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. . .