Elliott Woods, for the Pulitzer Center
Elliott Woods traveled to Gaza on a Pulitzer Center grant
A young boy prepares tea in front of the cinder-block structure his family has constructed from the ruins of their home in Beit Lahia, Gaza.
Gaza City — I recently read through all of Rod Nordland's pieces from Gaza for Newsweek. He was quite prolific while here, and most of his stories show a clear sense of repulsion at the level of destruction brought to the doorsteps of ordinary Palestinians — regardless of whether they may have sympathized with Hamas or Fatah or no one at all.
I met Mr. Nordland when we crossed through the Rafah terminal together on January 16. He offered my friend Theo and I a ride into Rafah City with his driver, Hassan. I was impressed by his first reports from Gaza, especially by his piece about Zeitoun, which came out at about the same time as my piece about Zeitoun for GlobalPost. Mr. Nordland's story about the massacre of the Samouni family in Zeitoun, by air strikes and aimed rifle shots, showed the disastrous level to which "disproportionate" Israeli violence escalated once ground troops arrived in Gazan villages. The reporting in the story is meticulous, the illustration of violence directed at civilians clear and potent.
But at the end of a piece about young Palestinian men reacting to Obama's inauguration, written after a trip to a shisha joint in Gaza City, Mr. Nordland makes an uncharacteristic jab at Hamas that undermines the objectivity and evidential power of his other stories:
"As the old saying goes, Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It was a grim reminder that Gaza is still run by terrorists from Hamas, who were popularly elected. Until Palestinians do something about that, there will be limits to what Obama can do for them."
I can brook the statement "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," and I agree that — whether or not "Palestinians do something about" the fact that Hamas rules the Gaza Strip — there are "limits to what Obama can do for them."
What I don't understand is how Mr. Nordland found it appropriate to echo the completely two-dimensional phrase, "Gaza is still run by terrorists from Hamas," while at the same time admitting that those "terrorists" were "popularly elected." Who decides which governments get stuck with the label "terrorist," or rather, who decides which countries and parties international journalists are able to freely label "terrorist" without fear of consumer backlash? By all accounts here in Gaza, the Israeli government is the "terrorist" in the neighborhood, and has been for at least sixty years. But what would happen if Mr. Nordland referred to Ehud Olmert's government as a "terrorists . . . who were popularly elected?"
Perhaps Mr. Nordland would never think of doing such a thing, but that in itself should be evidence of how useless and misleading the label "terrorist" has become. Gazans — regardless of their support for Hamas or Fatah — view the Israeli state as a terrorist organization. Suffice to say, the presence of drones and F-16s in the sky is nothing short of terrifying. The silhouettes of tanks along the borders and the random cracks of rifle fire from unseen Israeli soldiers? Terrifying. Fisherman who venture out from Gazan shores drag their nets to the boom of .50 caliber machine guns on the horizon, mounted on immense warships that patrol line of demarcation of the Israeli naval blockade.
Time and time again, I hear Gazans say — with regard to harassing fire and drones — "It is all to make us afraid."
I am sure Mr. Nordland heard dozens of statements to that effect during his two weeks here last month, and he reported extensively on the fear that dominates lives here. If fear dominates lives here, and most of that fear comes from the Israeli side of the border, then Israel is successfully wielding the weapon of terror against the Gazan people.
Hamas' rocket fire toward southern Israel may very well be a terror tactic too — but my point is that using the word "terrorist" to describe one side of the battle and not the other is extremely reckless, when both sides practice terror. What happens when one side becomes the "terrorist" and the other, by comparison, the "conventional force," is that the "terrorist" is robbed of political intent and the "terrorist's" supporters become fanatics instead of citizens with desires for some sort of political or military action to rectify their situation. "Terrorists" cannot possibly have rational political objectives — the opening of Gaza's borders, the end of the Israeli siege, the end to the occupation of the West Bank — and all "terrorist" violence is somehow evil in comparison to "conventional" violence, which might be justified by some outmoded just war theory or claims of self-defense.
Calling Hamas a "terrorist" organization and refusing to accept them as a political movement with clearly defined objectives and massive popular support is a grave error. Similarly, allowing Israel to occupy the moral high ground of the "conventional" force allows Israel to claim that its violence against Gaza is justifiable. As America's drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions show, any amount of civilians can be killed by a "conventional" force as long as the enemy is "terror." How long will media consumers put up with the fact that the word "terror" is used by "conventional" forces to divert attention from the true mercilessness and illegality of today's "conventional" warfare?
Elliott Woods, for the Pulitzer Center