Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Whistleblower, the Warnings of Disaster, ...and a Disaster

AS once again there's excited talk of what to do to stop Iran's alleged project to acquire nuclear weapons, and whether America should bomb first or let Israel start the bombing, the man who has arguably done most to stop the Middle East becoming a nuclear tinder-box, and certainly made the biggest sacrifice, is due to be awarded an international peace medal.

But as things stand, he is going to be unable to travel to receive it.

Mordechai Vanunu spent eighteen years in prison, twelve of them in solitary, for blowing the whistle on Israel's development of nuclear weapons. Since his release he has called for the Middle East to be made a nuclear weapons-free zone, to prevent the area's endemic conflicts becoming a major world disaster, and start the ball rolling instead towards world nuclear disarmament.

Rather than let him become an influence for peace and the rights of Palestinian and Israeli peoples to achieve genuine freedom, the Israeli government insists on holding Vanunu captive in Jerusalem, and treats it as a breach of parole when he talks to any foreign journalists.

This year he received a three months sentence and was back in jail for that offence. But he had managed to visit the Petach Tikva court where Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan-Maguire was opposing deportation. "Why can't they deport me instead?" quipped Vanunu.

On December 12, Vanunu is expected to receive the Carl Von Ossietzky Medal, to be awarded in Berlin by the International League of Human Rights. The League announced his nomination in October, and urged the Israeli government to let Vanunu free to attend the ceremony.

Carl Von Ossietzky was a German peace campaigner and anti-Nazi who should have been allowed to leave Germany in 1935 when he was named a Nobel peace laureate. The Nazis refused to let him leave, and instead he was incarcerated in a concentration camp, and later murdered.

Mairead Corrigan-Maguire is one of the signatories to an open letter sent to the Israeli government urging them to allow Vanunu to come and partticipate in the medal ceremony. Other signatories include Nobel laureates like German writer Günter Grass, chemist Harold W. Kroto, physicist Jack Steinberger, as well as singer Nina Hagen, author and lawyer Felicia Langer, and former Vice President of the European Union Luisa Morgantini.

Following the letter, Vanunu's attorney Michael Sfard sent a letter to Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, saying the atomic whistleblower was willing to commit himself to returning to Israel following the ceremony in Berlin. In his letter Sfard asked whether "Israel was interested in joining the unlovely ranks of nations who prevented their citizens from receiving international prizes by preventing their arrival at ceremonies?"

The comment by Vanunu's lawyer cited Poland when it revented Lech Wałęsa from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as well as the Soviet Union, which barred author Boris Pasternak from claiming the Nobel Prize in Literature. China is preventing 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate dissident Liu Xiaobo from leaving the country.

But Israel is different, and its government and supporters affect shock whenever unpleasant comparisons are made. Israel is, as we are frequently told, "the Only Democracy in the Middle East".

The fire this time

WHILE Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been focussing on one threat of disaster, holding out for bigger bombs and bigger bombers in return for the slightest pretence at concessions in the interests of peace, a smaller but realer disaster had caught his government ll-prepared, and ordinary Israeli citizens are paying a dear price for it.

Writing in Ha;aretz, former Knesset member and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid says the fire raging around Mount Carmel bears out his warnings about the gap between the government's pretensions and its incompetence, " reflected yesterday in the rescue services' inadequate hoses and ladders. Even their fire-extinguishing planes are improvised, and there are too few of them to make a difference. The meager materials at the firefighters' disposal will run out by this morning.

Sarid says reports forecasting doom were ignored, and the present Interior Minister " is in no hurry when everything goes up in flames. He relies on God, whose salvation is instantaneous, like the blink of an eye. The minister is ready to set Jerusalem on fire at any moment as well".

"Saying ''I told you so' is annoying, I know, but those who refuse to listen are more annoying.

"The minister is not the only one to blame here. The entire government is responsible. Every government has a leader - And where's his head at, these days? Now there's a problem - who will appoint the inquiry committee into the fire. But what happens when the investigators are the same ones who caused the disaster in the first place?"

While racists were rushing to blame imaginary Arab fire-raisers, solely to stir violence, the Israeli authorities have arrested two Druse schoolboys, accusing them of failing to extinguish a picnic fire. The boys' own village is at the centre of the fire storm. Their mother says they were in school when it started.

Yossi Sarid has another explanation, and quotes Haifa's mayor who rushed to the scene and said, "We knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck."

"He was referring to the neighboring landfill, where the fire most likely started. And if it wasn't the source of yesterday's brushfire, it will be the source of tomorrow's. The country is full of such garbage dumps where nobody bothers to enforce the law. The whole country is at risk, but especially Haifa, whose surrounding mountains were recently described by the industry, trade and labor minister as 'an atom bomb'"

Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) campaigner and blogger Adam Keller has commented (Crazy Country) on the irony of Netanyahu's lack of preparation.

"Once upon a time there was a Prime Minister and Bibi Netanyahu was his name, but he wanted to be called Winston Churchill. A single thing preoccupied him, day and night, the nuclear bomb which a diabolical villain named Ahmadinejad was plotting to produce. All other problems and issues were minor and insignificant to Bibi, and he devoted most of his energy to preparing his people for the coming war. So determined was he that, for the sake of stealth bombers which could fly quickly in stealth and arrive to bomb Ahmadinejad 's country, Bibi was even willing to confront the settlers, his best friends.

"And yet Bibi did not remember that war with the evil Ahmadinejad would necessarily involve the massive shooting of rockets and missiles, and that missiles cause fires where they fall, and it is the nature of fires to spread in all directions burn everything in their way, and in Bibi's country the fire fighting apparatus was outdated and clumsy and split between thirty competing authorities. And the firefighters were crying out fot proper equipment, and again and again making dire warnings of an approaching disaster. But they went unheard, like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

"And it came to pass that while Ahmadinejad was sleeping peacefully in his bed and not a single missile was yet fired, stupid negligence caused a terrible great fire to burst out on the Carmel range, and it consumed woods and villages and kibbutzim, and the Prison Service cadets were caught in the flames and died a terrible death. And the firemen fought the flames heroically but hopelessly because they did not have the appropriate equipment, as if fighting with bows and arrows on a modern battlefield, and they urgently clamored for all the world to quickly and urgently send the vital equipment which nobody provided in their own country. And the TV commentators marveled at the sight of Prime Minister Bibi running quickly and efficiently the entire fire-fighting operation. In the absence of a singe country-wide head of the fire-fighting services Bibi had to take the role upon himself".

As we heard at the weekend, Russia has sent aircraft to assist in fighting the Carmel fires. And, considering the way Netanyahu's ministers have called for mass deportation of Palestinians, if not now, under cover perhaps of supposed "security" in a war with Iran, here is the final bit of irony:

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- More Palestinian firefighters on Sunday joined their colleagues battling a massive wildfire that killed several dozen Israelis and sparked an unprecedented global response.

Bethlehem's civil defense chief Ibrahim Ayish told Ma'an that 21 men from the West Bank and four fully equipped fire engines were assisting Israeli and international forces trying to control the blaze near Haifa.

The latest civil defense unit to depart the West Bank left at 4 a.m. and arrived at northern Israel five hours later, Ayish said.

"We're working alongside the Israeli team, which knows the area very well," he says. "We were received respectfully. After all, we're dealing with a humanitarian crisis which knows no borders.

"Neither walls nor checkpoints will stop us."

Centered in Carmel, south and east of Haifa, the fire is the biggest inferno in Israel's 62-year history. So far, it has taken 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people to flee their homes.

Police have arrested two youths from the Druze Israeli village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the fire "through negligence" by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.

The blaze has so far ravaged at least 5,000 hectares of land and five million trees in the pine-covered hills known locally as "little Switzerland."

The three Palestinian units work in a zone made up of local and international ground units as well as aircraft, which are playing the largest role. Field crews control the small fires.

How does commander Ayish feel about the unusual mission? "Proud to participate in the humanitarian work of firefighting," he said, defining it as "the work of protecting the environment and nature."

When people are dying or losing their homes in a terrible tragedy, it may seem inhuman to talk of irony and see a humorous side. Since writing his satirical remarks above, my friend Adam Keller had said the scale of the tragedy now overwhelms such comment. But perhaps a still bigger tragedy could be averted, if people see in the co-operation and respect shown between the firecrews from either side the Wall a vision of what could be in the Middle East. If you but will it, 'tis no dream, as someone once said.

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