Category Archives: Refugees

Faith Floods the Desert: Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime

IMG_4568.jpgI’ve just returned from a weekend at the border in the southern Arizona desert where I participated in a delegation of 60 faith leaders from around the country in an initiative called “Faith Floods the Desert,” supporting the of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. It was a powerful and at times overwhelming experience. I’ll try to do my best to do it justice here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, No More Deaths is an organization that provides humanitarian relief to migrants, mobilizes search and rescue operations for disappeared migrants, and documents how border enforcement pushes migration into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. “Faith Floods the Desert” was an initiative sponsored jointly between NMD, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association in response to the increasing criminalization of migrant relief work by the US government.

Earlier this year Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by US Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing a federal felony charge and eight other No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the US-Mexico border. (Warren’s arrest is particularly suspicious as it occurred eight hours after NMD released a video of border police dumping water and destroying supplies left by relief workers.)

Our delegation gathered last Saturday in Ajo, AZ, a small former copper mining town located 40 miles north of the US/Mexico border. While the majority of clergy were UU ministers, I was honored to be a part of a five-person rabbinical cohort (with my colleagues Rabbis Margaret Holub, Ari Lev Fonari, Shahar Colt and Salem Pearce). On our first full day, we attended a briefing with leaders and volunteers from NMD, who explained the history and context of the crisis at the border. For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend their report, “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement is Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.” Among other things, the report does a thorough job of describing how the US Border Patrol adopted an enforcement strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” in 1994 – the same year that the US signed the NAFTA treaty.  As the report notes:

With the implementation of this policy, the Border Patrol sought to control the Southwest border by heightening the risks associated with unauthorized entry. To do so, the agency concentrated enforcement and infrastructure to reroute migration away from urban ports of entry and into wilderness areas. By pushing traffic into remote and hostile terrain, the agency speculated that border crossers would now find themselves “in mortal danger” when attempting to enter the US without authorization. The increased danger was intended to then deter other people from considering the journey, with the overall goal of preventing migration….

As a consequence of Prevention Through Deterrence, thousands of people have perished in the borderlands due to dehydration, heat-related illness, exposure, and other preventable environmental causes. Extreme heat and bitter cold, scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue are used as weapons of border enforcement.

In other words, the US government is responsible for the policy that is knowingly causing the migration of immigrants into “remote and hostile terrain” – as well as the policy that sends the border patrol to literally hunt them down. And now our government is actually arresting those who are trying to keep them alive.

On Saturday evening, our delegation gathered in the Ajo town plaza for a press conference. I was particularly moved by the remarks of Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

We need to recognize that this system of criminalization and cruelty is devastating the lives of children and parents and families here at the border, all over the world, and also in the interior of the United States. These same mechanisms of criminalization are aimed not just at migrants and activists, but they are aimed at the poor, they are aimed at communities of color, they are aimed at people with mental health issues. Everywhere, criminalization is undermining human rights and civil rights here in the United States. Those of us who identify as Americans lose some of our humanity when we allow this to continue.

In my remarks, I made a similar point, connecting the criminalization of relief work at the border with the very same phenomenon in Gaza and Palestine:

I can’t help but be mindful of the fact that just last week there was a boat that was taking humanitarian goods to Gaza that was intercepted by the Israeli navy. The volunteer workers on board were brutalized, incarcerated and ultimately deported. This is the same work that we are doing, ultimately and I think it’s very important for all of us to understand that what’s going on here at the border is going on in Gaza and too many places around the world. As we stand in solidarity here, we need to be mindful that we are standing in solidarity in so many other ways as well.

On Sunday morning, our delegation was split into two groups. One went south to distribute water via the Devils Highway – a well-known and infamous road extending through some of the most remote and desolate regions of the Sonaran Desert. Our group traveled to the Charlie Bell Road, a trail in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge along the Growler Mountain Range. Both of these are among the few entrances to West Desert that are open to the public.

Our group of 20 consisted of faith leaders, media and NMD medics and EMTs and we traveled into Charlie Bell in four trucks. Because our action was well publicized beforehand, we fully expected to encounter law enforcement and as it turned out, several officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stopped us at the entrance to see our entrance permits (picture below). They also asked to see the ID’s of everyone who was is the lead car. Although it was not entirely a surprise, volunteers from NMD told us this was the first time any of them had been stopped by the “Fish Cops” at the entrance to the refuge.

The day quickly became blisteringly hot – by noon it was already 110 degrees. We walked carrying two to three gallons of water each approximately one and a half miles down the trail along the mountain range. When we arrived at a well marked with a beacon and flag, we wrote messages of hope and solidarity on our plastic jugs of water and set them down. Afterwards, several of us distributed additional bottles at another site close by.

This well, by the way, is not intended for use by human beings – it was constructed by the nature preserve to water a nearby trough for wildlife (picture below). As we peered inside, we could see that the water inside was dirty and mossy, clearly unfit for human consumption. The irony did not need to be pointed out to any of us: those who maintain this area provide water for animals – while water left for human beings is confiscated and destroyed.

We also saw clear signs in the vicinity that migrants had passed through. Among them: slippers made out of carpet worn over shoes to hide their tracks and a wrapper of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico (pictures below). The evidence of the presence of migrants was not hard to find and it all seemed fairly familiar to our NMD guides.

All in all, we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in the open desert, traveling on foot approximately 3.5 miles. The final 1/2 mile was uphill and though I made a point of hydrating constantly, the heat was constant and overpowering. (It was so hot, in fact, that the glue on the bottom of my shoes literally melted the soles off of my feet.)  I cannot begin to comprehend how migrants to walk 80 to 100 miles through such extreme terrain and hostile conditions – and I cannot consider it anything but a sacrilege that our government knowingly drives human beings into a region such as this under the guise of “deterrence.”

In the evening, we attended a monthly memorial vigil in the Ajo town plaza for migrants who perished in the West Desert region. The majority of names spoken aloud were  “Desconocido” (“Unknown”). According to NMD, at least 128 bodies were recovered just last year, including 57 in the desert where we focused our action. Many of them will never be identified. And many more will continue to remain undiscovered in the wilderness in areas that are inaccessible to relief workers.

At the end of our stay, my colleague Rabbi Ari Lev Fonari wrote the following on his Facebook page:

What I know to be true:

1. Water is life.

2. Migration is an organic part of life, a human right and a tactic of survival.

3. The border is an unnatural divide generating industry and environmental harm.

4. People have been crossing dangerous deserts by the light of the moon seeking safety and freedom, hunted by the state and sustained by their faith, for as long as human beings have been alive.

Ari Lev speaks my head and my heart. I’ve visited several militarized borders now – and I am more convinced than ever that they serve no other purpose than to shore up the power and profit of those who design, construct and maintain them. Now more than ever we must fight for a world without borders, for a world where freedom of movement over our shared earth is respected and honored.

In the meantime, however, we must reckon with the world as it currently is: a world in which nations hunt down those who dare to cross these unnatural lines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. A world in which governments criminalize those who offer migrants life-saving relief and assistance. A world in which the powerful assume no one will ultimately care about the humanity they deem disposable.

In the end, it will be up to all of us to prove them wrong.

I’m deeply grateful to those in the UUA and UUSC for convening this delegation, the volunteers of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, whose work taught us simple but powerful lessons about the discipline of human decency, and the wonderful people of Ajo who opened their community and their homes to us.

Please support the work of No More Deaths by signing this letter to the land managers of the West Desert, demanding that they “acknowledge the gravity and severity of the humanitarian crisis occurring on the lands (they) steward, and take immediate action to protect the lives and dignity of all people on these lands by upholding the right to receive and provide humanitarian aid.”

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Lunch at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church, Ajo, AZ

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Fish and Wildlife officers at the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge (photo: Ari Lev Fonari)

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Feeding trough that provides water to wildlife in the Cabeza refuge

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Carpet slippers worn by migrants to cover their tracks.

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Rabbi Salem Pearce, holding a used packet of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico .

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day

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Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Passover in Gaza

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Based on Exodus 14:1 – 11

they encamped at the edge
of the buffer zone
no pillar of cloud no pillar of fire
only the burning of their hearts
and a dream of return

pharaoh said do not worry
we’ve trapped them in the land
locked them inside the desert
now let us harden our hearts
that they may truly know
who is the lord

so they harnessed their chariots
amassed along the border
snipers took their positions
while officers and generals
waited to give the command

when their sacred day came
the people began their march
lifting their eyes
they could almost see their homes
just a few kilometers and
a lifetime away

when the order came down
the angel of death was unleashed
bullets hit bodies and
a pillar of tear gas descended
on the people as they
cried out to the lord

after the sun set
we sat down to our meal
but when the time came to
open the door of redemption
we were too caught up
in the joy of our song
to hear their voices:

Is it for want of graves
that you leave us here to die
in the desert?

Quakers, Jews and Israel’s BDS Blacklist

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AFSC volunteer Evan Jones meeting with Palestinian refugees, 1949 (photo: AFSC)

Cross-posted with Acting in Faith.

Last Sunday, Israel revealed their list of 20 social justice groups from around the world it was henceforth banning from the country because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For me, the list represented more than just another news item of the day. As staff person for one organization included on the list – the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) – this news struck home personally as well as professionally

As a rabbi who works for AFSC, I’m proud of the important historical connections between Jewish community and this venerable Quaker organization. As the US Holocaust Memorial Museum itself has noted, AFSC was at the forefront of efforts to help and rescue Jewish refugees after 1938, “ assisting individuals and families in need… helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States.”

The USHM has also acknowledged that “the AFSC helped thousands of people in the United States transfer small amounts of money to loved ones in French concentration camps (and helped) hundreds of children, including Jewish refugees and the children of Spanish Republicans, come to the United States under the care of the US Committee for the Care of European Children in 1941–42.”

AFSC became involved with a different group of refugees – the Palestinians – several years later. At the end of 1948, while military hostilities in Palestine were still raging, the UN asked the AFSC to help spearhead the relief effort in Gaza, which was rapidly filling up with Palestinian refugees. Historian Nancy Gallagher has noted refugee relief was not the ultimate goal of their work in Gaza – rather, they “had accepted the invitation to participate in the relief effort with the expectation of assisting in the repatriation and reconciliation process.” (from “Quakers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Dilemmas of Humanitarian Activism,” p. 97)

In March 1949, AFSC Executive Secretary Clarence Pickett offered a six-point plan to solve the refugee problem, urging “a substantial repatriation of Arabs into the State of Israel.” (p. 103) However, when it became clear that there was no international will for a political solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, AFSC formally stated that it wished to withdraw from Gaza, stating that “prolonged direct relief…militates against a swift political settlement of the problem.” (p. 104)

I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. In a recent article for Tablet, for instance, Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, made the spurious accusation that AFSC “has gone from saving Jews to vilifying them,” claiming that AFSC’s experience in Gaza convinced them to “get out of the relief business altogether” in order to promote “progressive Israel-hatred.”

In light of such invective, it’s not surprising to learn that Romirowsky and Jaffe are both professionally connected to the Middle East Forum – a notoriously Islamophobic radical right organization led by Daniel Pipes that has been categorized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beyond the nasty rhetoric however, it bears noting that AFSC has never been solely a relief organization. From its inception 100 years ago in the wake of WW I, it has consistently promoted reconciliation and repatriation alongside direct service to peacefully address conflicts around the world. AFSC’s work in Gaza was/is no exception.

Romirowsky and Jaffe further reveal their prejudiced agenda when they suggest that Palestinian refugees only wanted “to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared.” In fact, the AFSC’s refugee relief efforts in Gaza took place while Palestinians were actively being driven from their homes and were being housed in hastily constructed refugee camps. It is patently outrageous to suggest that they were motivated by anything other than their desire to return to their homes. Under such circumstances, it was not at all unreasonable for the AFSC to advocate for their return and repatriation.

In their article Romirowsky and Jaffe also parrot the Israeli government’s accusation that the BDS movement is “opposed to Israel’s existence.” What they refer to as “the BDS movement” is in fact a response to a call issued by a wide coalition of Palestinian unions, political parties, refugee networks, women’s organizations, professional associations, popular resistance committees and other Palestinian civil society bodies in 2005. The BDS call is a crie de cour from Palestinians to the world to use this time honored nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to meet three essential demands:

  • To end the occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantle the separation wall;
  • to recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;
  • and to respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Although BDS is an inherently nonviolent tactic, it is striking to note the lengths to which the government of Israel has devoted time, energy and resources in trying to defeat it over the past decade. It has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to this effort, enlisted a myriad of Israel advocacy organizations and has even created a new government ministry devoted exclusively to fighting BDS. And though demands of the BDS call are based in human rights and international law, it is routinely referred to as antisemitic “economic terrorism” that “delegitimizes the state of Israel.” The blacklist of organizations is thus only the latest in a long line of draconian, non-democratic responses to this rapidly growing non-violent resistance movement.

As such, AFSC’s support of BDS is fully in keeping with its 100-year-old mission. As their recent organizational statement put it:

All people, including Palestinians, have a right to live in safety and peace and have their human rights respected. For 51 years, Israel has denied Palestinians in the occupied territories their fundamental human rights, in defiance of international law. While Israeli Jews enjoy full civil and political rights, prosperity, and relative security, Palestinians under Israeli control enjoy few or none of those rights or privileges.

The Palestinian BDS call aims at changing this situation, asking the international community to use proven nonviolent social change tactics until equality, freedom from occupation, and recognition of refugees’ right to return are realized. AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel affirm each of these rights. Thus, we have joined others around the world in responding to the Palestinian-led BDS call.  As Palestinians seek to realize their rights and end Israeli oppression, what are the alternatives left to them if we deny them such options?

Quakers pioneered the use of boycotts when they helped lead the “Free Produce Movement,” a boycott of goods produced using slave labor during the 1800s. AFSC has a long history of supporting economic activism, which we view as an appeal to conscience, aimed at raising awareness among those complicit in harmful practices, and as an effective tactic for removing structural support for oppression.

This past October I traveled with other AFSC staff people to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, for meetings with our staff there. Yes, our efforts in Israel/Palestine still continue. While we do not yet know this latest action will impact our work, we are well aware that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been denied entry into the land of their ancestors for decades. The AFSC, like the other organizations on Israel’s odious list, know that peace can only come to this land when the essential injustice that occurred 70 years ago is justly addressed, and the human rights of all are recognized and respected.

This Hanukkah, Light a Candle for Gaza

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Palestinian children do their homework during a power cut in an impoverished area in Gaza City, on September 11, 2017. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images)

Cross-posted with Truthout.

The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish priestly family from the Hasmonean dynasty, over the Seleucid Empire in 2nd century BCE. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees entered the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and attempted to relight the menorah, there was only enough oil for one day. But when they lit the fire, a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight full days.

What’s the meaning of this simple parable? Some say that the image of increasing light is appropriate to the dark winter season — a time in which many religious traditions celebrate festivals by kindling lights. Others say that this story underscores a powerful political/spiritual truth: Even in the bleakest of times, an oppressed people will somehow find the strength to continue the struggle.

When I light my Hanukkah candles this year, I plan to light an extra one each night for Gaza.

This year marks 10 years since Israel commenced its blockade of Gaza, turning this 140-square-mile strip of land into a virtual open-air prison. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead — a devastating military assault that killed 1,419 (including at least 308 children), wounded over 5,000 more and left more than 20,000 homeless. (The name of the operation, perversely enough, was a reference to a children’s Hanukkah song based on a poem by Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik: “My teacher gave a dreidel to me/A dreidel of cast lead.”)

Two months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). My visit left me with a myriad of impressions and emotions, foremost of which was a sense of awe at the ability of Palestinian Gazans to live with resilience and dignity under the most oppressive of conditions.

This is, of course, not to minimize their trauma nor to tokenize them as victims. A recent, presumably well-meaning article in Ha’aretz did precisely that, interviewing a volunteer psychologist for Physicians for Human Rights, who portrayed Palestinians in Gaza as overwhelmingly obsessed with sex and addicted to behavior-altering drugs. The psychologist claimed that due to Gaza’s devastating conditions, many Palestinians have “lost their humanity” and are unable to “see the other, his pain.” In an important rejoinder to the article, Palestinian activist Nada Elia responded pointedly:

I do not want to minimise the severity of daily life in Gaza. I am someone who has insisted the siege be recognised as genocidal. Nevertheless, I am appalled at the callousness of the interviewer as she asks for an elaboration of how people in Gaza have lost their “internal morality,” their very “humanity”.

I saw a great deal of humanity during my short stay in Gaza. I traveled there to participate in strategic planning meetings with AFSC staff colleagues, to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah, with our Gaza staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us traveled to Gaza to meet with our two full-time staff members there: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on public achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestine Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation — particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt, of course, by the youth of Gaza, who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140-square-mile strip of land.

American Friends Service Committee staff with youth from their Gaza program. (Photo courtesy of Brant Rosen)

AFSC staff with participants from the Palestine Youth Together for Change program

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was 18 years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically with the experiences of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather, it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not merely a youth service project; its ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard, this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance”: initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention; and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade. The latter program, “Gaza Unlocked,” seeks to educate the public about the reality of the blockade by sharing the stories — and the humanity — of the people who live there.

Here’s a sample of their testimonies:

College graduate Fidaa Zaanin, 27:

This is life. We should not give up. I will maintain my humanity and my dreams despite the siege. I believe in change, if not immediate then with time. I will be an example for my brothers and my sisters and whoever dreams of a future, for they are my hope for the future.

Freelance photographer Ezz Al Zanoon, 24:

We reject the images of us that are being shown to the world. We are humans. We are proud of our humanity. We are proud of our achievements despite the difficult circumstances. No one can achieve what we have done. Despite the blockade, the wars, the structured destructions, we continue to live and fight for a dignified life. We fight against the imposed restrictions, being triggered by our desire for life.

NGO project coordinator Shareef Hamad, 34:

I must challenge this situation. I don’t have any choice. This affects our daily lives and our emotional well-being. We are under all this pressure.

What inspires me is the faith that this situation is not eternal. I can change it or its consequences. I can at least limit its impact on me and those I love. According to history, no oppression lasts forever. This nation deserves better.

During our final night in Gaza, my colleagues and I walked through the streets of Gaza City on our way back from dinner. Because Gaza only receives four hours of electricity a day, the street lights and home windows around us were dark. The only light came from beachfront hotels that had their own generators. We were well aware that we were staying in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. But to paraphrase Shareef Hamad, I am inspired by the faith that no darkness is eternal.

During Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of light that sustains us even when the world is at its darkest. This Hanukkah, I’ll be lighting a candle for Gaza.

Seaside Memory in Gaza

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Memorials take many forms – some are grand and iconic like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC while others exude power through their very simplicity.

Here’s an example of the latter category:

During my trip Gaza last month, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches placed along the beachfront as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City. As we drove by, I noticed that some benches were empty; on another, a sole person sat gazing out to sea and another was filled with what seemed like an entire family. My AFSC colleague Ali Albari noted the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town that was forcibly depopulated by Zionist militias in 1948/49.

The majority of the almost 2,000,000 residents of Gaza are in fact, refugees – Palestinians who had originally lived in the central and northern regions of the country. After their dispossession they were herded into refugee camps in Gaza, fully expecting to return to their homes after the armistice. Now, almost seventy years later, they are still waiting.

It’s not difficult to grasp their sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Clearly, they have not forgotten.

Unlike most memorials, which commemorate that which was lost and never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their homes to be lost to them at all. On the contrary, I these benches testify to their faith that they will one day return.

(Thanks to Ali Albari for translating.)

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Safad (Safed)

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Jenin

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Hifa’ (Haifa)

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Bir Saba’ (Be’er Sheva)

 

Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

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Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six of us spent two days in Gaza, hosted by the two full-time members of the Gaza staff: Ali Abdel Bari and Firas Ramlawi.

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AFSC Israel/Palestine staff meeting in Ramallah (with Ali and Firas joining us from Gaza via Skype).

It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.

Quakers have a long history in Israel/Palestine – dating back to before the founding of the state of Israel. The Ramallah Friends School for Girls was founded in 1889, and their School for Boys in 1901. The two schools subsequently merged into one; now well into the 21st century Ramallah Friends remains a important and venerable Palestinian educational institution. (The former head of the school Joyce Aljouny, was recently appointed AFSC’s General Secretary.)

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, immediately following Israel’s founding and the start of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. Their efforts continued until the United Nations Relief Works Agency started its operations there a year later. Since that time, AFSC has retained its programmatic presence throughout the Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Up until relatively recently, AFSC’s Palestine youth program focused largely on Public Achievement, seeking to strengthen the civic ties of youth to their communities. Our current program, Palestinian Youth Together for Change (PYTC) is a more ambitious project, working to combat Palestinian geographical, social and cultural fragmentation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s difficult to overestimate the devastating impact of this fragmentation – particularly on Palestinian youth who are growing up with increasing separation from one another. This isolation is most keenly felt of course, by the youth of Gaza who are literally imprisoned by Israel inside a small 140 square mile strip of land.

When we met the Gazan youth who participated in the PYTC program, they spoke powerfully about their experiences growing up with a strong sense of Palestinian identity while isolated from their peers in Israel and the West Bank. This particularly hit home for me when I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings with her fellow participants. She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.” Needless to say, this contrasted dramatically from the experience of her West Bank peers, who encountered Israeli soldiers as a very real, everyday presence in the streets and at checkpoints.

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With current participants of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program.

It’s also important to bear in mind that this isolation is not a “humanitarian” issue that can be fully addressed by greater NGO and civil society investment. Rather it is the result of very real and very intentional policies promulgated by Israel to purposefully divide and weaken Palestinian society. By the same token, the PYTC program is not a merely a youth service project – it’s ultimate goal is to strengthen Palestinian identity in order to counter the brutal and unjust occupation of their people. In this regard this program is connected in important ways to AFSC programs in the US that promote “co-resistance:” initiatives that support the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, advocate for Palestinian children held by Israel in military detention and educate the public about the devastating costs of the Gaza blockade.

There’s so much more I could write about my experiences in Gaza. As I prepare now to head back to the States, I’m struggling to give voice the myriad of emotions that are flooding through me. At the moment, I’m thinking particularly of Ali and Firas, our Gaza staff members, who were not only gracious and wonderful hosts (although they were entirely that); but also talented and visionary organizers who teach us a great deal about how to do this work effectively in the most extreme of circumstances.

Even under the brutality of Israel’s blockade, we could not help but be struck by the beauty of this place and the dignity of its people and culture (which includes, I hasten to add, the deliciousness of its cuisine). As it happened, our visit occurred immediately after the beginning of reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by the Egyptian government. Most of the Gazans we spoke to expressed a guarded sense of hope that it might result in some easement of the blockade – particularly in regards to freedom of movement, drinkable water and electrical service. Of course this optimism occurs within a constant context of isolation and vulnerability. The next Israeli military assault is altogether possible at any moment – and every Gazan must contend with this horrible reality every moment of every day.

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Left to right: AFSC staff Jennifer Bing, Lucy Duncan, Erin Polley, Brant Rosen, Mati Gomis-Perez, Aura Kanegis and Firas Ramlawi. Kneeling: Ali Abdel Bari

I’ve posted below some additional pictures (and one video clip) of memorable moments from our visit. My staff colleagues will be writing more about these moments and I will be sure to share their posts here. For now, I’ll end on a note of gratitude: to AFSC for giving me the opportunity to participate in this sacred work; to our gracious hosts in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza; and to my US staff colleagues who are true travel companions in more ways than one.

I took the picture at the top of this post during our final hours in Gaza. As we debriefed on a beautiful morning over coffee at a seaside cafe, three young boys who likely should have been in madrassa came down to the beach to hang out and have fun together. The loveliness of the moment was both very real and very illusory. There was no mistaking the beauty of the place and people with whom we were sharing this moment. At the same time, however, we were aware that we were in the affluent tourist part of town and that we were privileged enough to soon be leaving Gaza to travel without restriction. We were also well aware that not far from the place these boys were standing, Ismail Mohammed Bakr (9), Zakaria Ahed Bakr (10), Ahed Atef Bakr (10) and Mohamed Ramez Bakr (11) were murdered by Israeli naval fire while they played soccer on the beach on July 16, 2014.

There can be no illusions where Gaza is concerned. As I leave for home, I’m more convinced than ever that we are all complicit in this cruelty – and that we are the ones who must end it.

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The almost mile-long corridor between the Erez Crossing in Israel and the entrance into Gaza.

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Our meeting with the Gazan Fishermen’s Union. Ali translates the presentations of Zakaria Bakr – chair of the union and uncle of the murdered Bakr boys (Center), and Amjad Shrafi, President of the union (Right). Below: video from our morning excursion with Gazan fishermen:

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At the Rafah crossing, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt.