Friday, October 28, 2016

The Almighty Military Order

The Almighty Military Order

Forty-eight civilians, 1 fetus and 10 pennies

By Sam Bahour

Photographs of the victims are displayed at the Kafr Qassem Massacre Museum. (Photo credit: Dylan Collins)
If your Palestinian neighbors and friends seem slightly on edge today, please excuse them. October 29th brings back horrific memories to Palestinians everywhere, young and old. It was 60 years ago today that a scene of cold-blooded murder fell upon the hill-top Palestinian village of Kafr Qassem (also written Kfar Kassim), located in Israel about 20 km east of Tel Aviv, near the Green Line (1949 Armistice Agreement’s demarcation line) separating Israel and the West Bank. It was in Kafr Qassem on this day in 1956 where the Israeli military literally mowed down in cold blood 48 innocent civilians, one being a pregnant woman whose fetus is counted as the 49th victim. It was said that all of this was done in the service of the almighty Israeli “military order,” which no one dared to challenge.

Sixty years is a long time to mourn a death, even a cold-blooded murder. It is even longer when you must live among those, and under the system of those, who murdered your loved ones. Had this been merely an isolated incident of the Israeli military machine killing Palestinians, one may have already regulated it to the history books. But it was and is not.

There were other massacres prior to Kafr Qasssem, such as the case of Deir Yassin in 1948. Since that dark day in Kafr Qassem there have been numerous other incidents, too many to list. One that comes to mind is 13-year old Iman al-Homs who, in October 2004, was walking home from school in Gaza when an Israeli soldier emptied his magazine into her after she was wounded and lay on the ground. The soldier was caught on radio communications saying he was “confirming the kill.” The most recent example that comes to mind is the Israeli soldier caught on camera in Hebron this past March as he executed a wounded and immobilized Palestinian man lying on the ground by firing a bullet into his head as his fellow soldiers casually watched on.

Unlike today, decades ago Israel did undertake more serious investigations of actions of its military. This is not to say that justice was ever served—it rarely is. Such a landmark investigation was the Israeli Kahan Commission, established by the Israeli government on September 28, 1982, to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre (September 16–18, 1982) where 1,000-3,000 (exact number is disputed) Palestinians were slaughtered over three days. 

The Kahan Commission was chaired by the Israeli President of the Supreme Court, Yitzhak Kahan. Its other two members were Israeli Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak and Major general (res.) Yona Efrat. The Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility. Sharon's negligence in protecting the civilian population of Beirut, which had come under Israeli control, resulted in a recommendation that Sharon be dismissed as Defense Minister. Although Sharon grudgingly resigned as Defense Minister, he remained in the Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio. Years later, Sharon would be elected Israel's Prime Minister.

Back to Kafr Qassem.

The Israeli English newspaper, Haaretz, reported in a story by correspondent Ofer Aderet (60 years after massacre, Kafr Qasem doesn’t want an apology from the Israeli government, October 28, 2016) that, “In the 60 years since the [Kafr Qasem] carnage Israel’s attitude has been complicated. Those involved in it were court martialed, convicted and some sentenced at first to long prison terms [these “long terms” were less than what the law stipulated for premeditated murder]. [Israeli] Judge Benjamin Halevy coined the phrase “a blatantly illegal order” in his verdict. The instruction to Israel Defense Forces soldiers that they are obliged to refuse an order “that has a black flag flying over it” has become part of the Kafr Qasem legacy.”

The Haaretz story goes on, “But the convicted parties’ sentence was soon commuted by the chief of staff, they were pardoned by the president and released from jail. The most senior defendant, Col. Issachar Shadmi, commander of the brigade in charge of the area, was sentenced to a symbolic fine of 10 pennies for exceeding authority. Major Shmuel Malinki, commander of the Border Patrol battalion, testified at the trial that Shadmi had ordered him to enforce the curfew with gunshots. Asked what would happen to those who return to the village after the curfew, Kedmi said Shadmi had said “may God have mercy on their soul.””

And maybe most shocking of all coming from an Israeli newspaper is that, “The comparison between the Kafr Qasem massacre and the Holocaust was first made at the trial, when the [Israeli] judge asked one of the defendants if he would have justified a Nazi soldier who was obeying orders.” The Haaretz correspondent continues, “In 1986, 30 years after the massacre, Shalom Ofer, one of the convicted soldiers, said in an interview to Ha’ir: “We were like the Germans. They stopped trucks, took the Jews off and shot them. What we did is the same. We were obeying orders like a German soldier during the war, when he was ordered to slaughter Jews.””

Many, especially those in the Jewish community in Israel and abroad, will rightfully find the above words hard to swallow. I don’t blame them. This horrendous act was revolting and when undertaken in “your” name it makes one sick to their stomach. 

Aderet's article offers but a glimpse into the legal proceedings surrounding Kafr Qassem. One of the first people to document those proceedings was attorney Sabri Jiryis in his landmark book, The Arabs in Israel, published in Haifa in Hebrew in 1966. A fuller account of the testimonies recorded by the Israeli commanders and soldiers who took part in this killing spree can be found printed here [with the author’s permission] in English. Warning: it’s a disturbing read.

And this, my friends, is the buried past and not so buried present, of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), “the most moral army in the world.” It is imperative that we all redouble our efforts to not make it its future as well, military order or not.

Sam Bahour is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy; Co-editor of HOMELAND: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press). He blogs at @SamBahour


Friday, October 07, 2016

Palestinian Universities on the Frontline

Palestinian Universities on the Frontline

By Sam Bahour

On display at the Bethlehem Museum, the abacusis a simple, but yet piercing piece of art reflecting what Palestinian kids aregoing through under military occupation. Palestinian Artist Rana Bishara fromTarshiha in the Western Galilee. (October, 2016) Printed with permission ofartist.

Palestinian universities are fighting an uphill battle on two fronts, one being the Israeli military occupation, and more recently, the other being the Palestinian government. Although each poses two very different sets of challenges, one outcome is clear. If immediate and decisive intervention is not forthcoming, the structural damage that will set back entire generations of Palestinian students will haunt Palestine’s developmental capabilities for many years to come. That is, if the damage has not already been inflicted. 

Prolonged Israeli military occupation of Palestine (West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip) has caused a staggering amount of damage to the Palestinian society at large. Much of this damage is visible to the naked eye, such as land grabs, settlements, walls, fences, checkpoints, demolished airports, and bombed-out buildings, just to name a few. However, the more serious and long-term damage is hidden from view. I call it the administratively applied part of the Israeli military occupation. These invisible aspects of the occupation comprise issues such as the infamous permit system, the limiting and prohibiting of access to the electromagnetic spectrum, confiscation of water resources, severely limiting Palestinians’ access to water, and importation restrictions. The list is long.

These are the elements of occupation you cannot capture in a photo. One of the key elements Israel has routinely sought to attack is Palestine’s education system. The Israeli fixation on blocking Palestinian education is not new.

When Israel was yet in its formative years, it introduced an office of the advisor to the [Israeli] prime minister on Arab affairs. As quoted in Atty. Sabri Jiryis’ landmark book, “The Arabs in Israel” (1976), one of the most racist persons to hold this position was Uri Lubrani (1960-1963). Lubrani stated in a lecture, “It very probably would be better if there were no Arab university students. It probably would be easier to govern them if they continued to work as wood cutters and waiters.” It seems this desire has not faded away.

Earlier this month, Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, a Palestinian research group which recently became affiliated with Birzeit University, held its 22nd Annual Conference titled, “The Complex Challenges Facing Palestinian Universities: Is There a Way Out?” The conference was held at Birzeit University on September 30 and October 1, 2016. The Muwatin Conference came on the heels of a provocative student strike at Birzeit University, which witnessed a handful of students forcibly chain closed the gates of the university, totally paralyzing the university for nearly a month and delaying the start of the school year. There is no indication that the situation has stabilized to prohibit the students (or teachers’/workers’ unions) from undertaking future disruptive labor action. The backdrop of this strike made the Muwatin Conference even more timely.

The conference brought together an impressive audience of senior academics, education administrators, including several current and past university presidents, private sector concerns, and Palestinian government officials, including the current Minister of Education and Higher Education, Dr. Sabri Saidam, as well as several ex-ministers. The panels hosted some of the top Palestinian thinkers on higher education.

One panel, Higher Education: Continuation or Start Over?, offered an historical overview of the young Palestinian higher education sector. Another panel, Where Does Higher Education Stand in Palestine?, grappled with the need to educate for the sake of education, as well as to educate to serve a productive labor market, one that is extremely distressed by prolonged occupation. Other panels were titled Self-Restricting Constraints on Higher Education, University Economics and Country Economics, Higher Education Under Occupation, The Regulatory Framework for Higher Education, and Higher Education and State Building. Having listened attentively to them all, the overarching messages were loud and clear: our higher education system remains in the crosshairs of the Israeli occupation, and the Palestinian government, with its deep financial constraints and lack of legislative oversight, is unable to stop the imminent damage on its own.

From the Israeli side, the damage to the higher education sector is systemic. Physical targeting of university facilities, as was the case at the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip, and frequent incursions on to campuses, as was recently the case at the Palestine Technical University (Kadoorie) located in Tulkarm and Birzeit University near Ramallah, have brought material damage and disruption to university operations. Additionally, the heavy restrictions Israel has placed on Palestinians’ movement and access have forced universities to be established near the students, bringing the total number of universities to 15 for a population of 4.8 million with over 220,000 university students, with three new private universities in the pipeline. This forced geographic fragmenting of our community is not only draining material resources, but it is cannibalizing the shrinking pool of qualified university professors, especially those holding PhDs. Just last month, Israel denied entry into the country to UK-based scholar Dr. Adam Hanieh, who was invited by the Ph.D. Program in the Social Sciences at Birzeit University to deliver a series of lectures at the university. He is not the first case of an academic being denied access. The number of Israeli restrictions and disruptions is too long to list here.

On the side of the Palestinian government, the criticism was pointed. The inability of the government to meet its financial commitments to universities was highlighted by almost every panelist, especially given the over 40 percent budget allocation that goes toward security. Another alarming issue brought up by many was the issue that the Palestinian security forces have “infiltrated” the universities and are seen as hindering the academic freedoms students expect. This criticism was exacerbated by the fact that, as of late, the Palestinian security forces have arrested and interrogated many student activists.

The Muwatin Conference distributed a booklet titled, “Higher Education in Palestine…Beyond the Figures!!!” I think the three explanation points in the booklet’s title speak for themselves. Nevertheless, reading the set of statistics presented, from the rising unemployment rates, to the declining interest in sciences, to the inability of the labor market to absorb the nearly 40,000 annual graduates, it becomes apparent that the situation is reaching a tipping point and the spillover, when it occurs, will not remain confined behind campus walls.

It was refreshing, albeit depressing, to hear the case made by Dr. Samia Botmeh, Assistant Professor of Economics at Birzeit University, about the negative effect that neo-liberalism is having on Palestine’s higher education system. She made a convincing argument that higher education cannot merely be reduced to providing job skills to serve a market (something she called the “productization” of education), but rather must be viewed from a much broader societal vantage point where a higher education is instilling a set of values and skills to produce a life-long learner who has the ability to assume his or her role in society, be it in serving a business, engaging a philosophical dilemma, producing music, or being a homemaker.

One missing aspect of the conference that I have interest in was how to utilize our diaspora, academics and non-academics, to support the higher education of Palestinians, as well as Palestinian higher education institutes. A week before the conference, my consulting firm launched a Linkedin Group, Academic Network for Palestine (ANPs), to start to collect in one location those Palestinian academics and non-Palestinian academics who are in solidarity with Palestine to discuss ways to support the sector.

Ironically, as I was writing this article, my 11th-grade daughter, Nadine, came to me with her laptop in hand. She enthusiastically wanted me to watch something. It was this, THE PEOPLE VS THE SCHOOL SYSTEM, a YouTube clip by American rapper, spoken word artist, music video director and rights activist from St Louis, Missouri, Richard Williams, better known by his stage name Prince EA. Nadine’s timing was spot on.

Palestine’s challenge is huge. As this video clip by Prince EA so eloquently articulates, we must deal with the same mega-challenges that the entire world is dealing with, the only difference is we must do so while the oppressive boot of Israeli military occupation is pressing on our necks. Ignoring desperately needed reforms and freedoms in Palestine’s education system levies a heavy price on students and the society at large. As Palestinian educators struggle to survive, our Israeli occupier is laughing all the way to the next settlement hilltop.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman. He does business consulting as Applied Information Management (AIM) and is the Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. He served as a Board of Trustee member at Birzeit University from 2004 to 2010. He writes frequently on Palestinian affairs and blogs at


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