Recently, I switched on a local public-access channel to see Mayor Dave Cieslewicz greeting a delegation from Madison's sister city, Obihiro, Japan, with graciousness and pride. The mayor praised Madison's rich sister-city relationships, which extend across the world to places like Ainaro, East Timor; Bac Giang, Vietnam; and Cuzco, Peru.
How different this was from the mayor's words two years ago, when the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project sought official status from the Madison Common Council. Back then, Mayor Dave proclaimed, 'At the end of the day, who cares whether Madison has a sister-city relationship with Rafah?'
Obviously, he cared ' enough to threaten a veto should the 'controversial' Palestinian city in Gaza win enough votes from council members to become official. Sister cities, we learned, are fine and good ' as long as they're the right cities.
Rafah, the poorest community in all Palestine, is an agricultural community of farmers and refugees, shopkeepers and street vendors. The unemployment rate is 55%, and four out of five families live on less than $2 per day.
Yet we were told that this desperate little town, struggling to survive under the yoke of 40 years of Israeli occupation, was a major terrorist threat to the United States, to Wisconsin and the people of Madison. The Madison Jewish Community Council's hysteria over the prospects of an official relationship with Rafah was made manifest in accusations of anti-Semitism against anyone who dared support it.
On Nov. 6, I returned from a research trip to the Gaza Strip, and to Rafah, where I made contact with our partners on the ground. It took nearly a year to coordinate entry because of the human blockade into Gaza imposed by the Israeli Occupation Authorities. Israel does not want outsiders to see what it has done to this miserable strip of land, particularly since democratic elections last March catapulted the Hamas party into power with 44% of the vote.
Hamas did not win because the majority of Palestinians seek an Islamic state. On the contrary, Palestinians are among the most educated, secular and 'westernized' peoples of the Middle East. Hamas won because Fatah, the former ruling party, failed so grievously to meet the needs of the people. It had nothing to do with suicide bombings or support for terror tactics and everything to do with domestic issues, primarily human suffering.
Even beforehand, Gaza's 1.4 million people were living under a cruel occupation regime, unable to exit or enter the Gaza Strip without Israeli permission. Now they are subjected to a suffocating international siege as well. And because nearly half of Gaza's population is under age 20, this U.S.-backed collective punishment is primarily a war against children.
In addition to living without sufficient food, water, electricity, fuel and medicines, the people of Gaza are subjected to near-daily incursions onto their land. While there, I visited hospitals and morgues and saw dozens of dead and wounded men, women and children ' victims of deliberate shelling of civilian areas in Beit Hanoun. Since September 2000, the death toll among Palestinians has surpassed 4,000, including nearly 1,000 children.
The current pretext for these incursions is the firing of primitive Qassam rockets into Israel, which have killed nine people in the same timeframe. While this is indeed a breach of international law that should be condemned, the Israeli response has only increased the suffering and desperation of Gaza's residents. And cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, including humanitarian assistance, has exacerbated the problem dramatically.
Mohammad Omer, a 22-year-old award-winning journalist from Rafah, spoke in Madison in early December. His talks were riveting and vivid and brought out large audiences of people, keen to learn something about Gaza and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mayor Dave didn't come, though he was invited; nor, with one or two exceptions, did members of the established Jewish community.
There is increasing interest in Middle Eastern studies courses, for Arabic language study, for dialogue and debate on the issue of Israel/Palestine. We can shut our eyes and say it's 'too controversial' or 'too divisive,' that it doesn't concern us or that we can't handle the terrible stories and images coming out of Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine. At the end of the day, however, we must face a different reality.
One of the conclusions of former President Carter's book on Israel/Palestine, as well as the Iraq Study Group and other national and international forums, is that this conflict is inseparable from the U.S. quagmire in Iraq. Study Group member Sandra Day O'Connor recently told ABC's 'Nightline' that without exception, every leader and official in every Arab and Islamic country the group met stressed that Palestine was the central obstacle to resolving the Iraq mess and othermajor regional problems.
Israel and its supporters, by trying desperately to keep this debate off the table, are harming the fundamental interests not only of Palestinians and Israelis but also of the American people.
Donations for the people of Gaza can be made via the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, P.O. Box 55371, Madison, WI 53705.