What sort of peace?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have been re-reading the fantastic Palestine by the graphic artist Joe Sacco. It chronicles his travels through Israel and the Occupied Territories in 1991 and 1992, during the first intifada. Towards the end of the book, he reports an interesting conversation with two young Israeli girls in Tel Aviv:

We just want to live our lives, okay? We have our lives! We have jobs and families and we go out and live just like you do… We don’t think about this stuff all the time, and we get a bit tired hearing about it!

This reminded me of a conversation I had last year, with some young Israelis (a couple of whom were on leave from National Service) in the gents toilets at 3am in a Haifa nightclub.

“We just want peace!”

Yesterday, Israelis reacted to the Hamas parliamentary election victory in a similar manner. As the celebrations and recriminations surrounding the result continue, we hear many such exortations from all sides, and variations thereon. “We just want peace” or “They don’t want peace” or “they must prove they want peace” etcetera. The problem with all these statements is not that they are utopian or simplistic as such, but simply that they are incomplete.

“We just want peace!” Yes, but what kind of peace? The wish is meaningless, unless it is qualified. A ‘peace’ that leaves Israeli soldiers free to harass citizens of people who are apparently part of a different country? A ‘peace’ that allows institutional discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel? A ‘peace’ that allows thousands of people to live in walled enclaves, without freedom of movement? It cannot mean preservation of the status quo, surely.

The flipside is also true. A ‘peace’ that leaves Jerusalem as a tranquil, Islamic holy city might be the vision for some, but it is likely to leave others quite disturbed. This is because ‘peace’ does not simply mean the cessation of violence, but peace of mind too. People need to feel safe, and Israeli ‘strong-men’ like Sharon or Netanyahu are perceived to deliver this safety… by going on the offence. So it is with Hamas: a strong and organised group who stand up to the injustices visited daily upon a subjugated people. A vote for Hamas is a vote for a momentary peace of mind, a protest vote not only against the corruption of Fatah, but against the occupation itself.

“So they voted in a bunch of terrorists” is a kindergarten response to the result. This is the democratic action of an electorate who wish to reassert their humanity. By this act, the Palestinians say: “I am here, and I still resist!” This is essentially a positive sentiment, even if the current outlet is a militant organisation, capable of atrocious acts. It is now up to everyone to channel this sentiment into something practical. If not, the vote will have been a pointless excercise, and the peace of mind it brings will be a transient thing, lasting only as long as it takes another gun to fire or a bomb to explode.

Update

I’ve just found a great blog, Raising Yousuf by a journalist living in Gaza. I’m pleased to see she also speaks of people wishing to throw off shackles of oppression:

‘For 6 months, [the man] has been chasing the PA for some medical compensation, and hasn’t received a penny “while those nobody’s travel around in their BMWs. ” “Is that fair? tell me?” Why did Hamas win? Remember, said the man: “The feeling of oppression is a very powerful factor.” ‘

Journalists Harassed in Israel

One group of people who get very little attention in the Middle-East are the Arab citizens of Israel. One in five Israelis are Arabs, but as either Muslims or Christians they are effectively second-class citizens in what is, after all, a Jewish State. Even if a utopian reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians were to take place, a two-state solution would still leave discrimmination of Arab Israelis unaddressed.

Israel claims to be an open democracy, but certain recent events remind us of an authoritarian streak that must be tempered if the country wishes all its citizens to live in peace. On Christmas Day, the renowned writer Antwan Shalhat received a travel ban issued by Israel’s Department of Interior. No explanation for why the ban was placed has been given, no time-scale is specified, and the reasons given are “secret”. Furthermore, according to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a travel ban violates Mr Shalhat’s constitutional right to leave the country under Article 6 of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Antwan Shalhat has translated many texts between Hebrew and Arabic, including the work of Yeshayahou Leibowitz. What is most bizarre is that he has no plans to go overseas at present, for speaking engagements or otherwise. The ban seems arbitrary, unjust, and does nothing to engender confidence in the government.

The treatment of Mr Shalhat is not an isolated case. Last autumn, a string of Arab Israeli journalists were detained and interrogated by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS/Shabak). Those detained included Hassan Muwasi, correspondent for Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, and Ahmad Abu Hussein, head of www.arabs48.com. The men are not suspected of any illegal activity, but were questioned about their relationships to journalistic contacts, who are in turn suspected to have links with Hezbollah. In addition, the journalists were asked questions unrelated to state security, regarding details of their professional work and political affiliations.

I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, believes these ‘security interrogations’ constitute a breach of Israeli Penal Code Section 114D which specifies that persons in contact with ‘outside agents’ cannot be charged if their intentions do not threaten state security. The journalists have not been secretive regarding their activities, and assert that any contact they have had with people who have, in turn, had links to Hezbollah, are purely professional. I’lam’s press statement says:

[the interrogation] subsumes the professional and cultural rights of Arab journalists to the assumed security needs of the Israeli state. There is no consideration of the crucial role relationships between Arab journalists in Israel and the wider Arab world play in the professional, informational and cultural life of Arab citizens of Israel, nor is there any consideration of the rights of Arabs in Israel to freedom of expression, association and information.

Hamas looks set to win a large proportion of the vote in the imminent Palestinian elections. To ensure that the organisation chooses politics over violence, the freedom of movement for Arab journalists in Israel and Palestine is of vital importance.

Israeli Spring Clean

On the surface, the political overhaul in Israel looks like a positive development for the Palestinians. The split between Sharon and his Likud over his ordering a withdrawl from Gaza, means the creation of a new centrist party. Coupled with an emboldened Labour Party under its new leader Amir Peretz, perhaps the snap elections will yield a better political climate for the Palestinians.

But in the West Bank, the new developments are hardly a cause for celebration. A contact in Ramallah says I am being naive: “Sharon’s approach to the conflict with Palestinians is that of unilateralism. By its very nature, this approach cannot work for conflict resolution.”

He is in two minds about the effectiveness of Peretz too, and its difficult to predict whether he will be a friend or foe of the Palestinians. Although Peretz has said that the occupation is a moral and economic burden for Israel, and wants to resume negotiations with the PLO, he said recently he supports a ‘united’ Jerusalem, meaning he would maintain the occupation of East Jerusalem. Nor does the new Labour leader support the refugees right of return, to their homes in Israel.

“At this point, the situation is so stark, that Palestinians get excited by any Israeli politician announcing publicly that he is even willing to talk to us,” says my friend, cynically. A new government may bring a freshness to the Knesset, but it seems less likely that spring elections will clean up the mess of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Kidney's don't have a religion

It was heartening to read that in their moment of tragedy, the family of shot Palestinian Ahmed Khatib have donated one of his kidneys, to an Israeli boy in need of a transplant. 12 year old Ahmed was shot in the head by Israeli Defence Force soldiers on 3rd November. One kidney does not a peace-process make, but it is a powerful gesture of shared humanity.

The act echos a previous donation in 2002, when the kidney of Glaswegian student Yoni Jenser, who killed in a bus suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, was transplanted into an Arab girl from East Jerusalem.

Update: Thanks to Intifada Kid for drawing my attention to Laurie King-Irani’s fascinating article Of transplants and transcendence: Questioning social and symbolic categories in Israel, which mentions the Ahmed Khatib case. It discusses the symbolism of the body in political conflicts.

Ahmed’s parents had many choices of how to react. The choice they made violated the grammar of the conflict and illuminated the intimacy and interconnections between people whom policies and practices divide and separate. Ahmed’s parents decided that their brain-dead son’s organs should be given to people needing transplants. On Sunday, Ahmad’s organs gave new life to six Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The article discusses suicide bombing and other political (mis)uses of the body.