Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eye of the storm

There's only one calm space in Jerusalem - and I finally got there today. The Haram Al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims, the Temple Mount to Jews - whatever - on top of that massive stone plaza there is just a fantastic sense of calm. You leave behind the shoutiness and tainted competitive atmosphere of the Old City, the general mess of East Jerusalem and the uninspiring suburban-style West Jerusalem - suddenly you are on a different plane of existence, some kind of Elysium.

The city actually has other spaces because it is so disjointed, but they are terrains vagues and no mans lands. Like big roads and even the wall they mostly function as dividers between zones, distances you are continually annoyed you have to cover as you go from A to B, Palestinian to Jewish.

This beautiful planned space is the eye of the hurricane. The dispute over ownership is pretty hardcore and sometimes lethal.

According to the Jews, the Temple Mount is built over a rock which is the origin of the world. Light and darkness spewed forth from this rock in the very beginning. King Herod built a mega temple on the site, with the Holy of Holies - the ultimate Jewish temple, built on the site of the rock. Only one high priest was allowed to go into the H of H on just one day of the year (according to our Jewish tour guide).

BUT - after the destruction of the temple and the subsequent Muslim conquest, the site became the third holiest site in Islam, where (according to a guy in the Waqf - a hangover from Jordanian rule - it administers Islamic holy sites and is not part of the state of Israel) Mohammed ascended to heaven and was instructed in prayer by Allah. A rock tried to follow him but was sent crashing down to earth again and inside the famous golden Dome of the Rock there is apparently a pit known as the Cup of Souls (or something similar).

The Dome of the Rock was a revelation. I remember thinking the Sayeda Zeinab mosque in Damascus was a jewel and one could argue that even in its kitschy chintziness it rivals the Dome - but it just does not have the vast space around it to draw out the formless buzz crowding your head and leave you free to contemplate.

There were a couple of orthodox Jews up there, sporting tuggable forelocks, white t-shirts and black trousers. One was barefoot and they had a two-man police escort. In an American accent, they pompously advised the Jews in our group not to walk near the Dome as they might be treading on the Holy of Holies. Later, when we left through another gate we saw two more Jews who were not allowed to enter looking at the Dome and chanting.

We were going underground - to a tunnel running the length of the Western wall. When it was opened in 1996 some 40 people were killed in the subsequent rioting. There's a tremendous amount of activity below ground - the atmosphere is part archeology and part James Bond-style secret military/research bunker.

The excavation is continuous, digging down into now-submerged levels of the city in former times. Big models with moving parts depict how the Second Temple looked in its day. The stones used to make the Mount were gigantic, merely to show off, according to our guide, and at the underground former gate to the Temple itself there is a small room where women pray to heal the sick and to help barren women conceive.

Remarkably, dripping water (so we were told) has actually left a mark in the wall that really does resemble the shape of Israel complete with West bank and Gaza Strip. Even the Dead and Red seas are there in the form of holes.

For the first time really I got a sense of the powerful yearning of a people to get closer to the centre of their religion/identity. It's incredible, but while God is genrally everywhere, he is considered to be particularly present in the Temple Mount. It is actually his address - you can write a letter to 'God, Jerusalem' and it will find its way to the central post office and from there to a crack in the wetsren wall, to be wedged in alongside many others.

There is the odd extremist who dreams of blowing up the Dome so a new temple can be built - but so far World War Three has been enough of a disincentive to ensure the Israelis don't let it happen. The Waqf is paranoid though - and I can understand it given Jewish Israel's sheer desire to get ever closer to what it sees as its core.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Under canvas in the capital

Some of the things that most infuriate me here do not involve blood, guns and death.

No, what really does my rag is behaviour that just so totally destroys a group's chosen self-image, bringing the whole illusion tumbling down in a loud jarring crash - and yet somehow everyone just ignores it.

In this case the group is Israel, which as I have heard from countless Israelis considers itself to be a Western-style democracy, the "only one in the Middle East" and "A bit more civilised than the others in the region".

But what Western country actually has a policy of making its citizens homeless? Entire families - men women and young children? In the middle of fucking winter? Don't think I ever saw that in East Finchley, Ehud...

Yet behold the Abdullah family from Al Tur, East Jerusalem. There they are in their green canvas Red Cross tent next to the rubble of their home. There they are with no money, no place to wash or cook, no belongings left, huddling around a wood stove to stave off the cold and rain until late at night. There they are, taking their three youngest children to hospital because they have become sick.

Again - we know already that Israel is only too happy to demolish Palestinian homes in Gaza (using missiles launched from F-16s 5 mins after calling the owner on his mobile and telling him to get everyone the hell out), in the West Bank (for whatever reason, the Barrier perhaps) and inside Israel too - making a point of razing the miserable shacks of the Bedouin they have already herded into a closed zone. None of this really surprises me.

But to leave a family of 12 in a fucking tent in zero-degree temperatures and lashing rains in the middle of the declared "eternal and undivided" fucking capital city just leaves me flabbergasted. It shows a breathtaking confidence in the power of the myth they have built up for themselves.

Maybe I'm just too conventional - my brain can deal with the idea of destroying homes in what is approaching a war zone (Gaza), occupied territory in which certain war zone-type rules apply (The West Bank) or victimising nomadic peoples (The Bedouin) - because of course Western govts like the UK are reasonably happy to victimise the gypsies. What's the big difference betweeen making an Arab family homeless here and another one there?

But Habibi, even if the East Jerusalemites aren't full citizens, I still wouldn't kick them out onto the street no matter how much I hated them because I would just be too embarrassed about how it would reflect on me, particularly if I am marketing myself to the rest of the world (and my own eager citizens) as a civilised, enlightened regime. You see, I would be afraid that it would reveal all my carefully built up propaganda to be utter horseshit.

So civilised and Western is Israel that it does not offer any assistance at all to those families in its capital city whose houses it has just destroyed. No alternative accommodation. No money. Nada. It knows that most East Jerusalem Palestinians will move in with relatives in increasiingly overcrowded conditions, or they will rent a flat, which has the added bonus of making them poorer - or in the best case scenario they will actually decamp altogether and bugger off to one of the West Bank refugee camps. Hooray!

Let us compare Western Jerusalem to London. In London, boroughs pay to keep homeless families off the street, because it is generally accepted that such are the responsibilities of local government. Thus, they pay huge sums of money to rent rooms in grotty Bed & Breakfasts and attempt to find big businesses who are willing to build new homes to house the poor. In Jerusalem they kick Arab families onto the street.

With the Abdullahs, Jerusalem Municipality knows it has fucked up. During some of the horrendous weather we've been having here, it offered them a couple of nights in a hotel. Milouk Abdullah smelt a trap.

"I refused. They would take us there and then invite in all the journalists, we would be photographed, everyone would see how humane the Municipality was and then we would be kicked out again and forgotten."

Again, maybe I'm just bringing my own cultural sensibilities into the mix here. Most Jewish Israelis can't deal with the idea of sharing Jerusalem. And they don't know how to deal with the idea of having a big Arab population inside the Jewish state. The Arabs are the enemy, whether within Israel's unilaterally declared borders or without. "Where is Israeli democracy?" yelled Abdullah, standing on a barrell, as the bulldozers moved in. "The soldiers just laughed. One stuck his finger up and said: 'That's your democracy'." Perhaps the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians know the game - and it's only the foreigners who get upset about it.

In such cases it's amusing to ask the relevant authorities to justify their actions.
Jerusalem Municpality came up with a rambling statement insisting plans for a new Arab neighbourhood were well underway (not one new neighbourhood in the whole of Israel has yet been built for Israeli-Arabs). It said more progress had not been made in relaxing restrictions on Arab building because there were already so many illegal buildings that the whole land ownership issue was now irredeemably fucked up - in effect saying that illegal Arab building made it difficult to allow the Arabs to build. It further said that it was protecting the Arabs by demolishing their houses because as they were illegally built they were therefore probably unsafe.

Defending the policy of demolishing homes built without a permit, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said: "How would you feel if someone came along and just built in the middle of your land?" I almost asked her if she was being ironic - that being the usual refrain from the Pals about Israel.

Of course, the Abdullahs' house was built without a permit, as were most in East Jerusalem. It's virtually impossible for East Jeru Pals to get a permit because 1) most of EJ is not zoned for building; 2) if you do happen to be on a zoned patch of land, you have to prove you own it and land registering was frozen in 1967 when Israel took over the area; 3) even if you can prove ownership you have to pay up to $22,000 in non-refundable fees just to apply for a permit, which you then still probably won't get.

And even if you have built a home illegally, how Western and civilised is it to demolish it? In London they think twice even about demolishing an illegally-built shed, let alone adding to the ranks of the homeless. They clear shanty towns in India and favelas in Brazil - but those are third-world countries, not Western ones.

The Municipality and the MoI both said the law is the same for everyone - but is it? In theory, but not in practice. Jeff Halper of ICAHD tells us that the only people who own land in Israel/OPT are Palestinians. The State of Israel holds all of the rest of the land on behalf of the entire Jewish people. It designates land to be developed into neighbourhoods and it is thus almost impossible for a Jewish Israeli to be living in an illegally built house (unless it's an illegal outpost in the West Bank, in which case the government chooses to do nothing much about it). So, Jerusalem Municiplaity demolishes illegal sheds, balconies and garages in West Jerusalem and entire family homes in East Jerusalem. Nice.

Overall, it looks like an attempt to ethnically cleanse/Judaize Jerusalem. Again - I don't judge here. Many a group has and will go in for a bit of ethnic cleansing - it seems to be pretty normal human behaviour and Israel is no better or worse than anyone else. But I think we can allow ourselves to see it clearly for what it is. As I say, it's not even so much the actual chucking out of a family onto the street that offends me - it's the insulting attempt to make me believe that doing so is somehow a moral act.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Dangerously radical..."

In danger of becoming a Personality here - first a front cover mugshot trailing my quest to find Jesus's lost tomb in suburban Jerusalem (must replace that horribly smug B+W byline pic), then a few words on Dubai Eye for International women's day last week (An Eileen emailed in: "2 men wittering on about women in Palestine for Int. women's day - what rubbish!") and now a request for an Analysis piece - how flattering.

اُنتبه يا ولد - إن راءسك يصبح أكبر من كرة القدم

The kicker is this AFP piece: Israeli Arabs more radicalised: Shin Beth JERUSALEM, March 13, 2007 (AFP) - Israel's Shin Beth internal security service has warned that Israeli Arabs are becoming more radicalised, the Maariv newspaper reported on Tuesday.

"Israeli Arabs are identifying more and more with terrorist organisations in Iran," the Jewish state's archfoe, the paper quoted Shin Beth chief Yuval Diskin as telling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a closed briefing.

Diskin said the development could pose a "strategic danger" in the long term for Israel. To fight the tendency, the Shin Beth is recommending improving the situation of Israeli Arabs, who are often treated as second-class citizens, the paper said.

Israeli Arabs, who make up nearly 20 percent of Israel's population, are descendants of those 160,000 or so Palestinians who stayed behind when the state of Israel was declared in 1948 and who did not join the refugee exodus.

I chipped in with the following:

"The Shin Beth, Israel's intelligence service, says Israeli-Arabs are becoming radicalised against Israel - but what is most surprising is that it has taken so long coming.

Israeli-Arabs – descendants of the 160,000 Palestinians who did not join the refugee exodus in 1948 – make up about 20 per cent of Israel’s population. They face hostility and rampant discrimination in the Jewish state.

The very term “Israeli-Arab” is a denial of their Palestinian identity, reflecting the widely-held view among Jewish Israelis that the Palestinians do not exist and as Arabs should simply go and live in other Arab countries such as Jordan. But Jewish Israel’s discriminatory attitude towards its Arab minority stems from a cold fear that they could destroy the Jewish state from within.

While Israel can wash its hands of the Gaza and West Bank Palestinians by walling them into anarchic ghettos that will one day constitute a Palestinian state, it cannot do the same with the million Israeli-Arabs within its borders.

Israel markets itself as a “Jewish and democratic state” – but demographers fear that if the Arab minority continues to grow, Israel will face a stark choice between becoming an Apartheid state or giving up its Jewish character.

As a result, the very existence of Arabs inside Israel is seen by many Jews as an aggressive act by a fifth column directed by Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and Damascus.

Such paranoia led the Israeli police to deploy snipers and army units against unarmed demonstrators in Israeli-Arab towns protesting Ariel Sharon’s walkabout in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem in 2000. Some 13 Israeli-Arabs were shot dead by police – but more then six years later no one has been brought to justice.

Against such a background of discrimination, the Shin Beth’s findings, if accurate, show how Israel’s fear of its Arab minority has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despairing of ever getting a fair deal inside Israel, Israeli-Arab leaders are now debating self-government as a national minority within Israel – and more extreme elements are looking to Tehran for salvation.

But the biggest surprise in the Shin Beth briefing is the Israeli intelligence service’s common sense recommendation to prime minister Ehud Olmert – that Israel improve conditions for Israeli-Arabs.

It may seem blindingly obvious to you or me – but Israel has always preferred the stick to the carrot because many Israeli policymakers believe that Arabs only understand force. Even so, not all Israeli-Arabs are hostile to Israel.

During last summer’s war with Hezbollah I spoke to one young Muslim in the northern city of Haifa who said he would join the Israeli army to defend Israel if it was invaded.

Some young Israeli-Arabs in particular say they enjoy living in Israel, where they feel they have greater personal freedoms than they might otherwise have in an Arab state with an Islamic government.

These Israeli-Arabs represent a rich and untapped resource for Israel. Well-educated and fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, these young men and women could be a bridge between Israel and the rest of the Middle East.

They already have jobs as correspondents for the big Arabic media networks, such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya – and their influence will surely grow.

If Israel can make friends with its own Arab minority, they in turn can perhaps help Israel make friends with the countries around it – leading towards a long-term acceptance of Israel’s existence not just among governments but on the Arab street.

Much work lies ahead. Paranoia is already so entrenched that two-thirds of Israeli Jews fear an Arab uprising while two-thirds of Israeli-Arabs fear mass expulsion from their homes in Israel, according to a survey released by the University of Haifa this week.

But if Olmert does not follow the Shin Beth’s advice, he risks ruining life in Israel not just for Israeli-Arabs but for the Israeli Jews he claims to lead."

As my flatmate pointed out - it's perhaps not so much of a radicalisation as an Islamicisation - but that's a little too complicated for my piece (and me). The Islamic Movement inside Israel can be seen in the same context as Hamas/The Muslim Brotherhood etc and is making trouble over the Mugrabi gate dig on the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount (see last post). No doubt the Shin Beth will suggest a few sweeteners to buy off a critical mass of Palestinian citizens of Israel without for an instant actually giving them full and equal status with the Jewish majority. This is the Shin Beth, remember.

But seen through the prism of paranoia, buying off the A-rabs = building them new neighbourhoods and allowing them to build new homes, giving them better access to health and education = encouraging them to breed = hastening the demise of the Jewish majority. A secular Israel or apartheid? With the Jewish state as the meaning of zionism and the ultimate value, I can see apartheid coming first...

* Pix are of a 'dangerously radical and strategically threatening' young Arab-Israeli woman and the town of Umm Al Fahem, just to the north of the West Bank and home to Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic movement. Two-thirds of Jewish Israelis are too scared to enter Arab towns such as this.