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Middle East Issues

The Christian Science Monitor and the Gaza Book Libel

The Christian Science Monitor will not be deterred. While most media outlets have sensibly moved on from the Gaza blockade story, given that Israel now allows in virtually everything aside from weapons, the CSM presses on with the overreported, frequently misreported, and now, anachronistic, story. Ruqaya Izzidien debuts in the CSM with her piece "Under Israeli blockade of Gaza, books are a rare, cherished commodity." The subheading is: "Israel does not explicitly ban importing books to Gaza, but the blockade makes it extraordinarily difficult to do so. The shortage amounts to a kind of censorship, Gazans say." The lengthy article begins:

The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has been blamed for a multitude of problems facing the population there: malnutrition, unemployment, limited access to electricity and potable water.

Gazan students and educators say that under the Israeli-imposed siege, education is suffering too. The blockade makes it so difficult to bring in books that they are forced to resort to bootlegging and smuggling, they say. The limited supply of original books has driven up costs, making them difficult for most Gazans to afford.

Israel's legal blockade has indeed been blamed for real and fabricated Gaza hardships alike. It's a reporter's job to sift through those claims, sorting out the fact from the fiction.

But Izzidien doesn't. For her, it's enough to say that Israel was blamed. The merit of the outdated accusations are not particularly of any concern to her.

And she then attempts to breathe new life into the old blockade story with the accusation that under "the Israeli-imposed siege" (but not the Egyptian-imposed siege) "education is suffering" and the "blockade makes it so difficult to bring in books. . . ."

According to Izzidien:

Part of the problem is that Israel does not communicate directly with Hamas, the Islamist militant party that governs Gaza, instead relying on the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) to handle issues in both of the Palestinian territories. However, Gaza is isolated from the West Bank, both geographically and politically, so the limited number of books entering Gaza via Israel are chosen by the PA, not Gazans.

Detailing the alleged hardship of book store owners, she reports:

One Gazan bookshop owner, who introduced himself as Mohammed Abed, says that it is too difficult to import books via Israel, "so we travel to Egypt, buy books, and bring them back in our bags." Many bookshop owners tell the same story.

And, yet, those few readers who make it as far as the tenth paragraph learn that contrary to Izzidien's claim at the top of the story that only the Palestinian Authority is permitted to decide which books reach Gaza, in fact, book shop owners can also independently order books from Israel:

Although it is possible for bookshop owners to buy books from Israel, they claim that Israeli book prices are unaffordable for Gaza's underemployed and besieged population. Smuggling books from distant countries can be less expensive than buying them from just across the Israeli border.
A medical bookshop employee explains how he smuggles books in his luggage through Rafah, which is a passenger-only crossing: "I cross into Egypt, buy a plane ticket to London to purchase the books for medical students. This way is easier and even cheaper than it is to import the books through Israel," says the man, who introduced himself as Mahmood Bakri.
So it's not that Gaza book store owners can't order books from Israel because Israel will only work with the PA. It's just that shop owners prefer to buy elsewhere, because Israeli books are more expensive. That's quite a different story than "the blockade makes it so difficult to bring in books," as Izzidien puts it in the second paragraph.
Moreover, Izzidien neglects to note that the Rafah crossing, into Egypt, is a passenger-only crossing because, unlike Israel, Egypt refuses to open a cargo crossing for goods into Gaza. Thus, while Israel allows for the import of (relatively expensive) books, Egypt does not allow for the legal import of any books at all. But for Izzidien and her Palestinian interviewees, only Israel is at fault, not Egypt.

Indeed, the book crisis, so to speak, sounds not dissimilar from the fuel crisis, about which the AP reported:

The fuel crisis has its origins in the decision by Hamas, more than a year ago, to use smuggled fuel to run the territory's only power plant instead of paying for more expensive fuel coming through an Israeli cargo crossing.

Censorship, By Whom?

Izzidien cannot restrain herself from playing the censorship card to enhance her blame Israel story. She writes that Palestinians "hold Israel responsible [for the lack of books in Gaza] arguing that the restrictions on book imports amount to a censoring of their education." And, further down in the article, she reiterates:

... many Gazan students, unable to buy the books they want, view the lack of books as amounting to censorship, regardless of whether it is intentional or merely an unintended side effect of policies.
Rana Baker, a business student who also blogs about Palestinian social and political issues, considers that lack of political and historical books in Gaza censorship and an infringement of her right to education.

"The books at my university, are old, and it it doesn't have the kinds of books that I like to read: books that speak about Palestine, its culture, refugees, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid," she says.

There is censorship in Gaza, but Rana Baker, a student at the Hamas-linked Islamic University of Gaza, can hardly be counted on to be a straight-talker about Hamas censorship. And Izzidien also exercises self-censorship on Hamas censorship.

Human Rights Watch, hardly soft on Israel, last year charged Hamas, not Israel, with censorship in the Gaza Strip. HRW charged:

Hamas authorities in Gaza should immediately lift bans arbitrarily imposed on books and newspapers, Human Rights Watch said today. Hamas security officers recently confiscated copies of novels from bookstores on the basis of their allegedly "immoral" content, and Hamas officials bar newspapers from being brought into the Gaza Strip that support the rival Fatah movement, which leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. . . .

On January 23, 2011, Hamas police officers entered three bookstores in Gaza City and confiscated copies of two books, saying they were allegedly "against Shari'a" without providing any basis for their actions in written law or court order.

Dr. Talaat al-Safadi, the owner of the Ibn Khaldun bookstore near Al Azhar University in Gaza City, told Human Rights Watch that two police officers in street clothes and another in uniform came to his bookstore and confiscated seven copies of A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel by Haidar Haidar, and one copy of Chicago, a novel by Alaa' al-Aswany.

"The police didn't tell me why they were taking the books and I didn't ask them, but I insisted that they prove they had the right to take them, and eventually they showed me a note from the Ministry of Interior," al-Safadi said. The police refused to give him a receipt for the books, he said, telling him to go to the al-Abbas police station, which he refused to do.

"A Banquet for Seaweed was written and translated into many languages 20 years ago, and people these days can download novels anyway," al-Safadi said. "There's no point in confiscating them."

Also on January 23, members of the General Investigation Bureau confiscated copies of Chicago and A Banquet for Seaweed from the al-Shurouq bookstore in Gaza City, and Internal Security Service officers ordered employees at the Samir Mansour bookstore, near Gaza City's Islamic University, not to sell any copies of the novels, said the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a nongovernmental rights group based in Gaza.

Hamas security officers also searched for copies of a novel titled Forbidden Pleasure but did not locate any, the rights group reported. The police officers claimed the novels violated Sharia, or Islamic law, bookstore employees said. Police did not describe or specify the violation. Employees of these bookstores confirmed these incidents to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch also urged Hamas authorities to lift an ongoing ban on importing into Gaza three newspapers printed in the West Bank - Al-Ayyam, Al-Quds, and Al-Hayat al-Jadida. Israel had previously barred the newspapers from being taken into Gaza but had lifted the restriction in June 2010 as part of an announced "easing" of its closure of Gaza's borders. Hamas then barred their entry. A Hamas spokesperson acknowledged that the newspaper bans had been imposed without any basis in Palestinian law.

It's no wonder that Gaza book store owners, fearing a visit from Hamas security officials, would prefer to blame Israel rather than Hamas.
As for the Israeli restrictions, those who manage to get to the 21st paragraph learn:
The Gaza branch manager of an international mail courier, who refused to give his last name, insists that the lack of political books entering Gaza is deliberate.
"I've worked at the Karam Abu Salam (Kerem Shalom) goods crossing between Gaza and Israel for ten years and I know what is prohibited," he explained. "Books related to politics or movements are forbidden. Also forbidden are images of  violence, or anything that we call 'resistance,' but Israel deems as 'terrorism.'"
So, contrary to Izzidien's opening assertion that the blockade "makes it so difficult to bring in books," as in all books, in fact, it seems that the only books facing restrictions contain what Israelis deem as incitement. And while one may argue about what crosses the line as incitement, it is completely misleading to paint the blockade as targeting all books, as the headline and early paragraphs of the story do.

Lack of Full Disclosure

In another, smaller instance of self-censorship and misleading readers Izzidien identifies one of her sources, Pam Bailey, as "a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C." In fact, Bailey is an anti-Israel advocate who contributes to the extremist Web sites Mondoweiss the Electronic Intifada and has twice participated in International Solidarity Movement trips. (For more on these outfits, see here, here and here.)

Aug. 28 Clarification: This article has been amended to remove incorrect assertions that Ruqaya Izzidien has written for Muslim Brotherhood's English Web site. While her work has appeared on the Brotherhood site, she wrote that piece for the Egyptian site Bikya Masr, and the Brotherhood site picked it up from there. More on Izzidien's writing at Bikya Masr is available at CiF Watch.

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