VOICES OF CONSCIENCE: DELEGATION to THE GAZA STRIP

Interfaith Peace-Builders, November 5, 2012

November 5, 2012 – Interfaith Peace-Builders (IFPB) is pleased to announce that our 21 member delegation to the Gaza Strip passed safely through the Rafah Crossing Monday morning and is now safely in the Gaza Strip.

Interfaith Peace-Builders has sent more than 44 delegations to Palestine/Israel since 2001. This is the first IFPB delegation to enter the Gaza Strip since 2003. Like other IFPB delegations, its purpose is to educate North Americans about the region and deepen their understanding of its conflicts.

On the eve of the Presidential Election in the United States, the US-brokered peace process continues to show few results and US military aid to the region continues to flow unabated.

This delegation focuses on the realities of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip. Participants have the unique opportunity to hear directly from Palestinians throughout the territory regarding their hopes for peace and the role of the United States, the US government, and other international actors, in promoting a resolution to the conflict.

The Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation to the Gaza Strip is led by Michael Brown and Cindy Corrie. Michael Brown worked off and on in the Gaza Strip between 1993 and 2000 for the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. A former IFPB board member, Michael continues to work today on the media and Palestine. Michael led an IFPB delegation in 2008. Cindy Corrie is the mother of human rights activist and observer Rachel Corrie who on March 16, 2003, was killed by an Israeli military Caterpillar bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.  Motivated by her daughter’s work and sacrifice, Cindy Corrie has dedicated herself to the pursuit of justice and peace in the Middle East and has visited Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza on numerous occasions. She is also president of the board of the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, inspired by her daughter.

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a photo of the delegation in Gaza City

The delegation includes the following people:

Diane Adkin – Camas, Washington
Michele Bahl – Madison, Wisconsin
Carol Barr – Madison, Wisconsin

Michael Brown – Asheville, North Carolina
Marsha Carlton – Davis, California
Craig and Cindy Corrie – Olympia, Washington
Gary Doupe – Bainbridge, New York
Rich Forer – Yardley, Pennsylvania
Joyce Guinn – Germantown, Wisconsin
Maya Harris – Olympia, Washington
Wendy Hartley – Nevada City, California
Darlene Jones-Owens – Carrollton, Georgia
Declan Keogh – Decatur, Georgia
Ralph and Emily McCoy – Boone, North Carolina
Donna Nassor – Moonachie, New Jersey
Karen Peterson – Horseheads, New York
Cathy Sultan – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Colleen Toomey – North Andover, Massachusetts
Sonja Wentz – Olympia, Washington

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Loving the Land and It’s People: Palestinian Hospitality

Veena Brekke, Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, October 31, 2012

On October 28th we departed the beautiful city of Nazareth to visit Palestinian towns, villages, farms and spend two nights in Palestinian homes. I would like to share my experience of visiting the small farming village of Nusf Jubayl, West Bank (Area A – occupied territory) and a home of an Israeli Palestinian family in Akka, Israel.

Nusf Jubayl farmers are part of a small farmer’s co-operative (1200 farmers around the town of Jenin) who harvest olives and sell its products through Canaan Fair Trade. The village is located in a mountainous, rocky area. We were welcomed by Khader and Ransees’s family.

A group of us walked along the beautiful mountain side, peaceful, barren and rocky land, to reach the olive trees that needed harvesting. We worked alongside children and adults from the village until sunset and watched the full moon come up as we walked the mile and half back to the village.

Several families had planned a meal for us in a common court yard. We were offered a delicious dish, Maqlouba, of chicken and cauliflower in rice, tomatoes and cucumber salad, and yogurt. I was impressed by the caring actions of Palestinian teenage boys who rushed to help older travelers with their luggage and offered chairs for their comfort.

After dinner four of us travelers were guided along the dark uphill narrow streets of the village by Noor, age 12, and his older brother to their home. Niveen and Asaad, their parents, are farmers and have seven children. They vacated their kitchen, large first floor living area and bathroom for our overnight stay. It is clear that they have little material wealth but offered so much in their generosity.

The next morning, following coffee and breakfast, Khader showed us a restoration project of an old building to create a child care and community center. Everyone in this small village lives with extended family, cares for their children, values elders and works towards improving their community. It was refreshing to note that there were no Israeli settlements and military towers threatening their existence. My hope is that their farming co-op will be prosperous and they will be left alone by Israeli settlements.

My second overnight home stay was with Sirri and Hindiah Idilbi’s family in Akka, a city near Haifa. They are Palestinians that live inside Israel. It was the last night of the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Adha and a feast awaited me and Alexandra, a traveling companion: three salads, stuffed grape leaves, chicken pastry, kibbeh, and other delicious items that I can’t identify by name.

Hindiah is a school principal of the local elementary school and Sirri speaks excellent English because of attending college in Houston, TX for several years. They talked about the importance of education for their two daughters, Sirri – 11 and Aseel – 14, and the high cost of private high school. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn of their experience as Palestinians and their hope for equality and justice in Israel.

We woke up to a variety of delicious breakfast items and that great strong Arabic coffee. When it was time for us to depart, Hindiah gave us bags with apples and pastries for our bus ride to Tel Aviv.

Palestinian hospitality is expressed by the offering of food and insisting that you eat a little more!

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2012 West Bank Olive Harvest Delegation

Interfaith Peace-Builders Delegation Arrives in Israel/Palestine

Interfaith Peace-Builders, October 23, 2012

October 23, 2012 – Interfaith Peace-Builders (IFPB) is pleased to announce that our 32 member delegation to Israel/Palestine arrived at Ben-Gurion airport Tuesday morning and is now safely in Jerusalem.

The purpose of this delegation, the 42nd to make the trip since 2001, is to educate North Americans about the region and deepen their understanding of its conflicts.

The delegation focuses on the Palestinian olive harvest which takes place each autumn. The olive harvest is an occasion of particular cultural and economic importance for Palestinian communities and a time when tensions between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the West Bank run high.

As the Presidential Election heats up in the United States, the US-brokered peace process continues to show few results and US military aid to the region continues to flow unabated. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict played a significant part in the US Presidential Foreign Policy Debate which took place on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Participants on this Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation have the unique opportunity to hear directly from Palestinians and Israelis regarding their hopes for peace and the role of the United States, the US government, and other international actors, in promoting a resolution to the conflict.

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A photo of the delegates at orientation in Washington, DC

The delegation includes the following people:

Austin Branion – Arlington, Virginia
Veena Brekke – Madison, Wisconsin
Marsha Carlton – Davis, California
Jan Cebula – Clinton, Iowa
Andy Clarno – Chicago, Illinois (not pictured)
Laura Common – Toronto, Ontario (not pictured)
Cindy Corrie – Olympia, Washington
Craig Corrie – Olympia, Washington

Mike Daly – Boston, Massachusetts(not pictured)
Gary Doupe – Bainbridge, New York
Brian Fry – Grass Valley, California
Kathy Garbarino – Detroit, Michigan
Krystal Garvin – Washington, DC
Elissa Goss – Olympia, Washington
Maya Harris – Olympia, Washington
Wendy Hartley – Nevada City, California
Hanan Idilbi – Alexandria, Virginia
Darlene Jones-Owens – Carrollton, Georgia (not pictured)
Declan Keogh – Decatur, Georgia
Laila Liddy – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Alexandra Lusak – Troy, New York
Sean McManus – Washington DC
George Meek – Arlington, Virginia
Elizabeth Moore – Olympia, Washington
Brad Ogilvie – Washington, DC
Arthur Pazia – Toronto, Ontario (not pictured)
Karen Peterson – Horseheads, New York
Jeanne Randorf – Otis, Massachusetts
Arlene Tolopko – Otis, Massachusetts
Ann Valtsakis – Hyannis, Massachusetts
Sonja Wentz – Olympia, Washington

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A Gift to Rafah

How Madisonians helped create a respite from violence for Palestinian children

Kathy Walsh, Isthmus, April 29, 2005

Children were everywhere. They were standing on rooftops, shooting marbles in the streets, playing “football” wherever there was bare ground, making their way to and from school. And always in the background there was machine-gun fire.

This was a “quiet” time in Rafah. There were no tanks in the streets, no missile-firing helicopters overhead, no Israeli soldiers to be seen. But day and night, there was firing from Israeli towers on the edges of town.

I visited Rafah from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5 with my daughter Karen, a recent UW-Madison graduate. We hoped to help dedicate a new playground built in part with funds from Madison residents and support from the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, a group whose appeal for official city recognition was rejected by Madison’s mayor and Common Council last year.

Rafah is a Palestinian city and refugee camp of about 145,000 people in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. More than 80% of its residents are refugees. Many have lost their homes two or more times and lived under the constant threat of losing them again as the Israeli Army razed row after row of homes along the Egyptian border.

The “camp” areas of Rafah where we spent most of our time are concrete jungles. The homes that remain nearest the border are pockmarked with bullet holes. Tanks, bulldozers and missiles have severely damaged many buildings.

Yet people continued to live in them. If they left, the homes were deemed “abandoned” and destroyed, and there was no place to go. Amid this rubble, children continue to play, go to school and live their lives.

Last spring, Playgrounds for Palestine donated a playground to be built in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood of Rafah. One of the poles for the playground was missing from the original shipment, so the playground was stored in a neighborhood home.

Then, in May, the Israeli army launched “Operation Rainbow,” a code name for one of the most devastating incursions ever into Rafah. The Tel al-Sultan neighborhood was hit particularly hard, despite its lack of strategic significance. Ten homes were destroyed, and another 156 were damaged. Roads, water and sewage pipes were ripped up. Twenty-six Palestinian civilians were killed, including nine children. The site of the planned playground was completely razed.

Loss of the park was hardly the worst disaster that befell the children of Tel-al-Sultan. But the park represented a hope for a more normal life. So last summer, the Madison-Rafah Sister City project set out to raise the $10,000 needed to rebuild this park as a gift from Madison to the children of Rafah.

America-Near East Refugee Aid, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), advanced the money so work on the park could begin over the winter. By January, construction of the playground had begun. The missing pole had been shipped and was waiting to cross into the Gaza Strip from Israel.

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Return to Rafah: Journey to a land out of bounds

Jennifer Loewenstein, The Electronic Intifada, 17 February 2004

Pictured, Maha, the wife of Ibrahim Aoda Abu Shatat, sits together with baby Zyad in her house during shooting at 3:30 AM. Their house is 40 meters from the border. (Johannes Abeling)

The border between Gaza and Egypt passes through a city called Rafah. Israeli tanks regularly drive along the border in the middle of the night and shoot randomly at the surrounding houses. Sometimes it is just shooting, sometimes without warning bulldozers come to destroy some houses ‘for security reasons’. The fathers in the area near the border stay up every night until 4:30 AM, in case the tanks come to their street and they have to quickly evacuate their family. The children mostly don’t sleep well because of the shooting. Many children have symptoms of stress.

Said Zoroub drives a white pick-up truck with the words “Rafah Municipality” painted on the driver’s side in Arabic and English, a gift from the Norwegians.[1] Less than an hour after my arrival in Rafah, Zoroub, the mayor, receives an urgent call on his cell phone. An Israeli bulldozer has struck a water main eight feet under the earth in the process of demolishing homes along the border between Rafah and Egypt. This has cut off the water supply to the western half of the city. From the passenger side of the municipality truck I get to survey the latest damage.

Outwardly Zoroub looks unperturbed, but his words belie the appearance. “We live each day here in a state of emergency.” On either side of the road the homes and buildings on the streets of Rafah are dotted with bullet holes as if suffering from a contagious disease. The nearer we get, the more ravaged are the buildings —crumbling from disrepair, caved in where tank shells and mortar fire have hit them during the night, their inhabitants make-shifting roofs, walls and doorways as needed. Lines of drying laundry hang outside the windows and political graffiti and posters of martyrs decorate the walls. Poverty and ruin define the city landscape. The edge of town is a no-man’s-land of rubble torn up and rolled over by the heavy tracks and claws of the armored vehicles that rule this terrain.

Puddles, stones and broken glass adorn the path alongside the homes on the city’s perimeter that the Israeli army has blasted into gaping gray caverns too treacherous to stray into for long. More and more children appear from the alleyways of the neighborhood to our left following us curiously toward the end of the street. Men and women come out to greet the mayor as we pursue the sound of the tank in the distance that is flattening the earth beneath it, its guns pointed toward us. A bulldozer is pushing up mounds of dirt and rubble behind it with a steady roar: more homes gone and no water in western Rafah until the Israeli authorities give clearance for the municipality to send out a repair crew that won’t be shot on sight. A boy points to a hole in a wall from where I can snap pictures without being easily detected. From the same vantage point, children can watch the progress of the demolition. I have only taken two photos when the mayor tells me to “get away now, it’s dangerous.” It is Thursday afternoon the 15th of January 2004.

There are tall IDF watchtowers everywhere along the Egyptian and Israeli borders with Rafah as well as between Rafah and the Gush Katif settlement bloc on the southeastern bend of the Mediterranean Sea. The beaches of Rafah, a short walk away for most of the city’s residents, have been off limits to Rafah residents since the beginning of the second Intifada denying them the only relief they have from the unbearable squalor of the Strip. Driving past the edge of the Tel as-Sultan district, the area exposed to the settlement watchtowers, the mayor picks up speed sensing our vulnerability. Many people have died along this stretch of road hit by bullets fired randomly by soldiers in the towers. The local boys nevertheless still attempt to use open spaces like this one as a soccer field on ‘quiet’ days.

Further on Zoroub points out an orphanage and new, prefabricated homes put up by UNRWA after the IDF incursions of October 2003 that left 1,780 people homeless, 15 civilians dead and dozens wounded.[2] There are people still camped out in tents, and public buildings still converted into emergency shelters.

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Getting the hell into Gaza

The entire border of Gaza is surrounded by heavily-patrolled walls and fences. A network of Israeli checkpoints tightly controls movement in and out of the Strip, and between population areas within the Strip. (Jamal Wilson)

Laura Gordon, The Electronic Intifada, 15 January 2004

Following the suicide bombing at Erez Crossing that left four Israeli soldiers dead and several Palestinian workers injured, Erez (at the north of the Gaza Strip), and Maabar (the other way in and out of the Gaza Strip, on the border of Egypt), have been under tight closure, with crowds of people waiting for days to be let through.

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project has managed to get only one of three of their delegation to Rafah. The closure on Gaza has intensified with yet stronger measures. As of January 4, 2004, any internationals wishing to enter must have official Israeli permission.

Israeli permission requires an Israeli press pass, an official invitation from one of a short list of Israeli-accepted organizations, and a five-day background check by the Israeli authorities. Here are excerpts from a letter home from one of the delegation as they were attempting to enter. They are an excellent description of the great extremes Israel will go to keep out international eyes.

Laura Gordon

Excerpts of Monday’s letter from Jennifer, one of the delegation members

Thought you would appreciate knowing what is going on here. The situation is much worse than any of us anticipated. The blockade into Gaza is extreme. None of us can get in right now. I was at the Press House in West Jerusalem today and learned that before they will validate my press card I need a letter of “assignment” (in addition to the valid, wholly legitimate press card I have) from WORT-Radio and a message from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago identifying WORT-Radio as a “legitimate” media outlet. … [George is in a similar situation with the Madison Times.] Cisco did not get a press card so he’s out altogether in this respect.

Our next step after visiting the Press House this morning was to go to the American Consulate — literally a minute from our hotel here in East Jerusalem. We were all carefully searched going in, but were let in relatively easily compared to the line of Palestinians waiting outside in the rain (yes, it was pouring today) to try to get travel visas. Once in, we met with an American official who dismissed us rudely in less than two minutes when we stated our reason for being there (to get the US’ permission to go to Gaza).

We presented our letter from US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s office to him to absolutely no avail: he didn’t even look at it. He pushed it back over to me and said, (I’m quoting very closely) “We have nothing to do with Rafah and nothing to do with Gaza. It is a dangerous place and you have no business going there. You can go to the embassy in Tel Aviv if you want to press this further but you’re wasting your time.” We each tried saying something further but were cut off and led out of the building. We are now considering phoning Baldwin’s office and seeing if they will put pressure on the embassy in Tel Aviv. I am convinced, however, that her endorsement makes no difference whatsoever.

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