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The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI): George Rishmawi and the Siraj Center Raise Concerns

Dear Friends of Israel,

Please read the report below. 

A few years ago, I personally witnessed George Rishmawi (yes, this George Rishmawi) tell a group of well meaning Christians in Chicago that the Israelis have developed a gas that slows down Palestinian people so that the Israelis can shoot them in their backs.  Allyson Taylor and Gary Ratner were with me.  Allyson went up to the microphone and publicly asked him what kind of gas he was talking about, to which he responded that the Israelis are very smart, they pick up the canisters of gas before anyone can see them.  Rishmawi engaged in a dangerous modern form of blood libel to prepare the audience for the "call" to punish Israel with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Thank you all for taking the time to read this report, and for caring about what is being taught to young people about Israel.

Roz Rothstein, CEO

StandWithUs

The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI): George Rishmawi and the Siraj Center Raise Concerns

Roberta P. Seid, PhD

George Rishmawi may no longer be formally with ISM, but his perspective and approach are not likely to improve the understanding of Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) students, help them develop conflict resolution skills, or help pave the way to conciliation and peace either on the UCI campus or in the Middle East.

That Rishmawi and his group are so integral to OTI’s programming casts doubt on the value of OTI itself.

Speaking at UC Irvine on Nov. 22, 2010, Rishmawi said he broke with ISM several years ago over personal differences with  co-founders Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, but his current goals are quite similar to those of ISM when it was originally founded: bring young “internationals” to the West Bank on tours and to live with selected Palestinian families, encourage them to become “ambassadors” who will repeat the narrative Rishmawi orchestrates, and inspire them to participate in “non-violent” actions like protesting the security fence in Bil’in.

Rishmawi is likeable, but he is not reliable, and many of his alleged facts distort reality.  He presents a litany of grievances about Israel’s various security measures in soft and sorrowful tones. But he attributes them to Israel’s desire to “harass” and humiliate Palestinians.  He refuses to acknowledge the reality of terrorism. When directly asked about terrorism twice, he didn’t admit or denounce it.  Instead, he said that Israel’s security fence, checkpoints, etc. are themselves a form of terrorism, thereby inverting cause and effect, minimizing the magnitude of the terrorist threat Israel faces, and equating intentional murder and maiming of Israeli men, women, and children with inconveniences in daily life, onerous as they may be, such as delays at checkpoints. Furthermore, he misinforms students, refusing to acknowledge that prior to the outbreak of the terrorist campaign known as the 2nd Intifada, there was free movement between the West Bank and Israel—no security barrier, no checkpoints within the West Bank. Even Fatah’s Muhammed Dahlan admitted that the “militarization” of the Intifada was a grave mistake, but Rishmawi, who is supposed to educate students, won’t discuss it or its impact on Israelis.

Rishmawi is unreliable in other ways as well.  He claims he supports non-violent resistance, but like the original ISM, he does not denounce terrorist organizations.  When I asked him if Hamas members participate in his demonstrations, he said, “We accept everybody.  We don’t discriminate against anyone.”  Yet Hamas, which he admitted is popular in the West Bank, promotes violent jihad against Jews and Israelis. Rishmawi claims the Bil’in demonstrations are non-violent, yet there is video and written evidence of the violent rock throwing and aggressive tactics of these purportedly non-violent activists. One rock took out the eye of a young IDF soldier. Rishmawi claims the demonstrations compelled Israel’s Supreme Court to order rerouting of the security barrier in Bil’in, but when I said the issue had been wending its way through the courts before the demonstrations started, that the Court’s decision was not related to the demonstrations, and that the Court had ordered other reroutings based on villager complaints that were not accompanied by demonstrations, Rishmawi acted surprised. Either he was unaware of these facts or was denying them to justify the aggressive demonstrations and to minimize the Israeli courts’ efforts to balance security needs with needs of Palestinians.

The misinformation did not stop with these issues.  When asked about a comment he made five years ago, Rishmawi said he stands by his claim that the IDF releases a gas that temporarily paralyzes the Palestinians to more easily shoot them in the back and then quickly picks up the canisters so no one can find out what the gas is. He denied that Christians are persecuted by the PA and Hamas.  He denied that Israel has removed most of the West Bank checkpoints and that the area is experiencing economic growth. He acted surprised when asked about anti-Israel, anti-Jewish incitement in the PA media and schools, and was equally taken aback when I suggested Hamas is anti-Semitic.  Perhaps he has not read Hamas’ founding document which lifts liberally from the anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and calls for the murder of Jews. He reacted with surprise again when asked about Jordanian laws that made selling land to Jews a crime punishable by death (since reduced to merely a punishable crime), and about the PA’s recent ruling making land sales to Jews a capital crime.  He said that Peace Now claimed that 83% of settlements are on confiscated Palestinian land when in fact they had claimed the number was 40% and much of their data had proved to be based on incomplete records and was incorrect. 

Rishmawi, who has no expertise on water issues, was scheduled to speak to UCI students later that day about how Palestinians are thirsting for water, which is the latest accusation being used by boycott, divestment, and sanctions activists such as Omar Barghouti. If OTI wants to address water issues, why doesn’t it have students meet the Palestinians who serve on the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Commission, which was set up during the early days of Oslo and has continued to function effectively throughout the Initfada years? Why expose students instead to those who have no expertise on water issues but have chosen to use it as their latest cause in the campaign against Israel, and who never mention that Israel is giving Palestinians water from Israel in greater quantities than it had agreed to do in the Oslo Accords, and has been working on regional solutions to the water problems of this arid area.

When I asked Rishmawi whether he supports a one or two state solution, he answered (as ISM always did) that he doesn’t care.  Either one would do. But if he doesn’t care, then what is his call for resistance about?  When would he stop calling for “resistance?”  When I asked him, he said when the security barrier and checkpoints are removed, and when settlers stop “attacking” Palestinian olive trees, though he provided no evidence for this accusation.  But it is unlikely that Rishmawi would be satisfied with these policy changes. He repeated several times that Israel “violates international law,” and shouldn’t we be against everyone who does so?  His interpretation of international law is loose.  He endorses Al-Awda (the right of return coalition) and works closely with the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center, which espouses replacement theology, denies any Jewish rights to the land (which, like God’s Covenant, have passed to Palestinian Christians), promotes boycotts against Israel, and advocates a one-state solution, albeit indirectly.

In short, Rishmawi is not working toward a two-state solution, and has done nothing to promote this outcome, such as helping build up Palestinian civil society. His ultimate goal, though couched in gentle, appealing language, is to deny Israel’s legitimacy and its rights to self-defense. His audiences will not get insight into the facts or into progress that has been made, or into what kinds of constructive actions could be taken to help resolve the conflict.

If OTI continues to rely so heavily on Rishmawi and his Center, it will not contribute to a broader or more sophisticated perspective.  Rishmawi even admitted that his views are not shared by most West Bankers, so he does not even represent a genuine cross-section of Palestinian opinion. Instead, he promotes misinformation designed to win hearts and minds, and makes claims which are not very different from those that the MSU presents more openly and aggressively on UCI’s campus every year.

There is little doubt that Palestinians and Israelis suffer because of the ongoing conflict, and that deeper, first-hand knowledge could help Americans better understand the issues.  But those who hear or are hosted by Rishmawi are not getting that deeper knowledge.  Instead, they should be debriefed after their meetings with him.

Roberta P. Seid, PhD, an historian, teaches a course on Israel at UCI and is Education-Research Director for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization.

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