Thursday, September 30, 2010

Israel as the Jewish state?

Questioning the basis for Israel's existence in the Huffington Post:

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama have spent a great deal of energy trying to forestall any discussion of Israel's Jewish character and what that actually means. The Israelis want the feckless and illegitimate Palestinian Authority head, Mahmoud Abbas, to affirm Israel's "right to exist as the Jewish state." But that raises the question: Does Israel have a right to continue as a race-exclusive state?

Israel is the Jewish state for the Jewish people. It came to be through an act of ethnic cleansing -- creating the world's most protracted refugee crisis in the process. Today, the Jewish state is home to about 1.5 million non-Jews. To be a non-Jew in the Jewish state is to be a second-class citizen. The ideology that underpins the existence of the Jewish state -- Zionism -- is a racist doctrine.

Zionism is the belief that Jewish people ought to be privileged in Palestine/Israel solely because of their race. Moreover, non-Jewish indigenous people -- the Palestinians -- must be forced off the land so that it can be settled by Jews. That's what happened in 1948 and that's what's happening today in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many liberal Zionists don't like to acknowledge it, but the process that yielded the land west of the green line was just as wrong as anything the setters have done. Its scale was also several magnitudes larger.

I don't believe that militia that purged my people from their lands to create a racially pure Jewish state had a right to do so. I don't believe that the Jewish state has a right to exclude me from living as an equal citizen on the lands of my forefathers. I have a right to exist in Be'er Sheeva -- that's where my family is from. But, I am barred from doing so because I am not Jewish.

And that's really what all of this is about. I believe strongly that all people are equal, irrespective of race or religion. Israel was founded on just the opposite view. Most people agree that no state that takes racial supremacy as its foundational germ has a right to resist reform. So why is Israel the exception? Well, it's not.

It's astonishing that this is a controversial view in the 21st century. It's surely a feat of Zionist historicizing that otherwise intelligent and moral people in the West continuously affirm the "right of Israel to exist as the Jewish state." The racism inherent in this statement -- Jewish privilege exists through ethnic cleansing and apartheid -- is appalling. Yet, people uncritically affirm that "right."

Frankly, it is perverse and absurd to ask a brutalized people, a people who have been ethnically cleansed from their homes at the ends of European Zionist guns, to affirm the "right of the Jewish state to exist."

Barack Obama recently told the UN General Assembly that "Israel's existence should not be subject for debate." The American president should be reminded that as Leader of the Free World, his mandate ends with Palestine; the Palestinians are not free. Furthermore, as the principal enabler of Jewish Likudik policies, Obama is hardly a disinterested party to the conflict. He has a vested interest in a robust Israeli occupation. The Israel lobby threatens to derail his bid for reelection, and the lobby endorses Jewish privilege. That's how Obama ends up stumping for a racist state at the UN.

The existence of colonial entities is always subject for debate, and Obama should understand that. When he took the Oval office, he famously returned the bust of Winston Churchill to the British authorities. He was right to do so. Churchill was a rabid colonialist and was Prime Minister when Britain suppressed the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion. Obama's grandfather was tortured by the colonial British authorities for resisting colonialism and fighting for his freedom.

The elder Obama had it right. Freedom is a human prerogative which propels people to resist overwhelming power, even in the face of torture. One wonders how the grandfather would react to see his grandson come down so forcefully on the side of racial oppression and colonialism.

It is time for the world to reject Zionism and Jewish privilege in Palestine/Israel. It is time for all the people in Palestine/Israel to live as equals. It worked in South Africa, and it has to work there.

I will never affirm the right of a Jewish person to purge my grandparents from their lands for being the wrong race. But I will work with that Jewish person's grandchild to create a non-racist, egalitarian future for all of us. What I'm talking about is the one-state solution, where all the people of Palestine/Israel live as equals under the law. Is that really so controversial?

My Article in the LA Times

I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to submit a response to the Israeli ambassador in the LA Times:

Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael B. Oren, argues in his Sept. 15 Times Op-Ed article that Israelis want peace, and I believe him. They've said so often enough. But the Israelis want lots of other things too.

For instance, they want the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, they want the Palestinian aquifers situated beneath the West Bank, and they want to preserve their racial privilege in the Jewish state. They also want to shear the Gaza Strip from Palestine.

Most of all, the Israelis want Palestinian quiescence in the face of Israeli wants. Those wants have made the two-state solution impossible to implement.

For decades, the Israelis have taken what they want from the Palestinians. Consequently, there are about 500,000 settlers in Jewish-only colonies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, the Israelis are discovering that what one wants and what one can afford sometimes diverge.

Some Israelis — but apparently not Oren — are beginning to realize that the deep, irreversible colonization of territory comes with a price: the end of the Jewish state as it is. It's a painful lesson to learn, especially after decades of superpower indulgence. America's obsequious coddling turns out to have been a curse for the Jewish state. Serious cost-benefit analyses around occupation policies — collectively, apartheid — were evidently never conducted.

When Israel killed 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza — proportionally equivalent to 300,000 Americans — in Operation Cast Lead, incoming President Obama stayed mum. The Israelis counted on and got American cover. But they didn't anticipate the impact of Richard Goldstone's damning report on world opinion and the American layperson's views. No one seems to have ever asked, "Wait, what will killing more than 300 children do to our image abroad? Can we afford to launch an assault against a defenseless and captive population just because President Bushsays we can while Obama remains silent?"

Oren's words fail to obscure the "facts on the ground" Israel has established in recent decades. These facts were engineered to entrench Israel's permanent presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The conversation the ambassador is engaging in would have been timelier 42 years ago before Israel's colonies killed the two-state solution, which was never an equitable solution anyway.

Today, the ambassador's words are not just empty platitudes to peace but also effectively irrelevant. That's because honest and well-informed observers understand that there will never be a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza.

Obama's circus — the so-called peace process — is designed only to pacify the perennial bugaboo of U.S. politics. The Israel lobby wants to promote the illusion that Israelis want a Palestinian state to enable the continued colonization of occupied land. It's unclear why anyone seems to think that the theatrics are an effective smokescreen at this late stage.

Yet the reality is that Palestine/Israel is already one country. Five hundred thousand settler-colonists in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have congealed in place; small numbers may be evacuated, but the vast majority are not going anywhere.

Furthermore, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stand for no one and nothing. The two men have no democratic mandate. Their terms in office having long expired, they are propped up by American and Israeli leaders who seek weak leaders as more apt to concede fundamental Palestinian rights. Of course, these are concessions they are incapable of making legitimately.

Abbas' presidential term ended in January 2009, and Fayyad was illegally reappointed after the Fatah coup attempt against Hamas in June 2007. They cooperate so extensively with Israeli forces that the Palestinian Authority is more like a subcontracted colonial government than an adversarial negotiating party.

Obama recently asserted that Abbas knows "the window for creating a Palestinian state is closing." But Abbas, Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are already too late. Unless Abbas accepts noncontiguous "Bantustans" and uses U.S.-trained forces to enforce the abandonment of Palestinian rights, one state will become increasingly clear to all involved as the only alternative to apartheid. In effect, Israel will have colonized itself out of existence.

As in South Africa, it is time for Israeli leaders to embrace a pluralistic and humanistic vision for the state. Rather than lecture on Israel's desire for a lopsided "peace," Oren should begin to imagine a state in which each person — Jewish or non-Jewish — is equal under the law irrespective of religion or race. He can begin to imagine an apartheid-free society.

To see it in practice, he could travel through the American South. Yes, the American South and post-apartheid South Africa are not perfect, but they are dramatically improved over the reality of 50 years ago — a discriminatory and racist reality still endured today by Palestinians.

To be fair, we Palestinians also want a lot. We want what people everywhere else do: to live as free human beings in our country, in the absence of a foreign military occupation. We want to return to our towns and cities that were ethnically cleansed of us in 1948. We want to vote for our government, the one that controls every aspect of our lives. We want a united Jerusalem. And, when the state is united, we want an ambassador who speaks for all of us, not just the Jewish half of the country.

Put differently, we want equality and justice.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Remembering Gaza

This was tough writing, but I'm glad I did. For Mondoweiss:

The unending death-news maelstrom assaults the reader with what seems like daily frequency. Our digital distance simultaneously transports us to and shields us from the bedlam. We are assaulted virtually – our empathy enables that – but experience none of the flechette-mangled corpsifying assault that the victim does. We are free to imagine, knowing full well we are wholly incapable of adequately doing so.

News of the murders of Ibrahim Abu Sayed, Hossam Abu Sayed and Ismail Abu Odastruck me with a dull thump. I was saddened, but exhausted. The endgame is within reach – the end of apartheid is knowable and doable – and the Zionists destroy human lives senselessly. I can’t do anything for them. They’re dead already, so just stay focused on the horizon. Remember, this is a marathon effort.

I was surprised at my reaction, at the total absence of anger. I wondered if my rage nerves were temporarily frazzled. Being immersed in Palestine – constantly attuned to it – begins to take a psychological toll. One of our safety mechanisms is to divorce and disconnect. Reality is somewhere else, not here, not now, not on a Friday night.

But a more sinister possibility insistently pushed itself into my conscience. I began to think that I’d become desensitized to the deaths of small numbers of humans. Leave your TV on static long enough, and your brain will tune it out; maintain a steady death rate, and people will tune it out. There was truth in the thought and it horrified me.

I was born in Gaza. My entire extended family is in Gaza. I was there ten years ago, and visited the border recently in February. And yet, I allowed myself to grow numb, to slip into a superficial ritual of affirming their – my – humanity without remembering their daily trials. I found that my memory failed me, and something wooden had taken its place.

Adie Mormech’s piece helped me to remember Gaza. I was reading it when I had the haunting realization that I knew the Oda family. They’re Bedouin, just like the Abu Moors. Their farm is near my father’s farm. And I think that they’re also from Be’er Al Sabaa, and also members of the Tarabin tribe.

I began to wonder: Mohammed Abu Oda, the man interviewed in the article, is that the same Mohammed who greeted my father, my brother, and me early in the summer of 2000 with tea and watermelon at his family’s home? There were small children running around that day. They were shy and had snotty noses. They giggled and ran around, slapping at you when you weren’t looking. The 16-year-old corpse, Ismail Abu Oda, was he one of them?

I remembered my father marching my brother and me around our few dry dunums, triumphantly showing of his newly planted olive trees and fig trees. The Israelis razed them all some years ago. I felt a stultifying, enraged impotence when my father told me – I remember that. Those trees were my inheritance.

And I remember my great uncle – one of Ibrahim Abu Sayed’s contemporaries – rolling his tobacco with large, thick fingers. I remember the way the fat flies settled thick on everything when he looked at me and said, “The earth is like a woman, the more you plow it the more it yields.” He laughed and my father laughed, but warned me not to repeat what I’d heard.

My cousin Eyad later built a two-bedroom hovel on the land near the place where I captured that memory, on the farm he’d inherited from his dead father. I remember his bucked yellow-stained teeth when he laughed. He chain-smoked Viceroys and wasn’t very bright. My father helped him find a job making tea and sweeping floors in an office in Gaza city. I vaguely remember news of his wedding. And I remember the day in 2007 when I learned of his death.

The Israelis declared curfew but failed to tell anyone. Eyad stepped out of his home at dawn and had his face hole-punched open by a sniper’s bullet. Another one buried itself deep in his chest. He was 28 and had three children. His wife was pregnant with their fourth.

I remember that for days I grieved. Images of his decomposition flashed in the contours of my mind as I pictured what was happening to him underneath Gaza’s hard, dry earth. I remember the regret I felt that I’d ever condescended to him, or spoken harshly to him. Later that week, I went out with friends in New York and I remember the shame of having buried it – him – so quickly.

These and other thoughts cascaded into my head. And suddenly I was mourning Ibrahim and Hossam Abu Sayed and Ismail Abu Oda. These three human beings, two of whom hadn’t even begun to live, were murdered. They were family and now they’re gone.

There is no “Why?” here which makes coping difficult. There is nothing I can do for them and that makes it difficult, too. In the face of so much death we have no choice but to push ahead. We also have a responsibility to not forget. The difficulty isn't going away and so we must watch ourselves lest we become become inured to it.

Palestinian Guns in Lebanon

I had a theme that week. Got some pretty nasty comments, but it's chill. Here's Palestinian guns in Lebanon in the Guardian:

Lebanon is regenerating. On balance, the country's collective sloughing off of history has been more successful than not. It is only 20 years since the civil war ended, and the memories of internecine atrocities remain; sporadic sectarian violence is a fact of life here. Fortunately, the Lebanese have avoided descending once more into civil war's morass but, despite all the healing, the Palestinian refugee issue still festers.

I was visiting a friend of mine – a magazine editor – for coffee at her office in east Beirut. The new labour law for Palestinians had just been enacted and we talked about it for a while. I told her it didn't go far enough, and she insisted that it ceded too much.

Her view was that the Palestinians in Lebanon have to offer more before making demands on the Lebanese state. More specifically, Palestinian arms in and out of the camps must be reined in. If the Palestinians want full rights and access, they've got to give something in return. The fear is that guns and greater access to economic opportunities will result in Palestinian dominance – which is the way it used to be. So it's one or the other.

Palestinian guns – or more broadly, resistance – became an institutionalised part of Lebanese life in 1969. That's the year that the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, brokered the Cairo agreementbetween Yasser Arafat and General Emile Bustani, the Lebanese army leader. The agreement's purpose was to define the scope of Palestinian life in Lebanon. It ceded security control within the camps to Palestinians, and affirmed their right to join in armed resistance against Israel.

In practical terms, the agreement contributed to the continuous erosion of state control in Lebanon, which led to its eventual abrogation by the state in 1987. Despite that, the Palestinian camps are still mostly self-administered and heavily armed.

I've heard repeatedly from Palestinians in the camps that their guns are trained only to the south – towards Israel. And, for a long time, they were. Palestinians contributed heroically to guerrilla campaigns against invading Israeli forces in the 1970s and 1980s. But the intervening decades have seen the resistance mantle pass from the Palestinians to a strong and vibrant Lebanese force, Hezbollah.

It was Hezbollah fighters, not the Palestinians, who were credited withliberating most of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. And it was Hezbollah that repelled the Israeli onslaught in 2006. Along with the Lebanese army, Hezbollah claims to be part of the country's national defence – a claim that few would dispute on factual grounds, regardless of whether it's a rightful role.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Palestinians live in the thrall of dark memories. They commune with the spirits of Sabra and Shatila and clutch their weapons. They recall the War of the Camps and grasp them more tightly. Theirs is an endless insecurity. They exist outside the social fabric and rely on an illusion of martial security.

I use the word "illusion" deliberately. When terrorists infiltrated the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007, the army simply razed the camp to eliminate them. Here the Palestinians felt their second-class status acutely – a Lebanese village would not have been razed – and saw that their guns were powerless to prevent the destruction.

The Lebanese state has an interest in demilitarising its territory. Indeed, the Taif agreement – which precipitated the end of the civil war – called for the disarmament of all the militias in Lebanon. However, the issue of national security still prevents its complete implementation.

The only party that ought to exercise martial control is the Lebanese army. But while the army manages internal security effectively, it is Hezbollah's intelligence services and strategic use of force that fends off Israel. So while the Taif agreement and the disarming of militias is accepted in principle, honouring it should not come at the expense of diminished national security.

If the Palestinians are to disarm, Lebanon must provide them with security guarantees – which means that other historically antagonistic militias must also be disarmed. Palestinians won't consent to relinquishing their arms so long as the Lebanese Forces militia possesses the strength to massacre civilians in the camps once again. Therefore, Palestinian disarmament has to occur within the context of a greater Lebanese disarmament.

Simultaneously, the state ought to incentivise Palestinian disarmament by increasing access to Lebanese society; it's not enough to say that Palestinian security is guaranteed. In an ideal world, Palestinian rights – which are human rights – would be unlinked to the issue of arms. But Lebanon's is a fractious society, and one must take other communities' legitimate concerns into account to realistically promote the country's progress.

To be sure, what I'm proposing here isn't feasible in the near term. The issue of sectarian self-defence is not going to be solved overnight, or in the next decade. But the status quo is inherently unstable – Lebanese leaders realise that.

For the country to progress and succeed, it needs a strong central government, and it needs to drastically improve the lot of its second-class population. The Lebanese – all of them – along with the Palestinian refugees can only benefit from a stronger state apparatus. Before Lebanon can move past the civil war, it needs to neutralise the factors that contributed to its eruption.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Palestinian Guns

I wrote the piece below primarily as a response to my father, who was surprised about what I said about Palestinian arms in the previous article for Mondo. I think he came around after reading it.

That's not true of everyone. A friend confronted me when we were out last night. I did my best to explain, but I'm not sure he bought it:

Many people reacted strongly with disapprobation to my "Hamas attack was wrong" post yesterday. Nearly everyone agrees that murdering civilians is wrong, but some question whether the settlers are civilians in the first place. The settlers are racial supremacists whose race pride, irrational hatred and extermination fantasies combine to make Palestinian lives unlivable. They carry guns and are simultaneously the driving force behind and justification for the occupation.

Others, my father among them, asked how I could assert that the time for armed struggle is over.

We correctly insist that Israel contravenes international law by transferring civilians onto occupied land. Nothing has changed. Israel continues to contravene international law in that way. But reasonable people can still disagree about whether the settlers are civilians. I still insist that they are. And murdering civilians is wrong.

The more controversial claim is that the time for armed struggle is over. How can I possibly say that when the settlements continue to grow, Zionists are racially purging Palestinians from Jerusalem and pauperizing and suffocating them in Gaza? How much of this are Palestinians supposed to tolerate?

It’s a very easy question to answer, but only because I believe in some basic assumptions:

1 There will never be a Palestinian state

2 The settlements will not, under any circumstances, cease to grow or be established

3 The Israelis will continue to racially purge Jerusalem

4 Palestinian guns cannot prevent any of this from happening

And finally,

5 Our superior morality – which is accessible to everyone, including erstwhile Zionists – is the key to undoing the Zionist state and creating a country where Palestinians and Jewish people can live equally.

We must accept that Zionist aggression will continue. Furthermore, guns will not repel or defeat the irrational Zionist hatred of Palestinians and other non-Jews in Palestine/Israel. But that does not mean we are powerless to rid ourselves of Zionism?

The only way to undo the Zionist state – which is my unambiguous goal –is by insisting on our right to vote. I believe strongly that the Palestinian struggle is not about independence; I don’t want a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, the Palestinian struggle is now about equal rights in the entire state of Palestine/Israel. Those of us who are refugees want the entire country back.

We are all angry. But allowing our anger to override and overwhelm our long-term, humanist vision for Palestine/Israel – many of us profess to believe in the one-state solution, after all – is an excellent way to confound ourselves.

It’s often repeated that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. But we are not weak.

Our moral right – the righteousness of our cause – suffuses us with a strength which will overwhelm Zionism. All the guns in the world can’t accomplish what we will if we don’t lose focus and succumb to unworthy sentiments. It’s time to put the guns away.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More on settlers

Here's my latest for Mondo:

The Hamas attack on settlers in the West Bank was wrong. The attack was wrong strategically, but more importantly, it was wrong morally.

The so-called peace talks aren’t going anywhere. But even if they were, executing civilians is always morally repugnant.

Colonized people have a moral right to armed resistance. That moral right only extends to legitimate targets. The Israeli army is a legitimate target. Civilians are never legitimate targets.

These murders were a strategic blunder, too. Hamas could have demonstrated its incontestable role in Palestinian political life by conducting a commando raid against Israeli troops in the West Bank. I would have protested in that case also, but not on a moral basis.

Instead, I believe that the time for armed resistance is over. The Palestinian struggle has transitioned from Abu Nidal to Mustafa Barghouti. Ours is now a peaceful civil rights struggle. Hamas undoubtedly has a role to play in that struggle, but Zionist civilian deaths do not.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Settler Deaths in the West Bank

I'm genuinely distressed to hear about the deaths of the four settlers in the West Bank. Apparently, Hamas executed the four in a well-planned commando operation.

Armed resistance is the right of any colonized people. But a clear distinction needs to be made between civilians and legitimate targets - like the Israeli army. I endorse attacks on military targets in the Occupied Territories (although I think the time for that is over), but I strongly protest any attack on civilians.

The talks are going to fail. This was wrong and pointless.