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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Our responsibility in "never again"

“Never again” has turned into “Again and again.” Again and again, the response to genocide has been too little and too late. During the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, the world’s response was denial.”
The International Campaign to End Genocide

In early April I had the opportunity to listen to Ann Wright speak about the crisis in Gaza. She had recently returned from her second trip there and was already organizing another. The objective: to draw international attention to the Israeli and Egyptian government blockades that prevents Gazans from receiving sufficient food and medical supplies, especially in light of the collective suffering inflicted during the 22-day Israeli attack this past winter.

Boulder, Colorado is a liberal community, so I had expected the hall of the church in downtown to be filled. But it wasn’t a well attended event. No more than 40 people listened to Ann’s description of the destruction in Gaza by Israeli Defense Forces. When she was ready for questions, she offered to answer first any from Palestinian people in the audience.

A man in the back row stood up and spoke an accent and speech impediment that made it difficult to understand what he was trying to say. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or emotionally distraught. But one determined declaration came through loud and clear. “From now on” he said “I will deny the Holocaust.”

No one reacted audibly to those words. Ann didn’t pursue that part of his statement, and soon enough other questions were posed and the moment disappeared into the night.

I had always considered denial of the Holocaust to be a rejection of historical facts or anti-Semitic race baiting. Yet my initial reaction wasn’t to view this Palestinian man as either ignorant or a Muslim extremist. He didn’t fit into either mold. His words “from now on” meant he was obviously aware of the historical reality, and there was no one in the audience he seemed to be challenging.

Literalism is fraught with conclusions that lead to irresolvable conflict, and I realized I had been caught in one that promoted ignorance and prejudicial judgment on my part. It made me wonder about how Americans demonize Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for making the same statement. Is there more to their meaning which we conveniently choose not to consider?

Whether it was pain or anger, the Palestinian man was genuinely sharing his grief regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza. I could sense the literal transform itself to metaphor. He will deny the Holocaust until the world recognizes the suffering of his people and brings it to an end.

I’m not suggesting that the loss of innocent lives in Gaza compares in any way to the horror of the Holocaust. Rather, this man helped me understand that I'm not as opened minded as I like to believe. I have to learn to listen better.

“Never again” begins by seeing that we are all susceptible to labels, stereotypes and other forms of prejudice. It prevents us from the difficult work of understanding the way other people see our world and its history. "Never again" is our responsibility to an end the collective suffering that discriminatory judgments impose on people of any ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

by Rich in Juneau