Thursday, May 24, 2007

And we sleep.

We go to sleep now waiting for the next round of Israeli attacks against "Hamas targets". That is what they are calling them now. Last night, I couldn't sleep again. The drones were waxing and waning in intensity overhead. And then of course the Apaches. And the explosions.

But this time, the "target" wasn't some distant building or family gathering hall in Shija3iya or Jabaliya, it was a money changer on my very street, Omar al-Mukhtar, in Gaza's Remal neighbourhood. And the supermarket next door.

After things calmed down, I dozed off, only to be shocked out of bed at around 3am by a thunderous explosion, another attack. It shook us from our insides. My mother became hysterical, flailing her arms and screaming uncontrablly. We hugged each other, I tried to calm her down. "Its ok, its nothing, maybe an F-16..its ok".

But it was not ok. This explosion was closer than ever before. At first we thought maybe the "target" was a store in our building. It turned out to be another money changer only a few shops down from our house, no more than 50 metres. The store was leveled.

And then there was nothign left to do but sleep. But there was a horrible, sinking feeling in my stomach, the result of panic and fear and ugly certainty of it all. It took a few hours for the knots in my stomach to slowly unwind and settle. I felt nauseous.

What exactly the Israeli army is "targeting" is a mystery. But of course the media machine spins it as "Hamas targets". This is how it read the next morning in Haaretz-including a note on how the attacks resulted in "no damage or casualities". I thought, maybe the author shoudl come to Gaza.

The popular thinking seems to hold that they have simply run out of "legitimate" targets-whatever the hell that is anyway (MPS? Homes?)-and so have now resorted to bombing things like moneychangers and supermarkets. This is according to an Israeli army general himself in the radio, who said his army really did not know what else to strike.

And there is nothing left to do but sleep.

Israel, US to train Fatah forces

Of course, this is nothing new. But for some reason people seem to think its a big conspiracy when its not.

US and Israeli loyalities to either side change quicker than a teenager's hormone-afflicted crushes. Remember how once, they were funding Hamas? and then Fatah. And then Fatah cum Arafat were bad bad bad. That was in 2000. Now they are teh good guys again.

So anyway, according to today's Haaretz, Israel has agreed to "extensive training of members of the Presidential Guard of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in areas near Jericho, in the Jordan Valley".

The article goes on to state that this request was made through the Americans and that Israel agreed to the transfer of thousands of rifles and ammunition to Abbas' Presidential Guard.

So yes, there is something far more sinister occurring.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

War games

Just to re-assure my readers, we are alive and well. I've just been busy reporting and filming and simply trying to go on with my life. The situation has a way of getting in your head, but to quote my friend Taghreed, you have to put is aside, compartmentalize, and move on with your life.

I published this article in Aljazeera after speaking to a number of people about how the situation is affecting them.

I was down in Rafah again this week. While inspecting the site of a future park project my friend Fida is working on (and which we are making a film about), we were disrupted every few minutes by the voracious sound of multiple F-16 fighter jets flying overhead in unision. Sometimes one or two; then four or five.

Children scurried about playing football with a deflated basketball on the sand lot.

"Do you think I will be assassinated one day?" one child asked another. He didn't say this jokingly.

I can't sleep. I get up maybe once every two hours. Go to the bathroom, walk around a little, and then doze off again. Only to be awakened by the drones, followed by the manic hovering of helicopter gunships.

This time they were directly over our apartment building. I would have been afraid, except this happened once before, maybe two years ago. Panicked and fearful at the time, I called my cousin, who re-assured me that when an Apache is directly overhead, it means its intended target is about 500 metres to one kilometre away. It is information I wish I did not know.

So this time, I didn't flinch. I just waited for the dreadful conclusion. The intensity of the propeller's sound waned and intensified at various intervals, until finally two missiles were fired. I could hear them hissing, and then, exploding.

My friend Saeed, who is staying in a hotel next to us, said he saw flashes of light outside-apparently the drones taking pictures of the resulting explosions for keepsakes (and of course to show off to the media how "precide" their attacks are).

Former Israeli Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition Benyamin Netanyahu has called for Israel to cut water and electricity to Gaza. Because that will do a great deal of good, obviosly. We are still feeling the effects of last summer's attack on Gaza's powerplants-especially as summer nears. Electricity is beginning to be rationed and power outages are becomign more frequent now. The UN says there ar solutions-but the energy authority, like every other instition in Gaza, is simply too financially strapped.

Electricity for about 50,000 people was cut off two days ago during one of

Meanwhile, Rafah Crossing is still closed. It has only been open four days over the past month, less than 40% of the time over the past year. There are an estimated 5000 people waiting to cross on either side.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The ghostly streets, the ghostly skies

We’re used to things going from bad to worse very quickly here. But we never expected the situation to get as bad as it has over the past few days.

After a terrifying 24 hours, we awoke this morning to sporadic gunfire, and ghostly streets.

IT was a welcome change. Sleep-deprived and anxious, my colleague Saeed, on his first visit to Gaza, and myself, headed to Rafah in the southern part of the Strip to continue shooting a series of documentaries we are working on.

Though the gunfire had subsided, the gunmen were still patrolling the streets, each this time casually manning their own turf, masked and fully armed.

Impromptu checkpoints were still set up along the main Gaza-Rafah road, and we were stopped for ID and affiliation checks.

As we approached Rafah, we received word that clashes had broken out there, too, following the funeral of 4 Hamas men killed in an Israeli air strike the night before.

We decided to avoid the town centre, and headed instead to film near the border area along Rafah’s edge. Young children blissfully flew handmade kites above the iron wall separating them from the Egyptian Rafah. Their "atbaq" flirted in the infinite sky above with kites flying their way from the Egyptian side. "We play a game with the Egyptian kids" they explained of their unseen counterparts. "We meet here, through our kites, and see who can catch the other's kites quicker by entangling. So far we're winning-we've got 14 Egyptian kites" he announced proudly.

The children are small enough that they can wiggle their way through the cracks of the large iron gates along the wall-where once Merkava tanks made their unwelcome entrance to battered camps here. And so they can call out to their Egyptian friends, and learn their names and new kite flying techniques.

Even then, we could hear the fearsome roar of Israeli fighter jets overhead, interspersed with the banter of machine guns from feuding factions.

I then received a call from my father back in Gaza City-a tremendous explosion-the result of F-16 jet bombing a nearby Hamas compound - had just sent intense shockwaves through our house. It was so powerful that it blasted off the windows from my cousin’s home in the neighbourhood behind us. This attack was followed by another then another, and then another.

Hamas's Qassam Brigades have sent a barrage of rockets into Israel over the past two days. It has been in an attempt to redirect the battle towards the occupation, they say.

There have been six Israeli aerial strikes since this morning. The latest one happened just as we departed Rafah back to Gaza City. The victims this time were two young brothers, standing near a municipality garbage truck that was obliterated.

Even as I record this from back at home, we were shaken by another large explosion, Israelis tanks are amassing at Gaza’s northern border, and unmanned Israeli drones are whirring menacingly, incessantly, overhead in great numbers patrolling the ghostly skies that only the kites can reach, preparing, perhaps, for yet another strike against an already bleeding, burning, and battered Gaza.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

As Gaza Burns

Things have been crazy in Gaza over the past two days. Very crazy. In between working and actually trying to keep our wits about us as we've been holed up indoors for two days no, I've had little time to blog.

Things are tenusouly calm at the moment with on-again-off-again gunfire, which is better than it was only a few hours ago. But things in Gaza have a way of cahnging very quickly-for better or for worse. Volatility is its defining characteristic.

We happen to be sort of be in the eye of the storm as it were. Fierce battles employing mortars, RPGs, and heavy machine gun fire were raging all around our house today, at times only a block away, interdispersed with the thuds of Israeli gunships bombing areas of eastern and northern Gaza.

Yousuf of course became more and more concerned as the day passed, until I finaly told him they were not firing, but rather making an enourmous pot of popcorn outside that would fill the streets once it was done. At first he wasn't convinced, then he later remarkred "mama, I don't really like this kind of popocorn!". When the firing died down, he ran into my room excitedly shouting: "mama, mama! I think the popcorn is done!!"

The city was literally transformed into a ghost town, and civilian life was all but paralyzed. Storekeepers kept shops closed and virtually all residents, including schoolchildren and university students, remainded penned indoors. Most did not even dare to go to their balconies.

The occasional shopkeeper who did stay open was harassed by gunmen patrolling the streets.

"I don't understand-what are they fighing over, the trash in the streets?" lamented one shopkeeper to me.

"We're in a malestrom and i don't see a way out."

Impromptu checkpionts were set up along the major roads, cutting off access from Gaza City to the north and south of the strip.

Unidentified snipers took positions on high-rise towers through the city, as both facrtions vied for strategic control of various locations.

The victims of course in all of this were the residents, particularly those who lived in the towers. Many residents complained of having spend the past two days holed up in their ktichen withou electrictiy, and ambulances not being given access to the injured in the buildings.

One woman told me gunmen searched apartments for armed men and set afire several flats.

The most troubling part is how this is unfolding with such purpose, and yet with so little protest. There is something far more sinister sinister behind it all of course, namely, the US's unambiguous plot to undermind the Unity Government by arming, training, and "stregthening" Abbas, Dahalan, and their respectivfe security forces. The latest plan was uncovered in a JOrdanian newspaper last week before being whisked off the presses.

I talk about this in a Guardian article i wrote today.

For now, we wait, and see what tommorow brings.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

War criminal at on the loose at Harvard!

This is a brilliant piece of media activism-intervention if I've ever seen one.

An activist group in Boston dedicated to exposing and documenting Harvard University's pattern of admitting and hiring individuals with credible and public records of war crimes and human rights abuses has decided to take action against the University's problematic invitation to former Israeli military chief Dan Halutz, who is currently paticpating in a two-month executive traiing program at the Bussiness School there.

Halutz is known for commanding the indiscriminate slaughter in Lebanon last year. He has also been accused of war crimes for the one-tonne bombed he ordered dropped in a heavily populated civlian area in gaza in 2002 by human rights organizations around the world, including in Israel.

In response, the newly formed Harvard-based Alliance for Justice in the Middle East (AJME) is launching a weeklong search for Halutz, distributing "WANTED" posters, making inquiries, and soliciting the help of the campus community. Activists and community members will converge at Harvard Business School, where he was last spotted, to begin their search.

From their site: "The manhunt will also employ MISSING PERSONS milk cartons, helium balloons, and the Internet."

Halutz will be declared a "fugitive from justice" if he is still missing after two days.

So far, there has been no comment from the University.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem continues

I wrote about this yesterday for Aljazeera's website, but I'm still disappointed (should I even be surprised anymore?) that is has not gained as much media attention, as, say, a certain mickey-mouse-like show in Gaza. But I guess that's because we're heartless, violent thugs who only want Israel's destruction. Israel, on the other hand, builds things on Palestinian land, for, well, its security and livlihood.

Who's destroying?

I'm referring to the plan that was approved by the Israeli government on Thursday for 20, 000 new settler housing units, enough for roughly 70, 000-90, 000 new illegal settlers, in occupied East Jerusalem, raising the number of settlers living illegally on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank to 570,000. That's 10% of the the Israeli population, folks.

To put things in perspective, these settlements will create an uninterrupted stretch of Jewish-only housing and amenities between the eastern sector of the city and two West Bank settlement blocs, in an area (the "E-1" area) that historically accounts for 30-40% of the Palestinian economy combined. This is, of course, despite continued (empty) promises by Israeli governmetns not to build or expand there.

In typical Israeli government fashion, the announcement came just one day after the World Bank issued a scathing report of Israel's West Bank closure policies, which also happened to coincide with the demolitin of a special-needs home in East Jerusalem (despite the fact that the report found most building violations took place in West Jerusalem).

Israeli Border Police forcibly evicted the caregivers and children at dawn, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). A prayer vigil was held before the center was completely demolished.

"Currently, freedom of movement and access for Palestinians within the West Bank is the exception rather than the norm contrary to the commitments undertaken in a number of Agreements..." read the report, which also said Israel had purposefully fragmented the West Bank into cantons completely disconnected from one another.

But as a legal advisor to the PA told me, the report offered nothing new as far as Palestinains were concerned: "We've been saying this for years. We just wish the world would wake up and not just listen but actually do something. We have a situation where every European state is currently violating its own laws by trading with Israeli settlements.

"If they are serious about the two-state solution its time for them to live up to their own rhetoric and do something about it."

Now, who exactly believes that a two-state solution is still viable?

For more, read the rest of my article here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

الي حاميها,حراميها

That is how my friend Taghreed describes the situation in Gaza now. In other words, its protectors are its thieves.

Yesterday, new security deployments began-yet again-as part of the Unity government's new "security plan", which will in three separate stages see security re-enforcements comprised of both Hamas and Fateh members fan out across Gaza.

But the plan was not made public, and it was unclear to everyone-including the security forces themselves, what exactly was the purpose of the new deployment and whether it was truly a mixed police force.

As I was walking down the street yesterday, I stopped to chat with two policmen who had been deployed as part of the new plan. Before taking off, they asked me, almost whispering, "tell me, have you actually seen any Hamas members deployed? We heard rumors that they were supposed to be."

That evening, we had a sleepless night as Hamas members and newly deployed policeguards went at it; apparently, some in Fateh were not thrilled at the prospect of guarding the streets alongside their rivals. Some in Hamas, in turn, were not pleased that they were not yet offered this opportunity and deployed.

People in general have mixed feelings about the deployment. Some are holding out hope that it can resolve, or at least stabilize, the situation. Others consider it too little too late, and just like deployments before it, which never managed to truly secure the Strip.

I personally believe in the contined absence of a strong, central, and sovereign authority, and the dissolution of both the global and Israeli siege, Gaza can never be truly secure. The two go hand in hand.

To quote Alvaro De Soto, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process who just resigned today, "The only way to impose law and order in the territories and to bring about a cease-fire is by strengthening the Palestinian security mechanisms and creating conditions that will enable them to operate under a single command...[T]his is possible only under the Palestinian unity government. I find it hard to understand how polarization in Palestinian society, sabotaging the unity government and attempting to prevent it from fulfilling its responsibility serves Israel's interests."

Two members of the newly deployed security force patrol a street in Gaza City.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Gaza bloggers unite!

Ok, really it was just the lovely Heba and I, but I'll have to include my Aunt in the next picture.

You know Heba from her beautifully written blog Contemplating from Gaza.

Well we finally met up yesterday, and took our kids to play together in a local restaurant. Yousuf was a little shy (see: rude) at first, but he was quick to warm up and put the moves on her daughter.

Heba is thinking of stopping blogging so we have to all encourage her to keep going!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Rotterdam rallies for Palestine

Since I was just in Rotterdam a few weeks ago, it was neat to see this article in Haaretz (also here in the IHT) about a few thousand-strong rally that took place there today on the occasion of Holland's liberation from Nazi occupation.

Both our Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, and sports minister Bassem Naim were denied entry and thus could not attend. Instead, they addressed the rally via satellite connection, in true-Gaza parliament style. "You have a heavy responsibility to break the boycott and help your brothers in the occupied territories," said Haniya, adding that "This is the day a people got back its freedom, we are waiting for the day when out country will be freed." Atta Allah Hanna, Bishop of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, was also in attendence.

Keynote speaker former Dutch prime minister Dries Van Agt addressed the rally, criticizing Holland's "biased" pro-Israeli stance and boycott of the Hamas.

"The European and Dutch boycott of Hamas is wrong and even stupid," Van Agt said. "We automatically pardon the occupier and sanction the occupied nation." Well-said. Finally someone staying it like it is.

The honey's just better over there

We went to my father's farm on Friday. Spring is here. The flowers are in in full bloom. Gaza has a little more color to it, and for just a few weeks, the gritty, grey horizon of unfinished cinderblocks is disrupted. Purple tree-flowers burst into full blossom on the city streets and the Jundi Park's Hibiscus bushes are enflamed in vibrant reds.

Its also the best time to get some local honey-the good stuff, not the ones where the bees' diet is supplemented with sugar. As things go here, honey is expensive; at least 50-70 shekels a kilo depending on quality.

So my mother's friend and I strike up a converation about honey. She tells me about her friend who is in debt after her bees gathered pollen from their neibhour's farm, newly treated with pesticides for the spring.

They dropped like, well, bees, and half her hive was gone just like that. "The poor thing was crying on the phone. It was a project she'd started with a micro-loan from the Ministry of Agriculture."

"But anyway, the honey is better near the border," she adds.

"Near the border?" I inquire.

"Yes, you know, the Imsaddar household. Their farms are near the border with Israel, in eastern Gaza....their bees fly across the border and gather pollen from the Kenya trees and Orange groves in their farms. So the honey is just better."

How is it that honey from bees gathering pollen from trees across the border is better? Is it because the flowers are freer? Less empty or trapped or sad? Less occupied, perhaps?

"I think they just have more trees and flowers there. After all, most of our groves were razed during the Intifada," explained a friend.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Gaza gloom

Well, we made it safe and arguably sound, after another exhaustive battle through the nightmare that is Rafah Crossing, or as Gazans like to call it "Rafah Resort".

The good news is we made it through after spending just one night in Arish, and just before the crossing was closed again. Of course this was not without jostling through hundreds of tired, heat-exhausted, and dusty passengers. The Khamaseeni winds were fierce and dry and merciless.

Because the crossing had been closed for a week prior to Thursday, there was a backlog of passengers, and the flow was excruciatingly slow (think of a VERY thing bottleneck). I literally had to jam my way through the arms of Egyptian security guards ala "try and stop me", Yousuf in tow, and together with another woman and her children, steamrolled our way through a crack in the opening of of one of the doors leading to the Egyptian side of the passage.

This move, in combination with a snide remark I made to the head Egyptian security guy about how they run the border on bribes almost got me arrested. I was forced to make a public apology for this accusation, which I refused to do b/c it was so blatant, and so my passport was relegated to the back of the pile until the "investigator" showed up, and then one officer "took pity" on me and let me through.

Because the crossing only operates a limited number of hours when it DOES open (on Thursay, only 5) everyone is desperate to get through-who knows when it will open again?

"We just live to wait," says my friend Fares. "We wait for the border to open again. We wait for the salaries. We wait for the law to be restored."

Upon arrival, my first impression of Gaza after a few months of absence can be summarized in one word: gloom. The garbage strewn streets were covered in a thin layer of dust of course from the winds, but it was not only that. IT was the people. They were altogether absent from the streets-on a Thursday night.

"People are scared" offered my friend, as went to grab some ice cream.

"They are scared of the situation, of the absolute lapse of order and law, of where where we are headed. And they are depressed and despondent-there's no hope anymore for anything. Not even with this unity government. The world has abandoned them. And the result is a foregone conclusion."

Forget about light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel itself, as far as Gaza is concerned, has been destroyed.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

In Arish

Well Yousuf and I have made it safely, albeit exhausted after two days of land and plane travel), as far as Al-Arish, Egypt, 50 km from the RAfah Crossing.

The Crossing is currently closed, but this time b/c of a tiff between Egyptian Authorities and the the Palestinians.

Apparently,demonstrators stormed the Egyptian embassy in Gaza city on Monday demanding that Egypt release five Palestinian men detained without charge in Cairo jails for three years now. Apparently, they were imprisoned for illegaly crossing into Egypt to seek medical treatment (it is extremely difficult for Palestinian men and boys to cross into Egypt even with a valid reason, and impossible for those without ID cards ).

Protesters then tried to block an Egyptian official's car, demanding he speak to the crowd, and chaos ensued. In a protest of its own, Egypt has shut down its side of the crossing, effectively collectively punishing the entire population of Gaza.

So again, we wait, but negotiations are under way to placate our "Egyptian friends" (seeing as how friends are in scarce supplies these days....).

I'm not sure why the protest took place Monday-perhaps it was the anniversary. Picked up the story from the street here, but have seen a few wire reports on it.

Aside from this, the UN has reported that Israel unilaterally shut down Rafah Crossing for more than 50% of the time in the month of April.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Gaza bound

We're off to Gaza again, Yousuf and I. Just a head's up. We're currently en route (in Heathrow airport to be exact), and will arrive Cairo tonight inshallah; from there we drive directly to the Rafah border across Sinai with our ever-reliable taxi driver Atiyah (who works the Cairo-Rafah circuite, and who himself is a refugee from Beer il Sabi3), in hopes the border is open. If not we will return and spend the night in Arish.

As we arrive, will keep you updated.

Apologies to everyone who has emailed me or left me comments for my lack of replies-its been a crazy few weeks ... as I understand it, there has also been a problem with comment posting (i.e. not everyone's comments are making it into my inbox..) no, there is no conspiracy folks, sorry to disappoint..:)