Democracy

Live from Gaza

Modern media technology is on the mind of everyone analyzing the ongoing Arab revolts. It is also a great didactic tool that can change perspectives inside out, both for students and for their teachers.

Last week, as part of my New School undergraduate class, “Civil Society and Democratization in the Middle East,” I organized a video conference connecting my twelve students with a group of students and activists from Gaza City. Video conference is a bit exaggerated because the New School does not have such a facility, although the two existing universities in the Gaza Strip have the latest technology available. If this were still needed, we had confirmation that Arabs are on top of their technology (and that more money is needed from the Gates Foundation to equip American research institutions). Despite fear of a power failure (as is frequently the case in Gaza) and a bricolage of Skype with a laptop connected to the video-projector, the connection was smooth and the flow of questions on both sides lasted more than an hour and a half.

The Palestinian students were in the MBA and Journalism programs at Al-Azhar University (the college closer in line with the nationalist party Fatah, while the Islamist University is under Hamas’ hegemony). They were chosen for their fluency in English by a former Ph.D. colleague, a long time Palestinian activist and social scientist. The five Palestinian interlocutors (two women speaking articulately and more passionately than their shy male colleagues) responded to my students’ questions with great nuance and passion. The most outspoken student was a female journalist, half Libyan and half Palestinian. Unlike the other students, who showed less enthusiasm for the international coalition’s bombings in Libya, she was very glad to see that, at least once, the international community was standing by its word in defending an anti-dictatorial protest movement.

We heard of their plans to organize another protest in Gaza, not around the occupation or the siege of Gaza, but calling for the end of international Palestinian divisions. For this young generation, the Fatah-Hamas political stand-off, since the 2006 elections and the military actions in June 2007, has been the most pressing issue. The division between a Hamas-led de facto government in the Gaza Strip and a Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has meant a gradual shrinking of the Palestinian population’s freedoms of association and expression. Political opponents and activists have encountered the same fate under Fatah or Hamas: arrest, physical intimidation and in some cases even torture. Clearly, the Palestinian people, in the judgment of these students, could do with a revolt like in Tunisia and Egypt, and this would also force Israel to be more proactive in seeking a just and peaceful solution with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.

Sadly, the international media did not report on the bravery of the few hundreds of Gaza students who took the street on the 30th of March, despite the warnings by the Hamas government that any public gathering would be considered illegal. The NY Times had literally two lines on this protest, at the end of a larger article dedicated to human rights violations in the Gaza strip. All it said was that “Hamas police officers broke up a small demonstration by youths calling for an end to the split between Gaza and the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority holds sway.” What we heard from our Gaza friends a few days after this demonstration was that the students, as they marched out the university, were beaten up by the police, with many left injured.

Students in my class were impressed by the courageous stance taken by their Palestinian colleagues. The usually rather silent students turned out to be the most vocal in expressing their solidarity with the Palestinian activists. This face-to-face dialogue will have made the ordeal of many Palestinians more understandable and more tangible to a few American youths. To me, it has also demonstrated that giving a personal voice to otherwise complicated issues is the best way to get students more interested in pressing international affairs.

  • Rafael

    What a cool idea for a class. Excellent. I’m taking notes here

  • Alma

    Loved the idea.