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On 'human shields' and inhumanity in Gaza

It's the third time in six years that Israel launches a war on Gaza. Can you imagine that? If you were a Palestinian child born in Gaza 6 years ago, you would now have lived through three wars (provided you survived all of them). It's also the third time in six years that the Israelis pull out their tried-and-trusted-'Hamas-hides-behind-the-people-and-uses-them-as-human-shields-therefor we are allowed to bomb anyone and anything,'-rhetoric,  and I'm getting really, really tired of it. I previously posted the below text on facebook, but decided to share it here, too.

So let's talk about those so-called 'human shields', shall we?

[First, to get this out of the way: if you lock up people on a small strip of land, it's kind of naive to expect them to separate into different zones - one for fighters and one for civilians. Obviously they are sharing the same, small, physical space, so stop pretending you can hit one without hitting the other or even that it's their own fault if one gets hit while you were supposedly aiming for the other. Thanks.]

Second, and much more importantly: there is no such thing as a Palestinian human shield. Why not? Because the very rhetoric about human shields dehumanizes ALL Palestinians, whether they are fighting with Hamas or not. Here's how that works:

1) Saying Hamas uses 'human shields' (rather than, for example, 'civilian shields') implies that once you are Hamas, you are no longer human. Therefore, any Palestinian who picks up arms to fight the occupation is no longer seen as human.

2) If, as a Palestinian, you resist the occupation in other, possibly non-violent ways (and it seems that 'being physically present in Gaza' already counts as such), the very rhetoric of being used as a human shield strips you of the very thing that makes you human: agency. It means your presence is not the result of your own convictions, no, you are merely a puppet in the hands of the terrorists. And puppets, as we all know, are not human.

Simple, right? Two birds, one stone; they're either violent terrorists or passive weaklings used by terrorists. Neither is human, neither deserve that we care about their life.

Oh, and let's not forget that the first ones are usually men and the second usually women, meaning that as an added bonus this rhetoric reduces the resistance of Palestinian women in its many shapes and forms to zero. Ugh.

To protest or not to protest

It struck me when I got here: how tired people are. Tired of ‘the situation’, tired of protesting, of deciding who to protest against or what for, of not being sure if all that protesting would actually lead anywhere or change anything. Weary, they seemed, with their vision of a better Egypt somewhere hidden among the exhaustion of trying to get to it and no longer knowing where to find the motivation and the strength to overcome differences and once (or twice, or so many times) charge ahead and fight for what they’ve been fighting for since January 2011 – almost 3 year now.

On a wall between AUC Downtown and Garden City.

Last Sunday evening, as I left my Arabic class in Downtown, I realized that the streets were rather empty.  While I slowly walked towards Tahrir Square to cross the bridge behind it on my way home, I noticed a strange smell, something in the air that stung my eyes and nose. Tear gas. Most shops along the road were either closed or closing, with a few people still sitting on chairs in front of their doors.

From a street to my right I heard people chanting, but as the road towards Tahrir was more or less empty, I kept going to see if it was still possible to cross the square or if the army had blocked it off completely. I ended up behind the tanks with a few fire engines, ambulances and about seven people. By now I could see the protestors on the other side of the tanks and the police trucks in the next street off the square. I asked one of the seven people who was who. They are Muslim Brotherhood, he said, and we are with Sisi.

Protesting behind the book stalls, Downtown Cairo.

The police trucks advanced on the protestors, aided by a water-spraying fire engine. Then more tear gas. The protestors retreated to the next side streets, chanting slogans and holding up four fingers. A guy who was standing next to me behind the army vehicles rolled some perfume on my hand to counter the burn of the tear gas. We talked and he invited me to come see the other side – so we turned into yet another street and found our way towards the demonstration a bit further into Downtown. These are not just Muslim Brotherhood, he told me, a lot of them are university students. They are angry because a few days ago the army killed a student on a campus. The protestors had assembled on a crossroad of two of the wider avenues, and were standing there, chanting slogans led by two teenage boys on top of their friends’ shoulders. The little stalls selling corn and fries were having a good evening, serving those in the demonstration as well as the people who were shopping in the streets around it.

At some point, there was talk of moving. The mass of people turned towards what my newly-made friend said was the courthouse, but stopped as the police trucks and army tanks had blocked the road next to it. People slowly moved forward, in small groups, while the street vendors started packing up their wares. The police fired a few tear gas canisters, moving the protestors back to the crossroads. Some people from the demonstration tried to tear of some tree branches to make a fire, but others came to extinguish it. A young guy who picked up a stone was told to put it back down. From a small alley a woman came running, screaming Get lost! Go away! We don’t want you here, you are not Egypt! WE are Egypt! You aren’t! Angry people tried to argue with her, but then the police started firing tear gas again and everybody just ran, ran, ran in all directions. We hid in a little alley where a pissed-off waiter was stacking chairs as his business for the evening had come to an end.

Protesting on the intersection of two avenues.

Just as I came out of the alley again, the police truck passed, a few young boys in front of it running towards the protestors with stones and empty bottles. Instead of ducking and running back into the alley, the few people around me told me to stand still – to quietly wait until the trucks had passed. They yelled encouraging remarks at the police trucks, thanking them for dispersing the demonstrations.

By that time, the protestors had run off in so many directions, it was hard to know if there was anything left of the demonstration. Life returned on the avenues, the shops reopened and the vendors uncovered their stalls again. My new-found friend asked me if I had enjoyed the action. I demonstrate every Friday, he said. I asked if he thought the government was listening. He said it’s not for the government, but because we need to send a message to the Egyptian people that we don’t think it’s right, what is happening now.

I admire their stamina. I do not yet have a deep enough knowledge of Egyptian politics to agree with one side or another, but I believe that with a new (draft) constitution that allows for citizens to be tried in military courts and that severely restricts the right to protest, it is important to keep standing up against the system  – because it oppresses you, or because it oppresses those around you, because once those are down, who knows who will be next. Beautifully said by Omar Robert Hamilton: … tyranny is upon us again. We do not need to agree on the details or what exactly comes next. We just need to say no.

Tanks and soldiers blocking off Tahrir Square, Downtown Cairo.

To protest or not to protest, that is not the question.

No such luxury

Last night in a bar in Gemmayzeh I was reading John Kerry's speech as it was being live-blogged by a local news source. I'm not a political junkie by any measure, but if bombs are about to be dropped on my head I'd like to be informed. My fellow foreigners, who had earlier asked me what I thought of the situation and what is going to happen (to which my answers were 'shit' and 'we can't know, can we') pleaded with me to have an evening without politics, to 'just forget about all of it for one night'. But you can't come to Lebanon, pretend to be living here, and then not know or not want to know. If you want safety and ignorance, there are many places in the world where you can go, but the Middle East is not one of them.

I wonder if the store management is aware of the political implications of the combination of this color and slogan... 

Of course I am aware that I am a foreigner too. That I have a passport that allows me to leave when things get really rough and dangerous.  That this is only my adopted home, the place where I spent a good part of the past 8 years and was hoping to spent many more, but not a place that I grew up in or that I am condemned be attached to by birth or nationality. But I also know that it hurts to hear my Syrian friend say "I'm dancing now, but tomorrow my country might be bombed." That I feel the direct threat behind Kerry saying "it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens. America should feel confident and gratified that we are not alone in our condemnation and we are not alone in our will to do something about it and to act", because this is not about planes flying somewhere dropping something – this is about planes flying over my head and dropping bombs on people I know, people I care about, and the inevitable retaliation destroying even more of what I know and love around me.

Many people have said many things about the political decision of the US to get involved in Syria militarily. I won't add my opinion to that, because my opinion doesn't matter. Nor does the opinion of all the people around me. I learned this during the war in 2006, and today's discussion is a not so gentle reminder of that lesson: it doesn't matter what the people on the ground think, feel or want. It matters what those in power decide, which leader needs to be punished for 'misbehaving' and going against the will and orders of whoever are running the world at the time. The well-being of those directly affected is only a word used when there are no other reasons left to justify their decision.

People here are scared. Scared of what military intervention in Syria, no matter how 'limited' or 'targeted' it may be, will mean for both Syria and the rest of the region. Will Hezbollah react? If so, where? And if that happens, will Israel react? If so, how? (We don't need to ask where.) What will ll this mean internally, with all the tensions between the different sects? Even as seasoned veterans of a long-lasting civil war, Lebanese people are starting to see that what's about to happen (or is already happening) is no longer in the hands of the sectarian leaders they love to hate – and those politicians themselves are coming to the realization that this is out of their control too. That a new war will not be one neighborhood against another, one town for this sect and another town for the other. It will mean Iraq-style bombings that cause death and destruction without a clear goal.

naharnet.com clearly has trouble taking the UN seriously... 

I know what I think of it all doesn't matter. But I still hope that those who do take the decisions that may lead to all of this will at some point remember that while they are playing their geopolitical game for power, I'm driving my Syrian friend's mother across town so she can arrange her will and her daughter's access to her bank account. Not because she's terminally ill, but because 'you never know when the bomb will drop.' All of this to say: these are real people and real lives. Don't forget that.

Zeker twintig doden bij aanslag in woonwijk Beiroet

Omdat ik me zo erger aan de tendentieuze berichtgeving in NRC: een gecorrigeerde versie van het stuk "Zeker twintig doden bij aanslag in Beiroet op Hezbollah-bolwerk"

Buitenland (15 augustus 2013)–  door [Jules Seegers] correcties door Nicolien

Een aanslag vandaag in Beiroet, waarbij volgens autoriteiten twintig burgerdoden zijn gevallen, is [gepleegd] gericht tegen Hezbollah. De [militante] shi'itische groepering was doelwit van de sunnitische beweging Brigades van Aisha.

De groepering eiste de aanslag vroeg in de avond op. Volgens Reuters belooft ze nog meer aanvallen op Hezbollah.

"Dit is de tweede keer dat wij bepalen waar en wanneer de strijd plaatsvindt... En jullie zullen dat nog vaker zien, als God het wil."

Vorige maand werd in een [buitenwijk] andere woonwijk van Beiroet een autobom tot ontploffing gebracht waarbij meer dan vijftig mensen gewond raakten. De ontploffing vandaag in de overwegend shi'itische wijk Rweiss had plaats in een drukke winkelstraat en was in de wijde omgeving te voelen, aldus ooggetuigen. Op de staatstelevisie was te zien hoe er grote branden in de getroffen straat woedden. Boven Rweiss stegen grote zwarte rookwolken op.

Zeker tweehonderd gewonden

Reuters meldt dat het dodental van de aanslag is opgelopen tot twintig. De explosie vond plaats in het zuiden van Beiroet, een [bolwerk van Libanons terreurbeweging Hezbollah] woonwijk waar veel aanhangers van Hezbollah wonen, een Libanese politieke partij met een gewapende tak die onlangs door de EU als terreurbeweging is aangemerkt. Volgens AP vielen ook zeker tweehonderd gewonden.

Volgens het Libanese leger werd een autobom gebruikt voor de aanslag. Diverse [gebouwen] woningen en flatgebouwen in de directe omgeving raakten zwaar beschadigd.

Het oplopende geweld in Libanon kan een teken zijn dat de sektarische burgeroorlog in buurland Syrië verder om zich heen grijpt in de regio. Tegenstanders van de Syrische president Bashar al-Assad hebben gedreigd met aanvallen op Hezbollah, dat in Syrië met [Assads troepen] het Syrische leger meevecht.

Een op de kop geslagen spijker

"In een samenleving die doordrenkt is van het geloof in de markt, is het publieke belang iets virtueels – fijn om over te praten, fijn om anderen aan te herinneren, zonder dat het een weerslag in je eigen leven krijgt. Of je verplaatst je morele betrokkenheid ver buiten je eigen omgeving, een soort outsourcing van de publieke moraal – aidsbaby’s, kindsoldaten, rampenslachtoffers. Dat is mooi, want die mensen hebben het pas echt zwaar, maar het confronteert je met weinig of geen lastige dilemma’s in je eigen omgeving. Wat ben je anderen verplicht? Waar ligt de grens van je betrokkenheid?"

Lees hier de hele column. Bas Heijne voor nrc.nl, 2 juni 2012.