Gaza in conflict

My following article appears in US magazine The Nation:

Israel’s recent war against Gaza has been condemned by virtually every human rights group in the world. An Israeli NGO of combat soldiers called Breaking the Silence released a report in July, based on the testimony of veterans of the Gaza campaign, that found excessive violence and the use of human shields during the battle. Noam Chayut, co-founder of the group, told me recently in Tel Aviv that many veterans were shocked by the Israeli army’s behavior but still believed in the morality of the war itself.

Gaza creates contradictions in us all. I went there in July to investigate everything from war damage and the Western-led siege to the rule of Hamas and freedom of speech. Hamas control of Gaza is often seen as an impediment to peace. Militancy, extremism, terrorism and deadly rockets create an image of fundamentalism and irrationality.

Islamization is undoubtedly growing in the Strip. Government ministers are urging women to wear loose-fitting, modest clothing and asking shopkeepers to remove female mannequins from their windows. During my visit, I saw a warning given to adults and children not to wear T-shirts or sweaters with certain “inflammatory” English words and phrases, such as “Madonna,” “pork,” “kiss me,” “I am ready for sexual affairs” and “vixen.”

Journalist Fares Akram, whose father was murdered by the Israelis during the January war, told me that he feared the people of Gaza were too exhausted and preoccupied with daily life to worry about the creeping implementation of Sharia law. Akram showed me posters being distributed by Hamas that depicted the dangers of smoking, the Internet, drugs and television. None of these suggestions are legally enforceable, but they may soon be. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the assembled at Friday prayers in Khan Yunis in July that Islamic “virtue” was important in any society.

But this is only one picture of Gaza, a territory under siege for years by Israel and the Western powers. I was expecting a threatening place, not least because I’m Jewish; instead, I found humility, generosity and desperation (photos of my visit are here, and a mini-documentary is here).

The effects of the December/January campaign were pervasive. Some parts of Jabaliya, in the north of Gaza, looked like an elephant had trampled the ground beneath its feet. In other areas, some buildings had been pulverized by Israeli missiles while others were left standing. “The Israelis work randomly, like us,” my fixer, Ahmed, joked. In one area I visited, the Israelis had ordered Palestinians to evacuate, so very few lives were lost. Some locals told me they thought the onslaught was in retaliation for a previous invasion, when militants killed some Israeli army troops.

Abdullah Alathamma, 27, lost his home in the bombardment. Eleven days into it, with the Israeli military shelling and shooting at houses in the area, his family decided to flee. He said he saw the Israelis open fire on a woman walking to get water. His brother was arrested after the war and hasn’t been seen since; Abdullah doesn’t know where he is being held, or for what alleged crime. “Israel are merciless killers,” he said, spitting.

Abdullah’s father, Majed, is balding, with wisps of gray hair and a deeply lined face. He was angry as he showed me photos of his six crushed yellow Mercedes taxis, the lifeblood of his business before the war. He dismissively called the Israelis “Jews” and couldn’t understand why they were “obsessed” with the Qassam rockets “that don’t kill anybody anyway.” We sat under a shady roof, mosquitoes buzzing around us, as Hamas jeeps slowly snaked their way through the rubble. Young children collected the remains of destroyed homes and placed them on donkey carts to be reused or sold.

Majed took me to his home, a twisted mangle of steel, metal and discarded toys. He stood on what was once the roof and held aloft two pieces of beautiful tile that had been part of the bathroom floor. He showed me where his family now had to cook, a grubby kitchen on sandy ground. Three sleeping children, one a baby, lay peacefully under a makeshift tent, their temporary lodgings. I was told Majed used to be a relatively wealthy man, with property worth $300,000. Today, he constantly reminded me, he has nothing. He asked for help and to tell his story.

Such stories were ubiquitous in Gaza. A territory under blockade since Hamas assumed control in a violent pre-emptive takeover in 2007, many people said they wanted to leave to visit family or friends in Egypt or beyond but were rejected with no reason given. Some said they would refuse to leave, even if the Israelis or Egyptians granted permission. They were a proud people and seemingly took a level of perverse satisfaction in surviving in Gaza, despite the onerous conditions. The blockade would not crush their spirit.

Dr. Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the burns unit at Al-Shifa Hospital, told me that he and his colleagues struggled with the extreme nature of the burns suffered during the recent war. Nafez is a stoic man, but he could not help but be personally affected by the conflict. “Every night I slept under the stairs of my house with my family to keep them safe; there was nowhere safe to go,” he said. “This was not a war; it was a holocaust.”

He had to rely on foreign doctors, friends and the web, when electricity was available, to learn how to treat injuries sustained by white phosphorus. One day when Israel threatened to (again) bomb the hospital, he gathered the nurses, doctors and other staff to tell them he was staying but they were free to go home. Very few walked out the door.

The Fatah/Hamas split–a brutal little war exacerbated by US-trained Fatah troops committing human rights abuses against the democratically elected Hamas government–is regularly discussed. The vast majority of people I talked to wanted the moderates in both parties to reconcile. Division is death in Palestine and simply makes it easier for Israel and Washington to claim there is no partner for peace.

Dr. Haider Eid, an academic and activist for the one-state solution in Israel-Palestine, despaired that Hamas was already talking about accepting the parameters of a two-state equation, like the previously failed Fatah endeavors. “Hamas has to choose between resistance and leadership,” he said, “so this is now a moment of truth for the movement.” Dr. Ahmed Yousef, Hamas deputy foreign minister and former adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, was the epitome of moderation when we met. He talked about accepting a state within the 1967 borders, though he warned Israel that “resistance” would continue if colonization in the occupied territories continued, which he acknowledged was likely.

The sight of Hamas security forces on the streets was surprisingly unthreatening. Virtually every street or major intersection saw armed men in uniforms (seized, along with their cars, when Hamas overthrew Fatah in 2007). My fixer, a Fatah man, cursed the Hamas men whenever we drove past, and we heard almost daily of deadly gun battles between the two sides. It was a division that militants I interviewed said was unlikely to be fully resolved any time soon.

Haniyeh doesn’t give media interviews anymore and has rarely been seen in public since the war, though I was able to attend the Friday prayers in Khan Yunis that he was leading. The security around him was immense–large, well-armed men with beards and steely eyes. The audience lapped up Haniyeh’s presence. Like Barack Obama, Haniyeh is an orator of striking proportions. His words rose and fell in a hypnotic rhythm. (I was later told he spoke of accepting a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders if it included East Jerusalem as the capital and the right of the refugees to return.) The mosque’s fans blew on the masses below as they listened intently. Men of all ages rocked from side to side as Haniyeh delivered his speech.

As Haniyeh left, there was a surge behind me, and I was almost swept under a sea of people. The security forces were clearing the area for the leader, pushing and slapping anybody in their way. One man cried out Arabic words of support, and the crowd shouted its response in unison. We were pushed and pulled as Haniyeh, after briefly stopping and raising his hands to acknowledge the salute, exited the building.

A few hours later Haniyeh attended one of Hamas’s first public rallies since January. An outdoor sports ground in Khan Yunis was the setting. Hundreds of armed Hamas security forces surrounded the venue, positioning themselves on adjacent rooftops and surveying the crowd, mostly men in traditional thobes. Hamas flags waved from every flagpole, and posters of assassinated Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi hung behind the raised stage. The large speakers blared music, warming up the crowd. When Haniyeh appeared, he mounted the platform, waved to his followers, sat down and began to speak. I thought how easy it would have been for Israel to bomb the event and take out many levels of the Hamas leadership at once. My fixer told me that Fatah was far more eager to do that than the Israelis.

Gaza is unlike anywhere on earth. I regularly sat near the beach overlooking the ocean, sipping a cool fruit drink. The stylishly appointed bar at the hotel where I was staying could easily have been at some fancy resort elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It was designed for a tourist industry that no longer comes and an elite that now thrives on property ownership and the tunnel-smuggling industry. Just outside the hotel, however, stand an ever-increasing number of beggars amid rubbish-strewn streets, not far from the destroyed parliament building.

Many Gazans think the world, including the Arab states, has forgotten them. Egypt’s role in maintaining the siege was constantly damned by the people I talked to. Israeli behavior, while terrible and universally condemned, was better understood than that of their Arab neighbor. People expressed fear of Iran despite its public support for Hamas. The Islamic Republic’s strict clerical rule simply does not appeal to Gazans, who need more than rhetorical support. The world community has yet to deliver.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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