August 31, 2001

Local Groups Hold Interfaith Forum

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Tempers flared and discussions between Israeli and human rights supporters grew heated Thursday evening at an interfaith dialogue and planning meeting for the Finger Lakes Interfaith Committee for a Just Peace and the Ithaca College Students for a Just Peace.

“This was supposed to be an education forum, and a time to begin mobilizing for a campaign to publicize human rights issues in the Middle East … our goal is not just to get the word out [about Israeli aggression] but to end the [Israeli] occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, conquering by Israel in 1967]. It says something that there’s no anti-Israel lobby in Congress,” explained Beth Harris, member of the committee who led the forum.

Lamenting the emotional debates which diverted the focus of the meeting, Harris explained, “a lot of people not connected to this group came just to voice their political opinions.”

Many were still disturbed by the content of the forum’s presentation. “This is a forum by an interfaith council, but there was nothing about faith – only politics. Three people spoke about the plight of the Palestinians, but not one mentioned the painful daily life of Israelis, living under terror and afraid to go to pizza shops for fear of getting blown up,” said Dayana Habib ’03.

Ithaca human rights activists gathered at the Tompkins County Public Library to discuss the violence and the Middle East and find methods to promote peace and combat alleged Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Three speakers offered perspectives on U.S. policy, Israeli aggression, and personal human rights accounts to a sharply divided crowd in the packed meeting room.

A Lebanese native, an Ithaca Catholic Worker, and an American human rights activist who had spent part of the summer living in areas facing the brunt of the current Palestinian-Israeli violence spoke on the recent spate of Israeli aggression in response to the Sept. 2000 Palestinian uprising labeled the “Al-Aqsa Intifada.”

Deborah Hyams, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College who had lived in Israel and Egypt, spent part of the summer on a Olive Trees Summer Jewish peace delegation to the West Bank and lived with families in the Beit Jala neighborhood of Bethlehem and the Avraham Avinu enclave in Hebron. There, Palestinian residents live under severe curfew restrictions, incursions, and a constant barrage of gunfire and shelling – in addition to the economically stifling roadblocks and seiges imposed by the Israeli army on all of the West Bank and Gazan communities granted autonomy, Hyams explained.

“[Israeli] occupation is violence, and the land confiscation associated with it, along with severe restrictions on movement through the closures [of access points to autonomous Palestinian regions] is structural violence, and the consequence of this action must result in violence [against Israelis],” Hyams said.

She explained why, although the results are tragic, Palestinians resort to terrorism and violence against Jewish settlers. “The Palestinian experience with Israelis in the territories is soldiers and settlers – both armed and carry guns pointed at them. They see very little difference between Israelis in uniforms and those not.”

Hyams mission was part of an international solidarity movement aimed to create a human buffer in the neighborhoods to decrease Israeli army firing at Beit Jala and Hebron and increase international awareness of the maneuvers – which have injured numerous Palestinians and severely damaged their quality of life, Hyams said.

Israeli leaders have accused the group of playing into the hands of the Palestinian Authority, which seeks to draw international attention to the victimization of Palestinians and cloud the security issues Israel faces.

The Israeli army has been firing at Palestinian operatives in Beit Jala and Hebron who routinely shoot at homes in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem and in the Jewish enclaves of Hebron. Several mortars were also fired at Gilo, and both Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in the crossfire. On the promise of a truce from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli forces withdrew Thursday morning from areas of Beit Jala after entering the area Monday after a spate of heavy shooting at the Gilo residential neighborhood.

The speakers also criticized the $3-$5 billion of U.S. aid given to Israel for military and economic support and demanded that the taxpayer money should give them more influence over Israeli policy. Fred Horan, an Ithaca Catholic Worker, claimed that America loses more than just the one-sixth of all foreign aid that goes to Israel.

Horan explained, “in 1973, the Nixon administration asked for $2.2 billion in funds for Israel, which needed military equipment to keep par with Egypt and Syria [whose armies were swelling from Soviet military aid]. Soon Saudi Arabia imposed a total embargo on petroleum exports to the U.S. in protest of its Israel support, which plunged America into a recession. So the U.S. pays in many ways for its involvement with Israel.”

“For some reason giving money to HAMAS is illegal because its considered a terrorist organization, but for Israel, it’s fine – and our tax money is even supporting the [Israeli] brutality,” said Ithaca activist Ken Baitsholts.

He added, “around half of all settlers are American born – so it’s not just their conflict, it’s ours too.”

Some defended Israel, that the speakers “didn’t mention the hundreds of billions of dollars that Arab states receive from oil money. Why don’t they help their Palestinian brothers?,” said a Jewish Ithaca resident who favored internationalization of Jerusalem.

Archived article by Yoni Levine