The rocky relationship

Jean Wyllys poses in front of Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he participated in a conference.

Jean Wyllys poses in front of Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he participated in a conference.

This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The recent visit of leftist Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys to attend an academic conference at Hebrew University in Jerusalem caused a mini-storm of controversy in Brazil, with many pro-Palestinian activists accusing Wyllys of supporting Israeli propaganda and letting down the cause of the Palestinians.

It all started when the congressman posted a picture on his official Facebook page showing him standing in front of a Hebrew University sign. Critics were quick to point out that one of the university’s campuses is built on land confiscated from Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Members of his Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) harshly criticized him, with the news website The Intercept reporting that Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat and former UN rapporteur on Myanmar, posted a video online in which he said: “Lamentable and deplorable, Congressman Jean Wyllys’ comments about his visit to Israel reveal a crass ignorance of and total misinformation about Israel’s current human rights policies.” The video was later removed.

The Intercept reported that the congressman was not even scheduled to visit the West Bank, but after the backlash he announced he would visit Bethlehem and perhaps Hebron. When some Brazilian voters commented that he should try to visit Gaza, the congressman said he would never be allowed to because of his “sexual orientation.” The Intercept noted that Hamas would never harm a visiting foreign politician.

Wyllys’ trip brought up the whole controversy surrounding the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure the Israeli government into accepting an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, into focus. The congressman said he was deeply opposed to any sort of boycott movement, saying that it only strengthened extremists on both sides of the conflict.

Another controversy currently rocking Brazil-Israel relations is the appointment of Dani Dayan by Israel to be their new ambassador in Brasilia. He headed the Yesha Council from 2007 to 2013, which represents the half-million illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Dayan was appointed in August 2015, after the previous Israeli ambassador left Brazil after serving here for only a year. His appointment was announced on Twitter, even before the Israeli government officially communicated the decision to the Brazilian government. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry felt like it was being railroaded into accepting Dayan’s appointment, and has refused to accept his nomination, saying that Brazil considers the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem occupied territories and therefore does not want Dayan here. The Israelis have admitted privately that Dayan will have to be sent elsewhere.

Although Brazil is a strong supporter of Palestinians and their struggle for an independent homeland, they also buy many Israeli weapons. Brazil chooses Israeli weapons because their prices are often cheaper than western alternatives and the Israelis are willing to transfer the technology along with their weapons. The former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, recently warned that Brazil was becoming too dependent on Israel for weapons, and said that the country should further diversify its arms suppliers.

Despite the efforts of the Israeli government to promote Israel in Brazil and get more Brazilians to visit and sympathize with them, most Brazilians have a strong sense of justice and see the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as not acceptable. Last year two very famous Brazilian singers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, received much criticism for a concert tour of Israel. The Israeli government and people were more than happy to receive them and host them, as Brazilian music is very popular in Israel. But when Veloso returned to Brazil he wrote a newspaper column saying he would never return to Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved.

Wyllys has said he plans to return to Israel again if invited by leftist Israelis. But even so, the controversy surrounding his visit, and that of Veloso and Gil, shows that Israel, despite its best efforts, cannot hide what is happening to the Palestinians under its control. Israel may be a democratic oasis, but only if you are Jewish and Israeli. The lengths that Israel goes to control and oppress Palestinians gives lie to their propaganda that all is good in Palestine. It’s not and most everyone knows it.

Israel should accept Hamas’ demands

Palestinian boys play in the rubble of Gaza International Airport on July 15, 2007, following an Israeli military incursion earlier that day. (AFP photo)

Palestinian boys play in the rubble of Gaza International Airport on July 15, 2007, following an Israeli military incursion earlier that day. (AFP photo)

This column appeared in Arab News on July 27, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

It is amazing that more than three weeks after the start of this Israeli aggression on Gaza, no one is discussing the proposal of the Palestinian group to put an end to hostilities. The 10 demands of Hamas are nothing extraordinary; on the contrary, they are items that have been discussed several times with Israel in the past but never implemented.

The Hamas demands include release of more than 400 Palestinian prisoners arrested by Israel after June 23 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and allegedly killed by Palestinians; an end to the naval and land blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, with the full reopening of border crossings, which have basically been closed for the past seven years; establishment of an international airport and seaport for Gaza, and the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt under UN supervision; rehabilitation of the industrial zones in Gaza; that Israel refrain from interfering with the unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank; and finally, expansion of the fishing zone in the Mediterranean Sea by six nautical miles. In exchange, Hamas promises to cease all hostilities against Israel for the next 10 years.

It is ironic that Gaza did once have an international airport financed with US, Saudi and European money, opened in 1998 by US President Bill Clinton and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the late Yasser Arafat. Palestinian Airlines had flights from the airport to Cairo, Jeddah, Amman, Dubai, Doha and Istanbul. Unfortunately, the Israelis shut the airport down after the second Palestinian Intifada broke out in September 2000, and destroyed the 2.2 mile runway in December 2001 after an attack killed four Israeli soldiers. The Israelis also bombed the radar center. Today the airport remains in ruins, only emphasizing the sense of isolation that the Gaza population feel being cut-off from the rest of the world by the Israeli blockade of the territory.

The resounding silence that came from the Israelis and Americans to the Hamas proposal was not surprising. After all, it’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hates Hamas, but likes to have them there in Gaza to derail peace talks with the Palestinians, and to ultimately prevent the formation of a free and independent Palestinian state, composed of Gaza and the West Bank. A radical and heavily armed Hamas launching missiles into Israel every two years, coupled with the growing number of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, authorized by the Netanyahu government, are the perfect excuse for the Israelis to never reach a final peace treaty with the Palestinians and so leave them living under the punitive and unforgiving fist of Israel.

The Israeli columnist Ben-Dror Yemini of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper partly agrees with me, writing that Israel should accept all the demands of Hamas, and even more, in exchange for the Palestinian group to disarm. He says it is necessary to demonstrate the willingness of Israel to negotiate a cease-fire and a durable peace, especially now that Israel is suffering both in the court of international public opinion because of the more than 864 Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza by the heavy Israeli bombardment, including over a hundred children, and more than 5,700 injured.
But it is extremely unlikely that Hamas will disarm. After all, what will it win in return? An independent Palestinian state, totally free from the control of Israel? No. And besides, no country in the world would accept being totally unarmed and at the mercy of its former enemy (Israel), which has the sixth largest army in the world and nuclear weapons. These demands are unrealistic.

What we saw this week once again was the shameful support of the administration of US President Barack Obama of the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza, using US bombs paid for by American taxpayers to kill innocent civilians. According to calculations by the UN itself, only 110 of the more than 864 Palestinians killed in Gaza so far were members of Hamas. The American scholar Stephen Walt wrote a great article on The World Post website this week  entitled “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy”, saying that the only explanation for the morally bankrupt US policy of how to deal with Israel can only be explained by the power and influence that pro-Israel lobbyists, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have on most American politicians and the US Congress. And I have to note that there are many pro-Israel lobby groups on the Christian Right also. This has led to a paralysis of truth among American politicians, who are terrified of telling the truth when Palestinians are massacred by Israel, for fear that they will be punished by these pressure groups in upcoming elections. If an American politician has the audacity to criticize Israel publicly, do not doubt that in the next election pro-Israel lobbyists will not spare money to help competitors, funding attack ads on TV and radio.

If Israel accepted Hamas’ demands, it would force both sides to have to make efforts to show they were sincere in implementing the accord. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is enough goodwill in the Netanyahu government. It’s too hawkish and would rather play the role of victim and continuously blame Hamas for all of its problems.


Attack on Gaza: Disappearance of truth through propaganda

Palestinian children walk in the rubble of a destroyed home a day after an Israeli air strike in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

Palestinian children walk in the rubble of a destroyed home a day after an Israeli air strike in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on July 9, 2014. (AP photo)

This article appeared in Arab News on July 20, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

It always amazes me to see how non-Arabs around the world have been so thoroughly brainwashed by Israeli propaganda that they believe that every Hamas member is a terrorist and that Israel has the right to bomb Gaza incessantly, killing more than 300 Palestinians so far, and injuring more than 1,850.

We must admit that we as Arabs and Palestinians have failed miserably in the propaganda war of winning minds and hearts in the West. Israel is still considered by many as a beacon of democracy in the heart of a strife-torn Middle East that is made up of countries beset by revolutions and upheavals that seem to have no end. Of course, not many people stop to think that Israel’s democracy is only for its few Jewish citizens of European origin. If you are of Arab origin or Palestinian, you can be assured of being treated like a second and third class citizen.

It is unfortunate that western media is often complicit in spreading this distorted image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often framing it as both sides having equal demands and grievances, when it is so obvious that the Israelis have all of the cards, advantages and privileges in their hands, while the Palestinians live under the brutal and humiliating daily Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. O Globo newspaper here in Brazil ran a story about the latest in Gaza, and used two photos to illustrate the story: One of the funeral of the four children murdered on the Gaza beach by an Israeli air strike and a photo of the funeral of the Israeli rabbi who died from shrapnel wounds from a Hamas missile that hit Israel. Both pictures were sized exactly the same. For sure, the editors were trying to show that they were being fair and balanced, providing exactly the same visual space to both sides in the conflict. But is that really fair, when Israel is obviously the vastly superior military power, and has killed many more Palestinians than Hamas has killed Israelis, 246-2 at last count?

The decisions by the US television networks NBC to pull its correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza and CNN to pull its correspondent Diana Magnay from Israel were unfortunate. Mohyeldin, who is Egyptian-American, was doing excellent reporting by not sugarcoating the Israeli attacks on Gaza, showing the human cost in Palestinian lives lost and injured to US viewers on a daily basis. For sure this did not please die-hard supporters of Israel in the US, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who it seems successfully lobbied NBC to have him pulled out of Gaza. That was a loss for American journalism and viewers. Thankfully, NBC reconsidered its decision after a public outcry, and after receiving a petition organized by an activist peace group called Jewish Voice for Peace signed by 15,000 people in a single day calling for Mohyeldin to be returned to Gaza. Magnay was pulled from Israel after tweeting that Israeli settlers who had threatened her crew and herself with violence were “scum.”

The US press partly redeemed itself when the New York Times printed an article by Nathan Thrall, a security analyst, saying that it was the United States and Israel that pushed Hamas into this latest war by refusing to support the Palestinian unity government agreement of April 2014 signed with the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas, and the constant obstruction by the United States of Palestinian government efforts to get money to pay the 43,000 government workers in Gaza, who have not been paid for months. He notes that the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests since it did not have any Hamas members, and offered a foothold for PA members in Gaza. But Israel strongly opposed it fearing Palestinian unity, and strongly pressured the US not to recognize it too. Had any of this been widely discussed in the US press before this current conflict? No, the US government conveniently kept its mouth shut and made it seem like Hamas was being unreasonable and belligerent—something it always likes to accuse the group of.

Hamas has been insisting that Israel free several hundred Palestinian prisoners and that Egypt open the Rafah border crossing in Gaza before it agrees to a cease-fire. I think it is running out of time and lives, and should agree to a cease-fire as soon as possible. But Israel and the US should make sure those 43,000 government workers in Gaza get paid as soon as possible, and agree to ease entry and exit into Gaza. While it is true that Hamas has been one of the few remaining Palestinian groups willing to resist Israeli occupation and oppression, one has to ask at what cost in human lives lost and property destroyed? When is it time to say, enough is enough?


Elias Khoury and NYU’s Abu Dhabi Institute

The Lebanese novelist and journalist Elias Khoury gave a talk on the art of the novel here in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday as the first event of the inaugural season of New York University Abu Dhabi Institute’s fall 2008 lecture series.

The NYU Abu Dhabi Institute is the research hub and community outreach arm of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, which is scheduled to open in September 2010, according to Mariet Westermann, NYU’s vice chancellor for regional campus development. It is starting to hold lectures from this month to make its presence felt in Abu Dhabi and to interact with the local community.

Held in the posh Al Mamoura auditorium of the Aldar Properties building just off Muroor Road, Khoury’s talk was an intimate conversation with the faculty director of NYU Abu Dhabi Institute Philip Kennedy about how he writes and the problems he’s faced.

Kennedy’s long-winded introduction was felt by some to be excessively fawning and yawn inducing. But for myself and others who had never read anything by Khoury it was educational.

Born in 1948 in Beirut, Khoury travelled to Jordan in 1967 at the age of 19 and visited a Palestinian refugee camp which would leave a lasting impression upon the writer. His outrage at what he encountered pushed him to join the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and remain in Jordan until 1970 when Palestinian guerilla forces were crushed by King Hussein in the Black September offensive.

Fleeing to Paris, Khoury continued his studies there. Upon returning to Beirut he joined the PLO’s research center, working with leading Palestinian intellectuals such as Hisham Sharabi and the poet Mahmoud Darwish. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Khoury took part in it and was seriously injured, temporarily losing his eyesight.

The Palestinian experience of being forced out of Palestine by Jewish settlers in the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 has been a major theme of many of Khoury’s novel especially Bab al Shams (Gate of the Sun) which he wrote in 1981. Translated into English in 2005, this book gained him critical acclaim in Britain and the US for its lyrical style and unconventional use of multiple viewpoints.

So intense is Khoury’s attachment to the Palestinian cause that even I doubted for a moment during the lecture whether he was in fact a Lebanese of Palestinian origin. A colleague of mine even asked the author after the lecture whether he was Palestinian and he said in a slightly offended voice: “I am not Palestinian by blood. Both of my parents were Lebanese, but I feel Palestinian in my heart.”

Another colleague of mine who also attended the lecture, and had just finished reading Bab al Shams in English, said it was a difficult book to read because of the shifting narratives. “But eventually it all came together and I could see how the different stories had something in common,” she said.

Khoury said that writing a new book was always difficult for him as he always feels like he needs to relearn how to write whenever he starts work on a new book. He also said that the truth can never be found in the recollection of an event by a single person, but rather in the varied recollections of many people.

NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s Fall 2008 lecture series continues with a discussion of Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time by NYU Professor Glennys Farrar on November 12 at 6 pm (also at the Al Mamoura auditorium); a look at the results of the US elections on Nov. 16 at 6 pm with NYU’s Rogan Kersh, who is associate dean and professor and public policy, and Robert Shrum, political strategist, and finally Marina Warner discussing Edward Said on December 17 at 6 pm.

For a complete schedule of the lecture series, click here.

To read Elias Khoury’s appreciation of his friend and poet the late Mahmoud Darwish, that appeared in The National on Aug. 29, 2008, click here.

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