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Spinning Gaza … yet again.

(soorry in advance for the typos – I just had to get this out.  If I had waited any longer, it wouldn’t have been published, so please bear with me.)

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With the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt the Arab Spring is in full-bloom!

Yet some are none to pleased about this turn of events.

But, please . . . please do not give in and believe easily all of the spin and negative rhetoric that is being pushed by the other side right now.  Yes, you know who I mean by “the other” side.  I try to remain somewhat neutral when I can, but the situation in Gaza is one of the biggest injustices of the past decade.  Plain and simple.  Below is a list of some of the spin I am picking up in the media over the past week or so re. Palestine along with my version of the “truth.”  Of course these statements of truth reflect my own personal bias.  However, I fully admit to it.  Unlike some…..

Spin: Hamas siezed Gaza in 2007.  Truth: Hamas was elected in democratic elections which had been strongly advocated for by both Israel and the USA.  Anyone with an ounce of understanding about Palestine could have seen that one coming.  The ruling  Fatah party did, and strongly cautioned that Palestine was not ready for elections.  American politicians either didn’t believe it or didn’t care and pushed hard for elections.  Once Hamas was elected (due to strong public works initiatives, anti-Fatah corruption stance, and strong rhetoric against Israel) the US cut off diplomatic ties.  IMO, this was one of the biggest foreign policy debacles of the past decade.  Was Hamas being elected the best possible outcome from the elections?  Absolutely not.  Were the elections possibly rigged?  I seriously doubt it.  Should the US taken this as a serious wake-up call and need for a change in directions in Middle East foreign policy?  Yes.  The first thing they should have done was appoint Jimmy Carter as Ambassador (or Special Envoy) to Palestine and kept the channels of communication wide open.

Spin: An open border with Egypt will allow guns and Iranian weapons experts into Gaza.  Truth: Both are most likely already there.  The result of a completely blockaded border around Gaza (read: open-air prison) has been the development of a system of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and “illegal” trade in everything from cement to cigarettes, guns to chewing gum.  And probably a few Iranian weapons experts made it in too.  Israel and the old Mubarak regime in Egypt were constantly griping about the tunnels and trying to shut them down – but the fact of the matter was they were Gaza’s lifelines in a very desperate time.  Ask yourself what you would do as a normal law-abiding citizen if your town was completely blockaded by sovereign power.  Would you politely request your  duly elected government to stop their misguided approach to international politics in hopes that someday a shipment of flour might make it to your local supermarket – or would you line up at the end of the tunnel where all of the “illegal” flour was coming into the country?  Now that the border with Egypt is open, everyday commodities needed for health and life will flow through the open borders and the tunnels will only be used for truly illegal things.  Now the Palestinian authorities can join with Egyptians in shutting down the tunnels.  As for the Iranian weapons experts – don’t get too worked up.  If they have been helping up to this point they haven’t been that good.  Palestinian military tech is woefully inaccurate.  Also Iran has co-opted the Palestinian cause and ultimately Palestinians have no natural affinity for Iran.  Which brings me to . . .

Spin: The open border with Egypt will increase Iranian support of PalestineTruth: American foreign policy already pushed Palestine towards Iranian support.  It’s about time somebody else starts speaking up for the underdog.  This is simple playground rules.  When someone is being bullied they look for help.  When they are getting beat up real bad on a regular basis, they will look for help from anyone bigger and stronger than they are.  They will especially look for help from someone who is enemies with the one that is beating them up in the first place.  Even if the one being picked on isn’t really friends with those people.  When your back is against the wall and your being threatened sometimes you throw in with some unsavory types. Especially when all the cool kids are just hanging around watching and not wanting to get their knuckles dirty.  Or if it’s the cool kids’ friend that is doing the bullying.  With America refusing diplomatic relations with the duly elected government of Palestine, US foreign policy pushed Palestine into the arms of Iran making the situation much worse than it ever was before.  Will Iran have freer access to Gaza now. Perhaps.  But to what end?  The truly cool kids on the playground are the ones who stand up for the underdogs even when it is their own BFF that is beating them up.

Spin: Obama was out of line and endangering our relations with Israel, not to mention Israel’s security by suggesting a return to 1967 borders.  Truth: George W. Bush said the same thing a few years ago.  If you don’t believe it – check out this letter from W. to Ariel Sharon.  Bush used a term that probably makes more sense – “the 1949 armistice lines” but in effect both he and Obama said the same thing.  Bush even advocated for a two-state solution in his letter.  So what is all the fuss about?  What are Republicans griping about?  American politicians need to stop posturing over Israel-Palestine and stop cowering in fear of AIPAC lobbying money being pulled out from underneath them and actually stand up for what’s right and just in the region. Besides Obama was clear in his speech that the ’67 (or ’49) borders were the basis  for final border negotiations with the idea of mutually agreed upon land swaps.  This has been part of every American backed plan for peace in the Middle East for the past several years.  Why is Obama taking heat for it.  Obama went on to speak very strongly against any Palestinian backing of terrorist operations or denying Israel’s right to exist.

Spin: Per Benjamin Netanyahu they 1967 (1949) borders are indefensible.  Truth: It is decades of illegal Israeli settlement activity that have made that border indefensible.  Anyone who has spent any time in the West Bank know that it has not been a contiguous Palestinian territory for a very long time.  It is riddled with Israeli settlements like a hunk of Swiss cheese and sliced up by Israeli roads that Palestinians are forbidden to drive on or build near.  The long-standing policy of Israeli’s constructing settlements and roads on Palestinian land has disrupted the natural growth and development of Palestinian society.  It has also acted as an Israeli insurance policy to be cashed in on the day final status negotiations begin in earnest.  With all of the territory and population represented by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, surely Israel would have the right to protect those interests.  They couldn’t ask those citizens to leave their homes and property could they?  (Kindly note the dripping sarcasm).  The 4th Geneva convention clearly states that it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer citizens to settlements within the militarily occupied country.  It would be like Americans setting up American-only cities in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Crazy.  It would never happen.  Yet we’ve let Israel do it for over 40 years.  And now Israel is crying, “How will we protect our citizens if we go back to the 1967 borders?”  Well, maybe you shouldn’t have continued to steal Palestinian land to build your illegal settlements?  For those who think I am being to harsh I saw it with my own eyes back in the 90s.  A Palestinian farmer whose family had owned land since Ottoman times, routinely had land stolen by settlers.  They would come out at night with automatic weapons and extend their fence 10 more meters into his property.  The year we visited him they also burnt his wheat harvest.  Which brings me to the last spin . . .

Spin: Palestinians are not true partners for peace.  Truth: Neither are the Israelis. Anyone who honestly looks at the 100+ years of history (I’m going back to the beginning of the “modern” zionist movements) cannot see either side as being 100% committed to lasting peace.  Both sides have committed great atrocities.  Both sides have advocated and politicked mostly for themselves.  Both sides have sought the upper hand.  But, honestly . . . Israel has had the upper hand for quite some time.  They have been almost completely in control of the territory since 1967.  They have continually tightened the noose around Palestine’s neck.  The discomfort this caused led to two intifadas, but, really – if the Palestinians had enough resources, don’t you think there would have been an outright war by now?

So, yes the Arab Spring is in full bloom … but I fear a scorching Middle Eastern summer is due to hit anytime soon and all the flowers that have sprung up around the region will soon wither and die.

The problem is both Israeli and Arab cultures highly value honor, despise shame, and espouse revenge.  Both are eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth cultures.  Many eyes have been blackened, many teeth knocked out, much blood spilled by both sides.  The need for revenge does not die easily in the Middle East (on either side).  It festers for years and years.  Politicians will continue to say what they want.  Pundits will spin these speeches.  People will take sides on Facebook.  And people (both Israeli and Palestinian) who we don’t know, will never meet, and honestly probably don’t really care about will continue to suffer and die until both sides have the courage to lay down all of their perceived rights and follow the advice of an old Middle Eastern prophet, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .”

The haunting of Gaza

We sipped cappuccino this morning as images of violence and shattered lives flickered across the screen of the large flat panel TV.  We had met friends for an impromptu study session at a Euro-style cafe in Amman.  Waves of memories flooded me as correspondents from Al-Jazeera stood in front of the Gaza skyline that I remember well from the late 90s.  A couple of dark plumes of smoke rose from recent attacks, but otherwise the scene was eerily quiet for this bustling Middle Eastern metropolis. Like a ghost town.  I’m not much of a believer in ghosts, but the events of the last week and a half will haunt many for years to come.

Consider the families of those who perished while taking refuge in a UN school building on Tuesday (article here).  Israel alleges militants firing rockets from the school and using those seeking refuge as human shields.  Palestinians and the UN say that there is no evidence that there were any militants at the school.  And the world will probably never know.  Of course everyone has an opinion and you can read them in the comment streams of any online article covering the tragedy.  Those predisposed to believe the Israeli story are outraged that Hamas would use human shields.  Those predisposed to believe the UN or Palestinians are outraged that Israel would target an obviously civilian target killing innocents.

And we all sit back and enjoy our cappuccinos and go on and on about something we really know nothing about.

The UN has called for an independent inquiry into the attack, the single worst of the current campaign in Gaza.  And most deadly for Palestinian civilians.  But will it really matter what the investigation turns up?  If it’s reported that there were militants at the school Palestinian supporters will say its a lie.  If it’s found that there were only civilians at the school Israeli supporters will say it is a lie.  We will probably never know that part of the truth.  But we do know that today families mourn the loss of their loved ones and wonder why they had to die this way and wonder when it will all end.

Over 600 Palestinians dead at latest count including at least 150 civilians, maybe more.  At least 10 Israelis dead including 3 civilians.  Each life precious to their family and to God,whether they were civilians or soldiers.  World leaders are scrambling to try once again to resolve an age-old conflict, and convince both sides to put down their weapons.  Meanwhile everyday people like you and me go to bed at night wondering if it will be the last time they lay next to their loved ones and wonder when they wake up if they will make it through the day.

From a secular perspective one might say, “survival of the fittest.”  From here it looks more like de-evolution of the species.  For those of us from a more religious perspective – did God create us so we could kill each other?  Where are the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, Mahatma Ghandis, Martin Luther Kings, and Nelson Mandelas?  Those who would make a radical stand for peace in the face of physical violence?  Those who would echo what prophet/rabbi/messiah Isa/Yeshua/Jesus said:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great . . . Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Many will dismiss this as sentimental thinking.  But you must remember that Jesus grew up under the brutal military occupation of the Roman Empire.  When he said people should love their enemies and be merciful as God is merciful he was talking about taking a radical stand for peace in the face of physical violence.

Can you imagine being a parent in Gaza right now?  What do you tell your children?   Can you imagine being a soldier on either side?  How do you decide to pull the trigger or push the button that end’s another’s life.  The haunting of Gaza will last for years after the current conflict ends. And I’m not talking about ghosts, but rather images of war permanently seared into young minds and the blood stains of family members and the blood stains of enemies on the hands of both sides.

I’ve got to say that my cappuccino tasted a bit sour this morning and it wasn’t the fault of the barista.

Jordanians rally in support of Gaza

Here are a few way in which Jordanians have expressed their support of those suffering in Gaza:

  • Food and clothing drive – update: MommaBean reports that 25-30 tons were collected at the 7iber/Action Committee/Aramex aid drive near Cozmo the other day.  7iber also reports along with pictures of the sorting effort at the Aramex warehouse.
  • Blood drives
  • Sending a military plan to pick up 40 wounded from Egypt, however due to problems in Egypt they only retrieved 8
  • Businessmen raised 520,000 JD ($738,400) to provide humanitarian assistance, most of it will be administered by the Jordanian government’s official humanitarian arm which has been authorized to provide aid in Gaza.
  • Doctors and nurses staged sit-ins to protest the wounding of Palestinian doctors and medics in the line of duty
  • 50 Doctors have volunteered to go to Gaza to provide medical assistance if authorized to do so.
  • Thousands have participated in predominately peaceful protests.
    • One protest was apparently controlled by tear gas as police stood firm to prevent protesters getting too close to the Israeli embassy here in Amman.
    • 30,000 protesters gathered in a sports stadium.  Many chanted for the repeal of Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel
    • An Arab friend gave me an important vocab lesson – masireh (peaceful protest) vs. muDHahareh (riot).  So far the protests we have heard of here have been in the first category.
    • I’ve been itching to go to one of the protests, but have been warned by a handful of local friends to be careful (not just at the protests, but in general) as anti-American sentiments are on the rise.  I blend in well enough if I don’t open my mouth. But how likely is that?  I must say however, that we have kept to our usual routines and really have to seek out information on the unrest.

I have had several conversations  with locals over the past week about the situation in Gaza.  The same things usually come out:

  • Outrage over the civilian deaths in Gaza, especially the children.  Latest estimates place deaths around 400, about 10% of which have been kids.  I can’t emphasize enough how much this is upsetting to people here.  It’s not just a sound bite on the evening news.  It’s not just collateral damage that can be justified by some larger goal.  People are really upset about this.  And the question of what about Israeli casualties does not fly – only 4 or 5 reported so far and I don’t think any of them have been kids.
  • Questions about what Israel is really hoping to accomplish.  How will this end in peace when so many lives are being shattered?
  • Questions about why the US backs Israel seemingly carte blanche.
  • Anger towards George W. Bush.
  • I haven’t heard much about this on the street, but in the press there are growing questions about Obama’s ability to step into this mess in a helpful way.  His selection of staunch Israel supporter Rahm Emmanuel has fueled these concerns.

It’s a bit surreal.  A couple of weeks ago I relished the questions “Min wayn?” or “Ayya baladak?”  (Where are you from?  What is your country?)  These used to seem like great conversation starters.   But now I flinch a little internally, and have a few handy things to say in my back pocket if the conversation turns towards anything negative.  People are usually surprised to find out that I have actually lived in Gaza and that helps salvage conversation.  A lot of taxi drivers have been listening to the news more this week.  A number of times George W. Bush has come on condemning the Hamas rocket attacks as acts of terror.  This is usually not received favorably, not so much because people support Hamas, but because they can’t understand why the one (mostly ineffective) attack is classified as an act of terror and the other (much deadlier) is a justified act of war.

I guess I wonder too.  How many more civilians have to die?

Responding in English would be difficult enough, let alone in Arabic.

Just a taste of what I’ve been wrestling with.

Breaking News . . .

As I sit here typing, I just recieved news that ground troops have entered Gaza.  Officially to focus on the Hamas rocket positions.  We shall see.  Ominously, Iranian officials have warned that a land invasion will be a huge mistake on the part of Israel.  Hamas has apparently said that the Israeli army is walking into their planned trap.  (AP report here)  I wonder what stories will be told when dawn breaks 7 or 8 hours from now.  It’s going to be a very restless night in Gaza.

Please pray and act for peace.

Jordan Collects Aid for Gaza

Street approaching the donation drop-off and Cozmo supermarket blocked with traffic

Street approaching the donation drop-off and Cozmo supermarket blocked with traffic

Humanitarian Aid Collected in Jordan

Cars jammed the street leading up to the Gaza relief drop-off point neat Cozmo in Amman, Jordan Tuesday night.  Bumper-to-bumper traffic barely crept along, prompting some Good Samaritans to hop out and carry their boxes of food, clothes, and blankets the final dozens of meters.  Police were on hand, including some in riot gear, but everything was peaceful as the pile of donated goods grew and grew.  A line of volunteers passed donations along a human chain to fill waiting delivery trucks.  Inside the store it was obvious who was shopping for Gaza.  Both Jordanians and ex-pats were pulling stacks of canned goods and large sacks of rice off the shelves and filling carts.  Store employees were giving directions to some shoppers, advising them on what could and could not be included in the shipments.

People in Jordan donating and loading a truck with relief aid for Gaza

People in Jordan donating and loading a truck with relief aid for Gaza

Humanitarian Aid Boat Rammed by Israeli’s

As I dropped off a meager donation I wondered if anyone would ever benefit from it.  Both the Israelis and Egyptians have been notorious for not allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza – even during the ceasefire.  What about now, during what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described as “all out war” ?  Just this week a civilian boat carrying humanitarian aid from Cyprus to Gaza was shot at and rammed by an Israeli military vessel.  The AP reported that, “Israel’s navy on Tuesday turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.”  The Reuters article that accompanied the photo below gave a different story, “Cyprus state radio said the Cypriot government would seek explanations from Israel over the incident. The vessel was carrying medical aid donated by Cyprus and there were at least three Cypriots on board, including a parliamentarian.”  The boat was apparently escorted by a Lebanese naval vessel to the port of Tyre.  Hmmm . . . now Lebanon is involved.

Free Gaza aid boat that was rammed by an Israeli military vessel (Reuters photo)

Free Gaza aid boat that was rammed by an Israeli military vessel (Reuters photo)

Will this shipment of aid from Jordan ever make it?  Let’s pray it does.  And when it does, let’s pray it goes to help those who really need it.

Gazan Family Mourns the Loss of 5 Daughters

Like the Balousha family of Jabalia refugee camp who lost 5 of their daughters this week when an Israeli bomb destroyed a mosque and several surrounding buildings in the crowded camp, including the  Balousha’s three-room cinder block house (Guardian UK article here).  The girls were sleeping in one of the rooms and had no chance.  They were ages 17, 15, 13, 8, and 4.   Their mother and father lay sleeping with the families two youngest in the next room.  All were injured, but survived as did one other sister who miraculously was pulled from the ruins of the room where her 5 sisters had died.  Can you even imagine?  Innocent victims of a sickening conflict that has potential to engulf the entire region.

Funeral procession for 5 girls who dies in one family as a result of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (Guardian UK photo)

Funeral procession for 5 girls who died in one family as a result of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza (Guardian UK photo)

How will this end?  The current conflict is not simply a sound bite on the 5 o’clock news.  It doesn’t just fill a space between the first weather forecast and the local sports scores.  It’s been fomenting for centuries and is unlikely to subside anytime soon.  All the major political players will at least pay lip service to trying to fix things.  There will be lots of posturing and statements made in the world press.  But the most important ones will not come from politicians or generals.  I wonder if anyone will pay attention to the anguished statements of men like Anwar Balousha who is described here:

…He was pale and still suffering from serious injuries to his head, his shoulder and his hands. But like many other patients in Gaza he had been made to leave an overcrowded hospital to make way for the dying. Yesterday his house was a pile of rubble: collapsed walls and the occasional piece of furniture exposed to the sky. He spoke bitterly of his daughters’ deaths. “We are civilians. I don’t belong to any faction, I don’t support Fatah or Hamas, I’m just a Palestinian. They are punishing us all, civilians and militants. What is the guilt of the civilian?” Like many men in Gaza, Anwar has no job, and like all in the camp he relies on food handouts from the UN and other charity support to survive.

And still the Balousha family, and those like them will mourn the lives shattered because politicians and power-men couldn’t put down their egoes and their weapons.