MEMO reviews some of the pertinent May headlines coming out of the British, Israeli and American papers including the rise of Turkey, the new British coalition government and nuclear Israel.
Declaring war on freedom of expression - the tale of Noam Chomsky
Early last month, the highly acclaimed academic, Noam Chomsky was blocked from entering Occupied Palestine. Chomsky, who was on a speaking tour in the region, was scheduled to speak at the Birzeit University in the Occupied West Bank. However, on arrival at the Israeli border with Jordan, he was detained and questioned. Later in an interview with the Israeli Channel 10, Chomsky revealed that his 'interrogators had told him he had written things that the Israeli government did not like. "I suggested [the interrogator try to] find any government in the world that likes anything I say," he said. Israeli media were surprisingly critical of their government's decision, with even the more right wing nationalist paper, Yediot Ahronot, calling it a 'foolish act in a frequent series of recent follies'. The self-proclaimed 'only democracy in the Middle East' came under fire from human rights groups and the wider media, all citing that the principle of freedom of expression was being undermined and that this act was 'characteristic of a totalitarian regime'.
Suffice to say that Professor Chomsky delivered his speech, albeit via video link and that the governments' action only worked to further highlight the authoritarian nature of the Occupier regime - and expose them as hypocrites to those who weren't already aware they were.
Russia - the return of a key player in the Middle East?
Russia made a significant step towards restoring its key role in Middle Eastern politics. Although already a member of the Middle East Quartet, which is made up of Great Britain, the US and the UN, it has never conformed to the idea that there should be no progressive dialogue with the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the elected government in the Occupied Territories.
Following a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad early this month, Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, met with Khalid Meshaal, Chairman of Hamas' Political Bureau. He later held a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which, in reference to Hamas, that all parties should be included in peace talks.
Old-time experts at scaremongering, some Israeli commentators have begun using Cold-War terminology in an effort to tarnish Russia's progress in their talks with Iran, Syria, Turkey and now Hamas. These strategic alliances will play a key role in future policies and trade deals for the region, which perhaps Israel is not ready for. Indeed, Israel has cautioned Russia from making any rash decisions against it, with the extremist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reminding them of 'the terrorists [that have] murdered hundreds of innocent civilians'. Perhaps these innocents are not on par with the hundreds of thousands that have been murdered by the Israeli Occupation Forces.
In its 63rd year, the Nakba (the Catastrophe) was commemorated in Occupied Palestine and all over the world by both displaced Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists remembering the dispossession of millions of Palestinians by the creation of the Zionist state in 1948. However this year, Israel which feels acutely imperilled by any activity which threatens to 'de-legitimise' their claim to Palestine, made it a crime to commemorate it by passing the 'Nakba Draft Law'. It was intended to stop people mourning on what the Israelis call 'Independence Day'; any commemorative acts were made tantamount to 'denying the Jewish character of Israel [and] insulting the symbols of the state'.
According to one commentator, it is ironic that this law has been passed at a time when Israel is complaining about attempts to "de-legitimise" the Zionist state while here is an example of Israel's own "de-legitimisation" of the Palestinians, their land and their culture.
In all conferences and meetings that have ensued since, the core issues have yet to be resolved, namely that 'the refugees are still refugees and Jewish colonialist-settlers continue to build on occupied Palestinian land.'
On May 6, the British public took to the polling stations in record numbers. The outcome was similar to the effect marmite has on many in the world - some loved it, others were in complete despair and those in the middle were just plain confused. A hung parliament? A Tory majority? The Lib Dems are 'kingmakers'?
For the first time in many years, the British election campaign was nearly as fascinating as America's. An eventual shock for many on the left, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made a deal with the Conservative party's David Cameron to form the UK's first coalition government in over thirty years.
But what does this mean for the Middle East? Clegg, who has always been outspoken on the illegal blockade of Gaza and is a strong advocate of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a natural threat to Israeli policy makers and think tanks. However some Israeli commentators have actually applauded his stance and the new coalition and have emphatically called on Israel to follow suit and appoint its own version of Nick Clegg. Another commentator from the Jerusalem Post suggested that policies on the Middle East are most likely to remain the same with the Liberal Democrats 'negatively influenc[ing] the tone'. It remains to be seen how effective Clegg will be as a leader of conscience, especially in light of the recent event on the Freedom Flotilla. If the new coalition wants to continue to play a key role in the Middle East and protect Britain's status as a global leader, they need to step up and stand firm in the face of the Israeli occupation.
In a timely piece published on the same day that Israel decided to attack and hijack an aid flotilla sailing in international waters, the New York Times published an article by Guénaël Mettraux, who represents defendants before international criminal tribunals. Although the Isreal-Palestine issue is not mentioned by Mr. Mettraux, he makes some extremely important points that serve to highlight not only the legal issues arising from Israeli action in the Mediterranean (the coverage of which will be analysed in full next month) but the way that the international community in general deals with the state of Israel.
"While it could be argued that some justice is better than none, the present hyper-selectivity of international criminal justice could be most damaging to its credibility in the longer term," writes Mettraux, adding, "The legitimacy of the rule of law, domestic or international, is based on the assumption that it does apply to all, without prejudice and without discrimination. Stripped of that element, it risks becoming - and will be portrayed as - a tool of political convenience for the powerful." One wonders if David Cameron and his legal advisers understand this as they prepare to amend Britain's laws on universal jurisdiction to suit Israeli politicians.
On 30 May, the ex-Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, reminded readers of the NYT that while the existence of the International Criminal Court means, in theory at least, "in the face of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the default position of the international community is no longer impunity but accountability... powerful governments remain resolutely opposed to the I.C.C." Step forward "three permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, China and Russia" who all "refuse to ratify the Rome Statute [establishing the ICC]".
Mr. Annan also said, "Where such serious crimes are credibly alleged, investigation will now follow unless those denying the need for international justice can demonstrate that their national judicial mechanisms are serious and credible. This is, by the way, something yet to be done convincingly by those involved in the intensified conflicts in Gaza and Sri Lanka last year." This prompts the obvious question: Why? Why do governments around the world, Britain's included, feel that Israel, in particular, must be treated as a special case, to the extent that laws are to be changed to ease the pressure on alleged war criminals holding Israeli passports?
Now consider the following statement: "This act of aggression is one more instance of Israel's unacceptable behaviour and defiance of international law." Wouldn't it have been an incredible outbreak of honesty if the White House had issued a statement like that? Actually, it did issue a statement, but the White House spokesman said "North Korea", not Israel, after the former's sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. When Israel behaved unacceptably and in defiance of international law with its attack on the aid convoy just two weeks after the Korean incident, a spokesman for Obama's administration said, "The United States is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy." That response was even described by an Editorial in the NYT as "tepid", an understatement if ever there was one.
It is hard to fathom what there is "to understand" about Israel's attack - an "alleged attack" according to one British newspaper completely out of character (so it shall remain nameless) - because such abominations have happened so many times before that it is obviously part of the Israeli military-political psyche to respond to perceived threats with disproportionate violence.
The attack also stretches the credibility of articles by NYT columnists such as that by Richard Cohen on 6 May. In "Sunny Days in Israel" the author painted a balmy picture of Israeli life: "It was a beautiful day in Israel, clear skies, brilliant light, and the volleyball players were out. Young couples in low-slung jeans sipped smoothies and ate poached eggs."
Mr. Cohen is out and about to meet with Col. Avi Gil of the Israel Defence Forces and during their discussion Cohen comments, "Life in Israel is many-layered, tranquillity and anxiety always tussling for the upper hand, like argumentative siblings". Gil is a fan of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the way he is expanding the economy in the West Bank. "It's in our interest to maintain the peaceful trend in the West Bank and I'm willing to take some chances," Gil said. "It's fragile, but the fact is nobody wants to fight." Even so, Fayyad's pledge of nonviolence has not stopped stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails. "When I go into Kalkilya," Gil says, "I've stopped using body armour, but I do take my rifle."
According to Cohen, "That is not a bad image of Israel today, prepared to relax slightly but mistrustful; feeling burned and misunderstood; seeing the outside world as hostile (including President Barack Obama); unconvinced of the possibility of peace but not prepared to dismiss it entirely; wanting at some level to think Fayyad can forge a reliable Palestine but also persuaded that Arabs are still bent on its destruction..." (With an illegal military occupation and its attendant paraphernalia of road blocks, the wall, passes, house demolitions, ethnic cleansing and so on, is that any wonder?) Realities for others have no place in Cohen's soporific vision of the Jewish state. His Israel is "led by a right-religious-Russian-settler coalition that reflects lasting rightward shifts in its society; enjoying the quiet but disturbed by what's over the horizon, not least Iran."
What was over the horizon in reality was a convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to break Israel's immoral and illegal blockade of Gaza. How fitting, then, that Roger Cohen claimed, "This is not an Israel that is ready to hurry to peace..."
Who could disagree with that?
And in other news…
- Elvis Costello joins a long list of high-profile musicians who have withdrawn from performing in the Occupying state of Israel. Others include Santana and Gil Scott-Heron. In a statement posted on his website, Costello wrote: "It has been necessary to dial out the falsehoods of propaganda, the double game and hysterical language of politics, the vanity and self-righteousness of public communiqués from cranks in order to eventually sift through my own conflicted thoughts." Israeli commentators ridiculed his decision for what they call a 'cultural boycott', instead claiming that this closes all doors to dialogue that is desperately needed. Costello insists though that 'sometimes a silence in music is better than adding to the static'.
- PA up the ante: The Palestinian Authority threw its weight behind the international Boycott Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) campaign by initiating a new campaign this month which calls on all Palestinians to boycott Israeli settlement goods. The boycott has already impacted on many of the surrounding Zionist colonies in Palestine, with one local councilor stating that 17 Zionist owned factories have already shut down. Right wing extremist colonialists/settlers have condemned the boycott, calling it 'an act of hatred' and a breach of the 1994 Paris Agreement 'which outlined economic ties between Israel and the Palestinians Authority'. The Zionists went a step further calling on the government to 'withhold Palestinian tax revenues and instead using the money to compensate settlers for lost business.'
- Last month witnessed an increase in tensions between Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli settlers following efforts by the international community to reign in Israel's illegal settlement activities.
- These violent right wing extremists have vowed to restart what has come to be known as the 'price tag campaign' - a settler policy of retribution against Palestinians and their property in response to government operations to evacuate settlement centres.
- Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, one of the most influential right wing Rabbis in Israel and leader of the religious institution from which the 'price tag' policy emerged, has called for an expansion of the campaign to include all regions and settlements. He encouraged settlers to 'lie in wait' for Palestinians and said "…whenever any [Jewish] person is affected in a particular place, the response must come from everywhere."
- On the 14th May, settlers in Ramallah shot and killed sixteen year old Aysar Yasser. The boy was shot in the back and bled to death for three hours. Some sources explain that the youth was with a group of friends when they were fired upon. The Israeli army claimed that the youths pelted a settler vehicle with stones to which the occupants responded with live fire.
- According to Israel Radio, Palestinian witnesses and the emergency services, IDF soldiers shot and killed a 75 year old Palestinian man and wounded one other near the border with Gaza. The elderly man had been shot several times and was not discovered before his family reported that he had been missing for two days. According to an Israeli army spokesman, the man had been in a designated combat zone.
- The escalation in violence comes on the heels of indirect proximity talks mediated by the US that began last month.
- Binyamin Netanyahu and Hosni Mubarak met for informal talks at the beginning of May ahead of the first Israeli-Palestinian talks in more than a year.
- The Arab League endorsed the Palestinian decision to engage with Israel in indirect talks despite widespread scepticism and criticism of it. They were given 'assurances' from the US that Israel will refrain from 'provocative' actions and will support four months of talks.
- Talks are confirmed to have resumed where they left off after the start of the Gaza war. US envoy George Mitchell efforts to break the deadlock on peace have been hampered by a number of issues particularly Israeli settlement expansions in Jerusalem.
- The demise of talks are predicted based particularly on several factors but particularly as a result of Palestinian and international efforts to boycott settlement goods in what has been called an unprecedented wave of anti-Israel fervor.
- Last year Netanyahu reluctantly endorsed the idea of Palestinian independence but included unacceptable conditions such as maintaining a presence in the West Bank and keeping East Jerusalem under the pretext of security considerations.
- Given that Israel has informed media sources it will not release a plan of its own before the start of direct talks on 'final status issues' and that Palestinians have refused to enter direct talks without a freeze in all illegal Israeli construction, it appears that the US is stuck in the failed paradigm of bilateral negotiations.
- Early last month a diplomatic row threatened to erupt between Israel and the US when Rose Gottenmoeller, Washington's chief nuclear negotiator, included Israel on a list of states known to possess nuclear weapons and called on the state to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- The move signals a break with the US tradition of turning a blind eye to Israel's nuclear weapon's arsenal and challenges all countries in the region to address the threat inherent in the now undeniable military imbalance. Fears are mounting that this could lead to a dangerous and expensive Middle East arms race.
- All eyes are now on the US and how it will pursue the global priority to implement concrete counter proliferation measures. How it deals with Israel will also be crucial as this could serve to defuse the Iranian nuclear issue and end the widely perceived double standards that exist in this regard. This development makes it increasingly untenable to demand nuclear related sanctions on Iran.
- Calls for Israel to sign the NPT were lent poignancy and urgency following revelations that it offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa under apartheid.
- In addition to the US inferences, the existence of Israel's nuclear arsenal was officially established based on evidence found in documents declassified by the post-apartheid government in South Africa. Israel tried to block their release.
- The documents reveal that Israel was in covert negotiations with the apartheid state and offered to sell them nuclear warheads.
- They also rubbish the arguments of Israeli supporters who argue that Israel is a 'responsible' nuclear power.
- Israel says reports of negotiations with the apartheid state were baseless but did not comment on the authenticity of the documents.