Marching for Gaza and towards the third intifada

 
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By Khaled Diab

Does the largest Palestinian protest in  recent memory, along with weeks of unrest sparked by Gaza and racist hate crimes, indicate that the long-expected next intifada is here?

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 25 July 2014

It was billed as the “march of the 48,000”. Although the actual number was probably lower, with some estimates placing it at over 20,000, it was still the largest protest anyone could remember attending in many long years.

The demonstrators had come out in support of the people of Gaza, who have been under relentless Israeli military assault for the better part of three weeks, leaving at least 789 people dead, some three-quarters of whom have been civilians. The day of the protest also proved to be one of the bloodiest in Gaza, with well over 100 falling prey to the Israeli offensive, including at least 16 taking shelter in an UNRWA school.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Under the slogan “We are all Gaza,” people from all walks of life walked together from the Am’ari refugee camp in Ramallah to the Qalandia checkpoint… and onwards towards Jerusalem, the organisers wished.

Among the crowds were young and old, rich and poor, men and a surprisingly high proportion of women, not just the hip and revolutionary but also the mainstream muhajabat. People chanted slogans and sang songs in support of Gaza, with a small minority even singing about Qassams falling on Tel Aviv.

There was an ocean of Palestinian flags of all sizes being waved by the crowd, in a display of proud national identity targeted most likely at the hated symbol of the occupation towards which they were marching: the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, the barrier keeping Palestinians of the West Bank out of Jerusalem, unless they have a hard-to-come-by permit. There were also a handful of green Hamas flags.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As we neared our destination, it was more like we were approaching the gates of hell. Thick clouds of black smoke were emanating from the area just before the checkpoint, the product it was clear of the dozens of large tyres which had been dropped off a truck as we’d passed earlier towards the starting point.

Like the majority of the crowd, we stopped short of the inferno and did not venture further, though we stayed as close as possible to see what was going on. A different variety of protester was rushing in to this uninviting hellhole: hardcore, young, almost exclusively male (though I thought I glimpsed a woman), faces concealed behind keffiyehs, masks, scarfs or any other improvised facial covering. Young men determined to get to Jerusalem that night.

In addition to the thick smoke, fireworks were being let off by protesters to confuse the riot police who, in turn, were firing flares, pointing menacing-looking and powerful lasers, shooting ample supplies of teargas and, most troublingly of all, they went so far as to shoot live rounds. As we stood there, a constant stream of wounded men was being carried away from the frontline and towards the ambulances.

At first, this was an orderly affair carried out solely by medics. But soon, as the casualties mounted, panicked, shaken young men were carrying out their own fallen, calling out desperately for ambulances and medical attention, which they soon received. We must have seen at least 50 wounded men pass us, including at least one that seemed to have a live-fire wound in his leg. In total, two died and 287 were injured that evening.

With our route to Jerusalem blocked and not wanting nor needing to take the path chosen by these daring and courageous youngsters, we hunted around for an alternative route. My friend, Ibrahim, suggested there must be a way around the clashes through the Qalandia refugee camp.

Finding a way through the warren of alleyways proved a challenge, but the locals were very helpful, from an old man who told us to scale a certain wall to a group of men who scored a lift with an AP cameraman for us. Despite our caution, we still got a couple of personalised teargas canisters shot in our direction when we got out of the car, forcing us to leap, choking into the first available vehicle that could take us to Hizma, and from there back to Jerusalem.

The large number of protesters at this demo, the numerous other protests and clashes going on that night and the following day – not to mention the weeks of unrest we have had since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens unleashed a wave of hate and crackdowns against Palestinians, culminating in the racist murder of a Palestinian youth – could be an indication that the long-expected third intifada is final here.

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Equality: not even in death

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tragic as the deaths of young British soldiers in Afghanistan are, why is the media not mourning Afghan civilian casualties?

13 July 2009

Every human life is precious. But there is something disturbing about the UK media’s obsession with the rising death toll of British troops in Afghanistan. Last Friday’s reports of the death of 15 soldiers in ten days has been generating a continuous stream of headlines for days.

It is sad that young men, many barely teenagers, should lose their lives in distant lands. But these are professional soldiers who signed up for a job which they knew carried with it a risk of death. But the campaign in Afghanistan has claimed a far larger number of victims who had taken no calculated decision to be there – Afghan civilians.

But was there any mention of these hapless victims? Hardly a peep. For example, in an entire BBC news report last week, I learnt about the number of British soldiers killed in the bloodiest incident since the war began, and the grand total of 184 who had died since 2001.

But in the coverage, I looked in vain for any indication of how many Afghans, particularly civilians, have been killed as a result of the recent fighting. For example, all the Beeb had to say on the matter, in a tone with disturbingly bellicose undertones, was that far more Taliban had died than British soldiers, and nothing at all about the civilian death toll. So much for the BBC’s reputation for balance – but the fog of war has a way of distorting truth.

At one level, it is not surprising that a society notices its own losses the most and sees them through a dispersive prism scattering the entire spectrum of grief across people’s conscience. But at another more troubling level, it reflects the relative value of human life: each dead British soldier has a name, a face and an inconsolable family, while dead Afghans are usually little more than a faceless footnote.

In fact, no one is actually keeping an official tab and Afghan civilian deaths have to be aggregated from individual reports. According to aggregated figures, as many as 28,000 civilians have died as a direct result of US-led military action since 2001, while more than 4,000 others were killed by insurgents. This makes the death of 184 professional soldiers seem relatively modest. The contrast is even more pronounced in Iraq.

Moreover, the fuss surrounding the number of British casualties does not stand up to historical comparisons. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) claimed the lives of more than 5,000 soldiers of the British Empire and killed more than 12,000 British civilians – the number of Afghans who died, as you’d expect, is unknown.  More contrastingly still, of the 16 million who died in World War I, nearly 900,000 were British, and of the 73 million deaths in World War II, more than 400,000 were British.

It is a good thing that Britain and many other parts of the world have lost their tolerance for this kind of mindless and senseless carnage. However, the side effect of this has been a consistently high civilian death toll due to airstrikes undertaken to avoid body bags coming home. It is time the British public strove for more equality in the death stakes and mourned the deaths of Afghan civilians, too.

It is a shame that the British government has not learnt from their country’s historical mistakes. Despite Britain having got its fingers burned more than once in Afghanistan and the country’s reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’, Tony Blair nevertheless decided to join George W Bush on this ill-conceived military folly.

As nearly two centuries of foreign intervention have proven, there is no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan – as has been known since the First Afghan War, Afghans resent the presence of foreign troops with a vengeance. It is about time that Gordon Brown and Barack Obama pulled out of the mess created by their predecessors.

If Britain, the United States and NATO want to help, they can put their money where their guns are and invest the billions spent on occupying the country in development instead. Before that, the UN can sponsor a peace process between the countries main ethnic groups to help them find a way to live together or to agree to dissolve the country.

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