The brief initial item below informs us that Israel’s navy killed a Gaza fisherman. Don’t let all the Israeli propaganda regarding reasons for the blockade on Gaza fool you. In 2002 or thereabouts BG (British Gas) discovered offshore gas and oil fields in Gaza’s waters. Israel wants these. Every Israeli military campaign on Gaza is a campaign to conquer and make the gas-oil fields its own. For more on the topic see http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=11680 or
Check the internet. There is much on the subject. Why a fisherman has to pay with his life is not a question of the gas/oil fields. After all, he could hardly have any connection with them! But he was killed anyhow. As one Palestinian says, in speaking of the killing in Silwan, ‘Palestinian life is cheap.’
Items 2 and 3 center on Silwan, as I said.
Item 4 is a long interview with Gideon Levy. Interestingly, the man is apparently not widely known in Israel. The newspaper which he and Amira Hass write for, Haaretz, is far from being widely read. Yedioth Ahronot takes the lead, then probably Maariv, and Haaretz is most likely 3rd place. It is the most ‘intellectual’ of the 3 Israeli dailies. I have asked family and friends on occasion if they had read this or that by Gideon Levy, and the puzzled look that I received said it all: “Who is he?” Amazing. And also a pity that more Israelis do not know him or his writing.
Fishermen in Gaza complain that the area within the 5km zone is fished out
A fisherman has been shot and killed by the Israeli navy off the northern coast of the Gaza Strip, doctors in the territory say.
Israeli officials say the boat had strayed beyond the limit to which Palestinians are allowed to fish under the Israeli blockade.
However, they say a warning shot was fired first.
Israel says the naval blockade is necessary to stop weapons being smuggled to militants within Gaza.
But the restrictions make life very difficult for Gaza’s fishermen.
It means they can only operate in a narrow stretch of water going no further than 5km (3 miles) out to sea. Fisherman say the small area is virtually fished out.
In Gaza it is not uncommon to hear the sound of machine-gun fire off the coast, as the Israeli navy fires upon boats it says have breached the limit.
In recent weeks there has been an increase in rocket fire into Israel by Palestinian militants, and last week Israel admitted it had wrongly shot and killed three civilians, including a 91-year-old man.
More on This StoryIsrael and the PalestiniansTight lips as talks edge onwards [/news/world-middle-east-11321297] The messages emerging from the Middle East peace talks are positive, but the prospects could still be bleak, says the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.
2. Haaretz Friday,
September 24, 2010
The government must stop funding zealotry in Jerusalem
The circumstances under which a private security guard fired at demonstrators in Silwan in East Jerusalem, killing a local man, could cause an irreversible religious conflict.
The circumstances under which a private security guard fired at demonstrators in Silwan in East Jerusalem, killing a local man, Samar Sirhan, still need to be clarified. The police are investigating the guard’s version of events, that he had to fire at people throwing stones who were endangering his life. Presumably the police will also look into the rules of engagement the security company gives its guards, and whether it properly trains them to deal with such situations.
If it turns out that the guard or his superiors broke the law, they will obviously have to answer for it. However, that will not prevent the next incident between Jews and Palestinians in areas of friction in East Jerusalem. The handwriting of the next wave of riots is written in huge letters on the walls of the Old City and its environs.
Messianic right-wing groups have made it a goal to “Judaize” the Muslim and Christian quarters, as well as the village of Silwan at the foot of the Temple Mount. Under the guise of archaeological excavations and “restoring the glory of old,” the Elad association has managed to penetrate large areas of the village, which contains the City of David. But Elad would not have managed to implement its plans without assistance from state bodies: the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which turned over administration of the site to Elad, the Jerusalem Municipality, which offered help, and cooperation from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The IAA wrote the attorney general a few years ago that the idea of placing the area “‘for protection’ in the hands of a private group, which has in its recent past more than a stain on its reputation when it comes to observing the law, is an infuriating idea.”
The IAA noted that it is especially wrong to transfer an area in the historic City of David to the administration of a private body that is neither monitored nor controled by the government. After a wave of Palestinian riots that broke out following the takeover of real estate in Silwan by Elad, one of the group’s directors, Adi Mintz, said its goal was “to take hold of outposts in East Jerusalem and create an irreversible situation in the holy basin around the Old City.”
The government’s support of a plan by unconstrained zealots places on its own doorstep responsibility for the next outbreak of violence – an irreversible religious conflict.
Armed Militias Loose in Silwan and the “Illegality” of a Peace and Mourning Tabernacle in Sheikh Jarah
Jerusalem or Gaza – where is it worse to be Palestinian? The question was posed by veteran journalist Amira Hass two weeks ago. Surprisingly (or not), her detailed answer is that things are worse in East Jerusalem:
In her article, Hass discusses a recent report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI):
Unsafe Space: The Israeli Authorities’ Failure to Protect Human Rights amid Settlements in East Jerusalem: http://www.acri.org.il/eng/story.aspx?id=763. The obvious conclusion from this report is that when it comes to East Jerusalem, the Israeli police are simply the settlers’ police (with government backing). In Silwan, the grip of the settlers’ police is especially tight. One has to visit this very densely populated village come town, on a steep hill, resembling a Brazilian favela from a distance, to see the contrasting living conditions for most of its 55,000 local inhabitants, on the one hand, and 300 pampered settlers, on the other hand. For background on Silwan, and details about a recent protest action there, see Joel Beinin’s report: Confronting Settlement Expansion in East Jerusalem -http://www.merip.org/mero/mero021410.html.
The settlers in Silwan are also served by militias in the form of private “security” contractors (whose nefarious conduct is being funded by the Israeli tax payer). Both policemen and armed citizens can roam around the place surrounded by an aura of impunity. The fatal shooting incident on Wednesday 22/9, when Samer Sarhan, a 32 year old father of five was killed by one these “security” personnel, is only one of the tips of the iceberg (although this iceberg has been documented quite well in reports such as ACRI’s).
It should be noted that developments on the ground in Silwan (or the “City of David” according to Israeli propaganda-speak) have far-reaching geopolitical implications. In a recent interview, Israel’s Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, outlining his tenets for a final status agreement, referred to Silwan in the context of a “special regime”:
Being arrested and severely beaten by the police during the demonstration held in Silwan on 1/9/2010 (see Joel’ Beinin’s report). The report was first published on the Sheikh Jarrah – Solidarity group’s website. Daniel’s report reflects activists’ frustration with the fact that Israeli mainstream media ignores conclusive evidence presented by peace activists and willingly serves as a mouthpiece for the police and for the army, even when their claims are ridiculous and mendacious.
The second report was written by David Shulman, a veteran activist and a professor of Indian studies at the Hebrew University. His excellent reports from Mount Hebron and other places in the occupied Palestinian territory have been published in the anthology “Dark Hope – Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine”: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/755748.html . David recounts the day’s events in another locus of protest, Sheikh Jarrah, where the settlers’ police actions were certainly less fatal, but no less grotesque.
The people of Silwan, as well as those Israeli activists trying to assist them, need our help in making their voices heard.
You never know what kind of a day you’ve woken up to in this city. Will it be a lazy and serene day, the first day of a vacation that I’ve waited so long for, or a day where the entire city turns into a Kafkaesque story. But perhaps it’s not the city – but the people who live here. So here’s the story: it’s about murder; the police; detainees; missing people; hate; lies and loads of stupidity and folly. In short a typical day in East Jerusalem.
1. The Murder: At around 4 AM one of the settlers’ private security guards opened fire in the direction of some residents in Silwan. At least one man was killed by the shots. 32 year old Samer Sarhan, a father of five. These are all the facts that are certain. According to the security guard he was pelted with stones and his life was in danger. According to Silwan residents Samer was on his way from his home to work and the guard prevented him from continuing, during the ensuing argument the guard took out his pistol and fired.
2. The backdrop: The Jewish settlers in Silwan have a set up a private armed militia for themselves, and we all foot the bill. 65 million New Israeli Shekels ($17.5 Million) are paid out every year by the Israeli Ministry of Housing to guard a couple of hundred Jewish settlers in the middle of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem. The guards are regularly briefed by the settlers, and very often are hired by the heads of the right-wing organizations. The guards are armed only with live ammunition. This is how an armed militia that is operated by the settlers came to be.
These militiamen have opened with live fire at least seven times in the last three months. And those are just the occurrences that I am aware of, apparently there have been many more. This time it ended in disaster.
3. Silencing: From the moment that the murder took place the Jerusalem Police started a comprehensive operation to silence the matter. Large police forces surrounded the event site and prevented people from getting near. When it became known that a man was shot in Silwan, the police spokesperson stated that it was the result of a dispute between clans. This announcement was made hours after police forces were at the site and had already questioned the security guard. The pinnacle of the event for me was that the police reporters that I talked to continued to assert during the course of the morning that this was a case of a dispute between rival clans, despite the fact that the guard reconstructed the event before our eyes. They sucked up their information directly from the police spokesperson.
4. Missing people: Up until now, 18 hours after the event, nobody knows exactly how many people were injured by the shooting. Early rumours contended that there was another casualty, and 18 year-old youth who was in the area. Jerusalem hospitals, the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir and the Israeli Magen David Adom refused to provide any information whatsoever regarding those injured or killed during the event, and what their condition was. Even the information that Samer was killed was given to his family only many hours later. According to reporters a blanket silence such as this, where no one is willing to provide information, many hours after the event, was exceptional to say the least. Although we’ve already seen situations where hospitals and Magen David Adom have been threatened by the Israeli security forces and prefer not to become embroiled, however, in general, after a couple of hours the information becomes public. Not in this case. (As opposed to the
conspicuous prominence of hordes of Israeli hospital directors who are interviewed after every Palestinian terrorist attack).
5. Arrest warrants against Israeli left-wing activists: How do you get rid of a left-wing activist who’s in the area? For this too the police have a creative solution. A “Solidarity Sheik Jarrah” activist was arrested in Silwan this morning and was taken in for a police interview about an event that had taken place on April 30th this year. Their timing is a bit curious, the activist was apparently to close to the crime scene at the time that the security guard was reconstructing the murder.
6. Meanwhile in Sheik Jarrah…: 60 “Solidarity” activists and Palestinian residents decided despite the events to build a sukkah in the neighbourhood, next to one of the residents’ house. The sukkah which was planned as part of the joint celebration of Sukkot (The Jewish Festival of Booths) was also meant to serve as a mourners’ tent regarding the murder in Silwan. Three building inspectors from the Jerusalem Municipality (who apparently remembered that they are supposed to provide services to East Jerusalem) turned up accompanied by dozens of police and demolished the sukkah time after time. Somehow they overlooked two giant sukkahs that the Jewish settlers had built in the neighbourhood, not to mention hundreds in the public domain throughout the city. And so, the peace sukkah in Sheikh Jarrah became the only one to be destroyed during the holiday.
7. Kafkaesque arrests: 2 women activists were arrested during the course of the inspectors’ courageous assault on the sukkah. Here too the police achieved a new record for creativity. The arresting police officer decided to arrest one of the activists since the Jewish settlers might assault her in the future. And so the activist was brought into the police station in order to ensure her safety. The brave soldier Schweik would certainly be jealous of such a plot twist.
8. From the media: “Dozens of left-wing activists attempted to approach the Tomb of Simon the Righteous in the area where Jews reside in Sheik Jarrah, the police prevented them and detained one activist for interrogation regarding the breach of public peace and assault against a police officer”. This is the wording of the police announcement regarding the events in Sheik Jarrah, which the media hurried to parrot. This was definitely a comprehensive report regarding an event in which activists constructed a sukkah next to a Palestinian home, and the police destroyed it time after time. It’s interesting to note that the Police doesn’t believe its own announcements: the proof being that neither of the activists arrested was accused of assault.
9. At the end of the day: It’s now evening in Jerusalem. The festival of lies, distortions and fictions has run its course. Apparently, only to resume again tomorrow. Tomorrow will bring a new dawn, in which each of us will have to choose between being a captive of the “Jerusalem Syndrome” or to see one’ self as part of the hard reality, to which the city awakes every morning.
September 22, 2010
Sheikh Jarrah, Succot
by David Shulman
It may sound unlikely, but we’re in ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan Street in Sheikh Jarrah and, together with Salah and other Palestinian friends from the neighborhood, we’re building a succah. The Succot holiday, my favorite, starts tonight. Religious Jews build little booths covered with palm fronds and eat and sleep in them for seven nights, a memory of the forty years of wandering in the desert and a reminder of the precariousness of all that exists, all that we value and love. You’re supposed to be able to see the stars through the fronds that provide a make-shift roof; honored guests, beginning with the Patriarchs and ending on day seven with King David, are invited to visit each day.
But why build one in Sheikh Jarrah, in the street where the al-Ghazi and al-Kurd houses have been taken over by Israeli settlers and the Palestinian owners driven out? Mr. Al-Kurd, dignified and calm as always, is watching over the construction. New and surprising forms of Palestinian-Israeli friendship have sprung up in this neighborhood in the course of the ongoing struggle, with its weekly demonstrations—often violently suppressed by the police (over a hundred demonstrators have been arrested during the last eight or nine months). The demonstrations are usually on Friday afternoon, but last week’s was cancelled because of Yom Kippur. Two nights before the fast, however, there was a joint prayer session in Sheikh Jarrah, and the exquisite texts of the Selichot—supplications for forgiveness—were read out together, in Arabic and Hebrew, by the activists and the evicted families, standing on this same tortured street, with the settlers jeering at them. I heard that many of our
people had tears in their eyes.
There’s no question that the Jews have a lot to ask forgiveness for. There’s something shocking to me, still, in the High Holiday time in Israel. I live in a mixed neighborhood that has, over the years, like most neighborhoods in Jerusalem, becoming increasingly right-wing. Many of my neighbors are religious and, of course, strident nationalists, and some of them are even what I would call soft-core racists. They find it convenient to hate Palestinians, or Arabs in general, and they feel no compunction whatsoever about the Israeli settlement project and the ongoing theft of Palestinian land, on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, proceeding apace day by day. So how is it, I ask myself—you have to forgive my stubborn innocence—that these same neighbors can spend Yom Kippur praying for forgiveness for their sins without even noticing that we, the people of Israel, are guilty of terrible crimes against our Palestinian brothers and sisters? Why bother going to the synagogue at
all if you are so blind to the suffering of others, if you are living a lie? I know I’ll never understand.
So here we are building together a succat shalom, a Succah of Peace—another resonant phrase from the prayer book—and the police are, of course, here in force together with the Jerusalem municipality’s building inspectors, and they’ve given us notice that what we are doing is illegal and they will destroy the succah as soon as it’s built. You should know that the city is absolutely filled with succot, thousands of them, many of them built (without permits, of course) on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares (in some areas, such as Nahlaot, you can barely negotiate your way along the street), and none of them, it goes without saying, is in danger of being demolished—since they are good Jewish succot, after all, respectable appurtenances of the tribe. But a Palestinian-Israel Peace Succah, that’s clearly another matter. There’s no way the police will let it stand. It’s a public menace. It might disturb for a few moments the proper order of a world in which
Palestinians can be ruthlessly driven from their homes, and those who protest against this cruelty will be thrown in jail. It might even make some ordinary person stop and think when he or she reads the inscription on the cloth panel forming one of the succah’s sides: “The Sheikh Jarrah Succah of Peace.” Who knows what unsettling thoughts this rickety structure of poles and tinsel decorations might engender? Besides, we’re building it right outside the houses the settlers have stolen, and the pious settlers might take offense.
It’s somehow comforting to engage in these doomed, purely symbolic actions; it feels right. The very futility of it all makes it all the better, all the more necessary, even fun; in fact, the more absurd the better. Credo quia absurdum est. And there is the friendship infusing this moment and giving it meaning. We were here ten days ago for a joint ‘Id al-Fitr/Rosh Hashana party, and Mr. Al-Kurd spoke with his usual gracious forbearance, thanking us for standing beside them, and a little Palestinian girl took the microphone and said, “We are tired of the settlers’ stealing our homes and our toys.” I have to confess, though, that today, as the afternoon wears on and the succah is destroyed, not once but twice, I’m also feeling very angry. This has been a tough day. In the early hours of the morning, a security guard employed by the Jewish settlers in Silwan, under the walls of the Old City, shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man, Samir Sirhan, a father of five. I wasn’t there
to see it, I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I can say with confidence that if there were no Israeli enclave planted by force in the heart of Palestinian Silwan, with an armed mercenary militia to “protect” it, Samir would probably still be alive. Another two, at least, were wounded (the police have clamped down a news blackout, no one knows for sure how many were hurt). Amiel got there early and was, of course, arrested. (You can be quite sure that nothing will happen to the security guard who shot and killed.) Silwan, meanwhile, has erupted in violent protest. It wouldn’t take much to spark off another Intifada, especially the way things are going, with Netanyahu refusing to renew the “freeze” on building in the settlements. If the talks collapse over this, as they may, or over some other piece of wicked foolishness, another round of violence is all too likely: that was the Chief of Staff’s assessment, as of yesterday. You have to remember, too, that every single housing unit that goes up in the territories is a crime under international law as well as a crime against ordinary human decency and against God, if there is a God.
So our succah is also planned as a Booth of Mourning for Samir, as is customary among Palestinians—another reason, no doubt, for the authorities to attack it. The Sheikh Jarrah protest, perhaps the most hopeful development in the Israeli peace movement in recent years, is closely allied with grass-roots Palestinian protest in Silwan. Three weeks ago we held a medium-size demonstration in Silwan against El’ad, the settler organization that effectively rules the village and that has been given responsibility for the archaeological site there, which they call the City of David, the most sensitive such site in the country (another unthinkable outrage, possible only in Israel). Every year El’ad runs an archaeological conference and tour in Silwan, open to the public, and we were there to protest. We managed to make ourselves heard, at considerable cost; Daniel, standing right beside me, was brutally battered, kicked, and trampled by the police, without provocation, and taken off,
bleeding profusely, his glasses shattered, to jail; Ram was seriously wounded in the foot by a border policeman; several others were also hurt, and eight arrested. I found it more depressing than usual, though in our terms these days the demonstration counts as a success. I had just returned from India, and the renewed encounter with hard-core monotheists was something of a shock.
For the record, and in brief, here is how the Succah comes crashing down. It’s standing there on the sidewalk, miraculously held together by strings and poles, as a Succah should be, and gaudily decorated with paper cut-outs and bright paintings and shiny flowers which we prepared together with the Palestinian children. Looks not bad. Nissim says we should apply to the annual competition for the Most Beautiful Succah prize. It huddles under a large fig tree whose branches spill over the courtyard wall; indeed, the Succah could easily be taken as no more than a slight extension of this beautiful tree. We’re rather proud of it. We stand inside it as the police advance, and of course it’s not very sturdy so within about three minutes it’s been ripped apart, the poles strewn over the street, the palm fronds snapped, the decorations mangled and torn. At just this moment one of the settlers walks into the courtyard of his stolen house carrying a large palm frond for his succah, which, I assure you, no one will demolish; he wishes us a happy holiday. I can also assure you that ours is the only succah to be destroyed by the municipality this year.
Silan is arrested during this short altercation. As soon as it’s over, we start again. This time we forget about the poles on the sidewalk; we will hang the cloth panels down from a few wooden rods resting on the enclosure wall and reaching into the fig tree. There’s even room for a few more decorations. Salah works happily, defiantly, at making this half-succah fit the classical model, more or less, and after half an hour or so it is, indeed, a passable specimen, and even less of an Obstruction to the Public than its noble predecessor. However, it quickly shares the former’s sad fate.
Before the police move in the second time, I take my stand inside this lovable little booth; it’s where I want to be. Hillel is standing beside me; he knows Jewish law inside out, so when I say that I’m afraid that this is not quite a kosher succah—for one thing, you definitely can’t see the sky (to say nothing, in theory, of any stars)– he laughs and at once confirms this thought. Still, I decide that since I’ve helped build it, and I believe deeply in the almost hopeless idea that it embodies, I might as well say the holiday blessing. You’re supposed to utter it sitting down, but there’s nowhere to sit in the Palestinian-Israeli Succah of Peace in its final moments, so I change the formula just a little: “Blessed art Thou, Lord of the Universe, who has commanded us to stand in the Succah.” You know what, maybe He does, after all, exist. Hillel, who knows I’ve been away in India, asks me if I’m back to stay a while, and I say yes and, a little bitterly, quote
the old Zionist song: “I’ve come up to the Land to build and be built.” I wave my arms at our fragile, tacky, quixotic creation. “As you can see,” I say, “so far it’s not going very well.”
Gideon Levy is the most hated man in Israel – and perhaps the most heroic. This “good Tel Aviv boy” – a sober, serious child of the Jewish state – has been shot at repeatedly by the Israeli Defence Force, been threatened with being “beaten to a pulp” on the country’s streets, and faced demands from government ministers that he be tightly monitored as “a security risk.” This is because he has done something very simple, and something that almost no other Israeli has done. Nearly every week for three decades, he has travelled to the Occupied Territories and described what he sees, plainly and without propaganda. “My modest mission,” he says, “is to prevent a situation in which many Israelis will be able to say, ‘We didn’t know.’” And for that, many people want him silenced.
The story of Gideon Levy – and the attempt to deride, suppress or deny his words – is the story of Israel distilled. If he loses, Israel itself is lost.
I meet him in a hotel bar in Scotland, as part of his European tour to promote his new book, ‘The Punishment of Gaza’. The 57 year-old looks like an Eastern European intellectual on a day off – tall and broad and dressed in black, speaking accented English in a lyrical baritone. He seems so at home in the world of book festivals and black coffee that it is hard, at first, to picture him on the last occasion he was in Gaza – in November, 2006, before the Israeli government changed the law to stop him going.
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He reported that day on a killing, another of the hundreds he has documented over the years. As twenty little children pulled up in their school bus at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, their 20 year-old teacher, Najawa Khalif, waved to them – and an Israel shell hit her and she was blasted to pieces in front of them. He arrived a day later, to find the shaking children drawing pictures of the chunks of her corpse. The children were “astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they had ever seen were soldiers and settlers.”
“My biggest struggle,” he says, “is to rehumanize the Palestinians. There’s a whole machinery of brainwashing in Israel which really accompanies each of us from early childhood, and I’m a product of this machinery as much as anyone else. [We are taught] a few narratives that it’s very hard to break. That we Israelis are the ultimate and only victims. That the Palestinians are born to kill, and their hatred is irrational. That the Palestinians are not human beings like us? So you get a society without any moral doubts, without any questions marks, with hardly public debate. To raise your voice against all this is very hard.”
So he describes the lives of ordinary Palestinians like Najawa and her pupils in the pages of Ha’aretz, Israel’s establishment newspaper. The tales read like Chekovian short stories of trapped people, in which nothing happens, and everything happens, and the only escape is death. One article was entitled “The last meal of the Wahbas family.” He wrote: “They’d all sat down to have lunch at home: the mother Fatma, three months pregnant; her daughter Farah, two; her son Khaled, one; Fatma’s brother, Dr Zakariya Ahmed; his daughter in law Shayma, nine months pregnant; and the seventy-eight year old grandmother. A Wahba family gathering in Khan Yunis in honour of Dr Ahmed, who’d arrived home six days earlier from Saudi Arabia. A big boom is heard outside. Fatma hurriedly scoops up the littlest one and tries to escape to an inner room, but another boom follows immediately. This time is a direct hit.”
In small biographical details, he recovers their humanity from the blankness of an ever-growing death toll. The Wahbas had tried for years to have a child before she finally became pregnant at the age of 36. The grandmother tried to lift little Khaled off the floor: that’s when she realised her son and daughter were dead.
Levy uses a simple technique. He asks his fellow Israelis: how would we feel, if this was done to us by a vastly superior military power? Once, in Jenin, his car was stuck behind an ambulance at a checkpoint for an hour. He saw there was a sick woman in the back and asked the driver what was going on, and he was told the ambulances were always made to wait this long. Furious, he asked the Israeli soldiers how they would feel if it was their mother in the ambulance – and they looked bemused at first, then angry, pointing their guns at him and telling him to shut up.
“I am amazed again and again at how little Israelis know of what’s going on fifteen minutes away from their homes,” he says. “The brainwashing machinery is so efficient that trying [to undo it is] almost like trying to turn an omelette back to an egg. It makes people so full of ignorance and cruelty.” He gives an example. During Operation Cast Lead, the Israel bombing of blockaded Gaza in 2008-9, “a dog – an Israeli dog – was killed by a Qassam rocket and it on the front page of the most popular newspaper in Israel. On the very same day, there were tens of Palestinians killed, they were on page 16, in two lines.”
At times, the occupation seems to him less tragic than absurd. In 2009, Spain’s most famous clown, Ivan Prado, agreed to attend a clowning festival on Ramallah in the West Bank. He was detained at the airport in Israel, and then deported “for security reasons.” Levy leans forward and asks: “Was the clown considering transferring Spain’s vast stockpiles of laughter to hostile elements? Joke bombs to the jihadists? A devastating punch line to Hamas?”
Yet the absurdity nearly killed him. In the summer of 2003, he was travelling in a clearly marked Israeli taxi on the West Bank. He explains: “At a certain stage the army stopped us and asked what we were doing there. We showed them our papers, which were all in order. They sent us up a road – and when we went onto this road, they shot us. They directed their fire to the centre of the front window. Straight at the head. No shooting in the air, no megaphone calling to stop, no shooting at the wheels. Shoot to kill immediately. If it hadn’t been bullet-proof, I wouldn’t be here now. I don’t think they knew who we were. They shot us like they would shoot anyone else. They were trigger-happy, as they always are. It was like having a cigarette. They didn’t shoot just one bullet. The whole car was full of bullets. Do they know who they are going to kill? No. They don’t know and don’t care.”
He shakes his head with a hardened bewilderment. “They shoot at the Palestinians like this on a daily basis. You have only heard about this because, for once, they shot at an Israeli.”
I “Who lived in this house? Where is he now?”
How did Gideon Levy become so different to his countrymen? Why does he offer empathy to the Palestinians while so many others offer only bullets and bombs? At first, he was just like them: his argument with other Israelis is an argument with his younger self. He was born in 1953 in Tel Aviv and as a young man “I was totally nationalistic, like everyone else. I thought – we are the best, and the Arabs just want to kill. I didn’t question.”
He was fourteen during the Six Day War, and soon after his parents took him to see the newly conquered Occupied Territories. “We were so proud going to see Rachel’s Tomb [in Bethlehem] and we just didn’t see the Palestinians. We looked right through them, like they were invisible,” he says. “It had always been like that. We were passing as children so many ruins [of Palestinian villages that had been ethnically cleansed in 1948]. We never asked: ‘Who lived in this house? Where is he now? He must be alive. He must be somewhere.’ It was part of the landscape, like a tree, like a river.” Long into his twenties, “I would see settlers cutting down olive trees and soldiers mistreating Palestinian women at the checkpoints, and I would think, ‘These are exceptions, not part of government policy.’”
Levy says he became different due to “an accident.” He carried out his military service with Israeli Army Radio and then continued working as a journalist, “so I started going to the Occupied Territories a lot, which most Israelis don’t do. And after a while, gradually, I came to see them as they really are.”
But can that be all? Plenty of Israelis go to the territories – not least the occupying troops and settlers – without recoiling. “I think it was also – you see, my parents were refugees. I saw what it had done to them. So I suppose… I saw these people and thought of my parents.” Levy’s father was a German Jewish lawyer from the Sudetenland. At the age of 26 – in 1939, as it was becoming inescapably clear the Nazis were determined to stage a genocide in Europe – he went with his parents to the railway station in Prague, and they waved him goodbye. “He never saw them or heard from them again,” Levy says. “He never found out what happened to them. If he had not left, he would not have lived.” For six months he lived on a boat filled with refugees, being turned away from port after port, until finally they made it to British Mandate Palestine, as it then was.
“My father was traumatised for his whole life,” he says. “He never really settled in Israel. He never really learned to speak anything but broken Hebrew. He came to Israel with his PhD and he had to make his living, so he started to work in a bakery and to sell cakes from door to door on his bicycle. It must have been a terrible humiliation to be a PhD in law and be knocking on doors offering cakes. He refused to learn to be a lawyer again. He became a minor clerk. I think this is what smashed him, y’know? He lived here sixty years, he had his family, had his happiness but he was really a stranger. A foreigner, in his own country? He was always outraged by things, small things. He couldn’t understand how people would dare to phone between two and four in the afternoon. It horrified him. He never understood what is the concept of overdraft in the bank. Every Israeli has an overdraft, but if he heard somebody was one pound overdrawn, he was horrified.”
His father “never” talked about home. “Any time I tried to encourage him to talk about it, he would close down. He never went back. There was nothing [to go back to], the whole village was destroyed. He left a whole life there. He left a fiancé, a career, everything. I am very sorry I didn’t push him harder to talk because I was young, so I didn’t have much interest. That’s the problem. When we are curious about our parents, they are gone.”
Levy’s father never saw any parallels between the fact he was turned into a refugee, and the 800,000 Palestinians who were turned into refugees by the creation of the state of Israel. “Never! People didn’t think like that. We never discussed it, ever.” Yet in the territories, Levy began to see flickers of his father everywhere – in the broken men and women never able to settle, dreaming forever of going home.
Then, slowly, Levy began to realise their tragedy seeped deeper still into his own life – into the ground beneath his feet and the very bricks of the Israeli town where he lives, Sheikh Munis. It is built on the wreckage of “one of the 416 Palestinian villages Israel wiped off the face of the earth in 1948,” he says. “The swimming pool where I swim every morning was the irrigation grove they used to water the village’s groves. My house stands on one of the groves. The land was ‘redeemed’ by force, its 2,230 inhabitants were surrounded and threatened. They fled, never to return. Somewhere, perhaps in a refugee camp in terrible poverty, lives the family of the farmer who plowed the land where my house now stands.” He adds that it is “stupid and wrong” to compare it to the Holocaust, but says that man is a traumatized refugee just as surely as Levy’s father – and even now, if he ended up in the territories, he and his children and grandchildren live under blockade, or violent military occupation.
The historian Isaac Deutscher once offered an analogy for the creation of the state of Israel. A Jewish man jumps from a burning building, and he lands on a Palestinian, horribly injuring him. Can the jumping man be blamed? Levy’s father really was running for his life: it was Palestine, or a concentration camp. Yet Levy says that the analogy is imperfect – because now the jumping man is still, sixty years later, smashing the head of the man he landed on against the ground, and beating up his children and grandchildren too. “1948 is still here. 1948 is still in the refugee camps. 1948 is still calling for a solution,” he says. “Israel is doing the very same thing now… dehumanising the Palestinians where it can, and ethnic cleansing wherever it’s possible. 1948 is not over. Not by a long way.”
II The scam of “peace talks”
Levy looks out across the hotel bar where we are sitting and across the Middle East, as if the dry sands of the Negev desert were washing towards us. Any conversation about the region is now dominated by a string of propaganda myths, he says, and perhaps the most basic is the belief that Israel is a democracy. “Today we have three kinds of people living under Israeli rule,” he explains. “We have Jewish Israelis, who have full democracy and have full civil rights. We have the Israeli Arabs, who have Israeli citizenship but are severely discriminated against. And we have the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, who live without any civil rights, and without any human rights. Is that a democracy?”
He sits back and asks in a low tone, as if talking about a terminally ill friend: “How can you say it is a democracy when, in 62 years, there was not one single Arab village established? I don’t have to tell you how many Jewish towns and villages were established. Not one Arab village. How can you say it’s a democracy when research has shown repeatedly that Jews and Arabs get different punishments for the same crime? How can you say it’s a democracy when a Palestinian student can hardly rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, because when they hear his accent or his name almost nobody will rent to him? How can you say Israel is a democracy when? Jerusalem invests 577 shekels a year in a pupil in [Palestinian] East Jerusalem and 2372 shekels a year in a pupil from [Jewish] West Jerusalem. Four times less, only because of the child’s ethnicity! Every part of our society is racist.”
“I want to be proud of my country,” he says. “I am an Israeli patriot. I want us to do the right thing.” So this requires him to point out that Palestinian violence is – in truth – much more limited than Israeli violence, and usually a reaction to it. “The first twenty years of the occupation passed quietly, and we did not lift a finger to end it. Instead, under cover of the quiet, we built the enormous, criminal settlement enterprise,” where Palestinian land is seized by Jewish religious fundamentalists who claim it was given to them by God. Only then – after a long period of theft, and after their attempts at peaceful resistance were met with brutal violence – did the Palestinians become violent themselves. “What would happen if the Palestinians had not fired Qassams [the rockets shot at Southern Israel, including civilian towns]? Would Israel have lifted the economic siege? Nonsense. If the Gazans were sitting quietly, as Israel expects them to do, their case would disappear from the agenda. Nobody would give any thought to the fate of the people of Gaza if they had not behaved violently.”
He unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians, but adds: “The Qassams have a context. They are almost always fired after an IDF assassination operation, and there have been many of these.” Yet the Israeli attitude is that “we are allowed to bomb anything we want but they are not allowed to launch Qassams.” It is a view summarised by Haim Ramon, the justice minister at time of Second Lebanon War: “We are allowed to destroy everything.”
Even the terms we use to discuss Operation Cast Lead are wrong, Levy argues. “That wasn’t a war. It was a brutal assault on a helpless, imprisoned population. You can call a match between Mike Tyson and a 5 year old child boxing, but the proportions, oh, the proportions.” Israel “frequently targeted medical crews, [and] shelled a UN-run school that served as a shelter for residents, who bled to death over days as the IDF prevented their evacuation by shooting and shelling… A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organisation. They say as a justification that Hamas hides among the civilian population. As if the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv is not located in the heart of a civilian population! As if there are places in Gaza that are not in the heart of a civilian population!”
He appeals to anybody who is sincerely concerned about Israel’s safety and security to join him in telling Israelis the truth in plain language. “A real friend does not pick up the bill for an addict’s drugs: he packs the friend off to rehab instead. Today, only those who speak up against Israel’s policies – who denounce the occupation, the blockade, and the war – are the nation’s true friends.” The people who defend Israel’s current course are “betraying the country” by encouraging it on “the path to disaster. A child who has seen his house destroyed, his brother killed, and his father humiliated will not easily forgive.”
These supposed ‘friends of Israel’ are in practice friends of Islamic fundamentalism, he believes. “Why do they have to give the fundamentalists more excuses, more fury, more opportunities, more recruits? Look at Gaza. Gaza was totally secular not long ago. Now you can hardly get alcohol today in Gaza, after all the brutality. Religious fundamentalism is always the language people turn to in despair, if everything else fails. If Gaza had been a free society it would not have become like this. We gave them recruits.”
Levy believes the greatest myth – the one hanging over the Middle East like perfume sprayed onto a corpse – is the idea of the current ‘peace talks’ led by the United States. There was a time when he too believed in them. At the height of the Oslo talks in the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin negotiated with Yassir Arafat, “at the end of a visit I turned and, in a gesture straight out of the movies, waved Gaza farewell. Goodbye occupied Gaza, farewell! We are never to meet again, at least not in your occupied state. How foolish!”
Now, he says, he is convinced it was “a scam” from the start, doomed to fail. How does he know? “There is a very simple litmus test for any peace talks. A necessity for peace is for Israel to dismantle settlements in the West Bank. So if you are going to dismantle settlements soon, you’d stop building more now, right? They carried on building them all through Oslo. And today, Netanyahu is refusing to freeze construction, the barest of the bare minimum. It tells you all you need.”
He says Netanyahu has – like the supposedly more left-wing alternatives, Ehud Barak and Tzipip Livni – always opposed real peace talks, and even privately bragged about destroying the Oslo process. In 1997, during his first term as Israeli leader, he insisted he would only continue with the talks if a clause was added saying Israel would not have to withdraw from undefined “military locations” – and he was later caught on tape boasting: “Why is that important? Because from that moment on I stopped the Oslo accords.” If he bragged about “stopping” the last peace process, why would he want this one to succeed? Levy adds: “And how can you make peace with only half the Palestinian population? How can you leave out Hamas and Gaza?”
These fake peace talks are worse than no talks at all, Levy believes. “If there are negotiations, there won’t be international pressure. Quiet, we’re in discussions, settlement can go on uninterrupted. That is why futile negotiations are dangerous negotiations. Under the cover of such talks, the chances for peace will grow even dimmer… The clear subtext is Netanyahu’s desire to get American support for bombing Iran. To do that, he thinks he needs to at least pay lip-service to Obama’s requests for talks. That’s why he’s doing this.”
After saying this, he falls silent, and we stare at each other for a while. Then he says, in a quieter voice: “The facts are clear. Israel has no real intention of quitting the territories or allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their rights. No change will come to pass in the complacent, belligerent, and condescending Israel of today. This is the time to come up with a rehabilitation programme for Israel.”
III Waving Israeli flags made in China
According to the opinion polls, most Israelis support a two-state solution – yet they elect governments that expand the settlements and so make a two-state solution impossible. “You would need a psychiatrist to explain this contradiction,” Levy says. “Do they expect two states to fall from the sky? Today, the Israelis have no reason to make any changes,” he continues. “Life in Israel is wonderful. You can sit in Tel Aviv and have a great life. Nobody talks about the occupation. So why would they bother [to change]? The majority of Israelis think about the next vacation and the next jeep and all the rest doesn’t interest them any more.” They are drenched in history, and yet oblivious to it.
In Israel, the nation’s “town square has been empty for years. If there were no significant protests during Operation Cast Lead, then there is no left to speak of. The only group campaigning for anything other than their personal whims are the settlers, who are very active.” So how can change happen? He says he is “very pessimistic”, and the most likely future is a society turning to ever-more naked “apartheid.” With a shake of the head, he says: “We had now two wars, the flotilla – it doesn’t seem that Israel has learned any lesson, and it doesn’t seem that Israel is paying any price. The Israelis don’t pay any price for the injustice of the occupation, so the occupation will never end. It will not end a moment before Israelis understand the connection between the occupation and the price they will be forced to pay. They will never shake it off on their own initiative.”
It sounds like he is making the case for boycotting Israel, but his position is more complex. “Firstly, the Israeli opposition to the boycott is incredibly hypocritical. Israel itself is one of the world’s most prolific boycotters. Not only does it boycott, it preaches to others, at times even forces others, to follow in tow. Israel has imposed a cultural, academic, political, economic and military boycott on the territories. The most brutal, naked boycott is, of course, the siege on Gaza and the boycott of Hamas. At Israel’s behest, nearly all Western countries signed onto the boycott with inexplicable alacrity. This is not just a siege that has left Gaza in a state of shortage for three years. It’s a series of cultural, academic, humanitarian and economic boycotts. Israel is also urging the world to boycott Iran. So Israelis cannot complain if this is used against them.”
He shifts in his seat. “But I do not boycott Israel. I could have done it, I could have left Israel. But I don’t intend to leave Israel. Never. I can’t call on others to do what I will not do… There is also the question of whether it will work. I am not sure Israelis would make the connection. Look at the terror that happened in 2002 and 2003: life in Israel was really horrifying, the exploding buses, the suicide-bombers. But no Israeli made the connection between the occupation and the terror. For them, the terror was just the ‘proof’ that the Palestinians are monsters, that they were born to kill, that they are not human beings and that’s it. And if you just dare to make the connection, people will tell you ‘you justify terror ’ and you are a traitor. I suspect it would be the same with sanctions. The condemnation after Cast Lead and the flotilla only made Israel more nationalistic. If [a boycott was] seen as the judgement of the world they would be effective. But Israelis are more likely to take them as ‘proof’ the world is anti-Semitic and will always hate us.”
He believes only one kind of pressure would bring Israel back to sanity and safety: “The day the president of the United States decides to put an end to the occupation, it will cease. Because Israel was never so dependent on the United States as it is now. Never. Not only economically, not only militarily but above all politically. Israel is totally isolated today, except for America.” He was initially hopeful that Barack Obama would do this – he recalls having tears in his eyes as he delivered his victory speech in Grant Park – but he says he has only promoted “tiny steps, almost nothing, when big steps are needed.” It isn’t only bad for Israel – it is bad for America. “The occupation is the best excuse for many worldwide terror organisations. It’s not always genuine but they use it. Why do you let them use it? Why give them this fury? Why not you solve it once and for all when the, when the solution is so simple?”
For progress, “the right-wing American Jews who become orgiastic whenever Israel kills and destroys” would have to be exposed as “Israel’s enemies”, condemning the country they supposedly love to eternal war. “It is the right-wing American Jews who write the most disgusting letters. They say I am Hitler’s grandson, that they pray my children get cancer? It is because I touch a nerve with them. There is something there.” These right-wingers claim to be opposed to Iran, but Levy points out they vehemently oppose the two available steps that would immediately isolate Iran and strip Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh of his best propaganda-excuses: “peace with Syria and peace with the Palestinians, both of which are on offer, and both of which are rejected by Israel. They are the best way to undermine Iran.”
He refuses to cede Israel to people “who wave their Israeli flags made in China and dream of a Knesset cleansed of Arabs and an Israel with no [human rights organisation] B’Tselem.” He looks angry, indignant. “I will never leave. It’s my place on earth. It’s my language, it’s my culture. Even the criticism that I carry and the shame that I carry come from my deep belonging to the place. I will leave only if I be forced to leave. They would have to tear me out.”
IV A whistle in the dark
Does he think this is a real possibility – that his freedom could be taken from him, in Israel itself? “Oh, very easily,” he says. “It’s already taken from me by banning me from going to Gaza, and this is just a start. I have great freedom to write and to appear on television in Israel, and I have a very good life, but I don’t take my freedom for granted, not at all. If this current extreme nationalist atmosphere continues in Israel in one, two, three years time?” He sighs. “There may be new restrictions, Ha’aretz may close down – God forbid – I don’t take anything for granted. I will not be surprised if Israeli Palestinian parties are criminalized at the next election, for example. Already they are going after the NGOs [Non-Government Organizations that campaign for Palestinian rights]. There is already a majority in the opinion polls who want to punish people who expose wrong-doing by the military and want to restrict the human rights groups.”
There is also the danger of a freelance attack. Last year, a man with a large dog strutted up to Levy near his home and announced: “I have wanted to beat you to a pulp for a long time.” Levy only narrowly escaped, and the man was never caught. He says now: “I am scared but I don’t live on the fear. But to tell you that my night sleep is as yours… I’m not sure. Any noise, my first association is ‘maybe now, it’s coming’. But there was never any concrete case in which I really thought ‘here it comes’. But I know it might come.”
Has he ever considered not speaking the truth, and diluting his statements? He laughs – and for the only time in our interview, his eloquent torrents of words begin to sputter. “I wish I could! No way I could. I mean, this is not an option at all. Really, I can’t. How can I? No way. I feel lonely but my private, er, surrounding is supportive, part of it at least. And there are still Israelis who appreciate what I do. If you walk with me in the streets of Tel Aviv you will see all kinds of reactions but also very positive reactions. It is hard but I mean it’s?it’s?what other choice do I have?”
He says his private life is supportive “in part”. What’s the part that isn’t? For the past few years, he says, he has dated non-Israeli women – “I couldn’t be with a nationalistic person who said those things about the Palestinians” – but his two sons don’t read anything he writes, “and they have different politics from me. I think it was difficult for them, quite difficult.” Are they right-wingers? “No, no, no, nothing like that. As they get older, they are coming to my views more. But they don’t read my work. No,” he says, looking down, “they don’t read it.”
The long history of the Jewish people has a recurring beat – every few centuries, a brave Jewish figure stands up to warn his people they are have ended up on an immoral or foolish path that can only end in catastrophe, and implores them to change course. The first prophet, Amos, warned that the Kingdom of Israel would be destroyed because the Jewish people had forgotten the need for justice and generosity – and he was shunned for it. Baruch Spinoza saw beyond the Jewish fundamentalism of his day to a materialist universe that could be explained scientifically – and he was excommunicated, even as he cleared the path for the great Jewish geniuses to come. Could Levy, in time, be seen as a Jewish prophet in the unlikely wilderness of a Jewish state, calling his people back to a moral path?
He nods faintly, and smiles. “Noam Chomsky once wrote to me that I was like the early Jewish prophets. It was the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid me. But… well… My opponents would say it’s a long tradition of self-hating Jews. But I don’t take that seriously. For sure, I feel that I belong to a tradition of self-criticism. I deeply believe in self-criticism.” But it leaves him in bewildering situations: “Many times I am standing among Palestinian demonstrators, my back to the Palestinians, my face to the Israeli soldiers, and they were shooting in our direction. They are my people, and they are my army. The people I’m standing among are supposed to be the enemy. It is…” He shakes his head. There must be times, I say, when you ask: what’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a state like this?
But then, as if it has been nagging at him, he returns abruptly to an earlier question. “I am very pessimistic, sure. Outside pressure can be effective if it’s an American one but I don’t see it happening. Other pressure from other parts of the world might be not effective. The Israeli society will not change on its own, and the Palestinians are too weak to change it. But having said this, I must say, if we had been sitting here in the late 1980s and you had told me that the Berlin wall will fall within months, that the Soviet Union will fall within months, that parts of the regime in South Africa will fall within months, I would have laughed at you. Perhaps the only hope I have is that this occupation regime hopefully is already so rotten that maybe it will fall by itself one day. You have to be realistic enough to believe in miracles.”
In the meantime, Gideon Levy will carry on patiently documenting his country’s crimes, and trying to call his people back to a righteous path. He frowns a little – as if he is picturing Najawa Khalif blown to pieces in front of her school bus, or his own broken father – and says to me: “A whistle in the dark is still a whistle.”