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US-Palestinian Sister-City Bid Narrowly Fails - 2004-07-29

Known for its activist spirit, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, has forged relations with many beleaguered cities around the world in countries like Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and East Timor. VOA's Brent Hurd reports on its latest effort to become an official sister city with the Palestinian town of Rafah.

Hundreds of citizens filled the Madison City Council chambers to debate whether or not to partner with a Palestinian community on the tiny Gaza Strip thousands of kilometers away.

Many sentiments were expressed: “We are dealing here with an explosive region, where it is all too easy to get drawn into war.

“There are human beings living there [in Rafah]. And a sister city relationship is fundamentally a project of human relationships that we can help and learn from.”

“This debate is not a good use of our City Council's time. We have more pressing issues to deal with than dabbling with complex Middle East politics.”

“I don't believe that being open, liberal and progressive means that we should bash Israel.”

“And now we have this hideous opposition to one of the most sane things you could possibly do -- creating a people-to-people ministry as it were. Let the sister cities go on. Vote for it. It works like a charm.”

This marathon session was the climax of more than a year of debate. Sister city relationships encourage greater economic, cultural and humanitarian ties between local communities. Michael Verveer, a city official who voted to unite Madison with Rafah, says this has been one of the most difficult issues he has ever faced. “I have received more communications on this issue than any other issue in recent years -- both pro and con. It has very much divided the city council and the community at large.”

Mr. Verveer adds that many of Madison's other 11 sister cities projects were initially controversial, especially those in El Salvador and Cuba. What is unusual about the Rafah proposal is the intense opposition.

Steve Morrison, director of the Madison Jewish Community Council, says from the very beginning, this was a bad idea. He says Rafah is central to the Palestinian terrorist structure and any dialogue between US and Palestinian cities should include the Israeli point of view. “It is based on the premise that the (Israeli) occupation has clearly over the years created a piece of the problem the people of Rafah are facing along with, and I think in much greater measure, the failure of the Palestinian authority. If we are really going to learn something, this project should involve three partners (including Israel).”

More than 30 sister city relationships exist between the United States and Israel. Two US cities are partnered with Palestinian communities. Although many Jewish Americans are against the Rafah sister city idea, some support it, including Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman. “I think it is really important for Jews to reach out to Palestinians. I don't think there is ever going to have peace unless we have initiatives like this. Whenever you enter into a political situation and talk about the suffering of Palestinians, you are going to have to ask why there is suffering. Why is there homelessness in Rafah? Because of the home demolitions carried out by the Israeli military. I don't think that there is any getting around that.”

Hundreds of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip have been demolished by the Israeli military during incursions it says are necessary to uncover tunnels used to smuggle weapons to Palestinian terrorists. Israeli officials say they are looking for an alternative to home demolition, a tactic that has brought strong international criticism.

Mark Jacobs, a former political science professor in Madison, says the Madison-Rafah sister city project is using humanitarian rhetoric to cloak a political agenda. “The Madison-Rafah website, which includes not only links, but also includes documents that argue that taking a neutral position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is immoral, call for an end of US aid to Israel and accuse the Israeli government of committing war crimes and conducting ethnic cleansing.”

George Arida, a key member of the Madison-Rafah project, disagrees with the assertion that the project is only political. He says his group has built grass-roots connections with the mayor of Rafah and various local groups, including a Palestinian women's union and a Gaza mental health center. He believes the recent controversy has brought more light on events in Rafah. “The opposition has been helpful to us in raising the visibility of what we are doing and the tragedy in Rafah.” Mr. Arida concedes that without support from the city of Madison, exchanges with Rafah may prove more difficult. But he says his group's humanitarian work will continue with or without official city support.

In the end, the measure received a slight majority backing by the City Council but was two votes short of the 11 needed for adoption. Even though Rafah did not become an official sister city of Madison, local media outlets are reporting more about Gaza than before and the Madison-Rafah project plans to introduce the measure again next year.