Bethlehem: Hidden from Sight

I passed through Bethlehem fairly routinely
during my time in Palestine. A bustling city, it's anything but still or peaceful, and far removed from my childhood imaginations. I'd occasionally see tourists in Bethlehem, usually outside of the Church of the Nativity (Jesus' birthplace). We seemed to be on different planets. Maybe it's just that I was inevitably coming from some sort of activism and they were on vacation. But I feel our disconnect was more substantial than our plans for the day. I often had the eerie sense that Palestine was invisible to tourists; that it was hidden from sight.

I could start in Manger Square, outside of the Church of the Nativity, which is a swirl of tour groups, cameras and foreign languages. The tour buses barely fit on narrow cobblestone streets. There is an informational display there, telling about land confiscation and the plight of Bethlehem. It largely goes unnoticed.

At the edges of Manger Square are the tourist shops, going out of business since Israeli settlements started making deals with the tour companies. Behind the church are the forgotten olivewood carving shops, displaying ornate nativity sets and crucifixes. A thin film of sawdust hangs in the air. They’ve been hid hard by increased competition from Israeli settlements. It always seemed like a secret section of town, behind the church. Hidden from sight.

Bethlehem is on a steep hill. Downhill from Manger Square is the village of Beit Sahour (the infamous “Shepherds’ Fields”, though this title is greatly disputed), and beyond that, the dry flat farmland at the edge of the Jordan Valley.

Just 2 kilometers north, along next ridge over, is a dense forest of four-story homes: the illegal Har Homa settlement. Har Homa was once Abu Ghneim mountain, a pine forest owned by Palestinian villages including Beit Sahour. Israel illegally annexed the mountain in 1967 and for 30 years used the forest as part of its’ deceptive “green space” zonings. Under these zoning laws, Palestinians lose access to land annexed to Jerusalem and cannot legally build on privately owned lots.

In 1997, Israel began clearing Abu Ghneim of trees to make way for Har Homa, in which roughly 20,000 Israeli settlers now live. Then-Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice stated in 2007, “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning." In November 2010, Israel announced plans to build 1000 additional housing units in Har Homa.

Uphill from Manger Square… well, the rest of this story is about what you can find uphill (mostly west and a little north) from the Church of the Nativity. Most immediately, chaos.

Along narrow cobblestone streets, shopkeepers display backpacks, jeans, hijab in wild patterns. Vendors fill the streets, pushing wheeled carts laden with boiling vats of salted beans, smoky peanut-roasting contraptions, and kenafe (a ludicrously sweet dessert sold from pans the size of coffee tables).

Nearby is the dimly-lit vegetable market, dusty and echoing with cries of “Khiyar! Khiyar! Khiyar!” and “Batinjan! A’arba shekel b’kilo!” It is here that teenage boys once offered me a ride in a shopping cart, laughing hysterically and racing the carts on (or rather, through) the market’s deep sawdust floor.

Continuing uphill beyond the vendors in traditional store-front businesses are newer parts of town. Bethlehem is a bustling city; a marketplace for the central West Bank and home to many a Western-esque shopping center.

Once while waiting for a friend on a crowded street corner, I watched a young boy selling goldfish out of a rectangular tank. The massive glass box, with magnified orange fish swimming nervously inside, was precariously balanced on milk crates, just a foot or two from vehicle traffic and in severe danger of being knocked by a rushed pedestrian.

Bethlehem is a center, and I mostly knew it as a place I needed to be to get somewhere else. We’d take a service (taxi-van) to Bethlehem from Ramallah and then walk or catch a taxi up the brutally steep Manger Street to the up-ridge village of Beit Jala. It was here that Israel has deigned to put the wall through a family’s front yard, and I spent two tragic rainy mornings watching bulldozer jaws munch centuries-old olive trees and a pink plastic playground. The wall (now built), separates the family’s house from Road #60, a highway which connects settlements in the West Bank.

During my time in the West Bank, Palestinian buses could drive on Highway 60, however this hasn’t always been the case. Travel is sometimes limited to Israeli settlers, as with many modern, well-paved and direct routes through the West Bank. Unequal access to highways and roads is commonly listed as an example of apartheid in practice. Palestinian access to Highway 60 can be cut off at any point.

From Beit Jala, one could (finally) reach the hill’s summit and catch the 1960’s decrepit bus to al Walaja, a farming village just 3 miles from Bethlehem. The village originally existed in a slightly different location, and all 1600 residents were forced to flee in 1948. Some 100 villagers began a “new al Walaja” nearby; the current village.

Located on the northwest-facing slope of Bethlehem’s giant hill, this is the village that is currently being walled off from its own farmland. Bulldozers are now (as of December 22) destroying a natural spring and Palestinian cemetery to make way for the wall. An Israeli checkpoint will control access in and out of al Walaja (to Bethlehem even).

The city of Jerusalem, clearly visible from the village’s steep north-facing sides, is off-limits to al Walaja residents. Although roughly half of the village’s land falls within Jerusalem Municipal boundaries, the people of al Walaja are considered West Bank residents and are denied entry to their capital city. In fact, over 45 houses built within the village have been demolished for “illegal construction”, according to East Jerusalem permit laws, although the village’s residents cannot apply for permits without East Jerusalem residency status.

In between Beit Jala and al Walaja is Har Gilo, an illegal settlement built partially on al Walaja land. Plans for further settlement construction threaten up to 60% more of remaining village land. There are currently 13 hotels under construction in Har Gilo, undoubtedly for tourists headed to Bethlehem.

South of al Walaja is one of the two checkpoints controlling access from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, “Tunnels checkpoint”. “Tunnels” is an apt name for the checkpoint terminal on Highway 60 (previously mentioned), which utilizes a number of tunnels to avoid crossing through Palestinian land, and in fact obscures the sight of West Bank villages. Tunnels are a frequently-used manner of segregating settlers from Palestinians. Hidden from sight.

Internationals could (inexplicably) cross through Tunnels checkpoint on certain Sundays. The only way to find out if this was such a Sunday was to take the bus to the checkpoint, possibly be turned back, and have to hitchhike to the center of Bethlehem for a trek north to the second checkpoint. Sometimes we’d have luck getting through on other days of the week; my impression is that “arbitrary” is the intentional law of the land at checkpoints.

Our willingness to test Tunnels was due to the location of the second checkpoint to Jerusalem, “Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint”. From the center of Bethlehem, one had to take a taxi or walk (as cash-strapped ISM volunteers generally opted to do) for a good 30-40 minutes north out of the city. To be honest, these images are the ones that come to mind when I picture Bethlehem. The walk to “Rachel’s” stretches on, past litter-strewn lots and run-down falafel shops and out-of-place glossy markets presumably hoping for tourist traffic.

The road runs past Aida refugee camp, home to refugees of the 1948 forced expulsions. Some are even part of the estimated 90-95% of original al Walaja residents who were displaced. According to the UN, Aida’s more than 4700 residents have been squeezed into just .27 square miles. Unemployment has reached 43%. Aida is the only refugee camp I visited; we gathered there for a meeting once. Concrete walls lining the camp’s roadways are covered in murals. I remember seeing a map with historic Palestine, labeled with Palestinian cities this camp’s residents haven’t visited for 62 years. Jaffa. Haifa. Lydd.

Past Aida, a large wall meets the roadway. Towering 25 feet overhead, entire city blocks fall under its shadow in the afternoon. The wall has separated Bethlehem-region farmers from over 3,700 acres of farmland. Its top is lined with razor wire, in which plastic bags have snagged to form streamers of sorts. The wall is covered in handiwork. Quotes, names, graffiti. Giant wheat-paste pictures of people laughing. Murals stretching for 6 or 8 slabs of concrete. The wall is downhill from the road; from a block uphill you can see the scabs of settlements covering Jerusalem’s eastern slopes like clear-cuts in Washington forests. And beyond those settlements, a city practically nobody in Bethlehem can visit.

The wall wraps on forever. It seems I was always walking frantically, trying to catch the last bus to Jerusalem waiting on the checkpoint’s far side for a night shift in Sheikh Jarrah. The effect of walking briskly is to make the wall’s images seem like a film, like a steady stream of nonsensical expressions of anger and humor and the absurd. Someone had written “And Jesus wept” again and again at one part.

At another part, a mural depicts a clear-cut forest. In the midst of an expanse of tree stumps was a high circular wall, and within that wall was a Christmas tree bedecked with ornaments and a large star, branches protecting heaps of wrapped presents.

Beyond the faces and punctuation and Christmas tree mural is a 90 degree bend in the wall, which has collected in its corner a cluster of taxi drivers waiting for customers and a few vendors hawking watermelons and tomatoes. From here, a two-laned walkway runs right, parallel to the wall. The walkway is narrow; lined with wire grating. In morning rush-hour traffic, as the West Bank’s residents attempt to reach jobs in East Jerusalem or Israel, the line is backed up to the end of this chute.

The chute runs along the wall for good 300 yards. Then one passes soldiers behind bulletproof glass, who we could usually run past without being stopped, on virtue of our white skin. Then it’s through a series of concrete switchbacks lined with CCTV cameras; waiting for a series of turnstiles to turn; to take off one’s shoes and go through a metal detector; to wait for more turnstiles; to show one’s passport to another soldier behind bulletproof glass (again, they hardly cared about us); and then, at long last, we’d emerge on the Jerusalem side and, with any luck, catch the 124 bus into Jerusalem.

Tour buses coming from the Church of the Nativity, incidentally, pass though the wall on a different roadway. Tourists leaving Bethlehem never see Rachel’s checkpoint or Aida refugee camp; they’d have to be paying good attention to even notice the wall. Soldiers enter the tour buses to check passports and, without even having to disembark, tourists are on their way into Jerusalem.

My memories of Bethlehem are different than those of most tourists. When I picture Bethlehem, at best I remember a boy with goldfish and joking teenagers wheeling shopping-cart-taxi-services. At worst, I think of settlements built on top of forests; a wall trampling ancient olive groves and a children’s playground; refugee camps housing thousands of the West Bank’s most destitute; and a checkpoint system cutting Palestinians off from their capital city.

A typical Church of the Nativity tourist would approach Bethlehem via Highway 60 and a series of tunnels which obscure Palestinian villages. On a packaged tour, they would likely visit Gilo settlement to buy souvenirs and possibly stay at deluxe hotels run by Israeli settlers. Tourists disembark their tour buses outside of the Church of the Nativity, immediately re-board upon exiting, and re-enter Gilo or Israel without ever knowingly passing through a checkpoint or possibly even noticing the wall.

According to Khouloud Daibes, Palestinian tourism minister, two-thirds of tourists stay in Bethlehem for less than 2 hours, and the West Bank receives just 5% of tourism revenues. It’s estimated that between 15-30% of foreign tourists sleep in Bethlehem hotels. The rest patronize hotels in Israeli settlements or within Israel proper.

Although Bethlehem is technically in the West Bank, Palestine has been stripped from the tourist experience. The occupation is hidden from them, but so are the crowded marketplaces, opportunities to meet Palestinian shopkeepers and olivewood carvers, to capture even a small sense of where Bethlehem is. The Bethlehem region contains one of the highest percentages of Palestinian Christians, and their plight and culture are obscured from Christian visitors to the Holy Land.

A tourist could easily take a trip to Bethlehem without ever meeting a Palestinian. A typical Bethlehem tourist doesn’t even see many Palestinians.

Palestine is hidden from sight.

Five Months Later

Wednesday was a significant day for me; in that way that we create significance out of peculiar things. Wednesday marked a passage of time. After spending five months in Palestine, I’ve now spent five out.

It has been five months of processing; grieving; remembering and also forgetting. It has taken me five months to grasp even the slightest bit of perspective what I saw, to even begin to articulate what I experienced.

For months, a noise in the nighttime would send me frantically searching for my passport and preparing for soldiers’ weapons to peek around the doorframe. Even now, as the initial shock has faded and trauma (and bones) have healed, there are days when Palestine grabs me by the ankles and refuses to let go.

Much of what I carry are stories. Returning to a place that knows and understands little of what I saw has been a challenge. In response to innocent but uninformed questions; eagerness to see my scarred arm, I long for the chance to describe my experiences in more than three-minute conversations. This hunger to be heard drove me first to written word. In five manic weeks during August and September, I wrote many of my most burdensome and immediate memories in a series of short essays. These were self-published as a short book.

With a suitcase full of books, I left the northwest by train in October. Over 600 people heard these stories in October and November, as a part of the “Missing Headlines” speaking tour. The wonderfully diverse range of events took me to college classes in Flagstaff, churches in Oklahoma, and a living room gathering of friends in upstate New York (among numerous others).

Long after I’d lost any sense of horror at many of my recollections, their indignity was validated in the riveted audiences. So often I drew strength to continue speaking from the inevitable tear-stained faces, the horrified gasps.

Once I heard on NPR that the first time we remember or recount an experience, we re-live it. Our brain actually believes the event is happening again. If we continue to tell the story, it becomes increasingly removed from our actual memory. Eventually, we rely on our accounts of what happened instead of the memory itself.

In this way, I have told the stories away from myself. I’ve built a buffer of words from the trauma and crush of blinding tragedy. It took an unassuming crowd to cut through this distancing, and a startling moment of honesty to bring reality rushing back.

The day after Halloween, I spoke about Palestine to a group of sixth graders. We were in Austin, Texas. They dressed in red and blue uniforms, all 70 of them, and crowded around lunch tables. The cafeteria lady swept pretzel sticks and dust clods from under our feet.

Playing it safe, I open cautiously. “How many of you went trick-or-treating yesterday?” 70 wriggling hands snap into the air.

“How many of you had awesome costumes?” Again, 70 synchronized hands.

“Um… ok. How many of you have heard of a place called Palestine?” A few arms raise slowly. Their hands bend like question marks.

“Right. So… well, I lived there. For a while, actually. Before I tell you about it, does anyone have any questions about Palestine? Like, what I saw, or what it’s like there?” Just moments before, I spoke to ninth-graders whose initial questions were wildly off-target. I’m prepared for anything from my sugar-fueled pre-adolescents. A curly-headed kid in the front row immediately raises his hand; dances his fingers eagerly.

“How did this war start,” he asks, staring solemnly, “And who’s fault is it?”

“How is it gonna end?” demands a girl perched at the end of a cafeteria bench. Inquisitive eyes focus on me from every seat.

This crowd wants answers, so I click to the first slide. “These kids are Muna and Mohammad. They’re about your age, actually. They live in…um…in the craziest house in the world.”

“There are laws that protect everyone on the planet,” I explain. When those laws are broken, Palestinians lose their land. They get attacked just for having marches, and soldiers stop Palestinians at checkpoints, even if they need medical care.

Thirty minutes later, we’re back to questions. I’ve covered a vast span of geo-politics in spark-note-form, gambling that they would absorb concepts as well as my blood-soaked pictures and scarred arm.

A surprising number of hands jockey to be called on, and I pick an earnest boy two tables back.

“Well, what I wanna know is,” he begins, with a face twisted in confusion, “why do the soldiers, like, stop moms from having their babies at the hospital?”

Of the two-dozen times I’ve presented, of the countless days I’ve recounted stories or debated statistics in informal settings, no moment has been more potent than the Austin schoolboy’s question. He ripped open my outrage and disbelief at what passes as daily life in Palestine; challenged my own complacency and distance from the statistics I share. What is it about youth? With startling precision, those students exposed the core of my experience.

Bizarre and disturbing suffering, which no person can explain with logic or reason. It doesn’t make sense.

Although time and story-telling have healed much of my trauma, certain memories remain. These residual chunks recently snapped into context when a friend shared the words of Ernest Hemmingway. “To understand is to forgive,” he writes.

Upon hearing this, I was immediately flooded with the faces; the images; the stories that I just can’t understand. When the boy in Austin asks, “Why do they stop the moms?”, my dull silence is this—I do not understand; I honestly do not know.

For all of my storytelling, there are some memories of which I have never spoken. Images I return to in dreams, or late into sleepless nights. Perhaps the specifics are not what matters. I cannot articulate the precise manner that some of this transpired; can never in ten thousand years explain for you the nuanced ways in which suffering was visited upon my friends and upon strangers whom I shared cramped spaces with. Certain events seem to have shackled themselves to me, and these are the ones which have had the most profound impact.

I can reflect on my life now; on its striking unfamiliarity to life before. When people ask how long I’ve been back, I tell them five months. In reality, there is no “back”. Four days after Emily was shot, before she had left the hospital, I flipped through my notebook and came to comments written the day before everything collapsed in our world. They seemed to be written by a different person (just five days prior); a friend I once had, maybe. Someone gone from the world.

All ISM activists experience this to some degree. We leave Palestine on buses and then airplanes, which take us to the country listed on our passport. We do not “return” to our homes, because the selves we brought to Palestine were left in the olive grove or city sidewalk where we first witnessed inexplicable evil; where we met anguish beyond what a lifetime supply of words could describe.

In many ways I have finally found the space to understand and contextualize much of what I saw. With time comes perspective. The truth is that much of what I saw was raw suffering. What I saw was brought about by United States foreign policy.

Five months away from Palestine, five months removed from these experiences, I wish I could offer hope, or a logical explanation. I wish I could write from a place of distanced reflection. Instead, I can only share the confusion and horrified shock of Austin sixth-graders. What I speak of, what I witnessed, are gratuitous and systematic breaches of fundamental human rights. What I speak of, it just doesn’t make sense

Update #11 : Returning Home

Dear friends,

It has been some time since I’ve had the space and composure to write coherently. For many weeks, the gap between my experiences and the ability to write about them was simply too far to span.

I returned to the U.S. on Saturday, and finally am finding the space to process the events of the past five months. I hope to write several more pieces in the coming weeks, and I’d like to continue sending them to this list, hoping that I am not overstaying my welcome in your inbox.

Perhaps you belong to a group of some kind which would like to host a Palestine-related speaker. In the next few months I will gladly speak to any interested audience in Washington and Oregon, where I’ll be based for the time being. In the fall, I’m considering a tour to different regions of the US and possibly Canada.

If you are interested in hosting a Palestine-related speaking engagement anywhere in the US, please contact me at This could include college, church or book groups, school classes, peace and justice organizations, a collection of friends in your living room, etc. I understand that these emails now reach a wide audience (far beyond what I could have imagined), and I want to make it clear that anyone reading this email is invited and should feel encouraged to host an event if interested.

As always, I recommend reading The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan and viewingOccupation 101 and Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land, both available


Returning home

I’m sitting on the 18 bus to Jerusalem, bored and exhausted. It’s only been a couple of days since Emily left the hospital and flew home; media for her and the flotilla has hungrily snatched every ounce of energy for too long now. Robin calls, he sounds wearily devastated. “I have some bad news”.

“Bad news” in Palestine is an infinite possibility. I have been the bearer of bad news too many times now, as has Robin. The past ten days have been nothing but bad news. Hoping that nobody has been harmed, I take a steadying breath. “Ok”.

“Bassim just called.”

God. Bassim. The Tamimis. An Nabi Saleh.

An Nabi Saleh is a tiny village situated on an idyllic hilltop northwest of Ramallah. Primarily composed of the extended Tamimi family, blue eyes and blonde hair give an eastern European appearance to many villagers. Bassim’s home is located on the top of a ridge at the village’s southern edge, at the end of the road, with olive groves extending south and west. Barren rolling ridgelines continue to the south, square multi-story concrete houses and the mosque’s minaret are visible to the north, and a rude scab of identical suburb-esqe settlement houses glares from the eastern wall of the valley; built on Nabi Saleh farmland.

I recall slight apprehension as we piled out of the mini-bus and trudged up the gravel road before my first demonstration, but now we walk the short distance eagerly. Entering Bassim’s home, we are warmly welcomed. His blonde blue-eyed children peer curiously from behind grownups and the modern patterned couches. We chat and sip tea, appreciating the modest but spacious addition to their home in which we are seated. Built a few years ago, the new half of the house boasts an open kitchen and large sitting area, perfect for the crowds of demonstrators who gather each Friday. Nariman cooks up a proper feast for hungry activists, and aromas of fuul and fried eggplant waft promisingly as we discuss the week’s news and play with Bassim’s youngest son. Salaam is a four-year-old whirl of energy who tugs ponytails, brandishes plastic squirt guns and hides soccer balls in the fridge for our amusement. As we lounge, Bassim sternly instructs us every few minutes, “You are welcome in your home”.

Like many ISMers, Nabi Saleh is (not so) secretly my favorite village. The weekly demonstration, brutally repressed, often stretches from midday prayers until dark. This provides ample bonding time with the shabab (boys and young men) who put up a spirited resistance, and the families whose houses we stumble into, choking from gas and possibly being chased by soldiers, only to be served sweet tea in a comfy chair. When I was shot in Nabi Saleh, the effect was somewhat like becoming a minor celebrity. Months later, I find myself being made to show the scar every few minutes for another inquiring vaguely familiar Tamimi. A neighbor recently joked that the gravel road leading to Bassim’s house is now named “Ellen Street”.

Bassim and his family are undeniable leaders of the resistance. His home is the beginning and end of each demonstration for internationals, Israeli activists and reporters. Since the very beginning, I have feared the inevitable repercussions for his family’s involvement. On the nights we slept in his children’s beds, suspecting possible military raids to the village, I alternated between lying stiffly awake straining to hear the crunch of gravel under army jeep tires, and tormented dreams of M-16s and doors being beaten down. I am painfully aware of just how much I love Bassim’s family and the entire community of An Nabi Saleh.

On the 18 bus, Robin’s voice is far away. After all the “bad news” of the past days, what could possibly be piled on top?

“Bassim called a few minutes ago. He said Israeli soldiers came to his house this afternoon with a demolition order.”

Bassim’s land is in “Area C” of the West Bank; the some 60% of Palestinian land under full Israeli control. According to the Israeli human rights group Peace Now, 94% of Palestinian building permit requests for Area C are denied. Between the years 2000 and 2004, only 2-3 permits were issued per year to Area C landowners. Palestinians owning land in Area C are forced to build without a permit, living in daily fear of a demolition order. The demolition orders issued to ten homes in An Nabi Saleh are almost certainly a direct retaliation for the village’s weekly well-attended demonstration.

My last demonstration in An Nabi Saleh is a somber one. News of the demolition order hangs heavily in the threatened living room. It also happens to be the thirty-third anniversary of Fakhri Bargouthi’s imprisonment. After midday prayers we gather in the main square for a series of speeches in honor of Bargouthi and the village’s four other political prisoners serving life sentences. Bassim’s cousin has been in Israeli prison since 1993 (seventeen years). As the speeches in Arabic wind on, I reflect on the pain this village has endured in the ongoing loss of these men. Every village has its brothers, sons and fathers serving life sentences for resistance to the military occupation which aims to entirely suffocate what remains of Palestine. More than 6,300 Palestinians are currently in Israeli prisons. For such a tiny village to lose five men for life is a staggering burden to bear. The sacrifices Palestinians have made to continue the resistance are a solemn consideration.

Hours after the ceremony ends, we stagger back to Bassim’s house exhausted. The afternoon, like usual, featured a peaceful march towards the settlement-seized spring, only to result in extreme military violence. Tear gas canisters whizzed past us as we watched soldiers fire directly at the heads of teenage shabab guilty of shouting and throwing the occasional stone. Firing tear gas directly at the heads of demonstrators is potentially lethal and extremely illegal; it’s what claimed Emily’s eye. Soldiers seem to have few qualms about this practice however, and I myself have had too many close calls. After hours of running from soldiers, breathing in gas and frantically dashing into random houses only to be warmly welcomed and served tea and coffee, the demonstration ends and we walk back up the dirt road to be greeted by Salaam, face and hands smeared with sticky black juice from the massive tut tree outside his home. In plastic lawn chairs in Bassim’s garden, we savor a giant platter of watermelon as the stars re-emerge. A full moon watches us through thin layers of rain-less clouds.

When, too soon, it is time for goodbyes, I can scarcely bring myself to consider the gravity of leaving Palestine. When I return, Salaam will no longer run shrieking when I chase him growling and stomping my feet. Ursula will be married. The village will have seen endless Fridays, and known endless military violence. And what about Bassim’s house? I pause in the doorway, inhaling deeply. A familiar voice enters my mind, gently reminding me “you are welcome in your home”. This beautiful structure has been home, for myself and so many others.

Three weeks later, I am unpacking and readjusting to the freedoms of a country at the other end of the occupation. Inevitably, I consider the future and the possibility of brighter days for the people I hold so dear. Amidst the empty chatter of “peace talks” and one-or-two-state-solutions, I shelter in my mind an image of what a free Palestine would look like. What will it be? What does it mean?

It means Nasser Gawi moving from the Sheikh Jarrah sidewalk back into his home; the house he spends each day watching settlers enter. It means Palestinians freely accessing the Dome of the Rock, the holy site of which most can only dream. It means Fakhri Bargouthi and Bassim’s cousin returning to a village which has aged decades in their absence. It means walking up Ellen Street to find Bassim’s house like it should be, with chickens in the yard and smothering embraces whether you have been gone a week or a lifetime. A free Palestine means returning home.

For more more information:
Home demolitions in Area C:
Guardian article
Peace Now report

Footage of Friday's demonstration in An Nabi Saleh: Children respond to a raid of the village

Justice for Adeeb abu Rahma: Peaceful protest is not a crime

(Forwarded from Ellen)

The conflict between the Israeli military and security and the popular
non-violent Palestinian resistance is reaching a crisis in large
part a tribute to the worldwide credibility and admiration the
resistance is steadily winning.

Today in Palestine, such resistance is breaking out in larger towns,
small villages, and Bedouin encampments, in both Christian and Muslim
areas. People are marching, chanting and singing, carrying signs, and
often using very funny or touching street theatre. Palestinians are
calling for their rights, joined and assisted by international and
Israeli volunteers in a new model of friendship and brotherhood that
offers hope for the future.

This movement has terrified the Israeli establishment, especially as
the usual techniques have failed to stop its momentum. Arrests,
serious and crippling injuries, deaths, and destruction of property
(the ability to earn a living), have all made huge and painful inroads
into people¹s lives and hopes. Despite this, resistance continues.
Widespread sentiment is that this is the last chance, that no-one can
stop now if they ever wish to gain their freedom and the justice that
has been denied them.

A perfect symbol of this conflict is Adeeb Abu Rahma from Bil'in: one
of the most charismatic, courageous, creative and at times hilariously
funny activists.

Adeeb has been convicted for crimes of “incitement” that is, urging
the villagers to come out on Fridays to join the weekly protest and
for belonging to the Bil’in Popular Committee. These manufactured
“crimes” apply to all the leaders and most of the participants of all
the nonviolent movements in all the towns and villages of Palestine.
If they are determined by the Israeli military to be illegal in
Palestine, and a heavy sentence applied, then the entire resistance
movement is threatened. Which is, of course, the point.

Adeeb is due to be sentenced in a few days. International law
specifically recognizes the right of occupied people to resist
occupation that these people have chosen to do this in a nonviolent
way shows great wisdom and restraint. This choice should be welcomed
rather than criminalized by Israel if they have any intention of
living here in peace with their neighbors.

Join us to support Adeeb:
Please contact your Embassies and Consulates in Jerusalem to ask for
their help in preventing an act that will hurt both sides as they
search for a way to live together in peace.

Dear Ambassador/Consul,

I/we are writing to ask for your help in preventing a miscarriage of
justice in the case of Adeeb abu Rahma, who has been convicted in
military court of "incitement" (that is, encouraging people from his
village to take part in the weekly demonstrations against the illegal
wall that confiscates most of the village land), and of belonging to a
Popular Committee in his village of Bil'in.

Lengthy efforts to convict Adeeb of stone throwing or other violent
acts have failed, and so the government is attempting to criminalize
acts of non-violent resistance. Such resistance is clearly defined in
international law as being a legal right for anyone under occupation
(1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949,
and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed
Conflicts, Article 1, Paragraph 4).

When Israel was suffering from suicide bombing attacks, prominent
Israeli figures asked loudly and often, "Where is the Palestinian
Gandhi; where is a resistance that does not involve terror?" Now that
Israel faces such resistance, with leaders who are willing to talk to
them as equals, they are using every weapon at their disposal to
intimidate, discourage, wound and even kill both those who lead it and
the ordinary Palestinians who take part. Does Israel want to force
Palestinians back to a more violent path? This the time for Israel to
come to terms with the reality of Palestinian rights and needs, and to
begin to reason their way forward to a future where both peoples can
live in this land without fear of the other.

The case of Adeeb abu Rahma is a symbol of this struggle. Israel now
has a choice in his sentencing to send a signal that it wants to crush
nonviolent initiatives, or to find more creative and hopeful ways to
move toward the future. Adeeb has served over a year, with constantly
shifting charges, and should be released for time served, with an
apology and hopes for a better future.

Adeeb's daughter Raja:

We also ask your support for Adeeb¹s daughter, Raja. Though from a
simple family, Raja has won extremely high marks in the nationwide
high-school exam scores, and she is now studying medicine at Bir Zeit
University. Adeeb drives a taxi, and fees and other expenses would
never have been easy for him, but his beloved daughter¹s education has
always been his priority. Since his imprisonment, friends of Adeeb
have donated to allow Raja to continue her studies. She now needs
$1500 for next semester¹s fees, and we hope that supporters of Bil'in
and of Adeeb can help her to realize her dreams and those of her

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The Aftermath of the Flotilla

Anne Baltzer

Last night marked one week since Israel's attack in international waters on the Mavi Marmara Turkish humanitarian ship bound for Gaza, killing nine. One by one, the hundreds of witnesses aboard the vessels have been returning home to tell their stories after being stripped of any and all footage. By confiscating all non-military evidence of the incident, Israel has been able to successfully dominate the narrative, at least in the US where news of the attack had begun to dwindle by the time witnesses were released. One wonders, if Israel is conveying the whole story of what happened that night, why eliminate every single other piece of documentation? What does Israel have to hide?
According to hundreds of eyewitnesses, the Navy shot at the boat and threw tear gas and sound bombs before boarding the ship, and then hit the ground shooting. The videos released by Israel show those aboard the ship attacking soldiers with sticks. Israel claims that the deaths were an accident, that the soldiers were startled by the sticks and thus forced to shoot people to defend themselves.
Now let's put things into perspective. In 2005, the Israeli Army removed 8,000 ideological settlers from Gaza, many of them kicking and screaming with sticks and rocks in hand. The Army managed not to kill or even shoot a single one of them. Do sticks from Turks hurt more, or is it not about the sticks at all?
As Dr. Norman Finkelstein pointed out, Israeli officials met for an entire week prior to the flotilla to plan precisely what they intended to do. The Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren himself stated that the Mavi Marmara was simply "too large to stop with nonviolent means." It's hard to believe that this was an accident.
While the world focuses on the flotilla and Gaza, Israel's restrictions on Palestinian rights in the rest of Palestine continue to tighten. On Friday, soldiers surrounded the Old City in Jerusalem to prevent Muslim men from praying at Al-Aqsa mosque. Only those younger than 15 or older than 40 were allowed through. Hundreds of men gathered outside the metal bars installed by the Army around the city gates. Frustrated, many men sat down to wait to pray on the sidewalk, but soldiers on horseback pushed through the crowd, forcing the men to scatter.
It's important to note that many Palestinians wait for years to receive a permit to visit Jerusalem for just one day. Sometimes the permits are valid only for a few hours. I saw a woman in Beit Sahour whom I'd met in Syracuse last fall. She said it's easier for her to travel to New York than to go 10 miles away to Jerusalem. She said often permits are sent to the wrong village and families fall over themselves to get the permit to the right person in time, often failing. At the gates, some men argued with the soldiers, close to tears, not knowing if they would ever get another chance to realize a life-long dream of praying at their country's holiest site.
Eventually, hundreds of men began to gather next to the wall of the Old City and across the street. If they could not enter, they would pray as close as they could. As the call to prayer rang out (at least sound can overcome walls), a noticeable calm came over the space as they bowed down in unison. The soldiers stood over the group, some filming with cameras. In the middle of the group were an olive tree and a young child who stood by himself, watching.
When the prayers ended, those who hadn't brought prayer mats wiped the dirt off their foreheads and gathered with others across the street where an imam had started to speak. Lara, a Palestinian delegate in our group translated bits and pieces of what he said.
The sermon was about the importance of compassion and justice in Islam. There they were, being denied their religious freedom, and they were talking about compassion. The imam asked that their prayers be accepted even though they could not be in the house of God. At one point, he raised his finger and called out the following: "Someday, we will live in a place where it doesn't matter what color your skin is, or where you're from." With every sentence the group resounded in a collective "Amen."
After the prayers, hundreds of women and older men poured out, one of whom told me he'd seen a man beaten by the Army for calling out against Israel's attacks on the flotilla. This is likely precisely what the Army wanted to avoid by keeping Muslims from congregating at the mosque, and they had been largely successful, at least so they thought.
Just as I was turning to return to the hotel, I heard a chorus of women's voices coming from inside the city walls. Soon a large group of women emerged carrying a Turkish flag and singing out familiar calls for justice and praising those who gave their lives to free Gaza. The soldiers thought that keeping the men out would be enough, but they had underestimated the women.
Israel has also underestimated the international civilian community, which continues to speak out. Day and night, we watch protests around the world unfold one after another, seemingly stronger and larger by the day: Japan, Paris, India, Oslo, Australia, and beyond. This is being called "Israel's Kent State."
Far more significant than protests is the fact that worldwide disapproval has been transforming into concrete rejection of normalization with Israel, including major victories for the Palestinian movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on Israel until it complies with international law.
This past week, the student body at Evergreen College voted to divest from "Israel's illegal occupation." Before she was run over by Israeli soldiers in a US-made Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza, Rachel Corrie had attended Evergreen. Along with divesting, students have voted for a "Caterpillar free" campus. You can support the students by clicking here.
A week before the flotilla, Italy's largest supermarkets COOP and Nordiconad announced a boycott of the Israeli produce company, Carmel Agrexco. Four days later, Deutsche Bank (Germany's largest bank, worth more than $1 trillion) announced divestment from Elbit Systems, an Israeli firm that supplies technology for Israel's military, settlements, and Wall (as well as the Wall between the US and Mexico). Deutsche Bank was one of the company's largest shareholders.
The next day, it was announced that Sweden's largest national pension funds were also divesting from Elbit. (Norway did the same more than one year ago.) Going a step further, the Swedish Port Workers Union announced last Wednesday that it would temporarily stop handling Israeli cargo in response to the attacks on the flotilla.
On the same day, Britain's largest union, Unite, passed a unanimous motion "to vigorously promote a policy of divestment from Israeli companies" and to boycott Israeli goods and services as in "the boycott of South African goods during the era of apartheid."
Then yesterday, the Pixies canceled of their upcoming concert in Israel in response to Israel's attack on the flotilla. Musical artists Klaxons and Gorillaz canceled as well. This on the heels of cancelations by Santana, Gil Scott-Heron, Snoop Dog, Sting, and Elvis Costello.
These are but a few of the BDS victories that have happened just in the last month. The movement that officially began in 2005 crossed its first threshold in 2009 (having gained in four years the same momentum it took the BDS movement against South Africa 20 years to achieve), but 2010 has brought it to a new level.
Last month marked 62 years since 80% of the families in Gaza were displaced during Israel's creation, the Palestinian Nakba. And this week marks 43 years since Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Occupation has been in place 70% of Israel's life span so far. It is not temporary. And it is but one part of the problem. Along with Israel's discrimination against Palestinians within Israel's de-facto borders and outside historic Palestine, the Occupation will not be stopped voluntarily by Israel.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." I spoke with a member of Boycott from Within (Israelis supporting the Palestinian BDS Call) paraphrased a common phrase during the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa: We will bring them to their senses, or we will bring them to their knees. For Israel, as was the case for the South African Apartheid government, the former has simply never worked.

One week after the attack the blackout continues

Dear friends,

A week has now passed since the fateful day on which nine Turkish activists were killed as the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was violently and illegally attacked by Israeli forces in international waters. Our friend and colleague Emily Henochowicz was hit with an illegally fired tear gas canister the same day, necessitating the removal of her left eye and severely fracturing numerous bones in her face.

Information about the flotilla is widely scattered. Israel has waged a vicious war on information, first by disabling satellite communication as the boats were attacked; then by prohibiting injured activists from showing their wounds to media as they were escorted off the boats; then by detaining the other 600+ activists in the middle of the desert, denying them access to lawyers for over 24 hours; then by stripping them of all cameras, notebooks and all other possessions; then by continuing to detain 17 journalists... the list could go on forever.

Here are some basic facts which I wish were more widely publicized:

-- Autopsies of the dead show that over 30 bullets hit the nine bodies. 5 were hit in the back of the head; many bullets were fired from less than 50 cm.

-- Between four and six activists are still missing. Families fear they were thrown overboard or kidnapped.

-- The Israeli military has admitted to sabotaging boats and doctoring audio tapes

-- My friends are all ok, alhemduilieh, though physically and psychologically battered. Their boat, the Challenger 1, was violently raided and passengers, who were nonviolently trying to defend the boat, beaten bloody and handcuffed with bags over their heads. Huwaida Arraf speaks about it here on NPR.

-- Accusations that passengers used violence, specifically on the Mavi Marmara, are generally not being placed in the appropriate context. While the six boats were in international water, headed to Gaza on a humanitarian aid mission, the Israeli military decided an appropriate (and the best) response was for masked soldiers to rappel onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara from helicopters, in the dark, during morning prayers which many passengers were attending (and the rest were sleeping), and to shoot live ammunition wildly. Reports describe soldiers shooting a person holding a white flag and people who were sitting handcuffed; training laser sights on those trying to administer first aid, etc. Friends of mine, belonging to groups which specifically decided against using violence of any kind, were brutally battered. They emerged covered in bruises with harrowing tales; Angie with a broken nose. However, those who decided to resist using weapons such as kitchen knives and metal poles were entirely within their rights, being attacked in international water. Israel is the world's fourth largest military, and boarded the boats with semi- automatic assault rifles. Any attempt by the Israeli military to portray themselves as victims is shamelessly inaccurate.

I will save an update on Emily for the next email. For now, please visit her art blog: Here is a link to one of my favorite pieces, inspired by her first trip to Sheikh Jarrah.

Below are answers to some questions I received. Below that are links to further reading. I would like the next update to be a second question and answer, in light of the recent attention on Palestine and activism.

***Please, respond with questions you have related to current events or anything else.***


Questions I have received:

Why'd they attempt to run blockade?

The Gaza Freedom Flotilla is still attempting to break the blockade of Gaza in order to bring attention to the dire humanitarian crisis, and ultimately bring the blockade to an end. The Gaza strip is severely impoverished and economically devastated because of the siege. Amnesty International, Oxfam, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela are among those calling for its immediate end. The statistics are shocking: 45% of Gazans are unemployed, 60% lack food security and up to 80% live in conditions of poverty, according to information from Oxfam and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Although Israel claims Gaza is no longer occupied, it maintains a level of control which is absolutely devastating for Gazans. The amount of humanitarian aid allowed through checkpoints is a mere trickle of what is required for a decent quality of life. Operation Cast Lead destroyed thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and mosques, nearly none of which have been rebuilt since Israel does not permit building materials through the border. Furthermore, Israeli control of the Strip extends deep into the territory on all sides, with grave economic impacts. The “buffer zone”, permitted up to 50 meters from the border according to 1990 Oslo Accords, has now been extended from anywhere between 300 meters and 2 kilometers. Anyone entering this area for any reason is subject to “shoot to kill” policy. The result is a loss of over 30% of Gaza’s farmland, and some of its most arable. Farmers still risk their lives to farm here, because of the extremely dire economic and nutritional situation. Just last week, I published a report about six farmers who were severely injured with fire from artillery shells as they attempted to harvest their crops. The farmers were fired upon without warning, and at least two of the men were the sole income-earner for families of more than twenty. The fishing zone, twenty nautical miles under Olso, is now 1-3 nautical miles. The zone is gravely overfished, thousands of fishers attempt to earn an income in the narrow stretch of water every day, and fishermen are routinely fired upon. Between the end of Operation Cast Lead (January 2009) and the end of 2009, 166 attacks carried out by Israeli forces killed 37 and injured 69.

Regardless of one’s opinion about Hamas, it is clear that sanctions are not effective in overthrowing a governing body. Sanctions against Iraq in the 1990’s did little to check Saddam Hussein’s power, but killed over 500,000 children. Collective punishment is illegal under international law for good reason. It’s inhumane and ineffective in accomplishing anything but torturing a population. You or I may or may not agree with decisions our government makes, and may or may not have voted for the people in power, but it shouldn’t mean that we be denied medicine for our children, or concrete to rebuild the home which bombs destroyed.

Didn't Israel agree to let them pass if they came thru port of Ashdod and submitted to inspections for contraband arms? Why didnt they go that route?

By submitting the goods to Israel for inspection, the blockade is not being challenged. Hopefully I’ve satisfactorily explained why this is a necessary purpose. Furthermore, the goods on Flotilla boats were specifically necessities not permitted into Gaza by Israel. The list of items permitted is sadistically short. No argument about security can possibly be successfully levied against items like dried fruit and vinegar. The boats contained 10,000 tons of aid; composed of items which Israel denies Gaza such as hundreds of essential medicines, school supplies such as paper and pens, lentils, tomato paste, chocolate, electric wheelchairs (200 of the Flotilla’s 500 were specifically for victims of Cast Lead) and building materials to begin rebuilding Gaza nearly a year and a half after Cast Lead. The boats were inspected numerous times in their countries of origin, with documentation being made publicly available. If the Flotilla should stop at Ashdod to permit the Israeli government to remove such scandalous “contraband” as backpacks and macaroni, there really would be no point. As it stands, sufficient supply of aid to Gaza exists. Israel just doesn’t allow it in.

Isn't Egypt enforcing same blockade due to same problem with contraband arms from Iraq coming in via Gaza?

I am unfamiliar with this accusation. Egypt has historically enforced the blockade, although Rafah is the only crossing which is ever open and since the massacre, Egypt has agreed to freely open the border “until further notice”. Egypt receives the second highest amount of US aid annually, roughly $815 million (after Israel's $3 billion/year). Egypt's dependence on this aid generally prohibits it from acting independently of the US and Israel. Monday's massacre seems to have changed the country's willingness to be complicit in the siege however.

Aren't in fact food & power being allowed into Gaza?

I highly recommend this Oxfam press release on the humanitarian crisis, published 2 June in response to the massacre. Here's a quote: "Contrary to what the Israeli government states, the humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza is only a fraction of what is needed to answer the enormous needs of an exhausted population. For instance, Oxfam estimates that 631 trucks of humanitarian supplies were permitted entry into Gaza last week by the Israeli authorities. This constitutes only 22 percent of the weekly average (2,807 truckloads) that entered during the first five months of 2007, before Israel’s imposition of the blockade. Meanwhile, almost no exports have been allowed out of Gaza."

Are both Egypt & Israel wrong in trying to enforce sanctions & inspections to stem flow of arms to terrorist killing in their countries?

Yes. As I mentioned above, 1990's sanctions in Iraq killed over 500,000 children while leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
The fourth Geneva convention reads: Article 33. No protected person* may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Collective punishment is a war crime under international law.

Furthermore, although this is a much larger philosophical debate, Israel routinely commits acts of state-sponsored terrorism in the occupied territories. Here is an excerpt of a press release issued by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, regarding "Operation Cast Lead": "The magnitude of the harm to the population was unprecedented: 1,385 Palestinians were killed, 762 of whom did not take part in the hostilities. Of these, 318 were minors under age 18. More than 5,300 Palestinians were wounded, of them over 350 seriously so. Israel also caused enormous damage to residential dwellings, industrial buildings, agriculture and infrastructure for electricity, sanitation, water, and health, which was on the verge of collapse prior to the operation. According to UN figures, Israel destroyed more than 3,500 residential dwellings and 20,000 people were left homeless.
During the operation, Palestinians fired rockets and mortar shells at Israel, with the declared purpose of striking Israeli civilians. These attacks killed three Israeli civilians and one member of the Israeli security forces, and wounded dozens. Nine soldiers were killed within the Gaza Strip, four by friendly fire. More than 100 soldiers were wounded, one critically and 20 moderately to seriously"

These statistics alone demonstrate the grievous imbalance of power that leaves Gazans daily threatened by unprovoked acts of extreme aggression.

* A "protected person", according to Article 4 of the 4th Convention, includes any person who finds themselves under the control of an occupying power.

For further information:

Humanitarian crisis in Gaza:
"Monday’s tragedy is a direct result of the Israeli blockade on Gaza" Oxfam International, 2 June
"Suffocating Gaza", Amnesty International, 1 June

Survivor testimonies:
Sarah Colborne gives a press conference
"There was a lot of blood in the stairwells...", ">Sydney Morning Herald
Lubna Masarwa, Palestinian Israeli placed under house arrest

Flotilla information and news:

Emily's Blog
Pictures of soldiers recieving medical treatment on Mavi Marmara
B'Tselem press release about Operation Cast Lead

As always, Occupation 101 is available at

Murder in International Waters

Dear friends,

Your day, like mine ten hours ago, is probably beginning with the gruesome news of the Freedom Flotilla massacre.

I was awoken with the news by a friend, Emily. We sat on my bed and groggily tried to process this repulsive act. Ten hours later, Emily is now undergoing emergency surgery in which she'll lose an eye. An Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister directly at her face. She was standing peacefully in a crowd protesting the massacre.

Information is scarce; here is what I can confirm as accurate (information I am also releasing as ISM):

-- Before dawn, while the ships were in international waters, Israeli soldiers surrounded the ships with gunboats and helicopters, and rappelled onto the deck of Mavi Marmara, the lead boat with over 600 civilians aboard.

-- Israeli military say that passengers initiated the violence, although footage clearly shows soldiers opening fire immediately upon hitting the deck. The passengers are all unarmed civilians.

-- Multiple ships were attacked. Most of the dead were on Mavi Marmara, but the European Campaign to End the Siege boat reports three wounded, including the captain.

-- At least 16 are now dead, with Al Jazeera reporting 19. Injuries are in the dozens. Names and nationalities are not known.

-- Some of the ships have been docked in Ashdod, where the passengers will be detained in a special detention facility designed specifically for their arrival.

-- Demonstrations across the West Bank and Israel are being brutally repressed. Emily was shot with a gas canister which was fired directly into her face. She's currently undergoing emergency surgery, and will lose an eye. Emily is 21, from Maryland. She's an art student.

-- In the village of Beit Ommar, a settler ran over a Palestinian pedestrian. His/her condition is unknown.

-- I am working within a community of people very closely linked to those on the boats. We have absolutely no idea who was shot, or where our loved ones are.

-- Here is a film designed for "worst case scenarios", but I doubt this was ever taken into consideration. Please watch:

Please get involved. There are surely demonstrations near where you live. If not, somebody needs to start them. Those of you who know me understand that the people attacked by the IOF as they slept on the boats were the same: many young, all humanitarian-minded, all innocent. Whatever the Israeli military releases about these people, which our media will likely parrot, simply isn't true. They're people like me. Angie, Margarite, so many. I have no idea my friends are alive. And as the world waits, white-knuckled, for names, someone will have to hear the bad news. This makes me realize: it could be Angie. It could be me. It really doesn't matter. Whoever they were, they were us.

ACT. In any way you can possibly brainstorm.

Check for information.

I'll write more when information has been updated and I can clear my mind. If you're the praying type, it wouldn't hurt Emily's situation. Same applies for the other injured, families of the dead, Gaza and Palestine in general, etc.

~ Ellen

What's the Deal with Gaza?

Hi all,

All conversations in the West Bank are leading to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla these days, as seven boats and over 700 people attempt to break the Israeli siege on Gaza. Several friends of mine are on the boats, which are to be met by over half of Israel's navy sometime today. Chances are if you're in the U.S., you haven't been exposed to much media coverage of the Freedom Flotilla. U.S. media are engaged in a nearly universal boycott of Flotilla coverage, and skimming the New York Times is alarming enough that I thought I would send the press release issued by the Freedom Flotilla.

The situation in Gaza is extremely bleak. Last night I published one of the most disturbing reports to come from ISM lately; regarding six farmers that were injured by Israeli artillery shells. Farmers risk their lives daily in the buffer zone, which claims over 30% of Gaza's farmland. Baraka and Musa, two farmers each supporting families of over twenty, are severely injured after Israeli soldiers fired artillery shells at them Thursday as they worked in their fields. See the report here.

The Freedom Flotilla press release is located below, and here.

Check for updated information as the humanitarian boats are met by Israeli naval forces in the coming hours.


Israel’s Disinformation Campaign Against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla
Posted on: May 28, 2010 | ShareThis
Freedom Flotilla | Witness Gaza

Israeli disinformation cannot hide the siege of Gaza.
For over four years, Israel has subjected the civilian population of Gaza to an increasingly severe blockade, resulting in a man-made humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. Earlier this month, John Ging, the Director of Operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, called upon the international community to break the siege on the Gaza Strip by sending ships loaded with humanitarian aid. This weekend, 9 civilian boats [two have now encountered difficulties and turned back] carrying 700 human rights workers from 40 countries and 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid will attempt to do just that: break through the Israel’s illegal military blockade on the Gaza Strip in non-violent direct action. In response, the Israeli government has threatened to send out ‘half’ of its Naval forces to violently stop our flotilla, and they have engaged in a deceitful campaign of misinformation regarding our mission.
Israel claims that there is no ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Every international aid organization working in Gaza has documented this crisis in stark detail. Just released earlier this week, Amnesty International’s Annual Human Rights Report stated that Israeli’s siege on Gaza has “deepened the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Mass unemployment, extreme poverty, food insecurity and food price rises caused by shortages left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. The scope of the blockade and statements made by Israeli officials about its purpose showed that it was being imposed as a form of collective punishment of Gazans, a flagrant violation of international law.”[1]
Israel claims that its blockade is directed simply at the Hamas government in Gaza, and is limited to so-called ’security’ items. Yet When U.S. Senator John Kerry visited Gaza last year, he was shocked to discover that the Israeli blockade included staple food items such as lentils, macaroni and tomato paste.[2] Furthermore, Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, has documented numerous official Israeli government statements that the blockade is intended to put ‘pressure’ on Gaza’s population, and collective punishment of civilians is an illegal act under international law.[3]
Israel claims that if we wish to send aid to Gaza, all we need do is go through ‘official channels,’ give the aid to them and they will deliver it. This statement is both ridiculous and offensive. Their blockade, their ‘official channels,’ is what is directly causing the humanitarian crisis in the first place.
According to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter: “Palestinians in Gaza are being actually ’starved to death,’ receiving fewer calories per day than people in the poorest parts of Africa. This is an atrocity that is being perpetrated as punishment on the people in Gaza. It is a crime… an abomination that this is allowed to go on. Tragically, the international community at large ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings.”[4]
Israel claims that we refused to deliver a letter and package from POW Gilad Shalit’s father. This is a blatant lie. We were first contacted by lawyers representing Shalit’s family Wednesday evening, just hours before we were set to depart from Greece. Irish Senator Mark Daly (Kerry), one of 35 parliamentarians joining our flotilla, agreed to carry any letter and to attempt to deliver it to Shalit or, if that request was denied, deliver it to officials in the Hamas government. As of this writing, the lawyers have not responded to Sen. Daly, electing instead to attempt to smear us in the Israeli press.[5] We have always called for the release of all political prisoners in this conflict, including the 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails, among them hundreds of child prisoners.[6]
Most despicably of all, Israel claims that we are violating international law by sailing unarmed ships carrying humanitarian aid to a people desperately in need. These claims only demonstrate how degenerate the political discourse in Israel has become.
Despite its high profile pullout of illegal settlements and military presence from Gaza in August—September 2005, Israel maintains “effective control” over the Gaza Strip and therefore remains an occupying force with certain obligations.[7] Among Israel’s most fundamental obligations as an occupying power is to provide for the welfare of the Palestinian civilian population. An occupying force has a duty to ensure the food and medical supplies of the population, as well as maintain hospitals and other medical services, “to the fullest extent of the means available to it” (G IV, arts. 55, 56). This includes protecting civilian hospitals, medical personnel, and the wounded and sick. In addition, a fundamental principle of International Humanitarian Law, as well as of the domestic laws of civilized nations, is that collective punishment against a civilian population is forbidden (G IV, art. 33).
Israel has grossly abused its authority as an occupying power, not only neglecting to provide for the welfare of the Palestinian civilian population, but instituting policies designed to collectively punish the Palestinians of Gaza. From fuel and electricity cuts that hinder the proper functioning of hospitals, to the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid delivery through Israeli-controlled borders, Israel’s policies towards the Gaza Strip have turned Gaza into a man-made humanitarian disaster. The dire situation that currently exists in Gaza is therefore a result of deliberate policies by Israel designed to punish the people of Gaza. In order to address the calamitous conditions imposed upon the people, one must work to change the policies causing the crisis. The United Nations has referred to Israel’s near hermetic closure of Gaza as “collective punishment,”[8] strictly prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. All nations signatory to the Convention have an obligation to ensure respect for its provisions.[9]
Given the continuing and sustained failure of the international community to enforce its own laws and protect the people of Gaza, we strongly believe that we all, as citizens of the world, have a moral obligation to directly intervene in acts of nonviolent civil resistance to uphold international principles. Israeli threats and intimidation will not deter us. We will sail to Gaza again and again and again, until this siege is forever ended and the Palestinian people have free access to the world.
1. Amnesty International, Annual Human Rights Report (26 May 2010);
2. “The pasta, paper and hearing aids that could threaten Israeli security,” The Independent (2 March 2009)
3. “Restrictions on the transfer of goods to Gaza: Obstruction and obfuscation,” Gisha (January 2010)
4. “Carter calls Gaza blockade ‘a crime and atrocity,” Haaretz (17 April 2008),
5. “Gaza aid convoy refuses to deliver package to Gilad Shalit,” Haaretz (27 May 2010)
6. “Comprehensive Report on Status of Palestinian Political Prisoners,” Sumoud (June 2004); Palestinian Children Political Prisoners, Addameer,
7. Article 42 of the Hague Regulations stipulates, a “territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,” and that the occupation extends “to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.” Similarly, in the Hostage Case, the Nuremburg Tribunal held that, “the test for application of the legal regime of occupation is not whether the occupying power fails to exercise effective control over the territory, but whether it has the ability to exercise such power.” Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, like those in the West Bank, continue to be subject to Israeli control. For example, Israel controls Gaza’s air space, territorial waters, and all border crossings. Palestinians in Gaza require Israel’s consent to travel to and from Gaza, to take their goods to Palestinian and foreign markets, to acquire food and medicine, and to access water and electricity. Without Israel’s permission, the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot perform such basic functions of government as providing social, health, security and utility services, developing the Palestinian economy and allocating resources.
8. John Holmes, Briefing to the U Security Council on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, 27 January 2009.
9. Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949, Article I stating, “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances.” See also, Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Advisory Opinion, I. C. J. Reports 2004, p. 136 at 138;

Remembering Rachel Corrie

Why we are all Rachel
March 16, 2010
Ellen Stark

I would like to begin by thanking the municipality of Ramallah and the popular committees, both of whom organized this event.

Thanks to the International Solidarity Movement for allowing me to speak on their behalf.

Thank you to the students of Kufr Sur Secondary School, who have done extensive research about Rachel Corrie and held a beautiful demonstration this morning.

Thank you, Cindy and Craig Corrie, for sharing your daughter with the world.

Thank you for the opportunity to deliver these words; it is quite an honor.

Thank you for remembering Rachel.

We remember the countless Palestinians and others who have lost their lives in this struggle and other non-violent fights against inequality in this world.

We remember the ISM activists Tom Hurndall, also killed in Rafah; Brian Avery, shot in the same month; and Tristan Anderson, still in the hospital.

Rachel Corrie is particularly significant to me because I grew up near to her hometown, Olympia, and because I am a student at her university. Were I a few years older, we could have been schoolmates. However, her life has impacted a tremendous number of people who don’t seem to have much in common with her.

We remember Rachel because of the fateful day her life was taken by the Israeli military. This tragedy was felt both globally and in particularly in Rachel’s and my corner of the world. It seems incredible to many that a young woman would travel so far from home to stand in solidarity with a foreign people and culture; ultimately giving her life for the Palestinian cause.

Rachel is an inspirational figure not only because of her courageous actions on March 16th, but also because of the life she led and the words she left behind. Her journals tell the tale of a person deeply and profoundly affected by suffering and injustice in the world, and from a remarkably young age. Her entire life was committed to, in the simple words of a fifth grader, “giving the poor a chance”. This basic and fundamental dedication to fighting for equal chances as humans is profound enough, and expressed so eloquently both in her writing and actions, that it compels us to act.

I believe that Rachel’s commitment, which put her there that day, is a spark we all have. Her inability to look away and remain silent is not unique; it is what has defined all great non-violent movements. It is what makes us wonderfully human; it is what makes us alive. So today as we mark Rachel’s death, let us also remember that spark of collective humanity, which compels us to step forward in solidarity and prohibits us from remaining silent.

I stand here today because of Rachel’s actions. At the age of 13, as my nation began a second tragic conflict, I felt a youthful sense of bewilderment and grief which I would later recognize in Rachel’s journals. I will never forget the day posters of Rachel appeared at our anti-war vigil. The weathered and stoic pillars of activism wept bitterly. I will never forget their tears, nor the image of her smiling face held on street corners. Rachel’s death was felt from Olympia, to my hometown of Bellingham, to Ramallah, Rafah and many, many other places.

As a member of ISM, I speak for a remarkable group of activists worldwide when I say that we are inspired by Rachel’s example to stand in solidarity with Palestinian non-violent resistance. We come to tell Palestine that we will stand peacefully alongside you until the occupation has ended. We tell the world that it can no longer ignore the spark of humanity, which compels us to act in circumstances of grave injustice.

Rachel sent a very clear message with her life, and this anniversary is an appropriate time to reflect upon ours. I believe she would ask us to examine our lives for ways in which we can hold ourselves to a higher standard. We are united by the Palestinian cause, but also by our spark of collective humanity.

We should aspire to expose inequality in even the smallest of actions, knowing that those ultimately compose our experience.

We should not doubt the power of our words and larger statements, knowing that these will extend beyond imaginable scope, just as teenagers like myself thousands of miles away can be forever affected by those of us here.

We should not hesitate in our peaceful struggle for the Palestinian cause, remembering those who have gone before us and those whose freedoms will come from our diligence. We are fighting a battle which at times feels hopeless and impossibly removed from the world at large, but it is at these darkest moments that we should remember Rachel’s spark which inspires us. Palestinians should know that although they suffer terribly from the occupation, they are not alone. Like Rachel, we share the sense of collective humanity, which leads us to stand alongside you and share your stories with the world.

We should never doubt the importance of non-violence, seeing the immense strength of those who resist courageously with their whole selves.

On those days when the noise of the occupation seems deafening, let us remember that hope must speak louder. We must remember that although we lost Rachel’s spark, we can use her life as an inspiration to find our own sparks of collective humanity.

Rachel leaves us tremendous gifts in her words and art. As we remember the incredible person Rachel was, let us also remember the necessity of creation. Rachel was a poet, so it seems fitting to end with a poem by the poet Andrea Gibson, who tells us:

Picasso said
he would paint with his own wet tongue
on the dusty floor of a jail cell
if he had to. We have to create.
It is the only thing louder than destruction.
It is the only chance the bars are gonna break.
Our hands full of color,
reaching towards the sky,
A brushstroke in the dark,
it is not too late.
That starry night, it is not yet dry.


(Three days after delivering this memorial, Ellen was shot with a rubber bullet, fracturing her wrist) -S

Update #9: On the deathbed of the village

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dear friends,

The weather has clicked irrationally from an unseasonable chill to oppressive heat nearly overnight. It seems that summer is here.

Abductions of Palestinians continue, non-violent demonstrators and some boys and men taken in night raids. This week, over forty were seized from across the West Bank. This includes an eleven-year-old boy grabbed by a plainclothes police officer near the end of An Nabi Saleh’s weekly demonstration. Those taken face years in prison without charge—Israeli military law permits “administrative detention” for 6 month periods, which can be renewed indefinitely. While being “detained”, victims face interrogation, torture and inhumane living conditions consistent with any other fascist state.

In other news, recent x-rays of my arm show a bone which is reluctantly but finally healing correctly. Alhemdulilleh.

I have attached an essay written about our recent action in a village near Jerusalem. More photos of this and other actions in al Walaja can be seen here.



On the deathbed of the village

There’s a part of my brain that becomes aimlessly diverted in critical moments; perhaps an evolutionary feature that’s run its course. For example, wild oregano grows abundantly in al Walaja. As we are chased by soldiers through the forest, the pungent smell of Italian cooking is enough to distract my brain from the task at hand (not getting arrested until we’re actually at the bulldozer). Instead I’m imagining that we’re running across a life-size crime scene pizza with crumbly rocks and pine trees as toppings.

The pizza daydreams vanish when we reach the edge of the embankment and stare out over a massive swath of dust. To our right, the D10 Caterpillar behemoth burps greasy black indigestion out of its two-story-high smokestack. To our left, an angry mob of soldiers and media advance, guns and cameras close at hand. Behind us, soldiers. Overhead, morning sun and a military helicopter. Yalla!

We slide down the embankment and into the path of D10, holding hands in some sort of perverse staredown. The engine shuts off, and we cozy up next to the blade, linking arms and legs. The dust is inches deep, and fine as corn starch. Three weeks ago this powder was fertile soil, supporting olive groves as for centuries prior. Al Walaja is a farming community. When the bulldozers drive out of this village for the final time, they will leave behind a massive concrete wall which tidily surrounds the village on all sides, severing it from all of the farmland which sustains life here. Two guarded gates will permit limited access to the village.

A D10 bulldozer is an invention, like nuclear weaponry, which can only bring destruction. A mistake. The blade is much taller than I am, and shiny steel. The size of this thing cannot possibly be exaggerated. It is hyperbole. It is the size of a small house. Literally. I now understand that Rachel Corrie wasn’t crushed by construction machinery, but rather a by massive mechanized monster; something humans were never supposed to have imagined.

Wide-angle lenses and M-16s glint in morning sun as we knot ourselves more tightly together. The dust kicks up, and we cough and choke as Mr. Army Man in Charge informs us we have five minutes to leave, or face forcible expulsion and arrest. My knees sink deeper into the dust and we collectively chuckle; it’s understood that “five minutes” translates to somewhere between 90 seconds and two minutes.

With flawless precision that would put Phoenix traffic cops to shame, soldiers classify us by race and move in. The Palestinian villagers who we joined in blocking the mighty D10 are beaten ruthlessly while we watch, trapped and unable to help, from our positions in front of the beast’s giant blade. To my left, a man’s head is being forced into the soil. A soldier pushes his hand against the man’s nose, and all I can do is watch and promise myself I’ll tell someone else about the look in his eyes. I glance away, and instead see a trapped face in front of me. Soldiers pry his eyes open, and spray the canned fire inside. Just weeks ago, this was an olive grove. Now the lifeless soil absorbs the blood of its villagers.

After they’ve broken the bones of the Palestinians, we remain huddled in the bulldozer’s shadow. Our arms wrapped tightly together, everybody takes a few dusty and peppery deep breaths, bracing for the next moment. We know how it will happen. How they will surround us and bear down, ripping limbs apart as cameras whir into motion and we let ourselves go limp, heavy, dead. The screams of the others will fade as the soldiers drag us through the dust. I will try to think outside of the adrenaline. I will bitterly announce “we are being non-violent” over the shouting, reminding nobody in particular that everything about Palestine is without reason; as if some Celestial score-keeper might possibly be reminded of the barbarism of every day here; as if the cameras which surround us could actually capture the surreal injustice which I now understand is truly impossible to internalize.

I will lie in the cemetery of the olive grove, one wrist being tightly clenched by a man in a bullet-proof vest. The morning sun reflects off the dusty expanse, blindingly powerful. I will peer upwards into the light, trying to read this man’s expression for any clue. Trying to find some proof that, like the choking dust I am resting in, this person’s conscience once supported fragile life; once harbored and nurtured something beautiful. I will slow my frenetic heart, fast at work hammering nails of self-preservation into my brain, and inquire, although woefully inadequate, something like, “Have you ever wondered what you’re destroying?”, or “Do you have children?”. I will listen attentively for some clenching of my outstretched arm or a sharp jerk through the dust that tells me he heard. Some clue about the heart still pounding behind the armor of Apartheid; some hope that the deathbed of this village can still birth life.

The slabs of concrete will tower over al Walaja like the tombstones that they are, spelling the death of a village which has slowly been bleeding out since 1948. A sparkly-toothed American reporter interviews me while we crouch in front of the blade. He wants to know about “new peace talks”. In twenty seconds there’s nothing to be said. No way to describe the silent, perpetual violence of every second of Apartheid. No words to explain the systematic tightening of Israeli control, as suffocating as the dust we are covered in. Israel has offered only violence since 1948.

There are two the things Americans need to know; two things I wish I had told Mr. Sparkle Tooth: First, there will be no “peace talks”. Only political diversions and more violence, until this “conflict” is seen as what it really is—an Apartheid. There is only one aggressor here; there is only one side dispersing non-violent resistance with billy clubs. Second, al Walaja smells of oregano. Know what you destroy.