U.S. criticizes Israeli settlement expansion, demolitions


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been looking to improve its relations with the White House. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Ruth Eglash and Carol Morello, The Washington Post, July 28, 2016

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government’s plans to build new units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and a spate of home demolitions in Palestinian areas over the past week have drawn sharp criticism from the Obama administration.

Israel “is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution” with the Palestinians, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Wednesday.

“We strongly oppose settlement activity, which is corrosive to the cause of peace,” the statement said.

Separately, Kirby also said Secretary of State John F. Kerry will travel to Paris for a meeting Saturday with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. The purpose of their talks, the spokesman said, is to explore whether it is possible to “make progress on creating conditions where a two-state solution can be realized.”

The strongly worded State Department statement was widely seen as a warning to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which is renegotiating a multibillion-dollar military aid package with the United States and has been looking to improve its relations with the White House.

Netanyahu’s office did not respond to the statement.

“We are witnessing a signal from the Americans to Netanyahu that they do not like what they see,” said Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch team for the left-wing Israeli human rights organization Peace Now.

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Gaza: Abandoned in the Middle of Nowhere

, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, June 28, 2016

During a brief pause to hostilities in July 2014, families returned to eastern Gaza, which saw some of the heaviest bombings. Photo Credit: Oxfam / Flickr

Palestinians in Gaza are largely forgotten. They are an invisible people inhabiting a world without rights and possibilities. Over Israel’s near 50-year occupation, Gaza and the West Bank were reduced from a lower middle-income economy to a dysfunctional economy disproportionately dependent on foreign assistance. Gaza is under immense pressure from a continued blockade, now in its tenth year. Egyptian restrictions on the movement of people through Rafah, “which has remained largely closed… since October 2014, including for humanitarian assistance”[1] increased internal discord and hindered intra-Palestinian reconciliation.

There are stunningly high levels of unemployment and poverty. According to the World Bank, unemployment currently stands at 43 percent and in excess of 60 percent for Gazan youth. Yet, while Gaza’s economic demise is well documented, the blockade’s societal impact is often neglected. The blockade created a series of long-term, chronic conditions in Palestinian society,[2] including the destruction of civilian space, changes to social structure and health status, widespread trauma, a dramatic change in popular attitudes, and finally, a widening generational divide.

As United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Spokesman Chris Gunness notes: “The juxtaposition of hopelessness and despair, contrasted with the transformational potential of Gazan society, has never been so palpable.”[3]According to the World Bank, the Israeli blockade alone—which has severed almost all of the territory’s ties to the outside world, virtually terminating Gaza’s critically needed export trade—decreased Gaza’s GDP by at least 50 percent since 2007.[4] Egypt’s near total termination of Gaza’s tunnel trade—a vital, albeit underground economic lifeline—dealt an additional and extremely damaging blow. On top of this, the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, or Operation Protective Edge (OPE), worsened an already bleak situation by reducing Gaza’s economy by an additional $460 million.

This set in motion what one local analyst called a “dynamic of disintegration” that produced a range of unprecedented socioeconomic changes. Combined with the ruinous impact of the blockade, OPE was resulted in extensive damage to or destruction of homes, schools, health facilities, factories, businesses, sewage and water treatment infrastructure, and agriculture — effectively resulting in the destruction of civilian space. At least 100,000 people found themselves homeless, resulting in an estimated 75,000 being displaced, 11,200 being injured, at least 1,000 becoming permanently disabled, and 1,500 children becoming orphaned.[5]

Gaza’s society was radically leveled, particularly with the virtual destruction of its middle class and the emergence of an unprecedentedly new class of “poor.” Perhaps emblematic of the damage done to society, particularly since the imposition of the blockade, is Gaza’s rising infant mortality rate (IMR). IMR not only measures the health status of children, but also of the whole population. For the first time in more than 50 years, the IMR in Gaza increased from 20.2 per 1,000 live births in 2008 to 22.4 in 2013. Neonatal mortality rates, or the number of children who die within four weeks of birth, experienced a dramatic increase from 12.0 in 2008 to 20.3 in 2013, an uptick of nearly 70 percent. In Gaza, there is also a documented rise in domestic violence and child labor, as well as considerable anecdotal evidence for an increase in prostitution. No doubt the blockade, coupled with the last three wars in Gaza, is a contributing factor.

According to local health officials, 80 percent of adults in Gaza suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. During OPE, all sectors of the Strip were subject to or threatened with some kind of attack. According to Yale Professor Brian Barber, “OPE was uniquely crippling because no one was free of risk, and no place was safe to find refuge. It was, in a sense, universally and inescapably terrorizing.”[6] Every child over the age of six has seen three wars, and at least 400,000 children are in need of immediate psychological intervention, according to the UN. As a result, OPE has created a profound sense of collective dread and desperation that has less to do with the war than the inhuman conditions left unchanged since the war. People have never felt less safe and secure or more devoid of hope.

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Gaza’s plight matters to the world

Elizabeth Kucinich in Gaza
Elizabeth Kucinich in Gaza (UNRWA USA)

Elizabeth Kucinich, The Hill, June 23, 2016

This month, U.S. congressmen, including Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), were refused entry into the Gaza Strip at the Erez crossing while on a fact-finding mission in Israel-Palestine. Israeli authorities, without elaboration, claimed that their application had not met the criteria necessary to enter. Apparently elected U.S. congressmen inspecting American taxpayer-funded projects and reviewing U.S. aid to Palestinians in Gaza is not worthy criteria.

Bernie Sanders’ representatives to the Democratic platform committee have brought the plight of the Palestinians into the national political debate. This could become a breakthrough moment, presaging policies that address the security of both Israelis and Palestinians as being mutually inclusive.

Some have suggested that the members of Congress may have been turned away from Gaza by Israel through the influence of the U.S. State Department, attempting to prevent Democratic members from elevating the issue of Israel-Palestine. Whatever the motivation, in that moment of rejection, those Congressmen experienced a small taste of the restrictions on freedom of movement that Palestinians live daily. For the Palestinians in Gaza, living under a blockade that just entered its 10th year, virtually all movement in and out is prohibited.

As I watched the Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2014, I was desperate to help. I looked to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, mandated with providing essential services for Palestine refugees, and joined the board of its nonprofit arm, UNRWA USA. Last spring, I traveled with UNWRA USA staff to the occupied Palestinian territory — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — to visit our projects, ascertain living conditions and witness for myself the political and economic situation. The trip was my first to Gaza. Had the other members of Congress been permitted to enter Gaza, they may have seen for themselves what I witnessed firsthand.

At Erez, the Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, I passed through chutes that resembled the herding bays that lead cattle into an abattoir — a standard feature of Israeli checkpoints throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. As we waited for our entry to be approved, young Israeli guards paraded around with automatic weapons.

Elizabeth Kucinich visiting Gaza school children

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Judith Laitman: A Jewish grandmother’s plea to Barack Obama

JUDITH LAITMAN, Cap Times, Jul 25, 2014

I’ve learned a few things during my more than seven decades on this planet. One of the most important is that when we are witness to evil and we do nothing about it, then we are complicit in that evil.

As a Jew born in 1942, I was imbued with the idea that Israel was a homeland for my people, who had been so horribly treated in the Holocaust. Today, that ideal has been destroyed, as Israel has become not so much a sanctuary for the victimized as a victimizer itself.

Today, I reject the idea that Israel has anything at all to do with my faith, or the values that it taught me. Today, my heart aches as I watch the mighty military power of Israel once again bombing the citizens of Gaza. And so I make my plea:

Mr. Obama, you say that Israel has every right to defend itself from Hamas rockets, and that no country in the world would put up with this. But that argument wrongly assumes an equivalence in power. It also assumes that Hamas committed the first act of war and Israel is merely responding. Neither of these assumptions is true.

Though Israel relocated its Jewish settlers from Gaza to the West Bank in 2006, it never relinquished control of the area. It controls everything that goes in and out, limiting the movement of people, restricting necessities like electricity, food, gas, and medical and building supplies. Under international law, Gaza is still occupied. Many people have referred to Gaza, with its 1.8 million residents, as the largest open-air prison in the world.

In the current conflict, Israel keeps telling us it is just responding to attacks from Hamas. According to the last cease-fire, signed in 2012, Israel was to open border crossings and ease the siege on Gaza. Israel broke that cease-fire just days after it was arranged, by firing on Palestinian fishermen, killing two. This pattern has continued with Israel shooting into Gaza at will, resulting in the death and injury of many Palestinian civilians even as Hamas for the most part upheld the cease-fire. Israel never did ease the siege, and so it has never upheld the cease-fire agreement. In fact, a siege and all it entails is considered an act of war in international law. No people would put up with that without resistance.

In the West Bank, where no rockets are fired, Palestinians have endured countless acts of aggression by Israel, including the demolition of hundreds of homes, the destruction of thousands of olive trees, mass arrests without charge, hundreds of checkpoints, an apartheid wall that separates Palestinians from their own territory, and ever-expanding Jewish-only roads and settlements on Palestinian land. International law states that all of these actions are illegal activity by an occupying power.

This has trapped us in an endless cycle of violence and oppression. It continues because the U.S. government continues to repeat Israel’s propaganda points, provides cover for Israel’s crimes in the U.N., and sends Israel billions in military aid every year.

Mr. Obama, you have the power to change this situation by lending your moral support to the oppressed, instead of the oppressor. Here’s one idea: Get on Air Force One and go to that Gaza beach where four boys were slaughtered. Or visit the now-leveled neighborhood of Shujayea, where the Israeli military just indiscriminately massacred more than 70 men, women and children.

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Rachel Corrie’s Rafah Legacy

Ramzy Baroud, CounterPunch, March 21, 2013

“Hi Papa .. Don’t worry about me too much, right now I am most concerned that we are not being effective. I still don’t feel particularly at risk. Rafah has seemed calmer lately,” Rachel Corrie wrote to her father, Craig, from Rafah, a town located at the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

‘Rachel’s last email’ was not dated on the Rachel Corrie Foundation website. It must have been written soon after her last email to her mother, Cindy, on Feb 28. She was killed by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003.

Immediately after her painful death, crushed beneath an Israeli army bulldozer, Rafah embraced her legacy as another ‘martyr’ for Palestine. It was a befitting tribute to Rachel, who was born to a progressive family in the town of Olympia, itself a hub for anti-war and social justice activism. But Olympia is also the capital of Washington State. Politicians here can be as callous, morally flexible and pro-Israel as any other seats of government in the US, where sharply dressed men and women jockey for power and influence. Ten years after Rachel’s death, the US government is yet to hold Israel to account. Neither is justice expected anytime soon.

Bordering Egyptian and Israeli fences, and ringed by some of the poorest refugee camps anywhere, Rafah has never ceased being a news topic in years. The town’s gallantry of the First Palestinian Uprising (Intifada) in 1987 was the stuff of legends among other resisting towns, villages and refugee camps in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. The Israeli army used Rafah as a testing ground for a lesson to be taught to the rest of Palestinians. Thus, its list of ‘martyrs’ is one of the longest, and it is unlikely to stop growing anytime soon. Many of Rafah’s finest perished digging tunnels into Egypt to break the Israeli economic blockade that followed Palestine’s democratic elections in 2006. Buried under heaps of mud, drowning in Egyptian sewage water, or pulverized by Israeli missiles, some of Rafah’s men are yet to be located for proper burial.

Rafah agonized for many years, not least because it was partially encircled by a cluster of illegal Jewish settlements – Slav, Atzmona, Pe’at Sadeh, Gan Or and others. The residents of Rafah were deprived of security, freedom, and even for extended periods of time, access to the adjacent sea, so that the illegal colonies could enjoy security, freedom and private beaches. Even when the settlements were dismantled in 2005, Rafah became largely entrapped between the Israeli military border, incursions, Egyptian restrictions and an unforgiving siege. True to form, Rafah continues to resist.

Rachel and her International Solidarity Movement (ISM) friends must have appreciated the challenge at hand and the brutality by which the Israeli army conducted its business. Reporting for the British Independent newspaper from Rafah, Justin Huggler wrote on Dec. 23, 2003: “Stories of civilians being killed pour out of Rafah, turning up on the news wires in Jerusalem almost every week. The latest, an 11-year-old girl shot as she walked home from school on Saturday.” His article was entitled: “In Rafah, the children have grown so used to the sound of gunfire they can’t sleep without it.” He too “fell asleep to the sound of the guns.”

Rafah was affiliated with other ominous realities, one being house demolitions. In its report, Razing Rafah, published Oct 18, 2004, Human Rights Watch mentioned some very disturbing numbers. Of the 2,500 houses demolished by Israel in Gaza between 2000-04, “nearly two-thirds of these homes were in Rafah… Sixteen thousand people, more than ten percent of Rafah’s population, have lost their homes, most of them refugees, many of whom were dispossessed for a second or third time.” Much of the destructions occurred so that alleyways could be widened to secure Israeli army operations. Israel’s weapon of choice was the Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, which often arrived late at night.

Rachel Corrie was also crushed by the same type of US manufactured and supplied bulldozer that terrorized Rafah for years. It is no wonder that Rachel’s photos and various graffiti paintings adorn many walls of Rafah streets. Commemorating Rachel’s death anniversary for the tenth time, activists in Rafah gathered on March 16. They spoke passionately of the American girl who challenged an Israeli bulldozer so that a Rafah home could remain standing. A 12-year-old girl thanked Rachel for her courage and asked the US government to stop supplying Israel with weapons that are often used against civilians.

While Rafah carried much of the occupation brunt and the vengeance of the Israeli army, its story and that of Rachel’s was merely symbolic of the greater tragedy which has been unfolding in Palestine for many years. Here is a quick summary of the house demolition practice of recent years, according to the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, also published in Al Jazeera August 2012:

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Break the Silence Mural Project

mural, olympia, palestine

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2010

THE RACHEL Corrie Foundation and Break the Silence Mural Project unveiled the Olympia-Rafah Solidarity Mural on May 8 at Labor Temple building, in downtown Olympia, WA. The mural tells a tale of two cities linked through tragedy: Olympia, WA, where Rachel Corrie grew up and attended Evergreen State College, and Rafah, Gaza Strip, Palestine, where she was killed in 2003—crushed by an Israeli army Caterpillar. It is also the tale of people working together for a better world. The mural features an enormous olive tree with more than 150 leaves representing issues of environmental justice, racism, colonialism, rights of indigenous peoples, and anti-war movements.

The mural uses technology to include artists from Palestine who are forbidden to travel. Viewers can use a cell phone to call and listen to the creator of each leaf talk about its meaning and theme. For more information visit <www.olympiarafahmural.org>.

—Delinda C. Hanley