Thursday, December 31, 2009

Forbidden Highway

This week, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Palestinians in the West Bank must be able to use Highway 443, which connects the city of Modi'in (and several other smaller communities) to Jerusalem. Although Modi'in is in Israel proper, the highway, which runs along an ancient route (while constructing the highway, builders found a tomb containing ossuaries inscribed with the name Hashmonaim) described in a multitude of a old texts, cuts through a corner of the West Bank.


Admittedly, local Arabs could make use of the 443 for quick access to a number of Arab villages adjacent to the highway. Unfortunately for them, the IDF deemed it necessary to disallow vehicles without Israeli plates from using the road after a series of shootings that killed six people during the second Intifada. To prevent access, the army placed concrete barriers where the highway meets village access roads. Since the closure, Palestinians have been required to leave their vehicles behind these barriers and walk up to the highway so they can catch rides, or walk to nearby villages (or use alternate roads.)

As the Supreme Court has decided, this situation has not been fair, and I'm admittedly conflicted on the subject. There's no question that denying anyone the use of this road has been as infringement of human rights; but as human rights go, nothing can be more important than the protection of human lives. I recognize the obvious inconvenience of my Arab neighbours; but, I must reconcile their inconvenience with the safety of my friends, and more importantly my wife who travels this road several times a week.

It's a complex issue, and the Supreme Court, recognizing the security needs of travellers, has postponed implementation of the decision for five months, so that the IDF can find another solution.

Yaacov Lazowick has written a useful backgrounder, which provides historical context and describes some of the political aspects of the problem.

Related Stories:

Jerusalem Post Editorial: The Meaning of 443,
January 1, 2010

Israel's Open Road, National Post Editorial
Monday, January 04, 2010

A Dangerous Profession

I've been known to criticize journalists because too many are lazy, or lacking the skills or backgrounds to adequately fulfill their assignments. Nevertheless, for most reporters, those who aren't making millions on CNN, it can be a thankless, low-paying job. And as I've mentioned before, I'm particularly sensitive to the dangers experienced by field journalists.

Last week, Alberto Velazquez, who worked for the Mexican newspaper Expresiones de Tulum, was gunned down as he left a party, making him the 12th reporter killed in Mexico this year. Dozens more have been beaten, harassed or abducted.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an American-based non-profit organization established in 1981, reports at least 69 journalists have been killed in 2009.

That number does not include Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who was killed Wednesday along with four Canadian soldiers when an IED detonated next to their armoured vehicle.

"Lang, on her first assignment in Afghanistan for Canwest News Service, had arrived in the country little more than two weeks ago. She won a National Newspaper Award last year for coverage of health and medical issues for the Calgary Herald." Colin Perkel, THE CANADIAN PRESS.

My condolences to their families, friends and colleagues.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Showdown

This is the time of year (hint: December 25) when stories abound of Israel's unfair persecution of Christians. Unsurprisingly, Reuters, for example, attempts to put the damper on the holiday spirit by once again castigating the separation wall (which has dramatically reduced incidents of terror) as the author of Christian misery in Bethlehem. In the end, the best writer Erika Solomon can come up with is a quote denouncing the wall as a "huge visual impediment" and the old line that it represents a "land grab and a tool to consolidate Israeli control of Jerusalem." Like most uninformed writers, she fails to mention that the United Nations did exactly the same thing when it recommended the internationalization of the Jerusalem district (see my previous post), which included Bethlehem! Writers also fail to mention the effectiveness of similar separation walls, such as one in Belfast which has reduced tensions and violence between Catholics and Protestants.


Nevertheless, it's worth saying a few words about the status of Christians in Israel, Gaza and Judea and Samaria. It goes without saying, concern for Christian welfare in the region goes way back; I don't need to say too much on the origins and events of the Crusades. During the later centuries of Muslim rule, Christian communities enjoyed some good years and suffered some bad. Christians were subject to the same oppressive Dhimmi laws as Jews which required them to pay special taxes and obey rules meant to humiliate them into conversion. In many places Jews actually fared better; Christians were seen by many Muslims as idol-worshipers.

As the Zionist enterprise picked up steam during the mid-20th century, Arab Christians (most of whom are actually descendants of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians) were undoubtedly expected to take up the Palestinian cause. But, it's also likely many, especially those who had been living and working amongst Jews in Jerusalem and Haifa, were frightened of the prospect of an Islamic Palestinian state under the authority of Grand thug Al-Husseini. Most of the Christians appear to have sat out the war of independence; that's not to say they relished Jewish rule, but the alternative seemed so much worse. In Israel proper, Christians generally stayed put while their Muslim neighbours fled north and east. In the West bank, demographics changed overnight. Villages which had been predominantly Christian, such as Bethlehem (80% Christian before 1948) and Ramallah (90% Christian before 1948) became Muslim. Many Christians, who were generally well educated and enjoyed more economic prosperity during the British Mandate years, took any opportunity to leave.

As the 1948 war raged, Christian communities outside the region expressed concern for their brethren. British MP Thomas Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford riding, July 5, 1945 - February 23, 1950) made their case in the House of Commons:
The Christians of today in the older cities of the Middle East present a varied picture. They live dangerously. They live almost as the Christians of the pre-Christian Roman Empire lived. They follow cults and rituals of considerable perplexity. Some of them are Catholic, some Orthodox, and many of them most certainly heretical. Massacres live in their memory, and they are very much on the look-out at the present time for protectors. I think that it is quite natural that they should be critical of the Muslims among whom they live. There are the Syrian Jacobites, the Syrian Catholics, the Greek and Armenian Orthodox, the Latin and Armenian Catholics, the Maronites, whose figurehead is his Beatitude Arida, a man nearly 90 years of age, and many others.....

...The position of many Christian communities in the Middle East is especially precarious in these days. The traditional tolerance of the Arabs towards minorities in their midst has been very much strained, and has not lessened since the recent developments in Palestine, or since the announcement of the withdrawal of British troops from that country and Egypt and Iraq. Even though these people are perforce siding at the present time with the Arabs among whom they are living, this country, and I hope my right hon. Friend recognises it, should use its utmost influences to check all hostile tendencies towards them and remind the Arab States that we should view the actual persecution of all minorities in their midst with the gravest disfavour."
There's good evidence local Christians still suffer humiliation and harassment. A Feb. 2008 National Post Editorial described Palestinian Christians as living in "constant fear." ‘Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar, columnist for the Palestinian daily, Al-Ayyam reported last year that
"Christians are being persecuted...in most Arab countries, regardless of their numbers there. The problem is that it is not only Arab officials who are remaining silent [in the face of these crimes] - [they do so] because their primitive mentality is centered on the cult of the ruler - but, alarmingly, so are Arab intellectuals, the elites, non-government organizations, and leaders of the private sector. All these groups look on at these unprecedented [acts of] folly without apprehending the danger with which these crimes are fraught."

"Furthermore, there has been an attempt to marginalize Christian culture in Palestine, even though it is rich and deeply rooted [there]. This began with [accusations] of unbelief [against Christians] - a move that ultimately harmed Palestinian society as a whole...

"Despite all the injustices [against the Christians], no one has seen or heard of any constructive action to curb it and to [defend] the Christians' rights - whether by the elites, by any of the three branches (executive, legislative, and judiciary), by non-government organizations, or even by the political factions themselves. [Such action should have been forthcoming] not out of kindness and compassion, but [due to] regarding Palestinian Christians as indigenous to this land, and [therefore] no different from us, with the same rights and obligations [as Muslims]. "

Last December, the Jerusalem Post's Jonathan Spyer reported
"a systematic campaign of persecution...in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank. The general silence surrounding this campaign aids its perpetrators. The victims are Palestinian Christians, in particular the small Christian community of Gaza."

"The trend became noticeable with a series of attacks on the Palestinian Bible Society's 'Teacher's Bookshop' in Gaza City last year. The shop was the subject of a bomb attack in April 2007. Its owner, Rami Khader Ayyad, was abducted in broad daylight, and found dead on October 7, 2007.


Over the following year, a series of bomb attacks on Christian institutions in Gaza took place. Particular attention was paid to places of education. The Rahabat al-Wardia school run by nuns in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, and the American International School in Beit Lahiya were both bombed, most recently in May 2008. The Zahwa Rosary Sisters School and the El-Manara school, both in Gaza City, were also attacked this summer. The YMCA Library was bombed, as was the Commonwealth War Cemetery."

A few weeks ago, a delegation of activists led by Reverend Majed El Shafie, President of One Free World International (OFWI), visited Israel for a conference on human rights and persecuted minorities. According to El Shafie (who was born Muslim but converted), "every three minutes a Christian is being tortured in the Muslim world, and in 2009 more than 165,000 Christians will have been killed because of their faith, most of them in Muslim countries."

Sadly, there will be those who will choose to ignore centuries of Muslim harassment of Christians preferring instead to censure an Israeli wall or a few checkpoints. But, the history of the region speaks for itself; blaming these inconveniences for the eventual demise of this ancient community is like obsessing over a patient's hangnail while he slowly dies of cancer.

Related Stories:

Not all tidings are of great joy
by Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe, December 23, 2009

Beaten, but unbowed By Lela Gilbert, Jerusalem Post

Egypt's Coptic Christians battle for ID cards,
by Christian Fraser, BBC News Cairo

Attack on Egyptian Coptics kills six, CNN
January 6, 2010

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

It's been a few years since the international community has attempted to unilaterally impose its will on Judaism's holiest place, the city of Jerusalem. I'm not speaking of the Crusades, although I will. The last time was 62 years ago when the United Nations presented a plan to internationalize the city and the surrounding area. The Partition Plan - which included an internationalization scheme for Jerusalem (Corpus Separatum) and its environs - was criticized by all sides, and summarily rendered null and void by the ensuing attack against the nascent state of Israel by surrounding Arab states that had rejected the plan wholesale.

It is important to remember that the Partition Plan, a product of an appointed 11-member committee (UNSCOP) and the UN General Assembly, was a compilation of recommendations only, and did not represent binding international law. In the words of the UN’s first UNEF Commander, Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns, the United Nations has "almost no powers to oblige any nation to make peace. More explicitly, it lacks the power to impose terms of peace or a general settlement. The Security Council can recommend only; the limitations are set out in Chapter VI of the Charter." Unable to defend its plan, it was doomed to fail. In a secret report, American Consul General in Jerusalem, Robert Macatee, warned US President Truman that, "if the UN expects to be able to partition Palestine without forces to help maintain order and to enforce partition, its thinking is most unrealistic and its efforts will be in vain."

Nevertheless, the Zionists welcomed the endorsement of establishing separate states for Palestine's Jews and Arabs. To that end, Palestine’s Jews did just that, proclaiming statehood upon Britain’s departure from Palestine and enforcing, to the best of their ability, the borders recommended by the plan. They did so, despite the problematic nature of the borders; they were, after all, meant to be borders between Jewish Palestine and Arab Palestine, a state rendered stillborn by Jordan`s occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a report to the UN Security Council, the Palestine Commission aptly described the problem: "Powerful Arab interests, both inside and outside Palestine, are defying the resolution of the General Assembly and are engaged in a deliberate effort to alter by force the settlement envisaged therein." (Report to UN, Feb 16, 1948)

By the end of the war, there was no Palestinian state, and Jordan held territories designated to the district of Jerusalem. The UN's brilliant rapporteur, Dr. Ralphe Bunche, was able to negotiate an Armistice, approved by the UN Security Council, between Israel and Jordan which ended the fighting. As such, it could be argued that the Armistice Lines between Israel and Jordan carry more weight than the internationalization plan. More importantly, the Armistice was never meant to be permanent – just the opposite – and it demanded final status be determined through negotiations of the warring parties; in fact, just such negotiations resulted in the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty, signed on October 26, 1994. The treaty "guaranteed Jordan the restoration of its occupied land (approximately 380 square kilometers) and ...defined Jordan’s western borders clearly."

The EU has now declared its desire to see Jerusalem divided, ignoring historical realities and international law. In a statement on the Middle East (2985th FOREIGN AFFAIRS Council meeting, Brussels, 8 December 2009), the EU has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of two states based on "pre-1967 borders."

Of course, Jerusalem has been divided before; but the years between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan occupied east Jerusalem and the Old City, were disastrous. Sniper attacks were common, Jewish Holy sites and synagogues were destroyed and Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, all violations of the Armistice Agreement and international law. No sensible person would voluntarily agree to repeat the debacle.


There are a number of salient factors which demand the EU's consideration:

1. There has never been a time in history when the Jewish people's unassailable link to Jerusalem has been questioned. Until the appearance of the Palestinians, that is. Critics of Israel, for myriad partisan reasons, now brush off Israel's claim to Jerusalem as nothing but a religious connection (which is also challenged or dismissed as anachronistic), no stronger or weaker than that of the Christians and Muslims who also maintain Holy places in the city. These critics wilfully ignore a 2,500 year historical attachment to Jerusalem, documented by both Jewish and non-Jewish residents, as well as countless visitors to the region. The Arabs, for example, who invaded Jerusalem in the 7th century, adopted the name Beit al-Maqdes [or, al-Quds ("the sanctuary")] for the city, from the Hebrew term for the Temple Mount, בֵּית הַמִקְדָּש Beit HaMikdash, ("House of the Sanctuary").

Centuries before the Arab conquest of the city, Christian documents attest to the mistreatment of the Jews, their desire to return, and Roman attempts to re-colonize the city with outsiders. Jerome, a Church father most famous for translating the Jewish Bible into Latin, wrote that, "It is forbidden for the treacherous citizens [Jews] to enter Jerusalem...they may enter only to lament there and they have to pay for the right to weep over the ruins of their state." (Jerome, 392 CE)

In a letter written nearly 1,000 years after the Roman expulsion, Rabbi Chisdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915 - c. 990 CE) of Andalusia described himself as, "Chisdai, the son of Yitzchak, the son of Ezra, from the descendants of the exiled of Jerusalem who now live in Spain...we have been waiting many years, while we have been transferred from one captivity to another, and from exile to another...we live in the Diaspora and there is no power in our hands."

Things got much worse before they got better. Christian Crusaders massacred thousands of Jewish and Muslim Jerusalemites during the 12th century, but the community rebounded in the next two centuries as large numbers of rabbis and Jewish pilgrims immigrated to the region. Beginning in the late 1300's, Jews from Spain and other Mediterranean lands settled in Jerusalem and other parts of the land.

In 1517, The Ottoman's defeated the ruling Mamelukes and Palestine became part of the Turkish Empire. The Sultan invited Jews fleeing the Spanish Catholic Inquisition to settle in the Turkish Empire, including several cities in Palestine. Although the Ottoman Turks were generally fair-minded toward Palestine's Jews, by the 17th century, as the Turks' dominance was in decline, local bands of Bedouin, Druze and Maronite Christians rebelled against their authority and fought amongst themselves. To assuage local tyrants, the Turks granted them some autonomy in exchange for their services as tax collectors. These local authorities cared little for the rights or wellbeing of the Jews. At the same time, Latin and Orthodox Christians were competing between themselves - and vying for Turkish recognition - for control of Christian Holy sites. The Jews, as in other places, were often caught in the middle of these feuds, and suffered as a result.

In 1658, English Christian minister Henry Jessie described the dire situation of Jerusalem's Jewish inhabitants:
"The state of the Jews at Jerusalem of late was such that they could not live and subsist there, without some yearly supply and contribution from their Brethren abroad, because the place doth yield them little or no trading, whereby to maintain themselves; but their love for the place prompts them to remain there, albeit in great poverty and want. And their brethren abroad among the nations have been willing to uphold them there at Jerusalem, that the place should not be left destitute of some considerable number of their Nation, to keep as it were possession or at least some footing in it, and to show their hopes, till a full restitution come."
[Quoted in "The Jews in Palestine in the eighteenth century: under the patronage of the Istanbul Committee of Officials for Palestine," Jacob Barnai, 1992, pg. 14]

Documents such as these testify to the enduring desire, but inability of returning in large numbers to the Holy Land. But, despite desperate living conditions, Jews did return to Jerusalem, in increasing numbers proportional to improved freedom of movement and prosperity after European emancipation, and advances in rail and sea transportation from Europe to the Near East. By the mid-1800's Jews again represented the majority of the population of the city despite all of the hardships they had to endure, a fact repeatedly confirmed in documents of the era.

2. Jerusalem has always been revered as a unique entity, distinct from the surrounding region, its special place in history always acknowledged. Even the Ottoman Turks, who otherwise deforested and despoiled Palestine, invested in improving Jerusalem. It's worth noting that the Turks also altered the size and shape of Jerusalem. In the year 1548, [the Turks] "caused the city to be enclosed within a new wall, changing the line of the old one. Thus the city has been contracted on the south, where is Mount Zion, and enlarged towards the north."

After taking the city from the Ottoman Turks in 1918, the British began almost immediate work on restoring Jerusalem to her former glory. Technically, British military occupation last only two years, from 1918 to 1920 after which time responsibility for the city reverted to Civil Administration, beginning on July 1, 1920.

Although Israel is often accused of altering Jerusalem's character, it was actually the British who saw to it that strict measures were "enforced for the preservation of the traditional building style of Jerusalem, offensive and unsuitable materials [were] prohibited or removed, and an effective control of new buildings and town planning sections [was] instituted." The British, through the Pro-Jerusalem Society, recommended a modernization plan and expanding the borders of the city, permitting new Jewish neighborhoods to be built. In recognition of the growing population of the city they examined proposals for what was termed, "the Jewish Garden Cities", plus "English, Greek, and Muslim building projects in...the south-western area of the city." While there's no argument that a number of Arab villages surrounded the city, most new Arab neighbourhoods were a direct result of Arab population growth due to Jewish and British investment in the city.

The British also proposed a massive program of conservation and restoration in the Old City, which was literally crumbling away due to negligence. In the end, the British, from both lack of will and insufficient funding, were prevented from fully implementing their plans for the city, but they successfully augured in a new era for Jerusalem and began a process of expansion and growth which continues today. More importantly, they recognized and promoted Jerusalem’s unique status designating, for the first time in over 700 years, Jerusalem the capital of the country.

The UN acknowledged this special status by recommending internationalization for the Jerusalem district. Although rejected, it’s clear from the plan that no part of the city was intended to be allocated to an Arab state, let alone be its capitol. And although the plan was never realized, it’s significant that the internationalization scheme was also never meant to be a permanent solution; the plan calls for a referendum after 10 years in which the citizens of the city - which has had a Jewish majority for at least 150 years - should decide their own fate. (Note: The UN’s plan to extend Jerusalem’s borders around Bethlehem was an obvious contrivance to give the district a Muslim majority, which it did by just 5,000 people).



In 1967, the city was reunited by Israeli forces forced to respond to Jordanian shelling of Jewish neighbourhoods in West Jerusalem. When the fighting stopped, Israel was in possession of the Old City, east Jerusalem and the West Bank. But again the UN confirmed that Jerusalem's status was unique. In the two significant resolutions approved after the war, UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, neither mentions Jerusalem. Arthur Goldberg, the US Ambassador who helped draft 242, made it clear at the time that the resolution "in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was deliberate....Jerusalem was a discrete matter, not linked to the West Bank." Nevertheless, the UN amended this position with UN Security Council Resolution 252 (adopted on May 21, 1968) which called on Israel to desist from all legislative and administrative measures, including land and property expropriation, which might change the legal status of Jerusalem. It's a tendentious, politically motivated resolution at best, which actually condones the 1948 division of Jerusalem by war - a contravention of the partition plan - and implies that Israel was the aggressor in 1967, even though it was Jordan which had attacked Jerusalem, despite pleas from Israel - transmitted through the UN - to stay out of the war.

3. The only time Jerusalem was ever divided was during the illegal Jordanian occupation (1948-1967) during which time Jews were forcibly expelled from the eastern and southern neighbourhoods, synagogues destroyed and Jewish cemeteries desecrated. The ancient Mount of Olives cemetery was particularly hard hit. "Workmen came during the day and pulled apart the stones and the tombstones and at night the army lorries came, loaded up the tombstones and drove off. The rest of the stones were taken by the merchants," recalled Khalil Ibn Sadar Khalil, son of Sadar Khalil, who had served on behalf of the Jordanian Government as caretaker of the cemetery.

When the Mount of Olives cemetery was recaptured by Israel in 1967, inspectors discovered open graves, human bones scattered around the area. Parts of the cemetery had been converted into parking lots, a filling station, a road, and even a latrine. In 1964, the Jordanians had even built a hotel, the Seven Arches Hotel (formerly the Intercontinental Hotel) on top of the cemetery, a blatant violation of Article VII of the 1949 Israel-Jordan General Armistice Agreement (GAA).



Newsreel footage from 1967 covers the cease fire, UN debates, and the reunification of Jerusalem.

4. Arab neighbourhoods incorporated into Jerusalem after 1967 included areas which had been Jewish or mixed neighbourhoods before the Jordanian annexation on April 4, 1950. In 1948, the Arab Legion captured approximately 2,000 sq. miles of Judea and Samaria west of the Jordan River, and the Old City of Jerusalem, whose 1,300 Jewish residents were expelled or taken to Jordan as prisoners. Jews living in east Jerusalem were forced to flee after sustained attacks by Arab gangs and troops from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

[Ben Atlas, on his blog, has curated a terrific collection
of Life Magazine photos of Palestine 1948.]


Sheik Jarrah is a case in point. Historically, this area included two Jewish sections known as Nahalat Shimon (founded in 1891) and Shimon HaTzadiq. The area is also home to the American Colony compound, St. George's Anglican Cathedral, and an ancient mosque named for one of Saladin’s troops. Significant to Jews is the 'Tomb of the Kings', which contains sarcophagi of various Jewish figures; in 1874 the site was purchased by a Jewish banking family, the Péreires, from an Arab real estate owner and given to the government of France on the condition that it maintain the site in respect of "the faithful of Israel.” [From ראובן קשאני (Reuben Kashani) ירושלים: אתרים היסטוריים במקורות ובמסורת הדורות pp 74-75 (1968)]

In 1948, Jewish residents of the neighbourhood endured repeated attacks by a Syrian-trained Arab Gang, known as Shabbab. Dozens of Jewish residents were killed or injured by snipers. Then, on April 13, 1948, 78 doctors and medical staff were killed and 20 wounded when a convoy of ambulances on route to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus was ambushed (within 200 yards of a British army post which observed the attack but did not interfere) while passing through Sheik Jarrah. The onslaught, ostensibly in retaliation for Irgun's attack on Deir Yassein, was likely carried out by Shabbab and Arab Irregulars who contemptuously ignored a request (in a January 1948 Memorandum) by the Palestine Arab Medical Association to refrain from attacking hospitals, ambulances, and medical personnel. A small British unit, under the command of Major Jack Churchill, did offer to try to ferry out the beleaguered medical staff, but would not engage the Arabs. Nevertheless, one of his men was killed while trying to render assistance. The Jews refused the offer, believing the Haganah - which was being prevented from entering the area - would come to their rescue.

In response, on April 25, 1948, the Haganah’s Harel Brigade attacked Sheik Jarrah. They had succeeded in securing the neighbourhood until they came under heavy fire from British forces using tanks and artillery. The Haganah men were battered until they agreed to withdraw, although only on the condition that the neighbourhood remained neutral territory. The British agreed, but subsequently turned Sheik Jarrah over to Iraqi troops who had entered Palestine illegally (between November 1947 and May 1948 the British permitted 10,000 foreign invaders to enter Palestine). [Ben Dunkelman, amongst others, describes the attack in detail in his autobiography, "Duel Allegiance"]

Jordan’s well-trained army successfully conquered the Old City and a number of neighbourhoods in the eastern and southern parts of the city including Sheik Jarrah. During the unrecognized occupation, former Jewish homes were seized (under Jordan’s Enemy Property law) and in 1958 turned over to Arab families as part of an UNWRA relief project. According to the UNWRA agreement, new homes would be built on "formerly Jewish property leased by the Custodian of Enemy Property to the Ministry of Development, for the purpose of this project" [Agreement Between The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East for An Urban Housing Project at Sheikh Jarrah.]

In recent court battles over these properties, original Ottoman ownership papers have been dismissed by lawyers for Arab tenants as "forgeries." The dispute rages on. Unsurprisingly, as politicians debate, Um Kamel al-Kurd, an amiable Palestinian woman removed from her home of many years, recognizes Jerusalem's challenge: "We don't need donations of tents or clothing from the international community...all we need is our rights. No one can simply overthrow the rights of others.... We need all the three groups here - Jews, Christians and Muslims - to live in peace and equality together."

Whether it's the result of decades of paternalistic conservation of the Palestinians (i.e. racism) or an inability to accept Jewish nationalism (i.e. also racism), which, ironically, was heavily promoted by Christian Zionists in the 19th century, the European Union seems determined to deny Jerusalem’s citizens the inherent right to settle their own differences and decide their own futures.

And while a European aversion to further conflict is admirable, they would do well to remember that their sense of compromise and esprit de corps was not so easily achieved, manifesting only after centuries of relentless, bloody conflicts, most especially the horrors of the Second World War. But, Europe’s traumatization is not Jerusalem's; it cannot be imposed or transferred.

It is also ironic that the EU, which itself represents a union of European economics and politics, is pursuing the opposite strategy for the Middle East. The last thing Jerusalem needs is further division; social and cultural differences are challenge enough. The EU would be better advised to promote détente and cohesion in the fractured city, with Europe as a model. There are many options for Jerusalem, from declaring itself an autonomous district to multiple citizenships. Division is not a solution; it is a cop-out, and an arrogant one at that.

UPDATE: I've changed a photo which I had thought was of divided Jerusalem (Thanks Yaacov Lozowick for the eagle-eyes.) A groovy colour photo of Dr. Ralph Bunche has been inserted in its place. Also, added an important quote about Resolution 242 and info on Resolution 252.

Related Stories and links:

Mideast Press see EU statement as Palestinian gain Dec. 9, 2009

Europe Seeks to Divide Jerusalem by Dore Gold Dec. 10, 2009

New EU foreign policy chief plans ME visit, backs J'lem as shared capital Dec. 15, 2009

New EU foreign policy chief lambastes 'Israeli occupation' Dec. 17, 2009

Critical Currents: The European Connection By Naomi Chazan, December 27, 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Nuclear: Conclusion

Despite all that we know, what is surprising is the Washington Times sudden revelation of facts which were publicized years ago. The Nixon document was declassified in 1997. And ten years ago, Avner Cohen, in his book Israel and the Bomb wrote:
"A new set of American-Israeli understandings on the nuclear issue came into being in 1970 through meetings between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir. The United States no longer pressed Israel to sign the NPT; it also ended the visits at Dimona. In return, Israel is committed to maintaining a low profile nuclear posture: no testing, no declaration, no acknowledgment. With these "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" understandings nuclear opacity was born. Those understandings persist today."
But Cohen was incorrect. Recently unclassified documents confirm an agreement regarding Dimona visits (but not other sites) but within months of Nixon's downfall, American inquiries resumed.

In January 1975,  US senator Charles Mathias raised the issue with foreign minister Yigal Allon:
“Allon replied that Israel had the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. However, he said that [the government of Israel] did not currently possess nuclear weapons, nor did it intend to manufacture them.”
In May 1975, Senator Howard Baker asked Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister (now President) Shimon Peres about nuclear weapons. Israel again denied having nuclear weapons.
“Rabin told Senator Baker that GOI [the government of Israel] had made a commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. Israel had kept its word [not wanting] the Soviet Union to give similar devices to the Arab nations in the region.” 
Dimona inspections were also back on the table. In November 1976 a group of visiting American Senators requested a visit to the Dimona reactor. The request was turned down, and the US chose not to press the issue. It would be reasonable to assume, then, that this was the real understanding: the US would continue to ask, Israel would continue to deny; and nuclear ambiguity would be maintained.

If the US is now willing to force Israel's hand, one must wonder why. Assuming Israel does possess assembled nuclear devices, there's really next to no possibility that she would voluntarily destroy her best deterrent against Arab weapons of mass destruction. Only a complete US arms embargo might compel a policy change, but this is unlikely. Denied American weapons, Israel would quickly turn to others for military hardware. Germany is already selling Israel Dolphin class submarines and would be eager to add fighter jets to the account. In fact, Israel had been developing a new model of the Swedish-made Gripen fighter jet, in conjunction with Saab, for India until forced out of the competition by the US. In 2008, Israel was compelled not to submit a bid in a 500 million dollar deal to develop a new tank for Turkey, ostensibly by the Americans. An end to decades of cooperation between the US and Israel would open the door to direct competition, a scenario the US defense industry would surely not welcome in the middle of an economic downturn.

Perhaps this US administration simply believes the relationship has outlived its usefulness, Israel no longer providing a front-line defense against Soviet expansionism. Or more likely, we can add this story to a long list of would-be scandals involving Israel, precipitated by the State Department, in defiance of the White House and the American people who have been resolute in their support of the Jewish state. The State Department - and its friends in the CIA and Justice Department - has always argued against overt support for Israel, which it has felt threatens America's relationship with Arab oil providers. Some of the battles between various State Department heads and Presidents are legendary. President Truman, for example, once complained that, "those State Department fellows were always trying to put it over on me about Palestine, telling me that I really didn't understand what was going on there, that I ought to leave it to experts."

For years, various State Department officials and sympathizers have maintained a war of words against the Jewish State. ‘Realists’ Mersheimer and Walt’s Lobby screed was just one round in this old conflict. In 2005, the Justice Department indicted two staff members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on trumped up allegations (based on a rarely used 1917 Espionage law) that they had passed along a confidential memo to an Israeli Embassy official. This year it was announced that the charges against the two AIPAC members would be dropped. Last year, the best the State Department could come up with was a 23-year old allegation against an 84 year-old veteran who, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to Israel, passed on useless information (apparently details about F-15's, which Israel was already flying) to some low-level consulate staff member.

Cue Rose Gottemoeller, the latest conveyer of news meant to discomfit friends of Israel and malign the Jewish state.

So, is any of this really evidence of a secret accord, and more importantly, a change in the US-Israel relationship? As for the accord, the evidence suggests no official policy as such, but rather an understanding not to press the issue. There's a difference. And State Department threats may yet turn out to be paper tigers. Earlier this month, The Washington Times reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been assured by the US President that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding will be maintained.

And that understanding, which says so much about this unique bilateral relationship, reveals important distinctions between the functions and behaviour of the State Department and Congress. Un-elected officials of the State Department serve the nation; elected members of Congress and the President serve the nation’s constituents. Both roles are crucial. But, it’s a dangerous thing when anyone believes the state must prevail at all costs; there are times when the nation’s citizens may choose a course of action that is not prudent, but is in keeping with the values of the state. American support for Israel is a case-in-point, as was made abundantly clear when it was revealed that the President was sent a letter signed by 76 (of 100) Senators reminding Obama to "take into account the risks [Israel] will face in any peace agreement," and “to insist on the absolute Palestinian commitment to ending terrorist violence and to building the institutions necessary for a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side, in peace with the Jewish state of Israel."

After his first year in office, many are asking if Barak Obama truly understands the complex nature of Middle East politics. Early statements and demands of Israel have suggested naivety more than belligerency. And, despite some setbacks, last week’s appointment of Tamara Cofman Wittes as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs is a definite step in the right direction. Dr. Wittes is Director of the Middle East Democracy and Development (MEDD) Project at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a regional policy center at The Brookings Institution. She has also taught at Georgetown University and is a recipient of the Rabin-Peres Peace Award, established by President Bill Clinton.

There’s no question that public support for Israel is solid. A recent poll conducted by Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR) suggests that, despite the Gaza war, support for Israel is actually rising, with 63 percent of respondents, up from 49 percent just a few months ago, declaring themselves Israel supporters. With that in mind, the President now has the awesome responsibility to balance that support with the nation’s other needs. This has always been the challenge. But, the great Presidents have been the ones who could meet the practical needs while preserving America’s ethical core.

In all honesty, we can ask, has this enviable support for Israel always been pragmatic? Probably not. Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin put the question to Lyndon Johnson when he met the President in 1967. "I don't understand you Americans backing Israel," said Kosygin. "There are 80 million Arabs and only 3 million Israelis. It does not make sense. Why do it?"

Replied Johnson: "Because it is right."

            _________________________________________________________________

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Report's Leslie Susser has a terrific piece in the May 26, 2010 issue, called Israel's policy of nuclear 'ambiguity' comes under fire. Read it here.

REVISED: Several previously unclassified documents were made public by Anonymous in April 2013. Appropriate quotes from several cables were added to this post on April 11, 2013.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Going Nuclear: Part II

The next day, Secretary of State Rusk tabled a meeting specifically to discuss America’s nuclear concerns. Representing Israel were Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Ambassador Avraham Harma and Ephraim Evron. Rusk insisted that Israel’s continued obstinacy could have a, “disastrous effect on U.S.-Israeli relations” Abba Eban understood the US position but maintained that political issues at home made public declarations and visits to Dimona difficult. It was, of course, public declarations that the US was seeking. “Private assurances were of limited value,” averred Rusk.

Private assurances would have to do. Despite an agreement to sell Israel Skyhawk bombers, Prime Minister Eshkol refused any formal written agreement which, in his words, “might indicate to future historians that he had bargained away Israel's future nuclear policy and opened the Dimona facility to US inspection for the sake of ‘a mere 48 airplanes.’"

Even so, an understanding was arrived at that worked for both sides. The Americans would maintain Israel’s military advantage believing that “if Israel [was] unable to obtain its valid conventional arms requirements, those in Israel who advocate acquisition of nuclear weapons [would] find a much more fertile environment for their views.”

As part of the understanding, a team of U.S. nuclear experts visited Israeli atomic energy sites between March 31 and April 4, 1966; a few months later a memorandum from the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency to Secretary of Defense McNamara reported “the unanimous conclusion of the three-man team that there is no evidence that Israel is producing or intends to produce nuclear weapons material.”

Over the next year, the Soviets publicly pushed for a nuclear free Middle East and the Americans, at least in principle, agreed to the proposal. But, each time the issue was raised with Israel, the answer was always the same: Israel wasn’t pursuing nuclear weapons. And each time, the Americans seemed to accept the rejoinder. Until February 1967, that is, when American Embassy in Tel Aviv reported to the Secretary of State that “two Israeli contacts [had suggested] Israel could be much closer to nuclear weapons capability than...supposed. The State Department requested an urgent assessment. Israel agreed to another Dimona inspection and once again the “AEC team found no evidence that Israel [was] using Dimona to produce material for use in nuclear weapons.” Of course, they couldn’t rule out the existence of another nuclear facility, or Israel’s potential for building a weapon on short-notice.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to speak with a retired Dimona engineer in June of this year. I was intrigued when he said he was at Dimona during these inspections. "Was anything deliberately hidden from the inspectors?" I asked. "No," he responded. "Was there perhaps another nuclear facility whose existence was kept from the Americans?" I suggested. "Not that I knew of," he replied.

In May 1967, the State Department reported once more to President Johnson that there was, “no evidence that Israel [was] actually making a bomb,” but they remained convinced that..."Israel intends to keep itself in a position to do so at reasonably short notice should the need arise."

As the Six-Day War  (June 5 - 10, 1967) began, France reneged on arms deals with Israel and declared a weapons boycott, refusing to supply parts for Israel's French-made Mirage jets. Following the war, Israel was anxious to replace the Mirage, especially in light of the USSR's rapid re-arming of Egypt and Syria. Israel was pushed by need directly into the US sphere of influence.

In January 1968, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with President Johnson to urgently request military aid, especially the Phantoms. Johnson, who was a longstanding supporter of Zionism, assured Eshkol that the US would stand by Israel. But, as the negotiations for the jets proceeded over the next few months, opposition – namely linkage between the aircraft sale and the nuclear issue – emerged.

But, it was likely the State Department that was doing the pushing and Israel pushed back. Attempts by Paul Warnke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, to verify Israel's Dimona promises obligated Israel to request that the White House intervene. Secretary of Defense Clarke Clifford told Warnke to end the talks and not press the matter of verification.

In lieu of a formal agreement, Israel provided the US with a promissory letter, signed by Israel's Ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin, that Israel would not introduce nuclear weapons into the conflict. Israel reaffirmed "its long-standing policy as laid down in...1965 that it will not be the first power in the Middle East to introduce nuclear weapons and [agreed] not to use any aircraft supplied by the US and a nuclear weapons carrier. Israel and the US, however, continued to have a very different understanding as to the meaning of the concept of "introduction" of weapons. Israel's position was that as long as no weapons had been tested and publicly announced no "introduction" had been made. The issue was still outstanding as Johnson’s term ended in 1969.

At the start of his administration, Nixon assembled a 'special group' - Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, Under Secretary of State Elliott Richardson, CIA Director Richard Helms, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler, and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger - to “consider the status of the Israeli nuclear program and [US] responses to it."

"Public knowledge is almost as dangerous as possession itself," wrote Kissinger in the memorandum dated July 9, 1969 from the 'special group' to Nixon. "This is what might spark a Soviet nuclear guarantee for the Arabs, tighten the Soviet hold on the Arabs and increase the danger of our involvement"

Nevertheless, the document confirms that the US still wanted Israel to sign onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel was also expected to publicly commit not to acquire nuclear weapons, according to Kissinger. It's clear from this document - despite what the Washington Time's Eli Lake asserted - that the US did not yet believe that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. “We should try to keep Israel from going any further with its nuclear weapons program --it may be so close to completion that Israel would be willing." The State Department and Defense agree, however, that for their "own internal purposes [they] could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device." Disturbingly, Lake, in his article, actually falsified the text to suggest that Israel already possessed nukes at this point. 'Israel would likely have 24 to 30 French surface-to-surfaces missiles, 10 of which would have nuclear warheads,' he wrote, but the actual document read: "ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads." A big difference.

Still, the Americans had a problem. If they withheld the Phantoms, they would have to publicly disclose - or allow Israel to disclose - why and reveal Israel's nuclear program, which they were very reluctant to do. Nixon was presented with several alternatives including to "not raise the issue." Did Nixon choose this option? A follow-up Memo, dated October 7, 1969, suggests the answer. Nixon had met with Golda Meir and in "private discussions...emphasized that [the] primary concern was the Israelis make no visible (my emphasis) introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program."

Kissinger asked Ambassador Rabin for a formal response and received assurances that Israel would not become a nuclear power, and would consider the NPT. A few months later, Israel informed the US that they would not sign onto the NPT. But, these assurances seemed to be enough to provide the Americans with a "rationale for standing down," as Kissinger put it. In any event, from this point on, the pressure was off, as least as can be ascertained from declassified documents. The two sides seemed to have agreed on a policy of 'Nuclear ambiguity.'

Yet, the State Department continued to investigate Israel's nuclear ambitions even though some officials had "reservations about whether or not Israel [had] produced and assembled a complete nuclear weapon." Joseph J. Sisko, an assistant secretary of state and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler continued to fight to prevent Israel from going nuclear. The US “ought to push the NPT urgently" they demanded. And Robert Munn, well into 1970, pressed for another visit to Dimona.

At the same time, the Soviets were shipping tons of weapons, MIG-21 jets and thousands of military advisors into Egypt. Unwilling to allow the USSR to tip the balance of power away from Israel, the US finally agreed on September 1, 1970 to sell Israel the Phantoms.

Within weeks, the favour would be repaid. On September 21, Nixon received an urgent plea from Jordan's King Hussein: Jordan had been invaded by Syria and required "immediate physical intervention, both air and land...to safeguard [the] sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Jordan."

Nixon instructed Kissinger to contact Yitzhak Rabin. "Don't ask anybody else. Tell him 'Go.' Israel prepared aircraft and moved troops toward the border with Jordan. The next day, the Syrians backed down and called their tanks and troops home.

Henry Kissinger relayed Nixon's appreciation to the Israelis. "The President will never forget Israel's role in preventing the deterioration in Jordan," wrote Rabin in his memoirs. The leverage had now permanently shifted in Israel's favour; Israel had proven itself willing and capable of defending American interests in the region. Throughout his term, Nixon would remain a steadfast friend, providing emergency airlifts of weapons and supplies during the October War in 1973 (informing staff on October 9 that "the Israelis must not be allowed to lose!") and consistently stonewalling further attempts by the State Department to investigate Israel's nuclear program. On June 16, 1974, Nixon publicly asserted his loyalty to Israel by becoming the first US President to visit the Jewish state.

How subsequent administrations dealt with the nuclear issue will become clear as more documents become declassified in the future.

To be continued...Going Nuclear: Conclusion.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Going Nuclear: Part I

Well, I finished a piece on Israel's nuclear program and, having not sold it and wanting to move on, I'm posting it instead. It's long so I'm breaking it down into 3 parts.

Is the United States changing its policy toward a nuclear Israel?

Hot on the heels of a statement by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller urging Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Obama announced plans for an international nuclear summit to be held March 2010. Although the summit is expected to focus on nuclear terrorism, Arab states have been demanding that Israel’s alleged nuclear program be put on the agenda.

Last May, The Washington Times asserted that the US and Israel have maintained a secret accord for 40 years to keep from the public Israel's nuclear weapons capabilities. The Times' Eli Lake presents a declassified memo between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon as evidence and writes that 'by the end of 1970, Israel would likely have 24 to 30 French surface-to-surfaces missiles, 10 of which would have nuclear warheads.'

Is the United States now changing its policy toward a nuclear Israel? Has America protected Israel’s nuclear ambitions for 40 years? An historical perspective is in order.

It was clearly in America's interests to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which would diminish stability in an already volatile neighbourhood and surely engage the USSR in some way. President Kennedy had expressed concerns on several occasions before his death in 1963. Since the Johnson Administration (1963 to 1969), the US kept a close watch on Israel's nuclear aspirations and repeatedly asserted the importance of keeping nukes out of the region. Throughout March 1965, State Department and Israel officials were engaged in heavy negotiations over President Johnson’s regional water plans. Johnson hoped to settle water disputes between Israel and her neighbours and proposed "an aggressive and imaginative program to advance progress in large-scale desalting of sea water." The plan involved "a combination of large-scale nuclear power plants and large-scale desalting plants could produce power and water."

The nuclear weapons issue came up on many occasions, each time Israel insisting it was not pursuing nuclear weaponry. The State Department, a recurrent thorn in Israel’s side, stressed the US position to Israeli authorities. "We've already made and remade every point...in far stronger terms, especially on nuclear weapons. I'm surprised Israelis still speak to me," wrote Robert W. Komer, the President's Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs. In fact, Israel never denied the possibility of such a pursuit, reserving the right to do so depending on Egypt’s actions; Israel was convinced at the time that Egypt also had a nuclear agenda.

Nevertheless, the Americans remained certain that Israel was already pursuing nuclear weapons technology. "All indications are toward Israeli acquisition of a nuclear capability," wrote Rodger Davies, Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, "There is little realization in Israel of the intensity of U.S. opposition to nuclear proliferation. U.S. hesitation and delays in pressing for the recent inspection of the Dimona reactor plus the failure to insist upon a two-day visit have led the Israelis to believe we are not serious."

The Americans at this point stepped up the pressure. The State Department informed the Embassy in Israel to let it be known that an "offer to supply arms in the future [would be] carefully hedged and made contingent upon Israeli acceptance of undertakings on Jordan waters and on nuclear development..."

Two American scientists had made an unpublished visit to Dimona in 1961, the site of a French-designed nuclear power station, and were satisfied at the time that Israel wasn't developing weapons. However, within a few years, things weren't so clear. In March 1964 Canadian intelligence alleged that Argentina had agreed to supply Israel with 80-100 tons of uranium oxide, or "yellowcake." Once converted  and enriched, "yellowcake" is an essential ingredient in reactor fuel. In September, the US embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed through its sources that the "yellowcake" agreement had been made the previous year.



By the mid-60s, the Americans assumed that Israel now possessed the scientific talent and a sufficient quantity of nuclear fuel to build a nuclear bomb but had yet to do so. A CIA assessment from 1965 alleged that "the Israelis could probably develop nuclear weapons by 1968-1969 and/or nuclear warheads by about 1971 [but did] not believe, however, that the Israelis have taken such a decision."

Officially, the State Department spoke of Israel’s "peaceful nuclear program," but they continued to harp on the weapons issue. Secretary of State Dean Rusk began to press President Johnson to pressure Israel "to accept IAEA safeguards on all of its nuclear facilities." Israel had signed the partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and was a member of IAEA, but had not accepted IAEA safeguards on the Dimona facility. On May 21, 1965 Johnson asked Eshkol "to place the Dimona reactor and all other nuclear facilities under IAEA controls...and for any U.S. materials or equipment transferred to Israel in connection with the U.S.-Israel desalting program." Eshkol, much to Johnson’s displeasure, asked that the issue be deferred until after the next Israeli election. As the year came to a close, the State Department still had to concede that there was "no evidence that Israel or any other Near Eastern state [was] in position to develop nuclear weapons in near future or that they have decided [to] develop or otherwise acquire them." (Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Jordan/1/ Washington, November 4, 1965, 10:35 a.m.)

Through the 1950's and early 60's, Israel had maintained close ties to Britain and France, both of whom were eager to preserve some influence in Middle East affairs. This trilateral relationship reached its apex with the attack against Egypt in 1956. But, by the mid-60s these relationships had cooled, especially with France which was dealing with Algeria. Nevertheless, the French government, which had supplied Israel with nuclear technology (as had the British, who, in 1958, supplied heavy water for plutonium production without informing the Americans), and was negotiating to sell Israel surface-to-surface missiles, remained convinced that "there was no evidence of any attempt by Israel to produce materials for nuclear weapons."

With the war of words between Israel and the Arabs heating up in 1966, Israel approached the US for more advanced weaponry. Israel had previously signed a deal with West Germany for 150 M48A2 tanks to replace aging French AMX-13 and British Centurions (upgraded and renamed the Sho’t) but due to opposition from Arab states, the Germans reneged on the deal after only 40 tanks had been delivered. Johnson approved an agreement to supply Israel with the remaining tanks, and an additional 100 M48s.

What Israel really wanted, however, was fighter jets. The US now had the upper hand. It was Robert Komer who made the obvious suggestion: "Can we use planes as a lever to keep Israel from going nuclear?"
(Memorandum From the President's Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to President Johnson, February 8, 1966)


to be continued: Going Nuclear Pt. II

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Historia Shel Hakolnoah Israeli


When I began this blog in 2005, my intent was to write much more on Israeli films. I ran a Jewish film festival for eight years, and have worked in the film industry for *cough* 20 years so it seemed like a good idea. But, for some reason, I've spent more time writing on political and historical subjects and have only touched on the entertainment industry.

Fortunately, someone has started the blog I meant to write. Amy Kronish, who was a guest of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival some years ago, has written and lectured on Israeli film for years. The blog features film reviews and links to film resources.

Check it out here.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Massacre Mania 2

Perusing Palestinian websites for information on the 'Naqba' (1947-48), one finds anecdotal claims of so many massacres, it's astonishing that 6,000, let alone 600,000, refugees survived to flee the country.

I was recently asked to look into one such massacre claim, on behalf of someone whose family came from Palestine. He was told that his Uncle survived a massacre of Saliha which killed almost everyone else.

Saliha was a small Arab Muslim village in the Upper Galilee Mountains next to the Lebanese border, near present-day Moshav Avivim. The village was known for its Taggart fort, built in 1938 by the British as a garisson fort. The Taggart forts were part of a larger plan to build a "northern fence" to separate Palestine from Lebanon at the height of the Arab rebellion (1936-1939).

After months of conflict, the War of Independence began in earnest when statehood was declared: May 14, 1948. Israelis forces had fought back the Arab Liberation Army in the north, July 8-18, 1948, during Operation Dekel. The final battle for the Galilee began in late October 1948. Thousands of Arab fighters led by Fawzi Kaukji returned from Lebanon and occupied positions inside Arab villages two kilometeres beyond the truce lines established by the UN. After a warning by the UN Security Council, Kaukzi claimed on October 24 that his troops were withdrawing, but they returned a few days later and continued to occupy several strategic positions, including a hill a few yards from the Metullah-Tiberias crossroads. Despite repeated attempts by the UN to prevent a conflagration, both sides remained poised for battle: Jewish forces refused to accept a cease-fire until Kaukzi returned to the previous ceasefire position; Kaukzi refused to budge until the Jewish fighters accepted the ceasefire.

With Arab forces firmly entrenched in defensive positions in western Galilee, Canadian-born Ben Dunkelman, commander of the 7th Brigade, presented plans for conquering the Galilee to Moshe Carmel (1911-2003), Israel's northern front commander. Despite some reservations Dunkelman was given a "green light" to dislodge the Arab Liberation Army and drive it back into Lebanon. On the evening of October 27, 7th Brigade engineers began clearing the Safed-Meron road as the rest of the brigade moved from its base in western Galilee to the hills around Safed. Operation Hiram began at dawn, October 28.

According to many sources, most of the residents of the Galilee had actually begun to flee in May 1948, after the capture of the Arab part of the city of Safed by Palmach forces. By August the UN reported at least 50,000 Galilean Arab refugees had crossed the border and fled to the nearby Metawali villages in southern Lebanon. Nevertheless, it's clear thousands of civilians remained.

Benny Morris, who cites Saliha in several books, doesn`t provide an exact an date for the massacre but Palestinian sources say it took place on October 30. The actual events surrounding the destruction of Saliha are not at all clear. Some sources claim the residents were forced into a mosque and shot; others say they were shot in the village square; others quote Benny Morris' who wrote that "94 ... were blown up with a house."

Unfortunately, even Morris can't quite get his story straight. In one book (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge Middle East Library, pg. 230) he claims this information came from a briefing given by Israel Galili, head of the Haganah National Command; in a later book he says the briefing was made by Moshe Erem, to the Political Committee of Mapam ("Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948," Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 59)

The UN record suggests civilian casualites were much lighter than anecdotal evidence would have some believe. Given that there were several hundred observers watching both Israeli and Arab forces - there were approximately 300 UN Observers in the Middle East at this time. Around 245 were in Israel according to US Ambassador to Israel James G. Macdonald - one would expect that mass killings would be difficult to conceal; in fact, only one was reported to the security council during this period. On November 3, 1948, A. R. Azzam, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, filed a complaint that "Zionist forces, in a raid on the Arab locality known as Dawayma, ruthlessly massacred Arab women, children and old people, thus perpetuating barbarities rivaling in horror those committed by the Nazis."

Despite official assurances to the contrary (and the fact that Dawayam was north of Hebron, nowhere near the Galilee), rumours of a massacre in Dawayma were taken seriously and both the UN and the Israeli army investigated. Two UN observers visited Dawayma on November 7 and found no evidence of a massacre but it's likely the village had already been cleaned up before their arrival. Veterans of the accused 89th Battallion have claimed that some soldiers sought revenge for the massacre of 200 Jews in Kfar Etzion several months earlier. Dawayma, they claimed, was "filled with the loot of Etzion Bloc." UN Chief negotiator Ralph Bunche's reports reveal only "that United Nations Observers had reported extensive looting of villages in Galilee by Israeli forces, who carried away goats, sheep and mules."

The Dawayma incident is interesting in several respects. Although the alleged massacre occured in another part of the country, it confirms that the nascent Israeli government was aware of attacks against civilians. Significantly, it's obvious that it was difficult in such a tiny country to prevent rumours of atrocities from quickly spreading - regardless of whether or not the allegations were true. The attack on Deir Yassein, after all, was front-page news in the country. Other incidents may not have made the news but they were known to the government and UN observers. Moshe Carmel, for his part, even issued a reprimand to his troops as word of unacceptable behaviour came to light.
"Our brilliant victory...in the Galilee was marred as some soldiers allowed themselves a shameful outburst by looting and condemnable crimes against the Arab population after its surrender...ill-treatment of the inhabitants, murder and robbery, are not a military activity or acts of courage. They are a disgrace to our army...These acts must cease immediately and with all severity." (IDFA 437/49/84 25 November 1948)

Of course, many of the reports were made after the fact, and long after any evidence of wrong-doing was erased. Morris, whose books are most often cited concerning Galilee massacres, conceded that "knowledge of the details of these massacres is limited mainly to Arab oral and written testimony and some United Nations and Israeli civilian documentation."

After the war, the stories spread and took on lives of their own. Respected journalist Martha Gellhorn interviewed Palestinian refugees in Israel. In one village, she spoke with the schoolteacher...
"...an attractive lean young man, with prematurely gray hair, working in his garden in the cool of the evening...After hours of listening to him, I had grasped the lacking clue, and felt hopeless."

"Great Britain helped the Jews," he said. "The English gave weapons to the Arab countries, and they gave weapons to us. In this village we were all armed; we all fired at the Jews, every one of us. But our bullets were no good; the English gave bad bullets to the Arabs. Four out of five of the bullets were no good. When we saw this, we ran away to Lebanon for two weeks and then we came back."

"Were any of you killed in these battles?"

"No, no one."

"The Christian schoolteacher sent me on to a friend of his, a Muslim schoolteacher, in a village called Masra on the plain near Acre...Before 1948, the population of Masra was 350; now it is 200. They owned little land, they had worked on neighboring kibbutzim and in Acre factories. They always had good relations with the Jews. "No one here shot at Jews; and no Jews shot at us." (Note the order of the sentence.) But now Masra had grown and swollen; 900 refugees lived here.

"Refugees?"

"Yes, people from those villages."

He gestured out the door, across the fields.

"What? From villages nearby?"

"Yes, yes. Those villages. They are maybe seven kilometers away."

"And you consider them refugees?"

"Of course. There was no fighting near here, but the people are frightened, so they fled to the Druse villages, where they know they will be safe, because the Druses were always friendly with the Jews, and after, they came here. The Israeli government will not let them go back to their villages. The government offered them other land, but they will not take it."

Gellhorn also spoke with Palestinians who had fled northward to Lebanon.
"Their headman, or village leader - the Muktar talked. Seventeen people of his village were massacred, which was why they fled, but an old blind woman of 104 was left behind and the Jews poured kerosene over her and burned her alive. How did they know, if they had all fled? Well, then the Jews went away and some villagers crept back and found her, and besides, the United Nations Truce Commission also found her...My guide looked embarrassed."

Which brings us back to Saliha. Despite compelling anecdotal evidence, there's little else to substantiate many of the massacre allegations in the area, Saliha included. Mass graves have never been found - or reported - and government reports, those that have been seen, are sketchy, contradictory, evasive or all of the above. None of which means civilians weren't killed in Saliha and other Galilean villages. But, sixty years later, having missed the opportunity to conduct comprehensive investigations with the cooperation of UN observers, Israel has unwittingly left the door open for the plethora of claims which now overwhelm and drive the 'ethnic cleansing' debate.

And sixty years later, one cannot help but see similar trends in recent events: while Israel's cynicism toward the UN Human Right's Council and its tainted investigation in Gaza is understandable, perhaps a better strategy would have been for the Israeli government to call an immediate internal investigation of violations of the IDF Moral Code with international representation on the investigating committee. Could the UN dismiss an Israeli report which included input from someone like Mary Robinson? or Jimmy Carter? We'll have to add this one to the long list of missed opportunities by both sides.

As for Saliha, we'll never really know. But, one thing is certain: perception of events can carry more weight than reality even reaching mythological levels. And it's very hard to refute a myth.

Vanity Fair

This week's edition of Haveil Havalim, hosted by Esser Agaroth, is up.

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack. The term 'Haveil Havalim,' which means "Vanity of Vanities," is from Qoheleth, (Ecclesiastes) which was written by King Solomon. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other 'excesses' and realized that it was nothing but 'hevel,' or in English, 'vanity.'

For a great collection of articles, news, thoughts and jokes from the Jewish blogosphere, go here.

Oh yeah. I'm on the list :)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Atonement

As some of you may know, I actually contribute to two blogs: this one, which I started as a showcase for published and non-published articles, and the one I co-write with my wife. I tend to keep the more political stuff here, and use the other one for our shared experiences since making aliyah in 2008. I don't often cross-blog, but I've decided to with a poetical essay I wrote for Yom Kippur. It was, to be honest, my first bit of creative writing (other than ongoing screenplay work) in awhile, and I was pleased with the results. I hope you are to. (click on the image for the full-page version)



גמר חתימה טובה.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Massacre Mania Part 1

When dealing with Palestinian discourse, four words tend to overwhelm every discussion: 'settlements,' 'occupation,' 'apartheid' and, of course, 'massacre.'

There have been practically no encounters between Israel and Arabs in which an accusation of a massacre of some sort wasn't made. The most recent incident, last December's Gaza operation, is being played out now, as both sides offer discrepant civilian death counts and cite contradictory 'expert' sources. A UN war crimes investigation, led by Kapo, former South African judge Richard Goldstone, has just concluded, based on evidence that is already being challenged, that "Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity."

The report demands that Israel conduct an investigation of its own within the next three months. Amongst other information the report appears to have ignored, is the fact that the IDF has already examined more than 100 allegations regarding the conduct of its forces during Operation Cast Lead, which have resulted in a further 23 criminal investigations.

The fact that no other investigation is underway against any other state, despite recent conflicts in which thousands of civilians have been killed, is yet another example of the double standard Israelis find so infuriating. For example, for years the government of Sri Lanka fought Tamil rebels in the north of the country. The Tamils are claiming independence for this area where they constitute a majority of the population. Over the course of this period it is estimated some 70,000-80,000 civilians have been killed (as compared to the 500-700 Gaza civilians killed in the recent fighting). Has the UN Human Rights Council equally condemned Sri Lanka and singled it out as it has Israel? In fact, they dismissed it as "an internal matter."

How about Russia where the recent invasion of Georgia claimed, according to some sources, around 20,000 lives? As for Chechnya, there are no solid figures for the number of civilians killed since the second war began in late 1999, but estimates range anywhere between 25,000 and 200,000. When Russian soldiers have admitted brutality, condemnation from the UN has been conspicuously absent. "I remember a Chechen female sniper," a Russian soldier told L.A. Times reporter Maura Reynolds. "We just tore her apart with two armored personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel cables. There was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it."

It would appear that it is only the Jewish 'moral compass' that some critics see as out of whack. But our ‘moral compass’ is just fine, thank you. Anyone who knows anything about Judaism will understand the abhorrence at taking lives - any lives - Israeli soldiers feel. While I'm not dismissing the possibility that terrible incidents have occured - we're still dealing with flawed humans in a citizen's army, after all, who make mistakes, get angry, are stupid - anyone familiar with the situation knows that much of the criticism of the recent mission in Gaza came from Israelis. Self-criticism and introspection is alive and well here.

Beyond Gaza, it's worth remembering that other alleged 'massacres,' such as the Jenin libel, have already been debunked, even by experts generally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause (Most NGOs and international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, tend to deal in half-truths, which are more difficult to counter, rather than outright lies).

All of which reminds me of a saying about truth and war. But Benjamin Disraeli really put it best when he wrote: "It is easier to be critical than correct."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Jaffa

As a former festival director (Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, 1997-2004), I truly appreciate the complex challenge in programming films and events at film festivals. As such, I want to commend Toronto International Film Festival for this year's decision to acknowledge Tel Aviv as an important artistic centre. The result of that brave decision, sadly, has been a thuggish smear and boycott campaign against the festival.

Tel Aviv is a brilliant, loud, brash, and diverse beast of a city. It's also arguably one of the most artistic, open-minded places I've ever visited. Despite - or perhaps due to - the city's history, diverse artistic expression is celebrated, even when specific artists or pieces are derided. That's the nature of art.

Like many great cities, Tel Aviv's past haunts it. Jaffa, its ancient neighbour, shares a history with Tel Aviv that is sad and unfortunate. But, it's a complex history. Those who see only one chapter in Jaffa's life ignore, perhaps willfully, the experiences of the city's Jewish population, once a majority in this place. Jaffa (the name comes from the Hebrew word yaffe which mean beautiful) is mentioned serveral times in the Bible and in many historical documents. The population was Jewish, and then mixed Jewish/Christian until the Arab invasion in the 7th century. The Crusades and Turkish occupation both affected demographics.

Nevertheless, Jaffa remained an important Jewish centre for centuries. In 1909, upon purchasing beachfront properties near Jaffa, the city of Tel Aviv was established. Many of Jaffa's Jewish residents chose to resettle in the new city; and Jews still represented a large percentage of Jaffa's population, despite riots in the 1920's (the worst of which in May 1921) which drove out many Jews. Following the successful UN partition vote of November 29, 1947, Jaffa and Tel Aviv came into more immediate conflict. Arab snipers and mortar squads in Jaffa began targeting Jewish neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv. Dozens were killed and several hundred injured in these attacks. Thousands of Jewish residents were forced to flee the area. And Haganah reprisals were taking lives in Jaffa. The situation was quickly deteriorating. “As long as mortar bombs are fired from Jaffa at Tel-Aviv, life in that city is...precarious," wrote Palestine's British High Commissioner General Sir Alan Cunningham. ('An Analysis of the Palestine Situation, April 1948', Cunningham Papers, IV/5/33)

By April 1948, the country was engaged in civil war, with many Jewish and Arab communities caught up in the conflict. It was feared that the strategically important port of Jaffa might fall to Egyptian troops who would use the city as a base from which to destroy Tel Aviv. This was an untenable risk, and the decision was made to surround and control Jaffa. Irgun fighters, followed by the Haganah, succeeded in taking the city, despite British intervention. On May 12, a deputation of Arab notables from Jaffa arrived at Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv and, after negotiations, signed a surrender agreement.

Both Haganah and Irgun made it clear that civilians were not to be harmed. Irgun leader (and future PM) Menachem Begin spoke to his fighters before the attacks: “Strike at the foe! Aim well! Spare ammunition! In this battle, show no mercy to the enemy, as he knows none towards our people [but] Spare women and children. Spare the life of anyone who raises his hands in surrender. He is your captive. Do not harm him...”

Nevertheless, civilians panicked and fled once Jewish forces had captured the Arab suburb of Manshiyeh. “Ninety percent of the population of Jaffa have just run away," Sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary to the Palestine Mandate Government and no friend of Zionism or Jews, recorded in his diary on May 5, 1948, "... The mayor has gone, without even saying goodbye, and the remnants of the [Arab irregular] Liberation Army are looting and robbing. This is what the Palestine Arabs get from the assistance provided by the Arab states.”

It is fair to say the Jewish takeover of the city precipitated the exodus, an attack which was necessitated by relentless Arab attacks against Tel Aviv. But, according to even Arab sources,"the Arab Exodus ...was not caused by the actual battle, but by the exaggerated description spread by the Arab leaders to incite them to fight the Jews ... By spreading rumors of Jewish atrocities, killings of women and children etc., they instilled fear and terror in the hearts of the Arabs in Palestine, until they fled leaving their homes and properties to the enemy."
(Jordanian daily newspaper, Al Urdun, April 9, 1953.)

And it is equally true that Arab forces were attacking and destroying Jewish settlements in both Judea and Samaria (in particular Kfar Etzion) and land designated to be part of a Jewish state. Such is war.

In June 1948, the new Israeli cabinet met to discuss the refugee issue. All agreed that Arabs who fled the fighting to other parts of Israel should return to their homes. As Moshe Sharrett put it: "These (Arabs) should be returned to their places, with full ownership of their lands etc., and with full [citizenship] rights. We should not, as a matter of principle, discriminate against an Arab who had stayed inside [Israel] and thereby accepted its rule. He should enjoy full rights, including his property [rights]—unless there are decisive emergency considerations, security-wise. This should be the instruction to governors, commanders, etc.(Shimoni, "Tamtsit," pg. 3)

Indeed, The Palestine Post reported that several days after the battle for Jaffa, the Haganah invited representatives of Magen David Adom to visit Arab women, children and seniors who had fled to Tel Aviv. Those who wanted to return to Jaffa and other Arab areas were turned over to the Red Cross which escorted them back.

But the others, those who fled to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan would not be permitted back. Ben-Gurion was clearly angry when he proclaimed, "Jaffa will become a Jewish city. War is war; it is not us who wanted war. Tel-Aviv did not wage war on Jaffa, Jaffa waged war on Tel-Aviv. And this should not happen again. We will not be "foolish hasidim." Bringing back the Arabs to Jaffa is not just but rather is foolish. Those who had gone to war against us — let them carry the responsibility after having lost." (Ben-Gurion, Be-hilahem Israel, pp. 130-131.)

And so, here we are. While the political ramifications of that decision are still being felt today, the issue at hand is artistic boycotts. I don't think I can put this any better than Bruce Kirkland, film critic for the Toronto Sun, who writes,

"Art should encourage debate -- including on the complex Israeli-Palestinian question that so vexes the protesters -- and not repress it through bully tactics and censorship."

I highly recommend his whole response which can be read here.

UPDATE: The National Post's Charles Lewis jumps into the fray: