Major international media networks failed to cover the war from the ground in the Gaza Strip, as Israel barred international reporters from entering the besieged territory for the majority of the conflict. As global news networks including CNN and the BBC had no permanent correspondents on the ground in Gaza, major media institutions covered the conflict from the outside, reporting on the war from hilltops in Israel.
For the first time viewers internationally turned to alternative news for accurate and direct coverage from Gaza. International attention turned towards Al Jazeera’s international English language service, which facilitated the ability for Palestinian reporters and civilians to tell their own story on Gaza to an international audience for the first time.
In the U.S. independent media programs such as Democracy Now! stood as an important counterpoint to mainstream media coverage which in North America maintained a clear pro-Israel slant.
Recently Anjali Kamat, a journalist and producer at Democracy Now!, the widely syndicated TV and radio program based in New York City, visited the Gaza Strip and offered reflections on the scale of the destruction in Gaza, the points of focus today among Gaza’s population struggling to rebuild, from the tunnel trade to agriculture and reflections on the increasing focus on alternative media coverage on Palestine.
Stefan Christoff: Could you offer your reflections on the current situation on the ground in Gaza, just three months after Israel launched the major military offensive. What’s the picture on the ground?
Anjali Kamat: All this talk of reconstruction is a striking contrast to the reality. There was the major reconstruction conference in Egypt earlier this month and millions in aid from around the world was pledged toward the Gaza Strip. Several people we spoke to in Gaza, including John Ging, the head of UNRWA in Gaza, outlined that there isn’t going to be any major reconstruction in Gaza at this time because no cement or construction materials are being allowed to enter by Israel.
In addition to the egregious war crimes carried out by the Israeli military in Gaza during the offensive, Gaza remains under siege, a siege imposed on the Gaza since June 2007, which continues until today.
Today 90 per cent of the goods entering the Gaza Strip, are coming in through the tunnels, the entire economy has been forced to go underground as all crossing into Gaza are controlled by Israel and are open only a few days a month at best, allowing only a trickle of humanitarian aid to enter.
Today Gaza is completely dependent on the tunnel trade, as Israel has closed all the major crossings and Egypt has sealed the Rafah crossing, so the only way for people in Gaza to survive is through the tunnels. Goods entering Gaza through the tunnels are generally very expensive, up to three to four times the previous prices in Gaza, which means many people often can’t afford the goods. UNRWA’s Ging outlined clearly that the majority of people in Gaza are increasingly dependent on food aid from UNRWA, a situation that is simply not sustainable.
Thirteen thousand families that own small farms in the Gaza Strip sustained damage during the latest war, so it is impossible for people in Gaza to achieve food security given Israeli military actions.
Gaza is a beautiful place, it is on the Mediterranean, it could be full of groves, olives, lemons, oranges, vegetables throughout Gaza, however agriculture in Gaza has been destroyed. How can the destruction of farm lands be justified under international law? What is the justification for destroying dunums and dunums of farm land, for the destruction of chicken farms for example? Today people in Gaza are dependent on the tunnels for livestock.
Going back to the destruction, the visual is incredible, many of the neighbourhoods that were completely wiped-out, were destroyed in the last few days of the operation, as Israeli ground troops were withdrawing.
In several places there was a clear pattern; Apache helicopters and F-16s hovering over Gaza would carry out strikes, then people in the neighbourhoods would start to leave their homes in between the strikes, [at which time] these horrific incidents occurred, the shooting of civilians with white flags, children being used as human shields, then once the Palestinians had vacated the civilian areas by force often their homes would be destroyed.
Palestinians returning back from taking shelter in U.N. schools or medical centers, often returned to completely destroyed homes, to rubble, entire neighbourhoods destroyed.
Many places throughout the Gaza Strip are beginning to look like Rafah, where Palestinian homes close to the Egyptian border were destroyed and bulldozed in the early 2000s. It was one of these homes that Rachel Corrie was defending in Rafah when the Israeli army killed her during this same period. Again even more of this border area with Egypt has again been reduced to rubble and this is the area where the tunnel trade operates.
Despite all the talk of a ceasefire it is important to remember that Israeli airstrikes continue in the south, everyday there is an attack near the tunnels, so anyone who still lives in this area who is able to hold on to what remains of their homes remains in danger. One of the first Israeli attacks that happened soon after the ceasefire was announced killed a farmer who lived in Khuza'a who was visiting his farm after the so-called ceasefire was declared and was killed.
So many Palestinian farmers have invested so much, often times their life savings in building up their farms, who speak of their farms as an investment for future generations to be able to survive off agriculture in Gaza. Today what Palestinian farmers and Palestinians are demanding is some sort of guarantee from their government and also the international community that this will not happen again, that their lives will not be destroyed again.
Despite everything the Palestinians still maintain what’s called in Arabic sumoud, which means steadfastness. Despite everything Palestinians will return to piles of rubble everyday, returning to simply come and sit on their land to ensure that no one can claim their land, can take it away.
Almost three quarters of the population in the Gaza Strip are refugees; however much of the destruction happened not in refugee camps but in areas where Palestinian families have owned the land for centuries, these Palestinians have been displaced and have formed in a sense a new generation of refugees. Also there are Palestinians who experienced exile in 1948, who were refugees in the original Nakba, who explained that they were never more scared in their lives than their experiences during this most recent operation.
Stefan Christoff: You mentioned the aid conference that happened in Egypt, with the new U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in attendance. I'm wondering what your sense was from people on the ground in Gaza in regards to the new U.S. administration, the election of Barack Obama, was there cynicism or hope towards the situation in Gaza changing?
Anjali Kamat: Most people feel that there isn’t going to be much change under an Obama administration… People were impressed by Barack Obama as an individual and many people were genuinely surprised, as people were around the world, that the U.S. elected its first African-American president.
However in terms of people expecting any real policy change towards Israel/Palestine, people were quite cynical. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised $9 million in aid to reconstruct Gaza and none of this aid is actually going to get to Gaza; two-thirds of the aid is going to the Palestinian Authority, to Fatah in Ramallah, to aid the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, while the remaining aid is supposed to get to Gaza, however the U.S. refuses to recognize Hamas as a legitimate government so it is at this point unclear how the money is actually going to get to Gaza.
SC: Can you talk about what is happening along the border in Rafah? Could you talk about how the tunnel trade is perceived within Palestinian society in Gaza?
AK: The tunnels are a life-line to the Gaza Strip, they are the only operating entry and exit point to the Gaza Strip today. You have everything imaginable coming through the tunnels, everything that is required to sustain a population, including basics, milk, lamb, chicken, clothes, shoes, blankets, diapers, sanitary items, toiletries, everything comes in through the tunnels.
What’s interesting is that the tunnels are completely visible, when you get to Rafah you can see the tunnel openings, they are these big green-house type of structures, covered in tarps, all along the border and everyone knows that they exist.
I think that most people are of two minds concerning the tunnels. On one hand they know that this is the only thing allowing them to survive, however the tunnels have also created a different type of economy, they have created a whole new group of people who are becoming rich from the tunnel trade.
People who operate the tunnels generally are those who can’t sustain a traditional means of operating a business, so they invest money to dig the tunnels, they put their former employees to work to dig the tunnels and importing goods through the tunnels and selling them at very high prices.
Tunnels today are really a result of the closure policy enforced by Israel. Palestinians have no other choice, as they have been forced by the circumstances to dig tunnels to ensure that the population survives. As previously mentioned 80 per cent of the population in Gaza is dependent on UNRWA for food while everyone else is dependent on the tunnels and Israel will continue bombing these tunnels however Palestinians will continue to rebuild them as long as complete closure is a reality.
While visiting Gaza we saw tunnels that had been bombed the night previously and people gathered at six in the morning to start rebuilding the tunnels. The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is 70 per cent, there is no work, no way to make an income and the only way for young men is to go to work building tunnels, former farmers, drivers, college students with no job prospects so they have turned to the tunnel trade.
SC: There was serious attention internationally towards Israel’s decision to ban international press from entering Gaza in the latest war. Al Jazeera and also Democracy Now! were both widely followed as alternative media sources. Al Jazeera was the only international news agency with reporters on the ground in Gaza. What is your take after visiting Gaza on the way that the latest conflict was covered by the international press?
AK: One of the things that came forward in regards to Israel’s latest operation in Gaza was the timing of the operation, between Christmas and New Year’s when most internationals working in the Gaza Strip are not in Gaza, then Israel banned the foreign press which gives Israel a free hand to do whatever it wants to go, to act with complete impunity.
Al Jazeera was the only international media agency to have reporters inside Gaza. While there were a couple individuals, from for example newspapers in Spain who came into Gaza through the boats. So there was clearly a hike in focus and attention towards alternative media coverage on Gaza. Although people in Gaza articulated a general frustration about the way that the international media coverage addressed the Gaza war.
Every single international media report would talk about Sedrot and Gaza as if there is equal suffering in the two places. It was impossible to talk about what was really happening in Gaza within the major news networks internationally, to talk about the pain and trauma being suffered by the 1.5 million inhabitants in Gaza squeezed into this small strip. The destruction in Gaza is really unbelievable.
Journalists seemed incapable of talking about what’s happening in Gaza without trying to make some sort of equivalency with Israel, more specifically with Sedrot, when the situations are simply not comparable. Thirteen Israelis were killed versus almost 1400 Palestinians and under international law such figures would be discussed in terms of proportionality and the legal use of force in a conflict, which Israel clearly violated.
Stefan Christoff is a community organizer and journalist based in Montreal.