No melting in Gaza’s ice cream war

January 29, 2009

Trying to describe a remote conflict of obscure origins, and also the curious and unexpected situations that arise in combat, a writer once coined the phrase “An Ice Cream War”. The bustle at our local ice cream parlour in downtown Gaza this week brought to mind just those contradictions, between the din and horror of warfare and the everyday civilian life that somehow carries on in the spaces between the battles.

Just up the street from where Ahmed al-Hindi and his colleagues were dishing up sugary cones and sundaes for customers young and old at their Musk & Amber ice cream shop lay the ruins of Gaza’s main security force compound. It was pulverised into a maze of jagged concrete and heaps of dust during the 3-week bombing campaign that Israel said was aimed at the ruling Hamas Islamist movement.  Staff and customers alike – and there was plenty of business on a typically mild Mediterranean winter’s afternoon – were hugely relieved to have come through the war.

But if would-be peacemakers like U.S. President Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy George Mitchell happened to stop by, they hear some troubling sentiments amid the chatter and laughter. Even here, among the relatively affluent Palestinians of Gaza’s urban elite, there remains a public defiance of Israel and its action against Hamas – both the military and economic sanctions that have impoverished Gazans since Hamas took over in 2007: “We hope that the situation will change for the better and the crossings will open and we’ll be able to get supplies, like people have in any other country,” said Hindi, one of the young serving staff at Musk & Amber, as he passed out scoops of favourite flavours of the locally produced ice cream. But he was quick to add: “Firing rockets is part of our resistance and is part of our legitimate right. They want to twist our arms and say ‘stop firing rockets or we won’t open the crossings’? We will not accept that. If the crossings don’t open because we are exercising our legitimate right to resist, then so be it. Leave the crossings closed.”

Since the war, more Gazans have been publicly questioning Hamas’s policy of peppering southern Israeli towns with rockets. It is that policy that Israel says justifies two years of blockade on Gaza’s trade, as well as the offensive this month that killed some 1,300 people. But in the enclave of 1.5 million people, where most trace their origins back to families who fled or were forced from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there seems little appetite for simply letting bygones be bygones.  My colleague Douglas Hamilton found the next generation of Gazans back at school this week, and determined to continue an often violent struggle against Israel. At the ice cream counter, Rula Abu Hassan had come in to give her two young daughters an ice cream treat: “I hope there will be peace,” said the young mother, whose uncovered hair and Western dress are fairly unusual in conservative, Islamic Gaza. But as to whether Palestinians should give up their weapons and work to build peace and prosperity with Israel, she shot back: “There must be resistance to the occupation. We shouldn’t just sit with our hands tied.”

That kind of attachment to the confrontations and struggles of the past 60 years is not unique to Gaza. Many Israelis, too, have little patience for negotiation with Palestinians they see as incapable of accepting their right to exist. For those feeling it may all just be too depressingly intractable even for a new US president who shoulders as many aspirations as Barack Obama, an op-ed in the New York Times by an anthropologist, Scott Atran, and a psychologist, Jeremy Ginges, might offer an explanation, and even a glimmer of hope. “Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues,” they wrote. “But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War.” They went on, however, to indicate how apparently only symbolic concessions by the other side – say, an apology by Israel to Palestinian refugees, or a sincere embrace by Palestinians of the state of Israel’s rights – might yet begin to loosen the deadlock. There’s a thought. And if hope still seems in short supply, try the raspberry ripple.

(Photos: A Palestinian protester eats an ice-cream and uses a sling shot at Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel’s security fence in the West Bank village of Bilin April 4, 2008. REUTERS/Baz Ratner; A Palestinian salesman serves a child an ice cream at an ice cream parlour in Gaza Jan 29, 2009. REUTERS/Ismail Zaydah)

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