Monthly Archives: December 2011

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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