Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence too, which takes its time and finally gets its way. Children going to school and coming home are exposed to it. Fathers and mothers listen to politicians on television calling for their extermination. Grandmothers have no expectation that even their aged bodies are safe: any young man may lay a hand on them with no consequence.
The police could arrive at night and drag a family out into the street. Putting a people into deep uncertainty about the fundamentals of life, over years and decades, is a form of cold violence. Through an accumulation of laws rather than by military means, a particular misery is intensified and entrenched. This slow violence, this cold violence, no less than the other kind, ought to be looked at and understood.
Near the slopes of Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem is the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Most of the people who live here are Palestinian Arabs, and the area itself has an ancient history that features both Jews and Arabs. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are in a special legal category under modern Israeli law. Most of them are not Israeli citizens, nor are they classified the same way as people in Gaza or the West Bank; they are permanent residents. There are old Palestinian families here, but in a neighbourhood like Sheikh Jarrah many of the people are refugees who were settled here after the nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948. They left their original homes behind, fleeing places such as Haifa and Sarafand al-Amar, and they came to Sheikh Jarrah, which then became their home. Many of them were given houses constructed on a previously uninhabited parcel of land by the Jordanian government and by the UN Relief and Works Agency. East Jerusalem came under Israeli control in 1967, and since then, but at an increasing tempo in recent years, these families are being rendered homeless a second or third time.
There are many things about Palestine that are not easily seen from a distance. The beauty of the land, for instance, is not at all obvious. Scripture and travellers’ reports describe a harsh terrain of stone and rocks, a place in which it is difficult to find water or to shelter from the sun. Why would anyone want this land? But then you visit and you understand the attenuated intensity of what you see. You get the sense that there are no wasted gestures, that this is an economical landscape, and that there is great beauty in this economy. The sky is full of clouds that are like flecks of white paint. The olive trees, the leaves of which have silvered undersides, are like an apparition. And even the stones and rocks speak of history, of deep time, and of the consolation that comes with all old places. This is a land of tombs, mountains and mysterious valleys. All this one can only really see at close range.
Another thing one sees, obscured by distance but vivid up close, is that the Israeli oppression of Palestinian people is not necessarily – or at least not always – as crude as western media can make it seem. It is in fact extremely refined, and involves a dizzying assemblage of laws and bylaws, contracts, ancient documents, force, amendments, customs, religion, conventions and sudden irrational moves, all mixed together and imposed with the greatest care.
The impression this insistence on legality confers, from the Israeli side, is of an infinitely patient due process that will eventually pacify the enemy and guarantee security. The reality, from the Palestinian side, is of a suffocating viciousness. The fate of Palestinian Arabs since the nakba has been to be scattered and oppressed by different means: in the West Bank, in Gaza, inside the 1948 borders, in Jerusalem, in refugee camps abroad, in Jordan, in the distant diaspora. In all these places, Palestinians experience restrictions on their freedom and on their movement. To be Palestinian is to be hemmed in. Much of this is done by brute military force from the Israeli Defence Forces – killing for which no later accounting is possible – or on an individual basis in the secret chambers of the Shin Bet. But a lot of it is done according to Israeli law, argued in and approved by Israeli courts, and technically legal, even when the laws in question are bad laws and in clear contravention of international standards and conventions.
The permanent residency of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem is anything but permanent
The reality is that, as a Palestinian Arab, in order to defend yourself against the persecution you face, not only do you have to be an expert in Israeli law, you also have to be a Jewish Israeli and have the force of the Israeli state as your guarantor. You have to be what you are not, what it is not possible for you to be, in order not to be slowly strangled by the laws arrayed against you. In Israel, there is no pretence that the opposing parties in these cases are equal before the law; or, rather, such a pretence exists, but no one on either side takes it seriously. This has certainly been the reality for the Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah whose homes, built mostly in 1956, inhabited by three or four generations of people, are being taken from them by legal means.
As in other neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem – Har Homa, the Old City, Mount Scopus, Jaffa Gate – there is a policy at work in Sheikh Jarrah. This policy is two-fold. The first is the systematic removal of Palestinian Arabs, either by banishing individuals on the basis of paperwork, or by taking over or destroying their homes by court order. Thousands of people have had their residency revoked on a variety of flimsy pretexts: time spent living abroad, time spent living elsewhere in occupied Palestine, and so on. The permanent residency of a Palestinian in East Jerusalem is anything but permanent, and once it is revoked, is almost impossible to recover.
The second aspect of the policy is the systematic increase of the Jewish populations of these neighbourhoods. This latter goal is driven both by national and municipal legislation (under the official rubric of “demographic balance”) and is sponsored in part by wealthy Zionist activists who, unlike some of their defenders in the western world, are proud to embrace the word “Zionist”. However, it is not the wealthy Zionists who move into these homes or claim these lands: it is ideologically and religiously extreme Israeli Jews, some of whom are poor Jewish immigrants to the state of Israel. And when they move in – when they raise the Israeli flag over a house that, until yesterday, was someone else’s ancestral home, or when they begin new constructions on the rubble of other people’s homes – they act as anyone would who was above the law: callously, unfeelingly, unconcerned about the humiliation of their neighbours. This two-fold policy, of pushing out Palestinian Arabs and filling the land with Israeli Jews, is recognised by all the parties involved. And for such a policy, the term “ethnic cleansing” is not too strong: it is in fact the only accurate description.
Each Palestinian family that is evicted in Sheikh Jarrah is evicted for different reasons. But the fundamental principle at work is usually similar: an activist Jewish organisation makes a claim that the land on which the house was built was in Jewish hands before 1948. There is sometimes paperwork that supports this claim (there is a lot of citation of 19th-century Ottoman land law), and sometimes the paperwork is forged, but the court will hear and, through eccentric interpretations of these old laws, often agree to the claim. The violence this legality contains is precisely that no Israeli court will hear a corresponding claim from a Palestinian family. What Israeli law supports, de facto, is the right of return for Jews into East Jerusalem. What it cannot countenance is the right of return of Palestinians into the innumerable towns, villages and neighbourhoods all over Palestine, from which war, violence and law have expelled them.
History moves at great speed, as does politics, and Zionists understand this. The pressure to continue the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem is already met with pressure from the other side to stop this clear violation of international norms. So Zionist lawyers and lawmakers move with corresponding speed, making new laws, pushing through new interpretations, all in order to ethnically cleanse the land of Palestinian presence. And though Palestinians make their own case and though many young Jews, beginning to wake up to the crimes of their nation, have marched in support of the families evicted or under threat in Sheikh Jarrah – the law and its innovative interpretations evolve at a speed that makes self-defence all but impossible.
This cannot go on. The example of Sheikh Jarrah, the cold violence of it, is echoed all over Palestine. Side by side with this cold violence is, of course, the hot violence that dominates the news: Israel’s periodic wars on Gaza, its blockades on places such as Nablus, the random unanswerable acts of murder in places such as Hebron. In no sane future of humanity should the deaths of hundreds of children continue to be accounted collateral damage, as Israel did in the summer of 2014.
In the world’s assessment of the situation in Palestine, in coming to understand why the Palestinian situation is urgent, the viciousness of law must be taken as seriously as the cruelties of war. As in other instances in which world opinion forced a large-scale systemic oppression to come to an end, we must begin by calling things by their proper names. Israel uses an extremely complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus to dispossess Palestinians of their land, hoping perhaps to forestall accusations of a brutal land grab. No one is fooled by this. Nor is anyone fooled by the accusation, common to many of Israel’s defenders, that any criticism of Israeli policies amounts to antisemitism. The historical suffering of Jewish people is real, but it is no less real than, and does not in any way justify, the present oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews.
A neighbourhood like Sheikh Jarrah is an x-ray of Israel at the present moment: a limited view showing a single set of features, but significant to the entire body politic. The case that is being made, and that must continue to be made to all people of conscience, is that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is criminal. This case should also include the argument that the proliferation of bad laws by the legislature and courts of Israel is itself antisemitic in effect, to the extent that they fuel the ancient calumnies against Jewish people. Nothing can justify either antisemitism or the racist persecution of Arabs, and the current use of the law in Israel is a part of the grave ongoing offence to the human dignity of both Palestinians and Jews. More
• Teju Cole’s books include Open City. He is a contributor to Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, edited by Vijay Prashad (Verso).
How Gazan Natural Gas Became the Epicenter of An International Power Struggle
Guess what? Almost all the current wars, uprisings, and other conflicts in the Middle East are connected by a single thread, which is also a threat: these conflicts are part of an increasingly frenzied competition to find, extract, and market fossil fuels whose future consumption is guaranteed to lead to a set of cataclysmic environmental crises.
Amid the many fossil-fueled conflicts in the region, one of them, packed with threats, large and small, has been largely overlooked, and Israel is at its epicenter. Its origins can be traced back to the early 1990s when Israeli and Palestinian leaders began sparring over rumored natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Gaza. In the ensuing decades, it has grown into a many-fronted conflict involving several armies and three navies. In the process, it has already inflicted mindboggling misery on tens of thousands of Palestinians, and it threatens to add future layers of misery to the lives of people in Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus. Eventually, it might even immiserate Israelis.
Resource wars are, of course, nothing new. Virtually the entire history of Western colonialism and post-World War II globalization has been animated by the effort to find and market the raw materials needed to build or maintain industrial capitalism. This includes Israel’s expansion into, and appropriation of, Palestinian lands. But fossil fuels only moved to center stage in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the 1990s, and that initially circumscribed conflict only spread to include Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, and Russia after 2010.
The Poisonous History of Gazan Natural Gas
Back in 1993, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed the Oslo Accords that were supposed to end the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and create a sovereign state, nobody was thinking much about Gaza’s coastline. As a result, Israel agreedthat the newly created PA would fully control its territorial waters, even though the Israeli navy was still patrolling the area. Rumored natural gas deposits there mattered little to anyone, because prices were then so low and supplies so plentiful. No wonder that the Palestinians took their time recruiting British Gas (BG) — a major player in the global natural gas sweepstakes — to find out what was actually there. Only in 2000 did the two parties even sign a modest contract to develop those by-then confirmed fields.
BG promised to finance and manage their development, bear all the costs, and operate the resulting facilities in exchange for 90% of the revenues, an exploitative but typical “profit-sharing” agreement. With an already functioning natural gas industry, Egypt agreed to be the on-shore hub and transit point for the gas. The Palestinians were to receive 10% of the revenues (estimated at about a billion dollars in total) and were guaranteed access to enough gas to meet their needs.
Had this process moved a little faster, the contract might have been implemented as written. In 2000, however, with a rapidly expanding economy, meager fossil fuels, and terrible relations with its oil-rich neighbors, Israel found itself facing a chronic energy shortage. Instead of attempting to answer its problem with an aggressive but feasible effort to develop renewable sources of energy, Prime Minister Ehud Barak initiated the era of Eastern Mediterranean fossil fuel conflicts. He brought Israel’s naval control of Gazan coastal waters to bear and nixed the deal with BG. Instead, he demanded that Israel, not Egypt, receive the Gaza gas and that it also control all the revenues destined for the Palestinians — to prevent the money from being used to “fund terror.”
With this, the Oslo Accords were officially doomed. By declaring Palestinian control over gas revenues unacceptable, the Israeli government committed itself to not accepting even the most limited kind of Palestinian budgetary autonomy, let alone full sovereignty. Since no Palestinian government or organization would agree to this, a future filled with armed conflict was assured.
The Israeli veto led to the intervention of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sought to broker an agreement that would satisfy both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The result: a 2007 proposal that would have delivered the gas to Israel, not Egypt, at below-market prices, with the same 10% cut of the revenues eventually reaching the PA. However, those funds were first to be delivered to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York for future distribution, which was meant to guarantee that they would not be used for attacks on Israel.
This arrangement still did not satisfy the Israelis, who pointed to the recent victory of the militant Hamas party in Gaza elections as a deal-breaker. Though Hamas had agreed to let the Federal Reserve supervise all spending, the Israeli government, now led by Ehud Olmert, insisted that no “royalties be paid to the Palestinians.” Instead, the Israelis would deliver the equivalent of those funds “in goods and services.”
This offer the Palestinian government refused. Soon after, Olmert imposed a draconian blockade on Gaza, which Israel’s defense minister termed a form of “‘economic warfare’ that would generate a political crisis, leading to a popular uprising against Hamas.” With Egyptian cooperation, Israel then seized control of all commerce in and out of Gaza, severely limiting even food imports and eliminating its fishing industry. As Olmert advisor Dov Weisglass summed up this agenda, the Israeli government was putting the Palestinians “on a diet” (which, according to the Red Cross, soon produced “chronic malnutrition,” especially among Gazan children).
When the Palestinians still refused to accept Israel’s terms, the Olmert government decided to unilaterally extract the gas, something that, they believed, could only occur once Hamas had been displaced or disarmed. As former Israel Defense Forces commander and current Foreign Minister Moshe Ya’alon explained, “Hamas… has confirmed its capability to bomb Israel’s strategic gas and electricity installations… It is clear that, without an overall military operation to uproot Hamas control of Gaza, no drilling work can take place without the consent of the radical Islamic movement.”
Following this logic, Operation Cast Lead was launched in the winter of 2008. According to Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, it was intended to subject Gaza to a “shoah” (the Hebrew word for holocaust or disaster). Yoav Galant, the commanding general of the Operation, said that it was designed to “send Gaza decades into the past.” As Israeli parliamentarian Tzachi Hanegbi explained, the specific military goal was “to topple the Hamas terror regime and take over all the areas from which rockets are fired on Israel.”
Operation Cast Lead did indeed “send Gaza decades into the past.” Amnesty International reported that the 22-day offensive killed 1,400 Palestinians, “including some 300 children and hundreds of other unarmed civilians, and large areas of Gaza had been razed to the ground, leaving many thousands homeless and the already dire economy in ruins.” The only problem: Operation Cast Lead did not achieve its goal of “transferring the sovereignty of the gas fields to Israel.”
More Sources of Gas Equal More Resource Wars
In 2009, the newly elected government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inheritedthe stalemate around Gaza’s gas deposits and an Israeli energy crisis that only grew more severe when the Arab Spring in Egypt interrupted and then obliterated 40% of the country’s gas supplies. Rising energy prices soon contributed to the largest protests involving Jewish Israelis in decades.
As it happened, however, the Netanyahu regime also inherited a potentially permanent solution to the problem. An immense field of recoverable natural gas was discovered in the Levantine Basin, a mainly offshore formation under the eastern Mediterranean. Israeli officials immediately asserted that “most” of the newly confirmed gas reserves lay “within Israeli territory.” In doing so, they ignored contrary claims by Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, and the Palestinians.
In some other world, this immense gas field might have been effectively exploited by the five claimants jointly, and a production plan might even have been put in place to ameliorate the environmental impact of releasing a future 130 trillion cubic feet of gas into the planet’s atmosphere. However, as Pierre Terzian, editor of the oil industry journal Petrostrategies, observed, “All the elements of danger are there… This is a region where resorting to violent action is not something unusual.”
In the three years that followed the discovery, Terzian’s warning seemed ever more prescient. Lebanon became the first hot spot. In early 2011, the Israeli government announcedthe unilateral development of two fields, about 10% of that Levantine Basin gas, which lay in disputed offshore waters near the Israeli-Lebanese border. Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil immediately threatened a military confrontation, asserting that his country would “not allow Israel or any company working for Israeli interests to take any amount of our gas that is falling in our zone.” Hezbollah, the most aggressive political faction in Lebanon, promised rocket attacks if “a single meter” of natural gas was extracted from the disputed fields.
Israel’s Resource Minister accepted the challenge, asserting that “[t]hese areas are within the economic waters of Israel… We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law.”
Oil industry journalist Terzian offered this analysis of the realities of the confrontation:
“In practical terms… nobody is going to invest with Lebanon in disputed waters. There are no Lebanese companies there capable of carrying out the drilling, and there is no military force that could protect them. But on the other side, things are different. You have Israeli companies that have the ability to operate in offshore areas, and they could take the risk under the protection of the Israeli military.”
Sure enough, Israel continued its exploration and drilling in the two disputed fields, deploying drones to guard the facilities. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government invested major resources in preparing for possible future military confrontations in the area. For one thing, with lavish U.S. funding, it developed the “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense system designed in part to intercept Hezbollah and Hamas rockets aimed at Israeli energy facilities. It also expanded the Israeli navy, focusing on its ability to deter or repel threats to offshore energy facilities. Finally, starting in 2011 it launched airstrikes in Syria designed, according to U.S. officials, “to prevent any transfer of advanced… antiaircraft, surface-to-surface and shore-to-ship missiles” to Hezbollah.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah continued to stockpile rockets capable of demolishing Israeli facilities. And in 2013, Lebanon made a move of its own. It began negotiating with Russia. The goal was to get that country’s gas firms to develop Lebanese offshore claims, while the formidable Russian navy would lend a hand with the “long-running territorial dispute with Israel.”
By the beginning of 2015, a state of mutual deterrence appeared to be setting in. Although Israel had succeeded in bringing online the smaller of the two fields it set out to develop, drilling in the larger one was indefinitely stalled “in light of the security situation.” U.S. contractor Noble Energy, hired by the Israelis, was unwilling to invest the necessary $6 billion dollars in facilities that would be vulnerable to Hezbollah attack, and potentially in the gun sights of the Russian navy. On the Lebanese side, despite an increased Russian naval presence in the region, no work had begun.
Meanwhile, in Syria, where violence was rife and the country in a state of armed collapse, another kind of stalemate went into effect. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, facing a ferocious threat from various groups of jihadists, survived in part by negotiating massive military support from Russia in exchange for a 25-year contract to develop Syria’s claims to that Levantine gas field. Included in the deal was a major expansion of the Russian naval base at the port city of Tartus, ensuring a far larger Russian naval presence in the Levantine Basin.
While the presence of the Russians apparently deterred the Israelis from attempting to develop any Syrian-claimed gas deposits, there was no Russian presence in Syria proper. So Israel contracted with the U.S.-based Genie Energy Corporation to locate and develop oil fields in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by the Israelis since 1967. Facing a potential violation of international law, the Netanyahu government invoked, as the basis for its acts, an Israeli court ruling that the exploitation of natural resources in occupied territories was legal. At the same time, to prepare for the inevitable battle with whichever faction or factions emerged triumphant from the Syrian civil war, it began shoring up the Israeli military presence in the Golan Heights.
And then there was Cyprus, the only Levantine claimant not at war with Israel. Greek Cypriots had long been in chronic conflict with Turkish Cypriots, so it was hardly surprising that the Levantine natural gas discovery triggered three years of deadlocked negotiations on the island over what to do. In 2014, the Greek Cypriots signed an exploration contract with Noble Energy, Israel’s chief contractor. The Turkish Cypriots trumped this move by signing a contract with Turkey to explore all Cypriot claims “as far as Egyptian waters.” Emulating Israel and Russia, the Turkish government promptly moved three navy vesselsinto the area to physically block any intervention by other claimants.
As a result, four years of maneuvering around the newly discovered Levantine Basin deposits have produced little energy, but brought new and powerful claimants into the mix, launched a significant military build-up in the region, and heightened tensions immeasurably.
Gaza Again — and Again
Remember the Iron Dome system, developed in part to stop Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel’s northern gas fields? Over time, it was put in place near the border with Gaza to stop Hamas rockets, and was tested during Operation Returning Echo, the fourth Israeli military attempt to bring Hamas to heel and eliminate any Palestinian “capability to bomb Israel’s strategic gas and electricity installations.”
Launched in March 2012, it replicated on a reduced scale the devastation of Operation Cast Lead, while the Iron Dome achieved a 90% “kill rate” against Hamas rockets. Even this, however, while a useful adjunct to the vast shelter system built to protect Israeli civilians, was not enough to ensure the protection of the country’s exposed oil facilities. Even one direct hit there could damage or demolish such fragile and flammable structures.
The failure of Operation Returning Echo to settle anything triggered another round of negotiations, which once again stalled over the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s demand to control all fuel and revenues destined for Gaza and the West Bank. The new Palestinian Unity government then followed the lead of the Lebanese, Syrians, and Turkish Cypriots, and in late 2013 signed an “exploration concession” with Gazprom, the huge Russian natural gas company. As with Lebanon and Syria, the Russian Navy loomed as a potential deterrent to Israeli interference.
Meanwhile, in 2013, a new round of energy blackouts caused “chaos” across Israel, triggering a draconian 47% increase in electricity prices. In response, the Netanyahu government considered a proposal to begin extracting domestic shale oil, but the potential contamination of water resources caused a backlash movement that frustrated this effort. In a country filled with start-up high-tech firms, the exploitation of renewable energy sources was still not being given serious attention. Instead, the government once again turned to Gaza.
With Gazprom’s move to develop the Palestinian-claimed gas deposits on the horizon, the Israelis launched their fifth military effort to force Palestinian acquiescence, Operation Protective Edge. It had two major hydrocarbon-related goals: to deter Palestinian-Russian plans and to finally eliminate the Gazan rocket systems. The first goal was apparently met when Gazprom postponed (perhaps permanently) its development deal. The second, however, failed when the two-pronged land and air attack — despite unprecedented devastation in Gaza — failed to destroy Hamas’s rocket stockpiles or its tunnel-based assembly system; nor did the Iron Dome achieve the sort of near-perfect interception rate needed to protect proposed energy installations.
There Is No Denouement
After 25 years and five failed Israeli military efforts, Gaza’s natural gas is still underwater and, after four years, the same can be said for almost all of the Levantine gas. But things are not the same. In energy terms, Israel is ever more desperate, even as it has been building up its military, including its navy, in significant ways. The other claimants have, in turn, found larger and more powerful partners to help reinforce their economic and military claims. All of this undoubtedly means that the first quarter-century of crisis over eastern Mediterranean natural gas has been nothing but prelude. Ahead lies the possibility of bigger gas wars with the devastation they are likely to bring. More
These developments came as a shock to many in the West, including politicians and specialists whose view of what was happening often seemed outpaced by events. One reason for this was that it was too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit the areas where ISIS was operating, because of the extreme danger of being kidnapped or murdered. “Those who used to protect the foreign media can no longer protect themselves,” one intrepid correspondent told me, explaining why he would not be returning to rebel-held Syria.
This lack of coverage had been convenient for the US and other Western governments because it enabled them to play down the extent to which the “war on terror” had failed so catastrophically in the years since 9/11. This failure is also masked by deceptions and self-deceptions on the part of governments. Speaking at West Point on America’s role in the world on May 28, 2014, President Obama said that the main threat to the US no longer came from al-Qaeda central but from “decentralized al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused on the countries where they operate.” He added that “as the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” This was true enough, but Obama’s solution to the danger was, as he put it, “to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists.” By June he was asking Congress for $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” members of the Syrian opposition. It is here that there was a real intention to deceive, because, as Biden was to admit five months later, the Syrian military opposition is dominated by ISIS and by Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda representative, in addition to other extreme jihadi groups. In reality, there is no dividing wall between them and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies.
An intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria told me that ISIS members “say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind, because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.” These are not empty boasts. Arms supplied by US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to anti-Assad forces in Syria have been captured regularly in Iraq. I experienced a small example of the consequences of this inflow of weapons even before the fall of Mosul, when, in the summer of 2014, I tried to book a flight to Baghdad on the same efficient European airline that I had used a year earlier. I was told it had discontinued flights to the Iraqi capital, because it feared that insurgents had obtained shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles originally supplied to anti-Assad forces in Syria and would use them against commercial aircraft flying into Baghdad International Airport. Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad, but it has been successful in destabilizing Iraq, as Iraqi politicians had long predicted.
The failure of the “war on terror” and the resurgence of al-Qaeda is further explained by a phenomenon which had become apparent within hours of the 9/11 attacks. The first moves from Washington made it clear that the anti-terror war would be waged without any confrontation with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, two close US allies, despite the fact that without the involvement of these two countries 9/11 was unlikely to have happened. Of the nineteen hijackers that day, fifteen were Saudi. Bin Laden came from the Saudi elite. Subsequent US official documents stress repeatedly that financing for al-Qaeda and jihadi groups came from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. As for Pakistan, its army and military service had played a central role since the early 1990s in propelling the Taliban into power in Afghanistan where they hosted bin Laden and al-Qaeda. After a brief hiatus during and after 9/11, Pakistan resumed its support for the Afghan Taliban. Speaking of the central role of Pakistan in backing the Taliban, the late Richard C. Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.”
The importance of Saudi Arabia in the rise and return of al-Qaeda is often misunderstood and understated. Saudi Arabia is influential because its oil and vast wealth make it powerful in the Middle East and beyond. But it is not financial resources alone that make it such an important player. Another factor is its propagating of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist, eighteenth-century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, relegates women to the status of second-class citizens, and regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as non-Muslims to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews.
This religious intolerance and political authoritarianism, which in its readiness to use violence has many similarities with European fascism in the 1930s, is getting worse rather than better. For example, in recent years, a Saudi who set up a liberal website on which clerics could be criticized was sentenced to a thousand lashes and seven years in prison. The ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS draws a great deal from Wahhabism. Critics of this new trend in Islam from elsewhere in the Muslim world do not survive long; they are forced to flee or are murdered. Denouncing jihadi leaders in Kabul in 2003, an Afghan editor described them as “holy fascists” who were misusing Islam as “an instrument to take over power.” Unsurprisingly, he was accused of insulting Islam and had to leave the country.
A striking development in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam. In one country after another Saudi Arabia is putting up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques. A result of this is the spread of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia. The latter find themselves targeted with unprecedented viciousness, from Tunisia to Indonesia. Such sectarianism is not confined to country villages outside Aleppo or in the Punjab; it is poisoning relations between the two sects in every Islamic grouping. A Muslim friend in London told me: “Go through the address books of any Sunni or Shia in Britain and you will find very few names belonging to people outside their own community.”
Even before Mosul, President Obama was coming to realize that al-Qaeda–type groups were far stronger than they had been previously, but his recipe for dealing with them repeats and exacerbates earlier mistakes. “We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us,” he told his audience at West Point. But who are these partners going to be? Saudi Arabia and Qatar were not mentioned by him, since they remain close and active US allies in Syria. Obama instead singled out “Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq” as partners to receive aid in “confronting terrorists working across Syria’s borders.”
There is something absurd about this, since the foreign jihadis in Syria and Iraq, the people whom Obama admits are the greatest threat, can only get to these countries because they are able to cross the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border without hindrance from the Turkish authorities. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan may now be frightened by the Frankenstein’s monster they have helped to create, but there is little they can do to restrain it. An unspoken purpose of the US insistence that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain take part or assist in the air strikes on Syria in September was to force them to break their former links with the jihadis in Syria.
There was always something fantastical about the US and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The US was a weaker power in the Middle East in 2011 than it had been in 2003, because its armies had failed to achieve their aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Come the uprisings of 2011, it was the jihadi and Sunni-sectarian, militarized wing of rebel movements that received massive injections of money from the kings and emirs of the Gulf. The secular, nonsectarian opponents of the long-established police states were soon marginalized, reduced to silence, or killed. The international media was very slow to pick up on how the nature of these uprisings had changed, though the Islamists were very open about their sectarian priorities: in Libya, one of the first acts of the triumphant rebels was to call for the legalization of polygamy, which had been banned under the old regime.
ISIS is the child of war. Its members seek to reshape the world around them by acts of violence. The movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011. Just as the violence in Iraq was ebbing, the war was revived by the Sunni Arabs in Syria. It is the government and media consensus in the West that the civil war in Iraq was reignited by the sectarian policies of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. In reality, it was the war in Syria that destabilized Iraq when jihadi groups like ISIS, then called al-Qaeda in Iraq, found a new battlefield where they could fight and flourish.
It was the US, Europe, and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. They kept the war going in Syria, though it was obvious from 2012 that Assad would not fall. He never controlled less than thirteen out of fourteen Syrian provincial capitals and was backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the only peace terms he was offered at the Geneva II peace talks in January 2014 was to leave power. He was not about to go, and ideal conditions were created for ISIS to prosper. The US and its allies are now trying to turn the Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria against the militants, but this will be difficult to do while these countries are convulsed by war.
The resurgence of al-Qaeda–type groups is not a threat confined to Syria, Iraq, and their near neighbors. What is happening in these countries, combined with the growing dominance of intolerant and exclusive Wahhabite beliefs within the worldwide Sunni community, means that all 1.6 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, will be increasingly affected. It seems unlikely that non-Muslims, including many in the West, will be untouched by the conflict. Today’s resurgent jihadism, having shifted the political terrain in Iraq and Syria, is already having far-reaching effects on global politics, with dire consequences for us all. More
The above is excerpted from Patrick Cockburn’s book, Rise of the Islamic State (Verso, 2015).
Crimes against humanity in Gaza: is it really a 'buffer zone' – or a bigger plan
The international community and states parties to the United Nations should hang their heads in shame
Late last week, the White House decried Israel’s attack on a UN school in Gaza as “totally unacceptable” and “totally indefensible”, then proceeded to approve $225m in funding for its Iron Dome. On Monday, the US state department went further, calling the airstrikes upon a UN school “disgraceful” – and yet America provides Israel with more than $3.1bn every year, restocking the ability of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) to hit more schools, and to wage total war against an imprisoned people, because of their nationality.
American taxpayers should not be paying for this. And the western world should stop rejecting serious inquiries about Israel’s moral inconsistencies, or allow it to benefit from cognitive dissonance and information overload amid the current crisis in Gaza.
There is a land grab going on. The Israeli prime minister, Binjamin Netanyahu, has shrunk Gaza’s habitable land mass by 44%, with an edict establishing a 3km (1.8-mile) buffer zone, a “no-go” zone for Palestinians – and that’s quite significant, because a good part of Gaza is only 3 to 4 miles wide. Over 250,000 Palestinians within this zone must leave their homes, or be bombed. As their territorial space collapses, 1.8m Gazans now living in 147 square miles will be compressed into 82 square miles.
Gaza’s entire social and physical infrastructure of housing, hospitals, places of worship, more than 130 of its schools, plus markets, water systems, sewer systems and roads are being destroyed. Under constant attack, without access to water, sanitary facilities, food and medical care, Gazans face an IDF-scripted apocalypse.
With Gaza’s land mass shrinking due to Israeli military action, it’s about time someone asked: What is the end game? Three weeks ago, Moshe Feiglin, deputy speaker of the Knesset, called for Gaza to “become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel.”
Israel has a housing crisis? After the “no-go” buffer zone is evacuated, there will be 21,951 Palestinians per square mile in Gaza, while Israel’s population density stands at 964 persons per square mile.
Deputy Speaker Feiglin wants the Palestinians in Gaza to lose all of their land. One must not assume that Mr Feiglin or his Likud faction speak for the main government actors like Prime Minister Netanyahu. After all, Knesset politics are complex and divergent. But since Gaza has just lost control of that 44% of its land, it may also be time to ask: does the establishment of that 3km zone represent the unfolding of a larger plan? Is that the end game?
At the very point where an aroused public becomes aghast at the slaughter of Gazans, the western world becomes inured to the violence, hypnotized by the media’s cadence of body counts. The intolerable becomes normalized, and later ignored as old news. Which would seem a perfect time to leave in place the 3km zone – for security purposes, of course – and then advance the proposal that Palestinians crammed into the remaining 56% of Gaza simply … leave.
I assume the IDF acts with deliberation, under orders from the Netanyahu government. And I think the extraordinary and illegal forced relocation of over 250,000 Palestinians from 44% of Gazan land is a crime against humanity under the guise of establishing a “buffer zone” for security purposes.
Look at the region’s maps from recent history. Look at the steady erosion of Palestinian land and the acquisition of land by Israel, and you can understand that the present attack on Gaza is not about solely about Hamas. It’s about land. It isn’t just about Hamas’s rockets. It’s about land. It isn’t just about Hamas’s tunnels. It’s about land. It isn’t about kidnappings. It is about land. It isn’t even about meeting a housing crisis in Israel. It is about grabbing land from the Palestinians in Gaza and the natural resources that go with the land, upon the occasion of Israel’s military invasion of Gaza.
Yes, Hamas’s attacks on Israel are illegal and should be condemned, and those who ordered the attacks should be held accountable under law. All policies and practices which refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist should be condemned. Israel has a right to exist. But Israel’s right to exist is impaired when Israel decides Palestinians have no right to exist on their own land. It’s time for us to stop paying for Israel’s dubious, destructive self-righteousness. And it’s time for the solipsism syndrome afflicting Israel’s leaders to get a day of discussion in the International Criminal Court concerning their attacks on Gaza – and especially their new 3km “buffer zone”. More
Following the defeat of a United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded an end to Israeli occupation and recognition of Palestinian statehood, Palestine's president Mahmoud Abbas signed a Palestinian request to join the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, a move that the Guardian wrote sets “Palestinians on a diplomatic collision course with Israel and the U.S.”
“There is aggression practiced against our land and our country, and the Security Council has let us down—where shall we go?” Mr. Abbas reportedly said at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, as he signed the Rome Statute, the founding charter of the Hague court, as well as over a dozen other international treaties and conventions.
“We want to complain to this organization,” he said, referring to the court. “As long as there is no peace, and the world doesn’t prioritize peace in this region, this region will live in constant conflict. The Palestinian cause is the key issue to be settled.”
As expected, the decision elicited an angry response from Israel. “The one who needs to fear the International Criminal Court in the Hague is the Palestinian Authority, which has a unity government with Hamas, a terror organization like (the Islamic State group) which commits war crimes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu called Israel's soldiers “the most moral army in the world” and said the country would take unspecified “retaliatory steps.”
The AP noted that “turning to the International Criminal Court marks a major policy shift by transforming Abbas' relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile. Abbas has been threatening to join the court since 2012, but held off under American and Israeli pressure. The Palestinians can use the court to challenge the legality of Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and to pursue war crimes charges connected to military activity.”
The State Department criticized the move as well. In a statement issued Wednesday, it said it was “deeply troubled by today’s Palestinian action regarding the ICC,” and called it “an escalatory step that will not achieve any of the outcomes most Palestinians have long hoped to see for their people.” More
In the five years since the discovery of the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas fields off the coast of Israel, the Israeli energy discourse has focused on questions like what to do with the gas, how much of it to export and to whom, and what the fairest distribution of profits would be among the gas partners, headed by Noble Energy and Delek Energy, and the Israeli public.
But after years of delays and billions of dollars spent, a new and increasingly likely scenario should be considered – the premature – and tragic – death of the Israeli gas dream. I alluded to this option in an August 2013 article titled “Israel's Zero Gas Game” in which I warned that Israel has become so busy dividing the pie that its leaders forgot it must first be baked and that due to the failure of the government to present a clear vision for the country's energy sector, articulate the rights and responsibilities of foreign investors and most importantly set rules and stick to them, “the gas will be left in the ground and the startup nation will be more worthy of the title 'shutdown nation'.” Perhaps that sounded crazy at the time. Today, with the decision of the Israeli Anti-Trust Authority to revoke an arrangement permitting Noble-Delek partners to develop Leviathan, declaring them a cartel – a move that will require the separation of Leviathan from Tamar and the sale of Leviathan to a new partnership, effectively postponing the development of Leviathan indefinitely – the scenario of “zero gas” – and perhaps even the withdrawal of Noble from Israel altogether – should be considered seriously.
In deciding to enter Israel Noble has taken a huge financial, regulatory and geopolitical risk. However, the size of the discoveries, the potential of finding oil under the gas layers and the doubling of the company's market capitalization made the move easy to justify to its shareholders. But the Texas company, the only international energy company that was willing to set foot in Israel, was welcomed with no red carpet. Instead it was ushered through a Via Dolorosa of bureaucratic torture which eliminated any chance for gas production before the end of 2018 – ten years from the beginning of exploration. A ten year lead time from discovery to production is a lot to ask of a publicly traded company which has to satisfy quarterly thinking and profit hungry shareholders. But in light of Noble's recent stock performance, dropping from $80 in the summer to $50 today, the decision of the Israeli government provides an impetus to the company's leadership, not to mention the new CEO David Stover, to reconsider the commitment to Israel and begin to seek greener pastures.
There are very few oil and gas companies who have both the experience of drilling in deep waters and the willingness to associate themselves with Israel, especially in light of Noble's experience.
The Israeli government's ruling has huge implications for the future of the region as it means that at best the supply of gas from Leviathan will be delayed into the 2020s. At worst it will not happen at all. The government's concern about a gas monopoly is a legitimate one, especially during an election campaign when issues of cost of living dominate the local political discourse. But its hopes that the hot potato called Leviathan can somehow be sold to new partners require a lot of faith. There are many people with money who may be tempted to buy into a partnership in a 22 trillion cubic feet (tcf) field, but owning a stake in a gas field without an operator at hand is like owning a gold mine on the moon. There are very few oil and gas companies who have both the experience of drilling in deep waters and the willingness to associate themselves with Israel, especially in light of Noble's experience. With falling energy prices worldwide, the chance of a Noble-like operator popping out of nowhere is slim. This means that in its desire to avoid the creation of a monopoly, Israel is taking the risk that Leviathan, the world's largest offshore gas discovery of the past decade, will not be developed for many years to come – if ever. The losers will first and foremost be the Israeli people who will lose not only billions of dollars in tax revenue and the main engine of growth of their economy but also the prospects of securing their energy supply for generations. The scenario is equally bad for Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority who are counting on Leviathan gas for their economic well-being and which have all signed letters of intent to buy Israeli gas despite local opposition from their respective Israel-hating Islamists. Europe will also be a casualty since a portion of Leviathan was aimed for two LNG terminals in Egypt from where it would have been shipped to European countries aspiring to become less dependent on Russia's gas.
Other than the handful of lawyers who will earn millions litigating the dispute between Noble and the Israeli government in international courts, the biggest winner will be Cyprus. In December 2011 Noble announced the discovery of 7 tcf in a field northwest of Leviathan called Aphrodite (block 12). Other blocks have been opened for bids since attracting interest from a handful of large oil and gas companies including Total of France, Kogas of South Korea, ENI of Italy and Petronas of Malaysia. But with all eyes on Leviathan, Cyprus became an uninteresting side show. This may soon change. Cyprus may not be a paragon of regulatory stability and certainly not an investors' haven and its tense relations with Turkey pose some geopolitical risk, but the fatigue from Israel's energy shenanigans could bring about a shift from Israel to Cyprus as the new center of gravity in the East Mediterranean energy play.
There is no polite way of saying this. Israel's latest decision is tantamount to nationalization of the kind seen in Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico and Russia. All of those governments sugarcoated their decision invoking the need to protect the public interest. The investment community and global oil industry got the message and wrote off those countries. With this miserable decision, Israel has just lodged itself into this notorious club. The price will be paid in spades – and sooner than most Israelis realize. More
As the map above shows the gas field in offshore Gaza who should be the benefliciaries. Under international law Israel has no legal claim and Gaza most certainly does. I would give Gaza an income to rebuild the infrastracture destroyed by Israel as well as giving them fossil fuel to generate electricity. Editor
First ‘truth commission’ avoids issue of reconciliation as veteran Israeli fighters due to confess to 1948 war crimes
Middle East Eye – 9 December 2014
The first-ever “truth commission” in Israel, to be held on Wednesday, will feature confessions from veteran Israeli fighters of the 1948 war who are expected to admit to perpetrating war crimes as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes.
The commission is the culmination of more than decade of antagonistic confrontations between a small group of activists called Zochrot, the Hebrew word for Remembering, and the Israeli authorities as well as much of the Jewish public.
Founded in 2002, Zochrot is dedicated to educating Israeli Jews about what Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, referring to Israel’s creation on the ruins of their homeland more than six decades ago. The group also campaigns for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, probably the biggest taboo in Israeli society.
The commission, which has no official standing, could be the first of several such events around Israel, to investigate atrocities and war crimes committed in different localities, said Liat Rosenberg, Zochrot’s director.
“We have looked to other such commissions around the world as models, most obviously in South Africa,” she said. “But unlike the one there, ours does not include the element of reconciliation because the conflict here has yet to be resolved.
“We cannot talk about reconciliation when the Nakba is ongoing. We are still in a situation where there is apartheid, constant violations of human rights and 70 percent of the Palestinian community are refugees.”
The commission is likely to provoke outrage from the Israeli government, which passed the so-called Nakba Law in 2011 to try to make it harder to commemorate Palestinian suffering. The impact of the law is being widely felt. Just last month, the culture ministry vowed to block a government grant to a Tel Aviv cultural centre that hosted a Zochrot film festival on the Nakba.
Rosenberg said Israeli veteran fighters and Palestinian witnesses participating in the truth commission had asked for their names to be kept secret until the hearings for fear that friends and family would put pressure on them to withdraw.
The commission is being held in the city of Beersheva, a once-Bedouin town that was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and is today the largest Jewish city in the Negev region in southern Israel.
Zochrot said it had chosen the city to host the first event event because forced expulsions of Bedouin from the Negev had taken place not only in 1948, but had continued on a large scale, out of view of observers, for many years afterwards.
The commission is the latest project by Zochrot that discredits a traditional Israeli narrative that some 750,000 Palestinians left under orders from Arab leaders and that Israel’s army acted only in self-defence. Such beliefs have fed into the common assumption from the Israeli public that Israel’s army is the “most moral in the world”.
“This is not just about researching the truth,” said Rosenberg. “The truth of the Nakba is to a large degree known, but the task is to expose the truth to the Israeli Jewish public – both so that it is forced to take responsibility for what happened and so there can be accountability.”
The commission is the direct result of a project launched by Zochrot two years ago to create an alternative archive of the Nakba, based on filmed testimonies from Palestinian refugees and Israeli veterans. Activists fear that, as the generation of refugees and fighters dies off, they will take their secrets to the grave.
Israeli military archives relating to the 1948 war began being opened to academics in the late 1980s. This led to a group of so-called “new historians” overturning the traditional accounts of that period and unearthing written evidence of massacres and ethnic cleansing operations for the first time.
However, historians have reported in recent years that the Israeli authorities have become more reluctant to open files and many of the more controversial episodes of the 1948 war are still unclear.
Rosenberg hopes the commission will begin to fill some of the gaps.
According to Rosenberg, three Israeli fighters and three Palestinian witnesses will testify before a panel of six commissioners. The commissioners will then question them further about events and make follow up recommendations.
The hearings are due to be streamed online.
One veteran of the fighting in the Negev, Amnon Neumann, has already gone on record in testimony that can be seen in Zochrot’s film archive.
He has said the Bedouin in the Negev – contrary to popular Israeli perception – put up almost no resistance to advancing Jewish forces because they lacked “a military capacity” and “had no weapons”. Nonetheless, he said, the Israeli army terrified the Bedouin villagers out of their homes by shooting either at them, or above their heads.
“We drove them out. Women and children went to Gaza. … By the morning there was nobody there. We burnt their houses,” Neumann said.
When villagers tried to sneak back to tend crops or vineyards under the cover of night, he recounted, the soldiers opened fire. “We would shoot and kill them. This was part of the horrible things we did.”
In other filmed testimony, Mordechai Bar-On, an officer in 1948 with the Givati Brigade, confirmed that orders were to shoot “infiltrators” – a reference to refugees who tried to return to their villages. “Even if there were women and children. I remember I told myself that we would do it. … There was an order to kill, not even catch them,” Bar-On said.
For the most part, the Israeli veterans are coming forward now out of a feeling of guilt.
“At that time I did not see anything wrong with what we were doing,” Neumann said. “If I was told to do things that I do not want to mention [here], I did them with no doubts at all. … Not now. It is already 50, 60 years that I am filled with regret.”
But challenges remain, and despite veterans coming forward, piecing together events can still be difficult.
Rosenberg said many of those giving filmed testimony, including Neumann, have been reluctant to go into details of the war crimes they participated in. It is now hoped that the questioning by the commissioners will encourage participants to be even more forthcoming.
The commission will also move beyond the 1948 period and examine expulsions in the semi-desert Negev region, comprising nearly two-thirds of Israel’s landmass, for the 12 years following the war.
Isolated from the rest of the new state of Israel, the Negev was largely unmonitored as the Israeli military carried out expulsions of Bedouin throughout the 1950s, said Raneen Jeries, a Zochrot organiser.
More than 2,000 Palestinian inhabitants of al-Majdal, which later became the Jewish city of Ashkelon, were put on trucks and shipped to Gaza nearly two years after the war ended, according to Nur Masalha, a Palestinian historian and expert on Israeli “transfer” policies.
Jeries said the legacy of the events of 1948 was being felt to this day, with policies of expulsion continuing in the Negev and the occupied territories.
Haaretz reporter Amira Hass revealed three months ago that the Israeli military was planning to forcibly relocate for a second time the Jahalin tribe. The tribe was driven out of the Negev in 1948 and fled to the safety of the West Bank, then under Jordanian control. However, Israel occupied the land after the 1967 war, and it seems that Israeli authorities now want to expel some 12,500 Jahalin tribes people, this time to a site near Jericho.
Zochrot had been successful in forcing Israelis to recognise the Nakba and a darker side to the 1948 war, said Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, where the truth commission is to be held.
“A decade ago, if I mentioned the Nakba in a class of 150 students, hardly any of them would have known what I meant. Now 80 or 90 per cent would know,” Gordon told MEE.
Gordon also attributed the change both to Zochrot’s activities and statements by Arab legislators representing Israel’s large Palestinian minority, comprising a fifth of the total population.
But as the issue of the Nakba has become more visible in Israel, sensitivity about it has only grown. Ahead of Nakba Day last May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at the Palestinian Authority for commemorating the day, saying: “They are standing silent to mark the tragedy of the establishment of Israel, the state of the Jewish people.”
Palestinians were educating their children with “endless propaganda” calling for the disappearance of Israel, he said.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett went further, saying: “We need not tolerate Israeli Arabs who promote Nakba Day.”
The government has backed up its rhetoric with legislation, passing a Nakba Law in 2011 that denies public funds to institutions and organisations that commemorate the Palestinians’ dispossession. The measure is partly seen as a reaction to Zochrot’s growing success.
The original legislation, which would have criminalised any commemoration of the Nakba – making many of Zochrot’s activities illegal – was water-downed after Israel came under strong international pressure.
In Zochrot’s early years, its main efforts were directed at escorting Israeli Jews and Palestinian refugees to some of the more than 500 Palestinian villages that Israel destroyed during and after the 1948 war. The villages were razed to prevent refugees from returning home.
The remnants of most of the villages are now barely traceable, hidden under forests planted by a charity called the Jewish National Fund or lost within gated communities in which only Jews can live.
Zochrot has continued such visits, placing signposts to remind the new Jewish inhabitants that their communities are built on the ruins of Palestinian homes, often belonging to neighbours living a short distance away. A large proportion of Israel’s Palestinian minority were internally displaced by the 1948 war and live close to their original homes but are barred from returning.
Eitan Bronstein, who founded Zochrot, said the current challenge was how to change Israeli Jews’ perception of the Nakba.
“They now recognise the word but what does it mean to them? Many, it seems, think it is simply a negative label Palestinians have attached to Israel’s establishment. We have an Independence Day that they call their Nakba,” Bronstein said.
“We need to educate them about the events of the Nakba, what occurred and our responsibility for it. They have to stop thinking of it as just propaganda against Israel.”
The right wing, including the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, has grown increasingly rattled by Zochrot’s agenda-setting programme of events.
The popularity of a far-right youth movement, Im Tirtzu, has grown rapidly on Israeli university campuses over the past few years, in part as a backlash to commemorations of the Nakba by Zochrot and Palestinian students.
Last month, when Zochrot held its second Nakba and Right of Return Film Festival in Tel Aviv, the culture minister, Limor Livnat, immediately threatened to pull a government grant worth more than $450,000 from the cinema that hosted it.
“The state cannot bear the cost of funding of an entity that encourages debate over what the Palestinians call ‘the right of return’,” Livnat said in a statement. She was reported to have based her decision on her reading of the Nakba Law.
“The antagonism towards Zochrot and the idea of the Nakba is part of the educational process,” said Bronstein. “It is a necessary phase Israel needs to pass through if we are to get to a point of reconciliation.”
Bronstein and others have faced angry opposition from the Israeli public and police as they have tried to stage Nakba commemorations – most notably in Tel Aviv in 2012, when they were surrounded by riot police for four hours. Three Zochrot activists were arrested.
Yet Zochrot’s organisers, whose members include both Jewish and Palestinian citizens, seem largely unfazed by the threats and hostility their group generates.
Last year Zochrot arranged a conference that for the first time examined not just the principle of the right of return but practical ways to implement it.
This year the group launched a phone app, called iNakba, in three languages, which provides users with detailed maps and information on the destroyed villages.
Jeries said it had had thousands of downloads, giving Israelis for the first time the chance to peel away the subsequent layers of construction and forestation to see what was destroyed, often on their doorstep. More
Israel and the United States are trying to dissuade the nearly 200 states that are party to the Fourth Geneva Convention from convening a special session in mid-December to address conditions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Israeli and Western diplomats told Haaretz Wednesday.
Government officials believe that convention sponsor Switzerland has come under strong pressure from the Palestinians and Arab states, and is expected to issue invitations to the conference within days.
In early April, following Israel’s refusal to free the last scheduled group of Palestinian prisoners, and its announcement that it would build 700 homes in East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to sign, in the Palestinian state’s name, on 15 international conventions and ask to join them. One of them was the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with protecting the civilian population in fighting areas or occupied territories.
This move brought to a head the crisis that led to the collapse of U.S. efforts to extend the talks between Israel and the Palestinians. A few weeks later the Palestinians and Arab League asked Switzerland officially to call a conference of the convention signatories to discuss the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the damage Israel caused civilians in Gaza.
So far four attempts have been made to convene the Fourth Geneva Convention – all of them in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last attempt was made in 2009 after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
However, after consultations of the Swiss Foreign Ministry at the time, it was decided there wasn’t sufficiently broad international support for holding the conference. In 2001, on the other hand, after the outbreak of the second intifada, such a conference was held. Israel and the United States boycotted it.
Recently Swiss diplomats said their country, as the convention’s sponsor, couldn’t decide by itself on calling the conference again. So Switzerland began consultations with the other signatory states to see if enough of them were interested in holding the conference.
Switzerland distributed to all the signatories a proposal to hold the conference in Geneva in mid-December. The Swiss made it clear they wanted the event to focus on the upholding of international humanitarian law.
The Swiss proposal is for a three-hour conference at an ambassadorial level, with few speeches and no media coverage except for a statement to the press to be released at the end.
“We made it clear we didn’t want a political event or debate club, or a conference that would blame or criticize one of the sides,” a Swiss diplomat said.
Israel objected to the move strongly despite the low profile Switzerland suggested. Senior Israeli diplomats went to Bern and Geneva a few times in a bid to persuade the Swiss Foreign Ministry not to hold the conference, saying Israel would boycott it if it were held.
“They told us that holding the conference would help a one-sided Palestinian move intended to make Israel look bad and attack it in an international forum,” the Swiss diplomat said.
Updated draft refers to settlements
The conference cannot make binding decisions, but could increase international criticism of Israel’s policy in the territories, especially regarding the settlements.
The Israeli fear over the conference increased after Jerusalem received an updated draft of its proposed contents. Unlike previous versions, the updated draft was phrased in a very political way, mentioning Israel by name and referring in detail to issues like the West Bank settlements.
Israeli and Swiss diplomats said the United States, Canada and Australia were helping Israel and exerting pressure on Switzerland and other states to thwart the conference. Israeli diplomats said that despite the fact that the Americans have yet to make a formal decision on the matter, U.S. officials have told Switzerland they would boycott the conference if it is held. Canada has conveyed a similar message to Switzerland.
Speaking with Haaretz on Wednesday, Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, affirmed the American disapproval. “We strongly oppose the convening of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions and have made our opposition unmistakably clear,” he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman held telephone conversations in the last few days with colleagues worldwide, asking them to object to the conference and declare they would boycott it if it is held. Also, Israeli ambassadors in several key Western states have been instructed to try to obtain a commitment from those states to boycott the conference.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, along with the group of Arab nations, are pushing for the summit to be held.
But the Israeli efforts look bound to fail. Israeli and Swiss diplomats estimate that the Swiss government will in the coming days announce the holding of the summit.
Western diplomats knowledgeable of the proceedings described the Swiss as determined to move forward despite the significant resistance by nations such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and others.
The Fourth Geneva Convention is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949, which deals with the protection of civilian populations residing in areas of armed conflict and in areas under military occupation. The treaty forbids harming any agents uninvolved in the fighting – which includes, in addition to civilians, captured and wounded soldiers.
In regarding to a state of protracted military occupation – such as exists in the West Bank – the treaty decrees that the occupying power must uphold the human rights of the occupied civilian population, and ensure its conditions of living. The treaty also forbids any and all movement of civilian population from within the borders of the occupying power into the areas under military rule – such as the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israel is a party to the convention, but the Knesset has never legislated the treaty into Israeli law. Israel claims the treaty is not applicable to the West Bank or East Jerusalem, for it considers these areas to be “disputed,” and not as under occupation. Thus, Israel does not regard the settlements as violations to the treaty.