Gianluca Solera - 12/01/2009
When my wife’s uncle came to our post-Christmas dinner, he brought the kefiah which Yasser Arafat had personally given him during his visit as part of a delegation of the Brazilian Federal Parliament. It was he that informed me of the bombing of Gaza that was taking place but I did not believe it; not even 48 hours had passed since Christmas Day, it was impossible. Once our guests had left, I looked at the internet and I realized the extent and horror of the attack. Then I cynically looked further to see the political reactions which gave me a sensation of profound nausea and total disgust.
The internet site of La Repubblica (repubblica.it) reported a declaration given by the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini that Hamas is a terrorist organisation and that “its behaviour at this time was a clear demonstration of this fact”. Maybe he was referring to the breakdown of the truce. However, he did not say a single word of discomfort for the suffering of the Palestinians, which even at that time already numbered around a hundred victims.
Minister Frattini must have been seriously annoyed to be summoned on the 29th December to an extraordinary EU meeting in Paris on the Gaza situation two days before New Year’s Eve. This is of course fully understandable, the life of a politician is after all difficult: he has to be always on call, to travel frequently, to manage public affairs in a responsible manner and to be up to date on what’s happening in the world. I’m really sorry Mr. Frattini that Hamas has ruined your New Year’s celebration.
Gibran Khalil Gibran said that we are masters of what we do not express, and prisoners of what we speak. This is particularly true for a statesman; the only way that Minister Frattini was able to respect this proverb has been not to say anything courageous and honest.
The website of the Israeli daily Haaretz instead reported on the declaration of the Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni which underlined that “the values of Israel are completely different from those of Hamas; Hamas aims to hit innocent civilians, schools and children’s nurseries, while Israel targets exclusively terrorists”. Maybe she is right. Nevertheless, I still remember those photos from summer 2006, published in the German press, showing Israeli children writing words of death on Tsahal missiles intended for their Lebanese peers. Children do not write on missiles only for the sake of it; they only do so when told to by an adult. Perhaps Minister Livni wanted to say that the more than seven hundred victims (at the moment that I am writing) of the bombing were terrorists; but if this was really the case then she should escape incognito from her own country to save her soul and her most valuable belongings, in case her compatriots suddenly wake up and realize that one of their ministers has succeeded in transforming a population of losers into a terrorist threat.
Yousri Darwish and Maher Issa, who direct the laic and independent General Union for Cultural Centers (which acts as an umbrella organisation for thirty-four cultural centres in the Gaza strip) wrote to me that their offices had been damaged as the Israeli airforce had hit a police station on the other side of the street. At the time, Yousri and Maher were moving furniture, computers and documents elsewhere; they could not complete this operation, but thank God they are alive. I don’t know if the Islamic University is still standing; I visited it last September. Then in November, the René Séydoux and Anna Lindh Foundations jointly organized a video-conference between representatives of European and Mediterranean civil society, meeting in Marseille, with students and associations from Gaza independent or close to Fatah and Hamas. The intent was to talk about survival and show through dialogue that the power of reason was still of some value. A live broadcast video-conference, is the only way to establish direct contact with the people living in the Gaza strip. At this moment, the Rector and other leading lights from the University are maybe injured or worse some of them dead. Maybe the informatics centre for blind students financed by American Quakers has been destroyed. Maybe the theatre or the departments co-financed by the Japanese have been blown to pieces: my e-mails have not received any reply. The acid aftertaste having read the haughty political declarations is still strong in my mouth. Why so much arrogance?
On the 31 December, the Portuguese daily Público had a long feature on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The photos of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna eternally young brought back to my memory some passages that I don’t recall exactly where he wrote. Even with ministerial responsibilities in Havana, he spent at least one day a week working in factories or in the fields. In his idealistic maximalism, he took a simple principle to its extreme conclusion: it is not possible to understand or legislate if you do not personally experience and share the consequences with those who should implement your dictate.
Every time a politician preaches, I think of Gaza. What would Minister Frattini feel if he went to Gaza and spent some days working in the rubble with the organisations dispensing humanitarian assistance for the United Nations or the Italian non-governmental organisations? And what would Minister Livni think if she visited the desolate building sites for the Wall in the West Bank and spoke to the Israeli human rights associations operating in the miserable Palestinian refugee camps? Would they still say the same thing?
In September, the cost of twenty litres of petrol in the Gaza strip for an individual was 450 shekel (94 €). My friend Maher used a kitchen gas cylinder to power his car: the ignition system was rather rudimentary. What remains of the Erez industrial zone (set up with Israeli capital and Palestinian labour; destroyed by Israeli; a symbol of the failure of the Oslo process), has been recycled to produce cement, which has also become a scarce resource. On the beach, the fishermen throw their nets into the coastal waters but only manage to pull in a few small fish. The shops on Omar al Mukhtar, the main boulevard in Gaza which goes to the sea, were almost all closed. Gaza survived thanks to the many tunnels with Egypt (estimated between five and six hundred) through which passed more than one third of the goods entering Gaza. Because of the closure of 98 % of companies, the main economic motor of the Gaza strip were the 75 thousand salaries paid by Ramallah, even if the banks often did not have the necessary liquidity to allow employees to withdraw their money. Unemployment reached 30% for men and 40% for women. Half of the families lived below the poverty line (whilst in the West Bank the corresponding figure was “only” one fifth below the poverty line, due to the differential treatment by the International community), which was equivalent to a monthly budget for a family of six people of 572 dollars (around 400 €)* .
This was the situation before the unwelcome fireworks at the end of the year. Is this life? What is it like to be constrained in an open-air prison tortured by a prolonged lack of first necessity goods? Is this life? Was not one of the conditions accepted by the two parties, Hamas and Israel, as part of the six-monthly ceasefire which expired on the 19 December, to lift the economic and social embargo on Gaza? And has not this ceasefire already been violated on the 4 November by an Israeli operation aimed at destroying the tunnels killing six Palestinian militants in the process?
To find out about such matters on this side of the Mediterranean it is necessary to read the Financial Times or the Portuguese newspapers. Once again I have the taste of disgust in my mouth.
Do we still have the strength to use reason and to call on the right of law and of self-determination without having to consider the political group or the race to which human beings belong? Are we still able to look at history with a sense of detachment and describe the reasons for the disaster? When I present my book around Italy, I sometimes use a metaphor. An Israeli sits on a Palestinian like a footstool. The Palestinian suffers from time to time of arthritis and moves in such a way to lighten the weight of the Israeli yoke. Israeli becomes shaky and complains of the continuous movement of the Palestinian that puts at risk his stability, with the accusation that he wants to damage him.
Israel is sitting on Palestine like someone on a footstool, and does not recognise the right of liberty, of self-determination and of dignity; he simply ignores him. For this reason, everything stemming from it becomes the cause and not the consequence of an impossible peace. But there is no peace without justice.
There is no peace without memory, the memory of a people-footstool. The names of those killed are not even reported by the press of the occupying power: Suddeutsche Zeitung reported on the 31 December that the Israeli television news, which lasts for more than an hour at the moment, dedicates less than two to three minutes to report the death and destruction wrought in Gaza.
Israel is a country that is so much absorbed in its memories that it does not succeed to create space for a future that makes peace with the past; its neurones have been worn out so much that even the god Yahweh has aged too much to think and cannot free himself from the role of god of the armies. Operation “Cast Lead” was launched at the end of a Shabbat, Saturday afternoon 27 December. I can imagine those aged generals and young pilots praying to their god before giving the order to attack or getting into their fighter planes. A lost generation has been created, without universal ideals, and hence extremely dangerous. The adolescents of Jihad kill out of desperation, the boys of Tsahal out of idolatry. This is what is happening in a region without any values or dreams except those which are created by the brutal logic of racism and of ideology, where generals use the most technologically sophisticated arms in the world in order to kill those who manufacture rudimentary bombs whilst scraping a living in impoverished conditions. What heroism! If these are the commandments that remain of Zionist patriotism, the future of the country is very grey: many Israeli Jewish friends write to me, people in tears, lucid and courageous. Grey smoke over Gaza, grey European politicians. Disgust.
How much I miss zatar with its slightly sweet and bitter taste at the same time. My Lebanese friend Bernard Khoury told me one day that as a child his mother gave him zatar to strengthen the memory during the period of the school exams. Now that they have pulled up olive trees by their roots, maybe the last resource of some commercial interest for the Palestinians is this, the zatar spice.
The Europeans and the Israelis, and not only them, really need it.
(*) Sources: OCHA, UNRWA, 2008. The poverty data refer to 2007. The data on unemployment to the first four months of 2008.
Translation: Jonathan Parker
9 January 2009
Gianluca Solera ,
Author of Muri, lacrime e zatar: Storie di vita e voci dalla Palestina (Walls, tears and zatar: stories of lives and voices of Palestine)