This is not a 'fresh take' on Gaza

Gaza resident Asem Alnabeh posted a photo of his little sister Nesma earlier tonight in their home. Her name means breeze. "But she really isn't," her brother writes me. "she's very impish!"

Nesma's house has lost electric power. There are fighter jets roaring over the house, and there are explosions never too far away -- not sufficiently far for the worried parents to attempt to calm their kids by lying to them that "oh, that was nothing."

And yet there she sat, by the light of a neon lamp, scribbling in a notebook.

She's doing her homework. And she's smiling.

Gaza poses a serious difficulty to journalists. With wars waged against it in a near-metronomic rhythm in the weeks prior to Israeli elections, journalists run out of fresh angles to present.

What could I write for this article?

I could, of course, recap a timeline of events that brought us to today, attempting to debunk the ludicrous notion that the Israeli onslaught is but retaliation after long-held self-control. I could tell you about the victims, show you pictures. Don't worry, not the graphic kind, not the broken bodies of children that their parents will have to pick up and bury. This is the mainstream media, after all.

Perhaps I could write about how the IDF is making a game out of the war, giving points and virtual badges (30 different kinds!) the way social media websites do, to encourage people to read and spread its version of reality. I could write about how the army spokesperson and the prime minister are waging a Twitter war, mostly against facts and reason and occasionally against the Hamas social media avatars. ("Hamas social media avatars," incidentally, is not a sentence I expected I would ever write).

Or how the religious undertones of this war, named after a divine act of terror, point to the entrenched intractability of the conflict as the parties become increasingly religiously stubborn and divinely driven to kill.

I could write about how the propaganda war and distorted metrics. It is the nature of headlines to rely on a sordid body count. (50 to 3! Hey, one more dead here! Oh, but is she a civilian, does she count?) CBC news reports the victims in different font sizes, depending on citizenship. Reuters headlines give precedence to the number of rockets launched over Palestinians killed.

Then there's the misinterpretation of numbers, the comparison of oranges and apples, if you will. The media endlessly parrot the Israeli-supplied numbers of rockets launched by Hamas -- a little over 800 so far, we are told -- letting the big number go by undisputed without pointing out that the vast majority of rockets miss their targets, given that Hamas' kitchen rockets are by-and-large so ridiculous it's almost doubtful they will launch to begin with. More importantly, the media fails to report the converse figure of Israeli rockets launched on Gaza. I could not find any tally of missiles launched. By the IDF's own figures, though, it has fired at almost a thousand targets already, meaning that the rockets expended were several multiples of that. So it's been thousands altogether. Fired from the ground, the air, and the sea with all the accuracy the American taxpayer's annual gift of $3 billion can buy.

Many journalists are also reporting -- and rightly so, I might add -- about Israeli citizens terrified by the alert sirens and running into shelters. It is a horrible situation, and a horror no one should have to endure. Palestinian parents are as afraid for their children's lives as Israelis are, but I see far fewer reports that point out that Palestinians have no alert sirens, no shelters, and no way to escape Gaza if they so desired, since Israel enforces a tight ground and naval blockade on the occupied territory (with the active complicity of Egypt, I might add). I could write about that too, I suppose.

Or, invoking earlier wars in 2006 and 2008, I could embark on a lengthy commentary attempting to explore Israel's motives for launching this new war. I could make the argument that, as in the previous wars it launched with equally unclear goals, Israel's strategy will have to be to keep bombing Gazans until it reaches what the military leadership and the public opinion deem an acceptable outcome, namely a sufficiently high body count to assist prime minister Netanyahu's reelection.

I could write any of those articles, but I will not. I will deliberately be uncreative. Because at the end of the day, this war is about this lovely little girl, who's probably gotten acquainted to the sound of explosions -- a horrible thing for a child to be acquainted with, but consider that most of Gaza's children already suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder -- and who is just doing her homework, and probably just wants this noise to stop and the streets to be safe so she can play with her friends outside.

The war is about little Nesma doing her homework, and about the country with its advanced army and its fighter jets, willing to kill her for electoral polls results.

This is not a conflict of equals. There is no "both sides must." There is a side fighting for its life under fire, and another set on sowing death. This is a one-sided massacre.

And as you read this, there's probably a U.S.-donated fighter jet bombing a house, just like hers, killing a little girl just like Nesma. Think about this for a moment.

Photo by Asem Alnabeh

Democracy Lab

What Obama should tell the president of Burma

The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims that started in western Burma last June has now taken 200 lives and caused some 100,000 refugees. This issue should take a prominent place in President Barack Obama's agenda as he stops off in Burma this week. It will be the first time that any U.S. president has visited the country.

In the run-up to the Obama trip, his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein has chosen to address the bloodsheed, which is still continuing between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) state. He made the remarks at a meeting with leaders from both communities on Friday. Though his speech dodges some of the key underlying problems, it does tell us something about how the Burmese president views the conflict and its international implications. Thein Sein attributed the violence to structural causes such as poverty, the lack of opportunities for jobs and education, and the geographical isolation of Arakan due to the lack of proper transport and communications. He also faulted young Buddhist nationalists and some radical Muslim Bengalis for aggravating tensions and preventing international aid from reaching the affected population.

"The country will lose face among the international community if we fail to pursue the norms of human rights and humanitarian work being practiced in many countries," Thein Sein warned. He called for concerted efforts by the government, Buddhist monks, and people of all races and religions to work for a harmonious society in which the rights of each group can be respected without conflict.

Thein Sein also sent a letter to the United Nations on the same day. He took the opportunity to condemn the "senseless violence" in Arakan. Thein Sein said his government was prepared to address contentious issues "ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to the granting of citizenship," according to a statement from the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that contained excerpts from the letter.

Now, the irony here is that is the sort of high-minded talk that one would usually expect from someone like Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But we continue to wait in vain for anyone from the opposition to come up with a bold public stance on the conflict -- something, say, comparable to President Obama's great speech on race in 2008. Suu Kyi has chosen to focus instead on the problem of "illegal immigration" from Bangladesh. (It's worth noting that many Buddhist nationalists dismiss the Muslim Rohingya as "Bengalis" who have no business being in Burma and thus do not deserve citizenship. It's also worth recalling as well that, during her first foreign trip in late May, Suu Kyi demanded that the Thai government provide better rights and protections for about three million Burmese workers, almost all of whom are illegal immigrants, and even gave public speeches to "illegal Burmese workers" in Thailand.)

I know that Suu Kyi is very busy traveling around the world and giving beautiful speeches, but I have two suggestions for articles that she might want to read. The first is a Reuters report detailing how Buddhist Rakhine organized mass killings of Burmese Muslims. The second, from The Economist, describes the state of development in Bangladesh, showing that this country has made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people's lives ever seen anywhere over the past 20 years. So it doesn't make much sense that Bangladeshi Muslims would choose to migrate from there to Burma, which has experienced nothing like that sort of growth in recent decades.

In short, much of the controversy over the violence and its origins can be resolved with the help of a few empirical observations. It's easy to get the facts straight if sincerity and political will are present.

Thein Sein's detractors might argue that he is making an overture to the U.S. president (who is due to arrive Burma on November 19) in order to improve his negotiating position. But if that's true -- so what? Trying to get a better deal for Burma is fine with me. And if he says the right things, all the better.

Of course, it's quite clear that these recent remarks aren't consistent with Thein Sein's previous positions. In early July, he told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that the country will not allow the "illegal immigrant Rohingyas" to live in the country, and that the only solution to the problem is to hand the Rohingyas over to the UNHCR, which must put them in refugee camps, providing food and shelter. Otherwise, Thein Sein declared, Burma's government will be compelled to deport them to a third country. Meanwhile, Burmese immigration officers conducting a census in Arakan have been trying to force Rohingyas there to register themselves as "Bengalis." (Many Rohingyas refused to comply, according to a report of BBC Burmese Service.) Now this same Thein Sein is telling Ban Ki-moon that he's willing to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas (although, of course, the details of his proposal are still unknown).

All this adds up to a great opportunity for President Obama. He should seize the moment to drive home the point that the international community cares greatly about minority rights, and that this is an issue that is closely linked to support for Burma's democratic transition, economic development, and social welfare.

As the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan once noted, "In a democratic transition, two potentially explosive questions are unavoidable: Who is a citizen of the state? And how are the rules of citizenship defined?" One of the major causes of the Rohingya crisis is the unwillingness of the Burmese state to address these two questions in an internationally acceptable manner.

Obama must make it clear to Burmese leaders that the international community won't tolerate "ethnic cleansing" of any sort, and that the citizenship issue needs to be properly addressed. He should encourage Thein Sein to follow up on his recent comments with credible actions. For example, Obama should ask Thein Sein to expand an "Investigative Commission" that the government formed in August to probe the communal violence and give recommendations to the government. In order to make this commission's findings and recommendations internationally credible, the government should invite independent experts from the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is one way for Obama to ensure that Thein Sein's proposals find the proper institutional form. 

A couple of photo ops with Rohingya leaders won't be enough. Well-meaning words about minority rights, while welcome, won't do the trick on their own, either. Let's see whether the U.S. president can do what's needed to persuade Thein Sein to live up to his own rhetoric.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images