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Impunity? Will US persist in demanding truth about Israeli sniper killing of Palestinian-American child?

Thousands attended the 26 October funeral of Orwa Hammad, the 14-year-old Palestinian-American boy who was shot dead by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank village of Silwad two days earlier.

Israeli occupation forces claimed Orwa had been about to throw a molotov cocktail, a justification frequently given for the killings of children.

Local residents told The New York Times that “Palestinians throwing stones clashed with Israeli soldiers in the village after Friday Prayer, but that Orwa was apparently killed hours later.”

2014-10-26_orwa_hammad_.jpg

Palestinians carry the body of 14-year old Orwa Hammad at his funeral in the West Bank village of Silwad, 26 October.

Israeli occupation forces shot and killed the US citizen on 24 October. (Oren Ziv / ActiveStills)

The US State Department expressed “condolences” for Orwa’s death but failed to condemn it, in contrast to the killing of an Israeli-American baby in Jerusalem days earlier when a Palestinian driver crashed a car into a group of pedestrians in eastern occupied Jerusalem.

The US called for “a speedy and transparent investigation” into Orwa’s death.

What no one disputes, however, is that Orwa was killed by Israeli bullets.

Losing a brother and a son

Thousands of miles from where Orwa died and was buried, Shukri Abu Baker sits in a maximum security US federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, serving out a 65-year sentence.

He is one of the Holy Land 5” – the founder of the Holy Land Foundation, and one of five of the charity’s officials convicted in a travesty of a trial in 2008 for raising funds to help Palestinians.

It turns out he has a connection to Orwa and light to shed on the tragedy his family has lived through under occupation.

Using the authorized prison email system, Abu Baker sent this message to his family and friends.

His daughter Nida Abu Baker shared it with The Electronic Intifada:

From: SHUKRI ABU BAKER (32589-177)
Date: 10/27/2014 5:21:14 PM
Subject: Bullets That Kill   Message:

Family and friends,

On Friday, October 24, Israeli soldiers swarmed the northern West Bank village of Silwad to quell a protest by dozens of frustrated youngster. Upon arriving, the heavily armed soldiers opened fire at 14-year-old, Orwa Hammad, aiming at his head and neck.

The boy fell to the ground and bled to death before the soldiers called an ambulance. Six others were wounded.

In summer 1992, during a visit to my home village, Silwad, I met  Nabil Qaddorah, 19, handsome, full of energy and optimism, and excited about his planned engagement to the love of his life.

The Israeli soldiers raided the village with their military jeeps and started shooting at a crowd of youngsters who had started to throw stones at the military vehicles.

Nabil received multiple wounds in his chest. As he fell to the ground an Israeli  soldier started to jump up and down pounding on his chest. They carried him inside a jeep and took off.

After dark, two days later, his family claimed his body and brought him home for his elderly parents, relatives, and friends to view before he was put to grave in the same night. I viewed his body, kissed him on the forehead, and said goodbye.

Nabil’s sister is Orwa’s mother [Ikhlas Hammad].

In a span of 22 years she has lost a brother and a son. Orwa’s father, Abdelwahab, is my wife’s maternal cousin who was in New Orleans, Louisiana when his son was murdered. He asked that the burial of his son be put off for three days to allow him to make it back in Silwad and attend the burial. Orwa was an American citizen by birth.

His family is expecting a statement from the State Department demanding answers from the Israelis, and I say, it won’t happen because we already know that it was the soldiers who shot Orwa, but where did the bullets that killed him come from?

Impunity

Now cut across to Monday’s State Department press briefing where AP correspondent Matt Lee challenged US officials on what they were going to do to get answers in Orwa’s case and others.

Several months ago, there was a shooting – there was an incident involving a shooting of some Palestinian youths. They weren’t Americans, but you called at that time for an [investigation],” Lee said, “this was the video, the one that was captured on videotape. Are you aware of the results of that Israeli investigation?”

Lee was referring to the cold-blooded shootings by snipers of Palestinian teens Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir in the occupied West Bank village of Beitunia on 15 May.

Despite plenty of video evidence and the US request for an investigation, Israel has made no arrests and issued no report.

This is the standard impunity that Israeli killers of Palestinians receive.

State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki’s answered Lee: “I would encourage you to ask the Israeli authorities for any outcomes they would like to share with you.”

In other words, there will be no follow up from the US government, not for Nadim and Muhammad, not for Orwa – an American – and not for thousands of Palestinians killed by Israel with weapons provided or paid for by the United States.

The total impunity the Obama administration continues to afford Israel is just as lethal to Palestinian children as the weapons the US gives Israel in order to kill them.

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And why these Africans think it a good idea to seek asylum in Israel?

Didn’t these Africans learn that apartheid systems despise the black people? And other colors that do not come very close to White? The Superior race?

On an otherwise quiet Saturday evening two weeks ago, thousands of African refugees flooded the streets of Tel Aviv demanding freedom.

It was one of the biggest mobilizations of non-Jewish asylum seekers ever to take place in Israel, as men and women, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, marched past stunned onlookers in the upmarket cafes and bars that have made Tel Aviv a popular holiday destination.

Eritrea and South Sudan relied on arms shipment from Israel to kill their own citizens in supposedly wars of independence, and now they want to believe that Israel was indeed a true friend and not another colonial power getting ready to plunder their natural resources…

Joseph Dana, a journalist based in Ramallah, published in The National this January 2, 2014

African refugees seeking asylum in Israel met with apathy

In the cool winter air, these African refugees appealed to an entire country to recognize their refugee status and stop viewing them as enemies.

The March for Freedom, as refugee advocates dubbed the protest in Tel Aviv, was part of a month-long campaign of non-violent protest in response to new government legislation authorizing their mass detention.

The legislation is compounded, or perhaps aided, by national apathy towards their plight. The apathy, however, is not born of simple xenophobia but something much deeper in Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish and democratic country.

African refugees seeking asylum in Israel met with apathy

The new year brings no respite for non-Jews fighting to be recognised and given their rights in the state of Israel. Joseph Dana reports on the struggle of African migrants in Tel Aviv and the Bedouin in the Negev threatened with expulsion.

Several thousand African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally via Egypt staged a peaceful protest last month in Tel Aviv denouncing the refusal of the authorities to grant them refugee status, as well as holding several hundred in detention centres. Oren Ziv / AFP

An Israeli man shouts racist slogans at a group of  Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region as they arrive at a cultural centre in southern Tel Aviv last year. Marco Longari / AFPI

African asylum seekers at a protest last month in Tel Aviv protesting the refusal of the authorities to grant them refugee status. Oren Ziv / AFP

Police enter an internet cafe owned by Eritreans in Tel Aviv where an Israeli man allegedly stabbed three refugees. Police said they were initially treating the stabbings as a racist attack. Oren Ziv / AFP

Hundreds of Bedouin and activists protested and clashed with police in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in a ‘day of rage’ across Israel and Palestine during a demonstration in November against the Prawer Plan. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Israeli Bedouin flee as police fire tear gas during a protest in November against the Israeli government’s Prawer Plan, a redevelopment initiative that would uproot as many as 70,000 Bedouin from their villages and move them into new urban centres in the desert. Oren Ziv / Getty Images

African refugees seeking asylum in Israel met with apathy

As 2014 opens, Israel finds itself in the throes of an internal struggle over the identity of the state. The struggle can be summed up in one question: how can a country remain democratic when it favours the rights of one ethnic or religious group above all others?

Exacerbating this tension is the presence of non-Jewish citizens such as the Bedouin in the Negev desert and the non-Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Africa.

Despite the gravity of these issues, they have failed to penetrate Israel’s mainstream discourse, due in large part to the siege mentality that predicates conversations about Israel’s national security and position in the region.

Without mainstream debate, the government has been afforded room to facilitate aggressive “solutions” to the problems of non-Jews in Israel. The Bedouin, one of the most impoverished communities in Israel, are the target of an ambitious redevelopment scheme by the Israeli government that, opponents of the scheme say, will destroy the social fabric of the community and thrust them even deeper into poverty.

At the same time, African refugees are routinely rounded up and placed in massive detention centres without being charged with crimes.

The tension between democracy and ethnocracy – the inability to be at once a Jewish and a democratic state – is a major culprit in the unfolding crisis. Zionist leaders have long claimed that Israel would serve as a beacon to other nations.

As a western-style democracy on the edge of the Middle East, this imagined path for Israel has long been used for propaganda aimed at establishing the necessity of the state.

However, the reality of a state that privileges one set of citizens on religious and ethnic grounds belies the image the government has moulded with non-Jewish citizens, including African refugees and the Bedouin, at the sharp end.

In major Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thousands of African refugees languish on the margins of society. For many, Israel was a natural choice for asylum, but the current reality is that most African refugees lead a parlous existence, working illegal jobs at exploitative wages with the ever-present threat of expulsion.

Jean-Luc, an undocumented refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has lived in Tel Aviv for five years. Israel, he says, was a logical country to seek refuge in because of the Jewish state’s image as a country of refugees.

At a sidewalk cafe in south Tel Aviv, he recounted his experience walking across the Sinai and the feeling that he was following in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites reaching the Promised Land.

Despite his official status as an illegal migrant, Jean-Luc and other African migrants like him have created a strong community in Israel. Churches serve as the primary meeting place for the various diasporas, allowing them to recreate community institutions and maintain bonds that extend back to the homeland.

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Migrants fleeing Africa’s various conflicts began their journey into Israel with overland travel across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In this lawless, inhospitable corner of Egypt, Bedouin smugglers move people from Cairo to the Israeli border. Tales of rape, torture and random shooting are not uncommon.

If they get through the Sinai, they are faced with entering Israel illegally, which is becoming increasingly more difficult due to a state-of-the-art barrier, which is nearing completion.

After cross-border violence between Israeli soldiers and Egyptian militants last summer, Israel took the questionable step of entering Sinai in order to arrest Africans suspected of entering the country on foot. The Israeli army is increasing its military presence along the Sinai border with the explicit intention of ending African migration and the strategy appears to be working as the numbers of refugees entering Israel has plummeted.

However, many Africans have already made the journey. There are an estimated 50,000 illegal migrants of African origin living in Israel, with the large majority (more than 60 per cent) from Eritrea. African asylum seekers join the roughly 180,000 mostly Asian migrant workers, who have been in Israel since the early 2000’s.

Since the founding of the state of Israel seven decades ago, less than 200 non-Jews have received political asylum. Given the well-documented crimes and violence of the Eritrean regime, the global recognition rate for Eritrean asylum is 84 per cent, while for Sudanese it’s 64 per cent.

Israel’s relationship with the African continent is a complex one. In the early part of the 1950s, the Israeli state invested heavily in sub-Saharan Africa, attempting to win support at the United Nations from newly independent African countries.

The relationship was marked by Israeli export of agricultural knowledge, water technology and, in some cases, military training, in exchange for United Nations support.

But the relationship went sour when Israel threw its hat in with the apartheid regime in South Africa. By the late 1960s, Israel began an elaborate and secretive relationship with South Africa marked by military collusion. In exchange for military equipment, expertise and assistance in circumventing international boycotts of apartheid South Africa, Israel received huge amounts of raw materials and cash throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

This secret relationship ended Israel’s warm relations with many African states, who lent diplomatic support to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It is a relationship that Israel would prefer to forget. While the Palestinians championed Nelson Mandela as one of their own, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president Shimon Peres declined an invitation to Mandela’s memorial in Johannesburg.

For Israelis, the presence of Africans is, in a word, unsettling.

While the Israeli government tends to extol the virtues of Israel’s humanitarian projects around the world from Haiti to the Philippines, the humanitarian situation at home is very different.

The Israeli government labels all African refugees, regardless of their intentions, as simply “enemy infiltrators”. Curiously, the legal foundation for the classification is similar – in spirit and language – to legislation from 1954, which labelled Palestinian refugees and militants returning to their land inside of newly minted Israeli state as “enemy infiltrators”.

If the mainstream press is any guide, the perception is that African migrants have come to work, to use state services and freeload off the Israeli system. In extreme cases, Africans are spoken about in terms unheard of in contemporary western discourse.

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For example, at a rally against Africans last summer in Tel Aviv, Israeli parliamentarian Miri Regev went as far as to label Africans a “cancer” on the Israeli body. A day later, Regev apologised for her remarks, but not to Africans.

She apologised to Israeli cancer patients for comparing them to Africans. But this is not straightforward racism. The root of the problem is found in the tension of Israel’s self-definition. More than 60 years since its founding, Israel remains unsure of how its description of itself as a Jewish and democratic state can co-exist with the stated desires of Zionists and the creation of a sustainable exclusivist state in historic Palestine.

To experience this tension, all one has to do is take a stroll in southern Tel Aviv. Before it gained its image as the heartland for East Asian migrant workers – kind of like Tel Aviv’s Chinatown – the area was a low-income part of the city known for its low municipality taxes in the neighbourhoods of Hatikva and Neve Sha’anan.

Both minutes from the central bus station, the area has long been home to Mizrahi Israelis – Jews from Arab countries.

Feeling neglected by the government and pinched by the ever-increasing cost of living, these residents took to the streets last year to protest what they consider to be an African takeover of south Tel Aviv.

The city wants to turn south Tel Aviv into a kind of Chinatown,” says Tel Aviv-based journalist and urban planner Jesse Fox. “The residents in these areas are being squeezed by the government, and anti-African anger is an outlet for their anger.”

Since May of 2012, violent outbreaks of anti-African sentiment have been quietly percolating here. In July, an Israeli man entered an internet cafe and stabbed three Eritreans. The attacks have even spread to Jerusalem, where two apartments belonging to Sudanese migrants were firebombed in the dead of night over the summer.

The attacks have continued over the past year and, instead of deterring future attacks – those apprehended have been handed light sentences such as community service – Israel is busy crafting unorthodox solutions to the problem to the refugee crisis.

According to published reports in leading Israeli newspapers such as the liberal daily Haaretz, Israel is attempting to send refugees to third countries in Africa, like Uganda, in exchange for agricultural expertise and military hardware.

Some Israeli politicians are also seizing upon the frustrations of residents in Tel Aviv. Eli Yishai, a former interior minister and a member of the right-wing religious party Shas, has been a leading voice behind the new wave of xenophobia.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv, Yishai noted that “most of the people [immigrants] coming here are Muslims who think the land doesn’t belong to us, to the white man … the infiltrators, along with the Palestinians, will quickly bring us to the end of the Zionist dream.”

Last year, the Israeli parliament passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law that allows the state to detain refugees for up to three years without trial, a provision which can be renewed indefinitely after the initial three-year detention.

With an eye to the legal precedent this law would entrench, Israel’s parliament amended the legislation to allow for the creation of a new “open” facility where African refugees can be held indefinitely. The parliamentary amendment shortens the period of incarceration without trial from three years to one and regulates the operation of the new facility, which will be open during the day and closed at night.

Detention can still be renewed indefinitely. Those conscripted to the detention facility will not be permitted to work and will have to register three times a day with authorities. Additionally, they will not be permitted to leave the site from 10 in the evening until the following morning.

Fundamentally, nothing but semantics changed with the amendment, as the government can still hold refugees indefinitely, but under less strict conditions. However, the pressure placed on the parliament to make these domestic changes demonstrates that not all Israelis are in support of such harsh measures to cope with the refugee issue.

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For the refugees who took to the streets of Tel Aviv two weeks ago, the effect of the law and the parliamentary amendment was one and the same: the denial of recognition of their refugee status. For Israeli liberals who want the government to find an equitable solution to the refugee crisis, the parliamentary amendment was an attempt to confirm the health of Israel’s democratic institutions.

Far from the concrete of Tel Aviv, Israel’s Bedouin community is the target of an Israeli government plan to redevelop their land in the name of progress. Under the Prawer Plan, the redevelopment plan named after one of its primary architects, Ehud Prawer, as many as 70,000 Bedouins would be uprooted from their villages and moved into new urban centres in the desert.

The stated goal of the plan is development of Israel’s Negev desert, which has long occupied a special place in the Zionist vision for Israel as the undeveloped land that should be conquered, modernised and used as the foundation of the Jewish state.

The Bedouin villages slated for demolition are currently unrecognised by the state and thus have no legal recourse to the electricity and water infrastructure. While Bedouins claim to have lived on the land they occupy for at least 1,000  years, the nascent Israeli state in the 1950s was slow to recognise their land claims.

The result was a set of legal loopholes resulting from Israel’s selective application of Ottoman land law that allows the government to expropriate land without recognised titles for state use.

In practice, both in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, land has been expropriated from non-Jewish Israeli citizens and subjects of Israel’s military regime for state, or exclusively Jewish Israeli, use.

For those Palestinian citizens of Israel and hard-left Israelis against the Prawer Plan, it is seen in the same light as the creation of Indian reservations in the United States. Last month, Israeli parliamentarian Miri Regev confirmed the comparison.

When asked by left-leaning MP Hanna Swaid in a parliamentary debate if she wanted to transfer the entire population of Bedouin in the Negev, Regev replied, “yes, as the Americans did to the Indians.”

“95% of the land in the Negev is Israeli-owned state land,” says Thabet Abu Rass of Adalah, a Palestinian legal NGO operating in Israel. “We are supporting development, but we are against unwanted development. Bedouins occupy less than one per cent of the total land in the Negev. The Bedouin should be treated as equal citizens, as individuals with rights.”

The Prawer Plan sparked mass protests by Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as Bedouin and Israeli Jewish leftists throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, prompting some commentators to forecast a new internal intifada on the horizon.

Photographs from the most recent mass mobilisation in late November, dubbed “the day of rage”, show heavily armed Israeli security forces firing tear gas at stone-throwing Bedouin protesters in the biggest clashes since the Second Intifada more than 13 years ago.

Mainstream Israeli media outlets carried the images, which looked as though they came from West Bank demonstrations against Israeli occupation. The message and how it was interpreted seems clear: a new front in Israel’s battle over what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state has opened.

Israeli officials have been quick to complain that Palestinians and segments of the Israeli left have tried to turn the Prawer Plan into a Palestinian issue and draw specific connections with the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. While there might be a morsel of truth to this, one cannot deny that the Bedouin, who are citizens of Israel, are protesting the Prawer Plan using rights-based language.

For them, like the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, the issue is not about facile distinctions such as land or development.

“This is a continuation of the legal system that was designed in the 1950s to handle non-Jewish citizens of Israel,” said Suhad Bishara, the director of the Bedouin unit at Adalah.

“But to imagine that, in 2013, the government can relocate and uproot people in this manner is breathtaking. I am afraid to say that this will set a dangerous new legal precedent in the state of Israel.”

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In the middle of December, members of the Israeli parliament were shocked to learn that Bedouins had not been consulted about the Prawer Plan. In a letter to the Israeli parliament regarding the plan, its co-architect Benny Begin wrote: “I have never said to anyone that the Bedouin accept my plan.”

He couldn’t have made such a claim, he explained, because he never even presented the Bedouin community with his plan, “and therefore I could not have heard their reactions to it.”

In light of Begin’s remarks, some of Israel’s liberal elite voiced strong opposition to the plan in the country’s newspapers. It was simply unacceptable, some argued in Israeli dailies, that Bedouins were not consulted about a plan that would drastically change their life. Far from demonstrating concern for the rights of the Bedouin, the debate appeared to assuage the uncomfortable reality that Israel’s democratic institutions were not serving all of the country’s citizens.

For David Sheen, an Israeli filmmaker and writer who focuses on the situation of African refugees, the rare soul-searching that came from Begin’s Prawer Plan remarks underlines another crucial dichotomy in Israeli society.

“The main difference that I see in Israeli society concerning the situation of non-Jewish residents is one between liberals and humanists,” Sheen said from his home in the southern Israeli city of Dimona.

Israeli liberals, [who] occupy an oversized role in the public posturing of the country, don’t actually want to do the right thing when it comes to non-Jews in Israel. They don’t actually want Israel to be full-fledged democracy; they want to feel like they are doing the right thing.

“They don’t want scapegoats for our problems, but they are perfectly happy to have Africans carted off to desert ghettos.

While the current Prawer Plan is no longer, a new one will almost inevitably take its place. When the law allowing the indefinite detention of African asylum seekers failed, the Israeli parliament simply amended it, with the same effect.

Founded on a system of discriminatory laws, Israel has perfected a form of military government that completely deprives the rights of non-Jews.

While this once affected native Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel, today the legal foundations of the state are designed to ensure the privileges of Jewish Israelis above all others – even in Tel Aviv and its southern edge, where African migrants, most legitimately seeking asylum, reveal the lie of a country neither ready – nor interested – to be a fully democratic state.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.

 

 


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