Speak out now for Rafah

During the Vietnam war a young John Kerry asked members of Congress, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Some 30 years later he should put the same pertinent question to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He won’t, but he should.

After decades of suppressing Palestinians in Gaza, Sharon has recognized that the time has come for Israel to get out of Gaza. Yes, he extracted a high price from the Bush White House in getting concessions on maintaining significant settlements in the West Bank and keeping refugees out of Israel, and this should be vigorously contested, but for all intents and purposes he has admitted that the settlement enterprise in Gaza was a mistake. So, too, has Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Still, the man who battled so villainously in Lebanon that he was declared by Israel’s own commission to bear personal responsibility for Sabra and Shatila does not want to back out of Gaza without one last bloody showdown. He thinks the lesson of the Lebanon pullout is that Israel must look tough to the Arabs. And looking tough in his book has, at least for this week, meant killing more than 30 Palestinians — many of them civilians, several of them children.

The American news media have been largely eyeless in Gaza (save for Molly Moore did write a moving though haunting piece about Rafah for the Washington Post of May 16). According to UNRWA 1,100 Palestinians were made homeless in the first 10 days of May. Has that appeared in your local newspaper? Can you imagine the hue and cry if Palestinians somehow had the capacity to force 1,100 Israelis out of their homes in Ashkelon just a touch north of Gaza? The story would lead the newspapers — as it should — even if Palestinians said they were simply moving back to the land they were pushed out of more than 50 years ago. The point to make to the newspapers, and to CNN, is that both Israeli and Palestinian suffering should be covered. All too often, Palestinian casualties are ignored or downplayed. That has certainly been the case this week with the Baltimore Sun totally ignoring Palestinian casualties twice this week in headlines that mentioned only Israeli casualties.

There are two major results of the media missing the story. First, Americans are left with no idea what is going on over there with their tax money. Second, the Israeli government faces no criticism from the United States, so it goes ahead and announces its intention to bulldoze many more Palestinian homes in Rafah. The Guardian picked up the frantic concerns of Paul McCann from UNRWA. But his message is almost entirely ignored by the American media, though following a push from Partners for Peace and other organizations his concern has belatedly been touched upon in some papers. Instead, we are treated to Major Sharon Feingold saying that most of the buildings demolished were empty anyway. Common sense — not to mention common decency — ought to prompt the question why these buildings (actually homes) were empty. The not-to-be-quoted-by-the-American-press McCann states to AFP: “When the house on your left has been blown up and the house on your right has been blown up, you know you’re next, so families don’t always wait until the last moment to find other housing.”

Some 1.3 million Palestinians, most of them refugees, have been squeezed into the Gaza Strip — one of the most densely populated areas in the world — but evidently that is not good enough. When an occupying power forces thousands of these geographically-trapped people out of their homes, killing some in the process, this sinks to the level of ethnic cleansing. It does not matter if they are only forced to move a kilometer away or if they are forced farther away as more than 700,000 Palestinians were 56 years ago. Palestinians in Rafah have been violently uprooted from their homes and had the physical reminders of their presence there reduced to memories.

The experience of being uprooted in 1948 and 1967 is searing enough before even considering their current situation. Three upheavals in one lifetime as the international community dithers and allows the Bush administration — those great friends of the Geneva Conventions and international law — to set the agenda or veto alternative efforts is simply too much. What new or repeated Israeli violation of international law will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and galvanizes the international community to speak out collectively in the face of yet another American veto at the United Nations Security Council?

Open U.S. defiance of the international community is as flagrant as it has ever been on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The lack of outcry from the United States is appalling, but not surprising as the administration does more than ever to espouse principles that have less and less to do with how we actually comport ourselves. Then again, there cannot be an outcry when the media fail to provide timely reports on the uprooting of hundreds of Palestinians by an army that in getting out seems intent on getting into more bloodshed than ever.

Several years ago I almost gave in to despair and said the work cannot be done, the task is too immense, the odds too great. But a colleague of mine was still doggedly working on, determined to persevere. I redoubled my efforts and in all honesty can say that we have made progress in American awareness during the past decade. Yet today it is my colleague who despairs over the collective breakdown by the media and the lack of leadership from world leaders who ought to know better.

I am certain it is one of those days. We all have them. But in the meantime, we must all re-commit. All of our voices are too important to relent. His unbelievable persistence taught me then and convinces me now he’ll be on the phone Monday morning to battle for what is right no matter how distant the fulfillment of that right sometimes appears.

Sharon is moving. This week he is destroying Palestinian life from Rafah to Zeitoun. He has pocketed enormous concessions from Bush and he and Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are racing to invest still more money in settlements east of the segregation barrier to build still more facts on the ground.

What, then, to do? Monday morning, pick up the phone and call your local newspaper and ask why they are not covering the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in Gaza. If they start covering it this weekend, note to them that Sharon was emboldened by the lack of outcry in the first 10 days of May as he made 1,100 homeless. Press them to pursue coverage of the destruction more vigorously so that Sharon does not feel as though he is getting a free pass.

And then call your members of Congress at 202-225-3121 (switchboard operator) as well as the White House at 202-456-1111 (see action below). Many members of Congress have received an education in the past two weeks about the Geneva Conventions. Take a moment next week to educate them on the Fourth Geneva Convention and its prohibition on an occupying power settling its civilian populace in occupied territory. Then remind them that Israel is able to do this in part because of American tax money. We ought to quit footing the bill.

Go ahead. It’s cathartic. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s essential if we’re to arrive at last at a just peace. I remember very well my father’s words from 15 years ago when the Berlin Wall came crashing down under the hammered blows for freedom of ordinary people: ìI was not sure I would live to see this day.î As a young man that wall of oppression and tyranny seemed all but permanent to him. The apartheid wall and 37-year occupation can sometimes seem that way too.

Yet history is full of unexpected moments. Palestine, too, will have its unexpected moment when its people can no longer be kept from freedom’s gate. As grim as things are today more Americans than ever are becoming aware of the inherent injustice of occupation. Subjugation of another people is inherently cruel and leads to manifold wrongdoing and human rights abuses.

We have seen in our one year in Iraq how power corrupts. Thirty-seven years of Israeli occupation in the territories makes it obvious there as well.

Yet this week too much of the media have not made it obvious. This is a profound failure of a vital American institution, much like the profound failure of Congress to oversee the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq. The media, too, must be called to account. Call, then, on Monday and remind them of their responsibility to be fair, even-handed, and accurate. A good start would be for them to fully cover the forced home evacuation of hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza already this month and the plans to evict hundreds more in the days ahead.


1. Call your local newspaper and press it to cover the IDF’s violently forcing Palestinians out of their homes. Remind them that the affected Palestinians are living on land that Sharon claims he intends to leave.

2. Call Congress at 202-225-3121 to speak to your representative and senators. Remind them that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits a country from taking its civilians and moving them into occupied territory. Ask them why there is a Syria Accountability Act calling on Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, but no similar congressional call for Israel to end its 37-year occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Note that it is this sort of double standard that does immense harm to our standing in the region.

3. Call the White House at 202-456-1111. Convey the same message as in 2, but add that it is essential that the administration also press Sharon to fulfill his obligations under the road map — ending Israeli violence, freezing settlements, and dismantling outposts.

At the time of publishing 4PM US CST, Rafah residents were bracing for further attacks, as reported by employees of non-governmental organisations in Gaza.

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    Michael F. Brown is the executive director of Partners for Peace. See www.partnersforpeace.org for more information.