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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Day of Shame

By Uri Avnery, CounterPunch, May 21, 2018

On Bloody Monday, when the number of Palestinian killed and wounded was rising by the hour, I asked myself: what would I have done if I had been a youngster of 15 in the Gaza Strip?

My answer was, without hesitation: I would have stood near the border fence and demonstrated, risking my life and limbs every minute.

How am I so sure?

Simple: I did the same when I was 15.

I was a member of the National Military Organization (the “Irgun”), an armed underground group labeled “terrorist”.

Palestine was at the time under British occupation (called “mandate”). In May 1939, the British enacted a law limiting the right of Jews to acquire land. I received an order to be at a certain time at a certain spot near the sea shore of Tel Aviv in order to take part in a demonstration. I was to wait for a trumpet signal.

The trumpet sounded and we started the march down Allenby Road, then the city’s main street. Near the main synagogue, somebody climbed the stairs and delivered an inflammatory speech. Then we marched on, to the end of the street, where the offices of the British administration were located. There we sang the national anthem, “Hatikvah”, while some adult members set fire to the offices.

Suddenly several lorries carrying British soldiers screeched to a halt, and a salvo of shots rang out. The British fired over our heads, and we ran away.

Remembering this event 79 years later, it crossed my mind that the boys of Gaza are greater heroes then we were then. They did not run away. They stood their ground for hours, while the death toll rose to 61 and the number of those wounded by live ammunition to some 1500, in addition to 1000 affected by gas.

On that day, most TV stations in Israel and abroad split their screen. On the right, the events in Gaza. On the left, the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

In the 136th year of the Zionist-Palestinian war, that split screen is the picture of reality: the celebration in Jerusalem and the bloodbath in Gaza. Not on two different planets, not in two different continents, but hardly an hour’s drive apart.

The celebration in Jerusalem started as a silly event. A bunch of suited males, inflated with self-importance, celebrating–what, exactly? The symbolic movement of an office from one town to another.

Jerusalem is a major bone of contention. Everybody knows that there will be no peace, not now, not ever, without a compromise there. For every Palestinian, every Arab, every Muslim throughout the world, it is unthinkable to give up Jerusalem. It is from there, according to Muslim tradition, that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, after tying his horse to the rock that is now the center of the holy places. After Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the third holiest place of Islam.

For the Jews, of course, Jerusalem means the place where, some 2000 years ago, there stood the temple built by King Herod, a cruel half-Jew. A remnant of an outer wall still stands there and is revered as the “Western Wall”. It used to be called the “Wailing Wall”, and is the holiest place of the Jews.

Statesmen have tried to square the circle and find a solution. The 1947 United Nations committee that decreed the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state–a solution enthusiastically endorsed by the Jewish leadership–suggested separating Jerusalem from both states and constituting it as a separate unit within what was supposed to be in fact a kind of confederation.

The war of 1948 resulted in a divided city, the Eastern part was occupied by the Arab side (the Kingdom of Jordan) and the Western part became the capital of Israel. (My modest part was to fight in the battle for the road.)

No one liked the division of the city. So my friends and I devised a third solution, which by now has become a world consensus: keep the city united on the municipal level and divide it politically: the West as capital of the State of Israel, the East as capital of the State of Palestine. The leader of the local Palestinians, Faisal al-Husseini, the scion of a most distinguished local Palestinian family and the son of a national hero who was killed not far from my position in the same battle, endorsed this formula publicly. Yasser Arafat gave me his tacit consent.

If President Donald Trump had declared West Jerusalem the capital of Israel and moved his embassy there, almost nobody would have got excited. By omitting the word “West”, Trump ignited a fire. Perhaps without realizing what he was doing, and probably not giving a damn.

For me, the moving of the US embassy means nothing. It is a symbolic act that does not change reality. If and when peace does come, no one will care about some stupid act of a half-forgotten US president. Inshallah.

So there they were, this bunch of self-important nobodies, Israelis, Americans and those in-between, having their little festival, while rivers of blood were flowing in Gaza. Human beings were killed by the dozen and wounded by the thousand.

The ceremony started as a cynical meeting, which quickly became grotesque, and ended in being sinister. Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.

When the last hug was exchanged and the last compliment paid, Gaza remained what it was–a huge concentration camp with severely overcrowded hospitals, lacking medicines and food, drinkable water and electricity.

A ridiculous world-wide propaganda campaign was let loose to counter the world-wide condemnation. For example: the story that the terrorist Hamas had compelled the Gazans to go and demonstrate–as if anyone could be compelled to risk their life in a demonstration.

Or: the story that Hamas paid every demonstrator 50 dollars. Would you risk your life for 50 dollars? Would anybody?

Or: The soldiers had no choice but to kill them, because they were storming the border fence. Actually, no one did so–the huge concentration of Israeli army brigades would have easily prevented it without shooting.

Almost forgotten was a small news item from the days before: Hamas had discreetly offered a Hudna for ten years. A Hudna is a sacred armistice, never to be broken. The Crusaders, our remote predecessors, had many Hudnas with their Arab enemies during their 200-year stay here.

Israeli leaders immediately rejected the offer.

So why were the soldiers ordered to kill? It is the same logic that has animated countless occupation regimes throughout history: make the “natives” so afraid that they will give up. Alas, the results have almost always been the very opposite: the oppressed have become more hardened, more resolute. This is happening now.

Bloody Monday may well be seen in future as the day when the Palestinians regained their national pride, their will to stand up and fight for their independence.

Strangely, the next day–the main day of the planned protest, Naqba Day–only two demonstrators were killed. Israeli diplomats abroad, facing world-wide indignation, had probably sent home SOS messages. Clearly the Israeli army had changed its orders. Non-lethal means were used and sufficed.

My conscience does not allow me to conclude this without some self-criticism.

I would have expected that all of Israel’s renowned writers would publish a thundering joint condemnation while the shooting was still going on. It did not happen.

I would have expected that the dozens of our brave peace organizations would unite in a dramatic act of condemnation, an act that would arouse the world. It did not happen. Perhaps they were in a state of shock.

The next day, the excellent boys and girls of the peace groups demonstrated opposite the Likud office in Tel Aviv. Some 500 took part. Far, far from the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated some years ago against the price of cottage cheese.

In short: we did not do our duty. I accuse myself as much as I accuse everybody else.

But what topped everything was the huge machine of brain-washing that was set in motion. For many years I have not experienced anything like it.

Almost all the so-called “military correspondents” acted like army propaganda agents. Day by day they helped the army to spread lies and falsifications. The public had no alternative but to believe every word. Nobody told them otherwise.

The same is true for almost all other means of communication, program presenters, announcers and correspondents. They willingly became government liars. Probably many of them were ordered to do so by their bosses. Not a glorious chapter.

After the day of blood, when the army was faced with world condemnation and had to stop shooting (“only” killing two unarmed demonstrators) all Israeli media were united in declaring this a great Israeli victory.

Israel had to open the crossings and send food and medicines to Gaza. Egypt had to open its Gaza crossing and accept many hundreds of wounded for operations and other treatment.

The Day of Shame has passed. Until the next time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

‘Zero. In fact, less than zero.’ Gazans say little gained in protests

By Declan Walsh & Isabel Kershner, Washington Post, 20 May 2018

Gaza City: After weeks of protest at the Israeli border fence peaked this week, Gazans returned to their daily lives of struggle, many wondering what, if anything, had been accomplished.

The cost was clear: More than 100 Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers, 60 of them on Monday alone, and more than 3500 wounded since the campaign began March 30, Gaza medical officials said.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that governs Gaza and organised the protests, did score a victory in international messaging, with Israel widely condemned for what critics said was disproportionate use of force against mostly unarmed protesters.

In Geneva on Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to censure Israel and called for an inquiry.

But to many Gazans, the tangible benefits of so much bloodshed were hard to discern, with plenty of blame to go around–including for Hamas.

At a market near the main protest camp, Abdul Rahman, 59, a vegetable trader, called the effort a total waste. “Zero,” he said. “In fact, less than zero.”

He condemned the Israelis, the Arab allies who he said had betrayed the Palestinians, and the leadership of Gaza. “We didn’t open the fence, and the blockade has not been lifted. There was only killing.”

In his sermon at noon prayers on Friday, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, put a positive spin on the protests, called “The Great Return March,” a reference to the goal of Palestinian refugees to return to lands lost to Israel in 1948.

“We are living in the throes of victory and the beginning of the end of the humanitarian tragedy,” he proclaimed.

Haniyeh hailed Egypt’s rare gesture of goodwill toward Gaza in opening its border crossing at Rafah, on the southern edge of the territory, for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began a day earlier. The opening would ease the 11-year-old blockade of Gaza, he said, adding that the border protests would continue until the blockade was entirely lifted.

But many Gazans, having lost friends or suffered grievous wounds in the protests, feel cheated by Hamas.

The strains of the blockade on Gaza, which Israel and Egypt imposed, citing security reasons, have been obscured in recent years by other crises in the Middle East. Now Hamas hopes to capitalize on the widespread outrage at images of Gazans being shot by Israeli soldiers to pressure Israel into making some concessions.

The effort seemed to make headway Friday with the vote by the U.N. council.

“Those responsible for violations must in the end be held accountable,” Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the head of the council, said in a statement Friday. “What do you become when you shoot to kill someone who is unarmed, and not an immediate threat to you? You are neither brave, nor a hero.”

Israel, which considers the council biased, said in a statement by the Foreign Ministry that the council “once again has proved itself to be a body made up of a built-in, anti-Israel majority, guided by hypocrisy and absurdity.”

As the Gaza protests evolved, they had a series of shifting goals in addition to casting Israel in a negative light: breaching the fence to symbolize the return to the lost lands; challenging the blockade to ease economic distress; and, ultimately, expressing Palestinian rejection of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israel said the protesters were being used as cover by militants who intended to attack its soldiers and nearby communities.

In any event, the “great return” did not pan out, given Israel’s determination to prevent any breach of the barrier. By the end of the week, the world’s attention had moved on to North Korea, the latest Trump administration scandal and Britain’s royal wedding.

And in the meantime, Hamas is no closer to improving the lives of increasingly restless Gazans. The group lacks money to even pay public employees’ salaries or other expenses of governing.

Its plight has been deepened by the faltering reconciliation efforts with its archrival, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority run by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

“Overall Hamas is in the same corner it was a month or two ago,” said Nathan Thrall, director of the International Crisis Group’s Israeli-Palestinian project. “It simply doesn’t have an answer about how to get out of this predicament or even how to capitalize on these protests.”

With Gaza unemployment at 43 percent and tens of thousands of employee salaries slashed by the Palestinian Authority sanctions, Egypt is encouraging a step-by-step approach to reconciliation that would see the Western-backed authority gradually take over governance of the coastal enclave.

The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said the most urgent need for Gaza was to start development projects that were already approved. That would create jobs, increase access to potable water and electricity and create a more conducive atmosphere for reconciliation.

“The economy has disappeared,” he said. “Effectively, we need to revive life in Gaza.”

But after three international donor meetings in the past three months, and years of stalled projects, Mladenov said people had a right to be skeptical.

At Gaza’s main Shifa hospital, where entire floors were packed with young men recovering from gunshot wounds, many insisted they were happy to have paid such a high price. But other former protesters expressed bitter recrimination, blaming their own leaders as much as Israel.

“Our future is lost because of the Jews, and because of Hamas,” said Mahmoud Abu Omar, a 26-year-old with one arm wrapped in bandages.

He’d been shot, he said, as he aimed his slingshot across the fence. He had hoped the protests would somehow ease the frustrations of his life–his impatience to marry, to earn some money, to travel outside Gaza. They did not.

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