Lockdown….again!

Ilan portrait

This blog of mine was going to be beautiful. I worked it all out. I was going to reflect on my filming visit last week to the excavations of Sephoris, an ancient Jewish, mixed city that flourished in the first centuries BCE (it was the Capital of Northern Israel because it did not adhere to the Jewish zealots who wanted it to join the futile rebellion against Rome. The cities that rebelled, like Jerusalem or Masada were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred. Instead, Sephoris signed a peace treaty with Rome and as a result, not only grew and expanded, but has also become a multi-cultural, tolerant city—Judaism’s most important spiritual center after the destruction of Jerusalem, and a home for early Christian groups and even Pagans. Pagan temples existed in Sephoris alongside churches and synagogues. I was going to reflect on the forgotten message of Sephoris, a city barely known outside academic circles or church-going crowds (it is only 10 minutes from Nazareth, by car) while Mesada, for example, has become a place visited by millions…a mere symbol.

As I drafted this meditative blog, I received Mark Stroman’s most recent blog. Since Mark is mailing his blogs (written by hand after his typewriter was taken away), they need first to be typed by his dedicated friend. The result is a short time delay.

After reading his blog, I have decided that some of my reflections can wait for another time. It is more urgent to publish this blog here, while in Mark’s regular space we keep publishing his blogs as they arrive (this week, for example, we publish his blog from June 22nd.)

The truth is that I am furious. We spent so much time on “Johnny Sacks meals” during a previous lockdown (in which Mark and other inmates lost so much weight) but obviously, we did not make a dent in the prison menu. Just a few months later and we are back fighting about the same thing. This peculiar diet, I do have to agree with Mark, is cruel and unusual punishment and as The New York  Times mentioned in a June 28th , 2009  editorial  it is also profitable.

Read below what Mark wrote and help us publicize it in the united States and abroad.

Death Blog

Texas Death Row

July 9, 2009  4:45am

Welcome to my nightmare,

Tales from a dead man

We are entering the fourth day of this lockdown and it’s for another yearly shakedown. The worst is yet to come folks. This is a place that smells of death, misery, sadness and it seems to only get worse as the days go by. We do have two executions set for the 16th and the 23rd of this month and what a helluva way to spend the final countdown on lockdown eating those dreadfull Johnny Sacks. Cruel and unusual punishment.

Each day you can look down the “run” and see dozens upon dozens of peanut butter ooz sandwiches, we can’t eat these things. This year you can’t even hold the bag without getting your hands greasy. This is wrong and here’s the menu for the last few days. You will notice from the blog I sent out  a few days ago, there had been prunes and raisins included, but that has come to a halt.

Meals fed on July 7th, Johnny Sacks:

3:36am  3 pancakes in a bag, cereal, raisins No drink

1:18pm  peanut butter ooz sandwich, fish mash sandwich, cereal No drink

4:25pm  peanut butter ooz sandwich, soy patty  No drink

Meals fed on July 8th, Johnny Sacks:

3:15am  3 pancakes in a bag, cereal  No drink

10:49am  burrito, raw potato, peanut butter ooz sandwich  No drink

4:24pm  2 corn dogs, peanut butter ooz sandwich  No drink

So you see, no fruits, no milks and trust me, these things I call peanut butter sandwiches are NOT the ones that come to mind or resemble any you have had in the past. NOT made by grandma. These are scattered all over the floors of every run on this pod. Wonder why?

Well folks, that’s about all for this session. I’ll close this out but will be back with more news of this lockdown.

True American

Mark Anthony Stroman

Living to Die ~ Dying to Live!

“GREEN CARD”

 Ilan portrait

 

The week an immigrant family was brutally murdered in Arizona I got my new “green card” or Permanent Resident card. Though I have had permanent resident status since 01.09.84, I never bothered to apply for citizenship. Over the years, I tried to produce or even invent some rational explanations to questioning friends and family members. Recently, I just gave up, admitting that none of my explanations make any sense. There are obviously some deeper reasons that even I do not understand which somehow kept me a permanent resident for over 25 years, never applying for citizenship. I also realized that, apparently, there are millions like me. As I write these lines, I am holding the two cards in front of me. The old one, which is literally falling apart, shows an earnest young man of 34. It is called a RESIDENT ALIEN card, a title that always freaked out my two girls when they were young. Born and raised in NY, the idea that their dad was an “Alien” was unsettling. The new card is far more elegant, high tech, with different magnetic codes imbedded on the back and a picture of a bold, almost 59-year-old man on the front. By now I have been transformed from a “Resident Alien” to a “Permanent Resident”, a far more neutral title. I have lived in the United States for more years than I lived in my native country, Israel. Somehow, I seem to be more comfortable with a Permanent Resident status, while still traveling the world with an Israeli passport. There are several key differences between being a “permanent resident” and a citizen. For one I can not vote (though I am paying taxes) . The second big difference is that if convicted for a felony, I can be deported. I once did a film on the legal system in the Bronx, where one of the characters was indicted for possession of a few ounces of cocaine. He was sentenced to a long jail term but refused to plead guilty. If he had, he would have received a much lighter sentence but would have been deported after fulfilling his jail time. He decided to fight from jail to reverse his conviction rather than plead guilty and be deported. If deported, he would also have left behind a wife and three children and broken his family apart. I thought about all of that when reading about the Minutemen and the Arizona murders. Having been here for over 35 years, I was verbally attacked as an immigrant only once. “Go back to your country,” screamed some sound engineer on an outdoor stage being readied for a Rock Concert. Ironically, he was preparing the sound system for one of those worldwide, mega-media events raising money to fight World Hunger. The stage was set in front of the United Nations! I do not remember now what made this sound engineer lash out at me. Maybe I stepped on his cables or was bothering him with our huge video camera. I do remember that it was months after I got my “Resident Alien” card and since no one ever told me before (or ever since) to “go back to my country,” the incident stands out in my mind. I always knew that I have been privileged. I can only imagine the sense of terror and/or insecurity that non-white immigrants feel. Though hate crimes against immigrants are few and far between, every article I have read (some were published on this site) documents how the media and virulent, populist, political discourse prepare the ground for such attacks. The first Amendment protects freedom of speech in this country so any law designed to ban anti-immigrant rhetoric will be thrown out of court as unconstitutional. But a citizen boycott action rallying advertisers and sponsors for the immigrant’s cause can make this rhetoric economically very disadvantageous for a broadcaster or a media organization. However, if hate talk can be protected by freedom of speech, allowing a vigilante force like the Minutemen to “patrol” the border is entirely a different thing. In a society governed by laws, there is no place for any vigilante force. In a society of immigrants there is no place for any anti-immigrant vigilantes. I am sure the complex psychology of immigrants who live in and love this country for what it can offer is of no interest to Minutemen. Nor do they care about the subtleties between “Resident Alien” and “Permanent Resident”. If I lived near the US-Mexican border, my only protection would have been the color of my skin and this is unacceptable!

ELECTION REVISITED

Ilan portrait

Last week shooting in  mayhem  at the  United States  Holocaust  Memorial Museum  in Washington  and the growing concern about  “supremacists rage”  reminded me of several  blogs  I  wrote  and articles we published a year ago  during the Obama’s election campaign.  A lof of water  passed  under the bridge since than, but re -reading it I felt that  that the issues I sensed  than are as relevant today. Reading  Frank  Rich : “The Obama  Haters’ Silent Enablers”(http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/opinion/14rich.html) convinced me that going back to the election  campaign  will not be a nostalgic walk down memory lane but  looking again at the forces in our society  that ferment “rage” rather  than fight it.

This is   is what I wrote on  10/18/2008

More than a year ago, and before the primaries kicked off, Beliefnet.com, a Web site dedicated to “inspiration, spirituality, and faith,” interviewed John McCain. The presidential hopeful claimed that the Constitution of the United States established a “Christian Nation,” a statement that caught my attention. As an avowed secularist, I rarely think about my “Jewishness.” Reading that statement was one of the few moments I did. I was reminded of McCain’s statement several times, the first while on the road working on my current documentary, Jesus Politics: The Bible & The Ballot (www.jesuspoliticsthemovie.com). We were filming some Evangelical activists who supported Mike Huckabee. It was primary day in Florida and the group was saying a prayer before fanning out to the streets to wave banners, distribute leaflets, and urge passers by to vote. “This used to be a Christian Nation,” said the man leading the prayer. “It used to be that you could not run for office unless your were a Christian.” His wife referred to Obama as “a Muslim.” I again thought of McCain’s statement watching the Al Jazeera English news report we feature this week on http://www.Executionchronicles.org. “It is a Christian Nation, ” said one agitated woman. “Obama is a Muslim,” another one said, “he befriends terrorists.” A young Obama supporter holding a sign for the Democratic candidate on the side of a road as a convoy of cars inched toward a Sarah Palin rally, expressed fear that “they will hurt Obama.” Thus the connection was established: “A Christian Nation” versus “a Muslim” Obama “who befriends terrorists.” More than a year has passed between McCain’s interview and Palin’s rally in rural Ohio. For me, this extraordinary year is symptomatic not only of the threat in this country to Senator Obama, but also to the very fabric of our society. John McCain knows very well that the Constitution never established the nation as a Christian one. Even the reference to God (never to a specific religion) was hotly debated among the Founding Fathers. Yes the majority in America has always been Christian, but the Constitution and the letters and documents of the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to ensure that this nation does not endorse one religion over another…. I spent more than five weeks and 4000 miles on the road filming Jesus Politics. Among the many things I learned was that the majority of divisive religious issues we’ve come to associate with the Christian Right were not raised by devout believers, but by the manipulations of conservative political activists, who are neither necessarily religious nor devout. Throughout American history, political assassinations were attributed to “deranged”, ” lone individuals”. Rarely if ever the socio political nature of the act and its context is discussed.”

Frank Rich  in his column  on Sunday June 14th quotes  the comments  of  Shepard Smith  FOX TV Anchorman on the murder of Dr. George  Tiller  who performed late term abortion in his clinic  in Wichita  KS  until he was gunned down  May 31st.

“If you’re one who believes that abortion is murder, at what point do you go out and kill someone who’s performing abortions?” An answer, he said, was provided by Dr. George Tiller’s killer. He went on: “If you are one who believes these sorts of things about the president of the United States …” He left the rest of that chilling sentence unsaid.These are extraordinary words to hear on Fox. The network’s highest-rated star, Bill O’Reilly, had assailed Tiller, calling him “Tiller the baby killer” and likening him to the Nazis, on 29 of his shows before the doctor was murdered at his church in Kansas

In October last year reporter  Gini  Sikes  wrote   in an  In Depth article for us.:

It’s comforting to dismiss verbal expressions of violence as the ranting of a few fringe individuals. Sadly, however, the world knows it only takes one who believes the mainstream has validated his thinking to turn harmful words into deadly action. After the 1995 assassination of Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally in Tel Avi’s Kings of Israel Square, hundreds of articles and reports examined the incendiary atmosphere before the murder.

The road to Rabin’s assassination began as it usually does in the margins of society. Extreme right-wing groups condemned Rabin’s role in the Oslo Peace Accords with Yassar Arafat as a supreme betrayal, giving holy land to terrorists. Posters depicting Rabin as a Nazi, or effigies of him in SS uniform, appeared at rallies for “mainstream” politicians, among them Benjamin Nethanyu and Ariel Sharon, who ignored cries of “traitor!” Such charges seeped into the mainstream discussion and media. After Rabin’s death, journalists, government officials and others pondered whether they shared in the creation of an environment that allowed Rabin’s killer–who told the court Rabin wanted to “give our country to the Arabs” – to believe that his radical thinking was legitimized because it wasn’t condemned.

Words do matter and  until hate  talk or rationalization  of violence will not be eradicated from our political and social spheres the next  “lone gunner” will reappear. The question is not if but when .

An open letter to Texas’ officials

ilan-portraitSince the cell phone ordeal in Polunsky Death Row Unit, Mark has been complaining that during the   repeated raids and searches of his cell, his legal documents have been tossed around. Some have even been taken away and damaged, rendering the whole legal file, consisting of hundreds of pages, useless.  This week, Mark exhausted the legal process available to him within prison to investigate the matter and return his legal files to him. I decided to write a letter to several Texas officials, US congressmen and senators, to appeal to them to look into the matter. As I have written several times before, I fear that continuously ignoring Mark pleas will result in a tragedy, as Mark has been growing more and more desperate with every letter. The letter below was posted on Friday to the following individuals. I consider it only a first step.

U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady
301 Cannon Building
Washington, DC 20515

cc. Senator Robert Nichols – Texas State Senator
Senator John Cornyn, U.S. Senate
Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Region 1, Director’s Office
Regional Director: Robert Treon
Assistant Regional Director: Doris Morris
Assistant Regional Director: Kevin Mayfield

Ref:  Mark Stroman Death Row inmate #999409

Dear Sir:

I am writing to you as a last resort. My name is Ilan Ziv. I am a NY-based filmmaker. In the past six months, I created and produced, with other colleagues, a website that focuses on the death penalty and hate crimes: http://www.executionchronicles.org.  If you visit the site, you will see its dual focus with our emphasis on reporting on hate crimes not only in the US, but internationally. The website is an outgrowth of a film project that focuses on Mark Stroman’s murders after September 11. As you can see from the site, we are committed to delve into the complexities of Hate crimes by focusing both on the perpetrators and their victims. Both the film and the website are co-produced with Maryknoll Media Productions, the  media arm of the  Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. As part of the site, we gave Mark Stroman a space to publish a weekly blog. In his blogs, Mark tends not to focus on his case (Mark confessed to the murders during his trial.) but primarily on the deteriorating conditions in Polunsky Death Row Unit in Texas. Of particular concern for us are Mark’s repeated complaints and allegations that, as part of repeated searches of his cell, his legal documents have been destroyed, some taken away, and the rest have been rendered useless. As you realize, those documents are Mark’s only tool to pursue his constitutionally guaranteed appeal process. We encouraged Mark to pursue an investigation within the prison system to explore what has happened and demand the return of his legal papers or their replacement with new copies. Below, you can see the official answer he received. We even attempted to launch a fundraising appeal on the site to help Mark obtains the funds to photocopy his entire legal file—an estimated cost of around $800, which is much more than a Death Row inmate can afford. However, we soon realized that without an investigation, clear results and a guarantee that this will never happen again, we cannot in good faith ask people to donate money.
By law, Mark is entitled to have his legal papers with him. Denying him those papers is a violation of his constitutional rights to due process. It is for this reason that I appeal to you to look into the matter.
It seems to me that it would be easy to investigate Mark’s allegations and to guarantee him the safety of his legal documents. As Mark’s despair grows, we fear the worst.

I appreciate your urgent attention to this matter.

Sincerely Yours,

Ilan Ziv
Producer

p.s. Below is the official exchange between Mark and the prison authorities regarding the status of the investigation into his allegations.

Investigator’s Response

Grievance # 2009081808
Investigator ID I-1364
The response given by Region I

Kevin Mayfield

Your Step 2 grievance has been investigated by this office. Your allegations could not be sustained; however your complaint is noted. Administration will continue to monitor staff conduct to ensure professionalism and policy compliance.

No further investigation is warranted by this office.

Kevin Mayfield – R.I.

Mark’s Response

None of the issues I mentioned were addressed in Step One. My legal work and documents were destroyed and thrown out. Not only did Officers Coker and White tell the Investigator of this, they also saw the utter destruction of my cell. Sergeant Seales also said the same. So who has my legal work and documents? Why was this allowed to happen and why is this response given to me on Step One when Lieutenant Price was not even at the scene of the Regional shake down destruction? This is a cover-up and plot to destroy all of my legal work and chances to win my death sentence appeal.

A storm is brewing!

ilan-portrait

This is how Mark described the situation in the Polunsky Death Unit. I labeled his last three blogs under the same title. We usually do not publish three blogs at the same time but we felt the growing urgency to attract attention to the deteriorating situation in the unit. One does not need to be an expert sociologist to understand the destructive potential of the fires currently being fanned inside Polunsky.

“It is serious!” wrote Mark’s friend, who was banned from visiting him. (It is very easy for the Warden to ban relatives and friends of prisoners from entering the facility. No one will dispute the Warden’s reasoning. Although there is technically a possibility of appeal, it rarely helps.

“…Matters are getting very tense,” Mark’s friend wrote. “I’m extremely worried about him. Another friend of mine was banned from visiting Polunsky. They have banned so many people lately and it’s fueling the fire!

Since working on the project, I have read many books on the death penalty, watched films on the subject and visited countless web sites. But until I started to read Mark’s blogs I had not realized that while we debate the pros and cons of the Death Penalty, we rarely discuss the many years one spends awaiting his/her execution. It is this void that Mark ‘s blogs so powerfully fill; the senseless petty harassments by the guards, the food and all the other deprivations. All these details put together paint a very damning picture of the conditions inside Polanski Death unit. After the “drama” of the multiple week lockdown with its diet of “Johnny sacks” now I read Mark’s recent blogs with growing apprehension. It seems that a storm is indeed brewing. The result will undoubtedly be more violence and repression.

But what to do? Reading Mark’s blog from the comfort of my studio only re-enforces my sense of frustration and impotence. I know that violence is never the answer and will lead to even more violence but what can I suggest to Mark, who has no money to launch a legal challenge to the system. No pro bono lawyers will take on the Texas Department of Justice when they are trying to save the lives of other prisoners currently incarcerated in the system. As I learned, the impact of public pressure is small.  Many in Texas send us quite violent emails. They think death row inmates deserve this kind of treatment. And beyond Texas, the issue is being perceived as a local one.

So what to do? Mark, himself, asked for “feedback and ideas” and I feel frustrated that I cannot give him any. But I do know that without challenging the Criminal Justice System in Texas we will have a storm on our hands, a storm that will reap only pain and suffering and probably sow further violence. It is a very depressing scenario for those on death row, most of who will probably be executed in the coming years.

In our news section, we published the address of the Texas Criminal Justice System Ombudsmen. It is the first address for letters questioning what is going in Polanski. Yet I have little hope of the State of Texas correcting its wrong-doing. The pressure has to be applied on the federal level and even with international Human rights organizations that must establish an independent commission to look into this specific prison and its death ward, as well as other prisons in Texas. We will publish any ideas for action that visitors to the site will propose.

A storm is brewing and I fear for the worst.

Barack Hussein Obama

ilan-portrait

The past week or so was full of contrasting images. It began with an email I received from Anya Cordell, an activist, and since September 11, a relentless fighter against bigotry and racism. I met Anya while filming in Texas with some of Mark’s victims. Anya has been involved in post 9/11 work with several hate crime victims (to read more about Anya’s work read our Close Up Anya sent me the following Letter to the Editor, which she recently found in Newsweek:

A Better Life, but No Assimilation

I still cannot understand why Muslims flee their native lands seeking a better life in Britain or any other Western nation, only to want to turn these countries into clones of the failed states they just left (“Jihad Chic Comes to London,” March 23). The only rational explanation is that instead of assimilating into their adoptive homes, these radicalized Muslims simply want to spread their fundamentalist brand of Islam and transform Europe into Eurabia. Shame on the politically correct politicians, appeasers and journalists who sit idly by and allow these radical Muslims to do what the Nazis ultimately could not: bring the West to its knees.

Kelly Van Rijn
Washington Township, N.J.

I received this email on my blackberry while traveling in the high Andes of Peru, a region populated by indigenous, mainly Quechua-speaking people, long subjugated and discriminated against by the descendants of the Spanish  conquerors of Peru.

A few days later, Anya sent me the recent study by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting),  Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation. In her email, Anya quoted chilling segments from the report:

CNN commentator:  “I’m telling you, with God as my witness…human beings are not strong enough, unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up razor wire and putting you [Muslims] on one side of it…When people become hungry…they will put razor wire up and just based on the way you look or just based on your religion, they will round you up. Is that wrong? Oh my gosh, it is Nazi, World War II wrong, but society has proved it time and time again: It will happen…In 10 years, Muslims and Arabs will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West.”

Third most popular political talk radio show host:  “They say, “Oh, there’s a billion of them [Muslims]”. I said, “So kill 100 million of them, then there’ll be 900 million of them.””

Best selling author:  “If you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em.”

Fox news host:  “The U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble…taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard…If they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”

“These claims,” Anya concluded her email “though outlandish, are then given credence by being repeated, in mainstream outlets. It’s worth remembering that those who put forward the arguments found in the FAIR report often stand to profit greatly from book sales, consulting and lecture fees—for their views—often, the more outrageous and fear-inducing, the more profitable and popular. The climate becomes saturated with an atmosphere of suspicion that is increasingly accepted, and increasingly difficult to effectively counter.”

It is against this background that I came back home and found myself riveted by President Obama’s public speeches in Turkey.

Introduced as Barack Hussein Obama, the President went on to say in the Turkish Parliament:

“…I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. …We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans.  Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them.”

Obama also visited the mausoleum for the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic, Kamal Ataturk, held a “town hall” meeting with Turkish young people, and visited Turkey’s largest Muslim shrines. Cynics will dismiss his speech as just smart political oratory; Obama’s attempt to reach the Muslim world. But I believe that his speech was also aimed at a domestic audience here at home and that is where, in my opinion, its real importance lies.

Words do matter and symbolic acts go far. It was Turkey’s Prime Minister who commented on the meaning of Obama’s name, as a person who straddles several cultures. It was barely 6 months ago when we wrote a series of articles on the attacks against Barack Obama’s middle name, and his     “Muslim” background

“I say this,” President Obama continued his speech, “as the president of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be president of the United States. But it is precisely that capacity to change that enriches our countries.” This message was not aimed only at the Turkish people but to us here at home. It is the kind of message that tries to combat the racist, bigoted voices Anya quotes in her email and FAIR covers in their report.

Words do matter. Just ask Mark Stroman, who claims his rage was triggered, in part, by the non-stop coverage of  the September 11 terror attack.

Maybe, just maybe, if an American president could have gone on television on September 12th to deliver such a clear message as President Obama delivered in Turkey, the lives of Vasudev Patel and Waqar Hasan, two of Mark’s victims, could have been saved….maybe.

SHOOTING AND CRYING

ilan-portrait

Several times, I called in this blogspot, for the establishment of an international investigation that will look into Israel and Hamas’ violation of War Crimes agreements in the recent war in Gaza. Palestinian Journalist, Daoud Kuttab, and I argued that only the establishment of an International Tribunal for War Crimes committed in the Middle East will be able to contain the Palestinian—Israeli conflict from spiraling out of control. We were hardly alone. Both Human Rights Watch and Israeli Human Rights organizations have called for the establishment of an independent commission that will examine the allegations of war crimes. Only this Thursday, a United Nations human rights investigator said that Israel’s offensive against Hamas in densely populated Gaza appeared to constitute a war crime of the “greatest magnitude.” Richard Falk, UN special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, said the Geneva Conventions required warring forces to distinguish between military targets and surrounding civilians. Falk called for an independent experts group to be set up to probe possible war crimes committed by both Israeli forces and Hamas.

But in the last few days, a new kind of testimony emerged—that of Israeli soldiers themselves. They were asked to participate in a reunion of graduates of a pre-military preparatory program to discuss their combat experience in Gaza. The program founder, Danny Zamir, serves as Deputy Battalion Commander in a reserve unit. The New York Times published a few quotes from the testimonies. I felt it was important to publish substantial parts of the transcript of the event, as it was published in the program newsletter, BRIZA. As a former soldier myself, I instinctively recognized that the soldiers’ testimonies reflect a much broader atmosphere, attitudes and commands within the army and as such, they provide a unique and invaluable insight into how Israel designed and conducted the last war in Gaza.

Following are extensive excerpts from the transcript of the meeting. The names of the soldiers have been changed to preserve their anonymity. The editors of BRIZA have also left out some of the details concerning the identity of the units that operated in a problematic way in Gaza.

*************************
Danny Zamir: “I don’t intend for us to evaluate the achievements and the diplomatic-political significance of Operation Cast Lead this evening, nor need we deal with the systemic military aspect [of it]. However, discussion is necessary because this was, all told, an exceptional war action in terms of the history of the IDF, which has set new limits for the army’s ethical code and that of the State of Israel as a whole.

“This is an action that sowed massive destruction among civilians. It is not certain that it was possible do have done it differently, but ultimately we have emerged from this operation and are not facing real paralysis from the Qassams. It is very possible that we will repeat such an operation on a larger scale in the years to come, because the problem in the Gaza Strip is not simple and it is not at all certain that it has been solved. What we want this evening is to hear from the fighters.”

Aviv: “I am squad commander of a company that is still in training, from the Givati Brigade. We went into a neighborhood in the southern part of Gaza City. Altogether, this is a special experience. In the course of the training, you wait for the day you will go into Gaza, and in the end it isn’t really like they say it is. It’s more like, you come, you take over a house, you kick the tenants out and you move in. We stayed in a house for something like a week.

“Toward the end of the operation there was a plan to go into a very densely populated area inside Gaza City itself. In the briefings they started to talk to us about orders for opening fire inside the city, because as you know they used a huge amount of firepower and killed a huge number of people along the way, so that we wouldn’t get hurt and they wouldn’t fire on us.

“At first the specified action was to go into a house. We were supposed to go in with an armored personnel carrier called an Achzarit [literally, Cruel] to burst through the lower door, to start shooting inside and then … I call this murder … in effect, we were supposed to go up floor by floor, and any person we identified – we were supposed to shoot. I initially asked myself: Where is the logic in this?

“From above they said it was permissible, because anyone who remained in the sector and inside Gaza City was in effect condemned, a terrorist, because they hadn’t fled. I didn’t really understand: On the one hand they don’t really have anywhere to flee to, but on the other hand they’re telling us they hadn’t fled so it’s their fault … This also scared me a bit. I tried to exert some influence, insofar as is possible from within my subordinate position, to change this. In the end the specification involved going into a house, operating megaphones and telling [the tenants]: ‘Come on, everyone get out, you have five minutes, leave the house, anyone who doesn’t get out gets killed.’

“I went to our soldiers and said, ‘The order has changed. We go into the house, they have five minutes to escape, we check each person who goes out individually to see that he has no weapons, and then we start going into the house floor by floor to clean it out … This means going into the house, opening fire at everything that moves , throwing a grenade, all those things. And then there was a very annoying moment. One of my soldiers came to me and asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘What isn’t clear? We don’t want to kill innocent civilians.’ He goes, ‘Yeah? Anyone who’s in there is a terrorist, that’s a known fact.’ I said, ‘Do you think the people there will really run away? No one will run away.’ He says, ‘That’s clear,’ and then his buddies join in: ‘We need to murder any person who’s in there. Yeah, any person who’s in Gaza is a terrorist,’ and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media.

“And then I try to explain to the guy that not everyone who is in there is a terrorist, and that after he kills, say, three children and four mothers, we’ll go upstairs and kill another 20 or so people. And in the end it turns out that [there are] eight floors times five apartments on a floor – something like a minimum of 40 or 50 families that you murder. I tried to explain why we had to let them leave, and only then go into the houses. It didn’t really help. This is really frustrating, to see that they understand that inside Gaza you are allowed to do anything you want, to break down doors of houses for no reason other than it’s cool.

“You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won’t say anything. To write ‘death to the Arabs’ on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing in understanding how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It’s what I’ll remember the most.”

“One of our officers, a company commander, saw someone coming on some road, a woman, an old woman. She was walking along pretty far away, but close enough so you could take out someone you saw there. If she were suspicious, not suspicious – I don’t know. In the end, he sent people up to the roof, to take her out with their weapons. From the description of this story, I simply felt it was murder in cold blood.”

Zamir: “I don’t understand. Why did he shoot her?”

Aviv: “That’s what is so nice, supposedly, about Gaza: You see a person on a road, walking along a path. He doesn’t have to be with a weapon, you don’t have to identify him with anything and you can just shoot him. With us it was an old woman, on whom I didn’t see any weapon. The order was to take the person out, that woman, the moment you see her.”

Zvi: “Aviv’s descriptions are accurate, but it’s possible to understand where this is coming from. And that woman, you don’t know whether she’s … She wasn’t supposed to be there, because there were announcements and there were bombings. Logic says she shouldn’t be there. The way you describe it, as murder in cold blood, that isn’t right. It’s known that they have lookouts and that sort of thing.”

Gilad: “Even before we went in, the battalion commander made it clear to everyone that a very important lesson from the Second Lebanon War was the way the IDF goes in – with a lot of fire. The intention was to protect soldiers’ lives by means of firepower. In the operation the IDF’s losses really were light and the price was that a lot of Palestinians got killed.”

Ram: “I serve in an operations company in the Givati Brigade. After we’d gone into the first houses, there was a house with a family inside. Entry was relatively calm. We didn’t open fire, we just yelled at everyone to come down. We put them in a room and then left the house and entered it from a different lot. A few days after we went in, there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sharpshooters’ position on the roof. The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn’t understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go, and it was was okay and he should hold his fire and he … he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders.”

Question from the audience: “At what range was this?”

Ram: “Between 100 and 200 meters, something like that. They had also came out of the house that he was on the roof of, they had advanced a bit and suddenly he saw then, people moving around in an area where they were forbidden to move around. I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.”

Yuval Friedman (chief instructor at the Rabin program): “Wasn’t there a standing order to request permission to open fire?”

Ram: “No. It exists, beyond a certain line. The idea is that you are afraid that they are going to escape from you. If a terrorist is approaching and he is too close, he could blow up the house or something like that.”

Zamir: “After a killing like that, by mistake, do they do some sort of investigation in the IDF? Do they look into how they could have corrected it?”

Ram: “They haven’t come from the Military Police’s investigative unit yet. There hasn’t been any … For all incidents, there are individual investigations and general examinations, of all of the conduct of the war. But they haven’t focused on this specifically.”

Moshe: “The attitude is very simple: It isn’t pleasant to say so, but no one cares at all. We aren’t investigating this. This is what happens during fighting and this is what happens during routine security.”

Ram: “What I do remember in particular at the beginning is the feeling of almost a religious mission. My sergeant is a student at a hesder yeshiva [a program that combines religious study and military service]. Before we went in, he assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle. A brigade rabbi was there, who afterward came into Gaza and went around patting us on the shoulder and encouraging us, and praying with people. And also when we were inside they sent in those booklets, full of Psalms, a ton of Psalms. I think that at least in the house I was in for a week, we could have filled a room with the Psalms they sent us, and other booklets like that.

“There was a huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out. The Education Corps published a pamphlet for commanders – something about the history of Israel’s fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present. The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and … their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war. From my position as a commander and ‘explainer,’ I attempted to talk about the politics – the streams in Palestinian society, about how not everyone who is in Gaza is Hamas, and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us. I wanted to explain to the soldiers that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Qassams.”

Zamir: “I would like to ask the pilots who are here, Gideon and Yonatan, to tell us a little about their perspective. As an infantryman, this has always interested me. How does it feel when you bomb a city like that?”

Gideon: “First of all, about what you have said concerning the crazy amounts of firepower: Right in the first foray in the fighting, the quantities were very impressive, very large, and this is mainly what sent all the Hamasniks into hiding in the deepest shelters and kept them from showing their faces until some two weeks after the fighting.

“In general the way that it works for us, just so you will understand the differences a bit, is that at night I would come to the squadron, do one foray in Gaza and go home to sleep. I go home to sleep in Tel Aviv, in my warm bed. I’m not stuck in a bed in the home of a Palestinian family, so life is a little better.

“When I’m with the squadron, I don’t see a terrorist who is launching a Qassam and then decide to fly out to get him. There is a whole system that supports us, that serves as eyes, ears and intelligence for every plane that takes off, and creates more and more targets in real-time, of one level of legitimacy or another. In any case, I try to believe that these are targets [determined according to] the highest possible level of legitimacy.

“They dropped leaflets over Gaza and would sometimes fire a missile from a helicopter into the corner of some house, just to shake up the house a bit so everyone inside would flee. These things worked. The families came out, and really people [i.e., soldiers] did enter houses that were pretty empty, at least of innocent civilians. From this perspective it works.

“In any case, I arrive at the squadron, I get a target with a description and coordinates, and basically just make sure it isn’t within the line of our forces. I look at the picture of the house I am suppose to attack, I see that it matches reality, I take off, I push the button and the bomb takes itself exactly to within one meter of the target itself.”

Zamir: “Among the pilots, is there also talk or thoughts of remorse? For example, I was terribly surprised by the enthusiasm surrounding the killing of the Gaza traffic police on the first day of the operation: They took out 180 traffic cops. As a pilot, I would have questioned that.”

Gideon: “There are two parts to this. Tactically speaking, you call them ‘police.’ In any case, they are armed and belong to Hamas … During better times, they take Fatah people and throw them off the roofs and see what happens.

“With regard to the thoughts, you sit with the squadron and there are lots of discussions about the value-related significance of the fighting, about what we are doing; there is a lot to talk about. From the moment you start the plane’s engine until the moment you turn it off, all of your thoughts, all of your concentration and all of your attention are on the mission you have to carry out. If you have an unjustified doubt, you’re liable to cause a far greater screw-up and knock down a school with 40 children. If the building I hit isn’t the one I am supposed to hit, but rather a house with our guys inside – the price of the mistake is very, very high.”

Question from the audience: “Was there anyone in the squadron who didn’t push the button, who thought twice?”

Gideon: “That question should be addressed to those involved in the helicopter operation, or to the guys who see what they do. With the weapons I used, my ability to make a decision that contradicts what they told me up to that point is zero. I dispatch the bomb from a range within which I can see the entire Gaza Strip. I also see Haifa, I also see Sinai, but it’s more or less the same. It’s from really far away.”

Yossi: “I am a platoon sergeant in an operations company of the Paratroops Brigade. We were in a house and discovered a family inside that wasn’t supposed to be there. We assembled them all in the basement, posted two guards at all times and made sure they didn’t make any trouble. Gradually, the emotional distance between us broke down – we had cigarettes with them, we drank coffee with them, we talked about the meaning of life and the fighting in Gaza. After very many conversations the owner of the house, a man of 70-plus, was saying it’s good we are in Gaza and it’s good that the IDF is doing what it is doing.

“The next day we sent the owner of the house and his son, a man of 40 or 50, for questioning. The day after that, we received an answer: We found out that both are political activists in Hamas. That was a little annoying – that they tell you how fine it is that you’re here and good for you and blah-blah-blah, and then you find out that they were lying to your face the whole time.

“What annoyed me was that in the end, after we understood that the members of this family weren’t exactly our good friends and they pretty much deserved to be forcibly ejected from there, my platoon commander suggested that when we left the house, we should clean up all the stuff, pick up and collect all the garbage in bags, sweep and wash the floor, fold up the blankets we used, make a pile of the mattresses and put them back on the beds.”

Zamir: “What do you mean? Didn’t every IDF unit that left a house do that?”

Yossi: “No. Not at all. On the contrary: In most of the houses graffiti was left behind and things like that.”

Zamir: “That’s simply behaving like animals.”

Yossi: “You aren’t supposed to be concentrating on folding blankets when you’re being shot at.”

Zamir: “I haven’t heard all that much about you being shot at. It’s not that I’m complaining, but if you’ve spent a week in a home, clean up your filth.”

Aviv: “We got an order one day: All of the equipment, all of the furniture – just clean out the whole house. We threw everything, everything, out of the windows to make room. The entire contents of the house went flying out the windows.”

Yossi: “There was one day when a Katyusha, a Grad, landed in Be’er Sheva and a mother and her baby were moderately to seriously injured. They were neighbors of one of my soldiers. We heard the whole story on the radio, and he didn’t take it lightly – that his neighbors were seriously hurt. So the guy was a bit antsy, and you can understand him. To tell a person like that, ‘Come on, let’s wash the floor of the house of a political activist in Hamas, who has just fired a Katyusha at your neighbors that has amputated one of their legs’ – this isn’t easy to do, especially if you don’t agree with it at all. When my platoon commander said, ‘Okay, tell everyone to fold up blankets and pile up mattresses,’ it wasn’t easy for me to take. There was lot of shouting. In the end I was convinced and realized it really was the right thing to do. Today I appreciate and even admire him, the platoon commander, for what happened there. In the end I don’t think that any army, the Syrian army, the Afghani army, would wash the floor of its enemy’s houses, and it certainly wouldn’t fold blankets and put them back in the closets.”

Zamir: “I think it would be important for parents to sit here and hear this discussion. I think it would be an instructive discussion, and also very dismaying and depressing. You are describing an army with very low value norms, that’s the truth … I am not judging you and I am not complaining about you. I’m just reflecting what I’m feeling after hearing your stories. I wasn’t in Gaza, and I assume that among reserve soldiers the level of restraint and control is higher, but I think that all in all, you are reflecting and describing the kind of situation we were in.

“After the Six-Day War, when people came back from the fighting, they sat in circles and described what they had been through. For many years the people who did this were said to be ‘shooting and crying.’ In 1983, when we came back from the Lebanon War, the same things were said about us. We need to think about the events we have been through. We need to grapple with them also, in terms of establishing a standard or different norms.

“It is quite possible that Hamas and the Syrian army would behave differently from me. The point is that we aren’t Hamas and we aren’t the Syrian army or the Egyptian army, and if clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren’t representative of the whole spectrum in the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population – what are we expecting? To whom are we complaining?

“As reservists we don’t take relate seriously to the orders of the regional brigades. We let the old people go through and we let families go through. Why kill people when it’s clear to you that they are civilians? Which aspect of Israel’s security will be harmed, who will be harmed? Exercise judgment, be human.”

93rd Street APT #8I

ilan-portrait

93RD STREET APT #8I

It all happened Saturday, Feb. 7, after the police forced their way into the apartment next door.  Somebody claimed they heard loud bangs, “like gun shots,” around 8pm the night before. We were away and missed it. But around 5pm, on Saturday, when our neighbor, Debra Silver, did not emerge from her apartment for her usual Saturday routine: synagogue service and the gym, the building’s superintendent finally called the cops. By the time I came home Saturday, late afternoon, our building was cordoned off by yellow police tape, besieged by cameras and press. Our floor was teeming with policemen and detectives. Through the open door of our neighbor’s apartment, I could see dozens of Crime Unit detectives. Apartment 8I had become the scene of a crime. Debra, as we learned, was killed by Michael Ruiz, her new boyfriend. He was a married man from Glen Ridge, NJ. I have never met him. Debra was having dinner with her old boyfriend, New York photographer/actor, Daniel Tedlie. Michael Ruiz shot both of them and than sat in the armchair nearby and killed himself. Suddenly, I felt I was part of the kind of gruesome murder stories one reads in the tabloids. “This is a big one,” said one of the many NYPD detectives who were in and out of apartment 8I, or milling around our door in the narrow landing. This was the first shooting in memory in our quiet, middle class building. TV cameras and the tabloids were swarming around trying to convince tenants to talk to them. It could have been the kind of story you would read in this month’s execution schedule (http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/scheduledexecutions.htm) with only one exception: the murderer killed himself.

In the coming days, more information came out. Debra, whom I knew but barely talked to, as she always seemed shy and a bit distracted, was a 46-year-old lawyer. She also pursued an acting career under the stage name of Coco Silvera. Her homepage reveals a stunning new look for the shy, introverted, Debra. “Coco” was a very attractive, some might even say glamorous, woman. Her website featured several of her acting roles in commercials and theater. She claims to have spoken a few languages fluently and played the music for some of her performances. She and her old boy friend, Daniel, shared a passion for swing dancing. Debra became pregnant using in vitro fertilization, wrote the NY Post, citing unnamed police sources.

Michael Ruiz, the killer, was a family man and father of two grown children. His wife had served him divorce papers eight days earlier. I asked our doorman how Michael seemed when he let Michael upstairs. (Debra had notified the building staff that Michael was a friend and that he would be a regular visitor.) “Calm” he said. And then, after a pause, added, “calm and calculated.”

I indulge in all these details since Debra, Michael and Daniel took the secrets of what had happened to their graves. The police claim it was “a jealously case.” Somehow, I think there is much more to it. I have a hard time imagining a 55-year-old man loading his 9mm, semi-automatic handgun and then proceeding, in a “calm and calculated” manner, to kill his girlfriend, her old boy friend and then himself. There must be other secrets in the story besides “just jealousy.” This is the stuff great novels are made of—a novelist using what seems like a banal murder case to journey over hundreds of pages into the mysteries of the human heart.

One can only imagine ( if instead of killing himself he chose to live and  was apprehended.)  In Texas, the prosecutor would have asked for the death penalty. After all, you cannot claim that it was a crime of passion if the killer comes armed with 9mm, semi-automatic gun and proceeds to shoot two people. And why shouldn’t Michael, had he chosen to live, have to pay with his life for the double tragedy he caused? Debra, who at the age of 46, could have become a mom, something she obviously desired but for many reasons could not have achieved at a younger age. And what about her former boyfriend Daniel, a sweet, tall man? I remember when the two were still living together. He was leaving NY after 32 years, going home to Colorado to be with his mom in her last years.

But then I think of Michael ‘s dark secrets—a suburban husband and father, who suddenly self-destructs in such a violent fashion. Why was he pushed to commit such a desperate act? Did he mean to kill himself as he marched “calm and calculated ” into our building or did he decide to do it when he sat in the armchair looking at the two bodies sprawled on the floor by his side. Did he, anticipating his trial, the cries for revenge, the press and family, and his future life in prison (he was unlikely to be executed in NY State) calmly lift the gun to his temple and shoot himself?

As I read this month’s list of Scheduled Texas Executions , I think of Michael Ruiz. The crimes committed by these condemned prisoners are as senseless, some would say banal, as a robbery gone awry, a boyfriend killing his kids as revenge. “90% of crimes,” the detective told me, are of this nature. Who knows what broke inside Michael Ruiz, a successful executive in the Human Resources Department at the Philips Corporation. He, who built a family, a career in an affluent NJ suburb, suddenly imploded.

All these question keep swirling in my head as I pass the next-door-apartment-turned-crime-scene, a taped sticker on the door: “These premises have been sealed by the order of NYPD.”

Yes, every crime deserves a punishment, but who are we to claim to understand the human mind and heart, and to declare that some criminals deserve to be executed? Michael had the right to take his own life but who are we to feel so superior to claim the right to take someone else’s life? Would killing someone like Michael bring his victims back to life, or more importantly, bring peace to Debra’s devastated family? A few days ago, I saw her aging father and sister in the lobby of our building looking lost and forlorn. In her father’s eyes you could see a wounded soul that will never heal. I know that from now on, every time I pass apartment 8I, I am doomed to remember Debra and her slain, former boy friend, but I will be haunted by the mystery of Michael Ruiz and the dozens scheduled to be executed across the United States for similar crimes.