Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Log 414 March 11 2014: Am I a drunk monkey? The problem in Israel is almost unrelievedly depressing

Boycott Israel-poster
Boycott Israel-poster (Photo credit: Creap)
Palestine Cemetery
Palestine Cemetery (Photo credit: NatalieMaynor)
Open-air market in city being patrolled by Isr...
Open-air market in city being patrolled by Israeli troops (2004). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Juliano Mer Khamis Headshot. Deutsch:...
English: Juliano Mer Khamis, executed head of Jenin theatre school (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Talk about sad! And depressing!  I had scarcely stopped reflecting on the sad spectacle I wrote about yesterday of watching a former Israeli foreign minister, who seemed to be a reasonable and decent man,  painfully trying to reconcile the Zionism of which he said he is an “ardent” defender, with the liberal political principles he also espouses, before I was again plunged into the maelstrom of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, thanks to a screening last night of an excellent film called Fragments of Palestine  by Cinema Politica Concordia.
Ezra Winton, who moderated the screening, said in introduction that they tried to screen a film every year about Palestine, and this one was slightly more hopeful than the earlier ones.
If this is hopeful, I am a drunk monkey. Of course, if you are a glass-half-full kind of guy, there were some hopeful things to be taken out of the film.  But the previous night I had heard Avi Shlaim, an Oxford historian who once served in the Israeli Defence Force, memorably describe the present Israeli Prime Minister as a man who is negotiating the division of a pizza but who keeps eating it. And this film is about what is happening on the ground  while this farcical negotiation is proceeding as it has done for decades, and Netanyahu keeps eating the land without anyone in the international community --- read, especially the United States --- ever trying to stop him in mid-bite, as it were.
Even the former Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, had to admit that the  state of Israel, which still claims to be a democracy within its original borders, lost its international credibility after the 1967 war when “it became a colonial power ruling over a captive population.”
This is the elephant in the room in all discussions about Israel and its neighbours, and last night’s film, beautifully shot and edited by a young German woman named Marie Caspari and her crew, is a detailed description of this colonial situation (to use the word used by Ben Ami).
The film is based mostly on a small town of 1800 inhabitants on the West Bank, Bil’in. It tells the story of three people either directly or peripherally engaged in the countless demonstrations of resident protest  against the Israeli separation wall, which ran through Bil’in’s lands, and against the route of which the residents won court victories first at the International Court of Justice, and then at the Israeli Supreme Court. In this latter judgment, the Israeli government was ordered to move the wall off the Bil’in lands --- a judgment made in 2007, but not executed until 2011. Ms. Caspari’s film was made during that interregnum.
She tells her story through three interlocutors, each of whom has a story of great interest. One, whom she came across by accident, is an 18-year-old English boy, Jody McIntyre, who is wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis, but who has come to Bil’in with the intention of helping the villagers in their struggle for justice from the Israeli occupation.  The film shows that the Israeli troops arrive in the middle of the night, heavily armed, to arrest people, their focus being on young boys who have thrown stones at them. “ I am not here just to observe something like the UN observers or the hundreds of thousands of NGO's that they have in Palestine to observe the situation,” says Jody. “I want to make a difference. If it is a Palestinian boy or me going to jail I would rather I went to jail because I come out in a day. They will go to jail for six months and no one knows where they are and they are just children mainly. It is hard if it is a hundred soldiers and just a couple of activists, but still we have to try."
The on-the-spot footage leaves no doubt at to the nature of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank: it is a fully armed, total military occupation which keeps everyone living there under complete control.
The second story is that of a 27-year-old former fighter, Rabea Turkman, who spent seven years as a member of an armed resistance group. He said, in the film, that it did not matter if the Israelis arrested every villager, the resistance would go on. It would never stop. But when a truce was made by the political leaders, and his group laid down its arms, he was promised amnesty if he would stay for three months in the Israeli Palestinian Security Compound. This promise was betrayed, he said, because he had to stay there for two years. Even when released he was not allowed to travel out of the confines of the security apparatus enforced with Israeli checkpoints, and at that time he joined a theatre group managed by a man called Juliano Mer Khamis, who promised they would give performances not only in Jenin, but abroad in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere. Rabea was not permitted to go on these trips, but he had found in Juliano an inspirational leader who gave a new focus to his life.  Just as he had come to accept the theatre group leader as a sort of substitute-father, someone pumped seven bullets into the man, killing him instantly.
These are the brutal facts of life for young people living under this harsh occupation. And the third story is perhaps even more remarkable, that of Maya Yecheli Wind, an Israeli girl of 18 who was born in Jerusalem, and at a conservative Jewish school was brought up to believe all the clich├ęs about the Arabs, how they viscerally hate Jews, want to drive them into the sea, and so on, She lived through the second Palestinian intifada in Jerusalem, so that death became a part of her life. She began to realize she had never met an Arab, had no idea of their reality, and joined a discussion group for Jewish and Arab girls. Meeting Arab girls for the first time turned her world upside down. When she began to argue among her friends from a different point of view, she was called an Arab hugger, and a self-hating Jew. Eventualy she decided she could not join the Israeli army and take part in the occupation, and, when inducted, she refused to follow the first order given her. She served 42 days in jail, and on release went to work as a tour guide for an Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and became a fighter for peaceful co-existence between Jew and Arab.
In the film, in an extensive interview, she tells of how adopting these views had resulted in her losing any position she might have expected within Israeli society: it was hard, she said,“I am nobody I have lost so much.”
Between outlining these three stories, the film shows other dramatic footage of the demolition of Arab homes by bulldozer, while their inhabitants stand by and watch --- a heart-breaking sequence. Every Friday the people of Bil’in go towards the separation wall to protest against its very existence, and they can expect to be repulsed with tear gas and rubber bullets, One of their number was killed by being hit in the chest with a high-velocity tear-gas canister. Over the years 28 of their people have been killed in these skirmishes.
A trailer shown at the end of the film says Maya had moved to New York for further education --- something that of course, Arab counterparts of hers could not do --- and intended to return to continue to take part in the resistance to the brutal occupation.
Though there were positive elements in these stories, the overall impression left with me was of a monolithic, brutal army of occuation that is not interested in making any kind of concession to the people over whom it rules. The parallel that is now more and more often drawn with South Africa during the apartheid days seems more and more relevant.  There, as here, the regime seemed to be in power for ever; but somehow it was undermined, mainly by the international campaign of boycott allied to an internal resistance which finally brought it home to South Africans that they had become the polecat of the modern world.
Could something similar happen in Israel?  The chances appear to be slight, although, if one takes a long, long view, Israel obviously cannot continue on its present course indefinitely ---- eventually something has to give.
I am reminded of what Diana Buttu, the Canadian who is now a supporter of opposition to the occupation, speaking on the AlJazeera show I saw on Sunday night.  “The single state already exists.  The problem now is apartheid.” In other words, the unequal treatment accorded Arabs who are under the control of Israel, whether inside the original borders or in the West Bank.
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