Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza Relief Effort


As many of you may have seen from the news, Gaza has been turned into hell the last week or so. Family of many of my friends from the West Bank live in Gaza and are suffering deeply. Much of the real story has not hit the news. Please see the letter below from one of my friends, Phil, who lived in Gaza for two years and who is helping to organize a relief effort. Pray to the prince of peace for the end of this violence.

In the next week a shipment of vital medicines will be going out by way of a group in Egypt to the people of Gaza- which Phil will be joining until the border. If you feel inclined to give towards this, please send money to his paypal account under the following address: philiprizk@gmail.com

Arab Complicity, Israel's Duplicity

At 11:30am on December 27th the Israeli air force bombed Palestinian
government headquarters and civilian buildings all across the Gaza
Strip. Four consecutive days of attacks resulted in over 350 dead and
thousands injured. In the densely populated Gaza Strip the attacks
caused the death of scores of civilians.1 The UN reported seven school
children attending UN schools dead when Israeli rockets hit a school,2 over a dozen traffic police officers in training were killed while Israel's onslaught hit a prison burying inmates beneath the rubble.3 The hospitals are overcrowded with the dead and injured. Behind the images filling media outlets is a deeper story that needs to be realized. Since early November Israel has made it increasingly difficult for journalists, NGO workers, a UN rapporteur,4 and diplomats5 to enter the Gaza Strip.

On November 18th the New York Times reported that Foreign
Ministry spokesman Schlomo Dror justified Israel's closure by
considering "much of their [journalists in sum] previous coverage from
Gaza unfair," and therefore would not be "shedding tears" about
preventing their access.6 Since that time the Erez crossing- the only
entry and exit for foreigners to Gaza- has opened only for very brief periods and has continued to be extremely restrictive as to
who gets in and out. This has severely decreased travel to the Gaza
Strip where even journalists who do make it in are not guaranteed
exit- at times for weeks. As much of the world relies on English
coverage of the news in places like Gaza the images and stories have
severely declined due to Israeli limitations of access to journalists.
This has resulted in a veiling of the day-to-day catastrophe taking
place in Gaza for so many months.

In Gaza the recent deaths and injuries are an added tragedy to the
ongoing hardship. The Gaza Strip has not been under siege since June
2007, when Hamas took control of the small strip of land... it has
been under siege for years. 18 months ago that siege was only increased to unprecedented levels. Former Israeli Prime Minister's aide Dov
Weisglass claimed Palestinians would not be starved subsequent to
Hamas' election victory but put "on a diet."7 Israel determined to
only permit items into Gaza that they deemed "essential," hundreds
have since died due to a shortage of medical supplies, and not being
provided with permits to reach other destinations with better medical

Israel's aerial bombardment has brought to a head the urgent
humanitarian needs in Gaza. As has been the case for months Gazans are
short on blankets, cooking gas and candles, among other essential
items. For the past months food is increasingly being cooked over open
fires- when wood can be found- because cooking gas is now a commodity of the rich who can afford exorbitant black market prices.8 Many areas experience consistent electricity outages most of the day. Gaza has also run out of glass so that windows blown out by the ongoing air strikes cannot be replaced. While babies are going without diapers and children are going to sleep cold without blankets, bakeries are
running out of flour to provide bread to the queuing masses. Gaza has
long since run out of concrete and graves remain unmarked because
wood, a viable alternative is also scarce. The reality of the so-called truce between Hamas and Israel that ran out weeks ago is
that it never really existed: Israel has been increasingly turning
Gaza into a concentration camp- not for Hamas- but for all
Palestinians residing there, Muslims and Christians, Fatah, Hamas and
politically nonaligned citizens alike. In the midst of all the
political jargon many forget that Palestinians too are people, not just a
collective entity called "Hamas." When Israel began bombing tunnels
along the strip's Southern border Sunday, it closed a dire alternative channel- due to closed borders during the siege- for food, clothing and petrol.9

The complicity of select neighboring Arab governments in the latest
US-applauded Israeli attacks is a further factor that merits
reflection. In the week preceding the Israeli onslaught Israel's
Foreign Minister traveled the region to garner support for the planned
attack on Gaza. On December 26th, the day before the Israeli
offensive, Egyptian newspapers carried front page images of Foreign
Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit clasping the hand of his Israeli counterpart
Tzipi Livni as if in agreement of what was to come.10 On December 28th Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas warmed the very seat that Livni
had occupied just days earlier when she had met with Egyptian
president Husni Mubarak at which time Israeli plans had already been
solidified to attack Gaza.11 The complicity of neighboring Arab governments has never been so obvious. London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Tuesday that Livni had shared plans regarding the attack with Egypt's security chief Omar Soleiman prior to the attacks.12 For the past few days Egyptian state security has listened to the chants of protesters yelling, "all of us are Hamas" – given the Palestinian Islamic
movement's roots within Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood which opposes the Egyptian regime in power- tacit Egyptian support for a deadly blow in Gaza comes as no surprise.

On a legal dimension there are some considerations to keep in mind. On
Monday Israel declared it was carrying out an "all-out war" on
Hamas.13 In a state of war between two states retaliation is a
justified act and yet in this "war" Hamas is endlessly labeled a
"terrorist" organization thus without any justification for the use of
violence over and against Israel's justified use thereof. Israel's logic
only mirrors that of the USA's stated "war on terror," which is a war
on an unidentifiable, unseen enemy. Rules of international law
regarding war have historically applied to nation-states at war with
each other. The USA has utilized the ambiguity in the law to
legitimize its unlimited use of force, detention and torture against
stateless "enemies" in their campaign on the "war on terror."
The complication in Israel's case is the fact that Hamas very
legitimately won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006-
with Jimmy Carter's seal of approval- and by Palestinian and
international law is a legitimate and representative governing body
for Palestinians. Yet two conditions follow: first, Palestinians have
not been granted statehood and thus Israel can continue to treat the
Palestinian pseudo-government as a "non-state" actor and still be in
line with international law. This means any act of violence by Israel-
an internationally recognized state- on "Hamas" is legitimized in the
eyes of the West's public as Hamas is continually confirmed as a
non-state, "terrorist" entity. The second matter at stake is that
Hamas' election victory was not recognized by Israel, the so-called
international community nor by the losing party in the elections,
Fatah, who have in turn been pampered by Hamas' opponents as a
legitimate representative of Palestinians despite their defeat.

Following Hamas' election win Fatah neglected to hand over control of
all security apparatus while preparing for a US-sponsored coup against Hamas.14 After Hamas took its legitimately gained power by force the Fatah president Mahmoud Abbas- illegally according to Palestinian law-15 deposed the Hamas government bringing about an unprecedented state of division within Palestinian society.
Internal division is the ultimate aim of Israel and its international
Supporters; the weakening of Islamist factions the aim of complicit
Arab governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon. All
this has left Israel with legitimacy in the eyes of the so-called
"international community" to carry out not an attack on Hamas but a
full-fledged aggression on the population of the Gaza Strip, with the
aim of deepening the divide among Palestinians. This illegal act is
another successful step towards destroying the Palestinian cause and
entrenching Israel's aspirations of expanding their control over
Palestinian land and deepening their legitimacy in doing so in the
eyes of a global community drunk on an Israeli-concocted legal ploy,
backed by a tremendous media machine.

1- http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1050688.html
2- http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2008/12/2008122821341625964.html
3- http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1050688.html
4- http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10055.shtml
5- http://www.democracynow.org/2008/12/17/days_after_calling_israeli_blockade_of
6- http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/world/middleeast/19gaza.html
7- http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/16/israel
8- http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=6352135
9- http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gvz_gdJXlxgB-vle7CnoV2L0YHdgD95C26D01; http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2008/09/2008999272950161.html
10- http://www.elbadeel.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=40485&Itemid=120
11- http://www.ahram.org.eg/Index.asp?CurFN=fron1.htm&DID=9811; http://www.ahram.org.eg/archive/Index.asp?CurFN=fron1.htm&DID=9808
12 - http://www.alquds.co.uk/index.asp?fname=latest%5Cdata%5C2008-12-27-14-29-47.htm&storytitle=%E3%D5%C7%CF%D1:%20%E1%ED%DD%E4%ED%20%C7%C8%E1%DB%CA%20%DA%E3%D1%E6%20%D3%E1%ED%E3%C7%E4%20%C8%DA%E3%E1%ED%C9%20%E3%CD%CF%E6%CF%C9%20%C8%C7%E1%DE%D8%C7%DA&storytitleb=%CA%E4%CF%ED%CF%20%C8%C7%E1%D5%E3%CA%20%C7%E1%DA%D1%C8%ED%20%E6%C7%CA%E5%C7%E3%20%E1%E3%D5%D1%20%C8%C7%E1%CA%DB%D1%ED%D1%20%C8%CD%D1%DF%C9%20%CD%E3%C7%D3&storytitlec=
13- http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2008/12/2008122994140674153.html
14- http://tonykaron.com/2007/05/15/palestinian-pinochet-making-his-move/
15- www.carnegieendowment.org/files/abumazinupdatejune1507.pdf

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Importance of Place

Last Wednesday evening I returned to my apartment after a long day of classes and work and was greeted by a host of children from our apartment complex yelling my name and running toward me. The kids fidgeted impatiently while I fumbled with my keys and unlocked my door. They then piled into my small apartment to play with puzzles, read the children’s Bible, get piggy back rides, clean out our pantry (!), and just hang out. Though somewhat re-invigorated by all this new energy, I plopped down on my couch and prayed that one of our neighbors would invite me over for dinner. I really didn’t feel like cooking. Sure enough, in a couple minutes I was invited over to dinner at the home of one our Mexican neighbors. It was a good, though not too unusual, day at Parkside.

An actual update has been long overdue, reflective of the different nature of my life these last two months or so. It’s not that it has been a really busy time (though, it has been at times) but rather it has been marked by unpredictability. Or surprise. This last semester (which is quickly coming to a close) has been a very different and unexpected season of my life.

While I have still been taking a full load of grad school classes (I will be finishing my degree in May) what has really marked my life and been my focus these last months is life at Parkside, the apartment complex where I live. In August I moved in here with Matt (a friend from church) and Teo (a Rwandan friend) expecting some adventures, but not really knowing what was to come. Now, a small community (within the community) has begun to take shape, with two more girls from our church likely moving into an apartment next to us next month. We pray together nightly, take Eucharist once a week, share meals and work at reaching out to our neighbors. We have also, in partnership with a couple local churches, been exploring the idea of a church plant in one of our apartments.

Parkside, where we live, is a low-income apartment complex in the midst of Glen Ellyn, a very affluent suburb of Chicago. About 40% of its residents are refugees who have been resettled here from all over the world. Another, say, 40% are Mexican immigrants and the other 20% are poor African-American and white folks. There are a host of issues that people face here: lack of legal immigration status, lack of English language skills, alcoholism, drug use, and prostitution. At the same time, the community posses many strengths: Neighbors know each other, kids play together in the courtyard, family is highly valued and celebrated, and for many God is their daily bread by which they live.

One of the lessons I am learning by living in Parkside is the centrality of “place” in the Christian way of life.

Eugene Peterson in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places says this:
“Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people…cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is might difficult…What we often consider to be the concerns of the spiritual life—ideas, truths, prayers, promises, beliefs—are never in the Christian gospel permitted to have a life of their own apart from particular persons and places” (pp. 72, 73, 75).

Following Christ, working for peace and justice, always is rooted in a particular place, whether it is in the suburbs of Chicago or Israel/Palestine. For those who go overseas place is usually in the forefront of their minds: missionaries spend years deciding what country and city they want to work in and then they move there and live among the people they want to work with. If they are good missionaries, they will think carefully about their lifestyle and adjust it to match the place where they are. Us here in the US are not usually as conscious of our specific place. We choose a house based on its size and cost. We don’t often know our neighbors. More often than not we live in one place, work in another, go to church somewhere else, and have friends all over.

Those of us living at Parkside have tried, in a similar way to missionaries overseas, to be intentional in choosing our place where we want to be rooted. We have specifically chosen a place on the margins (others have called such spaces “the abandoned places,” abandoned by a society in search of the American dream). Not everyone, however, has to live in a neighborhood like Parkside, though. What is important is being conscious of one’s own place, one’s own context, wherever that may be. Where you are is where God has placed you. You are a minister of the Gospel in your place: usually the main one’s being your workplace and your neighborhood. Do you know your physical neighbors? Are you aware of the poor in your work place (those who are on the outside)?

Al Hsu, in his book The Suburban Christian speaks about this issue in this way: “Lost today is the sense of physical community, in which “community” refers to a specific geographic area or neighborhood that anchors us and defines us.” Quoting Alex Marshal he says that “the biggest change in “community” is that it is less linked to a physical place than ever before” (117,118).
On this issue of place, one of the issues I am wrestling with, is when, how and if to return to the Middle East. I have found myself doing here in the US many of the things I was hoping to do there (living among the poor, working cross-culturally, etc). At the same time I have so much invested there and deeply care about the situation in Israel/Palestine. I appreciate your prayers for direction and wisdom.

Lastly on a side note, if you know anyone who is interested in a trip to Israel and/or the Palestinian territories this summer, please contact me. What I can offer:
-a custom designed and personally led tour or pilgrimage of Israel/Palestine, with all the details arranged from transportation to travel within the country.
-Possibilities for the trip include: a) visits to the holy sites such as the mount of olives and the sea of Galilee b) meeting local believers, both Palestinian and Jewish c) meetings with local organizations working for peace and understanding d) cultural experiences, such as home stays and visits to museums and other historical sites .