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Our event on Thursday was a lovely success, even though the crowd was cut in half by a huge Palestine-related event scheduled on the same night. A couple of particularly generous donors put us well in the black, and the people who made it to the event were mesmerized by Mali’s exquisite and soulful performance. Many thanks to Mali, Gary, Fadi, Danielle, Saj, Ravi, Debbie, and Nafis.
In other fantastic news, after nearly a year, Rania’s husband is finally out of prison! (You can read the story of his brutal arrest by Israeli soldiers here.) He was let out a month early for good behavior. The poor guy is a mess after a year in often terrible conditions, but he’s so happy to be home with his family (and as a bonus, like most Palestinian prisoners, he learned Hebrew in prison and can now read, write, and speak it).
Unfortunately, he’s saddled with lawyers’ fees (more than $1,000) as well as having to finish building his home before his brother-in-law comes back to Palestine in less than a year. (The family is staying at his house until they finish theirs.) They need about $3,000 to finish the house, but with the economy being what it is, he’ll be lucky if he can find a job that pays $300 a month — barely enough to survive.
Rania, who has a college degree, has higher earnings potential than her husband, but she needs training and connections to get a good job in her chosen field of psychological counseling. A Christian organization has offered both for $100 a month for a year (the fee is actually less, but this includes travel and child care), after which there’s a good chance she can get a great job and provide well for her family. Her husband is a good father and supportive husband and would be thrilled for this.
But again, it will be impossible if her husband is only making $300 a month, which makes our fundraising as important as ever. Anyone who didn’t make it to the performance but would like to help out can Paypal donations to pamolson02 (a) yahoo or contact me to find out where to mail a check.
By the way, in case it’s not clear, the Rania we’re raising money for is the same Rania introduced in my book, Fast Times in Palestine, in Chapter 2. We’ve been friends for seven years now.
Below is another excerpt, the first part of Chapter 3, in which you can get to know Rania a little better.
CHAPTER 3: BEHIND THE FENCE
On the third day of Ramadan, I tagged along with Yusif and Sebastian to Nablus, the largest city in the northern West Bank. Idyllically situated in a long valley between two rolling mountains, it’s historically known as the Uncrowned Queen of Palestine. Its casbah or Old City is one of the most spectacular and intact in the Middle East. The town’s specialties include olive oil soap made in ancient factories and kunafa, a warm, cheesy dessert covered in spiced shredded wheat, smothered in vanilla-citrus syrup, and topped with crushed pistachios. But I was most excited about the Turkish baths. My guidebook said Nablus had some of the oldest functioning public baths in the world.
The city was only about twenty miles from Jayyous, but we had to take a dizzying series of winding back roads to get there. Each time we hit a checkpoint or roadblock, we had to get out of our cab, climb over the roadblock or walk through the checkpoint, and find another cab.
After we’d gone through several of these barriers, I said to Sebastian, “I thought the checkpoints were mostly along the Green Line, or at least along the Fence.”
He shook his head. “Nope. They’re everywhere.”
Yusif said, “One of our Palestinian teachers lives ten kilometers away from our headquarters in Nablus, but it takes him two to three hours to get through the checkpoint. If he can’t get through, he has to walk five kilometers over the mountains carrying all his materials.”
“But what’s the point?”
Sebastian grinned. “Protecting the settlers, of course.” He seemed to enjoy the constant look of shock on my face.
Along the way we passed several Israeli settlements, mostly on hilltops. Their identical white houses with red-tiled roofs were plunked down in perfect rows like Monopoly pieces, in stark contrast to the variegated and organic Palestinian villages. Occasionally I saw groups of settlers walking among picturesque Palestinian olive groves with sleek automatic weapons slung over their shoulders like fashion accessories.
We were near the geographical center of the northern West Bank, just south of Nablus, when we came across a massive checkpoint near a village called Huwara. It was known as the Huwara Checkpoint; apparently most checkpoints were named after the village they were closest to. We joined a line of pedestrians that snaked on for a quarter-mile or more. Everyone was funneled toward a fenced-in pathway that looked like a cattle chute. Soldiers with assault rifles checked people’s documents and rummaged through their bags and decided whether or not to let them through. A sniper tower draped sloppily in camouflage netting hovered above.
I saw a soldier standing by the line watching the proceedings contentedly. I walked over and said to him, “What are you doing? What is the point of this?”
He looked me up and down. “What’s in your backpack?”
“Clothes and books. Want to see?”
He said dismissively, “Well, you never know, some crazy Muslim might come and try to blow us all up. Where are you from?”
“I’m from America. And I’m hungry.”
“You could have screamed you were American. We would have waved you through.”
My face colored at his presumption and his casual assumption that I shared it. “We’re all hungry,” I said evenly. “We’re fasting for Ramadan.”
The soldier’s demeanor changed instantly. “What, are you a Muslim?” he asked distastefully. “Are your parents Muslim?”
I hadn’t expected that reaction at all. I was acting like a child, talking back to the grown-ups to test how much I could get away with. I decided to keep my mouth shut until I had a better idea what was going on. I ignored the soldier’s question and melted back into the crowd.
Inch by inch, two hours later I presented my passport to the soldiers on duty, trying to ignore the M-16 assault rifles casually pointed toward the crowd, and made it through the checkpoint along with my two companions. On the other side we caught a bus to Nablus. We had only gone a few blocks when we were stopped at a ‘flying checkpoint’ — an armored Hummer parked in the road and pulling people over. Israeli soldiers ordered us off our bus, sorted out half the passengers, mostly young and middle-aged Palestinian men, and made them stand by the side of the road. The rest of us were allowed to get back on the bus.
As the bus pulled away, I looked back at the men left behind. One of the Israeli soldiers said something to them over the Hummer’s loudspeaker as we drove away. Then he broke into a short song in Hebrew that ended, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”
Our bus soon topped a ridge and the full view of Nablus opened up in front of us, nestled in its valley and built of indigenous white stone, but I was too distracted and depressed to notice much. We got off the bus in the center of town and walked toward the famed Old City.
I asked Sebastian if we could visit a Turkish bath or soap factory. I thought that might cheer me up. He shook his head. “Some of them have been destroyed by the Israeli army. I’m not sure which ones are working anymore.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that ancient tourist sites might have been affected by the violence. I nodded and kept my shocked disappointment to myself.
As we neared the Old City, I began to see tattered posters of young Palestinian men carrying assault rifles. Yusif said they were resistance fighters who had been killed by the Israeli army. He took us into a house in the Old City whose windows and doors were crowned by arches of cut stone. The living room walls were lined with hand-painted tiles. Yusif spoke to the adults in Arabic while Sebastian and I were entertained by seven or eight children in the family room. Yusif said the family had recently been kicked out of their house by Israeli soldiers, and their home had been used as an army base for two days. This was apparently a common practice.
After we left, Yusif pointed up and down the narrow Old City street lined with shops and tawny stone housing units and said, “They have gun battles in here almost every night. The fighters take up positions, and everyone blocks the roads and takes up defensive positions in their houses to wait for the Israelis to come in. You can hear the bullets flying all the way down these old passageways. There’s nothing in the world quite like it.” He sounded almost nostalgic.
We caught a cab to a house where several internationals lived, mostly Italians. They were busy preparing the Iftar, the sunset meal that broke the day’s fast. I introduced myself and started slicing tomatoes and mashing chickpeas, trying not to think about what I’d seen that day.
The call to prayer sounded five times a day in the Muslim world — at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. It was sung by a muezzin and broadcast electronically from the mosques’ minarets, reminding everyone that God was the greatest (Allahu akbar), there was no god but God (La ilaha ila Allah), and Mohammad was His Messenger (Mohammad rasul Allah). Each day’s Ramadan fast began at the dawn call and ended after the sunset call.
After the sunset call sounded that day, we gathered around our feast. I’d cheated a little and at least drunk tea on my first days of fasting. Today nothing at all had passed my lips, and my body was starting to adjust and expect food around this time. As I ate, slowly and thankfully, at peace and among new friends, I felt like every cell in my body had just had a two-week vacation in the Caribbean and was coming home lean, tanned, and relaxed to a hot meal and a massage. Every little neighborhood in my body tingled, wriggled, laughed, and broke into spontaneous applause. Whatever it was, it felt good.
Dan in Israel
I was due to meet Dan the Russian-Israeli at the Jerusalem central bus station the next evening. The Nablus-to-Jerusalem route, a little over forty miles as the crow flies, took most of the next day. I had to change cabs six times. At one ‘flying checkpoint’ on a random stretch of road, an Israeli soldier pulled us over and forced everyone out of the cab. We had to walk in the dark and cold for forty minutes carrying all our luggage until we found another ride.
It was a happy relief to see Dan again after so much craziness. We caught up over dinner, then he drove us north to his apartment in Kfar Saba, an Israeli town coincidentally just a few miles from Jayyous. Before I nodded off on his couch, he asked if I wanted to go to the canyon the next morning. I happily agreed. I didn’t care which canyon, as long as we got away from soldiers and Walls and politics for a while.
He drove us toward the city center the next morning. I said jokingly, “There’s a canyon in the middle of Kfar Saba?”
“Yeah, a big one. It’s really nice.” I looked at him strangely. My guidebook hadn’t said anything about Israeli cities with canyons in the middle of them.
We soon pulled into a desultory parking lot. After a security guard checked our trunk, we parked and headed toward what looked like a large shopping mall.
I stopped short. “There’s a canyon in that mall?”
“A what?” He furrowed his brow for a moment. Then he burst out laughing. “Sorry,” he said, “kanyon is Hebrew for ‘mall.’ It’s kind of the main attraction around here.”
“Ah.” I was laughing, too. “Finally it all makes sense. But honestly, I was hoping for something a little more outdoorsy.”
“Hm… Maybe we can visit Haifa?”
Haifa was a lovely seaside city north of Tel Aviv with a mixed Jewish and Arab population. After touring the town, we went swimming in the Mediterranean, camped on the beach, and shared Israeli wine and Russian cheese. It was a perfect day, carefree and fun.
The next morning we drove up to the Sea of Galilee and had breakfast at a café near the water. The ‘sea’ was technically a lake, ten miles wide and still as a mill pond. The yellow-green hills of the Golan Heights towered solidly above it. I said to Dan, “This was seriously where all the disciples thought they were going to drown in a giant storm?”
He laughed. “I know. I always thought it was like the Black Sea or something, but it’s just this little lake.” He shook his head. Nothing was what it seemed around here.
While we ate, I told him a little about what I had seen in the West Bank—the Fences, the martyr posters in Nablus, the checkpoints and roadblocks. He listened with his usual openness, but at times he looked doubtful. I said, “Why don’t you come visit me in Jayyous? It’s only about five miles from where you live. I’ll ask Yusif if it’ll be a problem, but I don’t think so.”
“Is it even possible with all the roadblocks?”
“We might have to wait until the Gates of Azzun are open. That’s what they call the pile of rubble that blocks the road to Jayyous. But I think there’s a way to go around it.”
He looked confused. “If there’s a way to go around, what’s the point?”
“Look, don’t ask me. None of this makes any sense to me. I’m going to have to do a lot of research when I get home.”
“Yeah…” He paused for a long moment, then sighed. “But you have to put it in context. Last year, there was a suicide bombing practically every week, it was… unbelievable. The mall we were in yesterday was bombed last year. Three weeks ago a suicide bomber killed twenty people in a restaurant in Haifa. Just innocent people having a meal.”
I sighed and looked out over the water. What I had seen in the West Bank was terrible, but there was another side to the story, after all. I tried to imagine the horror of a suicide bombing, of people sitting around in a café having a meal, and then all of a sudden—
I started and glanced around at the patrons in our little café. I was relieved not to see anyone with a suspiciously bulky midsection and an eerily calm expression. But nothing could prepare me for what I’d feel nearly a year later when two busloads of people were not so lucky.
Rania was overjoyed when I got back to Jayyous and asked if I could teach English with her during the month of Ramadan. Our students were mostly fifteen-year-old girls with laughing eyes and perfectly-sculpted eyebrows, sweet and funny and eager to learn. We had classes three times a week, two hours each. I spent most of the rest of the long, hungry days sitting on the cushions in Rania’s living room watching Arabic music videos. Rania’s mother was constantly trying to feed me, but for the most part I fended her off and maintained a respectable fast.
Rania was thin but strong, her voice soft and girlish, and her gestures and inflections tended toward the melodramatic. Her English was adorably non-standard, like a slightly faulty textbook that had picked up odd bits of slang. She often said things in Arabic first, then in English, which helped me tremendously to pick up the language. Her family had built their house and bought the lovely parlor furniture in better times, “before the Wall.” Her father was in Jordan running a small shop. Two of her brothers were policemen in the nearby city of Qalqilia, and another was in the Jordanian military.
Rania had tried studying to be a midwife, but she’d fainted at the sight of blood and had to drop out. Until the English teaching job came along, she said she’d felt like Cinderella, cooking and cleaning while her sisters studied and had fun. Rania’s two oldest sisters were married, and her next-youngest sister was studying to be a midwife now. The youngest, Rasha, was only ten. Rania hoped to make enough money teaching English to put herself through college in psychology, but her mother, who seemed jealous of her smart and sweet-natured middle daughter, was making it difficult. Sometimes she forced Rania to clean the house instead of teaching English, and at the ripe age of twenty-three, she was under pressure to get married.
While we watched TV, Rania’s sisters and I played a game called Helou mish helou, which meant ‘Sweet not sweet’ and referred to how attractive the singers on the music videos were. The women were generally quite helweh (feminine of helou) except the ones who wore so much eyeliner they looked like raccoons, but the men were far below average compared to what I had seen on the streets in the Middle East. Our favorites were Nancy Ajram, a flirty, dark-haired Lebanese girl, and an Egyptian hunk with a honey silk voice named Amr Diab.
Some of the videos were oddly explicit for this conservative Muslim town. In one of them, a raven-haired Egyptian named Ruby, wearing tight track pants and a sports bra, slowly pedaled a stationary bike in a highly suggestive manner while she sang. It was always incongruous to be watching those scantily-clad women gyrating away while we waited, starved and dehydrated, for our small-town muezzin to remind us that God was the greatest.
Rania’s house was on the opposite end of town from my rooftop apartment, so I had to walk up and down Main Street a lot. Every time I did, aside from the fifty kids waving and shouting “Hallo!” from all directions, I would run into a dozen people I knew or who knew about me or who just thought I looked like I could use a cup of tea. Half of them invited me into their parlors and insisted I join their family for Iftar. Getting anywhere on time and making sure not to double-book myself for dinner became a serious problem. My saving grace was the cheerfully equivocal phrase, Insha’Allah (‘God willing’), which could mean anything from, “I will be there unless I get run over by a car,” to “I have absolutely no interest, thanks, but who knows? Maybe the five other invitations I have tonight will fall through.” (We have a similar saying in Oklahoma, though it’s used far less often: “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”)
Each evening before sunset, everyone gathered at their dinner tables looking like broken puppets. As the call to prayer sounded and the food arrived, we slowly re-animated into chatting, good-natured human beings again. It was best to start with soup, a date or two, and fruit juice to get a little blood sugar spike and let it spread over your body before starting on the main course. In practice, huge mounds of food were almost always placed on my plate immediately. My favorite was maqlouba, a dish with baked chicken, fried cauliflower, and eggplant embedded in a mound of rice plumped with broth and spices. After the casserole was removed from the oven, it was flipped over onto a serving platter (hence the name, which meant ‘upside down’ in Arabic), sprinkled with toasted slivered almonds and pine nuts, and served with fresh yogurt, vegetable soup infused with cardamom, and farmer’s salad.
After a few hours of digestion and conversation, the hostess would present us with tea, coffee, and fresh fruit, homemade kunafa, harisa (syrupy semolina cakes), or date cookies. It took me several days to wise up enough to ask Yusif to teach me a phrase that would prove critical to my digestive health: Ana shabana. (‘I’m full.’)
Rania’s family invited me to Iftar almost every night, but I managed to spend a few with the mayor’s family, and Yusif invited me to Qais’s house sometimes as well. Qais was usually away at school in Jenin, but his older brother Shadi was one of Yusif’s best friends, and I could immediately see why. Even taller than Qais, he had an otherworldly aura of calm about him, and he always seemed to be concealing a cosmic joke behind his eyes. Qais’s family had the best porch in town under a thick grapevine canopy with a panoramic view all the way down to the Mediterranean where the lights of Tel Aviv shone against the darkening sea. We often ate out there in the cool night air.
One evening after Iftar, I joined a nargila circle on Amjad’s porch and noticed a man sitting among the crowd who looked European. He was introduced to me as an Israeli named Ilan who was developing a plan to project videos from Palestine into public spaces in Israel. He explained that most people in Israel had no clear idea of what was happening to the Palestinians, and many had stopped watching the news altogether because it was too depressing.
“And the news doesn’t even tell half the story,” he said, and everyone nodded knowingly. He had apparently visited Jayyous several times, and everyone seemed to enjoy his luminous smile, lovely Hebrew accent, and calm personality. Another time we were joined by a Japanese photographer who was marketing Palestinian olive oil in Japan and a Canadian who said he used to teach English in Saudi Arabia. I asked what he thought of Saudi Arabia.
He smiled ruefully. “Twenty-three is the wrong age to be there hormonally.”
Palestine was, of course, much more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Women could drive, vote, and wear pants, and in the bigger cities, many women chose not to wear the head scarf. But here in the village, every woman wore a head scarf, and they rarely joined us in groups that included men they didn’t know well. The system of scarves and situational segregation seemed designed to protect women from men and men from their desires, and it seemed excessive and unfair to me. But Palestinians could have judged and dismissed me, an American and a non-Muslim, for any number of reasons. Instead, they chose to suspend judgment and see the good. Until I knew a great deal more, I decided to return the favor.
I loved how people would sweep in, bring their richness to the moment, and then go on their way. The usual accoutrements of identity—job, education, family, nationality—hardly seemed to matter. I appreciated how people treated me like an equal, or at least like a promising student, and patiently explained things to me when I got confused. Amjad, the barrel-chested engineer, was like a big brother, gruff and humorous, always poking fun at me. His brother Amir was shy and quiet and barely spoke English, but when he did speak, what he said was usually worth listening to. Of all the things I thought Palestine might be, I never would have imagined this colorful collection of characters with their open eyes and open faces, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. I felt like I was being let in on an important secret, something I wasn’t supposed to know.
As the days passed, I learned more Palestinian Arabic, like that Keef halek? meant ‘How are you?’ and the proper response was Al hamdulillah, or ‘Thanks and praise to God.’ Yusif said you were supposed to say it even if your dog had just died and your house had been bulldozed, because even in the worst situation you were supposed to remember that everything was a gift from God. I loved how it rolled off my tongue like a provincial greeting in Robin Hood’s Nottingham, and it was nice to be in a place where I could express my gratitude for life so openly. It reminded me of how I’d felt in the Sinai.
I learned that Baarafish meant ‘I don’t know’ and Maa al salaama meant ‘Good-bye.’ Al yom meant ‘today’ and bukra meant ‘tomorrow.’ Tisbah ala khair meant ‘Good night’ and Sabah al khair meant ‘Good morning.’ If someone bade you good morning, the proper response was Sabah al noor, or ‘Morning of light.’ Every day I learned a new poetic call-and-response.
Little by little, Arabic was beginning to sound more like a colorful, rocky waterfall and less like an alien, cacophonous jumble.
Note: You can reach Chapter 3 Part 2 here.
You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.
I’m organizing a performance at the NYU campus in New York on June 17.
Be there if you can, and please forward widely!
A Riveting Benefit Dance Performance
Thursday, June 17 at 7:00 pm
Judson Church Assembly Hall
239 Thompson St.
Subway: ACE / BDFV to W 4th St.
Please join us for a one-night-only New York performance by Malavika Mohanan, and help a Palestinian family!
Mali is on international tour with an eclectic 50-minute dance performance called Being Human. The form, based in bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance), is influenced by traditions as varied as flamenco, West African dance, and hip-hop, skillfully-executed and gorgeously expressive.
Attendance is donation-based, with a suggested $10 – $15 donation. Mali has generously offered to send all profits to a young Palestinian family whose breadwinner was arrested by the Israeli army on fabricated charges. (The story of the devastating arrest is available here.)
The performance is followed by an informal discussion with the audience inspired by the dance, current events, and the family we’re helping.
Please RSVP on our Facebook page or at pamolson at gmail.
We look forward to sharing an amazing evening with you!
(If you can’t make it but wish to make a donation anyway, my paypal account is pamolson02 @ yahoo. If you’d rather send a check, contact me for details. Many thanks.)
Malavika Mohanan began training in bharatanatyam at the age of eight at Kalanjali in Berkeley, California. She joined Apsaras Arts in Singapore in 1990 and performed her arangetram (first full solo public concert) in 1995. She began studying theatre at the age of fifteen at United World College SEA in Singapore and continued training at Stanford University, where she graduated with a B.A. in Drama. After spending some years exploring different styles of movement and expression, she began creating and traveling with her own solo performance works, often with substantial social content. She has performed, directed, and/or choreographed theatre and dance projects in Singapore, the United States, India, Argentina, and Kenya.
For more information, contact Pamela Olson — pamolson at gmail
PLEASE FORWARD WIDELY!
A flotilla of six ships carrying nearly 700 people from 40 countries set sail for Gaza last month to challenge the siege on the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt.
The passengers included aid workers, medics, members of the European Parliament, journalists, scholars, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead McGuire of Ireland, retired American Colonel Ann Wright, former Ambassador Edward Peck (who also served as deputy director of President Reagan’s White House Task Force on Terrorism), bestselling Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, and Joe Meadors, a survivor of Israel’s 1967 attack on the American intelligence ship, the USS Liberty.
The initiative took two years of organizing sponsored in part by Ireland, Greece, Malaysia, and a Turkish humanitarian organization called IHH. The tactical aim was to bring 10,000 tons of desperately-needed aid, including toys, electric wheelchairs, cement, notebooks, food, medicine, and medical devices, to the people of Gaza. The strategic aim was to bring international attention to the blockade and help end it once and for all.
The embargo began after Hamas won Parliamentary elections in January 2006. It was tightened when Hamas captured an Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit in June 2006 to use as a bargaining chip to try and release some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, many of them children and a large percentage held without trial. The blockade reached devastating proportions in mid-2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force of arms to pre-empt an attempted Fatah coup allegedly sponsored by the American government.
The aim of the embargo is to prevent weapons smuggling and pressure the people of Gaza to oust Hamas. It has banned virtually all exports from Gaza, destroyed the profitability of Gaza’s agriculture, wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, shut down 95% of Gaza’s industries, left more than 80% of the population dependent on food aid, prevented Gaza’s fishermen from traveling more than three miles from the coast, and caused poverty and child malnutrition to skyrocket. It has trapped the vast majority of Gazans in the Strip with vanishingly few allowed to leave, even for desperately-needed medical care or to use scholarships won abroad. At least 28 have died for lack of access to medical treatment.
The arbitrary rules of the blockade have at various times—sometimes for years—prevented Gazans from importing cilantro, chocolate, dried fruit, fresh meat, notebooks, clothes, toys, fishing nets and ropes, chicks, hatcheries, musical instruments, clothing, shoes, and tea.
It has also banned cement, making it impossible to rebuild the thousands of homes and schools damaged or destroyed by Israel’s three-week bombing campaign in early 2009, which killed 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians, including more than 300 children, and devastated their infrastructure. (Since the blockade began, rockets from the Gaza Strip have killed eight Israelis.)
The blockade is a clear act of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. And it has succeeded in neither turning Gazans against Hamas nor stopping Hamas from acquiring weapons. It has, in fact, led to the widening of a network of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, in which goods (and presumably weapons) flow unchecked. Hamas levies taxes on these over-priced goods, and that along with the anger at Israel engendered by the blockade has only made Hamas stronger.
The UN has called the siege ‘medieval’ and US Congressman Brian Baird to call for a modern-day ‘Berlin Airlift’ to lift the siege. Yet the governments of the world, led by the US, have been mostly silent about the illegal collective punishment of 1.5 million people, half of them children. Civil society bravely stepped in to fill the void, to try to break the blockade with their own boats and bodies.
The Israeli government called the Gaza Freedom Flotilla a “provocation.” Filmmaker Iara Lee, who was on board one of the boats, responded that it was a provocation “in the sense that civil rights protesters in the American south who sat at segregated lunch counters represented a provocation to segregationists… Under an illegal siege, the delivery of aid to civilians is a prohibited act; the intent of our humanitarian convoy was to violate this unjust prohibition.”
As the boats neared the eastern Mediterranean, the Israeli government was left to strategize about how to meet this challenge. Already nine ships had attempted to break the siege, and five were quietly allowed through. But after Israel’s war in early 2000, the next four ships were stopped forcibly, one of them rammed and almost sunk.
Instead of deterring the next aid convoy, it tripled everyone’s resolve. The current convoy, the most ambitious of all, was the result. And more were scheduled afterwards, including a boat packed with European Jews who opposed Israel’s blockade, who took the phrase “never again” both seriously and universally.
Live video feeds showed people talking and joking on the deck of one of the ships, eating and praying, knowing they were going into danger, though I doubt they knew how much. They knew the Israeli government would react, but they expected more of what had gone on before—being rammed, detained, beaten. Not nearly enough to stop many good of people from following their conscience.
They were surprised, though, when the Israeli army engaged them more quickly than they anticipated. Soldiers demanded that they turn back or follow them into the Israeli port of Ashdod where the Israeli government would inspect the aid and allow in what it deemed appropriate.
Considering the whole point of the flotilla was challenging Israel’s control over access to Gaza, this was a non-offer—more a request of surrender. The flotilla refused, believing that in the morning they would, at worst, be rammed, detained, beaten. It would be a spectacle, but not much of one. The boarding of the other boats and beating and detention of activists had hardly been covered in the news.
At best, they would float past the Israeli navy while they watched helplessly, unwilling to stop a humanitarian effort by force and thus turn it into a news spectacle and a PR disaster. The American media had ignored all previous attempts to break the Gaza siege, and a few tons of concrete (which any Gazans who could afford it were getting through the tunnels anyway) wasn’t really a serious threat to national security. The passengers on the flotilla would enjoy the legendary hospitality of Gaza, the people of Gaza, including hundreds of children maimed by Israel’s bombing campaigns, would get much-needed help and moral support, and it would most likely be quietly ignored by the world at large.
Still, Israel would have a harder time justifying its next attack on what would undoubtedly be an even bigger flotilla of siege-breakers. Israel’s carefully-constructed justifications might collapse, and with it the siege itself. Which Israel, against all logic and evidence, would view as a catastrophic defeat.
It is difficult for most Americans to grasp the paranoid siege mentality, often to the point of dangerous delusion, that most Israelis live under (with many spirited exceptions). As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, despite the fact that Israel has one of the world’s most powerful militaries, a formidable nuclear arsenal, and the virtually unqualified support of the world’s only Superpower, “The feeling of helplessness of a poor lonely victim, confronting the rage of a lynch mob and frantically realizing that these are his last moments, accurately reflect the current psychosis of the majority of the Israeli public.”
Most Israelis either refuse or are unable to see their own gross violations of international law or the suffering they cause. They only see an Arab world bent on annihilating them and an international community trying to delegitimize them. It doesn’t seem to register that in 2002, the entire Arab League pledged peace and recognition of Israel if it obeyed international law and withdrew from territories occupied since 1967. And it doesn’t seem to register that when Europeans condemn illegal blockades that lead to humanitarian crises, this is not equivalent to wishing for Israel’s destruction.
It’s true, though, that international law is a slippery slope. A UN resolution brought Israel into existence, but another UN resolution said the Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes in 1948 had a right to return. After endorsing the resolution that brought them into being, Israel has resisted every subsequent effort by the international community to bring some balance back to the equation—to base a resolution on the human rights of all, not the special rights of some.
Of course, breaking international law is also a slippery slope. First you break it with some refugees. Then the refugees organize to resist. So you break it in Lebanon. Then you wind up with Hezbollah. Then you break it to fight Hezbollah, killing thousands of civilians along the way. And Hezbollah gets stronger.
Meanwhile, you break it with illegal settlements in the West Bank. Then, to shore up that violation, you break it with a Wall that steals farmers’ land to make settlements more wealthy and secure. Farmers and their supporters organize to resist. You must break them. Tear gas isn’t enough. Beatings and arrests aren’t enough. So you start shooting to kill.
The Economist summed it up: “Israel is caught in a vicious circle. The more its hawks think the outside world will always hate it, the more it tends to shoot opponents first and ask questions later, and the more it finds that the world is indeed full of enemies.”
With each violation, Israel paints itself further into a corner, which forces it to slip further into depravity. Gradually, by degrees, so that most of Israeli society doesn’t notice, each new violation is normalized, and each new act of resistance to Israel’s violations is touted as a “threat to Israel’s existence.” The end result is a state where Gazans eating chocolate is a danger to Israeli security and boats carrying humanitarian supplies are tools of Israel’s destruction.
And anyone who believes, however absurdly, that he is facing imminent destruction believes he is justified in fighting back by any means necessary.
So there was no morning for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. In the pre-dawn hours of May 31, Israeli commandos shot concussion grenades and rubber bullets (and possibly live ammunition) at the biggest boat, then abseiled from helicopters onto the deck to try and commandeer the vessel. They were in international waters, approximately 70 miles from the coast, where Israel had no jurisdiction. It was therefore an illegal act of piracy.
The passengers acted to protect their ship and their shipmates. Though the timeline is unclear, the Israeli army released edited videos that show passengers beating Israeli soldiers as they land on the deck with sticks and rods they had pried off ship railings and deck chairs and throwing a soldier from one deck to another.
Perhaps the crowd on the video thought the vaunted Israeli army would fight fair, would know how to deal with a crowd wielding sticks. Perhaps they expected nothing more than tasers, beatings, tear gas—normal crowd dispersal methods. And they were willing to endure this to try to protect their ship in the middle of the night in waters where Israeli commandos had no legal jurisdiction.
Perhaps they thought the concussion grenades being thrown at them were live, the rubber-coated steel bullets real. Certainly when I was struck with a concussion grenade at a non-violent protest in the West Bank in 2005, I was terrified it might kill, burn, or maim me. And rubber-coated steel bullets, which can sound terrifyingly real to someone who’s not used to them, have been known to kill on numerous occasions, especially when fired from close range. Perhaps one or more activists had already been killed, on accident or otherwise, by the time the soldiers landed, as some witnesses claim, and the passengers believed they were fighting for their lives.
Or perhaps, as the Israelis allege, they simply rushed armed commandos, unprovoked, armed only with whatever tools they could find around the ship, hungry for a bloodthirsty, premeditated lynch. This doesn’t strike me as very plausible, particularly now that profiles of the victims are beginning to emerge. Most are middle-aged family men, one a 19-year-old American citizen of Turkish origin who looks younger than his years. Autopsies have revealed that most were shot multiple times, except one who was shot in the forehead. Five of the dead were shot in the back or the back of the head.
An American ex-Marine who was on board and other witnesses say that after several passengers were killed and injured, three Israeli soldiers were disarmed and subdued, given first aid, and released — hardly a “lynch” situation.
We’ll know more when and if full details come to light. So far what we do know is that Israel forcibly boarded a civilian boat not with police but with commando units trained to kill. Not in broad daylight, where much confusion and terror could have been avoided, but in the dead of night. Not with prior warning and clear intentions but with a hail of rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Not in Israeli or even Gazan but in international waters. And in the end, they killed nine civilians and wounded dozens more.
Nine civilians: More than the total number of Israelis killed by Gaza’s rocket fire during the entire three-year-plus blockade.
Whether this was a “trigger-happy display of incompetence or an attempt at deterrence that spun out of control,” one would expect a government to express deep regret after such a badly mishandled operation, to apologize profusely to the families and the home countries of the slain, to contain the fallout as much as possible by releasing all footage (which will show the Israeli soldiers to be innocent if they are telling the truth) and opening the incident to a quick and thorough international investigation (which even a group of top Israeli Naval reserves officers has called for).
Instead, we got the opposite. The activists who survived the assault were arrested by Israel, roughed up and humiliated, their film and videos confiscated. Israel released only heavily-edited clips of what happened that night, and so far the testimonies of the survivors have been mostly kept out of the mainstream discourse. There was no apology. And they’ve refused to release the captured footage or cooperate with an international investigation.
They’ve insinuated that IHH, a Turkish humanitarian organization, is linked with terrorism, although Israel is the only country in the world that believes this. They claimed some on board had ties to Al Qaeda, then quickly retracted it when confronted by journalists asking for evidence.
They released an apparently-doctored audio tract that tried to make it sound like one of the ship’s passengers responded to the Israeli Navy’s hail with anti-Semitic, pro-9/11 nonsense. And they released a video by Caroline Glick, the Deputy Managing Editor of the Jerusalem Post who served as assistant foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu in 1997-98, in which Jewish Israelis portrayed Arabs as grotesque stereotypes and mocked the dead and injured.
“This wasn’t a Love Boat,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in what can only be described as history’s most tone-deaf attempt at humor. “This was a hate boat.”
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev assured the BBC the slain Turkish aid workers were “dead-set on confrontation.” As if 600 civilians, including women and children, fancied their chances against the Israeli army. As if Ambassador Peck and Colonel Wright, with 60 years of government service between them, were simply useful idiots unknowingly undertaking a terrorist mission along with a diabolical plan to lure Israeli commandos on board a ship in order to hit them with sticks.
But why would the Israeli army and government engage in something so outrageous, in full view of journalists and internationals, including European members of Parliament, and then blatantly lie about several aspects of it?
Well, it wasn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last, incident where unarmed aid workers, journalists, and activists have been attacked, maimed, and killed by Israel under questionable circumstances. Why did they bulldoze Rachel Corrie in full view of international activists? Why did they bomb UN buildings full of civilians in Gaza and Lebanon? Why did they destroy an American school in Gaza? Why did they attack the USS Liberty in 1967, killing 34 US servicemen? Why did they shoot out the eye of a young American woman in the West Bank just hours after the bungled Mavi Marmara raid?
And why did they get away with it?
The last is a question for another day. But the fact is, they did get away with it. All of it. And they are managing the news cycle yet again with every expectation that no one of consequence will care about nine dead Turks by next month.
“This is not surprising,” wrote Israeli professor Ilan Pappé. “The Barak-Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman government does not know any other way of responding to the reality in Palestine and Israel. The use of brutal force to impose your will and a hectic propaganda machine that describes it as self-defense, while demonizing the half-starved people in Gaza and those who come to their aid as terrorists, is the only possible course for these politicians. The terrible consequences in human death and suffering of this determination do not concern them, nor does international condemnation.”
It all sounds preposterous. Because it is. And it’s time the madness stopped. Israel must be held accountable. A thorough, impartial international investigation into exactly what happened that night on the Mavi Marmara must be allowed to go forward as quickly as possible.
Words like ‘justice’ and ‘international law’ are not dirty or anti-Semitic. They are the only things that can bring a modicum of sanity back to a region that has fallen down far too many slippery slopes. The first step is ending the illegal and counterproductive blockade with provisions that accommodate Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and allowing the people of Gaza to live a dignified life with a functioning economy. The next is reaching a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, negotiating a comprehensive ceasefire that includes halting illegal settlement expansion on the West Bank, and setting the stage for meaningful peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel has a chance for peace if it relinquishes the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state. If it doesn’t, it knows it faces a one-state struggle. And both options are politically impossible in an increasingly right-wing Israel, hunkering in its bunker of self-fulfilling paranoia.
When I found out two volunteers on the Free Gaza Flotilla (a humanitarian aid convoy and act of civil disobedience challenging Israel’s brutal blockade of the Gaza Strip) had been killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, I thought — hoped — there had been some ghastly mistake. When the death toll climbed to at least nine, I was speechless.
The brutality of it didn’t surprise me. I know very well what the Israeli army is capable of. But the stupidity of it did. Israel has arguably the world’s most advanced spin machine, but how could anyone spin the murder of civilians by what amounts to piracy on the high seas by the army of a sovereign nation?
They didn’t disappoint. They claimed the civilian aid workers attacked first, with sticks and kitchen knives. They claimed the soldiers boarded the boats armed only with paintball guns and were the victims of an attempted lynch. They claimed all kinds of other things that are so crazy, they don’t bear repeating here.
Of course, people who are boarded by armed hijackers in international waters are technically allowed to defend themselves. But the story that they rushed armed commandos with baseball bats, without provocation, is a little crazier than I’m willing to swallow whole. Especially now that profiles of the victims (all Turkish so far) have emerged, most of them middle-aged family men, one a high school student with dual American citizenship.
We’ll know more when and if full details come to light. Since the incident, the airwaves have been dominated not by testimonies of the people involved but by Israeli spokespeople and apologists. This is in part because many of the people involved are dead, injured, or being detained by Israel. But even after most of the activists have been released, news organizations like the New York Times apparently don’t think the testimonies of brown people and/or humanitarian activists are ‘objective’ enough to be newsworthy. Which rather strikes me as a court dismissing the testimony of the victim of an alleged rape because she’s a feminist and therefore not ‘objective.’
What we already know, though, is damning enough. Israel boarded civilian boats not with policemen but with commando units, trained to kill. Not in broad daylight, where much terror and confusion could have been avoided, but in the dead of night. Not in Israeli waters, where Israel has jurisdiction, or even in Gaza’s waters, where Israel claims it has jurisdiction, but in international waters where they clearly have no jurisdiction, rendering it an act of piracy and attempted hijacking.
Even so, if one or two people had been accidentally killed, I could begin to comprehend it. Nine civilians killed, many shot at close range, when they could have been tased, when the could have been shot in the legs instead of the chest or head, when the Israeli army could simply have disabled their boats’ propellers and towed them wherever they wanted to — This is, at best, another case of Israel’s brazen and constant disproportionate use of force. At worst, it is a wanton act of murder on the high seas.
And it was, either way, monumentally stupid. Indicative, I believe, of a nation that has truly gone over the edge of reason.
I’m working on a longer piece about the flotilla and its tragic fate. For now, here’s what I posted on Mondoweiss about the protests for and against the massacre in New York this week.
Protest in New York, and celebration
On May 31, the day after Israel’s bloody and unconscionable raid against civilian aid volunteers in international waters, around 1,000 people gathered in Times Square to protest. The next day, June 1, the same number showed up to protest again, meeting at 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue and marching to Times Square. The organizers had arranged for 200 feet of the street to be blocked off for the demonstration, and by the time the march began, it was overflowing. There were very few news cameras around, though, most of them from the independent and left-leaning press.
A counter-protest was held a few blocks away by people who supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its attack against the flotilla. A friend and I went to check it out. He suggested I hide the kuffiyeh that was hanging around my neck, but I was in no mood to cater to anyone’s delicate sensibilities after what had happened. It was a symbol of solidarity and resistance to illegal brutality, and I wore it proudly.
The right-wing protest looked as packed as the pro-justice protest, and it was surrounded by journalists, most of them apparently mainstream. One of them, well-dressed and sharply-groomed, from a local Fox station, was asking a protester what he thought about the claim by activists that the boats were attacked in international waters, and that Israel’s assault was therefore illegal. I leaned in closer, very interested to listen to his answer.
Just then a large bald man, apparently an organizer who noticed my kuffiyeh, stepped between me and the interview and asked accusingly, “Where are you from?”
I replied, “Oklahoma.”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “You can’t stand here. Not with that scarf. You know what it means, don’t you? It means support for terrorism.”
I laughed, because it was such an absurdist thing to say. The kind of thing you don’t expect real people to say right in front of you.
“You can’t stand here,” he repeated.
“It’s a free country,” I reminded him.
He mumbled something and walked away [to fetch the authorities]. Soon I was confronted by a huge policeman with a thick Bronx accent. “You can’t stand here,” he said. “Join the protest or step aside. They got permits for this space, they can choose who they want to be in there, and they don’t want you in there, so step aside.”
“I’m not in there,” I said. “I’m standing on the sidewalk.”
“You can’t stand there.”
“I can’t stand here because he says so?”
“Ma’am, I will lock you up for refusing to obey a legal order.”
“You’ll lock me up because I’m standing on the sidewalk?”
“This is a crosswalk, ma’am. It’s illegal to stand here. Step aside or I will arrest you.”
I nodded now that he said something halfway sensible and stepped out of the trickle of pedestrian traffic, too far away to engage or listen to the protesters except for hearing a few intermittently chanting, “Stop the flotilla, Stop the Islamic terror!”
My friend, who is Jewish, was also rustled up and kicked off the sidewalk for trying to talk to one of the protesters, with no ready excuse that he was standing in a crosswalk, because he wasn’t. He argued in vain with the same police officer (“It’s illegal to have a conversation?”), then he joined me near the curb. With no more reason to be there, we headed back to the pro-justice protest.
And that’s when the illusion was broken. The pro-Israeli-government protest had reserved as much space as the pro-justice protest. But their protesters were all crammed into about one-sixth of the space at one end, where the cameras were surrounding them. There couldn’t have been more than 150 people.
From the angle we saw as we were approaching it, it looked about as formidable as the pro-justice movement. But from the angle we saw as we were leaving it, it perfectly encapsulated the state of Israel’s government’s supporters today—surrounded by cameras, aided unquestioningly by the powers that be, with an increasingly sad, defensive, sputtering illusion of popular support.