Letter to Congress from an American in Gaza

This morning I had the opportunity to join a group who met with Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-NM) in Albuquerque.  She’s a first-term member of Congress who admits her strength is social services and health policies, not foreign policy.

She acknowledges having a high learning curve when it comes to the Middle East, but says she tries to attend every Congressional briefing on foreign policy. She has noticed over the past 6 months that there’s a shift among her colleagues in Congress, they have “a new level of concern” and “want more balanced and clear recommendations.” She leaves these classified meetings now “feeling unsettled.”

When I learned that this meeting in Albuquerque had been organized, I turned to my American friend in Gaza for permission to share some of his photos of the horrific destruction in Gaza.  I gave 22 photos to Rep. Lujan-Grisham, along with a copy of the letter my friend wrote. I hope she reads it and takes it to heart. (The letter is reprinted below.)

Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi meet with Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham (D-NM)

Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi meet with Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham (D-NM)

I also shared a photo of a meeting in her DC office this past April with Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi. Refaat is a Professor of English Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and the Editor of Gaza Writes Back. Rawan is one of his students and contributed a short story to the book.

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None of us knew when we met in her DC office in April that Israel would launch Operation Protective Edge a few weeks later, killing over 2000 Palestinians in Gaza. When she saw the photo this morning, Rep. Lujan-Grisham asked if Refaat was OK. I told her that Refaat’s brother was killed this summer and his home was destroyed. She was speechless.

Meeting with Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham (center front)

Meeting with Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham

Even for a strong, articulate politician, there are no words. I hope the news gave her pause to think more deeply about U.S. policy in the Middle East.  I hope she takes the time to read Denny Cormier’s letter.

September 22, 2014

Dear Representative Grisham:

We need your support in Gaza.

My name is Denny Cormier.  I am 68 and am currently retired.

I have lived in Santa Fe for the last 15 years but I am currently volunteering in Gaza as a human rights activist and a citizen journalist reporting on what I am discovering here.

I have been living here in Gaza City for six months now (since March 2014), and I also traveled here in June of 2013 as a citizen journalist.

What I knew about Gaza and the Palestinian issue before coming here was limited to reports that I received from the Western media, and the distance between Santa Fe and Gaza might as well have been a million miles.

But based on many conversations with young Palestinians and university students in Gaza over 2 years, I decided to travel to Gaza myself in 2013 and to investigate personally the differences between my own discoveries and what I read (or saw) in the media.  My personal discoveries and the media narrative were so totally different – in fact, they were totally at odds.  And I had to know.

Frankly, my first visit to Gaza was an eye-opener.  In fact, it was a life changing experience to put it mildly.

I was immediately welcomed as a United States citizen… the people in Gaza love Americans… they welcome me warmly wherever I have traveled in Gaza.   People greet you in the streets with the warmest of welcomes – when they discover I am an American, it immediately brings smiles to the faces of adults and children alike.  The immediate reaction is – We Love You.   I have made many lasting and strong friendships in Gaza.   And I fell in love with the Palestinians and with Gaza.   I received a similar welcome from university students and business owners and from people who welcomed me on behalf of the government.

This was not a place of terrorists.  This was a place of a warm, friendly people – people of great faith – people of generosity that is unparalleled in my experience.

I could not wait to return to Gaza, and did so earlier this year in March.

And I am glad that I did.

This recent 6 month visit has increased my understanding of the issues here, and I have seen how the issues of siege and of economic devastation have brought great suffering to these people, many of whom I know personally.

Although I had the opportunity to leave Gaza before Operation Protective Edge with the assistance of the U.S. State Department and the government here in Gaza, I chose to stay on during the 51 day attack and to be a witness.

What I saw and experienced can only be characterized as horrific.  The attacks on the border cities of Gaza were particularly barbaric.   I reported to representatives of the U.S. State Department that I was a witness to war crimes, and the effects of the war crimes continue even if the attacks have stopped.

Although I live in an area of Gaza where other internationals live and in a place that is normally considered a safe haven for them, I began to feel strongly that my life was in serious danger – that there was no safe place in Gaza during those 51 days.

Gratefully I survived the bombings in my own neighborhood, but not so others in Gaza City and in cities throughout the Gaza Strip.  Many hundreds died in these attacks… many thousands more were seriously injured… thousands of homes have been flattened by the weaponry that Israel used during the attacks and are now sitting in piles of rubble.

I have visited and documented the destruction in three Gaza cities – Khuzaa, in Shujaya and in Beit Hanoun (and of course, in Gaza City).   If you had been able to accompany me on these visits after the war, you would have wept… I did.

What I saw was nothing short of total devastation of civilian homes.  I would be happy to send you photographic documentation if you wish…. But what I saw and witnessed would make you shudder…

I have heard hundreds of stories of people of all ages who ran from  their homes in the middle of the night as shells fell on their homes without warning….others were given just a few minutes to evacuate their homes before rockets or bombs wiped them out…. My dearest friends ran from their homes in bare feet and lost everything they owned and treasured.

Some homes were bombed while the families were sleeping.  They received no warning from Israel.  Entire families were wiped out

Children shuddered in their homes and it has been reported that 90% of the children in Gaza now suffer from PTSD.

Children were particularly targeted in these attacks.

Four young boys from the Bakr family were killed by shells from Israeli gunboats just off shore…. They were killed on the beach when they were playing football very close to my home…  I met the only survivor of the attack on the same Bakr family home just days later.

I spent most of two months during the war acting as a human shield at Al Shifa Hospital, the major health facility in Gaza.  There I met hundreds of refugees and interviewed the injured.  I saw the dead being brought to the hospital, many of them children… what I saw is the stuff of nightmares.   On one of the days there, hundreds of ambulances arrived over several hours delivering the dead and the injured….. The doctors I spoke to have told me that the injuries to their patients were worse than any war injuries that they have witnessed here and in other war zones.

I have seen many destroyed or severely damaged civilian facilities, including schools, mosques, hospitals, police stations – in some cases entire cities.

Before the war I was also witness to the devastation to the economy and to the infrastructure of Gaza – and the destruction of the human spirit during this too long siege.  I learned to live with 8 hours of electricity a day (now 6 hours a day)… I learned to live with the water that comes from the taps that cannot be used for anything safely… I learned to live with miles of beaches that have been destroyed because of the need to dump raw sewage into the sea.  I learned to live with stories of suffering that are caused by a huge unemployment situation in Gaza…

I cannot tell you all that I have discovered first hand during this current visit to Gaza, but it could fill books, and one day it probably will.

I can tell you that what I witnessed are gross breaches of international law and gross breaches of agreements relating to collective punishment of a civilian population.

I can tell you that I will encourage the Palestinians to bring charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court.

I can tell you that it is my honest opinion that the suffering of the people of Gaza are a direct result of an illegal siege and blockade and a de facto Occupation…. The Israelis left Gaza some years ago but they have an immense and negative impact on the lives of ordinary citizens in Gaza long after they left this area and surrounded it with fencing and military outposts.

I can tell you that I was personally shot at when visiting the city of Shujaya.  As I explored the damage and was hundreds of meters from the Israeli border and the buffer zone that they have set up, bullets were fired above me and on both sides of me by the Israelis….. Warning shots perhaps…. But I was nowhere near the area where people are regularly killed and injured along the Israeli border…. My only weapon was a digital camera.   I had to back up several hundred more feet before the shooting stopped.   Children who were in the same area were also fired at as was my guide.

I can tell you many things based on first hand witness and observation,  but I must  please ask you to reconsider anything you ever learned from the media or from the  State Department  or White House regarding  Gaza – in fact, question everything you have been told.

What you have been told… what we Americans have been told…. Is a lie.

I would be happy to meet with you when I return to the United States, but I must warn you now that the ongoing support of the State of Israel in its attacks on the Palestinians, especially on those living in Gaza is a great shame on the American people. The financial support offered to Israel without proper concern and restrictions based on human rights is a great shame for the American people.

As a representative of the good people of the United States, I urge you to look very closely at the good people of Gaza and to reconsider what we have done to them in the name of Israeli security.

In fact, I would be pleased to personally be your guide should you elect to visit the Gaza Strip and should the Israeli government allow you entry for a firsthand experience of what I have witnessed and experienced.

The people of Gaza need your support.

Respectfully,

Dennis Cormier

Santa Fe, New Mexico

(currently Gaza City in the Gaza Strip)

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The Choir Cheers

Josh Ruebner ended his talk Wednesday with a standing ovation from the 50-75 members of the choir who showed up at the Mennonite Church in Albuquerque.

Josh Ruebner

Josh Ruebner

He was in town to promote his new book — Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (Verso Books 2013). He certainly has the cred to speak and write about this topic. He’s the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and before that was an Analyst in the Middle East Affairs at the Congressional Research Service. And former President Jimmy Carter attended Josh’s High School graduation! (Carter’s grandson was a classmate.)

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By the nods throughout the room, Ruebner clearly had a friendly audience. They were probably well-informed about the atrocities that Israel perpetrated in Gaza this summer. No need to recite the facts, although Ruebner shared many.

Did you know that Israel killed 500 children in just 51 days in Gaza — more than the # of all Israelis killed by Palestinians in the past 10 years?

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Israel demolished more than 18,000 houses in Gaza this summer, leaving about 6% of the population homeless. By way of comparison, if the City of Albuquerque was occupied and the occupier made 6% of us homeless, approximately 33,000 of my neighbors would be on the streets.

The Israel Defense Forces (more appropriately the Israel Offense Forces or Israel Occupation Forces) knocked out the sole power plant in the Gaza Strip; with no power there is no sewage treatment plant and more than 15,000 tons of raw sewage was flowing onto the streets in Gaza. Some estimate it will take $7.8 Billion to rebuild Gaza, less than 3 years of U.S. military aid to Israel. Ruebner believes Americans owe Palestinians compensation because our active support of Israel enables these atrocities to occur. I agree.

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What was the U.S. response to Israel’s acts of aggression (aka massacres) in Gaza this summer? President Obama called it “self-defense” but what about Palestinians’ right to self-defense? When a reporter posed that same question to a State Department spokeswoman, she said the “idea was offensive.” Secretary Kerry labeled Israel’s actions “appropriate” and “legitimate” . . . this from the man who was trying to be an honest broker between the parties in the peace negotiations last year! And members of Congress passed resolutions cheering Israel’s attacks and condemning Hamas and its use of human shields. Obviously, Congress was a bit misinformed. There’s no evidence that Hamas or anyone else on that side used human shields, but there’s clear evidence that the IDF used a Palestinian teenager as a human shield for 5 days to search for tunnels.

Obama can’t say he’s concerned about civilian casualties and then turn around and re-arm the aggressor (Israel) when its stockpile of weapons runs low.

Ruebner has been criticized for picking on Obama, but he says Obama has perpetuated the failed policies of past Presidents and is fair game.

The type of brutality the world saw in Gaza this past summer is not new. We’ve seen it before — in 1948, 1982 and 2008-2009. Israeli politicians are demanding Netanyahu finish what was begun in 1948 with the ethnic cleansing and destruction  of 531 Palestinian towns and villages.

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Why did Kerry’s “so-called” peace negotiations fail? We must buy Ruebner’s book to get that scoop, but he pointed to this article in the New Republic, an expose about why the negotiations fell apart. Palestinians understand the big picture, Ruebner said, and they know they’ll never get a fair shake. What Israel and the U.S. are trying to do is impose “bantustans” South Africa-style on the Palestinians. Why are Israel and the U.S. surprised when the Palestinians reject this idea?

Ruebner says we’re seeing the end of this paradigm of imposing bantustans in Palestine. Israel can go down 1 of 2 paths in the next few years. The first, with a Knesset member calling this summer for the genocide of the Palestinians, what we witnessed in July/August could be the prelude to something much worse.

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However, there’s a more hopeful path — ending Apartheid and recognizing Palestinian human rights. Ruebner says the time has come for getting into the faces of our politicians. We must make them understand these two paths. At this point, Ruebner circulated a petition around the room calling on Obama to hold Israel accountable. The BDS movement (economic, cultural and academic) must be our rallying cry because Palestinians say they want our help to “lift the boot of oppression from their necks.”  The occupation and system of oppression could “topple in a blink of an eye.”

He finished to a rousing standing ovation and then took questions. The audience was engaged and wanted to know more. Questions about the Palestinians going to the ICC and how the military industrial complex in the U.S. and Israel are intermeshed (check this out). Ruebner said that the only demographic in the United States that supported Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer were the older, white, male, Republicans.

Watching the Presbyterians debate BDS this summer was amazing. While the vote passed by only a slim margin, no one stood up to support Israel’s actions in Gaza. Instead, they argued the efficacy of the BDS movement.

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Another bit of good news. The Jewish Voices for Peace email list jumped to more than 200,000 this summer. Every time Israel attacks Gaza and the Palestinians, Israel loses American support.

Ruebner concluded with an observation. Both Israel and the U.S. are immature states that haven’t been able to own up to their enslavement and killing of the indigenous people. When are we going to own up to our responsibility to do restorative justice, here and in Israel?

As the crowd moved to the back of the room to buy copies of Ruebner’s book, my “non-political, Jewish” friend and I left. She had come to this event at my invitation even though she worried it was going to be outside of her comfort zone. And it was.

Not the content — she seemed to agree with most everything Ruebner said, and didn’t doubt that Israel was responsible for many injustices against the Palestinians, including the atrocities this past summer. However, she felt like an outsider, not part of the choir, and decided she won’t engage further in this issue.

I’ve been mulling over her comments, thankful that she came and also thankful that she felt she could honestly share her reactions.

We need people, like my friend, to engage if we’re going to turn this ship-of-state (Congress) around and correct the injustices that our government has enabled and encouraged Israel to commit against the Palestinians. The choir, alone, can’t do it.

How could we bring people like my friend into the choir? I’m not sure. The venue for this event was safe and welcoming. The organizers were friendly. The speaker was knowledgeable and well-versed.

Speaking to a supportive choir, however, takes on a different tone than talking to a room full of neutrals or skeptics. The art of persuasion is different. The assumptions are different. Even the body language, I think, might be different.

The very first thing I might try, if I have the opportunity to speak to an audience about Gaza, is to acknowledge that some in the room might be on the fence or unsure about how they feel about this issue. Then I might tell them that I value their opinion and thank them for taking the chance to push through the zone of discomfort to attend. Of course, I wouldn’t single anyone out.

Finally, I would invite members of the audience to write questions or comments on 3 x 5 cards in order to maintain some of that anonymity that newcomers usually seek. And I would tell the audience — “If you are on the fence or inclined to walk away after I’ve finished my presentation, then I’ve failed. Please help me understand how I could be more persuasive next time because there are lives in Gaza depending on it.”

Shujaya family

Shujaya 9

 

 

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Photos for my Congresswoman

I’ve spent the past 3 hours reviewing Denny’s photos of Gaza. I’m feeling overwhelmed and couldn’t keep my tears back.

Denny is an American from Santa Fe, New Mexico who is currently living in Gaza. He witnessed Israel’s massive assault on Gaza this summer, and when the ceasefire was announced after 51 days of shelling and more than 2,000 dead, Denny ventured out with his camera to document some of what he saw.

He posted hundreds of photos on Facebook. I’m going to make copies of some to share with my Congresswoman on Monday.

Haven’t decided exactly which yet, but here are the “finalists”.  If any speak especially to you, please let me know.

Child in Shujaya

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children in Shujaya

Chilren in Shujaya 2

Gaza destruction 2

Gaza destruction 3

Gaza destruction 4

Gaza destruction 5

Gaza destruction 6

Gaza destruction 7

Gaza destruction 8

Gaza destruction

getting water in Shujaya 2

getting water in Shujaya

Ministry of Finance

shujaya 1

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shujaya 3

Shujaya 4

Shujaya 5

Shujaya 6

Shujaya 7

Shujaya 8

Shujaya 9

Shujaya 10

Shujaya 11

Shujaya family

UN school

weapons

 

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Crisis Response and Management in Gaza

A perfect storm is hitting the Gaza Strip.

Before Israel’s military assault this past July and August, the 1.8 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip were living under a suffocating economic, cultural and political siege that made life unbearable.

In 2012, the United Nations even warned that the Gaza Strip might be unlivable by 2020. In May 2013, UNRWA issued a response — Gaza in 2020 — to highlight the challenges UNRWA would face, the programmatic response required and estimate the resources required to meet those challenges.

No one could have anticipated Israel’s barbarism over 51 days, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians and destroying homes, businesses, hospitals, utilities and infrastructure.

The New York Times reported that “the fighting has displaced about a fourth of Gaza’s population. Nearly 60,000 people have lost their homes, and the number of people taking shelter in UNRWA schools is nearly five times as many as in 2009. The cost to Gaza’s already fragile economy will be significant: the 2009 conflict caused losses estimated at $4 billion — almost three times the size of Gaza’s annual gross domestic product.

This interactive map prepared by the New York Times  shows the location of the destruction in Gaza.

Today I received a request from a friend in Gaza for information and resources … “something that can assist in preparing materials for emergency conditions and crisis management training…even some people to communicate with in this regard in the USA or around the world”.

Where to begin? The UNDP has experience working with the Arab States in Crisis Prevention and Recovery, see here.

In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has many resources for communities preparing for disasters as well as recovering from disasters.

Certainly, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies disaster and crisis management program is worth checking out.

The American Planning Association has a Hazards Planning Research Center and in 1998 published the “Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction” (PAS Report No. 484/484, December 1998).

Disaster Recovery Journal includes many links to sample plans, outlines and other resources.

Crisis Management in Government – list of books and articles

Many cities have disaster management programs, such as the City of Albuquerque.

Crisis Response Team Training is part of the National Organization for Victim Assistance

Georgetown University has a continuing education program called the Executive Master of Professional Studies in Emergency and Disaster Management, see here.

The Johns Hopkins Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center has online training modules.

I’m going to reach out to professionals in the morning and add to this list as I learn more. I have a hunch that the disaster we see unfolding in Gaza is of such a magnitude that even the professionals will be dumbfounded.

In addition to the emergency and disaster managers, the people in Gaza need our prayers.

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Dr. Rania Masri

I haven’t heard a better discussion about Israel’s actions in #Gaza than this 30 minute speech by Dr. Rania Masri.

I regularly post videos on my blog because I’m using my blog to compile good resources for future reference and I also want to share with others who may not be on Facebook where many of these videos are posted.

 

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APPEAL FROM AN ISRAELI WITH A CONSCIENCE

Lora Lucero:

A letter from a former Israeli soldier asking the world to give Israel some “tough love” (my words).

Originally posted on Desertpeace:

I’m asking you as an Israeli–we need you to tell Israeli leaders you won’t accept racism, you won’t accept human rights violations, you won’t accept occupation and the killing of civilians.

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I’m asking you as an Israeli–we need you to tell Israeli leaders you won’t accept racism, you won’t accept human rights violations, you won’t accept occupation and the killing of civilians.

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Dear Steve (aka DesertPeace),

My name is Eran Efrati, I am Jewish, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, and a 7th generation Jerusalemite. 

What I’ve seen in Israel over the last few weeks is beyond anything I have witnessed in my life. 

I’ve seen terrified Palestinian children in Hebron and Halhul, sitting on the ruins of their homes.

I’ve seen mobs in the street chanting “death to Arabs” and pulling out Palestinian men from their stores to beat them as other Israelis stood idly…

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What no one wants to say about Ferguson (and Gaza)!

Some people won’t be able to get beyond the color of his skin; others won’t tolerate some of the language; and I suspect some just don’t have open minds and hearts.

But for those who care to listen deeply, this young man shares words of wisdom.

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