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Friday, August 14

Something is rotten in the State of Israel
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As I sat down to write this essay, I knew potentially I was setting myself up for some political flak. I knew it too back in 2006, when I wrote my first book Intifada: the Long Day of Rage about the Palestinian uprising.
In fact, I’ve been conscious of it every time I’ve ever penned a piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If there is one thing as a journalist I’ve learned during decades of covering this story it’s the impossibility of ducking the political brickbats and sometimes downright vitriol that inevitably comes the way of anyone writing about this emotive issue.
The simple and unavoidable fact is that nothing is neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For this reason alone, any writer who steps into the debate over this long and bitter struggle is almost certain to be subjected to an onslaught from detractors. Depending of course on the writer’s take, this could see them denounced as anything from an anti-Semite to a Zionist stooge.
For these reasons there is no point in making any pretence towards impartiality. So let me from the outset lay my political cards on the table. Put quite simply, given the weight of evidence encountered as a reporter over considerable time, I have always maintained that the State of Israel has a case to answer for in its appalling treatment of the Palestinian people. More recently too, if I can paraphrase a line from Hamlet, I sense there is now something rotten in that same State of Israel.
Perhaps this second point is initially best explained by taking stock of a single terrible event that occurred over the last few weeks. I’m speaking of the scarcely believable savagery of the arson attack on the home of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma.
In the subsequent autopsy that was carried out on the victim of the attack, 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, it was found that his corpse was totally blackened, his features, lungs and rib cage melted from the fire that ignited after the attackers threw Molotov cocktails into the family’s house as they slept.
In the subsequent autopsy that was carried out on one of the victims of the attack, 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, it was found that his corpse was totally blackened, his features, lungs and rib cage melted from the fire that ignited after the attackers threw Molotov cocktails into the family’s house as they slept.
In the ensuing inferno, Ali’s mother and a four-year-old brother were also severely injured, leaving them now fighting for their lives, his father succumbed to his injuries yesterday.
I make no apology for detailing the gruesome injuries that tiny Ali and his family sustained.
For too long now the true horrors of what Palestinians endure has been glossed over, covered up or cynically justified by an Israeli state that has now lost what moral compass it ever possessed.
Palestinians were understandably outraged over the arson attack. Most Israelis were horrified, as was much of the world.
The Israeli author David Grossman - who some years ago I had the pleasure of spending time with in Edinburgh - summed up the feeling of many ordinary Israelis when he wrote in the daily newspaper Haaretz, that “I cannot get this baby, Ali Dawabsheh, out of my mind ... Who is the person or persons capable of doing this? They, or their friends, continue to walk among us this morning.”
Grossman is right in saying that such monsters walk among ordinary Israelis.
Many would go further and say these disseminators of hatred have done so for some time. Their ranks too have gone unchallenged by an Israeli government fearful of forfeiting support in helping its politicians get elected.
Those disseminators we are talking about of course are Jewish extremists and nationalists, many with links to the country’s settler movement.
Along the way this dark, fanatical and sometimes underground force have become terrorists in a land where that epithet is usually only reserved for Palestinians. In the headlong pursuit of their bigoted goals they are succeeding in crushing underfoot the very soul of the Jewish state they so stridently and violently seek to uphold.
It was from within the ranks of these zealots that those who murdered Ali Dawabsheh came. Their deed done they wanted no doubt left as to their religious cadre and credentials, leaving behind a spray-painted Star of David and the Hebrew words for “Revenge” and “Long live the Messiah King” on the walls of a house next to where the baby died.
How curious it was to hear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respond to the arson attack with a statement saying that his government is “united in strong opposition to such deplorable and awful acts.”
Who is to say of course that Netanyahu doesn’t mean what he says. But let’s not for a moment forget that this is the same Netanyahu that gave the order to light the touch paper of military action that completely destroyed or severely damaged upwards of 25,000 houses in Gaza last summer, incinerating in their own homes entire families including many children as young as Ali Dawabsheh.
It was Netanyahu too you might remember who issued a call for vengeance after the killing of three kidnapped Israeli teens in July 2014 that resulted in the burning to death of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
After watching this conflict unfold over many years, let me assure you I am in no doubt that both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, have their own respective narratives of victimhood.
Each community has a story to tell, a litany of atrocities that has befallen them over the years at the hands of each other’s soldiers, gunmen, bombers and assassins. Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties facing any reporter of this conflict is the extent to which these dual narratives and the bloodshed that accompanies them have a way of blurring the specifics of each individual tragedy.
It might have been an observation uncomfortably closer to the truth than most people would have liked, but journalist Dan Cohen, who monitors Israeli violence, was perhaps right when he wrote after Ali Dawabsheh’s death, that it’s now almost as if vigilante burnings of Palestinian children have become a yearly Israeli ritual.
For beyond these grim specifics there are wider dynamics at work. We simply must not lose sight of the fact that underpinning the violence are political, ethnic and territorial catalysts largely created by the State of Israel. For their part, Palestinians have subsequently borne the brunt of the state-sponsored violence meted out, resisting where and when they can.
There is a Hebrew word, hafrada, which is used to refer to the concept of “separation” and “segregation”. Years ago during a reporting stint in Israel/Palestine, an Israeli colleague told me that at one time hafrada might for example have been used in the fairly benign context of separation with regard to a person’s marriage breakup. But all that had changed the colleague told me.
By 2004, when the colleague and I spoke, Israel was well into the process of building what some call its separation barrier. To anyone who has never seen the wall – for that’s what it is – it’s hard to over-emphasise the sheer injustice of this concrete scar that gouges its way across olive tree orchards, family homes, grazing areas, places of work, schools and anything else that, frankly, the State of Israel has decided to confiscate. Its sheer physical presence bears down when you are near it. Walking beside it, on either side, you can see Palestinians trying to live their lives under its weight.
The wall’s construction, as my colleague was to tell me, ran in tandem with the word hafrada in taking on a whole new resonance. It had in effect entered Israel’s mainstream political lexicon underscoring a them-and-us attitude towards the Palestinians and shaping much of the government’s policies. What I’m saying here is that this was a time when both physically and psychologically Israel’s full-blown apartheid regime was bearing down on Palestinians like never before.
As another Israeli told me: “If apartheid was South Africa’s airbrushed term for policies of racial segregation then hafrada is Israel’s equivalent for policies of ethnic segregation.”
Not that this policy of segregation is especially new. Over many years it has been shaped by a variety of Israeli leaders.
As far back as the late 1990’s Ariel Sharon, soon to become Israeli Prime Minister, was already talking publicly about the the “Bantustan plan”, explaining that the South African apartheid model offered the most appropriate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By 2002 writing in Haaretz, former Israeli Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, described the evolution of this strategy culminating in the abhorrent and recognisable form that it takes today.
“We Israelis enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities ... we established an apartheid regime,” he said.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, who knew a thing or two about apartheid, agreed.
In Ramallah recently, the Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told me how the Palestinian Authority (PA) had recently commissioned leading international experts on South Africa’s former apartheid regime to help make the case that Israel is equally guilty today.
“Israel has a political system that has built an illegal structure to prevent our rights to statehood,” al-Maliki told me.
“The settlement enterprise is eating up the possibility of a viable Palestinian state,” he continued, stressing that “time was now of the greatest essence”.
“I was 11 years old when the occupation started. I am now 61. There are people here now that have only known occupation.”
If apartheid as experienced in South Africa was to become a dirty word then so too must hafrada in the Israeli context. Anyone in any doubt about this need only visit the West Bank right now.
On a recent return trip, the first in a few years, I was unprepared for the changes I was to witness. Hafrada – segregation – in all its grotesqueness has turned the West Bank into a place of walls, barriers checkpoints and separate roads, along which Palestinians and those Israelis who have moved onto settlements illegal under international law now travel.
The pace of settlement construction has increased four-fold in the last few years alone. Yet despite its rapidity and illegality, such actions have barely registered on the international community’s radar let alone generated a significant level of worldwide protest.
Why does this international lethargy in drawing Israel to account prevail? Why do we seem so incapable of diplomatic solidarity when it comes to bringing punitive measures to bear on the Netanyahu government?
The geopolitical reasons are of course labyrinthine, but even allowing for this so much more could be done.
I am not alone in raising these questions. It is the clarion call of an increasing numbers of Israelis, some of whom I met during my recent visit.
Ilan Baruch and Dr Alon Liel are both former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa. They believe the time has come like never before to turn the screw on the Netanyahu government and the policy of occupation imposed on the Palestinians.
The views and influence of people like Baruch and Liel are important. Frankly, I often find myself frustrated by the political myopia and knee jerking of some European and international organisations claiming to be standard bearers for the Palestinian cause.
It is just not good enough for such movements, as they often do, to indignantly reject support from Israelis simply because they are that - Israelis. During my last visit I saw yet again the brave work being done by Israeli groups like Peace Now or Ir Amim who monitor or lobby against settlement expansion. Then there is the courageous stance taken by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli military veterans who have served since the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada – uprising – who have now taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.
The work of all these groups is vital not least in a time like this when the Netanyahu government shows such disregard for international law and an even greater willingness to ride roughshod over Palestinians rights.
In Jerusalem Ilan Baruch and Dr Alon Liel told me how they firmly believe Europe and the international community has a key role to play in the process of pressurising the Netanyahu government. They insist too that it has to happen fast, with signs of substantial progress needed within the next 18 months. Such is the pressing internal threat they see posed to their country’s future and that of the Palestinians.
Like many in Israel, both men fear that the marginal politics espoused by extremists in their society have now become mainstream. Baruch says that if the current trend continues: “Israel runs the risk of turning into a pariah state and faces growing delegitimisation.”
“Experience shows that this global trend won’t change until we normalise our relations with the Palestinians,” Baruch insists.
Last week in his piece written in the aftermath of Ali Dawabsheh’s murder, David Grossman pointed out that for decades Israel has turned its dark side toward the Palestinians, but now that darkness has infiltrated into its own internal organs.
As ever, what lies at the root of all this of course is 48 years of occupation, segregation and subjugation of the Palestinian people. Until that issue is addressed justly, both communities are destined to continue their mutual and seemingly interminable dance of death.

David Pratt who wrote the above is Foreign Editor of the Sunday Herald and author of Intifada: The Long Day of Rage

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