‘Only God knows’ in Gaza, under cruel Israeli-Egyptian siege
First person report from Shahd Abusalama, courtesy of the Electronic Intifada
I have tried many times to write about my experience at the closed Rafah border crossing with Egypt that has left thousands of people in Gaza stranded. Every time I start, a deep sigh comes over me. Shortly after I feel paralyzed, and finish by tearing apart my draft. I have never found it this difficult to write about a personal experience. No words can capture all the suffering and pain our people in Gaza deal with collectively under this suffocating, inhumane Israeli-Egyptian siege.
As I write, I am supposed to be somewhere in the sky, among the clouds, flying to Istanbul to begin my graduate studies. But I could not catch my flight, as I am still trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip, sitting in darkness during the power cuts caused by fuel crisis, trying to squeeze out my thoughts during what is left of my laptop’s charge.
As much as I am attached to Gaza City, where I was born and spent all 22 years of my life, each day I spend trapped in it makes me despise living here. Each day that passes makes me more desperate to set myself free outside this big, open-air prison. Each day makes me unable to stand the mounting injustice, torment, brutality and humiliation.
I have never experienced as many extreme ups and downs as I did this month. Despite the hardships throughout September, I also had some immensely happy moments. I think I will remember them the rest of my life. This is life in Gaza: highs amid lows, everything in the balance, nothing secure from day to day, no plans, no guarantees.
At the beginning of September, I started the process to secure my visa for Italy. I am supposed to be there on 10 October to celebrate the publication of my first book, the fruits of my work over more than three years of writing. It is the Italian version of my blog, Palestine from My Eyes, which I started in May 2010. My book launched on 22 September. It was impossible for me to attend its release in Italy.
My blog was never about me as an individual. It is rather about a young Palestinian woman who grew up in the alleys of a densely inhabited refugee camp with an imprisoned father. It is about a woman whose awareness of her Palestinian identity was shaped in a besieged city under the brutal Israeli occupation. My blog is about our people, who are routinely dehumanized and whose stories are marginalized and unknown to the majority outside. It was about our Palestinian political prisoners and their families, whose lost and missing loved ones have become statistics, numbers which fail to communicate all the injustices they face under the Israeli Prison Service, which denies them their most basic rights.
The book, inspired by the harsh and complex reality we are forced to endure, makes me feel that my responsibility as a voice for our Palestinian people has doubled. Some amazingly dedicated Italian friends are fixing a busy schedule of events, book fairs, conferences and presentations in many different cities. My presence in Italy is very important, because I am sure few people there have met Palestinians. I am anxiously waiting for the Rafah border to open so I can be there for these events, to help my book spread as widely as possible.
I read on Reuters last Tuesday: “According to Abbas’s request, Egypt agrees to reopen Rafah border crossing on Wednesday and Thursday for four working hours each.”
My first reaction was laughter. Where was Abbas while the Rafah border was closed to thousands of patients seeking medical care abroad which they cannot access in Gaza, or students whose dreams to pursue their education overseas were crushed?
We are not only paying the price for the unsettled situation in Egypt. We have even become the victims of our own divided Palestinian leadership. It makes me furious to think that the opening of Rafah crossing, a lifeline for our people in Gaza, has come under the influence of the internal division between political parties competing to seek favors from our colonizers. The ruling factions seem to have become participants in the collective punishment we suffer.
The headline infuriated rather than relieved me. Opening the Rafah border for eight hours over two days was not a solution to the crisis caused by the complete closure of Rafah for more than a week.
The same day, in the taxi heading home, I received a call telling me I finally got a visa to Italy. I was so happy I forgot the conservative nature of my society and started screaming out of happiness in the car. The visa process took shorter than I thought. I called my friend Amjad Abu Asab, who lives in Jerusalem and received my passport for me, since Israel prevents Palestinians in Gaza from visiting the city, urging him to find someone coming into Gaza via the northern Erez checkpoint on Wednesday.
This can be my chance to leave Wednesday or Thursday, I thought. My happiness didn’t last. “Erez checkpoint will be completely closed from Wednesday until Sunday, 22 September, because of the Jewish holidays,” Amjad said. “No express mail, and no person, can cross Erez to Gaza during this period.”
“What an absurdity!” I screamed. “When the Rafah border crossing finally reopens, Erez checkpoint closes. We have to deal with Israel from one side and Egypt from the other. How long will we live at the mercy of others? There must be some emergency exit.”
“The definition of uncertainty in the dictionary is Gaza,” my fellow Electronic Intifada writer Ali Abunimah once told me. That describes in short my life at the moment, and the lives of our people generally: a life of uncertainty.
I had no choice but to wait for the Jewish holidays to end for Erez to reopen and to get my passport. But on Wednesday, I insisted on going to Rafah. I refused to sit at home, powerless, unable to do anything but wait. At Rafah border crossing, I saw a gate of humiliation. People crowded on top of each other, roamed the waiting hall, waited impatiently for some news to revive their hopes, and ran after policemen, asking for help and explaining their urgent need to travel.
I met many of my fellow students who were stuck as well. They came with their luggage, hoping they could leave, but ended up dragging it back home.
I stayed until 2:00pm, hoping that I could at least register. I did, I think. I explained my situation to a policeman at the gate. He took my scanned copy of my passport and returned after about five minutes, saying, “Your name is registered.” I am not sure what he meant, but he did not say anything else. I asked him if there was a certain date I could leave. His reply was, “Only God knows.” I wish someone could tell me when I will be able to leave so I can have a break from worrying. But no one knows anything, “only God knows.”
While doing an interview with the Real News Network that morning at the border, an elegant elderly man in a formal black suit and holding a black bag interrupted. “I would like to make an interview,” he said. “I speak English, and if you like, I can do Hebrew.” The old man looked very serious as we awaited his poignant words. “This border, all this area, was mine. They came and stole it.” As he continued, the Real News crew and I realized the interview was descending into farce. “I have bombs in this bag and I can explode the whole place in a second!” the man said. We started laughing and said jokingly, “Go explode, then. We’re standing by you.” Yes, this Rafah gate of humiliation must be wiped away so we, Palestinian people in Gaza, can have some breath of freedom.
The Rafah border crossing closed again after 800 persons left to Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday. I am sure this closure would be easier to understand if it was a natural disaster. But knowing that other human beings are doing this to me and 1.7 million other civilians living in Gaza, while the rest of the world looks on, is too difficult to believe. It is more painful and shocking to realize that our neighboring Arab country, Egypt, is joining our Zionist jailers and collaborating with them to tighten the siege.
This experience made me believe that human dignity has become a joke. International law is nothing but empty, powerless words printed in books. We are denied our right to freedom of movement, our right to pursue our education, our right to good medical care, and our right to be free or to live in peace and security. But no one in power bothers to act.
I spent September worrying about the border and my dreams which may fade away if Rafah remains closed. This takes a lot of my energy and makes me suffer from lack of focus and sleep, and makes it hard for me to sit and express myself in writing or with a drawing. Our people’s tragedy caused by the ongoing closure of Rafah border continues, and the crisis is deepening. Living in Gaza under these circumstances is like being sentenced to a slow death. Act and set us free. It is time for these injustices we face on a daily basis to end.
The daftest question in politics. Simon Jenkins on Trident
It must rank as the daftest, costliest question in British politics. How many Trident submarines does Britain need? Medieval schoolmen sharpened their brains by counting angels on pinheads. British policymakers sharpen theirs by counting warheads on missiles. They know it is irrational but the money, the language, the whiz-bangs, the uniforms turn their heads and dazzle their minds. Ordinary guns and soldiers they can understand. They slash their costs with ease. But cut nuclear weapons? That would be risky.
Every time I dip into the Trident debate I am reminded of Great War generals gulping on chateau champagne while the trenches filled with blood. David Cameron was confronted with a bold option on taking office: whether to cut back on Labour’s glamour sea and air projects, many already out of date, and invest in the army instead. He flunked it. In the case of Trident, he muttered that his “real concern” was a threat from North Korea. It was mad.
Last spring there were signs that Labour’s Ed Miliband might summon up the guts at last to challenge the “independent deterrent”, given that its submarine replacement would consume a third of defence procurement for a decade. The press was briefed that he was “set to scrap Trident strategy”. He too flunked it. There was no mention of the most expensive project on the Treasury books in his speech yesterday.
Earlier this month the Liberal Democrats mooted a scheme to keep submarines, but with their warheads locked up ashore. The idea had emerged to cut costs from within the Ministry of Defence, where a former minister, Nick Harvey, spoke of the “frankly almost lunatic mindset” among nuclear strategists. The idea was crushed by the union of former defence secretaries and service chiefs, led by Lords (George) Robertson and (Michael) Boyce. They dismissed it as “hare-brained”.
The entire debate is hare-brained. Nobody can explain when, where or how these terrible weapons would be deployed and used, despite the essence of deterrence being credibility. (Yet we want to bomb Syria for using far less drastic chemical ones.) They bear no reference to any plausible threat to Britain that could possibly merit their use. Meanwhile their possession by Britain is a blatant invitation to nuclear proliferation, making opposition to an Iranian bomb hypocritical.
Yet Labour, like the Tories, is supporting a Trident renewal programme that is set to consume £20 billion and rise to a reputed £100bn over 20 years. Even current defence chiefs have been careful to excuse themselves from this debate, saying it is “for politicians to decide” on the deterrent, and for the Treasury to pay for it outside the defence budget (which the Treasury refuses).
The mesmerising effect of “the bomb” on Labour recalls the party’s ancient fear of being thought weak on defence. It was seen in Nye Bevan’s shift from “no first use” to deriding disarmament as an “emotional spasm” that would send Britain “naked into the conference chamber”. Labour’s defence establishment ever since has striven to be more hawkish than any. In 1997 Tony Blair duly bought fighters, frigates and carriers in the greatest splurge of uncontrolled defence spending in peacetime.
Seven years ago Chatham House published a debate on the deterrent by a distinguished group of British and US strategists, soldiers and historians. They calmly took apart the bombast and rhetoric, delivering a message of extreme scepticism. It was highly unlikely that the Soviets were deterred from attacking Britain during the cold war. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was certainly not deterred from seizing Suez, or General Galtieri from seizing the Falklands.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s favourite nuclear strategist, the late Michael Quinlan, pondered the then forecast £10bn renewal cost for Trident. He questioned “the continuing effort and expenditure” and doubted whether a British deterrent “would still have worthwhile credibility”. The former head of US strategic air command was equally baffled. The British deterrent relied on US supplies and maintenance. Yet its use was predicated on America proving unreliable in deploying its deterrent against some putative attacker. The British deterrent had to be credible when America’s was not. It made no sense.
Reading the Chatham House study today is to realise how deaf politics can be to reason. Gordon Brown justified Trident as merely supplying “Scottish jobs”. Blair wanted to be “at the top table”, as does Cameron. Yet the New York Times reported in April that the US was pressing Britain to face financial reality, and “either be a nuclear power and nothing else, or a real military partner”. If Britons wanted to police the world, they should sustain a well-equipped army, not posture as a nuclear power.
Debates on defence are a miasma of fear, ignorance and fantasy. The cry of the defence lobby, that “you can’t put a price on security” is rubbish. There is a price on every sort of security. What makes Trident peculiar is the tendency of the costs involved to rise, and the obscurity of its justification.
The old maxim was never more true – that soldiers prepare for old wars not future ones. They are obsessively conservative. As a result, when not spending on Trident (a cold war weapon), they have induced the government to spend on old-fashioned carriers and manned fighter planes, just when long-distance drones are the weapon of the future.
Yet the wars Britain is expected to fight, wars of political choice, demand equipment and tactics from not just past wars but past centuries. Enemies are immune to nuclear weapons and heavy armour, enemies who hurl grenades and wield Kalashnikovs made in 1947. In today’s wars, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cameron’s expensive procurements are an irrelevance.
Nuclear deterrence is rooted in a balance of terror established briefly during the cold war. In the improbable event of those days returning, the west would stand together under America’s nuclear umbrella or it would be doomed. The idea that Britain is made one jot safer by a £100bn Armageddon weapon floating in the Atlantic is absurd.
Yet not absurd to everyone. The idea is the mental construct of a powerful lobby, the British navy, its cheerleaders and its suppliers, with their hands on stupefying amounts of public money and an ability to scare politicians into pandering to their interest. It is that interest, not Great Britain, that they are defending so vigorously. As a result the one policy on which all parties seem to agree is that Britain needs its own nuclear deterrent, which is nonsense.
Seumas Milne on the Labour conference and Miliband
If political success were measured in conference speeches, Ed Miliband would be on the home straight. He may not be a Churchillian orator. But he’s now delivered three years of noteless performances that have recast discredited New Labour politics and broken with failed economic orthodoxy.
Today in Brighton he fleshed out his attacks on “predatory capitalism” and the “race to the bottom” with a string of signature commitments: a freeze in electricity prices, breakup of the energy monopolies, abolition of the bedroom tax, a tougher minimum wage, 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, extra childcare and a switch of tax cuts from big to small businesses.
The aim was to challenge the corrosive conviction that politics can make no difference to the living standards crisis presided over by David Cameron – the man Miliband damned as “strong at standing up to the weak but weak when it comes to standing up to the strong”.
The Conservative media needed little encouragement from Miliband’s claim that he was “bringing back socialism” to howl with outrage at the prospect of controls on rogue landlords, property developers and exploitative employers. The private energy cartel immediately threatened that a price freeze would lead to blackouts.
All this follows a gathering press onslaught against Miliband. The Labour leader is relentlessly cast as a geeky loser. But the real problem seems not to be his personal and political weaknesses, but the possibility – if not likelihood, on the basis of current polling – that he might actually win the next election. Media attacks had already reached fever pitch over the toxic confessions of industrial-scale personal smearing of Gordon Brown’s enemies by his one-time spin doctor, Damian McBride.
Anyone who followed the antics of either the Blairite or Brownite wings of New Labour (or who even just watched The Thick of It) would know that hand-to-hand character assassination was the stock in trade of two factions separated far more by style and ambition than political substance.
But that wasn’t Miliband’s game. In any case, hyper-spinning was far from the worst of New Labour’s sins, which ran from the embrace of City deregulation and privatisation to illegal wars. And despite Miliband’s crab-like attempts to move beyond it, New Labour lives on, in both its Blairite and Brownite incarnations.
Take Ed Balls’s speech on Monday, which was strikingly reminiscent of classic Brown – from his pledge to use a higher bank levy to fund childcare to his “iron” commitments to match George Osborne’s 2015-16 current spending limits. Balls even managed to win a smattering of applause for a promise to use the proceeds from selling RBS and Lloyds to pay down debt – or privatisating banks to appease the bond markets, in other words.
But that wasn’t the mood of Labour’s delegates, better reflected in the standing ovation given to the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, when he called on the party to stand up for organised labour – or their overwhelming vote for the lifting of the public sector pay cap (which is backed by Balls and Miliband in their effort to win fiscal credibility).
The shadow chancellor’s conversion from Keynesian champion to stern austerian, even while the economy is operating far below capacity and investment is flat on its back, is fraught with dangers for Labour’s prospects, both before and after the election. If he is drawn by the Tories into making still more far-reaching commitments to cuts and caps – while resisting, for example, the chance to use the part-nationalised banks to drive investment and growth – it would threaten the very commitments on the cost of living and housing Miliband made today.
Economic credibility can only be gained in the eyes of Labour’s opponents to the extent that its policies match the coalition’s. But most voters still oppose the scale and speed of cuts and, as former Conservative vice-chairman Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, Labour leads the Tories on the economy and jobs in marginal seats by 44% to 33%.
Part of the perception of Miliband as weak has been about Labour’s lack of clear policy alternatives. But it also reflects the weight he has given to party unity at the expense of clarity and political allies. Now he has the chance to use his shadow cabinet reshuffle to ditch the disloyal and put his stamp on a team that should already be gearing up for an early election.
It’s becoming fashionable for Miliband’s critics – among them the New Labour architect Peter Mandelson – to argue that the Labour leader was among those who misread the political impact of the crash of 2008 and wrongly thought it would lead to a shift to the left.
In fact, the electoral pattern since the fall of Lehman Brothers five years ago has overwhelmingly been the defeat of incumbents, whether nominally of left or right. That has been the case in 29 of 35 elections in Europe – and in terms of party, that’s also what happened when Barack Obama was elected president in the US. In Latin America, by contrast, more radical leftwing incumbents have been repeatedly re-elected.
What is true is that left-of-centre parties which fail to recognise, as Miliband has done, that the “free market” model of the past 30 years is bust have paid the electoral price. The question now is whether the Labour leader is able to turn that understanding into a viable social democratic programme for a new era.
Banning the Brotherhood will lead to calamity
The only thing more stunning than the rise to the heights of state power of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the swiftness of its fall. The newest blow came on Monday, when the Cairo court for urgent matters announced a comprehensive ban on “all activities” by the Brotherhood, while the majority of the organisation’s leadership remain in police custody and its assets are frozen.
The military’s ousting of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, and its continuous assault on the group ever since, are open to conflicting interpretations. From the Brotherhood’s viewpoint they signal the resurrection of the military dictatorship that Egyptians sought to overthrow during the January 25 uprising. Yet this narrative, which paints the Brotherhood as a champion of democracy and an innocent victim of state aggression, fails to acknowledge the ways the group contributed to its own demise. It says nothing about the millions of people who signed petitions and took to the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation in June. And fails to mention that by voluntarily stepping down Morsi could have resolved the crisis without violence, but chose instead to remain defiant.
Yet the narrative advanced by the military and other representatives of the state establishment is even more flawed. Since Morsi’s ousting, Brotherhood members have been denounced as terrorists who threaten Egypt’s national security, a characterisation used to justify the killing and maiming of unarmed men, women and children at protest sites around the country. Contrary to its portrayal in state propaganda, the Brotherhood is not a monolith but an umbrella organisation encompassing a wide range of opinion. Morsi and his close associates are more conservative than other figures in the movement, but even they don’t call for the immediate application of a strict version of Islamic rule.
The Brotherhood’s achilles heel was not its embrace of ideological extremism but a reluctance to accept other social and political forces as equals, and to initiate confidence-building measures needed to earn their goodwill and trust. The Brotherhood emerged from 60 years of authoritarian rule with its organisation relatively intact, yet the group’s top leaders remained encapsulated within the movement’s insular networks, convinced that they were uniquely qualified to manage society’s affairs. Such characteristics left the group ill-prepared to govern a highly fractious society – particularly one with officials of the deep state having in effect a veto, and an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.
The primary responsibility for the disruption of Egypt’s democratic transition, and the paroxysms of violence that have ensued in its wake, however, lies with General al-Sisi and the Egyptian army. Over the summer, hundreds of unarmed civilians – most of them Brotherhood supporters – who were unwilling to leave protest sites have been gunned down. Under these circumstances, it is understandable if the rage and sorrow of its members undermine their capacity for serious introspection.
For healing to occur, all of Egypt’s civilian political actors must insist that the military return to barracks, and must devise a framework for the Brotherhood’s constructive reintegration into the political process. Any attempts to restore democracy are prone to disruption if they are not underpinned by a deeper process of national reconciliation.
The ageing leadership of the Brotherhood will not be daunted by repression. They survived many – in some cases, more than 20 – years in Nasser’s prisons, and personal sacrifice for the cause has come to function as their main currency. Plus they adopt a long time horizon and believe that God is on their side. And they can now take on the mantle of defending democracy as well as that of Islam. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s top leaders are unlikely to give up on democracy because it is on its foundations – as much as on those of religion — that its claim to rightful authority has come to rest.
The central issue is what, if any, lessons the Brotherhood learns from its devastating setback. Some younger members have begun to circulate petitions demanding that the senior leaders resign, arguing that their hubris and misjudgment set the Brotherhood on a collision course with other groups in society and that, by remaining defiant in the face of overwhelming opposition, they put its members in harm’s way.
It is unlikely that the old guard will acknowledge its mistakes and initiate a major course correction, particularly when so many of them are in jail or on the run. But within the group, calls for a shake-up in the group’s top leadership are likely to accelerate. It remains to be seen if loyalty to the Brotherhood’s old leaders and old way of doing things, or an understanding of the urgent need for change, prevails. In the meantime, Egypt’s new military-backed leaders should be mindful of the fact that demonising the Brotherhood and banning the group are likely to hamper the cause of those calling for its reform and so undermine the prospects for the healthy re-integration of mainstream Islamists into Egypt’s political system.