SEP 2001

smOTHERed VOICES in The A2 News

by Thom Saffold with Eric Lormand

[Editor’s note: Thom (Saffold) has made two trips to Palestine this summer to help launch the International Solidarity Movement (see pp. 12-14). On July 15th he described his first trip, then in progress, in an "Other Voices" column in The Ann Arbor News. The News published three letters in response, and a puzzling "editor’s note". When the News inexplicably refused to publish Thom’s rebuttal, he approached Agenda. Here is his "Other Voices" column in full, followed by each point in the letters and News comment arranged by theme, with the relevant part of Thom’s rebuttal (shaded text), and added replies of mine.--Eric]


by Thom Saffold,
from The Ann Arbor News, 7/15/01

Most Americans believe what our media tell them, that Israel is a nation under attack by Palestinians. That is a lie. The truth is that Israel is a nation bent on driving Palestinians from their land through economic hardship, confiscation, humiliation, intimidation, and by killing them. Israel has maintained a brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades, not unlike the German occupation of Europe during World War II.

I had a lesson in life under Israeli Occupation, up close and personal, Monday, July 9, 2001.

Beit Sahour is the city where, according to the Christian scripture, shepherds tending their flocks one night were visited by angels heralding the birth of the Prince of Peace. They, too, lived under a military occupation

Today, the village is filled with peaceful and peace-loving people who suffer under an occupation worse than that of Rome 2000 years ago. The only violence is the economic violence of the repressive response to the Intifada (80% of the population are at least severely under-employed), and the constant threat of violence from the Israeli military, which has a base at the western edge of the village.

Today, as so many other times in the past 9 months—and the past decades—the threat was realized.

When I arrived back at my host’s home about 4 pm, I found Israeli tanks and soldiers menacing the eastern part of the village. With no provocation (I reached that conclusion after later interviewing over 20 nearby residents), two tanks, two jeeps and an armored personnel carrier invaded from Area C into Area A of Beit Sahour. Let me explain.

Like the residential areas of most Palestinian villages and cities, Beit Sahour is divided. The Israeli military imposes control over a portion of the residential neighborhoods in these population centers with the excuse that this is needed to insure the safety of army bases or settlements. (If there is one thing that I have learned from this trip-and learned from interviews with Israeli activists and a settler spokesman, it is that Israeli society is interested only in protecting Jewish rights and lives, and do not care if this comes at the expense Palestinian rights and lives.)

Area A is supposed to be under full Palestinian control. These areas are, in effect, the de facto State of Palestine and the Palestine Authority considers it their right to protect the sovereignty of those lands. Today the Israelis, in effect, invaded another country, and were, rightfully, resisted. Again, this has happened to the people of Beit Sahour and many other Palestinian communities many times.

Palestinian resistance took the form of various elements of the Palestinian Authority (PA) police coming together at the top of a hill overlooking the intrusion of Israeli troops. Armed only with Kalashnikov automatic weapons supplied under provisions of the Oslo Accords, they grouped on the grounds of the Beit Sahour YMCA, which is a walled area and near the border with Area C.

When I arrived, I was told the Israelis had fired a tank once, and I could see the house that had been hit. One tank had advanced halfway up the street along with an armed patrol. This was a civilian street, with houses on both sides and civilians cowering in doorways and peering through windows. The Israelis waved their weapons and moved the tank turret around menacingly, and did so for another 20 minutes. When the Palestinians did not fire on them (I assume that’s what the Israelis were waiting or hoping for), they slowly retreated down the street. A few civilians cautiously emerged from their homes to watch.

I made my way down the hill with my video camera and permission from the Palestinian police, and took a position near where the tanks, jeeps and APC had gathered just beyond the last houses on the street. I was between the last house and the next one up the street and was filming the soldiers when gunfire erupted from the Israelis. From the sound (I could not see which weapon was firing), they fired a machine gun. Then a tank began to move, and moments later I heard the pop, pop, pop of the Palestinians’ small caliber rifles firing in return. The tank advanced up the street, but not as far as before, so I was beside it.

As it passed, a soldier came up through the hatch and yelled at me to leave. Two soldiers in an armored personnel carrier behind it aimed their M-16s at me and ordered me to leave. I moved behind a wall, but quickly returned.

The tank stopped, gunned its motor and moved its turret around again. Once more someone fired a few shots from the Palestinian side. The tank fired a clip from one of its machine guns. Then it fired a tank round up the street.

The Palestinians did not return fire, and so the tank retreated, joined the other war machines, growled a bit more, and then, finally, the convoy left for the army base nearby.

As the tank backed down the street, it stopped, slowly turned its muzzle directly at me, held it for a moment, and then continued down the street. Minutes later, a single rifle bullet was fired at me as I was moving to a different position. I captured the moment on videotape.

Two houses were hit. The tank blast tore a large hole in the wall of a home owned by a family that had just left for America that morning to live. It was hit just under a window, but since the house was locked, and since the Palestinian police were not deployed on top of any houses that I could see, it is hard not to conclude that the house was fired upon at random. Another home, which did have a PA police presence, was raked with machine gun fire.

The Israeli press reported the next day that a military target and a municipal building were hit. This is a lie. They were houses, just like the ones we live in, except that we do not live as prisoners in our own towns and cities, and do not live under the military thumb of Israel, as do all Palestinians

The three critical letters are from Helen and David Aminoff ("Hope for peace in negotiation", 7/20/01), Harry Fried ("Commentary on Mideast conflict lacks depth", 7/25/01), and Benjamin H. Klein ("Loathing for Israelis makes view laughable", 7/27/01). Quotes from the letters are italicized and followed by the authors’ surnames in brackets.


"Saffold refers to the Israelis [as having] invaded another country... [but] ... in 1948 [the Arab world] made war to prevent [the State of Israel’s] birth. In 1967, they once again invaded with the express aim of destroying Israel.... There are two peoples with legitimate claims for the same land...." [Aminoffs] "[I]dentifying a "right" and a "wrong" side in this conflict is both absurd and foolish; after 50 years of fear and violence, we are way beyond such easy classifications." [Fried] "No responsible, respected analyst of the Arab-Israeli conflict will tell you that one side is entirely to blame for the current round of hostilities." [Klein]

From Thom’s rebuttal:

Do I take sides in this conflict? Absolutely. With the same passion as I worked against the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, and US support for various dictatorships, I stand with Palestinians against an Occupation declared illegal and immoral under UN resolutions and international law.

I am not alone. In the last several months, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches has accused Israel of a "pattern of discrimination, routine humiliation, segregation and exclusion" of Palestinians, and the "disproportionate use of military force." Amnesty International, the International YMCA, the National Lawyers Guild, B’Tselem (, an Israeli human rights group), Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), and many, many other human rights and non-governmental organizations have produced reports drawing the same conclusions. They condemn Palestinian violence, but point out that the violence of the Occupation itself is the overwhelming source of violence, and is directed against Palestinians exclusively. Many American Jewish groups also condemn the Occupation and settlements; Not In My Name is an umbrella group that lists over 40 useful web pages at

I [Eric] add five responses. First, Thom’s article says nothing about who invaded whom. Nor should it—he’s writing about Israel’s occupying Palestinian land today, and about the daily miseries and death this causes—overwhelmingly to Palestinians, but also to Israelis.

Second, even if the "Arab World" (including Palestinians) invaded Israel, this would not justify the ongoing occupation. Germany invaded France multiple times, but victorious France rightly never "occupied" Germany, bulldozing entire German towns and replacing the inhabitants with French settlers.

Third, in 1967 Israel was the invader by the admission of its own leaders such as Prime Minister Begin: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai do not prove that [Egyptian President] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." (New York Times, 8/21/82) And in the process, Israel decided to steal the Palestinian land most in dispute today.

Fourth, the Israeli state was "born" in 1947 as a child of rape--due to immediately prior invasions of Palestine. Early Zionists knowingly bought land stolen from Palestinians by absentee Ottoman "lawyers"—land stolen in order to fetch the money. Paying someone to steal is as wrong as stealing. After WWII, outside powers stole 48% more of the Palestinian’s total land and simply added it to the Zionists’ previous 7%. Israel knowingly accepted this stolen gift from the same body (the General Assembly of the UN) that has been ordering it out of the rest of Palestine since 1967.

Fifth, as for the situation today, if the sides and their actions are symmetric why do Palestinians cry out for international peacekeepers and human rights monitors (with the support of nearly everyone on the planet) and why does the Israeli government reject this (with the sole support of the US government)? Simple: Israel (with official US help) is the side with a secret shame to hide from the world.

Maybe in some ideal world we should all be Gandhi duplicates, and maybe if all Palestinians were Gandhi duplicates there would be no "current hostilities" but instead a nationwide hunger strike unto death that might shame the outside world into forcing Israel’s rule to an end. So yes, Palestinians are responsible for falling short of this (pretend) ideal.


"[In war] inevitably, mistakes will occur on both sides. The difference is that when Israel makes a mistake, they issue an apology, as did Foreign Minister Peres recently after the mistaken demolition of houses in Shuafat." [Aminoffs]

From Thom’s rebuttal:

It is hard even to point out basic facts, such as that this is not a "war". Wars are fought between roughly equal sides (the Gulf "War" was instead a simple massacre). Israel arms its highly trained citizen soldiers with attack helicopters, M-16 assault rifles, machine guns, tanks, missiles, naval vessels, and other modern weaponry supplied by its benefactor, the United States. The Palestinians have at most a few thousand AK-47s handed over to policemen and militia with little or no training. They also have stones and slingshots, and a few desperate people fashion bombs to strap to their bodies so they can act out their despair by killing Israeli civilians along with themselves.

On July 13, I visited the remains of a tiny village of Palestinian farmers near Susya in the Negev desert. Using the murder of a settler as a pretext, the Israeli military bulldozed every home, and used the wreckage to fill in caves the people also used for shelter, and the cisterns they use for water. I went with a delegation from Rabbis for Human Rights. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote about the destruction in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, characterizing the incident as part of a process of ‘a kind of Judaization, not to say ethnic cleansing.’

Demolishing homes is also an example of collective punishment, illegal under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but which is imposed by Israel on a widespread and continuous basis, also in the form of closures, curfews, disruption of electricity, restriction of travel, etc. Israel also conducts extrajudicial executions and administrative detention, among other prohibited practices.

During my recent [i.e., second] 3-week trip, I witnessed a small demonstration made up mostly of children protesting a permanent roadblock. A few boys threw stones at waiting soldiers, who then blanketed the area with tear gas and later shot live ammo, killing a teenager.

I extensively videotaped three homes in a civilian neighborhood of Beit Sahour destroyed by Israeli tank fire. One was hit by a phosphorous bomb, igniting the inside of the home. I filmed many more destroyed homes in other parts of the village, and in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Al-Khader. These were homes like ours, people exactly like our neighbors, middle class, hard-working, honest, peaceful people.

Consistently throughout the century, the death toll for Palestinians is ten times the death toll for Israelis. The Palestinians do not even have an army, or a nation, so it’s hard to see how they can fight a "war" with Israel. In any event, no one bulldozes an entire town and fills in the alternative caves "by mistake". "Oops, sorry for the ethnic cleansing."


"[W]hen terrorists seek to martyr themselves and take innocent lives with them, they are applauded and their families receive payments from the Palestinian Authority and their supporters; and others, many of them children, are encouraged to follow in their footsteps to martyrdom, while, at the same time, schools are teaching hatred of the peoples with whom they ultimately have no choice but to live together in peace. … [T]he centerpiece of the Palestinian Covenant which never has been changed calls for dismemberment of the State of Israel, but, the world does not want to believe." [Aminoffs] "[T]he events [Saffold] observed on the ground have a larger context, one that begins in the minds of the Israeli and Palestinian political and military strategists .... Much of what is said [in speeches by high-ranking members of the Palestinian authority] seems most divisive if one chooses to listen." [Fried]

Divisiveness in the defense of liberty is no vice—unless we’re holding people to Gandhian standards, maybe. Should Palestinians teach their children that their land and water and lives are rightfully someone else’s? No, they should make a clear "division" between the way things are and the way things were and should be. Meanwhile, the beginning of Naomi Calick’s article (see p. 12) describes her own stereotypically divisive education as a Jewish-American child.

Palestinian children are not so stupid that they need special instruction or speeches to dislike the tank that shelled the house or the soldier that kicked mommy in the belly. The Israeli occupation is the dominant teacher of Palestinian youth.

As for the dismemberment of Israel, even US recognition was contingent on Israel’s allowing Palestinians the right of return to or compensation for their stolen lands. If the US had moral courage, it would therefore rescind its recognition of Israel. The Israeli government’s refusal to grant this right is the only meaning of, the only cause of, and the only reason for ideals of replacing it with a government that reflects the rights of all the people without regard to race, religion, or ethnicity.


"[Saffold] uses phrases such as "peace-loving" when describing the Palestinians as opposed to "humiliation, intimidation" and "killing" when discussing the Israelis." [Klein]

From Thom’s rebuttal:

Does this mean I think Palestinians are all good and Israelis all bad? Not at all. Let me quote from Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a recent essay on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the Destruction of the Holy Temples. Speaking of the relative blame for the violence, he writes: "Both have some responsibility, but one has more. That’s us. Us Jews. I realize it’s hard to get past the sense of victimization, especially strong among Israeli Jews whose culture is built around the expectation of powerful anti-Semitism and the need for super-strength to resist it, to say that indeed Israel is much, much stronger not only than the Palestinians but—as of now—than the combined Arab world—and that the deepest danger is much more from our own misdeeds, our own unjust actions, than it is from any forces arrayed against us."

While Thom referred to Israelis’ unpeaceful actions, he did not contrast their character with "peace-loving". At one point his initial column does refer to Israeli "society" as being uninterested in protecting Palestinian rights and lives, but clearly this is meant not to describe each person in the society—which would include Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews horrified by the occupation—but only as covering the overall balance of opinion in the society.


"It seems to me that Israel’s perspective is that they cannot to afford to lose even once against what they perceive to be a hostile and unwelcoming adversary. The Palestinian’s perspective seems to be that they can afford to lose as often as necessary, because they only need to win once, therefore they provoke hostilities from the Israelis with whatever means they have. … There are no winners, and only losers, in the game being played now." [Fried]

Here the letter writer makes a truly desperate claim. When Palestinians "lose" they lose their lives and their basic human rights. To say they Palestinians can "afford" to lose as often as necessary is not only to say that their lives and rights count for little, but that they agree, that Palestinian parents hardly care whether they lose their children (or their children’s basic rights). Fried has just arrived at a startling proof of the Divine Special Creation of the Palestinians—for how could a population that doesn’t care for its kids have evolved by Darwinian selection? And the idea that this is a "game" to the Palestinians--or that a way to "win" it is to throw a rock at a tank or stand in front of one’s third house as it too is being bulldozed to make room for the chosen people--is beneath even ridicule.


"[Saffold] gathers his ‘facts’ by interviewing Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers. How does he reach the conclusion that Israel attacked ‘without provocation’ the ‘peace loving’ village where he is being hosted? By interviewing 20 local Palestinian residents? Gimme a break. By the way, the Arabs are shooting at the Jews of Hebron every day. Just ask 20 Jewish residents of the city and they’ll tell you. [Klein]

From Thom’s rebuttal:

Benjamin H. Klein, in his response of July 27, apparently cannot believe that Palestinians can be anything other than dishonest and violence-prone. He scoffed at the idea that my interviews of 20 Palestinians could result in them telling me the truth about the events of July 9. ‘Gimme a break,’ he sniffs. It is very hard to break through that kind of racism with truth.

Mr. Klein implies that the settlers of Hebron are the victims of Palestinian violence. According to most human rights and NGO groups who monitor the situation there, particularly B’Tselem, the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in Hebron, and RHR, settler violence against Palestinians eclipses violence against settlers, even in the aftermath of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.

The illegal settlements are considered human rights violations by B’Tselem. It and CPT document the frequent acts of violence of settlers against Palestinians in Hebron. I met with B’Tselem and CPT, and visited Hebron.

On July 15, I was arrested at the behest of a settler while walking with two Palestinian guides through lands owned by Palestinian farmers of Al-Khader, but claimed by settlers. The settler called in the army, which arrived in two jeeps and a helicopter. Next, the police arrived and arrested us, taking us to Gush Etzion, a place B’tselem charges police have tortured Palestinians. No charges were filed against us, thanks only to my American passport, but the settlers wanted to confiscate my video footage. My Palestinian friends are committed to nonviolent means of resisting the Occupation, but they were threatened by the soldiers and settlers.

We can see from this that Thom seeks out Israeli voices as well as Palestinian voices—no surprise given his demonstrated journalistic skills. And he knows firsthand that even an American can be arrested without provocation.

I’m sure Thom would have been happy to ask Israeli soldiers, had they not been pointing tank turrets at him—without provocation. Or I’m sure Thom would have been happy to hear the Israeli commanders defend their actions in court—but apparently, as is typical, no charges were brought by the soldiery. Can Klein explain why not? If tanks shot up his neighborhood, he would scream for either (i) an official admission that there was no provocation or (ii) an official charge against the alleged provocateurs so they have a chance to defend themselves publically in court. But such exposure to the world is exactly what the Israeli government loathes. For what kind of "provocation" would justify ripping family homes with tanks?

Obviously, even if each day there are bullets coming from "the Arabs"—note Klein’s ethnic overgeneralization—this doesn’t mean that these Arabs (of which Thom wrote) had done anything to provoke the crackdown.


"[I]t never ceases to amaze [us] how an individual can visit an area that has a history spanning thousands of years, that has been in conflict for over 50 years and, in just a few days, become an expert." [Aminoffs] "I got the impression that Saffold had only recently been introduced to the Israel-Palestinian tragedy. … Saffold should reflect on his experiences, … instead of jumping so quickly to conclusions of who is right and who is wrong." [Fried] "Saffold, to put it bluntly, has no idea what he is talking about. … [I]t appears as if he has a deep loathing for Israelis that he allows to color his opinion in such a way as to make it positively laughable." [Klein]

From Thom’s rebuttal:

I simply reported what I saw, from close range, of an unprovoked attack by Israeli tanks, soldiers and support vehicles on a civilian Palestinian neighborhood in Beit Sahour, defended by light arms. I filmed most of what I saw on videotape. Its images illustrate what I wrote. I also made an assertion, that Israel is ‘bent on driving Palestinians from their land through economic hardship, confiscations, humiliation, intimidation, and by killing them.’ I based that upon twenty five years of heavy reading about the history (ancient, colonial, and modern) and politics of the area, and, since a trip to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, extensive research. I have written several articles (a couple for the News), made several presentations, and done a dozen Community Television Network programs about the issues since moving here in 1990. This may not make me an expert, but I am certainly not uninformed.

Instead, the letter writers rudely and irrationally jumped to conclusions about Thom on the basis of only a single piece of his writing. Assuming the letter writers are smart and of good will, it must be that naivete is the only diagnosis that occurs to them other than Thom’s being outright evil. Somehow the hypothesis that he could simply be correct was apparently not even available for them to consider.


"While it may be a fine idea to devote space in the op-ed section to reader submissions, The Ann Arbor News is still responsible for what appears there. Thom Saffold’s horribly ill-informed and misleading Other Voices essay makes one wonder whether or not the newspaper agrees. … While readers may be interested in news and opinions from the area, nothing is served by allowing such extremely unbalanced articles to be printed. It does your readers and people who care about the region a great disservice." [Klein]

[ANN ARBOR NEWS] EDITOR’S NOTE: The News prints many letters and essays expressing views and interpretations of issues that differ from those of the paper’s editorial board. And while it’s true that the publication of material containing significant errors of fact is counter-productive, so is shielding readers from the views that others in the community hold tightly—and act on.

Of course, the editorial comment from the News is carefully worded. It doesn’t literally say anything about Thom. But the reader has to fill in disguised content to see the comment even remotely as an answer to Klein’s question: why did they print Thom’s article? And the News editor knows this.

First, the editor doesn’t say that publishing errors would be bad, but that it is bad—inviting Klein to infer that the editor detects significant factual errors in Thom’s article. But none are mentioned.

Second, the editor suggests that Thom’s views are a threat to readers, something they might wish to be "shielded" from. Far from a ringing defense of free speech, the News editor suggests that when she receives Thom’s submissions she thinks "Hark! I must warn the populace!".

By emphasizing that Thom "acts" on his views, the News makes the threat seem more ominous. How does this matter to Klein’s challenge? If Thom were unable to act on his views, would the News consider his views unpublishable? Why? Because Thom would then not be a threat to readers like Klein? How is he a threat?

Similarly, the News chooses to emphasize that Thom holds his views "tightly". What does this invite the reader to think, if not that Thom’s views are impervious to reconsideration? And would the News smother views held tentatively?

The News editor’s response is multiply and groundlessly insulting—through cowardly indirect insinuation. It is also a lie, for the News is inexcusably "shielding" its readers from Thom’s rebuttal—after printing at least three largely redundant criticisms of him, each full of significant errors of fact.


"I want to begin by saying that I support Saffold in his mission to travel to Palestine and Israel to get a first hand look at the situation. More people should do this; I should do this." [Fried]

And so should I. And so should you. Not only to get a firsthand look at the situation, but to get a firsthand hand on changing the situation. See page 12-14 for ways to do so directly or vicariously through your crucial support of the International Solidarity Movement. As Naomi Calick’s story (p. 12) shows, there’s hope even for the Kleins and Frieds and Aminoffs of our nation. Maybe even for the editors.


For further discussion, see
Arguments, Lies & Videotape   (Mar 2002)
by Justin Shubow & Eric Lormand

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