Category Archives: diplomacy

Gilad Shalit and the Absence of Face in American Wars

After the march with Gilad's parents from the North, thousands gathered to listen to different speakers, performers, and children on why his release of immediate concern. (Saverin/TYG)

By Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM – Thousands of people gathered between King David and King George Street on Thursday night in the culmination of the march from the north of Israel to Jerusalem advocating for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas. Two hundred thousand civilians joined at some point, and the blur of shirts and posters with a blue outline Gilad’s face cultivated a sense of unity.

In many ways, the march could have appeared in support of anything. Jerusalem is a constant hub of protests and marches given the tense political climate that spans a range of issues relating to land, religion, Zionism, education, gender, modesty, and more. This particular gathering struck me as incredibly unique, though, and exposed a great deal about what makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict something difficult to relate to as an outsider.

First of all, the relationship between citizens and the army is completely different from that in the United States. Because of the obligatory service, almost everyone here has, is currently, or will serve in the army. Further, everyone’s sons, daughters, neighbors, and colleagues will serve. The service cuts across socioeconomic lines. This dynamic creates a different culture surrounding the conflict, and makes it intensely personal. Instead of figures and numbers used for election purposes, faces from next-door infiltrate people’s understanding of war. One eight-year-old girl stood up in front of the thousands of people to refer to Gilad as her brother, as every soldier could easily be her brother, and because of this, she prays each night for peace. While the different sizes of the countries clearly influence this relationship, I have never confronted this sentiment in the U.S. The American army does not proportionally represent the population, as it runs almost systematically on socioeconomic lines, and sentiment towards it thus varies greatly.

The army and the conflict were fittingly shown through a humanistic lens. Gilad’s parents were the focus of the event, as speakers asked, “have they slept in four years?” His mother spoke of the pain of waiting for so long, and a woman whose whole family died in a terrorist attack expressed her desire to have a prisoner exchange, even if that meant the release of her family’s killers, because if Gilad can return to live a normal life that is worth more than anything. Saving a life, she said, is saving a world.

Would such a claim ever be made in the United States? How many prisoners of war are there in Afghanistan and Iraq? I don’t even know the number, let alone march for the return of each one. On both sides here, almost everyone knows a bereaved family. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brother was killed in a hostage rescue mission. This tragic reality makes the implausible possible, hundreds of thousands of people marching for the life of one.

Proximity also affects the nature of this relationship. The conflict does not hide; people live it everyday. Just walking around Jerusalem, and seeing the settlements, protests, racially divided neighborhoods, walls and towers left from each conqueror, venerated monuments, divides between the religious and the secular, the wall to the West Bank, soldiers everywhere, different organizations educating the public about the conflict, graffiti, posters, and more constantly reveal the issues pulling the city apart. The reality is inescapable. In the U.S., the reality is all too escapable, and I know I could effortlessly pass days without thinking about the wars. We are fighting two, and while I am quick to criticize the conduct of the Israeli army, what about my own? Are the war crimes any different? Do I feel that each soldier is my brother, and think of their parents’ lost sleep each night as the wars carry on?

The intimate feeling with the conflict is true to both sides. Palestinians and Israelis live and feel it together in Jerusalem, and both are deeply affected by casualties. Palestinians face stark facts in terms of prisoners of war as well, as administrative arrests for security can keep them in prison for up to five years with no court, and Palestinians arrested in the West Bank are subject to military court. As of May 2010, Israel is holding 213 Palestinians in administrative detention.

The pain that ensues this mutual grief brings cohesion and passion. Often, it polarizes people further into stringent views, but it can also unite them to work together to effect change. The Parent’s Circle brings together Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families to tell stories of their experiences losing a loved one to the conflict, side by side.

I have not witnessed this humanistic relationship with conflict in the U.S., for where is the feeling that what the American army does matters in my everyday life? Maybe it is an unfeasible desire, to want to truly understand the effects of “shock and awe,” Guantanamo, and the past decade of pain caused by the two American wars. Without knowing the faces, though, how can I hope to hold a genuine opinion on the wars, let alone work to implement my vision of them? I am grateful to not have lost anyone in the wars, but the loss and pain exists, and I believe there is an obligation to at the very least witness it.

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Filed under conflict, diplomacy, human rights, Middle East, violence, war

Tea with the Ambassador to Chile

This past Monday, the US Ambassador to Chile, Mr. Paul Simons, chatted with a group of Yale undergraduates at a Master’s Tea hosted by Jonathan Edwards College. A JE alum, Mr. Simons studied philosophy at Yale and even took English 125 with Penelope Laurans, the current Master of JE, when he was a freshman. At the tea, Mr. Simons shared his experience and stories as a career foreign service officer.

Before his November 2007 appointment to the Embassy, Simons served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy and Sanctions, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Earlier in his career, he served at U.S. Embassies in Ecuador, Malawi and Colombia, as a speechwriter at the State Department, and as international economist at the Treasury Department. These Foreign Service positions were preceded by a career in international corporate lending.

Ambassador Simons was careful to point out that these impressive appointments only came after working his way from the bottom up.  He entered the Foreign Service as a visa interviewer in Colombia, during which he screened around 150 visa applicants every day. “Of course it is tedious,” he responded to a student, “but this is the boot camp of Foreign Service—everyone has to go through it; you don’t really get to choose.” Simons assured students that the jobs get better and more interesting as one accrued more experience. When he moved to work in Malawi, his responsibilities grew to include oversight of commercial projects. His other adventures included accompanying President Clinton in Middle East and working on drug regulation in Columbia.

Throughout his diverse experiences, Ambassador Simons has maintained faith in diplomacy as the best way to solve international problems. To him, the most pressing issues now are climate change and the Middle East, as he has spent several years in Israel. He told students that “we need policies that make sense and sell them properly if we want to make an impact.” He believes that climate changes must be regulated diplomatically, even in light of the difficulties that the U.S.’s high expectations are bound to cause during negotiations. Simons remains hopeful of future diplomatic potential in the Middle East as well: “We have the tools and the credibility to solve the problem, all we need is time and a lot of attention over the next few years.”

What I find particularly interesting about Mr. Simon’s career path is the fact that he has worked on almost every important issue. Finance, energy, drugs, the Middle East….the list doesn’t miss any popular buzzword. He told me that he found rotating from topic to topic very enjoyable and even more challenging. Working in so many different fields allowed him to see more connections and view every situation more comprehensively.

Many Yalies have worked in the Foreign Service, but Mr. Simons is one of the few that have come back to tell Yale students how it is from the inside.  Sure, you start in the trenches, but as long as you put in enough time and energy, your effort will pay off. Even if you end up somewhere outside the Foreign Service, it seems like a helpful starting place from which to see the intricate web of international affairs more clearly.

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Filed under diplomacy, Latin America