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The Feelings of a Stranger

Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinian people of Gaza is a glaring violation of its own history and religious beliefs.  The Hebrew Holy Scriptures’ book of Exodus records that, after leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, their god spoke these words to them: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (23:9).  The divine commandment  to “know the feelings of the stranger” was even more positively and powerfully expressed in Leviticus 19:33, 34: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Ironically, the people of modern day Israel are the “strangers” in the land of the Palestinians: they “wrong[ed]” the Palestinians by taking over their land and displacing them, violently driving them from their homes and villages, turning them into strangers in their own land.  So that a modern day “Promised Land” would be made for Jews, following the terrible holocaust they suffered in Europe and the related centuries upon centuries of anti-Semitic persecution.

The horrible suffering of the Jews reveals an indispensable requirement of the pathway to peace.  A primary key to peace-making anywhere is the capacity to “know the feelings of the stranger.”  To identify with the hell and hope of other people.  To know and remember, or be able to imagine, what it felt, or would feel like to be labeled a “stranger,” unwelcomed and unwanted, with one’s humanity violated, one’s rights denied, one’s life regarded as worthless and expendable.  “Know[ing] the feelings of the stranger” requires experiencing other people’s reality not interpreting it.  The reported reality of Gaza reveals that Israel is blatantly transgressing its own humanizing ethic inspired by its history of oppression and its god.

In a January 17, 2009 editorial on “The medical conditions in Gaza,” The Lancet, “the world’s leading general medical journal,” cited various reports that expressed the “wrong” Israel is committing against the Palestinian “strangers” in its midst:

The violence launched in Gaza is taking an unjustifiable toll on civilian populations.  At least 265 children have been killed so far, social infrastructures (UN buildings, schools and government facilities) have been badly damaged and agreed international norms of humanitarian behavior in situations of conflict have been breached.  So far several mobile clinics and ambulances have been damaged by Israeli attacks.  At least six medical personnel have been killed. . . .

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) . . . reports that the Israeli army has failed to assist Palestinians in need of medical assistance and has imposed delays on ambulance access to neighborhoods under fire.  The ICRC has said that “the Israeli military failed to meet its obligations under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded.” . . .

We find it hard to believe that an otherwise internationally respected democratic nation can sanction such large and indiscriminate human atrocities in a territory already under land and sea blockade.  The heavy loss of civilian life and destruction of Gaza’s health system is unjustified and disproportional despite rocket attacks by Hamas.  The collective punishment of Gazans is placing horrific and immediate burdens of injury and trauma on innocent civilians.  These actions contravene the fourth Geneva Convention.

We are disappointed by the silence of national medical associations and professional bodies worldwide in response to this destruction and dislocation of health services.

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The New York Times reported on “the feelings of the stranger” in a news story by Ethan Bronner called, “Outcry Erupts Over Reports That Israel Used Phosphorus Arms on Gazans.”  The story vividly describes horrible fatalities and intense feelings:

Ms. Abu Halima, the matriarch of a farming family in the northern Gaza area of Beit Lahiya, was caught in an inferno that burned her husband and four of their nine children to death. . . . Though there has been no independent confirmation, Palestinian officials say her family was hit by white phosphorus, a weapon that militaries use widely to obscure the battlefield but that is also limited under an international convention that bans targeting civilians with it. . . .[because] the horrible burns and the widespread fires phosphorus causes make it a menace to civilians. . . .

In Gaza, Ms. Abu Halima said that when her family was hit, “fire came from the bodies of my husband and my children.  The children were screaming, ‘Fire! Fire!’ and there was smoke everywhere and a horrible suffocating smell. . . . My 14-year-old daughter cried out, ‘I’m going to die.  I want to pray.’  I saw my daughter-in-law melt away.” . . . She wept with fury, saying that as farmers she and her family had good relations with Israelis, selling them produce in past years.  But now, she said, she wants to see Israeli leaders—she named the foreign minister and president—“burn like my children burned.  They should feel the pain we felt [italics added].” (Jan. 22, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Obliviousness to “the feelings of the stranger” is seen in a reprinted front-page Boston Globe news story by Ahmed Burai and Jeffrey Fleishman of the Los Angeles Times:

Mortar rounds fired by Israeli forces exploded at a UN school yesterday, killing at least 30 Palestinians who had sought shelter there. . . . John Ging, the senior UN official in Gaza, said 30 Palestinians died and 50 were injured when three artillery shells sprayed shrapnel through the Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp.  Palestinian doctors put the death toll at 37, including women and children. (Jan. 7, 2009)

“The feelings of the stranger” formed the caption of a New York Times news story by Taghreed El-Khodary called, “Gazans Express Grief and Rage Over Deaths Outside U.N. School”:

The bodies of the children who died outside the United Nations school here were laid out in a long row on the ground.  Some were wrapped in the vivid green flag of Hamas, some were in white shrouds, and some were in the yellow flag of Fatah, which is rarely seen these days in Hamas-run Gaza.

Hundreds of Gazans crowded around staring at the little faces, some of them with dark eyes still open, but dulled.

Abdel Minaim Hasan, 37, knelt weeping, next to the body of his eldest daughter, Lina, 11, who was wrapped in a Hamas flag.  “From now on I am Hamas!” he cried.  “I choose resistance!”  But then he cursed Arab nations for ignoring the plight of the Gazans.  “The Arabs are doing nothing to protect us!” he shouted.  (Jan. 8, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The inability to identify with “the feelings of the stranger” is revealed in a front-page  New York Times news story by Ethan Bonner on “Aid Groups Rebuke Israel Over Conditions in Gaza”:

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called for an investigation by Israel for a second time in a week after the more than 40 deaths near a United Nations school from Israeli tank fire on Tuesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported finding what it called shocking scenes on Wednesday, including four emaciated children next to the bodies of their dead mothers.  In a rare and sharply critical statement, it said it believed that “the Israeli military failed to meet its obligations under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded.” (Jan. 9, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Another front-page New York Times story entitled “Israel Shells U.N. Site in Gaza, Drawing Fresh Condemnation,” by Isabel Kershner, further documents Israel’s violation of its own commandment to “know the feelings of the stranger [and] to love him as yourself.”

Israel stepped up its 20-day-old offensive against the Islamic group Hamas on Thursday, shelling the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other buildings in central Gaza.  The strikes intensified condemnation of Israel, already heated because of the number of civilian deaths, and further strained fraught relations with the agency that aids Palestinian refugees. . . . The strike . . . against the United Nations headquarters wounded three people, destroying with three shells a warehouse full of hundreds of tons of food and medicine, said John Ging, director of the United Nations operations in the area. . . . Israeli officials . . . justified the attack on the refugee agency headquarters saying that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli forces from within the compound. . . . United Nations officials vehemently denied the allegations. . . .

Witnesses said Thursday’s military push into Gaza City sent thousands of panicked residents fleeing from their homes. (Jan. 16, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Richard Roth reported on CBS Evening news that no place was safe for the “strangers” in Gaza:

With Gaza City bombed and burning, Palestinians heeded Israel’s warning to get out of the way, but found they had nowhere to go.  [A desperate Palestinian woman is then televised and her “feelings” of helplessness translated by Roth]: “What’s a safe place for us to go?” the woman cried.  “Not to the UN compound where 700 people took shelter.”  Israelis actually hit it, then hit it again.  Three people were injured and food and other aid went up in the flames. . . . Israel claimed it was returning fire from militants.  Burning with rage, the U.N. denied that. . . .

An Israeli general said, “We need to use force like Americans in Iraq.  Hamas needs to be snuffed out [italics added].”

But the attack also hit the Reuters news agency office threatening the small press corps in Gaza, which Israel is keeping small by keeping most foreign reporters out.  Two  journalists from Abu Dahbi were wounded.  And in Gaza’s biggest hospital there were more small children in the string of casualties than men of fighting age. (Jan. 15, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.”

Israel’s heartless refusal to recall its own history of oppression and related moral commitment to “know the feelings of the stranger” is starkly documented by Washington Post reporters Craig Whitlock and Jonathan Finer in a reprinted front-page Boston Globe news story:

Israeli soldiers flashed the victory sign yesterday as they began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.  Shell-shocked Palestinians emerged from shelters and counted their dead. . . . More than 1, 250 Palestinians were killed after Israel launched its military operation Dec. 27, said Gazan health officials, who reported that more bodies were still being discovered.  More than half of the dead were civilians, according to health officials, UN relief workers and humanitarian aid groups.  Thirteen Israelis died during the conflict, including 10 soldiers and three civilians, according to the Israeli military. (Jan. 19, 2009)

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The United States Senate and House of Representatives were unable to remember America’s own ancestors’ history of being “strangers” in a new land nor recall the indigenous people being turned into “strangers” in their own land by the “Founding Fathers.”  There is much similarity here. No doubt the British military called the resisting colonists “terrorists.”  And the colonists, in turn, called the indigenous people “savages,” another word for “terrorists,” which is “how the West (and East) was dehumanized and then won.”

In a Foreign Policy Journal piece on “US Senate Endorses Israel’s War on Gaza,” Jeremy R. Hammond reveals the Senate’s failure to identify with “strangers” past and present:

The US Senate on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution promoted by the influential Israeli lobby AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), effectively endorsing Israel’s war on Gaza.  The resolution, entitled “A resolution expressing solidarity with Israel in Israel’s defense against terrorism in the Gaza Strip” recognizes “the right of Israel to defend itself against attacks from Gaza” and reaffirms “the United States’ strong support for Israel in the battle with Hamas.”  The resolution does not recognize the right of self-defense of the Palestinian people. (Jan. 9, 2009)

The House of Representatives followed the Senate’s inability to walk a mile in the footsteps of the “strangers” in America’s midst.  CNN Politics.com reported that the House “overwhelmingly passed a resolution Friday ‘recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza,’ a measure that it said reaffirms the United States’ strong support for Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

The CNN story continued:

The bill was also passed amid growing concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians are without food and clean water, according to senior U.S. officials, citing reports from the World Food Program.  The densely populated Gaza also is facing widespread epidemics because of the dire living conditions and the suspension of vaccination programs December 27, when the conflict began, the officials said, citing reports from the World Health Organization.  (Jan. 9, 2009)

The political leader most incapable of identifying with “strangers”—the “commander-in-chief” who repeatedly demonstrated he does not know his own heart, seen in his administration’s imperialistic “war of terror” having hardened the hearts of most Arabs and Muslims in the world against America—is former President George Bush, who said in a January 2, 2009 radio address while still in office,

Over the past week, I have been monitoring the situation in the Middle East closely with the members of my national security team. . . . This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas—a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction.  Eighteen months ago, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup, and since then has imported thousands of guns and rockets and mortars.  Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. . . . On December 19th, Hamas announced an end to the ceasefire and soon unleashed a barrage of rockets and mortars that deliberately targeted innocent Israelis—an act of terror that is opposed by the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, President Abbas. . . .

For the Palestinian people, we seek a peaceful and democratic Palestinian state that serves its citizens and respects its neighbors. . . . And we seek an enduring peace based on justice, dignity, and human rights for every person in every nation in the Middle East.  (Jan. 2, 2009 transcript by Pelikan, Source: White House Press Office)

What an outrageous, dangerous, willful, heartless refusal to understand the reality of the Palestinian people, turned into “strangers” in their own land by US-supported Israel.  “This recent outburst of violence” was not instigated by Hamas but by Israel, which broke a 2008 ceasefire agreement with Hamas by entering Gaza on November 4 and killing six of its members and by tightening rather than its agreed to easing of the strangling, prison-creating economic blockade.  (See Henry Siegman “Israel Lies,” London Review of Books, Jan. 29, 2009)

It is not about “a Palestinian terrorist group” but about a nationalistic Hamas movement emerging from and democratically elected by the oppressed Palestinian people to represent them in the face of Israel’s brutal economic blockade, an act of war that is blatantly punishing the Palestinian people in Gaza in violation of international law.  It is not about “Hamas [taking] over the Gaza Strip in a coup,” but about democratically elected Hamas foiling a coup instigated by the US and Israel to put the controllable Palestinian Authority in power.  It is not about a “terrorist group” but about labeling as “terrorists” those who dare to resist US imperialism.  It is about the anti-democratic ways in which the Bush administration “spreads democracy in the Middle East.”  It is about heartlessness.

The reality of “the strangers” in Gaza is not about “Israel’s right to exist” but about the plight of Palestinians who are only given the right to subsist—and about democratically-elected, non-conforming Hamas’ “need[ing] to be snuffed out,” i.e. not having the right to exist.  It is not about “seek[ing] an enduring peace based on justice, dignity and human rights for every person in every nation in the Middle East,” but about “We need to use force like Americans in Iraq.”  Like Iraq, it is about war crimes that also need to be prosecuted.

The Israelites of long ago gave us the key to peace in the Middle East—and in the world!  “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”  To know our own feelings is to allow our humanness to transcend political, ethnic, or religious entitlement and “know” and even “love” the “stranger” as ourselves.

Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion.  He can be reached at william.alberts@bmc.org.

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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