"Tense calm" in East Jerusalem + West Bank

Where to begin?

Israel’s YNet news website is reporting today that Israel’s State President Shimon Peres “is unpleased by the government’s decision to renovate a selected list of heritage sites – which includes the Cave of the Patriarchs [which is also, for Palestinians and Muslims worldwide, the Ibrahimi or Abraham Mosque in Hebron] and Rachel’s Tomb [which is also, for Palestinians, the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem] – and is concerned by the move’s possible implications, Ynet has learned. The decision should not have been taken in the manner it was taken, but rather, in phases, Peres reportedly said in closed-door sessions over the weekend. ‘It was [or, should have been] possible to decide to focus on 10 sites at this time, and take more decisions later’, Peres was quoted as saying. Following several days of local riots, the president expressed his concern about the violence that may follow in Palestinian areas, while also referring to Israel’s responsibility on this front. ‘It depends on us too’, he noted. ‘We must conduct ourselves cautiously and with restraint’ … Peres added privately [however] that he intends to continue his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as long as the latter works to renew negotiations with the Palestinians”.

Just for background, YNet added in its report, it was just last Sunday that “the cabinet approved a wide-scale plan to preserve and renovate ‘heritage sites’ at a cost of NIS 400 million (about $106 million dollars). At the last moment, after being pressured by right-wing elements and ministers, Netanyahu decided to add to the plan two sites located in the West Bank. After Hamas called for a third intifada and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned of a ‘religious war’, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayer in Hebron, called on his people to continue their struggle, but stressed that the Palestinians would not let the Israeli decision drag them to a state of violence. Netanyahu himself has tried to ease the tensions with the Palestinians several times, saying it was all a misunderstanding. ‘We have no intention of changing the status quo regarding Jewish or Muslim praying. We want to maintain the current prayer arrangements. The renovations were carried out in coordination with the Waqf. These are necessary repairs’, the prime minister said”. This YNet article can be read in full here .

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Netanyahu had made his second or third statement in three days, trying to “defuse” the situation — however, he failed (as Israeli politicians generally do fail) to speak directly or to reach out to make any empathetic acknowledgement of Palestinian concerns: “In an interview to Israeli TV, Benjamin Netanyahu called the affair a ‘misunderstanding’, saying there was no intention to infringe on Muslim freedom of worship. He said the intent was to protect and maintain the sites. ‘This is not a political decision. It doesn’t change anything in that sense. It is concerned with preserving heritage’, Netanyahu said. This AP report is posted here.

A Haaretz editorial published today said that a widely-lambasted new campaign by Israel’s Information and Diaspora Ministry to improve the country’s image is “more than ridiculous, the campaign is disconcerting. ‘Explaining Israel’ [the name of this public relations campaign] reveals the worldview of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: limitless self-righteousness, eternal hostility toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, a view of Palestinians as invaders and inciters, and commitment to developing the West Bank settlements. This PR drive must not be viewed just as a gimmick, or an attempt to justify the unnecessary existence of the Information Ministry. Instead, it represents how the government wants its citizens to understand their country and represent it to the world. The campaign’s Web site waxes lyrical over the beauty of Judea and Samaria and the grand achievements of the settlement endeavor, even directing visitors to the links of West Bank regional councils. The ministry warns against the evacuation of settlements and withdrawal from elevated areas, which, it says, would turn Israel into a firing range for rockets and render it vulnerable to invasion. Palestinian communities are not part of its landscape – the Palestinian Authority is portrayed as an incitement factory bent on destroying Israel, one that falsifies demographic figures and is headed by a Holocaust denier. Still, the ministry recommends that Israelis ‘say with conviction that Israel will never lose hope for peace’. It is difficult to square these messages with Netanyahu’s frequent calls for ‘two states for two peoples’ and a return to peace talks. Does the prime minister really want to talk to [people he says ares] inciters and Holocaust deniers? What would they talk about – about withdrawal, which the government believes would endanger Israel?” This Haaretz editorial is published here.

Along similar lines, Jerusalem-based writer Gershom Gorenberg wrote, as part of a book review published in the latest issue of “The American Prospect“, that “You might expect Netanyahu to be careful about playing with holy fire. In September 1996, early in his previous term as prime minister, he approved opening a tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, otherwise known [i.e., to Palestinians and the Muslim world] as Haram al-Sharif. That set off a week-long mini war between Israel and Palestinians. How could he so easily give in to pressure and repeat the mistake of asserting ownership of contested holy places? While we’re at it, how does a country declare that a place outside its borders is a national heritage site? I could give quick responses based on Netanyahu’s famously flawed personality. But deeper answers to these questions — and quite a few other Middle Eastern puzzles — can be found in Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg’s remarkably insightful recent book, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine. The starting point of Grinberg’s analysis is that Israel doesn’t have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: ‘If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is — where its borders are — we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them’. Internationally, of course, Israel’s border is commonly regarded as the Green Line, the pre-1967 boundary. For internal Israeli legal purposes, the Green Line is generally where the state ends and occupied territory begins; it defines ‘the area … ruled by democratic law and elective government’, as Grinberg notes. But the Green Line doesn’t appear on Israeli maps. And for purposes of military and economic control, the state includes the West Bank with its Palestinian population. (Gaza’s status, at the moment, is even fuzzier.) Moreover, in the imagination of most Israeli Jews, it seems, the line between those who belong to the nation and those who don’t is ethnic: Jews are in. Palestinians are out, even if they live in Israel and vote. If you find this all confusing, then you understand perfectly. The reality is a mess … With violence low at the moment, most Israelis can imagine that Israeli security measures alone ended the intifada and that the current quiet can last indefinitely. This is an illusion, and a dangerous one: It ignores the Palestinian Authority’s role in restoring order in the West Bank. It also ignores the frustration with blocked diplomacy that is again rising among Palestinians — and international impatience with the Netanyahu government’s foot-dragging. Imagination shapes behavior. Believing the illusion that things can go on as they are, Israelis have largely abandoned debate of alternatives. The space for politics remains closed. So with no discussion, responding to a moment’s pressure, ignoring the dangers, Netanyahu can include two West Bank holy places in a list of Israeli heritage sites. Netanyahu wouldn’t think to consult Palestinians’ representative leadership first. He sees them as outside the borders of his politics … In physical terms, Netanyahu’s imagined Israel is the whole land. In political terms, it includes only Jews. It takes no effort to convince him to include tombs in Hebron and Bethlehem in a map of Israeli heritage sites. But a plea by Israeli critics to include non-Jewish sites within the Green Line will sound to him like static on a bad cell-phone connection — noise without meaning”. This Gershom Gorenberg article in The American Prospect can be read in full here.

Meanwhile, this “tense calm” is not showing signs of expanding. As Haaretz reported Saturday, “Scores of Jordanian politicians and trade union members staged a sit-in at the Trade Unions Complex in Amman on Saturday to denounce Israel’s addition of two West Bank holy sites to a list of Jewish heritage centers. The participants, including Muslim Brotherhood figures and leading trade unionists, chanted slogans and raised placards calling for concrete action against Israel, the declaration of jihad (holy war) and the rupture of ties with the Jewish state by all Muslim countries”. This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

UPDATE: Jordan’s King Abdallah the second weighed in on this crisis on Sunday evening, and according to a report on the Jerusalem Post website (probably picked up from Palestinian Televisions nightly news broadcast), he was quoted as condemning “Israel’s ‘provocative measures in Jerusalem’ … after a day in which security forces stormed the Temple Mount [Haram ash-Sharif] to quell Arab rioting. Abdullah made the remark after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. Abdullah called on the international community to take immediate steps to protect Jerusalem’s holy sites”. This JPost report is posted here.

And, as the AP reported earlier, “The Organization of Islamic Conference, representing 57 predominantly Muslim states, strongly condemned the Israeli government’s decision, calling it illegal and an attempt ‘to trigger religious confrontation’.  In a statement issued after a meeting of its ambassadors at UN headquarters in New York, the OIC urged the UN Security Council to take immediate steps ‘to compel the Israeli government to revoke this illegitimate action’.  It called on the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the UN, the U.S., the European Union and Russia — ‘to stand up to this blatant act of aggression which represents a serious provocation to Muslims … and has the serious potential to incite yet another cycle of violence to further destabilize the fragile situation in the occupied Palestinian territories’.”  The U.S. State Department has also criticized the move more than once in the past week. The AP report said that “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday the decision was ‘provocative’ and unhelpful to the goal of restarting peace talks”.  The AP report is posted here.

The repetition of the peace talks mantra is mesmerizing, but wearing a bit thin. It has been more than a year since Palestinian leadership broke off the inconclusive Annapolis process, in the early days of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009).

On a third day of heavy rains, Israeli police entered (or “stormed”, as the Israeli press said) the Temple Mount/Haram ash-Sharif compound at least twice on Sunday (though they did not enter Al-Aqsa Mosque itself). Clashes then spread to other areas in East Jerusalem, then died down for the moment. Some 16 Palestinians and 4 Israeli police personnel were injured by nightfall, and 7 Palestinians were reportedly detained.

The Jerusalem Post earlier reported that “police banned men under the age of 50 from the site on Sunday. Meanwhile in the West Bank, the IDF was on high alert on Sunday out of fear that settlers, celebrating Purim, would clash with Palestinians. On Saturday, the IDF clamped a closure on the territories for the duration of Purim which will end Monday night in Jerusalem. Additional forces will be deployed in defined ‘hot spots’ to prevent friction between Palestinians and settlers. While Hebron was quiet over the weekend, defense officials said there were fears that violence would escalate in the city as well as other parts of the West Bank, particularly in northern Samaria, on Purim day”.  This JPost report is published here.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad went to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron to perform his Friday prayers.
Now, Ma’an News Agency reported that “The Fayyad government is due to hold its weekly cabinet meeting in an office the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday, in protest against Israel’s decision to include the Ibrahimi Mosque on a list of Israeli heritage sites. Hebron Governor Hussein Al-Araj said the move from Ramallah to Hebron was a signal Palestinian Authority rejected the Israeli cabinet’s decision, highlighting that Israel lacks the sovereignty needed to change Palestinian landmarks on land occupied by Israel in 1967. ‘[This] is a violation to the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the Hebron Agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority’, he said”.  This Ma’an report is published here.

On Journalism – the press corps as "courtiers"

The very estimable journalist Chris Hedges wrote in an article published by Truthdig on 1 February: “ ‘The very notion that on any given story all you have to do is report what both sides say and you’ve done a fine job of objective journalism debilitates the press’, the late columnist Molly Ivins once wrote. ‘There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off on one side or the other: it seldom nestles neatly halfway between any two opposing points of view. The smug complacency of much of the press — I have heard many an editor say, ‘Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right’ — stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, ‘Cat,’ and the other side saying ‘Dog,’ while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes’.” Ivins went on to write that “the press’s most serious failures are not its sins of commission, but its sins of omission — the stories we miss, the stories we don’t see, the stories that don’t hold press conferences, the stories that don’t come from ‘reliable sources.’”

Objectivity creates the formula of quoting Establishment specialists or experts within the narrow confines of the power élite who debate policy nuance like medieval theologians. As long as one viewpoint is balanced by another, usually no more than what Sigmund Freud would term ‘the narcissism of minor difference’, the job of a reporter is deemed complete. But this is more often a way to obscure rather than expose truth.

Reporting, while it is presented to the public as neutral, objective, and unbiased, is always highly interpretive. It is defined by rigid stylistic parameters. I have written, like most other reporters, hundreds of news stories. Reporters begin with a collection of facts, statements, positions, and anecdotes and then select those that create the ‘balance’ permitted by the formula of daily journalism. The closer reporters get to official sources, for example those covering Wall Street, Congress, the White House, or the State Department, the more constraints they endure. When reporting depends heavily on access it becomes very difficult to challenge those who grant or deny that access. This craven desire for access has turned huge sections of the Washington press, along with most business reporters, into courtiers. The need to be included in press briefings and background interviews with government or business officials, as well as the desire for leaks and early access to official documents, obliterates journalistic autonomy.

[F]ormer New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote: ‘Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgment. To escape the hard work or the abuse, if one man says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won’t work? We give you another who says they will. The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is’. Journalists, because of their training and distaste for shattering their own exalted notion of themselves, lack the inclination and vocabulary to discuss ethics. They will, when pressed, mumble something about telling the truth and serving the public. They prefer not to face the fact that my truth is not your truth. News is a signal, a “blip,” an alarm that something is happening beyond our small circle of existence, as Walter Lippmann noted in his book, Public Opinion. Journalism does not point us toward truth since, as Lippmann understood, there is always a vast divide between truth and news. Ethical questions open journalism to the nebulous world of interpretation and philosophy, and for this reason journalists flee from ethical inquiry like a herd of frightened sheep. Journalists, while they like to promote the image of themselves as fierce individualists, are in the end another species of corporate employees”… The original article can be read in full here.

Now, the also-estimable Jonathan Cook, a British journalist now based permanently in Nazareth with his new family there, has written a reflection on the hot topic of whether or not “you have to be Jewish to report on Israel for the New York Times?”

Cook said that “Shortly after I wrote an earlier piece on [New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem and Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan] Bronner [whose son has just enlisted in the IDF] , pointing out that most Western coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict is shaped by Jewish and Israeli journalists, and that Palestinian voices are almost entirely excluded, a Jerusalem-based bureau chief asked to meet. Over a coffee he congratulated me, adding: ‘I’d be fired if I wrote something like that’. This reporter, who, unlike me, spends lots of time with the main press corps in Jerusalem, then made some interesting points. He wishes to remain anonymous but has agreed to my passing on his observations. He calls Bronner’s situation ‘the rule, not the exception’, adding: ‘I can think of a dozen foreign bureau chiefs, responsible for covering both Israel and the Palestinians, who have served in the Israeli army, and another dozen who like Bronner have kids in the Israeli army’. He added that it is very common to hear Western reporters boasting to one another about their ‘Zionist’credentials, their service in the Israeli army or the loyal service of their children. ‘Comments like that are very common at Foreign Press Association gatherings [in Israel] among the senior, agenda-setting, elite journalists’. My informant is highly critical of what is going on among the Jerusalem press corps, even though he admits the same charges could be levelled against him. ‘I’m Jewish, married to an Israeli and like almost all Western journalists live in Jewish West Jerusalem. In my free time I hang out in cafes and bars with Jewish Israelis chatting in Hebrew. For the Jewish sabbath and Jewish holidays I often get together with a bunch of Western journalists. While it would be convenient to think otherwise, there is no question that this deep personal integration into Israeli society informs our overall understanding and coverage of the place in a way quite different from a journalist who lived in Ramallah or Gaza and whose personal life was more embedded in Palestinian society’. And now he gets to the crunch: ‘The degree to which Bronner’s personal life, like that of most lead journalists here, is integrated into Israeli society, makes him an excellent candidate to cover Israeli political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life. The problem is that Bronner is also expected to be his paper’s lead voice on Palestinian political life, cultural shifts and intellectual life, all in a society he has almost no connection to, deep knowledge of or even the ability to directly communicate with … The presumption that this is possible is neither fair to Bronner nor to his readers, and it’s really a shame that Western media executives don’t see the value in an Arabic-speaking bureau chief living in Ramallah and setting the agenda for the news coming out of the Palestinian territories’. All true. But I think there is a deeper lesson from the Bronner affair. Editors who prefer to appoint Jews and Israelis to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are probably making a rational choice in news terms — even if they would never dare admit their reasoning. The media assign someone to the Jerusalem bureau because they want as much access as possible to the inner sanctums of power in a self-declared Jewish state. They believe – and they are right – that doors open if their reporter is a Jew, or better still an Israeli Jew, who has proved his or her commitment to Israel by marrying an Israeli, by serving in the army or having a child in the army, and by speaking fluent Hebrew, a language all but useless outside this small state. Yes, Ethan Bronner is ‘the rule’, as my informant notes, because any other kind of journalist — the goyim, as many Israelis dismiss non-Jews — will only ever be able to scratch at the surface of Israel’s military-political-industrial edifice. The Bronners have access to power, they can talk to the officials who matter, because those same officials trust that high-powered Jewish and Israeli reporters belong in the Israeli consensus. They may be critical of the occupation, but they can be trusted to pull their punches. If they ever failed to do so, they would be ejected from the inner sanctum and a paper like the NYT would be forced to replace them with someone more cooperative. When in later years, these Jerusalem bureau chiefs retire from the field of battle and are promoted to the rank of armchair general back at media HQ – when they become a Thomas Friedman paid to pontificate regularly on the conflict — they can be trusted to talk to those same high-placed officials, explaining their viewpoint and defending it. That is why you will not read anything in the NYT questioning the idea that Israel is a democratic state or see coverage suggesting that Israel is acting in bad faith in the peace process. I do not want here to suggest there is anything unique about this relationship of almost utter dependence. To a degree, this is how most specialists in the mainstream media operate. Think of the local crime reporter. How effective would he be (and it is invariably a he) if he alienated the senior police officers who provide the inside information he needs for his regular supply of stories? Might he not prefer to turn a blind eye to a scoop revealing that one of his main informants is taking bribes, if publishing such a story would lose him his ‘access’ and his posting? This is a simple cost-benefit analysis made both by the reporter and the editors who assign him that almost always favours the powerful over the weak, the interests of the journalist over the reader. And so it is with Israel. Like the crime reporter, our Jerusalem bureau chief needs his ‘access’ more than he needs the occasional scoop that would sabotage his relationship with official sources. But more so than the crime reporter, many of these bureau chiefs also identify with Israel and its goals because they have an Israeli spouse and children. They not only live on one side of a bitter national conflict but actively participate in defending that side through service in its military. This is a conflict of interest of the highest order. It is also the reason why they are there in the first place”… Like many Jonathan Cook articles, this one is being picked up and republished on multiple websites concerned with covering this area. I first found it on Mondoweiss, here.

UN General Assembly: Israel and Palestine should investigate Goldstone report war crimes concerns

The UN General Assembly has asked UNSG BAN Ki-Moon to report back in five months about Israeli and Palestinian progress in investigating concerns about war crimes during the IDF’s three-week Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last year.

That does not mean, however, that there is a five-month deadline for the completion of the investigations.

In a resolution adopted on Friday, Reuters reported, the UNGA called for investigations that are “independent, credible and in conformity with international standards” into charges raised in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last September after months of investigations by a panel headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

The vote in the 192-member General Assembly on this resolution was 98 in favor, 7 against [including the U.S. and Israel] , 31 abstentions — and more than 50 countries were absent during the vote.

Fayyad accuses Netanyahu of "expropriating" Ibrahimi Mosque

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad attended the Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron today.

In remarks to journalists in Hebron, Fayyad accused Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his government of “expropriating” or “annexing” the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque and several other sites important to the three monotheistic religions, including Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem. Agence France Presse reported that Fayyad said: “The Palestinian people understand extremely well that this decision has a political dimension, and that it is aimed at Israel expropriating sites that are part of an occupied territory … These sites belong to a future Palestinian state”. According to AFP, Fayyad also reaffirmed “the inalienable right of the Palestinian people on their soil”. AFP also reported that “the head of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO ‘expressed her concern” at the plan and the ‘resulting escalation of tension in the area’. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova endorsed a statement by Robert Serry, UN coordinator for the Middle East peace process, that the sites have ‘historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam and to Christianity’.” She also “reiterated UNESCO’s long-standing conviction that cultural heritage should serve as a means for dialogue”. This AFP report is posted here.

The Jerusalem Post reported that “Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad visited Hebron on Friday and prayed at the Cave of the Patriarchs on Friday afternoon, criticizing Israel’s decision to add the site and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem to the list of Jewish heritage sites marked for renovation and preservation. Speaking to reporters after prayers, Fayyad accused Israel of ‘annexing’ the Cave of the Patriarchs. ‘[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s decision is dangerous and political in nature. The site is an inseparable part of the occupied Palestinian territories’, [Israeli] Channel 10 quoted Fayyad as saying”. The JPost added that “US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table. Toner said US displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flash point town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats”. This JPost report is published here.

The declaration, last Sunday, by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and endorsed by his Cabinet, did not announce any legal annexation of the sites. But, this is what the Palestinians fear is the logic.

Palestinians also fear, not without justification through experience, that the allocation of large sums of Israeli money for the maintenance and preservation of these sites as part of Israel’s heritage is likely to entail preferential Israeli access and denial of Palestinian access.

Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser who is now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv (and an advocate of extensive “territorial swap” involving Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan), noted during the week in a press conference in West Jerusalem that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps [of 2000-2001]”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …

Rachel’s tomb it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Jews and Israelis who enter in guarded buses escorted by Israeli security forces. The visitors’ busses pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel guaranteed freedom of worship and access to all holy sites under its control. In practice, I have not heard of Christian groups visiting Rachel’s tomb, though it is not as important in Christian worship. Palestinian Muslims, however, revere not only Ruth, but important historical Muslim figures from a later era who are buried there. And, there is a Muslim mosque on the site. In theory, at least, Palestinian visits are now supposedly to be allowed through permits, though I do not know of any Palestinian who has ever requested such a permit… Maybe Fayyad can ask for one for next Friday’s prayers…

[Once, in June 2004, I made a spontaneous visit to Rachel’s tomb — before it was completely surrounded by The Wall — with two UNRWA colleagues, both female, one was Palestinian. As it happened, because we hadn’t planned the visit, we were all wearing jeans (not well viewed at all by Orthodox Jews, who think long skirts are more appropriate for modest women). We parked the official UN-marked vehicle a few hundred meters away, but directly visible to the Israeli military in the control tower. As we walked forward, one Israel soldier emerged and pointed his automatic weapon straight at us. We explained we just wanted to visit Rachel’s tomb, and moved forward. He waved his rifle menacingly. Then, another soldier emerged from the control tower and ran towards us, while motioning to the one with the pointed weapon to move aside. He told us we were allowed to enter. But he said to hurry, because a bus of Jewish worshippers was due to arrive any minute from Jerusalem, and they wanted the streets absolutely clear in case of any sniper fire. He went inside with us, and stopped anyone from interfering with us. We were able to spend about 30 minutes in meditation and observation on the womens’ side of the tomb, without even a cross look, and we left in peace. It was a rare and actually wonderful experience — thanks in particular to that one Israeli soldier who enforced his government’s official policy that, in theory at least, and on paper, allows people of all faiths to enter all holy sites under Israeli control.]

Clashes continued for a fifth day between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli troops in Hebron about the Israeli government decision to declare the Ibrahimi Mosque an Israeli heritage site.

Ma’an News Agency reported that Jewish settlers, accompanied by Israeli soldiers, marched through downtown Hebron on Friday in support of the Israeli government decision.

Separately, a group of about 300 Israeli, Palestinian and international activists marched in the rain to call for an opening of part of central Hebron which has been locked down under Israeli military pressure for several years in favor of a Jewish settler presence in the neighborhood.

25 February 1994: Massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron

At the dawn prayers in the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron on 25 February 1994 — during the month of Ramadan – American-born Baruch Goldstein walked in, armed, past the armed Israeli soldiers on guard who had so terrified me the afternoon before, when I was sitting in the back seat of a clearly-marked UN car driven by one of UNRWA’s “refugee affairs” teams (one Palestinian, the driver, and one international, who were supposed to help discourage Israeli military violence against Palestinian civilians). We tried to pull up to see the Ibrahimi Mosque, but one of the Israeli soldiers approached, pointing and waving his gun, and screaming at us in a totally unhinged and out-of-control way. We did not hang around. We did not have a prayer of a chance to go inside to visit this religious site. of tremendous significance to the main monotheistic religions.

Goldstein, a settler who lived in the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, was wearing his reserve Israeli military uniform when he breezed past the posted soldiers. He shot, apparently randomly, at the Muslim worshippers, 29 of whom were murdered, before he was beaten to death.

His tomb, in Kiryat Arba, is a site of pilgrimage for a number of persons in the religious-nationalist Israeli right.

Palestinian fury continues over Israeli decision on holy sites

Unrest continued for a third day in Hebron over the Israeli government decision to declare the important Ibrahimi (Abraham) mosque an Israeli heritage site, as schoolgirls in headscarves and green and white striped dresses over their jeans confronted Israeli troops who shot tear gas at them, while the situation was discussed at an Arab League meeting in Cairo today.

Yesterday (Tuesday), YNet reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Belgium that “the Israeli decision to add the two sites, located in Hebron and Bethlehem, to the list of national heritage sites was ‘a serious provocation which may lead to a religious war’ “, while “The Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, presented an even firmer stand. He called on the Palestinians to launch a new intifada in protest of the decision to add the two places to the heritage sites list. ‘This requires the release of all Palestinians prisoners in the PA’s jails, halting the negotiations and achieving a Palestinian reconciliation agreement’, he said”. This report is published here.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu repeated a statement first made by a member of his office yesterday. YNet reported today that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday reiterated Israel’s commitment to the freedom of ritual of members of all religions in all holy sites. According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu said that ‘this policy is implemented in the Cave of the Patriarchs as well, where the State is working constantly to guarantee appropriate prayer conditions for Jews and Muslims’. According to Netanyahu, ‘Proof can be found in the renovation work being completed these days in the entrance plaza and on the path leading to the Muslims’ prayer hall on the site’. The prime minister stressed that ‘any other claim is an artificial attempt to distort reality and evoke a dispute’.” This can be read in full here.

Israel’s State President Shimon Peres met UN envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry on Wednesday. and said that “Israel plans to invest significant amounts in infrastructure that will increase the accessibility of holy sites to all worshipers. By doing so it aims to honor and allow freedom of worship to all, irrespective of their faith, and protect the holy sites. There is no violation of Muslim or Christian religious rights in any holy place.” According to a statement issued by his office, Peres “requested that this clear message be delivered to the U.N. Secretary-General so as to stop those parties which wish to incite unnecessary conflict”, and UN Special Coordinator Serry “thanked the President for clarifying the issue”, while adding that “following a series of meetings with leaders of the Palestinian Authority he believes the most serious obstacle to peace remains the lack of trust between both sides — that neither side believes the other will remain flexible and make significant advances in negotiations. Nevertheless, he also stated that with the proper steps there exists an opportunity to resume proximity talks.

The Jerusalem Post reported after the Peres-Serry meeting that “Peres stressed that Israel wasn’t interested in ‘monopolizing’ the sites and that it did not need ‘artificial conflicts’ sparked by a ‘misunderstanding’. He said that Israel respects ‘every holy place’, emphasizing that while it wanted to educate Jews that the sites are holy to them, this certainly did not mean they would be off limits to Muslims. ‘We are going to tell our children that it is a holy place for the Jewish people’, he said. ‘It doesn’t mean Muslims can’t pray there’.” This article is posted here.

In actual fact, Muslim worshippers have been excluded from the Ibrahimi mosque during the last two years on important Muslim holidays when they coincided with important Jewish holidays. The Muslims prayed in the streets in front of armed Israeli armed soldiers.

The Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied city of Hebron is the fourth holiest site to Muslims [after (1) the Kaaba in Mecca, (2) Medina, and (3) al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock Mosques in the Old City of East Jerusalem! It is so important that the Jordanian government tried to negotiated a share in controlling the Ibrahimi mosque in its 1994 peace treaty with Israel — but Israel refused.

The Tomb(s) of the Patriarchs, located within the Ibrahimi Mosque, may be the second holiest site for the Jewish people. The most important site is what Jews call the Temple Mount (while Muslims call it the Haram Ash-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock are located) in the Old City of East Jerusalem where the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temples were located. The Western (“Wailing”) Wall is believed to have been the retaining wall outside the Temple area.

In a press conference at the Mishkenot Shaananim center in West Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon, Major-General (Res.) Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser and now an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said he thought that Netanyahu’s statements were “not that important … symbolic … but at the end of the day not too smart”. He noted that Rachel’s tomb, in Bethlahem, was “on the Israeli side of the Clinton maps”, meaning that it was considered an area that would be assigned to the State of Israel in a final peace settlement [which must be why it is now surrounded by The Wall in its 8-meter-high concrete block manifestation, and accessible only to Israelis who enter in guarded and escorted buses which pass through a huge gliding metal gate that opens for their arrival]. But, Eiland noted, “I cannot say the same about the Hebron mosque” …

What has Netanyahu done?

Palestinians are furious at an Israeli government decision to classify the very important Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque in Hebron (as well as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem) as Israeli heritage sites.

It was not a decision to annex these two sites to Israel. It was a decision to allocate money to upgrade and rehabilitate the sites. But, in the current context, the decision has been understood as yet another move by the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to restrict, if not exclude, Palestinian and Muslim claims + interests.

It is being received and perceived as an act of incitement.

There has been a firestorm of reaction. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is busy in Paris, and hasn’t said anything himself. But a representative of Abbas denounced the move on Palestinian television tonight, and argued that this puts into further question any idea about a resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian Authority Minister of Awqaf (Muslim trusts), Mahmoud Habbash, in Cairo for a meeting, denounced the move as “crazy” and “war-like”.

Both sites are revered by both religions. But sites contain graves of ancestors revered by both religions. For Muslims, both sites are also mosques. And both sites are in the occupied West Bank.

Continue reading What has Netanyahu done?

A Journalist (find her) looks at excavations with new finds from 10th century B.C.

The caption for this AP photo reads: “A journalist looks over newly excavated fortifications outside the Old City walls in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 22 2010. An Israeli archaeologist says the ancient fortifications date back 3,000 years to the time of the Bible’s King Solomon and offer evidence for the accuracy of the biblical narrative”.

A Journalist looks at newly-announced excavation - AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill

Continue reading A Journalist (find her) looks at excavations with new finds from 10th century B.C.

"The reason for walls is always fear"

Roger Waters (Pink Floyd, The Wall) has visited The Wall here — Israel’s “security barrier” — a couple of times.

He narrates a film just released (thanks to Angela for this information) by The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in Jerusalem, and he begins by saying:  “The reason for walls is always fear”…

Part One:

UN/OCHA says, in a note on Youtube explaining the film, that it “explores how Palestinians in urban and rural areas have been impacted by the Walls construction since the International Court of Justices Advisory Opinion in 2004, which declared the Wall’s route in the West Bank illegal. Several senior Israeli security officials are interviewed in the film, two of whom were directly responsible for planning the Wall route and who explain the Israeli position for constructing it. The film was made by the United Nations Jerusalem”.

Part One includes some archival footage of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announcing in August 2002 that “We have decided to erect buffer zones to achieve a security separation.  we have decided to start immediately to mark buffer zones and erecting obstacles along them”.

The narration that Waters reads (it was undoubtedly written and cleared by the UN says, about The Wall: “It does not follow the Green Line … but intrudes deep into the West Bank … It disrupts the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, as well as slicing off about ten percent of the West Bank … Tens of thousands of olive trees lay in the path of the bulldozers. For Palestinians the olive tree is a symbol of connectedness to their land. The Israeli authorities pledged to replant the uprooted trees, but many were cut down and disappeared [these phrases were clearly written by a careful UN bureaucrat]” …

Yes, it’s true, says General Amos Elon, identified as former Israeli Defense Ministry Head of the Security Fence Project): “we were on a very tight schedule” and “we had to solve the security problem as soon as possible”.

Of course, The Wall is not finished yet — maybe it will take another two years, if it is ever finished. [The film says only 58 percent is constructed so far — and that has cost some $2 billion dollars…)

Therefore, any determined suicide bomber could probably still get through to Israel without too much trouble.

Hanan Ashrawi says: “The Wall is not built on the ’67 lines. The Wall is built on Palestinian land, and it is a Wall for annexation and isolation … It has generated greater hostility, and when Israel claims to feel safer behind The Wall, they don’t understand that there was a decision for a cease-fire, there was a decision for the cessation of suicide bombing, and it was a result of political considerations, not because of the Wall itself”. [Is this confirmation that there was a prior decision in favor of suicide bombing?]

Shaul Arieli agrees that The Wall (he calls it “the fence”) does not have anything to do with the end of suicide bombings — but he says that’s because the Israeli military is catching potential bombers deep within the West Bank itself.

There is a good vignette of Israeli soldiers inspecting Palestinian families who have permits to enter through a closed gate to work their lands.

The film says that new UN research shows that only 20 percent of those in the northern West Bank who used to work their land which is now cut off by The Wall are getting permits — “Land becomes abandoned for lack of access”, Waters says.

The film also says that over 80 percent of The Wall goes through the West Bank (i.e., is not on the “Green Line” or armistice line that served as a boundary from the time the UN negotiated agreements with four neighboring Arab countries to end the fighting that surrounded the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 until the June 1967 war when Israel captured the West Bank (and more).

It suggests that this is the main reason for the July 2004 Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice that termed The Wall — and its associated regime — illegal.

Part Two (there is a problem with the volume):

The film says that the 2004 ICJ Advisory Opinion called for a freeze of any new construction, and for the dismantlement of those parts of The Wall that are inside the West Bank

Yes, Qalandia Checkpoint is a scandal

The Washington Post has picked up an article written by Ben Hubbard for the Associated Press about the misery that is Qalandia checkpoint.   Apparently, Ben spent five days there, early in the morning when Palestinians with permits are being treated not unlike animals as they try to get to work.

Thousands — no, millions, upon millions of words have been written about this shame.  We have written about it repetitively — just enter the word Qalandia in the search box on this page, and the stories will pop up.

But, nothing changes.  If anything, it simply gets worse.

[UPDATE: Also see Amira Hass’ article published in Haaretz here: “Israel calls the checkpoint a ‘terminal’ and relates to it as an existing, legal border between the State of Israel and the Palestinian entity. For Palestinians, the Qalandiyah checkpoint is a physical representation of the fact that for most of them, East Jerusalem has become as far away as the moon. Most of the people who pass through Qalandiyah are Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. A minority are West Bank residents who have temporary permits to enter Israel”.]

The AP story published in the WPost is entitled Checkpoint misery epitomizes a Mideast divide, and it is posted here.

This is the AP photo used to illustrate the article in the Washington Post – it was taken 15 Dec 2009:
AP photo taken 15 December 2009 - Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Please note that the AP reporter who did the story wrote only about the pedestrian passage.  Crossing with a car is a different and separate nightmare, for those who are allowed.

Please note that this is only about Qalandia checkpoint, and not about the main checkpoint at Bethlehem, which, if anything, may be worse, or about the Erez crossing into Gaza.

It is not about the checkpoint on Road 443 that I was shocked to see had Palestinian men stuffed into wire-caged walkways at 4 am last Thursday after passing military inspection, but before boarding white Ford Transit vans for transportation to their jobs in central Israel.

Please note that the crossing times listed for each day the reporter was at this checkpoint — which Israeli forces like to call a “border crossing” — are just for the crossing time only, and not for the difficult transportation that comes before and after the crossing.

Please also note that every Israeli in uniform at this place is carrying at least one big gun, and that there are military reinforcements always at the ready in the immediate enclosure, and more are not far away.

The AP article reports that “The journey to Jerusalem, for tens of thousands of Palestinians [daily], begins in a dank, trash-strewn hangar. They move through cage-like passages and 7-foot-high turnstiles to be checked by Israeli soldiers from behind bulletproof glass. The soldiers often yell at them [only in Hebrew, of course, and in a muffled and incomprehensible way] through loudspeakers. They [the Israeli soldiers] are supposed to work in pairs to speed the lines through, but sometimes one of them is asleep, his feet on his desk. The Qalandia crossing, say the Israelis, is where potential attackers are filtered out before they can reach Jerusalem on the other side. Palestinians say it’s a daily humiliation they must endure to reach jobs, family, medical appointments and schools. This main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem is one of the rawest points of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, a symbol of the day-to-day bitterness that grinds between the two sides as the U.S. struggles to relaunch peace negotiations. Since taking office last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has eased Palestinian movement inside the West Bank, but not into Jerusalem … Qalandia [is] the only way for 60,000 taxpaying [legal and official Jerusalem] residents [whose homes, by Israeli military design, are now behind — or on the West Bank side — of Qalandia checkpoint and The Wall] to reach their city. They too must line up along with tens of thousands of West Bank residents to enter Israel for work – provided they are patient, have permits, and don’t arouse suspicion” … And God help them if they do, because there is nobody who can help them

The article reports that “The AP reporter saw soldiers sleeping in their booths four times during five days at the crossing. When told about it, Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said he was ‘surprised’ …” though nobody would be who has ever been at a checkpoint when there were only Palestinians and internationals present, but no higher Israeli officer.

The article reports that “The line takes Abu Jalil into a 15-foot-long cage of metal bars, barely wide enough for a large man or high enough for a tall man to stand upright. At the far end, a turnstile clicks open, letting about 10 people through at a time before clicking shut again. Once inside: another line to another turnstile, this one leading to a window where Israeli soldiers check IDs. Abu Jalil waits, then a worker at the front of the line gets turned back. He tells the others they can’t carry lunches through, so Abu Jalil and others with lunches change lines, starting again at the back. It’s a common problem. Sometimes, certain lines accept only certain IDs, but the workers don’t know that until they reach the window. A soldier may close a window without announcing it, leaving people waiting in vain. There is no supervisor or hot line they can take complaints to.

The article reports that one 70-year-old Palestinian woman who returned after living in the U.S. for 11 years (there are many Palestinian West Bank residents who have American citizenship) said to the AP reporter that “I made the biggest mistake of my life in coming back here … This the worst place I’ve seen in my life”..

It may not be the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s truly awful, something to be avoided, if possible, at all costs. It’s really, really bad…