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Gaza on the Ground
A Second American Speaking Tour: What a Difference Three Years Makes
By Mohammed Omer
MY SECOND North American speaking tour in three years focused on the aftermath of Israel’s murderous “Operation Cast Lead” and the effects of the then-46-month siege strangling the men, women and children of the Gaza Strip. In the course of the three-and-a-half-week Israeli assault—which commenced two days after Christmas 2008 and ended two days before Barack Obama’s January 2009 presidential inauguration—more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, thousands more injured, and tens of thousands lost their homes. Also destroyed were businesses and community buildings, including mosques, schools and public meeting places, along with Gaza’s already overburdened infrastructure. Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, also lost their lives. This carnage catapulted the international community to action, despite U.S. objections.
As I traveled the East Coast in early November 2009, however, it became clear to me that things are changing in the United States, albeit slowly. One woman, for example, so incensed by the lack of depth in U.S. media coverage, approached me in frustration.
“This is a genocide!” she exclaimed. “If those children who were killed were my children, it would have been on the front page of many newspapers—but only because we are Americans,” she added, ashamed.
Because it is American money, political protection and policy that sustain the occupation, and American weapons deployed in the skies above Gaza, as well as on the ground and on the sea, education is the key to a peaceful resolution, and this remained the focus of my latest tour. Harvard, Columbia and Rutgers Universities had invited me to speak, and several congressional and NGO staff members and other influential policymakers had invited me to meet with them.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains, mostly traveling to medical appointments and speaking engagements in Europe. These trips, ranging from minutes to hours in length, offer a unique opportunity to study people in different cultures.
My eight-hour journey on Amtrak from Washington, DC to Boston was no different. I was particularly struck by the incessant complaints of two women and a male passenger about the inadequacy of their electrical outlet on their side of the car. Even the conductor’s offer to relocate them to another car failed to satisfy them. They clearly could not even begin to imagine living the way millions of Gazans do, where just to have access to an outlet is a major victory, and if you’re lucky to plug in during one of the periods when electricity is on, it’s a cause for celebration!
Passing through New York City I tried to imagine how the 1.6 million people living on the 13-mile long by 2.5-mile wide island of Manhattan would fare if their electrical grid collapsed, its residents had to scavenge for food, and the neighboring boroughs refused to allow anything but sugar, butter and flour in on a regular basis. How would they handle an intermittently functioning sewage system, or the inability to cross a bridge to find work or food for their family? How would sophisticated New Yorkers survive F-16s flying over their homes, scaring children out of their beds with sonic booms, or dropping bombs on their homes and businesses?
Would the parents take to the streets to protest shortages of books and paper for their children’s schools, or laws that made it impossible for them to run their businesses, stock their hospitals, or travel freely? How would the residents of Manhattan survive if their island, surrounded by water rather than walls, was under siege for four years, cut off from the world? If Manhattanites fought back, would the world consider them terrorists?
Of course, the world would not allow this to happen to Americans. Any siege would be met with worldwide condemnation and broken in a matter of hours. The very idea of New Yorkers living under siege, much less for four years, is simply unimaginable.
Testing my hypothesis, I asked the young man seated next to me on the train what would happen if all the banks in New York City suddenly had no cash and nobody could use their ATM or debit cards. He paused for a moment, then responded, “People would be running around like crazy—they’d freak out!”
Yet this is the reality in Gaza—and it is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one.
The Casualties Continue
Back home in Gaza the Israeli attacks and siege continue. As I usually do when overseas, I phoned Dr. Mawia Hassanien, head of ambulance and reception service for Shifa and other hospitals in Gaza, to get an update on the situation there. Ten months after Operation Cast Lead ended, the casualties in Gaza continue to mount.
Dr. Hassanien’s distraught voice conveyed the urgency of the situation. “We have many children being born with birth defects as a result of the war on Gaza,” he said concern. “The numbers are increasing—we can’t cope.”
I told him I was touring the U.S., and asked if he had a message for the American people. “Mohammed,” he responded hopelessly, “Americans don’t care. They keep quiet about our suffering because they want to see us suffer.”
While that may be true of some, of course, once most Americans I’ve met understand what is happening to Palestinians, they object. Many who saw the photographs I had taken—which by no means convey the worst of the horror of our lives in Gaza—were angry that the mainstream media here refuse to cover this issue in depth. This anger, coupled with a resolve to do something about the situation, was the biggest difference I saw between 2006 and 2009.
At Colombia University I encountered my first organized opposition. This was not unexpected, of course. American colleagues of mine have told me that whenever they attend events in the U.S. where the speaker is critical of Israel, AIPAC Lobby minions turn out in force, distributing literature designed to discredit the speaker, whether he’s a well-known rabbi, university professor or journalist. Hecklers at times attempt to disrupt the presentation, maligning the speaker.
This time, however, the pro-Israel ritual seemed to lose a believer, rather than gain converts. True, the supporters of Israel diligently handed out their literature to the arriving crowd, engaging attendees in conversation before the presentation, and pressing their views on anyone who would listen. Once I began to speak, however, and the PowerPoint show commenced, the partisans left the room, save for one young man. He remained, and I kept my eye on him throughout the presentation. He looked at the images, listened and did not interrupt. To my surprise, when I finished he applauded with the rest of the crowd.
At Rutgers University I was approached by an Israeli student in the audience. In a soft-spoken but sincere voice, she said, “It’s shame what my country is doing.”
Another student with family roots in Israel said he was “shocked” that nothing revealed in my presentation is reported in the U.S. media. Yet another student, this one an American, was clearly angry over his country’s complicity in the oppression. “This explains why I don’t feel safe as an American traveling to some countries,” he observed, noting that the U.S. is paying doubly for its policies: first for its own war crimes, and secondly for its support and enabling of Israel’s.
Seeking Out the News
Slowly, a growing understanding of the situation in Palestine is emerging in the United States, a subtle sea change in perception that is causing Americans to question received “wisdom” about Israel and Palestine. This new awareness is not the result of a dramatic shift in U.S. media coverage of Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter, however. While the mainstream media did spend some time on “Operation Cast Lead,” the deadly military campaign quickly dropped from view.
Instead, much of this new understanding and desire to learn can be attributed to such video file-sharing sites as YouTube and Flickr, as well as to greater access to blogs, social networking sites, and world news and alternate media publications, many involving joint Israeli/Palestinian efforts.
During the assault, citizen journalists uploaded and shared videos from the Gaza Strip, circumventing Israeli attempts to control the news during its three-week assault—when most international journalists were prohibited from entering Gaza and forced to report from Israeli-supervised vantage points miles away. Increasingly frustrated, these journalists relied heavily on stringers and the targeted citizens of Gaza themselves to achieve some semblance of balance. Americans’ reaction to the true story that began to emerge was anger, shock, sadness and empathy—and now there is no turning back.
Mohammed Omer’s Remarks on Receiving The Ossietzky Prize
Norwegian P.E.N.’s Ossietzky Prize for “outstanding achievements within the field of free expression” was awarded Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer during the commemoration of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. The prize was awarded during an evening event at the House of Literature in Oslo on Nov. 16, 2009.—Norsk P.E.N.
If Carl von Ossietzky had been alive today—
If he had been a Palestinian—
If he had not already been imprisoned for his pacifism and demand for justice—
Then I know where he would have been.—M. Omer
Last week was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin WalI. Palestine marked the occasion at our own wall. In Ni’ilin, West Bank, crowds headed for the 8-meter-high concrete wall separating the farmers from their land. That’s where Ossietzky would have been. With picks and spades, they dislodged and toppled an 8-meter-high concrete slab of the wall. The opening gave free passage for a single person. The crowds exploded into shouts of joy—until the occupation army arrived with tear gas and bullets.
Palestine is the West Bank, but it is also Gaza. With his insight and his solidarity with those who suffer injustice, I think Ossietzky might have wanted to witness what is happening there as well. Gaza is a few square kilometers larger than Washington, DC. If we could squeeze Washington into a thin strip, with one of its long sides along the Mediterannean and all of its other sides closed in by a several-meters-high wall, we would have the Gaza Strip. This December we will be commemorating a year since the savage assault on Gaza that lasted for three weeks.
As I see him, Ossietzky will already have read the U.N. Goldstone report on the war crimes committed in Gaza during the war that lasted from December 2008 to January 2009. The many many bombed homes and systematically destroyed infrastructure are still there. Ossietzky asks why all this hasn’t been rebuilt and repaired—why are people still living in tents and gutted houses, a whole year after the war on Gaza? I tell him that the thin Gaza Strip surrounded by its high wall is under siege, and no materials for rebuilding anything whatsoever are allowed in.
A noisy, dilapidated taxi passes by and we hire it. We ask the driver to show us what we should see, but don’t want to know. We tell the driver that we don’t have very much time on our hands. He nods and tells us he will only take us to a few places. Please join us on this journey.
Our first stop is at an elementary school—or what’s left of it. We enter a makeshift classroom. They are having a math class. The teacher speaks and the pupils just listen passively. We wonder why they just sit there without doing any practical written work themselves. We are told that there is no paper to write on and there are no pencils or pens to write with. We are told, too, that neither of the two items are allowed in because of the siege.
Our driver then takes us to the harbor, where fishing boats are lying idle anchored to the shore. We ask where all the fishermen are. Surely Gaza must be a fisherman’s paradise? Our driver silently points to the sea in the distance. We look out and see two gunboats and ask what they are doing there. We are told that they shoot at the fishermen and keep them close to the shore. We wonder then whether they catch anything so close to the shore. In response the driver demonstratively holds his nose. Yes, it is true—we had noticed that there was a very bad smell. We look questioningly at the driver. He says it is sewage: tons and tons of it each day that are thrown out in the sea. He says the sewage system was damaged by bombing and no spare parts for repair come in because of the siege. He adds that it has already made drinking water too dangerous for human consumption.
Finally, the driver takes us to Rafah, to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, on the border to Egypt. After taking a lot of turns in a seemingly roadless area, he stops. We look around and see nothing. We wonder why he has driven us here. He points to some bushes in front of us and says that this is Gaza’s lifeline. Behind the bushes we can just see the contours of a dark opening, a tunnel, and we understand why this is the last stop of our journey. People creep through in complete darkness. An adult can pass from Gaza to Egypt and break the siege on a small scale: he can buy some wares unavailable in Gaza, food prevented from coming in or cakes to celebrate the Eid. With Gaza’s very high percentage of unemployment, tunnel trading is a welcome source of both honest and dishonest income. At the same time it is a mother’s nightmare: Digging a tunnel is a slow and dangerous activity, because walls can suddenly collapse or, worse, tunnels get targeted for bombings and young promising sons get killed. The job is well paid and young people take it because they can’t afford not to—the sanctions have forced them into it.
Our journey is over. We ask the driver what we owe him. He shakes his head, and asks us to just go back and tell others about what we have seen—above all, to remind others that this is a human-constructed slow death.
I have also come to the end of the road for this speech. Thank you for awarding me the Ossietzky Prize for 2009, I receive it with joy and deep humility. Ossietzky was a journalist with unshakeable integrity. I will try to live up to it. I hope too, it will soon no longer be necessary for me to be a war-zone correspondent in my own homeland because Palestine will be free.
As children, we are often told that we have to take the good together with the bad. This turned out to be strangely true for me when I was able to accept the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism three years ago. I was overjoyed by the honor bestowed on me at the award ceremony in London. On my way home to Gaza, at the Allenby Bridge crossing into Palestinian territory, I was detained and tortured by the border police. Thankfully, I have been able to come out again and tell the world the stories of Gaza, of Palestine. And I know now that good things can follow good things too. I hope it will be the case now.