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As Bus Bomb Hits Tel Aviv, Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Egypt’s Mediator Role and Gaza’s Ongoing Torment

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The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has entered its eighth day with the Palestinian death toll now topping 139. More than 1,200 people have been injured. Earlier today, 21 people were injured in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv when a bomb exploded aboard a crowded bus. International efforts to secure a ceasefire have so far been unsuccessful. We’re joined from Gaza City by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 21, 2012Debate: From Short-Term Ceasefire to Long-Term Peace, How to Resolve the Israel-Gaza Crisis?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has entered its eighth day, with the Palestinian death toll now topping 139. More than 1,200 people have been injured. On Tuesday, two Israelis died in rocket attacks, bringing the Israeli death toll over the past week to five. Earlier today, 21 people were injured in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv when a bomb exploded aboard a crowded bus. Israeli police say two suspects threw a bomb onto the bus before fleeing the scene. The attack marks one of the worst inside Israel in several years. So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: International efforts to secure a ceasefire have so far been unsuccessful. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just arrived in Egypt, where she’ll hold talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about a possible truce in Gaza. Clinton has already has met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

For more right now, we go to Gaza City, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. His latest article, “Mohamed Morsi in the Middle,” was just published by The Nation magazine.

Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain how you got into Gaza and what is happening there now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, I got into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, which is the only border that Gaza has to the outside world that is not controlled by Israel. I had to wait three days on the border to get in from Egypt, but I eventually did. And it’s really a dystopian reality here, one of widespread violence and suffering. There is heavy naval bombing. There are F-16 strikes. There’s an incessant buzz of these drones overhead that really gives you the feeling of being under a constant threat. You can also hear the outgoing rockets being fired into Israel. The streets are quite empty. Shops are closed. There’s a heavy tension in the air.

And last night, you know, as these talks of a ceasefire were underway, was particularly brutal. I mean, there was a nonstop barrage of bombing that made the ground literally shake every 10 minutes. And this was as Clinton, I believe, was arriving in Israel for these talks. And at 2 a.m., at around 2 a.m., there was a missile strike that landed in an open area not more than 30 yards from where I’m staying in my hotel and two hotels nearby that’s housing many foreign journalists. It blew out the window of all the surrounding buildings, including in my hotel room, left a massive crater in the ground. You know, one journalist told me—all these journalists were out in the lobby, some in shock and some kind of laughing nervously. One said this is intimidation; there’s no other reason to do this. You know, of course, this is a fraction of what many Palestinians in Gaza have gone through. As you mentioned, nearly 140 have been killed, mostly civilians, 34 of them children. And, you know, that attack last night, which was terrifying, it followed attacks that hit the buildings of—that houses Agence France-Presse. The offices of Al Jazeera and AP were also damaged by a nearby attack. Yesterday, Israel targeted and then proudly admitted killing two Palestinian journalists in their car.

And that strike on the car actually happened on the corner of a school that’s run by the United Nations, which yesterday was turned into a massive shelter for displaced Gazans. More than 1,800 of them came to the school yesterday—I visited it today—after the Israeli military dropped leaflets on towns in northern Gaza ordering residents to evacuate their houses. Many I spoke to, you know, fled after reading these leaflets. They, you know, were hit with fear and panic. Then the bombing started, and so they fled, many of them leaving behind most of their belongings. These families are now crammed into these classrooms of this school, sleeping on the floor. They have little water. They haven’t eaten since last night. There’s many traumatized children. One of them couldn’t stop wailing and throwing herself on the floor. Her mother said she had been like that since the bombing last week. Another mother told me her 13-year-old daughter couldn’t stop crying unless she was being held by somebody and embraced, because she’s overcome by fear.

So, you know, this is what Gaza is like here. People have nowhere to go. The threat of bombing and violence is ever-present. And the infrastructure here is being systematically destroyed. Israel targeted, you know, a large bank. They targeted—one of the biggest strikes so far was the civil administration building. They target police stations. So, you know, the edifices of the state are being destroyed, and, you know, the people have little recourse for any kind of safety.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, very quickly, did you hear about what happened in Tel Aviv? And what is the reaction in Gaza right now with the bombing of the bus?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I did hear on the streets. I mean, I don’t have—can’t hear the latest news as much, but, you know, I didn’t hear much reaction. You know, there was bombing of a bus. Some people were hurt. You know, this is the reality of Gaza every few minutes. So, you know, the reaction here—I mean, I honestly didn’t know the news until I actually came back to the hotel room to be on the show, so I can’t really speak to that.

But what I can say is that the—you know, the difference—there’s no equality here in what is happening in Israel and what is happening in Gaza. The number of people being killed, the number of buildings being destroyed, the number of people being wounded, it’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Israel. And I think news organizations have to report what’s happening fairly. And fairly is really the cold hard numbers speak to the reality of what is happening.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, can you also talk about—you’ve just come from Cairo. How is the role of Egypt and Mohamed Morsi’s new government there being interpreted in Gaza, and what do people there expect Egypt to do?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, most Gazans I’ve spoke to have showered Mohamed Morsi with praise. They really saw Egypt as standing with Gaza. They saw the—Egypt sending its prime minister, Hisham Kandil, for a visit to Gaza as a real show of solidarity. However, if you look at the actual policy, Egypt hasn’t changed its policy really radically at all towards Israel. The Rafah border crossing is still largely closed. I mean, they are allowing some humanitarian aid in; there’s been an easing since the Mubarak era. But it’s still largely closed to trade with Gaza. And Egypt still looks and considers the issue of Palestine and Gaza through a security lens, and they ignore, you know, human rights and justice and equity and these issues, and they’re looking at it from a security issue, which doesn’t make—you know, isn’t a real break of policy from Mubarak’s era. So, you know, I think there’s been not insignificant things that Morsi has done, which has helped to really significantly change the tone of the issue of Israel and Palestine in the Middle East, but in terms of actual policy, not much has changed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, is that because the military is still determining Egypt’s Israel-Palestine policy and not so much the civilian administration of Morsi?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, for years in Egypt, the entire Palestine issue was not handled by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; it was handled by military intelligence. And yes, that is kind of a separate state institution that still does deal really with the issue of the Rafah crossing—you know, to whom among Hamas should intelligence information received from the Israelis be passed? How do they crack down on militants? These are the kinds of questions that they ask. And absent are questions of international law and historic rights and justice. So, you know, to the large extent, the security services are still in control. I mean, for me to get into Gaza, I had to submit my papers to Mukhabarat, and it took me, you know, three, four days to get in. So, that’s the issue here, and that’s the fear that over the long term not much will change. You know, even if we achieve a ceasefire, if a ceasefire is achieved, and the violence that’s happening, the cycle of violence, stops, we have to look at the long term. Will that—the long-term issue is that Gaza is under occupation. This is the root cause of the problem. And so, if that problem is not solved or tackled, then thus a new cycle of violence will inevitably occur at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, as you were going over the Rafah crossing into Gaza, is it true hundreds of Egyptians, activists were also going to bring aid through the opening in Rafah?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, this—not as I was going through, a couple days before, but this was really an inspiring display of revolutionary initiative. Over 500 activists boarded buses from near Tahrir, came to the Rafah border crossing, and basically told the border guards, “If you don’t let us through, we’re going to cause a huge problem for you, a huge problem for Morsi. You better let us in.” They unfurled a massive Palestinian flag and started chanting in the departure hall. And they, in I think what must be an unprecedented move, were let in, and they came to Gaza. They were only allowed to stay one night, but they visited the Shifa Hosptial, the main hospital here. I think many people in Gaza were very touched by that display of solidarity. And it also shows that really what happens on the ground in Egypt with social movements and so forth really have the most powerful effect, rather than the kind of top-level government issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, the reporters—the three reporters who were killed in a car, the IDF has just tweeted: “Warning to reporters in Gaza: Stay away from Hamas operatives and facilities. Hamas, a terrorist group, will use you as human shields.” The three reporters with Al-Aqsa TV. Final comments, Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I’d like the IDF spokesperson to tell me, you know, if I’m standing next to Hamas people, so I don’t get killed. I don’t know what these kinds of threats are meant to do. The rhetoric coming from Israel, proudly admitting to assassinating journalists, to saying, you know, “Stay away from Hamas; we’re targeting anything,” you know, if—you know, there was a Hamas official in the main Shifa Hospital I just came from in Gaza City. Are they going to, you know, bomb the hospital now? Are they going to bomb schools if there’s a Hamas person there? This is—you know, there are—civilians are being killed. That is a fact. That is what is happening here. And, you know, either Israel has pinpoint accuracy and is targeting these civilians, or they don’t have pinpoint accuracy and they’re raining hellfire down on one of the most densely populated places on earth. There is no other explanation.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] being with us. Please be very, very careful. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent. His latest piece is in The Nation magazine, “Mohamed Morsi in the Middle.” And to clarify, the three journalists who were killed, two were cameramen working for Al-Aqsa TV, killed when their car was bombed by the Israeli military, and a third was killed in another Israeli missile attack, and he was an employee for al-Quds Educational Radio, a private station. Israel also struck a building that houses the offices of the French news agency, Agence France-Presse. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on what’s happening right now in Gaza. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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Debate: From Short-Term Ceasefire to Long-Term Peace, How to Resolve the Israel-Gaza Crisis?

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