Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dia de Los Muertos, Aida refugee camp

Today in Colorado they are celebrating Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the dead, when families remember their loved one and friends, creating memorials to them, often elaborate altars, with objects and even food that the dead loved in life.

Many of the Palestinian men I have met, especially those who have grown up in the refugee camps, have told me about being arrested and imprisoned. Mohammad, our guide in the camp, told us that he had also spent time in prison as a young man. Then he told about the men who are killed by the soldiers and then arrested. These dead are arrested, tried and imprisoned. The bodies are given numbers and when the bodies are convicted, they serve out the sentence - they call it "the graveyard of numbers." After they have served their sentence, the "bodies" are released to the families for burial. 

I thought about the mothers, wives, fathers, sisters and brothers who must wait out the sentence before they can lay their loved ones to rest. Daily torture. 

October 30 - the day we we're tear-gassed

This is a first - for me and for the 47 IFPB delegations that have preceded us. Yesterday was our first day in the country and we were visiting Aida refugee camp here in Bethlehem. We'd just gotten our bus turned around in the narrow street that enters the camp, passing under the large key over the entryway to the camp. Anyway, we were getting off the bus, taking pictures of  the graffiti on the walls of the community center, when we heard a loud "thud." I had seen two small (7-8-year-old) boys throwing stones at a dumpster on the street. I was thinking they were enjoying making such a loud clanking sound, right? So when I heard the thud, I thought they must have also had some fireworks. But then there was smoke and an acrid smell and then burning and coughing - burning eyes, nose, throat - trying to hold my breath. Remembering the videos of the demonstrations and the boys with their kufiyehs, wrapping the scarves over their noses and mouths, I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth and breathed just a little. Till I was upstairs in the room with the windows closed and the door shut behind the group. 

Some of our group - especially one of the leaders who was the last one in the building - got much more of the gas, but I was only uncomfortable for a few minutes. Then I wondered what in the world had happened? I didn't ever see them, but apparently there were three IDF soldiers up the street. Seeing the boys throwing the stones, they lobbed several tear gas canisters at the boys. 

Maybe the boys were in a celebratory mood because of the 26 Palestinian prisoners who were released yesterday. All over the camp there were banners with 10-foot photos of three of the men - maybe the ones they knew?

So the soldiers apparently ran down toward the boys and threw the tear gas at the boys. And the soldiers were in Bethlehem because? 

They wanted to make sure no one enjoyed the day? Bethlehem is in area A, Palestinian-administered West Bank. But the IDF has the jeeps and the AK-47s and the tear gas. Why? Because they could. 

We had our tour of the camp - cut short because the soldiers were still out there when we came out of the building. No loitering for photos. 

Tonight I'm wondering if the soldiers returned in the middle of the night and forced the whole family outside in the dark and then took the boys off in a jeep to the police station.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Divestment or "Positive Investment"?

In church circles, when the subject of BDS comes up, people often ask, why do we have to punish Israel? Wouldn't it be better to encourage "positive investment" in Palestinian businesses? Sam Bahour is an American Palestinian, who returned to the West Bank after the signing of the Oslo Accords, convinced that 1993 marked a time of change--the beginning of a new hope for Palestine. He went back to assist in the privatization of the Palestinian telecommunications sector. He was part of the core team that established the Palestine Telecommunications Company, PALTEL.

Twenty years later, he is still struggling to work in a occupied land, where every aspect of life--travel, water, electricity and air are controlled by Israel. All business enterprises require permits from Israel. Here he answers our question: Why can't we just support Palestinians by "positive investment"? He is writing a response to a UCLA divestment request.

October 22, 2013

Statement by Sam Bahour in regards to Positive Investment

The above mentioned draft resolution has been brought to my attention by several concerned UCLA students. As a Palestinian-American businessman from Youngstown, Ohio who relocated to the occupied Palestinian territory following the now infamous Oslo Peace Accords which were signed back in 1993, I feel a deep obligation to share with interested parties several flaws this draft resolution incorporates.
  1. The resolution notes a 2010 UC Regents affirmation “that it would not bring forward any discussion about divesting from companies that deal with the State of Israel until such actions were similarly adopted by the United States government.” It goes on to state that “divestment resolutions at other UC campuses have had negative effects on campus climate.” A reading of the state of affairs across the U.S., particularly of the Jewish American attitudes toward Israel as recently published in an October 1, 2013 Pew Research Report, shows a growing number of Americans, many out of their love for Israel, are calling for non-violent methods to be used to save Israel from itself. Even Secretary John Kerry initiated the current peace talk efforts by noting that the two-state solution has less than two years before it is lost. Nevertheless, it is most revealing that in a draft resolution promoting “positive investment” the drafters found it necessary to make arguments against divestment, as if the two are inherently linked. The fact of the matter is that blocking divestment is all that this resolution is about.
  2. The proposal attempts to shift focus to “narratives” which is very disingenuous. The issue is not about narratives; every state that emerged from a colonial past, including the U.S., have multiple narratives that peacefully coexist. Instead, the issue here is the illegal Israeli military occupation that has dragged on for 46 years.
  3. In multiple places the proposed resolution makes a glaring inaccurate comparison between “Jewish” and “Palestinian.” It should be noted that Palestinians are both Christian and Muslim and if any comparison is to be made it should be equally made between all three monotheistic faiths.
  4. The resolution refers to past resolutions that call for no action that will “develop a hostile and unsafe environment.” I assume this would apply to UCLA taking no actions that would hint at supporting or covering up illegal practices by other states. If this is the case, I refer you to the long list of UN resolutions and the U.S. State Department Human Rights Reports which document a pattern of gross violations of international law and human rights violations by Israel.
  5. The title of the resolution speaks of “positive steps” which are later detailed as actions to promote positive investment in Israel and Palestine. Not only does such an approach reinforce a rather outdated and artificial symmetry between Israel (the militarily occupying force) and the Palestinians (the occupied people who are protected under international law), but it also promotes a concept, positive investment, that does not require a resolution at all. Given the Israeli and Palestinian economies are open market economies, why would a separate resolution be needed if a sincere desire to invest rationally existed. Wouldn’t that allude to the need of a resolution for every country on earth that the U.S. is not sanctioning? The fact of the matter is that the pro-Israel lobby has designed this seemingly harmless tool called “positive investment” which in reality is a fa├žade to block the growing number of institutions which are divesting from Israel in protest of its ongoing illegal practices of dispossession, military occupation, and discrimination.
  6. The resolution refers to specific firms which is rather odd. I know the business activities and executives in the majority of firms mentioned and it is misleading to believe all that they, or any private sector firm for that matter, do is good or bad. The issue is not to create an illusion of having symmetric investments, but rather to act in a way to cause the removal of the Israeli boot of military occupation from the necks of Palestinians. The EU, along with numerous US business and institutions, churches, and trade unions, have realized this and have taken actions, such as supporting divestment from Israel and firms operating in Israel, to hold Israel accountable. It is tragic that in today’s day and age an argument to invest in Israel’s economy, which would only reward Israel for its illegal practices, would even be contemplated.
  7. Another linguistic flaw, purposely placed no doubt, is the comparison between the “State of Israel” and the “Palestinian Authority.” Given 138 countries of the world voted to admit the State of Palestine into the United Nations last year, it is inaccurate to refer to the administrative governing apparatus called the “Palestinian Authority” when referring to the State of Palestine.
  8. The resolution goes on to call for investments in companies and ventures “that have spent time and resources on efforts to facilitate cooperative interaction between Israelis and Palestinians by promoting economic and commercial growth for both groups.” This nicely worded approach to an action statement is shockingly superficial. Pretending like the issue is the need for “economic and commercial growth for both groups” really strikes home all the previous points made above. The issue is not about “growth,” it is about adopting non-violent tools to hold Israel accountable for its actions. Such tools, which were not invented by Palestinians, include boycotts, divestments, and sanctions. I would hope these tools, amongst others, become the focus of the discussion given my understanding that UCLA’s voice is one that is expected to call for peace with justice, not merely peace, and surely not “growth” in place of justice.
I actually started writing this statement while on a flight from New York to London after spending one month on a five state speaking tour to present Palestinian investments to the American business community. From London I will fly to Amman to get back home to Ramallah. You may ask why I’m headed to Amman, given the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv is literally 30 minutes from my home. The reason is that I, an American citizen, am prohibited by Israel to use the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv because Israel blatantly discriminates against Palestinians, even if they are U.S. citizens, and forces all West Bank residents to enter and exit from a single bridge crossing to Jordan. It took me six hours to cross 3,452 miles over the Atlantic and six hours to cross the less than half a mile over the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge to get from Jordan to the West Bank. No amount of “positive investment” is going to expose the Israeli-made humiliation that happens during such border crossings, let alone the myriad of other daily acts of this 46 year old military occupation.

As I wrote in a Huffington Post piece titled, Palestine's Investments Require Divestment (07/25/2012), “Investment in Palestine -- without divestment from the Israeli occupation -- only continues to underwrite the status quo of military occupation.” This statement is even more relevant today.

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