An Israeli initiative to exploit a group of Palestinian orphans from Gaza to burnish Israel’s blood-soaked image backfired on Sunday when Hamas, the Palestinian political and military resistance movement, put a stop to it.
A group of children whose parents were killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer and several adult chaperones were about to pass through the Erez crossing into Israel on Sunday to be greeted by Israeli officials and a media throng.
But Hamas officials halted the visit. According to a statement posted on Facebook by the interior ministry in Gaza, security services stopped “37 children of martyrs from departing to the lands occupied in 1948 [Israel] for a suspicious visit to several settlements and occupied cities.” It said the step was taken “to protect the culture of our children and our people and protect them from the policy of normalization.”
But it appears the children – though they were the props – were not the target.
The visit was the brainchild of an Israeli operative deeply involved in settlements in the occupied West Bank, working closely with the Israeli government.
It involved Palestinian counterparts in Israel with ties to the ruling Likud party and the Zionist political establishment.
It is unlikely that the non-governmental organization in Gaza that helped coordinate the visit was aware of these facts when it agreed to take part.
The children had been scheduled to visit the Palestinian town of Kafr Qasim and the Bedouin forced-resettlement town of Rahat. They were also to be received by Palestinian Authority de facto leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
But the week-long visit would also have provided Israel with priceless photo opportunities of happy, smiling Gaza children at the zoo in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, as well as several Israeli settlements.
Such propaganda would have provided a marked counterpoint to the indelible images from the summer of some of the more than five hundred children killed and thousands injured and terrorized by Israel’s attack.
Israeli media, public relations officials and international media sympathetic to them, including the BBC and AP, have presented Hamas’ action as preventing hapless orphans from making what Reuters termed “a rare goodwill visit to the Jewish state.”
Many commenters on social media have noted that Israel advocates fully supportive of the siege of Gaza and of restrictions that routinely prevent Palestinian students, medical patients and loved ones of prisoners passing through Erez, were suddenly outraged that this particular group of children had been stopped.
Marian Houk, a journalist currently based in Ramallah, said it was “hard to understand” Israel’s decision to allow the orphans in to “visit kibbutzes, a zoo” and Mahmoud Abbas, while it had recently “refused to allow a man from Gaza to visit his dying 18-month-old son in the West Bank, and then refused to allow him to attend the funeral.”
The story of Israel’s refusal to let Bakr Hafi visit his young son, Emir, who died on 14 December, was told by Haaretz.
The Electronic Intifada’s Rami Almeghari reported last year on the case of twelve-year-old Amal Samouni, who has shrapnel in her skull from Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza, and was denied permission to travel through Erez for treatment in the West Bank.
Not surprisingly, news of the visit provoked a fierce outcry from Palestinians on social media.
In July, Alareer wrote a moving tribute to his brother Mohammed, who played a beloved children’s character on Palestinian TV and who was killed by Israel’s indiscriminate shelling of Gaza City’s Shujaiya neighborhood.
“Israel is so vulgar and despicable it murdered my niece Raneem’s dad and now Israel wants to use [children like] her for propaganda,” Alareer added.
“Look kid, this is where the Israeli artillery was stationed when it bombed your house, cool, right? Love us! We just killed ur parents,” Twitter user @ANimer quipped, imagining an exchange between one of the orphans and his Israeli hosts.
Settlement promoter behind visit
Media have identified the organizer of the initiative as Yoel Marshak, an official of the Kibbutz Movement. Kibbutzim are Zionist communal settlements whose influence and popularity peaked in the mid-twentieth century.
Although they took over much land from Palestinians ethnically cleansed in 1948 – atrocities in which many kibbutz members participated – kibbutzim long enjoyed a progressive, or even socialist image in the West due to their collectivist ideology. This was used for years to effectively market Zionism to a poorly informed or credulous international audience.
Reuters labels Marshak a “peace activist,” but a more accurate descriptor might be “land-theft activist.” He is himself an agent encouraging Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank on behalf of the Israeli government.
Marshak presents the hosting of the orphans as utterly selfless. “We initiated this to plant seeds of peace,” Marshak told the English-language Times of Israel.
“In a few years, when these children become the leaders of the Gaza Strip, they will remember this positive experience well and know that they can live in peace, nation next to nation. We don’t have to fight and kill, we can also hug and extend our hand in friendship.”
Marshak told the Arabic-language website Lakom that the visit is “the least that we can offer these orphans whose families were killed by our army.”
He also denied any political connotations for the visit.
“To turn this into a political act ahead of the Israeli elections [in March] is to exploit the pain of these orphans,” Marshak told Times of Israel.
Backed by defense ministry
But in the Hebrew-language media, Marshak is more frank about the propaganda value of the children for Israel’s bloodstained reputation.
“There is only profit in this visit: the innocent children, who are rescued for a week from the closure and stress and get some days of holiday and a trip, and the State of Israel, which happens upon the opportunity to show the children against who and what their parents were fighting, and to gain points in the hostile world opinion,” Marshak told the Israeli publication Ynet.
“The trip was meant to show a positive face of Israel,” Haaretz also reported, citing Marshak.
When asked, “On whose behalf are you working?” Marshak makes clear that this was no individual initiative, but one with high-level state support.
“It is important to say that I am acting – and I stress this – as an agent of the Kibbutz Movement, and as a volunteer,” he told Ynet. “And moreover, I am not acting alone. Working with me, in full and dedicated cooperation, are the regional staff in the south, and people from the ministries of absorption, education and defense, and there is full and supportive back-up from the Secretary of the Kibbutz movement, Eitan Broshi.”
No Palestinian can move through Erez without clearance by Israeli intelligence services, so the very fact that the visit was approved at all confirms official interest and involvement.
“The Shin Bet [security service] had given the green light for the children and their five minders to enter Israel,” Marshak told AFP.
Marshak has not always been a supporter of humanitarian contact and passage across Israeli-imposed borders.
In 2010, Marshak was one of the organizers of an action to prevent Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails receiving family visits.
“Campaigners to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit blocked entry to the Hadarim prison near Netanya on Tuesday in an attempt to prevent mothers of Palestinian inmates visiting their sons,” Haaretz reported at the time.
Marshak was unabashed in defending this vindictive collective punishment to achieve his goals. “We want to kick-start the process and avert a situation in which talks freeze and we lose Gilad,” Marshak told the paper, referring to the Israeli occupation soldier captured by Gaza-based Palestinian resistance fighters in 2006 and released in an October 2011 prisoner exchange.
Helping steal Palestinian land
Marshak’s claims of high-level support are entirely credible. In 2010 Haaretz reported that Marshak headed a Kibbutz Movement task force to encourage demobilized Israeli soldiers to move to settlements in the occupied West Bank, particularly in the Jordan Valley, where the indigenous Palestinian population has been almost completely pushed out by settlers.
Marshak told Haaretz that years earlier, “his unit launched a project to settle kibbutz members in evacuated military installations near Yitav, a kibbutz north of Jericho, in cooperation with the Prime Minister’s Office.”
The goal, Marshak said, “was to keep state lands” – appropriated from Palestinians – “in the hands of Jews and provide security to individuals sent there by the state and the Kibbutz Movement.”
Last year, Marshak forcefully defended Israeli colonization in the occupied West Bank, declaring that even if there were a two-state solution, it would not result in the settlements he has helped reinforce being removed.
“I do not see any situation where they remove hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes,” Marshak told the Israeli publication Arutz Sheva.
Palestinian partners in Israel
Among those waiting for the orphans on the Israeli side of the Erez crossing was Malik Freij, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and director of “Candle for Peace and Brotherhood,” a non-governmental organization based in the town of Kafr Qasim.
At Erez, Freij posed with a banner, pinned to the Israeli bus that was supposed to collect the children, emblazoned with the name of his organization in Arabic and Hebrew.
In Arabic only, the banner states “Gaza’s orphans … our children,” and, adding insult to injury, “Breaking the siege on Gaza.”
Freij has been quoted in numerous media reports lamenting Hamas’ blocking of the orphans and presenting the effort as entirely humanitarian.
“There was a plan, it was approved by authorities in Gaza. It was approved from the charity [in Gaza],” Freij claimed in an interview on Israel’s i24 News television.
“But unfortunately there is media here. It would look like Israel wanted to use them, that Israel killed their parents and wants to use the children. This is a mistake,” Freij added.
Freij told media that his organization sent truckloads of aid into Gaza during the Israeli assault last summer, and had previously hosted a small number of orphans.
He has been less open, however, about his and his organization’s ties to Israel’s Zionist ruling parties and establishment.
According to its official Israeli registration documents, Candle for Peace and Brotherhood was founded by Freij, Yishai Zandani, Jaafar Khaled Abdul, Said Sarsour, Shawqi Sarsour, Amin Issa and Atif Qrinawi.
No financial reports appear to be available since its founding in 2002.
Ties to Likud
But what is remarkable are the ties several Candle for Peace and Brotherhood founders have to Likud, the ruling party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The name Yishai Zandani comes up in Internet searches as a minor-league Likud activist. Atif Qrinawi, by contrast, has demonstrated much bigger ambitions.
Qrinawi is a former member of Likud and was sixty-seventh on the party’s candidate list at the 2006 election.
In Israel’s 2013 election, Qrinawi ran as the head of his own party, “Hope for Change.”
In an interview with Reuters, Qrinawi predicted he would win ten of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament, wiping out the traditional Arab parties (his party won no seats). He even offered to form an “unprecedented” electoral pact with Likud, bringing the Arab public to them.
Asked if he would have been prepared to join a government led by Netanyahu and his key political ally Avigdor Lieberman, who is particularly notorious for his anti-Arab racism, Qrinawi replied, “I’m ready to sit in any coalition.”
The good Arab
Candle for Peace and Brotherhood director Malik Freij has been less overtly political, though there is plenty of evidence of him currying favor with Israel’s establishment.
The purpose of the visit, according to Almakan, was to “congratulate [Mofaz] on his courageous decision to join the coalition government led by the Likud.”
Mofaz, Israeli army chief of staff during the second intifada and later defense minister, is most notorious among Palestinians for his advocacy and execution of massive violence that has claimed thousands of Palestinian lives. Since 2002, victims of Mofaz have been seeking, without success, to bring him to justice for war crimes.
In a similar vein in 2009, Freij wrote an email to Marshak introducing himself and offering fawning congratulations for the settler activist’s assumption of a higher function in the Kibbutz Movement.
In seeking out and flattering the likes of Mofaz and Marshak, Freij appears to willingly inhabit a role long cultivated by Israel since the 1950s: the “good Arab” who accepts his inferior place in the prevailing order and is prepared to get along with the Zionist state. In return he can achieve a little bit of status and patronage to distribute to other obedient Arabs.
Freij appears in many YouTube videos promoting his various endeavors. In one 2011 video, for instance, he boasts about how, through his appeals to the Israeli defense ministry, he was able to get permission for a Palestinian woman in the West Bank to enter Israel to marry her fiancé.
In the video, he claims Palestinian citizens of Israel come to him from all over the country for such assistance, while he decries the alleged failure of the existing Arab political parties.
Freij did not respond to an email address found for him online, and a phone number connected with his name was not answered. No organizational contact information for Candle for Peace and Brotherhood was located.
By using his organization as the front for the orphans initiative, Freij appears to have been providing another service to the Israeli establishment, but the scheme still needed a counterpart in Gaza.
The partner for the planned visit was Yaboos Charitable Society, a Palestinian social services agency based in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.
Yaboos has strongly denied that its involvement in the orphans visit had any “normalization” or political goal whatsoever. Khalid Abu al-Aramneh, Yaboos’ program and communications director, told Ma’an News Agency that his organization received an invitation from Candles for Peace and Brotherhood, a “Palestinian organization in Kafr Qasim,” to sponsor a number of orphans on a recreational visit to Kafr Qasim, Umm al-Fahm and Rahat – predominantly Palestinian towns in present-day Israel.
The mere name of Kafr Qasim would have had great Palestinian nationalist cachet: all Palestinians know it as the site of the notorious 1956 massacre of dozens of unarmed villagers by Israeli forces.
Al-Aramneh said there was never any intention to visit Israeli settlements or strengthen ties with Israel, as Israeli media have claimed. He added that based on the invitation, his group coordinated with the “concerned authorities” in Gaza – almost certainly a reference to Hamas – to arrange for the travel of the children Yaboos nominated.
Al-Aramneh said that once the bus carrying the children arrived at the Gaza side of the crossing and Israeli media began to report that the children would be visiting Israeli settlements, his organization’s board of directors decided “after several consultations” to cancel the visit, given that the “security services at the crossing confined their position by advising them not to proceed with the trip.”
Earlier in December, the Israel-based Arabic-language website Lakom published an image of a letter from Yaboos’ board of directors welcoming the invitation from Candle for Peace and Brotherhood and sending greetings from the people of Gaza to their counterparts in Kafr Qasim.
Although the text is difficult to read due to the poor quality of the image, the October letter addresses Candle for Peace and Brotherhood and the people of Kafr Qasim as fellow Palestinians tied by the “blood of the martyrs and the soil of the nation.”
The letter states specifically that orphaned children would be visiting “the village of Kafr Qasim,” and no other destination is listed.
It makes no reference to, and shows no awareness of, any involvement of any Zionist organizations and no “goodwill” toward Israel whatsoever.
The letter corroborates al-Aramneh’s characterization of Yaboos’ perception of the initiative as being entirely one of solidarity from Palestinians in Israel to Palestinians in Gaza with no connection to Zionist entities.
A conclusion from Yaboos’ explanation combined with the evidence from the letter is that the charity was in effect tricked in a kind of bait-and-switch.
It should be noted that no organization in Gaza could knowingly publicly associate itself with a visit supported by Israeli officials and settlement bodies such as the Kibbutz Movement and hope to maintain any local credibility or support.
While it is clear that Marshak was – as he himself stated – working with the Israeli government, it is difficult to determine where the orphans scheme was hatched.
The Jewish Agency’s ubiquitous online propagandist Avi Mayer immediately took to Twitter to try to play down any official Israeli role or intent to use the children for hasbara – or official propaganda.
“What’s notable about this incredible humanitarian initiative is that organizers made absolutely no effort to draw attention to it,” Mayer tweeted.
“The laughable notion that this trip was an Israeli PR ploy is belied by the fact that no one knew about it until Hamas crushed it,” he added.
What Mayer didn’t explain is how all the journalists gathered on the Israeli side of Erez knew to be there to wait for the children.
Moreover, advance notice of the “humanitarian” visit would have been completely counterproductive resulting – as it did – in cancellation.
The propaganda value of the children would have been realized only once they were through Erez.
For the same reason, the Kibbutz Movement did not send the invitation to the children’s charity in Gaza directly, but used Malik Freij’s Likud-linked Candle for Peace and Brotherhood as an apparently patriotic Palestinian front.
While this cynical ploy failed, Israel’s spinners are trying to make the most of it with Mayer slamming Hamas’ “incredible cruelty” in disallowing the visit.
What remains unchanged is that 900,000 children – half the population of Gaza – are still under a tight siege in deteriorating conditions.
Imprisoned as they are in a ghetto, Israel affords Gaza’s children fewer rights than the Tel Aviv zoo animals the orphans did not get to see.
With thanks to Dena Shunra for assistance with research and translation.