Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bracing for the worst-electricty cut off, bridges bombed, sonic boom attacks resume

In process of packing and moving down to North Carolina on Thursday...and writing some columns and lengthier post on the situation back home...but for now...just a brief post:

Friends and family in Gaza have told me they are bracing themselves for the worst, while praying for the best. In Rafah, the refugee camp that has not been spared the wrath of the Israeli Army on so many occasions in the past, where 16, 000 Palestinians lost their homes to armoured bulldozers, families have holed themselves indoors, fearing for their lives.

Israel has taken control of the border area, including Rafah Crossing, and the Airport. Colleague, friend, and activist Fida Qishta with whom I toured the northeast US is on her way to Egypt, where she will have to remain until she will be allowed to enter her home in Gaza in Rafah by Israeli forces, who have sealed off the Gaza Strip in its entirety. I was worried about her safety, since she is from Rafah, but I received a frantic telephone call from her in London airport where her flight was delayed, and where is making plans to remain exiled in Egypt. Meanwhile, journalist colleagues have told me that CNN and BBC crews from Jerusalem were also not allowed through the Erez Crossing into Gaza yesterday.

UPDATE: Israeli F-16s bombed Gaza's main bridge, right next to my father's farm, between northern and southern Gaza. They have also destroyed Gaza's ONLY power plant, and electricity in most of Gaza has been cut off as a result. I've just spoken to my grandmother in Khan Yunis, who confirmed the entire Strip has plunged into darkness, with people stocking up on food and supplies. The electricity of course has also been cut off in hospitals and clincs, though I'm not sure how long the generators can last.

Friends in Gaza City also tell us that terrorizing sonic boom attacks have resumed, stronger than before, full force, by low-flying jets breaking the sound barrier throughout the night over the civlian population-illegal in Israel, the united States, and most all of the world.

FYI I have re-enabled comment moderation due to spamming of the comment section.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Watch the World Cup, Join the Army, get a greencard!

There is a lot going on, and a lot to say and write, including about how my talk in Congress went on Friday, and of course, recent happenings in Gaza. I'm going to digress for a moment for a World Cup post. Not to worry, it will weave its way inevitably into our conflict.

A lot of people in the Middle East are up in arms (no, no pun intended) about the fact that ART (Arab Radio and TV Network)bought exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup for a whopping $300 million for the forseeable future. Angry, I say, partly because ART is a subscription only channel, while most other channels, includes the Aljazeera network (Aljazeera sports, etc.) are on the free-to-air network.

Now, the overwhelming majority of the people could not watch the World Cup unless they had this subscription service which costs $300 for the dish and reciever plus the monthly subscription fees for at least a year (or went to a public viewing area, such as a restaurant). According to this article in the Jordan Times, local Palestinian TV channels are re-broadcasting the games on terrestrial waves with ART's tacit approval (it has assured these broadcasters that they will not be sued...more likely because of the obvious futility of trying to sue us at this point than anything else).

It wasn't until yesterday that we realized we could watch the Mondial on ART America (which you can get on the Dish network). Up till now, we've been viewing it on the Spanish channel (hey, we can't understand a thing, but my sense is that what's to be understood? its football after all! the universal language! and when the commentator says "excellente! magnifique! GOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAL!" that's all I need to hear...). Of course, watching the World Cup in America, and footbal and the U.S., well, that's just another, very sad matter (its almost as though there IS no World Cup at the moment..with the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated about baseball, and this week's about the basketball).

There was one good column in SI about the matter by columnist Steve Rush (World's Right, We're Wrong). An excerpt:

"The average American eats three hamburgers a week, 16 orders of French fries a month, 25 pounds of candy a year ... and is profoundly uninterested in the World Cup. Soccer, it appears, is the only thing we don't want crammed down our throats. What does this attitude toward the World Cup say about the U.S.? It illuminates many of our least flattering qualities as a nation, not least of which is a breathtaking incuriosity about the rest of the world...Subliminally, our aversion may have less to do with red cards and yellow cards than green cards."

He goes on to say that a new Roper poll says two thirds of Americans between 18-24 can't find IRAQ on the map (you know, that country they're at war with)...and half cant' find New York City! That Ronaldinho is a victim of American bias against pony-tailed athletes. That soccer doesn't fit the American self-image of "ass-kickers", not "grass-kickers" (in another column, Rick Reilly comes up with his pick for the U.S. World Cup chant to replace the bland "U.S.A! U.S.A!": We are the Yankees! We are not afraid! You beat us tonight! Thursday, we invade!)

But I digress.

So, back to ART. Excitedly, we flip on the switch, and learn during commerical breaks that "the 2006 World Cup is brought to you buy the U.S. Army and the FBI", and are innundated with commercials telling us (us being Arabs) about the wonderful career opportunities available to us in the Army and FBI; how, if we join the Army, we could bring fresh water to thirsty Iraqi children (let's not mention that bombing part..too ugly for the camera); how we can be "a bridge between two worlds" because we speak two languages; heck, how we can all out "change the world". And-as an added bonus if you act NOW!- $10, 000 and a green card! Hoorah! Now I know what to do with my life!

Ok. Enough of that.

All of that, plus news of the kidnapping today, brought to mind a 1992 Israeli movie starring Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri, called "Cup Final" (Gmar Gavi'a). Its about an Israeli antique store owner/reservist soldier who is called to duty when Israel invades Lebanon in 1982 just as he is heading to the airport, tickets in hand, to watch the World Cup in Spain.

He is captured by a group of Palestinain fedaiyeen, led by Bakri, trying to make it to the Beirut, using them as bargaining chips. All the while, they both follow the matches closely by radio, sharing their love for soccer, and forming an obscure bond along the way. The Israeli learns a lot about their longing for a homeland, and sympathizes with them. The end is tragic, and leaves many questions open. Anyhow, it is an interesting movie, and it sort of came to mind today, though it is not necessarily. More of an interesting character study than anyting else, but def. worth seeing. And with that, I end my World Cup post.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Where there's toot...

...there are Palestinians! It's true! The subtley sweet lucious, oblong mullberry is in high season now. Few people here know they are even edible, I think. And because they drop to the ground when they are ripe for picking, even fewer bother to. But the trees are everywhere you go here (at least in Virginia and Maryland, and I remember seeing a few in Massachusetts a few years ago), usually discretely hidden amongst other trees, in parks or forest; and if you look closely, you'll find wild rasberry bushes of different varieties (we found yellow and black) lurking not far behind. We went berry picking (and eating) a few times, and Yousuf ate I think his weight in berries :); and we had a lot of curious passers-bys, with kids asking their father's "what are they eating"?

And almost every tree (or other berry farm) we'd go to, we'd find some Palestinians or Syrians picking too. That's because the trees, know as toot trees back home, are very popular and considered somewhat of a delicacy because the berries are hard to collect and are extremely perishable. Usually a small container sells for 10 shekels in Gaza fruit stores.

There is something of respect and heritage associated with the toot tree, because like the olive tree and the jumaiz tree (cousin of the fig), they have deep-roots and last for hundreds of years and are a sign of steadfastness and resiliency (sadly, the jumaiz is a dying breed, with many of the remaining trees in Gaza, including that whose drooping branches we used to swing on in my grandfather's farm, bulldozed in the early days of the Intifada by Israeli troops).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

To Connecticut, and beyond!

Its difficult to really talk about anything in light of the ongoing tragedies back home. I spoke a little about it this mornig on Pacifica's WBAI. I was really stunned after Friday's massacre, and then I wake up this morning to learn of yet another. Gaza is on the brink of implosion, and I'm not sure how much more it can take.

Well, because of all this, I did not have a chance to upload my final post on the rest of Fida and I's speaking tour. So, her it is, complet with pictures. Fida is on her way back to Gaza, I just pray she makes it safely:

Our travels continued as we made our way to Groton, Connecticut, “the submarine capital of the world”. I’ll be honest with you-we were a bit nervous about coming to Connecticut, staying with families we had never met or knew, and speaking to a variety of audiences in 3 different locations.

I can tell you, our experiences far exceeded our expectations. Our hosts-Liz and Peter Viering, and co-hosts and organizers, Hasan and Marge Fouda, were so unbelievably warm and welcoming, we might as well have been at home. We were truly overwhelmed by their hospitality and inspired by their tireless activism.

Peter is an Attorney with the Legal Department of the Liberty Alliance, and also a board member of the Council for the National Interest. He and his wife, who is on the board of If Americans Knew, hosted us in their beachside summer home (although the weather, typical of New England, did not match the month). We slept to the playful crash of waves and the intoxicating honey-sweet smell of “beach roses” (Rosa Rag osa), which grow on their own in the area and saturate the air.

Peter, Liz, and Hasan-a retired Egyptian American chemist and community activist- were also election monitors sent by the CNI to observe the Palestinian polls, along with former US ambassadors (their report is available on CNI's websit). During the course of their trip to the West Bank, Gaza, and beyond, they interviewed a plethora of figures, including Mahmud Zahar, Mohammad Dahalan, Nayef Rujoub, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Lebanese president Emil Lahoud.

When I thanked Peter for welcoming us into their town, he joked that Americans needed Palestinians to liberate them “from the Israeli occupation of the U.S.”

We gave two talks-one at a local church in Groton, another at the Islamic Center of New London (which was covered by the Local paper, the New London Day, here)...one minor error-the person Fida saw shot dead in front of her, and whom she carried, was actually a ten-year-old child (and, I'm sure, the IOF blamed it on "pollywood").

Barring a few technical setbacks, they were both well-attended, and by a diverse audience at that.

The first talk was also “monitored” by a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, who was furiously scribbling notes during our talk and was quick to give the usual Zionist harangue in the Question and Answer Period in an attempt to silence and obfuscate (“what they failed to mention was that the reason Karni was closed was because of homicide bombings. You have a terrorist government that wants to destroy Israel. Blah blah blah blah blah.”).

I’m still not quite certain how he had the audacity to make some comments after such powerful first-hand testimony.

I had little patience for his irreverent attacks, and neither did Fida.

Still, I let him have his say, and answered his points one by one, and when he asked for my “formula” for a just solution, he listened intently until I mentioned “right of return”, when he did a double-take and gawked “right of what?? Oh NO NO NO…[sound out]”

And his thoughts on the un-sustainability of maintaining the Jewish majority?

“Educate the Arab women so they’ll bear fewer children.”


His “question” was followed by a comment from a woman in the audience-a Jewish-American lawyer who wanted to express her thanks and support, and her distaste of the intimidation tactics long used against her and others, who tried to stifle any discussion or opposition, especially amongst their own ranks.

On Wednesday we traveled to Farmington, CT where we spoke at Tunxis Community College, where I was able to catch up with a long-time friend from my college days, the wonderful Mazin Qumsiyeh.

The Dean of the College, an extremely articulate and intelligent woman, is thought to be the only Muslim academic dean in all of America.

By this time, we really felt our presentation style had improved, as we relayed our personal journeys and struggles as women under occupation. At the end of the talk, Colleen asked who in the audience felt they had come out with something from the night’s talk, or had learned something knew, and almost everyone raised heir hands to our astonishment. We were truly overwhelmed.

When words fail me...

These are difficult times for Palestinians, and particularly for Gazans. Its all the more difficult when I am away, and can do little more than watch my people being bombarded, beseiged econmically and politcally, and suffocated from afar. When words fail me, I always take comfort in the power of those who can convey the situation to the world.

Here, a selection of two excellent articles by Danny Rubebstein and Gideon Levy, and one interview on Democracy Now with Chris Mcgreal, and my Aunt, Mona El-Farra, physician, community activist, and author of From Gaza, With Love blog, which discusses, among other things, claims that the beach massacre was was not the result of Israeli shelling (discusses eyewitness reports as well as Human Rights Watch findings).

"The events of this past weekend should not come as a surprise
to anyone: The deterioration has been going on for weeks,
and the question that should be asked is not what Israel
is doing to counter the Qassams, but what it is not doing.
An army that fires missiles at busy streets and tank
shells at a beach cannot claim there was no intent to harm
innocent civilians." -Gideon Levy

"Until Israel does not announce a change of policy, a desire for a complete
cease-fire and a genuine willingness for dialogue - this is how the situation will continue." -Danny Rubinstein

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bloody Friday: 10 killed in Gaza massacre, as shelling, sonic booms continue

Just as I've made my way back to Maryland, getting ready to post about how the rest of my trip went, and my stint on Democracy Now this mornig, I learned that 10 palestinians have been been by Israeli shelling in northern Gaza as they were picnicing on the beach. 3 of them were children-two under the age of two. And their mother. And forty others wounded. We called my Aunt, who works with the al-Awda hospital in northern Gaza. She was hysterical, and this is a woman who seldom loses her grip.

She just spoke of blood and body parts, and how one of the cameramen at the hospital couldn't hold it together and dropped his camera as he was filming after he heard a bloodied, batterd girl crying out for her father.

I feel so useless being here, so impotent and angered, and I just want to cry and scream at once. After a week of energizing talks, in which I really felt I could contribute a little bit by informing people this happens.

My aunt also said the dreaded Sonic Boom Attacks had resumed and that Israeli air crafts were beginning to shell areas of Khan Yunis, in al-Qarara. And just last night, I was talking about how the sonic booms, under pressure from human rights organizations, had seemed to cease-albeit without official declration. I spoke too soon.

The horror continues, and the main headline on Yahoo's sidebar? "Hamas to resume attacks in Israel."

I guess that answer's Amy Goodman's question to me this morning: "How do you think this all is being conveyed in the media?"

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

From Rafah to New York City

Well, we're on the way out to Connecticut for our next talk. "We" is me and my speaking partner, Fida Qishta. Fida is a young Palestinian woman from Gaza's battered Rafah refugee camp. Her story, like so many others, is as devastating as it is inspiring, especially because it is so rare to see such resilience, tenacity, and hope from someone-and a Gaza woman at that-who has endured so much trauma and dread.

Fida is a 23 year old educator and community activist. She was born and raised in the Rafah refugee camp. In addition to Arabic, she speaks English, French, and some German, all of which she learned. Fida's life was turned upside-down, quite literally, when her house was demolished without warning (she has 2 minutes to take her most important life possessions with her, and did not even have time to take the only picture she had of her deceased best friend) by armoured Israeli bulldozers in 2004.

Fida's life was shattered in the span of those few minutes-and suddenly she became of those nameless statistics, one of the 16, 000 who lost their homes in Rafah. Since that time, Fida and her family moved 7 times, most recently renting a house in Rafah town. Two of her cousins were killed, one because he refused to leave his house when Israeli soldiers commanded him to do so in order for them to raze his home. They demolished it on top of him.

But as traumatic as it was to lose her home and become a refugee all over again so suddenly,so senselessly. the major turning point in Fida's life happened while she was standing on the side of one of Rafah's dusty, unearthed streets days later. An Israeli sniper was monitoring the street from afar-and she, and many others, needed to cross to get to shelter. She hesitated, she explained, because her family, on the other side, told her to stay put, while others encouraged her to cross quickly.

In her moment of hesitation, a young boy-10 years old, decided to demonstrate his bravado, in a place where everyone wants desperately to become a hero; where bravery is all young boys have left to cling to. "You're afraid? Well, I'm not. See!" What happened next, Fida said, was like something out of a bad dream. The sniper struck the boy with a single bullet to the head. And before she knew it, Fida ran out to the middle of the street, and carried the boy to an ambulance. "I can tell you it wasn't me out there. Till this day, I'm not sure who it was that carried that boy". Medics later confirmed the boy died on the street, when the bullet struck.

But despite all this, she managed to find a glimmer of hope to cling to and build upon. She opened a children's center and afterschool program based on Muslim-televangalist Amr Khalid's "Lifemakers" concept, that went from having 40 students to 300, and from 2 teachers to ten. The center also organized city-wide street and cemetary cleanups, with the philosphy of taking an active role in changing their lives. "If the municpality cant' or won't do it, then we can't sit around and complain or watch idly; we have to take an active role in changing our lives," Fida explained. Fida also has plans for several other projects, such as building playgronds in and around refugee camps and changing the road signs in Gaza. Here's to Fida-and all the young, inspiring Palestinian women like her.

In the Big Apple

I know, I know, I keep promising all these new blog posts and I don't follow through with my commitments; another crazy weekend that entailed Yousuf and his cousin Zade concocting all sorts of evil plots (see: wouldn't it be fun to smash a glass jar with a moth in it with the bar-b-q grill's metal spatula? Also see: Hey! I have an idea! Let me try and tickle Yousuf with this wooden skewer!)

However I am increasingly getting back into sync. I'm in New York today to spearhead a week-long series of speaking engagements (i'll post the schedule below). I'll try to update as I have time (Yousuf isn't with me-for the first time for more than 24 hours, so I'm all emotions..but I also have more time to work :))

For those in the NY or CT areas, here is the schedule:

Monday June 5th
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
521 West 126th Street
New York, NY

Tuesday June 6
7:00 PM
Noank Baptist Church
Main Street
Noank, CT. 06340

Wednesday June 7
10:00 AM
Islamic Center of New London
16 Fort street, Groton, Ct 06340

Wednesday June 7th
6:00 PM
Tunxis Community College
271 Scott Swamp Road
Farmington, CT 06032

Thursday, June 8th
8:00 PM
at Maryhouse,
55 East 3rd Street
(between 1st & 2nd Ave.)
New York, NY
Co-sponsored by...
Women in Black/Union Square
The NY Catholic Worker