Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lift the Seige of Gaza

The following speech was made at a December 30th rally in Juneau supporting the Gaza Freedom March.

We are here today to recognize the rights of the people of Gaza to mobilize in mass for a peaceful demonstration against the crippling siege imposed by Israel – and supported by the United States and European Union. The plans tomorrow are for as many as 50,000 people to gather in Gaza, march one mile to the border with Israel, and demand they open the borders now and forever.

We pray that the people live up to this call and refrain from violence. We pray Israel restrains from using violence to stop the march and they let the people cross the border. We pray that world will watch and relearn the lessons of Gandhi, King and Mandela.

This march was planned to commemorate the first anniversary of Israel’s military invasion of Gaza. 1400 Palestinians, over 1,000 civilians, 300 children among them, were killed. 13 Israeli’s were also killed, including three civilians.

We can’t erase those tragic three weeks. But we can look to tomorrow as an appeal to the world to intervene – to help end the siege of Gaza. It’s a necessary step to finding real peace in the Middle East.

I was in Gaza when this march was first proposed by Norman Finkelstein. He envisioned it as a powerful way to evoke Gandhi’s historic Salt March in India. And he believed the people of Gaza should be supported by a large contingent of international peace activists to bear witness and bring the story into the world.

Today though, 1400 people from 42 countries are stuck in Egypt. The Egyptian government has denied them entry through the one border into Gaza that is not guarded by Israel. And our nation’s leaders, and the mainstream media, are silent co-conspirators in this oppressive act.

Why is that? This could be the most visible single non violent demonstration ever in the occupied territories. It is by no means the first. Palestinians have been resisting with many forms of civil disobedience and non violence since before Israel declared itself a nation. But if this march occurs, it could undermine the reputation that our government and media have unjustly created – that the vast majority of the Palestinian people, by their very nature, embrace violence.

We’re led to believe that’s why they elected Hamas in 2006 as the majority party in their legislature – that they were voting for terrorists. It’s this kind of stereotyping that permits the siege of Gaza to continue.

Let me say here that we do not, in any way, support the violent resistance by Hamas or any other organization in Palestine. But to believe the people elected Hamas for that reason alone is a form of blindness. Fatah, their ruling party till 2006, was widely known for being corrupt. And Hamas had a proven record of social success as the elected head of many municipalities.

The Palestinians voted for Hamas in a free and democratic election that we encouraged. And when we didn’t like the results, we turned our back on the meaning of freedom and began supporting Israel’s lockdown on the tiny strip of land. We’ve let Israel make a prison out of Gaza.

What does the siege look like? I could try to describe what I saw in Gaza last June. It was a shock to the senses. Visual images can’t describe the despair in people’s eyes. Nor can I.

So imagine it this way. Gaza is about 25 miles long and 4 to 8 miles wide. That’s somewhat similar to Juneau and Douglas Island, from Thane to Echo Cove.

Now imagine the economic crisis last year was so severe that the barges stopped coming here from Seattle. The ferries are down too. Imagine it’s been like this for 3 years. Imagine the FAA closed our airport for safety reasons because we couldn’t make repairs. Imagine our sewer plant stopped functioning and we were pouring raw sewerage into the Mendenhall delta. Imagine our power is down half the day, even in the middle of winter. Now put one and half million people here.

Would we be suffering?

Imagine too our fishing fleet was restricted to Gastineau Channel and Auke Bay. And that our hospitals had a shortage of medicine, that their equipment broke down, and you needed permission from the state to take a private flight to Seattle for vital medial care.

Would we feel oppressed?

That’s a siege. And it’s got to end. NOW.

President Obama spoke in Cairo the day I left Gaza. He said, and I quote you Mr. President, “if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.” Mr. President, you acknowledged, and I quote you again “it is undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”

Those were your words Mr. President. So I ask, why haven’t you demanded an end to this siege which has turned the intolerable into a severe human tragedy?

Mr. President, you also said it was part of your “responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

Yes, it’s wrong to label Islam a violent religion. But to permit the collective punishment of an entire population by sealing the borders of Gaza is far worse than spewing hateful language.

Mr. President, you also called upon the Palestinians to abandon violence. You said, “violence is a dead end”… that “it is surrendering moral authority.” But are we an example of a non violent people when we use our powerful military in response to our fears?

And now – while the people of Gaza plan to mobilize in great numbers and peacefully march to the border to protest the siege, you turn your back on them by not demanding Egypt open the borders to peace activists from around the world. You could speak for peace, for non violent resistance. All you had to do was tell President Mubarak that you’ll suspend the two billion dollars in military aid that we give to Egypt unless he opens the border to Gaza.

Many Americans, and sadly most, believe this is not our fight. Or they have bought the stereotype sold by our profit motivated media and think we must always, always, support Israel.

And really, it’s not our fight. It’s our moral obligation to end the violence that we support by funding Israel’s war machine – we give Israel $3 -$4 billion dollars in military aid ever year. For what? To defend themselves against a people without a state, without any military at all, a people with legitimate grievances but no court to turn to.

But it’s also imperative we understand the effects of all these double standards that the Muslim world sees too clearly.

Michael Scheuer was the chief of the bin Laden unit in the CIA from 1996-99, and was a special advisor to the chief of that group from just after 911 until 2004. In his book “Marching Toward Hell’ he writes that the dangers America faces today are enabled by our government’s blind attachment to Israel. Quote “And what better definition of the double standard that our Islamist foes cite than the constant US veto of any UN resolution condemning Israeli actions?” End Quote

America is not and never has been an honest broker of peace in the Middle East. Just like we arm one side against the other, the historical record of incredible contradictions in the UN is indisputable. There has been the equivalent of one veto for every year of Israel’s 40 year occupation. And when the general assembly votes on any similar type of resolution, America votes against the judgment of 150 nations or more to stand almost alone defending Israel.

And likewise, we ignored the 2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice, a unanimous ruling in which the US Judge concurred, that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and east Jerusalem are in violation of international law.

And the siege violates international law too. According to the Geneva Conventions, which is the law of our land too, Israel has a legal responsibility to the people of Gaza to ensure their lives are not adversely impacted by its military control. This applies to all people who do not participate in hostilities against Israel, which constitutes the vast majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million. Instead, the siege that America backs collectively punishes the entire population.

Mr. President, you have the tools to end the siege. Stand up and restore the audacity of hope you gave the Palestinian people when you spoke in Cairo. Tell Israel that until they comply with the rule of law, the tap to the American taxpayer purse is locked down.

Without American opposition to violence by all sides, and without American support for the rulings in the international courts and the UN, some in Gaza will see violence as their only choice. That’s how the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, responded to the President’s speech in Cairo. He said - quote "Peaceful resistance works for a civil rights struggle, not in front of an occupation armed to the teeth."

Tomorrow’s march can be proof that he is wrong. But only if America pays attention and changes the way our elected leaders act.

If we want Hamas and others to abandon violence, we must too. If America wants to claim any moral authority at all, we must learn that non violence is not just a tool for the weaker and oppressed peoples, it can be a mightier tool when the mighty embrace these principals.

The people of Gaza want to march to the border. Tomorrow they will be a model for the world. Let the people march. Let them help us learn how to end the cycle of violence. End the Siege of Gaza now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Imagine Gaza showing the world the power of non-violence

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
.... John Lennon

About 45 minutes into a meeting at the Nuseirat Women’s Programme Center, Gael Murphy began to explain Norman Finkelstein’s proposal to challenge the siege of Gaza with a half million people march to the Israeli border. As soon as Mazen Naim finished the translation, the entire room erupted in applause.

Finkelstein had proposed the idea during a May 31 meeting with Ahmed Bahar, a member of Hamas and the acting Speaker of the Legislative Council. He suggested it might even be led by Jimmy Carter and Reverend Desmond Tutu and supported by thousands of international peace activists. But it would have to include a massive display by the people of Gaza. The women’s response seemed to suggest it was a real possibility.

Here in America the planning has begun. The first meeting was held in New York two weeks ago. The dryness of practical thinking are reflected in the meeting minutes as simple questions and recollection of harsh realities.

“How are we going to get the Egyptians to let us in?”

“We need to learn from the historical experience: About six months after the siege began, a demonstration of school children – 7-10 years old – went to Erez. 7 children were shot. Need to have people of importance at the head of the march and have the media present to prevent Israel from responding with violence.”

Both Israel and the U.S. have a lot invested in preventing Gaza from appealing to the world with mass peaceful protests. It would undermine the violent stereotype of the Palestinians they’ve written into their biographic fiction. The Israeli reputation could crumble much further than it did after the attacks on Gaza last winter. People might even begin to see that the double standard we apply to the Palestinians is a true root to the terrorism that horrified Americans on 911.

Of course, I’m imagining all this from the other side of the world. I wasn’t at the meeting in NY. And Gaza isn’t the center of the universe. It's “truly one of the most miserable places on Earth… Even back in the 1980s, it had the feeling of a human rat cage”.

That's how Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius described Gaza in an article published in Foreign Policy magazine. Despite his seemingly sincere intention to reveal a human side of the Palestinian people elsewhere in the story, he failed miserably to question either the legality of the siege or Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. This is the typical politically convenient narrative that has to change.

Could a mass march to the border in Gaza do anything to reframe the discussion? Who in this country will even know if it happens? In June a Code Pink delegation was denied entry to Gaza through it's border with Israel. The Free Gaza Boat that sailed from Cypress never made it. Neither story was told by the American media.

What makes Finkelstein’s idea so powerful is the possibility that the American people could witness the march is real time just as the country followed the Iranian people's protest of their presidential election results. Whatever happens in Gaza and to international activists trying to get into Gaza could be news that twitters its way across the globe. But for the story to reach beyond the peace activist base in America there will need to be coordinated demonstrations organized all over the country. Is there enough support here?

Consider another piece of Ignatius’ thinking. Near the end of the article he concedes that “military power will not break the resolve of America’s adversaries. The Israeli’s have tried that strategy against radical Palestinians for decades, without much success. It turns out that even the most wretched, desperately poor resident of Gaza will sacrifice his home, his job, his security, his life – before he will give up his dignity.”

If not by force, then what? “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding” Albert Einstein once said. Understanding begins with negotiations. Ignatius suggests it’s time for the U.S to meet with moderate elements of Hamas such a Khaled Mashaal. But Mashaal doesn’t sound like he’s interested in talks. He responded to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent proposals by saying dialogue “serves only to hide the true face of occupation" and "peaceful resistance works for a civil rights struggle, not in front of an occupation armed to the teeth."

So what will it take for both sides to seriously negotiate? Finkelstein says the key is to focus on international law. It’s where the Palestinians have the upper hand. It’s not a matter of framing the debate as much as ensuring the people’s popular dialogue is based on the something that resembles the full truth.

It’s the Israeli leadership, our government, and our media that chooses framing tactics to distort the truth. Just like Ignatius never questions Israeli government policies, a recent NY Times article deceitfully referred to East Jerusalem as simply a disputed city. The article gives Netanyahu an uncontested claim that “united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged.” But it never offers the opposing viewpoint of the Palestinian’s as to why they believe East Jerusalem is their rightful capital.

The fact is Israel is defying several UN Security Resolutions regarding its claim on East Jerusalem. Resolution 476 in 1980 declared Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem was "null and void" and is "a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention" that the acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible. The vote was 14-0. The U.S. abstained. That America ignores these resolutions doesn’t change the fact that rest of the world sides with the Palestinian people.

Israel may disagree with the international community’s judgment, but in a world where law and order matter, they must suspend their objections. Instead, they are constantly enabled to illegally expand their borders because the United States government and our nation’s media frame the debate as if international law doesn’t exist.

Hamas knows they have the world on their side. In their letter to Obama last month letter they lay out all these facts and calmly ask for a “policy of evenhandedness based on the very international law and norms we are prodded into adhering to” by our country’s past and present leaders. They are appealing to Obama as “a distinguished professor of law” and not just to his power as President of the United States.

The letter wasn’t published by the media in our country, and that is the green light for Obama to ignore it. Or is it that the media needs permission to publicize the full story? Either way, it’s the people’s duty to get the true story out whenever governments and news sources fail. We are the last estate, the final check and balance in our democracy.

Can Finkelstein’s dream of a people’s movement to free Gaza from the Israeli siege open this larger, truthful dialogue? Would Americans be any more inclined to listen to the other side of the story enough to realize that our government is complicit in Israel’s defiance of international law?

It could be about more than just Gaza. Imagine not only Hamas learning that non violence can work, the world could be stunned into a new paradigm if the “most wretched, desperately poor” residents of Gaza give new meaning to the words “the meek will inherit the earth.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A different meaning of freedom: voices of Gaza's women

On the day we arrived in Gaza, I was sitting alone on the bus with a camera around my neck and a note pad and pen in my hands. A young Palestinian woman wearing a pink shayla and dark blue abaya sat down next to me and asked if I was a journalist. When I said no, she told me that she was a journalist, and then proceeded to prove it by asking a lot of questions. In the next few days I’d discover that Asma abu Namous was not only an independent young woman, her freedom doesn’t originate within herself because she’s free from the imposing stereotype of individualism.

Asma is the 22 year old host of a daily radio program called Banorama Al-Qudes. One evening after a full day together on the UN tour, she took me to the station in downtown Gaza City. After speaking with the production manger, she went into the recording studio where another program host allowed her to read the news for him so we could watch her perform. Without any preparation, Asma stepped into the booth, and even though I couldn’t understand a word of Arabic, I listened as the words left her voice so fluidly that I was sure it had to be a flawless broadcast.

If there was any doubt about her independence, it all vanished after we left the studio. We were standing on the side of a main street trying to flag down a taxi. Several private vehicles slowed down and each time the male driver spoke to her. She replied in Arabic as she waved them off. Smiling confidently she told me “when they see a Palestinian woman standing alone with a foreign man, they want to be sure I am ok. I tell them yes. They know to trust me.”

Observing Asma’s character was inspiring, even more so considering that her story includes the traumatic loss that so many in Gaza have to endure. Her fiancé, 24-year-old Yusuf Lubbard, was killed 17 days into the 22 day Israeli military offensive against Gaza. It was only a week before they were to be married. Sorrow and anger alternately played their part as she told me her tragic story. She wasn’t seeking sympathy though. Both emotions were soothed by an unmistakably mature seed of hope.

Everything about Asma was lean in regard to individual freedom. For one, she wasn’t seeking to be rid of the traditional Muslim clothing. To even mention this though belittles the very ideals of freedom and liberty. They are among the most complex undertakings in all of humanity. Appearance is the book cover we’re not supposed to prejudge each other by. At its worst, our freedom to choose how we dress delivers us as slaves to the invisible market economy.

Asma held tightly to a bolder vision for freedom. Her career choice wasn’t in search of fame or fortune. “I have a message for the world” she said. “I want to say to the world we want only to live in Gaza and Palestine in peace.” As simple as it sounds, Asma isn’t naïve. She gave her purpose sophisticated energy by explaining to me that too much of the world’s media isn’t free to be truthful in its reporting. She went into journalism to help spread Gaza’s truths beyond its borders.

Asma was one of several young women traveling with us as aides for UN. On the drive back to the Egyptian Border, 21 year old Fatima Farahat sat beside me and turned on her laptop computer to share some of her graphic designs. She spoke with the same kind of confidence that Asma did. It held sadness and hope side by side, as if each were necessary to define the very idea of optimism. Her artwork is a clear expression of the political realities in Gaza calmly woven into heartfelt dreams of peace and justice.

I heard the same voice of dedication from Nadine Fares at the Al Bait Assmamed Association Society, and from Asmaa Shaker at the South Female Journalist’s Forum in Rafah. At the Nuseirat Women’s Programme Center many different women had the opportunity to speak. Only once did I hear a plea to end the siege that was primarily personal. Everyone else addressed it from a societal viewpoint. Just as Asma and Fatima had been helping me understand, freedom and prosperity for them as individuals is secondary to the needs of their communities.

The impression they all left me with could easily be attributed with to my own sentimental idealism, except that Monia Mazigh confirmed my observations when she spoke during a meeting with government officials. She told them “as someone coming from a Muslim background” she was pleased to meet so many women who “were so educated, involved, and enthusiastic, and happy to be part of this society.”

That Gaza under Hamas’ rule would encourage independence for women defies the stereotype that our government wants us to accept. The larger question that’s bothered me though is how automatically we attempt to measure progress towards equality for women through the American experience. It seems we aren’t listening close enough to understand that in other cultures independence has vastly different roots.

We're too readily inclined to believe that the primary passage to all freedom is through the affirmation of individual rights. It’s part of our collective heritage. But we are prone to endorsing the false narrative of American exceptionalism if we project our vision of freedom onto other soil.

That’s not to say that our cherished Bill of Rights should be cast aside as a failed experiment. To find its true value though we have to seek understanding from the tension that is essential to all human dreams.

Individualism will always tug at our core sensibilities because we naturally imagine everything from our own experience. But its shadow leaves us susceptible to listening to ourselves first. Even as we reach out on behalf of others, we bring a collective surety in our approach that projects outwardly as a unique American narcissism.

What I heard in Asma’s and Fatima’s voices was a different kind of freedom. They asked the questions. They listened. It wasn’t to learn about American freedom and culture, but maybe to help free us from our own narratives so we may become true listeners to the world around us.

"We need a country like other children in the world"

graphic design by Fatima Farahat

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Gaza, "why do they hate us" isn't a rhetorcial question

Yesterday a boat carrying 21 international peace activists and humanitarian aid to Gaza was seized by the Israeli navy while in international waters. You won’t read about it in the mainstream press, or hear it on CNN. But nobody expects these corporate managed media machines to report the story. On the other hand, sites like Turthout and Alternet aren’t covering it either. In fact, Huffington Post has a headline link to a story about Joe the Plumber but nothing about pirating of the Free Gaza Boat by Israel. I can’t imagine that Gazans don’t feel completely abandoned by America when supposedly liberal media sources here seem to be ignoring this story.

“Why do they hate us” are words of broad discriminatory meaning. And the entire population of Gaza deserve the rights to this question. The Palestinian people aren't even allowed to receive a tiny amount of humanitarian aid being brought by a small group of peace loving people. And as a Jewish state, Israel has been given permission by the international community to deny the Palestinian population the same human rights that Israelis and the rest of the world are guaranteed under international law.

The worst form of discrimination is the indiscriminate killing of human beings by design as the Nazis did during World War II. But can the random death sentence of innocent people ever be justified as the cost of modern warfare? When it's our people it's a war crime. When it's people of another race, it's inhumanely passed off as collateral damage.

In the fields where Hamas rockets have fallen, innocent Israelis rightfully wonder “why do they hate us”. When the planes struck the twin towers, innocent New Yorkers wondered why. Fear of imminent death lends personal realism to the question. It cries out in pain and fear as one wonders why the leaders of a nation or movement sent the executioners to take the lives of family members, friends and neighbors.

But the farther one lives from the paralyzing sound of explosions, the more the question morphs into the rhetorical. No one from Florida to Alaska or even Albany NY could claim to have been traumatized the way people in Lower Manhattan were. At best we asked “why do the hate us” as a display of empathy. But in Gaza’s tiny and highly congested communities, there was no escaping the Israeli bombing raids. To an entire people, the question is personal.

All of Gaza has a right to ask “Why do they hate us”. Just like we in America afford those offended by harassment and discrimination the right to grieve the injustices they feel, all of Gaza has justifiable right to claim Israel’s siege is a hate crime. All of Gaza has the right to grieve the Israeli attacks a state sponsored terrorism. They have a human right to seek justice. But when our national leaders, and parts of our liberal media, ignore their plea to be heard, Gazans rightfully wonder “why don’t we have the same human rights that Americans want to give the rest of the world."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Humanity in the eyes of a militant

strategy and tactics

been in the wars?

war baby
war bride
war crime....... that which violates laws of war... if laws are effective wartime. ................Rachel Bentham, from her poem War – the Concise Version

I sat one seat behind Norman, Ted, Roane and Annie as they struggled to define the indefinable; can we distinguish the difference between civilians and soldiers in armed conflict. As the bus rolled through the Egyptian darkness for more than an hour, I thought about the Hamas militant who I had given a soccer ball. I thought about Michael, my son in Iraq even more. It was his image that made me realize I had to respect Kadar as a human being first, before I judged him as a fighter who embraced violence as a legitimate path to resistance.

It was a teachable moment worthy of its place in their debate, but all I did was listen. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I was in the air between Cairo and London the next morning that the profound parental dilemma registered a significant temblor. Its aftershocks sporadically rattled my psychic nerves for the next two weeks.

Roane’s case abdicated the moral high ground to international law. Even though he firmly believed the right of Hamas to resist an unjust and inhumane occupation, he wanted to be clear about the distinction between killing an armed fighter as opposed to the innocent civilians wrongfully discarded under the convenient flag of collateral damage. I agreed completely.

Norman didn’t really oppose this view, but he had articulated a vastly different perspective a few hours earlier when he made a speech as we were leaving Gaza. Standing next to several Hamas “militants” at the Rafah border crossing he said “We are always prepared to defend the rights of innocent civilians to be protected during armed conflict, to be distinguished from the militants who are fighting. But I ask you to look at these men. Do they deserve to die?” On the bus he was defending his statement, and I completely supported him too.

After more than an hour of intellectual bartering, the group declared the debate to be a moral quandary. Once more I agreed. It was the right conclusion. But as soon as the discussion ended, my agreeable silence began to evolve into rock solid failure. Why didn't I speak up, and what was I forgetting?

The “militants” at Norman’s side had been our security escorts all week. Kadar was there adding weight to the militarily imposing posture of the group. The truth though is I really don’t know his name. It was another lapse of consciousness among the troubling search for understanding that began in the courtyard of an orphanage.

Rewinding my memory to that day, I had carried 22 soccer balls off the bus at the SOS Orphans Village in Rafah. The balls were obviously meant for children. They were donated by people from Juneau who supported the our delegation's mission to protest the blockade of Gaza. To transport so many to the other side of the world, they were all deflated and stuffed into an old canvas duffel bag. It also contained a pump in case one wasn’t available wherever I gave away the balls.

Once we entered the courtyard, it became clear that we wouldn’t be interacting with children that time of the day. And the place stood apart from much of what we had seen in Gaza. It was an oasis among the destruction and poverty that had staked claims over so much of the territory. So we decided not to leave all the balls there. Six or eight were taken back to the bus to be given away at the community activity center that was next on our itinerary.

Splitting up the balls created a minor problem. I might need the pump at the activity center, I thought, so I should pump up the balls before leaving the orphanage. I took one out of the bag and began to fill it with air.

Almost immediately Kadar eyed the canvas bag and ascertained there were many more balls inside. As I finished pumping up the first one, he began implying he wanted a new soccer ball for himself. I didn’t want to engage with him so I allowed the language barrier be a convenient aid to ignore him. For a while it seemed to work.

After the first few balls were full or air, Kadar and several others began kicking them around the concrete pavilion that had soccer goals at either end. Thinking that the impasse was over, I resumed pumping up the other balls. And I continued doing so even after most of our group left to tour the facilities.

That’s when Kadar came back and resumed his quest to have a new soccer ball. I became acutely aware of the sternness of his voice, as if he was free to intimidate me because I was temporarily beyond the collective cover of the group. I didn’t appreciate the pressure he was applying, which made me resist his request even more. I tried to explain in my own forceful language that the balls were for the children.

Using few words of English, he told me he had a son. Instinctively I didn’t trust him. When he caught my glance at his left hand that was void of a wedding ring, he changed his story to say it was his brother’s son.

But it wasn’t the words, or Kadar’s concerted effort to communicate, which began to soften my resistance. It was the pleading look in his eyes. There wasn’t anger, or authority, and certainly not the intimidation I felt when the exchange had begun. I saw nothing but sorrow.

Without realizing someone from the orphanage would translate my question, I asked him how old his nephew was. His eyes brightened. He was eight, Kadar replied. The edge between us was gone, and we began to pump up some of the balls together. One of his comrades joined us. I began to see them both differently. They weren’t enjoying their assignments of escorting a bunch of foreign peace activists, I thought to myself. Maybe they drew the short straw.

As I got comfortable with them, I noticed how the other Palestinian men were observing what was going on. It was here that I thought about Michael and some of the mundane duties he was assigned during his first deployment to Afghanistan. I remembered an essay I had written just before he deployed to Iraq for the third time. It was about my anxiety imagining him being judged by the Iraqi people as a heartless soldier. The proverbial light bulb switched on. That’s exactly how I had been treating Kadar and the others with him.

Kadar became fully human to me in that moment. He was no longer a security figure, nor a physical or emotional threat to me. I reached in the bag and handed him a ball. His eyes glazed over almost as if he was holding back a tear. We both looked around and noticed no one from our delegation was present. Acting quickly yet slyly, Kadar took the ball and ran out of the compound. When he came back, we pumped up some more.

For the rest of the day, each time Kadar and I crossed paths, he looked at me and said “Rich” with a smile. More than a few times he reached out with his hand and each time I took it.

When we got back to Gaza City that afternoon, Ted asked about the soccer balls. I briefly confided with him what had happened. “You should have given them all one” he told me with a smile and laughter that made me wonder if he had the key to some small universal truth.

The next day, as Kadar stood beside Norman at the border, I didn’t see him as a militant. I saw Michael’s spiritual brother. He was a child once and I knew he still possesses the innocence of one at some level just as we all do.

It’s a simple story that could have ended here, as a minor revelation of how morally blind I had been. I shouldn’t have needed the soccer balls as a way to be open to the human being inside Kadar. Michael should be my constant reminder that all soldiers are human first, and as he told me after his last tour ended, they all hate war.

Perhaps I had succumbed to the unconscious and regressive phenomena of group dynamics, because I never opposed the oft spoken resentment about the presence of our security escorts. The late Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Traveled, describes this as laziness. “It is simply easier to follow, and much easier to be a follower than a leader. There is no need to agonize over complex decisions, plan ahead, exercise initiative, risk unpopularity, or exert much courage.” Did I carry this weakness onto the bus too?

On the other hand, Norman’s humane gesture toward all of them raised the bar above the notion that compassion and understanding are permitted only during the quiet hours between the conflict. For me to have interjected this story into the debate on the bus would have been shallow and incomplete. For out of the analytical hindsight comes a far greater anxiety than wondering how Michael is treated by the Iraqi people. Is it the repression of this deeply personal moral quandary that forced me into silence on the bus?

How does one forget the full tortuous meaning of his son’s military service during a war? Michael has been in Iraq and Afghanistan too many times to imagine it’s not real. Yet I hide from the parental betrayal that dresses me down every time I’ve been enraged after reading about children being killed by an American airstrike or artillery barrage. It’s not that I condone our national cowardice coldly disguised in economic terms like the cost of sound business decisions; it's hours later after my anger subsided that I’d wonder if Michael’s life had been spared by the very acts I have come to despise.

Too often I avoid this dilemma by choosing ignorance. I won’t ask Michael if innocent lives were lost so he’d have a better chance of coming home alive. I also won’t tell him I wish he’d refuse to participate in the war, not because I think he’ll resent me, but because I can’t judge him on the basis of my experiences.

I understood Norman completely. None of them deserve to die. They all deserve to live free of warfare initiated by the powerful and wealthy. I understood Roane’s viewpoint too. We have to have laws, and there are good intentions in the international laws of warfare even if they lack any power to prevent needless wars. They justly distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

Michael and Kadar understand something I never will. War is worse than hell. But as Chris Hedges famously wrote, it gives us meaning. It will continue to do so until we learn that laws will never be effective as a means to define war’s rights and wrongs. Only those that have lived through it as soldiers and civilians, witnesses caught in the middle, can possibly understand this deeper than the intellectual convictions so many of us passionately hold.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Everything else must yield to the truth

"The committee was just like all the others who have come," said 46-year-old Majid Hajjaj. "There are lots of reports written, but they're nothing more than ink on paper."
From the UAE Gulf News story:
Goldstone doubts Gaza war crimes probe will lead to prosecutions

On our last night in Gaza, Judge Richard Goldstone spoke to a small group of our delegation about the investigation of war crimes he was preparing to conduct under a mandate by the UN. He didn’t give us a peek into the work he has begun. That would have violated the recognized protocol of all investigative work. But he did tell us that his first loyalty “is to the truth and to fairness and justice, particularly to the victims who are too often forgotten. That’s the standard; everything else must yield to that.”

Where else is the truth about Gaza being investigated? There isn’t anything to read in America’s mainstream media about Goldstone’s investigation. You have to go to Al Jazeera or another Middle East media source, or the self declared liberal alternatives, to find any current stories about Gaza at all.

Then there are papers like the San Jose Mercury News, where balanced reporting has forgotten its relationship to the ideal of due process. It mentions the blockade of Gaza, but not until the closing lines to a story headlined for those in power: Netanyahu plans major policy speech next week. Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman writes like a tribunal judge by giving the military the first, last and only word about why Code Pink and companion delegations were denied access to Gaza:

Israeli authorities also prevented a contingent of protesters dressed like clowns from entering the blockaded Gaza Strip, including a group calling itself the Israeli Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army.

Among the protesters was Hunter Campbell Adams, better known as Patch Adams, a U.S. doctor and clown who was the subject of a 1998 Hollywood film. The protesters brought toys they said they hoped to bring to children in Gaza.

The military said the group had not requested permission to enter Gaza.

It’s no wonder that Judge Goldstone doubts there will be any prosecution of war crimes. And even sadder is that the pessimistic despair of Majid Hajjaj is justified. What kind of hope is left in a man who “watched Israeli soldiers shoot his mother and sister dead as they fled their home waving white flags.”

All this tells another story. There are dozens of pieces complied in an email from Ann Wright to us all under the subject line “Latest list of Blogs, Articles, Photos from Gaza and Occupied Territories trips”. These are trickles of truth trying to flow upstream from its source. Truth rises from up from the lower rungs of humanity, not down from the politicians and governments. Everything else must yield to it, Goldstone told us.

That's our work, bringing it forward to reach one heart at a time. So this morning I
told one story to the people gathered for a Sunday service at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Juneau.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dr. Hassan Zyada of Gaza : The problem is psychologically immature politicians

Monday’s schedule was kind to the few of us in Gail Murphy’s group. We left behind the visible destruction, pain and suffering and found ourselves among people determined to restore hope to the children of Gaza. These adults were not without their own stories and opinions, but it seems they have found a way to funnel their frustration into more positive energy rather than merely looking for blame.

I was mostly fascinated by Hassan Zyada, a psychologist who directs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program in Gaza. We met with him and Husam al Nono in one of the several centers they operate in Gaza City.
Dr. Zyada suggested the siege of Gaza is a psychologically immature attempt to solve problems, and it is not in Israel’s best interest because all it does is create new enemies.

He gave us an introduction by explaining how a void forms in the lives of children whose parents cannot provide for and protect them. The resulting loss of trust and/or respect ultimately leads many to identify with religious fanatics and/or the fighters who possess weapons. But the key point here as I understood it is not that more young Palestinians will become jihadists. Rather, the next generation of politicians will be driven into the immature fantasy that he believes the Israeli politicians are trapped in. In psychological terms he said they are displacing and projecting their tragic past onto innocent victims.

Like everyone we spoke to, Dr. Zyada told us that the Palestinian people have no problem with the Jewish people. It is the actions by Israeli government and military that they oppose. His
also applied this psycho-political diagnosis of Israel’s politicians to George W. Bush. Hamas wasn’t mentioned in this context, but it seemed he believes their rise to power originated in the hopelessness and powerlessness of the children who threw rocks at the Israeli soldiers during the first and second intifadas.

Rationalization was another element of Dr. Zyada’s analysis. It is his opinion that the Israeli leadership prefers to stereotype all Palestinians as terrorists, or at least potential terrorists, to avoid emotionally engaging in guilt. It’s a form of denial which helps them justify their decisions which resulted in the death of hundreds or thousands of innocent people.

This is where President Obama seems to be at least partly stuck despite the words in his speech in Cairo this past Friday. His refusal to go to Gaza and see the suffering of the Palestinians people originates from political necessity. He has chosen to view Hamas through the convenience of stereotypes even as he declared we must end such thinking. It allows him to hide from America’s collective guilt for this and other conflicts around the world.

These seem to be relatively simple ideas, but we never really bring any substantive psychology into discussions about our political leaders. It is perhaps because we too are psychologically immature at times. We want immediate solutions and are often appeased by temporary measures such as cease fires and treaties that never advance beyond their initial stage. Peace and reconciliation are long processes that will be compromised when we project the true urgency of these conflicts into relatively simple solutions. While the need is real, we must also anticipate the work will not end in our lifetime.

In his final conclusion, Dr. Zyada proposed the only psychological long term solution between Israel and Palestine is one state where Jews and Muslims live side by side. The two state solution may be the necessary first step to getting there, but he believes it's not likely to bring an end the animosity between Israel and Palestine. Only integration can accomplish that, and it should be the vision of the future.

I think Dr. Zyada offers us a courageous analysis if for no other reason that it won’t be popular among either politicians or the public at large. There is too much work involved and no immediate measurable results.

But absent such a deeply probing approach we will be left with a future in which we recycle the mistakes of the past. We’ll elect politicians who cannot admit the harm they have caused to whole populations of people. Just as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has done for the "the stolen generations" of Australia's aboriginal people, we as a collective whole will leave it to future generations to apologize for the actions of our generation.

As a society we’ve come a long way by recognizing the role of psychology in understanding our personal struggles. We’ve come even farther in accepting the essential nature of mental health counseling for victims and for understanding how past trauma contributes to criminal behavior. Shouldn’t it be the means to search for the collective insights we need sustain healthy international relationships? Maybe it’s time we insist that our leaders engage in psychological therapy since the decisions they make affect the entire planet.

writer's note: It is Sunday morning as I reflect on my trip to Gaza. I had hoped to post a day by day account of while I was there, but our schedule was too full. Over the next several days I hope to collect my thoughts and share more of about my experience in Gaza.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Trying to make sense out of the senseless

Yesterday we toured areas damaged by the Israeli attacks. We saw many of the isolated homes and the mosques that were destroyed. We ended at an area east of Belt Lahia which is considered the most heaving damaged residential zone. It was targeted during the last four days of the war. Imad Ukal, the Area Operations Officer, explained that by that point in the attacks there wasn’t any resistance or militants left. Many of those homes have been completely destroyed. One family is still living underneath the collapsed home shown in the photos below.

We wandered perimeter of the collapsed concrete frame of the American International School. Israel says it was a legitimate terrorist because it was being used as a rocket-launching site and munitions storage dump. The school’s principal vehemently denies those claims. It appears that very little if anything at all has been removed, so hopefully Richard Goldstone’s UN Investigation team can draw some clear conclusions. Israel isn’t cooperating with the investigation though, so regardless of what the findings are it seems they will never change their position. The US shouldn't be allowing Israel a free pass during this investigation, but that just confirms our government is either complicit in the attacks and not interested in the truth.

There isn’t any rebuilding going on anywhere. Everything destroyed remains as it was four months ago, which was one of the points that John Ging emphasized a few days ago. The only reason is the blockade.

It’s impossible to make sense of anything I saw, except the people. In between the damaged sites we visited several facilities where people are valiantly working on healing from the trauma from the attacks. Like the night we arrived, everyone we met was in remarkably high spirits considering all they have gone through the present difficulties created by the blockade. Children for the most part seem to be responding to the arts as a means for regaining some sense of enjoyment in life, which must also be uplifting for the adults.

One sort of revelation I experienced in a few of these areas was the way children flocked to greet us. I had the feel of being a soldier in a war flick, walking through a town the US army had just liberated. Not to put down soldiers who genuinely deserved such attention in wars of the past, but maybe it’s not directed to their role as soldiers nearly as much as it just being a strangers passing by in a time of safety following the horror of war. Most aren’t asking for anything more than attention.

And why shouldn’t it be that way for the children. It’s the type of excitement we saw when we arrived on Saturday. People want to be recognized. Some want to tell their story, and not only those about their suffering. They want to share what makes them happy.

Not everyone is a leader, but those who are seem to be dedicating their energy to recovering from the attack. They want to be recognized for their successes, which would be that much more impressive if the blockade would end.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Palestinian smiles that touch the heart

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all embracing and unconditional love of all mankind. … When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principal of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality. … Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”
Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York

May 30, 2009

We arrived in Gaza about mid afternoon yesterday. The world there was transformed by the smiling faces of the Palestinian people. But I didn’t have to look to see them. My eyes could feel the way they softened the air while at the same time they charged it with affection that touched my heart. It lasted through the rest of the evening, and made me wonder how close a human can be to the door of King’s ultimate reality.

The day needed the props of uncertainty to set the stage. That would come at Rafah; would the Egyptians let us through. We reached the border by 10:00 and quickly learned we would be allowed to cross into Gaza. Then we encountered a setback. Only two of the three buses and the truckload of playground equipment were allowed past the first checkpoint without any delay. The third bus was detained because there were two Egyptian women on board.

Ann Wright was with them negotiating with the authorities while we all waited inside the customs building. Our hopes that she’d prevail weren’t realized.
Both women were denied passage. They were to be taken back to Al Arish and would plan to try again the next day. The rest of us settled in for what became a four hour wait to cross the imaginary line drawn between Egypt and Gaza.

When we finally stepped into the zone between the two places, we loaded new buses for the short drive to the Gaza customs office. There we had disembarked into an atmosphere lit by the cheers and vibrant Gazan smiles.

Inside we received a brief but incredibly warm welcome and witnessed a Palestinian/Canadian wedding that had been waiting eight years to happen. We turned in our passports one more time, hauled all the luggage to the three air conditioned buses waiting on the other side, then began our drive through Rafah to Gaza City. This time our motorcade escort wasn’t armed as it had been coming from Cairo. Two UN cars with flags flapping in the wind led the way.

On the bus with us were four young Palestinians, two men and two women. Holding a microphone, one of the men welcomed us again over the intercom.
Mazen Naim's face was lit by the same heartwarming smile of everyone who greeted us. All four of them shared this powerful energy, as did everyone we met upon our arrival at the UN Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) vocational and technical training center where Israeli fire wounded three people in January. No one drew our attention to this fact though. It simply didn’t seem to belong.

We went inside where John Ging, the agency’s Irish director, spoke to us. “You are actually doing something that is massively appreciated” he told us before explaining the emptiness of promises from governments of the international community since the Israeli attacks ended four months ago. “Your coming here is action which gives us hope.”

He then defined our mission of helping get the true story of the people of Gaza out to the world. “The people of Gaza need to see action which actually is a basis for them to believe that something good is going to happen” he told us. “In the coming days you’re going to be interacting with these people, and you will come to realize the people here are a good and decent people. They are misrepresented in terms of their international reputation which is very devastating to them.”

Ging talked for about 15 minutes before answering several questions. Then people full of smiles mingled before we went outside for a superb dinner. Afterward, the festive mood led several Palestinian men to begin dancing at the edge of the pavilion. They were joined by members of our delegation and the circle grew wider until the evening sun began to lower itself on the western horizon.

We boarded the buses and headed for the Commodore Gaza Hotel. On the way there we stopped to make sure the entire delegation was with us. The sun became a bright red ball getting ready to touch the Mediterranean. I opened the window to take a picture and a man outside pointed and proclaimed “the sun shines on Palestine.”

Twenty minutes later we were paralleling the shoreline in the dark bluish dusk. Lights became visible far out on the water. Someone from the delegation inquired about them and Mazen simply said “Israeli navy”.

It brought me back to our mission, so succinctly explained by Ging, to tell the world these good people must not be imprisoned. The blockade must end now.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Code Pink Community - an example Obama should recognize

We arrived in are in Al Arish late yesterday afternoon. In a few hours we’ll heading for the border at Rafah. The news from the other delegations is good, and we’re optimistic we will be in Gaza by this afternoon.

So far it’s been a fascinating opportunity to meet some really outstanding people. The group has people from 18 states and 8 or 9 different countries. What’s was amazing in our first day together, the drive from Cairo to here, is the effort to organize all the details of this delegation.

As I read the press release about Obama’s failure to consider visiting Gaza to see the damage, I was struck by the irony of how this is really a world class example of community organizing. The planning of everything from meals to transportation and accommodations, the purchase of supplies, including the playground equipment was no small effort. That’s without the obvious added complications of organizing a trip for people from 10 countries and 18 states to go from Cairo to Gaza .

It’s work that Obama should be proudly willing to acknowledge Code Pink during his speech in Cairo next week. It’s this kind of cooperation on behalf of others that’s his early public life was all about. It’s been part of his message since the start of his campaign two years ago. How could he not publicly thank Medea Benjamin, Ann Wright, Tighe Barry, Gail Murphy and Pam Rasmussen? It would an act of political courage and a signal of real change.

What he thinks and what he’s willing and capable of saying define two separate worlds. The political gamesmanship and behind the scenes maneuvering of his stage crew couldn’t possible permit him to recognize Code Pink’s passionate work on the Gaza crisis. Maybe it’s because this is personal to me now, but if he is silent about it as I expect it’ll feel like he’s publicly betraying his own roots.

That’s politics, people say, as if it’s excusing our leaders from having to act in the interest of human rights. Politics as we allow them and attention to philosophies of life don’t mix well. It’s why people like Martin Luther King Jr. never entered that sphere of serving the public.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Don't walk away from Gaza

This was  originally published by Code Pink on May 25, 2009 before I traveled with their delegation to Gaza. ....  Rich Moniak

Here we are all gathered in what seems to be the centre of the storm
neighbours once friendly now stand each side of the line that has been drawn
they've been fighting here for years, but now there's killing on the streets
while small coffins are lined up sadly, now united in defeat

We always need to hear both sides of the story

And the lights are all on, the world is watching now
people looking for truth, we must not fail them now
be sure, before we close our eyes
don't walk away from here
'til you see both sides
   … Phil Collins from his song Both Sides of the Story

There are two sides to the story in Gaza. The Israeli viewpoint and that of Hamas are neither. They are the official lines of those in control of the conflict. The real stories belong to the people. That’s where the truth lives unhindered by propaganda. The people of Gaza don’t want us to walk away without seeing and listening to theirs.

Tomorrow I am joining a Code Pink peace delegation to Gaza to ask the world to help lift the blockade that has been in place since 2006. I leave for Cairo in the morning. 

What do I expect to accomplish by going? I’ve got no grand illusions. Even if we get into Gaza we’ll still have to teach the mainstream media to cover the people’s narratives rather than the story line of the politicians. If the borders are opened, meaningful change must be lasting change, so they must stay open. The violence of bombs and oppression has to end. Those are tall orders that depend on the world not only watching, but caring enough to change. It’s a matter of the heart. 

How far do I reach back to explain why I couldn't walk away? Every personal story has a beginning. And underneath the cover are other beginnings. Which names and faces and other stories belong to the bibliography of my small narrative?

Ann Wright and Bert Sacks would each have a place. Wendell Berry’s wisdom is there. That’s the extent of name dropping I’ll entertain. The rest are special friends from Juneau’s peace community who some of you know and many others don’t.

In March I listened to Bert Sacks tell a short story at a Veterans for Peace conference in Seattle.  He explained how a few years earlier, while walking to the University of Washington campus, he shared with a stranger his excitement about a different VFP convention being held there. The man replied that he liked his lifestyle, his comforts and standard of living, and the war in Iraq was necessary to sustain all those.

Bert’s point was about how he appreciated the man’s honesty even as it opposed everything he has worked for. Truth and honesty is a starting place for the dialogues we need to have with our neighbors who see the world differently than we do. After eight years of ultimatum diplomacy, who can argue with that!

At dinner that evening a few veterans were discussing Bert’s story. They wondered aloud how much work we have to do to change people who think like the man that Bert had encountered. I posed the question to them another way. “What are we willing to give up for peace” I asked. No one answered, except in my head, where I imagined Wendell Berry was speaking.

"Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence."

The question evolved. “What would we be willing to give up even if we believed it wouldn’t make a difference?”

I’ve was immediately bothered by my own challenge. Being a peace activist for 3-1/2 years can’t touch what Bert gave up for the Iraqi people. Worse yet, I’ve got my comforts and security, including a big house and enough kayak cockpits to hold the starting five of a basketball team. I sit here on my computer and bang out intellectual nonsense in near total freedom.

I forced the question into exile.

A month later I happened to be in Colorado the same time Ann Wright was speaking there.  I had met her a few years earlier when she came to Fairbanks to speak at a Military Families Speak Out event that I had helped organize. During the past few months I had also been helping her plan her speaking tour through Alaska that just ended.

I decided to make the 45-minute drive to Boulder to hear her talk about Gaza. There were only a handful of people there when I arrived in the small lecture room. I was early, so I walked out back into the lobby and ran into Ann. She started to introduce herself to me, then smiled and said “what the heck are you doing here.”

As people were arriving, Ann introduced me to them after introducing herself. It was a reversal of what we imagine a celebrated personality does. She made me feel that my presence at her talk was somehow special rather than holding protectively to center stage.

Her talk mixed the tragic facts in Gaza with a modest touch of personal story telling. It was easy to imagine her in Gaza and how her spark would encourage people to talk to her. I could see her listen attentively to their stories. She told us a few heartbreaking ones. She closed by saying she was going back in May to build playgrounds for children. And she said if anyone wants to join a delegation, come see her before they leave. They needed volunteers.

Then she took questions. The man sitting next to me wondered about the wisdom of trying to rebuild anything in Gaza. What was the point, he asked.

thought to myself that they would be bringing in goodwill to keep hope alive and they’d be bearing witness to the tragedy. They would bring the stories out with them. I thought about Bert Sacks and his efforts in Iraq. Wendell Berry and the question I had been avoiding returned too.

Ann’s request for volunteers was directed at the audience, not to me personally, but she had given the evening a personal touch. I thought about all she and others have done. I realized I might be able to help tell the people’s story, but only if I don’t close my eyes and walk away. The instinctive intellectual reflex to avoid disrupting a reasonably convenient life was being tested by a truth my heart seemed to understand. There wasn’t a way to say no without finding an excuse that suddenly felt weak and insincere.

I don’t expect this trip to resolve the dilemma I imagined through Bert’s story. I am learning, that’s all. If life is about learning, there will be more questions, and always more to do on side and more to let go on the other.

I’ve never been out of the country aside from our neighboring Canada. I’ve never even seen Russia even though I’ve been out to the last island on the Aleutian chain. But I am far from alone on this journey across the world as there are more than 70 people participating in the delegation. Some were there with Ann in March. Others have been working for peace and social justice for many years. There are a few students. I wonder how many other 40 or 50 something rookies will be on the bus as we drive across the Sinai Desert.

I hope to contribute something of value to the Palestinian people. I won’t know what form that might take until I listen and see their true story.   I am bringing soccer balls for the children too. Judy Maier has collected almost two dozen, all donated for the children of Gaza from within the heart of Juneau's wonderful community.

by Rich in Juneau