The Other Side of Gaza

By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town

The Israelis invaded Gaza the day I went on leave. My Blackberry started buzzing with messages, and did not let up for 22 days. One of my contacts in Gaza City SMSed me on the first night of bombing: “WE R NOT ALONE. ALLAH + US. 3 YEARS SIEGE. WE STILL STRONG.”

I have kept those messages. Some are angry, some are desperate and some are heart-rending. All in the upper-case, they tell the story of Gaza in terse electronic shorthand: “SLM. 22 MASJIED DESTROY. 2,100 HOUSES DESTROY. 4,000 BUILDING DESTROY”.

Or, “SLM…BRKG NEWS…DIS A.M. 6 CHILDREN MARTYR” was a disturbing message that woke me from a deep sleep at 3 am one morning.

As I was on leave, it was a strange feeling. I’d be on the beach with sand between my toes, and the Blackberry would vibrate and remind me of Gaza. I did a few radio and TV commentaries, but with the luxury of no impending deadlines, was able to spend time observing the disturbing events from a distance.

There were several things about “Operation Cast Lead” that struck me immediately. Anger in the Arab street stood out in sharp contrast to the coyness of its leaders in capitals such as Riyadh, Cairo, Damascus and ‘Amman. Protest in the capitals of Europe also contradicted the EU’s deference towards Israel.

And in the United States – a country renowned for Zionist lobby groups such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and 80 million pro-Israeli evangelicals – the hush of President George Bush was conspicuous.

But for the first time, I saw the Israeli hasbara press corps (whose job it is to spin Israeli policy) under serious Jewish scrutiny. Western media houses faithfully lapped up the memos issued by the National Information Directorate, but usually staid intellectuals such as Avi Shlaim and Henry Siegman were not letting them off the hook.

This was something I’d not seen before.

Avli Shlaim, an Oxford professor of International Relations, wrote in The Guardian (7 January) that the Palestinians were being blamed for their own misfortunes. The Gaza assault was simply a war between Israel and the Palestinian people, he said.

Gaza was a “uniquely cruel case of de-development” and a classic instance of colonial exploitation. He added that the idea of establishing a “Greater Israel” beyond the 1967 Green Line was one of the most “prolonged and brutal occupations of modern times”.

Avli Shlaim, who once proudly served in the Israeli military, is not known to be regularly given to such public indignation.

Henry Siegman, professor at the University of London, an ordained orthodox Rabbi, former director of the American Jewish Congress, Director of the Middle East Report and the Synagogue Council of America, penned a scathing critique in the London Review of Books (January 29) bluntly entitled “Israel’s Lies”.

He slammed Western governments for unconditionally accepting the Israeli hasbara that Hamas was responsible for the violence. “Israel, not Hamas, violated the truce…” he wrote, saying that Israel had not released, but increased, its stranglehold on Gaza during the truce.

Siegman’s criticisms are interesting. He has traditionally been regarded as a proponent of “moral equivelance” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But here he was, openly slamming the disproportionate nature of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Even in South Africa, unexpected voices spoke out. Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer, who was happy to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary last year, rebutted the Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation’s support for “Operation Cast Lead”.

So did former chief justice, Arthur Chaskalson – as did a group of over 130 concerned Jews.

Indeed, one wonders just how many people must have been appalled at Israel’s endeavours to explain away the horrendous toll of civilian casualties in Gaza. Their inference, that Hamas was part of an international jihadi network and was using women and children as shields, was amateurish in the extreme.

I don’t know how many times Hamas spokesmen have said that their fight is for Palestinian rights, and that their struggle is a local one. Exporting resistance has never been on the agenda. But I wonder who in Tel Aviv has ever been listening?

Undeniably the real horror of Gaza was its utterly mindless disproportionalism. Less than 20 Israelis have died at the hands of home-made rockets fired from Gaza since 2001, but some 5,000 Palestinians have perished in Gaza and the West Bank in the same period.

I don’t condone killing on any side (and kill figures are always obscene) but there is a point to be made.

Then there was the Kafka-esque scenario of the “victim” possessing F16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, tanks, troops, artillery and over a million kilograms of “state-of-the-art” explosives. This is while the “perpetrator” had old-fashioned AK 47’s, handguns, Molotov cocktails and hand-made rockets without homing devices.

This disproportionality was reflected in Israeli and Palestinian versions of events. The hasbara corps would argue with passion that the 500 or so tunnels dug under the border fence in Rafah were used exclusively for arms smuggling. The Gazans would reply that without these tunnels, they would have starved to death during the blockade.

“These tunnels are for business. We use them to bring in petrol, food, clothes and building material. How do you think we survived the Israeli blockade since 2006?” I was told by a Gazan on the phone.

That “Operation Cast Lead” was as much about Israeli politics (as anything else) was strongly evident. Yet it was hardly mentioned in the media. Dubbed “Molten Lead” by Gush Shalom’s Uri Avneri, there was an inherent cynicism about the Gaza operation. For it revealed the moral decrepitude of Israeli domestic politics.

Whilst Gaza 2008 was the ultimate attempt to destroy the Palestinian political process, its catalyst was the Israeli electorate. The ruling Kadima party – an uneasy coalition of Likudniks and Labourites led by a former Sharon apparatchik, Ehud Olmert – was facing ignominious defeat at the polls scheduled for this month.

Smelling victory, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu – a Teflon version of Sharon if there ever was one – had said his first act as Prime Minister would be to smash Hamas. Strong leaders win elections in Israel, and so Kadima had to do something in response to Netanyahu’s jibes.

Or as Haidar ‘Eid, a Gazan political analyst told me: “Israeli elections are won through Palestinian blood.”

But I think that the raison d’etre for “Operation Cast Lead” goes a lot deeper than Israeli elections. It goes beyond the politics of sidelining Hamas, a democratically elected government crudely regarded by the US and Israel as “terrorist” – and uniquely capable of threatening world peace (according to them) with fertiliser-powered rockets.

In other words, the rank fear of an Islamist regime living cheek-by-jowl with Israel is an issue – but it’s certainly not the only one. There’s the question of economics too. 

In 2002 I was told by a member of the Islamic Movement that a truly “sustainable society” was the ultimate Palestinian ideal. “Economics is our way to liberation. Self-sufficiency is what we want,” he said.

I still have the notes – and the Arabic phrase – in one of my notebooks. My observation then was that the Israelis would not like to hear this.  Little did I know those six years ago how “Operation Cast Lead” was going to prove me right.

Yet when I came across an article written by Ottawa University economics professor, Michel Chossudovsky, I was still gob-smacked. According to him there were gas fields off the coast of Gaza.

Chossudovsky is a well-respected academic; a man not given to wild speculation, conspiracy theory or rumour. He is a writer who quotes copious sources. And he wrote at globalresearch.ca’s website:

“The military invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli Forces bears a direct relation to the control and ownership of strategic offshore gas reserves. This is a war of conquest. Discovered in 2000, there are extensive gas reserves off the Gaza coastline”.

Citing the involvement of the British Gas Group and its partner, the Athens-based but Lebanese-owned Consolidated Contractors International Company, Chossudovsky says a 25-year exploration agreement was signed in 1999 with the Palestinian Authority.

According to the professor, 60% of Gaza’s offshore gas fields (worth 4 billion dollars) belong to Palestine.

However, any prospect of drilling, exploitation and the building of pipelines were sidelined by the death of Yasser ‘Arafat, and the heavy hand of Ariel Sharon. When he took power in 2001 he stated that Israel would never buy energy from Palestinians.

In 2003, the burly Israeli Prime Minister vetoed an initial agreement that would see British Gas supplying Israel with gas from Gaza. In 2006 British Gas was close to signing a deal to pump gas to Egypt when British Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped it.

In 2007 the issue resurfaced again when Ehud Olmert proposed that Israel buy gas from the Palestinian Authority. This deal was scuppered when the Israeli security establishment alleged the Palestinian Authority would use its 1 billion dollar profits to buy arms.

Further Israeli skulduggery to avoid honouring an energy contract with the Palestinians saw British Gas closing their offices in January 2008.

But here, according to Chossudovsky, the plot thickens. For in June (when the six-month truce with Hamas was being negotiated) Ehud Barak was already planning “Operation Cast Lead”. And, at the same time, the Israeli government was calling on British Gas to return to Israel to enter into talks with it.

Chossudovsky reports that as recently as November 2008, the Israeli Finance Ministry had approved of further energy talks with British Gas.

So what does this mean for Gaza?

It means a new chapter in the history of Palestinian disempowerment. For not only will Gaza’s residents have to confront their historic memories of stolen land and dispossessed towns and villages, but their children will also have to face the humiliating prospect of their natural resources – the very key to their economic independence – being pilfered from right under their noses.

-Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based photo-journalist, author and radio show host. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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