Saturday, January 16, 2016

When the Timing Is Right

When the timing is right, the very sound of singing might break the chains of suffering.  That is why I sang with 20 other Witness Against Torture activists, flanked by our supporters, as we faced the White House on January 11th, 2016.  Maybe the time would be right, and we would free the last 103 Muslim men from their unjust captivity at Guantanamo Bay prison.  (By coincidence, a day later that number went down to 93.)
This wasn’t the first time I had come to Washington with this intention; it was the ninth, and the fourteenth anniversary of the opening of the dungeon called Guantanamo.  For a whole week our small group had been fasting and demonstrating in public places in solidarity with the prisoners, until finally we came to the house of the man who could free them.
President Obama could have watched from his windows as we set up a living room in the wide pedestrian area in front of the White House where protests are permitted.  We arranged 2 chairs, rugs and  a table with food and flowers, and invited all who were attending the “Close Guantanamo” rally to take turns entering this space with the photo of one of the detainees. We read his name and what “home” might mean to him, then placed his photo on one of the rugs saying, “I want to send you home.”     When all had been honored in this way, a group of us, dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and the black hoods of torture, stepped onto the White House sidewalk where people are not permitted to stand and risked arrest to bring our song to Obama:
“We hear a wonderful sound.  It is the breaking of chains. We see a path full of hope. We have found the way.  Let them go home. Let them go home. Let them go home. Let them go today.” (lyrics and music by New York Peace Poets) 
We sang these words for a solid hour, then stepped away.  We had delivered our message.   The timing may not have been right, but there was power in the singing – a power that might help send these men home.  And why should they go home?  Because we have found no evidence with which to charge them. Indeed, 44 (now 34) had been cleared for release as many as 9 years ago and yet still remain in Guantanamo, locked away from their families.  Our government has admitted that many men were falsely accused and turned over to the U.S. army in order to collect the $5000 reward.
If we are not going to try these men, we must release them. Indefinite detention is a form of torture.  The fact of our government torturing people – and not just Muslim men from foreign countries – is not a matter of dispute.  The Senate “Torture Report” released in 2014 has revealed the ugly truth.  Our treatment of the men in Guantanamo is part of this ugly truth.  I have seen a video of the psychological torture of  Canadian detainee, Omar Khadir, who was only 15 when he was dug out of the rubble of a bombed house and accused of killing an American soldier.  Shaker Aamer, a recently released detainee from Great Britain, has testified to the physical torture of this same child, which he called “unspeakable.” (Omar was released to Canada in 2012.)
It could be that we need Guantanamo to keep more ugly truths locked up forever.
When Witness Against Torture gathers in D.C., we admit to ourselves and to God that we are not perfect and the men in Guantanamo are not perfect.  We try to face our role in what our government and our culture do to dehumanize the Other. Most of us are white and have an obligation to acknowledge the privilege that brings to our lives.  When we risk arrest, we are not likely to be abused or shot for doing so, or tortured in a jail cell, or denied counsel or deported.
I know my protest is not unique. Many people have spoken out before me, and we can point to events when the timing has been right and change has come: chains have been broken.  If Obama does close Guantanamo, he must give the detainees due process – free them or try them  - not transfer them to another prison where they can be forgotten.  These Muslim men are human beings.  We are human beings. When the timing is right, we will embrace our common humanity.
    (For photos of our actions in Washington:, Facebook) 


Friday, November 6, 2015

A Delightful Encounter

At about 7:00 p.m. Doris and I took a walk through the dark, wet streets of the Old City, not feeling hungry enough to look for a restaurant, but needing to stretch our legs.  I expected it to be deserted with all the shops closed, but was pleased to see some stores still open that serve the local residents instead of the tourists.  

When we got to where the street we were on would have taken us into the Jewish Quarter, we took a turn  to see if we could make a loop and return through the Muslim Quarter by another route. I halfway knew where I was going, but soon it looked like we were at a dead end.  A clump of boys were playing there and paid us no mind.  Approaching them, I could see that there was an opening to our right leading to another street. “Street” may give you the wrong impression. These are more like alleys, just wide enough for a car to get through, but barely ever used by cars. On either side are doors or other alleyways or shops, and underfoot are ancient, uneven stones that serve as pavement.

So we took this opening as it headed in the right direction, Doris walking beside me so that we filled the narrow space.  I heard people coming up behind us, but Doris didn’t hear them, so I grabbed her arm to pull her aside to let them pass.  This startled her and made her jump, so one person behind us, seeing our alarm, spoke to us in English to reassure us.  It was a woman carrying a small child, and a man was with her.  She saw I was wearing the traditional Palestinian scarf called a “kafiyya” so perhaps she assumed we were friendly and asked us where we were from. In turn, she offered that she was a math teacher living in nearby Beit Hanina, but was visiting her parents’ home in the old city.

We admired her child, and after a few more pleasantries she invited us for tea to come in for tea.  Well, we knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed, and that the invitation was sincere, as Palestinians frequently offer this kind of hospitality on the spur of the moment.  But we politely said, “Really?”, before following her inside.  We climbed a couple of flights of stairs before reaching her parents’ apartment.  She shooed the kids through one door, shut another door, and quickly tidied up a small but nicely furnished sitting room.  We sat down, and she told someone to bring us tea, which soon appeared from behind a door, brought by her Ukrainian sister in law.  Every once in a while a child would appear, curious or crying, or just overflowing from the adjoining room.  It was clear that we were occupying valuable space, and our hostess explained that there were 21 children plus assorted adults in the next room!  The reason for such a crowd was that it was the eve of their day off, and most 6 of her siblings plus their children were in the family home.

As we could tell that the kids were bursting the seams of the other room, we didn’t let ourselves stay too long, but we were so grateful for this opportunity to see what the average tourist never sees, namely the gracious, overcrowded, tiny apartments of the Old City.  We finally asked our hostess’ name: Sabreen.  She is a math teacher in a public middle school. A graduate of Beirzet University, she spoke quite good English. Her major had been Mathematics with a minor in Economics, and she had a two year post graduate degree in Education. One of her brothers is a doctor and another a dentist. All are doing well, raised in this two-room apartment by loving, strict, and educated parents.  Now Sabreen sends her kids to a private school (International School in Beit Hanina) so they will learn English and have the tools needed to leave Palestine in order to have a future.

We had lots of questions. Mine were about her experience as a public school teacher, because I have heard that the public schools are not good, students there are not motivated, and the atmosphere is chaotic.  This, in spite of there being a strong emphasis on education in Palestine.  What I gleaned from her answers was that the kids are under so much stress every day from seeing soldiers, and being delayed at checkpoints, and living in crowded conditions with parents or single moms who don’t have time to give the children enough attention, that they have trouble in school.  But she gets them to listen to her by first allowing them to talk about how they are feeling. She has 25 students in each of four classes that meet four days a week.  She teaches calculus, algebra, geometry, etc..  She said she loves these kids and they love her, and I believed her because it showed in her beautiful, open face and smile. 

The kids from the other room began to appear one by one, and we knew we had to leave.  But Sabreen wanted to give us her email address, and we readily complied.  Then 4 of the kids showed us the way back to the street, waving and shouting, “goodbye!”

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Strangling of Hebron


I haven’t gone to Hebron during this trip, and a group of 6 British women “on holiday” were advised not to go Saturday because it had been declared a day of mourning, including the funeral for 5 recently killed Hebronites.  Instead, three of the women went with me to hear a talk by a human rights activist from Hebron, Ahmad Jaradat.  He concurred with the advice not to go to his city on that day.  The atmosphere would most certainly be charged with grief and anger, and bring hundreds of mourners and enraged young men to the streets.  They would be protesting the unjustified killings by the Israeli army and settlers and the fact that the bodies had been withheld for several days from their families as punishment - which is illegal under international law.  The funeral march to the cemetery would be followed by the inevitable strone- throwing by some of the young men, and the Israeli army would respond with live fire and tear gas. 

During October the repessive measures taken by the Israeli army against young protesters have increased in intensity and lethality: 70 Palestinians were killed, many of them without provocation. New weaponry is being tested: rapid firing tear gas guns so that no one can escape the barrage of gas, and protesters are unable to grab the canisters and throw them back at the soldiers; and new chemicals are in the gas, akin to pepper spray.

Captured on video are close-range shootings of non-threatening people, a jeep running over a protester who is then beaten and forbidden medical attention, threats to tear gas an entire refugee camp until all its residents die, etc.  All of these things have happened in the past, but now it is every day, and thanks to video cameras is being documented for all the world to see and for Israel to have to justify.

The talk by Ahmad Jaradat included a lot of the basics I already knew but are worth hearing again, along with some statistics and updates. However, he started by expressing a widely held Palestinian demand:  it doesn’t matter if you have one state or two states  - and everyone knows too states are no longer possible - as long as you recognize the Right of Return. (No politicians can negotiate away the fundamental right of refugees to return to their homeland. For those who say this is a non-starter because Israel won’t allow it, they should be aware that it is the start for any lasting peace in the region.) Ahmad added to this preface the observation that the Jewish Israeli settlements were conceived from their inception in 1967 as the means to take land away from Palestine until there would be no more Palestine.

Hebron is a district that covers 21% of the West Bank and has a population of one million, while the city itself has 170,000. Historically, it is the industrial center of Palestine, with stone being a major resource. However, this potential prosperity has been decimated by Israel dividing the city into two distinct areas, H-1 and H-2. in order to allow settlers to live in the center of the city. 
While the whole city should be in Area A - under complete Palestinian control according to the Oslo Accords, H-2 was re-zoned to be Area C where Israel is in complete control.  It includes the Old City and hundreds of small shops.  Although the shops have long been shuttered by order of Israel, 50,000 Palestinians still live there.

Why have the shops been shuttered?  Because a group of radical settlers,  inserted itself into the center of the city, taking over apartments they claimed were long ago inhabited by Jews.  This nucleus has grown to 600, and is protected by an army force of 2,000 soldiers.  They are aggressive, full of venom towards Palestinians, and violent. Interestingly, these Jews are mainly from the United States.  Their presence has resulted in the placement of 33 “security” checkpoints within the city, some are manned by soldiers, others are fences and cement blocks that close off streets.  As you can imagine, such an infrastructure is not conducive to commerce,  to the psychological well-being of the native residents, nor to getting to school, work, medical appointments, meetings, celebrations or funerals.

Which brings us to the present eruption of violence and funerals and more violence. Until a few days ago (October  21)  a few families refused to move out of the two neighborhoods most coveted by the settlers.  They stood their ground against daily attacks on their persons and houses, refusing to give in to fear, refusing to leave their homes.  But one the leaders determined to stay,  Hassem al-Azzeh, a 54 year old physician, died of tear gas inhalation trying to cross a check point to reach a doctor for his chest pains. Now the future of his neighborhood is in doubt.  Already the Israeli army has gone door to door to tell each household they are not allowed to have any visitors that are not family.  Everyone must register with the army and prove they live in the neighborhood.This will exclude international supporters who regularly visit these families. And the army has closed all but one entrance to each neighborhood where they stand guard and check each person’s identity card. One resident told an international activist, “For the people living in the area, it will become like a prison. For people living in Hebron, the closure of Tel Rumeida will mean that the city will be split in two.”

About 5 years ago I was in the home of Hassem upon the occasion of his daughter’s 15th birthday.  I remember having to climb over several obstacles thrown by settlers onto the walkway leading to the house.  In spite of this threatening behavior, Hassem and his wife insisted on having a birthday party and inviting guests.  Now he is dead. Dead because an ambulance could not get close to his house due to similar barriers erected in the roads by settlers, necessitating that he try to walk to where one might be able to pick him up.  Dead because the route to help was full of tear gas.

Being designated Area C, schools in H-2 cannot add classrooms to their schools, and families cannot add rooms to accommodate new members.  Nor can they repair old homes.  Permits are required for all construction, but Israel does not issue permits to Palestinians.  Such are the  fruits of the Oslo Accords, basically a death sentence for Palestine.  Area C comprises 60% of the West Bank, mostly agricultural land and small villages, but also central Hebron -  because there are settlers there.  And to protect the settlers, 22 military posts have been placed atop Palestinian homes in this area.  This is the matrix of control, where almost every move one makes is governed by a law meant to restrict, forbid and disrupt. 

This is the immediate context for the violence, the fear and the anger erupting in Hebron these days.  Twenty from Hebron are among the 70 killed since the start of the repression and resistance on October 3rd. But the larger context which is fueling the youth who throw stones is the Isaeli military occupation, now in its 48th year, which has robbed them of hope for a better future.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"We will gas you till you die."

Dear Friends,
  I hope you can open this link and view the shocking video it contains. The article is from Ma'an News Agency in Palestine. Many other news agencies have since carried the story, so no one is making it up.  I believe Jewish Voice for Peace has also disseminated it.  I hope it goes viral.
Love from the suffering Holy Land, Sherrill

Friday, October 30, 2015

Another Encounter

Another Encounter

     I just met a man who might be 40 years old. He was waiting in the Beit Sahour Center for Rapprochement for his violin student to arrive for a lesson.  The Center offers music lessons at affordable rates to over 85 young people of all ages, which costs about $1000 a month and operates at a loss.
     Back home I have started to read Sandy Tolan’s new book, Children of the Stone, which has given me a new appreciation for the healing power of music for the children of Palestine.
Hence, I wanted to engage in conversation with this man, even though he had only moments to spare.  He told me that he had been teaching music at the Edward Said Conservatory for Music in the city of Hebron, but left that job due to scheduling problems, and now teaches in a music school in nearby Beit Jala, as well as here.  But actually he is an IT professional with full time work in Bethlehem.    
     Before I could find out any more, a boy arrived, a violin case strapped to his back. I would have loved to stay for the lesson, but my taxi was waiting outside. 

There Is No Future

     Prior to meeting the violin teacher, I had been upstairs in the new offices that house not only the Rapprachment Center but also Siraj - a non-profit that promotes and guides “experiential tourism” through hiking and biking all over the West Bank, and IMEMC, the International Middle East Media Center.  While waiting to see the director, I met Maher, the program coordinator.  Maher is young, lanky, good looking and friendly.  After hello’s and how are you’s, my friend Doris asked him what he saw for the future of Palestine.  “There is no future.  We cannot plan even for tomorrow.”  I wanted to know what he meant. “Is this a choice, in order not to be disappointed when the plans fall through?”
    “No.”  Patiently, Maher explained from his own experience how the restrictions of the occupation shape his life.  He is a basketball player in the top league in Palestine.  Yet he does not have the season’s schedule of games because there is no schedule that anyone can count on. Instead, he has 3 days notice for his next game. For example, he will learn on Monday that there should be a game on Wednesday, which might be 2 hours travel away, not accounting for delays at military checkpoints.   On Wednesday, exactly three hours before the game should start, he gets a call as to whether the game is on or off. It depends on the degree of danger that might be encountered on the way. If the game is on, the team has no time to warm up. If it is off, they have lost valuable time they could have spent at the gym.
     Maher wanted to give another example.  “I went to a private elementary and high school with a class of 35 students. Of the 35, 20 have jobs now. Fifteen do not.”  And how many would leave the country if they could?  “Probably 25. But I will not leave.” He wanted us to understand that even though there is no way to plan for the future, which even keeps him from setting a date for his wedding next year, people survive by living in this moment,  taking what is hard and transforming it into a life for tomorrow.



Four Nursing Students

Palestine under Occupation

        Our friend Q invited Doris and me to have a light supper with him and four nursing students who were staying 3 nights in the same guest house as he.  The young women greeted us a bit shyly,  but complied with our request for introductions, revealing a good mastery of the English language.  The students, Ayat, Malak, Nardeen and Safa, all 20 year old Palestisnians and sharing a desire to help others, met each other when they started nursing school at An-Najah University in Nablus, West Bank. They are in their 3rd year of a 4 year program and have traveled to Beit Sahour to fulfill a practicum in mental health.
   None of the students are from the same village, and, surprisingly, two of them are from Inside Israel, near the cities of Haifa and Akko.  We asked why they chose to go to school in the West Bank instead of Israel, where they are citizens and resources are surely better.  We learned that they did not want to wait two years post high school to start nursing school, but Israel would have demanded they wait while Jewish Israeli students took those 2 years to do their compulsory military service. So-called “Arab Israelis” do not serve in the Israeli army.
   So here were Palestinian youth from both sides of the Green Line.  Was there any difference in how they lived or saw the world?  Just one: the customs and culture in the West Bank are more conservative than in Israel.  Boys and girls go to separate high schools and don’t hold hands in public, not even to do folk dancing.  But these differences melted away quickly as the students had much more in common - their studies and their dreams of helping others and being productive members of society.
   We had many questions for them.  Where would they would look for work when they graduated?  The two from Israel would chose Israel because that is were their families are. Likewise the two from the West Bank - not that they have any choice-  hope to work near their families. 
    What is the hardest thing they face now?  “We are away from home, and we are afraid for our families, and they are afraid for us.”
  One of the young women, in addition to being an athlete, mentioned that she liked art. Asked if she had any examples with her, she pulled out her i-phone and displayed an amazing variety of drawings that showed real talent. I asked her to send me one of those that had a political message. Above is the image she sent me. Half of a coquettish face is black - the occupation. The other half is veined with life-giving water. I think the top hat is just Malak's creative imagination.  The suggestion of a torso is rooted in the land.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Full Moon Over a Sad Land

    Although it is raining lightly, the full moon comes through the clouds as if shedding a skin, and the land below, thirsty, pleads for renewal.
     Two young men lie bleeding on the pavement near Gush Etzion settlement. One of them is accused of trying to stab an Israeli soldier.  The two are left to bleed to death.  They have  not yet been identified because no one has touched them.  This news is from “Palestine TV News” at 8:00 p.m..
     I have just had dinner in the home of my friends whom I will call Sami and Hanna.  They are middle class professionals living in a modern apartment, have good jobs and three children, the youngest a senior in high school.  Beyond that, nothing about their lives is recognizable.
    Briefly, I will tell you their story, while admitting that I can no longer keep up with the number of deaths of Palestinian youth, whose names I have been trying to record.  Let me at least dedicate this piece to them and their grieving families.
    Sami is the director of a local environmental protection agency. He and Mazin Qumseyeh collaborate on protecting biodiversity and the wild plants, birds and animals of Palestine.  He is also a legal resident of East Jerusalem. As holder of a Jerusalem I.D., he can travel in the West Bank and into Israel, one of the few “privileges “ afforded to a select group of Palestinians, and one that Israel is happy to revoke under any pretext, such as being related to a suspected terrorist.
     Hanna is a West Banker. As such she does not have a Jerusalem ID.  She owns a lovely, old home in Beit Sahour, (West Bank) with a garden and an extra apartment for her mother-in-law. However, she cannot live there now.  Hanna is a social worker and director of an agency that serves mentally handicapped adults. Until a year ago she could walk to work, and her children could walk to school.  Then the family was forced to move out of their home and into a neighbhood half an hour’s drive away, where there is no public transportation.  This neighborhood is squeezed between the apartheid wall and a military checkpoint. Its only advantage - and the reason for the move -  is that it is located just inside the boundary of East Jerusalem.  This makes Hanna, with her West Bank ID “illegal” in her own home, should any Israeli authority find out.  But that is the risk they are taking in order to accomplish another purpose.
      When Hanna gave birth to her second child, her now 19 year old daughter, Yara, she could not get the Israeli permit to enter Jerusalem for the delivery. Thus Yara was born in the local (West Bank) hospital. Had she been born in Jerusalem, she would have had a Jerusalem ID with its concomitant privileges. As it was, she was not given any ID at all.  “Why wasn’t she given a West Bank ID?” I asked.  Because at that time the Palestine Authority (PA) refused it, saying that it might tempt Sami to give up his East Jerusalem residency in order to join his West Bank family.  “And what was wrong with that?”  Answer: The PA did not want Sami, or anyone else, to move out of Jerusalem and thus leave space for more settlers to move in.  It was a sort of blackmail.
     For the next 19 years until the present, Yara has had no document - no picture ID, no passport, nothing.  As a high school student moving about her in her town of Beit Sahour and adjacent Bethlehem, this was not of major importance. But now Yara is a university student in the city of Nablus, a two and half hour journey away, which she makes every week, taking two different vehicles and passing through at least 3 checkpoints where her ID might be demanded. Sami’s reaction to this reality came through in his response to my idle question, “So, what do you think of your daughter wanting to be a lawyer?”
    “I am in great pain,” he answered.  “I try to tell her to be careful, but she says, ‘What can I do? I have to go to school. I can’t just stay home.’  So, I am helpless.  I can’t protect her.”  This might sound like any parent’s lament, but these days it is dangerous to be on the road as a Palestinian. Period.  People are afraid to go to the store, or to walk anywhere after dark, much less leave town.  In all my 13 trips to the West Bank, I have not seen nor heard such fear.  It is because in this last month settlers and soldiers are shooting and killing Palestinians—not arresting, not shooting to injure, but shooting to kill—many times without provocation, as video footage has proven.  If these were isolated incidences, people would not be afraid to go about daily life.
   As I finish this story, I now have the names of the two dead youth whose images I saw on the TV: 17 year old Shabaan Abu Shkeidem and 22 year old Shadi Nabil And al-Muti Dweik, both from the city of Hebron.  Maybe in the next few days the local news will tell us about them, their lives up till now, their parents and siblings or their broken dreams. It is a sad land.