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."

by Rich in Juneau