Monday, February 26, 2007

Gaza: Non-Entity?

Leaving Gaza requires one to walk through a long tunnel made up of turnstiles, X-ray machines, gates, cages and passport controls. This past Wednesday I found the tunnel ending abruptly ahead of me, a crudely fashioned wall bared me from the usual way of entry, instead an opening to the right lead to a place unknown. I turned the corner and found myself in an Orwellian passage leading to a huge building with four automatic doors that were shut tight. Along this fenced in passageway runs an anachronistic, medieval ditch, beyond it a mound made of rubble and dirt of the once magnificently fruitful region of Beit Hanoun. Today, much of the town lies in disrepair and its surrounding land remains green but empty of the life that once grew there. The caged passages are adorned with security cameras and buzzing speakers reminding every passer by that yes, someone, somewhere is watching. Along the way I met a Palestinian businessman who owns a clothing factory in Gaza. Mohamed had a bad back. He was leaning against the fence and breathing heavily. I asked if he needed any help and walked next to him slowly when suddenly he took a hold of my hand, making use of the extra support, we had about 300 meters left to go.

At the sliding gates that opened to a yet unknown world to us, stood nine other such businessmen. I noticed one of them looking around for a video camera to ascertain if we had been spotted waiting there. An odious sign informed the travelers that bags would be searched. The sign apologized in advance for any inconvenience. In big letters it then read, “no weapons allowed”, security, it seemed to imply was the purpose for this special experience.

Suddenly, a door slid open and the ten businessmen, including Mohamed with the bad back and I entered the looming building before it slid shut again. Once inside the true Orwellian experience began. We were faced by the first metal detector and turnstile, the latter would only allow one through if the metal detector did not distinguish any metal items in one’s belongings. My bag caused the alarm to sound and three unfortunate businessmen were restrained from entering along with me. What followed was a procedure to negotiate our release by one of the businessmen speaking Hebrew through an intercom with an out of sight Israeli soldier or police officer, while then translating instructions back to me. After having moved back 20 meters, opening my belongings in sight of one of the security cameras, the automatic lock was released and we were given permission to enter. This was only the beginning.

After walking up a ramp and around a bend we entered a building much like a warehouse, yet I sensed something otherworldly there. Again a turnstile prevented about 40 people gathered there to proceed to the next unknown stage. It would take me over an hour to achieve this feat. A Palestinian (no Israelis were in sight) handed out stickers with numbers on them, one for each traveler and an equivalent number for each bag. Next, everything but the clothes on my body, minus the belt, minus everything in my pockets, electronic items separate, were placed on a conveyor belt and disappeared, while I waited in line to enter yet another metal detector, then a curious X-Ray machine and a further stall with a locked door on either side, much like a cow in a pen, as to give the unseen officers full control over my entering and exiting. Having crossed this obstacle there was another conveyor belt, which eventually spit out the luggage on huge trays with the content of the bags spread about in disarray. When I saw my tray approaching I had to fight my way through the crowds, ascertained all my valuables were included and started dressing. Looking up I noticed a large surveillance room with women and men of various ages scanning computer screens and the people below. I felt small and powerless, a member of a different world than the one above.

After passing through yet another turnstile I spent over half an hour waiting for one of the passport control officers to appear to verify my papers. Here I met Piedro. I had noticed him early on, looking frustrated in the midst of the crowd of Palestinian businessmen and next to a pale, old man wearing a ski cap, who was slowly fingering his luggage and then finally located his pouch of medication filled with an assortment of pills. I later learned that Piedro had never made it into Israel that day.

The Erez terminal is now considered an international border, and yet since neither Israel, nor any other nation on earth recognizes the Palestinians as being members of a state of their own, I wonder what it is that I am entering when I cross from Israel to this non-entity. A now comatose Ariel Sharon not too long ago declared to have ended Israeli “control over and responsibility” for this no man's land, yet this barely seems to be the case.

The world’s memory seems exceedingly short. Yet, this nightmare for the few Palestinians who are permitted to cross here, is a disturbing, reoccurring one.

Read on:

Israeli Supreme Court: Israel still 'occupying' Gaza?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Embargo starting to crack?

An interesting new development is being reported. A division, lead by Russia seems to be taking shape in the Quartet's stance on the new Palestinian Unity Government. Since the formation of a new Palestinian government lead by Hamas, the Quartet- made up of the US, EU, UN and Russia- agreed to not recognize the PA until three requirements were met, the ceasing of all violence, the recognition of Israel and recognizing all past agreements between the PLO and Israel. None of these conditions have ever been applied by Israel, much less expected of it.

Here a worthwhile editorial about the Mecca Agreement.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My birthday in Jabalya refugee camp

I spent my 25th birthday in Jabalya, Gaza’s biggest refugee camp. I have known Jamal, a taxi driver in Gaza, for almost two years. I could only protest so many times at his neglecting to host me in his home. In spite of the pleas of his children, whom I had met on a number of occasions outside his home, I realized today why he never did. I have often entered the homes of refugees while distributing food across the Gaza Strip and yet what struck me that day was the familiarity of Jamal sitting by my side against the unfamiliarity of his home.

Entering through the main door I had to duck under a torn cloth that veiled this private space from the world beyond. As I stood up straight I saw the entire house in the blink of an eye, a sensation came over me much like having caught site of something one was not meant to see, the sudden exposure could not be undone. There before me was the living room, court yard and dining room all in one, covered by open skies. Beyond this area were three broken, worn doors. The furthest to the left lead to a small kitchen, the inside of which was out of sight from where I stood, next was a small bathroom, made fully of cement except for a number of rows of tiles pasted to one of the walls thus aesthetically differentiating it from the other two rooms. The last room served as a bedroom for seven of the nine children, in which, Jamal’s wife explained to me, “they all sleep on top of each other.” The parents and the two youngest boys slept in a separate room to near the entrance.

In the courtyard four cracked broken plastic chairs served as the living room furniture. I was quickly offered one of these while the children that entered throughout my visit would be seated on a knee, the floor, or a stone nearby while the eldest present child would occupy the one remaining chair after Jamal, his wife and I had been seated. Hamza, Jamal’s favorite boy, five and a half, was the first to great me. He was the most interactive, the most confident and yet the most shy of the nine children. Only Abdullah was younger and he came in crying, after learning that Hamza had greeted the guest before he had gotten a chance to do so. After sitting on my lap and being the first to receive the gift of a pen his tears were quickly forgotten.

Two pairs of eyes peered in at me through a hole in the wall connecting the Badawi’s home to their relatives next door. Jamal and his brother had divided their father’s house once they were married in order for the two families to receive some privacy from each other. Zaher, the oldest, whom Jamal regularly called a donkey for his lack of desire to study or learn supposedly anything, quickly blocked the hole up with a sweatshirt, solving the problem for the time being. Abdullah appeared wearing a homemade birthday hat that read “F, happy birth to you,” written by Maysa, the oldest girl and certainly the brightest of Jamal’s children. Maysa was third in her class and loved to read. She wanted to become a doctor if her grades were good enough, but in accordance to custom Jamal had a hard time considering sending her to university away from her family outside of Gaza. This, family, after all was home. Zaher was playing games on my mobile phone that I didn’t even realize were there.

Outside a commotion had started and people were yelling at each other. Jamal, at first was unmoved, suddenly picked up his phone and rushed outside upon hearing Zaher’s announcement that it was the neighbors fighting over the electricity lines that were being repaired. The Badawis lived just along the boundary between the Jabalya refugee camp and the Beit Lahya Projects. Electricity cut daily for 12 hours alternating with the neighborhood across the street and it had been found out recently that some of the homes in the Beit Lahya Projects had drawn illegal cables enabling them to have daily 24 hour access to electricity thereby diminishing the electricity levels on Jamal’s block. In his absence Jamal’s wife informed me how “undemocratic” her husband was and how often they had wanted to host me but Jamal just never invited me. Furthermore, she so desperately wanted to repair their home but Jamal would not save the money to do so. UNRWA had promised to repair the house many months ago but claimed to be delayed in light of the Beit Hanoun incursion. Jamal walked in triumphantly announcing he had called the police. Before I left, Zaher, who seemed to have the street smarts of his father, mentioned nonchalantly that the police had never come.

Lunch was served, a plate of avocado dip and a tomato dish along with delicious home made bread and a bowl of olives. It was amazing how something so tasty could come of the tiny kitchen beyond the sight of my eyes. As soon as lunch was done sweat tea with local spices was served then came the birthday cake. Candles were lit and after the family made a good attempt at singing happy birthday in English they switched to Arabic.

Mohamed, Habib and Bilal had returned from school just before the cake was served. With huge smiles they entered one at a time, greeted me and then were reminded by their mother to wish me another hundred years of life. Next came the coffee and the dance performances. An argument went on for a while which song to play and who was actually going to dance for us. From the start Hamza declined the offer, but when Mohamed was given the task, Hamza became jealous and sent his older brother away crying. Soon enough the music was playing and both Mohamed and then Hamza showed us their belly dancing moves. Everyone else sat in a makeshift circle and clapped along.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

This Mecca Pilgrimage

Celebration in Gaza over the Mecca Meeting last week, President and PM rejoice over agreeing to a unity government, the world frowns on an end to Palestinian bloodshed.

Khaled Mish'al
on the Mecca Accords.

All these smiles complicate efforts for

Uri Avnery writes of the
red herring of recognizing Israel.

Here he reflects on the main dilemma, peace or no peace:

If one thinks that peace is more important for Israel than expansion and settlements, one must welcome the change in the position of Hamas - as expressed in the Mecca agreement - and encourage it to continue along this road. The king of Saudi Arabia, who has already convinced the leaders of all Arab countries to recognize Israel in exchange for the establishment of the state of Palestine across the Green Line, should be warmly congratulated.

But if one opposes peace because it would fix the final borders of Israel and allow for no more expansion, one will do everything to convince the Americans and Europeans to continue with the boycott on the Palestinian government and the blockade of the Palestinian people.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Time for a change of hypocracy

Although for the past days few guns have been seen on the streets of Gaza, while I was getting a haircut near the president’s house last night, new barriers were being put up. Later that night president Mahmoud Abbas delayed his planned speech and murmurs started going around that things did not seem right. This morning, the Al-quds paper declared that Hamas had given three conditions to keeping the Mecca agreements, at which point things really didn’t seem right anymore. Throughout the day people seemed to be holding their breath as to what would happen next.

This evening the announcement came that the old Hamas government handed in their resignation and the Prime Minister is given five weeks to form the unity government.

Some thought this moment would not come for a long time, yet few are filled with hope, there is just too much uncertainty. How high will the price for this unity government be? Will outside pressure cease once the new government has been formed? No one has made any promises.

Of the three requirements the Quartet made of the Palestinian government, one of them, keeping to all past Palestinian treaties with Israel, was approved in Mecca. What remains is for the Palestinian government to recognize Israel and to renounce all violence. Once again, neither of these have been carried out by Israel, and no one is asking them to.

When will that ever change?

Read more at Maan News

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"Terrorism: War of the Poor. War: terrorism of the rich." - Peter Ustinov

This Haaretz article speaking of the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, paints a vivid picture of Israel's egocentric logic.

"The summit, involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on Monday.

Despite the dispute, Rice is insisting on holding the meeting to demonstrate progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

According to government sources, however, Olmert is refusing to discuss three major elements of any final-status agreement - Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines - because he believes that raising any of these issues would doom the talks to failure.

There is no doubt that Abu Mazen [Abbas] will have to make compromises on these issues, given Israel's positions, and it is not clear that he can get them past the Palestinian street," one source said.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also believes that final-status issues should not be discussed now, lest they cause the talks to fail and spark renewed violence, as was the case after the Camp David summit of July 2000. She believes the talks should focus on establishing a Palestinian state within temporary borders, as proposed in the second stage of the road map peace plan.

Olmert and Livni also insist that any discussions be purely theoretical, with implementation conditioned on fulfillment of the road map's first stage: dismantling Palestinian terror organizations."

See Hamas' response to Olmert's statements

Monday, February 12, 2007

Returning to Gaza

Last night I drove back into Gaza. It feels so strange somehow, this world that was filled with war has suddenly turned back to normal. Jamal explained that he witnessed the hardest days of his life during the past weeks in Gaza, “black days” he called them. Mohamed, my neighbor explained to me that after Abu Mazen’s announcement from Mecca that a unity government had been formed, old Hamas and Fatah rivals were greeting each other on the streets as if nothing had ever occurred. Something did.

A university was used to stockpile large amounts of weapons which was then later attacked, the electricity company in Gaza City was burned down, one family near where I live had to leave their home after bullets ripped through a window and tore into their furniture only minutes after their young daughter had been trying to follow the activities on the street below.

In a recent article Jonathan Kuttab explains what might lead to such madness. All this only starts to make sense when one has lived here and seen day in and day out the weight over occupation, the stagnation of a life lacking so many freedoms that I have taken for granted most of my life.

Judge Guzman , who has been visiting Israel these past days is a Chilean judge who tired to prosecute Pinochet until the day he died on February 10th 2004. This is one of the observations he made,

"I identify with the Israelis, but my heart is with the people living under occupation and whose rights are being violated. Israel feels it is the victim of terror, but when you are here, you realize that what the Palestinians are doing is resisting occupation. The Palestinians are the victims, they are being exploited, their homes are being demolished, they are being detained under administrative orders, their property is being damaged, they need permits to move from place to place and their cities are becoming large prisons. There is no doubt they are the victims."

Pinochet was spared prosecution mainly because time and time again he was considered mentally unstable to stand trial. I wonder at times if Israel similarly is able to avoid trial excused by a national trauma the Jewish people have suffered in the past.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Tea Boy of Gaza

Look through this window into life in Gaza. A beautiful BBC documentary following a boy called Mahmoud through a day selling tea at Gaza's biggest hospital. Mahmoud is seven and the family's main breadwinner. Through the eyes of this boy the film looks at causes for the political friction on the streets of Gaza.

A film by director Olly Lambert.

Sara Roy: A powerful Jewish conscience

On my flight from London To Cairo I was reading Sara Roy's latest book Failing Peace- Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

I can only recommend this read to everyone considering she is one of the most knowledgeable people writing about Gaza today. But since it is rather an expensive book and you may not have time for such leisurely things I will provide some quotes and then include a thoughts from an article she wrote a while back trying to summarize the Gaza situation. One of the main reasons I want to share this is because Sara paints a picture of a society in Gaza that has had the foundation beneath its feet taken apart one brick at a time until there is almost nothing left. This, along with poor leadership is what allows for the violence we see on the streets of Gaza today.

"Justice applied selectively is no longer justice, but discrimination." - Sara Roy

Introducing the book she explains her Jewish heritage, as both of her parents are survivors of the Holocaust. Applying this past to her current living out her Jewishness, she quotes Brian Klug, "we do not honor the dead if, in memorializing them, we dishonor the living."

And then speaking on the theme of DISSENT, Sara goes on, "why is it so difficult, even impossible to accommodate Palestinians into the Jewish understanding of history? Why is there so little perceived need to question our own narrative and the one we have given others, preferring instead to embrace beliefs and sentiments that remain inert? Why is it virtually mandatory among Jewish intellectuals to oppose racism, repression and injustice almost anywhere in the world and almost unacceptable- indeed for some an act of heresy- to oppose it when Israel is the oppressor?" - Sara Roy

"What have we as a people made from suffering and perhaps more importantly what are we to do with our fear?" - Sara Roy

On the DE-DEVELOPMENT of Gaza Today

Overview: In one of many reports and accounts of economic life in the Gaza Strip that I have recently read, I was struck by a description of an old man standing on the beach in Gaza throwing his oranges into the sea. The description leapt out at me because it was this very same scene I myself witnessed some 21 years ago during my very first visit to the territory. It was the summer of 1985 and I was taken on a tour of Gaza by a friend named Alya. As we drove along Gaza's coastal road I saw an elderly Palestinian man standing at the shoreline with some boxes of oranges next to him. I was puzzled by this and asked Alya to stop the car. One by one, the elderly Palestinian took an orange and threw it into the water. His was not an action of playfulness but of pain and regret. His movements were slow and labored as if the weight of each orange was more than he could bear. I asked my friend why he was doing this and she explained that he was prevented from exporting his oranges to Israel and rather than watch them rot in his orchards, the old man chose to cast them into the sea. I have never forgotten this scene and the impact it had on me.

Over two decades later, after peace agreements, economic protocols, road maps and disengagements, Gazans are still casting their oranges into the sea. Yet Gaza is no longer where I found it so long ago but someplace far worse and more dangerous. One year after Israel's 2005 "disengagement" from the Strip, which was hailed by President Bush as a great opportunity for "the Palestinian people to build a modern economy that will lift millions out of poverty [and] create the institutions and habits of liberty,"[i] a "Dubai on the Mediterranean"[ii] according to Thomas Friedman, Gaza is undergoing acute and debilitating economic declines marked by unprecedented levels of poverty, unemployment, loss of trade, and social deterioration especially with regard to the delivery of health and educational services.

Read a full article of Sara's on today's Gaza situation here