The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once wrote that “against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by.”
During what will likely become known as the “Second Great War Against Gaza,” whitewashed by Israel with its “Operation Protective Edge” name, there was literally a field of resilient blades of grass – artists fighting back against injustice with their creativity. Only this time, more than at any other, their art supplies were digital and their “galleries” were social media.
“The Israeli blockade on Gaza makes art materials very expensive, and artists here can’t afford them,” explains Basel Elmaqosui, 42 and a resident of Gaza City. “With the war, it truly became impossible to use brushes and paint. But I felt strongly that I had to express what this brutal offense was doing to my people. The Western news media were just talking about numbers and facts; they weren’t looking the souls of people here, and the pain.”
So Elmaqosui got creative. He combined photographs he took of the destruction that now characterizes Gaza with images of classical paintings he found online – visuals that Americans and Europeans are used to seeing. The contradiction between the two screams for attention, as if to say, “how can such inhumanity be allowed to exist when the world seeks beauty?”
Along with two other artists in Gaza, Elmaqosui formed a gallery called Windows From Gaza, an entity that is rare in the Strip, since it is difficult to make a living with art when most residents struggle just to support themselves. A portion of their meager proceeds goes toward workshops to nurture the expressiveness of children and the skills of aspiring artists. However, the hardships imposed by the recent Israeli assault have made social media his primary way of sharing his work with the world.
Turning destruction into art
Another Gaza artist who found creative expression through imaginative digital manipulation is Tawfiq Abdel Rahman Jibril, a 27-year-old lecturer in architecture at the University of Palestine. He has loved drawing since childhood, but pursued architecture as a profession because it was more practical as a way to attempt to make a living. However, his dream is to go overseas to exhibit, where there is more of an ability to care about good art and to nurture young talent.
Meanwhile, art continues to be a hobby for Jibril, and during the war, he became fascinated with the idea of converting the smoke from bombs into images that range from hope, to resistance, to dreams of another world. Soon, with the help of Adobe Photoshop, his “re-imagining” of the after-effects of Israeli bombs were circulating on Facebook.
“Some people resist with weapons and violence,” says Jibril. “This is my form of resistance.”
The idea of transforming the ubiquitous smoke plumes into art has caught the fancy of several artists and it is difficult to say who was first. Another artist who has excelled in this particular “medium” and who has formed a sort of partnership with Jibril is 25-year-old Bushra Shanan – from Hebron in the West Bank.
“Since I am Palestinian, it is my duty to resist the occupation through my talents, and that is my art,” she says, adding that what hurts her kinspeople in Gaza hurts her. “When the world looks at pictures of Gaza under attack, it sees only smoke and ashes and destruction. But Palestinians see the stories behind the smoke: the martyrs, and the children and women who must learn to live without the basic necessities of life.”
Art as a ‘unifier’
The Israeli assault on Gaza has indeed united Palestinians everywhere, perversely bringing them together even as Israel seeks to divide and conquer. In Jordan, the Israeli blockade and assault has reinforced the connection of 45-year-old Imad Abu Shtayyah to her homeland. Her parents were forced to emigrate from Palestine in 1948, and she was born in a refugee camp in Amman.
Abu Shtayyah graduated from university there with a degree in computer programming and aeronautical engineering. However, she has been interested in art since she was just eight years old, when painting helped her recover from a traumatic experience – just as it is being used today to help the children of Gaza overcome the effects of war. As she developed as an artist, a common theme in her work became the role of women in preserving Palestinian culture.
“The woman is at the center of our culture. They create and nurture the next generation,” explains Abu Shtayyah. The image she created of a woman rising up from a Gaza village, with a skirt made of destroyed homes, became one of the most shared artworks on Facebook, with many using it as their profile photo.
She wrote this poem to accompany the multi-media image:
From the destruction and hatred you sow
From every inch of our land
That hosted a martyr
We shall return…
Despite of your killing and brutality
and the collaboration of traitors
who sold out
helping to realize your schemes
in our Palestine.
We shall return to our land
to the land of our ancestors!
But even more popular on Facebook was the image known as the “four boys.” The simple photograph shows an orange-hued sunset, with the reflections of four young boys in the water lapping on the beach below. What everyone who sees the image knows is that it was inspired by the shocking killing of the four Bakr cousins, all between the ages of 9 and 10, while they were playing football on a Gaza City beach July 16. The Israeli military acknowledged later that it had launched the strike that hit the boys, and has yet to produce any evidence that there was any fighting or arms caches in the area.
What many of the Palestinians and activists who share the image on Facebook don’t know, however, is that the creator is an Israeli Jew – and a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors.
“The Holocaust is the ultimate Israeli excuse for why they have to be so suspicious of the ‘other.’ But it’s no way to live a life. My parents didn’t live this life and I refuse to as well,” says Amir Schiby, a musician from West Jerusalem who describes his art as a hobby.
Just a few hours after word spread of the tragic Bakr deaths, Schiby saw a photograph of four children playing on a beach. He manipulated it by using Photoshop to “erase” the bodies, leaving only their reflection. A short while later he shared it on Facebook, it spread to Twitter and the rest is history.
“I am considered by others to be a left-wing humanist,” says Schiby. “But to me, it’s simple. Palestinians are, and always will be, my neighbors. It burns my soul to see innocent people dying.”
Want to help me and the new nonprofit I co-founded (New Generations for Palestinian Children and Youth) bring these talented artists to North America for an exhibition? Respond here and let me know! We plan to auction off their work to raise money for art workshops in Gaza.
[Scroll down to end for detailed list of violations to date. Updated 9/19 - see reduction in “security zone”]
A sober reality has dawned on the people of Gaza in the days following the 50-day conflict with Israel, which killed 2,147, injured and maimed another 10,870 and destroyed or severely damaged tens of thousands of homes, hospitals, mosques and other infrastructure.
Initially, there was euphoria because the war had ended, but only after forcing Israel to the negotiating table. They say, and history supports them, that the only time the world pays serious attention to Gaza, and thus insists that Israel makes some concessions, is when they fight back and enough people are killed to shame the collective conscience.
The concessions this time were never officially spelled out (which is telling in and of itself) and the terms that were paraphrased in the media are not significant victories, but still initially perceived as real: a multi-lateral ceasefire, opening of Israel’s crossings with Gaza under Palestinian Authority supervision, expansion of fishing to six nautical miles (with discussions in a month about moving the limit to 12), reduction of the “no-go zone” along the Israeli border from 300 meters to 100, and talks in 30 days about release of political prisoners and the re-opening of a working air- and sea port.
Within days, however, Facebook posts such as these began to appear:
"The aggression on Gaza has not yet ended. I still feel like I am in a war zone, as the armed drones are still roaming Gaza skies every single second. Nothing actually has improved or changed in our miserable daily life in Gaza. We have 12 hours of electricity outages every day and the borders are shut down. We had great hope that our life will get better soon after an immense loss of our people and infrastructures in the latest Gaza attack. However, there is not even a prospect of improvements in the near future for us.” (The mother of Ayman Qwaider, a Palestinian from Gaza now living in Australia)
”I can only think of this ceasefire as a pillow that was squeezed against the face of an-already-dying patient to suffocate his/her screams so that he/she dies quickly and quietly.” (Maysam Yusef, a 25-year-old Palestinian in Gaza now studying for a bachelor’s degree in media and politics, and the founder of the Rubble Bucket Challenge)
The evidence to date backs up their words. It’s true that a donor conference is planned for Oct. 12, and that the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas said in the last few days that he has finally reached an agreement with Israel and the United Nations to “allow imports of reconstruction materials into Gaza and the export of what’s possible to export [emphasis mine] abroad.” However, few specifics are forthcoming. In addition, as the roster at the conclusion of this commentary documents, numerous Israeli violations already have taken place, mostly against fishermen attempting to sail the promised six miles. In fact, in addition to shooting at the Palestinians and sometimes detaining them, the Israelis have now officially rolled back their pledge, moving it to five instead of six nautical miles.
As for the promise to return in a month to negotiate the more substantive issues, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sent very mixed signals.
Sharmine Narwani of Russia Today wrote recently, “Israel loves ceasefires. It is part of the occupation game…The terms of most of these ceasefires are violated, either immediately or shortly thereafter. There is simply never any mechanism for enforcing the agreement, and there never will be one.”
She’s right. This farcical truce is part of a long, boringly consistent pattern. A 2009 study that tracked patterns of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza over the course of eight years revealed that unlike what Western mainstream media coverage of the conflict suggests, Israel violates the vast majority of ceasefires first. MIT’s Nancy Kanwisher, Princeton University’s Johannes Haushofer and Tel Aviv University’s Anat Biletzki concluded:
“It is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79 percent of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8 percent were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13 percent were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern — in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause — becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96 percent, and it unilaterally interrupted 100 percent of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than nine days.”
In short, Israel can’t sit still for too long when things are calm in Gaza.
This situation is not just the fault of Israel, however. It gets away with murder and mayhem because the international community (read: the United States) allows it. Saying that it is “deeply concerned” about aggressive acts such as settlement expansion is simply insufficient to stop them. Activists themselves often move on to other “hot buttons” once active fighting stops. As Jay Michaelson, contributing editor to The Jewish Daily Forward wrote, “Americans have a habit of moving on once the guns stop firing. We did it in Afghanistan in the 1980s, tried to do it in Iraq in the 2000s — and now we’re doing it in Gaza. Yet as past experience has shown, now is the moment for more engagement, not less.”
So this is a call to activists: I will be updating the information below regularly. Check it daily. Each time a violation occurs, call and email the U.S. State Department, along with your representatives and senators. Write letters to the editor. Organize protests. Post on social media. KEEP SPEAKING OUT.
GAZA CEASEFIRE/TRUCE TERMS AND VIOLATIONS
“What exactly the parties agreed on during the Cairo talks, or what else is on the agenda for the next meeting, has not been officially revealed.” — Gisha
However, it has been widely reported that the truce terms negotiated on Aug. 26 include:
Opening of Israeli crossings into and out of Gaza (with PA control)
Gisha commentary: “It isn’t about opening the crossings – it’s about who and what can move through them and in which directions. The media reported that the quotas for travel through Erez Crossing would be increased, but failed to mention that there were no quotas at Erez to begin with, except those governing travel for “merchants” (a slightly deceiving title for individuals who are mainly involved in the purchase of goods that are brought into Gaza), and that the problem with travel isn’t just with the number of people traveling, but rather the strict criteria that determine who is entitled to travel.
“There was also talk of freer flow of goods through Kerem Shalom Crossing, but getting in more goods that are already permitted to enter won’t solve the problem. The focus should be on lifting restrictions on entrance of now very-badly-needed construction materials to Gaza, including the total prohibition on selling these to the private sector. “Freer flow” of goods must also include transport of Gaza-made and grown goods out of Gaza to its once primary markets in the West Bank and Israel.”
Extension of fishing limit off Gaza’s coast from three to six miles, with discussions in one month about extending it further.
Reduction of “security zone” inside Gaza from 300m to 100m
Resumption of Egyptian-brokered talks by 9/26 to discuss release of prisoners, seaport/airport and other remaining issues
As I write this, Dad, you are lying in a hospice bed, in a morphine-induced sleep, your life hanging by a thread. We’ve been told your hours are numbered. Echoing in my head is the conversation I wanted to have before this moment came, but never did, not as directly as I should have. Even before loss of hearing and signs of dementia separated you from the larger world, you were not an emotional person, at least as a father – your love language was “doing,” not words or touch. I am a little the same way, perhaps as a result, and so the words in my head are still there.
I would give almost anything if I could have been with you that night when you were in the hospital but still lucid, and my sister sang in your ear, and you sang back. But I was hundreds of miles away, and so I will write them here. Somehow, I am thinking this letter will find its way to you…
My father and mother at my oldest daughter’s wedding in June.
Dad, I remember so many things you did that made my childhood special, exciting and sometimes endearingly strange.
I remember how you would make every holiday – even the oddball, rarely celebrated ones – an event to be anticipated. We may only have had a very small house, but you could and did turn it into anything you wanted. There were the April Fool’s Day parties, with chocolate-covered ants and bloodied, fake fingers caught in a door. The Halloweens when you transformed our tiny garage into a spook house that scared even me, when I knew you were the hand making the ghost pop out. The Christmases when elaborate clues lured me to the spot where my present was hidden. And the birthday parties where you turned our back yard or den into a miniature golf course.
I remember the often intricately detailed cards you made mom for every birthday and anniversary. We saved them, as you know, and I loved sifting through them years later, tracing the history of our family in the whimsical illustrations. I saw another side of you in those cards, and I looked for that kind of romance in the men I would later meet (often with disastrous results, I’m afraid).
I remember how cool it was to have a dad who was so artistically talented that you could help me put that “extra touch” on my extracurricular school projects. I never progressed beyond stick figures myself, and you had a flair to which I aspired.
I remember my brush with “fame” through your work as an animation artist (in the days when it was all by hand) — — giving me my first glimpse into the world of commercials and movies. When you introduced me to the woman who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, I literally quaked in my shoes. (And then there were those times when you were “famous” yourself — when callers would confuse you for the Bill Bailey who was an FBI agent, or thought it was funny that you had the same name as the “star” of the song, “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.”)
I remember the strange, funny turns your artistic pursuits sometimes took – what I now call my “weird parent stories.” Because you shared a fascination with bugs with mom, you turned cicada skin (once shed) into earrings by spray-painting them gold (and she actually wore them! Now that’s love…)
I remember your amazing ability to remember obscure facts about just about everything, making you a stand-out at trivia games. Oh what a killing you would have made as a contestant on your favorite game show, Jeopardy!
I remember the camping trips, three weeks long, starting when I was 3 years old. You and mom were serious campers – no cabins for you – and you not only showed me more of the country than most kids (whose parents often returned to the same spots every year), you also taught me an affinity for Mother Nature that I return to as a touchstone even now.
I remember that despite your aloof, gruff exterior, you had something that attracted little kids. I loved to hang onto your foot while you drug me around the floor (the things kids like to do!) and called you “beebaw” – our pet name for you; don’t ask me why. When my own daughter, Shannon, was born and would cry inconsolably for hours, you could calm her with just a jiggle.
I remember that you and mom rarely left us with babysitters (except when you thought my brother could fill that role, and holy hell would break loose while you were gone). You chose instead to spend your spare time with us, even on New Year’s Eve. We made our own confetti, and along with the noise makers and mom’s fancy hors d’oeuvres, it felt like we were in our own Times Square celebration.
I remember the commitment to social justice you shared with mom, spending so many of your free hours in your church’s emergency shelter for the homeless, serving meals. When I am asked where my passion for activism comes from, I say it started with my parents.
I remember what made you the model for what I wanted to be in my “golden years.” Yes, you doted on your grandchildren, but you led lives as active as when you worked — traveling to locales as far-flung as Costa Rica and Japan. My wanderlust and thirst for adventure also started with my parents.
I remember the songs you sang to my sister and me at night to lull us to sleep – eclectic songs from your childhood as well as your college days, ranging from Little Sir Echo to my favorite, Cool Water. You had a beautiful voice, and the songs stick with me to this day. Unfortunately, I can barely carry a tune.
There’s a line in that song, Cool Water, that goes like this:
Dan, can’t you see that big green tree where the waters runnin’ free
and it’s waiting there for me and you.
Water, cool water.
You told my sister that you knew your time was up, and that you weren’t afraid. I will imagine that you have gone on to where the waters are free and cool.
During our visit to Yemen, three of us from the Codepink delegation flew to the southern coast, where many of the 138-231 U.S. drone and other covert attacks have hit since 2002. The families we wanted to interview live in the neighboring governorate of Abyan, a “gathering point” for Al Qaeda and other religious extremists. In a famous “hadith” [saying], Prophet Muhammad said, “An army of 12,000 will come out of Aden-Abyan. They will give victory to Allah and His messenger; they are the best between myself and them." Reportedly, it is this “army” from Abyan who will eventually free Jerusalem.
Most of our advisors warned us it was not safe for foreigners to venture into Abyan at this time, so we heeded their guidance and we made our headquarters in Aden, whose port lies in the crater of a dormant volcano. The families traveled to us, eager for any chance to tell their stories to a world they feel has abandoned them (both the central government to the north that is supposed to represent them and the countries that target them for their own aims – primarily the United States).
The tales we heard were heartbreaking. They also illustrate that the “truth” is not always black and white, and right vs. wrong can’t be easily summed up in a soundbite.
Consider the story told by Ahmed Abdullah Awadh:
It was 9 in the morning on Tuesday, May 15, 2012. Ahmed was at home with his 26-year-old son, Majed, in the small village of Ja’ar. Suddenly, they heard a loud explosion. The house of his neighbor, a man Ahmed described as a “nice, ordinary taxi driver,” was hit. Everyone in the largely residential neighborhood, including Ahmed and Majed, ran to see what happened and help rescue anyone who was hurt.
Awadh (right) gesticulates as he tells the story of the explosion, with his son Sabr by his side.
The 33-year-old taxi driver was dead; fortunately, the rest of his family had not been at home. Fifteen minutes later, as neighbors were still sorting through the rubble, there was a second strike in the same spot. This time, with almost the entire neighborhood concentrated in one location, the entire block was reduced to rubble, about 20 residents were injured and another 14-26 died – including his son, Majed. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 99-285 Yemeni civilians have been killed by covert U.S. military actions, including as many as 69 in 2013 alone.
Specifics are hard to come by when seeking the truth about covert attacks conducted by the United States, the Yemini military or – as is often the case – a collaboration of the two. Who did it, using what kind of weaponry, how many were killed and whether or not they were involved in militant groups are frequently subjects of speculation. Secrecy is the name of the game, and no one warns the families who live in targeted towns or offers explanations afterwards.
Likewise, there are no official local or international agencies that keep records. The only current central source of this information is the website of The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which logs each report of a confirmed or possible U.S. drone strike or other covert attack and includes links to often conflicting media coverage. In the May 15 attack on Ja’ar, the strike could have come from a jet fighter, based on the varying descriptions of what the villagers saw and heard, or from a drone, as suggested by the types of injuries. Which of the two countries actually dropped the missiles is uncertain as well, but it is generally accepted that if it was the Yemeni government, the United States was “in the know” or actively complicit.
“Majed was burned over 50 percent of his body,” recalled Awadh through an interpreter. “But there is only an emergency clinic in Ja’ar, and they said he was too seriously injured to be treated there. The nearest hospital is in Aden, and the main road was closed. It took four hours to get there. I held him in my arms while we were driving, and he kept bleeding. On the third day in the hospital, at 2:30 a.m., Majed’s heart stopped and he died.”
A son’s death is tragic in any circumstances, but for Awadh’s family, it had many ripple effects. Although Majed had graduated from high school, good jobs are available only to those who can afford to pay bribes. Still, he worked as a street seller of mobile phone accessories, and was a vital contributor to the family income. While some funds have been channeled to the community to help rebuild the homes, there is no compensation for the loss of productive family members.
(Of course, money can’t stand in for the death of a son, husband and father. Majed had just gotten married three months before the attack, and his wife was pregnant. Majed’s daughter, Huda, was born six months after her father’s death.)
Awadh and his fellow villagers, several of whom joined us at our hotel in Aden for the interview, insist the hapless taxi driver was no militant. However, they knew there were members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, living in the mountains around the community, often visiting the local market for food and supplies. And, he and the others said, they could easily have been captured if the political will was there.
Ansar al-Sharia effectively controlled Ja’ar from March 2011-June 2012, when they were driven out by a combination of government forces and the locally run militia. Many Yemenis believe former President Abdullah Ali Saleh – a U.S. ally until he was finally driven from office in 2012 by the popular revolution — set up the “occupation” of Ja’ar by ordering his forces to leave the area un-policed. Saleh was a master at alternating provoked violence and unrest with crack-downs to win more military money from allies such as the United States, which shapes its foreign policy almost totally through a counter-terrorism prism. Villagers’ perception of the actual individuals who are the face of AQAP/Ansar al Sharia varies. Some hate their extreme religious ideology and the violence they bring to their village – both their own and the air attacks they attract. Others see them as practical problem solvers who get things done in the absence of an effective, efficient government. Iona Craig, who writes for the London Times in Yemen, described to us her conversations with many villagers, who told her, for example, that when the group came in, land disputes that had festered for years were settled quickly and fairly.
That’s an important observation to remember when people even within Yemen, such as Nasser Arrabye (a translater for Jeremy Scahill, author of “Dirty Wars”), label everyone in a particular town as an Al Qaida “supporter.” When you’re trying to survive on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you do what you have to do. That same hard truth applies to many of the individuals who join AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia. As Awadh told us, “Those groups target unemployed youth. They give them money and weapons that make them feel important.” Abdurahman Barman from the human rights organization HOOD adds, “One Tomahawk cruise missile costs almost $2 million, and I assume even more is spent to launch it. If the U.S. dedicated just 10 percent of this money on education and employment, most of these kids would not become terrorists in the first place.”
Still, regardless of the presence of the rebel groups, both eyewitness and media reports agree that none of the killed and injured in the May 15 Ja’ar attack were fighters. Then there is the matter of the “double tap” strike – a common practice in which a target is hit twice, in close succession.
As in the case of Majed, 8-year-old Wafa, daughter of Mohammed Ahmed Baggash, was killed in a second strike. A mechanical engineer also living in Ja’ar, he had taken his daughter and one of his sons to the market to get groceries at about 10:30 a.m. on Wed., Sept. 7, 2011. Just as they arrived, a strike hit the town’s emergency clinic. Although they didn’t know it until the hit, Ansar al-Sharia had been using a storage area of the clinic to house a cache of weapons and food. Eight to 10 members of the group were killed. Baggash and his children ran to the local school to hide in the basement, afraid there might be another strike. Huddling on the floor, they tried to protect Wafa by sandwiching her between them. Sure enough, a second hit came, this time right in front of the school. Sabr, the son, suffered a wound in his leg, and Ahmed’s back was injured. And Wafa? She was lying in her brother’s lap, the back of her head a mass of blood and matted hair. She died on the way to the hospital in Aden.
“Whenever we gather for a meal, my wife says someone is missing,” says Baggash sadly. “We rent in the village now, because we hated staying in our house after that. Sabr had nightmares for six to eight months, and all of the kids in the community are terrified whenever they see or hear a plane.”
The rationale for these “second strikes” is reportedly exactly what it seems – to “mop up” additional militants, who come out to rescue their injured and claim their dead. Glenn Greenwald observed in a Salon article last year, “I ask this sincerely: What kind of country targets rescuers, funeral attendees and people gathered to mourn? If a Hollywood film featured a villainous king ordering lethal attacks on rescuers, funerals and mourners — those medically attending to or grieving his initial victims — any decent audience member would, by design, seethe with contempt for such an inhumane tyrant. But this is the standard policy and practice under President Obama and it continues through today.”
Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana told NPR, “The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen. There is, as far as I know, no attempt by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment.”
Bafana says that at the very least, Yemeni or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made and perhaps offer compensation. Or, even better, help build hospitals and schools, so local residents aren’t encouraged to join the militants.
Of course, the Yemeni government is complicit in the use of drones and other methods of extra-judicial killings. Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst and a founder of Tawqq, the Democratic Awakening Movement, explained to us that sometimes the strikes are initiated by the United States and the Yemeni government provides a “cover” by accepting a fax request for approval after the fact. Other times, it works the other way around, with the U.S. agreeing to target individuals identified by figures in the Yemeni government as enemies. One story that has become infamous within Yemen is that of Jabr al-Shabwani, deputy governor of the Marib governorate. According to Iryani and others, there was a commercial dispute between al-Shabwani and a military general who also was the head of the national security bureau. The general wanted to get rid of him, but had extended his “protection” to the head of al-Shabwani’s tribe. What to do? A U.S. drone strike! Members of al-Shabwani’s tribe responded to his killing by attacking the pipeline that carries oil from Marib to Ras Isa, a terminal on the Red Sea coast – causing a massive power outage and the suffering of many. A Yemeni official was quoted in June 2011 as attributing $1 billion in lost revenue to the pipeline blast.
Transitional president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has given blanket approval to U.S. covert actions in the fight against Al Qaeda. Nadia Al-Sakkaf — editor of the largest English-language newspaper in the country, the Yemen Times, and the only woman on the nine-member committee charged with managing the National Dialogue Conference – explained it to us this way: “Hadi is in a tight position. He is supposed to run the country and guide it into an uncertain future. But the Army was divided and until very recently, he only commanded 30 percent of it. He can’t even live safely in the presidential compound. His intelligence says there are10 terrorists in Sana’a right now with the mission of assassinating him. So, he feels very insecure; he doesn’t have a tribe like (former president) Saleh did to protect him. When the U.S. says it will take care of things for him, with drones, he doesn’t know of any other way.”
For the good of the country (and the global community), however, an alternative must be found. “In the fight against Al Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way (by killing), and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem,” said Iryani. “To truly fight Al Qaeda, we must deal with the root causes of its growth – poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law, hunger…and drone strikes.”
A case in point: What happened to Al Qaeda after it was driven out of Ja’ar? Some members were dead, obviously, but others simply moved a bit north to Shabwah or traveled to Syria to fight Bashar Assad. In other words, the attacks shuffled the problem around rather than eliminating it.
Amidst the gloom is a ray of hope: Bara’a Shiban, Yemen’s project coordinator for UK-based Reprieve, has worked hard to build broad-based support within the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) for a resolution banning extra-judicial killings, including the use of drones. To date, it has been adopted by more than 90 percent of members of two sub-committees, and is on its way to debate by the entire 565-member conference. If passed – and everyone we talked to thinks it has a good chance of being adopted – its implementation will be mandatory by the country’s new government that will follow the completion of the NDC’s work.
Now, that’s what democracy looks like!
A brave “uncovered” woman speaks at the National Dialogue Conference, convened to create a “New Yemen.”
Awda is 12 years old and has never seen her father. Her mother was pregnant in 2001 when her father, Abdulrahman Al Shubati, traveled to Pakistan to earn extra money as a teacher of the Qur’an. However, he suddenly disappeared without a trace and her mother gave birth alone. It wasn’t until a year later that mother and daughter learned what had happened to him: a caller from the Red Cross announced that Abdulrahman had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. In Arabic, the little girl’s name means “come back.”
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, comforts Awda as she breaks into tears while telling the story of her father (pictured on the banner she is carrying).
* * *
Qaid’s cousin, Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq, was just 17 in 2001 when he left Yemen for Pakistan to study Islam. Two months later, he disappeared. When his family learned that the teenager was in Guantanamo, his parents’ health deteriorated. “When we are permitted phone calls,” says Qaid, “our news is mostly about deaths – first his father, then his mother and grandmother. He is losing everything familiar to him while he is behind bars.”
* * *
Ameena’s brother, Salman Yehia Al-Rabiee, journeyed to Afghanistan when he finished high school to look for his brother, Fawaz, who had gone to the region in search of work. Then Salman disappeared as well. From TV, they discovered Salman was in Guantanamo. Fawaz had been jailed as a suspected member of Al Qaeda and his entire family paid the price. After Salman was detained, his father and brother were imprisoned as well (in Yemen), and Ameena’s husband divorced her, afraid of guilt by association. “We have lost all of the men in our family,” she says.
Ameena holds a letter from her brother, written more than five years ago, saying he would be coming home soon.
* * *
These are just three of the stories our Codepink delegation heard from families of the estimated 82 Yemenis still held in Guantanamo – the largest national segment in the prison operated by the United States to keep “War on Terror” suspects behind bars without charge or trial. The stories have an eerie sameness – men who suddenly disappear off the streets, frequently while traveling in targeted countries, with no explanation to the victims or the families who are left behind, waiting in confusion and desperation for their sons, fathers and husbands. They learned of their loved ones’ fate only from a TV report or a phone call from the Red Cross, many months later.
Twelve years on, the men are still behind bars, despite the fact that 56 have been cleared for release since 2008. For about 20 of those 56 (including Abdulrahman Al Shubati and Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq), the U.S. government has basically admitted it has absolutely no evidence against them at all. For the rest, either the evidence can only be described as reaching the level of “suspicion” or the individuals are generally acknowledged as being very small potatoes.
“This was done by your government, a major superpower,” admonished Ali Mohammed Aziz, whose brother-in-law was seized in Pakistan at the age of 17. “It’s not a gang or a criminal. I thought the United States was all about democracy and the rule of law. Instead, what you’re teaching us is the law of the jungle.”
Ali Mohammed Aziz, holding a picture of his brother-in-law when he was 17.
Most of the Yemenis are among the 100-plus Guantanamo detainees who have been on hunger strike for more than 200 days (with some being force-fed, widely regarded as a form of torture), protesting in the only way they can their indefinite confinement without trial or sentencing. The international media coverage and attention from human-rights agencies spurred President Barack Obama to re-affirm his neglected election-year promise to close the prison, as well as to lift the moratorium on releasing detainees from Yemen imposed since Christmas Day 2009.
Transfer of the cleared Yemeni prisoners had been just about to begin when Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The Nigerian had been trained in Yemen, and the administration ruled the Yemeni government too unstable and unreliable to assure that the returning prisoners would not retaliate with terrorist acts once home.
On May 23, however, Obama agreed to lift the moratorium – if the new, transitional Yemeni government initiates and will vouch for a “rehabilitation” program for returning inmates, similar to the program operated by Saudi Arabia.
We met with Yemen’s popular Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashour to discuss this issue and others. She earned respect during the revolution for leaving her post in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government to join the people in the street, and has continued her reputation for being willing to “speak truth to power” to her bosses in government, including transitional President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
I interview Hooria Mashour.
On June 2, she announced a two-day hunger strike to protest her employer’s refusal to release all of the youth imprisoned during the revolution. When Yemen youth were camping in “Change Squares” throughout the country, Saleh gave his security apparatus a green light to conduct mass arrests. As a peace offering, Hadi’s newly formed coalition government promised to release all political prisoners. Many were, but many more were not — including some who have simply “disappeared.”
“I had tried to get a meeting with Hadi many times before on this issue, with no luck,” Mashour laughed. “But when I started my hunger strike, he came and met me for more than an hour, and issued an order to release 19 of the prisoners.” Seventeen of them eventually were, with two continuing to be retained by a special court. An estimated 41 more remain behind bars, however, and the fight continues.
The Guantanamo detainees are another of Mashour’s priorities. When we met, the government had just signed a decree defining and authorizing the creation of a rehabilitation program that could receive them, meeting Obama’s condition. She is consulting with a delegation from Saudi Arabia on its own such program, which the United States considers a model. About 120 Guantanamo detainees have “graduated” from Saudi Arabia’s program, the core of which is to return “extremists” to “true Islam.” The program, for example, teaches participants they can only wage jihad with government approval — specifically the head or ruler of state — and not through a fatwa issued by an ideologue. Counseling and evaluation follows religious instruction. Determining whether participants are ready for release is the responsibility of the Saudi Ministry of Interior and its security forces. A condition of release is agreement to be monitored under a system similar to parole or probation.
I have to pause here and express a deep ambivalence about this program and others like it. On the one hand, it allows them to come home, offers participants psychological counseling and supports them upon release with employment and housing. On the other, there are aspects that are a bit creepy. My uneasiness begins with the fact that in Saudi Arabia, it is run by the government’s “Ideological Security Directorate.” It continues with the fact that in the case of Guantanamo, many of the detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time; if they need rehabilitation, it is only because of the torture and other trauma inflicted upon them by their jailers. Saudi Arabia reports that 20 percent of graduates who are former Guantanamo detainees broke the rules upon release – including 11 who reportedly went to Yemen to join AQAP. But even then, Abdulrahman al Hadlaq, who is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s program, attributed this outcome in part to the treatment they received in Guantanamo. “Torture is the most dangerous thing because in the end you will be having something called ‘revenge’,” al Hadlaq told The National. In Yemen, 22 Guantanamo detainees had been released to their home country before Obama imposed the moratorium, and only two were known to have associated with terrorist activities.
“I must be personally involved (in the creation of the rehabilitation program) to make sure the returning detainees are not simply imprisoned,” Mashour told us. “They need vocational training, for example, and medical care. Some of them will come back very sick.”
Funding for the program still must be secured, however. (My question is why hasn’t the United States committed to providing the funding? After all, our government has admitted it doesn’t have enough evidence to prove their guilt, and they already have lost 12 years of their lives.) In addition, it will take time to identify and prepare a proper facility. How long that will require she doesn’t know – perhaps five or six months.
“But someone could die by then,” Medea Benjamin responded in shock. What will happen to the hunger strikers?
A month ago, Awda and her family traveled seven hours to Sana’a to see her father for the first time via video link. But she went home disappointed. Her hunger-striking father was so weak he was unable to talk.
Postscript: Just as I was publishing this post, we received an email from Hooria Mahsour informing us that the life of another Guantanamo prisoner, Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, is in danger due to his prolonged hunger strike. We had just had lunch with his brother.
Abd al-Salam Al-Hilah