The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project


Nathan Leaf, Wisconsin State Journal, May 19, 2004

Debate over a plan to partner Madison with an embattled city in the Gaza Strip is heating up — dividing even those within Madison’s Jewish community.

The plan, which was discussed before the City Council’s organizational committee Friday, would make the Palestinian city of Rafah one of Madison’s sister cities. It has come under fire from the Madison Jewish Community Council, which says the plan would tie Madison to people who want to kill Jews because Palestinian terrorists are deeply rooted in Rafah.

Lester Pines of the Madison Jewish Community Council told the committee and more than 30 people in the audience that the real issue is “virulent worldwide anti-Semitism.”

While he stressed that he doesn’t believe the organizers of the plan are anti-Semitic, he said Rafah city leaders are. He said they have ties to Fatah, an organization headed by Yasser Arafat that is linked to the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which Pines said has claimed responsibility for killing innocent Israeli women and children in terrorist attacks.

But Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman said Madison cannot ignore the “horrific violence” the people in Rafah have experienced. “It would be irresponsible of us to turn away from this suffering.”

Supporters of the proposal, about a dozen of whom gathered in front of the City-County Building before the meeting, say the city has been hit hard by Israeli occupation and that not all of the city’s residents are terrorists.

George Arida, of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, told the small crowd that there is no foundation to claims Rafah city officials are in any way connected to terrorists. “The leadership (of Rafah is) completely devoid of any contacts with” terrorists, he said.

“I think we need to support Palestinians. … Our country is supporting Israel on almost every front,” said Nancy Graham of Madison. She said naming Rafah a sister city is needed because so many women and children are suffering in the city. “A lot of non-terrorists are catching the heat over there.”

But Sirin Ezekiel, who is from Israel, said Israelis have suffered at the hands of terrorists connected to the city and urged the council to abandon the plan. “This is such a political decision that does not take into consideration both sides,” she said.

While 10 people spoke in favor of the plan and three spoke against it, the committee voted to refer the issue to its June 1 meeting in order to allow both sides to meet, along with council members, in an attempt to clear up some of the problems.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz does not support the plan because it could divide the city, said Melanie Conklin, spokeswoman for the mayor. “Do you want to introduce controversy into a program that is designed to bring people together?” she said. “The mayor believes that politics in the (Middle East) is something the council is not going to be able to have an impact on.”

But controversial sister cities are nothing new to Madison, said council President Brenda Konkel. “That’s the whole point of a sister city, to help people understand other cultures,” she said.

Some of Madison’s sister cities include Arcatao, El Salvador, Gamaguey, Cuba, and Bac Giang, Vietnam.

Committee and City Council member Mike Verveer, says he pulled out as a co-sponsor on the proposal when it became clear that no dialogue had been established between the Madison Jewish Community Council and backers of the sister city plan. But he said, “I am still inclined to support this when everything is said and done,” Verveer said.

Council and committee member Paul Skidmore said the issue has become “vitriolic” and too divisive in the community for him to support it.

Contact Nathan Leaf at or 252-6120.


KRT graphic

Map showing the location of Rafah

Cite this article

“PALESTINIAN SISTER-CITY PLAN SPARKS HIGH EMOTIONS, DEBATE.(FRONT).” The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI). McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. 2004. Retrieved November 15, 2009 from HighBeam Research:

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