For thousands of years, world history has revolved around events in the Middle East. Its not hard to see why.
The cradle of civilization is also the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Those religions are tied together for all eternity by a single common ancestor, Abraham, acknowledged by all three faiths as the first prophet of God.
Despite this common ground -- or perhaps because of it -- the great Middle East melting pot shows no signs of simmering down. With the latest dramatic news out of the region -- a peace summit of sorts between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- comes a small, shimmering candlelight of hope.
Weve chosen to mark the occasion by interviewing a peace activist with longtime local ties, Dave Reed. The 26-year-old spent the summer of 2004 in the land known in the Bible as Palestine.
He spent time with local citizens and took part in a Freedom March along the path of the massive Green Wall the Israeli government is building to contain the Palestinian population and shelter a growing number of Israeli settlements, which seemingly spring out of the desert overnight, often right in the middle of established Palestinian neighborhoods that are powerless to stop them.
Reeds trip was under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of Palestinian rights. A full diary of his trip can be found at his website, davereed.org/.
ISM is not without controversy. Its outspokenness against Israeli policy has provoked accusations of anti-Semitism, despite the fact that a large percentage of its members are Jewish. The group has also been accused of outright support for Palestinian terrorists -- though this accusation is belied by the fact that the Israeli government has not outlawed the group, and ISM activists continue to more or less come and go in Israel at will.
(An ISM spokesman says that the root cause of the violence in the region is the illegal seizure of Palestinian land and the violent oppression of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. We are working to end this so that counter-attacks against Israelis may also stop.)
We spoke to Reed recently about his 2004 trip and his thoughts on more recent developments in the region.
Connect Savannah: Is it unusual for a Jew to make that 180 degree turn to support Palestinian rights and nationhood?
Dave Reed: I dont think Ive gone 180 degrees at all. When I grew up the focus in our household that I came to Judaism from was that of a humanist religion with a strong emphasis on supporting the underdog and looking at things critically. Theres a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility.
Ive been concerned and interested in the conflict in the Middle East for quite a while. Growing up Jewish, a strong connection to that part of the world is central. I guess around high school I began to read different things and expand what I know, and I came to a different perspective.
What I see as going on over there, and what motivates me, is the sense of injustice and oppression. That applies whether the one being oppressed is Israeli or Palestinian or whatever. The membership of the International Solidarity Movement is at least 20 percent Jewish.
Connect Savannah: You say you were the subject of a lengthy interrogation when you landed in Israel.
Dave Reed: I guess I wasnt answering the questions at Passport Control in Tel Aviv very well. So they pulled me aside into another room and asked more questions. I guess I fit the profile -- a young college student, it was my first time over there, I didnt know any Israelis personally. I guess in that case they automatically ask more questions. And then when I mentioned I was Jewish they just waved me through.
Connect Savannah: Just like that?
Dave Reed: Yeah. But there have been Jews they have refused entry to.
Connect Savannah: Where did you stay during your trip?
Dave Reed: I stayed in hostels, mostly. My trip was not at all objective. I didn't go to spend a lot of time in Israel proper. At the beginning of August I was required to go through a two-day training program run by the Christian Peacemaker Team. Thats a group thats funded by the Mennonite churches, the Quakers -- Christian groups that are strongly associated with nonviolence and pacifism. Theyve been in Hebron for ten years now.
After I did that, most of us went to join the Freedom March that happens every summer. It follows the path of the Green Wall from the north where they began construction, to right outside Ramallah in the south. I spent about a month solid in Jenin living in an apartment, talking to people, documenting things.
Connect Savannah: Jenin is the town where an alleged massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) happened.
Dave Reed: That was back in 2002. The IDF called it Operation Defensive Shield. The military invaded the main refugee camp. I talked to lots of people about that. Almost a quarter of camp was completely flattened over the course of 18 days. When I went to Jenin, I expected to see this giant hole in the ground. But theres so much construction in the camp now, it seems like almost every other building is brand new. And most of the construction is done by local people, funded from abroad.
Connect Savannah: You apparently had some close calls in Jenin yourself.
Dave Reed: Jenins the birthplace of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. It has a history of very strong resistance, both nonviolent and armed resistance. I went up to Jenin three days after the IDF attempted to assassinate some senior leader of Al Aqsa. They dropped two bombs from an unmanned aerial vehicle.
One bomb missed the car he was in and hit a building off the road that was home to two families. The bomb blew a hole in the roof right over the kids bedroom. It just so happened that both families were in the front part of the building at that time, so no one was killed.
I was also in Jenin when there was an Israeli Special Forces operation to kill another Al Aqsa leader. They were in a car following the car the Al Aqsa guy was in. When the car came to a stop, the Special Forces got out of their car and sprayed the whole street with machine gun fire. They killed the Al Aqsa guy, and also killed some civilians and injured 20 or 25 people. One 11-year-old boy had to have his leg amputated.
Connect Savannah: Is that one of the Israeli surgical precision strikes the U.S. media is always telling us about?
Dave Reed: Well, in the press the next day they did indeed call it a precision strike. But I met with the families of some of the injured people, and it wasn't very precision. The Israeli soldiers didn't just shoot the people they were after -- they got out of the car, sprayed the whole street, got back in car and took off.
Connect Savannah: You seem particularly struck by your time in Hebron.
Dave Reed: Hebron is an amazing, beautiful place. Its also where you can see the natural progression of military occupation. A very small number of extremely radical Jewish fundamentalists have established a settlement right in middle of the old city. The government has put military in the old city with a mandate to protect the Jewish settlers. So there are about 400 settlers in the middle of Hebron with 2500 soldiers to protect them, a ratio of about six soldiers to one settler.
Its almost this otherworldly thing. Everywhere there are checkpoints, everywhere there are settlements. In the middle of the city you've got these settlers who are seriously some of the most fundamentalist people on the planet. I mean, they really are frightening. They walk around with complete impunity because they know the military is there to protect them.
One day during Ramadan I was with a Palestinian friend of mine, walking by the Ibrahimi mosque. The Jewish settler kids had come down from a nearby settlement and began throwing stones at Palestinians leaving the mosque from midday prayers. One soldier half-heartedly tried to stop them, but the kids knew he wasnt actually going to do anything to them. Then they started throwing rocks at me and my friend. Some were six or seven years old.
Now, in Hebron if Palestinian kids decide to throw any rocks, the first response is rubber bullets. And it can very quickly move up to live ammunition.
Connect Savannah: George W. Bush is the only American president to publicly call for Palestinian nationhood. From your point of view, isnt that a huge step forward for Middle East peace?
Dave Reed: When I hear Bush or any of the current leadership in Israel or the U.S. talk about a Palestinian state, I keep thinking about a statement from a senior member of the Israeli leadership when he was asked about a two state solution. He basically said -- and Im paraphrasing -- Look, Palestinians can call it whatever they want to call it. If they want to call it a state, they can call it a state. If they want to call it fried chicken, they can call it fried chicken. In other words, theyre just going to have to live with what we give them.
Connect Savannah: Ariel Sharon has put a lot of political capital on the line with his disengagement plan, which would dismantle many Israeli settlements.
Dave Reed: One of the architects of Sharons disengagement plan gave an interview in the Israeli press. He was very candid about the disengagement plan. He said it was not intended to disengage anything. The whole idea was to stymie the U.S , and give Israel room and time to finish the wall and build more settlements. The point certainly was not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.
But you have to realize that at the same time, polls show that a vast majority of Israelis support disengagement. The tide is really turning against the hardcore far right settlers. But I just don't know that it's enough to cause a withdrawal.
Connect Savannah: Is it true that since 9/11 and the Iraq War, Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise with Palestinians?
Dave Reed: I didn't get that feeling at all. Thats an idea put out in the media by the Israeli government and our government, that there's a strong Islamist movement in Palestine. I just didn't see it. Theres certainly a strong nationalist movement.
Palestinians are not interested in a monarchy or in a theocratic government, theyre interested in democracy. The vast majority are interested in some form of secular government. Theres little discussion of an Islamic state. Virtually every Palestinian I met talked about peace and wanting to work with Israelis to build peace. It wasn't unusual to hear people say, We have to live together, we have no choice but to share this land.
People say to them, Where are the Arab governments in all this? Why havent they stepped up to help you, to build some roads or something? Well, helping build roads doesnt help keep the Israelis from destroying the roads as soon as theyre built.
But Palestinians do recognize that Arab governments in the region use the occupation for interior politics. You hear that all the time: They like us to be under occupation so they can use it for their own gain. Palestinians are not stupid people. Theyre very educated.
Connect Savannah: Whats your take on the recent Palestinian elections?
Dave Reed: The ISM tried to put together a campaign to put volunteers with candidates. They had election monitors at polling stations in East Jerusalem on election day. What they're writing about is very different from what we've heard on the news. From what I've heard, the elections went smoothly where the Palestinians controlled things. But in East Jerusalem, Israelis controlled the election. Palestinians were forced to vote in Israeli post offices, with Israeli soldiers and tanks surrounding the place. Jimmy Carter said he was trying to fix the situation in East Jerusalem, but he was the one who proposed putting polling stations in Israeli post offices.
Connect Savannah: Are you hopeful about the tentative peace agreement between Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Abbas?
Dave Reed: Well, any possibility for a cessation of violence is positive. But there's a lot of back-patting and self-congratulation right now in the American press, to the effect that, Oh, we knew all it would take was for Arafat to be out of the picture. I don't share that optimism.
First off, it's not an agreement at all. Nothing official has been decided. Secondly, if you look at what's been said, it's just as it's been in the past: All the responsibility for change is entirely on the Palestinians, none on the Israelis. They didn't agree to halt the settlements or to stop building the wall. Its interesting that the Israeli government has told the press they wont act against Palestinians except in self-defense.
Connect Savannah: Thats been their position all along, hasnt it?
Dave Reed: Of course. The entire occupation is based on self-defense, just as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was based on self-defense.
The Israeli government just announced that when the evacuation of the Gaza Strip begins, their last official act will be to demolish another 3000 Palestinian homes. Once again, with self-defense as the rationale, to create a no-man's land and stop weapon smuggling.
Destroying people's homes is a particularly hideous crime. I'm hopeful that the violence will be halted, but it needs to be all forms of violence. Land occupation, theft of property, destroying people's homes are all forms of violence, too.
Its been said many times before, but I keep coming back to this: Until there is justice, there will be no peace. And there can be no justice as long as the occupation goes on.
Bio: A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series...A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series.more