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.

Brain Dump

O Blogger, Where Art Thou?

Blogging is a lot like working out at the gym. The longer you are away from the gym, the harder it is to get back into the routine. Excuses not to go become easier, the reality of muscle atrophy settles in, and you become convinced that returning to your old workout would be too painful and unsuccessful anyways. With blogging it’s more like brain atrophy, but the lame excuses are exactly the same.

Eventually you do go back to the gym. It just has to be done. The workout may not be great, but you just have to step foot in the building and do a few reps so you can start heading in the right direction again. The same is true with blogging, so below are the things I’ve had floating around in the back of my mind of late. I doubt any of them can live on their own as a full blog post, but I need to get them out of my brain so I can focus on writing something (anything) else. So here’s my brain dump, in no particular order (I’m sure my head will be sore tomorrow after this mental workout session):

Snow! Last week it got bitterly cold (for Jordan – hovering around 32 F/0 C. Brrr! And the humidity was high, so there were quite a few children (and honestly, quite a few adults) who were hoping for snow. The anxiously awaited for call cancelling school never came, but we did hear that some of the higher elevations saw some of the white stuff. Maybe next year for us.

You know you live in a small country, when . . . A shopkeeper tells you he is out of stock of something because a shipment was being held at port. You kind of figure, “Yeah right! Well at least it was a creative excuse.” You find out later that it’s because there are only 4 spots for cargo ships in the aforementioned port and all of them were being blocked because of a shipment of infected corn, causing all sorts of shipping backlogs in the entire country.

Water Woes – One of the most serious issues facing Jordan is the availability of water. Landlocked except for a very small strip of coast on the Red Sea & with very few permanent lakes or rivers, Jordan relies almost entirely on winter rainfall to renew aquifers and fill reservoirs. Oh, there’s also the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Dead Sea which are shared (and disputed) with Israel. But good luck drinking out of the Dead Sea!

This year there’s been a drought here. Rainfall in the winter was significantly below normal and in January reservoirs were only at 25% of capacity – a huge problem looking forward to this summer. So at the end of January Muslim leaders put out the call for all believers in the country to pray for rain. There is actually a special Arabic phrase used for this which I have written down somewhere but can’t find right now. In February the rains finally came and for two weeks people were overjoyed by the damp, dreary, overcast weather.

In the end reservoirs were around 47% capacity which people are happy with (for some reason 50% seems to be the magic number). Muslims were speaking about how their prayers had been answered. The Christian minority were also claiming that their prayers for rain had been answered. Hmmm . . . how do you sort that one out?

Teenage Weapons Manufacturers/Smugglers: Patriots, Terrorists, or Victims?

Would you find the following stories inspiring or frightening?

  • East German teens digging a tunnel back in the 50s/60s to smuggle food and weapons into occupied East Germany and people out into free West Germany right under the noses of Communist occupiers.
  • Jewish youth working in a bullet factory in 1945 to supply the militias preparing to overthrow the British occupiers and combat Arab resistance. The factory is hidden under a laundry facility where British soldiers’ uniforms are washed and due to lack of ventilation is always at risk of exploding.
  • Christian teens in the south of Sudan helping an armed resistance movement by assembling rifles to be used against the Muslim north. The activity takes place in the back of a local school, one of the few buildings in town with enough room to store the needed parts.
  • Palestinian youth smuggling food, munitions, and parts into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt and assisting in putting together guns and bombs to fight off the Israeli occupation. One wrong move could blow up the basement bomb factories and families living above.
  • American farmboys stockpiling muskets and blackpowder in haylofts during the American Revolution at great risk of burning down the barns used for storage. None the wiser, British soldiers are regularly sheltered in the haylofts overnight when passing through town.

Well? Which story stirs your sense of pride and patriotism and which one makes you shake your head in shock and dismay? Be honest now.

Actually, only one of the stories above is 100% true, the others could very likely have happened but are more like my version of historical fiction. Based on history, but not 100% confirmed. The true story is the Israeli youth putting together bullets to fight off the British in 1945. The story was presented on a History channel documentary as if these teenagers were heroes and patriots.

The Palestinian story above is also almost 100% true. There are definitely Palestinian teens involved in the smuggling effort and stories of them involved in bomb making (but these are not confirmed). So are these Palestinian teens any less patriots than their Israeli counterparts 60 years before? Or what about the other 3 stories? They sound plausible to me. Would you laud the American farmboy, Christian Sudanese youth, and the East German teen or be shocked at their involvement in rebellious (and dangerous) activity? Are they patriots, terrorists, or victims of their particular place and time in history?

On a broader scale, what determines our sense of pride or dismay at the stories we hear of youth involved in war and warlike activities?

The Case of the Missing Branches

A couple of weeks ago I returned from school to a strange sight. Our apartment is on the ground floor, but it’s sunken below street level. Our building (like 90% of Amman) is on a hill, and we benefit from this by having a rather nice outdoor space/garden that is separated from the streets on two sides by a tall wall. In the front of our garden are two trees that stretch above the wall and provide a good amount of shade and privacy from passers-by.

When I walked down to our gate that day something seemed strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. However as I stepped through it was instantly obvious – our trees had been butchered! Someone had hacked off a good 50-60% of the branches! There are also some smaller trees nearby that had been “pruned” back. Where there once had been lush greenery there was a blank white wall, open sky, and a clear view down into our garden from the street. My blood boiled instantly and my mind raced trying to figure out who would have done such a thing.

I put down my bag and went in search of our building super, Joe (obviously not his real name – he’s Egyptian).

Hmmmm . . . Ok – I’m actually feeling a full blown post coming out of this one . . . maybe it’s time to quit writing and cool down a little before my brain cramps up. Sorry you had to witness this horrendous little mental workout.  Hopefully it was more painful for me than it was for you. I’ll leave you in suspense on what happened to the trees until next time.  Hmm … is it carbs or protein that’s best after a mental workout?

The haunting of Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordanians rally in support of Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking News . . .

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

Please pray and act for peace.