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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.)

 

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.

The haunting of Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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