Sadly, an eye for an eye continues to rule the day in Israel and Palestine …

I am working on Part 3 of my Ramadan:An Outsider’s Perspective series of posts, but had to take a moment to address current events in Israel and Palestine.

If you haven’t noticed yet the news from the Middle East on most web-based new services is chock full of reports of Palestinian attacks in Southern Israel that left 7 dead and others wounded.  These attacks targeted civilians on a tour bus, a military vehicle, and a private car.  First I have to say in no uncertain terms that any attack targeting civilians is deplorable, heinous, and is inexcusable.  This kind of activity does nothing to further Palestinian political causes and is a detriment to any attempt at a peace process.  And it is a war crime, plain and simple.

That said … so are the 13 air attacks by Israel against Gaza in  July and August of 2011 up to this date.  The latest two days ago on August 16th killed one and wounded 7 – some civilians as well.  These amount to a collective punishment on a civilian population and is akin to the US gov’t repeatedly bombing LA in an effort to curb gang violence.  One attack this August included the shelling of the Al-Zaytouna neighborhood where I lived when I visited Gaza back in the 90s.  I don’t know about now, but back then this was just a residential neighborhood with no obvious military presence.

Of course these bombing runs on the part of Israel are well-known to be in response for Palestinian mortar attacks on Southern Israel from within Gaza.  This is something like attacking flies with a bazooka.  The most famous retribution on Israel’s part for these mortar attacks was Operation Cast Lead in January of 2009.  In the 5- year period before this Israeli military operation 1000s of mortars had been launched into Southern Israel, remarkably only resulting in 19 deaths.   In retaliation for those deaths over 5 years Israel launched a month-long bombardment of Gaza that claimed nearly 1400 lives including over 700 civilians and over 300 children.  (source for all of these stats B’Tselem: the Israeli Center for Human Rights)

Just like in kindergarten 2 wrongs do not make a right.  Nor do 100s or 1000s of wrongs by both sides over the last 5 decades and more.

Like I said – the attacks in Israel today were deplorable.  But they do not exist in a vacuum – if Palestinians are responsible for them.  This of course seems likely.  But all the news so far is from Israeli government sources that would not likely say otherwise, nor are they likely to provide any evidence or follow-up investigation if past incidents are any indication.  Israeli Gov’t sources say that the attackers came from Gaza, into Sinai, and into Israel.  Apparently they have “very, very specific information” that indicates this.  What that info is we will never know. The attack was apparently followed by skirmishing across the Israeli-Egyptian border.  This appears to have been with armed militants that Israel reports are part of Hamas.  However, both Hamas and Egypt deny any involvement in the attacks.  So far we just have Israel’s say-so on who was behind the attacks.

Eqypt has recently sent 1000s of troops into the Sinai to strengthen security there due to rumors of al-Qaeda stirrings in the Sinai.  I have written elsewhere about al-Qaeda co-opting the Palestinian struggle for its own ignoble purposes.  It would not surprise me if this attack today was their handiwork and not that of any true Palestinian group.  Unfortunately ordinary Gazans will bear the brunt of today’s attack.  I am certain Israel will retaliate with airstrikes and it is likely that more civilians will die in this grotesque game of an eye-for-an-eye being played out on the world stage.

How much innocent blood must be spilled before both sides can lay down their “right” to revenge and agree that for future generations that enough is enough?

(My heart goes out to the families of innocent victims on both sides of the conflict.  I cannot for a moment begin to understand the pain and agony of your loss, but my prayer is that in the midst of that pain a path for a better tomorrow can somehow, miraculously, be realized.)

 

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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 . . .”

Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
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I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!

Thinking about the World’s Largest Open-air Prison on Martin Luther King Day

A cold rain drizzles on the street outside the cafe where I’m sipping tea on this Martin Luther King Day. Of course, this holiday goes unnoticed here in Amman,

President Obama marks MLK Day at VermontAve. Baptist Church in Washington D.C. (NY Times Photo)

Jordan – it is a uniquely American recognition of the life and work of one of the world’s great civil rights and peace activists. MLK’s life’s work and ultimately his sacrifice in death paved the way for the positive changes in the circumstances of African Americans in the US over the last 40-50 years; and indeed race relations in general. While no one would deny that there is still much room for improvement, 46 years after King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington an African American serves in Washington as President of the United States. Yesterday President Obama spoke at Vermont Avenue Baptist church and invoked the memory of MLK’s hard work and influence .

Obama quoted a bit from a sermon King had preached at the same church almost a half century earlier, which itself was a quote from a poem:

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

With this verse, I couldn’t help but think of another anniversary that was marked today. A year ago today, Israel’s deadly offensive into Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) ended. The result? Shattered homes and lives.

Gazans among the rubble of destroyed homes (AFP Image)

1,385 Palestinans dead (762 non-combatants – 318 children)
13 Israelis dead (3 non-combatants – 0 children)

3,500 residential buildings destroyed in Gaza
20,000 Palestinians left homeless
(stats from B’Tselem the Israeli Center for Human Rights)

Israeli attacks over Gaza (Getty Image)

A bombed out medical center - note the destroyed mobile medical clinic in the background

Gaza school recieving incoming Israeli fire during conflict; children back at school after the conflict (AFP image)

Gazan on a destroyed building (AFP photo)

Gazan climbs down from destroyed building (AFP photo)

A year later, the devastation still persists. A group of 8 NGO’s (Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, CAFOD,
Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire) recently released a report detailing the current abysmal situation in Gaza (T h e G a z a S t r i p : A H uma n i t a r i a n Imp l o s i o n). None of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are allowed in or out of the territory and a strict blockade has prohibited the import of goods and supplies, including building materials, food, and much needed medicines. 95% of Gaza’s industry remains non-functional because of lack of power and supplies. Electricity is only available sporadically (8-12 hours per day). The Gaza power plant which at one time could produce 140mW off power now is only capable of 60mW. The Deep Poverty Line for Gaza is $2.3 per day – 70% of the population now lives on the equivalent of $1.2 per day. 80% of the population relies on outside Humanitarian aid which has been restricted from 200 trucks per day to 45 (500-600 are estimated to adequately meet current need). Millions of liters of sewage remain untreated daily and runs openly into the sea. The healthcare situation is horrendous with a lack of supplies and electricity and cases of easily preventable disease are on the rise. Doctors report a growing mental health crisis as Gazans cope with loss of life, livelihood, and the daily anxiety of trying to survive. 56% of the population are children who will bear the brunt of this mass imprisonment and humanitarian debacle for decades to come.

Gazan girl in damaged building (AFP photo)

The chief reason cited for this nearly complete blockade (imprisonment?) of Gaza by Israel is security, namely the on-going Qassem rocket attacks on Southern Israel by militant groups in Gaza. In four years these have resulted in 11 Israeli deaths. In the same time period over 2500 Gazans have been killed in retaliatory attacks. One of the objectives of Operation Cast Lead was to end this largely ineffective rocket attacks. A year later they still occur as a beleaguered populace lashes out against the decades old military occupation.

A network of smuggler’s tunnels that would put Hogan’s Heroes to shame has developed over the years beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Everything from medecine to food to cement to guns are reportedly moved through this network. To Gazans these tunnels are a life line. Egypt recently began building a security wall which will apparently extend 20 meters deep in hopes of cutting off this activity. The project also includes pipelines which will flood any remaining tunnels with sea water with unknown consequences for the natural aquifer and already limited fresh water supply in the area.

And so to echo the poem in MLK’s sermon from so long ago . . .

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

The stark truth of the situation in Gaza is readily available to anyone who cares to find out, from any High School student with an internet connection to the halls of power in the the most affluent and influential nations in the world. Wrong remains on the thrones in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world, as those who govern turn blind eyes and issue anemic policy statements and position papers. The future of Gaza seems not just a dim unknown, but shrouded in deepest night. Some scientists figure that the environmental toll alone will take decades to reverse – the entire area might be condemned as uninhabitable if American EPA standards were enforced.

And yet God himself is in the shadows keeping watch above his own. When, oh when, will justice roll down for Gaza? Justice will never be fully meted out by walls, rockets, guns, or the strong arm of man. It will only come at the merciful hands of the Almighty and in His time. When will the day of justice come for the weak and widowed and orphaned of Gaza? Not a day too soon. But on that day woe to any who has the blood of injustice on their hands. Those stains can be invisible in the normal light of day but will be shockingly revealed when the light of Him who watches from the shadows is fully revealed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 on the day he deliveredthe "I Have a Dream" speech

I do not mean to say that the situation is fully hopeless on the human level. I firmly believe that one of the greatest gifts that God bestowed upon humanity is that of freedom. By it’s nature this freedom is a bit of a two-edged sword. It gives us the capacity for both great good and great evil. Both Israelis and Palestinians can still work towards peace and security and freedom. As the NGO report says, “The current situation in Gaza is man-made, completely avoidable
and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed.” Or perhaps as MLK said more eloquently:

“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

These words were spoken with conviction in the hours of dark night for the African American community, yet today a black man is President of the United States of America. What will the situation in Gaza be 50 years from now? From a human perspective the same or much worse than today. But if frail yet arrogant humanity would get out of the way of God’s mercy and justice then perhaps much, much better. In another part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he recognized whites who had

“come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We can not walk alone.”

This truth resonates today as much as it did in 1963, but it applies not just to blacks and whites, but to Israelis and Palestinians and indeed, all peoples of the world.

We cannot walk alone, nor can we simply expect to lay down centuries of hatred and walk arm in arm singing kumbaya. No, we must walk together humbly in fear of God for the shadow we perceive around him is of our own making and will one day be laid bare. On that day we will be ashamed of the sufferings we have imposed on each other in the name of what we supposed to be right and dear and true.

A message from Martin Luther King Jr. to Israel, Palestine, and Obama on Inauguration Eve

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. (photo public domain from wikipedia)

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  and on the eve of the inauguration of a new American president, I believe words spoken eloquently and powerfully by MLK when he visited India 50 years ago could be given today  as a message to Israel, Palestine and President-Elect Obama.  My friend David pointed out the short (3 minute) NPR broadcast highlighting the newly discovered speeches, including this pointed and chillingly relevant fragment:

Since visiting India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity . . . . in these days when . . .  ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere no nation can win a war.  Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence.  Martin Luther King Junior, 1959

MLK’s unwavering and powerful commitment to non-violent resistance changed the tide of history in America.  He did not seek to kill his enemies, nor to be killed himself.  Yet his tragic assassination (martyrdom?), served as an exclamation point to the end of a life lived fully for God and others.  Change did not happen overnight in America and deep pockets of inequality, intolerance and injustice can still be found.  But part of the legacy of Dr. King’s life will be played out on the national stage tomorrow when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th (and first black) President of the United States of America.  We have come a long ways since the days of slavery, lynchings, and race riots.

I have often wondered when the Palestinian (or for that matter Israeli) Martin Luther King Jr. will step forward and declare non-violence as the “most potent weapon available to an oppressed people.”  Things have been quiet in Gaza since Israel and Hamas stopped flinging artillery at each other on Sunday.  Israel has declared that they will pull out troops by the time Obama is inaugurated.  To me, this confirms my gut suspicions three weeks ago that this was a carefully calculated “shift-change” war.  Just like the cat burglar who knows the streets won’t be watched for 30 minutes or so while the local police changes shift, Israel struck when there was very little America could say or do.  George W. and his crew were on their way out and Obama and his on the way in.  To me it actually seems like a kind of political slap-in-the-face from our supposed strongest ally in this part of the world.  That said, I hope the Israeli army does honor it’s inaugural deadline.  Maybe I’m too cynical.  Maybe they really are interested in seeing what Obama brings to the table.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table?  Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his team) will be a success.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table? Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his political team) will be a success. Of course, when it comes to baseball - Go Cubs!

I know that I am very interested to see what kind of change he can bring at home and abroad.  Personally, I’m excited that Barack Obama will be our new president.  I know all of my seriously conservative friends are scared of all the what-ifs, but we should all really be genuinely hoping that President Obama is a brilliant success.  If he isn’t the hopes and dreams of so many will be dashed.  All politics aside this is a huge step in American history, one that us “majority” folk probably don’t truly understand.  But truly,  I can’t imagine where the country or the world will be 4-8 years from now if Obama is a failure.   I think it is in everyone’s best interest that he does a fantastic job (whatever that means – personally, I wouldn’t wish being President of the USA on anyone – way too many headaches).

So as Americans celebrate the inauguration of a truly historic new President (or fret and hold their breath) Gazans pick up the peices of their lives after 3 weeks of fighting.  Over 1200 Palestinians are dead.  Around 1/2 civilians.  Maybe 1/3 children. 13 Israelis dead.  3 or 4 civilians.  Will the quiet last?  I doubt it.

It’s uncanny how 5 decades later Martin Luther King Jr’s words still hold a haunting power.  World leaders would do well to listen carefully to these words from the past.  I think if he were here today, MLK would make the very same speech.  I am hopeful that Obama will be man enough to follow in the footsteps of the peaceful revolutionary who paved the way for his presidency so many years ago.  If only those in both Israel and Palestine whose hands are responsible for carving “highways of death through the stratosphere” would also heed MLKs message and take up a different, more potent weapon.

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PS. – If you are interested my friend David is chronicling (as he is able) his trip to the inauguration on his blog Signs of Life.  If you don’t read it on a regular basis, maybe now would be a good time to check it out.  Also, if you like the Obama/White Sox poster it can be found here.

Observing the Gaza protests in Amman on Friday

It’s a bit surreal standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of 1000s, many of whom are chanting in a language you don’t totally understand.  Such was my experience when I decided to buck most everyone’s advice and check out the protest in the balad (old city) on Friday January 9th.  The embassy had sent out an ominous sounding note that there was a heightened risk of American interests being targeted.  Call me jaded by years of “elevated risk” at the nations airports or maybe just convinced that I’m not much of an American interest.  I asked a few Jordanians I trusted and was advised where might be risky (near the Israeli embassy – “duh”, and in Wahidat a very Palestinian neighborhood).  To my surprise the Jordanians said I should have no trouble in the balad.  My Western friends thought otherwise – but who are you going to believe the locals or the foreigners?  (Warning: Blondies with blue eyes, embassy workers, those who have to speak out loud in English and anyone nervous about crowds should probably not attend.  Plus I have the trump card that I used to live in Gaza.  Just because I went to the protest doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone or will necessarily go again.)

(Note: If you’re looking for pics, there is a large gallery at the end of the post.  Click on the thumbnails for the bigger image.  Click on the 2nd pic for an even bigger one.  Pics in the post do not enlarge but they should be repeated in the gallery.)

For starters

Jordanian riot police bloc the street as the protest march nears. (Friday Jan 09 2009)

Jordanian riot police block the street

It had been labeled the “Day of Rage” with protests planned all over the city.  Police outfitted in riot gear seemed ready for it to be an anger filled afternoon in the balad.  However the atmosphere on the street seemed fairly relaxed.  I could hear the chanting of the oncoming crowd echoing off buildings as I looked for a ground-level vantage point with a good “escape” route in case things got dicey.  Spectators were gathering and no one paid me any special attention as I stood waiting on the sidewalk near the alley with a red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around my neck.  It not only served to stave off an ever so slight chill in the shadow of the building, but also identified me as Jordan-friendly.  To truly blend I would have needed to sport the  black and white Palestinian version that many have been wearing lately.

I was struck by three things as the marchers reached my section of street:

  • How quickly the street filled up and the atmosphere of the placed changed.  There was definitely a psychological shift from “I am standing here with a few people minding my own business” to “I am part of a crowd and anything could happen.”
  • The number of youth, including very young children who were participating.
  • The handicap of knowing only a little Arabic
Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

In the crowd

As the parade of flag waving protesters passed me in the street, the masses of people following along on the sidewalk swarmed around my location.  To keep my view of the street I had to step to the curb and within a minute there was nothing but a sea of people all around me.  Some were moving, others like myself were planted in one spot.  There was no jostling and people seemed to respect each other, allowing people to stay put or move as desired.  However, claustro- and agoraphobics beware!  Some people in the middle of the street were chanting slogans, but people near me were just watching and listening.  Many were holding up camera phones or cameras to record the moment.  A father with his children stood next to me.

Although everything remained peaceful, I sensed that my ability to move 100% as I pleased had now changed.  Group dynamics and psychology were in play.

Shortly a truck outfitted with a PA system halted near us.  I’m pretty sure it was a huge Saddam poster on one side.   Things got loud.  The men on the truck took turns rallying the crowd with various chants.  The 50 or so people immediately behind the truck raised their hands to punctuate their chant with fists or “V for victory” signs.   I was relieved that the people around me were not participating as I had hoped to speak as little as possible while at the protest.  My silence didn’t feel conspicuous.

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

However, there were two parts where the entire crowd got involved.  One was when a couple of shebaab (young guys) lit an Israeli flag replica on fire up on a roof.  It was kinda funny as it took several attempts to get the flag going.  Apparently flag burning is not as easy as one might think.  People around me were laughing and offering all sorts of advice such as, “You need more gas!”  After a few minutes it was ablaze and the whole crowd cheered.  At another point every  man, woman, and child on the street lifted aloft the victory sign.  My hand shot up too.   It seemed the prudent thing to do.

I realized pretty early on that my movement was at the whim of the crowd.  It’s a slightly unnerving feeling.  Later as the crowd was allowed to progress towards the municipality building and beyond, there were a handful of “Fast-breaks” that got the heart pumping as well.  By fast break I mean a number of people turned around and began running in the opposite direction yelling about tear gas.  I’m fairly certain the first four of these were just shebaab being shebaab as they were followed with laughter, and the older men in the crowd simply held their ground with skeptical eyebrows raised.

The handicap of not understanding

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A truck outfitted with a PA system, and guys leading chants

I understood the Israeli flag on fire and the pictures of Saddam Hussein (understand is a loose term) but couldn’t understand most of the banners or chanting.   I figured that the crowd with the hammer and sickle flags and the pictures of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were part of some sort of communist party.  And  I got that the people with the banner displaying a big red heart and the word Gaza probably love Gaza.  Beyond that it was all a bit fuzzy.  The chant/rant-wagon was catchy though, and after about 10 or 15 minutes of listening I think I might have been able to chime in.  I’m pretty sure 1/2 of the chanting was saying very good things about Gaza and Palestine (and maybe Venezuela), but the other 1/2 was putting down Israel, America, Egypt, and France.  Pretty much in that order of frequency.  Needless to say I quietly snapped pics and took videos.

People seemed angry, but not out of control.  No one directed any anger towards me.  Why would they?   I was just another soul quietly showing my support.  Friends who looked at my pics have commented, “Wow that looks scary.”  Was it?  Not really.  I saw a few locals that I knew and they smiled from afar or greeted me warmly.  Overall, I am sure it would have been better to understand more of what was being said but I got the message very clearly that people are upset with innocents being killed and at the political machines unwilling or unable to do more to stop it.

Would you bring your kids?

2 guys wave to a little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf.

A little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf flashed the Victory sign to onlookers.

The day before (Thursday) there had been a children’s demonstration for families.  Mothers, fathers and kids marched to the Unicef headquarters to ask for stronger actions against Israel due to the number of kids that have been killed.  Before leaving for Friday’s protest I had joked with my wife and a couple of friends that I should bring the kids along.  To my surprise they would not have been out of place.   There were a number of youth out on Friday.  The youngest (maybe 5 or 6 years old – I even saw some babies) seemed to be accompanied by parents or older siblings.  Many were decked out in patriotic gear, sporting keffiyeh’s or Palestine scarves.  One held a “blood stained” doll aloft.  A couple of youngsters wore black masks.  On the one hand kinda freaky.  But on the other hand  think about how often we dress our kids in camouflage or drape them in patriotic clothing on the Fourth of July.  To Americans dressing in the Stars and Stripes and camo are symbols of hope, freedom, and courage.   I wonder if that kind of gear would play differently in other parts of the world.  And maybe kids wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags isn’t as ominous as we might think. I have a bad feeling that Western pundits might spin children marching like this as teaching them to hate.  From where I stood it seemed more like teaching them to speak out.  We haven’t told our 6-year old son what’s going on in Gaza yet so as not to needlessly worry him, but the vast majority of kids here have heard loud and clear that children are dying in a war just a few hundred miles away.

A less than perfect ending

I’m not sure how many were in the crowd.  Thousands I am sure, but how many exactly I have no idea.  The police released the crowd to march and we progressed towards the Amman municipality building and beyond.  The crowd stretched across four lanes of traffic.  There were cars trying to pass, but they were completely stopped.  Near the chant/rant-wagon and the flag carriers the crowd was noisy, but for the most part people walked quietly or in conversation with their friends.  It wasn’t until we reached the big intersection at the end of Ras-al-Ain where the road splits off towards Jabal Amman and 3rd Circle on the right and Abdoun on the left that the police finally stopped the crowd again.   We had walked about a mile.  The crowd had been thinning for awhile and once it was stopped many more turned around and walked away.  When the Communist Party flagbearers started backtracking I figured things were pretty much over and wondered if I should leave to.  However, a vocal crowd of hundreds remained at the police line so  I joined a dozen or so people gathered on the terrace of a large office building a safe distance away.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

We were about 20 feet above street level and on the other side of a walled off parking lot full of red trucks.  Chanting protesters still choked off one of Amman’s busiest thoroughfares connecting the Old City with affluent western Amman.  The crowd mostly consisted of shebaab now.  There was a small street that intersected the main thoroughfare near the police line. It ran up the hill to the left and was beginning to fill with spectators.  Traffic began to back up on the other side of the riot police.

I was wondering what would happen. Were the police waiting to let the protesters continue marching as they had before?  Would they send the protesters around to the other side of Ras-al-Ain to march back towards the balad?  How long would they let them stand there chanting?  My answer came about 10-minutes later in the form of a fast-break of 25 or so shebaab yelling about tear gas.  I saw none, but it was obvious that police were trying to disperse the crowd and meeting with some resistance.  To my surprise rocks began to hail down from the side street on the hill and even from the crowd.

It was then that the the first can of tear gas was shot.  The crowd scattered pretty quickly.  Lots of bark, but fortunately little bite.  Another canister was shot towards the retreating crowd for good measure.  As it skittered down the street past our safe vantage point many yards away I got a small whiff – not pleasant to say the least.  My left eye watered and stung for a good 15 minutes afterward.

Moral of the story: always head home when you see the Commies packing up their flags.

Final Word

My taxi driver and I talked about the protests this morning on the way to take my son to school.  He told me that most of the protests in the city were peaceful.  He hadn’t heard that tear gas had been used in the balad, but knew that it had been used near the Israeli embassy where apparently protesters were the most aggressive.  He told me that he and his brother had taken their children to the march to UNICEF headquarters the day before.  Then he said something that really caught my attention.

He said that even though people march here in Jordan and across the Middle East people are still dying every day in Gaza.  Almost 800, maybe more now.

He then told me about 4 children that had been trapped in a house with their dead mother for days with no food or water.  Later I read the report that the International Red Cross is accusing Israel of breaking international law over this specific incident.  Apparently the Israeli army blocked aid workers from entering the area to look for casualties.  Once the volunteers did get to the house they found the 4 children and 12 corpses in the house.  While the children were being rescued the Army continued to order volunteers out of the area.

Honestly, to me the “Day of Rage” in Gaza seemed to be a little more like the “Day of Being Really Upset.”  But as long as stories like these keep coming out of Gaza the protests will continue and the anger  will grow.  Unfortunately rage is like a fire that smolders quietly for a long time only to burst into flames once it’s too late to put out.

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First thoughts on Gaza protests in Amman

It was a beautifult day in Amman today.  Sunny skies with just a few clouds.  Temperature hovering around 50 degrees F.  A good day for a protest.

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

A nice day in Amman, despite clouds of war over Gaza

Some were calling today a day of “Rage” and westerners were warned to stay home.  Protests were called for throughout the city to speak out against the situation in Gaza.  I tend to blend in very well, so went down to the ballad to see what I could see.  (Please note: I am not reccommending that others do this, just simply telling you what I did.)  The protest march lasted a little over an hour and made it’s way from Al-Husseini Mosque in the old city past the Amman municipality and ended near Ras-al-ain and the intersection going towards third circle and also Abdoun.

When I got downtown I stopped in a shop that I frequent and asked the workers about the situation and if I would have any troubles.  They assured me that I wouldn’t saying people don’t like the American government but love Americans.  Even so I was stuck in a riot in Jerusalem once back in the late 90s, so kept towards the edges of the crowd near definite “escape” routes and stood near some older men with children, thinking that they were less likely to take unnecessary risks.  I saw a few faces of locals I knew.  They flashed me smiles and mouthed greetings to me.  That set me a little more at ease as well.

I have more to say later, I just wanted to post an initial pic and give my first gut reaction.  I was sturck that people are genuinely upset and are looking for a way to vent their frustrations while showing solidarity with the people in Gaza.  As I snapped pics and looked at them on the way back I realized that a picture is worth a 1000 words, but that a picture with no explanation could speak 1000 wrong words.  The protest was very peaceful, but I could put 2 or 3 pics up here with no explanation and pundits of all stripes could spin the situation in several different directions.  Once again that I was reminded that sound bites and even visual bites cannot do complex situations justice.

Here’s one pic.  I promise more later.  I need to spend some time with my family and collect my thoughts for a more intensive writing session later.

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protestors peacefully march from Al-Husseini Mosque towards the Amman Municipality building on Fri Jan 09 2009