Bill Attacking Free Speech on Palestine/Israel Now in SC Senate

SC State Rep. Alan Clemmons recently smeared the liberal Jewish peace group J Street as “anti-Semitic”, an extreme opinion that was widely panned.  But the SC House recently passed a bill sponsored Clemmons that would enshrine the same kind of smear tactics into SC law.  H.3643  invokes a controversial and vague State Department definition of anti-semitism to smear and  silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel on campuses in South Carolina.  Language in the bill referencing a “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?” fact sheet is a direct attack on First Amendment protected political speech and intentionally blurs the line to conflate and equate legitimate viewpoints on Palestine/Israel with anti-Semitism, a backdoor form of censorship.  We’ve challenged the bill in both House and Senate subcommittees; both mostly ignored our concerns and rubber stamped the bill without discussion.  However, the bill was blocked in the last session by Senator Brad Hutto.  Now there is a rush now to get the bill passed with the new session in January of 2018.

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Columbia, Jan 8, 5 pm – Mideast Peace Committee Meeting

Hour-long organizing meeting on Palestine/Israel. With the recent UN Security Council vote condemning illegal Israeli settlements, and Trump’s evident rightward shift, it is time to get organized and vocal for peace based on justice for Palestinians and Israelis. Come early for the meeting, stay for the Carolina Peace potluck at 6PM afterwards: Continue reading “Columbia, Jan 8, 5 pm – Mideast Peace Committee Meeting”

A Kibbutz Next to Gaza

The kibbutz, an agricultural collective where all property is held in common, is a uniquely Israeli expression of a  strong Jewish tradition of socialism and labor-leftism, one that has attracted Jews and other idealists to Palestine/Israel throughout the twentieth century.  We found this tradition alive and well when we visited Kibbutz Zikkim.   Originally founded by Romanian Jewish immigrants in 1949, this commune of 150 adults has persisted in a day and age when the kibbutzim are dwindling with more and more of them going bankrupt or privatizing.   Consisting of a dairy farm, avocado and sabra (prickly pear) cultivation, a foam paneling factory and good schools that attract students from outside the kibbutz, the kibbutz has adapted to survive to provide a life outside of the capitalist system for its like-minded members who are paid equally for their work.  One person attracted to this lifestyle was an American we spoke with who came to the kibbutz in late ‘60s whose left of center viewpoint, in his words, represented “95% of what 95% of people” on the kibbutz thought.

 

Situated one the outskirts of Sderot in southern Israel just north of Gaza Strip,  Kibbutz Zikkim has found itself on the frontline of the Gaza crisis.  Located near a main powerplant on the coast, whose smokestacks loom overhead, and due south of the city of Ashkelon,  the kibbutz is in the direct line of fire from rocket attacks launched from the northern Gaza Strip aimed particularly at the enticing target of the powerplant.   According to our hosts, one thousand rockets had been launched in the area in the preceding nine years, with thirty actually hitting the kibbutz randomly killing a few cows but also, in one incident, injuring two small children.  Yet, the kibbutz has not turned to hating their neighbors in Gaza, despite the threat of rockets.  “I’ve found the Palestinian people to be warm and hard-working,” observed our American host.  From 1949 through 2000,  befriended and worked alongside Palestinian neighbors from Gaza.  But now the situation has turned.  “We can’t visit them, they can’t visit us.  We’ve sent them money [to help them out survive under the siege conditions].”  Rather than blaming the common people, our Israeli-American host blamed “stupid politicians,” Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and the world community, for perpetuating the Gaza crisis.  But our host went further, now as an Israeli criticizing Israeli society,  “We are responsible for what we do… Israelis don’t realize how strong we are…  The stronger [party] in the conflict must take the first step.”  Before taking a short tour of the kibbutz, our American host closed by urging us emphatically, “If you want to do one thing for peace, support President Barack Obama holding both sides accountable.”

 

The Bethlehem Ghetto

 

Bethlehem, a short 15 minute drive from Jerusalem, is a city penned in by the occupation.  Entering the city, you pass through a checkpoint and giant gate in the separation barrier, sometimes called the apartheid wall, a true wall here with concrete slabs rising 30 feet tall topped by barbed wire.  Bethlehem is completely surrounded on all four sides by this barrier, and a ring of Israeli settlements; ingress/egress to the city in completely controlled at checkpoints where as few as 1% of Bethlehem’s population of Palestinian Christians and Muslims get permits to leave.  Ironically, those that do get permits face excruciatingly long and unnecessary waits traveling through checkpoints. Thus, Bethlehemites, a population that used to work, shop, and worship in Jerusalem is cut off,  from the outside world, ghettoizing the population and leaving the economy in shambles.  Even worse, Bethlehem has lost 85% of its land, mostly agricultural land, to Israeli confiscation and settlements.  And the ring is getting tighter: Israeli settlements scattered on hilltops to the east of the Bethlehem are expanding with the building of the “Lieberman Road,” a settler bypass road named after right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman who lives in one of these settlements.  Few industries remain; tourism, the lifeblood of the  local economy, though still present has dwindled with the deliberate discouragement of the Iaraeli government, who characterize the area as “dangerous” due to Palestinian control.   Tourist traffic is comparatively low, and vendors bark dirt-cheap prices on olivewood carvings and keffiiyehs with persistence, and perhaps a reserved  desperation,  near the bullet-scarred stone walls of the ancient Church of the Nativity, the main attraction in Bethlehem.   With few jobs and little opportunity, many Bethlehemites are choosing to emigrate, particularly the rapidly shrinking Christian population.  For more on Bethlehem, please see a recent National Geographic cover story on the Middle East’s disappearing Christian population.

To Exist Is To Resist

Dheisheh refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem, packs a population of 11,000 in a few square miles.  Populated by Palestinians who were driven out  and lost their homes with the creation of Israel, the camp is a jig-saw puzzle of haphazard grey concrete buildings, rising slowly to multistory structures as families add a story to make space for each new generation.  Tufts of steel rebar sprout from flat roofs and walls and many buildings stand incomplete as works in progress.  Many refugees spent the winter of 1948, camping with what few supplies they had, after being driven from or fleeing their homes, hoping to return to their villages when hostilities had ended.  However, Israel did not honor the right of return for refugees, wanting a Jewish dominated state and possession of the refugees’ lands.  Israel accordingly demolished some 500 Palestinian villages within the area of its conquest in the 1948  War to erase the claim of these refugees.

 

 Unable to return home, the refugees gathered in squatter tent camps, many, as with Dheisheh, just past the Greenline armistice line outside of newly created Israel.  Under the supervision of UNRWA, a newly created UN Refugee Works Administration, tents gave way to the first concrete houses, UN funded schools and relief.  Despite UNRWA’s assistance, the Palestinians of Dheisheh have faced grim circumstances.  Under the occupation, unemployment runs at 65%, the highest in the West Bank and rivaling Gaza, and poverty with all its socio-economic implications is rampant..  Israeli supplied water flows only twice a week, requiring hoarding seen in large black water tanks clustered on the flat roofs of Palestinian homes.  While we were visiting Dheisheh the water had run out for a full week; the previous year, sewage had seeped into the water supply rendering undrinkable for at least a month. 

 

Walking through the winding alleys,  we saw bashful children standing in doorways and  not so bashful children playing in the street,  old bleached, curled remnants of martyr posters were still pasted on some walls, but it was the prominent martyr paintings and “Palestine” graffiti that caught our eyes.  During the second Intifada, Dheisheh, whose residents had lost so much to Israel, became its fiercest resisters in armed struggle.  The Israeli response was severe, invading the camp and searching house to house, punching through walls instead of entering through doors and traumatizing families.  Some twenty multistory homes were demolished by Israelis as “homes to terrorists” despite the fact that made dozens of innocents homeless and only further radicalized those affected.  Nearly everyone in the camp knows someone who was killed during the Second Intifada and many of  the camp’s men have served lengthy terms in Israeli military prison without trial.  Post-traumatic stress would be rampant, if the trauma could be categorized as post rather than ongoing.

 

Yet, Dheisheh’s residents have held on, remembering their heritage and identifying themselves as being from their home villages.  Instead of agonizing, they have organized.   Lacking any community space, they pooled their together their meager resources and built the Phoenix Community Center, a place now that plays host to weddings, dance troupes, educational facilities and summer camps.  Today, just persisting or being steadfast- sumud in Arabic- is their main way of resisting Israeli military rule that is so hostile to their living an everyday life.

Jerusalem: To Share or Not to Share?

 

 

For our first day on the ground, our delegation tackled one of the central and most emotional issues at the core of peace -making between Israelis and Palestinians: Jerusalem.  Both Israelis and Palestinians have a strong emotional connection to this holy city for the 3 Abrahamaic faiths.   But it would be a mistake to simply pigeon-hole the conflict over Jerusalem as a petty squabble over holy sites; rather, it is a nationalistic contest for control of the Jerusalem as their capital city.  Since1948, the UN’s plan to keep Jerusalem as an international city open to all failed miserably.   Fierce fighting between Zionists and Arab forces, divided Jerusalem in two in 1948, rendering a Jewish West Jerusalem and a Jordanian-controlled Arab East Jerusalem.  Wealthy Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem were  summarily emptied of their inhabitants to be replaced by Jewish denizens, as was pointed out by our guide on our bus trip into Jerusalem upon our arrival.  However, despite their drive for Jerusalem Zionist forces failed to capture the Old City, home to the holiest sites.  The Old City and East Jerusalem remained an Arab populated and controlled city… until 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem and finally laid claim to the Old City, and the West Bank and Gaza to boot.    While most peace advocates agree that a shared Jerusalem, with Israel maintaining a capital in West Jerusalem and Palestine maintaining a capital in East Jerusalem and negotiated management of Old City holy sites precious to Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Israeli policies since 1967 have not moved in that direction.  As explained in a morning  briefing from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions),  Israel “annexed” the whole of Jerusalem in 1969, declaring it the “indivisible and eternal” Jewish capital, a change which the international community has not recognized, and embarked on a set of actions to change the character  Arab-populated East Jerusalem.  For one, the boundaries of this new united Jerusalem were carefully chosen to deliver Maximum Land, Minimum Arabs.  Open and sparsely populated spaces far to the East fell within the new boundaries; however, traditional Arab neighborhoods often found themselves divided our outside the newly gerrymandered city limits.  Zoning was then implemented to strictly constrain the development of Arab neighborhoods, much of the open land being designated “green zones.”   However, instead of reserving this green zones as nature preserves, its seems these green zones became home to several  Israeli Jewish settlements, illegal population transfers under international law.   While Jewish population growth was encouraged, the Palestinian Arab population of East Jerusalem found themselves under increasingly discriminatory and onerous restrictions through zoning and permit requirements.  In fact, it became exceedingly rare for Israel to issue  very expensive building  permits for Arabs… while many technocratic reasons were given, the gross disparity indicates the true reason for the denial of these building permits was a discriminatory policy towards Jerusalems Arab population.  The result has been a severe housing shortage, driving  the price beyond the reach of some Arab citizens  of Jerusalem and putting heavy economic pressure on the rest.   One of Israel’s cruelest policies to displace the Arab population is home demolitions.  We circled the hillside around the Silwan neighborhood (named for the ancient pools of Siloam) that the Israelis call the city of David.   Under the pretext of archaeological excavation, some seventy homes in this Arab neighborhood have been placed under demolition order.  Again, the disparity between illegal Israeli settlements encouraged by the Israeli government and illegal Palestinian Arab homes that are built anyway for the lack of issued permits shows a grossly discriminating policy.  Luckily, US diplomatic pressure has given a temporary stay for these homes, but it is uncertain how long this will last.

To make a peace where Israel and Palestine share Jerusalem will require the world community to confront these policies, specifically the settlements which seem to have become “facts on the ground” to divide and fragment an Arab East Jerusalem.  Fortuitously, the Obama administration has taken a strong stand against settlements, including  in East Jerusalem.  Despite calling on Israel to enforce a settlements freeze, the Netanyahu regime in Israel has thumbed its nose at Obama’s challenge, most recently declaring several new settlement projects in East Jerusalem, most recently 20 units in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood.  Increasingly, pro-Israeli media have become more shrill on the issue (just Google settlements).  Just last Monday a settlers group held a protest at the Israeli Knesset (slandering Obama as antisemitic) and settler youth have taken the offensive creating some twenty new illegal outposts.   Obama is right on this issue and it is critical that we support him on this one and not buckle the rabidness and controversy-stirring of the pro-Israeli right.

 

 

 

The Longest Day

I finally arrived in DC on Saturday for orientation, albeit a few hours late to finally meet the rest of our delegation.  The next morning we prepared with final workshops and briefs before taking to the skies.  After a short Metro trip and connecting flight to Altanta, we boarded our 777 bound non-stop for Tel Aviv, departing at 10:35PM and arriving at 5pm local time…. that’s a ten-hour flight plus seven-hour time difference.  Cramped in a middle seat, I couldn’t catch a wink of sleep. despite my best efforts to bore myself with the touch-screen in front of me.   Upon entry at Ben Gurion, one of our delegation was singled out for extra questioning and taken aside; we waited as a group for 3 hours before most of us loaded onto the bus for our hour-long ride  to Jerusalem, dinner and our hotel.  The rest who had stayed behind waiting at the airport, includinng two Jewish-Americans eventually arrived at 2am… having everyone finally reunited was a sight for sore eyes the next morning.

 

Two Days Before the Plane ‘Cross the Big Pond

Packing, packing, packing…… then driving, driving, driving to DC.  Checking camera software, breaking out the battery charger, digging out khaki pants… no shorts, not modest in the Mideast… my next post will be from “across the pond.”

To find out more about Interfaith Peacebuilders, go to www.interfaithpeacebuilders.org