This week's window on the Middle East - July 30, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Turkish people’s reactions to Syrian refugees are marked by anti-Arab sentiments.

Arab Awakening
29 July 2012
  • Why Syrian refugees protest
  • Morsi’s 100-day plan to rebuild Egypt
  • How the Moroccan regime weathered the storms of the Arab Spring
  • No Olympic truce in Tripoli
  • Egyptian moderation and doing as you would be done by
  • Jordan: troublesome neighbours
  • Ramadan, Dubai style
  • In Tunisia: Sidi Bouzid protests again
  • Associated Press on Gaza, exposed but unbowed
  • Why Syrian refugees protest

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Turkey has spent more than 200 Million Turkish lira on 43,387 Syrian refugees since the inception of the civil war in Syria last year. Until recently, Turkey was praised for its performance in providing the refugees with the basic needs and essential services. Also, Turkey pursued a cautious strategy in settling the Syrian refugees by paying attention to ethnic and religious identities. However, for the last two weeks Turkey has experienced protests in some of the refugee camps. Early this week, clashes erupted after the arrival of 1,500 Turkmens into a refugee camp based in Islahiye in which Syrian refugees raised a Syrian flag at the entrance of the camp. Why did Syrian refugees protest and how did Turkish people respond?

    While some refugees claimed that Turkey did not provide them with adequate food at the start of  the Holy Ramadan that began last week, some others praised Turkey for her support of the Syrian refugees, saying that the Turkish government has been so generous and no Arab country saved so many Syrians from Assad’s clutches. Nevertheless, it seems there has been a shortage of food and water acknowledged by the Turkish government which has stated that it is trying to improve conditions in refugee camps? There are three explanations that possibly caused the protests. First, as the civil war continues in Syria the number of Syrian civilians seeking refuge in Turkey has risen remarkably. Government’s efforts were ineffective in dealing with refugee demands. Second, as some refugees have alleged, there may be some irregularities in distributing provisions to people who qualify for humanitarian aid. This is difficult to prove since nobody has concrete evidence. Third, the Turkish government did not take all necessary measures for a durable solution, as refugees  are described as “guests” and Assad’s regime was expected to fall before now.

    The fight between Syrian refugees and Turkish officials who wanted to locate the 1,500 Turkmens coming from Lazkiyah into the camp in Islahiye caused extensive media coverage, not only because of the clashes, but also since it gave the opposition media a chance to criticize the AKP government for its Syria policy. While some claimed that the Syrian refugees rejected outright being in the same camp with Turkmens on identity grounds, the Islahiye District Governor stated that there are some people trying to reach “certain undesirable goals” by provoking the refugees. This might be true, given deteriorating relations between the Turkish government and the Assad regime who is thought to be behind such incidents. Nonetheless, Turkish newspapers reported a lack of space, which suggests Turkey is having troubles in efficiently undertaking this task.  Given the increasing number of refugees, Turkey should review its refugee policy and cooperate with UNHCR to fulfil its humanitarian responsibilities.

    Thoughout all this there are the realities: the Syrian refugees’ clash with Turkish police provoking local residents, who entered the camp to defend the Turkish police force and raise the Turkish flag. On top of this was the Turkish nation’s ‘discontent with the AKP government’s refugee policy.’ Following an incident on Twitter, Facebook and Eksisozluk, a famous Turkish forum for youth, I came across much hate speech against Syrians and harsh criticism of the AKP. While criticism of the AKP is either ideological or nationalist, the Turkish people’s reactions to Syrian refugees are marked by anti-Arab sentiments. Sources of these sentiments date back to the early Republican era, which portrayed Arabs as religious bigots and those who stabbed the Ottomans in the back. That may help explain why Turkish people think Syrian refugees are more than a burden.

    Morsi’s 100-day plan to rebuild Egypt

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    Since the January 25 revolution,  Egypt has been undergoing many changes, uncertainties, and challenges. The Egyptian population at large suffered greatly under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. The absence of democratic values such as freedom of speech coupled with the imbalances in Egyptian life seen most clearly in the rising unemployment, the pressures in paying for food and everyday goods, the spread of the black market, added to the many frustrations civilians had to endure. Change has to come fast and the population is impatient.

    The many worker protests that are taking place in Egypt now are a clear reflection of the frustrations. It is no surprise that many workers protest now for better working conditions, better salaries, and most importantly, for a change of leadership in companies in the hope of eliminating corruption. Yet with the protests comes new vexations for the population at large trying to figure out how to bring about real changes. It is not uncommon to hear of people complaining of the protestors for being impatient and greedy. Yet what it does show is that the population is starving for change, for a better and more accommodating existence.

    Within that context, President Mohammed Morsi’s 100 day plan is a very solid and positive approach to changing some of the basic yet fundamental aspects of the everyday life of Egyptians. Within the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency, he has announced plans to resolve problems relating to public transport, national security, garbage, bread, and gas. Yet the 100 day plan has also given rise to some controversy. The confusion started over when the 100 day plan should be implemented: from the time Morsi was elected President, or from the point the first government has been appointed with his leadership.

    And this in fact raises the more fundamental question: should the Egyptian population let itself be caught up in hopes for sudden change? Or should we seek sustainable change that needs to be derived from institutions over time as well as from a government of probity. The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group President Morsi only left when he became president of Egypt, and the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, have offered in the past few days to help implement the 100 day plan. They suggested that they should be trained up by the public police in how to regulate the traffic. Additionally they are willing to mobilize some of their members to help in guarding the bread in some districts to assure an equal and just distribution.

    This must surely be a noble gesture. It goes down particularly well with the elder generation, who are heartened and hopeful when they are reassured that the youth will do something useful to help rebuild Egypt. On the other hand, it also means that the Muslim Brotherhood, the political group Morsi once belonged to, is mobilizing itself to help him achieve his 100 day plan, while having no visible prospects for sustaining these changes through institutions. The notion of institutional change still seems quite beyond the grasp of many Egyptians.

    Many are restless and hope for ‘change’, which often translates into ‘any kind of change’; yet which path to choose is still unclear and for many not even an issue to be considered for now.

    How the Moroccan regime weathered the storms of the Arab Spring

    By Jamal Elabiad

    Soon after the Tunisian president, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, decided to step down because of growing anti-regime protests around Tunisia, the country he ruled for more than twenty years, many Arab regimes were afraid of encountering the same terrible ending. They resorted to several measures in order to avoid the anger of pro-democracy protesters. Early elections, salary increase, and constitutional reforms are examples of the procedures many presidents and kings around the Arab world relied on for the purpose of facing the storms of the Arab Spring.

    For some Arab regimes, these measures were like water off a duck’s back. They were ousted despite the social and political reforms they unveiled immediately, once pro-change protesters started to take to the streets. Think, for instance, of Mummar El Ghadafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

    However, such measures did produce a result for other Arab regimes, including that of Morocco. In addition to the psychological war state-controlled media declared on activists of the February 20 movement, accusing them of serving the agenda of Morocco’s enemies, particularly the Polizario Front and Algeria, King Mohamed VI announced a number of reforms. He did this shortly after the February 20 movement began to organize almost weekly protest marches against corruption, poverty, and unemployment.

    The main purpose of those reforms was to discourage Moroccans from taking part in the movement’s weekly demonstrations through meeting some of their demands. Two of these were a review of the constitution and increasing salaries, including those of professors. As a result, the Moroccan regime managed to stay alive after the coming of what I prefer to call the Moroccan Spring.

    It’s beyond doubt that the ruling establishment was scared of professors joining the February 20 movement if one their key demands was not fulfilled: a salary increase. And that’s why raising their salaries was among the initial steps it took with the aim of dissuading them from participating in the movement’s protests and sit-ins. 

    There are many reasons why Moroccan professors were among the first whose problems were given this sort of  priority. One reason is that most of their labour unions expressed support for the online calls for protest made by activists of the February 20 movement. Add to this the fact that professors’ labour unions did take part in the many pro-change protests that Morocco witnessed after independence. University teachers are, after all, a basic component of the working class whose protests around the world have led to many significant social and political changes.

    I was one of those who expressed strong opposition to the reforms the Moroccan regime announced nearly three weeks after thousands of Moroccans began to protest against the social maladies they have been suffering for decades. And when some of my fellow teachers asked me to justify why the regime’s social and political reforms, including raising teachers’ salaries,  must be rejected, I replied saying that those reforms came, not as a choice, but as a result of the pressure the February 20 movement put on the regime.

    Take increasing teachers’ salaries as an example in point. Teachers protested about it for more than ten years, but the government did not decide to add 600 dirhams to their salaries till the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that such a measure was not to serve teachers’ interests, but to serve the regime’s ones, including survival.

    Many scenarios could have happened supposing teachers’ trade unions had said no to the regime’s 600 dirhams. One is that it would have been next to impossible for the ruling elite to weaken the February 20 movement, had teachers’ trade unions decided to join its protests instead of accepting a salary increase they would have never received if Mohamed Bouazizi hadn’t set himself on fire. Needless to say, one of the reasons why the February 20 movement didn’t survive was that it was not supported by Moroccan intellectuals, including teachers.

    No Olympic truce in Tripoli

    By Rohan Talbot

    Sadly my time in Lebanon has come to an end, at least for now. This week I have returned to the UK at a time when the eyes of the world are on London for the 2012 Olympic Games. I am living close to the Olympic Park, and the spectacle of the Games has electrified not just this area of the city, but the whole country.

    Aside from the obvious values of competition and fair play, the Olympics also seeks to carry a message of peace. The tradition of the 'Olympic Truce', begun in the ancient Greek games to allow athletes to travel to and from the games safely, was revived by the International Olympic Committee in 1992, so that the Olympics might become an opportunity to promote peace and friendship across the nations. For this year's games, the 193 UN member states unanimously co-sponsored an Olympic Truce resolution, calling for all nations to cease hostilities and seek reconciliation for the duration of the games.

    But there has been no Olympic Truce back in Tripoli, North Lebanon. As the fireworks of the opening ceremony went off in London, gunfire was resounding once again in Tripoli. There has been sporadic shooting in the city in the two weeks since I left, and the most recent fighting, which has injured 12, has once again renewed local fears of escalating deadly clashes in the city of the sort last seen in June.

    Granted, these disputes are internal rather than international, but the ideals of the Truce are equally applicable at the local level. The Truce-related initiatives this year have reflected this by seeking to promote "local solutions to local problems":

    "Preventing conflict and building peace requires the involvement of the local communities who are most affected. We are looking for opportunities to work with host governments, communities, faith groups, civil society and the media to build relationships across boundaries."

    The continued violence means that another opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation has been lost. It may be too much to ask that the fighters in Tripoli's rival neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen forget their animosity. But just as sport allows for regulated competition through shared rules and structures, Tripoli's fighters should be encouraged to compete and cooperate though the formalised systems of political participation.

    The lack of an Olympic Truce in the city does not, however, mean that there are no peace initiatives in Tripoli. As has happened following previous clashes, some residents have sought to manifest their desire for peace in their city through dignified public demonstration in front of Tripoli's Serail. The Olympic Games may be of limited relevance to many people's day-to-day lives, but there are still plenty who embody its values and hope for a peaceful future for the city, and more widely for Lebanon.

    Egyptian moderation and doing as you would be done by

    By Refaat Mohamed

    Abd el Rahman Yussuf, an Egyptian poet, who worked as coordinator of the campaign “ElBaradei for president 2011”, is also the son of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the famous Islamic theologian, who is quite controversial and yet very popular in the Arab world. Abd el Rahman has always been an active member in the political opposition movements in Egypt, even before the revolution. He was also affiliated with the April 6 movement and the kefaya (“enough”) movement which played such a great role in sparking the Egyptian revolution.

    About 15 days ago, a week before the month of Ramadan, Abd el Rahman wrote an article entitled, “ Misconceptions about freedom of belief” in which he argued that freedom of belief should be guaranteed to every citizen as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the balance between the three heavenly religions such that the Egyptian population divides between,“Islam 88% - 90%”, “Christianity 10% -12%”, and “Judaism  fewer than 200 individuals” . As long as this remains in place, you may have the freedom to believe in whatever you want, or to denounce whatever you want - as long as it is confined to your house, and that you don’t preach it, or hold any public events, or form any groups, or political parties.  “Close the door of your house, and worship what you want, and disbelieve what you wish, but society and the state have the right to take all the measures necessary when you write an article, or produce a film, or compose a novel, or create a poem, or set up a party according to this intrusive alien belief.” 

    He argues that the minute you leave the confines of your home, it is no longer just a matter of belief or worship. Faith becomes a political threat, which in turn threatens the unified backbone of Egyptian society, and thus national security. He cites what happened in Afghanistan as an example.

    This article caused a commission amongst the younger generation, and the activists in Egyptian society on Twitter, on which Abd Elrahman himself is active. They mocked him and accused him of being a hypocrite who pretends to be an advocate for a secular nation, while in reality he is just another Islamist who wants to reap the benefits of the revolution, and turn Egypt into an Islamic oppressing nation. This nagging finally forced him to write a sequel to his article where he berates those who insulted him, and defends what he said.

    The thing is that most of those activists adopt ideologies that originated in the west like communism, socialism, liberalism, capitalism…etc., and they tend to be radical, while Egyptian society has high levels illiteracy. Those who can barely read and write are ignorant of such ideologies and have not been subjected to a wide spectrum of political ideologies. They think, for example, that a communist is an infidel who doesn’t believe in anything.

    The issue that arises here is: all the political and free thinkers and a large number of people from the educated sectors of the community agree that a secular state is ideal for Egypt right now. They are opposed to the ruling

    “Freedom and Justice” party and its affiliate, “ Al-Nour”, who held the majority in the former parliament, and had a huge following in the streets and in every other home. If these radical Islamists imagined for one moment, given how strongly they believe in their religion, how they would feel if someone tried to prevent them from practising it, they wouldn’t dream of inflicting that fate on anyone else.  So my question is: Is a secular Egypt a lost cause? Or should the people who advocate for such a state keep on working for it and fighting for it flat out? Or is this Islamic state we are witnessing now just a phase that will soon be overtaken by the very Egyptian tendency towards moderation and compromise?

    Jordan: troublesome neighbours

    By Tareq Baconi

    The Jordanian government was one of the early supporters of regime change in Syria. King Abdullah had called on Bashar al Assad to step down last November in what was a clear articulation of where he stood relative to the conflict. Since then, the Jordanian government has been deeply hesitant in articulating its policy of engagement with a turbulent neighbour. This vacillation is particularly dangerous considering the risks involved.

    Part of the reason Jordan has vacillated is because of internal instability within the country itself. Turmoil in Syria threatens to impact on tense fault lines that have long been a part of the Kingdom’s political environment.

    This is particularly true in the case of identity politics between Jordanians and Palestinians. Palestinian refugees from Syria threaten to upset this fragile balance. It is therefore no surprise that rumours abound concerning Palestinian refugees being turned back from amidst the flood of people crossing over the Jordanian-Syrian border.

    Other fault lines such as the one between the Jordanian government and the Islamic Action Front (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan) could also be significantly effected.

    Setting aside political risks, Jordan is attempting to deal with the significant socio-economic challenge of absorbing 140,000 refugees crossing over. This particular challenge is made more acute considering the poor state of the Jordanian economy.

    The majority of the refugees have been settled in a decentralised manner across the state, often making use of local networks. While this has defused the concentration of refugees in any one spot which would have been particularly susceptible to instability, it has proliferated potential flashpoints across the country. The dire economic situation of many Jordanians means that they might not take too kindly to refugees competing for resources.

    The sheer logistical complexity of the number of refugees involved has always called into question the wisdom of constructing a refugee camp in the northern region of the Kingdom.

    Perhaps the gravest threat however is the possibility that the Syrian conflict itself would be exported to the Kingdom. Jordan has a dark history of its sovereign land being manipulated for external conflicts, the most infamous of which resulted in Black September in 1970. This might explain part of the regime’s paranoid crackdown on any form of Syrian opposition to Assad’s rule from Jordanian territory.

    Taking all this into account, it may be worrying that Jordan has not yet formulated a clear policy towards Syrian events, but it is not surprising. It is even less surprising when we look at the regional (Turkey) and international paralysis elsewhere in dealing with what al Assad has termed a “war”.  

    In any case, the Kingdom has taken some measures. Militarily, the northern border has been bolstered with security forces apparently aimed at protecting the nation and preventing spill over without arresting the humanitarian flow of refugees.

    Politically, Jordanians have been debating what constitutes an optimal foreign policy role. Some support direct intervention. This opinion has gathered intensity with the increased attention to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.  Such voices see a desperate need to prevent these weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Others are staunchly anti-intervention, seeing such policies as rash and outside Jordan’s jurisdiction.

    Whichever side of the debate one is on, it is clear that Jordan cannot afford to remain idle in the face of such an explosive environment. Jordan has often played the role of mediator, as well as host to refugees. It is currently attempting to play the latter in a way which would safeguard its interests. Perhaps it would be wise for it also consider to the former and fall back on its history of mediation. The country has an older (and at times friendlier) relationship with Syria than say Turkey or the Gulf. It has more to lose from an escalation and it has a lot to gain in terms of regional clout. Perhaps that is the option worth pursuing.

    Ramadan, Dubai style

    By Sacha Robehmed

    A twitter flurry was created in the UAE when TimeOut Dubai magazine recently recommended bars to try during Ramadan. The online article was seen as disrespectful by many, sparking the hashtag #StopTimeOutDubai. But others clearly thought this was an overreaction, particularly after the article was removed and an apology issued.

    Given that live entertainment, loud music and dancing is forbidden during Ramadan, clubs close, but not before holding one last party prior to the start of Ramadan, typically advertised as being wilder or better than ever. Bars stay open but are quieter and low key. Given the largely expat audience who read the magazine to find events around town, it’s not surprising that TimeOut Dubai published the article.

    Everyone has to publicly observe Ramadan in the UAE. From not drinking water whilst in a car, to not chewing gum in public, everyone must remember to respectfully follow certain rules. The rhythm of the day changes, planned around the fast. Roads are to be avoided before sunset as people hurry home to break the fast. Malls and restaurants are busy far later than normal, with special opening times. As I’m not currently in the Middle East, Ramadan this year is a collection of memories and a longing for the taste of Iftar, the sunset meal breaking the fast.   

    I imagine that, like every year, there are light decorations adorning lampposts in the centre of main roads, signs and newspaper adverts wishing a happy Ramadan, ‘Ramadan kareem’, and tents erected across the city, many charitably giving away food. Before Ramadan started, our neighbours would construct their own tent. In the quiet residential street, they would swiftly erect a modestly sized structure in some unused parking bays across from their house. Cables and wiring were run over, so the ‘tent’ in fact had a television and air conditioning. Walking by in the evening, we would catch glimpses of its occupants sitting on cushions, chatting and enjoying Ramadan with friends and family.

    At school, special arrangements were made. We weren’t allowed to eat in our classrooms, only at the cafeteria and surrounding picnic benches which were screened off. Best of all, (or so every schoolchild must have thought) were the shortened days, arriving later and leaving earlier. Ramadan was always a welcome change in pace. 

    Although a time of abstinence and fasting, Ramadan is associated with food. Everyone in the UAE, regardless of religion, seems to attend an Iftar buffet at least once. Most restaurants, particularly those serving Arabic food, offer a special Iftar menu. The meal typically begins with dates and sugar-rich foods, including a juice made from sheets of crushed apricots, ‘qamardeen’, which we called ‘Sticky Stuff’ as kids.

    A personal favourite is ‘qatayef’, small pancakes cooked only on one side, which is smooth whilst the other is rough where air bubbles have risen through. Qatayef are stuffed with either nuts or sweet cheese and fried until crisp, golden brown and delicious.

    We adopted qamardeen, cut into smaller pieces, for our lunch boxes, and would pair plain unfried qatayef pancakes with strawberry jam for a snack. Unconventional and certainly not how the foodstuffs were intended to be consumed, we adopted and modified some of Ramadan’s specialities. In doing so, Ramadan became a special time for us. By participating and exploring we learnt to adapt and incorporate aspects of Ramadan into our lives.

    Ramadan is a sensitive time, and every year there is always debate about the true meaning of Ramadan, of piety and abstinence versus gluttony, gorging and commercialisation.

    The strong sentiment that TimeOut Dubai had been disrespectful was because Islamic values and the meaning behind Ramadan were felt to have been ignored.

    But to my mind, the most disrespectful aspect of the article was that it did not offer something everyone could participate in. Ramadan is a time for community spirit and shared experience. The way to ‘respect’ Ramadan is not only to abide by rules on public eating during daylight hours, but also to partake in the occasion — swapping drinks at the bar for an Iftar buffet.

    In Tunisia: Sidi Bouzid protests again

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    A year and a half has passed and the dreams of a better future have passed away.

    The town where the revolution began is still cursed by the evil of poverty and marginalization. Frustrated workers who have not been paid for weeks went onto the streets of Sidi Bouzid on Thursday to protest and were joined by dozens of angry protestors over miserable living conditions. They are furious that their town has remained impoverished and their youth have remained unemployed and the promises of development projects have remained ink on paper. There was an attempt to set fire to the government building in Sidi Bouzid.

    Demonstrators also tried to set fire to the local headquarters of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, symbol of disappointed promises that vanished once the elections were over.  The newly elected legitimate government ‘troika’ leading the country seems to have not learned the lesson yet. The same citizens that left their homes filled with the hope to topple the corrupt president and the whole system of injustice to protest against the unfair policies of Ben Ali have made it again onto the streets to continue fighting for equal opportunities and any opportunity at all.

    Ignored for years under Ben Ali, Sidi Bouzid inhabitants like their neighbors in adjacent towns are still demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice”. The rupture with the past seems to be hard to achieve, since the government is still appointing in sensitive posts symbols of the past and the remnants of Ben Ali regime. “To reduce poverty and unemployment and to preserve the independence of the central bank”, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) on Tuesday appointed as the new central bank governor, Chedly Ayari,  who  was recruited as an adviser for Ben Ali.

    Day after day the scale of inequalities widen as the poor get poorer and struggle to provide a decent iftar feast for the member of their families, especially now that prices have risen and the month of Ramadan seems to have further accelerated food prices. The festivity of Ramadan has been boycotted by most Tunisians this year, since rising prices have prevented many families from buying as much food and gifts to celebrate the holy month and be as hospitable as Arabs have always been.

    Associated Press on Gaza, exposed but unbowed

    By Mohammed Suliman

    Once again, another controversial report by the Associated Press raises questions about western media coverage, particularly that of AP, whenever the issue under discussion has to do with domestic circumstances in the Gaza Strip under the control of the Hamas government. Though most previous reports addressing the general situation of a shrinking Christian minority in Gaza have been called into question for the way they were shown to be either prejudiced or unsubstantiated, this time the story entitled “Gaza Christians protest ‘forcible conversions’” has been factually discredited by outside sources and later confirmed by none other than the AP reporter who wrote the story.

    His story is about a silent protest staged by the Christian minority in Gaza against the ‘forced conversion’, or so it is claimed, of two Christians from Gaza, a 25-year Ramez Al-Amash and a 31-year Hiba Abu Dawoud, who escaped after conversion taking her three daughters along with her. The report quotes the converts’ family members attending the protest several times throughout, communicating their feelings of extreme anger and frustration, which rather sensationally sets the background. These quotes are all taken at face value by the reporter without any effort to verify their credibility. The report allows for little if any room for well-evidenced factual statements about the general situation of Christians in Gaza.

    For his part, Ali AbunimahElectronic Intifada co-founder, thoroughly refutes any claims of ‘force conversions’ made by the converts’ families as adopted in the AP report. Abunimah provides evidence arrived at by an investigation conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights that repudiates any of the above claims. He further highlights the several inaccuracies and ellipses of the report, in addition to the emotive language it employs, which he describes as faulty and unprofessional. Abunimah explains the particular damage such allegations have already inflicted on the image of not only the Hamas government (which might be the main purpose of the report as Abunimah’s introduction explicitly states) but also the entire Muslim population of the Gaza Strip. The fact that the story is deeply flawed needs no more demonstration than the clarification of the AP reporter who wrote the story, Diaa Hadid, who afterwards tweeted that the two converts have not actually been coerced into conversion as incorrectly, to put it mildly, claimed by their families, but rather that they were converted of their own free will and “sought protection with Hamas authorities fearing community retribution.”

    The Christian minority in Gaza has been the subject of multiple reports in recent years – and each time the timing of the report by western media outlets seems calculated. Two of the most recent examples of this reporting on the current domestic state of affairs in Gaza might help us to understand how this  prejudiced coverage works.

    The first was an AP feature story published in August 2011 which purported to highlight the widening gap between a rising middle class in the Gaza Strip and the majority of the population. I wrote a rebuttal of this ill-timed piece at the time which seemed primarily designed to deflect attention from what was unfolding on the ground, that month having witnessed one of Israel’s deadliest offensives against the Palestinians in Gaza. In addition to subtly questioning the fact that a humanitarian crisis had engulfed the Gaza Strip and its 1.7-million population, the story did not account for the alleged rise of this middle class except by simplistically relating it to the attitudes of the Hamas government and the "corruption" of some of its "loyalists.” There is no reference whatsoever to the root causes of the problem represented in Israel’s (indirect?) occupation of the Gaza Strip and its five-year hermetic blockade.

    The second example is a feature story, this time in the Guardian, the subject of which was the Christian community in Gaza as they readied themselves to celebrate Christmas “long[ing] for the days before Hamas cancelled Christmas,” or so the title of the story proclaimed. On this occasion, I juxtaposed the piece to a contemporaneous feature in Al Akhbar English on Christians’ preparations for Christmas in Gaza. Phoebe Greenwood of the Guardian opens her story with the unsubstantiated claim that there have been no Christmas celebrations in Gaza since Hamas' ascension to power in June 2006. Addressing the general situation of Christians in Gaza and the several problems they have to face extremely vaguely, the reader automatically blames the government as the source of this trouble, thanks to the hint about the government’s restrictive policies at the beginning of the story. Ruqayya Izzidien of Al Akhbar English however quotes various interviewees leaving little doubt that the blame should be placed squarely on the Israeli occupation and its oppressive policies against the Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike. This is in addition to the completely distorted image which the reporter draws of the Muslims-Christians relationship where Christians appear to be constant targets of the government’s policies as well as of Muslim fundamentalists.

    Now as the most recent AP report on this issue has been proven false, and in response to Abunimah’s demand that the AP apologize for the damage it has caused to the image of the government and the people in Gaza, the AP Jerusalem bureau refuses to apologize. It stands by its false report insisting that “[the] story does not contain errors, grave or otherwise, and there will be no correction. We are attempting a follow up story on this complex issue.”

    The general prejudice of mainstream western media in their coverage of the occupied territories and particularly that of the domestic situation in the Gaza Strip, is hard to shift. Nearly all coverage of the situation of Gaza’s Christians is distorted by rigid, Orientalist perceptions, not only of what an Islamist government looks like and how it behaves, but also of how intolerant, oppressive and highly conservative, a Muslim society like that of Gaza must be. 

    Ramy Abu Jilda, a Christian from Gaza, interviewed for the Al Akhbar English piece referred to above, had this to say about the western media’s coverage of Gaza. “All my friends are Muslims. I don’t care if my friends are Christian or not. My Muslim friends here in Gaza also wish me Merry Christmas and come to visit me at Christmas. So what the media says about Arabs and intolerance isn’t true.”

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