Am Johal 100 Hours in the Holy Land

Published: Tue 25 Jul 2006 03:22 PM
100 Hours in the Holy Land
By Am Johal
Regarding the Pain of Others
Jerusalem/Ramallah - I am contemplating what is now known as the Haifa Suitcase Dilemma. I left it in an apartment and left with only a backpack last Sunday when the rockets started to land.
Do I go back there to get it, or do I just leave it there and get on the plane without it? What is the morality associated with such a decision? What is the genuine level of danger? What is my life worth? Why do I get to leave and others have no option, but to stay there?
I am in a coffee shop in a Jerusalem neighbourhood not far from the market. I am sitting with two friends and I tell them, “This place is depressing. I don’t want to come back here – there’s nothing I can do to contribute. Nothing gets better, it just gets worse.”
One of them says, “We don’t need your guilt.”
From time to time, one is obligated to quarrel with oneself in order to maintain a relative sense of sanity when events take on a life of their own. The American writer Susan Sontag once wrote a beautiful passage about the experience of war:
To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems, a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others. Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hand-on cruelties upon other humans, has not reached moral or psychological adulthood.
No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.
The Israel-Hezbollah War
The violence has killed at least 375 people in Lebanon and 36 people in Israel. About 600,000 people — mostly in Lebanon — are thought to have fled their homes. The UN is predicting a humanitarian disaster.
While a writer for Haaretz is openly calling on the Israeli government to bomb the Lebanese city of Tyre where many of the rocket launchers aimed at Haifa are set up, the Canadian government is planning to use the same city’s port to evacuate their citizens trapped in the country. Will there be coordination on the issue beforehand? What about the Lebanese civilian population?
Hezbollah has fired up to 2,200 rockets in to Israel thus far. A few days ago, those rockets even killed two young Arab Israelis in Nazareth. The IDF is stating that their military operation will last another ten to fourteen days.
Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League has also called the Israeli response ‘proportional’ given the stockpile of rockets accumulated by Hezbollah. Alan Dershowitz has written virtually the same defense, arguing in defense of the morality of an asymmetric war when Hezbollah is using civilian areas as de facto human shields due to the location choice of their weaponry.
Whether they are the head of a human rights organization or dressed up with a Harvard post, the moral legitimacy of such an argument is deeply problematic since someone has to ultimately make the decision to respond with force. Organizations such as Hezbollah work on a theory of provocation. The Israelis can choose a variety of means to respond which has further consequences. To deny the moral equation of either response on the premise that a state makes a distinction between its own citizens and those of other states is a marginal argument at best when weighed against the consequences of the Israeli military machine since 1967.
The military strategists ultimately made the decision to damage the military, communications and transportation infrastructure of Lebanon despite knowing full well that civilians would be killed, just as Hezbollah made the decision to fire rockets knowing that civilians would also be killed. As a result, they should both be investigated thoroughly about their role in war crimes. There is no legitimacy in the sanctioning of such an aggressive response by either side. This is not about Israelis against the Lebanese or against the Palestinians. This is about those who want a just peace and those who stand on the other side of that regardless of their ethnicity or religion or whom they purport to represent. Arguments based on selective evidence designed to bolster the Israeli case for the sake of public relations will not stand the test of time or will those of Hezbollah.
The version of events put forward by Foxman and Dershowitz is about as strong as the argument made by certain Israeli surrogates that the Separation Fence is not just a concrete barrier, but a metal fence that you can see through – that somehow, things are not as bad as people make them out to be. Arguing about the aesthetics of an object designed to infringe on the human right to freedom of movement in the seemingly unending name of security, does not render it any more legitimate, humane or just.
The BBC, incidentally, has reported that Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stands by the view that international law stresses the need to protect civilians. Under international law, there is an obligation on all parties to respect the “principle of proportionality.”
The UN has also reported that over 100 Palestinians have been killed since the latest offensive began in Gaza in late June. In what should be seen as an open threat to Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, others in Israeli decision making roles and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nusrullah and the organization’s power structure, Arbour told the BBC, “I do believe that on the basis of evidence that is available in the public domain there are very serious concerns that the level of civilian casualties, the indiscriminate shelling of cities and so on, on their face raise sufficient questions that I think one must issue a sobering signal to those who are behind these initiatives to examine very closely their personal exposure.” In other words, the investigation of war crimes are on the table in this dispute in a very serious test of the relevance and legitimacy of contemporary international law and institutions.
Will the International Court of Justice be an objective body designed to deliberate on basic, universal rights or will it be a court of Western victors which imposes only a certain kind of justice upon the defeated?
Arbour also told the New York Times that the size of the death toll "could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control." Additionally, she added, “International humanitarian law is clear on the supreme obligations to protect civilians during hostilities.’’ In a statement released by her office, she wrote, “Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians. Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged innocent civilians is unjustifiable. Hizbullah fighters too are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law, and they must not target civilian areas.”
How the West was Won
The baby boom generation in the West, even amongst progressive circles, was shaped by a narrative of Israel which largely neglected Palestinian aspirations for statehood. This view was a carryover from the Second World War and came from the genuine desire to see a Jewish state succeed given the collective trauma of the Holocaust. This generation, which still defines progressive political thought, still shapes how the conflict is viewed amongst people who would be predisposed to raising critical questions.
As a result, in Europe, the United States and Canada, there is still a climate of fear amongst mainstream progressive movements and political parties to criticize Israeli government policy which violates human rights or international norms. The fear of being branded anti-Semitic or even sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in the mainstream political culture of these nation-states usually results in a kind of ‘swiftboating.’ As a sign of the underdevelopment of the public sphere in these countries, the mainstream media in these countries give legitimacy to this view by rarely sharing a balanced viewpoint on matters pertaining to Israel.
This generation of progressive people have also placed red lines around this issue to a younger generation of activists and critics to the point of even marginalizing them within movements, thereby dispossessing them of the right to raise vital and important questions. Since 1967, basic truths and assumptions regarding this conflict have been sacrificed at the expense of supporting the Israeli state without a critical view. Even the idea of raising human rights as an issue is too political for some. With the passage of time, the ethical nature of this position raises serious questions about the manner in which events have transpired and the complicity of those who refused to take the structural expansion of the occupation seriously. This function of time has only served to normalize the situation and support this positioning of the issue.
The Palestinian movement has also been incredibly ineffective in communicating a moderate message to Western countries which has resonated. They have been effectively delegitimized as a political movement by the sheer effectiveness of Israeli public relations. This cannot be blamed on Israel – this is a deficiency of the Palestinian leadership entirely of its own making. The Palestinian Authority itself has also not effectively implemented their own human rights agenda – even resorting to show trials and utilizing capital punishment against collaborators. The various political and sectarian movements have also regularly resorted to thug tactics in implementing their agenda. The lethargic response to the present crisis by G8 countries is also a vivid example of a policy which has been consistent since 1967. The US is getting a lesson from Israel on how to proceed on matters related to Iran – relentlessly pummeling infrastructure for weeks on end is an incredibly effective military strategy to render one’s opponent obsolete for a fixed period of time while taking few casualties. Though there is the potential of reflexivity associated from the trauma that results from such a bombardment, it can be addressed at some future date according to this view.
The Art of War
By keeping the opponent on edge and on the run, by cutting off their supply lines, by establishing an environment of chaos, they retain the upper hand and set the agenda. In this scenario, Israel’s superior military can effectively destroy infrastructure and set back a political movement by years. Civilian casualties are then addressed by having an effective public relations strategy and by building support in Europe, the United States and Canada. International law is viewed as a guideline and a great theory, but not something that is given legitimacy or credibility. Israel has no intentions of ever viewing the Palestinians as equals.
The Israelis seem to be following the Powell Doctrine of using overwhelming force after the decision to attack was made. The questions that this doctrine asks before committing to act, have nothing to do with what this approach means to civilian casualties unfortunately:
• Is a vital national security interest threatened?
• Is there a clear attainable objective?
• Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
• Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
• Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
• Have the consequences of the action been fully considered?
• Is the action supported by the domestic population?
• Is there genuine broad international support?
Negev Desert
We are heading south from Jerusalem on a settler highway. There are pieces of the Separation Fence being hauled by flat bed trucks to their destination the other way. There are parts of the concrete fence that look almost ten meters tall in some places. But the highway is smooth and there's no Palestinians to be seen. Apartheid is too strong a word for some people, but hey, if the shoe fits…
Nuri El Ukbi, born in 1942 and a veteran of the orange industry, is sitting under a burlap tent with his car beside him in the Negev Desert. It is his personal protest – he has been partaking in his very own lifelong version of the Milagro Beanfield War. Two weeks ago, IDF forces knocked down a larger construction where he was staying about twenty meters away.
As a Bedouin leader of his tribe, he has spent the better part of his life trying to gain legal legitimacy to the land that his family used to pay taxes on in the 1930's during the British Mandate. He even has the documents to prove it. There was even a tribal court of the State of Israel on the land for a period of time. El Ukbi says that taxes on the land were high – almost 139 liras at a time when a camel was worth 5 to 6 liras.
In 1951, the IDF evacuated the Bedouin from the area, for six months, due to army exercises. The tribe was sent to a temporary settlement some 25 kilometers away near Arad, and has never been officially recognized. They have tried ever since to have the lands returned to them. Nuri El-Ukbi has been fighting this battle his whole life. He says, "That six months has almost become 60 years."
In 1966, a new order came down heavily in the Negev. The authorities in those days would come with guns and shoot in the air to scare the Bedouin away. Institutional pressure was also brought to bear on the Bedouin.
El-Ukbi has since spent time in jail, had restrictions placed on him returning to the land he claims as his own and is viewed as a nuisance by state authorities. He estimates that 70,000 Bedouin do not have the ability to exercise their right to vote due to the fact that their villages are not recognized by the state and are therefore not registered. Additionally, state services such as schools, sewers, water and electricity rarely exist on tribal Bedouin lands.
El-Ukbi says that the state is using planning processes to push the Bedouin in to seven planned communities where there is high unemployment and where they will be used to provide cheap labour that is not keeping with their traditional customs. He says this is leading to a rising criminal class amongst the younger, desperate Bedouin males which has traditionally not been a significant factor in the community.
El-Ukbi says his home has been demolished several times and that his land has been sprayed with Roundup. There is high incidence of cancer, asthma and other related illnesses amongst the Bedouin. In other villages, there are issue with chemical plants and iodine leakage.
He plants new crops every February but state authorities arrive to uproot them and demolish his tent. El-Ukbi says there is a war going on every day against the Palestinian people. When a new Jewish settlement opens up in the Negev such as Giv'ot Bar with all the state services such as sewage, water and electricity he says it is clear that the state sees him as a second class citizen.
When then Israeli Construction Minister Effi Eitam authorized tents to be set up at 5am to prevent a protest from Bedouin when the settlement was being proposed, El-Ukbi confronted him at a press conference in January 2004 by heckling, "Gang leader, you came here like thieves in the night. Why are you taking away something that belongs to us?"
"I have more justice in my cause than this country has. This is my own private protest so they will not take away my tribe," he says this afternoon. "I'm not worried if they kill me or arrest me. This is about justice."
Later, he says, "Tell your embassies, this is a just cause. I have the right to like everyone else. I will always sow wheat…if we don't rise up, their crimes will only continue. Right now, I can't even welcome you like a proper Bedouin with tea. We used to live not in luxury, but in excess."
At another Bedouin village in the Negev, we are greeted by Ali Abu Schata. He points out a blown-up picture of an Israeli plane flying at about ten feet spraying his crops with Roundup. His three young kids are running in the foreground along the road trying to express some sense of dissent. It is a powerful portrait of the situation here. He says there are now demolition orders even on the sheep pens.
"The state is creating fanatics through their policies. We also cannot just broadcast neediness, but present a better alternative. We are suffering not just physically, but emotionally," he says. "We are not people who will get weakened, but they are making decisions that are political in order to break the Bedouin population."
He says he is raising his children to treat every human being equally, but does not want to trick them in to loving the state. He foresees a conflict arising between the state and the Bedouin. "I will fight with all my life, the state, without pity. I will fight for my children's rights," he says.
Later, we visit the Laqya women's collective where Bedouin women have set up their own micro-enterprise involving embroidery which they sell over the web. One of the founders explained how internal Bedouin tensions and lack of support from certain men in the community had led to a fire on the site of their project. They are a unique project which raises women's issues in the community by its very success. They are here to remind us not to uncritically mythologize the Bedouin culture which is patriarchal and polygamous. Even with their fight against state authorities, the Bedouin have significant internal tensions within their own community. This woman’s message is that tradition and progress don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Anata Village
We are a peace movement cliché this morning. We are in fireman's bucket brigade formation, sleeves rolled up and passing cinder blocks through the window. Later, the volunteers are singing songs like We Shall Overcome and J oshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.
There are bombs dropping in Lebanon and rockets in to northern Israel and we are helping out at an illegal home rebuilding project with Palestinians, Israelis and internationals with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions. The village looks the same as it did two years ago when I was here last. This is an incremental approach to change the dynamics on the ground, but weighed against the instruments of state power, it is one act of constructive dissent and restorative justice. A family with 17 children will be given keys to the rebuilt house on July 29th.
It is not enough to sing songs and be here though. We are hopeless because we are irrelevant in the arenas of power that matter here. What we're doing here means nothing in terms of altering the basic structure and paradigm of the conflict.
I am left with basic and elementary questions: What does social change look like? What should non-violent dissent look like? Who should be involved and how is it possible to build a new narrative and reframe the fundamental structure of the conflict when the vast majority of Israelis support the government’s position? Can civil society take over the state democratically and reorganize the functions of power in a more egalitarian framework?
The peace movement in this country should be ashamed of themselves. The extent of their irrelevance and their inability to penetrate in to the mainstream of the Israeli public sphere is deep and profound. All the NGO's and foundations that fund them should hang their heads in shame.
All that work and funding to achieve what? To normalize and institutionalize an occupation? All the brilliant people who were involved in intellectual, social and political movements were brought in to lead the NGO's and although the quality of documentation and work has led to fundamental changes, the present situation renders them obsolete at a time like this. There needs to be more and better funding. The power relationship that governs the present disequilibrium in policy remains largely unaltered - Israel retains a democratic façade on blunt and abusive policies. NGO’s have also taken the talented, educated people in to their sphere and, in the process, undermined more radical social movements that would have formed organically.
Earlier that night we are ripped off by an Arab cab driver while going to eat at Jan’s Tea Room under the Jerusalem Theater, but the night is salvaged since the Jerusalem Hotel still has great Arabic music on Friday evenings.
We have had a great Saturday afternoon in Ramallah. The streets are filled with shoppers and everyone is friendly. I even bought a few pairs of pants since my clothes are still in Haifa. Life is going on.
Even the guards at the Muqata let us in at the back to look at the grounds. When I visited here two years ago, Arafat was still alive and this area was full of blown up BMW’s and Mercedes to show evidence of Israeli attempts to assassinate him. There were barrels of cement with metal poles sticking out of them to stop helicopters from flying low enough to shoot at him. It is evident that Mahmoud Abbas must be a neat freak. The grounds have been impeccably cleaned, the cars have been removed and the barrels of cement are gone.
On the way back to Jerusalem, we meet some Christian peace activists on the bus from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. They are coming back from Tulkarem and they say it’s taken them 3 ½ hours to get to Jerusalem because of the checkpoints. It is only a 45 km distance. Palestinian males between 15 and 35 were either not allowed to go through or were made to wait longer than other people.
As we reached the checkpoint before Jerusalem in the bus, a young military recruit who was barely over 19 asked for our passports and ID. He singled out an Arab Israeli man in his sixties and asked him to hold out his ID. A young Palestinian man beside me and a young woman beside my friend engaged in their own form of dissent by telling us that the soldier was trying to publicly disrespect the elderly man in front of everyone else so everyone would feel ashamed. It takes a deep, psychological understanding of Arab society to know the cultural significance of disrespecting the patriarch of a family. The Israeli security forces seem to be well trained in the nuances of imposing a system of inferiority on to others. Even at the airport, the sheer normalization of the questions one has to answer in order to meet the security demands of the state: Who are you staying with? Where do they live? What do you do? What are you going to do while you are here? What is your religion? Why did you come here? Do you have Palestinian friends?
That night, we wander through the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. Kids are playing soccer in the streets. Everyone is walking and talking. It is still Shabbat and we are guests in the neighbourhood.
An international can spend the same day in Ramallah and Mea Shearim – they have more rights than the Israelis or the Palestinians.
As we wander back to St. George’s Pilgrim Guest House on Nablus Road, there is a raucous Jewish wedding on at the Novotel Hotel. There are two rented buses and the night air is filled with the beating of drums and Hebrew chanting by the hundreds of guests. We are drinking beer on the 2nd floor and enjoying the sights and sounds of the Jerusalem night coming from across the street. There are church bells and Muslim calls to prayer in this neighbourhood at different times of the day.
Tonight, I am heading to a protest outside the King David Hotel where Condolleeza Rice will be.
Sometimes I fall in love with the confused and contradictory impurity of this city.
Establishing a just peace is not rocket science. It could be done within 36 months. It is a matter of whether the leaders and the international power brokers truthfully want that or whether there is a bigger regional game being played.

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