Saturday, December 25, 2010

Haaretz Op-Ed

Here's an op-ed I recently wrote for Haaretz newspaper.

It's about WikiLeaks and the notorious Julian Assange.


Ghost from Christmas Past

I would like to show this old story I made from the most memorable Christmas of my life.

Since this story makes world headlines every year and the politics round these parts never really changes, I figure it's appropriate to recycle.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great Ted Talk About Solving Conflicts

This talk is a must see.



William Ury speaks about a possible first step (pun intended) to solving the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict?

What if Netanyahu and Abbas could just go for a stroll together?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Sad Epilogue to the Happy Story

Israel refuses entry to Palestinian firefighters being honored for helping Carmel Forest Fire

Israel refuses entry to Palestinian firefighters being honored for Carmel fire assistance - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

The latest development on this story, according to Haaretz.

If it's true, well, I can't say I'm surprised.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Fighting Fire vs. Firefights



Palestinian Firefighters on their way to Israel














There have been lots of things happening in the news lately.

The big story in Israel this week, besides Wikileaks of course, was the tragic and devastating fire that consumed much of the Carmel forest.

What I thought was particularly telling was a really nice story that made the Israeli and Palestinian News, but was not reported by most international news agencies.

The tale is of the team of 21 Palestinian firefighters from the West Bank who came to Israel's aid to fight the fires alongside their Israeli and international colleagues.

Here is the Israeli account in The Jerusalem Post:

http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=198113

And now the Palestinian account from Ma'an News Agency:

http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=338524


Some international agencies did find this to be newsworthy, but most ignored it.

We all know that if this was an Israeli vs. Palestinian firefight, it would have made headlines around the world.

But when the Israelis and Palestinians fight fires together, it's barely even a blip on the radar.


Perhaps I'm pointing out something obvious here, but what is the value of a news organization that ignores positive stories, but would never miss a negative one?

Since when did news become a collection of cookie cut stories that follow along a predetermined narrative?

I know that that the news is in a Wiki craze right now, but how is this story not fit to print?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Viva Mexico !


















I just got back from one of the most dangerous places in the world, Mexico!

But it didn't feel so dangerous drinking la bandera (tequila, lime, and spicy tomato juice whose white, green, and red colors symbolize the colors of the Mexican flag) in the pool's swim-up bar.

I went for a dear friend's wedding in Acapulco.

It felt great to shed my reporter's hat for a sombrero.


The wedding was beautiful. Fireworks lit up the night sky and fell onto the secluded patch of beach on the Pacific Ocean. Throw in an Arabic inspired villa, an open Tequila Bar, an energetic happy couple and 200 of their closest friends, a great DJ spinning Latin and other beats, and you really can't go wrong.

I ate breakfast at the wedding and stumbled out at 7AM. My buddy's grandmother was still on the dance floor. Need I say more.

We stayed in this resort far away from the real Acapulco.

Among the highlights was a great surf with stingrays, touch football on volcanic black sand, and a weird Mexican game of machismo where you pay a guy on the beach to run an electric current through you and an opponent and the first one to let go loses.

I let go after about 30 seconds when the electric shock collided with reason (the nemesis of all games of machismo), "Why am I paying someone to shock me to the point of discomfort?"






















I did spend some time in the giant sprawl that is Mexico City.

With 25 million people trying to get around, the traffic is the worst I've ever experienced.











The Swanky Polanco District











People don't see a rise in violence in Mexico City. Locals claim that it has always been violent in D.F.

The change, they note, is in the border areas. I asked nearly everyone I met, what was the tipping point in the levels of crime and most people said that violence levels spiked because the government is actually fighting against the drug cartels, rather than turning a blind eye to the drug business as was done in the past.

It sounded like a plausible theory, and I of course got the urge to visit the border area to learn more, but I resisted it and decided to just relax this time.





Among the highlights in Mexico City:




Eating cactus
(It's kind of bland but the peppery sauces that come on every Mexican dish make it yummy)





















Visiting the Chapultepec (Grasshopper) Castle


It is the only castle in North America that was used to house sovereigns – the reigning Mexican Emperor Maximilian I, and his consort Empress Carlota, during the Second Mexican Empire.














I really dug the murals by Diego Rivera























Harry Potter-esque




























I went to the The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María), the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.































They celebrate Halloween in Mexico, but its a little different and its called "Dia de los Muertos" or Day of the Dead. And they don't say "trick or treat" when they knock on doors but refer to "dead people's skulls." Which probably makes it less marketable for Hallmark.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Frozen Pizza

















Often I will ask my Palestinian friends about the state of the negotiations, and they will talk to me about pizza.

"You see, Jerry, imagine we are negotiating over a pizza, and the other side (Israel) is constantly eating it. Every day we wake up and there are less and less slices."

And it's true. The settlement project is consuming much of the resources in the West Bank. But while the argument does work particularly well for resources which can be depleted (ie.ingested), the settlers view it differently when it comes to land.

"Listen Yaron, If we're negotiating over a pizza, and at the end the Arabs (Palestinians) get the pizza, then our settlement construction is like some nice (kosher) toppings for their pizza. Why are they complaining?"

This is also true. So here's the measly truth about this so called "freeze."

For Israel, extending the freeze for another 60 days has ZERO effect on the ground, since the typical West Bank building cycle is 10 months. For any building freeze to actually have an effect on the rate of construction, it must be at least a year. So why not give the Palestinians the 60 days they're asking for to keep this moving forward?

Remember that the last freeze allowed for building on existing foundations, so Israel can just do what they did last time: Approve all the tenders they want before the freeze goes into effect and give their "West Bank tender approval dept. a 60 day vacation in Acapulco."

For the Palestinians, you're already knee deep in Israeli settlements. Building in the West Bank has been going on since 1967. What difference does another 60 days make?


The so-called freeze actually applies much better to the hearts of the so-called leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu.

Thus far, they are both too cowardly to take any bold steps to peace.

Bibi will never give up Jerusalem.

Abbas will never give up the right of return.

That's what this is about.

The "freeze" is just a convenient excuse for both sides to back out of the negotiations before the real negotiations begin, and blame it all on the other side.

The State of Documentaries

Here is a particularly good assessment of the chaotic state of the documentary film genre by AO Scott of the New York Times.

It re-confirmed this paradoxical truism about contemporary documentary film, that documentary is impossible to define because it's very definition is in a state of expansion.

It's a great time to be a doc filmmaker!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mr. (Anti) Freeze

My latest video piece is up on Time.com

I think the point of the story is quite clear.

Because of a legal loophole, the freeze did not really achieve its goal of reducing construction in the West Bank. (See this Peace Now report for exactly how many homes were built during the so-called "freeze."

I may be writing an op-ed piece related to this subject in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

No Education for Peace=No Peace

I believe the above formula to be a truism.

Yet, sadly, neither Israelis nor Palestinians do a good enough job educating their children for peace, which I define as learning and accepting the painful narrative of the "other."

This is probably true of their proxies as well, the knee-jerk American (Jewish and Evangelical) Zionist Camp and the hyper-liberal European (pan Arab and pan Berkeley) Flotilla Camp. Sorry if you or your loved ones were left out of these generalized categories.


We should all read the most important (perhaps fallacious) story to (not) make headlines this week, regarding Israeli and Palestinian textbooks.

This Haaretz report in the Israeli daily claims that there is at least one Palestinian school teaching the Israeli narrative.

And of course it gets refuted by this story in the Palestinian publication, Ma'an.

Which leaves us at square one.

Forget settlements, the two sides can't agree on what they had for breakfast.

I may soon visit the West Bank to see which account is true.

Didn't Oslo force both sides to alter their textbooks?

Is there even one Israeli or Palestinian high school teaching the narrative of the other side?

Forget this already doomed attempt.

For the sake of a future peace, please tell me there is one.




The Textbook in Question

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What about Hamas?

Even if the direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians (which resumed in Washington on September 2nd) succeed in achieving an acceptable peace settlement that includes setting up an independent Palestinian state, serious questions will remain about the durability of any American sponsored, Arab-supported agreement as long as Hamas remains outside it, writes Jordanian political commentator and former minister Saleh Qallab in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.


I am re-publishing here an important viewpoint that has been overlooked by the puppeteers in Washington. While I support the idea of peace talks with all my heart, I believe, like Mr. Qallab, that the talks are absolutely futile without a comprehensive Fatah-Hamas agreement first.

Unlike the author, I don't believe their differences are irreconcilable. I just think that we are still, unfortunately, many years and a few great leaders away.


















The Hamas Factor



UNBRIDGEABLE DIFFERENCES: The first factor that could affect the outcome of the current talks is whether the anticipated settlement would include the Syrian and Lebanese tracks or not. Damascus might well decide to encourage Hamas to adopt whichever position would help it (Syria) avoid being isolated if it discovered that the proposed settlement is limited to the Palestinian track. The Iranians meanwhile are expected to continue opposing the talks on principle.

It is no longer possible – after the long experience of hostility between them – for Fateh and Hamas to reconcile their differences. Neither the Egyptian [reconciliation] document nor any other initiative can succeed in bridging the differences between the two sides, unless a major region-wide political earthquake succeeds in reconciling the Egyptians with the Iranians.

The respective positions of Fateh and Hamas are not only at odds with each other, but irreconcilable. The confrontation between them – which kicked off in earnest when Hamas mounted its armed coup in Gaza in 2007 – has become an existential struggle that cannot be settled by compromises, or even by holding new elections.

Even when hopes for the success of the Egyptian reconciliation initiative were at their height, Hamas never concealed its intention to mimic its Gaza putsch in the West Bank. The killing of four Israeli settlers near al-Khalil [Hebron] just hours before direct talks were due to kick off in Washington earlier this month was a message from Hamas to the Israelis and Americans saying that the movement was able – if it succeeds in replacing the Palestinian Authority (PA) by force – to implement all security arrangements that the peace talks could come up with.

Those who believe that Hamas could be persuaded to join the peace process and become Fateh's (and the PLO's) partner in the results of the negotiations are completely wrong. Hamas was set up by the international Muslim Brotherhood movement after the PLO and its various factions were evicted from Beirut by the Israelis in 1982 to replace rather than augment the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

There is no doubt that the Israelis played a role in (or at least turned a blind eye to) Hamas's establishment in order to rid themselves of the headache of the entire 'sole legitimate representative' [of the Palestinians] question, and to evade mounting international pressures to negotiate with that representative (the PLO) in order to bring the festering Middle East conflict to an end.

It was thanks to this confluence of interests (no suggestion here of any collusion) between the Muslim Brotherhood and Israel in the 1980s after the PLO was evicted from Lebanon that Hamas was conceived. While the Israelis wanted an excuse for avoiding peace by claiming that they had no Palestinian negotiating partner, the Muslim Brotherhood's objective was ultimately to control all the Arab countries in the Middle East after taking the first step of imposing their will on the Palestinian people.

The late Yasser Arafat was well aware of the Muslim Brotherhood's intentions ever since the international Muslim Brotherhood movement decided to set up Hamas. In order to contain this emerging threat, and knowing that he could not possibly prevent its creation with his forces out of Lebanon, Arafat sought to open up to Hamas. Negotiations between the two Palestinian sides took place throughout the late eighties, but no agreement was reached. Then, in 2004, Arafat died.

Arafat's demise signaled the beginning of a dramatic series of developments, which culminated in Hamas' armed takeover of the Gaza Strip and the eviction of Fateh from the enclave. The Israelis thus got what they wished for all along: Another Palestinian player pretending to be a 'sole legitimate representative.'

In his negotiations with Hamas, Arafat, who was determined to co-opt the new movement before it spread and developed regional extensions, was excessively generous to its representatives. He offered Hamas 40 percent of the seats in the Palestinian parliament.

But Hamas, which was as determined then as it is today to replace the PLO, procrastinated. The stalemate continued throughout the second intifada until Hamas was able to seize control of Gaza in 2006 and build its own Islamist administration on the ruins of the PLO.

That said, it would be unwise to ignore the Iranian factor. Iranian interference in Palestinian affairs, which began immediately after the Oslo agreements were signed, encouraged Hamas to carry out the task it was created to achieve: Destroy the PLO and bury the issue of the 'sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people' once and for all.

What must be clearly understood from now is that unless the desired settlement includes the Syrian and Lebanese tracks – and satisfies Iran – Hamas will continue to exclude itself from it, maintain its grip on Gaza – and pursue its efforts to mount a coup in the West Bank similar to the bloody one it led in the Gaza Strip.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Piss Broke Recommendation Series #2

Watch the movie Food, Inc.

It's a stunningly well made documentary about an important topic.

If you eat food, then this film is a must-see.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Seven Natural Wonders

Check out this website, where you can vote for the Seven New Wonders of Nature.


I have been fortunate enough to have seen 6 out of the 28, and have put the remaining 22 on my bucket list.



My personal favortie, The Dead Sea, is in the running, and may benefit from the awareness this distinction might generate.


















Go Vote!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Piss Broke Recommendation Series #1

Since my working hours have been increasingly spent on my new media startup, my budget for entertainment has been slashed from $100 a month to about $0 a month.

So I've been borrowing lots of books and movies from friends for entertainment.

Here's the latest book I read, which I highly recommend.

"The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" by Deepak Chopra might just change your life.



Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Dwindling Dead Sea

This is the second chapter of the water stories I produced for Time.com

Due to time constraints, my interview with Eli Raz, a leading sinkhole expert, had to be cut out.

And due to taste constraints, a time lapse of me and my cameramen, (AKA Elad Gefen), covering ourselves in Dead Sea mud, also had to be cut out.

If there is demand for me to post these on the blog, I may consider it.

Enjoy the video, and please do share it, to raise awareness for this ecological tragedy in the making.




Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Latest "Argument"

I was just forwarded this op-ed by Daniel Gordis which was published by the Jerusalem Post.


Here is my response:

This "argument" to me is not entirely clear, and seems to jump all over the place.

The author seems to use cliched, paranoid, right wing catch phrases without ever delivering a logical argument as to why the mosque should or should not be built.

I assume he's against it, but he relies on an anecdote about the Israeli army needing to work on the Jewish sabbath to support his claim. I'm sorry, but it's a bit ridiculous.

It's like he's trying to say that the people building the "Ground Zero Mosque" are the enemy, but he doesn't have the proof to make that claim (since its totally erroneous) so he uses confusing, heart tugging stories that make a certain audience feel a certain way, much like the FOX news pundits who invented this story in the first place.


Yes there is something to fear. Yes some of that which we should fear emanates from some form of Islam. What exactly do we have to fear from this particular "mosque" being built? Probably, nothing.

But Fox News ratings, and I imagine the Jerusalem Post's as well, go up when non-stories like these get distorted and propagated in the media.

In summary, the op-ed pretends like it is going to connect all these disparate dots, but it never does.


Also, there are 3 factual errors:

1. They are building a community center, not a mosque (although there will be a prayer hall)
2. It is not at Ground Zero, but several city blocks away
3. To my knowledge, President Obama never said he was pulling out all the troops from Afghanistan in July


I feel that this op-ed by Nicholas Kristof rings with much more truth.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Ground Zero (Not Ground Zero) Mosque (Not a Mosque) Debate (Not a Debate)

After being bombarded with emails/op-ed's from friends about this "Ground Zero Mosque," I have decided not to take the bait.

Let's end this ridiculous conversation right now.

This is a non-issue.

The US should make Ground Zero a public memorial.

Private property near Ground Zero should be sold, rented, leased to anyone on God's (Allah's) Green Earth who has legally acquired the rights to said property.

Stop watching Fox News (Punditry). Good night.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bedouin Backstory

It was 10:30 PM in the Al Araqib cemetery. I had just finished my filming for the day. A sliver of moon rose over the the rolling desert hills. The air that made me feel like I was inside a hair dryer most of the day had finally cooled down. I was excited to get into my car with a broken A/C, roll down the windows, put on my classic rock playlist on my Iphone, and cruise back to Tel Aviv, huddling over my last functioning car speaker.

But after a quick pat of my pockets, I realized my mistake. I left my keys in the ignition switch while using my car headlights to get a nicely lit shot of the tombstones hours earlier. I was locked out of my car. I called my Israeli insurance provider to see if I could get assistance. When I mentioned that I was in the unrecognized Arab village of Al Araqib in the Negev desert, I heard 10 seconds of silence. Then finally, "Ehh, we won't go there."

I was stuck and could only laugh at my predicament. But as I have known since my high school psychology class, due to diffusion of responsibility, I had a much better chance of getting help in a tiny village than in New York City. And in the friendly hospitable environs of a Bedouin village, my odds were even better. The first 3 guys I went up to and asked for help in rudimentary Arabic were willing to devote the next hour to the cause of prying open my car.

I have broken into my car once before with a wire coat hanger, but searching through the rubble of Al Araqib's former homes, we couldn't find one. We did find some scrap metal which we bended into a loop, stuck into the doorframe, and tried over and over to catch the lock. Everytime we tried, the man dressed in the white garabiyah would utter a prayer, "Bismilla ir-Rahman ir-Rahim" "In the Name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate."

But the merciful and compassionate God must not have been paying attention. We tried in vein for over an hour, until finally, as a last resort, I gave the go ahead for one of the guys to smash my rear window with a hammer. After I cleared away the shards of glass, opened the rear door, and found my keys in the ignition, the same Muslim man who had helped me since the beginning of my ordeal, stuffed a 100 Shekel note (about 30 USD) in my shirt pocket. He said it was to help pay for a new window. I told him I didn't need it, but it was too late. He vanished into the darkness. Somewhere in the desert, this pious Muslim man in white was happy that he got to perform an act of charity on Ramadan. I figured there's no point chasing after him, and that I had in some way also helped him. I drove home with a shattered rear window, but enjoyed the extra ventilation.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Water Woes

This is the first in a two-part series I produced for Time.com on the water woes in Israel/Palestinian territories.


The second one will focus specifically on the Dead Sea.

This first installment provides a general overview of the problem.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Gaza Surf

I just watched a piece on the New York Times by Michael Slackman and Shawn Baldwin on the Gaza Surf community. It stirred up a sense of nostalgia for one of the greatest summers of my life; the one I spent in Gaza in 2005.

I was making my doc on the Disengagement and rented a place right on the beach near the former settlement Hof Dekalim (Palm Beach). I would go into Gaza City to interview Hamas leaders, and then cross back into the settlements to interview settler leaders. I made sure each and every day ended up in the pristine waters of the Gaza beaches.

I rented a cheap suite at a mostly abandoned run down hotel right on the beach. Prices were cheap because of the impending evacuation. Most of the predominantly secular Jewish surfers had already taken the government compensation and left Gaza.

The last remaining die hard surfers hooked us up with some old boards. I remember one of them claiming that 2005 was one of the best surfing summers in recent history. (Generally winter storms churn up the best Mediterranean waves). He thought it was a cruel joke from God (or Murphy and his damn law) that the last summer they could surf there would turn out to be the best one ever.

I remember thinking what a shame it was that the Arab surfers and Jewish surfers couldn't even meet each other in the water, since each tribe was relegated to surfing in their respective beaches.

I also remember how surreal it felt to be surfing in Gaza. Surfing is always an escape, but in Gaza the warm waters felt like returning to the womb. With the constant threat of Qassam rockets looming overhead, I knew the water was the safest place to be. The rocket probably wouldn't detonate in the sea, sparing both myself and the fish from the deadly shrapnel.


Straddling my surfboard in the warm Mediterranean waters, I looked East and saw armed teenage Israeli soldiers trapped in the camouflage netting of a soon to be evacuated army base. Due North, Israeli F-15's swooped over the densely populated Gaza City, frightening a million people at once with a sonic boom. To the South, I saw the smoke clouds rising over the Rafah weapons smuggling tunnels.

But squinting to the West, I saw something different. I saw a perfectly round orange ball flatten and lose its shape as it sunk behind the horizon. Before it retired for the day, the sun decided to put on one last show, spraying fluorescent light on the water, illuminating the faces of the surfers. As energy crashed into the sandy seafloor, hot pink, liquidy bumps rose out of the sea. I heard joyous shrieks from stoked surfers and seagulls serenading one another. Mostly, I heard the quiet. Surfing is so much more than a sport. It is a meditation. On an epic day, whether you live in Hawaii, Israel, or Gaza, the hardest thing to do is leave the water.





















The view from my suite in the Palm Beach hotel in Gaza

Friday, June 18, 2010

Devendra, Come Back!

Here is an oped I wrote for Haaretz on Devendra Banhart's decision to cancel his shows in Israel.

Not Too Late to Reschedule


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Another Soccer Story

Clearly I have World Cup fever. Here is another story of Israelis and Palestinians learning to coexist through the beautiful game.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Story on Time.com

Don't read this if you're squeamish.

I have become largely desensitized to gore for many reasons. First, I have seen my share of Hollywood films. Second, I worked as a medic during the second Intifadah. Third, I have seen the devastation of war and natural disaster firsthand . Fourth, I once saw Al Gore in person. (ok, terrible joke, sorry). I thought I was a pretty composed dude until I flipped through the photo album of Gazan Doctor Tada Medhat Taha. There I saw images so grisly I wish I could erase them from my memory, but I know I never will. Every once in a while, when I least expect it, they will flash in my mind's eye, sending chills up my spine.

He showed me what human brains look like when they're oozing out of the skull. I nearly vomited. He showed me a human eye socket with an eyeball dangling by a thread. I did vomit a little bit into my mouth. He showed me a blue, lifeless human leg that had just been amputated. I got up and left the room in the middle of the interview. I walked down a corridor full of fake limbs and teenagers banished to wheelchairs for life, went into the bathroom, and didn't know if I should cry or vomit or both. I ended up splashing cold water on my face, and told him not to show me those images ever again.

This is one of the hardest stories I ever had to do for many reasons. Access was difficult. Building trust was especially difficult. It took many trips without the camera just to make friends with guys that are mostly my age or younger. Had I been born about 50 kilometers south of where I'm typing now, I could have easily been one of them.

I ended up interviewing between 10 and 12 Fatah policemen, activists, and bodyguards about their lives in Gaza before, during, and after the Hamas takeover. I never had the heart to turn off the camera and just let them talk for hours on end. In the more than 2 years I've been going back and forth to Ramallah to meet up with these men, deprived of their limbs and their families, I've learned more about life, love, and war than in my 28 years prior. I understand now that legs a man can do without. But to be cut off from your family, and your roots, is too painful for most men to bare.

I've also been privileged to amass many hours of interviews, from which I've amalgamated a fascinating oral history of the Hamas takeover. I reckon this probably could have been a pretty good feature film, too. Here's a glimpse:




Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nice Stories for a change from Israel, Gaza

I savored these stories on Israel and Gaza on CNN. Soccer and comedy is infinitely better than bombs and bullets. Thought I'd share em.

This one is on the World Cup in Gaza.

and this one is on the most popular comedy show in Israel,

a satirical program called "Eretz Nehederet," meaning "a wonderful country."


Enjoy!




Scene from the Gaza World Cup

Monday, May 17, 2010

NYT Lens Blog Covers Rina Castelnuovo

The NYT Lens Blog has written up a story on my colleague, New York Times photographer Rina Castelnuovo. Rina has been photographing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 30 years. I have had the good fortune of working with her for the past several. Her professionalism, passion, and stunning pictures never cease to amaze and inspire me. I actually had no idea she started off as a painter, but if you look at the texture, colors, and the incorporation of landscapes in her shots, they are all true works of art. They also powerfully tell the story of a conflict replete with horror, fanaticism, and tragedy. Check out 20 of her photos here , and make sure you go full screen to really appreciate them.



From Confrontation in Nilin, West Bank
Courtesy of Lens Blog, Rina Castelnuovo

Saturday, May 15, 2010

UK Elections and New Media Story

Check out the story and video reports I made in London last week, on the effects of new media on the UK elections, currently on PBS MediaShift.





The Vandalised Conservative Billboards Facebook group proved popular during the election; this is one image from that group.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Insightful Haaretz Article

I just got around to catching up with the news from Isratine, after a week I spent in the UK covering the elections there. It was refreshing being in a country where the most important item to discuss, in this order, are the weather, football, and the weather.

I want to highlight an interesting story I read in Haaretz.

In an article by Amira Hass, it shows some of the devious tactics the Shin Bet (Israeli intelligence services) to get Palestinians to work as snitches for Israel. They essentially give two Palestinian medical students an ultimatum, to become an informant for Israel or lose out on a chance to fulfill your dream of becoming a doctor. I have heard of many cases like this firsthand, where desperate kids are bribed or blackmailed. Work for Israel, or give up what you love most.
Read it here.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Hamas Media Machine Strikes Again

Much attention has been given to the recently released, Hamas-made animated video, which has been reposted on Youtube by scores of different users. Many journalists have opined and called it part psychological warfare, part PR tool, but mostly a thinly veiled attempt to threaten the Israeli public with the killing of Gilad Shalit.


But to me the video showed a kind of lonely desperation on the part of Hamas to make a deal. Perhaps they can identify with the sad, frail Noam Shalit of the future walking the streets alone. One of the main reasons Israel is refusing the deal is because they are aware that the deal would empower Hamas politically in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as increase their international legitimacy. But I think this video should be interpreted by Israel as a sign of weakness on the part of Hamas, and now might actually be a good time for Israel to re-negotiate.


The video actually reminded me of the animated cartoons I used to watch as a kid. When an older version of Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, is walking alone in the streets of some generic Israeli city from the future, he finds a newspaper (Daily Globe?) with his son next to Ron Arad, the presumed dead Israeli airman. Then he goes to Erez crossing, the main checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, and his son, predictably, comes back in a coffin.


When the Qassam Martyrs Brigade logo came down with a thud sound effect, I was expecting to hear the sardonic laughter of some bearded Hamas operative (Green Lantern?).


I'm not trying to make a value judgment on who the real villain is in all this, since no side has a monopoly on good or evil in this conflict. (Let’s not get into political banter, please). If the video wasn’t about such a sad topic, it would be funny. I really think the Hamas filmmakers should apply to DC Comics to make the next Superman live action short.


"Dear Superman (IDF Air Force), I have Lois Lane (Gilad Shalit) in my possession and this is how she will end up if you don't give me what I want." (Insert sardonic villain laugh here).
Sincerely, Qassam Martyrs Brigade (Lex Luthor)





Of course, I am not insensitive to the horrible agony these families must be going through. This is not some comic book, but real life. As I type these words a free man, a young man is languishing away his formative years, most likely in an underground cell in Gaza without basic human rights.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom should be presumed innocent, are being held in Israeli prison without a fair trial.


Isn’t the holy land grand?


In a very different video, the real Noam Shalit makes a plea to the world on Israel's Independence Day on behalf of his son.


This is an extremely low budget production compared to Hamas' video. The video is way too long, in choppy English, and is missing a clear message. It is also not directed at Israelis, as it probably should be, but at the entire world. Shouldn't Noam's goal be to pressure Israelis into making Gilad Shalit a campaign issue in the next election? Or is this evidence that Noam has given up on the Israeli public that voted in a right leaning government?


Not sure whether any of these media antics will have any real influence on the decision makers who get to pull the strings controlling real human lives.


Friday, April 16, 2010

My Reverse Exodus

My week in Sinai reminded me how much I love traveling for the sake of traveling. I had the purest of intentions. To relax, experience, think, write, and scuba dive in the Red Sea. My only photographic equipment was an Iphone. My only writing tool was a pen and random scraps of paper. This is my brief travelogue. I could write forever but work beckons...(If only I could get paid to do this type of "work," hmmm)




















My crossing from Eilat to Taba was as graceful as could be. At the end of the Passover holiday, I was literally the only soul person traveling FROM Israel TO the Sinai Peninsula. I relish these moments, where all evidence seems to suggest that I am going the totally wrong way. I watched taxi after taxi roll in, delivering to the border hordes of the most relaxed Israelis you’ll ever see. With long and unruly masses of hair, bloodshot eyes, and rosy shoulders, they silently and reluctantly drag their bodies towards their respective realities. The air of tranquility is suddenly pierced by the angry screams of an Egyptian driver running frantically towards one Israeli, accusing a member of the group of leaving the taxi without paying. Yes, this was as close to the real-life exodus as I would get in my lifetime. The modern day Hebrews entered the “Promised Land,” with little holiness, but maybe with a profound sense of the sublime.

I flashed my US passport to the Egyptian border officer and was greeted with an “Ahlan Wahsalan.” (welcome). I walked through a metal detector with my iphone, keys, and wallet, and for the first time in my life I went through without a beep. He stamped a funny little automobile insignia from the 1950s on the last page of my passport reserved for amendments, not visas. I then exchanged my Israeli shekels for Egyptian pounds (when I asked the Egyptian clerk for a receipt, it provoked laughter), and was across the border in less than 5 minutes.

Possibly to emphasize the modernity gap between Israel and Egypt, you literally go back in time 1 hour when you cross the border. (Egypt doesn’t do daylight savings). This is good for the perpetually late traveler. I got to the dusty Taba bus depot at 9:15, but it was actually 8:15, which meant that I was still on time for the 9:00 bus. Awesome. But there wasn’t a soul in sight and the wind was blowing trash into my face. Finally after 30 minutes I saw a Bedouin looking man walk by. In my rudimentary Palestinian Arabic, I asked about the 9 am bus, and finally understood that it was not going to come. The next bus was at 3. TIA, I thought to myself. This is Africa. I felt a surge of power and liberation.

This was the third unlucky thing that happened to me since the trip began just 15 hours earlier. I was kind to two French tourists who were dazed and confused in the seedy labyrinth that is the Tel Aviv bus station. I gave them travel advice and let them cut in front of me in line. They bought the last two tickets for the bus to Eilat. When I got to the ticket counter, I was told that there were no more tickets. I had to sit on the floor of the bus or wait for the next one. I took option 1, and those French dickheads didn’t even say “bonjour” to me as they nearly tripped over me sprawled out like raw chicken in the center aisle of the bus, as they went to their comfortable seats. Using some soldier’s m16 as a pillow, I imagined myself underwater in a fluorescent coral garden.

The night before that a dog peed on my face. I was in a makeshift campground (read: parking lot) in the shadow of the Herod’s Palace Hotel. The wind was howling so I fastened my tent to a palm tree, hammered 8 stakes into the hard sand, and secured then with red sea rocks. At 1 am, the arsim (see here for definition) had finished their arak (anise liquor) and their music was off, so I unfurled my sleeping bag, and completed my reverse metamorphosis by crawling into it the tent I call the Larvae. I zipped up the one opening, leaving the screen open for oxygen. Despite the light pollution caused by Eilat’s monumental ugliness, I could see my favorite constellations. Just as I closed my eyes and was drifting off to sleep to the folk melodies of Mumford and Sons, I felt a warm spray of liquid on my forehead. The pungent smell of dehydrated rank urine filled my nostrils. I looked up to see the lipstick-like penis of some mutt aimed right at my face.







The Larvae Tent













But I must say my luck turned around, kind of. Once I realized I was going to be stuck in Taba for 7 hours, I went to the Taba Hilton to spend the day on the beach. This was the hotel that had been devastated in 2004 when a truck drove into the lobby and detonated a powerful bomb, killing 31 people and wounding 160. I had to get past 3 security perimeters and a metal detector just to get in. I lounged around there, had lunch, and got on the 3pm bus to Sharm al Sheikh.







Taba Hilton Vantage Point

















A good idea when traveling in the Sinai is to staple your passport to your forehead, or at least permanently keep it out. I have never seen so many checkpoints in my life. About every 15 miles and before entering any village, the bus stopped, some security goon came in, and checked every person’s id.








Dahab Checkpoint












Eventually I got to Sharm, checked into my spartan bungalow on a cliff overlooking the red sea, and felt like I was finally getting closer to my paradise below the waves.








My Bungalow












But the next morning, just as I was getting excited to go scuba diving, I saw something I had never seen in my life. A checkpoint, complete with a metal detector and several guards, checked everyone's bag before they get on a dive boat. I suppose it makes sense, given the creativity of terrorists these days, but come on, these people are armed with snorkels and sunscreen. As I got on the vessel, ironically named “Freedom,” I reassured myself: There wont be checkpoints underwater, right?







Dive Boat Checkpoint
















The Freedom Dive Boat










The diving was spectacularly, otherworldly. Clownfish, parrotfish, barracuda, groupers, giant brain corals, eel gardens, stingrays.
I met some amazing human beings also, both Egyptians and foreigners.
I even got to experience the Sharma al Sheikh nightlife scene, which is quite fun and alcohol friendly, possibly catering to the hundreds of Russian package tourists who fly in every day to Sharm’s international airport.


The way back was uneventful. Just the routine checkpoints and then the usual harassment I always get when coming back to Israel, despite my residency status.

Female Israeli Officer: Why did you try and go to Gaza in 2008?

Me: For work, I’m a journalist.

Female Israeli Officer: What were you doing in Iraq in 2005?

Me: Reporting, would you like to see my Press ID?

Female Israeli Officer: We must stamp your passport.

Me: No, I need to travel in the Arab world. You may not stamp it.

Female Israeli Officer: You know, you are not special. The only difference between you and me is I can vote, and you can’t.

Me: Voting in Israel is an exercise in futility.

Female Israeli Officer: (smirking) You’re aware it is against the law to go to Suria (Syria) and Lebanon.

Me: But what about my summer home in Beirut? Come on, I was in Egypt for god’s sake. There’s a peace treaty, right?

Female Israeli Officer: Just know that next time we will have to stamp your passport.

Me: Can I go now?

Female Israeli Officer: Yes.


On the Israeli side, I jumped into a taxicab of an Israeli-Arab driver who turned on the meter and then decided to pull over and chat with some friends on my dime. Little did he know, my sharp elbows had already been deployed at the border. I let him have it. He admitted his “chutzpah” and we drove off with him jabbing me in jest.










Sharm Nightlife

















More Package Tourists Descend on Sharm















Sinai Desert Rocks

Friday, April 02, 2010

Jerusalem Passion Play

Check out my latest story on Time.com

It is a bloody one, but don't worry, the blood is fake.

And if you happen to be in the Old City of Jerusalem today, you don't want to miss Joanne Petronella and the Christ in You Ministry of Brea California performing the Passion Play.


Happy Easter and Passover to all.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sayed Goes to the Swamp

I was very excited to read that one of my favorite columnists for Israel's daily Haaretz, the often lonely, fragmented voice of Israel's Arab minority, Sayed Kashua, visited my alma mater, the University of Florida. He was hosted by the Jewish Studies department to talk about his show, Arab Labor, and his books. Meron Benvenisti and the awesomely named Sammy Smooha also attended. Sayed's latest column about his trip made me long for the quaintness and Southern charm of Gainesville. But he got the title wrong. It's not "How About Those Gators." It's "How Bout Them Gators!"

Next time I'll teach Sayed the lyrics from my favorite UF Fight Song, played after the 3rd quarter of every football game.

"We are the boys from old Florida, F-L-O-R-I-D-A. Where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest of any old state down our way!"


Monday, March 15, 2010

The Cove
















I saw the doc film "The Cove" last night and was deeply affected by it. Not just because dolphins are my favorite animal and the animal I would most like to be reincarnated into (mainly cause they are the best surfers on the planet), but because it reaffirmed my faith in the power of the individual or a small group of individuals to affect change. In exposing a secret prison beneath the sea, the Oscar winning doc also exposed a great universal truth. I understood "The Cove" to be a metaphor for many places in the world; dark, hidden lairs where crimes and atrocities are being committed regularly with impunity. Places where photography is banned, where screams go unheard, where justice is reserved for the afterlife. Like seedy discotheques, the various "coves" on our planet cannot sustain themselves once a light shines on them.

It took a group of about 10 individuals to expose one of the biggest animal-rights violations in the world today. They shone the light on "the Cove" in the stunningly beautiful coastal town of Taiji, Japan.


Every year, 20,000 dolphins are butchered in Japan to make toxic, mercury poisoned school lunches for Japanese children. The final, grisly scene shows a beautiful blue cove turn blood red as hundreds of dolphins squeal and squirm to avoid being speared to death. Of course they are trapped by nets and cannot escape. One desperate dolphin even tries jumping onto land to avoid the spear. Hundreds more of the "prettier" bottle-nose "Flipper"-like dolphins are shipped all over the world to live in captivity (a fate worse than death for an animal that swims 40 miles a day for exercise and fun). A dead dolphin is worth about 600 dollars. A live one is worth 150,000 dollars.

I learned in the film that the real-life "Flipper" committed suicide in the arms of her trainer and caretaker, Ric O' Barry, who then had a life-changing revelation: It is wrong for dolphins to live in captivity. Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, like us. They are self-aware. If you put a dolphin in front of a mirror, it knows it's looking at itself and will inspect its body for wounds and scratches. They also have a wide range of emotions. They can experience joy and depression. They know what love is, and like us, have sex way past the age of procreation. They are super creative, often inventing cool dolphin games, which means they have imagination.


O' Barry is a modern day hero for realizing the error in his ways and having the courage to not only change himself, but change the world. He is the main protagonist in the film and has been arrested many times for freeing captive dolphins.
He decided that it was unethical for dolphins to be kept in these tiny pools with noisy crowds affecting their highly sensitive ears. He knew better than anyone that the perpetual dolphin smile is an illusion.


I urge everyone to see this film and then do four things:

1. No matter how much they beg you, refuse to take your kids to Sea World or Seaquarium or any Swim with the Dolphins facility.

2. Ask your Japanese friends to raise awareness in their own country against whaling and dolphin killing (Most Japanese aren't even aware this is going on).

3. Support or make a donation to:

Save Japan Dolphins


4. There are many more "Coves" in the world. Find one and expose it.






Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Yes Men Fix the World

I just saw the most brilliant documentary. I won't ruin it for you. Just go see it. The Yes Men Fix the World. Their title is bit ambitious, but sometimes the Yes Men suspend disbelief long enough to actually do so.
Please let me know if anyone has a connection to them.
I would like to make a sequel in the Middle East.




The Halliburton Survivaball

Friday, February 19, 2010

Na'vis in the West Bank

I wrote an op ed in Haaretz about the subjectivity of the Avatar Na'vi narrative and how both Israelis and Palestinians have seen it as their own story.

For those interested in the surreal photos and video from the Avatar themed Bilin protest connected to the here they are. Photos courtesy of Hamde Abu Rahme. Video courtesy of Haitam al Katib.




















































Apparently even Na'vis are susceptible to tear gas

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Israel to Re-Route Barrier

Interesting timing...more than two years since the Supreme Court in Israel ruled the route of the security barrier/separation wall near Bil'in to be illegal, the construction of the new route is finally underway, according to Israeli officials and activists. Perhaps it is the recent media attention given to the protests, but is probably just a coincidence. The two-year lag is most likely connected to the lethargic and hyper-bureaucratic nature of non-wartime Israeli government decisions, especially when dealing with sub-contractors, especially when dealing with a so-called security issue, and especially when it involves giving land to the Palestinians. Despite being as slow as molasses, it's refreshing to see that there is some semblance of "rule of law" in the Wild West Bank.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Archaeology as a Political Weapon

Archaeology and the competing Middle East Narratives are both sort of like an onion. You peel away layer after layer, thinking you are going to find something tangible, a seed maybe, or a grain of truth. And at the end of the peeling, with empty hands and tears in your eyes, you realize that there is no such truth to be found.

Check out my latest piece on Time.com on the intersection of archaeology, land politics, and historical narratives in the most ancient part of Jerusalem, a place known as the City of David or, if you prefer, Silwan.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

West Bank Spectacle

This is my latest video on the New York Times website. Have a look and let me know your thoughts. Warning: it is a tad violent.





I have always been very interested in the concept of non-violent struggle, and there is one thing that is not mentioned in the video that I think clarifies how the Palestinian popular struggle leaders define non-violence. This is a direct quote from an interview Zaid Murat, who is on the Palestinian Popular Struggle Coordination Committee.

He said, "By non-violence we mean that we are using every form of pressure possible to resist the occupation, except for killing. We will not kill. We will not decide to kill."

And so far this has happened. The worst injury inflicted on an Israeli soldier was losing an eye to a rock. But it begs the questions, Is anything short of killing truly a non-violent struggle?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dusting off a Film

I began filming my first feature film, Grassroots, at the age of 24. Today I am 30, and I am proud to say that it was just released on Amazon.com. I can't believe that this project, six years in the making is actually finished, and that I am now holding a shrink-wrapped DVD in my hands.





The timing is actually quite bizarre. The film’s goals were to raise awareness for three chronic injustices plaguing Miami. One of these injustices was the fact that Haitian nationals in Miami are not granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). We interviewed Jean Robert la Fortune from the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition and Irwin Stotsky, a human rights attorney and Haiti expert from the University of Miami, to explain why Haitians had never been granted TPS. It’s bittersweet and coincidental, that on the heels of this horrific earthquake, Haitians finally have TPS, and that’s when Grassroots gets released on Amazon.

The film, I believe, will now serve as an interesting educational tool for sociologists, political scientists, Cuban-Americans, Haitian-Americans, African-Americans, and anyone interested in a snapshot of how culture and politics came to affect the 2004 US Presidential election in Miami. In a nerdy way, I think it’s also pretty entertaining.

Grassroots was my first film, and a graduation of sorts, since my later projects were more professional productions. Besides the plethora of technical things I learned, I gained a valuable life lesson. I learned that life is full of obstacles and challenges, but nothing is more of an obstacle than your own mind. Working on the film off an on over the course of 6 years, I ripped up 3 or 4 different scripts before I wrote the right one. There was no funding. At many moments, I found myself in the darkness staring at my computer screen wondering why I was still editing this film. At many points I wanted to give up, but something inside didn’t allow me to do so.

I didn’t give up because of all the wonderful, sad, and ultimately sacred human experiences I had while making the film.

I didn’t give up because of Chris Goldberg dashing from house to house in Little Haiti just before the polls closed, Ari’s speech while eating soul food in Liberty City, the tears of the canvassers after Bush’s victory was announced, the lady screaming “Kerry Communista” at the top of her lungs in Hialeah, the flat tires on a dark Costa Rican highway on New Years Eve.

I didn’t give up because of the tens of thousands of Haitians living in the shadows, or the tens of thousands of African-Americans who have been disenfranchised.

I didn’t give up because I had hundreds of voices and images in my head screaming at me to be freed.

The film probably won’t win any awards, and so I would like to deliver my faux Oscar speech, on my personal blog, right where it should be:

Firstly, the person who always believed in this project, my co-collaborator from the very beginning, a skilled producer, cameraman, and friend, Alex Ragir.

Secondly, a person who didn’t work on the film but served as an incredible mentor throughout. In the darkest hours of this project, Rhonda Mitrani was there to shine a light.

Then there’s my Miami brother Elad Gefen, the supremely talented editor who expertly crafted this picture from the first frame to the last. Ladi’s technical and artistic wizardry are all over this production.

This film is worth buying alone for the musical genius of Adam Weinberg. His Cuban-Caribbean rhythms are a listening pleasure and the best score I could have ever asked for.

Then there’s Gerald Jones and Adrian Baschuk, two of the best doco shooters around, who helped fill in when we needed some extra help in Miami.

Finally, I want to give a special thanks to Chris Goldberg and the rest of the Grassroots canvassers, who graciously allowed us to document their experiences that fateful November, and beyond. We are truly grateful.

In light of the election of an African-American president in 2008 and the granting of TPS to Haitians in 2010, MLK’s words never seemed so true.


“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Memories of an Earthquake

Watching the horrific scenes that have emerged from Haiti has triggered flashbacks to the time I spent in Pakistan following the disastrous earthquake there in 2005. I keep thinking that had I stayed in Miami a few more days, I probably would have gone over to Haiti to cover it. But in a way I'm glad that I was able to avoid making that decision, because going to the scene of a devastating earthquake is one of the hardest things a journalist can do. While I'm not sure how much my reporting actually led to tangible results for the victims of the Kashmir quake, it strangely did turn into a positive experience for me. No, I'm not into death and destruction. Quite the opposite. I am so affected by it, that I can't even gather the strength to film it sometimes. Yet, while journalists get to pop in, document the misery, and then return to their comfortable lives, these people are living in the midst of a real-life horror film. People lost their limbs, homes, and entire families in one quick rumble of the earth. Yet they press on and, somehow, smile. I didn't know this at the time, but now looking back through the prism of my memory, I think that it was one of the most uplifting spiritual experiences I've ever had. It also shaped how I view human nature. When a stranger helps a stranger for absolutely no reward, it is a living proof that mankind is not essentially evil. I wish the people of Haiti strength and resilience in the face of this horrific tragedy.






The long-haired version of me, about to board a UN chopper to Muzzafarbad (2005)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

TPS Granted to Haitians

Very pleased to see that the Obama administration has decided to grant TPS to Haitian Nationals who arrived in the US before the earthquake. At least they won't be deported back to the sinking ship that is Haiti.

For more info, go to this link from the Miami Herald

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Call to Action: TPS for Haitians Now

I have long advocated that Haitian Nationals receive temporary protected status (TPS) from the US government. The injustices and double standards applied against Haitian immigrants in the US is simply appalling. My question for the Obama administration on the heels of this horrific earthquake is: If not now, when?

I made a film about the double standards when it comes to not granting TPS to Haitians. I filmed it in 2004 and I actually just completed it. More information on its release in the coming weeks, but I just want to point out the two main reasons given by several of our subjects as to why Haitians don't get TPS status.

Reason 1: Racism
Reason 2: They would actually come to the US in large numbers

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and over the last decade has been devastated by both natural and political disasters. (In fact, this is the very definition of TPS eligibility) Its proximity to the US means that a wave of Haitian boat people would end up on the shores of the US should TPS be granted to Haitian nationals.

But there must be some middle ground between letting in every Haitian who wants a better life, and totally ignoring the plight of thousands of human beings who may be left to die in the coming weeks. There must be some system which would allow the most desperate Haitians a safe haven in the US.

To ignore the suffering of this cursed island will be a curse on all of us who stood by idly and did nothing.

If you are a US citizen, contact your State Representatives to pressure Obama to grant Haitians TPS.



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back in M.E.

I am now back in the Middle East and eager to find new and interesting stories from this fascinating and troubled land. I celebrated the New Year at my old dojo in South Florida, the Bushido Knights Ryu. Sensei Gerry Knapton started a cool tradition of breaking boards to mark the beginning and end of each year in the Gregorian calendar. I like it. It is a symbolic way to break from whatever was holding you back in the past, and to charge forward into the New Year with vigor.

The three years I spent training at this dojo was a truly valuable life experience. Not only did I learn how to defend myself against guns, knives, and unruly mobs, I gained confidence, wisdom, and a better understanding of self. The lessons of the Martial Arts are much greater than kicking and punching. That being said, it is by far the best martial arts center in that area if you are looking for practical self-defense.

Sometimes we also do impractical things such as breaking boards on fire.
Check out this link to see me breaking 2 boards with a palm hand at 3:00, and my brother Adam breaking 2 boards on fire with a hammer punch at 8:12.