Friday, April 30, 2010

‘I'm against September 11th but I support suicide bombings in Israel'

I recently interviewed Jamila Al-Shanti, a member of the Palestinian parliament and the highest ranking woman in the Hamas government. Women’s rights under Hamas rule was the subject of the interview, and my article about this topic will likely publish in Global Post. After the interview, Ms. Shanti allowed me to ask her some questions about the current political situation and about her views on what constitutes terrorism.

Ms. Shanti has experienced and witnessed unimaginable horrors. Israel attempted to assassinate her in a 2006 bomb strike that instead killed her sister-in-law and two of Ms. Shanti's bodyguards. Her uncle died in an Israeli bombing. And she's lost countless friends in Israeli military actions, including an incident in which she says soldiers opened fire on unarmed women. In a 2006 editorial for the Guardian, Ms. Shanti wrote, "The sight of my close friends Ibtissam Yusuf Abu Nada and Rajaa Ouda taking their last breaths, bathed in blood, will live with me forever."

In the past, Ms. Shanti has met some Israeli activists and journalists who she liked and respected. However, she says these Israelis were not Zionist and “acknowledged that Israel had stolen Palestinian land and massacred Palestinians.”

When I asked if the Gilad Shalit cartoon video was intended as a threat, Ms. Shanti looked as if I'd punched her in the gut. She seemed genuinely perplexed that the video was not well-received in western countries. "The whole world is grieving for Shalit," she said sadly, "But they are not grieving for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners. You can find two or three detainees from every [extended] family in Gaza. We consider Shalit as our chance to make a deal....This cartoon movie is a message to the world to create some momentum, to put pressure on Israel to keep the issue of Shalit negotiations alive."

The interview took place in a sparse parliament office. Ms. Shanti generally spoke in a calm, measured voice and smiled kindly during moments of potential tension. She often motioned for me drink my tea and joked that I was too busy taking notes and needed to relax. She emphasized that she liked American people but condemned the American government “which is controlled by the Zionist lobby.” At one point, Ms. Shanti asked me if I was married. When I told her that I was not, she commented affectionately, “You’re young. There’s still hope.” (Ms. Shanti herself never married, contrary to some false internet reports that she's the wife of an assassinated Hamas leader.)

Even when pressed, Ms. Shanti expressed little sympathy for Israeli suffering and contended that Palestinians have a right to defend themselves by any means. What follows is an excerpt of my sobering exchange with Ms. Shanti on the question of why she supports suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. The only edits I’ve made are marked with “…” and are for the purpose of eliminating redundant statements.

Did you support the September 11th attacks?

No, we are against the September 11th attacks. These were innocent people practicing their daily work. There were even Palestinians and Arabs killed....Hamas is against this. I’m not interested in going to America and killing people there. Why? These people are practicing their normal lives. It’s none of my business. But if you ask me: what’s your opinion on killing Americans in Iraq, I will say yes. That’s a different story.

Many people in America think that the September 11th attacks are similar to the suicide bombings in Israeli buses and coffee shops. They both kill civilians, like innocent women and children.

It’s different. How is it the same? The suicide bombings kill people who kill me….These women in the coffee shops also came to my land and came to fight me. Women in Israel are soldiers as well. The owners of the cafés built their cafés on my land and the attendants of the cafés come to fight me.

What about the children [who are killed]?

The children are killed by mistake. The children are not targets, but they die in the incidents.

A couple of years ago, there was a shooting inside a school in Jerusalem…

Hamas has never done an attack in a school. This is not allowed. In schools? This is forbidden. It’s not Hamas that did this. If this happened, we are not the ones that did this.

Some people say that the Palestinians might have succeeded if they used only non-violent ways, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

We are not the ones who do the violence. [The Israelis] are on my land. They killed us. They killed even the newborn babies in the mother’s hands. They are monsters. They planted fear in the hearts of people and came with the mentality of slaughtering. Don’t think about the innocence of the Israelis—we know them. Under every house inside Palestine, you will find the bones of people who’ve been killed by Israel.

The picture of Israel as a democratic state is not true. We know this. The whole world does not know the crimes of Israel. Or they know it and they try not to focus on it. That’s why I want to say that our rights are not diminished by time. Haifa, Yaffa, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, all of those must come back to us….[Our land] will not come back by giving flowers to the Israelis, but by jihad.

Do you support a two-state solution?

No. I will never allow two states. No way. This is my land. They should go away. But we have another tactical approach that we would accept a state on 1967 borders with the capital of Jerusalem for a temporary period until the whole issue has been solved. The Israelis should know that I cannot recognize a state for them. The next generations will come to fight and kill them. I, Jamila Al Shanti, I’m not from Gaza. I’m from a village in Majda [Ashkelon]. My land is there. How can I give it to them? I want to return to my village.

Some people say that you should make a two-state solution for the sake of peace, for the sake of the children’s futures. What would you say to these people?

We believe that Israel does not want peace and will not give us a state as we want. We have been in the peace process for 20 years and the settlements increased and the assaults on our land increased. Therefore, peace does not work with them and I will never live with them in peace.

Some people might reply that Israel left Gaza and abandoned the settlements in Gaza.

Israel didn’t leave Gaza. Every day they kill people. Every day their snipers are on the borders and kill people. Their tanks still enter. Their airplanes are still in the sky. Israel didn’t leave Gaza. We are in danger day and night.

You said earlier that you liked and worried about the Israeli journalists who used to work in Gaza. Some people say that the Jewish people would not be safe if they lived in a state of Palestine.

In the history of the Jews, it’s never been reported that something happened to them under an Islamic government.…If there was a state and they were citizens of this state, they would be protected, like Jews living in Egypt, or Yemen, or Algeria.

Some people say that the Arabs are the majority in many countries. But the Jewish people have no country except Israel.

How can I answer that? That’s not my problem. This is not their right. America is a big country. Give them some of your land....If you [the Americans] are so sad about them, you should give them a state. Even if the Jews want to live in Palestine, we will not have a problem with that. If they want to take the Palestinian nationality, we have no problem with that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Growing Instability in Gaza

While most civilians I meet in Gaza remain focused on their family lives and daily struggles, tensions are rising between disparate political factions. At the same time, the non-violent protesters in the buffer zones have suffered their first fatality—Israeli troops shot a protester named Ahmad Salem Deeb in his femoral artery on Wednesday and he died of blood loss in the hospital. (See the picture above, from Ma’an News.) Mr. Deeb and a handful of others had reportedly separated from the larger group and thrown stones at Israeli troops.

Despite this tragedy, demonstrators once again marched into the buffer zone on Thursday in Khan Younis; no one was killed, but an ISM activist told me that Israeli troops shot a live bullet through the banner held by the protesters. Based on my observations and conversations, these protests are primarily attracting members of the Communist party (PFLP) and Fateh, the more moderate political party that controls the West Bank.

Meanwhile, internal Palestinian tensions seem to be mounting. On an almost daily basis, random taxi drivers who I meet for the first time volunteer their dislike or disappointment in the Hamas government, which many used to view as a party that represented change and an end to corruption. Many civilians are angry about new taxes, including a 3 shekel (80 cents) tax on cigarettes and new license fees for small businesses such as falafel stands. Others are angry about repressive measures taken against members of Fateh. This includes the seizing of IDs of Fateh leaders seeking to travel through Israel for meetings in the West Bank.

Hamas leaders insist that Fateh members enjoy relative freedom in Gaza and that their allegedly minor actions against Fateh leaders have been in response to Fateh’s allegedly brutal repression of Hamas members in the West Bank. Hamas leaders also say that they are attempting to ensure internal security. Over the past months, Hamas has honored and enforced its ceasefire with Israel and has jailed members of more radical groups like the Salafis and Islamic Jihad.

Some Palestinian analysts suspect that popular demonstrations against Hamas could soon erupt in Gaza. Earlier this week, the minority Communist party (PFLP) distributed leaflets calling for an uprising against the new taxes, which they say impose unfair burdens on an already impoverished population. PFLP leaders say they are attempting to organize a Friday demonstration against the taxes, but Hamas will likely prevent this from happening.

On top of all these problems, the Hamas-Fateh “reconciliation talks” in Egypt aimed at planning a new national election seem to have stalled indefinitely, as have the prisoner swap negotiations between Hamas and Israel. A few months ago, Gilad Shalit, the 23-year-old Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, was reportedly set to be exchanged for as many as 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but the negotiations broke down. Hamas’s military wing released a controversial cartoon video this week (see below) that many westerners interpreted as a direct threat to kill Shalit. However, top Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the video did not reflect the position of the Hamas movement, which would not kill a captive soldier because this is “against Islam.”

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gaza's Jon Stewart

“You want jokes?” quipped Muhammed Masaod, 49, as I interviewed him about his hobby of making people laugh. “Jokes are forbidden under the Israeli siege, but they still sneak in through the tunnels.”

Over the next two and a half hours, I asked Mr. Masaod general questions about his comedic talents and about the political situation. The dead pan, sarcastic answers from this self-taught Gazan musician and comedian with only an 8th grade education left me convulsing with laughter. Since I’m seeking to publish a profile article about Mr. Masaod, I won’t write all of the details on my blog, but here’s a sparse preview…

Mr. Masaod is a father of 12 who used to play the guitar and violin in a music band for a Palestinian television channel in Ramallah. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, he “gets paid by [the Fateh government in Ramallah] for sleeping in [his] home.” He and his family reside in the refugee camp of Deir Bala in a home with a leaky roof, which doesn’t bother him at all. “It allows me to be a maestro inside my home,” he explained. “When it rains, I gather all the plates in the kitchen. Every raindrop has a tune. I get my violin and my guitar and my whole family plays along. I’m the rain composer.”

To pass the time during his unemployed employment, Mr. Masaod has collected 520 jokes and riddles from across Gaza and transcribed them into a notebook. “Usually, people bring me jokes and I put some decorations on them,” he said. “The most important thing in the art of joking is delivery. The jokes need direction and producing.” Mr. Masoud has only 481 more new jokes to collect before he attempts to publish a book entitled “1001 Jokes.” (This is a reference to the famous Persian fable called 1001 Nights.)

When I asked Mr. Masoud for his general thoughts on the current situation in Gaza, he replied, “I especially love it when people die. It makes me feel very relaxed. I only get sad and angry when the eldest people die. They are the heritage of our community and ought to be preserved.”

Mr. Masaod also brilliantly deflected my questions about hostilities between Fateh and Hamas. “This is political territory,” he replied. “Repeat after me: Hummus! Beans! My answer is that our life is hummus and beans!...I have friends in Hamas and friends in Fateh, so if I go outside my house, I will be a hypocrite. It’s better for me to sit here talking with you.”

In reality, Mr. Masaod often ventures outside his home and invariably attracts a crowd of joking-seeking fans from all political backgrounds, “which unfortunately makes [him] very late to appointments.” His local stardom earned him a role in a few episodes of the French-German television series, “Gaza-Sderot.” The show features stories of daily life and survival in both Gaza and Sderot, an Israeli city regularly hit by rockets from Gaza. In one of a dozen or so rare moments of seriousness, Mr. Masaod told me that the people of Sderot “are suffering like we are suffering.”

Mr. Masaod has long dreamed of studying music and comedy outside of Gaza, but he’s never been able to afford the opportunity, and no music schools or theatres exist in Gaza. However, he says Gaza doesn’t really need a theatre because “our lives are one big comedy play. The only problem is that the director of the play is dragging his feet. Tell me, why won’t this director finish his production?”

In one episode for the “Israel-Sderot” television program, Mr. Masoud made an unflattering joke about Hamas, but the government has respected his right to free speech. He recalled, “Hamas said, ‘We are democratic. You can say whatever you want.’ They might blame me, but I have a good relationship with them. I like to tell political jokes, but in an indirect, twisting way….I won’t be shamed by anyone. Because I’m a joker, everyone knows about me, so they can take it in a comical way.”

Our interview ended on a serious note. “I deal with people as patients—as people who are sick, but are good and kind people,” he said. “They want to laugh. They need to laugh….What the Israeli government doesn’t understand is that this is a country full of psychological problems. The sign at Erez [border crossing] shouldn’t say ‘Welcome to Gaza.’ It should say ‘Mental Health Hospital.’ I think we should all walk around like infirmed people so that Israel will be more sympathetic with us.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bitter Post-Civil War Hostilities Between Fateh and Hamas

Most of the people I've interviewed thus far have been communist party or Fateh party members (although I recently arranged interviews with two high-ranking Hamas officials) and most of my research has focused on humanitarian issues seemingly unrelated to Palestinian internal conflicts. However, the enmity and distrust between some Fateh and Hamas members has frequently colored my interactions and taken my research in surprising directions.

For example, I've been working on an article about Gazans unable to get medical treatment abroad because they are waiting for Israeli security clearance. Ehab Al-Afifi, an employee at the Fateh-controlled Ministry of Health, joined my interview with the health minister and volunteered that it “wasn't just Israel that prevented people from receiving treatment.” Hamas, he said, also barred sick people from leaving Gaza. He claimed that Hamas security recently forbad a nine-year-old relative of his named Maysa Al-Afifi from getting eye surgery in Egypt because her father was a former Fateh intelligence officer.

Believing I’d stumbled upon an explosive and heartbreaking story, I raced down to Rafah to visit this adorable girl (pictured on the right) and discovered that Mr. Al-Afifi had exaggerated. Maysa requires cosmetic eye surgery and could have cleared Hamas security if she crossed the border with her mother, aunt, or grandfather— but not her father, who demanded to travel with her. After mediation from human rights organizations, Hamas recently gave Maryam and her father permission to enter Egypt. The two plan to travel to Egypt as soon as the Gaza-Egypt border reopens.

I encountered another unexpected flashpoint of Hamas-Fateh hostilities as I researched an article about Israel's policy of deporting West Bank residents who hold Gaza-issued IDs. Two days ago, I interviewed Ahmed Sabah (pictured on the right), a former Fateh soldier convicted of throwing grenades and planting bombs against Israeli troops. After serving nine years in an Israeli prison, Mr. Sabah was released last week.

Mr. Sabah's feeling of “happiness like no other happiness” changed to “deep sadness” when he learned that, instead of sending him to reside with his wife and son in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, Israel would send him to Gaza, where he has no immediate relatives. (Mr. Sabah's father is deceased, and his mother, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins are refugees in Jordan.) While his Palestinian ID was issued when he entered Gaza as a soldier in 1994, his place of residence had always been the West Bank. For the past week, Mr. Sabah has spent the daylight hours under a canopy tent next to the Hamas border checkpoint in an effort to draw media attention to his situation. He and his family in the West Bank have been widely interviewed on Arab television networks.

I expected that the issue of forced deportations would encourage unity between Hamas and Fateh, but disputes had apparently erupted over the location and precise purpose of Mr. Sabah's protest tent. Jamal Abaid, a Fateh leader in northern Gaza who has been repeatedly jailed by Hamas, told me that the Fateh party had originally requested to erect a much larger tent for Mr. Sabah in the Jabalia refugee camp. Mr. Abaid argued that the tent in Jabalia would have made it easy for Palestinians from all political parties to welcome Mr. Sabah to Gaza and protest his deportation. The request was rejected by the Hamas government, which has banned political party demonstrations for alleged security reasons.

Hamas instead allowed Mr. Sabah and his Fateh comrades to pitch their tent next to the Hamas border checkpoint, which is far away from a city center. Some posters beside the tent condemned Israeli deportations, but others contained slogans and pictures promoting Fateh. Still other posters promoted the communist party (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). But not a single poster promoted Hamas.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Unarmed Female Protester is Lucky to be Alive

I’ve already blogged extensively about the proliferating, Bil’in-inspired demonstrations against the expansion of the buffer zone from 300 meters to 800 meters. This expansion has meant the further destruction of homes and farmland in border regions across Gaza. In light of today’s news, I’m writing yet another blog post on this topic, as it seems only a matter of time before one of the protesters gets killed.

This morning, Israeli troops shot a female 22-year-old protester in the lower abdomen. Hind Al-Akra (pictured above with her aunt) was participating in a demonstration near the Maghassi refugee camp that included about 150 people. Saber Zaaneen, the organizer of the Local Initiative Against the Buffer Zone, leads most of the demonstrations, which now occur five days per week in different locations around Gaza. However, Mr. Zaaneen was not present at this particular demonstration. He called me upon hearing the news of the shootings, and I then jumped in a taxi to Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Bala.

I visited Hind in a sparse hospital room where almost a dozen female relatives had gathered by her bedside. Luckily, the bullet did not hit any organs or cause any internal bleeding. Her doctors described her condition as “stable.” I didn’t ask Hind any questions, but she volunteered in a dazed state of mind that “Israeli troops just open fired on the crowd.”

Doctor Taysir Mummar said that Hind will undergo surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel from the muscle in her abdomen. (The picture on the right shows Dr. Mummar pointing to the shrapnel in the xray.) He emphasized that Hind was shot by “a type of bullet that explodes on impact” and is therefore “more deadly” than ordinary bullets.

At the same hospital, I briefly met the two other demonstrators who were shot today: a 28-year-old ISM activist from Malta named Bianca Zimmit and an 18-year-old Palestinian boy named Nidal Al Naji (pictured below). Both Bianca and Nidal were shot in the muscles of their thighs, do not have any broken bones, and have been released from the hospital.

An IDF official told Army Radio this afternoon that troops had first fired into the air and then fired toward the lower part of people’s bodies after protesters refused to disperse. The IDF has long contended that allowing Palestinians to enter the buffer zone endangers Israeli soldiers because militants sometimes use the area to plant explosives for ambushes on Israeli troops.

Protest leader Saber Zaaneen has grown increasingly concerned about demonstrators’ safety. Three others were shot in their legs last week. At a Tuesday demonstration that I observed near Beit Lahia, Mr. Zaaneen instructed activists to plant their Palestinian flags about 300 meters from the border instead of proceeding any closer. Israeli troops then fired warning shots that did not hit anyone. The video below, which documentary filmmaker Maurice Jacobsen and I produced for New Matilda, tells the story of this earlier demonstration.

Saber Zaaneen: Leader of Gaza's Non-Violent Protests from Maurice Jacobsen in Gaza on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'The details are usually more important than the general idea'

It’s been a busy week of networking and chasing after three different stories, which I'll write more about later. I’ve collaborated with a 66-year-old American documentary filmmaker named Maurice Jacobsen on one story about the non-violent protest movement, a subject that I blogged about two weeks ago. The combined video and print piece just published in New Matilda.

I’ve also met with Palestinian reporters who understand the complicated social and political issues in Gaza far better than foreigners like me. One of these journalists, 25-year-old Hamza Buhaisi (pictured on the right), has written about 40 Arabic investigative articles for Elaph and Al-Watan during his three years of work as a freelancer. He’s also co-produced three videos, including a 25-minute English language documentary called “To Be” that chronicles the work of Gaza's foreign activists. The film ends with the dramatic story of an 18-year-old Palestinian who was killed by Israeli border patrol in April of 2009 while trying to escape from Gaza. After the man’s body was left to rot for 54 days and the International Red Cross declined to retrieve it, foreign and Palestinian activists dodged Israeli gunfire to find the corpse.

In addition to his courageous coverage of the Gaza War and his many articles on the devastating ripple effects of the continued Israeli blockade, Hamza has reported on sensitive internal Palestinian issues. In one article, Hamza investigated a vague Hamas press release claiming that a man had been "martyred" in "resistance operations" far away from the Israeli border. Hamza discovered that the man had in fact died while digging a secret tunnel that collapsed on top of him. The tunnel, which was subsequently destroyed, was intended to go from one home to another. Some Fateh members suspected that Hamas planned to use the tunnel for escapes and surprise attacks in the event of another civil war. The Hamas government claimed the tunnel was being dug in preparation for another Israeli invasion.

Hamza’s articles often raise questions about Hamas policies and military actions, and on some occasions the de-facto government has demanded to see the articles before they print. However, Hamas has not censured the content of Hamza's articles or blocked their publication. Hamza insists that he doesn’t practice journalism to propel a political agenda, but rather to "defend and protect people in an indirect way" by exposing the truth. “I started working in investigative journalism after the [2007] civil war, not before,” he said. “So the government I’m investigating is Hamas. How can I do reports about Fateh? They are in the West Bank now. I won’t do articles by phone. I need to see things with my own eyes.”

Two new Arabic articles from Hamza are currently in the works. The first concerns the story of an alleged Palestinian couple currently imprisoned in Gaza. Rumor has it that the man and woman were jailed as punishment for their suspected adulterous relationship and / or to protect the woman from “honor killers” in her own family. The second article explores the backgrounds and ideologies of young men recently recruited by the Salafis, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group whose members have been killed and repressed by Hamas security. The Salafis reject Hamas’s decision to temporarily stop firing crude rockets into Israeli cities and condemn Hamas for not imposing Islamic Sharia law.

At his family home in the city of Deir Bala, Hamza recently hosted me and six Palestinian journalists for a delicious meal and a lively philosophical discussion (see picture). Hamza is spearheading an effort to organize events and raise funds for the new Gaza chapter of a Morocco-based young journalists' association, which he hopes will help empower and train Gazan freelancers. He criticizes major news networks that produce “general stories but don’t focus on the details. And the details are usually more important than the general idea.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Gaza's Grassroots Human Rights 'Hoots'

My article about Gaza's first ever demonstration against child labor in the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels published Friday morning. Please follow this link to my article, as I won't re-report the story on my blog.

Youth center volunteer Anees Mansour prepared banners and placards for Thursday's demonstration and helped corral the energetic youngsters. Anees recently taught me a new Arabic expression. A hoot, which literally translates as “whale,” is a person who rises above obstacles to make stuff happen. I’ve met many hoots during my few weeks in Gaza.

One such hoot, demonstration co-organizer Eman Abu Quta, works as a social worker at a health clinic that treats the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among children and adults in Gaza. Two weeks ago, I attended one of the educational workshops that Eman leads for Rafah women (see picture above). “What is the meaning of trauma?” Eman asked at the start of the workshop. The women then shared horrific stories from the war as they brainstormed their surface level symptoms: startling easily, panicking at the sound of an ambulance or airplane, enduring frequent nightmares and flashbacks, and feeling generally empty, depressed and hopeless. “Everyone in Gaza needs trauma therapy, including me,” Eman said afterwards.

Twenty-four-year-old hoot Ahmed Hammad (see picture on right) sparked the ideas for the rubble workers story and the sewage story last week and tirelessly helped me arrange interviews. Ahmed conducts needs assessments for a French NGO that provides food and medical support to dispossessed Palestinian families, some of whom are residing in tents. He lives in Beit Hanoun, a border town of about 33,000 people where Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants have launched thousands of crude, unguided rockets towards the Israeli city of Sderot four miles away. Israeli bulldozers have indiscriminately razed Beit Hanoun’s once-prosperous farms to prevent militants from hiding among tall crops. The Israeli military has killed many innocents in Beit Hanoun; civilians often become collateral damage in bomb strikes or get wrongly targeted on suspicion of being rocket launchers.

Three of these civilian victims were Ahmed’s close friends. On Feb. 28, 2008, Ahmed walked out towards an abandoned farm hut to hang out and smoke water pipes with Muhammad Hassanain, Ibrahim Abu Jarrad, and Muhammad al-Zaniin. Moments later, he watched in horror as an Israeli missile strike tore his friends’ bodies to shreds. Ahmed suffers many of the same symptoms as the women at Eman’s trauma workshops, including a phobia of wide, open places that were once his emotional refuge. “I feel really ashamed sometimes for being sad, for needing help,” he said. “I feel sometimes that I’m really finished, but I still have some power inside me for life. All of my hopes now are about going to the United States to study journalism, and then coming back and helping my people.”

Despite the horrors he’s witnessed, Ahmed remains committed to non-violence and Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. He fondly recalls his experience ten years ago at Seeds of Peace, a dialogue camp based in Maine. In 2005, when his local imam condemned participation in Seeds of Peace as “collaboration and normalization with the enemy,” Ahmed held his ground. He told community members he felt proud to have educated Israelis and Americans about Palestinian suffering and that some Israeli participants had refused to serve in the army. “Everyone in Beit Hanoun knows I did Seeds of Peace,” he said. “I don’t feel in danger [to tell people] because I believe in myself….I will keep saying for my whole life that if I didn’t have this experience at Seeds of Peace, I wouldn’t be the person who you’re seeing now. It was my first window to the outside world and taught me how to listen, talk, be a leader and a representative for my homeland.”

On my way back from the demonstration in Rafah yesterday, I met more hoots when I visited the Al Dameer Center for Human Rights seeking statistics on those killed or injured in tunnel accidents. Inadvertently, my arrival around 3 p.m. interrupted an emergency meeting of five major human rights NGOs in Gaza. Typically, these NGOs document human rights tragedies suffered as a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or Israeli military strikes, but Hamas had just carried out its first two formal executions since seizing control of Gaza in 2007. “Hamas is creating much more work for us,” Al Dameer General Director Khaleel Abu Shammala said as he exited the meeting to speak with me.

On the Wednesday night before, Hamas officials had called the families of two suspected Israeli collaborators and ominously advised them to visit their sons in prison. Shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday morning, one of Al Dameer’s field workers, 30-year-old Ali Shaqqura, had received a frantic phone call from one of the family members. Hamas had just informed the family of their son’s pre-dawn execution by firing squad and instructed them to come to a Gaza City hospital at 9 a.m. to view the body. Mr. Shaqqura notified his superiors, then hurried to the hospital. “The police took my bag, pushed me and talked to me in a very harsh and brutal way,” Mr. Shaqqura said, taking deep breaths as he spoke. “But this is my duty and I must do it. I briefly talked with the families, and then the police forced me to leave the hospital.”

The emergency meeting of hoots from five human rights groups Thursday afternoon yielded a carefully worded joint statement condemning the two executions. "It is inhumane and humiliating and cannot achieve any rehabilitation,” the statement said, “and there is no chance for those punished to regain a place in the community.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thank You Blogosphere!

As a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, my professors often emphasized the power of online social networking. The message didn’t really register until now.

On Tuesday, I sent out an email to friends and family updating them on my experiences in Gaza and expressing frustrations about the difficulties of getting published as a freelancer, particularly when stories are time-sensitive. Twice now, I’ve covered breaking news stories (the journalistic background of the bombed cheese factory owner, the connection between electric blackouts and sewage tsunamis) and not been able to find a publisher before the news got stale. I’ve also needed to connect with a broader network of news agencies, so that I’m not putting all my eggs in a few baskets.

The Ashley fan club received my email, took pity and started promoting my blog on their blogs. An especially generous and helpful endorsement came from Rabbi Brant Rosen. Somehow, word got around to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who plugged me on Twitter and Facebook. On Wednesday morning, I woke up to encouraging emails from random readers and three editors at alternative news sites. I sent a thank you email to Mr. Kristof, who immediately replied, “More power to you!” All day, I couldn’t wipe the goofy grin off my face. I hope that my continued work on this blog will honor Mr. Kristof’s support, and I appreciate the feedback and questions from everyone who’s taken an interest.

One of the emails I received Wednesday morning came from an editor at an Australian news analysis site called New Matilda inviting me to submit articles. Today I attended Rafah’s first ever demonstration against child labor in the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels and wrote an article for New Matilda about the issue. This article will likely publish on Friday or Saturday. Meanwhile, my article about the Hamas fees imposed on the rubble workers has published in Global Post and Huffington Post. So thank you blogosphere, and thank you especially to Mr. Kristof!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Gazan Economic Analyst Who Openly Criticizes Hamas

Global Post is considering running an article from me about the new Hamas fees imposed on Gazan rubble workers, a subject that I blogged about last week. To get a deeper understanding of the larger story, I met with leaders at the Hamas Ministry of Economics, who said that the fees were reasonable and consistent with their longstanding policy of charging people for taking stones and metals from destroyed buildings. I also met with Omar Shaban, a prominent Gazan economic analyst who said that Hamas was facing a “financial crisis” and imposing new fees in various sectors of the economy in an effort to support its “bloated bureaucracy.”

When I went searching for a Gazan economic analyst, no less than four journalists had advised me to meet with Mr. Shaban, who holds an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues and speaks in a refreshingly blunt and unguarded manner. As I waited to meet with Mr. Shaban, one of his assistants (a young man in his mid-20s whose name, “Jihad,” does not at all reflect his political views) compared the exodus of well-educated Palestinians out of Gaza to the exodus of Cubans who opposed Fidel Castro. “You can’t even check the internet in Cuba without government censorship,” he said. “That’s where Gaza is headed.” Jihad told me that he desperately wanted to study in the United States, but was recently rejected in his application for a visa. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Shaban arrived. “Jihad is not married,” he joked.

As it happens, Mr. Shaban worked as a teenager in the textile and clothing factories at the Erez Industrial Zone. (The factories were demolished and abandoned as part of Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement, and the Hamas fees imposed on the rubble scavenging industry at Erez are the subject of my article.) Shaban shook his head as he recalled how Erez used to be “a vibrant area, with restaurants and cafes. It was a place where Israelis and Palestinians made a partnership.”

After Mr. Shaban shared his views on the new Hamas fees at Erez, he and I spoke informally about his personal background and the general situation in Gaza. Mr. Shaban worked for the United Nations and for international development agencies, then founded PalThink in 2007. His “think and do” tank receives most of its funding from Swiss organizations and produces independent reports on the political and economic situation in Gaza.

When I told Mr. Shaban of my plans to meet with a youth debate group called “Wake Up,” Mr. Shaban smiled sadly. “Gaza underneath is very dynamic,” he said. “There are thousands of these sorts of youth initiatives. The youth of Gaza are very stubborn. They feel that they have to do something, which poses a real threat for Hamas. [The youth] deserve much better than this.” He also commented that he thinks current Israeli and American policy of refusing to negotiate with Hamas “is only fueling the extremists.”

Mr. Shaban and his wife have two sons ages 17 and 12, both of whom have lived all their lives in Gaza. They’ve endured the trauma of the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah and last year’s Gaza War, which claimed the lives of about 1400 Gazans and 13 Israelis. Five years ago, Mr. Shaban brought his son Nour, who was seven at the time, on business trip to Israel. Before this experience, Nour had never seen an Israeli soldier up close. At the Erez border crossing into Israel, the seven-year-old innocently tried to touch a female soldier. When asked why he did this, he replied, “I wanted to see if she was human or not.” Later that day, the boy joined his father for a meeting with an Israeli journalist. “How can he be Israeli?” Nour asked. “Where’s his gun?”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Growing Risk for a Repeat Sewage Tsunami

Most of the Gaza Strip went without electricity for 16 hours today as fuel shortages and alleged internal Palestinian political disputes caused Gaza’s only electric company to shut down completely. If the fuel and electric crisis is not resolved soon, it could spark wide-ranging humanitarian problems across Gaza. One site of particular concern is the Al-Masheya village of 10,000 people, located a quarter mile downhill from the Beit Lahiya Waste Water Treatment Plant (pictured above).

Typically, the sewage water at this plant remains in cement-reinforced "lagoons." However, the plant's 18-foot-deep emergency sand pits are now filling with raw sewage for the first time in almost two years as a result of the electric and fuel shortages. They could easily collapse if they reach capacity.

Three years ago, the collapse of a now-abandoned cesspool at this same plant unleashed an 8 million-gallon sewage tsunami that killed three women and two toddlers in the adjacent village of Al-Nasser. Following the tragedy, the Palestinian Water Authority installed new infrastructure that made it possible to quickly pump large quantities of the plant’s treated sewage to filtration facilities in other parts of Gaza. This negated the need for the dangerous cesspools, which were dismantled or reserved for only emergency overflow.

For the past week, an average of 2 million gallons of sewage water per day has poured from the plant’s cement-reinforced sewage treatment lagoons into two of the three overflow cesspools. As a result of yesterday’s electric blackout, 3.5 million gallons of untreated sewage was redirected to the cesspools in a single day, according to plant operators. Water levels appear to be about three feet high in some places. The third and largest cesspool, which contained more than 660 million gallons of treated sewage before it was drained in August of 2009, remains empty.

Farid Ashour, a sewage management executive, seemed thrilled to have a journalist interested in this subject. He met me within an hour of my inquiry and gave me a tour of the facility to make sure I fully understood the situation. (The picture on the right shows Mr. Ashoud standing beside the second cesspool that is beginning to fill with water. Behind him is the village of Al-Masheya.)

As I covered my nose and tried not to inhale too much sewage-filled air, Mr. Ashour pointed to the third cesspool. “In two or three months, I could once again have [14 feet] high of sewage here,” he said. “If we return to this situation, it will be a catastrophe for the Al-Masheya village. This will be worse than the previous situation, because this is raw sewage.”

Multiple related factors have contributed to this looming crisis. First, the machines that treat the sewage cannot operate without electricity. Moreover, the sewage cannot be pumped to final filtration facilities in other parts of Gaza unless it has reached a certain “quality” level—a process that takes many hours. Without electricity, the water treatment lagoons sit idle and fill to capacity, forcing operators to redirect some sewage into the overflow cesspools. Once the sewage water enters these cesspools, it is difficult and costly to remove.

While the plant contains backup electric generators, these often break and require spare parts that are difficult to import under the Israeli blockade. Additionally, the generators cannot operate without fuel. Under their contract with the Palestinian Authority and the World Bank, plant operators are not permitted to purchase widely available black market fuel that is smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt.

“[Our contract] is to buy the fuel from the Israeli side,” Ashour explained. “For the last two months, the Israeli side did not allow our fuel to enter Gaza. Once they allow the fuel to enter Gaza, the problem immediately will be solved.” Ashour also mentioned an “easily solvable internal Palestinian issue” that has affected fuel contracts between the World Bank and the local Palestinian authorities.

Meanwhile, the putrid odors emitted from the treatment lagoons are a telling sign that sewage water is not being properly cleaned. On April 10, the odors reached the entrance to the Balsam Hospital, located one half mile uphill from the treatment plant in the opposite direction from Al-Masheya village.

A groundskeeper with the unenviable job of monitoring the sewage plant’s operations and watching out for wayward children, explained matter-of-factly, “When there is electricity, the smell is not bad. When there is no electricity, the smell starts spreading.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Desperate Option of Tunnel Traveling for Medical Treatment

I met today with a soft-spoken village man named Abu Ala’a (see picture) who is suffering from a serious but treatable spinal condition which is causing him to slowly loose sensations in his limbs. He walks with a limp and can barely feel his left leg. His condition has reached a critical point, and if does not get emergency surgery within the month, he could suffer permanent paralysis, according to his doctor. The Gazan health ministry has requested permission from the Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian authorities to have him treated abroad, because doctors in Gaza do not have the skills and equipment necessary for the delicate and dangerous operation.

Abu Ala’a wanted me to print his story in an Israeli newspaper because he hoped Israeli civilians might read my article and press the Israeli government to grant him a medical visa. He’s also considering one final, desperate option. “If there’s no other way, I’ll go through the tunnels,” he said, looking at the ground. “I know it’s dangerous, but not more dangerous than the danger of being disabled for the rest of my life.”

The man’s doctor, a neurosurgeon named Basil Baker, said that while “God only knows when it’ll be too late,” he was hopeful that Abu Ala’a would get permission to have medical treatment in Israel. “Some get medical visas in a month and some take longer,” he said. “Some go to the border and get turned away. If Abu Ala’a’s relatives have been involved in clashes with the Israelis, he might have to pay the bill or not get through at all.”

This story reminded me of a mother and father I met in Rafah ten days ago who had faced a similarly heart-wrenching dilemma. Their seven-year-old son Yousef had burst through the door one day with blood gushing from his left eye. A playmate had lobbed a small rock, which struck Yousef directly in his pupil. A doctor at a local clinic stopped the bleeding, but claimed there was nothing more he could do. Yousef’s father was unconvinced and said he “wanted to give hope to [his] son to [be able] to see. The equipment, doctors and treatments are better in Egypt.”

Only two days after the injury occurred in the fall of 2009, Yousef’s mother carried him under the Egyptian border through a 4-foot-wide tunnel owned by a family friend. Her husband encouraged her to go, figuring that women and children are less likely to be jailed by the Egyptian police. She reasoned that permits to get medical treatment in Israel or Egypt were difficult to obtain and there wasn’t time to try. Yousef’s mother told me she “wasn’t thinking about the fear or the danger” as she crawled through the tunnels because she was “only thinking about [her] son,” who cried the entire 15-minute trek through the tunnel.

While most tunnel owners charge about $2000 to smuggle a person in one direction, Yousef and his mom traveled for free. They managed to evade the Egyptian police, but doctors at the Egyptian hospital could not cure him. The giggly seven-year-old still roughhouses with his friends, but sees only from his right eye.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Leader of Gaza's New Wave of Bil'in-Inspired Demonstrations

In August of last year, I observed the weekly protest in Bi’lin, a West Bank village where the security fence under construction by Israel separates farmers from their land. As they had every Friday for more than three years, Palestinians, left-wing Israelis and international activists marched towards the fence. Kids at the front of the group threw stones at the Israeli tanks, who replied with tear gas, skunk canons and rubber bullets. It was a sobering and unpleasant experience, but I never feared for my life.

Bil’in is one of the few places in the Palestinian territories where protesters have won victories in the Israeli courts. In September of 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court decided that the wall created “undue hardship” in Bil’in and must be rerouted. The IDF began carrying out the court’s demands last month, but declared Bil’in a “closed military zone” and forbad internationals from entering Bil’in on Fridays.

Today I observed a Bil’in-inspired demonstration the buffer zone near Beit Lahiya—but instead of skunk canons and tear gas, Israeli troops immediately fired live ammunition to disperse the 100 or so Palestinians and ISM activists. No one was injured and the gunfire was aimed at the ground, but it was a terrifying experience. Protests like this have happened every week for the past two months and are attracting a growing number of participants from across Gaza.

I shared lunch with the organizer of the protests, Saber Al-Zaaneen, his wife and three young children. Mr. Zaaneen, a self-declared “left-winger” chose a gigantic picture of Che Guevara as the central decoration in his living room. (Most Gazans chose a picture of Yasser Arafat or Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic founder of Hamas.) He said he admired Guevara for “starting an international revolution against oppression.”

As we sat down, Mr. Zaaneen extended his hand. “You are Israeli. I am Palestinian,” he began. “No,” I interrupted, a bit startled and confused. “I am not Israeli. I am American.” He smiled kindly. “This is just an example. I want to have you in my house to drink tea. I want us both to say to our governments that we can live together in peace.”

After this awkward introduction, Mr. Zaaneen shared some of his life history. He studied sociology at the Islamic University of Gaza, has never traveled outside Gaza, and was a Fateh police officer before Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. He has hosted Israeli journalist Amira Hass in his home and corresponds with left-wing Israeli parliamentarians. Mr. Zaaneen is among about 100,000 former Fateh police officers who still receive their salaries from the Fateh government in Ramallah, even though he cannot work as a police officer under Hamas rule.

In July of 2008, Apache helicopters dropped fliers (see picture) warning Palestinians that they were not permitted to go within 300 meters of the border. Mr. Zaaneen knew that Israeli soldiers had shot at people and destroyed farms and houses within one kilometer of the border. Feeling that Israel would continue encroaching unless Palestinians resisted, he began organizing non-violent direct actions in the buffer zones, such as accompanying farmers as they tended their fields and searching for bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops and left to rot.

During and after the Gaza War, Mr. Zaaneen dropped his plans for larger-scale demonstrations. However, he was inspired by developments in Bil’in. “I wanted to experiment with that strategy in Gaza,” he said. “The strength of these demonstrations is that they attract international activists and journalists to see what’s really happening.”

On January 9 of this year, a new flier arrived from the Apache helicopters telling Palestinians not to go within 800 meters of the border. This reenergized Mr. Zaaneen because he “wanted to send a message to Israel that this is Palestinian land and the farmers are not leaving. They bring money only from working the soil.” He visited universities and community organizations, and ultimately rallied a broad base of support. The transportation expenses and equipment are funded by private individuals; he receives no money from Fateh or Hamas.

People of all political stripes are welcome at his demonstrations, which now occur five days per week at border areas across Gaza. He calls his organization the Local Initiative Against the Buffer Zone. Every demonstrator must not bring weapons and must commit to non-violence. “I don't resist because I want to die,” he said. “I resist because I want freedom, land, education, opportunities, no occupation. This is the message of our movement. We want the whole world to know why the Palestinian people resist.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Siege-Driven Scavenging Industry Under Heavy Hamas Taxation

Yesterday, I visited the ruins of Israeli factories that once comprised the “Erez Industrial Zone.” These factories near the border once employed 4,000 Palestinians but were destroyed and abandoned as part of Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement plan. On this sweltering hot afternoon, about 200 Palestinians—many of them school-age boys— collected rocks and metal used in construction projects across Gaza. A month ago, more than a thousand Gazans were scavenging here, but business has declined partially as a result of taxes enforced by Hamas last month.

Fifteen-year-old rubble worker Mokhlis Al-Masri from Ashley Bates on Vimeo.

Here’s how it works: any Gazan willing to do backbreaking work within close range of Israeli snipers is welcome at Erez. Most bring a donkey, a cart, some tools, and plastic buckets. From 6 a.m. until 4 p.m., workers crawls through the underground skeletons of crumbling, unstable buildings seeking certain types of stones. If they get too close to the Israeli border, Israeli snipers fire warning shots in their direction and / or target their animals. During my three hours at Erez, I heard multiple gunshots, I saw a dead goat with a bullet wound, and I met two workers who said their donkeys were recently shot. One of these workers, 15-year-old Mokhlis Al-Masri, was working near the border a few weeks ago when Israeli troops raided the area and captured some of his friends, who are now in Israeli prisons.

In the late afternoon, Mokhlis and hundreds of others bring their buckets of rocks to an open area where middlemen and traders, including representatives from Gazan construction companies, come to purchases the rocks by the ton. The traders then transport the rocks in gigantic trucks to various locations across Gaza. Families and small businesses that can afford the expense use the rocks to make walls, roofs, patios, bricks and tiles.

While cement and other construction supplies banned under the Israeli blockade are smuggled into Gaza through tunnels (which, like Erez, have attracted desperate workers from across Gaza), rocks are generally too heavy and cumbersome to bring through the tunnels. Since the end of last year’s war, Gazans denied the supplies they need have scavenged metal and stone from destroyed buildings and used them to construct new homes. However, the Erez site is unusual in that, over a period of only six months since construction companies began seeking its rocks, it has quickly attracted thousands of workers.

In response, cash-strapped Hamas sealed off the area last month and declared it a “closed economic zone” subject to government taxation. The only way to enter is by foot or via dirt roads controlled by Hamas, although some have used donkey paths to evade taxation of 30 shekels (about $8) per ton of rocks. Most workers collect about one ton per day and are paid 70-90 shekels per ton. One trader told me, “The government is living off the blood of the people. This area had a good income for a huge number of workers who did not have jobs. Now we have almost no profits.”

Business has also declined recently on rumors that the United Nations might begin constructing homes across Gaza. These rumors started two weeks ago after UNRWA received permission from the Israeli government to build 150 new homes in Khan Younis. This pilot project relies on construction materials from outside Gaza, and is contingent on Hamas not receiving any supplies or financial benefit. However, UNRWA has declared no plans for widespread home constructions. Middlemen believe the rumor was most likely started by major construction companies seeking to drive down the price of stones at Erez.

If rocks and metals are ever allowed into Gaza, it would mean a loss of income for the workers at Erez, but it would be great news for the wider population. Gazan construction companies are buying second-rate stones and metals from Erez and from destroyed buildings across Gaza because they can’t get anything else. The same supplies from abroad would be cheaper and better quality, would not risk the lives of Gazan children, and would facilitate Gaza’s desperately needed reconstruction.

Friday, April 2, 2010

An uncanny role reversal for the owner of the bombed cheese factory

Last night, Israeli bombs struck 13 sites across Gaza. One of the sites, a cheese factory in Gaza City, was already swarming with reporters by the time I arrived around 10am. It was impossible to imagine what this factory looked like yesterday—only contorted metal, heaps of rubble and buckets of rotting cheese remained.

Most people I talked to in Gaza were surprised that the bombings had not come sooner. The bombings were in retaliation for recent Qassam rockets attacks and for the killing of two Israeli soldiers in Khan Younis last Friday. Israel alleges that the factory stored or manufactured weapons, while the factory owner claims it was used only to make cheese and yoghurt. I saw no signs of any weapons, but there's no way to know. The same factory had been rebuilt after Israel destroyed it during last year’s Gaza War.

Most of the journalists at the scene were video journalists from Arab news networks, and we all wanted to interview factory owner Motasem Dalloul. When it was my turn, Mr. Dalloul and I sat down in the shade away from the crowd. I was struck by his calm, almost jovial, demeanor as he described his "very nightmarish" experience. Neighbors and relatives approached frequently to say “thank God for your safety.” He looked at me intently and said “this is our life” many times during our 30 minute conversation.

Mr. Dalloul’s family was sleeping in their home adjacent to the factory and awoke to the boom of the explosion. Shards of rock and metal broke through his windows, but did not injure his wife or seven screaming children. Mr. Dalloul shared the whole story in English. As I asked him more about his background, I was surprised to learn that he is a widely-published freelance journalist for Al-Jazeera English, Ramattan News Agency and Islam Online. In an uncanny role reversal, his personal story was now making headlines.

Mr. Dalloul started making cheese by hand at age 17 in one of many stores owned by his father. At the same time, he earned a degree in English Literature from the Islamic University of Gaza. As his small business flourished, he hired 12 full-time employees and purchased automatic equipment. In 2006, his brothers took over supervision of the factory’s daily operations as he pursued a journalism career. “I felt that journalism can help the Palestinian cause,” he said, “but our cause has been taken by foreign journalists who are biased because their governments support the Israeli occupation.”

Over the last four years, Mr. Dalloul has published more than fifty English-language news articles on diverse topics, including: Gaza’s electric shortage, war trauma suffered by children, the plight of Palestinians seeking medical treatment abroad and the effects of raw sewage dumped into the Mediterranean Sea. Recently, he began teaching an Advanced Media Writing course at the Islamic University of Gaza.

Last fall, Mr. Dalloul received a student visa from the British government to complete an international journalism master’s degree at Westminster University. However, because the Gaza-Egypt border was closed, he couldn’t leave until January—more than three months after the program had started. On January 3 of this year, he flew from Cairo to London, where he was detained by immigration authorities at Heathrow Airport.

This first experience outside Gaza ended in disaster. “[The immigration authorities] told me that I won’t be able to enter the U.K. because I was too late,” he said. “I told them that I wasn’t the reason for being late. I was surprised that they didn’t know anything about the siege and about Gaza. The feeling that made me decide to study journalism was supported when I realized that these highly educated people don’t know anything about our cause.”

British authorities did not permit Mr. Dalloul to contact people he knew in the U.K., including the university admissions director who later “expressed his sad feelings about what happened.” Upon his return to Egypt, he was imprisoned for one week by the Egyptian police before the Gaza-Egypt border finally opened. He was accepted for this year’s journalism program at Westminster and is beginning the visa application process once again.

Mr. Dalloul insists that he has no allegiance to Fatah or Hamas, does not provide support to any armed groups and has never been arrested or charged with any crime. “My view about this conflict is that the Israelis must leave Palestine but I haven’t decided what means should be used to make them leave—peaceful ways or military resistance or going to the international community,” he said.