Tag Archives: Israel

Using the Holocaust to Sell Double Glazing?

With adverts like this for Israeli telecommunications company cellcom, you might as well be.

Or am I being overly moralistic about this?

The tag line at the end says “After all, we’re what are we all after? Just a bit of fun.”

Activists in the West Bank village of Bi’lin staged their own mock advert where the rest of the wall is being constructed. Instead of a reciprocal kickabout, they were greeted with tear gas.

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Palestinians Are Losing the PR War

“Your coverage of the Gaza Holocaust continues to appear biased. How can you be so cruel? don’t you have children yourselves? Why do you carry on giving the Israel officials airtime and refuse similar time to Palestine officials? What about interviewing doctors/ UN Officials/ journalists in Gaza? Why have you not tried to send someone into Gaza to see for yourselves how the children are being massacred? Show some truth. Shame on you!”

Some punter called John Hill on the Sky News website.

That sort of thing shouldn’t and normally doesn’t bother me. Detractions are taken in the same humor as praise. But it’s late at night/early in the morning and I haven’t slept well.

I donned the cap of anonymity and posted a riposte.

The reality is this. A news channel or news organization, especially one whose bread and butter is continuous rolling news, cannot afford to be “biased”. It is far to concerned with getting the raw facts of who what where when… usually before the competition. The why and how come in if there is enough time in the running order. Call it news by time code.

The airtime thing with Israeli talking heads is due to characters like Mark Regev, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesperson, virtually setting up camp at buildings in Jerusalem where the major news organizations have offices. When there is an Israel-related story to react to, he hops up and down the building tarting himself out to any broadcaster.

Spokespeople for the primarily Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas are based in Ramallah. Western broadcasters don’t have offices in Ramallah (unless you want to count Al Jazeera English) due to the unbelievable amount of red tape, logistical nightmare, and expense involved with setting up an office in the West Bank which is, if you pardon the analogy, a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem.

For interviews from Ramallah, we hire a television studio. But the Palestinian Authority do not have a Mark Regev-type creature who has the freedom to slope from TV station to TV station saying, “You guys need a voice on this?”. There’s a rather large wall between Ramallah and Israel. The gaps in the wall are called checkpoints. They can take a very long time to pass through. And you need a permit to get through them. And these permits have a curfew… an inflexible curfew that will not allow you to appear live on the ten o’clock news.

Israel also has a system whereby every journalist working that patch receives text messages on their mobile phone whenever something happens. “Qassam hits Sderot. No injured”, an arrest here, a suspected terrorist there, an update on the shekel-dollar exchange rate. You can wake up in the morning to upwards of twenty unread text messages… none of which actually say anything. The Palestinian Authority has no such service. No such infrastructure for that service.
***

Gaza. The western organizations that operate from within Gaza do so cautiously… especially since the Alan Johnston kidnap thing. Firms that have a permanent presence in Gaza usually have an office with its own studio. Everyone else hires studios when they’re needed. And keeps a fixer on retainer. The fixer serves as your eyes and ears… they’ll look out for stories for you and you can call them at inhospitable hours to ask them about the significance of something that is ultimately mundane. Or you ring them with something obvious like, “There are air strikes over Gaza”. They will get you guests, alert you to the latest happenings, and help your team when/if they get into “theater”.

Guests from Gaza on the phone… easy. Getting them into a television studio when you know and they know they are risking their lives by walking out into the street takes a bit more negotiation. Especially if you are trying to get members of an organization called Hamas that a country called Israel is actively targeting with heavy firepower called a missile.

When shit hits fan, Israel pulls the PR guns out of the bag along with the rest of the armaments they have. Newsdesks and producers are inundated with offers for guests, offers for comment….

Palestinian PR? We have to chase them. All the time. Messages left, few calls returned. There is no Palestinian PR machine that kicks into gear once something happens. Journalists detest PR unless it can do something useful, like make work easier for them. At heart, journalists are sloth-like creatures who like things at their fingertips. We like people ready, accessible. Now.

As for why we haven’t sent anyone into Gaza, ask Israel. Gaza is a “closed military zone”. Meaning unless you were in that walled-off strip of land before it was declared a “closed military zone”, you aren’t going in until after the next lot of invading soldiers. And nobody’s coming out either. Everyone is hanging out in the buffer zone. Or sometimes sneaks into the loading bay bit at Kerem Shalom to see the aid trickle through after the previous night’s bombardment.

Ultimately, the pictures gleaned by news agencies like Reuters or the Associated Press do a better job of explaining the reality on the ground than any commentator could. Images of children being pulled from smoking rubble are more eloquent than a man in a suit talking to another man in a suit. Video released from the cockpit of an Israeli aircraft showing people walking around the back of a flatbed truck then going fuzzy after the missile impacts…the mass of humanity and collective wailing at a funeral…kids dirtied by soot, mud and blood.
***

Speaking to a doctor who works at Gaza’s Shifa hospital, he had no time to return home… and definitely no time to swan in front of a television camera. The conversations we have are stolen moments when he is moving from one ward to another or when his attempts at sleep prove fruitless. “I’ve dedicated my life to saving life. These people. All these people. They are dedicated to killing. Palestinian. Jew. Killing. Let us say we have an unsustainable relationship,” was the last conversation we had. I’ve heard nothing from him tonight. He was going to try to go home for a day.

If Hamas or the Palestinian Authority want to redress the balance on Western news and get a little bit more “face time”, please reach out to us. Return our phone calls. Keep us in the loop. Don’t depend on “friendly” Arab media stations because you have no idea how hungry we “mainstream” outlets are for you. Our numbers don’t change and our leaders rarely get assassinated. We’ll pay for the studio time because we need your voice. You pay the risk because you need your voice heard.

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This article was first published on The Comment Factory on 31 December 2008. All rights reserved.

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Police Get Shirty At London Gaza Protests

“If you don’t move, we’ll move you!”

“Press!”

The line of fluorescent yellow police officers pushed. A sea of bodies wavered, toppled, then crashed on the Kensington street.

“Angela!!!” I was holding on to the tripod. The camera and cameraman had long since vanished to another part of the steadily advancing police line. I grabbed Angela’s red-coated arm…she was slipping away into the maw of the Metropolitan Police. The police kept pushing. The protesters behind me were standing firm. Resisting. Sky News reporter Angela Corpe was folding in half as the police line forced forward. She was being trampled. I was being crushed. Anchoring myself to the tripod, I lifted her up with the aid of a man sporting a keffiyeh. We became entangled in a microphone cable as the pushing resumed. Somehow I managed to grab her handbag and the kit bag in the melee. Dragged her, the tripod, and the bags. More pushing. More forcing. More resisting. The protesters were screaming “shame on you” at the police.

“Move! Move!” screamed back the bellicose plods.
“I bloody well would if I had somewhere to move to,” was our response.

A pain to my head. Another to my leg. Coshed by our own tripod and kicked by who knows. Angela limps.
“You ok? Let’s get you out of here.”

We wind our way to the pavement near a hotel entrance. Gordon, our cameraman, finds us. He had his own story to tell. Squeezed between protesters and police. We start folding the tripod down. Tidying cables. Angela has lost her comms kit, the device that lets her communicate with the main control room in the newsroom for her live reports.
The phone rings. “Can we have you live at five minutes past five?” In twenty minutes.
“Er…yeah. It’s kicked off a bit here. Let us sort ourselves out ok?”
“Why don’t you fuck off and move?” yells a police officer. We make note of his ID number. He greets us with the politeness his colleagues gave us moments before.
***

Nearly 2,000 protesters calling for Israel to stop the aerial attacks on the Gaza Strip gathered at the gates of London’s Israeli Embassy on Kensington High Street. The day started off serenely, with around 150 people bearing banners, placards and a megaphone behind flimsy crash barriers. Sometime in the afternoon, the numbers swelled. The “big names” turned up…a Palestinian ambassador here, a fiery Member of Parliament there. The Neturei Karta, Orthodox Jews against Zionism, rocked up to show their support to a round of applause and the flash of cameras.

Then two men approached the gates of the road leading up to the Israeli Embassy and threw their shoes. A protest inspired, we think, by an Iraqi journalist and George W Bush. The first man was bundled off by the police. The second man made more a fuss and was floored by half a dozen officers. The swelling crowd over the road who were struggling to keep behind the barriers streamed forward…aghast…agape…angry. They quickly overwhelmed the meager police presence and occupied one of London’s busiest shopping roads on a weekend afternoon.

Muslims laid out prayer mats, families chanted slogans in English and Arabic. The demonstration, called a mere 24 hours before by groups from Stop the War to the Friends of Al Aqsa, was in full flow. Community leaders, MPs, former MPs, activists…all took turns on a megaphone stood atop street furniture near the embassy gates. Nobody could hear them but they served to keep the energy going.

They were calling for a cessation of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza – the ones that have killed nearly 300 people, injured more than double that. The ones that have sent Gaza’s hospitals into meltdown as they are running out of room to treat the hurt, store the dead. The ones that have sent a population where half rely on humanitarian aid to the unknown wastes of homelessness. They were joining voices from Iran to Lebanon to Turkey in proclaiming their anger at what’s often called “the situation”.

As I write, Hamas have just reported that Israeli aeroplanes have bombed the Islamic University in Gaza City. The airstrikes continue and through the miracle of modern technology, you can watch it live. I remember my one and only trip to the IUG. It was an oasis of a campus where you could amble along the promenade surrounded by students buzzing with the learning and the gossip of university life. The buildings were either whitewashed or a pinky stone that shone well in the Mediterranean sun. It was nice. And you could forget you were in the middle of Gaza City for a while.

“As long as Hamas controls Gaza, there is no hope for peace or the creation of a Palestinian state,” Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said. “We are determined, this is not a one day operation.” She agreed that the idea behind the initial attacks were a form of “shock and awe”. She maintains that they were pushed into these attacks due to the “constant bombardment” of Israeli targets by Gazan militants firing rockets into Israel’s heartland. And that they have allowed aid to enter…will allow aid to enter. Slowly. Hurt then heal. Bomb then balm.

Israel has called up some 6500 reservists. They are massing ground troops along the Gazan border. Its government says that they are not ruling out a ground incursion.

In an article by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont he says that Israel has “supplied a rallying point”. That Gaza is something that can now be ranked with Deir Yassin. With Sabra and Shatila. A tangible massacre as opposed to the slow strangling of the world’s largest open air prison.

Angela Corpe’s comms kit, it transpires, is currently held at Kensington police station. At least ten people were arrested at the London demonstration. Countless others are massaging their injuries as the police camp out outside the Israeli Embassy for the night in readiness for another demonstration called for the next day. Israel holds all the cards. We are again watching which one they play.

===

This article was first published on The Comment Factory on 29 December 2008. All rights reserved.

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Israel Attacks Gaza, Killing Hundreds of People

27th and 28th December 2008. Israeli warplanes dropped a payload of over 100 tonnes of bombs on security sites in the Gaza strip. Hamas security sites. Hamas targets. Hamas weapons warehouses. A police station. Hamas commanders’ homes. At least 270 dead. Over 600 wounded. “The Mideast conflict’s bloodiest assault in decades”.

For their part Hamas and anyone else who happened to own a rocket launcher continued the barrage into Israel. The lone fatality in Israel was in the town of Netivot. Six other people were wounded. According to Israeli army sources, over 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israeli targets over the past week.

Among the images that have graced our television screens – plumes of smoke, rubble caused by airstrike on mosque, a man searching through debris, children standing by the former Al Aqsa television station, hospitals receiving casualties, shots from the cockpit of an Israeli plane as it targets what they say is a rocket launcher hidden in a residential area, lots of Israeli spokespeople, not so many Palestinian ones. The latter images have more to do with the practicalities of getting people from Gaza in front of live television signals. People are reluctant to leave their homes to head into Gaza City’s TV studios. Schools are closed due to a three day mourning period set out by the Gaza government for the dead. Hamas police are wearing jackets over their blue uniforms and walking close to walls to avoid being seen and targeted by the Israeli aircraft flying above.

A source inside Gaza informs that one of the headquarters of Palestinian security is located near the central Gaza prison. “This prison contains Fatah prisoners who everybody in the Strip wanted released or relocated after the airstrikes first started. Hamas did not release them. Last night the prison was completely destroyed. Some people got out, but many are still buried under the rubble. I have seen some bodies pulled out. This is a big mistake for Hamas.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas’ bitter political enemy, is in Saudi Arabia along with Chief Palestinian Negotiatior Saeb Erekat. “This is a devastating day, a black day. Today was another war crime committed by Israel and I think that we as Palestinians have to realize that the Gaza Strip, just like the West Bank and Jerusalem, are all occupied territories and the challenge facing all of us is the Israeli occupation. Therefore I call on all the Palestinian political factions, in the name of President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), to participate in the Egyptian efforts to restart a dialogue to put an end to this painful split and unite our ranks.”

In New York, an emergency ring of the UN Security Council was called by Libya on behalf of the Arab Group of countries at the United Nations. They released a statement agreed to by all 15 members of the council including Libya…though it did not specifically mention either the Israeli bombing or the rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas militants. Instead it called for an “immediate halt to all violence” and called on all parties to “immediately stop all military activities” as well as to “address the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza and to take all necessary measures, including opening of border crossings, to ensure the continuous provision of humanitarian supplies, including supplies of food, fuel, and provision of medical treatment.”

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian United Nations observer, told journalists there is “no justification for slaughtering hundreds of Palestinian civilians and injuring close to one thousand people. There is no justification whatsoever. Of course our position is very clear, we are against the killing and harming of civilians, regardless of which side of the aisle they stand: whether they are on the Palestinian side, or the Israeli side. But this collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza is inhumane, is immoral and should be stopped immediately.”

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said that the last few days since the end of the cease-fire have been so bad that they “had no choice but to go on a military operation, and the only party to blame is the Hamas. Israel has been effecting its right to self defense, and this is what was happening over the last 24 hours.”

Only a few cars and those brave enough to walk the streets have broken the silence around Gaza in the past 48 hours. Food shops remain open peddling their meager wares. The Israeli Army is on high alert in the West Bank in the event things in Gaza spark reactions from their Fatah-governed cousins. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organisation called for a one-day commercial strike and mourning period in addition to asking Palestinians to take to the streets in peaceful protest.

Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak vowed to expand the operation if necessary. Though he did not expressly mention a ground invasion, infantry and armoured forces were seen heading for the border with Gaza.

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This article was originally published on The Comment Factory on 28 December 2008. All rights reserved.

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“I’m Sick Of Coping”: Life In the Gaza Strip

With the siege of Gaza showing no signs of abating, life — or a semblance of — goes on in the world’s sunniest open prison.

Hatem was telling me about his friend Abdullah Zarandah, a 22-year-old cancer sufferer. He needed drugs… treatment… something that required permission and coordination to travel to Israel or Egypt for medicine. Hatem said he last saw Abdullah a year ago… health deteriorating. The treatment he usually got from an Israeli hospital had stopped due to the continuous closure of the Erez crossing.

Travel permission. Travel coordination. As a Gazan, this is what you need to leave and return to the 25-mile strip of land on which you live. If you are approved for coordination to travel via Erez into Israel, the Israelis don’t think, in principle, you would pose a “security risk”. But they will make sure that you go back.

To gain coordination for travel to Israel, a Gazan has to be sponsored and vouched for by a high-level organization… say, the UN. Depending on who you know, you may be able to get it in a week… or you might get it in three months. To go to other countries via Israel, you need coordination to leave the Strip to travel to the West Bank to get permission. Then you need separate bit of paper that allows you to enter Jordan. Can’t have one without the other.

This, however, is for the elite of Gazan society… the ones who have jobs that require business cards. Positions that may require them to interact with Westerners who slope in and out bearing innumerable boxes of “goodwill” chocolate, cigarettes, Coca-Cola and contraband booze.
***

Plan your terminal diseases carefully, don’t over-complicate your pregnancies, and for your sake don’t be too old, too young or too fucking Arab.

One of these fucking Arabs is Abdullah. Hatem stopped visiting him at the Al Shifa hospital. Couldn’t bear to see his friend slip away day to day… or one of those other reasons people give for not seeing the ill. This week, Hatem decided to pay Abdullah a visit. He found an empty bed. Abdullah had died two days previously.

“When you face illness and poverty, it’s bad. When solutions to this illness and poverty lie behind a blockade, it’s a catastrophe,” Hatem tells me. “A lot is said about Gazan resilience, the way we cope. I’m sick of coping.”

“A father of a friend needs to be transferred urgently to get a catheterization abroad. He can’t because of the borders,” he continues. “Even the aid agency I work for can’t help. We (Islamic Relief) provided the only catheterization unit in Gaza by providing disposables…but that can only help diagnostic operations, not the more urgent surgical ones. This makes me feel helpless.”

This week, Israeli forces were seen holding drills near the Gazan border. Video shot by Reuters shows Israeli tanks and soldiers climbing a hill and treating mock injured.

In the spirit of the primary gifting season and under pressure from the international community, border crossings were opened for the transfer of “essential humanitarian supplies”. Around 90 trucks loaded with grain, commercial goods, and things that fall under that ubiquitous phrase “humanitarian aid” were due to arrive. This includes much needed fuel for Gaza’s main power plant and medical supplies. Some light relief for 1.5 million people, half of whom rely on food aid.

This comes one day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a “last minute” warning to Hamas militants to stop firing rockets or face a counter attack. He appeared on al-Arabiya television to urge Gazans to turn against Hamas and stop firing into Israel. Olmert also dangled the inevitable “military might of Israel” penis. On Christmas Eve, up to 80 rockets and mortar shells were reported fired from Gaza. On Boxing Day, when the borders were opened to transfer aid, at least a dozen rockets flung their way towards Israel and the Erez border corssing was closed due to two mortar bombs set off in the area.

Hamas has said its six-month truce with Israel is over. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – the one tipped to become the next Prime Minister if she can keep Benjamin Netanyahu at bay – has said there never really was a cease-fire. A mounting feeling among journalists and commentators is that as Israel heads towards a new election season, significant military action is on the cards to “deal with the situation”.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who brokered the now-expired truce, is urging “restraint” on both sides…. Why do I sense a feeling I have been here before? Because I, like many other journalists, have written these self-same lines countless times. Each time inserting a new name, a new leader, a new victim, fresh flesh to replace the old meat. We watch news feeds of minor incursions in the West Bank and don’t bat an eyelid. We listen to flashes of sabre rattling, hear of suffering, bullying, horror. We nod. We smile. We feign sympathy while all the while thinking, “You’re fucked mate”. What matters most seems to be getting an edge on the umpteen other news operations working the same patch, telling the same stories, speaking to the same sources. And if you can find that golden egg bargaining chip, Gilad Shalit, you win the prize….
***

The last time I was in Gaza, the animals were revolting. Outside the UN’s compound in Gaza City hundreds of animals from donkeys, horses, sheep and camels once held a four-legged protest against the continuing lockdown of the Gaza Strip.

Sami Akkila, one of the two-legged organizers of the protest said that the Animal Appeal for Human Rights was a “protest against international silence over the miserable situation in Gaza. Animals around the world are fed while the children of Gaza go to bed hungry.”

A recent report compiled by eight British charities claimed that the humanitarian crisis affecting Gaza’s 1.5 million residents is at its worst since 1967. The report states that of that number, around a million are registered UN refugees and nearly 70 percent are jobless.

Since Hamas won parliamentary majority in 2006 and took control of the Gaza strip in 2007, Gaza has been under a form of lockdown on its borders with Israel and Egypt. Aid trickles in but not at any sustainable levels. Medical emergency cases are allowed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt but only intermittently. External supplies, goods and imports are unheard of unless you proactively hunt for them on the black market. Being a coastal part of the world straddling the sea, fishing is limited to a 10-mile barrier – if you don’t mind eating fish caught in one of the most polluted waters of the Mediterranean. Gaza City alone pumps roughly 40m litres per day of raw sewage into the sea. Israel has declared Gaza a “hostile entity”, barring its citizens entry into the strip – these days the only foreigners allowed in either work for charities, are registered journalists or come driving an Israeli Army tank.

As you come in to Gaza via Israel conveniently guided by road signs pointing to Erez, you’re slapped by the contrast of lush greenery and prosperity (Israel) to the hulks of concrete rubble and mountains of trash that greet you upon entry into (North Gaza). It smells different here. Like a caged animal who has outgrown its quarters.

You enter on foot via a concrete barrier tunnel that intermittently shields you from the sun with patchy tarpaulin. You come out into what seems like the smash and burn ruins of war. Greeted by taxi drivers who run their cars either on diesel (petrol is an unattainable commodity here) or on potentially explosive domestic calor gas canisters, you cruise into Gaza City past long-closed shops, houses teetering on their foundations, and mountains of rubbish. You’ll find the odd family trawling though the rubbish for something useful or edible and the odd scrap metal merchant gathering rusty springs or corrugated iron in the hopes he can sell them when/if the borders open. Around 4,000 factories have been forced to close due to the lack of raw materials.

“Welcome to our open air prison!” Ramzi greets me with a smile tinged with that “Palestinian resilience” often spoken about and often seen. “This man here makes the best foustouk and simsimiya in all of Gaza!” Foustouk is a sticky peanut snack joined together with generous amounts of syrupy sugar. Simsimiya is its sesame-based cousin. Staple food items such flour, sugar and rice are allowed into Gaza – but only enough to ensure that Gazans don’t completely starve. Ramzi works for Save the Children. With nearly half the population of Gaza under the age of 15, he’s a busy man. I get the usual VIP treatment – tours of sewage lakes where three boys drowned, a zip past the raw sewage pipe flowing into the sea, a show and tell of where four boys in Jabaliya were killed by an Israeli airstrike while they were playing football…. Come. See. Look at the shit in which we live. My taps at home, they have no water. The children in these schools, they’re beaten by their teachers. The food we eat, it all tastes the same because it is always the same.

The father of one of the boys killed in Jabaliya has become a local media celebrity. Every news camera pounded their way to his door in the days after the death of his son. He keeps a t-shirt with him to remind him of his boy. It has long since lost his son’s scent but the father still buries his face into it to smell the memories.

I caught the woman making my coffee scraping the bottom of a tin. She’ll find some more when the next foreigner comes in bearing chocolates and the like. She shows me a picture of her grandson…he’s wearing a shahada bandanna and posing with a toy gun looking no different to any other boy photographed wearing his best cowboy outfit. In a place where a hunt for constructive and educational toys led only to the odd colouring book featuring Little Bo Peep and red marker pens, its hardly surprising. Gaza’s a marketing disaster – the adverts on show are old, faded by the sun or blasted by dirt and airstrikes. The images kids have to look at are either contained in a black plastic box filled with moving pictures (tuned to a Pan-Arab cable provider that’s all too happy to whore the “plight of poor Palestine” alongside what appears to be Lebanese Pop Idol) or the paste-ups of martyrs in the street. Oh. And the Islamic graffiti featuring such uplifting sayings as “Death to America” and “Palestine: Our Sons Are Born To Die For You”.

Somebody tells me of a song a Gazan band has written in English about “the situation”. It’s always “the situation”. And the aforementioned “resilience”. However hard it is for an idiot like me to grasp, daily life goes on. Not in spite “the situation” but because it has to. The longer you spend there the more normal everything becomes. The saline taste in the tap water, the high value a packet of cigarettes holds. I receive a copy of the song. It sucks. It gives you the twin feelings of discomfort and empathy.

Perhaps the animals of Gaza had a point to make. They eat, sleep and breed in the happy knowledge their interests are being looked after. Israel has said it harbors no interest in reoccupying the Gaza Strip and that no decision has been made on a major ground offensive which would involve an incursion, high casualties, more fathers like the father in Jabaliya. What is more likely is an “incremental response”… phased offensives that could start with targeted killings.

A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that if Hamas “continues its aggression then there will be no choice, but it is not too late for the Palestinians to call on Hamas to stop their violence”.

Hatem draws in his breath. He is 24. He speaks with the weariness of a soul who has dealt with more in a day than most men handle in a lifetime. “This incursion. This war. It is not as bad as what we live with. Every day it is grey. Incursions make things worse but we’ll deal with it like we’ve been dealing with it for years and years and years. We will find a way to see ourselves through another day.”

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This article was originally published on The Comment Factory on 27 December 2008. All rights reserved.

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Life In Gaza

The first impression a foreigner gets upon entry into Gaza via the Erez crossing to the north is the smell of a desolate landscape.

Following that is the stark contrast between the lush greenery and ever-constant agribusiness on the Israeli side and the bombed-out patch of land that greets you upon entry into North Gaza.

You enter via a concrete barrier tunnel that intermittently shields you from the sun with patchy tarpaulin.

You come out into what seems like the smash and burn ruins of war.

Greeted by taxi drivers who run their cars either on diesel (petrol is an unattainable commodity here) or on potentially explosive calor gas canisters, you cruise into Gaza City past long-closed shops, houses teetering on their foundations, and mountains of rubbish.

You’ll find the odd family trawling though the rubbish for something useful or edible and the odd scrap metal merchant gathering rusty springs or corrugated iron in the hopes he can sell them on when/if the borders open.

Around 4,000 factories have been forced to close due to the lack of raw materials.

“Welcome to our open air prison!” Ramzi greets me with a smile tinged with that ‘Palestinian resilience’ often spoken about and far too often seen.

“This man here makes the best foustouk and simsimiya in all of Gaza!”

Foustouk is a sticky peanut snack joined together with generous amounts of syrupy sugar. Simsimiya is its sesame-based cousin.

Staple food items such as flour, sugar and rice are allowed into Gaza – but only enough to ensure that Gazans don’t completely starve.

Ramzi works for Save the Children. With nearly half the population of Gaza under the age of 15, he’s a busy man.

I get the usual VIP treatment – tours of sewage lakes where three boys drowned, a zip past the raw sewage pipe flowing into the sea, a show and tell of where four boys in Jabaliya were killed by an Israeli airstrike while they were playing football.

The father of one of the boys killed in Jabaliya has become a local media celebrity. Every news camera pounded their way to his door in the days after the death of his son.

I declined to see the T-shirt he keeps with him to remind him of his boy. That’s war porn.

I caught the woman making my coffee scraping the bottom of a tin. She’ll find some more when the next foreigner comes in bearing chocolates and the like.

She shows me a picture of her grandson…he’s wearing a shahada bandanna and posing with a toy gun looking no different to any other boy photographed wearing his best cowboy outfit.

In a place where a hunt for constructive and educational toys led only to the odd colouring book and red marker pen, its hardly surprising.

Gaza’s a marketing disaster – the adverts on show are old, faded by the sun or blasted by dirt and airstrikes.

The images kids have to look at are either contained in a black plastic box filled with moving pictures or the paste-ups of martyrs in the street.

And the Islamic graffiti. I pull out a tester can of spraypaint and daub “Banksy is dead” on the side of a building.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 17 March 2008. All rights reserved.

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