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Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza – a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict

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With charges of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel flying in Britain and France, I’m publishing an account I wrote up going to cover Israel’s 2009 offensive on Gaza. It marked a new stage in the bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians, a bitterness that infects the world’s politics, as we see today. I was in Israel and the West Bank because Israel prevented entry to Gaza, although colleagues managed to get in via Egypt just as I left the region. I found fear and distrust on both sides, a deeply divided Palestinian leadership and a demoralised and isolated Israeli left.

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War as a spectator sport – Israelis and journalists watch Gaza from a hill near Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

12 January 2009

On a small hill just outside the Israeli town of Sderot, the world’s press, and a few curious local people, are looking at Gaza. With the international news media banned from entering Gaza, photographers’ huge telephoto lenses point south, towards Israeli tanks, whose barrels point further south again. TV reporters record to camera with the territory in the distance and an Israeli information-gathering balloon floating above.

It’s the beginning of the third week of Israel’s offensive against the territory and, compared to the early days, the old hands say things are calm. Nevertheless, a tank lets off a shell, there’s some gunfire and a larger explosion lets off a large cloud of smoke which rises lazily towards the clear blue sky.

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A shell falls on Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

A convoy of land-cruisers flying Israeli flags pulls into the dirt car park behind the hill. All the drivers are women.

Ariela Geneger is one of them. She explains that they have been collecting for the troops and have put together packages of thermal underwear, gloves, socks and “some goodies” for 1,000 soldiers.

Geneger says that this is a gesture of support for the offensive but the women’s concern seems more maternal than geostrategic.

“Those are our children they’re fighting,” she says.

Her son is a pilot, she explains, and the son of the group’s organiser is in Gaza.

“It’s not this separate thing, army and civilians; it’s part of this … this country’s all bound together.”

The group has also collected supplies for the bomb shelters in Sderot, which has been one of the principal targets of rockets fired from Gaza. “These people live under attack, so it can’t go on like this,” Geneger says.

But she also expresses sympathy for the people of Gaza.

“A lot of sympathy. My heart breaks for them; it’s just awful. And I don’t know, I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t know if it can be stopped now or if it needs to go on in order for people to talk. Because eventually people have to talk, so why do we have to go through all this?”

Maybe fighting first and talking after is the way of the world, she says, but, as a professional psychologist, she knows that “everybody should talk”. And that includes the Israeli government talking to Hamas, although the politicians argue that the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza cannot be an interlocutor because it does not recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Will the offensive bring peace?

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “I hope it will make it better. I really don’t know. I think too many people assume that they know too much but I’m afraid that we don’t know enough.”

Also on this blog War, what is it good for?

A kibbutz on the edge … and the missing Arabs

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Marlene Markovitch Photo: Tony Cross

There’s another anxious mother at Zikim, a kibbutz which lies just 400 metres from the Gaza border.

“Mothers in Israel can’t really think rationally,” says kibbutz secretary Ilil Burde. “I don’t think any mother can think rationally when it comes to this question. So don’t ask me.”

Two of her four sons may be called up to fight, so Burde, aware of her status as a representative of the kibbutz, is reluctant to express an opinion on the offensive.

“When you reach this point, I don’t think any mother in the world is a rational person. You get only emotion. At least, that’s the way I am,” she says.

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“If all the mothers around the world would be the leaders of the world, there wouldn’t be any war and we’d all be happy. So, if you want to see any declarations, let all the mothers of the world be the leaders of this world and we’ll stop all the wars.”

Meanwhile, she blames Hamas for the latest fighting and the civilian deaths in Gaza, which are now in the hundreds.

“In war there’s casualties,” she says. “And Hamas uses civilians as human shields.”

Burde, who sees herself as a left-winger, also blames Hamas for undermining the peace camp in Israel. Most of the kibbutz members supported the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005, she says, but now they feel betrayed by the breakdown of the truce.

“We’re very, very deeply disappointed because we feel instead of going forwards things are just going backwards,” she says. “What happens here, with all the rockets that we suffer for years and years, we the more left-wing in Israel can’t convince the more right-wing in Israel that we have to go on with the peace process because we get the answer, ‘See what happens, we draw out of the occupied territories in Gaza and they shoot rockets on us.’ ”

The kibbutz is doing its bit for the nation by playing host to a group of soldiers, some of whom are playing basket ball on a tarmacked surface near Burde’s office.

Standing by a paddock where two white horses graze, Zikim resident Marlène Markovitvh points to a field between her home and the barbed-wire topped fence which surrounds the kibbutz.

“That was all on fire,” she says. On the terrace of her white-painted bungalow stands an improvised flower-pot – trailing plants grow out of exploded ordnance.

Rocket attacks reached the level of 50-70 per day before Hamas’s six-month truce with Israel, she says. The number was reduced during the Egyptian-brokered six-month truce but the attacks increased again when it ended.

No kibbutz members were killed, although some children were injured and a direct hit on the dairy killed six cows. Zikim is one of the biggest milk producers in Israel and has two small factories, which have also been hit.

The offensive drastically reduced the number of attacks but brought new disruption to the kibbutzniks’ lives. The sound of the military’s drones and helicopters frightened the children so much that they had to be evacuated.

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The kibbutz’s school Photo: Tony Cross

“They know that they are from Israel but it’s frightening when you hear them at night, the few last days it was horrible,” says Markovitch. “The few last days, we couldn’t sleep, we were scared. Everbody was scared.”

Markovitch speaks with a certain pride of her good relations with Gaza residents who worked on the kibbutz before the Israeli blockade of the territory.

“These were made by a friend from Gaza,” she says, inviting us to sit on metal chairs at her dining table.

She and her husband have phoned some of their Gazan acquaintances during the offensive but believe that they are not keen to talk for fear that Hamas will find out that they are in contact with Israelis.

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The abandoned Arab house on the kibbutz Photo: Tony Cross

Markovitch takes us up a gentle slope, past the neat bungalows and the school with its roof reinforced in case it’s hit by a rocket, to a half-ruined house looking onto the kibbutz on one side and onto Gaza on the other. It belonged to an Arab family who fled in 1948, after the state of Israel was founded.

“They were scared, they were very scared by the Israelis and they didn’t want to stay here. But, anyway, I think they didn’t have a choice, too. The Israelis didn’t give them any choice.”

The family came to visit not long ago, says Markovitch.

“We invited them and they ate here and it was very nice. They are angry because we are getting their place but it’s the eternal problem between Palestinian and Israeli – who owns what?

“But they have the right to be here, too,” she concludes with a laugh, which has perhaps a hint of embarrassment.

To read and hear my report from Zikim for RFI click here

West Bank Palestinians collect for Gaza, criticise Abbas

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Rezeq Barghouti, RFI colleague Eduardo Febbro, interpreter Steve Nasi Photo: Tony Cross

14 January 2009

In Ramallah the collections are for Gaza and the declarations of solidarity are with the 1,000-plus people killed there, the several thousand wounded or homeless.

Collecting aid has replaced dance and poetry as the principal activity of the Baladna Cultural Centre. Cardboard boxes are piled up the walls, bags of clothes and babies’nappies lie on the ground.

Rezeq Barghouti, who works for the Palestinian Authority’s farming section, explains that people have given everything from agricultural produce to blood.

“Here’s olive oil from the farmers in the West Bank,” he says. “And here we have blankets, you see, because they suffer from cold now in Gaza.”

An appeal to give blood got a big response, says Barghouti, “because you know that we cannot go to Gaza now. We cannot stand with our people there, so what can we do?”

Barghouti wants to see unity of the Palestinian leadership, after more than two years of often violent clashes between President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas.

But he is critical of Abbas’s response to the offensive, as are, it seems, the big majority of people on the West Bank, which, until now, has been Fatah’s base of support. At the start of the offensive Abbas declared that Hamas was at least partly to blame because it had broken off the truce with Israel and resumed rocket attacks.

Most Palestinians point out that Israel’s killing of seven Gazans on 5 November last year was already a breach of the ceasefire and agree with Hamas that the blockade of the territory is another form of hostile act.

“All the Palestinians in Gaza suffer the same enemy and they suffer the same killing … Israel doesn’t distinguish between this and this,” says Barghouti. He is particularly critical of Egypt for closing the Rafah crossing and preventing Gazans from escaping the offensive and of Abbas for failing to criticise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite being a Palestinian Authority employee, Iman Nafeh, who is organising another collection in Ramallah’s main square, is even more outspoken in her criticism of Abbas.

“He is all the time saying he wants peace and he’s supporting the peace,” she says. “And he is even shaking hands with the people that killed the Palestinians and … they are not giving him anything.”

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Iman Nafeh with helpers Photo: Tony Cross

Nafeh, who is tightly wrapped in hijab and a long coat over a long dress, insinuates that informants are likely to report her words to people in power, even the president himself.

“I know he will hear me,” she says, adding that all Palestinians are under observation.

“I am sorry because he’s not going to be elected if we have another person who is stronger than him … People here, they are angry about what Mr Abbas is doing.”

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Palestinian activists thank Hugo Chavez for breaking off relations with Israel over the offensive Photo: Tony Cross

Outside a modern building on a windy street a kilometre or so outside Ramallah’s town centre stands a small but noisy crowd, mainly women, waving the Palestinian flag and shouting slogans in Arabic and English.

They are a delegation of Palestinian political parties, who have come to present a letter of thanks to the Venezuelan consulate, which is inside the building, because the Bolivarian republic broke off diplomatic ties with Israel over the offensive.

According to our interpreter, Steve, the move has made Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more popular than Abbas, with TV presenters asking why Arab countries, who are supposed to be the Palestinians’ allies, have not made such vigorous protests and why the Palestinians don’t have such resolute leaders.

Khitam Fahim, an activist in a women’s organisation linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, sees the Venezuelan leader as a comrade in the struggle.

“So, we are here to say Viva Venezuela! Viva Hugo Chavez! Viva every freedom fighter in this world!” she exclaims. Foreign politicians should stop calling Palestinians “terrorists, she says, “We are freedom fighters and we are struggling for our freedom and we are with the whole freedom fighters in the world.”

Fahim, too, wants Palestinian unity: “The Palestinian leaders should go to emergency negotiations, emergency unified leadership for their people.”

They should stop quarrelling and they should stop listening to the US, she says.

For all Fahim’s criticisms of the US, many Palestinians hope that an event in Washington will bring an end to the offensive.  They think that Israel may want to finish its operations before the inauguration of Barack Obama as president next week.

To read and hear my reports on RFI click here

Divided Palestinians bicker as Gaza burns

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Abdullah al-Frangi Photo: Tony Cross

15 January 2009

Abdallah Al-Frangi is a Fatah veteran and a member of the movement’s Central Committee. But, when he meets us in a capacious office in Ramallah, he doesn’t rush to defend Mahmoud Abbas.

Asked about popular criticism of the president, Al-Frangi sighs and shrugs. Nobody believed that the attack would be so intense when it started, he says, by way of a partial excuse.

But he believes that the Israelis were preparing the offensive for longer than eight months, a claim based on information which Abbas presumably also has access to.

“So I don’t believe that the Israelis came to Gaza because of the missiles of Hamas,” Al-Frangi says. “From time to time they want to show the world, and the Arab people, that they are strong and that nobody can touch them and nobody can fight against them and I think they used Hamas in this case.”

Al-Frangi’s family is from Gaza and he seems deeply moved by the effects of the offensive.

“It is too hard! It is too hard for me, it is too hard for everybody who is a human being,” he says. Basing himself on frequent calls to Gaza, he says that people are living without water or electricity and that many have been wounded or killed, mostly civilians.

“Surely I am suffering with them,” he adds.

Above all, Al-Frangi wishes to see en end to the split between Fatah and Hamas, which “is helping the Israelis more than this attack”.

Abbas’s priority is a ceasefire, according to Al-Frangi. He also wants to reopen Gaza borders and rebuild Palestinian unity.

But “it is not easy.” For the last two years the two sides have not spoken. Hamas is perhaps justified in its suspicions of Abbas, who dismissed an elected Hamas-led government two years ago, after Israel, followed by the US and the European Union, refused to deal with the movement.

For his part, Al-Frangi is suspicious of Hamas, which seized power in Gaza and drove out leading Fatah members after the dismissal.

He used to negotiate with the group and says that the Islamists are unreliable negotiators, prone to demanding radical revisions of already agreed points just when a deal seems close.

Al-Frangi is blessed, or cursed, with a name which means foreigner. His father insisted that it came from an ancestor who was the first to wear European clothes rather than from the family’s origins, but Hamas exploited it when he returned to Gaza from exile with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Tunis.

Hamas members told him to “go back abroad” or even “return to your foreign religion”, he recalls.

Even now he is not optimistic.

“I have the feeling the Hamas people are not ready to make a step towards Fatah to make a common policy together.”

As we meet Dr Mustapha Barghouti in another spacious Ramallah office, the television shows footage of the Gaza press centre just after it has been hit by Israeli bombs.

Barghouti, who was information minister in a short-lived unity government, accuses the world’s news media of bringing this on the journalists reporting from Gaza, who are almost all Arabs because of Israel’s ban on reporters entering during the offensive.

“I think this is a result of the silence of the world media about the Israeli violation of every basic principle of free journalism and press,” he says.
There was “no serious protest” against the Israeli ban, he feels.

“This is the third time that they bombard journalists. Already three journalists were killed and now several others injured. They have now upscaled their attack to include not only Abu Dhabi channel and Al Arabiya channel but even Reuters offices and that’s because of the international community and the complicity of the international media, worldwide.”

“The time has come to stop treating Israel as if it is above international law,” Barghouti says.

The press ban is because Israel “is trying to hide the truth”, he says. “They’re trying to hide the fact that this is not a war on an army, it’s a criminal war against civilian population with a totally disproportionate power between the two sides and with the use of prohibited equipment and prohibited weapons.”

Barghouti considers it proven that Israel is using white phosphorous in Gaza. The Israeli army denies using the chemical and ICRC chief Jakob Kelleberger told a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday that he had seen no evidence of its use on a visit to the territory’s main hospital.

But several newspapers and a report by the US-based group Human Rights Watch agree with Barghouti. Human Rights Watch points out that its use in densely populated areas violates international legal requirements to avoid civilian injury and loss of life. Gaza has 75,000 people per square kilometre, compared to 25,000 per square kilometre in Manhattan, according to Kellenberger, who took care to declare that such a dense population means that “the choice of weapons is important”.

Barghouti, who is a medical doctor, claims that other, unknown chemicals are being put inside munitions, saying that they “seem to burn the whole tissue to the bone”.

“The only thing that is not burnt by these chemicals is the bone …. Doctors called me and said that when we find somebody with an internal injury we open it and we cannot do anything because this is not a bleeding we can stop. It’s a burn that goes on and on and on till the patient dies.”

Barghouti was once general secretary of the Palestinain People’s Party, the former Communist Party, but left the post and the party in 2002 to establish the Palestinian National Initiative, along with US-based academic Edward Said. He stood as an independent in the 2005 presidential election, coming second but winning only 156,000 votes to Abbas’s 501,000.

Like Al-Frangi, Barghouti calls for unity, although he is less indulgent towards President Abbas. Blaming Hamas rocket attacks for provoking the Israeli offensive was “a very big mistake”, he says. “And he’s paying for it.

“His credibility is very low today. It’s the lowest ever and I don’t know if he will regain any credibility after what he has done.”

Admitting that the divisions in the Palestinian camp are “very damaging”, Barghouti insists that there is also “very serious internal transformation”. Abbas’s Fatah, along with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), is likely to be “the biggest loser from this war”.

The lack of internal democracy means that “most of the Palestinian forces that are struggling for Palestinian rights are outside the PLO now and most forces inside the PLO have become a bureaucracy, feeding on the Palestinian Authority”.

Forces that are “not Hamas and not Fatah” are “working very hard to find a way to go back to national unity and that’s what we need”, he insists, citing the government in which he served as proof that unity is possible.

Even though he is one of the most outspoken secular Palestinian politicians, Barghouti seems to believe that the immediate answer to his people’s problems is in foreign hands. The European Union should stop buying arms from Israel, he says, and “what will stop aggression is a serious change of the behaviour of the international community, which looks like either careless or complicit with Israeli aggression”.

Gaza day of anger in Ramallah

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Women on the day of anger demonstration Photo: Tony Cross

16 January 2009

Friday morning in Ramallah, the streets are unusually empty. Uniformed police gather on the central Manara Square, while groups of men loiter around its edges.

This is the third Friday since Hamas called on Palestinians to demonstrate their solidarity with Gaza after Friday prayers.

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Youths wait for the Gaza day of anger protest to start Photo: Tony Cross

Among those waiting is Faisal, a thin, dark, shabbily dressed man, with sunken cheeks and an intense stare. He is a member of Fatah and spent 12 years in Israeli jails. His faith in his leaders has been shaken and his patience with the peace process with Israel has run out.

“There is no other solution,” he says. “The only solution is resistance. First it was Jenin [the refugee camp where over 50 Palestinians were killed in 2002], now it is Gaza, maybe tomorrow it will be Ramallah, so the only solution is resistance.”

Faisal thinks that the Palestinian National Authority should be disbanded and armed struggle resumed. Like Hamas, he argues that Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate has run out since he was elected for four years in 2005. Abbas claims he should stay on until 2010 because the Palestinian Legislative Council has since decreed that presidential and legislative elections should be held together.

We discuss where it would be best to stand and which roads can serve as escape routes if teargas is fired. On the previous two “days of anger” the Palestinian Authority’s police have dispersed Hamas supporters in a manner unlikely to foster Palestinian unity.

As the call to prayer rings out a crowd fills the Jamal Abdel Nasser mosque, spilling out onto the street in front of a market which stops business as the imam begins his sermon.

Thousands have been killed in Gaza, he says. UN resolutions against Israel have not been implemented, while resolutions against Muslims are, so what’s the use of the international body?

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Prayers before the Gaza day of anger demonstration in Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

The preacher is as contemptuous of the leaders of Muslim countries as he is of the UN.

The unbeliever has declared war on Gaza and the leaders of Islamic nations watch and do nothing except count the killed and wounded, he says. Unbelievers attack believers all over the world.

In the mosque, in a passage down the side reserved for women and in the street, hundreds of the faithful join the prayer. Then the demonstration starts.

Or rather demonstrations, because, although this has been billed as a demonstration for Palestinian unity, the crowd splits in two – hundreds of Hamas supporters gathering on one street at the front of the mosque, while hundreds of others head down another street behind it, both marches heading for Manara Square.

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Hamas supporters brandish the Koran Photo: Tony Cross

Loudspeakers crackle slogans and orders, one of which is from Hamas leaders telling their supporters not to wave banners so as to avoid trouble. Some small groups of women wave the green flag nonetheless, but are quickly instructed to put them away and obey.

The Hamas contingent is segregated according to gender. The women, in hijab and long dresses and coats, brandish the Koran and shout shrill slogans, calling on the movement’s armed wing, the Brigades of Ezzedine al-Qassam, to fire Kassam rockets as far as Tel Aviv.

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The march heads for the centre of Ramallah Photo: Tony Cross

Wahid Mansour seems a little out of place among the Islamists. Clean-shaven and in western dress, he says he is “just seeing what they’re doing” on his way home from the mosque. Unlike the Hamas women shouting right behind him, he is extremely supportive of Abbas.

“Mahmoud Abbas is the president of all Palestinians,” he says. “He is elected from Palestinians and he is one who express our Palestinian will.”

On the square the two protests come together without dispute. One young demonstrator, Rami, believes that Palestinians should “unite under one legitimate leader” but won’t commit himself on the question of whether Abbas is the man for the job.

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Mustapha Barghouti and supporters on the day of anger Photo: Tony Cross

As the different currents of the demonstration eddy around the lion monument in the centre of the square, Mustafa Barghouti and his supporters make a nosiy entrance, shouting slogans in support of Hugo Chavez. As the Hamas women pass them, they scream “Haniyeh! Haniyeh!” in support of the Hamas chief in Gaza who was deposed by Abbas as prime minister. In another corner, Fatah supporters shout their own slogans.

Unity doesn’t seem to be a done deal.

To read and hear my reports of the day of anger in Ramallah click here

Israelis on edge in Sderot and Ashkelon

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Israeli flags greet visitors to Sderot Photo: Tony Cross

17-18 January 2009

On Saturday in Jerusalem Hassidic Jews in their black hats and coats make reproachful signs at our taxi driver for driving on the Sabbath, on the hill outside Sderot secular residents spend their day off staring at the occasional explosion on the Palestinian horizon, late in the evening Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declares a ceasefire and announces: “We won”.

Overnight the alarm sounds in Ashkelon, where we have found a hotel. On Sunday morning there are reports of six rockets being fired from Gaza. At the government press centre in Sderot, officials say that two landed near the town. When we ask to see them, we’re told that they fell in fields outside the town and there isn’t much to see.

“It’s another proof that Israel made the decision unilaterally that we would like to halt fire, unfortunately Hamas is responding, firing rockets into Israel again and again,” says Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Leo Vinovesky.

Israeli officials hold Hamas responsible for all attacks. If it’s pointed out that they could be the work of other groups, they reply that Hamas controls Gaza and should therefore control them. How it can do this after a three-week bombing campaign aimed at destroying their political and administrative apparatus is unclear.

So how long can the truce last?

“The fact is that Israeli forces are still there in the Gaza Strip, ready for any scenario,” says Vinovesky.

“We have the right to protect ourselves,” he adds “You witness here in Sderot – it’s not a life to rush into the shelters every five minutes, every 10 minutes. Imagine that happening to this population in the south of Israel for more than eight years, so enough is enough!”

The whole of Sderot is draped in Israeli flags and banners. Billboards depicting a heart pierced by a missile welcome you to the town. In the centre men sit around gossiping under a tree, as they would in any town around the Mediterranean.

Shopkeeper Sasson Sara hasn’t much confidence in the ceasefire. He gives it “maybe one month, that’s all” and says that the rockets won’t stop until the Israeli army has wiped out all of Hamas.

Two women passing through town also put all the blame on Hamas. One of them, Nama, is on her way home from a centre which helps people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of rocket fire.

“I think they should have stopped the fighting,” she says but adds that Hamas must stop firing rockets and shooting “their own people”.

“I don’t like the war,” she sighs.

The sirens sound as I arrive in Ashkelon in a taxi whose hitherto-lethargic driver is spurred into action. I don’t realise what is happening and he yells at me in Hebrew, jumps out of the car and leads me into a bank where a crowd of customers and passers-by is shepherded into a shelter. People talk calmly, there’s even a certain camaraderie. We hear no explosion.

Hamas announces a one-week ceasefire, calling on Israel to withdraw and open the border crossings. Its leaders, too, claim victory.

Israeli peace camp isolated and split

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Supporters of the offensive argue with peace campaigners in Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

In Jerusalem on Sunday evening Israeli leader Ehud Olmert receives European Union leaders, who have been in Egypt negotiating a truce, at a dinner in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

On the other side of a busy crossroads, a small group of protesters chants “War is not a game!” and “Peace yes! War no!”.

In the past their movement, Peace Now, has mobilised thousands to call for negotiations with the Palestinians and peace with Israel’s neighbours. Today, with a large majority of Israelis apparently supporting the offensive, they are less than 20.

“Maybe sometimes you have to use violence to defend your country,’ says one of the protesters, Devora. “But when you have to use violence, you have to make it pointed … you have to use the minimum violence to the maximum effect and I feel like we used the maximum violence to the minimum effect.”

Like so many Israeli women, Devora has sons in the army.

“I’m a mother and I would like the ceasefire to hold that people won’t be killed on both sides of the line but I’m not very hopeful.”

Three girls, armed with banners and the Israeli flag, stage a counter-demonstration, accusing the peace campaigners of supporting “terrorists”, who kill Israeli women and children.

“We want all the Palestinians – no, not all the Palestinians, Hamas – will die!” says one of them, Amara, struggling with her English but not her feelings. The two sides launch into an impassioned argument before the girls cross to the other side of the road to wave the flag and shout at the peaceniks.

Some Peace Now and left-wing leaders initially supported the Gaza offensive, believing it to be a justified response to Palestinian rocket attacks. But by the second week they had organised a demonstration of 1,000 to call for a rapid end to the attack.

“It’s very hard,’ says Peace Now member Yonatan, who admits that he feels isolated from most Israelis at the moment.

“Once you say you’re against the offensive … they take it as agreeing with Israel being bombed and I don’t think Peace Now agrees with Israel being bombed and it doesn’t agree with Israel bombing.”

In the chilly Jerusalem night, the protesters keep up their chants to an audience of police and passing cars. Several drivers sound their horns in disapproval as they speed past.

Israel denies using white phosphorous

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Lt-Col David faces the press on a hill overlooking Gaza Photo: Tony Cross

19-20 January 2009

Today the hilltop outside Sderot is serving as the venue for an Israeli army press conference. As a drone whines overhead, an officer presented to us as Lt-Col David tells journalists how his soldiers felt as he led them in combat in Gaza.

“The last eight years, when civilians here, just behind you, were targeted by Hamas terrorists daily with these rockets destroying homes and schools and creating a lot of disruption to civilian live, this is what we were trying to stop and I think, I know, that when my soldiers were in there this is what was in the back of their mind all the time.”

But official minders move in when he is asked whether Israel has used white phosphorous.

Military spokesperson Olivier Rafovitch, who speaks to the media in battle dress with a rifle slung over his shoulder, denies the charge and claims that Hamas used the chemical in one rocket attack on a village near Gaza.

According to the Israeli official line, the offensive is the fault of Hamas, the white phosphorous is the fault of Hamas and, says Rafovitch, the civilian casualties are the fault of Hamas.

“I believe that the ones who have to be blamed for the civilian losses of life are Hamas,” he says. “Hamas was using the people of Gaza as a human shield. It’s not a secret, it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, a report by Amnesty International says that its investigators “found still-burning white phosphorus wedges all around residential buildings” in Gaza.

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Israeli troops near the Kalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem Photo: Tony Cross

Yael Stein, Research Director at the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem, finds the official denials incredible.

“Of course it came from the Israeli army,” she says. “There was one day they said Hamas threw one rocket to Israel and that was with a little bit of white phosphorus. They had such a report, but it can only come from the Israeli army.”

The question has not made the front page of the Israeli press, whose coverage of the offensive has drawn criticism from some NGOs.

One of them, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) wrote an open letter to the media to tell them that they weren’t exactly speaking the truth to power.

“What’s being portrayed right now is this ultrapatriotic rhetoric, where criticism is really shunned,” Acri’s Melanie Takefman told us last week. “We’re saying that this is a crisis but, look, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have freedom of expression and that there can’t be meaningful debate.”

You’re never far from the army in Israel and the office of Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel (Keshev) is just one floor above a suite guarded by soldiers and clearly closed to the public.

The close military presence doesn’t seem to inhibit Keshev’s Yizhak Be’er, who monitors press coverage of the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world and doesn’t like what he finds.

Sifting through a pile of copies of best-selling daily, Yediot Aharanot, he contrasts the prominence given to rocket attacks on Israel with no victims, while reports of the hundreds of Gazan civilians killed receive little attention.

Be’er accuses the press of buying into an official discourse which portrays all Israel’s conflicts as battles in a war to defend western civilisation.

“There is a confrontation that is depicted as war of the west against the terror, global terror, and against fundamentalistic groups of Islam,” he says.

Recalling the dictum “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not getting at you”, he points out that Israeli consciousness is formed by Jewish history and the present hostility of the country’s neighbours. But he thinks that the media-managers have made many mistakes in their handling of this offensive.

“First of all, the closure of the borders to foreign journalists, it is a stupid decision,” he says. “The foreign media have only one source now, the Arab cameras. Al Jazeera and Al Watan who give one side of the story.”

While officials have expressed satisfaction in the work of the newly-established National Information Directorate, Be’er believes that foreign reporters know when they are being treated like idiots and are alienated by officially-organised visits to hospitals with Palestinian patients admitted before the offensive which are meant to show Israeli generosity.

Ban – and Hamas ordnance – face the cameras in Sderot

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Israeli police show off rockets fired by Hamas at Sderot and its surroundings Photo: Tony Cross

 

Sderot’s press centre is closed for “reasons of security”, as Ban Ki-Moon heads for the town. The UN Secretary-General’s press conference is to be held in the town’s police station, allowing the cameras to film him against a background of showcases packed with used ordnance collected after Palestinian rocket attacks.

As we wait for Ban to arrive, corpulent police officers fuss around with flags, trying to hang them from twisted shells and other officials tell us that no questions will be taken after Ban’s statement.

Earlier in the day Ban was in Gaza, where he called for punishment for those responsible for the bombing of UN-run buildings in which a number of civilians died.

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Ban Ki-Moon with Sderot’s mayor Photo: Tony Cross

Here he meets Sderot’s police chief, who shows him what an exploded shell looks like, and its mayor, who accompanies him to the mikes.

Ban declares the rocket attacks “unacceptable” and expresses sympathy for the “trauma” experienced by local people.

But he also calls on Israel to open the border crossings, with “transparent, clear and effective border management” to stop weapons being taken into Gaza. And he says that there must be political action “or there will be an increased radicalism among Palestinians”.

Like almost everybody nowadays, it seems, Ban wants Palestinian unity. But, although he does take two questions which allow him to say a little more of what he wants to say, he doesn’t answer when asked if that unity would include Hamas.

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Alley, Jerusalem Old City Photo: Tony Cross

To read and hear my reports of the 2009 Gaza offensive click here

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In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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India 2004: Gangsters, politics, poverty, caste and communal violence in Modi’s Gujarat and Bombay

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The Arabian Sea seen from Mumbai Photo: Tony Cross

There was a surprise result in the 2004 Indian general election, which I covered for RFI. Congress won despite the BJP’s boasts of “India shining” thanks to its economic management. Much of the middle class liked the BJP4S success in reconciling Hindu nationalism with mall-building multinationals but the poor, especially the rural poor, were less impressed. I visited Bombay and Gujarat. The latter turns out to have been a good choice, Gujarat being the home base of Narendra Modi, who has taken advantage of Congress squandering the good will of its voters and led the BJP to power. See the second half of this post for a visit to the scene of communal riots that are still a controversial part of the PM’s past. Here’s what I wrote on my return to France in 2004.

Mumbai, 18-21 April 2004

The behl puri sellers by the Gateway to India are going to vote Congress.
Behl puhri, a sort of spicy dry rice crispies with vermicelli, is, I’m assured, the essential Bombay snack. Actually, I’d already tasted it in London but I’m now told that can’t have been the real thing. It doesn’t taste very different to me, agreeable but not irresistible.
The promenade in front of the luxury Taj hotel, which has attracted a swarm of cheaper hotels including my own along the seafront, is popular for the locals’ evening stroll and for tourists any time of the day, so it’s a good beat for hawkers.
As the behl puri seller assembles my snack, he and his friends explain that they will back Congress when it comes to their turn to vote in the general election which is going on at the moment … in a complicated system of stages, designed to deal with the world‘s biggest electorate. The behl puri sellers are Hindus but don’t sympathise with the Hindu-nationalist agenda of the Bharatya Janata Party, the BJP, which led the outgoing government.
What do they think of Moslems?
‘‘They are our brothers.’’
What about the Hindu-chauvinist project of building a temple on the ruins of the mosque at Ayodhya, which was destroyed by a mob in 1992 with several BJP leaders looking on approvingly?
‘‘They keep talking about it but they don’t do anything.’’
It’s not entirely clear what they should do.

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Fishermen men nets on Mumbai seafront Photo: Tony Cross

India has a name for the casual labour, with no rights and no security, which provides a living for these street sellers. It’s called the “unorganized” sector and it accounts for 92% of the country’s employment. There are many such neologisms here and it is difficult to know whether they’ve been invented to give nominal dignity to the oppressed or to disguise the nature of their situation.
I thought I’d seen poverty in the eight Asian countries and three Middle Eastern ones that I’d visited before coming to India but, even in war zones, I’ve never seen the widespread, everyday degradation that I’ve encountered in Bombay.
One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Mohamed Ali Road, is being widened or reconstructed. Half the road is torn up leaving a lower layer open. Families have taken up residence on this mixture of tarmac, metal and rubble. As I drive by in a taxi, a mother does her domestic chores in the open air and her baby crawls naked in the roadworks, with cars, auto-rickshaws and motor-bikes driving past, belching filth into the atmosphere.
On another route into the city, shacks made out of cardboard, wood or corrugated iron have taken over half the pavement for miles and miles and miles. Many have two storeys, although the ground floor would oblige most European to stoop and the top floor is just tall enough to crawl into and sleep. Some of the slum-dwellers have decorated their frontages. Sometimes the dwellings give way to workshops, with racks of steel bars or wood offcuts. You come to a corner and the pavement city stretches off down another long road to the left.

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The dhobi ghats, open-air laundries, of Mumbai Photo: Tony Cross

As in all poor countries, street-hawkers and casual labourers pushing barrows stacked with sacks or raw materials are often to be seen.
Beggars are everywhere, including mothers with babies. At traffic lights, the occupants of cars are likely to be accosted by eunuchs wearing kohl and dressed as women. Apparently, many are former street-children who were castrated when young. I’m told that this brutal arrangement at least provides them with a community which affords some solidarity among the indifferent concrete and dirt.
When the heat of the afternoon becomes overpowering, labourers sleep on the street in the baskets they use to carry building materials. At night taxi-drivers sleep on their bonnets. Under the flyover which overshadows Mohamed Ali Road, I see three men taking a siesta. The man nearest to me has a stump cut off at the knee lifted above his body, the stump patched with rags.

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The causeway leading to Haji Ali Bukhari mosque Photo: Tony Cross

A causeway leads to the tomb of Haji Ali Bukhari, which sits on an island in the bay. When the tide comes in, the tomb is cut off by the sea. That hasn’t stopped the construction of dozens of improvised stalls selling flowers and sweets for Muslims and Hindus to present to the Haji, many of them perched on wooden stilts half-submerged in water. Beggars line the other side of the path. A toddler stands unattended, about a yard from the water. A group of four lie, nearly naked, chanting in the midday sun, banging their truncated limbs on the ground in time. Near the entrance to the shrine men and women sit on the ground with piles of change in front of them. It’s considered propitious to give alms after a visit and they change notes for coins for a small commission, so that the faithful can gain maximum credit by giving to as many supplicants as possible. One of the money-changers, a raggedly-dressed woman, is talking into a mobile phone.
On the way back, the handicapped men have stopped chanting and are sitting up having a fag.
Near the hotels, street-children beg off the tourists. One of them, a girl called Pinkie, tells me she comes from Pune and left because her parents kicked her out. She doesn’t know why. She walked to Bombay because she had a relation here already living on the street. She speaks quite good English and can also throw in a few words of French or Italian that she’s picked up from tourists.
The street-children tend to ask you to buy them a tin of powdered milk ‘‘for my baby sister’’. I was impressed by the altruism of the request the first time. By the third, it occurred to me that reselling the tin would bring in a lot more than the couple of rupees a tourist is likely to give if left to his or her own initiative.
The visitor from a rich country becomes prone to that sort of calculation here. We feel persecuted by persistent beggars and snarl at them, become terrified of being charged more than the locals and haggle over a few rupees. Later we realise that we’ve saved the value of a coin which we wouldn’t bother to pick up in the street back home.
One could say that we’re used to delegating our social responsibilities to the state and aren’t used to coming face to face with the inequalities that are part of the equation that creates our privileges. We see that we can’t resolve it all and have no system, like zakat, tribe or caste, which will decide our priorities for us.

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Boys play cricket in a Mumbai street Photo: Tony Cross

Arun Gawli used to work in the organised sector. He was employed in Bombay’s textile mills, along with tens of thousands of others. A vast area of the city depended on the mills for work and, often, for homes which were made available to mill workers’ families.
But, as workers will, they organised trade unions, went on strike, improved their wages and conditions. The employers closed the mills and moved the work out of Bombay to smaller workplaces and even to homeworkers, who were likely to be more compliant.
The way to get rich now in Bombay is through real estate. So the land on which those mill workers’ tenements stand can be valuable, if the homes are replaced by cinemas, car parks and shopping malls for Bombay’s developing middle class. So evictions are widespread – malls eat men.
The strikes were long and sometimes violent. Workers found themselves locked out for years. Employers would subsidise scab unions which sometimes took on a certain independence and imposed conditions on the bosses, the promotion of the union leader to senior management, for example. Some of the young unemployed joined gangs and the gangsters became embroiled in the industrial disputes.
As the organised sector declined, organised crime grew.
Hundreds of people are gathered in the fortified compound outside Arun Gawli’s home. Apparently it’s the same every day. They want help, maybe in fighting an eviction, maybe to get a job, maybe for some other problem. Perhaps some want to help Gawli’s campaign to be elected for Mumbai South Central constituency.
For the record, Gawli denies having committed the crimes which landed him in jail a while back but he doesn’t bother to sue the news-media which describe him as a “don”, a criminal godfather Bombay-style.
To interview Daddy, as the don likes to be called, local journalist Dnyanesh Jathar and I are ushered into his multi-story home, told to remove our shoes and put in a lift, which takes us to the roof. We wait in a roof-garden, with a small temple for the household’s use, a painted cement elephant and a garishly coloured relief of the monkey-god Hanuman on the wall. As we wait, a man places his hands on Hanuman’s bright pink legs and appears to say a silent prayer.
Gawli appears in kurta-pyjama and Nehru-cap, whose brilliant white contrasts with his dark skin and black moustache, and signs namaste with his hands, smiling charmingly.
He says that he’s helped slum-dwellers improve their living conditions, cleaned up stinking toilets, some of which leaked so badly that tenants had to take umbrellas in with them, and provided water and drainage.
He says that he entered politics to work in an unspecified capacity for the Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu-chauvinists who helped break the millworkers’ strikes and now control the city council. At one time, they reportedly backed Gawli against Muslim gangster Daoud Ibrahim on the grounds of his religious and communal affiliation. Daoud is now in hiding, allegedly in Pakistan whose secret services are supposed to have worked with him, and wanted for his alleged part in the 1993 bombings which killed 317 people, in reprisal for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the previous months.
But Shiv Sena ditched Gawli while he was in jail, detained under the National Security Act. He claims that they joined in a chorus of wrongful accusations of crimes of violence committed by some of his associates.
‘‘How could I have done them while I was in jail?’’ he asks, with a logic that seems faultless but for the fact that his prison-guards are accused of allowing him to hold a durbar, or court, while under their supervision.
Anyway, an offended Gawli set up his own party, Akhil Bharatiya Sena, eight years ago and is now fighting Mumbai south-central against Shiv Sena incumbent Mohan Rawale. Another candidate is Sachin Ahir, for the Nationalist Congress Party, a Maharashtra-based split-off from Congress. He’s Gawli’s nephew.
I point out that Gawli seems pretty wealthy for a redundant millworker, which is what he claims to be. He says that his family had a number of cows (the Gawlis are apparently a caste of cowherds) and sold milk before the government took over milk distribution, when they invested their earnings in property.

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A no-handbag-snatching zone in Mumbai Photo: Tony Cross

The real estate boom is believed to have made many dubious characters wealthy but the dons apparently also protected some of the poor against other landsharks. Some people see them as Robin Hoods, although their criminal repertoire seems more extensive, and perhaps more ruthless, than that of the hero of Sherwood Forest.
They entered politics when election candidates decided to add muscle to more traditional means of campaigning and seem to have felt at home in the political milieu.
India’s Election Commission declares that 700 members of the upper or lower houses of parliament have criminal records and this election looks set to add to their ranks. The front page of the Asian Age features mugshots of 24 candidates ‘accused of serious offences’ – extortion, rape, dacoity (banditry) and communal violence, for example. Arun Gawli is among them, accused of murder, abetting murder and rioting with a deadly weapon.
Other interesting candidates include two eunuchs, Sonia Ajmeri, standing against deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani, and Sanjude Nayak, fighting Defence Minister Harin Pathak, and a record number of film stars, including Govinda, the star of 125 Bollywood greats, who’s standing for Congress in Mumbai North-west. The Economic Times tells us he has forsaken his trademark white shoes and purple shirts for the garb of white shirt and white trousers, which is apparently the uniform of the political caste.
‘‘My dancing has been compared with John Travolta and Elvis Presley and my films have offered entertainment to the lower middle classes.’’ Govinda tells the paper. ‘‘I am a common man, and in my new avtar, people can identify with me.’’
The substrata of the class system are even more conscientiously defined than in Britain.

Gujarat 21-22 April

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A shrine in rural Gujarat Photo: Tony Cross

Binu Alex is Kerala Christian, which I suppose allows him a certain distance when reporting on events in Gujarat, a long way from his birthplace and a very Hindu state.
Cows seem to be everywhere in the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s biggest city, while other beasts, camels or human beings for example, carry the burdens and pull the carts.
‘‘The cows are better looked after than the people,’’ says Binu. The state has a Cow Services Commission, with a department for protection of cows, a department to encourage breeding and a department for making medicine from their urine and their excrement. The state is also the site of India’s space programme.
As we drive around Ahmedabad, Binu points out the invisible dividing lines between Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods. At a crossroads, he points to one corner and says: ‘‘That’s a police post.’’
The he points at a large modern building on the opposite corner and says: ‘‘That was a mall owned by a Muslim. During the riots a mob attacked that mall and burned it. The police just sat in their post and watched.’’
The riots took place in 2002 and Ahmedabad still bears the scars.
They started after Muslims in a town far away from Ahmedabad stoned a train carrying Hindu activists, who had been to Ayodhya, the city where a mosque was destroyed 10 years previously. The “pilgrims” apparently chanted slogans in favour of their claim for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque, leading the Muslims to attack the train, killing 59 Hindus.
A wave of violent reprisal swept the state, from the main cities to the villages on the edge of the forests where adivasi tribal people live. Officially 1,000 Muslims were killed, although most estimates put the figure at 2,000, their homes and businesses were attacked and often burnt to the ground. Thousands were forced to live in refugee camps for months afterwards.
As we pass a group of middle-class homes, Binu points to one and says that it was the home of a Muslim former judge.
‘‘The crowd attacked that one and not the others. They knew where to come.’’
Another well-known Muslim tried desperately to phone his contacts in Delhi, appealing to them to intervene to stop the bloodshed. When that didn’t work, he went out into the street and said to the murderers: ‘‘Spare these people – take my life instead.’’
They took his life; but as well, not instead.
Usually, it was easy to find where the Muslims lived. For example, everyone knows who lives in Narodia Patia, a poor area of dusty alleys running between two-room concrete houses. When the mob arrived, the women of the area got together and discussed what to do.
‘‘We had decided to stay,’’ says vegetable-seller Zuleika Manu Chowdry, whose bare, untidy house is on the street where the attack began. ‘‘Then we saw Kausarbano run past with her belly slit open and we thought we’d better leave.’’
Kausarbano Shaikh was pregnant. The mob cut open her womb and paraded the foetus through the narrow lanes, impaled on a sword.
The police had already told the women that they were on their own. They fled the area and spent months in a refugee camp. Over 120 people were killed in this one area. One young man we meet fled the massacre with his father. But his brother was handicapped and unable to walk, let alone run. The rioters pulled him out of his wheelchair and slaughtered him on the spot.
Gujarat voted the day before my arrival.
Before the election, 20 of its 26 seats were held by the BJP. Binu and other journalists believe that party has done well, if not better, this time round. The state minister is local BJP leader Narendra Modi, who’s now well-known throughout India because so many people have accused him of complicity in the communal violence. A success in this election could put him on track for a brilliant career at federal level.
Yamal A Vyas is a cheerful man who lives and works in a modest house in a middle-class area. He’s the convenor of the committee which draws up the BJP’s economic policy in the state.
He believes that the party has run the state well, attracting investment which ‘‘according to my understanding of economics’’ will trickle down and enrich the whole population, although he doesn‘t specify exactly when. Vyas claims that Muslim voters are deserting Congress, which they traditionally saw as their secular defender, because they’ve lost faith in it and see the good work that the BJP has done for development;
He says that he regrets the violence of 2002 and denies that the BJP colluded in it or that the police were lax in defending the victims. Hindu-Muslim relations have improved since then, he believes, but adds that sometimes Muslims behave provocatively. For example, ‘‘in cricket, when Pakistan won against India, they let off fireworks and celebrated.”
I remark that perhaps this shouldn’t be a capital offence. Vyas agrees.
Dr Hanif Lakdawala is less enamoured of the chief minister. He claims that the day before the riots Modi held a meeting with top police officers and other officials and told them: ‘‘Tomorrow whatever my boys are doing you’re not going to interfere.’’
Lakdawala is a qualified medical doctor and the director of Sanchetawa, an NGO which works with the poor of both communities. It’s well-furnished office, decorated with posters against domestic violence and for literacy, is in the improbably-named New York Trade Centre, a low-rise concrete building with a sign depicting the Statue of Liberty outside.
The doctor has become a high-profile opponent of sectarian violence, since he accused Modi of complicity with it in 2002.
He says that poverty crosses the communal barrier and reaches extremes on both sides but that he sees no sign of that bringing Hindu and Muslim together. He believes that, with the encouragement of Modi and the state government, the communal division in Gujarat is the deepest in India.
Indeed, the 2002 bloodletting was not the first such pogrom here. Lakdawala believes that it won’t be repeated on the same scale because of the national and international attention that it attracted but that further clashes will take place.
Shortly before our arrival at the headquarters of Prashant, a Jesuit human-rights and social-development centre, two other visitors had barged into the ground-floor reception area. They had threatened Father Cedric Prakash and his co-workers with violence if they didn’t stop their agitation against communal hatred and violence. They finally left when Prakash phoned the police.
It’s not the first time the Jesuit priest has been threatened, or even attacked. As long ago as 1992, he was badly beaten for speaking out against the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Since then he’s had death threats, hate-calls and (unsuccessful) pressure from politicians on the religious hierarchy to shut him up.
To stand up to all that, you need a strong personality and Prakash, who was born in Bombay 53 years ago, joined the Jesuit order in 1974 and has been in Ahmedabad for 17 years, clearly has charm and a forceful will in about equal measure.
He characterises the 2002 violence as ‘‘state-sponsored’’ and is one of a number of activists who have campaigned for retrial of cases arising from it on the grounds that they were conducted within the state and were thus subject to political and communal pressure.
During the election campaign, they won a victory when India’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial, outside Gujarat, of 21 Hindus accused of killing 15 Muslims in an arson attack on a shop known as the Best Bakery. Yesterday the state government announced that it would appeal against the decision. Prakash and his colleagues hope to get 12 other similar cases judged outside the state.
Prakash points out that Moslems are not the only victims of dirty politics in Gujarat. Christians are such an infinitely small proportion of the state’s population – 0.5% – that one would think it hardly worth a Hindu chauvinist’s time attacking them. But they do – 84 times in 1988, when the Hindu right launched a sort of turf war over the right to recruit members of tribal groups.
The local BJP’s Freedom of Religion law, named with fine bureaucratic irony, is a product of hard-line Hindu hostility to conversions to Christianity and could be a model for national legislation if some BJP and Hindu activists get their way.
The act enrols the judicial authorities into the policing of religion. A conversion cannot take place without the permission of a District Magistrate, who must also be informed of the fact afterwards. Anyone carrying out an illegal conversion may be punished by three years in prison and a fine. But the law is particularly concerned to protect minors, women and members of scheduled castes or tribes from being led astray. It raises the possible prison term to four years and doubles the fine if they are the subject of the conversion.
Throughout India’s history dalits and adivasis have not unnaturally been attracted by religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Christianity which don’t stigmatise them on the basis of caste.
Prakash and other Christian social activists are particularly worried by a ban on ‘‘allurement’’, defined as ‘‘any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind’’ or a ‘‘grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise’’.
In many poor areas they provide educational and medical facilities. The hard-liners have insinuated that these are bribes to convert and the activists fear that this could be the pretext for prosecutions or attempts to close the programmes.
Prakash is one of the few people I meet who believes that the BJP are losing ground locally.
‘‘We went to the south of the state yesterday to watch the voting,’’ he says. ‘‘I think they’ll lose seats. People are seeing through them.’’
My journalist companions look sceptical.

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Homes of rawals outside Amirapur Photo: Tony Cross

Two kilometres outside the village of Amirapur, just after passing a pastel-coloured temple, you come across two streets, looking a bit lost in the middle of the fields. In one a camel stands tied to a tree and broken stones create a road-surface of sorts. This is where rawals, a so-called “intermediate caste”, live.
A little further down the road on the opposite side, live the dalits, Gandhi’s “children of heaven”, sometimes called backward castes or untouchables.
Not just untouchables but unsmellables: “It has something to do even with wind direction,” says Anosh Malekar a local reporter who has joined us for this visit to rural Gujarat. “The lower castes always stay so that they don’t pollute the winds also of the upper castes. Suppose that we are on the west and we have westerly winds, an OBC house will be at the far end of the village and no upper caste will stay beyond them.”
But for the tinny echo of a radio and a couple of dogs, there’s no sign of life around the dozen or so one-storey concrete houses laid out in two rows and shaded by trees. Suddenly the radio is switched off and we can only hear birds singing. Then a few people venture out into the intense midday heat.

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Ramesh Bhai Karsan Bhai

One of them is Ramesh Bhai Karsan Bhai, a short plump, dark-skinned man, dressed in a white tee-shirt and kind of sarong, a string of beads hanging round his neck.
He tells us that 20 years ago their homes were closer to the village, but even less sophisticated. Indira Gandhi’s government built them new homes and they moved here.
The people here belong to a sub-caste, the chamars, who make leather.
“Whenever an animal dies in the village,” says Ramesh, “we go there, we bring the carcass here, we remove the skin and make leather to use for various purposes. All kinds of animals – cow, buffalo, goats, ox … even camels.”
They sell the product to traders from the towns.
When no animals have had the good grace to die, they work the fields of upper-caste peasants or run errands for them, earning a pittance for about 12 hours’ work per day.

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Dalits in Amirapur Photo: Tony Cross

Feisty 57-year-old Isaben says that two years of drought have meant not enough work, meaning not enough to eat. And that’s meant debt, as the dalits have borrowed from money-lenders who settle interest rates as they see fit.
Isaben only borrows from the man for whom she usually works and refuses to pay interest. “Even today I owe him 5,000 rupees, but I told him flat on his face that if I get no work, I won’t be paying.”
She draws an “Oh, my God!” and a shocked, but impressed, laugh from Anosh, who’s interpreting, when she explains that if any of the money-lenders give them trouble, she herself will go and beat them up.

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Children in the dalit quarter of Amirapur Photo: Tony Cross

Prakash, an unemployed 22-year-old who gets occasional work on other people’s land, lives with his extended family of seven people, of whom only his married brother has regular work.
In the best of all possible worlds, if he could change his life, what would he want?
“His dream is of a better life,” translates Anosh. “He is ready to start a small business, preferably something to do with leather, because that’s his expertise. Or of a small job which would pay him something like 100 euros a month in Indian rupees, where he could work something like eight hours and come back … it’s important that he could get an income that could see survival of his large family, as well as ensure education for his next generation – because he thinks education is important.”
In the village itself, the local schoolteacher, Hasherben Patel,her husband, Prakesh, and her assistant are standing outside the school.
Patel says that 80 per cent of the children that she teaches come from poor families – “if they work today, they eat; otherwise they don’t eat.” The droughts have hit them badly and they haven’t received much help from the government.
The other 20 per cent are upper caste. “They own all the livestock around here” and, although she doesn’t know exactly how much, “have fat bank balances”.
There are two schools serving the village, one for the centre and one for its outskirts, meaning that the dalits whom we met all go to a separate school from those who live in the area that we’re now in. But the teacher insists that there is a caste mix in both schools and that they were built to conform to government regulations that mean to stop children walking too far in the hot sun.
This is a Congress-run village; the dalits had already told us that. Although they are Hindus, they don’t vote along religious lines for the BJP but for the country’s best-known secular party.
The teachers are full of praise for the small group who run things here. They seem to have a tight grip on parochial power but our informants credit them with using it to obtain good roads, water and 24-hour power-supply, which is rare in rural India.
Out of deference to central government efforts at a form of positive discrimination, the village head is a woman. But, not unusually, according to Anosh, “the village is de-facto run by her father-in-law”.
Driving out of the village, we come across a crowd following a sound-system blaring out frantic and distorted music. Two men in brightly-coloured clothes, their face painted and turbans knotted on their heads, are perched on top of horses.
They’re bridegrooms from another village who are both marrying local girls and are being paraded around the area so that the community can judge the quality of the catch.
Young men from the other village say that they think their comrades have done well marrying here. They start to praise the facilities here and then stop, local patriotism demanding that they claim their own territory is just as good.
In a new blast of pipes and percussion they set off through the greenery. I don’t see any of the dalits in the crowd.

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Mumbai seafront, evening Photo: Tony Cross
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Eyewitness: Indonesia 1999 – a chaotic return to democracy

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Indonesia – big isn’t it?

Massive demonstrations had toppled toppled President Suharto – the man who had led the 1965 Western-backed anti-communist  military coup in which hundreds of thousands were butchered –  and activists were demanding the end of cronyism and corruption when Indonesians went to the polls in 1999.

I covered the election for RFI and stayed on for two months, touring Java and visiting Aceh, at the time the scene of a dirty war against separatist guerrillas. I was fascinated by a country was so unknown to me and forced to reexamine many of my attitudes to the world outside Europe.

Accounts of what I saw, written at the time, will follow, the first of my accounts of my visits to Asia and the Middle East as a reporter.

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The Raving Reporter

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We’re all doomed and here’s why

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Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (detail)

A man walks between the cars, caught in a traffic jam on the road to Karachi airport. The skin and some of the flesh has been torn away from the left-hand side of his face, leaving the eye almost totally exposed, thanks to who knows what accident? A fire at his home? An accident at work or in the street? In any case, now he’s no longer working, he’s begging. He does well. His misfortune is his fortune in a country with virtually no functioning social services, where compassion is a private affair and not a collective responsibility administered by a welfare state.
I was visiting Pakistan as a reporter. I could hardly bear to look at the man. Most of the motorists gave him money.
Life is more than usually cruel without a welfare state, regardless of the charitable instincts of individual citizens. But such is the natural order of class society. And I fear that, contrary to our expectations during most of the 20th century, those countries without a social safety net are not going to follow the example of those who have one but vice versa. I believe this will be the case for one principal reason – the ruling class is no longer afraid that it might lose power and will, by the logic of its own system, take back all the concessions made to the mass of the population over the last 100-150 years.

roving

Having spent the first two decades of my adult life as a Trotskyist activist and the following two decades as a journalist – fortunate enough to catch glimpses of the Afghan and Iraq wars and travel, mainly in Asia – I find my hopes of progress towards a just world confounded , indeed I can see no reason to regard the future with anything other than pessimism.
Here are the three main reasons not to be cheerful that I see facing the world today:
1) The improvements in living conditions of the mass of the people achieved in the wealthy countries in the 19th and 20th centuries are going to be reversed and there will be a return to massive inequality;
2) The United States will at some point provoke a war with China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony;
3) Effective action against climate change will be prevented by vested interests who will be able to mobilise populist movements to that end, if needs be.
On this blog I intend to show why I think these are likely perspectives, although, if my researches turn up any mitigating factors, I promise to let you know. I will have other things to say, as well, and may publish some of the accounts I wrote up of my reporting trips, if anyone is interested.
If anyone out there is reading this and has arguments that can lighten the mood, I invite you to do so. The human ego being what it is, I may not admit that I’m wrong. But you may enlighten other readers and a dialogue would be nice, if not entirely consistent with dominant trends of behaviour on the worldwide web.
I’m aware that I have reached an age where it is rare to heartily endorse the way the world is going and some of this may strike the reader as grumpy-old-gittery with graphs. Do feel free to point out the glimmers of hope breaking through the clouds of austerity , self-interest and egotism.
So here goes.

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