Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Lisa Goldman on Gaza

Lisa Goldman has been on my blogroll for two and a half years. I find her voice of reason and compassion to be soothing during times of Israel's intermittent conflicts with her neighbors, events she sees through a human lens. We know the political angles. On paper or in a debate Israel's argument is unassailable. But in order to support Israel's military actions we must turn a deaf ear to the human consequences of those actions, painting every person in the line of fire as an "enemy."

According to one of her "tweets" (and mentioned in the essay) today's post was eleven days in the making. That's the mark of a pro.
I'm copying the content here for easier reading. The format of her blog is not reader-friendly, although if you want to see it in another language there are translation tabs in the left sidebar for that purpose.

Haniyeh and his Israeli sisters: wartime tales from Gaza and Israel

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has three Israeli sisters. They live in a Bedouin town near Beer Sheva, which is within range of Hamas’s rockets. Back in the 1980s, when a Palestinian from the occupied territories could become a citizen by marriage, the sisters were married off to Israeli Bedouin. They are widows now, but they still live in the village with their grown children. Some of their neighbours - also Bedouin - served in the Israel army. In a January 4 interview with Yedioth Aharonoth’s Nir Gontarz, the sisters expressed fear of the incoming Hamas rockets and worry for their brother Ismail - who is hiding in a bunker somewhere in Gaza. They called upon both Israel and Hamas to cease firing. “Hamas must stop firing rockets at Beer Sheva, but so must Israel stop attacking Gaza. If our children are afraid, then it must be very difficult for the children in Gaza,” said 59 year-old Khaldia Abu Rakik.

Last week I called Gaza, which has the same local dialing code as Sderot, to check on my friend “Musa,” a journalist in Gaza who regularly files reports for Israeli media (all the Israeli media have local correspondents in Gaza). Speaking in his still-fluent Hebrew, he insisted that he was fine - working hard, busy all day, no time to think. “And your children?” I asked. “Well, my 6 year-old daughter lost the ability to walk - it’s a symptom of trauma - so she spends all her time in bed. We only have electricity for a couple of hours a day and school is canceled, so the other kids have to sit around in the dark doing nothing all day. We can’t let them play outside because of the bombings. Anyway, they are too afraid to go out. There isn’t any water, because you need electricity to pump it. We have enough food, although my wife could not find bread yesterday. She said there were about 200 people queued up at the bakery. It’s cold and we don’t have heat, but we have to leave the windows open so they won’t shatter from the booms. But I am fine. You haven’t told me about yourself! How are you?” Musa was always like that - overdoing the stiff upper lip, even when circumstances would justify some complaining.

Suddenly there was a lot of static on the phone line and we had to shout. “Can you hear me?!” we called out to one another. “Musa, I…” BOOM. The static cleared. Musa’s children were shouting in the background. “That one was very close,” he said calmly. Just before we ended the conversation Musa said, “You know I don’t support Hamas. You know that. So just tell me… do Israelis know what is happening to us here?”

Not really, I told him uneasily. Israeli television is more focused on how the war affects us. We see very little of the images from Gaza.

That conversation took place before the IDF’s ground incursion began, and before the air force bombed the central power plant. Since we spoke, the number of casualties in Gaza has more than doubled. And there is no electricity at all.

Nor is life terribly pleasant for children living in the Sderot/western Negev area these days. Then again, it’s been pretty bad for the past 8 years - with Qassams falling several times per day and sirens and safe rooms a part of life. No-one could figure out how to stop the Qassams, but the people of Sderot thought that the government was not really trying - that they were indifferent to the suffering of Mizrachim living on the country’s periphery. “Do something!” they cried out to the government, as elections approached and Bibi Netanyahu seemed positioned to win.

So Ehud Barak, the defense minister and leader of the Labor party, which before the war had a very low popularity rating indeed, decided to do something. A couple of days after Hamas fired 88 rockets in one day at Sderot and the surrounding communities, the air force attacked Gaza and killed 200 Palestinians in one morning.

It may be true that sometimes you have to crack some eggs in order to make an omelette. Unfortunately, however, the campaign against Hamas, now entering its twelfth day, has not stopped the jihadists. They may be hungry, cold and dirty, but fanaticism is a mighty motivator. They are still launching rockets at Israel all day long. Several Israeli military correspondents have explained that it might not be possible for the IDF to wipe out Hamas’s military wing.

Writing on his blog, Channel 10’s political analyst Raviv Drucker outlines the reasons why the IDF campaign is unlikely to deliver on the government’s promise to stop the Qassams. Journalist Danny Rubinstein, a noted Middle East expert who speaks fluent Arabic, thinks the military operation in Gaza is just going to make Hamas more powerful and more popular.

Which is probably why the Hamas leadership, holed up in cozy bunkers, thinks it’s a good strategy to keep launching rockets at Israel while the people of Gaza sit in the dark, terrified, freezing and hungry, not knowing when the next bomb or tank shell will come and where it will land, with nowhere to run and no way to protect their children. Indeed, some Hamas militants took time off from their heroic battle against the Zionist enemy to visit Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, where they summarily executed wounded Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel - with a bullet to the brain. Sorry for the gore - I just wanted to make a point, in case you are one of those western fake leftists (a.k.a. anti-democratic reactionaries) who might be marching in London, waving banners emblazoned with the idiotic slogan “We are all Hamas now.” If you are one of those people, you might be interested in knowing that the Hamas leadership has completely buggered off, leaving ordinary people to fend for themselves without any infrastructure - no phones, no banks, no post office, no schools, etc. So much for the “resistance.” So go ahead, I am with you all the way on the calls for a ceasefire. But please, spare me the apologia for a fascist, theocratic, thuggish movement.

Not only are the Hamas leaders not suffering, but they must be figuring they’re about to come out of this campaign way ahead. Thousands of Arabs are demonstrating on their behalf, enraged at their own leaders for failing to help the people of Gaza. I imagine that a certain turbaned gentleman living in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan is rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of pro-west Arab rulers having to deal with popular protests that threaten to destabilize their governments. Saves him having to recruit more suicide bombers, doesn’t it?

More strange tales from the Middle East. On Saturday night, I attended an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv that attracted thousands of Israelis from all over the country. You can read English language Israeli bloggers’ reports about that demo, and view their photos, here, here, here and here.

And yet, to the astonishment of everyone I know who was at that demonstration (which included former combat soldiers and those who identify firmly with the Zionist left) the Israeli media either ignored it, buried it or dismissed it. Israeli journalist Itamar Shaaltiel, who also participated in the demo, has more details in this Hebrew blog post. Israeli media reports under-estimated the number of protesters and inflated the number of counter-demonstrators from a maximum of a few hundred, to several thousand. In fact - and to my chagrin - the only accurate and neutrally worded report I found is on Al Jazeera’s English website.

That article briefly undermined my AJ hate-on -but it was quickly revived when I saw an execrable interview from the Washington studio: guest journalist Marwan Bishara explained to his enthusiastically receptive hosts that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Indeed, explained Marwan, Hamas has committed to ending its violence against Israel as soon as the occupation ends. Awesome, Marwan. Could we have a source for that astonishingly mendacious statement, please? I suppose Marwan wasn’t thinking of Nizar Rayyan, the number three Hamas leader and all-round freak who dispatched his own son to commit a suicide bombing and masterminded several more. Haniyeh just said that his death was “a painful loss” (the IAF killed him a few days ago, along with his wives, 12 of his children and some of the neighbours’ children as well). I did not receive the memo about Rayyan having disavowed the Hamas charter, although I do question the ethics of the “collateral deaths” involved in his assassination.

Standing in clusters along the route of Saturday’s anti-war protest march, wrapped in Israeli flags, there were a few small groups of hecklers who sneered, “intellectuals!”, “bleeding hearts!”, “traitors!”, “terrorists!” and “go live in Gaza!” I started filming the guys in the clip below when they suddenly began to pump their fists and jump up and down like soccer hooligans as they chanted, “death to Arabs!” (MAH-vet l’ah-rah-VEEM! MAH-vet l’ah-rah-VEEM!). It was almost a pity that they stopped as soon as I pointed my camera at them. But I caught them yelling “bogdim!” (traitors) and singing an, um, “interesting” version of the national anthem they purport to cherish. The guy on the left is brandishing a flyer that shows a picture of MK Avigdor Lieberman, who is often parodied for his far-right (some say fascist) views.

Here’s the part that seems perfectly normal in Israel, and probably perfectly strange to foreign observers: The Border Police who impassively and non-violently formed a human barrier between the anti-war demonstrators and the racist counter-demonstrators were mostly Druze Arabs. Yup, true. Arab citizens of Israel protected the right of a bunch of thugs to yell racist epithets.

Meanwhile, Yudit reports that some anti-war activists (Palestinian-Israelis) were interrogated by the police and put under house arrest in Jaffa, on suspicion of incitement to terror and non-recognition of the state. One of the activists under house arrest is Omar Sikseck, a member of the Tel Aviv municipal council. I wonder how he can be accused of not recognizing the state, since he is an elected participant in one of its institutions. Haaretz has more on police intimidation of Israeli citizens who oppose the war.

And as long as we’re on the subject of Palestinian-Israelis, let’s talk about how the war against Gaza is affecting them. Documentary director Ibtisam Maraana, whose prize-winning films include Paradise Lost, Three Times Divorced and Lady Kul el Arab, dropped her candidacy from the Meretz list in the upcoming election because the left-Zionist party supported the military action in Gaza. Meretz has since changed its position, but for Ibtisam it was too little, too late. As she wrote in response to my message on her Facebook profile, “…I could not lend a hand to Barak and his campaign of killing and terror, which will fall upon the people of both Gaza and Sderot.” Ibtisam speaks fluent Hebrew, lives in Tel Aviv and socializes easily with both Jews and Arabs. A firm believer in co-existence between Arabs and Jews, she has represented Israel at prestigious international documentary film festivals. For many Jews, however, her stance against the war was a matter of indifference (”number 12 on the Meretz list?” sneered one friend. “She never had a chance of getting elected anyway”), while Arabs wondered why the hell she was a member of a Zionist party in the first place.

Karen Alkalay-Gut, a professor of English literature at Tel Aviv University, has published a letter from one of her Arab students on her blog. “…there is no one who is right and no one who is wrong, there is no good guy and no bad guy and what’s happening is inhumane from both sides..,” he writes. Read the rest here (scroll down to January 4 entry).

Sayed Kashua, a novelist who writes in Hebrew, wrote a brilliant satirical piece for Haaretz about the military operation in Gaza. Apparently inspired by Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Sayed’s piece includes this paragraph:

So now I am telling you: Our aim is to grind them into the dust. We will soften them up with missiles until they understand that for every blasted Qassam they let fly at us, they will get a hundred tons in their face. And it won’t end, either. Who said it has to end? Hey, the rules of the game have changed. How long can you be good to them? Hey, was there a cease-fire? There was. What happened? All they did was figure out how to plan the next blow. So we didn’t open the transit points? Is that our fault? They brought Hamas on themselves. Let them deal. Click here to read the entire article.

Unfortunately, an appreciation for fine satire seems to be increasingly rare in our self-righteous corner of the globe. Things got so bad, with Arabs calling Kashua a monster and Jews calling him a fifth columnist, that the soft-spoken writer felt compelled to defend himself in this interview, broadcast yesterday evening on Channel 2. It’s clear that the host, Oded Ben-Ami, sympathizes with Kashua. But he still had to ask the insulting question, “Do you have the same feeling [of sorrow over Palestinian deaths] when you see news of a rocket falling on Sderot, or on a kindergarten (God forbid)?” Kashua’s answer: “I think that’s the wrong way of looking at the matter. I think non-combatants should be excluded from this conflict completely.” Then he added that he agreed with Barack Obama, who visited Sderot and famously said that he would do everything to protect his daughters if someone was shooting rockets at them. “Everything,” says Kashua, “Includes attempts to negotiate…and it certainly does not include killing 300 people in one day, killing children and entire famlies with bombardments. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference between the IDF saying it accidentally killed families while targetting Hamas militants, and Hamas militants claiming that rockets which hit Sderot were meant for a nearby military base.”

The Arab man from Ramle who sells me fresh eggs and home-cured olives from his stall in the Carmel Market just smiled at me sadly as he weighed the olives and then added a few more, as he always does. “Let’s hope for better times,” he said. Meanwhile, a friend asked me to visit someone she was close to, a wounded Gazan man who had been evacuated to a Tel Aviv-area hospital. Which reminds me: I have been trying without success to obtain a laptop for him, so that he can follow the news on the internet. If anyone in the Tel Aviv area has a spare laptop to lend him for a week or so, please send me an email.

On last Tuesday’s episode of Eretz Nehederet, the country’s most popular satire show, one of the skits, “The Big Restaurant,” is about an Arab restaurateur in Akko (Acre/Akka) and his Jewish customers. Ali Hamoudi’s traditional Arab restaurant has been empty since the Yom Kippur riots, which scared away the Jewish customers upon whom he depends for a livelihood (in Arabic, Hamoudi is derived from the name Mahmoud; but in Hebrew it means “cutie,” an endearment usually directed at a child). So when a stylishly dressed yuppie couple and their two children timorously enter the restaurant, he does everything to relax them. “You are in good hands,” he says, piling traditional appetizers and far too many main courses on their table. The macho husband, Shmulik, tells his neurotic wife Dalia, “I told you there was nothing to worry about. These are Christian Arabs. They love us.” But in the end Ali Hamoudi and his staff are so delighted to have customers that they freak the couple out with their hospitality overkill. Dalia and Shmulik end up running away from Ali Hamoudi’s restaurant. Since the entire episode of Eretz Nehederet was about the war (which was only in its fourth day), the unspoken question seems to be, “What will happen to Arab-Jewish relations now, with the war in Gaza?”

And in a final twist of unintended irony, the new season of Survivor, the reality show that takes place on a Caribbean island, started off with its first-ever female Muslim contestant - Nasreen Ghandour. The daughter of a university professor from Haifa, she has two graduate degrees and once aspired to be the first Muslim flight attendant for El Al. She’s also gorgeous.

Nasreen was voted off the show during the first week of the Gaza operation (uh, everyone knows the show was recorded a few months ago, right?), but first there was quite a bit of sexual tension between her and a macho gungh-ho army guy from a West Bank settlement. File under “complexities and anomalies of Israeli society.”

Eamonn asked me on the second day of the war why I was, according to my Twitter status, “outside the consensus.” On that day, when we were told that all those people killed in the initial bombardments were Hamas militants (later we found out that those men in uniform were actually a class of newly trained civil police at their graduation ceremony), I outlined my views in an email that morphed into a guest post on the Z blog. As you will see, I took a pragmatic stance. Mohamed said it doesn’t sound like me; too cold, he said.

The thing is, I’ve noticed that the response to an ethical argument against the war tends to be derision at best. Some people become absolutely enraged. An expression of compassion for the people of Gaza is interpreted as an expression of indifference to the people of Sderot and the rest of the southern towns under bombardment from Hamas operatives in Gaza. I find this reaction astonishing and sometimes frightening. On more than one occasion, some people I was actually friends with turned absolutely psychotic - attacking me in writing, yelling at me and accusing me of being a Hamas supporter - just because I said that I oppose this war.

Over the past 11 days, more than 600 Gazans have been killed and around 4,000 injured. Entire families have been wiped out. Parents have lost all their children in one split second. Schools packed with refugees looking for a safe haven from the bombardments have been hit by artillery shells that killed dozens of people and wounded many more. The hospitals are completely overwhelmed. Buildings have collapsed on multi-generation families of 52 members, killing them all at once. Given these circumstances, in addition to those described above, I feel compelled to speak out - even though I know that my voice will not make any difference. As my sister put it, after musing about why she had not attended any protest marches in Toronto, “In Israel, however, where you can say ‘I love Israel, I deplore these actions’ - here I would have marched.” And so I marched: because I love Israel, but I deplore its actions in Gaza.

Today I watched two video clips that affected me strongly. The first is a Channel 2 news report about the soldiers who were killed by friendly fire. In a typical cross-section of Israeli society, they include a religious-national (”settler”) soldier whose first child was born four months ago, a secular guy from the center of the country and a 19 year-old Druze. The interviews with the bereaved families are hearbreaking. Sobbing, the Druze soldier’s younger brother, Amir, chokes out, “I don’t know how I will live without him. And I hope he is the last soldier killed in this war.”

Over the past 11 days, more than 600 Gazans have been killed and around 4,000 injured. Entire families have been wiped out. Parents have lost all their children in one split second. Schools packed with refugees looking for a safe haven from the bombardments have been hit by artillery shells that killed dozens of people and wounded many more. The hospitals are completely overwhelmed. Buildings have collapsed on multi-generation families of 52 members, killing them all at once. Given these circumstances, in addition to those described above, I feel compelled to speak out - even though I know that my voice will not make any difference. As my sister put it, after musing about why she had not attended any protest marches in Toronto, “In Israel, however, where you can say ‘I love Israel, I deplore these actions’ - here I would have marched.” And so I marched: because I love Israel, but I deplore its actions in Gaza.

The second clip, from SKY news, is an interview with Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert, who has been working at a Gaza hospital since December 31. Watch:

Dr. Gilbert’s report, on top of all the information I’ve obtained from friend in Gaza (before the phone lines were cut off) and international media reports, leads me to conclude that the cost of this military action - justified or not - is too high. Whether intended or not, our army’s actions are causing unspeakable suffering to innocent people. This must stop.

Even the military experts interviewed ad nauseum on Channels 1, 2 and 10 confirm that the best we can do is “change the reality” for a few months, until Hamas regroups and attacks again. Surely this does not justify sending teenage soldiers to fight and die; surely we cannot shrug off the fact that the bombardments have caused enormous suffering to the ordinary people of Gaza. I do not understand why people I know and respect and love - doting parents, generous friends, intelligent, educated people - fold their arms over their chests and look away from the suffering of Gazan civilians. “Well,” said one friend, “I am sorry for them, but they should not have voted for Hamas.”

“They started it”; “but they’re terrorists”; and “it’s worse in Darfur” are not, in my opinion, intelligent responses. I do not live in Darfur. I am a voting, tax-paying citizen of Israel, so this is where I have the moral obligation to speak out when I see something that is wrong.

Yes, Hamas is a bunch of fanatic thugs. I remember that they threw Fateh people off of multi-story buildings during the July 2007 coup. I know that they use civilians as human shields. I do understand that Israel has got itself caught in a struggle between Iran, which is funding Hamas, and the Arab states, which hate Hamas and fear Iran. And yes, Hamas could stop the war if they would just cease firing the rockets. But they will not do that. So it is up to us: we have it in our power to stop the killing. We can stop the war. And we should stop it, immediately. For their sake and for ours.

Because it is undermining our morality. Because it is costing us hundreds of millions of shekels. Because it is a shocking waste of life, money and goodwill from moderate Arabs. Because if we plan to live in this neighbourhood called the Middle East for the long term, we need to find a modus vivendi with our neighbours. We needn’t love one another. We just need to stop killing each other. And to those who say one cannot negotiate with a terror organization that refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist, my response is - perhaps you are right; but have you tried?

I’ve been writing this blog post for days, which is why it is so long. If you are still with me, thank you. And if you are curious about mainstream sentiment toward the war, I recommend the blogs of Liza and Israeli Mom. Both express regret for the suffering of Palestinians, alongside a belief that the war is necessary. As Liza put it in a IM chat yesterday, “I love you, but I totally disagree with you.”

Below is a summary of Israeli blogs and other media sources that express a more definitive anti-war stance.
[See the link for this list.]

Blogger Shuki Galili put together a list of 80 Hebrew-language bloggers who are against the war. The black-white-red poster at the bottom of his post reads, “Civilians are not cannon fodder. Not in Gaza. Not in Sderot.”

Attorney Jonathan Klinger explains his opposition in this self-translated post (from the Hebrew), Between Gnosis and Genocide.

And here he is again, at the same anti-war demo that I attended, explaining in his typically articulate fashion why the war is such a bad idea. Uri Avnery, Ibtisam Maraana and several others make their own interesting observations. Recommended. (Thanks, Yishay!)

Well-known Haaretz journalist Avirama Golan moved last year to Sderot in order to express her solidarity. She writes a blog about life in Sderot in Hebrew. And she is certainly not the only Sderot resident who opposes the war.

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