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Demonstrations have yet to draw a connection between Netanyahu’s personal abuses of office and the systemic corruption...
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Israel is roiling with angry street protests that local observers have warned could erupt into open civil strife – a development Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be encouraging.

For weeks, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been the scene of large, noisy demonstrations outside the official residences of Mr Netanyahu and his public security minister, Amir Ohana.

On Saturday night around 13,000 marched through Jerusalem shouting “Anyone but Bibi”, Netanyahu’s nickname. Their calls were echoed by tens of thousands more at locations across the country.

Turnout has been steadily growing, despite attacks on demonstrators from both the police and Netanyahu’s loyalists. The first protests abroad by Israeli expats have also been reported.

The protests, in defiance of physical distancing rules, are unprecedented by Israeli standards. They have bridged the gaping political divide between a small constituency of anti-occupation activists – disparagingly called “leftists” in Israel – and the much larger Israeli Jewish public that identifies politically as on the centre and the right.

For the first time, a section of Netanyahu’s natural supporters is out on the streets against him.

In contrast to earlier protests, such as a large social justice movement that occupied the streets in 2011 to oppose rising living costs, these demonstrations have not entirely eschewed political issues.

The target of the anger and frustration is decidedly personal at this stage – focused on the figure of Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Protesters have renamed him Israel’s “crime minister”.

But also fuelling the protests is a larger mood of disenchantment as doubts grow about the state’s competence to deal with multiple crises unfolding in Israel. The virus has caused untold social and economic misery for many, with as much as one fifth of the labour force out of work. Netanyahu’s supporters in the lower middle-classes have been hit hardest.

Now well into a second wave, Israel has a per capita rate of infection that outstrips even the US. The shadow of a renewed lockdown amid government mishandling of the virus has undermined Netanyahu’s claim to be “Mr Security”.

There are concerns too about police brutality – starkly highlighted by the killing in May of an autistic Palestinian, Eyad Hallaq, in Jerusalem.

Police crackdowns on the protests, using riot squads, undercover agents, mounted police and water cannon, have underlined not just Netanyahu’s growing authoritarianism. There is a sense too that the police may be ready to use violence on dissenting Israelis that was once reserved for Palestinians.

After manipulating his right-wing rival, the former military general Benny Gantz, into joining him in a unity government in April, Netanyahu has effectively crushed any meaningful political opposition.

The agreement shattered Gantz’s Blue and White party, with many of his legislators refusing to enter the government, and has widely discredited the ex-general.

Netanyahu is reportedly preparing for a winter election – the fourth in two years – both to cash in on his opponents’ disarray and to avoid honouring a rotation agreement in which Gantz is due to replace him late next year.

According to the Israeli media, Netanyahu may find a pretext for forcing new elections by further delaying approval of the national budget, despite Israel facing its worst financial crisis in decades.

And, of course, overshadowing all this is the matter of the corruption charges against Netanyahu. Not only is he the first sitting prime minister in Israel to stand trial, but he has been using his role and the pandemic to his advantage, including by delaying court hearings.

In a time of profound crisis and uncertainty, many Israelis are wondering which policies are being pursued for the national good and which for Netanyahu’s personal benefit.

The government’s months-long focus on the annexation of swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank has looked like pandering to his settler constituency, creating a dangerous distraction from dealing with the pandemic.

Similarly, a one-off handout this week to every Israeli – over the strenuous objections of finance officials – looks suspiciously like an electoral bribe. As a result, Netanyahu is facing a rapid decline in support. A recent survey shows trust in him has fallen by half – from 57 per cent in March and April, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, to 29 per cent today.

Many Israelis increasingly see Netanyahu less as a father figure and more as a parasite draining resources from the body politic. Capturing the popular mood is a new art work called the “Last Supper” that was covertly installed in central Tel Aviv. It shows Netanyahu alone, gorging on a vast banquet by stuffing his hand into an enormous cake decorated with the Israeli flag.

In another move designed to highlight Netanyahu’s corrupt politics, better-off Israelis have been publicly organising to donate this week’s state handout to those in need.

Netanyahu’s repeated incitement against the protesters – disparaging them as “leftists” and “anarchists”, and suggesting they are spreading disease – appears to have backfired. It has only rallied more people to the street.

But the incitement and Netanyahu’s claims that he is the true victim – and that in the current climate he faces assassination – have been interpreted as a call to arms by some on the right. Last week five protesters were injured when his loyalists used clubs and broken bottles on them, with police appearing to turn a blind eye. Further attacks were reported at the weekend. Protest organisers said they had begun arranging defence units to protect demonstrators.

Ohana, the public security minister, has called for a ban on the protests and urged a heavy hand from the police. He has delayed appointing a new police chief – a move seen as incentivising local commanders to crack down on the protests to win favour. Large numbers of protesters have been forcefully arrested, with reports that police have questioned some on their political views.

Observers have wondered whether the protests can transcend party political tribalism and develop into a grassroots movement demanding real change. That might widen their appeal to even more disadvantaged groups, not least the one fifth of Israel’s citizens who belong to its Palestinian minority.

But it would also require more of the protesters to start drawing a direct connection between Netanyahu’s personal abuses of office and the wider, systemic corruption of Israeli politics, with the occupation its beating heart.

That may yet prove a tall order, especially when Israel faces no significant external pressure for change, either from the US or from Europe.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel/Palestine 
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The Jewish National Fund, established more than 100 years ago, is perhaps the most venerable of the international Zionist organisations. Its recent honorary patrons have included prime ministers, and it advises UN forums on forestry and conservation issues.

It is also recognised as a charity in dozens of western states. Generations of Jewish families, and others, have contributed to its fundraising programmes, learning as children to drop saved pennies into its trademark blue boxes to help plant a tree.

And yet its work over many decades has been driven by one main goal: to evict Palestinians from their homeland.

The JNF is a thriving relic of Europe’s colonial past, even if today it wears the garb of an environmental charity. As recent events show, ethnic cleansing is still what it excels at.

The organisation’s mission began before the state of Israel was even born. Under British protection, the JNF bought up tracts of fertile land in what was then historic Palestine. It typically used force to dispossess Palestinian sharecroppers whose families had worked the land for centuries.

But the JNF’s expulsion activities did not end in 1948, when Israel was established through a bloody war on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland – an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Israel hurriedly demolished more than 500 cleansed Palestinian villages, and the JNF was entrusted with the job of preventing some 750,000 refugees from returning. It did so by planting forests over both the ruined homes, making it impossible to rebuild them, and village lands to stop them being farmed.

These plantations were how the JNF earned its international reputation. Its forestry operations were lauded for stopping soil erosion, reclaiming land and now tackling the climate crisis.

But even this expertise – gained through enforcing war crimes – was undeserved. Environmentalists say the dark canopies of trees it has planted in arid regions such as the Negev, in Israel’s south, absorb heat unlike the unforested, light-coloured soil. Short of water, the slow-growing trees capture little carbon. Native species of brush and animals, meanwhile, have been harmed.

These pine forests – the JNF has planted some 250 million trees – have also turned into a major fire hazard. Most years hundreds of fires break out after summer droughts exacerbated by climate change.

Early on, the vulnerability of the JNF’s saplings was used as a pretext to outlaw the herding of native black goats. Recently the goats, which clear undergrowth, had to be reintroduced to prevent the fires. But the goats’ slaughter had already served its purpose, forcing Bedouin Palestinians to abandon their pastoral way of life.

Despite surviving the Nakba, thousands of Bedouin in the Negev were covertly expelled to Egypt or the West Bank in Israel’s early years.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the JNF’s troubling role in these evictions was of only historical interest. The charity, Israel’s largest private land owner, is actively expelling Palestinians to this day.

In recent weeks, solidarity activists have been desperately trying to prevent the eviction of a Palestinian family, the Sumarins, from their home in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.

Last month the Sumarins lost a 30-year legal battle waged by the JNF, which was secretly sold their home in the late 1980s by the Israeli state.

The family’s property was seized – in violation of international law – under a draconian 1950 piece of legislation declaring Palestinian refugees of the Nakba “absent”, so that they could not reclaim their land inside the new state of Israel.

The Israeli courts have decreed that the Absentee Property Law can be applied outside Israel’s recognised territory too, in occupied Jerusalem. In the Sumarins’ case, it appears not to matter that the family was never actually “absent”. The JNF is permitted to evict the 18 family members next month. To add insult to injury, they will have to pay damages to the JNF.

A former US board member, Seth Morrison, resigned in protest in 2011 at the JNF’s role in such evictions, accusing it of working with extreme settler groups. Last year the JNF ousted a family in similar circumstances near Bethlehem. Days later settlers moved on to the land.

Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, warned that these cases create a dangerous legal precedent if Israel carries out its promise to annex West Bank territory. It could rapidly expand the number of Palestinians classified as “absentees”.

But the JNF never lost its love of the humble tree as the most effective – and veiled – tool of ethnic cleansing. And it is once again using forests as a weapon against the fifth of Israel’s population who are Palestinian, survivors of the Nakba.

Earlier this year it unveiled its “Relocation Israel 2040” project. The plan is intended to “bring about an in-depth demographic change of an entire country” – what was once sinisterly called “Judaisation”. The aim is to attract 1.5 million Jews to Israel, especially to the Negev, over the next 20 years.

As in Israel’s first years, forests will be vital to success. The JNF is preparing to plant trees on an area of 40 sq km belonging to Bedouin communities that survived earlier expulsions. Under the cover of environmentalism, many thousands of Bedouin could be deemed “trespassers”.

The Bedouin have been in legal dispute with the Israeli state for decades over ownership of their lands. This month in an interview with the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Daniel Atar, the JNF’s global head, urged Jews once again to drop money into its boxes. He warned that Jews could be dissuaded from coming to the Negev by its reputation for “agricultural crimes” – coded reference to Bedouin who have tried to hold on to their pastoral way of life.

Trees promise both to turn the semi-arid region greener and to clear “unsightly” Bedouin off their ancestral lands. Using the JNF’s original colonial language of “making the desert bloom”, Atar said his organisation would make “the wilderness flourish”.

The Bedouin understand the fate likely to befall them. In a protest last month they carried banners: “No expulsions, no displacement.”

After all, Palestinians have suffered forced displacement at the JNF’s hands for more than a century, while watching it win plaudits from around the world for its work in improving the “environment”.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel/Palestine, Zionism 
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My post earlier this month on the so-called “cancel culture” letter proved to be the most polarising I have written – matched only by another recent post on the pulling down of a statue in the UK to a slave trader. The ferocity of the reactions to both, I believe, is related. It derives from a similar refusal, even on the left, to factor in power – and how it is best confronted – when assessing issues of speech and oppression.

But first, I want to briefly address the concerns of those who think that the focus by me and others on the open letter, published this month in Harper’s magazine and signed by 150 prominent writers and thinkers, has been excessive. They argue that there are more important things going on in the world that need highlighting instead.

The discussion on the left about the letter is not simple navel-gazing. Speech rights and how they are exercised are the arena in which our thoughts, narratives and ideologies are shaped. Nothing is more important than how we talk to each other, and what we are allowed to say and think. That is why I am revisiting the issue.

The illiberal climate identified in the letter is a real thing, but the discussion promoted by the letter has been ahistorical, lacked proper political context, and the purpose it is being put to, in my view, is dangerously antithetical to improved free speech. The problem with the letter is not what it says – which few of us would disagree with – but what it doesn’t.

Refusal to sign

What is missing is highlighted by two insights into the letter’s provenance that have emerged since I wrote my post. They help to shed light on my original concerns.

In a column on the letter in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg, one of the more progressive voices among the signatories, reported that she refused to sign the initial draft because it was explicitly about the threat to free speech posed by “cancel culture”.

Goldberg was rightly wary of adding her name because “cancel culture”, as I explained in my first post, is a term that has been increasingly appropriated by the right to attack the speech rights of the left. It is meant to skew public discourse in the same way as “fake news”, “Bernie Bros”, “antisemitism” and “Russian trolls”. Like cancel culture, these things exist but they have been malevolently repurposed by the right as a stick with which to beat the left. Donald Trump recently equated “cancel culture” with “far-left fascism”, for example.

After her initial reluctance, Goldberg signed a second draft chiefly, it seems, because the phrase “cancel culture” was removed – even though the letter’s original intent remained unaltered. Those sentiments were so obvious that observers immediately dubbed it the “cancel culture letter”. That was also, of course, the reason why a bunch of warmongers, Israel fanatics and left-baiters were so eager to sign the letter.

Greenwald ‘cancelled’

A second insight came from Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the main drafters of the letter. In an interview last week, he revealed that the original intention was to have it signed by Glenn Greenwald, the civil rights lawyer turned journalist who is a well-known champion of free speech. Ultimately, however, Greenwald was not approached because others behind the letter objected. In short, and paradoxically, free speech advocate Greenwald was cancelled from signing a letter about the threat posed by cancel culture.

The admission about Greenwald underscores the main point I made in my original post. One can be a free speech absolutist – as indeed I am – and still recognise that the issues around free speech are complex, and that pretending they are not is actually harmful to free speech. It is not as simple as being for or against free speech. After all, the vast majority of us are for free speech in the abstract.

“Free speech” is like “equality of opportunity”: hard to disagree with the principle. But very few of us are committed to achieving it in practice – and for similar reasons.

In the case of “equality of opportunity”, no meaningful efforts have ever been made to achieve it. None of the main parties in the US or UK, for example, are pushing to end all inheritance entitlements, a move that would mean we started our adult lives with a cleaner slate. Even if that were the case, more fundamental change would still be needed, otherwise children raised in wealthy, privileged homes would enjoy a significant head-start over those from deprived backgrounds.

Part of the reason most of us accept as inevitable a lack of equality of opportunity is because we struggle to imagine how such inequality could ever be redressed without making structural changes to our societies along socialist lines. The corporate elite – which is deeply opposed to making those kinds of changes – has persuaded us through its media that structural reform would be Stalinist, repressive and unjust.

Speech rights in conflict

There are similar problems with the idea of free speech, as Greenwald’s “cancelling” highlights. It might help if we referred to “speech rights” rather than “free speech”, because then it would be clear that, as with other rights, there can sometimes be conflicts between my speech rights and your speech rights. Once this point is conceded, things begin to look a whole lot messier.

The “cancel culture” letter is not just in favour of free speech. It prioritises certain speech rights over other speech rights. It promotes the speech rights of prominent writers and thinkers who dominate the public square against the speech rights of a supposed “Twitter mob” – those who had no significant speech rights until they were able to amass them through force of numbers and force of will on social media.

Again, that is not to deny that cancel culture is a problem. Mobs who try to impose their speech rights on others always were, and still are, a threat to free speech. Rather, it is to point out that the letter is not defending some pure, untainted idea of free speech. It assumes instead that existing power structures should continue unreformed, even though those structures are designed to ensure some people enjoy privileged speech rights – including the right to define who belongs to the “mob” and who constitutes a threat to speech.

Who is the real ‘mob’?

The reason we are talking about cancel culture in the first place is that social media has given ordinary, politically and socially invested individuals, who until recently had no voice, the chance to exercise their speech rights more aggressively (and sometimes irresponsibly) by uniting with other like-minded individuals. Their collective voice can partially challenge and disrupt the narratives crafted by those who have long dominated public discourse – and have done it from platforms, let’s remember, paid for and controlled by billionaires or the state.

As a result of social media, public discourse has grown more complex and treacherous.

 
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An open letter published by Harper’s magazine, and signed by 150 prominent writers and public figures, has focused attention on the apparent dangers of what has been termed a new “cancel culture”.

The letter brings together an unlikely alliance of genuine leftists, such as Noam Chomsky and Matt Karp, centrists such as J K Rowling and Ian Buruma, and neoconservatives such as David Frum and Bari Weiss, all speaking out in defence of free speech.

Although the letter doesn’t explicitly use the term “cancel culture”, it is clearly what is meant in the complaint about a “stifling” cultural climate that is imposing “ideological conformity” and weakening “norms of open debate and toleration of differences”.

It is easy to agree with the letter’s generalised argument for tolerance and free and fair debate. But the reality is that many of those who signed are utter hypocrites, who have shown precisely zero commitment to free speech, either in their words or in their deeds.

Further, the intent of many them in signing the letter is the very reverse of their professed goal: they want to stifle free speech, not protect it.

To understand what is really going on with this letter, we first need to scrutinise the motives, rather than the substance, of the letter.

A new ‘illiberalism’

“Cancel culture” started as the shaming, often on social media, of people who were seen to have said offensive things. But of late, cancel culture has on occasion become more tangible, as the letter notes, with individuals fired or denied the chance to speak at a public venue or to publish their work.

The letter denounces this supposedly new type of “illiberalism”:

“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. …

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; … The result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

Tricky identity politics

The array of signatories is actually more troubling than reassuring. If we lived in a more just world, some of those signing – like Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W Bush, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former US State Department official – would be facing a reckoning before a Hague war crimes tribunal for their roles in promoting “interventions” in Iraq and Libya respectively, not being held up as champions of free speech.

That is one clue that these various individuals have signed the letter for very different reasons.

Chomsky signed because he has been a lifelong and consistent defender of the right to free speech, even for those with appalling opinions such as Holocaust denial.

Frum, who coined the term “axis of evil” that rationalised the invasion of Iraq, and Weiss, a New York Times columnist, signed because they have found their lives getting tougher. True, it is easy for them to dominate platforms in the corporate media while advocating for criminal wars abroad, and they have paid no career price when their analyses and predictions have turned out to be so much dangerous hokum. But they are now feeling the backlash on university campuses and social media.

Meanwhile, centrists like Buruma and Rowling have discovered that it is getting ever harder to navigate the tricky terrain of identity politics without tripping up. The reputational damage can have serious consequences.

Buruma famously lost his job as editor of the New York Review of Books two years ago after after he published and defended an article that violated the new spirit of the #MeToo movement. And Rowling made the mistake of thinking her followers would be as fascinated by her traditional views on transgender issues as they are by her Harry Potter books.

‘Fake news, Russian trolls’

But the fact that all of these writers and intellectuals agree that there is a price to be paid in the new, more culturally sensitive climate does not mean that they are all equally interested in protecting the right to be controversial or outspoken.

Chomsky, importantly, is defending free speech for all, because he correctly understands that the powerful are only too keen to find justifications to silence those who challenge their power. Elites protect free speech only in so far as it serves their interests in dominating the public space.

If those on the progressive left do not defend the speech rights of everyone, even their political opponents, then any restrictions will soon be turned against them. The establishment will always tolerate the hate speech of a Trump or a Bolsonaro over the justice speech of a Sanders or a Corbyn.

By contrast, most of the rest of those who signed – the rightwingers and the centrists – are interested in free speech for themselves and those like them. They care about protecting free speech only in so far as it allows them to continue dominating the public space with their views – something they were only too used to until a few years ago, before social media started to level the playing field a little.

The centre and the right have been fighting back ever since with claims that anyone who seriously challenges the neoliberal status quo at home and the neoconservative one abroad is promoting “fake news” or is a “Russian troll”. This updating of the charge of being “un-American” embodies cancel culture at its very worst.

Social media accountability

In other words, apart from in the case of a few progressives, the letter is simply special pleading – for a return to the status quo. And for that reason, as we shall see, Chomsky might have been better advised not to have added his name, however much he agrees with the letter’s vague, ostensibly pro-free speech sentiments.

What is striking about a significant proportion of those who signed is their self-identification as ardent supporters of Israel. And as Israel’s critics know only too well, advocates for Israel have been at the forefront of the cancel culture – from long before the term was even coined.

For decades, pro-Israel activists have sought to silence anyone seen to be seriously critiquing this small, highly militarised state, sponsored by the colonial powers, that was implanted in a region rich with a natural resource, oil, needed to lubricate the global economy, and at a terrible cost to its native, Palestinian population.

Nothing should encourage us to believe that zealous defenders of Israel among those signing the letter have now seen the error of their ways. Their newfound concern for free speech is simply evidence that they have begun to suffer from the very same cancel culture they have always promoted in relation to Israel.

 
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An Israeli diplomat filed a complaint last week with police after he was pulled to the ground in Jerusalem by four security guards, who knelt on his neck for five minutes as he cried out: “I can’t breathe.”

There are obvious echoes of the treatment of George Floyd, an African-American killed by police in Minneapolis last month. His death triggered mass protests against police brutality and reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement. The incident in Jerusalem, by contrast, attracted only minor attention – even in Israel.

An assault by Israeli security officials on a diplomat sounds like an aberration – a peculiar case of mistaken identity – quite unlike an established pattern of police violence against poor black communities in the US. But that impression would be wrong.

The man attacked in Jerusalem was no ordinary Israeli diplomat. He was Bedouin, from Israel’s large Palestinian minority. One fifth of the population, this minority enjoys a very inferior form of Israeli citizenship.

Ishmael Khaldi’s exceptional success in becoming a diplomat, as well as his all-too-familiar experience as a Palestinian of abuse at the hands of the security services, exemplify the paradoxes of what amounts to Israel’s hybrid version of apartheid.

Khaldi and another 1.8 million Palestinian citizens are descended from the few Palestinians who survived a wave of expulsions in 1948 as a Jewish state was declared on the ruins of their homeland.

Israel continues to view these Palestinians – its non-Jewish citizens – as a subversive element that needs to be controlled and subdued through measures reminiscent of the old South Africa. But at the same time, Israel is desperate to portray itself as a western-style democracy.

So strangely, the Palestinian minority has found itself treated both as second-class citizens and as an unwilling shop-window dummy on which Israel can hang its pretensions of fairness and equality. That has resulted in two contradictory faces.

On one side, Israel segregates Jewish and Palestinian citizens, confining the latter to a handful of tightly ghettoised communities on a tiny fraction of the country’s territory. To prevent mixing and miscegenation, it strictly separates schools for Jewish and Palestinian children. The policy has been so successful that inter-marriage is all but non-existent. In a rare survey, the Central Bureau of Statistics found 19 such marriages took place in 2011.

The economy is largely segregated too.

Most Palestinian citizens are barred from Israel’s security industries and anything related to the occupation. State utilities, from the ports to the water, telecoms and electricity industries, are largely free of Palestinian citizens.

Job opportunities are concentrated instead in low-paying service industries and casual labour. Two thirds of Palestinian children in Israel live below the poverty line, compared to one fifth of Jewish children.

This ugly face is carefully hidden from outsiders.

On the other side, Israel loudly celebrates the right of Palestinian citizens to vote – an easy concession given that Israel engineered an overwhelming Jewish majority in 1948 by forcing most Palestinians into exile. It trumpets exceptional “Arab success stories”, glossing over the deeper truths they contain.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel has been excitedly promoting the fact that one fifth of its doctors are Palestinian citizens – matching their proportion of the population. But in truth, the health sector is the one major sphere of life in Israel where segregation is not the norm. The brightest Palestinian students gravitate towards medicine because at least there the obstacles to success can be surmounted.

Compare that to higher education, where Palestinian citizens fill much less than one per cent of senior academic posts. The first Muslim judge, Khaled Kaboub, was appointed to the Supreme Court only two years ago – 70 years after Israel’s founding. Gamal Hakroosh became Israel’s first Muslim deputy police commissioner as recently as 2016; his role was restricted, of course, to handling policing in Palestinian communities.

Khaldi, the diplomat assaulted in Jerusalem, fits this mould. Raised in the village of Khawaled in the Galilee, his family was denied water, electricity and building permits. His home was a tent, where he studied by gaslight. Many tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens live in similar conditions.

Undoubtedly, the talented Khaldi overcame many hurdles to win a coveted place at university. He then served in the paramilitary border police, notorious for abusing Palestinians in the occupied territories.

He was marked out early on as a reliable advocate for Israel by an unusual combination of traits: his intelligence and determination; a steely refusal to be ground down by racism and discrimination; a pliable ethical code that condoned the oppression of fellow Palestinians; and blind deference to a Jewish state whose very definition excluded him.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry put him on a fast track, soon sending him to San Francisco and London. There his job was to fight the international campaign to boycott Israel, modelled on a similar one targeting apartheid South Africa, citing his own story as proof that in Israel anyone can succeed.

But in reality, Khaldi is an exception, and one cynically exploited to disprove the rule. Maybe that point occurred to him as he was being choked inside Jerusalem’s central bus station after he questioned a guard’s behaviour.

After all, everyone in Israel understands that Palestinian citizens – even the odd professor or legislator – are racially profiled and treated as an enemy. Stories of their physical or verbal abuse are unremarkable. Khaldi’s assault stands out only because he has proved himself such a compliant servant of a system designed to marginalise the community he belongs to.

This month, however, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself chose to tear off the prettified, diplomatic mask represented by Khaldi. He appointed a new ambassador to the UK.

Tzipi Hotovely, a Jewish supremacist and Islamophobe, supports Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank and the takeover of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. She is part of a new wave of entirely undiplomatic envoys being sent to foreign capitals.

Hotovely cares much less about Israel’s image than about making all the “Land of Israel”, including the occupied Palestinian territories, exclusively Jewish.

Her appointment signals progress of a kind. Diplomats such as herself may finally help people abroad understand why Khaldi, her obliging fellow diplomat, is being assaulted back home.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Black Lives Matter, Israel/Palestine 
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It is easy to forget how explicitly racist British society was within living memory. I’m not talking about unconscious prejudice, or social media tropes. I’m talking about openly celebrating racism in the public space, about major companies making racism integral to their brand, a selling-point.

Roberston’s, Britain’s leading jam maker, made their orange marmalade sweeter to generations of (white) British children by associating it with a “golliwog”. One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood breakfasts was collecting golliwog tokens on the jar label. Collect enough and you could send away for a golliwog badge. More than 20 million badges were issued. I remember proudly wearing one.

Most white children, of course, absorbed – with the unquestioning trust of a young, unformed mind – the racist assumptions behind those golliwog figures. There are still Britons, like this Conservative councillor in Bristol, who never grew up. They continue to celebrate their breakfast-time lessons in racism – and can count on a newspaper, like the Metro, to give their views an unchallenged airing.

Racism was not just a feature of my childhood breakfasts. Friends had golliwog dolls in their beds, and Little Black Sambo story books on their shelves. Leisure time was spent watching TV shows like the BBC’s Black and White Minstrels Show – black-up as family, round-the-campfire entertainment – or comedies like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (with grinning, ridiculous locals providing the exotic backdrop to a nostalgic romp around the British empire) and Mind Your Language (with simple-minded “immigrants” from the former colonies struggling through English-language classes).

Victims of empire

Britain’s education system played its part too. History and other subjects took it as read that Britain had a glorious past in which it once ruled the world, spreading enlightenment and civilisation to the dusky natives. The only significant event I can recall from lessons on Britain’s colonial involvement in India is the Black Hole of Calcutta, a dungeon so cramped with prisoners that many dozens suffocated to death one night in 1756. That event, from more than 200 years ago, was obviously explained to me with such impassioned horror by my teacher that it left an indelible scar on my memory.

Many years later, overlaid by my much later leftwing politics, I recalled the Black Hole deaths as referring to British crimes against the native Indian population, and saw it as a hopeful indication that British schools even in my time were beginning to address the terrors of colonialism.

But when I looked it up, I found my assumption about the episode was entirely wrong. It was native Indians rebelling against the rule of the East India Company, a trading corporation that became more powerful than the king through its pillage of India, who forced British mercenaries into the Black Hole. Paradoxically, the East India Company’s foot-soldiers – there to oppress the local population and plunder India’s resources – died in the very dungeon the firm had built to punish Indians.

History classes were designed to impress on me British victimhood even as Britain was in the midst of raping, pillaging and murdering its way around the globe.

Jar sales versus complaints

Until I researched this post I had also assumed that Roberston’s quietly shelved the golliwog badge back in the early 1970s. But no. Apparently the badges were still available for children until 2002. In the tiniest of makeovers in the 1980s, Robertson’s reinvented the golliwog as a cuddly “golly”.

It is hard to imagine a spokeswoman for a major corporation – in this case, Rank Hovis McDougall – defending the use of the golliwog now as they did back in 2001:

We receive around 10 letters a year from people who object to the [golliwog] character. That compares to 45m jars of jam and mincemeat sold annually.

The scales of trade: 45 million jars a year weighed against 10 killjoys. Golliwogs were simply good for business, given the cultural climate that had been manufactured for the British public. In a way, you have to appreciate the corporation’s honesty.

The linked Guardian article is worth reading too. Less than 20 years ago the country’s only “liberal-left” newspaper felt quite able to report the dropping of Robertson’s golliwog character in faintly nostalgic terms, an example of “Gosh, how the times, they are a-changin” journalism, instead of the unalloyed disapproval we would now expect.

Corporate sloganeering

Those approaches contrast sharply, of course, with today’s sloganeering from Nike, Reebok, Amazon and many other corporations as they hurry to show their support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin late last month.

Have the assumptions of the corporate world changed so dramatically over the past 18 years, or have their priorities remained exactly the same: to make money by making us identify with what they need to sell us?

Golliwogs no longer shift product. What does is empty corporate slogans about equal rights, humanity and dignity – as long as corporations don’t have to deal with inequality in their boardrooms, or, more importantly, recognise the humanity of labourers in their Third World factories or their local warehouses.

The trade that built Bristol

All of this is a prelude to discussing the pulling down at the weekend of a statue in Bristol to Edward Colston, a notorious slave trader in the late 17th century. He helped to build the city from the profits he and others made from trafficking human beings – people whose lives and suffering the traders considered as insignificant as the animals many of us consume today.

Slave traders like Colston headed a business that had only two possible outcomes for those who were its “product”.

For countless millions of Africans, the slave trade forced them into permanent servitude in conditions set by their white owner, who did not consider them human. For countless millions more, the slave trade meant death. Death if they resisted. Death if the traders lacked food for all of their human cargo. Death if the slaves fell ill in the appalling conditions in which they were transported. Death if their bodies could no longer take the punishment of their enslavement.

Colston’s slave trade – and related trades like the colonial plunder run by the East India Company – built cities like Bristol. They funded the British empire. These trades enriched a political class whose descendants are still educated in private schools venerating that ugly past – because those same schools produced the merchants that once ruled and pillaged the planet. The same children then go on to attend prestige universities where they are still trained to rule and plunder the world – if now largely through transnational corporations.

Some even go on to become prime minister.

Spotlight on history

 
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In the near-two decades since the International Criminal Court was set up to try the worst violations of international human rights law, it has faced harsh criticism for its highly selective approach to the question of who should be put on trial.

Created in 2002, the court, it was imagined, would act as a deterrent against the erosion of an international order designed to prevent a repetition of the atrocities of the Second World War.

Such hopes did not survive long.

The court, which sits in The Hague in the Netherlands, almost immediately faced a difficult test: whether it dared to confront the world’s leading superpower, the United States, as it launched a “war on terror”.

The ICC’s prosecutors refused to grasp the nettle posed by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, they chose the easiest targets: for too long, it looked as though war crimes were only ever committed by Africans.

Now, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, looks poised finally to give the court some teeth. She is threatening to investigate two states – the US and Israel – whose actions have been particularly damaging to international law in the modern era.

The court is considering examining widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by US soldiers in Afghanistan, and crimes committed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, as well as the officials responsible for Israel’s illegal settlement programme.

An investigation of both is critically important: the US has crafted for itself a role as global policeman, while Israel’s flagrant violations of international law have been ongoing for more than half a century.

The US is the most powerful offender, and Israel the most persistent.

Both states have long dreaded this moment – the reason they refused to ratify the Rome Statute that established the ICC.

Last week Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, stepped up US attacks on the court, saying its administration was “determined to prevent having Americans and our friends and allies in Israel and elsewhere hauled in by this corrupt ICC”.

A large, bipartisan majority of US Senators sent a letter to Pompeo last month urging him to ensure “vigorous support” for Israel against the Hague court.

Israel and the US have each tried to claim an exemption from international law on the grounds that they did not sign up to the court.

But this only underscores the problem. International law is there to protect the weak from abuses committed by the strong. The victim from the bully.

A criminal suspect does not get to decide whether their victim can make a complaint, or whether the legal system should investigate. The same must apply in international law if it is to have any meaningful application.

Even under Bensouda, the process has dragged out interminably. It has taken years for her office to conduct a preliminary investigation and to determine, as she did in late April, that Palestine falls under the ICC’s jurisdiction because it qualifies as a state.

The delay made little sense, given that the State of Palestine is recognised by the United Nations, and it was able to ratify the Rome Statute five years ago.

The Israeli argument is that Palestine lacks the normal features of a sovereign state. However, as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recently noted, this is precisely because Israel has occupied the Palestinians’ territory and illegally transferred settlers onto their land.

Israel is claiming an exemption by citing the very crimes that need investigating.

Bensouda has asked the court’s judges to rule on her view that the ICC’s jurisdiction extends to Palestine. It is not clear how soon they will issue a verdict.

Pompeo’s threats last week – he said the US will soon make clear how it will retaliate – are intended to intimidate the court.

Bensouda has warned that her office is being subjected to “misinformation and smear campaigns”. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the court of being “antisemitic”.

In the past, Washington has denied Bensouda a travel visa, and threatened to confiscate her and the ICC judges’ assets and put them on trial. The US has also vowed to use force to liberate any Americans put in the dock.

There are indications the judges may now be searching for a bolt hole. They have asked Israel and the Palestinian Authority to respond urgently to questions about whether the temporary Oslo accords, signed more than 25 years ago, are still legally binding.

Israel has argued that the lack of resolution to the Oslo process precludes the Palestinians from claiming statehood. That would leave Israel, not the ICC, with jurisdiction over the territories.

On Monday Bensouda was reported to have given her view that the Oslo accords should have no bearing on whether an investigation proceeds.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told the ICC last week that the PA considers itself exempt from its Oslo obligations, given that Israel has announced imminent plans to annex swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

Annexation was given a green light under President Trump’s “peace plan” unveiled earlier in the year.

Bensouda’s term as prosecutor finishes next year. Israel may hope to continue stonewalling until she is gone. Elyakim Rubinstein, a former Israeli Supreme Court judge, called last month for a campaign to ensure that her successor is more sympathetic to Israel.

But if Bensouda does get the go-ahead, Netanyahu and an array of former generals, including his Defence Minister Benny Gantz, would likely be summoned for questioning. If they refuse, an international arrest warrant could be issued, theoretically enforceable in the 123 countries that ratified the court.

Neither Israel nor the US is willing to let things reach that point.

They have recruited major allies to the fight, including Australia, Canada, Brazil and several European states. Germany, the court’s second largest donor, has threatened to revoke its contributions if the ICC proceeds.

Maurice Hirsch, a former legal adviser to the Israeli army, wrote a column last month in Israel Hayom, a newspaper widely seen as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, accusing Bensouda of being a “hapless pawn of Palestinian terrorists”.

He suggested that other states threaten to pull their contributions, deny ICC staff the travel visas necessary for their investigations and even quit the court.

That would destroy any possibility of enforcing international law – an outcome that would delight both Israel and the US.

It would render ICC little more than a dead letter, just as Israel, backed by the US, prepares to press ahead with the West Bank’s annexation.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ICC, Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine 
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Here is one thing I can write with an unusual degree of certainty and confidence: Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin would not have been charged with the (third-degree) murder of George Floyd had the United States not been teetering on a knife edge of open revolt.

Had demonstrators not turned out in massive numbers on the streets and refused to be corralled back home by the threat of police violence, the US legal system would have simply turned a blind eye to Chauvin’s act of extreme brutality, as it has done before over countless similar acts.

Without the mass protests, it would have made no difference that Floyd’s murder was caught on camera, that it was predicted by Floyd himself in his cries of “I can’t breathe” as Chauvin spent nearly nine minutes pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck, or that the outcome was obvious to spectators who expressed their growing alarm as Floyd lost consciousness. At most, Chauvin would have had to face, as he had many times before, an ineffectual disciplinary investigation over “misconduct”.

Without the current ferocious mood of anger directed at the police and sweeping much of the nation, Chauvin would have found himself as immune from accountability and prosecution as so many police officers before him who gunned down or lynched black citizens.

Instead he is the first white police officer in the state of Minnesota ever to be criminally charged over the death of a black man. After initially arguing that there were mitigating factors to be considered, prosecutors hurriedly changed course to declare Chauvin’s indictment the fastest they had ever initiated. Yesterday Minneapolis’s police chief was forced to call the other three officers who stood by as Floyd was murdered in front of them “complicit”.

Confrontation, not contrition

If the authorities’ placatory indictment of Chauvin – on the least serious charge they could impose, based on incontrovertible evidence they could not afford to deny – amounts to success, then it is only a little less depressing than failure.

Worse still, though most protesters are trying to keep their demonstrations non-violent, many of the police officers dealing with the protests look far readier for confrontation than contrition. The violent attacks by police on protesters, including the use of vehicles for rammings, suggest that it is Chauvin’s murder charge – not the slow, barbaric murder of Floyd by one of their number – that has incensed fellow officers. They expect continuing impunity for their violence.

Similarly, the flagrant mistreatment by police of corporate media outlets simply for reporting developments, from the arrest of a CNN crew to physical assaults on BBC staff, underlines the sense of grievance harboured by many police officers when their culture of violence is exposed for all the world to see. They are not reeling it in, they are widening the circle of “enemies”.

Nonetheless, it is entirely wrong to suggest, as a New York Times editorial did yesterday, that police impunity can be largely ascribed to “powerful unions” shielding officers from investigation and punishment. The editorial board needs to go back to school. The issues currently being exposed to the harsh glare of daylight get to the heart of what modern states are there to do – matters rarely discussed outside of political theory classes.

Right to bear arms

The success of the modern state, like the monarchies of old, rests on the public’s consent, explicit or otherwise, to its monopoly of violence. As citizens, we give up what was once deemed an inherent or “natural” right to commit violence ourselves and replace it with a social contract in which our representatives legislate supposedly neutral, just laws on our behalf. The state invests the power to enforce those laws in a supposedly disciplined, benevolent police force – there to “protect and serve” – while a dispassionate court system judges suspected violators of those laws.

That is the theory, anyway.

In the case of the United States, the state’s monopoly on violence has been muddied by a constitutional “right to bear arms”, although, of course, the historic purpose of that right was to ensure that the owners of land and slaves could protect their “property”. Only white men were supposed to have the right to bear arms.

Today, little has changed substantively, as should be obvious the moment we consider what would have happened had it been black militia men that recently protested the Covid-19 lockdown by storming the Michigan state capitol, venting their indignation in the faces of white policemen.

(In fact, the US authorities’ reaction to the Black Panthers movement through the late 1960s and 1970s is salutary enough for anyone who wishes to understand how dangerous it is for a black man to bear arms in his own defence against the violence of white men.)

Brutish violence

The monopoly of violence by the state is justified because most of us have supposedly consented to it in an attempt to avoid a Hobbesian world of brutish violence where individuals, families and tribes enforce their own, less disinterested versions of justice.

But of course the state system is not as neutral or dispassionate as it professes, or as most of us assume. Until the struggle for universal suffrage succeeded – a practice that in all western states can be measured in decades, not centuries – the state was explicitly there to uphold the interests of a wealthy elite, a class of landed gentry and newly emerging industrialists, as well as a professional class that made society run smoothly for the benefit of that elite.

What was conceded to the working class was the bare minimum to prevent them from rising up against the privileges enjoyed by the rest of society.

That was why, for example, Britain did not have universal health care – the National Health Service – until after the Second World War, 30 years after men received the vote and 20 years after women won the same right. Only after the war did the British establishment start to fear that a newly empowered working class – of returning soldiers who knew how to bear arms, backed by women who had been released from the home to work on the land or in munitions factories to replace the departed men – might no longer be willing to accept a lack of basic health care for themselves and their loved ones.

It was in this atmosphere of an increasingly organised and empowered labour movement – reinforced by the need to engineer more consumerist societies to benefit newly emerging corporations – that European social democracy was born. (Paradoxically, the post-war US Marshall Plan helped subsidise the emergence of Europe’s major social democracies, including their public health care systems, even as similar benefits were denied domestically to Americans.)

Creative legal interpretations

 
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This is a column I have been mulling over for a while but, for reasons that should be immediately obvious, I have been hesitant to write. It is about 5G, vaccines, 9/11, aliens and lizard overlords. Or rather, it isn’t.

Let me preface my argument by making clear I do not intend to express any view about the truth or falsity of any of these debates – not even the one about reptile rulers. My refusal to publicly take a position should not be interpreted as my implicit endorsement of any of these viewpoints because, after all, only a crazy tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist sympathiser would refuse to make their views known on such matters.

Equally, my lumping together of all these disparate issues does not necessarily mean I see them as alike. They are presented in mainstream thinking as similarly proof of an unhinged, delusional, conspiracy-oriented mindset. I am working within a category that has been selected for me.

Truth and falsehood are not what this column is about. To consider these topics solely on the basis of whether they are true or false would distract from the critical thinking I wish to engage in here – especially since critical thinking is so widely discouraged in our societies. I want this column to deny a safe space to anyone emotionally invested in either side of these debates. (Doubtless, that will not deter those who would prefer to make mischief and misrepresent my argument. That is a hazard that comes with the territory.)

I am focusing on this set of issues now because some of them have been playing out increasingly loudly on social media as we cope with the isolation of lockdowns. People trapped at home have more time to explore the internet, and that means more opportunities to find often obscure information that may or may not be true. These kinds of debates are shaping our discursive landscape, and have profound political implications. It is these matters, not questions of truth, I want to examine in this column.

Social media and 5G

Let’s take 5G – the new, fifth-generation mobile phone technology – as an example. I am not a scientist, and I have done no research on 5G. Which is a very good reason why no one should be interested in what I have to say about the science or the safety of 5G. But like many people active on social media, I have been made aware – often with little choice on my part – of online debates about 5G and science.

https://twitter.com/gamray/status/1249639419369357312

Like TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, I have inevitably gained an impression of that debate. To a casual viewer, the debate looks (and we are discussing here appearances only) something like this:

a) State scientific advisers, as well as scientists whose jobs or research are financed by the mobile phone industry, are very certain that there are no dangers associated with 5G.

b) A few scientists (real ones, not evangelical pastors pretending to be former Vodafone executives) have warned that there has not been independent research on the health effects of 5G, that the technology has been rushed through for commercial reasons, and that the possible dangers posed long term to our health from constant exposure have not been properly assessed.

c) Other scientists in this specialist field, possibly the majority, are keeping their peace.

Business our new god

That impression might not be true. It may be that that is just the way social media has made the debate look. It is possible that on the contrary:

  • the research has been vigorously carried out, even if it does not appear to have been widely reported in the mainstream media,
  • mobile phone and other communication industries have not financed what research there is in an attempt to obtain results helpful to their commercial interests,
  • the aggressively competitive mobile phone industry has been prepared to sit back and wait several years for all safety issues to be resolved, unconcerned about the effects on their profits of such delays,
  • the industry has avoided using its money and lobbyists to buy influence in the corridors of power and advance a political agenda based on its commercial interests rather than on the science,
  • and individual governments, keen not to be left behind on a global battlefield in which they compete for economic, military and intelligence advantage, have collectively waited to see whether 5G is safe rather than try to undercut each other and gain an edge over allies and enemies alike.

All of that is possible. But anyone who has been observing our societies for the past few decades – where business has become our new god, and where corporate money seems to dominate our political systems more than the politicians we elect – would have at least reasonable grounds to worry that corners may have been cut, that political pressure may have been exerted, and that some scientists (who are presumably human like the rest of us) may have been prepared to prioritise their careers and incomes over the most rigorous science.

Looney-tunes conspiracism

Again, I am not a scientist. Even if the research has not been carried out properly and the phone industry has lobbied sympathetic politicians to advance its commercial interests, it is still possible that, despite all that, 5G is entirely safe. But as I said at the start, I am not here to express a view about the science of 5G.

I am discussing instead why it is not unreasonable or entirely irrational for a debate about the safety of 5G to have gone viral on social media while being ignored by corporate media; why a very mainstream TV presenter like Eamonn Holmes might suggest – to huge criticism – a need to address growing public concerns about 5G; why such concerns might quickly morph into fears of a connection between 5G and the current global pandemic; and why frightened people might decide to take things into their own hands by burning down 5G masts.

Explaining this chain of events is not the same as justifiying any of the links in that chain. But equally, dismissing all of it as simply looney-tunes conspiracism is not entirely reasonable or rational either.

The issue here is not really about 5G, it’s about whether our major institutions still hold public trust. Those who dismiss all concerns about 5G have a very high level of trust in the state and its institutions. Those who worry about 5G – a growing section of western populations , it seems – have very little trust in our institutions and increasingly in our scientists too. And the people responsible for that erosion of trust are our governments – and, if we are brutally honest, the scientists as well.

Information overload

 
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The Palestinians of Gaza know all about lockdowns. For the past 13 years, some two million of them have endured a closure by Israel more extreme than anything experienced by almost any other society – including even now, as the world hunkers down to try to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

Israel has been carrying out an unprecedented experiment in Gaza, using the latest military hardware and surveillance technology to blockade this tiny coastal enclave by land, air and sea.

Nothing moves in or out without Israel’s say-so – until three weeks ago, when the virus smuggled itself into Gaza inside two Palestinians returning from Pakistan. It is known to have spread to more than a dozen people so far, though doctors have no idea of the true extent. Testing equipment ran out days ago.

Unless Gaza enjoys a miraculous escape, an epidemic is only a matter of time. The consequences hardly bear contemplating.

Countries around the world are wondering what to do with their prison populations, aware that, once it takes hold, Covid-19 is certain to spread rapidly in crowded, enclosed spaces, leaving havoc in its wake.

Gaza is often compared to an open-air prison. But even this analogy is not quite right. This is a prison that the United Nations has warned is on the brink of being “uninhabitable”.

In the prison of Gaza, many inmates are undernourished, and physically and emotionally scarred by a decade of military assaults. They lack essentials such as clean water and electricity after repeated Israeli attacks on basic infrastructure. And the 13-year blockade means there is only rudimentary medical care if they get sick.

Social distancing is impossible in one of the most crowded places on earth. In Jabaliya, one of eight refugee camps in the enclave, there are 115,000 people packed together in little more than a square kilometre. Comparable population density nearby in Israel is typically measured in the hundreds.

There are few clinics and hospitals to cope. According to human rights groups, Gaza has approximately 60 ventilators – most of them already in use. Israel has 15 times as many ventilators per head of population.

There is little in the way of protective gear. And medicines are already in short supply or unavailable, even before the virus hits. Gaza’s infant mortality – an important measure of medical and social conditions – is more than seven times higher than Israel’s. Life expectancy is 10 years lower.

Unlike a normal prison, Gaza’s warden – Israel – denies responsibility for the inmates’ welfare. Since it carried out a so-called “disengagement” 15 years ago, dismantling illegal settlements there, Israel has argued – against all evidence – that it is no longer the occupying power.

That should have been proved an obvious lie when Palestinians, choking on their isolation and deprivation, began rallying in protest two years ago at the perimeter fence that acts as a cage locking them in. Demonstrators were greeted with live fire from Israeli snipers.

Around 200 people were killed, and many thousands left with horrific injuries, mostly to their legs. Medical services are still overwhelmed by the need for long-term surgery, amputations and rehabilitation for the disabled protesters.

What is already a crisis barely needs a nudge from the coronavirus to be tipped into a health disaster.

And with most of the population already below the poverty line, after Israel’s blockade destroyed Gaza’s textile, construction and agricultural industries, the economy is no shape to withstand an epidemic either.

Most governments, including Israel’s, maintain a degree of control even in the face of this most unexpected emergency. They could prepare for it, even if many were slow to do so. They can marshall factories to produce ventilators and protective equipment. And they have the resources to rebuild their health services and economies afterwards.

If they fail in these tasks, it will be their failure.

But Gaza is entirely dependent on Israel and an international community preoccupied with its own troubles. Even if health authorities can secure ventilators and protective equipment in the current, highly competitive global market, Israel will decide whether to let them in. Equally, it could choose to seize them for its own use, in order to placate growing domestic criticism that it is short of vital equipment.

The blame for Gaza’s plight – now and in the future – lands squarely at Israel’s door.

Israel should be helping Gaza, but it is doing the precise opposite. Last week, Israeli planes sprayed herbicide to destroy the crops of Gaza’s farmers – part of a policy to keep clear sight-lines for Israeli military forces.

Moreover, in this time of crisis, Gaza’s food insecurity is only set to deepen. For the past year, Israel has been starving both Gaza and the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank of the taxes and duties it collects on their behalf and that rightfully belong to the Palestinian people. Many families have no money for food.

The US has aggravated this financial crisis by cutting funds to the United Nations refugee agency, UNRWA, which cares for many of Gaza’s families expelled by Israel from their homes decades ago and forcibly crowded into the enclave.

The little influence retained by Hamas relates to the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held illegally in Israel. Hamas wants them out, especially the most vulnerable, aware of the danger the virus poses to them in Israel, where the contagion is more advanced.

It is reported to be trying to negotiate a release of prisoners, offering to return the corpses of two soldiers it seized during Israel’s infamous attack on Gaza in 2014 that killed more than 500 Palestinian children.

If Israel refuses to trade, as seems likely, or denies entry to much-needed medical supplies, Gaza’s only other practical leverage will be to fire missiles into Israel, as Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has threatened. That is the one time western states can be expected to notice Gaza and voice their condemnation – though not of Israel.

But if plague does overwhelm Gaza, the truth about who is really responsible will be hard to conceal.

Modelling the horrifying conditions in Gaza, Israeli experts warned last year of an epidemic like cholera sweeping the enclave. They predicted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians storming the fence to escape contagion and death.

It is the Israeli army’s nightmare scenario. It admits it has no response other than – as with the fence protests – to gun down those pleading for help.

For decades Israel has pursued a policy of treating Palestinians as less than human. It has minutely controlled their lives while denying any meaningful responsibility for their welfare. That deeply unethical and inhumane stance could soon face the ultimate test.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Coronavirus, Gaza, Israel/Palestine 
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