GAZA CITY — This is the third war between Israel and Hamas that Abdullah Attar, an eggplant and cucumber farmer here in the Gaza Strip, has seen in six years.
“I lost my house last time, now I almost died,” he said, picking vegetables with his wife and 13 children and nephews. Abdullah, 58, was taking advantage of Thursday’s brief “humanitarian pause” to visit his crops. He didn’t like what he found.
“I haven’t been able to come here for 10 days, and now most everything is dead,” he said, displaying shriveled cucumbers. The eggplants faired a bit better. He collected them in plastic bags, hoping to sell them for a few dollars before the pause ended.
He visited the farm once a few days ago, but as soon as he started picking, he said, the Israelis fired a tank shell at him. It failed to explode, buried in his field. He was saved because the soil was soft.
“If the shell had exploded, we would have all been killed,” he said, showing me the shell. Then he yelled at his curious son for getting to close to the unexploded device.
“We want to live in peace, just like the Israelis,” Abdullah said. “They want security, so do we. They want a future for their children, so do we. But we have none here.”
Each time there is a conflict between Israel and Gaza, accusations fly over who started it, each side blaming the other.
This is also my third time witnessing and covering conflict in Gaza. Each war has been significantly different.
Three wars: Three motivations.
Each time there is a conflict between Israel and Gaza, accusations fly over who started it, each side blaming the other. What’s indisputable is that each conflict has bubbled up in a unique political climate.
In 2009, Hamas was relatively new to power. It had won elections just three years earlier and was flexing its newfound strength via a war with its old enemy, Israel, which it officially wants destroyed. Israel moved swiftly and decisively to shut down Hamas, not wanting the group to think for a second it could present a serious threat. Israel conducted airstrikes and a several-week land invasion, killing hundreds of Palestinians. There was quiet for a few years after that. Both sides suffered; Gaza in lives, Israel in reputation.
In 2012, Hamas and Israel went to war again. The Arab Spring was underway and the Muslim Brotherhood – which Hamas is a branch of — was on the rise. The Brotherhood had taken over Egypt and won the presidency. Hamas had a huge ally right on its border. Hamas thought its time has come. It thought the Arab world — online and active — was with it. Israel was more cautious this time around, launching airstrikes, but stopping short of invading. Israel didn’t want to wade into the chaotic Arab Spring and bring it home.
This time, the conflict seems to be about money, desperation and isolation. Gaza is broke. Hamas is broke. The people of Gaza are trapped. Israel has sealed the border, and they have no way to leave the Gaza Strip to do business. Egypt, under the new anti-Muslim Brotherhood General Abdul Fatah Sisi, has also closed its border. It also shut Palestinians smuggling tunnels that were a cornerstone of the Gazan economy.
There’s no money around anymore. Shops in Gaza City don’t have change for large bills. Hamas hasn’t been paying salaries for months. The Arab Spring is over. Groups like ISIS have given political Islamists a bad name, even in the Arab world. Hamas seems to be launching this war like a prisoner setting fire to his own cell. It might be a terrible strategy. Israel says it can’t and won’t reward Hamas for violence.
Many in Gaza, farmers like Abdullah, don’t especially like Hamas. But they live here, can’t leave, and say they need a way to get out of their prison other than burning it down.
First published July 17 2014, 8:02 AM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of America's leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
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Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "Meet the Press," "Dateline," MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engel's work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on "Unlikely Refugees," a "Nightly News" story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for "Tip of the Spear," a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature - Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq," which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.