Bringing the discussion home: The Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project

A Palestinian boy on the rubble of a demolished house after an Israeli incursion into Rafah Refugee Camp, southern Gaza Strip, 6, August 2006. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

On 17 April the Olympia, Washington City Council voted 4-2 against official recognition of the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project. Of the few news organizations following the story, that was the headline. But it wasn’t really the news.

Possibly noteworthy was that more than 300 people attended the standing-room only public hearing on the project. People waited outside the building to get in to comment and observe. Forty-eight people spoke in support, 24 people expressed opposition. Hundreds of letters and emails flooded the city on the topic. Numerous phone calls also came in, according to council members.

What remains worth exploring, examining and scrutinizing was why the city council vote went as it did, and what was said by citizens during the open hearing on the matter. For anyone seriously studying current American popular opinion on the Middle East, a trove has been collected in Olympia during the last couple of months. Collect it, save it, dissect it with a scalpel.

April has been a punishing month in the U.S. for endeavors that recognize Palestinians as human beings. A sister city request failed in Olympia. Eighteen photographs in an exhibit featuring work by children from the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank were stolen from a Boston public library. Meanwhile, scare tactics and overt intimidation were once again employed, this time in South Florida, to coerce a theater company into canceling the play My Name is Rachel Corrie.

As an active participant in the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project nearly since it began in late 2003, I have my own preference as to how things should have gone in Olympia. The scant headlines run by Olympia’s daily newspaper and picked up by the Associated Press and Reuters paint our attempt at official recognition as a failure. Fair enough. But on the other side of the world, in a battered, cramped town where most the inhabitants remain refugees from some other part of Palestine, Khaled Nasrallah saw it differently. “You really succeeded,” he wrote in an email after watching the digital video with others in Rafah. “It was my pleasure to see all of you in the meeting.”

I have to take Khaled’s view. People who live through the kinds of things that have happened in Rafah know something about recognizing the fleeting instances in our lives where some degree of victory can be found. His family’s home was destroyed by an armored and armed Caterpillar D9 bulldozer for the sole reason that the military it represented wanted to expand a buffer zone and was (in violation of international law) demolishing all the houses in the area. In one attempt by the military to destroy Khaled’s home, Olympia native Rachel Corrie was killed.

When people in Rafah have stood up to demand recognition of their right to exist, let alone their humanity, they’ve historically faced guns, bombs, fighter jets, tanks, sniper towers and bulldozers. Considering that, I think we in the U.S. can take a few wagging tongues, each alloted three minutes of microphone time in a city hall. And if it gives our friends in Rafah some sort of comfort to see us confront and grapple with the creeping phobias and racist stereotypes prevalent in our own communities, then he’s right, we found some measure of success.

After the vote against the sister city project we received a few emails. One was from a Eugene, Oregon, resident who said he’d like to know “what was at play when the City of Olympia voted against it,” and asked, “How can that be: in the home area of Rachel Corrie??!!”

In the end … our critics had fewer people in their ranks, but they were scarier

It’s worth mentioning that a group of people in Madison, Wisconsin, tried to take their sister city project with Rafah official a couple of years previously and were met with even more hostility and ultimately a negative vote from their city council. Why does this happen? In the end, and in both cases, our critics had fewer people in their ranks, but they were scarier.

Rather than recapping the play-by-play here, I’ll just tell you where to find the main criticisms and our responses. You can see them at the project’s website (see link at the end of this article). Members of the sister city project authored a document in the form of a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) in response to letters sent to the city council before the vote. As no one speaking against the proposal that evening offered anything new, these responses stand firm. The city council video (link provided below) also contains numerous articulate rebuttals to the critic’s claims at the meeting.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the general perceptions stated by opponents of the project and the resulting vote. What people in Rafah saw, via the Internet, was nothing new. It was yet another example of how there is really no way allowed for them to connect with the outside world. Palestinians are told that they must follow certain rules before they can be apart of the global community. What these rules are seems to shift depending on the situation. The Israeli military also has rules it’s supposed follow vis-a-vis international law, but these folks don’t seem to pay much mind to that.

The rules shifted in Olympia on 17 April. For the last year and a half, project participants in Rafah and Olympia have worked to meet both the letter and spirit of the requirements regarding sister city relationships with both Sister Cities International and city regulations. As Olympia City Management Assistant Diamatris Winston and Sister Cities International pointed out, we met those requirements. Some letter writers and public speakers, without offering any sort of findings to the contrary, simply ruled that we didn’t. With its vote, the Olympia City council sided with these people.

If we changed the name and entire scope of our project and told our participants in Rafah to help us find a better town than theirs, preferably one in Israel, then they would endorse it

A number of speakers in opposition complained that the project lacked an Israeli component, stating that they’d support one that included an Israeli town as well as some “compatible city in the West Bank or in Gaza,” indicating that they would prefer that this were an Israeli sister city project that could, perhaps, include some token recognition of a Palestinian entity. In short: if we changed the name and entire scope of our project and told our participants in Rafah to help us find a better town than theirs, preferably one in Israel, then they would endorse it. The Olympia City Council sided with these people.

There are currently three officially recognized sister city relationships between U.S. and Palestinian communities. In one instance, the partners in a project to bind the West Bank town of Bethlehem with Burlington, Vermont, worked to include a relationship with Arad, Israel. There are about 40 official sister city relationships in all between Israeli and American cities. No one is demanding in these circumstances that a Palestinian component must be required. But in Olympia, critics declared that official recognition of any Palestinian community is entirely dependent trilateral relationship with an Israeli community. We offered to help out and lend our knowledge of the process to anyone interested in organizing a sister city relationship with an Israeli town, and that our projects could work on several joint events once they got up and running. This wasn’t enough. Again, double standards are nothing new for Palestinians who attempt to play by our rules.

Aside from the fact that no one in the entire span of our project’s existence has ever approached us about establishing an Israeli sister city (and no one has since the council meeting), there is an offensive element to this notion. It insinuates that Palestinians must only be considered in light of their Israeli neighbors in every aspect of life, as though they are not deserving of the same rights of identity and self-determination as anyone else. That’s what our critics brought to the table and to which the Oympia City Council agreed.

In the public hearing, speakers used the word “divisive” even more often than they dropped “terrorists” or “Hamas.” After four years of open, public existence in the community, either organizing, sponsoring or cosponsoring events that have attracted hundreds of individuals, the sister city project suddenly became a divisive issue in the last month and a half, mostly by people who hadn’t given our project a single thought one month before, and really won’t one month later.

I’ve been giving this notion of divisiveness some thought in recent days. Like my friend Khaled in Rafah, I wasn’t able to be at the city council meeting in person. I watched it via the little three-by-two-inch video screen on the city’s website. I’m working on a contract with an organization in Morocco that encourages cross-cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Middle East and North African nations. It was weird watching people I knew in my hometown make their cases on that small screen, but it gave me some idea of how the rest of the world would see the debate that took place there.

It’s been a tense couple of weeks here in Morocco. During the weekend before last a suicide bombing shook Casablanca. These bombers — alleged to be loosely tied with an organization calling itself “Al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb” in nearby Algeria — tend to target local community centers, secular organizations, internet cafés, places where men and women and boys and girls of any background can congregate.

Another like-minded group seems to have emerged in Gaza, emboldened by the chaos, increased poverty and isolation that U.S. and Israeli sanctions and the confiscation of public funds have brought. This other group, “The Sword of Islam,” seems to be targeting Palestinian community centers, secular organizations, Internet cafés, places where men and women and boys and girls of any background can congregate. The goal these groups seem to be striving for is isolationism and segregation, to make people fearful of places that connect them to the outside world or to one another. Through fear, it is sometimes said, control can be exerted.

In Rafah, the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project fosters communication and people-to-people bonds among men and women of all faiths in an open manner. Our organization supports the Rachel Corrie Youth and Cultural Center and a number of other community centers in Rafah where men and women and boys and girls of any background can congregate, use the Internet to reach the world outside the prison-like conditions of Gaza, study, create art and connect.

Yet I still agree with Khaled; a degree of success was achieved.

The people in Olympia speaking out against official status for this sister city relationship chimed in on some familiar themes. They warned against open communications between people and in favor of mistrust, which ultimately leads toward the same path: isolation, segregation and fear. And the Olympia City Council sided with these people.

Yet I still agree with Khaled; a degree of success was achieved.

Over the years I’ve developed a sort of inkling that if the road map to any sort of lasting peace in the Middle East actually did include a detour through the United States, it would find a more suitable route through Olympia, Washington, rather than Washington, D.C. There’s nothing peaceful about the latter. Spend a day on D.C.’s Capitol Hill and another amid dense thickets of pine trees of Olympia’s Capitol Forest and then tell me which one gave you a greater sense of peace.

But the road map should wind through more towns than Olympia. The conversation that took place was too important. It needs to happen elsewhere and it needs to be archived. In readily available public records and video now sits a time capsule from 17 April 2007, of public sentiment in Olympia, Wash., on the Middle East. It’s there for anyone to study one year, five years or fifty years from now. The process should be repeated everywhere. I would encourage people in towns across the United States to find connections with Palestinian communities. Develop the bonds and personal connections. Visit their homes and invite them to yours. Then, when the paperwork and documentation has all been laid out, take it to your city council for official recognition and see who shows up and says what. The results will say far more about the citizens in our country than they will about those in Palestine.

Andrew Ford Lyons is president of the Board of Directors in Olympia for The Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project and a former media coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement. His opinions are his own. He maintains a blog at http://thismuchicansayistrue.blogspot.com. He can be reached at andy@orscp.org.

Related Links

  • Video of the Olympia City Council’s public hearing on The Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project
  • ORSCP official responses to some critics, drafted before the meeting