PART ONE: MAKING MUSIC IN GAZA

Early this year Dan Cohen, an Arizona-born independent journalist who works in Palestine, posted a tweet about an Indiegogo campaign. Cohen is one of a handful of young activist journalists I follow who put themselves in the line of fire, literally and figuratively, by spurning putative objectivity on Israel/Palestine in order to report what they see with their eyes and feel in their hearts. Here’s a widely retweeted selfie Cohen posted in January:

These days my Twitter timeline seems to consist mostly of links to petitions and crowdfunding pitches, but the campaign Cohen tweeted caught my eye because it had been launched by a young English teacher in Gaza named Alaa Radwan, who was determined to learn the violin, and was looking for funds to buy an instrument.

Regular readers of this blog will know about my commitment to Palestinian rights and Israeli accountability (re-cast by hasbara trolls as terrorist sympathies and anti-Semitism respectively, of course). But they might not know that my stepfather was a Czech-born violin maker, and my mother continues to run the business they founded together which produces accessories for violins and violas. Having worked for this family business on and off for close to 20 years, I enthusiastically donated to Alaa’s campaign and sent the link to my mother who did the same.

SITTING IT OUT TILL FRANKFURT

In the course of a brief Twitter exchange with Alaa, I mentioned our business. A few weeks later she contacted me to say that she’d miraculously raised the money she needed but now she had no idea how she was going to find an instrument. Could I help? I said yes and began thinking about UK-based contacts I could approach. The next day, I had an idea: in April, I would be attending the Frankfurt Musikmesse, the world’s biggest musical instruments fair. I proposed that if Alaa could wait that long, I was sure I could find her a far better instrument through a violin maker or one of our wholesale clients at the fair than we would find in a shop. She ok’d my plan, saying it might then be possible to send the violin by post, for a friend had successfully sent her Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in the mail. I suppressed my doubts, and we agreed to sit it out till April.

This is how I found myself on a sunny Tuesday morning two months later at Western Union on north London’s Caledonian Road accepting receipt of a wire transfer for the purchase of a violin in Frankfurt, Germany, from a young woman I’d never met who had just lived through Israel’s third siege of Gaza in six years, along with its ongoing eight-year blockade of goods from pasta to chocolate, lightbulbs, medicine and crayons. In that moment I became keenly aware that whatever passion, anger or despair the words ‘Gaza’ and ‘Palestine’ had aroused in me over two decades of protest, debate and sleepless nights, those places had in fact remained stubbornly abstract to me. However noble my intentions, I had unconsciously made Alaa an emblem instead of the person she was: an ordinary young woman imagining the talents she might discover and the self she might become. Gaza was the place where Alaa lived, where her emails were carefully composed and sent, and where her fantasy of playing the violin had taken hold. Unbound suddenly from the embarrassing constraints of my own imagination, I discovered that there is room to dream in Gaza of something other than peace.

Indulging in adrenaline fuelled chatter with the friendly young guy at Western Union, I mentioned what the money was for. His face broke into a warm, approving smile before he indulged a whistle-stop critique of UK foreign policy from Iraq to Palestine. And then he gave me Alaa’s cash.

A SALE WAS A SALE

The next day, I awoke to the dawn chorus and jumped into the car I’d booked for London’s City Airport. By mid-day I’d checked into my hotel and my fair pass had been scanned. Since I was last there, before my children were born, the sprawling fairgrounds had grown to include a shopping mall, although a Spring heatwave meant the outdoor stalls hawking beer and wurst boasted snaking queues against a soundtrack of thumping bass from the sponsored performance tents.

I breached the wall of cacophonous sound to enter Hall 3.1. Although I’d compiled a mental list of prospects, I began by having a look around the neighbourhood where the stringed instruments were concentrated. I said hello to a few people I knew and explained my mission to find a violin for a young woman in Gaza. In return, I got a couple of blank stares, a few throats in urgent need of clearing, and several pairs of eyes seeking embarrassed refuge as far from mine as their extraocular muscles could travel.

But for some, a sale was a sale. One nervy Brit insisted all I could get for Alaa’s money was a basic Chinese outfit before grudgingly offering a discount off the retail price when his colleague, who’d been eavesdropping, gave him a quizzical look. Our Romanian friends, who’d successfully navigated the post-communist landscape to build a thriving violin-making enterprise, showed me their wares with a kindly smile and a shrug; I said I’d think about it.

And then I approached the Germans, a formidable wholesale and manufacturing company we’d been dealing with for many years. Like his predecessor, Mr H, their head of strings, is an innocuous looking fellow but anyone paying attention will quickly spot the shrewd twinkle in his eye. I explained what I needed and how much I could spend. He leapt into action, showing me a good, ‘antiqued’ German-made student instrument that was on display. Judging by a YouTube video Alaa had sent with an exhortation to please find an instrument ‘that sounds like this’, I sensed that her view of the violin was rather romantic so she wouldn’t want an instrument that looked new. ‘Yes!’ I said, nodding happily.

‘THIS VIOLIN IS GOING TO GAZA

Mr H offered to include a good German bow and some rosin, and to swap the standard Thomastik strings for Larsen, his preferred brand. With a flourish, he announced he’d throw in the case for free et voila: a high-quality student ‘outfit’ at about one-third the retail cost. ‘I’ll take it,’ I said, thinking I’d sort out how to get it to Gaza when I was back in London. ‘Well, I can’t sell it to you here,’ said Mr H. ‘We don’t have enough instruments to sell at the fair, and anyway we’re not permitted to sell here,’ he reminded me. ‘We will see if we can send it to Mr A,’ he said, naming an Israeli company that’s a mutual client of ours. My heart sank. ‘Um, I don’t think that will work, Mr H,’ I stammered as politely as I could. ‘The violin is going to Gaza,’ I emphasised. ‘I doubt Mr A will want to be involved in this.’ Silence. ‘Let me ask Alaa what she thinks, and I’ll get back to you.’

Early that evening, I emailed Alaa from my hotel room telling her about the violin, and the proposal to get it to Gaza. She didn’t reply till the next morning, apologetically explaining that there had been no electricity in Gaza the night before. ‘Sure,’ she replied to my tentative query about delivery to Tel Aviv. ‘A friend might be able to collect it for me.’ And that was that: later that morning, shortly before I left for the airport, I happened upon Mr H in a corridor at the fair. Money changed hands, a handwritten receipt was scribbled on a bent knee, and I returned to London. The following Monday I heard back from the Germans that our Israeli client was happy to help, and suddenly the fate of Alaa’s violin was out of my hands.

Needless to say there were customs delays and a few administrative headaches, which gave me the opportunity to be in touch with Mr A, without whom I’m not sure any of this could have been possible. Although we’d met several times, I hadn’t seen him for years, but I recalled a brief exchange in which he mentioned that he was on the Israeli left. From what I saw last summer, I didn’t think there were any leftists remaining in Israel, save the besieged staff of Haaretz and a few NGOs, but it seems I was wrong.

Then I read on Twitter that a rocket had been launched from Gaza into Israel and although ISIS had claimed responsibility, Israel began bombing again. When I didn’t hear from Alaa for a few days, I began to worry so I emailed her. A couple of days later she replied: she was fine, she said, but still no violin.

This morning Alaa told me that her instrument arrived. Now she can retire the pencil she’s been using to practice her bow hold, instead carefully placing each finger on the ebony frog while she keeps her wrist still and flat, but always relaxed. What’s more, she’s already got an audience: four and five year-old nephews Mahmoud and Omer, begging her to make music.

PART TWO: SILENCING DISSENT ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE

I know that my blogs are often bleak and despairing, and I was pleased to have some good news to share today. But it’s a tepid palliative for the deteriorating situation on the ground in Palestine, from the energetic expansion of settlements to the appointment of the most hawkish cabinet in Israeli history. Outside the region, those of us engaged in this issue are witnessing an unprecedented – yes, singular and extraordinary – campaign to shut down and even criminalise non-violent protest against Israel’s colonialist project and the apartheid mechanics that enable it.

Just a few weeks ago, Haaretz reported on a planned anti-BDS summit convened by Sheldon Adelson, the American casino magnate who poured $85-million (read that again) into Republican coffers during the 2012 US presidential election campaign, and attended by a who’s who of the pro-Israeli super-rich including Haim Saban who’s bankrolling Hillary Clinton’s White House bid, and Heather Reisman, who owns most of Canada’s bookstores. Call it a pro-Israel Bilderberg Group.

Around the same time, the Illinois legislature passed a law forcing state pensions to divest funds from companies that boycott businesses operating in Israel’s illegal settlements. In other words, Illinois has outlawed non-violent civil protest against a campaign of military occupation and state terror. Here’s how Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah put it,

DECLARING WAR ON ARGUMENT

These moves are galling but unexceptional. From a New York Times campaign to smear BDS activists, to the indefinite ‘postponement’ of a University of Southampton conference on Israel and International law with the help of Eric Pickles, the former UK Communities Secretary who’s now Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, from Canadian government moves to equate a defence of Palestinian rights with ‘hate speech’ to US legislators making an EU trade pact conditional on European silence about Israeli settlements, debate and dissent are under sustained siege. As Saree Makdisi put it in a Los Angeles Times op-ed about attacks on campus protest movements,

the defenders of Israel…are in deep trouble, not because student well-being is at risk but because the rickety assemblage of distortions and myths used to justify support for Israeli policies can’t withstand scholarly scrutiny. Having lost the actual arguments, Israel’s defenders have now declared war on argument itself.

The campaign to outlaw dissent is attracting a motley crew of mercenaries. As Richard Silverstein tells us on his blog Tikun Olam, The Jerusalem Post has gleefully reported support for the anti-BDS movement from the likes of Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s Francoist ex-President who founded Friends of Israel in 2010, and has lobbied to have the Jewish state admitted unconditionally into the European Union.

According to Aznar, the goal of BDS activists is to ’empty the country of Jews’, a wild and ironic claim from a man who posthumously awarded Spain’s medal of civil merit to the late Meliton Manzanas, a high-ranking cop under Franco who helped the Gestapo arrest Jews trying to escape Occupied France. (Aznar also allegedly used state funds to pay American lobbyists pushing to award him the US’s Congressional Gold Medal. They failed.)

THE IDF STANDS IDLY BY

The Nobel prize winner F.W. de Klerk has also weighed in. Calling comparisons between Israel and South Africa ‘odious’ de Klerk claims that it was negotiation and not international pressure including boycotts that toppled apartheid. I confess that I’m only mildly curious to know who is persuaded by the preposterous contention that if the Palestinians would just ask nicely, Israeli settlers would stop running over their children, uprooting their olive trees and forcibly evicting them from their homes while the IDF stands idly by.

No, what strikes me more forcefully is the burgeoning club of Nobel laureates eager to swap their moral capital for Israeli favour. This group includes Barack Obama, no friend of Bibi’s to be sure, but a peace prize-winning supplicant nonetheless, who perversely claimed a ‘direct line’ between the behaviour of the Israeli state and the black civil rights movement just a few weeks ago.

What’s more alarming still is that several of these moves came just days after the group Breaking the Silence released ‘This is How We Fought in Gaza’, a 240-page report comprising testimony from dozens of IDF soldiers. According to The Washington Post,

The soldiers described reducing Gaza neighborhoods to sand, firing artillery at random houses to avenge fallen comrades, shooting at innocent civilians because they were bored and watching armed drones attack a pair of women talking on cellphones because they were assumed to be Hamas scouts.

Strenuous efforts are being made to silence those dissenters too, from claims that their testimony was treasonous to the allegation that some soldiers’ anonymity meant the whole thing was a fabrication aimed at smearing the IDF. Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister failed to shut down an exhibition in Switzerland based on the organisation’s report, but worked with its embassy in Germany to secure cancellation of the same exhibition in Cologne as part of an event marking Israeli-German relations. In fact, that victory produced a grand slam week for Israeli hasbara when the Germans also agreed to postpone discussions on peace groups in Israel and Palestine, and on Palestinian Christians, that were part of the same event. Meantime, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon elected to exclude the country from a list of children’s rights violators despite its record in 2014 being the third worst in the world.

WAR CRIMES

Today, a report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that both Israel and Hamas had committed possible war crimes in last summer’s Gaza siege. Hamas’s consisted primarily of executing collaborators and firing rockets indiscriminately. Israel was guilty of much else including deliberately targeting hospitals and ambulances, attacking residential buildings when it was likely that most family members would be home, stopping medical personnel from reaching the wounded, and deliberately killing unarmed civilians waving white flags.

The incidents are often chilling, especially those that took place in Khuza’a. The wheelchair bound 70 year-old who was shot in the head from a distance of two metres because she hadn’t heeded IDF warnings to leave. The mentally disabled boy who was beaten by IDF soldiers as his father stood by unable to intervene. This is the second time I’ve read about the Palestinian men who were stripped naked, handcuffed and blindfolded before being forced to stand in windows to act as human shields, and it wasn’t any easier than when I first heard this testimony in a Russell Tribunal video.

Naturally, Israel had pre-empted publication of the report a few days ago by clearing itself of the murder of four young boys playing football on a beach in Gaza, a judgment strengthened by its decision not to seek the testimony of any of the journalists who witnessed the event.

EXCRUCIATING ATTEMPTS AT BALANCE

Unlike Hamas, Israel had refused to co-operate with UN investigators despite its success in hectoring William Schabas, a Canadian academic of Ashkenazi Jewish origin who sat on the editorial board of the Israel Law Review, into stepping down as head of the commission. According to the Israeli government, Schabas – who was described by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as ‘the world expert on the law of genocide and international law’ – was incapable of leading a fair enquiry.

At 183 pages, the document is too long to summarise here, and in the event I’ve seen that the usual suspects have been prolifically tweeting its ‘highlights.’ What struck me most about it was its most obvious theme: the Israeli occupation of most of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, alongside its eight year-long blockade of Gaza. Indeed, notwithstanding its often excruciating attempts at ‘balance’ and its explicit repudiation of the notion that war crimes can ever be justified, the report repeatedly contextualises the unprecedented devastation wrought by last summer’s 51-day siege within the crippling impact of the blockade. Here’s a quote from paragraphs 589 and 590:

“The impact of the 2014 hostilities on the Gaza strip cannot be assessed separately from the blockade imposed by Israel. In particular, the destruction and damage brought about by the escalation of violence last summer pose significant challenges to the enjoyment of the rights to an adequate standard of living, housing, food, water, sanitation, health and education of the population of Gaza. The damage to electricity infrastructure, critical for power supply and a whole range of services, including health services, water and sanitation has been devastating for the enjoyment of human rights in the short, medium and long-term…

In that context, while fully aware of the need for Israel to address its security concerns, the commission believes that the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, put in place with the assistance of the United Nations to accelerate efforts to rebuild destroyed houses and infrastructure, is not a substitute for lifting the blockade.”

Ah yes, ‘lifting the blockade’: another dream from Gaza that will have to wait. But for now Alaa Radwan got her violin, and so today was a good day (relatively speaking).

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