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My Political Epiphany: At no time has our collective engagement been more urgently needed

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We continue to be inspired and moved by the flow of stories readers are sharing with us about their journey to the movement for Palestinian human rights. Today’s post is by Cathy Sultan, chair of Interfaith Peace Builders and author of award-winning books including “A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War,” “Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides,” and “Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006.” Please join Cathy in sharing your story with us at [email protected]

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My road to political activism was an unusual one. I grew up in Washington, D.C. in an Irish-German Catholic family. In 1966 I married a Lebanese physician and in 1969 moved to Beirut with our two toddlers. I followed the ’67 war though the eyes of my husband but I was a naïve young American who understood precious little about its long-term implications.

As a foreigner bewitched by her new city, it was easy to be distracted, at first, by Beirut. In 1969, it was at the height of its glory and the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ But there was an uglier side to Beirut, the glimpse I caught on the day we arrived of corrugated tin-roofed hovels behind a barbed wire fence along the airport road. These were the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. In ever-increasing numbers, too, Lebanon’s Shiites began arriving from the south where the Israeli Army was systematically destroying their villages. By March ’75, it was apparent that the city was coming undone.

On April 16, 1975, Christian militia, in response to an attack on their leader, fired on a bus carrying Palestinians, killing 27. By evening, clashes between Christians and Muslims were spilling into nearby neighborhoods. Young boys brandishing M-16’s took up positions behind makeshift barricades and began firing at one-time friends who had suddenly become rival militiamen. Snipers for both sides took up rooftop positions and picked off innocent men and women with the same indifference they would display if shooting targets. From that day forward, and for 15 long years, bursts of machine gun fire, mortar shells and carpet bombing broke into the former stillness of our nights.

My tranquil tree-lined street near Beirut’s National Museum became a deadly territorial divide—the infamous Green Line that separated east from west Beirut. As the war dragged on, my neighborhood became the center of major battles. It was shelled by Palestinian-led forces. Their snipers fired on my children. In 1982, I witnessed the Israeli invasion and saturation bombing of Beirut. Israeli tanks parked under our apartment building. I stood silent during those infamous September days when Christian militiamen entered Shatila Refugee Camp to slaughter some 2,500 Palestinian civilians. Our apartment was but a few blocks from the camp. Some of those militiamen were my neighbors.

That massacre marked the beginning of my political epiphany, the day I began to recognize a people both manipulated and abandoned by their leaders, a people who still live in squalid conditions both in refugee camps and under Israeli occupation in Palestine. My activism did not begin immediately. It took several years to clear my war-warped mind before I seriously contemplated a trip to Israel-Palestine. It eventually happened in March 2002 at the height of the suicide bombings and Ariel Sharon’s and his assault on Jenin and the West Bank.

Through my writing and activism, I became acquainted with Interfaith Peace Builders, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which leads delegations to Israel-Palestine to meet with peace activists from both sides of the divide. I have co-led three of their delegations and accompanied an IFPB delegation to the Gaza Strip in 2012. I was invited to sit on IFPB’s Board of Directors four years ago, and became its Chair on July 1st this year.

This past May I spent some time in the Shatila Refugee Camp, site of that 1982 massacre. While Shatila is some distance from Palestine and is not under Israeli occupation, its plight is no less stark. Overcrowded conditions in cinder-block units, piled helter-skelter one atop another with no heating, proper windows or doors to ward off the frigid rainy winters. An inadequate sewage system, staggeringly high unemployment, one free medical clinic, no hospital and insufficient schools for the ever-growing population. The residents—some of whom have lived there since 1948—are generous, warm-hearted, tenacious and above all determined to return to their ancestral homes.

According to Bill Moyer, the central task of all social movements is “to win the hearts, minds and support of the majority of the populace. Because it is people who will ultimately hold the power, they will either preserve the status quo or create change.”

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a goal toward which everyone should work. What can the vast majority of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians who are tired of endless wars and outside interference do? Often, it seems, very little. America, the democracy every country is encouraged to emulate, has witnessed an increasingly powerful executive wielding power at the expense of the vast majority of its citizens. Is this reason for despair or reason to act in order to reverse this course and create some hope for our future?

I strongly encourage the latter. At no time in recent history has our collective engagement been more urgently needed. We, the people, do have the power to create change, to influence and shape the policies of our governments. Now is the time to exercise that right. Now is the time to support the work of Mondoweiss, Interfaith Peace Builders, Jewish Voice for Peace, US Campaign to End the Occupation and others working toward a just and peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Please support Mondoweiss today with a tax-deductible donation.

Please support Mondoweiss today with a tax-deductible donation.

About Cathy Sultan

Cathy Sultan is chair of Interfaith Peace Builders and author of award-winning books including “A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War,” “Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides,” and “Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006.”

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6 Responses

  1. Citizen
    July 20, 2015, 1:11 pm

    Quite a woman! Wonder what her parents and family think about her life.

  2. JLewisDickerson
    July 20, 2015, 9:13 pm

    RE: “In 1982, I witnessed the Israeli invasion and saturation bombing of Beirut. Israeli tanks parked under our apartment building.“ ~ Cathy Sultan

    MY COMMENT: Doesn’t that mean that the IDF was essentially using civilians as human shields?

  3. JLewisDickerson
    July 20, 2015, 9:43 pm

    RE: “This past May I spent some time in the Shatila Refugee Camp, site of that 1982 massacre.” ~ Cathy Sultan

    SEE: “29 Years After the Massacre at Sabra Shatila” » By Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch, 9/17/11

    [EXCERPT] . . . Robert Fisk, writing in the UK Independent claims that more than 1000 Palestinians are buried in pits in Lebanon’s only Golf Course that is adjacent to Shatila camp and the Kuwaiti Embassy.
    Dr. Bayan Nuwayhed al Hout — author of “Sabra and Shatila: September 1982″ told this observer: ”I’m positive that dozens of people were buried there with the help of bulldozers. The bulldozers were used to get rid of the dead bodies.” Author Al Hout is referring to the fact that Israel supplied bulldozers, paid for by American taxpayers, to their allies, the right wing Christian militia that committed the slaughter with Israeli facilitation.
    On Saturday morning, September 18, 1982 Israeli Mossad agents inside the camp actually were observed driving three of the bulldozers in a frantic attempt to assist the Christian militia in covering up evidence of the crime
    before the exported international media arrived on the scene. The late American journalist, Janet Lee Stevens, documented that during Sept. 18 and 19th, most of the massacre victims killed during this period were slaughtered inside the joint Israeli-Lebanese Forces “interrogation center.” Janet testified that these killed were put in flatbed trucks and taken to the Golf Course, just 300 yards away, where waiting Israeli bulldozers dug pits. Other trucks drove in the direction of East Beirut. . .


    P.S. In Charlie Wilson’s War Congressman Wilson wrote about having visited the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps shortly after the massacre(s). ‘In my usual knee-jerk fashion I assumed there was a certain amount of sensationalism in the press and assumed Israel’s culpability had been exaggerated, but I also felt it my duty to see for myself.’ P98. ‘When we got into the camps,’ he recalls, ‘the grief and mourning was still going on. It had been maybe a week since the attack, and we walked down and ran into this woman who was an American Jew…she told me that her people had done something terrible.
    She walked us down to where the victims had been buried in a mass grave…. And I began to get a really terrible feeling in my stomach about it. And what was hanging over me was the Israeli guilt.’
    ‘But when we walked about fifty feet and one of the American embassy people showed me where the Israeli command post was, and I looked at it and at that moment I lost it. My heroes were forever blemished because they would have had to be blindfolded not to have seen and heard what was happening. And then it was clear that they set up the whole thing and sat there and watched it.’

    SOURCE –

    • JLewisDickerson
      July 20, 2015, 9:49 pm

      P.P.S. ALSO SEE: “At least 1,700 Palestinians were slaughtered on Israel’s say-so, 25 years ago this week ~ A Letter to Janet About Sabra-Shatilla”, By Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch, 9/15/07

      [EXCERPTS] Dearest Janet,
      It’s a very beautiful fall day here in Beirut today. Twenty-five years ago this week since the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra-Shatilla. Bright blue sky and a fall breeze. It actually rained last night. Enough to clean out some of the humidity and dust. Fortunately not enough to make the usual rain created swamp of sewage and filth on Rue Sabra, or flood the grassless burial ground of the mass grave (the camp residents named it Martyrs Square, one of several so named memorials now in Lebanon) where you once told me that on Sunday September 19, 1982, you watched, sickened, as families and Red Crescent workers created a subterranean mountain of butchered and bullet-riddled victims from those 48 hours of slaughter. Some of the bodies had limbs and heads chopped off, some boys castrated, Christian crosses carved into some of the bodies.

      As you later wrote to me in your perfect cursive:

      “I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an ally wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.” . . .


      P.P.P.S. As it so happens, Janet Stevens was in my class at Northside High in Atlanta. I vividly recall her “perfect cursive” handwriting which very much resembled calligraphy.

    • JLewisDickerson
      July 20, 2015, 10:11 pm


      “The War of Lies”, by Uri Avnery, gush-shalom.org09/06/12

      [EXCERPTS] Thirty Years ago this week, the Israeli army crossed into Lebanon and started the most stupid war in Israel’s history. It lasted for 18 years. About 1500 Israeli soldiers and untold numbers of Lebanese and Palestinians were killed.
      Almost all wars are based on lies. Lies are considered legitimate instruments of war. Lebanon War I (as it was later called) was a glorious example.
      From beginning to end (if it has ended yet) it was a war of deceit and deception, falsehoods and fabrications.
      THE LIES started with the official name: “Operation Peace in Galilee”.

      If one asks Israelis now, 99.99% of them will say with all sincerity: “We had no choice. They launched katyushas at the Galilee from Lebanon every day. We had to stop them.” TV anchormen and anchorwomen, as well as former cabinet ministers have been repeating this throughout the week. Quite sincerely. Even people who were already adults at the time.
      The simple fact is that for 11 months before the war, not a single shot was fired across the Israeli-Lebanese border. A cease-fire was in force and the Palestinians on the other side of the border kept it scrupulously. To everybody’s surprise, Yasser Arafat succeeded in imposing it on all the radical Palestinian factions, too.
      At the end of May, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met with Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Washington DC. He asked for American agreement to invade Lebanon. Haig said that the US could not allow it, unless there were a clear and internationally recognized provocation.
      And lo and behold, the provocation was provided at once. Abu Nidal, the anti-Arafat and anti-PLO master terrorist, sent his own cousin to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London, who was grievously wounded.

      In retaliation, Israel bombed Beirut and the Palestinians fired back, as expected. The Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, allowed Sharon to invade Lebanese territory up to 40 km, “to put the Galilee settlements out of reach of the katyushas.”
      When one of the intelligence chiefs told Begin at the cabinet meeting that Abu Nidal’s organization was not a member of the PLO, Begin famously answered: “They are all PLO”.
      General Matti Peled, my political associate at the time, firmly believed that Abu Nidal had acted as an agent of Sharon. So do all the Palestinians I know.
      The lie “they shot at us every day” has taken such a hold on the public mind that it is nowadays useless to dispute it. It is an illuminating example of how a myth can take possession of the public mind, including even of people who had seen with their own eyes that the opposite was true.
      NINE MONTHS before the war, Sharon told me about his plan for a New Middle East. . .
      . . . His design for the region, as told me then (and which I published nine months before the war), was:
      • To attack Lebanon and install a Christian dictator who would serve Israel,
      • Drive the Syrians out of Lebanon,
      • Drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon into Syria, from where they would then be pushed by the Syrians into Jordan.
      • Get the Palestinians to carry out a revolution in Jordan, kick out King Hussein and turn Jordan into a Palestinian state,
      • Set up a functional arrangement under which the Palestinian state (in Jordan) would share power in the West Bank with Israel.Being a single-minded operator, Sharon convinced Begin to start the war, telling him that the sole aim was to push the PLO 40 km back. . .


      • oldgeezer
        July 21, 2015, 1:12 am

        Sharon’s greatest claim to fame is that during his career he was one the top 10 pieces of pure scum on the planet.

        My wife spent two significant periods in her life in a coma. After the first she was able to remember events and things said to her verbatim.

        I hope Sharon had the same awareness. The mass murdering criminal escaped an appropriate judgement day.

        zionists loved him though. Quelle surprise.

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