Friday, April 30, 2010

The Hamas Media Machine Strikes Again

Much attention has been given to the recently released, Hamas-made animated video, which has been reposted on Youtube by scores of different users. Many journalists have opined and called it part psychological warfare, part PR tool, but mostly a thinly veiled attempt to threaten the Israeli public with the killing of Gilad Shalit.

But to me the video showed a kind of lonely desperation on the part of Hamas to make a deal. Perhaps they can identify with the sad, frail Noam Shalit of the future walking the streets alone. One of the main reasons Israel is refusing the deal is because they are aware that the deal would empower Hamas politically in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as increase their international legitimacy. But I think this video should be interpreted by Israel as a sign of weakness on the part of Hamas, and now might actually be a good time for Israel to re-negotiate.

The video actually reminded me of the animated cartoons I used to watch as a kid. When an older version of Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, is walking alone in the streets of some generic Israeli city from the future, he finds a newspaper (Daily Globe?) with his son next to Ron Arad, the presumed dead Israeli airman. Then he goes to Erez crossing, the main checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, and his son, predictably, comes back in a coffin.

When the Qassam Martyrs Brigade logo came down with a thud sound effect, I was expecting to hear the sardonic laughter of some bearded Hamas operative (Green Lantern?).

I'm not trying to make a value judgment on who the real villain is in all this, since no side has a monopoly on good or evil in this conflict. (Let’s not get into political banter, please). If the video wasn’t about such a sad topic, it would be funny. I really think the Hamas filmmakers should apply to DC Comics to make the next Superman live action short.

"Dear Superman (IDF Air Force), I have Lois Lane (Gilad Shalit) in my possession and this is how she will end up if you don't give me what I want." (Insert sardonic villain laugh here).
Sincerely, Qassam Martyrs Brigade (Lex Luthor)

Of course, I am not insensitive to the horrible agony these families must be going through. This is not some comic book, but real life. As I type these words a free man, a young man is languishing away his formative years, most likely in an underground cell in Gaza without basic human rights.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom should be presumed innocent, are being held in Israeli prison without a fair trial.

Isn’t the holy land grand?

In a very different video, the real Noam Shalit makes a plea to the world on Israel's Independence Day on behalf of his son.

This is an extremely low budget production compared to Hamas' video. The video is way too long, in choppy English, and is missing a clear message. It is also not directed at Israelis, as it probably should be, but at the entire world. Shouldn't Noam's goal be to pressure Israelis into making Gilad Shalit a campaign issue in the next election? Or is this evidence that Noam has given up on the Israeli public that voted in a right leaning government?

Not sure whether any of these media antics will have any real influence on the decision makers who get to pull the strings controlling real human lives.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My Reverse Exodus

My week in Sinai reminded me how much I love traveling for the sake of traveling. I had the purest of intentions. To relax, experience, think, write, and scuba dive in the Red Sea. My only photographic equipment was an Iphone. My only writing tool was a pen and random scraps of paper. This is my brief travelogue. I could write forever but work beckons...(If only I could get paid to do this type of "work," hmmm)

My crossing from Eilat to Taba was as graceful as could be. At the end of the Passover holiday, I was literally the only soul person traveling FROM Israel TO the Sinai Peninsula. I relish these moments, where all evidence seems to suggest that I am going the totally wrong way. I watched taxi after taxi roll in, delivering to the border hordes of the most relaxed Israelis you’ll ever see. With long and unruly masses of hair, bloodshot eyes, and rosy shoulders, they silently and reluctantly drag their bodies towards their respective realities. The air of tranquility is suddenly pierced by the angry screams of an Egyptian driver running frantically towards one Israeli, accusing a member of the group of leaving the taxi without paying. Yes, this was as close to the real-life exodus as I would get in my lifetime. The modern day Hebrews entered the “Promised Land,” with little holiness, but maybe with a profound sense of the sublime.

I flashed my US passport to the Egyptian border officer and was greeted with an “Ahlan Wahsalan.” (welcome). I walked through a metal detector with my iphone, keys, and wallet, and for the first time in my life I went through without a beep. He stamped a funny little automobile insignia from the 1950s on the last page of my passport reserved for amendments, not visas. I then exchanged my Israeli shekels for Egyptian pounds (when I asked the Egyptian clerk for a receipt, it provoked laughter), and was across the border in less than 5 minutes.

Possibly to emphasize the modernity gap between Israel and Egypt, you literally go back in time 1 hour when you cross the border. (Egypt doesn’t do daylight savings). This is good for the perpetually late traveler. I got to the dusty Taba bus depot at 9:15, but it was actually 8:15, which meant that I was still on time for the 9:00 bus. Awesome. But there wasn’t a soul in sight and the wind was blowing trash into my face. Finally after 30 minutes I saw a Bedouin looking man walk by. In my rudimentary Palestinian Arabic, I asked about the 9 am bus, and finally understood that it was not going to come. The next bus was at 3. TIA, I thought to myself. This is Africa. I felt a surge of power and liberation.

This was the third unlucky thing that happened to me since the trip began just 15 hours earlier. I was kind to two French tourists who were dazed and confused in the seedy labyrinth that is the Tel Aviv bus station. I gave them travel advice and let them cut in front of me in line. They bought the last two tickets for the bus to Eilat. When I got to the ticket counter, I was told that there were no more tickets. I had to sit on the floor of the bus or wait for the next one. I took option 1, and those French dickheads didn’t even say “bonjour” to me as they nearly tripped over me sprawled out like raw chicken in the center aisle of the bus, as they went to their comfortable seats. Using some soldier’s m16 as a pillow, I imagined myself underwater in a fluorescent coral garden.

The night before that a dog peed on my face. I was in a makeshift campground (read: parking lot) in the shadow of the Herod’s Palace Hotel. The wind was howling so I fastened my tent to a palm tree, hammered 8 stakes into the hard sand, and secured then with red sea rocks. At 1 am, the arsim (see here for definition) had finished their arak (anise liquor) and their music was off, so I unfurled my sleeping bag, and completed my reverse metamorphosis by crawling into it the tent I call the Larvae. I zipped up the one opening, leaving the screen open for oxygen. Despite the light pollution caused by Eilat’s monumental ugliness, I could see my favorite constellations. Just as I closed my eyes and was drifting off to sleep to the folk melodies of Mumford and Sons, I felt a warm spray of liquid on my forehead. The pungent smell of dehydrated rank urine filled my nostrils. I looked up to see the lipstick-like penis of some mutt aimed right at my face.

The Larvae Tent

But I must say my luck turned around, kind of. Once I realized I was going to be stuck in Taba for 7 hours, I went to the Taba Hilton to spend the day on the beach. This was the hotel that had been devastated in 2004 when a truck drove into the lobby and detonated a powerful bomb, killing 31 people and wounding 160. I had to get past 3 security perimeters and a metal detector just to get in. I lounged around there, had lunch, and got on the 3pm bus to Sharm al Sheikh.

Taba Hilton Vantage Point

A good idea when traveling in the Sinai is to staple your passport to your forehead, or at least permanently keep it out. I have never seen so many checkpoints in my life. About every 15 miles and before entering any village, the bus stopped, some security goon came in, and checked every person’s id.

Dahab Checkpoint

Eventually I got to Sharm, checked into my spartan bungalow on a cliff overlooking the red sea, and felt like I was finally getting closer to my paradise below the waves.

My Bungalow

But the next morning, just as I was getting excited to go scuba diving, I saw something I had never seen in my life. A checkpoint, complete with a metal detector and several guards, checked everyone's bag before they get on a dive boat. I suppose it makes sense, given the creativity of terrorists these days, but come on, these people are armed with snorkels and sunscreen. As I got on the vessel, ironically named “Freedom,” I reassured myself: There wont be checkpoints underwater, right?

Dive Boat Checkpoint

The Freedom Dive Boat

The diving was spectacularly, otherworldly. Clownfish, parrotfish, barracuda, groupers, giant brain corals, eel gardens, stingrays.
I met some amazing human beings also, both Egyptians and foreigners.
I even got to experience the Sharma al Sheikh nightlife scene, which is quite fun and alcohol friendly, possibly catering to the hundreds of Russian package tourists who fly in every day to Sharm’s international airport.

The way back was uneventful. Just the routine checkpoints and then the usual harassment I always get when coming back to Israel, despite my residency status.

Female Israeli Officer: Why did you try and go to Gaza in 2008?

Me: For work, I’m a journalist.

Female Israeli Officer: What were you doing in Iraq in 2005?

Me: Reporting, would you like to see my Press ID?

Female Israeli Officer: We must stamp your passport.

Me: No, I need to travel in the Arab world. You may not stamp it.

Female Israeli Officer: You know, you are not special. The only difference between you and me is I can vote, and you can’t.

Me: Voting in Israel is an exercise in futility.

Female Israeli Officer: (smirking) You’re aware it is against the law to go to Suria (Syria) and Lebanon.

Me: But what about my summer home in Beirut? Come on, I was in Egypt for god’s sake. There’s a peace treaty, right?

Female Israeli Officer: Just know that next time we will have to stamp your passport.

Me: Can I go now?

Female Israeli Officer: Yes.

On the Israeli side, I jumped into a taxicab of an Israeli-Arab driver who turned on the meter and then decided to pull over and chat with some friends on my dime. Little did he know, my sharp elbows had already been deployed at the border. I let him have it. He admitted his “chutzpah” and we drove off with him jabbing me in jest.

Sharm Nightlife

More Package Tourists Descend on Sharm

Sinai Desert Rocks

Friday, April 02, 2010

Jerusalem Passion Play

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It is a bloody one, but don't worry, the blood is fake.

And if you happen to be in the Old City of Jerusalem today, you don't want to miss Joanne Petronella and the Christ in You Ministry of Brea California performing the Passion Play.

Happy Easter and Passover to all.