Israel’s actions on the ground proving difficult to spin

Vice President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, 9 March 2010. (David Lienemann/White House photo)

JERUSALEM (IPS) - Israeli riot police and soldiers have, since Friday, sealed off the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, restricting entry to women and Palestinian men over 50.

Outside the walled Old City, where the al-Aqsa mosque is situated, and in several West Bank villages, clashes were reported between Palestinian protestors, their Israeli and international supporters and the Israeli military, leaving at least 20 Palestinians wounded.

Following a security assessment Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered security forces to stop tens of thousands of Palestinians from entering Jerusalem.

The tense situation on the ground has coincided with a diplomatic crisis of sorts with the Israeli government in confrontation with visiting United States Vice President Joe Biden.

An announcement on Tuesday by the Israeli interior ministry to build 1,600 new homes for illegal Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem provoked strong rebuke from the US administration as well as international condemnation.

Israeli officials followed the announcement by stating that in the next few years, perhaps decade, approximately 50,000 new homes would be built in occupied East Jerusalem — mostly for Jewish settlers.

Earlier in the month Barak had stated that an additional 140 new housing units would be built in one of the West Bank settlements.

Following Biden’s censure, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put a call through to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, reiterating the administration’s disapproval.

The Middle East Quartet — the United Nations. Russia, the European Union and the United States — further slammed Israel’s unilateral moves and called for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

However, the Palestinian Authority (PA), backed by the Arab League and the international community, has immediately called off the talks.

The PA had recently decided to resume negotiations with Israel after breaking them off several months ago due to Israel’s continued settlement expansion in the occupied East Jerusalem.

Following the mild showdown with Biden, Netanyahu went into damage control and apologized profusely to the vice-president who seemed to be placated with being told that the intended settlement expansion would only begin in several years.

The Israeli government’s collective reasoning appears to be that the only issue at hand is the forthrightness and timing of the settlement building announcement.

The continued Judaization of occupied East Jerusalem, the expulsion of Palestinians, the demolition of their homes and expropriation of their land are apparently insignificant.

Israeli group Peace Now says that many settlements in the occupied West Bank continue to defy the alleged settlement freeze.

Simultaneously, construction of public buildings, such as schools and those housing units with their foundations already established, proceed unabated in the settlements.

But analysts are questioning why Israel would deliberately shoot itself in the foot with the latest in-your-face announcements, especially taking into consideration the country’s slick and well-oiled publicity machine.

Israeli journalist and commentator from the daily Haaretz, Bradley Burston, explained that the hard-right in Israel sees this confrontational and provocative behavior with the Palestinians and the international community as an effort to “expunge any trace of groveling to the colonial master.”

“People are laughing at you. Who is advising you on your brand? This is not good, this is pretty bad,” Jonathan Gabay, a London-based marketing and branding expert, told Haaretz.

Gabay was commenting on Israel’s ramped up hasbara, or public diplomacy, efforts to counter the growing international criticism.

The Israeli information and diaspora ministry recently launched a new website called “Masbirim” which encourages Israelis traveling abroad to defend Israel.

However, one of its advertisements ridicules the significant foreign press corps based in the country by portraying them as naive and incompetent in their coverage of the conflict — a move hardly bound to win over an increasingly skeptical foreign media.

The foreign media, too, has been covering the civil trial of the unlawful killing of Rachel Corrie.

Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist, was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip in 2003, as she stood in front of a Palestinian home, trying to protect it from being leveled.

The Israeli military claims the driver never saw her. However, eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence dispute this version of events.

Additionally, last week the parents of Tristan Anderson launched an appeal on an Israeli decision to close the investigation into the shooting of their 38-year-old son by the Israeli military.

Anderson remains in an Israeli hospital with serious brain damage after he was shot in the head with a high-velocity tear gas canister by Israeli soldiers while attending a protest against the Israel’s wall in the Palestinian village of Nilin near Ramallah on 13 March 2009.

Again the Israeli military’s version of events and its subsequent investigation have been derided as inept and unprofessional by both witnesses and the Andersons’ attorney.

Eyewitnesses claim that Anderson was not involved in the confrontation and at the time of his shooting all protests had ceased. Human rights organizations accuse the Israeli authorities of using lethal and excessive force on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, to add to Israel’s public relations nightmare the European Parliament on Wednesday passed a resolution supporting a report by UN-appointed Justice Richard Goldstone which calls for further investigations into war crimes committed during Israel’s war on Gaza at the end of 2008 and the start of 2009.

Last December the EU passed another resolution which called for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. The EU accused Israel of trying to block the resolution.

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