Friday, August 22, 2008

The "Way" is Known; The Will is Lacking

In The Business Of Peace - U.S. Billionaire Pursues His Dream Of Mideast Peace
By Akiva Eldar
In Haaretz (Israel)
August 22, 2008

Between meeting in the Knesset with Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon and visiting his friend, President Shimon Peres, S. Daniel Abraham felt like pouring his heart out.

The 84-year-old billionaire, who visited Israel earlier this month, says that for the last seven years, since meeting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Saud - who has since been crowned king - he has not known peace.

Abrams' eyes become dewy as he talks about the meeting in Riyadh. That was when he heard the great news: 22 Arab countries had agreed to recognize Israel within the June 4, 1967 boundaries, and were offering it normal neighborly relations, as part of what became known as the Arab Initiative. Abrams recalls that he was moved to tears and told the prince that, being a Jew, he was at loss for words to describe how wonderful it was to hear such a declaration from an Arab leader of his standing.

The successful businessman, who made a fortune from Slim-Fast diet food (in 2000 he sold the company for $2.3 billion), bargained with the crown prince. "There's a problem," he told the Saudi royal. "We can't evacuate the large cities [during the entire conversation Abrams spoke of himself as an Israeli]. But we can give the Palestinians a 100-percent equivalent. He [the crown prince] said within a second: 'That's fine.' I'll never forget that statement," says Abrams today.

For Abrams this conversation was a real eye-opener. After all the years of going from one Middle Eastern capital to another, the U.S. businessman says, he had the privilege of being a witness not only to what he thought would be the end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but to the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate country.The next morning Abrams meets me again, after examining Shai Agassi's electric car. He arrives at a cafe on Netanya's beach, wearing stylish jeans and a sports shirt. He asks one of his aides to show me two documents. One described a fascinating conversation Abrams had held with one of Israel's leading rabbis. The second was a record of a meeting Abrams held half a year ago in the United States with a senior, influential Arab figure. The Israeli prime minister himself is very familiar with this document. Without violating the promise to keep its contents a secret, it can be said that it contains a practical, financial proposal for solving the Palestinian refugee problem - an offer even Benjamin Netanyahu would have trouble refusing.

Abrams, who could easily spend the rest of his days traveling around the world in his private plane and on his yacht, says he is still deeply concerned and believes the Middle East conflict must be brought to an end. His life's work, he says, is helping to find a solution for it, and he promises to devote himself to that end until his dying day. On the same evening we met, he was to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to present the Arab Initiative to him once again.

"They say that the Arabs don't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," Abrams says. "I'm telling you that we don't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

In his opinion every day the conflict continues constitutes a crime. In his mind, this country is crazy. Then he asks the rhetorical question of where we wanted to be three years from now - in the third intifada?

Not born a 'dove'

S. Daniel Abraham was not born a "dove." During World War II he fought in Europe, and he was raised on Ze'ev Jabotinsky's (right-wing) philosophy. "I first visited Israel in 1972, when I came on a United Jewish Appeal mission. After two days [of] being there, on the beach in Netanya, I called my wife and said, 'Honey, we're going to sell the apartment and move to Israel.' The next year, we sold our house and moved to Netanya." They lived in Netanya for six years and raised four daughters here.

Abrams began his political involvement in Ariel Sharon's Shlomzion party a year later. He kept in touch with the former premier during the Oslo days, too, although he supported Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, while Sharon became entrenched on the other side of the political spectrum.

Abrams still has definite red lines when it comes to Jerusalem and the right of return. "There are two points where there is no agreement," Abrams explains. "Israel will never give up the Temple Mount to the Palestinians or [anybody else]. It's too holy for us. But we can give sovereignty to God and the nations of the world. We can't give it up, but we can share. Make no mistake: no right of return, not even for a single Palestinian. Once you open the door, Israel will never be Israel." The ambassador said that Abrams was right, and Abrams was amazed. He also suggested that we could give the refugees the settlements located in those areas Israel would evacuate.

Abrams returned to the States in 1978. His dizzying business success left him with a lot of money, time and a desire for political activity. His generous support of presidential and congressional candidates - Democrats, for the most part - opened up the doors of the highest echelons to him.

Abrams says that if Israel could overcome what he sees as an immense lack of understanding in various matters, it would be possible to make peace with the Arabs. He knows there is no peace without an agreed-upon border, and doesn't understand Israelis who think that they're more secure without a border than with one. "I guarantee you: It's much more secure to have the enemy on the other side of the border - if there is an enemy - than to have him inside."

'Fanatic Jews'

Abrams enlisted Avi Gil, the former director general of the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, and a confidant of Peres, in the peace effort.

At present, Gil is coordinating Abrams' activity in Israel, including conducting periodical, in-depth surveys. These polls indicate consistent support for the principles of the Arab initiative. Support increases in direct proportion to the guarantee of more comprehensive security arrangements, such as the security fence and American guarantees. The surveys illustrate that Israelis are tired of interim agreements. The public will support anyone who will convince them that giving up the territories, including East Jerusalem, will end the conflict.

"We have to be brave enough to walk into peace," says Abrams. "It takes bravery to go into war, it takes bravery to go into peace. Roosevelt said it so well: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Your friends Peres, Barak, Olmert and even Sharon - are they cowards?

Abrams: "I don't know. It's a politically courageous move to go against 10,000 fanatic Jews. They're very vocal and strong and violent. You've just got to bite the bullet and do it."
Abrams says he would go to Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and exchange the settlements beyond the Green Line for other territories. He would even give Abbas a little more than what he expects to receive.

Everything is written in the 2003 Geneva Accords and "The People's Choice" (a peace plan formulated in 2003 by former Shin Bet security service head Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University), says Abrams, and we know that in the end the borders will be based on the 1967 lines - if not today then in a year from now, or in 10 years. He feels it's a shame to waste time and says that peace will increase our potential tenfold. Ten years ago Israel's GNP was a little higher than that of Ireland. But since that country resolved its conflict with Northern Ireland, they are quickly leaving us behind. Today Ireland's GNP per capita is $43,000, ranked 11th in the world, while Israel is in 47th place with $26,000 per capita.

Asked whether Israel should fear Iran, Abrams says that if I want a truthful answer I should consider the money. Although he is no expert on strategy, he is a practical Jew. If Iran attacks Israel, he says, it knows that Israel is capable of striking back with great force and that it will end in disaster for Tehran. He reminds us that the U.S. has said that it will consider an attack against Israel an attack against it. Iran knows that closing the Persian Gulf will endanger it and that the world depends on the region's oil. Therefore, says Abrams, Iran does not constitute a danger. The danger, he says, is that if we do not make peace with the Palestinians soon, a peace that includes respecting their dignity, we'll become a minority in our own country. "The Palestinians want their own homeland. We can't have it if they can't have it. There is a point where the occupier becomes the occupied."

It's unfortunate, adds Abrams, that instead of dealing with serious issues we're busying ourselves with nonsense.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Practicing Nonviolent Resistance

Palestinians shoot back at Israelis -- with cameras
By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
Wed Aug 20, 8:14 PM ET

In the stony hills south of Hebron, Palestinian shepherds complain of frequent attacks by militant Israeli settlers encroaching on their land.

Israeli troops and police rarely intervene even when they are on the spot, Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups say. So now the victims are pulling out small video cameras to document abuses and spur the authorities to act.

Settler violence is growing, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which recorded 222 incidents in the first half of 2008, versus 291 in all of 2007. It said 23 of this year's cases led to Palestinian casualties.

Shepherds who graze their sheep on the arid slopes of Susia in the occupied West Bank say they have endured harassment since an Israeli settlement, whose trees and red-roofed houses nestle by a well-watered vineyard, was established there in 1982.

The Palestinians grow some wheat, barley, olives and grapes, but have lost water sources and pasture to the settlement. They have to buy fodder for the sheep, and water by tanker truck to supplement what their women draw by hand from stone wells.

There is no main electricity. To watch television, they hook the set to car batteries charged by a small windmill.

"The settlers try to frighten people and make them leave," said Nasr Nawajah, 25, sitting in a tent with other farmers. "The Israeli authorities deny it, but with the cameras, we can prove what happens and force them to do their jobs."

Nawajah acts as a camera coordinator with Israel's B'Tselem human rights group, which launched a project called "Shooting Back" last year to promote law enforcement and accountability.

"The idea is to give Palestinians the technology and know-how to document the reality of their lives, thereby exposing human rights violations and the reaction, or non-reaction, of the Israeli authorities," said B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli.

B'Tselem has released several chilling clips of abuses that gained international media attention and shocked many Israelis.

On July 7, a Palestinian girl filmed from her house as a soldier, believing he was obeying an order from his battalion commander, fired a rubber-coated bullet at the feet of a bound, blindfolded Palestinian detainee standing next to them.

Ashraf Abu-Rahma, 27, who was wearing a thick boot, suffered only a minor injury to his toe, but the shooting at Ni'lin did not come to light until B'Tselem issued the footage on July 20.

The Israeli military has since charged Lieutenant Colonel Omri Borberg and the soldier with "inappropriate conduct."


"The defense minister called it a very serious and unusual incident," Michaeli acknowledged. "But B'Tselem's point is that this is not unusual. Mistreatment of detainees is very common."

Citing another case caught on film, she said police laid charges against three settlers who abducted a Palestinian and tied him to a pole in a Hebron hills settlement on July 5.

On June 8, three Palestinians -- a 58-year-old woman and her husband and nephew -- were tending sheep near Susia when two settlers on a tractor told them to leave. When they refused, four masked men returned and beat them with baseball bats.

Footage of the start of the attack -- on a B'Tselem tape confiscated at the scene and later copied by police for the rights group -- prompted the arrest of three suspects at Susia.

"It's unlikely they will be able to get a prosecution and conviction on the basis of this footage, but it was clear that public pressure spurred the police to act," Michaeli said.

That assault shows that filming is no guarantee against attack. Nawajah, the farmer who has a B'Tselem camera, said he had once videoed settlers beating farmers as troops stood by.

"When I went back to my car, three soldiers came and took my camera, took the tape and threw the camera on the ground," he said, adding that one had hit him on the ear, saying: "If we catch you filming again, we will make a 'party' in your house."

Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for B'Tselem, said Israelis had destroyed one camera in the Hebron hills and three in the city of Hebron in recent weeks. "Still, it's our most effective weapon, a way of peaceful resistance," he said.

The Hebron area houses some of the West Bank's most militant Jewish settlers, who often try to expand the areas they control.

"Before the intifada, we were allowed to use about 80 percent of our land," said Nawajah, referring to a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. "Now it is less than 30 percent."

Israel occupied the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East war. International powers regard Israeli settlement, and in some cases annexation, of West Bank land as illegal.

Mohammed Nawajah, 62, a grey-robed farmer wearing a white headdress, said Israel refused to grant building permits to local people, even those with Ottoman-era land ownership titles.

"We are not allowed to build here -- even this tent is not allowed," he said, recounting a history of disputes and court decisions involving a tiny community clinging to its land.

(Editing by Sara Ledwith)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Collision of Memories

The Life and Poems of Mahmoud Darwish
The Anger, the Longing, the Hope

One of the wisest pronouncements I have heard in my life was that of an Egyptian general, a few days after Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.

We were the first Israelis to come to Cairo, and one of the things we were very curious about was: how did you manage to surprise us at the beginning of the October 1973 war?

The general answered: "Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets."

I reflected on these words last Wednesday, at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish.

* * *

DURING THE funeral ceremony in Ramallah he was referred to again and again as "the Palestinian National Poet".

But he was much more than that. He was the embodiment of the Palestinian destiny. His personal fate coincided with the fate of his people.

He was born in al-Birwa, a village on the Acre-Safad road. As early as 900 years ago, a Persian traveler reported that he had visited this village and prostrated himself on the graves of "Esau and Simeon, may they rest in peace". In 1931, ten years before the birth of Mahmoud, the population of the village numbered 996, of whom 92 were Christians and the rest Sunni Muslims.

On June 11, 1948, the village was captured by the Jewish forces. Its 224 houses were eradicated soon after the war, together with those of 650 other Palestinian villages. Only some cactus plants and a few ruins still testify to their past existence. The Darwish family fled just before the arrival of the troops, taking 7-year old Mahmoud with them.

Somehow, the family made their way back into what was by then Israeli territory. They were accorded the status of "present absentees" - a cunning Israeli invention. It meant that they were legal residents of Israel, but their lands were taken from them under a law that dispossessed every Arab who was not physically present in his village when it was occupied. On their land the kibbutz Yasur (belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement) and the cooperative village Ahihud were set up.

Mahmoud's father settled in the next Arab village, Jadeidi, from where he could view his land from afar. That's where Mahmoud grew up and where his family lives to this day.

During the first 15 years of the State of Israel, Arab citizens were subject to a "military regime" - a system of severe repression that controlled every aspect of their lives, including all their movements. An Arab was forbidden to leave his village without a special permit. Young Mahmoud Darwish violated this order several times, and whenever he was caught he went to prison. When he started to write poems, he was accused of incitement and put in "administrative detention" without trial.

At that time he wrote one of his best known poems, "Identity Card", a poem expressing the anger of a youngster growing up under these humiliating conditions. It opens with the thunderous words: "Record: I am an Arab!"

It was during this period that I met him for the first time. He came to me with another young village man with a strong national commitment, the poet Rashid Hussein. I remember a sentence of his: "The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace."

He joined the Communist party, then the only party where a nationalist Arab could be active. He edited their newspapers. The party sent him to Moscow for studies, but expelled him when he decided not to come back to Israel. Instead he joined the PLO and went to Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Beirut.

* * *

IT WAS there that I met him again, in one of the most exciting episodes of my life, when I crossed the lines in July 1982, at the height of the siege of Beirut, and met with Arafat. The Palestinian leader insisted that Mahmoud Darwish be present at this symbolic event, his first ever meeting with an Israeli. He sent somebody to call him.

His description of the siege of Beirut is one of Darwish's most impressive works. These were the days when he became the national poet. He accompanied the Palestinian struggle, and at the sessions of the Palestinian National Council, the institution that united all parts of the Palestinian people, he electrified the hall with readings of his stirring poems.

During those years he was very close to Arafat. While Arafat was the political leader of the Palestinian national movement, Darwish was its spiritual leader. It was he who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the 1988 session of the National Council on the initiative of Arafat. It is very similar to the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which Darwish had learned at school.

He clearly understood its significance: by adopting this document the Palestinian parliament-in-exile accepted in practice the idea of establishing a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, in only a part of the homeland, as proposed by Arafat.

The alliance between the two broke down when the Oslo agreement was signed. Arafat saw it as "the best agreement in the worst situation". Darwish believed that Arafat had conceded too much. The national heart confronted the national mind. (That historical debate has still not been concluded today, after both of them have died.)

Since then Darwish lived in Paris, Amman and Ramallah - the Wandering Palestinian, who has replaced the Wandering Jew.

* * *

HE DID not want to be the National Poet. He did not want to be a political poet at all, but a lyrical one, a poet of love. But whenever he turned in this direction, the long arm of Palestinian fate dragged him back.

I am not qualified to judge his poems or to assess his greatness as a poet. Leading experts on the Arabic language are still bitterly quarreling among themselves about the meaning of his poems, their nuances and layers, images and allusions. He was a master of classical Arabic, and equally at home with Western and Israeli poetry. Many believe that he was the greatest Arab poet, and one of the greatest poets of our time.

His poetry enabled him to do what no one had succeeded in doing by other means: to unite all the parts of the fractured and fragmented Palestinian people - in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, in Israel, in the refugee camps and throughout the Diaspora. He belonged to all of them. The refugees could identify with him because he was a refugee, Israel's Palestinian citizens could identify with him because he was one of them, and so could the inhabitants of the occupied Palestinian territories, because he was a fighter against the occupation.

This week some people of the Palestinian Authority tried to exploit him for their struggle with Hamas. I don't think that he would have agreed. In spite of the fact that he was a totally secular Palestinian and very far from the religious world of Hamas, he expressed the feelings of all Palestinians. His poems also resonate with the soul of a member of Hamas in Gaza.

* * *

HE WAS the poet of anger, of longing, of hope and of peace. These were the strings of his violin.

Anger about the injustice done to the Palestinian people and every Palestinian individual. Longing for "my mother's coffee", for his village's olive tree, for the land of his forefathers. Hope that the conflict would come to an end. Support for peace between the two peoples, based on justice and mutual respect. In the documentary by the Israeli-French film-maker Simone Bitton, he pointed at the donkey as a symbol of the Palestinian people - a wise, patient animal that manages to survive.

He understood the nature of the conflict better than most Israelis and Palestinians. He called it "a struggle between two memories". The Palestinian historical memory clashes with the Jewish historical memory. Peace can come about only when each side understands the memories of the other - their myths, their secret longings, their hopes and fears.

That is the meaning of the Egyptian general's saying: poetry expresses the most profound feelings of a people. And only the understanding of these feelings can open the way for a real peace. A peace between politicians is not worth very much without a peace between the poets and the public they express. That's why Oslo failed, and why the present so-called negotiation for a "shelf agreement" is so worthless. It has no basis in the feelings of the two peoples.

Eight years ago, then Minister of Education Yossi Sarid tried to include two poems of Darwish in the Israeli school curriculum. This caused a furor, and the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, decided that "the Israeli public is not ready for this". This meant, in reality, that "the Israeli public is not ready for peace."

This may still be true. Real peace, peace between the peoples, peace between the children born this week, on the day of the funeral, in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, will only come about when Arab pupils learn the immortal poem of Chaim Nachman Bialik "The Valley of Death", about the Kishinev pogrom, and when Israeli pupils learn the poems of Darwish about the Naqba. Yes, also the poems of anger, including the line "Go away, and take your dead with you."

Without understanding and courageously facing the flaming anger about the Naqba and its consequences, we shall not understand the roots of the conflict and shall not be able to solve it. And as another great Palestinian man of letters, Edward Said, said: without understanding the impact of the Holocaust upon the Israeli soul, the Palestinians will not be able to deal with the Israelis.

The Poets are the marshals of the struggle between the memories, between the myths, between the traumas. We shall need them on the road to peace between the two peoples, between the two states, for building a common future.

* * *

I was not present at the state funeral arranged by the Palestinian Authority in the Mukata, so orderly, so orchestrated. I was there, two hours later, when his body was buried on a beautiful hill, overlooking the surroundings.

I was deeply impressed by the public, which gathered under the blazing sun around the wreath-covered grave and listened to the recorded voice of Mahmoud reading his poems. Those present, people of the elite and simple villagers, connected with the man in silence, in a very private communion. Despite the crowding, they opened a way for us, the Israelis, who came to pay our respects at the grave.

We bade our silent farewell to a great Palestinian, a great poet, a great human being.

Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch's book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.