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How the very concept of human rights has failed Palestinians

Certain rights should be inalienable — yet Israel refuses to grant them to Palestinians and the world continues to treat the country as a rights-based democracy. What does this absurdity say about human rights as a political tool, and about the powers, entities and institutions that speak in their name?

Human Rights March 2009 (Naama Saar Stavy)

Human Rights March 2009 (Naama Saar Stavy)

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK David Rotem laid out some of his beliefs and world views in an extensive interview with Israeli financial daily Globes a few weeks ago. One of Rotem’s statements – which made the headline of the piece – was that “human rights are [reserved] for people who are citizens of the state.”

Rotem was referring the Israeli High Court of Justice’s decision to strike down, for the second time, an amendment to the “anti-Infiltration Law,” which authorized the prolonged imprisonment of asylum seekers who entered the country illegally. The final word in this legal battle has yet to be said, as Rotem’s committee will soon discuss and advance yet a third version of the law, which in all likelihood will be also be challenged before the High Court.

Yet when it comes to Israel’s decades-long occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Rotem’s statement captures the entire logic of the system. This logic is tolerated, and often even accepted, by entities and institutions that see themselves as guardians of human rights. In that sense, that fact that a man like Rotem now heads the Israeli parliament’s constitutional committee is more telling than it seems. Human rights here are not a given, but something that are reserved for one category of people and deprived from another.

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Many 20th century scholars, even liberal ones, have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of human rights as a political concept that can be used for advancing freedom and dignity for all human beings.

The fact that these “inalienable” rights were quickly attached to the concept of “national rights” and citizenship is even more troubling. Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt pondered the fate of the person who is not entitled to citizenship – making it “legal” to strip him of his human rights, too. The result is a “legitimate” form of abuse, which could actually be worse than what preceded the...

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Defense Minister Ya'alon: I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict

Moshe Ya’alon is telling it like it is: What you see now in the West Bank and Gaza is Israel’s solution. 

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon looks over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's shoulder at a military exercise, (Photo by Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon looks over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s shoulder at a military exercise. Ya’alon is the closest minister to Netanyahu since the Gaza war (Photo by Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a few holiday interviews to the Israeli media. Ya’alon, who has been Netanyahu’s closest partner in the coalition since the Gaza war, was fairly open when he spoke about the Palestinian issue, and a couple of his answers were especially telling.

When asked by the pro-Netanyahu paper Yisrael Hayom whether he sees in Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a partner for peace, Ya’alon not only rejected the idea, but went on to dismiss the mere notion of “solving” the Palestinian issue. In short, Ya’alon thinks that maintaining control over the Palestinians is in Israel’s national interest, which no “solution” can or should compromise on.

I believe this is the view of most of the Israeli establishment right now. But Ya’alon, as Secretary Kerry learned last year, has a habit of saying what others around him are thinking.

I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict and the maintain relations in a way that works for our interests. We need to free ourselves of the notion that everything boils down to only one option called a [Palestinian] state. As far as I am concerned let them call it the Palestinian Empire. I don’t care. It is an autonomy if it is ultimately a demilitarized territory. That is not a status quo, it is the establishment of a modus vivendi that is tolerable and serves our interests.”

What is interesting in the above quote is the light it sheds on the idea of a Palestinian state: Netanyahu and his government were willing to sign onto something that would be called a state (they can call it the Palestinian Empire for all Ya’alon cares), but never an independent state, the way the world understand this term. So even if the Kerry process would have ended with...

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Ex-Israeli ministers, MKs, academics to British MPs: Support Palestinian statehood

Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On criticizes Israeli Labor party for opposing the motion: ‘Labor is conducting itself like another foreign office for Netanyahu’s government.’

Hundreds of Israeli public figures, academics, former ministers and Israel Prize laureates (the state’s official civil decoration) signed a public letter calling British MPs to support Palestinians statehood in a symbolic motion set to face a vote in the UK’s parliament on Monday.

Among those who added their names to the letter are Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman, former Meretz ministers Ran Cohen and Yossi Sarid, four former MKs (including Naomi Chazan, the former head of the New Israel Fund), six winners of the Israeli Prize and the former attorney-general Michael Ben Yair.

The letter reads:

The motion caused a controversy within the British Labour party, with two dozen MPs demanding to add an amendment conditioning the recognition of Palestine on the conclusion of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (thus stripping the motion of its meaning). The chairman of the Israeli Labor party, MK Hilik Bar, also called on the British MPs to oppose the motion. Bar was criticized by members of the dovish Meretz party.

“One cannot say that Netanyahu won’t promote a diplomatic initiative, but then, when the world tries to lead a UN motion, help Netanyahu torpedo it. Labor is conducting itself like another foreign office for Netanyahu’s government,” said Meretz party leader Zehava Gal-On.

Related:
Labour MPs: Vote yes on Palestinian statehood


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Labour MPs: Vote yes on Palestinian statehood

In an appeal that demonstrates the complete bankruptcy of the peace camp, the Israeli Labor Party is  calling on its British counterparts to oppose the motion on Palestinian statehood Monday, ‘in the name of peace.’ Netanyahu couldn’t have put it better.

Houses of Parliament, London, UK (photo: Ramón Cutanda López / (CC BY 2.0)

Houses of Parliament, London, UK. The British Parliament will take a symbolic vote on Palestinian statehood on Monday (photo: Ramón Cutanda López / (CC BY 2.0)

The British Parliament will vote Monday on a motion supporting the Palestinian Authority’s request to recognize it as a state. The vote is mostly symbolic, and the British government will still be able to take any form of action it wants. The big drama is taking place within the ranks of Labour. The opposition party is supporting the motion, but Israel is hoping to get as many MPs as possible to defy the party line and oppose. Apparently, a real controversy is taking place.

The call to recognize independent Palestine is just about the last card in Mahmoud Abbas’ hand, apart from dismantling the Palestinian Authority, which is a highly risky move that could lead to unknown consequences throughout the region. Abbas, like any sensible observer, finally realized that Israel has made up its mind to reject the two-state solution. Even if Abbas was to recognize Israel “as a Jewish State” – even if he was to join Likud – there is a consensus in the Israeli leadership against withdrawing from the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. This alone makes any two-state solution impossible, before even getting to issues like refugees or the fate of the settlements.

Netanyahu made his position on the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem clear to John Kerry, and has repeated it publicly since. The war in Gaza didn’t change Israel’s mind – in fact, it made it even more determined to maintain the status quo.

Abbas is therefore trying to get the international community’s help in creating diplomatic momentum that might make Israel reevaluate its policies. Recognizing Palestine won’t change a lot on the ground, but it will make it clear to Netanyahu’s government that the world doesn’t accept the status quo — like Israel does — as the preferred option for the foreseeable future.

It is surprising, therefore, to see...

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Elie Wiesel and Amos Yadlin congratulate East Jerusalem settlers

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin of the centrist think tank is among the signatories of an ad praising the Jewish settlers who entered 25 apartments in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan last week. ‘By your act of settlement you make us all stand taller,’ the ad reads. Yadlin and Wiesel serve on the public council of Elad, the organization behind the settlement in Silwan.

The City of David archaeological park, against the background of Silwan (photo: JC/Activestills.org)

The City of David archaeological park, against the background of Silwan (photo: JC/Activestills.org)

One of the most dramatic settlement efforts in decades took place a couple of weeks ago, when 25 apartments in the Palestinian neighborhood Silwan, in East Jerusalem, were occupied by Jewish settlers. Silwan is the prize trophy for the settler movement, since it sits right on the edge of the Old City, inside the Holy Basin. The new Israeli push into the Palestinian part of the city was condemned by the international community and stood at the heart of the media coverage during Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. The settlement effort, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, was carried out “by individuals who are associated with an organization whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The settlement activities in Silwan are carried out by a non-governmental organization called Elad, which is said to have had good ties with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jerusalem Municipality. The government appointed Elad to run City of David, the Jewish archaeological site in Silwan, and an attempt to give Elad rights near the Western Wall was recently struck down by the High Court.

Peace groups and investigative journalists have been warning for years about the role Elad plays in changing the demographic and political reality in East Jerusalem. (A comprehensive background document to the Israeli effort to take over Silwan can be found here.) Elad itself doesn’t have a web site, and the government has granted it a waiver from the requirement to disclose its considerable financial sources.

This morning, Elad’s public council ran an ad in Haaretz congratulating the settlers who entered the Palestinian neighborhood. The ad is signed by the chairman of the public council, Nobel Prize Laureat Elie Weisel. Weisel, a Holocaust survivor, is known for his support of Israel’s effort to settle Palestinian East...

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A couple of Netanyahu's not-so-white lies to Americans

In the past week or so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated a couple of talking points that diverged from the truth, but few people called him out on it.

1. In a meeting with the Jewish Federations of North America in New York last Tuesday,  the prime minister fielded a question regarding the state’s practice of sending asylum seekers to detention facilities in the desert, sometimes for unlimited periods of time. This has been the first time the prime minister commented since a recent ruling by the High Court that ordered the detainees to be released. “There is no asylum seeker problem in Israel – they are illegal job immigrants,” responded Netanyahu, according to Barak Ravid’s report in Haaretz. ”We don’t have to open our doors to be swamped by the way other people run their economies.”

But if those who crossed the border from Sudan and Eritrea are job seekers, why doesn’t Israel deport them, like countries do with illegal immigrants? The fact of the matter is that Netanyahu’s government itself gave “group protection” to all asylum seekers from those countries (At the same time, Israel refrains from individually examining their asylum request). Netanyahu might say that the asylum seekers are immigrants, but his own policies dictate a different approach.

2. During Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., settlers occupied 25 apartments in Silwan, East Jerusalem – the largest entrance of settlers to this flashpoint Palestinian neighborhood since the early nineties. Netanyahu dismissed the fierce criticism the government got over this issue. This is what he said in a press briefing in New York (and again Saturday on Israel’s Channel 2):

Let’s leave aside the various ties between the government and all those organizations and agencies who settle Jews beyond the Green Line, and take Netanyahu’s words at face value. The simple truth is that Palestinians from East Jerusalem cannot buy apartments anywhere they want in the city. East Jerusalem Arabs – who make up one third of the city’s residents – are not Israeli citizens, but rather permanent residents. They have a lower legal status, which, among other things, prevents them from buying apartments on state land – and most of the big housing projects in Jerusalem are done on state land (East Jerusalemites cannot vote in national elections, and if they leave the country for seven years – de jure, though de...

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How to talk occupation at a Rosh Hashanah dinner and make it out alive

What were you thinking? Everyone in the family noticed that anti-war status you posted this summer, and the hasbara video they sent that you didn’t ‘like.’ Tonight they are going to air it all.

The Rosh Hashanah holiday dinner is a dangerous event for Israeli leftists — especially after this past summer. Remember that angry post you uploaded to Facebook about Shujaiya, or the settlement budget, or about people who put Israeli flag badges on their profile pictures? Present at your holiday dinner will be at least two cousins who noticed and have been waiting two months to take it up with you. And let’s not forget about mom’s elderly uncle. He may not have noticed that you didn’t ‘like’ the hasbara video he posted on your Facebook wall, but you better trust that he won’t miss his chance to explain, at first with a smile but quickly with a face flush red from wine, about the true nature of “the Arab” (in the third person singular).

The keyword of the evening: ISIS. You’re going to hear it a lot. Because the Israeli leftist is a specimen: an object to identify, educate, and if that doesn’t work, to chop up and make meatballs out of. It really doesn’t matter if you’re one of those provocateurs who at Passover says that “freedom is for Palestinians, too,” or if you shelter yourself by “hiding” everyone on Facebook with whom you disagree in order to fortify your safe and pleasant bubble — the family thought-police will catch up with you. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about not getting married, or about the kids you need to have already. This time, the interrogation will go in an entirely different direction.

The recommended strategy is desertion. A long weekend out of the country, or at least out of town, will stop you from becoming the central attraction that keeps all the guests in their seats until midnight. But if you don’t have a viable escape plan, or if you’re one of those masochists who is still planning to convince those who aren’t really even part of the debate, you should probably come prepared, and use only the leftist strategies that have been proven over the years to work. The occupation has been around since 1967, which means that we’re the second and third generations of annoying polemicists, so we might...

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There's nothing static about the West Bank 'status quo'

Israel is already carrying out Bennett’s annexation plan, only without the formal annexation part. The West Bank is a very different place than it was 10 years ago. It will be even more different five or 10 years from now.

The indispensable Amira Hass reported this morning about an Israeli plan to push thousands of Palestinian-Bedouin into a new town it plans to build in the Jordan Valley. The Jordan Valley is one of three areas in which Israel is trying to relocate Bedouin into designated areas or towns; the others are south of Hebron and east of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s government treats all “state land” in the West Bank as if it already belongs to Israel, as opposed to land under dispute. For Israel it’s actually better than annexed land: projects that would take an arduously long time to plan and execute under the civilian planning system in Israel proper can materialize in a matter of months under the IDF military regime in the West Bank.

The government has also been transferring Palestinian municipal — and even private — land into its own possession and control. Despite commitments to several American administrations not to build new settlements, the Israeli government has been legalizing outposts for several years now. It even started construction on the first “official” new settlement since the Oslo accords. Most recently, the government appropriated 1,000 acres near Bethlehem for a new settlement. Altogether, 2013 was a record-setting year in settlement construction.

There will be no Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Israel will not allow it, and the political circumstances that would otherwise force it to reconsider its position simply don’t exist. Instead, Israel is maintaining the status quo of occupation in the Palestinian territories. But the term is misleading. There is nothing static about the status quo. Israel constantly strengthens its control over the West Bank — and while doing so, it creates a new reality on the ground.

A Palestinian Bedouin family after their Jordan Valley home was demolished by Israeli army forces. (File photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian Bedouin family after their Jordan Valley home was demolished by Israeli army forces. (File photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The effort in the Jordan Valley is especially telling. Netanyahu’s government made the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley a...

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Replacing the peace process with a civil rights struggle

What would happen if Israeli progressives and their supporters demanded an end to the military court system, or called for freedom of movement for Palestinians? The answer: a lot.

The two-state solution has long been transformed from a means (to solving the problem of the occupation) to an end. As I wrote here in the past, this change has had severe consequences as far as the Israeli political opposition is concerned. Those range from a de-facto acceptance of the status quo to a political alliance with the Right and support for all the latest rounds of violence. The excuses are always the same – that we are on the road to the two-state solution and “this is the only game in town.”

The truth is that we aren’t on the road to two states or to one state. We are deep in the status-quo solution. Israel directly controls the lives of some 4 million Palestinians (and indirectly almost two more million in Gaza), and only a minority of them have the rights of full citizens, and even then only formally. The debate over the correct term for this state of affairs (‘occupation’ or ‘apartheid’ or ‘status quo’) is not half as important as recognizing this reality itself, which is stable, institutionalized and not going to change in the foreseeable future.

As a matter of fact, a final status agreement seems as far off as I can remember. The two-state solution is highly unlikely to take place in the coming years, and there is no way of knowing what the more distant future holds. Regional events along with internal developments in Israeli society serve those who oppose an agreement. The occupation empowers those who support it.

The common wisdom in Israel today is that every territory that is evacuated will eventually become another hub for Middle Eastern anarchy. The security establishment believes that only the IDF can prevent forces such as Islamic State from crossing the Jordan River. Israel would also like to make sure that Hamas doesn’t take over the West Bank. In other words, even if a Palestinian “state” is formed, it won’t have even the minimal degree of independence. No credible Palestinian leadership can be expected to agree to that.

I also don’t see any form of international pressure that would force the two-state solution on Israel. Much of the international community is clearly...

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One- or two-state solution? The answer is both (or neither)

The two-state solution is not a progressive cause and neither is a single-state solution — they are just possible means to an end. The only possible goal for progressive politics in Israel/Palestine can be full human, civil and political rights for everyone living on this land. 

[Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com]

[Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com]

Every now and then a comment on this blog attributes a position to me — one I thought I had been very careful to avoid taking. A misunderstood writer should blame only himself and not the readers. However, there is a specific point I always have trouble getting across, maybe because of the way it diverges from the way people tend to frame the political debate — and not just in Israel.

The issue at hand is a so-called final-status agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I often get comments that assume I am preaching for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and for the evacuation of settlements. Other comments take for granted that I am calling on Israel to annex the West Bank and give citizenship to all of the Palestinians.

The truth is that I am not a follower of either of these ideas – or if you prefer, I accept both of them under certain circumstances.

My principal political position is opposition to the occupation. By “occupation” I don’t mean the legal status of the land administrated by Israel. I am referring to the existence of a regime that separates the two populations on ethnic lines and grants them different rights, and to all the policies that are part and parcel of that regime: the military court system, the extra juridical assassinations of people living under Israeli sovereignty, the lack of freedom of movement, the limits on freedom of speech, and many more such measures.

I support equal rights for all people living in this land, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Theoretically this can happen as part of a two-state solution, a single-state solution and in various hybrids of the two. All these solutions could just the same preserve a situation where there are no equal rights and Jews continue to rule over the Palestinians but through different measures, much like what happened in Gaza following the withdrawal of IDF forces and 9,000 settlers in 2005. A person can state...

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War is the new system of governance (and five other Gaza takeaways)

The status quo of the occupation has reached a new level of violence and destruction, but there is no political power in sight that can impose a change on the ground.

A mosque minaret rises among the ruins of Al-Nada towers after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had 90 flats. So far, Israeli attacks have killed at least 1,870 Palestinians, and injured 9,470 since the beginning of the Israeli offensive (photo: Activestills)

A mosque minaret rises among the ruins of Al-Nada towers after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, August 4, 2014. The towers had 90 flats. (photo: Activestills)

1. Israel paid more than it expected for a bit less than it wanted. Israel’s strategic goal in this war was to maintain the status quo on the Palestinian issue. Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined this notion from the first days of the war, when he presented his ceasefire formula: if Hamas stops shooting, we stop shooting. Israel got most of what it wanted, but at a greater price than expected, in terms of Israeli casualties, the disruption to everyday life in Israel, and further erosion of Israel’s position in the world due to the destruction inflicted on Gaza.

Maintaining control over the Palestinians, or keeping the Palestinians under control (i.e. the status quo) is the common denominator of the Israeli system. The political debate is about the best way to achieve this goal. Some would grant the Palestinians a semi-state, or an enhanced proxy regime; most Israelis would like to keep things as they are, and a minority wants to annex the occupied territories – these are the same voices that called for the IDF to retake Gaza.

But no major political power is willing to either give the Palestinians full civilian, political and human rights as individuals under Israeli sovereignty, or completely retreat and disconnect from the Palestinian territories and grant them full independence, regardless of the consequences.

Israelis may have given Netanyahu a B-minus on this war, but they never questioned the war itself; mainly because the belief in the status quo doesn’t come from the leadership but from the public. I might be wrong, but I don’t think the war was a ground-shifting event that...

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Why does the Israeli left oppose MK Haneen Zoabi?

The Zionist left doesn’t oppose Zoabi because of her controversial comments or her participation in the Gaza flotilla. It opposes her because she calls for full equality.

(Translated by Sol Salbe)

Last week Haaretz columnist Ravit Hecht wrote that any true leftist ought to oppose Haneen Zoabi. True, Hecht did concede that the question “is not a legal question but a moral one”; that is, she recognizes Zoabi’s right to continue serving in the Knesset (truly magnanimous of you, Ravit!). However, later on in the piece she falls squarely in line with all the right-wing accusations against Zoabi, from support for terrorism and violence to “zero tolerance for the right of Jews to a national home.”

MK Haneen Zoabi speaks to a crowd at the Rogatka bar in Tel Aviv. (photo: Activestills.org)

MK Haneen Zoabi speaks to a crowd at the Rogatka bar in Tel Aviv. (photo: Activestills.org)

I don’t want to provide a running commentary of Zoabi’s views or explain what she means at any given time. Hebrew-speakers can read her interview with Local Call‘s Lilach Ben-David (or any other comprehensive interview) and judge for themselves. What interests me in Ravit Hecht’s column, and what makes it a symptom of the main problem of the Israeli left, is not the familiar arguments but rather the following paragraph, which lets the cat out of the bag.

The problem, therefore, is not Zoabi, her participation in the Mavi Marmara or the fact that she insulted a policeman. The root of the problem is Balad’s platform itself, specifically its call for a state of all its citizens, even after the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. This is, of course, an impressively honest confession that renders superfluous any discussion of style. The left is meant to strike off Balad, holus bolus, simply because of its platform. For all practical purposes the left may as well strike off Hadash and other Arab parties that share the same demand, even if they are not as strident about it as Zoabi.

Note the nexus between a “state of all its citizens,” and the security of Israel’s Jews. Bibi could not have put it any better. Hecht makes these demands in the name of “democracy, human rights, a compromise leading to fulfillment of the aspirations of both nations.”

So let’s talk about...

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Israelis in the U.S. urge the Jewish community to take a closer look at Gaza

‘We are reaching out to you because we want to re-examine what it means to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,’ says a public letter published by Israelis for a Sustainable Future. ‘We argue that these terms might be one and the same.’

A group of Israelis living in the U.S. has published an open letter the the American Jewish community, calling on it to join them in opposition to the war in Gaza and the years-long blockade Israel has imposed on the Strip. While condemning Hamas’ targeting of civilians, the group states that “maintaining the occupation is what this war is all about.”

The group, calling itself Israelis for a Sustainable Future, was started in response to the war, but organizers told me that they wish to continue their activity even if a ceasefire is reached. The appeal to the Jewish community was born out of its engagement and influence over Israel-Palestine, organizers say.

During a temporary ceasefire residents of Khuza'a return to find their homes destroyed and retrieve the bodies of those killed. The temporary ceasefire later fell apart and fighting in the area was renewed, August 1, 2014 (photo: Activestills)

During a temporary ceasefire residents of Khuza’a return to find their homes destroyed and retrieve the bodies of those killed. The temporary ceasefire later fell apart and fighting in the area was renewed, August 1, 2014 (photo: Activestills)

Here is the public letter in its entirely. You can see the list of signatures here, or follow them on Twitter.

We are a group of Israelis currently living in the U.S. We are reaching out to you because we oppose the actions of the Israeli government in operation ‘Protective Edge.’

This does not mean we don’t recognize the threat presented by Hamas to the Israeli people. We oppose firing of weapons into civilian population and the sacrifice of civilians by the regimes of both Hamas and the Israeli government. Calling to stop the bombing of Gaza does not mean we don’t realize the impossible conditions imposed on the residents of southern Israel. Nor does it mean we don’t demand security for them. But we also recognize that their plight is consistently ignored by the Israeli government until it becomes convenient for exploitation. We have seen three major military operations in less than six years....

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