by Stuart Littlewood
Eighteen months ago Hamas announced it was upping its game by appointing bright, attractive 23 year-old Isra al Modallal as the media face of the Resistance movement.
Isra was at college in Bradford, Yorkshire, a part of England where people are noted for blunt speaking and their dry sense of humor. I remember thinking at the time that if Isra brought some of these qualities to Gaza it would stand her, and Hamas, in good stead.
Her arrival was supposed to be part of a Hamas government “public transformation” that included a new head of media, Ihab Ghussein, who was to “orchestrate a new government website”. So things were looking up, it seemed.
But has anyone here in the West noticed a transformation? The English version of Hamas’s website was still “under construction” at the time, and no-one among writers I know had ever heard of Mr Ghussein let alone received a press release from his office. Hamas’s websites were hacked by Israel prior to last year’s murderous assault on Gaza, but the English language site was still out of action when I tried it yesterday. The Al-Qassam website is functioning but packed with woefully out of date information.
And what about Hamas’s media office? Isra’s appointment needed to go hand-in-hand with a top-down change of attitude in the regime, a new mood for co-operation and a genuine opening-up to all media. Had this minor revolution been achieved? Would she be allowed to reach out to the ‘alternative’ media? Would those of us who are interested in Gaza’s progress be placed on Hamas’s database and regularly briefed? Was Mr Ghussein even aware of online publications like the ones that carry this article? Did he know of their unflagging support for the Palestinian cause?
Or do we simply not exist in the minds of Isra and her boss…. and the Hamas high command? Are the pair of them actually still there?
It’s clear that Hamas and Fatah have never given a toss for the toils of alternative media on their behalf. Palestinians are heavy users of electronic media yet don’t seem to know who their media friends are. We expect ignorance from fools but not from genuine patriots.
A play called ‘The Siege’, produced by the Freedom Theatre of Jenin, is currently on tour here in the UK. It tells of Israel’s 40-day military siege of the world’s oldest Christian Church, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in 2002 — a most shameful episode in the never-ending illegal occupation of Palestine. The authors traced exiled Palestinian resisters scattered across Europe and collected their accounts of that infamous event.
The play recently opened in Manchester and was immediately condemned in the press as “sympathising with Palestinian terrorist groups” and presenting an “unashamedly one-sided drama based on accounts from the gunmen and bombers of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade”. It was suggested that the British taxpayer is funding a play promoting “terrorism as legitimate”, that it appeared to be “a grotesque white-washing of the Second Intifada” and glorified “extremist ideology”.
It so happens that I too interviewed a survivor of the siege and told his story several years ago in my book ‘Radio Free Palestine’. It would have been nice (and perhaps useful) to have been invited to a rehearsal and given a chance to talk to some of the players and production team. The same goes for other writers in the UK who are anxious to see justice done in the Holy Land.
It reminded me of those other unsung heroes, the student team from Khan Younis (Gaza), who travelled to Silverstone, the home of Formula One motor racing, in 2011 and bravely pitted their race-car against the sophisticated machines of Western technical universities in the annual ‘Formula Student’ contest. The Gaza students had been blocked by Israel from importing the necessary components so they constructed their car with bits and pieces salvaged from the scrapyard. The team’s effort was hailed as “inspirational” by the motor sport authorities. The Director of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which runs the Silverstone competition, said: “It really is inspirational to see a team working so hard with the odds stacked against them like this. Formula Student is a massive challenge in its own right, but to be working with almost entirely recycled parts in one of the most deprived areas in the world is remarkable. These students epitomise the spirit and inventiveness of those who take part in Formula Student.”
Their achievement wasn’t considered worth broadcasting by the Palestinian embassy and their amazing adventure went largely unreported. When I found out about it many months later I wrote a retrospective piece which contained this paragraph…
“Sadly, I’m posting this article without any contributions from the main players – the General Union of Palestinian Students UK who hosted the Gaza team while in Britain, the Palestinian Embassy in London, and the team itself. The reason? After several requests the union said it was “too busy” to give me the team’s contact details. The embassy has not, as far as I know, issued any press releases or briefings, although it did reproduced a Daily Telegraph report on its website last June. I have written twice asking the ambassador’s office for information and contact details only to be ignored. After combing the internet I found a general email address for KYTC [Khan Younis Technical College]. Two emails have been sent but not acknowledged.
“So this amazing story is scraped together from other sources. Had I known about it last summer, I’d have been at Silverstone cheering the lads on.”
For the full story visit:
Palestine’s thrusting ‘Grassroot Diplomat’
I have long been a critic of the Palestinian Embassy in London having found it unresponsive and lazy. I was therefore astonished to hear that in March this year its ambassador, Manuel Hassassian, was given a ‘Grassroot Diplomat’ award “for his immense work on bringing attention and awareness about Palestine”. Yet the embassy website contains no reference to ‘The Siege’. Indeed, it offers very little information about anything of relevance.
As a Christian, and vice-president of Bethlehem University before he came to the UK 9 years ago, Prof. Hassassian would have known all about the siege of the Church of the Nativity and, one supposes, was in Bethlehem at the time. Shortly before the siege his University was hit by four Israeli tank shells. Three smashed into the multi-million dollar Millennium Hall Complex which featured state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories and had been dedicated only the year before. The fourth exploded in the Heritage Centre in the Library destroying 200 books.
A month later the campus was invaded in the early hours of the morning by 100 Israeli troops, who then commandeered it for their barracks, despite the fact that as a religious and educational institution the University was protected from military incursion by international law. Every building on the campus was damaged, with an estimated repair bill well over $100,000.
How extraordinary that a play about an even more appalling event — the desecration of the world’s most famous Christian church a few hundred yards from his university — isn’t mentioned on Prof. Hassassian’s embassy website. It is, after all, considered an artistic and cultural triumph of Palestinian talent!
The Grassroot Diplomat award claims Hassassian “has been featured on 400 major TV interviews”. I live here in the UK and can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve seen him on mainstream national TV. Whenever a Palestinian ‘spokesperson’ is required they usually wheel in someone with poor English who’s almost unintelligible. Perhaps the good professor scores higher on obscure local stations and world service programmes that are never seen by the majority of British viewers.
Well-placed contacts have told me that all Palestinian embassies are under instructions not to rock the boat with Israel. Given the quisling status of the Palestinian Authority this is no surprise. If anyone in the UK deserves credit for creating awareness of the plight of the Palestinians it’s the BDS activists, solidarity campaigners, a handful of principled MPs and the alternative media. Plus, of course, the brave people of Gaza and the West Bank themselves who have suffered the Isreali jackboot on their necks for 67 years.
Certainly not the sleek, well-fed Palestinian officials who take their ease in the world’s capitals.
The problem, as always, is that Palestinian officialdom — whether Hamas, the Palestinian Authority or the PLO — is pathetic in managing media relations and downright lackadaisical about seizing media opportunities. Your average medium-size company is cleverer with media strategy and more professional in its dealings with press and TV than the would-be rulers of a new Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
So here’s a challenge to Hamas and the equally uncommunicative Fatah-dominated PA. Kindly get a grip and reach out with news and briefings to those who are likely to use your material, including us justice seekers in the alternative media.
It may already be too late. But for heaven’s sake act as if you really want independence. Be united. Be proactive. Start setting the news agenda yourselves. Spread the word. Otherwise you are doomed.
Those who haven’t seen the play or my book www.radiofreepalestine.org.uk, and who may have missed the recent article ‘Re-enactment of murderous assault on Christendom’s holiest site condemned’, can read an eye-witness account of the horrific siege of the Church of the Nativity in the Addendum below.
A young man who was present throughout the siege and survived — let’s call him George — is not a ‘fighter’, gunman or terrorist. This is his gut-wrenching story…..
The ordeal began on 1st April and was triggered by a young girl from a refugee camp. A member of her family had been killed by the IDF. Grief-stricken, she took revenge by turning herself into a suicide bomber, killing 6 or 7 Israelis in Jerusalem.
As usual, the Israelis reacted with widescale collective punishment, sending tanks and hundreds of soldiers into West Bank towns like Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem late at night. In Bethlehem they cut the electricity supply and focused on the old town, overflying with helicopter gunships and occupying all key points around Manger Square. Many innocent Palestinians were killed by snipers, and the market and some shops were set on fire as troops hunted down suspected ‘fighters’. Civilians tried desperately to hide from the troops and someone suggested the Church of the Nativity as a sanctuary.
The door was locked so “one of the young men shot the door… there was no choice”. 248 took refuge there. They included, says George, 1 Islamic Jihad, 28 Hamas, 50 to 60 Al-Aqsa Martyrs. The remainder were ordinary townsfolk and included 100 uniformed Palestinian Authority workers; also 26 children and 8 to 10 women and girls.
“The Israeli soldiers would not allow the women and children to leave… but they left the Church the first week by the back door.” Priests and nuns – Armenian, Greek and Catholic – from the adjoining monasteries brought the number to over 300 at the beginning. “Some of them went back to the monasteries but some stayed with us
every day for the 40 days.”
On Day 3 of the siege a young man inside the Church was shot dead by a sniper as he popped his head through a hatch in the roof. That same day a second was shot by snipers as he scavenged for food in the Casa Nova guest house. His last words were: “My brothers, I love you. I don’t want to leave you. I’m still so young and I miss my wife and I want to see my daughter and son again.”
Our big problem, says George, was how to get enough food to feed so many people. “The monasteries gave us food to last about 10 days. After that we managed to bring some food in from across the fields, but when one of us was killed we stopped.”
15 days into the siege and someone said, “Let’s call an ambulance.” They had managed to recharge their cellphones using the mains that supplied the Church towers and bells. The Israelis had overlooked the fact that this was a separate supply coming from the Bethlehem municipality. So the besieged were able to phone out for help to friends in nearby Beit Sahour, who responded by sending food to the medical centre. From there it was transported by ambulance, along with authentic casualties, and delivered to houses near the Church. At night young girls carried the food in plastic bags from house to house until supplies reached the dwellings next door to the Church. The bags were then thrown from roof to roof. This went on for 6 days until one girl dropped a bag, which the soldiers found.
The IDF, now alerted, shot and paralysed another young man. It put an end to the food operation. Those trapped inside the Church were surprised to discover an old lady living within the complex. She had a small horde of olives and wheat, with which they made bread. So they managed to eke out the food for 28 days. “When it finally ran out,” George recalls, “we realised we were in big trouble.”
The Governor of Bethlehem and the Director of the Catholic Society were among those holding out in the Church. George held the key and was ordered to open the door only if someone died or was injured. He was watching through a peephole when he saw people approaching across the forecourt. They were from the Peace Movement, 28 of them. By now the world media were watching. 17 were promptly arrested but 11 took a big risk, managing to bluff their way in through the razor wire. In their rucksacks they brought food, which lasted another 4 days, and basic medicines.
The worst time was the final week – no food and only dirty water from the well. They resorted to boiling leaves and old chicken legs into a soup. George ate only lemons and salt for 5 or 6 days. Many were so ill by this time that they were passing blood.
Outside some 15 civilians had been indiscriminately shot in the street or in their homes. The IDF refused to allow the dead inside the Church to be removed for decent burial. The corpses were therefore placed in makeshift coffins, with the holes and seams sealed with candlewax, and taken down to a cellar. Meanwhile the IDF set up three huge cranes on which were mounted robotic machine guns under video control. 8 defenders were killed inside the Church, some by the robotic guns and some by snipers.
Samir, a Church caretaker and bellringer who was known to be a little disturbed, was killed in front of the Church. “He eventually went outside and tried to surrender with his hands up but was shot down by a regular sniper.”
From the start, says George, the IDF used psychological warfare methods – for example, disorienting noise to deprive them of sleep, bright lights, concussion grenades. They paraded their families in front of the Church to put pressure on them to surrender. The IDF were also using illegal dum-dum bullets which cause horrendous wounds and trauma. “Most of those who were killed… it was because of the dum-dums… so much bleeding, and it took so long to arrange to send them to a hospital.” He says the IDF fired tracer rounds into two of the monasteries and set the ancient fabric of the buildings on fire. Those trapped inside the Church vowed not to harm IDF soldiers unless they actually broke in. When soldiers did gain access and killed one of the resisters, 4 of them were shot.
“In the end, the Governor decided it was better to be in jail than die. So we opened the door and surrendered on the 40th day. 148 had survived. We were all promptly arrested and interrogated.” But when given a meal by the Israelis, 13 or 14 threw the food in the trash bin. “They were the ones who had been hurt the most,” says George. “The soldiers killed some of their families and demolished their houses…and arrested
all their families… and destroyed their lives…”
Because of the adverse publicity the CIA and EU took a hand in deciding the fate of the survivors. After 4 years the figures still sprang readily to George’s mind… “13 were exiled to the EU, 26 were exiled to Gaza, 26 were wounded, 26 had surrendered because they were under-age. 8 were killed inside the Church… and with Samir makes 9… they shot Samir in front of the Church…” It clearly upset him to remember.
“The rest were allowed home.” George had scavenged under sniper fire. Luckily he was among those sent home. “The Israelis said to me, ‘Do you know why you are going home? Because America wants it’.”
When the survivors apologised to the Church fathers for the damage done, they replied: “God will look after the Church. We are much more concerned about looking after you.” I put it to George that by telling me the story he might find himself in the Israelis’ black books. “I’m already in their black book,” he replied.
Stuart Littlewood worked on jet fighters in the RAF then pursued a career in industrial marketing.
More recently he worked as a freelance and with innovation consultancies. Psychology degree Exeter University, Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Served as a Cambridgeshire county councilor 1993-97 and on the Police Authority. Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. Since retiring has been a newspaper columnist and produced two photo-documentary books. He is a regular contributor to a number of internet news magazines.
Stuart’s book Radio Free Palestine, with Foreword by Jeff Halper, tells the plight of the Palestinians under brutal occupation. It can now be read on the internet by visiting RadioFreePalestine.org.uk.