How can Gaza's contaminated water catastrophe be solved?

Barely three percent of Gaza's drinking water wells is fit for human consumption, and the crisis is claiming lives.

by Sandy Tolan for Al Jazeera English (Part Two of a Two-Part Series)

Gaza - When it comes to survival in Gaza, safe, clean drinking water is not at the top of Mousa Hillah's list of priorities. 

 Mousa Hilleh, 48, rebuilt his home after the 2014 Gaza war and says not having access to clean water is a major concern [Abdel Kareem Hana/Al Jazeera]

Mousa Hilleh, 48, rebuilt his home after the 2014 Gaza war and says not having access to clean water is a major concern [Abdel Kareem Hana/Al Jazeera]

Since the 2014 war, Hillah, known to neighbours and family as Abu Ali, has had far bigger worries, which are etched deeply into the exhausted face of the 48-year-old grandfather.

Dodging shell fire from Israeli tanks, he fled with his family from the destruction of his Shuja'iyya neighbourhood, flattened by Israel in an attack so devastating - 7,000 shells in barely an hour - that it astonished even US military officials. ("Holy bejeezus!" one retired general exclaimed.)

The family took refuge for months in an in-law's house near the sea, along with 50 other people. When they returned, Abu Ali found his home - the one he had built after 30 years of working construction in Israel - utterly destroyed.

Brick by board, he rebuilt it, adorning his front entrance, in a dose of biting irony, with repurposed tank shells.

Click here to read the full story.

Gaza's drinking water spurs blue baby syndrome, serious illnesses

Contaminated and scarce water owing to Israel's brutal siege and bombing of infrastructure leads to death and disease.

by Sandy Tolan for Al Jazeera English (Part One of a Two-Part Series)

Gaza - The unshaven doctor with circles under his eyes enters the children's ward at Al Nassar hospital in Gaza City. It's a Thursday evening, almost the weekend. The ward is bleak and eerily quiet, but for the occasional wail of an infant.

At each cubicle, sectioned off by curtains, it's a similar image: A baby lies alone in a bed, hooked up to tubes, wires and a generator; a mother sits in silent witness at the bedside.

 A Palestinian woman bathes her son with water from a tank filled by a charity inside their dwelling in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 3, 2017 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters via Al Jazeera English]

A Palestinian woman bathes her son with water from a tank filled by a charity inside their dwelling in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 3, 2017 [Mohammed Salem/Reuters via Al Jazeera English]

Dr Mohamad Abu Samia, the hospital's director of paediatric medicine, exchanges a few quiet words with one mother, then gently lifts the infant's gown, revealing a scar from heart surgery nearly half the length of her body.

At the next cubicle, he attends to a child suffering from severe malnutrition. She lies still, her tiny body connected to a respirator. Because electricity runs only four hours a day in Gaza, the baby must stay here, where generators keep her alive.

Click here to read the full story.

Tolan on the Gaza Water Crisis on PRI's "Living On Earth"

In the Mideast’s hotly contested Gaza Strip, where three out of four people are refugees, access to electricity and clean water is severely limited. The unsafe drinking water has led to a worsening health crisis for Gaza’s children, who suffer from diarrhea, kidney disease, stunted growth and impaired IQ. The problems include the lack of electricity to run Gaza’s sewage treatment plant, and the long-running conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sandy Tolan reports from the Gaza Strip. Click below to listen to the full story or click here for the full show transcript.

  Mohammad Nimnim wheels water jugs, to fill at the mosque at Beach refugee camp. (Photo: Abdel Kareem Hanna via PRI/Living On Earth)

Mohammad Nimnim wheels water jugs, to fill at the mosque at Beach refugee camp. (Photo: Abdel Kareem Hanna via PRI/Living On Earth)

Gaza’s Dying of Thirst, and Its Water Crisis Will Become a Threat to Israel

 SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty (via Daily Beast)

SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty (via Daily Beast)

With Gaza’s water system on the verge of “collapse” a humanitarian catastrophe looms, including potential epidemics. The consequences will reach far beyond Gaza’s borders.

by Sandy Tolan for The Daily Beast

GAZA – Mohammed Nimnim carries the water for his family. On a scorching late morning last summer, the 15-year-old pushed an old wheelchair piled high with empty plastic jugs through Gaza’s Shati (Beach) refugee camp. He rattled past modest groceries, makeshift tire shops, and graffiti praising Gaza’s martyrs, down broken concrete lanes, and toward the local mosque, where sputtering taps provide the family’s only source of drinking water.  

No luck. Although it was 94 degrees and oppressively humid, the taps at the mosque were shut off. Mohammed turned around, empty-handed. He walked back under a pounding sun through the Beach Camp, a place whose very name taunts its residents. Barely 100 meters from the Mediterranean, the 87,000 refugees squeezed onto half a square kilometer here face a growing crisis of scarce and contaminated water.  

Mohammed’s mom, Abeer Nimnim, paused to greet us as her son returned with the empty jugs. “May God give you health!” she exclaimed to her visitors. Then she got to the point: “It’s hot and suffocating!”

Four generations of Nimnims, 19 people in all, crowd into three small rooms off a narrow Beach Camp alley. Next to Abeer sits her mother-in-law, Fatemah, 73, who was five when her family was driven from the Palestinian village of Hamama, depopulated during the creation of Israel in 1948. They fled to Gaza, where today three-fourths of the nearly two million Gazans are refugees and their descendants. The family sits on thin cushions on the floor of the airless front room. Because Gaza gets only four to five hours a day of electricity, there’s no fan, not to mention hardly any room to move around. “There isn’t enough space to sleep,” says Abeer. “There’s no space at all, can you see that?”

“And water? Forget about it,” said Abeer’s husband, Atef. “There isn’t any.” In fact, water occasionally runs through the tap, but it’s so salty, no one in Gaza will drink it. “Life is very difficult, you cannot imagine,” Atef laments. “No offense, but dogs live better than me.”

Click here to read the full story.

Ramzi's dream: Beethoven's Ninth in Jerusalem

Ramzi Beethoven cover.jpg

For the last decade the Palestinian musician Ramzi Aburedwan dreamed of bringing 200 musicians and singers to Jerusalem for a triumphant performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It was an improbable dream for any single musician, even moreso for this 39-year-old violist who, like most Palestinians, is routinely denied entry to Jerusalem to pray, to visit family, or to play concerts in the Holy City as founder of the respected music school, Al Kamandjati (The Violinist).

But what seemed like a crazy dream to others, Ramzi always saw as a strategic challenge requiring careful planning. So it was for the child of the First Intifada, who at age eight, from the refugee camp of Al Amari near Ramallah, hurled stones at Israeli soldiers, to expel them from occupied Palestine. Ten years later, after an older friend introduced him to music, Ramzi began to dream of founding a music school to, literally and metaphorically, protect Palestinian children from those soldiers. Which Ramzi did, against the odds, in the middle of the Second Intifada in 2005. 

Ramzi Beethoven 3.jpg

And so putting on Beethoven's Ninth in Jerusalem, when Israel wouldn't even grant him and other Palestinians a permit? When it would require some 150 musicians and singers from Europe and North America to travel to the Holy Land, and risk being turned away at the airport by Israeli authorities, as some musicians were? Or, for Palestinians, to risk prison by sneaking into Jerusalem disguised as tourists or hidden under blankets, just to play Beethoven? To Ramzi, all this was just another challenge.

Ramzi Beethoven.jpg

And so, sopranos and baritones, violinists and cellists, woodwinds and tenors and timpanists and horn players all converged in the stunning chapel at the Augusta Victoria Hospital, just outside the walls of the Old City. They came from France and Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, Norway and Slovenia, Japan, Holland, America and #Palestine. And they played Beethoven's Ninth, and they sang the message of universal brotherhood imbedded in the Ode to Joy, in what surely was one of the most triumphant and emotional performances in the history of this magnificent symphony.

Click here to watch the video. 

Dispatches from Gaza: Aug 2 (A Wave of Sadness)

The indelible images of suffering and stories of loss are everywhere in #Gaza. The family of 19 in three small rooms whose only drinking water comes from plastic jugs filled at the mosque. The woman who lost 38 members of her family during Israeli strikes in 2014. The man who lived with 49 others in a relative's house after his neighborhood of Shujaiya was flattened. But there is something else that abides in the day-to-day life in Gaza that for me resonates just as deeply: a kind of stubborn resilience in the face of catastrophe.

The other night I was walking along a spit of sand and rock that forms part of the Gaza harbor with Raed, my colleague and translator. The place was rippling with everyday life: fishermen pulling up their nets, laughing and giving each other grief; kids posing for selfies; families gathered under beach umbrellas at small plastic tables, sharing a modest picnic.

A young couple with their three kids invited us to join them. The children nibbled from bags of chips, eyeing me shyly. Rana Dilly poured mango soda into small plastic cups while her husband, Ahmad, pushed an unopened package of chocolate wafers toward me. I politely declined, which of course was a mistake. He laughed and pushed the package closer, telling me, "You are with Palestinians!" In other words, your resistance to our hospitality is futile!

Ahmad told me that despite the hardships and frequent dangers, he tries to come to this little finger of land nearly every day, just to clear his head and have some kind of normal feeling. He brings the family once or twice a week. “I want to share life,” he told me. “To share some things with my family and my kids. To show them something is possible.”

His sentiments reminded me of a time, 25 years ago, when I was in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. My BBC colleague and I were walking briskly through an area potentially vulnerable to sniper fire, when we heard a large scraping sound approaching us from behind. We turned to see a half dozen girls on roller skates, laughing and screaming. We asked them to talk to us; to explain what in the world they were doing there. It was spring, they explained. They had been cooped up inside all winter as Serbian shells rained down on the town. Families had picked the hills clean, burning every scrap of firewood to stay warm; eventually they turned their furniture into kindling, and finally turned to the books. (The choice of which book to burn and which to save was often excruciating. Local black humor of the day: Would you like to come over for coffee on Shakespeare or tea on Byron?) The girls told us, somewhat ferociously: "If they shoot us, they shoot us. We have to go out and play!" Just then we could hear distant gunfire, and the girls laughed, screamed, and skated away.

Now, at the Gaza harbor, an explosion echoes from across the water. Raed and the young parents exchange looks. A pause; then Raed says, "A wedding!" On a Wednesday? I wondered. He assured me it was so. "People celebrate weddings every day!" They fish, they have picnics, they swim, they get married. Gazans, despite all the suffering they’re facing, are not on their knees.

"We have been through all three wars now since 2008 we expect the next one could be this year or next year or after three years or next week," said Mohammed Halaby, who works to try to procure essential items for Gaza in the face of Israel’s economic blockade. "So I would say everybody in Gaza wouldn't like be subject to pressure. They’re being resilient to the situation in general. We don't give up easily."

At the harbor, Rana Dilly told us she just wants a safe life for her kids. In the meantime, the family steals little bits of normalcy at dusk beside the water. “I come here to forget our problems,” Ahmad tells us.

Hours later, I left Gaza for Jerusalem. A wave of sadness passed over me as I bid farewell to Raed and pushed my luggage through a series of clicking metal turnstiles and long concrete hallways, then emptied the contents of my equipment pack into a plastic bin for inspection by Israeli security. I didn’t know when I’d be back.

Photographs by Abdel Kareem Hana

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Dispatches from Gaza: July 29 ('I Just Want to Feel Safe')

“I just want to feel safe,” said Abu Ali from his makeshift couch in an al fresco sitting room in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiya. The wish is as simple as it is elusive for Abu Ali and nearly everyone else in #Gaza. I’ve heard the phrase repeated again and again over the last week – from refugee camps to the vegetable market; from offices, living rooms, restaurants and hotels; from the beach and the harbor.

“I just want to feel safe.”

For Abu Ali, living near the Israeli border in Shujaiya turns that wish into a mocking fantasy. As we spoke, an Israeli drone buzzed overhead – often a harbinger of another rocket attack. In 2014 Israel leveled a blocks-long section of Shujaiya with 7000 shells in barely an hour. It was an attack so devastating that a retired American general declared, “Holy bejeezus!” He called the rate of fire “astonishing” and “absolutely disproportionate.”

During that war, “I got a call from the Israeli shabak [intelligence], saying, ‘You must leave this area,’” recalled Abu Ali, sitting in the filtered morning light beneath a lattice of grape leaves. Clucking chickens in his vegetable garden can’t quite drown out the sound of the drone. After the Israeli warning, Abu Ali started to move his family to his brother-in-law’s house, but as they left, he recalls, they came under shell fire from Israeli tanks. Eventually, they reached the relative’s house, where they lived for weeks, 50 people in two rooms.

Months after the 2014 war, Abu Ali finallly returned to discover his home – the one he saved to build by working construction in Israel for 30 years – completely destroyed. Over the next year, with funds donated from Saudi Arabia, he rebuilt it, adorning his front entrance with repurposed leftover tank shells. He fears for the next attack. “I want to feel safe. I want to sleep well. I don’t feel relaxed here in my home. Nobody can stop the Israeli attacks. Who pays with their blood? The people.”

The level of death, crippling injury, lasting trauma, sudden homelessness and nonstop fear is difficult to comprehend, much less calculate, outside of a war zone like Gaza. The broader casualty numbers are familiar to anyone who follows the story closely, but what floors me on this trip is learning how much loss individual families endured. One Gazan, now in Ramallah, lost 37 members of her family in the 2014 war. Not a typo. Thirty-seven, including seven young men in a single bombing. “They were not part of any militant organization,” said Tahani Abu Daqqa, former Minister of Culture for the Palestinian Authority; they were just young Palestinian men. Abu Daqqa tells me Israeli rockets also destroyed her Gaza home, even though, after Israeli warnings, it was empty and the neighborhood abandoned. As we spoke her phone kept lighting up and emitting little dings: updates on the evening’s killings from the ongoing Israeli attacks in Gaza, including a 14-year-old boy.

Stories of massive loss come simply for the asking. My translator and guide, Raed Athamneh, lost 18 members of his family, including brothers, uncles, and grandparents, in a 2006 attack, and 56 more were badly wounded. He’s had to rebuild his own home twice. “The important thing in my life is just to feel safe,” he tells me, repeating the Gaza mantra as we stand on a rise above the seashore. “That’s it. I don’t want to be a millionaire, I don’t want to be anything, just to feel safe, and have my kids safe.” A bullet, a bomb, a drone, a plane – from any of those, Raed tells me, “my life could change in minutes.” And so he feels always nervous. Always. “When my wife calls me, I say, ‘what happened?’ Directly I want an answer. What’s going on? Because I don’t feel safe.”

“I just hope for everything to be calm,” he says, fixing his eyes on mine, imagining that day. “I stay with my family, we relax, we enjoy.” Perhaps a summer day on the beach below us, under an umbrella with some barbecue and minted lemonade. No fear, no tension, no terror when family members call him on his cell phone. “Safety life,” Raed tells me.

“I just want to feel safe.”

 Abu Ali and Raed Athamneh showing me before and after photos of the destruction of his Shujaiya home in 2014.

Abu Ali and Raed Athamneh showing me before and after photos of the destruction of his Shujaiya home in 2014.

Dispatches from Gaza: July 28 ('Land of Sad Oranges')

The late novelist Ghassan Khanafani described his native Palestine as the “land of sad oranges.” Memories of his father gazing at the orange in his hand and “weeping like a helpless child” evoked the disposession of his family as they fled from Acre (Akka), near Haifa, to Lebanon, where they became refugees.

The Gaza Strip itself has in recent decades become a land of sad oranges. #Gaza is made up more than 70 percent by refugees, whose families in 1948 fled and were driven out from the villages and towns near Ashkelon, Ashdod and other communities in what is now Israel. Here, too, what some consider the sweetest oranges on earth have for generations been part of Gaza’s identity.

When I traveled to Gaza in 1997 for a public radio report on Gaza’s water crisis, it was clear the days of the orange groves were numbered. Seawater from overpumping was beginning to intrude into the coastal aquifer, turning drinking water wells brackish; already, 85 percent of those wells were unfit for human consumption. (Now that figure is 97 percent, which is why two thirds of Gazans have their water delivered by truck.) Oranges don’t like salty water, and the small sweet pockets were being guzzled both by large agricultural operations in the nearby Israeli settlements of Gaza (they would not be abandoned for another eight years), and by Gaza’s own orange farmers. “Every year we pump and it goes down and down,” farmer Ali Dehar told me back then.

Today Gaza’s once proud orange industry has shriveled to nearly nothing. “It is like a needle in an island of hay,” said Osama Abu Middain, whose father ran an orange cooperative that sent shiploads of orange crates to Eastern Europe every year. “Hundreds of thousands of boxes.” We visited Abu Middain in Zahra, in central Gaza and near the abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim, where he is building a villa near what used to be a large orange grove. His land sits on a tiny pocket of sweet water, but it’s not enough for a viable orange industry. In 2014, Israeli shells destroyed one of his wells, apparently in pursuit of Hamas militants who broke down his door and took refuge on the property to launch attacks against Israeli aircraft. “It was all oranges, to the end,” he says, gesturing toward his property line. “After they shelled the well, I decided to make it olive trees.”

Now we walk down neat sandy lanes, between a scattering of orange trees, date palms, pear trees, and the young olive grove. It is no longer a profitable operation, but Abu Middain, a man of means, does not seem bothered. “What’s between me and the tree is not money. It’s chemistry. I treat it like my kids.”

In the meantime, the few oranges he has left aren’t yet ripe, but some of them are in blossom, and of these remaining few, you can smell their perfume on the breeze.

Photos by Abdel Kareem Hana

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Dispatches from Gaza: July 26 (A Whiff of War in the Air)

This morning in #Gaza, a whiff of war in the air in the wake of Israel's deadly overnight air strikes - a shaking of the fragile ceasefire a few days earlier. All week long I’ve been looking into the human consequences of Gaza’s water crisis on the ground here, visiting refugee camps, talking to hydrologists, engineers, officials, UNICEF and other international donors, and chatting with people along the harbor and the beach. This morning, as I spoke with a Hamas water minister, the wail of an ambulance and a slow mournful dirge began drifting through the window: a memorial procession for the three men killed last night.

Surreal and disturbing as it was, the true human stakes of the water disaster here came into focus only when I started talking to pediatricians. One, from the health ministry, told me that he's seen dramatic rises in kidney failure, typhoid fever, hepatitis A, salmonella and severe diarrhea in the children of Gaza - between a 30 and 50 percent rise, he estimated, just over the last few months. Much of this he attributed to water and food contamination, the result of salty well water, water delivery trucks carrying e coli, and food that spoils with only four hours a day of electricity - part of the economic strangulation of Gaza.

In the evening, we met with another pediatrician - Mohamad Abu Samia, director of the Rantisi hospital in Gaza. He told us he's seen doubling cases of gastroenteritis, renal failure, and thyroid cancer, and the rise in a previously rare disease: Blue Baby Syndrome, related to the elevated nitrate levels in the Gaza wells. "Bluish lips, bluish face, bluish skin," the doctor tells me. And blood the color of chocolate. 

Now, he is seeing cases of marasmus, the result of severe malnutrition in infants: "just bone and skin." Not all of these diseases can be traced to poor water quality, but all are related, said the doctor, to Israel's economic blockade. "Before the siege, we didn't have any patients with malnutrition," Abu Samia told me. "Now with the temperature going to 40 (104 Fahrenheit), like in the Gulf: no electricity, no water. So much hard suffering. The siege should be stopped."

Then the doctor led us out of the small examination room and into a quiet ward with some of the sickest babies in Gaza. The room was sectioned by curtains, and he had a few kind words to dazed mothers trying to comfort babies with congenital heart disease, severe malnutrition. The mothers have already lived through three wars and an economic siege. Doctor Abu Samia softly exchanged words with each mom; in one case, he gently lifted the shirt of a tiny infant, revealing a scar from heart surgery nearly half the length of her body. Another was hooked up to a respirator - the minute it stopped, the child would die. And because electricity runs only four hours a day in Gaza, the baby must stay at the hospital, where generators keep her alive. Photos byAbdel Kareem Hana

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Dispatches from Gaza: July 25 (A WISH FOR NORMAL LIFE)

 

A quick greeting tonight from Gaza.

Simple walk along the beach and the harbor as the light faded. Families out in force, gathered around small picnic tables; kids grinning and dripping out of the water in the small stretch of Gaza City beach that is not so badly polluted. A few miles to the north and south, raw sewage pours into the ocean, because there's no electricity to run the sewage plant. We went by Gaza's power plant today - very quiet. The guard at the entry station told us they haven't had power for three days, because the fuel hasn't arrived from Egypt.

Meanwhile, fuel and food shipments have been blocked at the Kerem Shalom crossing, which Israel closed in collective punishment for the incendiary balloons. (Reports are it will be open again this week.)

In the meantime, the wish for some sort of normal life seems to be on everyone's lips. This on the same night that Israeli strikes in other parts of the Gaza Strip would kill three Palestinians.

And yet, as in Beirut in the 1980s and Sarajevo in the 90s, Palestinians in Gaza tonight were out on their beaches, in their parks, on their fishing boats, their heads above water.

Photos by Abdel Kareem Hana

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Dispatches from Gaza: July 24 (The Shati Beach Refugee Camp)

By Sandy Tolan

On sweltering summer days in Gaza, like today when it hit 95 with 60+ percent humidity, the Shati (Beach) refugee camp can feel unbearable – especially if you don’t have water or electricity.

Electricity throughout Gaza runs for four hours a day. A few can afford generators or battery operated fans. But no one drinks the salty water from the tap. Some families spend nearly half of their modest income on drinking water from roaming trucks, pumped to rooftops in dripping hoses. Others, like 19 members of the Nimnim family, can’t afford to buy water at all. 

Seventy-three-year-old Fatemah was barely three when her family was dispossessed from their village during the creation of Israel in 1948. Now she, her son Atef, daughter-in-law Abeer, and the younger generations share three airless rooms on a narrow alley of the Beach camp.

For drinking water, 15-year-old Mohammed piles plastic jugs in an old wheelchair and rolls it to the mosque, where sputtering taps give the family a means to drink and wash.

Photos by Abdel Kareem Hana

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SEVEN HUNDRED MONDAYS

by SANDY TOLAN

  In 1954, a group of local women started a book club. They still meet once a month, but their six decades of friendship has proven richer and more illuminating than the tens of thousands of pages they've read.   Eight old friends sit around a white oval table in a high-rise apartment overlooking the lake. They are women, all in their 80s and 90s. They munch on cucumber sandwiches, passing plates of cheese and sipping iced tea. Laughter rises from the table, giving way to familiar banter informed by many decades of conversation.  “You know, today’s the anniversary,” says Barbara Elsner, half-smiling and looking around the table as the room grows quiet. “Does anyone remember where they were on December 7, 1941?” ...   Barbara returns her gaze to her friends at the table. Most have known each other since they were young mothers in their 20s. Since then, for 60-plus years, they’ve met once a month in each other’s Milwaukee kitchens and living rooms.  For 700 Mondays, they’ve had lunch and discussed literature. They’ve read Chekhov and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Isabel Allende. They’ve read  Macbeth ,  War and Peace ,  Madame Bovary ,  Ulysses ,  Lonesome Dove .  Sophie’s Choice ,  The Fire Next Time ,  The Feminine   Mystique .  Cold Mountain ,  The Life of Pi ,  A Lesson Before   Dying ,  The Warmth of Other S  uns ,  Behind the Beautiful Forevers . And many more.  Seven hundred Mondays, seven hundred books.  Once, they were 19 women, most living within a few blocks of each other, on Milwaukee’s East Side. Today, gathered in the apartment of Nici Teweles, there are eight: Barbara, Nat Beckwith, Penny Egan, Martie Watts, Jill Heavenrich, Betty Bostrom, Nici (pronounced Nikki), and my mother, Sally Tolan. All are widows except Barbara; all but Martie live here at the retirement home, St. John’s on the Lake. They’re here because they can afford to be (St. John’s is not cheap), and because it keeps their friendships thriving.  Of the other women, two live outside Wisconsin; one is ill today; eight are gone.  “Time is a funny thing,” Martie says. “And it goes pretty fast as you get older.”   Click here  to read the full story. 

In 1954, a group of local women started a book club. They still meet once a month, but their six decades of friendship has proven richer and more illuminating than the tens of thousands of pages they've read.

Eight old friends sit around a white oval table in a high-rise apartment overlooking the lake. They are women, all in their 80s and 90s. They munch on cucumber sandwiches, passing plates of cheese and sipping iced tea. Laughter rises from the table, giving way to familiar banter informed by many decades of conversation.

“You know, today’s the anniversary,” says Barbara Elsner, half-smiling and looking around the table as the room grows quiet. “Does anyone remember where they were on December 7, 1941?”
...


Barbara returns her gaze to her friends at the table. Most have known each other since they were young mothers in their 20s. Since then, for 60-plus years, they’ve met once a month in each other’s Milwaukee kitchens and living rooms.

For 700 Mondays, they’ve had lunch and discussed literature. They’ve read Chekhov and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Isabel Allende. They’ve read MacbethWar and PeaceMadame BovaryUlyssesLonesome DoveSophie’s ChoiceThe Fire Next TimeThe Feminine MystiqueCold MountainThe Life of PiA Lesson Before DyingThe Warmth of Other SunsBehind the Beautiful Forevers. And many more.

Seven hundred Mondays, seven hundred books.

Once, they were 19 women, most living within a few blocks of each other, on Milwaukee’s East Side. Today, gathered in the apartment of Nici Teweles, there are eight: Barbara, Nat Beckwith, Penny Egan, Martie Watts, Jill Heavenrich, Betty Bostrom, Nici (pronounced Nikki), and my mother, Sally Tolan. All are widows except Barbara; all but Martie live here at the retirement home, St. John’s on the Lake. They’re here because they can afford to be (St. John’s is not cheap), and because it keeps their friendships thriving.

Of the other women, two live outside Wisconsin; one is ill today; eight are gone.

“Time is a funny thing,” Martie says. “And it goes pretty fast as you get older.”

Click here to read the full story. 

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USC Annenberg student journalists, KQED’s The California Report publish joint investigation

 Olive, a 22-year-old transgender woman, with her parents, both of whom are Trump supporters. The family was profiled by USC Annenberg student Renee Gross.Photo courtesy of Olive

Olive, a 22-year-old transgender woman, with her parents, both of whom are Trump supporters. The family was profiled by USC Annenberg student Renee Gross.Photo courtesy of Olive

As President Donald Trump took office in January, students in Sandy Tolan and Karen Lowe's USC Annenberg radio class embarked on a months-long examination of vulnerable communities in Southern California. The result: "At Risk in the Trump Era," a seven-part series for KQED’s state-wide newsmagazine, The California Report.

In-depth reporting allowed the public radio documentary students to explore more deeply the daily lives of individuals in the community to get an understanding of the challenges they now face. The result is a trove of intimate, sound-rich stories that probe beneath the surface. 

Reporters embedded with several community members: a transgender woman whose parents are staunch Trump supporters; a Muslim woman who, in fear, removed her hijab and started taking a self-defense class; and a rock band transformed by the new political landscape.

The first piece, “Undocumented Love,” by reporter and USC Annenberg fellow Paola Mardo, tells the story of Filipino high school sweethearts whose twisted path brought them together after nearly four decades apart. Now, they’re both grappling with the vulnerability of being undocumented as Trump steps up immigration enforcement.  

Additional USC Annenberg reporters in the "At Risk" series are: Joanna Clay, Stefanie De Leon Tzic, Ashley Eady, Melanie Gonzalez, Renee Gross, Jenny Lower, Noorhan Maamoon, and Pasha Zolfaghari.

 “At Risk” marks the fourth major collaboration between USC Annenberg and The California Report, each built around a central theme. 

Click the links below to listen to the full series now. 

"Undocumented Love"

"A Band Trades Love Songs for Protest Music in Era of Trump"

"Why This LA Comic No Longer Avoids Trump Territory On the Road"

"Life As a Transgender Woman Whose Parents Voted for Trump"

"After Trump's Travel Ban She Took Off Her Hijab and Learned Self Defense

"When You're Undocumented and Asian You're Invisible

"Why This Atheist Former Punk Rocker Backs Donald Trump

 

Your Call: Isolating Qatar and the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War

This week on KALW's "Your Call," Sandy Tolan joined host Matt Martin and Buzzfeed's Middle East correspondent, Bourzou Daragahi, at the media roundtable to have a conversation about the Arab states' decision to isolate Qatar as well as the 50th anniversary of the six day war. 

Click here to listen now. 

50 Years After the Six-Day War: How to Make Peace in the Holy Land

By Sandy Tolan

Fifty years ago, as the fog of the Six-Day War lifted and Israel celebrated its “miraculous” victory over Arab nations, a darker reality sank in. Israel’s military then dominated millions of Palestinians living on their own land. At the time, moral appeals within Israel and legal counsel in a secret Israeli Foreign Ministry memo warned of dire consequences if the occupation were not quickly abandoned.

    An Israeli security vehicle fires tear gas during clashes with Palestinians demonstrating in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in May. (Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP) via Truthdig

  An Israeli security vehicle fires tear gas during clashes with Palestinians demonstrating in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in May. (Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP) via Truthdig

Of course, the opposite happened. Year after year, thousands of Israelis, many who believed they were called by God, colonized the West Bank, threatening the dream of two populations living side by side in peace. The first Oslo Accord, signed in 1993 supposedly to facilitate a two-state solution, instead helped make one nearly impossible.

Consider:

● The Israeli West Bank settler population has nearly quadrupled to about 400,000 since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White house lawn after signing that Oslo Accord in September 1993.
● More than a dozen Jewish settlements now ring East Jerusalem, the would-be capital of an independent Palestinian state, virtually snuffing out the two-state dream.
● Sixty percent of the West Bank remains under Israel’s full military control, with hundreds of barriers forcing Palestinian families into increasingly isolated cantons.
● Israel essentially controls so-called Area A autonomous zones, with checkpoints at the entrances of most Palestinian towns, and frequent night raids take place, which the military implements with impunity. In one incident straight out of the Jim Crow South, soldiers took over a swimming pool in Area A, forcing Palestinians out of the water so settlers could take a dip.

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Peace In Israel Starts With An Apology

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by SANDY TOLAN for FORWARD

Imagine you have an old beater – say, a 1967 Chevy – that hasn’t really run in years. The tires are flat, it’s riddled with dents, seats are torn out, windshield’s cracked, the fuel gauge constantly malfunctions, and someone just stole your spark plugs and battery. Yet, for reasons you can no longer remember, you’re attached to this car, and so for decades you’ve listened to the “experts” over at Ross & Indyk Automotive tell you why this jalopy is not only your best option, but you’re only one. All you need, they tell you yet again, is another jump start.

At some point, wouldn’t you say to hell with this! and get a new car, and a new mechanic?

The Oslo “peace process” has been essentially dead for a decade, yet the zombie keeps getting its star turn, despite overwhelming facts.

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The Next Standing Rocks: 4,800 Miles of Oil Pipelines Planned Under Trump

by Sandy Tolan for The Daily Beast

U.S. companies are set to carve up Native American and private lands in more than a dozen states in order to sell petroleum and natural gas overseas. Activists are gearing up. 

This story is in cooperation with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

 PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH ROGERS/THE DAILY BEAST

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH ROGERS/THE DAILY BEAST

A high-stakes battle is underway on multiple front lines across America, as Native American and climate change activists square off against oil and pipeline companies racing to lay as much infrastructure into the ground as quickly as possible.

The U.S. oil industry is enjoying a surge in production, which has shot up 86 percent since 2008. Unshackled by Congress and enabled by the most oil-friendly president in decades, the industry aims to transform the American landscape with tens of billions of dollars in new pipelines, storage depots, and export terminals.

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Living on Earth: Big Plans For and Against Big Oil

By Sandy Tolan for PRI

 Two Standing Rock demonstrators take to horseback as part of the Standing Rock demonstrations that peaked in 2016. (Photo: Robert Wilson, via PRI)

Two Standing Rock demonstrators take to horseback as part of the Standing Rock demonstrations that peaked in 2016. (Photo: Robert Wilson, via PRI)

North Dakota officials were protecting a grand plan worth tens of billions of dollars. In that plan, the Dakota Access Pipeline, DAPL, is North Dakota’s linchpin. It allows a glut of fracked oil from the massive Bakken formation to flow southeast toward the US Gulf Coast. Bakken oil is part of, what boosters call, the “North American petroleum renaissance.” The US is now the world’s third largest producer of crude oil, pumping more than Iran and Iraq combined. 

Turns out, the pipeline company Energy Transfer, backed by North Dakota officials, police, and the National Guard, fought that huge battle at Standing Rock, in large part so that US crude oil could leave the country.

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Taxpayer-Funded Horror at Standing Rock

by SANDY TOLAN for The Daily Beast

Feb. 21, 2017

ALONG THE CANNONBALL RIVER, North Dakota—The following story is brought to you by the taxpayers of North Dakota.

It was a bitter cold night on the Backwater Bridge when Efrain Montalvo got the desperate call from the front line.

“The medics were screaming for help, because they were overwhelmed,” remembered Montalvo, 25, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council at Standing Rock. He looked up through white mists of tear gas, cut by screams and shouts on the bridge. Native elders stood motionless in front of barricades of razor wire, clutching feathers, burning prayer bundles of sage, holding their ground. They were unarmed, eyes shut tight against the clouds of pepper spray. Others held up plywood shields or the tops of plastic bins against the spray. “Disperse!” shouted police, who then unleashed a fire hose, soaking protesters in the sub-freezing temperatures. Icicles formed on their hair. Their winter jackets crunched.

 Reuters

Reuters

Montalvo moved swiftly toward the front line, carrying bottles of water and Milk of Magnesia (to relieve the tear gas sting) toward the medics. Riot-clad police, ensconced behind concrete barriers and the looping wire, began firing rubber bullets. Montalvo watched an elder fall at his feet, his staff clattering to the pavement of the shut-down state highway. Then police launched a barrage of smoking tear-gas canisters from grenade launchers.

“That’s when people started panicking,” Montalvo recalled.

A tear-gas canister hit Montalvo squarely in the chest. He inhaled its smoke deeply, then wandered aimlessly, hands over his eyes. Two minutes later, he could see again. Another canister exploded at his feet. He saw a brilliant white light. Then everything went black and silent.

Montalvo began shaking uncontrollably. For 10 minutes, “I couldn’t remember who I was, where I was.” Medics whisked him off the bridge. Days later, he could still taste the tear gas in his mouth.

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