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 . . .”

Easter, another reason Jordan is not going the way of the rest of the Middle East

Today was Easter Sunday. (Ok, technically it was yesterday – where did the day go!?)

Uniquely, it was Easter in both Eastern and Western rites today (a confusing difference of opinion about the dating of Christianity’s biggest holy day based on which calendar is being used – Gregorian or Julian).  Here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the king has declared that all Christians should observe Easter according to the dating used by the Eastern rite.  This certainly makes thing simpler in this Muslim country where there are significant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox minorities.  Why does it take a Muslim monarch to get Christian sects to agree on something?  (but I digress . . . )

Of course today was a regular work day for the majority of Jordanians, but Christians around the Kingdom worshiped freely and observed the holiest day of Christianity without hindrance.  This, despite the fact that Islam does not recognize the resurrection of Jesus at all.  In fact, Islam teaches that Jesus was never even crucified, hence no resurrection.  Yet, here in a country where 97% of the people are Muslim, Christians are allowed to believe as they wish and maintain their worship and devotional practices without fear of reprisals.

Not so in neighboring Egypt, where Coptic Christians are regularly persecuted and sometimes even killed while attending church services.  Large scale rioting recently broke out in a southern province when a Christian governor was elected.  However, here in Jordan the government reserves a certain number of parliamentary seats for the Christian minority (actually at a higher ratio than the number of Christians in the population – a bone of peaceful contention and debate for some).  A Coptic Christian friend of mine is so happy to be living in Jordan where he and his wife and children have no fear of public persecution.  Their church building is located across from one of the largest mosques in the city (see slideshow below) – something that might be a cause for concern in downtown Cairo, but here in Amman it ensures they receive extra police protection when things are unsettled in Egypt.

I don’t want to make it seem like Jordan is a Utopia of peace in the Middle East and that there is no tension between Muslims and Christians here.  For sure, there are small problems from time to time.  It is rare to find deep bonds of friendship between Muslims and Christians here.  However, in a society where the notion of tribe is still very alive and well, this is no surprise.  Unlike America where family bonds are broken early and people seem to develop a greater affinity for their friends than relatives, here in Jordan the opposite is true.  People live with their families for much longer (and this is viewed as normal and acceptable) and will almost always choose family over friends when making plans and determining allegiances.  This tendency naturally precludes many Muslim-Christian friendships, but it also minimizes the number of friendships outside of the family in general.

That said  there is a mutual respect between the two religions and a recognition of the need of peaceful coexistence.  This was demonstrated to me today as Muslim friends and acquaintances greeted me for Easter, using the traditional Arab greeting for any major holiday (used by all Arabs):

كل عام و انتم بالخير

Which roughly translates “Goodness to all of you every year.”  It is used during the Muslim Eids, Christmas, New Years, Easter, and other major holidays.

Some Muslim friends even went out of their way to call me and greet me and my family with a cheerful “Happy Easter!”

While the rest of the region is boiling with turmoil it is these small glimpses into everyday life here that reassure me that Jordan is not on the same slippery slope.  For sure, there are economic woes and political disquietude and even a lunatic fringe that makes “good” press, but overall there is a commitment to peace and safety for all Jordanians and guests living within the borders of the Kingdom.  Certainly this is in part due to the wisdom of the royal family represented  by His Majesty, the late King Hussein and his son His Majesty King Abdullah II.  They have set the tone for a Jordan that has been given character and heritage by its diverse tribal (Muslim & Christian) roots yet  strengthened by the recognition of the common good.

In my opinion, the peace that the Kingdom of Jordan experiences today is also a remnant of the peace left by the risen Lord who so many centuries ago had a soft spot for the people of this area – choosing to be baptized and baptize, heal, and feed thousands on this side of the river.  The love and peace he exuded can still be felt today.

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Note: If the slideshow is too fast for you to read the captions you can hover over the pictures and a control bar will pop up.  You can then cycle through the images manually.

Jordanians Rally for Egypt

[Note: The bulk of this post was written earlier today before Mubarak stepped down.  It just goes to show you how quickly things can change on the world political stage.]

Tonight Jordanians and Egyptians in Jordan took to the street to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak.  Cars jammed the streets and there was jubilant beeping and shouting as if a giant wedding procession were taking place.  Fireworks went off  in various neighborhoods.  Hours earlier Jordanians were rallying to demonstrate against Mubarak and in support of the Egyptian people.

Jordanians took to the streets in subdued numbers the day after Hosni Mubarak made his confusing pronouncement of relinquishing power but remaining President of Egypt.  After Friday prayers, protesters marched from al-Husseini mosque in downtown Amman.  The demonstration was peaceful and the mood of onlookers was curious and hopeful.  Friday shopping went on as usual as the rally progressed several blocks through downtown.

Young and old alike join the anti-Mubarak rally in Amman Jordan on February 11th, 2011.

Despite grave predictions about Jordan being the next Middle Eastern country to face widespread unrest, chanted slogans mostly focused on the situation in Egypt.  “The whole world are Egyptians!”  “Last night will be the last night!”  “No more Mubarak!”

However, some chants did call for the ouster of the newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister.  They recalled his stint as ambassador to Israel and called the question if he might even be a double agent.  But as one local bystander remarked, “They don’t know what they are saying, they just want to say something in the streets.”  Security personnel walked interspersed with protesters.  Police cars blocked off traffic at key points along the route and followed the crowd down the street.  Candy apple vendors and an old man selling rice crispy treats gave the whole thing a bit of a feel of a parade rather than a political protest.

Now that it is official that Mubarak has stepped down there will be a moment of celebration.  The hopes and prayers of many are for a change for the better.  However, one can be certain that the road ahead will be a bumpy one for Egypt.  Will the inter-faith goodwill displayed between Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood persist?  Will the military prove to be a just and fair intermediary until a more stable government is formed?  Only time will tell.  But tonight the people celebrate.  In Egypt, and in Amman, and perhaps around the world.   And perhaps some take comfort in the ancient wisdom that, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”  Let us pray that justice will prevail where greed has previously been at work and that the new government of Egypt will truly work for the people.

As for Jordan’s small rally today, here are a few pics:

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Oh . . . and here is a video I took of part of the rally.

Some thoughts on the unrest in Egypt

The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most.  Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East.  Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country.  The wealthy have been fleeing as well.  While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.

Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country.  This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country.   Officially around 20%  of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs.  Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.

I know many Egyptians here in Jordan.  They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers,  garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards.  Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour.  Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants.  For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month.  Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize.  However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions  in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt.  They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.

So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets.  The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.

It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better.  Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing.  They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better.  However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous.  Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years.  In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons.   Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.

Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt.  The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary.  However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street.  With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other.  Curfew starts at 2:30 PM.  After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves.  My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety.  Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.”  Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning.  What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.

Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace.  In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored.  However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice.  Economic justice.  Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America).  Political Justice.  And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.

Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt.  The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world.  Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.

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.

Pope Benedict visiting Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Amman, Jordan yesterday to start his first papal visit to the Middle East.  His tour includes 4-days here in Jordan and 4-days in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

There has been a bit of  buzz around here the past week or so.  The attitude is very positive.  Christians of all denominations seem to welcome the pope’s visit warmly and see it as a boon for Christianity in this Muslim nation (Christians only make up 3% of the 5.8 million people).  Muslim friends have also been positive (other than a few speculations about traffic problems), and remembered fondly the visit of John Paul II 9 years ago.

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday.  (BBC News Photo)

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday. (BBC News Photo)

I’m not sure who initiated this trip but papers here indicate that HM King Abdullah invited the Pope.  Jordan has long been a stronghold of peace and (comparative) religious tolerance in the region and it is not surprising that this is one of the first Middle Eastern countries for the Pope to visit.  I can think of three strategic purposes for the invitation from HM the king.

  1. A reflection of HM King Abdullah’s stance on Islam in the contemporary world and esp. it’s relationship to Christianity and Judaism.  In 2004 HM King Abdullah comissioned a number of Islamic Scholars to draft what would later become known as the “Amman Message.”  This appears to be a well thought out explanation of what some inthe West would decribe as “moderate” Islam.  A year later came the “Amman Interfaith Message” aimed at “establishing full acceptance and good will between [the three monotheistic religions].”
  2. To encourage the country’s (rumored to be) shrinking Christian population.  Although they only represent 3% of the population Christians are guaranteed 9% of parliamentary seats.  This rubs some the wrong way, but there is no doubt that Christians have (and continue) to play an important role in Jordanian society.  As in other parts of the Muslim world wealthier and more educated Christians are leaving for the West.  Perhaps this visit fromthe Pope will be beneficial in encouraging positive Muslim-Christian relations in the kingdom and remind those that are here of HM King Abdullah’s benevlonce towards them.
  3. Encouraging Christian pilgramage/tourism to Jordan.  There are many important Biblical sites in Jordan – the most significant of which is the Bethany Beyond the Jordan – speculated baptism site of Jesus.  There is excellent archaeological evidence for this being the place where John the Baptist was baptizing long ago.  25% of the countries tourists apparently pass through here, but Jordan would like to see more awareness of the rich Biblical history reflected in this and other sites (Mount Nebo, Pella, Madaba, Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, etc.) and increased tourist traffic at the Baptism site and throughout the Kingdom.
Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Of course, there have been a few detractors, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.  They called for another public apology from the Pope re. his infamous 2006 speech which included a quote from a Medieval scholar that did not reflect favorably on Islam or their prophet, Muhammad.  The Vatican’s official stance was that the pope has already publicly stated long ago that he was sorry for the use of the quote an that it did not reflect his personal views on Islam.  While divisive at the time the speech and it’s aftermath led directly to the formation of the “Common Word between Us and You” initiative, which was an attempt by Christian leaders to reach out to Muslim leaders and bridge the gap of differences by focusing on some of the commonalities between the religions (namely loving God and loving neighbor).  Despite disappointment on the part of some about the lack of a new apology,BBC reports that:

…the top religious adviser to Jordan’s king thanked the Pope on Saturday for expressing regret for the speech.”I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims,” Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed told the Pope.”We realise that the visit [to Jordan] comes as a goodwill gesture and a sign of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

I am intrigued about the ongoing reaction to the Pope’s visit.  He has already made the rounds of some important sites – Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), Madaba (a largely Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) town near Amman,  and Jordan’s largest mosque where he made a speech encouraging peace, cooperation, and dialogue between Islam and Christianity and eschewed religiously motivated violence on both sides.  As I noted reception here has been largely positive among Muslims and local Christians.

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

In the negative reaction category, there are of course a few Muslim who have spoke out as I mentioned before.  But suprising to me was the ambivalence about the Pope’s visit on the part of Wetern  (ex-pat) Christians.  Most of the ex-pats I know who are Christians are some flavor of Protestant.  Many of their reactions could be summed up by saying, “Oh?  The Pope?  Ok, that’s nice.”  I’m not sure what fuels this.  I mean, ok, I’m not Catholic but I think the Pope is a pretty important and influential world/religious leader.  His presence here in this predominately Muslim country is significant for the Christians here and perhaps has some implications for future Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship.  Not to mention the Mid-East peace process as he visits both Israel and Palestine after his Jordan stop.  Ok, so he’s not the leader of my particular Christian tradition and he’s just a man like anyone else – but let’s have a little gravitas and sense of history people!

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

One last cool result of the Pope’s visit.  HM Queen Rania started a Tweet (Twitter feed for the uninitiated – or a kind of a one-line at a time electronic diary for the super-uninitiated) to give a running update on the pope’s visit. It’s a rare personal insight into the (semi)random thoughts of a world leader, “Special day here in Amman; not everyday pope drop s by 4 a visit ” or “Just listened to Pope’s speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace.”  She also mentions the movie she and the King were watching the night before the Pope arrived (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – apparently His Majesty muttered “chickflick” under his breath at the suggestion), her failed attempt to get her 4-year old to don a suit, and posts a pic of HM King Abdullah and one of their son’s rolling out for an afternoon motorcycle ride.  I hope she continues to Tweet after the Pope leaves.   HM Queen Rania is already famous for her YouTube videos and seems to be a royal figure very much in tune with how to communicate in this electronic era.

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

This and other of HM Queen Rania’s pics can be found here.

Well, I need to wrap this up soon.  Sorry for the typos and if there are any bad links.  Had to type this quickly as I need to go to bed soon.  Pope Benedict is giving an open mass at the largest sports stadium tomorrow.  I’m gonna go check it out.  The gates open at 4 AM and close at 8 AM.  Mass starts at 10 AM.  Should be a very, very intriguing morning.  Oh, btw for security reasons you can’t bring sharp objects, food, or a cell phone.  I’m joining a couple of friends and we’re going to try and get there by 6 AM.   It’s 11 PM – better go.  I’ll hopefully get another update posted late tomorrow.