Osamah Khalil: Crossing into Gaza (1 of 3)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Osamah, you just back to Cairo from the border with Gaza, the Egyptian-Gaza border. And you were there. You were there when people were coming out and going back in. What did you see?
OSAMAH KHALIL, JOURNALIST: Well, you know, it’s an amazing sight. It’s almost indescribable. What you’re actually seeing is a movement—. I got there early Friday morning, about 4:30 in the morning, and pulled into the town of El-Arish, which is on the northern Sinai border about 45 kilometers south of Rafah, in Gaza. And the town at 4:30 in the morning was packed with young Palestinians, Palestinians of all age, just hanging out, talking, very happy, glad to be enjoying a moment of, really a freedom, freedom as they see it, really, away from kind of the tension and trouble, and quite frankly the siege and starvation of Gaza. So it was really an amazing sight, an amazing scene. I was able to walk into Gaza unimpeded, without a problem, crossing an international border. Met several friends and colleagues inside Gaza, and managed to drive around Gaza on most of Saturday, in fact. Spent Friday along the border, toward the wall area, the wall that was destroyed by Hamas, and watched a lot of the traffic in and out of Gaza and was part of the traffic in and out of Gaza.
JAY: What are the Egyptian troops doing? Are people just simply moving back and forth freely? Is there any kind of border check? And I guess the other question would be, why would people go back? You know, the conditions have been so bad in Gaza, why don’t they just stay in Egypt?
KHALIL: They have homes in Gaza. Right? I mean, they live in Gaza. What they’re going into Egypt for is really several different things. Right after Hamas was elected to lead the Palestinian government, there was a sanctions regime that was kicked in by the United States, by Israel and the European Union, and that made life unbearably harsh. Now, that was tightened even further in June after Fatah forces were routed by—now, Fatah is, of course, the main faction, and its the faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas–those forces were routed by Hamas in June. And after that, a siege was imposed, a full siege, by Israel, in which no money was allowed in, fuel was tightened—as we saw over the past week, it was completely cut off. So life has become almost unbearable in Gaza. Basic needs are not being met in terms of everything from flour to meat to basic foods. Concrete is no longer allowed in by the Israelis, so construction has come to a complete halt. Medicines aren’t getting in, and that’s in addition to the major fuel and power cuts. At the end of the day, though, Gaza is still the home of Palestinians. The reason they’re going into Rafah and its towns like El-Arish is, one, to get needed supplies—they fully expect the siege to continue or to kick back in—but also for a moment, quite frankly, of some levity, of some fun. El-Arish is a resort town. And so they’re going there, as they put it, to kind of smell the new air and, quite frankly, enjoy themselves a little bit. And they’re owed it, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.
JAY: The Israelis are saying the reason for the siege, the reason for the cuts is because Hamas has not stopped either themselves firing rockets into Israel, or as most people think, Hamas is not responsible directly for the rockets, but Gaza’s under their control, so the Israelis blame Hamas for not stopping whatever groups are firing rockets. What do you know of the situation? Who’s firing the rockets? And why can’t Hamas stop them?
KHALIL: Well, I think there’s two different things there. There are several different groups firing rockets, including some groups that are opposed to Hamas, which quite frankly want to embarrass Hamas, and that includes Fatah. But I think one of the things that really puts the Israelis kind of at a disadvantage in this argument, although they have a lot of support from the US, is that there’s no rocket fire coming from the West Bank, and yet the occupation of the West Bank not only continues, but over the past several weeks has been heightened. And so we’ve seen almost daily military incursions into the West Bank, various assassinations and arrests of Palestinians, virtually the same thing you’re seeing in Gaza, but without the full siege. So the rocket fire has been, actually, a convenient excuse for the Israelis to impose this tight siege, and with the backing of the US they’re able to get away with it.
JAY: It certainly does strengthen Israel’s justification for what’s happening in Gaza. But it still begs the question: Why can’t Hamas stop it?
KHALIL: Well, I don’t represent Hamas; I’m not a spokesman for Hamas. I think it’s virtually impossible, the situation you have on the ground in Gaza. These rockets are fairly portable; they’re easy to fire off. And, again, if you have groups that are opposed to Hamas and want to embarrass Hamas, it becomes very difficult to put a stop to it. But I think what’s more important is that although rockets are being fired, far more deaths have been caused due to Israeli incursions and Israeli attacks. In fact, in the past two weeks, what we’ve seen is over 40 Palestinians were killed. This was during Bush’s trip to the region. Over 40 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military attacks. Nearly half of them were civilians. And more importantly, under international law, collective punishment, which this siege does represent, is illegal. And this is quite frankly collective punishment of 1.5 million Palestinians due to the acts of a few individuals, which no doubt is causing some discomfort to the Israelis. But this ends some problems for their southern border towns. But to starve an entire population of 1.5 million people, bringing them close to the point of complete devastation and humanitarian crisis, is beyond the pale. It’s beyond what international law calls for.
JAY: These explosions of the wall, the now free movement of residents of Gaza into Egypt, how has it changed the politics of the region?
KHALIL: Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a dramatic change. It still remains to be seen how this is going to play out, but one of the things that I think is very clear is that for the third time in almost 24 months, Hamas has managed to shock and embarrass the array of opponents it has, whether it be Israel and the United States or Jordan and Egypt, quite frankly. So what Hamas has essentially said now is that you can no longer threaten to starve our people. You can no longer threaten to isolate us and to push us to the sideline. We have to be dealt with, and we have to be dealt with as those who have been elected as the representatives of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian legislature in 2006, but also as one of the major Palestinian political-military parties. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority now under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want to negotiate with Hamas. He doesn’t want to have power-sharing with Hamas. Israel, of course, doesn’t want to negotiate with Hamas, and neither does the United States. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that they’re going to have no choice. They’re at least going to have to accommodate Hamas to some extent, and otherwise they risk being further and further embarrassed. Now, there’s also pressure on Hamas from this. The support for them was wavering under this sanctions and siege regime. Life was very difficult. I kept hearing over and over again from people I talked to how difficult life was, and they expected life to be even more difficult once this siege kicked back in. That being said, Hamas has to begin building on some of these political victories they’ve had and, of course, the destruction of this wall. Without it, then, it’s just another kind of blip; rather than being a major watershed moment, it’s another blip in kind of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
JAY: So is Israel going to try to hand responsibility for Gaza over to Egypt? And do they in some way then try to create a situation where there’s a kind of suzerainty of Egypt over Gaza, and in that way actually split Gaza from the rest of Palestine?
KHALIL: I think they would like to do that. Egypt won’t do it, and, quite frankly, Egypt can’t do it. Egypt has enough problems of its own, rather than taking on 1.5 million Palestinians, some, you know, 80 percent of whom are refugees. Fifty percent at this point are living under the United Nations poverty line, as well as they’re politically active. And Palestinians don’t want to be a part of Egypt. What Palestinians want is to have their own independent state. And, in fact, what they do want, like they want with everyone else, is to have, of course, a trading situation with Egypt. You know, Egypt could be a major trading partner. They want to have open access to Egypt just like every other Arab country does. And if you had carried a passport from one of the members of the Arab League, you have open and equal access into any of the Arab countries. The Palestinians want that as well. Unfortunately, they don’t have it now, because they don’t have a country. So, no, don’t want to be part of Egypt. Of course, the Israelis would like to pass this off onto anybody else if they can, but that’s not going to happen.
JAY: And what happens to the wall? I mean, it’s hard to imagine that the Egyptian government can rebuild the wall from their side, and the Palestinians and much of the world have called Gaza a kind of prison, how the Egyptian government can’t be seen to be putting back up a prison wall.
KHALIL: That wall’s not coming back up. Without a massive use of force either by Egypt or Israel, that wall’s not going to come back up. It is an immense structure that on either side is a no-man’s land. On the one side, what you had was over 3,000 Palestinian homes were demolished to make way for this wall. And what it created was this virtual moonscape of destroyed houses that is almost unimaginable, the human cost of that and the lives that were destroyed in the destruction of those homes. The wall was created by Israel in preparation for what it called its withdrawal from Gaza. But it’s important to remember that the withdrawal was really more redeployment. They continued to control from all sides the border and any access points into Gaza, whether it be from the sea or the three major border-crossing points, as well as air control over Gaza. So the analogy to it being a kind of this large, open-air prison is an apt one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even come close to describing daily life in Gaza for most Palestinians, the kind of horrors and humiliation that are inflicted upon them. So now the question is: What are the controls that can be put in place between Egypt, the Hamas government, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and the Israelis? And will there be four-way talks? Or will there be three-way talks, and then Egypt and the PA talking to Israel to reassert control? But my guess is that wall’s not going to go back up.
Watch Part Two
Crossing into Gaza
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