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Israel: 1984 Everlasting

Photo by SarahTz | CC BY 2.0

Photo by SarahTz | CC BY 2.0

 

 

Empty Declarations of Democracy… Vacant Boasts of humanity

For decades, Israel has held itself out as being the lone “democracy” in the Middle East; a state where the rights of individuals could not and would not be held hostage to the autocratic whims of royalty, but rather a full partner to a free and robust electoral process that guarantees not just meaningful input from the governed but the ability to challenge state policies as the winds of change blow from “the river to the sea.”

Once again, recent events have proven this to be just so much a perverse myth… empty rhetoric… second only to the brazen unfounded Israeli boast of having the “most humane army in the world,” even as the body count of Palestinian children grows in cemeteries and prisons that have become very much its own unique brand of 21st century youth hostel.

Recently, Hagai El-Ad, an Israeli and Jew, who serves as executive director of B’Tselem (The Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), spoke before the UN Security Council urging it to take immediate action against Israel’s illegal settlements.

Demagoguery and Inhumanity Exposed

Not quite 1400 words in its entirety, one paragraph in particular of El-Ad’s testimony sums up life for millions of those captured by a democracy that sees day as night… pain as pleasure. Crushing, despite its brevity, the power and pain of these words could easily be part of an opening statement by a war crimes prosecutor at a tribunal called to hold Israel accountable for crimes unseen since the Nuremburg tribunals some 70 years ago.

“What does it mean, in practical terms, to spend 49 years, a lifetime, under military rule? When violence breaks out, or when particular incidents attract global attention, you get a glimpse into certain aspects of life under occupation. But what about the rest of the time? What about the many “ordinary” days of a 17,898-day-long occupation, which is still going strong? Living under military rule mostly means invisible, bureaucratic, daily, violence. It means living under an endless permit regime, which controls Palestinian life from cradle to grave: Israel controls the population registry; Israel controls work permits; Israel controls who can travel abroad – and who cannot; Israel controls who can visit from abroad – and who cannot; in some villages, Israel maintains lists of who can visit the village, or who is allowed to farm which fields. Permits can sometimes be denied; permits must always be renewed. Thus with every breath they take, Palestinians breathe in occupation. Make a wrong move, and you can lose your freedom of movement, your livelihood, or even the opportunity to marry and build a family with your beloved.”

In a free democratic society these comments, while perhaps controversial, would certainly not constitute sedition. In an open, healthy State these words would surely give reason to pause and reflect… but never serve as a rational trip-wire to strip their speaker of his birthright as an unbound citizen empowered to support his government for policies he finds just but condemn it for those that bear the star of tyranny. It is a distinction that Israel has failed to adopt or learn over the course of its 50 year subjugation of millions whose only crime is to be born Palestinian in occupied land with sign-posts everywhere that simply say “ Jews only.”

Beating of Chests

Not long after El-Ad’s powerful speech before a world body entrusted with securing fundamental rights and liberty for all of its citizenry, the hue and cry could be heard among Israeli political elite to silence such subversive talk. Thus, Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan of the Likud Party undertook the first steps of reprisal by announcing he was considering submitting a bill to the Knesset that could remove the citizenship of Israelis who act against their country in international organizations. According to Bitan, “El-Ad’s actions at the Security Council are a blatant violation of the trust citizens must have for their country, so he should go find another country where he could be a citizen.”

Alarming, one might ask; no, not at all… merely another in an endless daily stream of steps by a government second to none when it comes to autocratic, indeed dictatorial, control of every fiber of its citizens freedoms, particularly their ability to access and exchange information without fear of retribution.

Much is known and largely ignored about the thousands of Palestinian civilians that have been targeted and slaughtered by the Israeli military machine in occupied Palestine, whether in Gaza or the West Bank. Indeed, the killing fields of Gaza or execution alleys of back street Jerusalem no longer acquire more than a passing fancy or footnote in the evening news spread across a world now busy with outrages of more recent vintage. After 70 years of slaughter, it’s just so much business as usual.

So, too, we have seemingly become numbed to the reality that thousands of Palestinian political prisoners languish in isolation, many sitting year after year, some for decades, in administrative detention cells of political prisons… uncharged, undefended and untried, tortured in ways that leave the spirits of those still roaming the now empty cellblocks of South Africa’s notorious Robben Island relieved their misery was ended quickly through state sanctioned executions by “suicide.”

The Mighty Censor’s Sword

Closures of Palestinian news rooms and television stations are commonplace… yet no more remarkable than assaults by Israel upon Palestinian journalists that long ago moved into triple digits and show no sign of abating. The Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) has documented a pattern of such attacks by Israel running, for some time now, at almost 400 per year. Although the exact number of Palestinian journalists killed or injured by Israel over just the last decade may never be known, it has been documented that seventeen lost their lives in Gaza, alone, during the months of bombings which it endured in 2014.

Dozens of Palestinian journalists and private bloggers have been arrested by Israel and held for violating vague administrative codes that typically come down to the application of entirely undefined prohibitions such as “incitement.” Dareen Tatour, a 35-year-old poet and Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel, was arrested and placed under administrative detention on charges of inciting violence via her poetry which she posted on Facebook and which merely praises those who fight against Israeli domination. Also arrested and charged with criminal incitement was 19-year-old Anas Khateeb, on the basis of her Facebook posts which included such alarming statements as “Jerusalem is Arab,” and “Long live the Intifada.”

Recently, Palestinian journalist, Samah Dweik, was released from prison having served almost six months for an alleged incitement charge which resulted from comments about the occupation she posted on her private Facebook account. For most of her sentence, her family was banned from visiting or having any contact with her. She was but one of over 20 Palestinian journalists recently imprisoned by Israel for allegations of incitement, along with hundreds of other Palestinian activists or bloggers who have been targeted for arrest and prosecution for nothing more than postings of political opinions about the Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance on social media. Dweik’s release came not long after Israel and Facebook entered into an agreement to “work together” to monitor Palestinian posts.

The Sword Cuts Deeper

Increasingly, Palestinians are not the sole victims of an Israeli policy to silence “dissent” or to dramatically curb the nature and extent of information made available to its citizens… Jews and Arabs alike. For example, not long ago, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman confronted the military station director after Army Radio broadcast a documentary on the life of the leading Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, saying that material like Darwish’s shouldn’t darken Israeli airwaves.

In what can only be described as a systematic effort to control both journalists and citizens in their ability to read and write, to access and exchange information, and to reach informed opinions essential to a public and democratic dialogue about current and future Israeli policies, its machinery of censorship has become the linchpin of the State’s view of what is appropriate knowledge and speech and what is not.

Thus, of late, Israel has begun to demand of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter that they have input, if not control, over what posts ultimately find their way into the stream of ideas and debate within the Israeli public at large. According to Quds Press, Facebook and Twitter recently deleted thousands of posts, pages and accounts as a result of demands made by the Israeli Ministry of Justice based upon little more than amorphous claims that the information posed a threat to the safety of Israel.

On an even more ominous note, the Knesset has begun to formulate legislation that would require foreign entities to actively monitor social media sites for information deemed to be offensive to Israel. Under the legislation, content based liability could be found for material published by foreign nationals, addressed to foreign nationals and posted on foreign websites thereby reducing the concept of free speech in Israel to one that is cast by the prevailing political winds of the day and little else.

Recently the chief Israeli censor notified dozens of Israeli bloggers and social media activists that any material they might wish to publish in their personal blogs or social media accounts, when dealing with a wide range of what was described as “security” related subject matters, must be vetted. Although provided a generic and ambiguous catalog of those areas to be submitted for clearance, the targets, themselves, were not permitted to disclose the makeup of the list under penalty of law. If history can be counted upon to be the guidepost of what subject matters must be prescreened before publication, in the past the list has included such security “sensitive” subject matters as:

+ Cooperation agreements with foreign militaries;

+ Letters to the editor on military or security matters;

+ Contacts with foreign countries;

+ Anything connected to the nuclear industry;

+ Information about official delegations abroad;

+ Any material which constitutes a “danger” to people’s lives;

+ Immigration policies from “endangered” nations;

+ Use of foreign sources or material that touch upon any of these areas;

+ Detention of those suspected of security offenses;

+ Any information about military industries;

+ Appointments, resignations, firings, rumors about IDF activities or commanders

Finally, in a readily transparent effort to maintain a democratic illusion of a free and uncensored flow of information in the market place of ideas, pursuant to the censorship regulations there are complete prohibitions against leaving any blank spaces or other potential indicators in one’s writing or posts that might suggest or lead one to conclude that material has been deleted.

For those disturbed over this censorship procedure, it must be remembered that we are, after all, talking about a state that recently placed 101st out of 179 countries in the press Freedom index worldwide. Indeed, this appalling placement for the Middle East’s sole democracy is significantly better than Israel has scored in the Freedom index for quite a number of years.

For those wondering just how widespread, indeed systemic, Israel’s censorship procedures are, it is a country with a military censor procedure that has banned, outright, publication of, soon to be, some 2000 articles and redacted various information from 15,000 others in recent history. That is thousands of articles professional journalists and editors decided were of public interest but which never saw the light of day. Imagine how many more events of public interest went uninvestigated, or articles which were not written, issues debated, or challenges brought to bear for the Israeli body politic to consider because of self-censorship by journalists or editors too tired or principled to seek preapproval of their body of work by government censors. Stories simply swallowed up and disappeared by an industry of censorship.

Human Rights… Israel Wrongs

Although not yet law, in what can only be described as an all-out onslaught against core democratic rights and values, over the last several days consideration of a bill has begun in the Knesset that would empower the Defense Minister to detain a citizen without trial; to deny one the right to pursue or obtain employment in a field of interest; to limit access to various public places; and “to impose any other order or restriction necessitated by considerations of national security or public safety”.

Earlier in January 2011, the Knesset endorsed a right-wing proposal to investigate some of Israel’s best-known human rights organizations for “delegitimizing” its military. Among others was B’Tselem. The proposed investigations would entail inquiries into the funding of several human rights groups that have a history of criticizing Israeli policies. At the time, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel described the proposal as a “severe blow” to Israeli democracy and critics labeled the policy as “McCarthyist“.

Recently a variation on that bill became law in Israel compelling non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive more than half of their funding from foreign state entities to declare so publicly. Ultimately, the legislative criteria were tailored specifically to silence criticism of government policies by some 27 NGO’s… 25 of which, including B’Tselem, are considered to be left-wing… while the other two are non-affiliated. As intended, the bill will have absolutely no impact upon right-wing and pro-settlement NGOs which are funded almost entirely by private donations from powerful Zionists and Zionist entities from outside of Israel.

One can only imagine that upon returning home to the firestorm awaiting him, following his speech before the UN, Hagai El-Ad surely felt what it must have been like to be an activist leftist Jew in the United States during the dark days of McCarthy.

On the other hand, perhaps El-Ad should consider himself very fortunate indeed. On his twitter account, Arab-Palestinian MK Ahmad Tibi mocked MK David Bitan’s call for El-Ad’s de-citizenship saying: “Why stop at removing citizenship? Why not destroy the home of the B’Tselem director-general? Why not bar his entire family from entering the country, remove his land, submit them to administrative detention, and put checkpoints and closures in his neighborhood?”

More articles by:

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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