Thursday, 31 December 2009

The grand finale: your New Year's resolutions

Last day of the year. My blog has come to an end. After my emotional outpouring yesterday, I want to leave you with practical ideas of what you can do next. So how about it folks? Are you ready to make a resolution tonight to do at least one thing in 2010? Take your pick.

1. Educational Tours. On your next visit to Israel, set aside half a day to accompany an Israeli organisation on a tour to learn about different aspects of the conflict.

For tours of East Jerusalem - Ir Amim
For tours of Hebron and the South Hebron hills - Breaking the Silence
To meet Palestinian families in the West Bank - The Villages Group

2. Tell your friends. Let the voices of peace grow louder. The next time you speak to friends or family about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the next time you hear someone say that there is no hope for peace, tell them about all the different peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. Tell them about the people who do believe in peace and who are trying to make it happen.

A list of peace organisations can be found here (scroll down to the bottom) and here. Take 10 minutes to look through. Try to remember two organisations and spread the word!

3. Stay informed. Choose one new source of information to find out what is happening on the ground. Choose a credible source, and be daring, pick one from the other side of your political leaning. You can subscribe to information bulletins or e-newsletters.

For the lefties out there try:

For the righties out there try:

4. Make a donation. If you already give money to Israel, think about allocating 5-10 percent of that amount to peace initiatives. If you do not give any money to Israel think about supporting one peace initiative this year. Personally, I like the following organisations:

If you want to support human rights:
B'Tselem (The information center on human rights in the Occupied Territories)
Hamoked (Providing legal defence for individuals)
Gisha (Working on freedom of movement)

If you want to help improve people's health:

If you want to support peace dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians:
The Peoples Peace Fund (bringing together Palestinians and Israelis wounded in the conflict)
The Other Voice (bringing together people from Gaza and Sderot)
The Parents Circle (bringing together parents who have lost children in the conflict)

If you are interesting in art, music and culture:
The Villages Group (they just started a music center in two Palestinian villages)

If you are interested in environmental initiatives:
Comet-ME (Israelis installing solar panels and wind turbines in Bedouin villages in the Southern Hebron hills)

If you are interested in sport:

That's it. I'm done. Now do your own homework.

So here we are. Sixty one days later. Can you believe it? It is time to say good bye and to thank you for sharing this journey with me. I have cherished it dearly, and you have all made it worthwhile.

The End.

No more days to go.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

So, how do I feel?

My journey has almost come to an end. I am packing my bags and getting ready to leave. So how do I feel after these two months? Well, terribly mixed.

I marvel at what the State of Israel has created in just 60 years. From science and technology, to research and development, to literature and the arts, to innovation in water conservation, agriculture and forestry. The greening of the desert. The high-tech industry. It is mind-blowing.

I also love the fact that Israel has created a space to express Jewish identity beyond religion, through a common language, land and culture. And I am in awe of Israel's numerous operations to save Jewish communities in distress from all over the world.

But I do not think this project will last unless Israel makes peace with its neighbours, especially the Palestinians. And when I look at what Israel is doing in that respect, I am deeply concerned. I cannot believe that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate so badly, and I cannot understand why most Jews in Israel and the diaspora are okay with what is happening.

I am shocked that Israel has allowed the settler population to quadruple in the last twenty years. As you drive through the West Bank, the landscape is dotted with prosperous Israeli settlements connected with sophisticated highways, electricity and running water, amidst a sea of poorer Palestinian villages, with badly maintained roads and services. If a Palestinian road runs too close to a settlement it is closed off. If an Israeli road crosses through a Palestinian village, there are army checkpoints to control Palestinian movement, or the land is simply confiscated. Is this how we show support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state? Is this our idea of peace?

I am disturbed by Israel's policy of separation. Separate roads and laws for Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank. A Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank. A prohibition on entry into Israel for Palestinians and vice versa. And restricting movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza.

It distresses me that we find it acceptable to put 1.5 million Gazans into a prison because they are controlled by an extremist militant group. That when we think of Gaza we only think of terrorists and forget that the vast majority are civilians who crave a normal life.

Of course, I am also angry that the Palestinians have not been able to get their act together. That they have not figured out that violence against Israel simply makes their situation worse, and that non-violent resistance might be a more effective approach. And I am angry that after 60 years, the Arab world has not faced reality: that Israel is not going anywhere, whether they accept its right to exist or not.

I believe that Israel needs military strength to defend itself. But I worry that today we are more proud of Israel's military might, than of our contribution to humanity. I feel sad that the iron fist is our claim to fame and not our compassion for human life.

But I have not given up hope. This is the Middle East. And the situation can change at the most unexpected moment.

1 day to go...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

What have I learnt?

Believe it or not, I was scared to embark on this journey. I do not thrive on seeing conflict, injustice and suffering. I was scared to have my world turned upside down. I was scared about feeling hopeless, despair and full of hatred. I did not think I was ready to face the situation. I did not want to turn against my people and I did not want to blame the Palestinians for everything either.

I spent so many years avoiding the question of Israel and the Palestinians. The issue was so divisive with my family and my community, it always felt easier to talk about something else and to focus on other people's issues. I was unsure how my journey would be perceived. But this part has been easy. People have been open, engaged and interested. It has enabled me to be more open in return, and given me a greater ability for understanding.

I learnt a lot about the conflict, from the eyes of Israelis and Palestinians and through my own eyes. I have a better grasp of the issues, the different perceptions and perspectives. Everyone I met, Israeli or Palestinian, has an answer for everything, so it can be difficult to judge whether certain policies and acts are justified or not. I realised that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

One thing is clear though, very few people think about the future, or have a plan for the future. Fewer and fewer people believe the two-state solution is possible, and almost no-one wants to live in a binational state (one state for two peoples). So what will it be? Eternal conflict? Never-ending occupation?

I lost some of my innocence about the ideal that Israel and the Jewish people always try to do the right thing with the highest moral ethic. I think this cannot be assumed, it must be proven. No people is naturally good or bad. Every nation has the ability to commit atrocities, albeit to varying degrees and at different moments in history. Which is why this journey has strengthened my belief in the rule of law. No-one should be above the law, and a person is never the best judge of their own acts.

It troubles me to see cases where Israelis are put above the law, especially when it comes to alleged wrongdoings against Palestinians. I heard and saw a number of cases where the army sat by and watched as settlers threatened and threw stones at Palestinian children on their way to school. After the war in Gaza, there were serious allegations of violations of the laws of war by both sides. I had no expectations that Hamas would carry out an independent investigation, but I was shocked that up to now, Israel has not launched an independent investigation. Instead Israel preferred to allow the military to investigate its own conduct. These are not good examples of upholding the rule of law.

But I also feel immense pride and hope, seeing how many Israelis care about what is going on and do something about it. I was thrilled to see how many Palestinians were active in peace initiatives, especially when it came to non-violent resistance. I really do believe that if the voices of these Israelis and Palestinians grow louder, that it will create an impetus for change.

Personally, I feel closer to my own identity, to my own people, than ever before. Whilst I was exploring a conflict between two peoples, I come from one of those peoples, and my journey was very much rooted in that identity.

Most importantly, I feel humbled by the experience. I do not have any big ideas to bring to the people in this region. I think they are trying everything they can, with enormous obstacles. I respect people's efforts and believe that our job, as people from the outside, is to support those efforts.

2 days to go...

Sunday, 27 December 2009

So what are the chances for peace?

As I near the end of my journey, I feel it is time for reflection. What have I learnt from this experience? Is there any chance for peace? And what next for those who want to stay engaged?

Tonight I want to explore the chance for a peace agreement. No need for rocket science on this one, the prospects are pretty slim.

Why? Well, I wonder if anyone in power really wants peace. The Netanyahu government is not interested, the Abbas government is unable to deliver, and nobody trusts what Hamas says.

But, I also wonder if people here believe in peace right now. The majority on both sides do not believe the other side wants peace, nor that it is possible to live side-by-side in peace and security; and they are probably right.

Finally, I wonder if most people here are not more addicted to land than to peace. For Jews it is about a united Jerusalem and reclaiming other holy Jewish sites in the West Bank. For the Palestinians, it is about the right to return to their homes and their family's homes from before 1948.

So what next, what hope for this region? I can imagine a few scenarios. One option is the status quo. People in Israel continue to live in relative peace and security. Israel continues its military occupation, building settlements and the separation barrier on Palestinian land, and restricting the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank. The Palestinians remain divided (Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah the West Bank), the suffering in Gaza continues (or worsens), and Palestinians in the West Bank are better off economically but increasingly isolated from one another and not free to determine their future or govern their daily lives.

A second option is renewed violence: rocket attacks, another intifada and/or another Israeli military operation. Without a solution to the conflict, the situation will remain volatile. The support for non-violence by President Abbas has not achieved much in terms of concessions from Israel, and a culture of violent resistance remains alive. So long as Palestinians are not free, and so long as they continue to experience injustices in their daily lives, hostilities could flare up at any moment. And, so long as Israelis feel threatened and insecure in their daily lives, military force could be used at any moment.

A third option is to forget the idea of a final peace agreement and look for a temporary solution. This is not ideal, but it is the most pragmatic option available. I found the insight of former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, particularly persuasive. A long-term truce and provisional borders on the pre-1967 line. Once a temporary solution is in place, it will give the parties time to work out the final details and show if they are both serious about long-term peace. And who knows, it might also create the space for desperately needed confidence-building measures.

So, whilst there might be no chances for a peace deal now, I do believe another solution is possible.

4 days to go...

Saturday, 26 December 2009

An oasis in the desert

This weekend, I took a break from the conflict, and went south with Andres to the dead sea, the Arava and a massive crater in Mitzpe Ramon. I was not planning to write about it, but we had such an amazing weekend, that I could not resist sharing the highlights.

The dead sea was a total trip-out from start to finish. From Jerusalem we took the so-called "bypass" road, which is an Israeli-built road in the West Bank designed to serve mainly the Israeli population. We arrived at a beach resort called Kalya, located in the West Bank, but which was covered with Israeli flags. And then as we entered, the place was full with a diverse mix of Israelis, Palestinians, and christian Indians, Sri Lankans and Koreans, who are here to celebrate Christmas. This place is nuts!

My favourite spots, however, were two moshavs we visited in the Arava. The oases in the desert. The first one was Ein Yahav where we stayed in a "zimmer" (the name taken from German), a Swiss-style chalet in the desert, which has become wildly popular with Israelis looking for a weekend getaway. The second moshav was Zipor, where we ate one of the most amazing brunches of my life.

An Israeli woman from Zipor called Ronit, decided to start an organic farm to teach children in the area about where their food comes from and how it is grown. Every year, with the help of children aged 4 to 10, they grow fresh, wholesome, and great-tasting fruits and vegetables (except for the Summer months, which are way too hot and burn everything!). She also keeps a small farm with rabbits, chickens and goats.

Two years ago she opened a restaurant in the garden, where you sit and eat amongst the tomato vines, cabbage patches, and rows of rocket leaves, parsley, basil, and oregano. We drank tea with fresh hibiscus, camomile and lemongrass. We ate freshly made jams and cheeses. I was in heaven.

75 percent of the water used for agriculture comes from wells dug by the government. The water is a bit salty, so they add 25 percent fresh water. Today, the farmers on the moshav use 90 percent less chemicals and pesticides they used 20 years ago (except for the organic garden which uses none). It is quite remarkable what these communities have been able to achieve in the desert (of course with the help of the government and the Jewish National Fund).

I expected the Arava to be dry, boring and empty. Instead, we saw amazing landscape, a booming tourism industry, thriving communities, and hidden gems! A much-needed weekend away.

5 days to go...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Meeting Mossad

Today I met a former head of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. He had an aura about him, a confidence, a clear-sightedness. I was in awe of him. Plus, he had many interesting things to say, particularly about Hamas.

The starting point was Gilad Shalit. In his opinion, if the Shalit deal goes through, it will remove obstacles between Israel and the Palestinians: "it will be impossible for Israel to maintain the blockade on Gaza," he said, "and Israel and the world will be forced to come to terms with how to deal with Hamas."

He said the option of erasing Hamas has been tried and failed. In Israel's dealings with the Palestinians, they must ensure that Hamas is part of the solution and not part of the problem. He encourages reason and logic when dealing with Hamas, and refraining from dealing with the ideological issues. "Our right to exist does not depend on them," he said, "this should not be a condition to talking with them."

He believes that Hamas is effective, credible and logical, but most of all, have shown they are capable of being in control in Gaza, something which he believes is not the case when it comes to Fatah in the West Bank.

He is not interested in convincing Hamas that their ideology is wrong, but rather, that it is in their self-interest to have an agreement with Israel. He believes that Hamas' proposal of a long-term truce and accepting provisional borders on the pre-1967 line is "a fine idea," because they are capable of implementing it, and because a provisional agreement might be the only thing possible right now.

And what about Iran's influence over Hamas? "Yes," he said, "Hamas receives aid, training and equipment, but Hamas are not a proxy of Iran, they do not take orders from Iran, they do not even have religious leadership."

So voila, insights from the heart of the Israeli intelligence community. What is your take on Israel negotiating with Hamas?

8 days to go...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Punishing who?

Today I was asked to prepare a short briefing on the Israeli blockade on Gaza. This is a really tough one (as you can see from my previous blog entry and the comments I received).

First, a bit of background on the blockade. In June 2007, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in a somewhat bloody battle with Fatah. In response, Israel tightened its closure on the Gaza Strip, initially for fear that goods entering Gaza would be used for military purposes.

In September 2007, Israel's security cabinet declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity." The decision allowed the authorities to restrict the movement of people and goods in response to rocket fire. According to Gisha, an Israeli organisation that works on freedom of movement, the cabinet decision effectively authorizes collective punishment against civilians, because it allows Israel to impose restrictions, not in response to a concrete security threat, but rather as a means of exercising pressure on Hamas.

Since 2007, Palestinians are almost completely barred from leaving the Gaza Strip, apart from exceptional humanitarian cases. Israel has limited the amount of fuel entering and blocked the import of building materials and most kinds of goods. According to B'Tselem, the fuel shortage directly affects the water and sewage systems in the Gaza Strip. Some 30 percent of Gazans are denied regular water supply because of the cuts in electricity.

According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the period before the blockade, an average of 583 truckloads of goods and humanitarian supplies entered Gaza. During the two years that followed, an average of 112 truckloads entered, less than a fifth of the previous number. Prior to the blockade, some 4,000 items were imported into Gaza from Israel. Currently, Israel allows 35 items, of which 74 percent are basic foodstuffs, although the number of items changes regularly. On average, four truckloads of construction material enter Gaza per month, 0.05 percent of the number entering prior to the blockade. A system of smuggling goods through tunnels has developed in response.

The closure intensified when a partial ceasefire between Hamas and Israel collapsed in November 2008. This led to a new wave of rocket attacks into Israel and the war in Gaza. According to OCHA, during the war, about half a million residents were affected by the frequent shutting down of the Gaza power plant, including their sanitation, water and power supply. 60 percent of the population received running water only once every 5-7 days and sewage poured onto the streets.

A year after the war, the situation remains critical. The destruction from the war has not been cleared away. Very little has been repaired or rebuilt, including hospitals, schools, factories and power stations. Dozens of families are still homeless, the health system is weak and the economy in tatters.

I do not pretend to know the way out of this mess. But, the failure of the authorities on both sides to differentiate between combatants and civilians, between military and non-military targets, is the most dangerous legacy left behind.

Yes, people on both sides have elected their leaders, but this does not justify indiscriminate attacks and reprisals against them. When you punish an entire group of people for the actions of their authorities or armed forces, it is called collective punishment, and it is prohibited under international law. When you label an entire group of people as hostile you silence the voices of reason.

Hamas's incessant rocket attacks have punished the civilians of southern Israel. Israel's response, a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip, has punished the civilians of Gaza. Worse, neither strategy has worked. Hamas' actions strengthen the anti-peace camp in Israel. Israel's actions strengthen Hamas' popularity in Gaza.

I am all in favour of being tough on terror, but not to the detriment of our humanity.

9 days to go...