Troubled times in Gaza
17 Apr 2007

When Ariel Sharon declared his intention to withdraw Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2004, the Palestinian leadership was quick to declare its readiness to manage security and political affairs in the Gaza Strip.

After Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, a new front opened between the Palestinians and Israel, with Palestinian militants launching attacks on Israeli towns close to Gaza. The Gaza Strip itself descended into political and social chaos, with killing, destruction and kidnapping dominating the headlines of the daily Palestinian newspapers.

Since the withdrawal, the number of Palestinians killed by Palestinians has reached 240, and there have been 85 reported cases of kidnapping. The press coverage of Gaza has reported the situation as either the ‘tragedy’ (according to the Arabic press) or the ‘internal war’ (according to the foreign press). So where do we stand now? And how can a nation live in such a situation?

At the beginning of the second intifada, when Israel killed a Palestinian or foreigner, Israeli propaganda tried to play down such incidents. But when armed Palestinians abduct a foreigner, Israeli propaganda attempts to cast the incident as if it’s the end of the world, which motivates Palestinian leaders to appear on TV demanding both the release of the hostage and the capture of the kidnappers.

Since the kidnapping of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston on 12 March, numerous declarations have been made by Palestinian politicians, starting with President Mahmoud Abbas and ending with the Legislative Council Member Hassan Kreisheh, who stated recently that the new Palestinian Minister for the Interior Hani Qawasmi failed in his position by not securing the release of the British reporter.

But Kreisheh did not criticise the minister for the interior for the ‘internal war’ which has resulted in so many deaths. Gaza has become a theatre for the political chaos and the contradictory declarations of its politicians. It is my view that failure has infected all levels of Palestinian society, and not only the new government.

The one hopeful aspect of Johnston’s kidnapping is the high level of outcry for his release from normal Palestinians. Civil society organisations too have initiated many petitions for his release. This response shows the level of Palestinian despair at the current moment.

Since the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on 25 June 2006, Israel has killed more than 500 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and it still holds more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Even if Israel released 1,000 Palestinians prisoners today, we’ve still already lost 500 Palestinians. If the capture of other Israeli soldiers is followed by the killing of another 500, then we have lost. Palestinians are unable, and even unqualified, for kidnap and exchange deals: we are not Hezbollah, nor Al-Qaeda.

Lately, the term ‘Palestinian national interest’ has been deleted from the resistance dictionary. Personal interest takes precedence. Kidnapping in Gaza is carried out for monetary gain, not out of any sense of resistance to occupation.

There is an armed element that refers to itself as ‘resistance’ but most Palestinians see it as nothing more than a group of thugs who are out for personal gain, and do not care how much they tarnish the reputation of Palestinians, or the amount of harm that may arise from their actions.

The Palestinian Authority has not improved security and safety for Gaza’s citizens, nor even for foreigners, in spite of the Arabic norms and traditions of hospitality that encourage respect, help and protection for guests.

The day after Iran’s President Ahmadinejad released the 15 British servicemen he had alleged were found in Iranian waters, the British consul went to Gaza to meet the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismaill Haniyah in an attempt to secure the release of Alan Johnston. So far, nothing seems to have come of this meeting.

In my opinion, Britain must increase its efforts to obtain the release of the British reporter and to eliminate the kidnapping phenomenon in the Gaza Strip. The British government has been considered one of the greatest supporters of the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo accords of 1993, and also supports Palestinian civil society organisations.

It is not right that we, Palestinians, kidnapped one of its citizens. If the Palestinians and our government continue sliding into the political and security chaos, then this is a sign for a dark future. The Gaza Strip is in much need of international organisations these days, particularly humanitarian aid and press coverage. The Palestinian Authority must provide protection to those who offer help to the Palestinians.

Johnston’s kidnapping was the second such incident this year. In a very disturbing development, the Foreign Press Association has advised its members to ‘re-evaluate the necessity of travel to Gaza’ after the BBC provided evidence that Palestinian militants may be planning to kidnap foreigners.

The current chaos in Gaza directly affects journalists, and inevitably the information the international community receives. The Palestinian Authority has shown that it cannot manage the conflict in Gaza and therefore the chaos continues.

Of course the international community wants to help, and there are always engaged journalists willing to risk their lives to gather real information and show it to the world. However, there are limits and the Palestinian Authority should consider that Gaza is getting out of control. If something is not done, there will be fewer and fewer journalists willing to engage with the situation of the Palestinians, as the danger makes it too difficult to report.

Bassem Eid is the founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) based in East Jerusalem

Padraig Reidy

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