Associated Press on Gaza, exposed but unbowed

This post first appeared on openDemocracy

Once again, another controversial report by the Associated Press raises questions about western media coverage, particularly that of AP, whenever the issue under discussion has to do with domestic circumstances in the Gaza Strip under the control of the Hamas government. Though most previous reports addressing the general situation of a shrinking Christian minority in Gaza have been called into question for the way they were shown to be either prejudiced or unsubstantiated, this time the story entitled “Gaza Christians protest ‘forcible conversions’” has been factually discredited by outside sources and later confirmed by none other than the AP reporter who wrote the story.

His story is about a silent protest staged by the Christian minority in Gaza against the ‘forced conversion’, or so it is claimed, of two Christians from Gaza, a 25-year Ramez Al-Amash and a 31-year Hiba Abu Dawoud, who escaped after conversion taking her three daughters along with her. The report quotes the converts’ family members attending the protest several times throughout, communicating their feelings of extreme anger and frustration, which rather sensationally sets the background. These quotes are all taken at face value by the reporter without any effort to verify their credibility. The report allows for little if any room for well-evidenced factual statements about the general situation of Christians in Gaza.

For his part, Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada co-founder, thoroughly refutes any claims of ‘force conversions’ made by the converts’ families as adopted in the AP report. Abunimah provides evidence arrived at by an investigation conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights that repudiates any of the above claims. He further highlights the several inaccuracies and ellipses of the report, in addition to the emotive language it employs, which he describes as faulty and unprofessional. Abunimah explains the particular damage such allegations have already inflicted on the image of not only the Hamas government (which might be the main purpose of the report as Abunimah’s introduction explicitly states) but also the entire Muslim population of the Gaza Strip. The fact that the story is deeply flawed needs no more demonstration than the clarification of the AP reporter who wrote the story, Diaa Hadid, who afterwards tweeted that the two converts have not actually been coerced into conversion as incorrectly, to put it mildly, claimed by their families, but rather that they were converted of their own free will and “sought protection with Hamas authorities fearing community retribution.”

The Christian minority in Gaza has been the subject of multiple reports in recent years – and each time the timing of the report by western media outlets seems calculated. Two of the most recent examples of this reporting on the current domestic state of affairs in Gaza might help us to understand how this prejudiced coverage works.

The first was an AP feature story published in August 2011 which purported to highlight the widening gap between a rising middle class in the Gaza Strip and the majority of the population. I wrote a rebuttal of this ill-timed piece at the time which seemed primarily designed to deflect attention from what was unfolding on the ground, that month having witnessed one of Israel’s deadliest offensives against the Palestinians in Gaza. In addition to subtly questioning the fact that a humanitarian crisis had engulfed the Gaza Strip and its 1.7-million population, the story did not account for the alleged rise of this middle class except by simplistically relating it to the attitudes of the Hamas government and the “corruption” of some of its “loyalists.” There is no reference whatsoever to the root causes of the problem represented in Israel’s (indirect?) occupation of the Gaza Strip and its five-year hermetic blockade.

The second example is a feature story, this time in the Guardian, the subject of which was the Christian community in Gaza as they readied themselves to celebrate Christmas “long[ing] for the days before Hamas cancelled Christmas,” or so the title of the story proclaimed. On this occasion, I juxtaposed the piece to a contemporaneous feature in Al Akhbar English on Christians’ preparations for Christmas in Gaza. Phoebe Greenwood of the Guardian opens her story with the unsubstantiated claim that there have been no Christmas celebrations in Gaza since Hamas’ ascension to power in June 2006. Addressing the general situation of Christians in Gaza and the several problems they have to face extremely vaguely, the reader automatically blames the government as the source of this trouble, thanks to the hint about the government’s restrictive policies at the beginning of the story. Ruqayya Izzidien of Al Akhbar English however quotes various interviewees leaving little doubt that the blame should be placed squarely on the Israeli occupation and its oppressive policies against the Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike. This is in addition to the completely distorted image which the reporter draws of the Muslims-Christians relationship where Christians appear to be constant targets of the government’s policies as well as of Muslim fundamentalists.

Now as the most recent AP report on this issue has been proven false, and in response to Abunimah’s demand that the AP apologize for the damage it has caused to the image of the government and the people in Gaza, the AP Jerusalem bureau refuses to apologize. It stands by its false report insisting that “[the] story does not contain errors, grave or otherwise, and there will be no correction. We are attempting a follow up story on this complex issue.”

The general prejudice of mainstream western media in their coverage of the occupied territories and particularly that of the domestic situation in the Gaza Strip, is hard to shift. Nearly all coverage of the situation of Gaza’s Christians is distorted by rigid, Orientalist perceptions, not only of what an Islamist government looks like and how it behaves, but also of how intolerant, oppressive and highly conservative, a Muslim society like that of Gaza must be.

Ramy Abu Jilda, a Christian from Gaza, interviewed for the Al Akhbar English piece referred to above, had this to say about the western media’s coverage of Gaza. “All my friends are Muslims. I don’t care if my friends are Christian or not. My Muslim friends here in Gaza also wish me Merry Christmas and come to visit me at Christmas. So what the media says about Arabs and intolerance isn’t true.”

I saw Ramallah protest

Originally published on openDemocracy

News from Ramallah which has plunged me into cynicism repeatedly over the years has transformed my mood into one of unqualified optimism for the first time. Over the past few days, Ramallah has restored my faith in the untiring free spirit of the people of Palestine. It has given me hope. Ramallah, by its own initiative, may have finally secured its place in Palestinian history as something that is, for the first time, not notoriously PA-dependant but rather astoundingly and heroically PA-opposed.

“They’ve occupied your land; don’t let them occupy your minds,” one friend advised me after listening to me speak so despairingly about the current situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. I knew this was a precious piece of advice since one of the reasons I have always thought the status quo looked so unprepossessing is the level of manipulation and ‘mind-control’ deemed necessary not just by the Israeli occupiers but by the various political agencies across the political landscape in Palestine, particularly the Palestinian Authority (PA) which, until very recently, has had quite a sure hold over the minds of Palestinian people, particularly the youth, continuously and falsely feeding them a crudely self-contradictory narrative of an independent Palestinian state soon to be realised in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank while at the same time firmly holding onto the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, all this of course being conditional, we were told, on keeping the faith with our wise and experienced leadership.

Various incentives were deployed in order to keep the Palestinians in check, primarily the vision of economic prosperity, security (possibly the most incomprehensible word for a Palestinian) and development, all fulfilled through the building of the infrastructure of a future Palestinian state. What comes under the ‘infrastructure’ heading can, for the sake of simplicity, be understood as, on the one hand, security-related, though for the word security to have any meaning in this context it has to be attached to Israel, i.e. it has to be understood solely as Israel’s security, and translates as the sudden delivery of the collaborationist, western-backed PA’s Dayton-well-trained security apparatus (including police, intelligence and even riot-control forces), sufficiently equipped and excellently trained to deal with any stability-threatening situations as well as individuals or organisations who might be seen as posing a threat to Israel’s security — hence the large numbers of political prisoners inside PA prisons. On the other hand, there is the non-security-related infrastructure, i.e. infrastructure which is designed for the benefit of, not necessarily in the interest of, Palestinians in the occupied territories, and somehow this is bizarrely reduced and is in reality seen only in reference to the building of restaurants (including one KFC), cafes, hotels, streets (preposterously named after Russian presidents and to their embarrassment!), hospitals, sometimes schools and so on and so forth. All of this is meant to mirror the level of progress and, it is counterfactually claimed, independence, which Palestinians have come to achieve thanks to the commendable efforts of the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, fear, intimidation, and detention are used as a part of a strategy to stifle any criticism and silence whoever dares openly question the supposed wisdom of the PA’s leadership, let alone take action against it.

Israel on the other hand has dreadfully stepped up its policy of colonial expansion as it continues unabatedly to occupy more Palestinian land and build more settlements (or more precisely colonies), forcing Palestinians out of their homes only to demolish them; the scenes of women and elderly people humiliated at checkpoints which have patently dotted the geographic scene in the West Bank has become an everyday reality, schoolchildren are constantly stopped, searched and kicked by helmeted Israeli soldiers during the day and traumatized by the same soldiers storming their way into their homes in the middle of the night and pointing their guns at them while in bed; arbitrary arrests have increased; the separation wall, and most significantly the graffiti and drawings all over it encapsulate several actual levels of misery, extreme vulnerability and despondent incapacity on the part of Palestinian people living under military occupation.

Gaza, meanwhile, has become, not only as is often mentioned, the largest open-air prison on earth, but more accurately described as the largest twenty-first-century concentration camp, where a population of over one million and a half, mostly poverty-stricken people, totally dependent on humanitarian aid and relief agencies for their daily subsistence, is sealed off from the rest of the world, its youth unemployed, its children uncared for running bare-foot down the streets, drinking extremely contaminated water from pipes lying across the camp’s narrow alleyways, and callously subjected to up-to-10 hour daily power cuts while thousands of power generators are regularly enlisted as a power alternative, resulting in several unfortunate deaths and an extremely unnerving clamour damaging to normal mental functioning, in addition to uncontainable pollution, prices skyrocketing, freedom of movement and crossing the Rafah border having become out of the question, while Israeli unmanned drones buzz ceaselessly above in the sky and rarely does a day go by without a series of targeted shelling or assassinations…

Over the past few months, there have been a few incidents which commentators from within the Palestinian spectrum thought might constitute the spark that would finally bestir the Palestinians into their long-awaited third Palestinian intifada. Dozens of analyses with different theses have regularly appeared in several newspapers and online publications all coming to the same pleasant conclusion of the impending collapse of the western-backed Palestinian Authority and the increasing prospects for a third Palestinian intifada which has now become closer than it has ever been. We read, cheered, circulated the post, awfully cursed the PA at the top of our lungs, and sat in anticipation. That one opportunity never came good, or in fact it has arisen quite a few times, every time more intensely and with more force than the time before, but nothing happened. Things continued to simmer beneath the surface, and the spark seemed too weak to rouse the Palestinians into any form of collective action that might shake off their infinite apathy.

As around 2000 Palestinian prisoners embarked on a mass hunger strike inside Israeli jails, a state of anticipation reigned amongst Palestinians, and it was said time and again that this would be the last straw that broke the camel’s back and that it is about time Palestinians joined the Arab awakening and took action— most likely in the form of, mass mobilization, large-scale demonstrations, and civil disobedience against not only the Israeli occupation but also the PA as the power enabling and facilitating this occupation through their despicable silence and shameless collaboration with the Israeli authorities.

Behind the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes, some commented, was a message very much indicative of their lack of faith in the power of the masses on the ground as prisoners took things into their own hands and won the battle all by themselves – this tone was even largely present in several of the letters written by many of them in which they appeared to be desperately pleading with their people to take action for them…

I became dangerously cynical and hopeless, and lost the pride once deeply-rooted in me as a Palestinian brought up with the heroic images, scenes, anecdotes, and music of the first and second Palestinian intifadas as the point when the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation had reached its heights. I lost that pride. For a moment, I felt ashamed of myself being a Palestinian, completely powerless and apathetic in the face of this oppression. “Where are the Palestinians,” gnashing my teeth, I asked myself time and again.

I was recently discussing the situation in the West Bank with a Palestinian from Ramallah who is currently conducting PhD research at the LSE . Although we both were down-spirited at the end of the discussion, having left one another with a bleak image of the status quo, he still thought change is somehow looming and the status quo is no longer sustainable. “Don’t despair, and keep up the hard work!” he cheered me up before we departed company.

Only a few days later on July 1, protests took place in Ramallah against a scheduled meeting between PA president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli vice prime minister Shaul Mofaz. Although there has been a growing level of discontent amongst the Palestinians, none would have expected a protest of this kind to take place in Ramallah. That by itself is a huge achievement for everyone who is full of rage at the current situation. One has to acknowledge though the folly of the PA president’s decision to meet with an Israeli official as notorious as Mofaz. This created a situation in which Palestinians from various political backgrounds and affiliations united — only at the very early stages and before it was officially postponed — in staging protests against the meeting.

The brutal crackdown by PA security and intelligence forces has proved a widening, deplorable disconnect between the PA president and the youth on the ground. Instead of listening to the youth’s demands, Abbas completely isolates himself in his presidential palace while the people chant against him and the PA’s collaboration with Israel. He needs to know he is loathed by an increasingly huge number of the Palestinian youth before it is too late for him. Abbas in the eyes in an ever-growing number of Palestinians has proved that he is not different from his Arab predecessors as he continues to follow their steps even in the way they tried to quash protests and silence dissent. As a matter of fact, both Ben Ali and Mubarak were his closest allies. The parallels between the Arab western-backed dictatorships and the PA are striking and unmistakable. However, the PA has become a fully-fledged western-backed dictatorship now, before the state it is meant to rule over has even come into existence.

As the first protest was quelled, another protest, this time against police brutality, was planned; but, completely ironically, it was met with even more police brutality. During a third protest, the youth marched to the PA compounds known as al-Muqata’a and sharply and unequivocally chanted against the PA’s collaborationist policy and against Saeb Erekat as the head of the Palestinian negotiating team and, most significantly, against the Oslo Accords. It does not matter for how long the protests persisted. The fact that the turnout was not particularly massive is not relevant also. What matters is that the people — a considerable number of them — have finally spoken up, nowhere but in Ramallah, and not only against the Israeli occupation, but most significantly against the Palestinian Authority and its collaborationist policy. The first barrier of fear has been shattered for good, and that is what truly matters. Standing up against the PA is no longer an improbable scenario. Things will never be the same for the PA establishment.

“Where are the Palestinians?” – Picture from Eye on Palestine by Ahmed Mesleh

My friend has a story

My story on openDemocracy as part of the Gaza Voices column:

This isn’t my story. But it could have been, and it can be the story of any young Palestinian living in this small besieged part of the world. Only that it bears much more painful profundity being the story of that particular man who chose to be nicknamed “Awsaj”— the Arabic equivalent for Lycium, which is some kind of a thorny shrub that bears red berries and is used sometimes for hedging.

Awsaj is my new friend whom I have met only twice, the first meeting lasting for no more than a quarter of an hour at a mutual friend’s, and the second born out of my initiative to venture out southward to the far eastern areas of Khan Yunis near ‘the Green Line’ (a phrase which refers to the demarcation lines marking the lines between Israel and other territories including the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel in 1967). Awsaj is an intelligent human being. He is an angry young man with such a variety of contradictions which, though they can be seen almost everywhere in Gaza, would make any description of him sound like the figment of an eccentric writer’s imagination. To be painstakingly interested in perfumes, to hold a degree in IT studies, and to voraciously read such a fussy amalgam of Jubran Khalil Jibran, Edward Said, Karl Marx, and Marquez, these are all signs of a human being with an especially sophisticated interest. To be, on top of this, a self-sustaining farmer absolutely adds up to an unparalleled elegance.

We arrived at Awsaj’s farmland where, in perfectly farmer-like style, he was diligently ploughing the land with a shovel, and as we hailed him from a distance, he looked up, waved back to us, and wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of one hand, placed the shovel aside with the other, and walked in our direction to welcome us. “He can’t be a farmer,” I said to myself, “he’s trying to look like one!”

Soon he was chopping small pieces of wood to add to the small fire he had just built in order to make us some of his special manually-ground black coffee. I had already formed a considerable admiration for Awsaj, both inspired by and jealous of his exhaustive knowledge, his avidity for reading, his ardent passionate talk and angry criticism of almost everything. We shared several targets of scathing criticism. We were particularly sarcastic about “our” buffoon politicians. These, we agreed, are complete morons whose very presence in the positions they occupy is only a matter of fortune, or the arbitrariness of fate, or, as some would say, demonstrative of the injustice of this world, a world in which it is hard to believe there is any logic at work. It is their job to lead the “country” (a word we use almost always cynically) down the road into, well, the abyss. They are an untouchable gang; mostly silly, possibly educated but unquestionably unthinking, blinded by an absolute loyalty to the party they belong to. “Morons, indeed!” he sighed. They are of two sorts: the openly treacherous, base and self-interested collaborators and, most annoying, the completely delusional. Although they are one step away from, probably unknowingly, following the exact same steps as their lousy predecessors, they never stop indulging in self-aggrandizement and claiming the moral high ground and relentlessly bore you with their unexciting oratory. “You know what,” Awsaj told me, “I have no problem with the first kind of politician. It’s similar to working like a prostitute: although everyone else knows they are one, the prostitute is still okay, possibly even proud, about being one. As simple as that, my friend!”

He was unorthodoxly and harshly critical of parents as fosterers of hypocrisy, mental impotence, personal insecurity… Though at some point, a fiery debate erupted between us over his unwarranted criticism of how people’s relationships are no more governed by affection, care and mutual respect for the other, but rather largely dominated by private interests where, in the normal state of affairs, it should be presumed that hate pre-exists any human communication. Nevertheless, our personalities were largely drawn to each other, and Awsaj made such a favourable impression on all of us.

To be equipped with a critical mindset and a desire to learn and read is enough, at least in our eyes, to make someone worthy of being held in high esteem by their interlocutors. But that’s not the case in a local community that is concerned, first and foremost, with outward appearances and thus can be easily manipulated and mind-controlled, a society that no longer has the slightest appreciation for complaining, outspoken and ungovernable personalities, a society that is highly polarized in politics, social convention and religion and every other field of life, and a society that has no understanding, acceptance or tolerance for the other, or the different. “I am right, and everyone else is wrong. Things should be done my way. This is when victory will come your way. This is when you can liberate Palestine!” Awsaj furiously and succinctly reproduced this doctrine of fanaticism while we both continuously shook our heads in sympathetic agreement.

To have to face these things, however — or, more precisely, to tell yourself that you do — and to display, on top of that, some interest in politics, to steer most of your conversations toward politics in Palestine, essentially saying nothing about the conflict more than stating its most obvious facts (like, for example, ‘not every Jew is a Zionist!’), to always talk to your international ‘friends’ about how Palestinians are craving to live in peace and to simplistically speak of “peace”, time and again, as the solution to ending this conflict as though “peace” per se was not the problem in the first place and as if there actually was unanimous agreement on the meaning of the darned word. Moreover, to have the kuffiyeh wrapped around your neck or flung over your shoulders every now and then, and to stress to your interlocutors the fact that you run a blog, never mind how infrequently you update it or the sort of stuff you post on it, and you are then the very guy who is likely to be identified here as an activist, which is an appealing personality, largely regarded as a promising peace (and potential human rights) champion by roughly everyone working in the field here, particularly by a bunch of foreign journalists with whom you engage in seldom profound, political discussions and who you might win over, but by no means does your knowledge about Palestine, Israel or politics match theirs.

Awsaj is of this type, for which so little space has been left in our society. There is still something much more characteristically appealing about him, i.e. (what he boastfully dubbed) his wide-ranging experience and “history of struggle”. And out of this history, there is one specific experience which Awsaj found himself narrating to his guests that, listening to, we agreed must uniquely underlie this man’s personality, at which I insisted that it would not go unrecorded.

Almost every Palestinian must have been in direct contact with Israel, and by ‘Israel’ I mean Israel as it is referred to by ordinary Palestinians, the occupation and its actual manifestations, its war machine, the military establishment, its rogue army and every other Israeli atrocity it inflicts upon the Palestinians; and every Palestinian, therefore, must have been a direct victim of Israeli crimes. There is no such thing as an indirect victim within the context of the Israeli occupation and its ubiquitous oppression of the Palestinian people, being essentially a conflict between a state (i.e. Israel), on the one hand, and individuals (i.e. Palestinians) on the other. Israel as a state and in the above sense is an enemy of every Palestinian as an individual, as far as they are its direct victims. It’s no big deal therefore when I am told that this old man had spent twenty years in Israeli prisons; that this little boy’s parents were killed during Israel’s last airstrike in Gaza, this old woman’s son was assassinated by Israel in the 1980s; these two kids were traumatized during a night raid by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh, or this student from Gaza has lost their scholarship because they were not allowed to travel, and so on and so forth…

The weighty significance of Awsaj’s experience, I believe, resides in the fact that it encloses within its narrative several Israeli actualities. Whereas most of the endless Palestinian encounters with Israel lose an extremely large share of their actual significance once the real encounter is over and is narrated time and again as a past experience, Awsaj’s experience seems to have acquired vitality and a renewed reality each time he has narrated it since. During his powerful narrative, Israel would borrow such a physical existence that it was no more an abstract entity but had become embodied in the Israeli soldier, the Israeli jeep, and the female officer’s broken Arabic phrases, the Bedouin collaborator, the scars across my friend’s back… The reason? It definitely lies somewhere in relation to Awsaj’s human passion and dramatic eloquence. During the course of his narration, Israel becomes one single intimidating and repulsively antagonistic entity that one will have to face with nothing but piles of pent-up anger and extreme hatred, both securing the last vestiges of their almost lost humanity.

The sun having sunk, we head towards our friend’s home, having already chatted for what seemed to be ages. Straight backed, we walk, gossip and whistle, leaving behind neatly-queued, graceful thyme saplings, four scattered coffee-soiled plastic cups, a dying fire, and several untold stories.

Observing the Arab Uprisings

The famous Naji Al-Ali’s caricature: “Revolution until Victory”

My post on openDemocracy as part of the You tell us column:

Not that I am angry with myself for not being able to express myself as perfectly honestly as I should on so sensitive a subject as the ‘Arab Spring’, but I always thought, as a Palestinian, I would not think twice before I make it clear to anyone and everyone that I am a person who unwaveringly supports all the revolutions in the Arab world from Bahrain through to Syria and all across the region to Tunisia.

It made feel good just to align myself with the people’s demands for freedom and social justice; it was such an opportunity to speak out against the despicable corruption with which our ruthless elitist establishments are rife! It answered a deep desire to join my voice to the acts of these brave people. I feel at home in the scene of massive protests mingled with beautiful chants streaming out of the mouths of the masses. In fact – and many from within the revolutions have already made the link – the Arab revolutions were in large part inspired by the Palestinians’ struggle (particularly the two intifadas) against the Israeli occupation which, until the eruption of the revolution in Tunisia, was the sole large-scale, organised or spontaneous, sustained form of resistance in the whole region in which, not only Palestinians, but Arabs in general, took pride.

The rest of region, it was said, had fallen into a deep, undisturbed slumber, and only a man burning himself to death could vehemently shake it out of an ages-old subservience.

Things are not that simple, though; and I was mistaken. In my first talk about the Syrian revolution with a friend who comes from South Lebanon and who is, as one might have expected, a huge supporter of Assad’s ‘resistance regime’, I enraged him it seems by my blunt yet futile attempts to point out the hypocrisy in what he said about the uprising in Syria. As he merely parroted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statements – I don’t have to repeat it all here. He put an end to this by pretending to ignore what I was saying, shaking his head and mimicking the pro-Assad chants “Allah, Souriyya, Bashar w bas!”

This was a man who was incredibly warm and friendly when he first discovered that I am a Palestinian from Gaza. And was even more friendly than before, after that altercation. He soon realized that he had behaved imprudently (to say the least) and apologized to me, saying he did not really mean what he said, especially when it came to uttering those chants. For my part, I had just wanted to highlight the need to be honest and objective when we talk about these revolutions. My statements were not categorically anti-regime, and I desisted from making any awful comments about Nasrallah’s hypocrisy. In fact, I was careful to list Hezbollah’s merits before I dared to mildly criticize Nasrallah’s stance with regards to Syria. I even talked somewhat favourably of the Syrian regime saying things I myself have never been convinced of in order to make my final point that now Bashar al-Assad and his regime are nothing short of a bunch of criminals and they have all got to go.

Most importantly, I (naively probably) insisted that sectarianism should be completely left out of this calculation. I assured him that I supported the uprising in Bahrain as genuinely as I supported the one in Syria, and I explained to him that supporting al-Assad’s regime and calling the Syrian uprising an American plot is an irresponsible position, since similar accusations are already made to discredit the uprising in Bahrain and justify the crackdown on the Bahraini protesters.

But recently something happened to me which made this guy’s extremely unyielding stance more understandable. It was during a protest outside the Egyptian embassy that  I had a most revealing and disconcerting conversation about the Arab uprisings. It started when I asked a 47-year old man if I could have a picture with the new flag of the Syrian revolution fixed on the back of his car. When he found out I was a Palestinian from Gaza, he was keen on assuring me that this whole uprising is definitely going to be in the best interests of all Palestinians, and that “Palestinians might have fallen prey to the regime’s propaganda in the past, but that in fact they had no interest in supporting the Assad regime.”

We talked about the Arab uprisings, and it did not take me long to note the profoundly sectarian tone in which he was unbending in framing the revolution in Syria. This was hugely upsetting, and I had to, as politely as I could, listen to what he, as a native Syrian, had to say about the uprising in Syria, pretending to be utterly unaware of the sectarian dimension that has been on the rise for quite a while, and considerably longer than the moment when it became visible worldwide in the Houla massacre. In short, I came to the conclusion that this man is short-sighted and poses a threat to the real revolutionaries in Syria. He presented a very distorted image of what the revolution is about, its real intentions, its dynamics and proceedings. Despite being Syrian, he by no means represents the people on the ground. Although, when I asked whether the people in Syria thought the same way he did – he said yes they did. This of course could be taken for a trick question, since the Syrian opposition is deeply wracked with divisions and there are many disagreements within the Syrian political landscape even amidst the Syrian protesters, with regards to the demands which reflect different understandings of the conflict. Nevertheless, he maintained that everyone agreed with him.

He went on to speak of the “hypocrisy of the Bahraini protesters” who would protest outside the Bahraini embassy in London for hours on end, and when their protests finished and the Syrian protests started outside the Syrian embassy which is right next door to the Bahraini one, they would refuse to join the Syrian protests. My question to him was whether he would join the Bahrainis in their protests? And if not how does that make him (or us) different from the hypocritical Bahraini protesters? He did not have a reasonable answer. Instead he carried on ranting about the protests in Bahrain, and completely discredited the uprising there, saying it was not even worthy of  the name.

What I concluded was that he was actually one of these double-faced types of people to be found amongst leaders like Hassan Nasrallah and the Saudi government, who, refusing to extricate themselves from their sectarian backgrounds and dominated by their political strategic alliances, discredit whatever revolution they claim to speak for.

I decided from this that though sectarianism exists, and is on the rise, and while regional alliances continue unabatedly to shape the uprisings, I will continue to commit myself to a simplistic understanding of all the uprisings, seeing them in their own right as the people’s revolutions, wholly owned by them, for freedom and social justice, and against the age-old tyrannical rule of their dictators, and now murderers.

Christmas in Gaza: Two Narratives

It’s Christmas Eve, and it has arrived in the Gaza Strip, the less holy part of the holy land. Palestinian Christians, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, are preparing to have festive celebrations despite the Israeli occupation’s repressive restrictions which have prevented most of them from getting to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to celebrate with their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank.

As is usually the case when it comes to the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Christians enjoyed a generous amount of media coverage highlighting a broad range of issues with regard to the situation they are caught up within only a few days, and now hours, before Christmas.

Amusingly, two pieces caught my attention due to the gaping discrepancy between the two narratives—or “pictures” to use a less weighty word— which each piece provides in its coverage of the festive event in the Besieged Gaza Strip.

The first one was posted on my Facebook wall topped with a skeptical question, “Thoughts?” I clicked on the link, and it was the Guardian; the feature was entitled, “Gaza Christians long for days before Hamas cancelled Christmas”. A few hours later, I read another piece entitled “Christmas in Gaza”. This time, it was on the International Solidarity Movement’s (ISM) website. (UPDATE: original post was on Al Akhbar English and reposted by the ISM).

Here are a few quotes from the Guardian’s Phoebe Greenwood’s feature met with quotes from Al Akhabar’ English’s Ruqayya Izzidien’s feature:

The Guardian,

There hasn’t been a Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square since Hamas pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007 and Christmas is no longer a public holiday.

Personally, I have lived most of my life in Gaza and had never heard anyone speak about Hamas cancelling Christmas celebrations before. Not even a rumour. And, to be honest, we (call us, critics of the government) usually compete each other jumping at every opportunity to criticise the Hamas government in Gaza which is the reason why I raised my eyebrows in wonder at what exactly the source of this can be.

However, and according to the Al Akbar English’s reporter, there have actually been a few Christmas trees in Gaza!

Today the small number of Christmas trees that grace Gaza are primarily plastic and limited to Christian households, hotel lobbies and uptown restaurants. TheIsraeli blockade leaves Christmas tree fairy lights in a ghostly darkness during the daily eight-hour rolling blackouts.

then, the Guardian reports,

Imad Jelda is an Orthodox Christian who runs a youth training centre in Gaza City. With unemployment hovering at 23%, he has seen young Christian men leave to study and work abroad in their droves. “People here do not celebrate Christmas anymore because they are nervous,” Jelda said. “The youth in particular have a fear inside themselves.”

Leaving aside the irrelevance of first, being Christian and leaving Gaza to study and work abroad, and second, the high rates of unemployment and the inability to celebrate Christmas, the reason for this fear inside the Christian youth in Gaza, is bizarrely left for the reader to guess. Can it be the government’s restrictions, maybe?

Well, contrary to what the above passage implies, a passage from Al Akhbar Englishprovides a few reasons for the high unemployment, the youths’ fear, and the inability to celebrate Christmas freely,

Ramy described how all Christians used to be permitted by the Israeli government to visit the West Bank for Christmas. “Now they only give permission to a few people and you must be over 35 or under 16. Invariably, if parents receive permission, the children don’t and vice versa.

For this reason, Ramy considers the Israeli publicity machine to be exploiting the Christian community, “The Israeli government does this to benefit from us, so that they can say that they allow Christians to go to Bethlehem for Christmas, but really we can’t practically go. They exploit us to improve their image.”

Jaber stressed how the Christian community in Gaza suffers at the hands of the Israeli authorities at other times of year too. “Our Greek priest and archbishop face problems getting to Gaza, even though they have diplomatic passports. They have to enter through Israel but sometimes access is denied.”

The Guardian’s correspondent then reports the story of Karam Qubrsi who is harassed by a Hamas official for wearing the crucifix and forced to remove it. From experience, I think, the story can definitely be true.

Then, another story of a 30-year-old Christian man who was shot dead, “having been accused by radical elements of proselytising”. I have never heard of this one before, but it also can be true. Denying that there are many religious fundamentalists in Gaza, just like in any other place, doesn’t help in the least.

But is that it? Is Gaza an awfully threatening place for Christians to live in, where Muslims gun down Christians, where they are all the time harassed and repressed by government officials, where they cannot practise their own religion freely?

According to the person interviewed by the Guardian,

“This is not a Christian environment. There are no good universities, there is no opportunity to work, no apartments to rent and so no way we can get married. We have no future here.”

The one interviewed by Izzildien for Al Akhbar English, however, has a different opinion,

Jaber agrees that the relationship between Muslims and Christians is very good in general, although his church has experienced infrequent targeting. “Fourth months ago the cables for our church bells were cut, but now everything is good. The government told the community to leave us alone and this helped.”

Ramy studies at the Hamas-run Islamic University, like a number of Christian students in Gaza. He was offered a place at Birzeit University, but he was forced to continue his education in Gaza, as Israel forbade him from studying in the West Bank.

And I will end with a statement by Ramy Abu Jilda, one of the people interviewed in Al Akkbar English’s piece, and his opinion with regard to Western media’s coverage of Gaza’s religious intolerance.

Despite this, he enjoys his time at the Islamic University and says he is exempted from certain classes, like Quran study, to accommodate his beliefs.“All my friends are Muslims. I don’t care if my friends are Christian or not. My Muslim friends here in Gaza also wish me Merry Christmas and come to visit me at Christmas. So what the media says about Arabs and intolerance isn’t true.”

Are we not humans?

Last night, Israeli authorities released another 550 Palestinian prisoners in the second stage of a prisoner swap deal with Hamas, the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, according to which Hamas released the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had been held in Hamas’s captivity for more than five years.

Two things I wanted to flag up as a follow-up to the coverage of the prisoner deal.

First, I have sadly become used to reading news about Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Construction – no irony intended, that’s what’s it is called – issuing permits to build new settlement units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Absolutely sad news but what can we do about it?

Usually the number is a thousand or more. I genuinely can’t remember a time when I read this kind of news in which the number of the settlement units was not in thousands.

However, what is interesting about the number this time is the fact that it was 1028. Rings a bell? It’s all right; perhaps it was a mere coincidence, although the fact that it happened on the same exact day when Israel had to release the rest of 1027 Palestinian prisoners from its jails makes me doubt that it was a coincidence. That is definitely Israel’s blatant and shameless arrogance which was obviously dealt a blow by the prisoner swap deal they had to strike with Hamas, and whereby they had to ironically repair the damage by building the same number (plus one) of settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Secondly, I watched a video of one of the released Palestinian prisoners’ reunion with his mother. I am not certain if I have a lot to say about it. One thought instantly crossed my mind when I saw it, desperately trying to gulp back my tears at the incredibly flowing emotionality of the scene: Are we not humans. I immediately recalled another clip that I watched earlier in which herds – the word is intentionally used – of Palestinians are deplorably humiliated at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and in which one Israeli soldier refers to them as well as everyone living “there” (meaning inside the West Bank; all Palestinians) as animals.

My tears running down my face, I continued to watch the affectionate warmth and utter passion with which the mother embraced and kissed her son where they seemed to merge again into one human being after years and years of forced separation. The son detaches himself from his mother, kneels toward her feet, and, starts kissing them.

“Are we not humans?” I kept asking myself.

In fact, although no one is in a position to judge who is more human than the other, I must say those who casually kiss their mothers’ feet as a sign of love and respect are the most human amongst all humans.

And nothing is most fitting to end with than a Shakespearean quote put in Shylock’s voice. When I was first taught The Merchant of Venice, I still remember when it was time to discuss that quote, I was disturbed by what I thought to be the undue amount of time the teacher assigned to explaining it. I never knew it would strike a chord four years later.

Shylock, a Jewish merchant who was hugely and brazenly discriminated against across Venic for only being a Jew, delivers a moving speech addressing a Christian audience in the court. Having replaced the word “Jew” with “Palestinian”, it reads as follows:

I am a Palestinian. Hath not a Palestinian eyes? hath not a Palestinian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as an Israeli Jew is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Below is the video of the released Palestinian prisoner’s reunion with his mother.

 


Talking Palestine

I used to blog every now and then about my life in Gaza before I moved to London. Since then I haven’t written down anything though my life here is absolutely nowhere near normal or commonplace. Moving to London in fact has been the most overwhelming experience for me given the fact that I have never been out of Gaza for the past seven years and now that I moved to live in such, I was told, a grand and outstanding city pursuing my studies on a subject that couldn’t be of any more relevance to me than Human Rights at one of the most world leading universities with such massive diversity of staff and students such as the London Schoolf of Economics.

The primary reason is definitely  that I no longer have had the kind of plenty of free time I used to have back in the Gaza Strip due to the immense amount of school work that I have to do weekly.

However, just like how in Gaza, it used to be the case that the huge gaping void of time and space generated mainly due to ubiquitous power cuts dominating every aspect of my life and shutting me in that always instigated me to write, in London it is the absence of this void that kept me from writing. An incredible host of distractions: the joy of life absent power cuts; some tourist attraction always somewhere around the corner of the street; the luxury of always having a high speed internet connection no matter where I am, endless supply of books and magazines, to name but a few, are a few pleasures I am not used to having in Gaza.

Still, I have always had too many overflowing reflections that I wanted to share. The latest of which is the most unsettling to me. It is a thought I had since the term has ended and, ironically, it’s probably due to this very fact that I finally managed to find some free time to write about it.

Freedom of Movement

Basically, any conversation with classmates about the holidays eventually begs the question, “What are your plans for Christmas?” sometimes followed by a clichéd inquiry, “Are you going home?”

I would stammer, I would feel dumb having found out that I have no plans, feeling embarrassed only to recall a friend’s invitation to his birthday party in the north of England only to remember that the question was actually about a holiday plan and that celebrating a friend’s birthday barely counts as one. I would smile foolishly, and struggling to get words out of my mouth, I would respond, “you know what; I don’t think I have any plans, but I’d really love to go home, but I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I mean it’s going to be really hard for me to go back go Gaza and come back in time for the second term.”

“Why?”

“Because if I want to go home, I will have to fly to Cairo, take a six-hour drive to Rafah, cross into Gaza, and, when it’s time to come back, getting out of Gaza is going to be a really hard and long process due to the fact that only a very limited number of people are allowed to travel every day, so what people usually do is book a day to travel on a while earlier which basically means I might never be able to get out for the second term in time.”

At that point a tempting suggestion would usually turn up, “But what about going on a trip to somewhere in Europe?”

“yea,” sounding so skeptical, I would respond,  “but I don’t think it will work.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I think it’s going to be really hard for me to travel to anywhere in Europe since I need to get a VISA. I can tell you, if you’re Palestinian, VISA applications are an undesirable experience plus you need to have a good convincing reason why you need to visit Europe. Had I not been a student, I would have never been here in the first place”

“Oh, I see.”

This time, having given a plausible response, I would wear a broad smile on my face, feeling relieved the conversation had finally come to an end.

Only then, I would start to think how distressing it is to be Palestinian. Why does it have to be that only me, and no one else, is not allowed to have plans for the holidays? That I can’t think of going home unless I might never be able to get out of Gaza again. That I can’t think of joining my friends’ journey to Bosnia and Serbia because I might not get a VISA. That I might miss the whole term if I “fly home” for the holidays; that I have to stay here for the whole year while everyone around me will be gone. “Only for the sole reason that I happened to be Palestinian.”

Violence against Israelis

As I sat in the library so hopelessly trying to finish a 60-page article in two hours, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation that was going on at the desk just behind me. A few whispered phrases flew out of the conversation and just made their way to land in my ears so deafeningly. I was shook so terribly at their infuriating offense and stark negligence. “Violence against Israelis” was the most recurring phrase throughout the whole conversation. I was trying to pull together the bits I could hear to make out what exactly was being deliberated. I was soon thinking I shouldn’t expect that much from a bunch of people using such a phrase like, “violence against Israelis” since, at best; it must be the same old story of “the occupation is wrong, but the Palestinians are also responsible for using violence”.

Responsible for what is quite easy to deduce since according to these people the Palestinians should learn to pursue the Gandhi-like, peaceful, non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation instead of targeting Israeli civilians by firing rockets into Israel.

In fact, as I thought about it later, I rebuked myself a big deal for I could have walked up to this bunch of idiots and, after introducing myself as a Palestinian, I could have bombarded them with a history lesson about the Palestinian nonviolent resistance which they don’t bother to talk about and then ask them how they feel about denying a people’s history as they continue to blame the victims and in their awfully patronising manner keep preaching the Palestinians about nonviolent resistance while these nonviolent, peaceful protesters continue to be murdered every single day by the Israeli war killing machine.

The two-state solution isn’t dead

The Palestine Society at the LSE once had a cultural stall on the university campus where we celebrated the Palestinian culture in an amusing manner. Some had the kuffiyeh wrapped up into a turban around their heads; others put on the traditional Palestinian dress crafted into beautiful black and red patterns, while others ate hummus, oil and olives and smoked shisha.

Our stall caught the attention of numerous students who stopped by and asked us questions about the stall and what this all meant. However, toward the end of the event, one student stopped by and said that he had a question which he’d like to hear the answer to by anyone of us. I must admit I thought this sounded a bit awkward which made me feel uneasy about it.

As I introduced myself to him, he told me how sympathetic he feels with the Palestinians and that he believes there should be a solution whereby both peoples will finally be able to live together in peace. He then told me he just wants to know “what I think about what’s going on or what I believe would be the solution to this”. Feeling baffled, I looked him in the eye, in an attempt to make him elaborate a bit on his question. He replied, “I mean what do you think of the one-state solution and the two-state solution?”

I felt greatly relieved this turned out to be the question, for if there was anything I could talk about with regard to “solutions”, it was this specific issue. So as I told him my opinion which is basically that the two-state solution is dead, and it’s not about which solution is more doable but rather it’s about the facts on the ground where we already have one state. They are two peoples living (unequally) in one actual state; I told him one of these two peoples is oppressed, discriminated against, and done great injustice…bla bla bla

As I finished, the guy, who didn’t stop nodding during my speech, looked at me and said, “yea I think you’re right.”

My face started to break into a broad smile before he went on to say, “However I still think the two-state solution could work only if the Palestinians agreed to move to live in Jordan!”

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