All posts by Jonathan Cook

How Israel helped to revive Europe’s Ugly Ethnic Nationalism

Polarisation within western societies on issues relating to migration and human rights has been intensifying over recent weeks and months. To many observers, it looks suspiciously as if an international order in place since the end of the second world war – one that emphasised universal rights as a way to prevent dehumanisation and conflict – is rapidly unravelling in Europe and the United States.

In the past few weeks in Donald Trump’s America, it has emerged that thousands of migrant children have been snatched from their parents while trying to enter at the southern border, with some held in cages; the US Supreme Court has upheld the right of border officials to bar entry to Muslims from proscribed countries; and the Trump administration has quit the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a key institution for monitoring human rights violations.

Meanwhile, far-right parties across Europe have ridden to electoral success on the back of mounting fears at a wave of migrants displaced from North Africa and the Middle East by wars and famines. Joining the trenchant anti-immigration stances of governments in Hungary and Poland, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has turned away boatloads of migrants from his country’s ports. He called last month for the European Union to “defend its border” and deny access to human rights groups, while also threatening to cut his country’s budget to Europe unless action was taken against migrants. Salvini is among the Italian politicians demanding the expulsion of the Roma minority.

Other European governments led by Germany, fearful of internal political instability that might undermine their continuing rule, called a hasty summit to consider options for dealing with the “migrant crisis”.

And casting a long shadow over the proceedings is Britain’s efforts to negotiate its exit from the EU, a blow that might eventually lead to the whole edifice of the European project crumbling.

Two ideas of citizenship

These are not random events. They are part of a quickening trend, and one that signals how an international order built up over the past 70 years and represented by pan-national institutions like the United Nations and the EU is gradually breaking down.

While the evidence suggests that there is no particular migration crisis at the moment, there are long-term factors that readily provoke populist fears and can be readily exploited, especially over the depletion of key global resources like oil, and environmental changes caused by climate breakdown. Together they have stoked resource conflicts and begun to shrink world economies. The effects are ideological and political shockwaves that have put a system of long-standing international agreements and norms under unprecedented strain.

The emerging struggle faced today is one that was fought out a century ago in western Europe, and relates to differing conceptions of citizenship. In the early 20th century, Europe was riven by ethnic nationalisms: each state was seen as representing a separate biological people – or in the terminology of the time, a race or Volk. And each believed it needed territory in which to express its distinct heritage, identity, language and culture. In the space of a few decades, these antagonistic nationalisms tore Europe apart in two “world wars”.

At the time, ethnic nationalism was pitted against an alternative vision of citizenship: civic nationalism. It is worth briefly outlining how the two differed.

Civic nationalists draw on long-standing liberal ideas that prioritise a shared political identity based on citizenship inside the stable territorial unit of a democratic state. The state should aspire – at least in theory – to be neutral towards ethnic minorities, and their languages and cultures.

Civic nationalism is premised on individual rights, social equality and tolerance. Its downside is an inherent tendency to atomise societies into individuals, and cultivate consumption over other social values. That has made it easier for powerful corporations to capture the political system, leading to the emergence of neoliberal capitalist economies.

Minorities scapegoated

Ethnic nationalists, by contrast, believe in distinct peoples, with a shared heritage and ancestry. Such nationalists not only resist the idea that other groups can integrate or assimilate, but fear that they might weaken or dissolve the ties binding the nation together.

Ethnic nationalists therefore accentuate an imagined collective will belonging to the dominant ethnic group that guides its destiny; emphasise threats from external enemies and subversion from within by those opposed to the values of the core group; encourage the militarisation of the society to cope with such threats; and anxiously guard existing territory and aggressively seek to expand borders to increase the nation’s resilience.

Even before Europe’s two great wars, most western states were a hybrid of civic and ethnic nationalist impulses. But in a political climate of competition over resources and paranoid vigilance against rivals that prevailed before the second world war, especially fears among western elites about how best to counter the growing threat of Soviet Communism, ideas associated with ethnic nationalism tended to dominate.

It was for this reason that ethnic minorities – especially those such as Jews and Roma whose loyalties to the core nation were considered suspect – found themselves scapegoated and faced rampant discrimination. This took different forms.

In Britain, ethnic nationalism contributed to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document proposing that British Jews be transplanted to the Middle East. In part this was a colonial project to create an outpost of Jews in the Middle East dependent on British favour for their security. But as noted by Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet at the time, the Balfour Declaration had strong anti-semitic overtones, reinforcing the idea that Jews did not belong and should be relocated elsewhere.

Ethnic nationalism in France was evidenced by the notorious Dreyfus Affair. A Jewish captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason in 1894 for leaking military secrets to Germany. In fact, as it later emerged, another French officer was responsible for the leak, but the military preferred to falsify documents to ensure that blame rested with Dreyfus.

And in Germany, racism towards minorities like Jews and Roma culminated in the Nazi concentration camps of the 1930s and a short time later a policy of mass extermination that claimed the lives of many millions.

Rebuilding a post-war Europe

After the devastation of the second world war, western Europe had to be rebuilt, both physically and ideologically. With the dangers of ethnic nationalisms now apparent, greater emphasis was placed on civic nationalism.

This trend was encouraged by the US through its Marshall Plan, an economic recovery programme to reconstruct western Europe. The US wanted a united, peaceful Europe – its ethnic antagonisms a thing of the past – so that a culture of individualism and consumerism could be fostered, guaranteeing an export market for American goods. A US-dependent Europe could also be relied on as a bulwark against Washington’s chief ideological rival, Soviet communism.

By the end of the 20th century, these developments would lead to the emergence of a common market, later the European Union, a single currency and the dropping of border controls.

At the same time, in the immediate post-war period, it was decided to put safeguards in place against the recent slaughter. The Nuremberg Trials helped to define the rules of war, and classed their violations as war crimes, while the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions began the process of formalising international law and the concept of universal human rights.

All of that post-war order is now unravelling.

Bucking the trend

Israel was established in 1948, the year of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which was itself intended to prevent any return to the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel was presented as a sanctuary for Jews from a depraved Europe that had been overrun by aggressive racial ideologies. And Israel was extolled as a “light unto the nations”, the political fruit of the new international legal order to promote the rights of minorities.

But paradoxically, the “western” state that most visibly bucked the trend towards civic nationalism in the post-war period was Israel. It stuck rigidly with a political model of ethnic nationalism that had just been discredited in Europe. Today Israel embodies a political alternative to civic nationalism – one that is slowly and increasingly helping to rehabilitate ethnic nationalism.

From the outset, Israel was not what it appeared to most outsiders. It had been sponsored as a colonial settler project by western patrons that variously included Britain, the Soviet Union, France and, latterly, the US. Set up to be an explicitly “Jewish state”, it was built on the ruins of the native Palestinian people’s homeland after a campaign of expulsions historians have characterised as “ethnic cleansing”.

Israel was not the liberal democracy claimed in its campaigns of self-promotion, known as hasbara. In fact, far from being an antidote to ethnic nationalism, Israel was decisively a product – or more specifically, a mirroring – of this form of nationalism.

Israel’s tribal ideology

Its founding ideology, Zionism, was deeply opposed to civic nationalism and attendant ideas of a common political identity. Rather, it was a tribal ideology – one based on blood ties and religious heritage – that spoke the same language as Europe’s earlier ethnic nationalisms. It agreed with the racists of Europe that “the Jews” could not be assimilated or integrated because they were a people apart.

It was this shared ground with the ethnic nationalists that made the Zionist movement deeply unpopular among the vast majority of European Jews until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. After the horrors of the Nazis, however, growing numbers of Jews concluded that, if you could not beat the ethnic nationalists, it was better to join them. A highly militarised, nuclear-armed Israel – sponsored by Europe and belligerent towards its new, relatively weak Arab neighbours – appeared the best solution available.

It is that shared ground that today makes Israel an ally and friend to Trump and his political constituency in the US and to Europe’s far-right parties.

In fact, Israel is revered by a new breed of white supremacists and anti-semites in the US known as the alt-right. Their leader, Richard Spencer, has termed himself a “white Zionist”, saying he wants the US to become a “secure homeland” to prevent “the demographic dispossession of white people in the United States and around the world” in the same way Israel achieved for Jews.

Making racism respectable

Israel preserved the model of ethnic nationalism and is now seeking to help make it respectable again among sections of western public opinion.

Just as historically there were different varieties of ethnic nationalisms in Europe, so there are among the popular and political movements in Israel.

At the most disturbing extreme of the spectrum are the religious settlers who have actively taken up the task of once again uprooting the native Palestinian population, this time in the occupied territories. Such settlers now dominate the middle ranks of the Israeli army.

In a handbook for further dispossession known as the King’s Torah, influential settler rabbis have justified the pre-emptive killing of Palestinians as terrorists, and their babies as “future terrorists”. This worldview explains why settlers massed outside a court in Israel last month taunting a Palestinian, Hussein Dawabshe, whose 18-month-old grandson, Ali, was among family members burnt alive by settlers in 2015. As the grandfather arrived, the settlers jeered “Where is Ali, Ali’s dead” and “Ali’s on the grill.”

Even more common, to the extent that it passes almost unnoticed in Israel, is the structural racism that keeps the fifth of the population belonging to a Palestinian minority apart from the Jewish majority. For decades, for example, Israeli hospitals have been separating women in maternity wards based on their ethnicity.  Last month, in a familiar pattern, it was revealed that a municipal swimming pool in the Negev was quietly segregating Jewish and Palestinian bathers – all citizens of the same state – by offering different hours.

At least the pool accepted Palestinian citizens. Almost all communities in Israel are segregated, with many hundreds using admissions committees to ensure they bar Palestinian citizens and remain exclusively Jewish.

There have been weeks of angry protests among Jewish residents of the northern city of Afula, after the first Palestinian family managed to buy a home in a neighbourhood. Deputy mayor Shlomo Malihi observed: “I hope that the house sale will be cancelled so that this city won’t begin to be mixed.”

The ‘danger’ of intermarriage

Last month Miki Zohar, a legislator in the ruling Likud party, observed not only that there is a “Jewish race”, but that it represents “the highest human capital, the smartest, the most comprehending”.

At the same time, the government’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, noted that the future of the Jewish people in countries like the US kept him awake at night. “If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he told a conference in Jerusalem.

This is a common refrain on the Israeli left too. Isaac Herzog, the former leader of the supposedly socialist Labour party and the new chair of the Jewish Agency, shares Bennett’s tribal impulse. Last month he warned that Jews outside Israel were falling victim to a “plague” of intermarriage with non-Jews. He bewailed that on a visit to the US last year: “I saw the children of my friends marrying or living with non-Jewish partners”. He concluded: “We have to rack our brains over how to solve this great challenge.”

An ethnic fortress

But the problem is not restricted to the prejudices of individuals and communities. It has state sanction, just as in Europe a century ago.

That can be seen not only in rampant institutional racism in Israel – some 70 laws that explicitly discriminate based on ethnic belonging – but in Israel’s obsession with wall-building. There are walls sealing off Gaza, and the densely Palestinian-populated parts of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In another indication of the ethnic fortress mentality, Israel has built a wall to block the entry of African asylum seekers through the Sinai peninsula as they flee wars. Israel has been deporting these refugees back to Africa – in violation of international conventions it has ratified – putting their lives in danger.

And while western liberals have grown exercised at the separation of children from their parents by the Trump administration, they have ignored decades of similarly brutal Israeli policies. In that time, thousands of Palestinian children have been seized from their homes, often in night-time raids, and jailed in trials with a near-100 per cent conviction rate.

Extrajudicial violence

Throughout its history, Israel has glorified in its military prowess and brazenly celebrated a tradition of extrajudicial violence against opponents. That has included practices such as torture and political assassinations that international law seeks to prohibit. The sophistry used by Israel to defend these actions has been enthusiastically taken up in Washington – in particular, when the US began its own programmes of torture and extrajudicial murder after the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Israel has ready-made rationalisations and specious soundbites that have made it much easier to sell to western publics the dismantling of international norms.

The upending of international law – and, with it, a reversal of the trend towards civic nationalism – has intensified with Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza over the past decade. Israel has subverted the key principles of international law – proportionality, distinction and necessity – by hugely widening the circle of potential targets of military action to include swaths of civilians, and using massive force beyond any possible justification.

That has been graphically illustrated of late in its maiming and killing of thousands of unarmed Palestinian protesters for being supposedly too close to the perimeter fence Israel has built to encage Gaza. That fence simply delimits the Palestinian land occupied by Israel. But in another success for Israeli hasbara, western reporting has almost universally suggested that the fence is a border Israel is entitled to defend.

Israeli expertise in demand

Israel’s expertise is increasingly in demand in a west where ethnic nationalisms are again taking root. Israel’s weapons have been tested on the battlefield, against Palestinians. Its homeland security systems have proven they can surveill and control Palestinian populations, just as western elites think about their own protection inside gated communities.

Israel’s paramilitary police train and militarise western police forces needed to repress internal dissent. Israel has developed sophisticated cyberwarfare techniques based on its efforts to remain a regional superpower that now satisfy the west’s politically paranoid atmosphere.

With an abiding aversion to the Communist ideology of their former Soviet rulers, central and east European states have led the move towards a renewal of ethnic nationalism. Civic nationalism, by contrast, is seen as dangerously exposing the nation to outside influences.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is among the new brand of eastern European leader brazenly stoking an ethnic politics at home through anti-semitism. He has targeted the Hungarian Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros for promoting a civic nationalism, suggesting Soros represents a wider Jewish threat to Hungary. Under a recent law, popularly known as “STOP Soros”, anyone helping migrants enter Hungary risks a prison sentence. Orban has lauded Miklos Horthy, a long-time Hungarian leader, who was a close ally of Hitler’s.

Nonetheless, Orban is being feted by Benjamin Netanyahu, in the same way the Israeli prime minister has closely identified with Trump. Netanyahu called to congratulate Orban shortly after he was re-elected in April, and will welcome him in a state visit this month. Ultimately, Netanyahu is angling to host the next meeting of the Visegrad group, four central European countries in the grip of far-right ethnic politics Israel wishes to develop closer ties with.

For leaders like Orban, Israel has led the way. It has shown that ethnic politics is not discredited after all, that it can work. For Europe and America’s new ethnic nationalists, Israel has proven that some peoples are destined for greatness, if they are allowed to triumph over those who stand in their way.

It will be a darker, far more divided and frightening world if this logic prevails. It is time to recognise what Israel represents, and how it does not offer solutions – only far greater problems.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Israel is bulldozing Khan Al Ahmar and with it the Two-state Solution

Israel finally built an access road to the West Bank village of Khan Al Ahmar last week, after half a century of delays. But the only vehicles allowed along it are the bulldozers scheduled to sweep away its 200 inhabitants’ homes.

If one community has come to symbolise the demise of the two-state solution, it is Khan Al Ahmar.

It was for that reason that a posse of European diplomats left their air-conditioned offices late last week to trudge through the hot, dusty hills outside Jerusalem and witness for themselves the preparations for the village’s destruction. That included the Israeli police viciously beating residents and supporters as they tried to block the advance of heavy machinery.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have submitted a formal protest. Their denunciations echoed those of more than 70 Democratic lawmakers in Washington in May – a rare example of US politicians showing solidarity with Palestinians.

It would be gratifying to believe that Western governments care about the inhabitants of Khan Al Ahmar – or the thousands of other Palestinians who are being incrementally cleansed by Israel from nearby lands but whose plight has drawn far less attention.

After all, the razing of Khan Al Ahmar and the forcible transfer of its population are war crimes.

But in truth Western politicians are more concerned about propping up the illusion of a peace process that expired many years ago than the long-running abuse of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Western capitals understand what is at stake. Israel wants Khan Al Ahmar gone so that Jewish settlements can be built in its place, on land it has designated as “E1”.

That would put the final piece in place for Israel to build a substantial bloc of new settler homes to sever the West Bank in two. Those same settlements would also seal off West Bank Palestinians from East Jerusalem, the expected capital of a future Palestinian state, making a mockery of any peace agreement.

The erasure of Khan Al Ahmar has not arrived out of nowhere. Israel has trampled on international law for decades, conducting a form of creeping annexation that has provoked little more than uncomfortable shifting in chairs from Western politicians.

Khan Al Ahmar’s Bedouin inhabitants, from the Jahalin tribe, have been ethnically cleansed twice before by Israel, but these war crimes went unnoticed.

The first time was in the 1950s, a few years after Israel’s creation, when 80 per cent of Palestinians had been driven from their homes to clear the path for the creation of a Jewish state.

Although they should have enjoyed the protection of Israeli citizenship, the Jahalin were forced out of the Negev and into the West Bank, then controlled by Jordan, to make way for new Jewish immigrants.

A generation later in 1967, when they had barely re-established themselves, the Jahalin were again under attack from Israeli soldiers occupying the West Bank. The grazing lands the Jahalin had relocated to with their goats and sheep were seized to build a settlement for Jews only, Kfar Adumim, in violation of the laws of war.

Ever since, the Jahalin have dwelt in a twilight zone of Israeli-defined “illegality”. Like other Palestinians in the 60 per cent of the West Bank declared under Israeli control by the Oslo peace process, they have been denied building permits, forcing three generations to live in tin shacks and tents.

Israel has also refused to connect the village to the water, electricity and sewage grids, in an attempt to make life so unbearable the Jahalin would opt to leave.

When an Italian charity helped in 2009 to establish Khan Al Ahmar’s first school – made from mud and tyres – Israel stepped up its legal battle to demolish the village.

Now, the Jahalin are about to be driven from their lands again. This time they are to be forcibly re-settled next to a waste dump by the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, hemmed in on all sides by Israeli walls and settlements.

In the new location they will be forced to abandon their pastoral way of life. As resident Ibrahim Abu Dawoud observed: “For us, leaving the desert is death.”

In another indication of the Palestinians’ dire predicament, the Trump administration is expected to propose in its long-awaited peace plan that the slum-like Abu Dis, rather than East Jerusalem, serve as the capital of a future pseudo-Palestinian state – if Israel ever chooses to recognise one.

Khan Al Ahmar’s destruction would be the first demolition of a complete Palestinian community since the 1990s, when Israel ostensibly committed to the Oslo process.

Now emboldened by Washington’s unstinting support, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is racing ahead to realise its vision of a Greater Israel. It wants to annex the lands on which villages like Khan Al Ahmar stand and remove their Palestinian populations.

There is a minor hurdle. Last Thursday, the Israeli supreme court tried to calm the storm clouds gathering in Europe by issuing a temporary injunction on the demolition works.

The reprieve is likely to be short-lived. A few weeks ago the same court – in a panel dominated by judges identified with the settler movement – backed Khan Al Ahmar’s destruction.

The Supreme Court has also been moving towards accepting the Israeli government’s argument that decades of land grabs by settlers should be retroactively sanctioned – even though they violate Israeli and international law – if carried out in “good faith”.

Whatever the judges believe, there is nothing “good faith” about the behaviour of either the settlers or Israel’s government towards communities like Khan Al Ahmar.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ veteran peace negotiator, recently warned that Israel and the US were close to “liquidating” the project of Palestinian statehood.

Sounding more desperate than usual, the Europe Union reaffirmed this month its commitment to a two-state solution, while urging that the “obstacles” to its realisation be more clearly identifed.

The elephant in the room is Israel itself – and its enduring bad faith. As Khan Al Ahmar demonstrates all too clearly, there will be no end to the slow-motion erasure of Palestinian communities until western governments find the nerve to impose biting sanctions on Israel.

• First published in The National

Sisi holds Key to Trump’s Sinai Plan for Palestinians

Israel and the US are in a race against time with Gaza. The conundrum is stark: how to continue isolating the tiny coastal enclave from the outside world and from the West Bank – to sabotage any danger of a Palestinian state emerging – without stoking a mass revolt from Gaza’s two million Palestinians?

In Gaza, Israel does not have the luxury of time it enjoys in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the two additional Palestinian territories it occupies. In those areas, it can keep chipping away at the Palestinian presence, using the Israeli army, Jewish settlers and tight restrictions on Palestinian movement to take over key resources like land and water.

Gaza: A death camp

While Israel is engaged in a war of attrition with the West Bank’s population, a similar, gradualist approach in Gaza is rapidly becoming untenable. The United Nations has warned that the enclave may be only two years away from becoming “uninhabitable”, its economy in ruins and its water supplies unpotable.

More than a decade of a severe Israeli blockade as well as a series of military assaults have plunged much of Gaza into the dark ages. Israel desperately needs a solution, before Gaza’s prison turns into a death camp. And now, under cover of Donald Trump’s “ultimate peace plan”, Israel appears to be on the brink of an answer.

Recent weeks have been rife with reports in the Israeli and Arab media of moves by Washington and Israel to pressure Egypt into turning over a swath of territory in northern Sinai, next to Gaza, for infrastructure projects designed to alleviate the enclave’s “humanitarian crisis”.

Late last month Hamas, which rules Gaza, sent a delegation to Cairo to discuss the measures. This followed hot on the heels of a visit to Egypt by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law who is overseeing the Middle East peace plan.

Exploiting Egyptian fears

According to reports, Trump hopes soon to unveil a package – associated with his “deal of the century” peace-making – that will commit to the construction of a solar-power grid, desalination plant, seaport and airport in Sinai, as well as a free trade zone with five industrial areas. Most of the financing will come from the oil-rich Gulf states.

Egyptian diplomatic sources appear to have confirmed the reports. The programme has the potential to help relieve the immense suffering in Gaza, where electricity, clean water and freedom of movement are in short supply. Palestinians and Egyptians would jointly work on these projects, providing desperately needed jobs. In Gaza, youth unemployment stands at over 60 per cent.

It has been left unclear whether Palestinians from Gaza would be encouraged to live close to the Sinai projects in migrant workers’ towns. Israel will doubtless hope that Palestinian workers would gradually make Sinai their permanent home.

Egypt, meanwhile, will benefit both from the huge injection of capital in an economy currently in crisis, as well as from new infrastructure that can be used for its own population in the restive Sinai peninsula.

It is worth noting that for two years an Israeli cabinet minister has been proposing similar infrastructure projects for Gaza located on an artificial island to be established in Palestinian territorial waters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly balked at the proposal.

Locating the scheme instead in Egypt, under Cairo’s control, will tie Egyptian security concerns about Gaza to Israel’s, and serve to kill the Palestinian national cause of statehood.

A decade of arm-twisting

It is important to understand that the Sinai plan is not simply evidence of wishful thinking by an inexperienced or deluded Trump administration. All the signs are that it has enjoyed vigorous support from the Washington policy establishment for more than a decade.

In fact, four years ago, when Barack Obama was firmly ensconced in the White House, Middle East Eye charted the course of attempts by Israel and the US to arm-twist a succession of Egyptian leaders into opening Sinai to Gaza’s Palestinians.

This has been a key Israeli ambition since it pulled several thousand settlers out of Gaza in the so-called disengagement of 2005 and claimed afterwards – falsely – that the enclave’s occupation was over.

Washington has reportedly been on board since 2007, when the Islamist faction Hamas took control of Gaza, ousting the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It was then that Israel, backed by the US, intensified a blockade that has destroyed Gaza’s economy and prevented key goods from entering.

A Palestinian statelet

The advantages of the Sinai plan are self-evident to Israel and the US. It would:

  • make permanent the territorial division between Gaza and the West Bank, and the ideological split between the rival factions of Fatah and Hamas;
  • downgrade Gaza from a diplomatic issue to a humanitarian one;
  • gradually lead to the establishment of a de facto Palestinian statelet in Sinai and Gaza, mostly outside the borders of historic Palestine;
  • encourage the eventual settlement of potentially millions of Palestinian refugees in Egyptian territory, stripping them of their right in international law to return to their homes, now in Israel;
  • weaken the claims of Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, located in the West Bank, to represent the Palestinian cause and undermine their moves to win recognition of statehood at the United Nations;
  • and lift opprobrium from Israel by shifting responsibility for repressing Gaza’s Palestinians to Egypt and the wider Arab world.

‘Greater Gaza’ plan

In summer 2014, Israel’s media reported that, with Washington’s blessing, Israeli officials had been working on a plan dubbed “Greater Gaza” that would attach the enclave to a large slice of northern Sinai. The reports suggested that Israel had made headway with Cairo on the idea.

Egyptian and Palestinians officials publicly responded to the leaks by denouncing the plan as “fabricated”. But, whether Cairo was privately receptive or not, it provided yet further confirmation of a decade-long Israeli strategy in Gaza.

At around the same time, an Arab newspaper interviewed a former anonymous official close to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president ousted in 2011. He said Egypt had come under concerted pressure from 2007 onwards to annex Gaza to northern Sinai, after Hamas took control of the enclave following Palestinian elections.

Five years later, according to the same source, Mohamed Morsi, who led a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, sent a delegation to Washington where the Americans proposed that “Egypt cede a third of the Sinai to Gaza in a two-stage process spanning four to five years”.

And since 2014, it appears, Morsi’s successor, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, has faced similar lobbying.

Carrots and sticks

Suspicions that Sisi might have been close to capitulating four years ago were fuelled at that time by Abbas himself. In an interview on Egyptian TV, he said Israel’s Sinai plan had been “unfortunately accepted by some here [in Egypt]. Don’t ask me more about that. We abolished it.”

Israel’s neoconservative cheerleaders in Washington who reportedly leant on Mubarak in 2007, during George W Bush’s presidency, are now influencing Middle East policy again in the Trump administration.

And although Sisi appears to have stood his ground in 2014, subsequent dramatic changes in the region are likely to have weakened his hand.

Both Abbas and Hamas are more isolated than ever, and the situation in Gaza more desperate. Israel has cultivated much closer ties to the Gulf states as they fashion joint opposition to Iran. And the Trump administration has dropped even the pretence of neutrality in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, Trump’s Middle East team led by Kushner adopted from the outset Israel’s so-called “outside-in” paradigm for arriving at a peace agreement.

The idea is to use a carrot-and-stick approach – a mix of financial inducements and punitive sanctions – to bully Abbas and Hamas into making yet more major concessions to Israel that would void any meaningful moves towards Palestinian statehood. Key to this idea is that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates can be recruited to help Israel in its efforts to force the Palestinian leadership’s hand.

Egypt, current reports indicate, has come under similar pressure from the Gulf to concede territory in Sinai to help Trump with his long-delayed “deal of the century”.

Muslim Brotherhood threat

Sisi and his generals have good reason to be reluctant to help. After they grabbed power from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, they have done everything possible to crush homegrown Islamist movements, but have faced a backlash in Sinai.

Hamas, which rules Gaza, is the sister organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s generals have worried that opening the Rafah border crossing between Sinai and Gaza could bolster Islamist attacks that Egypt has struggled to contain. There are fears too in Cairo that the Sinai option would shift the burden of Gaza onto Egypt’s shoulders.

This is where Trump and Kushner may hope their skills at wheeler-dealing can achieve a breakthrough.

Egypt’s susceptibility to financial inducements from the Gulf were on display last year when Sisi’s government agreed effectively to sell off to Saudi Arabia two strategic Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. They guard the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez canal.

In return, Egypt received billions of dollars in loans and investments from the kingdom, including large-scale infrastructure projects in Sinai. Israel reportedly approved the deal.

Analysts have suggested that the handover of the islands to Saudi Arabia was intended to strengthen security and intelligence cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in dealing with Islamic militants in Sinai.

This now looks suspiciously like the prelude to Trump’s reported Sinai plan.

Over the Palestinians’ heads

In March, the White House hosted 19 countries in a conference to consider new ideas for dealing with Gaza’s mounting crisis. As well as Israel, participants included representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The Palestinians boycotted the meeting.

Much favoured by the Trump team was a paper delivered by Yoav Mordechai, an Israeli general and key official overseeing Israel’s strategy in the occupied territories. Many of his proposals – for a free trade zone and infrastructure projects in Sinai – are now being advanced.

Last month Kushner visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan to drum up support. According to interviews in the Israel Hayom daily, all four Arab states are on board with the peace plan, even if it means bypassing Abbas.

Jackie Khoury, a Palestinian analyst for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, summed up the plan’s Gaza elements: “Egypt, which has a vital interest in calming Gaza down because of the territory’s impact on Sinai, will play the policeman who restrains Hamas. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and perhaps the United Arab Emirates will pay for the projects, which will be under United Nations auspices.”

Israel’s efforts to secure compliance from Hamas may be indicated by recent threats to invade Gaza and dissect it in two, reported through veteran Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai. The US has also moved to deepen the crisis in Gaza by withholding payments to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. A majority of Gaza’s population are refugees dependent on UN handouts.

An advantage for Hamas in agreeing to the Sinai plan is that it would finally be freed of Israeli and Palestinian Authority controls over Gaza. It would be in a better able to sustain its rule, as long as it did not provoke Egyptian ire.

Oslo’s pacification model

Israel and Washington’s plans for Gaza have strong echoes of the “economic pacification” model that was the framework for the Oslo peace process of the late 1990s.

For Israel, Oslo represented a cynical chance to destroy the largely rural economy of the West Bank that Palestinians have depended on for centuries. Israel has long coveted the territory both for its economic potential and its Biblical associations.

Hundreds of Palestinian communities in the West Bank rely on these lands for agriculture, rooting them to historic locations through economic need and tradition. But uprooting the villagers – forcing them into a handful of Palestinian cities, and clearing the land for Jewish settlers – required an alternative economic model.

As part of the the Oslo process, Israel began establishing a series of industrial areas – paid for by international donors – on the so-called “seam zone” between Israel and the West Bank.

Israeli and international companies were to open factories there, employing cheap Palestinian labour with minimal safeguards. Palestinians would be transformed from farmers with a strong attachment to their lands into a casual labour force concentrated in the cities.

An additional advantage for Israel was that it would make the Palestinians the ultimate “precariat”. Should they start demanding a state or even protest for rights, Israel could simply block entry to the industrial areas, allowing hunger to pacify the population.

New prison wardens

There is every reason to believe that is now the goal of an Israeli-Trump initiative to gradually relocate Palestinians to Sinai through investment in infrastructure projects.

With the two countries’ security interests safely aligned, Israel can then rely on Egypt to pacify the Palestinians of Gaza on its behalf. Under such a scheme, Cairo will have many ways to teach its new workforce of migrant labourers a lesson.

It can temporarily shut down the infrastructure projects, laying off the workforce, until there is quiet. It can close off the sole Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Sinai. It can shutter the electricity and desalination plants, depriving Gaza of power and clean water.

This way Gaza can be kept under Israel’s thumb without Israel sharing any blame. Egypt will become Gaza’s visible prison wardens, just as Abbas and his Palestinian Authority have shouldered the burden of serving as jailers in much of the West Bank.

This is Israel’s model for Gaza. We may soon find out whether it is shared by Egypt and the Gulf states.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Young Protesters are defying Israel’s Blockade with Scraps of Paper and Plastic

First Israel built a sophisticated missile interception system named Iron Dome to neutralise the threat of homemade rockets fired out of Gaza.

Next it created technology that could detect and destroy tunnels Palestinians had cut through the parched earth deep under the fences Israel erected to imprison Gaza on all sides.

Israel’s priority was to keep Gaza locked down with a blockade and its two million inhabitants invisible.

Now Israel is facing a new and apparently even tougher challenge: how to stop Palestinian resistance from Gaza using flaming kites, which have set fire to lands close by in Israel. F-16 fighter jets are equipped to take on many foes but not the humble kite.

These various innovations by Palestinians are widely seen by Israelis as part of the same relentless campaign by Hamas to destroy their country.

But from inside Gaza, things look very different. These initiatives are driven by a mix of recognisably human emotions: a refusal to bow before crushing oppression; a fear of becoming complicit through silence and inaction in being erased and forgotten; and a compelling need to take back control of one’s life.

Palestinians encaged in Gaza, denied entry and exit by Israel via land, sea and air for more than a decade, know that life there is rapidly becoming unsustainable. Most young people are unemployed, much of the infrastructure and housing are irreparably damaged, and polluted water sources are near-unpotable.

After waves of military attacks, Gaza’s children are traumatised with mental scars that may never heal.

This catastrophe was carefully engineered by Israel, which renews and enforces it daily.

The kites have long served as a potent symbol of freedom in Gaza. Children have flown them from the few spots in the tiny, congested enclave where people can still breathe – from rooftops or on Gaza’s beaches.

Five years ago, the film Flying Paper documented the successful efforts of Gaza’s children to set a new world record for mass kite-flying. The children defied Israel’s blockade, which prevents entry of most goods, by making kites from sticks, newspapers and scraps of plastic.

The children’s ambition was – if only briefly – to retake Gaza’s skies, which Israel dominates with its unseen, death-dealing drones that buzz interminably overhead and with missiles that can flatten a building in seconds.

A young girl observed of the kite’s lure: “When we fly the kite, we know that freedom exists.” A message scrawled on one read: “I have the right to pride, education, justice, equality and life.”

But the world record attempt was not only about the children’s dreams and their defiance. It was intended to highlight Gaza’s confinement and to issue a reminder that Palestinians too are human.

That same generation of children have grown into the youths being picked off weekly by Israeli snipers at unarmed protests at the perimeter fence – the most visible feature of Israel’s infrastructure of imprisonment.

A few have taken up kite-flying again. If they have refused to put away childish things, this time they have discarded their childish idealism. Their world record did not win them freedom, nor even much notice.

After the snipers began maiming thousands of the demonstrators, including children, medics and journalists, for the impudence of imagining they had a right to liberty, the enclave’s youths reinvented the kite’s role.

If it failed to serve as a reminder of Palestinians’ humanity, it could at least remind Israel and the outside world of their presence, of the cost of leaving two million human beings to rot.

So the kites were set on fire, flaming emissaries that brought a new kind of reckoning for Israel when they landed on the other side of the fence.

Gaza’s inhabitants can still see the lands from which many of them were expelled during the mass dispossession of the Palestinian people in 1948 – under western colonial sponsorship – to create a Jewish state.

Not only were those lands taken from them, but the Jewish farming communities that replaced them now irrigate their crops using water Palestinians are deprived of, including water seized from aquifers under the West Bank.

The kites have rained fire down on this idyll created by Israel at the expense of Gaza’s inhabitants. No one has been hurt but Israel claims extinguishing the fires has already cost some $2 million and 7,000 acres of farmland have been damaged.

Sadly, given the profound sense of entitlement that afflicts many Israelis, a small dent in their material wellbeing has not pricked consciences about the incomparably greater suffering only a few kilometres away in Gaza.

Instead, Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan called last week for anyone flying a kite, even young children, to be shot. He and other ministers have argued that another large-scale military assault on Gaza is necessary to create what Mr Erdan has termed “durable deterrence”.

That moment seems to be moving inexorably closer. The last few days have seen Israel launch punitive air strikes to stop the kites and Palestinian factions retaliate by firing significant numbers of rockets out of Gaza for the first time in years.

The Trump administration is no longer pretending to mediate. It has publicly thrown in its hand with Israel. It withdrew last week from the United Nations Human Rights Council, accusing it of being a “cesspool of political bias” after the council criticised Israel for executing Gaza’s unarmed demonstrators.

On a visit to the region last week, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, urged ordinary Palestinians to rebel against their leaders’ refusal to accept a long-awaited US peace plan that all evidence suggests will further undermine Palestinian hopes of a viable state.

Mr Kushner is apparently unaware that the Palestinian public is expressing its will, for liberation, by protesting at the Gaza fence – and risking execution by Israel for doing so.

Meanwhile, Prince William is due in Israel on Monday, the first British royal to make an official visit since the mandate ended 70 years ago. While Kensington Palace has stressed that the trip is non-political, Prince William will meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in an itinerary that has already been claimed by both sides as a victory.

From the vantage point of the Mount of Olives, from which he will view Jerusalem’s Old City, the prince may not quite manage to see the kite battles in Gaza’s skies that underscore who is Goliath and who is David. But he should see enough in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem to understand that western leaders have decisively chosen the side of Goliath.

• First published in The National

What’s in Trump’s “Deal of the Century”? The Answers are in Plain Sight

There are mounting signals that Donald Trump’s much-delayed Middle East peace plan – billed as the “deal of the century” – is about to be unveiled.

Even though Trump’s officials have given away nothing publicly, the plan’s contours are already evident, according to analysts.

They note that Israel has already started implementing the deal – entrenching “apartheid” rule over Palestinians – while Washington has spent the past six months dragging its heels on publishing the document.

“Netanyahu has simply got on with deepening his hold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem – and he knows the Americans aren’t going to stand in his way,” said Michel Warschawski, an Israeli analyst and head of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem.

“He will be given free rein to do what he likes, whether they publish the plan or, in the end, it never sees the light of day,” he told Middle East Eye.

Eran Etzion, a former Israeli foreign ministry official, agreed: “Israel has a much freer hand than it did in the past. It feels confident enough to continue its existing policies, knowing Trump won’t stand in the way.”

Netanyahu ‘the winner’

According to the latest reports, the Americans may present their plan within days, soon after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Yossi Alpher, a former aide to Ehud Barak during his premiership in the late 1990s, said it was clear Netanyahu was being “kept in the loop” by Trump officials. He told MEE: “He is being apprised of what is coming. There won’t be any surprises for him.”

Analysts are agreed that Netanyahu will emerge the winner from any Trump initiative.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli politician who was a pivotal figure in the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s, said Netanyahu would cynically manipulate the plan to his advantage.

“He knows the Palestinians will not accept the terms they are being offered,” he told MEE. “So he can appear reasonable and agree to it – even if there are things he is unhappy with – knowing that the Palestinians will reject it and then be blamed for its failure.”

Alpher agreed. “If the plan is rejected, Trump will say he did his best, he offered the parties the greatest deal ever, and that they must now be left to settle the issues on their own.”

He added that the only obstacle to Washington presenting the plan were fears about Abbas’s waning health. Trump’s team might then prefer to shelve it.

Even then, he said, Netanyahu would profit.

“He can then continue with what he’s been doing for the past 10 years. He will expand the settlements, and suppress the rights of Israelis who oppose him. He will move Israel towards a situation of apartheid.”

Fragments of land

In an early effort to win Trump’s favour, reported by MEE a year ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed a land swap ceding 6.5 percent of the occupied territories to Israel. That was more than three times what had been accepted by the Palestinians in previous peace talks.

But the Palestinians appear to have lost the battle and are now braced for the worst. Abbas has derided the plan as “the slap of the century”, and has said he will not commit “treason” by agreeing to it.

According to Palestinian officials, they are likely to be offered provisional borders over fragments of land comprising about half the occupied territories – or just 11 percent of what was recognised as Palestine under the British mandate.

The Palestinian areas would be demilitarised, and Israel would have control over the borders and airspace.

Israel and the Palestinians would then be left to “negotiate” over the status of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with Trump likely to back Netanyahu to the hilt, according to the analysts.

It is widely assumed that the Americans have rejected any principle of a right of return for Palestinian refugees, either to Israel or to the areas of the occupied territories that Israel wins US approval to seize.

Gaza and Golan windfalls

The US embassy’s move to Jerusalem last month appears to signal that the Trump administration will recognise all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That would deny Palestinians East Jerusalem, long assumed to be the capital of any future Palestinian state.

And separate reports this month suggest that the announcement of the peace plan may be timed to coincide with new measures for Gaza and the Golan Heights. There have been rumours for several years that Washington and Israel have been pressuring Cairo to let Palestinians in Gaza settle in Sinai.

According to Israeli reports, Washington may be close to unveiling a scheme that would weaken the border between Gaza and Egypt, and allow Palestinians to work and maybe live in northern Sinai.

The aim would be to gradually shift responsibility for the enclave away from Israel on to Egypt and further undermine prospects for a Palestinian state in historic Palestine.

And in a separate move that would complete Netanyahu’s windfall, an Israeli government minister claimed late last month that the Trump administration may be ready to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.

The Heights were seized by Israel from Syria during the 1967 war and annexed in violation of international law in 1981.

No longer ‘occupied’

A Jerusalem Post report last month suggested that the White House document would be unlikely to include a commitment to a “two-state solution”, reflecting previous comments from Trump.

That would free Israel’s hand to seize areas of the West Bank it has colonised with its ever-expanding settlements.

Noticeably, the latest annual report from the US State Department on the human rights situation by country, published in April, drops for the first time the term “occupied Palestinian territories”, implying that the Trump team no longer views much of the West Bank as under occupation.

Netanyahu told a recent meeting of his Likud faction: “Our successes are still to come. Our policies are not based on weakness. They are not based on concessions that will endanger us.”

So given Israel’s recent moves, what can we infer about the likely terms of Trump’s peace plan?

1. Gerrymandering Jerusalem

The most sensitive of the final-status issues is Jerusalem, which includes the incendiary Muslim holy site of al-Aqsa. Trump appears to have effectively recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by relocating the US embassy there last month.

The embassy move is likely to be interpreted by Netanyahu as a retroactive seal of approval from the US for a series of Israeli measures over recent months designed to engineer a Greater Jewish Jerusalem.

The main thrust are two legislative proposals to gerrymander the city’s boundaries and its population to create an unassailable Jewish majority. Both have been put on hold by Netanyahu until the announcement of the peace plan.

The first – called the Greater Jerusalem Bill – is intended to annex several large Jewish settlements close by in the occupied West Bank to the Jerusalem municipality. Overnight that would transform some 150,000 West Bank settlers into Jerusalem residents, as well as effectively annexing their lands to Israel.

In a sign of the impatience of members of Netanyahu’s cabinet to press on with such a move, the bill is due to come up for consideration again on Sunday.

A separate bill would strip residency in the city from some 100,000 Palestinians who are on the “wrong side” of a wall Israel began building through Jerusalem 15 years ago. Those Palestinians will be all but barred from Jerusalem and assigned to a separate council.

In addition, Israel has intensified harsh measures against Palestinians still inside East Jerusalem, including night arrests, house demolitions, the closing down of businesses, the creation of “national parks” in Palestinian neighbourhoods, and the denial of basic services. The barely veiled aim is to encourage residents to relocate outside the wall.

Experts have noted too that Palestinian schools inside the wall are being pressured to adopt the Israeli curriculum to erode a Palestinian identity among pupils.

2. Abu Dis: a Palestinian capital?

With Jerusalem as Israel’s exclusive capital, Trump’s team is reported to be seeking a face-saving alternative location for a future Palestinian “capital” outside Jerusalem’s municipal borders.

According to rumours, they have selected the town of Abu Dis, 4km east of Jerusalem and cut off from the city by Israel’s wall more than a decade ago.

The Abu Dis plan is not new. At the end of the 1990s, the US administration of Bill Clinton proposed renaming Abu Dis “al-Quds” – Arabic for “the Holy”, the traditional name of Jerusalem because of its holy places. That was seen as a prelude to designating it the future capital of a Palestinian state.

Reports about the elevation of Abu Dis in the new peace plan have been circulating since late last year. In January, Abbas rejected the idea outright.

Only last month Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s centre-right Yesh Atid party, highlighted reports about the imminent change of Abu Dis’s status in comments directed at Netanyahu.

Abu Dis is a densely populated village home to 13,000 Palestinians. In practice, it is all but impossible to imagine how it could function meaningfully as the capital of a Palestinian state – something that makes it an attractive proposition for most of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Currently, most of Abu Dis’s lands are under Israeli control, and it is hemmed in by the wall and Jewish settlements, including the 40,000 inhabitants of Maale Adumim.

Several government ministers have made Israel’s annexation of Maale Adumim a priority. Netanyahu has delayed such a move, again citing the need to wait for the announcement of the Trump peace plan.

Beilin said it was mistakenly believed that he and Abbas agreed on Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital back in the 1990s.

“It wasn’t credible as an idea then, and the map looks very different now,” he said. “The Palestinian capital has to be in East Jerusalem. Nothing else will work.”

3. Access to al-Aqsa

There has also been talk of a plan to create a narrow land corridor from Abu Dis to the al-Aqsa mosque, so Palestinians can reach it to pray.

However, Israel has been allowing ever larger numbers of settlers into al-Aqsa, which is reputedly built over two long-destroyed Jewish temples.

Meanwhile, Israel has been tightly restricting access to the site for most Palestinians. There have been long-standing Palestinian fears that Israel is seeking to engineer a situation where it can impose its sovereignty over the mosque.

David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel and a benefactor to the settlements, only heightened such fears last month when he was pictured apparently accepting a photo doctored by religious settlers that showed al-Aqsa mosque replaced by a new Jewish temple.

4. Jordan Valley

Under the Oslo accords, some 62 percent of the occupied West Bank was classified as Area C, under temporary Israeli control. It includes much of the Palestinians’ best agricultural land and would be the heartland of any future Palestinian state.

Israel never carried out the withdrawals from Area C intended in the Oslo process. Instead, it has been accelerating the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements there, and making life as hard as possible for Palestinians to force them into the confines of the more densely populated Areas A and B.

The Trump plan is reported to offer recognition of provisional Palestinian borders on about half of the West Bank – effectively awarding most of Area C to Israel. Much of that land will be in the Jordan Valley, the long spine of the West Bank that Israel has been colonising for decades.

Last December, as the Trump plan took shape, Israel announced a massive programme of settlement expansion in the Jordan Valley, designed to more than double the settler population there. Three new settlements will be the first to be built in the valley in nearly 30 years.

At the same time, Israel has lately been intensifying the harassment of the ever-shrinking Palestinian population in the Jordan Valley, as well as other parts of Area C.

In addition to denying Palestinians access to 85 percent of the Valley, Israel has declared military firing zones over nearly half of the area. That has justified the regular eviction of families on the pretext of ensuring their safety.

Israel has also been developing accelerated procedures to demolish Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley.

5. The rest of Area C

Israel has been speeding up efforts to expand the settlements in other parts of Area C. On 30 May, it announced nearly 2,000 new homes, the great majority of them in isolated settlements that it was previously assumed would be dismantled in any peace deal.

Additionally, Israel has been quietly preparing to “legalise” what are termed “outposts” – settlements, usually built on private Palestinian land, that violate a “no new settlements” agreement with the US dating from the 1990s.

At the same time, Israel has been destroying Palestinian communities in Area C, especially those that stand in the way of efforts to create territorial continuity between large settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Late last month, France objected after Israel’s supreme court approved a plan to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, next to Maale Adumim. The families are supposed to be moved to a garbage dump in Abu Dis.

The French statement warned that Israeli actions were threatening “a zone of strategic importance to the two-state solution and the contiguity of a future Palestinian state”.

In its place, it was recently revealed, Israel is planning to build a new settlement neighbourhood called Nofei Bereishit.

In another sign of mounting international concern, some 70 Democratic members of the US Congress appealed last month to Netanyahu to stop the destruction of the Palestinian community of Sussiya, between the Gush Etzion settlements and Jerusalem.

US lawmakers expressed concern that the move was designed to “jeopardise the prospects for a two-state solution”.

6. Gaza and Sinai

It is becoming hard for the Trump administration and Israel to ignore the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza – one Israel helped to engineer with an 11-year blockade and intermittent military attacks. The United Nations warned some time ago that Gaza would soon be “uninhabitable”.

Seeking a solution, the White House hosted 19 countries at a meeting in March to consider the situation in Gaza. The PA boycotted the meeting.

At the time, Arab media reported that the Trump peace plan might include a commitment from Egypt to free up northern Sinai for a future Palestinian state. According to a Hamas official, Cairo offered reassurances that it was opposed to “settling Palestinians in Sinai”.

But a report in Haaretz has revived concerns that the White House may try to achieve a similar end by other means, by launching a Gaza initiative to coincide with the peace plan.

The paper noted that the Trump team had picked up proposals from an Israeli general, Yoav Mordechai, who participated in the White House meeting in March.

A reported initial stage would see Palestinians from Gaza recruited to work on $1.5bn worth of long-term projects in northern Sinai, funded by the international community. The projects would include an industrial zone, a desalination plant and a power station.

Egyptian opposition to such an initiative is reported to be weakening, presumably in the face of strenuous pressure from Washington and Arab allies.

Palestinian protests

The Palestinians are doing their best to try to halt the peace plan in its tracks. They are currently boycotting the Trump administration to show their displeasure.

Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called last month on Arab states to recall their ambassadors from the United States in protest.

And an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has proposed that an international peacekeeping force, modelled on those used in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, be deployed to protect Palestinians.

In another sign of anger at the Trump initiative, the Palestinians defied the US by submitting a referral for the International Criminal Court at the Hague to investigate Israel for war crimes last month.

Etzion, the former Israeli foreign ministry official, however, warned that a turning point could be on the horizon.

“A Palestinian implosion is coming and that could change the situation in unexpected ways,” he told MEE. “The question is which implosion comes first: the humanitarian catastrophe about to engulf Gaza, or the political vacuum created when Abbas leaves.”

Arab pressure

Nonetheless, the Palestinians are facing huge pressure to give in to the peace plan.

The Trump administration has already cut funding to the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, which cares for more than two million refugees in the occupied territories. It is also poised to pull more than $200m of funding to the Palestinian Authority this summer.

Trump has also sought to recruit the Arab states to lean on Abbas. According to reports, the Palestinian leader was presented with a 35-page document originating from the Americans when he visited Saudi Arabia last November, and told to accept it or resign.

In recent years the Saudis have increased their aid to the Palestinian Authority, giving them greater leverage over the Palestinian leader.

In exchange for the Arab states acceding to Trump’s plan, Washington appears to be rolling out a more draconian policy towards Iran to limit its influence in the region.

The Arab states understand that they need to first defuse the Palestinian issue before they can be seen to coordinate closely with Israel and the US in dealing with Tehran.

• First published in Middle East Eye

The Corporate Media’s World of Illusions

For several years now, I have been writing these regular blog posts with one end in mind: to help open a door for readers and encourage them to step through. I select issues, usually those that dominate western media coverage and represent a consensus that we might term the Great Western Narrative, and try to show how this narrative has been constructed not to inform and enlighten but to conceal and deceive.

It is not that I and the many other bloggers doing this are cleverer than everyone else. We have simply had a chance – an earlier one – to step through that door ourselves, because of a jarring life experience that the Great Western Narrative could not explain, or because someone held the door open for us, or more usually because of a combination of the two.

My personal awakening

It is easy for me to identify my own process of awakening. It began with the dislocation of moving to Nazareth and being immersed in someone else’s narrative – that of the Palestinians. Then, I faced for the first time in my career as a journalist an impenetrable wall of opposition, even from my own former newspaper, the Guardian, as I tried to explain that counter-narrative. In fact, I found that the Palestinian narrative was invariably misrepresented as anti-semitism. These were dark years of disillusionment and the loss of a professional and ideological compass.

It is in such a moment of bereavement – deprived of the consolation of the Great Western Narrative – that one searches for a door to enlightenment. It can be a long journey to find it. My door appeared while reading about the Propaganda Model of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, as well as stumbling across a website called Media Lens. They helped me understand that the narrative problem was not restricted to Israel-Palestine, but was a much more general one.

In fact, the Great Western Narrative has been developed and refined over centuries to preserve a tiny elite’s privileges and expand its power. The role of journalists like me was to keep feeding these illusions to readers so they would remain fearful, passive and deferential to this elite. It is not that journalists lie – or at least, not most of them – it is that they are as deeply wedded to the Great Western Narrative as anyone else.

Once one is prepared to step through the door, to discard the old script, the new narrative takes its hold because it is so helpful. It actually explains the world, and human behaviour, as it is experienced everywhere. It has genuine predictive power. And most importantly, it reveals a truth understood by all figures of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment throughout human history: that human beings are equally human, whether they are Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Russians, Venezuelans, or Iranians, whether they are North or South Koreans.

The term “human” is not meant simply as a description of us as a species, or a biological entity. It also describes who we are, what drives us, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, what makes us angry, what elicits compassion. And the truth is that we are all essentially the same. The same things upset us, the same things amuse us. The same things inspire us, the same things outrage us. We want dignity, freedom, safety for us and our loved ones, and appreciate beauty and truth. We fear oppression, injustice, insecurity.

Hierarchies of virtue

The Great Western Narrative tells us something entirely different. It divides the world into a hierarchy of “peoples”, with different, even conflicting, virtues and vices. Some humans – westerners – are more rational, more caring, more thoughtful, more fully human. And other humans – the rest – are more primitive, more emotional, more violent. In this system of classification, we are the Good Guys and they are the Bad Guys; we are Order, they are Chaos. They need a firm hand from us to control them and stop them doing too much damage to themselves and to our civilised part of the world.

The Great Western Narrative isn’t really new. It is simply a reformulation for a different era of the “white man’s burden”.

The reason the Great Western Narrative persists is because it is useful – to those in power. Humans may be essentially the same in our natures and in our drives, but we are very definitely divided by power and its modern corollary, wealth. A tiny number have it, and the vast majority do not. The Great Western Narrative is there to perpetuate power by legitimising it, by making its unbalanced and unjust distribution seem natural and immutable.

Once kings told us they had blue blood and a divine right. Today, we need a different kind of narrative, but one designed to achieve the same end. Just like kings and barons once owned everything, now a tiny corporate elite rule the world. They have to justify that to themselves and to us.

The king and the barons had their courtiers, the clergy and a wider circle of hanger-ons who most of the time benefited enough from the system not to disrupt it. The role of the clergy in particular was to sanction the gross imbalance of power, to argue that it was God’s will. Today, the media function like the clergy of old. God may be dead, as Nietzsche observed, but the corporate media has taken his place. In the unquestioned premises of every article, we are told who should rule and who should be ruled, who are the Good Guys and who the Bad.

To make this system more palatable, more democratic, to make us believe that there is equality of opportunity and that wealth trickles down, the western elite has had to allow a large domestic middle class to emerge, like the courtiers of old. The spoils from the rape and pillage of distant societies are shared sparingly with this class. Their consciences are rarely pricked because the corporate media’s function is to ensure they know little about the rest of the world and care even less, believing those foreigners to be less deserving, less human.

Nothing more than statistics

If western readers, for example, understood that a Palestinian is no different from an Israeli – apart from in opportunities and income – then they might feel sympathy for a grieving Palestinian family just as they do for an Israeli one. But the Great Western Narrative is there precisely to ensure readers won’t feel the same about the two cases. That is why Palestinian deaths are invariably reported as nothing more than statistics – because Palestinians die in large numbers, like cattle in an abbatoir. Israelis, by contrast, die much more rarely and their deaths are recorded individually. They are dignified with names, life stories and pictures.

Even when a moment arrives to single out a Palestinian from the mass of death, western corporate media show great reluctance to do so. Just take the case of Razan al-Najjar, the 21-year-old Palestinian medic executed by a sniper’s bullet as she tended to the unarmed demonstrators regularly being killed and wounded at the perimeter fence encaging them in the prison of Gaza.

Gaza is slowly sinking into the sea, but who cares? Those primitive Palestinians live like cavemen amid the rubble of homes Israel has repeatedly destroyed. Their women are hijabbed and they have too many children. They don’t look like us, they don’t speak like us. Doubtless, they don’t think like us. They cannot be us.

Even those young Palestinian demonstrators, with their faces covered with strange scarves, launching flaming kites and throwing the odd stone, look different. Can we imagine ourselves standing in front of a sniper to protest like that? Of course not. We cannot imagine what it is like to live in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, in an open-air prison over which another nation serves as jailers, in which the water is becoming as saline as seawater and there is no electricity. So how can we put ourselves in the demonstrators’ shoes, how can we empathise? It is so much easier to imagine being the powerful sniper protecting the “border” and his home.

But al-Najjar undermined all that. A young, pretty woman with a beautiful smile – she could be our daughter. Selflessly tending to the wounded, thinking not of herself but of the welfare of others, we would love her to be our daughter. We can identify with her much better than the sniper. She is a door beckoning us to step through and see the world from a different location, from a different perspective.

Which is why the corporate media has not invested al-Najjar’s death with the emotional, empathetic coverage it would if a pretty young Israeli female medic had been gunned down by a Palestinian. It was that double standard in his own newspaper that outraged cartoonist Steve Bell last week as he noted in correspondence with the editor that the Guardian had barely covered the story of al-Najjar. When he tried to redress the imbalance, his own cartoon of her death was censored.

The Guardian’s editors argued that his cartoon was anti-semitic. But the deeper truth is that al-Najjar is dangerous. Because once you step through that door, you are unlikely to come back, you are unlikely ever again to believe the Great Western Narrative.

The true message of Israel

Israel-Palestine offered me that door, just as it has so many others. It is not, as Israel’s apologists – and the upholders of the Great Western Narrative – will tell you, because so many westerners are anti-semitic. It is because Israel lies in a grey zone of experience, one that is readily available to western tourists but can at the same time give them a chance to glimpse the dark underbelly of western privilege.

Israel is enthusiastically embraced by the Great Western Narrative: it is supposedly a liberal democracy, many of its inhabitants dress and sound like us, its cities look rather like our cities, its TV shows are given a makeover and become hits on our TV screens. If you don’t stand too close, Israel could be Britain or the US.

But there are clues galore, for those who bother to look a little beyond superficialities, that there is something profoundly amiss about Israel. A few miles from their homes, the sons of those western-looking families regularly train their gun sights on unarmed demonstrators, on children, on women, on journalists, on medics, and pull the trigger with barely any compunction.

They do so not because they are monsters, but because they are exactly like us, exactly like our sons. That is the true horror of Israel. We have a chance to see ourselves in Israel – because it is not exactly us, because most of us have some distance from it, because it still looks a little strange despite the best efforts of the western media, and because its own local narrative – justifying its actions – is even more extreme, even more entitled, even more racist towards the Other than the Great Western Narrative.

It is that shocking realisation – that we could be Israelis, that we could be those snipers – that prevents many from stepping through the door to see what is on the other side. Or, more troubling still, halting at the threshold of the doorway, glimpsing a partial truth without understanding its full ramifications.

Equally human

To explain what I mean, let us digress for a moment and consider the allegorical film The Matrix.

Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, starts to realise that the reality around him is not as solid as it once seemed. Things have become peculiar, inconsistent, inexplicable. He is shown the door to an entirely different reality with the help of a mentor, Morpheus. Neo discovers that in truth he exists in a dark world taken over by computer-generated life forms that feed off the consciousnesses of him and the rest of mankind. Until then, he had been living in a dream world created to pacify him and other humans as they are exploited for their energy.

Neo and a small band of others who have liberated themselves from this false consciousness cannot hope to defeat their opponents directly. They must wage war through the Matrix, a digital world in which the computer life-forms always triumph. It is only when Neo finally grasps that the Matrix is an illusion too – that these life forms he is battling are simply binary code – that he becomes strong enough to triumph.

Back to us. On the other side of the door lies a truth that humans are all equally human. From this vantage point, it is possible to understand that a privileged westerner or Israeli would react exactly like a Palestinian if he had to endure the experiences of living in Gaza. From this location, it is possible to understand that my son might pull the trigger, just like most Israeli teenagers do, if he had been bombarded, like them, with brainwashing all his life from his media, school and politicians depicting Palestinians as primitive and violent.

From the other side of the door, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad look as irrational, or rational, and as criminal as George W Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. In fact, they look less criminal – not because they are better humans than their western counterparts, but simply because they enjoy less power and face more constraints in trying to impose their will. The issue is not about who is better. They are the same as humans. It is about who has more force at their disposal – and more will to use it – to perpetuate their power.

Enslaved to power

The conclusion from this is that the way to change our societies fundamentally for the better depends on a change in our consciousness, on liberating ourselves from false perspective, on stepping through the door.

If we remain in a world of illusions, of false hierarchies of virtue, oblivious to the role of power, we will continue to be like Neo living in his dream world.

And if we step only to the threshold, glimpsing the shadows on the the other side, we will be equally in thrall to illusions, just as Neo took his battle back into the Matrix, fighting ghosts in the machine as though they were flesh-and-blood enemies.

This danger can be seen in the case of Israel-Palestine too, where the horrors that Israel inflicts on Palestinians justifiably radicalise many observers. But not all step fully through the door. They linger at the threshold, angry with Israel and Israelis, and beatifying Palestinians as nothing more than victims. Some manage to find false consolation again, this time accepting ready-made conspiracies that “the Jews” are pulling the levers that make such outrages – and western inaction – possible.

To stand in the doorway is as bad as refusing to step through. The illusions are as dangerous, the false consciousness as profound.

Our planet and our children’s futures depend on us liberating ourselves, seeing the ghosts in the machine for what they truly are. We have to begin rebuilding our societies on the basis that we share a common humanity. That other humans are not our enemies, only those who wish to enslave us to their power.

Rebuffed Parliamentary Bills Foil Efforts to End Israeli Apartheid

For most of the seven decades after its establishment, Israel went to extraordinary lengths to craft an image of itself as a “light unto the nations”.

It claimed to have “made the desert bloom” by planting forests over the razed houses of 750,000 Palestinians it exiled in 1948. Soldiers in the “most moral army in the world” reputedly cried as they were compelled to shoot Palestinian “infiltrators” trying to return home. And all this occurred in what Israelis claimed was the Middle East’s “only democracy”.

An industry known as hasbara – a euphemism for propaganda – recruited Jews in Israel and abroad to a campaign to persuade the world that the Palestinians’ dispossession was for the good of mankind. Israel’s achievements in science, agriculture and medicine were extolled.

But in a more interconnected world, that propaganda campaign is swiftly unravelling. Phone cameras now record “moral” soldiers executing unarmed Palestinians in Gaza or beating up children in Hebron.

The backlash, including a growing international boycott movement, has driven Israel’s right wing into even greater defiance and self-righteousness. It no longer conceals its goal to aggressively realise a longed-for “Greater Israel”.

A parallel process is overtaking Israel’s traditional left but has been far less noticed. It too is stubbornly committed to its ideological legacy – the creation of a supposed “Jewish and democratic state” after 1948.

And just as the immorality of Israel’s belligerent rule in the occupied territories is under ever greater scrutiny, so too is its claim to be a democracy conferring equal rights on all citizens.

Israel includes a large minority of 1.8 million Palestinian citizens, the remnants of those who survived the expulsions required for its creation. Although Palestinian citizens have the vote, it was an easy generosity after Israel gerrymandered the electoral constituency in 1948 to ensure Palestinians remained a permanent and decisive minority.

In a system of residential apartheid, Palestinian citizens have been confined to ghettos on a tiny fraction of land while Israel has “nationalised” 93 per cent of its territory for Jews around the world.

But after decades of repression, including an initial 20 years living under military rule, the Palestinian minority has gradually grown more confident in highlighting Israel’s political deficiencies.

In recent days, Palestinian legislators have submitted three legislative measures before parliament to explode the illusion that Israel is a western-style liberal democracy.

None stood the faintest chance of being passed in a system rigged to keep Palestinian lawmakers out of any of Israel’s complex but entirely Zionist coalition governments.

The first measure sought to revoke the quasi-governmental status of major international Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Jewish Agency.

Although they are treated like state bodies, these organisations are obligated through their charters to discriminate in allocating state resources and rights to Jews around the world rather than to Israelis. The aim is to exclude Palestinian citizens from major state benefits.

The JNF bans access for non-Jews to most land in Israel and develops new communities exclusively for Jews, while the Jewish Agency restricts immigration and associated perks to Jews alone.

The bill – designed to end decades of explicit discrimination against one fifth of Israel’s citizenry – was defeated when all the Jewish parties voted against it. Zuheir Bahloul, the sole Palestinian legislator in Zionist Union, the centre-left party once called Labour, was furiously denounced by Jewish colleagues for breaking ranks and voting for the bill.

That was no surprise. The party’s previous leader, Isaac Herzog, is the frontrunner to become the next chair of the Jewish Agency. Israel’s left still venerates these organisations that promote ethnic privileges – for Jews – of a sort once familiar from apartheid South Africa.

Mr Bahloul also found himself in the firing line after he submitted a separate bill requiring that for the first time the principle of equality be enshrined in all 11 Basic Laws, Israel’s equivalent of a constitution. The proposal was roundly defeated, including by his own party.

The third measure was a bill demanding that Israel be reformed from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens, representing all equally. In a highly irregular move, a committee dominated by Jewish legislators voted to disqualify the bill last week from even being allowed a hearing on the parliament floor.

The parliament’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, warned that the measure would alter Israel’s character by giving Jewish and Palestinian citizens “equal status”. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called the bill “preposterous”. “Any intelligent individual can see it must be blocked immediately,” he said.

Law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, meanwhile, conceded that the bill exposed Israeli democracy as “fundamentally flawed”.

These three bills from Palestinian legislators might have redressed some of the inequities contained in nearly 70 Israeli laws that, according to Adalah, a legal rights group, explicitly discriminate based on ethnicity.

Paradoxically, the number of such laws has grown prolifically in recent years as Adalah and others have challenged Jewish privileges in the courts.

The Israeli left and right have joined forces to shore up these threatened racist practices through new legislation – secure that an intimidated supreme court will not dare revoke the will of parliament.

The reality is that left-wing Israelis – shown beyond doubt that their state is not the liberal democracy they imagined – have hurried to join the right in silencing critics and implementing harsher repression.

Palestinian citizens who peacefully protested against the massacre of demonstrators in Gaza by army snipers were assaulted in police custody last month. One arrested civil society leader had his knee broken. There have been barely any objections, even on the left.

Today, Israelis are hunkering down. Boycott activists from abroad are denied entry. Unarmed Palestinian demonstrators have been gunned down in Gaza. And critics inside Israel are silenced or beaten up.

All these responses have the same end in mind: to block anything that might burst the bubble of illusions and threaten Israelis’ sense of moral superiority.

First published in The National

The Ideal of a Free Media Died Long Ago

Should the media include positive editorial content secretly paid for by major corporations, as London’s Evening Standard newspaper has begun doing, according to new revelations?

Most of us instantly recoil from any blurring between editorial and advertising in the media. How would we know if what was reported was factual, truthful and newsworthy or there simply as public relations spin? How could we trust anything we read?

But here’s a seditious idea. Would that be such a bad thing? Maybe it would better if we were far more wary of the corporate media and began to think of it chiefly as a sales platform – selling us an ideology harmful to our individual welfare and that of our societies.

But before we continue with that line of thought, let’s first recap.

James Cusick has an important article on the Open Democracy website about a £3 million agreement between the Evening Standard and six major corporations, including Google and Uber, to let them buy favourable news coverage and commentary. The project, called London 2020, offers these corporations the chance to covertly influence the paper’s nearly 1 million readers in London.

Corporate cheerleaders

The idea is the brainchild of George Osborne, the paper’s editor. It is perhaps not surprising that it has been left to Osborne to clear the path for newspapers to become more overt cheerleaders for major corporations.

For six years prior to 2016, he was chancellor of the exchequer (Britain’s finance minister) for Conservative governments overseeing strict economic austerity, a policy designed to bleed the British public of money that was used instead to revive the private banking sector and major corporations.

Additionally, Osborne has his finger deep in various lucrative corporate pies. In a blatant conflict of interest since he became the Standard’s editor last year – and one that predates his offer to sell favourable coverage to these six corporations – he has a £650,000 contract to work one day a week for BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager.

BlackRock, meanwhile, has a £500 million stake in Uber – the taxi-app company that is among the corporations that signed up to Osborne’s deal. Uber desperately needs an image makeover as it fights through the courts to keep its licence to operate in London.

What is good for big business is very good for George Osborne’s bank balance. Which is why Osborne’s commitment to real journalism comes a far second to his commitment to his pals in the City.

‘Public relations death’

Nonetheless, it would be foolish to imagine that this is really a battle between Osborne’s slash-and-burn economics and journalistic ethics.

First, we should remember that all corporate media have been blurring the line between editorial and advertising over the past two or three decades. In the past they called it “sponsored content” and advertorials. More recently it has been transformed into “native advertising” – a euphemism for media outlets prostituting themselves to large corporations. Osborne’s crime is simply that he is doing it more brashly and on a larger scale than his competitors.

Second, a senior executive in Starbucks, one of the corporations Osborne approached, says the firm rejected the deal for the following reason: “Buying positive news coverage is PR death… something you might do in Saudi Arabia, but not here. This wasn’t right for us.”

As the statement implies, Starbucks are not averse to manipulating public perception of their activities to counter a poor image – in their case, because they and other corporations have rigged the UK system so that they pay hardly any tax. But the company was worried that Osborne’s plan might backfire. Presumably they suspected that this dishonest deal would eventually become public – as it indeed has – and would further dent their image. Or, to use their terminology, it risked becoming “PR death”.

As one should expect, the only consideration when corporations try to influence public opinion as they pursue their relentless battle to maximise profits is whether the effort will prove beneficial. Not whether such efforts are honest, or ethical, or in the public interest. Only whether they work – whether the public will think better of the company as it seeks to increase its profits, whatever the costs to the rest of society or the planet.

Invisible deal

In fact, far more sensible than the Evening Standard’s plan for each major corporation to make a one-off deal with a newspaper is for them all to have a permanent, collective and invisible deal with all media outlets – to promote a business environment that allows them to maximise their profits. And that is precisely the situation we already have.

It is not primarily because the media is dependent on advertising, though, of course, that helps to ensure the corporations get their way. What newspaper or commercial TV station is going to attack the very corporations they depend on for the bulk of their income. Attacking these corporations would be the media’s equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot.

But more significant still, the media are themselves corporations, no different from Google, Uber and Starbucks.

Jon O’Donnell, the commercial director of ESI Media, which publishes the Standard as well as the Independent newspaper, alludes to this in a statement cited by Open Democracy.

He says ESI is no longer simply providing advertising services but is now a “media business”, adding that the “strict divide between the so-called ‘church and state’ [editorial and advertising] was doing more harm than good.”

What Osborne and O’Donnell have done is make explicit what was until now largely veiled.

Shared ideology

The media aren’t just dependent on advertising from corporations. They are corporations – enormous ones. Today, six media corporations own 90 per cent of all US media. That destroys even the pretence of media choice and pluralism. But it signifies much more.

It ensures that these massive media corporations share the ideological assumptions of other major corporations, because all of them are driven by the same two considerations. First, to maximise their own profits whatever the external costs, including to the real world. And second, to maximise profits while minimising the damage to their carefully crafted public reputations for being ethical or caring companies pursuing the public good.

That means the core activity of media corporations is to act as the public relations arm for a turbo-charged neoliberal ideology that sanctions the pillage and plunder committed by all corporations – including media corporations – in the pursuit of endless “economic growth”.

The superficial differences between the various media outlets are there only to persuade us, readers and viewers, of yet another myth: that we have choice and control over the media, and that there is some kind of healthy debate taking place in our societies expressed through a supposed media “pluralism”.

The reality, however, is that our choice is between two wings of the corporate public relations industry: one advocating a confident corporate capitalism unapologetically pursuing activities that are destroying our societies and the planet, and another apparently committed to making minor adjustments to corporate capitalism to slow down – but not halt or reverse – the ongoing destruction.

Consumerism as panacea

Through adverts and editorial, all corporate media lobby relentlessly in favour of a mythical – and suicidal – endless “economic growth” and for an intensification of consumerism as a panacea for the very troubles inflicted by consumerism on our societies.

Regarding the most vital issues we face, there is already no distinction between the editorial and advertising sides of the media.

Lonely and depressed? Spend more time on your smart phone that isolated you from meaningful relationships and that bombards you daily with messages telling you that you will be happier if you improve yourself, or at least distract yourself, by acquiring more things.

Want to save the planet? Salve your conscience by ditching your old, polluting car and buy a greener, hybrid car. Soon you’ll need to trade that in for an electric model. Later you can scrap that one to buy a more efficient vehicle running on hydrogen, or maybe pixie dust. And while you’re pondering a greener lifestyle, maybe we can sell you a top-of-the-range bicycle and accessories.

Corporations are now so much in charge of our societies that our main political parties – whether nominally of the left or right – represent their interests above all else. It is no accident that the Evening Standard’s London 2020 campaign to promote these planet-destroying corporations as our allies was timed to coincide with the London mayoral election.

What better idea than to use the corporate media to sell us the idea that other profit-obssessed corporations are really there selflessly to help improve life in London. If the campaign is successful, those same rapacious corporations will have even more leverage over the winning mayor than they do over the present incumbent.

What is happening in London is occurring in every city, from New York and Los Angeles to Paris and Frankfurt. And it is being replicated on the national level. We will remain powerless over our lives as long as the corporations have power over our cities and countries – and our media.

So let Osborne sell the Evening Standard’s soul to the highest corporate bidder. In truth, the newspaper had no soul to begin with. It is time we ditched the Standard and the rest of the corporate media, and created new models of a pluralistic media that represents us, not billionaires.

Under Trump, the Israel Lobby is a Hydra with Many Heads

The Trump administration’s recent steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should surely lay to rest any doubts about the enormous, and dangerous, power of the Israel lobby in Washington.

Under Trump, the lobby has shown it can wield unprecedented influence – even by its usual standards – in flagrant disregard for all apparent US interests.

First, there was the move this month of the US embassy to Jerusalem, not quietly but on the 70th anniversary of the most sensitive day in the Palestinian calendar, Nakba Day. That is when Palestinians commemorate their mass expulsion from their homeland in 1948.

By relocating the embassy, Trump gave official US blessing to tearing up the 25-year-old peace process – and in choosing Nakba Day for the move, he rubbed the noses of Palestinians, and by extension the Arab world, in their defeat.

Then, the White House compounded the offence by lauding Israeli snipers who massacred dozens of unarmed Palestinians protesting at the perimeter fence around Gaza the same day. A series of statements issued by the White House could have been written by Israel’s far-right prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, himself.

At the United Nations, the US blocked a Security Council resolution calling for the massacre to be investigated, while Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN envoy, observed to fellow delegates: “No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.”

None of these moves served any obvious US national interest, nor did Trump’s decision the previous week to tear up the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that has long been reviled by the Israeli government.

In fact, quite the contrary: These actions risk inflaming tensions to the point of a regional war that could quickly drag in the major powers, or provoke terror attacks on US soil.

Wall of silence

It should be recalled that two decades ago, it was impossible even to mention the existence of an Israel lobby in Washington without being labelled an anti-Semite.

Paradoxically, Israel’s supporters exercised the very power they denied existed, bullying critics into submission by insisting that any talk of an Israel lobby relied on anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power.

The wall of silence was broken only with the publication in 2006 of a seminal essay – later turned into a book – by two prominent US academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

But in a sign of the immense weight of the lobby even as it was being dragged into the light, the pair were unable to find a publisher in the US. Instead, the essay found a home across the Atlantic in the prestigious, if obscure, London Review of Books. One of the pair, Stephen Walt, has publicly admitted that his career suffered as a result.

Since then, a little leeway has opened up on the subject. Even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a staunch advocate for Israel, has conceded the lobby’s existence.

In 2011, he explained a well-established, if astounding, ritual of US politics: that the Congress greets every visiting Israeli prime minister more rapturously than the American president himself.

Friedman observed: “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

Intimidating Congress

Friedman was alluding to the network of Jewish leadership organisations and political action committees in the US, all of them hawkishly pro-Israel, that at election time can channel large sums of money for or against Congressional candidates.

It is not that these pro-Israel organisations control the Congress. It is that they have mastered the techniques of political intimidation. They understand and exploit a flawed American system that has allowed lobbies and their money to dictate the agendas of most US lawmakers. Congresspeople are vulnerable as individuals – not only to the loss of donations, but to a generously funded opponent.

In Trump’s case, the follow-the-money principle could not have been clearer. In the early stages of his battle to become the Republican party candidate for president, when most assumed he stood no chance and he was funding the campaign himself, he was relatively critical of Israel.

Hard as it is to believe now, he promised to be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestine issue; expressed doubts about whether it made sense to hand Israel billions of dollars annually in military aid; backed a two-state solution; and refused to commit to recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

All of that got ditched the moment he needed big funders for his presidential bid. The kingmaker in the Republican party is Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire and champion of the kind of Israeli ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab politics in which Netanyahu excels. Adelson likes Netanyahu so much he even bought him a newspaper, Israel Hayom, which Adelson has grown into the largest-circulation daily in Israel.

In the end, Adelson backed Trump’s election campaign to the tune of $35m. It was the need for Adelson’s support that ensured Trump appointed David Friedman, a long-time benefactor of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in the supposedly non-partisan position of US ambassador to Israel. And it was Adelson who was among the honoured guests at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem this month.

The anti-Semitism canard

Those who accuse anyone raising the issue of the Israel lobby of anti-Semitism either misunderstand or intentionally misrepresent what is being claimed.

No one apart from easily identifiable Jew haters is updating the century-old Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery by supporters of the Russian czar supposedly proving that “the Jews” sought world domination through control of the banks and the media.

For starters, the argument for the existence of an Israel lobby does not refer to Jews at all. It is about a country, Israel, and its outsize influence over the policies of the US.

Other countries or groups of US citizens try to exercise such influence, either through similar lobbies or through subterfuge.

No one would deny there is a Cuba lobby that helped influence US policy in seeking to oust revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. And most US lawmakers are currently frothing at the mouth about what they see as covert Russian efforts to influence US politics to Moscow’s advantage.

Why would we expect Israel to be any different? The question isn’t whether the lobby exists, but why the US political system is doing nothing to protect itself from its interference.

If Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s supposed hidden hand in the US is such a threat, why isn’t Israel’s?

Five lobbies in one

Rather than exposing and confronting the Israel lobby, however, US presidents have more typically bent to its will. That was only too obvious, for example, when Barack Obama folded in his early battle with Netanyahu to limit the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But under Trump, the Israel lobby has come to exercise unrivalled power, because it is now far more than just one lobby. It is a five-headed Hydra worthy of Greek mythology, and only one of its heads relates directly to Israel or organised American Jewry.

In fact, the lobby’s power now derives not chiefly from Israel. Since Trump’s election, the Israel lobby has managed to absorb and mobilise an additional four powerful lobbies – and to a degree not seen before. They are: the Christian evangelicals, the alt-right, the military-industrial complex, and the Saudi Arabia lobby.

Domestically, Trump’s election victory depended on his ability to rally to his side two groups that are profoundly committed to Israel, even though they are largely indifferent, or actively hostile, to the Jews who live there.

Leaders of the US alt-right – a loose coalition of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups – are infatuated with Israel but typically dislike Jews. That sentiment has been encapsulated by alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who describes himself as a “white Zionist”.

In short, the alt-right treasures Israel because it has preserved a long-discredited model of a fortress-like, belligerent racial homeland. They want the US reserved exclusively for an imagined “white” community, just as Israel defines itself as representing an exclusive Jewish community.

Trump’s reliance on the alt-right vote was highlighted by the early appointment to his administration of several leading figures associated with the movement, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael Flynn, Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka.

Fulfilling God’s prophecy

But more significant still has been the role of evangelicals. That is why Mike Pence, a devout Christian, was chosen as Trump’s running mate. Trump’s team understood that the votes of tens of millions of Americans were assured if Trump pandered to their prejudices.

And happily for Netanyahu, their keenest prejudice is fanatical support for Israel – and not just for Israel inside its internationally recognised borders, but also for Greater Israel, which includes many dozens of illegal Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land.

The Christian Zionists believe that Jews must be corralled into their biblical homeland to fulfill divine prophecy and bring about the Second Coming of the Messiah.

It was primarily for the sake of these Christian Zionists that Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. And it was why two evangelical pastors with a history of anti-Semitic remarks, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, were called on to offer their blessings at the opening ceremony.

Trump’s indebtedness to the evangelicals is one reason to be worried about his policies in the region. The Christian Zionists have no interest in fairness, justice or international law. Rather, they are prepared to inflame tensions in the Middle East – and even trigger Armageddon itself – if they think it might benefit Israel and further God’s prophecy.

Eisenhower’s warning

The military-industrial complex has enjoyed a much longer, if more veiled, influence on US politics. A former US army general who became president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned of the looming threat posed by an increasingly dominant corporate sector dependent on war profits back in 1961.

Since then, the power of these corporations has accreted and expanded in precisely the ways Eisenhower feared. And that has only helped Israel.

In the early 1980s, Noam Chomsky, the dissident US intellectual, observed in his book The Fateful Triangle that Israel and the US had different conceptions of the Middle East.

The US was then what Chomsky termed a “status quo power” that was mostly interested in preserving the existing regional order. Israel, on the other hand, was committed to destabilisation of the region – its Balkanisation – as a strategy to extend its hegemony over feuding, internally divided neighbouring states.

Today, it is not hard to see which vision of the Middle East prevailed. The US-headquartered war industries lobbied for – and have profited enormously from – an endless, global “war on terror” that needs their expensive killing toys. The West has even been able to market its wars of aggression against other sovereign states as “humanitarian” in nature.

The benefits to the military industries can be gauged by examining the ever-surging profits of large US arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon over the past decade.

Cultivation of fear

Israel has not only benefited from the sanctioning and dismemberment of regional rivals, such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, but it has exploited the opportunity to make itself indispensable to these war-profiting industries.

It has, for example, been the linchpin in developing and refining new ways to exploit the cultivation of fear – most significantly, the ever-expanding “homeland security” industry.

Using the occupied Palestinian territories for experimentation, Israel has specialised in developing surveillance and biometric technologies, lethal and non-lethal crowd control methods, complex incarceration systems, psychological profiling of subjugated populations, and highly dubious redefinitions of international law to lift existing restraints on war crimes and wars of aggression.

That has proved invaluable to the military industries that have sought to profit from new wars and occupations across the Middle East. But it has also meant Israel’s expertise is much sought-after by US political and security elites who wish to pacify and control restless domestic populations.

Israel’s encouragement of the Middle East’s destabilisation has raised new threats in the US – of protest, immigration and terrorism – for which Israel has then supplied readymade solutions.

Israel has helped to rationalise the militarisation of police forces in the US and elsewhere, and provided the training. It has also gradually introduced to the US and other Western countries the kind of racial and political profiling that has long been standard in Israel.

That is the reason why Israeli academic Jeff Halper has warned of the danger that the “war on terror” could ultimately turn all of us into Palestinians.

Alliance with Saudi Arabia

But perhaps the most significant additional boost to Israel’s power in Washington has been its newfound and barely concealed alliance with Saudi Arabia.

For decades, the oil lobby in the US was seen as a counterweight to the Israel lobby. That was why Israel’s supporters traditionally reviled the US State Department, which was viewed as an Arabist outpost.

No longer. Trump, ever the businessman, has cultivated even stronger ties to the Saudis, hoping that arms and technology sales will revive the US economy and his political fortunes.

During a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the US in March, Trump noted: “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”

But Washington’s close ties to the Saudis are increasingly a boon to Israel rather than an impediment. The two have found common cause in their feverish opposition to Iran, and its Shia allies in Syria and Lebanon, and their determination to prevent them from gaining more power in the region.

Israel wants a military hegemony over the Middle East that Iran could undermine, while Riyadh needs an ideological and financial hegemony that Iran might be able to disrupt.

And the Palestinians – the only issue that continues formally to divide Israel and Saudi Arabia – are increasingly viewed by bin Salman as a chess piece he is ready to sacrifice in exchange for Iran’s destruction.

Trump tore up the nuclear accord agreed by Obama with Iran with such incendiary abandon this month because his two Middle East allies jointly demanded he do so.

And the indications are that he may do worse – even attacking Iran – if the pressure from Israel and the Saudis reaches a critical mass.

Time for a little humility

All of these various lobbies have long wielded significant power in Washington, but remained largely separate. In recent years, their interests have come to overlap considerably, making Israel ever more unassailable in US politics.

Under Trump, their agendas have aligned so completely that this multi-headed lobby has as good as collectively captured the presidency on matters that concern it most.

That is not to say that the Israel lobby will not face future challenges. Other pressures are emerging in reaction to the unaccountable power of the Israel lobby, including progressive voices in US politics that are, for the first time, breaking with the long-standing bipartisan nature of the debate about Israel.

Bernie Sanders’s unexpected surge in the Democratic nomination race for the presidency, the rise of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the growing alienation of young US Jews from Israel, and the US public’s ever-greater exposure on social media to Israel’s crimes are signs of trends it will be difficult for Israel to counter or reverse.

Israel is getting its way at the moment. But hubris is a fault we have been warned about since the time of the ancient Greeks. Israel may yet come to learn a little humility – the hard way.

• First published in Middle East Eye

Fathi Harb burnt himself to death in Gaza: Will the world notice?

Fathi Harb should have had something to live for, not least the imminent arrival of a new baby. But last week the 21-year-old extinguished his life in an inferno of flames in central Gaza.

It is believed to be the first example of a public act of self-immolation in the enclave. Harb doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on a street in Gaza City shortly before dawn prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

In part, Harb was driven to this terrible act of self-destruction out of despair.

After a savage, decade-long Israeli blockade by land, sea and air, Gaza is like a car running on fumes. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that the enclave will be uninhabitable within a few years.

Over that same decade, Israel has intermittently pounded Gaza into ruins, in line with the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine. The goal is to decimate the targeted area, turning life back to the Stone Age so that the population is too preoccupied with making ends meet to care about the struggle for freedom.

Both of these kinds of assault have had a devastating impact on inhabitants’ psychological health.

Harb would have barely remembered a time before Gaza was an open-air prison and one where a 1,000kg Israeli bomb might land near his home.

In an enclave where two-thirds of young men are unemployed, he had no hope of finding work. He could not afford a home for his young family and he was about to have another mouth to feed.

Doubtless, all of this contributed to his decision to burn himself to death.

But self-immolation is more than suicide. That can be done quietly, out of sight, less gruesomely. In fact, figures suggest that suicide rates in Gaza have rocketed in recent years.

But public self-immolation is associated with protest.

A Buddhist monk famously turned himself into a human fireball in Vietnam in 1963 in protest at the persecution of his co-religionists. Tibetans have used self-immolation to highlight Chinese oppression, Indians to decry the caste system, and Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs once used it to protest Soviet rule.

But more likely for Harb, the model was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in late 2010 after officials humiliated him once too often. His public death triggered a wave of protests across the Middle East that became the Arab Spring.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation suggests its power to set our consciences on fire. It is the ultimate act of individual self-sacrifice, one that is entirely non-violent except to the victim himself, performed altruistically in a greater, collective cause.

Who did Harb hope to speak to with his shocking act?

In part, according to his family, he was angry with the Palestinian leadership. His family was trapped in the unresolved feud between Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. That dispute has led the PA to cut the salaries of its workers in Gaza, including Harb’s father.

But Harb undoubtedly had a larger audience in mind too.

Until a few years ago, Hamas regularly fired rockets out of the enclave in a struggle both to end Israel’s continuing colonisation of Palestinian land and to liberate the people of Gaza from their Israeli-made prison.

But the world rejected the Palestinians’ right to resist violently and condemned Hamas as “terrorists”. Israel’s series of military rampages in Gaza to silence Hamas were meekly criticised in the West as “disproportionate”.

The Palestinians of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where there is still direct contact with Israeli Jews, usually as settlers or soldiers, watched as Gaza’s armed resistance failed to prick the world’s conscience.

So some took up the struggle as individuals, targeting Israelis or soldiers at checkpoints. They grabbed a kitchen knife to attack Israelis or soldiers at checkpoints, or rammed them with a car, bus or bulldozer.

Again, the world sided with Israel. Resistance was not only futile, it was denounced as illegitimate.

Since late March, the struggle for liberation has shifted back to Gaza. Tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians have massed weekly close to Israel’s fence encaging them.

The protests are intended as confrontational civil disobedience, a cry to the world for help and a reminder that Palestinians are being slowly choked to death.

Israel has responded repeatedly by spraying the demonstrators with live ammunition, seriously wounding many thousands and killing more than 100. Yet again, the world has remained largely impassive.

In fact, worse still, the demonstrators have been cast as Hamas stooges. The United States ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, blamed the victims under occupation, saying Israel had a right to “defend its border”, while the British government claimed the protests were “hijacked by terrorists”.

None of this can have passed Harb by.

When Palestinians are told they can “protest peacefully”, western governments mean quietly, in ways that Israel can ignore, in ways that will not trouble consciences or require any action.

In Gaza, the Israeli army is renewing the Dahiya doctrine, this time by shattering thousands of Palestinian bodies rather than infrastructure.

Harb understood only too well the West’s hypocrisy in denying Palestinians any right to meaningfully resist Israel’s campaign of destruction.

The flames that engulfed him were intended also to consume us with guilt and shame. And doubtless more in Gaza will follow his example.

Will Harb be proved right? Can the West be shamed into action?

Or will we continue blaming the victims to excuse our complicity in seven decades of outrages committed against the Palestinian people?

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.