Hell in the Holy Land

Americans and Journalists Under Siege in Palestine

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, April 11th, 2001

Innocent people are gunned down daily around the world by military and paramilitary thugs who often use American arms and ammo. But it usually takes the death of an American for the carnage to penetrate our national consciousness.  So, the question begs, why hasn’t the name Suraida Abu Gharbiah entered our lexicon? 

A Dead American

Abu Gharbiah was an American, born in Washington D.C. in 1980.  On March 29th, she was riding in a car driven by her husband, en route to her father’s home in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.  Her nine month old baby was on her lap when a unit of plain clothed Israeli soldiers known as the Mustaarabeem, opened fire on their car, shooting Abu Gharbiah in the head and chest, killing her instantly.  The soldiers also repeatedly shot her Palestinian husband, a journalist, before allowing him to leave.  He took his infant child from his dead wife’s lap, and painfully stumbled up the road to her father’s home where he collapsed. 

Abu Gharbiah’s father, Farhan Mohammed Saleh, claimed her body at the local hospital morgue five days after she was killed.  Due to the overwhelming carnage, the hospital had no room in their refrigerators to store Abu Gharbiah’s body any longer.  Saleh, because of Israeli roadblocks and indiscriminate shooting of civilians, was unable to bring his daughter’s body to the cemetery.  He buried her in the hospital parking lot, alongside 25 other recent victims of Israeli gun, mortar and tank fire.

Back in Brooklyn, Abu Gharbiah’s sister has been in repeated contact with the U.S. State Department, but to no avail.  So far, there has been no outrage on the part of the U.S. Government.  Nothing.  Just silence.  And it’s this silence that makes Abu Gharbiah’s death not just another murder, but a disappearance as well.  Judging by the U.S. government’s reaction, it’s as if this young American woman, gunned down by a military armed and funded by U.S. taxpayers, never existed.  The conditions surrounding her murder are just too embarrassing to be acknowledged by American officials who had earlier given tacit approval to Israel’s re-invasion of Palestinian territory.

Abu Gharbiah’s story was brought to life in the U.S. when Amy Goodman, host of the public radio program “Democracy Now,” (not aired in Buffalo – see my 2/21/02 ArtVoice column) aired an interview with Abu Gharbiah’s sister in Brooklyn, and her father, who is trapped in his Ramallah home where he is trying to care for Abu Gharbiah’s baby.  Such reporting, by focusing on one individual tragedy, adds a humanistic element to otherwise incomprehensible chaos.  Abu Gharbiah’s story, however, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  According to Amnesty International, the Israeli army is responsible for “flagrant human rights violations,” including mass detentions, extra judicial on the spot executions, looting, and the targeting of medical personnel.

17,000+ Americans Under Curfew  

Abu Gharbiah is not the only American citizen whose abuse at the hands of the Israeli military is being overlooked by the State Department.  Currently, according to The Boston Globe, 17,000 American citizens, almost all of whom are ethnic Palestinian-Americans, live, for example, in Ramallah.  The large number of Palestinian-Americans, many of whom moved to Ramallah to care for ailing relatives, or to bring up their children speaking Arabic, served to give the city a distinctly American flavor, with US style fast food joints serving as outposts of American culture.  Today, residents of Ramallah who were lucky enough not to have their homes destroyed, are prisoners in their own houses, locked down by a 24 hour Israeli imposed curfew.  They have no access to food or medicine.  Many are without water or electricity.  Beyond their homes, their city lies in ruins - streets littered with crushed cars and the debris from destroyed buildings.

Nidal Abdallah, an 11th grader at a Ramallah high school, is a Palestinian-American, born in Cicero, Illinois.  As the Israelis entered Ramallah, he was rounded up and detained along with his Palestinian neighbors.  His US passport and the protests from his American parents didn’t deter his abductors.  His abuse and the abuse of scores of other Americans living in the West Bank, like the murder of Suraida Abu Gharbiah, has yet to bring a serious protest from the US State Department. 

Journalists Under Fire

Suraida Abu Gharbiah’s story, in fact, has barely surfaced in the US media.  A full week after Abu Gharbiah’s death, a search of the Lexis/Nexis database of major American newspapers failed to turn up a single hit on either her married or her maiden name.  Aside from Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, few American media outlets picked up her story.  One of them was The Boston Globe, who reported Abu Gharbiah’s story five days after she was killed.  This was also three days after Israeli troops shot Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid.

While Shadid’s shooting might have angered Globe reporters into covering Abu Gharbiah’s story, he is certainly not the only reporter who has come under Israeli fire.  Since launching their latest offensive, the Israeli military has attempted to prevent the international media from covering any stories in the occupied Palestinian territories.  To that end, they declared Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other West Bank and Gaza cities as “closed” to the media.  Since issuing their proclamation banning the press from the war zone, the Israelis, according to the internationally recognized human rights group, The Committee to Protect Journalists, has been attacking journalists on a daily basis.  So far, they’ve forcibly expelled a CBS News crew, opened fire on an NBC News crew, opened fire on a BBC TV news crew, fired on a Reuters News Service photographer and confiscated film from The Associated Press, Reuters and Palestine TV.  On April 5th they fired “stun” grenades and “rubber bullets” at the international press corps as they tried to cover US Envoy General Anthony Zinni’s meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.   One of the grenades exploded under the foot of a CNN reporter.

While armed military assaults on representatives of the American corporate media are a new twist, Israeli attacks upon journalists are quickly becoming old news.  The French group, Reporters Sans Frontières, has documented over 40 instances of Israeli military and paramilitary forces firing on journalists between September 2000 and June 2001.  Israeli government spokespersons argue that reporters are barred from areas of the West Bank to protect them from stray gunfire.  The gunfire now hitting journalists, however, is anything but stray.  According to The Committee to Protect Journalists, “Sometimes, journalists were shot in the legs, head, or even hands as they held cameras. In one case, a bullet hit a journalist's camera lens. In many cases, reporters hit by gunfire were far removed from clashes and easily recognizable as journalists because of their conspicuous camera equipment.”

With journalists now prevented from working in Palestinian territory, it will become increasingly more difficulty to monitor human rights violations as the Israeli army process in their assault against what are essentially heavily populated civilian communities.  One of the most disturbing live radio reports of modern times, recently came out of Ramallah just before the Israelis intensified their campaign against journalists.  The report filed by an Italian reporter, was aired live on New York’s WBAI radio.  It was about three minutes of horror, as the terrified reporter kept screaming, “Fuck – Fuck” and “Shit,” stopping only to give vivid descriptions as bullets peppered the crowd of international peace activists around him.  His cries were punctuated with gunfire as he kept revealing his own naivety and surprise that he was under Israeli fire.

Two Israels

The Peace activists described in this report came from the US, Israel and a host of European countries.  Their presence both in the occupied territories and in Israel represents another major component of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has been absent from the US media.  Israeli society is fractured.  On one hand, Israel, proportional to their population, has the largest peace movement in the world.  But they are losing ground to a fundamentalist religious movement, who, by their own admission, are breeding themselves into political prominence by waging demographic warfare on the secular Israeli population.  They don’t fear what Israeli peace activists see as endless warfare.  For them, like their Islamic counterparts, this is a holy war.  When you bring God into a war, it has no end.

There are glimmers of hope, however. This week, for example, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists joined forces and built a human chain to pass relief supplies from Israel into a besieged Palestinian community.  At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 12 miles wide – many Israelis acknowledge that their future is intertwined with that of their Palestinian friends and neighbors. But these are only glimmers of hope, obscured by a sea of hatred bred through decades of warfare.  Things were different eight years ago when it appeared as though there truly would be peace.  Israel made peace with Jordan and Egypt.  The perception of political stability attracted investment and Israel’s economy boomed.  But peace only frustrated the hate mongers on both sides of the conflict who yearned for an ethnically cleansed homeland.  Intolerant ethnocentric fundamentalists, a minority in both communities, used violence to steal the day.  The rest is history.

For our part, as Americans, we’re doing nothing to help bring peace to this tortured region.  George W. Bush is all over the court in this game.  We’ve gone from a Teflon president, to a waffle, to a bouncing rubber ball. First he supported the recent Israeli incursion, then he called for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, then reversed himself again.  The US arms and underwrites the Israeli military, while Bush’s Saudi allies, according to National Public Radio, support suicide bombers who attack Israel, by awarding substantial financial grants to their next of kin.  The Israeli occupation of Palestine fuels the process by creating the despair and desperation that would drive someone to kill themselves.  Given the collapse of the Palestinian economy under Israeli “closure,” Saudi funded suicides offer some of the only economic opportunities to support one’s family.

Yes, this is hell.   Bush only fuels the flames – but at least we can argue we never elected him.  Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, was democratically elected.  He currently represents the biggest threat the State of Israel has ever faced.  Israel, originally established after the Holocaust to offer safe haven to Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, is now one of the most dangerous countries on earth for Jews to live in.  Sharon is a lunatic, dogmatically driven by an ancient text, which he interprets as a deed to Palestinian territory.  His policy of building settlements on land universally recognized as belonging to other people, guarantees endless warfare.  He is a dinosaur from a different era.  But the Israeli people elected him – and now they are facing the consequences of their decision.

Dying for Your Dogma

We who live in peace in other parts of the world must not resort to being proxy supporters of other people’s bloodshed.  We must condemn all sides in this war – and support no one.  This week I’m writing about Israel, because they are the ones with the tanks and planes.  They are the one’s attacking journalists and peace activists.  They are the one’s holding the smoking gun. But they are certainly not the only party with blood on their hands. 

This war is fueled by religiously driven rhetoric delivered by hypocrites who live in peace while others die to support their ethnocentric dogma.  Organizations in this country such as Al-Awda (Palestine Right to Return Coalition) and the Zionist Organization of America argue against the compromises necessary for peace, essentially lobbying to condemn communities where they don’t live, to endless warfare. 

And the war is spilling over, infecting the rest of the world with its cancer.  Last week in France, anti-Semites used Israeli abuses of Palestinians as a rationale for a host of attacks against Jewish community centers and houses of worship.  In the US, Palestinians and other Arabs are suffering from racial profiling.  Enough is enough.  

Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice articles are archived at http://mediastudy.com/articles.  Hate mail may be sent to hatemail@mediastudy.com

Copyright 2002 Michael I. Niman