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Students Give Insight to Life On the Gaza Strip

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Brooklynites gathered at St. Francis College last week to hear a group of Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip speak about life under Israeli occupation. “Gaza is the biggest prison cell all over the world,” said Hekmat K. Bessiso, a 35-year-old student of social development. “It is very hard to keep dreaming or to keep a plan for your future, as a Palestinian,” she added. Bessiso, along with fellow students Adel El Ghoul, 34, who studies management, and Mustafa Alkayly, 20, an English and computer science major, spoke about the military occupation and the restrictions they live under. Brooklyn Parents For Peace and Jews Against the Occupation (JATO) were the main sponsors of the event. Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace (FFIPP) brought the students to the United States for a coast-to-coast speaking tour. The organization works to build bridges between academics in the United States, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Europe. They work under two guiding principles: that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza must end; and that there is a need for radical change in the relationship between Israelis, Palestinians, and the United States. A recurrent theme in the talk was limits to travel. Leaving Gaza, there are only two exits, and Israeli permits are necessary to go through them, Bessiso said. Checkpoints, at which Palestinians must wait hours to pass through, dot the territories. Most men ages 18-35 have not been able to leave Gaza for the last two years, Bessiso said. “The sea is occupied, the borders are occupied, the sky is occupied,” she lamented. The trio criticized Israeli plans to pull out settlers from Gaza—because, they said, even as the Gaza pullout gets into gear, settlements in the West Bank are expanding. Alkayly spoke, in English, of his amazement when he discovered that there is a peace movement inside Israel. He did so at a conference about relations between Israeli and Palestinian students. “I didn’t know anything about Israelis,” prior to the event, he said. “Just war and soldiers.” When he did find out, he rushed back to tell all his friends, he said. Alkayly attends a university in Gaza City. Students who live on the opposite side of the city must wait 3 to 4 hours to cross the checkpoint to get to school, he said. “Kids who graduated high school can’t travel to school,” he said. “So they stay in Gaza and do nothing.” “I’m here to show you and tell you the facts that TV news has never told you,” he told the audience. El Ghoul told the dozens of residents who came to hear the trio of his experience in Israeli prisons. He spoke in Arabic and Bessiso translated. “I was 13,” he began. He was taken to an Israeli jail and interrogated. The reason for his detention, he said, was that he was a student leader in the youth movement fighting non-violently against the occupation. Shortly after he decided to leave Gaza. A few years later, “I prepared my papers to leave and continue my studies elsewhere,” he explained. He secured a scholarship to study in Turkey. But the month of his departure was also the first month of the first intifada, in 1987. As he traveled to the airport, he was once again taken into custody. “I spent the most important and the most intelligent years of my life in prison,” he said. He was once again released during the Oslo peace process, in 1994. After he left prison he began working with non-governmental organizations against the occupation and for refugee rights. “I never imagined that I would get the permit to leave Rafah and be among all of you here,” he told the crowd. “We bring a message from the Palestinian people to the American people—to ask for solidarity.” Bessiso noted the thousands of Palestinian men that have been taken to Israeli prisons since the second intifada started. And she explained how life under duress affects her and others psychologically. “We cannot trust there is democracy in the world,” she said. Brooklyn Parents for Peace, in a mission statement, calls for a two-state solution to the conflict, with a shared Jerusalem; an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; and an immediate end to attacks on civilians. They also call for a “just solution” to the refugee problem in accordance with the principles of international law. Emmaia Gelman of JATO explained to the audience that her organization started in New York at the beginning of the second intifada, to thwart the idea that all Jews support the occupation and “the repression of Palestinians” as well as the idea that Israel represents all Jews. After the talk, audience members said they appreciated hearing the Gaza residents firsthand. “It’s incredibly important that we show up to support them and hear what they have to say,” said Katie Unger, 28, of Park Slope. “I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about Palestine. But listening to them talk about the reality of closure and not being able to move… is just something you can’t get elsewhere.” In celebration of its 150th years of service to the people of Brooklyn, Rockville Center and Panama, the Sixth Annual Evening of Mercy cocktail reception, sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community of Brooklyn, will be held May 18. The Sisters have rededicated themselves to their legacy of caring for the needy, especially women and children promoting peace and justice. The Sisters of Mercy have a number of ministries serving the needy regardless of race, creed or ethnicity: a child car agency, two high schools, an afterschool program, a program for developmentally disabled persons, an agency which offers help to teens undergoing troubled times, a program to provide housing and aid to young mothers in need and centers which offer training and assistance to new immigrants and their families. The honorees exemplify this spirit of mercy. All three have made major contributions to the field of education. Sr. M. Joanne Deegan, RSM is principal of Our Lady of Mercy School in Hicksville. She has served in many capacities in the education field in the US and Panama. Dr. Frank Macchiarola, president of St. Francis College, has a long and distinguished career in education and public service, having been dean of Cardoza School of Law, chancellor of the NYC Schools and president of the NYC Partnership. Barbara Welles, executive director of Anchor Inc. has broken new ground for inner city students by collaborating with schools to form boarding components where poor students have the advantage of a stable and encouraging learning environment. Catherine McAuley High School is currently a partner in the program. For information about tickets and raffles, contact Grace Finley at the Development Office at 718-622-5750 extension 112.

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