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An interview with Sister Kathie Uhler, Franciscan Sister of Allegany

This interview with Sr. Uhler followed her Advent Retreat Day presentation, “Waiting For Justice,” hosted by St. Bonaventure Church in Allegany NY, December 13, 2003 A former professor of philosophy at St. Bonaventure University (Olean, New York), Uhler now serves a unique ministry in Hebron in the Occupied Territories as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and its Campaign for Secure Dwellings. Prior to CPT, Kathie Uhler worked at the United Nations with Franciscans International, an NGO.

Snowshoefilms: What is the history of Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

Sister Kathie Uhler: The settlements began in 1967, after the Six Day War, where Israel moved in and occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Very shortly after that, a rabbi and his wife and 88 other Jewish people arrived – Israelis, mostly – into Hebron, under the pretext of attending a meeting. The next day, they just made an announcement they were staying. They were going to stay and live there and live in Hebron, and create a settlement . 

The background of this would be the Geneva Convention of 1949 after the 2nd World War. And by this convention which Israel is a party to. And many, many other countries. It is prohibited for transfers to take place. Meaning, for the occupying power to place or transfer its people into the occupied territories, in a permanent way, as settlers. That’s prohibited. And so, these Israelis just announced they were taking it over, were challenging the government at the time, to either accept it, or do something about it.

The government’s response in the long run was to move that group out of the hotel, but on to land Israel confiscated from the Palestinians out in the valley, near Hebron. This settlement is called Kiryat Arba. It is the oldest of all the Israeli settlements and there’s probably about 5500 people living there today. And to this day, there are about four illegal settlements in Hebron – in the central city of Hebron, the Old City. I should say, around that Mosque. There are 130,000 people in Greater Hebron, and there are about 20,000 of those in the Kasbah or the Old City. And there are between 300 and 400 settlers in there. Illegally. There are about 2,000 soldiers in there, to protect the settlers. At the same time, of course, to keep that occupation going, to keep the harassments of the Palestinians, keep the force on them. Through military means. Guns, tear gas, grenades and so forth. Tanks.

So, throughout the 70s, Kiryat Arba expanded, always taking land, confiscating land. In the early 1980s, the four settlements in Hebron itself opened up. In different times in the early 1980s. 

And then to the south of Kiryat Arba, about three miles down that valley at the other end of the valley, is another Israeli settlement, called Hasina, and that’s also expanding. As we speak. 

Snowshoefilms: You’ve said that Palestinians you speak with are not consumed with anger [at the US and Israel]. How can that be when the Bush administration continues to back Sharon and even the Geneva Plan excises the Right of Return?

Sister Kathie Uhler: The right of return is partially granted. It’s not totally excised. About 100,000 settlers in the West Bank will be returned…

Snowshoefilms: Are the settlements religiously-based?

Kathie Uhler: The settlers, Israeli settlers in the West Bank and there are, as I said, about 300,000 of them – some of them are religious-based Zionists, the hard core, who believe God mandates, has mandated that they keep all of what we call the Holy Land – the whole thing. From ancient time. And that it still applies today, full force. I must say, I don’t know the percentages but I have a feeling that our of those 300,000, about a fourth are tough, religiously-based ones, and a lot of them, I believe, are in Hebron because this is an extremely dangerous situation to be in, to be so surrounded by Palestinians, their enemy. Their perceived enemy. 

Many others are more moderate Zionists. They believe that Israel should have their land, they should be secure in their land, even if it’s a two-state solution. With Palestine right within the kind of territory, so that the same geographical area or region that Israel has a right to a secure homeland and they will die for that. 

And then there are many – perhaps most – of the Israeli settlers who are economic settlers. They are there for financial incentives from the Israeli government. They are brought in, some of them, from other countries around the world in groups to begin a better way of life than they left. Or at least they are sold on the idea – that life in the West Bank or Gaza will be much more improved. All of their needs are taken care of by the Israeli government: health care, social services, education. Their food is shipped in. It’s brought in on special roads that are safeguarded by the army. They have all of their wants and needs. They are very secure as far as all of that goes.

Snowshoefilms: The ultimate gated community…

Kathie Uhler: It’s an extremely gated community. They’re highly protected. But, at the same time, the Israeli settlers, by and large, are all armed, highly armed -- with all kinds of US and Russian-made and other kinds of weapons. We see this all the time. We see teenagers carrying these rifles. We are threatened with them. As well as [ by] the older people. And they’re dangerous because they’re not regulated by any kind of military life or law. Soldiers are regulated. Soldiers are much easier to deal with, much easier to get to know and relate to on a human level. 

The settlers are tough. For whatever reasons they’re there, they are convinced , however they came to that point, they have the right to be in this territory that actually belongs to the Palestinians. It’s Palestinian territory that they’re in. There is no question about that. And for whatever reason, they’re extremely convinced and willing to suffer a lot if not completely die for.

Snowshoefilms: What is the American understanding of the West Bank, and the Occupation?

Kathie Uhler: I don’t think the American people know the real situation of the Occupation. It has been kept out of our media, pretty much. There are articles in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and other more independent newspapers around the country, and radio stations and so forth. There’s some media, but the alternative media, it’s just that. It’s not the main stream. And the mainstream message is that Israel came out of the Holocaust, well – as Jews – were looking for a homeland and were helped greatly by the UN after the war in the late 40s and the two-state resolution – 181 – was offered to them. At the time, Israel, that part of the country, that land there, Palestine. What we now call the West Bank and Gaza. 

In 1947, the Palestinians owned 93 percent of the land there. And Israel, well -- In the two-state solution, Israel was given 56 percent of the land. And the Palestinians, 43 percent. The Israelis welcomed that because they had nothing before that. And the Palestinians rejected it because they were insulted. And now, knowing they [Israel] would never get another opportunity to such a deal – any deal – that kind of a land grab. Not a grab but that kind of land division, partition. 

So this story, we know what happened in 1949. Wasn’t it great, Israel is now a state. It has come out of the Holocaust as a downtrodden people and now they have a new life there – the kibbutz, you know. It was a great story. Exodus, okay? The movie, the book. You know. It’s glamorized. It’s glorified….

Snowshoefilms: Did you buy into the notion of Exodus?*

Kathie Uhler: I read the book and saw the movie and I thought it was fantastic, you know. I thought the Palestinians were the bad guys. You know, I mean, I accepted it. Sure. I did not know any other history. You know, I hadn’t…

Our history, when I went to school, we had almost nothing about this in the late 50s, when I was in high school. And on my own, in the 60s, I was focused on Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, and women’s lib and so forth. I mean, I was looking in other directions. And so, it wasn't until I did some reading in the early 70s – Golda Meir’s Life, Exodus and Saul Bellow… You know, I was reading into the Jewish… Judaism… In contemporary forms. But I wasn’t really reading history. I was reading… Golda Meir was a lot of history but it was of course from her perspective. Yeah. And I had nothing about the Palestinians. You know, nothing in the media, nothing in novels or biographies about the Palestinian side. We’ve been slow to come to that in this country, through the media, to have comparable attractive images and metaphors and so forth, for those people.

Snowshoefilms: It was the beginning** of the villainization of the Arab world, wasn’t it? Iraq, Afghanistan – it set us up, psychologically, didn’t it?

Kathie Uhler: Yes, I think so. In T.E. Lawrence’s day, “Lawrence of Arabia,” when he, you know, helped the Arabs, the Arab revolt… I believe, in his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he, and the movie, Lawrence of Arabia… I’ll have to say this, we do get a different sense of the Arab cause, vis-à-vis and over against the West, the British Empire, in particular. France, Turkey for that particular part of history.

I think they were not demonized in all of that but, as we got into the 60s, there was, well, even in the 50s, Iran – There started to be a social upheaval in Iran under the Shah and the oil became more and more important after World War II… 

I agree with you that the Shiites and the Sunni Muslims have become demonized. And I think a lot of it has to do with the strategic need for land in the Middle East. And for oil; especially for oil. As the first President Bush said, to sustain our life style, the life we have become accustomed to.

Snowshoefilms: How do you account for US continuity in backing Israel?

Kathie Uhler: …I think it has to do partly with guilt that many people in the West felt after the Holocaust – the guilt, and therefore to try to make up for this, to compensate the Jews for this outrage against them. And so, the tendency to bend over backwards. And the Palestinians got hurt in that. Who really were the owners of the land. I think that has to do with it.

Israel is in a strategically important part of the Middle East – a buffer zone between Syria and Lebanon and Egypt. And also, it’s the site of holy shrines. It’s a valuable, precious area of the world that needs protection. Christians are concerned about this. Christians make up a lot of the population in the United States. And also, the Jews became a sizable population in the US… Politically active people, affluent people. People of influence in the United States, even though the numbers, I’m not even sure of the numbers…

It’s how prepared they are in their citizenry, to be effective citizens, they’re very well prepared…

Snowshoefilms: Effective citizens in what way? 

Kathie Uhler: Citizens who know how to get what they want , for themselves. Democracy being of the people, by the people, for the people. People do get together and work for their interests, as we know. And in a democracy there are a number of ways of doing this: forming public opinion, pressuring politicians. These are all neutral… Neutral techniques. They can be used for good or ill. They can be used for extremely myopic, self-centered purposes – or for the common good at the other extreme. So, I think American Jews certainly wanted to support that and keep that going, and I think that’s a part of it… And also used their money to support politicians. This goes a long way, right or wrong, in ways politicians work, and how they vote.

Snowshoefilms: Is Israeli settler hostility toward the CPT and the Palestinians motivated by religion or racism, or both?

Kathie Uhler: It’s racially motivated, through stereotypes of what we are trying to do. They call us neo-nazis. We’ve had African-American team members in Hebron, Christian Peacemaker Teams – and they [Israeli settlers] call us nigger-lovers. And that’s a whole thing – they paint it on the wall. White Power, killing niggers. White Power, their power. In other words, definitely racially motivated statements like that against our African-American members, as well as to the Caucasian members. You know, just statements of hatred… ‘You’re supporting suicide bombers, your supporting Palestinian violence.’ General statements about what they perceive we are doing, without having the ability to dialogue with them on any of these points. It’s a type of education that is taught without information that would fill it, would inform properly.

Snowshoefilms: Would you define Israel’s treatment of people in the Occupied Territories as state terrorism?

I’m among those who believe that what Israel is doing is a kind of state terrorism. Absolutely. Because what they’ve been going about in the occupied territories is not military…. In the beginning, it was not militarily necessary. But as the violence and the repression goes harder and deeper and longer, then the resentment ratchets up and the response of the Palestinian can become more violent.

You know, before the suicide bombing became as frequent as they are, we had teenage youths – boys – throwing stones. And the response was cannonade fire back, on boys throwing stones. That’s a violation, a breach of the 4th Geneva Convention, to use disproportionate pressure, military response, to an aggression.

Snowshoefilms: Is religion used as an ideological cover for shear expansionism on the part of the State? 

I don’t find the Israeli government using religious reasons for the repression, for the occupation. I find them using “security” reasons. Reasons of security. For Israeli citizens. Whether they be settlers or people living out, beyond the occupied territories. In other words, political expediency, or military expediency. That’s the reasons a government would give. Secular reasons.

George Bush’s “war on terrorism” has played into the hands of Israel’s war on the Palestinians because now they only have to call… Well, they’ve always called Yasser Arafat a terrorist – but they just have to say this is a terrorist, or a terrorist attack, and everybody is supposed to lean back and say, “Oh, right. So, it’s okay what they’re doing in response.” 

George Bush’s war on terrorism is like a series of platitudes, slogans, that have to be taken at gospel value by the United States citizenry. We have to believe these things. We can’t be critical. We can’t ask too many probing questions. And so, it’s only media, journalists outside to the US that are doing this. They’re asking the questions and are coming up with the answers. But not our local media, not our national media. 

So I think that Israel and George Bush are helping each other. They’re working in tandem, almost.

Israel uses the language of George Bush to justify and name what it’s doing and vice versa. George Bush has to stand behind what they’re doing. He has to confirm what Israel’s doing, because Israel’s doing the same thing we’re doing. And, by the way, that’s what’s happening in Iraq. It looks like another Israeli occupation, honest to god. What is happening in Iraq is almost like a carbon copy. The United States carbon copy of what Israel has been doing in the West Bank.

Snowshoefilms: Are you surprised at the quick transformation of this country, or did it come as no shock to you that we’re heading toward a kind of fascism?

Kathie Uhler: I’ve seen it coming. I’ve seen it coming with the gagging of the media around this current president in particular. Not being able to be critical about what happened at the World Trade Center, and where he was. And the CIA and the FBI – why there was no… why no heads rolled.

Snowshoefilms: An investigation of 9/11 is really the crucial thing before the American people, isn’t it?

Kathie Uhler: Yeah. Yes, it is. And it was really whitewashed. I was in Iraq that day. I was in Baghdad September 11 and I was to leave anyway the next day, and I was able to get out of Iraq.

But, just by the way, the news media there, the TV coverage, was probably as good as anywhere in the world at that time, the first 24 hours, because they had the footage that probably everybody else did, of the plane going in.

They treated it at length, seriously. And the people I was with were telling me what was being said. when I got to Jordan the next day, I stayed in a Palestinian-run hotel. Of course the Muslims, the Palestinians came up and some of them were even weeping, and they said, ‘This is not Islam.’ They said it right out. This was even before it was said – an identity was given officially, of who had done this. 

I was quizzed by the manager of the hotel, a bit. He said, “How could this have happened? We were always told that a fly couldn’t fly over the Pentagon without being shot down.” Now questions like that were not asked in the US. He said, also, to me, “Why hasn’t anybody been fired from the CIA, the FBI…”

But immediately, the people in the outside world were into this. He [the hotel manager] was studying architecture. Already, he had all sorts of books out on how this could happen. He was studying the architecture to try to figure out what happened to the WTC. I mean, they were right on to this. These are just e examples of the critical analysis that was immediate in the people of other countries. Not here.

Snowshoefilms: The situation on the West Bank looks pretty hopeless. What gives you hope? 

I do see hope and I really couldn’t continue to work if I didn’t. I find it mostly in the people, the Palestinian people themselves who somehow resist non-violently the harm of the occupation to them. They transcend it. They are even non-violent in their attitudes, as I said, to the army, the settlers, anybody involved…

I also find hope in the Israelis that come in at risk of being arrested, they come in to the West Bank, they help Palestinians rebuild their homes. They go to court for the Palestinians. The pick olives with them, and get shot at by other Israelis, the settlers. I was shot at too – we all were – by Israelis, by picking olives [in Palestinian-owned olive groves].

And so this gives me hope. These bonds, these relationships of help, mutual care, concern. And a bond on the methods of dealing with problematic situations, the non-violent methods, these things to me are steps toward peace that no amount of suicide bombing and targeted Israeli assassinations are going to change. They are not going to dissolve those steps, these steps are permanent and they’re forward, towards peace. These relationships that are established across that barrier, across the lines.

And I see the growing number of internationals there as a sign of hope. The more people who get in there, the better, believe me. Because the more the truth will get out.

And I see a sign of hope now in the last two weeks with the Geneva Plan presented by the Israelis and the Palestinian former officials there – insiders, with followings and they are full of hope. Those two men, [Yossi] Beilin and [Yasser Abed] Rabbo, Israeli and Palestinian respectively, they are full of hope – full of hope – for their plan. That gives me hope. And then the national initiative leadership, inter-religious leadership toward peace in the Middle East that came out in early December also. that gives me a lot of hope. Again, because it’s our religious leaders here that are doing, really, the critical thinking, what we all need to do, and they as leaders are doing it and setting a good example for us. And giving our country, Israel and Palestine some concrete steps to take, as does the Geneva Plan, and as the Road Map does, too. Bush’s Road Map, George Bush’s Road Map.

Filmmakers’ notebook #66, December13, 2003

* Exodus, Leon Uris, 1958, 600 pages.
** Hardly the beginning. Ideologists/propagandists for the Crusades predate Exodus by a bit. The question is meant to refer to more contemporary culture: film and television villains, especially when Hollywood lost its main communist villain, post-Gorbachev. 

In preparing for (and editing) this interview, Snowshoefilms thanks especially authors Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky (Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel), Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Norman G. Finkelstein), Tariq Ali (The Clash of Fundamentalisms), and A. Cockburn and J. St. Clair, (The Politics of Anti-Semitism).

Thanks also to Dave Robinson (Pax Christi) for the music (used in the video) of the Chaldean Christian Church priest choir, recorded in Baghdad, December, 2002. 

updated Jan 2003