Hey Israel, give Palestinians a sporting chance

First published by the Middle East Eye on 11/8/2016

rio-2016

The troubles of the Middle East have followed the Olympic flame to Rio de Janeiro for the Brazilian games.

An early controversy erupted even before the teams reached the Maracana Stadium.

The Lebanese and Israeli delegations clashed when the organisers planned for the two teams to travel together to the opening ceremony, presumably assuming sport would override politics and that, given the chance to mingle, citizens of the two countries would welcome the opportunity.

The now well-documented incident showed that only a naive organiser would have failed to assume this would be a non-starter.

The Lebanese delegation head refused to let the Israeli team board the coach and the teams travelled separately. It was ironic that the Israeli sailing team coach complained about this act of discrimination when he must know of the discrimination that Israel practices against Palestinians with the building of roads and towns designed and constructed for Jews only.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also impacted the start of the games: the six members of the Palestinian team – including 55-year-old dressage rider and German businessman Christian Zimmerman – travelled to the games without their official uniforms and equipment, impounded by Israeli customs.

Before the games began, as Munther Masalmeh, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Olympic Committee told the media, the team’s gear had not cleared customs yet.

“We got one shipment several months ago and we have not been able to bring it in,” he said. “We were forced to travel without our equipment and to buy them instead in Brazil.”

In a further act of interference in the Palestinian Olympic delegation, Israel banned Issam Qishta, the head of the Palestinian delegation, from leaving the Gaza Strip to join the Rio-bound team.

“We do our best to let him leave as soon as possible,” Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, said.

Playing politics

Israeli interference in Palestinian sporting affairs is nothing new. Recently, Israel banneds everal players from Gaza’s Ittihad Al-Shejaiya football team from crossing into the West Bank through the Eriz border to play the final match of the Palestine football cup against Ahli Al-Khalil from Hebron in the West Bank.

The first leg of the cup final, which took place in Gaza, marked the first visit by Ahli Alkhalil to the Strip in 15 years. However, several players on the West Bank team faced difficultiesentering Gaza. The first leg ended in a goalless draw.

Under apparent pressure from football’s world governing body FIFA, Israel eventually allowed the Gaza players to cross into the West bank for the rearranged second leg which the West Bank team won.

Over the years, FIFA has had to play a key mediation role between the Palestine Football Federation (PFA) and the Israeli Football Federation (IFA). Palestinians believe Israel deliberately hampers their efforts to develop the game, both at club and at a national team level, largely through restrictions of movement within the occupied territories.

Israel also decides which Palestinian players can leave the territories for training or tournaments abroad and which foreign-based Palestinian members of the national team can enter the occupied territories.

Additionally, Israel decides which foreign teams can enter the occupied territories for games or tournaments.

Israel has also targeted individual Palestinian footballers including Gaza-based star Mahmoud Sarsak, who was arrested at the Erez crossing en route to play in a game in the West Bank and was held without charge for three years before embarking on a hunger strike in 2012 to protest his detention. He ended his hunger strike after 90 days in exchange for early release.

Young, aspiring footballers have also been targeted by occupation forces. In January 2014, Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, were shot by Israeli soldiers as they were walking home from a training session in the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium in al-Ram in the central West Bank.

A month later, the two youngsters learnt that they could never play sport again as a result of their injuries.

Oppression on and off the field

The continued Israeli interference finally led the Palestinian Football Association to table a motion at FIFA’s fifth congress in 2015, asking for Israel’s suspension.

After much huffing and puffing, the PFA chief Jibril Rajoub dropped the motion under pressure from other delegates and with a view to setting up committees to monitor the situation.

“I am here to play football, rather than to play politics. I want to end suffering,” he said at the time.

“I decided to drop the suspension, but it does not mean that I give up the resistance. A lot of colleagues who I respect and I appreciate explained to me how it is painful for them to hear in this family about the issue of suspension.”

As the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate for Palestinian football, Israel’s meddling with the Olympic team is symptomatic of the wider oppressive policies against the Palestinian people, a case of politics impacting every aspect of Palestinian life.

What does Israel gain from upsetting young atheletes? It chooses to incite young Palestinians to hate their occupier, inciting and reminding Palestinians that they are occupied, on a daily basis, something that cannot be tolerated. The free world should heap pressure on Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a result.

Rather than upset Palestinian athletes and engender hatred, Israel can surely gain more from them focusing on training and competing at the highest possible level.

A state which is looking to coexist with the people with whom it shares a land would find no better starting place to develop this than with sports, music and culture.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Faced with a choice of peace and BDS, Israel chooses BDS

first published by the Middle East Monitor on 10 August 2016

Israel’s recent decision to form a taskforce to target Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists for deportation is in stark contrast to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent claim that BDS had been defeated. Speaking at a special session of the State Control Committee on the Foreign Ministry and Israel’s public diplomacy, Netanyahu dismissed claims of Israeli failures against the BDS movement. Instead he claimed “we are acting against BDS and this is why they are on the defensive.” He noted that “anti-Israel activists” around the world are now being forced to fight over the issue of whether they even have a right to boycott Israel. “They are taking hits of many fronts. We have beaten them.”

It seems rather bizarre then that on Sunday 7 August, Israeli Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri and Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan decided to form a joint task force to “expel and ban the entry of BDS activists” into Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. They stated that “we must not allow BDS activists to enter the State of Israel. This is a necessary step, given the malicious intentions of these activists to delegitimise and spread lies and distortions about the reality in our region.” Erdan added that the boycott movement against Israel “must have a price.”

“Fighting against Israeli boycott starts by fighting those who undermine the State of Israel,” Deri said. “We have a responsibility to do everything possible to crush any boycott and to state clearly that we will not allow the State of Israel to be harmed. Forming the task force is an important step in that direction.”

The Palestinian BDS National Committee strongly condemned the establishment of the taskforce. Abdulrahman Abunahel, a spokesperson for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, commented that “deporting BDS activists in order to silence them and undermine their principled support for Palestinian human rights is not only anti-democratic; it is yet another incident of Israel shooting itself in the foot. If anything, we expect such acts of heightened repression to boost support for boycotting Israel back in these activists’ home countries.”

“This latest weapon in the intensifying Israeli legal, espionage and propaganda war against the BDS movement for Palestinian rights is a strong indicator of how desperate and irrational Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid has become in its futile attempts to hinder the impressive growth of the BDS movement around the world.”

Israel, it seems, is struggling to find a solution to its continually declining reputation despite throwing millions of shekels at it in recent years. Strategic Affairs Ministry Director General Sima Vaknin told Israeli lawmakers recently that Israel is perceived a “pariah state” in the international community. Vaknin made her comments during a meeting of the Knesset’s Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information. She committed to “reversing this stance in the next decade”, adding that “victory for me will be a change of narrative in the world toward Israel – that the narrative in the world won’t be that Israel equals apartheid,” Vaknin said. “[T]oday in the countries of the world, Israel is a pariah state. Our goal is that in 2025 no one in the world will question Israel’s right to exist.”

It seems the penny is finally dropping in Israel that a major effort is needed to deal with its declining image.  However, as it has done in the past, its strategy is flawed because it once again plans to deal with the effect and not the fundamental cause. It sees BDS as a strategic threat which it claims delegitimises the state. How can a peaceful movement which has at its core three legal and moral demands be a strategic threat to one of the strongest military states in the world? How can calls for ending the illegal occupation, for equality for all citizens and the respect and promotion of the right of return for Palestinian refugees be a strategic threat?

The strategic threat to Israel, if it exists at the alarming level it claims, comes from its own policies, which are designed to entrench its illegal occupation and which have in my view ended any prospect for the long touted two-state solution. It comes from its continual pursuit of discriminatory roles and actions against its own non-Jewish citizens. Fundamentally though it comes from Israel’s refusal to acknowledge the wrong committed against the Palestinian people through its creation on their land and without their consent. For as long as it continues to refuse to see Palestinians both under occupation and its own citizens as equal to its Jewish citizens it will fail to sell a narrative of a “normal state” that is a victim.

Israel delegitimises Palestine and the Palestinian people on a daily basis, fighting tooth and nail to wipe away our history, culture and snuff our aspirations for freedom, independence and return. Its strategy will fail because of the steadfastness of the Palestinians and the growing support for their cause. When US Secretary of State John Kerry launched his last round of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis in 2013, he warned Israel that if the talks failed it would face boycotts on steroids. Israel is now facing this because when it has been called on to choose between a just peace and BDS, it chooses BDS and then blames others for its self-inflicted delegitimisation strategy.

Britain should apologise for the Balfour Declaration, not ‘celebrate’ it

Published by the Middle East Monitor 

6/8/2016


Image from Middle East Monitor

The Balfour Declaration is a letter from the then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This was a prime example of colonial arrogance by which Britain, which was not then in occupation of Palestine, promised the Zionist Federation, which did not represent all Jews, without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, the Palestinians, to facilitate the creation of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The letter was dated 2 November 1917.

Thus, November 2017 will mark the centenary of Balfour and rumours abound that the British government plans to mark it in some form. Israel’s recently arrived Ambassador Mark Regev claimed: “It’s being taken very seriously at the highest levels. We’re hoping to do a public celebration together with the British government.” The former spokesman for Israel’s prime minister talked up the possible events, saying that “senior leadership from both sides [will be] uniting to celebrate Balfour.”

The Balfour Declaration is a letter from the then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This was a prime example of colonial arrogance by which Britain, which was not then in occupation of Palestine, promised the Zionist Federation, which did not represent all Jews, without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, the Palestinians, to facilitate the creation of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The letter was dated 2 November 1917.
Thus, November 2017 will mark the centenary of Balfour and rumours abound that the British government plans to mark it in some form. Israel’s recently arrived Ambassador Mark Regev claimed: “It’s being taken very seriously at the highest levels. We’re hoping to do a public celebration together with the British government.” The former spokesman for Israel’s prime minister talked up the possible events, saying that “senior leadership from both sides [will be] uniting to celebrate Balfour.”

Former British Prime Minster David Cameron told leaders of the Jewish community, “I want to make sure we mark it together in the most appropriate way.” He said this without any consultation with British Palestinians about whether, and how, they would wish to see the Balfour centenary commemorated. This seems to be at best misguided and, at worst, a demonstration of Britain’s double standards when it comes to the Palestine-Israel issue. Israel was not established on empty land; it has been built on the homeland of the Palestinian people. How then can it be logical for the British government not to consult the Palestinians, either in Palestine or in the UK, about the Balfour centenary?

The notion that Britain should “celebrate” the Balfour Declaration is extremely offensive to every British Palestinian I have talked to and to the Palestinian leadership. Balfour gave the green light to the Zionist movement, which perpetuated the lie that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. The truth is that Jews, like Muslims and Christians, were citizens of many countries, including Syria and Iraq, and Palestine was inhabited by a people, the mainly Muslim but also Christian and Jewish, Palestinians. Had Israel not been created in Palestine, it is quite logical to assume that Palestine would have eventually gained independence and that Arab Jews, just like their Christian and Muslim brethren, would have continued to live in all the Arab countries in which they had thrived for centuries.

The Balfour Declaration and Britain’s League of Nations Mandate rule in Palestine were key reasons for the growth of Jewish migration to Palestine, which accelerated following the Second World War and the Holocaust. The creation of Israel as Britain rushed to abandon Palestine left the Palestinians at the mercy of murderous Zionist terror groups hell-bent on expelling as many if not all of them from their homeland. The injustice felt in the Middle East at the creation of Israel also contributed to the tensions that led to Arab Jews leaving their home countries for the nascent Zionist state.

The injustice of the lack of a viable Palestinian state and the continuing refugee catastrophe continues to this day. How can Britain celebrate this? Even if Britain claims that it is not “celebrating” Balfour, but simply “marking” the document’s centenary, that will also offend Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation in Palestine, and in the refugee camps of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the diaspora.

If fair minded people read the text of the Balfour Declaration and then look at what happened subsequently, they will surely find it difficult to accept that the conditions implicit in the British government’s “favour” have been fulfilled. Israel brazenly flouts the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” on a daily basis, and has done since its creation in 1948. Its illegal occupation continues to oppress, humiliate and generate hatred. Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip — described by David Cameron as “a prison” — continues unabated. House demolitions in the first half of 2016 are already markedly up on 2015. Settler violence has escalated and Jewish terror has taken the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The fact is that Britain has not even recognised Palestine as a state following the October 2014 Parliamentary vote requesting the government to do so. Add to this that 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and other Arab land and Israel’s refusal to end this, and it is obvious that any reasonable person would say that a “celebration” of the Balfour Declaration would be completely inappropriate. If you do something shameful, as Britain did, from a Palestinian perspective, then you would do far better to apologise for it than to mark or celebrate it.

The argument for a celebration of Balfour is that the Jewish community in Britain see the creation of Israel as a major achievement in which the declaration played a major part. However, not all British Jews share this view. Has the government consulted widely even within the Jewish community about possible Balfour events? There is no evidence that it has. If it does mark the centenary in some way then it should know that there will be many Jews in Britain siding with the oppressed Palestinians to mark the Catastrophe (Nakba) that the creation of the state of Israel represents to them. Discussions among Palestinian groups in Britain and supporters of justice for Palestine are ongoing in order to formulate a suitable response to the governments’ intentions.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership has finally stirred itself and threatened to sue Britain for the Balfour Declaration. What that really means and to which court the Palestinians would make a case remains unknown. It may be yet prove to be another example of the Palestinian leadership making grandiose claims which lead to nothing and are then retracted. This, though, remains to be seen.

As we approach 2017 with Israel entrenching its military occupation of Palestine and senior politicians articulating their rejection of a Palestinian state, Britain should avoid inflaming the situation by marking Balfour in any way. A more helpful act would be to establish an inquiry into Britain’s role in the creation of Israel and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Its role would be to establish the facts and to assess how justice can be brought to the Holy Land as the Balfour centenary approaches. This would be far better than “celebrating” what is indeed a dark chapter of Britain’s colonial history.