OpEd: Between the lines of the Flytilla letter

Athena Tacet | Contributor

 It’s all about the way you phrase something. Politics is often made and run by people who use words and expressions in order to achieve particular interests. A “terrorist” for one is a “freedom fighter” for someone else. In this case, pro-Palestinian activists for some are anti-Israeli provocateurs for others. And it seems that in every conflicting relationship, we always tend to get both extremes of the spectrum. However, the twentieth century history has shown that particularly in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, grey areas exist and matter extensively. Created in 2010 and set to last from April 15 to April 22, the Welcome to Palestine campaign, which ended with a failure on Sunday, April 15, is an example of such grey areas, because it represents the actions of one single group, and not the opinion of all Palestinian people. The group is not in favour of a “two-state solution” and has made it clear that it disapproves of Israel’s policies. But once again, it does not mean that all Palestinians share the same vision.

 Like in 2011, most of the 1,500 pro-Palestinian activists who planned to reach the West Bank city of Bethlehem for a rally, were either prevented from boarding planes in France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, or arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, LA Times reported on April 15.

 According to French newspaper Le Monde, organizers of the 2012 Welcome to Palestine campaign accused Israel of being paranoid, as Ramallah-born PLO’s spokesperson Hanane Achraoui honoured the activists for their courage to face Israel’s politics of “apartheid,” “discrimination” and “colonialism.”

 The few activists who made it to the Ben-Gurion Airport were handed a letter written by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggesting that humanitarian crises in Syria and Iran, as well as Hamas’s rule in Gaza, deserved more attention and were more worthy of protests than Israel’s policies in the West Bank, Al Jazeera reports on April 15.

 Aside from the respective European authorities’ involvement in the story, which also deserves a closer attention, as it reveals some interesting ties with Israel, what this story tells us is that Israel’s claims to be the Middle East’s only democracy need to seriously be reconsidered.

 Was the Israeli government overreacting when it prevented the activists from entering the territory? Perhaps. Some Israel’s left-leaning lawmakers said that such actions would tarnish the country’s image, LA Times reported. However, the state defended the actions as necessary, as it saw the campaign as a threat to their security. Regardless of whether this is true or not, what is condemnable is the way the Israeli authorities played with international law and individuals’ right to move freely from one country to another. It is worth noticing that as the Palestine Justice Network website indicates, the international community officially recognizes Palestinians’ fundamental human right to travel and visit their own citizens, under the “Right to Enter Campaign.”

 It is once again an issue of human rights violations, but most importantly, it is a war on words, as Netanyahu’s letter illustrates. Humorous for some, sarcastic and inappropriate for others, this letter focused on the “real problems” the activists should have fought for. Not only does the tone delegitimize the activists’ beliefs behind their actions, but it also gives the government the opportunity to express and remind the world of its political position on its neighbours’ political situation. It finally is the perfect means for Israel to flatter itself about its prowess as the region’s “sole democracy where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.” But is this really accurate?

 Women’s Rights

With respect to gender equality, the 1951 women’s equal rights law officially guarantees the equal treatment of men and women notably in their access to civil liberties. Nonetheless, although 61 percent of women are in the Israeli workforce, according to the 2012 Women, Business and the Law report published by the World Bank, there does not exist any guaranteed gender equality of constitutional rights before the law. The report also stated that women cannot work in the same industries as men.

 Freedom of Press and Freedom of Expression

According to the 2011 Freedom House report, Israel’s press freedom is respected. However, the report also reveals that there are limits to this freedom, as media outlets are subject to censorship from the military since the creation of the 1996 Censorship Agreement.  Therefore, journalists sometimes face restrictions when traveling into the country, especially those that are Palestinian. With regards to freedom of expression, Amnesty  International also reported in 2011,”an increase in the number of arrests, trials and imprisonment of people engaged in non-violent protests against the fence/wall.” The same report noted that at least 12 Israelis were imprisoned that year for objecting to military service.

More recently, German poet and Nobel prize laureate Gunter Grass was banned from entering the country after writing a poem which criticized the Israeli government and compared the state’s policies with those of the Stasi, Russia Today reported on April 15.

 Human Rights

Amnesty International’s 2011 report on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories cited numerous human rights violations and also flaws in the justice system. Examples included detention without trial, unfair trials and denying family visits to Palestinian prisoners.  The report also stated that allegations of torture and ill-treatment, even towards children were frequently reported. Methods reported include: ” beatings, threats to the detainee or their family, sleep deprivation and being subjected to painful stress positions for long periods of time.”

 Freedom of Religion and Minority Rights

According to an article published last December 14 on Haaretz, the Cingranelli-Richards Human Rights Dataset indicates that Israel, along with China, Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia face severe governmental restrictions on religious freedom.

 As for the minority groups, they are mainly composed of Palestinians/Israeli Arabs (20 percent), Christians (2.3 percent), Bedouins (2 percent), Druze (1.6 percent), and Circassians (0.05 percent), according to the Minority Rights Group International website. The problem lies in the fact that Israel is torn between its claims to sole Middle Eastern democracy, intrinsic to which is the respect of minority rights, and its religious and political foundation as a “Jewish state.” Indeed, social and economic discrimination continue to affect heavily the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as the Bedouins whose homes have been arbitrarily destroyed in the past by the Israeli government.

 Overall, what this letter reveals is once again the need for a clear understanding of the grey areas which exist in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The tone of the letter and the content provided were heavily sarcastic. However they did indirectly illustrate the state’s political stand on the current regional situation, particularly on Syria, which has historically been regarded as a political enemy. No surprise it was the first country mentioned in the letter. Regardless of whether it was fully justifiable or not, the Israeli authorities’ actions were definitely not a good move for the country’s public image in the region and on the international scene.

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