Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Finger in the Sky

Gaza City
February 4, 2006

It is an image that the west will have to get used to seeing, massed crowds holding Korans in the air with an index finger pointed to the sky, in a sea of green.

Hamas is here and they have one stated intention down here in Gaza. To take Islam to the rest of the world, and crush any resistance to their religion by whatever means necessary.

To label them as extremists is an understatement, they hate the label. Yet they preach it. Yesterday in Gaza City, Hamas took to the streets after Friday Prayers, no sooner had the mullah said the final prayer inside the mosques of the city than they started marching, the objective was not to celebrate democracy and there unlikely victory at the ballot box last week. But to protest against the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Danish newspapers last week and reprinted in the French newspaper “Ce Soir” this week.

What is fascinating in my line of work is actually watching news develop, in my first blog from Gaza this week I made a laughing reference to militants and this story, By Sunday Emabassies across the Middle east are being looted and set on fire, in the name of Allah the merciful.

The only question I was asked in the demonstration yesterday was whether I was from Denmark or France, and I was asked and repeatedly asked this question. If I had been, there is no doubt that the mob would of turned on me and either beaten the living hell out of me or kidnapped me.

The kidnap threat is a reality down here now, for the last four years covering the Intifada in Gaza and the West Bank, never has the personal threats been so high.

Up to now I used to feel comfortable down here, I used to go for a run in the morning along the beach road down to the checkpoint near Arafats compund and up through the Beach Refugee Camp. I could go for a walk in the city and go shopping in supermarkets and stores by myself. Now that is a distant memory.

Last night I was grabbed by the throat and a pink kid tried to take my phone whilst I waited for the elevator in the office building. The fact that I was bigger and did not want to give my phone up without a fight was probably the only thing that saved me. Lets say when the kid left I was praying that the bloody elevator would come down faster, it did not and for about three minutes I stood there virtually shitting myself. Thinking that kid is going to come back with friends, and I would be to put it bluntly fucked. I got upstairs and told the guys what happened and was asked do I still have my phone, they were busy preparing a live shot.

To add to the joy of being assigned here this week, some fools from the Islamic Jihad fired a home made Qassam rocket into Israel in the afternoon and injured people on a kibbutz. Retaliation was swift and forthcoming from the Israeli Army, just as dusk fell we started to hear the artillery shells being fired into the dead zones around Gaza.

All evening the air was punctuated by the booms of artillery across the city. You have no idea of what or where they are landing but the sound sucks the air for a second and the noise is like someone has slow slam closed a door. We just kept working, being under artillery fire in Gaza does not even make the news anymore, it is just life. The Palestinians fire a couple of homemade rockets out and the Israelis pound back with ultimate force into the Dead Zone.

It is time to get out of Gaza, I used to have good feelings about the place. Now it is sad to see it descend into anarchy and extremism. Where religion has become a poison that the chosen use to destroy the future. Where poverty and the grind of living in a virtual prison is turning the mob on its self. People with rose tinted glasses may ignore to see the streets, but then they did not stand amongst the crowd at the Hamas Rally yesterday to be questioned whether you come from Denmark or France. Ignorance is a disease down here that is fast becoming an epidemic.

The finger to the sky, signify’s One god and only One true god whilst the other hand holds aloft the Koran. The crowd in unison chant “Allah Ackbar” at the mullahs beck and call. The stated aim of their leadership has always been to eliminate all religions bare one and these people are in power now.

The world thought that the Taliban were ok to begin with, anything was better than the anarchy and warlords of post Soviet Afghanistan. Hamas have more in common with the Taliban than a lot of people are prepared to admit. Look at the women on the streets of Gaza, the Habiya is no longer rare but very common.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Man his Donkey and Groundhog Day

Gaza City
February 2nd 2006

Looking through the windscreen of the armored car, the vehicle in front of us carrying Associated Press had stopped and was seeking directions from a man on a donkey cart carrying tomatoes.

In true Middle East fashion there was a lot of hand waving and fingers pointing in all four directions. Shaking of heads and smiles all around.

It had started off as a quite morning late in the bureau down in Gaza, Breakfast had been as bad as ever, and been the same as the day before and the day before and the day before. Life down here is Groundhog Day, and for you trivial buffs, today is actually the Official Groundhog Day in the States.

Ibrahim, Mike and I had not even had a chance to grab a cup of coffee before Niall (our local Gaza Fixer) came running in and said

“ Quick Quick, A car has been blown up by the Israelis”

Now down here, you take those words seriously as many top leaders of Political Parties, including Hamas have been taken out by helicopters, literally driving to the mosque and bada bing, one flash and they are ash. It can be the scene of complete and total chaos with cars smoldering and sheer mayhem in the streets.

Collecting our kit together down the “Alram” lift, which has to be the most dingy slow and undesirable elevator in the entire Middle East.

We call it Alram because they mispelt “Alarm” on the buttons on the control board and somehow the lift has gained infamy as the “Alram lift”. If you are ever in Gaza, make sure you stop by and use it. I point of courtesy to fellow lift users make sure you light up a cigarette before getting in and smoke it throughout the whole journey. Its even better if you all smoke.

The lift only holds five people and has a single 40watt light bulb dangling down from the ceiling; it is not good to suffer from claustrophobia. The grinding noises you hear are part of the surround sound system to enhance the enjoyment of your ride.

A quick “ Yemeen, Yemeen and an a Alatool” and off through the traffic I drove, no doubt you are impressed by the fact that I understand traffic directions in Arabic let alone the fact that I drive down here in Gaza.

Down to the Beach Camp avoiding the great perils of driving down here “Small Children” not mention donkeys. It is not unusual to see small children under two years of age wandering the streets and lanes of Gaza being lead by an older sibling who is maybe three. We are not talking curbed roads and tree lined suburbs, but rough tracks with potholes, past the UN Food Distribution Centre and along the beach road.

The radio had now downgraded the initial report from an attack to a couple of injured carrying a rocket, and the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) had categorically denied any attacks had been carried out.

Like lemmings, the media starts to converge, the odd car becomes a couple traveling together then becomes four, I am following AP and MBC from Lebanon is behind and Abu Dhabi TV is behind them and so on. Past the five star Movenpick Hotel that is half built and the foundations for the Marriott that will never been completed. Why they ever started building defies logic.

You can only drive so far north from Gaza City before you enter the “Dead Zone” close to the border with Israel. Basically if you come anywhere near the border fence you are playing with death, because the Israeli soldiers in the watchtowers will just open fire.

The media convoy slows to a halt before a rise in the road, the latest information has the details that two gun men from Islamic Jihad had been carrying rockets into the area to fire into Israel and that one of the rockets had blown up injuring both of them.

Turning back around the media convoy went back and turned inland trying to find a safer road into where the accident had happened, down the dirt road came the man on a donkey carrying tomatoes. He stopped and told the Associated Press that there was nothing to see.

Being such a credible witness, the story was over. Why would anyone doubt a man on a donkey carrying tomatoes? We turned and headed back to the office, the only good thing about it all was that another hour had passed, or had it. After all it is Groundhog Day.