Tag Archives: U.S. Congress

“What are Trump and Netanyahu afraid of?” — New York Times editorial board asks

iStock 20492165 MD - American and Israeli flags

America and Israel flags

The New York Times Editorial Board, so often an apologist for Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinians, opined (August 15, 2019) that Trump’s and Netanyahu’s actions denying two U.S.  Congresswomen the opportunity to visit Israel-Palestine was a sign of weakness.

There are not many traditions of decorum that President Trump has not trampled on since entering the White House. But to put at risk, so cynically, America’s special relationship with Israel solely to titillate the bigots in his base, to lean so crassly on a foreign leader to punish his own political adversaries, to demonstrate so foul a lack of respect for the most elemental democratic principles, is new territory even for him.

America’s special relationship with Israel” translates to $3+ Billion every year from US taxpayers to Israel; an unquestioning veto at the UN Security Council to prevent any measure critical of Israel’s occupation; a willful blindness to the undemocratic, apartheid state that flaunts its “successes” while shielding from public view its grotesque human rights violations; a mindless deference to Israel’s hasbara and security mantra; and a chilling indifference to the suffering, killing and dehumanization of the Palestinians barely surviving under Israel’s military occupation. The N.Y. Times Editorial Board asks: “What are Trump and Netanyahu afraid of?” My answer is simple.

The Truth

Anyone who has lived, worked, volunteered or spent any bit of time with the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem, or the occupied Gaza Strip knows that the State of Israel has been wildly successful at spinning a righteous tale of its victimhood, its struggle for survival and security in a “dangerous neighborhood,” and its “peace-loving” liberal values.

The State of Israel has succeeded in creating this mirage by carefully pushing its hasbara  (promoting its version of the facts) to the exclusion of contrary facts which undermine Israel’s preferred reality.  And the New York Times, as well as some other western media, have been complicit in this charade.

Israel has also succeeded in keeping the U.S. Congress duped by indoctrinating them into Israel’s version of the facts with carefully orchestrated junkets to Israel that highlight the “special relationship” between our two countries; by keeping AIPAC (Israel’s Washington lobbyist) in the offices of freshman members of Congress so they are honed to the “correct path” from the beginning; and by unseating those members of Congress who won’t follow AIPAC’s direction. (Read about former Congressman Paul Finley who died August 9, 2019).

There are so many examples, books could and have been written about it.  My first education about the myths and propaganda came from one of the new Israeli historians, Professor Ilan Pappe, which I wrote about here.

My correspondence with the editors of the New York Times in 2016 is one small example of trying to break through Israel’s alternative reality. When the editors refused to label the Gaza Strip as “occupied” territory, I challenged them.  I wrote about it here. After several communications back and forth, my query finally ended up in the deep, dark hole within the bowels of the New York Times. Even the Democratic National Committee has apoplexy with the term “occupation”, as I wrote about here.

The four congresswomen — Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — the “Squad” as they’re known on Capitol Hill — are a threat to anyone who fears the truth. They’re challenging the powerful lobbyists, the accepted orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, and even the State of Israel’s hasbara.

I can only imagine that the New York Times Editorial Board must be sniffing the same scent that the Emperor who wore no clothes sniffed when it began to dawn on him that his reality didn’t match what everyone around him knew.

The truth — that’s what Trump and Netanyahu fear.

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Filed under Israel, Media, Occupation, People, Politics, Uncategorized, US Policy

Day #18 – July 24, 2014 – What does Congress know?

Today marks the 18th day of Israel’s genocidal assault against the men, women and children in Gaza last summer.

No doubt, “purists” will object to this characterization, but I have no doubts that the intent and the impact was genocidal.

I visited Capitol Hill yesterday to speak with my member of Congress about Israel and Palestine.  She knows of my interest (and hopefully my expertise) because we have talked about it many times, both in DC and in Albuquerque.  I was disappointed but understand why she wasn’t in her office yesterday when I arrived. Her daughter went into labor early and delivered her first grandchild, so she was on a plane headed back to Albuquerque. Congratulations!!

I sat with her legislative assistant for foreign affairs. John and I have talked several times, and I felt the meeting was a success because we’re building bridges.  I may not agree with every vote, but I believe in my Congresswoman’s sincerity when she says she wants to do the right thing. My job is to help her (and John) understand what is the right thing.

I shared the following letter and we discussed these points for nearly an hour.  My shock and dismay came when I asked whether Congress and/or staff have received any briefings about Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. John said they were briefed last summer during Israel’s military assault, but he’s not aware of any follow-up briefings since then.

WE MUST INFORM CONGRESS ABOUT THE IMPACTS

OF THEIR DECISIONS TO FUND & SUPPORT ISRAEL’S MILITARY!

I just sent the following message to the staff of my two US Senators and Representative.
Gaza One Year Later:
The Quest for Accountability
WHERE: 121 Cannon House Office Building, 
27 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003
WHEN: Wednesday, July 29, 12:00 PM
One year has passed since “Operation Protective Edge”, Israel’s attack on the Palestinian Gaza Strip which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians and devastated its infrastructure. Today Gaza remains under Israeli blockade, unreconstructed, and teetering on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.  Join us for this discussion on Israel’s failure to hold itself accountable through domestic judicial proceedings, and the options and need for the United States and the international community to do so.
Featuring:
Nadia Ben-Youssef, USA Representative, Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel
Eman Mohammed, Gaza photojournalist; contributor,  Gaza Unsilenced
Brad Parker, International Advocacy Officer, Defense for Children International Palestine
Moderated by:  Josh Ruebner, Policy Director, US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation
A light lunch will be served. Please RSVP by  email or by phone at 202-332-0994.
Sponsored by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Cosponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Jewish Voice for Peace, Just World Books, Middle East Children’s Alliance, US Palestinian Community Network.
Lora in front of Library of Congress - July 2015

Lora in front of Library of Congress – July 2015

My letter to my Congresswoman:

Thank you for meeting with me on the anniversary of Operation Protective Edge (July 7th and August 26th, 2014) when Israel’s vastly disproportionate military campaign in Gaza killed over 2,250 Palestinians, including over 500 children and over 1400 civilians (73 Israelis also lost their lives, including 1 child and 6 civilians). Because the United States, and Congress specifically, directly supports Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and Israel’s military operations, I wanted to share some facts from the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report.

  1. During the 51 day operation last summer, the IDF launched more than 6,000 airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. (para. 111) The IDF said it was supplied with more than 5,000 tons of munitions, a 533% increase over the weapons and munitions the IDF used in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. (para. 408)
  1. 142 families had 3 or more members killed in the same incident (742 fatalities) because of destruction of residential buildings. (para. 111)
  1. 2251 Palestinians were killed, including 551 children, and 11,231 people were injured. (para. 574)
  1. A significant % of civilians killed during the conflict died inside their home as a direct result of air-strikes or artillery shelling of their neighborhoods, making attacks on houses a key-feature of the conflict. (para. 243)
  1. The IDF refused to allow Red Cross ambulances to help victims. In one example, the IDF opened the road to finally allow the ambulance in but then closed the road again and did not allow the ambulance to leave, and so the medics had to carry the injured out on their shoulders. (para. 332)
  1. The family of a 70-year old woman left her behind in her wheelchair when they evacuated the home because they couldn’t take her. When they returned to the house, they found her dead, shot in the head at close range. The IDF posted a picture on Twitter showing a soldier offering water to this same old woman, a sadistic act of propaganda. (para. 333)
  1. The IDF destroyed entire neighborhoods (Beit Hanoun, Shuja’iya, Khuza’a).
  1. Despite the fact that the International Red Cross coordinated with the IDF in its rescue efforts, the IDF clearly targeted ambulances and medical personnel, killing 23 health professionals. (para. 458 – 462)
  1. 18,000 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 80,000 homes and properties damaged. (para. 576)
  1. During the fighting, approximately 500,000 people were displaced, which is 28% of the population in Gaza. (para. 577)
  1. As of May 2015, approximately 100,000 remain displaced. (para. 579)
  1. At least 4 young children died last winter in Gaza because their families were without shelter. (para.578)
  1. 63 water facilities in Gaza were damaged, and 23 were completely destroyed. Sewage treatment plants and pumping stations were also destroyed. (para. 584)
  1. One hospital and 5 clinics were destroyed. Fifteen hospitals and 51 clinics were damaged. (para. 591)
  1. More than 1,500 children were orphaned. (para. 594)
  1. Almost 800 women were widowed last summer. (para. 596)

The full report is available online. The Commission makes very specific recommendations primarily focused on addressing the structural issues that fuel the conflict and have a negative impact on a wide range of human rights, including lifting the siege and blockade of Gaza, and stopping the settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories. (para. 681) The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation and has rejected its report and recommendations.

REQUEST No. 1 —- Please invite former President Jimmy Carter to speak to Congress about his recent visit to Israel and Palestine. His deep knowledge and current experience would be invaluable to the Congress.  (Attached is my petition to Congress signed by 290 people who have sent 682 letters and emails to their members of Congress making this same request.)

REQUEST No. 2 —- Please call upon your constituents for advice and counsel when you are considering legislation that impacts Israel and Palestine. Many New Mexicans oppose Israel’s brutal occupation and deadly military actions. Since last summer, there’s been a growing movement of Albuquerque and Santa Fe activists, nearly half of them Jewish activists, who have joined forces and raised nearly $18,000 for humanitarian projects in Gaza, including a well and kindergarten destroyed by Israel. This alliance is called Friends of Khuza’a New Mexico, named for a village in Gaza practically obliterated by Israel last summer. They’re planning a musical event and fundraiser in September featuring Issa Maluf, a world renowned Palestinian musician, and asked me to invite you. The date is TBD.

Thank you.

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al-Nakba Day on Capitol Hill

Lora squinting in front of the US Capitol

Lora squinting in front of the US Capitol

Today I visited Washington, DC where the Capitol Building is getting a facelift. My goal was to connect with staff in each of the offices of the New Mexico delegation to talk about al-Nakba.  It went something like this . . .

Staffer: Welcome to the office. We always like to hear from our constituents.

Lora: Thank you for taking time to meet with me. I have a personal interest in the Middle East (and I proceeded to share a bit about my background to set some context).  Have you heard of al-Nakba?

Staffer: Nope!

Lora: Maybe you know about Israel’s Independence Day which was celebrated yesterday.

Staffer: Oh sure.

Lora: When the Zionists declared the new State of Israel in 1948,  they began to forcibly expel over 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their homes, businesses, and land. Many were killed. Over 500 Palestinians villages were destroyed. That expulsion is referred to as al-Nakba or “Catastrophe” in English, which continues to this day.

Staffer: <furiously scribbling notes>

Lora: What does the Senator / Congresswoman think about Israel & Palestine?

Staffer: Well, Israel has a right to defend herself, but we think Israel’s bombing of schools and hospitals last summer was over the top.

Lora: The situation in the Gaza Strip is dire. More than 2,000 Palestinians (most of them civilians) were killed last summer. Thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds of families remain without shelter today. The status quo cannot continue. In fact, the U.N. issued a report in the summer of 2012 that said the Gaza Strip would be unlivable by 2020!

Staffer: Yes, but the situation is complex. What do you think the Senator / Congresswoman should do?

Lora: Well, we could begin by recognizing the State of Palestine.  “Direct negotiations” between Israel and Palestine will not be fruitful if the international status of the parties remains unequal. This week Pope Francis recognized the State of Palestine.  And as of October 2014, 135 of the 193 member states of the United Nations have recognized the State of Palestine.  I think it’s long past time for the U.S. to recognize the State of Palestine too.

Staffer:   Hmmmm! OK.

Lora: You know that the official U.S. policy regarding Israel/Palestine has been consistent for decades and under the Administrations of both parties. Carrots haven’t worked, it’s time to use sticks. Expressions of “concerns” about Israel’s settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories (a violation of international law) have not resulted in any change.

Staffer: What kind of sticks?

Lora: Such as reducing the $3+ Billion/year the U.S. taxpayers give to Israel;  supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and refusing to shield Israel from criticism at the United Nations.

Staffer: What’s BDS?

Lora: <exacerbated but remaining calm> You know, like what we did with South Africa to help end the apartheid regime? And since Congress heard Netanyahu speak in March, maybe an invitation  to Ambassador Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s permanent observer to the U.N., and former President Jimmy Carter, to speak to Congress would be helpful. Shouldn’t Congress hear from both sides?

Staffer: When an important vote comes up, the Senator / Congresswoman always asks staff “who have we heard from in the District about this issue and what did they say?”

Lora in Congresswoman Michelle Lujan-Grisham's office sitting with the office dog - Mattie.

Lora in Congresswoman Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s office sitting with the office dog – Mattie.

Which leads me to the point of this blog post. Don’t take it for granted that your members of Congress understand the issues in the Middle East. Reach out to them, call or write, and tell them what you think. Although the AIPAC and J Street lobbyists are known to Congressional staffers, other groups (Jewish Voices for Peace) and individuals may be unknown. We need to be heard in Congress. It’s easy (check out this website) and there’s no excuse not to.

My hunch is that not a single member of Congress has heard of al-Nakba. I know the staffers of the New Mexico delegation hadn’t.

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My questions to Bibi

Benjamin_Netanyahu_portraitWe have two leaders in the Middle East sharing apocalyptic images of death and destruction while using religious dogma to support their positions.

Watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s speech to Congress here: http://nyti.ms/1EeWKFn

And Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic this month describes what ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants. My summary is here.

On the subject of Bibi’s speech, I wish a journalist would ask Bibi these questions:

  1. Will you sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty?
  2. Will you allow inspections of your nuclear program?
  3. Will you disclose what actions you have taken in the fight against ISIS, alongside Iran, Jordan and others?
  4. Will you release the taxes you have withheld from the Palestinian Authority?
  5. Will you allow a humanitarian ship to bring supplies directly to the port in Gaza?
  6. Will you open the Erez Crossing so that Palestinians can freely transit between Gaza and the West Bank to visit their families, study and work unimpeded by Israel’s burdensome checkpoints?
  7. Will you allow Palestinian students in Gaza who have received scholarships and opportunities to pursue their education abroad to leave Gaza through the Erez Crossing?
  8. Will you end settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories?
  9. Will you agree to abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions and recognize a divided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestine?
  10. Will you lift the 8+ year siege and blockade of Gaza Strip?
  11. Will you end the illegal military occupation of Palestine?

The answer to each of these questions will inform U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East more than Bibi’s grandstanding in front of Congress.

 

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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.

GWB-cover

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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Former US Diplomat Advises Palestinian Youth

Congratulations to the Centre for Political Development Studies (CPDS) in Gaza for arranging another very informative round table discussion, this time with retired US diplomat Norman Olsen.  (April 30, 2013)

Mr. Olsen has 26 years experience in the US Foreign Service, most of it in the Middle East.  He has lived in Tel Aviv and Gaza, sat at the negotiating tables, met all of the movers and shakers, and now he’s back in Gaza to help a good friend in his last days of life, dying of cancer.

Norman Olsen, retired U.S. diplomat

Norman Olsen, retired U.S. diplomat

The topic: How can Palestinians get their voice and message out to the American public to provide a counter-balance to the Israeli narrative that dominates the US media?

Mr. Olsen is not shy about sharing his opinions.  In this 2011 Christian Science article, he noted that the GOP candidates were trying to bind President Obama’s hands on foreign policy in Israel.  To which country do their loyalties lie?  (In response to a question, Mr. Olsen stated he is an Independent.)

Round table discussion at CPDS

Round table discussion at CPDS

He provided a very good description of how the American political system operates.  Whatever the President may want to do vis-a-vis foreign policy in the Middle East, he must always play off his agenda with Congress.  They tell him, “If you want health care, you have to back off on Palestine.”

Each member of Congress is elected from a small district and is accountable only to those voters in that small district.  If Palestinians in Gaza voted for representatives in districts, such as the Remal District, only the voters in the Remal District would vote for the representative from Remal.  And so the people who live in the Remal District have influence over the decisions of their representative.  That is how it works in the U.S., Olsen noted.

In the U.S. Congress, the Israeli lobby is very powerful and there is nothing hidden or secretive about their lobbying activities.  Members of AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee) talk to members of Congress to convince them to support Israel.  They only have to convince a few Congressmen, not all of them, because the uninformed members of Congress will just go along and support their colleagues.  And so it is important that Palestinians talk to members of Congress, Mr. Olsen advised, in order to share the other side of the story that most do not hear.

He mentioned a book that documents all of the agreements made by the West regarding Palestine (1948-1982) which then the West broke.  “The PLO & Palestine” by Abdallah Frangi.  This is one I must pick up.

Mr. Olsen used a good analogy that I might use when I return to the U.S. and talk with Americans about Palestine.

Imagine people moving to New Mexico (my home state) from other parts of the world, and taking part of New Mexico for themselves.  I suspect they would choose the northern half of New Mexico because of the water resources.  These new people proclaim a new Hindu state (for the sake of argument) and tell the rest of us “You can stay and live here as second class citizens.” That is what has happened in Palestine and Americans don’t understand it.

My own observation:  If Americans don’t understand the occupation, then they can’t possibly understand resistance.

Round table discussion at CPDS

Round table discussion at CPDS

There was robust discussion among the participants at this Roundtable.  One young man said Palestine is suffering under a form of feudalism.  Another commented that “our problem is access and organization.”  How can the voices of Palestine influence members of Congress in the USA when Palestinians aren’t organized and even talking with Palestinians living in the diaspora?

A robust discussion after Mr. Olsen's remarks.

A robust discussion after Mr. Olsen’s remarks.

One young man asked Olsen what practical steps they could take now to influence public opinion in the West.  Olsen recommended reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and stop firing the rockets into Israel.

The second recommendation stirred some feathers of western activists in the room who asked “why does everyone point to Palestine to stop the violence when it is Israel that breaks the truce first, when it is Israel that has superior weaponry and uses it indiscriminately?”

Olsen said he was asked for practical advice and was giving practical advice.  Israel’s communication and messaging skills are superior to Palestine’s skills and they know how to spin it when rockets land in southern Israel.

Personally, I was listening and hearing very good advice.  I fear some other activists were not listening well.  But after this Roundtable discussion I headed over to another meeting where a group of Palestinians sat down to a virtual dinner (breakfast) with Native Americans in Oakland, California.  In that venue, everyone was listening intently and I was struck by the importance of listening as a skill that people everywhere need to fine tune.

Thank you Mr. Olsen for sharing your years of experience in the Middle East.  And thank you to Yousef Al-Jamal and CPDS for organizing this Round table discussion.

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