Will Gaza ever have peace?
For over a month we have been reading in newspapers stories of violence in the Gaza strip, the fight between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and consequent death of innocent citizens in the Gaza strip and Israel. According to reports, over 1,900 have died and nearly 100 Israelis have lost their lives in the current conflict.
When going through the reports of clashes between Israel and Palestine forces, my thought goes back to 1961-62 when I was a member of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Gaza strip. I was then the public relations officer of the Indian Contingent, which was entrusted with the task of maintaining peace along the Armistice Demarcation Line, separating Israel from Palestine after the crisis in the area in 1956, following the British attack on Suez Canal. The UNEF was then commanded by an Indian, Lieutenant General P. S. Gyani.
On my arrival in Gaza in 1961, I was asked to work at the UNEF Public Information Office, as Deputy Public Information Officer, under a Dane Ole Dich. I was also asked to be the Editor of the Force journal, the Sand Dune , which was established by one of my predecessors, Victor Longer.
The Armistice Demarcation Line was peaceful those days. I used to visit the ADL, as it was called, to watch the Israel troops patrolling across the line and occasionally wave at them. Some among them were of Indian origin. There was hardly any violence along the ADL or Gaza town those days.
The UNEF had contingents from India, Canada, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Denmark and Brazil. They occupied various locations in the Gaza strip, adjacent Rafah and Sinai peninsula. As Editor of the Sand Dune, I had the opportunity to visit all the locations and also Cairo and Beirut, for purposes of printing of the special issues of the journal.
For our stay, we were accommodated at small villas and had food at the Seaview Officers' Mess overlooking the beach. We would relax in the evenings listening to the waves lashing at the shore.
The Palestinians in the Gaza strip were a friendly lot, particularly towards the Indians. Those were the days when local people spoke of Nehru and Nasser in the same breath. When I introduced myself, they would respond by calling me Ramadan Rao. There was no point correcting them as my name established me as one among them.
I recall the arrival in the Gaza strip of the new Indian contingent, the 2nd Battalion of the Sikh Regiment which was to replace the 4th battalion of the Rajput Regiment. As the train carrying the new Indian contingent arrived at the Deir el Ballah station, where the Indian troops were located, the locals were surprised to see them wearing turbans and sporting a beard.
A Palestinian in the platform asked me whether the solders have a haircut or shave? I said no, never. It turned out that the person was the local barber who used to attend to the needs of the Indian contingent. His face fell, as it was likely that he would have no employment.
When I returned to Gaza in the afternoon, I filed a news story to the UN Headquarters, as was our practice, that while everyone in the Gaza strip welcomed the arrival of the new Indian contingent, the local barber was disappointed.
I remember that I was told that the release of the item by the UN Public Information Office found space in the New York Times. My stock as a communicator went up in the Force.
However, one person in the Public Information Office, said that he would not like his name included as Assistant Editor of the Sand Dune, while I was the Editor. It was Capt Cosgrave, a Canadian Officer, who told Ole Dich, that English was not my mother tongue and he would not like to be a member of my team and described as Assistant Editor.
This was narrated to me by Ole Dich. A day or two later, I visited the Canadian Contingent on way to Rafah. The Canadians provided air support to the Force; their Caribous helped us travel to Beirut and be in touch with the outside world, and bring Cargo and mail for the Force. I wrote an article for the Sand Dune on the valuable role of the Canadian Contingent.
The UN Headquarters sent the article to the Canadian newspapers as a release. Capt Cosgrave started receiving telegrams from Canada congratulating him. I remember him calling me at the Seaview Officers' Mess during lunch time and requesting me to share a beer with him. He apologized to me for having stated that his English was better than mine and agreed to work as Assistant Editor while I was the Editor of the Sand Dune. We must have emptied half a dozen bottles of Tuborg before lunch.
Those days, we were completely cut off from India except for the weekly mail that we used to receive. The fortunate among the UNEF contingents were the Brazilians, who used to be in touch with people at home through the radio. On week-ends the Brazilian contingent used to have its men gather in the unit headquarters and members used to talk to their relatives through the radio telephone network.
During my visits to Cairo and Beirut, I could notice that there was a distance between the Palestinians and the rest of the nations in the Arab world. The Palestinians, who were intelligent people, were looking for assignments in the Arab countries, but there were reservations in providing them jobs. While I could travel to Cairo with my UN identity card, I could not take along with me a local member of my staff, Emile Andrea.
On way to Cairo I visited Port Said, which was a prosperous town. One never felt that violence would erupt there again. In Cairo, I visited the Pyramids and drove along the Nile. I also drove down to Alexandria one week-end and saw the Mediterranean.
I recall that my Danish boss suggested to me sometime around the end of 1962 that I should take up a UN job. He sent my name to the United Nations Public Information Office and got the approval. I was asked to make a formal application
I asked Ole what assignment I would get. He said, I would have to work at the UN Public Information Office in Paris or New York, and I would be correcting the mail received from various UN outposts. Basically it would be a desk job for the first few years. I told Ole Dich that I would rather return to India where a war is brewing and I would have an opportunity to cover it. He told me Ram my advice to you is when you cover a war keep near the Generals. They know how to look after themselves.
However, before returning to India, myself and three officers of the UNEF, Capt Bipin Joshi, Capt Narendra Sandhu and Capt Thakur, went on a tour of Europe. We drove from Rome to London through France and retuned via Holland, then West Germany after having a look at the border with East Germany and Switzerland.
Capt Bipin Joshi later rose to become the Chief of Army Staff and Capt Narendra Sandhu commanded a brigade in 1971 war and won a Maha Vir Chakra, while I interacted with them as Principal Information Officer of the Government of India.
On the last day of stay in the Gaza strip, I was the guest at a dinner hosted by Public Relations Officers of different contingents. I had to participate in toasts with national drinks of different nations. The mix was such that I had to be carried to my bed, and next morning 'loaded' on board the Caribou by Ole Dich to be taken to Beirut.
My lasting thought on board the Super Constellation that brought me to Bombay was that the Palestinians deserve to live in peace and the Arab world should find a way of finding out some agreement to ensure that Israel and Palestine could co-exist.
It has not happened for over fifty years.
I keep asking the question, will Gaza ever have peace?
(Posted on 12-08-2014)