Olive Trees Outside Bethlehem Wall Photo by Connie Baker
By James M. Wall
When Paul Simon ran for the United States Senate in 1984, I was his primary campaign manager. Paul had many progressive ideas but I would cringe when he told Illinois voters that there would have been no cold war if a few Soviet leaders had spent time in the United States, where they would have experienced life in a democracy.
Paul was actually recalling the Native American wisdom that to know a man you must walk in his footsteps for at least a mile. It was an ideological perspective unrelated to the harsh political reality that any young Soviet official who traveled to the United States to get “educated” would no longer be a Soviet official.
In retrospect, I now believe Paul had a point. Through the wisdom of this Simon logic it could be argued that if Obama had spent even one summer living in the West Bank he would have seen for himself Palestinian homes demolished to make way for Israel’s so called “security” wall, that hideous 24 foot high concrete barrier that snakes through Palestinian land, enclosing cities and villages in prisons from which the only escape is a checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers.
The Democratic candidate will travel to Palestine in a cocoon of security and secret service police, protecting him from attacks from radicals of all sides. Because of this cocoon, he will talk only to Palestinians sanctioned and vetted by his Israeli hosts. It is too late in his political career for him to be “educated” in the existenial realities of occupation.
But it is not too late for him to “feel” that occupation through the internet. Obama needs an internet virtual reality staff person with him at all times, giving him visual, aural and print data, not on the grand scheme of Middle East politics, but on the reality of occupation. This staff person could make sure, for example, that Obama sees footage of an Israel Defense Forces soldier shooting a bound and blindfolded Palestinian in the foot with a rubber-tipped bullet.
B’Tselem (pronounced Beit Selem, with a sound similar to Beit Lehem, the birthplace of Jesus) is an Israeli human rights organization that documents occupation abuses by Israeli authorities. The organization posted the internet video on its site. The incident took place July 7. Two weeks after the shooting, and after the video appeared on the internet, the Israeli soldier was arrested.
In the video, the Palestinian, Ashraf Abu Rahma, 27, who was protesting the building of the Wall, is shown being led, handcuffed and blindfolded, to a Jeep by a high ranking officer of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Rahma falls to the ground after he was shot in the foot. The London Times online reported the arrest July 21. The video was taken by a 14-year old Palestinian girl, who used one of the more than 100 video cameras B’Tselem has distributed to Palestinians in the West Bank.
Knowing how carefully Obama prepares for his every assignment, I believe that if he had that virtual internet reality staff person on his staff he would already have “felt” the occupation through videos like the one of the shooting of Ashraf Abu Rahma.
Obama will not be invited to talk with Khaled Amayreh, a veteran Palestinian journalist I first met in Hebron two decades ago. But Obama can read about current conditions on the ground in an internet column Amayreh wrote for the Cairo-based publication Al Ahram:
If you still think there are red lines that Israel has not crossed with regard to its treatment of Palestinians, don’t be too sure. In recent days and weeks, the Israeli army has been vandalising, ransacking and confiscating Palestinian civilian institutions in the West Bank’s largest towns and cities, including Ramallah, the seat of the so-called Palestinian government.
Frustrated eyewitnesses and tearful victims spoke of “unprecedented brutality” and “Gestapo-like behaviour” as Israeli occupation forces moved throughout the central and northern West Bank to destroy what was left of the Palestinian charity sector upon which thousands of impoverished Palestinian families depend for their livelihood.
Israel had been targeting orphanages and boarding schools as well as soup kitchens and sewing workshops serving orphans in the Hebron region. The campaign of terror, with many hair- raising scenes of cruelty and moral callousness, has seriously raised the level of hostility and hatred for Israel.
Obama will not read this information in his State Department briefings, nor will he read Amayrey’s column in his hometown Chicago Tribune nor in the Israeli-friendly New York Times. But I can vouch for the journalistic integrity of Khaled Amayreh. And if Obama wants further verification, I can refer him to a colleague of mine who teaches religion in a Middle Western college. This colleague spent two nights in June sleeping in a shuttered Hamas-run Hebron orphanage, one of a number of American volunteers who maintain a presence in the orphanage to prevent its destruction by Israeli occupation forces.
Obama will talk with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during his trip to the OPT, and Fayyad will surely inform him of Israel’s systematic campaign against Palestinian commercial and charity organizations. But will Obama realize that in the Arab populations of the Middle East, it is common knowledge that Israel is attacking all institutions even remotely related to Hamas?
In Ramallah, Israeli soldiers stormed the municipal council building of Al-Bireh, Ramallah’s twin-town, located a few hundred metres from the headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the office of his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The Israeli soldiers, with sledgehammers and welding equipment, forced open offices, confiscating computers and destroyed furniture.
Again, PA forces remained confined to their barracks “in honour of agreements and understandings” with Israel. PA officials, including Prime Minister Fayyad, have argued forcefully that all social, cultural, educational, athletic and commercial institutions targeted by Israel functioned according to the law and were involved in nothing of concern to Israel whatsoever.
“These are legitimate Palestinian institutions, and targeting them is aimed at weakening and humiliating the Palestinian Authority,” said Fayyad while inspecting the targeted buildings. He added that he would complain to the United States as well as to Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Neither has uttered a word criticising the latest Israeli savagery.
The Israeli occupation authorities claimed the targeted institutions were owned or run by religious individuals who might be sympathetic to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic resistance movement. However, the Israeli army, and its intelligence arm, Shin Bet, failed to produce any evidence whatsoever linking the institutions to acts of violence.
Paul Simon never made his leap into “feeling” the occupation, the leap now possible for Obama. Simon made that clear to me during the primary race which he won. (By prior agreement I did not manage his general election campaign against Senator Charles Percy.) John L. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt explain what kept Simon from making that leap in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Simon owed his Senate career to the Lobby.
As Tom Dine [AIPAC executive director] boasted after Percy’s narrow defeat , “all the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians–those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire–got the message.” Dine’s hyperbole notwithstanding, the basis lesson of these cases is hard to miss. (pp. 158-159).
That was the politics of 1984. Barack Obama is the candidate of change 25 years later. AIPAC is still a powerful force in American politics. AIPAC still demands that candidates utter public pieties about Israel’s need for security. And on this trip, Israel will prevent Obama from “walking in the footsteps” of Palestinians under occupation.
But no one, no government and no Lobby, can prevent him from a virtual tour of those footsteps during and long after this trip. He will see the conditions on the ground through his own eyes, and he will hear details of those conditions through the internet. As a man of color, Obama brings a special perspective to the Palestinian occupation never before available to a presidential candidate.