Journalist brings reports of Gaza to campus

Canadian journalist Jon Elmer spent much of 2003 freelancing in the Gaza Strip. He spoke at Queen’s last night.
Canadian journalist Jon Elmer spent much of 2003 freelancing in the Gaza Strip. He spoke at Queen’s last night.

Jon Elmer’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of someone who has experienced the struggle up close.

In 2003, the Toronto-born Elmer spent four months in Jenin, in the West Bank, and six months in the Gaza Strip from June to December 2005. He was there as a freelance journalist, doing print, radio and photography, which has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal for Palestine Studies, The Progressive and The New Standard.

He said the experience really allowed him to see the situation “on the ground” in the occupied territories.

Today, he has a photography exhibit in Toronto and is touring the country speaking of what he saw during his time in Gaza. He spoke at Queen’s on Thursday in a talk entitled “Israel’s ‘Disengagement’: A view from Gaza,” presented by Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at Queen’s University.

In an interview with the Journal, Elmer said his talks are motivated by what he believes is incomplete coverage and a lack about understanding of Palestinians’ day-to-day situation in the occupied territories.

“There’s clearly an interest in reportage on the ground in these areas,” he said. “It’s completely missing from the discourse.”

Elmer said that working as a freelance journalist in places like Gaza City gave him a unique perspective on the situation there.

“Reporting has tended to be somewhat incomplete, and I think the population on the ground in the territories know this and it doesn’t endear them to journalists,” he said. “Working as a freelancer, I am choosing my assignments. I think that provides me an important independence.”

Elmer said his most powerful interviews are often with ordinary Palestinians.

“Interviewing a fourth-grade child about his experiences of simply walking to school in Jenin in the intifada ... He told me incredible stories of what it was like simply getting to school,” Elmer said. “A lucid analysis from a child—I think those are always very illustrative of the broader situation that people are living under.”

Elmer said he has also interviewed Israeli generals, who have provided insight into the political dynamic.

“They believe in what they’re doing—they’re true believers and I think that can’t be put aside,” he said. “They believe that the land is theirs and are often quite clear that the land belongs to them and nobody else.”

Elmer said he thinks Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections late last month was caused by disillusionment on the part of the Palestinian people with the corruption of the Fatah government, which included misuse of funds and officials using their positions for personal gain.

He added Fatah had been the main voice of Palestine since the middle of the 20th century. “I think the election of Hamas has to be understood in terms of a rejection of the status quo,” he said.

Elmer said clinics, schools and welfare programs that Hamas has been providing to the Palestinian population has served to increase the group’s popularity.

“Where the [Palestinian] Authority and Fatah have failed, Hamas has succeeded,” he said. “Palestinians voted for the only legitimate alternative available to them.”

Elmer said Hamas’ role as an organization that sponsors acts of terrorism and suicide bombings must be looked at in the context of the conditions under which Palestinians are living.

“Palestinians have a right to resist, and one would hope both sides would respect innocent civilian life,” he said. “The reality is neither side does.

“I don’t think suicide bombing should be treated in isolation from any other military tactic,” he said, adding that he believes one cannot condemn Palestinian suicide bombings without condemning Israeli attacks on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“If that’s the standard that we’re going to apply, I could support that standard, but it would mean the disqualification of many world leaders,” he said.

Elmer said Hamas was ready to recognize Israel in the 1980s in exchange for a definitive pullout from the occupied territories and the concession of East Jerusalem.

“What Hamas is not offering is an unconditional acceptance of Israeli occupation and presence in the area,” he said.

He said he thinks the suggestion by some world leaders to withhold international aid from Hamas until it recognizes Israel and ends its use of terror is “vulgar,” and will make it impossible for Hamas to provide for Palestine’s daily needs, undermining its credibility as a government and encouraging a return to the status quo of a corrupt Palestinian Authority.

“Palestinians elected a government in what was widely, both by Palestinians and the international community, characterized as a perfectly fair and free election,” he said. “Eighty per cent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza cast ballots and Hamas won a mandate. One would hope that the will of a democratically elected government representing the will of the electorate would be respected by the international community.”

Elmer said Palestinians have a right to a “contiguous, sovereign, viable” state that would connect the occupied territories, with a capital in East Jerusalem and control over borders and foreign policy, and that a settlement such as this would satisfy Palestinian demands.

He said that given the direction the Israeli administration is currently going, however, he does not think it is a likely short-term scenario.

“[The Palestinian Authority] have only nominal political, economic control. They have no diplomatic control. It’s not a state in any meaningful way,” he said. “Palestinians have a right, just like anyone else in the world, to independent self-government and sovereignty.”

He added he doesn’t think Ariel Sharon’s recent stroke and the transfer of control over Israel’s governing party, Kadima, to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will alter the course of Israeli politics at all.

Asked to make a prediction for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elmer said he thinks the Palestinian struggle will shift from one of national liberation to an “anti-apartheid” struggle for civil rights. He added that by failing to negotiate a two-state solution, Israelis are “bringing upon themselves the beginning of the next generation of struggle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Elmer said he fears the Israeli administration will continue the policy of unilateral action.

“Literally, it’s being cemented through an eight-metre high concrete wall,” he said.

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