Friday, January 30, 2009

The Fine Art of Mapping

Today I meet a very nice young Jewish man named Michael. Like all Jewish Israeli citizens he served in the army from the age of 18 to 22. Non-Jewish citizens which make up over 20% of the population of Israel are not required to serve, with a few minor exceptions, but Jewish boys and girls are required to. Boys serve for three years and girls for two. It is such a traumatic experience for them that most leave Israel for some period of time after their service to put it behind them for a while and regroup mentally. Drug and alcohol abuse are real problems during both their service and after. On the flight over I sat next to another very nice young Jewish man who was just then returning to Israel after three years in San Francisco. He said, “I just needed to get away”. He met an Israeli girl there who was getting away too and they are getting married in a few months. They will return to live in Israel. MIchael had to leave for a while too. He came back to get married and is now happily married and living in his home town of Jerusalem.

Why is it so traumatic for these young people that they need to leave? Michael is one of an increasing number of young Israelis who are breaking the silence to help their families and friends understand but also to help them to heal. They have formed a group called Breaking The Silence ( and are publishing word for word interviews with young Israelis who have completed their service and need to talk about it. Michael told us that army service is a significant cultural element of Jewish Israeli society because everyone has been through it. Many people define themselves for the rest of their lives by their army experience. Males must continue to be in the reserves, on paper at least, and many serve in that capacity for a month at a time until they are 35.
Michael was deeply impacted by what he saw and he said he is ashamed of what he did during that time. He is afraid of the impact on his generation. He told us about many different structured (orders) and unstructured (random) abuses that he witnessed against Palestinians. It has become something of a sport in the army to invent new ways to make the lives of innocent Palestinians as difficult as possible. Verbal abuse is expected and it is common for solders to beat people up including children for no reason or any reason at all. Young Israeli women are particularly harsh so they can prove their toughness to their male platoon mates. He talked about many incidents of random violence against Palestinian by him and his fellow solders, “just to pass the time”. He said, “It becomes a game”. One thing he told us is that they are not required to account for anything other than live ammunition so they can use as many sound bombs, smoke bombs and “rubber bullets” as they want to. They use a lot because it is “fun”. Rubber bullets are not actually rubber. They are lead covered with rubber, and he told us there are many solders that sharpen the rubber ends to make them more lethal of modify them so they fragment. Many people have been killed by 'rubber bullets'
There are many abuses that are built into the systems of the occupation such as the checkpoints and limiting access to roads among hundreds of others. He highlighted one that I had not heard of. It is the practice of ‘mapping’. This is done throughout what Israelis call ‘the territories’; what the world calls the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mapping is a process whereby a heavily armed platoon goes from house to house to document each of the residents and literally make a detailed drawing of the inside of the house. It takes about an hour per house. The platoon storms the house without any warning forcing the family out of their home. The home is completely searched and a detailed drawing made of the layout. When this is done solders are told to leave as much mess and damage as possible. They them move on to the next house and repeat the process. The plan is to map every house in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Literally every soldier has had this experience as it is a very common practice. One thing I did not tell you is that this is almost always done in the middle of the night for maximum mental impact on the household.
A few weeks ago the EAPPI team in Jayous a rural farming village in the West Bank experienced a different spin on this type of invasion. A helicopter appeared over the village in the middle of the night and a paratrooper team rapelled from the Helicopter and surrounded a house in the village. They broke into the house forced the family into the street and ‘mapped’ the house. When the EAPPI team asked what they were doing and why, they were told that it was just a training exercise. When asked how they happened to choose the house they choose for the “exercise”, they were told. “It was as good as any other!” They left as fast as they arrived in the helicopter leaving a devastated family in tears.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Im Kamel's Tent

We went to visit a women living in an area close to Jerusalem. The story I heard there blew my mind. She is living in a tent because she has been forced out of her home. She is a refugee from 1948 when her family was forced out of what is now Israel. In 1956 an international agency built several homes in this neighborhood which at that time was part of Jordon. She and her husband were given clear title to one of these houses. It is a duplex type house and her brother was living in the other half of the house. When her brother was away in 2001 Israeli settlers occupied half of her house and set up an armed camp there. She and her husband continued to live in the house while they tried to pursue legal action to have the armed settlers removed from the other half of their house. The government keep dragging their feet and in the mean time the settlers got more violent and made life miserable for the family. With the help of international lawyers they finally won a court case to have the settlers evicted. Even though she won the case and the judge ordered the housing authority to remove the settlers, the housing authority simply refused to acknowledge the court order. On the day after the settlers were to be removed the army came and actually removed her and her husband from there own house. He was ill and in a wheelchair when they removed him from the home he clearly owns. Since last December she has been living in a make shift tent nearby. The incident was so traumatic for her husband that in the second week after they were forced out, he had a heart attack and died. She is now on her own and still fighting, with lots of international help, to get her house back. The army has demolished her tent four times and has fined her tens of thousands of dollars for the demolition costs. The tent is on private land owned by a friend of hers and he has given her permission to live there. They have fined him too. The next court battle is on February 8th but the experts are saying that even if they win again in court. the verdict will likely be ignored because the government only accepts the finding of their own courts if they want to. The next time you hear someone say that we need to support Israel because it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Think of this story.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Women in Black

Most people do not realize that there are many Jewish Israeli peace organizations actively working to find peace with the Palestinians. It is a difficult road for them in Israel but they are very committed to peace with justice. I met an amazing women today, Gila Svirski. Every Friday for 21 years and two week Gila and her band of Jewish women have been standing in Paris Square dressed in black to protest their governments occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They choose to wear black as a sign of mourning. I would like to share with you her story because I think it gives some incite into the fact that there is wide diversity of opinion within Israel as to how to find peace once and for all. Gila. I think represents the voice of reason.

Gila was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her mother was an early Zionist who moved with her parents from Europe to what was, at the time, Palestine in 1935. Her mother emigrated to the United States and Gila was born and raised in New Jersey. The family continued their orthodox practice of the Jewish faith. In 1966, when she was 19, they moved to what was by then Israel and settled in Jerusalem where she started a family. Her view of Israel was the idyllic one of the shining city on the hill. She was a believer in the commonly held view of the time, that Israel was pursuing "an enlightened occupation" in which the goal was to bring civilization to the Arabs.

When the settlement movement began in the 1970's she visited a settlement to see if would be a good place to live. It was then that she personally witnessed the brutality with which Palestinians were treated and started to question the sensibility of building east of the green line which in 1967 had been established as the border. She says the 1987 intifada was like a lightning bolt to her consciousness and in 1988 she founded Women in Black in an effort to convince her government to pull back to the green line and affirm a Palestinian state.

She is very clear on the stumbling blocks to peace and their solutions which I found to be quite sensible. The foundation is that there must be an end to the occupation and a two state solution based on the green line. Jews need to control a state of their own and a one state solution where the Jews and Palestinians live together in one unified country would mean that the Palestinians would outnumber the Jews. Israel would have to become a secular state and that is untenable for Jews because of the Holocaust. The issues and solutions in her view are:

Settlements - Their are today 400,000 Jews living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, east of the green line. Of those 200,000 are in greater Jerusalem, including 30,000 in Ariel and another 30,000 in Mali Adumin. Clearly not all of these Jews can be relocated to Israel so there will need to be a land swap whereby Palestine would receive land that is currently part of Israel. This would require the relocation of about 200,000 settlers and she has a great idea for how to get them to move. Over five a year transition period you pay the settlers to relocate to Israel on a decreasing basis, i.e. full payment in year one decreasing to zero in year five. If after year five they choose to stay they are no longer Israeli citizens and they can become citizens of Palestine.

Jerusalem - The city of Jerusalem which is cherished by three religions needs to be shared, as it has for century's, and be the capital of both Israel (West Jerusalem) and Palestine (East Jerusalem).

Refugees - In 1948 the Jews forced 700 thousand Palestinians into refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordon and the West Bank. Since that time the Palestinians have continuously demanded a right to return to their homes under international law. Gila says this issue appears more difficult than it is. This issue has more to do with the acknowledgement of the injustice that was done to the Palestinians than their actual relocation after all these years. There are two components to the solution that she says is consistent with Arab culture where it is OK to say one thing and do another. The first step is the key which is to acknowledge (say) the injustice and the right of return provided for under international law. A small number of Palestinians would become citizens of Israel based on family reunification needs. The remaining refugees would be made citizens of their host countries and paid reparations (do) by Israel.

Water - Existing water resources need to be shared ratibly to both countries and a major international investment in desalination plants needs to be made to assure water resources for both countries. Today Israel has gerrymandered the border in order to control both the water and tillable land. Palestine needs to get back the tillable land east of the green line and the water to produce crops on it.

For 21 years Gila has studied the issues involved in a lasting peace from deep within the Israeli culture. She is convinced that peace is possible. If she did not she would not stand on this corner every Friday. It can be done with American help and encouragement. Our new President is obviously committed to it with the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for peace on only his second day as President. Lets all hope she and President Obama are right.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Washington DC

It has been a very interesting couple of days in Washington DC. I have been here for the last few days doing training along with the other American member of the team, Pat Ochodnicky. Pat’s blog can be found at

We have been meeting in the Capital Hill neighborhood and there is electricity in the air that you cannot help but feel. We are leaving tonight for Jerusalem and another week of training there but, I am very glad that I had the opportunity to be in DC for these past few days and experience the excitement. The bitter cold has not stopping any of the one million plus people who have come here to witness history. Everyone you see has a big smile on their face.

In addition to our training in International Humanitarian Law, and Middle East culture, we had the opportunity to meet with the legislative staffs of both Michigan Senators. They have expressed great interest in our mission and want to keep in touch with us along the way, and meet with us when we return to Washington on our way home in April. We truly are representing our country in many ways in the effort and are happy to have the support.

It is funny how fate works. While we were out to lunch one of the days, we stopped to buy an Obama t-shirt at one of the many t-shirt stands. Also buying a t-shirt at the same stand was Congresswomen Lois Capps from California. She happens to be one of only a very few members of congress who have visited the West Bank, met with Palestinians and has seen first hand the impact of the occupation from their prospective. She meet met with some of the Ecumenical Accompaniers when she visited in 2004 and has traveled to some of the most troubled areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She was happy to hear that Pat and I were on the next team representing all Americans.

While most of our elected Members of Congress and Senators have visited Israel at the invitation of Israel Lobby groups, almost none of them visit with Palestinians while they are there, or visit the West Bank. Until this changes and our elected officials can get exposed to both sides of this conflict US legislation will continue to support an unending cycle of violence. Please join me in supporting those elected officials who have the courage to try to see both sides like Congresswomen Capps.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?