Thursday, 31 May 2007

It Is Happening Again

I thought it would happen again. In the lobby of Al-Deera hotel, a man working at the reception came in through the front door looking nervous.
“They just killed the leader of Hamas in Gaza.”
“When?”
“Just now.”
“Where? Where did the Israeli’s bomb.”
He paused just for a breath, “No, it wasn’t the Israelis. Palestinians…”

I thought it would happen again. The story was that Abu Hamza Abu Gaines was killed and taken to El-Shifa hospital, not far from the hotel. He said there were clashes there, but I still couldn’t hear anything.

I thought everything would start again, the killings and kidnappings and executions. The explosions and midnight gunfights.

But it was only a rumour. Abu Hamza hadn’t been killed, he was merely injured, and the injury itself happened outside El-Shifa’. That night passed quietly. The Palestinians had other things to worry about. The Israeli bombings continued.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A Tunnel and Two Chickens

Ahmed is a tunnel digger. He says he’s 19, but doesn’t look much older than 16. We walk with him through the wreckage of a demolished house in Rafah, within site of the Egyptian border, asking questions about his work. Unlike Abu Anfaq, he’s not afraid to admit what he really does:
“I bring in weapons for the resistance, to fight Israel. And to make money.”
But the occupation is over. Like Youssef Siam said, the weapons are now just arming Palestinians to kill other Palestinians.
“No, it’s not like that,” Ahmed maintains. “I don’t get involved in that. They’re fighting the Israelis.”
Like everyone else we’ve spoken to so far about the tunnels, he says he does it because there’s no other work available. It’s only partly true – the other reason is that there’s no other work available that can make you as much money as trading through the tunnels.
“I want a car, a nice house, to get married eventually…”

Later, he takes me to a tunnels he and his friends are working on. Their all 19, perhaps early 20’s. One of them carries a Kalashnikov, unloaded. He lets me hold it, and shows me how to cock the gun. I quickly give it back, admitting I’m not comfortable with guns. I’m also just trying to read these kids, to see if I can trust them with their offer to let me down into the tunnel to film.

I climb down the chute, four metres deep, gripping the walls with my hands and feet to lower myself down slowly. They pass the camera down carefully. Ahmed crouches down and slides into the tunnel’s opening, telling me to follow him. The opening is barely wide enough for me to fit through, and I have to scrape my elbows against the rough, sandy ground to hold the camera in front of me at the same time. It’s hot down there, I can hardly breath for the first five or six metres, the walls so close I can taste sand. Ahmed moves much more easily down here, scurrying in ahead of me like a rabbit. My knees are scraping against the floor, my head against the roof. My trousers fill with sand every time I brush against the tunnel’s roof.

At one point, still early on, I have to pause to ask myself if I can continue. Slowly, it becomes easier to breath as I get used to the staleness of the air. I’m already breathing heavily only a few minutes into the crawl, a combination of the physical effort and my own nerves.

Perhaps ten metres in, Ahmed points to the right, showing me a breathing hole used to allow fresh air into the tunnel. Then he asks if I want to go on.
“How much further is it?”
“It goes all the way to Egypt, but there’s just ahead where we can rest and turn around.
I decide not to go all the way to Egypt. Another five metres ahead, and the tunnel suddenly opens widely as it hits an underground spring. The kids call it the rest stop. They spend time here relaxing, sometimes having dinner.

Ahmed sits in complete darkness, but I’m filming with an infrared light. Every time I point the camera at his asked face, his eyes glow green. I scan the room, feeling only slightly more comfortable now that I have room to stand up straight. The truth is, I want to get out of there as fast as possible, but that means going back through the narrow tunnel.

It feels so vulnerable crawling through there. Anything could happen, and I would have no way to run. I imagine the tunnel filling with poisonous gas, the gas the Egyptian authorities throw down when they find smugglers under their border. I couldn’t even turn around. People sometimes die down here just from panic.

Half way back down the tunnel, and my muscles are in pain. I’m breathing more heavily now, as though exercising. My muscles aren’t used to this. Crawling is painful now, my knees and elbows scraping raw against the dirt. I can see the light ahead, but it’s still an effort, those last five metres. I emerge, looking up to see the others looking down at me. I’m covered in sand, under my clothes, filing my hair.
“how was in,” one of them asks.
“difficult…” I mumble.

Earlier, we went to buy two chickens for Ibrahim, the creepy man who welcomes guests into a tent amidst the row of destroyed houses that directly face the wall. He took us down into the opening of a disused tunnel, showed us around, told us the story of his brother who was killed by an Israeli sniper when he approached a house here suspected of holding a tunnel.

Ibrahim wants money, but Laila and Fida are certain he’s going to use it to buy cigarettes or drugs while his children run around barefoot, so we agree to barter. He wants a pair of trousers. Laila and Fida are afraid he could sell the trousers, so we suggest a chicken. He wants two chickens – fresh - so he gets in the car with us, driving around the market of Rafah until we find a man selling fresh chickens.

He slits their throats, drains the blood, boils the body, pulls out the feathers, and guts the two birds in a few brief minutes. All on the porch of his shop. From living chicken on my right to cleaned and gutted meals on my left. Ibrahim takes the bag, satisfied, and we drive him back to his house.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Preventative Security

Youssef Siam is head of preventative security in Gaza. A Fateh man, he hangs a picture of Arafat and Abu Mazen in his office, though he admits near the end of our interview, “I don’t even support the government.”

One of Siam’s responsibilities is to stop the illegal smuggling of weapons through the tunnels, passing under Gaza’s border with Egypt. But he admits he’s powerless against them. He mentions Alan Johnston, he knows who holds him, he says. But no one will mention the name of the Doghmosh clan, the infamous criminal family all but known to be holding the journalist in exchange for money, land and the release of a female prisoner in British custody. The Palestinian Authority knows exactly who holds him, but the clan is so powerful even the government can’t push them around.

“How can I provide security for the country when I can’t even provide security for myself,” Siam tells us. He has the features and build of a tough, but now powerless, man.
“I could step outside my house, and [he holds up his hands in the shape of a machine gun]. I spent ten years in prison for Palestine, before these gunmen were even born.”

I offer that maybe Israel is still to blame for the infighting here. The long arm of the occupation still controls Gaza’s borders and economy, even after the “official” occupation has ended.
“What occupation?” He asks in disbelief. “You think these people are fighting the Israelis? I’ll tell you what they’re fighting for,” and he points at the picture of Abu Mazen hanging on his wall.
“They’re fighting for ‘the chair’”, he uses a curios Arabic phrase, ‘the chair.’ It means the seat of power, but the insignificance of the word in Arabic does more to illustrate the futility of this fighting.

“what are they fighting over,” asked a shop owner last week at the height of the street clashes, “the garbage in the streets?” He was right. There’s little to command here, even if you do own the chair.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Believe in God


The helicopters are hovering closer tonight. The buzz of the drone is louder. Israel has been increasing the intensity of their bombings, but the proble is, they’re running out of targets. The other night, I spoke to Mahmoud who works in one of the money exchanges hit by Israeli missiles only 10 metres from my hotel room. It was, of course, part of a “Hamas funding network.” Maybe it was, but it was also someone’s business. Any one of a thousand money exchanges could be used to transfer money to Hamas without the owner ever even knowing.
“Why did they hit here?” I asked Mahmoud.
“Just to show us that they can,” he replied. It made perfect sense.

The owner of the shop, in that split second explosion, became another one of Gaza’s unemployed. One more person who might become a criminal because there’s no work. Maybe one more who turns to smuggling arms to make money. Arms that are later unleashed on Israel. Everything was coming full circle.

In the taxi to Rafah, Maher explains the problem. Many of Israel’s targets were circumstantial. We stopped at two large metal workshops, completely eviscerated in the early days of Israel’s bombing campaign. Israel says they were manufacturing weapons, but what does it take to become a “weapons manufacturing workshop”? Maher explains that fighters would buy an empty gas canister and turn it into a 50kg bomb, or pipes and turn them into mortars. Suddenly the gas canister supply store or the plumber’s shop becomes a “weapons manufacturing workshop,” and is shredded to pieces, surrounding houses and passers by also destroyed.

No one knew the truth, and no one was asking the right questions. Israel sticks to their official line, and few foreign agencies have anyone reporting from Gaza who can investigate. Yesterday, they hit a carpenter’s shop.

Israeli attacks weren’t the only thing bothering Maher. He was also remembering the Palestinian violence of last week.
“It wasn’t always like this,” he said with resignation. Five years ago, he sat with a friend and was shocked to hear he had a gun. That was under the Israeli occupation, and owning a gun could get you 20 years in prison. One day Israeli soldiers came to his friend’s house while Maher was there, but he managed to talk them away.
“I speak Hebrew well, so I talked to them, but I could have gone to prison for it.”
Now, men was the streets with RPG launchers slung over their shoulders and no says a word.

Many of the armed men are not fighters, but members of the private militias of criminal gangs. They often fought their own bloody street battles for personal vendettas or control over business. One of those gangs was still holding Alan Johnston.

Maher mentioned his brother.
”He’s dead now. He used to take drugs, cocaine. He cried when the Israelis left.”
Maher couldn’t understand why. Everyone was dancing in the streets the day the occupation ended, but his brother was crying.
“He knew,” Maher muttered, “he knew what was going to happen.”

Maher once fell in love with an Israeli girl when he worked as a driver for an Israeli bus company. He met a Polish girl in Tel Aviv and fell in love, he got along well with her father, and his own father was happy for them to marry if she would convert to Islam. But she refused. The last he saw of her was at her own wedding.

“I still think about her every once in a while,” he tells me. “I really loved here. I never slept with her, or even kissed her, because she was such a good girl. I really loved her.”

Maher used to make good money here, before all the borders were sealed and the boycott of the Hamas government crippled what was left of Gaza’s economy. He could make 500 Shekels a day renting out one of his cars. Now, he has to rent a taxi for 50 shekels a day, hoping to make enough in fares to support his family. On a bad day, when he makes less than 50 Shekels, he ays the difference from his pocket.

That night, I’m awake until 3:30. I hear the Adhan over the city, but tonight, the dissonance echoing makes it sounds sinister. I can say I believe in God. I can say I love him and he loves me, wants to protect me, want to keep me safe. I can say I believe in his message, and that he wants to people of the world to do good. But how can I believe he’s the same God watching over men as they slit each other’s throats?

Friday, 25 May 2007

Second Night

12:30. Another attack, even closer than last night. Two shops, side by side, gutted. Smoke spills from the room. The same curious crowds and angry shop keepers, forcing everyone back. This time, there was a secondary explosion. The first made me jump under my desk. The second shook the room so hard I thought my windows would break. The drone flashed, seconds after the explosion, taking pictures for tomorrow’s news.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Eye In The Sky

At night, I walk to the café next to my hotel for a sheesha. There is a football match on the giant screen in the back, AC Milan vs Liverpool. I’m still trying to relax in Gaza, but it’s not any easier. At least the crowd of men, drinking coffee and sucking on their sheesha pipes, makes me feel a little safer, like perhaps ordinary life really is returning once again to the city. But above the sound of the match, the sound of Israeli drones is getting louder. Her motor increases in pitch as she dives in for a better view. She’s looking for something. Soon after, the sound of a helicopter gunship churning the air above us. I remember what Laila told me – if you can hear the engine above you, it means the gunship will fire on a target around 500m away. I can’t tell how close it is now.

The match ends, AC Milan 2 – Liverpool 1. The men in the café yell to each other, some cheering, others moping. I can still hear the helicopter above us, and I decide to head back to my hotel as quickly as possible.

At 11:45, there is that familiar sound. I heard it only a few days ago when a gunship fired on the tree outside my hotel. It was louder this time, a fierce hissing, getting quickly louder. I braced myself, knowing what was coming. The explosion rattled the windows of my room. Looking out the window, smoke rose from a hundred or so metres down my street.


My feet crunched over broken glass as I walked closer to the site. I passed a couple of boys, meeting their friends walking the other way. “I told you not to come. There’s nothing, go back…” He means no one was killed. There’s no blood to look at.

The missile hit a money exchanger. Two men in Jalabiyahs are getting annoyed at the crowed gathering outside the shop – a few journalists, but mostly just curious neighbours. One man is yelling, waving his hands furiously. “Go away! Leave us! There’s nothing here! Leave us!” The blast threw the shop’s metal shutters over 30 metres away. All the shops surrounding the exchange were also destroyed, and shopkeepers walk down from their apartments to inspect the damage.



Before long, a car pulls up and everyone stops to watch an older man, walking with a cane, stepping slowly out of the passenger seat. He’s the shop’s owner. The two older men take his hand, kiss him on the cheeks, and offer their hope that God protects him.

A fat man with a goatee approaches me, asking how I can film with such little light. His name is Mahmoud, he’s a colleague of the owner of the exchange, and he tells me he, too, was once a journalist in the West Bank for a while.
“Why was this exchange hit?”
“Just to give us a signal. To let us know they can do it.” I’m not convinced.
“But why this exchange in particular.”
“I don’t know. Maybe one of his clients…” and his voice trailed off. I understood what he meant.
“Take care,” Mahmoud says to me as we shake hands goodbye.

On my way back to the hotel, I hear the crackle of a walkie-talkie. A boy is holding a receiver in his hand, standing in the shadow far from the crowd of attention seekers. The voices over the radio are discussing the attack.
“Who is that?”
“That’s the frequency of the Qassam Brigades. I can get Al-Aqsa Brigades as well, wait…” and he retunes the receiver, but there’s no sound.
“Oh, they’re quiet now.”
“What are they saying about the attack?”
“Maybe they were transferring money to Hamas.”
There it was. The Israelis would probably say, if they admitted to this strike at all, that it was transferring money to “terrorists.”



Four hours later, I jolt out of bed to the same sound. This time, the explosion is even closer. Another money exchange. The same scene. Shattered glass scattered across four lanes of road. Men struggling to pull the wreckage apart, to see what’s left in the house. Others yelling at the crowd to leave them alone. Firemen survey the explosion, taking notes and cutting electrical wires. On the ground, blown off the wall of the house, I find the house number: 150/200.

Monday, 21 May 2007

The Playground

The farmland on the drive leading to Rafah is so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine a few days ago there were roadblocks here, masked gunmen checking cars, eyeing passengers suspiciously. Usually, they would see Laila in the car, a young mother, and wave us through. We would ask Maher, our taxi driver, which gang they belonged to, and he seemed to always have the answer.
“Those are Presidential Guards.”
“How do you know?”
“They have numbers on their guns. Only Presidential Guards numbers their weapons.”
Presidential Guards, a unit of Fateh, the men British media was so naively calling Fateh “Security Forces” battling “Hamas militants.” Funded and armed by the US, these are the forces the UK and US lauded as the legitimate force in Gaza, a force for good. New best friends. Here they were, masked, manning impromptu checkpoints, dragging bearded men from their cars and shooting them. The truth is, both Hamas and Fateh have become thugs, armed gangs obsessed by revenge and battling for control over the streets of Gaza.

Now, on this morning, the road is clear. As quickly as the violence had flared, the gangs retreated (for now) and the roads were safe (for now). I opened the window and felt the sea breeze through my fingers.

We met Fida near her house, this woman so strong and resilient, a symbol of the real Palestinian resistance. The kind of resistance that saw her house bulldozed, lost everything, saw young Mohammad 9 years old shot through the head for crossing the street. She walked into the street after him, the Israeli sniper tower only 5 metres behind her, looking over the houses of Rafah. She could see her family, they were yelling to her
“don’t do it Fida! Don’t move! They’ll kill you! They were saying. But I didn’t hear them. I only heard Mohammad.”

She carried him to the ambulance waiting 50 metres further along the border. But Mohammad died.

Fida brings us to one of the locations being considered for her playground. The first and only playground in Rafah. She points to piles of rubble, concrete blocks and twisted metal.
“There we’ll have the visitor’s centre, the mosque, here’s the playground with the swings, the slides, volleyball and basketball.”

Children flock around us as we’re filming. We do our best to keep them quiet, but their yells and shrieks fill my headphones. They all want to be filmed, they all want to jump in front of the camera.

Later we visit several other playgrounds in Rafah, now destroyed, they’re just rusting carcasses of carousels and climbing frames. The children still flock there, even though there’s nothing left.

On the drive back, Maher points to a roadblock, still standing but abandoned, leading into Khan Younis. “This is where we were held up the other night, remember?” He asks. That night, after we thought all the troubles were over, we were late getting home. It was dark on this road, and two kids approached us on a bicycle as we slowed down to stop.
“Don’t drive, they’ll shoot you…” they warned. Maher kept driving, slowly, to see what was ahead. Laila tried to get Yousuf to lower his head. Her mother started praying.

Eventually we saw them, another gang, armed and wearing masks as usual. Maher stopped 30 metres from the checkpoint. He opened the door and leaned out.
“We have women and a child!” He yelled, “We just want to get home!”
“You’ll be shot!” was the reply.
“We have a kid,” he repeated, “we just want to go home!”
“You’ll be shot…”

He turned back and drove the long way instead.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

The Beach



We can’t stand to be locked up inside anymore. Youssuf, Laila’s son, is going crazy. He’s restless and frustrated. We get in the car, and head to the beach.

There’s a thin haze over everything, the air is moist and sand sticks to everything. Spray covers my glasses and camera lens. I walk towards a family in the distance, sitting around a sheesha pipe, with their horse tied to a caravan. The beautiful animal bears its teeth and paces back and forth, still tied by rope to the caravan’s frame. Her owner holds her head and turns it towards my camera as I take a few pictures of the animal, his back silhouetted by the sun setting over the Mediterranean. Here, it seems you could stand on the beach and always be safe. Nothing could touch you. No bullets would reach here, no Israeli air strikes would target the beach. The water is choppy behind us, “the sea is big,” they say in Arabic.


Behind us, rows of brightly coloured plastic chairs are stacked on tables, flags snap in the wind. Yesterday was peaceful in the city, today too, but still no one is out. People are still afraid. Israeli attacks can distract Gazans for a while, but the gunmen are still roaming the streets. Roadblocks have been removed, it’s true, but the shopkeeper below my building tells Laila a gang came into his shop this morning, threatening to shoot him, and ordered him to shut his shop. But he stayed open.

Now the rules have changed again. Israel hits the house of Khalil El-Hayya, but he’s not home. 8 of his family are killed. Khalil is a Hamas’ lawyer, a member of Parliament, not a fighter. What Israel calls a “non-military target.” His non-military home and non-military family now lie shredded on the streets of Gaza City.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Ceasefire


The latest decent into violence in Gaza is more than just a broken cease-fire. There are signs of something more sinister. Checkpoints at which gunmen are checking ids. With the intensity of a civil war, the only difference being that the “country” is split along religious, rather than ethnic lines.

Gunfights are no longer isolated incidents, mere breaches of the cease-fire. They last into the night, through the afternoon, with heavy arms, mortars, and occasional Israeli gunships shelling of Eastern and Northern Gaza City.

I am told stories of abductions and executions.
“Tuesday just before Meghrib prayer between 5pm and 6pm. Me, as a neighbour, I was sitting in my home. I heard noises outside. I went to the 11th floor where this man was living. He’s our neighbour. I was stopped by armed gunmen. I told him ‘what are you doing?’ He told me ‘it’s not your business, just leave.’ I told him ‘speak quietly and tell me what’s happening to my neighbour.’
He told me ‘it’s not your business’ and pointed the weapon at me. His face was covered and his face was black.”

Five minutes later, Nahed El-Nimr was shot dead outside his building.
“I can’t believe the Palestinians are doing this to each other.”

I spoke to the man who saw his body. It was blocking the entrance to his supermarket, along with another unidentified body, which remained shut for two days.
“I couldn’t open my shop with two bodies and blood all over the floor…”

At the height of the conflict, in a state of virtual war, Hamas and Fatah laid siege to two residential towers in Western Gaza City. Hamas took up positions inside, occupying peoples’ flats and kicking the families out. Fatah fired RPG’s at the buildings, burning several apartments and scarring the building’s façade with small explosions. The residents were trapped, unable to evacuate as the battle raged on outside.

We reached Um Muntaser by telephone. She lives in Borj El-Saleh, a residential tower in the west of the city, and unidentified gunmen had taken over her building, burning residents’ cars and firing at ambulances attempting to reach the injured. Gunmen were moving from floor to floor searching each appartment.

“We have been living in our kitchen for the past two days,” explained the 42-year-old mother of seven, “11 or 12 apartments have been burned…there are snipers everywhere…we are human beings, what’s our fault in all this?”

The hospitals are running low. Dr. Juma’ Saqqa is head of Al-Shifa’ hospital, the strip’s busiest. Today they’ve received three dead bodies and ten injuries, all innocent bystanders.

“We’re working with what we have. We are working with great difficulties because of lack of drugs, medicines and medical supplies. We don’t have enough stock. It’s dangerous for our staff to move, bullets don’t distinguish.”

The details of the killings are bleeding into one. More Israeli air strikes today – a car, a school, a tree only fifty meters from my hotel. We gather around to see the damage, the assassinated tree, and another trail of smoke shoots over the wall towards us. Everyone panics and scatters, but no explosion follows. The executions continue. A journalist is kidnapped, Abd al-Salam Abu Ashkar, the Gaza bureau chief of Abu Dhabi TV, and released several hours later.

Israeli gunships circle the city, looking for more targets. Drones hover in the sky, watching. The sound of a jet approaching, cover your ears and hold your breath.

This is Free Palestine? What have we done to you, Filasteen? What have you done to us? I can’t bear to look out of the window and see you, hunching down below me, flames still smouldering, lulling me to sleep with the sound of gunfire.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Operation

The streets are even more dangerous today. Mohammad, on his way to Laila’s house to meet with us, was fired at by a Fatah gunmen in the street. Everything is in lockdown, and the gunman didn’t want anyone moving on the streets.

Mohammad explains that the controversy that started yesterday as we filmed the tunnel isn’t over. Our fixer, Mohammad, was visited last night by Hamas men, one in particular named Ahmed who asked us for our tape yesterday. He demanded to know how we had known what was about to happen in the house with the discovery of the tunnel. He tried to reassure them that we had nothing to do with him, we were working alone, but they didn’t believe him. They threatened Fida. They said it was “suspicious” that we knew exactly where and when the crowd would gather, and shots would be fired, on that house. But it was just luck.

Mohammad hurriedly calls his contact, the area commander of Hamas forces in the Northern Sector, to explain the situation. Mohammaed puts his phone on speaker and retells the story we’ve been through several times now.
After a brief explanation, he asks “So, is it solved?”
“God willing” he answers.

But there are more problems. The other contact Mohammad had established, a man who has made millions from trading through the tunnels, now refuses to meet with us after news of our mysterious appearance at the house yesterday reached him. Mohammad spoke to him, trying to reassure him that we could be trusted, but it was all over, the man assured us. He would never meet with us now that we were suspicious.

Moments later, Mohammad gets a call from the area commander. There’s a huge Fatah operation planned at the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold. All Hamas fighters have been ordered there, and ordered to bring whatever weapons they have. It’s said that Fatah will be bringing their tanks. In return, Hamas threatened to blow President Mahmoud Abbas’ house “off the face of the earth” if anything happened to their beloved university.

There are gunmen on top of the buildings. There are gunmen on corners, setting up ad hoc roadblocks, checking ids and searching vehicles. They’re stopping drivers with beards, checking to see who is associated with Hamas. It’s a bad sign, reminding me of descriptions of the Lebanese civil war, when gunmen would check id cards to see who was a Muslim, a Christian, a Palestinian, before deciding whether to kill you.

A shopkeeper around the corner describes how Fatah gunmen stormed through his neighbourhood not long ago, firing into the air and harassing him and others for no reason. Gunmen associated with Fatah have a reputation around here for being crazy – they’ll shoot at the slightest provocation.

As the call to prayer echoes over the empty streets at 4:20pm, I can hear exchanges of gunfire.

At night, Abu Ubaida - a field commander from Hama’s Qassam Brigades - speaks to Al-Quds television, Hamas’ own station. His voice is disguised, he’s wearing a mask. He says they fired several Qassam rockets into Israel to bring attention back to the occupation, away from the factional fighting in Gaza. The screen flashes endlessly repeated images of rockets launching into Sderot, Israeli ambulances racing from a house, its roofs partly destroyed.

In the distance, the sound of Israeli shells falling on Deir El Balah and Maghazi. Maybe also on Bait Lahya near the Israeli border. Helicopters are circling over the town.

It’s a surreal situation. I imagine gunmen fighting on a street level (I can still hear small arms) and then an Israeli air air attack. And Fatah and Hamas sitting on their corners wondering who the Israelis are going to bomb next. Tomorrow morning, they’re going to call it a Fatah-Israeli offensive.

Everything goes quiet for a few minutes. I watch the gunmen on the corner of my street as they sit down again, rest against their guns. A dog barks. Some men are seen walking, maybe trying to get home when they think the streets are safe. Then the crack of a gunshot, return fire, everything starts again. The gunmen on the corner stand up, grip their Kalashnikovs to their chests and press their backs against the wall, straining to look around the corner. The guns get heavier as the night goes on. The distant rumble of a bomb.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Tunnel

Rafah, near the Egyptian border. The Israelis built a wall here, too, along much of the Gaza-Egypt border. It split the town of Rafah in two. Now, partly out of necessity and partly out of greed, tunnels are regularly built between the two sides to smuggle everything from guns to heroin, cigarettes and even people.

Standing facing the wall, a cow’s skull, fixed on a spike, sways in the wind beside me. A small hut has been built directly in front of the wall and teenagers – many of them drug addicts, Fida explains – play billiards under the plastic roof. The shed, she believes, probably hides a tunnel, and the kids work there to get their fix. No one would suspect that it hides the entrance to a tunnel, this innocuous youth centre.

Across the street, a woman is screaming as a large crowd gathers around her. She’s pointing to her house.
“They want to destroy us! They don’t want a country, they want to destroy us for money, to buld a tower! All of this was destroyed because of them!” She motions to the rubble surrounding her. The entrance to a tunnel has just been discovered in ground floor of her house. Her neighbours, and entire row of houses, was already destroyed by Israeli authorities not long ago for the same reason.
“They’re not doing this for weapons for their country, they’re just doing this for money! They’re smuggling hashish and cocaine!” She’s screaming in despair at anyone who will listen to her.

Kids are banging on the door to the house, but the door remains closed. “If you go in,” a little boy says to the camera, “they’ll shoot you and shoot the camera”
Suddenly, there’s a surge as the door is opened from the inside, and dozens of people - mostly curious kids – rush in. They crowd around the entrance to tunnel, pointing, and throw a burning rag down there to light it up. Behind me, people outside begin demolishing the wall with sledge hammers. This is the point at which the neighbourhood turns against the tunnel builders, aware of the dangers, and the violence, the trade brings with it.

Everyone is yelling, some with excitement, some in anger. Outside, a group has gathered on the roof of the building. These are the ones responsible for building the tunnel A crowd on the ground looks up at them, confused, angry. One man on the ground grabs the microphone and tries to rip it out of the camera.
“You filmed my face! Move back! Film from far away!” I replace the microphone and move back to continue filming. Suddenly, while I’m looking at the crowd on the ground, shots are fired from the roof. The crowd scatters, we all hide in the building next door. No one is really sure where the shots are coming from, or who they’re firing at. They’re probably just firing in the air, to scare us all away.

Before long, just as the crowd is beginning to calm down, a new group of gunmen appears. They are Hamas’ Executive Force, the quasi-military, unofficla police force that locals call on to settle local disputes. They are seen by many as the “good guys”, the people you call when your car or mobile phone is stolen. They also tend to be more responsible with their weapons then Fatah’s Preventative Force, known for their eagerness to shoot when things get tense.

The Executive Force all wear masks, stomping around in camouflage and brandishing their Kalashnikovs, while the crowd on the ground argues amongst themselves. Without warning, shots ring out again. It seems like an exchange of fire between the men on the roof and the Executive Force, but it’s impossible to tell because we’ve all taken shelter, again, in the house next door. I’m on the second floor balcony, filming the forces on the ground. Beside me stands my director Laila.

While I’m concentrating on the scene below, a man comes up the stairs behind me and gets my attention. Laila and I turn to face him. His eyes foggy with rage, he demands the tape. I refuse, but he pulls the camera from my hands and tries to eject the tape. I struggle with the camera and try to reason with him when he pulls a gun from his belt and waves it in my face. I let go of the camera, but he keeps the gun in my face.
“Take it, take it,” I say, to reassure him, but he’s not thinking straight. He heads upstairs with the camera and the tape.

Before long, Fida realises the man who stole my camera is her cousin. We follow him for the next ten minutes, pleading with him to give the tape back. A few Hamas men on the ground are claiming I filmed the face of a wanted man – a man with a red beard - and they’re demanding the tape. (Looking back over the footage later, I realise there is no man with a red beard. The man they claim has been the target of two assassination attempts by Israel isn’t on the tape).

When we are eventually given the tape back, we hide it under the ashtray of our taxi. On our way out, however, we’re stopped by another man (the man who originally pulled the microphone from my camera) who, again, demands the tape. This time, through a combination of lies, blank tapes, and panicked phone calls to important contacts, we are allowed to leave, but with the warning “get out of the entire neighbourhood…”

The air is still thick with the haze of burning rubbish. Tonight, it mixes with the stench of burning rubber, a roadblock of tyres in flames built in protest by members of the Abu Aser family. Their son, a man from the Ezzeddin El-Qassam Brigades, was kidnapped by Hamas gunmen. Rifle fire cracks the air, but less often than last night.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Gaza

Erez has the longest no-man’s land I’ve ever seen. After passing Israeli security, you walk nearly a kilometre through a covered concrete tunnel, nothing but demolished houses and industrial buildings on either side. Reach the car park, and on the drive into town, there’s another kilometre or so of wasteland, shelled beyond all recognition, which no one dares return to.

On the road, visiting the hospital of Musa El-Hadad, our car is stopped by masked gunmen tied to Fatah’s armed Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. One of their men was killed this morning. In retaliation, they kidnapped several Hamas members.

The streets are deserted. No one dares relax on the sidewalk at night, or take their children out for ice-cream, as they normally would. There is the smell of burning plastic in a haze throughout the neighbourhood – local municipalities stopped collecting rubbish after going unpaid for so long, so locals burn piles of rubbish in the street. All I can see are silhouettes, lit by the fires, flitting past the door to my hotel.

Every few minutes, the sound of gunshots reverberates off the surrounding buildings. A random, paranoid exchange of fire, somewhere in the city. Then silence, the cool Mediterranean breeze. Then more gunshots. Two armed, masked men stand watch in front of my hotel, sitting on breeze blocks, talking to one another. They take little notice of the gunfire. Laila and her parents spoke of it as though it were just something that kept them up at night, like mosquitoes in their bedroom.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

His Own Private Yellow Gate


The last house in the Palestinian village of Masha belongs to a man named Hani Amer, his wife, and his six kids. Hani has become a symbol, through no choice of his own, for his refusal to leave his home. Ten metres behind him, the settlement of Elqana. Ten metres in front of him, the wall. And surrounding his house is a heavily secured military zone. Hani can, when the military allows him, pass through the small yellow gate that is his only access to the outside world.

Even then, he has nowhere to go. He has no job, his farm has been destroyed. He can’t go to the centre of Masha because he has no money. Even if he could, the centre of Masha is virtually dead since Israel moved the main road, a settler-only road, a few hundred metres away.

People talk about the wall as trapping Palestinians in a cage. In Hani’s case, it’s a reality, not a metaphor.

He opens the yellow gate, wired with motion detectors, and invites us into his home. He sits in his chair in the front room, looking out at the mural that has been painted on the wall. There is no other view. He explains carefully that he's been living in his house since 1973. At that time, there was nothing around. He could easily walk for six or seven kilometres around his own fields. The settlement was built in the 1980's. Since then, he has faced pressure and abuse in an attempt to force him out. The settlers throw stones, breaking windows and the solar panels that heat his water, and insult his family.

Then the military came, and began construction of the wall in 2003.
"When they came to build the wall, they said I have two choices. Either we keep it like this, in front of your house, or we demolish your house and put the wall in its place. I told them you've given me no choices. I have a third option, better than the others. I said 'build the wall between me and the settlement.'"

In the end, they refused. It would have ruined the view from the settler's houses.

His farm storage units were demolished. In 1990 the new extension to his house was destoyed. In 2003 his orchards were destoyed. His water storage tank was torn down. He has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in a chicken farm. He was once one of the richest men in his village. "Today," he says "I don't have a single shekel for my kids."

He locks his hands together, and looks down at his feet when he talks. He says he has to stay alert 24 hours a day, keeping an eye out for settlers and soldiers. The Israeli military routinely enter his home, armed and unannounced, and ask him who’s been visiting, what he was doing outside, when he’s going to leave. Theirmost recent visit was last night, at 2:30am. They asked him how old he was,
“Fifty,” he replied
“Do you want to keep fighting to 100? Why don’t you just die? Let your children leave this place…”

But Hani isn’t doing this to be a martyr. He doesn’t feel he’s fighting the Palestinian cause. He feels he's simply staying on his land, in his home. Originally from 1948 Palestine, the village of Kufr Qasim, he came to the West Bank as a refugee.
He has no choice, nowhere else to go.

On our way out, he asks one thing, the one thing that many Palestinians have asked of us. "Send this story to the rest of the word. Tell them the truth."

Friday, 4 May 2007

There Is No Reason

The workshops continue, and life outside The Valley of Peace goes on as usual. Inside, we can talk about peace and reconciliation. We can dicsuss photography and compliment good efforts. Outside, Aisha's brothers are still in prison.

I find her in the corner of the balcony trying to look inconspicuous.
"My brothers just had their second trial," she says under her breath.
"What happened?"
"They'll stay in prison until at least July, and then another trial."
She explained they had been arrested in the middle of the night, during my last visit to Jerusalem in January, on suspicion of planting a bomb. But Aisha's brother says as soon as he heard someone was planning an attack, he left. He had nothing to do with it. There's little evidence, but until the issue is settled, both her brothers remain in prison.

Aisha is afraid. "You can go home," I tell her, "If you need to. There's no reason to stay here..."
"What worries me," she answers, "is that the same thing will happen to my kids. I have small children, and I'm afriad that one night the Israelis will come to our house and arrest them, just like they took my brothers."

She sees the kids in this project like her own children. She loves them like they were her own, and it's clear she wants the best for them. She insists on being in the same room, though we offered her a private room. One night, at around 1am, I find all the Palestinian kids - boys and girls - walking with her from their rooms to a clearing in the woods around the guest house.
"Come with us!" she offers, "they're going out to dance."
"Don't you want to sleep?" I ask her, knowing she's exhausted
"Well, they want me to come with them," she explains. She is a mother to them all, some of whom have lost parents of their own, one assassinated, one accidentally shot during military incursions.

She just wants to find a breakthrough, she explains later of her reasons for joining this project. She simply wants to get this boy to talk, or this girl to sit next to an Israeli and have a normal conversation, or this boy to be the kid he once was before his father was killed. She doesn't think about herself, it's clear, she thinks about them and their own futures.

As Mazen says to us on the final morning "I don't want you to think like me, I want you to think for yourselves. I just want you to think about your futures, that's it."

Thursday, 3 May 2007

This is the Valley of Peace

We all meet again in Wahat El-Salaam, only 12 children this time, to work on their photography. They learn not only the art of photography, but how to use photography to tell their stories - the real stories - to anyone who will listen. They are all asking questions about themselves, about the "other side." Noam photographs her sister's boyfriend at a military ceremony, smiling to the camera. "It's the first time I see a soldier smiling," Heba says. "I don't think if i took this picture, he would be smiling."

These kids are too young to be thinking about death, to be confronted with murder and sorrow, but it's all around them. It's in their families. It is their life stories. Wael's father was assassinated by the Israeli military. Sameh's father was a journalist killed while working in Nablus. Noam's grandmother was murdered in a bus bombing. "I can never forgive the man who killed my grandmother," he says openly "but I know we need to find another way." He's only 14.

There are moments when I panic, when I think all of this may not be worth it. We can't change things. We can't make a difference. It's easy to lose faith in this project. We are meeting in a bomb shelter, thick metal shutters hang over the windows in case of a rocket attack.

Even as we meet here and talk about peace, the world around us does not stop. There are still murders and assassiantions. There are still kidnappings. There is still chaos and disaster and the construction of the wall. Nothing outside is changing. Maybe we are very pleased with life in this little Valley of Peace bubble.

Other times, I hear their statements like "We'll kill, and they'll kill for the same reason. Maybe there's another way," and it reminds me (perhaps naively) why I'm still here. Why I haven't yet given up hope. The kids are used to this, by now they can talk about the death and the suffering casually, as though it were ordinary.

But me, I still want to cry when I see what has been made of their lives, what they have been forced into by the hands of others. All they need to say is "we want nothing to do with this," and I'll believe them.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Once Upon A Time In Qalandiya

We said it in the Western Sahara, "waiting for two days is nothing like waiting for 30 years." Here, I would say "waiting for an hour is nothing like waiting for 30 years."

You can no longer drive around Qalandiya. Every other road is sealed. Ar-Ram is split in two and even more isolated. I had never realised before, whenver I went to visit Khaled in his office, I was on the Israeli side.

Qalandiya is a processing plant for human goods, a funnel that attempts to identify and catagorise its traffic. You are identified as safe or dangerous, your bags x-rayed. You take off your belt and watch. Hold up your passport for inspection, smile, explain why you're here. The liht goes green, push the turnstile. These crossings are designed, in the words of the Israeli administration, as International Borders.

What's on the other side. Where does this International border lead? Where is the other nation? These are questions of logic and semantics, questions of identification, determining the meaning of the word "the" in UN resolution 242. We have to deal with this minutae, because the real issues are to big to see all at once.