Western hypocrisy: Khashoggi and Murtaja two deceased journalists but the world will only remember one

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 30/10/2018

Rushdi Sarraj [r], co-founder of Ain Media and Yaser Murtaja who was killed by an Israeli sniper in April

Yaser Murtaja was a Palestinian photojournalist who had gone to the Gaza fence with Israel to cover the second Friday of the Great Return March. He was killed by an IDF sniper on 7 April. There was modest coverage of his death coming on the second Friday of the Great Return March. The world was troubled by the deliberate targeting by highly trained Israeli snipers of Palestinian civilians who posed no threat, but Western governments were hesitant about criticising Israel for targeting men, women, children, medics and journalists. The young medic, Razan Al-Najjar was shot and killed weeks later while tending to the wounded at the Gaza fence. At the same time, Nikki Haley was plotting to scupper a UN Security Council resolution to protect Palestinian civilians.

In its most recent atrocity, Israel targeted and killed three children in Gaza. They identified as Khaled Bassam Mahmoud Abu Saeed, 14; Abdul Hameed Mohammed Abdul Aziz Abu Zaher, 13; and Mohammed Ibrahim Abdullah Al-Sutari, 13.

I did not know Yasir, Razan, Khaled, Abdul Hameed or Mohammed. However, their loss and the grief I felt when they died lives with me to this day. Why has the world not sanctioned Israel for killing them? Why does it get a pass when it violates basic human rights while other states are held to account?

OPINION: Israel’s war on photographers and their images

Reaction to their killings is in sharp contrast to the disappearance and then confirmed killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October, which has captured the world’s imagination. I have not met a single person who has not been aware of the story or who has not followed with absolute horror the sordid details emerging from sources in the Turkish government about his murder and the possible mutilation of his body. Calls for sanctions on Saudi Arabia have been widespread, ranging from ordinary citizens to governments.

I was fortunate to meet Jamal and to chair a session at Middle East Monitor’s conference on the Oslo Accords the Saturday before his return to Istanbul to complete some paperwork at the Saudi Consulate to enable him to marry his fiancee Hatice Cengiz. Never did I or any of us present imagine how events would unfold hours later.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (R) at the Oslo25 Conference in London, on 29 September, 2018 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

There are many reasons for the coverage that Jamal’s murder received, which set him apart from other journalists that have been targeted for their writings or coverage of important world events including Syria, Iraq and Libya to name but a few. He was a loyal Saudi citizen who had been closely connected with the Royal family but one who felt his freedom to speak under the –effective- rule of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had been curtailed. He was a columnist for the Washington Post.

Khashoggi’s murder pitted two major Muslim states – Saudi Arabia and Turkey – against each other. The murder was not carried out on the streets of Istanbul but inside a diplomatic mission. There were leaks and denials. There were different versions of what happened put out by Saudi Arabia which were at best inconsistent but which turned out to be lies. There was the theatre of Turkey’s President Erdogan’s widely advertised speech, which promised much detail but ended up a masterpiece of political prudence devoid of new information.  The fate of the Saudi Crown Prince and even the Saudi monarchy as we know it hangs in the balance.

To this day, Khashoggi’s body has not been recovered. Questions remain unanswered about who ordered the murder, how it was conducted, what has happened to the body and what actual evidence Turkey holds, leaving much room for speculation. Was Turkey eavesdropping on the Saudi Consulate and therefore was the actual murder recorded on audio or video?

READ: Details of the 11-minute audio recording of the torture and death of Khashoggi

Those are some of the reasons why Jamal’s murder has tantalised the world for the past couple of weeks and will do so as more details are leaked or if Turkey finally decides to make public its evidence, which may include identifying who in the Saudi hierarchy was the most senior person that ordered Khashoggi’s killing.

Western countries have started imposing sanctions on individuals suspected of being part of the murder squad, effectively cancelling visas they may hold, and calls for imposing an arms embargoon Saudi Arabia have been made, especially in Europe. While these have been balanced against the strategic importance of trade with Saudi Arabia, it is at least an indication that Western countries can act to pressure other states accused of committing crimes.

The world moved to impose sanctions on Russia and Iran, while history shows other countries faced sanctions, including Iraq and Libya.

However, it seems that the world is reluctant to sanction Israel whatever it does. In fact, many western countries justify its crimes as a necessary means of “self-defence”. There is no talk of imposing a two-way arms embargo on Israel. The Americans have not considered an end to the $3 billion annual military aid for killing Razan or Yaser. This would be moral, but also a saving for the American taxpayer who does not choose for the American Administration to fund a self-declared Apartheid state with half its overseas aid budget.

The world is right to be outraged by journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and the manner in which it was carried out. It is right to ask for the truth and then for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible for his horrible murder. However, its hypocrisy in only mildly criticising Israel for killing Palestinian journalists provides it with the impunity it has enjoyed and continues to enjoy. The life of a Palestinian, Saudi or Israeli journalist should be worth the same.

The world’s firmness in dealing with Jamal’s killers may well dissuade other states from committing crimes against journalists, except possibly Israel. No country should be able to act above the law, including Israel.

Israel’s anti-BDS actions reveal that the boycott might just be working

First published by TRT World on 19/10/2018

Israel fears nothing more than the power of boycotts, it realises that it has the power to penalise Israeli actions while the international community looks on at its lawless actions.

Lara Al Qassem, a Palestinian-American student was detained at Tel Aviv airport on the 2 of October as she went to pursue a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She was finally released and admitted to Israel just over 16 days later. The Supreme Court upheld her appeal criticising the authorities for their decision which gave “the unavoidable impression” that she was barred for her political opinions.

Lara will now be able to join her Masters course at the Hebrew University.

Her lawyers said in a statement that, “The supreme court’s decision is a victory for free speech, academic freedom, and the rule of law.”

However, Israeli tourism minister Yariv Levin called the court decision “shameful” and said that with their decision, the justices “were continuing to act against Israeli democracy and the clear lawmaking of the Knesset”.

The Israeli authorities had denied her entry despite having an official student visa prior to travelling. The reason given was her role as president of a small local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, which has engaged in boycotts against Israeli products in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Her entry denial, which subsequently resulted in her detention was ordered by the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Interior Minister Arye Deri.

On the 9 of October, Erdan tweeted that that if Lara “declares in a clear and explicit manner that she erred in the past and she believes today that support for a boycott on Israel and the BDS [movement] is a mistake and illegitimate, and that she regrets having served in the past as head of the branch of a boycott group, we will reconsider our stance regarding her entry into Israel,”

Clearly this was unacceptable to Lara who went on to fight her case in the Israeli courts.

Reactions to the story in Israel have been mixed.

The National Council of Young Israelis supported the Israeli Government’s decision claiming “every country has the ability to regulate who can enter its borders and Israel should be no different in that regard.”

The Hebrew University has been supportive of Lara’s entry and in an unusual step asked to join her appeal to the Jerusalem District Court.

Knesset members from the Meretz party visited Lara and leader Tamar Zandberg tweeted, “just visited Lara Alqasem, 22 year old American student detained in Ben Gurion airport for 6 days now because a right wing website didn’t like her past political activity. Israeli borders should be of a liberal democracy without thought police”.

I myself was denied entry to Israel in April 2017 following the passing of the same law under which Israel has denied entry to Lara.

The law was passed in March last year and gives the authorities power to deny entry to any foreign national engaged in supporting of boycotts either of settlement goods, or Israel, within its internationally recognised boundaries.

In my case, I was separated from wife and son who were allowed entry and I was placed on a flight back to the UK hours after my arrival. A few days later Anwar Makhlouf, another Palestinian and head of the Palestinian Federation of Chile was also denied entry under the same law, this time at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan.

Restricting BDS is backfiring

The BDS call was made in 2005 by over 150 civil society organisations. According to its website, “It works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

Its three key demands are an end of the occupation, an end to the discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and the promotion of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Each of these is a moral and legal demand.

Israel’s claim that it is an anti-Semitic movement because it targets ‘the world’s only Jewish state’ is false, because the Palestinians can only target their occupiers, who happen to be Jewish.

They did not choose their occupiers, they chose Palestine.

In addition to entry denial for BDS supporters, in 2011 Israel passed the law for “Prevention of Damage to the State of Israel through Boycott.”

This allows an individual or organisation proposing a boycott to be sued for compensation by any individual or institution claiming that it could be or has been damaged by such a call.

Evidence of actual damage would not be required.

This law was recently used by three Israeli teenagers to sue two New Zealand-based supporters of BDS—one Jewish and one Palestinian—over a cancelled concert by New Zealand singer, Lorde.

A judge at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that, the two women must pay $12,000 in damages to the teenagers.

While the New Zealand justice minister saw this as a political stunt, the Israeli law office, Shurat HaDin which filed the suit, has said it fully intends to pursue enforcing the court’s ruling, and believes Israel’s legal agreements with New Zealand will allow it to do so.

This action has misfired as the two New Zealanders, Justine Sachs and Nadia Abu-Shanab, decided to raise funds, and to date have raised at least $18,000, not to pay the fine they had been ordered to pay but rather to give to the Gaza Mental Health Foundation instead.

In the US a number of anti-BDS laws have been passed that would prohibit companies that boycott Israel from securing public projects while in the UK, the government has attempted to stifle local authority pension funds from divesting from companies complicit in the oppression of Palestinians.

It is difficult to assess whether these have had a real impact in countering the BDS movement. However, there is fear in Israel of a growing ‘silent boycott’ including by artists and academics who simply turn down or do not respond to invitations to participate in activities organised by Israeli institutions or to perform in Israel.

There are calls for the 2019 EUROVISION song contest to be boycotted and it appears that having tried to host it in Jerusalem, Israel is now planning to move the event to a different location.

It seems that Israel’s anti-BDS policies have not succeeded in combatting this growing movement, particularly through legal means.

Israel also continues to send mixed messages about whether BDS poses a real threat. It cannot have it both ways. It is either effective and a threat to its policies, or it is not.

Israeli politicians and Israeli supporters abroad often characterise the BDS movement as ineffective. However, in reality, Israel is investing millions to counter it and has assigned a minister, Gilad Erdan, and changed the law to both ban BDS proponents from entering and to allow those that claim to have been harmed by specific actions to sue those behind the actions.

The growing success of the BDS movement does however come at a price for Palestinians like Lara al Qassem and myself, who are now denied entry to Palestine because Israel controls all entry points to historic Palestine.

This is unless we renounce their principles including speaking out against the Israeli government’s policies and in support of BDS.  It would appear that this is what Lara had to do, or at least, imply.

This is doubly painful because as Palestinians we are denied entry to our homeland, while Jews from any part of the world, and with no real connection to the land, are allowed not only to visit but to settle there.

Our determination to campaign peacefully for justice for Palestinians should not come at such a high price and if international law were just, it would force the occupier to allow us all to enter, to visit and to settle.

We are still unable to exercise our Right of Return, enshrined in international law but we are also discriminated against as we are denied entry while our fellow citizens from the country whose nationality we now hold can enter unimpeded.

Israel could, of course, meet the BDS movement’s demands, which include our right to return.

That would end the reason for BDS and would bring peace to the holy land.

 

I shook Jamal Khashoggi’s hand. Days later he was murdered

First published by the Middle East Eye on 18/10/2018

#Khashoggi

The Saudi Arabia I knew as a child would not have carried out such a heinous act as the brutal murder of a patriotic intellectual

Last night, as I was watching the unfolding news coverage of the grisly assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I looked at my right hand and turned to my wife and said: “With this hand I shook Jamal’s hand after dinner on 29 September and said goodbye.”

The image that immediately came into my head was of Khashoggi’s hand which – according to the grim details emerging about his murder – had been cut from his body. The reports about how Khashoggi’s body was cut up while he was still alive filled me with absolute horror.

How on earth could this have happened?

The only and last encounter

I had never met Khashoggi prior to my one and only encounter in London last month. But I had seen him frequently on news and debate programmes discussing Middle East-related topics.

Not only did his deep knowledge and informative analysis enrich the discussion, but his criticism of Saudi Arabia was coupled with deep affection and a strong desire to see it follow a course that would enhance its standing in the world and ensure its continued development.

My meeting with Khashoggi came after I was asked to chair a session at the Middle East Monitor’s conference entitled: “The Oslo Accords: A legacy of broken promises.” A couple of days before the conference, I was informed of an additional contributor to the session that pleased me. It was Jamal Khashoggi.

On the morning of the conference, I was introduced to Khashoggi. Speaking in Arabic, I said how pleased I was that he was joining us and I mentioned that I was born in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and asked where he was born. With pride, he said Al-Madina Al-Munawara, which is where the second-most important mosque to Muslims stands over Prophet Muhammad’s grave.

I asked Khashoggi how he wanted to be introduced and he said simply as a “Saudi journalist”. His contribution to the discussion was succinct and he concluded that nobody but the Palestinians could accept or reject any deal put forward by US President Donald Trump and his advisers.

The session was well received, as some members of the audience told me afterwards.

At the dinner that evening, I went to greet Khashoggi and said that I looked forward to meeting him again in the future. With a broad smile, he acknowledged my words and said that he, too, looked forward to meeting me in the future. This turned out to be our final goodbye.

The old Saudi Arabia

Throughout the period since the shocking news of Khashoggi’s disappearance, I have been haunted by one image, that of his calm, confident walk into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to receive a document confirming his divorce, not knowing he was walking into a death trap.

I have been asking myself how the Saudi Arabia I knew as a child had changed so much in recent years from the one I remember fondly, to the one that has just authorised a gruesome killing of a citizen that it should have had tremendous pride in, a thinker, writer and patriot.

A protester outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul holds up a poster featuring an image of Jamal Khashoggi(AFP)

 Why was Khashoggi’s intellect not used by the “reforming crown prince” to inform him about his Vision 2030 for which he has received such admiration from the West? The same could of course apply to the many scholars, academics, intellectuals and activists who have been detained or indeed “disappeared” in the last couple of years.

Another image that sticks in my mind from my childhood in Riyadh was when Saudi TV announced that King Faisal had been assassinated by one of his nephews in 1975. Days earlier, while waiting for my father to pick me up from school, I saw Faisal’s modest motorcade as it drove past my school, Ma’had Alasima Alnamuthajiya. He was waving to us – perhaps his last goodbye.

The fact that King Faisal had gone filled me with fear and insecurity. However, the transition from Faisal to Khaled was smooth. Those were the days when the kingdom did not interfere in other countries’ affairs, when it stood for the Arab and Muslim world. Who can forget King Faisal’s oil embargo in 1973 targeting the US, among other countries that stood with Israel in the October war?

Yes, of course, Saudi Arabia was not perfect, but it was stable, with a consistent set of economic and foreign policies. Successive kings were revered by Saudis and respected regionally and internationally.

Leadership change

The spectre of a prime minister of another country being ordered to Riyadh to announce his resignation, as happened to the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, would never have happened then. Could an Israeli prime minister have boasted about growing relationships with the kingdom at the expense of the Palestinians? Could the recognition by the US of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have passed so easily? Could Yasser Arafat have been called to Riyadh to be told to accept whatever deal the Americans would offer?

Could an American president have humiliated a Saudi crown prince in his Oval Office as hecounted the billions he had extracted from the kingdom for military hardware, as Trump did with Mohammed bin Salman? Would an American president have felt able to pronounce that the king of Saudi Arabia could not survive for two weeks without American protection, which he must pay for? Could a war on Yemen have been launched that would create such a catastrophic humanitarian crisis?

Could a Saudi journalist have been lured into a Saudi consulate to be murdered by a 15-man death squad?

The answer to all of these questions – in my opinion – is a resounding no. The Saudi Arabia I knew and grew up in would not have carried out any of these heinous crimes.

I firmly believe that it is not too late for Saudi Arabia to rediscover its soul, its principles and its values. An overwhelmingly young and now highly educated people can help it make its way in the world as a power for good, as a kingdom that will once again champion issues close to the hearts of the people of the Arab world, including Palestine.

If a change at the top is to come, then I pray that it will bring a Saudi leadership that will look back at its best achievements and bring back the Saudi Arabia I knew and cherished.

Photo: Jamal Khashoggi’s speaking at the Middle East Monitor conference on 29 September, days before he was murdered (Courtesy of Middle East Monitor)

Supporting Palestine can now get you denied entry to the US

First published by the Middle East Eye on 17/10/2018

I have been a severe critic of the current US administration’s policy towards the Palestinians. But does this make me a possible security threat to the US? Of course not

In April 2017, while travelling for a routine family holiday to Jerusalem, I was denied entryupon arrival at Tel Aviv airport. Israeli authorities’ official – and bizarre – explanation for the entry denial was: I had attempted to “gain illegal entry”. However, being British citizens, we are normally allowed to travel to Israel without a visa. We have it issued at the entry point and I had obtained it on many occasions before.

But as I came to realise later the real reason was due to my role as vice chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), a UK-based organisation that campaigns peacefully for Palestinian rights and which upholds the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s occupation.

BDS promoters denied

In March 2017, Israel passed the “BDS law“, which allowed it to deny entry to those engaged in BDS movement promotion. My colleague and PSC chair, Hugh Lanning, was denied entry soon after the law was passed. Another colleague, Anwar Makhlouf, head of the Palestinian Federation of Chile, was also denied entry at the Allenby Bridge based on the same law.

When I contacted both the British embassy in Tel Aviv and the foreign office in London for an explanation, I received the same reply: this was a sovereign decision for Israel. This meant Britain did not even acknowledge that Israel has no sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK’s position is what gives Israel the green light to conduct its policy with total impunity.

Even pro-Palestine Jewish foreign nationals, who are supposedly entitled to go to Israel by the Law of Return (which grants citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world) have been denied entry, and even denied permission to board their flights to Israel.

In July 2017, five members of an interfaith delegation were denied permission to board a Lufthansa flight at Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport that would ultimately take them to Tel Aviv. Among them was Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who said in a statement: “Israel denied me the ability to travel there because of my work for justice for Palestinians, even though I’m Jewish and a rabbi.”

She added: “I’m heartbroken and outraged. This is yet another demonstration that democracy and tolerance in Israel only extends to those who fall in line with its increasingly repressive policies against Palestinians.”

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv district Court on 11 October, 2018 (AFP)

Last July, Ariel Gold, co-director of BDS campaign group Code Pink, was denied entry at Ben Gurion airport despite obtaining a visa in advance to take a course at the Hebrew University. Her deportation, and those of others, are normally ordered by Israeli Minister of Security Gilan Erdan, and Israeli Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri.

The most recent case of entry denial involved Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American student, despite the fact that she has recently been granted a student visa for her masters’ degree in the Hebrew University. Alqasem spent days in detention at Tel Aviv airport struggling to be allowed to join the course she had registered for.

At the time of writing, Alqasem was planning a second appeal to Israeli courts. She stood her ground, refusing to bow to the demands by Erdan to renounce the BDS movement.

When I was denied entry to Israel last year, the Israeli interrogator had printed many pages of my tweets and challenged me about a small number of them. However, because they were presented to me in Hebrew I declined the opportunity to comment.

Israel’s arrests of Palestinians for social media posts have soared. In May, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Centre for Studies (PPC) said that Israel had detained some 500 Palestinians, including women and children, because of their social media posts. In 2015, Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, was detained for three years, before her release last month, for writing a poem, entitled “Resist my people, resist.”

US ban?

Entry denial due to BDS movement promotion is an established Israeli policy. I wonder, however, if my activity on social media, and my op-eds on the Palestinian conflict, were the reasons behind being denied boarding of a US-bound plane at Heathrow airport in August.

US authorities have thus far refused to provide me with an explanation as to why this happened despite having initially secured approval through the visa waiver (ESTA) scheme, just as any other British citizen is normally entitled to do.

ESTA entitles the holder to travel to the US without a visa for a two-year period. I had obtained this in the past and travelled to the US to attend conferences connected to my academic work without any problem, the last time being in 2015.

My trip was planned at short notice to spend Eid Al-Adha with relatives in America. Having obtained my ESTA, I made my way to Heathrow to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to Seattle on 17 August. Upon arriving, I tried to check-in via the terminals but could not.

I was informed by a member of staff that I would not be allowed to travel since my ESTA had been declined, despite its initial approval. No explanation was given. I was then told that I could apply for a visa at the American Consulate in London.

I was shocked and devastated. I had now missed the window for my holiday and lost a substantial amount of money, which was not recoverable.

What could possibly have changed since my last trip to the US? My immediate answer was that there was a new administration in the White House, with little tolerance for foreigners and which is blindingly supportive of Israel.

However, I decided to investigate further before my hunch was confirmed. I wrote to the US ambassador in London and completed a “redress” request directly to the US Department for Homeland Security.

Hugh Lanning addresses a Palestine Solidarity Campaign rally in the UK in 2014 (PSC/Flickr)

A couple of weeks later, the embassy responded through its Customs and Border Protection Attache saying: “Whilst the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are unable to discuss any person’s denial of an ESTA or their admission into the US due to security/privacy policy laws, I can confirm that you will require Non-Immigrant visa should you wish to travel to the US in the future.”

The “redress” response, which arrived a few days later, was almost unintelligible.

Trump’s America

In the absence of an explanation, I am left with the conclusion that Trump’s America does not tolerate criticism of its policies and that it works very closely with Israel, sharing intelligence about individuals who are deemed undesirable for both countries.

It is safe to assume that Israeli authorities have supplied US authorities with names of individuals like myself who have been denied entry because of their advocacy for the Palestinian people. However, for the US to then deny them entry based on this peaceful work is very troubling.

I have been a severe critic of the current US administration’s policy towards the Palestinians. But does this make me a possible security threat to the US? Of course not. However, it helps Israel to further bully its critics into silence if they fear being denied entry to other countries that Israel can influence.

Neither denial of entry to Israel nor to the US will silence supporters of the Palestinian people. In fact, this will embolden us to be even more vocal in our criticism of apartheid Israel.

Photo: Travellers arrive at the international terminal of O’Hare International Airport on 25 April, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois (AFP)

Israel seeking escalation to justify future attack on Gaza

I was interviewed by Press TV on 17/10/2018

Israel tries to provoke Palestinians to conduct retaliatory attacks in order to justify any future attack on the besieged people in the Gaza Strip, says a commentator.

Kamel Hawwash, with the Palestinian solidarity campaign, told Press TV on Wednesday that “they (the Israeli authorities) are goading the Palestinians in Gaza in particular Hamas into some sort of retaliatory action, which they would then use to justify in front of their allies as [the Israelis are] attacking the Palestinians in Gaza in self-defenKamel Hawwash, with the Palestinian solidarity campaign, told Press TV on Wednesday that “they (the Israeli authorities) are goading the Palestinians in Gaza in particular Hamas into some sort of retaliatory action, which they would then use to justify in front of their allies as [the Israelis are] attacking the Palestinians in Gaza in self-defenKamel Hawwashse.”

“Israel is the occupier and the side that has laid siege to two million people for now almost 12 years.”

However, Hawwash noted, Palestinians “are not looking for an escalation” and they are determined to continue their protest against the Israeli siege and also their denial of the right to return to their homes.
#FreePalestine