Sunday, February 25, 2007

Visiting My Local Mosque

I’m a member of Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), so when PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council had a joint program called New Ground with two speakers from Israel—a Palestinian Taghrid Shbita and a Jew Daphne Banai-- at my local mosque February 24, I went to the Islamic Center of Southern California. Entering the mosque, I saw the large empty room on my left with a wooden floor, but headed to the room on my right which had rows of chairs and a table, a video screen, and a microphone up front. On the wall to my right were twelve colorful posters explain the Five Pillars of Islam and a long wooden rack with small cubicles and a sign saying “please use these racks for shoes.”

The MC, a young woman, welcomed us to the Islamic Center with a quote from Gandhi saying we should all be agents for change that we want to bring about.

Taghrid Shbita, a Palestinian human rights lawyer who is a citizen of Israel, spoke first, telling us the story of Palestinians who remained in Israel. She said that in 1948 the land had 950,000 Palestinians, but 800,000 left, leaving 150,000 including her family. Many of these Palestinians who remained became internal refugees in Israel since 400-500 Arab villages emptied. Her husband’s family, for example, lived in the Arab village Misqi, but fled in 1948, winding up in the Arab village of Tira.

From 1948-1952, houses remained standing in Misqi, and the former inhabitants wished to return, but in 1952 the Israeli government destroyed all the houses. Ever since then, she said, the former inhabitants of Misqi return twice a year and the older generation tell the young where the houses, gardens, and streets stood. In her family her husband’s mother tells these stories to her three children. Her village Tira once had 12,000 acres but because of Israeli land confiscations now has 2,000 acres, so the young generation have no place to build homes when they marry. Her son as well as others would like to live in Misqi, which is an empty place, but the Israeli government won’t let them.

Shbita said that Israel says it’s a democracy with equal rights for everybody but it is also a Jewish state—that is a contradiction. She said that Israel has laws that benefit Jews and discriminate against Palestinians such as the Law of Return, where any Jew from anywhere in the world can go live in Israel as a citizen. She said she has an uncle who grew up in Israel but was away studying in Egypt when the Israeli census took place, not counting him. For decades he has wanted to return home but hasn’t been allowed, so now he lives in Jordan.

She added that Palestinians citizens of Israel face many other kinds of discrimination. Most don’t volunteer for the Israeli army, thus never getting the many benefits army veterans get. For example, her daughter who is not a veteran applied for a job as a part-time sales clerk, and was refused because she wasn’t a veteran. Shbita said she failed to see why sales clerks need to be army veterans. Also, her husband and other family members were on the beach at Natanya when Israel Jews attacked them, saying that the beach was for Jews only and Arabs weren’t allowed. She concluded by saying that this discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel should be ended.

Next Daphne Banai, coordinator of Machsom (checkpoint) Watch, a group of 400 Jewish Israeli women who act as human rights monitors at checkpoints throughout the West Bank, spoke about her being born into a right-wing nationalist Israeli Jewish family. As an adult in Israel she searched out Palestinians to meet and talk with for the first time, and these dialogues changed her life.

As a member of Machsom Watch, she told she and other women go daily to West Bank checkpoints. She said that on December 31, 2003, they watched a 78-year old man with a suitcase and the proper permits refused at a checkpoint. She and her colleagues from Machsom Watch drove him to a 2nd checkpoint, where he was again refused. She pointed out to the Israeli soldier that the man’s house was in the village right next door to the checkpoint and pleaded they let him cross, but again the soldier refused. Not wanting to abandon the 78-year old man on this freezing night, they drove him to a nearby Arab village, knocked on a door, and asked the people there to give him sanctuary, which they did.

Banai showed us a map on the video screen of the green line, the internally recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and the separation wall that juts into the West Bank. She also showed us another map showing that Israel has partitioned the West Bank into four sections: North, Central, South, and the Jordan Valley. The Israelis don’t let Palestinians from the first three areas cross into the Jordan Valley. She said that Machsom Watch found a 14-year old shepherd boy, who had crossed the line into the Jordan Valley following a sheep, handcuffed and blindfolded by Israeli soldiers, sitting there for four hours.

She showed us a map of the 70 checkpoints; most aren’t between Israel and the West Bank but are within the West Bank. Also she said that the checkpoints have no written rules and Israeli army order change constantly. She said the Israelis have built dirt mounds outside many Arab villages or put gates, so Palestinians can only drive their cars up to the dirt mound or gate and then have to walk the rest of the way to the checkpoint, often carrying heavy suitcases or other loads. Pregnant women and heart patients have to walk or be carried, often standing in line 5 or more hours at checkpoints. She said that one UN report had one year 60 women giving birth at a checkpoint, with 20 having stillborn children. She said us a photo of Arabs carrying an ill man on a stretcher to a checkpoint.

Banai showed us photos of roads on the West Bank: the Jews-only highways are new, empty, and evenly paved while the Palestinian roads are old, broken up, and uneven. She showed us photos of Arab villages caught on the Israeli side of the separation wall, with an Arab market forced to close because they are separated by the wall from their customers or schoolchildren have a difficult walk through gates to school. She said Machsom Watch is against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Banai said the her group Machson Watch condemns terror attacks on Israeli citizens, but Israel should do so from within the Green line. She maintains that the occupation isn’t eliminating terrorists but breeding new ones.

At the programs end the young MC returned reminding us of Gandhi’s quote that we become change agents, and finished with a quote from the Koran saying that if different nations would have dialogue with each other, it would be good for all.

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