Sami Abdel-Shafi: Hopeless in Gaza

By Sami Abdel-Shafi

It is genuinely difficult, impossible in fact, to even imagine that one is free in Gaza, for Israel’s military policies continue to forbid Palestinian movement. It is truly strange, though, that we are freer than our great friend, British journalist Alan Johnston of the BBC, who resides in Gaza and has been missing since his abduction at gunpoint on March 12 in the city.

When I last saw Alan, I confided in him about how the lawlessness and despair engulfing this place make me feel as though I am a foreigner in my own city. I recalled our conversation on the day of Alan’s disappearance. I was practically at a loss as to which official I could get in touch with for Alan’s whereabouts and swift release, and whether anyone would really hear and be able to act on my call of distress and those of countless others.

The newly-formed, moderate Palestinian government, sworn in a few days after Alan’s abduction, is already haunted by the prospect of a continuing impasse. It seems as yet neither authoritative enough, nor adequately resourced, to confront the serious business ahead. It has changed nothing on the ground, so far, and is not permitted to do so.

Israel’s military policy of isolating and confining Gazans has stripped them of any sense of hope. Apparently, a minority has so lost any self-respect that it has turned against its own by violating the freedom of an impeccable friend like Alan.

Sadly, the very causes of lawlessness introduced by Israel’s longstanding military policies, on which Alan fairly and honestly reported, have given way to the unacceptable crime of his abduction. Now, most other foreign colleagues and friends, who had originally come to assist the Palestinian people, are now barred from entering Gaza.

Nearly everything about Palestine, especially Gaza, has become "ghostly". People suffer from thinking that they should enjoy basic human rights, realise their aspirations for peace and prosperity, have friends like Alan, have jobs and security and be able to travel and pursue education, but see that they have a minimum of all that, if anything, and a lessening sense of it all. They constantly realise that what they possess is the mere – intangible – idea of what they should enjoy but are never allowed to reach as a result of Israel’s abduction of their every source of livelihood.

Against this backdrop of tormenting realities, and in his ostensible show of readiness for peace, Israeli prime minister Olmert proposed to meet with Arab leaders who have, on March 28, revived the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002. It calls for full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, in return for peace, security and full normalisation between Arab states and Israel. But the flip side is that the Israeli government’s determination to exclude the refugee issue from the peace initiative threatens to make yet another ghost of millions of Palestinian refugees awaiting resolution.

Even when the new Palestinian government clearly subscribes to the mutual recognition agreement signed years ago between the PLO and Israel, which is still in effect, and endorses final peace negotiations with Israel, Israel’s government boycotts it. Mr Olmert’s heavily publicised proposal to meet with Arab statesmen carries little weight for as long as Israel boycotts the new Palestinian government, bluntly preempting the prospect of peace it could offer.

Reality on the ground glaringly shows the continuation of Israel’s policies of sabotaging the potential for a genuine peace, ruining Palestinian livelihoods and sequestrating hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax and customs monies. In a show of belligerence rather than a willingness to negotiate, Israel buys more time to force measures on the ground towards the annexation of territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the imprisonment of Gazans. The passage of time without resolution is the central factor in provoking unrest and renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel’s government must be challenged on compromising a peaceful future for both Palestinians and Israelis. If not, the international community risks acquiescing to Israel’s encouragement of Palestinian desperation, chaos and violence – at the cost of the wellbeing of both Palestinians and of dear friends such as Alan Johnston.

(The Guardian: www.guardian.co.uk; April 4, 2007)

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