Gaza 2004 and Political Guilt 2008

By Mats Svensson

It has been two months since the launch of the book, International Assistance to the Palestinians after Oslo: Political Guilt and Wasted Money. The book is a summary of Anne Le More’s PhD on development aid to Palestine after Oslo.

A common response to the book is that Anne is not writing anything new, that we have been conscious and today have knowledge of what her PhD came to be about. What if it is so. What if we know, have all the knowledge and still don’t act. If that is indeed the case I would still have wanted to be able to say that I didn’t know what was going on when I was last here. Be able to look you in the eyes and say that I was unaware and ignorant. But unfortunately that was not the case. I was myself part of what Anne Le More writes. I had the local responsibility for Swedish development aid during a short period, 2004-2005.

From that time, I have two photographs of two women. They are sisters-in-law and slept the night to the eleventh of September 2004 with their families in a house in Jabalya, in northern Gaza. At the beginning, the women constitute part of two larger photos with a demolished house in the background. With the passing of time, I have changed the photos, cropped them and today only the eyes remain. Eyes with a clear message.

The photos were taken in Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza on 12th September 2004. During the morning I had been in Beit Hanun, a few kilometers from Jabalya Camp. In a gigantic area, all the houses had been demolished and all the olive trees chopped down. Solely a two-storey house remained. The soldiers had just occupied the house. The families had been forced to leave, the elderly, the women, the children, the family providers. They didn’t have time to bring anything with them, had been forced to leave furniture, photographs and toys behind. The house was occupied by young soldiers. For a short while, the house became a military center with a view over the whole destroyed area. On the second floor, on the roof terrace, the young soldier, the sniper, lies down on a mattress. Quietly and calmly he waits. His colleague plays music, comes over with a cup of coffee.

An elderly man returns to his house. The man wants to collect some private things the family did not manage to bring with them. In his hand, he holds a long cane, and on the cane he has tied a white flag. The man lifts the white flag high so that everyone can see. The young soldier, just over twenty years old, with sniper training as his best merit, leans against the edge and aims. He aims for a long time, and shoots the man through the hand, the flag falls to the ground. The soldier will never forget. It will become an occurrence that remains in the deepest part of him, which perhaps makes it difficult for the soldier to ever sleep a full night again. The story also follows me when I reach Jabalya refugee camp a few hours later.

It was calm in the camp when I arrived. It was very quiet, no crying, no screaming. A woman with a black shawl approaches me and gives me half a green apple. A woman, a wife, a mother. Behind her a demolished house. I ask if I can take a picture. She nods. She smiles into the camera. She has not given up. Another woman in a green shawl comes shortly afterwards. She does not see me, she does not see anyone. She stands completely silent with sad, empty eyes. I ask if I can take a photo. The interpreter says that I can. I did not hear her confirm. Two women, two sisters-in-law with two families. The women personify the conflict. A woman who has a demolished house and who is unconquered while another woman, in the same house, who will need external support.  
Two women were forced to leave their houses in a refugee camp for a room in another refugee camp. Just like many others on the Gaza Strip, they were victims in a much larger battle that was taking place far away from Gaza’s narrow gates.

The international community has for a long time accepted that Gaza was on its way of permanenting its status as the world’s most isolated refugee camp. But isolated refugee camps are an expensive story.

The costs were covered either directly through the UN system or indirectly via the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Somebody also paid to strengthen the military forces around and in Gaza. Compared to other difficult areas like the Sudan, large sums in the form of Dollars and Euros were transferred during my short time in Palestine. In the meantime, more and more Palestinians reiterated that they first hoped for political support, then money.

Two women, one no longer believes in the international community, does not believe in the Palestinian leadership, does not believe in the family, does not believe in herself. The other is convinced that the help is nowhere to be found except in herself.

Anne Le More’s PhD describes the political guilt borne by the international community. A guilt that has come to mean that we collectively have been unable to attack the fundamental reasons for the conflict. To challenge these reasons would involve confronting the history of the conflict and the international community’s participation in it, as well as emphasising the legitimate rights and suffering of both peoples. Anne’s fundamental approach means that each actor who participates in influencing and changing the situation has to take a clear stance in regard to the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, the establishment of a border between Israel and Palestine, the settlements and the security arrangements. If I understand Anne correctly, she means that it is only when we are prepared to call a spade a spade and then act accordingly that we have the right to participate in the process with a certain degree of dignity.

The two women, whose eyes hang on my wall, are part of this process. They are constantly sitting in the front stalls. Their grandparents and their children have probably also followed or still do follow the game, the international game. They see what happened or is happening. The refugee status became permanent, a house became a room. The border to the world around is today very clear. Today everything is closed and inaccesible, over land, over water as well as through the air. The number of settlers in Palestine has never been as high as today. Admittedly, the 7000 on the Gaza Strip are gone but that did not help the West Bank which got thousands of additional settlers since 2005.

When I read Anne’s book, I get a clear feeling of not having anything of which to be proud. I agree with the people who say that when you get a book like this in your hand, it does not say anything new. But what is new for me is that I can with clear precision see what I was part of and which role I played. I can also clearly see what my standpoint led to. That feels unique because it means that all my co-actors and I have today received a textbook which should make us examine what we recently did but also what we are doing today. It’s time for some sort of justice. I have to continue believing in that.

I also believe that the two women, if they heard about the book by Anne Le More, would tell us to read the book very carefully. That it of course should be an appendix to every country’s development cooperation strategy with Palestine. The women would probably also encourage us to discuss the book at our internal meetings at the consulates, foreign affairs and the EU. Perhaps they would also call the Ministry of Planning in Ramallah and ask them to invite the international community to a two-day conference with Anne Le More as the main speaker.

-Mats Svensson, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine.  He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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