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.

by Rich in Juneau