Back to normal? An Israeli virtual reality

An ad inserted into the bottom of my TV screen during a soccer match reads “Violence does not win”. Yes, business here appears as usual again — the soccer league here is just about over, people are back in coffee shops and movie theaters, and the summer is fast approaching.

PM Sharon even declared that the “operation” has ended. It’s now time for discussion and complaints about the economic situation, and the sharp drop (55%) in foreign investment. Top stories in the news are the severe budget cuts, new price hikes and taxes (after all, not only the American tax payer funds these operations; Israelis take part in it, too). The grim reality is quickly giving way to a virtual one, created by a massive propaganda campaign that Israel’s citizenry, and the West, are currently exposed to. They are trying to convince us that life is back to normal, and that once again we have been the good guys, who also happen to be strong and smart.

But there is a reality out there — the invasion is far from over. Curfews, focused attacks, chases, assassinations, blockades, house searches and arrests continue; Arafat is still under house arrest in his headquarters, his life in danger; the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is still under siege. Every symbol of Palestinian sovereignty is all but gone.

Reality Check I: Jenin

After 11 days that no relief workers or press were allowed into Jenin (city and camp), diplomats, journalists and relief workers visited these places, and come out shocked. Terje Larsen, an otherwise cold blooded Norwegian UN official who has been around this region for years, looked shattered after he visited the rubble Thursday. And while he carefully avoided the word “massacre”, he described the results in an interview on Israel state TV: he talked about the smell of corpses around the center of the camp, the scenes of family members digging out bodies, the total destruction. Upon being asked by an interviewer “Do you blame Israel for this?” He replied “squarely” twice.

In 1988, Israel blew up the 33 houses in the West Bank village Beita, subsequent to a row between villagers and settlers. This action created an international uproar, as it was perceived as a new height of Israeli violence in the region. Things have escalated since: there are now 800 homeless families in the camp, and an unknown number of dead. In some places, the ruins were further bulldozed, so that some secrets will forever be buried in the rubble, accurately described by IDF officers as “terrible destruction” more than 10 days ago. Now access to rescue and relief teams is restricted, sometimes denied. Teams that are not “objective”, warned Labor Party minister (and ex-general) Efraim Sneh, should be denied entry to the affected areas, as they might use their visits for “propaganda, not relief”.

Larsen’s words were dubbed “instigation” by ‘Fouad’ Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s Defense Minister, and excluded him from the Inquiry Team. After its successful demotion of the level of the inquiry (“Team”, not “Commission”), Israel is astonishingly demanding to have a say in the selection of its members. Terje Larsen, UNRWA’s Commissioner General Peter Hansen and Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees are called “biased”, “anti-Israeli” and excluded. However mild the Team’s conclusions might be, they will be predictably depicted as “anti-Israeli”, perhaps even anti-Semitic. The danger such expressions hold for world Jewry escape Israeli politicians (we are just told that the Berlin police has issues a recommendation that Jews not wear a Star of David, for fear of anti-Semitic attacks).

Whether or not Israel committed a massacre is not known; it may never be known: Some of the bodies now decomposing under the rubble will never be found; among those who survived, many were arrested, and others fled to neighboring villages and towns. A census is obviously not a possibility, a fact cynically used by Israeli officials, who committed these crimes and now want to come out clean handed.

The logic behind the Jenin operation seems fairly clear by now: A traditionally radical region, and place of origin of a majority of the recent suicide bombings, the population of Jenin was handed down a harsh punishment, aimed to demonstrate Israel’s uncompromising stance. The resistance of local fighters, and the IDF’s failure to take it over, brutalized the reaction. The current closure, curfews, and restrictions on relief operations are not only attempts to conceal what Israel has done, but also, continued collective punishment.

Reality Check II: Ramallah

The crimes committed in Ramallah represent the main goal Israel’s invasion was expected to achieve: The destruction of the Palestinian Authority, the destruction of Palestinian national institutions, and a strike on the fabric of civic society. As Jibril Rajub (commander of the main PA security service) pointed out, they came to destroy the PA, not terrorism.

A report published a couple of days ago in Ramallah contains a long list of destroyed PA structures: Buildings were destroyed or badly damaged, as offices and centers — whether governmental, cultural, educational or civic — were broken into and demolished. Particular attention was given to Palestinian databases: the IDF removed hard drives from every computer it encountered. As I am writing, Arafat’s fate is discussed here, with many voices calling for his “termination”.

A Propaganda War : The next step

To combat the discrepancy between the virtual and the actual, the government has launched a propaganda war, aimed both internally, and externally. It now dissociates itself from the war crimes it committed, and tries to put the blame on the Palestinians, and even the international community. Internally, it seeks to quell opposition to the war.

As a first step, relief workers and journalists were denied access to affected areas. When access was finally granted, it was quite limited. The government claims that the Jenin camp was minimally damaged, as “only” 10% of its structures were destroyed. UN officials (Larsen and Hansen) who voiced criticism were immediately ostracized. The UN and its relief and welfare agency UNRWA are accused of providing assistance to terrorism by storing weapons in their in-camp warehouses. This charge is flatly denied by UNRWA’s Hansen, who in an article in today’s Ha’aretz, notes that no such stores exist in refugee camps.

Internally, the government is now trying to exercise gentle censorship: The PM office has instructed Israel TV to investigate the circumstances that led to the above interview with UN’s Terje Larsen. The signal was immediately picked up: Haifa University authorities have just announced a ban on demonstrations on campus, for “fear of violence”. An event in honor of a well-known singer was cancelled because she dared criticize the war. As the government is trying to change public discourse and create a “new order in the Middle East”, further measures to contain opposition are surely in store.


It is not clear that a popular anti-war movement will organize successfully, but there are significant beginnings:

* Small protest sit-ins are taking place at different locations.

* A big demonstration has called by a unified left front for this coming Saturday:

The occupation is killing us all!

PROTEST MARCH - next Saturday, April 27, starting at 7 p.m. from Cinematheque Square, Tel-Aviv, along Karlibach, Ibn Gvirol and Shaul Hamelech streets and culminating with a rally at the Tel Aviv Museum Plaza.

Revenge and death, destruction and revenge: that is Sharon’s political program. These are its main stages: starvation and humiliation, systematic destruction, civilian killings, and war crimes.

This is its purpose: to create a “no choice” situation, to defeat the Palestinian people so as to stand over smoking ruins and proclaim: there is no one to talk to.

  • We won’t forfeit our future to Sharon’s government.
  • We won’t keep silent about the crimes of Jenin.
  • All of us will pay the price of occupation, especially the weak and deprived.
  • For our common future we will all stand up, Jews and Arabs, to stop the horror and end the occupation.

    There is a political way out of this blood cycle

    Respond to the Arab peace initiative: full peace for full territory!
    Establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders!
    Dismantle the settlements! Resolve the refugee problem justly, through mutual consent!

    C O M E M A R C H W I T H U S!

    Next Saturday, April 27, at 7 p.m. from Cinematheque Square to the protest rally at the Tel Aviv Museum.

  • * Continued relief work is carried out stubbornly by several organizations — first and foremost the Coordinating Committee of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and by Jewish (Halonot “Windows”) and Jewish/Arab (Ta’ayush) groups, that collect food, clothing, household goods and distribute them in the affected areas.

    Ta’ayush has called for a march, this Friday, this time to on Bethlehem which is under under curfew:

    Subject: [Taayush] Convoy This Friday, April 26

    This Friday, April 26th, Ta’ayush will carry out a convoy of humnitarian assitance to the Bethlehem area.

    This activity will be in the format of previous Ta’ayush food convoys: we will drive in a convoy of private cars and trucks carrying goods and supplies of assistance to a destination in the Occupied Territories where we will meet with our Palestinian friends and with them carry out a joint activity.

    This will be the first activity of its kind since the beginning of Israel’s offensive where we, Israeli Arabs and Jews, will not only transfer assistance of crucial supplies and aid but also meet with the victims of the past weeks’ aggression

    I will report to you on these events.

    A Call for a Boycott

    The IDF would not have progressed one inch without US technology and US money, courtesy of US taxpayers. There is a growing feeling that the US should stop selling arm sales to Israel, and condition its continued support on Israel’s compliance with international law, the Geneva and other convention, and UN resolutions. In several universities (Princeton, MIT, Harvard), organization toward a divestment movement has begun. A growing divestment movement might help bring political change.