I think I can, I think I can

Day 1 Lora shadow

Lora’s shadow on the trail at the Grand Canyon

Life is about trying.

Easy or difficult, a smooth path or a journey strewn with obstacles, there are no guarantees. We must try or never know what could have been.

I first learned that lesson from my Grandfather when he drove my young sister and me up the hill to his house every Sunday for dinner, chanting “I think we can, I think we can!” as his old Buick inched up Pill Hill in Rochester, Minnesota. (We always made it to the top.)

Thirty years later, I learned that lesson from my Mother when she counseled me not to walk away from the Bar Exam in Albuquerque, NM after the first of three grueling days of testing. “You don’t know if you’ll pass,” she said, “but you certainly will know that you failed if you don’t try.” (I stayed and I passed!)

Now at 63, I learned that lesson once again. I hiked down and up the Grand Canyon, telling myself “I think I can, I think I can.” (I did, with the help of an angel.)

Reservations were made 13 months in advance for a bunkbed at the popular Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. At the time, I didn’t give it a second thought. As this adventure drew near, my hiking partner decided to cancel, and my doubts crept in.

Could I scale the 4,380-foot elevation drop from the rim to the bottom and back out? A sign on the South Kaibab trail warns hikers: “Hiking down is a choice; hiking back up is not optional.”

I enjoy walking city streets and flat paths, and I consider myself of average weight and fitness for a newly-minted senior citizen.

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Lila and Oma at the Grand Canyon 2014

I’ve been to the Grand Canyon many times, as a child and then again with my own children and, most recently, with my grandchild. The splendid sunset from the South Rim is incomparable anywhere else in the world, but never have I considered hiking down and up myself.

If I didn’t try now, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t get another chance.

I didn’t spend weeks or months preparing. Instead, I decided to crowdsource among friends on Facebook for ideas. Walking sticks to steady me, good hiking boots that were well-worn, a headlamp in case I was out on the trail after dark, moleskin for the inevitable blisters, an emergency blanket to keep me warm, a whistle if I fell and needed to summon help, and water. Carry plenty of water.

The night before my descent, I slept like a baby at the historic Bright Angel Lodge. I didn’t have butterflies or any second thoughts. “I can do this!”

Bright Angel Cabin where I stayed

Bright Angel Lodge – South Rim of the Grand Canyon

The next morning, the young man at the front desk told me about his experience “slipping and sliding” down the South Kaibab Trail — the trail I was set to embark on after breakfast!  The waitress who served me a hearty meal of eggs, hashbrowns and bacon at the Harvey House Cafe told me she had tried to hike down but turned around when she realized how difficult it was. She took the day off from waitressing the following day because her legs were still wobbly.  Both these young people were in their late 20s – early 30s. Uh oh!

I waited alone for the bus to take me to the trailhead, with the butterflies beginning to stir.  At 8:30 AM I checked my backpack one last time, clicked my walking sticks together, and started down the South Kaibab Trail.

Day 1 Lora beginning the hike down

Lora looking confident as she starts down the South Kaibab Trail

The day was sunny and the Grand Canyon looked just like every postcard I’ve ever seen – perfect!  The South Kaibab Trail (7.1 miles) was all down hill and appeared easy to negotiate. No problem!

Nearly everyone I passed on the trail asked me if I was hiking alone. Although my first step was taken solo, I never felt alone on the trail. There were people of all ages with me going in both directions; everyone watching out for each other.

Day 1 hikers 2

Hikers on the South Kaibab trail

My notion of a peaceful, meditative hike was promptly discarded when I realized the trail was narrow, rocky and dangerous in many spots. My full attention was needed for nearly every step of the way.

Months earlier a woman let her concentration slip for a moment, and it cost her, her life. She politely stepped aside for a hiker to pass her on a ledge, and she fell 300 feet to her death at Ooh Ahh Point.

Day 1 trail 7

The trail follows the path originally carved out by animals but it is certainly a miracle of human ingenuity and skill to maintain for hikers year round.

Since I was probably one of the slowest hikers, I was frequently stepping aside as hikers approached from either direction. I never forgot where the edge was, choosing to step to the inside when possible.

Day 1 mules

Everything that enters or leaves the Grand Canyon is carried by mule or horse on the same trails that hikers follow.

Day 1 half way downHalfway down the South Kaibab Trail, I was feeling strong and confident. When I saw this sign, I had no doubts that I would succeed. I certainly didn’t think about turning back and climbing out.

The temps rose as I continued down. First, I took off my outer shell, then took off my inner jacket and scarf, and I sipped my water.

I stopped to rest and ate a protein power bar for energy even though I wasn’t hungry. Someone mentioned that it’s important to eat when drinking water because too much water can throw a hiker’s electrolytes off kilter.

I learned so much from my fellow hikers. I was so thirsty!

A ranger approached me. He was hiking up as I was headed down. He called out to me “You must be Lora!” The women hikers I had shared some of the trail with earlier must have alerted him to my solo hike. He asked if I was OK. I told him I was thirsty and mistakenly thought that I could refill my 48 oz bottle along the way. Although there is potable water on the Bright Angel Trail, there’s none on the South Kaibab Trail.

He offered me some of his water but I refused, telling him that he must save it for his long hike up the trail. Imagine having to commute to work on the South Kaibab Trail! Thankfully, they don’t do it every day, but spend 4 or 5 days down in the bottom and 3 days up on top. You’ll never see overweight rangers or other Park Service employees at the Grand Canyon.  They get a lot of exercise!Day 1 Colorado River and the trail

The ranger convinced me that he regularly carries extra water and wouldn’t need it. In fact, it would “lighten his load” if I took some. So I did, and then told him I felt refreshed after taking a deep swig. He reassured me that Phantom Ranch wasn’t far beyond the Colorado River.

And then I saw it – the Colorado River.

It wasn’t much further, but distances can be deceiving!

I was tired but not hurting anywhere. My feet, legs and back all seemed to be working just fine.

The most arduous part of the hike down on that first day had been the strong winds. At one point, I had to stop in my tracks for a few minutes to brace against the wind; it was simply too strong to continue hiking.

I was very thankful for my walking sticks. They kept me upright the whole day. I passed athletes running in both directions (crazy people are everywhere) but I took it nice and slow and never lost my step going down.

 

Crossing the Colorado River in the late afternoon felt like a huge achievement, until I realized Phantom Ranch was somewhere beyond, not sure how much further. I was really tired. The National Park Service brochure estimates the hike down the South Kaibab Trail is 4-5 hours, but for me, it was 9-10 hours. Nevermind, it wasn’t a race and I was feeling really good.

Day 2 Bright Angel campground

Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Since I arrived later than everyone else, I had a top bunk in the cabin shared with 9 other women. We all sat around sharing stories of our day; fortunately they were all positive.

When I took my boots and socks off, I saw the blisters. The skin on the tip of one toe completely fell off. I thought it was strange that my feet didn’t hurt during the day. I didn’t feel any blisters forming, and they didn’t really hurt now.

Phantom Ranch dining hall

Main Mess Hall at Phantom Ranch

At dinner in the main mess hall, I sat next to the semi-retired attorney from Philadelphia with whom I’d shared part of the trail. She bought wine and beer for everyone in our group and then whispered to me that she was celebrating her 81st birthday. Further down the table, a girl (10- 12?) was also celebrating a birthday with her family. The staff brought out a birthday cake with candles, and we all sang “Happy Birthday”.

The stars in the sky that night were the brightest I’ve ever seen because it’s so dark at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When I climbed into my bunk, my legs were cramping with currents of electricity. I took some Tylenol and was out like a light before the cabin lights were turned off. The next morning, we heard the wake-up knock at 4:30 AM on our door announcing “5 AM breakfast”. It was still dark outside, and I wasn’t interested in eating at 5 AM!*!*!*!  So I stayed in bed while most of the other women got up and dressed magically without turning on the lights.

 

With my flashlight on, I followed the path to the main hall about 5:30 AM and waited outside with everyone else while staff checked to see if there had been any cancellations.  I wanted to spend a second night at Phantom Ranch but no such luck!

After breakfast, I headed out about 7:00 AM to climb the Bright Angel Trail, about 10 miles to the top. I’d been told the hike down on the South Kaibab Trail was more difficult because of the steep descent. My feet were ready, the blisters covered with moleskin.

Colorado River Day 2

Colorado River

The Colorado River mesmerized me that morning, I didn’t want to leave it. I stopped every few feet to take another photo with my phone/camera, and pretended I was one of the early indigenous peoples who saw this mighty river hundreds of years ago. There truly is a life force in nature – the Colorado River is my proof.

 

When I crossed it, knowing this is probably the last time I’ll ever see it so intimately, I said a quiet prayer of thanks.

Then the climb out began. It was another perfect day, with less wind and no aches or pains. I didn’t even feel my blisters. Strange!

Day 1 step by step
Step by step, I think I can, I think I can.

Honestly, the Bright Angel Trail is easier even though it’s a good cardiovascular workout. I wasn’t in a race, so I stopped and rested whenever I felt the need. My goal was to make it to the top before dark, before 6:30 PM.

 

 

There were streams to cross, and at one point I stopped because I thought I’d lost the trail. Many hikers passed me in both directions. I spent the day alone, but never alone … really.

Day 2 friend near Indian Garden

Everyone who passed had something positive to share with me, and words of encouragement. I don’t know whether I looked old and tired, but I certainly didn’t feel it. I met young people hiking rim to rim (IN A SINGLE DAY!) and others hiking for the pure pleasure of being in nature.  I saw riders on horseback, preferring blisters on their butts rather than their feet, I suppose.

The hours ticked on. About 1 PM, I realized I probably wouldn’t make it to the top before dark because I’d been following my progress on my map. Every switchback led me closer to my goal.

A friend had warned me not to look up, just look back down the trail I’d traversed. That was very good advice.

 

Day 2 horses again 2

Visitors riding up Bright Angel Trail on horses

Day 2 rim to rim athletes at 3 mile rest house

They hiked Rim to Rim in a single day

Then at about 3 miles from the top, my exhaustion set in.  I didn’t feel any pain, but I felt very, very tired.

Day 2 path to 3 mile rest houseThe trail gradient most of the day had been “manageable” for me, but as I got closer to the top, it became steeper and steeper, almost like climbing a difficult staircase without the stairs or railings.

I started moving slower and slower.

At sundown I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll be stuck on the trail tonight, maybe I can’t make it to the top.”

Then my grandfather’s message came to mind – “I think I can, I think I can.”

And I remembered my mother’s encouragement during my State Bar exam.  And I told myself, “step by step.”

A few moments later I saw a young woman (early 40s?) walking down the trail towards me. She looked so energetic and full of bounce.

She walked up to me and said, “I passed those guys ahead of you on the trail and they told me that you’re one bad ass lady!”  I didn’t know how to respond, I was too tired to speak. She asked me how I felt, and I told her I was tired. She said she was headed down the trail a bit to refill her bottle with water, but said she would carry my backpack for me when she returned.

Annette turned out to be the head housekeeper at the Bright Angel Lodge where she has worked for 20+ years. I’m sure she could have hiked the final 1.5 miles up the trail in less than an hour, but she stayed with me for the next 2 hours, shining her flashlight ahead on the trail. I wore my headlamp, and had a flashlight too. We walked slowly, step by step, talking about family, about our youth (her father was a florist and had 12 kids … they visited national parks in their stationwagon every summer). I tripped once, and had difficulty breathing. I frequently stopped to catch my breath. Annette never left my side. We finally reached the top about 8:00 PM —- thirteen hours, ten miles, and nearly 5,000 feet.

Annette was my angel. Maybe I could have climbed out on my own, probably in tears from exhaustion, but I know Annette’s conversation and encouragement made the final ascent memorable and safe for me. And no tears!  I’ll never forget her. My singular regret is that I never got her picture.

The next morning, I made a donation to the Grand Canyon Association in Annette’s name.  If you want the beauty of nature to be available for your children and grandchildren, I encourage you to consider making a donation too. I heard stories about shrinking federal funds for the Grand Canyon and our other federal lands. They are relying more heavily now on this nonprofit for basic research, trail maintenance and education.

Day 1 Lookout Studio Mary Colter

Mary Colter’s studio

 

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Overcoming Isolation in Gaza: A Report Back

An American recently visited Gaza. He’s an AFSC staff member. His comments provide a brief glimpse of what he saw and experienced in Gaza.

Shalom Rav

IMG_3519 (1) Gaza City, 10/8/17. The Bakr children were killed on this beach by Israeli military forces on 7/16/14.

I’ve been writing a great deal on this blog about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade – now eleven years underway with no end in sight.

For the past ten days, I’ve been attending strategic planning meetings with staff colleagues of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to sharpen our vision for our Israel/Palestine programs in the US, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. We began with three days of meetings in Ramallah – with our Gazan staff members joining us via Skype. Following these meetings, six…

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Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 2005 – 2017

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A well-informed friend (neither Palestinian nor Israeli) recently prepared this timeline of key events during the past 12 years with a particular focus on Gaza. He wishes to remain anonymous at this time, but I am very grateful for his time and effort in pulling this timeline together.  Its value is not only the timeline’s comprehensive treatment but also its impartiality.

2005

 

Government of Israel (GOI) starts implementation of the so-called “Disengagement Plan”, which consists of the voluntary and unilateral withdrawal from all military bases and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, as well as the dismantling of the 21 Jewish settlements located within the Strip, being Gush Katif the largest of all. The “Disengagement Plan” had been designed by the Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon.

 

GOI finishes the implementation of the “Disengagement Plan” successfully. Although facing some resistance from the young and more radical Jewish settlers there was no armed violence at all (unlike when Israel dismantled the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula in compliance with the Camp David Accords from 1978). From there on, there has been no permanent Israeli presence or jurisdiction in Gaza. However, Israel retained control of certain elements, such as airspace, sea and borders, leading to an ongoing dispute as to whether Gaza is still “occupied territory” or not.

 

US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice visits Israel for the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Itzaak Rabin and mediates the “Agreement on Movement and Access” to facilitate the reopening of the Rafah Crossing (that connects the Strip to Egypt, and from there to the rest of the world) under the management of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the supervision of European border monitors. Rafah Crossing is reopened and becomes the first border crossing ever managed by the Palestinians (before they were in the hands of the Ottoman Empire, British Mandate, Egypt and Israel).

 

2006

 

The Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas (which is registered in the list of terrorist organizations of both the United States and the EU) unexpectedly wins a clear majority in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (Parliament), after Fatah can’t politically sell the “Disengagement” as its own achievement through negotiations due to its unilateral character. The PNA´s bilateral relations with Israel deteriorate a lot, even though its President Mahmoud Abbas, remains a member of the secular party Fatah.

 

Following a Gaza beach blast, in which seven members of the same family were killed, the armed wing of Hamas called off its 16-month-old truce. Although GOI claimed its Army was shelling 250 mts away from the family’s location; Palestinians claimed that the explosion was Israeli responsibility. An Israeli internal investigation report claimed the blast was most likely caused by an unexploded munition buried in the sand and not by shelling. This investigation was criticized by human rights organizations.

 

After crossing the border the Gaza Strip into Israel in the South, the Palestinian “popular Resistance Committees” attacked an Israeli Army post, killing 2 soldiers, injuring 4 and capturing Corporal Gilad Shalit. GOI orders the Army to launch military operation “Summer Rains”. The kidnapping of Shalit leads to several collective punishment measures against the Strip, among them the reduction of the fishing space and the regular closure of the Rafah Crossing. This is considered to be the first stage of the blockade of the Strip.

 

Second Lebanon War starts after Shiite militia Hezbollah members infiltrated Israel in a cross-border raid, captured two soldiers and killed three others. Israel attempted to rescue the captured, and five more soldiers were killed. Israeli Army responded, attacking Lebanon from earth, air and sea. The conflict resulted in the deaths of 1,191 Lebanese people and 165 Israelis. Simultaneously, the Army launched a counter-offensive to deprive cover to militants firing rockets into from Gaza, killing 23 Palestinians.

 

A UN study declared the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip “intolerable”, with 75% of the population dependent on food aid, and an estimated 80% of the population living below the poverty line. The Palestinian economy had largely relied on Western aid and revenues, which had been frozen since Hamas’s victory in the legislative elections.

 

Brokered by Egyptian mediators, Fatah reached a deal to end fighting between the Hamas and Fatah factions, both groups agreeing to refrain from acts that raise tensions and committing themselves to dialogue to resolve differences. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas brushed off comments by President Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, who indicated he could dismiss the Hamas-led cabinet. Abbas unsuccessfully urged Hamas to accept international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

 

2007

 

Fatah-Hamas negotiations in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) produced an agreement on a Palestinian national unity government.

 

After the increasing of intra-governmental tensions within the PNA Hamas launches an strike against Fatah loyalists in Gaza, taking control of all the Strip within a few days of intense fighting. Since then the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have remained fragmented, both geographically and politically.

 

US Administration under George W. Bush promoted the Annapolis Conference, a peace conference marked the first time a two-State solution was articulated as the mutually agreed-upon outline for addressing the conflict. The conference ended with the issuing of a joint statement from all parties.

 

2008

 

Israeli Army launches Operation “Hot Winter” in response to rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The operation resulted in 112 Palestinians and three Israelis being killed.

 

Israeli Army raids the Gaza Strip without a clear and direct reason for it, killing six members of Hamas. Hamas cancels the truce agreement that it had respected most of time. The armed wing of Hamas responds with rocket attacks on southern Israel.

 

Israeli Army launches Operation “Cast Lead”, a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip.

 

2009

 

Operation “Cast Lead” continues until January 18. After 22 days of fighting, Israel and Hamas each declared separate unilateral ceasefires. Casualties of the so-called “first Gaza War” are disputed. According to Hamas, they included as many as 1,417 Palestinians including as many as 926 civilians. According to Israeli Army, 1,166 Palestinians were killed, and 295 were non-combatants. “Cast Lead” is criticized by the Goldstone Report under the auspices of the UN.

 

Although Kadima wins the legislative elections its candidate for Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, doesn´t get enough support in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) and the candidate of the Likud party Benjamion Netanyahu is appointed as new Prime Minister.

 

2010

 

Turkish and international activists of the “Freedom Flotilla” try to break Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, but were intercepted by the Israeli Army. When the Israeli naval commandos boarded the main ship (Mavi Marmara) the activists attacked them with knives and metal rods. 9 Turkish activists are shot dead after a quite negligent crisis management by GOI.

 

U.S. launches direct negotiations between GOI and PNA in Washington D.C.

 

GOI decides not to extend the construction moratorium in the settlements of the West Bank that had been agreed by the Obama Administration as a confidence-building measure with the PNA. A second round of Middle East peace talks between GPI and PNA takes place in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt).

 

2011

 

Two young Palestinians with no previous security offenses infiltrate the settlement of Itamar and murder five members of the same family in their beds. This incident creates a lot of mistrust on the Israeli public opinion about re-launching the Peace Process.

 

Egyptian and Palestinian militants perpetrate a cross-border attack in southern Israel and killed 8 Israelis, 2 soldiers and 6 civilians. 40 injured. 5 Egyptian soldiers are also killed. This incident becomes an example of the militarization process and chaos in the Sinai Peninsula during the “Arab spring” taking place in Egypt.

 

Palestine applies to the UN General Assembly for recognition of Palestine statehood, calling it a “Palestine Spring”.

 

Hamas liberates soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the liberation of 1.000 Palestinian prisoners (with very diverse backgrounds) by Israel.

 

Palestine wins membership in UNESCO while UN vote on statehood is put on hold. In the Security Council, Palestine gets no support from France and UK while US threatens to veto it.

 

2012

 

Gaza militants launch over 300 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel, wounding 23 civilians. Israeli Army retaliates with air strikes on Gaza targets, killing 22 militants and 4 civilians.

 

Israeli Army lunches Operation “Pillar of Defense” after perpetrating a “targeted killing” against Hamas´ armed wing head, Ahmed Jabari. Gaza officials said 133 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict of whom 79 were militants, 53 civilians and 1 policeman. Around 840 Palestinians are wounded. Hamas fires over 1,000 rockets at southern Israel, killing 6.

 

UN General Assembly upgrades Palestine to “non-member observer State” status in the United Nations, was adopted by the 67th session of the UNGA, coinciding with the celebration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinians People. Vote: For: 138; Abs.: 41 Against: 9.

 

In response to the UN approving the Palestinian UN bid for non-member observer state status, GOI announces the approval of building of housing units in the E1 Area that connects Jerusalem and Israel settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, while effectively cutting the West Bank in two pieces.

 

2013

 

Likud party wins the legislative elections in coalition with Israel Beitenu and Benjamin Netanyahu is re-elected as Prime Minister.

 

2014

 

Three Israeli youngsters are kidnapped and assassinated while hitchhiking home from their religious schools in settlements on the West Bank. GOI blames the assassination on Hamas, and claims it was ordered by one of its leaders in exile, Salah Al Arouri, who lives in Turkey.

 

Israeli Army rounds up more than 150 Palestinians, including Parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik and several members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (who are supposed to enjoy Parliamentary immunity).

 

Israel Air Force launches dozens of air strikes across the Gaza Strip overnight, just hours after the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenagers were found in a shallow grave near the southern West Bank city of Hebron. Following the discovery of the bodies, Netanyahu issues a statement once again blaming Hamas. Hamas denies involvement.

 

In retaliation to the abduction of the 3 Israeli teenagers, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir is grabbed off the street after leaving his home in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhood of Shuafat, is beaten up and burnt alive, provoking a wave of riots in East Jerusalem.

 

Israeli Army launches Operation “Protective Edge” against the Gaza Strip. More than 2,200 Gazans are killed and 10,000 injured –from them around 70% civilians according to the UN– after almost two months of shelling from earth, air and sea. 73 Israelis get killed, from them 66 soldiers and 7 civilians. This “third Gaza war” becomes the most lethal and destructive of all military operations launched by the Israeli Army against the Gaza Strip.

 

The international community, under the auspices of Egypt and Norway, celebrates a donor Conference for Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. The PNA presents its National Early Recovery and Reconstruction Plan, for which so far has not even 50% of the funding that was pledged by the donors at the Cairo Conference from 12 October 2014.

 

2015

 

Likud Party wins the early elections and Benjamin Netanyahu gets reelected as Prime Minister for his third term in a row and fourth term altogether (at the end of his current mandate he will become Israel´s longest serving head of Government). The ruling coalition becomes Israel´s most right-wing Government ever.

 

All UN agencies release a joint report under the name of “Gaza 2020” stating that if current trends remain (population growth, lack of drinking water, lack of natural resources, energy restrictions, etc.) the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by 2020.

 

The recurrent provocations by right-wing Members of the Knesset visiting the Haram Al Sharif in the old city of Jerusalem (third most important religious site for Islam, but also the most important for Judaism, as it is believed to be the site of the Temple Mount, where both Jewish Temples were erected before their destruction leads to the so-called “Knife Intifada” (sequence of attacks with knives against Israeli policemen and civilians).

 

2016

 

After several months of quiet the Jewish High Holiday season (New Year, Yom Kippur, Sukkot) leads to more visits to the Temple Mount by right-wing members of Knesset and even a couple Government ministers, provoking more riots and turmoil in Jerusalem.

 

2017

 

Yahya Sinwar replaces Ismael Haniye as head of Hamas for the Gaza Strip. Haniye replaces Khaled Meshal as head of the Political Office of Hamas in exile.

 

Three young Israeli Arabs manage to smuggle fire arms into the Haram Al Sharif and kill two Israeli Policemen at one of the entrances. GOI installs metal detectors and CCTV cameras at different entrances to the Holy Explanade, detonating a new wave of riots. After the killing of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli security guard in Amman (Jordan) GOI finds the way out of the crisis, removing the detectors and the cameras after two weeks of violence.

 

Hamas announces it will allow the PNA to retake over some ministries, executing effective control over them and cancelling the “administrative committee” it had created last April after the PNA cancelled the payments for fuel (stopping the power station in Nuseirat) and reducing the payments for electricity (that it buys from Israel). It also announces that the Ramallah Government lead by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah can call for both legislative and presidential elections (the Legislative Council doesn´t work since 2007 and President Abbas rules by decree since 2010 as his mandate expired) creating new expectations for national reconciliation.

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Who by bulldozer, and who at gunpoint?

Rabbi Arik Ascherman originally presented these remarks at a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, September 19, 2017.  They were subsequently published in The Times of Israel on Sept. 20, here. I share them on my blog to find an audience that might not have seen or read his plea earlier.  Shana Tova to my Jewish friends and family.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

Presentation for Senate Briefing – September 19th, 2017

My name is Rabbi Arik Ascherman, and I am here to plead for the life of Aysar’s village. After 21 years leading Rabbis For Human Rights, I recently founded “Torat Tzedek Torah of Justice,” dedicated to the human rights of Israeli single parent moms and Palestinians alike, because the Torah teaches us that every human being is created in God’s Image. I come before you without a political agenda. Defending human rights does take place in a political context. What I mean is that, while we believe that the Occupation must end because it inevitably leads to human rights violations, it is beyond our mandate as a human rights organization to take a position on a one state versus two state versus ten state solution, or where borders should be.

This year, September 21st is both International Peace Day, and Rosh HaShana, the Jewish new year. Also known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgment, in two days we will pray, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live, and who will die… Who will be content, and who will suffer.” Many of you know this prayer because the late Leonard Cohen put some of the words to music, “Who by fire, who by water” In Susya’s case, “Who by bulldozer, and who at gunpoint? Who by direct force, and who by slow strangulation? Who by Jerusalem, and who by Washington?”

Arik at US capitol

I’m here, rather than home in Israel preparing for Rosh HaShanah, because the fate of Susya will in all likelihood be determined in Washington. I will explain, but first a bit of background:

The Palestinian residents of Susya lived on both sides of what became the 1948 border. They fled or were expelled, depending on your narrative, from their lands on the Israeli side. Their village on the side under Jordanian control was Susya. In 1967 they again came under Israeli control. In this age of alternative facts, some say that Susya never existed. The truth is that there are pictures of a visit by representatives of the U.S. Consulate, it appears in British records, and there are signs in the archeological site that used to be Susya pointing out the caves that were once homes. There is a 1982 report from the Israeli government lawyer, Plia Albeck. She is known as the “mother of the settlements.” She certainly did not accept the idea that most experts on international law who are not over the top pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian adopt, that the Fourth Geneva convention applies in the West Bank, and forbids the creation of settlements even on so called State Land. She proudly explained in her memoirs that she did everything she could to find lands to establish settlements. In her 1982 report, she is trying very hard to establish a settlement in the area. However, she writes that she has a problem. There is a Palestinian village called Susya, surrounded by 3,000 dunam (750 acres) of privately owned and registered land. It would take me all day to explain the ins and outs of determining land ownership. Suffice it to say that it is highly unusual for Israeli officials to acknowledge Palestinian lands as privately registered, certainly in the South Hebron Hills.

Albeck indicated that there was one hill where a settlement could be set up, and the settlement also called Susya was established in 1983. Several years later the settlers asked Albeck for help, and she wrote to them that they had so clearly built beyond the area she said could be built upon that any attempt on her part to help them would only get them in more legal trouble. More recently, a report by the pro-Settlement NGO “Regavim” noted that there were some 23 homes in the settlement of Susya built on private Palestinian land. Nevertheless, Israel maintains that there is no issue of eifa v’eifa (discriminatory double standards), but simply maintaining law and order.

In 1986, the residents of Palestinian Susya were expelled from their homes in order to make an archaeological site out of an ancient synagogue located there. Make no mistake, we Jews do have ancient roots in our homeland. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians should try to establish their root in our shared land by denying the roots of the other. However, rather than make the synagogue alone an archaeological site, the residents were forced to abandon their entire village. Some of them moved on to their nearby agricultural lands, living again in simple caves. Harassment began in the mid-90s. The villagers were again expelled after a settler was murdered in 2001 (Not by somebody from Palestinian Susya, and no actions have been taken against the settlements where settlers who murdered Palestinians live.) Settlers accompanied the soldiers, who demolished the caves and filled in water cisterns.

The Israeli High Court ruled that this was an illegal expulsion, and returned the Palestinians to their lands. However, they were left “Nisht aher, un nisht aher,” (Yiddish-neither here nor there), because the Court neglected to address how they could replace their demolished homes. In 1971 the Israeli army, in contradiction to the Hague Convention that requires leaving civilian affairs in the hands of the civilian population unless there is an overriding military necessity, abolished Palestinian local and regional planning and zoning committees. The army assumed all planning responsibilities. For the most part, they either inadequately plan for Palestinian building, or don’t plan at all. All of Susya’s applications to build legally were rejected. In the most recent attempt, the army committee ruled in 2013 that it would be “unfair” to force the Palestinians to live in an isolated area without infrastructure. There are of course many isolated settlements. Electrical lines and water mains actually run right by Susya from settlement to settlement, but Palestinian Susya isn’t given access to this infrastructure. The real reason, as a representative of the U.S. Consulate who attended the meeting of the army planning commission with us heard, was expressed by a representative of the local settlement council, “We all know that this hearing is a joke. You would never approve a Palestinian village so close to our settlement.”

In 2011, the local settlement council and Regavim initiated a Court appeal to have Palestinian Susya wiped off the face of the earth. They demanded that all the structures that Palestinians were forced to build “illegally” be demolished.

Here Washington comes in. Contrary to what Israel tells many foreign governments, the Israeli High Court has never ruled that Susya must be destroyed. In fact, the case is still in court. However, neither has the Court prevented the demolitions. Currently, the decision to demolish or not demolish is a government prerogative. The court is interested in an agreement, and will not order the destruction of Susya if the Israeli government objects. It’s therefore legitimate and crucial for the international community to express an opinion. Given the settlement movement’s intense pressure on the government to demolish, the only reason that Susya is still standing today is because of international concern led by the U.S. As a result of that concern, Israel budged in 2015. They agreed to meet with the residents of Susya.

I was present at those meetings. The army offered to recognize and help build Palestinian Susya on their lands. The only disagreement was over which part of their lands the village would be built. Defense Defense Minister Lieberman then replaced Defense Minister Ya’alon. In August 2016, Lieberman asked the Court for more time to study the issue. He requested a postponement until just after the U.S. elections. He has continued to ask for postponements.

Frankly, the common wisdom in both Washington and Jerusalem, was that the current U.S. administration would quickly give the green light for Susya’s demolition. Apparently, that hasn’t happened until now. It seems that in Washington there was an understanding that there will be no chance for a renewed peace process if the U.S. backs down on elementary issues of fairness and justice.

Susya’s residents must be allowed to live on their lands, whether or not there will ever be peace, and no matter who will eventually be sovereign over this area. If we take our Prime Minister seriously when he declares that there will not be a Palestinian state on his watch that only increases our responsibility towards the Palestinians who will remain under our control for the foreseeable future. However, let’s be clear. The obstacle to peace is a lack of hope. Polls show that both Israelis and Palestinians want peace, but neither believe that the other side wants peace. If you allow Susya to be destroyed, hope will be diminished. The Palestinian trust in the ability of the U.S. to be an honest broker will be further compromised.

We are extremely concerned that Washington’s position has now changed, or that Israel believes that Washington has no intent continuing to vigorously engage Israel on behalf of Susya. While we are waiting for the next scheduled court deadline in late October, Minister Lieberman recently declared that the Ministry is working on plans to destroy Susya and the community of Khan Al Akhmar in the coming months. (Khan Al Akhmar is one of the West Bank communities of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, intimidated into leaving Israel in the early 1950s. Along with Susya, Khan Al Ahmar is a very symbolic test case, because all the sides have drawn lines in the sand. Up until now, the international community has protected the school Rabbis For Human Rights helped build there.)

My questions to you are, “What can each of you do to ensure that the U.S. continues to vigorously lead international support for Susya. How many members of Congress will make personal phone calls to the President, his advisors, and the State Department?” I would prefer that human beings do not play God, deciding “Who shall live and who shall die.” But, that’s the reality. In two days I will stand before God to plead for a sweet and good year for myself, for my loved ones, for my people, for my country and for our world. I will pray for Susya, for Khan Al Akhmar, for Israelis in need of public housing and also for Israeli Bedouin communities such as Umm Al Hiran and Al Araqib. They too won’t exist in another year if Israeli government policy doesn’t change, or if there isn’t salvation from another quarter. However, our tradition teaches us that we cannot ask for God’s forgiveness and blessing before making every effort to make amends with our fellow human beings. In the same vein, I cannot come cleanly before the heavenly tribunal without standing first before you. You in this room and in this city are the tribunal with the ability to determine whether Aysar’s village will live or die. With power, comes responsibility. Please do not shirk your responsibility. If you do, this boy will not have a home. It is really that simple.

Some say that Israel’s democracy should make these decisions. That is disingenuous. Palestinians cannot vote for the Knesset. They cannot sit as judges on the courts that determine their fate, nor serve on the planning committee for their communities. Israelis cannot claim a democratic right to determine the fate of those not part of their democracy. Because Israel doesn’t have a constitution or a Bill of Rights, even Israeli Bedouin villages such as Umm Al Hiran or Al Araqib don’t have the protections that democracy is supposed to provide. Although Al Araqib existed before the State of Israel, and Umm Al Hiran exists where Israel placed its residents in 1956, they are a minority. The majority has “democratically” decided to destroy them. Al Araqib has been demolished nearly 120 times since 2010. Israel is currently seeking to complete the expulsion of the non-Jewish residents of Umm Al Hiran, in order to continue the building of Jewish “Hiran” on the rubble of Umm Al Hiran. As a Jew, an Israeli, a rabbi and a Zionist, it pains me to share with you these truths, but they are the truth.

Finally, it is not popular in Israel today to be a human rights defender. If you google, “Ascherman, knife,” you can watch me being attacked by a young knife wielding settler in October 2015. It wasn’t the first time I was physically attacked, nor the last. At the recent sentencing hearing, I said I was not interested in punishment, but rehabilitation. Every young person, whether or not I agree with him or her, and whether they are Jewish or not, should have their entire life ahead of them to fulfill dreams and contribute to society. Having expressed that to an Israeli court on behalf of my attacker, I certainly feel qualified to make the plea in the court before which I now stand -You. “Do not take from Aysar his dreams and his future.” The power is in your hands. Not to make a decision is to make a decision.

Thank you. Shana Tova. I wish you a good and sweet new year. Gmar Khatima Tova-May the final seal for Susya, Umm Al Hiran, Khan Al Akhmar, Al Araqib and for all of us, be the seal of life.

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Filed under Israel, People, Politics, Settlers, Spiritual - Religion, US Policy, Video

#Gaza5K — a Success!

running 1

I didn’t have any doubts that I would finish the #Gaza5K in DC this morning, but I had expectations I didn’t know for sure that I could fulfill.

#1 — Could I meet my fundraising goal of $1,000?

#2 — Could I get to the park in DC by 7 AM?

#3 — Could I cross the finish line without any aches and pains?

This was my third year participating in UNRWA-USA’s #Gaza5K.  These races are scheduled in several cities around the USA to raise funds to provide mental health services for the refugees in Gaza.  The next #Gaza5K is in San Francisco on October 14.

Tshirts

Picking up our t-shirts prior to the race

Thanks to my friends in Albuquerque, Seattle, Chicago and elsewhere, I met my fundraising goal just a day before the race. I carried the names of each of my 16 contributors on a 3×5 card with me during the race to honor their generosity in fulfilling expectation #1.

Morning snacks

Nourishment before the race

Since I don’t drive and I’m about 40 miles from DC, I wasn’t sure how I could make it to the race by the 7 AM check-in time. Good friends had my back. One offered me a place to sleep in DC if I wanted to travel the night before the race; and another offered to pick me up at my doorstep in Baltimore at 6 AM so we could drive together. Alhamdulillah! Expectation #2 was met.

 

 

When the crowd lined up — I’m guessing 125-150 people — we learned that we had collectively raised over $115,000 and everyone cheered.

Whether we ran or walked or strolled along this #Gaza5K course, we were all there for the same purpose — to support the Palestinian refugees in Gaza who are trapped inside Israel’s suffocating blockade and military bombardments.

The unemployment rate is over 40%; the restriction on travel has created the largest open air prison in the world; suicide rates are increasing; and in 2012, the United Nations predicted that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020 (now the UN says Gaza is de-developing faster than it earlier predicted).

start race

Off we go …. at 8 AM

I had no intention of running this 5K and, fortunately, many others didn’t either. I felt quite at ease walking along, first at a good clip, but then slower and slower as we ticked off the kilometers.

 

The runners seemed to be having a good time. It was the perfect weather, and the perfect course (FLAT) for this #Gaza5K.

Jeff and Sammy

Jeff and Sammy from Baltimore

I’m pleased to report that my final expectation, making it across the finish line without any aches or pains, was fulfilled, and my friend Jeff won a medal for the fastest runner in his age bracket!  Alhamdulillah!

 

“Thank you” to each of my friends who contributed to this campaign. Together we made a world of difference in the lives of many Palestinian refugees who will benefit from UNRWA’s mental health services.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, consider signing up and joining the fun on October 14 at Lake Merced Park.  If you can’t join, but want to contribute, check this link here. Shukran!

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Filed under Gaza, Peaceful

We All Live in Gaza

A couple of years ago, Maurice Jacobsen contacted me out of the blue.  I remember it well because I was sitting in Cairo trying to return to Gaza, and Maurice was an American who wanted to travel to Gaza also. He’s a filmmaker, and producer-director at Inshallah Media Project.

I couldn’t give him much encouragement because I hadn’t found any cracks in Israel’s tight siege of the Gaza Strip.  But Maurice didn’t give up.

The fruit of his labors can be seen in this wonderful short film.  Congratulations Maurice! Thank you for bringing all of these Palestinian artists to our attention.

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Filed under Gaza, Peaceful, People, Uncategorized, Video

Three in one: the human mind

Yesterday a friend from Germany acknowledged with approval that I have an open mind.  He was referring to my willingness to rethink my opinion about Antifa after I finished reading a book by the same name.  (For those who may not know, Antifa refers to anti-fascists who oppose fascists using many different tactics, including violence.)

On the very same day, another friend in the U.S. expressed disappointment with my closed mind after I refused to entertain arguments from a climate denier that my friend thought might have some merit. I flatly rejected his invitation to engage in an intellectual exercise to disprove this climate denier’s “facts.”

Of course, I felt validated by my first friend’s pat on the back and irritated by my second friend’s jab when he implied that I couldn’t think for myself but was simply following dogma. He equated my refusal to engage in his intellectual tit for tat as a personal weakness or failure.

Brain

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

Well, on further reflection, the open mind / closed mind dichotomy are merely two sides of the same coin.

The open mind questions, rethinks, and re-evaluates all information coming in because new information might change one’s opinion. The open mind knows that no one is God and all-knowing. The open mind is a humble mind. Each of us is a fallible human being on a path of constant learning.

On the flip side, the closed mind rejects inquiry or further reflection because the closed mind has a profound certainty that it knows all — at least all about the given issue at hand. The closed mind sees the world as white and black, right and wrong, truth and lies. What beautiful comfort to live in such a world, and what arrogance!

Both sides of this mind have an important role to play, and neither should be rejected outright.

If we didn’t take some facts in our world to be settled, we’d be incapable of decision-making and taking action. “The Earth is round and gravity keeps us firmly planted.” Thank goodness I don’t need to re-evaluate that proposition every day. A closed mind comes in handy sometimes.

If we never questioned the commonly-held beliefs, humanity would never progress. “The Earth is flat.”  Thank goodness someone questioned that “truth”. An open mind charts the path for humanity’s future.

The open / closed mind has particular relevance in the Israel / Palestine “conflict”.

The extremists on both sides have closed their minds to any opinions or facts that might disprove or cast some doubt on their cherished position (whatever that position might be). I wish everyone had an open mind about Israel/Palestine rather than spewing “terrorist” and other dehumanizing venom at each other. Few are willing to entertain any information that might recast Hamas from a terrorist group to a political party duly elected on a platform of resistance to the occupation. Few are willing to have an open mind about the future of the state of Israel apart from their firmly held convictions.

Between the two sides of the same coin — the “open mind” and the “closed mind” — is the rational mind, where “rational” means a mind based on reason or logic., a mind capable of discernment, a mind actively engaged rather than just spouting firmly held beliefs.

I suspect (and I have no studies or reports to support my suspicion) that most humans divide their minds in the following way — 75% closed, 5% open and 20% rational.  Or perhaps that division is too generous to the rational mind.

It’s important to recognize that each of us is operating with all three running simultaneously — our closed mind, open mind and rational mind.

Which mind was I using when I read Antifa?  Just by picking up the book, I was willing to rethink my preconceived notions about Antifa. I chose to read the book not to confirm my previous notions that anti-fascists are hoodlums hyped up on testosterone that prefer violence over nonviolence. I wanted to learn about the arguments and the strength of those arguments presented by an author who was clearly pro-Antifa.

I learned a lot that I didn’t know about Antifa — about the long history of anti-fascists’ movements (primarily in Germany, Italy and Spain … and more recently in the US). I learned about their activities and motivations from the author’s research as well as his personal interviews with anti-fascists. I learned how Antifa responds to the typical arguments against its tactics — some of which I agree with and others I don’t. Finally, I weighed the Antifa tactics in the political climate which permeates much of the world today. I concluded that Antifa has a legitimate role to play and shouldn’t be discounted outright, although I worry about violence that perpetrates more violence.

I was using my open mind and concluded that I needed to revise my perceptions about Antifa.

Which mind was I using when I rejected my friend’s invitation to engage in an intellectual exercise about climate change?

A closed mind reflexively refuses to entertain contrary evidence. My friend called my refusal to engage an example of my closed mind.

A rational mind discerns the utility of engaging, weighs the pros and cons, the likelihood of making an impact or learning something new.

  • I reject climate change deniers and question their motivation.
  • I believe the anthropomorphic impacts on the earth systems are indisputable based on the reports of a vast majority of scientists over many decades, and the IPCC reports and articles by James Hansen and others whom I respect.
  • I know that the fossil fuel industry has been engaged in deceptive tactics to misinform the public for many years, just as the tobacco industry was in prior years.
  • I’m aware that the vast majority of the scientists believe the window is rapidly closing on our ability to turn this ship around. Should we spend our time debating the reality of climate change or debating about what actions we must take very quickly? I’ve made my choice.
  • Finally, a rational mind asks itself “what’s the downside of being wrong?” In other words, what if the majority of scientists are wrong about climate change, and calls for action are overblown or unwarranted? What’s the impact if Lora Lucero remains ignorant? In my assessment, the world will benefit by getting off fossil fuels and moving towards local economies, public transportation and all the rest of it …. regardless of whether climate change is real or not.  The potential harm of not acting is catastrophic.

this-way-that-way-signpost

We only have one journey on this Planet, and none of us knows the future. Let’s fully engage our minds — all three minds — in a respectful way.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Climate Change