Saturday, May 16, 2009
-Taken from 'The Guardian Weekly'
-Cairo - May 2009 (originally published in April)
Sean Keegan remembers with a faint sense of horror the moment when he was asked what the word for ‘Sphinx’ was in Arabic. In front of a live studio audience, with the clock ticking, he tentatively ventured the only answer that came into his head: “Ahmed”. His inquisitors burst into laughter; the whole exchange will shortly be broadcast across Egypt on national radio, part of a programme which draws over a million listeners a month.
But why is a mild-mannered Englishman from the BBC taking part in quizzes on the largest state radio network in the Arab World? For Keegan, editor of the BBC World Service’s Islamic World Team and producer of BBCe!, an hour-long weekly show aimed at improving the English skills of 16-35 year olds and carried by two major Egyptian stations, the answer is straightforward. “Cultural dialogue brings credit and value back to Britain,” he says. “Probably in an immeasurable way, but it’s preferable to the other extreme, which is keeping ourselves to ourselves.”
Keegan’s perspective is shared by policy-makers in London and Washington and a growing army of administrators responsible for rolling out state-sponsored ELT initiatives in Egypt, all designed to bring tangible benefits back to the countries funding them. Some feel uncomfortable with the label ‘cultural diplomacy’; others put terms like ‘Western values’ and ‘hearts and minds’ at the centre of their work. But although the explicitness of their aims may vary, the overall trend is clear. From teacher-training programmes in the Nile Delta to English tuition classes in the poverty-stricken villages of Upper Egypt and the opening of language centres at the heart of Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Islamic world, Egypt is awash with vibrant and often competitive schemes – many paid for by British and American taxpayers – to increase and improve the learning of English as a second language.
The man overseeing the US State Department’s Access Programme in Egypt since its inception two years ago knows that explaining to Americans why they are funding English teaching for underprivileged children in the southern city of Asyut, to the tune of $2,000 per student, isn’t always easy. “There are Americans who would say, ‘why?’ Especially at a time like this,” acknowledges the official, who prefers not to be named. “But it does do a lot of good. A lot of people in America don’t think about how people’s views and feelings about the United States in other parts of the world impacts on them.” The problem is that ‘good’ is hard to quantify, a point made by sceptics who doubt the current crop of English Language Teaching (ELT) schemes in Egypt will produce any lasting gains for funders or students.
One of the difficulties ELT providers face is the limited scope of their programmes. In its first wave 182 Egyptian teenagers have graduated from the Access scheme, a drop in the ocean in a population of 80 million. Apart from a limited scholarship programme in the US for a small fraction of the intake, no follow-up ELT schemes are planned for students attending the course. For David Wilmsen, a Professor at the American University in Beirut who was formerly involved in the distribution of US-funded ELT contracts in Cairo, the narrow reach of Access points at a wider flaw at the heart of state-sponsored English teaching. “The major impression I came away with was that they throw a lot of money at these programmes and when the money dries up, so does the programme and the benefit that anybody may have gathered from it,” he argues. “It’s the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism; you’re just looking at the next quarter, not the long-term.” The US embassy official rejects that criticism, claiming that it is ultimately the Egyptian Ministry of Education which is responsible for teaching English at a mass level. “In what rational world is the fact that there are only 200-odd students on our scheme an argument for not carrying out that scheme at all?” he asks.
Across the Nile at the British Council, talk of using ELT as a public diplomacy tool is studiously avoided. “It’s not about selling Britain, or trying to better one’s own interests,” insists Paul Smith, director of the council in Egypt, where it has had a presence longer than anywhere else. “We’re living in a world in which culture has moved to the centre of things in people’s minds, and politics itself has become almost a subset of culture – the things that really animate people today are confusions and uncertainties about other people’s ways of living,” he explains. “Politics is merely an expression of concern about those questions of identity, and so the idea of creating cultural understanding has gone from the namby-pamby to being at the heart of security.” Hence ELT training – which the British Council largely funds by charging students for courses, although there are outreach teacher-training programmes in the Nile Delta paid for partially by the British government – is conceived of as a means of enabling Egyptians to partake in that cultural debate, a debate in which English is the lingua franca.
Framing state-sponsored ELT schemes in these terms hasn’t shielded the British from local backlashes. The opening of a teacher training centre by the council in the medieval institution of Al Azhar produced a raft of negative headlines, despite the fact that the centre was launched at the request of the Grand Sheikh himself. “I think certain responses are unavoidable,” says Keegan, who has also encountered hostility to Britain’s ‘state media’ having a presence on the Egyptian airwaves. “Some here are very suspicious of us; they fear ulterior motives and say ‘what is your government trying to do?’” He believes that although there are differences between the way in which American and British-led ELT programmes in Egypt tend to operate, the contrast in style when it comes to talking about the aims behind the programmes owe more to historical context than to fundamentally conflicting policy goals. “Britain has an imperial past of which at various times it’s uncomfortable with, and unlike with the Americans perhaps there is a reticence about this past that which leads us to steer clear of ‘cultural imperialism’,” he observes.
With demand for English teaching rocketing in Egypt – the British Council already educates over 20,000 a year at its main teaching centre and holds another 2,000 on waiting lists – the market for state-funded ELT initiatives, and their potential to be used as a form of ‘puppet diplomacy’, is only set to grow. And judging from the latest reactions, there is little doubt they will continue to prove divisive. A recent article in the New York Times about the US-funded Access scheme provoked a withering response from the local blogosphere after quoting a 15 year old alumnus of the scheme as saying Access had taught her to respect differences. “There’s nothing wrong necessarily with the idea of ELT as some sort of political tool,” says Wilmsen. “But this idea that you can come in and teach critical thinking, bound up with all this ‘changing hearts and minds’ jargon - who says it’s going to do any good? Who says that teaching Egyptians to think critically is going to change their attitudes towards, say, Israel or America?”
The US Embassy official in charge of the Access programme is himself aware of the potential for disagreement with those he is educating, but relishes that challenge. “We can’t teach critical thinking without living with a little dissent,” he concludes. “We’re giving them a tongue to talk back to us, and it’s a bold thing to do.”
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - May 2009
They appeared overnight, without warning. I noticed the first one in Umm Dahab's alleyway off Mahmoud Baysuni street, an incomprehensible jumble of shapes stencilled at a jaunty angle on the floor. There was another in the next alley down by the old shoe stall, and dozens more over the road on Qasr El-Nil. On slabs of paving stone and stretches of tarmac; outside banks, mosques and travel agents – downtown Cairo had been flooded with carbon-copy street-paintings spilling out through the city. Confronted with this mysterious artistic phenomenon, the authorities did what any sensible, level-headed authority would do – they panicked, called in state security agents, and began rounding up suspects.
The local media, of course, had a field day. Who was behind this pernicious outburst of creativity, and what did the strange symbols indicate? As government street-cleaners were drafted in to remove the offending items, commentators speculated that this could be the work of deranged anarchists seeking to ferment discord; others explained that it was likely to be the cryptic calling-card of a previously unknown Shia terror cell, or the chilling logo of a virulent new wave of jihadists. The truth was stranger than all of these theories; the group responsible for the latest unsanctioned addition to the city's art scene, it emerged, was none other than Egypt's very-own emo community.
Just to clarify, that's emo as in ludicrously tight T-shirts, dyed-black fringes, studded belts and thick horn-rimmed glasses, confessional slash-yourself music and a lingering sense of narcissistic self-hatred. In Egypt.
The exposure of the graffiti's true creators did nothing to curb the collective panic now seizing the opinion columns and chat shows of the Arab world's largest country. In fact if anything, it intensified; men with long beards and explosive belts are one thing, but teenagers who listen to My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy in their bedrooms while squeezing into skinny jeans are quite another. True, police now had these particular Banksy-wannabes under lock and key, but how many more were out there and what did they want from us?
Up to 10,000 Egyptians were members of emo-related Facebook groups, we were informed; all were adherents to a western cult which glorified homosexuality and threatened to undermine Islam. Discerning readers were offered tips for identifying emos: they were "driven by punk and emotion", wore "guyliner" and "manscarer" and were to be found "loitering in streets ... often dismal and in tears".
Every society in every corner of the world engages in periodic bouts of moral uproar over the behaviour of its youngsters. In the 1960s there was public condemnation of the leather-clad French youths who listened to Salut les Copains and danced to Johnny Hallyday; today Japanese politicians fret about Goth-Lolis congregating in parks, while the Daily Mail agitates hysterically over Britain's "feral" girl gangs. The frenzies take on different forms in different places, but all have two things in common: first, they depict a youth-orientated lifestyle trend as subversive and a corrosive threat to traditional values, and second, they are whipped up by those who have most to gain through the construction and demonisation of a cultural "other" – normally because it masks genuine problems. Egypt is no exception.
The "backlash" against emo-culture actually began before the street-art controversy, when the host of El-Hakika (The Truth), a top-rated talk-show on Dream TV, devoted an entire episode back in March to the alarming phenomenon of emos in Egypt. In it he grilled a number of self-identified emos, including one gutsy student named only as Sherif who persistently interrupted the presenter and callers to insist that the emos were not an organised movement and were not all gay. "The idea is that there is nothing wrong with admitting that you are emotional," he said defensively. The host, Wael El-Ibrashi, disagreed. "Look, no one can tell you how to wear your hair," the presenter conceded generously, "But when that becomes a group philosophy, it's worrying."
Islam Online soon weighed in with an article warning of the dangers posed to the family by "deviant" emos and several anti-emo Egyptian Facebook groups have since sprung up. The revelation that emos may have been responsible for the stencilled graffiti merely played in to an existing narrative of fear and distrust. And like their counterparts in Mexico and Russia, Egyptian emos have more to worry about than just being mocked by their peers; they are now being actively targeted by the police. "State security sees us as a dangerous underground, as Satanists, as queers and faggots," one emo told a state-run newspaper.
Two forces have a vested interest in hyping up the threat of what amounts to little more than a few well-off, bored teenagers hanging around in shopping malls. One is the government. As a recent column in independent daily El-Dostour argued, President Mubarak's regime has lost all legitimacy amongst Egyptians both politically and culturally, a state of affairs it seeks to reverse by inventing both internal and external enemies of the state and portraying itself as the last hope for the soon-to-be-besieged Egyptian populace. Mubarak's stance on Gaza won him no friends at home; consequently the official papers are suddenly full of details about a Hezbollah terror unit operating clandestinely in the Sinai, with its sights levelled on Cairo. Culturally the government likes to style itself as a last bastion of Islamic values, the irony of which is obvious to anyone witness to the daily security clampdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood. So now emos are the latest hate-figures; their strange looks and vague connections to undefined, sordid western values makes them the perfect foil for a dictatorship on the back foot.
The most depressing aspect of it all is that far from taking the demonisation of emos for the shallow hypocrisy that it is, some conservative Islamist groups – vested interest number two – are singing to the government's tune, just as they did a decade ago when the Egyptian media was full of scare stories about devil-worshipping Satanists (better-known as heavy metal fans). As many have pointed out, there's no reason why Islam and heavy metal or emo have to be mutually exclusive. The 16-year-old son of Ayman Nour, formerly a dissident rival to Mubarak for the presidency, plays in Egypt's premier '"screamo" band; "I love to spend three hours at the mosque for Juma (the Friday afternoon collective prayer) and then play black metal for four hours in the evening," he explains.
Amid the furore, little has been heard from the emos themselves. Which is because there aren't that many of them, and those that do exist tend to hang around in parochial little circles and talk about their feelings – hardly the agents of national decline that have been depicted in the media. Like most youth fads, emo is essentially a consumer culture – it's all about your image and which music you purchase. The vast majority of Egyptian adolescents can't afford to buy in to that scene, or any other subculture – they just get on with their lives, frustrated by lack of opportunity, angry at a state that denies them basic political and economic rights and prevented at every turn from exercising any kind of meaningful dissent against their political masters. Youths everywhere want to rebel, and the youth of Egypt – where 700,000 university graduates each year chase 200,000 jobs – have more reason than most to do so. The only difference is that the upper-middle class teenagers of Cairo and Alexandria have the money to express that rebellion in a different (and ultimately pointless) way. Let the emos have their fun; the real problem with Egypt's youth has nothing to do with bad haircuts and canvas trainers, and everything to do with a far wider political malaise.
Friday, May 1, 2009
December 27th, 2008: Israel launches a 22-day military assault on the Gaza Strip. Codenamed ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the campaign begins with intense bombardment from the air followed by a deep ground invasion which slices the blockaded Strip in two. The rapid development of a full-blown humanitarian crisis fails to bring about a ceasefire; with its borders sealed and a siege on its economy ruthlessly maintained whilst fighting continues, Gaza buckles under the weight of its attackers. By the end of the war over 1,200 of its citizens lie dead.
International journalists were initially forbidden access to the conflict; when they finally entered Gaza in the closing days of Operation Cast Lead, they were confronted with scenes of remarkable devastation. The majority of photography to emerge from this period focused on personal human tragedies, but there was relatively little debate over the targeted dismantling of Gaza’s institutions – the factories, pipes and grids that glue society together and form the foundations upon which any country is based. From flour mills to power plants, sewage pipes to schools, gaining entry into these vital organs of the state exposed the coldly efficient intentions of the invading forces – and the resilience of a people struggling to rebuild their land as the world’s media loses interest.
-Taken from ‘Guernica’
-Gaza – May 2009 (shot in January 2009)
-Original photography by Jason Larkin
Israel’s air assault on Gaza began with attacks on the Strip’s main police stations, including one in Rafah’s densely populated Junaina neighborhood which left twenty-five officers dead. Over the course of the war, approximately two hundred and fifty civilian policemen would be killed and every major police office damaged or destroyed, according to figures provided by the Ministry of the Interior.
When it became clear that policemen were being targeted, officers were ordered to don plain clothes uniforms and continue their patrols carrying sticks rather than guns to avoid detection. Trestle-table desks were set up amidst the rubble of bombed police stations to maintain the administrative network of law enforcement in the Strip, and the thirteen thousand-strong police force continued to function. “We would not allow the Israeli aggression to bring chaos to our streets,” says Ihab Al-Ghusain, a spokesperson for the Ministry. “We simply made the best of what we had.”
The Geneva Convention stipulates that to be considered a legitimate military target, objects must contribute to military action. “Police were not combatants and could not represent legitimate targets unless actively engaged in hostilities,” claims Sarah Leah Witson, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.
There was no significant increase in theft or looting during the war, although several calls were made to an emergency police hotline reporting incidents of over-pricing by merchants. “We have a bad history of safety in Gaza,” says Mr. Al-Ghusain, “and as a result people here have suffered. In times of crisis, people need the reassurance of a working police force more than ever; we could have everything else, but without security we have nothing. That’s why it was so important to keep going.”
In the nineteen eighties, fishermen based at Gaza City’s sole seaport would collectively bring around twenty thousand shekels worth of fish each day. “We were allowed to sail over thirty miles from the shore back then,” remembers Sheikh Ijnana, a fifty-eight year old boat-owner. The 1994 Oslo Accords stipulated that Palestinian fishermen should be permitted twenty nautical miles out to sea, enabling access to the larger shoals of fish that swim in deeper water. In recent years, though, Israel has restricted them to around six nautical miles and periodically shoots at any ships deemed to have broken the fluctuating limit. Three fishermen have died in the past twelve months from such attacks, and twenty-one have been wounded.
Fishing in the shallow waters by the shore is far less lucrative. Each shipping trip costs between $125 and $625, many of the port's two hundred vessels—each employing between ten and twenty people—have been forced to remain in the harbor.
During the war the port shut down completely, depriving the fishermen of even the much smaller catches they have come to rely on. “Now on a good day we can hope to get maybe five thousand shekels worth of fish,” says the Sheikh, who owns four boats. “But none of us could go out during the attacks, so that means one hundred thousand shekels were denied to us.” The closure of the port left the Strip’s supplies of fresh fish quickly exhausted; only old stocks of frozen seafood remained.
“This sea is so rich, so full of fish and tourism potential,” argues the Sheikh, gesturing out towards the Mediterranean. “I tell you if the sea was open to the people of Gaza, we would live like kings. But it’s closed and so we live in poverty.” Sheikh Ijnana’s son is following his father into the fishing trade. “We risk our lives every time we take the boat out,” he says. “What kind of future is that for him?”
Three key Gazan industries were targeted during the Israeli operation: construction materials, metal works, and food-processing plants. “They picked the industrial subsectors that were most crucial to the economy and most necessary for reconstruction,” says Amr Hamad, Vice Secretary General of the Palestinian Federation of Industries. “The infrastructure upon which economic independence rests has been crippled, and instead we now have complete dependence on Israel.”
In the twenty-two day assault, two hundred and twenty industrial establishments were damaged or destroyed, including seventy small engineering workshops. The Al-Badr factory was the main supplier of wheat to Gaza, responsible for covering 70 percent of the Strip’s flour needs, before it was hit by an F16 airstrike on January 10th. The ensuing fire that spread through the compound gutted $2.7 million worth of machinery and reduced to ashes up to one thousand tonnes of flour stored in the warehouse. “I think one of the pilots had worked in a flour factory, because they knew exactly where to attack to achieve the most irreversible wreckage,” claims Mahmoud Hamada, the factory’s chief engineer. Beyond humanitarian aid supplies, the Strip is now relying on imported wheat from Israel costing 150 percent more than the flour milled in Al-Badr.
Rebuilding Gaza’s industrial complex is near impossible under present conditions, as the basic raw materials needed for reconstruction are absent. “There is currently absolutely no way of making cement in the Strip,” observes Mr. Hamad. “We’re in desperate need of three hundred thousand square meters of glass and two thousand tons of aluminum, but where can we get it? The siege prevents supplies coming in.”
Despite having the advantage of a strong natural resource base and a highly skilled and productive workforce, industrial leaders are pessimistic about the chances of creating a stable business environment in Gaza. According to Mr. Hamad, even if money was available and the borders weren’t sealed, it would still take at least five years to rebuild investor confidence and recover from the industrial damage of the war. “Gaza’s business community was the last layer of society to believe that economic prosperity integration could provide a path to peace with Israel,” he comments. “Now even we are losing hope.”
Gaza’s electricity network was highly unstable both during the war and in its aftermath following a series of air, sea, and ground attacks on electrical feeding lines into the Strip and on internal distribution lines and transformers. By the time the war ended, 40 percent of the population was completely without power, whilst the remaining 60 percent was receiving only intermittent electricity supplies. “People here depend on electricity to pump water up to their water towers,” says Suheil Skeik, General Manager of the Gaza Electricity Distribution Corporation. “Imagine what it’s like to be trapped in your home in a war zone with no electricity and no water.”
Gaza’s electrical infrastructure was already in a critical state before the conflict owing to the closure of the Strip’s only power plant in November, which had run out of fuel supplies as a result of the siege. That left Gaza completely reliant on two feeding lines from Egypt and ten from Israel, four of which were cut by the Israelis during the war. As a consequence, for ten days at the height of hostilities, Gaza City was left completely without power.
In addition, tanks and bulldozers dismantled miles of pylons and wiring in residential neighborhoods. A lack of supplies means that reconstruction efforts are inherently makeshift. “We should replace the severed wires from scratch to ensure reliable service, but instead we are simply patching up the damage with old materials,” explains Mr. Skeik.
The total physical damage to the network stands at $10.5 million; even if all the necessary rebuilding takes place, as long as the power plant is deprived of fuel Gaza will still be 41 percent short of the electricity supply it needs to meet demand. The European Union has pledged 2.9 million liters of fuel supplies per week for six weeks to help plug the gap.
Gaza Zoo opened in 2005 and used to attract up to a thousand visitors daily before the war. “It’s school groups mainly,” says assistant zookeeper Saleem Bedowi. “The children need this sort of leisure activity to distract them from the troubles they face in their daily lives.” Populated largely with birds, monkeys, reptiles, and farm animals smuggled through Egyptian border tunnels, the zoo was occupied by Israeli forces following the start of the ground invasion. Nearly all of its occupants now lie dead.
Many of the creatures on display were hit by missile attacks during the opening days of the war, including the zoo’s pregnant camel. Others succumbed to starvation as the war dragged on; the presence of Israeli troops on the premises prevented the zookeepers from reaching the animals and feeding them. A few, including one horse, appear to have been shot dead by soldiers at point-blank range. Those that survived the conflict did so by eating the corpses of their brothers and sisters. “When the Israelis withdrew and I finally made it back inside, the only animals left alive were crazed with hunger and traumatized by all the death around them,” says Mr. Bedowi. “They are all terrified now, even the lions.”
Saher, a five-year-old male lion, and Sabreen, his pregnant companion, apparently endured the chaos by feeding on the zoo’s small ostrich population. When Mr. Bedowi returned to the zoo, the lions’ enclosure was empty; he eventually found the pair cowering in the toilets of the zoo’s administrative building. Graffiti now adorns the walls of the block, including the message “You lost” scrawled in Hebrew.
In all, 90 percent of the animals died in the conflict, $200,000 of physical damage was done to the zoo, and the ten families who rely on the institution for employment are facing an uncertain future. “What crime did these animals commit?” asks Mr. Bedowi. Israeli sources claim that the zoo had been booby-trapped by Hamas fighters, making it a legitimate military target.
Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities took a severe hit during the offensive, leaving over a third of the Strip’s population without access to clean water and overall water production levels down by 50 percent. “We were lucky that only nine of our one hundred and sixty wells were destroyed,” says Monther Shoblak, the Director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU). “The real problem was the attacks on water and sewage pipes, which left waste running through the streets in some residential neighborhoods.”
Pipes leading to the waste water treatment plant near the former Israeli settlement of Netsarim were bombed in the early days of the war, allowing twenty liters of raw sewage a day to flood into nearby farmland. “With electricity and fuel supplies intermittent, the whole system was already highly unstable before the war,” observes Mr. Shoblak. “After the hits on the pipelines, we asked for Israeli permission to venture out and undertake recovery work but were turned down.”
The result was that olive, citrus, and fig groves owned by the Qandi and Arafat families were swamped by a deluge of waste up to two meters deep, which left all but the tallest tree-tops buried underground. They estimate the damage at $25,000. “It will take at least a month for the sewage to fully dry out,” says landowner Mohammed Qandi, “then between two and ten years to re-cultivate the land, if it hasn’t been contaminated permanently.”
“The Ijdeedeh neighborhood was the fruit-basket of the whole region, which is why the Israelis built Netsarim settlement there in the first place,” explains Mr. Shoblak. Crippling the treatment plant resulted not only in the flooding of agricultural plots, but also had a knock on the fishing industry, as 100 percent of waste water is now being diverted directly into the sea.
Palestinian students have posted better high school enrolment rates than Lebanon in recent decades, and Gaza’s literacy level is higher than both Egypt’s and Yemen’s. But the education system is facing a wide range of operational difficulties following the end of the conflict, including bombed-out school buildings, restricted supplies, and the clean-up of classrooms used during the war as refugee shelters.
Of the six hundred schools in the Strip, two hundred and twenty-one are operated by UNRWA, which is responsible for educating some two hundred thousand Palestinians. Spokesperson Christopher Gunness believes the damage inflicted by the war on the education system goes well beyond physical destruction, and that returning schoolchildren will be psychologically traumatized by what they have witnessed. “Imagine what the conversations are going to be like,” he says.
More than half of Gaza’s population is under eighteen years of age, and despite most schools reopening on January 24th, there are fears that personal tragedies and the economic pressure created by the siege will prevent many children from returning to education. Most institutions devoted the first few days of teaching following the conflict to counseling before deciding whether or not to reschedule exams which were disrupted by the Israeli military operation.
The Khalil Al-Nubani school was attacked from the air on December 27th, the first day of hostilities, and subsequently gutted by fire. The entire student body has been transferred elsewhere while reconstruction efforts are launched.
Before the war, Sameh al Sawafiri’s farm produced twelve hundred cartons of thirty eggs each per day. The family enterprise has been Gaza’s largest provider of eggs since 1982, and was one of the most modern poultry production facilities in the Strip. On January 4th, the farm was invaded from two sides as the Israeli ground operation got underway. “Everyone here was rounded up and forced into one building, where we were held for five days,” says Mr. Al-Sawafiri. One young male, Ibrahim Jo’haa, was killed when Israeli tanks opened fire on the trapped family.
Israeli bulldozers then proceeded to flatten the farm, systematically killing every single one of the family’s thirty-seven thousand chickens in the process. Thirteen neighboring chicken farms were given the same treatment, resulting in the deaths of sixty-five thousand chickens in total. “It took them several hours to finish the job, but they were determined,” recalls Mr. Al-Sawafiri, age fifty-eight.
The farm’s destruction has led to a severe shortage of eggs in the Strip, pushing the price of a carton up from ten shekels to twenty-two shekels. “It was economic oppression, pure and simple,” says Mr. Al-Sawafiri, who is currently digging a mass grave for the chicken corpses. It will take three months to clear the debris, and a further year to rebuild the farm’s crushed machinery. “Everything’s hard with the siege, but we’ll manage. We have to. I’m buying new eggs for the incubator tomorrow, and we will start again.”
Jawwal is Palestine’s only home-grown mobile provider, serving 550,000 customers in the Gaza Strip and covering 99.8 percent of the territory with its one hundred and forty-two masts. The absence of any new supplies since 2006 means that broken cables and faulty cabinets cannot be repaired, and staff are unable to train on new technology. Sixty percent of calls now have to be routed via switchboards in London, decreasing call quality and network reliability further.
At the outset of war, twenty-two of Jawwal’s seventy-four macro sites were totally or partially destroyed, and all others were restricted by dwindling electricity supplies. Fiber optic cables near the Gazan border were also cut. “By the second week of the conflict, we were down to about 20 percent of normal operational capacity,” says Bassam Al-Adini, Jawwal’s technical manager. With land lines out of action as well, the Strip faced a severe communications crisis.
The macro-site in Zahra City was especially constructed for the fourteen hundred students and one hundred staff at the University of Palestine. Worth $120,000, it was hit by tank fire on the first day of the Israeli ground operation and currently remains disabled. Seventy-five percent of the network is now up and running again though, and Mr. Al-Adini believes the rapid recovery rate sends an important message to the people of Gaza. In the middle of the assault, Jawwal surprised customers by adding 15 percent of each customer’s total credit onto their account for free. “In times of emergencies, a mobile phone can save a life, so we think of ourselves in these periods as an extension of humanitarian aid,” he remarks. “It’s important to keep up people’s confidence levels in the infrastructure around them.”
Opened in 2001, Al-Quds hospital boasts one hundred beds spread over six floors as well as an Intensive Care Unit and a pre-natal ICU. Run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Al-Quds was hit by three Israeli shells on January 15th, sparking a fire which devastated the upper floors. The administrative building was the first block to go up in flames, quickly followed by the physiotherapy gym and in-house pharmacy.
Eighty medical staff and four hundred patierents and relatives were evacuated as the fire spread, including three from the ICU. They were moved seven hundred meters down the street, before eventually being transferred to the nearby Al-Shifa hospital. Al-Quds has now re-opened and is running at 50 percent of its normal operational capacity. “Hospitals are supposed to be the last bastions of safety; instead, our staff were subjected to attacks whilst in their place of work, and this has had a profound impact on them,” says Dr. Waleed Abu Ramadan, the hospital’s medical director. “That is what terror is.”
The damage inflicted on Al Quds was “completely and utterly unacceptable based on every known standard of international humanitarian law,” the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement issued from Geneva.
48% of Gaza’s 122 medical facilities were damaged by Israeli assaults during “Operation Cast Lead”, including 15 hospitals, stretching Gaza’s already under-resourced medical network to the breaking point. One of the legacies of the conflict is a large number of amputation and head injury patients, yet there are now fewer staff and resources than ever to treat these long-term cases.