Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Few Grams of Chicken

Mohammed's article on the UN's multi-agency report on poverty in the West Bank and Gaza was published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet in their pre-holiday double issue yesterday.

One o'clock, two o'clock on a cold winter night in Rafah, and the young man is huddled on the doorstep of a shack. The night gets colder; it's now three a.m., and he is still sitting outdoors. Is he an amateur astronomer? Or a self-appointed watchman to warn of Israeli spy drones?

No, Hani Al Najjar, 23, is awake in the small hours because his 19-year-old brother Mahmoud has the "early shift" in the bed they share. Actually, European readers wouldn't call the thin mattress on the floor a "bed," but western-style beds are an impossible luxury for most families in Gaza. When Mahmoud leaves for school, Hani will get some sleep indoors. "There's no room for both of us to lie down inside," he explains. The "house" for their family of eight was originally built long ago to shelter goats, but the Al Najjar family was grateful to rent it after their house was bulldozed by the Israeli Army during an incursion in 2003.

In the same ramshackle neighborhood, Amnah Audeh, a 53-year-old housewife, says she has one simple, but perhaps impossible goal. "The dream of my family is to taste beef or chicken. We have never had the money to buy meat, or any really good meal. We simply can't afford it," she said sadly. Open a refrigerator in any refugee camp home: most often you will find bottles of water and little else. The lack of potable tap water means everyone in Gaza must purchase bottled water, or risk serious disease. Of course, that means less money for a nutritious diet.

Gaza, despite one border crossing now operating to Egypt under joint Egyptian and Palestinian control, is still the biggest world's prison. Poverty in Gaza is steadily worsening as the Israeli military continues its stranglehold on all crossing points for cargo. Materials to rebuild cannot enter; Gazan goods cannot reach market; Gazans cannot seek employment across the border. The same is true for the Palestinians trapped behind the closed borders in the West Bank, and in many cases, cut off from their land, jobs, and schools by the illegal apartheid wall.

Right now, more than three-quarters of the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza live below the poverty line, the United Nations announced last week. In the five years since the start of the Intifada, unemployment throughout Palestine has risen from 10 percent to over 30 percent. The UN report, compiled by all its agencies working in the region, said that 64 percent of the entire population were surviving on less than 2.20 US dollars a day, and half of them fit the UN definition of "extreme poverty cases" with less than 1.6 US dollars. In Gaza, 78 percent live below the poverty level.

Filippo Grandi, Deputy head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said, "The situation has been exacerbated by the Israeli Army's constant closures in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza, even though the last troops were withdrawn from Gaza in September."

Ironically, despite the extreme poverty, Palestine is rich in talent. Literacy rates, especially among younger Palestinians, are high, and many poor families make enormous sacrifices to send their children to Gaza's universities. On graduation, however, the young men and women discover they cannot put their skills to work in a salaried job. As Nigel Parry, head of the World Bank mission to the Palestinian territories recently pointed out, the local economy is in such disarray that even the Palestinian Authority can no longer pay its civil servants and government employees.

Palestinian cabinet minister Hind Khuri said that international assistance was vital. "The situation is so bad that the government cannot possibly solve it on its own," she said. "In previous years, we received billions of dollars in financial aid, but due to the continuing occupation, the humanitarian situation is constantly worsening, and I cannot realistically foresee improvement without international aid." The Palestinian Authority had made significant progress in infrastructure and health care before the Intifada, but the Israeli Army's systematic destruction of water and sewer systems during the last five years wiped out virtually all the gains. Rates of illness and malnutrition have risen, as doctors and hospitals in Palestine try to do more and more with fewer resources.

In a phone interview, Nigel Roberts placed the blame for Palestine's desperate poverty and stagnant economy squarely on the Israeli restrictions, closures, and continuing occupation. When there is no movement of people, no flow of goods and services, there can be no viable economy.

"Stagnant" seems almost too mild a word for Gaza's moribund economy. But as long as the powerful forces in the First World refuse to apply serious pressure on Israel to ease its stranglehold on Palestine, Mrs. Audeh, and hundreds of thousands of other mothers in Gaza, will dream in vain of serving a few grams of chicken to their children.

read entire article. . .

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Foreign Teachers Released, Were "Treated Well"

The Guardian reported a few minutes ago that the two foreign teachers abducted earlier today were released shortly after their kidnappers, the PLFP (a small militant faction) faxed a release to the Associated Press claiming responsibility and demanding the release of their leader from prison. Below is the URL of the entire story.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-5494634,00.html


The story gave no details on the teachers' condition. However, the PNA condemned the abduction and their school in Gaza City demanded their release, stating the Dutch headmaster and his Australian deputy were serving in a srictly educational capacity. The Palesinian Seurity Services had mounted a search for the kidnapped teachers, but it would seem from the wording of the Guardian story that their abductors released them.

UPDATE: The URL below is a transcript of an Australian interview with the Australian deputy headmaster of the American International School after his release. He says his captors seemed dismayed when they realized they had NOT kidnapped Americans, but said he and the school's headmaster had been treated well and were never threatened with harm.

http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2005/s1536209.htm

read entire article. . .

Two foreign teachers kidnapped in Gaza

Mohammed just emailed that friends at an NGO asked him to see what he could learn about the abduction of two teachers at a Gaza private school. Masked gunmen kidnapped an Australian and a Dutch citizen on their way to the school for the last session before the holiday break. Reuters got a story on the wire within the last hour and the link is below.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200512/s1536058.htm


I'll post anything further Mohammed is able to learn. Hopefully, this will play out like past militant kidnappings, with the hostages released unharmed in a matter of hours. No word as yet on the demands: in the past, the kidnappers have been agitating for jobs from the Palstinian Authority.

read entire article. . .

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Updates, Apologies, Greetings and Resolutions

Sincere apologies for the long lag in updating RafahNotes. Mohammed had to travel overseas twice for conferences; I had to travel for my day job as well, and while he met his ongoing commitments to Morgenbladet, getting updates posted here just didn't make it to my "to do" list. Indeed, I have an unexpected reprieve of a few hours from my job only because a colleague is laid low with the flu and has been delayed getting a project to me. I've backdated all the catch-up posts for future ease in finding them in the archive.

Special thanks to those of you who emailed to be sure I was OK, and a "shukran gidan" to Nina for her updates on Mohammed's Rafah Today site. (http://www.rafahtoday.org) It's a bit early for New Year's resolutions--and I'm leery of promising frequent updates since the first half of 2006 will find me embroiled in moving home and office both. But I will try not to let RafahNotes lie fallow so long again.

In any case, whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice (or simply some time off!)bright blessings to you all.

read entire article. . .

Destroying to Create

Mohammed had a short layover in Egypt while he travelled back to Gaza after attending an international conference. He was able to interview a number of Egyptians about the problems surrounding their recent Parliamentary elections. The resulting article appeared in Norwegian in Morganbladet on 16 December.

"Democracy is dying, no, democracy has died in our
Egypt," said Abdel Hadi Hujazi.

Hujazi, an Egyptian election observer, was summing up
the violence and corruption he had seen first-hand in
his official capacity during last week's second round
of Egypt's parliamentary elections. "It's a big lie
when our officials appear on the media and announce
the elections are proceeding democratically. That's
far from the reality I saw at North Sinai polling
stations," he said. "The Egyptian government brought
in busloads of street fighters to instigate conflicts
at the polls where there was known support for Muslim
Brotherhood candidates. Some of the fighters were
actually security police in civilian clothes; they
attacked people waiting to vote while their colleagues
in uniform watched and did nothing. Our suspicions of
this completely illegal activity were confirmed when
Omer Abdel Rahaman, a security police officer
disguised in civilian clothes, was injured in the
fighting and had to be hospitalized. In my 46 years,
I have never seen anything so blatantly corrupt."

President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic
Party was stunned when the first round of
parliamentary elections resulted in 88 of 444 seats
going to Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidates. The
Brotherhood exists in a legal gray area, originally
having been banned as an terrorist organization. In
an attempt to become a legitimate political party, the
Muslim Brotherhood formally renounced ties to violence
but the party remains under an official ban. That did
not, however, prevent Muslim Brotherhood candidates
entering the lists as independents and with their
"Islam is the answer" slogan, winning five times more
seats than their showing in the 2000
elections—shocking the ruling NDP party into a
violent response.

In an effort to be sure the Brotherhood's gains stayed
minimal, the NDP did its utmost to disrupt the
elections in areas where support for the opposition
candidates was strong. All through Egypt, citizens
trying to vote found themselves under attack by tear
gas, truncheons, and bullets and could only respond
with stone-throwing in scenes reminiscent of
Palestine's intifada. But here, the stone-throwers
were not heedless adolescents but mature adults trying
to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to
vote. The northern town of Damietta saw some of the
worst violence where two men were shot dead and dozens
wounded, according to medical sources. Another man
died of a heart attack after inhaling tear gas used
against protestors in the governorate of Sharqiya .
In all, since the first round of elections on November
9, six civilians have been killed, and many more
injured.

"The police attacked us again, they don't want to let
us vote," said Abdelsattar Al Mallah, who was injured
in the violence in his home town when he tried to
vote. In Al Zagazig hospital, a greengrocer Ayman
Abdel Hadi complained that police broke his leg with
a club before dragging him to a police station where
he had to wait two hours before being moved to the
hospital. "They systematically blocked the polling
stations where the Brothers achieved good scores in
the first round last week," he said.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights backed up
their accounts in their official report that 355
polling stations had been closed. "Only NDP supporters
have been allowed to enter polling stations using
their party IDs," they said. During the first round
of elections, some resourceful voters evaded
harassment by using ladders to climb the walls
surrounding the polling places. Stunned by the Muslim
Brotherhood's gains, police squads confiscated ladders
throughout towns and villages where the opposition
party had scored majorities, as well as detaining
some 1300 known and suspected Moslem Brotherhood
supporters. Their tactics were effective—the
Brotherhood gained no new seats in the second
round—and the party complained the results had been
rigged.

The US State Department expressed concern about the
obviously flawed voting, saying it sent "the wrong
signal about Egypt's commitment to democracy and
freedom. . ." Washington , however, was scolded by
international rights groups for their relatively mild
protest of flagrant abuses. The Brotherhood's surprise
results have boosted the movement's case for
legalization as a party, an option that has so far
been rejected by both Cairo and Washington.

The US is once again caught between its rhetoric—its
loud and incessant demands for democracy in the
Mid-East—and the reality that honest elections in the
region often result in strong support for Islamist
parties that oppose US policies. During the run-up to
the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration was
stunned when the parliament of its ally, Turkey, voted
not once but twice to curtail US military use of
Turkish territory as a staging area for the invasion.
Palestine's elections, vetted by international
observers as fair and honest, resulted in notable
gains for the political wing of the militant Hamas
party. Iraq's US-backed provisional government
reflects US worries that a truly free election might
result in a government that would demand an immediate
end to Western occupation. "We had to destroy the
village to save it," became the infamous slogan of US
policy during the VietNam war. Perhaps that warped
thinking has now evolved into destroying democracy in
order to create it to the Middle East.

read entire article. . .

Monday, December 05, 2005

Spare Parts

The senseless deaths of children is a painfully frequent theme in accounts of life in Palestine, and few incidents have stirred more controversy than one Jenin family's decision in the wake of their son's murder. Mohammed's report on the range of opinions in Gaza was published by Morganbladet on 2 December 2005.

"Israeli children will never have peace as long as
Palestinian children don't," said Abdelmajeed Al Nems,
14, current head of the Children's Parliament, during
a press conference in Rafah last week. The Children's
Parliament, one of the oldest organizations for young
people in Gaza, is a forum for children and teens to
debate current affairs. Al Nems called the press
conference after the Parliament voted to protest a
Jenin family's decision to donate their only son's
organs to sick Israeli children after an Israeli
soldier shot him in the head on November 3.

"We love peace," Al Nems declared, "and we dream of a
small nation of our own, a place where we can fulfill
the simple dream to live as children live in the free
world. But we do not want to reward our killers by
donating the organs of murdered children. We don't
want anyone to kill us!"

The Children's Parliament press conference was just
the latest round of the huge debate surrounding the
death of 12-year-old Ahmed Ismael Al Khateeb, shot in
the street outside his home in Jenin on the first day
of Eid. The three-day Eid holiday, roughly comparable
to Christmas in its feasting and gift-giving, ends the
fasting month of Ramadan. Traditionally, parents buy
new clothes for their children and on the first day of
Eid, give their children a gift of cash. After
prayers in the mosque, children show off their new
outfits and head for the shops to buy toys and lots of
sweets. Ahmed had returned from morning prayers with
his father and had just left the house with some of
the neighborhood children. Suddenly, convoys of
Israeli soldiers approached from several directions,
raiding the neighborhood to arrest an alleged
militant. The children scattered but Ahmed was shot
down. He sustained irreparable brain injury and
after three days in a coma, was declared clinically
dead. His parents decided to donate his organs in
transplant operations that saved five Israeli
children, plus a 58-year-old kidney transplant
patient. All recipients are recovering well,
including a Druze child and a young Israeli Arab girl
who had waited five years for a heart transplant.

Initially, the Israeli army said Ahmed had been
brandishing a realistic toy rifle, leading the
soldiers to mistake him for a militant. This initial
statement was proven false when it was discovered his
pockets held the entire cash gift from his parents—he
had never reached the shop, never bought anything,
never mind a toy rifle. The children who witnessed
the shooting said the soldiers shot him in the pelvis
and when he attempted to stand, shot him in the head.

Reached by phone at his Jenin home, Ahmed's father,
44-year-old Ismael Al Khateeb, said, "I feel proud to
have made this humanitarian gesture, even though I
know the Israeli army is committing more and more
crimes against us. I hope this initiative will
demonstrate dramatically that we want peace, and help
move peace-making from talk and slogans into actual
implementation. We Palestinians want to live in
peace and freedom, without the constant fear our
children will be killed."

Al Khateeb's decision, and his hoped-for message of
peace to the world, has stirred a storm of controversy
in Palestine. Even weeks after the fact, the topic is
still debated by everyone from school children to the
elderly. Amani Abdullah, 22, a university student,
said, "I think it's not fair that his father donated
his organs to Israelis once he realized the Israelis
murdered his son in cold blood. They should not be
rewarded for their crime," she said. "The organs
should have gone to more deserving recipients." Of
course, feasible transplants are governed by time,
distance and tissue matching. Even more ironically,
due to Israeli restrictions, Palestinian doctors are
rarely able to travel abroad for the specialized
training needed to perform transplant surgery. And
Palestinians needing organ transplants must go through
the labyrinth of Israeli red-tape to receive treatment
outside their homeland.

Amal Salem, a 33-year-old teacher, agreed with the Al
Khateeb family's decision on even more practical
grounds. "Once the lamb has been slaughtered," she
said, "it does him no further harm to use the skin.
Nothing could change the fact of their child's death.
It was all right to donate the boy's organs to Israeli
children. That child's body sent a message from
Palestine to the whole world, and said, 'We
Palestinian children stand for generosity, compassion
and life. We are true Muslims, and do not call for
terror and killing.' Of course," she added, "this is
a message written in terrible pain, and may God help
his parents to handle it." Many Palestinians share
Amal Salem's viewpoint that humanitarian aid can and
should transcend national and political conflicts.

Abdel Al Nems, of the Children's Parliament, feels the
Al Khateeb family's generosity is counter-productive.
"There is no safety for us and our friends," he said.
"Palestinians are being shelled and attacked.
Donating Ahmed's organs will never do any good for the
children of Palestine. It makes it seem as if our
lives are cheap. We love peace, but we refuse to be a
source of spare parts for the children of the soldiers
and settlers who kill us! The occupying forces were
not ashamed to honor the Al Khateeb family, but then
they exonerated the Israeli soldier who killed Eman Al
Hums when she was already wounded and immobilized."

Al Nems was referring to the shooting death of a
13-year-old school girl in Rafah in October 2004 and
the verdict in the criminal trial of "Captain R."
While the court criticized the bungled and possibly
falsified Israeli army investigation, it also cleared
the Captain of all serious charges, a verdict that
prompted widespread outrage in Palestine, and protests
even in Israel. The Israeli Soldiers Breaking Silence
Committee issued a statement condemning the verdict
which said in part: "We are all responsible and
accused of this crime because we allowed the oversight
procedures of the army to collapse before our eyes."
Coming less than a fortnight after the death of Ahmed
Al Khateeb, the verdict freeing Eman Al Hums' killer
on, essentially, technicalities, only inflamed the
debate over the Al Khateeb family's actions. Was
their generosity a well-intentioned but wrong-headed
move that tells the occupier they can kill Palestinian
children with impunity? Or is their returning good
for evil a message that will bring Palestine closer to
a lasting and just peace? The only thing sure is that
the debate will continue, and the answers will be slow
to arrive.

read entire article. . .