Those killed in Operation Protective Edge are remembered at the rally in Tel Aviv. Photo: Getty
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“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”: what it’s like to be an anti-war Israeli

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades – many Israelis are immersed in a siege mentality, cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. But a small anti-war movement clings on.

On Saturday, I attended an extremist demonstration in Tel Aviv. Some 5,000 other dangerous fanatics and I gave up a small slice of our weekend to express our intolerably radical views to a hostile or, at best, indifferent public, surrounded by a thick protective wall of visibly disgruntled border police and a 20-foot wide cordon of metal barriers.

Some waved the Palestinian national flag; many carried signs saying things like “Stop the War” and “End the Occupation”. We chanted “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” and distributed bumper stickers with the subversive slogan “It won’t end until we talk”. One guy carried a clutch of olive branches. Tea candles spelled out the Hebrew word slicha – forgiveness. The message was meant for the embattled Gazan civilians but it might as well have been for our colleagues, friends and relatives, many of whom would consider us deluded at best, traitors at worst. I'm sure most of us hadn’t advertised our intention to attend the demo in advance; I certainly didn’t. Protest is one thing, but the angry recriminations of loved ones – that is something I admit is beyond the scope of my bravery. In my life, I have faced potatoes lobbed at me from upper floors by small children on demonstrations and anguished accusations of indifference to my family’s safety. I know which hurt more.

This was not the first anti-war protest in Israel this month; there had been many actions and demonstrations, poorly covered by western media, if covered at all. The rally, which was organised by activists from Hadash (socialist) and Balad (pro-binational state) parties, represents the very edge of electoral possibility in Israel. The more mainstream left and centre-left organisations such as Peace Now and Meretz, which are staunchly committed to a two-state future and support for the military, openly distanced themselves. A small counter-demonstration was being held behind a wall of police cars; at previous events anti-war activists had been physically set upon. The overwhelmingly male, right-wing cadre protesting against us waved Israeli flags and, from what I heard, shouted disjointed obscenities - “smelly leftists”, “you take it up the ass”, that sort of thing. When the rally was dispersing – called off early due to resumed shelling of the Tel Aviv area by Hamas – we were urged to leave quickly, while the police presence was still strong, for our own protection. I’ve seen an unconfirmed report of stragglers being followed home and attacked in the stairwells of their own apartment buildings. Me and my (female) co-demonstrator slipped through the occasional clutch of wannabe thugs entirely unnoticed.

Pacifism has attracted a social penalty in Israeli society for decades. In 1983, barely on the edges of my political memory, peace activist Emil Grunzweig was killed during a Peace Now rally by a hand grenade thrown into the crowd by right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi. A dozen years later, another right-wing activist, Yigal Amir, shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after the latter spoke at a rally on the square that now bears his name – a rally that was held, in part, to celebrate the success of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Increasingly worrying escalations in rhetorical and street violence preceded both events, and both were met with dismay and surprise within Israel.

For me, the enduring image of what it is to be firmly, unequivocally on the anti-violence left in Israel comes from Uri Barbash’s Oscar-nominated 1984 movie Beyond the Walls. In this uniquely Israeli and completely universal prison drama, a minor character, the dissident Assaf (imprisoned for aiding the PLO), is variously called “a knife in the people’s back” and “a cancer in the heart of the nation” by his fellow inmates. I have often jokingly turned these slurs against myself, but I know that really, it’s serious: this is how dissent from Israel’s military stance towards the Palestinians is and always has been seen by many Israelis immersed in a siege mentality, one that is cynically whipped up at critical moments by their self-serving leadership. There is no need for Israeli politicians to be craftier than foreign ones; it’s just that Gaza is so much closer than the Falklands.

So has it got worse? What, if anything, has changed? In some ways, little that hasn’t changed elsewhere, too. Israel is more economically unequal than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, daily life is harder for many of its residents – Jews and Arabs alike. Popular demands for social justice flared up but withered on the same neoliberal vine as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. The class divisions setting Israelis against each other remain: between an economic and intellectual elite largely comprised of Jews of European descent and an economic and political underclass heavily weighted towards those from Middle Eastern, Arab countries. The Israeli left retreated into academic infighting about ideological purity indistinguishable from that of its European counterparts (veterans of UK demos will have been amused to see the Anarchist flag and Socialist booth firmly entrenched in opposite corners of the square). Just as Barack Obama can, in all seeming seriousness, be called a dangerous communist by a Tea Party drunk on its own rhetoric, so can a small, peaceful demonstration of well-meaning but frankly ineffectual Israelis be read as a fanatical hate rally that seeks to undermine the state. People who weren’t there have accused me, with Farage-like confidence, of “marching under Stalinist symbols”.

Contrary to Twitter liberals’ apparent belief, Israelis, en masse, are not without a moral imagination. Scenes of the devastation in Gaza are broadcast on the national news here much more ruthlessly than in Europe. But impulses like the genuinely and widely felt abhorrence at the revenge murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir are quickly subsumed in the imperative to unite “behind our boys” by the needlessly escalated conflict.

Perhaps if – when – another political assassination of a Jewish dissident happens, the shock and outrage will dissipate quickly again. Or perhaps there will be years of recrimination, of “where did we go wrong” of “how could brother kill brother?”. It’s impossible to tell, and frankly I don’t know which would be better. We in this region “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”, as Abba Eban once said. Just like talking to the PLO was completely impossible until it happened, so I believe it will be with Hamas, and eventually with what I consider the inevitability of a binational, perhaps federalised state. But these insights will come after countless more deaths on both sides.

Marina Strinkovsky is a feminist writer and campaigner who blogs at It's Not a Zero Sum Game. Her main interests revolve around male violence against women, reproductive justice, sexual exploitation, rape and harassment. Marina has written for the F-Word and Indy Voices among others. She lives in Swindon with her one surviving cactus and, remarkably, no cats

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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