinian Jerusalemites are now expected to commit to the new undefined criterion of ‘allegiance.’ The Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, which is based in Jerusalem, has challenged this new policy in the Israeli Supreme Court. However, the Court has not yet decided the case. Similarly, the case of the four Palestinian political leaders whose residency was revoked in 2006 is still pending.
“No one knows yet how many residencies have been revoked according to the relatively new criterion of “allegiance,” but at least a few more cases are pending in the Supreme Court. HaMoked has made an application based on the freedom of information act to force the Ministry of Interior reveal this information. It is worth noting that international humanitarian law forbids the expectation of allegiance from a population under occupation.”
Based in a small East Jerusalem office, and currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000, which aims to allow them to become independent of foreign funding sources.
The group is deeply critical of how “international aid usually comes with a price: donors dictate their own agendas and ignore the voices of the people. They also perpetuate the need for aid by implementing unsustainable projects and perpetuate the occupation by treating it as a humanitarian crisis and not a political one.”
“This cycle has created an ‘INGO industrial complex’ that has become a rampant problem in the global South. The humanitarian approach keeps Palestinian civil society and grassroots leadership on short term funding cycles, fragmented programs with no coordinated vision that are authorized by international staff who are neither elected nor permanent residents of the city. The INGOisation of the occupation unintentionally draws the attention away from the real problem (occupation!) with increasingly privatized systems. It should be called what it is in the bigger picture: benevolent colonialism.”
The raised money will contribute to training more Jerusalemite guides for tours of the city and an updated edition of the Wujood (“Existence/Presence”) guidebook to Jerusalem. I have a copy of this fascinating book, partly funded by the European Union, which features nearly 150 pages of information about the city’s history, culture and logistics. Grassroots Jerusalem is also committed to publishing a Jerusalem atlas of maps.
I recently sat down and spoke to two of the group’s leaders, Amany Khalifa and Fayrouz Sharqawi, to discuss Grassroots Jerusalem, fighting Israeli occupation, media misrepresentation of Palestinians and foreign funding:
Fayrouz: “We currently have no donors. We had an EU grant 2011-2014 and they wanted to give us more money but we refused. They wanted partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian groups and we’re against normalisation. We rejected the money which is rare here. The US, EU and UN all give out so much money but what are they really achieving? Grassroots funding is to be independent. Ideology is dictated by foreign agencies. The hierarchy is very up down and not down up. It’s short-term funding, project based and against long-term strategy. We’re trying to build a model for other Palestinian groups. We’re aiming to raise $100k through the crowd-funding campaign.
We run Palestinian political tours around Jerusalem, mostly in English but also in Arabic including inside 1948 Palestine. We’re also aiming to reach Palestinians who don’t know their own history. We want to show the many Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and support them. We want to take tours behind the [separation] wall, which is difficult now due to logistics and time, such as Abu Dis and Shuafat refugee camp.
Amany: Whenever there’s a stabbing [in Jerusalem], the media focuses on this and not about the daily, non-violent resistance by Palestinians from local councils to other local groups in Jerusalem. We want to show the world the real Jerusalem, not just Via Dolorosa.
In the Old City, there are mostly only Jewish sites (a recent Haaretz article explained) and few Muslim ones on maps. The Judaization of Jerusalem continues. People don’t know that East and West Jerusalem are false divides. It’s not like the Berlin Wall here. Israel has drawn rules that make Jerusalem indivisible.
Fayrouz: I have to explain my right to exist even before Israel exists. I have to justify my experience in Palestine. I get asked [by journalists] why I don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. I hate this game. In the US, people pick between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, different narratives. Same here in Palestine. We have many people and journalists ask if this is a 3rd intifada. We get asked this all the time. Mainstream journalists ask about Palestinian violence.
Israeli policy is maintaining a 70% Jewish demographic balance with 30% Palestinian. This is the long-term Israeli strategy. We are fighting Israeli propaganda globally. Many journalists have Israeli type questions in their minds.
Amany: We have a right to resist Israeli occupation. We are hopeful. It’s not our right to judge Palestinian resistance. Resistance can’t go by the book. The last Israeli war with Hamas showed Hamas digging tunnels under Israel into a kindergarten and choosing not to attack, focusing on military targets. I call it the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] not IDF. I went to Hebrew University, it’s a military factory, production of militarised society. There has been Palestinian resistance since the occupation of 1948. In the 1970s, planes were hijacked to raise the Palestinian cause. It’s ridiculous when the Palestinian Authority talks about co-existing with Israel.
We think international aid and money to Palestinians should stop. 70 years of occupation, the international community spiting in our faces and they want us to maintain the status-quo.
Fayrouz: The Palestinian Authority is the number one traitor, collaborator. [President Mahmoud] Abbas speaks against the will of the people, saying he wants peace. Abbas is worse than the Israeli government. PA has been critical post the Oslo peace agreement; Israel couldn’t control the West Bank without the PA.
Palestinians want to live. We want to liberate ourselves. We were hopeful during Oslo.
Yasser Arafat was a leader, a hero pre Oslo, but he brought catastrophe upon us [accepting the Oslo agreement]. He had no choice, his arm was twisted. Who forced Arafat into this situation?
Amany: The international community means governments influenced by multinational corporations.
We grew up to admire [Palestinian freedom fighter] Leila Khaled but now she supports the Assad regime. I can’t accept that.
Fayrouz: Everybody has a say over Jerusalem except Palestinians. No Palestinian leadership. PA is a failure, with no presence in Jerusalem, and development is decided by outside forces who are unelected. There are almost 400,000 Palestinians who have no real say. Our role is to collect Palestinian voices and amplify them. Our role is to network between Palestinian groups, to find almost one voice to speak to journalists about Palestinians.
Amany: “Peace-building” came with Oslo while the occupation grew. We’re not naïve that speaking to Israelis can help. The use of beautiful language can help, we’re told, but when you leave the meeting, Israelis and Palestinians go their own ways.
Our role is focusing on Palestinian communities. Building connections between Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.
There are maybe 20 anti-Zionists in Israel who could be partners. Anti-Zionism is the least I expect from partners. Without acknowledging the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s fascism, there’s no point in conversation.
We’re often asked why we don’t educate or teach Israelis. Non-violence is a privilege, impossible to implement.
Fayrouz: The majority of Palestinians don’t believe in dialogue and peace-building. Some believe that this helps make us lose even less. Growing numbers of Palestinians in Jerusalem want to be residents here. All options for Palestinians are decided by others. We’re tired of compromise.
It’s been 15 months since we received any salary for Grassroots Jerusalem. When we talk about, say, refugees returning to 1948 Palestine, we’re told by donors we’re too political. Donors are scared including European donors. One outside group who owned property in East Jerusalem said they wouldn’t rent office space to us because they were worried about the Israeli response. It’s our city.
BDS success shows that this issue is all about money.
Amany: We think BDS should work more organising Palestinian groups here. They should speak to us. It’s hard and impossible for me, living here, to avoid Hebrew University so what can Palestinians do to support BDS? Somebody has to visit local Palestinian communities. You can support BDS and invest here in our communities.
Fayrouz: We ask tourists to boycott Israeli businesses and support Palestinian tourism. We encourage foreigners who want to come and volunteer in Palestine to not go to West Jerusalem and have fun in Israeli bars. What’s their real goal here?
The position of Palestinians in Israel itself remains a daily challenge to assert one’s right to equality. I recently met a young Palestinian, Israeli woman in Jerusalem, living in the north of Israel, who said that having an Israeli passport made her an outcast in the Arab world. She couldn’t access many nations because of this document and she craved another nation’s passport. She wouldn’t want to bring up her children in Israel to suffer the same way she had with institutionalised racism and discrimination.
When I said I tried to avoid buying products from the settlements at local shops and supermarkets in Jerusalem, she said she didn’t really care because it made no difference. For her, Israel and the settlements were the same entity, the same country, the same laws. “It’s already one country”, she said. She argued that businesses in Israel proper and the settlements both pay tax to the Israeli state and the Israeli government funds and supports the illegal settlement project.