For ten days in June, Milan was the site of a promotional event aimed at presenting “the other side of Israel,” in the words of the Israeli Ambassador to Italy Gideon Meir. Known as “Unexpected Israel,” the event was sponsored by both the Italian and Israeli governments, along with local city and provincial authorities.
When details of the event were first announced in December 2010, it was projected to cost 2.5 million euros ($3.6 million US) and to include a 900-square-meter plexiglass pavilion featuring Israeli technological and cultural wonders in Piazza Duomo, Milan’s main square. In the end, Piazza Duomo hosted nothing more than a small multimedia installation: 15 amplified pedestals spouting classics of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) to the few visitors who dared enter the fenced-off, heavily guarded area.
A pedestal dedicated to agriculture boasted, “For thousands of years, this was an arid, barren land, mostly desert. In just sixty years, Israel transformed the desert into an agricultural miracle,” giving credence to the idea that no agriculture — and by implication, no people — existed in the land before the creation of the State of Israel.
The installation on water also talked of transforming “an arid land into a fertile paradise.” There was no mention that this transformation was made possible through water stolen from Palestinians or that Palestinian access to their own water supplies was severely restricted. In the water-rich West Bank region of the Jordan Valley, in what should be a “fertile paradise” for the Palestinians, the land is occupied by the Israeli military: 44 percent has been designated closed military zones and 50 percent has been appropriated by 37 illegal Israeli settlements and plantations, according to a report by the Ma’an Development Center (“Report: Eye on the Jordan Valley,” 2010 [PDF]).
The Ma’an Development Center released another report on the water crisis in the Jordan Valley. They state that since 1967, Israel has blocked Palestinian access to 162 water wells (“Report: Draining Away: The water and sanitation crisis in the Jordan Valley” [PDF]).
This is happening while the approximately 9,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley consume one-quarter of the resources used annually by all 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, according to statistics from Human Rights Watch (“Separate and Unequal,” 19 December 2010).
The tourism and Holy Land pedestal installations quietly ventured beyond Israel’s boundaries to include Bethlehem, Jericho and Qumran, without ever mentioning that these sites are in the occupied West Bank.
Celebrities used to sell Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv was presented as a non-stop, fun-loving, multicultural city with a “vibrant and classy” gay scene, a city “that loves you just as you are.” Video clips of performances in Tel Aviv by international stars such as Madonna and Paul McCartney were used to present Israel as a normal western-style country, confirming that artists who choose to ignore the Palestinian call for a cultural boycott of Israel become its unofficial ambassadors.
Representatives of nearly fifty Israeli companies, along with 150 Italian entrepreneurs, attended the Italian-Israeli Business Forum held at the Milan Stock Exchange, together with the Israeli minister of industry, the Italian undersecretary for economic development and the presidents of the Lombardy region and Milan province. More than 400 bilateral business-to-business meetings were organized in the afternoon, divided into four sectors: water technologies, security, medical and new media.
A look at some of the Israeli companies participating reveals direct ties with the occupation and violations of international law.
According to Who Profits? — a project of the Coalition of Women for Peace in Israel — Magar S3 provides security systems along 150 kilometers of Israel’s wall in the West Bank as well as eight Israeli settlements (“Magal security systems”).
J Gordon Consulting Engineers designed the security systems for Nafha prison, where 94 percent of the incarcerated are Palestinian political prisoners (see its website, “Main activities, by region: Israel”).
Athena GS3 was founded by Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and boasts a team of “security experts from the Israeli elite intervention units” such as commandos and Navy Seals. Naval commando units carried out the attacks on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May last year, killing nine activists, and have been trained to intercept the current second flotilla.
Netanyahu: Israel has no “better friend” than Berlusconi
As “Unexpected Israel” got underway in Milan, an Israeli-Italian intergovernmental summit was taking place in Rome. Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with eight ministers from each country, signed nine bilateral agreements. In the joint statement, Berlusconi also reaffirmed “the Italian government’s firm opposition to any form of delegitimization or boycotts against Israel (“Vertice Intergovernativo Italo-Israeliano,” 13 June 2011).
Among the bilateral agreements, the ministries of foreign affairs from both countries undertook to evaluate exchange programs for young diplomats, public figures and journalists, as well as intensifying youth exchange programs “with the scope of creating friendships among the younger generations of both countries.”
The ministries of education agreed to create a teacher-training program in Holocaust education, with Italian high school teachers taking part in courses at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
On 13 June, during a joint press conference in Rome, Berlusconi affirmed: “We have always been and will always be on your side because Israel is the only true democracy in the entire region.” Netanyahu, stating that Israel has “no better friend,” also noted that the bilateral agreements were “not merely technical agreements, they are a bond, a growing bond in modern times, in the beginning of the 21st century between the people of Italy and the people of Israel” (“Press Conference with PM Netanyahu and Italian PM Berlusconi,” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 June 2011).
While Israel endeavored to salvage its image and bond with Italian private industry and public institutions, activists took to the streets in Milan to give visibility to what “Unexpected Israel” tried so desperately to conceal. As Piero Maestri of the campaign group No to the Israeli Occupation of Milan asked, “Would anyone have accepted an event called ‘Unexpected South Africa’ while [Nelson] Mandela was still in prison?”
On Friday, 11 June, just before the official events began, activists dressed in white marched to Piazza Duomo behind a banner that read “322 children killed: Unexpected Israel” and read aloud the names of each child killed in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-09.
A daily presence was maintained at the entrance to the multimedia installation in Piazza Duomo, where an alternative version of “Unexpected Israel” postcards were distributed, including images of the Nakba (the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948), racist t-shirts worn by Israeli soldiers, the destruction in Gaza and graffiti in the West Bank city of Hebron that reads “Arabs to the gas chambers.” Posters for the protests showing the Duomo — Milan’s cathedral — behind Israel’s wall were found throughout the city’s center.
Ambassador Meir soon learned he could not walk the streets of Milan without being challenged. As he walked from Piazza Duomo, surrounded by Italian police officers, an activist managed to slowly work her way into the crowd and confront Meir with photos of demolished houses in Silwan, occupied East Jerusalem. Another unfurled a banner reading “Stop Agrexco: Boycott the Fruit of Israeli Apartheid” behind Meir as he spoke to the television cameras inside the multimedia installation.
Unexpected gift for Agrexco
On Friday, 17 June, an “unexpected gift” was delivered to the Italian headquarters of the Israeli produce exporter Agrexco in Milan. Activists from the Stop Agrexco campaign, which calls for a boycott of the company, delivered baskets of rotten fruit symbolizing Palestinian agricultural products rotting at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank (“VIDEO: BDS action against the Agrexco headquarters in Milan, Italy,” 25 June 2011).
On Saturday, 18 June, thousands filled the streets of Milan, arriving from Rome, Florence, Bologna and Turin, for a protest march followed by a concert by Gaza rappers DARG Team.
And as “Unexpected Israel” came to a close on 22 June, a replica of the Stefano Chiarini, the Italian boat that is taking part in the second Freedom Flotilla, arrived on the square. In the form of a child’s boat made of newspapers — fitting for the boat carrying the name of the late Italian journalist and Palestine solidarity activist — the three-meter replica “sailed” around the talking pedestals, the megaphone of the protesters drowning out the propaganda.
The ten-day event, while securing the support of Berlusconi’s government and those Italian firms willing to do business with an apartheid state, did little to win the hearts and minds of the people of Milan. Once again — in contrast to the cowardice of governments and institutions — it was a grassroots movement that mobilized to hold Israel accountable for its violations of human rights and international law.
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy. She can be reached at steph AT webfabbrica DOT com.