Future of Gaza discussed by international journalists in Jerusalem

On 13 March, a mostly international audience gathered at the Jerusalem venue for a conversation with two international correspondents, British Donald Macintyre and British-Irish Stephen Farrell, about Macintyre’s recently released book titled ‘Gaza: Preparing for Dawn’.

Taking place in Jerusalem, any Palestinians living in the West Bank without the Jerusalem identity card or a special permit are unable to attend such events.

Mahmoud Muna, manager of the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem and host of the event, was also quick to point out the sharp irony that the foreign men sitting either side of him are able to visit Gaza, whilst he, a Palestinian, cannot.

The speakers evoked their regret that they were unable to have a Gazan join the discussion via Skype, something they attempted to arrange yet was logistically unmanageable given the current situation in Gaza.

The morning of the day of the event, a roadside bomb exploded in Gaza in an assassination attempt on Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who was making a rare visit to Gaza to open a waste treatment plant.

No responsibility for the attack has been claimed, though accusations and theories have been quick to fly around.

Beginning the discussion by contextualising in light of the event, Macintyre was not able to provide any particular insight on the incident, although he believed the PA would blame Hamas, whether directly or more indirectly, by calling it a lapse of security.

He pointed out that this was the most senior person to be targeted in recent years. While he said it would be great if the incident led to reaffirmed commitment to and progress with reconciliation talks, he doubted this would be the result.

Macintyre said that reconciliation talks between Fatah, who govern the West Bank and Hamas, governing the Gaza strip, looked positive towards the end of 2017. Now they seem to have stalled. Most recently, Egypt have been putting pressure on Hamas to advance a reconciliation deal by handing control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.

Asked why he thought reconciliation talks have failed thus far, Macintyre cited disagreements over security, finance and weapons. But also a power struggle, with neither party holding the real power in relation to the occupier, Israel. The two sides want to hold on to what they have, he said simply. Macintyre added the victims are the people of Gaza, who are caught in the middle of competing struggles for control.

The devastating situation in Gaza at present was reiterated over the evening. Fragility is the word I would most associate with Gaza, Farrell said, referring at once to the unstable buildings and the economic dire straits.

Financial pillars have been eroded one by one, he said, referring first to the closed borders preventing Gazans finding employment in Egypt or Israel and now, to potentially catastrophic UNRWA cuts.

The responsibility of the international community was emphasised over the course of the event, particularly for not applying significant pressure on Israel and Egypt to open up access to Gaza. Macintyre noted Gaza had slipped in the international agenda since 2011, but increased pressure to end the blockade was the absolute priority in order to ease the dire humanitarian situation.

Gaza is often framed through the lens of a humanitarian catastrophe. Macintyre explained that in this book, he had attempted to cast a different light on the Strip. I’m always amazed by the resilience of Gazans, he said. He noted Gaza’s fantastic potential, resulting from its coastline, its recently discovered and unexploited gas field, and the amazing energy of its entrepreneurial population. His book’s subtitle, ‘Preparing for Dawn’ derives from these observations.

Macintrye said his book aims at challenging the narrative that Gaza could have had peace and prosperity but instead chose rockets by electing Hamas. Indeed, such a discourse frames Gazans as responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and for the three catastrophic ‘operations’ that have occurred since 2006. In the book, he exposes how during the winter of 2005 Israel only allowed 4% of exports to make it out of the Strip, with disastrous economic consequences.

If the declared Israeli objective of the blockade is to dislodge Hamas, Macintyre and Farrell noted that they have failed even by their own agenda. Macintyre added in an undertone; if this really is the objective and not the collective punishment of Gazans, the only moment where the term collective punishment was cited. Towards the end of the talk, Macintryre commented that he was always a bit suspicious when security was branded as a justification, noting that the Strip was open during the Second Intifada.

A member of the audience asked who was mostly to blame for the blockade. Whilst Macintyre answered it was impossible to dance around the fact that it is an Israeli occupation and therefore responsibility lies with Israel, Palestinian audience member Nadia Harhash vocalised her astonishment and disbelief that such a question was even being asked.

Unsurprisingly, the woes of international journalists were brought up by foreign correspondents at several points during the Q&A part of the evening, who cited increased restricted access, extreme scrutiny and intimidation of fixers. Both Israel and Hamas were held responsible. Farrell responded by pointing to the wider picture of danger for everyone living in the Gaza Strip.

More importantly, he said, Gazans colleagues can’t get away when you leave.