Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pariah State

Once again, the Israeli government is asserting that Palestinian politicians are legitimate targets for arrest and assassination:

Naser el-Deen al Shaer was arrested by soldiers who knocked at the door of his home in the city of Nablus, his wife said.
He was among several senior Hamas members who were detained by Israeli troops.
A former Cabinet minister, Abdel Rahman Zeidan, two lawmakers and the mayors of the towns of Nablus, Qalqiliya and Beita were also arrested.
An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that an "arrest operation" had taken place.
The emergency discussions between Mr Abbas and representatives from the five parties involved in inter-factional fighting came hours after Israel carried out more air strikes, hitting what it said were buildings used by Hamas militants to store weapons.
Israeli officials have repeated threats to widen their list of targets to include Hamas political leaders.

These recent events are further evidence of efforts by the Israeli government and the Bush administration to delegitimize and undermine the elected leadership of the Palestinian people. These efforts are most clear in their treatment of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Isma’il Haniyeh.

A friend of mine, after overcoming many obstacles, was able to visit Gaza and meet with the Palestinian Prime Minister a few months ago. I share with you some of his experience, with his permission.

Scott Kennedy recently visited Gaza at the end of a visit to Israel and the West Bank, where he had been one of the leaders of a
from the Interfaith Peace-Builders.

Interfaith Peace-Builders sends delegations to Israel/ Palestine so that U.S. citizens can see the conflict with their own eyes. Participants have the opportunity to learn directly from Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent peace/human-rights activists, to spend time in Palestinian and Israeli homes, and to experience the situation of Palestinians living under military occupation. The delegations focus on seeing, listening to, and recording the experiences and perspectives of a wide range of Palestinian and Israeli voices.
Building on a long history of delegation work in the Middle East, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) began Interfaith Peace-Builders in 2000 as a response to the intensified violence of the second intifada. Since that time IFPB has consulted and worked in partnership with Palestinian and Israeli organizations. We stand in support with Palestinians and Israelis striving to end the occupation of Palestine, working to ensure the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, and advocating an enduring peace with justice for both peoples.

IFPB, which was last able to send a delegation to Gaza in 2003, carries Scott’s report about his individual trip:

“Pariah State"
Meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Isma’il Haniyeh

By Scott Kennedy

Gaza is the second most dangerous place in the world for an American to visit,” a highly placed US State Department official commented to a friend and me two weeks ago (November 15, 2006) in Jerusalem.

I first visited Gaza in 1968 and have returned more two dozen times, including many study groups and fact-finding delegations. My most recent visit was in April 2002. Since then, Israeli authorities have prevented our visiting Gaza. I was eager to return, to renew friendships and see for myself the changes that have taken place. I also wanted, if at all possible, to convey my support for those courageous people who continue to work for human rights, democracy and a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They persist despite formidable obstacles. It is imperative, therefore, for them as well as for us, that those suffering such extreme isolation are not forgotten and that their voices still be heard.

But visiting the Gaza Strip is no easy thing. After Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in January 2006 elections, the Bush Administration determined that the Islamic movement represents a key thread in the web of global terrorism. Israel in turn decided Hamas constitutes a mortal threat to its survival. European and other nations followed suit by supporting both a US-led international diplomatic and economic boycott of Hamas and Israel’s military siege of the Gaza Strip. By all but official Israeli accounts, these factors have created a severe humanitarian crisis for the 1.5 million people crammed into Gaza’s 140 square miles and surviving on less than $2.00 per day.

Two months ago, a friend told me he wanted to gain a first hand view of what is happening on the ground in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I suggested that we visit Gaza. I also told him that the US and Israeli governments would put up as many bureaucratic obstacles as possible to our going to Gaza. And then, if we persisted, they would try to scare us out of going. Nevertheless, before leaving California we had received “permission” to enter the Palestinian territory for three days through his contact at an Israeli consulate in the USA. The American government for its part was determined to dissuade us from visiting the hellhole of a fourth world country known as the Gaza Strip.

The Jerusalem diplomat spoke in a lifeless monotone during our half-hour meeting. Mustering as much gravitas as possible, he emphasized just how dangerous Gaza is. Second most dangerous place for Americans to visit in the world, in fact. Who beat out Gaza, I mused? It must be Baghdad. Or maybe Tehran or Kabul. But I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it is St. Louis, named “murder capital” of the USA during the recent World Series.

The diplomat and his head of security detailed the recent kidnapping of two Fox News personnel in Gaza. The cameraman, who happened to be from New Zealand, apparently persuaded his captors to look at a world map. He tried in vain to convince them that New Zealand is not part of the United States. No matter how unimportant we might be, and it was clear from the diplomat’s demeanor that he considered us altogether unimportant, we would surely be “prime targets” for kidnapping or worse, just because we’re Americans.

We also learned that if we were taken prisoner, our government could do nothing to help us. He forewarned that the US no longer has any contacts in the Gaza Strip and we’d be on our own should anything happen. We were to believe that the sole Superpower is incapable of communicating with groups operating in or influencing events in Gaza.

We listened with more than a bit of skepticism to the American official as he tried to prevail upon us not to visit Gaza.

The final straw, however, came later that day during a phone conversation with Washington, DC. An official at the Department of State told my friend, “Were you to travel to Gaza, you will almost certainly be killed.” That night, my friend explained his decision against Gaza, “If we were rescuing hostages or something, I might be able to justify making such a trip. But I would be going just for my self-education. It doesn’t seem to be worth the risk.”

I was not entirely surprised, but disappointed in his decision of course. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to counter, “But there are 1.5 million hostages in Gaza!” Since the capture of an Israeli soldier early this summer, the Gaza strip had suffered a devastating blockade and complete isolation that made it nearly impossible for anyone to visit. Growing hunger and despair reveal a civilian population held hostage to political power games by the Palestinian factions, Israel and the United States.

I resolved that night to make the trip to Gaza on my own.

Three days later, an hour-long taxi drive from East Jerusalem brought me to the Erez border crossing between Israel and Gaza. A half dozen journalists and I were the only people seeking entry into Gaza. The crossing seemed old hat to them, while for me it was an adventure. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had assured me the day before that my name was still on the list of those permitted to enter Gaza. The young solider behind the counter staring lazily at the computer screen before him, however, first told me that my name was not on the list and made a phone call. He next said that my name was on the list, but I had to wait while they checked things out. Another phone call. Still later, I was told that my name was on the list but my permission had expired on May 15, 2006. (I had only applied for permission in October, a month previously.) A few more people filtered into the transit room as I waited patiently. Still later, after checking by phone with higher ups for the umpteenth time, the soldier smiled, handed me my passport, and stated without any explanation that there was no problem for me to enter Gaza after all.

Finished with the Israeli army step, I next handed my passport to another soldier six feet down the counter. She asked my reason for visiting and advised me it was unsafe to travel to Gaza. When I told her I was visiting a non-governmental organization, she asked why I would do that. I told her I supported their work. She asked if I work for them and if I have any friends in Gaza. Finally, she wanted to know if I had a business card demonstrating that I work for an NGO.

I handed her a personal business card with no mention of a non-profit organization. She looked at it quizzically, raised her eyebrows, handed it back to me, and said, “Have a nice trip!”

I had permission to pass through Erez into Gaza and there was almost nobody else at the crossing facility. Still, it took me over an hour and a half to clear the Israeli procedures. All of this fuss was occasioned by my entering a territory from which the Israelis had “disengaged” more than a year ago. I understand the need for nations to control who enters their country. It’s not entirely clear, however, why Israel would be so concerned with my visiting Palestinian Gaza. If they thought I was smuggling Qassam rockets into Gaza, they would at least have looked into my bag. Instead, the civilian employee from a private security firm simply waved me past without so much as a glance into my shoulder bag.

I passed through a series of turnstiles and then made my way several hundred yards through a concrete corridor. The two lane street was lined by the same eight meter high concrete sections that Israel uses to build the “separation wall” through the West Bank. There were concrete benches as part of the foot of the wall for long sections, should one tire, and corrugated iron provided cover from the heat or rain. As I approached the Palestinian end of the passageway, the wall was lower and funkier. A single Arab porter waited at the halfway point with a neon vest and a wheel chair.

At the other end of the course way, uniformed Palestinian border officials were sitting around a simple table under a metal awning with a couple of men in civilian clothes. They were chatting and drinking tea. As I approached, they smiled and welcomed me to Palestine without getting up, then wrote my name by pen in a lined register book. Getting into Gaza, as opposed to leaving Israel, took all of two minutes. They weren’t concerned the least bit about what I might be carrying into Palestine, and didn’t ask to look in my bag.

A translator and guide from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and the Union of Women’s Health Committees in Gaza, along with a police escort, waited for me on the Palestinian side of the border. They motioned for me to sit in the front passenger seat of a small white station wagon. For the next two days, I traveled with a police car in front and a heavily armed security detail from the Palestinian Authority’s Interior Ministry in a pickup behind. With blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, I’m still not sure if I was any safer for all the effort. But anybody gunning for me definitely knew we were coming. Children rushed to the street to see the passing attraction. They must have been disappointed to see only me waving back at them.

We made stops at a demolished mosque in the town of Beit Hanoun, at a home where 19 people had been killed ten days before and a hospital in Jebaliya Refugee Camp, and Gaza City. We rushed from site to site because I was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismai’l Haniyeh shortly after noon. When we pulled up in front of a tall office building in busy Gaza City, armed security milled around with a dozen members of the press awaiting our arrival. Several dozen other curious passersby waited to see what was going on. The Prime Minister’s staff greeted us and led us quickly up two short flights of steps and into the building. I noticed several men on their knees in prayer in a room off to the right as we hurried by, lest I forget that I’d soon be meeting with the elected head of the Hamas government. The elevator failed to move for several minutes despite multiple pushes of the button. We joked nervously when the elevator not only failed to rise but the door wouldn’t open to let us out. Finally, the man accompanying us hit the red button and a loud alarm sounded. I imagined an onslaught of armed security forces converging on the elevator, but no one seemed to notice. We soon exited the elevator on an upper floor into a spacious office suite with golden brown rug and overstuffed sofas and men in suits standing around. A few minutes later I was ushered into the Prime Minister’s office.

After shaking hands, Prime Minster Haniyeh motioned for me to sit next to him at one end of a rectangular office. A Palestinian flag stood behind us. Another faced us from the far reach of the office where four men in dark suits sat chatting and answering cell phones during our meeting. Introductions later revealed they were the Palestinian cabinet members, representing the Ministries of Information, Transportation, and the Interior, and a spokesperson for the PA.

Haniyeh turned to face me and through an interpreter welcomed me warmly. He wore a neat gray suit, a freshly pressed shirt opened at the neck. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting the region on behalf of three pacifist organizations that oppose violence by all parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had come to express my opposition to the United States’ campaign to isolate the PA because of Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 elections and to oppose the killing economic sanctions against Haniyeh’s government and Israel’s military siege of the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Haniyeh said how pleased he was to have a visitor from the United States and that Hamas bears no ill will toward the American people. He noted with irony that those calling for the spread of democratic society didn’t respect the results of the Palestinian elections, even though the January elections were universally viewed as fair. “I was shocked by the US response to the Palestinian electoral process,” he added.

Haniyeh acknowledged that I had already seen some of the evidence of the Palestinians’ suffering and the destruction brought about by Israel’s “incursions” into Gaza. “The Gaza Strip is under total siege by sea, air and by land. This has resulted in tremendous humanitarian suffering.” He said the military escalation culminated in the recent massacre in Beit Hanoun in which 19 people from one family were killed by Israeli artillery. I had met two young survivors earlier in the day. The week before my visit, the USA vetoed a UN Security Council condemning the accidental killings in Beit Hanoun. Haniyeh said the US veto gave a green light to Israeli aggression against Gaza. The veto also sends messages that Israel is above the law and Palestinian lives are worth less than other lives.

Many commentators say that Hamas had not expected to take control of the Palestinian government. This view is widely shared by those I met in Gaza. Hamas ran on a platform of “reform and change” and the Islamic movement’s candidates benefited from the moribund peace process, deteriorating economic situation in Gaza, and widespread corruption in the PA dominated by Arafat’s Fateh Party. Their political strength is rooted in an Islamic social program that has developed over a decade and a half. A secular woman activist told me that the Hamas political program largely focuses on the role of women in society. She described a recent attempt to alter Palestinian law in order to permit polygamy according to Hamas’ reading of the Koran. The proposed change was withdrawn after meetings with a broad coalition of grassroots human rights and women’s organizations. Hamas does not have a strong “foreign policy” agenda. They choose instead to fold themselves within the Palestinian consensus. Hence Haniyeh’s indications that Hamas will live with a political accommodation with Israel.

I pressed the Prime Minister about the question of Hamas making peace with Israel. Haniyeh said that the problem remains that Israel has yet to determine its position towards the Palestinians. Despite all of the peace talks, “We have received no real offer” of peace from Israel, he said. Instead a series of demands have been made of the Hamas-led government: that they recognize Israel, honor agreements previously entered into by the PA, and renounce violence. He asked rhetorically whether the same demands are made of Israel. Answering his own question, Haniyeh argued that Israel must first recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, including a clear statement about what borders the Palestinian state will have. Only then will Hamas be able to clarify its position.

Haniyeh reiterated his oft-stated position that Hamas is willing to enter into a ten year interim peace agreement with Israel and perhaps longer term truce to enable the Palestinians and Israelis to build a new relationship. For the past eighteen months, they had observed a unilateral cease-fire with Israel. He covered the same points he has made elsewhere, "We are strongly in favor of direct talks between Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the PLO and the head of the government, and the prime minister of Israel, Olmert.... If they reach an agreement in their discussions that's acceptable to the Palestinian people, we will accept it, also. Hamas will."

There is an international consensus in support of a Two State Solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This solution calls for an exchange of “land for peace” and creation of a Palestinian state consisting of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that Israel occupied in 1967. Support for a Two State Solution has been officially adopted by every Arab state, the European Union, the United Nations, the nonaligned countries, Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, and every other significant grouping of world nations. Sheer exhaustion, if not a change of heart, has brought the Palestinian people to accept the international consensus in support of a Two State solution. Hamas would have had to bend to domestic Palestinian pressure and the international consensus, just as the grizzled guerilla leader Yasser Arafat had been compelled to do. Sadly, the US gave Hamas no grace period to come to terms with this Palestinian consensus.

Meanwhile Israel’s continued annexation of Palestinian land threatens to render the “land for peace” formula meaningless and the Two State solution irrelevant.
I can’t claim the same gift George Bush professes -- the ability to look into a man’s eyes and size up his soul. But I did look squarely into Haniyeh’s eyes during much of our half-hour conversation. There was no evasion and no shifting of eyes. He seemed to be a kind and thoughtful person.

When I asked Haniyeh about the so-called “clash of civilizations” that has dominated American understanding and discussion of global events since the September 11th terrorist attacks, I sensed a deep sadness. With a clear and determined voice, he slowly laid out his position on a question he obviously had answered many times: “We believe in dialogue between civilizations and not the clash of civilizations.... We know how special the relationship is between the US and Israel. We don’t look to stop this strategic alliance. We are only asking for a more balanced position.” He lamented the fact that after September 11th, the US missed a real opportunity for cooperation and coordination between East and West, based on mutual respect. The USA missed another opportunity when it chose to oppose the democratically elected government of Hamas. “Hamas is moderate and pragmatic and realistic.... We are not a terrorist organization just because we are part of the Islamic world. We can be a bridge between the US and the West and Islam and the Arab World. Instead, the US has pushed Hamas into a corner….”

Haniyeh rose to prominence after his mentor Sheikh Yassin and other Hamas leaders were assassinated by Israel. Immediately after his election, Israel and the United States moved decisively to bring about his downfall. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this soft-spoken man is well-suited for the job. When I shared my assessment of their prime minister, my guide and translator said that Haniyeh is known among the people in Gaza as a very thoughtful and kind person both before and after his election as prime minister. His stature was enhanced in recent days when he offered to step down as Prime Minister if necessary for Israel and the United States to lift the devastating siege on the people of Gaza.

President Bush would have none of this talk of building bridges or lifting sieges. His administration decided immediately after the election of Isma’il Haniyeh to bring down the Hamas government. Taxes that Israel has collected from the Palestinians are withheld from the Palestinian Authority in defiance of written agreements and international law. International aid has also been suspended. 150,000 government employees including teachers and police have not been paid for more than eight months.

Standard operating procedure for the Bush Presidency includes breaking off communication with those who won’t go along with our nation’s global agenda and trying in turn to bring down governments we stigmatize as “terrorist.” Syria fought alongside the US in the first Gulf War, was taken off the list of “terrorist nations” and the US publicly thanked Assad’s regime for their active cooperation combating terror after 9/11. Bush helped force Syria out of Lebanon and then watched as that country slid into chaos and war with Israel. Now the Bush Administration faults Damascus for the situation in Lebanon and Iraq and shuns Bashar al Assad along with Iran and North Korea.

The net effect is that relations with these countries continue to decline and drift towards escalated conflict and war. Meanwhile, the United States grows more isolated. 156 countries, including the European nations, voted for a UN General Assembly resolution expressing sympathy for the Palestinians killed in the Israeli attack on Beit Hanoun. The resolution also opposed Palestinians firing rockets from Gaza into Israel. Seven nations abstained, but only half a dozen nations, including several Pacific island nations, joined the US in voting against the resolution.

In the five years since the World Trade Center attacks, President Bush has squandered global solidarity and support for the USA and the American people by fomenting an unprecedented anti-American sentiment around the globe. For the first time in my four decades visiting the region, I experienced explicit anti-American feeling in my two weeks in Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank. This rising anger at the American people for their government’s actions prompted the heavy security arrangements in Gaza, the likes of which I have never experienced before.

In his effort to isolate Hamas as a “pariah state,” Bush has achieved quite the opposite effect. The US is increasingly isolated on the world stage and it is our nation that is viewed as bullying and warlike. The US’s continued backing for Israel, no matter how heinous its crimes, reinforces the general deterioration in world esteem for our nation and its people. Bush may very well have succeeded within our own borders in defining Hamas and other political movements as terrorist groups. But there is little doubt, from the perspective of the broad international consensus about how to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is the United States that has become the pariah state.

President Bush sits by while Israel effectively destroys the possibility of a Two State solution, the only basis for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that enjoys an international consensus and offers a diplomatic rather than a military solution. He may in the short run bring down the Hamas government, but at what long term cost to regional stability and peace?

“Scott Kennedy coordinates the Middle East Program of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. He was elected to three terms on the Santa Cruz City Council and served twice as mayor. Kennedy was elected national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and founded and chaired the FOR's Middle East Task Force. He has traveled to the Mid East four dozen times since 1968 and most recently in November 2006 when he co-led a delegation for the Interfaith Peace-Builders”.

Pictures of Scott Kennedy’s recent visit in Gaza are also available.

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