I’ve been through wars before, two of them, in 2008-2009 and 2012. The difference this time around is that I am responsible for a six-month old daughter.
I have to be strong for her. I have to be around her all the time. I have to be ready to make funny noises as soon as the Israeli F-16s resume the bombardment.
The nights are much worse than the days, and each night is rougher than the night before. Ten days now.
My heart is sick whenever I watch the news, particularly when I see footage of parents crying over their dead children.
The fear I see in my neighbors’ eyes as they talk about ground invasion is indescribable.
Every night we wait until the morning to snatch one or two hours of sleep.
Every day we pray the electricity will stay on so that we can watch the news. The broadcasts are full of blood and oppression, stuffed with warnings of food shortages and fuel shortages. Medicine shortages. Medical equipment shortages. And neither regional actors nor the “international community” do anything to redress the urgent needs.
All the justifications for the continuous closures are silly. But the silliest one I’ve ever heard came from an Egyptian journalist, the deputy chief of one of Egypt’s most famous newspapers. He said the Rafah crossing must remain shut so that people from Gaza (most of us are 1948 or 1967 refugees) won’t be displaced again.
That’s right -- “Egypt will not assist Israel in displacing the Palestinians again!” Instead, Egypt will help the Palestinians to die under blockade.
The most stressful day so far was Tuesday. At 10:50 pm, somebody rang the bell and told us over the intercom that we had to evacuate immediately. A resident on the sixth floor had gotten one of those warning phone calls from the Israelis. They were about to bomb his house.
I live on the eighth floor.
Before a minute had elapsed, I was hurrying down the stairs, holding my baby daughter. All of our neighbors (there are more than 30 flats) were already hiding in the next building over. We all stayed there for 30-40 minutes.
We were afraid to go home. I went with a neighbor to my father-in-law’s house. It was difficult to find transportation. The men (my husband and other neighbors) stayed behind, in case the bombs did come and caused a fire. Also, we had all left our homes unlocked.
Yesterday, a first-floor resident got a warning from the Israelis to leave his house. They were about to bomb.
He was brave enough to tell them that he is a UN staffer and unaffiliated with a political party. The person calling said he would check.
He called back a few minutes later, and said the target was not the first floor but the ground floor, so my neighbor should still evacuate.
We don’t know who rents the garage down there. We used to see a person park his car there. He doesn’t live in our building. So those of us who had come back home had to evacuate again.
Nothing was bombed.
Was it psychological warfare? Maybe, but most of us did not want to risk going home.
Today, people used the five-hour ceasefire to go out and buy food for their families. I managed to get home and grab some important papers, some money and and a few items for my baby. Then I left the house again.
Belonging to an oppressed people means being uncertain of everything.
It also means that the children stay awake for days on end, spending the hours between the moments of horror discussing the types of military aircraft launching the missiles. “Is it an Apache or an F-16? How big was the bang? What did it sound like?” I guess Palestinian kids have their own vocabulary.
Being oppressed means enduring outrageous lies by news channels that show destroyed Palestinian houses and claim they belonged to Israeli families. The media always serves the powerful.
It also means celebrating Ramadan with the smell of gunpowder in the air, the deafening noise of explosions, the continuous vibration of the house. As a Palestinian living in Gaza, you learn to stay away from windows. You “redecorate” your house so that one room is the place for everything -- eating, sleeping and watching the news. You have to be on alert. Any sound could be a “warning rocket” to be followed by actual bombardment of your house.
It also means trying not to breathe when the house opposite to you is bombed because the air is full of dark smoke.
No place is safe in Gaza. The Israeli drones make ears buzz. F-16 missiles suck air out of lungs. People who live close to the sea (like me) have constant headaches and knots in the stomach from the growl of the warships offshore.
The death is not the story. The story is experiencing the death every moment. The words become hollow when you live under fire.
Judging the Judge
On July 2, 16-year old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted, beaten and burned alive, apparently by a group of Jewish Israelis. News of this “torture and murder by fire,” prominent American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg confesses, “initially prompted in me a desire to say, ‘But.’” Alas, his considered response was scarcely more enlightened.
Goldberg distinguishes Mohammed’s murder from the subsequent beating of his 15-year old cousin Tariq by Israel’s Border Police, and claims that the latter is “more consequential” because it was perpetrated by state security forces and not independent individuals. Says Goldberg,
We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police.
The omission of a third possible criterion, deliberate state actions, whitewashes the role of Israel’s government in fostering the conditions in which Mohammed’s killing took place, and permits Goldberg to frame Israeli crimes against Palestinians in terms of lamentable “state failure” rather than abhorrent state policy.
Still, let us proceed as Goldberg suggests and focus on the policing of 1) criminal elements and 2) security forces. By these metrics, how does Israel fare?
Individual violence. Israel’s “institutional unwillingness to prosecute” crimes against Palestinians and their property by Jewish settlers “has allowed such violence…to continue and intensify,” as “settlers involved in the planning and perpetration of such acts have remained largely immune from the enforcement of the law and, in some cases, have even benefited from official support from State authorities” (Al-Haq). Settlers who attack Palestinians “are rarely tried” and “many cases are not investigated at all” (B’Tselem). Between 2005 and 2013 just 8.5 percent of investigations into alleged attacks by Israeli civilians on Palestinians and their property issued in an indictment, with the vast majority of investigations being closed due to “investigatory failures on the part of the police” (Yesh Din). Settler violence against Palestinians has “occurred within full view of Israeli soldiers and police, who have taken no action to protect Palestinians or their property…. In some cases, soldiers are alleged to have intervened to assist settlers” (Amnesty International)
Violence by security forces. Israeli policy “effectively grants immunity to soldiers and officers, with the result that soldiers who kill Palestinians not taking part in hostilities are almost never held accountable for their misdeeds” (B’Tselem). Between 2000 and mid-2013, during which period the Israel Defense Forces killed approximately 5,000 Palestinians including some 1,000 children, just 16 indictments were issued against Israeli soldiers (Yesh Din). Despite “a long record of using excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank,” “Amnesty International is not aware of any case in which an Israeli army soldier or member of another security force has been convicted of willfully causing the death of a Palestinian.” Indeed, “soldiers and security force personnel have rarely been prosecuted at all in connection with the killings of Palestinians,” even though “many appear to have amounted to unlawful killings” (Amnesty International).
Goldberg cites none of these reports, preferring, in typical fashion, to insert himself between readers and important events. (A standard Jeffrey Goldberg column consists of a sequence of more or less related declarations about himself: “I will dissent…. I believe that…. I myself have used…. I described…. I suppose this passage makes me…. I described… but I have decided…. George Mitchell taught me this…. I owe a number of friends…. I now prefer…. I’m not going to condemn.”)
Observing with considerable understatement that the security forces’ assault of Tariq Abu Khdeir was “not a one-off failure,” Goldberg reveals that, in his experience as a pundit and more pertinently as an Israeli army prison guard during the first Palestinian intifada, “I’ve witnessed some of these incidents myself.”
Excerpting his 2006 book Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, Goldberg relates the time “I witnessed -- and broke up -- one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen,” of an unarmed prisoner by one of Goldberg’s friends and fellow jailers. This intervention earned Goldberg “a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a ‘beautiful soul.’”
But Goldberg undersells himself. As his own account of the beating shows, he did not merely “witness” and break up the assault -- he lied to cover it up:
Abu Firas was on his knees…. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent…. I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me. “He fell,” I lied.
Was this a one-off “Goldberg failure”? “I saw a handful of other beatings,” Goldberg recalls, “and broke them up as well.” Did he report the perpetrators to the authorities? His article doesn’t say.
Elsewhere in Prisoners he is more forthcoming. He describes a routine punishment for detainees at Ketziot, the prison camp where he served, called zinzana, a form of “solitary confinement” in “isolation tanks”:
The zinzana was the size of a refrigerator box, into which three, four, five or six prisoners were shoveled. The prisoners slept seated on a cold and hard plastic floor, limbs draped over limbs, and they shat in a bucket that was emptied once a day. After a few days in the box, prisoners could no longer stand unaided. (109)
At one point he describes four prisoners locked “in a space fit, at most, for two small dogs.” (114) Goldberg admits to having personally sent people to the zinzana. (118) (Zinzana is a colloquial Arabic term for “jail cell,” but jailers in the region have given the word this “special” meaning.)
This isn’t the first time Goldberg’s accounts of his military service have been in tension. Referred to by a critic as a former Israeli prison guard, Goldberg objected:
I wasn’t a guard, I was a military policeman (the actual title of my position was “prisoner counselor,” believe it or not, which meant that I saw after the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners…).
But in his book, Goldberg had already explained that this formal description was misleading:
I was a “prisoner counselor,” a job title that did not reflect accurately my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment. (28)
He himself has described his experience “guarding” Palestinians. Accused of complicity in torture while at Ketziot, Goldberg responded, “That is just ridiculous. I never laid a hand on anybody.” But in his latest article Goldberg recalls an altercation in which he and a prisoner had “flailed at each other and…wrestled on the ground.”
Goldberg’s post concludes with a rousing sermon urging Israeli soldiers to refrain from abusing prisoners even as it apologizes for their failure to do so. “The truth,” he writes,
is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other [e.g., “developing-world”] countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country…[and] Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism…. Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel’s enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.
Fortunately for Israeli soldiers surrounded by “developing-world” brutality and genocidal anti-semitism, they have, in Goldberg, an extremely generous grader.
Take, as one such “test,” Israel’s response to the first intifada, when Goldberg was guarding prisoners in Ketziot. That intifada, Goldberg observes sardonically, is now remembered “as the ‘good’ uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers.” And what of the mass boycotts, strikes and tax resistance that were the heart of the revolt? In his book, Goldberg laments Palestinian blindness “to the ideas of Gandhi and King,” but his claim that he “had not seen” non-violent resistance by Palestinians suggests he suffered a severe visual impairment of his own. (140) The reality was captured by Gene Sharp, a leading academic specialist on non-violent resistance, who reported, a year in to the uprising, that it “has thus far been distinguished on the Palestinian side by predominantly non-violent forms of struggle.” Given “the severity of Israeli repression in the form of beatings, shootings, killings, house demolitions, uprooting of trees, deportations, extended imprisonments and detentions without trial,” he continued, “the Palestinians during the intifada have shown impressive restraint.” (Quoted in Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much, 108-109.)
It is worth recalling the scale of this repression by Israel. During the intifada “Palestinians under interrogation were systematically tortured or ill-treated” (Amnesty International). Some “85 percent of persons interrogated” by Israel’s internal security service were subjected to “methods constituting torture” (B’Tselem), with victims numbering “in the tens of thousands” (Human Rights Watch). Goldberg, while not hesitating to use the word “torture” to describe Palestinian interrogation methods, recoils in his book from applying it to Israel, even when it used the very same techniques.
A memoirist with selective memory; a reporter with distorted vision; a moralizer without principle; a beautiful soul who colluded in torture -- Goldberg suggests we judge Israel by its willingness to hold ethical violations to account. By that standard, Israel’s failures are matched only by Goldberg’s own.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Norman Finkelstein for his input.
Nowhere to Turn for Mosul's Refugees
In 2006, 30,000 Iraqis arrived in Syria every month, seeking and receiving safe haven from US occupation and sectarian warfare as kidnappings, death threats, and bombings by air and land engulfed Baghdad and the southern governorates of Iraq. By 2011, an estimated 1-2 million Iraqis had fled to neighboring countries.
The refugees were the lucky ones. Those too poor to afford the treacherous jeep ride to Damascus, then costing $50 per person, and the set-up costs of a life abroad, entered Iraq’s sprawling camps for internally displaced people, in dismal conditions, without the few benefits that registering with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes afford.
Since 2011, however, Iraq’s neighbors have either themselves collapsed into war or are experiencing severe housing shortages as a result of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Where, then, is the latest wave of Iraqi refugees to turn?
The May takeover by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) of several cities in central and northern Iraq precipitated a huge upsurge in fighting between militias, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian government forces, and Kurdish troops. It is primarily this increase in violence, including aerial bombing raids upon residential neighborhoods by Iraqi and Syrian warplanes, that has driven the exodus from Mosul, Tikrit, Tall ‘Afar and smaller communities. According to eyewitness accounts on Facebook, ISIS has begun to plant its flag atop residential buildings it does not use, in hopes of confusing pilots and drones looking for targets. The assaults by both the militias and the regimes have effectively destroyed the last remnants of public services available in the towns captured by ISIS, areas already suffering from chronic state refusal to supply basic goods.
Both Sunnis and Shi‘a are now attempting to cross from Iraq’s Nineveh governorate into territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Fleeing along the 50-mile road connecting Mosul to Erbil, the majority stop in Erbil and wait, hoping to return once the fighting has subsided. Estimates by the UN and KRG state that, in the last two weeks, 300,000 people have been displaced in this way. New arrivals receive temporary shelter with friends or relatives, but many have to spend savings to rent hotel rooms and other short-term accommodation. Real estate prices in Erbil, already very high, are skyrocketing, as those who can are renting or buying apartments in the overcrowded city. The UNHCR has scrambled to build a transit camp in the desert next to the border checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil, where those without any means of finding accommodation can seek shelter, if in awful conditions and boiling heat. The crisis is pushing humanitarian logistics to the limits, and although aid agencies have flooded into Erbil, coordination remains a challenge -- resulting in an oversupply of aid in accessible areas, while more remote locations receive nothing. Aid organizations have no access to Mosul itself, nor to other ISIS-controlled areas. Communal solidarity, including between strangers, continues to function as the bedrock of the aid response in Erbil, together with the opening of public health facilities to the displaced.
Those fleeing ISIS to the KRG areas are widely referred to, including by the UN, as IDPs -- internally displaced persons. But this designation is inaccurate. Non-Kurdish Iraqis entering the Kurdish region have to pass through immigration controls and receive only short-stay visas, ranging from one to three weeks; sometimes a Kurdish sponsor is required to gain entry. Non-Kurdish Iraqis’ status in the Kurdish region is thus closer to that of refugees than that of internally displaced persons, who usually do not require a residency permit and do not have to pass through immigration controls. Ironically, Syrians, of whom the Kurdish region is also hosting around 200,000, according to the UNHCR, hold a clearer legal status, as they receive a residency permit after registering with the UN agency. Officially, Syrian refugees, many of whom are Kurdish, are required to reside in camps, but authorities are turning a blind eye as many Syrians work and live outside of camps.
We may hope that global interest sparked by the striking images of ISIS marching through Iraqi cities will result in greater attention to Iraq’s relentless crisis of displacement. More support for the aid effort is crucial, as is an urgent wake-up call from the UN’s humanitarian agencies, whose response in the region is increasingly constrained by the impasse at the Security Council over access to all areas, including those under control by rebels or ISIS forces. The more difficult questions concerning the United States and Europe, whose disastrous interventions lie near the root of today’s crises, remain open. The paralysis of the US and EU was confirmed by the failure of the Geneva process to find a solution for Syria. The Western powers show little interest in developing any strategy for the regional crisis apart from ever harsher border controls to ward off the growing numbers of desperate migrants trying to reach Western shores.
In truth, the exodus and/or mass displacement of the Iraqi population has been underway since the 2003 invasion, if not the wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The war in Syria has forced the return of tens of thousands of Iraqis, many of whom have not been able to return to their place of origin. Before the ISIS capture of Mosul, the militia’s advance throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province since January (which heralded its future successes, but was a mere blip in the media) had already displaced over 400,000 residents, who again were mainly forced to flee due to intensifying warfare between the militants and government forces. For years now, Iraqis have been the second-largest group of refugees in Turkey, whose government does not give them access to the refugee camps specially built for Syrians.
The warehousing of Iraq’s IDPs and refugees in ballooning, overwhelmed UNHCR camps must not be allowed to be established as the accepted solution to the crisis. This approach has had disastrous effects on displaced populations in Africa and Asia, and its creeping expansion into the Middle East is a depressing development. Instead of a purely humanitarian problem, displacement must be considered as a political effect of Iraq’s terrible political crisis, to which a political solution must be found.
“Gaza is Israel’s Soweto.” With those four words, Joan Mandell led her dispatch for Middle East Report in 1985.
Visitors to Gaza cannot help but draw grim parallels. The place urges it upon them. Julie Peteet prefaced her 2009 piece for us with a quote from Alice Walker, the gifted author of The Color Purple. “Rolling into Gaza I had a feeling of homecoming. There is a flavor to the ghetto. To the bantustan. To the ‘rez.’ To the ‘colored section.’”
Apartheid, though not Soweto’s pain, is gone from South Africa. The bantustan and the “colored section,” though not the ghetto and the “rez,” are bad memories. Hafrada, as Israel calls its policy of “us here, them there” toward the Palestinians, is in full force, and nowhere more so than in the Gaza Strip. Browsing our archive as Israel yet again pounds Gazans for the crime of being “there,” where Israel put them, it is striking how closely, how cruelly, today resembles yesterday.
Read the rest of Mandell’s lead: “As in Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, there are two divides between Israel and the Gaza Strip: the ‘physical divide of clean streets’ that become the urban slums and dense camps, and the ‘other divide’: between the possessors and the dispossessed, those ‘for whom others have made all the decisions.’ As in Soweto, only when ‘the other divide’ is crossed violently in either direction -- in mass uprisings or army crackdowns -- does Gaza merit notice in the press.”
How many times, indeed, have Gazans been compelled to cry out for the world’s attention?
In 1988, well into the first Palestinian intifada, Melissa Baumann sent us her “Gaza Diary.” She started her travels in Jabalya, the refugee camp outside Gaza City where the uprising began, and ended in Nusayrat, a smaller camp on the road south that formerly abutted the Jewish settlement of Netzarim (evacuated in 2005).
“We drive farther into the camp, zigzagging around gaping holes,” Baumann wrote from Nusayrat. “Everywhere we go people stare, and children begin to follow the car, slowed as it is by the construction. ‘PLO! Israel no!’ they shout, or ‘We give our blood to Palestine!’ Soon, 50 or more are in our wake, laughing, skipping, running. I wonder if ten years from now, five, three or one, they will find such an audience -- or will need one.”
Those children are now well into their thirties, mothers and fathers of broods of their own.
More than 55 percent of the population of Gaza, the “crowded enclave” of so many news stories, is under the age of 15. These people don’t figure in most accounts, except sometimes after they have died. As Omar Karmi reminded us in 2006, amid Operation Summer Rains, the first pummeling of Gaza after Israel removed its soldiers and settlers from the strip, the concerns of the living are the main preoccupation of the mass of Gazans who have nothing to do with Hamas.
Five-year-old Layan cupped her hands over her ears and screwed her eyes shut when she tried to describe the effect of a sonic boom. She said the sound scares her, even though her father, Muntasir Bahja, 32, a translator, has told her “a small lie to calm her” -- that the boom is nothing more than a big balloon released by a plane and then popped.
Muntasir said he illustrated the balloon-popping principle to his daughter, but his explanation has not stopped her from fearing the massively loud thunderclap caused when Israeli fighter jets break the sound barrier over the Gaza Strip, as they did 25 times (mostly in the wee hours of the morning) between June 25 and July 4, and as they continue to do. Layan’s mother, Arish, 28, said her eldest child has also started wetting her bed again, something she had outgrown two years earlier. All three of her young children “are very frightened lately,” she continued. “They are very tired and very upset and they get sick and vomit. They’ve lost a lot of their appetite. They are a little wild and I’m finding it more difficult to control them.”
In the distance, from the direction of Beit Hanoun, a town slightly to the north of the home of the Bahja family in the Jabalya refugee camp, the sound of intermittent artillery fire can be heard. “That’s the sound of a bomb,” said Layan, somewhat dismissively, when asked. “That doesn’t scare me.”
Again, the compulsion to compare -- our coverage of Gaza is full of words like ghetto and open-air prison. In 2008, one month after Hamas blew a hole in the metal wall separating Gaza from Egypt, and Israel locked the strip down in retaliation, Darryl Li suggested that “zoo” or “animal pen” might be the more appropriate term.
Israel and its defenders insist that in 2005 they left Gaza behind. That “disengagement” was to be the end of Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the end of its international legal obligation (routinely dishonored) to safeguard the strip’s inhabitants from harm. But, though the corporate media didn’t get the memo, the occupation did not end. (Israel itself dropped an effort to have the UN rule the occupation over.) Israel controls exit and entry; Israel controls the airspace and the seacoast; Israel controls most of the electricity and water supply; and on and on. As Li wrote, Israel wants all the authority, but none of the responsibility.
“‘Disengagement’ is, of course, the name Israel gave to its 2005 removal of colonies and military bases from the Gaza Strip. But rather than a one-time abandonment of control, disengagement is better understood as an ongoing process of controlled abandonment, by which Israel is severing the ties forged with Gaza over 40 years of domination without allowing any viable alternatives to emerge, all while leaving the international donor community to subsidize what remains. The effect is to treat the Strip as an animal pen whose denizens cannot be domesticated and so must be quarantined.”
There were few keener observers of Gaza than Graham Usher, the long-time Palestine correspondent for The Economist and our late, great contributing editor. In February 2001, he wrote a piece for us called “Gaza Agonistes.” The introductory paragraph is both of its time and wrenchingly timeless.
To walk through Gaza is to penetrate the heart of the Palestinian uprising, to realize why it happened and why, sporadically, it endures…. [I]n Gaza you come up against the vast, omnipresent system of control Israel has created -- in and through the Oslo accords -- over every facet of Palestinian life, from work to walking. Here you understand why Palestinians are fighting to death to destroy every last vestige of that system.
In the meantime, Gaza needs your help.
In the meantime, Gaza is here and there. It is a place of grim parallels and a place of its own.
In the meantime, Gaza is.
Still Between Iraq and a Hard Place
The old joke about Jordan’s political geography -- that the country sits “between Iraq and a hard place” -- seems morbidly, and not at all amusingly, appropriate once again. Violent conflict is intensifying on three borders: Syria is aflame, in the third year of a horrific civil war; Iraq is racked with renewed internal strife; and now Israel is again bombarding Gaza, with Palestinian civilians suffering the bulk of the casualties and Hamas firing mostly useless rockets in response. Speculation has begun about a third intifada.
In the midst of all this turmoil, reports suggest that the United States is looking to expand its training of, and support for, Syrian rebels -- presumably with the Hashemite Kingdom as its main base. The Jordanian regime is said to be reluctant to highlight its precarious connection to this operation. The regime has previously been linked to rebel factions deemed moderate in Western capitals and has allowed some representatives of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to stay in Jordan, even as the kingdom maintains diplomatic ties with the Asad regime in Damascus. Even the row over Jordan’s ouster of the Syrian ambassador did not lead to a formal break.
The US has moved to bolster its own direct support to Jordan, increasing to perhaps 1,600 the number of US troops in Jordan at present, some of whom are manning Patriot anti-missile batteries and servicing F-16 jet fighters stationed near the Syrian border.
Jordan has also increased the numbers of its own military forces on both the Syrian and Iraqi borders, in response not only to the rising levels of conflict in those countries, but also to the competing declarations of salafi jihadist “states.” The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) declared a new “caliphate,” while its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra, pronounced the caliphate null and void, while heralding its own “emirate.” These announcements have resonated with some salafis within Jordan itself, particularly in the restive southern town of Ma‘an, where there have been small demonstrations in support of the caliphate. (As many as 2,000 Jordanian jihadists have already joined the war against the Asad regime in Syria, some with ISIS, some with Jabhat al-Nusra. The Jordanian regime has made very clear -- including by opening fire at the border -- that these men are not welcome home.) In Ma‘an, even as the demonstrations proceed, more senior salafi leaders condemn the caliphate with fatwas, underscoring the vast divisions within Jordan’s movement of Islamist puritans.
Meanwhile, Jordan has mounted new recruitment drives for both the armed forces and the gendarmie (or darak) divisions of the police. King ‘Abdallah II met last week with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the conflicts in Gaza, Syria and Iraq -- and presumably Jordan’s security needs.
More controversially, Jordan has also tightened up the provisions of its anti-terrorism law, if tightened is the word, since the new definitions of proscribed dissent, even that taking place online, are rather elastic. This measure is an echo of year-old restrictions that resulted in the closure of almost 300 websites in a country that previously had the most open approach to the Internet in the Arab world. Officials argue that the strictures are essential. But many democracy activists fear that, once again, political openness and reform are being sacrificed in the name of national security.
Jordan’s political opposition is sometimes deeply divided over the nature of the conflicts next door. The Syrian war, in particular, has seen a dramatic rift open between the Muslim Brothers (who oppose Asad) and leftist and pan-Arab nationalist parties and groups (which support Asad). But the bombings in Gaza are an altogether different matter. Jordanians may be quite divided in their views of Hamas, but they are strikingly unanimous in their support of the Palestinian people.
Jordanians of all backgrounds follow events in Gaza and the West Bank closely and with empathy. Government, regime and opposition all decry the bombing of Gaza as “collective punishment.” While Israel argues that it is striking back at Hamas, and preempting more showers of rockets, most Jordanians emphasize the fundamental structural inequality of the conflict and intense level of civilian suffering, particularly that of children. Their main concern is not about Hamas, but about Gaza -- and Jordanians are not as likely to conflate the two as many in the West are. Whether their roots are in historical Palestine or in East Bank tribes, whether they are Muslim or Christian, Arab or Circassian, Jordanians are united in horror and anguish over the latest disaster befalling Gaza.
Despite Jordan’s many other security concerns, both government and opposition continually assert that the core conflict in the region remains Israel and Palestine. The king himself has repeatedly stated that the lack of resolution of Palestinian desire for independence and statehood undermines regional stability. Opponents of the regime often criticize the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty -- now in its twentieth year. They argue that Israel takes the treaty for granted, and is emboldened by the agreement to use force against Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees continue to flow into the kingdom, which has already absorbed waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees over the years. The social, economic and political strains on Jordan of these refugee flows are severe.
Between Iraq and a hard place indeed.
Egypt's Government by Baltaga
Most reactions to the farcical convictions of Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamad Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamad express shock and outrage at everything from the ridiculous evidence presented to the sentences that would have made Draco himself blush. The strongest reactions came from the British and US governments, with Foreign Minister William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron saying they were “appalled,” and Secretary of State John Kerry calling the verdict “chilling” and “deeply disturbing.” Amnesty International Director Steve Crawshaw called the sentence “outrageous” and an “absolute affront to justice.”
This outrage is entirely justified, but entirely misses the point. The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.
Another misconception is that the Egyptian regime is spending its political capital with Western governments by pursuing this so-called hard line against opposition. Even if those governments’ rhetoric in support of human rights and the rule of law were genuine and backed up by action, there are very good reasons why the Egyptian regime would benefit from antagonizing them.
First and most obviously, because it is pleasing its Gulf sponsors -- especially the Saudis -- who are primarily interested in marginalizing the Muslim Brothers and in putting Qatar back in its place. These governments have not pressured their Western allies to support any significant move toward democracy in Egypt since 2011, and will not do so in the future. In this they are joined by Israel, which is interested in Egypt’s continuing support for Gaza’s closure. Second, because such high-profile behavior helps the new regime set its red lines with its Western backers. The sentencing of the “Al Jazeera Three” came the day after Kerry’s visit to Cairo, and with representatives of foreign governments and international NGOs present in court. Far from trying to avoid friction, the sentence was clearly calculated to cause the US maximum embarrassment. Third, because any rebuttal from Western governments plays to the paranoid xenophobic nationalism the regime has been stoking at home in order to isolate local opposition. Fourth, because the “scandal” of Western protest helps conveniently paper over the massive levels of aid the military and the state receive from those very same governments. Finally, and probably most important of all, because by causing such public tensions with Western governments the regime distracts public attention from the country’s deep structural problems, particularly the country’s worsening levels of inequality and the deep authoritarianism of its institutions.
The Egyptian army’s goal is to stay in power or close to it in order to defend its economic interests and political influence, and avoid being marginalized the way they were under Mubarak. The army’s first stint in power after removing Mubarak in February 2011 ended in disaster. Having consolidated its grip on power with a constitutional referendum in March, the army proceeded to inept management of both politics and the economy that had people chanting “down with military rule” in droves by autumn. It was this failure that forced the generals to concede those parliamentary and then presidential elections which brought the Muslim Brothers to power. Although the Brothers treated them mostly with kid gloves, the army brass then took advantage of the Islamists’ own inept rule to ride popular discontent and return to power by removing the only democratically elected president in the country’s history.
The army’s and ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s long-term problem is that the military’s vast business empire places it at the heart of a system that generates wealth for a small elite by plundering state assets. This system has come to rely on increasing authoritarianism in order to make possible the privatization and austerity policies which allow elites to grow richer. Over the past two decades, this system has worsened the social, economic and political marginalization of the bulk of Egypt’s population. It is this structural trend that made the January 2011 uprisings possible. The new regime’s impasse is rooted in the fact that the policies it has been pursuing for its own benefit are the very same that drove people into the streets three years ago. To consolidate its power, the army is relying on the oldest trick in the book -- a "war on terror" stoking fear of inside traitors and outside enemies. The rhetoric of nationalism, chaos and security will work in the short term, and controlling or coopting most media and shutting down opposition outlets makes the regime’s sell easier. But the regime’s is a risky strategy. The regional uprisings show that, sooner or later, the population is likely to tire of the regime’s excuses, and as a tactic intimidation eventually generates more opposition, not less. Whether ensuing protests will lead to real change or just a switch in regime tactics as they have done so far is open to question. Successive regimes have tried to make instability work for them and have often succeeded: In both January 2011 and January 1977 they seem to have failed because frustration with repressive rule coupled with considerable economic upheaval. Since even these instances produced little long-term substantive political change, it seems that such change will be difficult without deep economic rifts, and without real economic and political alternatives beyond the current system (which the Brothers never offered).
Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do. But the strategies for enrichment that the Egyptian army -- and for that matter all Egypt’s business elites, Brothers included -- have opted for bite the hand that feeds them. How long before that hand slaps them remains to be seen.
What About 'Abd al-Rahman al-Awlaqi?
The US government wanted to kill Anwar al-Awlaqi long before a CIA-JSOC drone strike actually succeeded in doing so on September 30, 2011. Before and after that deadly strike, al-Awlaqi’s kill-ability has been a bone of contention because he was a US citizen. The cleric, who had become radicalized as the “war on terror” wore on, moved to Yemen, his ancestral homeland, in late 2004. There, he became a prolific jihadi propagandist on the Internet.
On January 27, 2010, the Washington Post reported that he and at least two other citizens had been designated for extrajudicial execution. The listing of al-Awlaqi came on the heels of two incidents to which he was reportedly linked: the November 5, 2009 armed rampage by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 and wounded 29 people, and the December 25 attempt by a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a transatlantic flight bound for Detroit. Al-Awlaqi’s alleged involvement in these crimes raises the question of why the government never indicted the cleric if it actually had information implicating him.
After the Post article reporting that al-Awlaqi had been put on the targeted killing list, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit in August 2010 on behalf of al-Awlaqi’s father Nasir to challenge executive authorization for extrajudicial execution of a citizen (al-Aulaqi v. Obama). The case was dismissed that December when the court ruled that Nasir al-Awlaqi lacked standing, since the government had no intention of killing him, just his son.
Meanwhile, on July 16, 2010, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which functions as the “government’s lawyer,” produced a memorandum laying out the legal rationales for the killing of al-Awlaqi. That memo remained a closely guarded secret until last week, when the government finally released it in heavily redacted form. Among the redacted portions is the first 11 pages laying out the factual basis for determining that al-Awlaqi had gone from inspirational to operational and become an “enemy combatant” and leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is at war with the United States.
Leaving aside the quality of the OLC memo’s legal arguments, the underlying premise that killing al-Awlaqi in a military operation was a legal option depended on information provided by unnamed “high government officials” who “have concluded, on the basis of al-Aulaqi’s activities in Yemen, that al-Aulaqi is a leader of AQAP whose activities in Yemen pose a ‘continued and imminent threat’ of violence to United States persons and interests” (p. 21).
The phrase “have concluded” sounds so authoritative. The secrecy that guards such intelligence makes its veracity literally unarguable. But what about the “intelligence” and the “legal logic” for the October 14, 2011 drone strike that killed al-Awlaqi’s 16-year old son ‘Abd al-Rahman, as well as his 17-year old cousin and five others while they were dining in an open-air restaurant? In the immediate aftermath of that attack, officials claimed that ‘Abd al-Rahman was a 21-year old militant. After his grandfather produced the boy’s birth certificate proving the lie, the administration reverted to its default position of asserting that CIA operations are classified and cannot be commented upon. Indeed, the Obama administration has never produced an official justification or explanation about the killing of ‘Abd al-Rahman (who, by the way, was also a US citizen).
The OLC memo offers nothing in the way of understanding intelligence mistakes, which are numerous, as reflected in the large number of civilians who have been killed in drone strikes. ‘Abd al-Rahman’s killing is a particularly salient example of why it behooves us to be skeptical about the assurances of “high officials” who “have concluded” that death-causing intelligence is valid.
So far, federal courts are no help. On April 4 of this year, Nasir al-Awlaqi lost a second lawsuit, Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, challenging the government’s constitutional right to kill US citizens without trial (and, in the case of his grandson, for no stated reason). As one of his lawyers, Maria LaHood, said after hearing of the judge’s dismissal of the case: “It seems there’s no remedy if the government intended to kill you, and no remedy if it didn’t.”
Image: ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Awlaqi, left, and his father Anwar, right.
Under-the-Radar Palestinian Connections
With intensity unknown since the second intifada and at a daily cost of $12 million to the Hebron economy alone, Israel is cracking down on the West Bank in its search for three missing Israeli settler youth. The result is a growing Palestinian chorus: Stop Israeli-Palestinian “security coordination.”
Palestinian Authority security forces have stepped aside while the Israeli military spreads out in West Bank cities and villages with little regard for the zones of nominal security jurisdiction allocated to the PA under the 1993 Oslo accords. Since the second intifada, however, security coordination has been the linchpin of the rebuilding of PA security forces at the behest of Israel and the George W. Bush administration. Since the mid-2000s, indeed, the primary purpose of the PA forces has been to police Palestinian dissent, while leaving Israeli forces a free hand to operate throughout occupied territory.
The overt popular disgust at the images and implications of this coordination is understandable, especially since the PA rules of engagement since the second intifada prevent PA forces from protecting the population from Israeli measures, including arrest, house demolition and firing on demonstrators. But in the din of the demands for immediate suspension of coordination, nobody, including the PA, appears to have a prescription for what comes next. There is no Plan B in the event of violent Palestinian confrontation with Israel and an ensuing breakdown in the “normal” cycle of life and spread of “lawlessness” akin to that witnessed in the closing chapters of the first and second intifadas. Nor does it seem to be explicitly recognized that the end of security coordination effectively sounds the death knell for the entire Oslo framework, which, though discredited and unilaterally managed by Israel, continues today as the de facto and de jure scaffolding of the Palestinian political system and the functioning of PA institutions. This most recent reversal for the notion of “Palestinian statehood preparedness” raises the question, again, of whether Oslo is dead and buried, with the concerned parties merely awaiting the appropriate moment and rebalancing of forces on the ground to announce that fact to the world.
While security coordination is the favorite target of loathers of Oslo today, for a time, when the 2012 financial crisis hit consumers’ pocketbooks hard, it was the economic component of Oslo (the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations) that was the butt of popular ire. In some ways, the popular demands of those days for abrogation of the Paris Protocol made more sense, and perhaps were more feasible, than the present expectations of dramatic departures from a PA that is bound to Oslo until further notice. Indeed, security separation from Israel would invite a range of unilateral Israeli economic measures that would most likely increase separation between the two economies and the misery of Palestinian households dependent on those economic links, including 150,000 PA employees, some 70,000 Palestinian workers in Israel, and thousands of small businesses and industries around the West Bank that rely on cross-border trade.
Without preparation and practical alternatives for asserting some territorial contiguity, keeping the economy afloat and resisting the pressure of Israeli retaliatory measures, security coordination should logically be the last component of Oslo to be dismantled, if indeed a Palestinian national decision is taken to repudiate Oslo and start afresh. Whichever part of the 20-year old Oslo framework is first to be challenged, any change (nominal or effective) will have major consequences for all of society. Therefore, dismantling Oslo, whether incrementally or in one fell swoop, is a project that needs the backing of broad democratic consensus to be achieved within the framework of PLO institutions or possibly a revamped form of Palestinian “national” governance better suited to twenty-first-century realities.
Is the Palestinian economy ready to pay the price of separation, even if the present showdown does not lead to the collapse of law and order? For the moment, by all appearances, the answer seems to be no.
Had the PA inched away from the Paris Protocol in response to the 2012 protests, and mobilized international support for a new economy with sovereign functions beyond its current confines, then some of the pieces of an alternative might already be in place today. But, then as now, policymakers appeared so wedded to (and dependent upon) the status quo that any break with it could be expected only from the Israeli side.
From a strategic angle, Palestinian national economic security requires an end to Israeli domination (and/or trade, fiscal and monetary separation). But the cost of economic separation must be carefully calculated at different levels, many of them unseen or unrecorded, regardless of the fate of security coordination.
One largely ignored, but increasingly significant, economic bond with Israel may be witnessed on any given Saturday, when as many as 4,500 cars full of Palestinian Israeli citizens from the Galilee and northern Triangle cross into the Jenin governorate for weekly shopping trips for a range of cheaper goods (food, clothes, household items) and services (car repairs, dentistry, tourism). These cash purchases are roughly estimated at $500,000 -- the city of Jenin’s pocket money for the week. Similar (though smaller) flows reach Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Jericho and Hebron, not to mention Jerusalem, and are estimated in total at well over $300 million annually (mainly in cash). As many as 2,500 of the 7,000 students at the American University of Jenin are Palestinian citizens of Israel, while some 1,500 of the students at Hebron University are young women from the Naqab desert.
Such historical links have reemerged in a powerful new form that belies conventional wisdom about the desirability of or need for separation from the Israeli economy. In fact, such anecdotal evidence helps to better define exactly which axes of dependency on the Israeli economy need to be broken, and along which paths Palestinian Arab economic reconnection and integration should be the main goal.
Two-staters and one-staters alike, please take note: Under the current configuration, however adverse the conditions may appear for an independent Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the question of reconnection between the Arab economies in Israel and the West Bank is more complex than is thought. The phenomenon of existing connections not only constitutes a strategic asset for all Palestinians, and a good omen for the prospects for surviving and maybe again flourishing in their homeland, but more immediately should take its place in the debate on the pros and cons of economic separation and security coordination.
Refugee Need and Resilience in Zaatari
Not surprisingly, a visit to the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan is mainly a depressing experience. Yet there are elements of inspiration here as well.
The depressing part is obvious. Zaatari is a refugee camp, opened in July 2012 and originally meant to shelter perhaps 6,000 people but now “home” to more than 100,000 men, women and children. Of these residents, the clear majority -- perhaps 65 percent -- are children. Zaatari has grown so large that it is probably the fourth largest “city” in Jordan (after Amman, Irbid and Zarqa). And the 100,000-plus Syrians in Zaatari are but a fraction of the population displaced by the ongoing Syrian civil war and now living in Jordan. There are at least 500,000 more Syrian refugees living in host communities, especially northern Jordanian cities and towns like Irbid, Mafraq and Ramtha. Another half million or so Syrians were already in Jordan when the war began. They were, and are, housed mainly in Jordanian cities, and now have no real means of getting home.
The Syrians join previous waves of refugees who fled to Jordan, including Palestinians and Iraqis. Jordan even took in Bosnian refugees during the wars over the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But with a population barely reaching 7 million, and an economy that was in crisis long before the Syrian crisis erupted, the resource-poor kingdom is increasingly feeling the strain of the latest refugee influx. The hope, of course, is that the Syrians’ stay in Jordan, and in the camp, is temporary. But that was also the hope in 2012 and in 2013 and, at present, at least, the Syrian war shows no signs of abating.
Despite the dire circumstances, there are signs of human resilience in Zaatari as well. It is inspiring to see how Syrians have attempted to recreate their former lives, or forge new ones, creating something like a community in the camp. Many observers -- and some refugees themselves -- casually ascribe this phenomenon to a natural entrepreneurial trait of the Syrian nation. But similar statements abound with regard to Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi emigrants and refugees, as well as just about every other group of displaced people everywhere. Resilience doesn’t come from some timeless, immutable national character. It’s simply a matter of ordinary people in horrible and decidedly extraordinary circumstances doing whatever they can to improve the lives of their families.
What is also inspiring is the effort put forth by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, NGOs, international aid workers and Jordanian volunteers to make the camp livable. There is much legitimate criticism to be leveled at global donors for failing to deliver on their ample pledges and even more ire to be directed at regional and global powers for placing geostrategic priorities above humanitarian ones. But here on the ground, in the midst of this sprawling camp, aid workers are doing everything they can to make the lives of the refugees somewhat better.
What started as a scattering of tents is now a mixture of tents and prefabricated housing (usually called “caravans” or trailers). Some families have linked two caravans together, with aluminum or other ad hoc paneling used to create a kind of courtyard, sitting room or storage space between them. As the camp expanded, it assumed a clear grid-like pattern, now broken into 12 districts for the purposes of distribution of food and supplies. Much of the initial expansion was the result of trial and error, but the UNHCR and the Jordanian authorities have made gradual adjustments, including serious attempts at urban planning, as the camp has steadily grown.
After a series of problems with food distribution, protests and riots, Jordanian security forces now have no visible presence within the camp. These forces have established themselves instead along the ring road surrounding the camp, creating a cordon on the perimeter of Zaatari. Within the camp, Jordanian authorities have allowed various forms of commerce to emerge largely without interference. Their permissiveness led to the development of a main street that is somewhat sarcastically referred to in the camp as the Champs d’Elysées. There are now more than 500 businesses in Zaatari, most of which are stalls and small shops selling goods and services. These enterprises include salons, fruit and vegetable markets, small restaurants (generally falafel and hummus stands) and shops offering perfumes, cellular phones, sweets and wedding dresses. There is even a small jewelry store and a pet shop, with parakeets prominently displayed.
Periodic distribution of basic foodstuffs and supplies occurs at centralized distribution centers, and more extensive supplies can be found at the Safeway that opened at one end of the camp. Coupons are available for key staple foods, while other items are sold for cash, but at wholesale prices. The Jordanian manager of the Zaatari Safeway has a team of Syrian employees, as part of the camp’s cash-for-work program.
In addition to this commercial life, there is a school at the very center of Zaatari. Not all children attend, however, because many families encourage young sons to work instead and earn some money for the family, often using wheelbarrows to haul just about anything for cash. For many daughters, the challenge is very different: There is a clear trend of Syrian girls being married at an early age to local or foreign men. The UNHCR and Jordanian authorities are well aware of this problem, and while they strongly discourage the practice, it seems to persist.
Still, international donors have tried to gear spaces in the camp toward children, so that they don’t (always) have to be young laborers or child brides, but can simply be children. There are now playgrounds, children’s activity centers, and dirt and gravel soccer pitches. The latter spaces are part of the efforts of the Asia Football Development Program and the Norwegian Refugee Council to engage both boys and girls in soccer, in the interest of physical health and psychological wellbeing, as well as a semblance of community feeling for children who may have lost everything in Syria. The youth football program may, in fact, be the most inspiring feature of life in an otherwise difficult set of circumstances.
International branding is splashed over every positive feature of the camp. Housing is spray-painted with flags of donor countries such as Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Morocco’s green star on a red field is displayed at a large field hospital and set of medical clinics. Other facilities are marked with the flags of Japan, Canada, Australia, Qatar, the United States and the European Union. Meanwhile, a new camp has opened in Azraq and is already home to thousands.
Yet the foreign contributions to date are nowhere near enough. As the war continues, and refugees continue to cross the border from Syria, the strain on Jordan grows, especially in terms of basic services -- water, electricity, food and education. For both Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities, the need is great.
Image: Curtis Ryan
Justice for Rasmea Odeh
This past winter, I was privileged to participate in several events in Chicago organized by Rasmea Yousef Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network and leader of that group’s Arab Women’s Committee. The events brought together anywhere from 60-100 disenfranchised women, all recent immigrants, from nearly every Arabic-speaking country. The attendees were there to learn English, share meals and stories, and discuss personal struggles, in everything from marriage and parenting to navigating the US educational and medical industries and the US immigration system. The women also talked about fending off racism. Together, they developed solutions for their own lives.
One event I attended was a celebration of International Women’s Day, at which immigrant women performed a play that Rasmea Odeh had written. The play focused on several generations of women in an extended Arab immigrant family who grappled with gender-related struggles both in the family and in American society with recourse to their loving but often tense connections with one another. The audience was engrossed, laughing and commenting throughout the performance, perhaps because they rarely see their own life struggles thus affirmed in America. Rarely, in fact, do they see humane, nuanced representations of Arab women’s lives at all.
After the play, attendees listened to music and celebrated their own accomplishments. Several women were from countries like Yemen and Iraq and had come to the United States without knowing a word of English. They could now read and write. Odeh asked each of her students to bring something they had written in English to be read out loud. The first woman stood up and read: “I love my teacher.”
As the event went on, women spoke over and over about the affection and gratitude they felt toward Rasmea Odeh for touching and transforming their lives and making such a beautiful space possible. I then understood why scores of women were attending each class, workshop or event -- even though they were under no obligation to do so and even though many had to walk by themselves through a polar vortex snowstorm (in Chicago, no less) to get there.
I could not help but recall the scenes at the Arab Women’s Committee events some months later, in May, at a historic Chicago conference in commemoration of the 1964 Freedom Summer, when civil rights icon Angela Davis insisted that every social justice activist in the US embrace solidarity with Palestine and the movement demanding that the US government drop its charges against Rasmea Odeh.
Charges? What charges? Why would the US government want to prosecute this 67-year old Palestinian-American community activist and teacher?
On October 22, 2013, also in Chicago, Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Odeh. She was subsequently indicted on one charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization, and released the same day on a $15,000 bond. The US government accuses Odeh of failing to answer a question truthfully on her naturalization application ten years ago in 2004. She is scheduled to stand trial in a Detroit federal court starting on September 8, 2014. If convicted, she could face up to ten years in prison and fines up to $250,000. She may also be deported and have her US citizenship revoked after the potential prison sentence is served. From national call in-days to student protests, petitions and mobilizations to pack the courtroom, a campaign to support Odeh has gained massive support.
US officials say they are after Odeh for immigration fraud. The Department of Justice alleges that Odeh failed to disclose on her naturalization application that she had served time in Israeli jail -- even though her sentence was based on a confession she made in the midst of 45 days of sexual and physical torture while in detention. In addition, Odeh’s 1969 conviction in Israel was determined by a court system that systematically abuses Palestinians’ due process rights and convicts Palestinians at a rate of 99.74 percent. The Israeli military justice system that is applied to occupied Palestinians, in fact, has itself been found to be in immense violation of international law -- from the lack of protections against torture and rape while in custody to the simple fact that virtually no Palestinian walks away free from an Israeli trial. The Israeli state also unlawfully imprisoned and tortured Odeh’s family and destroyed her family home soon after her arrest.
Odeh’s release from Israeli jail was followed by exile to Jordan and immigration to the US. Living in Michigan and Chicago since 1994, she has worked at the Arab American Action Network since the mid-2000s and led the Arab Women’s Committee, one of the most successful empowerment programs for Arab immigrant women living in poverty. For this service, Odeh received the Mosaic Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Thanks to her leadership, the Arab Women’s Committee now has a base of nearly 600 Arab immigrant women and does much more than the typical social service program. Women may obtain language training and other services, but they also come to find emotional support, genuine human interaction, artistic and writing activities, political discussion and debate, and a level of solidarity otherwise absent from their lives.
The question remains: Why is Rasmea Odeh being prosecuted, and why now, for an alleged infraction that is a full decade old? Analysts connect her arrest with many previous US government campaigns against Palestinian-American activists and their supporters. Under the Nixon administration, there was Operation Boulder. The case of the Los Angeles Eight outlasted three (and almost four) presidents before it was finally set aside. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, there has been increased spying, profiling and infiltration of Arab and Muslim communities and there have been prosecutions for sending charitable aid to Palestinians, as in the case of the Holy Land Five.
In all of these cases, as in Odeh’s, what the US government considers suspect is connected to what Palestinian-Americans and their supporters are permitted to say about Israel -- and to Israel’s own systems of militarism, surveillance, repression and incarceration. There may also be a connection between Odeh’s indictment and the 2010 FBI raids targeting 23 anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists in the Midwest. And Palestine Solidarity Legal Support responded to more than 100 more incidents in 2013 alone. These incidents involve not only extra government scrutiny but also all sorts of intimidation and bullying. The Odeh indictment may also be related to the US government’s Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, which delays and denies naturalization applications of members of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities, solely on the basis of religion, ethnicity and/or national origin.
But again, why Rasmea Odeh, and why now? Why now, when so many Arab immigrant women in Chicago are celebrating their personal successes in America partly due to Odeh’s remarkable leadership? Why now, when the Palestinian struggle, typified by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, is growing faster than ever before in Chicago and across the US?
We may never really know why, but this much is clear: The federal government is using immigration infractions as a political tool to target Rasmea Odeh with criminal charges. The circumstances of her case are especially aggravating: 1) Israel tortures and sexually assaults Palestinians like Odeh as a means of facilitating the colonization of Palestinian land; 2) the US is complicit going back decades in Israeli war crimes and violations of international law; and 3) the US is now excavating the naturalization papers of a 67-year old survivor of sexual torture in order to brand her as a criminal.
These circumstances are why the streets of Detroit will be filled and the courtroom packed on September 8. From now until then, the collective voice of those whose lives Rasmea has touched, and the growing number of others who support her, will continue to demand: Drop the charges now!