Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Commemorating Land Day

‎قائمة عرابة بلدي‎'s photo.

The late Mahmoud Darwish famously lamented: “I come from there … and remember.” On March 30, 1976 I woke up to the rumbling of tank tracks on the unpaved rocky road in my home village in Israel’s Northern District. This was a first. Even in the lead-up to the Nakba Arrabeh had been spared the sight of tanks in its streets. My little nephews and nieces in the shared household scampered to the bathroom with fright-induced diarrhea. But I wanted to laugh: To prevent us from striking for one day in protest against a new wave of land confiscation, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres, later to share the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat, ordered their top crack troops into our villages to enforce a curfew they imposed on Palestinian communities in Israel. Not only did that compel us all to abide by our strike decision but also it led to the few government lackeys who were bent on breaking it being attacked and severely beaten by the undiscriminating soldiers. A neighbor was shouting at the top of his voice for me to come and help his wife who had gone into labor. I stepped out the door carrying my bag and waved my stethoscope facing the tank. A soldier aimed his gun in my direction and I ran in and closed the door. I went in and wrote my letter of resignation from my Ministry of Health position as district physician. Continuing to hold such a job would taint me in the eyes of my aggrieved community, I concluded.

Soon the police brought an unresponsive old neighbor for me to check. When we were alone he opened his eyes and told me he was all right. “Just send me to the hospital,” he whispered. I did and the police agreed to transport the neighbor who was in labor as well. She delivered a healthy girl they named ‘Thaira,’ Arabic for ‘rebel.’ The old man, Hassan Naamni, became a living legend of peasant resistance: He had been arrested and beaten while bringing home two buckets full of earth from his land that had been designated for appropriation by the government. He explained that after the confiscation he would have nowhere to be buried and hence he needed the earth from his land. His wife, Nada, was less poetic; she went after the soldiers with a stick. A tank was cornered in a narrow alley under a hail of stones from the likes of Nada, forcing its commander to negotiate a safe exit with the mayor, or so Arrabeh’s heroic legend chroniclers would have you believe. Other incidents didn’t end as peacefully: Israel’s security forces killed six youth including Kheir Yassin, a fellow villager I knew well.

Land is at the base of all that troubles our relationship with Israel as our state. The Nakba of 1948 left us a leaderless and disorganized rural minority on the wrong side of a vicious border. Nearly one third of us were internally displaced thus forfeiting their right to their land and property under a specially formulated Israeli law. Those are the Present Absentees, a living contradiction attesting to the land as the base of the conflict. We have come a long way since, though not as far as our Jewish co-citizens did. ‘Their’ majority group defined ‘our’ minority out of the state’s conception of its common good and security concerns. Laws, rules and regulations continue to be promulgated to disadvantage us especially on land related matters. Some three-dozen Israeli laws enable the shifting of land ownership from us to the state while only the Jewish majority can access state lands. We now make up near one fifth of Israel’s population but own only a constantly shrinking 3% of its land and have possible access to another 4%. All the remainder is held in perpetuity for the Jewish people de facto if not always de jure.

The state’s insatiable coveting of our land on one side and our subsistence farming roots on the other made the clash of Land Day unavoidable. It was Less than a decade since Israel had copied its military rule over us across the Green Line to the Palestinian Occupied Territories where it still applies today. Under that set of draconian emergency regulations it appropriated our communal lands and much of our privately owned lands. So when in 1976 it beckoned to us to yield yet another large swath of our agricultural land, we stood as one man and said “No!” It was a first for us, conceptually the first Palestinian Intifada. It deserved to be commemorated wherever Palestinians aspired to assert their identity and their right to their land.

With the accelerating post-Oslo ascent of messianic settlers to positions of power both in government and in the command ranks of the security forces, the encroachment on what remains of our land has accelerated further, especially in the Negev. Repeatedly, specialized governmental planning committees have fetishized the collective eviction of entire Bedouin villages off of their ancestral lands. The rationale is to make room for Jewish National Fund forestation projects and for new Jewish settlements. Again and again, security forces arrive under the cover of darkness to demolish their homes. The Supreme Court of the land has sanctioned such actions.

The recent elections in Israel have unified our formerly factional political parties under a charismatic young leader, Ayman Odeh. His first major public action is to lead a six-day march on Jerusalem on the occasion of Land Day to protest the ongoing exiling attempt of Negev Bedouins, the weakest link in our communal unity. Elsewhere we continue to lose our land at pain of penalty of law to infrastructure development projects, new parks and public spaces while our villages are severely constrained in their residential zones. The same process is underway in the West Bank, conducted through the crosshair sites of the army’s and the settlers’ automatic weapons, witness the ongoing cleansing of Palestinian farmers and shepherds in the Jordan Valley and the Hebron Hills. Amira Hass’s analysis as quoted in Mondoweiss is spot-on:
When you look at the geography of Palestinians in Israel, it’s the same geography, they are encircled in enclaves. They are deprived of their land. Most of their land has been taken by Jews to settle, even though they are Israeli citizens… They are all packed and cramped in houses without spaces to breathe, without agricultural lands…
The political geography of the Israeli state is very similar on both sides of the Green Line.”
Hass concludes with a question once a Palestinian attacked by settlers asked her.
“Tell me Amira, don’t Israelis think about their grandchildren?”

It is time the international community, especially the USA and the EU, took notice of their moral responsibility towards the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line as the victims of its proxy colonialist project. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the nonviolent resistance movement launched by the Palestinian civil society in 2005 as a proven tactic to counter apartheid, deserves the support of the masses the world over, but especially in the West.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A pessoptimistic view of the Israeli elections

A pessoptimistic view of the Israeli elections

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The buildup to the 2015 re-election of prime minister Netanyahu to a fourth term in office saw the most openly racist discourse in Israel’s history, from incitement to physical violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel to the prime minister’s panicked call to his followers to come out and counter the Arabs who were voting “in droves”. This SOS message encapsulates for the world the contradiction embedded in Israel’s claim to being both Jewish and democratic. The notion that a leader of a country would be complaining that part of its population is voting is extraordinary. It’s not just an election issue. Not only that our state has constantly ignored our potential role in meaningful peace efforts. It is the pain of the Palestinian citizens’ existence in Israel. It affects every aspect of our lives.
In the hype of most Zionist parties’ election rhetoric, the image of the Arab voter in Israel has morphed imperceptibly into a part of the current and expanded axis of evil of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS … and the list is endless when you are paranoid enough. Even Isaac Hertzog, the leader of the centrist Zionist Camp party, was praised in his campaign ads as someone who “understands the Arab mentality…including through the crosshairs [of a sniper].”
In a release entitled “In Israel’s elections, racism is the winning ballot,” (PDF) Adalah, the Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, states:
“In the midst of this racist atmosphere, came Election Day. Sagi Kaisler, the director of the Samaria Residents’ Committee, which represents the settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, organized 1,500 settlers to participate as volunteers at voting stations in Arab towns and villages. Kaisler said: “Wherever there are Arab villages, there is fraud. This is the way they work. They do this in their local elections, they are not doing this against the state, it is in their nature…the Joint List united in order to pass the electoral threshold, but primarily because they are evil parties that want to overthrow the right- wing government…We are in a battle for the future of our state, against Arabs, against Europeans, and against some American forces.” To protect the settlers, an armed group carrying [live] ammunition, tear gas, sticks, electric strikes, and other weapons accompanied the volunteers to the voting stations. According to reports from TV Channel 2, these activities were conducted under the direct orders of Likud MK Yariv Levin, who is currently a leading candidate for the position of the Minister of Justice.”
It took Netanyahu less than a week to apologize to a group of traditionally dressed Bedouin supporters about his anti-Arab message of alarm. He meant no harm he said reassuring them that he was their prime minister as well. So there! No need to fuss now! It should be a straight forward assignment for any serious investigative reporter to track down members of this select delegation and to ascertain the housing situation of the tribe of each of them and what promises Netanyahu’s aids made to them about lifting the threat of house demolition from them and for how long in exchange for attending the apology ceremony. And he walked back from his campaign promise of no Palestinian state on his watch as well. Shir Hever, the Real News Network analyst, made fun of the promise and its retraction predicting that since Netanyahu never told the truth in his entire political career, there is now reason for optimism that we will see the creation of a Palestinian state.
My own optimism comes from a different quarter: In Emil Habibi’s novel, The Pessoptimist, one of the characters is noted for her habit of seeing the positive even in the most calamitous of events. With that in mind I strive to discover a kernel of hope in the election process if not in its outcome: For the first time since Israel’s creation factional issues didn’t keep Palestinian voters in Israel focused on internal quibbling. Their leaders, especially Ayman Odeh, tried to reach across the racial divide. On a televised panel discussion of heads of the various political parties Lieberman gave him the chance to show his metal: a self-controlled, mature and sophisticated politician responding in the best Hebrew idiom to the former bar bouncer’s racist baiting. Lieberman tried and failed to drag him into name-calling and racist discourse. Instead Ayman stayed the course with peace and human rights discourse. The advantage was not lost on some of Tel Aviv’s youth who declared their support of the Joint List. For a brief period Odeh was the sweetheart of the Israeli media. Another candidate on the same list, MK Ahmad Tibi, is a familiar figure on many evening Hebrew TV entertainment programs. And the Palestinian novelist and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashau has a regular following both in print and on the screen where his seasonal serial “Arab Labor” has a Jewish mass following. I take these media exceptions as good omen.
It is my belief that the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel has a mission it cannot shirk: forcing true democracy on the Jewish majority that continues to slide down the slippery slope of racism to where such terms as ‘fascism’ and ‘apartheid’ are no longer considered inappropriate, even by Israel’s friends, in describing its behavior towards its Palestinian citizens, not to mention the 4.5 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation. It is our ordained destiny, it seems, to save Israel from its the-whole-world-is-against-us paranoia. It is our role to coax Israel it back from its Masada Complex stand. We have little choice but to fulfill this impossible mission; the alternative is too bleak to contemplate. It would mean suffering genocide at the hands of the rising stars of Israeli ultranationalist racism, from regular soccer fans chanting “death to Arabs” to Lieberman announcing “we need to pick an axe and cut off his head.” What makes the threats of Lieberman and Netanyahu, not to mention other ultra-racist settler leaders, more frightening to us is the rhetoric of their foreign supporters. Bill Maher for example looks from a safe distance and declares: “Round them up.”
The prospect of being rounded up by Maher’s followers and an axe put to our collective neck by Lieberman’s makes it urgent for us, the Palestinian Citizens of Israel, to demand another spare country as a safe haven. But the example of Israel serves as a warning to us. Founded under the guise of providing a secure and safe haven for the Jews, it has proven to be the most dangerous country for them (and for Palestinians.) We have to seek an alternative model. I believe we have found that, thanks to the fertile imagination of a group of Jewish and Palestinian intellectuals and activists: a unitary secular and democratic state for all of the population residing west of the Jordan River based on full equality and respect of the internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian refugees. Badil, the Palestinian organization for the right of return, has joined Zochrot, the Israeli Jewish-Arab organization advocating for peace and reconciliation, in tackling the many thorny issues involved in imagining such a just end to the near seven-decade status quo. That is where I place my money before the next Intifada devalues it. What makes the dream more than a mere wishful thought is the mounting success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement initiated in 2005 by the Palestinian civil society using the successful model of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. The BDS movement is catching on at a much faster rate than its South African role model ever did. Its spread among the American and European public is at the verge of snowballing to the stage of irreversibility in the foreseeable future. When the Israeli leadership feels the economic heat it will return to its senses from the current high of colonialist euphoria.
A month ago, on February 24, the Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Columbia hosted the launch of Chief Complaint, a book of short stories from my medical practice in my home village of Arrabeh in Northern Israel. Hearing my account of the suffering of the Palestinian citizens in Israel, a member of the audience raised the question of the incidence of psychosis among them. To her surprise I had to admit that my impression was that such afflictions were not outstandingly high and neither were psychosomatic diseases or suicide. Then I was challenged to explain the apparent contradiction.  I reverted to historical stipulation: Palestine was at the crossroads of the ancient world. Every megalomaniac in history who aspired to conquer the world, from the leaders of the Hyksos to those of the Hebrews, the Persians, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Moghuls, the Crusaders, the Turks and the British, led their armies across Palestine, subdued its populace and imposed their dogma on its defeated masses. Over time, such victorious marauders faded into the local Palestinian substrate to add one layer after another of humanity that further colored the cumulative genetic mix of “the locals.” That is a cookbook recipe for hardiness and resilience. Gravity works to the advantage of those rooted in the ground. No wonder Palestinians don’t crack up all that easily, I explained.
As our late national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, famously wrote: “I come from there … and remember.” On the eve of the Land Day commemoration I can’t but recall the events I witnessed first hand 39 years ago. The two Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, sent their top crack troops in tanks to our villages, all to stop us from striking for one day in protest against a new wave of confiscation of our best agricultural land. The Joint List plans a march on Jerusalem in a few days. What if Netanyahu, Lieberman and their ilk decide to stop the six-day march? Will we be able to bear their wrath?
- See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/03/pessoptimistic-israeli-elections#sthash.kgAfZcdB.dpuf

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Till We Meet: Thoughts upon reading a book by a colleague.

Alice Rothchild’s “On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion” is a collection of blog entries from a tour of Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories during the tense period preceding Israel’s last military onslaught on Gaza. The brief and pithy blog posts revolve around Israel’s orchestrated build up to the attack and the reactions of people Alice meets on the ground to this crescendo in the conflict and the extensive and very complicated background to it. This is journalism at its best, getting under the skin of your subjects. But Alice does this not only sympathetically but also with the sensibilities of a concerned physician. Armed with the professional tools of her training, with expectant and alert intelligence and with her high degree of concern for her subjects, she reflects on the major health care and health determinant issues of the Palestinian communities that she visits. “As a physician, I am always impressed by the combination of intelligence, dedication, weariness, and fortitude that characterize so many Palestinians working in the field of health care,” Alice declares halfway through her account.  The admiration is mutual. As a Palestinian public health specialist I am greatly impressed by Alice’s remarkable and deep understanding of what ails the healthcare system (or non-system) in the POTs beyond medicine, doctors, drugs and clinics.

Having spent a lifetime struggling with many of the same issues among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, I highly appreciate her point of view, an obstetrician addressing public health issues. After all, on both sides of the Green Line Israel is the main decision maker and Palestinians are the subject of its practice of assigning or permitting the use of resources to its less than equal non-Jewish subjects. Repeatedly, as I read the professional observations in “On the Brink,” I had a rude reminder of the commonality of Israel’s willful neglect of the health needs of its Palestinians citizens and not only of Palestinians under occupation. Much alarm and accusations of cruelty are leveled against Israel for the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure and thousands of its homes leading, among other disastrous outcomes, to cases of infants dying of the cold. For years at end, as the head of the Health Ministry’s office in Western Galilee where two thirds of the population were Palestinian citizens of Israel I struggled with the issue of newborn infant deaths from cold injury, occurring exclusively among Palestinians in my area, to no avail. The only response I could elicit from my bosses was that this was an issue of general development and has to await the natural and slow process of overall progress in the Palestinian community, a thinly disguised logic of blaming the victim. The logical question of how such cases had been avoided among Mizrahi Jews who had come from communities with similar backgrounds was never addressed to my satisfaction.

“So, how does a lie get created and sold as the truth?” Alice asks her readers early on. As I see it, this is an appropriate and relevant question whose answer not only shakes the foundations of Israel’s self-righteous image in American eyes but also undermines the multilayered reality “created and sold as the truth” at the base of Israeli-American relations: diplomatic, socio-cultural, economic and military. The lie has gained sufficient credibility to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to insist on staging a veritable Purim show for congress in direct opposition to the wishes of the American executive. Throughout the book the author uses a dry clinical logic to drive her statements of fact home. She gives factual answers to her question using a raw and direct style of writing in which she screams her truth at her readers and impels them to look at the ‘real’ reality, the stark reality, often asking them “right?’ to emphasize her conclusions.

It has been suggested that Dr. Rothchild and I should make a joint appearance. I like the idea. A physician like her, I seek to address the greater dis-ease among those I care about. Alice’s trust in her audience’s shared humanity makes her directness and common-sense style easy to digest and to sympathize with. In contrast, in my new book, Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, I attempt to answer the same question she poses but in a different style. Alice dares to address her readers on factual basis whereas I portray the same reality using fiction and relying on my community’s collective memory. Potentially, the two of us can support and defend each other. The standard accusation that Israel’s Hasbara and its sympathizers fling at anyone critical of Israel is that of anti-Semitism, unless of course, if the perpetrator is Jewish, in which case he or she is branded ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Both accusations have lost much of their bite and validity, their currency devalued by forgery and cheap trade. Their original sparkle was further tarnished as it repeatedly went up in flames in Gaza in recent years. Still, for doubly guarding against such malicious defamation tactics, stating our congruent truths in a single setting should be helpful: It is rather asinine to label a “Dr. Rothchild” as anti-Semitic. And self-hating Israeli doesn’t stick or even make sense in the current Western mentality when applied to a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Mind you, in my book I do point the finger at my own country’s system as the underlying cause of much that ails the protagonists of my stories. The reflexive element is there if you wish. But Israel defines itself as the state of the Jews thus excluding me out of its existential identity. Logically, even if I were to admit to hating Israel, (which I do not, provided I am permitted to define Israel my own way,) that doesn’t make me ‘self-hating.’

My agreement with Dr. Rothchild’s stand on our common concerns is not limited to solidarity in the face of potential detractors. I am in full and deep resonance with her pacifism and social justice advocacy. It is mind-boggling that with both of us operating in the same constricted arena of peace activism in Israel-Palestine we have not met so far. This is doubly surprising when one remembers that both of us are physicians and are active with groups that view peace through the kaleidoscope of health and healing. May our meeting and the success of our combined efforts be our reward.