National Catholic Reporter April 12, 2002

Americans in every aspect of Mideast conflict


Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories

A news flash from the war in the Mideast arrives via e-mail. In Bethlehem where Palestinian militants have taken refuge in The Church of the Nativity and are surrounded by Israeli forces, the Christian Brothers at Bethlehem University report that every building on campus has been damaged by Israeli shelling and gunfire. Given the heavy bombardment, the brothers feel they've been fortunate that none of the staff has been injured. They report four deaths in the families of staff, however: a son, a sister, an uncle and a nephew.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian headquarters on the West Bank, the Red Crescent reports that conditions are worse than in any time in 30 years. Ambulances can't get through the streets to take the wounded to hospitals. Hospitals are running out of bandages and other supplies. The morgues are full, but Israeli soldiers won't allow any burials. Meanwhile the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings continues.

Two weeks earlier in Jerusalem, a Palestinian student had pessimistically predicted that the situation, bad then, would get worse. "The blood will be up to here," he said, motioning with his hand. His prediction is coming true.

An update arrives from Bethlehem University. Israeli soldiers have scaled the gates and stormed the campus. American-made F-16s are flying bombing runs overhead, and Israeli troops have fired at the university four wire-guided missiles "paid for with your tax dollars," writes one of the brothers.

For many Americans, the violence that has erupted with such fury between Israelis and Palestinians may seem a remote conflict with little consequence for their lives. But it is clear from interviews in Israel and the occupied territories that Americans are intimately involved in almost every aspect of the struggle here.

In Israel, Americans are found on both sides of the conflict and on every point of the political perspective. The number of American Jews who immigrate to Israel is small, but they are surprisingly visible on the political scene. On the right, a large number of American Jews are among the settlers putting down stakes in the occupied territories and determined to make those territories Israel's own. On the left, American Israelis figure prominently in the resurgent Israeli peace movement and in human rights organizations that spotlight Israeli abuses.

Americans of every religious persuasion can be found in Israel and the occupied territories working as peacemakers, relief workers, advisors and educators.

"Many of the Americans who come here come here for ideological reasons. You're not fleeing persecution. You've come here because you believe in something," said Michael Tarazi, a Harvard University graduate who now works as a legal and communications adviser to the Palestinian Authority.

Their stories are different, but added together they reveal some of the dimensions of the conflict in the Mideast.

Started in 1984, the Alternative Education Center in Jerusalem is one of a dwindling number of Israeli-Palestinian ventures, a stopping-off point for journalists trying to get the other side of the news from that presented in the mainstream Israeli media.

On a Sunday afternoon, media officer Connie Hackbarth looked besieged and tired. The night before, a suicide bomber had detonated himself at a cafe around the corner from Hackbarth's apartment, killing himself and 11 others. Hackbarth was at home when she heard the blast. "For the first time, I experienced something my Palestinian colleagues have been experiencing for years," she said. Considering what other people are going through, she counts herself lucky. "I don't have a tank at the end of my street. I don't have to worry about a soldier breaking into my house," she said.

Working conditions at the center have become difficult. The director of the Alternative Education Center is Israeli and has been sent to prison for a month for refusing to report for reserve duty. Hackbarth's other colleague, a Palestinian, lives in Bethlehem, where the center's Bethlehem office has been closed for security reasons because three buildings on the same street were destroyed that week by the Israeli Defense Forces and the building isn't safe. Yet another colleague lives in Hebron where the electricity is off. "Our work was just paralyzed this weekend. It's just horrible what's going on," Hackbarth said.

The Alternative Education Center has instituted a project to get information from the occupied territories into the mainstream press, but Hackbarth said few Israelis have much interest in what happens in the occupied territories. "The fact that Israel goes into refugee camps and slaughters people -- nobody even questions that. Racist Zionist discourse is presented as objective news. We've stopped thinking in Israel. I think that's what scares me most."

Raised in Milwaukee, the daughter of a Christian father and a Jewish mother, Hackbarth moved to Israel because she wanted to work for social justice and Israel seemed a good place to do that. Her adopted country faces existential dilemmas about its identity. "Israel has problems because on one hand it wants to control the occupied territories and on the other hand it also wants to be a democracy, but it can't be a Jewish state and a democracy if it gives voting rights to 3 million Palestinians. Israel tried to solve this dilemma in the Camp David accords. You don't need a lot of land to control the territories. You can do it with checkpoints. So while it's true that Israel was willing to give back much of the West Bank and Gaza, it also tried to keep control of the territories through checkpoints and settlements."

Like many others today, Hackbarth is gloomy about the future. "So much has happened over the past 10 years in terms of hatred and personal loss that even if a Palestinian state were constituted tomorrow on all the occupied territories, I'm not sure how viable it would be, given the complete absence of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. I'm not sure Palestinians would accept it or the Israelis."

Believing in peace

Every Friday at 1 p.m. the peace group Women in Black holds a vigil close to the Israeli prime minister's home to protest the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The vigils have been going on for 15 years now, and Gila Svirsky has been attending them for almost as long. Technically Svirsky said she can't count herself a founding member of Women in Black as she was not at the initial meeting of the women's peace group held Jan. 8, 1987. She joined two weeks later, at the end of the month.

Now 55, Svirsky moved to Israel from the United States when she was 19. She still feels herself a Zionist, but said she doesn't believe Zionism means the conquest of other people's land. "It means Israel is the homeland of the Jews, a refuge for Jews suffering from anti-Semitism. I believe Israel should be completely democratic. I would celebrate if one day there would be an Arab president."

That day is clearly a long way off. "Everything is almost entirely segregated in Israel between Arabs and Jews," Svirsky said. "We don't go to the same schools. We don't go to the same shops. We have very little to do with each other, and the government discriminates against Arabs in terms of the budget given to their towns, in terms of education and job access.

"Many Jews have racist ideas: The Arab Israelis are perceived as not as well-educated; they would stab you in the back; they're a fifth column and all potential traitors. It's horrible the attitude toward Israeli Arabs," Svirsky said.

A moment of truth for Israeli Arabs occurred in October 2000 when Israeli police shot into a crowd of Arab Israelis and killed 13 people. "That for them made them realize that they are perceived as the enemy," Svirsky said.

A well-known voice within the peace moment, Svirsky said the wake-up call for her and many Israelis was the first intifada in 1987. When the occupied territories were won in 1967, they were initially seen as a bargaining chip for peace. Then the religious right wing began establishing Jewish settlements in the territories. "We in the liberal camp and left were dulled to the fact that an almost irreversible situation was being created. When in 1987 a popular rebellion broke out, we in the liberal camp had to face that something was festering there," she said.

The peace movement suffered a setback with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and the failure of the Palestinians and the Barak government to reach an accord, but Svirsky said the movement has been revitalized in the last few months.

"The violence, the horrendous levels of violence on both sides, has awakened many people. Some respond by hitting back, and others say the root cause has to be addressed and for many of us the root cause is the occupation," she said.

A voice on the right

A conservative counterpart to Women in Black, Women in Green was formed in 1993 in response to the Oslo peace accords, which it opposes. Its official name is Women For Israel's Tomorrow, explains Michael Matar, the administrator of Women in Green, whose wife Ruth founded the organization that now includes as many men as it does women. The group wears green hats adorned with the motto "Israel is our heart."

Whereas Matar described Women in Black as a small fragmentary organization that doesn't represent the majority of the Israeli population, Matar said the great majority of Jews in Israel and abroad do support the goals of Women in Green -- that Israel is the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people and should encompass both sides of the Jordan River. The idea of a Greater Israel is a potent force among Israel's right wing and explains the reluctance of some Israelis to trade land for peace, the premise of the Oslo accords.

"The Arabs had no roots in this land. The Jewish people did. In the Bible it says this land is given to the Jewish people. The Arabs have a state in Jordan, which could easily handle whatever Arabs exist today in Israel," Matar said. "This whole business of peace is a fraudulent tool to hide their true intentions of destroying Israel," said Matar of those the world calls "the Palestinian people" but who Matar believes never existed.

In its literature, Women in Green refers to "Oslo plotters," and Matar and his family take pride in the fact that the supporters of Women in Green helped defeat Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the last election and replace him with the hard-line Likud Party candidate Ariel Sharon. But though Sharon's policies are creating international concern, Matar believes Sharon must do more.

"We're very disappointed with him and feel he's not acted in a forceful manner," he said.

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Yale Law School, Matar left the United States in 1976 to come to Israel where he helped build the Ephrat settlement on the West Bank. Religious reasons drove him, he said, and he deplores how a secular left with an "anti-religious Bolshevik orientation" has forced its will on the Jewish people in Israel.

Both secular and religious Jews form part of Women in Green's constituency. The group has 25 chapters in U.S. states and includes many Christian fundamentalists among its supporters. The group operates a Truth Mobile, a van that tours Israel and disseminates a Zionist perspective on the news. It has collected 85,000 signatures for a petition called "No to Another Palestinian state."

A difficult year

Michael Tarazi went to work for the Palestinian Authority just over a year ago, little realizing what a difficult year it would be. The violence of the second intifada has not been helping the Palestinian cause, said Tarazi. Indeed, he thinks it's undermining the message of the Palestinian Authority that it wants to live in peace with Israelis. Still, Tarazi said he understands why some Palestinians are now choosing violence to oppose the Israeli occupation.

"If you go to an average Palestinian, he'd say that during the nonviolent period from 1994-2000, we had a doubling of settlers in the occupied territories from 200,000 to 400,000. At the same time we had our freedom of movement restricted. We had our freedom of religion restricted because we can't get into Jerusalem without Israeli permission. They'd say, look, what's the message we're supposed to get? The Israelis have used these occasions to intensify the occupation, not end it. The average Palestinian will say, what options have we been given?"

To criticisms on the part of some Israelis and Americans that Barak offered the Palestinians a generous peace deal they should have accepted, Tarazi rummages for a map to show that the initial deal offered at Camp David consisted of three separate reservations of land not contiguous to each other, and hardly a viable state. The two sides came closer at later negotiations at Taba, Egypt, but Tarazi said, "Israel chose to walk away from negotiations because it felt it couldn't finalize those negotiations before an election, which Barak mindlessly called early."

Still, Tarazi acknowledged the Palestinians erred badly by not countering the Israeli line that the Israelis had offered everything and the Palestinians had thumbed their noses at the best deal they'd ever get. "There was a naive view that we won't play the blame game. Barak and Clinton could because they were no longer in public life, but we thought we'd go back to negotiating. That was one of the worst mistakes we've made during this intifada. By the time we spoke out, this whole narrative and mythology had developed."

Tarazi called public relations perhaps the Palestinians' biggest problem. Partly, he said, it's based on inexperience -- not realizing the importance of getting your message out early. It's also a question of money.

"We don't have the financial resources to put together spin machines in Paris, London, New York and give the Palestinian side of the story. We can't hire public relations firms at millions of dollars a year the way Israel does. We don't have an American-Israel Public Affairs Committee; we don't have media watch groups to intimidate journalists."

Tarazi points to the way Jewish settlements in the occupied territories have now been repackaged as "new Jewish communities" by the Israeli government and media. "This is the same neighborhood called a war crime," he said, referring to the 4th Geneva Convention, which prohibits occupying powers from settling their own citizens in conquered land. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times have all bought into this terminology at the behest of pro-Israeli media watchdog groups, he said. Decisions have been made at the executive level to eliminate the word "settlement" in the articles they run about Israel.

Disillusionment at the center

Stuart Schoffman is a centrist Israeli. Like many Israelis these days he feels angry and betrayed. "What is happening now should and could have been avoided," Schoffman said of the Israeli assault on Palestinian cities and the inevitable casualties that will accompany it. Schoffman blames the deaths less on Israeli soldiers than on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for rejecting Israel's peace offer at Camp David and for setting in motion a wave of violence that is now engulfing Israelis and Palestinians alike.

"Whatever the disappointments of the Barak offer, it's unfathomable to me that it justified the violence unleashed on the Israeli people by suicide bombers in which innocent people were targeted," said Schoffman.

Though innocent people on both sides are being killed, he sees a clear moral distinction between the violence inflicted by Palestinian suicide bombers and the violence inflicted by Israeli soldiers. "What is happening in the Palestinian territories is that innocent people are being killed. It's collateral damage. People become the casualty of a military operation launched to prevent the opposite of collateral damage: the targeting of innocent men, women and children at pizza parlors and shopping malls."

Schoffman moved from the United States to Israel for family reasons in 1988. The 54-year-old writer and educator lives with his wife and two children in Jerusalem. He still supports a two-state solution to the Arab-Palestinian conflict, but said that Yasser Arafat makes it more difficult for him and other Israelis to see the Palestinians as reliable partners in peace. While Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a general accused of war crimes, may not represent the Israeli ideal, Schoffman said Sharon's election can be blamed squarely on one man: Yasser Arafat. The wave of suicide bombings pushed the Israeli public to the right, said Schoffman.

The second intifada that began in September 2000 has been explained different ways. One version, subscribed to by most Israelis, is that Arafat orchestrated the intifada in order to force Israel to accept exaggerated Palestinian demands.

The Palestinian explanation is that the intifada was an unorganized uprising from the street in response to Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Muslim holy site al Haram al Sharif by Palestinians who were disillusioned with the results of the peace process and its failure to produce an end to the Israeli military occupation.

Recently, a third explanation of the intifada has begun to circulate. An analysis written by Khalil Shikaki, a professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, posits that the intifada is a response by the Young Guard in the Palestinian national movement to both the failure of the peace process and the failure of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Old Guard to offer good governance. The intifada, Shikaki contends, is both an effort to force Israel to unilaterally withdraw from the occupied territories and to weaken and eventually displace the Palestinian Old Guard. Thus far, Shikaki writes, the Young Guard has assumed de facto control over many Palestinian Authority civil institutions and has forced Arafat to appease it for fear of a Palestinian civil war.

When asked whether Arafat is in control of the suicide bombings, Schoffman indirectly touches on some of these points raised by Shikaki's article when he mentions that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and dysfunctional and contains various factions within it. But Schoffman believes it's now clear that terrorism isn't confined to renegade Palestinian groups. "Arafat is an incurable revolutionary and an unrepentant terrorist," Schoffman said.

Schoffman's anger at the deaths and destruction taking place in Israel is obvious. So too is his sorrow.

"This is enormously dismaying to those of us in Israel who devoted a tremendous amount of energy to building bridges and supporting peace," Schoffman said.

Clueless Americans

Originally from California, Br. Kenneth Cardwell has lived for the past three years in Bethlehem where he teaches English at Bethlehem University. On April 3, at 3 a.m. Israeli troops invaded the university campus and spent three hours looking for terrorists. They didn't find any, of course, Cardwell said by telephone. He takes a skeptical view of the Israeli sweep into Bethlehem that brought about 60 Israeli tanks into town, with probably six to eight soldiers in each tank. He described it as "a massive modern technological army trying to pick out at most a couple dozen guys in the midst of a civilian population of a hundred thousand. It's not a war. Sharon calls it a war. That's a joke."

Bethlehem has been the scene of intense activity by the Israeli Defense Force during the past six weeks. This is its third invasion of Bethlehem, and Cardwell said that while the Israeli Defense Force pretends to believe that gunmen are firing at the Jewish settlement of Gilo from the university campus, the true purpose of the Israeli incursions is "to terrify the population, degrade the infrastructure and sow the seeds of a factional Palestinian civil war.

"Americans don't have a clue about what's going on here," Cardwell said. "They think Israel is being moral and upstanding and offering the Palestinians 99 percent of what they wanted. That's just not true. The news shows suicide bombers, and that's wicked. They don't show the daily struggle of a Palestinian student to travel 20 miles from his home in Hebron to Bethlehem University. It takes 2 hours, and they have to go through 5 checkpoints. That's for the sake of Israel's security."

The Christian Brothers have signed a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in which they condemn suicide bombings but say too little attention has been shown to the violence inflicted by Israelis in their continuing occupation. Among the abuses of Palestinian human rights they say they have personally observed, they list the demolition of houses with families made homeless; indiscriminate shootings of civilians by Israeli Defense Force soldiers at checkpoints; harassment and physical abuse of Palestinians of all ages at checkpoints; inappropriate handling of young Arab women at these locations; harassment and obstruction of ambulances trying to carry emergency cases to hospitals and blocking of humanitarian relief operations.

"Suicide bombing, reprehensible as it is, is a side issue," Cardwell said. "It gives the Israelis an excuse, which they seize. The Israelis want to pound the Palestinians and drive them off the land."

Cardwell is sounding angry, and he recognizes this and moderates his voice. "I'm a pacifist by nature. I used to be an admirer of Zionism. I worked on a kibbutz when I was 17. It's just bunk. It's a sad enterprise that has failed. Zionism was a beautiful vision of a homeland for the Jews without adverse trouble for people who lived there. These people now are just greedy land-grabbing thieves.

"The shooting [by Palestinians] that goes on in Bethlehem is just the dramatic sign of people's despair. We're not talking about 1 percent of the population," Cardwell said. "The rest of the people emigrate or they endure, but they suffer daily injustice and they don't fire back and they don't get on TV and nobody hears their plea."

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is