Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Op-ed in today's Christian Science Monitor

Hello all,

My op-ed entitled "So this is occupation" was published in today's Christian Science Monitor newspaper. Check it out:

It's a much shorter version than the blog I wrote on November 12 about the harrowing and trying experience of being denied entry back into the West Bank and then being essentially deported back to the US. For a former US official and as an American, that was hard to stomach.

I think it's a nice complement to the last of the 3-part series the Monitor ran on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Bravo to them for bringing attention to this important issue.

Here is the text of the op-ed:

So this is what occupation feels like

As an American, I took freedom of movement for granted. Not after Israel denied it to me.
By Janessa Gans

'So this is occupation,' I mused, staring down at the large DENIED ENTRY stamp on my passport.

The Israeli authorities were denying me entry into the West Bank. They gave no reason, but I had little doubt that Israel's Interior Ministry had learned of my enrollment at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where I had been studying Arabic since August. The university had warned me that Israel would not issue visas to international students for study in the West Bank, and students admitting that their destination was the West Bank would be denied entry.

The border crossing was a true "Aha" moment. It was the first time I felt the frustration of not having control over my life. As an American, I take freedom of movement for granted. Yet one of my country's closest allies was refusing me entry, not into its own land, but into a place where I was welcome. I heard many such stories during my time in the West Bank. My neighbor recounted his attempt to see his parents - a journey that required him to pass through an Israeli checkpoint.

"Where are you headed?" the guards demanded. "To [my family's village]," he answered.

"Where is that?"

"Near [a larger town]," he replied.

"And where is that?"

"In the north."

"And where is THAT?"

"In Palestine," he said.

"What did you say?" the guards bellowed. "This is Israel, not Palestine.... You're not getting through until you say, "In Israel." My neighbor never saw his family.

Israeli authorities maintain that checkpoints are essential security tools to keep would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from killing Israeli citizens. Yet this incident occurred at one of the many checkpoints located within and throughout the West Bank itself, not on the border with Israel. So, in telling these stories, Palestinians echoed a common refrain. "Are we terrorists? No! We're regular people wanting a normal life, wanting to see our families."

As a US official who liaisoned with Iraqi politicians in Baghdad for nearly two years after the US invasion, I had had my fill of complaints about the occupation. Many of us believed that our main problem was one of semantics. In May 2003, the US presence in Iraq officially became an "occupation," negating what we had earlier deemed "liberation." That stigma dogged us even after Iraqis gained sovereignty in June 2004, and I found myself dismissing the Iraqi leaders' references to occupation as demagoguery.

I also noted that Arab/Iraqi news programs regularly panned from American troops and tanks in Iraq to similar scenes of Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories. There were other similarities: The checkpoints and barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank match the checkpoints and wall surrounding the highly fortified Green Zone in Baghdad.

At the Israeli checkpoint, I experienced what occupation meant from the Arab perspective. It is not just semantics.

• To Arabs, "occupation" means that a foreign power is depriving Palestinians of basic freedoms.

• Through its unwavering support for Israel and its illegal (per UN resolutions) occupation, America is complicit in depriving Palestinians of freedoms its Declaration of Independence holds as "unalienable."

• In Iraq, the US use of the term "occupation" feeds Iraqi fears that the US presence is not about supporting human rights and democracy. Militants assert that the US intends to occupy and take over Arab lands.

For the Arab world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war are two sides of the same coin - and it's American credibility that's getting flipped.

President Carter has outlined a solution and the role America can play in it. In his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Mr. Carter writes, "There will be no permanent or substantive peace as long as Israel is violating key UN resolutions, official American policy, and the international "road map" for peace by occupying Arab lands and oppressing the Palestinians." He adds, "American leaders must be in the forefront of this long-delayed just agreement that both sides can honor."

In playing such a vanguard role, America would not only do justice to the Palestinian people, it would take a stand for its core values - and take a giant leap in restoring its credibility within the Arab world.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Comments on Iraq Study Group report

I just finished reading the Iraq Study Group report, a little over 100 pages including appendices.

What a fabulous document--well-written, comprehensive, and wise. I liked it almost as much as George Packer's Assassin's Gate (a must read for anyone looking to get the real story on Iraq). I was at first perplexed by the lengthy account and detail in the first part of the report about the current situation in Iraq. "Don't Americans know this stuff already?" I thought to myself. Then, I realized that most Americans certainly do not know the real state of the situation over there, because so much of the news is politicized. If you watch FOX news, you would get the warm, fuzzy feeling that we're winning the war, apart from a few setbacks. Other news sources, on the other hand, portray only doom and gloom and focus just on numbers of troops and Iraqis killed. How appropriate, then, of the ISG to come out with a bi-partisan look at the situation, one that Americans can trust as a de-politicized assessment, or at least one in which political biases have cancelled each other out.

The following points of the report really resonated with my experience in Iraq and thoughts on the predicament.

1.) "There is no guarantee for success in Iraq." Page 1, line 1 of the assessment says it all. In fact, I'd take it a step farther and propound that we're almost guaranteed NOT to be successful in Iraq if we pursue the same muddled policy. (The report mentions why the current policy is muddled, such as military ineffectiveness and lack of reconstruction coordination.)

2.) Current military operations are to no end. The report reads, "US forces can 'clear' any neighborhood but there are neither enough US troops present nor enough support from Iraqi security forces to "hold" neighborhoods so cleared." We saw this so many times in Al Anbar province (Western Iraq). The Army and/or Marines would do a large sweeping operation and so-called "clear" areas of insurgents, but the insurgents always knew the operation was coming, would hide out or hole up for a few days, and then resurface once our military units were gone.

3.) Iraq must be regarded in the context of the broader Middle East conflict, and therefore, congruent efforts must be made on the Arab-Israeli issue. Time and time again, this was mentioned in conversations with Iraqi politicians and in my experience throughout the Middle East. (See a recent article on this topic in the Christian Science Monitor:

4.) Oil revenues and resources must be under the purview of the federal government rather than Iraq's various regions. (YES, YES, YES!) The outcry this recommendation caused among Iraq's powerful Kurdish and Shia blocs just shows how little they are committed to an Iraq that benefits all its citizens. This is the one measure, that if carried out in the way most powerful political players desire (i.e. Kurds and Shia), GUARANTEES the continuation of conflict and violence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Sunnis, left in a region with no oil and no viable economy, will just be forever waging war on the other two regions in order to get some of the pie. Even more disastrously, the area, left on its own, without resources, and already home to a growing number of Sunni extremists, becomes fertile ground as a permanent terrorist safehaven.

5.) US diplomatic efforts in Iraq do not reflect the fact it is the US's highest foreign policy priority and critical to the future credibility and security of our nation. 33 out of 1,000 Embassy employees speak Arabic, states the report. That figure must include translators. There were only three Arabic speakers when I worked in the Embassy, plus the translators and some Arab-American contractors who worked in the Iraq Reconstruction and Management office. As one of those who did not speak a word of Arabic at the time, I know how hampering the language divide is. It required herculean efforts not to be in the dark about what was really going on inside government ministries, official statements and news, and biased who we would talk to (i.e. those who spoke English). Which brings me to the next point:

6.) ISG's key recommendation on US troops is to transition them out of Iraq by stepping up efforts to support, train, and equip Iraqi army and police. To accomplish this, the report calls for increased American troops as military advisors embedded in all the Iraqi units in the Army and police. I highly doubt that the US military has that number of translators who could work side by side with the military officers in these various units.

7.) The report puts forward a similar idea on training the Iraqi police. They call for more training of police units by civilians, who should be located side by side with Iraqis, even at police stations. Given the security environment, finding such individuals willing to take on those roles will be very difficult, if not impossible. If they do, it will come at great cost to the taxpayer to front the bill for the security teams to protect those US trainers. (For example, when I was planning to go to Baghdad last month, my security would have cost $85,000/month and that was only inside the green zone.)

More comments to come...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Finally-a good news story!

Sometimes I re-read these blogs and think they're all so depressing. I wonder how anyone can read such things without grabbing the box of tissues.

So, I'm very excited that I finally have a good news story to share. I decided what to do about the Palestinian gentleman. I saw him again and told him that if things did not improve in the very short-term, that I would buy him a bus ticket to Florida (where he had been before Washington and where he said he had been able to find work.) Tonight he was again at church and said that his whole outlook had changed in the past week. He felt a great sense of peace and joy despite still sleeping on the streets and had felt the presence of God with him. He no longer felt alone and had tremendous hope that his circumstances were already improving. I again offered to get him to Florida if he wanted and he hesitantly, but graciously accepted the offer. A friend and I went in on the ticket and some extra money to get him on his feet, some clothes and a backpack. His eyes were teeming with warmth and gratitude as he profusely thanked us for being his "brother". He also had already found a church of our denomination in Florida in the phone book and was looking forward to attending there and having a new "family" in Florida.

I drove home in an elated state. We all long to make a difference in other's lives and just to see the change in this man's disposition and the idea that I had helped in some way made me truly happy. It lends credence to a quote by Mary Baker Eddy, "Happiness is unselfish. It cannot exist alone, but requires all mankind to share it."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A new look at the homeless

A Palestinian Christian man came to our church service on Wednesday night in Georgetown. His name is Yusuf (Joseph in English) and he's from Bethlehem. He has been in the US for six months, has illegally stayed beyond his 3-month tourist visa. He is here trying to find work to support his family back home in Bethlehem, where he says the economic conditions are intolerable. I took him to lunch today and he proceeded to tell me more about his situation, only after a lot of prying on my part. He was more interested in hearing my thoughts on my experience in the West Bank, the Palestinian people and life, and politics there. Finally, I learned that he had not been able to find a job since he moved to Washington from Florida and had been sleeping on street corners. I gasped. "In the cold? Why can't you go to a shelter?" Yusuf said that shelters in DC document everyone who stays there and he is afraid of being sent back to the West Bank. I couldn't imagine that life there was worse than sleeping on the streets in Washington in the winter. At least he would have a roof over his head. But he said that his family was counting on him making some money and sending it home to them since none of them had been able to find work in Bethlehem for a long time.

He said the hardest part about his situation is that he was beginning to get dizzy spells and had even started talking to himself. "I feel invisble. No one talks to me; no one even looks at me." He said how difficult it was to be alone, especially since his culture is so social and it's very rare to spend any time alone.

I'm wrestling with what to do. This is the first homeless person I've ever gotten to know. I couldn't sleep at all last night thinking of him out there in the cold sleeping on a street corner. I've got to do something.

I was tellling a friend of his predicament last night and she mentioned that his same situation seems to be the same belief about Palestinians everywhere--homeless (stateless), poor, oppressed, wandering. I realized how true that was and immediately directed my prayers to see this man and this people that are God's children, just as we all are, the way God was seeing them--in the kingdom of heaven, never homeless or poor or oppressed. I have a ways to go to see it from this perspective but I'm working on it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Not Just the News

Well, I'm settling back into life here in the States. It was such an initial shock to be back home when I thought I would be gone for a year in the West Bank--only to return to Washington with no idea what my next step was. I had rented out my apartment; my things were in storage; I didn't know whether I should try to study Arabic somewhere else or stay in DC. It has felt a little like that period just after college when there are so many options on the table and you have no idea what to do with your life. Of course, there are always so many things to do and the problem for me was too many options and not a clear sense of the order in which to do them. So many times in our lives, we just need to know the very next step, not five steps down the road. And yet, I was not even sure of the next step.

Just last week, however, the clouds have started to lift. I've found a great job working on Iraq projects and issues for a consulting company. Since we have not found funding for our projects yet in The Euphrates Institute, it became apparent that I would have to find another job to sustain myself while TEI takes shape. I really love the team at the consulting company and I am so thrilled to be working with Iraqis again. And it is meaningful--dealing with women's and human rights issues in Iraq.

Despite being so far from the region now, I try to keep up all I can on the news and goings-on back there, both in Iraq and Israel/Palestine. I've talked with my former classmates back there and found out four more students from our program got denied on their attempts to re-enter into the West Bank. My Japanese roommate miraculously procured another three-month visa after coming in through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. But she described her harrowing experience and told me she was lucky to be there. She endured five hours of questioning at the airport, during which they read her diary and looked at all the numbers on her phone. She lied to them (per our instructions) about living in the West Bank and they finally asked her, "why are you lying?" She said she was worried they wouldn't let her in. They told her that they probably would not and wanted to question her further.

Finally, after five hours, she told me she was feeling so ill and had a huge headache and asked them if she could see a doctor. It was at this point that they finally let her through. She reasoned she must have looked so pathetic and in need of medical attention.

I also talked to my neighbor, the same one I've written about in my blog several times. The last time, a week ago, I noticed something different about his voice and asked him what was wrong. He replied that he just returned home from being in the hospital for a few days and was still in pain and it hurt to talk.

"What happened," I exclaimed. "The hospital?"
"Yes, I was beaten by Israeli soldiers," he replied calmly.
"What?! Where, in Birzeit?" This was shocking news. I had only seen one convoy of Israeli soldiers pass by during my time there.
"Yes, right in Birzeit by the falafel shop we used to go to," he replied. He continued, his tone despondent. "I made the stupid mistake of going to get cigarettes for me and my roommates at 2 am (they always are up until 3) at that supermarket that's open late near the falafel place."

He said a couple humvees drove by and stopped next to him. "Where are you going? What are you doing out so late? the soldiers questioned angrily. My neighbor tried to explain.
"No, honestly, I'm just going to this store right there to get cigarettes and then I'm going back home."

"That's a lie. You must be causing trouble, " they said accusatorily. My neighbor said the five soldiers then jumped him and beat him--punching him, kicking him, until he laid on the ground, nearly unconscious. They then lifted him up and told him to hurry up and run home or else they would finish him off for good. So, he limped off as fast as he could home.

I was in tears by the end of the story, in shock that that could happen to him. He remained so calm and reminded me that it happens there all the time and that he was just kicking himself for going out at night, although he added that it didn't really matter because it could happen at any time of the day and even at his own house. (Israeli soldiers had several times searched the building and arrested people in the past.)

I asked him what his parents said about it and he said he hadn't told anyone except his best friend what had really happened because he didn't want his parents to find out and be very worried and sad about him.

To top it off, while I was on the phone with him and he was telling me this story, I heard his other phone ring. He answered it and I could hear him exclaiming, "Oh my God!" in the background. He got back on the phone and said he needed to go and would talk to me later. I asked why and he said that that was his good friend's Mother who had just called to tell him that his friend had just died--shot by Israelis at a checkpoint. Apparently, people were trying to get through but Israelis were closing the checkpoint and fired into the crowd and he was shot and killed. I knew his friend--a very nice guy that he works with in Ramallah.

"Hurry back, Janessa and come see me. I may be dead in a month too. Things are getting so bad."

This sounds unreal, doesn't it, like it's too awful to be true. Sadly, because I know the source, I know the verity of the tragedy, of the experiences. By the time I got off the phone with him, I was crying so hard. I had also talked that morning to a friend in Iraq--a student at Baghdad University who was describing to me the unbearable stench of the morgue on his way to school and the latest of his friends whose family members had been kidnapped. The civil war was in full force and terrifying. Then, I hear about what happens to my dear friend in Birzeit.

These are not just headlines on a newspaper to me--8 killed here; 2 killed there. These were real people that I knew and cared about--people who had gone out of their way to help me and that I had spent so many evenings with, eating, laughing, talking. It was overwhelming and I wasn't even the one experiencing it. I couldn't imagine how they felt right in the middle of it all--terribly real and terribly close.

I wonder if people would make decisions differently if we all had a human face to put on a situation--if things going on in the world, or our country or communities for that matter weren't just faceless "others" "out there", not people we count as different and therefore not worth our attention or care. if they were actual people like us that were deserving of the same rights and freedom. I don't know what I'm advocating here--I sound like a complete interventionist--saying we should go help the entire world, be the world's policeman. I'm not. I am just advocating that we act and see things in line with the American values that we hold so dear and for which our forefathers fought so courageously.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Are we as Americans supporting these inalienable rights for Palestinians, for Iraqis in our current policies? Are we willing to take a stand for it?