Monday, November 30, 2009

Remembering, or forgettting, Yitzhak Rabin

By Michael Barajas

Commemorating the assassination the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has raised controversy ever since an extremist right-wing Orthodox Jewish man shot him dead 14 years ago.

Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, officially recognizing the P.L.O. and creating the Palestinian Authority while for the first time also making partial land concessions to the Palestinians. The landmark agreement also brought Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table for the first time, ending much of the violence of the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

But ever since Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, Israelis have remained divided over what exactly the agreement accomplished. Many on the left cheer Rabin, praising him for pushing peace forward, while many on the right – and Orthodox religious communities – demonize him for giving up Israeli land and recognizing any Palestinian leadership.

In recent years, a new phenomenon has popped up in Israel in which Israeli rightists and Orthodox religious communities focus solely on commemorating the death of the Jewish matriarch Rachel at Rachel’s Tomb, disregarding the Rabin celebrations. Some say it’s a way to effectively dodge the dicey political issue that Rabin’s death evokes, turning the yearly gathering at Rachel’s tomb into a counter-Rabin celebration.

An Orthodox religious man prays inside Rachel's Tomb

Efrat Zemer wrote this week in the Israeli tabloid Maariv that many state religious schools have even begun focusing solely on the Jewish matriarch, though commemoration of Rabin in Israeli schools is mandatory. The anniversary of Rachel’s death, he writes, has suddenly become more prominent than it was in the past, before Rabin’s assassination.

It shows, Zemer says, how this divided nation is dealing with its troubled past. He claims many in the religious community separate themselves from the Rabin memorial, saying they don’t want to take part in remembering an assassination for which they were blamed. This year, organizers estimated that up to 150,000 people journeyed to Rachel’s tomb on the anniversary of both her and Rabin’s death – that’s up from 80,000 just last year.

The separation barrier surrounding the tomb complex

Though Rachel’s tomb is technically in the West Bank on the outskirts of Bethlehem, an Israeli barrier to separate it from the rest of the West Bank now surrounds it. The site is approachable from only from Israel, and access is generally restricted to tourists and Jewish pilgrims.

The area feels more like a heavily militarized zone than a tourist or pilgrimage site. The tomb is almost unrecognizable and blends in with the high walls, fences and razor wire surrounding it. The area was once a hotbed of violence during both Intifadas, and while some come here on the anniversary of Rachel’s death to escape the politically charged issue of Rabin’s murder, politics are hard to ignore while literally enclosed by the Israeli-West Bank separation wall.

Israeli soldiers stand guard outside the tomb

When asked, one rabbi organizing busloads of religious men and women into the imposing tomb complex simply said, “Our focus is not on Rabin, it’s on Rachel. Yitzhak Rabin was also a child of God, you can pray for him too if you want.”

Some, even in government, have been more vocal about their opposition to Rabin’s remembrance. Israeli Cabinet member Michael Ben-Ari announced Thursday that he was boycotting a special cabinet session dedicated to the assassinated prime minister, saying it alienates the country’s right-wing and turns Oslo process into a “festival.” Thursday, right-wing Israeli activists passed out flyers at Israeli university campuses urging people to protest Rabin remembrance ceremonies taking place all over Israel this weekend.

Thursday, standing near the drab entrance to Rachel’s Tomb surrounded by religious men bowing incessantly in prayer, one rabbi said, “Rabin was just a politician. People won’t remember him in 100 years from now. We’ll always remember Rachel.”

A guard outside Rachel's tomb

Michael Barajas is a recent Scripps graduate. He is currently interning with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, Israel. To visit his portfolio website, go to:

Images and content copyright Michael Barajas


By Celia Shortt

Church is an important part of my life wherever I am. So, when I moved to Guyana, it was a natural thing for me to look for a church here.

Now, I go to church for many reasons. One of the most important reasons is that I enjoy the fellowship and encouragement I receive when I am with other believers. Well, like a lot here, church is much different than church back home.

First off, like most places here, I can’t blend in. I stand out everywhere I go. That makes it hard when I want to just sit back and absorb what the pastor is saying. Second, it also makes it hard to worship when everything around me is different. I can’t revel in the comfort of what I am used to.

So, I grew discouraged with church. In fact, I even thought about not going one Sunday morning. For me, that was breaking a lifelong habit. I wasn’t ready to do that, so I went to church, reluctantly.

When I arrived, I had to look around to make sure I was in the right place. There was an entire group of Americans there. I was a bit overwhelmed, so I did my usual act and sat at the end of one of the back pews. I wasn’t fast enough. The Americans started talking to me while another quickly snapped my picture with one of the children at church.

These folks were from a church in the U.S. and were visiting to do some missions work with the children’s home that was run by the church. Not only that, but their team leader lived in Guyana and was going to be back here permanently in January. In less than five minutes, God had made my trips to church worth everything that it took to get me there.

Despite the differences between my church here and my church back home, I still see God working in both places. That is one thing that hasn’t changed with my location.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Diary from Guyana – PERSEVERANCE

By Celia Shortt

It took a week for IT to hit me. IT was homesickness. I realized one afternoon that I wanted to go home. My life, my family, and friends were on another continent (which might as well have been another planet), and I was here, alone, in Guyana.

I tried to keep myself busy by sightseeing, but as I observed the view from the top of the highest single drop waterfall in the world, all I could think about was how much my family would enjoy it. I went to my apartment and cried. I still had 10 months and three weeks to go. I knew how much my eyes and head would hurt and how red and raw my face would be if I cried every day.

This place was so much different than home. First, this place was hot, and there was little to no air conditioning. Second, the fast internet here is slower than the slow internet at home. It takes at least one day to download an episode of any television show from iTunes. So one day to download a show that takes 45 minutes to watch. Third, it is impossible for me to blend in here. I’m pretty much the only white person wherever I go. When I teach, I’m either the only white person or one of two white people. More than that, my accent is so completely different than the ones here that even on the phone I can’t blend in.

Ten months and three weeks of this might as well have been the rest of my life. I spent countless hours on the phone with my mom trying to figure out how to deal with this. The theme in everything she told me was to persevere. Easier said than done, but to honor my mother, I persevered at perseverance.

I now have about seven months and two and a half weeks left here. I still miss my family, friends, and life in the U.S. Guyana is still hot with very little air conditioning. It still takes at least a day to download one episode of anything, and I can only blend in when I’m with folks from the U.S. Embassy. Through it all, I persevere, knowing that my perseverance will allow me to learn lessons impossible any other way. I’m positive, too, that with my perseverance will come some great experiences that will make my life richer than it would have been without.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Expelled West Bank student petitions Israel court

The Associated Press
Thursday, November 12, 2009

JERUSALEM — A female Palestinian student who says she was handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to the Gaza Strip by the Israeli army in the middle of the night late last month asked Israel's supreme court Thursday to let her return to her studies in the West Bank.

The incident highlights a deep fear among the thousands of Palestinians originally from Gaza who now live in the West Bank — sudden expulsion by the Israelis to the Hamas-ruled coastal strip.

Berlanty Azzam, 21, was only two months away from finishing her business degree at Bethlehem University when she was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the West Bank. After noticing her Gaza-issued identity card, soldiers detained Azzam and put her in the back of an army jeep.

When Israeli soldiers led her out of the vehicle around midnight, Azzam was shocked to see where she was — the border between Gaza and Israel.

"I was so surprised, I didn't know what to say," Azzam recalled. "I tried to ask the soldiers if there's any other solution than this, and they just said, 'No, you've reached Gaza, you have to enter.'"

Yadin Elam, a lawyer with the Israeli human rights group Gisha representing Azzam, said such incidents happen on a daily basis and constitute a removal "by force" on the part of Israel of Palestinians from West Bank to Gaza.

Elam estimated that there are currently as many as 25,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank in danger of being deported to Gaza because their identification cards list a Gaza address.

Rights group lawyers and university faculty members asked the supreme court Thursday to allow Azzam to return to the West Bank. Azzam, denied a permit to travel to Jerusalem for the day, remains in Gaza.

Elam said during the hearing that Israel violated Azzam's basic legal rights by denying her access to a lawyer before deportation.

The Israeli supreme court ruled in 2007 that Gaza students had to obtain a permit if they wished to study in the West Bank. Elam said such permits did not exist when Azzam enrolled in Bethlehem University in 2005. At the time, she obtained a four-day permit to enter Israel so she could cross over to the West Bank.

"How could they deport her for not having a permit that didn't even exist?" Elam said.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip lie on opposite sides of Israel. The Palestinians hope to form an independent state that includes both territories. Under the 1993 Oslo interim peace accord, both areas were to be considered a single territorial unit. But since Hamas militants violently seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has branded Gaza an enemy entity and imposed a blockade that includes strict travel restrictions on residents.

The Israeli army says Azzam was living in the West Bank illegally, and was rightly returned to Gaza.

The court on Thursday remanded the case to a military hearing to be held at the Gaza border next week, where Azzam can attend.

"My priority, what's most important, is to get back to my studies," Azzam said, speaking by phone from Gaza. "I was so close to finishing, I just want to get back to Bethlehem and finish."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Israel seizes massive weapons shipment

By Michael Barajas

Wednesday the Israeli navy seized a ship carrying an enormous illegal weapons cache off the coast of Cyprus. The Israelis claim they have shipping documents showing the weapons were sent from Iran to arm the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon.

I was lucky enought to spend most of the day reporting from the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, where the army brought the ship. The military walk me around the nearby dock where they had lined up row after row of shipping containers, their contents spilling out onto the pavement revealing the hundreds boxes of rockets, grenades and other munitions. The stash contained hundreds of the same type of the rockets Hamas and Hezbollah have used to attack Israel in the past.

The Israelis are calling this the smoking gun that proves Iran's determination to arm militant groups that continue to threaten the Jewish state - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

All of this comes at a time when Israel is under fire for its conduct in last year's harsh Gaza offensive, with a U.N. report accusing the country of war crimes for deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians. Israel says the report's claims are outrageous and that it debases Israel's right to self-defense.

Israeli politicians and experts explained to me today that Israel is sure to use this incident for its benefit, shifting the focus to Iran - to which Israel insists the international community needs to take a more hard-line stance - and drawing attention away from the damning U.N. report.

Showing that it plans to fully publicize the incident, Israel has already invited swaths of foreign ambassadors to tour the weapons stockpile, which is both stunning and unsettling to see first-hand.

Read the story here.

Michael Barajas is a recent Scripps graduate. He is currently interning with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, Israel. To visit his portfolio website, go to:

Images and content copyright Michael Barajas

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jewish settlers evict Arab east Jerusalem family

The Associated Press

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

JERUSALEM -- Jewish settlers forced their way into a disputed house in east Jerusalem on Tuesday, using hired guards to evict an elderly Palestinian woman and tossing the other residents' belongings into the rain-swept yard.

The settlers displayed what they said was a court order granting them ownership of the simple one-story building. Human rights groups said the takeover was a push by Jewish settlers to expand their presence in east Jerusalem.

Sovereignty over the traditionally Arab sector is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed it - a move recognized by no other country. The Palestinians consider east Jerusalem the capital of their hoped-for state.

Palestinians and their Israeli supporters clashed with the Jewish settlers after they took over the building, and police intervened to restore calm, arresting one of the Israeli protesters, a police spokesman said.

Similar clashes have broken out over nearby buildings in recent months.

"It's clear to me that this is another case of settlers taking the law into their own hands," said Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli group that opposes Palestinian home evictions and demolitions.

"It's just another step-by-step way of pushing them (the Palestinians) out," he said.

Grenimann said 29 members of the al-Kurd family lived in the house evicted on Tuesday. Some of them had settled there after they were evicted from another house in the same neighborhood, following the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to uphold the settlers' claim to the ownership of that building.

Conflicting claims and religious tensions make east Jerusalem - which includes the Old City, with key holy sites revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians - a frequent flashpoint.

Palestinians want to make it their future capital, while Israel insists on retaining control of the whole city.

Israel has built homes for more than 180,000 Jews in new east Jerusalem neighborhoods since the 1967 annexation.

The U.S. and others have criticized Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem and urged Israel to stop evicting Palestinians and demolishing their homes there, saying such moves disrupt peace efforts.

© 2009 The Associated Press

Michael Barajas is a recent Scripps graduate. He is currently interning with the Associated Press in Jerusalem, Israel. To visit his portfolio website, go to: