MERIP Blog

A Darkly Intimate Thriller

by Max Weiss | published March 20, 2014 - 10:03am

The first time I watched Omar, the latest Oscar-nominated work by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, I nearly leapt out of my seat as it careened toward the climax, unable to recall the last time a film elicited such a visceral response from me.

At the most basic level, Omar is a political thriller that follows the inexorable unraveling of three Palestinian friends -- Omar, Tarek and Amjad -- who struggle to maintain their lives, humor and friendship against terrible odds. Omar and Amjad are both in love with Nadia, who happens to be Tarek’s younger sister, and this broken love triangle will ultimately lead to the downfall of all four. But Omar is first and foremost a searing meditation on the pressures and damage inflicted on Palestinian life by Israeli occupation. After the three friends conspire to, and Amjad actually does, kill an Israeli soldier inside his own barracks, their lives and those of their loved ones are sucked into a maelstrom in which friends and enemies are no longer so easy to distinguish.

The broader Palestinian condition of apparent impossibility and utter undecidability becomes a central theme. Family relationships are shattered, jilted love stories become the norm, and friendships are ripped apart by paranoia and the manipulation of Israeli spy networks. The ever-intensifying pressure cooker of everyday life under occupation ties Palestinian social and affective life into knots -- knots that can only be cut by self-effacing violence (think of the suicide bomber, for example, transmuted here into a collaborator who ultimately self-destructs). The wreckage left behind includes dead friends, paranoid relatives, women without husbands or with children of unknown parentage, and dashed hopes.

There is no exit from the brutality and insidious distortion of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now approaching its forty-seventh year. What hope remains is to destroy the circuit of intrigue and counter-intrigue. Many commentators, both Israeli and Palestinian, view the issue of collaboration through a charged ideological, but largely impersonal, lens. Omar, by contrast, anatomizes the occupation regime’s dark intimacy, exploring how lifelong friendships, family relationships and even the love of your life can become monstrous, while the relationship between interrogator and prisoner in the Israeli torture chamber can morph into a shocking degree of closeness. The first time the protagonist is strung up by his wrists and beaten savagely in detention, his face has been smashed, his nose pulverized. And yet, through the blood, pus and vomit, Omar musters the whispered advice to his captor, “Wipe your nose.” Whether Omar is trying to humiliate his interrogator or to save him from humiliation, whether this is gratuitous defiance or a cynical tactic of avoidance seems irrelevant. To maintain such poise under these circumstances is a pointed and compelling assertion of their common humanity. In response, Omar is subjected to a cigarette lighter to his genitals.

But the relationship between resistance and Palestinian politics is complicated. How can the Palestinian people most effectively combat Israel’s overwhelming military strength? Through speech, as when Omar talks back to three Israeli soldiers who are harassing and humiliating him? Through stone throwing, to which the children of the refugee camp resort as the undercover forces chase him through the alleyways? Through guerrilla warfare, as when the three old friends train for and then engage in armed struggle? As this nightmarish noir descends into deeper levels of uncertainty, the web of deception turns ever more opaque. The personal relationship that Omar develops with the secret agent, Rami, a fluent Arabic-speaking Israeli handler, becomes the key to his escape.

Both favorable and critical reviews of the film have stressed the political agenda that the filmmaker brings to his craft; some have approved, grudgingly or otherwise, of the “humanization” of the avatars of occupation, Rami in particular. But such a move to reduce the Palestinian condition to “politics,” or to the need for “dialogue” and “empathy,” obliterates the incessant violence of the bureaucratic and military machinery of occupation. This system has produced the contradictory social and affective effects that Lori Allen so evocatively terms, “the multiple powers of cynicism in politics and the possibilities of solidarity and, yes, the resistance to oppressive forces that are contained therein.” I cannot think of a more profound representation of the politics of cynicism in Palestine, and its potential overcoming, as that found in Omar.

Editors’ Note: For more MERIP coverage of Israel’s use of collaborators, see Salim Tamari’s classic, “Eyeless in Judea,” Middle East Report 164 (May-June 1990) and Yoav Di-Capua, “The Intimate History of Collaboration,” Middle East Report Online (May 2007). On Abu Assad’s first Oscar-nominated feature, see Lori Allen, “Paradise Now’s Understated Power,” (January 2006).

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Spring Break Reading Guide

by The Editors | published March 14, 2014 - 2:56pm

For those fortunate enough to find a bit of time to read books not directly related to work over spring break or the summer, MERIP solicited recommendations from editors and contributors. Reading is often part of daily professional work, even a form of drudgery. Instead, we asked for titles that would be enjoyable as well as edifying, so the responses tend toward fiction or works with strong narrative voices.

Darryl Li: Two novels of contemporary labor migration to the Gulf have been on my mind recently. The first is Bamboo Stalk (Saq al-Bambu), by a young Kuwaiti novelist, Sa‘ud al-San‘usi. Bamboo Stalk’s narrator calls himself José or ‘Isa, depending on who he’s talking to: The son of a Kuwaiti and a Filipina migrant worker, his story crosses the Indian Ocean multiple times. The book won the 2013 International Arabic Fiction Prize (known as the “Arabic Booker”). It hasn’t been translated yet but you can read more on M. Lynx Qualey’s indispensable Arab Literature (in English) blog.

The second novel is Goat Days (excerpt), a Malayalam bestseller by Benyamin, an Indian writer living in Bahrain. It was translated into English in 2012 and tells the story of Najeeb, a Muslim from the southern Indian state of Kerala who finds himself tending goats on a remote farm in Saudi Arabia. Sarah Waheed’s description of Goat Days as a “contemporary slave narrative” is more than apt: Najeeb is not only confined, beaten and starved by his employer, he is deprived of almost all human contact, leaving the goats as his only companions and source of solace.

For a comparative take on indenture and labor migration, MERIP editor Anjali Kamat recommends Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, in which the author attempts to reconstruct her great-grandmother’s peregrinations to shed light on Indian indentured migration to Guiana in the early twentieth century.

David McMurray: The disappeared Malaysian flight making the news had on board an Iranian kid who was traveling on a stolen passport from Malaysia to Holland to Germany to meet his mother and claim asylum. That reminded me of an interesting little book I read recently by another Iranian asylum seeker, Shahram Khosravi’s “Illegal” Traveler: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders. Khosravi flees during the 1980s to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war. The book recounts his adventures crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan to India where he eventually finds a competent smuggler who arranges for his flight to Sweden. Once let out of the refugee camp in Sweden he is shot by a right-wing sniper on a university campus. He survives that ordeal to become a professor of anthropology who specializes in the study of Iranian youth as well as asylum seekers and undocumented border crossers. His story is incredibly dramatic and full of interesting anecdotes about the business of human smuggling. I recommend it with one caveat: The author chooses to weigh down the narrative with too many citations of relevant scholarly literature. This tic gives the book a social scientistic feel that can be distracting. But if you can overlook that, it’s a fascinating tale.

Karen Pfeifer recommends four books: Louis de Bernière’s Birds Without Wings, a novel chronicling a love story during the final years of the Ottoman Empire; Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, a novel about a rare book expert called upon to restore the famous Sarajevo Haggadah (one of the oldest extant Sephardic manuscripts in the world), with chapters interspersed about the book’s long history and relations among “peoples of the book” from the fourteenth century to the present; Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, a novel that shifts between early twentieth-century Egypt and the tumultuous 1990s; and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Shira Robinson enjoyed Elliott Colla’s translation of Raba‘i al-Madhun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv, winner of the English PEN Award and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010, which examines Gaza’s past and present through the lens of a student who found himself in Cairo in 1967 and was never allowed to return. The protagonist eventually moves to London and becomes a journalist, and the story begins after he manages to get a visa to visit his mother 40 years later.

Speaking of Colla, his first novel Baghdad Central, a mystery set in US-occupied Iraq, has been getting solid reviews. The novel also has an interesting (and disturbing) backstory.

Also Children of the Jacaranda Tree, the stunning debut novel by Sahar Delijani, which follows a group of children whose lives were irreparably shaped by the imprisonment, and in some cases, execution of their activist parents in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The novel, which spans the period between 1983 and the 2011 protests, offers an intimate and nuanced perspective on post-revolutionary life in Iran; it’s a page-turner if ever there was one. Readers interested in the untold story of Iran’s post-1979 detainees should also pick up Shahla Talebi’s personal memoir and analytic meditation, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran, a much heavier but equally unforgettable account.

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Saudi Bullying of Qatar

by Sheila Carapico | published March 13, 2014 - 4:45pm

Just ahead of a planned state visit from President Barack Obama, Saudi Arabia is brandishing the threat of a land and naval blockade against its neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar. Saudi Foreign Minister Sa‘ud bin Faysal threatened such military action unless Doha shuts down the Al Jazeera news network, outlaws the Society of Muslim Brothers and expels the local affiliates of two American think tanks, the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and the Rand Corporation’s Qatar Policy Institute.

For commentary on the rift within the traditionally close GCC alliance, Ian Masters of KPFK radio in Los Angeles turned to a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report: Toby Jones, a professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia

Neither Masters nor Jones pulled any punches. Saudi Arabia is feeling “muscular” about its regional primacy, Jones explained, even as the House of Saud is uneasy about the anti-monarchical Islamist ideological influence of the Muslim Brothers, who it recently declared to be members of a “terrorist organization.”

Egypt’s current military government has consistently accused Qatar of backing the Egyptian branch of the Brothers, and has withdrawn its ambassador from Doha; the Saudi spat with Qatar reflects the strong support in Riyadh for Field Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who looks more and more like the new dictator in Cairo. Both the Egyptian military and the Saudi royal family have blamed the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere on instigation by Al Jazeera, whose reporters are currently on trial in Egypt.

The insistence on expulsion of US-based think tanks, on the other hand, reflects a wider aversion to any mention of democracy and human rights on the part of what Jones labeled a coercive, violent regime that brutally stamps out expression, crushes minorities and imposes a strict system of gender apartheid. Those in Washington who view Saudi Arabia as a moderate, liberal regime are simply mistaken, he said.

It is equally erroneous to portray Saudi Arabia as somehow “mature” in its foreign policy because one shares the House of Saud’s antipathy for the Muslim Brothers, as commentator Jeffrey Goldberg does. The Saudis, of course, are every bit as complicit as the Qataris (if not more so) in backing “radical Sunni outfits in Syria” and giving extremist preachers platforms for their views. And Goldberg’s concern for foreign workers in Qatar, while touching, is also unevenly applied: Over the last year, the Saudis expelled some 800,000 Ethiopian, Yemeni, Somali and other workers. The expulsions were completely arbitrary -- “normalization of the labor market” was the euphemism du jour -- and got a fraction of the media coverage of the workers suffering as Qatar races to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.

Perhaps President Obama should reconsider his travel plans. And perhaps the Western media should develop just a slightly longer memory about the overseas adventures of US allies in the Gulf.

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Introducing the MERIP Blog's Guest Editors

by The Editors | published March 11, 2014 - 11:15am

MERIP’s blog aims to complement our time-honored long-form analysis in Middle East Report and Middle East Report Online with a more spontaneous, ongoing conversation. MERIP’s blog is produced by our staff (Chris Toensing and Amanda Ufheil-Somers) with help from rotating teams drawn from our editorial committee. So, in addition to other contributors, you will see more from three of our editors in particular over the next few months:

Sheila Carapico teaches at the University of Richmond and also spent four semesters at the American University in Cairo before, during and after the January 25, 2011 popular uprising. Her interests focus on intersections between social justice activism and international politics. Sheila’s first monograph looked at Yemen’s public civic sphere, especially at the grassroots level. Her more recent book examines how activists in various Arab countries react to political aid projects initiated by international experts in democratic transitions. For MERIP she has written about Yemen (see here, here, here and here), US policy in the Gulf (see here and here), and discourses of democracy promotion (here). She will blog mostly on these topics and the aftermath of the revolutionary uprisings of 2011. 

Shira Robinson is a historian at The George Washington University who teaches about the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle East and writes on Palestine-Israel. Her first book, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State, examines Israel's imposition of military rule on the Palestinian Arabs who remained within Israeli borders after 1948 -- the colonial continuities from the pre-1948 period and the social, legal and cultural legacies that military rule left behind. She will blog on these topics, as well as the ongoing failure of the Labor Zionist movement to reckon with the truth of Israel’s post-1948 past. 

Darryl Li (@abubanda) is an anthropologist and attorney, currently a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought. He is writing a book about transnational jihad movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and conducting research on military migrant labor in the greater Indian Ocean. Darryl has also worked on litigation related to the “global war on terror” on behalf of Guantánamo detainees and survivors of the CIA’s rendition and secret detention programs. He will blog mostly about these topics, but with an eye to placing them in a transregional historical frame linking the Middle East and South Asia.

New Documentary on US Military's Migrant Workers

by Darryl Li | published March 7, 2014 - 10:43am

Starting today, Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines” will air “America’s War Workers,” a documentary by MERIP editor Anjali Kamat (@anjucomet) on the use of migrant workers by the US military.

Although military privatization in Iraq and Afghanistan has received extensive coverage, the stereotype of the wartime contractor as a gun-toting white American working for Blackwater is in some ways misleading: The overwhelming majority of the military’s contractor work force in the Middle East consists of local workers or “Third Country Nationals” (TCNs) from India, Uganda and dozens of other countries. Hundreds of thousands of TCNs perform much of the manual labor on US bases in war zones, from food service to armed guard duty. They are recruited through the same networks that have pulled workers from across the Indian Ocean region and elsewhere to the Gulf in recent decades. As with migrant labor in the Gulf more generally, stories of exploitation and abuse are common. And reform efforts, as “America’s War Workers” shows, have borne little fruit.

Despite Al Jazeera’s frustrating decision to block its videos from being viewed online in the United States (the video will go online for non-US viewers on March 12), you can read an excellent account by Kamat and her colleague Samuel Black detailing their findings. They interviewed workers on a NATO base in Afghanistan, in worker transit camps in Dubai and in villages in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Posing as subcontractors of US corporations, the journalists caught a labor recruiter on tape offering them bribes to hire his workers -- bribes paid for out of the thousands of dollars each worker must pay as a “recruitment fee” for the job opportunity.

Migrant workers on US bases frequently report taking on enormous debts to cover recruitment fees, which then require months (if not years) to pay off. The Obama administration has outlawed the use of recruitment fees, while Congress is okay with them as along as they are not “unreasonable.” The workers interviewed by Al Jazeera explained the limits of such reforms:

“We’ve already paid the agents for the job,” explained a man named Kumaran, who said his agent -- after collecting a hefty fee -- made him sign a declaration stating he had not paid anything. “If we tell the US military that we paid a fee, they’ll just send us back and we’ll lose everything.

The abuse and exploitation endured by migrant workers, however, is not just evidence of privatization run amok: It is also symptomatic of these workers’ political utility to Washington. In Iraq and Afghanistan, TCNs have often outnumbered the contingents of close US allies, yet they don’t factor in to the politically sensitive troop figures that drive much of the Beltway conversation. As for the deaths and injuries that TCNs suffer, no one seems to be counting them, at least not systematically. At the same time, because migrants are easily deported, they present less of a challenge to manage than locals, whom the US views as potential infiltrators working with insurgents.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the plight of these migrants mirrors that of detainees in Guantánamo and other extraterritorial prisons in the “global war on terror.” These prisoners are outside the reach of most US domestic courts, thousands of miles away from their families and detained in places where they have little chance of laying claim to local sympathy. The US prefers to keep prisoners and workers in a legally ambiguous space and status, disconnected from the public, whether in the US, the countries where they find themselves or their homelands.

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"Journalists Are the Eyes of the World" on Guantanamo

by Sheila Carapico | published March 5, 2014 - 10:58am

Lisa Hajjar’s spring lecture tour, entitled “Let’s Go to Guantánamo! An On-the-Ground Perspective on the Military Commissions,” explores secret renditions, black sites, torture, suppression of evidence, clandestineness and what it means to provide “legal counsel” to detainees in the post-September 11 “war on terror” in the absence of procedural fairness or public scrutiny.

Credentialed as a journalist writing for Middle East Report, editorial committee member Lisa Hajjar has traveled to Cuba four times to observe military commission hearings for detainees in the Guantánamo Bay complex. In 2010 she followed and reported on the case of Omar Khadr, al-Qaeda’s “child soldier,” a Canadian who was 15 when he was taken into custody in 2002. As she observed in a critical historical overview of war crimes tribunals entitled “From Nuremberg to Guantánamo: International Law and American Power Politics,” US practices at the offshore site deviate substantially from international law.

In December 2013 Hajjar joined a small press contingent and some victims’ family members to witness the important but mostly secret court proceedings for five high-value September 11 suspects including the purported mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.

This week Hajjar brought a slide show and hard-hitting reportage to audiences at the University of Richmond and the University of Mary Washington. Visual images mixing snapshots from Hajjar’s cellphone and original artwork from courtroom sketch artists Steve Mumford, Molly Crabapple and Janet Hamlin show what is allowed to be photographed or drawn. They are rare, poignant glimpses of the prison and the courtroom. Yet they are also, by definition, a small part of the big picture. In the name of security, there is tight censorship at the prison complex, as well as limitations on access to the proceedings and an overall atmosphere of obscurity. Hajjar’s commentary emphasizes what is missing from the visual, documentary, testimonial and court records. The Guantánamo site was “selected originally for and continues to operate under a very thick layer of secrecy,” she said. “Many of the aspects of working, living, visiting Guantánamo are classified.”

In particular, Hajjar’s analysis cites about one hundred interviews with military and civilian lawyers. The civilians volunteered their expensive time and committed corporate resources to defending Guantánamo detainees accused of involvement in terrorism. Their testimonials highlight the suppression of evidence, including the destruction of videotapes, and the suspension of rules of due process. Reflecting the collective but often confidential views of this professional cadre of legal practitioners dedicated to the rule of law, Hajjar declares it a “travesty of justice.” 

Most passionately, the presentation expresses the outrage that anyone fully informed about the saga of the Guantánamo detainees -- the guilty as well as the innocent -- would feel. The palpable anger centers on the illegal, indefensible, but undeniable torture of men -- whether guilty or innocent -- taken into custody by America’s Central Intelligence Agency. 

The prosecution of perpetrators of mass murder is a serious legal matter. Adherence to prohibitions against cruel and unusual interrogation methods and freedom of information are also crucial to American and international conceptions of humanitarian law. As Hajjar quotes Ramzi Kassem, lawyer for one of the accused, Ahmed al-Darbi, “Inside GTMO it’s Kafkaesque, outside it’s Orwellian.”

Watch the full video of Hajjar's presentation here.

Image: Ammar al-Baluchi, allegedly the man whose torture is depicted in the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. (Janet Hamlin)

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The Battle for Nazareth

by Leena Dallasheh | published March 4, 2014 - 6:16pm

By order of the Israeli Supreme Court, Nazareth will reconduct its mayoral election on March 11. The city is once again the site of an acrimonious political battle.

Municipal elections were held in Nazareth, along with the rest of the country, on October 22, 2013. The first tally showed ‘Ali Sallam unseating the incumbent, Ramiz Jaraysi, by a razor-thin margin of 22 votes.

Jaraysi has been mayor since 1994, representing the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), a joint Arab-Jewish party established in 1976 when the Communist Party unified with non-Communist Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews. Sallam is the former deputy mayor of Nazareth and a former DFPE member, who left the Front to establish a non-party list, My Nazareth.

The DFPE appealed to the District Court on the grounds that the votes cast at one of the polling stations had not been counted. (There were, in fact, two stations involved in the dispute, both for groups with special needs: one for people with disabilities, the other for volunteer Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli military, who were permitted to cast their ballots on their bases.) The DFPE demanded a recount at both stations but backed down from its insistence on including the soldiers’ votes on the grounds that the party objects to Palestinian service in the first place. The count of the contested ballots of disabled voters showed Jaraysi to be in the lead by nine votes. Sallam appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ordered a new election, citing irregularities. As Justice Daphne Barak-Erez explained, holding a new election would be a bother, but “not voiding the results, and allowing an election shrouded in suspicion to stand for five years, could also cause hardship.”

In most places, the contest to head a local bureaucracy charged mainly with the provision of basic services would not merit much attention. But Nazareth is no ordinary municipality. A religious and administrative center during the British Mandate period, Nazareth is the unofficial capital for Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948. It is the only all-Arab city that survived the nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe, and the political and economic heart of the predominantly Palestinian Galilee.

Each party -- the DFPE and My Nazareth -- claims that it will act more effectively than its rival for the public good. But, off-camera, both parties have been rallying support on the basis of sectarian and family loyalties (Sallam is Muslim and Jaraysi is Christian). Class tensions have also come to the fore: The DFPE has stressed its Communist-inspired support for the working and popular classes, accusing Sallam of prioritizing the interests of capitalists, who would be given control of the city to advance their interests at the public’s expense. Sallam, for his part, accuses the DFPE of neglecting the city over the past decades, citing, for example, inadequate roads and infrastructure, low success rates in high schools, and lack of public transportation. 

The candidates’ relationship with Upper Nazareth, the Jewish settlement established on land confiscated from local families in the 1950s, has also played a prominent role in the campaign. Mayor Shimon Gapso is an unabashed champion of the racial purity -- or “Jewishness” -- of Upper Nazareth and the country at large. He has grown louder lately because several Palestinian families have moved to his town. This week, DFPE supporters circulated a digital leaflet reminding voters of Gapso’s support for Sallam during the campaign in October. “Gapso is my friend,” Sallam is quoted as saying. Gapso, for his part, is quoted regarding the eruption of the second intifada at the mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: “Al-Aqsa is for Jews…. Had I been there in October 2000, there would have been many more Arabs killed.”

The connection between municipal power and the national conflict in Israel-Palestine has been a factor in Nazareth politics since the British Mandate, but it deepened after 1948. Soon after Israeli troops occupied the city that summer, local and national Communist Party leaders demanded democratic municipal elections on the grounds that the existing local council, appointed during the Mandate, lacked popular representation. In response to inadequate services, an increase in local taxes and the imposition of military rule, a grassroots campaign to reiterate this demand expanded in the early 1950s, particularly as it became clear that Israeli authorities feared that the introduction of political representation in Israel’s most important Palestinian locale. The insistence of Nazareth residents on equality and freedom posed a challenge to the pillars of Jewish privilege in the spheres of land, labor and immigration.

The authorities finally caved to public pressure in late 1953, but not without doing everything to rig the elections in favor of their preferred candidates. The national contest to control Nazareth’s municipality continued unabated over the next two decades. The 1976 electoral victory of veteran Communist Party activist Tawfiq Zayyad, who campaigned under the banner of Palestinian national rights in Israel, set a new tone in the city until he died in 1994. Notably, both parties this year have made rival claims to Zayyad’s legacy, stressing their commitment to serve the “national interest.” (In the case of the DFPE, this stance includes their objection to a current -- and underreported -- government campaign to extend Israel’s military draft to include Palestinian Christian citizens.)

That the question of democratic representation and Palestinian rights play such a central role in the current campaign can only be understood in light of the discursive and organizing strategies developed by activists in those early years after Israel’s conquest of the Galilee, strategies which helped protect and maintain a Palestinian national identity along with strong claims to citizenship and rights within the state.

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Analyze This

by Shira Robinson | published March 4, 2014 - 5:50pm

In her column on the Haaretz website yesterday, Carleton University political scientist Mira Sucharov bemoaned the tendency of “some of the cleverest minds on Israel and Palestine” to “devolve” into Manichean thinking about Israel as either “good or bad.”

Sucharov highlighted my February 25 post at this very blog, among other pieces, to illustrate the failure of critics to “dwell for a while in the gray zones” of Israel’s record. Heeding a call from Thomas Friedman, she urged me and other observers to judge the Jewish state on more than its 47-year military occupation of the West Bank. (Her implied criticism of the refusal of AIPAC supporters to consider Israel’s flaws was intended to demonstrate her own ability to see past such “hardened binaries.”)

The charge leveled against my post, “The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967,” rested on my critique of a group of well-known dovish personalities like Yossi Sarid and Peter Beinart, whose support for targeted boycotts of companies that operate in the West Bank is premised on their wish to restore the apparent integrity of Israel's pre-occupation democracy. Of course, neither Sarid nor Beinart are entirely blind to the racism deliberately built into Israel’s legal and political DNA in order to maintain the privilege of Jewish immigrant-settlers at the expense of the indigenous Arab minority that managed to remain inside the new state after 1948 -- the main subject of my post and recent book. Still, their blunt rallying cries to “save” the nation by simply returning to the 1949 armistice lines reinforce a popular and well-established liberal Zionist amnesia about the systematic structural inequalities on which the Jewish state was not only founded but exists to this day (read: Israel before 1967, “good;” thereafter, “bad”). Their calls also silence the voices of the millions of Palestinian citizens and refugees who are actively working to attain justice (not just an undefined “measure” of it, as Sucharov would be willing to dispense) and the right to live with equality, freedom and dignity, including on land that in many cases was stolen from them or their families.

Sucharov wraps up with an admission that her column this week was inspired by her therapist’s advice not to issue a “zero-sum” referendum on herself as a person, since she -- like all people -- is a work in progress. Perhaps I missed the memo, but scholars are not in the business of treating states like individuals, or of judging them on their normative worth. Unlike in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, for instance, we no longer ask historians of US slavery or the dispossession of Native Americans to soften the stories they tell or to dull their insights into the damaging legacies those policies left behind.

It goes without saying that states and societies are always in motion, not fixed in time. Instead of worrying about whether I might hurt the feelings of a state, its policymakers or its military, it’s my job to observe them as they are.

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Our Primer on Israel-Palestine

by The Editors | published March 3, 2014 - 5:33pm

Some 43 years ago, a group of activists in the movement to end the war in Vietnam founded the Middle East Research and Information Project.

The impetus was that the American public, including the anti-war left, was poorly informed about the Middle East and the US role there. The region was commonly depicted as alien, its politics uniquely determined by religion and impossible to explain with ordinary categories of analysis. The original idea behind MERIP was to produce better reporting that would get picked up by existing left outlets.

That didn’t work so well, so we at MERIP decided to publish our own magazine. One of our signature issues over the years has been the question of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict -- partly because of its intrinsic interest but largely because so much myth and cant clouds the mainstream media coverage of this subject that independent analysis is particularly necessary.

It’s probably for that reason, as well, that “Palestine, Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” the primer by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar, has always been the most popular item on our website. Last week, we published a comprehensively revised and updated version of the primer.

A lot has changed since we last updated the primer in early 2001.

The “peace process” inaugurated by the 1993 Oslo agreement sputtered to a halt, as Israel went back onto a war footing with the blessing of the Bush administration. The subsequent attempts to restart negotiations have failed.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel has built settlements and other “facts on the ground” at an accelerated pace since evacuating soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Gaza remains under de facto Israeli control and has been under international siege since Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. The Palestinian Authority is split between its Gaza and West Bank branches.

Settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are increasingly accepted in Israeli Jewish opinion as part of Israel. The security forces of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah are often deployed to disperse Palestinian protests against Israeli settlement and occupation.

Twenty percent of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs. They are caught as always in the contradictions of Israel’s self-identification as both a democracy and a Jewish state. A new poll indicates that Americans are more aware of these contradictions. Meanwhile, the United States finds itself ever more isolated when it defends Israel’s military operations before the court of world opinion and blocks Palestinian efforts to rally international support.

All of these developments have intensified doubts about the viability of the “two-state solution,” the vision that animated the Oslo accords and is backed by international consensus. This spring, Israeli and Palestinian leaders will come to the White House, where the president will push them to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for reviving talks about a two-state solution.

There are lots more sources of news about Israel-Palestine than there were when MERIP was founded. But misinformation still abounds and nuanced, no-nonsense analysis is still hard to find. The Beinin and Hajjar primer is a good place to start in understanding what is at stake as events unfold.

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The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967

by Shira Robinson | published February 25, 2014 - 6:31pm

The past week has a witnessed a flurry of debate in the American and Israeli media over the growing call to boycott companies and institutions that profit from or are otherwise complicit in the ongoing 47-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition to covering proposed legislation in New York and Maryland that would punish members of academic associations which endorse academic boycotts of the state, the New York Times and Washington Post have published op-eds and invited readers to weigh in on whether a boycott would be an effective and/or moral tool of political action.

The debate in Israel has the potential to carry more immediate consequence. On February 16, Israel’s High Court held a second hearing for opponents and proponents of a new law that criminalizes boycott calls of any kind by Israeli citizens (Arab or Jewish). On February 23, Ha’aretz reported the start of a campaign to draft a new law that would “enshrine the concept of Israel as a Jewish state in one of the country’s Basic Laws.”

This campaign is of course a rhetorical ploy, cynical and redundant at best. To cite just two of the most prominent examples, everyone in Israel knows that the state’s Palestinian citizens remain formally barred from purchasing over 93 percent of the land in the country, and that since 2003 they have been prohibited from living in Israel with a spouse if he or she hails from the Occupied Territories (or any “enemy state”). What is more remarkable about the campaign, though, is the fact that institutionalized discrimination against “non-Jews” in Israel was written into the very first Basic Law of the land. The Law of Return, which the Knesset passed in July 1950, granted legal residency status and de facto citizenship to all Jews in the world -- both those already living in the nascent state and those who might wish to immigrate to it in the future. As my new book documents, it was only the passage of the “Return to Zion” law, as it was first called, that broke the years-long deadlock over the country’s draft Citizenship Law. Unlike the 18 prior drafts of that law brought to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for consideration starting in 1949, the “Return” bill was the first to drive an explicit legal wedge between those people granted effective entitlement to the state (Jewish immigrants) and those who would eventually be offered a handful of rights within it (the minority of native Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain inside Israeli territory after 1948). Critically, this racial distinction in the Law of Return (and “racial” is an adjective I do not use lightly) enabled the false universality of the state’s 1952 Citizenship Law.

I mention this history because I continue to be amazed by the disingenuousness -- or willfully ignorant wishful thinking -- of arguments made by liberal Zionist luminaries in favor of an economic boycott targeting companies that operate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Earlier this week, for example, a former Israeli education minister, Yossi Sarid, pleaded passionately for a boycott to “remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue” of Israel’s pre-1967 democracy. From his perch in New York, Ha’aretz columnist Peter Beinart waxed paternalistic about the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own that will ultimately trump their concerns about the immorality of “the very idea of a state that offers special representation to Jews.” (Since the boycott will hasten the establishment of two states, he reasons, supporters of a Jewish state should embrace the project in order to bring about a withdrawal to the Green Line before it’s too late.) Beyond the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories still denied the right to return to their homes, Beinart seems to be forgetting the 20 percent of Israel’s electorate that is increasingly demanding to end this injustice.

Whatever one’s vision of an end to the conflict, wishing these problems -- and people -- away will not make them disappear. It’s time for an honest reckoning with the past.

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