Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Until when?

Until when?

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told Egyptian television yesterday that peace between Palestinians and Israelis could be reached in months if the Israelis were willing.

He thus revealed the least best kept secret of international diplomacy in recent history: Israel, not the Palestinians, has it in its power to change the course of history in this turbulent region by doing one simple thing, namely, abide by international law.

Because that is all it would take. Every Arab country has offered Israel the peace it claims to so long for, in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967 and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

For the price of dismantling its illegal settlements and relocating the many settlers it has unlawfully moved into the occupied territories, a price the international community will no doubt fall all over itself to help pay, Israel can have what it wants: peace and recognition.

The only problem, of course, is that Israel does not want this. Israel wants more land, it wants to keep its settlers and it does not want to grant Palestinian refugees their right to return to their homes and lands.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the conflict is about. It is not about terrorism or extremism. It is not about the West versus the East, democracy versus Islam, freedom versus tyranny. It is about justice and law.

And justice and law simply state that Palestinians have a right to self-determination in a state of their own and their refugees, like refugees anywhere in the world, have the right to choose to return or be compensated for their losses.

International law states that Israel has no right to rule over any part of occupied territory, whether through its military or annexation.

And so, it really is as simple as Abbas puts it. There could be peace in months if Israel wants it. Since it won’t choose peace, the question that has to be asked, over and over again, is this: Why does the international community let Israel get away with it?

When will this pariah state be reined in?

One would have thought it would only take a simple suspension of US loan guarantees, plus international sanctions against Israeli products, sportsmen, and a severing of cultural and academic relations, and before long, international law will prevail.

27 May 2010

One woman decides to fight for her family's former home in Jerusalem. CNN's Kevin Flower reports.

Joharah Baker for MIFTAH: Dangerous Emulations

Date posted: May 26, 2010
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

Perhaps, the worst punishment besides death meted out against the Palestinian population by Israel is the demolition of their homes. It is cruel, inhumane and humiliating. We have seen far too many pictures of wailing women and distraught men standing beside a heap of rubble and mangled steel, a book caught between two bricks or a dolly's arm stretching out grotesquely from between iron bars. For over 40 years, Israel has demolished tens of thousands of homes in the West Bank, in Gaza and in east Jerusalem. In Rafah alone, hundreds of Palestinian homes have been razed to the ground by invading Israeli troops. Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist, lost her life to this terrible practice in 2003 when she was run over and crushed by an Israeli bulldozer tearing down a Rafah home. It is an abhorrent practice, and for good reason. It strips people, not only of their actual house, but of their sense of security and safety, many of their keepsakes and their memories and leaves them to sleep in the street in a makeshift tent or forces them to seek refuge with a relative or a compassionate neighbor.

Yes, having your home demolished before you, sometimes with little or no warning is a terrible experience that causes unimaginable distress. Israel understands the psychological impact home demolitions have on people and how, if the victim allows, it can break a spirit. Now, imagine your own leaders were behind the wheel of the bulldozers, men who may have been your neighbor or coworker or even your friend. Unfortunately, the Palestinians don’t have to imagine it at all. Last week, this horrible scenario became reality in none other than Rafah, Gaza.

Last week, the Hamas-run government demolished 20 houses in Rafah, leaving approximately 150 people homeless and living in tents. The de facto government claims the houses were built illegally on state land, land that is slated for the construction of the Islamic Call and Humanities College. Hamas officials claim they delivered warning notifications to the families, who did not heed them and so they had no choice but to tear the homes down. Now the families are living in tents or have sought refuge with a relative in the already overcrowded and cramped quarters of the Gaza Strip.

This is disturbing, to say the least. I do not have enough information about the exact status of the land or the people who decided to build on it, mostly because I have no way of getting into Gaza (West Bank Palestinians are not allowed entry). However, talking to a journalist friend living in Gaza City has only reconfirmed my own thoughts on this disheartening incident. Even if the land was "public land" and even if the Hamas-run authority there demanded that the families leave, there is no justification for razing the homes, "Israeli-style". Such behavior points to a very dangerous precipice, one that Palestinians in places of authority have often teetered on the edge of. Having lived under Israel's brutal occupation for so long, we have picked up some of their ways. It seems irrational, illogical and completely unacceptable that our leaders would utilize measures, which have caused our own people so much suffering. How could Hamas demolish homes of their own people, knowing all too well the distress this causes? More importantly, even if this was "the law" in its strictest of terms, did the authority not take into consideration the circumstances under which all Gazans are living lately? There is no excuse to tear down homes, render people homeless without giving them alternative housing or some sort of sustenance until they can find somewhere else to live.

It is disgraceful. Apparently, this is not the only instance where residents of the Gaza Strip have built on government owned land. This is not surprising given the limited amount of space in proportion to the number of people living in the small coastal strip. Gaza is an open-air prison, closed from all sides. There can be no horizontal expansion in Gaza, so naturally people are scrambling to find anywhere to build and to make a home.

I am not saying that there shouldn't be law and order in the Gaza Strip, but laws were made to organize society and make everyday living easier for the people. The "illegality" of the structures is not the issue here. They may very well have been built without a construction permit, just like Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem are often built without a permit. That is not because people simply do not want to obey the law. In Gaza, there is practically no land left to build on and hardly any money to build with. In Jerusalem, Israel does not grant construction licenses freely to Palestinians, who are then forced to build their homes without one.

But with Israel, we expect the worse. They are, after all, our occupiers. Israel's existence is contradictory to our own growth. Their agenda is clear as to why they tear down Palestinian homes. It's simple: they don't want us here. What is far more dangerous is when the culprit is elements from our own people. Emulating the worst behaviors of an occupier can never amount to any good.

If Hamas wants to preserve any kind of respect among the people in Gaza, it must never take its lessons out of the Israeli occupation textbook. The people now living in tents in Rafah have been there before when in 1948 they were expelled from their original homes in Palestine. They should not be made to live that tragedy again. If anyone understands the agony of displacement, it is the Gazans. Does Hamas really want that on their heads? What's more, does it want its policies to be compared to those of its occupiers? I really don't think so.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Palestinian farmer Arifah Moshaqi carries wheat during harvest in the West Bank village of Yasid near Nablus May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini (WEST BANK - Tags: AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT)

A gazelle walks along the Israel-Lebanon border near the northern town of Malkiyya May 23, 2010. Monday marks the 10-year anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: ANNIVERSARY MILITARY POLITICS ANIMALS)

A Palestinian man cleans the area in front of a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank town of Aram, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Monday, May 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Maya Hitij)

A Palestinian man rides a bicycle past a section of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank town of Aram, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Monday, May 24, 2010. Israel's military announced Monday it plans to further ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank, delivering what appeared to be a first in a series of gestures requested by the U.S. as part of renewed peace talks. (AP Photo/Maya Hitij)

Israeli and international activists try to prevent from an Israeli bulldozer to work during a protest against the construction of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, Sunday, May 23, 2010. Israel says the barrier is needed for security, but Palestinians consider it a land grab. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My letter to the NYTimes RE In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge

The home of the renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was destroyed in an April 4 car bomb attack that also killed 17 people in Baghdad.

RE: In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge

Dear Editor,

Thank you for publishing the story of Palestinian refugee Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and the horrible destruction of his house in Iraq by terrorists ... mainly thank you for ending on such a civilized note: “The memories remain our cornerstone,” he [Majed al-Samarrai, a critic and friend] said finally. “I might sound too romantic when I talk like this,” he added, smiling, “but it’s true. A half-century of culture may have been lost in that house, but he still lives with us, and his spirit is still with us.

Anne Selden Annab

The Golden Rule... Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Poetry in commotion: Suheir Hammad ‘I had no idea that small level of freedom was going to end.‘

Poetry in commotion

  • Last Updated: May 21. 2010 5:01PM UAE / May 21. 2010 1:01PM GMT

Suheir Hammad paid her first visit to Jerusalem during the years of the Oslo peace process. ‘I had no idea that small level of freedom was going to end.‘ Gilad Kavalerchik

On a cool, cusp-of-summer night, an expectant crowd streams into an enchanting Ottoman-era castle at a village near Nablus. The grandly arched Al Qasim Palace, renovated a few years ago, is one of the venues for PalFest – an annual literary festival across the occupied West Bank.

For the audience which has turned out for this evening of poetry, it’s a sorely needed cultural event. The very existence of a Palestinian literary festival confronting “the culture of power with the power of culture” elicits full-beam support. They’ve come to applaud the local Palestinian poets and performers featured in the line-up. But most of all they have come to see Suheir Hammad.

This 36-year-old Palestinian-American is fast developing a global fan base for her poems, spoken word performances and acting debut in Annemarie Jacir’s acclaimed 2008 film, Salt Of This Sea.

Hammad, a self-defined artist, activist and poet, was virtually playing herself in the award-winning film that tells the story of an American woman returning to what is now Israel, decades after her Palestinian family’s eviction in the 1948 war. It is a road trip of self-discovery for her character, and Hammad keeps the drama rolling with an easily convincing screen persona.

The same themes – Palestinian exile and return; refugee status and statelessness – are the basis of her work as a poet and spoken word artist: driving the syntax, filling out the vowels, pumping a resilient energy into the rhymes.

Her poem, First Writing Since, composed in the aftermath of 9/11, was full of compassion, both for the victims of the attack and for the people on whom revenge would be exacted.

Those stirring, electric words raced around the world and caught the attention of the American hip-hop entrepreneur, Russell Simmons, who instantly put Hammad on HBO’s Def Poetry programme, a showcase for live performance poets. Since then, she has travelled widely with her poetry, making radio and TV appearances and performing her work at universities, prisons and on street corners. She has released numerous anthologies and, acclaimed as a “new voice with an authentic blend of language”, is the most visible Palestinian in American artistic circles.

“I couldn’t have been anything else,” she says when we meet in Palestinian East Jerusalem, at the end of a busy, week-long tour of workshops and performances across the West Bank. “I committed myself very early on to poetry.”

Hammad was born in Amman, Jordan, to parents who had fled their homes in Lydda and Ramla – now Lod and Ramle, and both in Israel. “My mum always tells me to make sure to say I was born in a hospital,” she says smiling. “It meant a lot in those days, as an ‘official refugee’, whatever that means.”

Hammad spent her fourth year in Beirut, in the midst of civil war, before her family moved to the United States, settling first in Brooklyn and then moving to Staten Island.

“In a way, my family’s life is a microcosm of a larger Palestinian experience,” she says. “For all our spectrum of humanity, which is as wide as any other people’s, we have this shared sense of movement, persistent movement, in the past few decades.”

The constant relocation is today described by Hammad – the eldest of five – as reflecting the fortitude of her refugee parents; their capacity to adapt, while hanging on to their culture. “They just made their way, having babies, feeding them, going from one ID to another,” she says. “And to me that’s poetry … the fact that they got through a life I couldn’t have imagined – they gifted me poetry.”

The multiple moves also exposed her to myriad cultures – a tangible influence on her spoken word style. “I grew up with hip-hop music,” she says of her formative years in the migrant communities of Brooklyn. “First of all, it takes the profane – which is the American enslaved experience – and makes it cool and stylish. It is about knowing there is nothing to be done about racism and powerlessness and oppression, so you kind of make it your swagger. That’s part of hip-hop, and I completely related to it.”

Hammad fuses both the attitude and the structures of hip hop with the rhythms that she knows from home – of the Arabic language, of Palestinian nationalist poetry and of the legends of Middle Eastern music – so that the word chains of her poetry often hammer out the tenets of another people’s struggle.

Hammad, with co-star Saleh Bakri, is virtually playing herself in the acclaimed film Salt Of This Sea. Courtesy Philistine Films

“My parents were the first generation born into a deep failure – the failure of Israeli humanity, the failure of Arab nationalism,” she says. “They were always playing their cassette music, so I heard [the Egyptian diva Umm Kalsoum’s] Lissa Fikir every day. I didn’t know any other Americans who listened to the same song on the way to work, while they were doing the dishes – and allowed themselves to cry. So I had a fascination for this music and language.”

Religion is another cultural influence. The Quran is an inspirational thread that colours her distinctive narrative style. “I always go back to the Quran as this divine word with the mystery of sounds and mathematics. You know how the suras get bigger and then small, and I was always like, ‘This whole verse is just the letter M; what could that possibly mean?’ That’s a poet kid’s question. I was always interested in the texts and the music.”

Hammad first visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories when she was 25. “It was Israel’s 50th anniversary and I wanted to know what it was like to be a half a lifetime of something,” she says. “And everything in me compelled me to come back. My whole life, I had never been fully accepted as an American, and I hadn’t really understood anything about being from here.”

But she stresses that things were completely different back then, during the years of the Oslo peace process, when Israelis would regularly take trips to the Palestinian West Bank, and a few of her Palestinian friends had boyfriends who were Israeli soldiers. “Israeli soldiers!” she exclaims. “I had no idea that small level of freedom and communication was going to end.”

After that first trip, she began to cement the facts of her own family history. “My entire life I was told that my parents were evacuated, that their homes were taken over,” she says. But there was no external confirmation of that story – not until the early 1990s, when Israel’s “new historians” such as Benny Morris revealed some murky facts of the dawn of the country. Among the details that came out was Operation Dalet, a plan devised by Jewish defence forces in 1947, with the intention of clearing what they deemed to be hostile forces (Palestinians) from areas intended for the new Israel – effectively a green light for forced expulsion.

“I had no idea, before Benny Morris uncovered it. Because their narrative had been erased or corrupted, it never seemed possible that what my parents said was true. And then there it all was – my family’s story, in Operation Dalet. I didn’t have that information until I was 30 years old.”

Hammad has travelled widely, performing in universities, prisons and on street corners. Gilad Kavalerchik

Now, having visited the region every year for the past four years, Hammad is acutely aware of the corrosive effect of the concrete and steel separation barrier that Israel began building in 2002, and which encroaches on Palestinian land for much of its 703km length. “As foreigners and visitors, it doesn’t really imprint on your mind, but as a poet you sit back and you think, well that is a child’s horizon,” she says. “There are places not far from where we are sitting where children don’t see the sunrise because that wall is 7.5m high. So this week I have been thinking about how to feed imagination without a sunrise.”

Travelling across the West Bank for various stops on the PalFest circuit, Hammad knows first-hand how the checkpoints, barriers and the Israeli permits regime can choke Palestinian movement.

“I heard that many American Jews and Israelis feel comfortable coming to my readings [in Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank] and I’m happy for that. But when I speak with them, I always remind them of how hard it was for the [Palestinian] person sitting next to them to get there – and how much that changes the experience of coming to a poetry evening, having to go through a two-week permit obligation and four hours at a checkpoint to go home. And, in a way, I don’t want to be the one to say that to people. It’s not my job, you know. I’m not everyone’s older sister.”

One area where Hammad does embrace sisterhood is as a feminist, but she thinks feminism has an entrenched difficulty with Muslim women, and they with it. “Because so much of feminism has come from the West, we have had issues with claiming it, because of the absences in it – the lack of a sense of spirituality, a sense of family, a sense of being a woman in a community.”

Hammad wants to bring nuance to the western notion of female empowerment. “If anything, women who consider themselves traditional feminists have more of a problem with, or are more ignorant about, the east and Islam. If you study the history of it, you can see why,” she says, explaining that early feminism had its roots in a world that simply didn’t see Muslim women.

None of that lessens the surprise she feels at the common western view of Muslim women. “I walk into a university here and 97 per cent of the women are covered in a new way, in all these different styles.” She says when she sees young Muslim women “negotiate all the time, negotiate for a million things”, she wants to ask westerners in what way they are disempowered. Feminism has taught her “to ask women how they feel about who they are and what they look like and how they move in the world”.

Meanwhile, her onscreen success in Salt Of The Sea has equipped her with another – and unexpected – platform. “I wouldn’t have done any other movie. I have never been interested in acting and wouldn’t say that I’m an actor.” The first feature-length film directed by a Palestinian woman, it was shot on location in Ramallah and Jaffa. “It was surreal for me. I’ve never been trained in acting, but I’d gone through that checkpoint to get to Ramallah so many times in my life and I’ve been asked those questions so many times. I’ve even used those same lines: ‘I’m an American!’, ‘Is there something wrong with my visa?’ So shooting it, I was completely there.”

Hammad relates how, when Salt Of This Sea was screened in the US, audiences enthused about the sisterly solidarity of her friendship with the film’s Israeli producer. But she wouldn’t let them gush for too long. “She basically sponsored my entire trip,” says Hammad of the producer. “She had to give her ID number and promise that I would never marry here … I just remind people how humiliating this is for both of us, to have this unequal power dynamic; that we could never be true friends if she has to go out of her way to vouch for me in that way. That’s not a real connection.”

Hammad has a natural wordsmith’s enjoyment of language flow, play and pattern, but she insists she is not a natural performer. “When people talk about presence, I really don’t feel that. In my mind I’m thinking a million other things, like did I mess up? Or is my voice OK? Do I project back over there? And can I please ignore that man in the audience who is talking on the phone? And that woman doesn’t hate me, she just looks like that.”

Her sense of being grounded, in control, comes from a different source. “If you are not a natural performer and you don’t get fed on the performance – which I do not – you find a way to be outside of your body and make it about the bigger intention,” she says. One crucial factor is what she projects to the younger generation of Palestinians – future artists, poets and performers. “When I was growing up, I never looked up and saw a woman who looked like me, spoke for me. And any time I could point to a woman who had become a success, she was always sexually available in her dress and her art.”

Now, she considers her potential as a role model to be part of a careful remit. “It’s something I hold as a dear responsibility. I know that the girls coming after me, their parents will use me either to benefit them or to hinder them. I can’t control that, but I can be aware of it.”

As much as Hammad inspires generations of Palestinians, they are equally a source of strength and inspiration for her. “Because that is all there is, there is no other power. It can all be taken away. A lot of the writers with PalFest have talked about the privilege of our imagination. If we want a safer, better, fairer world, we have to feed children’s imaginations – and we are not always going to like what they come up with.”

This Week in Palestine Artist of the Month Photographer Ahed Izhiman
Artist of the Month

Ahed Izhiman

Ahed Izhiman was born to a Jerusalemite family on 27 April 1980, in the city of Jerusalem. At school, he focused all his attention on art and art workshops even if it happened to be at the expense of his academic studies. At the age of five, Ahed got a hold of his first camera, which gave him the opportunity to take his first steps into the world of art.

After finishing high school and while working in his family’s food and coffee manufacturing business, Ahed attended business school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He soon realised that he was not made to be an accountant. He quit his studies to pursue his passion, concentrating on his innate hobby of painting and photography.

He soon discovered charcoal drawing in which he created a unique style using his fingers to fade the charcoal edges on cotton paper, thus achieving very Feng Shui like drawings. This got people’s attention, which, in turn, gave Ahed the opportunity to exhibit his work around Jerusalem between 1995 and 1997. From that point on Ahed was frequently involved in many workshops around the city.

Ahed decided to continue his career in art and travelled to Florence, Italy, to study art history and Italian, during which time he had the opportunity to meet many artists from around the world. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he spent two years at Musrara College of Fine Arts in Jerusalem, where he was involved in various art activities.

In 2007, he established his own atelier and began to offer various art workshops in Jerusalem for youth who could not enrol in other schools. His teaching methods include various hands-on art techniques. He gained quite a reputation around Jerusalem through his volunteer work at a number of institutions and schools in the city.

Later Ahed enrolled in an intensive three-year programme at a photography school in Jerusalem where he managed to create new art work that combined photography and painting. Afterwards he began to work as a freelance photographer, being inspired by his childhood hobby, and sold his photographs to a French news agency. This enabled him to save some money during difficult political times and to make a name for himself.

Ahed currently works as a professional photographer for international organisations, such as the UNDP and the EU, which operate in the Palestinian territories. He documents their projects through his camera lens. Towards the end of 2009, Ahed established an art course at the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) in Jerusalem, which caters to various genders and ages.

UNRWA condemns attack on its Summer Games location

It’s official: World Kite Flying Record Smashed

A Palestinian man inspects the damage at a U.N. summer camp in Gaza City, Sunday, May 23, 2010. The top U.N. aid official in Gaza says dozens of masked gunmen have vandalized a U.N. summer camp being set up for children and teens on the Gaza shore. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

UNRWA provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some 4.7 million registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East.

Crowd of boys

The Agency’s services encompass education, health care, relief, camp infrastructure and improvement, community support, microfinance and emergency response, including in times of armed conflict.


Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees. The Agency began operations on 1 May 1950.

In the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee problem, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA's mandate, most recently extending it until 30 June 2011.

UNRWA condemns attack on its Summer Games location

23 May 2010

UNRWA condemns attack on its Summer Games locationAt 0230 on Sunday 23 May 2010, a group of approximately 30 armed and masked men attacked and set fire to an UNRWA recreation facility under construction on the beach in Gaza city. The location is one of 35 beach facilities currently under construction, which will form part of UNRWA’s annual “Summer Games” program for over 250,000 refugee children in Gaza, due to commence on 12 June.

UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, John Ging, condemned the incident, calling it “vandalism linked to extremism and an attack on the happiness of children” He went on to reassure parents and the children of Gaza that “UNRWA will not be intimidated by such acts and will quickly rebuild the location in good time to host the Summer Games”

UNRWA's summer games, conducted for the fourth year with the full support and involvement of the community is the largest recreation program for Gaza’s children providing a diversified set of activities including sports, swimming, arts and crafts, theatre and drama. It is of immense physical and psychological importance for children who would otherwise have no other similar recreation opportunity.

Slice of Life in Gaza

Mud brick houses in Gaza