Saturday, November 19, 2005

Playing the Game Professionally

Mohammed's article was originally published in Morgenbladet 18 November 2005

The gunfire has gone on for hours on the streets of a refugee camp. Six Israeli soldiers face a handful of Palestinian militants. They are taking cover in a narrow alley. The militants throw a grenade into the knot of soldiers. The explosion is deafening, but the Israeli soldiers keep firing.

"Wait, wait, wait," yells a masked militant, "that was a direct hit—you're dead!"

"Not this time," the Israeli captain shouts back. "It landed five meters short of our position."

"Six meters!" his lieutenant corrects him.

"It did NOT!" screams the militant.

The captain's younger sister, watching from a nearby doorway, starts laughing while the militants hold a strategy conference. Two of the resistance fighters have to leave to study for the next day's math quiz.

Welcome to Palestine's most popular children's game. Sometimes the kids call it "Army versus Militants," or "Jews and Arabs," or "settlers and villagers"—there are a variety of names but the pattern is always the same—hours-long mock battles with amazingly realistic sound effects. After five years of watching real warfare played out in their own neighborhoods, most children throughout the Gaza Strip have become experts at imitating the whine of sniper bullets, automatic-weapons fire, grenade explosions, missile strikes. Young boys in the villages and refugee camps always played war games occasionally, but during the Intifada the bloodless battles have become wildly popular.

Roles are not rigid. The boy who is a cruel Occupation soldier one day, bullying and harassing Palestinians at an imagined checkpoint, can switch next day to playing a resistance fighter, bravely doing his best to inflict damage on the Israeli army, despite their superior weaponry.

Sometimes the realism is uncanny. "Boina, boina—stop, stop!" Nadder Hassan, 13, was screaming at an "enemy" Palestinian. He continued "interrogating" the boy playing a militant prisoner with an excellent command of Hebrew idioms—which the other game-player understood easily. After all, these boys had heard all these words and phrases used by real Occupation forces during incursions into their neighborhoods.

Khalil Abed, 13, from the opposing team of resistance fighters, quickly ran out of ammunition and was "captured." Soon, the "Israelis" ordered to him to undress and lie on the ground where he was blindfolded. Other real-life situations sometimes enter the game: ambulance drivers pleading to pass a checkpoint to save the life of a critically-ill patient; civilians telling the soldiers in vain of their lost relatives, lost land—the children pride themselves on the degree of verisimilitude they achieve, but often adults who overhear the play-acting find it unbearable to listen. It is far too accurate a replica of what they have suffered under the Occupation. They are horrorstruck that these youngsters can imitate the sounds of weapons so perfectly, not to mention the best and worst behavior of all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, the many variations of "Jews and Arabs" is unquestionably the most popular children's street game throughout Palestine. Suliman, a 13-year-old from Rafah's Al Shabura camp, was playing the part of an Israeli soldier in one of the narrow alleys—barely a meter wide—between tiny houses. "Of course it's my favorite game!" he said, then broke off abruptly to hit the ground—the "militants" were throwing stones. He was "shooting" the enemy with a realistic plastic rifle and only continued the interview when his four "enemies" were officially dead. Just why had he chosen to buy the toy rifle? "Because I saw one just like it every day—it's the model the Israeli soldiers always carry."

By why, he was asked, this game of all possible games? "Look at the children my age in other Arab countries—they have playgrounds, parks, swings, seesaws, sports fields—they have all kinds of entertainments. But for me, there's nothing like that. No playground, no place to play soccer. The gun and the war game we invent is the only thing available."

"But remember," Mahmoud, who might be a year or two older, interjects, "we play this game professionally because we lived through the Israeli war. I can differentiate between the sounds of tanks, bombs, or mortars, I can imitate an M16 or any other weapon the Israelis use."

During lulls in the game's action, the players chatted. When asked if they considered other games more interesting, all agreed readily. "Of course!" one said immediately. "Where there are computer games, parks, soccer fields, playgrounds for us—all of them would be better than this 'Jews and Arabs' game. But when there's nothing else, then 'Jews and Arabs' is our favorite."

Dr. Fadel Abu Hien , a psychology professor at Gaza City's Al Aqsa University, suggested there were deeper reasons for the popularity of war games. "It's a way to have some feeling of power in a real-life situation where they are powerless. Almost all children in Palestine have seen people killed, injured, have been exposed to the increased Israeli aggression of rocket attacks, shelling, sniper fire. That inevitably encourages mock-violent games. If a boy can 'fire' the same weapon as the occupier, if he can imitate the sound of a mortar or rocket which he sees as the Israeli source of power, then he 'owns' that power too and feels more in control. It's also a way to vent anger and act out a symbolic revenge. Children's play always reflects both their environment and their own emotions.

"Intuitively," he continued, "the children playing these games are trying to strike a balance between fear and horror, and a wish to strike back. That's why most players take on a variety of parts at different times. It's understandable they strive for highly realistic play-acting. The bomb and rocket attacks usually occur at night, and most of these games are played at night too."

Of course, the biggest winners in this popular children's game are not the boys playing soldier, but the corporations who stamp "Israel" and "made in China" on the toy bombs and guns for sale in every market in Gaza. The Israeli customs authorities who control every import have no problem promptly clearing case after case of realistic toy weaponry while shipments of food and medicine can be tied up in red tape for weeks. If the Sharon government is seeking "a partner for peace," why are they helping Gaza's children learn the arts of war?

read entire article. . .

Monday, November 07, 2005

Poisoned Honey

Mohammed's latest, which appeared in Morgenbladet on 5 November.

Despite the so-called disengagement, the Israeli war against Palestine has moved into a new phase. In addition to targeted killings of Palestinian militant leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli Army is tormenting the entire population in Gaza with sound concussion grenades. The F16s circle, followed by explosions so loud that if one is detonated from a plane over Beit Hamoun in north Gaza, it can be heard all the way down in south Gaza. This is a new hardship for Gazans, one the Israelis would not use while Israeli families slept in the illegal settlements. Certainly, the settlers must not suffer nightmares and broken windows. Now that the settlements are empty, though, the Israeli army is apparently quite willing to send Palestinian children to the hospital with hysteria and other stress-induced illnesses.

Along with these attacks, the same F-16s have dropped leaflets throughout North Gaza urging citizens to "ensure their safety" by collaborating with the Israeli Security Services and giving the names and whereabouts of resistance fighters planning to fire homemade mortars across the border into Israel. This is not the first time the occupying forces have urged Palestinians to become informers, but it is especially bitter this year as another Eid celebration will be marred by national as well as personal losses. Last year, during what is meant to be the most festive time of the year, Palestinians were mourning the death of Yassir Arafat. Now, they watch in horror as many leaders of the Islamic Jihad die in missile strikes and other "extrajudicial assassinations," as the occupation forces call them. In the most recent killing in north Gaza, Islamic Jihad leader Shadi Muhannah's car was bombed as he returned from evening prayers. The street was crowded, since Friday prayers are especially well-attended during the holy month of Ramadan, and six bystanders, including four boys under 18, were killed.

To add an extra note of irony, the Israeli Security Services, so concerned for the innocent civilians of Gaza, list a mobile phone number in their leaflets, urging them "not to hesitate" to inform on armed militants. "For your safety," they add, "keep away from areas where mortars are being fired. . . . Everyone can help protect himself and his children from the harm caused by resistance fighters who intend to fire homemade rockets. Don't be reluctant. . ." the leaflet continues before giving the phone number. Almost as an afterthought, the unsigned text ends, "For your personal safety, call from a location where no one knows you." In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, the Israeli soldiers who invaded the area also handed out similar leaflets. In Gaza, Islamic Jihad quickly issued its own broadsheet warning people against turning informer, since throughout the Intifada, the Palestinian Authority has been quick to arrest, and frequently execute, any collaborators they discovered.

Continuing the psychological warfare, thousands of cell phone users in the northern West Bank and the Gaza Strip heard two recorded messages. One said: "The Israeli Defense Force is working to protect you by getting the terrorists out of your midst." The other: "The Israeli Defense Force cautions you against harming its security. For your own safety, do not offer shelter to the terrorists among you." The Palestinian Minister of Communications Sabri Saidam said that the Palestinian Telecommunications Network played no part whatsoever in disseminating these messages. He accused Bazek, an Israeli company, of allowing the Israeli authorities to penetrate the Palestinian phone network.

Tawfiq Abu Khussa, spokesman of the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior and National Security, said about the leaflet drop, "Basically, this tactic indicates a failed policy. This is not the first time they've used it. It didn't work in the past, it won't work now—it will never help the Israeli Army. What would help would be to stop the occupation, stop the arrests, the killings, the incursions. There are attacks because the fighters are resisting the occupation. End the occupation and the resistance will end. The attacks will stop when the citizens see real hope for peace and security through the political process, through re-starting the peace talks. They will never see hope, and never know security while Israel is attacking us."

Citizens in Gaza echoed Abu Khussa's sentiments. Without exception, they were unimpressed by the Israeli Army's professed concern for their safety. A typical response was that of Umm-Ibrahim Hamad, 46, a housewife and mother from northern Gaza. "Why should we call the same army that is killing us?" she asked. "What do they think we are?"

A reasonable question. The Israelis' paper leaflets stating their "concern" count for little against the missiles launched against a car traveling down a crowded Gaza street, killing and injuring those simply walking by. With its leaflets and phone messages, the Israeli army is trying to offer honey, but the people of Palestine know it is poisoned, and prefer to go hungry.

read entire article. . .