Friday, March 24, 2006

Death by Degrees

photo: Mohammed Omer
Amneh Abdelal and her son waited in line for hours at the Al Kholi Bakery in Gaza City.

Mohammed's report on the food shortages in Gaza also appears in Norwegian in Morgenbladet today.

Death by Degrees
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

It was a sunny spring day in Deir Al Balah, a town in northern Gaza, a lovely day to be outdoors, but Yakoub Rabah, driving his donkey cart down the street, was distracted, troubled, and not in the mood for conversation. He stopped the cart frequently, gathering any bit of scrap lumber or fallen tree branches he could find into his cart.

Asked why he was gathering wood, he said, "The Israelis keep closing the border at Karni," as if that were all the explanation any fellow Gazan could possibly need. But, he was reminded, the border was open today. "Yes," said Rabah, "but for how long? Over the weekend there was no bread, and it opened Monday—but only for half an hour. Then they said it would be open today, and maybe it is, but even if some food gets into Gaza, the Israelis can close it again whenever they want. Right now, my family is running low on cooking gas for the stove. The price on propane cylinders has been rising steadily. Any day now, we'll run out and I'm afraid we won't be able to find any more. Propane has to come through Karni too—everything does! If we have firewood, we can still cook."

Of course, Mr. Rabah agreed that food to cook was in dangerously short supply, and he feared the coming days would only be worse. "I know they say some flour is coming into Gaza, but will it be enough? My family ran out of flour and we stopped baking bread some time ago. We switched to rice and macaroni, but they've become very expensive and hard to find. So now my wife and seven family members are rationing—we use only a tiny bit of sugar in tea now. We're stretching the tea we have to make it last. Our challenge now is whether we survive this or give up and die."

The same rationing Mr. Rabah was practicing in his home has been adopted by bakery owners throughout Gaza. Last weekend, bakeries were using the last of their emergency stocks of flour as people lined up for hours. One small woman asked persistently for "Five shekels worth of bread, please! Five shekels worth! Please!" but there was more resignation than urgency in her voice. She was being jostled in a long line of would-be customers, most of them men, at the Al Kholi Bakery in Gaza City. Amneh Abdelal, a housewife of 37 from the beach refugee camp, braved the crowds herself with her youngest child, a toddler just starting to walk, since her husband, crippled in the Intifada, is housebound.

"I used the last of our flour yesterday," she explained. "None of the grocers have any flour at all, so I've been here in line for hours now." But whether she would be one of the fortunate few to get any bread before the bakery was forced to close was an open question.

In a press conference Tuesday, UNRWA's director of operations for Gaza, John Ging, warned that the opening of the Karni Commercial crossing Monday and Tuesday had done little to relieve the severe food shortages. On Monday, the crossing was shut down after half an hour as Israeli authorities cited a "security threat." Mr. Ging said that on Tuesday, he visited the crossing, and although twenty trucks of flour indeed entered Gaza from Israel, Karni was only operating at 10% capacity, and Israel had specified that this opening was only "temporary." Since the start of 2006, the crossing, which is the only import/export hub into the Gaza Strip, has been closed nearly 50 days. Throughout Gaza, flour mills and bakeries normally keep an emergency inventory of 30 to 60 days' supply on hand, but for weeks, have been forced to use that stock. With the emergency supplies exhausted last weekend, the World Food Program and UNRWA's normal food distribution program, on which 735,000 Gazan refugees depend, has come to a complete halt. The limited deliveries of flour have done little to ease the situation. Many restaurants and bakeries have closed, while the few that are open ration the amount each customer can buy, hoping to serve as many as possible before closing again.

Exports have ground to a standstill during the prolonged closures, and Gaza's agricultural sector has been especially hard-hit as farmers have watched their trucks loaded with strawberries, vegetables and cut flowers, slated for export to markets in Europe, rot in the sun as they waited, sometimes for days, at the closed Karni Commercial Crossing. The loss to the Gaza economy has been estimated at between US$500,000 and $600,000 per day.

Gaza's health care system has also been crippled by the border closures, as vital drugs, infant formula, and medical supplies remain stuck in Israel. Hospitals and clinics throughout Gaza normally keep emergency supplies, but those are running dangerously low. Anesthetic drugs are so scarce that all elective surgery has been canceled. Supplies of chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, and kidney dialysis solutions are near to exhausted, creating life-threatening emergencies for those patients. "We have no idea how to deal with patients," said one doctor at Gaza City's Al Shifa hospital. "We see dozens of them every day, and can do nothing for them because we have no supplies. Right now, I am a surgeon who cannot do surgery."

The international community has begun to pressure Israel to relieve the impending humanitarian disaster in Gaza. In a surprising but welcome move, the American Ambassador to Tel Aviv hosted a Sunday evening meeting at his home for representatives of Israel, Palestine, the EU and the UN, and the temporary opening of Karni was the result. Israel is pressing to move import/export operations to the much smaller Kerem Shalom crossing in south Gaza, while the Palestinians are working toward a permanent re-opening of Karni.

While international law says an occupying power is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population in occupied territories, Jerusalem-based Israeli-Arab Druze lawyer, Usama Halabi, explained that some might argue that Israel's withdrawal of ground troops from Gaza last September relieved them of that responsibility. "However," said Mr. Halabi, "Israel controls the airspace, the seacoast, and all imports and exports, so they are still an occupying power and responsible for the food shortages. In my opinion, closing the border is simply a way for the Olmert government to put pressure on the newly-elected Hamas government, to try to ensure their failure before they even officially take power. But starving over a million civilians can never be the right way to solve political differences."

It is not an exaggeration to speak of impending starvation among a population where 40% of the children are already malnourished. When asked if the Israeli government is truly willing to let the elderly, the ill, the pregnant women and the children of Gaza literally die of starvation, Mr. Halabi replied, "I don't think this policy will get wide support from Israeli citizens, but I think the government itself is perfectly willing to see Palestinians starve."

Mr. Halabi's opinion is widely echoed among Gaza's citizens. Abu Kamal, a man of 51 from Jebalya said, "Israel always boasts that it's the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, we had a fair and completely democratic election in January, and by democratically choosing Hamas, starvation is our reward. That's how much the Israeli government respects democracy!"

The Tel Aviv government has been insisting this extended border closure and the resulting impending famine in Gaza is purely due to security concerns. "There is no security problem here," said Hassan El Wali, a security official on the Palestinian side of Karni. "The Israelis told us that the crossing point would be open for several days but we are not really sure about that," Wali said, and accused the Israelis of dreaming up security problems as a tool against the Palestinians. On Tuesday, an Israeli official confirmed to the Associated Press that the Karni closure was in part to send a message to Hamas, although he also said the security threats were real. He insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, presently set up only for travelers and their personal effects and run by Palestine, Egypt and EU monitors, offers a bit of hope for the future. Egypt has offered to send trucks of flour into Gaza at once, but are still waiting on the Egyptian side for clearance to cross. A delegation of Rafah children demonstrated at the Rafah Terminal with signs asking the EU to pressure Israel to reopen the Karni crossing permanently. The European observers received the children and their official letter to the European Union. The demonstration took place around mid-day and as the EU monitors were served their lunch, they chose to forego their meal and give their box lunches to the Rafah children as a gesture of solidarity and good will.

International law speaks of the illegality of "collective punishment," but it is easy to lose sight of the individual children, grandparents, and pregnant women, the mothers, fathers, and babies behind the verbiage, the statistics, and graphs. Language quickly becomes inadequate. How exactly do we parse out the nuances of starvation? Should we call it a "crisis" now when hungry people are lining up outside bakeries throughout Gaza? Should we save the term "disaster" for the day when Gazans die of starvation? These fine points of reporting probably matter little to Mrs. Abdelal and hundreds of thousands like her who, if not Saturday night, then last Sunday, had to explain to her little boy why he had to go to bed hungry.

read entire article. . .

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Dangerous Game

This appeared in Norwegian in Morgenbladet yesterday. Mohammed's article on impending food shortages in Gaza was already at the printer when the Israeli authorities permitted a one-way opening of the Karni crossing for part of March 9 and 10 to allow trucks of food into Gaza. Gazan farmers trying to export their crops still got no relief, and the Israeli announcement of a total closure for the Purim holiday means food imports will once again be interrupted. With Gaza's stocks of basic staples close to depleted, two-days of normal imports followed by more closures means the Israeli government is still playing a dangerous game with the welfare of Gaza's civilians.

The Dangerous Game
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

Karni Crossing, in the pre-dawn chill, is a ghostly landscape of hundreds of trucks lined up in the hope that the Israeli inspectors just might open the border today. Majed Al Hissi, has been here over a full day and breaks up the monotony by pacing around his truck full of fresh, boxed strawberries, his season's harvest. Around him in line, other farmers are driving trucks full of vegetables, fruit, and fresh flowers. Or, in any event, they were fresh when they joined the line over 24 hours ago.

"Why won't they let us export our crops?" Al Hissi asks. "Another full day in the sun and these strawberries won't be salable. The other farmers in line here have the same problem—produce can't wait forever to get to market. I'm afraid all of Gaza's farmers will lose a whole season's income."

Small farmers have always been inured to the vagaries of nature—months of work can be wiped out by a sudden storm right before harvest. It's harder to be philosophical when the disaster is imposed by the Israeli occupation. Gaza's strawberry farmers have always found an eager market in Europe, but this year they are watching their crops rot while they wait for Gaza's main commercial crossing to be re-opened. In years past, the market gardens of the Israeli settlements earned the Israeli farmers millions in exports. Now, Palestinian economic officials say Gaza's entire agricultural industry is on the verge of collapse. Just in 2006, Gazan farmers and exporters have lost US$68 million (EU57 million.)

A US-brokered deal last November specified that the crossing would be kept open unless there was an "immediate" security threat. But the Israeli Army's prolonged closure of the Karni Crossing is one of Israel's punishments of the Palestinian people for electing a Hamas-dominated Parliament late in January. The Israeli government immediately declared a number of sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, and closed the commercial crossing for "security reasons." Karni was closed for 3 weeks between January 15 and February 5, and then again on February 21after a mysterious explosion in the area. It has remained closed ever since, with Israeli stating "continued security alerts" as the reason.

The Karni crossing is also the main entry point for Gaza's imports of food, medicine, and other staples. The shortages are becoming severe, with prices of sugar and flour now 40% above normal. The UN announced that inventories of wheat, sugar and cooking oil were dangerously low now and could be depleted in a matter of days.

Stocks of wheat flour for bread, Gaza's main staple, are close to exhausted now, and most of the Gaza Strip will experience food shortages unless truckloads of wheat are let in. In Gaza City, Hamdi Al Kholi, owner of Al Kholi Sons Bakery, says he and his seven employees will soon be forced to close their doors. Normally, they turn out thousands of loaves of bread every month, "But when the flour I have is gone, production stops," he said. "Right now, there's no flour to be found anywhere, and if the Karni Crossing remains closed, I won't be able to satisfy the demands of my customers. Bread is the most important and basic food for Palestinians. Years back, we once ran out of wheat for a month and hungry people were lining the streets waiting for bread. I'm hoping we don't see anything so desperate again."

In Deir Al Balah, the Palestinian Flour Mills Company normally supplies about half the total flour production in the Gaza Strip. General Manager Mustafa Shurab explained that their usual daily production is some 250 tons of wheat flour, which supplies 200 to 300 small bakeries. "We're out of wheat now," he explained, then brought out a substantial document. "This is a contract between our company, the UN, and the World Food Program. Over the next four months, we're supposed to deliver 20 thousand tons of flour, which will be distributed as a major part of their food aid program. The way things are now, if Karni remains closed, we'll have to default. There's no possibility to get wheat through other channels—imports get to Gaza through Karni, or not at all. I'll have to close and lay off all 42 employees."

Not only will this be ruinous for his own company, but, says Shurab, "Peace will never come by starving people! Economically, things were actually better when the Israeli settlers were here—the government in Tel Aviv wasn't about to let them go without basic supplies. Now, it seems they just don't care if Palestinians starve. I am hoping fair-minded people in the US and Europe can see this as clearly as we do, and will pressure Israeli to re-open the crossing."

Ordinary Gazans are under as much pressure as food manufacturers. Jalal Nakhla, owner of a supermarket in Gaza City, said his shelves are now empty of many brands of milk, cheese, sugar and flour. While we chatted, one of his customers, Ramzi Saleh, 31, an employee of the Palestinian Authority, bought a single shekel's worth of tea. "It's a small amount," he said, "but we're no longer getting our salaries on time." Israel, who collects taxes and customs duties for the West Bank and Gaza, has been withholding those revenues from the Palestinian Authority—another collective punishment for the election results. Mr. Nakhla shook his head sadly as Saleh left. "Usually he buys tea by the kilo—most people do. With a shekel's worth, he can brew maybe two small pots. Of course, if Karni remains closed, soon there won't be any tea for anyone to buy."

Abu Samer, a 43-year-old schoolteacher from Rafah, echoed the sentiments of many people throughout the Gaza Strip. "Listen," he said, "Israel is playing a very dangerous game now. When you cut off the food supply for over a million people, you leave them no options. People who normally hate violence and never wanted any part of armed resistance will not just watch their children starve. Faced with that kind of certain death, people will prefer to die fighting for their families. There is nothing 'moderate' about starvation, and the Palestinian response won't be moderate either. I don't think Israel understands how strong a reaction food shortages will provoke, but for us, it's as simple as life and death."

Every day that Israel insists on keeping Gaza's basic food and medicine imports choked off, is a day closer to a revolution of the hungry. A revolution of people with nothing left to lose might have disastrous consequences for Palestine, Israel, and even neighboring countries.

read entire article. . .

Friday, March 03, 2006

Ismail Haniyeh: From Refugee Camp to Prime Minister's Office

Mohammed's article appears today in Norwegian in Morgenbladet.

Ismail Haniyeh: From Refugee Camp to Prime Minister's Office
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from Gaza City, Occupied Palestine

"Politics," said Shakespeare in The Tempest, "makes strange bedfellows," and few alliances are stranger or more unexpected than those within the present Palestinian government. Last month's elections saw the ruling Fateh Party solidly defeated by the Hamas "change and reform" slate, leaving Palestinian President Abbas of Fateh heading a Hamas-dominated Parliament. Having long branded the Hamas movement as terrorists, Israel and the West are issuing almost predictable threats about refusing to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. But stranger still, however, is the situation within occupied Palestine where former political prisoners and pariahs now occupy the halls of power with the same men who not so long ago were their jailers. When Hamas's armed wing was mounting military resistance, the Fatah security services, in an effort to appease Israel, frequently arrested and tortured some of the same men who will now lead the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The new Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, is little known in the West, but has earned huge respect among the people of his native Gaza. While the Fateh leadership rarely moves through Gaza without an armed escort, Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders routinely walk alone through all of Gaza's towns and refugee camps. "Hamas is not corrupt," said Gaza City university student Amal Faud, 23. "I have full confidence in Ismail Haniyeh and the other Hamas leaders." While the Western press has focused on Hamas's Islamist roots and expressed concern they will impose a Taliban-style regime on Palestine, such sentiments are rare among the citizens of Gaza. Al Surani, a secular lawyer from Gaza City, explained that Ismail Haniyeh "listens more than he speaks. He understands the peoples' concerns, and when he does speak, he is tactful and coherent."

Haniyeh's political opponents might take issue with the new Prime Minister's tact. At last Friday's prayers in his neighborhood mosque, Haniyeh announced he was refusing the customary salary of US$4000 a month offered him by the Palestinian Authority. No, he said, he would take only US$1500 a month, the amount he actually needed to support his family. He pointed out that his party had won the election on their pledge to reform the Palestinian Authority where, for instance, a certain PA bureaucrat earned US$200,000 annually. A PA spokesman, Al Taeeb Abdelraheem, immediately issued a press release saying, "Such statements by the new Prime Minister are not appropriate to his office."

Haniyeh, however, seems determined to show Fatah—and the world—a new standard of appropriate behavior. Born in 1963 to a refugee family originally from Al Jouar village, he grew up in Beach Camp, one of the poorest refugee camps in Gaza City. Like the other camp children, he studied in UNRWA schools , then went on to graduate from Islamic University in Gaza City in the Arabic Language department. As an undergraduate, he became active in the Islamic Block, the student wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that would later become Hamas. During his student days, 1983-86, he was often at odds with the Fatah-led student groups. After completing his master's degree, he joined the university faculty, and later became an administrator at Islamic University. He preferred to keep a low profile politically, but was nonetheless jailed four times, and was finally exiled with 400 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in December, 1992.

He returned to Gaza and his university post in 1994, and was marked as a terrorist by the Israeli Army. In fact, he worked closely with Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, serving as the wheelchair-bound cleric's office manager and confidential aide. As the second Intifada continued, the Israelis stepped up their program of extra-judicial assassinations, targeting public Hamas figures like Dr. Rantisi and the Sheikh. Haniyeh assumed a public role in the Hamas movement only after the murder of Sheikh Yassin on 21 March, 2004 when the Israelis bombed the elderly man's car as he returned from morning prayers.

In the next two years, Haniyeh became a forceful public speaker, a superb listener—and now, Palestine's Prime Minister. "But Ismail Haniyeh hasn't changed," insists Abu Fadi Al Hasani, a 50-year-old neighbor in the Beach Camp. "He still prays every day in the mosque where we all pray. He respects all the people. Anyone—a child, an elderly person—can talk with him and he will listen." Indeed, Haniyeh and his family of 13 children have never moved from their home in Beach Camp. "I know," said Al Hasani, "he was offered a much bigger, better house outside the camp. And I know he said, 'I'm not going to leave my people, my neighborhood, for something that doesn't belong to me!'"

Despite his blunt style, Haniyeh has a history of opening dialogue with the Fateh factions. His self-deprecating humor also sets him apart from many Palestinian politicians. Back in December, 2003, Sheikh Yassin, Haniyeh, and other Hamas members narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt when the Israeli Air Forced bombed a house where they had been meeting. At a Hamas rally soon after, he explained that when he heard the Israeli helicopters approaching, he ran clumsily down a metal staircase, put his leg through an opening and was momentarily stuck. When they'd all gotten safely away and he told the Sheikh of his mishap, the elderly, crippled imam told him, "Oh, you should have called me! I would have rescued you!"

Although the new Prime Minister has just assumed his office, President Abbas, Israel, and the international community have barraged the new Hamas leadership with a list of conditions—they will recognize and deal with a Hamas-led government only if the new leaders recognize Israel, honor existing agreements made with Israel by the PLO, and renounce violence.

Asked his opinion of these conditions, Haniyeh's response has been consistent and clear: " We are surprised that such conditions are imposed on us. Why don't they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected their agreements? Israel has bypassed practically all agreements. We say: Let Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders. At least then we will know what we are talking about."

Asked in a phone interview if his government would honor the existing Oslo Accords, Haniyeh replied,
"The Oslo agreements said that a Palestinian state would be established by 1999. Where is this Palestinian state? Has Oslo given the right to Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, to build the wall and expand the settlements, and to Judaize Jerusalem and make it totally Jewish? Has Israel been given the right to disrupt the work on the port and airport in Gaza? Has Oslo given them the right to besiege Gaza and to stop all tax refunds to the Palestinian Authority?"

Of course, there are more questions than answers—questions Israel and the international community do not seem eager to address. Haniyeh won his office on his unblemished reputation and a promise of reform and transparency, but he faces heavy internal and external challenges. Externally, Israel, the US and the EU are threatening an economic siege on Palestine, cutting off development programs and humanitarian aid. Internally, the challenges are almost as severe, as some of his Fatah opponents, whatever their public rhetoric, hope a spectacular Hamas failure will bring a call for new elections and their return to power If Haniyeh, however, can chart an honest, pragmatic course of partnership with the international community, working toward a peaceful solution that preserves Palestinian rights, it will very likely quell much of the political in-fighting. But one of the most pressing and immediate problems is Israel's ongoing military attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, Prime Minister Haniyeh faces an ongoing threat he cannot readily neutralize, namely that from the Israeli helicopters and F16s. Israel has announced it will continue its program of extra-judicial assassinations and just a few days ago, Avi Dichter, former head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, announced the Palestinian Prime Minister is still subject to arrest. So Ismail Haniyeh, democratically elected Parliamentarian, and Palestine's new prime minister, is threatened by Israeli bombs as much as the humblest citizen.

read entire article. . .

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Armed with a Mouse

Mohammed's report on internet activism originally appeared in the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet yesterday.

Armed with a Mouse
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from Gaza City, Occupied Palestine

In the furor over the insulting images of the Prophet Mohammed originally printed in a Danish newspaper and reproduced by many Western publications to demonstrate free expression and a free press, the Western media has been quick to lump all Islamic and Arabic protests together—whether peaceful or violent, thoughtful or mindless--in places where history and circumstances are wildly different. Whether the scene is occupied Afghanistan, or the impoverished immigrant housing projects of France, or in the complex society of Pakistan, to the West it is all "the Islamic world." The most inflammatory placards, the most violent and tragic incidents, are splashed on the front pages and lead the TV news while more careful, nuanced commentary is buried in the back pages or gets, at most, a sentence at the end of the TV anchor's report.
In such a climate, it is hardly surprising that non-violent but highly effective internet activism has barely been mentioned. Instead of noisy street demonstrations, burning flags, and stones hurled through embassy windows, the weapon of choice is the keyboard, the mouse and the economic boycott for these new activists of the Islamic world,.

The most recent campaign of cyber-activists in Palestine, Egypt and other Arab countries, targeted a mysterious anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian video, apparently meant to be a TV commercial, that was widely distributed on the internet. It was, said the Western advertising trade press, an example of "viral marketing," where a TV ad too offensive for mainstream release is leaked to the internet by parties unknown. The manufacturer whose product is involved then has the unhappy task of trying to prove he didn't create the video.

In this case, the target was the German auto manufacturer Volkswagen, and the video, according to one commentator, "was apparently designed to offend as many human beings as possible." The short video shows a Volkwagen Polo pulling up outside a lovely sidewalk café as a young white woman pushing a baby carriage stolls by. Inside the car, there's a closeup of a stereotypical young Arab, wearing a military-style khaki jacket with a Palestinian kuffyiah around his neck. He cradles something that could be a bomb and pushes a mechanism as the view cuts to the exterior. A fireball fills the car, which remains intact despite the explosion, and the "commercial" ends with the declaration that the Volkswagen Polo is "small but tough."

In just a few seconds, the anonymous video-maker branded all Palestinian resistance as terrorism against innocent civilians, and trivialized every aspect of the tragic history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It was bad enough when the video appeared on small websites and was spread through email, but when the massive internet portal and search engine ran it under the headline "German Engineering against Arab Technology," the immensely powerful Google organization was compounding the offense.

Iman Badawi of Cairo was one of the internet activists who then swung into action. She and other activists had already created a number of Arabic-language websites to gather signatures on petitions protesting Denmark's inflammatory stance. "Of course, the Volkswagen ad was extremely provocative," she explained. "But when Google decided to feature it under such an offensive headline—as if all technology in the Arab world was limited to bomb-making—we sent an email in English to Google's advertising department explaining why we were compelled to protest. I said that as Arabs, we always respected their transparency and inclusive policies promoting a diversity of viewpoints. And although I find the video personally offensive, I would not take action against Google if they had not promoted such an intrinsically offensive headline. The email ended with a request they remove the link within 24 hours. We assured them we would also initiate appropriate protests and boycotts against Volkswagen Polo."

In fact, Volkwagen disavowed any part in the creation or release of the video and declared they would take legal action against those responsible. Google, however, chose to stonewall for three weeks. The Google link was still online; the headline was untouched, and Badwi got only a noncommital reply from Google that it would review the situation in terms of its policies.

"Of course," Badwi explained, "we were also working on boycott campaigns against Danish products. I had asked they remove the link in 24 hours. After 24 days, when nothing changed, I wrote and thanked them for not responding. I told them we would now email all our thousands of website visitors about Google's intransigence, and urge them to boycott Google and consider pulling any sponsored links." To demonstrate this was no empty threat, she attached to the message some of the petitions with tens of thousands of signatures of those pledging to boycott Danish products.

This time, Google's advertising department responded immediately with an apology and assured her the ad and headline indeed contravened Google's policies. "We have deleted it completely from our website," they assured her.

For years now, there have been many Arabic-language websites discussing current events and issues, but the effective use of economic boycotts in the Arab world is relatively new. Internet activists launched a boycott threat against "Ezi Mozo," an Egyptian juice manufacturer whose TV ads on many mid-East channels featured closeups of young women dancing, seductively whispering the product's name and making provocative gestures. The internet activists assured the general director of the company that if such blatantly un-Islamic advertising continued, they would add Ezi Mozo to the list of American and Israeli products already being boycotted. They received an immediate apology and the offensive commercials disappeared.

This new activism is a volunteer, slenderly-funded, but extremely effective use of the power of the internet. In Gaza City, Raja'a Assalia, a university student, spends his spare time and cash in a small internet café organizing boycotts. "I work with a number of groups," he said, "and the internet is an excellent way to make people aware of many issues. Of course, there's the ongoing boycott of Israeli products—we've been working on that for years—but we're also targeting certain Arabic products that degrade Arab and Islamic women. For instance there are Arab-language music videos featuring women who are practically naked. Obviously, we should boycott those record companies till they recover their sanity! We should make it clear many of us won't support products that offend basic standards of decency. We don't believe exploiting women is an acceptable sales technique."

Assalia has multiple windows open on his monitor, reading the latest news from boycott organizers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, to name a few. Assalia confirmed no donor or organized group is funding his work. He is simply one of hundreds of volunteers personally known to him in Palestine and abroad who, for the price of an hour in an internet café, can join the effort. With the advent of free and low-cost blogging software, a few minutes, a few typed words, and a few mouse clicks can launch anyone into the border-less world of internet activism.

read entire article. . .

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Choreographed Chaos

photo: Mohammed Omer
Masked gunmen from several Fatah-linked armed factions protested noisily in Gaza City against the insult offered to Islam by cartoons published in a Danish magazine.

Mohammed Omer filed this special report with Morgenbladet (a Norwegian weekly)a few hours ago.

Choreographed Chaos?
By Mohammed Omer
reporting from Gaza City, Occupied Palestine

Norwegian nationals, heeding s strong request from their government, left the Gaza Strip under the protection of the Palestinian security forces on Monday, 30 January. Over the weekend, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the armed wing of the defeated Fatah party, distributed a leaflet in Gaza City demanding that all Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes leave Gaza within 48 hours, pending an apology from the governments of Denmark and Norway for cartoons insulting the Prophet Mohammed published late in 2005.

The offending cartoons, caricaturing the Prophet as a terrorist, first appeared in Denmark's Jylland Posten and were later republished in one Norwegian magazine. The Danish paper, in the wake of the resulting furor throughout the Islamic world, published an "apology" that made matters worse, saying that they had not meant to insult anyone. Since all visual portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed are strictly forbidden to Muslims, and the disrespect in the images was flagrant, the Danish newspaper's statement, coupled with their government's defense of free expression, only inflamed the situation.

A Fatah spokesman, Abu Qusai, explained his position by saying: "We respect other religions and cultures. It's a must that they should respect ours as well." Asked if their insistence that Danish and Norwegian nationals leave Gaza might have an adverse effect on Palestine, both internally and internationally, he replied, "We don't want these Danes and Norwegians to be harmed. We understand they personally had no part in the insult to the Prophet. But we do hope they'll press their governments to apologize to the Islamic world. Actually, we welcome foreigners as our guests, but basic respect for religion is a red line that no one should cross."

The Al Yasser Brigades, another militant faction linked to the defeated Fatah, demonstrated against the Nordic countries over the weekend, while the Popular Resistance Committee, a third armed militant group, staged a second demonstration in which people trampled the Danish flag and burned Danish and Norwegian flags. "The Danish government doesn’t want to apologize to Muslims for what they did to them," one of the demonstrators said. "We belong to Fatah. We defend our religion. So we ban Danes and Norwegians from entering the Gaza Strip until the Danish government apologizes."

The militant groups, however, constitute about 5000 men among the 1.3 million citizens of Gaza. Ordinary Palestinians expressed quite different views from the fiery rhetoric of the Fatah-linked militants. "When Fatah asks Danes and Norwegians to leave Gaza, that doesn’t mean that all Danes and Norwegians are bad. We understand that. We know the insult to the Prophet was the work of only a few," said one Gaza resident, Umm Wael Salam, 45.

The landslide victory of the Islamist movement Hamas in last week's parliamentary elections is not without its ironies. While one might expect the overtly Islamist Hamas members to be the first to take to the streets to demonstrate against an insult to the Prophet, instead the new ruling party distributed a somber, even statesmanlike, press release demanding that the issue could not and should not be resolved by violence against foreigners. Their statement insisted the resolution had to be a diplomatic one via a formal apology. It is, in fact, the militant wings of the defeated secular Fatah party that are creating disorder over the humiliation offered to Islam. Astute observers are wondering if the real humiliation of interest to Fatah is not disrespect to the Prophet, but the embarrassment Hamas may suffer in the international community if it cannot control the unruly militants. So far, though, the demonstrations against the Nordic oountries have been loud, but brief, with no harm done to any Danish or Norwegian citizens.

read entire article. . .

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Carnival of Destiny--Palestine Goes to the Polls

photo:Mohammed Omer
Voters' fingers were dipped in indelible ink to prevent double-voting. Everyone, even those dismayed by Hamas's unexpected landslide victory in the January 25 Parliamentary elections, agreed the election had been honest, orderly, transparent and free of fraud.

Mohammed Omer's election-day report of the final week of campaigning was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet on Friday, 27 January. Morgenbladet stretched its normal deadlines almost to the breaking point, but Hamas's caution in declaring victory meant Mohammed had to file his copy pre-Thursday night's official speeches

The Carnival of Destiny: Palestine Goes to the Polls
by Mohammed Omer
Reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

The scene was played out with only small variations through January in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: the establishment party, Fatah, would race into town in a convoy of limousines with a police escort, sirens blaring. Crowds would gather for a campaign rally, complete with The Candidate's stump speech, before his bodyguards hustled him back to his limo to roar on to the next stop. In case anyone failed to get the message, sound trucks blaring campaign songs and slogans trundled through the streets, often late into the evening. Children found it amusing, while their elders enjoyed or resented their captive-audience status.

The less affluent, but highly disciplined and organized Hamas candidates, were as loud at their rallies, but sent out fewer sound trucks. Branded a "terrorist" group by Israel, the United States, and the EU, the Hamas candidates have run as independents on the Change and Reform slate. Although the resistance group's official charter calls for continuing armed struggle against Israel, they have scrupulously avoided armed attacks since February and their candidates for Parliament have concentrated on local issues, promising a corruption-free government, an end to cronyism, more jobs and civil order.

As campaigning drew to a close this week, polls showed Hamas making impressive gains. Local, Israeli, and international election-watchers predicted a too-close-to-call cliffhanger. The Change and Reform slate might become a strong enough presence in Parliament to demand power-sharing with Fatah. And there were several secularist slates who might win 10% to 15% of the vote. Some expressed fears that a strong showing for Hamas would bring about a "Taliban-style" theocracy, yet Hussam Al Tawil, 40, a Greek Orthodox Christian from Gaza, is running on the Hamas slate. "I'm proud of and loyal to my Christianity," he said, "but these are political issues, and my Church doesn't mind my running with Hamas. I certainly don't have a "Christian speech" and a "Muslim speech"—we are all Palestinians, and we must exercise our right to democracy together and choose the best people." While a few Hamas candidates promise a Quran-governed state, most have said nothing about lifestyle issues like mandatory veils for all women, preferring to concentrate on jobs, civil order and clean government. And all analysts expected a victorious Hamas to seek Cabinet-level posts dealing with domestic matters like Education, Health, and Welfare, letting the Fatah old-guard handle direct negotiations with Israel.

Regardless, Fatah wasn't gaining the lead it sought. So in the waning days of the campaign, Fatah said Hamas would refuse to negotiate with Israel for Palestinians to work in the cross-border "industrial zones." Then, citizens in Gaza and the West Bank saw the edifying sight of the suddenly-humble Candidate walking on his own two imported-leather-shod feet down the narrow alleys of poor neighborhoods. No Mercedes with red government plates, no bodyguards, no police escorts. Just The Candidate, reborn as a man of the people, nodding to one and all, talking with ordinary citizens who normally couldn't hope for a moment of his time. In Rafah, The Candidate passed bullet-riddled homes before reaching his destination, a haircutter's shop, the well-known gathering-place for young men. Smiling, nodding, paying the normal price—no special privileges for The Candidate!--he sat down to have his hair trimmed and give his campaign speech.

photo: Mohammed Omer
The militant factions scrupulously kept their promise of a violence-free election. The same people who had threated violence a week before checked their guns and voted peacefully.

His audience started peppering him with tough, specific questions. Voters 18-25 make up about 30% of the electorate and most of them have been passionately following the campaigns. "Change now!" has been the theme of their demands—as The Candidate learned to his sorrow. He tried to keep his smile intact as he discovered platitudes and slogans were accomplishing nothing with this audience. Their support would be crucial if he hoped to win.

On the other side of Rafah, another Candidate visited the divan—an extended-family gathering place—of one of Gaza's most powerful clans. Again, he came alone, the humble guest, there to persuade the entire family to vote for him. He began to recite his usual campaign promises when a young man interrupted him. Perhaps he was 20, or a bit older, but his black baseball cap and casual dress set him apart from the traditionally-clad elders.

"None of you Fatah men will help us," he declared. "I tried to see you a year ago. I needed your help in solving a simple problem. But I never spoke to you—you were always too busy."

The Candidate started to stammer a reply while his elderly hosts smiled gently. The young man wasn't finished. "The last time I visited your office, your staff told me never to come back. When I phoned, they told me not to call again. So there you are, just a mid-level government manager, but too busy to help a citizen. Of course, you have a nice office, and a staff to get rid of ordinary people. Now, if you become a member of Parliament, you really will be important! You'll have even more office workers to throw me out. So why should I believe you'll help me?"

The Candidate flushed with anger, but said not a word. He stood, bowed his thanks to his hosts, and left. A few feet from the divan's entrance, a bodyguard opened the Mercedes door for him and his driver whisked him away—to that comfortable office, no doubt.

During these last-ditch campaign efforts, the Palestinian police, all 60,000 of them, voted early so they would be free on election day to guard the polling stations. Palestinian citizens who took intensive training to be official election observers voted early as well. The actual voting went smoothly, with 20,000 police guarding the polling places. Voter turnout was enormous, nearly 78% of registered voters. As many voters explained, this was the first Parliamentary election in a decade, and the first ever offering voters a real choice. Hamas and Fatah activists stood silently at the required distance from the polls, showing a sea of flags, green for Hamas and yellow for Fatah. Incidents were few, minor, and quickly resolved. Police in Khan Younis fired in the air as over-eager voters jostled to reach the polling place. In East Jerusalem, two extreme-right Israeli politicians attempted to force their way into a voting station, but 75 police blocked their way. The same armed militants who threatened violence last week checked their rifles with police and voted peacefully.

The shooting didn't start until after the polls closed when Fatah supporters, and even the Palestinian police started firing in the air to celebrate—prematurely—a Fatah victory. Based on several exit polls, Fatah was estimated to have won 63 of 132 Parliamentary seats, or 43%; Hamas had 58 seats, or nearly 40%, while the smaller parties were estimated to have some 11 seats. Hamas, however, refused to claim victory until the official results were announced. President Mahmoud Abbas, whose office was not in question, said a Hamas presence in Parliament meant peace negotiations with Israel would be endorsed by a broad spectrum of Palestinian society while US President Bush restated his refusal to deal with Hamas.

Despite the rhetoric from all parties, when the official results are finally announced, the one thing certain is that Palestine will finally have a multi-party legislature. No matter who is sharing power with whom, and no matter what domestic reforms may be enacted, the war-and-peace issues with Israel will be the unavoidable backdrop.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Shout Behind the Veil

Mohammed Omer

VEILED BUT VISIBLE Arwa Umran, 19, wears a traditional full veil at a Hamas campaign rally, but has no hesitation about stating her political opinions.

Norwegian People's Aid commissioned Mohammed to report in-depth on young peoples' involvement in the Palestinian Parliamentary elections. His article below was posted 24 Jan as the lead article on their website. (

The Shout Behind the Veil
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from the Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine

"Occupation's bad enough—stop the chaos!"
"Palestinian youth say: stop the violence!"
"Youth demands change now!"

Finally there is something more numerous than bullet holes on the walls of Palestine: political posters. Candidates, slogans, party logos, plus a surprising number of this sudden crop of posters in the Gaza Strip which have been made and put up by student organizations and youth groups. Young people aged 18-25 are 30% of the population in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and are determined to make their voices matter in the 25 January Parliamentary elections. While some posters endorse a specific party, they all have a common theme of "Change—NOW."

Young people in Palestine have faced endless frustration from the paternalistic "old guard" of the Palestinian Authority and its ruling Fatah Party. On many occasions, youth groups petitioned the PNA to allow candidates aged 18-25 to run for the Legislative Council, and were turned down with infuriating diplomacy. "Now, now, children," was the unspoken message, "we know better."

Typical of this unhappy scenario was "Our Voice," a Sharek Youth Forum event in Gaza City funded by Norwegian People's Aid. One of the PNA elders attending was Abdel Aziz Shaheen, a former member of the Legislative Council. When he took questions from the floor, a young man declared, "It's time for some of the older generation of legislators to step aside and make room for our generation in Parliament." Shaheen interrupted him: "That's against the law! Our election law is clear that candidates must be at least 30 years old. And that is actually very progressive. In all the other Arabic states, candidates for office must be at least 40!"

Nonetheless, the election law is also clear that those 18 and over can register to vote. And there are no age limits on campaign volunteers. So in the last two days, the Gaza Strip has been humming with the energy of youth workshops, training sessions, and seminars, all aimed toward training "get out the vote" workers. Indeed, Palestinian young people form the majority of door-to-door "get out the vote" volunteers, some affiliated with non-partisan groups, others working for specific slates of candidates. Fairly equal numbers of young men and women are involved in the effort, the women workers usually adding a full face veil to the usual headscarf to avoid any possible accusations of impropriety.

It is not in the least surprising that young women are fully involved in campaigning. After all, in the past five years of the Intifada, they suffered every bit as much as the young men at the Israeli checkpoints; they were kept from their homes, their schools, their jobs as often as any man. Due to the recent rash of civil disorder in the Gaza Strip, a recent poll showed young voters have an overwhelming interest in local elections. The pollsters cite two reasons: the young people are desperate for positive change, and are unafraid of new situations, including new political parties and brand-new activities like being campaign volunteers.

Some young people will also serve as official election observers. Forty members of the Sharek Youth Forum in Gaza City, aged 18-25, have reported to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights for intensive training to serve as election observers on January 25.

Moheeb Sharek 24, the director of Sharek Youth Forum in Gaza City, pointed out that this was still only a civil and volunteer role. "They can't be candidates," he said. "The youngest person running is a Hamas candidate 29 years old on the Change and Reform slate. And there's one independent candidate who is 35. So our generation will not actually be in Parliament, despite all our appeals for a change in the election laws."

But the importance of the civil and volunteer role cannot be underestimated. Ali Al Nims, 23, the Public Information Officer for the Central Election Commission in Gaza, pointed out that candidates may succeed or fail based on the youth vote. In the last presidential elections, voters aged 18-25 numbered 153,877 in the West Bank and Gaza, 63, 245 women and 90,632 young men. For this week's elections, however, registered voters 18-25 in the West Bank and Gaza are 216,680. Those 50,000-plus new young voters are certainly planning to turn out at the polls this week.

Iman Hamdi, a student from Al Azhar University in Gaza City said, "It's time for all of us students to give our votes to those who deserve them. We have to let the country know we're here, and are determined to have a say in our future." Asked if she's planning to vote, she said, "Of course! I have to! But I haven't made my mind up. I'm hoping to see some debates between opposing parties, so I can better judge their programs."

Arwa Umran, a woman of 19, is campaigning for the Hamas slate. "Thank God I can finally vote," she said. "I will be voting for the Change and Reform Hamas list. They're not about to give away Palestinian rights. There's certainly no way I'd vote for the old system. They negotiated for years with the Israelis and achieved nothing. Their only gift to the people of Palestine was corruption." Her face was veiled, but the voice behind it was brave and decisive.

Of course, some Palestinian young people have given in to the massive frustrations of life under Occupation and are cynical, if not downright apathetic, about the upcoming elections. But this week, a veritable army of their contemporaries will be knocking on their doors, sending text to their mobile phones, and bringing them a very different message: that their vote counts, and every vote will be counted. For years, the youth of Palestine have proven over and over that they are talented, energetic, idealistic and motivated—and so far, the powers-that-be have failed to respond to all that positive energy. On January 25, however, the young voters of Palestine are hoping to change all that and start building a better future for their homeland.

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