Let’s Talk About Palestine

Friday mornings are basically the only time of the week when Amman is quiet.  With a population of over four million people, heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks are common at any time of day or night.  I joked with a friend recently that rush hour traffic in the DC area is on par with 2am traffic here in Amman.  Fridays are different, though.  As a Muslim-majority country, many citizens spend their mornings in Friday prayers.  The streets are empty, the stores are closed, and there is not much to do other than relax and reflect.

As it is, there is much for me to reflect on. My overseas assignment is ending in a few days, so this is my last weekend in Jordan.  It is a bittersweet feeling for me.  While I am happy to return to my friends and loved ones in Virginia, Amman has started to feel like home to me in some ways.  Aside from my work experience and my ability to visit amazing archaeological sites such as Petra, I have been able to forge many new friendships while I have been here.  This is partially due to my attendance at events hosted by the Shams Community.  Shams is a local nonprofit organization housed off of Amman’s lively Rainbow Street that hosts weekly dinners and discussions, as well as social events such as hikes and film screenings.  The attendees and volunteers who host the events are a diverse mix of expats and locals, and the discussions I have had at Shams have given me a much more thorough understanding of some of the struggles facing Jordanian society.

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Rainbow Street in Amman

 

As a Jewish-American with a name that tends to give away my heritage, the prospect of spending time living in an Arab country was a little nerve-wracking at first.  Certain members of my family and community expressed concern for my safety, and some even actively tried to discourage me from taking on this assignment.  It is a common stereotype in the United States that the hatred of Arabs towards Jews is so visceral, that any Jew who dares show up in an Arab country is sure to get strung up within seconds of stepping off the plane.

Thankfully, I have not found this to be the case here in Jordan.  While I have been told that anti-Jewish attitudes are fairly common among the older generations, they are more akin to the silent bigotries that many hold in the United States.  While those attitudes are certainly repugnant, they are also fairly benign, and I have never once feared for my safety since I have been here.  Among the younger generations, attitudes are far more progressive. While I have not made a habit of advertising my heritage to those who don’t need to know it, I have been able to reveal it without concern to co-workers and the people I have met at Shams.

With that said, Jordanians are not shy about expressing their opinions about Israeli government policy, which is understandable given their background.  It is worth noting that some 70% of Jordan’s population are of Palestinian origin.  Israel’s independence in 1948 and the subsequent conflicts that followed led to a large Palestinian refugee population, which still exists in Jordan today.  While the majority of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank are fully-naturalized citizens (Jordan is one of the only countries in the Middle East to extend citizenship rights to Palestinians), they still generally hold a second-class status and some have arbitrarily had their citizenship rights revoked.  Most refugees from the Gaza Strip do not hold citizenship, and still reside in one of Jordan’s ten Palestinian refugee camps to this day.

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Jerash – a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan

I do not have the time to get into a detailed background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or ensuing refugee crisis, but this Vox article can provide more background if you are interested.  Needless to say, the UNRWA estimated in 2012 that there were approximately 5 million Palestinians with refugee status (mostly descendants of Palestinians whom were displaced in the 1948 conflict).  Of that amount, 1.5 million lived in refugees camps in Jordan and Lebanon.  Additionally, 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation as a result of the Six-Day war won by Israel in 1967.

The status of the occupied territories is a very contentious issue.  While there have been multiple attempts by the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to negotiate for a politically independent state in the occupied territories, these negotiations have been sabotaged by parties on both sides.  For example, Israel has a far-right contingent which has long held opposition to an independent Palestinian state, believing that all occupied territories should be open to Jewish settlement.    This contingent has gotten violent to the point where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist in 1995 for his role in the Oslo Accords.  As Israel’s government has been shifting incredibly far to the right under Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, political and financial support for settlements in the occupied West Bank has grown considerably, often leading to the demolition of existing Palestinian settlements.

On the other hand, Israel has faced major security concerns as a result of the occupation.  Israeli civilians have historically been targeted by multiple terrorism campaigns in both the West Bank and Gaza.  The situation in Gaza was worsened in 2006 with the election of Hamas, an extremist group that infamously refuses to recognize Israel’s statehood as legitimate.  In response, both Israel and Egypt sealed their borders with Gaza, effectively leaving Gaza as an open-air prison.  Hamas has instigated violence by shooting rockets and flaming kites across the Israeli border.  However, to call Israel’s response to these attacks disproportionate would be the understatement of the year.  Living under the threat of rocket strikes is undoubtedly terrifying and an unacceptable situation, but Israeli infrastructure ensures relatively few casualties from these attacks.  Under the other hand, thousands of Gazan civilians have been killed by Israeli retaliatory airstrikes, and the infrastructure in Gaza has fallen into a deadly state of disrepair.  Gazans only have access to four hours of electricity per day, and 97% of Gaza’s water supply is contaminated.  Since Israel controls all imports into Gaza, it is difficult to bring in the supplies necessary to rebuild this essential infrastructure.  These factors have led to widespread protests, which Israel has been responding to with even more violence.

Protests

I want to illustrate that in this conflict, there is no side that can be considered blameless.  Both sides have violent and extremist factions which have impeded peace talks.  But the fact of the matter is that the Palestinians, especially those residing in Gaza, are facing a massive human rights crisis right now.  Israel has a right to defend itself against armed militancy, but any actions it takes need to be within the confines of international law.  Indiscriminately blockading an entire geographical region, launching multiple bombing campaigns, and then denying essential infrastructure to everybody within those borders is not an acceptable way of waging warfare.  Similarly, the West Bank settlement movement is widely considered to be a violation of international law.

I feel it is my responsibility both as an aid worker and a member of the American Jewish community to speak up against Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians.  The American Jewish community has a long history of promoting progressive values and speaking out for the human rights of oppressed people, but I think we often have a blind side when it comes to Palestine.  We don’t like to believe that a country that holds so much hope and significance for us could be guilty of these types of crimes.  But the more willing we are to defend the indefensible, the more we are betraying our own values.

Promoting Global Citizenship: The Mission of Pangaea First

Approximately 335 million years ago, the continents of the world assembled into a larger super-continent called Pangaea.  During this time, the Earth was not divided by either natural constructs like oceans, or artificial constructions like borders.

Much has changed over the ensuing eras.  Over several hundred millions of years, the world’s landmasses split apart by way of continental drift.  Approximately 315,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens came onto the scene.  Beginning as small tribes of hunters and gatherers, humanity eventually began settle down and organize into small communities.  Those communities organized into kingdoms and empires, which eventually turned into versions of the modern nation-states the dominate the international stage today.  The identities, missions and borders of these nation-states are constantly in flux, but one trend that has been becoming increasingly evident over the last half-century is that the human race as a whole is becoming increasingly more connected with one another, regardless of oceans and national borders.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman penned the groundbreaking book: “The World is Flat” in 2005.  His work was not an ode to the fringe “Flat Earth” movement perpetuated by celebrities like rapper B.o.B., but instead was an analysis of the impact of globalization on the world economy since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  He specifically relates the ways in which the advent of the internet, global outsourcing of labor and manufacturing, and digital communication, has forever changed the way in which the global economy operates.  It is virtually impossible for any developed country to engage in economic isolationism or large-scale trade protectionism, despite the rhetoric from far-right politicians in the U.S. and Europe claiming otherwise.  Globalization is not only in the national interests of the United States, but it is simply an inevitable reality of increased connectivity.

With that said, globalization left unchecked can lead to economic and environmental exploitation of developing countries and widespread human rights violations.  After all, Capitalism as a system has never been known for being inherently compassionate.  For example, China saw rapid economic growth from the 1980s and onward by becoming a low-cost manufacturing hub.  However, this development came at the expense of worker rights and the environment: China currently leads the world in Greenhouse Gas Emissions by a large margin.

Since there are very few compulsory global trade, banking, and environmental regulations, globalization tends to drive companies to invest in areas with less regulations rather than more.  This has led to worker exploitation, widespread income inequality, and authoritarian government repression of human rights.  Saudi Arabia’s strong economic growth as a result of it’s oil exports has been marked by authoritarian repression and widespread opposition to democracy.  It has led to communities being displaced from their homes, losing access to clean drinking water, and not having access to adequate sewage systems.  It can also wipe out local industry.  For example, globalization of the agriculture trade in Haiti in the 1980s and 1990s led to an increase in imported rice, which almost completely wiped out domestic rice production.  Afterwards, import prices rose, leading to even more global poverty in an already impoverished state.

This is where the international development and aid community comes in.  The work done by our industry increases access to infrastructure, food, clean drinking water, and education in developing countries.  It spreads democratic values and discourages violent extremism.  It provides relief to victims of war and natural disasters.  It promotes the internal growth of private enterprise in developing countries.  It promotes reproductive health and decreased spread of deadly diseases like HIV.

The Pangaea First blog has four main aims:

  1. Tackle the toxic “America First” ideology that has recently permeated far-right politics in the United States.  Certain forces in our government (including the current POTUS) continually echo the sentiments that when the United States is engaged in trade deals or international agreements with foreign countries, we are by definition receiving a raw deal.  They further like to make the argument that when American government agencies or nonprofits provide aid or development efforts to development countries, we are somehow putting the interests of other countries before the United States.  This could not be further from the truth: the United States government does not engage in international aid simply from the goodness of its heart.  It is done largely to maintain complex international relationships that serve the economic and social interests of the United States.  This blog advocates for a form of “compassionate globalization” that works to increase the economic prosperity of both developing countries and the United States while working to minimize the negative effects highlighted above.
  2. Highlight some of the great work being done by international aid workers and organizations.  This blog will emphasize the impact of work done by international aid organizations around the world, with an focus both on the direct beneficiaries of the aid as well as how America benefits from the programs.
  3. Discuss transparency and visibility in the international aid sector.  As in the nonprofit sector as a whole, much concern is voiced by the public about how their donations or tax dollars are used in order to support the stated goals of aid organizations.  This blog will discuss ways in which the public can research the impact of the organizations they support, as well as new and unique trends that organizations are following to increase their own transparency.
  4. Promote global citizenship: the fact of the matter is that borders are artificial boundaries.  When the sanctity of borders are elevated to a higher level than even basic human rights, it reflects a major deficiency in our society.  It reflects the willingness to let children starve and suffer as long as they do not live within our borders.  It reflects the willingness to force families to stay in war zones where every day is a constant lottery to stay alive.  It reflects the willingness to allow other societies to descend into extremism because they do not have access to good education or infrastructure.  This is a mindset that needs to be reversed.  We need to begin looking at and treating people as “human beings” rather than “others.”

The name Pangaea First is meant to evoke international unity.  Even though we are divided by oceans and borders, the world is arguably the most interconnected it has ever been.  We should seek to embrace this inter-connectedness rather than shun it.