Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, pages 64-65, 67

New York City and Tri-State News

At Princeton, Daoud Kuttab Discusses Israeli Settlements and Siege of Gaza

By Jane Adas

  • Daoud Kuttab (Staff photo J. Adas.)

AS AN AWARD-WINNING Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at al-Quds University in Ramallah—and currently the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University—Daoud Kuttab brings a rare perspective to analysis of U.S. media coverage of Israel/Palestine. Speaking at Princeton on Feb. 24, he identified settlements and the siege of Gaza as the most important issues requiring more media attention.

Describing the Israeli settlement project as a real obstacle to peace, Kuttab predicted that, even after 60 years of Palestinian exile and 40 years of occupation, one day differences will be resolved—with one exception: Jewish Israelis who have moved into Palestinian land and refuse to leave, or expect to extract a high price to do so.

Treaties to which both Israel and the U.S. are signatories regulate war and occupation, Kuttab explained. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is illegal to transfer a country’s own population into land it occupies. For example, he pointed out, the U.S. could not encourage its citizens to settle in Iraq. But the Israeli government, stating it will respect the spirit but not the letter of the law, refuses to recognize the applicability of the Geneva Conventions. In July 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague rejected this interpretation and found that Israeli settlements breach international law. All of today’s 473,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Kuttab emphasized, are living illegally on Palestinian land.

Despite the fact that every U.S. president has criticized Israel’s settlements and asked that Israel suspend settlement building, including for “natural growth,” Kuttab noted, President George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put this principle into question with the “poisonous caveat” that it is unrealistic to expect final borders on the 1949 armistice lines. Kuttab interpreted this to mean Bush thinks it is realistic to keep settlements, although he didn’t specify where. Imagine, Kuttab suggested, the first President Bush saying in 1991 that “it is unrealistic to expect the Iraqis to leave Kuwait.”

In 2002 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the creation of a Palestinian state is in the national interest of the U.S. If this is so, Kuttab said, then every settler, every dollar spent in the occupied territories, every tax-deduction to pro-Israel organizations, and everyone who buys wine from the Golan Heights is working against the U.S. national interest. There is no way, he stressed, to build a peace process on a two-state solution if settlements continue to expand.

Describing Israel’s siege of Gaza as a clear humanitarian issue, Kuttab surprised his audience by declaring that Hamas did not win the parliamentary elections of January 2006. Rather, he explained, it was the List for Reform and Change. The day after the election Hamas announced that the winners had no legal connection to Hamas but were only “close” to Hamas. Nevertheless, Israel said “Hamas won” and the U.S. began its campaign against Hamas—which, Kuttab pointed out, has never been accused of international terrorism.

In January the Israeli army killed 79 Palestinians, not all of them militants, something the U.N.’s undersecretary-general finds unacceptable and Kuttab called crimes of war. Hamas has repeatedly offered a cease-fire, but Israel refuses because that would mean recognizing Hamas. The siege is not producing results, Kuttab maintained, because people feel more united and patriotic when attacked. Yet since there is no pressure at all on Israel to end its siege, Kuttab concluded, Israel can tolerate amateur rockets fired at Sderot as a small price to pay.

The Wall on Stage

  • Dotan Greenvald of Breaking the Silence (Staff photo J. Adas.)

“Twenty-One Positions,” a new play by Abdelfattah Abusrour, Lisa Schlesinger and Naomi Wallace about the human consequences of Israel’s separation wall, premiered at Fordham University Theater during the last week in February. Explaining the inspiration for the title, Abusrour noted that in When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, Raja Shehadeh’s 2003 memoir of life in Ramallah under siege, an Israeli soldier tells the Palestinian father whose apartment the Israeli army is occupying how useless militant resistance is: “Do you not know that I went through rigorous training and learned how to shoot to kill from 21 different positions?”

Fordham sponsored a Feb. 26 panel, “The Wall on Stage: What Divides Israelis and Palestinians?” to present a variety of perspectives on issues raised by the play. Alvaro de Soto, former U.N. undersecretary-general and its former special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, recalled that his first experience of the wall was on a tour conducted by Israelis who admitted they were uncomfortable with the association of Jews building a wall, but felt it had to be done to stop suicide bombers. De Soto suggested that, since no wall has prevented even homemade rockets, such a drastic action arises from deep-seated fear stemming from the Holocaust rather than from current attacks on Israelis.

De Soto said he finds nothing wrong with a wall—unless it is built on a neighbor’s property with the stated purpose of ensuring the security of one’s own citizens. Palestinians suspect Israel’s real purpose is to appropriate land not allocated to Israel. They find themselves cut off from their farmland and neighbors, from hospitals and schools, he explained, while they can see on almost every hilltop illegal outposts that nevertheless receive electricity, water and roads. Suicide bombings have indeed decreased, De Soto acknowledged, but he attributed that less to the barrier, which is not yet completed, than to the separate road system and many obstacles to movement, such as checkpoints, roadblocks, and the hundreds of trenches and earth mounds that make life unpredictable for Palestinians. He called on Israel and the U.S. to respect the desire of Palestinians for unity, rather than pursue divisive, exclusionary policies in order to destroy a democratically elected government.

In the opinion of J.J. Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the Jewish weekly The Forward, “Twenty-One Positions” humanizes Palestinians under occupation, but dehumanizes uniformed Israelis in a disturbing way as demons or projections of Palestinian experience. He then proceeded to list suicide bombing incidents carried out before the wall was built, including the Seder bombing, and the two settler youths who were found beaten to death. Goldberg wrote an article at the time entitled “Where is the Fence?” pointing out that Israeli generals said a barrier would have prevented such attacks. He reminded the audience that the fence was a project of the Labor left that was initially rejected by Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Sharon because they viewed the settlements as being in Israel.

Although the settlements continue to expand, Goldberg said, there is a process of separation underway that is necessary, because neither side is going away. While acknowledging that this inconveniences Palestinians, he added that the Cross Bronx Expressway was also inconvenient for many New Yorkers. Israel’s wall, he asserted, is a life-saving public works project.

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, commended Fordham University’s courage in staging “Twenty-One Positions,” given the issues the play raises and its attempt to challenge entrenched narratives. The Zionist-Israeli/Palestinian issue, he said, involves two powerful, deeply engrained narratives—the Bible and the Holocaust—which support the status quo. Expressing skepticism about the ability of theater to challenge such powerful narratives, Khalidi said events in the region have a bigger impact on changing attitudes—for example, Israel’s reputation was tarnished by its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as Palestinians’ image has been by suicide bombings.

Khalidi went on to point out that while Israeli attitudes are well known in the U.S.—“their sensitivity as they are obliged to do...whatever”—the brutality that Palestinians experience is not. As an example of how the U.S. media dehumanizes Palestinians, he pointed out that the siege of Gaza, although probably a war crime, is not big news here. In response to Goldberg, Khalidi stated that the wall does not merely “inconvenience” Palestinians, but that Israel designed the whole settlement project to have a disruptive effect. Arguing that there is now no real possibility of any peace process, Khalidi concluded that if the situation continues, there will be one state—Israel—and the violence and instability will continue.

Alissa Solomon, director of the Arts and Culture Concentration at the Columbia University School of Journalism, described an art exhibit or the theater as a way of “hitting the pause button,” of opening oneself to someone else’s voice. For those threatened by others’ point of view, she noted, this can be threatening. Solomon maintained that it is because of this anxiety that Palestinian art often is shut down in advance, as happened when Joseph Papp’s Public Theater cancelled performances of the Palestinian play “Ansar,” and more recently the New York Theater Workshop called off “My Name is Rachel Corey.” Art, she continued, is not a place to expect balance—something we do not demand on other topics. Rather it is a “rare place for allowing the risk of exposure to things we don’t already agree with, where we can stretch our moral imagination.” Even if the wall had been built on the Green Line, Solomon said, it would still be very sad, because separation is not the best way to resolve differences.

Former Israeli Sniper Dotan Greenvald Breaks the Silence

Dotan Greenvald, now 25, was a sniper in the Israeli army from August 2002 until December 2005. Immediately upon discharge, he joined Breaking the Silence and is now a tour guide as well. He spoke at the New Israeli Fund offices in New York on March 5.

When he joined the army, Greenvald said, he assumed the checkpoints were between Israel and Palestine, but found they are inside the West Bank. He thought he would be arresting terrorists, but it was mostly 14-year-old stone throwers. When he first manned a checkpoint, he was not sure what to do if any Palestinians got too close. He tried raising his voice and waving his gun, then learned that the most effective technique is to take the first guy, break his nose and make him bleed. In this way the others see you are too aggressive to mess with. This, Greenvald explained, is how soldiers begin to adopt new norms.

The Israeli army’s famed Code of Ethics is designed for war, Greenvald explained, but he wasn’t so sure it is appropriate for occupation. While serving in Hebron, some of the soldiers began comparing their photos. One Greenwald took is of a Palestinian youth on his roof feeding birds—taken through a gun site. Greenwald managed it by aiming his weapon then putting his camera in the scope. Another photo is of a blindfolded and handcuffed boy being “dried out” for breaking curfew while soldiers smoke and play cards behind him. One is of a Palestinian man, also blindfolded and cuffed, lying at the foot of a staircase with Greenvald posed smiling beside him. “Your girlfriend doesn’t want to see these,” he said.

Realizing they had crossed a line, the soldiers decided to combine their photos and collect testimonials of soldiers’ lives in Hebron for an exhibition entitled “Breaking the Silence” in Tel Aviv in 2004, to which 76,000 people came. One visitor was Greenvald’s second-in-command officer, whose response was, “ I call this growing up.” Greenvald replied, “Let’s have a discussion about if we want to be like this.”

The ex-soldiers who set up the exhibit had thought Hebron was the craziest place, but then they began seeing similar photos and hearing comparable stories from Ramallah and Nablus. This led to their broadening their focus to the entire occupation. Breaking the Silence now has 1,200 testimonials from 700 ex-soldiers. The response of the Israeli army, as well as some audience members, was that these are a few rotten apples. His job, therefore, Greenvald said, is to collect thousands more testimonials. To view the photos and read the testimonials, visit <www.breakingthesilence.org.il>.

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.