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.