Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

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The latest Israeli assault on Gaza is impossible to comprehend if one relies on the mainstream media.  Once again they obscure and distort what’s actually happening on the ground, and why.

On the ground, Gaza, Nov 14, 2012.

By contrast, I trust implicitly reports coming out of Gaza via the well-connected Mondoweiss website, run by American journalists Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz.  Here is a small selection of the most recent:

No safe haven: Civilians under attack in the Gaza Strip.  Sent by a team of international eyewitnesses in Gaza, November 16, 2012.

Day Three of Israeli Attack on Gaza.  Nov 16, 2012.

Two new resources: Timeline of Israeli escalation in Gaza and Israel’s history of breaking ceasefires.  by Adam Horowitz, November 14, 2012.  A close look at the real motives behind Israel’s assaults on Gaza.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of these crimes, committed with Israel’s unique impunity, don’t count on our governments or the UN to stop the carnage.  They will not.  But there is something that the rest of us can do.  It may seem small, distant, even pointless, but just remember, in the 1980s ending apartheid in South Africa also seemed impossible.  Something we can do:

BDS Movement: Stop a new Israeli massacre in Gaza — boycott Israel now!

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A new approach to Palestinian ‘aid’

A fascinating essay by Nadia Hijab, Alaa Tartir, and Jeremy Wildeman, published last week in Foreign Policy, a prestigious journal based in Washington DC.

Olive harvest, Palestine

Nadia Hijab is the director, Alaa Tartir the program director, and Jeremy Wildeman guest author with Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, an informative source.  [MR: Jeremy Wildeman, co-founder of Project Hope in Nablus, is featured in Our Way to Fight: peace-work under siege in Israel-Palestine.]

Their thoughts on Palestinian ‘aid’:

The U.S. State Department recently warned (again) that any move by the Palestine Liberation Organization to enhance the organization’s status at the United Nations would, among other things, put United States aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) at risk.

That day may not be far off.  PA President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the UN General Assembly to upgrade Palestine to non-member state status later this month.  But would a U.S. aid cutoff really be such a bad thing?  More voices are questioning international aid to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, with some even calling for a full boycott of the aid industry.

Palestinians do need international assistance.  However, after decades of failure in assistance programs, it is well past time to devise an alternative aid agenda that goes beyond just helping Palestinians cope with occupation while Israel pulls their land out from under them.  An alternative model that makes aid effective must challenge the status quo and support the quest for freedom, rights, and self-determination.

Before discussing how, it is worth briefly revisiting the problems with international aid.  They are best illustrated by the World Bank’s latest growth report for the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs). The report offers a negative prognosis of the Palestinian economy and, unsurprisingly, it concludes that growth based on foreign aid is unsustainable.

Yet the World Bank’s own policy prescriptions have been a large part of the problem because they heavily influence the way donors design their aid programs.  Two examples:

  • Conventional economic theories are applied to the OPTs and, as a result, some policy recommendations are dangerously unrealistic.  The growth report actually called on the Palestinians to emulate the Asian tigers by “adopting an outward orientation and integrating into world supply chains” and said the PA should strive for a business environment “that is among the best in the world.”  Just how an “authority” that exercises no control over its own land, borders, and natural resources can carry out such export-based private sector growth is not explained.
  • The growth report repeats the dangerous belief that the OPTs’ economy can benefit from deeper integration with the Israeli economy.  The fact is Israel has made sure that such “integration” has been one-sided, allowing it to exploit a captive Palestinian market with international aid paying for the large trade deficit with Israel.

An alternative aid model would focus donors on ways to counter dispossession, keep Palestinians on their land, and challenge Israel’s occupation policies and practices without forfeiting the ability to function in the OPTs.  Here are three things donors can consider: promoting self-reliance in basic foods and reversing the decline of the agricultural sector; supporting cooperatives and local economic enterprises; and assisting sectors such as information technology that could break through the barriers Israel has erected around the Palestinian economy.  Most importantly, they should do no harm.

None of this is impossible.  During the first Intifada, and despite Israeli counter-measures, Palestinians in the OPTs reduced their economic dependence on Israel by promoting local consumption and generating local employment.  The situation is much more complex today given the far greater fragmentation of the territories and illegal Israeli settlement building. Nevertheless, there is still much that can be done.

The first step must be to reverse the decline in the agricultural sector: Its contribution to GDP fell from around 13.3 percent in 1994 to 5.2 percent in 2010.  This was largely due to Israeli colonization practices, particularly in Area C, which constitutes some 62 percent of the West Bank and includes its best land and water resources.  However, it is also due to PA and donor neglect that left the sector seriously under-resourced.  No more than 1 percent of the total annual budget has been allocated to agriculture sector since the PA was formed (around 85 percent of which goes to staff salaries), and agriculture dropped to around 0.74 percent of international total aid by 2006.

Moreover, the sector was steered from key staples to cash crops for export such as flowers, even though Israel controlled access to and from the OPTs thus reducing self-reliance.

Instead, policies should support low-intensity agriculture, using targeted subsidies to enable farmers to stay on their land and reinforce its productivity, which can also help create jobs.  The food produced should be directed primarily to local markets, reducing dependency on food aid and Israeli imports.

Integrated agricultural units can be supported, as Palestinian environment expert George Kurzom suggests.  For example, herbs can serve as fodder in winter, trees can provide food as well as animal feed and fuel, with tools and machinery maintained by local mechanics.  Other possibilities include urban agriculture, aquaponics, and “vertical gardens” that have been piloted among Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon and in the OPTs.  Recent youth initiatives to support farmers in their lands and encourage volunteerism, such as Fariq Saned, are inspiring examples.  PA departments can assist by providing access to finance, technical assistance, and institutional memory, among other support.

Secondly, it is important to promote cooperatives and local economic enterprises.  Cooperatives have also been neglected in the OPTs despite their economic potential in agribusiness, small industry, and crafts production.  Cooperatives can help break barriers, overcome geographic isolation, and expand markets — and build social solidarity and self-reliance.  [MR: A spectacular example is the Palestine Fair Trade Association, which provides olive oil and other Palestinian food products to Zatoun, a grassroots fair trade organization in Canada, and counterparts in other countries.  The PFTA and Zatoun are both featured in Our Way to Fight].

Although some aid has been directed to cooperatives, there is insufficient donor understanding that this is an economic enterprise albeit with social responsibility.  Some aid unwittingly weakens cooperatives by dealing with them as charitable grant-making organizations, feeding into a culture of dependency rather than self-reliance among communities.  [MR: For precisely these reasons, the Palestine Fair Trade Association consistently refuses donor aid.]

Rather, investment should be made in building the capacity of both the government’s cooperative department and existing cooperative associations on sound governance, enterprise development, and cooperation principles.  Recent investment in the capacity of women-majority Union of Cooperative Associations for Savings and Credit in the OPTs provide useful lessons.

Indeed, women’s economic activity can be targeted through cooperatives since most women already work in family-based agriculture and in food and handicrafts micro-enterprises.  There is in addition a need to identify new niche markets, especially in services, so as to increase both the scope and diversity of women’s work.

Another avenue for donor assistance to the OPTs is to develop sustainable local enterprise networks (SLENs) that promote local market-based approaches.  Samer Abdelnour has documented experiences in the Sudan as well as in Lebanon and in the OPTs.  Efforts in the OPTs that could be developed among these lines include community permaculture projects in Nablus and Beit Sahour, and the fair trade initiatives Zatoun, Zaytoun and Canaan Fair Trade that reach international markets.  Other interventions could include rooftop farming, small-scale health franchises, and certified midwives.

A third promising area for investment is the Palestinian Information Technology (IT) sector, which may be relatively impervious to strict Israeli limitations on Palestinians’ freedom of movement.  Investment in the sector during the aid induced upswing of 2008 to 2010 buoyed hopes.  Since 2009, $78 million has been invested while IT grew from 0.8 percent to 5 percent of Palestinian GDP from 2008 to 2010 — albeit on modest revenue of $6 million. Still, for the Palestinian economy this is a rare growth area dependent less on foreign aid than it is on private sector investment.

U.S. technology firm CISCO, which invested $15 million in the OPTs, went so far as to say that “Palestine is on the brink of becoming the next high tech global hotspot.”  In pointing to Palestinian strengths in education and English-language skills, Google’s Gisel Kordestani says they could help “build something for the Arab world.”

However, even the IT sector is held hostage to the occupation.  For example, Israel impeded the upgrade of Palestinian communications hardware necessary for an IT sector to flourish and does not provide frequencies for 3G services putting them at a great competitive disadvantage.  Moreover, there is the danger that Israeli companies will reap the lion’s share of the rewards, reinforcing unjust hierarchies of control that make growth impossible under occupation.  A warning sign is that Israel itself is soliciting European donors for this sector.

Finally, there is the crucial issue of doing no harm.  Some of the same donors who fund Palestinian development also fund PA security collaboration with Israel and projects aimed at “normalizing” the occupation. They are now being challenged by the youth movement as well as by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  Some voices are calling on Palestinians to decline aid from nations that directly support Israeli military activities.

An alternative aid agenda would need political protection by donor agencies and their governments because it would pose a direct challenge to Israel’s colonial enterprise.

Further, an alternative model encompassing the kinds of policies and programs described above would have to be linked to a political process that secures Palestinian rights under international law.  Otherwise donors are simply soothing the pain while Israel continues to colonize and dispossess the Palestinian people.


I will not be fuel to the fire of your war

At age 18, Omar Saad, a young Druze Palestinian musician from the Galilee village of al-Mughar received the usual summons to enlist in the Israeli army.  Recent studies show that if given the choice, two thirds of Druze youth would not enlist.  But they do not have a choice.  Since 1956, enlistment in the Israeli military has been compulsory for Druze citizens of Israel.

Omar Saad

The Druze are a monotheistic religious community which emerged during the 11th century.  They live primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (now Israel), and Jordan.

Soon after the 1948 war, the newly created state of Israel instituted a divide and conquer policy to separate the Druze from other Palestinian Israelis.  This included providing the Druze with greater financial and political support than other Palestinians, registering them as a separate ethno-religious group (“Druze”, not “Arab”) in official ID documents, and creating a separate education system for them.  As intended, this policy led to increasing Israelization of the Druze, and to reinforcing the idea that in the Middle East conflict, the Druze and the Jews share common interests as opposed to Palestinians and Arabs.  As a result, in 1956 the Druze leadership accepted conscription (it is not applied to other Palestinians).  However, from the beginning there has also been active resistance to forced conscription.

Omar Saad is one of a growing number of Druze youth who refuse to serve in the Israeli military.  He explains his reasons in this letter (translated from Arabic) to the Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister:

I the undersigned, Omar Zahr Eldin Mohammad Saad from the village of Mughar – Galilee, have received a notice to appear in the military recruitment offices on 31.10.2012 to conduct tests according to the conscription law imposed on the Druze community.  I would like to make the following points:

I refuse to appear for tests, because I oppose the law of conscription imposed on my Druze community.  I refuse because I am a man of peace and I hate all forms of violence, and the military institution represents for me the peak of physical and psychological violence.

Since I received the notice to appear for tests, my life has changed.  I became more nervous, my thoughts were distracted, I remembered thousands of cruel images, and I couldn’t imagine myself wearing military uniform and participating in the suppression of my Palestinian people or fighting my Arab brothers.

I oppose the recruitment to the Israeli military and any other military for conscience and nationalistic reasons.  I hate the injustice and oppose the occupation; I hate intolerance and restriction of freedoms.  I hate those who detain children, the elderly and women.

I am a musician, I play the Viola.  I have played in many places, I have musician friends from Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Shfa’amr, Eilabun, Rome, Athens, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Oslo.  We all play for freedom, humanity and peace; our weapon is the music and we shall not have any other weapon.

I am from a community that is unjustly treated by an unjust law.  How can we fight our relatives in Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon?  How can I hold arms against my brothers and people in Palestine?  How can I be a soldier standing at Qalandia checkpoint or any other checkpoint, after I experienced the injustices at these checkpoints?

How can I prevent someone from Ramallah to visit his city, Jerusalem?  How can I guard the apartheid wall?  How can I be a jailer to my own people while I know that the majority of prisoners are freedom prisoners and seekers of rights and freedom?

I play for joy, for freedom, for a just peace based on halting settlements, the end of the occupation in Palestine, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem its capital, the release of all prisoners in prisons and the return of displaced refugees to their homes.

Many of the youth from my community have done the compulsory service in the army, what have we received?  Discrimination in all areas, our villages are the poorest, our lands were confiscated, there are no master plans, and no industrial zones.  Percentages of university graduates in our villages of the lowest in the region, the unemployment rates in our villages are the highest.  This mandatory law has kept us away from our Arab connection.

This year, I will finish high school, and I seek to complete my university education.  I’m sure you will try to make me abandon my human ambition, but I announce it loudly:

I, Omar Zahr Eldin Mohammad Saad, will not be the fuel to the fire of your war, and will not be a soldier in your army.

Omar Saad

[MR:  Druze men who refuse military service face severe punishment, and serve longer prison terms than other non-Druze refusers.  Stay tuned.]

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“The song will live”: Freedom bus & Zakaria Zubeidi

International pressure has finally succeeded in forcing the Palestinian Authority to release Zakaria Zubeidi from prison, after they had held him without charge since May 13.   But he’s still not free.  An update follows.  First, exhilarating news from the Freedom Bus, a project of the amazing Theatre that Zakaria co-founded in the Jenin refugee camp:

Freedom bus giant puppets vs the wall.  Photo: Alternative Information Centre.

The Freedom Bus has just completed its first Freedom Ride, bringing together Palestinians and internationals on a tour to communities all over the West Bank, occupied Palestine.

The Freedom Bus visited some of the most besieged areas in the West Bank.  Palestinian actors and musicians enacted personal accounts of community members, touching on issues such as home demolitions, land confiscation, army invasions, arbitrary arrests, settler violence, water shortage, the effects of the Wall and much more.  Interactive theatre and music performances were complemented by university seminars, community tours, hip hop concerts, giant puppet shows and marches.

The Freedom Bus made its first stop in Faquaa, where although the village’s name means spring water bubbles, the villagers are struggling to get access to clean water due to Israel’s separation barrier and land confiscation.  The performance was watched, from a distance, by Israeli soldiers looking through binoculars, photographing and filming the crowd over the barbed wire.

The bus continued on to Nabi Saleh, a small village surrounded by settlements, where we heard several stories from women in the village who are very involved in the non-violent resistance.  A newly released prisoner also joined the performance, and as the villagers joyfully crowded around him to welcome him home he told the audience about his experiences of being held in Israeli prison.

In Aida Camp, close to Bethlehem, the Freedom Bus actors had the opportunity to perform in a beautiful purpose-built outdoor theatre directly next to the Separation Wall.  As we performed in the shadow of the wall, the lights of our show lit up the resistance graffiti.  It was a truly astonishing setting.  An elderly man began his story with a joke: “When people come into your house, they usually choose to enter through the front door. But in the Second Intifada our visitors [Israeli soldiers] came through the walls.”  He was referring to the Israeli practice of bombing the walls of neighbouring houses to move through the camp internally.  His house was invaded in this way and occupied by a group of soldiers for seventeen days before the army set off a bomb that exploded through the walls of five adjacent houses.

Another stop was made in Ramallah, where in the unlikely setting of a corporate conference room, we heard stories from Gazans who lived through the war on Gaza of December 2008 to January 2009.  The Ramallah performance was beamed to people in Gaza.  As the Freedom Bus actors introduced themselves, they said they dreamed of one day being able to perform in Gaza without the need of wires and cables.  A woman from the Gazan group summed up what many were feeling when she said: “I am happy to see you, but unhappy about the borders between us.”

In Al-Walajah, a village facing impending strangulation by the Separation Wall, the Freedom Bus joined community members in a creative march to protest the attacks on their land and homes. The villagers of Walajah have owned the land for generations, but only inhabit one side of the valley after they were expelled from the location of their original village in 1948.  Soon, the valley will also be lost and the wall will essentially imprison the village.

The Freedom Bus also headed to Hebron or Al-Khalil, one of the biggest cities in the West Bank and historically a trading centre.  These days, however, the central market places of Hebron are silent.  The shops are closed and Palestinians are constantly threatened with attack by the extreme hard-line settlers that have invaded the top storeys of Palestinian homes.  Many homes in the Old City have been vacated.  “Welcome to the ghost town,” said one little boy.

In a desert valley overlooked by hilltop settlements near Jerusalem, we found the tiny village of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin encampment of ramshackle hand-built shacks of tin, plastic and wood.  The Freedom Bus chose to visit Khan al-Ahmar in order to highlight the conditions of the often-forgotten Palestinian Bedouin population in Israel-Palestine.  These people are prevented from pursuing their traditional way of life and their homes are constantly under threat. Nonetheless, an older Bedouin man described the Bedouin as “fierce and resilient people” who will resist as long as they can.  As one young Bedouin man put it: “The singer may die, but the song will live.”

It is hard to do justice to the experiences of this Freedom Ride.  The international participants left occupied Palestine with memories for life.  Perhaps the strongest impression was the steadfastness and creativity of people living under occupation.  Their stories, brought to life by the Freedom Bus actors, acted as a remarkable testimony of a collective struggle to live with dignity in the face of oppression.

This historic Freedom Ride would not have been possible without your support.  As we look ahead towards what we hope will be many more rides, we invite you to join us on our continued journey.

Read more:
The Freedom Bus blog
Freedom Bus photo essay
The Freedom Bus on Facebook
Stay tuned for upcoming Freedom Bus videos on The Freedom Theatre’s YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, here’s the update on Zakaria Zubeidi:

On October 7th, Zakaria went to the scheduled court hearing in Jenin that officials had assured him would be the final one.  After a few minutes, the judge stated that the hearing was postponed until the following week.  At this point one has to wonder whether the primary purpose of this so-called judicial process is to keep Zakaria Zubeidi in limbo.

It’s not over yet but thanks to all of you, the immediate threat to Zakaria’s life has been averted and he is home with his family.  He recorded this message to people who have supported him during the long months that he spent in prison.


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More cracks in the wall

Good news from Anna Baltzer, National Organizer with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation:

The Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation (FFC) has become the first national fund in the United States to divest from Hewlett-Packard and Veolia Environment, based on the companies’ involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

According to the Executive Director of FFC, Hewlett Packard was dropped for providing information technology consulting services to the Israeli Navy, while Veolia Environment was removed due to “environmental and social concerns.”

Hewlett Packard maintains a biometric ID system used in Israeli checkpoints for racial profiling; manages the Israeli Navy’s IT infrastructure; and supplies the Israeli army with other equipment and services used to maintain its military occupation.

Veolia is involved in a light rail linking illegal Israeli settlements with cities in Israel; it operates segregated bus lines through the occupied West Bank; and it operates a landfill and a waste water system that dumps Israeli waste on Palestinian land.

FFC handles investments for over 300 Quaker meetings, schools, organizations, trusts, and endowments across the U.S., with over $200 million in assets.  At last count, FFC held investments of more than $250,000 in Hewlett Packard and more than $140,000 in Veolia.  [MR: Admittedly not huge amounts, but both divestments are crucial precedents.]

The decision to divest followed advocacy from member group Palestine Israel Action Group of the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting, which also successfully urged FFC to drop its $900,000 in Caterpillar shares in May. Caterpillar produces and sells bulldozers to Israel that are weaponized and used to destroy Palestinian homes, schools, hospitals, olive groves, and lives.  FFC has a “zero tolerance for weapons and weapons components.”

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation commends Ann Arbor Friends Meeting and the Friends Fiduciary Corporation for this landmark decision, in line with FFC’s commitment to invest only in companies that “contribute positively to a peaceful, sustainable world.”

The Quakers are already under attack for their principled initiative.  If you support their decision, you can let them know here.

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The Freedom Bus: All aboard!

From the irrepressible Freedom Theatre, a thrilling new initiative is set to go on the road:

For nine days, 23 September – 1 October, the Freedom Bus will embark on a historic and ground-breaking solidarity ride through the West Bank of Occupied Palestine.  [See tour itinerary here.]

Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights era in the USA, the Freedom Bus will promote cultural resistance with community visits, concerts, hip hop performances, giant puppet shows, university seminars, and Playback theatre performances based on people’s direct experience of daily life under occupation.

Endorsed by well-known cultural and political figures like John Berger, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky [full list here].

The ride will embark despite many challenges over the last year, including continual harassment from the Israeli military since the assassination of the Freedom Theatre co-founder Juliano Mer Khamis in April 2011, and the ongoing hunger/thirst strike of co-founder Zakaria Zubeidi, who has been imprisoned for the last four months with no charge.

In the face of these challenges, the Freedom Riders – Palestinian actors, photographers, musicians, activists, and bloggers – are determined to share their unique brand of cultural resistance across the West Bank.

Judith Butler, author, philosopher and recent winner of the Adorno prize comments, “The Freedom Bus represents the aspirations of the Palestinian people to be freed from an illegal occupation, to exercise rights of self-determination, and to demand justice after decades of oppression.  The Freedom Bus ride represents as well the freedom of movement and a movement for freedom.”

Last call:  Don’t miss this opportunity to participate directly in the movement towards freedom and justice in Palestine!

If you can’t be there in person, join the ride via the Freedom Bus website.

You can also support the Freedom Riders by buying a bus ticket, here.

All aboard for freedom and justice!