Category Archives: Opinions

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

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.


Addressing Grievances in Gaza

My op-ed for Al-Jazeera English.

In 2006, the Israeli authorities imposed an overall siege on the Gaza Strip forcing 1.6 million Palestinians to live under miserable conditions. Since then, Gaza, depending on the degree of instability in the area, has been largely covered in the world media, sometimes enjoying the status of a quasi-main theme.

However, many of these subjects dealt with by Western press are quite unimportant to deal with publicly. The only importance they  have seems to be that of their context, being how the Gaza Strip is such a pivotal and curious a place.

One needs to be critical of information so as not to fall victim to any deliberate misrepresentation of the facts, or any other well-handled, yet ill-timed treatment of any of these subjects.

The unfortunate “Gaza Youth Manifesto”

Recently a group of Palestinian youth from Gaza issued a “manifesto” on their Facebook page called Gaza Youth Breaks Out (GYBO). It outstandingly highlights Gaza youths’ immense frustration and anger. Unluckily, however, its writers poured out their fury pell-mell indiscriminately at every possible cause they deemed as conducive to their miserable conditions, instead of carefully underlining the principal source of this unendurable suffering.

Hence, the true cause of this suffering, i.e. Israel and its 2008/09 invasion of the Gaza Strip, the five-year relentless blockade, and its daily heinous crimes against Palestinian civilians, weren’t (unintentionally, I assume) as accentuated as the uncommendable behavior of the Hamas government in Gaza toward its people, which replaced Israel as the originator of Gaza’s youth distress.

The GYBO manifesto has received worldwide attention from Western press and media outlets. But did any of them take the time to listen to the grievances the manifesto mentioned in a considerable portion of Gaza’s youth due to its misguided content? (Note: under a great deal of criticism, the group had to issue a second manifesto, which appears on the group’s Facebook page).

To this effect, to stress similar cases over Israel’s policy toward the Gaza Strip only harms Palestinians and should be seen as an attempt at deflecting the world’s attention from the base injustice the Palestinians are forced to live under. Moreover, they do seem to attract the audience’s interest who has become used to  prosaic coverage of Israel’s continuous and flagrant violations of basic human rights.

This does not mean issues of human rights’ abuses should be disregarded. The suppression exercised by the government and other violations of human rights should always be reported in an objective way and brought to light in order to help fight against it by all means.

The “rising middle class” and addressing minor grievances

Similarly, a newly published Associated Press feature story sheds light on the widening gap between a very tiny middle class and the majority of the people who live under the poverty line.

Well-written, objective, and supported with facts and figures as it might seem, the article should nonetheless be dismissed as misleading and lacking in the analytical interpretation necessary to explain the real origins of the discontent the people of Gaza have.

“A budding middle class in the impoverished Gaza Strip is … fueling perhaps the most acrimonious grass roots resentment yet toward the ruling Hamas movement.”

The introductory statement of the article is inaccurate since it presupposes the presence of this “resentment” toward the Hamas government in Gaza without placing it within its greater context which is that of the Israeli occupation and its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The prime grievances the people of Gaza have are those toward Israel and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. This has fuelled so much anger and despair that, like the GYBO manifesto, they started to resent everything around them, including the Hamas government. So even this sense of dissatisfaction toward the government is a form of grievous indignation toward Israel itself.

Normally, people would hate the government under whose control they have had to endure the most miserable conditions. It is true the government in Gaza isn’t doing enough to at least alleviate the people’s Israeli-inflicted suffering. It is also true that there is too much corruption inside the government itself to be concealed any longer, but trying to deal with these issues as the main source of people’s anger is dubious, since it ignores the fact that what people are enraged about, above all things, is the Israeli siege.

Although, the article makes it clear the majority of the people are discontent, it seems to ridiculously question the fact that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza while there are others – a very small minority – who live in self-indulgence. It also never accounts for the so called “rise of the middle class” in Gaza except by simplistically relating it to the attitudes of the Hamas government and the “corruption” of some of its “loyalists”.

The only thing this article seems to do is deflect the readers’ attention from the real origins of frustration in Gaza that are represented in Israel’s overall inhuman policy toward the Palestinians to a few unimportant issues.

Israel’s crimes are still the issue

By comparison, in other countries internal suppression is exercised by governments on a larger scale and things like women’s rights are often abused at a serious level, and little attention is paid to them. Similarly, the grievances toward an assumed middle class rise in Gaza is a completely preposterous issue to discuss, when recent Israeli airstrikes killed 15 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

At a time when Palestinians in Gaza, both the wealthy and the poor, are awakened by Israeli warplanes bombing their neighbourhoods, it is these kinds of grievances, suffering and anger that the world needs to know about that besiege the Gaza Strip, and not class differences.

Palestinian youth in Gaza skeptical about PA’s UN bid

My recent publication on Electronic Intifada

Young Palestinians are skeptical of any political “solution” that doesn’t address the refugees’ right of return. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

Along with several other bloggers and activists in the Gaza Strip, I was recently invited to take part in a short video about young Palestinians’ reaction to the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) bid to have the United Nations admit a Palestinian “state” as a full member of the international body this September.

As each participant was being assigned a role in the video, an argument erupted among the four of us over who should speak in favor of the Palestinian Authority’s move. We discovered, to the producer’s amazement, we were all flatly against it.

This might have just been a coincidence. Only a few days earlier, however, I was awoken up by my new wild ringtone. As I answered my phone, I was asked by a journalist from Germany’s Deutsche Welle television to give an interview on the same issue. As I arrived at the arranged meeting place, another blogger was already giving her answers to the interviewer. She was unequivocally critical of the PA’s “disastrous history” and its “unending series of flops.” She argued that UN recognition of a Palestinian state would be just one more chapter in that sad history.

Of course it is hard to generalize from two incidents but they do offer some insight that a large segment of Palestinians believe they have been entirely and overtly marginalized by the PA’s unconcealed monopoly of Palestinian political decision-making.

Still, this does not mean that the PA’s move does not have any support in Gaza — there are Palestinians who support the PA and they are numerous.

Critics of the PA’s UN bid would say that none of these supporters is truly able to appreciate that their unrealized dreams of living in a long-awaited free and independent Palestinian state are not being advanced by the PA’s little-debated UN move. Some Palestinians may be convinced by the rhetoric of PA officials and believe that potential UN admission is a highly symbolic move and a step forward on the road toward independence. But some younger observers in Gaza are much more skeptical.

Fed up with ignored UN votes

Fidaa Abu Assi, a 22-year-old blogger and English literature graduate in Gaza, believes there is nothing symbolic in going to the UN and securing recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines. She is “fed up” with the unimplemented UN resolutions and symbolic moves taken by the PA on her behalf.

“Some Palestinians would rejoice at the thought of finally having a recognized Palestinian state,” she argues in a blog post. “In essence, however, the whole initiative seems pointless, or rather, insidiously dangerous.” Bewildered, she asks, “How could they [the UN] recognize a state that doesn’t even exist? And, wait, hadn’t the PLO already proclaimed a Palestinian state in 1988 on the basis of UN General Assembly Resolution 181?” (“‘No’ to UN Recognition, ‘Yes’ to US Veto,” 22 July 2011).

Abu Assi’s view reflects the sentiments of a generation that does not seek more UN resolutions and international declarations. Not even a declaration of a state. A state itself is rather what we desire. A state that we can touch, see and live in. We long for the reunification of the more than 11 million Palestinians living in the world. We want to see facts on the ground and tangible results. We crave for the land which has been relentlessly ripped apart in flagrant violation of dozens of resolutions already passed — and then promptly ignored — by the very same UN to which the PA now turns.

“We would forget, wouldn’t we?”

In an open letter to a refugee living in the Palestinian diaspora, Sameeha Elwan, a 23-year-old blogger and English teaching assistant at the Islamic University of Gaza, pours out her scorn on the PA, and any declaration of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders that excludes the right of Palestinian refugees to return (“To My Dear Stateless Palestinian,” 6 August 2011).

“My mother would no longer be a refugee,” Elwan writes. “She would have to give up every dream of going back to Aqer [a large Palestinian village nine kilometers to the south east of Ramla in present-day Israel]. My grandmother would stop telling us of her tales of the lost village near Gaza from which they fled in 1948. She would forget this history. It is no longer hers. She would have to stop telling the story every now and then. She’d eventually die; we would eventually forget, wouldn’t we?”

Some bloggers have displayed a deep understanding of the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and of its implications for the future of the Palestinians not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but also those living inside Israel.

One state: the only real solution

Rana Baker, a 19-year-old blogger and student of business administration also at the Islamic University of Gaza, argues that to be able to comprehend the risk of the UN declaration of a Palestinian state, this issue should be placed in its rightful context: the debate over a two-state solution. “In fact, the Palestinian street is divided into two: those who are for one state and those for the UN September recognition of two states,” Baker writes, adding “I’m for one state” (“I Turn On the Fan and Sit to Write,” 8 August 2011).

Baker too warns that the PA “statehood” bid may be most threatening to Palestinians in the diaspora. “What about more than 5 million Palestinian refugees who dream to return to their lands?” she asks, “The Palestinian Authority does not have the right to take decisions on their behalf. If they were given the right to vote, they would have voted against this bid. This is definite.”

Behind these criticisms lie doubts that many Palestinians have about the upcoming move to declare a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines. Some tend to question the functionality of a state in the besieged Gaza Strip and the heavily colonized West Bank, a state totally dependent on foreign aid.

Others reasonably cast doubt on the credibility of the UN to secure the viability of this state, if recognized, and safeguard it against Israel’s expansionist policy. Some call it a blatant concession that terminates the right of return of Palestinian refugees all over the world. And some view it as yet one more act of treason by the PA — a move that would involve turning our backs on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in dire conditions and facing constant discrimination inside the apartheid State of Israel.

As varied as the reasons might be to oppose the PA bid, they all stem from a firm belief that universal rights, real liberation and return, not “statehood” at any price, must be at the heart of our demands and struggle. Any solution must fully restore the rights of all segments of the Palestinian people — those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, those inside Israel, and the refugees waiting to return.

And its also clear that increasingly, many young Palestinians believe that these rights can only be achieved in a one-state solution that puts an end to Israeli apartheid and guarantees equality and justice for all.