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In 2006, shortly after I left Palestine and moved to Washington, DC, I read a book called Understanding Iraq by Professor William Polk — a Harvard / U. Chicago historian, former member of the Policy Planning Council of the Department of State responsible for the Middle East and North Africa, and a founding director of the American Middle Eastern Studies Association. It had a profound effect on me. I could empathize so much more strongly with what the Iraqis were going through after I had spent time living under occupation myself.
To try to engender some of this empathy in American hearts and minds, I came up with an idea to rewrite American and Iraqi history with the roles of the countries reversed — with America playing the role of Iraq and a fictional coalition of Asian and Middle Eastern countries called Megastan playing the role of America.
Aside from the general interestingness of putting yourself in other people’s shoes, there was vast potential for wordplay and hilarious digs. I couldn’t pass it up, even though it ended up taking weeks of writing, research, graphic design, and web formatting. Here’s an excerpt:
In the autumn of 2030, Megastan elected a new Prime Minister. His name was Malik Henna, and he was the son of the Prime Minister who had carried out Operation: Snow Storm. Henna was a young and inexperienced politician whose history of failure in nearly all endeavors public and private strangely endeared him to large blocs of Megastani public opinion. He was also strongly supported by the Neo-pros, and after Henna took office, Neo-pro ideologues who had openly pined for a “New Pearl Harbor” were placed in positions of great power in the Henna Administration.
A year later, on November 9, 2031, something much worse than Pearl Harbor hit Megastan. An extremist gang of Venezuelan Communists known as Los Quaidos executed a horrific terrorist attack against the Megastani capital of Megadina…
You get the idea. Megastan topples the Cuban regime (which had been harboring Los Quaidos) on its way to crushing the uninvolved Americans, and utter chaos ensues as the invading Megastanis alienate all shades of American citizenry with their insensitivity and incompetence. Predictably, American Anarchists, former U.S. Army soldiers, North Dakota militias, and The Pat Robertson’s Martyrs Brigades fight back, and they prove to be tough fighters and expert bomb-makers.
It’s thoroughly cited with respectable sources, so anyone who has a problem with my facts or history will have to take it up with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Professor William Polk. My implicit analyses, on the other hand, are wide open for discussion.
Here’s another excerpt from my book — sort of. There’s a section in Chapter 10 called “Okies in the Promised Land,” and this is an early draft of that section. But it’s too long and “travel-writery” to include in the book. I had to pare it down and extract the elements that best fit the flow and purpose of the book.
So here’s the whole story of my parents’ crazy visit to Palestine and Israel in the summer of 2005. It should answer a question I get all the time:
“What do your parents think about all this?”
Now you’ll know. 🙂
Okies in the Promised Land
My parents had always been nervous about me living in the Middle East, and my letters home weren’t doing much to assuage their fears. But I wanted them to see it for themselves so that for the rest of our lives they would never have to wonder whether I had exaggerated either the beauty or the horror.
My mom and my step-dad Bill had been talking about visiting for months, and I knew they would put it off indefinitely unless drastic measures were taken. So in the end I resorted to blackmail.
I said to Mom, “If you love me, you’ll come see what my life is like over here.”
They arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in the early afternoon on Friday, June 3.
The hotel I had arranged for us was on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. It had a friendly Palestinian staff, a noisy playground nearby, and an unparalleled view of the Jerusalem Old City and the Dome of the Rock.
After freshening up and having a bite to eat, we headed down to the Old City and walked along the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked while carrying the cross, and through the Arab quarter with its bustling mix of shops catering to tourists and residents alike. Mom quietly soaked everything in. It was her first trip abroad. As we were leaving the Old City, she told us it still didn’t seem quite real.
“It all looks like an old Cecil B. DeMille movie set.”
For dinner we walked out of the Damascus Gate and up Nablus Road past the Garden Tomb to the Jerusalem Hotel, where I’d made reservations at the Kan Zeman Restaurant to give my parents their first taste of Arabic food, music, and ambience.
We ordered mezze, traditional appetizers served on small plates. They brought fresh bread along with fourteen plates of everything from smoky baba ghannouj and fresh tabouleh to Arabic-spiced chicken wings and fried cauliflower. They loved it so much that for the rest of the trip, we rarely ordered anything else.
An oud (lute) player and drummer were playing and singing, and scented nargila smoke hung sweetly on the air. One diner spontaneously stood up and started dancing, and the rest of the patrons encouraged her by clapping and dancing and singing in their seats. Mom and Bill smiled and clapped along, and I beamed as if to say, “See? I told you this place was awesome!”
We couldn’t have had a better first evening.
We caught a bus to the Qalandia checkpoint the next morning on our way to Ramallah. Somehow I had forgotten to prepare my parents for the psychological impact of seeing a checkpoint for the first time. We had to walk through a dirty, fenced-in path that ran parallel to the outgoing checkpoint where men, women, old ladies, and children were being corralled like sheep and treated like criminals on their own land in the shadow of a sniper tower.
By the time we had passed all these horrible sights, tears were streaming down my mother’s face. Part of me wanted to comfort her, but another, hardened part thought, Welcome to the real world, Mom.
The worst part was that by now, going through a checkpoint did seem as ordinary to me as standing in line at a grocery store. It was just something you did every day, a chance you got used to taking. You felt angry when you got turned back, of course, but it had simply become part of the landscape of life, like the DMV. People, like frogs in slowly-boiling water, could apparently get used to anything—a fact as amazing as it was terrifying.
“Good Lord,” Mom said as we walked toward a dusty parking lot to catch a bus to Ramallah. “How can this be happening over here and no one in America know or care about it?”
I repeated something Yusif had said to me a long time ago: “That’s a very good question, Mom.”
When we got to Ramallah, I showed them my office and the Al Karameh Café across the street where I got a five-shekel cappuccino after lunch every day. (I went as much for the young barista’s shy smile as for the best coffee in town.) We walked to a gleaming pharmacy down the street that had all the latest prescription medications, shampoos, and deodorants. I didn’t tell them that the first time I went in, the pharmacist, an impeccably clean-cut man in his early thirties, was explaining the different types of condoms to a European man as if he was talking about laundry detergents. From then on I got all my embarrassing personal items there.
We followed Main Street toward Al Manara, the main traffic circle of Ramallah, where I showed them the four stone lions, each representing one of the founding families of Ramallah. Ramallah, I told them, meant ‘God’s Hill’ in Arabic due to its scenic beauty and fresh sea breezes. It had been a mostly Christian town until it was inundated with refugees in 1948. It had also been a popular summer retreat for families from as far away as Saudi Arabia until Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Since then, tourism had shrunk almost to nothing, and many wealthy Christians had fled to America or Europe to wait out the conflicts.
We stopped in at the Silwadi juice stand with its baskets of fruit on the counter, and we each picked a handful (I went with a carrot, pear, and ginger cocktail), which he threw into the juicing machine for us. We took our juices and walked north a little ways and ducked into an alley behind the Arab Bank that opened into a sprawling open-air vegetable market, where the sellers were always yelling, “Arba bi ashera, arba bi ashera!” (Four kilos for ten shekels!) Colorful umbrellas shaded extravagant piles of fruits and vegetables on wooden carts—tomatoes and cucumbers, grapes and mangoes, pears and peaches, plums and guava, fresh mint and parsley, oranges and lemons, onions and garlic, eggplant and hot peppers—as much produce as you could eat in a week for a handful of shekels.
According to This Week in Palestine, in the old days you could find “guava from Qalqilia, oranges from Gaza, grapes from Hebron, bananas from Jericho, raspberries from Bethlehem, and apricots from Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.” It was still true to an extent, but because of the closures imposed on Palestinians and the relative ease of Israeli produce getting into the West Bank, you were more likely to see Israeli than Palestinian produce in this market.
We walked back toward Al Manara, past the streets where service taxis congregated, their drivers shouting, “Ariha, riha, riha!” for Jericho or “Nabliss, Nabliss?” for Nablus. I led them to Pronto, where I ordered us all cappuccinos on the veranda overlooking City Hall Park. When I introduced my parents to the waiter, his face lit up.
“Ah, welcome!” he said.
As we were leaving, he refused to charge us for the coffee.
I looked at my parents and laughed. “You see what I have to deal with here?”
We caught a cab to the Muqataa next, past a vista point where we could just make out the Mediterranean Sea through the haze. The gate to the Muqataa was guarded by two handsome Palestinian policemen who gave us directions to Arafat’s tomb, a monument with glass walls surrounding an engraved polished stone covered with flowers and wreaths from world leaders and well-wishers. Three Palestinian soldiers stood guard inside the tomb, and I greeted them with one of my favorite Arabic expressions, “Yatikum al afiyeh.” (May God give you strength in your work.) They smiled and returned the greeting.
We caught another cab to the City Hall Park of Al Bireh, the city that adjoined Ramallah on the north and east. Tables and chairs were set up invitingly around gardens and fountains, where people could order food, drinks, and nargila. I showed my mother a colorful flowing mosaic sculpture that had been inlaid into a garden wall. It showed clay jars pouring out an ocean of blue water in front of a resplendent golden sun. My mother did mosaic art, so I knew she would appreciate it.
Finally I showed off my clean, spacious apartment and the supermarket next door, where I could get anything from Nutella and peanut butter to deli sliced smoked turkey and hummus.
For dinner, we drove into the countryside to a small restaurant called Al Fellaha (The Farmer Woman). It specialized in homemade musakhan, a Palestinian national dish made of tender roast chicken, onions, sumac, allspice, and saffron baked on top of crisp, chewy wheat bread and sprinkled with toasted almonds and pine nuts. Along the way, I pointed out the picturesque ruins of several primitive stone shelters in the hills that had been used for centuries by farmers camping out at harvest time.
Dinner at Al Fellaha was one of our favorite memories of the trip. It was so tranquil in the countryside, the food was homemade and perfect, and the restaurant owners were a charming family. I told every funny story I could remember from the past year, and we laughed and had a wonderful time. They asked me more about the settlements. As I was trying to explain who they were and what they did, Bill interrupted and said, “So basically they’re like NRA Baptists.”
I laughed. “Well, NRA Baptists if the government let them kick non-Christians out of their homes, beat and harass them, and destroy their property. That pretty much sums it up.”
We rounded out the lovely day with drinks at Darna, the restaurant that had recently been shot up by militants. Muzna and some other friends joined us. It was back in order again, and not a trace of the recent violence could be seen except for a few bullet holes chipped into the stone ceiling. I did not point them out to my parents.
We headed to Jericho the next day and toured the city briefly before catching a cab to the Dead Sea. Just as the dark blue sea was coming into view through the desert haze, we were stopped at a flying checkpoint. An Israeli soldier with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder squinted at our documents, handed them back, and said, “Sorry, the road is closed.”
I leaned out the window. “What do you mean, closed?”
“I mean go back, the road is closed.”
“No Palestinian cars allowed.”
Most of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea rift was off-limits to Palestinian traffic, but I had assumed our driver would know roads toward the Dead Sea that a Palestinian car could take.
“When did this go into effect?” I asked.
The soldier smiled. “Today.”
I stared at him in disbelief. Seeing a soldier arbitrarily deny my mother a glimpse of one of the wonders of the world on her once-in-a-lifetime vacation awakened a primal rage I didn’t realize I was capable of. I started yelling at the soldier. He just laughed, which infuriated me further.
Finally Mom pulled me back into my seat, and the driver backed up and turned around. With no other outlet, my fury turned on the driver. I accusing him of lying to us and taking our money knowing we’d be turned back. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and Mom was obviously mortified by my behavior. I can’t imagine how I would have reacted if the soldier had been denying her life-saving medical treatment, or beating or humiliating her.
“There are many things to see in Jericho,” the driver said, weathering my outburst with admirable restraint. “I can take you to Hisham’s Palace. I promise you will enjoy it.”
The palace had been built north of Jericho in the year 743 for an Umayyad caliph, modeled on a Roman design and covered with exquisite mosaics. We found a guide to walk us through a dusty desert field full of ancient carved stone columns and a few intact buildings. The most famous element was a gorgeous mosaic in the bath house depicting a lion attacking a gazelle under a luscious pomegranate tree. Other mosaics were on the floor, amazingly preserved and buried under six inches of sand that could be swept away to view the designs.
After the tour, we followed the guide toward a modern mosaic studio, where a young Palestinian artist told us Laura Bush had recently visited and pledged to fund his project to reconstruct ruined mosaics. He proudly showed off a picture on his cell phone of himself standing next to the First Lady.
We caught a service taxi to Bethlehem next. The taxi held seven passengers, and we spent ten sweaty minutes waiting for a seventh passenger to show up before Mom realized what we were waiting for and said, “I’ll pay for the seventh seat myself!”
I tried to explain this in Arabic to the Palestinian woman in a headscarf sitting next to the empty seat. She looked confused and said in English, “Pardon me?” We all laughed. I explained in English, and she translated it to the guy next to her. The guy wearing a turban in the front seat turned around and said, “Eh?” The guy next to the woman translated it to him. Then the guy in the turban stuck his head out the window and yelled in perfect English, “Bertram, come on!” The whole routine cracked my parents up to no end.
Our route went through Wadi Nar (Valley of Fire), a remote desert canyon, rather than through Jerusalem, which would have been faster but included stretches of road that were off-limits to Palestinian cars. The road was long, hilly, and circuitous, and right in the middle of the canyon our taxi blew out a tire. We were worried we might be stuck in the hot sun for hours, but the Palestinian passengers jumped out like an Indy pit crew and changed the flat in a matter of minutes.
In Bethlehem, I showed my parents Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity, and the Milk Grotto where Mary spilled milk while nursing Jesus, but Mom was more fascinated by the Palestinian shopkeepers who sold us souvenirs and insisted we stay for drinks. They explained that our purchases supported six families and asked if we needed anything else. We said we needed a taxi, and they called a brother-in-law to pick us up and take us to three different idyllic tracts of land that all claimed to be the Shepherd’s Fields.
In the afternoon, we went back to Manger Square for coffee before heading back to Jerusalem. Soon the call to prayer sounded from the Mosque of Omar on the opposite end of Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity. The mosque was built on the site where an early Muslim caliph had prayed after issuing a law that guaranteed respect and protection for Christian shrines and clergy in the city.
Mom leaned toward me and asked, “What is he saying?”
It was just the ordinary call to prayer, but I pretended to listen intently, as if attempting a difficult translation. “He’s saying… ‘Kill the infidels, kill the infidels.’”
My step-dad nodded thoughtfully, as if this were an interesting cultural note. Mom froze in terror, her coffee halfway to her lips.
I couldn’t keep a straight face for long. “I’m kidding. Don’t worry. He’s just saying it’s time to pray.”
Our final stop was Rachel’s Tomb, also known as the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque and containing Bethlehem’s only Muslim cemetery. The Ottoman-era structure had been claimed by settlers who believed it was where Jacob’s favorite wife had died while giving birth to Benjamin en route to Jerusalem. Palestinians were now barred from entering the mosque, the grave, and the cemetery. It had been transformed into a fortified military post in the 1990s and enclosed in concrete walls guarded by soldiers and sniper towers in a northern Bethlehem neighborhood.
The Wall swerved deeply into Bethlehem to surround the complex. The neighborhood in this area had been reduced to a near-ghost town due to the Wall cutting residents off from their land, other neighborhoods, and Jerusalem. A few apartment buildings were draped in camouflage netting. These apartments had been taken over by Israeli soldiers to use as army outposts.
We showed our passports to an Israeli guard as we entered the complex and waded through a group of teenage Jewish boys lying on the floor in a corridor. The tomb shrine was in a chamber at the end of the corridor. Several women dressed in long skirts with scarves covering their hair were standing next to the shrine and moving their bodies as they prayed. Armed settlers and soldiers wandered the corridors.
Like Joseph’s Tomb and the Ibrahimi Mosque, there was no sense of serenity or holiness here. We felt anxious and queasy, and we turned around to leave as soon as we saw the tomb. But when we got back to the huge metal exit door, it was locked tight. Mom got a look of panic on her face, and I asked one of the Jewish teenagers how we could get out.
“We’re waiting for a bus with an armed escort to take us back to Jerusalem,” he said.
My parents looked at him like he was insane. An armed escort? In Bethlehem?
When the soldiers finally arrived to let us out, we didn’t take the armored bus. We walked into northern Bethlehem and toward the checkpoint in the Wall that led back to Jerusalem.
The view of the Wall here was one of the single most shocking sights in the entire West Bank. For millennia, Jerusalem and Bethlehem had been sister holy cities, less than ten miles apart. Now it was almost as difficult for Jerusalem’s Christians and Muslims to get to their holy sites in Bethlehem as it was for Bethlehem’s Christians and Muslims to visit Jerusalem. The traditional Palm Sunday procession from Bethlehem to Jerusalem that spring had, for the first time, been stopped short by the Wall that now separated the two holy cities. The aborted procession was a powerful symbol of the depravity and disgrace of a Wall carving up the Holy Land with no regard for its native inhabitants. Severing Bethlehem’s ancient cultural, spiritual, and commercial ties with Jerusalem was a crime of historic proportions.
We walked toward the new terminal built into the Wall, a checkpoint that looked more like an international border crossing. I passed through the metal detector first. They didn’t even check my passport or search my bags. When my parents followed, I heard a female Israeli guard say to Mom, “Are you a tourist?”
“Yes,” my mother said.
“We love tourists,” the Israeli guard said.
My mom nodded miserably as she watched Palestinians just a few yards from us getting harassed by other soldiers. Walking away from the terminal to try to find a taxi into Jerusalem, with the giant concrete Wall hiding from sight the friendly, strangled, ghettoized birthplace of Jesus Christ, my mother cried for the second time.
The next day, hoping for a more relaxed and touristy atmosphere, we headed to the Jerusalem Old City to visit the Haram al Sharif [aka Noble Sanctuary or Temple Mount] and see the unforgettable sight of the Dome of the Rock shining against the azure sky.
The Old City was more crowded than usual, and when we reached the Western Wall prayer plaza and tried to make our way to the Haram, we were stopped by an Israeli soldier.
“It is closed,” he informed us.
“Why?” I was too exhausted to be angry.
“It’s Jerusalem Day.”
It took us a while to understand what this meant. It was Yom Yerushalayim, a Jewish celebration of the ‘liberation and reunification’ of the city in 1967. Thousands of American Jews had descended on the city and were parading around as if they owned the place while Palestinians were kept out of sight and under control by hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers, checkpoints, and closures. As we were walking back through the Muslim Quarter, a young shopkeeper asked us what we were looking for.
“We wanted to see the Dome of the Rock,” I said glumly, “but it’s closed for Jerusalem Day.”
“Go up on the roof of the Armenian Hospice,” he said. “It has the second-best view of the Dome of the Rock in the city.” He gave us directions, and we were welcomed into the hospice and onto the roof, where the view was indeed almost as resplendent as that from the Haram itself, looking over the entire Old City.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the last must-see site in the Old City. Mom insisted on hiring a guide to take us through the labyrinthine structure built on Golgotha, the Hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified and buried. Several Christian sects competed for administration and maintenance of the church and its grounds, and their infighting had prompted Salah al Din (Saladin) in 1178 to appoint a Muslim family, the Nusseibehs, to be custodians of the keys to the church and to mediate disputes.
Mom found a kindly man who offered us a tour, and he turned out to be Wajeeh Nusseibeh, the keeper of the keys himself. Off we went into the crazy amalgam of churches, with a different sect controlling different corners and levels, chambers and chapels. Every room was more intriguing than the last. One entire hallway of rock walls was covered with crosses carved by Crusaders during the European occupation of the city.
Mr. Nusseibeh told us that when Jimmy Carter had visited, he wanted to examine every stone. George W. Bush, on the other hand, had looked at the church for only ten minutes and talked the whole time. At the end, he opened an old wooden safe and showed us a picture of himself in the official book of the church and other pictures with various global VIPs — popes, presidents, and movie stars. We took our own picture with him. The whole tour cost only $20. Mom still says it was the best $20 she ever spent.
After rounding the day out with lunch at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and an afternoon at the Israel Museum, we caught a cab back to our hotel. Our driver was Jewish and didn’t know what or where the Mount of Olives was. He called a friend and got directions to it.
Things were going fine until we hit the first ‘Jerusalem Day’ roadblock. Israeli soldiers were manning it with machine guns. The driver turned around and tried to find another route only to be blocked again. When we hit the third roadblock guarded by tense, sweaty soldiers, the driver started cursing and careening around every back alley in Jerusalem trying to find a way, demanding more money, and nearly hitting cars and cats and people as he sped along. Mom was clutching her shirt and quietly singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ under her breath.
As we neared our hotel, the driver said in alarm, “This is an Arab neighborhood!”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s the Mount of Olives in Arab East Jerusalem.”
“You’re not scared?” He seemed genuinely flabbergasted.
Mom muttered, “Not half as scared as we are of your driving.”
The rest of our trip would be in Israeli cities, hopefully with no more guns, checkpoints, or insane Jerusalem cabdrivers. The Sea of Galilee (called Lake Kinneret in Israel) was our next destination.
As luck would have it, our bus to Tiberias was crammed with Israeli soldiers on their way north, each carrying an M-16. One of them accidentally scraped a piece of skin off my mother’s arm with the muzzle of his gun as he passed by. She was too terrified to make a sound. To try to make her feel better, I whispered, “I think this qualifies you for a Purple Star of David.”
She laughed nervously. From then on she acted proud of her Israeli war wound.
We settled into our hotel after we arrived in Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The next morning we rented a car to see the nearby Biblical sites—the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, Tabgha with its Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, and Capernaum, where the apostles Peter, Andrew, James, and John lived and where Jesus began his public ministry after leaving Nazareth. All the sites were within minutes of each other, and Mom’s favorite was the ruin of St. Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. A guide told us she had been rich and lived on the shore, and Jesus and the boys used to go there to hang out on weekends. Mom said she had a mental picture of Jesus and the twelve in her basement shooting pool.
“It’s so weird to be here,” she said. “It’s just like in the Bible, but so much closer together than anyone can imagine.”
I suggested we check out the Golan Heights next, the strategic slice of Syrian land overlooking the Sea of Galilee that had been occupied by Israel since 1967. Bill agreed and Mom kept silent, clearly not pleased. As we made our way through the grassy hills, we saw the ruins of several Syrian villages with mosques that had apparently been left standing so they could be used for target practice. They were riddled with bullet and shell holes.
As we were leaving one ghostly demolished town in the middle of nowhere, an Israeli soldier suddenly stepped out of the bushes on our right and held up his hand to stop our car. Mom asked me why he was stopping us. I told her I had no idea.
Just then three Israeli tanks trundled out of the bushes behind him and crossed the road in front of us, loaded down with men and ammo.
“That’s it,” Mom said after the tanks and the soldier had left. “No more near-death experiences today.”
So we left the Golan and drove toward Nazareth, the heart of the green Galilee, to see the Church of the Annunciation, which was built on the spot where the angel Gabriel told Mary she was pregnant with the Messiah. We couldn’t find the church at first, so we asked two young Arab boys on bicycles to lead us to it. They refused to take the shekels we offered in thanks.
The courtyard of the church was lined with beautiful mosaics from dozens of countries showing Mary and baby Jesus, each with its own twist. The Japanese Jesus looked Japanese and the Thai Madonna was wearing a traditional Thai headdress and sarong.
On the way out of town, we saw a sign for Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). I pointed it out and said to Mom, “It means—”
“Even I know what that means,” she said.
It was an extension of Nazareth built for Jews on land expropriated from Arabs, intended by the Israeli government to help rectify the ‘unfavorable’ demographic balance of Arabs to Jews in the Galilee. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, “Its 50,000 inhabitants live in a dynamic urban space that keeps expanding and developing. The 70,000 Palestinians of old Nazareth live in a city half the size that is not allowed to expand by a single square meter; indeed, one of its western hilltops was recently requisitioned for Upper Nazareth.”
Apparently Israel’s discriminatory land policies weren’t confined to the West Bank and Gaza.
For dinner we drove to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee to have a fish dinner at a kibbutz called Ein Gev and watch the sun set over the water. Our Israeli waitress was friendly and charming, and the St. Peter’s Fish was excellent.
Mom wrote in her journal: “After we ate, Billy walked out on the pier to get sunset shots, and we walked over to the rock seawall, and looked down and saw a little kid feeding catfish. We went back and got our leftover bread, and until dark we fed pieces to the fish and laughed like crazy people at the big stupid ugly catfish opening their mouths wide, knocking each other out of the way, jockeying for position, and generally acting like a bunch of hillbillies. Oh God, we laughed so hard. I was just so happy we were all still alive.”
Acre and Tel Aviv
In the seaside city of Acre, an Arab-Israeli city north of Haifa, we splurged on a beautiful hotel on a Mediterranean beach. Our picture windows opened up to the sea breeze and a fabulous view of Acre’s Old City in the distance. We headed there in the afternoon for a tour of the Knights Halls, the prisoner’s hall, the Citadel, the Great Hall, the Crusader’s tunnel, and the Turkish bath used by Zionist militants to spring their comrades out of British prison in 1947. In the late afternoon we walked to the pier to see if we could take a short boat ride and see Acre from the sea. A tour boat was just about to leave, and we asked if we could board. They looked at us strangely but took our shekels and let us on.
Soon Arabic music came on over the loudspeakers and dozens of kids got up and started dancing and singing and laughing. That’s when we realized why they had looked at us strangely. We had crashed some kid’s birthday party. We couldn’t pay attention to the views of Acre for watching the cute, funny kids. Two of them grabbed plastic swords out of a shopping bag and started brandishing them at each other. Their mom started yelling at them in Arabic while pointing to the swords and pointing to her eye.
Mom laughed. “You don’t need to translate that. She’s saying what I always say: ‘You’ll put someone’s eye out with that thing!’”
The next day, on the train to Tel Aviv, twenty beautiful Israeli girls boarded with us, all dressed as policemen with pistols stuck down the backs of their pants. Mom whispered in awe, “They looked like movie stars. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that many naturally beautiful women in one spot. They must not let ugly women apply for those jobs.”
We ended the trip over beers on a beach in Tel Aviv, relaxing and reliving the trip.
“So what did you think?” I asked. “I mean, overall impressions.”
“I’m so happy we came to check out your life over here,” Mom said. “We really had a great time. When I wasn’t being terrorized by soldiers or cabdrivers, I was absolutely happy to be here.” She smiled and looked out over the peaceful sea. “I’d come back in a heartbeat.”
To learn more about the book, visit pamolson.org.
People are always asking me, “How are things in Palestine? How have things changed since you were there last?” These are difficult questions to answer, in part because it’s difficult to explain how things came to this pass without writing a book. (Working on it.)
The short answer is, violence is down in the West Bank, and a few major checkpoints have been opened for longer periods than usual. Buildings are going up in Ramallah at an astonishing rate, and Arab Israelis are allowed to visit Nablus on Saturdays to shop. Nablus has had a building boom of its own, and the Huwara checkpoint being open most of the time has given that besieged city a breathing space it hasn’t enjoyed in years. It even has a mall and a cinema now.
Yet Palestinians are more depressed and downhearted than ever. Why?
Two words: Gaza and Obama.
Everything that could possibly go wrong in Gaza has gone wrong. After Hamas won democratic Parliamentary elections in 2006, Israel and the world slapped sanctions and blockades on the Palestinian territories to let them know they had made the ‘wrong’ democratic choice.
Then in the summer of 2007, according to journalist David Rose of Vanity Fair, “President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.” This is usually cited in the press as Hamas seizing control of the Strip in a bloody coup. There’s rarely any mention of who started it.
Since then, the blockade against the Gaza Strip has worsened into a humanitarian crisis, and the Palestinian territories have been split between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. It’s had a profoundly depressing effect on the Palestinian people, producing many sad and pointless rifts and retaliations.
To top it all off, Israel has a hard-line right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu whose positions are laughably far from the general international consensus based on international law. But this isn’t what depresses the Palestinians, because they know where power ultimately resides: Washington, DC. And the US has a new President: Barack Hussein Obama.
In June 2009, Obama gave a stirring speech in Cairo that showed unprecedented respect and understanding of the Middle East and its context. More importantly, Obama put his prestige and the good will of the entire Arab world on the line by saying publicly that Israel would have to stop settlement expansion in order for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume.
Hope was kindled in many hearts that things might really be different this time. The days of Israel violating international law with impunity might finally be over. The Palestinian Authority felt emboldened to take a similarly strong stance against settlements. They said to their people, “See what our non-violent call for negotiations has achieved? Hamas may have taken credit for driving the Israelis out of Gaza, but we’ll be the ones to deliver the West Bank!”
To no one’s surprise, Netanyahu merely chuckled, approved a few hundred more settlement housing units, and went back to his morning coffee, confident he could expand whatever he wanted and Obama wouldn’t do a damn thing.
Apparently he was right. The Obama administration did a little hemming and hawing, and for appearance’s sake, Netanyahu said, “Fine, I’ll freeze settlement expansion. Right after I finish the 3,000 settlement housing units already under construction and approve a few hundred more. I’ll call it ‘natural growth’ to make it sound kosher. And of course I’ll keep building security infrastructure and schools and synagogues in the West Bank, cuz normal life has to go on for Jews, you know? And forget about ‘East’ Jerusalem. We’ll build whatever we want in it and keep kicking Palestinians out of their homes and replacing them with Jews. After ten months, I’ll have to resume construction everywhere, otherwise my right-wing coalition will get antsy. Take it or leave it.”
The Palestinian Authority could never accept such a farce. They hoped the US would finally have their back on this one.
Nope. Hillary Clinton hailed Netanyahu’s ‘concessions’ as “unprecedented.” Then she started mumbling about how negotiations should go forward without preconditions, as if it were the Palestinians who were blocking the path to peace—as if Obama never made a crystal-clear call for freezing settlement expansion as a precondition for talks himself. The Palestinian Authority was left with their asses hanging in the wind, as usual.
As one commenter put it: “This is similar to Bill Clinton’s inviting Arafat to Camp David II despite the bad timing and lack of preparation. Clinton said, ‘Hey, come on, if the talks fail, we won’t blame you.’ But the talks failed, and Arafat was blamed. Here we have it again. It’s like Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.”
I understand that Israel/Palestine might not be Obama’s number one priority given that he’s fighting two losing wars and financial and health care crises. But the least he could have done was not make things worse. More and more Palestinians are asking: If a black President with a Muslim father can’t deliver change, who on earth can?
It only gets worse. On September 15, 2009, the Goldstone Report was released by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict led by Judge Richard Goldstone. It detailed a seemingly endless series of alleged Israeli war crimes against Gaza’s civilians during Operation Cast Lead in early 2009.
Judge Goldstone is a highly-respected South African Jewish judge who served as the chief prosecutor of the UN Criminal Tribunals against the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He took on the Gaza assignment with a heavy heart because he had a great deal of respect and affection for Israel. But in the best Jewish tradition, he knew justice must be blind, and he took on the nightmarish task.
To his shock, Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation at all. He had to enter the Gaza Strip through Egypt, and what he saw there, he said, would give him nightmares for the rest of his life. When the report came out, instead of addressing the substance of the report, the Israel lobby and its backers slandered the venerable judge, calling him biased and saying his report encouraged terrorism, made it harder for democracies to defend themselves, and damaged the peace process.
First of all, what peace process? Second, any ‘peace process’ that might be harmed by investigations into credibly alleged war crimes sounds like a pretty rotten peace process to me.
Nonetheless, when the Goldstone Report went before the UN Human Rights Council, the US government pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw his support for it. Abbas acquiesced. Goldstone was shocked again. If the Palestinians didn’t endorse the report, it wouldn’t go anywhere. People who’d been working for justice for Palestinians for decades felt betrayed. The Palestinians themselves were simply dumbfounded.
As I wrote in an earlier post, there was an outcry among the Palestinian public so intense, Abbas was forced to reverse his decision. The Goldstone Report then passed easily the UN General Assembly with 114 in favor, 18 against, and 44 abstentions.
But the damage had been done to Abbas. The Palestinian public, many of whom already thought of him as a tool of Israel and America, began to despise him.
Abbas Gets Fed Up
In general, Palestinians are getting fed up with the formula, “Suppress dissent among your own people and wait for the Americans to pressure the Israelis to agree to a fair two-state solution based on international law.” Even Abbas—architect of the Oslo Accords, head of a corrupt and nepotistic ‘Authority,’ reliable puppet of so many years—is getting fed up.
In early November, Abbas held a press conference and announced that he wasn’t going to run for president in the upcoming elections. It sparked a firestorm of debate about what it all meant. Some believe he is genuinely fed up and just wants to take his money and run. The US has backed him into a corner where if he makes one more idiotic move, he’s likely to be ousted by his own people anyway.
“This is an obvious sign of frustration,” said Nabil Shaath, a member of the central committee of Fatah. Abbas is “absolutely frustrated that the Palestinians have fulfilled every ounce of the American requirements in the roadmap and got nothing in return.”
Salah Bardawil, a Hamas leader, said Abbas had been mistaken to place his trust in the US: “We warned from the start these negotiations wouldn’t bring anything to the Palestinians. He didn’t listen to us and now he suffers.”
Others think it’s a way to pressure the Americans and Israelis. They’ve created an atmosphere so toxic that if Abbas does quit, he’ll likely be replaced by far more uncompromising leadership. (This was what happened in 2005-2006. In 2005, the Israelis and Americans humiliated and marginalized Abbas. In 2006, Hamas won the Parliamentary elections.) New presidential elections are scheduled for early 2010, and if the US State Department wants their man Abbas to succeed, they’d better make some serious changes.
Then again, it looks like the 2010 elections probably won’t happen anyway. The West Bank and Gaza are still split, and Hamas says they won’t let Gazans vote in elections unless there’s a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and a unity government formed—a prospect that seems to recede further and further as time goes on.
Everything’s backed into a corner with no apparent means of escape. The deadlock is palpable. It feels like the moment before an earthquake, when the earth has been strained past the point where incremental steps to ease the tension might work. A rupture seems imminent.
Declaration of Independence?
Palestinians don’t have much stomach for continued violence, but they are starting to look for radical solutions. One option is for the PA to declare its mission to negotiate a fair two-state solution a failure and dissolve itself. It’s the equivalent of going limp when someone is trying to arrest you. I’ve heard Palestinians say they’d rather go back to direct occupation by Israel so that at least the situation is clear, and Israel will once again be obligated to ensure the well-being of the civilians under occupation—a job it now pawns off on European donors to the PA—which Israel frankly can’t afford.
But this would mean hundreds of Palestinian Authority bigwigs giving up their salaries and privileges, which would violate the Iron Law of Institutions (the tendency of people to care more about their power within an organization than the success of that institution).
Another option is to declare an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza and seek international backing for it. In August, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad released a detailed plan for building up PA institutions over the next two years. The Israeli government approved of it until they found out there was a political angle: The plan also contained a classified portion calling for a unilateral declaration of independence. At the end of two years, the PA, in conjunction with the Arab League, would file a ‘claim of sovereignty’ to the UN Security Council on the 1967 borders.
The Palestine Liberation Organization tried to declare independence in 1988, but at the time it wasn’t feasible to implement it in any meaningful way. Times have changed, though, and such a declaration now might develop a dynamic of its own.
In November, the Israeli government became alarmed when reports surfaced that major EU countries and some US officials might support a Palestinian declaration of independence. “The reports indicated that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has reached a secret understanding with the Obama administration over U.S. recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Such recognition would likely transform any Israeli presence across the Green Line, even in Jerusalem, into an illegal incursion to which the Palestinians would be entitled to engage in measures of self-defense.”
As South African/American journalist Tony Karon put it, “In the shocked aftermath of the 1967 war, Fatah took the lead in breaking the Palestine Liberation Organisation free of the tutelage of the Arab League, in a declaration of independence that put their fate in their own hands rather than relying on Arab armies to defeat Israel. Today, they face a similar challenge—declaring independence from Washington and once again taking their fate into their own hands.”
The EU looks ready to recognize Palestinian statehood, and so does Russia. The Arab world, Africa, Latin America, and Asia would probably support it, and Fayyad has said he presented the proposal to the US and got no signal of opposition.
“It’s a very dangerous move,” said a senior Israeli foreign-policy official. “More and more cabinet ministers understand that diplomatic inaction on Israel’s part is likely to bring international support for the Fayyad program.”
If the US threatens to veto it, the Palestinians could say, “You’ve failed in all your attempts at brokering negotiations, even when we had a moderate leader like Abbas who was committed to non-violence. You couldn’t even get Israel to stop expanding settlements. The entire Arab League put forth a two-state peace initiative, and Israel simply ignored it. And you’ve said over and over that a Palestinian state is in the American interest. Why would you veto this?”
Besides, as Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress writes, “The assumption, implicit in Israel’s occupation policy, [is] that if no peace agreement is reached, the ‘default setting’ of UN Security Council Resolution 242 is the indefinite continuation of Israel’s occupation. If this reading were true, the resolution would actually be inviting an occupying power that wishes to retain its adversary’s territory to do so simply by means of avoiding peace talks—which is exactly what Israel has been doing.”
The US might veto it anyway, but even a vetoed resolution would bring attention to the fact that the US has failed, that Israel and America are the primary obstacles to a fair two-state peace, and that the EU has been pouring money into PA institutions toward a state for 16 years, and all that’s been achieved is more settlements and a great deal of death and destruction.
If US didn’t veto it and the UN passed a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, it would allow Palestinians to leverage much greater international pressure against Israel for continuing to expropriate land, build settlements, and maintain the siege and occupation.
According to Richard Silverstein, “It would embolden international institutions like the World Court to more energetically pursue claims against Israel.” It would enable the UN to take a leadership position rather than a backseat to the US. Israel would be further isolated, more vulnerable to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. It could be “precisely the bucket of cold water needed to bring Israel (or at least the significant pragmatic segment within Israeli society) to its senses.”
Netanyahu is Playing a Dangerous Game
Meanwhile, with or without a declaration, grassroots pressure on Israel is heating up around the world. Things are being said in American papers, in the US Congress, and on American TV that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago.
When Ehud Olmert, who was Prime Minister of Israel when the assault on Gaza took place in early 2009, did a US speaking tour in October 2009, he could barely speak for being disrupted, subjected to mock citizens’ arrests, and called a war criminal by audiences in Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere. President Shimon Peres was recently greeted by angry demonstrations in Argentina and Brazil. More and more Israeli leaders are afraid to travel abroad for fear they’ll be arrested on war crimes charges.
In February, Hampshire College in Amherst, MA became the first US college to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.* (Hampshire was also the first US college to divest from Apartheid South Africa thirty-two years ago based on similar human rights concerns.) Nine months later, in November, Hampshire hosted a National Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Conference that seemed grounded, strategic, and prepared to win. Campuses all over the country now have organized cells pushing for divestment. (My alma mater, Stanford University, was on this bandwagon early.)
Roger Cohen suggested in the New York Times that we should talk to Hamas and Hezbollah. He wrote, “Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel’s disappearance — although it has offered a decades-long truce — but then it’s also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state. One view of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it’s designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.”
He said that “Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel’s actions.”
And in the comment section of his article, nearly every reader-recommended comment agreed with him.
The debate on TV is still almost entirely one-sided, with scant attention paid to Palestinian realities, rights, and arguments. But that truth-telling jester, Jon Stewart, is ahead of the curve on this, too. He was practically the only person on cable television to express outrage over what Israel did to Gaza.
Given that Jon Stewart is such an opinion-maker—voted the most trusted man in news after Walter Cronkite died—it’s heartening that his views on Israel/Palestine are so spot-on. (I never fail to notice that whenever he shows a map of Israel, he cuts out the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights.)
He went further in October by inviting my old boss, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, and a Jewish-American peace activist named Anna Baltzer to give a joint interview on his show. There was huge pressure to cancel it from the usual suspects, but Jon remained resolute and the show went on. Mr. Stewart did throw a lot of bogus Israeli talking points at them, but he also gave them space to respond to them. And when a Zionist in the front row shouted, “Liar!” after Dr. Barghouthi said Palestinians had been subjected to a system of segregation, Jon Stewart made fun of him. When he cat-called again, he was escorted from the premises. The crowd repeatedly cheered Anna and Dr. Barghouthi, and the video rocketed to near the top-rated Daily Show interview of all time.
The international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005 has also gained momentum. A multinational corporation called Veolia abandoned the Jerusalem Light Rail project that served to entrench the occupation of East Jerusalem after a concerted international grassroots campaign. The Norwegian government divested from Elbit Systems because of its role in the construction of the illegal Wall.
(My friend Mohammad Othman, now in Israeli prison, was instrumental in the Norwegian divestment. Unfortunately, Palestinian non-violent efforts are being cracked down on by Israel with increasing brutality. But that’s a long story that deserves its own post.)
And Henry Siegman, former director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote an article in The Nation that calls Israel “the only apartheid regime in the Western world.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy put it, Israel is rapidly becoming a nation alone.
The point is (according to Israeli journalist Naom Sheizaf), “all those opposing the occupation here and abroad, shouldn’t occupy themselves with hopes of political change in Israel. Chances are it won’t happen soon, and even if it does, it probably won’t help much… But international pressure on Israel does help… Israelis may complain of double standards, ask why the world couldn’t pick on China or Sudan (truth is it does), but in the end, the pressure gets to us. It makes pundits suggest new ideas and politicians explore new positions, since everybody fears that any solution forced by the international community will surely be worse than the one we come up with.”
Washington Shifting Ever-so-slightly
Even the American Administration is showing signs of getting fed up. Congress did pass its idiotic legislation condemning the Goldstone Report by a vote of 344 to 36, with 22 abstentions. But believe it or not, that’s a narrow win compared to the usual mindless passage of pro-Israel legislation. Several Congressmen, including two who actually visited the Gaza Strip—Brian Baird and Keith Ellison—came out strongly against the measure. Brian Baird even compared his own twin boys to the dead children of Gaza.
There was never a question that the legislation would pass, but according to Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, “[after] watching more than 10 years of debate on Israel/Palestine resolutions in Congress, I cannot remember one which featured such a robust performance by the opponents of a ‘pro-Israel’ resolution and such a feeble performance by its supporters. Clearly the discourse on Israel/Palestine has changed in the general public and it seems like more Members of Congress are starting to get it.”
The Obama Administration may be starting to catch on, too. According to Israeli analyst Daniel Levy, “It is not the new approach of the Obama administration that has failed, but rather, this is a moment of clarity regarding the bankruptcy of the old approach that has guided policy for over a decade and that the Obama team had inherited and embraced. As Rob Malley and others have argued, what is needed now is a review (as has been conducted in other foreign policy areas) and a testing and likely abandonment of many of the prevailing policy assumptions.”
Daniel Levy again: “During his first term as prime minister in the late 90’s, Benjamin Netanyahu made an enemy of then US President Clinton and played the Republican congress against the Democrat president. This directly led to the collapse of Netanyahu’s government and his fall from office. Judging by today, Netanyahu is keen for a repeat performance albeit under circumstances even less propitious for him politically.”
Netanyahu’s stubbornness on settlements may have led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call for an “independent and viable [Palestinian] state based on the 1967 lines.” This really is unprecedented—the first explicit American call for negotiations based on international law rather than on Israel’s wants and needs. On a recent trip to Jerusalem, Clinton asked Netanyahu to reference a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders in negotiating guidelines. He refused. Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are reportedly getting colder by the minute.
Unfortunately, the Israel lobby is still very strong. “If Obama tries to make aid to Israel conditional on a settlement freeze,” writes Stephen Walt in the Washington Post, “Congress will simply override him. Putting real pressure on Israel risks alienating key politicians and major Democratic fundraisers, as well as Israel’s supporters in the media, imperiling the rest of Obama’s agenda and conceivably his prospects for reelection. Moreover, several of Obama’s top advisers, such as Dennis Ross [a stalwart unofficial agent of the Israel lobby and prominent cheerleader for the Iraq war], are enthusiastic supporters of America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel and would almost certainly oppose using U.S. leverage to force Israeli concessions. Obama and special envoy George Mitchell are negotiating with one hand tied behind their backs, and Netanyahu knows it.”
But it’s increasingly obvious that we can’t simply deny Hamas’ existence, starve, bomb, and blockade Gaza, and hope they’ll go away. Hamas has shown many signs of moderation, and each has been ignored. Before elections took place in January 2006, they dropped the call for the destruction of Israel from their manifesto. Hamas has also renounced suicide bombings, and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said his government was willing to accept a Palestinian state on the ’67 borders.
So if Palestinian ‘extremists’ are willing to settle for less than 22% of historic Palestine, and the rest of the Arab world is, too, what is Israel waiting for?
Because if there’s no two-state solution—if negotiations don’t work, non-violent resistance doesn’t work, unilateral declarations of independence don’t work, and if Israeli settlers continue to consolidate their hold on big chunks of the West Bank, leaving only isolated pockets for the Palestinians, cut off from one another by the network of settler-only roads and tunnels that link the settlements to Jerusalem and each other, and the Israeli government has no will or incentive to end this state of de facto apartheid…
The two-state solution may be dead.
“If that is so,” says the Financial Times, “then the prospect is for a long and bitter fight for equal rights within one state. That would spell the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. It would come to resemble in many ways the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If Mr. Netanyahu believes that he has achieved a victory by refusing to halt the settlements, he is wrong. It is more like a project of national suicide.” (Article reprinted here.)
This argument for a one-state solution by Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada is bold, well-researched, and imminently logical. The number one argument against the one-state solution is apparently, “Poll after poll says Israeli Jews would reject it.” Well, what if the continuation of Jim Crow had been left up to Southern white voters?
Israeli commentators are starting to figure this out, too. If they don’t get serious about two states soon, one state looms. They’re even saying it on the Op-Ed pages of mainstream Israeli papers like Yedioth Aharonoth: The status quo is dying.
For the record, I’m not yet indelibly in the one-state camp. But it does seem like the fairest and most elegant solution, and Israel has no one to blame but itself for undermining the two-state formula. Also for the record, I wasn’t thinking seriously about a one-state solution until the assault on Gaza in early 2009. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Either way, it’s increasingly clear that the US can either midwife peace with justice (talk with Hamas, encourage a Palestinian unity deal, and negotiate in good faith based on international law) or let Israel continue its path of destruction and wait for Palestinian resistance to rise again and the rest of the world to back Israel into a corner with boycotts. Netanyahu’s not smart enough to realize this, but we should be.
You’ve got a Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Obama. Earn it.
* On January 20, I was contacted by the Director of Communications at Hampshire College, who said my report of their divestment from Israel was inaccurate:
“Hampshire College moved some investments out of a fund following a socially responsible investment screening last year. That screening, conducted by independent reviewer KLD Research and Analytic, vetted companies on several criteria — none of them having to do with Israel — that included employment discrimination, environmental abuse, weapons manufacturing, unsafe workplace settings, and dealings with Burma or Sudan. Hampshire College has repeatedly stated the facts here and we ask that they be corrected and not be misrepresented again, please.”
Thanks for the note. Here’s what I’ve read:
The College disputes this assertion [of divesting from Israel], saying they are not divesting from Israel per se, but because the six companies in question “violate the college’s policy on socially responsible investments.” When pressed they admitted that the decision to divest was “based on a complaint by Students for Justice in Palestine about six companies doing business in Israel.”
This sounds like “quiet” divestment to me, which is understandable. It’s not easy to stand up to the Israel lobby in this country. Regardless, you have a proud tradition of being on the vanguard of human rights issues. Many millions of human rights supporters would applaud you and take heart if you could openly oppose human rights violations by Israel just as much as you oppose human rights violations by Burma or Sudan. At least Burma and Sudan aren’t committing their atrocities with our tax dollars.
Until then, I will add your disclaimer to my website.
Something exciting has been happening in Egypt this holiday season. Around 1,400 people from all over the world — traveling at their own expense, or through fund-raising drives in their communities — converged on Cairo to travel to the Gaza Strip on New Year’s Eve and march with the people of Gaza to the Erez crossing (the border that separates Gaza from Israel in the north).
Their aims? To draw attention to Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip, deliver humanitarian aid, and try to end Israel’s brutal blockade, which started when Hamas took over the Strip in 2007 (after Fatah, backed by the CIA, tried to overthrow them) and intensified a year ago after Operation Cast Lead.
The blockade is something so evil, it’s difficult to describe or comprehend. Israel has essentially turned the Gaza Strip, home of 1.5 million souls, into the world’s largest open-air prison. Some go further and liken it to a ‘concentration camp,’ because prisoners in any normal country are at least given enough to eat, a set date when they can leave, and decent sanitation and medical care.
A year ago, in an assault the Israelis dubbed Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli army killed around 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children, destroyed hospitals, schools, factories, businesses, farms, and sewage and electrical systems. Until now they have refused to allow building materials or spare parts to enter the Gaza Strip, leaving their devastation frozen in time.
The Israeli government claims it’s necessary because Palestinians might use the materials to build more home-made, unguided rockets, which have a 0.5% kill rate (i.e., one out of every 200 rockets finds a victim) with which to terrorize Israel’s southern population. (The rockets are themselves retaliations for Israel’s blockade, assassinations, mass arrests, illegal land grabs, violations of ceasefires, etc.)
Blocking some materials is debatably justifiable, though principles of proportionality and laws against collective punishment should be taken into account. But what can possibly explain Israel’s blocking shipments of pasta, cheese, and chickpeas? Israel later allowed these items into Gaza due to US pressure, but they still don’t allow things like toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, chocolate, cigarettes, or spare parts for generators or water treatment plants, creating among other things a dangerous shortage of drinking water.
In addition, “U.S. and Western officials complain that Israel frequently changes the list of humanitarian goods allowed into the Gaza Strip, creating major logistical problems for aid groups and donor governments which are unable to plan ahead.”
Meanwhile, the production of textbooks by the UNRWA ceased long ago “because there is no paper, ink or glue in Gaza.” Many life-saving medicines and machines can’t get through the blockade, and dozens of men, women, and children have died because Israel refused to allow them to leave the Gaza Strip to seek medical care not available in the Strip. The only way anyone has managed to survive in a human way is through smuggling tunnels linked with Egypt. Egypt is threatening to cut that off soon as well.
This is collective punishment on a historic scale.* It is illegal under international law and immoral under any sane moral code.
Meanwhile, Operation Cast Lead was so brutally disproportionate (a greater than 100-to-1 kill rate, roughly 300-to-1 if you count civilians only), with so many credible allegations of deliberate Israeli strikes against civilian targets, it was made the subject of a UN war crimes investigation. The author of the report was renowned international jurist and South African Jew, Judge Richard Goldstone.
His report alleged devastating war crimes committed by Israel and lesser war crimes committed by Hamas. Israeli journalist Amira Hass explained, “The Goldstone report asks Israel to open an independent inquiry to the allegations [of war crimes], and if, within six months, there is no sufficient or satisfying response from Israel — and Hamas, for that matter — it can be transferred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”
On a more human note, Judge Goldstone told PBS’s Bill Moyers that the things he witnessed and reported on in Gaza were so horrific, “It… will give me nightmares for the rest of my life.”
Israel laughed in the face of the report, knowing the US government would kill it in its cradle. Indeed, President Obama pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renounce it (a story I’ll tell in a forthcoming post), and the US Congress passed a bill condemning the report as “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.”
Judge Goldstone sent a letter to Congress explaining that the bill was full of misrepresentations, factual errors, and utter nonsense. Congress, taking its cue from the Israel lobby, ignored him (with a few brave exceptions).
So Israel shrugs and moves along, keeps Gaza under siege, and kicks a few more Palestinian families out of their homes in East Jerusalem for good measure — throwing families out of their home in the dead of night, dumping their possessions by the side of the road, protecting Jewish settlers who march in and take their place, and arresting or beating anyone who protests. (I’m not even going to talk about Israel’s increasingly brutal repression of Palestinian non-violent protest in the West Bank or the fact that I have two friends in Israeli jails, one without charge, the other on bogus charges.) And the world’s governments do nothing.
Never has it been more clear that our governments have failed. Never has it been more clear that it’s up to us.
Back in the summer of 2005, Palestinian civil society called for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it obeyed international law. Last year the campaign finally took off. Though it is arguably not yet inflicting real pain, for the first time it is inflicting real fear.
The Gaza Freedom March is another prong in the civil society counter-attack against Israel’s crimes. 1,400 killed by Israel. 1,400 marchers. 1,400 lives wiped from the earth. 1,400 speaking out against this injustice from all corners of the globe. One man or woman, one voice, for every Palestinian killed. Thousands more marching in solidarity all over the world.
Unfortunately, the Egyptian government — a dictatorial police state propped up by American tax dollars and political support — refused to allow the marchers to get near the Gaza Strip, much less enter it through the Rafah border crossing. They claimed the security situation was too unstable. (Um, when is the security situation in Gaza ever stable?) So instead of protesting in Gaza, the marchers found themselves stuck in Cairo protesting against the Egyptian government and their own embassies for doing nothing in the face of another assault on liberty.
“I have to say that the broken Gaza Freedom March has been a great achievement. How can that be, when we are going stir crazy in Cairo? Well an international conversation over the issue is taking place here among the most diverse collection of people. I keep thinking of ways to convey just how inspiring that is. One minute you are talking with a slim, proper Japanese man. Then a minute later an Egyptian youth is telling you that Gaza thanks you for your moral solidarity. Then a minute after that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is saying that she came here to march, and she will march. Borders have fallen away here, and the American frame is gone. On my plane I met a kid from Jersey who had done the free Jewish ‘birthright’ trip a year ago and whose Jewish friends have been angered at his decision to come here, but when I saw him today, he seemed enthralled, transformed.”
The mainstream media is mostly ignoring it, as noted by Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, though there was a surprisingly nice write-up in the New York Times. It even mentioned Hedy Epstein, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who went on hunger strike to protest Egypt’s complicity in Israel’s blockade of aid and activists. Seriously. If irony were a commodifiable resource, the Middle East wouldn’t need oil. All that’s missing is for someone to dress up as Moses and shout, “Let my people go!”
Eventually the Egyptian government consented to allow 100 of the delegates to go to Gaza. After much turmoil and drama, they rejected this piecemeal offer because of its token nature and divisiveness. (The Egyptian government claimed these 100 were the peaceful ones, for example, implying the rest were hooligans.)
“Big deal we’re not in Gaza. It’s like being in Birmingham when the big march is going down in Selma… The Americans, who are so conditioned to living with the Israel lobby, as an abused wife to her battering husband, are being exposed to a more adamant politics — we are having a rendezvous with the Freedom Riders. For another thing, our direct actions and demonstrations seem to be awaking Egypt, a little [Egyptians on the whole are disgusted by Egypt’s complicity with Israel’s blockade, but their police state does not tolerate internal dissent], and getting a lot of publicity [at least in Europe and the Arab world]. Helen Schiff told me that the front page of an official government newspaper today said, ‘Mubarak to Netanyahu: Lift the siege and end the suffering of the Palestinian people.’ ‘We gave him that line!’ she said. A longtime civil rights activist, Helen told me it’s ‘fabulous’ what happened. We are achieving more in Cairo than we would if we had gotten into Gaza.”
They never did make it to Gaza. But they planted the seeds of a more sustained, organized, and motivated world-wide movement to end Israel’s illegal policies and American and European complicity. Here is the “Cairo Declaration,” a document drafted by the Gaza Freedom March as a blueprint for going forward. It calls for intensified action for academic, cultural, and economic boycotts of Israel until it complies with international law, continued legal actions against suspected Israeli war criminals, speaking tours, and other non-violent means.
A South African Jewish journalist named Tony Karon, who supported the Gaza Freedom March, recently posted this encouraging message on Facebook:
“In South Africa in 1988, if you’d asked any of us how long our struggle was going to last, the honest answer would have been twenty years. We couldn’t destroy the regime and they couldn’t destroy us; looked like a bloody stalemate. And then, barely a year later, a changing international balance of forces that none of us could have foreseen prompted a dramatic change of course. The darkest hour is just before dawn and all that… Happy New Year, and keep up the great work!”
May this shiny new decade bring many happy surprises.
* Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Reprisals against protected persons and their property are also prohibited.
Quoting Wikipedia: Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions collective punishments are a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and World War II… In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there. The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to “intimidatory measures to terrorize the population” in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”
** Bill Moyers sums it up: “There are… some very tough allegations of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed civilians who pose no threat, of shooting people whose hands were shackled behind them, of shooting two teenagers who’d been ordered off a tractor that they were driving, apparently carrying wounded civilians to a hospital, of homes, hundreds, maybe thousands of homes destroyed, left in rubble, of hospitals bombed. I mean there are some questions about one or two of your examples here, but it’s a damning indictment of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, right?” This is a miniscule portion of what Israel is accused of. You can find the full report here.