Sunday, 18 January 2009

Hopeless in Gaza: it didn’t have to be this way

I recall as a child being told the old saying: “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” On Thursday evening, as I made my modest contribution to the Dubai Cares Gaza campaign by carrying boxes filled with school bags, I suddenly felt my eyes watering up. For I thought to myself that each bag I filled with school equipment and piled on top of the others to be shipped to the helpless children of Gaza represented a child, probably one who had lost his mother, or father or entire family.

For each bag that we filled there was another that we didn’t, simply because the child is no longer there. I looked away so as not to embarrass myself in front of the other volunteers. I breathed deeply and continued working. Bag after bag we filled with school materials.

There’s this one girl I saw on TV, she lost a limb in the attacks. Precision bombing, Israel calls it. I packed a small eraser for her small hands but these won’t erase the terror she endured. “Don’t forget the colouring pens,” I yelled. Certainly, there are more injured children. “Shall we put bandages in the same bag?” I asked an organiser. Apparently not: there are other bags reserved specifically for medical equipment. Silly me.

In 1994, Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, arrived in the Palestinian Territories for the first time in decades and declared that he would turn Gaza into the Singapore of the Middle East. Fifteen years later it couldn’t be more different. Arafat’s prediction of Gaza being used as an example will certainly come true, but not in the way he envisioned. Today, Gaza is more like Somalia than a Mediterranean port. In fact, one day soon people will be using Gaza as the example of a failed state as Somalia continues to fade into distant memory. Thus Afghanistan will be called the Gaza of Central Asia, and Zimbabwe will be the Gaza of Africa.

But it didn’t have to be that way, if it wasn’t for the fear of certain countries in the region that they would lose the Palestinian cause as a bargaining tool if the Palestinians made their peace with the devil. What would they be left with as negotiating leverage? The idea of using Palestinian youth as an outsourced army to fight the Israelis was too appealing to lose. Setting them up with firepower and turning their dials – fire at will. But it was less their will than that of certain characters who have come and gone in the Middle East. Endless blood and destruction. The Holy Land, indeed: unholy is more like it.

No, it didn’t have to be that way at all. It’s February 2005. The Israelis announce their withdrawal from Gaza. The occupiers are leaving. Good riddance. Let’s build something now, shall we? In walks none other than a Dubai tycoon, the man responsible at one time or another for the most valuable property company in the world, operating in 17 countries with a global portfolio worth more than $100 billion that includes the tallest building on Earth and the biggest mall on the planet, and above all one of the right-hand men of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai. Enter Mohammed al Abbar, chairman of Emaar with all its pomp and glory, to start building. His offer was to pay $56m for the 21 settlements that the Israelis were to evacuate. Finally, we can get started with turning this port city into Singapore, as Arafat wanted.

But wait. How can the sensationalist Arabic press let go of this golden opportunity? Rather than headlines reading “Dubai to spearhead Gaza development”, there were headlines that accused the UAE of normalisation with Israel. “Rewarding aggression in Palestine”, read one editorial. The horror! Public outcry ensued. Mohammed Al Abbar was forced to appear on Dubai TV and defend his position. “These journalists,” he said, “they’ve so much spare time. They should use it better. Go visit Gaza and see how they live there.”

Suddenly the initiative to create Emaar Palestine was no longer there. The result was that the Gazans were left with scant employment opportunities. “The crossings are still controlled by the enemy,” was the broken record that Arab patriots played. I say, why not make the best of a bad situation instead of making the worst of it? A few more years of such mentality guaranteed further radicalisation. Good evening, Hamas. Hello, hopelessness. Enter Israeli terror.

Back in the Dubai Cares tent among the 700 volunteers, as we packed 50,000 bags to send to Palestinian schoolchildren, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if Mohammed al Abbar had bought these plots of land and developed them? Building houses. Building homes. Creating jobs. Creating hope. Would we be packing these bags at all?

Indeed, I recall that there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop shedding a tear over that little girl’s spilt blood.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday January 18th 2009

Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.


Andres said...

I just read in CNN that Israel has declared a unilateral cease-fire but I doubt it has anything to do with safeguarding its "raison d'état." More likely the last stretch to peace is being brokered behind closed doors from the Quai d'Orsay to the palaces of Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi.
The horrors you describe move any decent man of any faith to tears but will the media this time, including CNN, support the diplomats and rulers who want peace and have the means to eradicate the poverty imposed on the Palestinians? I'm afraid I don't think so, and not because they might only hate Israel. In fact I don't think they care either way. What the media wants, with very few exceptions, is to sell newspapers and what the uneducated readers want are gory details, so there you are, sad as it is, the carnage will continue and not until the media decides they really want to help the decent Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, their misfortune will continue. My heart goes out to all who are suffering in this ghastly, unnecessary war in which, once again, filthy lucre is king.

diana said...

sultan: this is a wonderful, moving piece. i wish that we had more reason to hope. we need voices like yours to point out the selfishness of political leaders on all sides. we also need voices like yours to help the young and idealistic among us find reason to hope.

Andres said...

Diana, yes we do need voices like Sultan's but I don't think we're just being idealistic. Quite the contrary; we're the new generation, we are better educated, we know what wars mean and we're determined in one way or another to sway public opinion. In other words, I think we're pragmatists and very much aware that a generation is emerging as a consequence of globalisation that will no longer put up with the old school of politicians and byzantine diplomatic manoeuvres. My gut feeling is that the world we knew until the beginning of this Millenium is shedding its skin and is forcefully moving into a more humane and balanced direction.

Anonymous said...

Nothing will change as long as we have Al Jazeera & other "patriotic" media outlets celebrating the innocent killings of 1300+ people as a victory !!

Tarun said...

Sir What abt Iraq, people died there too and UAE provided base to USA in invading iraq. Why that time we didnt had a view that people will Die,childrens, women etc.etc.

Yes i know there was a dictator which was not acceptable but on grounds of humanity.

I apologise if i said something which wrong.

Andres said...

Let me defend the position of the UAE first on the grounds of international defense protocols. The UAE is not the only country in the Gulf that has an American base and I doubt that the UAE specifically authorised the use of the base for former President Bush to do what he did in Iraq, which the whole world knows to be the second biggest blunder in US foreign policy in the
Middle East; the first having been Jimmy Carter who together with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing allowed the removal of the Imperial régime in Iran and therein alone lies this whole drama. Had the Shah not been ousted, there would never have been a 9/11 to get the Cowboy President all psyched up to invade Iraq and in the Iran-Iraq war which was already looming at the time that the Shah was forced to leave, the Imperial Army and Air Force would have crushed Saddam Hussein's régime and Iraq would have been today, with or without the Ba'ath Party, a relatively prosperous democracy.
Please do not single out the UAE or for that matter Qatar or Bahrein but simply the stupidity of two wrong leaders at the wrong moment in history and now all of us who want happiness, peace and finally an "entente cordiale" between Jews and Palestinians have to suffer the consequences of those two human errors. Let's see if now all will be solved and the two fighting cousins will put their differences to rest. War is terrible, terrible and nobody should suffer but there are sadly politicians who only look at the big picture because they cannot afford, in geopolitical terms, to have feelings for individuals and their suffering and in this very sad case it's the poor Palestinians who backed Hamas who've brought this debacle upon themselves. I hope the Palestinian Authority and leaders in the region will know how to make Hamas back off in name of Humanity.

Anonymous said...

Andres, I can see you think you're very informed, bu let me tell you only one thing, you need to read a little moore about the history, end if you want to be realy objective, you need to see the problem from both sides(and this goes for eny problem), hallo, Palestinian people did choose HAMAS to be theyr leading parthy, end who do you think you are to juje them for this? This is just funny stupid way of thinking, Izrael whants theyrs land, end they will never stop killing them, read the history cearfuly, end see, haw big whas Palestine in the year 1948, end see haw many they arenaw, end see haw much land they have! Realy I cant belive people can be so blind! Have a good day! p.s. about Irak, I would sey to the Iraki man, only that the reason all this is happening is youre ignorance, which is still the same end even bigger!