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Saturday, March 23, 2019

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Journalist speaks on carnage in Gaza


In his visit to UH, international journalist Mohammad Omen offered a chilling first-hand account of life in Gaza region. One part of his speech centered on home demolitions in Rafah, which he said are administered by Israeli bulldozers, forcing residents to live in tents in refugee camps. | Courtesy of Mohammed Omer

Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism award winner Mohammed Omer, above, talked with UH students aout his “Reflection on Life and War in Gaza” speaking tour. The Students for a Democratic Society sponsored the event. | Courtesy of Mohammed Omer

International journalist and Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism award winner Mohammed Omer presented “Reflection on Life and War in Gaza,” at the University Center as part of his international speaking tour.

The ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict affects the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, in many ways, but Omer said on this speaking tour he wants to talk about life more than war.

Omer emphasized that not all stereotypes put on this region are true. For example, Omer said unlike many religious clashes that occur in this area, the accusation that Palestinian Muslims and Christians don’t live together peacefully is false.

“My news editor in Norway told me that there is a lot of attention in the American media that the Christian community in Gaza are oppressed,” Omer said. “I asked them (Christian students in Palestinian schools) if they experience any problems … they didn’t mention any difficulties.”

Omer mentioned that Father Manuel Musallam, the senior Roman Catholic priest in Gaza, told him that is, “absolutely not the case here. We are all Palestinians.”

Omar shared his account of life in Gaza, saying its takes people — mainly children — quite a while to obtain basic necessities.

“Most of the children get in lines. It can take you four to five hours to get water and to get home,” Omer said. “Water doesn’t come often … because if you want water, you have to have electricity. If you don’t have electricity, you don’t have water. This is why it’s very difficult to have any sort of easy life (in Gaza).”

Because the availability of water is never a guarantee, people sometimes take an “any means necessary” approach to get what’s needed.

“Last night, I called my mother. It was around 2 a.m. Gaza time. … She was awake, waiting for the water to come,” Omer said. “There was no water coming into the Gaza Strip because the electricity is down. That’s just another example of living in this area.”

Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, doesn’t just lack hospital maintenance, medicine and water, Omer said.

“Whoever has cooking gas in the Gaza Strip is considered to be the king of the Gaza Strip,” he said.

In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed the “Disengagement plan,” which involved evicting all Israeli’s from the Gaza Strip. Before this plan was introduced, Israeli settlements in this region spurred controversy.

Omer is from the Rafah area of Gaza, where he experienced first-hand the result of this conflict.

“My own house has been demolished by Israeli Occupation Forces in 2003,” Omer said. “I was coming back from my University, after having waited a possible three-to-four hours at a checkpoint, and a person stopped me, asking me, ‘Mohammed, where are you going?’ I said, ‘home.’ A second and a third asked me after that, as well.

“They looked at me and said, ‘don’t you know?’ I told them no. They said, ‘just be careful.’”

As soon as Omer turned onto his street, he realized there was nothing left and his house was gone.

“All I could hear in the background is that, ‘his mother is injured. His brother is killed.’ I was so confused,” Omer said.

After putting the pieces together, Omer concluded that his mother had to run out of the house when a bulldozer was demolishing their home.

“I have lost everything basically. All I have left is my Palestinian ID,” Omer said.

The United Nations estimates that about 1,500 homes were demolished by the IDF just in the Rafah area from 2000-2004.

“Two or 3 a.m., you get a call from a blocked number saying, ‘this is the army speaking. Evacuate your house. We’re going to bomb it now,” Omer said.

Most people who have lost their home after demolition have no choice but to live in a tent at a refugee camp, said Omer, who not only lost his home, but also family members as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“My own brother was killed by the Israeli Army in 2003, on the 19th of October,” Omer said. “Husam had nothing to do with politics. He had one dream: to go to his school and continue on with his life. Husam was killed by seven bullets,” Omer said.

Omer said that the carnage is made worse because ambulances can’t enter the Gaza area to take the bodies or help the wounded.

“On the right side the ambulance was coming, and the Israelis shot the tires. On the left side, they put sand barriers to not allow them to get in,” Omer said.

As a journalist, Omer contacted an Israeli spokesperson to find out why there were so many sporadic bombings. But the answers he received left him disappointed and unsatisfied.

“(The spokesperson) said Palestinian terrorists are launching rockets toward Israel and they had to hit back, so I asked him, ‘why don’t you hit the terrorists, not the civilians?’ He had no comment,” Omer said. “Before 2005, Israel would never bomb missiles at Gaza because there were children sleeping in the Jewish settlements.”

Omer has reported for numerous media outlets, including Washing Report on Middle East Affairs and The Nation. He also founded the Rafah Today blog.

“A life as a journalist in Gaza is very difficult. You’re always besieged between different factors and different situations. You can be attacked from different sides,” Omer said. “Hamas and Fateh from one side, Israel from the other. And of course, you can imagine traveling troubles.”

In 2008, when Omer was awarded with the Gellhorn award, he was honored in the citation as “the voice of the voiceless.” But when he returned home, violence awaited him.

“I was attacked on the 26th of June 2008 by the Israeli Army. I was coming back from the Martha Gellhorn Journalism prize awards,” Omer said. “The Israeli army wanted the money I got from the speaking tour, and they had all the details; how much I got, when and where.”

Omer said the Israeli’s wanted the money because Martha Gellhorn is Jewish and they, therefore, considered it Jewish money. He added that he is still recovering from the injuries he suffered.

The Students for Democratic Society at UH sponsored the event, which took place last Wednesday.

“Basically SDS felt the need to get this story out,” political science sophomore Dana El Kurd said. “Let people know the realities of the life in Gaza, aside from Israeli propaganda.”

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