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22 November 2012

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.

By James Rodgers

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.

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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.

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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.)