Trauma etched on every face

January 26, 2009

Israel declared a unilateral "cease-fire" after pounding the Palestinians of Gaza with air strikes and a ground invasion for more than three weeks. The war plunged Gaza even deeper into suffering already inflicted by an iron blockade imposed by Israel and the U.S. after the Islamist Hamas party won a victory in January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly.

Haidar Eid, a professor of English, political commentator, activist and resident of Gaza City, has told the story of this war like few others can. He provided eyewitness reports throughout Israel's bombing campaign, the ground invasion and now the "cease-fire."

Haidar spoke with Eric Ruder about the political and military consequences of the war--and the urgent need for activists around the world to take up the struggle against Israel's apartheid.

DO YOU think the cease-fire will hold?

THE CEASE-FIRE is holding because Israel wants it to. Israel didn't want to spoil the Obama inauguration party. Israel wanted to join the party.

Israel unilaterally declared a cease-fire, and then 12 hours later, the Palestinian resistance movement also declared a one-week cease-fire, as long as Israel withdraws all of its troops from Gaza.

But I think the proper word to describe what is going on is not withdrawal, but redeployment. Israel wants to redeploy its troops around Gaza, and again transform Gaza into the concentration camp it had been before December 27, when they began their criminal war.

We still have 24-hour surveillance by Israeli drones flying overhead, we still hear the F-16's and Apache helicopters, and I can see the gunship in the Mediterranean from where I now sit. I don't know whether to call that a "commitment to the cease-fire" or what.

To tell you the truth, people are extremely sad. For the last three days, I've been visiting people, moving around and seeing lots of destroyed houses, and looking at my neighborhood, which was attacked last week.

A Palestinian man walks past the rubble of a building destroyed in an Israeli air strike on Rafah in southern Gaza
A Palestinian man walks past the rubble of a building destroyed in an Israeli air strike on Rafah in southern Gaza (Said Khatib | AFP)

The day before yesterday, I went to a farm near the Jabaliya refugee camp in the eastern part of Gaza. Some 75 to 80 percent of the houses were demolished by Israeli Caterpillar bulldozers.

I also visited the house of a friend who was shot dead, and then his family had to keep him in their home for 11 days because no medics could pick up the body for fear of being attacked by the Israelis. I went to the funeral and gave my condolences to his father. I talked to families whose houses were demolished.

There's just extreme...I don't know what the right words are. Sadness, anger, frustration. But also resilience and steadfastness. I really felt all of this.

Then yesterday, I went to the house of a friend who is an academic--who works at Al Azhar University. His house was also attacked, and he lost everything. Everything. I took some pictures. All the rooms are completely destroyed--three bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen. He can't bring his family back.

Then I went to the Zeitoun area, where the Samouni family lives. Israel forced all the members of the family into a single building, and then they shelled the building. So far, 37 family members are confirmed dead, and they believe there are still relatives under the rubble.

What else to read

Haidar Eid has written an article titled "Sharpeville 1960, Gaza 2009" that recounts his experiences during Israel's war and adds his voice to call for an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, modeled on the anti-apartheid movement.

The One Democratic State Group has issued "A Call from Gaza" that asks activists and organizations to demand that their governments sever ties with Israel, and calls for Israel's war criminals to be brought to justice. The same day this call was issued, Israel bombed the headquarters of the University Teachers Association, one of the prominent signatories of the call.

If death has a smell, it was there. The stench was horrible. That is Gaza under cease-fire.

The grandfather of the Samouni family was looking at his grandson, and I'll remember what he said for the rest of my life. He said, "Where can I bring him a father from? Where can I bring him a mother from?" Because his grandson's parents and all of his brothers and sisters have been killed. He was desperate. He was crying.

Then it struck me that this was a microcosm of a macrocosm--that is, the Palestinian people as a whole. We have been left alone to die. We have been orphaned as Palestinians.

Our Arab brothers have failed us. Our Muslim brothers and sisters have failed us. And the international community at large failed us. We were left alone to face the fourth-strongest army in the world, and the official Arab governments failed, for 19 days, to even hold a summit.

I also spoke with Amira Qirm, a 14-year-old girl, whose father, brother and sister were killed by exposure to white phosphorous bombs. She was also wounded and crawled on her knees for half a kilometer, and then she managed to get into an empty house. She laid on a mattress on the floor from Wednesday to Saturday, surviving on water alone. I visited her because she was found in my cousin's house.

WHAT ABOUT the flow of food and humanitarian and medical supplies into Gaza?

PRIOR TO the war, we were under this medieval siege for two and a half years. Then they started this war, but now we are back under siege. In other words, we experienced slow-motion genocide, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has described it.

I don't know what to call what happened during the war. Gaza already has been transformed into the Auschwitz of the Middle East, as a famous Palestinian journalist said.

The right description for Westerners is probably the scenes from the German city of Dresden after the Second World War. But it is even worse than that, judging from the pictures I've seen of Dresden. There are more than 40,000 houses and institutions completely destroyed by the Israeli war machine.

That includes the houses I've been telling you about, that includes part of the Islamic University, legislative council buildings, police stations, schools, UN schools for refugees, 18 mosques, and on and on.

We need something like $1.5 billion to $2 billion to start "standing up," as we say in Arabic. And the prevailing view amongst Gazans is that the cease-fire is only temporary. What guarantees that Israel will not come back?

If you remember, in March 2008, Israel gave us a rehearsal of what would happen by attacking the Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya area. I remember at that time that Natan Vilnai, the deputy minister of war (who they call deputy minister of defense) threatened us with a bigger "shoah"--the Hebrew word for holocaust.

That didn't provoke the necessary outcry from the international community, which should express alarm when someone talks about carrying out a holocaust. So Israel got the message--that the international community wouldn't do anything if the Israelis carried out a bigger shoah. That's why they came back on December 27.

So if you talk to people, they say the Israelis might come back tomorrow. What is there to stop them? Nothing. The Arab summit produced nothing but empty rhetoric. The UN Security Council Resolution 1860 means absolutely nothing. Israel never committed itself to that resolution.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited Gaza yesterday. He was spineless. He came in a convoy of cars, then drove from the border wearing a bulletproof vest, as if someone was going to shoot him from the Eretz checkpoint to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters.

Never visited Jabaliya, never visited the Zeitoun area. And then he talked about the shocking scenes. But he didn't see anything.

That's why, as I said during our last interview, we have lost faith in the official bodies of the international community--the European Union, UN Security Council, Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference and so on.

I think the popular sense that we've been left alone is correct. Not a single Arab country intervened. The best example of solidarity was from Bolivia and Venezuela [which severed diplomatic ties with Israel to protest the war on Gaza]. So the joke here in the streets of Gaza goes, "Long live, Venezuela! The leading Arab country."

We can't go to the south--to Rafah, to Khan Younis--but we can go to the middle camps, such as Nusayrat and Burayj. We've been able to move around some. But no food and still shortages of medicine. As I speak to you right now, I have no electricity. No land line. No Internet connection in my flat. That's the situation.

How long will it take us to heal? On a personal level, I talk about myself as Haidar before the Gaza war, and Haidar after the Gaza war. I am conscious of the trauma--both the personal trauma and the collective trauma. It's on every face on the streets of Gaza.

And the question is why? Why did Israel have to target children? They killed 438 children. And then there are the 120 women, 95 old people, 16 medics, four journalists, five foreigners. And 85 to 90 percent of those who were killed were civilians.

If this offensive has done something, it has succeeded in radicalizing people and strengthening the will to resist the occupation. People have now understood that this is the end of the so-called negotiations with Israel. It's clear that negotiations with Israel within the current imbalance of power are not going to lead us anywhere, but surrender.

This is what the official leadership of the Palestinian Authority has been doing. It has surrendered to the Zionist leadership of Israel. And coexistence with Zionism, people here feel now, is impossible--exactly like coexistence with apartheid was impossible for the Black indigenous population of South Africa.

Therefore, as I see it, Israel must be transformed into a secular democratic state--from a state for Jews only to a state for all its citizens.

YOU ARE coughing a lot. Are you okay?

YES, IT'S just cold here, and I don't have windows [they were all broken by shock waves from Israeli missiles]. At night, it gets pretty cold--sometimes 3, sometimes 2, sometimes 5 degrees Celsius [just above freezing]. But I'm okay.

IS YOUR point about the "end of negotiations" that the last remaining hope has been extinguished among Palestinians that the Oslo Accords would accomplish a two-state solution?

ABSOLUTELY. WHEN Israel started this war, it killed the two-state solution. People were mostly already convinced that such a solution was impossible--with the construction of the apartheid wall, with the increase of the number of settlers to more than half a million, the expansion of the settlement bloc around Greater Jerusalem, and so on.

This is what we, as one-state activists, have also been arguing. But now, I think, people on the street have come to realize that Israel is not sincere about the two-state solution, and by launching the latest war against Gaza, it has shot the two-state solution in the head.

That's why I strongly believe--and I have been arguing this lately on television and radio and in an article I've written--that there is a golden opportunity for activists to start reformulating the Palestinian national program.

The previous Palestinian national program represented the interest of the bourgeois within Palestinian society, in the form of the Fatah movement headed by Yassir Arafat in the 1980s and 1990s. That led to the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord.

But from 1993 until now, Israel has taken every possible step to squash the two-state solution--by the measures I outlined: increasing the number of settlers, annexing Jerusalem, the apartheid wall and so on.

The last bullet was when Israel launched the war on Gaza, but during the last three years, Israel has transformed Gaza, with the complicity of the international community, into the largest concentration camp in the world--larger than the Warsaw Ghetto and even Auschwitz. And the West Bank has been transformed into three large Bantustans--one in the north with Jenin and Kalkilya, one in the middle with Ramallah, and one in the south with Beit Lahoun and Hebron.

In other words, the two-state solution has become a façade, a fiction. I think people understand this now.

But having said that, it doesn't mean that people understand what the one-democratic-state solution is. And this is the role for civil society organizations and for us as activists--to start the discussion. There aren't many groups calling for a one-state solution at this time, but we have the support of many intellectuals--such as Ilan Pappe, Ali Abunimah, Ramzy Baroud, Omar Barghouti and so on.

WHEN ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the end of Israeli operations, he said that Israel had accomplished all of its goals--that Hamas and its armed wing of 15,000 fighters had been hit hard, and that Israel had perhaps achieved even more than it had expected. But there are also Israeli observers who are skeptical about this. So what do you think of the political and military consequences, both for Israel and for Hamas?

THE PROBLEM I have with this kind of question when it comes from the mainstream media is that the war has been misrepresented as a war between Israel and Hamas. But I know that you don't ask the question in this way.

This has been a criminal war, a genocidal war, committed by the state of Israel against the Palestinian civilians of Gaza. We need to understand that Israel is a colonial-settler state--an apartheid state, based on deep-rooted racism and a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.

Israel is defined as a Jewish-only state, and therefore, there shouldn't be anyone who is not Jewish on this land, according to this logic. So the war on Gaza is a continuation of the genocidal war that Israel has waged since 1948.

In 1948, Israel kicked more than two-thirds of the Palestinian people out of their homes, and there was no Hamas. There were no Qassem rockets launched against the Jewish settlements in Palestine before 1948. In 1967, Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Desert, and killed thousands of Palestinians without Hamas launching rockets against Israel.

Now, Israel is arresting and killing Palestinians in the West Bank, although we know that there are no rockets launched from the West Bank against Israeli settlements inside the West Bank--though according to international law, we as occupied people have the right to resist Israeli occupation.

I think to judge the outcome, you need to look at the objectives of the war and what Israel has achieved so far. At the beginning, Israel made very clear its objectives: 1) to destroy the infrastructure of the "terrorist organization," 2) to put an end to the launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel proper, and 3) to create a new security situation in the Gaza Strip.

Which of these objectives has been achieved? None. One, Hamas is still functioning. It is still in control of the security situation in the Gaza Strip. Today, they issued a very powerful press release in the Jabaliya refugee camp, which was the first refugee camp to be attacked during this war.

Two, after Israel unilaterally declared a cease-fire, the Palestinian resistance movement--not Hamas--shot seven rockets against Sderot and other Israeli cities to say, "We are still here."

Three, the new security situation that Israel was talking about was to weaken the Islamic resistance movement of Hamas in order to pave the way for the return of the pro-Oslo forces. But that has not happened.

So in other words, none of the three objectives declared at the beginning of the war have been achieved, and therefore Israel has lost the war.

If killing 438 children, if killing more than 120 women, if demolishing more than 40,000 houses, religious and government buildings and so forth--if that is how winning is defined, then Israel has won the war.

According to a press conference by the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, Hamas lost 48 fighters. Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, lost 37 fighters. The National Brigades, the armed wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, lost 12, I think. I don't know how many the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine lost.

That's a tiny proportion of the number of people Israel killed during the war. So my conclusion is that Israel, with the fourth-strongest army in the world, with 120 nuclear warheads, F-16s, Apache helicopters and Merkava tanks, up against starving people, against stones and crude homemade rockets--still, Israel was not able to reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

They were able to move around in empty areas--in the Netzarim settlements and north of Gaza, but they were not able to enter the Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza City or the Rafah crossing.

And I have more bad news for them. They said they attacked the Palestinian-Egyptian border in order to destroy the tunnels. And I can tell you that today, we started getting things through the tunnels.

That means that they have achieved nothing--except terrorizing the people of Gaza and creating a situation where there is only fear and, unfortunately, hatred. That does not lead us to peace with justice. That is what we are fighting for. We want true peace with justice, comprehensive peace with justice. Israel, unfortunately, has delayed that for us.

ON THE eve of the cease-fire, there was a meeting in Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, between Israel, the European Union countries, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Egypt. I was struck by the announcement that the chief point of agreement was to collaborate in order to insure that Hamas was unable to re-arm during the "peace." They didn't utter a word about Israel's atrocities, or discuss how to stop Israel from using U.S. weaponry to carry out another massacre.

ABSOLUTELY. WHY allow Israel to be armed to the teeth? This is the policy of blaming the victim. And within Arab countries, official politics is nothing more than a cocktail of the politics of cowardice and hypocrisy when it comes to the Palestinian situation. That also applies, unfortunately, to European politics, when it comes to the question of Palestine.

We Palestinians are paying a heavy price for a guilt-complex that Europe has been suffering from--as a result of the terrible holocaust in which more than 6 million Jews were killed. But we did not kill these Jews--it was Europe. Anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon.

So today, instead of supporting the victim, Europe supports the victimizer, the oppressor. The EU has decided to upgrade its ties with Israel. It is rewarding the oppressor and punishing the oppressed.

So again, I ask you, is there really any hope of a new direction from Western governments? I don't think so. And that is why our only hope is among civil society organizations and political parties such as yours--people on the left, people who understand the conflict, people who know who the victimizer is and who the victim is.

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