Come meet Miriam Libicki in Tel Aviv

The artist behind the brilliant Jobnik! series, about her service in the IDF during the Al Aqsa Intifada, will be signing her new graphic novel in Tel Aviv this coming Friday, September 12.

Location: Comix ‘n Vegetables, 40 King George Street (around the corner from the Dizengoff Center).

Time: We are going to kick things off at 11.00 a.m. with a little Q&A session (I’ll do the Q; Miriam will do the A).

Miriam moved to Israel when she was 17, served in the army and then ended up studying art in Vancouver, Canada – which is my home town.

I, on the other hand, ran away from left Vancouver when I was 17 in order to move to Israel, but did not serve in the army. Instead, I went to study Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Columbia. A decade later, I moved back to Israel. Also, we both attended Orthodox day schools. She is still observant; I am not.

We think the bizarre overlaps in our respective backgrounds are amusing, and that they will make the Q&A session amusing, too.

Special note to all you foreign journos languishing up on the hill (a.k.a. Jerusalem), bored because it’s Ramadan and there’s nothing to write about: come on down to TLV this Friday. We can go for beers on the beach afterward, and you’ll have a nice little human interest story to file for the weekend edition.

More about Miriam and the Jobnik! series:

The story of a nice Jewish girl serving in the IDF during an undeclared war

Miriam is a different kind of comic heroine. She also presents a rather different – certainly less glam – image of female IDF soldiers than the one presented in this much-publicized photo essay. (By the way, if you have not read Idan Gazit’s comment in response to the BoingBoing post about the photo essay, you really should. For those who know little about how mandatory IDF service affects new recruits, it’ll be an education. Click here to read, and scroll down for more interesting comments).

With her charming ineptitude, her body issues, and her naïve romanticism, Miriam bears more resemblance to Bridget Jones (albeit a Bridget Jones on an Israeli army base during wartime) than Wonder Woman. Now, her story, in the form of a 160-page graphic novel titled jobnik! from Real Gone Girl Studios, is available to a mass audience for the first time.

The story begins when Miriam, an American-Jewish girl from a religious home, enlists in the Israeli army (IDF) in the summer of 2000, against everyone’s better judgment. Many qualities seem to make her unsuited for IDF life: her Hebrew isn’t great, she is shy and passive, and she has a tendency to fall in love with anything that moves. If that weren’t enough, the Al Aqsa uprising, a.k.a. the second Palestinian intifada, erupts one month into her tour of duty.

jobnik! is a sexy, tragic, and comic graphic memoir, written and drawn by Miriam Libicki, an American-born, Canada-based IDF veteran. “I moved to Israel in 1998, after seventeen years growing up as an Orthodox girl in Columbus, Ohio.” Miriam says. “I only went on a year program, but I fell so hard for all the Israelis I met, that I realized my destiny was to dedicate myself to the country, and do whatever it took to be a real Israeli. I spent a year lobbying for citizenship, and afterwards promptly enlisted in the Israel Defense Force. My enthusiasm for army service was not exactly reciprocated by the people in charge, though… and I spent the next two years as a totally superfluous secretary on a training base in the middle of the Arava desert.

“A month after I enlisted, the Camp David peace accords broke down, Ariel Sharon walked on the Temple Mount, and the second Intifada broke out. The next two years were some of the most violent in the history of Israel, not to mention the worldwide aftershocks of September 11th, halfway through my tour of duty. The graphic novel covers August 2000 to February 2001, but the saga of my entire army service, up until May 2002, will be told in further volumes.

Excerpts from the Jobnik! series:


Olmert resigns. Sort of…

Eliana Aponte/AFP

Olmert announcing his resignation. Credit: Eliana Aponte/AFP

Ten weeks into a really icky, sordid criminal investigation, Mr. Ehud “Teflon” Olmert actually decided to resign. Mais pourquoi? Check out my piece on the PJM site for possible motivation. Oh, and don’t get too excited. He’s not leaving yet…

Samir Kuntar in his own words

Last week, Israel exchanged Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah fighers for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two reserve soldiers who were abducted after being mortally wounded during a cross-border raid that sparked the Second Lebanon War on July 12, 2006.

Kuntar was convicted in 1979 of dragging 4 year-old Einat Haran and her father, Danny, from their Nahariya apartment to a nearby beach, where he murdered the little girl by smashing in her head with his rifle butt and killed her father by shooting him in the back and drowning him in the Mediterranean. Danny’s wife, Smadar Haran, hid with the couple’s 2 year-old daughter, Yael, in a crawlspace in their apartment. But she accidentally smothered Yael to death while trying to keep her from crying out by placing a hand over her mouth.

You can read Smadar Haran’s first-hand account of that terrible night here. Last week Yedioth Ahronoth published the transcripts of Kuntar’s trial, including the forensic evidence that showed Einat’s brain tissue was found on Kuntar’s rifle. The article was translated into English and can be read here.

Kuntar’s act of terror is commonly considered the worst in Israel’s history. But the fact is that there are many terrorists sitting in Israeli jails who have been convicted of much worse crimes and who are responsible for killing far more civilians. The story of what Kuntar did resonates so strongly here because it involves infanticide, and because it is so nightmarishly reminiscent of the Holocaust. We all grew up with the stories of Jewish mothers who smothered their babies while trying to keep them quiet during Nazi raids of the ghettos during the Holocaust, and of SS men who killed Jewish babies by smashing their heads against walls.

So what a shock it was to see Kuntar greeted as a hero in Lebanon. How could the head of state and the head of government line up alongside Hezbollah leaders and Druze leaders to kiss a child murderer on either cheek?

In our paranoid Middle East insane asylum, a lot of those people who greeted Kuntar with open arms didn’t believe he committed the crimes of which he was convicted in a court of law.  In our paranoid Middle Eastern insane asylum, facts are dismissed as propaganda – or ignored because they distract from political agendas, which are far too often followed blindly, at the expense of ordinary human compassion. And a psychopath is embraced by political leaders who are using him to gain or maintain power. Michael Young explains here why Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who two months ago was comparing Hassan Nasrallah to Hitler, lined up with the Hezbollah leadership to greet Kuntar as a hero.

Chen Kotes-Barr, an Israeli journalist who works for Maariv newspaper, met and interviewed Kuntar weekly for four years. This past Friday, her feature article was published in Maariv’s weekend supplement. I translated and edited a somewhat abridged version that was further edited and published in the Guardian this past Saturday. You can read the Guardian’s version here.

Below is my longer translation of Ms. Kotes-Barr’s piece. As you will see, it sheds substantial light on Kuntar’s background and dubious motives. Or, as Linda Grant puts it here:

By his own admission, Kuntar came from a wealthy family and was educated at private schools. He is not Palestinian, he is Druze. Despite or perhaps because of his bourgeois background, he became involved in the Marxist-Leninist organizations of that period.

Kuntar fits no model of the impoverished refugee driven to despair by occupation. Nor can he be seen within the context of Iranian-backed Islamism. When he emerged from prison last week it was as a relic of a bygone age: of that era of self-appointed middle-class revolutionaries, like the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof Gang.

In my own youth I occasionally met people like Kuntar, their heads addled with Marxism-Leninism. Doris Lessing’s novel The Good Terrorist anatomizes the mindset. But no one ever gave them, as they did Kuntar, a Kalashnikov, or military training, and so they escaped Kuntar’s fate, lacking the opportunity.

Samir Kuntar, home at last

Samir Kuntar, home at last

I, Samir Kuntar

Over a period of four years, correspondent Chen Kotes-Bar of Maariv newspaper met regularly with Samir Kuntar. The PFLP militant, who was convicted of leading the grisly 1978 terror attack in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, was freed this week in a controversial prisoner exchange. This is the first time his story, as told to a female Israeli journalist, has been published.

Introduction:

For the first year, my conversations with Samir Kuntar were difficult. Our meetings, which began in February 2004, took place in the prison library – just the two of us, unaccompanied. Our conversations were open, and they lasted for hours. Samir spoke to me in Hebrew. He brought tea and biscuits, and he chain-smoked. Over the 29 years he spent in Israeli jails, I was the first and only Jewish Israeli woman he met and spoke with to face-to-face.

“I’m talking to you about reality,” Kuntar said, each time we met. “I am not trying to ingratiate myself with you.” As we slowly built up some kind of trust, we stopped talking about politics and turned to personal subjects – like prison life and his own life. “Don’t go with slogans and clichés,” he implored. “Just write the facts.” He showed me photographs of his family in Lebanon. He prepared a list of Hebrew-language books on the Arab-Israeli conflict for me.

I told him about my father, who survived Auschwitz, and about my 5 year-old son. Each time I wrap him in a towel after his bath, I told Kuntar, I think of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat. About the terror attack in Nahariya.

The girl’s death was a tragic incident, answered Kuntar. He insisted that he had not killed her. What does it matter, I told him, you shot at them. If you had not landed on the beach at Nahariya in your rubber dinghy, Einat Haran would still be alive. He never expressed any remorse.

I did not try to understand, to resolve or even to interpret. I just wanted to get to know the man. “I met the enemy,” Samir said, when I asked him how he would explain our meetings to his children. “I met the enemy and I saw that he has a face.”

Shortly after the Second Lebanon War, Kuntar understood that he would be released from prison. He became an enthusiastic supporter of Hezbollah, and he became more extreme in his opinions. His expressions of anger, as he once described them, turned into expressions of hatred.

He once said that, if someone had told him 30 years ago he would sit and talk to an Israeli woman, a Jew, he would have said it was impossible. But the years had taught him that “it was possible to listen to every human being in the world.” On another occasion he told me that he saw me as a neutral player in the conflict. “No,” I answered. “You cannot neutralize me.”

****

“My name is Samir Kuntar. I am prisoner number 562885.

I was born in the village of Abiya, on Mt. Lebanon. My father worked in Saudi Arabia as a chef for Albir Avila, the international hotel chain. He was a well-known chef, in high demand. He used to come home once every two months, always laden with gifts like clothes and perfumes. For the last birthday I celebrated at home, I remember that my parents bought me a leather jacket and my father baked me a layer cake.

My mother is a homemaker with a very strong personality. When she decides something, that’s it – you can never change her mind. My family is Druze, secular and well off. We are three brothers and five sisters. We have a beautiful house that overlooks Beirut, with a view of the airport from the balcony.

One winter evening in 1968, around 9 or 10 o’clock, we heard explosions. The whole house trembled. When the noise started, we went outside and saw huge flames rising from the airport, lighting up the sky like flares. I stood and watched, unable to move. I had never seen anything like it. That was the IDF raid that took place in December 1968, after the attacks on El Al planes.

The first time I heard of Israel? I was six-and-a-half.

I was a quiet, introspective kid. I attended a private school, where I did very well. In the afternoons, after school, I’d go with my friends to hunt birds with a slingshot, or swim in the river. In winter, when there was a snowfall, we’d mess about outdoors and take photos of one another.

Occasionally my father took me to Beirut. When I saw the refugee camps on the edge of the city, I asked my father what they were. He explained to me, ‘Son, those are Palestinians. The Israelis drove them out of their country, and they’re not allowed to return.’

We were fans of the Nejmah football team, and of the singer Fayrouz.

I dreamt of being a soldier. I wanted to go to the military academy and become an officer. But then in April 1975 the academy was closed, because of the civil war. So I spent a lot of time at home, hanging out with my friends, talking about teenage stuff. We didn’t talk about politics. I read comic books – I had a subscription, because I really loved comics – and I watched the news. Then I joined the Scouts – the branch that was sponsored by Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist party. My parents really admired Jumblatt; they even hung his photo on the living room wall.

We used to have Scout meetings twice a week. Activities were divided by age, and they were for boys only. We did mostly social activities, like picking olives in a nearby village. Or physical activities, like rock climbing, hiking and running.

I wanted to fight. By then there were pictures of Arafat on the streets, and posters about the Palestinian revolution, and Palestinians used to collect donations door-to-door. I said, “Singing and going hiking with teenagers is not for me.” I went to the head of the Socialist party movement and said, “Let me go fight the Phalangists.” He answered, ‘You’re too young.’ I was 13-and-a-half at the time. I loved action and I was idealistic. Representatives of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – General Command, were recruiting candidates for military training from my village, so I convinced one of them to let me enlist. Each afternoon at 5 o’clock, a car would collect me and take me to the training camp. That’s where I shot a gun for the first time – a Kalashnikov. It was fantastic.

At first no one suspected a thing at home, but after a few days my father found out. He was a man of peace; war was the last thing you would associate with his character. Seeing that I was completely high on adrenaline, he said, ‘Why don’t you go abroad, to Amsterdam?’ The company he worked for had a branch in Amsterdam. I didn’t want to go. I said, ‘Dad, no. I am not leaving this place.’ But he wouldn’t give up. He showed me photos of Amsterdam; still I wasn’t interested. Pretty soon we were arguing, and everyone at home started to nag me. ‘You’re still young, forget about all this stuff.’ My father said, ‘I will send you anywhere you want to go. Just choose a destination and I’ll take care of everything.’ But he could not say anything to change my mind.”

The training

“The military training course lasted six weeks. It was led by the PFLP, but the participants were unaffiliated with any organization. We slept 60 to a tent and practiced climbing ropes, running and shooting. We were given political lectures and they showed us films about Israel. We lived for the stories about the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – how we succeeded in destroying the myth of the invincible Israeli soldier. We read about the fighters who successfully attacked Israeli towns like Kiryat Shmona and Maalot [in 1974 the DFLP attacked a school in Maalot, killing 21 high school pupils – LG]. We admired them.

At the end of the course we were allowed to apply for membership in the PFLP. The welcoming committee was composed of five men in uniform, but without any ranks because the PFLP was Marxist. We were forbidden to salute, for the same reason. They asked me annoying questions, like ‘Are you completely convinced of the suffering of the Palestinian people?’ and ‘Why do you want to join the organization?’ Everyone had to choose a nom de guerre, so I chose Nabil Ahmed Kassam. I was given a new uniform and an ID card with the PFLP logo. It showed my blood type and my rank: ’combat soldier. ’

When the PFLP split in 1976, I stayed with the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) that was led by Abu Abbas and I went to officers’ training. I studied tactics, topography, weapons, engineering and communications. There were also courses in ideology. I finished seventh in my class. I was 15 years old.”

The commander of the Nahariya operation

When he was 16 years old, having spent 11 months in a Jordanian prison following a failed terror operation, Samir Kuntar was given leadership of a cell and assigned to attack Nahariya, an Israeli coastal town located about 10 kilometers south of Lebanon.

During that notoriously brutal attack, Kuntar dragged 32 year-old Danny Haran and his 4 year-old daughter, Einat, from their apartment to the nearby beach. He killed Haran by shooting him in the back and then drowning him, while Einat watched. According to forensic evidence and eyewitness court testimony, Kuntar then killed the 4 year-old girl by smashing her skull against the rocks with the butt of his rifle. Her mother, Smadar, hid in a crawlspace with 2 year-old Yael, but accidentally smothered her to death while trying to silence the toddler’s cries. The Nahariya attack is considered the most brutal in Israel’s history. It is seared on the collective Israeli consciousness.

“I chose three comrades for the mission: Abdel Majed Aslan, Mhana Salim Al-Muayed, and Ahmed Al-Abras. I was the commander. We were given special training in weapons and in sea operations – swimming at night with full gear, navigating a rubber dinghy, and so on. The training was very extensive, because several previous attempts to infiltrate Israel by sea had failed.”

The mission: to kill civilians

“During our training, we recorded our wills. Everyone wrote his own will, and the political leader corrected the technical errors. I wrote, ‘To my comrades in the organization, to all my comrades in all the Palestinian organizations, today I sacrifice myself for Palestine…We are proponents of peace and this is the way to obtain the peace in which we believe. I do this in the name of the all the Palestinian mothers, for their happiness and their future. I do this for all the Palestinian fathers, and I hope that, with my acts, I will contribute to their future return to their birthplace, so that every Palestinian family will be permitted to raise its children in harmony. Peace to everyone.’

Two weeks before Kuntar and his comrades set out on their mission, Abu Abbas informed the cell leader that his destination was Nahariya. In a meeting that took place in the organization’s Beirut ‘war room,’ Abu Abbas showed Kuntar a map of the Israeli town and gave him a detailed operational briefing.

“Abu Abbas told us there was a 99 percent probability that we would not return. It was clear that we were going to kill civilians. We defined the operation as ‘Wounding Israelis.’ We said that every Israeli civilian is in fact a soldier.

I went back to my village to visit my parents for the last time. After dinner, I kissed my parents and my sisters and brothers goodbye, and I went to Beirut.”

Nahariya

“We called the mission ‘Al Nasser,’ for the former president of Egypt. This was after Sadat visited Israel. We set out on the rubber dinghy at 10 p.m. on April 21, 1979. The sea was stormy and it was cold. The journey to Nahariya took about four hours, because we traveled slowly to avoid making noise.”

Upon landing on the beach in Nahariya, Kuntar and his comrades followed the instructions they had been given in Beirut – which included finding a police officer and killing him. So they knocked on the door of a private house and called out in Arabic via the intercom, frightening the inhabitants into calling the police. They killed Officer Eliyahu Shachar in a hail of bullets – Kuntar boasts that he alone shot 30 bullets – and, just to make sure they had achieved their goal, they lobbed an RPG at the police vehicle.

The four terrorists continued to a nearby multi-story apartment building on Jabotinsky Street, about two blocks from the beach. They planned, said Kuntar, to abduct two or three people and take them back to Lebanon.

“We walked up some stairs and I kicked open the door of an apartment,” recounted Kuntar. I told Majed to take the right, while I took the left. Majed opened the bedroom door and someone inside – I guess he heard the noise – shot him twice in the forehead. He managed to say, ‘They shot me,’ before he fell.

I doubled back, entered the bedroom and saw the man who shot Majed. He was an older guy, with a long nose. I pulled the trigger on my pistol that was equipped with a silencer, but nothing happened. I tried again, but still nothing. I tried using my Kalashnikov, but it was jammed. That guy was lucky.

I yelled downstairs, ‘Someone get up here.’ Ali came up the stairs. I told him, ‘Toss a grenade in there, I’ve gotta fix my weapon.’ The explosion made everything go black. The guy in the bedroom disappeared. I was pretty sure he was dead, but I fired a few more shots just to make sure. Then we went downstairs. The stairwell was dark, but there was light under the door of one of the apartments. We broke in. That was the Haran family’s apartment.”

Murder. Why we did not commit suicide.

“Dan Haran was standing there, looking at us. The little girl was with him. When we arrived, he was sitting on the bed, as if he were waiting for someone. But as soon as we entered the bedroom, he stood up. He started talking to me in English. I didn’t understand much; just a few words. He was trying to explain that I should not hurt him. I told my comrade in Arabic, ‘Don’t shoot.’

I tried to calm him down with gestures. I said to him, ‘Come.’ He started speaking to me in a mixture of Hebrew and English. He held his daughter tightly. The little girl did not make a sound. She was wearing pyjamas. I tried to tell him to leave her there, but he did not understand. I tried telling him ‘Come.” But he did not want to come with me. I understood that he was trying to give the police time to arrive. He was afraid.

My comrade, Muhammad Ali, did not understand why we were waiting. I tried explaining to Haran again, using Arabic and hand gestures. He understood, but he was completely unwilling to come with me. I tried to separate him from the little girl. Then I heard shots outside. It was 2.45 a.m. I said, ‘He is delaying us.’

I grabbed him in a hurry, with the girl still in his arms. I said to him, ‘Yalla, imshi [‘Let’s go, move it’]. We left the building surrounding Haran, who was holding his daughter in his arms, and went down to the beach. Haran kept halting and talking, trying to delay us. But we had to get to the boat. They were waiting for us in Lebanon.

As we approached the rubber dinghy, we heard a lot of voices. Then shots were fired in our direction.

We approached the boat from the rocks, and Ali took Danny on board. That’s when they started to shoot at us really hard. I returned fire, but it wasn’t enough. Ali and Danny got off the boat. I ordered everyone to take a position on the rocks and return fire. Danny was behind us. His daughter was near him. Haran waved at the soldiers and called out to them in Hebrew. They alerted the area and continued to fire heavily. I ducked down to put a fresh magazine into my rifle. Haran waved again, while they were still firing, and he was wounded.

The little girl screamed. That was the first time we heard her. That’s it. I don’t remember anything else.

The battle continued until around 5.30 a.m. Ahmed was wounded in the forehead. Ali was killed. I took five bullets and lost a lot of blood. I was not focused.

Before the operation, I had instructed everyone to prepare explosive suicide belts. Ali prepared his belt and asked me, ‘So, should we blow ourselves up?’ I told him, ‘Not yet. Wait for the soldiers to get closer. I don’t want us to die alone.’ I knew that if Ahmed detonated his belt, we would all blow up. The soldiers got closer, but Ahmed didn’t detonate the belt. To this day, I do not know why.

What happened to the girl? During the interrogation they told me, ‘You must admit that you wounded the girl with your rifle.’ I told them, ‘Write whatever you want.’ I did not see anything and I did not hear anything. It was total chaos there. I was focused on the goal. I don’t mind admitting to things that I did. I don’t want to admit to things that I did not do.”

* * *

It should be emphasized that Samir Kuntar’s version of the events of April 22, which have been articulated here in his voice for the first time, is different from that of the security service personnel and Israeli civilians who were present.

According to the Israeli security services’ reconstruction of the incident, Officer Eliyahu Shachar was killed after he exited his vehicle and fired two warning shots into the air. Kuntar’s cell responded with a massive burst of shots. A teenager who was sitting in the car, together with two more police officers, was wounded in the leg and ran to hide behind some bushes. According to the eyewitnesses, the RPG was fired at a nearby wall – not at the police vehicle, which was damaged by flying shrapnel.

Also contradicting Kuntar’s testimony is that of Smadar Haran, Danny Haran’s widow, who hid with the couple’s 2 year-old daughter Yael in a tiny crawlspace above the bedroom. She has no recollection of hearing Kuntar trying to convince Danny to leave little Einat behind. “It was a terrible and chaotic night, but I find it very difficult to believe that any such conversation took place,” said Smadar.

Brigadier General (reserve army) Yossi Schur, a resident of Nahariya whose home was near the site of the attack, heard the shots and was one of the first to find the police officer, 24 year-old Eliyahu Shachar. After checking his pulse to confirm he was dead, Schur radioed for help and continued in the direction of the beach, where the firefight was ongoing. “…suddenly I heard the blood-chilling scream of a young girl. Just as I yelled, ‘Halt!’ Samir Kuntar stood up and began shooting at me from a distance of 5 meters. Three bullets hit me in the chest, and I fell. During his interrogation by the Shin Bet, Kuntar said that he twisted the little girl’s leg in order to make her scream, so that we would stop the assault. And we did, indeed, cease firing after she screamed. After I fell, the firefight continued.”

Samir Kuntar and Ahmed Al-Abras were wounded and captured at 5.30 a.m. Mhanna Salim Al-Muayed was killed during the exchange of fire.

During his trial Kuntar denied responsibility for the murder of the Haran family, despite the evidence of the pathologist, which proved that Einat Haran was killed by the force of a blunt instrument – most likely a rifle butt. The pathologist’s report also showed that Einat’s brain tissue was found on Kuntar’s rifle.

Torture and the wish to die, quickly

Samir Kuntar describes the physical torture he underwent during his interrogation. “On the second day of my interrogation, they started to talk about the girl. They asked how she was killed, who shot her.’ Only later did they start telling me that she had died from the blow of a rifle butt. I stuck with my story, but they insisted I had killed her. They took me outside and shackled me. Here, I still have the scars on my wrists. For five days they kept me shackled to an iron bar, with my arms up. I was in a standing position, so when I got tired or fainted all the pressure was on my wrists. Every so often, a soldier would beat me with a rubber hose. They practiced karate on my body. I was blindfolded and they would not allow me to sit or lie down. After they had finished beating me, they immediately returned me to the interrogation room.

My interrogator, Abu Zaken, kept insisting that I would write out a full confession. I hated him; he was a monster. He asked me where I had trained, for how long, and so on. But I did not tell. The little bit I did tell was just old wives’ tales. During those five days, I just wanted to die. I couldn’t take it anymore – the beatings, the humiliations, the curses. And the megaphones they put on my ears, with the noise of sirens at full volume. That made me faint.

I was kept in a tiny, windowless cell that was painted red. Bread, water and carrots were passed through a slit in the door three times a day. Sometimes a little cheese. I was kept in shackles and there was not enough room to lie down. Every few weeks a soldier would empty the slops bucket. After a while, the interrogations were less frequent.”

Five months later, Kuntar was transferred to a prison for political prisoners. His cellmate was Kozo Okomoto, the Japanese Red Army militant who perpetrated the Lod Airport Massacre in 1972.

The trial

In November the trial of Samir Kuntar began at the Haifa District Courts. It lasted for three months. “I thought it was a circus,” said Kuntar. “There were 52 witnesses. I testified for 90 minutes, in Arabic. The sentence was handed down on January 29, 1980. I got five life sentences plus 48 years inside. At the trial I heard for the first time the names of Eliyahu Shachar, Einat, Danny Haran and Smadar Haran, who survived.”

“Smadar took me on as her personal project. She just could not understand that it wasn’t personal. I didn’t come from Lebanon with a note that said, ‘Haran family.’ I came as part of a conflict in which I was convinced I had to participate. I did what I did for my people, for my country. I did not steal, I did not break into a car.

Even if I sit in jail for a hundred years, I will never change my opinions. This is what I believe. You are all banging your heads against the wall. You are playing a zero sum game, and both sides are losing. The solution is for the stronger side to compromise. You are the stronger side. You are the occupiers. If you don’t compromise, things will not work out. Those are my opinions. I, in my eyes, am a Palestinian. It is as if you were to ask an IDF soldier if he regretted having fired shots. You don’t ask soldiers that question.

You say I am a terrorist with ‘blood on his hands.’ That is a cynical phrase. You have blood on your hands, too. Every Israeli citizen who pays taxes to the state has blood on his hands. All of you.

People who commit acts of terror, like me, are not bloodthirsty. You cannot say that I woke up one morning, without knowing anything about the Palestinian nation, without having grown up in the conflict, and decided to commit an act of terror. No, of course not. It was a process, and it was connected with my political and ideological roots. It is also not a question of age, of how old I was. Young people are more motivated, it’s true. So age was a factor, but not a deciding one. I was not unusually attracted to Palestinians. I always believed, even when I was young, that we cannot enjoy our lives while letting the next generation be consumed by the conflict. I wanted to fight for the Palestinian nation. I believe that, by sacrificing my life for the people to whom I am connected, I committed a moral and humane act. I was not a mercenary soldier.”

Prison. Zionism in Hebrew

In prison, Kuntar taught himself Hebrew and went on to earn an undergraduate degree in the humanities from the Open University of Israel. “I took a course on the Holocaust. I received a mark of 90 percent for a course on strategies of the Second World War. I learned about Pearl Harbour and Operation Barbarossa. I started studying for my Master’s degree, but they would not allow me to complete it.

I read a lot. I hardly slept at night. I don’t like to sleep. I like to experience every minute of life, even in jail. I ordered books via the canteen. I made an effort to read every new book about the army, security, wars that happened here, Zionism. I am anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish. I am against the politics of Zionism. I think the establishment of the State of Israel was a mistake, but I do not hate Jews. I sent some of my books to Lebanon, so I will have them at home when I return. You have to know the people you are fighting against. I listen to Israeli music, and I read Israeli novels, too.”

The deal. Nasrallah made it happen.

“I don’t know when I became a symbol. It was a process. I think it started with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, in 1985. I was told the hijackers mentioned my name, and some of the prison guards told me I should be ready to be released. I stayed in jail, though. Over the years they released prisoners who committed much worse acts than I. They freed Al-Abras in the Jibril deal.

I became the longest-serving political prisoner in Israel. I became a spokesman and a representative of the political prisoners. I have participated in every single hunger strike and protest that took place over the last 28 years. Starting from 1984, I led the hunger strikes. Every single thing we were granted – a bed, clock, civilian clothes, television, radio – everything was the result of a strike. They gave us rights and then they took them away.

And then you made me into your bargaining chip. That was in 2004, when I was in Nafha Prison. There were hundreds of smuggled mobile phones at Nafha. I spoke with Kassam, Nasrallah’s deputy, around the time when Israel was planning to trade hundreds of prisoners for Elchanan Tennenbaum and the three [dead – LG] soldiers.

I had never heard of Hezbollah before I was captured. I learned about them in jail. Today I love Hassan Nasrallah very much. Very much. He always keeps his promises. If it weren’t for him they would never release me, and I would end my days in jail.”

Release from jail

“When the war began, I felt pride. Our people have finally begun to value human life, as you did once. I hoped the abducted soldiers were alive. I knew they were more valuable alive, and I wanted the price to be high. I heard the parents of the abducted soldiers speaking. Things like that lower the barriers. I knew that if they had released me in 2004, your soldiers would not have been abducted. There would not have been a war at all. You are responsible. You behaved with stupidity and arrogance. After the 2004 prisoner swap I told one of the guards at Nafha, ‘Listen, there is going to be a war over me. Remember that.’ I knew that there would be a deal and I would be released. That it was just a matter of time.”

“What am I going to do now, after my release? I really don’t know. I feel as if I am going to another world. I need to sit and digest my new situation. If I had been imprisoned at an older age, it wouldn’t be so difficult. But I came to jail as a teenager. This is the first time I will experience life on the outside as an adult. I need to learn how to drive, to go to the bank, to buy things at the shops. I have never held money in my hand.

The thing I need most now is privacy. In 2004, when I was supposed to be freed, I bought a house, 40 meters from the beach, in Beirut. The house is waiting. I want to be alone. I want to have my own key, so that I can come and go whenever I please, to drink coffee on the balcony, to smoke a cigarette, to go down and swim in the sea and go jet skiing.

Addendum to the Maariv article:

“My place will always be on the front lines”

by Arik Weiss

In interviews with the Israeli media, Samir Kuntar has presented himself as a moderate pragmatist. But his statements in other contexts have revealed a slightly different picture

In the few interviews that Samir Kuntar granted the Israeli media over the 29 years he was in jail, he presented himself as a moderate who no longer believed in terrorism against civilians. He even sent a letter of condolence to Shimon Peres after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. “With pain and with sorrow I have just received the shocking news of the murder of the leader of peace, Yitzhak Rabin. May his memory be blessed,” wrote Kuntar. “We have all lost a great leader, who planted in our hearts the value of loving humankind and who wished to stop the cycle of bloody violence.”

But in letters that were smuggled to the Arab press over the years, a slightly different picture emerges. In 2003 the Lebanese magazine Al Safir published an interview with Kuntar in which he said, “I am a guarantor for the release of the prisoners. I am a weapon in the hands of Hezbollah. Our release is not a preparation for the disarming of the Resistance, but rather proof that our method is the correct one. The weapons of the Intifada must remain in order to strengthen the standing of the Palestinians.”

Over recent years Bassam Kuntar, Samir’s younger brother, established a website calling for his release [samirkuntar.org, but it’s been disabled since his release. – LG]. The site was translated into Hebrew, English and Arabic, but the texts in the different languages do not match. According to one of the articles on the site, “On the day I left the beach of Tyre I was sad, but at the same time I was bursting with happiness because I knew that I was going to fulfill my obligation: to kill Jews. I no longer had any patience. I knew that I had to sacrifice myself.”

In a letter he sent to Hassan Nasrallah that was published on the website, Kuntar wrote, “I bless my brothers in the Hezbollah and call upon them to return to the battlefield against the Zionist occupiers. I strongly recommend the participation of more young men and women from all over Lebanon and the Arab world in the armed struggle.”

In another letter he sent to Nasrallah after the assassination of Imad Mugniyah, Kuntar promised that “[my] place has always been on the front lines of the battle…which is soaked with the blood of the dearest people. I will continue in my path until the final, complete victory.”

At an elaborate ceremony welcoming him back to Lebanon this past Wednesday, Kuntar, dressed in a Hezbollah army uniform, said, “I swear by Allah that I will continue in the path upon which I started.”

Dermot Mulroney reads Etgar Keret on This American Life

Etgar Keret with his son, Lev, in a photo taken two years ago.

My sister loves listening to the weekly podcasts at This American Life. Me, I don’t tend to listen to Podcasts so much. I have a severe case of adult onset ADD – does that mean I’m post-modern? – meaning, if I can’t multi-task I feel a bit lost.

So I guess it means a lot that this podcast of actor Dermot Mulroney reading Etgar Keret‘s most recent short story held my complete attention. I did not IM, answer the phone or check my email until it was over.

And yes, I have mentioned Etgar a few times on this blog.😉

Israel at 60: זה מה יש

For those who don’t read Hebrew, the second half of this post’s title means, roughly, “that’s what there is.” It’s the kind of phrase that parents are wont to use when their offspring say they don’t like what they’ve been given for dinner. Lately, I’ve been using it when journalists ask what I think of the state of the state (of Israel) 60 years after its founding.

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This is the cover of this week’s “City Mouse,” a weekly culture and entertainment magazine that is distributed in Tel Aviv with Haaretz newspaper. David Ben-Gurion and his sour-looking wife, Paula, look out the window of their Tel Aviv residence (now a museum) at Tel Aviv hipsters celebrating Independence Day armed with cocktails, silly string in a tin and squeaky plastic hammers. “So,” Israel’s first prime minister asks his wife, “Was it worth it?”

The Israeli media seems to be torn between celebrating the big 6-0 (part-y! And don’t forget to buy our newspaper on the holiday eve, ’cause we’ve included tons of special supplements with lots of gossip!) and reminding us of how far we have strayed from the values of the state’s founders. Occasionally, we are served up “rare archival footage” of black-and-white proto-Israelis in embroidered Russian peasant blouses, grasping one another’s hands as they dance in joyful circles. The message is that we should mourn the lost group spirit and hate ourselves for becoming a bunch of materialistic individualists. No one mentions the austerity, the unemployment, the controlled economy and the lack of air-conditioning, but I’m assuming that we are not meant to miss those things.

Meanwhile, the foreign media has been busy informing us that Israel is – more or less, but mostly more – DOOMED. Depending on the editorial agenda of the media outlet (or the personal agenda of the writer), this message is conveyed in tones that range from sober concern to barely-disguised glee. Apparently, the age of the nation-state is totally passe – for the Jews, that is. Everyone else is allowed to live in atavistic bliss.

Here at my neighbourhood cafe, where the espresso is strong and the WiFi runs true, Ido-the-barman just unfolded the nylon (made-in-China) Israeli flag that came with today’s newspaper and jokingly draped it over the shoulders of Selim, the Palestinian-Israeli from Jaffa who reigns over the tuna salads and quiches. Selim handed the flag back to Ido and they both laughed knowingly – because they know that a Star of David and the stripes of the tallit are not symbols that speak to a Muslim. They did not, however, launch into a discussion of whether or not the state’s symbols should be more inclusive of all its citizens.

Israel is a flawed, young state with tons of problems. It is also a flawed, young state that has a lot of good stuff going for it. If it weren’t, I would not live here. I am not religious and I am not a refugee from political or economic persecution. I might be a refugee from Canadian weather, but that’s another story.

If you live in Jerusalem and you spend most of your time at the Knesset, the prime minister’s office, the West Bank and Gaza, and it is your job to report about the problems (because who’s interested in good news, anyway?) it’s easy to feel as though you are living in a cuckoo’s nest. Trust me, I’ve been there. In fact, I still go there far too often, and it’s definitely not a good place to be. Tel Aviv-Hebron-Tel Aviv in 8 hours or less can make your fuses pop. If I were doing the Jerusalem-Hebron trip on a regular basis, I’d probably be on Prozac.

When the political problems get to me, I take a break and spend some time in the healing confines of Tel Aviv – which the great Hebrew poet and translator Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943) described as the best place to be a Jew. These days it’s more of a multi-ethnic town, and it’s got its fair share of urban problems, but it’s a lovely place nonetheless.

If we are going to talk about Zionism (and mostly I don’t, because “isms” make me nervous), then Tel Aviv is, for me, the great Zionist success story. I don’t feel any particular emotion when I look at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I would certainly never put a note in its cracks – makes me feel as though I’m performing a voodoo ritual. I love to visit the Hurva Synagogue, because the story of the arch is so fascinating, but I do not feel a desire to pray there.

But I have been known to get a little misty when I look at Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture and tree-lined boulevards; at the posters advertising dozens of plays, concerts and club events; the theaters and the publishing houses and the art galleries, the stock exchange and the fashionable boutiques. Tel Aviv is the city where the first school with a curriculum taught entirely in modern Hebrew was established. It is where all three of Israel’s major daily newspapers were founded and still exist today, in their original locations. It is the home of the national opera, the national symphony orchestra and more than half-a-dozen theaters. It’s a place where homosexual couples and ultra-Orthodox families live peacefully in the same neighbourhood – even in the same building.

Tel Aviv is also a noisy city with a lot of air pollution. There’s dog shit everywhere. Rents are insanely high. And it is not uncommon to hear of landlords that find excuses to avoid renting to Arabs in Tel Aviv, too.

Yup, good stuff and bad stuff. Tomorrow night we mark 60 years since the establishment of the state. It might not be what Ben-Gurion had in mind, but that’s what there is.

But do they have matzah in Jeddah?

Scroll down for update.

This engraved tray was photographed at a shop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by a bemused friend (and fellow blogger) who happens to live there. For those who don’t read Hebrew, the word spells “matzah.”

So far there is no word on whether or not the actual bread of affliction is available in the kingdom.* Last year, however, Haaretz’s Yoav Stern reported that the Arab public of Israel are avid consumers of matzah during Passover.

Quote from the article:

A journalist associated with the Islamic Movement in Israel told Haaretz that he also bought matza. ‘The kids can’t get enough of it,’ he gleefully reported. ‘They eat it like crackers. But it also represents a sense of folklore for us. Maybe we like it more than Jews do because no one’s forcing us to eat nothing but matza all day long,’ he said in explanation.”

And so, with that little bit of reportage that, I hope, will make you go “hmmmm…..,” I wish you all a very joyful Passover – a.k.a. Holiday of Freedom, a.k.a., Holiday of Spring, a.k.a…..You get the idea.

(And yes, I really am going to post about my trip to Istanbul. I’m just a bit slow these days.)

*UPDATE: My Jeddah-based Zionist spy correspondent writes that matzah is, indeed, available at the local supermarkets. It is certified kosher by a beit din (rabbinical court) in London. I am at a loss for cynical words at the moment. Please help me out with your comments.

Photo of the Year, by Natan Dvir

Natan Dvir‘s photo (I’ve blogged about him before) was chosen Photo of the Year at the Local Testimony photo exhibition. The image below was selected by a panel of 9 judges, from over 5,000 entries.

Local Testimony exhibits the best of local photojournalism, together with the World Press Photo exhibition. The exhibition will be open from until January 12 at the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv (Building A, 3rd floor, next to the Kravitz shop). For further information, plus an online photo gallery, see the Local Testimony website.

 

This is how Natan describes his image:

“Na’im El’iam (36), a Palestinian resident of the Jabalyah Refugee Camp in Gaza, holds the body of his three-month-old son Muhammad. The body is wrapped in blue cloth. On orders of the security forces, Na’im is standing in the parking lot near Erez Checkpoint, which is closed to traffic due to violent confrontations between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. Na’im El’iam was trying to get home in order to bury his son, who died of a congenital heart defect in Israel’s Tel Hashomer Hospital, after doctors tried to save his life. The Palestinian father arrived at Erez Checkpoint, the main border crossing between Israel and Gaza, just as it was getting dark – a few minutes after a shooting incident between Hamas fighters and Fatah members who were hiding inside the checkpoint. After waiting for the shooting to end and then for his documents and permits to be checked, Na’im El’iam was permitted to cross the checkpoint to the Palestinian side with his son’s body.”

Click here to see a larger version of the photo.