If Israel wants to be treated like a normal state, it should act like one

This article first appeared on the Middle East Monitor on 29/8/2016

Image from the Mddle East Monitor

Israel is not a normal state, but has craved to be treated as such ever since its creation in historic Palestine, against the will of the indigenous Palestinian people, in 1948. It sometimes claims its legitimacy from the UN partition plan, the terms of which bear no resemblance to the area currently controlled by the state; at other times Israelis refer to Biblical connections, which they claim to extend over the whole of Palestine. Exceptionally, proponents of Israel claim that only the followers of Judaism and no other faith are entitled to a state or homeland in the land of their choosing, regardless of who inhabited that land when they claimed it.

To this day, Israel remains a state without declared borders; it is the illegal occupier of another people’s land, whose rights under occupation it has flouted for the past 49 years. Israel claims to be a Western-style “democratic” state but only certain inhabitants of the land it has controlled since 1967 – basically all of historic Palestine – have a right to vote in its elections. It claims to want peace based on a two-state solution but has been implementing policies to ensure that there will only ever be one state, Israel, the borders of which are those of historic Palestine, and where people are defined by a sophisticated system of identity cards, driving cars with differently coloured number plates. It operates different laws for different people; civil law for Israelis but military law for Palestinians in the occupied territories. The law applied to Israeli citizens discriminates between Jews and non-Jews. This discrimination extends to land purchase, which gives Jews rights over non-Jews.

So Israel is clearly not a normal state, because a normal state does not build homes and towns for one ethnic group, to the exclusion of others. Israel does this by building illegally Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Further, in some towns within its nominal border, it allows “admissions committees” to decide whether residents will allow other citizens to live there; it is usually Jewish citizens who make these decisions and non-Jewish citizens who are excluded.

A normal state does not regularly demolish the homes of the people it occupies, or evict their occupants so that it can move its ethnically-chosen citizens into them. Israel does this.

A normal state does not besiege an occupied area for over ten years. Israel has done this with Gaza, the most densely populated place on earth. It controls the entry and exit of goods and people. A normal state does not does not then attack the people living under siege repeatedly with the most destructive weapons on earth, short of nuclear warheads. Israel does.

A normal state does not repeatedly attack neighbouring states with impunity. Israel has done this to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A normal state does not exist in one continent but play its sport in another. Israel does; it is in Asia but plays football in Europe.

A normal state does not violate agreements it signs, as Israel has done with the Oslo agreement and repeated ceasefire agreements with the Palestinians in Gaza.

A normal state does not carry out extrajudicial killings against the people living under its military occupation. Again, Israel does this with impunity.

A normal state does not treat children in the territory it occupies with the cruelty that Israel displays; it abducts children in the night and takes them before military courts in shackles.

The list of abnormal acts that Israel carries out is endless and developing on an almost daily basis. It is therefore hypocritical of it and its leaders to claim that it should be treated as a normal state.

This expectation was tested recently in incidents at the Rio Olympic Games involving the Lebanese team and an Egyptian judo player. The games had not even started when what turned out to be a misguided decision by the organisers became a major incident as teams were making their way to the Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremony. In this now well-documented incident the Lebanese team refused to share a bus with their Israeli counterparts. Israel saw this as discrimination. “How could they let something like this happen on the eve of the Olympic opening ceremony?” complained one Israeli official. “Isn’t this contrary to what the Olympics stand for? … I’m in shock from the incident.” Those not familiar with the Arab-Israeli conflict would see no problem in any two teams from either end of the globe, let alone neighbours, sharing a bus.

However, this almost paled into insignificance compared to the now famous shunning by Egyptian Judoka Islam El-Shehabi of the extended hand of his Israeli opponent Or Sasson, after his defeat in the qualifying rounds of the 100 kg competition. El-Shehabi himself, who had come under pressure at home not to compete, said: “I have no problem with Jewish people or any other religions or different beliefs but for personal reasons you can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the world.” Although the Egyptian’s appearance for the bout was seen as progress by many, this was not the official line. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said El-Shehabi’s action was “contrary to the rules of fair play” and against the spirit of friendship exemplified by the games. He was reprimanded by the IOC and sent home by his team.

However, a normal state would not withhold the Olympic kit of the representatives of the people it occupies and ban their officials from travel, as Israel did. Furthermore, it would not restrict the movement of its sporting teams both within the occupied territories and to the outside world. Israel does this all the time. Its soldiers recently fired tear gas into a stadium where a Palestinian football match was taking place.

Away from the sporting arena, Israel claims that it faces discrimination in many ways, particularly from UN bodies. It insists that the UN Human Rights Council singles it out for special and disproportionate treatment. However, which other state violates so many aspects of international law and international humanitarian law, and has done so since its creation? The answer is simple: not one.

Israel is currently facing a campaign by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was called for by Palestinian civil society to place pressure on the state to behave in a “normal” way by adhering to international law. The BDS campaign was launched because of the failure of the international community to pressure Israel to conform to “normal” behaviour. Its call for an end to the occupation, equal rights for all citizens and the right of return for Palestinian refugees is peaceful, legal and highly moral. However, Israel has once again cried wolf and claims that BDS is not only discriminatory but also “anti-Semitic” because it targets “the only Jewish state” in the world. The fact is that there would be no need for a BDS movement if Israel behaved like a “normal” state.

Hence, if Israel really does want to be treated like a normal state it must first behave like one. It is currently so far away from such a designation that it merits being seen as the pariah, the rogue state that it is. Its leaders choose this status by their decisions to act in the ways that it does, not its critics. Israel should begin the process of change or risk further isolation and condemnation as even its most loyal allies begin to see what an embarrassment it is to them.

Hey Israel, give Palestinians a sporting chance

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


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.