Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Peace Activists, Self-Defense and Other Frothy Dillusions

Here we go again... My inbox is filling up with youtube clips of how things "really" happened in the international waters just outside of Gaza one week ago, photos of what the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is "really" like and what positions I reasonably ought to have, as there "really" isn't much to explain....


As usual, people want to find a simple way of understanding what is going on between Israel and Palestine. They want to adopt a Position and to have an Opinion on the topic.   It's easier that way, saves time and face and makes our chests puff up impressively. In the words of J. Wagoner, "For every problem, there exists a simple and elegant solution which is absolutely wrong." And although the simplistic hand-washing going on regarding the flotilla among Israelis, Palestinians and Europe's "enlightened" and well-meaning liberal-minded citizens feels like the higher moral ground, it is, in fact, absolutely wrong - because these arguments only shed light on an aspect of the whole balagan.  So I've tried to put together a description with some historical and political perspective so that we can gain a more nuanced picture of the situation. Let's start with the Israelis:

It was self-defense. Our boys were threatened and they did the only thing they could: defend themselves. True, we've all seen the clip (couldn't resist, the clip includes some fun Fox bashing) of them being lowered onto deck and attacked. But you have to wonder how they decided that the best way of stopping a large boat with ca. 600 people on board, who really don't like you, was to lower individual soldiers into a pack of club-wielding activists. Where did the point of the project, the, 'let's stop the boat' part come into this plan? Ok. I'm not a naval officer, not a soldier, but in the wise words of Louis Black, "I have thoughts." Similar flotillas, seeking to break through the blockade on Gaza and hoping to deliver humanitarian aid have been successfully stopped before by the Israeli Navy, without violent incident. With regards to sunday night's chaos, Isabel Kerschner reporting for the New York Times wrote, 

"Einat Wilf, a Labor Party member of Parliament who sits on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that she had warned Mr. Barak [the Israeli Minister of Defense] and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means. “This had nothing to do with security,” she said in an interview. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”"(May 31, 2010)

So, why on earth did they board the boat in the first place - in international waters? Why did they endanger their young men, who, once on the deck of the boat, clearly had to defend themselves? Why did they risk committing (successfully) political suicide? And why! Oh why... did they allow the situation to escalate in such a way that lead to the death of nine people? If I am to follow the advice of some of my more well-lathered e-mail correspondents, then I suppose, the answer to this question could be that the "Israelis" (that would be the collective term, government and civilians alike) are terrorists and they think they can do whatever they want. 
But again, I have thoughts... 

And how about those activists, eh? Well done! Peace, love and happiness! They just want to deliver aid... I am not suggesting that the organizers and passengers aboard this "aid convoy" were actually smuggling arms (although some sources claim to have proof to the contrary - but if this "proof" were true, it would be screaming from the headlines of haaretz - and its not) or planning a terrorist attack, but their agenda was clearly two-fold: 1. deliver aid and 2. challenge and break the blockade. Their agenda is political and they were and continue to be quite vocal about this, as the launching of the Rachel Corrie  only a few days after the original flotilla situation bears witness. But did they ever ask why the blockade was made in the first place? In the meantime, the media has dug out quite an impressive list of cv's among those involved with and onboard the Freedom Flotilla and they're not all well-meaning ladies like this one....
Israeli soldier helping an activist disembark from the 'Rachel Corrie' aid ship in Ashdod on Saturday June 5, 2010.

Woman disembarking the Rachel Corrie at Ashdod port earlier this week (

In fact, the Iranian Navy has jumped on the aid bandwagon and plans to send off a few ships of their own, while also offering to escort other aid ships who might need "assistance". Should they have trouble breaking the blockade, the Iranian Navy has kindly offered military reinforcement, just in case....

For now, however, my concern is civilian opinion and not what militaries, governments or talking heads have to say. And so, although we'd rather not, I suggest we take a messy look at the story behind the blockade - something that the activists and their protesting friends seem eager to avoid. 

We have to go waaaay back to 2005, when there were thriving settlements in Gaza. Israelis lived there and built homes, schools and synagogues. Due to internal and international pressure, Ariel Sharon and his government adopted the Disengagement Plan. It is important to remember that the disengagement from Gaza marks for many the end of the 2nd Intifada, a bloody and terrifying period of time for Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliation or political convictions, by the way. Bus bombs and suicide bombings were everyday occurrences and no one knew where they would hit next. The disengagement plan entailed dismantling all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and four villages in the West Bank. Settlers who did not accept the government's compensation offer  (they owned homes there and were offered compensation so they could relocate elsewhere in Israel "proper") and refused to leave the strip, were removed by force by the IDF in August 2005. 

The strip was then left over to the Palestinians, which was politically split between two squabbling parties, Fatah and Hamas. "Squabbling" is probably not the right word... Anyway, it came to an election in 2007 and Hamas won.

Now, Hamas is an interesting organization - very messy indeed: I have a friend who refers to them as "saints", others who call them "terrorists".  Hamas was elected because, opposed to Fatah, they were seen as uncorrupt and non-elitist. They have provided Gazans with invaluable aid and infrastructure. They built schools, hospitals and subsidized life-saving operations for Gazans who couldn't afford them. Sounds like a bunch of nice guys, right? Well, that's why they won. But they didn't like the Israelis and just for good measure, they wrote a rather unfriendly charter stating that they did not recognize the existence of Israel (a position that Swedish author Henning Mankell, who was on board the flotilla, shares) and would fight the Zionists until all of "Palestine" was under Muslim rule. Hamas is an acronym meaning The Muslim Resistance Movement; their name and raison d'ĂȘtre is defined by religion and resistance. 

Since Hamas took over in Gaza they have, in any case, lived up to their promise of fighting Israel. Thousands of Qassam rockets have rained down on Israeli cities close to the Gazan border since 2006, which was clearly not the case when Israel lived in and occupied Gaza. Although the rockets have not claimed many lives (under 30), they have sent Israeli citizens into bombshelters on a regular, in some places, daily basis, some of them built within playgrounds for convenience. Homes and property have been destroyed. Another significant detail in this story is that these rockets and other weaponry are provided in part by Iran- whose current government proclaims it's love for Israel regularly. And how did these armaments get into Gaza in the first place? In part, by sea. Given this history, Israelis ask, rightly so, why should we allow unknown cargo into Gaza? And why should we leave the territories and or end the blockade in Gaza, when the response is violence? 

This position, by the way, is inherantly different from those who claim that the territories should belong to Israel, well... just because. But that is material for another article...

Of course, your reaction may be, but they're getting shot at anyway - the occupation and blockade are not fulfilling their "purpose"! This is true. Thanks to Moshe Dayan, Israel has really gotten herself into a pickle, with regards to the territories. They should never have stayed in Gaza and the West Bank after their success in 67. That land should have been used as leverage in peace negotiations - and given back once clear borders were defined. But they didn't. Now they get shot at for being there and they get shot at when they leave.

So, now what? I see two strategies, a short and long term one.

Short term: With regards to the current security concern, it is not so much a  question of whether the Israelis should or have the right to defend themselves, and here I'm referring to the many armed struggles that have come to pass in recent years, not just the flotilla flop. It is more a question of how and to what extent, that is of essence. The flotilla tragedy and certainly the colossal loss of civilian life in Gaza a little more than a year ago during Operation Cast Lead, clearly point to problems of proportionality and appropriateness. In terms of the ongoing blockade, Israel needs  to address and react to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza for which they carry a significant amount of - though not exclusive -  responsibility. Many innocent people are suffering and of course, the blockade needs to be ended. In turn, the international community needs to put more pressure on Hamas to recognize the existence of Israel as a sovereign state, just as Fatah does (within the pre-67 borders, among other things) and to enter into peace negotiations with them. 

And for the long term plan: As soon as all Palestinians categorically refuse to use violence as a tool of resistance, as is the case to a great extent in the Fatah ruled West Bank, Israel will not be able to withstand the pressure from the international community and will be forced to take a seat at the negotiating table. The blockade will end, as will the continued harassment at checkpoints, settler violence, and house demolitions and relations with the neighboring Arab countries will surely improve, putting, in turn, pressure on Iran. Finally, once viable and internationally recognized national borders are agreed upon, they will be much more easy to defend and this eternal messiness of whether it was self-defense, who started it and who the underdog is, will begin to fade. So if its so easy, why isn't anyone following my expert advice?

There are several loopholes: 

1) There are fringe groups affiliated with the Palestinians who don't want peace with Israel; they want Israel to go away (such as  sub-groups in Hamas). Although these violent groups are a minority, they cause a lot of trouble. There are parties on the Israeli side who are similarly uncooperative and categorical in their views. Borders are not of interest to either of them, unless those borders represent the entire area, devoid of their enemies. 

This is a factor that cannot be ignored and the reason why the "land for peace" equation that well-meaning westerners like to talk about is bogus (there are other nationalist voices who also argue that the equation is bogus for racist reasons, but we won't get into this here). This does not mean that land should not be exchanged and given back. It just means that peace will not be the outcome of such a step. It may help or it may also make things worse, but it should nevertheless be done because it is ethically the right decision. Peace is a separate project.

2) Each side is completely unable to actually lead because they are are are not willing to risk voter support - they don't want to lose power.  Its all about politics, not religion, not ethnicity or "culture". If the populations rose up and demanded that the violence stop and a peace agreement made - these politicians would be falling all over themselves to be the first ones in line to implement such a change. 

In Israel, the current government is held together by a rocky coalition with right of center Likud (Bibi's party) taking the lead and two ultra nationalist right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu (non-religious) and Shas (orthodox religious affiliation). The more moderate Labour also plays a role in this confederacy of dunces, but they seem to be regularly bullied by their coalition bedfellows, so that it begins to look more like a three stooges skit than high-powered governing.

And so government in Israel does not seem to be about what is right and good for Israel, but what policies minority parties can push through by throwing their political weight around. This scenario may sound familiar to my Danish readers- only the consequences in Israel are not just maddening and ethically questionable, but deadly. Granted, there will always be shenanigans (that's new Yiddish, in case you're wondering) and some degree of crab antics, but the way things are run now is beyond absurd. 

I don't know much about Palestinians politics, but it seems to be defined by a matrix of hidden agendas and alliances that can be traced to influential clan ties that continue to exist and date back to the various empires that have left their marks on the region. Here I am referring to the Ottoman Empire, Jordanian rule, the British Mandate and a host of other stakeholders over time throughout the Middle East. What you see is anything other than what you get - especially when trying to see Middle Eastern politics through a western optic.

So, where does all of this leave us? From an Israeli point of view, ending the blockade in Gaza would mean bringing themselves into unnecessary danger. At the same time, I detect a slow awakening to the fact that the blockade has played a big role in the daily misery that Gazans live in and Israelis do not want to be part of this either. Seen from this perspective it is pretty clear that simplistic answers and moral hand-washing are counter-productive.  Whatever the solution will be, it will have to protect Israel from physical threat, so they can concentrate on saving themselves from their impending moral demise.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Thank goodness that after my last posting, Purim was not far off. Fieldwork is challenging and I clearly was in need of cheering up - Purim did the trick. Purim dates back to the 4th century BCE,  during the Jewish exile to Babylon. Its generally seen as another "they tried to kill us, they didn't succeed, let's eat" party. There are some other interesting nuances to the story of Esther, Mordechai and Haman, such as killing off the adversary's family and stealing their things- just for good measure - but upon mentioning this part of the story, I have been surprised that some were unfamiliar with it.

The holiday promotes boisterousness, sillyness and drunkenness  - its actually commanded - and people enjoy turning conventions on their head. Costumes are a must and it offers people an opportunity to cross borders and be who they wouldn't dare be otherwise. As a result, we saw quite a few cross-dressers and "ultra-orthodox." This little fellow is not in costume (I found the photo on the net), I'm afraid, but the cigarette hopefully marks a clear divergence from his otherwise successful career as a first grader.

My celebration was wonderful. First I went to Tel Aviv with friends, to a party that had been announced via facebook (I feel so hip). The evening afterwards, we went to another party in Jerusalem. The holiday is celebrated on different days depending on whether you live in a walled city or not - the original event happened in Persia, within a, hence the difference. Not that this really explains anything, but still... So Tel Aviv is not a walled city - so off we went on Saturday evening for celebrations in the unwalled, untethered and unorthodox city of sin. A friend commented that he thought we broadcasted our Jerusalemness - I guess he thought that we stuck out as particularly frum thumbs. Speak for yourself, but I was tickled to be included in the description. Next day, safe within the morally superior walls of Al-Quds, I heard the Meggilah reading at kol haneshama (more about that soon) and later we took off for Boogie, a place that had been mentioned to me by several sources as The Place to go dancing on Purim.

I had actually planned to go as a mad scientist - I thought that this would be particularly appropriate - a way to poke a little fun at myself, while having a good excuse to write field notes during festivities. But getting a lab coat proved to be difficult and so with no time to spare on saturday evening, I shoved some plastic flowers in my hair, jumped into the backseat of a friend's car and we sped off down Road 443 for Tel Aviv. The driver had never been that way before, but she was advised to take this route by another friend in the car, so off we sped, unknowingly thumbing out Purim noses at those who are prohibited from using the road. Another friend commented that she was not very adventurous when it came to the territories. Indeed driving on 443 wasn't very exciting: there wasn't even any traffic except for when we got to the checkpoint, where we had to slow down briefly to send out our "we're the good guys" vibes to the gum- chewing, machine-gun toting kid at the border, bringing us back into Israel proper.

I wonder if those kids at the border post would have stopped us if any of us had been dressed as a Dubai assassin? This story has been all the rage in the newspapers in Israel over the past many weeks and has inspired many a creative Purim Costume this year.

The story goes like this: On January 20th, a head Hamas man, Mahmoud al-Mabhouth, was murdered in his hotel room in Dubai. As the story began to unfold, more and more suspects emerged in the investigation. They were men and women who had entered the United Arab Emirates on false passports. The passports were supposed to be German, English, Irish and several others. The pictures in them were of the people carrying the passports, but the names were "stolen" from existing Israeli civilians who share a resemblance with the supposed assassins. They had all entered the country on pretexts, of course, some of them for vacation, others for business conferences, etc., but the main reason for visiting Mr. al-Mabhouth, was apparently to "liquidate" him - that's spy talk for "kill him". Nobody, at least in the media, seems to know who dun it and apart from some cute comments about the pictures published in the local newspapers, many of those whose identity has been stolen are quite nervous about the repercussions of this mix up on their family lives. But all this didn't stop many a young Israeli from dressing up as a "Mossad agent" for Purim. This was achieved by donning vacation clothes, such as tennis shorts and a t-shirt, accessorizing with a tennis racket and then adding the obligatory secret agent sunglasses, plus a gun = bingo. Some added the fake passport photo to their t-shirt. Brilliant.

I run into this kind of humor all the time and it is wonderful. You can buy a t-shirt in the Arab suq that reads: Mossad: My job is so secret that even I don't know what I'm doing. Very apropos. But the background for such jokes are quite chilling - but then again, you've got to laugh about something. Humor seems to be a major coping mechanism here, among other things. Just to see how far such humor could be stretched, I asked a friend if anyone ever dressed up as a suicide bomber for Purim, but we agreed that this wouldn't be so funny.

At both of the parties, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, security was top notch. The kid at the border barely scowled her purim salutations at us. She was probably mad that she was on duty. Besides, her soldier outfit was soooo 1967. But the security guys at the party in Tel Aviv made an effort to peek in every woman's bag and to feel up every guy. The place was packed and we wiggled as best we could to the inane beat, like sardines, post- canning.

The next night was more fun. Firstly, I went to kol haneshama, a reform synagogue in Jerusalem to hear the Megillah reading. I think I went as Queen Esther or Vashti, but truly, I designed my costume based on what I could find in a friend's Purim box, and this was the result:

Some of the best costumes at the synagogue were the guy dressed up as a haredi man holding a sign that read: "Haredim for diversity and tolerance". That's a really good joke in Israel among the more progressive and secular Jews... Then there was an "ultra-orthodox" woman who looked like she was pregnant with at least sextuplets, who behaved garishly during the reading. There were of course, the above described "Mossad agents" and the Rabbi was dressed as Captain Kirk - complete with kippah. The reading was punctuated by calls of "Go Vashti!" and the ever eager kracher, boo-calling and ululations when evil Haman's name was mentioned. Well, I admit, the ululations were mostly me - but that's because I didn't have a kracher and it makes me feel cool to ululate (I love saying that - it sounds so....). People really get into this stuff. It's delicious to be allowed to be rude and vulgar in a religious setting.

My last bit of Purim fun was the next day, when I was invited to sudat Purim - the Purim meal. I was given several mishloach manot and was really touched that people went out of their way to give me these traditional gifts - they are usually baskets with sweets - in order to mark my first Purim in Israel. I met lots of lovely people, the food was delicious, and the conversation lively - oh, and yes, we drank.

And here, a final Purim picture - also found on the net. A friend has suggested that it is iconic and I must agree. The combination of goofiness, sweetness and a deadly weapon is actually pretty standard fare.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Basic Training

I don't really know why I'm here. Getting to know people's everyday life seems unrealististic and I don't feel useful. I am frustrated that I allowed myself to be talked out of taking a part-time job here. As a result, I don't feel that I have a place in society here. I hang out during the day, read the newspaper or relevant literature, sleep late and go out in the evening when people have more time to meet with me. I shop a little and drink too much coffee. Tell me, how is this like everyday life? 

And what of the content of my project? Perceptions of safety and danger. People tend towards racist positions regarding what they think "the Arabs" believe and how they will act. This is explained by way of their "culture" and "religion": "Given the chance, they would kill us all. As a Jewish woman, you have to know this." And the worst is that I'm beginning to fall for this rationalization myself.  Recently, I got lost in the old city - in the Muslim quarter. It was evening and I was with a female friend. The winding alleyways were abandoned by the tourist throngs which crowd the area during the day and now there were only a few men on the dark streets and some little kids kicking a soccer ball over the ancient stones; a last burst of energy before their bedtime. Why is it I preferred to ask the Jewish men in the streets for directions rather than the other men who I assumed were Palestinian? It's not because I think they know the city better. It's because I trust them more.The Jewish men were easily recognizable, as they were wearing kippot (yarmulkes) or they were soldiers or policemen, and thereby also Jewish-Israelis. These men were easy to spot as members of the tribe (Here I refer mostly to group identity and not religious beliefs). The conflict and fear of violence makes racism and prejudice a good survival strategy. Yuck. I'm having a hard time tolerating myself. 

The next day I was also in the old city, this time during the day, and asked some Palestinian guys how to get to via dolorosa, but there I was a tourist. The night before, though, I was a Jewish woman.

And its not like violence is rampant, no, no. It almost doesn't exist in everyday life in western jerusalem, but there is a conviction that violence is a potentiality - and only a matter of time before it bubbles over again. By the way, what counts as violence is very fuzzy, especially as a woman, because imagined violence has many facets. You must understand that  "Arab" men are not only violent for political reasons- they are just generally dangerous. As a woman you are especially vulnerable because you can be sexually harassed (been there, done that) or become a victim of sexual crimes (I have an informant who has). And then there's the petty crime that many speak of which is attributed to Palestinian construction workers who work in West Jerusalem. Plus, you've got the political aspect which is, of course, also a component in this briar patch of perceptions...And these criminal acts happen- there is factual evidence for them and they have an influence on me: I am afraid.

And reading the local newspaper confirms these prejudices.  An example: today there was an article in haartez about a man who is the son of a top Hamas leader. The son became a secret agent for the Israelis and was able to avert many suicide bombings over the last ten years. He converted to Christianity and has since moved (fled) to California. He says: "Palestinians! They do not hesitate to massacre people in a mosque or to throw people from the 15th or 17th floor of a building, as they did during the coup in Gaza. The Israelis would never do such things. I tell you with certainty that the Israelis care about the Palestinians far more than the Hamas or Fatah leadership does." 

Thanks a lot. You are not helping this leftist author deal with her own prejudices....

But at the same time I'm living in this bubble and violence and the conflict are not - physically, at least - a part of my everyday reality. I don't experience violence personally, but I'm afraid of it anyway. I have taken up the local practice: I am aware. And that awareness is directed towards specific people with certain outer characteristics to which I attribute some kind of imagined potential morality. The conflict turns us all, on both sides, into racists because we become convinced that this is how to protect ourselves.  The lines are drawn simply and clearly, they infiltrate our practice and become thereby reality. I'm having a hard time challenging these categories. And so my concern now is not so much for my academic project, but for my moral integrity. 

So I sit here in relative luxury in a safe house that once belonged to a Palestinian family (I don't have a problem with this, in case you were wondering. It was bought legally. But it's existence and look remind me of the history and reality that brought me to Israel in the first place). I have too little to do, am apathetic and am slowing getting sucked into a rationalization that I hate, but am beginning to understand and practice myself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm back.

It's been almost year since I last wrote and now I'm back in Jerusalem to do fieldwork for my master's degree inAnthropology. My topic is embodied perceptions of safety and danger among families in the German Colony in Jerusalem. So far, however, the most dramatic things that happened have been a mega thunder storm and I got sick.

The picture to the left, by the way, is the entrance of the old Arab house in which I'm living. It was taken over by the Israeli government in connection with the 1948 war and was used as a police station. It has since been sold to private citizens. Very apropos.

So, I've been chained to my bed and have only had a chance to talk to my flat mates who certainly have some interesting perspectives on the topic. It seems that their current perceptions are directly and most personally connected to the second Intifada which is still fresh in their minds - with all the technicolor you can imagine. It ended about five years ago. There have been some gruesome talks around the kitchen table while I sipped my tea and tried to remember what they were saying, despite my fever.

Otherwise, there are some boring, practical things that need to be taken care of, like getting health insurance (done), buying a dictaphone, and trying to finagle an academic affiliation with Hebrew University. I haven't much to report yet. My Hebrew is slowly coming back and I've had hummus.

My project this time is radically different from when I was here last last year. My time was very structured through the university and the research that I did "on the side" (it was a big project), was for an organization, so the guidelines were given there, too. This time, the only structure is the one that I create and it's a bit daunting - especially when my sore throat has kept me inactive. What I need to do is establish contact with local families. I have made preliminary contact with the community center here, which has a program for teenagers, so that could be useful and otherwise I'm leaning on the local contacts that I have from my time here last year who have expressed willingness to help me.

One of the stumbling blocks I may run into is the fact that some people may not want to talk about the conflict. It seems to be important to get on with things and not always live in fear. So, if it's possible to put on blinders, then people do it. This is quite a feat, considering that in the area where I am, East Jerusalem, refugee camps and all that goes with them is only a few - I'd say ca. 5 - kilometers away. So, I will have to dig through some layers to get to the information I want. And the fact that denial is so rampant and clearly a necessary coping technique, is interesting in and of itself.

I'll be reporting on my adventures here, but because the data I'll be collecting is personal, I won't be discussing it directly on the blog. I'll let you know where you can buy my thesis though...:-)

I'm hoping that I'll be ready to roll by sunday. But as always, questions and comments are welcome.