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Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Gaza’s “Severe Damage” and Why Truce Won’t Stop the Violence of Occupation

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Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip ended in a ceasefire last week with the final toll standing at around 170 Palestinians killed and more than 700 wounded. Meanwhile in Israel, four Israeli civilians and two Israeli soldiers were killed, along with dozens of others wounded, in Palestinian attacks. We’re joined from Cairo by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who has just returned to Cairo after several days in Gaza. “The destruction in Gaza is severe,” Kouddous says. [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.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue speaking with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abel Kouddous in Cairo. He just returned to Egypt on Saturday after several days in Gaza. On Wednesday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi brokered a deal to end Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed 170 Palestinians. During that period, six Israelis were killed, as well, in Palestinian rocket attacks. Earlier today, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who presided over the assault on Gaza, announced his resignation.

Sharif, can you talk about the terms of the ceasefire and the reactions in Gaza afterwards?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, the reaction was one of celebration in Gaza. It was a very bizarre countdown to the 9 p.m. deadline, which marked the end of the violence. The bombs were falling up until the very last minute. A Palestinian man was killed in the final minutes right before the 9 p.m. deadline. When it did come, we very quickly heard in Gaza cheers going out, mosques going on the loudspeakers and claiming victory over Israel, cars whizzing in the streets. And it turned into a massive street celebration by many Gazans.

As you mentioned, you know, the death toll is around—somewhere around 170. They’re still getting the accurate figures. There’s a lot of—and at least 34 of those are children. Over a hundred are civilians. The destruction in Gaza is severe. The Israeli military targeted many civil institutions, a massive civil administration complex known as Abu Khadra, that—where Palestinians would go to get IDs and documents. A bridge, dozens of homes and offices and apartment buildings have been reduced to rubble.

So, you know, in asking Palestinians why they consider this a victory, it’s that they feel that Israel did not achieve any of its objectives, that they managed to avoid a ground invasion by Israeli forces, and they—they overwhelmingly put this to the resistance, to Hamas’s and other Palestinian factions’ resistance and rocket fire. Many Palestinians that you speak to say that this is the reason that they got a ceasefire that—what they view is on favorable terms.

Now, it must be said—so, part of the—part of the deal is that Israel will stop targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, which they killed the Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military wing last week, which set off this week of violence. And they’ve promised to stop ground incursions, as well. On the Egyptian—sorry, on the Palestinian side, Hamas has promised to stop rocket attacks and so forth. But what is—and this is all guaranteed by Egypt.

What is interesting also, and is also left very vague, is that Israel has promised to ease the movement of people and goods across Gaza’s borders. Now, it must be said this is not talking about lifting the blockade that has crippled Gaza ever since Hamas was elected and took over the territory, so—but we’ve already seen an easing of some restrictions. Palestinian fisherman, who were only barred—who were barred from going out more than three kilometers from the coast, are now allowed to go six kilometers, even though under the terms of the Oslo agreement they’re supposed to be able to go 20 kilometers.

But what was a very, in a way, inspiring scene on Friday was in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. On the eastern border, the border with Israel, there’s buffer zones. There’s buffer zones across the border with Israel of about a thousand feet or more, where Palestinians cannot go or risk being shot by Israeli forces. The terms of the ceasefire were vague on these buffer zones. But what we saw after Friday prayer was hundreds of Palestinians walking out into these buffer zones without assurance of what the response by the Israeli military would be. And many of them, it was the first time they had walked on this land for many years. Farmers were grabbing the soil for the first time and promising that they would, the next day, begin to farm the soil that they hadn’t been able to for many years. One Palestinian man was actually killed. Him and a group of young men approached the border fence and began throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, who responded by opening fire. So, it shows the fragility of the ceasefire agreement.

But if you just look at the difference between the response in Gaza—massive celebrations on the streets—and the response in Israel—the resignation of the defense minister, small protests in some southern Israeli cities against the terms of the ceasefire—we can see that, you know, most people are calling this, at least in Gaza, a victory for the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, the effect on children? The estimates now, Palestinian medical officials say the death toll, around 170, included up to 34 children.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. The effect on children is devastating, really. We know the death toll and the number of wounded, but what really go uncounted are the severe emotional and mental trauma that many children suffer. The repeated Israeli air strikes have a severe effect on many children. And we’ve seen this effect from Israel’s even more brutal assault in 2008 and 2009, dubbed Operation Cast Lead.

And I saw several families and spoke with them, children who—one child, his name’s Khaled al-Attar, who can no longer talk after a Israeli missile strike shook the room he was in so hard that the doors blew off the hinges, and so he went into shock and never fully recovered. Another woman, Heba al-Attar, her daughter, 13-year-old daughter, Dian, cannot stop crying. She needs to be held at all times, cannot walk without her mother holding her hand, and is constantly terrified.

So, this is—you know, we always hear about the physical destruction, the death toll and the wounded, but the severe, severe mental trauma that—not only on children, but on adults, as well—has really taken its toll on Gaza, and you can see it by speaking to the victims of this Israeli offensive.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, in an interview with the BBC Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged the U.S. to take a decisive lead in the resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem. This is what he said.

WILLIAM HAGUE: Yeah, it is time for a huge effort on the Middle East peace process. This is what I have been calling for, particularly calling for the United States, now after the election, to show the necessary leadership on this over the coming months, because they have crucial leverage with Israel that no other country has. But yes, it does need the very active support of European nations and Arab nations to create incentives and disincentives for all involved to make sure that this final—this last chance—we’re coming to the final chance maybe for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—to be successfully resolved.

ANDREW MARR: Would you like to see Bill Clinton coming in?

WILLIAM HAGUE: Well, I heard David Miliband saying that earlier. I think we—in the government, we will keep our conversations with the Americans about these things private. But certainly, one form or another, whatever personal form it takes, we do look to the United States to give a decisive lead on this in the coming months. And after the tragic conflict in Gaza in the last 10 days, if it’s now possible to move on to the opening up of access in and out of Gaza and stopping the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, well, then some good could actually come of that awful crisis and terrible casualties.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s British Foreign Secretary William Hague. What is your sense, Sharif, of Palestinians’ feelings about the United States right now in being an honest broker here?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, there’s no question that they view the United States as being a dishonest broker, a huge disappointment with the Obama administration, but really a lack of surprise—the U.S. displaying the same kind of staunch, unwavering support for Israel as it has for decades.

You know, there’s—the essence of the problem, the ceasefire may have stopped the immediate violence, but the essence of the problem, the core of the problem, is the occupation. Israel withdrew its illegal settlers in 2005, but it has maintained control of Gaza’s borders, Gaza’s air, Gaza’s water access, preventing exports. And this, by international legal definitions, is still occupation. And the crippling siege of Gaza has—the U.N. issued a report in August saying that by 2020 Gaza would be unlivable. This is the core of the issue, and if these fundamental issues aren’t addressed, if we just see a slight easing of restrictions on the movement of goods—and, you know, also to mention that Egypt is complicit in this siege with the Rafah border crossing being closed to trade and most of the trade being done illicitly in these tunnels. If the core of the problem, the occupation, isn’t addressed, then we’re going to see, continue to see these waves of violence, waves of attacks by Israel.

And to the United States’s discredit, it has not acted as an honest broker. We saw them pull out all diplomatic stops to prevent the bid for observer status at the United Nations, and the Palestinians are going to go again this year to the United Nations with the same bid. And we’ll have to wait and see whether the U.S. puts on the same kind of pressure on so many other countries to reject that.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, following the ceasefire, Sharif, reports have emerged bolstering speculation Israel launched the assault as a means to prepare for a potential future attack on Iran. The New York Times reports the Gaza assault and the rocket attacks it provoked were, quote, “something of a practice run for any future armed confrontation with Iran.” Your response to that? They cited unnamed Israeli and U.S. officials.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It’s difficult to say. I mean, the two situations are so completely different. The fact that Hamas’s military wing and other militant Palestinian factions were able to continue firing rockets into Israel while this assault was going, that it’s unclear how their capacity was affected, but it seems that they still have this capacity, going forward. A completely different situation to what is essentially a group in an open-air prison compared to a very powerful country in the Middle East, Iran, with a massive army. So, a training run—I don’t see how the two are comparable at all. And the very notion of practicing or training by killing up to 170 people, most of them civilians, including over 30 children, is reprehensible. So, you know, we have to think of things in these terms, not in these geopolitical terms that we sometimes hear in publications like the New York Times.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Sharif, for joining us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, wrote a piece last week before Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s announcement of taking more power, called “Morsi in the Middle.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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