Gainesville's sister cities in Palestine & Israel: Making the connections
Dr. Richard K. MacMaster & Steve Kalishman
While Gainesville residents were still reeling in horror from the tragic events of September 11, the mayor of a Palestinian city faxed a letter to the mayor of Gainesville expressing his community's "sympathy and solidarity in this critical situation with the American Nation."
Marouf Zahran, Mayor of Qalqilya, Gainesville's Palestinian sister city, writing on behalf of the municipal council, the staff and the citizens of Qalqilya, extended "deepest condolences to the American people for the tragic loss of the innocent victims of the evil act that took place on 11.9.2001 in New York and Washington."
"We believe that innocent people from your city Gainesville, other American cities, the Middle East and the whole world have been killed. We consider this act is criminal and contrary to all human and Islamic values," Zahran wrote. He said they were praying for "peace to prevail in the whole world and in particular the tensed regions, " and expressed hope for the application of international agreements in these areas of tension "to enable people to take and exercise their natural rights and live in peace."
Zahran also sent an e-mail message to Steven Kalishman, Gainesville attorney and president of the Sister City Program of Gainesville. Kalishman was instrumental in setting up a sister city relationship involving Gainesville, Qalqilya, and neighboring Kfar Saba, Israel, the only three-way program with an Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. city.
On behalf of the Gainesville/Kfar Saba/Qalqilya Sister City Committee, Kalishman responded to Zahran by thanking him for his message of sympathy and support. "It is great to know that our friendship can survive even the most challenging circumstances. Terrorism and the killing of innocent people are unacceptable and must be condemned wherever they occur," Kalishman wrote.
"The discussions which were held during your visit to Gainesville last year clearly demonstrated the possibilities for mutually beneficial exchanges among our three cities. The events which have occurred since then have no less clearly demonstrated the need for programs such as ours to strengthen the bonds of friendship among peace-loving people," he wrote.
Soon it was Gainesville's turn to express sympathy and solidarity with the people of Qalqilya when they were suffering. Qalqilya was one of six West Bank cities occupied by Israeli Defense Forces last Fall in response to the assassination of a cabinet minister.
Beginning October 21, Zahran sent daily messages to the Gainesville Sister City Committee about what was happening in Qalqilya.
"At one o'clock in the morning the Israeli troops entered the city of Qalqilya from the Eastern, Northern and Southern entrances." Two civilians were killed in the initial action. They took over private houses at each entrance point, evacuated the residents, and turned them into military posts. Electrical transformers were destroyed, cutting off power to a third of the city, as well as the municipal water supply. The city was under siege and no one could enter or leave, including medical staff and ambulances. Food supplies became dangerously low. Garbage could not be collected or damaged waterlines repaired. Poultry raisers and farmers were not allowed to feed and water their stock.
The Gainesville sister city committee met October 24 and decided to "Pass on your messages to the U.S. news media along with an article describing our relationship; Educate our city officials about the situation in Qalqilya, and encourage them to write to our congressmen and the US State Department to let them know our concerns; and Prepare ourselves to immediately begin implementing exchanges with Qalqilya and Kfar Saba at the first opportunity."
Although Gainesville was probably unique in getting daily e-mail reports from a West Bank Mayor, the mainstream media did not show much interest, rejecting articles Steve Kalishman sent to them. The Alligator did print a story about the sister cities.
Qalqilya was not immediately targeted when the Israeli Defense Forces began a massive operation on the West Bank in March of this year. The city was surrounded by tanks and soldiers, making it impossible for residents to go to their jobs or receive ordinary municipal services.
"At the dawn of Friday April 26 the Israeli troops again invaded Qalqilya, imposing a strict curfew on the city and disconnecting electricity and water," Mayor Zahran reported. "In certain suburbs the troops evacuated the residents from their houses, handcuffed the young, putting blindfolds on their eyes, humiliating old people, women, and children and leaving them long hours in open areas."
The soldiers inspected houses, arresting 25 people. One man was killed and six wounded in the process.
"The troops exploded 6 residential buildings, which comprise tens of residential apartments, leaving the residents without shelter," the Mayor wrote.
As happened in earlier incursions, tanks flattened electric poles and power lines as well as sunshades [awnings] erected on the sidewalks in the main streets.
The army again withdrew to just outside the city, leaving Qalqilya under siege, the Mayor said. "The troops are not allowing the citizens to leave or enter the city, and even the farmers are prevented access to their farms, which led to the destruction of their groves and production."
Mayor Zahran said that "The situation is very difficult, the rate of unemployment is over 80%. A state of anger and frustration is prevailing. People are anxious about the coming [the future] and the unknown."
There are 40,000 people living in Qalqilya, many of them "on the verge of hunger." Food and medicine are in short supply and it is difficult to bring anything to the city, but fifteen Jewish and Arab activists (some from Gainesville's other sister city Kfar Saba, Israel) brought 13 tons of rice, beans, sugar, oil and baby food to Qalqilya on May Day.
They represented Kav La'Oved (Workers' Hotline) and the Arab-Jewish Ta'ayush movement.
"At the road-block we witnessed the usual line of commercial trucks, waiting for the permission to enter the unpaved area. This is far as they are allowed to go. Here they have to unload their cargo, one by one, and then the Israeli army allows one truck from Qalqilya to come to this area to load the merchandise."
The average wait at the road-block is three hours. "Being a relief convoy we were allowed to by-pass the line, but the Israeli border guards took their time."
A delegation from Qalqilya came out to meet them, but they were not allowed to leave the city.
"From the direction of Qalqilya we could see a group of people, about 30 of them, trying to reach us but were stopped by the Israeli soldiers. Among them were the Mayor of the town, a local MP, and the secretary of the Palestinian Trade Unions in town. We had started marching towards them but were stopped by the soldiers. For a few moments we all stood there, the two groups facing each other, some 30 meters apart, some of us - recognizing acquaintances on the other sides - waving to each other."
"The soldiers, maybe understanding the absurdity of the situation, maybe touched by the moving sight, finally allowed us to mingle. This was a much more moving scene, when people from both sides, supposedly enemies, hurried towards each other, embraced and shook hands and kissed. One of us has heard the commander of the Israeli soldiers commenting that he found it very moving too."
"Then the Mayor and MP made short speeches, and the Trade Union secretary stressed the symbolic act of solidarity on May Day, the international workers' day. Representatives of Ta'ayush and Kav La'Oved answered with few words of solidarity each, and then we departed again, to allow the trucks in."
Hunger is a real threat to our sister city. The Israeli activists learned that only 2,000 portions of food had entered Qalqilya in the previous month. "Our cargo can serve 400-500. Due to the great need, and different organizations which distribute aid, a coordinating committee was formed in town, to make sure that no-one gets help twice while others get nothing."
Do sister cities share as real sisters do?
Richard K. MacMaster is a member of the Sister City Committee and a retired history professor. He received his doctorate in American History from Georgetown University, and has written several books on early American history. Steve Kalishman is an attorney and president of the Sister City Program of Gainesville. For more information, please call 866.899.0893
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