As I sit and view the reports, photos and live videos streaming in from Gaza I find it impossible to make sense of it all.As a boy growing up in Israel and attending a regular public school, I remember being taught the story of Abraham, the patriarch arguing with God over the decision to destroy the city of Sodom.“And Abraham stood before the lord. And Abraham drew near, and said: wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked, perhaps there be fifty righteous within the city, wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the righteous that are therein? ..and the Lord said, if I find in Sodom fifty just men within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes” Genesis, 18, 23-26.One has to admire Abraham for his tenacity, arguing with God almighty for the sake of fifty men! Today I heard the argument made that only 50 innocent people were killed in this attack and I thought: God would have spared Gaza for those 50, but not Ehud Barak.
One has to admire the idea that no matter what, the life of innocent civilians is sacred and must never be compromised.There can be no doubt that among the 1.4 million people residing in Gaza there are more than 50 righteous men and women, but more importantly, there are 800,000 children in Gaza.According to reports in the Israeli newspapers hundreds of thousands of children were on their way to and from school at the time that 50 Israeli war-planes began a nine hour attack during which they dropped more than 100 tons of bombs.
With Israeli elections scheduled for February, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is hoping to once again become Prime Minister, has once again unleashed the Israeli military on the civilian population of Gaza. Barak who has earned the dubious distinction of being Israel’s most decorated soldier, is guaranteeing that Israelis and Palestinians will see more violence and more loss of innocent lives. With columns of tanks, and brigades of infantry ready to attack the already destroyed Gaza, Barak hopes to prove that he is a candidate that can deliver. But unlike the biblical story, there is no one willing to stand up to General Barak and argue for the lives of fifty righteous men, not to mention, eight hundred thousand children.
The 800,000 thousand children of Gaza were the reason that Nader Elbanna and I in our capacity as co chairs of the Elbanna-Peled Foundation, decided to travel to Gaza to deliver essential medical equipment to Ahli hospital in Gaza city. We flew from SD in mid November, passing through Europe, Israel and Jordan to Cairo; then traveling overland we crossed the Suez Canal, stopping at endless Egyptian security checkpoints along the way to reach the gates of Gaza at Rafah. It was there that we were told that the border to Gaza is closed. We spent three days trying to get in, with Nader arguing, negotiating passionately setting aside the excruciating pain from his ear and throat infection. In the end, standing merely 50 yards form our destination the truth came out of the mouth of one intelligence officer at the Rafah crossing who exclaimed: “but we can’t let you cross, the Israelis are watching.”
We knew that an Israeli-Egyptian-American agreement was keeping the people of Gaza imprisoned, impoverished and malnourished but we hoped that with support and assistance we secured from Rotary in Egypt and other connections we could outsmart the system. The help we received was tremendous, but we had underestimated the system. Interestingly, the toughest part for us was not being denied entry, but rather it was calling Dr. Suheila Tarazi, of the Ahli hospital in Gaza and telling her that we would not be able to enter and deliver the equipment to the hospital. Dr. Tarazi thanked us for our efforts, described the intolerable conditions in Gaza and told us that with God’s help we will all have peace one day. But the optimism and good wishes could not mask the grim reality evident in her voice. If the problems a doctor or a hospital administrator in Gaza had to face were insurmountable until a few days ago, now they are pure hell. As Israel shut off the electricity and shut down the supply of fuel, there is no refrigeration and medicines go bad and have to be discarded. Machines that need power to help people breath; dialysis and other life support machines stop working. Now with hundreds of casualties and little equipment or medicine one cannot imagine what it must be like for Dr. Tarazi and others who are entrusted with the lives of the sick and the injured.
The Elbanna-Peled Foundation, was founded in memory of two little girls who were victims of the Palestinian-Israel war: Smadar Elhanan, killed 1997 at the age of 13 when two Palestinians blew themselves up in Jerusalem, and Abir Aramin, killed at the age of 10 by an Israeli sniper in January 2007. The Gaza project was a third of its kind initiated by Nader Elbanna and I. Having met in a living room dialogue group in San Diego in the year 2001, our work together is done in an effort to demonstrate two points: Palestinians and Israelis are bound together by their ties to a mutual homeland and this bond can bring them together as allies; the second point is that an Israeli Palestinian alliance is a powerful tool that can transform the region and stop the bloodshed.
The question has been raised of whether or not the Israeli attack on Gaza is disproportionate to the threat that Gaza presents to Israel. The answer to that lies not in numbers, not in comparing how many rockets were fired or how many of the dead are actually Hammas people and how many were bystanders. The answer lies in the biblical Abrahams admonition towards God in Genesis 18: “Far be it from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked.”
Looking beyond the grim reality of today, I remember something that was written by another doctor from Gaza, Dr. Mona El Farra. In a piece published in the US about a year ago she wrote: “This may seem an unlikely time to discuss the prospect of one state with equal rights for all, but the fighting in Gaza makes clear that a cordoned-off Gaza Bantustan is no solution.” In response to this is wrote the following: The question that Dr. El Farra raises it monumental: Why is it right to speak of equal rights everywhere except for Israel and Palestine? Indeed, it may be an unlikely time but it is never the less the right time to discuss the establishment of a secular, democratic state in Israel/Palestine in which human and civil rights are guaranteed to all its citizens.
Nader and I tried to get into Gaza on Nov. 25,26 and 27. We met in Amman and then we flew to Cairo and then from there overland across Egypt and the Sinai desert to Arish and Rafah. It was a very long, costly and trying journey but it would have been nothing had we been able to enter. Needless to say we are very disappointed. Our last conversation with Dr. Suhaila Tarazi at the hospital in Gaza was heart wrenching. The situation is grave and we are helpless. I promised that I would keep you updated, so here is the account of the trip so far. At the time of posting this there is stil a chance that I may enter Gaza to deliver the equipment with a boat sailing fron Jaffa to Gaza. Cross you fingers and read this: Sunday, November 23, 2008
The muezzin in the mosque calling for early morning prayer is determined to get me out of bed. I don’t mind it actually, this is my first night in Amman and I can’t sleep very well anyway.Besides, I love hearing the call for prayer, it is part of the sounds of the Middle East and growing up in Jerusalem one hears this all the time.
I crossed the Sheikh Hussein Bridge from Israel to Jordan yesterday, it was for me the third time. Nader met me and with and we took a taxi together to Amman.When we arrived at his house it was afternoon and we were scheduled for a dinner meeting at 8:30 with several key members of Jordan’s Rotary clubs. We had to time for lunch, shower and rest.
We arrived at Howara Restaurant in Amman at 8 PM, 30 minutes early. This is an exclusive, reservations-only restaurant.We were to meet everyone there and the table was set for 8 people.The first to come was Mustafa Nasereddin. He is a prominent Rotarian, originally from Hebron and as passionate as any Rotarian I have ever met.After him Samir Seikali came, he is the Past District Governor of District 2450, which is geographically the largest Rotary District in the world, encompassing nine countries in 3 continents; Samir is originally from Haifa.
It did not take long for the conversation to warm up; Samir and Moustafa were very engaging and soon the others came as well.These were Muhsen Mufleh PP RC Amman West, George Dallal originally from Yaffa, President RC Amman, Petra and Mr. Barghouti originally from Ramallah. It comes as no surprised that many of the main players here were Palestinians ex pats.
If we needed an omen that this trip was going to be a good one, meeting these fine people in this very fine environment over the best food in the Middle East was it.Nader and I felt encouraged.We touched on ways to continue this initiative in hopes that Rotary will become an active force in promoting humanitarian help as well as foster human relations in Palestine/Israel.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Hey ALL me beloveds,
We’re in Cairo now; it is about 7 PM here 9 AM in SD. We arrived by flight from Amman. Nader and I were sitting at Amman airport all went well, security was fine we made it on time, got a ride and Nader and were commenting on how flipping well it was all going. Then I get my boiling hot cuppu-blooddy-cino all over myself…my pants and everything full of it (right on the groin of course).
These Jordanians really know service – this young guy comes up to me as I scramble to move the laptop and what is left of my dignity out of the coffee and he looks at me quietly and asks: Are you OK? Then he asks what kind of coffee I had and gets me another, free of course while another cleans up the mess. Good thing I got dark grey suit on so it doesn’t really show. Anyway I had to laugh, I was fine after that, much more relaxed.
Then we got on the flight, brand-spankin-new plane, Alia Jordanian airlines, 1 hour and 10 minute flight over desert and more desert and then we arrive in this mega oasis, CAIRO. The nicest Rotarian in the world, our dear friend Ayoub from Egypt met us like we were all old friends and takes us through this bustling city in a tiny car to our hotel. We drove for about an hour; it is like a tiny bug maneuvering through giant dinosaurs. We got to the hotel, the Hilton Cairo WTC. We got 2 huge suites for the price of a regular motel room in the US, one of which we gave up. This is a huge suite. I gave N the master bedroom, he is pretty sick with a flue and now I am in the office. I opened the window to see the Nile and the lights of the city, the smells the noises, I feel like I am in a 50’s movie Casablanca or something. Very colonial this place is.
Now N is sleeping and in an hour they are coming to pick us up for diner. I am very happy here. Not sure yet what the plan is tomorrow I will find out when we meet everyone tonight.
We spent an evening with District Governor (DG)Zakaria Elshafi and Ayoub and the assistant DG Tawfik, we had dinner at the Cairo City Club, a private club that could have been in London Paris or New York.We had great conversation and parted late at night.I awoke to prepare for breakfast and then Dr. Nahidh (N’s son in law who is a pediatric heart surgeon who works at Loma Linda hospital and is originally from Gaza) came and joined us. He and Rania were in Cairo but they had to return Wednesday and Nahidh could not join us on this trip to his homeland, Gaza that he is forbidden to enter.
We drove with ADG Tawfik to pick up the equipment, it was one of those usual 10 minute turned 2 hour drives in Cairo, the most heavily congested place on earth.The equipment was not ready so we ended up ordering it again and waiting with Nahidh’s family, who were very gracious. We finally left at 5 PM instead of 1 PM, which aint bad for Egypt. We really enjoyed the company of Nahidh’s family who were grateful because they too have family in Gaza
We arrived in El Arish in Northern Sinai a round 11 PM and got a room at the Swiss Inn. I had some coffee, Nader devoured a huge meal and we both enjoyed a marvelously beautiful and talented Egyptian singer by the name of Shireen on a local TV channel.
Wednesday morning. I am sitting outside my room at the Swiss In in El Arish watching the waves of this magnificent and empty corner of the Mediterranean. Not a soul in sight and the horizon is clear as can be. I was awakened by the Muezzin again around 4:30 but went back to sleep until now. Its 6:30.At 7 they serve brkfast and at 8 the driver and guide that Tawfik provided us, two very nice and very dedicated young Egyptian gentlemen will come to pick us up.This is it! We are an hour away from the city of Rafah, the gateway to Gaza.Last night Suheila Tarazi, out contact in Gaza said it would take a miracle for us to get it.I have never believed in miracles so fervently in my life.As I thought about it this morning I decided it would take a miracle for them to keep us out.We have come a really long way. From SD, through Europe to Israel and Jordan; Then to Cairo and overland crossing the newly built bridge over the Suez Canal connecting Africa with Asia.Stopping at Egyptian checkpoints along the way for short minutes that seem like very long hours.Now we are here. It is the day.I told N we should be prepared to dress with suit and tie.
Before we left Cairo, we waited for the car with our shipment of ENT equipment at Nahidh’s uncle house in Medinat AL Nasser, a wealthy neighborhood of Cairo.N went to sleep as n Nahidh and I sat and talked. Then lunch was served. It was close to 5 pm already. We had planned to leaver at 1, so by Cairo standards were doing fine as far as staying on schedule.Besides the meal was worth the wait.
Then farewells, Nader had his daughter, son in law and of course his adorable 18-month-old granddaughter Me’i.
I was standing on the balcony on the 18th floor when it began as a simple chant. Then, within minutes it turned into a chorus as the muezzin in hundreds of Cairo mosques called the faithful to Friday prayer.Gradually the chants subsided and the Friday sermons began over the loud speakers, going from one to two to a multitude of loud voices that sounded to me like some cosmic mideastern yelling match.
After 20 minutes I had to go back into the hotel room and into the relative silence it offered.I was in one of Cairo’s many Hilton hotels trying to make sense of the past week’s events.Everything went so perfectly well that we were certain we could not fail. Even the coffee I spilled all over my new suit at Jordan’s Amman airport seemed to be a good omen.But when we approached the gate that separates the Egyptian city of Rafah with the Palestinian Gaza strip it was impenetrable and we could not enter Gaza. There, I said it, after all this hard work and expectations and all the fears we had to overcome, we were not able to enter Gaza.It felt as though we were fighting a three-headed monster with nothing but a goddam toothpick.
But it was precisely because this monster is so big that we thought we would be able to sneak by.Nader and I were determined to enter Gaza at the point where we thought we would encounter the least resistance: the godforsaken city of Rafah where the Sinai Peninsula touches Palestine. But the border crossing at this desolate spot, inhabited by farmers who are dirt poor and Egyptian intelligence agents with snake eyes and faces of beat-up bulldogs anxious to rip apart their next victim was unmoved by our efforts, by our cause or by the fact that 100 feet away 800,000 children are locked up without food, water, electricity or medicine.
From the 19 year old Egyptian soldiers in their sloppy black woolen uniforms, berets that make them look pitiful and AK 47s that are too big for them to handle, to the more slick weasel like agents of the “muhabarrat”, or intelligence agents slithering around and glancing at us with their yellow eyes trying, to pick up a hint of information they can then move up the chain of command in return for some morsel of favoritism for being good little agents, no one was moved.
What we learned the hard way was that this three-headed monster is not only big, it is effective.With Israeli brains, American money and Egyptian cheap labor it is able to keep 1.5 million innocent civilians (as though there are any other kind of civilians) locked up in a giant concentration camp.One really has to congratulate Israel for creating such a harmonious union that is effective, demonic and at the same time manages to function just under the radar of the world’s conscience. Of course, in a world with such a small conscience it is not that hard.
Bluntly, undiplomatically and unapologetically put, here are two important points:
Israel’s policy towards Gaza has stained 5000 years of Jewish history with a stain that we as Jewish people will never be able to erase.
Even though our mission was a noble one and everything was going right, we were screwed when we thought we were making love.
These are two very difficult things to swallow and even the grand wedding we were able to attend upon our return to Cairo could not take our minds off of the tragedy, not our own failure which is minimal but that of the people of Gaza. It was the wedding of Cairo’s hottest singer, the young and brilliant Hamada Helal and it so happened that the bride was the daughter of the sister of the uncle of Nader’s son-in-law Nahidh.So how could we possibly not attend?Well we did and every big name of Arabic music scene was there to sing.Dinner was served at 3:30 the following morning.By 4:30 AM Nader and I passed out in our hotel room beds only to be woken up by the 6:30 call to Morning Prayer.That was the end of a 72 hour cycle that was, plainly put, un-f_ _ _ _ _g believable!
Now I am waiting confirmation that tomorrow morning the ship will indeed sail from Jaffa to Gaza, like some ancient mariner. Stay tuned.
Besides restoring my faith in humanity, Barak Obama’s victory made me think of one thing: The first Palestinian Prime Minister in a post Zionist, secular, democratic state in Palestine/Israel.This may sound strange coming from an Israeli living in America, but just as Obama is good for black and white Americans, a Palestinian prime minister in a secular democracy will be good for Israelis as well as Palestinians. If it can happen in the US it can happen in the holy land. On January 20, an African American by the name of Barak Hussein Obama will be sworn in as President of the United States. This is a milestone if ever there was one, and there are many lessons to be learned from it. At the same time, this does not mean that we should expect that an Obama administration will offer anything new as far as US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
One lesson we need to take from Barak Obama’s victory is this: With razor sharp focus on a single issue, driven home here in America and in our shared homeland, we can achieve equal rights between Israelis and Palestinians in all of Palestine/Israel.The message has to be: End the apartheid.The term occupation has become irrelevant because it has come to imply a temporary situation and the Zionist rule of Palestine is clearly not temporary. The message and the effort need no longer focus on a tiny, helpless Palestinian state living peacefully alongside an all-powerful Israel that is armed to its teeth; that possibility has been obliterated for good anyway.The message and the effort should be focused on ending apartheid and a call for equal rights.
It would be naïve to assume that an Obama administration will turn away from years of US blind support for Israel.Sure, it would be ideal for President Obama to ask former President Jimmy Carter to be his special envoy to Israel/Palestine, but that is not likely to happen. In all likelihood there will be a return to the policies of the Clinton years, policies that may have had good intentions but lead to more of the same. The reason these policies failed and will fail again is that they do not recognize the problem for what it really is, namely the existence of an apartheid regime over Israel/Palestine.
If the last 40 years have taught us anything it is that as long as the basic premise for a solution remains partition and is not divorced from the Zionist notion of a big Jewish state next to a small Palestinian state, there can be no resolution. At this point there is no reason to expect change in American policy on the basic premise, not even from President Barak Obama.However, if the point is driven home with enough zeal, an Obama administration and the American public being sensitive to racial, ethnic and religious discrimination will eventually be forced to re examine support for a country that practices discrimination.
The issue of Palestinian recognition of Israel is one that needs to be re examined if we strive to move toward democracy and reconciliation.It is one of the claims Israel used to discredit the leadership of the late Yasser Arafat and uses now to discredit Hammas and interestingly, the US uses this same claim to discredit Iran.But a close examination will show that on this issue there is little for which Hammas can be blamed.
Expecting Palestinians to accept the rights of an exclusively Jewish state is, plain and simple, stupid. The Jewish state has an insatiable appetite for Palestinian land, it imprisons and forces millions of Palestinians to live in exile and poverty, making the demand for acceptance by Palestinians clearly outrageous.For nearly thirty years Arafat and his successors have bent over backwards to show that they accept the existence of an exclusively Jewish state, even as that very state continued to oppress and imprison Palestinian people and disposes them of their land. Palestinian leaders have done everything they possibly could to appease one Zionist government after another in order to gain some headway, but alas they received little in return for their efforts.
Hammas leaders refuse to recognize and accept the existence of the State of Israel, but can one really blame them? Israel has to date refused to define its own borders and its own character (A Jewish State? A Democracy? An ethnocracy? A theocracy?) But however Israel may choose to see itself, it is without a doubt a bi national state that practices discrimination along ethnic and religious lines.Furthermore, the Jewish state does not recognize Palestinian national rights and aspirations, and it acts with great determination to undermine the basic human and civil rights of Palestinians.
In many ways, the comparison between blacks in America and Palestinians is Israel/Palestine is an appropriate one. The struggle of African Americans to achieve equality under the law and then their struggle to see that the equality is in fact being enacted is inspiring and can be copied; the non violent nature of their struggle, the moral high ground maintained by African American leaders, their spiritualism and their activism are all good models to emulate.
Palestinians in their homeland and abroad have always been educated, hard working and ethically and morally outstanding citizens.The fine qualities of Palestinians as a community and as a nation have been masked by a campaign that intentionally focuses on a militant minority that has embraced violence and is by no means typical or representative of the Palestinians as a whole.
The notion that has been created is that we, Israelis and Palestinians are opposing nations, one just and righteous and the other mean and misguided, fighting for the same land.God cannot possibly be on both sides so we must choose sides for him and thus we all fall deeper and deeper into a bottomless chasm.
We need to take God out of the discourse and accept that we are all His chosen people, and therefore apartheid and human rights abuses cannot be tolerated. These are issues that are very near and dear to people in America, particularly now that Barak Obama was elected and so this is the time to change the discourse.
Instead of fighting to end the occupation, we must focus on bringing an end to apartheid.We all need to believe it is possible and to educate young Palestinians and Israelis that they must not despair but believe in their ability to bring change. In the words of Barak Obama himself, we need to encourage them to have an audacity to hope and to believe that they can indeed make a difference.This will allow Israelis and Palestinians to achieve equality and establish a society that embraces dignity and mutual respect.