With Israel and Gaza, separation is no guarantee of solution

There must be a limit, though, to how long bombs, bullets, and barbed wire can contain Gaza.

It was an impossible, deadly, dilemma.

I was reminded of it last week when I read that the Israeli aircraft had, "dropped leaflets warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas".

The storyteller lived in a Gaza refugee camp. A member of Hamas’ military wing was a neighbour. Then, in 2004, Israeli military incursions were frequent - yesterday’s ceasefire provides no guarantee they will not be again. Expecting attack, Hamas fighters had placed explosives in the rubble and sand which passed for a road in that part of the Gaza Strip.

A detonation might damage any tank which was its target – while also endangering the house in which three generations, from toddler to grandmother, were sleeping. The man could only pray that nothing would happen. His only alternative, it seemed to me, was to tamper with the trap - and risk either blowing himself up, or being shot by one side or the other as either a collaborator or a bomb layer.   

"Staying away from Hamas", however stern the warning, was simply not possible.

Innocence would not defend you from death. The picture last week of Jihad Masharawi, father of 11-month-old Omar, holding the sheet which contained the body of his tiny son demonstrated that better than any words.

In some senses, the Gaza in which I lived and worked as a reporter from 2002-2004 was a different place. There were still Jewish settlements placed at strategic intervals throughout the crushingly crowded strip of scrubby coastland. The Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, were in charge.

Yet then, as now, Gaza civilians could no more stay away from members of the militant groups than Israelis could suddenly move house because a soldier lived next door.

Palestinians and Israelis were moving further apart – accelerating the process of mutual dehumanization. A decade ago, even though the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israel, was already two years old, thousands of Gazans crossed each day into Israel for casual work. The pay was poor. The day began before dawn to allow time for travel through lengthy security checks.

Still it was cooperation – coexistence - of a sort.  In the summer of 2003, a café owner in the Old City of Jerusalem pointed out to me that Palestinians then in their teens had been born in the first intifada, from the late 1980s, and were approaching adulthood in the second. They had known little else. He remembered a time when there were some economic ties, at least some kind of mutually beneficial business activity, even if it was not conducted between the best of friends.

That time has gone. The warning about the coming generation was brought home to me in a conversation with a young man who had received rare permission to visit the West Bank. Leaving Gaza, he had chanced to chat to an Israeli soldier guarding the crossing point. He had been amazed that the soldier was about the same age as him - about nineteen.

Until then, Israelis had always been soldiers: not humans, but enemies faceless behind armour or concrete. He had never imagined that they might be anything other than combat-hardened 30-somethings.

Such ignorance has consequences. As a BBC reporter working in conflict zones, you are required to undergo ‘hostile environment’ training. One session explains how to deal with kidnappers, especially when they might be about to kill you.

The advice is never to turn your back, but to look at them, show them pictures of your family if you have them; in other words: be a person, not a symbol of something. Did the Israeli pilot who was responsible for the death of Omar Masharawi see the picture? If so, did he see a father’s face twisted in grief, or just part of a hostile mass?

Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gives journalists a rare perspective. On Fridays, I might wake in Gaza, hearing the call to prayer, then, in the late afternoon, be in West Jerusalem in time to hear the horn which announced the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

The sounds of devotion which defined departure and destination were also a sign of one of the conflict’s most enduring divisive elements: faith.

By my last visit to the region, in September last year, that sense of division had only grown stronger: the concrete separation barrier cutting off the West Bank my dominant memory of the journey from airport to East Jerusalem. 

This week’s fighting has subsided into ceasefire. There must be a limit, though, to how long bombs, bullets, and barbed wire can contain Gaza. The United Nations warned in August that resources may only be sufficient to support the growing population until the end of the decade.  Separation is no guarantee of solution. If it were, Gaza would no longer be in the news.

James Rodgers is Lecturer in Journalism at City University, London. From 2002 to 2004, he was the BBC Correspondent in Gaza. He is the author of "Reporting Conflict" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and of "No Road Home: fighting for land and faith in Gaza" (forthcoming).

He will be taking part in a panel discussion "Reporting 21st Century Conflict’ at City University on 29 November. (Admission free, you can register here.)     

A Palestinian woman walks past destroyed tents near bombed smuggling tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt. Photograph: Getty Images
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism