I drag myself out of bed on auto-pilot and stumble through the early-morning darkness to make tea and turn on the T.V. The news flashes across the screen: plumes of smoke and more bloodied bodies. It’s been 15 days and people in Gaza are still under attack.
I’m a mere 120 miles from the 25-mile-long strip of land where 1.5 million Gazans live behind 8-meter-walls made of concrete and steel, but I can’t go there. No one can. The borders are militarized, Gaza is sealed. All we can do is sit here and watch as scene after hideous scene unfolds.
Screams and endless images of carnage play in every bean and hummus shop in Damascus. Everyone has their T.V. turned to Aljazeera. Protests rock the city daily and anguished voices reverberate over the airwaves, “Gaza need guns not bread!” or “Shame on Arab governments for doing nothing!”
For 15 days Damascus has been a city possessed by periodic mourning and explosions of deep rage. It is the most potent and unanimous show of support that I have ever seen, anywhere. On New Year’s Eve all celebrations were called off as many people prepared for a night of prayer. On day 3 my teacher said his mother’s health failed and she had to go to the hospital; another friend found his father alone in their courtyard, collapsed into the floor and crying his eyes out.
Before and After Dec 26h
“You can’t blame Gaza, they wanted bread, that’s why they started this!” my friend screamed the day of the first attack. At the time of the launching of rockets in Israel on Dec. 26th there was only one bakery open in Gaza City, with hundreds of people lined up in front of it for hours at a time.
Gaza has been suffering under an economic blockade since both Israel and Egypt sealed its borders in 2007. For the last two-and-a-half years fuel, flour and medicine shortages have been increasing. After a 6-month cease-fire with Israel ended, Hamas refused to renew it. Hamas’ demands have been clear from the beginning, Israel must agree to end the blockade and the slaughter of Gazans, until then the rockets will not stop.
Before 2005 Gaza was occupied by Israel for 38 years. A year after Israel withdrew, Hamas won what many consider to be the first truly democratic elections in the history of the Middle East. Israel’s reaction was to deny the results of the elections and hand power over to their rival, Fatah, who Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007. Since then, Gaza, one of the most populated places in the world, with 47% of its citizens below the age of 14, has been turned into a virtual prison, with military control all but forbidding Gazans from venturing outside its borders.
“They show the scenario, but they don’t say who wrote the script.” (a friend)
On Day four I’m in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that’s been in Damascus since in the 1950s. On the way to a friend’s apartment I saw Israeli flags painted on the sidewalk and watch people ritually stomp on them as they walk by. I’m sitting in my friend’s apartment with a bunch of people watching Aljzajeera. Footage from an infra-red camera shows little neon green men with guns slung over their shoulders marching through the black night into Gaza. Ground troops are entering Gaza for the first time, something that up until this point no one thought would happen.
Many people here ask me why the images we see here aren’t on U.S. T.V, “In America you will show naked women on T.V. but showing these murdered women and children (in Gaza) is haram (forbidden). How can that be?” (a friend)
There’s nothing more painful than seeing these images yet many people I talk to here are convinced that if the same images were shown in American, the public would do something about the U.S.’s blanket political and economic support of Israel.
I agree with them to an extent. If Americans were watching the footage from inside Gaza it would be impossible for them to feel “tired” of this issue, it would be impossible for them to deny just how drunk with power, and what a threat to the planet, Israel has become.
Yet somehow Aljazeera, the only media outlet inside Gaza, continues to be demonized in the U.S. The 2-year-old Aljazeera English news station is the most engaging and comprehensive news program I’ve ever seen. Probably one of the simplest and most important things that people can do in the U.S. is demand that local T.V. stations air Aljazeera English(http://english.aljazeera.net/) and watch it, tell your friends to watch it, let U.S. citizens see for themselves
Walls and Borders
“Israel wouldn’t do this if they didn’t know that they could get away with it.” (a friend)
Gazans have been effectively isolated from the rest of the world, but the tanks, guns and towering walls serve not only to keep Palestinians in but also to keep the rest of the world out. Many Arabs are desperate to fight; but what forces are at play to prevent them? Here are some reactions I got when I posed this question to a few of my friends, teachers and students here in Damascus, whose named I’ve decided to omit:
“If they opened the borders (to Palestine) I can guarantee you 2 million Arabs would go in to fight. I would be the first person to go to Israel and blow myself up. I want to go make Jihad, everyone does, but we can’t just go there, the borders are militarized.”
“My body feels like a volcano but nothing can come out, there is no where for it to go. Even though I’ve never even been to Palestine and I don’t have family there, I feel it in my body, something that is killed inside of me because we can not do anything (to help them).”
My friends tell me that Jordan and Egypt have long co-operated with Israel to seal its borders and that with Syria and Lebanon it’s the U.N. that controls who enters. Due to this, people in other Arab countries are limited in what they can do and have to rely on their governments to take action.
Middles Eastern countries are divided into western-friendly monarchies/autocracies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and the anti-U.S. dictatorships of Lebanon, Syria and Iran. The former get power from their alliance with the U.S., while the latter tend to control their populations with an iron fist.
“They (Arab governments) don’t want people to go to Palestine (and fight) because they would loose control and this movement would force them to loosen their policies. America wants these regimes to control the people, kill them, it stops them from fighting back.”
“There are two kinds of motives from governments in the Middle East. In Syria, the government wants everything to be under their control (so that) it can’t be developed in the future and used to overthrow them. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia feel embarrassed about their American/Israeli alliance, that’s how they get their power, without support from America their regimes would collapse.”
“The border between Syria and Palestine is the only safe border for Israel. There is an agreement between the Arab governments and Israel. There is an agreement between the Syrian and Israeli governments, if I want to go to Palestine, who will stop me? The Syrian government will kill me before Israel will!”
Arab Governments, Arab People
I am walking through the dark, narrow streets of the center of Old Damascus with a group of Syrian, Palestinian and foreign friends. A musician carrying his Oud approaches one of my friends. “Hey,” he asks him “aren’t you Palestinian?”
“Yes, I’m Palestinian.”
“Please, can I play a song for you?”
Since the War on Gaza began, many people I’ve talked with are amazed at how unified Arab people are. Not just against Israel/America, that’s a given, but against their own or other Arab regimes for failing to do something decisive in Gaza’s defense.
“This is a new reaction, people are blaming Arab governments for the 1st time, they are telling Egypt and Saudi Arabia that they have to do something.” (a friend)
“The biggest obstacle is the (Arab) dictatorships because people can’t express their anger the way they want to.” (a friend)
“The government will blame Israel by talking, they let protests happen but nothing else, they don’t fight Israel directly.” (a friend)
Yesterday, I went to a government-organized protest with ten of thousands of people. In a still-shot, especially if you don’t read Arabic, it might easily have looked like a pro-government rally. Despite the fact that hundreds of pictures of Syrian President Al-Assad were being waved in the air, there was more going on beneath the surface.
When a splinter group ran off from the larger protest twords the Egyptian Embassy, I followed them. This group was made up of hundreds of young men and women, chanting anti-U.S., Israeli and Egyptian slogans, many of them climbing up on each others shoulders to pose for my camera.
Near the embassy we were met by a wall of military police who obviously had orders to stop us. There was pushing and shouting and soon batons began to swing. It was at this point that it became apparent that although the average Syrian is proud of their government’s courageous show of power against Israel, they are also angry and easily incensed when that power is directed against them.
Soon, there was tear-gas being thrown at us and a massive, frenzied retreat. 5 or 6 guys decided to protect me from the chaos, guiding me to a corner and giving me tissues to wipe my eyes with.
I think it’s worth noting that even though I was the only foreigner there it didn’t even occur to me that I should be worried about the crowd turning against me. When they asked me where I was from I hesitated, but when I told them the truth and they were like, “Wow, are you a journalist? Do you support our actions?” The whole country hates the U.S., but you have to understand that despite everything we’re heard about Syrians and what a dangerous country this supposedly is I have never felt in danger here. Syrians know the difference between people and their government.
“This is not a war on Hamas, it is not a war against Palestinians, it is a war against the concept of resistance.” (a friend)
“Why are we weak? The governments have lost the will of the people, that’s why they get their power from America.”(A friend)
This kind of reaction from Arab governments towards protesters has been seen all over the Arab world, from Egypt to Jordan. In Jordan people tried to storm the Israeli Embassy and the military police stopped them. A lot of people seem to recognize the contradiction in this reaction and that only makes them identify more fervently with Gaza.
It wasn’t until I was on the mini-bus on my way home after a day of teaching and street protests, with the sun casting its gold shadow on the streets of Damascus, that it really hit me for the first time. I mean the last 15 days I’d been racked with anger and eaten by impotence. I’ve been glued to the news to the extend that I can barely turn it off to go to bed at night. Every single person I’ve talked to: Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian or foreigner feels exactly the same way.
I was thinking about something my friend told me earlier that day. He said he was sitting in a cafe with a bunch of his friends the night before and they were talking about what they could possibly do to get Americans to wake up and make their country stop supporting Israel. One of his friends leaned over and said “I have relatives in the U.S., what if we could convince them to bomb a school? Then I’m sure Americans would understand what it’s like for us to have so many of our children murdered.”
“I was shocked,” my friend said, “this is a good guy, but then I though maybe you should put this in your blog. After all, this is what happens, the U.N. is doing nothing, the world is sitting by and people begin think crazy things.”
At first I didn’t want to write about what my friend advised me. I feared it would only feed into the stereotype of Arabs as terrorists, but I decided it was too important to edit out. Think about it, if someone was slaughtering our children, 200 of them in 15 days, how many of us wouldn’t want to take revenge?
8 American children were killed in the 911 attacks. Can we still remember how that felt? Can you imagine how people here feel about the 200 children killed in Gaza? How many people in the rest of the world do you think blamed us for 911, saying the loss of life was justified due to our foreign policy, just like Israel and its supporters are saying about Gazans and Hamas?
There’s a big difference here though. We’re are the most powerful country in the world and we were targeted by a small group of individuals. Israel is the the 3rd largest military in the world and they are slaughtering a small, scarcely-armed group. They are using unmanned drones, F16 fighter jets, tanks, troops and god knows what else. There’s an unquestionable difference in what we’re living through right now.
I have to leave you with an image that is everywhere in the Arab media but I’m certain you haven’t seen in the U.S. A man shows the camera the cold, dead bodies of 3 little children, who can’t be more that 3 or 4 years old, each one has a bullet would to the chest. This is not shrapnel, not a errant bullet that hit a leg or arm, these children were shot by Israeli snipers deliberately in the chest.
Israel thinks if it increases the misery of the people in Gaza they will stop supporting Hamas. Pure horror can only create more horror. Why don’t they evacuate these families? Why don’t they at the very least make a safe part of Gaza where people can go?
I can only hope that these shameful, bloody days will forever change the world’s opinion of Israel. I can only believe that people are starting to see through it all. That the day is coming that powerful governments won’t able to use these justifications. The world won’t believe them anymore.