Obituary: Farewell to Rim Banna, Palestinian cultural icon

First published by the Arab Weekly on 1/4/2018

Banna performed her music in a youthful, magical manner, which reached deep into the hearts of her audiences.
A 2009 file picture shows Palestinian singer Rim Banna performing during a concert in Damascus. (AFP)
Prolific legacy. A 2009 file picture shows Palestinian singer Rim Banna performing during a concert in Damascus. (AFP)

I never had the honour of meeting Rim Banna or hearing her sing in person but that did not stop me from shedding a tear when I heard she had succumbed to her illness a few days after Mother’s Day. She died March 24 in her birthplace, Nazareth, at the age of 51 after a 9-year battle with breast cancer.

My tears were for the loss of a Palestinian cultural icon and a supporter of justice whose smile lit up every photo or video I had seen of her. Her smile transcended borders and reached into every Palestinian home from China to Chile, from Finland to Cape Town.

If proof were needed of where her biggest love lay, it came during her funeral when mourners movingly recited “Mawtini”

(“My Homeland”), the unofficial national anthem of Palestine. Banna dedicated her life and much of her art to the homeland of 13 million Palestinians of all nationalities and faiths — Palestine.

Banna was a singer, composer, musical arranger and activist. She was immersed in Palestinian culture from an early age. Her mother is poet Zuhaira Sabbagh. Her formal musical education was undertaken at the Higher Music Conservatory in Moscow. That is where she met Ukrainian guitarist Leonid Alexeyenko, whom she married in 1991, a marriage that lasted 19 years. She raised their children alone from then on.

The training she had in Russia broadened her musical skills, which she skilfully applied to develop modern interpretations of traditional Palestinian songs. She was particularly successful in using her rapporteur of skills and talent to breathe new life into children’s songs and popular women’s melodies without divorcing them from their or her Palestinian roots.

Banna performed her music in a youthful, magical manner, which reached deep into the hearts of her audiences. Her music has been described as “haunting, emotional, at times bordering on kitsch.” She said her music was a means of cultural self-assertion.

She wrote and composed her own songs and added melodies to poetry, including works by Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim.

Her message often focused on the suffering of Palestinians. She sang of the stolen homeland, of the children of the refugee camps, of the bleeding youth of Gaza on the way to long-awaited freedom.

Where she could, Banna performed concerts, such as in Jerusalem and the West Bank. For places she could not reach in person, such as Gaza, she made webcasts to reach her fans.

Banna was not only an ambassador for Palestinian music and song but also for traditional Palestinian dress, as she was always clad in embroidered Palestinian clothing and large, antique silver jewellery.

Her cultural legacy consists of at least ten albums, stories, songs, thousands of words, films she appeared in and jewellery she designed.

Banna will be remembered for being one of the first artists to call for a cultural boycott of Israel. She could not understand the hypocrisy of artists whose work encouraged resistance and called for liberation but who also agreed to perform in an occupying country.

She applied the occupation theme to her battle with cancer, describing it as the occupier in her body. She resisted it with all her power, despite losing her wild, curly hair. Some of the most iconic photographs were of her with a shaved head, which enunciated her big eyes and a smile that lit the image, defiant and strong.

In 2016, Banna lost the ability to sing after cancer ravaged her vocal chords. Surgery could not resurrect her beautiful voice but she could still speak. “It’s not the same thing but I will continue to sing to my people, as long as I breathe,” she said then.

I bet Rim Banna is looking down on us with her beaming smile, happy that, even in death, she strengthened the bond between Palestinians and their homeland as more of her compatriots scoured the internet for her songs, which they will learn and hum for years.

Farewell, Rim Banna. You are in a better place but we promise you that the young will not forget Palestine and your music will outlast us all to provide them and generations after that, if need be, inspiration to carry on the fight for freedom, justice and equality.

Deep concern as Israeli laws entrench the occupation

First published by the Arab Weekly on 26/3/2017

Photo: Remembering. Palestinian woman gestures in the village of Khirbet Zakaria with a view of the Israeli Gush Etzion settlement block seen in the background, on March 5th. (AFP)

London – Israel has recently passed or initiated laws that can be con­sidered an entrenching of its occupation of the Palestinian territories, bringing to an end the possibility of a just two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The measures adopted or going through the Israeli parliament are designed to facilitate Israel gain­ing control of more Palestinian land and silence legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.

The instruments Israel is using to control more Palestinian land include the regulation bill, which is designed to retroactively legal­ise 4,000 Jewish Israeli homes that were previously deemed illegal un­der Israel’s own laws.

The bill, supported by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netan­yahu, was condemned by human rights group Peace Now, which described it as a “fatal blow to de­mocracy” that would “turn Israeli citizens to thieves and stain Israel’s law books”.

British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Tobias Ellwood expressed “deep concern” about the bill and urged the Israeli government to “recon­sider” it at the earliest opportunity. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit called the law “uncon­stitutional”, indicating it was likely to be struck down by the Israeli Su­preme Court.

In a further attempt to entrench its control, Israel has been consid­ering annexing parts of the West Bank. This would involve passing a bill to apply Israeli law to land in the occupied Palestinian territories. A bill to annex the 40,000-person Jewish-only settlement of Maale Adumim was to be considered by the Knesset’s Ministerial Commit­tee on Legislation.

However, this was postponed as Netanyahu was meeting with US President Donald Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt. The delay in the bill’s consideration is a signal that the Trump administration carries tremendous influence on Israeli ac­tions, which could either check its expansionist policies or unleash an unprecedented land grab.

On February 12th, Israeli minis­ters endorsed a draft bill that would restrict the Muslim call to prayer. In the draft, the Muslim call to prayer, an integral part of Palestinian cul­ture and history since the siege of Jerusalem in 637AD — has been in­sultingly characterised as “noise pollution”.

Those initiating the bill argued that the call to prayer disturbed non-Muslims or more specifically illegal settlers who have moved into predominantly Palestinian ar­eas, including East Jerusalem.

MK Motti Yogev, one of the bill’s sponsors, defended it saying: “This is a social-minded law that aims to protect citizens’ sleep, without, God-forbid, harming anyone’s reli­gious faith.”

However, Tzipi Livni, a leader of the Zionist Union party and a for­mer Foreign minister, said “proud Israelis” should oppose legislation that would only “spread hate and ignite tensions” between Muslims and Jews. The bill drew condemna­tion from all sectors of Palestinian society, both Muslim and Christian.

Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi accused the bill’s proponents of “commit­ting a racist act”. The bill should be seen alongside increasing actions by Israel to exert more control on al-Aqsa mosque, which antagonises Muslims and Christian Palestinians.

In another batch of proposed measures, Israel has moved to si­lence criticism of its policies by its own citizens and foreigners. The new law allows Knesset mem­bers to pursue the impeachment of lawmakers if their actions and ideology “negate the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incite racism, or express support for an armed struggle against the State of Israel by an enemy state or terrorist or­ganisation”.

An affirmative vote from 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members would be needed for the impeachment to pass. In reality, this would target Arab Knesset members, including Haneen Zoabi, who is a vocal critic of Israeli policies.

More recently Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan indicated his wish to set up a database of Israeli citizens “who are involved in pro­moting and supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel or the settlements”.

This follows the passing of a measure in July 2016 that compels Israeli non-governmental organisa­tions to declare sources of funding if they come from “foreign state entities” but not from private dona­tions.

The European Union criticised the proposal, stating that “the re­porting requirements imposed by the new law go beyond the legiti­mate need for transparency and seem aimed at constraining the ac­tivities of these civil society organi­sations working in Israel”.

Israel’s latest attempt to silence critics was the passing of a law on March 6th that bans proponents of BDS from entering the country. The first victim of this law was Hugh Lanning, chairman of Britain’s Pal­estine Solidarity Campaign. He was refused entry and sent home be­cause of the campaign’s promotion of BDS.

The Palestinians too should take back control of their destiny

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 12/12/2016

Israeli soldiers in riot gear in East Jerusalem [file photo]

From the Middle East Monitor

2016 will be remembered for a new phrase that came to characterise popular uprisings against “the establishment” in the West. From the UK to the USA, “taking back control” struck a chord with the voters when it was adopted by Donald Trump in America and the leaders of BREXIT in the UK. The now infamous image in the golden lift at Trump Tower of President-elect Trump and UKIP’s Nigel Farage was made possible because voters wanted to take back control and thought they would secure it.

The Palestinians too want to take back control of their destiny but how can they achieve this?

In a year which saw their dreams of liberation, freedom and independence dashed once again, they feel their reliance on others to deliver these aims has simply failed. In reality though, it is their leadership which has failed because it has chosen to rely on others to deliver Palestinian rights, but also because it relies on others to ensure its very existence through funding. The Palestinian Authority has also suffocated attempts by the people to rise up against the occupation either collectively or through individual endeavours. As President Abbas has declared repeatedly, the “security cooperation” with Israel is “sacred”, though he does not admit that it only works one way, protecting Israel and never the Palestinians.

Fatah’s seventh congress

Fatah, the ruling party recently held its congress in Ramallah, the seventh since its establishment in 1959. It included a marathon three-hour speech by its past, present and future (elected by acclimation) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in which he reiterated his strategy for delivering Palestinian rights. In summary its internal strategy included reconciliation with Hamas, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, holding the Palestinian National Council. Its external strategy included continued negotiations with Israel, a “smart intifada”, pursuit of Israel through the ICC and continued “internationalisation” of the conflict through membership of organisations.

Internal matters

The reconciliation with Hamas is essential as a united Palestinian people and leadership can put to bed Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with or that the “moderate” Abbas cannot deliver on any agreements because Hamas runs Gaza. Reconciliation would also allow the Palestinian elections, long overdue, to finally take place. Abbas was firm in his insistence that “there can be no Palestinian state without the Gaza Strip.”

Abbas was not very forthcoming on what he meant by the “smart intifada” or “intifada of brains” though he did ask “the leadership” to be out there resisting peacefully with the people.

External matters

Peace talks have been dormant even since US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative failed back in 2014 and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza. Attempts at bringing the two sides together have failed to this day and despite Abbas’ brief meeting with Netanyahu at Shimon Peres’s funeral, the two men have not met. It has not been for lack of trying. Abbas confirmed that although he had accepted an invitation from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to meet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the latter declined the same invitation.

Attempts by France to bring the two men together and to hold a peace conference have also met with Palestinian acceptance and Israeli rejection. Israel’s spin on the reason for the rejection is that the meeting would follow a French-led peace conference, which it considers an effort to impose a settlement on it. Netanyahu spoke to Hollande and said that “if there is no international conference in Paris, the prime minister will come to meet Abu Mazen [Abbas] for direct talks without preconditions.” Israel further claimed that it will “not take part in an international conference that will not contribute to achieving peace”.

In reality, Israel is watching with satisfaction the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration in the US and expecting to be shielded further from any attempts to make a Palestinian state a reality. Why then should it engage wit Putin, Hollande or any other “broker” when Trump will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and his team do not see the two-state solution as explicitly part of his administration’s strategy?

Options for the Palestinians

The Palestinian leadership has largely relied on unwavering support for the Palestinian cause from the Arab and Muslim world. It regularly consults both about steps it plans to take to ensure they are on board. They in turn have been steadfast in their support for the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel, particularly in international bodies. The Arab League also adopted the Arab Peace Initiative back in 2002, offering Israel normalisation of relations in return for ending the occupation of Palestinian and other Arab land. US Secretary of State John Kerry pushed the Arab states further to including “land swaps” in the initiative back in 2013. Israel has still not accepted the initiative to this day.

Arab states have also worked closely with the Palestinians in the United Nations, putting down resolutions both to the General Assembly and the Security Council. Their efforts in the Security Council have been scuppered by the US veto or US pressure on members that haVE led to potential resolutions falling by default. This included a resolution for the admission of Palestine as a full member. This pushed the Palestinians to the General Assembly to secure an upgrade in Palestine’s status to “Non-Member Observer state” in 2012, perhaps their most notable success in recent years. This was not only because it again demonstrated the overwhelming support for Palestinian rights, but because it allowed Palestine to join a multitude of international organisations and accords. This included the International Criminal Court (ICC) and UNESCO.

The ICC is still considering whether it can bring cases against Israelis involved in the 2014 war on Gaza and illegal settlements. The wheels of justice move slowly and to date the ICC has not declared whether and when it will bring cases against suspected Israeli war criminals. However, in a recent report, the court significantly confirmed that Israel was still in occupation of Gaza and that Jerusalem was illegally annexed. Israel suspects this indicates a leaning by the ICC towards the Palestinian view.

The ICC is one plank of the Palestinian “internationalisation of the conflict” strategy. Another important body is the UN Human Rights Council, which – due to a lack of US veto – often calls out Israeli actions in contravention of international law. The UNHRC produced an important report on the 2014 Gaza war which accused both Israel and Hamas of possible war crimes.

A further significant plank of internationalisation is seeking protection for Palestinian cultural and religious sites through UNESCO’s membership. This again showed some success when UNESCO adopted a motion condemning Israel’s activities around Muslim sits in Jerusalem and while this eventually watered down under pressure from Israel’s supporting states; it still showed what the Palestinians can achieve through careful diplomacy and through their own efforts.

On the ground a recent refusal by PA security forces to allow Israeli army vehicles to enter Jenin is very much in line with the Oslo accords which included Jenin in “Area A” which handed security in the city to the PA. Again, an example of how Palestinians can take matters into their own hands using existing accords and international law.

As President Trump moves closer to the White House and having declared his support for Israel including a commitment to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the PA is still banking on a last minute move by the Obama administration. It is sending a delegation to Washington to seek support for or at least an abstention, for a possible UNSC resolution condemning settlements. Despite suspicions that in its last few days the Obama administration may support such a move, I am not hopeful.

This should signal to the Palestinian leadership that relying on the US or other countries that support Israel when it really matters is unlikely to yield results.  They must continue to explore and pursue avenues over which they can exercise some control. It seems that pursuing Israeli violations through international bodies is a sound strategy and the more avenues it can pursue for this the better. Internationalising the conflict is part of the Palestinians “taking back control” of their destiny.

Israel’s ban on the Muslim call to prayer in Jerusalem is the tip of the iceberg

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 7/11/2016


Al-Aqsa mosque

Something is in the air in Jerusalem and if Israel has its way it soon won’t be; the Muslim call to prayer — the adhaan — is under threat. The state which is built upon the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous Palestinian people is inching its way towards banning the call for prayer, which was probably first heard in Jerusalem in 637 AD. That was the year in which Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab travelled to Palestine to accept its surrender from Patriach Sophronius, bringing a six-month siege of the Holy City to a peaceful end.

The required respect for people of other faiths was exemplified by one of Caliph Umar’s first acts upon entering Jerusalem. He understood the sensitivity surrounding religious sites and the potential danger of changing the status quo. He thus declined an invitation from Sophronius to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lest Muslims turn it into a mosque. Instead, he stepped outside the Church to perform the midday prayer; a mosque named after him was later built on the site and exists to this day. This is in sharp contrast to the establishment of Israel in 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homeland at gunpoint. Villages and towns were ethnically cleansed and wiped from the face of the earth, and their mosques were also destroyed or turned into synagogues or museums; at least two became cafes and one became a cowshed.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and one of Israel’s first acts as the occupying power was to raze the 770-year old Moroccan Quarter of East Jerusalem in order to improve access to Al-Buraq Wall, which Jews call the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, in order to facilitate their prayers there. Just a year after issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Britain had actually dismissed attempts by Chaim Weizmann to vacate the Moroccan Quarter and to place the Western Wall under Jewish ownership. Fifty years later, Israel had no qualms about bulldozing the Shaikh Eid Mosque which had stood since the time of Saladin.

Christian sites

Churches continue to come under attack by the Israelis. Benzi Gopstein, the leader of extreme right-wing Jewish group Lehava, voiced support for arson attacks against Christian churches in 2015; he has also called Christians “blood sucking vampires” who should be expelled from Israel.

Jewish extremists have on a number of occasions targeted churches in what are called “price tag” attacks. There was a particular rise in these in the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land in 2014. A top Catholic official received death threats and Hebrew graffiti appeared on the wall of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, the local headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church: “Death to Arabs and Christians and to everyone who hates Israel”.

At the end of last month, the Israeli flag was raised at the Eastern entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, enraging the Christian community and raising serious concerns about Israel’s commitment to protecting Christian sites. The Church fought a two-year battle with its water supplier which threatened to cut the supply due to unpaid bills, which was settled in 2012. Add to this Israel’s restrictions on visits by Christians to the holy sites in Jerusalem, and on Christians from Gaza visiting either Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and the difficulties faced by Palestinian Christians becomes clear.

Muslim sites

The situation for key Muslim sites in the occupied Palestinian territories is even more precarious than those of Christians. When East Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, the Israeli flag flew for a short time over the holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque was set alight in 1969, reportedly by an Australian tourist; the damage included the complete destruction of a 1,000-year old pulpit.

An agreement between the Israelis and the Jordanian custodians of the holy sites, which covers the whole of the area on which Al-Aqsa Mosque stands, stated that the Jordanian Waqf would administer the compound and that Jews would be able to visit but not pray. The status quo has largely stood the test of time but in recent years has come under great strain, particularly since Ariel Sharon’s “visit” to the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa in 2000, which triggered the Second Intifada. The visit seems to have given Jewish extremists the green light not only to dream about praying on what they call the “Temple Mount” but also to plan to build a Jewish temple thereon; the plans include the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Mosque.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in the frequency and extent of incursions by extremists during which the use of the sanctuary by Muslim worshippers is restricted. This practice has increased tensions and prompted fears of a change to the “status quo”, moving the Jordanian government to act by withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest. Clashes have erupted frequently between Israeli security forces and Palestinians devoted to protecting their mosque. Israeli forces have also harassed worshippers, banning some from entering the Noble Sanctuary or withholding their Jerusalem ID cards, without which they struggle to move around the territories. Such practices were a major contributory factor to the ongoing year-long uprising in which individual Palestinians have attacked mainly security forces but in some instances Israeli civilians in what has been termed the “knife intifada”.

Another city that has suffered disproportionately, probably due to its religious significance, is Al-Khalil (Hebron). The city is home to 120,000 Palestinians whose lives are blighted by the planting of 700 particularly extreme Israeli settlers in the centre of the city; they are protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers and a system of closed military zones and checkpoints. The city is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque which Jews call the Cave of the Patriarchs. The mosque was the scene of a terrorist attack in 1994 by a Jewish American-Israeli named Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Muslim worshippers while they were praying; although the murderous attack was condemned by the Israeli government it was — and is — applauded by some Israelis, particularly the extreme right-wing settlers. Israel’s response was — perversely — to impose greater restrictions on Palestinians and to divide the Ibrahimi Mosque physically, as well as to open it up exclusively to Jews for ten days of the year and to Muslims for another ten days.

Restricting the call to prayer

Israel’s restrictions on access to the holy sites in Jerusalem and Hebron have recently been complemented with bans on the daily call to prayer. In Hebron, the practice has been ongoing for a number of years and included the call being silenced 49 times in January 2014, 52 times in December 2015 and 83 times last month.

The practice seems to be spreading to Jerusalem. Israel recently banned three mosques in Abu Dis from broadcasting the morning call. Lawyer Bassam Bahr, head of a local committee in Abu Dis, condemned the “unjustified ban”, saying that “Israel attacks Palestinians in all aspects of their lives.” It seems that the ban was a response to complaints from illegal settlers in nearby Pisgat Zeev who complained to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat about the “noise pollution” coming from local mosques. Both Barkat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are clearly set on applying the “unbearable noise” law to the call for prayer.

The mayor and prime minister know the importance of the call to prayer to the Muslim community; their plan to eradicate it from the air of Jerusalem to appease illegal settlers shows that neither has the wisdom of Caliph Umar. Their plan has not only enraged Palestinians, but also damaged yet further attempts to create a climate that will lead to peace; it is most definitely part of Israel’s attempts to Judaise Jerusalem and empty the Holy City of its Islamic and Christian heritage. The ban is, in fact, just the tip of the Judaisation iceberg.

As for the settlers objecting to the Muslim call to prayer are concerned, there is an easy solution. They could leave the houses that they have built — illegally — on land stolen from its Palestinian owners and either go back to where they came from in North America or Europe or live within the internationally recognised borders of the state whose citizenship they carry. That would be the most moral of solutions, although it is doubtful if they know what morality is.

Rolls Royce, pants and sand: What Boris Johnson said to the Arab ambassadors

First published by the Middle East Eye on 13/10/2016

The foreign secretary’s candid speech reveals an opportunity to influence UK policy in the Middle East – Arab ambassadors should seize it

Away from the endless discussions on Brexit at this year’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham, there were the usual fringe meetings and receptions that complement such an occasion.

One such event was the Arab ambassadors’ regular reception to which the Foreign Office normally invite the foreign secretary. I was grateful for an invitation. On previous occasions, the person who ended up attending to speak on behalf of the party and government was a junior minister rather than their boss.

However, on this occasion the rumour was that it would be the man himself, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. There was notable excitement among the attendees, including ambassadors representing countries from across the world.

We knew that the main speaker was about to arrive when the Kuwait TV camera and the ambassadors were summoned to the entrance led by his excellency, the doyen of the London diplomatic corps, Khaled al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of Kuwait.

It took some 10 minutes for Boris to complete the round of handshakes and small talk before he could be welcomed formally.

Balfour’s legacy

The doyen welcomed Boris as a “star” of Britain and praised him not only as current secretary of state but also for his previous role as mayor of London. He told him that “our relations as Arab countries are very strong’ and Britain has with them a “historic relation”.

He then invited the head of the diplomatic mission of Palestine, Professor Manuel Hassassian, to address the foreign secretary. It was not clear whether this had been agreed in advance, but the foreign secretary was happy for this to happen.

Professor Hassassian made good use of this opportunity to remind Boris of why 2017 would be a “remarkable year” for Palestinians. “We will be commemorating the hundred years of the Balfour declaration and 70 years of the Nakba and 50 years of the occupation and 10 years of the Gaza siege,” he explained.

He thanked the UK for the “nice words” of support and the money it donates to support the Palestinian Authority. This brought a smile to Boris’s face. Then the ambassador hit hard: “But Sir, we don’t need the money, we need you to be more involved in the political process.”

Hassassian suggested that “crisis management” had been a dismal failure and that what is needed is “conflict resolution”. He did not think it was enough for Britain to consider not importing goods from Israeli settlements or to simply say that it is for the two-state solution or the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. “Those are nice words to be said, but we need to see them concretised on the ground,” he challenged.

He also reminded the foreign secretary of Britain’s role. The Balfour Declaration, he said, “was the starting point in the destruction of Palestine. Great Britain should shoulder its historic, legal and moral responsibility.” He laid a challenge at Boris’s door to “add one sentence to the Declaration: ‘the recognition of the independence of Palestine'”.

Rolls Royces, pants – and sand?

Anyone thinking that Boris would rise to the challenge was quickly disappointed.

“I hope you will forgive me if I don’t venture to solve the problems of the Middle East peace process tonight off the cuff,” he told the crowd. In his typical light-hearted style, Boris acknowledged the doyen’s important role in leading the ambassadors in “paying the London congestion charge”.

Returning to more important matters, Boris acknowledged the importance of solving the Palestinian problem, but that “it was not the only problem in the region”. He seemed surprised at the lack of reaction to his statement. He then significantly stated that he did not believe that that region should be “defined by those problems”.

READ MORE: Human rights advocates weigh in on Boris Johnson’s comments and the UK export push to the Middle East

 

“It is absolutely vital that we do not allow the Middle East, the Arab world in the eyes of the British public to be defined by these problems,” he said, arguing that the region should be seen as providing a great opportunity, particularly following Brexit.

Reflecting on his time as mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that people used to accuse him of being the mayor of the “eighth Emirate”. He acknowledged the massive investment London has received, which changed its skyline. He described the Shard as “poking through like a gigantic cocktail stick through a super colossal pickled onion”.

Boris then talked of the opportunities in the other direction as “we also get the ball back over the net. This is the fastest-growing economic partnership that Britain has”. He then stunned the audience when he proclaimed that “the growth in exports to the Arab world outstrips any other part of the planet including the EU”. The exports include Rolls Royce cars, pants and “sand to Saudi Arabia”.

He finished with an acknowledgment of cultural synergy between Britain and the Arab world as the 400th anniversary of its greatest author is celebrated “who was himself a Sheikh,” he said with a dramatic pause. “Shakespeare!” This brought the house down.

Seize the opportunity

This was Boris Johnson at his best, connecting with the audience brilliantly and they loved him.

However, it is clear where Britain’s and his current priorities lie. The impact of Brexit, which was being debated in the serious sessions taking part in Birmingham’s magnificent Symphony Hall, clearly comes ahead of solving the problems of the Middle East.

The foreign secretary directed approaches to him on these issues to his junior minister, Tobias Ellwood, who was also in attendance. I doubt if he would have done that with such ease to the Israeli ambassador.

The most important message I took away from the evening was the statement about the growth of exports to the Middle East far exceeding any other part of the planet. I would see this as an open opportunity for the Arab world to influence British foreign policy in its favour as Britain seeks to develop its economic ties with markets outside the EU.

I would urge the Arab ambassadors who attended the reception to see this significant opportunity and formulate policy accordingly. This would be power not only for the various troubled countries in the region but also for the Palestinian problem. Their collective voice could and should be used to influence the kind of approach Britain takes to 2017 and, in particular, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.

My only regret was that, had I known Boris was to speak at the reception, I might have turned up in a corduroy jacket but I do not own one. During a visit to Israel last year, the then London mayor accused supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement of being “completely crazy” and being promoted by a “few lefty academics” in corduroy jackets pursuing a cause.

I did manage to shake Boris’s hand at the reception wearing a suit and he may remember me as not “completely crazy”. He needs to realise that those working for justice for Palestinians are neither crazy, nor anti-Semitic, as Israel and some of its supporters claim.

– 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.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: London mayor Boris Johnson salutes photographers as rides a bicycle in front of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, during his visit to Dubai, on 16 April 2013 (AFP)

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Israeli society and its leaders are hastening its complete isolation

Israeli society and its leaders are hastening its complete isolation

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 30 May 2016

The news that the Israeli cabinet has confirmed the appointment of extremist settler and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as Defence Minister is troubling to Palestinians and their supporters. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu is known for his hatred of Palestinians. In 2015, he said that “Israeli Arabs” who are disloyal to the State of Israel should have “their heads chopped off.” More recently, he initiated a bill that would allow the death penalty for “convicted terrorists”, but only if they were Palestinians. He is also a man who is happy to “lose” Israeli citizens if they are not Jewish, saying: “We won’t be moving people, we will be moving the borders. It’s not a transfer.” He made his comment when asked about land swaps with the Palestinians.

Lieberman is but one example of the extremist leadership that now runs Israel; even its own Environment Minister Avi Gabbay described it as such when announcing his resignation recently. Other extremist members of the Israeli government include Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, who once said proudly that he had “killed lots of Arabs in his life and there’s no problem with that.” The intolerant Israeli education minister recently banned a novel from the school curriculum because it dared to imagine that a Jew and an Arab could fall in love. Another member of Bennett’s party is the extremist, so called Justice Minister, Ayalet Shaked. She infamously called the entire Palestinian people the enemy and justified their destruction, “including their elderly and their women, their cities and their villages, their property and their infrastructure.” She went on to call for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.” More recently, Shaked pushed for a plan to apply Israeli law to the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, effectively annexing them to Israel.

Culture Minister Miri Regev has insisted that the Israeli flag should fly on every state cultural institution, even in Arab areas. Her extremist views are not new but she has reconfirmed her former statement that African migrants are a “cancer”, adding, “Heaven forbid we compare Africans to human beings.”

Another group now facing an unprecedented attack are leaders and proponents of the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Transportation Minister Israel Katz has called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Interior Minister Arye Deri followed this up with a decision not to renew Barghouti’s Israeli travel document, which effectively bans him from travelling.

Sitting at the top of the tree of the most extreme government in Israel’s history is, of course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The normally skilled communicator of Israel’s “victim” narrative and peace-seeking propaganda let his guard slip in the run up to the 2015 elections, when he promised voters that there would be no Palestinian state “on his watch” and incited against Palestinian citizens of Israel who were going to the polls “in droves”.

If Israel’s political leadership is seen as the most extreme in its history then what about its religious leadership? Take Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro of Yitzhar as an example. In his book “The King’s Torah” he wrote that even babies and children can be killed if they “pose a threat to the nation.” At the height of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, Rabbi Dov Lior – who lives in the occupied West Bank – announced that “Jewish law permits the destruction of Gaza.” This followed the 2007 letter from former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that there was “absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.” He advocated the carpet bombing of Gaza. The most recent ruling by a religious leader was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu‘s call to the Israel Defence Forces to execute rather than arrest alleged Palestinian attackers.

Even when it comes to coexisting with Israel’s Palestinian minority, its religious leaders tend to fall on the side of racism. In 2010, dozens of top Israeli rabbis signed a ruling to forbid the rental of homes to “Arabs”. Furthermore, the religious ranks have been silent on the predicament of the Bedouin citizens of Israel. Although what was called the ‘Prawer Plan’ to displace thousands of Bedouins from their homes in the Negev into what are more or less US Native American-style reservations was defeated, Israel has continued to implement it by stealth. The obscenity of destroying Bedouin villages and displacing their residents against their will only to build Jew-only settlements on the ruins has not troubled the religious leadership of Israel. This applies in particular to the Negev villages of Umm Al-Hiran and Atir.

You would be hard pressed to see any condemnation of the attack on the Bedouins in Israeli society, which I have described as being in a deep moral coma. Not only has its leadership moved towards extremism and racism but so too has the society that it represents. How else do you explain the recent call for Palestinian and Jewish mothers to give birth in segregated hospital wards? Jewish Home’s Bezalel Smotrich supported this call, saying: “My wife is truly no racist, but after giving birth she wants to rest rather than have a hafla [a mass feast often accompanied by music and dancing] like the Arabs have after their births.” He claimed that, “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down [in a bed] next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.”

It seems that Israeli society wants to see segregation not only in maternity wards but also in schools. A recent poll reported that half of Israeli Jews do not want “Arabs” teaching their children. The figure rose to 82 per cent among Israel’s religious Jews.

Anyone looking to the political left for an alternative will be disappointed. Israel’s Labour Party accepted its leader’s plan for separation from Palestinians, particularly around Jerusalem. It is, therefore, clear that Israeli society, religious leadership and political leadership are moving dangerously towards further racism, with not only separation from the Palestinians under occupation but also their Palestinian fellow citizens of Israel. The collective lurch to extremism and intolerance will increase the disdain towards Israel held by ordinary people around the world; increasingly, this includes Jews, particularly in the US. The success of BDS and the recent refusal of Holland, Ireland and Sweden to condemn or outlaw the campaign will increase pressure on Israel just when it thought that its friends would criminalise the movement across the world.

While BDS is succeeding in isolating Israel to some degree, though, it is Israel’s own lurch towards extremism that will increase its isolation even further. The government of Israel can choose to end this by ending the occupation, ensuring equality among its citizens and allowing the Palestinian refugees to return. It’s Israel’s call.