Monday, February 26, 2007

Witness discusses W. Bank

Monday, February 26, 2007

By Michael Woyton Poughkeepsie Journal

Last year, Paula Silbey was invited up to the roof of a home in Israel's West Bank by a Palestinian family. Neither she nor the family were fluent in the other's language so she taught the children how to dance. Suddenly the flat roof was illuminated by klieg lights from a nearby Israeli guard tower. "They had seen us doing the Mexican hat dance, which was very, very sinister," Silbey said, with a small laugh.

The Woodstock resident was talking and showing photographs Sunday afternoon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the City of Poughkeepsie. The subjects were her two trips in 2006 to the West Bank.

She spoke passionately about the people she met and the circumstances under which they live - the Israeli occupation of their homeland. While she was living in Haris, which is in the Salfit region, and working under the auspices of the International Women's Peace Service, Silbey helped Palestinian families harvest olives so they could make oil. Some groves of trees had not been tended for years.

Sympathizes with citizens

"It's very dangerous for the families," she said, because of the constant threat from the Israeli military. Among the slides Silbey showed were a few taken Thanksgiving Day. A man stood on top of a pile of concrete and rebar. The Palestinian had saved for 15 years to build his house. A month earlier, he received a notice from the Israeli government his home was slated to be demolished.
"The reason?" Silbey said. "It is illegal to build or renovate a home on Palestinian land unless you have a permit, and it's next to impossible to get a permit."

While in the West Bank, she saw check points erected at a moment's notice, delaying Palestinians and foreigners alike. One trip to Jerusalem, which should have taken only 45 minutes, lasted five hours, Silbey said. It makes it almost impossible for the Palestinians to hold down jobs or go to school, she said.

There were also pictures of children smiling and happy. "It's hard to grow up with the military in your face," Silbey said. "But they are the hope for the future."

Pine Bush resident Susan Fodor lived in Israel for 20 years. She thought Silbey's presentation was good, though one-sided. Fodor said she has an Arab friend living there. "We know what hell he goes through," she said. "What about the cafe that was blown up?" That has to stop before a real peace can be realized, she said.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Far away? Not far enough.

Perhaps it wasn't her stories as much as the film. Feryal Abu Haikal, a headmistress at a girls' school in Hebron and guest this weekend at a church in New Paltz, told of trying to shepherd her young students to school through groups of the rock throwing settlers. But the film showed the settlers kicking and taunting the young girls and heaving rocks at them. One ten your old was hit in the face while Israeli soldiers stood by laughing.

Far away? Not far enough. Many of the settlers are from Brooklyn. The money for the illegal settlements on Palestinian land comes from right wing extremist religious groups in the United States, both Christian and Jewish. The soldiers' weapons, their jeeps and the bulldozers they use on Palestinian homes are all paid for by US tax dollars. UN resolutions against this racism have been routinely vetoed by our government. Our politicians, heavily financed by these extremist groups, pass resolution after resolution supporting Israel. And our national media completes the hometown support for throwing rocks at little kids. Palestinian suffering is always hidden from the American people.

Israel wants to remove millions of Palestinians from the West Bank and replace them with Jewish settlers, a recipe for endless bloodshed in the Middle East. But American support is key; it just couldn't happen without us.

So the next time a US politicians heaps praise on Israel, ask them who they are working for, extremist groups who fund them or US citizens.


Fred Nagel
Rhinebeck

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

New Paltz Times, February 15, 2007

The basement of the New Paltz United Methodist Church was filled to standing room only last Friday night as people gathered to hear two Palestinian human rights activists explain the on-the-ground reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza, places familiar to most Americans as parenthetical mentions on the evening news.

Yet a recent poll of Middle Eastern folks from several countries identified the tensions between Israel and Palestine as a most pressing concern; without resolution there, say the locals, there is unlikely to be true peace anywhere. And the issue is an emotionally charged one for many- witness the reaction to former president Jimmy Carter's book in which he dared to assert that Israel might not be blameless.

"Good turnout," I remark to Sheila Finan, coordinator for a local group entitled Middle East Crisis Response that has sponsored the visit from Mohammed Khatib and Feryal Abu Haikal. "I think a lot of them are among the unconverted," she says under her breath. There is a sense of the forbidden here. Conservatives ask publicly where the Muslims are who condemn violence and endorse peace, yet in this packed hall, the New Paltz Times seems to be the lone media presence.

Pastor Dorothy Caldwell notes in her introduction that the congregation agreed to attempt to truly understand the situation in Bethlehem during Advent. "We realized we needed to grow, and then Sheila called offering this- how providential," she says wryly.

Finan explains that the Middle East Crisis Response group formed during last summer's bombing of Lebanon. "We decided we were in it for the long haul. People need information they are not getting, because peace needs to be based on real negotiation, respect for both sides, and for justice."

Haikal speaks first. She is recently retired from her post as headmistress of the Kortuba School for grades 1-10 in Hebron, one of the communities where the conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is most intense. The old city, she explains, existed before 3500 BC. During the 1980s, six Israeli settlements were established there- angular white apartment buildings, built atop what had been schools and markets. Those areas, now under Israeli control, are festering sores in the city's daily life- a street, for example, restricted to all-Israeli car traffic while Palestinian families who live there must walk some 300 meters to reach their homes. Citizens are challenged at checkpoints and stopped and frisked at whim.

Haikal illustrates her narrative with slides and video footage, and some of it is extremely hard to watch. Tensions between settlers and prior residents can and do boil over at the sites of ancient wonders; the biblical King David and Abraham both resided in Hebron. Stones are thrown and people bleed, often, including Haikal's own daughter. Life has become horribly difficult; the comparison that comes to mind is the world Anne Frank described under Nazi occupation, or perhaps life in a maximum security prison. At least some of the settlers and those who come to visit the settlements are amped up and ready to make trouble; clashes and arrests, shouts and screams and blood, are the stuff of daily life.

Haikal's work with children lends her anecdotes a poignant flavor. "I asked a visitor (to the settlements) what if her child were to play with Arabic children. The answer was, 'I'd kill her.'" Yet after the ugliness, after the clashes, the children are set as free as possible, to pick flowers and decorate walls with their brightly colored handprints. "We learn our kids to love, not hate," she says. "Here is a painting of my son's- see, the darkness goes away. It's a hope. We hope to be better than now." The video ends dramatically, with an unidentified human palm covering the lens. "Many things happen when they attack us," says Haikal calmly, accustomed to tourists who shout, "There is no Palestine- Israel is our land- Kill Arabs!" as casually as Americans might cheer on a football team.

Khatib is a leading member of the Popular Council of Bil'in, another West Bank community that's been under the gun. Israel has been building a wall there, with American dollars; Khatib compares it to a snake. "It's about taking land, but they say it is about security," he says. The wall is currently 600 kilometers long, incorporating barbed wire and electric fencing; in many places it is five or six meters from Palestinian homes. "We asked that they build the wall at the Green Line (the 1967-established border) if they had to build it, but it is 11 kilometers farther in," he explains. "It is planned for even farther in. The map of the West Bank will look like Swiss Cheese after that. We will be in ghettos." The settlers, Khatib says, control the lives of every Palestinian in Hebron, and have been promised by the Israeli Housing Ministry that they will be 150,000 strong by the year 2020. The eight-story high rise buildings pockmark the landscape like a NIMBY's worst nightmare.

Faced with these realities, some of the citizens of Hebron have opted for Ghandian tactics. "We find symbolic ways to show this," says Khatib, showing slides of figures in winding sheets hanging from the Å’Apartheid Wall,' Moslems praying in the sand at the feet of an armed soldier, marchers with their mouths symbolically taped shut. Such zoning codes and civilian law as had been agreed upon have long since been overrun; hundred-year-old olive trees have been uprooted despite activists chaining themselves to the trees and reading poetry. "Had you come as guests, we would show you the trees our forefathers planted," notes one. Encounters between Israeli soldiers and members of the Popular Committee Against the Wall, as captured in Khatib's video, have a strange tone of blended familiarity and contempt. The soldiers don't seem to be enjoying their duty, especially when it includes firing on a demonstration being carried out by the wheelchair-bound citizens. "You don't look good here and it's all on film," observes someone.

"We are not against anyone because they're black, white, Jewish, or anything else," says Khatib. "We are against the occupation. We are trying to convince them what they are doing there is wrong. International law gives us the right to forcefully resist. But we want to break the cycle of violence. People think this is a war between two armies, and that is completely untrue. It is between military and civilians, occupiers and occupied. We want to show it as it is. Our demonstrations get infiltrated by undercover agents who start throwing stones, giving the soldiers an excuse to shoot. Stones are indeed a traditional method in Palestinian culture, but we don't use them because nobody wants to be hurt or beaten or injured. And if we use force, we are Å’terrorists'."

A break is taken before the question and answer period, and some of the crowd disperses. Thirty or so stay to talk, and they have very specific questions. What, asks someone, does Hamas have to say about the nonviolent resistance? Well, Hamas leaders have joined in some demonstrations. Is it true that in some places, Palestinians are being impressed as virtual slave labor? Not exactly, Khatib explains- it's more like the age-old company town setup, where people are given a paycheck with no place to spend it except the company store, as a true local economy is verboten. The boundaries agreed to in 1967 would be just fine, and the brand-new alliance governing Palestine has been acknowledged by several countries. "We hope that the American government will also respect Palestinian democracy and this agreement," says Khatib. He and Haikal will be visiting twenty-three US towns, spreading the word wherever they are welcome, hoping to make some friends and spread some understanding.

"Where do you get your courage?" Pastor Caldwell wanted to know. "It's in my heart, from God," said Haikal. "I was born under the occupation," said Khatib. "I want peace for my children- it is for them, not for me."

It's oft said that every story has at least three sides: her side, his side, and the truth, to borrow an old line from family court. More information on the nitty-gritty of what is perhaps the key to resolving the Gordian knot of world peace may be had at www.mideastcrisis.org or www.bilin-village.org.

www.bilin-village.org