From the Global Affairs Desk in North Beach
According to our man in Gaza
By Matt McFetridge
I’ve been in phone and e-mail contact with a correspondent who is one of the few western journalists to get into Gaza during January’s Israeli offensive. We did the interview on background for a less politically correct take on the war, so I’ll leave out the reporter’s name and the news organization.
First, some facts about Gaza:
• Occupied by Israel from Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967
• 25 miles long, and from 4 to 7.5 miles wide
• Population of approximately 1.5 million people
• The Palestinian Authority controlled the strip from 1994–2007
• Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls sea access, border crossings and air space
• Hamas won elections in 2006, then in 2007 assumed full control after routing the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah fighters
• Fatah is both a political party that has its own armed troops in the Palestinian Authority’s PNA Forces
• Most human rights groups refer to Gaza as a prison for its residents, as they are not allowed to leave
• Hamas does not accept Israel’s existence and is considered a terrorist organization by the West
I caught up with my friend while he was covering the Israeli invasion from a hilltop in southern Israel near Sderot. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) does take journalists into combat, like embeds just as the U.S. military does and he was frustrated:
“I’m locked out of Gaza covering mosquito bites in southern Israel while a mammoth meat grinder devours Gazans by the truckload.” He didn’t care that our e-mails were most likely being monitored by the IDF. “Communication monitored? Probably. Anyway, yes, I am on professional terms with Hamas. They range from the obviously hardcore to the open-minded and fairly liberal … by and large pretty easy to deal with, and to tell the truth, unlike the corrupt bastards in Fatah and Ramallah [the unofficial capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank], they do have a code of morals, which is their greatest strength, which I do believe will ultimately enable them to be victorious, if not against the occupation, at least against Fatah.”
He called his front-row seat to war the “hill of shame” and saw a macabre reaction from some locals during Gaza’s bombardment. “All these Israelis came to laugh and gloat over the slaughter in Gaza.”
I’ve worked in Israel, and at a 2003 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, before the corpses were cold, spin doctors from the Israeli government were on scene doing “interviews,” which are really government talking points. The hill of shame had become “a magnet for the IDF, police and Israeli Foreign Ministry,” according to our man in Gaza.
Although he does consider the Israeli spinners straightforward and just doing their jobs, he hates duplicity as any journalist worth his salt does. Referring to Middle East expert and Princeton-educated author Michael Oren (Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Oxford, 2002), he said: “I saw him on the hill of shame in an IDF uniform with an M16 slung across his hip. He’s a reservist in the Israeli Army brought back into service as a spokesman. I’ve interviewed him several times in the last two years, because I thought he was an objective, fair and well-versed historian. I think Michael Oren is more disgusting than Israeli government spokespeople.” Objectivity goes out the window when one takes up arms and wears fatigues. To journalists, Michael Oren can’t have it both ways.
Our correspondent also has noticed a change of culture from news managers and co-workers stateside who rightly (and wrongly) have been accused of being pro-Israel in the past:
“People [his co-workers] are fed up with Israel and are saying ‘enough is enough.’ I spoke to someone on the desk who [is] aware [of] what is going on in Gaza and called the [Israeli] censorship shocking.”
With more than 1,300 Gazans, mostly civilians, dead and counting, the Israeli spin of the American media isn’t working like it once did.
I came into work here in the Marina one day and had a cryptic e-mail from my friend using my nickname during the 2003 Iraq invasion: “Fuoad, I’m in Gaza.” I e-mailed him back right away to call me. Journalists are a strange lot. I was both envious he was in Gaza, and I was not. Most normal humans would want to avoid being in war at all costs, but not us. I paced around the office cursing myself for not having his number. The phone eventually rang. The first thing I asked was how he got in. “Basically, I’ve given up on the Schlomos [the IDF] a long time ago.”
He and his team got into Gaza via Egypt after delicate negotiations with Egyptian authorities. At nightfall, they made it into Rafah, the border town with Egypt, which has seen heavy Israeli bombardment because of tunnels built to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt.
We were talking about the suits that run the news when we both heard a large bang. “Was that one close? Yeah, it was close, but I don’t know how close.”
My friend was getting weary of working in occupied Palestine and sounded genuinely happy to be in Gaza, although after the explosion, he said, “It’s going to be a rough one.” So far, he hadn’t seen much because of his nighttime arrival but continued, “It’s not like the width and length of Gaza has been carpet bombed.” The story was in Gaza City, where Israelis were engaged in urban combat with Hamas as well as continually pounding the city with naval and aerial bombardment. “Well, Fuoad, we have to get to Gaza City, and it’s been cut in half by the Zionist occupiers. Ambulances are only vehicles allowed into Gaza City, so we have to try to hitch a ride with one of them. Our worry is Schlomo might stop us and kidnap us and detain us for purposes of media attraction and then they’d take us back to our beloved homeland [Israel].”
The few journalists on the ground have it rough: “… the Reuters office came under fire in Gaza City today. Abu Dhabi TV was attacked last week. Even the Israeli government press office is saying enough is enough, and has been urging news organizations not to use IDF still pictures and video as a protest [of] these attacks.” Because the IDF bans journalists on operations, their video and stills are needed because it’s the only thing the world can use to tell the story in a stage-managed war.
The Israeli spin machine is showing some lack of cohesion.
He sounded tired, so I wanted to cut to the chase and get his thoughts on this war.
“The West and its local-lackey client, Israel, are saying, ‘we will destroy you.’ But short of murdering everybody, they [will] be unable to destroy Hamas.”
I asked why.
“Because you can’t destroy a grass roots movement. Hamas started on its own and saw this coming. They even have victory celebrations planned.”
When I asked if this war was like Lebanon in 2006, a proxy war between the U.S. (via proxy Israel) and Iran (via proxy Hezbollah), my friend replied: “The U.S. arms its client, the Israelis. Iran backs Hamas. But, the Iranian role is somewhat exaggerated. Hamas sent some Iranian-made missiles pulled out of nowhere and whacked the Israelis. But it was no big deal.”
What is this war all about, I asked.
“Well, Fouad, it’s about the Feb. 10th elections in Israel. This was all one big bloody election campaign for Israel for Feb. 10th elections. The campaign message to Hamas is ‘we will destroy you.’ And it’s a message to Hezbollah [in Lebanon]. We will kill all the women and the children and you’ll be ashamed of it. But, Hamas wins because Hamas will survive.”
Our man feels the failure of Israel in Lebanon in 2006 made Israeli hardliners say, “So lets take it out on the Palestinians and turn them into ground meat. It’s a great climax – we can [get] rid of our outdated cluster bombs and white phosphorous, so we can get new weapons from the U.S.” And reporters? “Israel saw what happened in Lebanon and they don’t want a repeat; they don’t want reporters on the ground covering the offensive. But, let’s make up for shame in Lebanon in 2006.”
After both sides claimed a ceasefire the day before President Obama was inaugurated, I spoke with our man in Gaza and caught him doing aftermath stories. “All of Gaza City has been blown to smithereens. While central Gaza [south of Gaza City] is OK, stores are open, there’s not much damage, and people are getting on with their lives.” But, he said, “… certain areas of Gaza City look like a tsunami hit it. House after house after house after house destroyed. After aerial or naval bombardment, the Israelis [ground forces] would then set explosive charges in homes to destroy them further, and just to make sure, they’d bulldoze the houses.” These same IDF ground troops would set up sniper positions in these destroyed homes. “There was gratuitous vandalism, racist graffiti, shot-up furniture, money and valuables were stolen, looting – it was terrible. Thousands and thousands of people were made homeless and then to have this indignity done.”
However, it was not as terrible as our man saw in Gaza City during the siege: “These are poor people who work hard for every piaster or shekel they can get, and the Israelis came and destroyed it all. I met a guy recently, an older man I met during last summer’s Israeli incursion, and at first we didn’t recognize each other. He was sobbing in the street, and this was during this incursion: helicopters flying overhead shooting missiles, street battles raging. … This man is dirt poor. His entire house was blown to smithereens, every brick broken, his stash of Jordanian dinars
stolen, every sheep dead, every donkey dead, his house utterly destroyed. … We finally recognized each other, and you know what he did, Fuoad? He offered me a cup of tea. He has nothing and offers me a cup of tea.”
Having worked in Gaza myself, it is amazing how these people can separate the people from the politics. Our man continued: “You’d think people would be angry. Their lives are destroyed with weapons given to Israel by the West. The first people we saw one morning gave us coffee. And all this destruction comes from weapons from the U.S. I’m utterly amazed at the willingness of these people to forgive foreigners and Westerners. Unbelievable.”
But, those were adults, and the young Gazans aren’t as magnanimous. “All the adults say the kids aren’t going to forget what happened here. If you think this current generation of Hamas rocket launchers [the Hamas soldiers who shoot rockets into southern Israel, the stated reason for the Israeli invasion] is bad, just wait until these kids grow up. They’re radicalized at a very young age.”
Although both sides are claiming victory, the streets of Gaza City provide our man with more questions than answers. “Why did they [the Israelis] do it? Why did they ruin this place? Hamas is still in control. Nothing had changed.”
Most military experts say Israel lost the war with Hezbollah, and few will call January’s battle
with Hamas a victory. But, as we found out on the hill of shame, experts like Michael Oren have
chosen sides and are tainted. Our man in Gaza is after the truth in a place where spin, deception and danger are king, and reporters aren’t welcome by the Israeli occupiers, but are appreciated by most Gazans (for now).
Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org