January 22, 2009

Violence in Gaza Ignites Worldwide Debate

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Weeks before the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip was announced, thousands in Hong Kong joined protesters around the world to march against the bloodshed that has resulted from the war between Israel and Hamas. Gaza is also a hot topic of debate in Internet blogs in China.

According to an online survey by the Chinese newspaper Huan Qiu, 66 percent of China’s bloggers believe Israel should be held responsible for the conflict while 34 think the fault lies with Hamas. In addition, an online petition calling for an Israeli ceasefire was signed by almost 1,400 Chinese.

But no matter which side the bloggers agreed with, many Chinese said they believed that Israel would not have sent its troops to Gaza without the tacit support of the United States. Many have expressed their belief that Jewish interests play a significant role in American politics. In an influential news talk show on Phoenix Television, commentator Guo Yi Ming said on Jan. 10, “A ceasefire will not be determined by Israel. Looking at the past and present, the United States will have the real say on a ceasefire.”

Hamas announced that it would stop firing for a week after Israel began a unilateral ceasefire on Saturday night. 1,300 Palestinians are reported to have died since Israel launched its air assaults in Gaza on Dec. 27. Nearly a third of the dead are children, Gaza medics told reporters. An Israeli army spokesperson confirmed the deaths of 13 Israelis, including three civilians.

Graphic photographs of dead and dismembered Palestinians flooded many popular Chinese forums. These bloody pictures, along with unconfirmed reports that Israel may have used illegal white phosphorous bombs, have provoked much sympathy, criticism and debate.

An essay titled “Israel is Definitely a Good Nation” drew a large number of responses, most of them angry criticisms. In this essay, a professor at the prominent Renmin University expressed his support for Israel, citing the country’s high regard for education. He also wrote of Israel’s generous monetary compensation for illegal Chinese immigrants who were victims of terrorist attacks in Israel several years ago.

While many Chinese bloggers and protesters alike wish that Barack Obama would break his “deafening silence” on the conflict in Gaza, expectations for him are varied. Some were optimistic that he would facilitate a peace deal in the Middle East, while others believed he would be more “pro-Israel” than Bush was.
“I’d say that I put my hopes on the American people, not on Obama,” said Leung, one of the 3,000 who marched in the Hong Kong protest on Jan. 11.

While many protesters acknowledged that Hamas provoked Israel with rocket attacks, they also chanted slogans calling the Israeli government a terrorist one and condemned the killing of Palestinian civilians as a disproportionate response. Many also expressed concern over the lack of humanitarian aid and international news coverage in the Gaza Strip due to an Israeli blockade.

Although discussions about the role of China are remarkably absent in both popular forums and newspaper commentaries, protesters on Jan. 11 demanded that China should be more proactive in mediating peace.

“I haven’t heard the word ‘China’ in the past two weeks. They should do something if they want to get their name on the world map,” said Amar Riaz, a Pakistani protester in Hong Kong.

The apparent apathy of some in the local Chinese community is self-evident in the turnout of the protest. Although the protest was initiated by two Hong Kong University students, there were few ethnic Chinese in the protest. Most protesters were Pakistanis and Indonesians.

“Even if I protest, it won’t change anything anyway. Besides I am busy. I have to make a living,” said Poon, a Chinese on-looker.

An American expatriate who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years dismissed the protest as a “media game.”

“Israel has the right to defend their citizens. What the Palestinians need to do is to get angry with their own people and tell them to stop firing rockets,” she said. “Their mentality is dangerous and violent. By ‘they’ I refer to all Palestinians,” she added.

Apart from Hong Kong, there are no other reported protests against the Gaza conflict in China. The Chinese government, while calling for a ceasefire, maintained its neutrality. According to a news commentator, He Liang Liang, it is in China’s national interest to maintain a neutral stance. He claimed that China has always had a good relationship with Israel, but as the Soviet Union declared its support for the Arabs, China had to follow suit and has since established diplomacy with many Arab countries. China also had a very good relationship with Fatah, and provided much support to the Palestinians. But now China cannot possibly agree with the radical policies of Hamas, according to Liang.

At the same time, the Chinese government appears to be making an effort to increase its involvement. Apart from sending its special Middle East envoy Sun Bigan to promote peace in the region, Beijing has also promised to send $1 million for emergency humanitarian aid to the Palestinian National Authority.
“This flurry of diplomatic activity reflects China’s keen desire to be taken seriously as a player in the Middle East,” wrote Frank Ching, a journalist based in Hong Kong in an article in The China Post.

“In this effort, China does have a couple of advantages. For one thing, it has good relations with key countries such as Iran, with which the U.S. does not even have diplomatic relations. Moreover, it may have more credibility because, unlike virtually all Western countries, it was never a colonial power,” wrote Ching.

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