A response to Paula Stern

Paula Stern’s recent blog has been drawn to my attention and I feel I must respond. She made hay with a maliciously-inspired entry in my Wikipedia profile, without knowing anything about the circumstances, in an effort to paint me into the “black corner”. Our problems with the particular nightclub were of long-standing and post-dated (not pre-dated) us moving into the area. I was infuriated by the nightclub manager’s response to my complaint one night (actually at 1.30am) about the thumping noise — “It’s a nightclub, what do you expect?” — and hit her in a moment of madness. The truth is that I owned up to what had happened in a licensing court on the basis that I was bound to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. It was a relatively minor incident, for which I apologised immediately, but I felt that I couldn’t just gloss over it in my evidence to the court. That’s how it became part of the “public record”.

I might note that Ariel Sharon was responsible for KILLING innocent women and children in a “reprisal raid” on Qiyba in 1953. On a scale of 1-10, isn’t that immeasurably worse than what I admitted to doing? He was also found to be partly responsible, as Israel’s minister for defence, for the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 — by the Israeli Kahan Commission. He will also be remembered as the man who appeared on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in 2000, accompanied by armed Israeli security men — a highly provocative incident that sparked the second Palestinian intifada. That resulted in Likud being swept into power, giving Sharon a whole new lease of political life as prime minister. Years earlier, he had acquired a house straddling a narrow street in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City, guarded night and day by Israeli soldiers. On the “bridge” linking one part of the house with the other there was an Israeli flag on one side and a menorah on the other, both floodlit in the dark.  This was also a provocation on Sharon’s part.

I stand over my comparison of Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto in terms of how they operated, though not in terms of outcomes, of course; we all know that the Jews crowded into the ghetto in Warsaw who didn’t die there later perished in the Nazi death camps. As I wrote in the >Irish Times< on June 10th, 2010, there is not much left of the 5 sq km Warsaw Ghetto now. It was pulverised in 1943 after the Nazis crushed a heroic uprising by resistance groups. Until then, it had been crammed with Warsaw’s Jewish citizens and, later, Jewish refugees from other parts of Poland – well over 350,000 at the height of it.

Most of them were “liquidated” in Treblinka, 100km from Warsaw. Before that (and many came to know or at least suspect the terrible fate that lay in store for them), the Jews were confined to the ghetto – to make them easier to round up when the time came. And since most were not allowed to work, life was very difficult. Food was rationed. According to the University of Northampton’s Holocaust research project, the official ration in the Warsaw Ghetto probably amounted to about 800 calories a day per person, “half the ration for non-Jewish Poles and a third the ration for Germans in Poland”.

Inhabitants of the ghetto managed to survive by selling their remaining possessions to buy extra food, usually at exorbitant prices. Smuggling was rife, with hundreds of Jewish children wriggling through tunnels or holes in the wall, “sometimes several times a day . . . returning with goods that often weighed more than they did”. Just like Gaza boys do now in the tunnels at Rafah, in fact.

I looked up the history of the Warsaw Ghetto after learning that two investigative reporters at the leading Israeli newspaper, >Haaretz<, had revealed the existence of a government document that set out “the minimum nutritional needs of Gaza’s population, according to caloric intake and grams of food, parsed by age and gender”. This document – which, naturally, the Israelis deny implementing – is entitled “Food Needs in Gaza – Red Lines”, and establishes minimal nutritional requirements for subsistence, or as an adviser to former prime minister Ehud Olmert said in early 2006: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

That was not long after Hamas had won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, to the immense chagrin of those who had repeatedly called for such a poll – notably the Israelis, their US allies and also the EU. Immediately afterwards, all aid was withdrawn. And when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel imposed its blockade.
“Now, nearing its third anniversary, it’s still in place, slowly suffocating and strangling 1.5 million people, trapped by closed borders, regular incursions and attacks, and shortages of everything needed to function and survive,” as Stephen Lendman wrote for the Chicago-based Mathaba News Agency, an independent “green media” group.

Consider the prohibitions they must endure, as revealed by Gisha, an Israeli non- governmental organisation that campaigns against the oppression of Palestinians. The list of prohibited items was disclosed last month, after the authorities had first claimed in court that this would “harm national security and possibly even diplomatic relations”.

In another blow to Israel’s image, the list included sage, cumin, cardamon, coriander, ginger, jam, vinegar, nutmeg, chocolate, fruit preserves, nuts, biscuits, sweets, potato chips, gas for soft drinks, dried fruit, fresh meat, glucose, flavour and smell enhancers, fabric for clothing, toys, notebooks, A4 paper and musical instruments. It also included cement, plaster, tar and wood for construction (heaven forbid that the people of Gaza should be allowed to rebuild their homes after the Israeli onslaught 18 months ago), as well as razors, sewing machines, spare parts or heaters for hatcheries, irrigation pipes, fishing rods or nets, horses, donkeys, goats and cattle.

The >Haaretz< report noted that Israel’s policy is continually subject to change at the whim of the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat). “Any goods that we allow in or prohibit, you’ll know about . . . by phone. That’s the way we work,” one of its officials was quoted as saying.

Lendman (an American Jew, incidentally) noted that Gisha has rightly termed the Israeli blockade as economic sanctions for collective punishment: “Claiming foods, medicines, fuel for electricity and other essential-to-life goods relate to security is outlandish and illegal under international law.” What’s shocking is that it has gone on for so long.

Given the scale of the restrictions imposed, smuggling is an essential lifeline for the Gaza Strip. Literally hundreds of tunnels have been dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt, Israel’s unlikely “partner”, and these serve as conduits for essential supplies, despite being bombed repeatedly from the air.

As for the Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, Palestinian American lawyer Gregory Khalil observed very early on that “Israel still controls every person, every good, literally every drop of water to enter or leave the Gaza Strip.” And it moves in whenever it wants, using helicopter gunships, fighter jets, tanks and phosphorous bombs.

Meanwhile, with even indirect peace talks stalled, the theft of Palestinian land continues, as the Israelis create “facts on the ground” month after month. I’ve also witnessed that myself; it’s like watching a re-run of the Plantation of Ulster.

Let me try to put things in context. I have been to Israel and the West Bank twice. The first time was in 1980 when I was sent by the Irish Times to report on the situation in south Lebanon, where Irish troops serving with UNIFIL were under pressure from the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army under the command of Major Saad Haddad, a renegade Lebanese army officer.

As it happened, three Irish soldiers were kidnapped, tortured and killed by Haddad’s militia while I was there, and it became a big story (at least in Ireland). Given that Israel seemed to be “calling the shots” in south Lebanon, I felt obliged to go to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to get the Israeli point of view and then travel north to Metullah so I could cross into south Lebanon to interview Haddad. I found this man — who had been recruited by the Israeli government to “police the border zone” —  to be a menacing figure, with a gun in his holster and accompanied by soldiers armed with sub-machineguns. He was also uncontrite about killing Irish soldiers.

Before I went to Beirut, I was acutely aware that I was entering a virtual minefield vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine, so I bought David Hirst’s great book, >The Gun and the Olive Branch<, and read what is widely regarded as the most authoritative account of the conflict, going back to the 1880s. It opened my eyes to what had happened in the past, particularly in 1948 (Deir Yassin, etc) and what was/is still going on in relation to settlements on the West Bank and the theft of Palestinian land.

I recall, in particular, meeting a Palestinian architect in East Jerusalem who detailed how incredibly difficult it was for Palestinians to get planning permission to build small extensions to their homes — even as massive Israeli settlements were built on hills to the north, south and east of Jerusalem in pursuit of a policy of “Ring Neighbourhoods” originated by Ariel Sharon. I was shocked by the injustice of it all.

I was also really shaken by an incident that took place after we had dinner in West Jerusalem. We were about to get into a taxi when another taxi driver right behind beeped his horn. I went to him to see what the problem might be. He said: “Why are you getting into an Arab taxi?”. I was mystified about how he could know that, so I asked him. “It’s on their number plates”, he said. I walked back to the first taxi and got in, thinking: “My God, in the Nazi concentration camps, Jews had yellow Star of David symbols and numbers tattooed on their arms”.

The impression I was left with was that Israelis were treating Palestinians as >untermenschen< (to use that awful German word), just as Jews had been treated in other countries over the centuries.

My second visit to Israel/Palestine was in 1988, when I travelled at the invitation of the Britain Israel Public Affairs Committee with a group of journalists interested in architecture and urban design. It was at the time of the Palestinian intifada, and I think BIPAC’s “agenda” was to show that there was a lot of good things going on in Israel.

Our guides were two English women — one from London and the other from Manchester; they were now Israeli citizens, by virtue of being Jewish. Our taxi driver, who grew up in London’s East End (his Cockney accent was still intact!), had emigrated to Israel after June 1967 and was steeped in the Zionist culture. As we were standing inside the Dome of the Rock, he said: “Clearly, the design of this building was based on a tent. After all, these people came in from the desert and what did they know about architecture?”.

We were gobsmacked by the inherent racism of this line as images of Islamic architecture over the centuries flashed through our minds. That being said, we were delighted  to see Eric Mendelsohn’s white architecture in Tel Aviv — mostly built in the 1930s, it was so bright and optimistic. He also built in Jerusalem of course, using stone as the material in deference to the historic context of the place.

I must say I liked Tel Aviv. It had much more of a cosmopolitan air than I expected, more liberal, less suffocating than Jerusalem. We went to dinner one night in a restaurant in Jaffa, the historic port city beside which Tel Aviv grew and grew. I remembered David Hirst’s book’s reference to Jaffa having a population of 60,000 in 1948. It was also to be an “exclave” of the Arab state under the UN’s 1947 partition plan for Palestine, under which Jews (who then accounted for 30 per cent of the population of Mandate Palestine) were offered 51 per cent of the territory and Arabs the remaining 49 per cent.

By the end of Israel’s war of independence, it controlled 79 per cent of Mandate Palestine. Palestinians suffered Al Naqba: 750,000 of them fled, creating a huge refugee problem that persists to this day. Few of the Palestinians who once lived in Jaffa remain there; it was taken over almost immediately and the population expelled.

The historic injustice of what happened was brought hime to me when, in 1980, I visited a Palestinian Red Cross/Red Crescent hospital in Sabra (later to become notorious for the massacre for which Ariel Sharon was held partly culpable). Through an interpreter, I asked one of the kids being treated there where he was from. “Haifa”, he said. He was only 10 and had never been there, nor had his parents. But his grandparents still had the keys to a house in Haifa, to which they will never be allowed to return. Put yourself in their position.

About the Author
Frank McDonald is the Environment Editor of the Irish Times and author or joint author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin