by Yotam Amit
The Chicago Hearing was a success judging by the reactions from the audience and I am proud to have been one of the organizers. Afterwards, I had the rare opportunity of listening to the impressions of an acquaintance who had been previously uninvolved in Israel/Palestine issues.
According to him, the event was excellently moderated by Ms. Helena Cobban, which helped make the fourth hour seem as relevant and engaging as the first. But it was Jeff Halper, from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, who first succeeded in hooking this audience member. It was Halper’s ability to frame the situation on the ground so clearly that allowed him to simultaneously reach those new to the topic as well as the more familiar.
Halper was the witness testifying on the topic of Property Rights, which he connected effortlessly to ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian territories. He listed the three cases, in recent memory, of states destroying the homes of a certain ethnicity in order to displace them: South Africa, Serbia and Israel, noting that these practices were discontinued in the first two. My friend was especially shocked to hear how something as ostensibly innocuous as zoning was the mechanism by which this discriminatory practice was justified.
Halper deftly explained the history behind this zoning and how the Israeli designation of “state land” has always meant land held collectively for the Jewish people. But it was the human element that he included that left the greatest impression. Halper described the stress of living with the threat of home demolitions through the eyes of countless worried Palestinian parents who began their daily routine by checking for Israeli police or army outside before dressing and waking their children for breakfast. As a father, my friend could immediately relate to such anxiety even while being shocked at the scale.
Believe it or not, Jeff Halper’s testimony was actually optimistic. He believes that the Israeli public on some level understands that the occupation is not sustainable and is therefore much more amenable to external pressure than is commonly believed.
The following session’s testimony, however, severed as a sober reminder that proposed solutions are rarely as reasonable as they appear. Jad Isaac is the director of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem so his contribution to the Hearing was naturally more technical. Regarding the West Bank, he described how the combination of checkpoints, unmanned obstacles, the wall and segregated roads, combined with Israel’s restrictive permit system have decimated the Palestinian economy.
Isaac referenced the recent Baker Institute report warning that a resolution including land-swapping in order for Israel to maintain its major settlement blocs would still leave the West Bank fragmented and would barely improve its impoverished economy. In contrast, Isaac cited a World Bank report stating that the Palestinian GNP could be improved by 25% if the current restrictions on movement were lifted, over three times more effective than doubling current aid to the Palestinians. Of course, this all seemed rosy in comparison to the situation in Gaza, where Israel has apparently allowed in 0.0025% of the concrete required to rebuild the damage it wrought in operation Cast Lead.
The tone of the Hearing changed drastically – a few times – in the third session. Josh Ruebner from the US Campaign to End the Occupation was billed as an introducer, but his wealth of knowledge on US military aid made him more of a witness in his own right. Ruebner’s ability to demystify such a complicated, obscure but essential aspect of this conflict generated a great deal of admiration from the audience. The soundbite everyone remembered was “a budget is a moral document.”
By this he meant that Chicago’s share of the aid promised to Israel this decade could, instead, pay for over 6000 housing vouchers, green job training for over 8000 unemployed people, nearly 15,000 early reading slots for at-risk children, or primary healthcare for over 400,000. Instead, military aid to Israel is greater than military aid to the rest of the world combined.
Ruebner’s clarity allowed him to present everything in a very short period as he was then charged with introducing the two witnesses proper, Amer Shurrab and Cindy Corrie. Their personal stories of needless bereavement at the hands of the Israeli military wielding American weapons had even the most cynical among us choking back tears. Shurrab’s story was especially difficult as it involved the prolonged death of his brothers from being shot and then prevented from seeking and receiving medical assistance by the same soldiers, under orders. In response, the Israeli panelist, my father, contested that this was not a breakdown in command or any other kind of exceptional incident but a failure of Israeli society as a whole.
But most profound for us organizers were Corrie’s words at the beginning of her speech, when she was tearfully moved by the numbers in the audience and the official platform from which she could tell her story and seek justice for the death of her daughter. She went on to describe the details of her recent suit in the Israeli court in Haifa, where ever more evidence is emerging that Israel failed to adequately investigate Rachel Corrie’s death and even covered it up.
That Cobban, the moderator, was able to engage the speakers in a conversation about policy and values after this is a testament to her abilities. Nevertheless, the audience was visibly shaken by that final note. You could see in our eyes that this last session was extremely difficult, because in the course of 90 minutes we had been exposed to heart wrenching stories of loss and then told that this was not some distant unavoidable tragedy. Rather this only happened because we allowed it to, and no one wanted it to end that way. I can only hope that all of us maintain this newfound commitment to act on our consciences, to challenge our representatives and support efforts like the Divestment campaign at UC Berkeley.
Yotam Amit is on the board of the Arab Jewish Partnership. •
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