The ugly and the beautiful


Washington – There are many ugly Americans who speak jarringly on the Palestinian-Israeli question. Some of them are top officials as is the case of Vice President Dick Cheney, who had the temerity to justify in a television interview last week, Israel’s assassination policy or “targeted killings,” as it has been euphemistically described.

No one should seriously take the belated spin offered by Cheney’s aides that he was quoted out of context. It is the mind-set that is bothersome about his irresponsible comment. Is it possible that it did not occur to this second most powerful American official that he should have at the outset denounced, as the State Department had done previously, this barbaric Israeli practice which to date has cost the lives of some 60 key Palestinians? Or isn’t it more likely that this was a reflection of Cheney’s bias and poor judgement?

This blind and blanket American support of Israel, come hell or high water, is also the daily practice of the hopelessly pro-Israel US Congress which always seems to kowtow to the pressure of interest groups regardless of the price the country pays for the members’ shortsightedness.

Here again one would have expected Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to have a more measured response than endorse Israel’s policy of extra judicial executions of Palestinian activists – “I don’t believe this is a policy of assassination.”

Even Senator John McCain, the onetime presidential aspirant, has now marched to another Israeli tune, committing himself to try and find the four Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon. He, too, has forgotten his declaration that congressmen should not be for sale, as he has been reminded by an American Muslim group. He would have done better had he coupled his seemingly humanitarian gesture with a denunciation of Israel’s torture of Palestinians and Lebanese languishing in Israeli jails without charge or trial.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are several beautiful Americans who on their own, and without expecting any remunerations, have defended Palestinians in this seemingly endless conflict. Their wonderful actions and dedication merit the highest respect from their countrymen and Arabs elsewhere.

Alison Weir, an American journalist and a onetime editor of a small-town newspaper in California, who had never focused on foreign affairs, told of her admittedly belated attraction to the Arab-Israeli conflict in a talk last month at the Washington-based Centre for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP), a division of the Jerusalem Fund. “The Middle East was distant, confusing, and, it seemed, irrelevant to my daily life.”

Her attention was drawn by the “pictures of children throwing stones against tanks, and I was told that these children represented a threat to those tanks – that they were the aggressors…”

She continued: “As a journalist, the more you look into the issue of Israel and Palestine, the more you sense that something is not quite right; the images and the narration are out of synch, a little like a foreign film that has been awkwardly dubbed. As you begin to look into it for yourself, you begin to suspect that there is something extremely odd going on. The more you look into it, the more you begin to feel it is not just odd… it is deeply disturbing.”

A onetime Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, Weir decided to see for herself at her own expense, “wishing to be free to explore spontaneously.. and certainly had no sponsoring organisation.”

Neither of the two San Francisco papers which had shown previous interest in her new endeavour had carried any of her stories which she sent them from Palestine. But when she reviewed what they had published during her absence she found there was “a much more blatant, enormous, entirely incredible distortion in their coverage than I would ever have imagined.”

She delivered a heart-rending report about Palestinian casualties and the devastation overlooked in this “most censored story I had ever encountered” which, she said, had been “more effectively, more consciously, more enduringly, and more insidiously cover(ed) up than any other issue of the 20th Century.” She said she was tired of telling Palestinians that “Americans don’t know what they’re doing, that our newspapers don’t tell them.”

How successful Weir will be in telling Americans that “thousands of children – literally – have been injured by American weapons” remains to be seen, but she is determined to do so, single-handedly, in the same manner she began her journey to Palestine nine months ago.

Another beautiful American woman is Jerine (“Jerri”) Bird, wife of a retired foreign service officer whose first assignment was in Jerusalem in the mid-fifties. She has written an incriminating account about Palestinian-Americans “who have suffered weeks of torture (in Israeli jails) without effective intervention by their own American government.”

She explained: “Contrast the treatment of Chinese victims of arrest, some of whom are not even citizens of the US, by our government, with the soft-response of successive American administrations to torture of both native-born and Palestinian- Americans who hold citizenship, in Israeli prisons. These men (and at least one American woman) feel betrayed.”

Jerri Bird is the founder of “Partners for Peace” which annually sponsors an original programme called `Three Women from Jerusalem, Three Faiths, One Shared City.’ Another tour of six American cities is scheduled in September.

Her husband, Gene, runs Congressman Paul Findley’s Council for the National Interest (CNI), whose new chairman is former Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, and the CNI Foundation, whose new chairman is former US Ambassador Edward Peck. CNI is the lobby arm of the operation and the foundation supports education efforts at the grassroots.

With little resources, the husband-and-wife team have done remarkably well, speaking on various television and radio programmes as well as before various groups across the country.

Bird’s commitment to the defence of Palestinian- Americans in Israeli jails was the theme of the current issue of the 16-page newsletter, `The Link,’ published by the Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU). This hard-hitting, bi-monthly publication of the 34-year-old group of American physicians, clergymen, archaeologists and diplomats who had served in the Middle East, is a key part of AMEU’s goal “to create in the United States a deeper appreciation of the culture, history and current events” in the Middle East. The newsletter is dependent on “a $40 voluntary annual subscription” which allows AMEU to send it to some 2,000 public libraries and universities, and at least 10,000 other subscribers.

Moreover, AMEU provides “free and inexpensive” material to teachers on the primary and secondary school levels, and offers the latest books on the Middle East, video-cassettes and tapes at substantial discounts. Every $75 contribution is matched by AMEU in sending “a collection of books worth over $200 to the library of the donor’s choice.” It also sponsors educational tours to the Middle East.

The executive director of AMEU is Dr John Mahoney, a position he has held since 1978 after working for Aramco in Dhahran.

This issue’s focus on Israeli torture, titled “Americans Tortured in Israeli Jails” stems from estimates by US officials that there are about 45,000 American citizens of Palestinian origin living in or visiting the West Bank. “Some of these citizens are imprisoned by Israel – without ever being charged with a crime; some have their US passports taken from them – without ever being charged with a crime; all report that they were tortured.”

An earlier issue of `The Link’ documented several cases of Israeli human rights abuses against US citizens. “Sadly, the number of reported cases has escalated over the past 10 months,” Mahoney wrote in the foreword to Bird’s expose.

In turn, Bird had this to say in her documentation of the nine cases she detailed in her lengthy article:

“Israel egregiously violates international law by using torture as a routine part of security aspects. The United States has routinely accepted this practice. Israeli torture of Palestinians is a basic problem because we support Israel with arms, economic aid and our acceptance of these intolerable practices.”

This “special relationship” with Israel, she wrote, is “shameful” and “must end.” In fact, she insisted, “Americans must demand that it end.”