JORDAN TIMES: Winning the battle, losing moral high ground

Michael Jansen

For a second week I have decided to write about what I and a great many dedicated journalists are trying to do:report Israel’s latest war.

This has been the most difficult to describe and analyse, for journalists, because they have been excluded in their hundreds from the Gaza battlefield.With the exception of Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English teams, major media have been sitting on the sidelines. Television teams literally parked on a low bluff overlooking the top edge of Gaza Strip. During the 23 days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead offensive, some even viewed the bombing and shelling from Rafah, on the strip’s southern border with Egypt.

Post-ceasefire, the situation here is anarchic.The word on the lips of the guardians of the Rafah gate is “no”. The gate closed to journalists on Monday at two, after a few managed to penetrate the inner sanctum of the strip. On Tuesday, one I know managed to get into Gaza as a health worker. She managed because she struck up a conversation with a man from a medical team who offered to be of assistance.As for the rest, we milled around for hours in the dust and sand at the gates, talking on mobile phones and wondering with our editors what we were doing in this frustrating place.

Outside the right-hand gate, journalists and relief volunteers watched indifferent officials shift stacks of passports and documentation around on a desk in a dingy office. The appellants were ignored until some junior official said no one would be crossing. We called taxis to carry us with our luggage back to our hotels, cursing the flight of fancy that made us think we were better off at Rafah than in Jerusalem where, at least, we can speak to our Palestinian contacts and friends in the strip.

In Egypt it is impossible to dial into Gaza. Mobile phones simply reply that numbers that worked in Jerusalem do not work at Rafah, or in Cairo for that matter.Here, Gaza is completely cut off except for the few aid lorries that grind by the furious journalists, doctors and relief workers waiting at the gate.

There are a few who enjoy something called “coordination”, at both Erez and Rafah, the only two crossings for human traffic.Of the five others, all in Israel, only one, Karem Shalom, is working, although at a quarter of its “normal capacity”.

Aid and humanitarian agencies are complaining loudly that they are not getting in enough staff to carry the load of work.Having been devastated during Israel’s military offensive, Gaza is now engaged in what can be called the “battle of the crossings”.

This is very dangerous for Gaza at this time when its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens are in need of everything: shelter, food, water, sanitation, houses, trauma counselling and moral support.They are getting the most and the best from qualified people on the ground, mostly fellow Palestinians in Gaza. They are as traumatised as their patients. But all Gazans are denied help from “normal” people who have not had to survive Israel’s onslaught or lost family, friends, homes, jobs, fields and orchards.

Nothing has been spared, said my friends in Gaza before I relocated to Rafah.

By continuing to besiege and blockade Gaza, Israel and its Western allies - which put pressure on Egypt to cooperate with them by keeping a tight rein on Rafah - are denying Gazans the succour they need when they are most vulnerable. By keeping the gates closed, Israel and its friends also maintain the siege and blockade that forced Hamas to declare an end to the wobbly six-month truce on December 19.

Gaza can no longer be treated as a pariah because it is ruled by Hamas. Gaza is a 340-square-kilometre stretch of coastline where people live and work, children study, farmers grow their crops, and people die of old age and illness, as well as of bombs, bullets and shells.Gaza must, once again, be allowed to be a normal place where people can have safe, secure, decent lives. This will not happen if Gaza remains isolated, besieged, boycotted and blockaded.

Hamas is not Gaza and Gaza is not Hamas. All Gaza suffered the slings and arrows of Israel’s outrageous onslaught, not only Hamas. But although Israel kept the media out of the war zone, it lost one key asset: impunity.

While Israel boasts it “won” on the field of battle by battering its enemy, Israel lost the moral high ground, alienating many people round the world by behaving with such brutality.Israel has, in the past, dismissed protests and condemnations because its wars have been too easily forgotten. But this war came two and-a-half years after the Lebanon military and public relations debacle which exposed Israel as both militarily incompetent, and harsh and cruel.

The Operation Cast Lead was meant to restore Israel’s military credibility and the blitz certainly was a “shock and awe” display of force against Palestinian fighters armed with peashooters and slingshots - if one is to compare arsenals. But the offensive was so “disproportionate” that Israel suffered a huge loss of moral standing.

This war, like the Lebanon war, stands out as a vicious onslaught on helpless civilians trapped in the narrow Gaza Strip.Consequently, there are numerous influential people calling for war crimes investigations and accountability involving both the state and its leaders.

While Israel and its rulers are certain to escape trial and imprisonment, they have not avoided censure.The next time Israel overdoes military violence on a grand scale, people will remember Gaza.Israel will more and more be seen as a wayward, brutal power which must be curbed. The Gaza offensive could cost Israel its impunity. Even the US - now run by a new administration - cannot ignore Israel’s cruel and inhuman punishment of the people of Gaza. This means Israel will have to be more measured in the future, and more attentive to world opinion.

22 January 2009

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