The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Rafah bid falls short by 2 votes

No Palestinian sister city

Judith Davidoff, The Capital Times, July 21, 2004

Mindful that a proposed sister city program with the Palestinian city of Rafah has attracted international attention – much of it critical – the City Council early this morning narrowly defeated the pact.

After more than four hours of public testimony, council members voted 9-8 in favor of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, but the tally fell two votes short of the 11 needed for passage.

Had the measure prevailed, the Madison-Rafah sister city program would have been the first solidarity-model Palestinian sister city pact to be approved by a city council in the United States.

Amy Scarr, one of the leaders of the sister city program, vowed that the group’s humanitarian work would continue, despite the city’s actions.

“This isn’t going to prevent us from doing any of the projects or humanitarian aid that we’ve been working on,” Scarr said after the meeting adjourned at 2:20 a.m.

Rafah sister city group members sought official status from the city because it helps delegations make arrangements for foreign visits and it affords membership into an international sister city organization.

The city provides about $10,000 in funding for all its sister cities.

Tuesday evening, the council approved with little debate a sister city collaboration with Cuzco, Peru. Madison now has 11 pacts with other cities in countries that include Vietnam, Cuba, El Salvador and Lithuania.

Rafah, a Palestinian city bordering Egypt, made headlines in late May when it became the main front line in the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip.

The Rafah sister city vote brought out scores of evenly divided supporters and opponents. In all, 143 people registered in support of the sister city and 140 registered in opposition.

James Stein said adopting Rafah as a sister city would “be an international embarrassment.”

“This resolution is deeply offensive to many of your Jewish and non-Jewish constituents,” Stein warned council members.

Eric Piotrowski said the sister city pact should be approved for one reason: “There are human beings there.”

The Madison Jewish Community Council had criticized the resolution from the start, calling the proposal anti-Semitic and charging that Rafah Mayor Said Zoroub had terrorist ties.

Members of the Rafah sister city project rejected all charges of anti-Semitism and terrorist connections to Zoroub or Al Mezan, the human rights organization that has acted as a liaison for sister city members.

Yet, sister city members helped chief sponsor Ald. Jean McCubbin prepare a second sister city resolution that took out all references to Zoroub and Al Mezan.

Even so, the pared down version was not enough to win over its detractors.

Ald. Ken Golden tried to introduce an amendment that would have called on the mayor and City Council to “express their support for all humanitarian efforts aimed at Rafah and any other area in Gaza where people are in need of such aid.”

But it would have also deferred the measure “indefinitely” while challenging proponents and opponents to “seek a solution that is widely supported.”

The amendment failed, forcing a vote on the original proposal.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz weighed in from the floor.

“I think this is a fundamentally political statement whether it’s intended to be or not,” said Cieslewicz, who earlier Tuesday vowed to veto the sister city pact if approved by the council.

“It’s been a very difficult debate for all of us,” he added.

If not obvious before, Ald. Robbie Webber made Cieslewicz’s observations clear.

Webber started to cry when she described the tenor and substance of the acrimonious battle that has now been in the works for months. She said she was both sad and angry at how “cruel” and “hateful” some of the statements aimed at supporters of the proposal have been. “You can call me naive. You can call me uninformed. But I really believe the proposal is about person-to-person contact.”