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:

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.