Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year Israel! Love, Iran

I got a bit of a kick out of this one (no pun intended!)

It's pretty short, so, full text below:

The Iranian Football Association inadvertently sent a New Year's
greeting to its Israeli counterpart on Thursday.

The greeting was
sent by e-mail from Mohammed Ardebili, who heads the Iranian Football
Association's foreign relations department.Army Radio managed to get hold of
Ardebili on the phone.

"This is a greeting sent to the entire word," he
said. "Are you speaking from Israel? I can't speak to you. This is a mistake,
this is a mistake."

Israel Football Association spokesman Gil Lebanony
told the radio station that although the IFA was surprised to receive the
letter, they did not hesitate in sending a response.

"Attorney Amir Navon, head of our legal department, actually received the
mail," he said. "He came into my office and asked me if it was a mistake. I
said, 'I don't know, but let's send a response'."

"So, we responded, 'We
thank you for you Happy New Year greeting and wish all of the good people in
Iran a happy new year,' and added a wink in the mail," Lebanony said. "We also
expressed our hopes that they will have a good year for soccer."

See everyone, that wasn't so hard!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

World's Largest Desalinization Plant comes On-line in Israel

The world's largest water desalinization plant has begun operation in Hadera, in Israel. The plant should be able to provide 300 million cubic meters of water every year which is just shy of one third of the water Israel's National Water Carrier currently provides. The new facility will be the cornerstone of Israel's new national water carrier which, rather than relying on natural sources of water such as the Sea of Galilee--already under heavy strain--will rely on desalinized water.

As a first point, it may not be true that this plant is the largest in the world. This article, for example, suggests that the largest water desalinization plant in the world just opened in Saudi Arabia. It's possible that this plant has overshadowed the Saudi one, or perhaps it's a different type of facility. It really is immaterial, but could nonetheless be an error in the original article.

Secondly, though desalinization can have negative environmental effects, this is a project that should be welcomed. Given the extreme damage being done to the sea of Galilee by the large amount of water being withdrawn from it, any small environmental impact in the Mediterranean could be eclipsed by the benefits of reducing pressure on the Sea of Galilee and on the Jordan river and Dead Sea which it feeds.

Thirdly, on a political level, the decrease in pressure on water sources in the east of Israel (sources shared with Palestinians and Jordan) means that there is just that much less to worry about when the time comes to share the resources that exist. Israel's new sources of water, should make it easier for Israel to give more freely of its other sources. This could help to smooth any tension that may exist over water resource allocation. On the Syrian front, this move may be helpful as well. If Israel can really produce a significant amount of its drinking water from desalinization, then Israel becomes that much less dependent on the sources of water in the Golan. It gives Israel greater flexibility on the question of water sources in the Golan. Sources which, at least until now, were very important to Israel.

These, of course, are hypothesis. Hopefully, Israeli decision makers will follow these technical developments on the political level with appropriate action.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lawfare Against Hamas Could Legitimize Goldstone Report

The latest salvo in the Israel-Hamas lawfare efforts taking place in Europe comes from Belgium. Organized by a "pro-Israel group" two Belgian lawyers have requested that the Belgian Federal Prosecutor to press war-crimes charges against Hamas officials in Belgium on behalf of 15 dual Belgian-Israelis who have been wounded by rockets and mortars from Gaza.

The organization behind this has alternately been reported as European Friends of Israel, whose website makes no mention of the case, and "the Israel Initiative." "The Israel Initiative" appears to be a very heavily right leaning group supporting a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but its site makes no mention of the case either. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also has no comment on the matter and their website does not speak to this issue either.

There is some mystery as to which group organized this attempt against Hamas, but the MFA's silence is perhaps more easily explained. The lawyers representing the 15 aggrieved individuals seem to be--as a main source of evidence of Hamas war-crimes--leaning heavily on the Goldstone report. The Goldstone report, however, was much maligned by Israel and was rightly challenged by many for its flaws, inaccuracies and omissions. It would be a difficult proposition for the Israeli government to support a case based on a document they wish simply did not exist.

This is the reason this latest attempt at lawfare is playing with fire. In the event that this attempt is successful and an arrest warrant is issued for the accused--to be executed should they travel to Belgium--and if the case does rely on the Goldstone report, then a court in a European, liberal democracy will have accepted this deeply flawed document as valid. If the document is to be attacked for its procedural flaws, for its lack of detailed investigation, inaccuracies and the like, then it cannot possibly be valid only when it cuts against Hamas but not when it cuts against Israel. The document either stands up to scrutiny and is in its entirety accurate and complete (biases aside) or it is deeply flawed and should be ignored for its multiple errors.

One should hope that if the case of these 15 dual citizens is successful that it can be one based on the fact of rockets being fired and the law that prohibits such indiscriminate attacks on civilians, not on the Goldstone report.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lawfare Against Hamas in France

In a case of what appears to be reverse "lawfare" the French media regulatory agency, the Conseil supérieur de l'audiovisuel (CSA), has issued an official warning to Eutelsat, the carrier of the Hamas run television station al-Aksa TV.

The station is being accused of violating section 15 of the act governing the CSA which allows the body to sanction broadcasters that air content which can be considered to promote hatred or discrimination against groups identifiable by religion, nationality, gender and other criteria. It is not exactly clear what the offending content was, but al-Aksa TV is the station that broadcast children's programming such as this one, about how all Jews are evil, all Palestinians are righteous and that it is appropriate for a father to beat his son. Or this one, about how Benjamin Franklin had warned against the Jews and that Jewish slavery at the hands of the Pharaohs was not slavery at all, but an honest days work.

This is not the first time the CSA has taken such action. For example, they acted against the Egyptian station Al Rahma, also carried by Eutelsat. Again, in this instance, the offending content is not clear, but this clip offers a window into the type of content that may have been offered. In the case of Al Rahma section 15 was again applied and the complaint appears to have been made by a French Jewish community organization.

The source of the complaint in the case of al-aksa TV is also not immediately obvious, but a Washington D.C. based group called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right wing think tank which is one of the supporters of the Coalition Against Terrorist Media, issued a press release praising the French decision and highlighting it as a step in the right direction.

It would be interesting to have more information on what the specific offending content was in this case and who brought the original complaint forward. The promotion of hate and incitement to violence has no place in a democratic society and so this case is welcome.

Thanks to Jewlicious for finding this first.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Awesome Archaeological Discovery in Nazarth

There is obviously a great deal I could write about these days between Schalit, and organ harvesting, I could keep quite busy, but given that I already am pretty busy these days, here's a relatively light posting about an archaeological discovery in Nazareth, watch the video if you don't care to read the article.




The article adds information from a University of Toronto historian who suggests that the discover is unremarkable and disagrees with the conclusions of the experts working on the dig in Nazareth.

With my limited knowledge I don't dare take sides, but the excitement of the discovery itself is not diminished, no matter who is correct. That this is a home that may have existed in Jesus Christ's lifetime, that he may have been familiar with this home and the family that lived in it is an amazing thought. Of course, the discovery in now way validates or invalidates any religious beliefs, but it is amazing to think of this incredibly significant historical figure perhaps visiting the home that has been discovered, or being acquainted with its inhabitants. It truly allows us to connect with history.

On another note, one o the things that always struck me about visiting Israel was that you would pass roadsigns for places like Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Jericho--all places of incredible significance to billions of people all over the world--and these signs are no different than the ones you see for the hamlet of Moose Creek, between Montreal and Ottawa. I always felt as though places like this should have big stars next to their names, in flashing lights, screaming "FOR GOODNESS SAKE, THIS IS JERUSALEM THE HOLIEST CITY IN THE WORLD!!!" But alas, I don't make road signs!


Let me take advantage of this timely discovery to wish all readers the very best of the holiday season, no matter which holiday you will be celebrating or have celebrated already. May 2010 bring us each, wherever and whoever we may be, peace, prosperity, health and happiness. All the best, whoever you are!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hamas Supporting Arrest Attempts Against Israelis in Europe

It appears that the attempt to have Livni arrested under universal jurisdiction laws in the UK were directly supported by Hamas. While it may not be the case that Hamas was behind the arrest attempts, in that Hamas says it did not hire the UK lawyers, they provided information which made the legal proceedings possible.

It's not suprising that Hamas would support cases such as the attempts against Livni going forward, after all, Israel is Hamas's enemy, why would they oppose any impediments imposed against Israelis? What is so particularly unseemly about this information is that these lawyers ostensibly defending the legitimate human rights of Palestinians are cooperating with a terrorist group. It is also telling how Hamas is taking advantage of the UK's jurisdiction to support those who would attack Israel. It seems, more plainly than other examples, to be clear evidence of how using universal jurisdiction in cases like the arrest of Livni are assymetrical warfare.

This support of lawfare by Hamas is perhaps the reason why alleged perpetrators of other violations of international law are not pursued by those who defend human rights in teh courts as they attempt to do when Israel is the target. It is perhaps that Hamas makes it so easy for supports of Palestinians and Tibetans lack the same resources to support the prosecution of Chinese officials that cases against the Chinese are essentially unknown.

Apparently, however, Livni is benefiting from a political bump as a result of the attempt to have her arrested.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Attempted Livni Arrest Prompting Legal Review in UK

In the wake of the abortive efforts to have an arrest warrant issued for Israeli opposition leader Livni in the UK under universal jurisdiction laws the diplomatic exchanges continue and the UK seems poised to actually modify their legislation.

The question of the UK's application of universal jurisdiction had apparently long been on the agenda in talks between Israeli and UK officials. That the issue had not been rectified and had boiled over into an effort to have Livni arrested has opened a painful sore between the two countries and prompted harsh rebukes from Israel and embarrassed apologies from the UK.

Proposed changes to the UK's universal jurisdiction laws have already begun, with Whitehall--the UK foreign ministry--already examining a few options. As it stands, an arrest warrant can be issued by a judge in the UK based on a petition to the court. Any actual trial, however, would need to be approved by the UK Attorney General. One proposed change would be to require the Attorney General to approve even the arrest warrant.

Palestinian groups have responded forcefully to this, suggesting that the Goldstone report provided sufficient grounds to have Livni arrested and to stand trial and that it was inappropriate to have the political echelons apologize for a legally justified act by the courts. These critics are not entirely wrong and do have a valid point about political involvement in the judiciary. The courts must operate free of political influence and it is troubling to think that the political echelons may have a say in who the court tries or ignores. It is possible to conceive of a situation where someone accused of the most heinous crimes is allowed to travel the world with impunity because their arrest would have important political or economic (trade) impacts on the state that attempted to arrest them. It's true the Attorney General in the UK is an unelected official, but the office is appointed by the Prime Minister, so there is a level of political influence.

Cases of universal jurisdiction, however, are almost by definition not purely legal. These cases incorporate instances of international relations as one country will be judging a foreigner whose crime is not linked to the country in which they are being judged. There will likely be several parties with interests in a given case and it is easy to imagine that such cases would become highly politicized. Indeed, it is quite cynical of Palestinian groups to criticize British politicians for political involvement in the Livni episode when the attempt to have Livni arrested is itself a political, and not purely legal, move. Indeed, one lawyer who commented publicly on the story, Daniel Machover, is the founder of a group called "Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights." This group's stated mission is to use legal means to advance Palestinian self-determination, a decided political aim. (Note: To be clear, everyone, should support Palestinian Human rights and the human rights of all people. Full stop. This group defends these rights but seems to have a clear political goal.)

Turning this decision making about applying universal jurisdiction to the Attorney General seems like nothing more than a fig-leaf for political influence in the justice system. Such influence is widely seen as inappropriate in western legal systems. Perhaps the UK should do away with this illusion and clearly say what they want: a system of universal jurisdiction that can be applied selectively, sparing allied and targeting foes. Essentially, lawfare waged by the state. The reason they would never say such a thing is because it undermines the basis of legislative and executive non-intervention in the judicial branch.

Still though, it is extremely difficult to craft a system of universal jurisdiction, which is political by definition, that could not be used by interested political groups to harass opponents while at the same time, remaining judicially independent. This is a difficult legislative problem but one that could probably be best resolved by tying universal jurisdiction to existing rules in international law, for example, the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court. Such a solution would exempt nationals whose countries have not ratified the Rome statute and would only be triggered if the conditions of the Rome statute were met.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Has "Zionist" Become a Slur?

This op-ed in the Jerusalem Post speaks to a sentiment I've had for some time. Reading the news, blogs and especially people's comments on public forums, having discussions in academic contexts, the term Zionism or Zionist, seems to have become a slur.

The number of times I've read comments about how Zionists are guilty of some act, or some conspiracy, the number of times I've seen attempted ad hominem attacks with the victim of the attack being called a Zionist, to somehow delegitimize them, and the number of times I've seen Zionism and Zionists denounced for ascribing to that idea is so large as to make these 'sightings' commonplace. When these comments appear, nobody bothers to say what they mean by Zionism or Zionists, but often, I've seen those who throw these terms around in a critical sense hurry to distinguish Zionism and Zionists from Jews, Judaism and Israel and Israelis. Each time I see one of the almost boilerplate screeds against Zionists or Zionism (a comment I see frequently on the CBC is that Zionism has launched a war to annex Palestine) my reaction is to speak out loud to the screen as I shake my head, "do you even know what Zionism means? Zionism is an idea, how can an idea wage a war?"

Many people who have come to spit out the word Zionism, like so much venom, probably don't really know what Zionism is. To rely on a simple dictionary definition, Zionism is: "a worldwide Jewish movement that resulted in the establishment and development of the state of Israel." I would submit that this statement could be simplified even further. I would suggest that Zionism be defined simply as Jewish nationalism. To expand on that, Zionism is the idea that the Jews are more than just a religion, but that they are a people who have a religion (the religion adhered to by the Jewish nation--the Jews--is Judaism). Being a nation, a people, like all other nations Jews want their own nation state, just like Indians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mongolian and Italian people have. Naturally, Jews would want this nation state to be in the land to which they have had a historical connection since the first moments of their recorded history as a nation, thousands of years ago. That land, is today known as Israel.

Zionism therefore is the idea that Jews should have what other nations have and seek, their own state. Of course, to leave the definition at that is overly simplistic. Zionism, Jewish nationalism, in its modern form has taken on many iterations. Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, Political Zionism, Labour Zionism, to name a few are all different interpretations of the same idea, Jews should have a state, just like any other people.

It is because Zionism can be so simply defined, and because Zionism is in many ways a search for parity, equality for Jews when compared to other nations, it becomes so frustrating to see this concept turned into an insult, to see the label of Zionism converted into a scarlet letter of sorts.

I think that its important, when being labelled a Zionist in a derisive fashion, or when Zionism is referred to as somehow inherently evil, or illegitimate, the response should be not to shrink away from and deny a tie to the term, but to be clear about what the word Zionist means and turn the question around. Ask whoever would use the word in a negative context if they are equally vehement in their criticism of the nationalism of other nations and if not, why does Jewish nationalism get to be the lucky target? Or, failing that, take heed of Gil Troy's defense of Zionism and remember that the term ought not to be a source of shame or embarrassment, but can well be a source of pride.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Latest Lawfare: Attempt to Arrest Livni in the UK

There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding recent reports that Israeli opposition leader Livni cancelled a trip to the UK because, supposedly, a British court had been petitioned to issue an arrest warrant for Ms. Livni for alleged war crimes committed by the IDF in Gaza. The arrest warrant, had it been issued, would have been allowed under British universal jurisdiction laws which allow the prosecution of individuals who are not British citizens. As a result of the confusion surrounding this incident the UK ambassador to Israel was called out onto the carpet in Israel and the British foreign minister admitted his embarrassment and apologized to the Israeli government for this episode pledging to examine British Universal jurisdiction to prevent any repeats.

A few points are worth making here. First, it is unclear who was seeking to press charges and what these charges were. The UK does have universal jurisdiction, as summarized here by Human Rights Watch, but the charges in this case are unknown. The mystery surrounding this whole episode is itself disturbing. Generally, Western legal systems seek to afford the most transparent process and procedures possible. Certainly, procedural battles are a key component of most legal disputes and lawyers do play underhanded tricks on one another, but the rule tends to be that it is unacceptable to take any of the parties by surprise. In this case, the procedures were obscured and were cloaked in secrecy so as to catch Livni and the Israeli government off-guard. Indeed, given all the secrecy surrounding the legal proceedings, it is unclear how Livni was tipped off about the potential warrant in the first place.

The British government has, in the wake of this affair, suggested that they will review how their system of universal jurisdiction is applied. Currently, if there were to be charges under the UK Geneva Conventions Act, for example, charges could be brought by anybody against anybody for alleged breaches that took place anywhere. The decision to proceed with these charges, would ultimately rest with the UK Attorney General. The Attorney General's decision to prosecute or not would seem to be a safeguard against frivolous cases, but the reality is, anyone can still present a case to the court and it seems that an arrest warrant may still be issued before the Attorney General makes the decision to proceed or not. It is hard to imagine how a law can be crafted so as to maintain the Independence of the judicial branch while allowing for legitimate charges to be brought against actual war criminals, for example the president of the Sudan, while politically motivated cases like this attempt against Livni would not be allowed.

The UK Foreign Minister called this incident "insufferable" and made remarks about the importance of Israeli leaders being able to travel freely to build relations and work towards peace. Importantly, the statement speaks only of Israeli leaders, not, ordinary citizens. If British laws are reviewed to avoid situations like this one, given the Minister's statement, would Livni be any more of a legitimate candidate for arrest? It would seem so given the careful wording used by the Minister. It is Israeli leaders who are to be protected. This raises the question of how do the citizens, politicians and soldiers, who have served their country in a war, fighting in asymmetrical conflicts where civilians have been killed receive protection from frivolous lawsuits aimed at delegitimizing them and punishing them for justifiable actions? Perhaps the best, and simplest solution would be to limit the application of universal jurisdiction only to those cases where the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant. This way, only when a citizen of a country that recognizes the jurisdiction of the ICC arrives in a foreign country can they be arrested. If the ICC had no jurisdiction, then no other country would be allowed to make arrests. This solution is not perfect, but is better that massive lawfare--asymmetrical warfare waged in the courts--which seeks to tie Israel's hands and prevent it from doing what force of arms cannot.

This attempt at arresting Livni is lawfare for several reasons. It is aimed at painting her, Israel and the war against Hamas as a war crime. It ignores Israel's investigations into its own conduct in the war against Hamas. It is meant to have the effect of limiting Israelis' ability to travel, to conduct diplomatic relations and is meant to make Israeli leaders hesitate before using military force in self defense. Without delving into a discussion of the events in Gaza during the war, it is difficult to imagine an Israeli response that would not have provoked these types of arrest attempts. Even if no civilians had been killed, even if no civilian infrastructure had been damaged, even if there was no controversy over the types of armaments used, it is difficult to imagine that there would now be no legal attempts of this type.

This timely article in the Jerusalem Post refers to these legal swipes at Israel as "Judicial-Jihad" because of the "Islamist" bent of their authors. This is not a fair term. Such cases are not religiously motivated, they are not "Islamist," they are political. So while the terminology the author uses is incorrect, the foundation of his argument is. There is an ideology behind these cases of lawfare that will not easily yield. The courts are merely the newest battlefield for this ideology and the vanguard of lawfare guerrillas is learning that where Hamas may have a hard time physically preventing the IDF from striking a Kassam rocket launcher, they can pin down the decision makers behind that strike in a sea of doubt and hesitation about authorizing what may be a perfectly legitimate action.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Modern Archaeology From Israel Speaks to History Surrounding Hanukkah

Given that it is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, it is somewhat fitting that some of the latest and most interesting archaeological discoveries to have been announced in Israel relate, at least indirectly to the Maccabean revolt that is the basis for the Hanukkah story and to the Hasmonean kingdom which rose after the revolt.

In the first story, a discovery was made of inscribed tablets originating from the seat of the Seleucid empire ruling over what is today Israel, and appointing a new tax collector for the region. This tax collector, however, was granted new authorities to collect taxes from religious shrines, including the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Being dated to eleven years prior to the Maccabean revolt, this inscription is said, by archaeologists, to represent a break with the contemporary status quo which allowed religious life to be free from taxation and which was likely the first step towards open hostility between the Jews and the Hellenistic Seleucids in power.

The second story relates to what happened after the Hanukkah story and the Maccebean revolt. After the success of the revolt an independent, Jewish Hasmonean kingdom was established. Recent discoveries and analysis of the ruins of a fortress, in what is today southern Israel's Negev desert, have lead archaeologists to conclude that this Jewish kingdom extended well into the Negev. The fortress, built along the Nabatean trade route between Petra and the port of Gaza, was originally though to have been Roman, but now appears to have been a Jewish fort aimed at disrupting the presences of the Jews' Nabetean foes. To archaeologists, this now means that they have to totally redraw the map of what the Hasmonean kingdom and been previously believed to be.

It's always fascinating when modern science and scholarship can create real links to people and events that are the basis of religious and cultural beliefs.

Is the Golan Referendum Law Simply to Save Political Lives

The Knesset has recently voted to advance legislation that would make the handover of any land under Israeli sovereignty (i.e. Israel proper or annexed land--such as parts of Jerusalem and the Golan heights) subject to an Israel-wide plebiscite.

The bill, which is not yet law but has merely passed its first reading has several hurdles to clear before it becomes binding legislation, but it is already being discussed and receiving criticism and praise in some quarters as though it is. Those who support the bill (and that includes the majority of the Knesset) are happy that the final decision of renouncing territory are placed in the hands of citizens and not the elected officials and note that the possibility of corruption or bribery is removed.

Those who oppose the bill note that it is superfluous. They argue that the reason a parliament exists is to make exactly these sorts of decisions. They also make the point that internationally, it appears as though Israel is creating obstacles for itself and is tying its own hands when it comes to making peace.

Residents of the Golan are confident that the rest of Israel would never vote the territory away and so any referendum would only confirm what they know. Syria makes the point that Israel has no right to vote on giving back something that was never theirs to hold. For their part, Israeli commentators suggest that the bill itself is a clever signal to Syria and the Palestinians that they had better make a deal fast, before the law requires a referendum for ratification, or they could see their chances at a generous offer, which may be unpopular in Israel, slip away.

It is very difficult to see what good could come from legislation such as this. The whole thing stinks. A government is elected to make difficult decisions, it is elected with a mandate to handle issues such as this. There is something very suspicious about a government saying that now, of all the issues it decides on, this one will require the whole population to vote. It would be less suspicious if the law in Israel were that all treaties were subject to a referendum for ratification. They are not. The peace with Egypt and the Oslo agreement were not subject to voting either. It's true that no territory that had been annexed was handed over in these agreements, but the Golan heights and Jerusalem were each captured in a war and so should not have been annexed anyway.

It's also worth noting that for both Oslo and Egypt, the image behind the peace lost their lives (Nasser and Rabin.) Perhaps that reality is what motivates this Knesset. Perhaps the motive has nothing to do with international relations or with wanting peace or not. Maybe the real concern is fear, fear at having the legacy of seceding 'Israeli soil' and being held responsible for it. With a referendum, politicians may have little role at all in the final agreement. Negotiators (who will likely be high ranking bureaucrats) will hammer out a deal, the public will vote on it, and the politicians will rubber stamp the whole thing. This is the ideal way to avoid the responsibilities associated with leadership.

The correct response to this ought to be simply: "too bad." Representatives are elected to lead and to represent. If the above analysis is at all correct, and avoidance of real responsibility is the reason behind this bill, then the Knesset should resign and let someone made of tougher stuff take the mantle.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ghajar Residents Protest Against Israeli Withdrawal

In what should be a reminder to the powers that be that they are playing with the lives of ordinary people, residents of Ghajar staged a protest in their village against the possibility of being split in the event of an Israeli withdrawal.

Israel has already indicated its intention to withdraw the IDF from the northern portion of the village which lies in Lebanon and a flurry of recent meetings between Lebanese, UN and Israeli officials have fueled rumours that the withdrawal is imminent. It's this rumour mill and uncertainty surrounding the fate of the town that has residents concerned enough that they presented the commander of the UN forces in the region with a letter for the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urging him not to allow the town to be divided.

So concerned are residents about the fate of their town, their ability to tend their fields and carry on their lives as they do now that that have indicated their willingness to die rather than to see their town divided and for them to be as "refugees" in Lebanon. To be clear, these residents don't really care to be Israeli either, even though they have Israeli citizenship. They want to be Syrian, but worry not only about the division of their town but also about the threat to their lives should Hezbollah be able to enter the region.

The bottom lines in all this are that even Ghajar residents have no idea what their fate will be, that they have serious and legitimate concerns about what will happen to their village if it is split and that the decisions being made at levels they do not seem to have an input into, may not work as smoothly as hoped.

There is also a question of law at play here. These residents of Ghajar have Israeli citizenship. The country in which they have citizenship, however, proposes to turn them over to a foreign (indeed, a hostile) country where Israel will no longer be able to protect them. It is not clear if Lebanon will grant them citizenship or if they will retain any of the privileges of Israeli citizens. This is also a question of self determination. With what seems to be little or no consultation with the people of the town, their fate is simply being decided. So, even if the return of the village is in compliance with UN resolution 1701 on the matter, the question of the rights of citizens and of people to determine their own fate, remains.

Of course only time will tell what the powers that be have in store for the people of Ghajar, but any solution must consider the wishes of the people that live in the town, their right to self determination, their privileges as Israeli citizens as well as Israeli and Lebanese obligations under international law. It is indeed an interesting twist that it is now Hezbollah and Lebanon--critical of Israel for occupying the Palestinian territories--who are seeking to occupy people who don't want to be Lebanese and Israelis who are being criticized by Arabs, who at least in the short term, want to remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Will Imported Arabic Books be Allowed in Israel?

The Israeli Minister of Finance has objected to a proposed bill which would allow Arabic books published in "enemy" states to be sold in Israel. The reason for his objection is unclear and it is also unclear if this objection will actually halt the bill in its tracks or if it may move forward despite this opposition.

There was recent talk in Israel about lifting this ban on the import of books from Arab countries, especially Syria and Lebanon. There is such a small demand for Arabic language books in Israel that it is not worth the effort of many publishing houses in Israel to translate certain books. Indeed, even Arabic translations of Israeli authors are hard to find in Israel and are more often than not, sourced from places like Syria and Lebanon.

The catalyst for this bill seems to be a bookseller called Kol Bo (everything inside) which was championed by an Israeli NGO that advocates for the Israeli Arab Minority--Adalah. This Israeli Arab had sold and imported Arabic books for some time until his permit was recently cancelled because these books come from "enemy" sources. The new bill proposed to do away with this enemy state legislation and instead allow book imports with limits on books that were offensive, such as holocaust denial.

Opposing this bill seems nothing less than discriminatory and unjustified. Here is a large, linguistic and ethnic minority who want books in their own language. Provisions exist to ensure that hate materials don't make it into the country, what's the problem? Obviously the book trade had continued by Kol Bo when they had a permit, so it's not like there's any concern of suddenly contributing to an enemy economy, but the minister's objection in this case is nonsensical.

Books are vehicles for culture, for knowledge and for understanding. Preventing their import because they come from the wrong side of a line, punishes a minority who should be allowed to read in their first language, but also means that the culture (including Jewish-Israeli culture) and exchange that could normally have taken place in a mutually beneficial way, is being held up.

Shame on the Israeli Minister of Finance. Try opening borders and minds and at least, be fair!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ghajar Withdrawl, Any Day Now. Maybe.

As removed from the public eye as they seem to be able to keep things, Israeli officials have been preparing to withdraw from the town of Ghajar which straddles the Israeli Lebanese border.

Israeli officials have reportedly met with UN officials within the last several days to, reportedly, discuss the details of the Israeli withdrawal. The planed withdrawal, which calls for UN peacekeepers to administer the town so as to prevent Hezbollah filling any power vacuum left by an Israeli withdrawal still leaves some question marks. For example, what will be the fate of the residents of Ghajar who hold Israeli citizenship but will find themselves on the Lebanese side of the line? The answer to this question is not clear since they are Israeli citizens and are about to be essentially "handed over" to a foreign country. It's not clear that they would be given Lebanese citizenship at all.

The Ghajar question was also brought up at recent high level talks between French and Israeli officials. High level Israeli officials seem to be supportive of the withdrawal, which would bring Israel into compliance with UN resolutions on the matter. There are dissenters, of course, who are opposed to such a withdrawal, but they appear to be in a minority.

It's unclear when the withdrawal will take place, but it appears that Israel seems to be preparing to go and is capable of leaving Ghajar at any time. One reason for the withdrawal is that some suspect it will help to bolster the Lebanese government by handing them a 'deliverable' which they can tout to their people, a concession from Israel that was not obtained by violence or by Hezbollah. The reality is though, nobody is sure what will really happen because, after all, Hezbollah has been known to target UN peacekeepers and it has even been suggested that they are preparing some new cross border raid.

This being said, Israel should withdraw. Part of the town that is not Israeli, should not be held by Israelis. Ghajar is said to have little or no strategic value, it is not economically or politically very significant and returning the town is an obligation under UN resolutions. It also has the international relations bonus of giving the French a deliverable in the region while potentially hurting Hezbollah. Win, win, win, win!

The question now, is when will it all happen.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lemon Tree: A Movie Worth Watching

I recently watched the movie Lemon Tree. The story is about an Israeli minister who moves into a home which neighbours a lemon grove owned and tended by a Palestinian widow. With the arrival of this VIP, Israeli security forces decide that the grove provides excelent cover for would be terrorists and impose all number of security measures aimed ultimatley, at uprooting the trees. The Palestinian woman decides to fight the restrictions imposed on her in court and ends up in a difficult legal battle.

In the words of the movie's director, Lemon Tree is supposed to be a story of people fighting over things that they could have easily resolved had they just spoken to one another. The movie tries to make this point throughout by showing the sincerity of the Minister's wife in trying to make some form of contact with her widowed neighbour. It also uses a somewhat clever device of a soldier in a watchtower, who can see everything as he whiles away his guard duty studying for an exam in logic.

The story is supposed to be based on a true story and there's some information about it here. It involved Shaul Mofaz, the then defense minister of Israel and an incident with his neighbours olive grove. More true, however, is the way of life, the harship for Palestinians, security fears of Israelis that are shown in the movie. Roadbloacks, terrorist attacks, and ordinary peopel trying to live seem fairly represented in the movie.

What is less overt, however, are the metaphors the movie tries to create. In the movies depiction of life for the Palestinian woman and her neighbours it is clear that one is supposed to udnerstand that Israelis live their lives in a cavelier, disconnected, unconcerned way while Palestinians live in poverty and have deeper, more meaningful relationships between eachother--relationships centered on family, community, morals, etc.--than do Israelis, where it seems that only Israeli women show such sensitivity.

The point being, this movie is ostensibly about how people talknig to one another would have solved this dispute between neigbours, but it does not reflect this and this is not necessarily the reality. This movie has clear good guys and bad guys and it is very clear that the bad guys are the Israelis, or at least Israeli men. This is what the subtext of the film seems to be. We don't meet any real Palestinian bad guys in this movie, but there are some less than savory Israeli characters.

The above are just my thoughts on the movie. I would recommend watching it and developing ones own opinion about it. It is, after all, a movie, not reporting and it does not need to be fair, or balanced, but I would question the reality it presents.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Freedom of Speech Threatened at the UN

Here's a question: Does the UN Human Rights Council tolerate free speech if that speech means criticism of itself?

Answer:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

IDF Raises Internet Defence Unit

I've written before that the Internet is a cesspool of hatred. Antisemitism abounds on the Internet and much of it is tied to supposed criticism of Israel. It should never be suggested that criticism of Israel is illegitimate and that's not my purpose, but while its true that most criticism of Israel is not antisemitic, it's probably true that all antisemites are critical of Israel.

Much of this hatred and indeed much criticism I've seen of Israel on various blogs or comments on news stories of major media outlets tends to be very uninformed. People make decisions based on partial information or oversimplified explanations of complex events. As a case in point (and I don't mean to discuss this issue in detail here) some of the comments on this story, run on the CBC suggest that a Nazi war criminal should not be tried in Germany because he was acquitted in Israel. In Israel, however, he was acquitted of a different accusation than the one he is on trial for in Germany. This detail seems to have escaped many CBC readers who instead think an old man is being prosecuted for no reason.

This sort of ignorance can, dangerously, lead to hatred. It's not hard to imagine a person who misunderstood this case thinking that this case was not an act of justice, but an act of vengeance and a cruel persecution of a frail old man by Jews, who else? Ergo, in the mind of this ignorant (not stupid, ignorant) person, the Jews are doing something horrible to this poor old man.

This long introduction is meant to set the ground for this story from Ha'Aretz that the IDF will be recruiting soldiers to fight against misinformation and hatred on websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. This would be another plank in the Israeli platform of public diplomacy, or, as it is called in Israel "Hasbara" (explanation.)

This is a somewhat double edged sword. On the one hand, more accurate information and a real counter to hatred and misinformation is welcome. On the other hand, many people on such websites that I've come across have deeply entrenched positions and are unlikely to be swayed. Indeed, often whenever there are many pro-Israeli comments on a given site, in an attempt to discredit these comments, someone invariably brings up Israel's history of public diplomacy and not only by the government, but also by groups like CAMERA, MEMRI, and Just Journalism. If these IDF bloggers are to become prolific, there is also the chance that their lines will become rehearsed and sound like talking points, which again hurts their credibility.

It is, however, an unfair criticism that just because the IDF has a staff of bloggers/facebookers/twitterers that the comments these people make should be discarded. A fact is a fact. 1+1=2, no matter who says it and if this IDF team is writing the truth, then that's helpful. It should also be pointed out though that many governments practice public diplomacy and though different means. Canada (and here), the United States and Australia all come to mind as countries that have made use of public diplomacy though a wide range of methods. Perhaps they have not developed anything akin to what the IDF is developing, but its questionable that these countries come under the same online derision as Israel.

If this Israeli effort can put more accurate facts into the public domain to combat ignorance, the breeder of hatred, than it is to be lauded. If, on the other hand, however, it appears too fabricated or even resorts to producing misinformation, then it will have defeated itself--a self inflicted wound.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Turkish Israeli Relations No Longer a Crisis Due to Commerical Contract

Last week an Israeli Minister, Ben-Eliezer, headed to Turkey to help mend fences between the two countries which have recently found their relations to be more strained and chilly than they had been in previous times. Outwardly, the meeting seems to have been a success with the Turkish foreign minister declaring the crisis in diplomatic relations to be over and announcing a willingness to pick up where the two countries left off, as opposed to a new beginning.

On the sensitive question of Turkey's role as a mediator in peace talks between Israel and Syria, despite statements by Netanyahu and Leiberman that Turkey could not be trusted as a mediator, the Turkish government acknowledged that Israel had officially requested Turkey to resume this role.

What was not the focus of the Israeli media that reported on this supposed rapprochement but which seems to be front and centre in Turkish media and is perhaps the true key to this "crisis resolution" related to drones. In 2005 Israel signed a contract with Turkey to provide 10 highly advanced Heron unmanned areal vehicles for the Turkish military. Delivery of these vehicles was significantly delayed and had been a source of contention between the two countries. The drones, which were due last year are finally on track to be delivered and according to Turkish media, this breakthrough of a commercial/military dispute has been the catalyst for the removal of many other contentious issues between the two countries.

This may well be the case, that the drones alone were the cause of such tension, but it's difficult to imagine that such a public international dispute would play out merely over a contract. Indeed, it's very possible that the roots of the conflict lie in a more profound ideological position adopted by the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. A quick scan of recent news discussing the Turkish Prime Minister shows an increasing alignment with Islamic and Arab countries, popular support for his rants and outbursts against Israel and a drift away from Europe and the west. If this is the real direction the winds are blowing in Turkey, it's hard to imagine that a contractual dispute being resolved between Israel and Turkey will truly bring relations to where they were.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why so Secret about Ghajar?

Israel's plans for the town of Ghajar, Lebanon, remain obscure.

UNIFIL maintains that it has not received any official notification from Israel of any plans to withdraw from any part of the town. So, as far as the UN is concerned, things are status quo. Nonetheless, an obscure statement published in a Lebanese newspaper suggests that Israel has informed UNIFIL that they are ready to withdraw from Ghajar in a matter of hours. What makes this so obscure is that it's unclear if it means that Israel is about to withdraw, or that once the order if given to withdraw, it can be done quickly.

Meanwhile, on the domestic Israeli political front, the the Arab, Likud Member of the Knesset, Kara, continues to rail against the idea of any Israeli steps away from Ghajar. He warns against turning over any security along Israel's border to UNIFIL who he called "doll" soldiers--either to imply they were puppets being controlled or they were as effective as dolls, or both. As he rages, Lieberman the foreign minister, fumes and smolders that any news of any withdrawal from Ghajar has made the papers at all. The withdrawal, which many speculate Israel wants to make so as to reduce international criticism of/pressure on it was supposed to be kept very secret. Lieberman is so angry that any news of this story made it to the public that he now wants his staff and the cabinet to take polygraph tests to see where the leak is from.

This of course begs the question, why is this so secret? After all, this is not the first time a withdrawal from Ghajar has been discussed. On e reason to keep this quiet may have been that Lieberman, or someone else in the government (Kara, maybe?) is trying to scuttle the planed withdrawal and Lieberman would hate to raise expectations and then come off looking like the bad guy if the deal fails. Maybe Liberman is concerned about how such a withdrawal may look to his ultra nationalist base and he was hoping that any withdrawal could happen quietly, without too much media attention.

There are perhaps also security concerns. Maybe Israel wants to sneak agents into Lebanon through Ghajar before the opportunity is lost. Perhaps raising this in the media will place Lebanon on higher alert for such infiltrations. Perhaps Israel is concerned that Lebanon or Hezbollah will try to take advantage of an imminent withdrawal, trying to sneak their people into the town. Or, even worse, perhaps Hezbollah would use the opportunity of a withdrawal to attack Israel or Ghajar, to make the withdrawal appear as though it's happening under fire or to simply draw a connection between their actions and the recovery of Lebanese land.

Given the reaction to this story, it will be interesting to see if it ever even comes up in the media again, but if it does hopefully the next story will be that Israel has pulled out of Ghajar.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Israeli Official Meetings in Oman and Morocco

High ranking Israeli officials have made appearances recently in two Arab countries with whom Israel used to have ties.

Piggybacking onto a conference dealing with desalinization in the middle east, top Israeli diplomats met with officials in Oman. These talks were officially considered secret, and there is little information available on their content. Nonetheless, not too long ago, Oman was one of a small number of Arab countries being pressured to normalize relations with Israel if Israel froze its settlement construction. As it happens, a settlement construction freeze was recently announced, just after the Oman meeting. It's not clear that there was any connection between the meeting in Oman and Netanyahu's declaration of the freeze, but the delegation to Oman contained some extremely high ranking officials of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a diplomat of that level of seniority would have the authority to make certain agreements or carry high level messages. The coming days or weeks may tell if perhaps Oman agreed to certain aspects of normalization in exchange for the 10 month freeze.

On the other side of the Arab world, in the Magrheb, leader of the Israeli Opposition Kadima party, Tzipi Livni attended an international economic conference in Morocco, a country Israel once had beneficial relations with. There was much criticism of her visit since the Israeli government was uninvited at the last moment because it had approved the construction of 900 housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. It's especially interesting that the invitation to Livni stood because apparently, she supported the Gilo construction. Nonetheless, the conference provided a unique opportunity for Livini to pass on the Israeli-non-partisan-message that Israel wants peace and that the two state solution is the goal that should be aimed for.

Though quite distinct from one another, these two cases may be seen as a trend of sorts. Both Oman and Morocco are countries that have no real economic or military interest in not having ties with Israel, but perhaps have domestic political concerns. It's quite possible that the ordinary people in these countries may be more inclined to identify with Palestinian Arabs if even their governments want to try to build relations with Israelis. Dialogue is clearly possible and is clearly a good thing and economic ties will no doubt be useful in beginning to build a symbiosis of sorts that can lead to a further increase in relations. If the hatred amongst the people, however, remains as deep as it is (as recently illustrated by the Egypt-Algeria hacking incident) then there will remain a long way to go. It's positive that Israel can build political ties with these states, but it will need to start winning hearts and minds with cultural exchanges, demonstration of what is good in Israeli society and a sincere openness to the Arab world and to accept cultural and other imports from the Arab world, just as Israel would like to export its positive image to them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Withdrawl From Ghajar, Lebanon Finally Imminent?

After being out of the news for almost four months, the question of the tiny town of Ghajar on the Israeli-Lebanese border is again a subject of high level political discussion. In a vote to take place on November 25th, 2009, the Israeli cabinet is expected to vote on (and probably approve) of a plan to withdraw from the northern (Lebanese) portion of the divided town and essentially implement a plan established by UNIFIL about a year ago.

The UNIFIL plan would have Israel withdraw from the town, have UNIFIL forces take up positions around the town, with a small internal police force, while all residents (who are Arabs) would maintain their Israeli identity cards. No barrier would be built dividing the town as residents have been explicit that they do not want any such barrier.

So far, it seems that Israel has not informed the Lebanese or UNIFIL of their plans to withdraw, but that's likely because the Israeli cabinet has not yet voted on the question. When the vote does come, it may face some vocal opposition. A Likud, Druze MK Ayoub Kara has dramatically pledged that he would fight even until his "last drop of blood" to prevent an Israeli withdrawal from the town. This position is probably taken because of the fear expressed by some Ghajar residents about what could happen to them--as Israeli citizens--if Hezbollah developed a presence in the area. Some residents have indicated that they actually fear for their lives.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu seems to have made up his mind and his decision is the right one. There is little or no strategic reason to hold on to Ghajar and if this small, relatively insignificant town is causing such extra tension, than certainly returning it, in compliance with the UN resolutions that gave UNIFIL their mandate, is the right thing to do. This is an easy one to get right and hopefully the stupidity and bluster of the likes of Kara will not have any impact at all.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Algerian Sports Fans Use Israel to Insult Egypt

I don't pretend to have any special knowledge or insight into Arab culture, but this story trikes me as a stark example of the feelings that need to be overcome before there can be real peace in the region.

As explained here, Egypt and Algeria have seen their fair share of (probably really limited) civil unrest in the wake of World Cup Qualifying soccer (football) games between the two countries.


In one show of partisanship an Algerian hacker broke into the Egyptian Football team website and posted an Egyptian flag with a Star of David on in. He added the comment "You ******* deal with Israel all the time, you are not men."


In other words, the highest insult to masculinity and honor that this Algerian hacker seems to be able to proffer is that Egypt and Israel have dealings. I imagine that the elimination of this feeling that a nation's honor is assailed by dealing with Israel in any way would go a long way in taking that first step towards positive, low level relations which could eventually lead to a more lasting peaceful situation in the middle east. When such an option is foreclosed because of the fear of not being a man, it's hard to see how any progress can be made.

Attempts to Mend Israeli and Turkish Fences

Though in the last year or so, since Operation Cast Lead, relations between Israel and Turkey have been cool, recent events have highlighted that despite the outward posturing, there remains a complex relationship between the two states that is not so easily extinguished.

For example, despite the incidents which may lead one to conclude that things were not well between the two countries, they recently held military search and rescue exercises involving the Jordanian army as well in Turkey. This drill brought to mind memories of another, larger, NATO drill in which both Turkey and Israel were supposed to participate in recent weeks but to which Israel was "un-invited." This sudden change of heart was interpreted by many to be a slap in the face to Israel and a sign of Turkey's increasing criticism of and distancing from Israel since Operation Cast Lead. There may be some credibility to this interpretation, but the Turkish explanation for the cancellation also holds water.

In 2005, Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $150 million deal with Turkey to provide unmanned aerial vehicles for the Turkish military. This deal, however, has been hit by a series of delays and the Turks are apparently becoming quite frustrated with the finger pointing and attempts to deflect blame by the Israelis. The Israelis insist they have respected every clause of their contract and the delay is Turkey's fault, Turkey insists that Israel has been making up (bogus) excuses for their inability to meet deadlines. In either case, the details of what is essentially a business dispute is not relevant. What's relevant, is that Turkey doesn't have the drones and the issue has, or is coming to a head. The Turks are at this point so upset that the order from 2005 remains incomplete that they have sent a ministerial level letter to Israel suggesting that the whole, valuable contract could be cancelled if Israel does not deliver within 50 days.

Another complex aspect of the countries' relationship is the mediation that it lead between Israel and Syria and the proximity the two sides apparently came towards a deal until Cast Lead put everything back to square one. Turkey reacted when recently France suggested they would be well placed to take up the role of mediator instead of, or with, Turkey. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan suggested that Syria would not be willing to accept French mediation. The Israeli foreign minister, Lieberman, has stated he does not see how it's possible for Israel to accept Turkey as a mediator in further talks because the trust that existed between the two countries has been shaken.

Some, however, have been less deterred by Lieberman. Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the only Israeli minister to attend this year's "Republic Day" reception at the Turkish embassy, is heading to Turkey to mend fences. Ben-Eliezer is said to have particularly warm relations with Turkey and it is hoped that he can produce results. While he will be leading a trade delegation to Turkey, his goal is also to bring bilateral relations between the countries to what they were just over a year ago. His message will not only be one of trade promotion--an important facet of the bilateral relationship with trade in 2008 valued at over $1.5 billion--but the subject of mediation is also expected to come up. Ben-Eliezer will, it is reported, communicate that Turkey can continue in its role as mediator if relations return to the warm levels they once were.

These are just two demonstrations of the complex ties between the two countries. The question of water imports, for example, is another. It's interesting though that despite the reputedly poor relations and criticism of Israel by Turkey for Cast Lead, the Turks still want to purchase military equipment that was even used in the operation that Turkey is so critical of. It also cannot be ruled out that Israel is deliberately delaying delivery of the drones, as a reminder to Turkey that the two countries need one another, and that just as Turkey can proffer harsh public criticism, Israel can hold back on things that Turkey wants as well. Erdogan's reaction to the possibility of French mediation is also interesting. There may be more to this aspect of the relationship, but it seems as though Erdogan is actually concerned that this prestigious position as mediator may slip away from him. Acting as a mediator would work well for Turkey. It positioned it as an honest broker to both Arabs and Israelis, it made Turkey look moderate and a contributor to peace in the Middle East and probably gave it serious credibility in the EU. For this chance to slip away because of undiplomatic behaviour by Erdogan must be very troubling. In other words, it's in Turkeys interests to improve it's relations with Israel and be accepted as a mediator again.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of Ben-Eliezer's trip is and to watch any subtle changes in this complex relationship.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Up Against the Wall": Poor Journalism on the Security Barrier

Tonight, the CBC ran a documentary called "Up Against The Wall." Presented in the context of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the documentary examines three walls that are the subjects of controversy. The first is the wall along the US-Mexico border which featured a segment where an interviewee was quoted as saying this wall's goal is to kill Mexicans. The second wall was one being built by Spain in its Moroccan Enclaves and the third, and this is no surprise, is the security barrier in Israel.

If the other segments of this documentary were as accurate as the portion on the wall in Israel, then this whole documentary will need to be written off as heavily slanted, inaccurate journalism.

The segment in questions begins by showing footage and background on the wave of suicide bombings in Israel at the start of the current decade. It mercifully spares the viewer from much of the carnage but makes the point that these attacks were horrific and drives home the point with a short interview of a man whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber at the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem.

Then the viewer is presented with footage of Israeli soldiers monitoring the fence and explaining how they respond to incidents. There is also an interview with a former Israeli Military official who contends that the fence is nothing more than a land grab. A map of the settlements and the route of the fence within the "green line" demonstrates his point. A very short, inarticulate statement by an Israeli official contradicts that the fence is a land grab. This is the only opportunity given to an Israeli official to speak in support of the fence.

The segment then turns to shots of the wall, the ugly, imposing concrete section of the wall which actually only comprises 3% of the entire barrier. The many shots of the fence focus in on the graffiti it bears, notably some that compares the wall to the Warsaw Ghetto, a fallacious comparison if there ever was one, and a reflection of naivete on the part of the filmmaker. The viewer is also presented with shots of the many checkpoints set up in the West Bank and a woman living in a house that the wall passes directly in front of is interviewed. The viewer is also presented with interviews with Hanan Ashrawi a Palestinian legislator who rails against the wall as well as a Palestinian doctor/politician who critiques the checkpoints and notes the hardship they cause to ordinary people, notably pregnant women. There are also mentions made of Palestinians being cut off from their olive groves and images of Israeli civilians coming to help with the harvest. Strikingly, the viewer also is given a glimpse of the weekly, often violent clashes that take place between those opposed to the wall and the IDF on a regular basis.

The documentary makes the case at the outset that Israel has security concerns and that this was the impetus for the wall. The remainder of the 15 or so minutes for which it was discussed, however, focused almost exclusively on Palestinians explaining how it has caused them hardship. This hardship is impossible to deny and it would be callous to do so.

Nonetheless, the documentary fails to provide any continued justification for the wall. For example, no mention is made of the wall's effectiveness, that Israel began constructing the security fence in early 2003. In the year prior to that, there had been 55 suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. In 2003, after the wall there were 25, 14 in 2004, 2005 saw 7, in 2006, there were 4 and only one in 2007. These statistics are not in "Up Against The Wall." Neither is there any statement of fact about how much of the wall is merely a chain link fence with sensors, or a rebuttal of the allegation that the fence is a land grab or that its route has been subjected to the scrutiny of Israel's Supreme Court.

"Up Against The Wall", if it were a documentary about how the fence was impacting ordinary Palestinians, could probably be considered to have done a good job. The viewer is left with no doubt about the wall's impacts on Palestinians. Unfortunately, however, this was a documentary whose goal was to ask "Do walls, in fact, work?" In the case of the security barrier, though it does not provide a clear oral verdict, its imagery and editing alone lead to the false conclusion that no, this barrier does not work. In the documentary's last mention of the wall, it is suggested that terrorists continue to strike Israel with rockets, and footage of a rocket launch is shown. The viewer is then led to believe that despite all this hardship the wall has caused innocent Palestinians, it has been for naught.

The rockets, however, are launched from Gaza and the wall in question is constructed around the West Bank. These rockets exist independently of the wall which even terrorists acknowledge has made it difficult for them to carry our their murderous violence. Terrorism from the West Bank, where the wall exists has been dramatically curtailed by the presence of this security barrier and has saved lives. Not only Israeli lives, but the lives of Palestinians who could have been hurt if Israel retaliated for suicide bombings. "Up Against The Wall" does not lead the viewer to this clear and simple solution. Combine this with its fallacious comparison between the security barriers and all the others it discusses to the Berlin wall, and the naivete and lack of true historical understanding involved in the film-making becomes obvious.

Discrimination against Arabs, Ethiopians and Haredis in Israel

Ynet and the JPost report on an upsetting study that demonstrates that even when highly educated and well qualified, Arabs, Haredi (orthodox) Jews and Ethiopians (in order of the most difficult to the least difficult challenges faced) have a very difficult time finding jobs in Israel. The report's findings demonstrate that banks, law firms and media are amongst some of the sectors where this discrimination is occurring.

The study was conducted by professors working at Ono College who presented their findings on November 10, 2009.

Certainly, deeply entrenched societal racism and prejudices are major factors in this discrepancy. It may be possible to imagine how the political climate sees Arabs ranked as the most discriminated against, there is no excuse for this type of prejudice. In one of the more revealing comments made to the researchers an advertising agency employee said (as reported in Ynet): "The haredi, Arab and Ethiopian needs many more things in order to be like a normal Ashkenazi." It's difficult to imagine how anyone can interpret this as a reasonable, liberal (as opposed to racist) view. What this respondent was saying was that everyone should just be mainstream, just like the majority and that this majority is itself incapable of tolerating or understanding why minorities would want to be different.

Another quote highlighting just how marginalized some of these groups have become and how unwilling the majority is to accept those who continue to make Israel a diverse country appears in the JPost: "There is a real concern about the awkwardness of shaking hands with a haredi Jew, telling army stories in front of an Arab and the 'coarse' Israeli mentality in front of the Ethiopian." If these groups were better integrated into society perhaps Israelis would learn that a diverse society must adapt to include minorities and weave them into the fabric of what the whole society is. Otherwise, what is being demanded is assimilation and a refusal to recognize real differences.

Aside from racism, another, and perhaps even larger, obstacle to the unemployed is that Israeli society has firmly entrenched networks of personal and family connections that many Israelis rely on to find work. While there's nothing wrong with a cultural practice of relying heavily on personal networks to help find work, it becomes problematic when qualified individuals from outside these networks cannot break into the system. If one needs a contact to secure a job, and these contacts may be based on anything from having served in the army together or grown up in the same neighborhood, and Arabs and Haredim rarely serve in the army while Ethiopians do, but may live in different neighborhoods, how can these groups expect to break into the job market without their own contacts. They key for these communities is to have their own champions, their own visible communities inside industry which can help see other members of the same group promoted.

The author of the study, speaking at a conference contradicted the optimistic works of the Minister of the Treasury, Dr. Yuval Steinitz, with the ominous warning that things were deteriorating, not improving, and that without major attitude shifts, things may go very awry. There may already be signs of this taking place. For example, recent Haredi riots in parts of Jerusalem and repeated complaints by Israeli Arabs of discriminatory treatment as well as sympathetic attitudes towards the last intifada are important warnings of what can happen should Israel fail to bring these disadvantaged groups into the mainstream and allow their communities to be full members of Israeli society.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jordan and Israel Working to Protect Treasures of Human Heritage

The middle east is obviously a region of profound archaeological richness. This includes not only the finds of caches of coins or statues, but also entire cities, places like Petra in Jordan and Masada in Israel.

These wonders (and Petra is truly, without a doubt a wonder of the world) face threats, however, and not only from the obvious sources--conflict and human destruction. Places like both Masada and Petra are at risk from earthquakes in the region and even (believe it or not) flooding.

Encouragingly, however, Israeli and Jordanian officials are beginning to work together and cooperate to help prevent and respond to archaeological disasters which may be caused by natural disasters. Apparently, an Israeli university professor from Ben Gurion University has developed a system to mathematically model past earthquakes in the region and the impacts that these earthquakes could have on sensitive sites.

These types of conservation measures and others were recently discussed at a UNESCO sponsored conference on the protection of archaeological sites. Held at the International Conservation Centre, newly founded in Acre.

While this conference does not seem particularly groundbreaking, I wanted to write about it just because I thought it was a nice example of how states could cooperate and build ties with one another for the purpose of protecting the common patrimony of mankind. Really, it was an interesting way for me to write about archeology and a case where it can have a positive impact on international relations.

Brazil's Innovative Water Conservation and Israeli Technology

Since their recent successful bid for the Olympics, Brazilian officials have become concerned that they will face a real strain on their water resources with the influx of visitors expected during the Olympics. To help cope with this problem, they've turned to Israel.

Brazil is not a particularly water poor country, but nonetheless, it's officials have made a decision--reflective of great foresight--that the water cannot be squandered and that now is the time to work towards conserving it. Brazil has already begun innovative water saving activities, such as this television spot about how urinating in the shower can save water. Apparently, it's working!





Brazilian officials will be turning to Israel for the Water Technologies (WATEC) confernce to be held begining today (November 17) in Tel Aviv. The confernce is expected to attract experts from around the world to discuss tools for efficient use of water, new technologies to help with water conservation and sustainable development.

Israel has already been branded the "Silicon Valley" of water technology for its global leadership in this feild and WATEC is just an example of this. It's also an example of how countries with no obvious interests in common (Brazil and Israel) can be brought together to cooperate and to build bridges and relations by sharing ideas about that universally needed, precious resource, water.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in Yiddish!

Boy did I get a kick out of this!

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Translated into Yiddish! This should not be too shocking as it has been translated into over 360 languages, but Yiddish!?

A little information of the translation itself is here.

"Just Journalism" Exploring International Law in the Media

I've come across an interesting organization (with a punny name) called Just Journalism. The UK based organization states as its mission that:
"Just Journalism is an independent research organisation focused on how Israel
and Middle East issues are reported in the UK media. We produce analysis of
print, broadcast and online media and regularly publish research on trends in
the media’s coverage.
"

What I find particularly interesting about Just Journalism is that they have what appears to be a somewhat unique focus on how public international law is reported in the media. Public International Law, like any area of law, can be incredibly nuanced and complex and is difficult to fully express in a short news report or article. Law is also rarely black and white, and lawyers are often mocked for regularly answering questions with: "well that depends..." Just Journalism has concerned itself with how these difficult issues are dealt with in the media.

There was a recent Just Journalism "round table" on international law as reported in the media. The round table featured journalism experts as well as at least two experts on international law, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Dr Ralph Wilde (bio at the bottom of the page.)

The round table found, in a nutshell, that international law is a highly politicized subject, that its concepts have precise meanings and the application of international law concepts to a given situation can be legitimately, hotly contested. They also point out that given the subtle, but important, nuances that may exist journalists are not necessarily qualified to identify the areas that may be contentious when interviewing one expert or another.

As a useful example of how international law is sometimes used--if not by journalists than by politically oriented groups--to advance political positions, consider this article by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--also quite punny!) FAIR is a US
"...media watch organization offering constructive criticism in an effort to
correct media imbalance. We advocate for media access on behalf of those
constituencies in our society that do not have the wealth to purchase their own
TV stations or daily newspapers. We scrutinize media practices that slight
public interest, peace and minority viewpoints."

In other words, it's a group advocating against centralized control of new media and encouraging media to be more aggressive and critical of the powers that be.

The FAIR article linked to above discusses reporting on international law in the US in the wake of the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza. It laments that more mention of international law was not made and that Israel was not more forcefully criticized for its violations of this law. Indeed, it criticizes the New York Times for saying that “In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target.” This being of course a reflection of the difficulty of answering the question when does a target become military. Is a soldier off duty a military target? Is a member of a terrorist group not in uniform planning an attack a target, on the way to an attack, attempting to attack? The lines are unclear and it would seem the New York Times was right to note this uncertainty. Nonetheless, groups like the "Electronic Intifada" have picked up and republished reports like this one from FAIR in furtherance of what is their, distinctly political agenda. They are asking that media make more pronouncements on international law precisely because it is useful to have mainstream sources making unequivocal legal claims.

One of the round tables key outcomes is that "Journalists must strike a balance between providing detail on the complex legal concepts they refer to, and ensuring their reports remain accessible to their audiences. There is a lack of consensus on the right way to strike this balance at present and this needs further discussion." Or in other words, law is complicated, is hard to communicate in the space often available to journalists and there are no simple solutions to rectify this problem.

Certainly, the laws that apply in a courtroom, do not apply to public opinion. In a court if a witness, even an expert witness, says something, the judge need not accept the statement as true and more often than not, the opposite party will bring in their own witnesses and experts to contradict the claims. In journalism, an interview with a single law professor may suffice for the journalist or the audience to feel convinced that they are hearing the authoritative legal position. It may not be sufficient, but it would be a positive step in the right direction for journalists to remember that pronouncements on the law can nearly always be contradicted. It could also be useful for them to acknowledge this somehow in their reporting. For example, if interviewing a law professor adding the caveat, to be perfectly clear, that this opinion is only that of this professor and there may be other, valid legal opinions. Or, perhaps in an interview asking the interviewee to honestly consider if there would be other international law experts who may disagree with him or her could rectify this imbalance.

In all cases, Just Journalism raises interesting points about the confluence of law, the media and politics and their work is worth watching.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We Will Remember Them...



Yesterday, I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa. It was the first time I was able to make it to that ceremony and was glad that I did.

The weather was perfect, unseasonably warm and not a cloud in the sky. The ceremony itself was impressive, involving members of all branches of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP, dignitaries including the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales, Charles, who was on a Canadian tour and of course, veterans.

There are a few points I wanted to make after having seen the ceremony which was complete with a military band, pipers, buglers a 21 gun salute with Howitzers and a flypast by 4 CF-18s.

First, it’s hard not to notice the soldiers in the honour guard at the memorial. In particular, their age: they’re all so young. Really young! It’s hard not to consider, as they go marching by, that these are the people who have volunteered to go though harsh training, and accept the most dangerous jobs Canadians could have for pay that is certainly not extraordinary. It’s these young people that we all rely on because they will stand up for us when push comes to shove.

Second, the crowds. At the event, I couldn’t tell how many people were there, but there were thousands. I was near (but not at) the front of the crowd and we were pretty well packed in. After the ceremony, people were given the opportunity to place their poppies on the tomb of the unknown soldier, the crowd that lined up to do so was so thick that I decided to pass up on that opportunity. People were also unusually polite, respectful and quiet. I couldn’t help but notice that even after the moment of silence, even when there was nothing to really see or listen too, the crowd was so still. There were also no cases that I saw of people jostling for a position, arguing, or anything of the kind. In fact, people were talking to strangers, asking if they had veterans in their families, where did they serve, what they did and thanking one another for the service of their relatives.

The crowd was also, naturally, very appreciative of the veterans, but to a point I didn’t expect. As the veterans marched passed, the crowed broke into applause. This appreciation, however, was not reserved just for the parade. Some veterans arrived late and walked to the ceremony site by themselves or were pushed in wheelchairs. The crowed broke into separate rounds of applause for each and every veteran that passed, no matter what the circumstances.

Third, the flyby and the 21 gun salute. I’ve been to air shows before and have seen fighter planes pass by, even at low levels, but it’s impressive every time. The CF-18s came in low, in a tight formation and while they may not have screamed passed, they were yelling very loudly. The earth shook and the planes were gone before the sound of their jets reached the people below. That sound followed like a wave passing over the crowed. It’s hard not to be awed by such power.

The Howitzers made an impression too. I think it was the first time I had ever been physically present when such a large weapon was fired. The first shot startled me. The earth shook and I felt the sound echo in my chest. A friend of mine who I spoke to afterwards—who has been around artillery far more than I have—dismissed the salute as somewhat tame. But for me, it was shocking. The sound; the trembling of the earth; the plumes of smoke; and all this after firing shells that weren’t even live ammunition, it made an impression.

I take from both the artillery and the planes that the power we have created for ourselves, the awesomeness of the force we can bring to bear is overwhelming. The sights sounds and smells of an actual war, with its cannons, and planes and guns must be a terrible, terrifying, chaotic clamour and into this, we send those young people.

Finally, there’s the veterans. They were young once too, just like the young soldiers in the parade and they had all seen the worst of war. It just drives home the point of what they must have really gone through and what they have given so that we can live in a free country, where I can write this blog and say whatever I wish, where I can vote, earn a living, and pursue anything I choose. It’s hard to know how to properly express gratitude to these mostly—there were some young Afghanistan war vets there—old people, some of whom marched in the parade with canes. It seems that applauding them as they walked by is so insignificant. I think that perhaps the best way to appreciate their sacrifices to be sure to know about them, read about them, speak to the veterans and be able to pass their stories on.