Eyewitness to History

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

During mid summer the attention of the world was once again focused on Gaza, often referred to as the world’s largest outdoor prison. Humanitarians had organized a flotilla to sail to Gaza from Mediterranean ports on the anniversary of last year’s attempt – an attempt which resulted in the death of nine people as Israel committed a barbaric act of piracy against the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara.

The Los Angeles area was privileged to hear two first hand accounts of this year’s flotilla thanks to a  presentation titled: “Eyewitness Account of the Gaza Flotilla”  held this past weekend. Featured speakers were Yonatan Shapira and Mary Hughes Thompson. Mr. Shapira is from Israel and is a former Israeli IDF pilot. He is a Refusenik, a member of Boycott from Within, and a co founder of Combatants for Peace.

Ms Thompson is a veteran peace activist and a co founder of the Free Gaza Movement. She was on board one of the two ships that sailed simultaneously into the port of Gaza to break the decades long blockade in the late summer of 2008.

The event was one in a series of conversations about the Middle East and was sponsored by Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP); the Levantine Cultural Center; LA Jews for Peace (LAJP); Friends of Sabeel; Women in Black LA (WIBLA), and BDSLA.

Mr. Shapira began by giving his background as a child growing up in a privileged position in Israel, the son of a high ranking Air Force officer. He told the audience that the squad which dropped Israeli soldiers onto the Mavi Marmara in 2010 was his squad. He told of being disillusioned by Israeli targeted assassination attempts which killed innocent civilians, including children.

He addressed the audience and asked if there were persons present who held a point of view different than his. Two people raised their hands. “I want to hear what you have to say after the presentation” said Mr. Shapira
Mr Shapira said that he was on the American Gaza bound ship, The Audacity of Hope. He and others arrived in Athens at the end of June and immediately began training in non violent resistance.The ship was not permitted to leave Athens because of bogus claims that the vessel was not seaworthy. There were representatives of the press on board including CNN, the New York Times, and the Nation. Thanks to the heavy hand of Israeli and American pressure on the government of Greece,  the voyage was aborted. The ship was confiscated, and attorneys are still working for its release.

Mr. Shapira had been on a small “Jewish vessel” which tried to sail to Gaza shortly after the incident of Israeli piracy on the Mavi Marmara. The vessel carried harmonicas and was stopped by the Israeli navy.

Israel claimed that the vessel carried dual use items.

Mr. Shapira said that even if the voyage to the port of Gaza had been successful, success cannot truly be declared until Gaza is free.

Ms Thompson told briefly of her work with the people of Palestine. She chose to take the Canadian boat, Tahrir because of ties that she has to Canada. At first she had planned to skip the voyage but then thought of all the brave people who were going, and she felt she had to make another statement for her cause – the cause of Palestine. She rendezvoused with the Tahrir on the island of Crete where she also underwent training in nonviolent resistance. Israeli journalist Amira Hass was on board the Tahrir.
Ms Thompson spoke of the support of the Greek people for their cause. The Greek navy insisted on seeing every detail of paperwork. They declared the boat un seaworthy because, among other things,  the beds were too narrow, and the air conditioning did not work. When the handwriting was on the wall, the passengers found five men on board who were familiar with maritime engineering. The captain of the Tahrir was a Greek citizen and left the boat fearing arrest. He first instructed the five men in the techniques they would need to sail the vessel. Then the ship took off. Two people got into kayaks to create interference. The boat was physically prevented from sailing far, and soon the Tahrir were boarded. The boarding party found the wheel house empty and when the passengers were asked who the captain was, everyone raised his or her hand.

Ms Thompson mentioned the large amount of goods confiscated by Israel from the vessels of the first flotilla – cell phones, cameras, computers and other equipment. This material was never returned. This information brought a gasp from the audience.

“I never thought of that” said one woman “that adds the element of theft.”
Ms Thompson and Mr. Shapira agreed that the publicity the flotilla received and the light that was shown on Gaza and the conditions of the Gazans under the boot of Israel, rendered the mission of the Flotilla II at least partially successful. When non violence is a tactic, then the value of public opinion becomes increasingly valuable.

A lively question and answer session followed.

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A Dream For Palestine

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

The focus of humanitarian concern through out the world is on Palestine. That beleaguered land has been called the world’s largest outdoor prison as its population continues to suffer under the boot of Israeli oppression. This oppression was qualitatively increased during the recent Operation Cast Lead assault by Israel. Visitors to have invariably been impressed by the courage and grit of the residents who live under conditions that would have destroyed the spirit of many.

Often ideas can be better conveyed by an example than by dealing with a whole. This is tragedy and triumph writ small.

The Samouni family of Palestine lost 29 of its members during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. Dozens more were injured, many severely. Family members, including young children and the elderly, were forced to survive for days amidst the rubble with medical help forcibly kept away. It is unknown whether many of the initial survivors died slowly awaiting aid.

Ken O’Keefe is a long time human rights activist. He is one of the survivors of the attack last year by Israeli pirates on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara. Recently Ken met the Samouni family, and a magnificent idea was born, not only for the Samouni family, but for all of Palestine.

“Spending time with the Samouni family and literally becoming a member of this family is beyond a blessing, their cause is the Palestinian cause and together we are going to shatter this blockade once and for all and the proud people of Palestine will once again stand on their own two feet with dignity and freedom.”  

Herewith their story.

Samouni Intertrade Palestine is a commercial and social enterprise which will present the Palestinian people with an opportunity to end their dependence on the charity of others and the negative psychological impact such dependence confers. It will be trade not aid.

People and goods will be transported through the Rafah crossing going in both directions with the eventual goal of a Palestine that is rebuilt and independently functioning.

On the second day of July a convoy will leave London with the goal of arriving in Rafah three weeks later. Members of the Samouni family will be among the drivers. The convoy will carry raw materials for re building the infrastructure of Palestine; they will also carry industrial equipment necessary to economic development.

There are two primary partners: Aloha Palestine and the Samouni Project. The former was created by Ken O’Keefe and Lauren Booth (the sister in law of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair) and grew out of their voyage to Gaza in the late summer of 2008 when two boats broke the decades long Israeli siege of coastal Gaza.

The Samouni Project seeks to provide long term quality education to the more than 200 family members as well as to the surrounding community of Zeitun.

The Samouni family has planted 29 olive trees, one for each family member killed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. They have obtained a community/classroom center with an adjoining playground. The teaching staff has been assembled and is currently preparing a curriculum. The infrastructure of the classroom is in place, and the Samouni family is awaiting the delivery of educational materials to make the classroom a reality. Aloha Palestine has the task of delivering the relevant classroom materials. The supplies are modest by Western standards. In addition to supplies, teaching and administrative costs must be secured. An investment in education is an investment in the future of Palestine.

Many in the West underestimate the effect of dependence on the mind set of those who are the recipients of charity, when that charity becomes a way of life; when independent action to improve one’s future is literally forbidden by an occupying power. It is as if the United States government said to the residents of Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that the help they received would be permanent, and that the government would act as if there was a devastating hurricane in perpetuity.

Under Israeli occupation parents are helpless to rebuild their devastated homes and the infrastructure of their towns. This causes them to lose self respect and to lose the respect of those dependent on them. The world knows the physical losses suffered by Palestine under the boot of Israel. What the world does not acknowledge is the greatest loss Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians: the loss of dignity.

The goals of Aloha Palestine and the Samouni Project is to transform Palestine from a prison to a thriving Mediterranean city.

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, also known as the Barcelona Process, began in 1995 with the stated purpose on the part of the European Union (EU) to “strengthen its relations with the countries in the Mashriq and Maghreb regions”. The Partnership today comprises 44 members. It was created to establish a common area of peace and stability; a zone of shared prosperity, and a rapprochement between peoples on a social, cultural and humanitarian level.

The state of Israel has done remarkably well with its membership in this partnership. Palestine, on the contrary, has conducted a miniscule amount of trade. Palestinians, in addition, are forced to buy the products of their captor.

Free trade is the linch pin of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, and surely Israel has benefited greatly from this. Now it is time for Palestine to take its place in the nations of the region by exercising its acknowledged right to free trade through Egypt. Before the forced resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, access between Gaza and Egypt was severely limited. The current Egyptian Foreign Minister has  stated that it is time to end the blockade.

Both Aloha Palestine and the Samouni Mission are EU based and will hold the EU to its stated obligation to protect its members when such members are practicing safe trade. Safe trade is defined as follows:

The commercial exchange of non-hazardous items that pose no danger to society. Trade conducted transparently and fairly that develops prosperity while fostering stability and building security in the region where it is conducted.

Should there be an attempt to interfere with this lawful process attorneys for these two groups will be prepared to challenge such attempts with immediate legal action.

A Samouni family web site is in progress, and soon the world will be able to see the rise of a Palestinian nation through this family. Soon we will all be members of the Samouni family.

The head of the Samouni family has consented to answer questions posed by The Muslim Observer. The respondent is called Mukhtar which means head of family.

TMO: We are so impressed by what you have suffered and what you have done to turn tragedy into triumph. To begin with, how did you meet Ken O’Keefe?

Mukhtar: Ken O’keefe first came with Noor Al-Harazeen in January 2010, who we already knew as she used to help by giving food-clothes packages, Ken made a video report with us and then he started to come back every week and in order to talk about building a playground and planting an Olive Tree orchard, then we began working together to create the Samouni Project and building a classroom as well.

TMO: Are there NGO’s in Palestine that you will partner with?

Mukhtar: NGO’s no, but we are partnering with Ken O’Keefe in the Samouni Project. But other Societies have helped us with re-building our homes, like Alkitaab Wl Sunna Society.

TMO: Could you share with our readers the strengths that you and your family possess that permitted you to endure Operation Cast Lead and its aftermath and emerge as strong as you are?

Mukhtar:Sure , What happen to us was one of the biggest Gaza massacres in Operation Cast Lead.  During this operation they entered our neighbourhood, shooting at us and taking over our homes, they then put 100 members of our family in one room and started shelling it.  We lost our families, kids were murdered, many were lost.  How we could not share our story!  We want all the world to know what has happened to us and the Palestinians as a whole, we want all the world to know the real Israel.

TMO: Could you tell us some of the proposed curriculum for your school?

Mukhtar: We plan for a full curriculum including Arabic ( Elaab Wa Taalm ), so the kids can read and write, also we will have adult education for the parents who cannot read and write.  We will teach the Quran, also English ( Headway ) so our kids have the ability to connect with the world and act as ambassadors of Palestine.  

To access more information about this project please use the following sites: For Ken O’Keefe: ken.okeefe@alohapalestine.com and http://AlohaPalestine.com.

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A Victim of Israeli Military Action

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

Farah 3 The horrors and injustice of Israel’s occupation of Gaza has outraged the humanitarian world. Often the story of suffering is best writ small. The impact of occupation on one person can limn the entire situation in the sharpest light.

Gaza has been called the world’s largest outdoor prison. Here is the story of one of its prisoners.

Farah Abu Halima was a pretty and smiling three year old girl with a smile as big as she was and a head of curly hair. Before Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in late December of last year, Farah enjoyed her family and friends and enjoyed life despite the occupation. She had the resilience that all Palestinians have plus the added resilience that is a part of childhood.

During Operation Cast Lead Farah was severely burned around her mouth, her abdomen, and her right leg when she was struck by White Phosphorus used by the Israelis. The use of White Phosphorus against civilians is in clear and direct violation of international law. It is permissible only when used as a smoke screen against advancing armies. White Phosphorus is a metal, and it reacts aggressively with moisture in the body. It then uses that moisture as a path through the victim. It does not merely burn: it destroys the tissue and bone in its path.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) sent a fact finding expedition to Gaza earlier this year to investigate Israel’s use of White Phosphorus against civilians. They found that the use White Phosphorus was a widespread policy. Israel’s denials have run afoul of the facts.

During the attack her home was destroyed and her family, with the exception of her grandmother, were killed.

Farah has finally arrived in the United States with her grandmother for medical treatment. This has been accomplished through the auspices of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), and the two are now with their host family in San Diego where the doctor’s visits and probable surgery will take place.

Even her departure from Rafah in Gaza was fraught with delays. She and her grandmother had an earlier departure scheduled but were thwarted by the Egyptians.

Farah has made her initial doctor’s visits. Their chief concern – and the site of the probable surgery – is her lower abdomen and part of her leg. Farah’s small stature makes total skin grafting as a solution impossible. The surgeons will use a procedure known as tissue expansion.

A spokesperson for the PCRF San Diego Chapter has told the following to The Muslim Observer:

“Three-year old Farah has endured the unimaginable, both physically and emotionally, due to the Israeli bombing of her home in Gaza last January. She lost her mother, several aunts and uncles and her grandfather. She also suffered severe burns to her lower abdomen, upper thighs, and chin and chest from the white phosphorous bombs. She is fortunate to be here through the efforts of the PCRF to undergo medical treatment, and she will hopefully continue to develop normally as a result of the efforts of the surgeon, doctor Batra, and her host family Suha and David Gazal. Considering what this little girl has endured, Farah is very playful, personable, and is in high-spirits.”

Readers may follow Farah’s progress by accessing the PCRF site at: www.pcrf.net.

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KinderUSA Event for Gaza

September 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

The deteriorating situation in Gaza is of primary concern to humanitarians throughout the world. Unfortunately the Israeli dominated media have done little to present to the public the true picture of present life in Gaza, often and correctly labeled “the world’s largest outdoor prison.”

A number of charitable organizations have been on the ground in Gaza doing humanitarian work, though such work constitutes only a fraction of what is needed. None of the much vaunted aid pledged to Gaza has been received. KinderUSA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief) is one such organization.

KinderUSA held a successful Ramadan Iftar and fund raiser at Omar Ibn Al Khattab Mosque in Los Angeles this past weekend.

Titled: “Working Together, Rebuilding Lives”, the event filled the mosque’s Abu Dawood Hall as attendees listened to KinderUSA Chair, Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, and keynote speaker Dr. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley describe the dire situation in Gaza. The scope of the presentations focused on  Gaza’s continuing deterioration begun by Israel’s deliberate isolation of Gaza following the successful election of Hamas and exacerbated by Operation Cast Lead. The latter was a month long siege which began in late December of last year.

Dr. Al-Marayati, speaking in front of a video screen, gave some background on KinderUSA and its accomplishments since its founding in 2002. She emphasized the low overhead – 20% – of most projects. With respect to Ramadan projects, 100% of monies collected is used for charitable work. Contributions to KinderUSA qualify as Zakat.

KinderUSA is unique in that instead of goods and services, vouchers are given. These vouchers give greater choice to the recipients, and they can tailor the purchases to their particular needs. Since purchases are made from local merchants, this system also strengthens local communities.

KinderUSA also supports projects for women who are heads of households. Women who are pregnant are provided with special meals, and baked goods are delivered to impoverished families. More than 80% of Gazans are dependent on outside aid.

During Operation Cast Lead, Israel attacked mosques, residential areas, and schools. The infrastructure was destroyed, and Gaza residents were left to live in tents.

Dr. Al-Marayati introduced Dr. Hatem Bazian. Dr. Bazian is the founder of the Berkeley Center for the Study and Documentation of Islamophobia and a Senior lecturer for Near Eastern and Asian American Studies.

Dr. Bazian expressed his admiration for KinderUSA and told of his support for the organization since its founding. He spoke of the Palestinian Diaspora and mentioned in particular the number of Palestinians in South America. He remarked ironically that “Palestinians have been forced to conduct most of their politicking outside of Palestine.”

Dr. Bazian referenced former President and peace activist Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter has said that there is no question that Israel is responsible for the bloodshed in Gaza.

The audience gasped as Dr. Bazian told of the destruction of Gaza’s electrical plant six months before Operation Cast Lead, which destruction has made Gaza totally dependent of Israel for electricity.

“I didn’t know that.” said one young woman to her table mate. “You don’t read that in the newspaper or see it on TV” replied the other woman.

There has been a lack of courage to take Israel to task, Dr. Bazian continued. The Palestinians do not have control in Gaza, the Israelis do. The speaker referenced Israel’s dismay over Hamas’  electoral victory – their justification for continuing control. He brought laughter from his audience when he postulated an analogous situation vis a vis other nations who may have disapproved of former President George Bush’s victory at the polls. But Israel, of course, plays by its own rules.

Israel, the speaker asserted, wants to starve Gaza into submission. Israel has violated numerous codes of International law. Yet they are not called to answer for these violations. He urged people to speak up. Silence will only help Israel retain the status quo.

Successful fundraising took place. The attendees enjoyed an excellent Middle Eastern meal and were actively engaged in discussion at the end of the event.

KinderUSA is a 501 (c) (3) organization. To learn more of KinderUSA’s work, please access them at: www.kinderusa.org

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Baitulmaal Fundraiser

April 10, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz , MMNS

The deteriorating conditions in Gaza – often described as the world’s largest outdoor prison– have shocked and outraged just and humane people throughout the world. With the attention of the world focused on Gaza, another organization has stepped forward to bring aid and alleviate the suffering there.

A banquet and fundraiser sponsored by Baitulmaal was held in the Embassy Suites Hotel in Garden Grove, Ca. this past Saturday night.

Titled: “Light A Candle for Gaza,” the well attended event raised more than $85,000 for the beleaguered people of Gaza who lack even the basics of life as they endure deprivation under the boot of the Israeli oppressors.

The event featured as keynote speaker Dr. Hatem Bazien of the University of California in Berkeley. A native Palestinian, he is currently an adjunct professor at Boalt Hall School of Law and a senior lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies there.

Afzar Noradeen was Master of Ceremonies for the event. Beginning with a reading of the Qu’ran by Moheb Daha, the evening also featured Hasan Mahmoud, an Imam from Jenin, Sheikh Mostafa Kamel and Osama Abuirshaid.

The audience listened intently as they were reminded of the ummah they were a part of. Quoting from the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), the speakers told the attendees that they were part of one body and – using an analogy of the human body – when one part of the body was in pain, the entire body was impacted.

“You do not look down on a fellow Muslim, and you do not let him down.”

Brother Abuirshaid told of individuals in Gaza and their suffering – of a pregnant mother of three who lost both legs in an Israeli bombing. Who, he asked rhetorically, will care for her children? He spoke of young children who live out of trash receptacles. He told of a 19 year old girl dying of kidney failure – a disease which could be controlled with medication easily available in the West.

Brother Abuirshaid spoke of individual Gazans and their suffering, giving them names as he did so. The audience gasped as these people became more than statistics.

“I feel as if I know them and suffer with them.” said one young woman in the audience.

Baitulmaal is an organization which strives to aid the poor, the sick and the helpless. Headquartered in Texas, Baitulmaal is a (501)(c)(3) charity. Members work toward preventing disease, improving the educational infrastructure and encourage hygiene in troubled areas of the world. Baitulmaal will be found wherever communities are in danger of dissolution and ruin; they serve communities racked both by war and by natural disaster. Baitulmaal has worked in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and in the United State where, to cite one example, the organization came to the aid of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

A recent feature story in The Dallas Morning News in Baitulmaal’s home state described Baitulmaal and its alliance with a Christian organization. Sheikh Hasan Hajmohammad is the co-founder and now a senior consultant of Baitulmaal. Eric Williams is the CEO of a company that produces a religious talk show. They are working together in places far and wide.

Mindful of criticism from the non-Muslim community that might attend cooperation with Baitulmaal, Mr. Williams said: “With the heightened tension today between Muslims and Christians, I really wanted to…help solve the gap.”

From building a hospital in Jenin; to the rescue of earthquake victims in Pakistan; to providing blankets in the aftermath of a fire in Texas, Baitulmaal serves humanity.

To learn more about Baitulmaal, please access their web site at: www.baitulmaal.org. Or they may be accessed by postal service at: Post Office Box 166911, Irving, Texas, 75016. The telephone number of Baitulmaal is: (972) 257-2564.

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