Massachusetts state senators urged to cancel trip to Israel

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All-expenses-paid junkets to Israel organized for elected officials and community leaders by a lobbying group, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston, have generally attracted little public comment.

But that is changing.

On October 29, Boston Globe staff reporter Frank Phillips raised the ethical issue of a trip being planned by the JCRC for a quarter of the Massachusetts Senate even as the Senate was voting to pass a JCRC-sponsored resolution that opposed “any actions, campaigns, or movements that would in any way undermine, punish, or otherwise limit, isolate, or diminish any relations with Israel.”

And no sooner had the news of the trip been made public than members of the Boston Alliance for Water Justice got busy calling the offices of the ten Senators who are due to travel to Israel early December.  They pointed out the conflict of interest and asked the lawmakers to reconsider their participation in a delegation designed to present Israel in a positive light and mute international condemnation of its treatment of Palestinians.

For nearly two years the Boston Alliance has campaigned against the ‘Innovative Water Partnership’ that the Patrick Administration had formed with Israel, arguing that the Commonwealth should not be complicit in Israel’s use of water as a weapon against the Palestinian people.  Last month they were encouraged to learn that the Water Partnership had been placed on hold for the foreseeable future.

But with Senators expressing an interest in knowing more about Israel’s water technology and hoping to forge stronger business and economic ties, joint water projects could again be on the agenda.

Israel’s discriminatory water policies may have brought the eight organizations that currently constitute the Boston Alliance for Water Justice together, but their larger concerns are with Israel’s nearly 50-year-long military occupation, and the ‘shoot to kill’ impunity and massive human rights abuses being used to sustain it.

They want Massachusetts lawmakers to reject economic collaboration with Israel until it complies with international law by ending its occupation, and its dispossession and oppression of Palestinians.

Boston Alliance member groups summarized their concerns in ‘Ten Reasons’ why Senators should not go on the trip, a document that accompanies a petition signed by 1,200 Massachusetts residents.  The petition reads:

“MASSACHUSETTS STATE SENATORS: DON’T GO TO ISRAEL

“TO:  State Senate President Stan Rosenberg and State Senators Ben Downing, Anne Gobi, John Keenan, Barbara L’Italien, Karen Spilka, Michael Barrett, Eileen Donoghue, Richard Ross, and Dan Wolf.

“We, Massachusetts voters, are dismayed that you intend to go to Israel on a junket to foster closer economic and cultural ties between the Commonwealth and Israel. While the Israeli government continues to implement increasingly draconian violations of international law and human rights against Palestinians, your trip would serve as an endorsement of Israeli policies.

“Until Israel abides by international law, we urge you to oppose the use of MA taxpayer dollars to fund collaborations with the State of Israel.”

This message was delivered from the State House steps at a November 23rd press conference.  Speakers declared that a trip planned by JCRC would not give delegates a full picture of the situation in Israel/Palestine, and could be used by Israel as an endorsement of the status quo.

“While the Senators are meeting in Jerusalem, they won’t see what’s practically right next door behind an eight meter concrete separation wall, at the Aida Refugee Camp where I was born and raised,” said Nidal al-Azraq of 1f0r3.org.  “As a Palestinian living in the US, my tax dollars fund the tear-gassing of my own mother and father.”

Soldiers in Aida Refugee Camp

Israeli soldiers in Aida Refugee Camp

Fresh eyewitness testimony about Israel’s repressive policies and practices that the Senators are unlikely to encounter on a JCRC junket was provided at the press conference and detailed in an  ‘Open Letter’ to the Senators.  The letter was signed by seven Massachusetts residents who had just a week before returned from being part of an Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation to Israel/Palestine.

Following the press conference, this document and copies of the petition were delivered to the offices of each Senator as well as the Governor, who has expressed an interest in traveling to Israel at some point.

Below is the text of the ‘Open Letter to the MA State Senators who plan to visit Israel in December’:

“We, the undersigned, are Massachusetts residents who this month traveled to Israel and the occupied territories as part of an Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation.  We are writing to you now to request you to re-consider your participation in a tour that is bound to be used for propaganda purposes.

“We deeply regret the killing of Ezra Schwartz from Sharon, Massachusetts near the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.  But having seen for ourselves conditions under which Palestinians are living in the occupied West Bank, we cannot accept Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that “behind these terrorist attacks stands radical Islam, which seeks to destroy us, the same radical Islam that struck in Paris and threatens Europe” (New York Times, November 20).

“No one who has witnessed what life is like under Israel’s nearly 50-year-old military occupation can be surprised at the upsurge of violence.  For violence is what sustains the occupation.  Violence and degrading treatment have been routinely inflicted on the 750,000 Palestinians – many of them children accused of throwing stones – who have been arrested for ‘political reasons’ since the occupation began.  A few days after our group experienced the US-made tear gas that rains down daily on the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, a six-year-old child was detained by the Israeli army.

“Violence has been used to demolish tens of thousands of Palestinian homes, including one that had belonged to a family with whom some of us stayed in the village of Burqin. Violent night raids have terrorized families, as we heard from the residents of Susiya, a farming community that Israel wants to eradicate to make way for settlement expansion.

Hebron's deserted streets (Photo: Nancy Murray)

Hebron’s deserted streets (Photo: Nancy Murray)

“For over a decade, the residents of the small village of Bil’in have had their non-violent demonstrations against the confiscation of their land by the ‘Separation Wall’ violently disrupted by the Israeli army.  Demonstrators have been killed, wounded and arrested. The night before we arrived in Bil’in to stay with a coordinator of the protests, Iyad Burnat, tear gas canisters had been shot into his house, terrifying his children.  Burnat is this year’s winner of the James Lawson Award for Leadership in Non Violent Resistance given by the Fletcher Institute at Tufts University.

“When we visited Hebron, we saw a city that had been transformed into a ghost town by violence.  After the US-born settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, Palestinians in the old part of the city were put under severe restrictions in order to protect the settlers who had forcibly established themselves in the center of the old city.

Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements in Hebron addressing our IFPB group on November 11. (Photo: Nancy Murray)

Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements in Hebron addressing our IFPB group on November 11. (Photo: Nancy Murray)

“Our guide through Hebron’s nearly empty streets patrolled by soldiers was the courageous human rights defender Issa Amro, who has been arrested 16 times this year because of his work with non-violent groups like Youth Against Settlements.  Just three days before, the Israeli army had burst into his home and trashed the Youth Against Settlements office that is based there.

“’I have never been as scared as I am now,” Issa Amro told us.  “The soldiers and settlers can shoot at any time and say whatever they want.  A lot of them are just waiting for any opportunity to shoot.’

“We had heard from the Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights that the Israeli army frequently conducted raids on hospitals using rubber bullets and tear gas – seven such raids had occurred over the previous month.   The day after our visit to Hebron, a large Israeli undercover force entered Al Ahli Hospital in Hebron to arrest an injured youth. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the soldiers seized the wanted man from his hospital bed and then shot and killed his cousin as he exited from the hospital bathroom where he had gone to wash for prayer.

“For Palestinians, no place is safe.  But perhaps the greatest violence of all resides in the myriad military orders and legalistic maneuvers used to remove Palestinians from their land in the name of ‘Greater Israel.’  Now some 750,000 settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Large road signs point to settlements deemed illegal under international law, while Palestinian centers of habitation have vanished from the signposts.  Palestinians themselves are often corralled out of sight by gates, walls and tunnels that can keep them from accessing major roads that settlers use.

“Their farmland and vital water resources can also be put beyond their reach.  Some of us stayed with farmers who were unable to tend their olive trees beyond the Wall.  According to Israeli law, once that land has been left uncultivated for three years it can be confiscated as ‘State Land’ and handed over to settlers.

“If you were to undertake the visit we have just made, you would have no difficulty understanding why Baleka Mbete, the chair of the African National Congress (ANC) and a former deputy president of the Republic of South Africa, declared last month after her own trip to Israel’s occupied territories that the situation there was “far worse than Apartheid South Africa” (Times of Israel, October 29).  The ANC has voted to support the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as a non-violent tool for positive change.

“As we heard from the Israeli peace groups we visited, the occupation is poisoning Israel and destroying its claim to be a democratic society.  We hope you will take a stand for the future of both peoples and cancel a trip that Israel will regard as an endorsement of the status quo.“

The Boston Alliance for Water Justice was formed to oppose the Massachusetts-Israel Water Innovation Partnership. Alliance members include 1for3.org, Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, Cambridge Bethlehem People to People Project, Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine, Massachusetts Peace Action, and United for Justice with Peace. Nancy Murray is a member of Boston Alliance for Water Justice and co-leader of the November 2015 Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation.

About Nancy Murray

Nancy Murray, an advocate for Palestinian rights for over 25 years, has researched and written about surveillance for the ACLU of Massachusetts and its privacysos.org website.

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