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Uri Avnery on the history of Acre

Uri Avnery
15.8.09

Whose Acre?

THE ANCIENT port of Acre is now the object of a fierce battle. The Arab inhabitants of the town want the port to bear the name of an Arab hero, Issa al Awam, a general under Saladin, the Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders. The municipality of Acre, which of course is dominated by the Jewish inhabitants, has decided to give the port the name of an Israeli functionary.

The Arab citizens set up a monument for their hero. The municipality declared it to be an “illegal structure” and decided to destroy it.

This could have been a small local conflict, one of many in this mixed and quarrelsome town, if it did not have such profound ideological and political implications.

I LOVE old Acre. For me, it is the most beautiful and interesting town in the country, after East Jerusalem.

It is one of the most ancient towns in the country, perhaps in the whole world. It is mentioned in the Bible In the first chapter of Judges (which, by the way, completely contradicts the genocidal Book of Joshua.) The chapter enumerates the Canaanite towns which were not conquered by the Children of Israel. It remained a Phoenician town, one of the port towns from which intrepid Hebrew-speaking sailors went forth and colonized the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from Tyre to Carthage.

The fortunes of Acre reached their zenith during the times of the Crusaders. It was then the only port in the country that could be used during all the seasons of the year. The Crusaders succeeded in taking it after a stubborn defense. A hundred years later, when the great Salah-ad-Din (Saladin) put an end to the Crusaders’ rule in Jerusalem, he drove them out of Acre, too. The Knights of the Cross recaptured it, and for another hundred years it served as the capital of the reduced Crusader state. In 1291, when the remnants of the Crusader kingdom were wiped out, Acre was the last Crusader town to fall to the Muslims. The image of the last Crusaders and their women jumping from the quays of Acre has been engraved in the memory of the age and has given birth to the expression still current: “to throw into the sea”.

Later, too, the town had a checkered history. A Bedouin chieftain, Daher al-Omar, took it over and created a kind of independent semi-state of Galilee. Even Napoleon, one of the Great Captains of history, came from Egypt in 1799 and laid siege to it, but was roundly defeated by the Arabs, with the help of British sailors.

When the British became the lords of the land in 1917, they turned the imposing Crusader fortress of Acre into a prison, in which the leaders of the Hebrew underground organizations, among others, were incarcerated. In one of its most daring exploits, the Irgun broke into the fortress and freed its prisoners. In 1947, the Israeli army conquered the town, which was until then entirely Arab.

The ancient part of the town, with its beautiful minarets and Crusader fortifications, continued to be Arab. So did the port, which now serves fishermen. But around this quarter, Jewish neighborhoods have sprung up, faceless like many hundreds of such neighborhoods throughout Israel, and their inhabitants now constitute the majority. They do not like their Arab neighbors very much.

From time to time, quarrels break out between the two populations. The Arab inhabitants believe that Acre has been their town since ancient times and consider the Jews intruders. The Jews are convinced that the town belongs to them and that the Arabs are, at best, a tolerated minority that should shut up.

The current dispute can well turn violent.

IN EVERY conflict between Jews and Arabs in this country, the rather childish question arises: Who was here first?

The Arabs conquered the country, which they then called Jund Filistin (military district Palestine) in 635 AD, and since then it has been under Muslim rule (apart from the Crusader period) until the arrival of the British. They claim “We were first”.

The Zionist version is different. In Biblical times, most of the country belonged to the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, even though the coast belonged to the Phoenicians in the North and the Philistines in the South. (In spite of all the frantic efforts of a hundred years, no archaeological evidence has been found that there ever was an exodus from Egypt, a conquest of Canaan by the Children of Israel or a kingdom of David and Solomon.) Since the kingdom of Ahab, around 870 BC, Israel has been on the well-attested historical map. After the Babylonian exile, the Jews dominated parts of the country, with constantly changing borders, until Roman times. Ergo: “We were first”.

If the Israelites were here before the Muslims, who was here before the Israelites? The Canaanites, of course. “They were first”. But who represents them?

I once wrote a satirical piece about the “First Canaanite Congress” which takes place somewhere in the world. The participants declare that they are the descendents of the original inhabitants of the country and claim it for themselves.

That is not entirely a joke. In the first years of the last century Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was to become the second president of Israel, tried to harness the Canaanites to Zionism. He researched and found that the population of this country has not really changed from the earliest times. The Canaanites mixed with the Israelites, became Jews and Hellenists, and when the Byzantine empire, which then ruled this country, adopted Christianity, they too became Christians. After the Muslim conquest, they gradually became Arabs.

In other words, the same village was Canaanite, became Israelite, passed through all the stages and in the end, became Arab. Nowadays it is Palestinian, unless it was wiped out in 1948 and replaced by an Israeli settlement. Throughout, the population did not really change. Many of the place names did not change either. Every new conqueror brought with him a new set of beliefs and a new elite, but the population itself did not change much. No conqueror was interested in driving out the inhabitants, who provided him with food and revenue. In the opinion of Ben-Zvi, the Palestinian Arabs are really the descendents of the ancient Israelites. But when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gathered momentum, this theory was forgotten.

Recently, some Palestinians adopted a rather similar theory. By the same historical logic, they claim that the Palestinian Arabs are the descendents of the ancient Canaanites, and therefore “they were first”, even before the Children of Israel of Biblical times. It was only the Zionist conquest that, for the first time in history, radically changed the composition of the population.

The Canaanites and the ancient Israelites spoke different dialects of the same Semitic language, which is nowadays called Hebrew. Later on, Aramaic became the language of the country, and later on Arabic. Last week, new research was published, showing that the vernacular Syrian-Palestinian Arabic dialect includes many words that have their origin in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, and which do not appear in the dialect of other Arab countries. Clearly, they were absorbed by the native Arab dialect many centuries ago. They are mainly day-to-day agricultural words, and it is logical to assume that they entered the Arabic language from the Aramaic that it replaced.

WHY IS that important? How does it affect the Acre dispute?

Many years ago I read a book by the late American-Arab scholar, Philip Hitti, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon, entitled “History of Syria”. According to the Arab historical view, Syria (a-Sham in classical Arabic) includes today’s Syria as well as well as present-day Lebanon. Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The book made a lasting impression on me. It recounts the history of this country from prehistoric times to the present, with all its stages, as one continuous story, which includes Canaanites and Israelites, Phoenicians and Philistines, Aramaeans and Arabs, Crusaders and Mamluks, Turks and Britons, Muslims, Christians and Jews. They all belong to the history of the country, all of them contributed to its culture, language and architecture, palaces and fortresses, synagogues and churches, mosques and cemeteries.

Anyone thinking about peace and reconciliation should absorb this picture.

WHAT KIND of history is taught now in the schools of the two peoples? Both have a mobile history which is wandering about the landscape.

Jewish history starts with “Abraham Our Father” in present-day Iraq and the exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai in present-day Egypt, the Conquest of Canaan, King David and the other legends of the Bible, which are taught as actual history. It continues in the country until the destruction of the Temple by Titus and the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Romans, when it goes into “exile”, concentrating on the chain of expulsions and persecutions, only returning to the country with the early Zionist settlers.

This history ignores not only all that happened in the country before the Israelite era, but also everything that happened during the 1747 years between the Bar Kokhba uprising in 135 AD and the start of the pre-Zionist settlement in 1882. An alumnus of the Israeli education system knows next to nothing about the country during these eras.

On the Arab side, things are no better. The Palestinian-Arab historical picture starts in the Arab peninsula with the advent of the Prophet Mohammad, mentioning the era of Jahiliyah (“ignorance”) before that, and comes to Palestine with the Muslim conquerors. What happened here before 635 AD does not interest it.

The pupils of these two education systems – the Jewish-Israeli and the Palestinian-Arab – grow up with two entirely different historical narratives.

I DREAM of the day when in every school in this country, in Israel and in Palestine, Jews and Arabs will learn not only these two histories, but also the complete history of the country which includes all the periods and cultures.

They will learn, for example, that when the crusaders invaded the country, Muslims and Jews stood together against the cruel invader and were massacred together. They will learn that in Haifa, the local Jews led the defense and were admired for their heroism, until they were slaughtered side by side with the Muslims. Such identification with the history of the country can serve as a solid basis for a reconciliation between the peoples.

A dozen years ago, inspired by the unforgettable Feisal al-Husseini, I drew up a Manifesto on Jerusalem for Gush Shalom. One of its paragraphs reads: “Our Jerusalem is a mosaic of all the cultures, all the religions and all the periods that enriched the city, from earliest antiquity to this very day – Canaanites and Jebusites and Israelites, Jews and Hellenes, Romans and Byzantines, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Mamluks, Ottomans and Britons, Palestinians and Israelis. They and all the others who made their contribution to the city have a place in the spiritual and physical landscape of Jerusalem.”

In this list, the Crusaders are missing, and not by mistake. They were in our original text. But when I asked the renowned Arab-Israeli writer Emil Habibi to be the first to sign, he exclaimed: “I shall not sign any document that mentions these abominable murderers!”

Almost everything that can be said about Jerusalem is true for Acre, too. Its history is also continuous from prehistoric times until today, and the Arab general Issa al Awam belongs to it as much as the English Crusader Richard the Lionheart and the Etzel fighters who broke the prison walls.

Published in Origo in cooperation with Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom.

Avnery on Shimon Peres

Uri Avnery
9.5.09

Sir Winston Peres

First of all, I want to apologize to all the good women who are engaged in the world’s oldest profession.

I recently described Shimon Peres as a political prostitute. One of my female readers has protested vigorously. Prostitutes, she pointed out, earn their money honestly. They deliver what they promise.

Our president, on the other hand, only tells the truth by accident. He is a political impostor and a political sham. To him, too, apply Winston Churchill’s words about a former Prime Minister: “The Right Honorable gentleman sometimes stumbles upon the truth, but he always hurries on as if nothing has happened.” Or the words of former minister Amnon Rubinstein about Ariel Sharon: “He blushes when he tells the truth.”

Like a traveling salesman offering a counterfeit product, Peres is now peddling the merchandise called Binyamin Netanyahu. He presents to the world a Netanyahu we have never known: a peacemaker, the epitome of truthfulness, a man with no other ambition than to go down in history as the founder of the State of Palestine. A Righteous Jew to outshine all Righteous Gentiles.

HOWEVER, ALL these lies are nothing compared to trivializing the Holocaust.

In some countries, that is a criminal offense, punishable by prison. The trivializing has many guises. For example: the assertion that the gas chambers never existed. Or: that not six million Jews were killed, but only six hundred thousand. But the most dangerous form of minimizing is the comparison of the Holocaust to passing events, thus turning it into “a detail of history”, as Jean-Marie Le-Pen infamously put it.

This week, Shimon Peres committed exactly this crime.

Like a lackey walking in front of the king, strewing flowers on the road, Peres flew to the US to prepare the ground for Netanyahu’s coming visit. He imposed himself on a reluctant Barack Obama, who had no choice but to receive him.

Posing as a new Winston Churchill, the man who warned the world against the rise of Nazi Germany, he informed Obama with solemn bombast: “As Jews we cannot but compare Iran to Nazi Germany.”

About this sentence at least three things must be said: (a) it is untrue, (b) it trivializes the Holocaust, and © it reflects a catastrophic policy.

DOES IRAN really resemble Nazi Germany?

I don’t like the regime there. As a committed atheist who insists on total separation between state and religion, I oppose any regime based on religion – in Iran, in Israel or in any other country.

Also, I don’t like politicians like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I am allergic to leaders who stand on balconies and declaim to the masses below. I detest demagogues who appeal to the base instincts of hatred and fear.

Alas, Ahmadinejad is not the only leader of this type. Indeed, the world is full of them, some are among the staunchest supporters of the Israeli government. In Israel, too, we do not lack this sort.

But Iran is not a fascist state. According to the evidence, there is quite a lot of freedom there, including freedom of expression. Ahmadinejad is not the only candidate for president in the present election campaign. There are a number of others, some more radical, some less.

Nor is Iran an anti-Semitic state. A Jewish community, whose members are refusing to emigrate, is living there comfortably enough. It enjoys religious freedom and has a representative in parliament. Even if we take such reports with a grain of salt, it is clear that the Jews in Iran are not being persecuted like the Jews in Nazi Germany.

And, most important: Iran is not an aggressive country. It has not attacked its neighbors for centuries. The long and bloody Iraq-Iran war was started by Saddam Hussein. It may be remembered that at the time Israel (contrary to the US) supported the Iranian side and supplied it with arms. (One such transaction was accidentally disclosed in the Irangate affair.) Before the Khomeini revolution, Iran was our most important ally in the region.

Ahmadinejad hates Israel. But it has been denied that he has threatened to annihilate Israel. It appears that the crucial sentence in his famous speech was mistranslated: he did not declare his determination to wipe Israel off the map, but expressed the opinion that Israel will disappear from the map.

Frankly, I don’t think that there is such a great difference between the two versions. When the leader of a big country predicts that my state will disappear, that makes me worry. When that country appears to do everything possible to produce a nuclear bomb, that worries me even more. I draw conclusions, but about that later.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad – unlike Hitler – is not the supreme leader of his country. He is subject to the real leadership, composed of clerics. All the signs indicate that this is not a group of adventurers. On the contrary, they are very balanced, sophisticated and prudent. Now they are cautiously feeling their way towards dialogue with the US, trying to reach an accord without sacrificing their regional ambitions, which are quite normal.

In brief, the speeches of one demagogic leader do not turn a country into Nazi Germany. Iran is not a mad country. It has no real interests in Israel/Palestine. Its interests are focused on the Persian Gulf area, and it wants to increase its influence throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Its relations with Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas mostly serve this purpose, and so does the anti-Israeli incitement of Ahmadinejad.

In brief, the comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany lacks a factual basis.

FOM THE Jewish point of view, the comparison is even more objectionable.

The Holocaust was a unique crime. True, the 20th century has seen other terrible acts of genocide, but they did not resemble the Shoa. In the Ottoman empire, a horrifying massacre of the Armenian citizens took place, which amounted to genocide. Hitler himself mentioned it, saying that the annihilation of the Jews would similarly be forgotten. Stalin killed millions of Soviet citizens in the name of a monstrous ideology, which had started as a humanist creed. So did Pot Pol, who killed millions in order to change society for the better. In Rwanda, members of one tribe slaughtered the members of another. And, alas, the list goes on.

But Nazi Germany was unique in employing the instruments of a modern industrial society in order to eliminate helpless minorities (let’s not forget the Roma, those with disabilities and the homosexuals) in a prolonged, planned and highly organized process, with the participation of all the organs of the state. If the Nazi regime had not been overthrown by war, Hitler would have continued with the annihilation of many more millions of Poles, Ukrainians and Russians.

Nothing like that can reasonably be expected to happen in Iran. Neither the ideology, nor the composition of the regime nor any other indication leads in that direction. As far as its growing nuclear capabilities are concerned – the Israeli deterrent power will prevent any such thought from arising. (Let’s not forget that the only country ever to use nuclear bombs in war was our friend, the USA.)

Nothing that is happening in the world today resembles the Shoa, in which six million Jews were wiped out. The Palestinians did not kill six million Israelis, and we did not kill six million Palestinians. Comparing the Arabs to the Nazis is no less odious than comparing the Israelis to the Nazis. Many terrible things have been and are being committed in our name – but they are as far from the deeds of the Nazis as the earth is from distant galaxies.

Any such comparison for the sake of some fleeting propaganda advantage is trivializing the Holocaust and its perpetrators. If the Nazis were not worse than the Ayatollahs, then the Shoa was not so terrible, after all.

In all my contacts with Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, I have always advised them to avoid this upsetting comparison. This would also be good advice for our own leaders.

DOES THE comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany serve Israeli interests?

Iran is there. It was our ally in the past, and may be our ally again in the future. Leaders come and go, but geopolitical interests are more or less constant. Ahmadinejad may be replaced by a leader who will see Iranian interests in a different light.

The nuclear threat to Israel will not disappear – not after a (bad) speech by Peres nor after a (good) speech by Netanyahu. All over the region, nuclear installations will pop up. This process cannot be stopped. We all need nuclear energy to desalinate water and to produce electricity without destroying the environment. As an Israeli professor, a former employee in the nuclear center at Dimona, said this week: we must reconsider our nuclear policy. It may well be to our advantage to accept the demand of the American spokeswoman that Israel (as well as India and Pakistan) join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a regime of strict supervision.

President Barack Obama is now saying to Israel: Put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is a precondition for the elimination of the threat to Israel. When the Palestinians, and the entire Arab world, make peace with Israel – Iran will not be able to exploit the conflict for the furthering of its interests. We were saying this, by the way, many years ago.

The refusal of Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak to accept this demand shows the insincerity of their arguments about Iran. If they really believed that Iran posed an existential menace, they would hurry to dismantle the settlements, demolish the outposts and make peace. That would, after all, be a small price to pay for the elimination of an existential danger. Their refusal proves that the entire existential story is a bluff.

And concerning the comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany – it is as convincing as the comparison of Shimon Peres to Sir Winston.

Uri Avnery: Orwellian Peres

The way to peace
Is to make war
On Hamas –
Thus President Shimon Peres
Berated the Europeans
Who want to start a
Peace dialogue with Hamas.

“War is peace”
Was the slogan of the
Evil tyranny
Described by George Orwell.

Orwell is dead. His vision is
Alive and kicking
In the President’s residence.

Uri Avnery, Gush shalom

Published with the writers permission.

Uri Avnery's reply to the IHT-article by Muammar Qaddafi

Hi,
Some readers asked me to send them the text of my answer to Muammar Qaddafi’s article in the International Herald Tribune. So I send it to all of you.

Qaddafi’s article supports the so-called One-State Solution. My answer was published in the IHT (February 6) as a letter that took up the entire space of the letter column. However, it had to be shortened. I attach the full text, with the omitted passages in brackets.

Salamaat, Shalom,
uri

Uri Avnery
28.1.09

The one-state illusion

It is always pleasing to hear Muammar Qaddafi coming forward with a new idea. He is the joker in the pack of Middle Eastern leaders, appearing in the most unexpected places. He looks at things with fresh eyes. Unfortunately, his ideas are not always the most practical. Now he is putting forward the idea that Jews and Arabs in our country should live together in one joint state, to be called Isratine (IHT Jan. 23, Muammar Qaddafi, “The one-state solution”.) That is a fetching, if not altogether original idea. Qaddafi has always been a great unifier. In 1972, early in his 40-year rule, he initiated the union of Libya, Egypt and Syria in one state. Then, In 1974, he started work towards a union of Libya and Tunisia. He also proposed the creation of a big Saharan Islamic State. (I wonder if he himself remembers all these projects. Very few others do.) After these failures, one would have to be a very determined optimist to believe in the union of Israel and Palestine. After all, the peoples of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are very closely related, profess the same religion, speak the same language and share the same social mores, while Israelis and Palestinians are not related, speak different languages, have different beliefs and are both fiercely nationalistic. (Since Qaddafi assumed power in Libya, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and then Serbia, as well as Czechoslovakia and Cyprus have broken up, Belgium is teetering on the brink of a split and the joint state of Bosnia is a fiction. The United States and Canada, two good neighbors mostly speaking the same language, would not dream of uniting in one single state, nor would Germany and France, who have become friendly partners in the EU. We don’t see Ireland rushing to rejoin the United Kingdom. On the contrary, many Scots want out.) (The conflict in our country has been going on for 120 years, since the first Zionist settlers reached the shores of Palestine. A fifth generation has already been born into this conflict, a generation whose entire mental world, like that of their parents, has been shaped by the war.) It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that under the benevolent guidance of Qaddafi Israelis and Palestinians will come together tomorrow, serve in the same army, enact the same laws in a joint Parliament and pay the same taxes. One wonders how such a state would function. Israelis might misunderstand the intentions of our Libyan friend and think that he is asking them to dismantle their state, take in six million Palestinian refugees and resign themselves to live as a minority in an Arab-majority Isratine. They will be tempted to answer: Thanks, but no thanks. If there is one point on which 99% of Israelis are in agreement, it is their desire to live in a Hebrew-speaking state of their own, (in which they are masters of their fate.) Palestinians might react quite similarly. After enduring the Zionist onslaught for so long, they also want to be masters of their fate, in a state of their own, under their own flag. They might not take kindly to Qaddafi’s contention that their brutal oppression and exploitation by fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank constitutes a “successful assimilation” and that in 1948 “Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians.” As a soldier in that war, this comes as quite a surprise to me, too. At the end of that terrible war, my friends and I proposed the Two-State Solution. Not a hundred people around the globe accepted that. Now there is a world-wide consensus. The great majority of both Israelis and Palestinian, as well as the members of the Arab League and all the great powers, are convinced that this is the only viable way to achieve a lasting peace. Qaddafi is quite right about the shortcomings of this solution and the difficulties in achieving it, including those created by successive Israeli governments which have paid lip-service to it while doing everything in their power to obstruct it. But all these obstacles are nothing compared to those lying on the road to a One-State Illusion, which is no solution at all. (Those adopting this dream out of despair resemble a boxer who was unable to defeat a light-weight opponent, and therefore decides to take on a heavy-weight champion.)

(We Israelis have a lot to do to mend our state. We must turn it into a truly democratic, progressive and secular society, with full equality for all its citizens. We must put an end to the occupation, make peace with the Palestinian people, return to the 1967 borders (perhaps with some mutually agreed minor swaps of territory), dismantle the settlements and hold out our hands to the State of Palestinian with its capital in East Jerusalem. We must find a practical, decent solution to the refugee problem, based on mutual agreement. All that is difficult but possible.)

The Two-State Solution is achievable right now, in 2009, if President Barack Obama is determined to implement it “aggressively”, as he says. He will find many allies in Israel.

Uri Avnery, a former Member of the Knesset, is a leader of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc.

Uri Avnery (85) var med å grunnlegge den israelske fredsbevegelsen. Han har sendt meg dette diktet.

In 40 years of occupation
We have choked the Gaza Strip
And destroyed its
Essential infrastructures.

Therefore, their lives
Depend completely
On the border crossings
Dominated by Israel.

As long as Gaza is choked
There can be no cease-fire.
Stopping the Qassams
And opening the crossings
Are interconnected.

We must choose:
Permanent threats to Sderot
And Ashkelon
Or opening the crossings
Between Gaza and
The outside world.

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