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Cornering Condi on Gaza -- at a Hair Salon

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At around 5 p.m. on New Year's eve, 22-year-old Nadia Aziz*, decided to visit the posh Watergate Salon, walking distance from her apartment building in Washington D.C. As Nadia perused the salon's brochure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strolled in and stood next to her, waiting to receive a beauty treatment, presumably before that evening's celebrations. After ten seconds of staring, it finally sunk in for Nadia that she was standing next to one of the country's most powerful government officials.

During the days before the encounter, Nadia, who works as a program coordinator for a health care non-profit organization, couldn't focus on anything other than the news from the Middle East. She was obsessively checking all her favorite news web sites to find out the latest on Israel's military offensive on Gaza. "It completely consumed everything I did," said Nadia, whose family is originally from Kashmir. "So literally, to have Condoleezza Rice walk in, it just didn't seem real. But when I saw all the security there, I knew it was her."

Recognizing how rare it is to get face-time with the nation's top diplomat, Nadia felt she had to say something, anything. "Great job you're doing in Gaza," she blurted out. Nadia says Rice then turned to her and smiled. "Ohh thank youu," she responded, dramatically dragging out each word. "I don't think she understood the sarcasm," Nadia told me. "No. I mean is there anything else that the U.S. can say other than all of the onus is on Hamas to end the violence?" she asked Rice.

"We've made other statements!" Rice replied, as she walked away. "And it is," she added, referring to the notion that solving the crisis is solely in the hands of Hamas.

On the first day of Israel's bombardment, when more than fifty fighter jets and attack helicopters ferociously rained bombs and missiles on Gaza's infrastructure, nearly 300 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,000 injured. A police graduation ceremony was among the military's "targets," and police chief Tawfiq Jabber, a longtime Fatah supporter, was among the casualties, calling into question Israel's claim that Operation Cast Lead is solely focused on destroying Hamas. For Palestinians, it was the bloodiest one-day death toll in decades. That day, Rice issued a statement blaming Hamas for the violence. "The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza."

The 70-word statement made no mention of any of the innocent Palestinians killed by the Israeli Air Force. And it did not acknowledge that, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, Israel's assault was six months in the making, effectively refuting the argument that Hamas' alleged violation of the ceasefire prompted the operation. Perhaps these omissions should not have been surprising considering Rice's bewildering remark that Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon -- in which more than 1,000 people were killed, thirty percent of whom were children--was simply part of "the birth pangs of a new Middle East."

Rice towed the same line in an address to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. Despite the shelling that day of two clearly marked United Nations' schools, an attack that killed dozens of Palestinian civilians. Many had trekked from towns an hour away to seek shelter in the schools from the Israeli onslaught, in part because as the New York Times reported, Israeli forces had "ordered them to evacuate their homes for their own safety."

"We need very much to find a solution to this problem in the short term," Rice told the Security Council. "But it really must be a solution this time that does not allow Hamas to use Gaza as a launching pad against Israeli cities," she added, once again refusing to even mildly admonish Israel for the civilian deaths or acknowledge what had occurred earlier that day.

On Thursday, after nearly two weeks of carnage, the Security Council finally passed a resolution - with a 14-0 vote-- calling for an "immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza." The United States, represented by Rice who helped draft the text, abstained from voting.

According to writer Karim Makdisi, "the text of Resolution 1860 makes no mention of international humanitarian laws (let alone offer any condemnation for the breaching of these laws), and it appears to adopt Israel's narrative of events." Israel dismissed the resolution as "unworkable" and continued its bombing campaign on Friday, the day Rice told reporters "it's hard" for Israeli troops to shield civilians in Gaza because the area is so densely populated.

After her exchange with Rice, Nadia called her friend, Kevin, who suggested they wait outside the now-closed salon to approach the Secretary of State about Gaza once again.

"I pay taxes, so I feel responsible for what's going on," Kevin, who works as a consultant, told me, alluding to the fact that Israel receives the most U.S. foreign aid of any country.

When Rice emerged, the duo calmly asked her to reconsider her stance on Gaza. "We told her that right now she really has the power to do something," Nadia said "and that we know that deep down she doesn't even believe in what she's doing."

Rice ignored their comments, walking at a steady pace with her entourage in tow, before Nadia asked a final question.

"I said, 'Fine if you won't say anything, how about you pose for a picture?,' Nadia recalled. "At that point, she turned, paused and gave us the most chilling smile."

*Nadia did not want her real named used for this blog post.

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