360° Analysis

Leaving Gaza


November 29, 2012 05:16 EDT
Stripped of the usual polemics and accompanying rhetoric, here, in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, an American humanitarian worker tries to give a citizen's perspective of the Palestinian issue within the context of the Arab world and its relations with the west.

The "Other"

Like all Jews born into America after the massacre in Europe, Andrea's childhood must have been disturbed by the tales of the maniacal bloodletting. And disturbed further by other occasional malignancies; those signs along certain American beaches in the 1950s come to mind: "No Jews or dogs allowed". It set their story apart from the rest of us Goys whose nightmares were limited to those offered up by the Brothers Grimm.

I grew up in and around New York. I went to school with girls like Andrea as they emerged after World War 2 into the American mainstream. I rode the subways of New York with them as a teenager and would spot the tattoos from the death camps on their kin's forearms and instantaneously connect them to the photos in my mind of the Auschwitz gas chambers. I imagined what must have turned in her young mind; that six million of her type had been exterminated like some pathogen and virtually no-one had made a protest. 

So there we were: just after Cast Lead had concluded in 2009 the two of us, humanitarian workers now, walking 20 meters behind a Palestinian mother and her two girls as we left Gaza.

You see, one gets dropped off by one's Palestinian friend about a half-mile before a fortress wall and you trudge toward its grey terrible eminence through the rubble and trash left by Israeli bulldozers as they had assured unencumbered fields of fire. You feel quite helpless making that walk towards the massive wall, finally getting channeled into a tunnel of hydraulic turnstiles and led through it by a network of intercoms issuing remote commands, always impatient commands of "stop, go, no, leave your coat, leave your bag, no, alone, do it again". With a camera continuously capturing you, each grimace and frustration.

Then maybe, you go through the last hydraulics and into a hatch at the base of that wall and are now exposed to the flood lights and the pens — Plexiglas holding pens with green and red lights indicating if you can proceed from one pen to the next. Sort of like a maze on the floor of this hi-tech cement cavern. Then far up towards the ceiling you see them for the first time; profiles of the clerks who control the place, who peer down on the movements in the pens, and on the conveyors alongside which like a giant clockworks having now carried away your personal belongings for other unseen searches. And then, finally, from the pens you proceed into the whir of the 360 degree full-body scan, flashed up in all its originality onto screens before those same clerks.

I suspect that it was not this alone which broke Andrea; it was rather the company we kept with that Palestinian mother and her girls throughout the process, their childhood being disturbed forever just like hers.

What sticks in my mind to this day was that after the process, out in the parking lot while I was getting into the driver's seat, I had heard Andrea still outside the car off by the fender, as discretely as she could, retching.

Almost no westerners go to Gaza. One has to move heaven and earth to acquire the necessary permissions from the Israelis, mostly limited to humanitarian types like myself and selected journalists — meaning the local narratives of what's going on in this pen are easily ignored or twisted by those who wish.

I have been going to Gaza, on and off, for three decades and Andrea's reaction, Jewish or not, was normal. Few can stomach that Jews could construct and manage such a confinement for humans. It is as one observer recently described, "an open air prison". No exit. Not by land, sea or air, and with just enough calories and medicines allowed in to prevent famine and disease. And calculated very finely, I should add.

If Israel is more than soil, more than "clear, hold and build" on that soil acquired in 1948. If it is also a homeland in commemoration for all those who have suffered since Christians first proclaimed they had killed Christ. Gaza is a blasphemy and stains the Jewish story. And if not Gaza, then watch the arrogance of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier at a West Bank checkpoint as he strip searches grandpa in front his grandchildren. Watch just above the barrier on the ridge of a West Bank hill — the beautiful arc of a settler's dive into the crystalline water in the swimming pool as the Palestinian farmers in the valley below grieve for no water in their wells. I believe that this can destroy Israel before missiles from Palestine can.

The Arab Duplicity

Also gleaned from those many years of living in the Arab world, I can say unequivocally that most Arab states and citizens don't give a damn about Palestinians and their "open air prison". They too pen them up, on a regular basis. For any self-serving autocrat, they are trouble. As vanguards, on posters everywhere they often own the liberation narrative.  But in person, they are stigmatized by the dead hand of dictators as far too clarion for their own good. At their core, Palestinians disrupt the status quo.

As Israeli tanks churned into south Lebanon in June 1982, I was on that border and had watched Lebanese Shi'as wave their "Star of David" flags with great excitement as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) entered Tyre, pleased to no end that the Palestinians seemingly had been erased from their land. Later that year, I was in Tunisia when Habib Bourguiba had put on a grand show of welcoming the Palestinian warriors as they disembarked at the port of Bizerte. It was meant to be a victory festival as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) passed by.  School kids were brought out to shout and clap, the PLO marching, head high, right through town and finally to a parking lot secured by Tunisian troops who relieved them of their arms and trucked them far away into the desserts of central Tunisia, effectively neutering them. 

Across the Levant, in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, Palestinians are contained, constricted and often penned. Make no mistake, Arab nations abuse them and use them. They have always been a convenient cause for célèbre ''to quell domestic strife with foreign war". If Israel had not existed, it would have had to be created as a part of the foundation for Arab autocracy, which from Casablanca to Damascus stole their citizens' freedoms and allowed precious little to put in their stomachs.

Jew Crusader

That said, while the autocrats are duplicitous about Palestinians per se, their street — before and after Tahrir — does care about ''occupation"; does care about  Arabs as "subservient". Within the western narrative, beginning with Sykes-Picot when the French and British cartographers divvied up the Middle East without much thought; and for their immediate pleasure up to Pax American sustaining and abetting the array of monarchs and emirs who sit majestically on the world's hydrocarbons and are reviled far more by the Arab street than Jews.

Symbols count. American tanks so near to Mecca incite. Britain and the US as steadfast allies of a twentieth century national implant in Arabia, swallowing swaths of what Arabs hold to be their land and humiliating them each and every time words come to blows, count.  Especially for a people desperately trying to find an identity that is not defined equally as "terrorist" or as so backward that the whole region could sink below the surface and the global stock indices would barely budge.

I recall sitting in my office in Diwaniah in south central Iraq during the spring of 2004 amidst my national staff, when the Jaysh al-Mahdi burst in, eyes glazed and very agitated and anxious to do some killing. I was sure I was a goner. Particularly because they had declared the oath to my face which precedes killing: "Jew Crusader". These were street rabble with no inkling of Palestine. But this was the hook. Muqtada al-Sadr had in them this epitaph which zealots employ across the Arab world just before they pull the trigger. 

Jew Crusader. There it is in a nutshell. Convenient for autocrats but also, unprompted, what can get the street to its feet, quite opposed as to whatever the hell Palestinians are suffering. That is what swells the ranks of the Arab warriors, not withstanding that most of the nations which bore them are fabrications of European cartographers themselves. Israel is western. It is European and American sourced, adapted to its tragic historical circumstances and it has swallowed up a large share of Arab soil and humiliated the Arab effort to constrain them. Jew crusader was and is the Arab link between Israel and the Crusades, the seizure of property by foreigners along with the expectation that Israel will follow the same ending as the Crusaders.


This was — according to all I heard as I  made my way through the great press of the swirling crowds streaming into  the square on that warm February day — about an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Syrian ''not being afraid any longer''. Part of that was removing the dead hand of the autocrats, one by one, and acting upon those "pursuit of happiness" issues which these citizens will no longer forsake. The other part was about removing the dominance of those great Anglo-Saxon tribes from the choices before them. And Israel along with the Gulf states represent the greatest existing current affront to that resolve.

Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi was born from out of this Tahrir. He presides over a country in shambles, over a street which for any re-found dignity must care far more about a family putting food on the table than what Hamas is doing in Gaza. But it is also now a street that will no longer accept the west as preeminent in its destiny. Mursi is on a tightrope. He was brought to eminence out of the awakening and that was about dignity reclaimed; about dealing with Egypt in despair, tourism defunct and the army unfaithful. He knows that Gaza should not stoke the street. It will be jobs and opportunity. And the last thing he wants is for an un-careful militancy in Gaza to wag the Egyptian tail just at the moment he presumes to lead the Arabs out of the wilderness they have suffered since Sykes Picot;  to guide the Arab and Muslim world away from the pretenders in Riyadh and Doha, Tehran and Ankara. Tahrir's youth since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia have shown themselves across the whole Arab landscape willing to die fighting against anything promising less.

Hamas: On the Razor's Edge

Back to Gaza. Yes, cover your ears. Hamas is indeed part "American creation" come back to bite us. Back in the mid-1980s, I was part of a team of relief workers which managed huge welfare programs in Gaza, funded by the US State Department. Hamas was clearly the preferred partner for us and the State Department, both because of their credibility at the community level as opposed to a corrupt and feckless Fatah. But also because they challenged the PLO, who were then considered a terrorist organization. Later in 2006, that American investment came full circle. Hamas won a free and fair election, to a large extent because of their community welfare programs.

It was not so much that they won the election, rather that the  redeemed American favorite Fatah, lost it. Over two years later when Andrea and I were leaving Gaza in the wake of Cast Lead, Hamas, the once preferred option for American largess and the elected government was now deemed so untouchable by the US government that an American like me could go to prison for talking to them. This was a conundrum to say the least as we sought to store and distribute relief supplies in a sovereign Strip.

Nowadays in the immediate aftermath of the latest chapter of hostilities with Israel (Operation Pillar of Defense), Hamas maintains some tenuous bona fides but remains squeezed nonetheless, in a vise between the Salafists who are anxious to pull the trigger for Armageddon and the educated Gazans who will be modern. Hamas remains on this razor's edge — an organization which often glorifies the child martyrs and reviles modernism with one eye looking over its shoulder at Islamic Jihad,  and the other eye on its need not to embarrass "its brother" Mursi.

Khaled Mesha'al may imagine he has the Arab world eating from his hand now but Mursi is far too smart to have the Gaza tail wag his greater challenges and will, given time and opportunity ,turn the lights down low on Hamas. Hopefully, diluting its militancy but augmenting its influence with economic investments, some egress through a port and airport and, in general, presenting "a swords to ploughshares" alternative; hopefully in tandem with Israel taking what would be a defining risk (with the US at its back) to allow for a viable and independent West Bank. In times of great tumult, sometimes the heretofore unimaginable can get a foothold and certainly, since I first arrived on the scene in 1981, this qualifies as an era of unprecedented tumult.

End Note: The Diaspora.

Wiki it: 500k strong in Chile, 250k in the United States, 160k in Germany, and so on.  Many bemoan the silence of this influential, modern and often wealthy Palestinian Diaspora. A colleague of mine from the Lebanese Civil War days recently told me: "if they gave in time and effort — even only 5% of what the Jewish Diaspora gives — then the current dialogue of the deaf might be abated. But most are cowed. Those in the States want to disappear into the American fabric; fearful of ending up on some homeland security's list of persons inimical to our national security. Reminiscent perhaps of the Hollywood blacklists as a new breed of McCarthyism against Arab Americans rears its ugly head."
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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