Reporter offers Bush a Gaza, West Bank misery tour
CNN's Ben Wedeman says Bush won't see the plight of Gaza and the West Bank
Video from CNN
January 9, 2008
By Ben Wedeman
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Air Force One touched down in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. President Bush has come to the Holy Land for the first time as president of the United States.
But he's trapped inside his security bubble, his every step mapped out in great and precise detail by teams of security experts and handlers. In the end he'll see a side of this unhappy land that bears as much resemblance to reality as Hollywood does to real life.
I spend a lot of my time covering the West Bank and Gaza: here's what I see, and he won't.
He won't be going to Gaza, the Palestinian territory that is under the rule of Hamas. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. Watch what Bush won't see »
Gaza today is a wasteland. Since Hamas took power, the Israeli government has made it extremely difficult for Gazans to travel outside their crowded strip of land along the Mediterranean. Israel has also severely restricted imports in Gaza to essential humanitarian goods. Four out of every five Palestinians depend on international food aid, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. No one is starving, but the economy has come to a virtual standstill.
President Bush won't see the hospital wards where babies, just weeks old, are dying because their doctors can't get permission from Israeli authorities to go to Israel for treatment as they did in the past.
Earlier this week, I visited the intensive care unit in Gaza's Nasser Pediatric Hospital. Hospital director, Dr. Anwar Khalil, explained that a third of their incubators have broken down because of a lack of spare parts. The electricity goes out on a regular basis because the power is cut up to eight hours a day after Israel reduced fuel supplies.
Israeli leaders insist they're trying to pressure Hamas militants from firing locally made missiles into Israel, a near daily occurance. But to the vast majority of Gazans -- who have nothing to do with the missiles, who are powerless to stop the militants -- it amounts to collective punishment.
In Gaza, they blame Israel. They blame the United States, which supports Israel's policy toward Hamas. They also blame their own leaders.
"We are cursed," said Iyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist and a human rights activist. "Our leaders are either Israeli collaborators, asses, or mentally unstable."
Sarraj warns that what he describes as the siege of Gaza will blow up in the face of Israel in another intifada, or uprising. "From the first intifada, which was only stone throwing, to the second intifada, which brought suicide bombing, the third intifada will be much, much worse, and I suspect that it will be chemical weapons and chemical warfare."
But none of my sources who are intimately familiar with the weaponry available to militant groups has mentioned that as a possibility. There are indications that the militants in Gaza, left to their own devices, are up to no good. I was told by reliable sources that Hamas is busy developing new and more effective weapons -- rockets with propellant resistant to humidity, higher explosive payloads and longer ranges as well as roadside bombs and other explosive devices. Weapons are being stockpiled, and tunnels are being dug all over Gaza in anticipation of an Israeli invasion. Little in life in Gaza is inevitable, but death and destruction.
President Bush went to Muqata'a, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in the West Bank.
But he didn't travel around the West Bank to see checkpoints like the one in Hawara, south of Nablus, where Palestinians wait, often for hours, in the winter cold, waiting to be allowed by young Israeli soldiers to go to their homes, universities, businesses, doctor's appointment, or to visit a relative or a friend.
If Bush got through Hawara to Nablus, he'd find a city where the Palestinian Authority, which the United States and Israel are supposed to be supporting, is rapidly losing credibility every time Israeli forces close down the city to round up militants, as they did over the weekend. Israel may have valid security reasons for going in, but these operations do irreparable damage to the standing of Palestinian leaders such as U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Sallam Fayyad, now often described here as Israeli collaborators.
Maybe when the U.S. president went to Bethlehem Thursday, he may have seen what Israel calls its security barrier -- a 24-foot-high concrete wall encircling most of the town. Israel put it up to stop suicide bombings, a measure that appears to be working when it come to cutting down on the number of attacks. But the Palestinians call it the "racist apartheid wall." The wall has all but destroyed the local economy, cutting Bethlehem off from much of its farmland and reducing the flood of tourists to a trickle.
If he had some spare time -- and a convincing disguise -- I'd be happy to take Bush on a tour of my beat. I'll do the driving.