backrooms & backdoors

There is an ominous feeling in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. I’ve heard it before: Fouad Siniora wants to force tawteen (nationalization) on Palestinians so that they give up al awda (their right of return) to Palestine. Over the past couple of years President Bush’s close relationship with Siniora has exacerbated that fear, especially in conjunction with the Lebanese army’s war on Nahr el Bared refugee camp last summer. But now there are little clues that suggest this is happening through various back door channels. A friend in Shatila refugee camp was telling me this week that various refugee organizations in Canada, Australia, and northern Europe are forging close ties with Palestinian refugees and refugee organizations in Lebanon. He says that visas and citizenship are being made available more easily than before. The fear is that this is being coordinated by Bush/Siniora/Olmert in order to push as many Palestinians into citizenship in other countries so that they give up their right of return under UN Resolution 194.

Legally I don’t think that it makes a difference whether a Palestinian refugee lives in Denmark or Lebanon with respect to their right of return. But the feeling is that it does. That it will. And the fear is the way this is being played out it seems as if these elements are disconnected from the larger state powers trying to deny Palestinian refugees their right of return. But people here are exhausted. Palestinians in Nahr el Bared just want to go back to and rebuild their camp. Taking this big issue on, trying to piece the clues together, trying to figure out what is going on, trying to fight it seems overwhelming at best. And I’m sure that’s they way that this was planned so that it is not thrust upon them in an obvious way.

A few weeks ago Zochrot held a meeting in Jaffa about the right of return. The meeting was unusual because for once it was not if or when: if focused on how. Not all of the proceedings have been published yet, but the introductory remarks were published and here is what they said about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon:

Refugees in Lebanon: Refugees who live in Lebanon will be next on the list, because the social and physical conditions of their existence are in general worse than those of refugees in other countries. The condition of those living in refugee camps is the worst of all, but even people who moved out of the camps lack civil rights and are prevented from working in dozens of occupations. They are under great pressure from the Lebanese government and the Lebanese population.

My hope is that this conference and the discussions that took place there turn into something that mobilizes an actual right of return and that those refugees in Lebanon are indeed granted a first priority (or at least second as per their document–the elderly in general come first). Something’s got to give. And soon. The situation in the West Bank has been especially brutal this summer, not to mention Gaza which experiences brutality hourly, daily. Yesterday Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) invaded Nablus. This collective punishment is huge, but what is worse for the Israelis is the work of journalists. Oftentimes their targeting of journalists goes unnoticed by the world, but the attack on journalist Mohammed Omer has been receiving wide-spread media coverage and general condemnation. John Pilger’s article in the Guardian and Mel Frykberg’s article in Electronic Intifada both give a great assessment of Shin Bet’s torturing of Omer. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs has organized a petition for people to sign as well. Here is the text of the petition, which I encourage people to sign:

To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

We, the undersigned, condemn Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Gaza correspondent and author of the magazine’s regular feature, “Gaza on the Ground.” The 24-year-old Palestinian journalist was brutally assaulted by Israeli Shin Bet security officials at the Allenby Bridge border crossing on his way home to Gaza on June 26. He had just received the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, which he shared with independent American journalist Dahr Jamail. Omer’s award citation reads, “Every day, he reports from a war zone, where he is also a prisoner. His homeland, Gaza, is surrounded, starved, attacked, forgotten. He is a profoundly humane witness to one of the great injustices of our time. He is the voice of the voiceless.” (see John Pilger’s July 2 article, “From Triumph to Torture,” in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/02/israelandthepalestinians.civilliberties)

This is not an isolated incident, Pilger points out, but part of a terrible pattern. Israel gives its border guards and Shin Bet agents free rein to regularly harass Palestinians (as well as Palestinian Americans and American peace activists and academics) traveling to and from the occupied territories. Israel randomly abuses, searches, interrogates and humiliates travelers of every age—men and women—and frequently refuses to let them pass through Israeli-controlled borders to their homes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. We just don’t hear their voices.

Israel simply doesn’t want Palestinian voices to be heard abroad. Palestinians are routinely prevented from accepting invitations to speak in Europe or North America. Students with scholarships to study overseas are not permitted to leave. Israel is now preventing Palestinians from returning home, even for a visit, once they have left to work or study abroad. (Israel recently revoked Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison’s travel documents, and will not renew her Jerusalem ID card. She is not allowed to return home to visit her father and mother, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.)

We, the undersigned, also urge the Israeli government to end its efforts to censor international reports from the occupied territories. The government prefers stories to be filed from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, where they are subject to censorship, and allows few, if any, international journalists to enter the West Bank and Gaza. Israel censors, harasses and even kills Palestinian journalists who are trying to report on conditions in the occupied territories.

We call on the Israeli government to protect journalists who are trying to work in the occupied territories. At least eight journalists have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2001, seven of them in attacks by Israel Defense Forces, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists research.*

We call on the Israeli government to end its harassment of travelers and journalists. When Israel targets journalists it infringes on a basic pillar of democracy, freedom of the press. Human beings, even those ruled for decades by an occupying power, have the right to leave home and return safely, without interference, and the right to freedom of speech.

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