Tag Archives: Israel

Sharon’s Legacy: A Conflict of Opinions


The death of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon this week has polarized opinion across the globe concerning his lifetime. Divisive even today, Pandeia explores through two unique viewpoints how 
Sharon’s legacy lives on most fiercely through the young people in both Israeli and Palestinian communities.

To many Israelis, Ariel Sharon was ‘The Bulldozer’ – a heroic warrior, leading decisive military campaigns in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

But to many Palestinians he was The Butcher, who laid siege to Beirut and was responsible for the deaths of at least 800 civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982.

It was this stark dichotomy that was repeated throughout the day of his death on Twitter.

While the views of political leaders from around the world were heard:

 

The journalist at the forefront of the NSA controversy Glenn Greenwald quickly set the tone for much of the anti-Sharon Twitter discourse.

 

While some focused on the role on the media in enhancing what they saw as a tarnished legacy.

 

However, regardless of the world’s reaction to his death, it is the next generation of Israeli and Palestinians that will feel the effects of Sharon’s actions most fiercely.

It is with this thought that we start our first theme for 2014: Conflict. In a two part series, Lisanne Oldekamp and Sofie Ejdrup Larsen examine the lives of the young people on both sides of the Gaza conflict with very divergent conclusions.

In Lisanne’s article, The Singing Rocket, the problems Palestinian children face on a day to day basis is juxtaposed with the arrival and hope shown by a new star, Mohammed Assaf winner of the 2013 edition of Arab Idol.

Last year Palestinian children got the chance to see that demonstrating, hunger striking, and stone throwing are not the only ways to get their message across. Next to the many posters of martyrs in the village, the poster of a new hero, alive and kicking, has become a common feature in the streets of Palestine.

From the other side of the Gaza Strip, Sofie’s article An Army of Kids looks at the militarisation of Israeli youth and the potentially damaging effect this is having on their upbringing and overall world view.

Since everybody has to do it, doing one’s military service is generally perceived as a ‘collective duty’ by the Israelis and has become a more or less integrated part of most people’s lives. Like one of our sources, a soldier in the Marine Corps, stated: “I feel like it’s my turn to watch over the others back. They did it for me then, now it’s my turn. I can defend myself with my gun, but how are the old people gonna defend themselves?”

As our first two ‘Conflict’ articles depict, however Ariel Sharon’s past is remembered, it is the future of both communities that means the most to the young people of the Middle East.

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The Singing Rocket

The young people of Palestine have found quite a number of ways to champion their struggle but as Lisanne Oldekamp investigates, none have been quite so effective as the peaceful story of one man and a talent contest.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, shortly after midday prayers. On the central square of Nabi Saleh, a group of people awaits the arrival of the villagers that attended the service in the village mosque. It’s a warm day in May, yet most wear scarves. As the inhabitants of the small, hillside village enter the square, journalists jump into action mode, foreigners look on with nervous faces and several men pick up their megaphones. After some loud speeches have warmed up the crowd, the people start walking. Most protesters wear proper footwear that allows for a quick escape. Passing posters of fellow villagers that have died in similar protests, it is the sturdy young children that lead the way. Down the road, around the corner at the gas station – where a sense of nervousness shivers through the less experienced part of the group as scarves are tightened across the face to protect the lungs. After a few hundred meters, the anticipated clash with the military takes place. Stones are thrown, tear gas grenades shot back. The young children that walked in front of the demonstration run back – but never far. The adrenaline makes them giggle as they appear to turn things into a game: who is the bravest, who stands their ground the longest, who throws the biggest stones?

The Palestinian population is young. In 2012, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), children aged 0 to 15 made up over 40% of the population. Despite the relatively stable status quo the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in since the Second Intifada (with exception of the frequent outbursts of violence in Gaza), these children continue to grow up surrounded by violence. The weekly demonstrations against the occupation in villages all across the West Bank have become an almost normal part of their life. Tear gas thickens not only the air of the fields surrounding the village, but of the streets and in the houses of the village as well. Often, the protesters are chased down the streets of their village and arrested in their own homes. Fathers, brothers, uncles, even mothers are being arrested in front of the children’s eyes and nightly house searches further diminish the children’s feeling of home as a safe haven. Between the posters of the martyrs, praised for their bravery and sacrifice, and the weekly demonstrations, attended by so many villagers and supported by international activists, it seems likely that Palestinian children create a disturbed perception of violence.

If this perception of cause-and-effect becomes the only discourse in the children’s mindset, they might become the generation to start the Third Intifada. But as the conflict continues to remain in a dead-lock, activists need to turn to more creative methods to reach the headlines. Palestinian children got the chance to see that demonstrating, hunger striking, and stone throwing are not the only ways to get their message across last year. Next to the many posters of martyrs in the village, the poster of a new hero, alive and kicking, has become a common feature in the streets of Palestine.

A story worth retelling
It was the American Dream times a thousand. It took an aspiring singer — the son of a refugee family — two days to join a singing competition and a lot of pleading with reluctant border patrol to allow him to enter Egypt, where auditions were held in a hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, he stumbled across a line of thousands of people with the same goal he had: to be part of this competition, and thus have a shot at becoming a professional singer. By jumping over a wall, he at least made it into the hotel – where he was told he was too late to enter the competition. Desperate not to go back after all his effort, he asked a friend what he should do. The friend kindly offered him his place in the auditions: “You came all the way from Palestine. Besides, I know I won’t reach the finals, but you will. Take my place.” A few months later, Mohammed Assaf from Gaza was the first Palestinian to win Arab Idol.

Mohamad Assaf (nicknamed ‘The Rocket’) is, without a doubt, Palestinian of the year 2013. His songs and shy, polite appearance stole the hearts of the Arab world and beyond. With Assaf, Gaza has its own Justin Bieber – without the bad behavior and sex/drugs/drinking scandals. His pretty brown eyes and friendly smile and of course his warm singing voice have accomplished what Palestinian politicians thus far could not manage: to unify the Palestinian people. Internationally, he managed to create a headline regarding Palestine that did not involve violence, rockets or the occupation. Although that’s not to say the headlines themselves didn’t still refer to a troubled past: ‘Finally, Palestinians  have reason to celebrate’ or ‘First good news for Palestinians in years’. Assaf quickly became a welcome advocate of the Palestinian people and their cause: a singer whose music touched many, a youngster with bright, thought-through quotes. Its hard not to feel glad that he was such a polite, civilized man: it would be hard to believe that this singer could be a terrorist. And perhaps that is what served the Palestinian people most: he became someone people could relate to, his appearance and actions did not match the common stereotypes of Palestinians.

As Mohammad Assaf would later say on a Dutch TV show: “The media always link Palestine with problems and violence. They forget those other, beautiful stories that can be told of us [Palestinians]. If only the media would make an effort, they would discover creative people that love life.”

A new role model

Through winning Arab Idol, Mohammad Assaf has done just that — he reached the international headlines because of his singing, a talent unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the ‘Nightingale of Palestine’ does have a clear message on the matter: Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank must overcome their differences and form a unified front against the occupation of their land. During the competition, he became much more than a singing refugee. He became the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism,  and used the stage to “represent Palestine in its beautiful image”. Not only has Assaf given the world a new, fresh image of Palestine – he has also shown the young people of Palestine that there are different, more creative ways of having the media pay attention to their problems. It does not take rockets, stones or even a Third Intifada to spread the message they want the world to know: they can use their personal talents to step into the spotlights, where they have a stage to inform the world and to reason with their opponents.

Mohammad Assaf has become the young people of Palestine’s new national symbol of hope. He has provided them a choice. They can continue throwing stones, at the risk of becoming one of the old-fashioned posters: a martyr, praised by family and friends, but with a message that fades over time. Or they can choose to represent the ‘Palestinian Cause’ in a different, more creative way: hoping to reach as many people as possible.

Israel: An Army of Kids

During the last 60 years of conflicts and wars, the Israeli military has gained a significant position in Israeli society. As Sofie Ejdrup Larsen explores many Israelis have come to perceive the military as an inevitable part of their youth.

In November 2012, the conflict broke out between Israel and Hamas once more. For about a week rockets were fired, bombs were dropped, and as a result more than 150 civilians lost their lives.

This time, the violence was triggered by an increased number of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas into southern Israel, killing 3 Israelis. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ attacking Gaza in an air offensive and killing Hamas militant chief, Ahmen al-Jabaar. This only lead to further attacks; Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were, for the first time in more than 20 years, targets of Hamas’ rockets. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to this with more aggression, calling in 30.000 soldiers from the reserve force in a ground offensive. A few days later, as the Hamas continued firing rockets into Israeli territory, an additional 45.000 soldiers were demanded to the borders of Gaza. An Israeli invasion of Gaza was alarmingly close to becoming a reality.

Called to the front
It was about this time I got a disturbing message from my Israeli friend, Ori: He had been called to the front. Like any other citizen of Israel, Ori had to serve in the military for three years after graduating from high school. As a soldier in the Engineering Corps he specialized in bombs and mines; disarming, planting, detonating etc. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, known as ‘the Gaza War’, he was stationed in Gaza for some weeks. Back then, the Gaza War was sparked off by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The IDF answered with attacks on targets in Gaza; the Palestinian militant groups continued firing rockets; the Israeli forces increased their attacks, and so on. Sounds familiar? After three weeks of this, the madness finally came to an end. Under international pressure, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire and  Hamas followed suit shortly after.

Today, four years after he finished his military service, Ori is 25 years old and studies Geometry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, southern Israel. A few days before the IDF called him in, he and I had been writing back and forth on Facebook, since I wanted to know whether he was alright. Raised in Ashdod and currently living in Beersheba, Ori is quite used to the rockets. Both cities are relatively close to Gaza and especially Ashdod is often a target of Hamas. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “I am ok, chilling at the bomb shelter and having a beer… All will be good if I don’t get called to the reserves…” He described how quiet the university campus had become since the rocket fire had increased and called Beersheba a ‘ghost town’. Friday morning the 16 November, a very short message from Ori was in my inbox; “They called. Wish me luck.”

‘Doing One’s Duty’
I met Ori last year while carrying out a fieldwork in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Four other anthropology students and I travelled around the country for a month doing interviews, visiting military bases, and recording a short ethnographic film. All of this in the attempt of understanding how young Israelis combine ‘being young’, while serving in the military for several years – most of them in their teens.

After graduating from high school, all 18-year old, Jewish citizens must enter the IDF, unless they are occupied with fulltime religious studies. Women serve for two years and men for three years. After this, all men and some women become part of the reserve troops and are called in for training 3-5 weeks a year until they turn 55. This is why the IDF could suddenly phoned Ori, demanding him to get to the border of Gaza immediately.

Since everybody has to do it, doing one’s military service is generally perceived as a ‘collective duty’ by the Israelis and has become a more or less integrated part of most people’s lives. Like one of our informants, a soldier in the Marine Corps, stated: “I feel like it’s my turn to watch over the other’s backs. They did it for me then, now it’s my turn. I can defend myself with my gun, but how are the old people gonna defend themselves?”.

The institution of the IDF is characterized by a complex hierarchy. Most posts of higher rank are possessed by soldiers serving their military service selected to do a ‘commander course’. This way, a 19-year old can have the rank of a commander and be responsible for platoons of as many as 200 people. Above the commanders are the officers; soldiers that have chosen to serve an additional year, often in their early 20’s. One of Ori’s flatmates put it this way: “Your officer and commander is one year older than you. The army, you can say, is run by kids”.

Creating a nation 

Due to the massive immigration of Jews from all over the world throughout the last century, the population of Israel is characterized by a large amount of heterogeneity. In the army everyone wears the same uniform and obeys the same rules, no matter what social background one has. This way, social and cultural differences are less obvious and instead a feeling of equality is created. The IDF helps integrate different groups of people and to some extend ‘shapes’ them. Surveys show that most people leave the military more right-wing than they were before entering.

In short, the military is deeply rooted in the Israeli society and understood as an integrated part of life and self-conception for the majority of the Israelis. It functions to homogenize a highly multi-cultural population , ‘shapes’ the Israeli youth, generation after generation, and by doing this transforms the people of Israel into one nation with a common mission: Protecting Israeli citizens and preserving the Israeli state.

Truce
Last November, truce negotiations took place in Cairo. In the presence of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, representatives from Palestine and Israel finally talked in diplomatic ways and decided on ceasefire. An actual war was once again averted and Ori has returned home to Beersheba to continue his studies. At least for now.

After more than 60 years of fighting, peace seems like a utopian dream for both Israelis and Palestinians. With the support of the radical, orthodox Jewish minority, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government continue the aggressive military strategy launched by Ben-Gurion back in the 1930’s.

An army of kids is indeed convenient in times of war.