How long must the Israeli/Palestinian tragedy continue?
Deaglán de Bréadún
We all woke this morning to the horrific news of a massive airstrike in Gaza with the death-toll already over the 200 mark, according to reports. How long must the bloodletting in this tragic region continue?
I have been to Gaza a number of times and the first thing that hits you is the sheer volume of people living in such a small area. And they don’t have nifty skyscrapers like New Yorkers do.
The other major feature is the number of children in the camps. They swarm after you when you arrive with your notebook and maybe a photographer or another reporter as your companion. They love to have their pictures taken. The innocence and curiosity of the children makes it all the more heartbreaking for the visitor.
No doubt there were many children among the casualties, it is hard to imagine otherwise. No doubt also our TV screens tonight and tomorrow’s front pages (except maybe some of the Irish ones) will carry massive photos and heartrending coverage of the carnage.
When will it end? Can Barack Obama do anything? He seemed to cosy up to the Israeli lobby during his campaign so he is unlikely to say anything that will upset that side in the conflict.
Hamas have of course presided over a situation where the tail of the Israel lion was being tweaked on a regular basis with rocket attacks from inside Gaza. They must have known there would be retaliation although the scale of it may have taken them aback. Maybe this kind of retaliation is what some of their strategists counted on, since it will alienate support from Israel in world public opinion and deepen the fanaticism in some Palestinian quarters.
The PLO side have condemned the airstrike but it must occur to them that this may weaken Hamas’s hold on the Gaza population. Sometimes these violent incidents have the opposite effect of course.
The rest of the world would, for the most part, just like to see the two sides settling down and getting on together, presumably in a two-state set-up. That seems a remote possibility today. Most observers would say that the interest being taken in the situation by Hezbollah and Iran is hardly likely to promote reconciliation.
Will Israel get away with it, in political terms? The likelihood is yes. The timing is opportune, since the world’s media and the political classes in the liberal democracies are still in a state of post-Christmas semi-somnolence.
The Israeli politician Abba Eban famously said that, “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” and somehow one feels that an opportunity was missed with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. That could have been built on to secure progress in the West Bank but Hamas chosen instead to continue provoking the Israelis (who don’t need an awful lot of provoking in the first place, let’s be honest).
I have met and gotten to know people on both sides of the divide. I like and respect them. I wish they could find a way out, as we did in Northern Ireland eventually. But it seems a remote prospect. Even someone as hardboiled as myself feels like getting down on his knees to pray for peace.
The dogmatism of the supporters of each side in this conflict is one of the many features that is depressingly reminiscent of the Northern Ireland conflict. Give and take? Forget about it.
Incidentally, it may help to convey the atmosphere in Gaza to read a piece I did some years ago, on a visit there, when Yasser Arafat was still alive and Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel. I reproduce it below.
Saturday, March 30, 2002
As war-clouds gather overhead, children play in the rubble of the Gaza refugee camps and talk of one day killing Israeli soldiers. Deaglán de Bréadún watches events unfold after the latest youthful death in a conflict that has no solution in sight
The advice of the United Nations official in Gaza City was categorical: “If you are in a Palestinian camp and you see Israeli helicopters hovering above – get out.” What if the helicopters are already firing? “Get indoors and stay away from glass.”
I didn’t see much glass in the refugee camps I visited on the Gaza Strip. There was lots of sand, since we were on the shore of the Mediterranean. Plenty of stones: poor in everything else, the Palestinians are rich in stones. And litter, litter everywhere, with no sign of a rubbish bin.
Gaza could, indeed, be the litter capital of the world. There was something ineffably sad about the sight of a small child, barely at the walking stage, sitting in a pile of rubble and litter, pouring sand from a discarded plastic bottle into a cracked plastic beaker. Kids love pouring, and I remember at home how they would sit for ages watching the sand or water go from one container to the other, fascinated as they never could be by more expensive playthings. But back home they weren’t sitting in a pile of rubbish, they didn’t have helicopter gunships and F-16s flying overhead, and they weren’t surrounded by a vicious, raging conflict with no solution in sight.
Hell is Gaza and Gaza is hell. At the so-called “Beach” refugee camp – one of the better ones, I was told – I met a typical refugee mother, who shared her jerry-built four-room dwelling with 21 other people, members of her extended family. Like the little child, she sat on the ground outside, passing the time of day with her friends. The Palestinians have been here since they fled Israel in 1948, and there is some reason to believe they will still be here in 2048.
There are no streets, just sand-strewn gaps between the houses. Hamad Abdullah Abu Ah-jad is an old man now, but he was only 16 when his family fled Ashdod, 50 kilometres away in Israel, to escape the first Arab-Israeli war. “The Israelis attacked,” he recalls. “All the people left.”
He was lucky to get a clerk’s job with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has done a remarkable job for the refugees under very difficult circumstances. “It’s a very hard life here,” says Hamad. The winters can get very cold.” But like all poor Palestinians, he is very friendly. He smiles and utters the one English word they all know: “Welcome”.
There were 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948, but their rate of population growth is phenomenal. There are now three million people (including indigenous inhabitants) in the West Bank and Gaza alone, not to mention the refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and other places.
There are teenagers and smaller children everywhere, at least half of them barefoot. I asked Mahedi, a boy of about 16, what he thought of the suicide bombers. “They are good people, because they will get the Israeli soldiers to leave my land. An eye for an eye,” he says. Has he seen the helicopters firing missiles? “You see everything. The first time you are afraid, but now it is normal.”
A man in a fruit and vegetable shop has his walls covered with posters of “martyrs” who died in the conflict. “They are good people who died for their land,” he says.
Many of the dead were adherents of the fundamentalist Hamas organisation, and Gaza in general has a more fundamentalist atmosphere than the West Bank, but nobody I met had a harsh word for Yasser Arafat. “A good man,” said Mahedi, almost in the same breath as he extolled the suicide bombers.
Another boy, Muhammed, says: “I would like to kill soldiers. Sharon is a Nazi-man.” His friend, Sidan, displays used bullets he has collected in a plastic bag.
As a colleague with experience of Northern Ireland said: “You can see how support for armed struggle could be fomented here.”
Some day, Gaza may well be part of an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, Tareq Abu Dayyeh, the manager of the “PLO Flag Shop” in Gaza City’s Al-Wihda Street, already has some 70,000 flags and T-shirts in stock, waiting for the day. He bought them originally for September 13th, 2000, when Arafat was expected to make a declaration of statehood.
I wonder if living conditions will change, and think of John Hume’s dictum: “You can’t eat a flag.”
Camps such as these are breeding-grounds for the type of young men, and increasingly also women, who decide to throw themselves against the might of Israel. They frequently come off worst, sometimes ending up in the local El-Shifaa hospital.
The head of emergency and casualty services, Dr Mouaweya Hassanein, blames the Israeli occupation after the 1967 Six-Day War. In Europe and the US, he says, “everybody enjoys freedom and liberty, working, playing, joking, going places”.
But here, he continues, the occupation is “killing any spirit of life”.
Of course, the Israelis say they are only acting in self-defence, and that the Palestinians could have a peace deal and their own state as long as Israel’s security could be guaranteed.
WHATEVER one’s view of the conflict, there is no denying its consequences: suffering and death on both sides. The latest victim is in the hospital morgue. Nashat Abu Assi lies on a metal platform, a large crimson bullet-hole in his right pectoral. There is another bullet wound in the right shoulder. He is said to be 21, but looks only 18 or 19. A light stubble and pencil-thin moustache suggest a recent attempt to grow a beard. His face is waxen already, and he will be buried quickly in the Mediterranean sun.
The Israeli army’s account of his death is that, on Sunday last, he was behaving suspiciously in an area close to the Karni border crossing and the Jewish settlement at Netzarim. The area has been the scene of numerous attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, including a grenade assault the previous day and attacks on tanks in which six soldiers died. The Israelis say his jacket was bulging suspiciously and he ignored an order, given in Arabic, to stop. He was then shot.
The Palestinian version is unclear. Initially, the people gathered at the morgue said he was a simple kind of fellow, what would be called in Irish “duine le Dia” (“one of God’s people”), who had wandered into a place where no sensible Palestinian would go. Later, this began to change, and the dead man began to be portrayed as a freedom-fighting martyr. Since he was carrying neither a gun nor explosives, the “simple fellow” explanation may be more plausible. “Why they shot him, I don’t know,” one man says. “What price the life of a Palestinian?” says another man.
The Palestinians say an ambulance was delayed as it drove to the scene last Sunday afternoon. Israeli sources say unofficially that the road was closed while the army checked to see if Nashat had explosives on his person. When none were found, the road was reopened.
A crowd of several dozen are now gathered at the morgue. A pick-up truck arrives with youths standing in the back chanting slogans. They range in age from about 13 to the early 20s. The group crowds into the morgue, surrounding the body. Nashat’s head bobs gently from side to side as people kiss his cheeks. His younger brother, Muhammed (11), is clearly distraught, and it is very moving to watch him trying to cope with his emotional turmoil. Small boys tend to worship their older brothers, especially if, as in this case, there is a gap as wide as 10 years.
Muhammed’s reaction is human rather than ideological. The older boys have already adopted Nashat as a martyr, and when the body is placed on theback of a truck, they suddenly produce nine large green flags, about the size of tablecloths, from the Hamas organisation.
A man with an Uzi-type sub-machine-gun suddenly fires several bullets in the air, the whipcrack of the shots shattering the calm of the morning. A battery of speakers on the roof of a transit van plays funeral music. An observer explains that, when someone who lives in a Hamas district is killed, he becomes a Hamas martyr; likewise with the other organisations. The body is brought back to the house, for his grieving mother and the other women to see. There are no women on the funeral procession. The dead man’s uncle, a teacher, is also at the house. On a page torn from an exercise book, he has written a poem in Arabic in honour of his nephew, who, he says, was going to attack the Netzarim settlement.
The poem reads, in part: “Dear Nashat, you walked the road of light and right/ Your pure soul has crossed into heaven/ You will be received with pleasure and dignity and happiness/ There will be palaces and gifts awaiting your arrival/ You left this world, this earth,/ Having Jihad [Holy War\] as a torch in your heart. Long life to you as a martyr.”
After the poem is read out, a colleague points out that “in Islam, they don’t believe a martyr is dead, he just moves from the earth to heaven”.
Leaving his distraught mother and other female relatives behind, Nashat Abu Assi is brought to the mosque, his body wrapped in a Hamas flag. By now, young Muhammed and his 10-year-old brother have stopped crying and they are being carried on the shoulders of larger boys, each child wielding an M-16 rifle.
It was an unforgettable image. It seemed a very long way from the endless wrangling of the Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs over the implementation of the Tenet security plan. The two sides had been discussing a ceasefire for almost two weeks. Short-term political issues were not even on the table, much less a long-term solution. The US seemed to be making a serious attempt to knock heads together, but was it for the sake of peace or just to clear away a distraction from its own war against Saddam Hussein?
Meanwhile, 11-year-olds are waving guns in the air and the casualties grow on both sides. The refugee camps have become factories of revolution. The Gaza mood is captured by the dedication written under a painting of the land of Palestine in my hotel which states: “To the martyrs and to those who have not yet been martyred.”
© 2002 The Irish Times