Where are you when we need you, Ed O'Loughlin? In his feature on Gaza for today's Sydney Morning Herald, All bets are off, Fairfax's Middle East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis reveals a clear inabilty to fill his predecessor's shoes.
Take this thumbnail sketch of Gaza's history, for example: "Gaza first hit the headlines in the time of Samson who, before falling in love with Delilah, apparently destroyed a Philistine temple there in a powerful fit of pique. In the middle ages, Gaza was famous for linen, so fine that it gave its name to the English word gauze. Gaza has fallen to Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Arab warrior Saladin, Napoleon, the Ottomans and Britain. For each conqueror, the coastal strip was a coveted gem in their imperial crowns. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Gaza was occupied by Egypt, but in 1967 Israel conquered the strip in the Six Day War. At first a spoil of victory, it wasn't long before Israel came to regard Gaza as a burden. The Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin wanted to give it back to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace accords, but his counterpart, Anwar Sadat, refused it because he regarded Gaza as a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism that had threatened regimes in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. By 2005 Israel's then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, elected on a right-wing platform, decided to uproot all Israeli settlements in Gaza and withdraw, leaving the strip dangling, as it were, between an Egypt that feared Gaza, and an Israel that wished it would go away. Home to 1.5 million Palestinians - nearly a million of them registered by the UN as refugees - Gaza was an orphaned strip 40 kilometres long and 12 kilometres wide."
Just pathetic! If Koutsoukis (and/or his editor) think that that is an adequate backgrounder for a feature on what is possibly the worst act of external armed aggression - and we're only half way there yet - ever perpetrated on the inhabitants of Gaza, then he has no right masquerading as an investigative journalist. Samson & Delilah, gauze, and an assortment of historical conquerors are in, but the key event in Gaza's modern history, without which we cannot understand the present juncture, is out. True, there's a mention of the "Arab-Israeli war of 1948," and an acknowledgment that most Gazans are "refugees," but that's it. So, what has he left out? This: the vast bulk of Gaza's population are the descendents of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from southern Palestine by Zionist forces in 1948 and caged up there ever since (except for a period of Egyptian rule - 1948-67) under a brutal Israeli military occupation. For 60 years now, these people, part of the Palestinian refugee diaspora, have clung to their internationally-recognised right of return to their homes and lands in Israel (im)proper, a key Palestinian right largely ignored by Arafat and his successors, but still upheld by Hamas. For Koutsoukis, however, a pair of Biblical lovers is more relevant to the matter under discussion than the Great Ethnic Cleansing - or Nakba - of 1948, and its ongoing relevance to the lives of Palestinian refugees in Gaza today.
Needless to say, the link between Gaza 2008 and Palestine 1948 is seldom made in the Zionised corporate media. The overcrowded Gaza Strip is always a given, it just is. The why and wherefore of its refugee population is almost never explored. Except, on rare ocassions, by serious and informed investigative jornalists such as Britain's Robert Fisk: "How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians," he writes, "to delete the narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which - in any other conflict - journalists would be writing about in their first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza. That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who live in Ashkelon and the fields around it... were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They - or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80% of whose families once lived in what is today Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of its people don't come from Gaza. But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza - a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin - and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the 5 sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story." (Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony, The Independent, 30/12/08)
In addition to Koutsoukis' first and major failing, he also misrepresents the historical record when he claims that "Israel came to regard Gaza as a burden" and "the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin wanted to give it back to Egypt as part of the 1979 [Camp David] peace accords..." In 1977 when Begin became prime minister and announced his intention to negotiate peace treaties with Arab leaders, he was asked by a journalist about the fate of the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. HIs response? "What occupied territories? If you mean Judaea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, they are liberated territories. They are part, an integral part, of the land of Israel." (quoted in Imperial Israel: The History of the Occupation of the West Bank & Gaza, Michael Palumbo, 1990, p 132) At the time, Begin ruled out both the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories and a freeze on settlement construction, a position he maintained during the Reagan administration's push for a settlement freeze in 1982. (See Palumbo, Chapter 5, Camp David) So much for the Israelis wanting to lay their "burden" down!
Then there's the bit about Sadat "refusing [Gaza] because he regarded [it] as a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism that had threatened regimes in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon." Certainly, the Palestinian resistance in Jordan had been attacked and driven out by the Jordanian army(1970-71), and, during the initial phase of the Lebanese civil war (1975-82), had sided with Lebanese national and progressive forces in their bid to break the monopoly on power exercised by right-wing Maronite forces. However, baldly asserting that "regimes in Jordan and Lebanon" were "threatened" by the Palestinians is a gross oversimplification at best and completely false at worst. But there's more: to suggest, as Koutsoukis does, that "Palestinian nationalism" in any way, shape or form "threatened" the Asad regime in Syria is a complete and utter nonsense from a 'journalist' who simply hasn't done his homework.
And speaking of failure to do one's homework, cop a load of this: "Israel's other key concern was to put an end to the use of Qassam rockets, more than 10,000 of which have landed in the farmlands and cities that surround Gaza over the past 6 years, killing about 20 people." Ten thousand rockets? Did Koutsoukis simply pluck this out of the air? According to a 12/07 study by the Intelligence & Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence, Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC), available at mfa.gov.il, "[a]s of the end of November 2007, there has been a total of 2,383 identified rocket hits in and around the western Negev settlements, with the southern city of Sderot as a priority..."
Something Koutzoukis does get right, however, is how the current hostilities began, an account that runs counter to current USraeli propaganda, which pins the blame squarely on Hamas :"The situation began to deteriorate rapidly on November 4 when Israeli troops entered Gaza to prevent what it claimed was a planned abduction of Israeli soldiers by Hamas using a tunnel it had dug under the security wall. Seven Hamas members were killed prompting immediate retaliation. Over the next 6 weeks Hamas fired more than 300 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, which again sealed its borders. By December 19 - the expiry date of the truce - Hamas, hoping to force Israel into opening the borders, announced it would renew aggression. By Christmas Eve, when Hamas militants fired 70 rockets into Israel, Israel had had enough." Thank God for small mercies.