I just watched “Children of Gaza”, a documentary film on Channel 4 (UK TV channel). It was very good. It followed a group of Palestinian children who live in the Gaza Strip, in the time following Israel’s assault on the territory in December 2008. You can read about it here, and see a video clip here. I expect you’ll be able to watch the film soon on 4OD.
First of all, for those of you who don’t know about the situation in Gaza: a history lesson. This lesson is aimed primarily at US citizens, as your media generally pushes a very distorted version of what’s going on in the region. But everyone could do with a refresher course in recent Palestinian history, as we all are treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed shit) when it comes to this subject. (Note: I’ve chiefly referenced links to Wikipedia here. I am aware that Wikipedia is not always scrupulously accurate; but what I say here is generally accepted to be the truth, and 5 minutes with Google will find you plenty of alternative sources for the info if you are so inclined.)
In 2006, democratic elections were held in the Palestinian territories (the “Palestinian Authority”, aka the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). The elections were closely monitored by international observers from the so-called “Quartet” (USA, Russia, EU, and United Nations), and it was generally agreed that it was all carried out in a fair and professional manner. Edward McMillan-Scott, head of the European Parliament’s monitoring team, said the poll was “extremely professional, in line with international standards, free, transparent and without violence.” So, there shouldn’t be any problem in the international community about the results, right? The Quartet wants the PA to be run democratically – so the winners of the election should get to be in charge… right?
The problem is: Hamas won the election. That is, they won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council – 74 of the 132 seats, as opposed to Fatah’s 45. And the Quartet didn’t like that, because they don’t like Hamas. Hamas is generally considered a “terrorist organisation” because it sees one of its goals as “the obliteration of Israel”. (Interestingly, the UK and Australia have designated the Izz ad-Din al-Quassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, as a terrorist organisation, but not Hamas itself. Norway actually recognise Hamas as a legitimate political organisation and have met with them several times. Of course, the USA is vehemently opposed to any kind of recognition of Hamas, and calls them a “foreign terrorist organisation”.)
So anyway, after the 2006 election, Hamas and Fatah (aka the PLO, Yasser Arafat’s old outfit) formed a “national unity” government, with Hamas in charge. The Quartet was opposed to this, and imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Authority. They also threatened to cut funds to the PA, and generally put an awful lot of pressure on Fatah to somehow “recify” the situation. The USA and its buddies are all for democracy so long as it does what it’s told. If democracy gets uppity, the international community will snuff it out just like it would Saddam’s Iraq.
And the international pressure worked. In June 2007, partisan squabbles between Hamas and Fatah turned into open armed conflict, and Fatah succeeded in seizing military control of the West Bank, though Hamas managed to hold onto the Gaza Strip. The Quartet rewarded Fatah by lifting sanctions against the West bank and renewing funds; and the Gaza Strip was besieged. All border crossings between Gaza and Israel were closed. The Quartet and Israel pressured Egypt to seal its border with Gaza. And the Israeli navy patrolled the Gaza coast, attacking any sea traffic. So Gaza was blockaded. And the rest of the world did nothing.
The Quartet said the situation was simple: if Hamas gave up its control of the Strip, the blockade would end. As long as Gaza was governed by terrorists, it would be under siege. But Israel thought this didn’t go far enough. In December 2008, Israel launched a concentrated assault on the Strip. Operation Cast Lead involved heavy bombardment with fighter jets, helicopter gunships, rockets and missiles. Israel’s stated objective was to stop Hamas from launching rocket attacks from the Strip. But many civilians were killed by Israeli weapons. Israel claimed this was because Hamas deliberately located its rockets in civilian areas. But Hamas dismissed this as propaganda. And you have to see Hamas’ point. It certainly looked like Israel was targeting Palestinian civilians. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reports that 1,284 Palestinians died, of whom 894 were civilians. Unsurprisingly, Israel disagrees: they say 1,166 Palestinians died, of whom 709 were “terrorists” and 295 civilians. Israel finally ended its attacks on 17 January 2009.
So that’s the background. Now let’s look at the film “Children of Gaza”. The documentary film-maker Jezza Neumann arrived in Gaza soon after the end of Operation Cast Lead, and met the children he was to film. The population was in shock. One of Israel’s objectives had been to remove Hamas’ capability to operate as a “terrorist”/military force, and this had involved the destruction of vital infrastructure: police stations, barracks, jails… other government offices, communications links, hospitals, schools, roads… and, whether intentionally or not, a great many civilian homes were destroyed. Whole apartment blocks had been blown up and incinerated.
The Strip was a big bomb site. And it was impossible to rebuild because the blockade stopped the import of building materials: bricks, cement, sand, everything was stopped by the Israelis. Thousands of families were living in tents.
As time went by, people strived to rebuild what they could of their lives. Men used recycled materials to patch up their houses as best they could. And a great measure of “normality” returned to the shattered streets. For instance, schools resumed lessons. But these were “schools” in the loosest sense of the word: classes took place within the bombed-out shells of the classrooms.
At one point in the film, we see one such class session. To mark the cameras’ visit, the class’s subject that day was “human rights”. The teacher asked his students to describe how their rights had been taken from them. The childen described how they had been imprisoned by Israel – life in the Strip was like being in “a little jail”.
Ibraheem, one of the young subjects of the film, stood and answered questions brightly and eloquently. Perhaps a little too eloquently: had he been schooled in what to say? But I don’t think so. As the film goes on, we see Ibraheem often voicing startlingly insightful opinions. He had been taught a hard lesson by the war. But he was still capable of seeing the Israelis – the enemy – as people. The teacher asked: “Who did this to us?” The answer: “The jews!” “Are the jews’ children to blame?” “No!” “So who is to blame?” “Their parents… the older jews!” was the reply.
Another of the children, Ihmal, had been buried under rubble when an Israeli missile destroyed her home, and she had pieces of shrapnel in her head that caused her constant pain. But the destruction of the hospitals and the blockade on medical supplies meant she could not get treatment in Gaza. She needed to go to an Israeli hospital to see a surgeon. But getting the necessary permission to go to Israel was a long, distressing ordeal.
Finally, after endless waiting, she was allowed to go to a hospital in tel Aviv. Not that it did her any good. The Israeli surgeon didn’t think there was anything he could do to help her: “There will be no operation,” he said. Ihmal would have to “learn to live with” the pain. Watching this, I wondered if he would say the same to an Israeli child. I doubt it.
Of course, children play, even amongst such devastation. Eid was coming, and the film-maker asked Ibraheem what gift he’s like to receive. “A Kalashnikov dum-dum” he replied – for boys everywhere love to play with toy guns, don’t they!
Except the games of war here have a shocking realism. The boys said how they had watched “how the Jews kill the Arabs, and the Arabs kill the Jews”, and they reproduced this in their play quite shockingly. At one point in their game of “Jews and Arabs”, 2 “Jews” arrest an “Arab”. “Where are the others?” they shouted at him. “Tell us where they are, you animal!” Then one brought over a bucket of water, and the “Jews” actually ducked the “Arab’s” head into the water! They held him under for what seemed a long time, then let him breathe. “Where are they!” the torturers yelled before forcing his face into the water yet again. I’ve always thought that my friends and I were vicious as children – but this game of “war” made our “cowboys and indians” look downright tame!
For all their horror, these games of “Jews and Arabs” were fought with toy guns (even if the water was real!) – but then we saw one of the boys playing with a real rifle! One of the boys, Mahmoud, was visited by his Uncle Khalid, a member of Islamic Jihad – and Khalid had brought his AK47 to show to his nephew. It was quite disturbing to see Mahmoud sitting on the bed, cocking the rifle and marvelling at the deadly precision of its engineering.
Then came the truly disturbing, as Khalid showed Mahmoud a video of another uncle blowing himself to pieces with a suicide bomb belt. “You see how he martyrs himself? See how it’s painless?”
“It’s like a pin-prick,” replies Mahmoud.
Khalid points out the martyr’s intestines (thankfully pixellated out for the queasy viewers of Channel 4). He describes the operation of the bomb belt. And Mahmoud is entranced by the details. At one point the boy’s mother walks in, and Khalid says “We will make your son a martyr, God willing.”
“Inshalla (God willing),” she agrees.
All these children seem to be set on a path to war; set on it by the Israelis and their thoughtless barbarism. As one father tells the film-maker: “What do you expect my son to do, when he saw them kill his brother? Expect him to kiss the Jewish soldiers?” A counsellor describes how they are seeing increased levels of anxiety and violence amongst the children. They think they have a right to revenge. And a duty. Ibraheem says “Before the war I thought only of my education; but since the war I think only about the resistance.” He explains: “I will tell them, I’m not a terrorist, I’m a Palestinian. I want revenge for what they’ve done to us. Would they accept their children being made fatherless like us?”
No, they wouldn’t accept it. And they won’t. If this cycle of madness isn’t broken, revenge will continue to spill blood on the soil of Palestine.
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