Israel clashed with Peace Activists–but who came out ahead?

A Jewish Home in Palestine built upon bayonets and oppression is not worth having.

 — Rabbi Judah Magnes in a letter to Chaim Weizmann, Sept. 7, 1929.

Israel is a state which has adopted the language of force throughout its existence and does not know another language.

— Abir Kopty, former member of the Nazareth city council, July 14, 2011.

As a few hundred unarmed peace activists attempted to sail to Gaza in late June, carrying letters addressed to the children of that besieged territory, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that any action Israel took to stop them would be justified. "The Israelis have the right to defend themselves," she declared. She did not explain why Israel was endangered by a group with the motto, "Stay Human," that included 85-year old Hedi Epstein and 67-year old Alice Walker.

President Barack Obama showed similar concern for Israel’s survival when he vowed to veto a resolution granting U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state if it comes up for a vote at the Security Council in September. Given Washington’s support for an intransigent Israeli government, an appeal to the international community was the only recourse left to the Palestinians. "Where else can we go?" asked Mohammad Mustafa, chairman of the Palestine Investment Fund. "We are in a financial crisis, thousands of our people are in Israeli jails, we can’t cross our borders. How long can the world ask us to wait?"

More than a hundred countries have indicated they will support a statehood resolution, and France and Spain are leaning in favor. Obama nevertheless condemned it as a "symbolic action to isolate Israel," and Congress is threatening to cut off the $500 million a year the U.S. gives to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. Israel, meanwhile, is withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes that belong to the Authority, and holding up projects in the West Bank financed by Turkey, France and Japan.

The inconsistencies of U.S. Middle East policy were highlighted on July 15, when the administration recognized the Libyan rebels’ Transitional National Council as the legitimate governing authority of Libya and gave the Council access to $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets. Again, neither Obama nor Clinton explained why rebel forces beset by tribal rivalries are worthy of support while Palestinians struggling to achieve freedom from a brutal and illegal military occupation deserve to be chastised by the U.S. and accused of terrorism by Israel.

It is not terrorism, however, that is prompting Israel’s fears but the power of nonviolent resistance by the Palestinians and their supporters. In response to the planned sailing this summer of a few unarmed boats intending to call attention to Israel’s five-year blockade of Gaza, the Israelis behaved as if the Spanish armada were on the way. The cabinet held emergency meetings, the navy spent weeks on full alert, and the army conducted rounds of military exercises in preparation.

While the passengers endured endless delays in Athens, the propellor shafts on two of the boats were found to be seriously damaged. In one case, if the damage had not been discovered by chance the ship would have sunk in mid-ocean along with its passengers. Israeli officials refused either to deny or admit responsibility for the sabotage, and insisted that the whole project was organized and inspired by "Islamic radicals" seeking to provoke violence.

If the Israelis were right, those Islamic radicals had fooled several members of the European Parliament, a British MP, and mostly middle-aged activists, many of whom were Jews, from nearly a dozen countries. Also duped by the mythical Islamists were 10 Israeli human rights organizations, including Rabbis for Human Rights and the veterans’ organization Yesh G’vul, which expressed "Full-hearted support for the Freedom Flotilla as a courageous act of political protest and rejection of Israel’s oppressive occupation."

In the end, because of pressure from Israel and Greece’s severely crippled economy, only a small French boat managed to sail from the island of Kastellorizo before it was surrounded by Israeli warships in mid-ocean and towed to shore. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has assiduously cultivated a relationship with his Greek counterpart George Papandreou ever since Israel’s relations with Turkey cooled over Israel’s killing last May of eight Turks and one American, members of a peace flotilla to Gaza. With Greece heavily indebted and desperately in need of foreign investment and a bail-out by the European Union, Netanyahu obligingly came to its help.

"Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the EU," Haaretz commented. Spiro Spiro, the governor of the Ionian Islands, told the Guardian, "Greece loves peace but at this moment it can’t confront more powerful economic forces."At a June 30 speech to graduates of the Israeli Flight School, Netanyahu publicly thanked Papandreou for his close cooperation with Israel in preventing the flotilla from leaving port.

But who in fact benefited from the episode? Had the flotilla been allowed to sail, and its cargo of letters distributed in Gaza, the action would hardly have been news. Instead, Israel’s strenuous efforts to block passage to Gaza of a group of harmless civilians appeared as an act of panic, publicized day after day in the world media. The same sense of panic was evident in early July, when another group of peace activists flew to Israel intending to meet with Palestinian hosts in the West Bank.

The travellers, ranging in age from 9 to 85, had been invited to attend a weeklong program called "Welcome to Palestine" organized by Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust, Prof. Mazin Qumsiyeh of Bethlehem University, and other advocates of nonviolent protest. Since the Palestinians have no airport of their own, their guests were forced to land at Ben-Gurion Airport, where they encountered what can only be called official paranoia.

Hundreds of police who had been gathered at the airport for several days descended on the arriving travellers as Israeli bystanders shouted "Go back to Syria," "Nazis!" and "They should all be raped!" Since many of the potential visitors had already been turned back at European airports at Israel’s request, only 124 managed to arrive. They were immediately handcuffed and jammed into tiny insect-infested cells–”some for several days–”until they could be deported. A handful of Israelis carrying signs saying "Welcome to Palestine" were also arrested.

Israel’s Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovitch claimed the visitors were "hooligans" and "provocateurs," and cabinet minister Eli Yishai boasted of Israel’s success in blocking "enemies of Israel" and "pogromists." More rational Israelis accused the government of acting like a frightened bully. "What happened today at Ben-Gurion International Airport was simply an inexcusable absurdity," journalist Hagai Matar commented.

Calling the event "a day of madness at the airport," Matar pointed to a feeling of "fear, siege and persecution, which dominates political discourse in this country and reaches scary dimensions." Much of this fear, he suggested, stems from the Palestinians’ decision to seek U.N. recognition, a decision that prompted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to warn that Israel faced "a diplomatic tsunami." Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, maintains that what Israel fears most is any form of international recognition of a border between Israel and Palestine.

"Israel’s goal," he said in an interview in mid-July, "is to prevent a border being drawn between them and the West Bank. The goal has been to retain permanent control over the West Bank and Gaza." With the U.S. acting as its enabler, the Israeli government is carrying out the dream of militant Zionists from the beginning: to reclaim the Land of Israel as it was defined in the Bible. A third of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is now off limits to Palestinians without special permits. Two-thirds of West Bank roads are either closed to Palestinians or controlled by Israeli guards stationed at 585 permanent roadblocks.

By demolishing hundreds of Palestinian homes and doubling the number of illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley, Israel has accomplished the de facto annexation of that fertile area as well, and cut off the Palestinians’ only link to the outside. Israel is steadily expanding existing illegal settlements elsewhere in the West Bank. On July 18 the government announced plans to build 294 more homes and 6 factories in Ma’ale Adumim, the giant settlement east of Jerusalem, an expansion that further erases the chance of a contiguous Palestinian state.

Among the most maddening of the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians is the refusal by Washington and its allies to acknowledge the brutality of the Israeli occupation. Yitzak Laor writes in the July 5 issue of Haaretz that Palestinians "live under a regime that few other occupations allowed themselves–”imagine your children being awakened at night by the shouting of armed men, breaking down doors and blinding them with flashlights; imagine living without any protection whatever."

The gratuitous, often sadistic cruelty to which Israel subjects Palestinians was illustrated recently when its army raided the Freedom Theater in Jenin. The famed theater was founded by Arna Khamis, an Israeli married to a Palestinian, who intended it as a cultural and creative outlet for young Palestinians trapped by the occupation. Dozens of Israeli commandoes stormed the theater at 3 a.m. on July 27, smashed several windows with stone blocks, and arrested two men, including Bilal Saadi, chairman of the theater’s board. They also smashed the windows of Saadi’s house. The two men were ordered to remove their pants, then taken off to prison. When the theater manager arrived on the scene and asked what was happening, soldiers pointed their guns at him and ordered him to be quiet.

As settlements encroach on Palestinian land, settler violence against Palestinians is increasing as well, while the army looks the other way. According to a U.N. study, 178 Palestinians were run over, stoned, or shot by settlers, and 3 killed, during the first 6 months of 2011. Olive groves, the only source of income for many Palestinians, are a major target of the Israelis. Settlers destroyed 3,600 trees in June alone. Not surprisingly, the government has not condemned the vandalism, since the more Palestinians who can be encouraged to leave, the easier it will be for Israel to maintain control of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israel is using every effort to discourage peaceful protest. Participants face teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, but stand their ground. Villages where protests take place endure midnight invasions of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and stun guns. Yet "We do not harm human lives," said their organizer, Bassem Tamimi. "The very essence of our activity opposes killing." Tamimi, like several other organizers of the movement, are now in Israeli military prisons, but the protests continue to spread across the West Bank. According to Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a longtime peace activist, "Popular nonviolent resistance is so powerful, and that’s precisely why the Israelis are so afraid."

The freedoms most Israelis enjoy are now becoming a victim of that fear. On July 11 the Knesset passed a law making it a crime to call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott directed at Israel or the occupied territories. Supporters claim the law is necessary in the fight against "global deligitimization." But critics of the law, in both Israel and the U.S., were quick to react.

Peace Now and the Israel Association for Civil Rights immediately challenged the law by endorsing a boycott of settlement-produced goods. Mossi Raz, a member of the liberal Meretz party, called it "One of the most dastardly laws in the history of the state of Israel." In the U.S., even the staunchly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League–”which has its own history of spying on Americans–”expressed concern that the law violates Israelis’ right to self-expression, and Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace openly support a boycott.

Haaretz warned that laws such as the anti-boycott act were "transforming Israel’s legal code into a disturbingly dictatorial document." A similar bill would authorize the government to investigate human rights organizations that do not meet the standards of "fairness and national security," and another would politicize the Supreme Court by giving the Knesset, which is dominated by right-wing members, the right to appoint justices.

According to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, such laws are necessary to combat "terror groups and terror supporters." However one group that could be affected is We Will Not Obey, composed of Israeli women who smuggle West Bank Palestinian women into Israel to enjoy a day of ocean bathing, relaxation, and cross-cultural socializing. Hanna Rubenstein, one member of the group, explained, "One day people will ask, like they did of the Germans, ‘Did you know?’ And I will be able to say, ‘I knew. And I acted.’" At least 28 of the Israeli women have been questioned by the police, and their cases are pending.

The laws that give the government a free hand to silence criticism could also make Israel more vulnerable. The increasing dominance of the messianic right threatens to isolate secular and liberal Israelis. The recent mass protests by Israelis who have seen their income reduced, while the nation’s growing wealth becomes concentrated at the top, points to another deepening division within Israel. At the same time, support for Israel among young American Jews is reportedly diminishing. It may soon be harder for the pro-Israel lobby to justify sending $5 billion a year in U.S. aid to a country with a flourishing economy but an eroding democracy.

There is no danger as yet that Washington will abandon Israel. But a combination of reduced support by American Jews and the rise of democratic movements in the Middle East should cause both Israel and the Obama administration to reconsider their policies. The danger Israel faces today is not from terrorism but from an increasingly polarized society, and the moral appeal of Palestinians who seek only to be free of an oppressive occupation, and the right to live a normal life.