The war on freedom of expression across the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: It is useful to spot meaningful patterns that help us make sense of our bewildering world, and to acknowledge positive developments to be continued alongside negative ones to be avoided.

Applying this principle to the last year in the Middle East reveals several troubling trends that have made life difficult for hundreds of millions of people. One in particular stands out, and strikes me as a root cause of many other negative trends that plague our region. This is the tendency of governments to use increasingly harsh measures to restrict the freedoms of their citizens to express themselves and meaningfully to participate politically and hold power accountable.

Several aspects of this behavior make it especially onerous. It is practiced by all states in the region—Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish—leaving few people in this part of the world who can live as fully free and dignified human beings. It is justified on the basis of existing constitutional powers, so governments can jail tens of thousands of their citizens, rescind their nationality, or torture and kill them in the worst cases, simply because of the views they express, without any recourse to legal or political challenge. It shows no signs of abating, and indeed may be worsening in lands like Egypt, Turkey, and others. And, it is most often practiced as part of a “war on terror” that seeks to quell criminal terror attacks, but in practice achieves the opposite; the curtailment of citizen rights and freedoms exacerbates the indignities and humiliations that citizens feel against their government, which usually amplifies, rather than reduces, the threat of political violence. [Continue reading…]

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Israel bans novel on Palestinian-Jewish romance, seen as threat to ‘national-ethnic identity’

Haaretz reports: Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators, at the request of a number of teachers.

Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgerow,” but known in English as “Borderlife”) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.”

The book, published in Hebrew by Am Oved about a year and a half ago, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet and fall in love in New York, until they part ways for her to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.

A source familiar with the ministry’s approach to the book said that in recent months a large number of literature teachers asked that “Borderlife” be included in advanced literature classes. After consideration of the request, a professional committee headed by Prof. Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa approved the request. The committee included academics, Education Ministry representatives and veteran teachers. The panel’s role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including approval of curriculum.

According to the source, members of the professional committee, as well as the person in charge of literature studies, “thought that the book is appropriate for students in the upper grades of high schools – both from an artistic and literary standpoint and regarding the topic it raises. Another thing to remember is that the number of students who study advanced literature classes is anyhow low, and the choice of books is very wide.”

Another source in the Education Ministry said that the process took a number of weeks, and that “it’s hard to believe that we reached a stage where there’s a need to apologize for wanting to include a new and excellent book into the curriculum.” [Continue reading…]

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Are most Jewish terrorists ‘crazy Americans’?

Haaretz reports: Laura Wharton, an American-born political scientist who represents the left-wing Meretz party on the Jerusalem city council, is not surprised by the large number of children of English-speaking families among the terror suspects, noting that immigrants from these countries tend to be highly ideologically motivated, and are more likely to have radical extremists among their ranks. “I think in general people who immigrate to Israel from English-speaking countries, in fact from all wealthy countries, need a stronger incentive to make the move,” she says. “They also want to make their mark when they come here, for better or for worse.”

Sara Yael Hirschhorn, who has spent many years studying American immigrants living in the West Bank, believes the radicalism could reflect a failure to integrate smoothly into Israeli society. “I think it has to do with the fact that these people are not assimilated in the way that their native Israeli or perhaps other immigrant peers have managed to be,” she observes.

In some cases, she says, these teens may be acting out against their parents for not doing enough to make their mark on Israeli society. “It could be a rebellion against parents they thought had come to do some great ideological pioneering, but instead, turned out to be average suburbanites in places like Ma’aleh Adumim,” notes Hirschhorn, who serves as the University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.

The author of the upcoming book “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories Since 1967,” Hirschhorn has concluded that roughly 60,000 American Jews live in West Bank settlements, where they account for 15 percent of the settler population.

The number of American immigrants living in Israel, including their children, has been estimated at about 170,000.

This is not the first time that U.S. citizens have been associated with or convicted of terror activities in Israel. In 1994, Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein, a physician from Kiryat Arba, massacred 29 Palestinians while they were worshipping in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Yaakov Teitel, originally from Florida, has been convicted of various acts of terrorism and hate crimes against Palestinians, homosexuals, Messianic Jews and left-wingers. Boston-born Baruch Marzel, a Kahane disciple, has a criminal record that includes assaults on Palestinians, policemen and left-wingers. Former New Yorker Ira Rappaport, a member of the Jewish Underground that emerged in the 1980s, was found guilty of involvement in a car bombing that left the former mayor of Nablus maimed.

Already back then, American immigrants had acquired a reputation as potential extremists.

Chaim Waxman, a retired professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, who has published extensively on immigration to Israel from the United State, recalls teaching a course at Tel Aviv University in the 1980s when reports about the Jewish Underground first started surfacing.  “I remember the students talking about those ‘crazy Americans,’ even though only one member of the Underground was an American,” he recounts. “But that is an impression that many Israelis have.” [Continue reading…]

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Middle East still rocking from First World War pacts made 100 years ago

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Ian Black writes: In an idle moment between cocktail parties in the Arab capital where they served, a British and French diplomat were chatting recently about their respective countries’ legacies in the Middle East: why not commemorate them with a new rock band? And they could call it Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration.

It was just a joke. These first world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.

“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.

In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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NSA’s targeting of Israeli leaders also caught private conversations between U.S. lawmakers and Israel lobby

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret U.S. surveillance programs.

But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.

The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears — an “Oh-shit moment,” one senior U.S. official said — that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.

White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations — learned through Israeli spying operations — to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and former officials familiar with the intercepts. [Continue reading…]

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Brazil rebuffs West Bank settler nominated as Israeli ambassador

Middle East Eye reports: Brazil has apparently rebuffed Israel’s nomination of a settler as its next ambassador in a move Israel says will damage diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Dani Dayan, a 60-year-old who lives in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Shomron, was nominated in August as Israel’s new ambassador to Brasilia.

However Brazil has yet to endorse the Argentina-born diplomat’s appointment, following lobbying in Brazil against his nomination and protests to President Dilma Rousseff about Dayan.

Ambassadorial appointments must be endorsed by the host nation – a process known as an agrément. However, if no endorsement is forthcoming within two months, it is understood that the choice has not been accepted.

Dayan was a senior member of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organisation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Brazilian activists are worried that approving his selection would be seen as supporting Israel’s settlements, which are illegal under international law. [Continue reading…]

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Israel warns Brazil faces diplomatic downgrade unless it accepts settler as ambassador

Reuters reports: Brazil’s reluctance to accept an Israeli ambassador who is a West Bank settler has led to a standoff with Israel now warning it could downgrade diplomatic relations.

The appointment four months ago of Dani Dayan, a former head of the Jewish settlement movement, did not go down well with Brazil’s left-leaning government, which has supported Palestinian statehood in recent years.

Most world powers deem the Jewish settlements illegal.

Israel’s previous ambassador, Reda Mansour, left Brasilia last week and the Israeli government said on Sunday Brazil risked degrading bilateral relations if Dayan were not allowed to succeed him. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey sees no normalization of Israel ties without end to Gaza blockade

Reuters reports: Turkey sees no normalization in ties with Israel unless its conditions for ending the Gaza blockade and compensation for the deaths of 10 Turkish activists in 2010 are met, a presidential spokesman said on Monday.

Relations between Turkey and Israel soured when the activists were killed in a raid by Israeli commandos on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, which was trying to breach the blockade.

Expectations of a breakthrough were intensified after senior officials met this month to try to repair ties. The talks have raised hopes of progress in negotiations to import Israeli natural gas, particularly since Turkey’s relationship with major energy producer Russia has worsened over Syria.

But comments from Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin suggest Turkey may be trying to play tough in the negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli ministers approve new restrictions on human rights groups

The Associated Press reports: Israeli Cabinet ministers on Sunday gave preliminary approval to a bill that imposes new disclosure requirements on nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding — drawing accusations it is cracking down on pro-peace groups, rattling relations with Europe and deepening an increasingly toxic divide between liberal and hawkish Israelis.

Critics said the regulations are meant to stifle dovish organizations critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government policies toward the Palestinians, since such nonprofits tend to rely heavily on donations from European countries.

In contrast, pro-government and nationalistic nonprofit groups tend to rely on wealthy private donors, who are exempt from the measures under the bill. The legislature is expected to approve the bill as early as this week.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog quickly blasted the bill as a “muzzling law” that would bring about “thought police.” [Continue reading…]

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Did Erdogan give up Gaza in return for Israeli gas?

Kadri Gursel writes: Days before Israeli media broke the news of a preliminary Turkish-Israeli deal to normalize ties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had thrown a signal flare of impending moves to settle the Mavi Marmara crisis between the two countries.

Speaking to journalists on a flight back from Turkmenistan on Dec. 13, Erdogan broke with his usual hostile rhetoric against Israel, saying that “Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is vital for the region” and that normalizing ties would be “to the benefit of the whole region.” He then reiterated his three conditions for reconciliation: first, an Israeli apology for the killing of 10 Turks, including one with US citizenship, in the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara ferry on May 31, 2010, as it sailed in international waters in the Mediterranean with 590 activists aboard, mostly Turks, seeking to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip; second, the payment of compensation to the families of the victims; and third, the lifting of Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza.

Four days later, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, “Israel and Turkey have reached understanding on the outlines of a reconciliation agreement that would put an end to the long crisis in relations between the two countries and normalize ties.” [Continue reading…]

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Jewish extremists’ leader: Christians are ‘blood sucking vampires’ who should be expelled from Israel

Haaretz reports: Benzi Gopstein, leader of the extremist anti-assimilationist group Lehava, has called for the prevention of Christmas celebrations in Israel and the expulsion of Christians whom he compared to “vampires.”
“Christmas has no place in the Holy Land,” Gopstein wrote in an article posted a few days ago on the Haredi website Kooker.

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism has called on the prosecutor and the police to launch an investigation.

Gopstein wrote in the article that he is disturbed by “the fall of the line of defense of the Jewish people against our deadly enemy for hundreds of years – the Christian Church.”

He said the Church had used “the maximum tools at its disposal to destroy the Jewish people,” and that today “the Church has been defeated roundly when the Jewish people has one of the strongest armies in the world and they have no chance any longer of destroying our body.”

However, Gopstein said, the Church has not given up. “A last hope remains to those vampires and blood suckers – the mission. If Jews cannot be killed, they can still be converted.”

Gopstein said “missionary bookstores offer their products in front of everyone on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, whole communities are crawling with missionaries, many businesses are run by them and are used by the mission, many cases using camouflage and without the knowledge of the employees.”

Gopstein said that the “fear that every Jew felt, the disgust that we described above at Christianity – disgust that was the only thing that saved us from the dark days in Europe – has disappeared with the ‘good life’ of the democratic age…and the missionary is on the prowl for prey.”

Gopstein ends his article by writing: “I call on everyone to raise a cry and fight this corrupt phenomenon in the best tradition of Judaism, before we all, including those who observe the commandments among us, become a community of sycophants.”

“Christmas has no place in the Holy Land,” he wrote, adding “Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.”

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and the Coalition Against Racism have asked the deputy prosecutor for special functions, as well as the police unit in charge of cybercrime, to investigate. The movements wrote: “The article calls for the prevention of celebration of Christmas, the most important Christian holiday, and to work to remove Christians from Israel.” The groups also noted that Gopstein’s description of Christians as “vampires and blood-suckers” contravenes the law prohibiting insult to religious feelings.

“This statement was not made in a vacuum but in the context of many acts of violence against Christian clergy in recent years,” the groups wrote.

Orly Erez-Likhovski, head of the Reform center’s legal department said: “Benzi Gopstein stops at nothing to incite against anyone who is not him – Arab Muslims, Christians and others, using harsh language and calling for violence. Unfortunately…in the face of this incitement…law enforcement is thunderously silent.” [Continue reading…]

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Who killed Hezbollah’s Samir Qantar?

According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese commander who had become a high-profile figure in the group, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday.

Israeli officials welcomed the news but did not confirm responsibility for the attack.

While Hezbollah had no hesitation in accusing Israel, as Raed Omari notes, Syrian officials have been more circumspect:

Remarkably enough, the Syrian account of the incident resembled to a greater degree that of Israel – no confirmation and no refuting.

‏But the Syrian statements on Qantar’s killing were worded with a heavy Russian military presence in the background and they were inseparable from new political developments on Syria and the new international coalitions in the making.

It can’t be that the Israelis launched an airstrike on Syria now without coordination with their Russian allies who now control Syria’s airspace. And if the Syrians confirmed that Israeli jets killed Qantar, then they would appear as either having prior knowledge of the plan or have no sovereignty over their country.

Who actually killed the 54-year-old Qantar? In my opinion, Israel is a likely perpetrator but the question is how its jets flew over Syria now without being spotted by the Russian satellites and space power. The Russian silence on the incident is also worth-noting.

Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has released a statement claiming that they were responsible for Qantar’s death.

The New York Times quotes a Druze militia group that said the building which was targeted had been hit by “four long-range missiles.”

An Israeli columnist quotes “Western sources” claiming that Qantar was a “ticking bomb.”

The sources said Kuntar had recently not been working on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather acting with increasing independence alongside pro-Assad militias in Syria.

The attack in Damascus comes at a moment when, according to Israeli sources, “Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago.”

Assuming that this was indeed an Israeli airstrike, it appears to have not only been aimed at an individual, but also intended to send some additional messages: that Israel is not unduly constrained by Russia’s air operations in Syria and that the Hezbollah fighters propping up the Assad regime are more expendable than their Iranian counterparts.

Creede Newton writes:

Regardless of who fired the missile, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has already made his decision: this was Israel. Now, the question is, how will Nasrallah respond to another high-level assassination?

Some think Hezbollah’s falling popularity with the Sunni majority in the Middle East due to its meddling in the Syrian conflict could use a boost, and a conflict with Israel would help.

Others say Hezbollah is stretched, and a war with the powerful Israeli military is the last thing the Shia group needs.

Nicholas Blanford writes:

The current situation mirrors the immediate aftermath of an Israeli pilotless drone strike on 18 January in the Golan that killed Jihad Mughniyeh — son of former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh — an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah struck back 10 days later with an anti-tank missile ambush against an Israeli army convoy at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, killing an officer and a soldier.

Following the ambush, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the rules of engagement that had defined the tit-for-tat conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were over.

“From now on, if any Hezbollah resistance cadre or youth is killed in a treacherous manner, we will hold Israel responsible and it will then be our right to respond at any place and at any time and in the manner we deem appropriate,” he said.

Nasrallah is due to speak Monday night and will probably reaffirm that commitment, which will ensure a state of tension along Israel’s northern border in the coming days.

The concept of reciprocity is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s defense strategy against Israel, which may offer a clue as to the party’s response to Kuntar’s assassination. In the years following the 2006 War, Nasrallah has articulated on several occasions Hezbollah’s strategy of retaliating in kind for Israeli actions against Lebanon in a future conflict — if Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv; if Israel blockades Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israeli ports with its long-range anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Galilee.

Even on a tactical level, Hezbollah has sought to achieve reciprocity against Israel. In October 2014, Hezbollah mounted a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms that wounded two Israeli soldiers in response to the death a month earlier of a party military technician who died when a booby-trapped Israeli wire-tapping device exploded.

The January anti-tank missile attack against the Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms also sought to echo Israel’s deadly drone missile strike in the Golan 10 days earlier.

“They killed us in broad daylight, we killed them in broad daylight… They hit two of our vehicles, we hit two of their vehicles,” Nasrallah said at the time.

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In Gaza’s Khuzaa caravans, families fear another winter

Al Jazeera reports: As cold, late-autumn rain poured down on the Gaza Strip last month, Yousef al-Najjar watched as his makeshift home sunk deeper into the mud, its thin laminate floors cracking.

Intended as a temporary solution for residents made homeless by Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, the static caravans of Khuzaa – a cluster of around 70 tin-sheet homes on the town’s outskirts, paid for by donor nations such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – are scarcely equipped for another winter. Najjar fears that cold temperatures and increased rainfall will make the homes unliveable.

“We live in a horrible situation,” Najjar, a 47-year-old father of three, told Al Jazeera. “This area of Khuzaa is lower than the rest. When it rains, the water settles here.”

“The [caravans] aren’t insulated, and over time, they have shifted,” he added. “The outside air comes in, then it gets hotter or colder depending on the season. We are provided heaters, but they aren’t effective. Last year, we tried to build fires inside the caravan, but we stopped. We know it’s not safe. What if we fell asleep and it caught fire?” [Continue reading…]

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Why Turkey and Israel are renewing their frozen relations

Joseph Dana writes: Turkey and Israel are close to agreeing on a full restoration of diplomatic ties after five years of hostility. The dispute began when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying Turkish activists attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, killing 10. The heavy-handed Israeli response had a dramatic effect on the Turkish public and provided Recep Tayyip Erdogan with an ideal scapegoat to advance his own regional policy. Now, the countries are close to becoming friends again, with economics, not ideology, driving the reconciliation.

In the years that followed the Mavi Marmara attack, Mr Erdogan fashioned himself as a regional champion of Palestinian rights. After the Arab Spring, Turkish leaders sensed a new regional order on the horizon and tried to capitalise on it. Mr Erdogan’s support for Hamas in Gaza, along with Turkey’s close cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, positioned Ankara as part of a new axis of power in the region.

The Turkish economy was strong and Istanbul was re-emerging as a global city. The national airline was opening new routes at a frenzied speed, bringing the world to Istanbul. Ankara aligned itself with the new regimes in the region and forcefully adopted an anti-Assad stance in Syria.

Mr Erdogan’s pro-Palestinian stance was a critical aspect of his new regional appeal. But attacking Israelis with rhetoric belied the deep economic relationship between the two countries. At the height of the standoff between Tel Aviv and Ankara, Turkish Airlines was the second-largest operator of flights out of Tel Aviv’s international airport. [Continue reading…]

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Israel and Turkey agree to restore diplomatic ties

The New York Times reports: Israel and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement to begin restoring full diplomatic relations after years of deep freeze, Israeli officials said on Thursday.

The two countries, once close regional allies, fell out after a deadly confrontation in 2010 between Israeli commandos and Turkish activists on a passenger vessel seeking to breach Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The ship, the Mavi Marmara, was part of a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza when Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship’s deck and killed nine activists after being met with violent resistance. A 10th activist died of his wounds much later.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the reconciliation deal had not been finalized, said that Israel would create a compensation fund for the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara. The Israeli news media reported that the compensation would be about $20 million, but Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the amount had not been set. [Continue reading…]

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