+972 Magazine » Omar H. Rahman http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:45:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Egyptian democracy and the Sabbahi effect http://972mag.com/egyptian-democracy-and-the-sabbahi-effect/87044/ http://972mag.com/egyptian-democracy-and-the-sabbahi-effect/87044/#comments Tue, 11 Feb 2014 00:24:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=87044

Egypt’s newest candidate for president could be the perfect test case for Egyptian democracy and a lightening rod for opposition to the military.

Following the unfolding Egyptian revolution is not often rewarded with good news. Today was a little different: Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the surprise stories from Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential election, has announced his candidacy for the office, once again. Sabbahi, who came in third place after Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was ousted from power last July, and Ahmed Shafiq, the former commander of the Air Force who was considered by many as faloul, or a remnant of the Mubarak regime, is a staunch leftist nationalist who gained immense popularity from revolutionary forces as well as a broad segment of the Egyptian population skeptical of the other leading candidates.

Sabbahi’s campaign will be a bellwether for the state of Egyptian democracy after the coup d’etat that unseated Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent attack on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military. What has taken place in Egypt over the last several months has marked the reversal of Egypt’s once promising revolution and the slow return of the security state backed by the Egyptian military, whose current head, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is widely considered to be gearing up to run for the presidency, himself.

It is not altogether clear whether what is happening is the silencing of the Muslim Brotherhood or opposition in general. The interim regime that is currently governing the country recently put a revised constitution up to public referendum in what was considered an attempt to shore up its legitimacy and public support in the aftermath of the coup. In the run-up to the referendum’s vote, Egypt’s public was inundated with a heavy dose of pro-referendum advertisement, while any opposition was met with harassment and violence.

The new constitution also outlaws political parties based on religion (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood) from taking part in political system. More devastating has been the government initiative to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from the public space, declaring it a terrorist organization, arresting its leadership, and making membership a criminal offense. While the Brotherhood is far from guiltless in its fate, the entire affair has been a massive blow to a pluralistic future for Egypt.

What Sabbahi’s candidacy now indicates is whether any form of free opposition will be tolerated or whether Egypt has finally returned full circle to the Mubarak-style “democracy” that existed before the revolution. While al-Sisi has not officially declared his candidacy for the presidency, the move is seen as an inevitability. I also expect that a very active component of Egypt’s youth population will put their efforts behind Sabbahi to prevent the steady shift in support for the military. Many in Egypt were divided over the thirteen candidates that ran for office the first time around. Now, knowing that Sabbahi is a viable choice with a chance of uniting different contingencies, it will be very interesting to see how the Egyptian military responds. Everyone should be paying attention.

]]>
http://972mag.com/egyptian-democracy-and-the-sabbahi-effect/87044/feed/ 2
Three years later, Egypt’s revolution coming full circle http://972mag.com/three-years-later-egypts-revolution-coming-full-circle/86307/ http://972mag.com/three-years-later-egypts-revolution-coming-full-circle/86307/#comments Sat, 25 Jan 2014 23:19:27 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=86307 Three years after the revolution that set the benchmark for the Arab Spring, Egypt is now coming full circle, and the promise of the mass movement with it.

On the first anniversary of Egypt’s momentous 18-day revolution, the country was still in a state of flux. A powerful military council remained in charge of a transitional government and the outcome of the revolution was unclear, but people were cautiously optimistic of what the future might hold if they kept pushing. By the second anniversary, the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, the country was polarized and in upheaval over the Islamists’ continued acquisition of authority and their desire to pursue their agenda at the expense of others. Today, on the third anniversary, Egypt is one small step away from coming full circle, back to the same style of military-backed dictatorship that endured before the revolution even took place.

What is unfolding in Egypt today is the absence of politics and a recipe for longterm instability. The intense desire for a return to normalcy, after three years of civil unrest, escalating violence, and a hemorrhaging economy, is pushing Egypt back into the arms of a security state ruled by the military. And the worse the situation gets, the stronger their grip on power will be.

The Muslim Brotherhood is far from blameless. The manner in which they used their time in power was disastrous and divisive. Morsi and the Brotherhood isolated a large portion of the Egyptian population, pursuing their agenda at the expense of others, and the popular indignation that emerged from that was real and consequential. They paid for their mistake by being ousted from power in a military coup d’etat. But the Brotherhood has remained unwilling to accept any responsibility for their actions, the first step in reemerging from the shadows, regrouping and reconciling themselves to a place at the table, if that is still possible (The new constitution ratified by public referendum last week outlaws parties “formed on the basis of religion.”)

Since the coup d’etat of 2013 against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood has been violently purged from the public space. It has been declared a terrorist organization, its leaders jailed, its media silenced, its membership criminalized, and its assets seized. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the outs, but it is Egypt as a whole that will suffer. The reason can be boiled down to a simple question: Now that the legitimate means of contesting power have been closed, will this make the Muslim Brotherhood, or political Islam for that matter, disappear?

The answer is no. And the unfortunate reality is that this is a sure-fire path the fractionalization and radicalization reminiscent of their past. Brotherhood members and supporters will henceforth look at the democratic process as rigged against them. And it is evident that repression and exclusion only cause political groups to resort to violence, feeling unable to influence the state and society through accepted, mainstream channels. The more marginalized and less capable of affecting politics legitimately, or even through waging an insurgency, the more likely they are to resort to terrorism. In particular, there is the young generation of disaffected Brotherhood supporters who must understandably feel jilted and angry. With nowhere legitimate to turn, they could become easy targets for extremist recruiters. Or, maybe worse for global instability, they could follow the direction of hordes of other young men and head to Syria for their first foray into transnational jihad. It will be like Afghanistan in the ‘80s but closer to home.

It is important to remember that all this has precedent in Egypt and beyond. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Muslim Brotherhood was illegal in Egypt and its leaders imprisoned. What arose were even more radical splinter groups that were the progenitors of radical Islamic terrorism. Al-Qaeda has its ideological roots in people like Said Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned, tortured and executed, but who in the process advocated the violent overthrow of government as the necessary means of establishing an Islamic order. This type of radicalization was a ghost that haunted Egypt well into the 1990s.

In that same decade, Algeria was plunged into years of bloody civil war after the military stepped in to prevent an Islamist party from democratically assuming power, using fear and instability to maintain their control. Today, Algeria is still ruled by an iron fist.

Two days go, four coordinated bombings rocked Egypt’s capital. And the day before, five policemen were gunned down at a checkpoint by assailants on a motorcycle. Subversive violence may eventually embroil Egypt, if that is not already the case. Yesterday, anti-government protesters were killed by police forces in the darkest anniversary of the revolution to date.

It is difficult to say if there is any turning back from this. The brightest hope of the Arab Spring now appears on its way to being lost.

The most important question that must be answered for the future of the Middle East and the Arab Spring is can political Islam co-exist with secular, liberal democracy? Or rather, can political Islamic parties function within a liberal democratic system? I think the answer is yes, if they can accept to be only a component in political life and recognize citizenship as something not tied to religion.

Turkey has been a long-time example. (Although recent developments with the AKP have put that into question.) Another example is Tunisia, which has just revised its own constitution; however, it has done so jointly, with all factions, including the Islamists.

This type of power sharing is the only cure to the divisive politics and authoritarianism that plagues the Middle East. But for now, it seems like a hard pill to swallow and one Egypt appears determined not to take. And with that, the true promise of the Arab Spring is almost gone.

]]>
http://972mag.com/three-years-later-egypts-revolution-coming-full-circle/86307/feed/ 7
George Washington on Mark Kirk’s mission to save Israel http://972mag.com/sen-mark-kirk-vs-george-washington/82291/ http://972mag.com/sen-mark-kirk-vs-george-washington/82291/#comments Thu, 21 Nov 2013 23:34:59 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=82291 It embarrasses me to write these words. Quoting George Washington just reeks of tackiness and a lack of imagination. And though undoubtedly wise, who says the words of America’s Founding Fathers should be held sacrosanct?

But damn it to hell, for some reason American presidents tend to speak with profound insight in their farewell speeches. Dwight D. Eisenhower did in his farewell address on the perils of the military industrial complex, and I love that speech!

So, when U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R. Ill) is quoted by Salon.com saying, “It’s the reason why I ran for the Senate, [it] is all wrapped up in this battle. I am totally dedicated to the survival of the state of Israel in the 21st century,” Washington’s words come ringing in my head like sleigh bells (especially around Christmas time).

So although I am loath to bring George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address into a debate that should be patently obvious, I feel we ought to one more time for good measure:

…a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification.

Now pay attention, Kirk.

And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluged citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, SOMETIMES EVEN WITH POPULARITY; gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.”

That last part seems to describe Sen. Kirk to a T.

Moreover, the United States continues to appoint pro-Israel hawks into important positions in the mediating process between Israelis and Palestinians, time and again. Please read Noam Sheizaf’s piece on the appointment of David Markovsky. This is an enterprise doomed to fail because we repeat the mistakes of the past while not heeding the past’s wisdom, even when it comes from a few centuries ago.

]]>
http://972mag.com/sen-mark-kirk-vs-george-washington/82291/feed/ 1
Yair Lapid reveals true nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict http://972mag.com/yair-lapid-reveals-true-nature-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/80215/ http://972mag.com/yair-lapid-reveals-true-nature-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/80215/#comments Wed, 09 Oct 2013 22:05:41 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=80215 During a recent interview with Charlie Rose in New York, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid tacitly reveals why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endures and why Israel will only accept peace on its own terms.

Yair Lapid on the Charlie Rose Show (Screenshot)

Over the past week or so, as the United Nations General Assembly brought leaders from around the world to New York, several of them made their way onto American political talk shows.

Charlie Rose, one of America’s best and most watched interviewers, hosted a number of political leaders from the Middle East, including Bashar al-Assad of Syria (from Damascus) and Hassan Rouhani of Iran. Rose also interviewed three major politicians from Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid.

Lapid, in particular, sat with Charlie Rose for extended coverage, receiving a lot of attention for a public show at the 92Y in New York. The event actually overshadowed an interview with Rose from earlier in the night on his show that I thought was more interesting. While the majority of the interview was an expose of Lapid as a journalist turned politician, there is a telling six or seven minutes near the end that should be watched closely.

Rose begins on the Palestinian issue by inquiring as to the differences between Lapid and Prime Minister Netanyahu over Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state. Lapid replies by saying that such recognition is not important. “My father did not come to Haifa from the Budapest Ghetto to get recognition from Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas],” he quips.

Lapid says the Israeli non-Jewish minority should have its rights, like any minority, but that Israel is a Jewish state, and he aims to keep it that way. He delves into the demographic threat facing Israel, saying “if we continue to rule three or four million Palestinians, the identity of Israel… will vanish.”

We need to separate ourselves from the Palestinians. It is not marriage that I am seeking, it is a decent divorce.


All of this is not new, but the really interesting part begins after 44 [it is easy to skip ahead].

Lapid tells Rose:

The problem with this negotiation is that the Israelis and Palestinians want two very different things: the Palestinians want peace and justice; the Israelis want peace and security. And we will always be in conflict there.

Rose catches the significance of that statement, inquiring:

Are you saying you can’t have justice for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis?

This is where Lapid begins to get a little flustered, not losing his cool, but clearly not knowing how to answer without being completely forthright. He says that justice and security are possible but that the two parties want different things and therefore it takes time.

Rose continues to press him, asking, “What about the Palestinians’ interest in justice are you not prepared to give them – if you were prime minister or King David.” Lapid continues to squirm, at which point Rose calls Lapid out for being evasive and then lets him off the hook.

Although seemingly innocuous, Lapid reveals exactly what he means by “wanting different things” and “it taking time,” later in the interview. When Rose asks him about settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Lapid says that there is a major difference between the two and that Israel will never divide Jerusalem. Rose says then you cannot have peace, to which Lapid retorts:

I will give you an example. For years and years everybody thought that without the Right of Return the Palestinians will never, never do anything. And then Abu Mazen six months ago or eight months ago sits on an interview on Israel’s Channel 2 — not BBC, not Charlie Rose — but Israel’s Channel 2 and says, ‘I understand now that I will never go back to my home in Safad,’ which is Israel, mainland Israel.

So what happened? What happened was the Palestinians realized there is a total consensus against the Right of Return, and if they really want to have a state, they will have to give up on this. It’s the same about Jerusalem. The question is, do the Palestinians want their own state?

This statement says it all.

The entire power dynamic and the futility of negotiations is laid bare. The Palestinians and the Israelis have two different conceptions of peace: the Palestinians justice, the Israelis security. Security is how we, Israel, define it. Security is no Right of Return. Security is a united Jerusalem under full Israeli sovereignty. And until the Palestinians give up on their concept of justice, like they did with the Right of Return, yet still cling to uselessly with Jerusalem, they will not have a state of their own. It doesn’t matter that the actual consensus is clearly with partitioning Jerusalem. Once enough time has passed and we continue to change the facts on the ground unilaterally, the Palestinians will come around.

It is clear that this is how Israeli politicians see it. They will take what they want by force and negotiate what they don’t want as a matter of form. The question is how far the Palestinian leadership is willing to capitulate by lending their consent to this method through signing off on it at the negotiating table. Based on what was revealed in the Palestine Papers, that may be pretty far. Although, it is hard to say how much legitimacy the Abbas-led government has in striking a deal, especially one that gives up the Right of Return for millions of people, something enshrined in international law. Maybe Abbas, like Arafat before him, is unwilling to be browbeaten into signing a permanent deal that gives up Palestinian rights — which Israel has then used to create the dominant narrative of themselves as doing whatever it takes to make peace and the Palestinians as “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” and Palestinian leaders as willing to negotiate but never willing to sign a deal out of duplicitous motives.

As Lapid says even later in the interview after completely negating the significance of Jerusalem to the Palestinians and the entire Muslim world:

Jerusalem is our capital and we will not negotiate about this. Well, we will negotiate but we will never give up on this.

Negotiating is fine because talk means nothing. The important thing is to know that Israel is in control.

Related:
At annual conference, Palestinians and Israelis turn ‘return’ into reality
Looking beyond the ‘curse’ of partition 

]]>
http://972mag.com/yair-lapid-reveals-true-nature-of-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/80215/feed/ 68
WATCH: Al Jazeera takes on the segregated bus debate http://972mag.com/watch-al-jazeera-takes-on-the-bus-debate/67342/ http://972mag.com/watch-al-jazeera-takes-on-the-bus-debate/67342/#comments Sat, 09 Mar 2013 14:08:10 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=67342 Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story covers the segregated bus debate and the question of apartheid in Israel.

Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna is joined by Ben White, Mustafa Barghouti and Gregg Roman in what turns out to be probably the biggest shellacking of an Israeli spokesperson I have ever seen on a mainstream news network.

To be fair, Roman does say some absurd things, such as: “Actually I do know what I am talking about because I worked side by side with Palestinians for three years while I was a member of the Civil Administration in Ramallah (note: Israel’s occupation government in the territories–equivalent to a colonial administration. It is not based in Ramallah either, it’s located in the Jewish settlement of Beit El, which overlooks Ramallah)… if you look at the everyday Palestinian worker, what he wants to do is have independence, feed his family, and he wants to be able to have autonomy.”

This is actually one of the essential counters being made by Israel supporters in this general debate over buses and segregation: that Palestinian workers prefer this system because it expedites the process of working in Israel and makes their living conditions easier. However, this does not negate the accusation of segregation and apartheid. By having reduced average Palestinians to prioritize feeding their families over obtaining their human and legal rights, you have in no way relieved yourself from the obligation under international law to respect those rights.

There is much more to go into in this debate but it is worth watching if you have some time. If nothing else, there are few places you get to see this kind of debate happen. Pretty entertaining to say the least.

]]>
http://972mag.com/watch-al-jazeera-takes-on-the-bus-debate/67342/feed/ 74
Those who say there’s no honor among thieves haven’t heard of Naftali Bennett http://972mag.com/those-who-say-theres-no-honor-among-thieves-havent-heard-of-naftali-bennett/64461/ http://972mag.com/those-who-say-theres-no-honor-among-thieves-havent-heard-of-naftali-bennett/64461/#comments Tue, 22 Jan 2013 17:28:35 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=64461 Many Palestinians — on both sides of the Green Line — see the rise of the openly fascist right wing as a positive development, because eventually it will work to sever the umbilical cord of support to Israel from the world.

Leader of the National Religious Party (“Jewish Home”) Naftali Bennett (photo: Yotam Ronen / activestills.org)

As Israelis go to the polls to cast their ballots for the Knesset, many Palestinian citizens will not be voting in this round of elections. In a recent New York Times article, correspondent Jodi Rudoren expounds as to the many reasons why this is the case, save one. On a recent trip to the country I spoke with many Palestinian citizens of Israel who actually expressed a desire to see the further ascendancy of the Israeli Right. Their logic is based on the inadvertent consequences of right-wing control of Israeli politics. Essentially, the further movement of Israel to the right intensifies its ugliest and most undemocratic tendencies, which leads to further estrangement and isolation in international politics.

They view the rise of the openly fascist right wing as a positive development, because eventually it will work to sever the umbilical cord of support to Israel from the world. Europe, and even possibly the United States, will find it progressively more difficult to ideologically support a nation that is so unabashed in its views and against any form of peace process with the Palestinians. Israel is increasingly becoming Frankestein’s monster that even its former patrons are looking upon in disgust.

Some appreciate the brutal honesty of Israeli right-wing officials, as opposed to what they consider a more duplicitous rhetoric from Israel’s left and center parties, who only come knocking around election time. They believe the fall of the Left in Israel is due to a fundamental dishonesty inherent in their ideological position as well as crucial mistakes they have made during past periods of governance.

Essentially, the Left-Labor movement was the progenitor of the illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza to begin with, and continued to strengthen them even during the peace accords — an enterprise which marks the entire history of Israeli state building and colonization. While understanding the nature of Israel coalition politics, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were both involved in this contradictory behavior, before, during and after Oslo. In essence, they were strengthening the enemy of their own position as a sort of insurance policy and with the political mindset that speaking out to the settlers and peaceniks simultaneously would win the support of both. All the while, however, as the settlement movement continued to grow in strength — a strength precipitated by the Left’s financial and political support — the settlers would develop their own national leadership capable of challenging the Left from their increasingly strong base. And this is what we are seeing today: outside of the traditional right wing who have always supported settlers — Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, etc. — a new national leadership is emerging in the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and others.

Furthermore, when the peace process collapsed in 2000 after the failure of Camp David, Ehud Barak and the Israeli Left proceeded to put the entire onus of blame on the shoulders of Arafat and the Palestinians, thus making the case for the Israeli Right that there was no Palestinian peace partner. This backfired on the Israeli Left by pulling the rug out from under their entire political program and shattering their support from the Israeli center. The Israeli Right capitalized on this contradiction in the leftist position, and along with the bloody years of the Second Intifada, was able to pull the Israeli center much further to the right.

It is not that surprising then that many Palestinians I meet prefer the Israeli right wing because they do not cloak their message in liberalism, like the Left does. They do not preach one thing and do the opposite. Palestinians appreciate this honesty, even if it is directed against them. The new breed of right-wing Israeli politician is not interested in paying lip service to Europe and the United States, while at the same time working to dispossess the Palestinians. Those who say there is no honor among thieves have never heard Naftali Bennett speak.

Today many Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are starting to view the two-state solution as either too far gone or undesirable in its implications. They believe that the Israeli Right is hastening the movement away from the two-state solution, in which one state will be the inevitable alternative — even if that is not the intention of the right-wing movement. As the Israeli right wing directs its policies against them in the short term, there is a belief that it will be better in the end. If Naftali Bennett succeeds in his plan to annex Area C for example — which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank — then there will no longer be any false pretenses about the possibility of a two-state solution. The peace process veil will be lifted and the ugly face of apartheid will be apparent for all the world to see. Will the U.S. continue to support Israel then?

]]>
http://972mag.com/those-who-say-theres-no-honor-among-thieves-havent-heard-of-naftali-bennett/64461/feed/ 143
UPDATE: ‘Welcome to Palestine’ campaign planned via Jordan http://972mag.com/welcome-to-palestine-campaign-planned-via-jordan/54551/ http://972mag.com/welcome-to-palestine-campaign-planned-via-jordan/54551/#comments Sat, 25 Aug 2012 19:10:33 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=54551 Nearly one hundred delegates from North America and Europe were refused entry into Palestine on Sunday as part of the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ campaign to raise awareness about Israel’s border policies.

International activists from the United States and Europe were denied entry into the West Bank on Sunday by Israeli border control after successfully crossing in from Jordan. Around 80 people were planning on visiting Bethlehem as part of the Welcome to Palestine campaign, which organized two previous events where activists attempted to visit Palestine through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (Palestine’s airports have been closed by Israel since the Second Intifada). Following the second “flytilla“ in April of this year, in which hundreds of people from all over the world participated, the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign was hoping to keep the momentum going by addressing the border with Jordan.

The campaign is part of a larger attempt to raise awareness about Israel’s policies regarding control of entry into the occupied territories. Unlike the “flytillas,” however, the activists were not entering any territory inside of Israel, but attempted to cross through the Allenby/King Hussein entry point directly into the West Bank. The border crossing is still controlled by Israel, however, along with the entire Jordan Valley.

Activists were responding to an invitation from the Governor of Bethlehem and several civil society organizations. They were traveling with over a ton of stationary that will be delivered to Palestinian children getting ready to go back to school after the summer, according to a press release.

Traveling to Palestine can be a humiliating experience for people as they are subjected to aggressive Israeli questioning and security, even when they are entering their own country.

The Welcome to Palestine campaign highlights one of the great shortfalls of the Oslo Accords, which gave Israel ultimate control over Palestinian borders (along with sea and airspace), and thus, control over who could enter and exit from occupied territory. This has had the effect of isolating the Palestinians from their large diaspora community outside the occupied territories, as well as anyone Israel is not interested in letting through.

Related:
Activists reach Israel in new ‘flytilla’ bid; dozens refused entry
Reframing non-violent resistance: An act of moral piracy
IDF, police remove Palestinian “Freedom riders” from Israeli bus
“Air Flotilla” successful in exposing Israeli blockade of West Bank
Greek Coast Guard stop US boat from setting sail for Gaza

 

]]>
http://972mag.com/welcome-to-palestine-campaign-planned-via-jordan/54551/feed/ 10
Israel’s African problem: An interview with Mark Regev http://972mag.com/israels-african-problem-an-interview-with-mark-regev/46729/ http://972mag.com/israels-african-problem-an-interview-with-mark-regev/46729/#comments Fri, 25 May 2012 09:42:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=46729 The full transcript of an interview with Mark Regev, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official spokesman, on the African refugee problem in Israel.

In light of the recent events concerning Sudanese refugees in Israel and the outburst of violent demonstrations in Tel Aviv, I have decided to publish an interview I conducted with Israel’s Mark Regev on April 2 to better understand the government position in regards to the African refugees in its borders.

The interview, which was conducted for an article I was writing in Rolling Stone magazine, took place shortly after a court injunction was placed on the Israeli government’s decision to begin deporting South Sudanese refugees back to their country of origin amid a deteriorating situation between Sudan and South Sudan. The interview gives good insight into how the government perceives and treats the issue of asylum seekers.

 

[interview]

OR: Could you explain the government’s decision to deport the South Sudanese refugees?

 

MR: The policy is clear. Last year, I think in 2011, we had more illegal immigrants entering Israel than we had legal immigrants. And Israel is a small country; we are some 8 million people. And I think we have to deal with this issue. It would be irresponsible not to deal with this issue. The government has adopted a 4-tier strategy of dealing with the issue of illegal immigration.

One is of course what David sent you [he is referring to a link that was given to me by his staff], the issue of the border fence. Two, is making it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to work in Israel. Ultimately the Israeli economy is a first world economy and that serves as a magnet to people who are coming from many places, but specifically Africa. Thirdly, the prime minister has talked about a detention center to be established for illegal immigrants; to make sure their needs are taken care of, that they have housing and healthcare and other services, until…you know… humanitarian treatment.

And finally, is deportation to their countries of origin. That’s the four-tier process. Now we can’t ignore this issue, we have to deal with it. We can be flexible in the way we deal with it but we are not going to solve anything by ignoring the issue.

 

OR: One of your orders is saying to prevent them from work because Israel is a first world country and therefore it attracts people looking for work, so…?

 

MR: You got to remember what is the absurdity of the situation. Let’s say refugees… I shouldn’t say refugees, very few of them are refugees. Illegal immigrants who are coming to Israel are not coming from their country directly. They are coming through third-countries, where they are not persecuted. It’s clear they are coming here because of the economic magnet.

 

OR: Well according to refugees that I am using for my story and that I spoke to, they were indeed persecuted in 3rd countries. The conditions in Egypt for example…?

 

MR: To be fair, Israel is the only democracy in the region. Does that mean that a hundred million people can come to Israel and declare themselves legitimate refugees?

 

OR: I am not sure.

 

MR: Well, I am asking you according to your logic, sir.

 

OR: Umm… no obviously not.

 

MR: Alright. This is a real problem we can’t ignore it.

 

OR: But, the South Sudanese refugees are 700 people not hundreds of millions.

 

MR: As the Prime Minister said, firstly we can be flexible with the implementation and secondly, we are waiting for the judicial process. Israel is a country where there is rule of law. We can’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. We are a very small country. We are a successful democracy, and we cannot be the solution for the region and beyond, for all the ills. Those solutions have to be found in greater democratization in other countries.

 

OR: Do the 700 south Sudanese refugees living in Israel’s borders pose such a deep threat to the state that they should be deported?

 

MR: Once again there is a four-tier strategy….

 

OR: Right, I understand that but I am talking about these 700 refugees?

 

MR: We can be flexible on implementation of that four-tier strategy and of course we respect the decisions of the courts. I can’t go beyond that at this stage.

 

OR: Ok. And also you mentioned the detention center that is to take care of the needs of refugees?

 

MR: According to our legal system if someone is in your country illegally you cannot prosecute them for working illegally and you cannot prosecute employers, which is more important, if they don’t have a place where they can live because then they don’t have—according to our legal people—they don’t have the ability to live and feed themselves, to take care of themselves, to find dwellings and so forth. The idea of the detention center is so we can enforce laws against employers who are illegally employing them, because the detention center—which will have the highest international standards—will deal with the issue: will they have a place to stay, will they be provided with food and medical care and education for children, if need be.  And social services because obviously some of these people have had very traumatic experiences, and so forth. And only with the detention center can we—according to our Supreme Court and our judiciary—can we legally enforce the ban on work. That’s the only way to deal with the magnet. If people can come to Israel illegally, and make a hundred times what they can make in Africa, the magnet is not going to go away. We have to be successful in enforcing labor laws.

 

OR: So you do not believe the majority of these people are in fact fleeing crisis situations in their own country?

 

MR: According to our own investigation only a fraction of 1 percent of these people qualify as bona fide refugees and then of course they have the right to stay here indefinitely until they can go to a third country. But the overwhelming majority are illegal economic migrants.

 

OR: This is still contrary to their status elsewhere where 85 percent of Eritreans get refugee status and I think around 50 percent of Sudanese?.

 

MR: Once again, first of all these people are coming from third countries. They are not coming directly.

 

OR: Well the ones that are in the US are also coming from third countries, no?

 

MR: And they are automatically given refugee status in the United States?

 

OR: No, but they are at least going through a process in which I guess 85 percent of Eritreans are getting refugees status and 50 percent of Sudanese, or South Sudanese,  not a fraction of 1 percent?

 

MR: Our studies… in our studies… in what we have been doing only a fraction of 1 percent qualify as refugees.

 

OR: And those Eritreans and South Sudanese are capable of going through the RSD process?

 

MR: What’s the RSD process, sorry?

 

OR: The Refugee Status Determination process?

 

MR: Obviously some of them have, you should speak to the Ministry of Interior. They know more about the details of that process.

 

OR: Thank you very much, I appreciate your comments.

]]>
http://972mag.com/israels-african-problem-an-interview-with-mark-regev/46729/feed/ 58
Hunger Strikes: what have we learned? http://972mag.com/hunger-strikes-what-have-we-learned/45906/ http://972mag.com/hunger-strikes-what-have-we-learned/45906/#comments Tue, 15 May 2012 15:09:46 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=45906 There are always lessons to be learned in the observing of events, and the recent hunger strike movement is no exception.

As the details on the agreement to end the collective hunger strike of thousands of Palestinian prisoners continue to unravel, it is important to begin addressing what we have learned from this whole, momentous episode.

For one thing, these Palestinians demonstrated once again that they are willing to sacrifice everything—including their lives—to challenge the injustice of the Israeli occupation. This was a tremendous act of willpower, in which people starved themselves for more than two months, in order to draw attention to their plight. And what is this plight? It is being thrown in prison for months, or even years, without charge, trial or evidence. It is about lives suddenly broken and upended without the slightest recourse to justice as we know it.

We have also learned once again about the ease with which a Palestinian can be taken from his or her home and tossed into a prison cell for no apparent reason. And when Israel is demanded to proffer evidence, it cannot, hiding behind the excuse that the evidence is secret and risks exposing certain sources. Thus, an unaccountable intelligence agency can offer secret “evidence”—that cannot be challenged by the accused—in a military court in which the judge does not question the reliability of the information. (If you want to see how this works, watch the documentary “The Law in These Parts,”  or read the report, “Without Trial” by B’Tselem.) And this is the daily reality that a people have lived in for nearly 45 years of occupation.

This should also make us realize—if we have not already—that despite the Oslo Accords and the existence of a quasi-Palestinian government, the people have absolutely no security and no protection. Whether it is from the Jewish settlers who attack Palestinian farmers and burn their crops, or from the Israeli military and security forces that arrest arbitrarily, the Palestinian Authority is powerless to do anything about it. This in turn causes average Palestinians to question what the point is in a government that cannot even protect its citizens, undermining the entire foundation of a state.

We must also remember that Israel holds all the chips. These hunger strikers have managed to pressure Israel into a level of accommodation, but only while people are focused on the issue. As soon as that attention dissipates, Israel is free to take back what it has offered. In the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, Israel is the Lord who giveth and taketh away. What will the Palestinians do? Stage another collective hunger strike only to repeat the process of give and take? The costs are simply too high to stage such a strike every time the need arises to challenge the system.

This was one of the major inadequacies of the hunger strike that was launched on April 17, as opposed to the one that preceded it. The ten individual hunger strikers, beginning with Khader Adnan on December 17, were fighting against administrative detention. This was a worthy cause because administrative detention is one aspect—and probably the most egregious—of an inhumane system of military “justice” in the occupied territories. The larger collective hunger strike that was launched afterwards challenged the conditions and treatment of the prisoners by the Israel Prison Service. This is markedly different. It is not necessarily a bad or unworthy effort, but it overshadowed the more important cause of challenging the system as a whole. By protesting the conditions inside the cells, and not the nature of the imprisonment to begin with, Israel was able to belittle the collective hunger strike as little more than prisoners demanding plasma TVs in their cells (using hyperbolic Israeli terminology), for example. Furthermore, when those simpler demands could be met by Israel, it had the effect of taking momentum away from the prisoners who were contesting administrative detention and thus weakening the nobler goal.

On a positive note, however, this was in my humble opinion just one more example in the growing trend of grassroots initiatives taken by average Palestinians who are challenging the occupation on their own. No longer leaving the official centers of power responsible for securing Palestinian rights, individuals and groups at the grassroots levels are increasingly adopting this responsibility. From BDS to the popular struggle to Khader Adnan, people are not waiting around anymore for the old political factions to act. This is the most important change happening in Palestinian politics and the hunger strikes have highlighted this.

Moreover, they have also reaffirmed the perception that the Palestinian Authority does not want to rock the boat. Very little public effort was initiated by the PA during the entirety of the hunger strike movement. When the father of hunger striker Hana Shalabi asked Mahmoud Abbas in person to help get his daughter released, the president replied: there is little I can do.

Where was the international community?

Nor does the world seem to care. In the words of UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, Richard Falk:

Can anyone doubt that if there were more than 1300 hunger strikers in any country in the world other than Palestine, the media in the West would be obsessed with the story?  It would be featured day after day, and reported on from all angles, including the severe medical risks associated with such a lengthy refusal to take food.

The lack of media coverage and public outcry abroad only serves to deepen the impression among Palestinians that no matter what they do, how desperate and dramatic the effort, the world will ignore their pleas for help. While preaching to the Palestinians for decades on their need to adopt a non-violent platform, no act of non-violence on behalf of the Palestinians elicits a response from their preachers. When one questions the reason for near-ubiquitous disillusionment by Palestinian society, this goes a long way in answering why.

Nonetheless, the effort was good enough to pressure Israel into seeking a way out. The prospect of Palestinian civil unrest in response to the death of one or more prisoners did not sit well with Israel and it took the necessary measures to release the tension. This exposes the power of unarmed resistance—it leaves Israel with little excuse for its reprehensible behavior and policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

But lurking in the shadows of a Palestinian achievement was Israel’s public relations machine, spinning everything in its favor. As the international media pounced on the story only in its final hour, most news outlets, including The New York Times, were reporting that the Palestinian prisoners and political parties had agreed to give up on terrorism in exchange for Israel meeting the demands of the prisoners. Quoting only Israeli sources on the stipulation, Israel was able to spin the story into an achievement. I mean, who wouldn’t give in to the prisoners’ demands in exchange for bringing down an entire system of terror to its knees in the single swipe of a pen? What a joke.

]]>
http://972mag.com/hunger-strikes-what-have-we-learned/45906/feed/ 4
UPDATE: Prisoners agree to end hunger strike http://972mag.com/update-prisoners-agree-to-end-hunger-strike/45720/ http://972mag.com/update-prisoners-agree-to-end-hunger-strike/45720/#comments Mon, 14 May 2012 16:21:43 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=45720 An agreement was reached on Monday between the representatives of Palestinian prisoners and Israel to end the collective hunger strike that had been going on for months inside Israeli jails. Israel apparently has 72 hours to implement the agreement, however, many of the details have yet to be released and a public inquiry of how the deal was formulated and by whom must still be addressed. A prisoner rights group, Addameer, has confirmed the end of the strike but said in a press release, “Until Addameer sees the written agreement, we do not know the status of other hunger strike demands, such as the use of solitary confinement as punishment and access to education.”

Over 1,600 Palestinian prisoners had been on a collective hunger strike since April 17, and eight others were on individual hunger strikes for much longer. Two prisoners, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, had gone without food for 77 days, the longest hunger strikes in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was not immediately clear whether the deal met the demand of the two for immediate release, or whether they had agreed to call off their strike with the rest. Other sources had claimed that no such deal had been reached, and that reports to that effect constitute efforts by the Palestinian Authority to hijack the hunger strike.

Early Tuesday morning more information was leaked that Thaer Halahleh had agreed after midnight to end his hunger strike in exchange for either being released or charged at the end of his administrative detention term, on June 5. He will spend the remainder of his detention order in a public hospital. This is very similar to the deal struck with Khader Adnan, the first to launch his hunger strike back on December 17, 2011, and who was released on April 17 after Israel failed to bring any evidence against him. Bilal Diab will be released in August.

Sources had reported the two prisoners as very close to death. Both official Israeli and Palestinian sources revealed that they were worried that the death of a prisoner could spark widespread unrest in the occupied territories and that they were working hastily on a deal.

It is still unclear what has been agreed to at this point. The hunger strike movement—which has been popularly labeled the Battle of Empty Stomachs—is two-pronged: contesting the policy of administrative detention and also the treatment of prisoners, including excessive solitary confinement, the denial of family visits and the right to seek an education in prison.

Administrative detention remains the major issue on the table and the reason for the hunger strike in the first place after Khader Adnan, a former prisoner, went 66 days without food until Israel released him on April 17.

Diab and Halahleh were also fighting administrative detention along with several other prisoners. The policy—which has its origins in the British Mandate period—allows Israel to detain Palestinians without charge or public evidence for periods of six months that can be renewed indefinitely.

A positive outcome of the hunger strikes has been renewed international focus on the issue of administrative detention and Palestinian prisoners in general. However, despite the dramatic effort made by the prisoners, there was very little international media attention given to the issue, considering its scale and potential impact. For many Palestinians, this may represent another example of wide scale acts of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, which are not met with international recognition–a prospect that further fuels Palestinian disillusionment.

Support has remained strong among Palestinian society during the months-long hunger strike movement that began in December 2011, but the mainstream public has not really galvanized. However, if one of the prisoners were to die, it is quite possible that Palestinian society would react more vocally. The prisoner issue is the most widely felt and supported issue within Palestinian society because nearly every family has had one or several members imprisoned since the Israeli occupation began in 1967.

]]>
http://972mag.com/update-prisoners-agree-to-end-hunger-strike/45720/feed/ 3