Free Gaza flotilla: Accusation on bulletproof vests a dangerous distortion

As you probably know, Israel’s May 31 raid on the Free Gaza Movement’s flotilla of aid-bearing ships has occasioned a torrent of justifications, short video clip releases, and arguments. On the Israeli side, this began before the nine to nineteen dead activists bodies were yet cold. The narrative, remarkably, made the unarmed activists aboard the ships into a lynch mob and a terrorist ambush. In short, the Israeli government has been extremely eager to make the story fit a standard narrative in the region, one of treacherous asymmetrical warfare.

Those looking for the other side of the story had to wait out detentions and deportations, but eyewitness accounts are increasingly circulating. Both the anti-blockade activists and third-party journalists have had their ability to tell the story severely crimped by the Israeli seizure of film, memory cards, cameras, computers and other personal effects of those onboard.

The Israeli search has resulted in a remarkable remix of the goods they claim were onboard the ships, most visible in this photoset released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And here is I where I can offer my humble contribution to correcting propaganda. A well-circulated story right now involves this contention:

Israeli officers later displayed slingshots, knives and truncheons they said were found on the ship as evidence of organized resistance. Defense officials also say some activists had military-style gear such as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles and carried large sums of cash. (AP)

The AP is simply reporting their claim, but is also giving the Israeli government the sole opportunity to create a narrative from various objects onboard. Let’s consider a very serious alternative story. Observe the following Israeli government photo:

Note, by the way, the clean, unruffled, un-shot-at state of the vests. Now read this from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2002:

No one is more keenly aware of the risks taken by ambulance personnel than Mohammed El Hessi, a 26-year-old Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS) paramedic who was called to the scene of a gunboat attack on a security post north of Gaza City on the night of 7 March. Mohammed, who responded to the call along with three of his colleagues, would be dead today had it not been for the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Such vests have been supplied to the PRCS by the ICRC, with the knowledge of the Israeli authorities. Mohammed suffered serious shrapnel wounds as his team attempted to retrieve two bodies. A piece of metal was subsequently found embedded in the ceramic back-plate of his vest. A second PRCS ambulance team came to the rescue and managed to evacuate the dead and wounded after more than an hour. Mohammed was rushed to a hospital in Gaza, and his life is now out of danger. During the same rescue operation, a member of an ambulance team from the local medical services was killed.

“Without a doubt, the bullet-proof vest saved his life,” said Dr Fayez Jibril, head of the PRCS’s emergency medical service in Gaza, as he examined Mohammed’s bloodstained vest the following morning. “This is where the shrapnel lodged. If it had pierced his body, it would have gone straight to his heart.”

Who needs bulletproof vests in Gaza? No doubt people like paramedic Mohammed El Hessi. Why should we think that this vest was meant for him? Reading on in the same 2002 story:

Respect for medical personnel, ambulances and medical facilities bearing the protective red cross and red crescent emblems is compulsory under international humanitarian law. Any violation of this rule puts the safety of all medical and humanitarian workers in jeopardy. (Full article from the ICRC)

Oh, you mean these emblems? Compare them to the ones on the vest.

No matter how much the Israeli government might wish it had faced a commando team onboard the Gaza-bound flotilla, it didn’t. But it’s willing to weave a web of lies to make you think that it did. Hopefully, we can be a little less trusting of this kind of propaganda, and a little more concerned for lives like Mohammed El Hessi, the paramedic whose life was saved by a bulletproof vest with a red crescent.

When “up and coming neighborhood” means losing your home…

While in Washington, I stayed just in my old neighborhood, Adams Morgan. Just blocks away, a new Metro station opened just before I moved out, and the eight years since have seen enormous investment by developers in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Usually, the corporate media is there to celebrate moments like this, producing headlines like this one in the Washington Post: “A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights: Retail-Based Renewal A Contrast to ’60s Strife.” Gray Brechin’s phenomenal history of San Francisco, , makes the point that this is rarely a coincidence, and that major newspapers have long had a financial interest and close family ties to real estate developers.

This left me walking through the box-stores, remaining affordable apartments, and new luxury condos with a friend who spent time organizing, and occupying abandoned buildings, with Homes Not Jails in the District. We were left to talk about the horrible fact that new, shiny buildings force one to cringe about who got pushed out. Now, some local organizing has meant that tenants in some buildings have gotten upgraded housing, but that’s not the whole story.

As it turned out, the very next morning the Post redeemed itself a bit and started publishing a series on how landlords have pushed out their lower middle class tenants to sell buildings as condos. Called Forced Out, it’s good reading for what displacement looks at the level of a neighborhood. In this case, the one I used to live in.

Dozens of landlords refused to make repairs, forcing families to live in filth — at times without heat, hot water or electricity. Other landlords delivered urgent letters or mass notices demanding that tenants leave.

In the past four years, landlords emptied more than 200 buildings from Columbia Heights to Southeast, most of them rent-controlled, thwarting the intent of one of the nation’s toughest tenant rights laws with the approval of the city government, a Washington Post investigation found.

It was the hidden toll of a frenzied condominium boom that turned aging neighborhoods into coveted urban communities.

In one building, what D.C. Council member Jim Graham, called an “aggressive, relentless” campaign to empty the building, was followed by a fire:

Within hours of the November 2006 fire in Adams Morgan, investigators declared arson: Inside the apartment building, they found a charred plastic container that had been filled with a mixture of gasoline and alcohol, stuffed in a plastic shopping bag. The liquid was poured in the basement near 12 electrical boxes and on the second floor, just below Begum’s apartment. Flames quickly choked the building, searing walls and melting lights.

Net result, everyone had to move. The landlords sold the property for $4 million.

On the South Side of Chicago, this was the story of the 1960s and 70s, when absentee landlords bailed out of responsibility and took the insurance money and ran. The vacant lots weren’t always vacant. In the District, the fires seem to still be burning today.