Saturday, May 31, 2008

Murdoch endorses Obama

"We're on the verge of a complete phenomenon," Murdoch said. "Politicians are at an all-time low and are despised by 80% of the public, and then you've got a candidate trying to put himself out above it all. He's become a rock star. It's fantastic.

Haven't we been here before, aka with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair?

Palestinian generosity

Today I was in the Ramallah fruit and veg market buying some tasty items. I picked up four very beautiful-looking tomatoes and the bloke at the stand just waved his hand. I didn't understand so I waved some money at him and he refused it. He gave me the tomatoes for free.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jenin, Jenin

Today I visited Jenin, a city in the north of the West Bank that has been a centre for Islamic Jihad, resistance, and regular invasions by the Israelis. I met a number of militants and toured the refugee camp where they live. I was given some harrowing stories of torture and collective punishment. Rather than the evil, Rambo-like fighters of the media stereotype they were, to a man, broken, young, and desperately trying to piece their lives back together.

Here is one of the many checkpoints you cross to get into Jenin. It was stinking hot, around 40 plus degrees, and I couldn't open the window next to my seat in the service taxi.

A horse designed by a European artist with the help of local artists. It's made out of an ambulance that was carrying a doctor from Jenin, Khalil Suleyman. During the 2002 Israeli invasion (in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed), Suleyman implored the Israelis to allow him in. He said he would treat anyone he saw inside, Israeli or Palestinian. His Ambulance was later found badly destroyed by ordinance. The horse is entirely made of the remains of the ambulance. A stensil of a martyr.

Interviewing an Islamic Jihad fighter.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Long way from home

A video from a Japanese activist I met in Hebron.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Visit Palestine

Check out the Palestinian Authority tourism website. You should seriously consider visiting. Not only is this place historical and mighty interesting, it's actually not as dangerous (for foreigners) as the media often suggests. Moreover, with the economy in tatters, it would send a powerful message of solidarity with the besieged Palestinian people.

Israel to demolish 3000 Palestinian homes

"To date, more than 3,000 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank have pending demolition orders, which can be immediately executed without prior warning," the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report.

Whenever you crave for balanced reporting of the Israel/Palestine conflict, always ask yourself - how many Israeli homes have the Palestinians raised?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Al Khalil

I've been in Al Khalil or 'Friend' (Hebron) since last Thursday. It is called 'Friend' because it is where Abraham, the father of the three Semitic monotheisms, is believed to be buried. It is also the only major city where Jewish settlements have penetrated right into the city centre.
As a result, the city is littered with Israeli sniper towers and lookouts. In my experience the Israeli soldiers were generally ok, except for one soldier near the Abraham mosque who told me 'not to fuck with him'. When I asked why he said he didn't like me standing near the checkpoint, I was making him feel nervous. Presumably he thinks all Arab-looking men are potential sucide bombers or something. The fact that there's these soldiers, often semi-hidden, makes you a little nervous walking through the old city or near the settlements at night.
I was woken up at 2am on Friday morning by the sound of settler kids, around 40 of them but possibly more, walking down the street and shouting at Palestinian homes. Here's a very poor image of it which I tried to take quietly. You can see Israeli army jeeps coming up and telling the kids to move on. But instead of going home they continued down the street towards the Palestinian old city.
Earlier in the day (on Thursday) I was invited to a house directly bordering Kiryat Arba, a big settlement on the west side of Hebron. In the photo above you can see settlers sitting on Palestinian farm land outside the settlement which, of course, they believe belongs to them as well thanks to the Torah. Every Shabat the settlers light giant bonfires and often harass the Palestinians. Fortunately there wasn't any violence while I was there, although they did set fire to a field owned by Palestinians which was dowsed by a fire truck.
I also went with a Christian Peacemaker Team patrol around the Abraham Mosque/Synagogue. In this picture you can see a CPTer (second from right) putting herself between four settler boys (in white) and a Palestinian woman (on the right). The Palestinian woman is technically not allowed to walk on the road during Sabbath and instead is expected to walk through the field on the right. The Orthodox Jews do not permit their own women to walk on the road during the Sabbath either, but the reserve verbal and physical abuse for Palestinian women.

The road in the photo above leads up to the settlement of Kiryat Arba. Below it are Palestinian farms that are routniely harassed. Some like this one are even taken over, the family that lives there being evicted. By law the settlers are allowed to carry guns. It's not unusual to see a teenage boy with an M-16. By the same laws it is illegal for Palestinians to carry guns or large knives under the punishment of imprisonment. You can imagine what a power imbalance this causes!

Of course this is just 1% of what I've seen and done in Hebron. More to follow!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

More information on Fehmi

The International Solidarity Movement has more details on the murder of young Fehmi at Hawara checkpoint the day before last.

Witnesses concur that Fihme was alone going through the checkpoint. Jamal Hanoun, a Nablus taxi driver who witnessed the entire incident from 10 metres away, insists that Fihme raised his hands when Israeli soldiers yelled orders at him in Hebrew. Jamal explained that not speaking Hebrew, he couldn’t understand what the soldiers had ordered, but that after raising his hands in the air, Fihme didn’t move at all. He reports that Fihme kept his hands in the air while soldiers aimed at him, and then fired approximately 5-7 bullets, one by one, hitting Fihme in the neck, face, back, chest and abdomen. “He died with his hands in the air.” The shooting, he says, came from the soldiers who check the cars, not from soldiers in the watchtower, as some have suggested.

Israeli paramilitaries turn peaceful protest violent

Benny Morris and the Nakba

A revealing interview with Benny Morris, perhaps the single biggest authority on the events of 1948 (when, during the Arab-Israeli war the Palestinian people were expelled from what is now Israel).

It's interesting that, when all is said, all Benny Morris can say to justify the Nakba is that the Zionists felt that they had a just claim to the land. He says it would have been better (ie no conflict) if they had been able to totally expel the Palestinian population. But if you follow that logic, it would have been equally peaceful if the Zionists had been expelled too.

For Morris the primary reason for Palestinian resistance and Arab world reticence on the issue is sour grapes:

It’s a historic humiliation. It’s not a private, personal humiliation. I think the Arab world was brought up—the Islamic Arab world was brought up on tales of power and conquest dating back to the seventh century and the expansion of Islam and the Arabs out of the Arabian Peninsula and the conquest of the Mediterranean Basin, parts of Europe, and so on. And they had a self-image of a powerful people. And what happened in the—after the Turkish Ottoman conquests in the fifteenth century and subsequently belittled the Arab world, disempowered it. And then came the European imperial incursions, sometimes conquests in the nineteenth century. And topping all that came the Zionist influx and the unsuccessful Arab war against it in 1947-48. And this was a humiliation the Arab world could not take. 630,000 Jews had bested a 1.2 million Palestinians and 40 million Arabs surrounding that 630,000-strong community. And this humiliation is something which they have never been able to erase and still, I think, motivates them in large measure in their desire to erase the state of Israel.

This is a classically Orientalist mode of thought. It is not that the Palestinians were unjustly made homeless and stateless. It's just that the Arabs are bad losers.

Walking in Palestine

One of my pet loves about Palestine is the fact that you can almost always walk in front of oncoming traffic inside the cities. No one travels particularly fast and cars give way to pedestrians! Here's a typical big city street, courtesy of Nablus.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A jihad for love

See also and

Death at Hawara

I've just been told that a teenage boy was shot dead at Hawara at 7pm yesterday, about 4 hours after I went through there myself. The Israeli news is claiming the soldiers foiled a suicide attack. Eyewitnesses contacted so far say he was not carrying any explosives but had a mobile phone strapped to his belt with headphones in his ears. When told to put his hands in the air he misunderstood and thought the soldiers wanted him to lift his shirt to show he had no explosives around his chest. I've been told the soldiers spoke in Hebrew, a language the boy is unlikely to know owing to the fact that he was Palestinian. More on this soon...

UPDATE: I think one of the soldiers who shot Fehmi was also one of the soldiers trying to give me a hard time yesterday. According to reports she was the soldier in charge of the checkpoint and from what I could gather one of the soldiers I spoke to, the woman, looked like she was the one in charge because she was seated in a booth while others were standing below her. It's like living in an alternate universe over here sometimes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Happy birthday

No one individual has affected me, emotionally, more than Malik el-Shabazz, better known to the world as Malcolm X. I remember watching Spike Lee's movie and then reading the Alex Haley autobiography. I was immediately moved by his remarkable transition from poverty and crime to activism. But it was only when I heard him speak that I realised that Malcolm was something special. I don't think the English language has ever had anyone as forthright or brave enough to openly change his views as he developed and learnt more about his struggle. It is important never to fetishise or mythologise people. There is a lot of things Malcolm said that I totally disagree with. Much of his early speeches were beyond extreme. But he was a human being, and, when all is said, represents everything a person can hope to do to openly and honestly challenge an unjust world. I love the Ossie Davis eulogy he read at his funeral as well. Always gets me choked up. If you get a chance see the version from the Spike Lee film, it has a cameo by Nelson Mandela (before he became president I think) at the end.

Happy birthday brother, may your spirit live on in our minds and especially our hearts.

Leaving Nablus

[A man selling kites outside Huwara checkpoint in Nablus]
Today I left Nablus for Ramallah to rest up over the next few days and write up some pieces based on the interviews I undertook. I spent the last five days hearing stories of loss, grief, fear, uncertainty and (mostly) unwavering resistance interspersed with a lot of walking, smoke-filled rooms, and even the odd barn yard filled with goats, sheep or a cow. The Palestinians are very strong. Sometimes I wonder whether Israelis understand what they're up against. I think they mistake their resolve to remain on their lands for fool's courage. Moreover, as difficult as things are, I'm convinced that the Palestinians will eventually live in a state along with the Jewish population. But it will probably take several decades. Israel, and its occupation, are not only mad. They are unsustainable. Of course, no matter how rosy my conclusion sounds, even if the Palestinians do win their freedom they will no doubt also lose a lot more lives.

On another note, while I was lining up in the check point I couldn't resist pulling out my camera and taking some snaps. I concluded that even if the Israelis picked up a stink the worst thing they could do is tell me get lost. But at least I would have photos to show the outside world how the Palestinians have been dehumanised and herded through checkpoints like cattle on their own lands.So I went a bit crazy and took a lot of photos. Eventually a burly Israeli soldier came over, he looked Russian. He spoke in very bad Arabic and I just said, "sorry no Arabic mate. Press." And he walked off.When it was my turn to have my passport checked another soldier standing next to the woman holding my passport said "You take photo?" I pretended not to understand, he was, afterall, speaking in very broken English. Eventually he got frustrated and tagged my camera bag and I followed him as he put my bag on a table and started to open it. I quickly flashed my press cards and as he was looking at them zipped up the bag and took it back.

The other soldier, the one with my passport, said half-heartedly "Open your bag." Again, I feigned ignorance as to what she said. She too spoke poor English. There was around a five second pause, after which I just took my bags and walked off. You could tell they didn't really know what to do. The soldiers at these checkpoints are really young. They gave me a bit of a death stare and I did my best "go fuck yourself" facial expression.
There is not doubt that, had I been Palestinians, they would have grabbed me, knocked me about, and detained me for the afternoon. Talk about FUBAR.

Take it easy

One of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I quite enjoy (some) country and western music (yes I really am that boring!). I remember singing The Eagles' 'Take it Easy' by the camp fire in the Pilbara in 2005 and ever since then it's been one of my pick-me-up tracks. This cover by Travis Tritt ain't too bad either although this video clip must have cost 5 cents!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hollywood does Iron Man

Thankfully there's a television in the place I'm staying in tonight. It's showing a documentary (ie: long advert) for Iron Man. Looks good, in a mindless kinda way. Good to see they've maintained the Arab/Muslim terrorist motif. Nothing worse than being inconsistent, you know? Robert Downie Jnr is being interviewed about his character. I love it out how movie stars can get so serious talking about the silly plot lines of their films. It's as though he's describing the curent crisis in Lebanon!

3 million Palestinians can't be wrong

Almost everyone, well every man, smokes in Palestine. One fellow I met recently refused to be interviewed unless I shared in a smoke up with him. Needless to say I lit up, but I don't think I'll be taking up the habit just yet. Nevertheless, I can understand why they do. Life here is so stressful and uncertain. Palestinians may not die in the same numbers as Congoloese or Darfuris. But this is a small country and the Israelis really do play games with them. You never quite know if you are entirely safe from death. Particularly in the rural areas. For example, many people, including old people and children, are liable to be shot or have stones thrown at them while they are walking down the road or in the hills. I interviewed a man who witnessed, along with four others, a fellow goat herder being run over by a speeding Israeli bus last month. I'm going to spend my next visit to Israel, in a few weeks time, investigating this claim. Although I have no reason to doubt this man's testimony and I've seen photos of the incident. I also saw the road where it happened from around half a kilometre away. I was told not to go any further as I would risk being shot at. The road basically divides a Palestinian village from a neighbouring settlement. I don't see why this story would not be true either. My guess is the bus driver was trying to get the herder off the road by intimidating him and speeding up the bus, which is what eyewitnesses say happened. But the goatherder, who was crossing with a lot of goats, simply could not get out of the way in time. I reckon, when the bus driver hit the man, he panicked out of fear the scary Palestinians would have killed him if he stopped. And perhaps they would have. So he decided to keep driving on to the nearest settlement.

As far as I know no one has been charged over the murder.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Travelling through the West Bank

[Burning the US flag at a Nakba protest in Nablus. Unfortunately, for those who lit it, it lacked the intended visual effect. It was polyester so it melted rather than burned.]

So much has happened over the past few days but it's been difficult to put blog to website. My general routine is to meet people from 11am onwards. 11am is when people get busy and the Palestinian cities really spring to life. I've interviewed refugees from 1948, the families of people, mostly kids, who have been murdered by the Israelis and a few who murdered Israelis, and have lined up some interviews with militants. The latter is a little more difficult to arrange owing to the fact that militants are being targeted for assassination or capture by the Israelis. Most have either been killed, imprisoned or fled the West Bank. The remainder are in hiding.
[A Palestinian boy getting excited during a Nakba protest in Tulkarem]

I've met some very dedicated foreign activists during my travels. They have often been the link to Palestinians and issues of interest, like the small village I stayed in overnight. It was experiencing settler violence, they were firing at the Palestinian village and setting fire to their crops. A Palestinian crowd often gathers and shouts at the settlers. Some throw stones. The settlers are armed to the teeth. I'm talking M-16s here. Israeli soldiers arrive and often just stand and watch the settlers firing on the village or setting fire to the crops. Instead they fire tear gas and rubber bullets at the Palestinians.
When we got to the village on this occasion the soldiers were, thankfully, about to leave. We missed the violence and I was happy about that. A bunch of us stayed in the village overnight. The townsfolk were incredibly good hosts and we partook in a local Nakba protest that evening which ran through the village streets.

It's interesting how your mindset changes when you have to share your personal space with total strangers. You become, in the short term, far more tolerant and resilient. At least, I like to think so. But eventually, as with all things, your tolerance ends. I've noticed, not for the first time, how annoying well intentioned people like activists can be. For example, some of my travelling companions are just a little too obssessed with respecting local customs and mores... and reminding me to obey in kind. To be sure this is generally a good thing. But I think a lot of foreigners who go to third world countries forget that the locals are just people too and are not monolithically attached to custom. By that I mean they are more tolerant and flexible with foreigners and and you don't have to follow every tip in the Lonely Planet guide. Don't chuck a cow if you accidentally shake hands with the wrong gender. Try to not to be more local than the locals. And for god's sake enjoy the odd moment of laughing or swearing inappropriately. Otherwise the locals may just find you a little patronising. I know I would.

That evening we sat in a reception room in our hosts' house for hours, all of us rather exhausted but afraid to seek permission to go to bed. Eventually, around midnight, I told one of our hosts it was time to sleep. I was told this may offend the hosts, but in truth they were tired too. I think they wanted to go to sleep as well but were afraid, ironically, like us, that they'd offend us by calling it a night too soon. All of us quickly and efficiently went to sleep once the ice was broken. Earlier in the night I offended one of my companions by using the f-word... while in the same room with a number of grown Palestinian men.
I also happened to have my right leg crossed over my left thigh while I was sitting down. The next morning one of my companions complained that this was considered disrespectful under local customs. Displaying the sole of your foot is rude. I was tired and keen to get back to my room for a hot shower before today's string of interviews and frankly the last thing I really was concerned about was my foot etiquette. The locals didn't seem at all concerned as a number of them spoke to me complete with exposed sole. Strictly speaking it is disrespectful to show the soul of your foot in the subcontinent too, but I've never run into trouble there, at least for this reason!, in all the times I've been around that part of the world.

[Boy in a refugee camp. There are so many kids over here.]

One of my companions is a really good Australian activist. Unfortunately this activist also has that trait, common among Australians, of being impossibly earnest. In a place like Palestine you often have to tell a white lie to keep desperate people afloat. "Will Mr B from France return to Palestine?" Truth: no, of course not. Appropriate response: "Yes, of course he will, inshallah!" Call that patronising or colonial even. But it's just plain true. This companion, who is something of a veteran and very knowledge on the conflict and local customs, simply does not realise this. To their credit it shows that they are honest and don't play games with the truth. Traits I respect more than anything else. I guess another problem is that it's hard not to become overly earnest and humourless in a depressing environment and, believe me, occupied Palestine is depressing.

[Poster of a shaheed or martyr, a militant killed in clashes with Israelis. Almost all the posters are of young men. So very, very sad.]

At the same time, observing them has made me wonder whether one problem with many activists is the inability to act dynamically. In every environment you have to be a bit of an actor. Pure altruism is like pure oxygen. It's lethal without impurities.

[An old man walking through the Nablus old city. Around twice a week these alleys become a battle ground between patrolling Israelis and militants.]

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Catastrophe

Today represents the 60th anniversary of al Nakba, literally 'the catastrophe' in Arabic. The moment in history when the Palestinians lost most of their land and the chance for statehood. Lest we forget.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I haven't been updating you on my travels all that much of late, mainly due to limited internet access and exhaustion. I'm in Ramallah now, the cosmopolitan heart of the West Bank... and local bourgeois culture, and all the international organisations, and wifi cafes (yay!!). I went to a protest at Tulkarem today and will be going to Nablus tomorrow for the rest of the week.

The protest was interesting. Picture thousands of kids marching with UN flags (to represent the UN resolution of 1948 that attempted to create a Jewish and Palestinian state side by side). They were marching towards Jaffa, a town just south of Tel Aviv that is now impossible for Palestinians to reach. It was never meant to reach that far, only to the wall as a symbolic gesture. The kids got a little carried away, some started getting dangerously close to a sniper tower and throwing rocks. At one point I ventured close to where the kids nearest to the tower were until I noticed an Israeli soldier waving his rifle. I realised I was a lot taller than most of the kids and would've probably made an easy target. So I decided to courageously to walk back a bit. In the end a teacher came and waving a plastic stick herded the kids away from the wall. I'll post pictures as soon as I get a chance.

Earlier in the week I finally managed to interview a former big wig political adviser who is also an ultra-right wing settler. He was very approachable and... avoided properly answering every question I put to him. At least I got his phone number. I've concluded that, when I get back home, I'm going to buy a speaker phone and a hundred phone cards and do a lot of over the phone interviews.

Atheist religion?

Science is not always directly empirical. Science is not governed by absolute, immutable laws. Science, and especially quantum mechanics, far from telling us we can know everything, tells us there will always be things we cannot know. No one ultimately understands. Science affirms the complexity and mystery of the universe. Science, like the religious impulse, opens us up to a world where we face mystery. There are forces in the universe that will always lie beyond the capacity of the human mind.

A great article over at on Dawkins and the other militant Atheists and their cult of science. Thanks to


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bill O'Reilly at his best

This has got to be the funniest thing in the universe!!

Einstein on God

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.

Albert Einstein, in a letter published today.

Nice to know I have something in common with the big man.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

IDF culture of denial and impunity

And you can't help asking yourself, as you stand exposed on a roadway stained with blood and gristle and carbonised rubber, with a killer robot circling overhead, what would they say if it was you who'd been hit? For the average Middle East correspondent this is not a difficult question to answer. As a character remarked in the BBC political satire The Thick of It, looking up your own name on the internet is like opening the door to "a room full of people who are trying to throw shit at you". Fortunately, the job gives one a thick skin. But the Israeli Defence Force's culture of denial and impunity, repeatedly condemned by Israeli and foreign rights groups, does nothing for your confidence when you have reason to fear that someone you can't see is studying you on a computer screen, or through a gun sight.

Ed O'Loughlin, Fairfax Middle East Correspondent for the past 5 years in today's The Age.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cargo pants

I've concluded they're the most essential item for any traveller. For example, the other day I walked around 10kms with my dictaphone, notepad, diary, pen, phone, and wallet all in my pants. There's a particular brand I got in Sydney which is cheap and very durable. I think I'm going to buy up the shop when next I'm in town.

In other news I was meant to interview a Darfuri spokesperson yesterday evening. He invited me to the beach at evening, which I thought would be a sedate affair. Instead it was a big beach festival which was fun, but alas no interview (surprise, surprise). I didn't really hang around very long but I did check out Jaffa, the little port town that is now part of Tel Aviv. Jaffa is significant in that it was an Arab town completely cleansed by the Zionists. Contrary to the Zionist propaganada, which says the Palestinians were all primitive farmers, Jaffa was a centre of Palestinian intellectual life and commerce. Now it's one of the most expensive areas around.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Worth a read

My good friend Mustafa Qadri has just had two pieces published, one on Israel's 60th anniversary here, another on racism, Islam and Daniel Pipes here.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Independence Day in Israel

Today being Israel's 60th independence day (a public holiday) I went with a friend and his family to the beach near Ashkelon, a town south of Tel Aviv. There were people, music and barbecues everywhere, reminiscent to the families in Oz going to the camping grounds for the long weekend. Although the smell of barbecued flesh got me mightily hungry I had to contend myself with... cheese bagels and carrots. At least I got to see Israel's mighty and noble airforce. I managed to get some pics of the helicopters but not the jets. Ashkelon is, ironically and sadly, right above Gaza. Wonder whether the jets had a pay load for Gaza? To give you a sense of the irony, just imagine watching an airshow in Sydney of planes you know routinely bomb Cronulla.

Assaf - refugee assistance organisation in Israel

Assaf was the organisation that put me in touch with the refugees mentioned in Tuesday's post. Check them out.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Living with an Israeli

For the past two weeks I've been living with an Israeli academic I met during my travels in Europe. We hit it off when we first met and I was surprised to hear him say, on parting, that I should come visit him in Israel. When I contacted him late last year he seemed very keen to host me. Given that I'm struggling a bit money wise and accommodation is the single biggest cost for a traveller, and given that I wanted to get to know the locals better, I thought this was a great offer. What's more he happens to work at a conservative newspaper and offered to hook me up with government officials and politicans, even a right wing Jewish settler whom we'd describe as fanatical in Australia but over here is merely considered right wing. It was an offer too good to refuse.

It has definitely been a great learning experience. He has been a very gracious host, but it hasn't always been easy. For starters, I think I disappointed him because I'm not particularly religious or traditional. He happens to be a scholar in Muslim history so I think he was looking forward to dissecting my, perceived, pre-modern brain. Moreover, while he is quite open-minded and willing to discuss the Israel/Palestine issue to some extent I've reached the conclusion that he is actually quite close-minded and probably racist.

His interest in Islam, as I may have implied in an earlier post, is quite orientalist. His particular interest is tracking extremist Islamic scholars and, especially, diaspora Muslims in the West who take on their call to spread the word of Islam, including violently. His thesis comfortably fits within the orientalist mould because he concludes that Islam is a pre-modern faith and 'moderates' have to be found to champion the move towards Western-style democracy. Furthermore, he cites Israel as the model to emulate, being of course such a bastion of freedom and plurality, even for its Arab citizens (NOT!!). He's been widely published and is starting to get a lot of coverage in English-language countries. I'd love to post some links so you can read his stuff and make your own mind up but of course that would require disclosing his name.

I lumped down his comments with a lot of self control on and even, to begin with, was silent as he claimed that much of the story behind Israel's dispossession of the Palestinians was false. Eventually, however, I just could not let it go unnoticed. Now I believe I was firm but never rude or loud, I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, and I always gave him the last word or two or three and thanked him for broadening my horizons on the issue. But he really took offence to it. I think the straw that broke his back was when I asked if he thought Israel was at all like Apartheid South Africa.

Now he's saying that he cannot introduce me to the right wing politicians and government officials he previously promised as I may offend them and make him look bad. My initial reaction was surprise and sadness. 'If only I had shut up my big gob' I thought most of the day. But as I walked around Tel Aviv today I started to realise that I had not said anything in a disrespectul tone, did not use any derogatory words, and so on. Moreover, I was honest about my views. The other option would have been to be dishonest, pretend to be a 'neutral', ignorant bystander to the conflict and later quote him extensively without his knowledge... until he read one of my pieces in the press. The strange thing is we're still getting along but politics is a serious no-go area. In my friend's defence, these issues are close to the heart for Israelis and the instinct to be defensive is natural in many ways.

I contented myself with that rationalisation until, following that, we sat having dinner with his brother on the eve of Independence Day he told me this 'funny' story of how he overheard this woman in a bus 'singing' in a strange operatic way, and here I quote, "I wish we just exterminated all those Arabs!" His brother looked uncomfortable and I was really just speechless. I don't even think he was trying to rub it in but honestly thought it a funny story (because of the way the woman sung the words, not because of what she said). I have learnt many things on this trip, like just how ignorant I am and how much I need to learn. And I've also learnt that an intelligent man can be just as racist as an ignorant one. The former just tends to be more layered in his or her approach.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Israel's other refugees

Today I met some refugees from Eritrea and Ethiopia in down town Tel Aviv. A contact I made through a friend is a refugee advocate and he suggested I go and check it out. I first met Mr G, a Christian Eritrean man who said he left his country because of its dictatorial leader. There is extreme poverty in Eritrea and people live in fear that any dissent will be met with imprisonment or death.
I was told about his harrowing journey through Ethiopia to Sudan and then Egypt and finally Israel. Afterward I met a few other refugees from Ethiopia and another from Eritrea. Most were afraid that information about them would flow back home and their families would be persecuted. So I took pains not to photograph faces and not to ask for names. I must admit to feeling a little pornographic. Like I was invading their house (which I was!) and taking photos as though I was at a zoo. I must say that journalism, for this reason, is a morally questionable profession.
They all said they were glad to be in Israel. Although they have no rights here, cannot legally work, and live in really basic, often horrible slum conditions at least they're not persecuted like in Sudan or Egypt. Apparently Egypt is particularly hostile and racist. Refugees are known to be killed, as happened during a refugee protest in Cairo in 2005. They also face a lot of violence, hence the interest in getting into Israel. The refugee advocate who told me to come here told me last week of one story where a group of refugees literally had to run towards the Israeli border as Egyptian police chased and eventually started firing at them. A few escaped but the unlucky ones were shot in front of them. One of them was caught in a deadly game of tug-of-war as Israeli soldiers pulled his or her arms and Egypitan police pulled their legs. Eventually the Egyptian police pulled their guns on the Israeli soldiers who let go and the refugee was dragged away to be shot.
Israel is nonetheless far from an ideal final destination. The Government here is loathe to give refugees residency because they fear more people will seek refuge in Israel. There is no government refugee program either. So UNHCR and local groups are the only ones assisting the refugees. Even then UNHCR only really processes them. Unlike other, developing nations, it does not provide any humanitarian assistance in Israel. Many refugees are thrown in prison. Others are bused to a park in this down town area of Tel Aviv where they are told to get out and are forced to camp in the grass. This should come as no surprise for us in Australia. The Israeli Government is also concerned that if it accepts African refugees it will have to consider the Palestinian refugees on their own doorstep. All in all a pretty fucked up situation.
I also met an Ethiopian man who works as an IT manager during the night and during the day helps manage the refuge hostels I visited where around 300-400 people seek shelter. There isn't enough rooms so people sleep in the corridors, on the floor, anywhere they can. I took a lot of photos but I can't publish them as they may be published elsewhere. This manager bloke was a real angel of a man. He was visibly exhausted and clearly was making time out of an otherwise hectic day for me to speak to him. Yet he was as patient with my, to him I'm sure, stupid or obvious questions as he was to the many people coming up to him asking for help fixing the plumbing or some other household issue. He told me he had sunk much of his own money into keeping the refugee hostels, which were in really poor condition, afloat. As dire as the situation seemed I must admit to feeling proud to have met a man like this. I should also share another thing he said to me, quite without provocation from me. He said although the African refugees here had it bad at least there was a long term sense of hope, that slowly they will find jobs and, if not citizenship, possibly get residency like he did (according to him only 1% of refugees have obtained this thus far and in fact no new residencies have been issued in the past few years). Moreover, at least they weren't harassed and indeed the area of town I was in had a sense of community in it including local food and music stores. Indeed, it is perhaps the most interesting bit of Tel Aviv I've seen yet. I met a peace activist around here a few days earlier and it is full of poor migrants like women who look Filipino (but of course may be from other Asian countries, I do not know), Arabs and poor Jews. Anyway the hostel manager said "but the Palestinians, for them I can see no hope. They have nothing to look forward to."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Recognise this song??

This post will mean nothing to non-Battlestar Galactica fans, but does anyone know what this song is called??

An afternoon in Tel Aviv's orthodox quarter

Today I went to M'barak, an outer suburb of Tel Aviv where orthodox Jews live. The place was full of men and women with kids, even little ones roaming around in little groups around the place. The air was warm with the smell of tasty traditional Jewish cuisine. I was surprised to find that many Orthodox men and women smoke. But I wasn't surprised to find that they have a serious thing for black. What is it with Orthodox people of every hue and the colour black??
While waiting for my bus back I decided to buy some cherries and started talking to the proprietor. Itzhak was originally from Baghdad, Iraq but his family moved to Israel in the early 1950s. He kept saying that "Israel is kaput!" Rather surprised by this comment I asked why. "Everything... money, money, money!!" He elaborated that Israel was now driven by money, "Jewish... money, money, money!" Not only was Israel imploding from within, it faced dangerous threats from Syria, Iran, Lebanon, everywhere.

Itzhak said that when he first came he experienced a lot of racism, including beatings from the police for merely, he claims, loitering on a street. "Israel [like] Apartheid." But according to him Israel is not so bad anymore. Many Arab Jews have become successful and now walk around with their noses raised (which he demonstrated in quite an animated fashion!).

Saturday, May 03, 2008


I've witnessed 5 car accidents in the past two weeks. According to more Israelis have died in car accidents than from all of their wars combined. I've heard this surprising statistic from other sources too.

To do list

As I conduct my travels I've realised there's a number of things I need to brush up on, if not entirely learn from scratch.

i. learn to read and write Arabic;

ii. learn to read and write Urdu;

iii. brush up on my knowledge of Islamic theology and history;

iv. brush up on the modern history of the Middle East and Pakistan.

Thankfully I already have the tools (books, cds, etc) to do this. I just need to get my arse on a seat and do the study.

I should point out that I'm still an atheist and don't personally derive much satisfaction from theology. But as I travel I've noticed that, to take part in the debate on Islam, terrorism and development I need to know more about the details. Islam's opponents know a lot more about Islam than most Muslims do. This is a serious concern.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Al Jazeera cameraman on Guantanamo ordeal

Thanks to Toaf for the link.

Our wasteful economy

Yesterday I saw the ultimate in useless consumerism. A schoolboy I know made an error in his homework and produced an electric eraser - a small battery-powered plastic gadget which moved an attached rubber to and fro when he held it to the page. It saved him having to move his fingers!

Probably, I thought, it had been wired up by a $2-a-day wage slave in some unhealthy factory and then, with container loads of similar junk, transported between continents using expensive fossil fuels pushing out CO2.

I am sure a clever person designed such a thing but, as a world already in trouble, we would be cleverer to reject such trifles which give a week's pleasure and an aeon of pollution.

Diana Evans Lindfield

(Letter from Sydney Morning Herald)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Israel's orientalism

I've spent much of this week speaking to Israeli academics specialising in Islam and Middle Eastern history. Some of the open-minded ones have been open to debate and we've had some enjoyable if energetic discussions. Two things have really struck me. One, they're all Orientalists, even the most sympathetic ones. Two, they have a lot of knowledge and resources pertaining to Islam especially in the Middle East. As Muslims, we're so behind on this latter point. We need to study our religion, analytically not theologically, better. And we need to counter the colonialist message much of the Western scholarship, of which the Israeli scholarship is a segment, exhibits.