Lecturing on War & Peace in Israel, Iraq and beyond

My Fall 2009 Lecture Tour has gotten off to a fantastic start! I began in Los Angeles, where I had the honor to share my stories from Iraq with the local Iraqi kehila of Kahal Joseph Synagogue in Beverly Hills. After my talk (and all the questions!) we went upstairs to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot to the sounds of Arabic music and with homemade Arabic sweets. I danced with Baghdad-born Iraqis who told me “This is an Arab synagogue!” I also had the honor to be hosted by the very gracious couple, David and Caroline Azouz. Thank you all!

Orly Halpern speaking at Temple Beth Emeth to Ann Arbor Jewish community. Photo: Gregory Fox

Orly Halpern speaking at Temple Beth Emeth to Ann Arbor Jewish community. Photo: Gregory Fox

In Ann Arbor, I had three amazing audiences, all very different. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I was hosted by the Center for Middle East and North African Studies as part of a colloquium on “War and Warfare.” It was attended by the students of Professor Alexander Knysh, as well as other students and faculty and by Jews and Arabs from the Ann Arbor community.  That evening the Union for Progressive Zionists hosted me. The audience threw me some tough questions! I also really enjoyed speaking before the Ann Arbor Jewish community at Temple Beth Emeth. I felt like I was talking with family. Thank you all for coming! And a VERY big thank you to Ed and Ellie Davidson, two wonderful people who treated me like their daughter.

Now in Toronto, I had the amazing opportunity to give a talk that was a combination of all the talks I’ve given so far. Before an audience of the Journalism Students of Minelle Mahtani and Karen McCrindle and the general public at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus I shared experiences from Iraq (including snippets of my 2004 kidnapping), identity issues as a Jewish and Israeli reporter in the Arab and Muslim world, stories of how I interviewed Hamas leaders, as well as tricks of the trade. What is the first thing you need to arrange before going into a war zone?

The students were fantastic (they thought I wasn’t too bad, either). What interest, curiosity and great questions! They really inspired me.  Honestly, after speaking before these audiences I felt for the first time that maybe I would like to teach not just report…

Meanwhile, I was invited to join a panel of journalists on Behind the Story commenting on the latest news. It’ll be broadcast Sunday, October 18th at 7PM in Ontario. I think I bumbled a bit. It’s a fast-paced program. Judge for yourself.

AND photos to come.

Update: Haaretz and Al-Qaeda agree

Should I laugh or cry? An Israeli newspaper and Al-Qaeda groups have agreed on something: that Hamas’ weekend operation against an Al-Qaeda-inspired group was a ‘MASSACRE.

Now I can understand why Al-Qaeda would have called the killing of their fans in Gaza a ‘massacre,’ but Haaretz? I already wrote an analysis why it wasn’t a ‘massacre.’

Now let’s look at what interest an Israeli newspaper and Al-Qaeda had in calling it one.

First, Al-Qaeda: Calling Hamas’ legitimate operation against an armed and outlawed group a massacre creates sympathy among Muslims, which is good for fund-raising and gaining wider support. (Anyone who kills a Muslim, must be bad, goes the logic for some. No matter that the man was armed for battle and declaring regime change.)

And, Hamas is no longer the darling of the Islamic militant movements, so it’s good to badmouth them. They’ve gone too political for Al-Qaeda taste in recent years. Yes, they dream of Dar al-Islam, that this region will be ruled by the laws described in the Quran,  just like the Al-Qaeda guys. But the Hamas movement is like the communists. And I’m basing this analysis on their actions, declarations and the numerous conversations I’ve had with them over the years. The communists dream of one big communism-run world. However, they are realistic. They know that’s not likely to happen and they are practical, so they focus on what they can achieve and play by the rules of democracy (or at least the ones I’ve met in Israel and the Arab world do).  Yes, I know that is hard for many of us to perceive Hamas in this way. But things change. People change. Movements change. Look, Egypt and Jordan became practical. They don’t like us, but they think it’s better to make peace than be in war. And you can be religious, totalitarian, or whatever, and still be realistic. So, in short, Hamas has gone political and the Al-Qaeda guys are dissing them.

But why did my colleagues Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel, Haaretz’s Palestinian Affiars correspondents and Military Affairs correspondents, use the sacred word ‘massacre‘?  I need to call Avi and ask him. I’ll let you know when I find out.

(BTW, the last time Avi and I saw each other was in one of the homes in Hebron under attack by Jewish settlers, the day the Israeli military evacuated settlers from the nearby ‘House of Contention.’   Avi wrote the next day that the settlers’ attack on the Palestinians a ‘pogrom.‘ The settlers called it their ‘price-tag.’ That time, I agreed with Avi.

Update: Wrote Avi and asked him if he would like to comment on my analysis of Hamas’ weekend operation and critique of his analysis of it. He chose not to.

Meanwhile, Time Magazine’s Tony Karon wrote an analysis on the same subject and came to some of the same conclusions as I did: the Hamas Movement is pragmatic.

Israel ‘had no choice,’ but Hamas was ‘brutal': Portraying Hamas as the bad guys – no matter what

I was shocked today to read how my colleague and friend, Haaretz’s Palestinian Affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff, portrayed Hamas’ crushing of an Al-Qaeda inspired Islamic extremist group over the weekend in southern Gaza. The word “massacre” jumped at me from my computer screen; so did the word ‘brutal’.

In light of the analysis, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that some Jewish Twitterers also portrayed the battle as immoral, emphasizing that a place of worship was attacked and that innocent people were killed.  “Hamas fires on mosque, kills little girl,” wrote @soccerdhg on Twitter (then blogged that reporters should not quote Hamas spokesmen because it gives Hamas ‘a platform to plead for Western support.’) “Where is Human Rights Watch???” asked @NGOMonitor, a pro-Israel lobby that focuses on media. “Where’s the outrage?”wondered William Daroff, VP for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of United Jewish Communities, linking to the problematic Haaretz analysis.

But I can’t help but shake my head and ask, do these people have amnesia? In December Israel used the same reasoning –  ‘to destroy Islamic extremists’ –  in order to wage a relentless 22-day military operation on Hamas. Israel killed over 1400 people, including some 400 children, destroyed much of the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip and left thousands of people homeless after dropping bombs on their houses. But these people did not express outrage then.  So my question is: where is the perspective and where is the bias?

But before I look to answer it, I’ll go back to the ‘massacre.’  I’m not going to let this word go because it should never be used wrongly or lightly. In my Macbook dictionary ‘Massacre’ is defined as an ‘indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.’

So let’s examine the fight with the Warriors of G-d that began Friday afternoon when the group’s leader Abdel Latif Moussa announced in his sermon in a Rafah mosque that Gaza had become a theocratic emirate and demanded that Hamas impose strict Islamic law, as DPA reported.

“Dozens of Jihad al-Salafi group members, masked and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, had taken up positions outside the mosque. After the prayers, they exchanged fire with members of the Hamas police,” wrote DPA.

Can a battle between official security forces and an illegally armed group who has declared a new political regime to replace the one of the democratically elected ruling party be either ‘indiscriminate’ or a ‘slaughter’?(Remember, part of the platform Hamas won the 2006 elections on was security. Too many groups had guns and used them for criminal purposes. After being elected, Hamas was lauded for fighting to make Gaza safe with guns-for-government-forces-only rule in Gaza.)

Now imagine if a heavily armed group declares a new religious regime from inside a church or synagogue near where you live. Would you not expect the security forces to go in and battle it?

Some of the dead extremists were, according to Reuters, formerly loyal to Hamas, but left the movement for the Al-Qaeda-inspired group because they wanted stricter Islamic rule. Hamas has accused the group of being behind the bombing of several Internet cafes, beauty salons and a wedding in Gaza.

We can examine why there is a rise in religious extremism in Gaza. Think about this: Hamas is preventing fighters from any group to launch rockets against Israel, as part of another truce, but Israel has yet to lift the suffocating siege.  You don’t need an expert on Palestinian affairs or Islamic extremism to realize that as poverty increases and people’s lives are controlled by outsiders (Israel, the US, the MidEast Quartet) – without anyway to respond – the place becomes fertile ground for extremists.

Noteworthy, two Palestinian human rights organizations, criticized Hamas’ operation. And not because they made it, but because they didn’t do it earlier when the internet cafes and beauty salons were being bombed. Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Addameer Human Rights Association also criticized what they said was the use of paramilitary forces (Qassam Brigades) in addition to the police forces. By the way, six of the dead were policemen.

Adameer had numerous other criticisms of Hamas’ operation, which can be read here. Note, that local human rights organizations do not feel threatened by criticizing their government and do so without being closed down.  (That reminds me of when a few months after Hamas won the 2006 elections I attended a Gaza NGO conference where members of the Hamas government sat on panels and listened to Palestinian civil society leaders make recommendations and complaints.  MP Ghazi Hamad, the government spokesperson and a Hamas member, sat on one of the panels and listened and responded supportively. Ghazi was a newspaper editor and is known for his support of human rights.  After the panel I went up to him to say hello. I had interviewed him numerous times on the phone when I was reporting for The Jerusalem Post, but we hadn’t met in person until then. He was surprised to see me and very friendly.)

HAMAS: POLITICS OR TERROR?

Back to the question of perspective. Despite its rightful attempt to make law and order, Hamas is being portrayed as a ruthless evil terror organization. That simply is not accurate.  At least, not anymore.  (Yes, it uses Qassam rockets, which some see as a limited means to negotiate with Israel. Note, most of the rockets land in fields.) Hamas took a strategic decision in 2005 to participate politically in the future of its people, rather than being an outsider, which only uses violence. It abandoned suicide bombings (the last one was in 2005, although Israel’s peace partner, Fatah, continued since) and ran for elections.  It won but the decision by Israel and the international community was to isolate it, reject it.  No, it does not believe Israel has ‘a right’ to exist on British Mandate Palestine. But it accepts that Israel exists and is willing to talk to it and declare a Palestinian state only on the pre-’67 borders.  Yes, the party is Islamist, as Hamas MP Dr. Omar Abdul Razeq told a group of Israelis (Jewish), Americans, Palestinians, and Bosnians at a meeting in his office in Ramallah last week. (More on that meeting that I arranged – later.) But it wants to have dialogue. “We will talk with anyone,” said Dr. Abdul Razeq before the group parted. (Some of the Israelis also asked to take photos with him. He said with a smile,”Sure, but I’m not responsible if you get in trouble with your government.) And as Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas member in Gaza, told Howard Schneider of the Washington Post: “We are a liberation movement with an Islamist hue…We are not the Taliban or al-Qaeda. We like law and order.”

(My colleague at the Globe and Mail, Patrick Martin, wrote two excellent pieces on moderation in the Hamas movement. One about the Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Aziz Dweik, and the other about, believe it or not, Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ politburo chief in Syria.

So why do some Jewish lobby groups and the Israeli government continue to try to portray it as a terrorist organization? Maybe because there is no doubt that Hamas will be a tougher negotiator than Fatah. Or because Israel likes others to make declarations about it, which Hamas is unwilling to make. But the fact of the matter is no agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis can be signed that does not include Hamas. Moreover, Israel exists and does not need anyone to declare whether they believe in its right to exist or in what way it should exist. If Egypt and Jordan were required to declare they believed Israel had a ‘right’ to exist, the peace agreements would never have been signed.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ political path (with limited armed resistance) is causing the nationalist Islamist movement problems.  In a 2007 video Al-Qaeda accused Hamas of “abandon[ing] jihad for politics. It has betrayed its youths. Its main activity is politics. Since its decision to go down the path of politics, Hamas has begun to descend on a downhill slope.”

BTW, there was an attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict (which would have meant WoG giving up its weapons and declarations.) But clearly the leader of the ‘Warriors of G-d’ group was not interested. DPA reported that he exploded himself by a detonator – as well the negotiator standing next to him. Note, six Hamas policemen were among the 22-28 people killed in the battle.

ANOTHER ATTEMPT BY FATAH TO OVERTHROW HAMAS IN GAZA?

Interestingly, Israel’s YNet reports that Hamas has revealed documents showing that Warriors of G-d are funded by none other than Mohammed Dahlan, the former FATAH Gaza strongman. Dahlan, who was in charge of the mainly Fatah-loyal security forces in Gaza is considered a thug by many Palestinians. (He just won a seat in the revolutionary council, which made some believe the vote was fixed.) Dahlan fled from Gaza in June 2007 with many of his forces after his coup attempt boomeranged.  Didn’t know about the coup attempt. Remember all those clashes that ensued between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza in late 2006 and early 2007? Well, as it turns out they were instigated by Dahlan with US-backing.

Hamas people in the West Bank told me during the clashes that Dahlan was behind them and that the US was likely behind him. ‘Everytime we think we have an agreement for a unity government with Fatah Condoleeza Rice comes and then Abu Mazen suddenly changes his mind,” told me one man from Hamas who was close to the negotiations for a unity government with Fatah. That was back in December 2006.

In April 2008, David Rose of Vanity Fair exposed the Fatah-Bush Administration Gaza Coup attempt in a stunning piece of investigative journalism. The premise of the article was surprisingly not publicized in much other media. But there was a fallout and Rose addressed it and showed the documents he acquired as proof.

Israelis in Denial: Carpet-shopping in Isfahan

Bibi lives in La-La Land. Simply put, the prime minister of Israel and a large number of the Jewish citizens of Israel are in denial.

And here are two pieces of evidence:
1. A left-wing Israeli friend of mine named Eyal called me last week to inform me that Israelis were organizing a rally at Rabin Square to show Iran’s Green Movement Israel’s solidarity.

2. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu told German daily Bild. “There is no conflict between the Iranian people and the people of Israel and under a different regime the friendly relations that prevailed in the past could be restored.”

You see, Muslims don’t have a problem with Israel, according to Bibi. And Iranians will be happy when they know they have Israeli support, according to Eyal. According to both these right and left-wingers it’s only the Muslim leaders who have a problem with Israel. If only those governments could be changed everything would be BLISSFUL here in the Middle East. The Muslims – Arab, Turkish, Persian – all love us. If it weren’t for a few party-poopers (Hezbollah, Ayatollahs, Baathists, and the Palestinians who give us a really bad name) we would be skiing in the mountains of Lebanon, bargaining in the great souq of Damascus, and buying laptops and digital cameras in Dubai.

Nothing Israel has ever done and nothing Israel can or will do has anything to do with what people think of the Jewish state, according to many Jews, Israeli and not-Israeli. IT’S ALL ABOUT THEM. The only thing separating Israel and Iran from the WONDERFUL DAYS of the Shah when 1700 Israelis lived in Tehran, El-Al flew daily to and fro, and Israeli businessman made millions of dollars from trade, is Khamenei and Friends. If just Ahmedinejad et-al would go away we would be carpet shopping in Isfahan again.

Oh. So Mousavi, the presidential candidate leading the protests, is also from the Islamic revolutionaries? Well, so what. If he can get the government to make a new election, then maybe he can change everything. And then, you know, we’ll become FAST-FRIENDS. Because we have so much in common. Look how they fight for their freedom. Didn’t we fight for ours? Against the Romans? In the Warsaw Ghetto? And to make Israel in 1948? As Bibi told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, “I have no doubt everybody in the world is sympathetic to the Iranians’ desire for freedom.” We certainly are. Did you see that video of Neda, who was shot in the chest? The Iranians are victims. We can really relate to that. We’ve got a couple thousand years of experience in that role.

Oh. The Palestinians’ desire for freedom? Aren’t they VICTIMS, you ask? Don’t they go out every Friday to protest in Na’alin and Bilin against their land being confiscated and they get shot in the chest, too – um, by us? Well, it’s all about location. Location. Location. Location. (If they were in Africa we would be very sympathetic.)

Oh. You say it’s not just the Ayatollahs who are upset that we made a state here on the land of their Muslim brothers and continue to oppress the Palestinians? You mean the Iranian citizens also feel bad when they see on TV or read in Ha’aretz how we humiliate, harass, hurt, and kill innocent Palestinians throughout our 42-year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? But we had such great relations with the Iranians when the Shah was around. Like Bibi said, “under a different regime, the friendly relations that prevailed in the past could be restored.”

Eyal, the left-winger, says to me that he wants Iranians to know that there are Israelis here who support their cause.

Yes, I say, but that doesn’t HELP them, because we are their ENEMY. Don’t you see, Eyal, they are scared of US? We threaten them all the time. It will hurt their cause – not help – it if it’s known their sworn enemy supports them. Cancel the rally, I implore (Only about 10 people showed up Saturday night. Not sure if it’s because he heeded my advice.)

In a Facebook discussion with H., an American-Israeli journalist here, I explain that there’s little difference between Israeli and Iranian desires for each others regimes. They don’t like each other and they want the other destroyed, I write on his wall. No, writes back H., “Israel has no problem with ‘Islamic’ regimes – witness Pakistan, Mauritania, etc. – only with Iran’s specifically anti-Israel regime.”

What Bibi, Eyal, and H. don’t realize is that the Iranian people won’t like us no matter who is their leader and we cannot wish for their freedom and at the same time expect that ‘free’ government to not be anti-Israel. Only a Muslim dictator under heavy US influence (e.g. Pakistan and Iran under the Shah), or in a country unable to deal with more wars (Jordan and Egypt) will be on speaking terms with the State of Israel.

Muslim attitudes towards Israel can change. I saw it among Egyptians during the euphoria immediately after Ehud Barak won the elections and everyone thought he would follow in the footsteps of Yitzhak Rabin z”l. For that to happen Jewish Israelis need to first acknowledge that Israel’s brutal and oppressive actions against the Palestinians DO AFFECT other Arabs and Muslims views on Israel.

So while Israelis pray for the Iranian protesters in green, Israelis should also focus on ending the injustices we commit against a people who also want freedom and a state to represent them. Otherwise, we’ll never ever be able to bargain for carpets in Isfahan.

Shalom, Salaam, bienvenidos

Orly Halpern appears elusive to the camera. (photo: Ben Hubbard)

Orly Halpern appears elusive to the camera. (photo: Ben Hubbard)

In contrast to my appearance in the photo, this blog will reveal, uncover, and expose the hidden, the distorted, the grey, and the shady of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

I will also provide in these lines my analysis based on my years living in and reporting from the region, where I am still located.

And I will share and vent my frustrations from my search for my B’shert – otherwise known as my Nasib or my Prince. He seems to be as elusive as peace in the Middle East.

We’ll see who or what comes first…

From Jerusalem with love, peace, sadness, and hope…

Orly

P.S. Isn’t the setting of this photo amaaaazing??”