Friday, March 31, 2006

Just another day in paradise

You better duck when that awful sound goes


Thats what's happenin in the parking lot
Thats whats happenin on stage

Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, that awful sound

Roots and Nancy Sinatra; what better way to describe another day in paradise…er, Gaza. I heard that phrase a lot, paradise. Of people describing their homes; their gardens; their razed orchards. They don’t see the war and the destruction and the lawlessness and all of the ugliness of occupation and anarchy.

They see beauty.

*BOOOM boom*

Living here is always surreal, to it mildly. But you learn to compartmentalize and move on with your life. Internalize, adapt and survive. Sometimes, for a moment, I try and detach this adapted self from my body, to re-gain perspective.

Yesterday, as I was having mint tea and date cookies at my cousin’s house, who is here visiting from the UK where her husband is completing his pHD (her daughter is the the “cutie” pictured behind Yousuf below). Her father-in-law, a fiery little man of 80 something years, was debating with his son, something about the differences of the Palestinian educational system “then and now”, as Yousuf sat trying to compete for Dalia’s (my cousin’s daughter) attention, playing with her dolls and baby stroller (yes, my son is in touch with his feminine side).

And swirling all around us, as entertainment for the evening, was a “symphony” of war, as people like to describe it here. The distinct double-boom of tank artillery shells, *BOOM boom*, every few seconds, along with the single explosions of what I would later learn were navy-gunship attacks, interdispersed with rapid machine-gun fire, a swarm of drones whirring incessantly overhead, and Apache helicopters attacking areas in northern and easern Gaza.

My cousin told her daughter they were just fireworks and not to be alarmed, so she too (four-years-old), casually ignored them.

The shelling ceased for a while after that, until around 3am where we were literally shocked awake by a tremendous explosion. Just two streets down from us- an F-16 warplane had dropped bomb on a playing field (that was the site of a large celebration attended by over 100, 000 Palestinians, including Ismail Haniya, and members of different factions commemorating Land Day), something that has not happened in a while because of the disproportionalality and potential causalities inflicted in using such weaponry against a densely populated city and its civilian population.

The field was empty, but the explosion left a tremendous crater and its sheer force scared us senseless. At first we though it might be a sonic boom, but it did not have the distinct after-echo that accompanies that. This explosion was so loud I thought I might find the street in front of me taken out; that or doomsday was upon us. Sometimes I think when it comes I might not know the difference. We weren’t sure what was happening, and because of the drones overhead, all the television satellite signals were scrambled, so we panicked and held hands in bed until it passed.

It’s quiet again this morning. The sun it out. Yousuf is taking his nap. Beit Lahiya wild berries are in season. Bees are pollinating with spring’s explosion of color and fertility. And somewhere of Gaza’s besieged coast, a fisherman is lamenting his luck at sea.

It’s just another day in paradise

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Israeli army to probe murder of Gaza sheperdess by occupation soldier

According to Haaretz, the Israely Army has launched a formal investigation into the death of a Palestinian shepherdess, 25-year-old Nayfa Abu Imsa'id, who was killed by Israeli sniper fire as she was herding her flock with her friend last month. I reported on the story, which got very little press at the time (surprise, surprise), for Aljazeera.

According to the article, "An investigation on the scene raised the suspicion that the soldier violated the army's rules of engagement." Ya think?

Nayfa was killed by a single, high-velocity bullet to the heart. It was broad daylight outside. And she was several hundred metres away from the fence. Yet time and again, such atrocious acts are completely dismissed by both the media and the Israeli military apparatus.

When I confronted an Israeli army spokesperson about the incident at the time, I was told that after soldiers saw Nayfa and her friend near the border they "fired two warning shots", and that the it is difficult for them to "distinguish" between woman, child, or gunman, insisting there are "rules of engagement" to be followed in such circumstances.

As I mentioned when I wrote about the issue earlier, Gaza's border area has become an ostensible killing zone, where anyone-child, man, or sheperdess, will get killed if they enter within several hundred metres of the zone.

The Israeli human rights group B'tselem says that as part of these new rules of engagement, "soldiers are required to open fire whenever Palestinians enter places defined as 'dangerous areas' (primarily around the Gaza Strip fence)," a protocal they call "lethal ambiguity". In addition, soldiers are allowed to use ammunition capable of killing at very long range, such as bombs weighing hundreds of kilograms dropped by aircraft, and flechette shells (which are composed of darts) fired by tanks.

According to UN statistics, at least 30 unarmed Palestinians, including 5 children, have been killed or seriously injured by Israeli troops for being too close to the Gaza border since the Israeli disengagement.

Just a few days prior to Nayfa's death, eight-year-old Aya al-Astal was killed after being shot four times -twice in the neck - by Israeli soldiers stationed just outside the border. A Palestinian ambulance found her bullet-riddled body hours after the incident. No investigation was ever made for Aya's death.

B'tselem says that since the start of the second Intifada, out of thousands of Palestinian deaths, 20% of whom were minors, the Military Police investigated only 131 cases involving shooting by soldiers. 18 of these investigations resulted in the filing of indictments.

Only one was convicted for shooting to death a Palestinian boy. His penalty was four months in jail and a reduction of rank.

When I confronted the Israeli army about such figures (which he more or less confirmed) during an invesigative piece I wrote in May of 2004, around the time of the second Rafah incursion, the spokesperson insisted that the army does punish soldiers for their actions, even if such punishment are not "publicized".

When pressed, the spokesperson was unable to provide examples of how soldiers convicted of other crimes were punished. Instead, he told me:

“The fact that the IDF conducts criminal investigations during intensive conflict is testimony to the high level of professionalism and morality embodied by the IDF. [We] have an entire unit in the army that is devoted to teaching and instilling an ethical code within its soldiers and commanders."


Let us hope the investigation into Nayfa's death does not end again rewarding the perpetrator ala Iman al-Hams, nor perpetuate the impunity within the Israeli army and become another statistic on the ever-increasing left-hand column.

Words we learned yesterday

Yousuf's vocabulary is increasing exponentially these days. My father calls him a "parrot". Things you don't think he'll remember, even words he overhears you saying, will inevitably stick. Of course, being in Gaza, a 2-year old's vocabularly includes words that you may not otherwise expect.

Salta3one: Crab (A Gaza delicacy, which Yousuf attempted to eat by himself-I guess you have to learn the hard way sometimes).

Fijil: Raddish

Hamas: Hamas. As in, "Hih! Shoof! Hamas!" (look-its Hamas) after seeing celebratory rallies and music and a wave of green flags pass by our house after the new cabinet was voted in.

Thi2ib: Wolf (in Little red riding hood, in Arabic -Laila wal thi2ib)

Qassif: Shelling. As in "Yamma! Qasif! Ma3lish-matkhafeesh!" (Oh mommy! Shelling! Its ok-don't be afraid!) after a night of earth-pounding shelling.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More of the same: Palestinians see no change in Israeli elections

In the face of grim political prospects and ever-increasing physical and economic isolation, Palestinians in Gaza are reacting to the Israeli elections with indignant apathy.

Many see the outcome as a given, and consider the front-running Israeli parties to be essentially two sides of the same coin (even the number of seats won by Liberman's radical Yisrael Beytenu came as no surprise to most).

Abu Diyab Abu al-Awf, 72, lives in the al-Bureij refugee camp in eastern Gaza. "Each of the candidates is worse than the next as far as Palestinians are concerned," he said. "The only difference is, some are stronger and make certain pragmatic decisions, and some don't."

But ultimately, Abu al-Awf believes, "none has the interests of the Palestinians, or of a just peace, in mind".

Rami al-Mugheiri, a 31-year-old editor, said: "Past experience has taught us not to expect much from Israeli elections. Whatever leader will come to power, the most we will get is tough lengthy negotiations that mainly concentrate on marginal issues."

By way of example, al-Mugheiri referred to the elections in 2000, when Israelis voted Ehud Barak's Labour party into power. Barak was "nevertheless intransigent regarding the Palestinians' right to return, Jerusalem, and continued settlement expansion", during the Camp David talks.
Palestinians believe that any new Israeli government, even a Kadima-Labour coalition, will inevitably continue the policy of unilateralism and imposed solutions established by Sharon. That would make a negotiated settlement and a Palestinian state impossible, they say.
As one political analyst explained, the elections are not irrelevant to Palestinians, rather the loss of interest is attributable to the Palestinians' preoccupation with their "harsh realities and daily living", which have rendered the elections outlandish to them.

Palestinians, he said, "are convinced that there is no qualitative or real difference between Israeli political parties", which they see as vying with each other to torment Palestinians, deny them their rights, and steal their land. "So the bulk of the Palestinians do not think there is anything worthwhile that can be expected from the Israeli elections."

For more, see my article for Aljazeera here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The story of Saeed Abu Salah

Saeed Abu Salah is a patient man. Judging from all he has endured during the past four years at least. Abu Salah-40 years old with graying hair and eyes the color of chestnuts, and 20 children from separate two marriages-lives in Gaza’s northernmost region in the farming town of Beit Hanun-nearly as far north as you can go without being killed as so many have.

He is less than a kilometer away in fact from the border with Israel-and the fence and wall that bulldozers, active even as we spoke and visible in plain distance, were building.

Directly across from his house, at the end of an unpaved dirt path that used to lead to his 40 donom cattle ranch and citrus groves-now inaccessible and razed to the ground- is an Israeli lookout tower, resting atop a large mound of sand just across the border. It is equipped with a camera that monitors the family’s every move even as we speak, and a sniper, who every now and again fires “warning” shots at us.

“He doesn’t like you being here, as a journalist. Its normal-he shoots day and night, but particularly when visitors come” explained Abu Salah matter-of-factly, of the unseen sniper, whom he talks about with unenviable confidence and the seemingly intimate knowledge of a close acquintance.

Still, Abu Salah is unflinching in his determination to stay put, asserting that he will only allow Israeli troops to drive him out, which he says they have tried to do so many times before, “over his dead body”.

The UNDP estimated the damage done to his farm, which one employed over 30 Palestinians, at nearly half a million dollars. All he got in return was a zinc-sheeted shed, shielding little more than a wounded horse. “We just can’t afford to buy any more cattle. Or plant any more trees. Why should we? The Israelis will just destroy them again,” he says, staring at the forboding and ever-present tower in the distance. His family used to be self-sufficient, but since his farm was razed, he now has to rely on working for a local contractor once a week for money.

He greets me with tea and sweet, strong coffee as he displays his “museum of Israeli war artifacts”-a room full of 55kg tank shells that we can barely lift together, which he has decorated with artificial flowers; an arch, neatly trimmed with a line of Israeli bullet casings; and a photo album he keeps of all the damage done to his ranch-including his sniped cows, lying dead alongside each other, their intestines spilling out of their bloated stomachs.

“It’s as if they wanted to say, ‘this could be you’” he said, his young children peering through the iron-barred window in front of us, and the smallest, piercingly blue-eyed child giggling under his arms. “They used to be so afraid-the young ones still are. Now, they have gotten so used to it that if we don’t hear shelling, we think something is wrong. They are always firing at us, and when not firing, then shelling, and when not shelling, hovering over us with F-16s and drones, mocking us, provoking us, trying to show us that we are surrounded from all sides and that we have to eventually leave.”

There are no clinics where he lives. No grocery stores. Nothing is allowed. His wife is expecting anyday now, but Abu Salah is worried an ambulance may not be allowed in.

“Since Israeli forces declared the area-including my home, a buffer zone a few months ago, dozens of heavy shells fired by either Israeli tanks or warplanes have fallen in the area, wounding my 21-years old son Eid in his right arm, inflicting severe damage to my modest house and casting panic in my children’s’ hearts” explained Abu Salah, lifting his son’s wasted arm, left with little more than base muscle and stubs of fingers.

“I am not a Hamas supporter, but let me say that we’ve given enough concessions-and whole decade of concessions for free. The PLO decided to recognize Israel and what did recognition bring us? Have them recognize our rights first, our freedom to live, our right of return, then surely, we will recognize their rights.”

At night, Abu Salah and his family become prisoners in their own home, unable to move for free of being shot by the faceless sniper.

“This is our existence. This is our reality. This is our fate. And we will bear it out, but never another hijra (exile)-I will stay here till they bury me in my grave.”

Calling all diaspora Palestinians!

Diaspora Palestinians-been feeling neglected lately from the internal political process in Palestine (or for the last decade for that matter)? Wish you could have your say about Palestinian politics, especially final status issues? Well, this is your chance!

I am working on an article about putting the issue of recognizing Israel (when, how, if), to a referendum, as suggested by Hamas. When Hamas published its draft programme a week or so ago, it said that the issue of recognition was nothing to do with any group or party, but a decision for Palestinians everywhere. This begs the referendum question. One could argue of course that voters chose Hamas at the elections and so were aware of their policy on Israel, but Hamas campaigned largely on education and welfare grounds so the question deserves asking.

Easy enough here in Gaza, but I want to get a sense of what other Palestinians think-those in refugee camps, or working in other Arab countries or even in Western countries. You could also be in the West Bank or 1948 Palestinians-heck you could be on the moon for all I care (which, I might add, is closer for me to reach than the West Bank)- but I want to hear your views!

Feel free to leave a comment, or if you prefer, send me an email, and I will feature a few of the responses in my article (for English).

Now go go...compose your views and make your voices heard!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Child killer gets compensation; parents get more grief.

I'm too disgusted, and once again suffocated by a feeling of overwhelming helplessness and dispossession, a feeling that increases with the ever evolving occupation, a method cloaked in madness.

The infamous Captain "R" will receive NIS 80,000 in compensation from the state of Israel after being cleared of all charges in relation to the killing of 13-year-old Iman al-Hims. According to Haaretz, the judges who acquitted Captain R accepted his version of the event: that the shots that he fired were not aimed directly at the girl's body, that he opened fire in order to create a deterrence, and that he believed that the young girl posed a serious threat.

Perhaps it is a good time to review Chris McGreal's chilling detailing of the event in the Guardian here and here:

"[I]t was broad daylight, 13-year-old Iman al-Hams was wearing her school uniform, and when she walked into the Israeli army's "forbidden zone" at the bottom of her street she was carrying her satchel. A few minutes later the short, slight child was pumped with bullets. Doctors counted at least 17 wounds and said much of her head was destroyed."

What more is there to say?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

House demolitions continue for Jerusalem's Palestinians

From the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD):

The home of Mustafa Abu Tin and his family is being demolished now. This morning two other homes in Jerusalem Wallajeh are probably to be demolished too, all having failed yesterday in Court to obtain stop demolition orders. These homes are in the part of Wallajeh in the municipality of Jerusalem, where all residents are West Bank ID holders, although they own the land. It is that part of Jerusalem where the city of Givat Yael is planned (13,000 units). The municipality hardly ever gives Palestinians building permits. People are forced to build illegally. 14,000 homes have been demolished since ’67. Can we get press there? It ain’t NEWS. The Hamas election turnout does not surprise anyone dealing with home demolitions, but demolitions aren't news, they are history. Thus Palestine.

For details: Meir Margalit: 0544-345 503 or Arik Ascherman: 0505-607034

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Wires for food

Three men collecting discarded copper wires on Gaza's seashore, which they can sell for scrap to feed their families.

Monday, March 20, 2006

your love gives me such a thrill, but your love won't pay my bills...I want money!

Six people were wounded today (two in a separate incident) in fighting in Gaza between Palestinian police and gunmen demanding jobs and unpaid wages.

The gunmen blocked off the main road leading to the Erez terminal-used mainly by Palestinian officials and VIPs-and exchanged fire with security forces in a two-hour long battle. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's motorcade was on its way to Tel Aviv at the time for a follow-up meeting with Americans, Egyptians, Europeans, and Israelis on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

They then took the battle to Gaza City near where I live, shooting at a police station and in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Machine gun fire echoed throughout the city as police sirens wailed up and down the streets.

The gunmen belong mainly to Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, many who are demanding to be absorbed into an alrady boated and unsustainable security apparatus (the PA was running training wokrshops for some of the Brigade members, according two guys I overhead talking in an elevator last week. "But it will be a major problem. They just don't realize how many of us they are" one said). Some were part of a group hired into the security forces just before Hamas took power, and have not yet recieved their wages, as I reported in a story for the Guardian today.

The wage fears are not limited to security forces, which many argue do need to be streamlined anyway - municipality workers have been on strike for two days protesting late wages. Uncollected rubbish has piled up throughout the city, with many neighbourhoods opting to burn it to prevent rats from nesting.

The cash-strapped authority is finding it increasingly difficult to pay the salaries of the about 130, 000 people it employs as is-up to 70,000 of them security personnel, especially in the face of rising international pressure on the newly-elected Hamas government.

All of this is happening at a time that Gaza faces an unprecedented food shortage (Israel briefly reopened al-Mintar to allow trucks to deliver food today, only to close it again an hour later-in line with Weisglas's "diet but dont' kill" policy) , and as Gaza's economy is losing about $600,000 a day because of the closure, which has forced some farmers to feed their rotting vegetables to goats, while others are reduced to selling what remains of their marked-for-export produce in bulk on donkey carts in the city, charging only £1 for 20 kg of tomatoes on the vine.

Security will suffer in the long term: James Wolfensohn, the international community's envoy, recently warned that the Palestinian Authority could face imminent collapse unless aid was continued, leading to more violence and chaos.

As director of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs David Shearer told me last week, if the money for the security forces payroll runs out there will be 70,000 men running around Gaza, unable to feed their families, most of them armed, and approximately 1 million Palestinians without a bread winner.

These men, along with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades members, will constitute one of the biggest challenges for the upcoming government-something I wrote about in an feature story for Aljazeera a few weeks back that hits on this very issue. The brigades, along with Islamic Jihad and the Marxist PFLP, are responsible for the bulk of rocket attacks against Israel and for kidnappings of foreigners, not Hamas.

They are loose cannons, used to the days of quick and easy payoffs, and are now demanding to be absorbed into an already bloated and unsustainable security apparatus "or else". Along with Israeli moves and western aid cuts, their actions threaten to destabilize the nascent Palestinian government before it even gets started.

How Hamas will deal with such threats remains to be seen, especially in the face of increasing international pressure and isolation. As the song says, "you're love gives me such a thrill, but you're love won't pay my bills-I want money!"

Hear is my interview with the BBC's World Update (click on "audio").

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bread runs out in face of Israeli closure

Walking around Gaza today, one would have thought there was a war looming (well, I guess we are in a perpetual state of low-intensity war, but still). Most bakeries throughout the city were closed by mid-afternoon, with the only remaining ones jam-packed with customers, lines extending out to the streets till late at night.

The reason: flour stocks have officially run out in Gaza due to a 44-day and going-strong Israeli-imposed closure of the only commerical crossing for goods and humanitarian supplies. Palestinians in Gaza consume around 350 tons of flour per day, but all flour mills have shut down due to the depletion of wheat stocks, and bakeries are working through their last bags of stored flour. As word of the shortage spread, residents flocked to bakeries-in many cases bringing their own bags of flour with them.

In one bakery I went to, the scene was one of panic and fear, with Israeli war jets roaring overhead and men lining up for hours, children taking the place sometimes. At one point, two men's nerves snapped and a fight nearly broke out on whose turn it was. A group of armed men immediately came in to break it up (interestingly, a cigarette smoking police officer walked casually on by, despite my pleas to get him to intervene).

Bags of bread were rationed-two per family-to make sure there was enough for all, as the final truckload of stored flour was delivered to the bakery.

Palestinian Minister of Economy Mazen Sanakrot on Saturday warned of a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip if the situation of the border was not resolved.

Yousuf carrying our "ration" of bread home from the bakery.

Friday, March 17, 2006

'Groundbreaking' Study: U.S. Middle East policy motivated by pro-Israel lobby

Hold your breath for this one folks, and prepare to be blown away: according to a truly earth-shattering new study published Thursday by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago, U.S. Middle East policy is not in America's national interest and is motivated primarily by the country's pro-Israel lobby.

And it took Ivy League professors to figure this out? Tell us something we don't know!

In all seriousness, though the conclusions couldn't be more obvious if they were to hit them in the face (then, Einstein was self-admittedly a slow learner too), it took guts for Meirsheimer and Walt (with whom I took classes) to publish something like this given what lengths I'm sure Dershowitz and company will go to discredit them and label them anti-semites. In the report, they 'dare' to question the U.S.'s unqualified support for Israel as well as Israel's strategic value, democracy, and alleged moral superiority, and surmise that the lobby may be damanging to the interests of Israel itself.

"Unlike the US, where people are supposed to enjoy equal rights irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship. Given this, it is not surprising that its 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a ‘neglectful and discriminatory’ manner towards them. Its democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own or full political rights."

Finally, someone saying it like it is.

Fun and games

A brother and sister play with an old tire they found lying around on Gaza' beach yesterday (its no x-box, but hey...its the fun that matters)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Beware the Ides, in the Guardian

Israel acts not just with absolute impunity, but with the support of western powers: that is the message that has been reinforced in Jericho. See my full article in the Guardian's new Comment is Free blog.

The eight-step guide to securing an Israeli election

1. Say there is no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, even if the president was Gandhi.

2. Repeat "terrorist attacks" and "security" several times in each sentence of a public speech

3. Unpredictably close down Palestinian commercial crossings (while making sure to mention "security" and "terrorist attack")

4. Place hungry Palestinians on a forced "diet" and laugh about it

5. Escalate and provoke: Assassinate Palestinians, making sure to refer to child causalities as unfortunate bystanders, fire an incessant barrage of artillery shells capriciously in a self-declared buffer zone, and detain other Palestinians belonging to a group that has stuck to a ceasefire for over 12 months.

5. Declare illegal settlements in the heart of the West Bank as important to you as Tel Aviv, and an eternal part of Israel.

6. Discretely begin building police headquarters and "other facilities" extending from future Palestinian capital to the largest Israeli colony in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim (and cite "natural growth" if pressed by western powers, though this is unlikely to happen).

7. Get pro-democracy Americans to destabilise the democratic result of your next door neighbours's elections.

8. And for the grand finale, stage an Apocalypse-Now type raid on a Palestinian prison to defend the honor of a slain Israeli war, complete with helicopters, tanks, and armored bulldozers, and finish off with Israeli general's and paper's crowing "We got 'em!"

Addendum (courtesy Rattu):

9. Murmur, every once in a while, your willingness to make "painful concessions" for peace.... if only you had a partner... which is (emphasise this point with raising your voice, and look upwards to heaven) unfortunately not the case;

10. Make a distinction between yourself, a peace-loving, yet strong and courageous man, and the "lunatic settlers" (though do not spell it out this way, and keep supporting them in almost anyway possible).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Beware the ides of March (aka How to secure an Israeli election in just ten hours)

I should have known. A stunt so frequent as to be banal. March 14-a day before Ceasar’s fabled assassination, and just 13 days before the Israeli elections.

Suddenly, seemingly out of no where, Jericho, the oldest city in the world, and the Marxist-Leninist PFLP, one of the oldest Palestinian national organizations, are dramatically thrust onto the world stage (in the PFLP's case, after a long absence and being overshadowed by Hamas).

With tanks and bulldozers and helicopter gunships, Israeli military forces besieged the Palestinian prison in the otherwise sleepy desert town-just 30 minutes after American and British observers left their posts (citing concerns that prisoners were allowed to use "cell phones" "convenient" for Israel that the observers should choose to be bothered and concerned within an hour of Israel's seige)- ultimately seizing six of it’s the most wanted inmates holed up inside.

Most prominent among them- Ahmed Saadat, held in the Jericho prison in a deal that involved American and British observers, without ever standing trial. He was accused of overseeing the assassination of Israeli tourism Minister, and self-declared ethnic cleanser who referred to Palestinians as “lice” and “cancer”, Rehavam Ze'evi, in retaliation for Israel's extra-judicial assasination of its leader Abu Ali Mustafa (Mustafa al-Zibri) in August 2001.

Interestingly, Ze’evi was founder of the Moledet Party-an extremist, ultra-nationlist party that openly called for the transfer of all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, and for the annexation of Jordan-even after its 1994 peace deal with Israel. Yet Ze’evi served as an Israeli cabinet minister nonetheless, without so much as a peep from either the US or the EU.

To quote Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada:

“How is it that a proud, boastful ethnic cleanser like Ze'evi could sit in the Israeli cabinet with Ariel Sharon and Nobel Prize winner Shimon Peres for years and not one of those Western officials who today threaten the Palestinians with an end to all aid for electing Hamas uttered not one single word? Why is it acceptable for the US Congress to hand over billions of dollars to an Israel whose government ministers advocate ethnic cleansing? How is it that instead of demanding the arrest of the murderers of Abu Ali Mustafa and thousands of other Palestinians, Britain and the US collude with Israel to commit new crimes under international law?”

The tireless Uri Avneri attacked the siege as a pre-election ploy by Olmert, saying the 2001 Ze'evi assassination was no different than an Israeli-style "targeted killing".

According to a friend who was at the scene before herself being arrested, the military destroyed one building of Jericho muqatta with tank and Apache shells. And they made sure all the prisoners were in one internal room, in the courtyard which journalists couldn’t see. They then brought a crane and tore down the wall of the room the prisoners were in while they were in it.

To quote Abunimah again: “The ease and impunity with which the occupation forces attack Palestinians everywhere serves to remind us that these territories remain today, as they have been since 1967, under full Israeli military dictatorship.”

Abunimah goes on: “While there is silence about the attacks in Jericho, there is also silence and inaction as Israel announced that Ariel, a huge colony in the heart of the West Bank, is to be annexed, and Israel began building a new occupation forces "police station" east of Jerusalem, the first step in massively expanding the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. Israel… acts not only with impunity but with the active support of western powers who promise to starve its victims while quaking in fear at uttering a single word of criticism.”

Aljazeera carried live exclusive footage of the siege, and events were happening very fast. Angry protestors from the PFLP poured out onto Gaza’s streets. They attacked symbols of what they perceived as foreign collusion: the British Council (a cultural center) was partially burned, and the office of Amideast, which is in the building right next door to me, was briefly stormed, and its windows shattered. They called a general strike, as stores closed their doors.

Machine-gun fire ripped through the air just as Israeli drones whirred incessantly above, and Israeli artillery shells continued to pound Eastern and Northern Gaza, shaking my entire building. Plumes of black smoke from burnt tires and vehicles could be seen rising in Gaza’s skies.

All this, of course, just as Israel sealed off Gaza from all sides once again, shutting the Rafah terminal after EU observers left, and sealing off the al-Mintar commercial crossing, whose closure has already resulted in millions of dollarsin losses to the Palestinian economy.

PFLP legislator Khalida Jarrar, like most people here, expressed disbelief and anger at the attack in an interview, telling me that Palestinians need international protection, and cannot rely on agreements with Israel:

“These are political prisoners being held inside a Palestinian prison. And they attacked them with tanks and helicopters as if they were armed. This demonstrates that such agreements that are signed with the Israelis with so-called American and British monitors do not guarantee the safety and lives of the prisoners. And the Israeli occupation will continue with its policies regardless. Only by bringing an end to the occupation can we truly be protected. “

Scenes from yesterday's Jericho prison raid

Palestinians security forces, after being forced to strip down to their underwear by Israeli troops, sit captive in front of an army vehicle (AP).

Palestinian prisoners and security officers, forced to strip down to their underwear by Israeli troops, stand outside the raided Jericho jail (AP).

Angry protests spilled over into the street in Gaza. Members of the PFLP closed off roads with whatever they could find (here, a trash bin), and called a general strike in protest of the Israeli raid.

A PFLP gunman hoists his groups flag atop a building housing the office of Amideast, a STate department funded American educational institue, after briefly storming it.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The energy circle: 'fueling' the occupation in Gaza

Today, dozens of taxi drivers announced a strike in protest of the rising price of fuels in Gaza. They burned tires throughout the Strip, blocking roads and junctions and refusing to transport people to schools and jobs.

The price of gasoline has reached 5.45 shekels a litre and diesel 3.85 shekels a litre. A cylinder of cooking gas has reached a high of 47 shekels ($ jaw nearly dropped when the gas people delivered it to our door today), compared to 4 Egyptian pounds (less than $1) in nearby Egypt. All this, in a territory where there is an 84% poverty rate.

But who's to blame for the energy spike? Aren't the Israelis gone? Can't Gaza become its own state, produce its own energy?

The local rumor mill is abuzz with theories on the issue of the price rise itself. Some suggest that the outgoing Fateh party, in collusion with Israel and the United States, is trying to put the pressure on Hamas from the get-go, and so decided to hike prices. Of course, the Palestinian Energy Authority produces only 5% of Palestinian electricity, limited to production of biomass, small private electricity generation, and solar energy.

The Palestinian energy sector relies almost fully on imported energy, either directly from Israel or under the supervision of the Israeli authorities for oil products. Palestinians, by law, must rely on Israel for their energy needs according to the Paris Protocols-about 95% of the Palestinian electricity is generated by the Israel Electricity Corporation (IEC).

The Gaza Strip has a rich natural gas reserve in its territorial waters, which could be converted to electricity, used locally, sold abroad, and even transferred for use in the West Bank, which currently relies completely on Israel for electricity and natural gas.

But because Israel continues to maintain control the Palestinian coastline and borders, despite the much-lauded unilateral 'disengagment' of late last year, the PA cannot capitalize on this resource or market it at the moment. To quote Jimmy Carter, "circumscribed and isolated, without access to the air, sea, or the West Bank, Gaza is a non-viable economic and political entity.

Most Gaza families cannot afford gas ovens as a result of the outrageously high prices. They rely instead on small, single burner electric stovetops. Of course, electricity is likewise expensive here- in fact, Palestinians pay more for energy than any one else in the world.

The only difference is that electricity is provided in advance, without having to pay for the service as one would gas by the cylinder. So the result is that in many parts of Gaza, entire neighbourhoods haven’t paid their electricity bills in months because they simply cannot afford to.

One man told me his bill today turned up at 6000 shekels in overdue payments. The energy authority has no choice but to keep sending notices, but without shutting off their electricity, and usually ends up relying on donor agencies or charitable individuals to absorb the costs (part of the recent EU aid package is going to pay off the Israel Electricty Corporation). Some call it freeloading, others call it poverty and desperation.

These people aren’t living beyond their means-the means are just beyond them. I saw the home of the man who owes 6000 shekels. His daughters bake bread for their 8 member-family every other day on a small electric, locally made toaster oven with World Food Programme flour. They have no phone line, and a few light bulbs, and a fridge. That’s all.

Of course, I can’t help but think if we as Palestinians were given true sovereignty over our borders, and able to actually use and export our own gas and make our own electricity-or even if Israel reduced the prices of the electricity while this happens, all this could be avoided in the first place, millions of dollars could be saved, millions of people could live better lives. This is just one small, if technical, example of how Israel continues to 'fuel' the occupation in Gaza, following the equation of maximum control, and minimum responsiblity.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Gaza scenes

Amdist the decay, there is always beauty lurking not far behind.

A view of Gaza from above (the 15th floor to be precise).

Friday, March 10, 2006

Meeting Ismail Haniyah

In between planning Yousuf’s birthday (the party finally happened yesterday!) and dealing with a spell of constipation he got along with a nasty cold (all I’ll say is-the miracles of olive oil never cease to amaze!), I was too pre-occupied for any serious writing last week. But I did manage to meet with our Prime-Minister designate, Ismail Haniyah.

It happened sort of by coincidence. I met up with the wonderful Helena Cobban, longtime journalist and writer, currently a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, and also author of one of the first comprehensive books on the PLO. She emailed to tell me she was in Gaza for a few days.

It was a sort of weird convergence of threads in the Palestinian tapestry, or at least my budding family’s own tapestry. You see, she covered the fall of the Tel-Zaatar camp to the Israeli-Syrian-backed Flangist forces in 1976. The camp happened to be where Yassine and his family lived before fleeing to Baalbeck’s Wavel camp, (and where his uncle went missing after the massacre, and remains missing till this day).

So we met up, and chatted and lunched it up in our house as if we were old friends or family. We also drove around with the Hamas elected Munipality head of Dair al-Balah to take a look at some of the institutions Hamas has built there.

The next day, I went to the parliament to meet up with MPs during a break from their grueling and heated two-day session (convened by videoconference due an Israeli-imposed travel ban), with Gaza legislators linking-up to fellow MPs in the West Bank through a large screen wrought with technical difficulties, all of which highlights, to quote my colleague Khalid Amayreh, “Israel's complete control of nearly all aspects of Palestinian life…it is easier for most Palestinians, including public officials, to travel anywhere in the world than to commute the 20-minute-drive between the Strip and the West Bank”.”

In the corridors, I met Helena again, this time about to informally interview Ismail Haniyeh, who had just slid into his office from a swarm of television cameras. So I joined her to assist in translation (though she hardly needed it-she speaks super Arabic) and later warded off his assistant who insisted I take the entire box of tissues instead of just one in a show of hospitality.

My first impression of Haniya (besides his towering height) was his warmth and casual demeanor. I also couldn’t help noticing his eyes. Don’t ask me why I was gazing into Ismail Haniya’s eyes- I guess I always believe that eyes can tell you a lot about a person. They are these soft emerald-grey-green colour that somehow leave you at ease when you talk to him. He doesn’t speak much (any) English. Helena just said she wanted to interview him for 10 minutes and he said, jokingly, “ok, ahham ishee inrakiz 3al ’10 minutes’” (ok as long as we focus on the 10 minutes part).

Nothing he said was particularly groundbreaking, which I expected. But it was interesting to get to know him a little bit better, and compare him to some other Hamas leaders I've met in the past, such as Ismail Abu Shanab, Rantisi, and Ahmed Yasin. He was markedly more pragmatic and soft-spoken, I think i'd compare him most to Ismail Abu Shanab. Some highlights:

Asked about whether he thought Hamas could get the job done, vis-à-vis internal reform and rebuilding:

“Hamas has lived through all of Palestinian societies conditions. We have succeeded in the past in this respect, and we are confident we can succeed in this new challenge, in organizing the ‘Palestinian house’. We have in the past been successful in reaching internal agreements with other factions despite the tense internal political climate. We held our guns when all other factions didn’t. This does not mean there are no challenges-internal and external. The responsibility is huge and not a simple one. That is why we hope to form a national unity government that together can help realize the desires of the Palestinian people. Our people want internal security now”

Haniya then added then he saw that the PLO was one of the most important accomplishments and that he considered Hamas now a part of the it. He also said that “Hamas has relationships with many EU countries” already, but did not elaborate on which ones when pressed.

When the issue of borders and recognizing Israel came up in conversation:

“Why are answers needed over and over again for questions which have been responded to? We ask that the international community demand that Israel recognize the rights of Palestinians for once and to recognize a Palestinian state. Then, for sure, we will have a response to this question. We cannot separate ourselves from the reality of occupation. AT the same time, we hope to become less and less dependent on them.”

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Lethal Ambiguity

The Israeli occupation army has long been known to have a book of unwritten rules as concerns its open-fire regulations and a "Code of Silence" among its soldiers, in order to be able to exhonerate them from the killing of innocent and unarmed civilians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the most glaring example being that of Iman al-Hims, and just last week, Amer Basyouni of the al-Ain refugee camp.

In a new video,the Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem provides testimonies of soldiers speaking about their Open-Fire Regulations. The testimonies show that soldiers receive intentitonaly ambiguous orders about when and how they are to use their weapons, giving the soldiers flexiblity, a high civlian death toll, and immunity from responsiblity. It is a policy Btselem calls "lethal ambiguity".

In one segment, a soldier speaks about the army’s policy in Hebron: "The Palestinians would open fire… In response, the army would take a controlling position and set up machineguns. Our job as machine-gunners was to respond… Machineguns are not precise weapons. You fire the first volley, see what it hits, and based on that adjust the aim… There were cases in which the army opened machinegun-fire and hit the roof of a hospital with a grenade…

"All these orders are grounded on a simple assumption: it is unacceptable that Palestinians will fire and we, the army, remain silent… [The soldiers] would take revenge. Go to Abu Sneneih or Harat a-Sheikh and shoot from real close… and when that didn’t help, fire at property as a deterrent."

Btselem says that while in the past, Open-Fire Regulations only covered law enforcement, with the outbreak of the second Intifada, the Israeli government instituted significant changes in the regulations and made them more "ambiguous":

"The army no longer gave soldiers a printed copy of the regulations, and they greatly expanded the kinds of situations in which soldiers were allowed to use their weapons. Israeli security forces have killed at least 1,806 Palestinians who were not taking part in the hostilities at the time they were killed. The vagueness of the orders given to soldiers on when to open fire is one of the principal causes for the high number of casualties. [T]he general practice is of not investigating cases of the killing of civilians who were not taking part in the hostilities. This situation transmits a grave message to the soldiers of contempt for the most basic human right, the right to life."

According to an Israeli army reservist I spoke with, even if soldiers are punished for torture or murder, it is symbolic at best: "“If there is a trial, [it] will be only the [solider] and the battalion commander…its what they call ‘discipline’…the soldier hears out [the commander] and says to him ‘ok sure’ then spends 7 days in prison and no one except the unit will know about it, including the press.”

21-year-old Tom Hurndall spent 9 months in a coma before dying from gunshot wounds to his head. He was shot by an Israeli sniper when he tried to bring Palestinian children to safety.

B’Tselem says such “offensive sentences”, together with the Israeli Judge Advocate’s Office’s new policy of limiting the number of criminal investigations during this Intifada, contribute to a sense of immunity and transmit a message to officers and soldiers that “even if you violate the regulations and harm innocent persons, it is extremely unlikely that you will be punished.”

The policy of amiguity applies equally to Gaza's border "killing zone"-where 9 unarmed Palestinians, including five children, and and one eight-month old child, have been killed since the Disengagement:

9-year-old Aya al-Astal was killed by Israeli snipers stationed on Gaza's borders on her way back home to her village of Qarrara in south-east Gaza. No investigation was every made into her death.

"According to B'Tselem's recent research, the army made no attempt to warn the Palestinians to move further away from the fence, or to give them a chance to surrender.

There has been talk in the media of killing zones. The claim is that there are areas in which the soldiers are ordered to open fire at any person who enters, regardless of the circumstances. IDF officials have denied that any such order has been given. However, the nine cases in which Palestinians have been killed raise the suspicion that broad stretches of land near the Gaza perimeter fence have indeed been classified as "killing zones."

Here is the testimony one one of the victim's (16-year-old Sayyed Abu Libdah) cousins, who was killed while in his family's orchard, 600 metres away from the border.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Taking it all in

Palestinians sit and reflect near the bodies of 14-year-old Ahmed Al-swasi (R), 8-year-old Raed Ahmad al-Batsh (C) and his 15-year-old brother Mahmoud Ahmed al-Batsh (L), who were victims of an Israeli airstrike on Monday. Three Palestinian children and two members of the Islamic Jihad movement were killed and another eight bystanders, most of them children, were also wounded. Shaul Mofaz defended the strikes and said no one in the newly democratically elected Palestinian parliament was immune. Courtesy Ismael Mohamad (UPI)

I’m tired. And mad, at how unproductive being tired can make me, among other things. But mainly, I’m just tired. Sometimes, it can get exhausting being here.

It’s not so much one single event, but rather the sum total of a series of every day seemingly insignificant incidents that make up the occupation in all its ugliness and brutality and take their insidious toll on you, that creep up on you while you may think yourself not susceptible somehow, sometimes. A border closure here. A milk or diaper shortage there. A travel ban. An aerial assault. Anger and depression and despondence. All of this, combined with the daily realization that your life is not yours to live. The air is not yours to breathe. It’s suffocating and psychologically tasking.

And working in the news, covering the news that’s all around you, makes it even harder. It can be all too easy to lose perspective. It also makes you realize how easy it is to become the news yourself.

I slept most of the afternoon. And was dizzy most of the morning. And when I woke up I learned that the explosion I heard was an attack by an unmanned Israeli drone in the teeming, poverty-stricken Shijaeeya neighborhood not far from my house. It killed the intended “targets”- two members of Islamic Jihad. But it also killed three others.

Including two children-brothers, 8-year-old Raed Al-Batch and his 15-year-old brother Ala. They were with their mother at the time. She lived, only to learn that she lost two boys. At once.

I’m just so tired.

A relative crying in disbelief in the hospital morgue(AP)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

You CAN have your cake and eat it too!

Yousuf licks the bowl after we finish making the cake

"Maybe if I use my hand I can get more of it out..."

"Now we're talking..."

Waiting anxiously for the cake to bake

"So you're saying I have to get close to these flames and then blow them out?"

The things we do (when not counting artillery shells)

Yousuf enjoys a swing on our farm with one of his pet rabbits (still unnamed...suggestions welcome), and later, "reads" a book in the newly opened and absolutely amazing Qattan Centre for the Child in Gaza (a few seconds later, the book nearly ended up inside the hard-drive of one of the library's computers as Yousuf tried to shove it in the Cd-Drive. Maybe we'll opt for story-time instead next-time).

And a big happy birthday for Yousuf-he turns two today! (though we will hold off on the official celebration till later in the week).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Gaza 'diet' begins

The ongoing closure of the al-Mintar (aka Karni) crossing, the main route for both commercial and humanitarian supplies into Gaza, has resulted in an estimated loss of some $10.5 million, and the depletion of Gaza's main food staples, according to a report by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humantarian Affairs (OCHA).

The crossing, considered to be Gaza's commercial lifeline, was shut down unilaterally by Israel for 21 days in January, before Hamas came to power, and again on 21 February, despite promises in a border and access agreement, that was brokered by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not do so.

Wheat grain stocks are dwindling as a result, and flour mills in Gaza have shut down, with residents having to rely on their home supplies. In the impoverished Strip, the overwhelming majority of residents bake their own bread.

In addition, the UN and the World Food Programme warned that sugar, which has increased in price at least 25% since the closure, as well as cooking oil, would run out in two days.

Last week, prime ministerial adviser Dov Weisglass was quoted as saying at a meeting that the idea behind the closure policy was "to put the Palestinians on a diet but not make them die of hunger."

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has decided the crossing will remain closed on Thursday, despite earlier promises to open it indefinitely to "humanitarian aid" for Palestinian residents. In addition to serving as an export and import hub for merchandise, fruits, and vegetables-many of which are in peak season now and beginning to rot- medicines, vaccines, and kidney dialysis wash are also transported through al-Mintar.

The Israeli army initially said the Gaza closure was due to "security threats" to the border, citing concerns that tunnels were being dug under the crossing and of the transfer of avian flu.

No such tunnels were ever found, and health officials have dismissed fears of bird flu spreading, saying "it knows no boundaries." Further, there has been no evidence yet of infections in Gaza, and Israeli has prevented the entry of reagents to detect the virus.

Israel has been trying to pressure the PA to accept Kerem Sharom crossing as an alternative crossing, a proposal Mahmud Abbas rejected today. According to a senior Palestinain official responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Access and Movement Agreement brokered by Condoleezza Rice, only 4-8 cargo trucks would be allowed through the alternative crossing. The Rice agreement spoke about over 160 trucks a day, though even before the closure, only 60 trucks were allowed to transport goods through Karni. The agreement also talked about Kerem Shalom as a parallel border-not a substitute which would allow Israel exercise complete control and the ability to shut down al-Mintar/Karni at its leisure.

The UN report also said that that Israel remains responsible, as an occupying power for ensuring public order and the health and welfare of the Palestinian population.

"International humanitarian agencies do not have the capacity to take over the running of PA services , even if the security situation allowed. Humanitarian assistance from the international community does not relieve Israel of this responsibility."

OCHA director David Sheere said that the humanitarian situation has already seen a sharp deterioration since last months' legislative elections due to tightened Israeli control, adding that the situation will only get worse if aid is withheld.

"We were concerned that the PA might not be able to pay salaries and that will have an enormous impact, the fact that approximately 1 million people will not have a breadwinner, and what the implications might be if around 70, 000 armed security forces are not receiving any money in an area where 65% of the population is already under the poverty line."