December 1995, Pages 77-78, 99
Palestinian-American Contractor Is Building the Future in Gaza
By Pat McDonnell Twair
"Palestinians in the diaspora have every reason to come forward and help rebuild Palestine—in fact, it's a crime for them to just sit back and wait for the country to bloom without their help. If it does, it will be too late for them to participate." So said Palestinian-American contractor Mahmoud El Farra as he discussed the past eight months he has spent in Gaza and the West Bank.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle he's hurdled was Israeli red tape and objections to the Gaza International Airport his firm—Arab Contractors Palestine—is building near the Egyptian border. "Tractors are working on the airstrip right now," beamed El Farra, a California resident who emigrated to the United States from Khan Younis in Gaza in 1968.
Within seven months to one year, he predicts, 727s, 707s and European Airbuses will be landing at the airport, which should be entirely completed by the end of 1996.
"Everyone in Gaza is excited," El Farra commented. "Border crossings were hell for the Palestinians—now we'll be able to fly to Cairo, Amman and Cyprus without the old harassments."
He smiled as he recalled being interrogated by an Israeli official at Lod airport when he entered Israel months ago. When he told the officer his reason for traveling to Gaza was to build an airport, the Israeli was incredulous—absolutely incapable of comprehending the idea of Palestinians operating their own airport. As the interrogation ended, El Farra smilingly told the inspector: "We won't need you or be bothering you anymore."
Until a port being planned by Dutch and Palestinian companies is completed, the airport will be Palestine's passport to exporting vegetables and flowers to Europe and importing wheat, yarn and other light industry commodities into Gaza, which is only 5 by 30 miles in size, but separated from Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem by an intervening swath of Israel.
Now, even when the Israelis permit Gaza's borders to be open, Palestinian products are subject to arbitrary inspections by Israeli authorities and many goods, even though they are legal under trade agreements, aren't allowed to cross. Moreover, the Israelis daily change the permissible types of products. Airport transport should end this purposeful harassment, which keeps Gaza products from competing with Israeli products in European markets.
El Farra says the Israelis have resisted the prospect of a Gaza airport, but it now is stipulated clearly in the peace agreement. More than 100 companies offered bids on constructing it, but Arab Contractors Palestine captured the job. The project is financed by the National Bank of Egypt and the Arab Land Bank. A grant from Spain has covered part of the equipment costs. All materials, such as cement, come from Arab countries.
In addition to Arab Contractors Palestine, the El Farra Group is part owner and in charge of Palestine Invest, Consulting Engineering Firm, Palestine International Trade Co., Osman-El Farra Industrial Co. and Palestinian Mills Co. The latter will supply flour to the entire population of Gaza; a second phase will serve all of the West Bank.
A feasibility study also has been completed on a specialized surgical hospital that will handle all open heart, neurological and opthamological surgeries that now go to Israel. Plans also are underway for three diagnostic medical centers in Gaza that will later expand to the West Bank.
The El Farra Group's Palestine Invest also will be building 300 chalets for a tourist village at the beach of Gaza City.
"We're one of the very few who have come forward and we're inviting all Palestinians to join us in creating a new country—in making history after 100 years of struggling to get here," stated El Farra, who emphatically states he and his physician brother, Dr. Sabri Farra, do not belong to any Palestinian faction or political party.
Building Their Own Country
"Palestinians have built most of the Arab world—particularly the Gulf countries," stressed El Farra, chairman of the Gaza Businessmen's Association. "So why shouldn't they come and build their country?"
Ruefully shaking his head, he continued: "The so-called donor countries aren't living up to their pledges of $2.2 billion. If the donor countries aren't paying and the Palestinians aren't investing—why should outsiders get involved? We're not asking Palestinians to invest all their capital, but at least they could put 20 percent of their holdings into building the basics: housing, factories, roads, and hotels as a profitable investment."
A further incentive, he emphasized, is tax exemptions offered to outside investors.
El Farra does not view Gaza through rose-colored glasses. He is the first to admit "we have the worst [peace] agreement that could be signed—even [Yasser] Arafat says so. But we couldn't get a better agreement and now we must build on what we did get and continue the struggle and pressure to improve on it."
El Farra says he intends to live in Gaza and is building a home there. His three Los Angeles-born adult children fell in love with Gaza when they first set eyes on it this summer. In fact, all expressed regret when they had to leave for commitments in the U.S. this fall. His daughter Rula, a second-year medical student at Tufts University, intends to practice medicine in Gaza.
"Where is the reconstruction money we were promised by the West in 1993?" El Farra asked rhetorically. He has posed the same question to Britain's John Major, Germany's Helmut Kohl and U.S. Vice President Al Gore when they made state visits to President Arafat in Gaza in recent months. El Farra even told Major: "All our problems were created by the British. You owe us morally." Major promised to bring up the issue of delinquent pledges to U.S. President Bill Clinton, but when he did, it was to no avail.
Again, when El Farra confronted Gore, he reminded the U.S. vice president that when Mexico was undergoing financial crises, Clinton stepped in and secured loan guarantees for that country. "If you're serious in your commitment to us, why not get loan guarantees for the Palestinians?" he asked Gore. He said Gore's response was something to do with free trade zones in Israel.
"The Palestinians must come and help us because the world hasn't and won't," El Farra concluded. "It's a conspiracy to make the Palestinians give even more concessions to the Israelis."
AAI President James Zogby Addresses Arab American Press Guild
Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, addressed the Arab American Press Guild at its 10th anniversary program in the Los Angeles Arab Community Center. Noting that the majority of Arab Americans are born in the U.S., he said Arab-American organizations must work on this fact if they are to succeed.
Looking at the record of the community over the past two decades, Zogby stated: "I remember whenever there was a discussion on TV dealing with the Middle East, the speakers were two Jews taking pro and con positions. In the past, we couldn't get meetings with mayors, now we have Arab-American mayors." He said Arab Americans are the only ethnic group in the country that has been faced with a larger ethnic group that is opposed to it, tells politicians not to meet with it, and threatens its members. "Our community seeds were sown under a large tree that didn't allow the sun or the rain in for nourishment," Zogby said. He urged Arab Americans to build coalitions with other minorities.
To increase the number and influence of Arab-American activists, Zogby urged more attention be paid to those who fall between new immigrants, who still hold allegiance to their home countries, and fourth and fifth generation Arab Americans who have no sense of belonging to anything other than the Kiwanis Club.
"The critical thing is we are not Arabs in America, we are Americans of Arab origin. It may not sound like a big distinction, but it's enormous. America is not them—America is us."
Zogby drew another comparison by pointing out that after the Holocaust, the Jews said "never again." They focused their efforts, worked hard and pooled their resources to make the world aware they would never again permit a Jewish Holocaust, he said. On the other hand, Arabs may not have experienced the same holocaust, but if one adds up the Arab lives lost in digging the Suez Canal, the Libyans slaughtered by the Italians, the Algerians killed by the French, the Sudanese murdered by the British and all the Palestinians butchered in this century—"we've had our own holocaust, but it stretches over 100 years," he said.
"The future is bright," he concluded, "if we all make a commitment that it shouldn't happen again."
During the 10th anniversary ceremonies, President Samir Twair acknowledged the guild's past presidents. The charter president, Joseph Haiek, was welcomed as Abu Na'aba (father of the AAPG). William Ghazarian, who served as president in 1987 and 1988, was conferred the title of Abu Afkar (father of ideas). Twair titled Adel Barakat, who was president in 1990 and 1991, Abu al-Lahda al-Harija (father of the critical moment), and Yousef Elia Haddad, president in 1993 and 1994, was greeted as Abu al-Atagher (father of change).
Calling for unity within the community, Twair said AAPG has tried to fill the gap between all of the diverse Arab-American groups. Whereas in 1985 there were only two Arab publications and one TV program, he said, there now are four weekly and biweekly newspapers, three monthly magazines and three TV shows.
Muslim Women's League Sets Agenda
One of the youngest and most effective groups within the polyglot Los Angeles community is the Muslim Women's League, founded in 1992 and frequently featured in the news section of the Los Angeles Times for its activities on global affairs. Shortly after world headlines reported rape and atrocities against Muslim women in Bosnia at the hands of Serb troops, the MWL reached out to other women's organizations and formed the Coalition Against Ethnic Cleansing. Its professional members, headed by gynecologist Dr. Laila Marayati and attorney Sumer Hathout, traveled to Croatia, interviewed victims and later sent medical supplies and money.
Dr. Marayati is president of the MWL and was invited this fall to serve on the official 45-member U.S. delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She made history in that she was the first American Muslim woman ever to serve as a U.S. government delegate to a U.N. conference. She recapped her Beijing experiences at a program presented by the MWL in the gardens of the La CaÃ¸ada home of her parents, Dr. Sabri and Jane El Farra.
A milestone of the Beijing experience was her assignment to give a talk on Islam to the U.S. delegation. "Few people in the U.S. delegation knew anything about Islam and that's why I was asked to explain it to them in a 15-minute presentation," she told some 70 MWL guests. "What a challenge—15 minutes."
Dr. Marayati said she was surprised when more than half the members of the U.S. delegation in Beijing showed up for her lecture, which she focused on the five pillars of Islam and the role of women in relation to their husbands. "I also tried to explain how we look to Khadija (wife of the Prophet Muhammad) as a role model and to Aisha (daughter of fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib and Fatima, Prophet Muhammad's daughter) for her contributions to the sunna—and I tried to interpret what the hijab (Muslim head covering for women) means to Muslim women," she explained.
Owing to a lack of understanding about Islam, Dr. Marayati said the media promoted many erroneous stereotypes at the conference.
"Islam came up quite a bit during the proceedings," she noted, "and, somehow, the media got the idea Muslims would sacrifice human rights for their religious beliefs and are against sexuality, and against equal inheritance for men and women.
"Three days were given over to a paragraph on inheritance," she continued. "Subjects we don't normally talk about—such as inheritance—suddenly became the focus. It was sad. Instead of discussing violence against women, all this attention was paid to inheritance."
Other stumbling blocks were homosexuality and sex education. "Here we were, stuck on talking about sexuality instead of addressing the problems of poverty and everything that comes with that," she said.
When queried about polygamy, Dr. Marayati said: "We know it exists, we know it is abused by some Muslims and we don't need to defend it."
As for the concept of human rights, Dr. Marayati complained that the U.S. wouldn't consider foreign occupation as a violation of human rights.
She noted that many Third World countries had more men than women in their delegations, possibly because they believed men could more successfully get their points across. In fact, she pointed out, until Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala arrived in Beijing, the U.S. delegation was headed by a man. "And, of course, behind most U.S. women delegates, there was a male lawyer giving her pointers on the legality of her proposals."
Secretary Shalala also invited Dr. Marayati to accompany her on a meeting with China's minister of health.
When asked if governments will implement the measures passed at the conference, Dr. Marayati shrugged her shoulders and noted the poorer countries said in order to carry out any improvements, they would need money. The response from the developed nations, she said, was to urge Third World regimes to cut their military budgets and spend more on improving the quality of life of their people.
The MWL is compiling a book on women in Islam and has numerous projects in the making. Anyone caring to become a volunteer is invited to call (213) 383-3443.
Pat McDonnell Twair is a free-lance writer based in Southern California.