According to the Torah, God provided for the needs of those who journeyed through the wilderness. The lesson this teaches us in our current political moment is all too obvious: the provision of humanitarian aid is divine work. Those who stand up to systems of state violence are not criminals — they are following a sacred imperative at the very heart of the Exodus story.
This weekend, I’ll be joining 60 faith leaders from around the country in southern Arizona to witness and respond to the suffering on our border though “Faith Floods the Desert” — a collaboration between No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Representing communities of many faiths and denominations, we’re going to stand in solidarity with humanitarian aid workers and local residents by walking into the desert and leaving gallons of water along heavily-frequented migrant trails.
No More Deaths/No Más Muertes — a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona — has documented how border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. As violence and hardship grow in parts of Latin America — in direct response to US foreign policy — and as pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, growing numbers of people are crossing the border to reunite with their families and seek safety.
In May 1948, Israel declared its independence. Palestinians such as Hafida Khatib refer to this moment as the “Nakba” (catastrophe). Hafida and her family fled to Lebanon, a country that has never felt like home.
Hafida remembers her family’s small house. She still has the key, but the house no longer exists. Today, she must contend with renting a dark apartment. Lebanon does not allow Palestinians to own land or housing.
Following the outbreak of the Arab–Israeli War in 1948, 19-year-old Hafida Khatib and her family fled from the Palestinian village of Dayr al-Qassi to neighbouring Lebanon. “I have lived in Lebanon for 70 years, but I’ve never forgotten Palestine,” says Hafida, who is now almost 90.
Today she lives in the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, which lies in the south of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Camp residents like to quip that not even a coffin fits through its narrow streets. Many houses are run down and at risk of collapsing. Three years ago, Hafida moved into a small ground-floor apartment after her leg was amputated because of complications resulting from diabetes.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand where much of this comes from. Jews of all ethnicities bear the scars and the genetic memory of every manner of heinous racism, up to and including genocide.
It’s all too true, at the same time, that in a tragic given of human nature, the abused is at great risk of becoming an abuser.
This is Zionism as racism. This is Israel at 70.
This is a country which so demeans and dismisses and conflates Palestinian lives, that after a horrendous casualty rate in massive demonstrations at the Gaza border over the weekend, Eli Hazan, a spokesman for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, referred to the men, women, children and elderly protesters camped hundreds of meters from the border fence, and told i24 News Monday without flinching:
A person who suffered force labor, violence, rape and torture in his own country — is he not a refugee?
Someone who was persecuted only because of her religion and ethnic background — is she not a refugee?
A person forced to flee his home only because of his skin color — is he not a refugee?
Someone whose village was burned and her family members killed in front of her eyes — is she not a refugee?
And he who survived a genocide — is he not a refugee?
If these people are not considered refugees in Israel, than who is?
My name is Monim Harun, an asylum seeker from Sudan. I was born in a small village nested between mountains and forests, where we lived together as one big family. At a young age I was separated from my family and the people I loved most in the world when the militia forces attacked our village. They went through the village killing every man and boy in sight, but by a miracle I survived. My mother wanted me to live in a safer place and have the opportunity to study, so in 2001, at the age of 12, she sent me to the other side of the country, to the Blue Nile region of the Republic of Sudan.
When I left the village it felt bittersweet — leaving behind my mother and sisters, and the people I loved. But I knew that in doing so, I would be able to acquire new skills that would help me rebuild my community on my return. In the Blue Nile region I completed elementary through high school, and was accepted to Blue Nile University. I spent three years there studying toward a degree in electrical engineering — five years are required for the program. During those years I joined a student organization that fights against the rule of radical Islam in Sudan, and calls for a democratic, secular and liberal system of government. My involvement in social and political advocacy wound up placing my life in great danger, all the more so because my Fur ethnicity is one against which the Sudanese government has been perpetrating genocide.
“Abu Nuwar is one of the most vulnerable communities in need of humanitarian assistance in the occupied West Bank. The conditions it faces also represent those of many Palestinian communities, where a combination of Israeli policies and practices — including demolitions and restricted access to basic services, such as education — have created a coercive environment that violates the human rights of residents and generates a risk of forcible transfer.”
— Roberto Valent, United Nations acting Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territories
United Nations acting Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territories, Roberto Valent, said on Sunday that he was deeply concerned by Israel’s destruction of donor-funded classrooms in the Palestinian community of Abu Nuwar, east of Jerusalem.
“I am deeply concerned by the Israeli authorities’ demolition this morning of two donor-funded classrooms (3rd and 4th grade), serving 26 Palestinian school children in the Bedouin and refugee community of Abu Nuwar, located in Area C on the outskirts of Jerusalem,” Valent said in a statement. “The demolition was carried out on grounds of lack of Israeli-issued permits, which are nearly impossible to obtain.”
Netanyahu isn’t bashful. . . . For him and his allies, the world sinned against Jews, and Israel’s obligation stops at giving refuge to Jews.
“I don’t have a visa,” Emanuel Yemani told me.
He spoke in Hebrew on the phone. After his third prison term for political offenses, Yemani had fled from Eritrea, traveling north through Sudan and Egypt. He crossed the Sinai Peninsula — the same ancient route used by Hebrew slaves delivered from Egypt — and entered Israel ten years ago.
It has been enough time for him to learn the language — but not enough to gain a firm legal status. Like nearly 40,000 other refugees from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, Yemani has lived on a short-term visa that he must renew every couple of months at the Interior Ministry. The last time he did so, he brought a document that had been requested. The ministry official refused to take it, and Yemani recounted the exchange:
“No need,” said the official. “Soon we’ll deport all of you, and you’ll sit under a tree, open your mouth and wait for a banana to fall, like a monkey.”
“But I’m a human being, not a monkey,” Yemani answered.
“Don’t you see yourselves, that you look like monkeys?” the official answered.
“The asylum seekers that are deported from Israel end up in Libya, end up being sold. This is not just an idea, this is what happens to them actually once they are deported from Israel. Their lives are in danger. We came today to the Knesset to reinforce that message.”
— Sigal Avivi, Israeli refugee rights activist
A group of Eritrean asylum seekers and Israeli refugee advocates staged a mock slave auction outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, while a conference on government plans to begin mass deportations of asylum seekers took place inside Wednesday morning.
Around 10 asylum seekers stood on make-shift auction blocks made of milk crates, while an auctioneer called out, “get your slaves, slaves for half price,” over a megaphone. A single member of Knesset, Dov Khenin, came outside to support the asylum seekers, and called Israel’s refugee policy inhumane and unacceptable.
Israeli officials have stated that starting in a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel will face a stark choice: indefinite imprisonment or agree to be sent to Rwanda or Uganda. Asylum seekers who have left Israel for the two countries in recent years have not received any legal status there, and faced dangerous conditions and choices, including heading toward Europe through Libya, where human trafficking and other types of violence is a constant danger.
“For a lot of Palestinian refugees the UNRWA is the last life buoy. With the help of UNRWA half a million of Palestine children are able to go to school. This prevents them from falling prey to radicalization and extreme violence.”
—Alexander De Croo, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister
Belgium has pledged to donate 19m euro ($23m) to UNRWA, the UN’s aid organization for Palestinian refugees, after the US government announced it would slash its funding to the agency by half.
Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a statement on Wednesday that Brussels would allocate the funds over three years.
The first annual payment is being disbursed immediately “considering the financial difficulties that UNRWA currently faces,” the statement said.
Washington announced on Tuesday it is withholding $65m out of the $125m aid package earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, or UNRWA.
“At stake is the dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The reduced contribution also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalization.”
— Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA Commissioner-General
The head of the UN agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees appealed on Wednesday for world donations after the United States withheld about half its planned funding for the organization, a move he said risks instability in the region.
Washington said on Tuesday it would provide $60 million to the UN Relief and Welfare Agency while keeping back a further $65 million for now. The US State Department said UNRWA needed to make unspecified reforms.
Palestinians, already angered by US President Donald Trump’s Dec 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, denounced the decision, which could deepen hardship in the Gaza Strip where UNRWA helps much of its population of 2 million.
“We are extremely worried. We support 1 million people with food. . . . [We] just hope we have enough time to persuade them to change their mind and/or to find another donor.”
— Matthias Schmale, UNRWA Gaza Director
The UN Relief and Works Agency, the main body providing aid to millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East, made an urgent appeal for international support Wednesday, one day after the State Department announced that it will slash its annual funding.
“After decades of generous support, dramatic reduction of US funding to @UNRWA results in most critical financial situation in history of Agency,” the agency’s commissioner general, Pierre Krähenbühl, wrote on Twitter. “I call on member states of the United Nations to take a stand & demonstrate to Palestine Refugees that their rights & future matter.”
In a more detailed statement to the media, Krähenbühl said the U.S. contribution of $60 million, less than half of a planned $125 million installment, is “dramatically below past levels” and jeopardizes the “dignity and human security of millions of Palestine refugees, in need of emergency food assistance and other support.”