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Jabaliya - A Stone's
Throw from Berkeley
Sister Cities and their Contradictions
by Marianne Torres
Issue: August, 1988
WE BRING THIS ACCOUNT TO OUR READERS BECAUSE, while it directly involves only a specific community, the controversy engendered will affect all of us, as the issues at the root of the conflict affect us all. This particular response to human need is something all of us can attempt, wherever we live.
It began with an innocuous statement from the office of deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. On January 26 of this year, Berkeley City Councilmember Maudelle Shirek introduced it to the City Council and asked the council to adopt it as a resolution. It was an outgrowth of people's concern about the brutality of Israel's repression of the Palestinian Uprising and was obviously written in such a way as to offend no one, and in truth, really said nothing at all. It simply deplored violence in the Middle East "no matter where, and no matter against whom" and asked "that peace and understanding prevail." After hearing public statements from both sides, the Council rejected it, concerned that it might be interpreted as criticism of Israel, and not wanting to appear to "take sides." This, at a time of indiscriminate shootings, beatings, torture, arrest, and deportation by Israeli Occupation authorities, in response to young people throwing rocks and burning tires.
The Council sent the whole issue to the City's Peace and Justice Commission to explore the possibility of a statement of its own. Sister-city proposals had also been put forward at this meeting, and the Commission was ordered to deal with those proposals as well.
Enter an East Bay Palestinian solidarity group newly formed, some members of whom had been doing Middle East political work for years and some of whom were new to the issue. Working hard to overcome the stresses and strains of strong personalities, some working together for the first time and dealing with an urgent situation, the Emergency Coalition for Palestinian Rights developed a specific proposal for the adoption of the Gazan city and refugee camp of Jabaliya as Berkeley's seventh sister city.
The Coalition generated a petition campaign, and in the course of approximately 10 days gathered more than 1200 signatures, which were then turned in to Mayor Loni Hancock at a highly publicized press conference. Mayor Hancock, whose one-time progressive politics have recently taken a back seat to political aspirations and the pragmatic assessments which follow, has opposed the resolution all along. The Mayor stated that she could not support an issue which did not represent community consensus, and that she had received "as many signatures opposing the adoption." When asked by a reporter just how many signatures the Mayor had, an aide replied, "about 100."
The work of the Peace and Justice Commission went forward. As it turned out, the Mayor was not the only member of the community whose once-progressive credentials were tried and found wanting. Members of the Commission, rabbis and ministers, public figures, citizens, people in the forefront of the local campaign against Contra aid, members Central American solidarity groupspeople one could find in the midst of the peace movement, the anti-intervention movement, who normally had the courage of their convictions, and of course Eli Wiesel, all spoke vehemently against this adoption, which they construed as unacceptable public criticism of Israel. Others, just as vehemently, said that Israel's actions required criticism, that it was no better, and no worse, than any other nation, and deserved no special treatment where human rights were concerned. Many on both sides were Jewish. Many on both sides were non-Jews. At a raucous meeting in late February attended by 250 people, after a flurry of caucuses, meetings, conferences and intense pressure, the Commission voted 8-5 to recommend to the Council that Jabaliya be adopted as a sister-city.
The City Council, at a meeting in March, decided to ignore the recommendation of the Commission in which they had put their faith.The Council meeting, attended by more than 400 people, was also a scene of vociferous disagreement. Ultimately, Councilmembers Maudelle Shirek, Mary Wainwright and Nancy Skinner voted for the adoption, and the other six, including Mayor Hancock, voted no.
Another signature-gathering campaign was launched immediately by
the Coalition, this time to qualify the issue as an initiative and
put it to a vote of the people in November. The effort to gather the
signatures of 1300 registered Berkeley voters was successful, and the
signatures were presented to the City Clerk in June. The measure has
qualified for the ballot. A campaign committee is now forming under
the name Friends of Jabaliya, and plans are being made for public
education events and fund-raisers for the campaign, as well as a
material aid campaign for Jabaliya.
WHY A SISTER CITY?
Berkeley has sister city relationships with León, Nicaragua and San Antonio de los Ranchos, El Salvador, as well as cities in Mali, China, and Japan. The latest addition to the family is Oukasie, South Africa, adopted in mid-January, 1988.
The small township of Oukasie, with 800 families, was adopted as a sister-city in response to a number of things: the reprehensible South African system of apartheid; the active campaign within the community to disinvest city and university funds from that nation; and, more specifically, a desire to assist the people of Oukasie in their struggle against forced removal from their town. The South African government has already relocated 3.5 million South Africans against their will in "relocation projects" similar to our own Trail of Tears, which moved huge populations of Native Americans from land desired by the American government for settlement of its white citizens and for its mineral resources. Black South Africans are forced, as were Native Americans, into "homelands" (called "reservations" in the U.S.) which are in reality pieces of isolated, forsaken, unarable land, which contained little, if any, wildlife. In hopes of affording a certain amount of protection to the people of Oukasie as they face this relocation attempt, the City of Berkeley adopted the community as a sister-city.
The protection afforded an oppressed community by a sister-city relationship with an American city was clearly illustrated by events last February. Fifteen of Oukasie's leaders were jailed without charge, and the township immediately put out a call to Berkeley to speak out. An official telegram was sent, and many Berkeley residents wrote to the South African government, demanding the release of the prisoners. Normally, administrative detention in South Africa, can be and often is extended indefinitely. In this case, the prisoners were released in early June from a prison system where the disappearance and "suicide" of black prisoners is commonplace. It does, indeed, help to have friends in the West!
A sister city relationship with an American city would provide some assurance that word can get out to the world about what is happening in Jabaliya, and in all of Gaza. The media censorship instituted some months ago by occupation authorities works as well in the Territories as it does in South Africa. If we don't know the horrors, we certainly can't object to them!
Partly because Jabaliya is among the poorest of the poor, Gaza's most impoverished community - a Palestinian town and refugee camp in the northern part of tiny (28 miles long, four to eight miles wide) Gaza Strip. Film maker Joan Mandell, producer of "Gaza Ghetto," calls it "Israel's Soweto." Black South African leader Reverend Allen Boesak calls it "worse than Soweto." In 245 square miles, 460,000 Palestinians live packed into one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Of this tiny piece of desert, Israel has expropriated over 30% of Gazan land for its 2000 Gaza settlers.
Partly because Jabaliya symbolizes the plight of a people who have lived under military occupation for more than 20 years, a people who are only now being accorded a global acknowledgement of their own right to self-determination. Of all Palestinian communities, this one has suffered the highest proportion of casualties since the Uprising began in December 1987. The first casualties of the Uprising were workers from Jabaliya, crushed to death in a pick-up by an armored Israeli truck. Most of the intrauterine and fetal deaths caused by either the beating of the mother by Israeli soldiers (two cases where the women were eight and nine months pregnant) or by tear gas, have been in Gaza, and many of those in Jabaliya.
Partly because this town and refugee camp (the town has 50,000 people, the camp an additional15,000) is consistently under curfew, with its people unable to leave their homes even to obtain emergency medical care from the one United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) clinic which serves them.
Partly because Jabaliya, has spent much of the last several months with its electricity and international phone lines cut off by Occupation authorities. Its hospital, UNWRA clinic and other make-shift medical aid sites attempt to provide care, surgery, birth assistance with very little water, no light except by candle and the occasional flashlight, almost no medical supplies, under conditions described by delegation after delegation as "abominable". Its Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) is 88 out of 1000. Israel's IMR is 11/1000, the United States is 12/1000.
Partly because Jabaliya exemplifies what Occupation has brought to Gaza - an economic infrastructure no longer able to sustain itself, and dependent now on day-labor in Israel with sub-standard wages and conditions. Many workers commute several hours every day into Israel (it is a truism in the Territories that it takes an Arab three times as long as it takes Jewish Israelis to go anywhere, due to harrassment at checkpoints) to work for sub-standard wages at construction jobs, waiter's jobs, and jobs Israelis will not do. Those without steady employment must go to what Israelis call the "slave market" to wait for an Israeli labor contractor to come by and choose those he thinks most suitable.
ISN'T THIS DIVISIVE?
It probably is. So was the abolition of slavery. So was the Civil Rights movement. So was the the movement to end the Viet Nam war. But the veil of denial and ignorance that has lain for so long over the issue of human rights for Palestinians is lifting, thanks to the Uprising. Now, we in the United States are called upon to make good our expressions of support for self-determination.Self-determination cannot be achieved by the occupiers' refusal to negotiate with the occupied. It cannot be achieved by beating people into submission, or shooting them, or destroying their society or even by expelling them. And since we in the U.S. are paying for all of the above, we have a responsibility to require an equitable solution. While adoption of a sister city may seem a small response, it is a step not yet taken by any city in the United States, while over 200 have sister city relationships with Israeli cities. It is one which can be taken by any community in the country. It is an opportunity to establish the kind of people-to-people diplomacy which has worked so well to remove the sense of "otherness" from our view of Soviet citizens; to facilitate communication between two cultures; to humanize a people alternately ignored and villified by the media; and it is an opportunity to make a strong, clear statement of support for a people's right to rule themselves.
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