Tag Archives: Palestine

Why today I’m reflecting on the deplorable killing of 3 Israeli teenagers

Israel
On hearing the news that 3 bodies have been found in the West Bank that are suspected to be the three abducted Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach,  that went missing almost three weeks ago I posted the following facebook status:

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I was referring to the fact that some armed groups have claimed responsibility for the killings (inc an ISIS affiliated group, and Sarayat al-Quds, the military wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad). If it is shown that one of these groups, or Hamas as the Israeli government keeps claiming, is responsible, then the killings would constitute a war crime.

Almost immediately comments began to follow that status update with comments on context and the atrocious backlash that the Palestinian population has suffered after the abductions in recent weeks. Comments came thick and fast about what we have already witnessed: Israeli forces’ arresting hundreds of Palestinians, raids and damage of property, enforced restrictions on freedom of movement, the continued widespread use of administrative detention and of course a series of killings.

From these comments I assume that people felt one of two things. Either that they thought that by condemning one act of violence I was somehow tacitly condoning another. And/or that some context was needed to the killings of the teenagers for those who read my facebook status updates to understand ‘the other side of the story’.

Whilst I strongly reject the first (for hopefully obvious reasons) the latter needs a bit more exploration.

I strongly agree with the assertion that context is important in understanding violence and human rights abuses. It is essential. I would be fascinated to hear anyone argue anything different. Equally, as a human rights activist the principle of impartiality is important – so I would be equally as passionate about condemning killing of civilian x as I would of civilian y.

The perpetrator is not important, but the context is.

With this said, why then would my facebook status not include the ‘other side of the story’ that so quickly emerged in the comments below?

Firstly, like so many, that status came as a result of reading about and then empathizing with all those affected by the killing of the three boys. It was a knee jerk reaction to a deplorable act. The words that came to hand was that of emotion and human rights, “deplorable act” “war crime” etc.

This facebook status wasn’t an essay, an analysis or trying to make any wider point. It was simply a comment on a deplorable act to illustrate that International Humanitarian Law condemns such behaviour.

Secondly though there is also an issue around comparing and/or contrasting people’s suffering. Not only do I find this morally uneasy but also at times pragmatically unhelpful. I am not convinced that trying to compare levels of suffering is helpful to anyone. In contrast, I can see others use the language of others suffering to perpetrate further atrocities. For me, the death of anyone’s loved one deserves a mark of respect, not a reduction of that life into a statistic to be used and abused for political ends.

With that said, a balance at this point then has to be struck. Clearly those in power are not following this line of thought and are already using these tragic deaths to justify furthering a pattern of events that have been occurring for much longer than the last three weeks.

Netanyahu has openly blamed Hamas for the killings and has promised revenge for what he described as a murder “in cold blood by human animals”. As a result we have already seen a sharp increase in the bombing of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, has called for the extrajudicial executions of leaders of Hamas and for Israel to “start a wave of construction in the settlements in response to the murder of the abductees.” – something which in itself would be the cause of forced displacement, a myriad of human rights violations and is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).

So simply ignoring the context isn’t sufficient either. Mourning the loss of innocent civilians whilst watching on at the on-going violations of others is as equally morally and pragmatically undesirable.

The challenge for myself, and others then looking to comment on these killings and the atrocious backlash being experienced across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, is how we speak out in an equal and fair way without reducing people’s suffering to just statistics or worse, campaigns fodder.

This is something that I am still struggling with and thinking about. For now, I use human rights language. Hence my response as I tried to keep it simple when responding to one friend who asked about the killings of Palestinian children:

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While some might think of human rights language as cold and legalistic, I think of it as a powerful liberal tool that encapsulates the importance of the individual. It is not always perfect but it does allow space for people to expand on individual violations when they want.

This morning I chose expand on the deplorable killings of three Israeli teenagers. This has no bearing on my thoughts on the other violations occurring in the region.

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Why Amnesty International is right: Both the village of Kafr Qaddum and Murad Shtewi must be freed

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The village of Kafr Qaddum in the West Bank was the scene of some of the worst violence I saw during my half year working as a human rights monitor there.

The village holds weekly demonstrations to demand that their main road be reopened. It was closed by the Israeli military authorities in 2002 to prevent Palestinians from travelling on roads designated for use only by Israeli settlers and adds on nearly 20km to their travel to the main town.

These demonstrations are violent affairs. This is my account of a ‘not so peaceful protest’ which includes footage of a Palestinian being mulled by an Israeli military dog (see below) as well as multiple protesters being shot directly by heavy metal tear gas canisters. This is my account is of a 17 year old boy who was relearning to talk after being shot in the head by a tear gas canister.

As I said – the demonstrations are violent affairs littered with human rights abuses. It is not surprising then that on a number of occasions the Israeli military tried to stop human rights monitors and members of the press from entering the village. On one occasion before a particularly brutal response to the protest I had to travel through the olive groves to avoid the Israeli military checkpoint to gain access to the village.

In midst of this madness trying to marshal events was the figure Murad Shtewi. Murad is (was) a leading activist in the weekly demonstrations held in his village. I met him on a number of occasions normally over strong Arabic coffee and cigarettes to discuss what had occurred in his village during the previous week. Invariably the conversation focused on army raids and arbitrary arrests (painfully common events across the West Bank) but this was juxtaposed to Murad’s middle-eastern understanding of lavish hospitality and his talk of non-violence resistance.

I liked Murad for having optimism in the face of such continued violence (violence that Murad experienced first hand, in the video of the dog attack you can see Murad being pepper sprayed in the face for trying to intervene in the dog attack on his nephew).

Despite witnessing so much violence Murad was also committed to non-violence. This commitment to non-violence is one of the key criteria for Amnesty International who now consider Murad a ‘prisoner of conscience’ after his arrest at around 3am on 29th April of this year (arrests in the middle of the night are common place in the West Bank – even when detaining minors).

Murad is charged with organizing a demonstration without a permit, causing a public disturbance, and throwing rocks during a demonstration. Amnesty International has responded to these charges saying:

“In Amnesty International’s assessment, the charges of rock-throwing and of causing a public disturbance are unfounded. Murad Shtewi has been persecuted for expressing his non-violent opinions and for his role in the peaceful protests in Kufr Qadum against Israel’s illegal settlements. His arrest and detention are a measure to punish him and stop him and other village activists from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly.”

As such Amnesty International is calling for Murad Shtewi to be released immediately and unconditionally, as ‘he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression’.

This is a call that I am happy to publicly back. On every occasion that I went to Kafr Qaddum I never once saw Murad throw a stone. On a number of occasions I did see him telling others not to throw stones. I also talked to him at length about the importance of non-violent resistance.

This is also the third time Murad has been arrested (each time released without charge) in the last few years, the first was after the dog attack on his nephew.

Simply put, I can’t see how this latest arrest of Murad has any purpose other than to try and deter him from organizing legitimate protests against the Israeli policy of segregation in the West Bank.

It is in light of all this that I ask you to take a few seconds to send this sample letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that significantly not only calls for Murad’s release but also to:

‘take effective measures to prevent the use of unnecessary and excessive force by Israeli forces against peaceful demonstrators’

Please help me help Murad by taking this small action.

For more information:

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Stop the war coalition supports the war (against Israel’s legitimacy)

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The ‘Stop the war coalition’ ran a blog a coupe of days ago entitled:

Time to go to war with Israel as the only path to peace in the Middle East

I have left this headline in bold because I figure if people misinterpret what the actual article says from this ridiculous headline then so be it – it is there fault for putting such a stupid headline up in the first place.

You see, by going ‘to war with Israel’ what they actually meant was (and again I quote) ‘a legitimacy war’ with Israel. Crystal clear? No not exactly.

By legitimacy war (you find out deep into the quite long article) what they actually meant was a grass-roots movement involving the BDS campaign against interaction with Israeli settlements (that are illegal under IHL).

It takes quite a dedicated reader though to get to the last few paragraphs of this article where it finally explains what it means by ‘war’ and then ‘legitimacy war’. Most people will come away from this article thinking one of two things:

1) Stop the war now backs a one off war against Israel

2) Stop the war now wants a ‘peaceful war’ against Israel’s legitimacy (right to exist).

To put this into a little context, the biggest gripe that most people who are broadly pro-Israel has with the BDS movement is that they feel it sometimes calls into question Israel’s legitimacy. It’s right to exist. This fear is based on a real danger. There are those who would gladly see the state of Israel disappear of maps altogether.

It is curious then that this article decides to refer to BDS as a ‘legitimacy war’.

Is this sloppy language or purposeful provocation?

Even for those who bothered to skip down to the conclusion would have been met with the phrase:

It is important that world public opinion reject as meaningless the diplomatic charade of peace talks while the fate of a people continues to be daily sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.”

They must be able to see how this would be interpreted can’t they? It sounds like a justification for walking away from peaceful negotiations and to resort to other means.

As I say, I reading the article I couldn’t decide if the language was just sloppy or a purposeful provocation.

That was until I got to the very bottom and saw the author.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, was, from 2008 to 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”

I can’t believe that he would have been unaware of the context I have described or the consequences of his words. Which, worryingly, leads me to the only conclusion I can see available – it was a form of purposeful provocation.

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The third intifada and the role of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS)

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For a while now activists have used the phrase ‘third intifada’ to describe the growth of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s involvement in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

The term intifada describes the ‘up-risings’ against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. It derives from the Arabic ‘intifāda’, literally, the act of shaking off.

What is curious though about this ‘third intifada’ is that it so many have chosen to use the word ‘intifada’ at all.

Consider that both the first and second intifada were marked by barbaric levels of violence. Consider also that the second intifada saw the wide-spread use of suicide bombings and is widely held up as a key reason many in the international community lost interest in the ‘Palestinian cause’. One wonders why so many activists are so keen to refer to this non-violent form of resistance as an intifada at all?

One theory, that certainly holds a degree of weight, is that this third intifada of non-violent resistance is much more active outside of Palestine than in. Just recently we have heard of Dutch and Danish banks removing funds from Israel because of activities occurring in the settlements.

The world’s media in recent weeks has been focused around Hollywood actress Scarlet Johansson’s drawn out decision to break away from the International NGO Oxfam because of their disagreement about boycotting business in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Although of course the BDS movement stems from calls within the West Bank, it largely operates in an international global environment. It is feasible that this disconnect is felt by activists campaigning for BDS and by labelling it an ‘intifada’ it roots the campaign back to the Palestinian population it aims to help.

Many that chose to use BDS though do not limit their campaign to organisations or individuals who operate in the occupied Palestinian territories but focus on Israel as a whole reasoning that it is the state of Israel that has the power to change their policy of on-going occupation.

Increasingly however I am coming to think that the chances of the BDS movement succeeding (that is, contributing to a lasting peace) rests heavily on just focusing on the trade and interaction with illegal settlements with a goal of bringing about the end of the occupation – not targeting Israel as a whole.

The reasoning for this is my belief in the importance in moving the silent majority inside Israel to feel both strategically secure and supported but also outraged at the immorality of the occupation. At the moment a large number of Israelis feel insecure and do their best to get on with life without thinking about the immorality of the occupation.

Forms of resistance in the past that have failed to acknowledge this have also led to a failure to bring about peace.

Writing recently in the New York Times Thomas Friedman makes what I feel to be an astute observation saying:

“You cannot move the Israeli silent majority when you make them feel strategically insecure and morally secure, which is what Hamas did with its lunatic shelling of Israel after it withdrew from Gaza; few Israelis were bothered by pummeling them back.”

 In contrast Friedman goes onto argue:

“the Third Intifada is based on a strategy of making Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure”.

Regarding his latter point I would argue that this latest form of resistance has the potential to do this, but could also slip into a diplomatic equivalent of an all-out attack on Israel. Its success rests on its ability to ensure the majority of Israelis feel strategically secure. At the moment I feel that the BDS movement is failing to do that.

The BDS movement has the potential to shine a light on those profiting from the occupation without putting an ounce of doubt around the future of Israel as an independent state. When the price of occupation becomes too high (both economically and politically) the chances of a lasting settlement between two states becomes more possible.

In contrast however, when aimed at Israel as whole, the BDS movement (however well intentioned) can be seen as being simply anti-Israel – or worse, anti-Semitic. This perception is fuelled by the critics of any BDS campaign that look to label it as anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and ultimately anti-peace.

This accusation remains a slur on many involved in the campaign but holds a worrying degree of weight for others. Israel always has had opponents that literally wish it to be wiped off the map. Those who hold those views now see the BDS campaign as the latest way to attack the state.

Equally, there are those who do hold genuine anti-Semitic views who see the BDS movement as a way of targeting Israel (note that this doesn’t mean that all attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic).

In my mind then, following on from Friedman’s analysis, the success of a non-violent ‘third intifada’ rests on three points that the BDS movement must act upon:

  • Ensuring that a zero tolerance approach to violence is taken and applied across the board to avoid any association with the atrocities of the first and second intifada.
  • Focusing the campaign on the occupation with the end goal being the end of the occupation. This will hopefully ensure that Israelis feel secure and able to join in the movement but that the immorality of the on-going occupation is raised in day-to-day life.
  • Distance itself from the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism.

There are many people that I respect who advocate for a full boycott of Israel and also many that would oppose any boycott. For me, this approach seems a sensible pragmatic middle-ground.

I would be interested in your thoughts though.

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Violence against women – the global crisis

A series of papers published in the Lancet have revealed shocking statistics surrounding rates of rape in the UK. 1 in 10 women in the recent study admitted to being forced into having sex against their will. 1.4% of men also admitted to being forced into having sex against their will.

While these figures are shockingly high, I thought it would be interesting to place them in a global context. The last two countries that I have lived in, the occupied Palestinian territories and Uganda, help to highlight the truly global nature of this crisis.

Just yesterday I was reading in the Ugandan Observer that:

“Six in ten Ugandan women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and 34 per cent of all Ugandan women have experienced physical violence in the past 12 months…

The 2006 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey shows that at least 24 per cent of women report that their first sexual encounter was against their will and at least 15 per cent of the women have experienced violence during pregnancy.”

To reiterate – 1 in 4 women’s first sexual encounter was against their will.

When I read out this quote to a Ugandan (who, by chance was female) she simply responded saying, “I can believe that to be true”.

In the occupied Palestine territories the situation was, if anything, even worse.

Sexual violence is a chronically understudied phenomena in the oPt, so statistics are few and far between. But, a few months ago I read this report on the Al-Monitor that reported:

“The Bureau of Statistics report indicated that Palestinian women face many forms of violence, with 76.4% of Gazan women being subjected to emotional violence, 34.8% to physical violence, 14.9% to sexual violence, 78.9% to social violence and 88.3% to economic violence.”

While I was in the West Bank gender based violence (let alone rape) was near to impossible to talk about. One Palestinian who I got to know quite well responded to me talking about the problem of violence against women in the UK by simply saying, “We don’t have these problems here”. I think he might have believed that as well!

Anyway, I choose these two countries for no reason other than my recent residency in them. Similar shocking statistics can be drawn from all over the world.

It’s a depressing context in which to look at these UK statistics but I feel it to be an important one.

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One year on from Gaza/Israel conflict, no investigations, no justice.

One year after the upsurge in fighting in Gaza neither side has conducted sufficient, impartial and independent investigations into alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law says Amnesty International.

On 21 November 2012, 13-year-old Mahmoud was killed by a missile fired by an Israeli drone fired in the al-Manara area of Gaza City.
The human rights group, Amnesty International, has today accused both the Israeli authorities and Hamas of failing to investigate documented reports of serious human rights violations.

Amnesty highlighted the case of 13 year old Mahmoud who died in an Israeli drone strike. Mahmoud was one of at least 30 children to die during the 8 days of fighting. Mahmoud was of course also one of 70 or so civilians to die in that 8 day period.

Failing to distinguish between civilian and combatant is a violation of International Humanitarian Law. The nature of Mahmoud’s death is one of 65 incidents Amnesty are calling on the Israeli authorities to investigate.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reported on Operation Pillar of Defence and highlighted that Israeli forces made considerable efforts to avoid civilian casualties but that on a number of occasions “the military may have acted unlawfully”.

Amnesty International however in their annual report go further commenting that:

“The Israeli air force carried out bomb and missile strikes on residential areas, including strikes that were disproportionate and caused heavy civilian casualties. Other strikes damaged or destroyed civilian property, media facilities, government buildings and police stations. In most cases, Israel did not present evidence that these specific sites had been used for military purposes.”

Specifically, Amnesty has called for investigations into 65 cases of “alleged misconduct” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation “Pillar of Defense”.

In their latest statement, Amnesty has also condemned Hamas for their “indiscriminate” use of rockets. During the conflict it is thought that as many as 1,500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel in the 8 day period.

The case of David Amsalem who lost his 24 year old son to a rocket strike was highlighted to illustrate the fact that Hamas’ arsenal, by its very nature, cannot distinguish between civilian and combatant – something which in itself is a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The conflict left more than 165 Palestinians (more than 30 children and some 70 other civilians) and 6 Israelis (including 4 children) dead.

Neither side has launched sufficient, impartial and independent investigations into these alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law leaving thousands morning with no access to justice and reinforcing a sense of impunity on both sides.

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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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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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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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“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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Event: Reflections on Palestine with Richard Graham MP

Thursday 20th December, 7.00pm

An evening of talks and discussions to update on the situation and share first hand experiences of Palestine.

Guest Speakers – Steve Hynd and Gloucester MP Richard Graham 

Venue – The Friendship Café, Barton Street, Gloucester, GL1 4RH

Steve Hynd has recently spent 5 months living in the West Bank with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The programme brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. They provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. Steve will be talking about his time spent there and his experiences with the Palestinians.

Richard Graham has taken a very personal interest in the Holy Lands having visited the West Bank of Palestine, Gaza and Israel. The political arena surrounding this area is a very complex one, and with the recent unrest in Gaza, our government’s role in shaping the future for that region is vital. Richard will be giving us an update on that political situation, and sharing some of his own views and experiences of the area.

The evening is a free event and open to all. If you have any questions or need more information please contact Imran Atcha on 01452 308127 or email gymnation@btclick.com

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Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 2

Simply, I don’t know what I think about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. I believe passionately that the Israeli government must be held to account for its actions (in the same way any government should) but I am not (yet) convinced that boycotting all aspects of Israeli life is the way to bring about change.

As such I have asked two people to put forward different arguments on BDS – one broadly in favour and one broadly opposed.  I hope that this exercise will help me, and possibly others, to think about the impact of the BDS campaign.

This is a second article which follows Sarah AB’s argument that the BDS movement is counterproductive to peace.

This article is by Jane Harries, a Quaker and a human rights activist.

“Many thanks to Steve for asking me to contribute – I do so as a member of Women to Women for Peace, a grassroots women’s peace organisation which has been actively working with Israeli and Palestinian peace women since 2004, as a recently-returned Ecumenical Accompanier, and a Quaker.

Action, partial action or inaction around BDS is fraught with dilemmas. What is the ‘right’ thing to do? What are the likely effects of our action, and could we – by having a negative impact on trade with Israel – actually be hurting those we wish to benefit – the Palestinians? Is BDS efficacious, or could it lead to more hard-line attitudes and ways of evading restrictions? As so often, we would like things to be clear-cut – but they are not. I believe that we all have to work through these dilemmas for ourselves. Here are some suggestions as to how we can do this.

Why?

The first question to ask is ‘Why might individuals and organisations choose to adopt BDS as a strategy?’ The answer, for me, would be that this is the right thing to do. If we believe that the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements are illegal under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), if we abhor the violations of human rights which stem from this occupation, then this is one way in which we – consumers and organisations – can show our public and concrete disapproval of the Israeli government’s policies and actions – particularly other actions have proved ineffective.

It is important to state clearly that this has nothing to do with anti-semitism – as is sometimes alleged. For me, BDS is a campaigning tool which aims to put pressure on governments which infringe human rights. As the present Israeli government is doing by continuing to occupy the West Bank and impose a blockade on Gaza, condemning the Palestinian people to a daily reality of control, harassment, restrictions and deprivation. This has nothing to do with Israel’s right to exist within its own borders, or about anti-Jewish prejudice, but everything to do with a willingness to move toward a just solution where two states can live together in equality and peace.

The second answer to the ‘why’ question is because people affected by the Occupation have asked us to do this. There have been several calls for the international community to consider adopting some measure of BDS – for instance from the World Council of Churches, Sabeel and in the Kairos Palestine document. There are also calls for BDS from within Israel, despite the controversial Anti-boycott law, passed in July 2011, which made it a civil offence to call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of people or institutions in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

What do we mean by BDS?

It’s important to be clear what we mean by BDS, what extent of activities we are willing to undertake, and why.

The first question to address is whether we are calling for a boycott of all Israeli products or just those from the illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Although there are arguments in favour of an all-out boycott, it seems to me consistent with a position based on respect for IHL and human rights to support a boycott of products from the illegal settlements only. This position was endorsed by a judgement of the European Court of Justice in February 2010, which established that goods originating from the illegal settlements are not covered by the EU-Israel Association Agreement, and therefore cannot be imported into EU countries without appropriate duties.

We might ask our MEPs to go further by pressing for a complete restriction on the import of such goods into the EU. Uri Avnery of the Israel peace organisation Gush Shalom has also urged boycott campaigners to make the distinction between the legitimate state of Israel and illegitimate settlements, arguing that an all-out boycott can play into the narrative that ‘everyone is against Israel.’

The decision to boycott just products from settlements still leaves me with dilemmas. Faced with a label on a supermarket product that says ‘Israel’ or even ‘West Bank’, how do I know whether it has come from a settlement or not? Nothing is straight forward.

Can we go further with BDS?

There are areas where the moral argument for the divestment from companies is clear: particularly those exporting arms to Israel, and those which support and resource the occupation in various ways – for instance by supplying materials for the Separation Barrier, providing infrastructure which links the settlements, or vehicles involved in house demolitions.

Another category would be companies which support the economic life of the settlements – and this list would be more far-ranging, including banks, retailers and construction companies. Information about such companies is available, but getting involved in such campaigns may depend on energy levels and how likely we think our efforts are to have an impact.

How do we campaign?

The question of how we campaign for an end to the occupation and a just and sustainable peace is directly related to the ‘why’ question – our motives for undertaking actions under the BDS banner.

For me, this is definitely not about Israel-bashing or a black-and-white portrayal of the situation – but springs from a desire to see a just and sustainable peace for everyone in the region – Israelis as well as Palestinians. We need to recognise that aggressive stances are counter-productive, and may widen rifts rather than working towards solutions, forcing people into defensive positions.

When talking to supermarkets, and companies, our aim should therefore be to inform and discuss from an ethical standpoint. At the same time we may sometimes need to ‘speak Truth to power’, as Quakers say. One way of showing disapproval is by withdrawing financial support.

In relation to academic, cultural and social boycotts, we need to consider when and how to act. As far as academic boycotts are concerned, it depends what area of academic life we were addressing. Would we, for instance, wish for academics to be cooperating regarding ‘security’?

In general, however, a more productive approach in these fields is to foster and encourage positive links with Palestinian individuals, groups and institutions. We can do this by encouraging twinning arrangements between schools and universities, and inviting Palestinian musicians and actors to tour the UK. Maybe one of the problems with the BDS campaign is that is seen as being negative – against trade with Israeli settlements, against companies that invest in them.

By undertaking more positive actions under the broad BDS umbrella may help to give the campaign a more human face.

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“What happened to Rachel will never be OK” Cindy Corrie

“The loss, the void, is permanent. You feel it every day of your life, What happened to Rachel will never be OK”.

These are the words of Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie who was killed in Gaza in 2003. She was interviewed a few days before a judge was due to rule on the civil lawsuit that she had bought against the State of Israel. Today the judge’s rulings were announced.

How it feels to lose a daughter at such a young age is something that I cannot begin to fathom. In Cindy’s own words, “for parents there’s that dread of something happening to a child. I don’t even know how to describe how we got through those first minutes and hours”.

Rachel died at the age of 23 in March 2003. She was crushed to death by a bulldozer as she stood in front of it aiming to protect a Palestinian’s house that was due for demolition. This house, which was finally demolished a year later, was one of 1,700 houses in Rafah that were demolished between 2000 and 2004. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem described these demolitions as ‘collective punishment’.

Richard Purssell, from Brighton, who witnessed Rachel’s death said at the time. “The driver cannot have failed to see her. As the blade pushed the pile, the earth rose up. Rachel slid down the pile… The driver didn’t slow down; he just ran over her. Then he reversed the bulldozer back over her again.”

Despite testimonies supporting this view, the Judge today concluded that the driver had not seen her – despite the fact she was wearing a bright orange jacket and was stood on top of the pile of earth he was driving towards. The judge added that “She [Corrie] did not distance herself from the area, as any thinking person would have done.”

Sadly, death remains an ever present reality in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Since January 2009 (the end of Operation Cast Lead) 302 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces. 38 of those killed were minors.

Indeed, an often forgotten fact is that on the same day that Rachel Corrie died in March 2003 a four year old Palestinian girl was also killed. This, in a world where the value of your death is dependent on the colour of your passport failed to make the headlines.

A death of an international was embarrassing to Israel. The then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, promised US president George W Bush that Israel would conduct a “thorough, credible and transparent” investigation into the incident.

The judge ruled today that the initial internal IDF investigation did take place and its findings were valid.

For many Palestinians however the possibility of an investigation into a loved one’s death is often an impossibility. B’Tselem states that “Israel has increasingly avoided accountability for serious violations of human rights…as a rule, [Israelis do] not open criminal investigations in cases in which soldiers killed Palestinians who were not taking part in the hostilities”.

Indeed, in cases of alleged torture no criminal investigations have been launched despite over 700 complaints being filed with the State Attorney’s Office. This failure led to B’Tselem concluding that the “State of Israel breaches its obligation under international law to investigate allegations of torture and, where the findings dictate, prosecute the perpetrators”.

Just as the families of many Palestinians are awaiting justice so are the families of murdered Israelis. Amnesty International noted that Hamas has made no attempt to investigate the alleged war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by Hamas’ military wing and other Palestinian armed groups in Gaza during Operation “Cast Lead”. Families left to mourn with no prospect of an investigation.

This is something I cannot comprehend going through. Cindy Corrie’s grief is something I cannot comprehend going through. The thought of losing a loved one in this way is more than anyone should have to experience.

Rachel Corrie emailed home on the 27th February 2003 saying, “I really can’t believe that something like this can happen in the world without a bigger outcry about it”. Sadly, for nearly 10 years this lack of outcry is what has enabled the atrocities to continue throughout the region.

Today’s verdict has failed to offer any sense of accountability. It has however created a global outcry.

I am now waiting for a similar sized outcry next time an Israeli or Palestinian dies.

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Special Report: Palestinian Villages in the Firing Zone

This is a special report by my friend and colleague Leah Levane.

“Farming is in our soul and in our blood, if they take this away, we will be destroyed” Sara, resident of Jinba

The 30,000 stony, barren dunams of Massafer Yatta in the South Hebron Hills are beautiful in a stark and awesome way.  It is also, apparently ideal training terrain for the Israeli army, particularly in the event of another war with Lebanon.

Consequently the 1500 people, 14,000 sheep and 2,000 goats that currently live in 8 villages towards the southernmost part of the West Bank, will be evacuated and their villages destroyed so that the training can take place. The Israeli Minister of Defence gave these orders in the Israeli High Court on July 23rd 2012, as the government’s response to the villagers’ appeal to the designation of their homes and land not as Massafer Yatta, not as a collection of hamlets with their own names but instead as FIRING ZONE 918’.

Although the Court has still to make its final decision on this case, the army has already been closing roads and on August 7th, set up a checkpoint between the villages of Jinba and Khirbet Biral’Idd. Helicopters flew over the South Hebron Hills to support the army’s actions, and soldiers then entered the village, frightening residents and damaging property. Even before the announcement was made, a car was impounded for 10 days that belong to Comet ME, an organisation linking these and other villages in the south Hebron Hills to electricity by putting in solar panels and wind turbines.

Life is hard in these villages even without the Occupation to contend with; water is difficult and expensive to obtain and transport across the rough terrain where there are only dirt roads. The school in Jinba operates from tents, which are cold in winter and access to teaching materials is very limited. The school in At Tuwani (just outside the northern perimeter of Massafer Yatta, was under a demolition order for many years and was also contending with settler violence from the nearby Havat Ma’on settlement outpost (illegal even under Israeli law, although all Settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law),

The area was first declared a firing Zone in 1999. 700 residents were evacuated.. The evacuation was halted by a interim injunction issued by the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) in the year 2000 and in response to petitions filed by the residents and this limbo has continued since then following further petitions,, but no final decision has yet been made and this has meant that for over a decade, the residents of these twelve uniquely traditional villages have lived under the constant threat of demolition, evacuation, and dispossession.

Israel’s claims are that the people who live and continue their ancient culture of husbandry cultivation are nonpermanent residents and the villagers maintain that they are permanent residents but the Security Forces say they are not and that they are seasonally nomadic. School records in the area show that families are there year round.  (The Israeli Army is permitted under international law and if for security reasons, to remove people from a firing zone or limit their mobility within the area, except in the case of permanent residents.

These hamlets existed long before 1967 and some residents have ownership documents from the Ottoman period. And the historical existence of the hamlets has been recognised by the Israeli Ministry of Defense [see Ya’akov Havakuk, Life in the Caves of South Hebron (1985, Israel Ministry of Defense).

Now, after twelve years of waiting for a final decision, the Minister of Defence has announced that he wants to order the people from 8 of the 12 villages to leave.  These villages are: A-Sfay,  Al Kharuba, A-Tabban, Al Fakheit, Al Majaz, Al Halaweh, Al Mirkez, Jinba. Of the remaining 4 villages, at least two, Tuba and Um Fagara, have demolition orders on most of the structures in their villages. If the decision is implemented, what will happen to the people there?

In August and November 1999 the majority of people in these twelve hamlets were served with immediate evacuation orders due to their “illegal dwelling in a fire zone”. On November 16, 1999 security forces arrived and evacuated over 700 residents by force. The IDF destroyed homes and cisterns and confiscated property.  The villagers, dispossessed of their lands and their livelihoods, were left homeless. (ACRI – May 2012)

We met Sara, who is a teacher who lives with her husband and in-laws in Jinba.  Her husband died during the second intifada and later she married again. She has 5 children and the whole family have been subject to military incursions over the years. The DCO do not grant them any building permits, no matter how often they apply. Because of her first husband’s connection to the intifada, the family members are not allowed to work in Israel.  The option the Israeli government give them is to move to the nearby large town of Yatta where unemployment is very high and 75% work in the Israeli economy. Furthermore, as a large extended family they rely solely on agricultural activities for livelihood. Sara said “farming is in our soul and in our blood, if they take this away, we will be destroyed. “

Is the area needed by the Army?

The army had not held live-fire training in the firing zone for many years and by 2005, the two main military bases located in and around the firing zone, Adasha Infantry and Um Daraj, had been closed down. (Of course, this was before the loss of the Second Lebanon War in 2006).  These bases have not been reopened. (See 2005 B’Tselem Report (“Means of Expulsion: Violence, Harassment and Lawlessness against Palestinians”)

The Army has objected to the fact that there are people living in the area and visiting the area, other than those who in 2000 were granted the right to return to the area pending a final decision. Of course, the legal proceedings have been going on for 12 years and so it is to be expected that the villages have developed, the population grown and needs have changed. (See also section below)

British Aid and humanitarian needs in the area

The UK government funded 15 cisterns and a series of 19 toilets, including cesspools as part of the DFID humanitarian project. These structures serve 18 families (approximately 320 persons), the majority of whom reside in A-Sfay.  All these structures have had demolition orders on them for some years and the Security Forces contend that the establishment of the cisterns and cesspools was a violation of the Court’ agreeing that residents could come back into the area in March 2000 pending a permanent decision because this calls upon  Palestinian residents to preserve the status quo that existed at the time the (1999) evacuation orders were served. (my emphasis).

It is important, however, to note that international humanitarian law requires an Occupying Power has a responsibilityfor the humanitarian needs of the population and it is does not make sense to the residents that when the Court issued an order allowing the villagers to return to their lands in 2000, that it meant to deny them their most basic needs. Without these cisterns and cesspools structures, a humanitarian crisis would surely have already arisen.

Finally….

Massafer Yatta is in Area C, an area comprising 62% of the West Bank, including all the Israeli Settlements and Settlement outposts.  It is almost impossible for Palestinians in Area C to get permits to build houses, schools, cisterns, clinics, tents. Everything is considered a structure, solar panels and wind turbines and even the water tankers that have to be driven in by tractor to all the Palestinian villages in this area. There are now more Israeli citizens living in Area C of the West Bank than Palestinians (350,000 Israelis compared with c. 150,000 Palestinians and these figures exclude the 200,000 Jewish Israelis living in the annexed part of Jerusalem, which was part of the West Bank until 1967.)

My thanks to ACRI (Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who together with Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence provided much of the history and technical information

Leah Levane is serving for three months with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions.

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Press Release: Steve Hynd to undertake speaking tour about his experiences monitoring human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories

Human rights activist, Steve Hynd, is soon to embark on a speaking tour where he will be talking about his experiences from his time in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hynd, 26, has just arrived home after spending 5 months in the West Bank.  He was serving alongside participants from all around the world as part of a scheme coordinated through the World Council of Churches.

Commenting Hynd said,

“The last five months have been both challenging and inspiring for me. I have witnessed some terrible human rights abuses but I have also seen ordinary people from both sides of the conflict showing incredible resilience”

“I am hoping to be able to tell the stories of the people that I have met to as many back home as possible. If anyone would be interested in having me speak I would urge them to contact me by email on stevehynd24@gmail.com”

END

Contact Steve here – https://stevehynd.com/contact/

Notes to editor:

1)       Steve went with The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) which brings internationals to the West Bank to experience life under occupation. Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. When they return home, EAs campaign for a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through an end to the occupation, respect for international law and implementation of UN resolutions. For more information please see http://www.eappi.org/index.php?id=4565

2)      Steve has been blogging throughout his time in the oPt, all of the articles can be seen here https://stevehynd.com/category/middle-east/

3) Photo shows Steve with three local boys from the village of Jayyus where he was stationed for three months.

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Children’s Rights under Occupation

This is a guest post by Jane Harries, a friend and a colleague living in Yanoun where I spent the last few months. An unedited version of this article can be found here.

How do children fare under occupation?  From the children in Yanoun and the surrounding villages we can see there are restrictions here which children in the UK don’t face – lack of facilities such as play areas and swimming pools which we take for granted. Children’s drawings portray guns and tanks, showing the underlying fear and trauma which comes from witnessing armed settlers and army incursions.  One of the testimonies to the success of EAPPI’s protective presence in the village is the fact that the children feel safe to play in front of the International House.

What about the treatment of minors by the occupying power?  We had a glimpse of what this can mean when we visited Bassam Nadar and his son Muhammed in the village of Madama, west of Yanoun, and listened to their story.  Recently, as the villagers’ wheat was getting ready for harvest, settlers came down from the mountain and set fire to the fields.  The villagers went to try to extinguish the flames, including Bassam’s two sons, Mohammed (17 years) and Ahmed (15 years).  They had succeeded in doing so when an army jeep turned up and arrested the two boys, accusing them of starting the fire.  They were taken to Huwara military camp, then to the settlement of Ariel’s police station, then back to Huwara and eventually to Majidu prison in Israel.

Bassam heard of the boys’ arrest through a journalist from Nablus, who had been with them, had photographs to prove their innocence, and intervened on their behalf.  After numerous phone calls, Bassam found out where his sons were and eventually – on the third day – they were released – but on the condition that he went to Ariel police station and paid 2,500 Shekels for each son.  He was advised by a lawyer not to pay, so Bassam went to Ariel police station and told the Israeli police he was unable to do so.  His phone number was taken but – up until the present time, nothing further has happened.

In quiet measured tones Bassam’s eldest son, Mohammed, told us his story in his own words.  He and his brother had been blindfolded and handcuffed whilst being transported between the different sites for interrogation, and nobody informed them – or their family – where they were.  The soldiers had put their feet on his head and joked as he lay on the floor of the jeep.  In Ariel police station his picture and finger prints were taken.  Only on the third day was he able to speak to his father.  When the two brothers were eventually released, this was at the border miles away from their village.  It was with the help of a taxi driver that they were eventually able to make their way home.

This story illustrates a disregard by the Israeli army and police for human rights, even in the case of minors.  Palestinian minors are dealt with under military rather than civilian law. This two-track system of justice which supports discrimination and undermines any rule of law illustrates to the Palestinians that they are second-class citizens and that there is no system of redress.

We can only imagine how children are affected by the fear and violence they experience, either directly or indirectly.  Bassam told us that his younger son is still suffering psychological problems from his experience of being arrested by the Israeli army.  As an occupying power Israel has an obligation to treat civilians humanely and never to discriminate against them. (Article 27, Fourth Geneva Convention). Israel is also a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).  For Palestinian children on the ground these obligations may seem far from the reality.

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A British identity crisis in Palestine

Sat side by side, 7 internationals looked on into a dimly lit room. Four swedes, one Norwegian and two Brits huddled together on a worn out sofa that was creaking under the collective weight. Our host, Ahmed Jaber welcomed us into his house which was due for demolition any time in the coming days. He was anxious and he eyes darted between us. As is customary he started by asking his guests to introduce themselves:

Swede 1: “My name is Alex, I am from Sweden”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for everything you and your country is doing”
Swede 2: “My name is” etc etc
Ahmed: (laughing) “Your country does so much, they send many people”

The perceived comedy in this situation is amplified as a third and then fourth person introduce themselves as Swedish. Eventually though the introductions moved on:

Norwegian: “My name is Helene and I am from Norway”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for all that your country has done – apart from Oslo of course” (Cue a little bit more laughter)
Me: “My name is Steve and I am from Britain”
Ahmed: “Oh” (awkward silence) “You know this is all your fault, do you know about Balfour”

I smiled, nodded and let the proceeding silence, accompanied as it was with a wee bit of awkwardness fill the room.

This awkward “you know it is all the British fault” moment wasn’t a new experience for me. Believe or not, a couple of centuries of imperialistic foreign policy have left some less than positive impressions around the world. Almost a century later most Palestinians have not forgiven our then Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, for offering Zionists a homeland in what was then British Mandate Palestine.

What makes the Israel/Palestine conflict different though is that both sides seem to hate the British – our history does not lend itself to friendship with either side.

Things could be worse though, I could be German. A German colleague I worked closely with regularly had the uncomfortable situation of being told by Palestinians, “I love Germany, Hitler was great but he should have finished the job”. How do you respond to that? On occasion I responded saying, “please don’t joke about such things” knowing all too well that many were not joking.

These experiences left me with a minor identity crisis. Was I English, British, White, Christian, European or what? I tried a couple of times, “my name is Steve and I am from the people’s free republic of Gloucestershire” but this was invariably met with a look of confusion.

The problem is that I don’t feel very “British” – I have little or no connection with 50% of Britain (Wales and Northern Ireland). My father’s Scottish and I have a ginger beard as a result, but I don’t feel very Scottish. Yet, in many ways I have more in common with my Scottish family than I do with most people living in England. This is without starting on the sociological question of what makes someone “English/Scottish/British”.

I don’t have anything in common with Balfour other than the fact that we were born on the same Island. This connection, nearly a century later, is enough to define my relationship with a Palestinian man whose house was about to be knocked down by the “Israeli Defence Force”. Somewhere in this anecdote there is all the material you need for illustrating just how mad the concept of nationalism is.

Throughout the meeting with Ahmed I sensed hostility towards me. I might have been being over sensitive but I know from experience that the hatred of the role Britain played in Palestine’s history is part of the modern national psyche. Ahmed’s darting eyes spent the rest of the meeting occasionally fixing themselves on others in the room, but interestingly never me.

My name is Steve, I was born in Gloucester hospital, I like cups of tea and walks in the countryside. If this makes me English/British then so be it but I don’t feel it.

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Reflections from Israel & Palestine – “this is not what religion is about”

This article was written by my partner Anya Whiteside.

‘Somehow’ I say to Steve with sweat dripping off my nose  ‘I kind of understand the old testament God in this landscape’. We are scaling the spectacularly arid mountains next to the dead sea, unwisely enacting the phrase ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’. We are in the desert and the sun beats down on nothing but dust and rock and below us the dead sea shimmers blue in a landscape of reds, violent ocres and browns.

I have always struggled to understand the old testament God, capable of sending plagues and striking down disbelievers. I have also always wondered how my Christian friends reconcile this with the loving and forgiving  God that they seem to relate to. As we walk I think how it must be easier though to understand a God of judgement and violent retribution when surrounded by such an extreme landscape than it is when walking through the gentle English pastures.

During my week-long visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories I found it hard to escape the violent edge of religion.

In Jerusalem Abu Mohammed served us falafel before asking ‘why are you here? People like you should just go home to your own country’. I asked him if he thought that there would be more violence if all the internationals went home? He responded, ‘Of course but this is the only way to sort this out – it will be the biggest war between the Arabs and the Jews  and there will be much killing, but at the end we will know who God wants to be on the land’. I explain to Abu Muhammad that I do not agree that an apocalyptic battle with mass slaughter is the only way to get peace and he smiles, ‘ah but you must study the Quran more and then you will know. Even the Jews know this – it is God’s will’.

Religious intolerance and violence though only made up a small part of my time in Israel/oPT.

I went with the EAPPI accompaniers to monitor the Friday prayers in Silwan, the so-called roughest and most dangerous part of Jerusalem. The men prayed in the street and the sound floated up to us as we watched from the slopes above, keeping one eye on the Israeli Army on the rooftops nearby. Afterwards one of the men approached the EAPPI observers and said, ‘thank you, thank you for always being here for the prayers’.

I met Michael in Hebron. He was an Israeli from near Tel Aviv who was taking months out of his life to travel around Israel and learn about ‘his country’ and his deeply-felt religion. There were many things we disagreed on from politics to theology, but as we stood looking at a street with a foot high wall running down it separating Palestinians on one side and Israelis on the other we agreed that this is not what religion should be about. Something, at the very least, I hope everyone from all religions can agree on.

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Scorched earth and shootings, as the Israeli military stand by

This article was originally published on Liberal Conspiracy.

Scorched earth stretched out before me. To my right the fire was still burning across the hillside spreading through olive trees. To my left all that remained was charred black earth.

All around me, men were moving, unable to rest but also unable to access their land to tackle the fire. All they could do was to stand watching as their livelihoods and land burnt.

An hour earlier, 22 year old Najeh al-Safadi had tried to put out the fire on his land and had been shot in the stomach by the private security staff from the overlooking settlement. At the time of writing it is unknown if he will walk again after the bullet damaged his spine.

I was stood with some residents from Urif, a small village in the West Bank close to Nablus. Urif stands on the opposite side of the valley to the illegal settlement of Yitzhar which is described in the New York Times as, “an extremist bastion on the hilltops”.

Violent action from the settlers directed at both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and local Palestinians is not uncommon in the area. The International Solidarity Movement reported back in April 2012 that, “that hundreds of villagers [from Urif] have been injured since 2000 [by settlers from Yitzhar], with as many as 40 serious injuries (many of which were gunshot wounds) and one murder”.

Stood on the hillside opposite me, above the one hundred and fifty dunums of burning land but below the settlement of Yitzhar, were a collection of about forty to fifty settlers. A small group of them were still lighting fresh fires, hours after the original fires had been started.

Parked up and stood alongside these settlers were the IDF. The Israeli Army stood by and watched as these crimes unfolded.

A few hours later however, the IDF did intervene. Just as a small number of settlers were on the outskirts of Urif the IDF stepped in. Their contribution? To fire fifty to sixty tear gas canisters at the villagers and international observers who were monitoring the events.

The IDF has said that they, “regard this incident [the shooting] as severe and will thoroughly investigate it”. Between September 2000 to November 2011, B’Tselem sent fifty-five complaints to the Military Advocate General’s Corps regarding cases that raised the suspicion that security forces did not intervene to stop settler violence.

In only five cases was an investigation opened; two of the five were closed without any measures being taken against the soldiers involved. In eighteen cases, no investigation was opened at all. In eleven cases, B’Tselem did not receive any response.

In a flash the ambulances were gone and the only traces that were left of the violence that had just occurred were the smouldering fields and the talk of whether Najeh would make a full recovery.

I left the mayor promising him that I would do what I could to tell the world what I had seen in his village that day.

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The silence in Kafr Qaddum

The silence was the most telling part of the whole meeting. The silence was intermittently punctured by the muttering of an occasional word. These words though, when they came, held the weight of a thousand. In this silence I could feel the presence of Waseam Barahem next to me throughout the meeting. Even when others were speaking I was conscious of his silence next to me.

Just over three weeks ago, seventeen year old Waseam was struck in the head by a tear gas canister, nearly died and momentarily lost his ability to speak. Today he is only able to say a few words. His father, Abu Walid remembers the day painfully, “I saw it all, I saw the soldier aim directly at my child”. Accounts vary, but most report the soldiers being fifty to one hundred meters away. All accounts that I have heard agree that the soldiers were firing directly into the crowd. This is something I have seen too many times before and is something that the IDF’s own regulations prohibit.

Waseam was struck directly on his head and suffered large amounts of internal bleeding. He was taken first to Nablus but then to a hospital in Jordan for a life saving operation.

His father described to me the moments after the shooting, “At first I didn’t think it was serious, just some blood on his head. Then the man who works with the ambulance told me it was bad. I wanted to go through the olive trees [to avoid the Israeli flying checkpoint] because I was worried they would try to arrest Waseam [on the way to the hospital]. The man who works with the ambulance though told me we had to go straight through the checkpoint because we didn’t have time to go through the trees. The soldiers also knew it was serious because when we come they open the checkpoint for us. They telephoned ahead to the hospital because they knew every minute counted”.

By any account Waseam is lucky to be alive.

Less than six months ago Mustafa Tamimi died after being struck by a tear gas canister. It is a very real danger that both internationals and Palestinians face when they attend protests.

Regardless of the dangers, the villagers of Kafr Qaddum continue to protest every Friday. I asked Waseam if he was worried about this coming Friday’s demonstration and the possibility of soldiers coming into the village. His answer was short but clear, “next Friday, I will go to the demonstration”. I looked at Waseam trying to read him, to distinguish the macho pride of a seventeen year old boy from what he was really feeling. Did he really not feel any fear after having such a close brush with death?

I turned to his father and asked if he was happy with his son being on the streets during the demonstration. His answer was framed in the context of the impossibility of criticising anyone who is ‘opposing the occupation’. He half shrugged and said “I always knew he would protest”.

I tried once more to frame a question in a way that would allow them to perhaps partly express their feelings. I asked Waseam if he was worried about his friends who go to the front of the demonstration. His silence stretched out for what felt like minutes before he finally replied, “I do worry about my friends”. His gaze fell to the floor and once again we were absorbed into his silence.

The sound of scraping chairs marked the end of our meeting. I left wishing Waseam a full recovery and I asked him to promise to “stay safe”. It felt ridiculous saying these words considering the context. Living in Kafr Qaddum, even if you avoid the weekly demonstration, is anything but “staying safe”.

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