By Rannie Amiri
"And you know, because I was president it sends a message all around. Go out and get something doing. Just ’cause … old guys can still have fun and still do stuff." — Former President George H.W. Bush in an interview prior to skydiving over Maine on his 85th birthday, 12 June 2009.
"My primary feeling today is one of grief and despair and an element of anger when I see the destruction perpetrated against innocent people. I have to hold back tears when I see the deliberate destruction that has been wracked against your people. I feel partially responsible for this as must all Americans and Israelis. [This school was] … deliberately destroyed by bombs from F16s made in my country." — Former President Jimmy Carter, 84, in comments made near the Israeli-leveled American International School during his tour of Gaza, 16 June 2009.
There is little doubt that at their age, both former United States presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter remain vigorous, energetic, spirited individuals. The activities they engaged in this past week however, could not have been more different.
Bush Sr. went skydiving in a tandem jump over Maine as he turned 85, and pledged to do the same at 90. Few would deny it was a remarkable feat for his years. Yet the bravery required to undertake the birthday skydive paled in comparison to what Carter did just a few days later:
He went to Gaza.
And what he saw there nearly caused him to weep. Remarkably, he took responsibility for the devastation wrought by Israel’s 23-day offensive – as far removed from it as he was – on behalf of the U.S. and all Americans.
He went even further, saying what no U.S. politician (let alone former president) could dare bring themselves to utter:
“The citizens of Palestine are treated more like animals than like human beings.”
Were these words heard by anyone in the U.S. or Europe? If so, they would have also heard his entreaty for them to exert pressure on Israel and Egypt so that vital supplies may be allowed to enter the territory.
Yes, the aftermath of the Iranian elections far overshadowed Carter’s trip but it was nevertheless ignored by the media. Not so with Bush’s jump; the few minutes it took to complete received much more attention than all of Carter’s travels to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza combined.
In Gaza, he met with Ismail Haniyah, the Palestinian prime minister elected in the 2006 parliamentary contests (characterized by Carter as “open, honest, and fair”) which Hamas won. In addition to calling for an end to violence by both Hamas and Israel, he passed on a letter to the group’s leaders from the parents of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to their son. He unfailingly took the time to remind us of the indefinite detention of 11,700 Palestinians currently held in Israeli jails without charge or access to legal representation as well.
Carter also reiterated the pledge he received from Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal in Damascus; namely that Hamas would accept any agreement reached between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, provided it was approved by the Palestinian people in a national referendum. It appears it took an ex-president to belie the myth that the “rejectionist” group would do nothing of the sort.
Readers are encouraged to review the transcript of the address Carter made during his short time in Gaza to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Human Rights Graduation for his additional insights.
Although the bombing has stopped, the tragedy of Gaza endures. But can we expect the ongoing pleas for help to be heard six months after the brutal Israeli attack when they were ignored during the war itself?
Carter’s voice was solitary, yet forceful. “The starving of 1.5 million human beings of the necessities of life – never before in history has a large community like this been savaged by bombs and missiles and then denied the means to repair itself,” he said.
It was a clarion call to which the Obama administration and world community remain largely deaf.
He may not have leapt from a plane at 10,500 feet, but Carter’s forthright remarks were by far the more courageous act.
– Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.