Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
It had begun out in the spring sunshine, on the streets of Gaza City. A saloon car had suddenly surged past mine, and then pulled up, forcing me to stop. A young man emerged from the passenger side and pointed a pistol at me. The figure with the pistol and another gunman forced me into their car, and as we sped off I was made to lie on the back seat. A hood had been shoved over my face, but through it I could see the sun flickering between the tower blocks. I could tell that we were heading south and east, towards the city’s rougher neighbourhoods.
Late on the first night of my captivity, the door opened. Its frame was filled by a tall figure in a long white robe. He stood for a moment, looking down at me – swathed in a red-chequered headdress that completely masked his face. The Jihadi leader had arrived. “Alan Johnston,” he said in English. “We know everything.”
Mostly the voice emerging from the mask was calm, and even kindly. He said that I would not be killed. That I would be treated well, in keeping with Islamic codes of conduct towards prisoners. Crucially, he said that I would eventually be allowed to leave. I asked when, but he just said, “when the time is right.”
AFP- The kidnapping and killing of Rami Ayyad, manager of the Gaza Strip's only Christian bookstore, sent shudders through the Palestinian coastal enclave's tiny Christian community.
Spared by the summer's fierce factional clashes in which the Islamist Hamas movement seized power by routing their secular Fatah party rivals, Christians began to worry they too might be driven from the volatile coastal strip.
What scares them is a new generation of shadowy extremist movements that have crept from the rubble of a seven-year uprising, months of internal bloodletting and decades of conflict with Israel.
"We are not afraid of Hamas because as a government they are responsible for protecting people," Ayyad's brother Ramzi says. "We are afraid of those who are more extreme than Hamas."
Palestinian Christians number around 75,000 but there are only 2,500 -- most of them Greek Orthodox -- living in the Gaza Strip among nearly 1.5 million Muslims, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Gaza has no history of tensions between the two communities and Christians say they are bound to their Muslim neighbours by shared suffering.
But fears peaked on October 6 when Ayyad was kidnapped, tortured and shot dead, his body dumped in a field outside Gaza City. No one has claimed responsibility for the murder.
Ayyad ran a bookshop affiliated with the United Bible Societies, a worldwide organisation that tries to help people "receive the Word of God and see the true light in Jesus Christ", according to its website.
The shop -- the only Christian bookstore in Gaza -- was firebombed in April, and Ayyad's family members said he was threatened several times.
"Three months before Rami was killed a man came into the office," Ayyad's mother told AFP. "He said to Rami, 'What do think about converting to Islam?'"
"Rami said, 'If you convert to Christianity, I'll become a Muslim.' Then the man said, 'I know how to make you a Muslim'. It was a threat."
The Hamas-run government has vowed to find and punish Ayyad's killers, and senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar and former prime minister Ismail Haniya attended his wake, along with several of the family's Muslim neighbours.
But many Christians, frightened of the new extremist groups and desperate to escape the worsening economic situation in the Gaza Strip, are seeking to emigrate, sparking fears for the future of the community.
The beleaguered coastal strip has been largely cut off from the rest of the world since March 2006, when Hamas -- which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group -- emerged victorious in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Israel tightened the blockade after the Islamists, who refuse to recognise the Jewish state, seized complete control four months ago, cutting the territory off from all but vital goods and threatening further measures.
"Christians are isolated just like Muslims. They are scared just like Muslims," says Father Manuel Musallam, the head of Gaza's 200-strong Catholic community, his lips trembling with anger against Israel.
On a breezy Sunday morning around 50 people gathered in the Catholic Church of the Holy Family for a weekly mass.
In a rousing sermon, Musallam -- an ardent Palestinian nationalist from the West Bank who Israel has only allowed out of the Gaza Strip twice since he assumed his post in 1995 -- called on his weary flock to remain strong.
"The Church has always been under threat, and it has always endured. Rami was not the first martyr and in the life of the Church he will not be the last," he said, his soaring baritone voice echoing off the stone walls.
"To those who are scared, to those who want to flee Gaza, we must open our hearts, our doors, and our pockets... And we must always remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross."
Many Christians defend Gaza's record.
"I hate discrimination, and here there is no discrimination between Christians and Muslims," Musa Saba says as he sits in the quiet courtyard of the Gaza City Young Men's Christian Association, playing dominos with friends.
The spry 81-year-old Greek Orthodox was one of the founding members of the association in 1952, two years before the Egyptian government, which then controlled the Gaza Strip, granted the land on which it now stands.
Today the YMCA provides a rare recreational haven for the residents of Gaza City. In the 1980s and 1990s Hamas held party elections here, and the vast majority of the young people who play on the outdoor courts are Muslims.
"There are very few Christians in Gaza but they live right next to us on our streets. They live exactly as we do, with the same habits, the same customs," says Ban al-Hussein, a Muslim university student sitting nearby.
But if their small numbers have helped the Christians better blend in among their Muslim neighbours, it has also given rise to rivalries between different denominations.
Many in the Catholic and Orthodox communities believe Ayyad and his book store were targeted, not for being Christian, but because they were carrying out missionary activities aimed at Christians and Muslims alike.
"There are many different armed groups in the Gaza Strip, but they are not interested in fighting Christians. What happened (to Ayyad) was an exception, because of the silliness of the Baptists," Saba says.
But Hanna Massad, the pastor of Gaza City's main Baptist Church, insists the Bible Society in Gaza is primarily focused on charity, providing aid to Christians and Muslims, and offering free courses in computers and English.
"Here in Gaza, if someone wants to buy a Bible he can. If they ask for one we will provide it. But we don't force books on anyone and we don't try to convert people," Massad says.
Massad, like others, blames Ayyad's death on the rise of extremist groups bourne by the chaos in Gaza and the rest of the region in recent years.
"The extremist groups have started to appear in the last six years because of the political atmosphere in the Middle East and because of the economic blockade of our country," he says.
As the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, with Israel declaring it a "hostile entity" last month and hinting at launching a major operation, Christians and Muslims are, together, preparing for the worst.
"After (Rami's murder) 70 percent of Christians want to leave Gaza, because they are very afraid," Ramzi says. "But we love Gaza, it's our country, we have roots here, homes here. We will not know anyone if we go somewhere else."
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Five-month’s old Eyad is one of the happiest babies I’ve ever met. Barley touch his cheeks and he smiles, tickle his little belly and he bursts out in laughter, kicking his feet in the air. He’s also really quiet when he’s alone. He just lies there, and quiets plays with his hands and feet. He doesn’t cry like other babies. But get anywhere near him, and he sees you, he starts to laugh and kick his feet up in the air with excitement so you can play with him. His mother, Jamalat, says his laughter is a blessing from God as it takes away some of her sorrow and fills her heart instead with joy.
Eyad has never met his father, and his father has never seen him. Jamalat was 5-weeks pregnant with Eyad when his father, my cousin, was killed by an Israeli sniper during an incursion in Sufa. He had just told Jamalat to prepare some tea and took his then two-year old daughter, Malak and sat in front of his house. The sniper had every intention of killing him, not injure or disable him, for he didn’t shot him once or twice or in the leg or arm but he shot him three times; in his stomach, his chest and his neck. He would have died from his stomach wound, but was shot again in his chest. He fell to the ground and laid there, half alive, but mostly dead, hanging between life and death as he looked at his daughter. And then came the final shot to his neck, which eliminated any ounce of life left in him. Jamlat was used to the sound of gunshots, so she didn’t think to check on where or whom had been shot, until Malak ran over to her crying with her father’s blood all over her face and clothes.
Ironically, he was shot from his uncle’s house, just 50 meters away. The house was raided the night before, and transformed into a military site. The sniper was on the roof when he shot my cousin. This is how Israel legally and quietly harasses Gazans. They come in quietly from the border, whether its Sufa or Biet Hanoun or Khan Younis, and raid a house. They cut off all the phone lines and the electricity and lock the house residents into a room, declaring the house a military site. For the next day or so, they assess the area, and quietly plan. No one else in the neighborhood knows that the IDF has taken over that house, and it could be days before they leave. They come to arrest or kill so called militants, and raze trees and demolish homes of so called militant supporters. They then leave quietly, pulling back their tanks and bulldozers from Gaza, and sit at the Israeli-Gaza border until they decide on the next incursion.
Jamalat says God has taken away her husband away from her, only to give Eyad the same face. Eyad is an exact image of his father. He was also given his name.
It’s hard to laugh with Eyad laugh without having your heart-broken. He has no idea the world he will grow up in. He’ll grow up with only stories and pictures of his father. He’ll see his mother struggle to feed him and siblings. He’ll be told he’s refugee, and get used to waiting in line with his mom for their food packages. He’ll learn to sleep with the sounds of Israeli planes over his head. He’ll recognize the sounds of tanks coming into his neighborhood and that’ll be his que to run home. Anger will fill his heart when he sees Israeli’ bulldozers raze and break his father’s olive trees. And he’ll live under Israeli occupation, in an unjust world, where he will think its normal to live in such conditions, and there is no other alternative.
He’ll never know or see the face of the Israeli solider that killed his father, or receive reparations for the life he will live. And the Israeli solider will never realize what he has done or who he has hurt. He never thought for a second before he shot those three shots that the man he was shooting was someone’s father, and was loved by his wife and had just invited his neighbors for tea to celebrate Jamalat’s pregnancy before sitting in front of his door to greet them.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Jnaid is one of about 54,000 displaced Palestinians who returned to Gaza and the West Bank from abroad after an interim peace accord in 1993, but still have no identity cards because Israel refuses to approve them. Following years of silence, they recently started holding weekly protests in Hamas-run Gaza to demand the documents, which they need to travel as well as for daily basics like opening a bank account or getting a driving licence.
"I am Mr Nobody," said Jnaid, who, at one of the protests, doused himself in petrol and tried to set himself alight before onlookers overpowered him.
"When I poured the petrol on my body I felt life was the same as death," he said as he sat next to his wife and children.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Paramilitaries in Hamas's self-styled police Executive Force armed with anti-tank missiles exchanged fire with members of a powerful Gaza clan, the majority of which supports political rivals Fatah, witnesses said.
Trouble broke out in Gaza City when the Executive Force stopped a Palestinian Authority vehicle carrying former police officer Adel Hellis.
Three Hellis relatives and an Executive Force officer were subsequently killed, said an official at the Hamas-run health ministry, Maawia Hassanin.
Another 30 people were wounded, including one critically, said medical officials, revising up an earlier toll of three dead and 22 wounded.
Witnesses said the Executive Force blew up Adel Hellis' home but that the former police officer, who stopped work after Hamas routed Fatah in a bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip four months ago, was not hurt.
The clashes lasted about eight hours but ended before daybreak under a truce mediated by armed group, the Popular Resistance Committees.
Most of the Hellis clan are loyal to Fatah, the secular political party of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Its loyalists were routed by Hamas in the mid-June take over following months of political rivalry and sporadic violence.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Scores of Palestinians were killed earlier this year in clashes between the hardline Islamist movement and their moderate secular Fatah rivals before Hamas seized complete control of the impoverished territory in June.
Addressing a packed football stadium in the heart of Gaza City, the head of the sacked Hamas government urged Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas not to give in to Israeli demands at a US-sponsored meeting expected next month...
Monday, October 8, 2007
There are around 3000 Christians living in Gaza today. Rami was the office director of the Teacher’s bookstore, a Christian bookstore in downtown Gaza City. The store sells Christian books and offers computer and language lessons, which are attended by Palestinians from across the Gaza Strip. When I would visit the place on occasion Rami was always there on his swivel chair cracking jokes. Few people entered that did not already know him. Gaza can be a place of sadness, Rami always reminded me much more of the mentality of Egyptians laughing and joking no matter how depressing life becomes.
On Saturday afternoon Rami closed his shop as he always did at 4:30. He had told his brother that three days earlier he had sensed he was being followed home after work but had not made much of it. Two hours after closing up he called his wife and told her with much uncertainty that he hoped to be home in two hours and not to worry. He was not able to say where he was or why he was there. Rami never came home. Friends and family searched for him until late into the night. At 5:30am on Sunday morning his body was found beaten, a bullet through his head, another through his chest. His wallet, ID and watch were gone.
No one has made any statements, no group has taken responsibility. This is the first time in Gaza’s recent history for a Christian to be kidnapped and killed. Sadly, such incidents do occur in revenge killings usually of political nature but never with religious causes. In Gaza, Muslims and Christians live and die side by side, sharing every element of the Israeli occupation and containment that has been a reality there since most people alive today remember. Rami had no political or factional involvement, nor was his family implicated in any family feuds. Rami’s boss was quoted in the Independent saying "We don't know who was behind the killing or why. Was it for money, or was it because he was selling Bibles?"
The heart of the matter is the fact that Gaza is a place overrun with violence. Readers of this blog have followed the complexities of the makeup of Gaza’s social and political makeup, I will not repeat again what I have so often before. Violence here has deep roots in injustice and occupation, but beyond this every individual, every political grouping, every community makes the choice of projecting their experience outward and returning violence for violence. Gaza is deeply entrenched in violence. In Gaza victims of bloodshed often themselves become shedders of blood. Rami experienced the harshness of occupation, the limitation of curfews, Israeli military incursions, civilian targeted sonic booms, restrictions on travel beyond the 365km2 confines of the Gaza Strip and the strife of civil war.
Rami chose to respond to violence with laughter, love and peace. The strength to live such a life is what I hope for Rami’s killers, it is what I hope for every Palestinian living and born into the living hell of Gaza today.
Monday, October 1, 2007
"The Palestinian arena witnesses an unprecedented state of division domestically, and the beginning of a dangerous phenomenon, which threatens to demolish the social tissue and the political future of the Palestinian people, leading them away from their ambitions for liberty and independence. This was the result of the dominance of the culture of partiality, in light of the absence of cooperation and mutual respect which can guarantee development.
There have developed recently dangerous behaviour and practices in Palestinian society, leading to more division through fuelling the inclination to narrow-mindedness and extremism, in addition to intolerance. The language of agreement has been replaced with one of spitefulness, which widened the gap and increased the tension.
This education of partiality and anarchism, and the use of force and violence to deal with any domestic troubles threaten the emergence of very dangerous repercussions in the Palestinian ability to counter the occupation or to maintain the steadfastness and strength of the Palestinian society.
If this situation continues, occupation will have the opportunity to achieve its goals and fuel more division in Palestinian society. On the other hand, the Palestinians will lose their spirit, and their nationalist dedication will also weaken as antagonism and division will prevail. The image of the Palestinians in the world will also be distorted and they will lose much of the solidarity and support they have achieved over the years of struggle against occupation.
It has become urgent more than ever to devote all the true and faithful Palestinian efforts to fight the state of division in Palestinian society as that is much more important than any political solutions or suggestions."
"A secret deal was struck between Hamas and the Egyptian intelligence to allow 85 people stranded for 4 months on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing to enter the Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources told Ma'an on Monday.
The majority of those who crossed the border under the deal were Hamas political and military leaders, according to the sources.
Under the deal an Al-Qaeda leader hiding in Gaza, who was accused of being involved in attacks on tourists in the southern Egyptian city of Assiut, was handed over to the Egyptians."
This is a significant incident that communicates in action rather than merely in word the clear distinction that exist between Hamas and Al-Quaeda. The exchange also points to the careful relationship Egypt's governing regime is walking in regards their relationship with Hamas. Although their security representatives left the Gaza Strip in mid-June, dialogue remains ongoing.
A Haaretz Report added these details,
"Egypt's Interior Ministry confirmed that they had agreed with Hamas to transport the people across the border. It gave no explanation.
Israel, which opposed the return of some of the Palestinians, said it was unaware of an Egypt-Hamas agreement. Egypt told Israel that about 28 Palestinians, including senior Hamas figures, broke through the Egypt-Gaza fence, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.
But the crossing appeared to be organized with Egyptian cooperation, witnesses said. The Palestinians were transported to the Egyptian side of the border in Egyptian buses, allowed across by Hamas security and then met at a Hamas security in included a prominent Hamas lawmaker, Mushir al-Masri, and Hamas loyalists sent for training in Muslim countries before the militant Islamic group's Gaza takeover, witnesses said.
They did not speak to journalists at the scene. During the crossing, Hamas security officials tried to keep the operation a secret, confiscating film from photographers and cameramen alerted to the scene."