Four Letters from the Heart of the Hurricane

Four Letters from the Heart of the Hurricane

Dear Chevra,

Some of us are in direct touch with Israelis who are reporting their perceptions of the present crisis, but some are not. And very few of us are in direct touch with Palestinians.

I have received (second-hand in some cases) some letters that seem to me especially powerful in letting us hear different perspectives.

With their authors' permission, I am posting four of them.

I have also had them posted on Shalom Center Website in the special section called "Urgent Peace Concerns," accessible directly from the Home Page.

In the same section are materials from a range of perspectives, not by any means limited to those that agree with the views of The Shalom Center.

They may help you continue to explore what to do in this very difficult moment in time.

Among them are articles, reports, or statements by the organizer of the Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions; Ami Isseroff and Naftali Raz (Israeli peace-group communicators); Rabbis for Human Rights (the only transdenominational rabbinic organization in Israel); Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine; and myself.

(You may also find a great many other things on other sections of the Website — divrei Torah, prayers, essays on social justice & eco-Judaism, reviews of books, etc — that may interest you.)

I can also recommend on-line mag, at, which has also begun a special section on the crisis. It includes an article of mine.

Of the four letters below, one comes from two Israelis — one of them a rabbinical student who spent a year in the Jewish Renewal Life Center in Philadelphia, the other a musicologist.

After their letter you will find a letter from two Americans, members of what is called a Christian Peacemakers Team in Hebron. The group has been working in Hebron for several years, trying to calm hot situations while supporting the end of the Israeli occupation and the emergence of a viable Palestine living in peace with Israel. I do not have direct contact with them; the letter was sent on to me.

After that you will find a letter from a professor in Ramallah, and then one from an Israeli Jewish woman.

I hope you will read, absorb, and assess them.

Shalom, Arthur

First the letter from the two Israelis:

Dear Reb Arthur and Phyllis,

The situation here is dark and sad. Last night as we were sitting at home in Bak'a the sounds of machine guns, bombs, rockets and helicopters were heard constantly; it went on for hours. The Palestinians were shooting at Gillo and in retaliation we were bombing Beit Jalla.

Many people are desperate and some are crossing the lines from the left to the right. Some politicians want to stop the peace process; we are fed up with the settlers and their right wing demagoguery and provocation.

The Arab villages in the Galil and the Arab neighborhoods in the mixed cities such as Haifa, Jaffa and Ako, where Israelis once went for shopping, eating, fixing their cars — are now deserted. The economy of the Israeli-Palestinians — the poorest among us — is suffering badly.

As the situation continues more and more people from both sides see the other side as one united OTHER. The Palestinians are... The Israelis are...

We try not to be hooked to the radio ALL the time. Translating my paper [theses as part of rabbinic education] into Hebrew keeps me away from the situation for a few hours a day.

Despite the fear which is pumped into our ears constantly some of us realize that we are stronger then ever and that the Palestinians are much weaker then we thought. They have stones, guns and few machine guns; we have tanks helicopters and much more. We control their water and electricity supply. We have the ability to create ghettos or as one Palestinian said: "They are trying to create here reservations, the same as they did in the USA with the Indian-American."

Many Palestinians are desperate. Many Palestinians who were part of co-existing organizations refuse to collaborate; one said "I'll never speak Hebrew again."

Friends who went to visit Israeli-Palestinians in the Israeli hospitals — Israeli citizens who were wounded in the demonstrations — realized to their amazement that they were the first Jews to visit them and that those wounded had stickers above their beds saying ENEMY ACTION; I was shocked.

There is a sense of apartheid, and we are becoming more and more isolated in the world.

Two days ago Amnon and I started wearing a white ribbon symbolizing the white peace dove, "peace at any rate" — the evacuation of the settlers and dividing Jerusalem. People in the street ask for its meaning, we explain and encourage them to wear one. Hopefully many of us will be wearing white ribbons all over the bloody land.

I could go on for hours but I'd rather focus on my paper.

Much love to you and the family — Eyal

Amnon wrote:

Last Thursday I got very angry with the settlers. It took a long time for the anger to build, and now finally I am really angry. I am not willing to accept any longer — even passively — their contention that they, in any way, represent me; or that they somehow are the spearhead of the Israeli citizens that I'm part of.

For the last weeks I've been wondering what can I do. I can join demonstrations but it's not enough. I, personally, have a stronger dislike for politicians that always have to compromise. I accept the system, but my own place with in it does not feel, at present, to be just a cog in machinery. I want to do something, I want to help save lives, and I want to tell the whole world and myself that I reject — actively — the actions of the settlers. Yet I have my life and I need to continue it as it is.

I tried using the Internet, sending notes around and even contemplated starting yet another petition. It didn't feel like a true representation of the action that I wanted to take.

Yesterday I decided what I would do. From now on until the settlers are exposed as representing only themselves, I will stand outside my house in Jerusalem, on the roadside, silently for 5-10 minutes, every day, probably in the evening with a string (white) visibly tied around my arm . I want to be counted as someone identified with the peace process that will give the Palestinians a state that they can be proud of.

My fantasy is, of course, that one day people around the country will encounter in the middle of the day many people standing quietly with a string around their arm — feel free to join in with this silent, non-violent demonstration. For the time being I will just start.

You are welcome to pass this around to other people around Israel who may consider standing. For myself, I don't want this to be the beginning of a movement with its manifestation of leaderships and fundraising. If you disagree with me you don't have to let me know, just don't join.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said:
"In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

"Tonight, it will be worse."

By Andrew Getman with Dianne Roe

21 October 2000

Today we went to Baab i-Zawiyye, the open central square at the beginning of the Hebron shopping district, expecting that there would be a demonstration. There was a large group of shebaab (young Arab men) standing around waiting for something to happen. We were talking about the situation with several people on the street, including a teacher we know from Sa'ir, when suddenly, shots burst out. Everybody ducked and ran for cover. When it was clear that no one had been hit, people began vacating the area. It seemed that there would be little activity that afternoon, so we made a plan with the teacher to visit some families near his village, telling him that we would return in a half an hour.

When we returned we could not find our friend. As we looked around for him, and conversed with some other men in the square, suddenly a shot was fired. We did not know where it came from, but the crowd began running away from Baab i-Zawiyye. As those with whom we were talking with did not start running, we could not see a reason for people to flee. A crowd gathered about 75 meters up the street and the rumour spread that a Jewish man disguised as an Arab had shot someone and disappeared into the crowd.

At first, it was impossible to see through the crowd clustering around the spot where the injured man had fallen, discussing the situation, and chanting "Allahu akbar." His body had already been put into an ambulance, leaving behind a small river of thick blood flowing down the street.

But the source of the single shot could not be determined. Another rumour spread that the gunman must be stationed in a particular window or balcony, known to be occupied by soldiers, that overlooks the square. As young men placed stones to mark the area where the body fell, we obtained the story from eyewitnesses: the injured man, a taxi driver, named Fayez Mohamed al-Qemary, was hit in the back of his head by a bullet while he was cleaning his car. He fell in the street; parts of his brain were visible. He was standing at least 80 meters from the demonstrators, and 150 meters from the soldiers.

People who spoke English asked us what we thought of the situation. But invariably they wanted to voice their frustration, saying, "What can we do? How can we protect ourselves against such indiscriminate aggression? How can we even effectively protest? The media ignores this situation. The newspapers focus on the soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah, but ignore how civilian homes are fired on from Israeli helicopters. The international press reports how soldiers were lynched in Ramallah, but ignores the lynchings done by settlers earlier that same week in Nazareth, Beit Furiq, and Umm Safa."

We went to al-Alia Governmental Hospital in Hebron to hear the doctor's report; a solemn crowd had gathered outside. Mr. al-Qemary was 30 years old, the father of three children, shot at 1:45 pm, and declared dead at 2:45 pm. His mother emerged from the hospital wailing and moaning, supported by two men. His father emerged and sat on the curb, slapping his head with both hands, as an imam tried to console him by quoting verses of the Qur'an. Stunned and tearful family members were offered transportation home in waiting taxis.

A group of men carried the shrouded body out of the hospital and down the street. While Muslim tradition urges respect for the body of the dead person, and therefore discourages autopsies, it was still possible for doctors to determine from the size of the wound that either a high velocity or possibly an exploding bullet was used.

Al-Qemary is the second unarmed bystander killed in this area. On Friday, October 13, Mansour Saied Akhmad, 22, was shot while observing rock throwers about 50 meters from the soldiers. X-rays indicated that an exploding bullet had inflicted his abdominal wound.

Throughout the day, even before al-Qemary was shot, different people approached us, saying, "Tell the world that Palestinians need international protection." A student who had been with us when the shooting occurred was still with us as we walked away from the hospital. The IDF has fired bullets into his bedroom during the past two weeks. As he headed toward his home in the Hart i-Sheikh neighborhood, he said, "Tonight it will be worse."

Letter from Ramallah by Dr. Fouad Moughrabi, Professor of Political Science (UTC) currently living in Ramallah.

Trying to record one's thoughts under siege is something new to me. I usually write in the comfort of my home or office. Today, however, as I write in my office in besieged Ramallah, I have this strange feeling that these could well become my last words.

Living in such circumstances makes things clearer in one's mind and yet, words do not come easily. Language does not fully capture what one sees and what goes through one's mind. The images are so horrendous, evil so great and injustice so stark that words simply cannot measure up. Most of the time, I look at pictures on television, in the newspapers or in real life and I am totally stunned and speechless.

I cannot get out of my mind the picture of twelve-year old Mohammed Durra lying dead in the lap of his father whose body was riddled with bullets. To me, this picture is exactly like that of the Vietnamese child whose body was burned by napalm and who was running terrified. A few days ago, when kids began to go back to school, the local newspaper ran a picture of Mohammed's classroom. His classmates drew Mohammed's picture and placed it at his empty desk.We have begun to hear stories about children's reactions to the events: a five-year old kid was putting on jewelry and girls clothing in his parent's bedroom.

Asked by his mother what he was doing, the child said that the Israelis only shoot boys and he does not want to be a boy any more. In a first grade classroom, a six year old says to his teacher: "we are nice kids so why are the Israeli soldiers trying to kill us?" On Thursday, October 12, panic hit the city following rumors that Israeli soldiers had entered the city. When I reached the school to fetch my six-year old to take him home, the kids were in a state of shock, crying hysterically and saying that the Israeli soldiers and the settlers were coming to kill everyone.

For several days already, Jewish settlers in nearby settlements had gone on a rampage, with the help of Israeli soldiers, destroying Arab homes and property and killing people. On the road to Birzeit, Jewish settlers killed a man, after torturing him, breaking his arms, gouging his eyes, fracturing his skull and burning him. Two days later, on that fateful Thursday, Israeli undercover soldiers were caught in the heart of Ramallah with weapons and were killed by an angry mob.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Although in general we intended to present these letters with no comment, the two assertions above were of special concern to us. It seemed clear that these two stories were widely believed in Ramallah, but we were not sure they were historically accurate. We asked Rabbi Arik Ascherman, exec of Rabbis for Human Rights, to comment on them. RHR is the one transdenominational rabbinic organization that exists in Israel. It has Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform & Conservative members. He wrote —

["The story about the mutilation is true. It received a little press here and I have seen the awful pictures. Whether or not it was settlers I can't say for sure. What was reported here was that his car was forced off the road by a car behind him and then he disappeared. The mutilated body was later found.

["On the 2d question, Palestinians believe that the two soldiers were part of the undercover units that regularly infiltrate and sometimes conduct "executions." People have told me that more undercover agents have been caught and returned to Israel since the lynch. I don't believe that they were undercover agents. Firstly, they seem according to the pictures to have been in uniform. Secondly, undercover agents need to be people that can pass as Palestinians. At least one of the murdered soldiers was from an immigrant family whose members have a prominent Russian accent."

[The letter continues:]

What were these Israeli undercover agents doing near a crowd getting ready for the funeral of eleven-year old Sami Abu Jezar who had been shot two days before in the forehead by Israeli soldiers? How could they have entered a city that is so tightly sealed by Israeli tanks?

Nothing excuses the horror of death and mutilation by Palestinians or by Israelis. But it is quite clear that after more than fifty years of this deadly conflict, people still fail to understand the injustice in the Middle East. People still belabor under illusions fed by sophisticated propaganda machines and readily accepted by a pliant international press corps. As usual, there are still a few voices that have the courage to tell the truth. Amira Hass, an Israeli correspondent for Haaretz, (11 October, 2000) chronicles the lies of the Israeli government and of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). She shows how official Israeli propagandists have succeeded in giving the false impression that Israel is "being attacked, besieged, victimized and humiliated" and that Israeli forces are acting in "self restraint" — one hates to think what they would do if they were not so restrained — or that Israeli soldiers "shoot only when they are shot at." Was Mohammed Dura shooting at Israeli soldiers as he and his father were cowering in fear behind a short concrete block? Israelis, we are told, only want peace.

The unruly, riotous and murderous Palestinians solely to blame for the death of nearly a hundred of their own, only understand violence. Last night, an Israeli military spokesman said that force "is the only language these people understand." To the West, Israelis like to say: this is the Middle East. We are here, we understand them, and you don't. So let us deal with them in the only way they understand.

One of the most dangerous illusions is the notion that this is a symmetrical conflict — army against army, extremists against extremists. Nothing is further from the truth. The State of Israel wields one of the most powerful, best-trained armies in the world today. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have nothing. Their policemen carry light weapons (approved by the Oslo agreements for the purpose of controlling their own unarmed population) that are totally ineffective against the Israeli army.

The few shooting sprees carried out by some irresponsible Palestinian policemen were no more than a show, akin to the shooting in the air at weddings. In most confrontations, one sees kids, mostly teenagers, throwing rocks at well-protected Israeli soldiers. I fail to see how throwing rocks from a safe distance can pose any serious harm to the State of Israel or to its well-trained soldiers.

None of this justifies overkill — the use of tanks, helicopters and high explosives against civilians. The ongoing tally of death and injury inflicted on the Palestinians is so totally incommensurate with the perceived level of threat resulting from rock throwing. In the majority of cases, Palestinian teenagers die from direct hits to the head and the upper body, indicating the presence, among the Israeli units, of well trained sharpshooters with powerful guns and telescopes whose mission is to kill a few Palestinians every day.

As for the injured, now more than three thousand, nearly 80% were hit by deadly rubber-coated steel bullets and twenty percent by live ammunition. Here again, 78% of the injuries are to the head and the upper part of the body. Nearly 50% of the injured are under the age of eighteen. Furthermore, one must note that at least twenty cases of injury involve a direct hit to the eye by rubber coated steel bullets. One can only imagine the level of training and the kind of equipment needed to be able to hit a moving target in the eye.

What lessons have we learned from all of this? For one thing, the much-touted Oslo peace process, so dear to the Clinton Administration, is now dead. Not because the Palestinians do not want peace, but because the kind of peace promised them is totally devoid of elementary justice. It was only a matter of time before their "deferred dream", to use Langston Hughes' apt words, was bound to explode.

In the second place, for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or for those within Israel itself, the principle of coexistence with or within a Jewish State has become questionable. Only God knows what the alternatives are.

In the third place, except for a few courageous Israeli individuals, there is no Israeli peace camp. Israelis on the left, the right and the center have closed ranks behind their leaders and demand an even tougher policy toward the Palestinians.

In the fourth place, the gap between the people and their governments has become highly accentuated in all Arab countries, including among the Palestinians. Those among the Arabs, who have hurried to normalize relations with the State of Israel, even before the latter showed any serious inclination toward peace, are now on the run.

Finally, the true nature of a myopic and one-sided American foreign policy in the region has been revealed. The Clinton Administration is so committed to Israel's side that it can no longer claim to be an honest broker. Already, attacks against Americans and their interests are being launched and they appear likely to continue.

— Fouad Moughrabi, Professor (on leave), Dept. of Political Science, UTC; Director, Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development, Ramallah,Palestine

Letter from Jerusalem:

I feel a very compelling need to share a bit of what we are going through during the toughest days I have ever known in this country. It is no easy task, especially as "reality" changes so radically several times every day. I'm nevertheless going to give it a try...

The "in" phrase around here during these terrible days, is that "we have no partner" (= we have no one to talk to). Right wingers have a tone resembling "we told you so", left wingers register shock and disbelief