Dear President Obama:
I have been told since I was old enough to read that I am privileged – and should feel proud – to be an American. Not only because I enjoy unparalleled freedom and opportunities, but also because I live in a superpower that is so beneficent it helps spread those same benefits to the less fortunate around the world.
Well, I have spent the last three weeks in one of the parts of the world we say we are helping, and I have to be honest with you (because I am not sure anyone else is). I don’t feel at all proud to be an American. Or even that privileged. Let me tell you why.
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As I write this, the news is dominated by the horrific earthquake in Haiti. And, of course, the US has responded immediately with promises of massive aid. Here in the Middle East, Gaza has been experiencing the equivalent of an earthquake in slow motion for more than a year – only this time, it’s a disaster that is all man-made, with substantial help from the government you now lead. Yet, the only mainstream media coverage it gets is of the high-stakes game played by you and the other political leaders, with the nearly 1.5 million ordinary people penned inside used as pawns.
Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the US, Israeli and European governments have imposed an almost total shutdown on the Gaza Strip, under the mistaken notion that punishing the people will force them to topple their government. Tell me, please, when in history has that ever proven to be effective? We tried the same cruel tactic in Iraq with 13 years of sanctions, causing dramatic increases in infant and child mortality – killing more children than in the bombing of Hiroshima. Meanwhile, however, Saddam remained healthy and in power. I know, that wasn’t “on your watch.” But you are now repeating the same mistake.
In Gaza, the blockade on the passage of goods and people into this small strip of land has effectively imprisoned the population, and slowed to a trickle the commerce that is the lifeblood of any independent community. Unemployment is now the rule rather than the exception, and more than 80 percent of its residents are dependent on handouts from the United Nations. As Time magazine reported last month: “A senior official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government recently confided to a U.N. colleague that Israel’s goal for Gaza is ‘no development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis.'” In other words, as the UN official rightly interpreted, Israel will provide Gaza with an intravenous drip of relief to keep its 1.5 million inhabitants alive – but just barely. Otherwise, the international community (read: US-led coalition) might actually have to do more than make feeble protests.
However, humans are endlessly resourceful, and the Palestinians of Gaza are no exception. (By the way, have you traveled to Gaza, Mr. President? Have you lived with the people as I have – without armed bodyguards and far away from the government spokesmen who, as in most places the world over, are more worried about their own power base than the views of their constituents?) The Gazans have dug a network of tunnels underneath their border with Egypt, which for the sake of its paymaster (I don’t need to remind you that it is the second largest recipient of US foreign aid) and its president’s own desire to preserve his power (Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s only real opposition party), has acted in concert with Israel to turn Gaza into a prison. While you and your spokespeople portray the tunnels only as a conduit for weapons, you refuse to acknowledge (because I am sure you must know) that they play a vital “back door” role as Gaza’s emergency lifeline – a last-resort channel for necessities ranging from cement to computers … even cars.
Now, in a move described as “self protection,” Egypt is building – with the active support of the US, through the Army Corps of Engineers – a steel wall extending up to 82 feet below the ground, designed explicitly to close off these entrepreneurial attempts to resist being reduced to zoo animals – dependent on their “keepers” for their sustenance.
Shame on you, Mr. President. It wasn’t so long ago that you said these words in your lofty speech in Cairo, designed to bridge the divide between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim world (which, by the way, is growing at a much faster rate than the former): “I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity …” Not too long after, when you accepted the peace prize that even you recognized you have not yet earned, you said, “No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s – are served by the denial of human aspirations.” Yet, how else can the ongoing denial of Palestinians’ right to freedom and independence be described, but a denial of the same aspirations that we ourselves fought to defend in our own revolution? I do not excuse any use of violence that harms innocent civilians, but after having been to Palestine (both Gaza and the West Bank) and taking time to get to know the people and their history, I would challenge any American – including you – who thinks he or she would not take any measures possible (even violence) to resist the treatment they must endure. Yet – despite the ignorance on display when influentials such as Bono (The New York Times; January 2) wonder when Palestinians will produce their own Gandhi or Mandela – they have been practicing nonviolence for decades.
On the day that Bono’s op-ed was published, three such leaders were languishing in Israeli prisons. One is Mohammad Othman, detained on September 22 when he was returning home from speaking in Norway about nonviolent strategies to oppose Israeli oppression and land confiscation. He was held for 107 days without charges, much of it in solitary confinement and without access to an attorney, before he was finally released. The second is Abdallah Abu Rahma, a schoolteacher, farmer and a leader of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements. In the last 20 years, Israel has confiscated more than 50 percent of Bil’in land for Israeli settlements and the construction of the separation wall. Supported by Israeli and international activists, Bil’in residents – led by Abu Rahma – have peacefully demonstrated against the wall every Friday for the past five years. I joined them in June and met him personally. I can attest to his leadership and avocation of nonviolence. He was dragged from his home on December 10. After holding him for several days, Israel finally came up with a charge: “illegal weapons possession” – referring to the peace sign he had fashioned out of spent teargas cartridges and bullets that Israel had shot at demonstrators. (One such cartridge pierced the skull of Tristan Anderson, an American who was photographing the aftermath of a nonviolent march, requiring part of his right frontal lobe to be removed.) The third is Jamal Jumah, a veteran leader in the grassroots struggle against the wall, who was taken by Israeli occupation forces on December 16, and was held in shackles and often blindfolded during Kafkaesque Israeli military proceedings until he was released almost a month later. Mr. President, have you bothered to meet any of them? For a bit of a different point of view? (That’s a rhetorical question. I already know the answer.)
Abdallah Abu Rahma (right), telling us what ammunition to watch for from the Israeli Army before we set off for the weekly demonstration in Bil’in. He is now in prison.
But all of that hasn’t surprised me. the United States has a long track record of blindly backing Israel. After all, we have vetoed UN resolutions criticizing its policies more than 40 times. You didn’t start it and it’s now clear you aren’t serious about changing it. (The Jerusalem Post on January 13: “The United States says that it is not considering rescinding Israeli loan guarantees or otherwise sanctioning the country,” according to a spokesman for the State Department.) I wasn’t really fooled by all that “Yes we can”-rhetoric in the election. I wanted to see before I believed, and, so far, you haven’t produced. But what I do – probably naively – find somewhat surprising is the total lack of support your State Department has shown its own citizens. Isn’t that supposed to be one of the core missions of our embassies around the world? To help its citizens overseas? (O.K., o.k., I know I’m an idealist.) Yet, from the moment I and other American Gaza Freedom Marchers set foot on Egyptian soil, the US Embassy in Cairo has done practically all that it can to pretend that we don’t exist … or rather, as if we should agree with the government party line and shut up already.
When the Egyptian government continued to deny our request to enter Gaza to be with our Palestinian brothers and sisters on the one-year mark of the Israeli invasion, we exercised the ultimate civil liberty for which America is known. And we were met with a tight cordon of helmeted riot police, containing the protesters for about five hours. Yes, the person in command while the ambassador was on leave, Deputy Director Matthew Tuellar, eventually met with two of the march representatives. He agreed that every US citizen has the right to see a consular officer, and after a long delay, the protesters who remained were allowed to see a lower-ranking staffer one on one to express their grievances. However, those offers were long in coming and rather grudgingly given, and I am convinced that if the US Embassy so chose, the riot police could have been called off while we peacefully expressed our protest over our government’s support of the Israeli siege. And a meeting with Tuellar should have been immediately granted.
But perhaps what I have found most upsetting is the complete lack of US willingness to foster the people-to-people exchange we say will help bridge the West/East divide. Some of us in the Freedom March want to live and work in Gaza with nongovernmental organizations dedicated to emergency relief, human rights monitoring and mental health treatment. However, the only way Egypt will allow me into Gaza right now is if I present a letter from my embassy asking that my entry be permitted. Is that too much to ask? It isn’t for individuals with Indian citizenship; the only person who has been granted entry into Gaza since Egypt clamped down in the wake of the Viva Palestina “uprising” (other than a 50-person MP delegation from Europe) has an Indian as well as American passport. He bypassed the US and wisely sought the assistance of India. He got in, and is still there, working on an MIT research project. Ireland has signaled a willingness to help its residents as well. But for those of us who live in the US, Canada, UK, Germany and Portugal? We’ve been flatly turned down. Why? “It’s dangerous,” we’re told. In other words, and I quote, “we’re protecting you from yourself.” Hmmm … and those young men and women who are sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why don’t you protect them too????
My roommate in Cairo is a Canadian woman who is married to a Palestinian journalist in Gaza. She is trying to bring him to Canada, but in the meantime, she has not seen him in six months. His birthday is today. However, her embassy will not give her a letter either. So … what are they protecting HER from? Her husband? True love? What about bridging that divide we keep talking about?
Linda and Hamoudi, when they met in person for the first time in June (after talking online for eight years).
President Obama, either the staff that represents you in your embassies around the world have not heard your speeches, or you didn’t really mean them. Which is it?
Awaiting your answer in Cairo …
A message to Obama held by the family whose home was being “protected” by Rachel Corrie, who was killed in 2003 when an Israeli bulldozer ran over her.
Photos by Pam Rasmussen.