Friday, May 29, 2009

Pressure Upon Pressure

In New York City, students held a mass rally outside the offices of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) urging them to step up their efforts to obtain access to Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier captured in Israel proper in a Hamas raid. Schalit has been held for over three years and nobody from the ICRC has been able to visit him. His state of health is unclear and it is uncertain that he remains alive.

The ICRC has made statements in the past that "The issue is continuously raised at high-level meetings with Hamas. We are pursuing dialogue with all those concerned...We have to talk to those who hold a person's fate in their hands in order to be able to help that person. We have also maintained regular contact with Gilad Shalit's family. We inform them, and the authorities concerned, about what we have done."

There is little debate over the illegality of Hamas holding Schalit as a hostage and denying humanitarian organizations the right to visit him enshrined in international law. The human rights organization B'Tselem rightly referred to the detention of Schalit in a virtual information blackout to be a war crime.

In a short interview between the ICRC and Schalit's parents, the captive soldier's father makes an interesting statement that at once proposes a way forward for the ICRC and recognizes its limitations. He says "After all, Hamas often relies on the ICRC for humanitarian matters so we were expecting that, similarly, the ICRC would succeed in getting what it needs and wants from Hamas. The problem is that consent and cooperation are essential for the ICRC and when both are lacking, there is not much it can do."

The ICRC needs to be a neutral organization to be effective. It needs to have the interests of people in mind when it does its work and ought not to play into politics. It should provide aid to those who need it, almost unconditionally. On the other hand, the ICRC and groups like it, including the various organs of the UN at work in Gaza, and Human Rights NGO "superpowers" like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have ongoing relationships with Hamas--which is not to say they are somehow related, or supporting one another, but rather that there is, at some level contact between these international organizations and NGOs on the one hand, and Hamas on the other. This communication is an important, direct channel that Israel and most democracies do not have, and, since these groups often provide needed assistance to the people of Gaza they are in a position where Gaza and Hamas needs them. Ergo, a position of influence.

However, a quick search for "Shalit" on the Amnesty International site reveals a few articles about the abducted soldier, but--with this one as an example--mostly in the context of Schalit being a prisoner of Hamas just as Israel has Palestinian prisoners. It is the case that there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but that does nothing to diminish the truth that not even allowing ICRC members to inspect Schalit's condition is a violation of the Geneva conventions.

These groups need to elaborate and be pressured to elaborate a clear policy and steps forward which they, as champions of human rights, and states such as Israel, can take to ensure that Schalit's rights are respected. The ideal policy that these groups should elaborate on Schalit should focus firstly and ideally on how to bring him home, safely, healthy and alive. At least, however, it means that there should be unequivocal insistence that Hamas' denial of visits to Schalit are a flagrant flaunting of international law and are punishable and the ICRC or other, similar group, should be allowed to visit Schalit, bring him letters from his parents and allow him to write home, all in accordance with international law.

Anything less highlights and reinforces the perceived impotence of these organizations that can otherwise do good work.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Honest Education is the Way Forward

This opinion piece published in the Jerusalem Post argues that an important obstacle on the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace is that Palestinians, both through formal education and through the statements of their leadership are taught that there was never any Jewish presence in Israel prior to the modern Zionist movement of the late 19th century. The article argues that such beliefs, which fly in the face of history and which are propagated by people, some of whom must know that they're lying, make it impossible for Palestinians to accept Israel. This rejectionism stems from the view that Jews in Israel are foreign colonizers and not indigenous to the land. Why would any group willingly choose to accept a foreign group that has arbitrarily chosen a hotly contest piece of land to settle in?

By changing what Palestinians are taught, and by asking US diplomats to reinforce Jewish history with Palestinians, the article argues that it will become possible for Palestinians not only to better understand Israelis, but also to make peace with honor. A peace with an indigenous group returning home, rather than foreign usurpers with no right to be there.

Indeed, even some of the most notable Palestinian leaders, such as the late Yasser Arafat and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at the Camp David negotiations in 2001 both stated that they did not believe there was ever a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In response to Erekat, Israeli negotiators were said to have been stunned, and to have shown him a book off a nearby shelf listing the many references to the temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

In general, this article hits the nail on the head. It has long been argued that the absence of Israel in the Palestinian curriculum has contributed to the feeling amongst Palestinians that Israel has no place in the world. Indeed, some of the Palestinian textbooks that do refer to Israel make exactly the point that Israel is the product of colonialism, of an alien people coming to a land to which they had no connection. Such an assertion is patently false, as the Jewish connection to Israel extends back at least 3000 years. No hyperlink is required to make that point.

A point worth adding to the op-ed writer's piece, however, is that Israelis too need to understand the Palestinian narrative which conflicts with their own, but is important for Israelis to understand. Understanding between parties in conflict is a two way street, it must be mutual. It seems, from this (long) article (of which I have had time to read little more than the conclusions) that Israel's education of its students has only recently begun to reflect the Palestinian narrative and do away with the stereotypes of Arabs presented and some of the nationalistic mythology all peoples have. While it seems that Israel has made great progress towards a balanced curriculum in history, (this other, long article provides a detailed analysis of Israeli textbooks) Palestinian rejectionism continues to be fed by a system that still has a long way to go towards honesty in education.

It's not all bad news though. As organizations like "Teach Kids Peace" points out, the Israeli government sponsors many programs aimed at bringing kids of different backgrounds together and teaching them about one another. One program, for example, called "Children Teaching Children" is described as "Jewish and Arab teachers and middle school-age students are guided in grappling with complex issues of national and individual identity, community life, and conflicting narratives in a shared land."

The key now, is to double these efforts by having them duplicated in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Understanding the other is key, and just as hate can be taught at a young age, acceptance and understanding can be too.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Threats to Boycott Israel in Edinburgh

The Israeli Embassy in the UK offered 300 pounds sterling to the Edinburgh International Film Festival so that an Israeli filmmaker--Tali Shlaom Ezer--whose film was to be showed at the festival could attend.

Ms. Ezer's short film, "surrogate" was not political in nature. Nonetheless, when British film director Ken Loach threatened, on behalf of Palestinian groups in the UK, to boycott the entire festival if money from the Israeli government were accepted, the 300 pounds were returned to the embassy.

An e-mail campaign of sometimes rude and at all times inflammatory e-mails were sent by the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign to the Edinburgh film festival and received a response the crux of which is that since the festival accepts funding from many countries: "Choosing not to accept support from one particular country would set a dangerous precedent by politicising what is a wholly cultural and artistic mission." In response, UK MP George Galloway's "RESPECT" party threatened to, amongst other things, picket the film festival and Mr. Loach, a party member, wrote that "I’m sure many film makers will be as horrified as I am to learn that the Edinburgh International Film Festival is accepting money from Israel...The massacres and state terrorism in Gaza make this money unacceptable. With regret, I must urge all who might consider visiting the festival to show their support for the Palestinian nation, and stay away."

To the festival's credit, they are themselves paying the 300 pounds for the Israeli filmmaker to attend, but the story does not end there. Open letters were exchanged between Loach and Shalom-Ezer and additional statements were made by each (according to YNet) that Loach was branded a racist and that Shalom-Ezer was never to have been censored. Shalom-Ezer's letter indicates that she considers herself a member of the Israeli peace camp, worries that boycotts against a country serve to increase resistance to that boycott and then invites Loach to her film.

Loach's letter begins by suggesting that those who oppose the boycott will label those that advocate it to be antisemitic, he comments on how Palestinians have called for a boycott so they must be heeded, mentions how Gazans are suffering and concludes that those who have opposed the boycott are "old hacks and right wing extremists."

Interestingly, two other Israeli films will be shown at the festival, but, presumably because there was no money from Israel to support their travel, there was no protest over their participation. There is also a Palestinian film scheduled to be shown at the festival, there has been no mention of special support for that film either.

What is the goal here in refusing money from Israel to allow an Israeli director to speak and attend a film festival featuring her non-political film? What benefit does anyone derive? The Israeli director, who seems supportive of peace is punished for her citizenship. One presumes that if she were a Canadian and had made the identical film but needed money from the Canadian government, thee would be no issue whatsoever. As an Israeli, however, it would be natural for her government to support her.

Do Palestinian groups win? Well, they forced a major international film festival to bend to their will, and had the festival not put up the 300 pounds, they may have silenced this director altogether. They generated considerable publicity, but in doing so, they've alienated an artist who likely supports a fair and just resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The film festival doesn't really win either. They have to shell out money which would otherwise have been given to them, however, in their calculations, it was probably better to pay the 300, than risk the negative publicity of protests and a boycott of their entire festival.

At the end of all this, it's unclear how any Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank or anywhere else in the world are really helped either.

Shalom-Ezer's approach to Loach in her letter is one suggesting the power of art to bring people together. She suggests that she thinks that supporting culture, rather than limiting it is the path towards the elimination of prejudice. Loach's letter begins his logic with: Palestinians have asked me to boycott Israel, therefore, I must, who am I to deny them? It's hard to defend an argument that begins with this premise. Is Mr. Loach not a thinking person? Does he not have the capacity to choose what he wants and see write from wrong? If Israelis suggested that he boycott Palestinian films because of Palestinian terrorism, would he respond the same way? Mr. Loach also refers to Israeli state terror, a dubious accusation at best. How does he propose reacting to Palestinian terror?

Frankly, this whole story smacks of something more than a mere desire to encourage an end to Israeli occupation and promote justice for Palestinians. Surely Mr. Loach can find greater things to be outraged by than 300 pounds. Surely promoting dialogue is better than undermining it.

These two other blogs have covered this story far better than the post above. See here and here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Volatire's Test

I had seen this story before it was brought to my attention by a reader who asked for my thoughts on it. (Aside: this link is to an article about commemorations of "the Nakbah" it seems somewhat questionable, therefore, that the picture associated with the image is related to the recent war in Gaza...close parenthesis.) I was originally going to let it go because I didn't think it would amount to much, but apparently, the idea of a law banning the "mourning" of Israel's creation--Nakbah (catastrophe in Arabic) celebrations--has some traction.

In a nutshell, the law, if passed would impose punishments of up to three years on anyone commemorating the "nakbah." The bill, proposed by a private member of Foreign Minister Lieberman's Israel Beitaynu Party was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and is now being returned to the cabinet for further discussion. Based on the official explanation of the Israeli legislative process, it is a little difficult to tell exactly what stage the bill is at. Likely, it is a private member's bill, referred to and approved by, a committee for its first reading before the Knesset but for some reason has gone directly to cabinet rather than to the floor of the Knesset.

In committee the bill was opposed by Labour party members who, after it was passed, filed an appeal with the government secretariat requesting that it be subject to a broader debate. Labour parliamentarians have labeled the bill a violation of the right to free speech and undemocratic. An Arab member of the Knesset has gone so far as to compare it to legislation of the German Third Reich. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also weighed in, labelling the bill "a sign of a democracy losing its bearings."

Israeli legal scholars have also spoken to the issue. The most convincing of their arguments oppose the bill. These arguments are that Nakbah commemorations pose no real security risk to the state. They also point out that it is already a crime in Israel to engage in incitement against the state. The Nakbah bill is therefore redundant. A citizen wishing to commemorate the Nakbah can, but as soon as the line of incitement is crossed, the criminal law is already engaged. This new bill would therefore only limit the commemoration. One Israeli law professor referred to the bill as "stupidity."

Some Israeli parliamentarians were even suspicious of a strategy by Israel Beitanu to foment Arab violence and build support for themselves by opposing the violence forcefully. As evidence, these parliamentarians point to plans to introduce a loyalty bill next week which would require all Israeli citizens to swear allegiance to Israel, a bill that would also be very controversial.

The Nakbah bill will likely face opposition and will probably not pass. According to analysis in the Jerusalem post, the only thing that could see the bill succeed is if Labour splits its vote on the matter. As it is, two Labour parliamentarians, including Barak have not expressed any opinion on the matter.

Truly, the adoption of this bill would be a sad development. Allegations of some type of Israel Beitanu conspiracy to incite violence does smack of paranoia, just as comparisons between Israel and the Third Riech are off base and extremely distasteful. This is a law that will limit freedom of expression on one issue, not aim at removing an entire group from society.

It is true, however, that one group would be impacted, nay, targeted, disproportionately by this bill. Arabs. This is among the aspects that make it so concerning. A democratic state ought to be able to withstand some of even the most distasteful forms of protest, because that is what a democracy is. Though analogies are rarely helpful in the Israeli context, other states do face lamentation by their own citizens at the thought of being part of the country. Look no farther than Canada with it's well known separatist movement in Quebec that has in the past burned Canadian flags and by Newfoundland, the last province to join the Canadian Confederation and where some even fly black flags on the day the former British colony joined the country. Canada's situation is very different than Israel's, but the point is, a democracy must tolerate these sorts of protests as long as they remain short of incitement against the state and just as these Canadian protests are distasteful, the Nakbah ones are more so, because nobody challanges the legitimacy of Canada as a state while Israel is constatly subject to such questioning. It is this that makes the desire to ban the Nakbah commemorations so udnerstandable, but also makes it so important to oppose.

Indeed, such a bill could also be a slippery slope. There are no widespread indications of such an eventuality, but if the first step is to ban this type of freedom of speech, and the next is to require all citizens sign an oath of loyalty and all the while activities such as Palestinian literary events are cancelled (thanks to the Debate Link) one must acknowledge there is an unhappy trend here away from the heretofore nearly unencumbered freedom of speech Israelis enjoyed and should be very proud of. Hopefully, the freedom of speech that does currently exist will be sufficient inoculation against its own erosion.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lots of "Settlement" Activity

An opinion piece on the YNet site asks the question of whether Israeli settlements are truly a problem. The author's position is that no, they are not a problem at all. The author repeats the arguments that terrorism existed before the existence of settlements and than when settlements were dismantled (i.e. Gaza) they were met with terrorism. The author further argues that the growth in many settlements is not part of some colonial design, but rather children who have grown up in settlements wanting to purchase or build their own homes in or near the communities in which they were raised and that this is only natural.

This opinion piece appears at the same time as a flurry of trans-Atlantic statements were made on the settlement question. Israeli cabinet ministers spoke publicly in response to the meetings between Netanyahu and Obama about a week ago. The public statements were to the effect that Israel would not bow to US pressure on settlements, would not have its policy dictated from Washington and presented arguments similar to the one in the YNet opinion piece: settlements are not the problem. The cabinet member, who was speaking to Israeli television also commented that Israel would "...not permit illegal settlement..."

Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the week, was equally blunt and unequivocal. She called for an immediate freeze on all types of settlement activities, including what Israelis have termed natural growth.

Both these strong statements, however, from Israel and the US are contradicted by Netanyahu's request to Obama to extend an informal Israel US agreement on settlements made between Bush and previous Israeli Prime Ministers. The agreement divides all settlement activities into four types. The first type are settlements linked to Jerusalem, which Israel insists be unencumbered in any way. The second type are settlements in major existing blocks, which will be allowed to extend beyond their current borders, so long as all new developments are directly adjacent to existing developments. The third category of settlements would be isolated settlements outside of the major blocks which would not be allowed to extend beyond their current borders. The fourth type of settlement are the unauthorized outposts, the ones Israel terms illegal which under the agreement would have to be evacuated. The agreement also prohibits the authorization of any new settlements by Israel.

This request from Netanyahu is interesting because it contradicts both his own cabinet minister who says that policy will not be dictated from Washington and settlements are not a problem. Yet, here is an Israeli Prime Minister asking a US president for permission to conduct certain activities in territory it controls. It also contradicts Clinton though because rather than halting all settlement activities, this agreement would actually have the effect of explicitly allowing some.

Israel seems to be playing hardball on the unauthorized settlements though. Defense minister and Labour party member of the coalition government Barak kept his promise to the settlers that he would remove illegal outposts by force when Israeli police destroyed such an outpost earlier this week (a "photo essay" of the removal is here.) Barak described the dismantling of the outpost as a question of upholding the rule of law, but many in Israel were quick to criticize it as bowing to US pressure.

It's most probable that the dismantling of the unauthorized settlements was not related to US pressure. Barak has a Labour constituency to represent (not that he is insincere about the Labour position) but removing the settlements fit both within his mandate as defense minister and within the platform of his party. Combined with the statements he had made earlier to the settlers, it seems like this was a decision made without any additional or special US pressure.

More interesting is the question this agreement Netanyahu seeks to renew with the US. Somewhat more information on the agreement that previously existed between the two countries is here. What is still not explicit, however, is that if Israel were to limit itself in terms of settlement activity and make these promises to the US, what was it receiving in return? Was it only obliging itself to the US or was this agreement a two-way street? There's no clear answer to this question and as the article linked two just above points out, much of these previously existing agreements were agreed to orally and so there's no paper trail to see who gave what. That being said, it's possible to surmise that what was being agreed upon here were the rules of fair play. Israel receives a great deal of support from the US, both diplomatically and financially. This agreement was likely the parameters within which Israel could act without incurring pressure from the US on this issue. Violate this agreement with the US, and Israel could hear US diplomats making harsher statements, not vetoing or abstaining from UN resolutions unfavorable to Israel at the UN security Council or General Assembly (as the case may be) or even the application of less obvious pressure. Now, with US officials calling for a complete freeze on all settlement activities, it will be very interesting to see if Obama continues with the policies of his predecessors on this matter or if he calls for new rules of the game.

Settlements are not the obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestinians but they are an obstacle. It's true that there will be no holding hands and singing and rainbows when all the settlers are gone and that peace will burst forth. It's also true that settlements can and have been evacuated in the past--in Gaza where the results were decidedly negative and in the Sinai peninsula, where peace remains--and so they should not be viewed as irreversible facts on the ground. They are in no way, however, helpful. They impose a heavy security and financial burden on Israel, they add fuel to anger against Israel both in the middle east and around the world and in some cases, settlers have proven to be less than hospitable neighbours to the Palestinians they live near (granted, the Palestinians are not good neighbours to the settlers either.) In any final agreement, many of the settlements will have to go and a freeze on the ones that exist is a good idea. It will show Israeli commitment to peace, place Israel in the good graces of the new US administration, help reduce the security burden the settlements represent to the country and begin to change the facts on the ground. If, however, any settlements are to be removed, the lessons of the past have been that this cannot be a unilateral withdrawal. The results of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was rocket attacks. The results of negotiated withdrawal from Sinai has been peace.

Friday, May 22, 2009

By Request: Is Obama Trouble for Israel?

This article was brought to my attention by an "anonymous friend" (who should feel free to send me an e-mail if they'd like) interested in my opinion.

In short, this editorial on the YNet website suggests that for a number of reasons Barak Obama is trouble for Israel. Amongst the dangers Obama supposedly represents are engagement with the Muslim world at Israel's expense, disassociation of the US from Israeli policy or support thereof, and that Obama is choosing to visit Cairo for his speech to the Arab/Muslim world without even a stopover in Israel.

It's true that the US is charting a new course in its policy in the middle east, namely engagement with the Arab world for purposes other than purchasing petroleum. Obama seems to be hoping for a return to a policy that recognizes a value in the African adage, adopted by Roosevelt "speak softly and carry a big stick." The US has the capability to exert itself pretty much anywhere in the world not only through its military, but also its economy, and its diplomatic influence. This is no secret. Nobody from the US, however, seems to have tried actually talking to the so called "Arab street," to the millions upon millions of Muslims and Arabs some/many of whom deeply resent the US and are the source of very real security threats to the US and its interests.

The success of this outreach will likely have much to do with what exactly Obama wants to say to the Arab world and the content of his comments remain unclear as the speech is still being drafted. One thing it may contain, aside from US middle eastern policy is his view of a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, though this is not meant to be the focus of the speech and it is being played down. It is also likely to repeat Obama's statements in Turkey that "...the concerns of most Muslims are the same as most Americans and that they have a joint interest in defeating extremist ideologies." It seems a stretch to contrue this message as harmful. Perhaps it could serve as a wake up call to moderates in the Arab/Muslim world to become more active and reply to those who criticize their silence with action.

No matter what Obama says in his speech though, and despite some of the differences in opinion between him and Netanyahu it seems a far cry to suggest that the US is going to end its support for Israel. Indeed Obama says just the opposite. In his public comments after his meeting with Netanyahu Obama referred to the special relationship between Israel and the US and said that "...that Israel's security is paramount, and...It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained." In response, Netanyahu called Obama not only a great personal friend but a great friend of Israel. None of this suggests a negative impact on US-Israeli relations. Even if one were to try to read between the lines the interpretation is even more favorable to Israel as the US president has equated Israeli security with the security of his own state and has qualified--significantly--that this security has a Jewish character to it. This language makes the ominous predictions in the YNet editorial seem overly alarmist and unfounded.

As for differences in opinion between Israel and the US: a tempest in a teacup. States often disagree (and it is difficult to characterize the comments by Netanyhau and Obama as a disagreement), even over important issues and especially in the case of negotiations where one state (Israel) seeks to maximize it's "winnings" in any settlement and the other seeks to "award" less. I would expect a Palestinian leader to make comments of similar resolve to those of Netanyahu. The adoption of different positions on an issue does not jeopardize close diplomatic, economic, military, cultural and ideological ties between states. See, for example, Canada's decision not to participate in the war in Iraq. Canada-US and Canada-Anglo relations were not overly strained by Canada's refusal to join the war.

Indeed, it is probably in Israel's interests for the United States to have an improved image in the Arab world. Beginning with the premise that Obama's and Netanyahu's comments are sincere and that the US has Israel's security as an independent Jewish state at heart then Israel would want such an ally to mediate negotiations. The other party will need to have equal trust in such a negotiator. If Obama can instill such trust through his outreach a win-win-win situation is created. Israel wins a party with its interests at heart as a mutually acceptable honest broker. Palestinians (for example) win by knowing that the mediator is sensitive to their interests and can be trusted not to betray them and to be even handed and the US wins by "saving the day" with a peace agreement and germinating stability in the region.

The YNet article is overly alarmist and cites benign reasons for which to be afraid of Obama and his policies. Obama merely wishes to speak to people who have never been addressed in this way by a US leader. He is not 'kowtowing' to them. He is not making and concessions to them, he's merely speaking. This messaging is in US interests (which Obama ought to place first) and little to no evidence is provided that should convince a reader that the US will "sell Israel short" or open a rift between the two countries. Indeed, many of the words spoken by Obama and Netanyahu lead to just the opposite conclusion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Frames of Reality"

This article in the Jerusalem Post discusses an interesting photojournalism program that brings together Israeli and Palestinian photographers called "Frames of Reality."

"Frames of Reality" is a project that not only allows for professional development for people from both sides of the "line" but also offers an opportunity for dialogue and discussion of the photographs themselves, how they are used to tell a story and the messages they convey. According to the Jpost article, these discussions can become so heated that at times "breaks" are needed to allow cooler heads to prevail before returning to a discussion of the issues in question.
The project is sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace and has managed to bring together journalists from a range of reputable news organizations. These journalists spent at least 12 workshops together discussing their work and meeting with professionals to discuss both theory and technical aspects of photojournalism. It has also resulted in the creation of an online social networking site for these journalists where Israeli and Palestinian photographers stay in touch with one another and share their photographs on a regular basis.

Dialogue between ordinary people in conflicts such as the Israeli Palestinian one contribute to greater mutual understanding of the other, of what people on the other side of a fence are really like and serves to reduce suspicion of the other. What makes this type of exchange so important is that the people involved are photojournalists. These are people who present us with powerful images of their daily lives and potentially have an impact people far beyond those they see and speak with. If when telling their stories through images journalists are conscious of the other side of the issue or image they are capturing then photographs become a truer representation of reality and the narrative begins to change into something more sensitive. One of the journalists quoted in the JPost article admits as much.

There are literally thousands of pictures to look through on the "Frames of Reality" networking site and on this other official site. Some of those that struck me most when I saw them are below.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Seven Jewish Children and the Seven Other Children

There has been some controversy over a play written by a British playwright called "Seven Jewish Children." The play is quite short, and contains the transcript of a supposed discussion between parents and what they would tell their Jewish children at different stages in history beginning with the holocaust and ending with the last war in Gaza. The play was supposed to be a response to Israel's operation in Gaza and was billed as a 10 minute history of Israel. It is also the target of accusations of antisemitism.

Recently, Liverpool cut funding to a theater festival which was going to show "Seven Jewish Children" because they could not accommodate a response piece recently written called "Seven Other Children." This response play is written in the exact same transcript format used by the play that gave the impetus for it's writing. Instead of Jewish children, however, it chronicles different periods in Palestinian history and is the supposed dialogue of parents of a Palestinian child from 1948 to the war in Gaza.

I really hate to throw around the term antisemitic but there are certainly things in "Seven Jewish Children" which sit very uneasily with me. For example, the title. If this is a play about Israel, why is it called Seven Jewish Children and not Seven Israeli Children? Is it because it starts with the Holocaust and because that child was not Israeli? Certainly, not all Jewish children are brought up the same way. Such a presumption is absurd. Similarly, it's absurd to think that all Israeli children are given identical education. The implication that there is some sort of coordinated effort to imbibe all children of the same religion with the same political views at best sounds like stereotyping and at worst sounds like some global supranational conspiracy.

Particularly interesting is the repeated reference to Jews as the "chosen people." This is a comment that appears in the play and is one that I've heard used by others in their criticism of Israel. Somehow arguing that Jews/Israelis feel they can do as they wish because they were the chosen people. It's certainly true that the Jewish religion refers to the Jews as the chosen people because they were the ones chosen to receive the Torah and to use the knowledge and wisdom of the Torah to be "a light unto the nations." In other words, to take the lessons of the Torah and share it with the rest of the world. In all honesty, other than this theological expression, I have never heard the concept of the Jews of the chosen people in any other context. I have never heard any Jew, or Israeli argue that Jews somehow have a right to this thing or the other because they are the chosen people. Indeed, in years of attending synagogue, Jewish schools, knowing and speaking with Jews and Israelis of all political stripes and levels of piety I have never come across the concept of the Jews as chosen people in any context other than: 'Jews were chosen to receive the Torah at mount Sinai" and at that, I have only heard very rarely. So rarely in fact, that I had to ask myself what the play was talking about when I saw that reference. Perhaps there are Jews who use this theological point as a political argument, but I have never heard it. It's disquieting therefore to see this concept which is meant to be about sharing wisdom and learning applied to a justification for a war. It implies that Jews act out of a sense of racial or religious superiority when this is not the case.

Then there is the implication in "Seven Jewish Children" that Jews are somehow happy to see Palestinians killed. That they laugh at their deaths and they're happy to see it happen. I'm sure there are some Israelis who feel this way, just as there are Palestinians who celebrate and hand out candies when Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings. From what I know of Israelis and Jews, however, I don't believe that Israelis rejoice at having to kill anyone. I have heard Israeli leaders--civilian and military--talk tough about fighting their foes but I have never heard joy, glee or happiness at their deaths. That Jews (not Israelis, the play says Jews) celebrate the deaths of their enemies is a horrible, untrue brush with which to paint an entire religion. Indeed, it reminds me of two quotes, the first is a Yiddish proverb: "If your enemy falls down, do not rejoice, but don't pick him up either" and a second, a quote from Israel's former prime minister Golda Meir: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."

As for "Seven Other Children" having not seen either of these plays performed, it's hard for me to comment on which has more impact on the stage. I cannot help but feel, however, that "Seven Other Children" is really merely reactionary and does not do anyone any good. What's the point? "Seven Jewish Children" is more than just art, it's politics and so I can understand from a political perspective, people seeking to respond in kind, but what's the point? "Seven Jewish Children" will likely attract audiences who believe in the cause being promoted or people attracted to a play by a notable playwright. What will attract someone to "Seven Other Children?" It seems to me to be a reaction that will in large part end up preaching to the choir.

I've always heard that authors should write what they know, and one thing the two plays have in common is that neither of the authors are either Jews, nor Israelis nor Palestinians nor Arabs. I have to ask, how the heck could either of these authors purport to know what entire ethnicities/religions teach their children?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran--Or Not

English Language Israeli news sources are abuzz over comments from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)'s president Elbaradei--who is about to step down--that for Israel to attack Iran would be "utterly insane."

A recent report released by a US based think tank explaining how such an attack might work certainly does make any attack on Iran sound like it comes out of an ambitious Tom Clancy novel. It involves overflights of hostile countries, mid-air refueling over some of these same places, striking multiple targets, scrambling the radars of even friendly states, striking targets buried deep underground with multiple, super sized bombs, fighter planes for escort purposes against Iranian defenses and a whole lot of other high tech military daring-do. It also looks at the possibility of attacking with long range missiles and not fighter planes. The conclusion of the report, however, is that the strike is possible but may not succeed and could result in losses to the strike force and retaliatory strikes both directly, and from proxies.

Reading about reports such as this one, it's hard to know what Israeli Military intelligence, or the Mossad or the CIA may know this is not privy to civilian experts. One would imagine that the world's spy agencies know more than most think tanks do and that there's yet a trick or two up their sleeves. On the other hand, one must admit that a strike on Iran does look like a serious gamble.

In the meantime, however, Israel has been asked by the US to tone down its tough talk on Iran with the premise that this sort of war of words pushes Iran into a corner and encourages their development of a bomb. Indeed, this was one of the purposes of a recent "secret" trip made by CIA officials to Israel. This may well be a valid argument. Nobody responds well to threats, but there needs to be a balance between explaining the consequences of a course of action which results in a different course of action, and threats which back one into a position where pride and a desire to assert one's independence result in a continuation of that course of action, even out of defiance.

Based on previous rhetoric from Iranian leadership and what is accepted not only in the western world but by many Arab governments as well to be an Iranian drive to produce nuclear weapons Israel is justified in fearing an existential threat from Iran. Many Arab regimes also fear a shift in hegemony in the region should Iran become a nuclear power. This means that there is more global support for bringing Iranian nuclear aspirations to a halt.

So far, sanctions on Iran have not been very helpful. Diplomacy has and is sort of being tried, but it's unsure that will get anywhere either. The military option is very risky business, so what's left?

Good question.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Ghajar Riddle Resolved?

It looks like all the excitement of an imminent withdrawal from Ghajar, the village straddling the Lebanese border with Israel that Israel was set to withdraw from, has been premature.

Now, The Israeli government is saying that it wants to postpone a withdrawal until after the Lebanese elections because rather than bolstering moderates, they fear it could not only boost Hizbollah, but that Hizbollah could establish a presence in this down. According to the article linked to above, Jerusalem now wants Beirut to provide assurances that Lebanese government agents will move into the town, not Hizbollah. This seems as though it may be complicated if Hizbollah wins seats in the election and becomes part of the Lebanese government.

The plot does thicken somewhat though. For starters, it seems that an answer to a question posed in a previous post--what do the people of Ghajar want?--exists. They do not want to be transferred to Lebanon. They claim to be Syrians and currently are Israeli citizens. The argument is that transferring them to Lebanon will have the effect of making them part of yet another country they do not want to be a part of. Ghajar residents argue that they should stay put and wait until their transferred back to Syria as part of a final peace deal.

There's more though. Credit to Niqnaq who found (really, great find) an article explaining that the village of Ghajar overlooks springs which are the only year round source of the Hisbani river which is an important tributary of the Jordan river which is an extremely important river to Israel, period. Ergo, Ghajar and its springs are important. In addition to this piece of the Ghajar mystery puzzle, this article also gives some interesting history of the village and how it came to be Israeli. The article also illustrates out that Israel probably has the most valid legal claim to the springs and the Hisbanai river, but, due to what amounts to a decision made by engineers as to where to build a road, the springs and river are actually in a no-man's land between Syria and Israel.

That being said, these springs and the Hisbani river have been in the news before, in 2002, when Lebanon continued efforts to divert the river and Israel suggested that this could be a causus belli. Hizbollah immediately took up the cause of the defense of the Lebanese diversion project.

Perhaps the guarantees that Israel is really seeking, are that Lebanese presence in the region will not result in the damming of this important water source. Perhaps this is the answer to the Ghajar riddle.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can Lawfare be Good for the Goose and the Gander?

Lawfare, which may be fairly characterized as a means of asymmetrical warfare, is a two way street.

Part of the purpose of lawfare, and all asymmetrical warfare, is to drain the resources of a more powerful opponent who you may not be able to defeat in a direct military confrontation. In the Israeli case, the highest levels of the political echelon have dedicated their time to lawsuits being brought against Israel and its citizens by creating a special ministerial committee, composed of some of the highest ranking ministers and jurists in the country. The committee will have as its mission the frustration of legal suits brought against the state and its citizens and will be composed of experts in PR, politics and law.

The committee was originally established to deal with a suit brought against Israel under Spain's universal jurisdiction. Now however, it's role is changing from merely reactive to offensive. The Israeli cabinet has accepted a proposal that this committee should respond with legal action to each and every rocket or mortar launched against Israel from the Gaza strip. What the article does not mention is where will these legal complaints be brought? The only clue given is "...formal complaints to various international organizations." It's quite possible, actually, that the responsible authorities in Israel are themselves not sure where to bring these complaints.

Complaints can probably not be brought before Israeli courts because the residents of Gaza are not subject to Israeli law. If anything, they could only theoretically be tried in absentia. Also, the purpose of this exercise is, it appears, to establish internationally recognized jurisprudence condemning Hamas action. From a political perspective, an Israeli court would not be the best place to achieve this international recognition.

Universal Jurisdiction statutes around the world, such as the one in Spain being used against Israel are also an option for Israeli plaintiffs seeking to legally condemn Hamas but problems exist here too. There is first the question of which country's universal jurisdiction to use. Several countries have such jurisdiction, however, what the Israeli cabinet seems to be proposing here will mean a massive influx of legal complaints. Israel will most likely not want to be seen to be flooding the courts of friendly countries with complaints and tying up their courts. Nonetheless, individual states with universal jurisdiction statutes remain possible sites for Israeli prosecutors to bring their cases.

Turning to international organizations, the International Criminal Court would not likely be a venue for any Israeli complaints. Israel is not a signatory of the Rome statute and so does not accept the jurisdiction of the court over its own citizens or acts committed on its territory. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas are signatories either. If Hamas members happened to have dual citizenship in a country that has signed the Rome statute, then the court could have jurisdiction, and this is possible, but in the region, only Jordan has signed the Rome statute. The ICC also states that it only tries "...those accused of the gravest crimes..." While firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians is an extremely grave crime, it is not akin to some of the more heinous things the court was established to punish. The last chance for the ICC to have jurisdiction is if a case is referred to it by the UN security council. This would require the Security Council to take action under its Chapter VII which deals with breaches of peace and acts of aggression. Could Israel make such a petition. Yes, it's possible. Certainly the Security council would be an appropriate forum in which to complain of acts of aggression. It is far more difficult to predict if the council would go so far as to recommend that Hamas leaders be brought before the ICC. Another complication of the matter is that these individuals would need to be arrested to be tried. Considering they are not permitted to leave Gaza, and that only Jordan is a signatory of the Rome statute, such a prospect seems remote.

Another, and probably best option for Israel would by the ICJ, the International Court of Justice. In adversarial procedures, the IJC only has jurisdiction where one state pursues another. Hamas, not being a state, cannot be sued by Israel. The court can, however, issue advisory opinions, as it has done in the past on issues such as the legality of nuclear weapons. The legal obstacle here, is that similarly to the ICC, the ICJ can only render a legal opinion (see this too) on a matter if it is referred by one of several organs of the UN. The General Assembly and the Security council are each valid referring organs, but there are others. Israel will have its legal and diplomatic work cut out for it if it would like to have an opinion rendered by the ICJ.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Flow: Oversimplified Solutions to the World Water Crisis

I've not been feeling to well lately (which explains the week of silence on this blog) and while lying on the couch, hacking out a lung, I came across a documentary on TV called "Flow" a film which according to its website is a "...documentary investigation into what experts label the most important political and environmental issue of the 21st Century - The World Water Crisis.
Salina [the director] builds a case against the growing privatization of the world's dwindling fresh water supply with an unflinching focus on politics, pollution, human rights, and the emergence of a domineering world water cartel."

Featuring "heavyweights" like Maude Barlow, the first ever UN Senior Advisor on Water Issues the documentary skips from the US, to Bolivia, to Africa, to India and again to another part of the US in a rather disjointed effort at explaining the world water crisis.

It begins in the US explaining how all sorts of horrible chemicals find their way into tap-water, leaves this line of inquiry and goes to Bolivia where Ms. Barlow is expressing her outrage that a water management company has neglected its obligations to treat sewage flowing into lake Titicaca, looks at how the South African government has hired private companies to provide clean water to some of its poorest and most remote regions, examines how a Coca-Cola factory in India seems to have damaged a villages water supply and finally, looks at a law suit against a Nestle bottled water facility in Michigan which was pumping more than it ought to have been.

If the above summary is confusing or seems non-linear, it's because the movie itself is too. It's a film about outrage, but it's as though the director has no idea what she is most angry about, or at. There is outrage over pollution of water, over lack of regulation of bottled water (complete with a Michael Moore-esque, Penn and Teller interlude) over corporations having anything to do with water and over the poor that suffer from lack of clean water.

None of these issues is treated fully by Flow. Each one is touched on, then left, to move on to the next issue without a strong common thread or real solution presented, only pointed fingers. The first finger is pointed at the U.S. government for not doing enough to regulate tap water and certain pollutants. The next is pointed at water "companies" which are private entities established to provide clean drinking water and hired, often by governments to provide this service at cost, to some of the poorest people in the world. These people, despite having the clean water, will often choose to save their money and drink potentially dangerous river water rather than pay for the clean water provided.

Here the movie misses a key point. These corporations are not evil as the film implies (though you would never know this because the only time in the movie that these companies are actually asked about what they do in these poorest regions is when Maude Barlow meets them as they're boarding a bus and basically screams at them.) These corporations are hired by governments to provide clean water. They do not own the water and they charge the locals for the service. The film, however, does not question why the governments of these countries don't pay for the water. It does not question why the water is often so polluted, it does not ask why there is not more investment in a very interesting bit of technology invented in India to purify water (illustrated in the movie) it simply says, 'these companies are bad, they make poor people pay for clean water.' In other words, Flow is far too simplistic and is so quick to point fingers at the US government and at large corporations, but balks at blaming developing countries for not providing the water for its own citizens.

As for solutions, the film comes up short there too, should these companies provide the clean water for nothing? Should they be charities? Nothing is free, even if NGOs were to do the work, someone would have to pay for it. Shouldn't governments be responsible for the welfare of their citizens? Shouldn't they pay the costs charged by these private companies and not pass them on to their citizens who can't afford the costs of water? Why are the companies to blame?

Without delving too deeply into some of the other arguments of the film I will skip to the conclusion, where the audience is asked to sign a petition asking that a new article be added to the UN Human Rights Convention which reads:

"Everyone has the right to clean and accessible water, adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and family, and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance."

Nice sentiment indeed, and noble. What exactly does it mean? Let's break it down:

"Everyone..." The Convention applies to people, not corporations, so this is pretty clear. Everyone means each and every human being. What about each and every human being?

"...has the right..." Here the language already begins to be unclear. First, if there is a right, who owes this right? Creating a right, is creating an obligation, and in law, every obligation must involve at least one party who is obliged to fulfil this obligation. In this case, who is that person? Is it national governments, is it local governments? Is it the UN?

" clean and accessible water..." Again, this language which seems as though it ought to be straightforward, is fraught with more questions. Clean is probably pretty straightforward. It likely means safe to drink without fear of becoming ill. On the other hand, even in developed countries like Canada, there are occasional water boiling advisories. This water is still clean, only, it should be treated once more by boiling before being consumed. So, what standard of clean is required? And as for accessible, again, what does this mean, does this mean a tap in my home, or a well in the centre of town? Most North Americans would consider an absence of indoor plumbing to be inaccessible water. In other parts of the world, a well within 2 kilometers is an improvement, so...what's accessible?

"...adequate for the health and well-being of the individual..." Health is not such a difficult concept to imagine. Taken in the spirit of the rest of this proposed article, one would imagine that it means the water must be of a quality and a quantity (though this is not explicit) so that a person does not become ill from want of water or from want of safe water. How far does this extend though? Is this only water for drinking? What about for cooking, or bathing, or cleaning? Perhaps this is what is meant by "well-being", however, "well-being" is a difficult term to define. Does this mean economic and psychological well being as well? Does it mean that there should also be enough water to engage in agriculture or to operate an industry dependant on water to preserve a persons financial well being? Does it mean, in the extreme, that their should be enough water to tend to a golf course so that someone can have the psychological well being of playing a game of golf?

"...and family..." Here the proposed language contradicts itself. If the right to water will be an individual right, why does the family unit need to be mentioned here? All members of the family should have access to the same right to water because they are all individuals. Unless the article is trying to expand the definition of the right to water. For example, when we talk about the well being of a family, this is not merely a question of health, but of economics, of sociology, of the rights of women, of children and so on. So by extending the right of water to ensure the well-being of the family, something more than merely having enough water to drink and sustain oneself is meant.

"...and no one shall be deprived of such access or quality of water due to individual economic circumstance." The drafters of this article probably intended for this last portion to mean that access to clean drinking water in sufficient amounts ought to be free. What it actually has the effect of saying is that one can be charged for water, unless one cannot afford it. Those that are wealthy, are in an economic circumstances where placing a cost on water would not deprive their access to water.

The purpose of the dissection of this article is not to be negative or to tear down the initiative, but merely to show that this is not a simple problem with a simple solution. Declaring water a human right raises more questions about what the limitations of this right are, who has to provide the water to satisfy this right, and what should be done if there is not enough water in a given region to satisfy the broader scope of this right.

As much as there should be concern about pollution in water and the failure of governments to provide water to the poorest in their countries, questions also need to be asked about how water is being consumed. What is it being consumed for. Should growth be encouraged in the driest regions of the world, or should life in arid places be tailored to suit the environment. It is a loft goal to want to make deserts bloom, but should they bloom by flooding them with water from diverted rivers, or with efficient irrigation systems, like drip irrigation? Should water be free for all? Probably, but to a limit. One needs water to live, but nobody needs to be watering vast lawns of non-native plant species in desert regions for purely aesthetic purposes. The problem is not the big bad corporations, it has at least as much to do with the way ordinary people behave and how they use the water resources they have.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Some Hilly Real Estate

The US government has expressed, to the Syrians, their clear support for an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Talks between Israel and Syria were being mediated by Turkey late last year but ended abruptly when Operation Cast Lead in Gaza began.

Israel's previous Prime Minister, Olmert, in his explanation of the importance of peace with Syria, noted that Israel's northern border remains a primary area of concern for regional stability and Israeli security. Israel's former foreign minister, Livni, also commented to the effect that for Israel, peace with Syria will require a clear Syrian denunciation of terror and a severing of links to groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas, whose leader actually lives in Damascus. Syria and Iran also recently made a joint statement that they support the Palestinian "resistance" which Israelis read as--attacking Israel, i.e. terrorism.

Things have changed somewhat though. The same day that the US expressed its support for such a peace, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an interview with Russian journalists said that Israel would never give back the Golan heights which were captured in the 1967 Six Day war. This position is not too novel though since the Golan Heights Law which extends Israeli law to the Golan Heights and is widely viewed as Israeli annexation of the region is well known and has been in force since 1981. It is a position antithetical to the Syrian one, however, as Syria has made clear that they will not engage in direct negotiations with Israel until Israel agrees that it will give up the Heights. In other words, unless the concession is made in advance, no direct discussions will take place.

Perhaps such an impasse may be broken by a new "combined approach" that Jordan is now discussing with the US that could see Israel, Lebanon, Syria and others (the US and other Arab states one imagines) come together to try to resolve their differences once and for all. Another question to ask though is, is it worth it to make peace with Syria now?

This question should not be misinterpreted. Of course there should be peace, and fully normalized beneficial relations. This in itself is a goal worth achieving. The Golan is a very emotional issue in Israel and it's not clear that Israel will be getting the right bang for it's buck.

Now, from the Golan, Israel receives invaluable security from a formidable natural barrier on it's northern frontier and a state of the art, top-secret listening post atop Mount Hermon, a peaceful population with a productive agricultural sector including fruit and wine, an important site for tourism, and perhaps most importantly, water resources. The capture of the Golan heights and its subsequent defence in the 1973 war cost Israel a great deal of blood and giving up the region for less than a great deal is seen by some to be a waste of the lives spent to take and hold the hills. Ha Am Im Ha Golan (The Nation Includes the Golan) is a popular slogan in Israel.
Syria is asking that Israel promise to give this region back before direct talks begin. Israel, is asking for, amongst other things, Syria to cut its ties to terrorism and reduce relations with Iran. As for Netanyahu's hard line position: there's no question that this non-starter from the Syrian perspective stops progress towards peace in its tracks. Nonetheless, it is a statement, it can be reversed and one hopes it is merely a hard line negotiation position taken prior to talks and more of a bargaining chip than an irreversible policy.

In a nutshell, the trade seems to be, in addition to peace, Israel will give Syria this land that is so important to it, and Syria will promise not to deal with terrorists anymore, and maybe talk to Iran a bit less (which is a strange thing to ask.) There is no "hot" conflict in the Golan heights so there's no urgency to such an agreement, therefore, there also seems to be little gain for Israel to give up this territory in exchange for promises which may or may not be kept. Support for terrorists does not need to be as overt as it currently is. What stops Syria from officially cutting its ties to Hamas with a wink and a nod and send along money and arms more covertly than it currently does. As for Hizbollah, this Lebanese group with strong ties to Syria not only fights Israel, but plays an important role in Lebanese politics, a game Syria has long been involved in. Cutting their ties to Hizbollah would also mean Syria cutting its ties to an important Lebanese political ally. Syria may not be too keen on taking its fingers out of the cookie jar.

The point is, giving up the Golan for promises not to do something which can easily be done covertly and are within Syria's interests to continue doing seems like a raw deal. Full relations with Syria could be a good thing, and may in the long term, convince Syria that it is not in their interests to support attacks against their new, friend on their southern border. In the interim, however, Israel should not be too quick to bet the farm.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ghajar: A Border Runs Through It

Talks to accelerate the Israeli withdrawal from the town of Ghajar through which the Israeli Lebanese border runs continue.

Israeli defense officials have stated that Israel has no territorial claims to Ghajar and that discussions with the UN were ongoing on how to withdraw from the village without compromising security. The UN is eager to see the Israeli withdrawal take place and Netanyahu pledges that his cabinet will discuss proposals for a withdrawal plan this week. The US and the EU are also eager to see Israel withdraw from the northern (Lebanese) side of the village. They have been making the point that such a withdrawal would be helpful to Lebanese Prime Minister Saniora as he contends in an upcoming Lebanese election.

The plan for withdrawal, as it currently stands would see one line of defense inside the northern half of the village to be manned by the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon UNIFIL. The Lebanese army would have a liaison officer stationed in the north while a UNIFIL liaison would be present in the south. In addition, a second UNIFIL force would be stationed outside the northern portion of the village and would inspect all vehicles entering the area. All village residents would maintain their Israeli citizenship, Israeli law would apply to the whole village and Israel would continue to supply essential services to the village.

On first blush, this small village on the border is of little consequence and not much more than a footnote in the Lebanese Israeli conflict. On closer inspection--especially when considering the withdrawal plan--it seems like a very interesting case to observe and raises many interesting questions.

A first interesting point is mentioned in the very first article linked to above. Mentioned as though it were a routine occurrence is the line: "Senior army officers from Lebanon, Israel and the United Nations will meet in two weeks to coordinate the withdrawal." What is interesting here is that Israel and Lebanon, two countries that are officially at war with one another are actually meeting to coordinate this potential withdrawal with the presence of UN officials. Such meetings may be more routine than one may imagine, but, it is significant that these two enemies are meeting to discuss anything. Perhaps such meetings between the militaries of two states that really, have no good reason to be fighting one another, could lead to a further deepening of relationships.

A second interesting point is that in the limited information available on Ghajar withdrawal, there are no explicit mentions in the media, not even in the Lebanese paper the Daily Star (which reports its story from "occupied Jerusalem," a bit of a misnomer because the Knesset and seat of the Israeli government is based in west Jerusalem which was part of Israel since 1948...but, digression) that the northern part of Ghajar will actually once more become sovereign Lebanese territory.

Instead, Ghajar, it appears, will become some sort of strange no-man's land where the security will be provided by the UN, the people will be Israelis, Israel will provide for them and the only difference will be, no IDF in the northern part of the border. Really, not much else is changing. For example, if the residents, Israeli citizens are to remain subject to Israeli law then one would imagine that they will continue to pay taxes to the Israeli government. So the question is, what is everyone gaining from this withdrawal?

Israel may have less of a defense burden and be able to redeploy its soldiers, but the security concern does not vanish, it's merely taken over by UNIFIL, who Israel views with wariness at best. Lebanon succeeds in having Israelis off their territory, but gets very little in return, except for some potential political capital. The UN has an increased security burden, but they come out looking like the good guys, having successfully resolved one of several sticking points in the Israeli Lebanese bilateral "relationship." The US and EU can demonstrate how "even-handed" they were in applying pressure to Israel and achieving results for the Lebanese.

What about the residents of Ghajar, what do they get? Well, they are all Israeli citizens, but they'll be living in Lebanon, sort of. Will they be able to travel freely in either country? Lebanon does not allow Israeli citizens into the country, will these people be forced to surrender their citizenship if they wanted to, for example, vacation in Tripoli or Beirut? Will they be treated the same way by Israeli officials if they wish to leave Ghajar for some other part of Israel? If a state has a responsibility to its citizens, is Israel living up to this responsibility by renouncing its sovereignty over areas where its citizens live?

The answers to these questions remain unknown. The point is, nobody seems to have asked the residents of Ghajar what they want. They will continue to receive services from Israel, but maybe they want the IDF to stay in the town. Or maybe not, maybe they want the Lebanese army or even Hizbollah to give into the village. Whatever they want, they do not seem to have too much say in the matter as their fates are being decided by powers and influenced by pressures well beyond their reach.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ghajar to be Returned to Lebanon, Sort of, Maybe

I had never heard of Ghajar before this week and most of what I now know about it comes from the wikipedia link in this sentence.

In a nutshell, Ghajar is a village that was annexed by Israel in 1981 and that lies partly in the Golan Heights and partly in Lebanon. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon, however, it did not withdraw from the Lebanese side of this village. Today, residents of Ghajar are Israeli citizens.

The reason this small town has made any news is that Israel has now declared its intent to withdraw from the Lebanese side of the town. Apparently, after being asked by the US government, Israel will withdraw from the down as a good will gesture to the incumbent, moderate Lebanese government in advance of Lebanon's upcoming elections.

Ghajar, to the best of my understanding is not one of the seven villages listed in Hizbollah's grievances and official reasons for fighting Israel. Perhaps this is why Israel is withdrawing from this town, the "liberation" of which Hizbollah is not seeking, and instead choosing this less contested area as a support for the current Lebanese government. Indeed, this is a factor in deciding how to conduct the Israeli withdrawal, to ensure that the optics do not seem to indicate a Hizbollah victory.

From an Israeli point of view, the withdrawal may be complicated and or delayed by the fact that there are Israeli citizens living in the portion of the village to be evacuated and they may petition Israeli courts to stop the withdrawal. The way Israel handles this may be a test case for how the pre-1967 residents of the Golan Heights who accepted Israeli citizenship would fare should Israel ever withdraw from those mountains.

Israel Slips in its Free Press Ranking

Freedom House which is an NGO that monitors and promotes freedoms throughout the world has issued its global list of freedoms of the press. Israel, along with Italy have for the first time slipped from a free press categorization to a partly free classification. (The press release from Freedom House about the study is here and links to information about the study such as tables and maps is here.)

In a nutshell, the free press study is conducted by asking a series of questions to evaluate the impact or law, politics and the economic environment on freedom of the press. Then, countries are scored on a 0-100 scale where 0 is the freest press and 100 the most controlled. The methodology is explained in greater detail here. Anything from 0-30 is considered to be a country with a free press. Canada, the US and Australia all ranked as free (Iceland was deemed to be the most free.) The entire list is available here.

Israel came in as a 31, just within the limits of what is considered a partially free press. The reason for this change in classification from previous years when the Israeli press had been considered free was due to "the heightened conflict in Gaza, which triggered increased travel restrictions on both Israeli and foreign reporters; official attempts to influence media coverage of the conflict within Israel; and greater self-censorship and biased reporting, particularly during the outbreak of open war in late December."

What this means then, is that the one point nudging Israel over the 30 point line is due to activities that took place over a short period of time during conflict. The conflict in Gaza took place before this blog existed, but had this blog been around at the time it would have expressed regret that journalists were seeing their freedoms limited, but would have acknowledged the need for some censorship in times of war. There seems to be no recognition built into the study to recognize that the freedom of the press in Israel was limited in a time of war and that it was temporary and likely justifiable for security reasons. It is unclear if the study recognizes that any country in a state of war will want to limit the media's ability to report on certain matters in the interests of security without limiting the presses freedom to publish freely on whatever other issues it chooses, including, for example, criticism of the very limitations being imposed.