Moar catching up: Haaretz & The Forward.

Ok, so I didn’t link to last week’s piece for Haaretz and now it’s nearly not even this week anymore! And in the meantime there’s been another Forward piece. I’m not a very serious wonk, am I.

Ok – to the words!

Why we must raise the alarm about settler violence

It’s easy to know nothing about events that disturb us. We talk a lot about how technology allows the siloing of information, but it’s always been easy to skip bad news. How hard is it to turn off the radio?

I would even argue that to a certain degree, our capacity for ignorance is a gift, because immersing ourselves in the news is often to immerse oneself in despair – and despair can be debilitating.

But much as ignorance can be a gift, we must also be honest about its costs. Ignorance that has calcified, that serves as a wall rather than an occasional reprieve, is treacherous, particularly if we value democracy. When the disturbing events touch what we hold dear, ignorance takes from our hands the ability to respond usefully and play an active role in protecting democracy’s future.

In Israel and among those who care deeply about the Jewish state, one of the most endemic forms of political ignorance concerns the settlements and their residents.

to read more, please click through to Haaretz.

Why Are We Ignoring Palestinian Nonviolence?

The Jewish and Israeli press is quick to report any and all Palestinian violence against any Jew, anywhere. Which makes sense, of course. Israelis and Palestinians are at war, Jews everywhere have a dog in the fight, violence is deplorable, et cetera and so on.

But, by contrast, there’s a marked reticence to report on events that show Palestinians actively engaged in nonviolent forms of protest, like last week’s little-noted “protest village,” Ein Hijleh, established by hundreds of activists to protest Israeli annexation plans in the Jordan Valley. This reticence speaks volumes. Really inconvenient and uncomfortable volumes.

The Jewish and Israeli narratives — the way we talk about who we are and why we’re here (and though they run parallel, these narratives are not the same) — are, like any other cultural narrative, heavy on self-promotion. Jews share a deep and disturbing history of anti-Jewish violence and hate, and we often tell ourselves that this is the only part of our story that matters when we’re looking out into the world. This is the part that tells us everything we need to know.

In this light, our enemies can only be unjustified in their hate; the use of violence defines them and reveals their truest selves; anything else is aberration and cannot be trusted.

to read more, please click through to The Forward.

Israel’s Defense Minister calls settler attacks on Palestinians “terrorism” – some context.

On Wednesday Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, termed attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians “terrorism.”

The unacceptable trend known as ‘price tag’ is in my opinion terror in every sense of the word, and we are acting and will act against the perpetrators, firmly and with zero tolerance, in order to eradicate it.

price tagThis is a perfectly accurate description (acts of terrorism being violent acts intended to achieve political ends), and it is particularly interesting given that in the summer, the cabinet in which Yaalon serves took a vote and decided that price tag attacks are not terrorism. The fact that Yaalon is a staunch member of the Likud’s right flank (bearing in mind that the Likud is the core of Israel’s right to begin with) makes his comment more interesting still.

It’s important to remember a few pieces of context, however, starting with the rift within Israel’s far right, which runs largely along generational lines.

The settler movement’s failed efforts to halt Israel’s  2005 withdrawal from Gaza led to marked upheaval in the ranks, with many in the younger generation feeling they had been failed by leaders who’d tried to woo the rest of Israel to their cause, rather than go head-to-head with the government. While Jewish terrorism is not new, the “price tag” phenomenon was a direct response to the failure in Gaza — it’s meant to extract a “price” for government actions with which especially extremist settlers disagree (to learn more about that, click here).

I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect there’s an element of this internal, generational tension at play when Yaalon scolds his movement’s young hotheads. Note also that all of this comes in response to a group of settler vigilantes being caught, detained and beaten on Tuesday by the Palestinians in whose village they were trespassing — and a member of Yaalon’s own party, the even-farther-right Moshe Feiglin, is blaming Yaalon for the treatment afforded the vigilantes.

Furthermore, it’s very important to note Yaalon’s next sentence: “[Price tag terrorism] is a stain on Israel and it undermines the settlement enterprise.” [emphasis mine] Yaalon’s primary concern is and remains the settlement enterprise.

(I’ll digress for a moment to say that while I understand the Palestinians’ actions on Tuesday, that’s still no excuse for the violence. They might have reasonably restrained the settlers, given that heretofore the Israeli military has never taken real action against the price tag phenomenon [never], but the vigilantes should not have been beaten. I will also note that if Israel starts to actually treat settler violence as terrorism because the Defense Minister himself is mad, I’ll be only too happy. But I’ll also be surprised).

And finally: It’s also important to remember that, like many on Israel’s right, Yaalon is, himself, an inciter to hatred and violence. I’m sure he would disagree with that assessment, but bear in mind that he once called Israel’s left “a virus” (a comment that he tried to walk back with a classic non-apology apology) and while still serving in the military he was given to saying that “the politicians brought the dove of peace and the army had to clean up after it.” He once said that Israel should cut off Gaza’s “electricity, water… fruit, vegetables, [and] cash,” adding “we’ve become accustomed to Arabs being allowed to live everywhere… [but] there are areas forbidden to Jews. We’ve ended that.” He maintains that there’s no difference between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (a man who has publicly supported a two-state solution since 1977, well before Israel did) and Hamas, and just last month told a group of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders working together to promote a two-state peace: “Don’t delude yourselves. We don’t have a partner on the Palestinian side for a two-state solution,” adding that John Kerry’s current proposal

is bad and will destroy the economy, apropos talk of boycotts. If we lose freedom of military action, the West Bank will turn into Hamastan, missiles will be fired at Tel Aviv and the economy will be destroyed.

So what I’m hearing is not “My God, I never noticed before, but this is terrorism!” but rather: “Violence is and will always remain necessary, but only the people in power should decide how and where it’s used.” This is not entirely unlike members of the GOP’s right wing being shocked — shocked — to discover that anyone in the Tea Party would take their words as an encouragement to violence.

And so: Yes. It is good that one of the highest ranking members of Israel’s government has used the T word to describe the violence of Jewish settlers. It’s important that linguistic taboos be broken, and this may yet prove an important moment in Israeli political culture.

But remember the source, and don’t misunderstand or overstate his aims.



Israel arrests violent settlers who attack the army. If they attack Palestinians, though? Meh.

settlers armedOn the one hand, Haaretz reported this last Tuesday: “[Israeli] Prosecutors have accused six settlers from Yitzhar of constructing a    barrier against security forces and throwing stones at police.” The paper went on to note that, in its indictment, “the Central District Prosecutor’s Office cites ‘systemic and organized conduct of a violent and extreme nature’ around the Yitzhar settlement and ‘serious violence against military and police forces and residents of the region.'”

On the other hand, Israeli human rights NGO Yesh Din reported this last Wednesday:

Figures based on monitoring of the investigations in 938 files opened by the various units of the Samaria & Judea [West Bank] District Police following complaints submitted by Palestinians… show that between 2005 and 2013 just 8.5 percent of investigation files ended in the indictment of Israelis suspected of harming Palestinians and their property.…[Accusations included] damage to property; seizure of Palestinian land; and other offenses, including shooting, stone throwing, arson, the cutting down of trees, injury to livestock, theft of crops, construction on Palestinian-owned land, threats and harassment.

To a certain extent, I will admit, that this is comparing apples to oranges. Story #1 is the tale of one group of hooligans, accused of three incidences of violence; story #2 is a longitudinal study of close to 1,000 cases.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that if settlers had physically assaulted Israeli security forces 938 times in the course of eight years, only 79 of those cases would have ended in indictment (and bear in mind that it’s widely understood that many Palestinians who are attacked never even bother to bring charges).

This is one of the main reasons that most settler “price tag” attacks are directed against Palestinians—they may not like what the government is doing, but they know that physically attacking soldiers and police officers can not only result in prosecution, it might turn the general Israeli public against them. By attacking Palestinians, they make their point, make trouble for the government, and not incidentally deepen their own hold on the land by making daily Palestinian life increasingly insecure—all safe in the knowledge that it’s nearly unheard of for anyone to ever pay for their lawlessness.

Yesh Din researcher Noa Cohen issued this statement about her organization’s findings:

Despite numerous declarations of enhanced enforcement concerning attacks by Israelis on Palestinians, the figures show that in reality there has not been any change. Time after time the police fail to bring offenders to justice. The negligent investigations and low indictment rate send a clear message to offenders that the State has no interest in forcing them to end their actions. Anyone who is familiar with the situation in the Territories recognizes that Israel has abandoned its obligation to protect the Palestinian population.

Abandoned its obligation—or, as four and a half decades of experience would suggest, are choosing to allow certain acts of violence to go unchallenged, because they also further the goal of a slow-motion ethnic cleansing of the West Bank.

Put another way: When Palestinian families give in to fear and pressure and pull up stakes for Jordan or Detroit, no one in Israel’s government mourns—and when the settlers next door take over that Palestinian farm, no one in Israel’s government stops them.

Unless they throw rocks at a soldier on the way. Someone has to be in charge.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Israel’s empty Foreign Ministry represents Israel fairly well.

israel mfaWhen it became clear last December that he was about to be indicted on corruption charges, Avigdor Leiberman resigned as Israel’s Foreign Minister. He did not quite resign from wielding influence, however.

Indeed, having since held elections and formed a new government, Prime Minister Netanyahu is essentially retaining the Foreign Ministry for its former occupant, at least until the trial is completed; Lieberman himself is expected to testify in two weeks. In the meantime, the Foreign Ministry essentially stands bereft.

Mind you, Netanyahu did name a Deputy Foreign Minister: the ultra right-wing Ze’ev Elkin, an MK with no diplomatic credentials who boasts a strikingly anti-democratic voting record, and who said this past January that

We will try to apply sovereignty over the maximum [of the West Bank] that we can at any given moment. It will take time to change people’s awareness but in the end this will penetrate. And then, what seems today like a fairy tale will eventually become political reality, and the reality on the ground.

So the Foreign Ministry does have the anti-democratic, fairy tale guy (who, coincidentally, doesn’t speak English) at its disposal; Elkin met with the Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan just the other day.

And there’s also Yuval Steinitz. Steinitz currently holds the “International Affairs” portfolio, and may be given the real Foreign Relations post if Lieberman is convicted. According to veteran Israeli political scientist and commentator Shlomo Avineri, Steinitz’s office is “a kind of second Foreign Ministry, but without the staff or the means,” and though many visiting diplomats have been referred to him,

this scandalous situation has already drawn expressions of displeasure from world leaders. Not only that—it has led a European foreign minister, a known friend of Israel, to cancel his visit.

So Israel also has the Foreign Affairs-Lite guy, who no one really wants to see (the diplomat who went so far as to actually cancel was Belgium’s Foreign Minister).

Then there’s this odd little chestnut:

The Samaria (Shomron) Regional Authority [local council of the northern West Bank settlements] has even established its own quasi-“foreign ministry,” which circumvents the official one. The Authority carries out its own independent contacts with foreign diplomats, and brings some of them to Samaria for tours.

Finally, Netanyahu is officially the acting Foreign Minister, but he’s too busy to be involved with much beyond visits from the likes of Hagel, Kerry, and Obama (hence the Belgian snub), and maybe-possibly sorting out the mess with Turkey at Obama’s behest.

But while reasonable people might reasonably describe this situation as “scandalous,” it is also strangely appropriate.

The Real Foreign Minister awaits trial and expects his country to await him, consequences be damned; his deputy doesn’t like freedom of speech and can’t speak English; the country’s Shadow-and-Wannabe-Foreign-Minister is working out of what amounts to a makeshift  office and annoying people in the process; the settlers are disregarding the government entirely; and Netanyahu is pretty much focused on keeping the US government on his side (a goal he once said is an easy one to achieve).

This in a country which has in recent years seen a former Prime Minister, a President, a Justice Minister, and a collection of other government officials indicted and/or convicted for various kinds of malfeasance; a country run by people who have often seemed exceptionally tone-deaf to English-speaking supporters and exceptionally eager to stifle democracy; a country led by a government that continuously irritates and annoys its closest allies (also seemingly on purpose), its  political scene wholly dominated by the settler movement and headed by a Prime Minister who says he wants better relations with his country’s nearest neighbors but doesn’t actually do much to achieve that end.

This might not be the image that Israel wants to project. It might not reflect what I love about Israel.

But the current state of Israel’s foreign affairs is pretty representative of the Jewish State circa 2013, whether any of us likes it or not. And that’s the Israel with which the rest of the world actually has to do business.

Crossposted from The Daily Beast/Open Zion.

East Jerusalem doc ‘My Neighborhood’ wins Peabody Award.

It’s a brief film, only 25 minutes long, but it’s not easy to watch: Glass shatters in the pre-dawn darkness as uniformed men break into people’s homes, shouting “Get out! Hurry! Get out!” Old women and children are pushed and shoved; mothers weep as they comfort their children. “In blood and fire,” shout men in religious garb, smiles on their faces, “we’ll kick the Arabs out!”

But that’s not all we see in My Neighborhood, a short documentary about settler expansion in East Jerusalem that this week received the prestigious Peabody Award. Directed by Rebekah Wingert-Jabi and Julia Bacha, My Neighborhood chronicles the story of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian area in what is today Municipal Jerusalem, where settlers were able to obtain court-backed approval to evict Palestinian residents from their homes—or, in the case of the film’s central story line, part of their home, a home in which the affected family has lived since 1956—but to which other Jewish Israelis soon came in solidarity and support. That story of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and nonviolent protest is the heart of what the Peabodys describe as an “honest, hopeful documentary.”

The film (which can be watched in its entirety here) centers on the life of Mohammed El Kurd, a middle schooler who one day comes home from school to find half his family’s house taken over, his grandmother in the hospital as a result of being manhandled by settlers who had literally walked into her home and started to remove furniture. He writes poetry about his family’s loss (“The house has fallen/ Shame! /You pile up the misery/ Shame!/ First it is my turn, then your turn, then the neighbor’s turn/Shame!/ Wake up, wake up!”), and dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, in order to win back his family’s property. “I hate them,” he says simply at one point, but adds: “I hate them for a reason.”

Mohammad’s life becomes entwined with those of two Jewish Jerusalemites, Zvi and Sara Benninga, brother and sister, children of American immigrants, who find the Sheikh Jarrah story intolerable and launch a grassroots effort to stop the evictions. Zvi makes very clear that the target of his activism is not individual settlers, but state policy: “You can find people who are violent and crazy in any society,” he says. “The problem is that here they’re backed up and supported [by the state].”

Mohammad’s grandmother admits that she has a hard time trusting the Jews who have suddenly shown up (“You’re telling me that they will leave their people and their religion and join us?”) but Mohammad himself has no such hesitation: “Some people say that these are Jews and Jews won’t do us any good. But I disagree…. They’re helping us and themselves. Why shouldn’t they?”

We see Sara Benninga dragged away by police; we hear her father, the son of Holocaust survivors, express the anxiety produced by watching his children arrested time and again. We hear the words of protestors, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own sister-in-law, Ofra Ben Artzi, who says: “Where there is injustice and human rights violations, and people are thrown out of their homes, I have an obligation to be there.” In the two years that followed the launch of protests, evictions stopped in Mohammad’s neighborhood—but they continued elsewhere.

Produced by Just Vision Media, a production company dedicated to telling stories of Israeli-Palestinian nonviolent cooperation (as in the acclaimed Budrus and Encounter Point), My Neighborhood is both powerful and moving, but by nature of its truthfulness, the hope the film tries to convey is necessarily limited.

“Sheikh Jarrah elicits hope,” Zvi Benninga says toward the end of My Neighborhood, “but it is set in a reality that scares me.

On the Palestinian olive harvest and the Talmud.

Olive tree on the West Bank with several branches hacked off.

The problem with trying to convey the full reality of the occupation for Palestinians is that the occupation is such a vast and unwieldy thing.

There’s a natural tendency to focus on the most dramatic details, and in particular the bloody ones, but those details reflect only a part of the staggering whole. The extent of the occupation is sprawling, its bureaucracy Byzantine, and it keeps every aspect of life, both public and private, at the hands of both the State of Israel and Israel’s citizens. There is no moment, no place in a Palestinian’s life, that is in any meaningful sense free of the occupation’s influence.

Which brings me to Palestinian olive groves.

Last Saturday, as reported by Alon Aviram in +972,

Israeli Border Police declared an area belonging to [the West Bank village of] Susya al-Qadima a closed military zone, effective immediately. An officer waved papers at us and stated that he was legally warranted to force everyone out of the valley. We noticed that the orders were outdated, unsigned, and dictated that only Israelis were prohibited from entering the specified site. This did not stop the temporary expulsion of Palestinian locals.

This happens to Palestinian farmers of all stripes frequently, and entirely randomly—they arrive ready to work their land, only to be told that they are not allowed to so much as step on it. The olive season began on October 6 and in the harvest’s first 18 days, hundreds of farmers had been denied access, or given only very limited access, to olive groves “located behind the Barrier or near settlements.” But even having access is not a guarantee of being able to get the work done: On October 9, Aviram reported, soldiers fired tear gas at harvesters who got “too close to” the chain link fence separating them from the settlement of Adora.

Haaretz reported on October 13 that the Palestinian Authority had, in fact, made arrangements with the IDF for olive farmers to work their settlement-adjacent fields for specified periods of time, under military protection from settler violence, but each village was only given “up to” three days for their harvest, and thus

even though the harvest has only just begun, it is already clear that the limits mean many villagers will not be able to finish the harvests in the areas near the settlements. In some cases, when Palestinian farmers did try to reach their groves they were driven off by settlers.

Which is not surprising, because while the IDF was busy coordinating which days of which week farmers would be allowed onto their own land in order to earn their livelihood, settlers were vandalizing or destroying close to 1,000 trees in the first three weeks of October alone. All told, in the course of 2012 to date, settlers have damaged or killed about 7,500 olive trees.

Why do violent settlers attack trees? Because while they’re violent, they’re not stupid.

Of most immediate urgency is the fact that some 80,000 West Bank families depend on the harvest as their main source of income. Beyond that, however, the cultivation of olive groves reaches back centuries, and trees typically live for 200 years or more. Thus, the olive tree also serves as a potent symbol of Palestinian steadfastness, and the links between generations—as Honi HaMa’agal teaches us regarding his own tree planting in the Talmud: “I found a fruitful world, because my forebears planted for me. Thus I shall do for my children.”

And so, in destroying olive trees, settlers are not only making it as hard as they can for farmers to feed their families, they’re also mocking Palestinian pretensions to belonging to their home.

Declaring victory, and wiping away generations of effort, with one swing of an axe. Or one outdated and unsigned military order.

That’s what the occupation looks like.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Jewish terrorism, 2011.

"Price Tag"

My friend good friend Ori Nir, spokesman at Americans for Peace Now, has written a positively must-read analysis of the “Price Tag” tactic used by Israeli settlers in an effort to make thwarting their will and working toward peace too untenable, too painful to be contemplated. As he points out, they began by venting their anger on Israeli authorities, but that resulted in real backlash — so now they mostly take it out on Palestinians in the territories. So no one much cares.

As Ori puts it: “Price Tag has so far been a success story.”

On Monday, though, Price Tag crossed the border into northern Israel, where a Bedouin mosque was set alight. One wonders if and how that development will change the authorities’ response to the violence.

Following is an excerpt of Ori’s piece — I highly recommend that you click here to read the rest. For me, the most painful irony is that the State of Israel already revolves around the settlements and the occupation. But apparently, that’s still not enough.

“Price Tag” Terrorism Crosses the Green Line

The extremist settlers call it “Price Tag.” We have always called it by its proper name: Terrorism.

Now, Israel’s Shin Bet, the IDF’s top brass and Israeli Cabinet members agree with us. On Monday, shortly after a mosque was torched in an Israeli-Arab village in the Galilee and “Price Tag” graffiti was found nearby, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, a member of the extreme right wing Yisrael Beitenu Party, told an Israel Radio reporter that he prefers not to use the perpetrators self-serving jargon. “This is an act of terrorism,” he said.

The problem is that largely because of law enforcement negligence, a terror campaign that has been raging in the West Bank for at least three years, has now mushroomed into a widespread phenomenon – both in the West Bank and in Israel proper – that targets not only West Bank Palestinians but also Israeli Arab citizens, Israeli peace activists and Israeli law enforcement officers.

“Price Tag,” also known among its perpetrators as “Arvut Hadadit” (Mutual Responsibility), started out as a violent tactic employed by young militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank to deter Israeli law enforcement authorities from removing illegally-built structures from West Bank settlements and illegal outposts. The tactic includes attacks on Palestinians and their property, as well as attacks on Israeli military and police officers to obstruct and deter law enforcement inside settlements.

This tactic was born out of a sense of frustration among some settlers following their leadership’s inability to stop the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It gradually became a popular – and very effective – low-intensity anti-Palestinian terrorism campaign. It has recently been creeping into Israel, and is therefore increasingly viewed as a real danger by the security authorities. Israeli law enforcement authorities tend to be more tolerant of anti-Palestinian violence in the West Bank than they are of violence inside Israel. As often happens, what was tolerated in the West Bank has crossed the Green Line, and is now plaguing Israelis inside Israel.

UPDATE: If you’re really interested, you go farther down the very dispiriting “Jewish terrorists” rabbit hole with the book Jewish Terrorism in Israelclick here for my review.

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