Thursday, June 19, 2008

How Israel Has Changed in 15 Years

I took a class with Gordon this past year. He's incredibly intelligent. This is interesting because the differences of the relations between Israelis and Palestinians is shocking.

June 19, 2008

Learning to Drive in Rafah


It took me a moment before I understood why my story about a few relatively inconsequential incidents, which occurred years ago at my high school, had such an effect on the undergraduates taking my fall semester course in 2006.

One of my anecdotes related to classmates of mine who lived in the Jewish settlements at the northern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It was 1981, and the following year they would be forced to leave their homes as part of Israel's peace agreement with Egypt, but at the time, I told my students, the evacuation did not seem imminent, at least to many teenagers for whom each year stretches without end. A particular issue that did preoccupy us, I continued, was learning to drive. I described to my students how my friends from the farming communities located in the Sinai and the small town of Yamit took their lessons in the Palestinian town of Rafah and were among the first to pass their driving tests.

My students in the politics and government department of Ben-Gurion University found this story incomprehensible. They simply could not imagine Israeli teenagers taking driving lessons in the middle of Rafah, which, in their minds, is no more than a terrorist nest riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt; weapons subsequently used against Israeli targets.

The average age difference between me and my students is only 15 years, but our perspectives are radically different. When I was a high-school student at the agricultural school Eshel Hanasi, I frequently hitched a ride back from school to my home in Beer Sheva with Palestinian taxis from the Gaza Strip. In the current context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is simply unfathomable. No taxis from the territories are allowed to enter Israel, and even if they were somehow able to obtain an entry permit, Israeli Jews would be afraid to use them.

Two decades ago, Palestinians were an integral part of the Israeli landscape, primarily as low-wage laborers who built houses, cleaned streets and worked in agriculture, but in the last few years they have literally disappeared. In the 1980s, most Israelis and Palestinians could travel freely between the territories and Israel and, in many respects, felt safe doing so. Currently Palestinians are locked up in the Gaza Strip, and Israelis are not permitted to enter the region. Palestinians from the West Bank are confined behind a separation barrier and only the Jewish settlers living there travel back and forth from Israel.

Most of my students have consequently never talked with Palestinians from the territories, except perhaps as soldiers during their military service. Their acquaintance with Palestinians is therefore limited to three-minute news bites that almost always report on Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets or Israeli military assaults on Palestinian towns.

The students' reaction to my teenage experiences is accordingly understandable, but it also brings to the fore a crucial issue that is often overlooked: namely, that Israel's occupation has dramatically changed over the past four decades, and particularly since the eruption of the second Intifada in 2000. Some of the changes; the most damaging of which are the ongoing expansion of the settlements and the hermetic closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which have, in many respects, led to the rise of Hamas; are often discussed in the media and are rightly understood as hindering the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching a peace agreement based on the two-state solution. The change that is hardly ever mentioned is the current lack of contact between ordinary Israelis (as opposed to soldiers and settlers) and Palestinians.

The separation barrier built deep inside Palestinian territories best symbolizes this change. One of its many devastating effects is the severance of practically all day-to-day contact between the two peoples. The younger generation on both sides of the Green Line no longer sees the 'other' as living, breathing beings but rather in stereotypical terms, which are often informed by prejudice and racist assumptions.

The alienation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians consequently serves the interests of all those who would like to portray the other side as a perpetual and mortal enemy.

The effects of this change should not be underestimated. Simply put, it seems that the younger (Jewish) generation within Israel is less likely than ever to support a leader who would have the courage to initiate a just peace agreement based on the full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including the return of East Jerusalem, and some kind of creative solution for the Palestinian refugees.

Tragically, after 41 years of occupation the two-state solution seems to be more remote than ever before. Peace within the existing context, as Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, Uri Avnery, has convincingly argued, is like surmounting an abyss. One cannot achieve it with short strides but only with a great leap. My students' reactions suggest that the gulf between the two peoples is only growing wider.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Read about his new book, Israel's Occupation, and more at

Thursday, June 12, 2008

And I'm supposed to vote for him???

I always thought that Obama would go extremely right to prove to everyone how much he's not tied to Arabs and Muslims. Hence:

"Undivided" Allegiance: The Meaning of Obama's AIPAC Moment

Posted June 6, 2008

It's a crucial moment for anyone seeking a realistic shot at the presidency: Stand before the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and declare your unyielding support for Israel.

Barack Obama is no different. On Wednesday, Obama, well aware that some American Jews fear he is not pro-Israel enough, or that he is some secret Manchurian Muslim, followed John McCain and Hillary Clinton to the AIPAC podium for his necessary rite of passage. Fully aware of fears deeply rooted in the Holocaust and decades of subsequent bloodshed, Obama pounded the security nail no less than 20 times -- "I will never compromise when it comes to Israel's security... Israel's security is sacrosanct... I will bring to the White House an unshakable commitment to Israel's security..." But then the candidate went a leap further, vaulting over President Bush and landing to his right. "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel," the candidate declared, "and it must remain undivided."

Undivided? This has always been an odd word to describe a city inhabited on one side by Palestinians. Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied and then annexed, despite widespread international condemnation, after the Six Day War in 1967, is under continuous Israeli control through a heavily armed presence. The fact is that, despite the seizing of Palestinian land for rings of Jewish settlements, which Israelis now consider their East Jerusalem "suburbs," there is very little traffic between the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in the city. Undivided, Jerusalem is not.

But Obama's use of the word is not simply the naïve musing of a man who apparently has never traveled through the fractured city. It is a raw attempt to jump through hoops for "America's pro-Israel lobby," as AIPAC describes itself -- a lobby which stands far to the right of the sensibilities of many American Jews. (Hence the recent rise of a more progressive lobby, "J-Street.")

For Obama's pledge that "Jerusalem must remain undivided" is a smackdown to decades of Palestinians' dreams and demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of their own state. By insisting that the city remains "undivided," Obama thus places himself firmly in the camp of the hard right in Israel (think Bibi Netanyahu), and outside the lines of decades of negotiations for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "This statement is totally rejected," declared Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "The whole world knows that holy Jerusalem was occupied in 1967 and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital."

Indeed, ever since 1988, when Yasser Arafat announced that the PLO would end decades of struggle to "liberate" all of old Palestine (which included modern Israel) and settle for a state on 22 percent of that land (the West Bank and Gaza), East Jerusalem has been at the center of Palestinian aspirations. The failure of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Clinton administration to fully recognize this, and to offer only pieces of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, contributed greatly to the collapse at Camp David in 2000. In fact, the entire Muslim world considers the Palestinians the guardians of the city's Islamic holy sites. Hence, any Palestinian leader who negotiates away the Holy City's Haram al-Sharif -- the third most sacred site in Islam -- is essentially signing his own death warrant. "Do you want to come to my funeral?" Arafat pointedly asked Clinton just before the end at Camp David.

Even now, with Israel reportedly offering far less -- an expansion of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, so that Arab villages could be considered the East Jerusalem Palestinian "capital" -- the Bush administration is distancing itself from Obama's Netanyahu-esque remarks. Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said discussions would continue "without respect to the presidential politics that is clearly ongoing." It is stunning that an administration which has essentially abandoned all pretense of being an "honest broker" between the two sides, and which has undermined Abbas by refusing even to pressure Israel to eliminate some of the 600 West Bank military checkpoints in an area smaller than Delaware, now finds itself to the left of Senator Obama on this issue.

Obama's AIPAC speech sent shock waves throughout much of the Arab World, where the prospect of an African-American president with a rich international background seemed, to them, to promise a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East. "A slap in the face," said the Kuwaiti paper al-Watan. "An oath of allegiance by the U.S. presidency to AIPAC," declared the Lebanese opposition paper, Al-Safir. Others downplayed the remark, believing that any Democratic administration will be an improvement over eight years of Bush policy. Former Palestinian labor secretary Ghassan Khatib said Obama's speech "stressed more that anything else his intention to engage, which is the most important need." And Obama, a day after the speech, attempted to soften his remarks, saying, "Obviously it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations." Yet he added that Israel has a "legitimate claim" to all of Jerusalem, a comment which will do little to tamp down Arab anxieties.

Why, then, would Obama, with all the expectation of a more even-handed presidency, and the promise to help repair the U.S.'s shredded image in the Arab and Muslim worlds, seek, in the words of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, to be "more Israeli than the Israelis"? Part of the answer may boil down to crude electoral politics, especially in Florida, where Obama's strategists seem to be calculating that the five percent of Jewish voters there could swing the entire election for the Democrats.

But in deeper ways, Obama seems to be running as fast as he can from the friendships and affinities he has developed and expressed for Arabs in the past, including his statement in Iowa early in the campaign that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinians." The senator's AIPAC "corrective" is an effort -- stay tuned for more -- to be less like the "other," and more like "us." But are "we" truly so narrow-minded as to reject the aspirations of all such "others", or to ever consider their hopes and dreams? Apparently, Obama, tacking right, thinks the answer is yes.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

700, not 7

Gaza's 700 (and counting) stranded students
Report, PCHR, 5 June 2008

Three days ago, on 1 June, Hadeel Abu Kwaik was sitting in her computer lab at al-Azhar University in Gaza looking worried, and perplexed. Today, having just been told her Fulbright scholarship has been reinstated, she says she is "Happy but still worried. I'm still not sure we will [all] be able to leave for the US."

Hadeel is one of seven Gaza students who, on 29 May, received letters from the US consulate in Jerusalem, informing them that their Fulbright scholarship applications would not be finalized. The US consulate letter gave no reason for the sudden withdrawing of the seven scholarships; instead, all seven students, three women and four men, were "strongly encouraged" to re-apply for the same Fulbright scholarships the following year, and assured they would receive "priority consideration."

The withdrawing of these Fulbright scholarships caused an international uproar, momentarily focusing the world's attention on the plight of the seven Gaza Strip students. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened, saying she was "surprised" by the decision, and added, "If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizons to their expectations and their dreams, I don't know that there will be any future for Palestine."

In the face of mounting criticism from both within the US and Israel, the US State Department swiftly reinstated the seven Fulbright scholarships, and on 2 June assured the students they were "working closely" with Israeli officials to secure permits for the students to leave Gaza. Hadeel is now waiting to travel to Jerusalem, where she will be interviewed at the US consulate in order to secure her US visa. Then she will return to Gaza in order to prepare for her departure at the end of summer. She hopes to study her MBA in software engineering at a Minnesota university.

For the mainstream press, this story "moved quickly" and has now concluded with a positive ending for the Gaza Fulbright seven. But hundreds of other Palestinian students remain stranded inside the Gaza Strip, and the number is expected to rise this summer. According to data from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), almost 700 Palestinian students are still waiting to leave Gaza in order to pursue studies, and scholarships, abroad. "This number will increase within the next month, after the schools announce their exam results and Gaza students want to move onto universities," says Khalil Shaheen, a senior PCHR researcher. "All of these students are stranded inside the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli siege and closure, and they are being denied their rights to pursue their education, and their futures."

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both explicitly confirm the rights of all people to freely travel to and from their own state. The Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip, which is about to enter its third year, is systematically and deliberately destroying the Gazan economy, its health and education services, and crushing the future of its people. Gazan students who want to pursue specialist education abroad, many of whom intend to return to Gaza afterwards and assist in rebuilding their country, are being denied this right because Israel remains intent on its illegal policy of collective punishment. An Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, has just gone to the Israeli high court to petition for two Gaza students, Wissam Abuajwa and Nibal Nayef, to be permitted to leave Gaza and study their master's in the UK and Germany.

Meanwhile, 29-year-old Said Ahmad Said al-Madhoun has been waiting more than a year to pursue his Master of Law abroad. After being awarded a fellowship by the Open Society Institute in January 2007, he was accepted onto a master's program at the American university, Washington College of Law, but has been unable to reach the US. "I managed to get out of Gaza in December 2007 and to travel to the Egyptian border," says Said. "It was a complex journey -- because of the closure we were forced to travel through Erez Crossing [in northern Gaza] and then via another Israeli crossing, at Kerem Shalom, to the Egyptian border. But I was turned back at the [Egyptian] border because I had no US visa." Said could not obtain a US visa, because, like the vast majority of other Gazans, he is not permitted to travel to Jerusalem, where the US consulate issues its visas. He attempted to leave Gaza once more in early January, and was turned back at the Egyptian border again. His academic career, and life, suspended, Said is still waiting. "This is so frustrating for me, and for all of us students in Gaza," he says wearily. "We want to work and to learn. We want to enjoy our freedom of movement. We want to determine our future."

When Hadeel Abu Kwaik first heard that her Fulbright scholarship had been withdrawn, she said she felt angry and disappointed. "I wonder if Israel wants an educated neighbor or an angry one," she stated publicly. Like Said al-Madhoun, Hadeel wants to pursue her studies overseas and then return to Gaza and work in her own community. Although she says she's happy her Fulbright scholarship has been reinstated, she admits she is still worried about whether she will actually be able to leave Gaza, and her anxiety is clearly tainting her joy. "I won't be relieved until we actually reach the United States [to start our studies]," she says.

This report is part of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights' Narratives Under Siege series.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"The Visitor"

Professor as Student of His Life and Others’

Published: April 11, 2008
When we first meet Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), he is in a state of emotional inertia that clinicians might identify as depression. He does not seem acutely unhappy, but then again, he doesn’t seem to feel much at all, locking whatever inner life he might have behind an aloof, unfailingly polite demeanor and keeping a glass of red wine handy in case further anesthesia should prove necessary.

A professor of economics at Connecticut College and a widower, Walter plods through an existence that looks comfortable and easy enough, but also profoundly tedious. He recycles old syllabuses and lecture notes for his classes, and suffers through piano lessons in a half-hearted effort to sustain some kind of connection to his wife, who was a classical concert pianist.

Early in “The Visitor,” Tom McCarthy’s second film as writer and director (the first was “The Station Agent”), it seems inevitable that something will come along to shake Walter out of his malaise. And sure enough, when he reluctantly travels to New York to deliver a paper at a conference, Walter finds that the Manhattan apartment he keeps but rarely visits has been surreptitiously rented to Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his Senegalese girlfriend, who sells handmade jewelry at flea markets. Walter’s initial dismay and irritation gives way to an instinctive flicker of compassion, and he invites the couple to stay, at least for a short while.

The curious thing about “The Visitor” is that even as it goes more or less where you think it will, it still manages to surprise you along the way. Tarek and Walter quickly become friends, though Zainab is more reserved and also clearly more suspicious of her new housemate and benefactor. Walter takes up drumming, and begins to feel his zest for life and his appreciation of New York returning after a long period of dormancy.

This urban, multicultural idyll is shattered when Tarek, who, like Zainab, is in the United States illegally, is picked up by the police and taken to a detention center in Queens. Shortly thereafter, his mother, Mouna, played by the wonderful Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass, arrives from Michigan, to make Walter’s life still more interesting and complicated.

To summarize Mr. McCarthy’s film as I have is to acknowledge some of the risks he has taken. It is possible to imagine a version of this story — the tale of a square, middle-aged white man liberated from his uptightness by an infusion of Third World soulfulness, attached to an exposé of the cruelty of post-9/11 immigration policies — that would be obvious and sentimental, an exercise in cultural condescension and liberal masochism. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way.

And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has. Much as “The Station Agent” nimbly evaded the obstacles of cuteness and willful eccentricity it had strewn in its own path, so does “The Visitor,” with impressive grace and understatement, resist potential triteness and phony uplift.

A few false notes remain. Tarek’s friendliness is too emphatic, and the blossoming of his friendship with Walter proceeds a little too quickly and smoothly to be entirely credible. Long-term houseguests, however appealing and exotic, would surely test the patience of even the saintliest economist, to say nothing of an evident curmudgeon like Walter.

But these objections are, for the most part, dissolved by the clarity and simplicity of Mr. McCarthy’s direction and, even more, by the quiet precision of Mr. Jenkins’s performance. An actor himself (he recently played Scott Templeton, the journalistic rat on “The Wire”), Mr. McCarthy scrupulously avoids big moments and telegraphed emotions, and Mr. Jenkins, a durable character actor known to HBO subscribers as the spectral father on “Six Feet Under,” plays his repressed, circumspect character with exquisite tact. Walter loses his composure only once, and even then Mr. Jenkins keeps the outburst within the boundaries of his shy, professorial temperament.

Walter is fundamentally diffident, decent and disinclined to call attention to himself, traits that pose an obvious challenge to Mr. Jenkins, who must still make this man interesting enough, vivid enough, to carry the film’s dramatic burden. Walter himself, at his best, might insist that the story is not really about him. He, after all, leads a life of privilege and entitlement, and is unlikely ever to be faced with homelessness, exile or deportation. And yet the film’s title refers to him — a transient presence in his own life —as much as it does to Tarek, who seems at home wherever he is.

Mr. Jenkins manages at once to deflect and to earn the audience’s sympathy, and to convey an inner transformation brought about by a shy, unselfish engagement with other people. How does he do it? Great acting is always, almost by definition, something of a mystery, a blend of technique and instinct for which no identifiable formula exists. Mr. Jenkins’s posture, his balked smile, the occasional fidget of his hands or pause in his stride — all of these almost subliminally communicate something about who Walter is, so that by the end of the film we feel we know him very well. And more than that, that he is someone worth knowing.


Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek; production designer, John Paino; produced by Mary Jane Skalski and Michael London; released by Overture Films. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

WITH: Richard Jenkins (Walter Vale), Haaz Sleiman (Tarek), Danai Gurira (Zainab) and Hiam Abbass (Mouna).

Monday, June 02, 2008

Human Rights Watch targets Bush

US/Israel: Bush Should Press for End to Gaza Closure

(Washington, DC, May 13, 2008)
President George W. Bush should urge Israel to reverse its strict closure policy towards the Gaza Strip, three human rights groups said in a letter to the US president today. Human Rights Watch and two Israeli human rights groups, Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, called on Bush to dissociate the United States from the closure policy, which is causing grave harm to Gaza’s civilian population.

Israel’s comprehensive restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza, including fuel and other civilian necessities, constitute collective punishment against the civilian population, the three organizations said. Israel’s stated intention has been to pressure Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups to end their rocket attacks on Israel.

“It’s debatable whether Israel’s closure policy has had any impact on Palestinian armed groups who fire rockets at Israel,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s absolutely clear is that the closure has gravely harmed Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”

In their letter, the three groups said that Palestinian rocket and other attacks against Israeli civilians, such as those that killed a man in Kfar Aza on May 9 and a woman in Moshav Yesha on May 12, violate the core humanitarian prohibition against attacks that deliberately target or cause indiscriminate harm to civilians. However, unlawful attacks by one side to a conflict do not permit unlawful actions – in this case collective punishment – by the other.

“Given the extent of US financial and military support for Israel, President Bush needs to speak out clearly against Israel’s closure of Gaza,” said Sari Bashi, Gisha’s executive director. “The United States should not be party to a policy that punishes civilians for the actions of these armed groups.”

Israel’s control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, territorial waters, tax collection, and population registry means it still bears legal obligations as the occupying power under international humanitarian law. On top of that, Israel has made itself Gaza’s major source of electricity and sole source of fuel needed for transportation and the functioning or water, sewage and sanitation, and health facilities.

The laws of war, which apply to military occupations, prohibit the occupying power from attacking, destroying, or withholding objects essential to the survival of the civilian population. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is obliged to protect the rights of Palestinians to freedom of movement, to secure access to health care and education, and to lead normal lives.

“Israel’s stranglehold on supplies of fuel and other necessities has crippled transportation and other essential services,” said Hadas Ziv, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. “Palestinian attacks on the border crossings have aggravated the impact of the shortages, but the main cause remains Israel’s drastic reductions in supplies allowed into Gaza.”