“I Have to Hold Back Tears” — Jimmy Carter

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During the lead up to former president Jimmy Carter’s trip to Gaza, the general media sentiment regarding the trip was ominous. Questions of safety (and loyalty, due to the boycott of Gaza and the legitimacy of its government) arose as Carter announced he would be meeting with Hamas leaders to discuss the future of Palestine.

He arrived on Tuesday, June 16th, and met with the Gazan leadership, including Ismail Haniya and Mahmoud Zahhar. He also visited sites that were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, including an American school obliterated by bombs dropped by F-16s. The human rights violations that took place during the Israeli offensive in earlier this year have stunned him, he said. “I have to hold back tears when I see the deliberate destruction that has been wracked against your people.”

Other objectives of Carter’s trip to Gaza included delivering a letter to Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier taken hostage by Hamas in June 2006), asking Hamas to consider recognition of Israel (it refused), calling for an end to the Gaza blockade, and also to insist that Hamas end its rocket fire into areas such as Sderot.

Israel launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip last December in response to rocket fire, a war that left the territory in shambles and unable to rebuild due to the stiff international blockade from 2 years prior. Only the bare humanitarian needs are delivered to a population of 1.5 million. Carter specifically pushed the US and Europe to allow basic goods into Gaza. “Never before in history has a large community like this been savaged by bombs and missiles and then denied the means to repair itself,” said Carter. “The citizens of Palestine are treated more like animals than like human beings.”

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Obama's Speech and the Arab Reaction

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In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s speech today in Cairo, the heavy web traffic of discussion among Arab activists was divided essentially into two camps.  One person claimed that the speech could have been given by George W. Bush.  Another compared it to Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem.

It’s not that either opinion is wrong – either may be proved right – but it was the nature of this talk from the very beginning that its meaning won’t be known for years down the road.  For what will make it historic (or not) is not the rhetoric of the speech but the policies that follow it (or don’t).

For one, I don’t believe this was a talk that George W. could have given, although it did share much of the same language on democracy that Bush stubbornly adhered to long after his own policies made shreds of any hope for it.

Midway through Obama’s speech, he digressed to condemn the belief in “a world order that elevates one nation or group of people.”  That is something that the worldview of American exceptionalism held by Bush and many of his presidential predecessors would never agree to.  I hope that this radically different worldview may result in a new path of policies.

And it was promising that Obama addressed a broad range of issues – democracy, women’s rights, Israel and Palestine and economic development – with an understanding that they all affect the human rights situation and all have to be addressed.

One thing that stood out was when it came to economic development, Obama announced a long line of initiatives that hold promise.  But in each of the other areas, particularly on Israel and on democracy, the rhetoric wasn’t matched by specifics.  I hope that doesn’t imply that he thinks that action on economic development is more important than in the other areas.

Amnesty International welcomes Obama’s comments, but we now expect him to follow up with policies to match the rhetoric.  He should begin with ending all practices that make the U.S. complicit in the various abuses that he denounced, such as extraordinary renditions and secret detention.  He should insist that Israel and the PNA to cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission looking into violations of international law during the recent Gaza war.  And he provide a public and independent report of America’s war on terror practices, a step he has opposed to date.

These would be just a first step, but an important step.  It would start us on a path that could turn his speech today from a remarkable moment into an historic event.

Going Beyond Headlines

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IFC Films

IFC Films

The Lemon Tree is a 2008 Israeli film follows a Palestinian woman’s fight to keep her lemon grove to the Israeli High Court. Released internationally on April 17th, this film has already garnered widespread acclaim for its emotional and nuanced storytelling, focusing on the Palestinian struggle to hold onto livelihood and identity—in short, their human rights.

Actress Hiam Abbass stars as Salma, a widowed Palestinian whose only source of income is the lemonade from her lemon grove. At the film’s start, the Israeli Defense Minister moves into the mansion next door. His security forces zero in on Salma’s lemon grove as a potential security threat (providing terrorists with perfect cover) and order it to be taken down. She decides to fight the decision, and with the help of a young Palestinian lawyer, takes the case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

What’s great about this film is its desire to blur the lines and truly cultivate its characters. Too often, human rights violations become a matter of numbers and statistics, so it’s certainly refreshing to be able to put a face and a story to the headline. “I think people want to see into the psyche of the people,” said Eran Riklis, the film’s director, to Haaretz. “It’s about people trapped in a deadlock. It tells a story, shows you emotions and glides through a complex, delicate situation in an explosive setting.”

Check out a trailer for the film:

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Palestinian Refugees: Kyl Retreats

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Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) yesterday withdrew his controversial amendment that would have discriminated against Palestinian refugees from Gaza. The amendment was reportedly based on internet rumors and triggered strong opposition both on the hill and from human rights organizations and activists, led by Amnesty International USA. Thanks to everyone who took action!

Report on Palestinian Health Care released

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Lancet, a British public health journal, released yesterday a series of reports entitled Health in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which examine the health situation in the West Bank and Gaza. The five reports cover the status of health in the OPT, maternal and pediatric health, common diseases, health as a security issue, and a health-care system assessment for the occupied Palestinian territories and take into consideration issues such as security, the availability of resources, the various conflicts between Israel and Palestinian organizations, the blockade of Gaza, and the occupation of Israeli troops. The series was compiled as a joint effort by health scientists in the OPT, together with help from WHO, associated UN agencies, and academic institutions in the USA, UK, Norway, and France.

It makes claim that the security threats to the region originate, at least partially, in constraints imposed by Israel such as checkpoints and border closings which prevent access for patients and medics, create a shortage of medical supplies, and “affect every aspect of Palestinian life, such as the ability to travel, work, marry, study, worship, and be with family…[thereby] compromis[ing] the social determinants of health by increasing social exclusion, unemployment, and creating barriers to food, social support and transport.

The reports also discuss how the armed conflicts in the area have negative mental health impacts in children. Studies done even before the recent conflict illustrated the traumatic effects that witnessing brutally violent acts can have on children, resulting in “behavioral problems, fears, speech difficulties, anxiety, anger, sleeping difficulties, lack of concentration at school, and difficulties in completing homework. In order to solve the health crisis in the region, the series calls for a just political and economic solution, claiming that if international laws were respected and enforced, they could “protect Palestinians from insecurity

The full series can be found at www.thelancet.com(free registration is required).

Great animated short on blockade of Gaza

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Gisha, Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, an Israeli non-profit organization, produced this powerful animated short, ‘Closed Zone’.   They tapped the talent of Yoni Goodman, the animator of the award winning animated film ‘Waltz with Bashir’:

You can also watch the short video on the making of ‘Closed Zone’.

In the meantime, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is in the Middle East committing $900 million in aid to the Palestinians.  The issue remains how the aid being purchased is to make it into the Gaza Strip to the people that need it.  Secretary Clinton urged the Israeli government to allow more aid into the strip, but stopped short of asking for full, unhindered access.  Israel, as a gesture, has agreed to let more aid in.  Over 80% of the 1.5 million depend on aid from outside sources and the 100+/day trucks being allowed in are simply not enough to deal with the incredibly dire humanitarian situation.

Hope and Change? U.S. makes $900 million pledge to Gaza

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Yesterday, the U.S. State Department leaked an upcoming pledge of $900 million to reconstruct Gaza and support the Palestinian Authority.  No money will pass through Hamas but will be filtered through non-governmental organizations.  I applaud this assistance but question the effectiveness of aid without negotiations and opening the borders.
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an Israeli citizen, wonders whether money will pass into Gaza at all:

“The next step is opening the border crossings, and that requires more than just signing a check.”

The irony, of course, is that the US is supplying aid to victims of US made weapons.  The U.S. has been trading arms with Israel while donating to Palestinian reconstruction.  In fact, the Obama administration has continued Bush’s pledge of $30 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next 10 years.   There are no investigations into whether US weapons were used in the recent conflict to harm civilians.  And given that the US refuses to speak to the governing power in Gaza,   who, then, can be held accountable?  And how?
These structural obstacles to the $900 million pledge present a challenge for the Obama administration.  Levy goes on to analyze this:

“There are structural flaws – not least, that Israelis and Palestinians cannot negotiate the core issues alone and need an outside broker and that Palestinian statehood cannot be incubated under Israeli occupation. The very structure of the peace process has become a disincentive for peace itself. There now exists an opportunity to do away with the illusion, even if the danger also exists that events may take a more violent, confrontational and bloody turn.
A different approach would require the US conducting back-to-back talks with the Israeli side and with a Palestinian (or Palestinian plus Arab states) interlocutor, in which one attempts to address the key legitimate needs and concerns of each party. It will be the role of the US and international partners to produce a proposal and implementation plan.”

That’s not to say that aid is not needed:

“Two separate Palestinian surveys have put the cost of the damage at just under $2bn.” – the BBC reports.

But maybe the problem’s too big for a check—no matter how large or generous-to fix.  Nonetheless I am cautiously optimistic about this overture from the US and I hope the US follows up by pressing Israel to open up the borders so that aid can enter without hindrance.

Co-written by Zahir Janmohamed and Ally Krupar

"What went on here?" : U.S. Lawmakers Assess the Damage in Gaza

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In the first congressional visit since Hamas was elected in 2006, Representative Brian Baird from Washington, Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Senator John Kerry visited Gaza yesterday.  They witnessed and reported the devastation of the population and the dire need of humanitarian assistance.  Rep.  Ellison, Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee member and the first Muslim congress member, stated that:

People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in – Rep. Ellison.

Aid is slowed by the blockade as Palestinians rebuild.

Aid is slowed by the blockade as Palestinians rebuild.

None of the men toured the area as representatives of the Obama administration and all refused to meet with Hamas, but they opened up a dialogue between American lawmakers and Gaza residents.  Rep. Baird “wanted to witness the situation on the ground” and helped Palestinian aid workers highlight the humanitarian crisis to the BBC.  Sen. Kerry, on the other hand, emphasized the problems with Hamas leadership, while touring a bombed out American school:

…Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets coming into it over many years, threatening its citizens, is going to respond – Sen. Kerry.

As lawmakers balance the politics of Hamas and Israeli interests, the Palestinian people are left with the shocking humanitarian devastation, 5,000 home destroyed, 1,300 lives lost, and over 5,000 injured.  More pointedly, Rep. Braid describes:

The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, schools completely leveled, fundamental needs such as water, sewer, and electricity facilities have been hit and immobilized. Relief agencies, themselves, have been heavily damaged. The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools; of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching. What went on here? And what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words. – Rep. Baird.

UN Should Do More for Gaza

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On February 12, 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced that a UN Board of Inquiry had begun its work “to review and investigate a number of specific incidents that occurred in the Gaza Strip between 27 December 2008 and 19 January 2009 and in which death or injuries occurred at, and/or damage was done to, United Nations premises or in the course of United Nations operations.”

While the UN has legitimate reason to be concerned about attacks on UN sites–including the Israeli attack on a UN school, the UN should expand its investigation to examine a broader range of possible war crimes, not just those directed at UN facilities or staff.

In other news, the fighting eslcalated again, with fresh Israel attacks on tunnels in Gaza that Israel says Palestinians use to smuggle weapons. Palestinians insist that the tunnels are the only way to permit food and supplies to enter, given the harsh blockades by Israel even on humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The BBC also reports that Israel “claimed” 425 acres of West Bank land, a possible indication of pro-settler policies by the new Israeli government.

The BBC reports:

…a leading Israeli newspaper says the Israeli civil administration in the West Bank has designated an area of 172 hectares (425 acres) as state land.

Haaretz says the decision could pave the way for some 2,500 new settlement homes to be built.

However, several steps of government approval are required for building work to begin, which the newspaper says means construction is still a long way off.

Israeli has pledged to freeze settlement activity on occupied land, but it has continued to expand existing settlements, built in defiance of international law since 1967.

Right-wing parties which fared well in Israeli elections on 10 February are strong supporters of the settlement movement, which is seen as a major obstacle to the two-state solution supported by the US.

The Crisis Continues

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As Israeli's vote, Palestinians rebuild; tents serve as a temporary shelter while humanitarian supplies filter into Gaza.

As Israelis vote, Palestinians rebuild; Tents serve as temporary shelter while humanitarian supplies filter into Gaza.

The crisis in Gaza continues as the Israeli elections wrap up.  Of the two front runners, Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, Livni appears to have a small lead as of this evening.  The question remains, who will address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with the most diligence?  Palestinian Fatah leaders worry about a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or Bibi, on the Israeli right, who they say would bolster Hamas in response to his appointment.  Then there’s Tzipi Livni, who has campaigned on a platform for peace, although she was an architect of the recent conflict.  She leans towards negotiations for a Palestinian state, where Bibi would not.  But the unknown of the election may be Avigdor Lieberman whose nationalist policies ban Arab journalists from his press conferences.  Lieberman may be the controversial candidate but Livni and Netanyahu are the two to watch in the next few days.  Israel’s elections are parliamentary offering 33 parties and proportional representation.  Voters select their party of choice and cast one vote; however, the Prime Minister is nominated by the President, based on the parties elected.

“Palestinian commentators explained that after being disappointed by governments led by all three major Israeli parties – Labor, Kadima and Likud – the public has stopped hoping. Regardless of who heads it, every government has continued building in the settlements and failed to reach a final-status agreement, the pundits said.” – Haaretz.

While election results filter in today and tonight, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon continues to work with the UN Relief Works Agency in Palestine to investigate possible targeting of UN civilian facilities committed by Israeli forces.  The elections and the UN investigation, however, have missed a vital human rights concern.

In a recent Media Briefing, Amnesty International reported the maiming, killings, abductions and disappearances of Hamas’ political opponents in Gaza.  At least 20 people have been killed since the start of the Israeli offensive in December.  Individuals targeted were former prisoners, Fatah affiliated politicians, and those who “collaborated with Israel.”

The testimonies and medical evidence of these attacks are irrefutable:

“Jamal al-Ghandour, in his mid-50s, was shot dead in his bed in al-Shifa hospital at about 4pm on 28 December by unmasked gunmen wearing plain clothes in front of relatives and other witnesses. Also present were uniformed members of Hamas security forces, who took no action to prevent the killing or to apprehend the perpetrators. Jamal al-Ghandour was receiving treatment for injuries he had sustained that morning in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza’s Central Prison, where he had been detained with his son since January 2008; both were accused of “collaborating” with the Israeli army.” – Amnesty International

Victims are hesitant to come forward under the Hamas de-facto administration.  Amnesty International is gravely concerned that administration in the Gaza Strip – instead of taking steps to stop and prevent deliberate killings and other grave abuses being perpetrated by its forces and militias – is not only disregarding such abuses but is justifying and even facilitating and encouraging them.

On February 2, 2009, Tahar al-Nanu spoke to a press conference:

“The government differentiates between abuses [of the law] and the actions taken by the resistance to protect itself from collaborators in times of war… There will be no mercy for the collaborators who have stabbed our people in the back.”

Unfortunately, al-Nanu provided a green light to target anyone based on any allegations of “collaboration” with the Israeli army, without giving those targeted a possibility to defend themselves against such accusations.

While Israel works out their new administration and the UN investigates attacks on UN facilities, there must be an impartial commission to investigate these human rights abuses and Hamas must be held accountable to fair trial standards and to witnesses and victims.  One step towards an investigation into these abuses would be for the UN to heed Amnesty International’s call for their inquiry into the conflict to include evidence of violations by all sides, not solely against UN facilities.

Written by Ally Krupar.  Edited by Zahir Janmohamed.