Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gaza's Joyous Beaches


This will be my final blog post from Gaza—at least for a while. Next week, I’m headed back to Chicago in my other role as the program director of a dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. After that, I’ll begin my search for a full-time position at a newspaper, magazine, think tank or international non-governmental organization.

Before coming to Gaza five months ago, I chatted with Swedish journalist Catrin Ormestad, who reported from Gaza before and after last year’s war. Ormestad offered some wise advice. “Especially when I write for Israeli audiences,” she said, “I try to write in a way that shows Palestinians’ humanity.”

As I look back at my articles and blog posts, I realize I have focused on the more controversial and “newsworthy” aspects of life in Gaza. I wrote about Gazan families living in half-destroyed homes. I wrote about peaceful protesters getting shot in the no-go zone. I wrote about a women's rights activist who advocates the murder of Israeli civilians. I wrote about desperate Gazans who crawled through the smuggling tunnels for Egyptian medical treatment. I wrote about Hamas’s post-flotilla raids on Gazan charities. I wrote about the connection between electricity shortages and sewage tsunamis. And I wrote about grassroots community leaders— filmmakers, aid workers, psychologists, political analysts and a refugee camp comedian.

However, I didn’t write much about the universal stories of people living their ordinary lives—fretting over school exams, dancing at weddings, joking with friends, empowering children, celebrating birthdays, and mourning the passing of loved ones. Despite the trauma and destruction wrought by war and the daily indignities of the siege, life goes on in Gaza.

I’ve therefore peppered this final blog post with pictures of one beautiful expression of Gaza's enduring humanity: family outings to the beach. Every summer, thousands of people from diverse political factions and socio-economic backgrounds converge on the 25-mile coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. They fly homemade kites. They build sandcastles. They swim. They chitchat. They catch minnows. They play soccer. They watch the sunset. Like families around the world, they seek out simple moments of pure joy and plant special memories in the impressionable minds of their children.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chocolate and Mayonnaise—But No Cement

The young boys pictured on the right are holding Israeli chocolate and mayonnaise—items which, until two weeks ago, were banned under the blockade. According to Gazan traders, many new items are now flowing in from Israel, including: assorted foods, shoes, clothing, thin aluminum (used for doors), and miscellaneous kitchen supplies. Israel’s easing of the blockade has been cautiously celebrated by traders, shop keepers and civilians, yet lamented by smuggling tunnel owners whose expensive goods are now in lower demand.

However, many civilians are disappointed that, just as the blockade has eased, the electricity crisis has dramatically deepened—this past week, most Gazans got only eight hours of electricity per day. Previously, Gazans were sometimes getting 16 hours of electricity per day. Gazans are also disappointed by Israel's continued prohibition on the most desperately needed supplies: cement, iron, construction-grade wood, and gravel. Israel argues that these items pose a security threat because they could be used to make weapons or fortify smuggling tunnels.

Yet the tunnel smuggling industry has proliferated under the blockade, despite feeble Israeli and Egyptian efforts to stop it. Most items prohibited by Israel are already widely available in Gaza. Egyptian chocolate and mayonnaise, for example, could be found in shops across Gaza before Israel eased the blockade. The refrigerator and electric generator in my upscale Gaza City apartment came through the tunnels. Brand new 2009 Mercedes cars have come into Gaza through the tunnels. The lion at the Rafah City Zoo (pictured on right) came through the tunnels.

Cement, iron, wood, and gravel likewise come into Gaza through the tunnels. They also get scavenged and recycled from Gaza's destroyed buildings. These supplies are of dangerously low quality and they are expensive—affordable only to the Hamas government, to westerners living in Gaza, and to Gaza’s minority of wealthy elites. Just last week, Hamas used these materials to finish construction of a new jail (pictured above) capable of housing 800 prisoners. Gaza's largest prison was destroyed during last year's war.

Meanwhile, thousands of families remain unable to rebuild their homes. They live in unstable, partially destroyed houses, they rent apartments that they cannot afford, they bunk up with relatives in cramped quarters, or, in rare cases, they live in tents. The United Nations (UN) could help these families, but is prohibited by law from purchasing black market materials.

Earlier this year, the UN launched a small pilot project in the southern district of Khan Younis to construct 150 new homes. (Some of these new homes are pictured on the right.) After months of high-level diplomatic wrangling, Israel permitted the UN to bring in these materials on the condition that Hamas have no involvement. It remains to be seen if Israel will permit a larger-scale home reconstruction program.

More flotillas, including a boat full of leftwing Jewish activists, are planning to challenge the blockade, and building materials will likely constitute some of their cargo. Nujud Hamad (pictured on the right with her children outside their half-destroyed home) is grateful to these flotilla “heroes,” but doesn’t believe her family will be able to access the flotillas' “symbolic” gifts.

“The flotillas can’t possibly bring enough cement for everyone,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and smiling warmly. “Plus, my family doesn’t have connections [with powerful people].”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Women's Rights in Gaza

I’m working on a long magazine article about women’s rights in Gaza, and I’ll use this blog post to provide a brief overview.

Westerners may be surprised by Gaza's abundance of accomplished female leaders, particularly those working in schools and NGOs. Most Gazan men and women achieve at least an eighth grade education, and the overwhelming majority of Gazans believe that women are entitled to an education. Religiously conservative Gazans emphasize that the Prophet Mohammed proclaimed the rights of women to attend school, to work, and to reject marriage proposals.

Women also assume limited political leadership in Gaza. Under the Fatah government, a quota system was introduced requiring that about ten percent of parliament seats be reserved for women. Hamas has upheld this quota system. The two highest ranking women in Hamas, Jamila Al-Shanti and Huda Naim, told me they participate in sensitive policy-making decisions and take leading roles in governmental committees. One former NGO worker named Itemad Tarshawi ran on the Hamas ticket in a municipal election and won without a quota. “I earned people’s trust and respect by working for many years on the grassroots level in a way that honors our traditions,” she said.

Across the Arab world, cultural traditions typically give women responsibility for the domestic sphere and regard them as requiring special protection from male relatives. However, the women’s rights situation in Gaza differs profoundly from the situation in other Arab countries because Gaza’s history has been colored by so many unusual influences. Decades of war and occupation have forced women to take on new leadership roles as husbands and brothers were killed or jailed. At the same time, war, occupation, and now the siege have ravaged family relationships. Some analysts argue that domestic violence is on the rise in Gaza in part due to exacerbating factors: pervasive psychological trauma, the shame of rampant unemployment, and the daily stresses of poverty and entrapment within the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Most—but not all— Gazan women who wear hijab (the Islamic headscarf) tell me they wear it proudly and do not regard it as a sign of oppression. For them, hijab is a symbol of modesty, religious devotion, and / or cultural heritage. Many also feel that hijab protects them from unwanted male attention. A growing minority of Gazan women wear himar, a scarf which reveals only their eyes. (See picture on right.) While the majority of Palestinian women did not cover their hair in the 1980s and 1990s, uncovered Palestinian women are now a rare sight in Gaza, particularly outside of Gaza City. By contrast, cultural norms in the West Bank are less conservative than Gaza. These days, it’s easy to find uncovered Palestinian women in West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem or even Nablus.

Under Hamas rule, government policies regarding personal freedoms have tightened. Those most affected are liberals who live outside of Gaza City's more well-to-do neighborhoods. Within these elite enclaves, uncovered women like myself can freely walk the streets. (Outside of these areas, however, I choose to wear hijab to avoid unwanted attention.) Unmarried women and men can also freely fraternize at Gaza City restaurants and coffee shops, although most choose to sit in gender-segregated groups. (See picture above.)

Outside of Gaza City, police often interrogate suspected unmarried couples. Government school principals have pressured, and even required, adolescent girls to wear hijab while in school. However, religious conservatism has been rising in Gaza for decades, and many citizens support Hamas’s restrictions on "religiously inappropriate" behavior.

Three months ago, Hamas policy informed male hairdressers that an unofficial new policy forbade them from accepting female customers. (Nael Al-Raess, the Gaza City salon owner pictured on the right, continues to cut women’s hair, and the government has chosen not to forcibly stop him.) However, Hamas’s unofficial prohibition on mixed gender music concerts is strictly enforced. This year, Hamas police shut down at least two such concerts in Gaza City.

While liberals view these actions as obvious signs of oppression, Hamas leaders and more conservative Gazans view them as attempts to protect women’s safety and honor. They believe that mixed gender music concerts, for example, will quickly give way to a maelstrom of inappropriate male-female interactions that will erode the traditional values of their society.

Jailed for her own protection


Since my last blog post, I published one piece in The Nation entitled “Rachel Corrie Revisited” and another in Global Post entitled “Dodging bullets in Gaza’s no-go zone.” I also was interviewed in a monthly conference call organized by Jewish Fast for Gaza. I’m currently working on a two magazine feature stories—one about a lady named Ilham who is jailed by Hamas for her own protection and another about women's rights under Hamas rule.

This week, I interviewed women imprisoned for adultery or prostitution. In all of Gaza, there are only 12 such women, and they reside together in an approximately 15-foot by 15-foot cell at Gaza City’s Al-Ansar prison. (The men are housed in a separate area.) The cell is overseen by a female warden and contains foam mattresses, a private bathroom, piles of clothing, multiple copies of the Quran, and materials for making handicrafts. While prostitutes would be stoned to death in some purportedly Islamic countries, in Gaza they are “rehabilitated,” jailed for six months or less, and never beaten by the government, according to Hamas officials.

The subject of one of my articles, 25-year-old Ilham, is pictured above on a rooftop “courtyard” where the female prisoners enjoy fresh air for a few hours per week. Ilham looks much young than her 25 years and speaks with wit and defiance that set her apart from the other female prisoners. Ilham boldly offered to have me photograph her face, but the guards asked that I photograph her from behind.

Ilham's story is among the most unusual that the prison officials say they've ever seen. Ilham told me she was “forced” to marry at age 14 to a “sick man whose back looked like a soccer ball.” At age 23, she divorced with no children. Ilham secretly shared regular coffee dates and phone chats with her friend’s brother, a university student named Shadi, and the two planned to marry. When Shadi’s father refused to accept the marriage, Shadi stole money from him to buy Ilham a wedding ring. In his rage, Shadi’s father went to the police and had his son arrested and jailed for theft.

At that point, Ilham and Shadi say they devised an audacious plan: they lied to a judge that that they’d had sexual relations in order to force their families to accept a marriage out of shame. (By Palestinian law, the fathers or father figures from both families must sanction the marriage. When two unmarried people are suspected of having slept together, marriage is sometimes proposed as a means to “restore” the girl’s honor.) However, Ilham's family did not accept a marriage, and the judge ordered both Shadi and Ilham to stand trial for adultery.

While Ilham is now free to leave the prison, her father has threatened to have her killed, and Hamas authorities are attempting to mediate a solution that saves Ilham’s life. In the meantime, the trial has been delayed for 45 days. Ilham privately asked me to tell Shadi, who I interviewed separately at the same prison, that she was “staying strong” and wouldn’t back down. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I’m not afraid of my cousins, brothers and relatives. I don’t care what they think. I’m only afraid from my God. I was weak before. I was very weak. I couldn’t control anything in my life. Shadi helped me be strong….I love Shadi more than the whole world.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Flotilla tragedy boosts Gaza’s peaceful protest movement


Thank you to everyone who participated in the Jewish Fast for Gaza conference call. My Global Post article about how Gaza’s non-violent protest movement has been boosted by the flotilla tragedy was delayed until next week, when I will observe another demonstration. In the meantime, I’ll use this blog post to tell the story of the demonstration I observed on Tuesday.

First, a bit of background described in previous posts: Palestinian and international activists in the West Bank village of Bil’in regularly dodge tear gas, skunk cannons and rubber bullets as they challenge territory that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) controls for alleged security reasons. In Gaza, however, a Bil’in-inspired protest movement is immediately met with live gunfire.

Since February of this year, crowds of more than 50 unarmed Gazan activists have marched into the 300 meter “no-go zone,” or “buffer zone,” along the Gaza-Israel border three to five days per week in different locations across Gaza. The demonstrators plant Palestinian flags in protest of Israel’s sweeping destruction of homes and farms in the buffer zones. At least eight protesters, including Maltese activist Bianca Zammit, have been shot in the legs by Israeli troops. In April, a protester was killed.

At Tuesday's demonstration in the northern district of Beit Lahia, participants said they felt newly empowered in the wake of the flotilla tragedy. The demonstration attracted a larger-than-normal group of at least 200 people, an unusually high turnout of about 100 women, and many participants who had come for the first time.

“All of us are going to this demonstration in solidarity with the Freedom Flotilla,” said Maysa Abbas, 37, as she and other new recruits (pictured on right) sat in chartered bus on their way to the demonstration. “We’re trying to break the siege in any way we can. We want the Arab world, and the rest of the world, to pay attention to our suffering.”

The Israeli government has asserted that the no-go zone is a “combat zone” where deadly force can be used against anyone who enters. The no-go zone has been used to launch rockets at Israeli cities, to plant explosives against Israeli soldiers, and to infiltrate Israel. On June 1, the day after the flotilla tragedy, two would-be Palestinian terrorists were killed in the no-go zone after an exchange of fire with Israeli troops, according to the IDF.

As the bus grinded to a halt about a half mile from the border, 22-year-old Hala Salman pointed out the window to a lifeless, sandy strip of earth that once bore watermelons, eggplants, and tomatoes. “That’s where my family used to have our farm,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s our land.”

Salman and the other demonstrators then congregated behind a truck playing patriotic Palestinian music from loud speakers. Most of the men marched in the front of the crowd holding flags and banners, while most women and children marched towards the back.

At the lead was a man with a megaphone, Saber Zaaneen (pictured on right), who recited rhyming chants against the siege that were repeated by the group. Zaaneen conceived and implemented the original idea for these protests five months ago, and his idea subsequently spread to other border communities in Gaza. The movement is now coordinated by an umbrella organization called the Committee for Security in the Buffer Zones, which represents a broad spectrum of Gazan charities and does not accept donations from political parties.

Zaaneen argues that most of those killed by Israeli troops in the buffer zone have been civilians, particularly farmers, fishermen, and desperate men collecting stones and other materials from destroyed buildings near the border. Zaaneen himself is among the thousands of Gazans whose home was destroyed by the IDF and not rebuilt. For him, the dangerous buffer zone demonstrations are not about intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way, but rather about asserting “basic human rights” and drawing media attention to Gazans’ plight.

“We don't resist because we want to die,” Zaaneen said when we spoke before the demonstration in his family's living room, which is adorned with a giant poster of Che Guevara. “We resist because we want freedom, security, opportunities for our children, and an end to the siege. The power of these demonstrations is that they attract international attention to what’s really happening. We want foreigners, especially Americans and Israelis, to tell their governments that we should stop the violence and live together in peace.”

Back at the Tuesday demonstration, Zaaneen stiffened as he spotted two teenagers running away from the group. “Come back! This is for your protection!” he pleaded through the megaphone. To Zaaneen’s relief, the boys (pictured on right) did return. Had they not, Zaaneen feared they could have met the same fate as Ahmed Deeb, a 19-year-old demonstrator who was shot in his femoral artery at a April demonstration in southern Gaza and died of blood loss. Deeb had separated from the crowd to throw stones at Israeli troops.

The demonstrators stopped atop a sandy hilltop within eyesight of three army jeeps approximately 100 meters away. In the 10 minutes that demonstrators stood in this location, Israeli snipers fired about a dozen warning shots that hit the ground more than 10 feet from the crowd. (In past demonstrations I've observed, the warning shots hit the ground less than two feet away.) While atop the hill, Palestinian boys planted flags, women and children ventured to the front of the line, and protest leaders gave fiery speeches blasting the blockade and the siege.

As the protesters retreated, Zaaneen expressed his satisfaction with the size of the crowd and their success in staying together as a cohesive group. He said that he now feels renewed inspiration to launch an English / Arabic / Hebrew website about the anti-buffer zone movement and to network with more foreign activist groups.

One such foreign activist group, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), has received “loads more” communication from people outside of Gaza, according to Adie Mormech (pictured on right), a British ISM activist who attended Tuesday’s demonstration along with three other foreign activists. Shortly after the flotilla tragedy, ISM launched a Facebook media campaign called “Stop the Bullets” aimed at ending the use of live ammunition against Gazan civilians.

“Rarely in the democratic world are you allowed to just take regular potshots at people and get away with it,” Mormech said, “particularly when they’re just doing a peaceful demonstration or farming their land. It’s a crime. A continuous crime. And we want it stopped.”

While unarmed protesters from all political parties are welcome at the anti-buffer zone demonstrations, the overwhelming majority of participants back Fatah or minority leftwing parties. The defacto Hamas government, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel for its support of suicide and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, celebrates the non-violent foreign aid flotillas seeking to enter Gaza, yet discourages Gaza’s own non-violent protest movement.

Top Hamas leader Salah Bardaweel (pictured on right) told me three days before the flotilla tragedy that Hamas is currently seeking to maintain and enforce an undeclared ceasefire on the borders. He said he was concerned that Israel might portray the non-violent protesters as “aggressors” and use them as an excuse to launch another invasion. Bardaweel also expressed his objection to many of the protesters’ belief in using only non-violent means to oppose Israeli actions.

“There is a feeling within Hamas that the Fatah movement wants to move the struggle between us and Israel to a peaceful struggle,” he said. “This will only give Israel an opportunity to impose its will and become a defacto government in Gaza….Also, Hamas doesn’t want Israel to think there’s only non-violent resistance in Gaza. Non-violence is a tactic. It’s only one form of resistance.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conference Call, New Articles, and Upcoming Visit to Israel

I’ve been invited to speak about my experiences in Gaza for a monthly conference call organized by Jewish Fast for Gaza. Click here for more information about this group and click here to see Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog post about the conference call.

The call will take place on Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon EST. That’s 8 p.m. in Gaza and Israel. If any of my blog readers would like to tune in, dial the access number (1-800-920-7487). When prompted, enter the participant code (92247763#). The call will include a question and answer period. A recording of the entire call will appear afterwards on the Jewish Fast for Gaza website.

In other news, I wrote an article for TheNation.com that explores the Israeli military’s untransparent and seemingly prejudiced investigation of Rachel Corrie’s death in the context of the recent tragedy aboard the Mavi Marmara. (In March of this year, before coming to Gaza, I attended the Corrie family’s civil court trial in Haifa, Israel.) Another article of mine about how Gaza’s anti-buffer zone protests have gained new momentum following the flotilla tragedy will soon publish in Global Post. I'll update my blog when these articles are available online.

I may not write any new blog posts until next week because I'm soon headed to Israel. In addition to my work as a freelance journalist, I serve as the summer program director at Hands of Peace, a dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. We'll have our participant orientation in Jerusalem on Friday, and the camp will begin next month in Chicago. While I’m in Israel, I’d be thrilled to meet in person with any community groups or non-profits interested in chatting about life in Gaza—just shoot me an email at ashleybates@comcast.net.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Voices from the Rubble of Gaza’s Cinematic Potential


Today I stumbled upon the skeletal ruins of a Gaza City movie theatre (pictured on right), which was destroyed almost a decade ago during the second intifada. As I took a picture, a donkey cart puttered past and a middle-aged woman who was sharing my taxi voiced her opinion that cinemas were “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. For me, this incident was a solemn reminder both that the Gazan economy had been booming in the years following the 1993 Oslo accords, and that Gazan society was once far more liberal and moderate in interpreting its Islamic religious values.

For example, westerners are often surprised to learn that the proliferation of the Islamic headscarf in Gaza is a relatively new occurrence. One of Gaza’s rare uncovered women, Dr. Mona ElFarra, who works as deputy director of the Red Crescent Society, told me in an interview last month about her recent experience at a workshop in a southern Gaza village. She recalled, “The young children and school girls gathered around me. I felt as if I was an alien spaceship. The kids were saying, ‘Are you sure she’s a woman? Why is her hair short? Look and see!’ When I was a kid, we didn’t have issues like this. The majority of women in Gaza didn’t wear hijab [the Islamic headscarf]. Now, the children find us strange.”

However, it’s still not strange to find Gazan women in positions of leadership, particularly in schools and NGOs. After my sad encounter with the abandoned movie theatre this morning, I enjoyed an inspiring lunch with Nagham Mohanna, a 24-year-old filmmaker (pictured on right) who holds her own in a field dominated by men. Two weeks ago, Nagham was among three Gazans who participated by video conference in a West Bank film pitching event. Each candidate prepared a trailer of his or her proposed film, then answered questions from the dozens of western media network representatives in the audience. Nagham’s proposed film, “Romance in Gaza,” received rave reviews, and she’s currently in discussions with networks interested in funding her project. (Click here to view her trailer, which is the second video from the left.)

Nagham has directed two other short films and was previously among thousands of Gazans accepted to educational programs abroad, only to have their dreams dashed when Israeli and Egyptian border closures and security restrictions prevented them from leaving. As a result of her “Romance in Gaza” proposal, Nagham has earned a scholarship to attend a one-week filmmaking workshop next month at a university in Greece. Egypt has opened the border for travelers with “special” circumstances in the wake of the flotilla tragedy, and Nagham is hopeful that, this time, the travel will be for real.

Since her only experience outside of Gaza was a two-week family trip to Egypt in 2003, Nagham has worked hard to allay her parents' fears about her capacity to travel independently. Her parents support her career ambitions, and Nagham is bubbling with nervous anticipation about her upcoming adventure in Greece. “I want to learn about the culture outside of Gaza—how they think and how they live their lives,” she told me. “I don’t believe you can understand our cultural differences just from movies and the television programs.”

Another filmmaker at the pitching event, 25-year-old Mohamad Abusidu (pictured on right), has also been invited to attend the filmmaking workshop in Greece. However, his excitement is bittersweet, as Mohamad cannot visit his own sister, brother and father in the West Bank. Despite appealing for help from both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, Mohamad and his mother are forbidden from living in the West Bank due to Israel’s draconian residency policies. The family’s separation, which is a common story in Gaza, is the subject of Mohamad’s proposed film, “Waiting for You.” (Click here to view his trailer, which is the first video on the left.)

Both Nagham and Mohamad will talk by phone this week with American filmmaker Ose Oyamendan, who is planning a feature length documentary called “Salaam Shalom: Voices from the Rubble” about residents of Sderot and Gaza who are working for peace. In Israel, Mr. Oyamendan will find a thriving, creative cinema industry, a worldly, well-traveled populace, and many movie theatres. In Gaza, he will find an opportunity-craving subculture of cinematic entrepreneurs, an isolated, imprisoned populace, and the dilapidated remains of four, once-thriving cinemas whose resurrection seems beholden to the political situation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

And the prize for 'worst World Cup kickoff party' goes to…


Yesterday, in homes, restaurants, pubs, and clubs all around the globe, millions of people watched the opening celebrations and games of the World Cup. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I went searching for a similar (but obviously non-alcoholic) event in Gaza.

First, a bit of background: Palestinians love soccer. School boys across Gaza play soccer in the streets, on beaches and on makeshift fields. Last month, the UN-funded “Gaza World Cup,” an amateur soccer tournament for both Gazan men and foreigners living in Gaza, generated hundreds of participants and fans. The rivalry between two Spanish soccer clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, has playfully divided Gazan families. Jerseys, hats and flags from Barcelona and Real Madrid are smuggled from Egypt and widely sold in clothing stores. In just about any conversation about soccer, someone will invariably ask, “So do you support Real Madrid or Barcelona?”

Friends of mine have theorized about why these two Spanish teams are known to the vast majority of Gazan men and women. The argument that makes the most sense to me is this: Gazans have no world-renowned squad of their own to root for, both Real Madrid and Barcelona are remarkable teams, and it's fun—particularly for people accustomed to loss and tragedy—to support a soccer club that's likely to win. (Barcelona ultimately won this spring.) Maybe this lighthearted rivalry also provides therapeutic comfort to a society healing from the trauma of the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah. Some “rival” Gazans who supported Real Madrid or Barcelona are now coming together to cheer for Spain in the World Cup.

To the public's widespread delight, Hamas is airing the World Cup on their television channel, Al-Aqsa. Al-Jazeera Sports, the only Arabic station with a license to air the World Cup, is available only on satellite television, while Al-Aqsa is available both on satellite and on local broadcasting. It seems unlikely, particularly in the wake of the flotilla tragedy, that anyone will stop Al-Aqsa from pirating this entertainment for thousands of Gazans who’d otherwise be unable to watch.

Based on this background information, I expected that a sizable mass of Gaza City elites would splurge on a celebratory evening at one of the handful of Gaza City restaurants, hotels and coffee shops where the World Cup could be viewed on a big screen. I was determined not to miss this experience, even though I’ve been sick for the past four days. (I contracted some sort of diarrhea-causing pathogen after stupidly attending women’s swim day at a local “pool”— which turned out to be a cement hole in the ground filled with unfiltered salt water from the sewage-invested Mediterranean Sea.)

Around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, shortly before the opening ceremony was slated to begin, I scoped out different venues with a few Gazan friends. To our shock, every venue had almost no patrons. Admittedly, Friday is a day of rest in the Arab world and men go to mosque services on Friday afternoons. But most services end by 2 p.m.—and this was the World Cup!

Worse, most places weren’t even prepared for a potential party. The Roots Club, the same fancy restaurant featured in the Israeli media a few weeks ago, had a broken LCD screen. The Avenue, a lovely beachside restaurant, had a television positioned immovably near glass windows, creating a distracting sun glare. The Al-Deira Hotel, a favorite among western journalists, wasn’t hosting any party, but said they planned to host one during the final games of the tournament. We therefore settled on the Delice Coffee Shop (pictured above), a modern, smoke-filled enclave with a giant television screen.

No more than a dozen, mostly male patrons at this coffee shop sipped Turkish coffee and smoked nargela as they quietly watched the opening ceremonies. South Africans from diverse backgrounds danced across the screen in colorful costumes, seeming to put their nation’s Apartheid history behind them. “Look at what they have in Africa,” mumbled a middle-aged nargela smoker dressed in black slacks and a pale shirt, “And look at what we have.” The rest of the world, it seemed to him, was celebrating and moving forward. And here we were. Existing in Gaza.

As if to reinforce these sentiments, the satellite television disconnected three times in a span of about 20 minutes. My friend Ahmed sought to lighten the patrons’ irritated moods by proposing a conspiracy theory. Perhaps some Israeli spy planes were lurking overhead and interfering with our satellite reception? He put his hands in the air as he playfully addressed the imaginary planes. “Enough!” he said. “We’re just trying to watch a soccer game here!”

In fact, Ahmed (pictured on right) wasn’t too interested in the game anyway. His mind was consumed with worries about his plans to travel to Egypt the following day. Ahmed was accepted to attend a master’s program in the United States, but he has been waiting for three months to get Israeli security clearance to go to Jerusalem for his visa interview at the U.S. consulate. (No U.S. consulate exists in Gaza.) In the aftermath of the flotilla tragedy, the Egyptian border is now open for Gazan travelers with “special” reasons, and Ahmed has decided to try his luck interviewing at a U.S. consulate outside of Israel. He spent most of the World Cup game frantically calling and emailing friends who might be able to help facilitate his travel and visa arrangements.

In a final ironic kicker, BBC video journalists (pictured on right) showed up to film the “excitement.” Instead, the reporters found a few annoyed, unenthusiastic fans. Shortly thereafter—about 30 minutes into the game—I threw in the towel. I went home, swallowed antibiotics, and watched the remainder of the game in bed. I later learned that my friends' families had laughed heartily at the story of our futile, pathetic attempt to find a World Cup party. Hopefully, during the final matches of the tournament, Gaza’s abundant soccer fans will come out in greater numbers!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Gazan Scholar's Analysis of Post-Flotilla Politics


I recently interviewed a prominent Gazan professor and political analyst named Dr. Mkhaimar Abusala (pictured above at the Gaza harbor) for a Global Post article about Hamas' raids and closures of six nongovernmental organizations last week.

Dr. Abusala has been busy these days giving interview after interview, in both Arabic and English, with the flocks of reporters who’ve come to Gaza in the wake of the flotilla tragedy. He begins most conversations with foreign journalists by inquiring about their backgrounds and experiences. Where did they grow up? Why did they choose a journalism career? What are their impressions of Gaza? Have they had any troubles with the Hamas authorities? He speaks in a measured, academically curious tone imbued with warm hospitality that is deeply ingrained in Palestinian culture.

Like me, Dr. Abusala lives in Gaza's lovely seaside neighborhood and enjoys privileges not accesible to most Gazan civilians. While most of the 1.5 million people here are trapped inside this tiny strip of land as a result of Israeli and Egyptian travel prohibitions, Dr. Abusala is among an elite few who can go through Israel to attend academic conferences abroad. This year, he presented academic papers in Berlin and Athens.

As often happens in Gaza, the interview with Dr. Abusala was arranged on the fly. I had met him on previous occasions, and called him on the afternoon of Monday, June 7 to see if he’d be available within the next few days. “A few days?” he joked, “How about in 30 minutes!”

We met for about an hour at the quaint Al-Deira Hotel, which overlooks the harbor, and spoke not just about the Hamas raids, but about other aspects of Gazan politics. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.

The flotilla tragedy has brought international attention to the three-year blockade of Gaza. Overall, do you believe the blockade helps or hurts Hamas?

The aim of Israel and the international community was to weaken Hamas, or squeeze Hamas, and put more pressure on Hamas to moderate its views with regard to Israel. Unfortunately, the blockade benefits Hamas in two ways. First, Hamas was able to become much more popular in the Arab and Muslim world as a result of the siege and blockade. Second, Hamas benefitted a lot from turning the Palestinian economy from a formal economy into a black market economy where Hamas is in control of the smuggling tunnel business between Gaza and Egypt.

Pictures and video have been released of the flotilla activists beating Israeli soldiers, presumably before any shots were fired. How do you think people in Gaza view this controversy?

Well, I have to say that these video shots were not seen by most Gazans because most Gazans watch Al-Jazeera and other Arab networks which do not really show this stuff. But even though it’s very obvious that some of the Israeli commandos were grabbed by the Freedom Flotilla participants, or attacked by them, Palestinians believe that Israel has no right to keep its siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip and has no right to obstruct these ships. They view Israel as a country that sees itself as above the law and that takes the law into its own hands.

It seems likely that more flotillas will try to break though the blockade. If Israel let an aid boat pass in exchange for a Red Cross visit to Gilad Shalit, do you think Hamas could be convinced to accept this offer?

Hamas has already said no. They’ll never let the International Red Cross visit Gilad Shalit because they are convinced that Israel will be able to know where Shalit is being hidden. They think Israel may even bomb the place where Shalit is hidden and kill Shalit along with those who kidnapped him. Hamas thinks the Red Cross visit proposal is a trap. It’s not going to happen.

Do you think the flotilla tragedy will make it more difficult for Hamas to maintain the undeclared ceasefire and obstruct violent actions against Israel?

The Freedom Flotilla incident took place against Turkish citizens and the level of international condemnation is satisfying Palestinian public opinion. It seems to me that Israel is in a diplomatic crisis with countries all over the world, so I don’t think that Palestinians are going to retaliate by launching missiles or using violent resistance against Israel. It seems to me that resistance groups in Gaza know what to do—they know that launching missiles would give Israel a pretext to launch new attacks on the Gaza Strip and shift international focus onto Palestinian violence.

But Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade [the armed wing of Fatah] both launched attacks this week. Islamic Jihad launched missiles into Israel and, as I understand, the armed militants shot in the water off the Gaza coast this morning came from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade….

Islamic Jihad has never stopped firing missiles against Israel. They’ve always vowed to fight against the Israeli occupation. They are not even part of the Palestinian political process. They refuse to even run for elections since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. There is nothing new about Islamic Jihad continuing to fire missiles.

With regard to the other incident with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, they say that they were holding a training course and were not going to fight against Israel. I think the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are just provoking and annoying Hamas. They are saying, “We are still present in the Gaza Strip and we are still fighting the Israeli occupation while Hamas is not fighting.”

Was Hamas popular in Gaza before the flotilla tragedy and how do you think the flotilla tragedy will impact Hamas’s appeal in Gaza?

Hamas’s popularity was declining in Gaza before the Freedom Flotilla incident for a number of reasons….After the Freedom Flotilla incident, Hamas is in a much better condition. Even if their popularity has not improved in Gaza, they are being portrayed in the Arab and Muslim world as the vanguard of Palestinian resistance. Hamas is using the Freedom Flotilla incident to crack down on its opponents.

How does the average person on the Gaza streets regard the proximity talks led by George Mitchell?

To be honest with you, the Palestinian people lost confidence in the peace negotiation process. It’s been going on since the signing of Oslo in 1993. Instead of ending the occupation, Israel expanded its settlements in the West Bank and tried to change the facts on the ground by confiscating more land and deporting the Palestinians from their own territory. Most Palestinians—in the West Bank and Gaza—don’t think that proximity talks will be any more successful in ending the occupation, especially when we are faced with a rightwing government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

The Palestinian community is very polarized. The Palestinians who support Fatah want to give the proximity talks a chance. On the other hand, Hamas and its supporters do not believe at all in these proximity talks. They think it’s a waste of time and that it’s absurd and that nothing good is going to come out of it.

The economy in the West Bank has improved dramatically. There are new high-rise buildings, new coffee shops and restaurants, fewer road blocks and checkpoints. I was there a few weeks ago and was struck by how dramatically it’s changed from even a year ago. How aware are people in Gaza of what’s happening in the West Bank? And how do they view this notion of “economic peace” before “political peace”?

I don’t really know how aware the Palestinian community in Gaza is of what’s happening in the West Bank, but overall the Palestinians know that the West Bank is in much better economic condition that the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians know that Dr. Salaam Fayyad is doing his best to salvage the Palestinian economy and impose law and order in the West Bank.

In one way, Gazans feel sad because they are left out by the Fayyad government, which is not paying attention to the problems of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, they hope that the model of the West Bank will be transferred to the Gaza Strip when it comes to economic improvement. What we know is that Fayyad has been embarking on almost daily projects in the West Bank that, as you mentioned, has improved the infrastructure, created more employment opportunities and improved the daily life of West Bankers.

You said that people know that Salam Fayyad is “doing his best,” but I’ve heard a lot of people here demonize Salam Fayyad.

Sure, pro-Hamas people demonize him and hate him. As I mentioned earlier, this is a very polarized community. Those who support Hamas think that he is an illegal, illegitimate Prime Minister and that the only legitimate Prime Minister is Ismail Haniyeh. Second, even non-Hamas voters are not happy with Fayyad because they believe he went too far with his normalization steps with the Israelis. And, some of the Palestinian community here is upset that he’s not directing more of his efforts towards the Gaza Strip—they like the model that’s being done in the West Bank but they want Salam Fayyad to deal with Gaza’s internal problems.

May I ask you two personal questions?

Yes. Well— it depends!

It seems that most Palestinians who are able to leave Gaza have already left. You have a wife and five children, and you could live a much easier life someplace else. Why do you choose to live in Gaza?

When I came back to the Gaza Strip from graduate school in 1997, the Gaza Strip was portrayed as the Singapore of the Middle East. The economy was booming. Everything seemed to be going well. Peace negotiations seemed to be progressing. Of course, there was a setback when the Palestinian intifada erupted in September of 2000. But this is my home and the situation was ok.

It has declined badly in the past few years, especially since Hamas took over Gaza. It’s something that I think about a lot—not for me, but for my kids. I want them to live a normal life and to get a good education and live in a politically stable country. Even though the situation is very critical as a result of the siege and the occupation, we are still able to manage our lives here. But, if things get much more complicated and unstable, we will have to look into other choices.

If your children had an opportunity to participate in a dialogue program with Israelis, would you allow this?

I wouldn’t have a problem with my kids having dialogues with Israelis, as long as the Israelis who interact with my kids believe in peace, believe in ending the Israeli occupation, and believe in a two-state solution. If they believe in ending the conflict in a peaceful way and respect Palestinians’ right to freedom and self-determination, I welcome dialogue with them.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The World Outside of Gaza

Yesterday, I crisscrossed Gaza in a taxi, scrambling to finish interviews I was conducting for a Global Post article that takes readers on a humanitarian tour of Gaza. As the taxi drove up the coastline alongside an impoverished refugee camp, the driver pointed to a distant smoke tower. “There’s Ashdod," he said. "That’s where the Israelis took the flotilla heroes.” “Really? It looks so close!” I replied stupidly, then got out of the car to take a picture (shown above).

The port of Ashdod, where the first six flotilla ships and now the “Rachel Corrie” are docked, was only a long canoe trip away from where I was standing. This was a jarring reminder of the almost complete lack of interaction between Israeli and Gazan societies. Israel seemed worlds away.

I experienced a similar feeling on the day I came back to Israel from Gaza last month. In the morning, I had been sharing breakfast with friends who've never traveled outside Gaza. In the evening, I was playing volleyball on a gorgeous Tel Aviv beach. Gaza seemed worlds away.

Most Gazans feel profound gratefulness that the world is suddenly paying attention to their suffering. Despite disappointment over the IDF's non-violent seizure of the "Rachel Corrie" ship this morning, excitement and hopefulness are growing, and this sentiment pervaded today's press conference in the Gaza City harbor.

The press conference was attended by about two dozen western journalists from countries including the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, and Denmark. Some journalists from major media networks had flown to Israel and entered Gaza specifically to cover the flotilla story. Large, color banners around the harbor honored the flotilla activists. One banner said, in Arabic and English, “The siege will not continue as long as there are people like you.”

Low-level Hamas officials gave fiery speeches expressing solidarity with the activists and referring to Israel as a “fascist state.” They also extended a special thanks to the Arab and western journalists in attendance and asked them to get out "the truth" about the Palestinian cause. Government officials distributed hundreds of Arabic posters titled "The Honored List: The Names of the Journalists Aboard the Freedom Flotilla." (The photo above shows a group of Gaza City schoolgirls holding these posters.)

An English-speaking, western-educated Hamas advisor named Ahmed Yousef gave non-stop interviews with the media. “As you can see, hundreds of journalists are gathering here,” he said. “It’s a real victory for the Palestinian people. It’s a historic moment….The freedom flotillas will keep coming, and then what will Israel do? Does Israel want to challenge the whole world?”

Yousef (pictured on right) dismissed the significance of Hamas’s raids and closures of six non-governmental organizations in Gaza this week. “The government here is trying to put pressure on Fatah to stop them from doing these things [to Hamas] in the West Bank,” he said. “I believe we shouldn’t be doing these sorts of things, but it’s like a policy of tit-for-tat....I hope the flotilla massacre will help [Hamas and Fatah] to bridge the rift and work hand in hand.”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Is Hamas flying under the media radar?

The “Rachel Corrie” is within 100 miles of Gaza, according to some Twitter reports, and the Gaza Strip seems to be holding its collective breath. Meanwhile, troubling internal events have received little media attention.

On Monday morning, just as Hamas leaders were holding a seaside press conference on the flotilla tragedy, six officials from the Hamas Ministry of the Interior raided the office of Sharek Youth Forum in Rafah, Gaza. Similar raids took place on Monday and Tuesday at five other Gaza NGOs: The Future Builders Society, the South Society for Women’s Health, the Women and Children Society, Palestinian Mini Parliament, and the National Reconciliation Committee.

Sharek volunteer Nida Yasin (pictured on right) was alone in the office and “cooperated silently” as the agents inspected files on the computer, seized a 30-page paper file containing lists of NGOs working in Gaza, and demanded keys to the office. Later that day, Hamas police removed a computer and a printer from the office, replaced the locks, and shut down the office indefinitely.

A Palestinian human rights organization called Al-Mezan issued a statement condemning the raids, “which were carried out without any respect for the law.” Al-Mezan also questioned the curious timing of the raids “amid the outcry against the Israeli crime against the Freedom Flotilla.” Hamas has not yet commented on the matter.

The Hamas raids come in the wake of a May 23 attack on a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) beachfront summer camp facility. Twenty masked gunmen torched tents, vandalized bathrooms, and tied up the security guard. They then stuffed the guard’s pocket with three bullets and a note threatening to kill the UNRWA operations director and two other employees unless they cancelled the summer games. The summer games (pictured above, courtesy of UNRWA) serve over 250,000 Gazan children.

The gunmen were likely connected to an unknown group called The Freedom of the Homeland, which released fliers deriding UNRWA for "teaching schoolgirls fitness, dancing and immorality." Another unknown group called Refugee Rights released fliers saying that the UNRWA Summer Games cost $20 million dollars, teach impudent practices to Palestinian girls, and waste money that should belong to the Palestinian people.

Sharek Youth Forum organizes the beach activities for the UNRWA summer games and helps to interview potential staff members. The day after the attack on the UNRWA facility, Hamas police forbad NGOs, including Sharek, from organizing a protest demonstration, citing security reasons. Recently, the Hamas Interior Ministry announced arrests in connection to the attack, but has not released any names.

Yousef Abu Amra, Sharek’s Southern Area Coordinator, said he had “no idea” why Hamas shut down their Rafah office. (The organization’s four other offices remain open.) The Rafah municipality is currently negotiating with the Interior Ministry on Sharek’s behalf. Abu Amra has demanded that Hamas provide an explanation for its actions.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gaza-bound 'Rachel Corrie' stirs renewed hope



First, a quick roundup of the flotilla-related news from Gaza: Mass political demonstrations, candlelight ceremonies, and mourning tents have proliferated across Gaza over the past three days. At the same time, tensions are mounting on the borders—rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel and retaliatory strikes killed three Islamic Jihad militants. The Israeli military also reported that it killed two would-be terrorists who crossed the border from Gaza. Egypt opened the border for humanitarian aid into Gaza as well as the travel of Palestinian patients, students, and foreign passport holders. Hamas has refused to accept the humanitarian aid from the flotilla ships until all detained activists are released and Israel agrees to deliver the aid in full.

The most hope-inspiring news on the Gazan streets, however, is that another boat (pictured on right) is currently on route to Gaza and may attempt to break through the blockade this weekend despite the recent tragedy. The boat bears the namesake of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American activist killed by a 64-ton Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while attempting to defend a Palestinian home from demolition. Corrie was a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), one of the groups that helped to organize the flotilla. (The video at the start of this blog post shows an interview with Rachel Corrie two days before she died.)

The vast majority of Palestinians and some left-wing westerners regard Rachel Corrie as a heroic activist. Others cast her as a na├»ve idealist or a reckless zealot. University of Haifa professor Steve Plaut has likened Corrie to a Nazi sympathizer—a view shared by many right-wing Israelis. A play based on Corrie’s vivid diaries has been performed across the world, sparking both acclaim and boycott. The 2009 documentary film “Rachel” was featured at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival but introduced by a pro-Israel activist who chastised the film’s one-sidedness and “demonization” of Israel.

At the time Corrie lived in Gaza in 2003, neighborhoods along the Egyptian border were often razed by the military on suspicions that they hosted entrances to smuggling tunnels. In the same year, 26 Palestinian suicide bombers murdered Israeli civilians and about 1500 crude, unguided rockets—many of them smuggled through tunnels—were fired into Israel, according to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Anees Mansour (pictured on the right at the site of Corrie’s death, which is now overrun by smuggling tunnels) is among thousands of Gazans who check the news constantly these days, seeking updates on the progress of the “Rachel Corrie.” Mansour was a friend of Corrie’s and also carried British activist Tom Hurndall to a clinic after he was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper. Mansour says the foreign activists inspired his community work (two months ago he co-organized Gaza's first ever demonstration against child labor in the smuggling tunnels), and he admires their courage for leaving comfortable, privileged lives to help Palestinians living in a constant danger. However, he wonders why the media “only cares when internationals are killed.”

Like the flotilla tragedy, Corrie’s death in March of 2003 was the subject of international media attention and scrutiny. The Israeli military's investigation was closely monitored by an unrelenting American family with strong diplomatic support—yet has been chastised by some American political leaders for its lack of thoroughness and transparency.

On Wednesday, the Corrie family sent an email to supporters asking for help in ensuring the safe passage of the “Rachel Corrie.” They also emphasized their grave concerns over the pending Israeli military investigation of the violence and loss of life aboard the Mavi Marmara. “Our family's own experience has made it all too painfully clear that the Israeli military is unable or unwilling to adequately investigate itself,” the email said.

In March, before coming to Gaza, I attended the Corrie family’s wrongful death trial in an Israeli civil court. The trial is currently in recess until September. The Corrie family has conceded the possibility that their daughter’s death was an accident. However, testimonies given at the trial suggested an Israeli military investigation weighted to clear the army of culpability. (I’ve pitched articles on this topic to various media outlets, and will update my blog soon.)

The Corrie family’s civil court case—and now the flotilla tragedy—come in the wake of fiery debates over the controversial UN Goldstone Report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes during last year’s Gaza hostilities. The Israeli government has rebuked the report’s call for both Hamas and Israel to form independent investigative bodies. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi have instead pushed for a judicial panel to evaluate IDF investigations.

Barak told reporters earlier this year, "All of the soldiers and officers whom we sent to battle need to know that the State of Israel stands behind them even on the day after.”

Monday, May 31, 2010

Gazans unite against flotilla 'massacre'


I woke up this morning to the sound of a blaring loud speaker, presumably from a mosque, alerting people that Israeli troops had “committed a massacre” aboard the flotilla. Various media outlets are reporting that at least nine activists (and possibly more) were killed when Israeli commandos boarded the largest boat and shot them. The Israeli Defense Forces said that the activists seized their guns and wielded clubs, knives, and molotov cocktails (crude grenades).

I hurried down to the harbor, got permission to enter from the police, and attended a Hamas-organized media conference. Many top Hamas leaders, including a female Hamas parliamentarian named Huda Naim, stood on stage alongside Khalid Al-Batsh, a leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In speech after speech, they slammed Israel’s actions as an act of “state terrorism” and called on the international community to defend the activists and stop the siege. Palestinian flags, as well as flags of diverse countries, including Great Britain but not including Israel or the United States, were posted around the harbor. While Gazans commonly refer to Israelis as “the Jews,” none of the speakers at the press conference condemned “Jews” or “Israelis.” Instead, every speaker used the Arabic word “sahyooni,” which means Zionist.

In interviews I conducted earlier this week, leaders from Fatah and PFLP, a leftist minority party, said that they had been excluded from the Hamas-led efforts to organize the flotilla welcoming celebrations. No one from PFLP spoke at the press conference, but Ashraf Juma'a, a Fatah leader, gave a speech condemning Israel and expressing solidarity with the activists after Hamas officials had left the stage.

Following the press conference, a group of at least 400 PFLP demonstrators (pictured above) converged on the harbor carrying pictures of loved ones currently imprisoned by Israel. Shortly thereafter, thousands more demonstrators from diverse community organizations, universities and political factions—including Fatah— arrived. They chanted slogans condemning the “massacre” as well as slogans calling for Palestinian unity against the Israeli occupation and siege.

Many of the International Solidarity Movement activists living in Gaza gave interviews with the press, including Bianca Zimmit, an activist from Malta who was shot in her thigh by Israeli troops during a demonstration against the buffer zone last month. Here’s the link to a previous blog post I wrote about this incident and here’s the link to a blog post I wrote about a Palestinian demonstrator who was killed the week after Zimmit was shot.

“I’m surprised that Israel would go this far with internationals,” Zimmit said (pictured on right). “The reality is that they are doing this sort of thing every day with Palestinians—farmers and fishermen are killed every day....I don’t know why [Israeli citizens] would oppose these ships. Because they don’t understand what’s happening? Because they don’t understand the daily reality of the siege? The siege hurts the people, not the [Hamas] government. The poor people are bearing the brunt and are the hardest hit.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The activist 'flotilla'...and a reignited debate about Gaza’s humanitarian tragedies

The Hamas government is carefully preparing for the possible arrival of a flotilla of 700 western activists seeking to break through the Israeli naval blockade, and Fatah leaders say they are being excluded from the organization efforts. Here’s the link to the article I wrote about this topic for the Jerusalem Post. I also wrote an article for the Palestine Note about the reaction of different Gazan political leaders to the possibility that Israeli activists are onboard the boats.

The flotilla story has ignited a fierce debate, particularly within Israel, about the extent to which Gaza is suffering a humanitarian tragedy. Articles about the elaborate menu offerings at a high-end Gaza City restaurant called the Roots Club widely circulated in the Israeli media this week. Today, I visited the Roots Club for the first time. It was nearly empty (except for five patrons, including me) at 7 p.m. on a weekend night and has not turned a profit in four years, according to co-owner Wael Al Shorafa (pictured above). “I believe we have the best food in Gaza—better than Ramallah and Israel—but we don’t have customers,” he said. “You can see that we have no customers. Most of the people who have money aren't [in Gaza] anymore. We pay our workers pocket money.”

Gaza’s economy has been devastated by two intifadas against the Israeli occupation, by the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah, by last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, and by the continued Israeli blockade. I’ve met no one who is starving here (most Gazans receive staple foods from UNRWA) and many items forbidden under the blockade—including cement— come into Gaza through the tunnels.

Most Gazan families cannot afford the smuggled luxury items, nor can they afford a meal at the Roots Club. While the specific numbers are disputed, the unemployment rate is astronomical. Those who do work usually share their income with their extended families. Many, including children, have resorted to dangerous, back-breaking work ferrying goods through the tunnels or collecting rubble from destroyed, unstable buildings. Among the highest paying jobs are those with the alphabet soup of NGOs and development organizations currently operating in Gaza.

There is a housing crisis in Gaza. Everywhere I go, I meet people whose homes have been destroyed by Israel and not rebuilt. Some moved in with relatives and live in cramped quarters. Others rent apartments that they can barely afford. And many, including the three sisters pictured above, live in partially destroyed houses. And it should go without saying that there is a crisis of psychological trauma in Gaza, particularly following last year's war.

However, a minority in Gaza—including me—do live in comfortable apartments and dine in Gaza City's coffee shops. My one-bedroom apartment came with a fully furnished living room and bedroom, a satellite television, wireless internet, electricity, and a hot water tank. It had not been rented in over a year when I moved in, I signed no extended contract, and I pay only $300 per month. Since the power goes out in my building (and across Gaza) for at least eight hours per day, I’ve purchased an electric generator that gives me electricity whenever I need it. Most Gazans cannot afford these generators and have structured their lives around the electricity schedule. Some Gazan children have died when faulty electric generators smuggled from Egypt overheated and exploded.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A white American woman traveling with a Gaza-stamped passport


Apologies to anyone who checked this blog recently and found no new posts! I’ve been in the U.S. for the past two weeks, I arrived in Israel on Friday, and I’m looking to reenter Gaza on Sunday. An article of mine about humanitarian travel through the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels just published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine. Also, from now on, I'll plug all of my new articles and blog posts on Twitter (username: ashleybates) and on Facebook (email address: ashleybates@comcast.net).

Traveling with a Gaza stamp on my passport has given me a fractional taste of the intense security scrutiny that Palestinians undergo as they travel through Israel. When one Gazan friend of mine crossed the border into Israel last year, he watched an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) video offering a ransom for Gilad Shalit as well as a video highlighting Hamas’s alleged crimes against its own people. This friend was then interviewed by a high ranking officer who attempted to recruit him as a spy. He endured hours of questioning and was stripped down to his underwear before finally being allowed to pass. The whole process took more than five hours.

My experience coming out of Gaza was a breeze in comparison. I got into a line designated for non-Palestinian foreigners, gave all my bags to security screeners, walked through a full body x-ray scanning machine, then sat in a waiting room where the contents of my bags were delivered in large plastic trays. I reassembled my suitcase, answered a few questions about what I’d been doing in Gaza, and was free to go. The whole process took less than an hour.

Two days later, I underwent a much more strenuous security check at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, where my Gaza stamp earned me a “level six” security ranking—the highest possible threat level. For about 30 minutes, three soldiers dissected every item in my bags, using chemical swabs to check for bomb residues. A serious, resolute young lady brought me to a private room where I submitted to a slow, massage-like pat down that took about a minute. This search of my body included a thorough rummaging of my hair, which left me looking like an electrocuted clown. The soldier then matter-of-factly told me to take off my shirt, and I complied. “Where in Israel are you from?” I asked, seeking to lighten the mood. “Why do you want to know that?” she replied nervously.

After this soldier escorted me silently to the gate terminal (a courtesy that prevented me from passing through the standard security checkpoint after I’d already completed a rigorous private screening), I thought that the security questioning was over. However, I had a flight connection in Turkey, where transit passengers apparently undergo additional interviews. The Turkish security guy immediately noticed the “level six” sticker on the outside of my passport, grinned, and raised his eyebrows. “How are you a level six?” he said. “May I ask—Are you Arab American?”



While I was in Chicago, I learned that left-wing author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky (see video above) had planned to give a speech at a West Bank university, but was turned away when he attempted to cross the border into Israel from Jordan. He was presumably denied entry because the Israeli government objects to his political views. Chomsky’s experience fueled my concerns that I could be denied entry for a myriad of possible reasons, such as overusing my tourist visa status or spending a suspicious amount of time in the Palestinian Territories—and Gaza in particular.

My fears did not come to pass. Yesterday I met for less than five minutes with a courteous security supervisor at Ben Gurion Airport who seemed moved by my work with Hands of Peace, a Chicago-based dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. She almost apologetically explained that she would keep my Gaza-stamped passport while I retrieved my bags. “We will need to search your bags and put them through an x-ray machine,” she said. “But, don’t worry, it won’t take too long.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An 'anti-siege' protest against Hamas taxation?


About 2000 people, most of them from three left-wing minority parties, marched on Saturday in what was said to be a ‘May Day’ demonstration promoting workers’ rights and protesting the poverty and rampant unemployment caused by the Israeli-imposed blockade.

However, many demonstrators came for an additional reason: to protest sundried new Hamas taxes and fees. Suppliers of gas and other basic commodities are raising their prices as a result of new taxes. For example, the price of a pack of cigarettes, most of which are smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, was raised by 2 to 3 shekels to cover a 3 shekel (80 cent) tax on suppliers. Small businesses, including falafel stands, are now forced to pay new license fees of varying amounts.

Earlier this week, Hamas security forces detained Palestinian political activists overnight for distributing leaflets urging Hamas to ease up on the people or face a popular revolt. Communist party (PFLP) official Jamil Mezher told Reuters, "People are under huge pressure but they are also afraid to express themselves and we took the responsibility to voice their concerns."

Another leftist political party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), urged peaceful protests against Hamas taxes. They said in a statement, "The DFLP condemns the increase of taxes and fees ... which have led to an unprecedented rise in prices amid deteriorating economic and social conditions….We call for popular action and peace protests to stop these measures."

Hamas has not permitted activists to organize a demonstration against the new taxes and fees. DFLP official Talal Abu Zarifa (pictured on right) emphasized in interviews that the Saturday demonstration was directed against Israel. “It’s the time for Israel to stop the siege,” he said. “The continuation of the siege means that the Gaza Strip will turn into a disaster zone, suffering from poverty, hunger and unemployment.”

When I asked Mr. Zarifa if the demonstration was also intended to protest the new taxes, he replied, “The other voice of this demonstration is against the taxes Hamas government is putting on the Palestinian people in the time of a worsening humanitarian situation. This is not acceptable. We ask Hamas to stop this directly—now—so that we can have a suitable life with freedom and dignity for our people.”

The demonstration very nearly turned violent when protesters defied the instructions of Mr. Zarifa and other organizers and broke through a police blockade. The crowd proceeded an additional half-kilometer before organizers finally convinced them to stop at the Hamas border checkpoint. If the massive group of protesters had marched another kilometer to the border, they almost certainly would have been met with live Israeli gunfire.

Demonstration participant Majda Kadeh (pictured on right) was one of many who attempted to proceed to the border. “I am angry because I wasn’t able to finish the demonstration,” she said, her voice vibrating with rage after police blocked her path. “We are sitting without work, without income, without houses….We must go forward so [the Israelis] can hear us! I want all the world to see us! All of the people you’re seeing here are workers without work!”

Two days before the demonstration, I asked Jamila Al Shanti, a parliamentarian and top Hamas leader, about popular criticism that Hamas was imposing taxes on an already desperate and impoverished population. Ms. Shanti said that taxes were “carefully studied” and that taxes are imposed by all governments around the world. She also said that while Hamas is under "brutal siege" by Israel, its financial situation “is not as bad as people think.” Hamas has “other ways” of getting funds, she said. However, Hamas has been unable to pay salaries on time for the past three months, and economic analysts widely claim that Hamas is facing a major financial crisis.

Just as the Saturday demonstration in the north of Gaza nearly got out of control, Egyptian authorities in the south of Gaza declared a state of emergency based on intelligence that a mass of protesters planned to break through the border. Many people in Rafah blame Egypt for the suspicious deaths of four Palestinians in a smuggling tunnel on Thursday. The Hamas government said Egyptian police sprayed poisonous gas into the tunnel. Egypt denies this charge.

Meanwhile, the Free Gaza flotilla of boats filled with hundreds of international activists are slated to set sail at the end of this month. Based on Israel’s violent, lethal suppression of the anti-buffer zone demonstrators and the failure of the Gaza Freedom March to enter Gaza through Egypt this past January, many analysts are doubtful that the boats will make it through the Israeli blockade. This could further fuel desperation, anger and hopelessness among activists and further contribute to rising tensions across Gaza.