Occupied and High in Jerusalem

Some young Palestinians in Occupied East Jerusalem are turning to drugs, including a new and dangerous synthetic cannabis product called “Mr. Niceguy.”

For AJ+, I went to Jerusalem and spoke with users, anti-drug activists and a treatment specialist to find out how Israel’s military occupation is contributing to increased drug use among Palestinians.

Watch the three-part series below.

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Closer to Gaza

27 December 2008 it began. With absolutely no forewarning, ALL of Gaza’s population instantly became subject to non-stop Israeli bombardment by land, sea and air. It began two years ago today and lasted for 22 days, during which time no one could escape — one and a half million people, not a single one of them safe.

When most of the bombing stopped so did Gaza’s importance in the Western media. Most media (save Al-Jazeera and a few other mostly Arabic language journalists who bravely covered the events) had been perched on a hill outside Gaza prevented by the Israel and Egypt besiegers from entering the territory. When the majority of the bombing ended and they had the chance to, few of them did. For them the war was over. However, still under a tight siege, unable to leave, unable to bring in reconstruction materials, medicines or school supplies among hundreds of other basic items, the brutal war continued, and continues, every day. My pictures, taken in the weeks after Israel declared a unilateral “ceasefire” on 18 January 2009, are proof of that.

(You can see the full gallery here.)

I didn’t go to Gaza for any job or assignment. I went because I wanted to see with my own eyes the results of the horror that I had just watched unfold on television. What I saw once in Gaza, I wanted to cause outrage. I wanted my photos to trigger questions: What? Why? How did this happen? More than 1,400 dead in 22 days, 352 of whom were defenseless children. Thousands more injured. We — those of us without bombs falling on top of our heads — could’ve made it stop. It’s hard to believe no one did, and harder to believe that the threat still lingers. This could happen again.

Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe I didn’t take enough pictures, or maybe I stood too far away while photographing people who had just lived through 22 days of the most unimaginable horror. I thought about that as I went through the images today. So, I decided to try something different and zoom in and get closer to the people who I photographed, and thereby allow you the viewer to do the same. Below are some of the pictures I took of people in Gaza, only these are zoomed in at 100% (the full resolution in which the pictures were taken):

A Palestinian girl sits on top of her home destroyed by Israel in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A farmer stands next to his fenced off land surrounded by homes destroyed by Israel in the Ezbat Abed Rabu neighborhood of Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A boy holds his backpack found in the rubble of his family’s home underneath his feet in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A Palestinian girl plays on top of a car destroyed by Israel during its assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Young men pose for a photograph near their homes that were destroyed by Israel in the Ezbat Abed Rabu neighborhood of Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

Abdel Naser Zemo sits with his wife, Suheir, in her room a the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Suheir’s leg was blown off by a missile fired by an Israeli attack helicopter while the couple sat in their family’s home during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Abdel Naser Zemo sits with his wife, Suheir, in her room a the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Suheir’s leg was blown off by a missile fired by an Israeli attack helicopter while the couple sat in their family’s home during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Beirut protests Israel’s attack on Gaza aid convoy

I went to bed Sunday night telling coworkers that I would be up early to check in on any news of the Freedom Flotilla aid convoy that was due to reach Gaza at some point the next day. Like most, I had strong doubts that the Flotilla would actually be able to reach Gaza. Israel had been threatening it for weeks and even set up prison tents days earlier where they would hold the hundreds of civilian activists aboard the Flotilla’s six ships. However, I was slightly optimistic knowing the determination of the activists and the difficulties that Israel would have in trying to stop and take over these massive ships. Along with the activists, the Freedom Flotilla contained over 10,000 tons of badly needed goods bound for the people of Gaza who have been under a brutal and inhumane Israeli-led siege for the past three years.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see what I did when I opened my computer at 8:00 am on Monday.

The video was chilling. Masked and armed Israeli soldiers — or “commandos” as they’re described to perhaps conjure up images of G.I. Joe action figures — descended from helicopters one by one on board the Mavi Marmara and Israeli warships flanked the vessel on all sides as it sailed in international waters. As anyone would expect, the startled activists resisted the attack with sticks and whatever else they could find on deck. The Israeli soldiers opened fire and dozens of activists were killed and injured. More than two days later, Israel has yet to release the names or even the total number of dead leaving those of us with friends and loved ones who were on board the ship in a constant state of worry.

Protests have been held around the world against Israel’s attacks and in support of Palestinians under siege and occupation in Gaza. In Beirut on Tuesday, dozens of different organizations and political parties took part in one of the most diverse protests I’ve witnessed in three years of living here. Because of the role Turkish organizations played in organizing the Flotilla combined with Prime Minister Tayyip Erodogan’s strong words against Israel’s attacks on the ships and its siege on Gaza, support for Turkey is incredibly high across the Arab world. Many in Beirut carried Turkish flags and signs in support of the Erodogan government.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

Fore more:

International solidarity and the Freedom Flotilla massacre (The Electronic Intifada)
Glenn Greenwald talks about Israel with Eliot Spitzer on MSNBC (Salon)
Cartoonist Steve Bell on Israel’s attack (Guardian)

Protesting Egypt

Popular outrage at the Egyptian government continues across the Arab World. As Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer under the Israeli-imposed siege of their territory, Egypt is widely seen as complicit for its closure of the Rafah Crossing, Gaza’s only border crossing that isn’t controlled by Israel. During the Israeli attacks on Gaza last winter, hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the Middle East to protest outside Egyptian embassies. Recently, anger against the Egyptian government reignited when it announced it will build an underground steel wall to halt the tunnel trade between the Sinai and Gaza Strip. That tunnel trade is often referred to as a “lifeline” since it provides Palestinians in Gaza with basic goods denied by the siege.

On Saturday 23 January, Leftist Lebanese and Palestinian groups organized a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. Some of these activists have also initiated a campaign targeting the Egyptian company that is believed to be building the wall. During the protest, clashes briefly broke out between the protesters and the security forces surrounding the embassy.

image: matthew cassel
A woman holds her shoe to the Egyptian embassy. A poster in the background reads: 'The high one built the high dam, the low one built the low dam.' It refers to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (the high one) who built the Aswan Dam in 1970 and current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak building the underground wall in the Sinai to stop the tunnel trade with Gaza. (image: matthew cassel)

Protesters carry a large Palestinian flag near the Egyptian embassy in Beirut. (image: matthew cassel)

image: matthew cassel

Mohammad Othman

Mohammad Othaman's brother and father collect olives from one of the family's trees just a few meters away from the Israeli built fence/wall in Jayyous, 2004. (image: matthew cassel)
Mohammad Othaman's brother and father collect olives from one of the family's trees just a few meters away from the Israeli built fence/wall in Jayyous, 2004. (image: matthew cassel)

Last Tuesday a dear friend of mine was traveling back to his home in the occupied West Bank after a trip to Europe. He had been visiting Norway where he was meeting with senior officials in his capacity as an organizer with Stop the Wall, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that campaigns against Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank. In order to travel abroad, Palestinians in the West Bank must go to Jordan and take flights from Amman. Even though Jordan shares a border with the West Bank, it is Israel that controls that border. Traveling through any checkpoint (and the West Bank is full of hundreds) let alone one on a border, is a frightening experience for any Palestinian who are all subject to detention, arrest or other mistreatment by the young M16-wielding Israeli soldiers. As he attempted to return to his occupied home he was stopped and detained, and later he would be arrested and taken to one of Israel’s many prisons where it holds around 11,000 Palestinians like Mohammad, including hundreds of children.

Mohammad Othman and I in Jayyous, 2004
Mohammad and I atop his home in Jayyous, 2004

Mohammad did not choose to get involved in politics, it chose him in 2003 when Israel built its wall that split his village in two, separating the residential area of the village from its farmland. Like many West Bank villages, the people in Jayyous’ livelihood depended on their olive trees. Mohammad’s family was no different. After the wall was constructed residents had to apply for permits, which were often denied to nearly all young men making it nearly impossible for families to collect all of their olives during the autumn harvest season. Israel also began uprooting and destroying olive trees to make way for a Jewish settlement that was to be built on the farmlands of Jayyous. Mohammad and his family suffered a great deal. I spent the harvest of 2004 with him and his family when only a few of them and I (of course my American passport gave me infinite more rights than those wishing to work on their lands) could make it to the trees, while the rest waited anxiously on the other side clearly disappointed by missing the harvest and ready to take the olives to get processed into oil. It was in that time that I learned about Palestinian fellah (peasants) and their generations of struggle to maintain their land, a struggle embodied in the olive trees hundreds of years older than any person living in Israel/Palestine.

Mohammad’s activism is his resistance, his way to protect himself, his family, his people, his land. He uses only words, but even words are a threat to the injustice of the oppressors. And that is why he sits in a cell now where his captors use every intimidation technique imaginable to break his spirit. But they will never silence Mohammad and those fighting on the side of what’s right.

Learn more about Mohammad’s case here: http://freemohammadothman.wordpress.com/.

Article or assassination, which one needs to be condemned?

In the wake of Israel’s demand that Sweden go against its policy of freedom of speech and condemn Swedish journalist Donald Bostrom’s article accusing of Israel of organ theft, I think it’s important to go back in time and highlight an event in 1948 when Israeli militants assassinated Folke Bernadotte. Bernadotte, a Swede, was assigned by the UN to mediate peace between Zionists/Israelis and Palestinians. Many Zionists didn’t agree when he suggested that Jerusalem be a city under international control and not Israeli. So a group called the Lehi (or Stern Gang in English) killed him in 1948. The 61st anniversary of his assassination is a few weeks away on September 17. Ironically, only a few years before he was killed, Bernadotte was celebrated for negotiating the release of tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Many Israelis say that those who perpetrated such attacks around 1948 were a bunch of extremists, and didn’t represent the majority of the Zionist society. I find this hard to believe. Pre-state militias like the Stern Gang, Irgun and Haganah were all quickly migrated into the nascent Israeli state, the latter of the three was even transformed directly into the base of the Israeli army. No one was ever convicted of the assassination. In fact, one of the Stern Gang’s leaders, Yitzhak Shamir, would later become Israel’s 7th Prime Minister in the 1980s.

Bernadotte’s assassination has never been officially condemned in Israel, nor have they apologized for it. And yet they expect the State of Sweden to condemn the words of one journalist in one article.

Feedback to "baseless organ theft" article

I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from various folks in response to my recent article about a Swedish journalist’s baseless organ theft accusations. Most of it has been in good taste, but certainly not all. I’m happy to see that people are discussing it at least. One email that stuck out sent from a friend in Chicago read:

Good article — and good defense of principles in the struggle for the interests of humanity. If we throw away principles to fight against those without principles we have already lost. It is neither necessary nor helpful.

And Per Bjorklund, a Swedish journalist based in Cairo, gives an interesting perspective about the original article and the implications that this story and Israel’s reaction will have in Sweden (excerpt):

The Swedish government, in turn, probably isn’t very concerned that this affair might hurt diplomatic relations between the two countries. Israel won’t suddenly expel the Swedish military attaché from Tel Aviv, for example (if they ever did it would be extremely ironic, since withdrawal of the military attaché and an end to all military cooperation between the two countries has long been a major demand of leftist and pro-Palestinian groups in Sweden) or cancel trade deals with the European Union.

A lot of people have also been sending me links to related articles as proof that Israel is guilty of harvesting Palestinian organs. But I’m still yet to see any firm evidence published to backup these claims. As I wrote in the article, “I am not trying to argue here that Israel or some Israelis could never have trafficked stolen Palestinian organs.” If people are certain that it did occur then I’m glad that they are investigating the matter further and I’m confident that the truth will emerge.

Israelis boycott!

image: Keren Manor, <a href="http://www.activestills.org">Activestills</a>
image: Keren Manor, Activestills

Israelis have now called for a boycott of the giant furniture/home products retailer IKEA and car manufacturer Volvo. This should really put pressure on Sweden to abandon its policy of free speech and condemn the irresponsible organ theft article. Except someone might want to inform the boycott’s organizers that IKEA is actually registered in Holland — it’s not a Swedish company. And Volvo is already on the Palestinians’ list of companies to boycott for its sale of equipment to the Israeli army for use in the demolition of Palestinian homes. If only an American journalist would accuse Israel of war crimes, then maybe Israelis would kick off a campaign against the companies that make Israel’s guns, bombs and aircraft.

Baseless organ theft accusations will not bring Israel to justice

Baseless organ theft accusations are a propaganda gift for Israel, and deflect attention from its well-documented war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (image: matthew cassel)
Baseless organ theft accusations are a propaganda gift for Israel, and deflect attention from its well-documented war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (image: matthew cassel)

Baseless organ theft accusations will not bring Israel to justice

by Matthew Cassel

On Friday I was invited to appear on Press TV (Iran’s international English-language satellite channel) alongside Donald Bostrom, a Swedish journalist who authored the recent article about the Israeli army stealing the organs of young Palestinian men it had killed in 1992 during the first Palestinian intifada. I surprised the producers at Press TV who I don’t think invited me to argue the article’s legitimacy, but instead reaffirm its claims.

After the show, a producer in Tehran thanked me and told me that it was nice to get someone from the “other side.” But I had to make it clear, that I was not from the “other side” as she meant it. I support uncovering human rights violations and war crimes wherever they occur, especially in Palestine, where I have worked for many years. I do believe Bostrom’s intentions were to do much the same but that his process was highly irresponsible. The problem is not that he is accusing the State of Israel of wrongdoing, but that he is making accusations of what would amount to extremely serious war crimes while providing absolutely no evidence to support his claims. Rather than advancing the cause of Palestinian human rights, such behavior hurts the many organizations, journalists, activists and others working tirelessly to expose and document Israel’s numerous violations of international law committed against Palestinians and people of other Arab nations in recent decades.

Bostrom’s article lacks credibility for a number of reasons. In the opening paragraph he tells the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Jewish man in New York linked to illegal trafficking in human organs with counterparts in Israel. While Rosenbaum has admitted to buying organs from destitute Israelis, until now there has been nothing outside Bostrom’s article to suggest that this trade involved the organs of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army.

Rosenbaum has also admitted to being involved in the trade for the past ten years which is well after 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft may have occurred in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other than Israel being involved, there is no evidence to make a direct link between these incidents. It is poor journalism on Bostrom’s part to use a timely event and try to connect it to something that happened nearly two decades earlier without offering any evidence.

Bostrom also refers to Palestinians disappearing for days at a time and have in many cases returned dead. This is known to have occurred before, especially Palestinians being arrested and taken to detention centers without the Israeli authorities bothering to inform the families. This is something that has been reported on and documented by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations. Israel may have even performed autopsies on the bodies without the families’ consent, as Bostrom reports. He publishes a horrific photograph of one of these bodies alongside the article, but again, this is not proof that organs in that person’s body were removed and sold, or given to Israelis in need, as the author implies.

One must also ask why this story was not covered in 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft occurred. It seems this would be a more appropriate time to expose such a story when bodies of those killed by Israel could have been autopsied to determine for a fact whether or not organs from those Palestinians killed by Israel were in fact removed. In the Press TV interview, Bostrom claimed that he did approach many Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations but none, minus the UN, heeded his call for further investigation. Yet, he only makes brief mention of this in the article and says the UN staff was prevented from doing anything about his findings.

Unlike Bostrom’s reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel’s crimes is uncovered and reported.

Many such well-documented violations committed over recent decades include: willful killing of civilians, including children; torture; extrajudicial executions; depriving a civilian population of food and other necessities; blackmailing patients in need of medical care to try to turn them into informers; wanton and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure; punitive home demolitions; and illegal use of restricted weapons against civilian targets, including white phosphorus and cluster bombs. The list of UN resolutions and international treaties violated by Israel is far too long to list here, although these violations have been carefully documented over many years by human rights organizations that have worked tirelessly for their enforcement.

I am not trying to argue here that Israel or some Israelis could never have trafficked stolen Palestinian organs. In a place like Palestine, however, where evidence of Israeli war crimes has never been difficult to find — despite Israel’s consistent efforts to block investigations — those concerned with holding Israel accountable should not level allegations of such seriousness without producing some evidence.

Following Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza — during which more than 1,500 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority civilians — several well-known international human rights groups issued reports containing irrefutable evidence of shocking crimes. Israeli soldiers who participated in the attack on Gaza have been quoted in the Israeli press talking about how they or their colleagues committed atrocities, such as shooting dead unarmed civilians, including children.

The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of “blood libel.” This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence. If there is no evidence behind the organ theft claims, Israel can argue, then maybe all these other claims about crimes in Gaza are equally dubious.

Predictably, Israel and its supporters launched a ridiculous campaign not only targeting Bostrom and his newspaper, but against all of Sweden and its population of more than nine million. Some have started an online petition calling for the boycott of the furniture retailer IKEA, founded in Sweden, while the Israeli interior ministry claims it will freeze the entry visas for Swedish journalists. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Swedish government declare its “condemnation” of the article. This is a strategy that Israel could not use in response to the Gaza war crimes reports. With each violation clearly documented and coming from a wide range of credible sources and testimonies, Israel could not demand that governments condemn the human rights groups and publications that disseminated them. Israel predictably objected to the reports issued about Gaza, but tried to bring as little attention to them as possible — understandably, because the reports are irrefutable.

But Israel has done all it can to draw attention and create an international crisis out of the organ theft allegation. Even the president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden has condemned the response, saying that Israel “had blown the issue completely out of proportion.” As Israel does with increasingly little discrimination, it has claimed that the article was motivated by “anti-Semitism.” So far, Sweden has withstood Israel’s hectoring that its government must take a position on an article published in a free press. But given the record of pandering to Israel, it remains to be seen if Sweden will stick to this position. If Sweden does bow down to Israeli pressure, it would set a frightening precedent for journalists whereby Israel can affect a state’s policy of freedom for the press.

Israel’s tactics of intimidation are not justified by Bostrom’s article, which is nothing more than an example of irresponsible journalism and publishing. The editors at the Swedish daily Aftonbladet who published this piece, should’ve sent it back to the author and told him to investigate the issue further until he found evidence to corroborate his claims. If there is any basis for the organ theft allegations, diligent reporting would bring it out. As Malcolm X said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed;” all we need is to collect the evidence to prove it.