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Eyes Wide Shut

05.07.2001 | MEDIA

North of the West Bank city of Ramallah lies the Balou Junction, where the seam of Area A, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, meets the border of Area C, under the control of an Israeli occupational force. On any given Friday after noon-day prayers, the scenes that play out at this junction become what the media calls 'coverage of the Palestinian Intifada'. In real time Technicolor, showers of rocks and bullets and the noxious smoke of burning tires are captured by a gallery of safely positioned cameramen with bulbous helmets and fluorescent vests. The footage is then beamed all over the world, accompanied by a litany of well-trod media epithets: "armed clashes", "more violence" and "the clamping of closure on the West Bank and Gaza," all of which service the construction of (mis)understanding.

The media paradigms of the Palestinian Intifada begin to break down when you retreat from the world of CNN, and enter the zones where Israeli repression is felt most acutely. While Bethlehem and Ramallah can feed the West's appetite for Intifada imagery, it is the neighboring villages that suffer immeasurably more hardship.

These villages are highly susceptible to Israel's "closure" policies, which have been severely tightened during the Intifada. Residents here are unable to reach their land, harvest their crops or bring goods to markets. They are the traditional victims of Israeli settler attacks and land confiscation. But few journalists venture to see them, the residents of places named El Khader, Husan, and Nahaleen. Nor do they go to Beit Rima, Ras Karkar or Bir Zeit--where two weeks before my visit a Palestinian woman gave birth in a taxi at the third of four checkpoints on her way to the hospital. Most journalists prefer the photo arcades of Bethlehem and Ramallah, where 'the boys give them what they want' and at day's end a Scotch on the rocks is always waiting at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. While they drink, the horrors of this Intifada go unrecorded and unwitnessed by much of the world.

Khan Yunis is not Beit Jala

The poor international coverage of the Palestinian Intifada is best illustrated by comparing the West Bank, often saturated with media attention, to the Gaza Strip, its stunted and ugly brother who is largely ignored. Even the 'John Waynes' of journalism who do make their way to Gaza tend to not stray far from Gaza City, or from the kitsch-comfort confines of the beachfront hotels that the Palestinian Authority has put there. These reporters, though intrepid when compared to their colleagues, still miss the story, for the hardships incurred by Israeli measures are felt in the peripheries of the Gaza Strip, where the wrath of Israeli settler and military oppression knows no bounds.

Six months into this Intifada, it is the southern cities and refugee camps of Rafah and Khan Yunis that are the undisputed epicenters of resistance activity and Israeli repression, and yet the world hears scarcely a thing about them. The war-torn streets of these cities are reminiscent of Beirut, 1982, but the few reporters who come to Gaza tend to ignore them and focus instead on scenic, middle-class and Christian Beit Jala. Although intermittent gun battles have taken place in Beit Jala, one has to wonder, on balance, what the newsmen are thinking. Twenty Israeli tanks have been known to shell Rafah and Khan Yunis for hours on end, and by most any standards this is the more impressive story.

There was a brief period when it seemed things might change. The media raised its eyebrows when reports came out of Khan Yunis describing a mysterious nerve gas that Israel was using to shell the city, and which caused violent epileptic-style convulsions in those who inhaled it. In what was assumed to be its trial usage, it put 120 people in the hospital and bedeviled medical personnel who didn't know how to treat its symptoms. But Israel quickly picked up the warning signal, briefly halted its use of the substance, and was blessed in following days by an earthquake in El Salvador, under whose rubble any media interest in Middle East nerve gas was quickly buried.

Khan Yunis suffers its silent torment for reasons beyond Israel's skillful sensitivity to the media eye, however. The media eye doesn't report on what it can't see, and Khan Yunis is inaccessible to many journalists, and in fact to a good number of its own residents, who find themselves caught outside of the city when Israel 'clamps a tight closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.' In the span of a soundbite, Khan Yunis can be sealed off from the rest of the Gaza Strip, even as the Gaza Strip is sealed off from the world. Gaza's closure is horrifyingly thorough. It is not uncommon for sick or injured Palestinians to be sent to neighboring Arab countries for medical treatment. If they die during closure, not even their bodies are given permission to re-enter Gaza. The corpses pile up at the Egyptian border, which has no refrigeration, and start to decompose in the sun.

The ease with which the Israelis can shut down Gaza is owed in large part to the matrix of Jewish settlements located along the strip's single major road. These settlements essentially dismember the area, and project Israeli influence into it. As a result of their presence, the tiny Gaza Strip has been divided into four distinct cantons. The 'isolated settlements' of Netzarim (North), Kfar Darom (Central) and Morag (South) are strategically located along Gaza's single road (Salah el Din Road) which spans the length of the strip. The settlements act as a guise behind which a formidable Israeli military presence abruptly cuts the human and vehicular flow along Gaza central spinal chord, effectively crippling it. The only camera crew that was able to reach Khan Yunis during the recent battles were from a local Palestinian studio who related their story of how they were able to film the city:

"We took a car from Gaza City along the coastal road. The ride to Khan Yunis normally takes about 35 minutes though we knew it would take longer because of the closure. When we got to the Netzarim junction, two Israeli army tanks were stationed next to the road, which had just been chewed up by a bulldozer making it impassable. The taxi driver let us out, and like the other travelers going south who knew the procedure, we started walking towards the shore so we could pass along the beach, our camera equipment in hand. Those with donkey-drawn carts carve tracks in the sand helping the old and the women pass. Suddenly the tanks started shooting at us with mounted machine guns. We got low and crawled along the shore for 4 hours. We then got to the main road and hailed a car, which took us into Khan Yunis. All the video footage that you see on this town was filmed by us, though there is so much more that we missed..."

Israel tightens and loosens its grip along the central corridor road depending on the volatility and location of resistance activity. Nowadays, the Kissufim junction, just past the Kfar Darom settlement (which separates Gaza's mid-section from Khan Yunis in the South) is the sight of the most harrowing asphyxiation. The Kissufim junction is no more than 500 meters in length and is used by settlers from Kfar Darom. It is split down the middle by concrete blocks, with the left side for Jewish settlers, and the right for Palestinians. Three Israeli military positions straddle the ends and middle of the road, and mounted video cameras survey the surrounding terrain--once lush with orchards and crops, now a bulldozed wasteland, the harvest of the Intifada. Before the uprising broke out, Israel made a rule that Palestinians could not travel this section of road alone, owing to the possibility of suicide attacks. This spawned a morbid cottage industry among local boys dubbed the awlad al shekel ("the boys of the shekel"), who made a living hiring themselves out to single drivers who needed a second body to avoid being shot at. Now you are considered lucky if you can make it across the junction at all, as the trickle of cars allowed to pass can be as little as 10 an hour--when the 'closure is loosened'. Palestinians are not even allowed to walk across the junction, a fact I needed no reminder of on the day I tried to visit, since a 15-year old boy from a nearby farm had been gunned down the day before.

When I tried my luck getting to Khan Yunis, a four-kilometer line of Palestinian vehicles was waiting at the junction at a complete standstill. Most of the cars were taxis trying to get themselves and their passengers to Khan Yunis. The trucks carried chicken feed, flour and oranges. While I watched a convoy from the United Nations World Food Program, which has now become active distributing food in the area, was turned back. Women with sweating babies sweltered in the noonday sun. At the forefront, two soldiers with binoculars sat atop an Israeli tank and looked nervously down the line of cars. When they decided to let traffic pass, they fired shots in the air: one to begin, another to stop.

The Wild Wild South

The volatility and consequent repression of Khan Yunis (and Rafah) predate the Intifida, although the factors that have contributed to the volatility have also helped make this area the hotbed of new Palestinian unrest. The first factor is geography. Khan Yunis and Rafah lie very close to both the Egyptian border and the sea, and this has always made Israel leery. The Israelis are particularly sensitive to the contraband that is regularly smuggled in, be it cigarettes, drugs or--most importantly--weapons and ammunition. It was this concern that led Israel to build the Gush Katif settlement block, 11 individual settlements that sprawl across the southern border and extend 17 kilometers up the coast. These settlements not only interdict the flow of contraband, but also siphon away a majority of the water from Gaza's sweet coastal aquifer, which if left unmolested would sustain much of the region's agriculture.

This heavyhanded Israeli presence is compounded by Khan Yunis' fragmented relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Because of its rural location, Khan Yunis has only a peripheral status vis-a vis the metropole in Gaza City, which is the PA's economic and political power center in the Gaza Strip. The municipal affairs and security services of the periphery are largely given to local leaders and residents who serve in PA affiliated jobs, but these leaders feel little allegiance to the center, since most PA development projects in Gaza have gone into developing the metropole and ignored the periphery. Add to this the fact that many residents of Khan Yunis (both the town and the camp) are refugees of the '48 war, and you have the seeds of serious discontent. A large number of the locals originate from the villages in the northern Negev and from the coastal strip between Gaza and Ramleh. Both the Khan Yunis and Rafah refugee camps are massive in size (60,000 and 87,000 residents respectively) and were some of the most active camps in the 1987 Intifada. 17.6 percent of Khan Yunis refugee camp residents were injured during the first uprising, and the Rafah Refugee Camp has the highest percentage (5) of people injured by live ammunition in the entire Occupied Territories. These camps are also among the poorest communities of refugees in the Gaza Strip. In the media, the crisis in the Middle East is often portrayed as a struggle between Israel and the PA. The unwritten, but not unsurprising, story of this Intifada is that the refugees--divorced from both governments, living in poverty and repression, and with a history of military and political agitation--continue to be the fuel of the Palestinian resistance.

Khan Yunis the Battlefield: The Occupation Unmasked

The western front of the Khan Yunis refugee camp juts out in a semi-circle, but is cupped in by the border of the Israeli Gush Katif Settlement Blok. The sheer proximity of this settlement has generated considerable friction and violence. Border neighborhoods named Tuffah Gate, Amal neighborhood, the Austrian quarter and 'Arayshiyeh have become battlegrounds of the new Intifada. Tuffah Gate, which is elevated, looks down into the Neve Dekalim settlement within the Gush Katif block, and for this reason it has become a favorite outpost of Palestinian snipers. The Israelis have responded by placing no less than 15 tanks in the area on raised sand platforms, their guns trained directly into the Khan Yunis camp. Residents on the outskirts of Tuffah Gate open their windows each the morning to see heavy machine guns and army tank nozzles only 150 meters away. Of course, not many residents wake up and open their windows each morning: every day at dusk the Israeli weapons come to life, and the routine shelling has turned these neighborhoods into ghost towns. Local residents flee by nightfall to the houses of relatives and friends who live deeper inside the camp. They return each morning to see if their homes have been destroyed.

It is not enough to say that Israel shells Khan Yunis. The Israeli army uses heavy automatic machine guns (locally known as the 500 and 800) whose shells, when fired at such close range, easily pierce the shabby asbestos and cheap concrete of the refugee homes, most of which were built in the late 1950s by the United Nations Relief and Works Association. The guns' inflammatory tracer ammunition causes fires to break out once the shelling begins; in one instance, 30 different houses were set ablaze in a single night. Five months of bombardment have ensured that not one window or water tank in the neighborhood has escaped intact. Additionally, shells lobbed into the camp from tanks in Gush Katif, and from navy vessels posted at sea, volley shells that detonate and send hundreds of shards of shrapnel in every direction, capable of maiming or killing all those within a 30 meter radius.

These measures alone, however, have not alleviated Israel's security anxiety. To overcome the disadvantage posed by Khan Yunis's elevation, the army has recently begun using a robotic-crane arm that extends up to a position overlooking the alleyways of the camp. At the end of its full extension is an armored stronghold, within which three Israeli soldiers equipped with heavy artillery fire upon the camp. To cut off the resistance, Israel has also begun construction of a huge 5 meter high sand embankment around the periphery of the settlement, which together with an electric fence will separate Khan Yunis from the northern areas of the Gaza Strip.

But there is evidence that even this will not satisfy the army. On at least two different occasions, not content to isolate Khan Yunis, the army has tried to penetrate it, via a frontal assault through the Tuffah Gate. Had these efforts been successful, the army could have plunged into the heart of PA-controlled Area A. The attacks sputtered, however: though Israel was successful in demolishing several buildings, the popular resistance, fuelled by open calls on all the city's mosque amplifiers to 'defend the city', each time drove back the assault.

Al Muwasi Concentration Camp: Deir Yassin Revisited

For all its suffering, the western front is not the most beleaguered area of Khan Yunis. That honor belongs to Al Muwasi (Arabic for "low-wet lands"), a part of Khan Yunis that extends along the coast for 12 kilometers and is at most a kilometer wide. The 12,000 Palestinian residents of Al Muwasi are an island, completely surrounded by the Gush Katif settlement block. They are as such residents of a "Yellow zone," and beneath Israeli security control (Area C of the West Bank is in a similar situation). In some ways, this makes Al Muwasi a concentration camp within a concentration camp.

For five months the residents of Al Muwasi have been completely shut off from the outside world. No cars or carts have been allowed to enter or exit. Residents must show special identification if they are to enter or leave, and they are only allowed to bring in what they can carry in their two hands. Aside from this blanket rule, other strict limitations are placed on the amount of products brought in. There are as a result severe shortages of basic commodities, including foodstuffs and petrol--which farmers rely upon to power their irrigation systems and to provide electricity to their homes (Israel does not provide them with electricity). Over 6000 dunams of agricultural lands have been razed. Non-Muwasi residents are unable to enter the area; since most educational and health professionals are outsiders, this has crippled local schools and medical services. Should someone die in al Muwasi, the family must seek special permission to take the body out to be buried in the main cemetery of Khan Yunis.

For obvious reasons, there is no popular resistance in Al Muwasi, but its exposure to soldiers and settlers often forces the camp to suffer the retributive costs of the Intifada. On January 15th, after a settler from Gush Katif was kidnapped and killed by resistance forces in Khan Yunis (none of whom were from Al Muwasi), 150 settlers went on a rampage through the camp, burning greenhouses, firing into homes, and destroying property--all while Israeli soldiers looked on impassively. In another incident on January 27th settlers from Kfar Yam torched four beach chalets after looting furniture. A 65-year old man from Muwasi made the comment that "what's happening in Muwasi now, historically can almost be compared to what happened at Deir Yassin". That is a reference laden with significant emotional and political encumbrance: Deir Yassin was a village overrun by Jewish militia in April, 1948. Over 100 civilians were massacred in the attack, and no arrests or prosecutions took place. From tragedy it became myth and a rallying cry, and it has inspired multiple generations of Palestinian resistance efforts.

On January 18th, a leaflet issued by the settlers of Gush Katif was circulated around Al Muwasi and read in broken Arabic: "Arabs of Muwasi, beware of the Jews and clear out to Khan Yunis [the city]." The meaning of this was made clear on February 9th, when the Israeli Directorate of Governmental Properties ordered 20 families to evacuate their homes, informing them in the process that their houses were slated to be destroyed. Residents were given two days to leave or they would be forcibly removed. The blunt manner in which these orders were given attracted the attention of human rights groups (including Israeli NGOs) who blew the whistle and forced the government to back down. After the protest abated, however, Israel proceeded nevertheless, and demolished seven of the twenty houses in two weeks. It was made clear that more demolitions could be expected in the future. The residents of Muwasi have made repeated appeals to the international community, the Red Cross, and human rights organizations to protect them from the practices of the Israeli army and settlers, but all to no avail. Israel jealously guards its hegemony here. When the UN-led International Investigative Committee for Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Territories visited Khan Yunis on February 13th, it came under Israeli military fire. Five people were injured, and the delegation made a hasty retreat.

Anatomy of Sociocide: The Dissection of Gaza

Today media pundits in Israel argue over whether the army should re-enter areas occupied by the Palestinian Authority (Area A) in order to 'snuff out the violence.' In reality, however, Israel has already reinvaded. Even before the Intifada broke out, Israel had built six military outposts in the area, and done so without the slightest peep from the international media. These outposts have been complemented by the addition of countless other military positions and army tanks (mobile military positions) spread throughout Area A once the Intifada began.

Together with the matrix of settlements that crisscross Gaza, these measures constitute a social invasion of Palestinian territory. Virtually every sector in Gaza's political, social and economic life has been pushed to the brink of collapse. The medical sector has reported 100 attacks against medical staff, 53 ambulances have been shot up, and 71 medical officers have been injured in the line of duty. In Khan Yunis specifically, approximately 14,000 university students have been unable to continue their studies, even though the Ministry of Higher Education has implemented an emergency plan aimed at alleviating the educational crisis caused by the closure.

The economy, not surprisingly, has collapsed. Workers trying to get out of the city to go to their jobs in Gaza City are fired upon. Hundreds of civil servants are stranded because they can't get out, or they can't get in and are forced to make ad hoc arrangements to work in ministerial branch offices wherever they end up. UNRWA has begun to distribute emergency relief handouts to all those who need it, albeit in extremely limited quantities. Thousands of dunams of farmland have been razed, and farmers whose crops survive the razing cannot transport their produce to markets in other parts of the Gaza Strip. The crops either rot in trucks, or get sold at a loss at local markets already saturated with the same produce (Ten kilos of oranges are being sold for three shekels, or 75 cents U.S.). In the Qarara section alone, on the Northern fringes of Khan Yunis, 5000 guava, olive and palm trees have been uprooted, and 30 wells, two water cisterns and 50 greenhouses have been destroyed.

Rafah has suffered a similar fate: 784 houses have been damaged by shelling, 132 of which have been completely destroyed, 289 families have been made homeless, 600 dunums of cultivated land, 170 green houses, 13 poultry and cattle farms and nine wells have been razed in addition to 24,000 Palestinians who have been denied access to their places of work. Local community organizations are sponsoring seminars on how to tackle the mounting behavioral difficulties being experienced by children in the climate of violence, including disobedience, nightmares, violent outbursts and high levels of stress.

'Feesh sulta': Living in the Vacuum

It is difficult to foresee the long-term effects of living under these conditions, but already it has become apparent that the residents of Khan Yunis have lost faith in the region's political structures. "Feesh Sulta hown" ["There is no Palestinian Authority here"] a local resident declares, hands waving as though to brush the idea aside. "Fateh, Hamas, Jabha ["PFLP? OK."] Bess Feesh Sulta" ["But no PA"].

And it's true. The Palestinian Authority has operationally collapsed, or at best been severely paralyzed, in Khan Yunis and Rafah. It can no longer give protection or render the most basic services to the people who depend on it. This has severely damaged any credibility it might have retained among local residents before the Intifada broke out.

As the suffering continues, the signs of discontent have become more apparent. At the beginning of January, twenty uprooted families from Khan Yunis embarked on a long sit-in protest on Salah el Din Road, sheltered by four huge tents. They demanded that the PA act "more effectively to their ordeal and provide them with subsistence means on their lands, rather than suggesting relocation." In another example of popular dissatisfaction, when PA security Force 17 arrested youth from the Abu Nahia and Abu Shakra families in Khan Yunis camp after a local tiff, what should have been a routine procedure turned into a full fledged riot. Camp residents closed off the major city streets, erected barricades, lit tires, broke into the offices of the PA official newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadeeda, and held an armed procession throughout the city streets.

The political vacuum created by the absence of the PA is being filled by the self-named Popular Resistance Committees [PRC] (Lijan al Moqawama Al Sha'biyyeh), whose presence is felt throughout the Gaza Strip. This is this new Intifada's equivalent of the Unified Leadership of the Uprising [UNLU] (Quwwa al Wattaniyyeh Al Muwahhedeh), the organization that lived at the heart of the 1987 Intifada in Gaza. The resistance leadership is composed of all political factions, though Fateh primarily drives it--largely because it has the dominant arsenal of guns and ammunitions. But unlike the UNLU, Popular Resistance Committees almost exclusively serve a military guerrilla function, and lack any socio-political agenda beyond "the cleaning up of the Palestinian house" (tantheef al bayt al filasteeni). This, too, is telling, reflecting a new belief that the enemy is on both sides, not just in the Israelis but also in the inherent financial and political corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

This has led to the paradoxical relationship that now exists between the PA and the resistance committees. Rather than attempting to retain its credibility, or even to reassert its own control, the PA in Gaza now uses its economic strength to facilitate the popular resistance activities, and in this way maintain some degree of influence over them. Though the resistance committees are issuing directives and command loyalty, their Achilles heel is funding, and the difficulty of buying guns and especially ammunition. The market value for one Kalashnikov bullet varies from between 8 and 10 shekels ($2-2.5US). This is at least triple the price that existed before the Intifada. Similarly, other material used by the Popular Resistance Committees--including dynamite, other weapons and Houn shells (lobbed at Netzarim)--have seen their black-market prices soar. Given the sheer immensity of the armed confrontations that take place on a nightly basis in Gaza, it is obvious that the PA is still poised to exercise considerable power in the region, especially when one takes into account the poverty that most Resistance Committee leaders have come from, and how much worse that poverty has become since the Intifada began.

In other words, despite the PA's unpopularity, and despite the fact that discontent with the PA has helped fuel the current Intifada, the Intifada still depends on it. Because the prices of weapons are so high, Popular Resistance Committees would find it near to impossible to be able to pay for these materials without the PA's help. For all its independence of spirit, the Intifada could easily end if the PA were to decide it was no longer in its interest for the uprising to continue. The Authority, at that point, could simply turn off the tap.

The Search for Genuine Change

Unlike its 1987 predecessor, this Intifada broke out without adequate preparation, without a united and mobilized populace, and without clear goals. It has consequently evolved into a sheer military struggle, lacking the social and political agendas that characterized the first Intifada, and that galvanized wide swathes of the population. So far, the extent of Popular Resistance Committees' activities that have addressed a social transformation agenda in this Intifada, have been the targeting of Palestinian collaborators and the killing of the head of the Palestine Satellite Channel, Hisham Mikki, who symbolized PA corruption. This pales in comparison to the popular committees of the first Intifada, who emphasized self-reliance, democracy and community organizing. It was largely these elements, combined with the grassroots civil resistance nature of the first Intifada that had powerful reverberations on the international media and within Israeli society.

Khan Yunis has come to symbolize the culmination of contradictions and complexities of the current Intifada. It is on the one hand a testament to popular steadfastness and willingness to suffer unbearable conditions for an indefinite period of time, without even a minimum of international media coverage lending support to their cause. On the other hand, it symbolizes the depth of popular rage, built up through the reign of the 'peace process' and the collapse of a PA national strategy. The desperation that has emerged from within this vacuum has supplanted political and social agendas, and given rise to militarism alone. If the Intifada continues in its current form, we are likely to see this phenomenon spread to the West Bank. This is what the media cannot or will not fathom, and it is a scenario for which Israel, the PA and the international community are all woefully unprepared.

This article is greatly indebted to the hard work and dedication of the journalists who put together the Ramattan Daily news briefing on the Gaza Strip. For more information see

About the Author
Toufic Haddad is a freelance writer based in Ramallah, in the Occupied Territories. He also edits Between the Lines, an independant progressive english monthly covering the Palstinian/Israeli conflict.
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