First, some good news on my end. I was recently invited to the University of Oklahoma to give a talk about Palestine (a version of which can be viewed here). The audience was engaged and thoughtful, and I met a ton of great people, including Dr. Charles Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, university professor, storied public servant, and author of When Religion Becomes Evil. We managed to raise $700 at the talk through sales and donations for my friend Rania to help her get through the last few months of her husband’s incarceration in Israel on bogus charges. Many thanks to the generous people of Norman, OK.

For those who’ve been following the story, Rania’s daughter was born healthy and beautiful last month, and big brother Karim is doing well, too. Dad in prison isn’t doing so well — he’s always cold, only has two changes of clothes, is eating poorly, frequently sick, and moved between prisons constantly. Worst of all, he’s missing the second year of his son’s life and the first six months of his daughter’s life, and he can’t do anything to provide for them.

Right now we have enough to keep them afloat for all but the last two months her husband will be in jail (he’s scheduled to be released at the end of July), and hopefully she can find a job before then. She’s been trying for months, and the West Bank economy is a disaster, but we’re all hoping she can manage. If not, I’ll be raising funds again in May.

I just bought a one-way ticket to New York and will arrive March 11, inshallah. Can’t wait to catch up with all my New York friends. I’m also working on the last chapter of the book, which just leaves drafting the Epilogue and editing everything to perfection (or as near as I can come). There’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, and after two years of work, it’s a great feeling.

‘Berlin Airlift’ needed for Gaza

Meanwhile, the back-breaking siege of Gaza continues, leaving the pulverized strip of land with 95% of its businesses shut down or demolished, 70% poverty rates, homes and factories unable to be rebuilt, children unable to get educational materials, and proud families ever-more dependent on erratic foreign aid. Israel has also denied scores of students with foreign scholarships the right to leave Gaza and attend college.

But in a place where shocking images abound, one video hit me particularly hard. It was an interview with the headmaster of the American International School in Gaza — the only school in Gaza with an American-style curriculum that prepares Gazan students to continue their education at Western universities.

The school was bombed by the Israeli army in the final days of the assault on Gaza in early 2009. It was one of dozens of schools damaged or destroyed by the Israeli army during the offensive. Here’s the interview. It’s very hard to watch.

The man responsible for this rare coverage of Gaza is Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), who is quickly becoming a hero of mine. He’s the one who, when he was arguing in Congress against the knee-jerk dismissal of the Goldstone Report, compared a photo of three young children killed in Gaza to his own twin boys. He said the hundreds of dead children in Gaza deserved, at the very least, for someone to ask why they died.

He visited Gaza, saw the aftermath of the assault first hand, and decided he could not, in good conscience, be silent about what he saw. He called for Congress to cut into America’s $3 billion per year foreign aid to Israel if it continued to violate the basic rights of the entire civilian population of the Gaza Strip.

Predictably, the call was met in Congress with deafening silence.

But there’s better news on the international front and in Palestine itself. Brian Baird said to a group of Gaza students, ”We ought to bring roll-on, roll-off ships and roll them right to the beach and bring the relief supplies in, in our version of the Berlin airlift.” He called on President Obama and Secretary Clinton to fulfill their promise to aid the Gazans after the devastating 2009 assault, which can only happen in a meaningful way if the siege is lifted.

Obama and Clinton haven’t responded yet, but Turkey has. Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation has plans to “go to Gaza with a fleet of 20 ships to be set up in an international organization probably in April 2010. Our aid ships will continue to head for Gaza until Israeli embargo is lifted. The cargo ships will carry Israeli-embargoed building materials, generators, medication, medical equipment and educational materials. The passenger ships to accompany the cargo ships will carry journalists, human rights advocates, activists and lawmakers from various countries.”

In a twist that can only be a product of one of the most irony-rich conflicts in human history, guess who else joined the call? A group of German Jews who “intend to cooperate with a European project that is sending supplies in the spring of 2010. We are acquiring a ship, loading it up in Germany, then picking up passengers (Jewish and non-Jewish, German and non-German) at a Mediterranean port. Among the goods being shipped will be urgently needed things like medicines, baby food, bedding, children’s clothes, school materials; also painting equipment and especially musical instruments. We believe cement is not the only thing necessary for rebuilding… but also things to help cure the soul.”

It’s hard to over-state what a stunning turn of events this is. A US Congressman calling for a Berlin airlift. German Jews proudly choosing universal humanistic beliefs over narrow tribal interests (that aren’t even really interests — it requires labyrinths of fantastically convoluted thinking for anyone to believe the occupation is good for the Jews). Turkey putting citizens and supplies on boats heading for Gaza’s blockaded beaches, knowing that if they are fired on by the Israeli navy, it will get press coverage, and if they are not fired on, it will threaten the siege and the occupation itself.

(Some activist boats have already tried to break the siege of Gaza, and some have been attacked by the Israeli navy, some have been boarded, its participants arrested, and a few have quietly been let through. But a sovereign nation that’s supposedly an important ally of Israel sending a large fleet with mounting international support is very different from a handful of activists sending a tiny fleet, though the activists bravely set the stage for this next step.)

Meanwhile, non-violent activism is heating up and gaining steam in the West Bank as well. Repression of that resistance is heating up at the same time — more non-violent activists arrested without charge, more night raids into villages, and continued attacks with tear gas, concussion grenades, filthy sewage spray, and sometimes worse to break up peaceful assemblies. Since 2004, nineteen Palestinians have been killed in protests against the Wall.

The excellent journalist Ben Hubbard of the Associated Press broke the story in the mainstream press (though the article has since mysteriously disappeared from the Washington Post and elsewhere… luckily it was reprinted here). CNN followed — check out the video a third of the way down the page — it’s the most honest and sympathetic to the protesters of any I’ve seen — as well as this excellent opinion piece).

The New York Times, rather surprisingly, followed as well. I say surprisingly because it later came to light that the son of the New York Times‘ bureau chief in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner, had joined the Israeli army. The New York Times did not disclose this fact to its readers until it was outed by the Electronic Intifada, an independent news source.

The public editor of the NYT wrote a column suggesting Bronner should be reassigned, but the executive editor overruled him and wrote a piece explaining why.

I would have enjoyed seeing what kind of piece he would have written had his bureau chief’s son joined Hamas or Fatah.

Lysandra Ohrstrom at Huffington Post said it hardly mattered. NYT’s coverage was heavily biased toward Israel long before Ethan Bronner’s son joined the Israeli army, and it would continue to be so even if Bronner was reassigned. Sadly, I tend to agree, though there are occasional cracks of light, including Roger Cohen’s always excellent columns.


Someone painted this on the Wall near the Qalandia checkpoint in protest

Nonetheless, non-violent resistance continues to spread valiantly throughout the West Bank. A recent demonstration in Bil’in to mark the five-year anniversary of the weekly protests was attended by thousands — including Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. As Phil Weiss said on his site Mondoweiss, it’s a sign of the movement’s power that the politicians are running to catch up. It was, naturally, attacked with the usual methods.

Even a group of mild-mannered Palestinian Christians, protesting a planned increased Israeli military presence near the Christian town of Beit Sahour, was recently attacked by the Israeli army with tear gas and concussion grenades and denied the right to peaceful assembly. (At one point in the video, when their heads are bowed and they are speaking in Arabic, they’re saying the Lord’s Prayer.)

Said one Palestinian Christian man, “I am so proud of the people who came and joined together with us, and for those of you who did not join us, you missed something rather amazing. The best of humanity is on the march with love. Those of us who were here are energized and wish you would come and join us in ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of this world.’ You can’t be neutral on a moving train. You are either on the side of justice or you are contributing to the injustice. Silence is complicity.”

One of the coolest things I’ve seen lately was when Palestinian protesters in Bil’in dressed up as the Na’vi characters in the movie Avatar.

They’re getting more creative, unified, and motivated as time goes on. The Third Intifada — hopefully a non-violent one — is a-brewing.

The people of Gaza also, miraculously, continue to live and hope, as you can see here.

Sara Roy of Harvard wrote:

“The people of Gaza know they have been abandoned. Some told me the only time they felt hope was when they were being bombed, because at least then the world was paying attention… Yet, despite attempts by Israel and the West to caricature Gaza as a terrorist haven, Gazans still resist. Perhaps what they resist most is surrender: not to Israel, not to Hamas, but to hate. So many people still speak of peace, of wanting to resolve the conflict and live a normal life.”

There’s so much more going on — the botched Dubai assassination that’s getting Israel in hot water with many of its allies, the fact that the Israel lobby in America is becoming increasingly shrill and ridiculous as its narrative is questioned by more and more Americans, the visiting scholar at Harvard who called for limiting Palestinian birthrates by starving refugee children, the disgraceful “Museum of Tolerance” that Israel is trying to build on top of a Muslim cemetery, and creative protests against the occupation going on all over America and Europe.

There was also a watershed moment when Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic back-handedly smeared former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan as an anti-Semite because of his criticism of America’s uncritical support of Israel’s policies. The charge was so patently absurd, it sparked protest and ridicule from other commentators. One of them, Daniel Luban, wrote:

“For a long time, such accusations [of anti-Semitism] were a political death sentence for those on the receiving end of them. Even in recent years, they have remained damaging when directed at figures who were not known personally by many people in Washington journalistic circles (e.g. Walt and Mearsheimer [Harvard and U Chicago professors who wrote The Israel Lobby], Chas Freeman [who was pressured out of his post as chair of the National Intelligence Council by the strong-arm tactics of the Israel lobby]).

“However, the hardliners badly blundered by casually and frivolously leveling the anti-Semitism charge against people who were widely known — and widely known not to be anti-Semites — in Washington. Joe Klein, an anti-Semite? Andrew Sullivan, an anti-Semite? The obviously absurdity of these charges has caused many observers to go back and reevaluate the entire way that the charge has been used in the past — and has only confirmed the impression that it is all-too-frequently used to stifle all dissent from Israeli policies.”

It’s a turning point, in part, because Sullivan didn’t back down. Instead of quaking in his boots and issuing a Spitzer-esque apology (as if accused of cheating on Israel with some jihadi mistress), Sullivan fought back and wrote, “I will not be intimidated from having this discussion, of airing as many sides as I can, as fairly as I can, and while I will do my utmost not to knowingly offend anyone of any party, I will also refuse to quiver in fear of cheap and vulgar uses of the anti-Semite card.”

It prompted me to formulate a new law, a la Godwin’s Law, which I call Sullivan’s Law:

“As a cogent argument against America’s special relationship with Israel and/or against Israeli injustices against the Palestinians approaches the mainstream, the probability of its author being called an anti-Semite approaches 1.”

As a codicil to this law, I would add: “Once someone who is clearly not an anti-Semite is called an anti-Semite, the debate is over and whoever called the other an anti-Semite automatically loses.”

If only.

There’s much more to say, but I really need to finish up Chapter 12.

Hat tip and many thanks to the excellent blog Mondoweiss (written, for the most part, from a conscientious Jewish perspective) for alerting me to virtually all of these stories. I get most of my Israel/Palestine news from Mondoweiss these days, and I encourage everyone to check it out.

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