Monday, March 28, 2011

Last Friday: No Way Out

Last Friday, at the initiative of Peace Now, the Israeli left held a unity conference in Tel-Aviv: representatives from various streams, or rivulets, Labor, Meretz, Solidarity, and various civil rights NGOs, came together to hear the usual suspects.

How do you make your case to Israeli voters when the right has appropriated your most important issue, endorsement of a Palestinian state, but doesn't really mean it? Should people advancing democratic standards form a single party or simply assume that all parties and factions will cooperate once elected to the Knesset? (After all, as Erel Margalit, the gifted venture capitalist going after the leadership of the Labor Party knows, the Labor brand is worth more than the whole party apparatus, much like the AT&T brand was worth more than the company.)

Should a democratic alliance create a platform that might appeal also to young Israeli Arabs, or should the alliance continue to call itself "Zionist," whatever that means, in the hope that the left will thus be able to appeal to the "center," whatever that means? Are you really betraying Zionism by creating a party Arabs would join? Come to think of it, could the "left" in Israel ever win a majority again without Arabs any more than Democrats could win without Jews and African-Americans?

I was set to go to the conference. I had answers. Besides, my young friend Assaf Sharon, a leader of Solidarity, was going to be on a panel and I was set to support his answers. It was not meant to be.

FRIDAY WAS THE day of the Jerusalem marathon. I left my flat at 7:15 in the morning only to discover that my entire neighborhood was cordoned off: no roads in, no detours. Now, I am from Boston. I understand what it means to disrupt traffic for the sake of runners. I also checked the list of streets that were going to be closed, found that one key road was not on the list, and had made plans to take a detour so that I could get to Tel Aviv in plenty of time. Instead, I found no way out.

I drove around for about a half an hour going from one roadblock to another. At each one, I found a callow, slightly clueless, and finally unpleasant police officer, telling me that there was no exit and that I should have known there would not be––in any case, that I was to back up and do what I was told. I told each one that he or she had better learn how to address citizens whose lives were being confounded by foolish orders. They shrugged. I threatened to take their names. They were not amused.

It crossed my mind that this is what closure feels like for Palestinians, but I quickly came to my senses: that would be like saying a moment of dizziness after eating was like having diabetes. Still, I was a little stunned to realize how quickly it would be possible for the police to impose its presence on Jerusalem, and how futile it would be to rail at the young cop at the corner for a policy he or she has no opinion about. How much this would be like yelling at the young woman at a call center for the failure of your software.

Nor was this the end of just any week. Netanyahu's Knesset had just passed two pieces of legislation, the first making it illegal to refer to the time of the War of Independence as the Naqba, although a fifth of Israeli citizens are Arab and about 400 Arab villages has been effaced; the second, a statute legalizing acceptance committees in small communities, empowered to reject residents who are not sufficiently like most in the community--a law clearly aimed to get around the Supreme Court's rejection of old Jewish National Fund regulations prohibiting sale of land or property to non-Jews (i.e., Arabs).

All of this in a country that lacks what Americans think of as constitutional protections. And a terrorist bomb had gone off in the city's Central Bus Station. The software, clearly, is not working.

IN THE MIDDLE of my gloom I got a cheerful, disbelieving call from Assaf. His neighborhood was blocked off, too. Kafka would be taking notes. Perhaps he should just punt the panel? "Sure," I said. Instead of going to Tel Aviv, perhaps a coffee later? "Sure," he said. But I did not hear back from him. Assaf, with his peculiar relentlessness, went instead to Silwan, where the police had been clashing with young Arab demonstrators over the continuing imposition of settlers on their community. I found out later that some other callow, slightly clueless, and finally unpleasant officers put him in the emergency ward of Hadassah Hospital.

It seems that Assaf took his camera to Silwan. Shortly after he got there, he began recording videos of police firing rounds of tear gas into crowds of Jerusalem Arab youth. There was virtually no press there, and he assumed the police would be restrained, or more restrained, knowing that the recordings would make them accountable for their actions. This has always been Solidarity's way of working: in the absence of a court protecting constitutional rights, appeal to the court of international public opinion.

The police were not amused. They roughed him up and put him under arrest. Then they started shoving him into the squad car. When Assaf looked at the back seat, there were grenades on it. He asked the arresting officers to move them. Do what you are told, was the response. Assaf said he would not sit on grenades. At which point an officer took out a canister of pepper spray and caught Assaf square in the nose and mouth. (You can watch his arrest on YouTube and decide for yourself if Assaf remotely posed a security risk that justified force, let alone extreme force.)

Just to be clear, Assaf might have been killed by this attack. Pepper spray causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and coughing. Its effects can last around thirty to forty-five minutes, with diminished effects lasting for hours. There have been 61 known deaths from pepper spray in the US since 1990. Assaf's throat immediately closed up. He was rushed to the hospital, though he was never released from police custody. As soon as he recovered somewhat, he was brought to police headquarters in East Jerusalem. No charges were laid.

Assaf Sharon released after assault
Assaf was released to his wife and a crowd of waiting friends around 5:30 PM. (She is pregnant with their third child.) The drumming from our demonstrations could be heard through the building, he said. The police did not know what to make of it. This afternoon I got an email from him? Could I come on Thursday morning and bear witness at the hearing of Bassam Tamimi, an activist from Nabi Saleh, who after serving three years in administrative detention is again being held without clear charges?

IT IS HARD to write about the conflict here without finding myself asking some rather broad and abstract questions, like the ones discussed at the conference Assaf (and I) found ourselves missing.

But the reality on the ground is pretty much like that roadblock in my neighborhood on Friday morning, or, much more ominous, the assault on Assaf in that car. Not terribly well educated people, implementing policies they grasp mainly in their guts; figuring out friends and enemies on-the-fly, telling you to do what you are told; telling you there is no way out.