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Co-existence vs. Co-resistance: A case against normalization

In this article Omar Rahman makes one of the best  arguments against normalisation I have ever read, hear hear Omar > FGA – This article was first published Tuesday, January 3 2012 on +972 Magazine

Although the “anti-normalization” debate has been around a long time, its resurgence in public discourse can likely be attributed to two things: the rise of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement and the beginning of a transitional period in internal Palestinian politics.

Due to the very nature of the BDS movement, everything pertaining to Israel is put under the microscope and scrutinized. Subsequently, any relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is done so in spades. BDS encourages its adherents to look critically at everything they do and everything that is happening around them. It is important to distinguish what works in the service of achieving Palestinian rights and what does not, or even works against it. This is why the BDS movement has produced strict and coherent guidelines for what can be considered worthy of boycott and what constitutes normalization.

Secondly, the era in which Palestinians and Israelis engaged in dialogue under the wider auspices and example of governmental-led negotiations is coming to an end—at least for the time being. We are now at the cusp of a transitional period in Palestinian politics where the lack of a clear strategy and path forward on the diplomatic and resistance fronts is forcing Palestinians to look internally at the state of their own society and political situation. Reconciliation and reform within their fractured political system are desperately needed in order to move cohesively in a new direction. Thus many Palestinians have started to re-examine the logic of their relationships with Israelis and criticize those Palestinians who have benefited immensely from it over the years while others around them have suffered.

When we consider the resurgence of anti-normalization, we must also remember that the post-Oslo period witnessed an explosion in normalization programs and projects between Israelis and Palestinians. Any organization, group or program that had “joint” or “co-existence” in reference to Israelis and Palestinians was instantly given credibility and financing on the world stage. Such programs became extremely lucrative and many people profited with little regard to the actual state of the conflict and its overall deterioration. Even prior to the breakout of the Second Intifada, but largely afterwards, normalization programs lost their relevance. We were no longer in the post-conflict transitional period we thought Oslo had ushered in, and things got worse, not better.

FEELING COMFORTABLE WITH OPPRESSION

It has become senseless for Israelis and Palestinians to act like nothing is wrong with the status quo and carry-on with such projects. Normalization may be fine for those bridging the gaps between people in India and Pakistan or Venezuela and Colombia—where the two sides are on equal footing—but not in Israel/Palestine where one side lives under the yoke and chain of the other. When we seek to normalize this relationship by giving each other equal standing and equal voice, we project an image of symmetry. Joint sports teams and theatre groups, hosting an Israeli orchestra in Ramallah or Nablus, all these things create a false sense of normality, like the issue is only a problem of recognizing each other as human beings. This, however, ignores the ongoing oppression, colonization, and denial of rights, committed by one side against the other.

Moreover, normalization creates a false sense in the mind of Israelis that they are working for peace, while in actuality, though maybe unwittingly, they are contributing to the calcification of the status quo. Their energy is misdirected away from root causes and channeled into making the current situation more tolerable—largely for themselves—by helping them to cope with wider injustices occurring in their name. Many Israelis who participate in normalization projects believe that they are detached, that they are not part of the problem, because they have some Palestinian friends or colleagues, even if they are doing nothing to rectify the actual injustices that have been committed by their society daily for over half a century. In the words of Israeli architectural theorist Eyal Weizman in his monumental work on the architecture of occupation, Hollow Land: “The history of the occupation is full of liberal ‘men of peace’ who are responsible for, or who at least sweeten, the injustice committed by the occupation. The occupation would not have been possible without them.”

Likewise, these normalization projects are put on display for all the world to see, so that they may all feel comfortable and say: look, the moderates are resolving the differences in a civilized manner. This is probably why the largest contributors to normalization projects are not Israelis and Palestinians themselves, but rather the international community. These programs work in much the same way as endless negotiations, offering a semblance of progress so that the world may deceive itself without having to take real action.

I do not discount the authenticity of Israelis who desire to see a just peace. Nor do I overlook the importance of meeting your enemy on a human level, of the power of these efforts in defusing tension, mistrust, and misunderstanding. But we can’t ignore the negative impact of normalization given the ongoing occupation and colonial enterprise. We must ask ourselves, what did all the normalizing get Palestinians after Oslo except for deterioration in their circumstance? For all the money pumped into these programs why are there no statistics or data showing they work? Why does no one think to question the effectiveness of normalization, including its proponents, in the case of Mr. Abu Sarah’s article? We can sit back and comfort each other that we are not fanatics or extremists, and that may be all well and good, but the fanatics are determining the reality on the ground while liberals and moderates provide a veneer of normality and progress.

The truth is when we “normalize” relations with Israel and Israelis without bearing to the political situation, we legitimize Israel despite its continued oppression of Palestinians and its colonial policies on Palestinian land. We must remember that the greatest boon in Israeli history came after the Oslo Accords were signed. Many countries around the world that had refused to have “normal” relations with Israel reversed their policies. This false peace opened Israel up to the wider international community, spurring unprecedented growth and trade. By reversing the normalization trend, we strip the conflict of many illusions and niceties in favor of exposing the raw truth.

Mr. Abu Sarah portrays anti-normalization like it is based purely on hate for the “other.” In order to do this he ignores the strongest arguments against normalization in exchange for obscure notions that take anti-normalization to the extreme; such as any instance in which a Palestinian and an Israeli come together constitutes normalization. In my own experience meeting people who are against normalization, I came to understand that Israelis are valued and encouraged to take part in the resistance movement to occupation. As long as an Israeli is working for Palestinian rights and the end to occupation, the cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is perfectly legitimate and justified. This is the concept of “co-resistance” as opposed to “co-existence,” and should hardly be described as radical.

Yet, Mr. Abu Sarah’s article chooses to harp on these extreme cases at the expense of a serious argument over the topic. In what constituted an extensive blog post, there is little argument discussing why normalization activities are valid and beneficial; rather the entire piece is devoted to portraying anti-normalization as irrational. Some of his claims are true, such as those who use “normalization” as a character attack for dubious ends. But none of that still gets to the heart of the matter. I simply want to know, are we better off today because of normalization projects?

THE KIDS RETURN HOME

I wish to conclude this piece with an example of normalization from my own history. When I was fifteen years old, I was a participant in the Seeds of Peace program, which brings young teenagers from conflict zones together to a summer camp in the northeastern United States. Although originally set up for Israelis and Arabs, the program expanded over the years to include Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis, and others. In each session there was also a delegation of American teenagers, of which I was a part. This was still prior to the breakdown of the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the Second Intifada and most believed we were on the path to peace. Teenagers, who for the most part had never met someone from the other side before, would tell stories from their own experience in the hope of making their enemy understand them. Yet, I can still remember feeling at the time that the effort would be somehow wasted when these kids returned home because even I knew that, despite pretenses, there was no real peace on the ground. During my trips to the West Bank to visit my extended family, I would see and feel the military presence that continued to persist in the still-occupied territories. And in the “co-existence” sessions at Seeds of Peace, I would hear from those Palestinians what life still held for them.

The most poignant moment for me, however, was when a Palestinian teenager near the end of the program asked an Israeli teenager if he would still join the army and serve in the occupied territories, to which the answer was “yes”. To me, this said it all. What did this whole program mean if in a few years that Israeli teenager would be sitting at a checkpoint in the West Bank and shoving his M-16 in the face of a Palestinian while asking for his ID? Would it make him a more compassionate soldier serving in an inherently unjust system? When all the fun and games were over, we each returned to our respective societies and things stayed the same.

If these teenagers had returned to a cold peace, it may have been different. They could continue to work to establish more friendly relations between their respective peoples. But for Palestinians and Israelis, they live everyday in a system of imbalance and injustice where one side is oppressing the other through an engineered structure of superiority and subjugation. That is it. Normalization can try to make you forget that fact, but the next time a gun barrel is pointed in your direction, or a cousin is arrested and thrown in prison, or the home of a neighbor is bulldozed, or your relatives in Gaza fall under the bombs, you will be hard pressed to do so.

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Occupation News

Gaza: The End of Tunnelnomics

Is Hamas’s lucrative underground trade about to come to a screeching halt? May 4, 2011

RAFAH, Egypt — “I recently lost one of my tunnels,” Abu Jawad told me nonchalantly. “An Israeli drone flew by, identifying its coordinates, and within minutes an IDF jet had dropped a precision-guided missile, destroying its exit.”

To Abu Jawad, a Palestinian tunnel entrepreneur and owner/operator of several tunnels, this was another workplace hazard. He cut an imposing figure at over 6 feet tall, with a glaring black moustache and a high-tech hunting vest worn over his traditional galabiyya, with several walk-talkies, pulley grips, and other bits of equipment stuffed in it. “I would fix it for about $10,000, but it’s not worth the re-investment as the Israelis already have its coordinates,” he concluded with a shrug. “I might just have to build another.”

My friend and I had set off from Cairo to the Egyptian-Israeli border hoping to cross into Gaza to report on the state of the border after the Egyptian revolution in January, and to show our solidarity with the Palestinian people. We were now receiving a crash course in Tunnelnomics — the unique capitalist math behind the smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt with Gaza.

Since Israel’s 2008 assault on Gaza, which it termed Operation Cast Lead, there has been a virtual blockade on the territory. Israel and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime allowed only minimal humanitarian supplies into Gaza, and prohibited all other shipments. Israel controls the airspace, sea passageways, and all the land crossings into Gaza — except for the one at Rafah, which straddles the border.

Since the Egyptian revolution, tunnel owners have indicated that it is still “business as usual” along the border. However, there are indications that Egypt’s current rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), are loosening the blockade on Gaza. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El Araby said in late April that the Rafah crossing would soon be open on a permanent basis, describing Egypt’s previous policy on Gaza as “shameful.”

But while Egypt sorts out its post-revolutionary politics, Gaza continues to suffer. A report by the World Food Program and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that, since the 2008 offensive, more than 61 percent of Gazans now suffer from food insecurity and rely on humanitarian aid agencies to feed their families. “Restrictions imposed on the civilian population by the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip amount to collective punishment, a violation of international humanitarian law,” the report argued.

Tunnels, or “lines” as they are known locally, are a profitable business in an otherwise economically impoverished area, both on the Egyptian and the Palestinian side of the border. In Gaza, the tunnels are the lifeline of both Hamas and the approximately 1.5 million people living there. They are used to smuggling supplies, cars, weapons, fuel — even livestock.

But the tunnels at Rafah are an equally precious asset for the impoverished residents on the Egyptian side of the border. The Bedouins who inhabit the Sinai Peninsula were furious that Mubarak, after reassuming control from Israel in 1982, continued to neglect the economic development of the region. Instead, the former president directed billions of dollars of investment toward seaside resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh, where he kept a chic modern seaside residence, while completely neglecting the less glamorous parts of Sinai. The Bedouins, therefore, see the tunnels as a golden opportunity to improve their livelihood in an otherwise economically stagnant area.

“What other opportunities do I have here?” asked Abu Mukhtar, an Egyptian tunnel part-owner. “Open a grocery? Work in a hotel in Sharm El Sheikh? Neither option will make much money. I can partner in a tunnel and make a decent living for myself and my family.”

Like any industry, there are start-ups and well-established businesses. According to Abdel Jawad, the cost of a tunnel can start at $15,000 for a four foot-high by three foot-wide tunnel used to smuggle cartons of cement (resembling more of a hole than a tunnel), and can reach up to $150,000 for a state-of-the art, 10 by 6-foot tunnel used to smuggle cars.

As Rafah is effectively one city divided between two sides, Palestinians and Egyptians enter into partnerships to build and operate the tunnels. Tunnels usually start under a house in Egypt, and end up in a house in Gaza. Each side is manned by an “operations manager” who is in close contact via cell phones and walkie-talkies with his counterpart on the other side. When a delivery comes through, it is either carried or pulled through tunnels with a pulley system. Some tunnels use ropes to lift the cargo up on the Palestinian side, while others even make use of electric elevators.

An entrepreneurial Egyptian or Palestinian can pocket a tidy profit from a tunnel.

A ton of cement can cost between $200 and $300. Cars assembled locally in Egypt, such as the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruise, can cost around $2,000. More luxurious sedans like the Honda Accord — several of which we observed cruising around Rafah with no license plates, presumably destined for the tunnel trade — could cost more than $3,000.

The operation is a closely regulated industry, with Hamas appointing a “head of Tunnels Authority” to oversee the operation, maintain quality standards, levy taxes, and impose fines for “illegal” transport of goods and people, meaning transfers unauthorized by Hamas. According to Yezid Sayigh of King’s College London, Hamas earned an estimated $200 million from tunnel taxes in 2009.

The dangers are as great as the potential rewards. Smugglers risk tunnel collapses, Israeli strikes, as well Hamas’s wrath should they attempt to smuggle unauthorized and unregistered cargo. Nonetheless, considering the economic situation on both sides of the border, it is a risk many are willing to take. Material passes through during the night and day; I have witnessed trucks laden with construction materials, such as cement and iron bars, cross Egyptian Rafah’s central plaza only to appear later, empty, having discharged their cargo.

Non-Palestinians trying to get into Palestinian Rafah are vetted by Hamas, which charges a $100 fee to cross. To have our visit approved, we had to submit an email application to our contact in Gaza, who then presented it to the Tunnel Authority. It explained who we are, what we do, and why we were attempting to enter the strip. Our contact returned with a negative response: The authority refused our application out of fear of jeopardizing Hamas’s relations with Egypt’s new government.

Hamas is hoping that its improving ties with the new military government in Cairo will finally bring an end to the blockade on Gaza. High-ranking Hamas officials have been shuttling in for meetings with Egyptian authorities since the revolution, signifying an end to Mubarak’s hostility toward the group. These talks recently culminated signing of a reconciliation accord between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the West Bank.

The shifting political terrain in Egypt may indeed convince the government to reopen the Rafah crossing. Egypt’s newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood is set to make major gains in upcoming future elections. The Brotherhood, which enjoys close historical ties to Hamas, has long championed the Palestinian cause and supports a full reopening of the border.

One potential motive for opening the border, then, may be to take away one of the Brotherhood’s campaign issues and gain popular support by reversing Mubarak’s detested policy on Gaza. El Araby’s announcements have been hailed in the media and have so far resonated very well with the Egyptian people. The prime minister, Essam Sharaf, also visited Sinai at the end of April to apologize publicly for years of neglect toward the region.

The moment may be approaching when Egypt opens the Rafah border unconditionally to cargo and people, thus bringing an end to the tunnel industry. The Bedouin, however, have been promised many things, only to see the government fail to deliver. “We have heard a lot of talk of this before. I will believe it when I see it,” Abu Mukhtar said. “If it happens, I will have to find another job.”

Until that day, tunnelnomics continues to rule in Rafah.

This article was written by Adel Abdel Ghafar, and first published on Foreign Policy on May 4, 2011.

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