Monday, June 29, 2009
The Boston Globe
Walking miles in Palestinian feet
By Claire Messud | June 29, 2009
I RECENTLY returned from a literary festival that was to have opened and closed in Jerusalem; but which, to our surprise, opened in France and closed in the United Kingdom.
Some 20-odd writers from the world over - including the popular British travel writer and comedian Michael Palin; Sweden’s preeminent thriller writer Henning Mankell; and Canada’s Giller Prize-winning M.G. Vassanji - found our events at Jerusalem’s Palestine National Theater shut down by machine-gun toting Israeli soldiers in flak jackets. On the first evening, with a Gallic flourish, Jean-Paul Ghoneim of the French Consulate opened the French Cultural Center impromptu, and hosted our event on nominally French soil: we paraded through the streets in our party clothes, bearing trays of canapés and looking, I’m sure, very threatening indeed.
By the festival’s closing night, the British Consul General Richard Makepeace had made plans to welcome us at the British Council - which was fitting because the British Council was the festival’s primary sponsor.
You might well ask how a bunch of novelists and nonfiction writers could be so dangerous as to require a military-ordained ban in a democratic country. I can’t tell you; except that our literary festival had the word “Palestine’’ in its title, and the use of this word in Jerusalem apparently constitutes a security threat. The city has been declared the Capital of Arab Culture for 2009, and according to Palestinians we met, the Jerusalem police have shut down more cultural events than they have permitted - including the timed release, by schoolchildren, of colored balloons in celebration of Al-Quds. Balloons are also a security risk.
During the week of the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest for short), we gave readings in Ramallah and Bethlehem as well as in Jerusalem, and taught workshops at universities in Ramallah, Jenin, and Hebron.
We lumbered about in a great tour bus, repeatedly grateful for our foreign passports (nowhere have I been more conscious of the liberating power of my US citizenship); but still, privileged as we were, we waited interminably at borders and checkpoints, in the shadow of the vast, ugly hopelessness that is the Wall, under the panopticon scrutiny of the watchtowers. We answered questions barked by teenagers at the point of their guns. We got a very small taste of what it’s like to be Palestinian. Members of our group likened it to living under apartheid; to Orwell’s “1984’’; to Kafka. But none of these allusions fully conveys the disturbing psychological experiment currently perpetrated on Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Ramallah-based architect and writer Suad Amiry put it best when she explained that to be Palestinian now means never to feel at home, because you have no control over time or space. You can live a lifetime in one place and yet not master its geography: routes long-familiar will suddenly be blocked off by barriers or checkpoints; while open spaces in the middle- distance will sprout settlements almost overnight, vast urban conglomerations that change the landscape altogether. You can live a lifetime in one place and yet never know how long it takes to get anywhere: a mere 20-mile journey might consume a whole day, depending on the checkpoints and the whim of the soldiers you encounter. You might never get there at all: you could well be turned back.
The author and lawyer Raja Shehadeh - a gentle man of Gandhi-esque demeanor, whose book “Palestinian Walks’’ won Britain’s Orwell Prize last year - led us on a walk in the hills outside Ramallah, to show us the land that he loves and upon which he has walked all his life. We scrambled up rocks among terraced olive groves to a stone shepherd’s hut, from which we could see the green and gold hills interlaced to the horizon. We picked our way along a dry riverbed, surprising a patterned tortoise, and on to a small village, where a mangy donkey gazed balefully from its tether and ruddy- faced children demonstrated their tree-climbing prowess.
So simple and beautiful, our walk was, alas, illegal: the olive groves of Raja Shehadeh’s childhood have been declared a militarized zone. We might have been arrested at any moment simply for standing in them. (Israeli settlers, however, are free to walk there; just as they are free to carry arms, and they do.) Part of being Palestinian is having your movements curtailed on every front.
What is a world where you cannot go for a walk, cannot assemble to read and discuss literature in public, cannot be certain of visiting your grandmother in a neighboring city? What is a world where you cannot lose your temper, cannot laugh in the wrong place? (Imagine, if you will, living your entire life in the security line at the airport, on a bad day.) For us, the French and British consulates opened their doors; but they can’t always do so for the Palestinians.
This dystopian surreality is not reserved for Palestinians: on our last night, we adjourned after our reading to a restaurant where, in the din of live music, I tried to speak to a nut-brown man in a worn windbreaker who sat apparently forlorn, while others chattered and laughed around him. He said his name, but the noise was too great. “Have you heard of me?’’ he asked. I indicated that I couldn’t hear. He reached into his breast pocket, drew out a calling card, and pressed it into my hand.
He was Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistle-blower who exposed his country’s nuclear capability almost 25 years ago. His card reads: “VANUNU MORDECHAI For a world free from all atomic weapons, kidnapped in Rome Sep 30th 1986. After 18 years in Israel prison, waiting in East Jerusalem to be free. To leave - SEE THE WORLD.’’
His prison time long served - including 11 years in solitary confinement - Vanunu is still denied a passport. An unlikely emblem of the conflict, he waits in limbo, bound by checkpoints and borders, a prisoner of time and space, unable to be free.
Claire Messud, a resident of Cambridge, is the author of the novel “The Emperor’s Children.’’
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
This 3 minute clip from Al Jazeera English sums up the latest Israeli actions to make sure the right of return becomes just as unfeasible as they have made a true 2-state solution.
By the way, "Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank [today], defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth." For the whole story see: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1095031.html
Lastly, if you thought Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's speech was an insult to human intelligence, then you have not been listening to what he has been saying since...which is even worse..clearly not wanting any witnesses to Israel's war crimes:
End the occupation now, so good faith negotiations can begin,
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Sunday, June 21, 2009
An amazing inside view of how the continued occupation and blockade of Gaza works. The same Israeli Ministry of "Defense" unit called, COGAT, also operates in the West Bank.
For simplicity, read COGAT = OCCUPATION ADMINISTRATORS. For your info, these are administrators in military uniform.
It's a long article, but it will provide a lasting education about the brutality of Israel toward Palestinians. Best of all, it is published in an Israeli newspaper. One could only imagine if western media were honestly reporting on this conflict what else we would be reading.
Amazed at how low/non-violent Gaza and all Palestinians remain,
Last update - 10:55 15/06/2009
By Yotam Feldman and Uri Blau
Every week, about 10 officers from the Israel Defense Force's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit convene in the white Templer building in the Kirya, the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv, to decide which food products will appear on the tables of the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. Among those taking part in the discussion are Colonel Moshe Levi, head of the Gaza District Coordination Office (DCO), Colonel Alex Rosenzweig, head of the civil division of COGAT and Colonel Doron Segal, head of the economics division. These officers decided, for example, that persimmons, bananas and apples were vital items for basic sustenance and thus permitted into the Gaza Strip, while apricots, plums, grapes and avocados were impermissible luxuries. Over the past year, these officers were responsible for prohibiting the entry into the Gaza Strip of tinned meat, tomato paste, clothing, shoes and notebooks. All these items are sitting in the giant storerooms rented by Israeli suppliers near the Kerem Shalom crossing, awaiting a change in policy.
The policy is not fixed, but continually subject to change, explains a COGAT official. Thus, about two months ago, the COGAT officials allowed pumpkins and carrots into Gaza, reversing a ban that had been in place for many months. The entry of "delicacies" such as cherries, kiwi, green almonds, pomegranates and chocolate is expressly prohibited. As is halvah, too, most of the time. Sources involved in COGAT's work say that those at the highest levels, including acting coordinator Amos Gilad, monitor the food brought into Gaza on a daily basis and personally approve the entry of any kind of fruit, vegetable or processed food product requested by the Palestinians. At one of the unit's meetings, Colonel Oded Iterman, a COGAT officer, explained the policy as follows: "We don't want Gilad Shalit's captors to be munching Bamba [a popular Israeli snack food] right over his head."
The "Red Lines" document explains: "In order to make basic living in Gaza possible, the deputy defense minister approved the entry into the Gaza Strip of 106 trucks with humanitarian products, 77 of which are basic food products. The entry of wheat and animal feed was also permitted via the aggregates conveyor belt outside the Karni terminal."
After four pages filled with detailed charts of the number of grams and calories of every type of food to be permitted for consumption by Gaza residents (broken down by gender and age), comes this recommendation: "It is necessary to deal with the international community and the Palestinian Health Ministry to provide nutritional supplements (only some of the flour in Gaza is enriched) and to provide education about proper nutrition." Printed in large letters at the end of the document is this admonition: "The stability of the humanitarian effort is critical for the prevention of the development of malnutrition."
In fact, the number of trucks entering the Gaza Strip is very close to the absolute minimum required for basic sustenance, as determined by the IDF itself. Data compiled by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, shows that while the minimum number of trucks per day set by the IDF is 106, in May, 117 trucks passed through the Kerem Shalom terminal; in April the number was 113 and, before the start of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, just 37.
These quantities allow a very slim margin for error or mishaps. Moreover, COGAT's analysis is statistically accurate only on condition that there is an equal division of the minimum supplies that are allowed in. "This analysis does not take distribution in the field into consideration," says the "Red Lines" document. A COGAT official says that he assumes that food distribution within Gaza is not equal. If some are receiving more, others are necessarily receiving less than the required minimum. So it is hard to reconcile this information with the claims of the defense minister and COGAT officers that there is no real food shortage in Gaza.
COGAT officers are in regular contact with international organizations, listen to their complaints and examine their requests to bring in various goods, in both official and unofficial meetings. For example, Amos Gilad has dinner from time to time with an official from the UNRWA delegation in Israel. The Israeli officers repeat the following phrase in their meetings with organization officials: "No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis." A senior COGAT officer explains to Haaretz that it's not a siege policy, but rather the restriction of entry of luxury products. The decision as to which products qualify as "luxury" changes from week to week, and sometimes from day to day.
Some of these changes are the result of international pressure exerted upon Israel. For example, when he visited Gaza last February, U.S. Senator John Kerry was stunned to discover that Israel was not allowing Palestinians to bring in trucks loaded with pasta. Following American pressure, on March 20 the cabinet decided to permit the unrestricted transfer of food products into Gaza. Incredibly, the COGAT personnel do not see any contradiction between this decision and the serious restrictions that are nevertheless imposed on the entry of various food items.
"Let it be clear that the decision was not intended to lift the restrictions that were imposed in the past in relation to the entry of equipment and food into the Gaza Strip, as determined by the cabinet decision of September 19," said COGAT in response to Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, which has demanded that "prohibited" foods be allowed to enter Gaza.
Despite the many resources invested by the IDF in coordinating with the Palestinians, since the start of the blockade no list of permitted and prohibited items has been relayed to the Palestinian side. The DCO spokesperson says there is no such list and that the Palestinians "know what they're allowed to bring in." But the Palestinians are less satisfied with this situation: Riad Fatouh says that at a meeting three months ago at the Agriculture Ministry in Tel Aviv, attended by al-Sheikh and Mhana from the Palestinian side, he asked DCO chief Moshe Levi for an official document detailing which products the army currently allows to be brought into Gaza. "Even if there are just 10 types of goods, I want to see it in writing," says Fatouh.
According to Fatouh, Levi was visibly angered upon hearing the request, and told him never to make such a request again, to be satisfied with the transfer of information by telephone. When Fatouh asked Levi why, the DCO chief told him: "Any goods that we allow in, or prohibit - you'll know about it by phone. That's the way we work." No one else in the room mentioned it again.
"If you go back two years, you see that it was utter foolishness," says a senior officer who was serving in COGAT when the blockade was imposed. "There was a vague, unclear policy, influenced by the interests of certain groups, by this or that lobby, without any policy that derived from the needs of the population. For example, the fruit growers have a powerful lobby, and this lobby saw to it that on certain days, from 20-25 trucks full of fruit were brought into Gaza. It's not that it arrived there and was thrown out, but if you were to ask a Gazan who lives there, it's not exactly what he needs. What happened was that the Israeli interest took precedence over the needs of the populace."
This move was greeted with dismay by many farmers in Israel, who were very pleased with Madar's performance. At an April 20 meeting in the office of Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, it was decided that Madar is the one "who will set the agricultural agenda." Vilnai decided at that same meeting that Madar would be returned to the Erez checkpoint, but a military source explained that security considerations prevent his permanent return there. The spokesperson for the coordinator of activity in the territories would not permit Madar to be interviewed.
Avshalom Herzog, a member of Moshav Almagor, is a fruit grower and the proprietor of a large packing house. He says he has connections with 80 percent of the packing houses in Israel that transport goods to Gaza, in part because of his partnership with Khaled Uthman, the largest fruit trader in Gaza. Herzog is an energetic farmer, and frequently writes to the decision-makers - Deputy Defense Minister Vilnai, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and COGAT officers - about bringing goods into Gaza.
"Until three or four years ago, in a normal year I transported 30-40 percent of the fruit that went into Gaza," says Herzog. "Today it's no more than 10-15 percent, because the market in Gaza is not a real market, but rather a market determined by the Defense Ministry. If the Defense Ministry says only 10 trucks will enter, then it doesn't matter who works in Gaza - he'll make money. And then there are wars between people who were never traders and there is bribery and people start to pay huge sums for the transport of fruit - irrational things, and then my share is diminished. I know that's how it is and there's not much I can do about it."
Herzog and other farmers have found an attentive audience in Simhon and Vilnai, but they are still not satisfied. "Simhon helps us sometimes," says Herzog, "but if he wanted to, he could have solved the problems a long time ago. You know what really makes me mad? There was a decision made in a meeting back in April. They came out with a protocol that required the entry of 20 trucks a day, and required that at least three trucks be filled with melons and that an officer from the agriculture staff who was exiled to Julis, in north Israel, be immediately returned to the Erez crossing, where he needed to be for the farmers' sake. This decision makes it plain as day that the one determining the mix of fruit [to be trucked in] is the director of the fruit growers' organization together with an officer of the agriculture staff in the Gaza DCO. But it's ignored. Today it's permissible to bring in peaches, bananas, apples, dates. Kumquats were permissible until yesterday. There are no plums, no pumpkin, no watermelon and no onion. It's just impossible to believe."
Summaries of the discussions about entry of food into Gaza show just how deeply the captains of the defense establishment seem to care about the income of Israeli farmers. Hence, in a discussion that took place in the office of Deputy Minister Vilnai, it was decided that every day, 15 trucks filled with agricultural produce would be brought in. "The problem right now is the emphasis on melons and fruit in general," Agriculture Ministry Director General Yossi Yishai said at the meeting. At the conclusion of the discussion, Vilnai instructed that three trucks with melons be brought into Gaza each week, "So as not to cause a market failure in Israel." Another document, from the end of April, signed by Vilnai's public information officer, says: "Israel's policy at the crossings is set at various times in accordance with a number of considerations ... Economic considerations, including the agricultural establishment, are at the basis of the policy considerations."
Meir Yifrah, secretary of the Vegetable Growers Organization, also tries to exert influence on the decisions of COGAT and the Defense Ministry, with occasional success. "Once a month or so, I send a text message to [Agriculture Minister Simhon] Shalom saying the situation in the market is very tough, the growers need to send produce to Gaza, see what you can do with the Defense Ministry, so they'll bring in what's needed. It seems odd to me that pumpkin can be defined as a luxury item. It's sometimes used to feed animals, more than for people. If there are two or three or four growers who want to send stuff in and it's something they're short on there (in Gaza), I say they should be able to do that. I tried to pressure the Agriculture Ministry, and in the end we were successful. Last year I had a bad situation with onions. A lot of growers were stuck with their stock. We pressed the Agriculture Ministry and then they increased the onion quota from five to eight trucks at the end of last year."
Are sales to Gaza significant for Israeli farmers?
"The farmers' interest is to find other markets, so we can increase profitability for the grower, by creating demand in Israel and avoiding surpluses."
The Agriculture Ministry claims it also takes care of Palestinian interests: "When it comes to a decision on the kind of produce to be allowed into Gaza, the ministry takes into consideration Palestinian needs, the Israeli growers' ability to fulfill these needs as well as their own interests, and especially the Israeli consumer, to maintain reasonable prices in the local market. Minister Simhon, as a matter of policy, sees agriculture as a bridge to peace, and in every government in which he served, he has demanded the continuation of trade in farm products with the Palestinians, as well as cooperation in disease control in animals and plants - even in the worst security situations."
COGAT's "Red Lines" document, which defines the minimum necessary for the sustenance of Gaza residents, also finds that 300 calves a week are needed to feed Gazans - That's at least 200 fewer than the number brought in when the crossing was open for trade. Nevertheless, in the six months since Cast Lead, Israel has not permitted the entry of any live calves into Gaza, allowing only frozen meat and fish. In the period prior to the war, when Gaza residents were able to obtain permits to import calves, this was limited to calves from Israel, not from other countries as in the past.
In recent months, Israeli cattle breeders have been exerting pressure on the Agriculture Minister to get him to allow calves into Gaza. Most impacted by the restrictions on bringing meat into Gaza is Eyal Erlich, a former journalist who 15 years ago made a drastic career switch to become an importer of beef. Each year, until the blockade of Gaza was announced, Erlich sold 50,000 calves that he imported from Australia to Palestinians in Gaza (Gazans apparently prefer beef to lamb).
Erlich, 50, heavyset and white-haired, complains about the severe dent in his income and that of his Gazan partner, Hosni Afana. He believes that Agriculture Minister Simhon, who was involved in shaping the policy regarding import of beef to Gaza, exploited the situation to compel the Gazan market to buy Israeli, and thereby assist local breeders.
One way the Palestinians make up for the shortage of beef is by bringing in a large number of sheep via the Rafah tunnels. Unlike other animals, lambs will walk on their own to the other end of the tunnel, so they are easier to smuggle. Veterinary services in Israel estimate that since the start of the blockade, the Palestinians have smuggled in about 40,000 lambs through the tunnels, without any veterinary oversight. The Agriculture Ministry is concerned that these animals could spread epidemics that would eventually reach Israel.
Two days before the High Court's hearing on Erlich's petition, there was a meeting with attorney Hila Gorny of the State Prosecutor's Office. At this meeting, Uri Madar, of the agriculture department of the DCO, voiced his concern that the prohibition on importing beef to Gaza was adversely affecting the residents' nutrition. Colonel Alex Rosenzweig, head of the civilian division of COGAT, argued the opposite, saying there was no shortage of meat in Gaza and the ban on importation of cattle was not endangering the Palestinians' nutrition.
Madar declined to sign the state's response to the petition, asserting that there was "a black flag waving over it," and his view was not presented at the High Court hearing. Furthermore, at the hearing, the IDF did not present the COGAT document which states that at least 300 calves are to be imported into Gaza per week.
A Justice Ministry spokesperson, responding on behalf of the High Court Petition department, confirms this, adding, "Not only that, the state's position was never that the weekly quota of 300 calves, which applied for a certain period of time, was defined as a minimal humanitarian need. The position of the COGAT officials charged with assessing the humanitarian situation in Gaza was presented to the court, stipulating that the entire 'food basket' that is brought into Gaza, which includes frozen meat products, meets the humanitarian needs there. This position was supported by data presented to the State Prosecutor. These officials also stated that they were informed that this was the case by Palestinian officials with whom they are in contact. Beyond this, the State Prosecutor does not intend to relate to the content of the internal discussions held in anticipation of the filing of responses to the petition."
The spokesperson continues, "Although Erlich is seeking to paint his motives for filing the petition as stemming from concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, he is essentially seeking to promote his business, which is being harmed by government policy on Gaza. The Supreme Court also reached this conclusion."
Erlich's experience in the ongoing fight to get cattle allowed into Gaza prompted him to establish Adam Solutions, a company devoted to assisting Palestinians in coping with the restrictions imposed on Gaza by the Israeli government. Erlich and his partner Basel Darawshe, son of former MK Abdulwahab Darawshe, hire out their services to wage a public and legal battle for "traders who need to bring in products" or "people who want to go out to get to hospitals."
How would you have helped?
"It's a legitimate and legal activity. What I would have done is go to a journalist, for example, and show how we're wrecking Israel's public relations."
Why did they turn to you?
"I'm a private businessperson. People come to me because they know I've solved more than a few problems because I was determined and clever."
Adiri also spoke about the matter with Bikel, a familiar figure in the flower, fruit and vegetable, and spice export field, who in the early 1990s also headed the Agricultural Strategy Committee, which dealt with agricultural relations with Palestinian farmers, among other things. Bikel remembers the problem with the bulbs: "The authorities wouldn't allow them to be imported. Hillel asked me if there was anything I could do. I told him that I thought I could do something, but it meant having to appeal to defense officials, to persuade the government and the agriculture minister, the defense minister and the prime minister. It's a tiring process. It's work. I told him that remuneration would only be due in the event of success, even though it meant a lot of work either way."
If it was really a security decision, how could it be subject to change?
"Decisions can be changed," Bikel insists.
In the end, Adiri did not avail himself of Erlich's or Bikel's services. "I asked the Dutch and they said absolutely not," says Adiri. "But the inquiry showed them that it was possible and motivated them to keep trying. They went to Ehud Barak and he eventually approved it."
Three months ago, an acquaintance walked into the shop run by H., an electronics merchant from Gaza City, and started talking about the situation in Gaza and the difficulty of bringing in goods. Then the acquaintance "casually mentioned" a friend of his who could help in obtaining merchandise. "After he started dropping hints, he told me that for NIS 60,000- 70,000 he might be able to bring in my merchandise," says H. He says he didn't go for the offer because of the high price. Other merchants say they've received offers to get their goods into Gaza for the exorbitant price of anywhere from NIS 40,000-100,000 per truck (the regular cost is about NIS 3,000). At least one admits that because of the ongoing blockade he did accept one such offer from an Israeli shipper.
One Israeli shipper explains how merchandise can be smuggled into Gaza. He says shippers often use permits obtained from aid organizations to bring in products Israel does not allow merchants to receive, such as clothing and shoes.
"We have no information whatsoever about this," says a spokesperson for the UN World Food Program. "This question does not apply to us since we use only our own trucks and drivers," says the International Red Cross. "All of our aid for Gaza is coordinated with the Israeli authorities," says a UNRWA spokesperson. "We have not encountered the kind of irregularities described. And if we did, we would report them."
How is it possible to do that?
"Let's say a merchant receives a turn to bring in sugar. He relays the name of the driver and the truck number to the Israeli side. The shipper who received the turn contacts another merchant, who didn't receive a turn and is ready to pay a lot of money to bring in his merchandise, which is stuck in Israel. The shipper arranges with the Palestinian shipper and transfers the sugar to the merchant who paid him. He makes up some story to tell the merchant who was supposed to receive the merchandise - that the truck got stuck or that it wasn't allowed through for some reason."
Since the blockade was placed on Gaza, the Karni terminal, through which more than 600 trucks used to pass daily has been closed. Now most goods are transferred through the Kerem Shalom crossing, and the only thing in operation at the Karni terminal is a conveyor belt that brings wheat, seeds and animal feed to the Palestinian side. The person who has profited most from this change is Nissim Jan, a former Shin Bet agent who served, among other things, as "head of the crossings department." In the seven years since he left the Shin Bet security service, he has managed to build himself a little empire that includes a company for logistical services, shipping services and real estate deals; he is currently constructing a building in the Barnea area of Ashkelon, together with contractor Didi Yamin.
Jan lives in a villa on the Ashkelon coast, drives a fancy Audi and wears neatly pressed button-down shirts. "Anyone who's anyone in the PA, and in Israel too apparently, knows me," he tells Haaretz. Palestinian and Israeli sources say that Jan is particularly close to Nasser Saraj, who oversees the operation of the crossings between Israel and Gaza.
Israel and Palestinian sources say that Jan gets a significant cut of this sum, ostensibly as payment for supplying food to the drivers and fuel for the trucks, a cost that cannot exceed more than a few thousand shekels a month. Man'am Shehaiber agreed to describe to Haaretz the way in which merchandise is transported from either side of the terminal. He said he employs 50 people at the crossing, but declined to reply to questions about his income from providing this service or the nature of his business connections with Jan. In addition, says an Israeli familiar with his business, Jan receives payment from the Palestinians for various jobs he does on the western (Gazan) side of the crossing.
Jan's profits seem dazzling to the Palestinians and the other Israelis involved in operating the crossings. One Israeli familiar with their operation says: "The services Jan supplies on both sides of the crossing have made him one of the most significant figures at Kerem Shalom." Some of the Palestinian traders mistakenly thought that he was the actual director of the crossing. Jan himself attests to his deep involvement there: "Nothing that happens at the crossings escapes my notice," he told Haaretz in a phone conversation. Sources in the Defense Ministry said that lately they've been checking into various complaints about his activity at the crossings.
Jan says that he handled, on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, the passage back into Gaza of Palestinians who found themselves stuck in Egypt after Hamas took control in Gaza and the Rafah crossing was closed. "They came to me because you go to people you can rely on," he says. "I think I'm someone who has a different approach than anyone else at the crossings."
We've been told you get a share of the NIS 500 that the Shehaiber family collects on each truck that goes through the crossing.
"That's a total lie."
But you know the Shehaiber brothers?
"Of course I do. They work with me every day."
And it's not a business partnership?
"It has nothing at all to do with what you're talking about. It's purely business, all legal, and has nothing to do with any 500 shekels."
What is your connection with Nazmi Mhana (the Palestinian director of the crossings)?
"Nazmi is a personal friend of mine. For some reason, it's hard for people to accept a proper, legitimate relationship between two adults."
We've been told that you also do jobs for the Palestinians.
"All the time, all the time. Including now."
How does one get these kinds of jobs?
"Be a person like me - serious, quiet, honest - and apply for any tender in proper legal fashion, and then work. Anyone who wants to can apply."
Doesn't the Israeli crossings administration have a problem with the fact that you also work in the Palestinian Authority?
"I don't speak with the crossings administration about anything. What I do with the Palestinian population, with the Palestinian Authority, with the Europeans - has nothing to do with that."
A lot of people we've talked with seemed genuinely nervous to even speak about you. Why are people afraid of you?
"Because I have integrity. Maybe because I don't deal in dirt."
Maybe because you were in the Shin Bet?
"What does the Shin Bet have to do with anything? It's been 10 years since I was in the Shin Bet."
Jan's business wasn't hurt by his entanglement in the affair of the transfer of gas canisters to the Palestinian Authority area. Less than a year ago, in late August, inspectors from the enforcement unit of the Infrastructure Ministry raided warehouses belonging to Jan in the southern industrial zone in Ashkelon. There the inspectors found about 100 tons of cooking gas and reported at the time that this was the largest amount of stolen gas ever discovered in Israel in recent years. The Israel Police's economic crimes unit began an investigation into the matter.
But you paid a fine.
"We paid, but not at the crossings. My shippers, who operate legally, stored the gas canisters in a place where they shouldn't have been stored, and so we paid the fine and I said that it was my merchandise, so I would bear the expenses and the consequences."
Isn't paying the fine akin to an admission that you committed an offense?
"Paying the fine is just a way of saying 'Leave me alone.' People just find it hard to accept that I'm not the person they think I am. When I was given the fine, I told [the person from the Infrastructure Ministry] right to his face: I'm paying, even though I think I'm more moral than anyone." W
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Music at its best. You should click on the link to read the story, see the pics, and listen to some of the music:
New York Times
Ensemble Ambitions in a World Divided
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: June 19, 2009
Music in the service of freedom,
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Saturday, June 20, 2009
"To avoid complications stemming from international law, it turned to the WZO, setting up a special settlement division not technically part of the government but entirely funded by it."
June 20, 2009
Lawsuit brings murky West Bank land deals to light
By AMY TEIBEL
Associated Press Writer
It reads like a standard real estate contract between a Zionist institution and an Israeli couple. But it offers a rare glimpse into the bureaucratic smoke screen that helps ensure a strong Jewish presence on lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
The document, which surfaced in a case before Israel's Supreme Court, shows that the World Zionist Organization, acting as an agent of the Israeli government, took private Palestinian land in the West Bank and gave it to Jewish settlers, even though the state itself had declared the property off-limits to settlement.
The affair points to a chaotic mix of a government at odds with itself and involved in murky real estate deals fronted by one of the Zionist movement's most respected organizations.
It's not the first time such land deals have come under fire, but in the year since the case went to court, the political context has been overturned. President Barack Obama, in a departure from Bush administration policy, is pressing for a complete freeze in settlement development as a prelude to a new push for Mideast peace.
The contract authorized Netzach and Esther Brodt, a couple in their early 20s, to lease land in the settlement of Ofra where their home and eight others are in contention.
When Israeli human rights groups and Palestinians who claim to own the land went to the Supreme Court to get the houses torn down, they went with the knowledge that demolition orders had been issued against construction at the site.
The court gave the state two weeks to explain itself, during which time the settlers hastily completed construction of the homes. Then, in another reversal, the Defense Ministry froze the demolition plan, and left the case no closer to resolution.
The affair also threw a spotlight on the World Zionist Organization, an international body founded more than 100 years ago that promotes Jewish education and immigration to Israel.
After Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, the government began settling Jews in the captured territories. To avoid complications stemming from international law, it turned to the WZO, setting up a special settlement division not technically part of the government but entirely funded by it.
The maneuver has served to cloud the issues and confuse the finger-pointing when uncomfortable questions arise.
Such questions had already arisen in 2005, when a government-commissioned report accused the settlement division of complicity in diverting funds and confiscating West Bank land to put up some of the more than 100 "outposts" — small wildcat settlements — that settlers have built, some on privately held Palestinian land.
They had no government sanction, yet a slew of former Cabinet ministers, settler leaders and lawmakers have confirmed that they went up with the full knowledge of the state, and their removal is viewed by the U.S. and others as a first step toward a broader rollback of settlement expansion in the West Bank.
The case before the Supreme Court involves not a flimsy "outpost," but Ofra, a full-blown settlement of 3,000 Jews, 15 miles north of Jerusalem.
The contract shows that the settlement division authorized the Brodts to lease land allocated to Ofra even though Israel's Justice Ministry had declared it to be private Palestinian property.
"Here you have proof" of a settlement deal violating Israel's own rulings, said Talia Sasson, the former chief state prosecutor who wrote the 2005 report.
Defying international objections, Israel has allowed nearly 300,000 Jews to settle in the West Bank plus some 180,000 in Jerusalem's Arab sector, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, "We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements," but he gave no commitment to stop expanding existing settlements as the White House has demanded.
Land deals between settlers and the settlement division are usually shrouded in confidentiality and the contract with the Brodts is a hard-to-find example.
The settlers maintain that secrecy is essential to protect Palestinian sellers from retribution. The Ofra purchase is such a case, they told the court. Ofra's lawyer, Yaron Kosteliz, said proof that the land was bought from Palestinians has been given to the state confidentially to protect the sellers.
Yesh Din, one of the Israeli rights groups that went to court, says the land was stolen.
"It's like I was going to sell a house that didn't belong to me," said Dror Etkes, Yesh Din's settlement expert. "It's an international organization that is, simply put, stealing land."
The government referred questions about the contract to the World Zionist Organization, which referred the questions back to the government. The Justice Ministry refused to discuss the case because it is under litigation.
The Defense Ministry, named as a respondent in the court petition, did not respond to an e- mail and calls seeking comment.
Another respondent, the military's Civil Administration in the West Bank, said only that "there are differences of opinion pertaining to the ownership of the property."
"The issue is currently under discussion in the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide on this issue," it added in a written response to questions from the AP.
The Justice Ministry confirmed to the court that the land was owned by Palestinians, that a construction freeze had been ordered there a year earlier, and that a final demolition order for all nine houses had been issued.
"The construction was done in violation of stop-work and demolition orders," the state said in papers presented to the court.
As is often the case, however, the state was not speaking with one voice. Defense Minister Ehud Barak suspended the demolition order in December because of broader questions about the legal status of settlement activity in Ofra.
Kosteliz, Ofra's lawyer, said the settlement never received the demolition order. The Brodts said they were unaware of it when they signed the contract with the settlement division. They said the settlement was in charge of the construction.
The houses were near completion when the legal appeal was filed, and settlers hurried to finish construction during the two weeks the state was given to respond to the petition. They even won a rare and controversial dispensation from Ofra's rabbi, Avi Gisser, to allow construction to continue on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, using non-Jews as workers.
Palestinians and Israeli right groups say the case is nothing unusual, and that settlements are often built on private Palestinian land.
Yesh Din says it has seen a classified database prepared for the Defense Ministry and that it shows that much of the construction at Ofra and in many other settlements is on land registered to Palestinian owners.
© 2009 Associated Press.
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Friday, June 19, 2009
From the Los Angeles Times
The language that absolves Israel
A special political vocabulary prevents us from being able to recognize what's going on in the Middle East.
By Saree Makdisi
June 19, 2009
On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that -- by categorically ruling out the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state -- ought to have been seen as a mortal blow to the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Monday morning, however, newspaper headlines across the United States announced that Netanyahu had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and the White House welcomed the speech as "an important step forward."
Reality can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States.
In fact, a special vocabulary has been developed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. It filters and structures the way in which developing stories are misread here, making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories -- and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write.
The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possible for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country.
Let me give a classic example.
In the U.S., discussion of Palestinian politicians and political movements often relies on a spectrum running from "extreme" to "moderate." The latter sounds appealing; the former clearly applies to those who must be -- must they not? -- beyond the pale. But hardly anyone relying on such terms pauses to ask what they mean. According to whose standard are these manifestly subjective labels assigned?
Meanwhile, Israeli politicians are labeled according to an altogether different standard: They are "doves" or "hawks." Unlike the terms reserved for Palestinians, there's nothing inherently negative about either of those avian terms.
So why is no Palestinian leader referred to here as a "hawk"? Why are Israeli politicians rarely labeled "extremists"? Or, for that matter, "militants"?
There are countless other examples of these linguistic double standards. American media outlets routinely use the deracinating and deliberately obfuscating term "Israeli Arabs" to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they call themselves -- and are -- Palestinian.
Similarly, Israeli housing units built in the occupied territories in contravention of international law are always called "settlements" or even "neighborhoods" rather than what they are: "colonies." That word may be harsh on the ears, but it's far more accurate ("a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state").
These subtle distinctions make a huge difference. Unconsciously absorbed, such terms frame the way people and events are viewed. When it comes to Israel, we seem to reach for a dictionary that applies to no one else, to give a pass to actions or statements that would be condemned in any other quarter.
That's what allowed Netanyahu to be congratulated for endorsing a Palestinian "state," even though the kind of entity he said Palestinians might -- possibly -- be allowed to have would be nothing of the kind.
Look up the word "state" in the dictionary. You'll probably see references to territorial integrity, power and sovereignty. The entity that Netanyahu was talking about on Sunday would lack all of those constitutive features. A "state" without a defined territory that is not allowed to control its own borders or airspace and cannot enter into treaties with other states is not a state, any more than an apple is an orange or a car an airplane. So how can leading American newspapers say "Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians," as the New York Times had it? Or "Netanyahu relents on goal of two states," as this paper put it?
Because a different vocabulary applies.
Which is also what kept Netanyahu's most extraordinary demand in Sunday night's speech from raising eyebrows here.
"The truth," he said, "is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians."
In other words, as Netanyahu repeatedly said, there is a Jewish people; it has a homeland and hence a state. As for the Palestinians, they are a collection -- not even a group -- of trespassers on Jewish land. Netanyahu, of course, dismisses the fact that they have a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel.
On the contrary: The Palestinians must, he said, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people (this is a relatively new Israeli demand, incidentally), and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. "We" are a people, Netanyahu was saying; "they" are merely a "population." "We" have a right to a state -- a real state. "They" do not.
And the spokesman for our African American president calls this "an important step forward"?
In any other situation -- including our own country -- such a brutally naked contrast between those who are taken to have inherent rights and those who do not would immediately be labeled as racist. Netanyahu, though, is given a pass, not because most Americans would knowingly endorse racism but because, in this case, a special political vocabulary kicks in that prevents them from being able to recognize it for exactly what it is.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He is the author of, among other books, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation."
Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times
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