Category Archives: Middle East

Talking on Russia Today about Israel/Palestine and International Humanitarian Law

Have a watch of me being interviewed on RT (Russia Today) on Israel/Palestine and International Humanitarian Law.

This video is about a year old but I’ve only just stumbled across it. No laughing at me not being able to hear the presenter nor the hesitant roundabout answers.

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It’s quite possible that both sides have used chemical weapons in Syria

What happened in the suburb of Damascus that resulted in the death of 1,429 Syrians on the 21st August?

This question sits at the heart of the debate about what the International Community should do in response to the attack.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry is pretty clear that he thinks he knows what happens and what needs to happen. In short, he believes Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its own people – an act constituting a war crime. Commenting on a declassified report Kerry said that the findings are “are as clear as they are compelling.”

His suggested course of action  is immediate air-strikes.

The UK knows that the Assad regime has stockpiles of chemical weapons partly because 10 months after the outbreak of the most recent conflict the UK government sold nerve gas chemicals to the regime.

Despite all this, many are still claiming that there is not sufficient evidence that the Assad regime is definitely responsible for these attacks. Natalie Bennett, leader of The Green Party, writing on Liberal Conspiracy said: “no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21.”

The UN inspectors are still compiling their evidence and have given no indication of when they will announce their results.

Bennett’s suggested course of action  involves the ICC. She comments, “The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”

Of course, none of this is anything new in Syria.

We know that there have been reports of deaths after chemical attacks for months before this most recent attack. For example, in March this year 26 people died in the Khan al-Assal area (just outside Aleppo) after an attack that is believed to have involved Sarin. On this occasion, the Russian government produced a report suggesting rebel forces were responsible for the attack- a reported that was contradicted by US evidence.

We also know that rebel forces have been in possession of chemicals such as Sarin. In May this year, Turksih forces “found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front” .

It is worth reminding ourselves that Al-Nusra is a listed terrorist organisation that is a splinter of AL-Qaeda and is also widely considered to be the most powerful military force currently fighting Assad’s regime. We also know that Al-Nusra have claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians areas – a failure of the principle of distinction and itself a war crime. This, when combined with a series of brutal killings, starts to paint a bleak picture of what some within the opposition stand for.

I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons but I am under no pretence that some of those who are opposing Assad are just as capable of such atrocities.

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From knighthoods to bombs. Blair switches sides on Assad.

British PM Tony Blair hosted the dictator at 10 Downing in 2002. So high was his esteem for Assad that...
The hand-wringing has to stop. We must act” wrote Tony Blair.

In a passionate article Blair calls for intervention in Syria. He comments, “It is time we took a side: the side of the people…”

Blair pulls no punches in his opposition to Assad. At one point, Blair even compares the violent Bashar al-Assad regime to the “dark days of Saddam”. An awkward reminder of his illegal war in Iraq.

His opposition to this murderous dictator (connected to the death of over hundred thousand Syrians) has not always been this clear cut.

It has emerged, that the previous New Labour government considered bestowing a knighthood on Assad during his trip to the UK in 2002. This is despite 10 downing street referring to him at the time as, “this nasty dictatorship that locks up its own MPs”.

During his visit he also had an audience with Elizabeth Windsor and a platform in parliament.

Of course, it wasn’t just Blair who was flirting with Assad. Buzzfeeds have done an excellent job in reminding us of the on-going relationship between Assad and the US.

Here is a photo of Kerry sharing a cool drink with Assad in 2009 (after widely documented human rights abuses took place – eg cracking down on human rights activists in 2007):

The US and their old friend Tony seem to be clear enough now on whose side they are on (or at least whose side they are NOT on) – but it hasn’t always been that clear.

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A response to Guido Fawkes question, ‘Why Not Holiday In Gaza?’

The rabidly reactionary and yet remarkably well read blogger Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) dipped below even his usual standards today when he published a blog entitled, “Why Not Holiday In Gaza This Year.”

The blog opened saying:

‘The IDF are good at lot of things, not least social media. This week they are releasing new images of ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and just how bad the conditions are in the “open prison camp”.’

It then showed this collage of photos:

The blog, whilst rightly criticising some of Hamas’ discriminatory (and frankly horrific) policies makes appalling light of a truly horrific situation.

Take the term ‘open prison camp’ for example. It has been used to describe the on-going crippling blockade of Gaza. These restrictions have contributed towards 80% of those living in Gaza being reliant on humanitarian aid.

Oxfam explains:

“Because of the blockade on Gaza, people are sealed in to a small strip of land and unable to flee. Our partners working in Gaza have stressed that it is not safe to move around in Gaza right now”

This blockade, according to the International Red Cross is punishing the population of Gaza for the actions of the few which constitutes one of many violations of International Humanitarian Law committed by Israel. They state:

“The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”

I tried to pick Paul up on some of this tweeting:

When Paul responded saying:

It was clear that he was either ignorant of the nature and severity of the blockade or, and perhaps more likely, trolling.

As such, my suggestion to Paul would be this: fly to Tel Aviv (for you can’t fly to anywhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territories), tell immigration you are planning a beach holiday in Gaza, then let us know what your experience of the following 12 hours is.

This might serve as the basis for a follow up blog, on your “Why not holiday in Gaza?” article.

If that doesn’t help, you could always read the UN’s July 2013 up-date on the restrictions in Gaza.

 

UPDATE: It looks like some of the photos used are not even of Gaza. Awkward. 

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Israel/Palestine – reflections of a tired peace activist

When things get to a certain ‘bullshit factor’ I think I subconsciously switch off. It is a sort of self-defence mechanism against insanity.

I think it happened about three years ago with climate change. I can tell you that climate change is the single biggest threat to humanity blah blah blah but I don’t find myself lying awake at night worrying about it.

To be honest, I only really think about it when one of my more solid activist friends tweets, writes or speaks to me about it. The rest of the time it swirls around in my head evading any solid thoughts, let alone actions.

I have been dwelling on this particular thought over the last few weeks, thinking I really should pull my finger out and do something about it when it suddenly struck me that I have also switched off about Israel/Palestine.

The observant amongst you will have noticed I have barely mentioned it in the last few months on these pages.  A very personal bombshell that I doubt anyone reading this will care very much about.

I have subconsciously wondered off from all those people whose hands I shook, coffee I drank and that I made all those ill-thought out promises to, “I won’t forget this hospitality”, “I will do everything I can”, “I will write” etc etc.

Staying for a short period of time in the West Bank was a deeply moving experience and one that I would recommend to most people. For me, it helped put a lot of things in perspective and yet, perversely, for some it also seems to annihilate all sense of perspective.

I still care passionately about the people that I met, and with less rationality, the people I didn’t meet that live in the troubled towns and villages that I visited.

But, as much as I try and muster the will power, I am simply no longer reading Ma’an News, I have stopped listening out for what Peace Now has to say and worse of all…I no longer feel the fire of injustice that burned so fiercely when I hear about arbitrary arrests, midnight incursions, rockets and all the other bullshit that occurs on a daily basis in Israel/Palestine.

What’s happened?

I don’t know exactly. Of course, partially time… I moved countries, moved jobs, got engaged. Life moved on and before I realised it the memories that loomed in my rear view mirror that once loomed so large slipped out of sight.

Partially disillusionment, my ‘moderate’ approach (showing empathy towards people regardless of their belief, religion, skin colour, nationality etc) seemed to win me surprisingly few friends and the few friends it did win me were, so I was told, sell-outs or people ‘pretending to be moderate in order to be extreme’ (an accusation that was also regularly thrown at me).

I guess most of all, I got as tired of talking to people who weren’t listening and the people who were listening got tired of listening to me.

Don’t worry; this isn’t me giving up just being honest with myself, with you.

Just because something is difficult it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The improbability of peace in Israel/Palestine remains a weak defence for the inaction of the majority. I will proudly call for the improbable and fight the uphill fight but, being honest with myself, I can see I will be doing it at a lower intensity…dipping in and out of the insanity, commenting when I feel the strongest and feel it to be strategic.

Perhaps that is what I should have been doing from the start.

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Beers of Israel and Palestine…

During my time in Israel/Palestine I got to taste some wonderful beers. Israel especially has a impressive and growing craft-beer scene.

You can read some of my comments on two of the widely produced (and consumed) beers in Israel/Palestine – Goldstar and Taybeh – in this CNN article by Orlando Crowcroft.

You can also have a read of my visit to Taybeh Brewery in the West Bank – here.

Cheers.

Steve

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How will the UK ensure only the good guys shoot the bad guys with the guns they are thinking of giving to the people they think are good guys?

If the UK government proceed and arm Syrian rebels, the very minimum they have to do is provide detailed answers to Amnesty International activist Kristyan Benedict’s 10 questions. 

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, [the ending of the arms embargo] gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” 

This was William Hague’s response to the EU’s failure to reach agreement around renewing the arms embargo on Syria.

The New York Times summarized the in rifts within the EU over arming rebels saying:

efforts to ease the arms embargo, led by Britain, exposed deep rifts on Monday over the issue of arming the rebels… Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.”

Many met this news with dismay:

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister was unequivocal in his government’s analysis of the situation saying:

“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,”

Timmermans hits on the same point that Kristyan Benedict asks in his article “10 questions“. The last of these 10 questions to the UK government about arming the Syrian opposition reads:

“What is the likelihood of an arms race occurring from increased arms supplies to the armed opposition?”

It is an important question.

It is widely understood that the UK and France are eager to provide armed support to the rebels.  As such, the crux of Benedict’s questions, “what adequate safeguards would the UK Government put in place to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses.” is more relevant than ever.

If the UK government does go ahead and arm the rebels, despite the very vocal criticism, the very minimum it has to do is to be able show it can effectively answer each of Benedict’s questions. How will they ensure rebels use the weapons in line with IHL? How will they ensure they do not fall into the wrong hands? etc etc…

Without these basic safeguards they leave themselves open to accusations of negligence and (according to the Austrian government) violations of International Law.

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Letter to the Guardian Weekly regarding violence in the West Bank

This is a copy of a letter that I have sent to the Guardian Weekly:

Dear Editor,

Harriet Sherwood captures some of the anger and frustration that many feel across the West Bank (
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers in West Bank: 4th April). Yet towards the end of the article when she explores one of the events that has sparked this recent uprising – the death of Amer Nasser and Naji Belbisi – she offers only the Israeli army’s account of the events surrounding the deaths. 

“According to the Israeli military, the pair were shot while hurling molotov cocktails at an army checkpoint close to a nearby settlement”

In contrast, in Israel, Gideon Levy reported the event by describing the deaths as “an execution” due to the nature in which the second boy was shot after he tried to run away (Every soldier has a name: Haaretz 14th April).

Both describe the same event, but offer two very different accounts that give the reader a very different impression as to why so much anger spilled out onto the streets of the West Bank after these deaths.

Regards,

Steve Hynd

Kampala
Uganda

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A response to: “May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell”

This a guest post by my very good friend, Mike Assenti.

Yesterday someone I have a great deal of respect for posted the following on Facebook not long after the news broke of the Boston Marathon bombing:

“May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell.”

This really pissed me off.

Far be it from me to undermine the serious and tragic nature of this horrific act – having run a couple of half marathons I know very well the fantastic and generous atmosphere of these sporting events, and can think of few times when so many people who have worked so hard to raise money for charity are all gathered in one place. At the time of writing, 3 people have died and over 150 have been injured, many terribly, and I feel nothing but compassion and pity for those affected. However, something about the extremity of the hate in this kneejerk reaction has really gotten under my skin, particularly given my affection for the person concerned. Unfortunately, they are far from alone, and so this blogpost is an attempt to counter the attitudes present in this and many other reactions to these and similar events.

There are a number of issues here, one of which is the general response to atrocities that take place in the West compared with the far more everyday occurrences elsewhere in the world. In the run up to elections this weekend in Iraq, a spate of car bombs have killed dozens (http://goo.gl/22imY), and injured hundreds more, but the mundanity of these events demotes the story way below Boston and Thatcher, and I have no reason to think that it won’t continue to do so.

I can’t remember seeing a single Facebook update from my friends or family on these bombings. To be clear, I am not making any sort of judgment on those people who have not erupted in outpourings of sympathy for those victims in Iraq – I am as guilty as anyone else of allowing the whole event to pass by as another unfortunate background event. Lurking somewhere in the back of my head is the Scroobius Pip lyric from ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’ (http://goo.gl/JFGV)

“Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries, as to those that occur in English speaking countries”.

Another issue is the condemnation of this attack when considered next to other, ongoing killings, such as continuing US drone strikes. This is summarised, amongst other related issues, far more eloquently by Glenn Greenwald in his first point from this article: http://goo.gl/wKgbK. He writes,

…”it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid.”

There are a number of pretty astonishing statistics when you look at the death tolls from US drone strikes, not least the 174 children killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone over the last decade (http://goo.gl/QU1qi). The quantities of these attacks have ballooned under Obama’s presidency, no doubt devastating countless lives and families, the vast majority of which are civilians caught in the crossfire. Should President Obama be held accountable for these deaths? There’s certainly a strong argument that he should, but until recently the silence on the issue of the very principle of these drone strikes has been deafening.

I think that the most important part of this is the need to refrain from jumping to conclusions before there is sufficient evidence to form an opinion. Already many in the American media have been unable to resist speculating whether this is an Islamic Jihadi attack (http://goo.gl/tVtz6) in the same vein as 9/11, despite there currently being no evidence to support this. Having said that, the sheer lack of evidence so far in this incident means that most have little choice but to remain open minded at this point. We simply do not know who set off these bombs or why they did so.

In Norway in 2011, Anders Breivik set off a car bomb killing 8 people, and shot a further 69 at a youth camp, most of which were teenagers. In response to his ultra-right wing views and apparent lack of remorse during his fair and open trial, the vast majority of Norwegian people displayed astonishing courage and conviction by maintaining their support for the democracy and tolerance to which Breivik was so opposed (http://goo.gl/ZRF1H). They reacted to a terrible tragedy calmly and sensibly, with compassion for the victims and justice for the perpetrator (true justice, not a mob lynching), and in doing so displayed remarkable strength as a society.

Whatever the investigation into these bombings reveals, it is likely that the reasons behind this attack are complex and multi-faceted. Obama’s drone program takes place for a multitude of reasons, many of which would seem reasonable to those of us in the West, but likely less so to the victims of a drone strike.

In my personal opinion, little is gained from the expression of hate by ANY party, whether verbally or through violence. The attack on Boston last weekend was a despicable, tragic, pointless act, and those responsible must face justice in a fair, transparent way with all of the complex evidence present, whoever they are. Similarly, we must try to look through this same prism when considering these other acts around the world, regardless of their frequency, and regardless of who commits such acts. Better still, the people of Norway have demonstrated that it is possible to do so with courage and magnanimity even in the face of great tragedy and loss.

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Anti-Semitism in pro-Palestinian networks

Anti-Semitism exists within ‘pro-Palestinian’ networks and must be tackled. But labelling everyone who speaks out against Israel’s crimes as ‘anti-Semitic’ is as unhelpful as it is untrue.

In a brave and powerful article in the New Statesman, Mehdi Hassan took on what he referred to as the “the banality of Muslim anti-Semitism” in Britain.

I am sure it wasn’t an easy article for him to write but it was an important article for at least two reasons. Firstly, it tackles a form of prejudice that has been left untouched by many. Secondly, it made me and I suspect many others, reflect on the prejudice that sits within our own social circles.

As I was reading the article I could not help but to draw parallels with the low-level anti-Semitism that exist within the ‘pro-Palestinian’ activist networks that I have dipped in and out of in the last few years.

Please stick with me here. What I am about to write involves me wading through a quagmire of politics, misinformation and high emotion.

From my personal experience, most of the ‘internationals’ (ie not Palestinians or Israelis) that are passionate about the ‘Palestine issue’ are so because they have a deep rooted empathy with other human beings that have been, and still are, suffering terribly.

I have however come across the occasional individuals who self identifies as ‘pro-Palestinian’ who has also held anti-Semitic views and used the conflict as context and cover to express these views.

The problem is that a significant minority of those in the former category – the well intentioned empathetic individuals – have not been vocal enough or clear enough in condemning these views.

In addition to this I have come across lazy and sloppy language often confusing the state of Israel with that of Jews worldwide – not anti-Semitic in itself but a line of thought that when combined with vocal criticism of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, can too often lead to anti-Semitism.

In addition to all of this in the international activist community, I also came across wide-spread anti-Semitism within parts of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank.

Part of what triggered me to write this article was Mehdi writing about the conspiracy theories he had come across in the British Muslim community. With obvious sarcasm he wrote:

“What about 9/11? Definitely those damn Yehudis. I mean, why else were 4,000 Jews in New York told to stay home from work on the morning of 11 September 2001?”

A conspiracy theory that is as repulsive as it is without truth. A conspiracy theory however that I heard on four separate occasions from Palestinians in the West Bank and once from an international working in the there.

What was also interesting and perhaps equally as depressing was a conversation I had with an ISM volunteer in Nablus. I told her about hearing these conspiracy theories and she responded saying that (and I paraphrase from memory) ‘you can’t blame Palestinians for thinking like that. Wouldn’t you if you had lived under occupation for the last 45 years?’

At the time I didn’t know where to start. I gave my answer, “No” and walked off. In retrospect it clearly highlights to me a deep rooted problem -That too many who self identify as pro-Palestinian become apologists for a form of anti-Semitism.

In short I can see three issues that we as peace activists need to face up to:

1)      A tiny minority of those who campaign for Palestinian rights do so holding unacceptable anti-Semitic views.

2)      Too many of those who campaign for Palestinian rights, also too often turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism amongst fellow activists and amongst Palestinians.

3)      A significant minority of Palestinians express anti-Semitic views and are left unchallenged (it goes without saying that this does not describe the majority of Palestinians).

On the flip side of this of all this is an equally important challenge that anyone serious about tackling anti-Semitism has to face up to.

I have personally been accused of being anti-Semitic, hating Israel and such forth**. All utter codswallop. Equally, I know good friends who have had similar accusations thrown at them. This not only cheapens the accusations but it makes seeing the actual anti-Semite amongst the false accusations much more difficult.

Equally, it is worth noting that it doesn’t just apply to individuals.

EAPPI –the organisation that I travelled to the West Bank with – has also had every criticism you can imagine thrown at it.

Melanie Phillips writing in the Mail quoted the following remarks about EAPPI:

“[EAPPI is] nothing but an insidious front for a pro-Palestinian campaign to propagate the partisan lie that, while Israel is besieged by child killers, infiltrated by suicide bombers, surrounded by Islamist propagandists and endures almost daily missiles launched at civilian areas, she is the aggressor, the terroriser, the occupying force.’

‘… the EAPPI ascribes Palestinian misery to apartheid Israel alone, consistently turning a blind eye to Palestinian aggression, corruption, rejectionism and incitement (not to mention Islamism, homophobia, racism and the oppression of women). The EAPPI is blind to antisemitism and deaf to the numerous overtures to peace which have been offered. They are ignorant of Israel’s need for security, and oblivious to the fact that she alone in the entire region is a vibrant, tolerant, multiracial, multi-faith society.’

This description of EAPPI is so far from what I experienced that it dissolves any sense of credibility that the author might have tried to project.

In short, I and many others cease to take it seriously because it bears no resemblance of the truth.

Our ability to tackle the low level anti-Semitism within the ‘pro-Palestinian community’ (a term I feel uncomfortable using but do so for the sake of ease) is hampered by those who aim to smear all involved as anti-Semitic.

I, like many others, have learnt to ignore such criticisms. The severity, sensitivity and frequency of this anti-Semitism though demands that we start taking this seriously. The roles of those who dedicate themselves to highlighting anti-Semitism has to be to begin to work with the progressive majority within ‘pro-Palestinian’ circles to tackle anti-Semitism– not blindly attacking. It helps nobody when these progressives spend their time having to defend themselves from false accusations.

Like Mehdi this article has not been easy for me to write. Removing prejudice and encouraging a greater degree of human empathy has to be the starting block of any future peace.

I am sure that this article will win me no friends from either side of this polarised debate. So I finish with a plea to the moderates who might quietly agree – speak out. Publically stand up for those falsely accused of anti-Semitism and condemn in the strongest terms any hint of true anti-Semitism you experience. The foundations of any future peace depend on it.

 

 

**Update** After receiving feedback I’d like to clarify that when I listed ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘hating Israel’ next to each other I was seeking to illustrate some of the false accusations thrown at me, not to conflate the two as being the same.

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Talks on Israel/Palestine

In 2012 I spent five months living in the West Bank as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel. I then undertook a speaking tour about my experiences.

I wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone who hosted me and to everyone who attended one of my talks.

So a huge thank you to:

I am still available for further one off talks, commentary or debate. My contact details are here.

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CHILDREN OF PEACE INTERVIEW

This is a copy of an interview I did for charity Children of Peace.  Children of Peace is a UK based charity that works with both Israeli and Palestinian children to build positive relationships for a future generation, whose communities might live and work in peace, side-by-side.

“Steve is a human rights worker who spent five months in 2012 in the occupied Palestinian territories as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel and Palestine. He is currently working in Kampala, Uganda.

Sarah Brown (Sarah): Could you tell us what sparked your interest in Israel/Palestine?

Steve Hynd (Steve): A mixture of design and chance is the straight answer.

My sister studied ancient Hebrew at the University of Jerusalem and was living in West Jerusalem in 2001 and experienced first-hand the impact suicide bombers had on the community in which she was living. I was at secondary school when this was happening and it challenged me to think about the conflict. My sister was moved deeply by what she saw, but will openly admit, she only saw one side of the story. This was my very first introduction to the conflict.

Since then I have been actively involved with human rights issues and organisations for a long time. Invariably Israel/Palestine came up – especially during my time at Amnesty International in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead.

At first though, I chose to work on other issues and countries and took an active interest in countries such as Turkmenistan (described by Freedom House as ‘the worst of the worst’) thinking that there were others with more knowledge and better placed to work on the Israel/Palestine conflict. I thought to myself ‘what could I contribute?’

Only after getting involved with EAPPI, almost by chance, I have come to think that I do actually have a role to play and something to contribute.

Sarah: What made you decide to work with EAPPI?

Steve: I became interested in a model of human rights work that combined impartial monitoring with the concept of ‘protective presence’. This was being practiced by organisations like Peace brigade International (PBI) and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Israel and Palestine (EAPPI). PBI worked mainly in South America and EAPPI worked in the West Bank. In the end I chose to apply for EAPPI for a range of reasons including being interested in positive examples of faith based organisations – this led me, in many ways by chance, to Israel and the occupied territories.

I had also come across EAPPI as I had previously worked for the Quakers (who coordinate EAPPI in the UK and Ireland) and had heard very positive feedback from people I respected. Before I applied I contacted Symon Hill (author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Religion) who at the time worked at Friends House in London and he had nothing but praise for the organisation.

Sarah: EAPPI has faced some recent criticism. Would you like to comment on that, or, more generally, on the assertion that Israel, as a comparatively accessible and open society, comes in for a disproportionate amount of scrutiny?

Steve: In the lead up to the Church of England synod vote (to endorse the EAPPI) they did come under a lot of criticism. A small amount of which I felt was valid, but a lot I felt was not valid and indeed was often inaccurate or misleading.

As with all conflicts, EAPPI as a human rights organisation challenges some vested interests and gets attacked because of it.

In terms of Israel more generally…

Israel is paradoxical in its human rights record. In one sense, as the question suggests, it is open and free. It consistently does well in terms of press freedoms and is a beacon of hope, in stark contrast to its neighbours, on issues such LGBT rights.

You cannot however, examine Israel’s human rights policy, without looking at their foreign policy and their on-going occupation of the territories and their continued disregard for International Humanitarian Law.

I have no doubt that some people use these violations as a tool to attack Israel – either because of regional politics or because of anti-Semitic values. Equally however, from my experience, most people working on the conflict are doing so because they care passionately about the victims. I know a number of good people working hard for peace that have been lazily labelled ‘anti-Semites’ – this cheapens a very serious problem.

Equally, sometimes the criticisms of human rights organisations are unfounded. For example, Human Rights Watch is often accused of ‘attacking Israel’ and focusing disproportionately on Israel. In reality, Human Rights Watch works on 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Israel accounts for about 15 percent of published output on the region. The Middle East and North Africa division is one of 16 research programs at Human Rights Watch and receives 5 percent of total budget.

I accept that Israel has more focus on it than most other countries (such as Turkmenistan), but I still maintain that we need more focus on these neglected countries rather than less on Israel. In my opinion it is a disgrace how few people care about, or are willing to work for the people in Turkmenistan.

This why, whenever I speak to people about Israel/Palestine I insist that we can all be doing more and working harder.

Sarah: Could you tell us about some moments which most stick in your mind from your time with EAPPI?

Steve: It is hard to pull out a couple of moments. There was not a day that went by where I didn’t hear about how people’s lives were being affected by the occupation.

Perhaps the best place to start would be the occasion when I felt the most hope. I was in Sderot in Israel on the border with Gaza and we met with representatives from the peace group ‘Other Voice’.

Every house in Sderot has a built in ‘safe room’. I was told residents have just 14 seconds to get to it should they hear the warning siren before rockets from Gaza might hit. This is a physical impossibility for many such as Sderot’s elderly residents. People live in fear. Nearly all of Sderot’s residents have been affected by rocket attacks.

Despite this reality, I found people who were looking to work creatively with Palestinians to find a lasting peace. I passionately believe that change needs to come, at least in part, from within Israel. Groups like Other Voice might provide the seeds from which this change grows.

A second example that sticks in my mind highlights the complicity of the Israeli Defence Force in some of what is happening. I was in the village of Urif and settlers had set fire to a large section of Palestinian farmland. When Palestinians went to put the fire out, the IDF fired teargas at them and the settlement security shot a Palestinian in the spine. When Palestinians went to help the man, the IDF continued to fire tear gas at them. The whole time they watched on as the settlers continued to undertake acts of arson.

This is just one of many examples where the IDF were not fulfilling their responsibilities to protect the occupied population!

Sarah: Is there anything which really surprised you in Israel/Palestine? And anything which you have changed your mind about?

Steve: It surprised me quite how the occupation affects every part of life for so many people. Before I went, I understood that terrible things happened. I didn’t understand that not a day would go by in the West Bank without either a demolition, a midnight raid of a village, some arbitrary arrests, detentions, excessive use of teargas, child detention, etc. The reality of everyday life for an ordinary Palestinian shocked me.

I was lucky, and unusual, in that before I went I didn’t hold many preconceptions about the conflict. In that sense I would say that the experience was a steep learning curve for me.

Sarah: Which commentators (journalists, writers or bloggers) on Israel/Palestine would you recommend to someone wishing to learn more about the region?

Steve: This question has a catch in it. One of my biggest gripes is that too many people approach the conflict from a partisan side-taking perspective. If you follow bloggers, journalists and writers, you have to take 90% of them with the assumption that they are pushing an agenda. In light of that, I feel more comfortable naming a few organisations (with the understanding that I might not agree with everything that they say/do)

  • B’Tselem – The Israeli Human Rights organisation.
  • Breaking the Silence – The Israeli organisation of ‘veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada, and have taken it upon themselves, to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories’.
  • Al Hac – Palestinian Human Rights organisation.
  • EAPPI – They provide regular on-the-ground accounts of what is happening.

I would encourage everyone to explore and read on this issue as widely as possible – trying to empathise with what has been written.

Sarah: Can you tell us something about your hopes/fears for the future?

Steve: The same as most people I think – I hope for lasting peace that enables Israelis and Palestinians to live side by side feeling safe and secure.

My fear? That the detrimental spiral of violence and mistrust will continue and people will continue to suffer.

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Zionists and Palestinian Activists Unite In Condemning Galloway

The reason is simple; No recognition, No normalisation. Just Boycott, divestment and sanctions, until the Apartheid state is defeated

This is the explanation George Galloway MP gave for walking out of a debate after stating he doesn’t “debate with Israelis”.

Everyone from Harry’s Place through to the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has condemned Galloway’s overtly discriminatory views.

I find it extraordinary that someone who claims to working for peace in the region will refuse to talk to an entire nation of people.

By saying he won’t debate with Israelis, is he saying that he won’t debate with the millions of Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship as well?

Or is he saying he won’t with Jewish Israelis?

His view makes no sense. The very suggestion that every Israeli citizen is tacitly involved in the Israelis state oppression of Palestinians is inaccurate and insulting.

It is insulting to the Israelis working at the human rights group B’Tselem. It is insulting to Israeli journalists like Gideon Levy who have devoted their lives to exposing the realities in the occupied territories. It is insulting to anyone who is trying to hold onto a vague sense of shared humanity in this conflict that seems so determined to strip people of this.

Both pragmatically and principally, Galloway’s stance is wrong.

Expect an apology…from George Galloway? No chance.

Galloway later turned to twitter to defend his stance:

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“This is what occupation looks like” says ex-Israeli soldiers

Breaking The Silence is a group of ex-Israeli soldiers who have taken it upon themselves to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”.

Today they put out this important message:

In the past few days thousands of people have seen the image on the right: a Palestinian child in the cross hairs of an Israeli soldier’s gun after the soldier took the photo and uploaded it to his personal Instagram account. It was shared hundreds of times, with many people expressing their discomfort with this absurd show of force where a person can aim a gun at a child just to post a ‘cool’ picture and get many shares.

The image on the left was taken by another Israeli soldier in Hebron in 2003. He later gave us the rights to the photo along with a testimony that were presented in the first Breaking the Silence photo exhibition. The solider in question took the photo using his own personal film camera to keep as a ‘souvenir’.

Both pictures are testaments to the abuse of power rooted in the military control of another people.

Ten years have passed. Technology and media have changed. The distribution of images has changed. But the exaggerated sense of power and the blatant disregard for human life and dignity have remained: this is what occupation looks like.

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Netanyahu, David Ward MP and their “The Jews” comments

Binyamin Netanyahu

This article was cross posted on Liberal Conspiracy

Last week I criticised the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward for his sloppy, unhelpful and inaccurate use of terminology.

This week it is my turn to attack the Israeli Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu for remarkably similar sloppy, unhelpful and inaccurate terminology.

In short, I criticised Ward for using “language to suggest that all Jews were responsible for the crimes that are being committed by the state of Israel”.

In Sunday’s Observer, Netanyahu was quoted as saying, “The Jewish people, [who have] suffered boycotts and persecution, should be a light unto other nations”.

On the flip side of Ward’s comments sits the equally ludicrous assertion that ‘Jews’ in their entirety should be “a light unto other nations” because they have “suffered”.  This is a big conceptual leap that needs to be challenged. Why would suffering lead to an expectation for all Jews to “be a light” or (as Ward suggests) to “have learnt lessons”.

Those who spend their days defending Israel and everything associated with it might well jump to Netanyahu’s defence saying that his comments were not an attack on Jews the same way Ward’s were. Different context, different sentiment, and so different conclusions they would argue.

However, I would argue that Netanyahu’s comments are unhelpful in a comparable way to Ward’s.

Netanyahu (inadvertently) plays into a collective absolutist discourse of ‘The Jews’. This is the same discourse that is used by anti-Semites to attack ‘Jews’ regardless of religion, politics or other affiliations. It is fundamentally a crass discourse that fails to celebrate the diversity within the Jewish population.

Netanyahu’s comments are based on an idea that ‘the Jews’ have some sort of special role to play because of their history.

Imagine, two boys growing up in London – one Jewish, one not. I wonder if Netanyahu could explain to me why the Jewish one should be ‘shining a light’ while he doesn’t expect the non-Jewish one to be?

Just as I asked Ward “what does he want us to learn [from the Holocaust] that is applicable to the current situation in the occupied territories” so I have to ask Netanyahu – what does he think ‘The Jews’ should have learnt from ‘persecution’ that would lead them (collectively – all 13 million of them) to be a ‘light unto other nations’?

It might seem like an obvious thing to write, but I am astonished how often it is missed. ‘Jews’ in their entirety are no more perfect or evil than any other group that so messily brings together thousands of years of history, culture and religion.

This acknowledgement is the basis on which to pull the rug out from under the anti-Semites feet. It doesn’t help if Netanyahu is firmly stood on the same rug.

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UN investigation reports back on Israel’s “policies of dispossessions, evictions, demolitions and displacements” in the occupied West Bank

The UN has today said that Israel’s transfer of population into the West Bank contravenes the 1949 Geneva Conventions and could amount to a war crime.

Click on image to expand

Three UN investigators have called on Israel to halt settlement expansion and withdraw all Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank, saying that it violates international law.

It has been long established that the settlements are, by their very nature, a violation of International Humanitarian Law. As the human rights group Diakonia state:

According to Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, reflective of customary international law , any kind of transfer of the occupying power’s population to the occupied territory is prohibited, regardless of whether the transfer was voluntary or forced”.

Unity Dow, the Botswana member of the investigating team commented:

“Israel’s policies of dispossessions, evictions, demolitions and displacements from land shows the widespread nature of these breaches of human rights”.

Dow went one step further stating:

The motivation behind violence and intimidation against the Palestinians and their properties is to drive the local populations away from their lands, allowing the settlements to expand”.

The report called on Israel to not only halt settlement expansion – something has consistently failed to do – but also to “immediately withdraw” all settlers from occupied territories.

The report also sign posted Palestine to the International Criminal Court who deals with war crimes saying, “Ratification of the [Rome] Statute by Palestine may lead to accountability for gross violations of human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law and justice for victims”.

There are currently about 520,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

There is no doubt that these findings will only further stretch Israel’s already fragile relationship with the UN’s Human Rights Council.

 

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Israel boycotts UN human rights session despite warnings from friends and foe

Israel has become the first ever country to not turn up to its own session under the UN ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) setting a worrying precedent. By boycotting this human rights mechanism, they have moved further away from their friends and foe in the international community.

In July 2010 I wrote:

We cannot allow their regime to dictate when it will cooperate; equally we cannot risk casting them off into the diplomatic wilderness where human rights abuses can occur unchecked

I was writing about Iran and their unhelpful approach to the UN UPR.

On that occasion, the papers were quiet. It wasn’t considered news that Iran had essentially failed to cooperate, in any genuine way, with the new UN human rights process.

Today, in contrast, the papers are filled with Israel’s non-cooperation with the UPR. Israel didn’t attend their own review as part of their ongoing boycott of the UN Human Rights Council. They are boycotting the council after the council launched a fact-finding mission in March 2012 on the (illegal under IHL) Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Israel has long argued that there is bias against it within the UN. Since 2006 more than half the resolutions passed by the Human Rights Council since it started work in 2006 have focused on Israel, specifically over the treatment of Palestinians. For some within the Israel the fact-finding mission was the last straw.

For others it was an essential investigation into Israel’s ongoing violations of IHL.

Regardless, this boycott by Israel has set a dangerous precedent of non-compliance.

Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva argues:

Israel’s deliberate absence would sabotage the principle of universality. Consequently the Universal Periodic Review stands to lose the compelling legitimacy it derives from being applied even-handedly to all state”.

He continued, “Why should states that would prefer to escape scrutiny of their human rights record, or are severely resource constrained, submit to this process if Israel’s non-compliance demonstrates that it is no longer universal?”

Iran, at least gave lip service to the process. Even Turkmenistan turned up!

There are very good reason why we should be worried about Israel’s no show. Again, in the words of Peter Splinter:

“There is evidence that for many countries throughout the world the Universal Periodic Review has contributed to narrowing the gap between human rights standards and their implementation. It would be a great loss to the global human rights project if the Universal Periodic Review were jeopardized”.

Israel’s closest allies, the United States, urged them to take part in the review.  The United States ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said,

 “We have encouraged the Israelis to come to the council and to tell their story and to present their own narrative of their own human rights situation…The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed”.

It is not just those who care about Israelis and Palestinians who should be worried about this development. This has the potential to set a precedent for worst human rights violators around the world to follow.

Israel has recklessly disregarded another staple of international human rights mechanisms and have moved further away from their friends and foe in the international community.

Now, more than ever, we need Israel to be a functional part of this international consensus – not a rogue state on fringes.

We have to wait and see if they turn up to the rescheduled session later this year.

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Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror” – and it’s only going to get worse

Today’s papers are filled with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy, comments to the UN Security Council that Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

His comments come in the aftermath of the UN estimate that 60,000 have now died in the conflict. Although the actual death toll is likely to much higher as the UN excluded any partial or unverifiable reports of killings.

Last summer Amnesty International reported of a “tide of increasingly widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and militias which act with utter impunity”. Significantly, Amnesty International highlighted evidence that war crimes had been committed by both the opposition and government forces.

In November the human rights organisation made a direct plea to William Hague to try and curb the pattern of abuse against civilians being perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

It is hard to imagine the situation getting worse.

Worryingly, some of Mr Brahimi’s comments that went less reported suggest just that. He commented, “The region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad”.

This is an understatement.

Firstly there is Iran. A key player in the conflict that is desperate to keep a Shi’a regional ally – not least as a potential arms link export market for terror organisations working in and around Palestine and Lebanon. Many, including the West’s regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, see a functional transition of power from Assad as a way of reducing Iran’s regional influence.

With neither side strong enough to win the war outright, the regional external players are only likely to increase the bloodshed. There is a growing possibility that the fighting will cross borders to draw in more concrete action from regional players.

Secondly, where there is war, there is a killing to be made through arms exports. This opportunity hasn’t passed the UK and US. Currently using routes through Jordan, the UK and the US is ensuring that arms reach their favoured groups – ignoring the above mentioned war crimes. Of course the UK would argue they are acting to ‘protect civilians’ and the arms trade is an inconsequential side note. Whether or not we believe them is a different question.

Either way, the arms industry (which we know to have a small influence on our government) is more than happy to see this war drag out.

Finally, the West’s aim, the overthrow of Assad, also has the chance to further increase the bloodshed. Haytham Manna writing in the Guardian highlights the thorny side of the armed opposition including al-Nusra who Obama has labelled a “foreign terrorist organisation” and who Manna said “indiscriminately targeted non-Sunni people”. Will they and other Islamist groups form part of the new government when they are playing such a pivotal role in the armed resistance?

Even after the overthrow of Assad, will this end the civil war?

Bahimi’s warnings are clear and should act as a warning, not just to the Russians and Chinese who continue to block calls for sanctions against Assad, but also to the West who seem all too eager to jump into bed with those who fulfil their short term goals.

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A note to David Ward MP: Your historical comparisons are unhelpful

I never for a moment intended to criticise or offend the Jewish people as a whole, either as a race or as a people of faith, and apologise sincerely

David Ward MP

The Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was criticised for suggesting that “the Jews” in Israel inflicted “atrocities on Palestinians… on a daily basis” and had not learned lessons from the holocaust.

Ward (I believe inadvertently) used language to suggest that all Jews were responsible for the crimes that are being committed by the state of Israel. This is fundamentally not true and can be highly offensive, not least to the many Jews who oppose the immoral foreign policy of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian territories.

The Liberal Democrats responded sayingThe Liberal Democrats deeply regret and condemn the statement issued by David Ward”.

The Liberal Democrats were right to condemn his comments, and Ward was right, in retrospect to apologise.

When speaking to Sky News though, Ward seemed to dig himself deeper. He was asked if he accepts that he was accusing “The Jews” of inflicting “this persecution on the Palestinians,” not the Israeli state. His answer:

Well, I’m accusing the Jews who did it, if you’re a Jew who did not do it then I’m not accusing you. I’m saying that those Jews who did that and continue to do it have not learned those lessons [from the Holocaust]. If you are a Jew and you do not do those things and have never done those things then I am not criticizing you

Hmm…So when he uses the term “The Jews” he is actually just referring to the Jews that are committing the atrocities that he has witnessed in the occupied territories, not Jews in general. As clear as mud.

At best, his (well intentioned) comments were sloppy.

An aspect of his comments that I felt equally uncomfortable with however was his assertion that

The Holocaust was one of the worst examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man. When faced with examples of atrocious behaviour, we must learn from them. It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treatment”

Ignoring his repeated inaccurate and potentially offensive use of “the Jews” he makes a point here that is unhelpful and inaccurate.

Of course, I agree with Ward in the basic assertion that “we must learn” from the holocaust. What I am unclear on though, is what does he want us to learn that is applicable to the current situation in the occupied territories?

This latest uproar reminded me of George Galloway, Oona King and Jenny Tonge’s comments comparing the situation in Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, comparable only in the fact that they both involved human suffering.

At the time, Howard Jacobson wrote in The Independent saying:

In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed – even in the most grossly mis-reported deed – between Gaza and Warsaw

Does this mean we have to ease off our criticism of the Israeli government while they continue to push their expansionist war mongering agenda? Not in the slightest.

There is nothing more powerful than describing the atrocities that are occurring daily in the occupied territories as exactly what they are.

If you want to understand the occupation, Read about the indignity of being made to queue for hours to get to work. Read about the reality of living in a community that is raided at least weekly by a foreign army. Read about the pain of losing your son who is held in detention on spurious charges (often without charge or trial).

No comparison is needed, a sentiment shared by Ward’s colleague Julian Huppert MP.

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Christmas for Christians in occupied Bethlehem

mary_and_joseph_s_journey_compWe all know the story….the divine bump turns out to be the son of God, 2000 years later Coca-Cola has painted him red and we all eat too much to celebrate…it’s Christmas in the UK.

It has once again, come and gone.

Bethlehem though – the place where many think Jesus was born – remains.

It remains under military occupation. The following Christmas story, the story of modern day Bethlehem, is one for Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists alike.

When people sing about the little town of Bethlehem what do you think of? Donkeys? For me, I cannot help but to think of the modern, not so little, town of Bethlehem that I visited earlier this year. The town that is virtually surrounded by the Israeli military separation barrier.

Christmas cards often avoid modern images of the Holy Land. When they dare venture into the present day, you will normally see images of the Church of Nativity in the centre of Bethlehem. For some reason, it is less common to see images of the 8m high separation barrier that surrounds the town…I wonder why?

bethlehem-ghetto

Bethlehem, however much Clinton Cards would have us believe otherwise, is a city that is still under military occupation. Those of faith and those without are living with the consequences of this – the illegal settlements, the separation barrier and the checkpoints that people are forced through daily.

As the Palestinian president Abbas recently said, “For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints”.

For me, no number of Christmas card images will take from me the image of Checkpoint 300 – a place that is devoid of any sense of humanity let alone Christmas cheer.

Checkpoint 300

Checkpoint 300

What many don’t realise though, is that Bethlehem is not just the historical home to Christians but also the literal home to many Palestinian Christians. These Christians are suffering – in many of the same ways other Palestinians are.

The EAPPI report, Faith under Occupation highlights this point stating, “Palestinian Christians face daily violence. Their homes are confiscated or demolished. They rarely get permits to build new houses on their own land. Jobs are scarce, medical assistance is sparse and water is routinely cut off. While Christians from all over  the world can freely visit the church of the Holy Sepulchre, Palestinian Christians are denied the right to freely worship, as they need special permission to enter Arab east Jerusalem”.

There is nothing here that is unique to Christians though.

There are many Muslims in the West Bank whose only desire is to be able to worship in Jerusalem but they are unable to obtain a permit from the Israeli state.

This Christmas, many who live in the ‘Holy Land’ are facing hardship that we cannot begin to imagine.

Christmas will soon be over, but the human suffering in Bethlehem remains. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim in Bethlehem…you live under the same military occupation.

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