Sunday, July 12, 2009

Report of Gaza Delegation





Date: Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:41:34 -0400
Subject: Report of Gaza Delegation -- Please forward to all
From: Felice Gelman

Dear friend,

I am sending you a summary report of our end of May delegation to Gaza, asking you to forward it to your friends, clergy, elected representatives, and anyone else you think might have an interest or influence. I am sorry to say that, since we left on June 1, things have gotten worse. This week a 17 year old girl was killed while sleeping when an Israeli artillery shell hit her family home more than a kilometer inside Gaza's eastern border. The fishing captain who gave us some of the information for Ceil Lavan's report below was kidnapped by the Israeli Navy, held prisoner, and his boat was disabled. Every week but one since we left Gaza, at least one child has been wounded or killed by Israeli weapons fire.

Please ask your elected representatives to go to Gaza to see for themselves how US military aid is being used. (Representative Brian Bard (D-WA) is organizing such a delegation). And please send them this report. Ask your friends to do the same.

Thank you,


Felice Gelman

for videos, documentation, and photos
vivagaza.org

Introduction

On May 24, 2009, an ad hoc group of 13 Americans gathered in Cairo in preparation for a trip to Gaza that they had good reason to believe would not take place. In the past two years and certainly in the past several months since the December-January assault on Gaza by Israel, it has been extremely difficult to enter the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza, and nearly impossible through the Erez border between Israel and Gaza. The uncertainty of their trip did not deter these remarkable people because just trying to get to Gaza would be an action of defiance of what is now known as the siege of Gaza.

By an unusual combination of luck and pluck, the group did manage to get in and spent several days in Gaza, leaving on May 31, 2009. Nine members of the group are women, four are men. Their ages range from 22 to 67. Some are retired; others currently work in a variety of occupations that include writer, violinist, web technician, community organizer and office worker. They are Jewish and Muslim and Christian.

What follows are brief reports by 11 of the 13 participants and brief glimpses of what they saw and what they heard. And what they felt. I would have been among them but I got sick. My heart was with them nevertheless.

-- Dorothy M. Zellner




1 Felice Gelman
How easy is it to get to Gaza?

How easy is it to get to Gaza? It’s hard to understand the meaning of “blockade” unless you have actually experienced it. As Americans, we got just a taste of what is served up every day to Palestinians. When you get to the Rafah border, you will inevitably find a crowd of people who have been unable to cross – sometimes for weeks.

Our own delegation’s effort to get to Gaza required contacts and meetings with the UN, Egypt, and parts of the US government. We began with an invitation from UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency), which provides services to the 1 million Gazans who are refugees. Such an invitation, even from the UN, is insufficient. So we trudged off to Washington, DC to meet with Egypt’s Deputy Ambassador to the United States, and to ask his help. He wished us well. Then we swung by a few Congressional offices to ask our elected representatives to provide us with a letter of support for our trip to Gaza. I will leave it to your imagination as to how helpful they were! That was followed by negotiations with the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. They said Egypt (and, curiously, Israel) require us to sign an affidavit waiving our consular rights in Gaza. This can only be done at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, in person, for a mere $30 per. “Why?” we asked. “Because the State Department does not want to make it easy for you to go to Gaza,” was the reply.

In Cairo, we learned that the bus company we had booked with had been visited by the police and told they were not allowed to take anyone to the border.

Alarm bells! Surprisingly, we found a little help at the US embassy from a well-connected diplomat who agreed to check out our problem and to inform the Egyptian police that the U.S. embassy had no opposition to our trip. He called back to say the problem was the Egyptian secret police.

The ever resourceful CODEPINK did what the US embassy would not --- tracked down the Egyptian Foreign Ministry liaison with the secret police and sent him the names of all 130 people to be cleared to go through the border. A sigh of relief…. But, when we arrived in Al Arish, right behind us three big tour buses pulled in carrying the first two CODEPINK groups returning from a day of protest at the border! They had not been allowed to cross.

In the middle of that night, the real fun began. Around two a.m., I was "invited" to come downstairs to meet the Egyptian secret police. Thereon followed a Kafkaesque conversation indeed. Three unnamed Egyptians, who claimed they were police, said we had no clearance to cross the border. They were extraordinarily reluctant to identify themselves. One told me it was forbidden for him to identify himself because he was the secret police! The gumshoes invented one story after another about why we could not cross to Gaza – our embassy, the Foreign Ministry, the national intelligence service, etc. But their bottom line: don’t go to the border and don’t stage a protest.

We decided it was all a bad dream, loaded up the buses and headed for the border. Outside Arish, we came to a checkpoint where three truckloads of riot police waited, along with an assortment of other uniformed types. The road to the border was closed for “military exercises”. Once we turned back, all the uniforms packed up and left. I guess the “military exercise” was “how to close a border.”

After our CODEPINK friends back in Cairo made yet another visit to the Foreign Ministry, we were told we were cleared for the border. Back down into the buses. Our 2 a.m. secret police pals showed up to wave goodbye, all smiles and giggles.

It was hard to believe there wouldn’t be another snag along the way. When we got to the Egyptian border’s gate, there was one. The police asked for the nationalities of all the people in the groups. When they learned we had one Palestinian with us, they said, “Let us see the passport.” It was Aysha Al Ghoul’s, whose papers were “not in order.” Aysha had been studying in Tunisia, came to Cairo to go home at last year’s end, was not able to go home because of Israel’s attack on Gaza, and lost her passport. The Palestinian Authority issued her a new one but it did not include the Egyptian visa stamp that had been lost with her old passport. Several visits to the Egyptian authorities did not produce a new visa stamp. Because she is Palestinian, it is always a problem. (The Border Police paid absolutely no attention to the expired Egyptian visa of an American). Sadly, Aysha went back to Cairo while we went on to Gaza – her home country that she is not allowed to enter.

That is how Americans go to Gaza. Palestinians, Egyptians, and many others don't get to laugh off the secret police, and work the bureaucracy until it caves in. They usually just don't get to go to Gaza at all.



2 Joyce Ravitz
The Destruction from the Attacks of Dec 2008 - Jan 2009

[note: for relevant photos, please see Jane Adas, Come to Gaza, below]

I knew before our May 2009 trip to Gaza that there had been terrible damage there from the 23-day Israeli assault on Gaza. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights estimates that 2,500 tons of explosives were dropped on the Gaza Strip, an area about twice the size of Washington DC. I would like to relate some of the destruction I saw and how it made me feel.

In our travels, we visited not just piles but whole areas of rubble which men, women and children had called home before the end of 2009. One man told us that he was afraid to excavate his former home because he had found several live bombs around the pile of wreckage where he had once lived. His home had housed an extended family of 30 people who were now living in tents. We saw what life was like for people who had been bombed out of their homes. The tents were bare, with little inside them -- no beds, no clothes. “Home” had been reduced to a clean space protected from the sun.

We saw the first target of the December bombing: the police academy where a new graduating class had been receiving diplomas. The entire class was killed, although police are considered civilians under the Oslo Agreement. We were told that the Israelis bombed almost every police station in Gaza. They also bombed the fire stations. I saw fire engines parked on the streets. The sewer system was destroyed as well, and we saw the filthy black water going into the beautiful Mediterranean Sea.

Fields, too, and with them significant parts of the food supply and the livelihood of farmers, have been destroyed. White phosphorous dropped by Israeli bombers burned wheat and other crops. We were taken out to fields that had been burnt and shown fragments of white phosphorus that farmers are still finding in the ground. This substance makes it dangerous to plant more crops. When the fragment is exposed to oxygen it starts to burn again.

Of the bombed schools we saw, my most vivid memory was of the International American School, which was completely destroyed. Only the sign in English told us what the wreckage had been.

Our guides told us that hospitals, too, had white phosphorus bombs dropped on them.

Israel has destroyed so much in Gaza, and continues to block its reconstruction. Gaza once produced many tons of cement, but cannot do that any longer. Cement factories were among the ruins of an industrial area we drove through. Today, Gazans are building their houses with mud because cement is not legally allowed across the borders.

Seeing this massive destruction and the bare, difficult lives of the survivors, I felt horrible. I first visited Israel 50 years ago as a young teenager and saw an exciting new country founded by people in search of freedom and justice. Whatever idealism fueled early Zionism is long gone, replaced by brutality and destruction. And I, as a Jewish American, had been silent for too long. I decided that when I returned home I would tell people what I saw and felt during my short time in Gaza. I would not be silent, never again!



3 Philip Weiss
The Tunnels of Gaza

Twice I visited the tunnels that connect to Egypt from Rafah, at the southern end of Gaza.
The first impression is that while the entire area is bombed out, and most buildings are either erased or are dangerous shells, the tunnels are a thriving industry. You see scores of tents jammed in between piles of sand and rubble. Inside each tent are generators, cable winches and big spools of cable for pulling heavy loads up from the bottom of the 75 foot shafts. The tunnels work day and night, with crews of four or five men. One day we saw a Caterpillar tractor toiling in the sand to dig out a new tunnel. Later I heard that the tunnel-men were trying to make a tunnel big enough for cars to come through. So far all they can accommodate are motorcycles.

You see the motorcycles all over Gaza, new gleaming motorcycles. Driven by young men, with flashy outfits on, too. Thus the tunnels contribute to the corruption in Palestinian society. Everyone knows that contraband is coming through the tunnels, and that the commerce is enriching gangsters; the cement my driver bought one day costs $20 a bag, 10 times what it ought to cost. The tunnels are big, illicit business. A tunnel is said to cost $100,000 to build. Capitalists are involved on both sides of the border.

The Israelis are obviously in on the whole deal. It is a simple matter to spot the tunnels. (There are hundreds, according to some reports.) It would be a simple matter to destroy them. But allowing them to flourish serves two purposes for Israel, I concluded. One, if Gazans did not get the vital goods they get through the tunnels (including even cheese, says Taghreed El-Khodary, the Times correspondent there), the humanitarian crisis would be even more severe. Thus the tunnels serve as a safety valve on the inhumane blockade, lessening its effects in the eyes of the world. And secondly, the tunnels serve to corrupt Palestinian society. They undermine the rule of law, and undermine the presence of a civic culture. For who can feel good about the time and money devoted to a physically-dangerous activity that would be rendered instantly pointless if Gaza were treated like a normal place, and the siege were lifted? Who in their right mind can see all this effort as productive, when civilized human beings would never choose to live this way, only prisoners, forced to do so?

So while the industry is impressive--and might even be seen as a sign of Gaza's vitality--the whole thing struck me as desperate, cruel and inhuman.



4 Sammer Aboelala
The Siege, from Tunnels to Generators

To a visitor from the outside, the impact of the siege on the lives of everyday Gazans is obscured somewhat by the success of the tunnels especially for those, like our American delegation, who can afford to pay blackmarket prices for everyday goods. On either side of the tunnels, profit is being made - how much, it's difficult to say - which adds tremendously to the cost of goods and puts what should be humanitarian aid well out of financial reach of unemployed or otherwise poor Gazans.

As far as electricity, I saw small generators running every evening outside of anyplace doing business... I remember being surprised when I stopped to buy water midday on one of our last days there to find a generator running outside of a little grocery store - seemed to be an odd time for the power to be out. I have a vivid memory of a generator running nightly right outside of our favorite falafel shop as well (we ate there nearly every night).

One afternoon we tried to eat lunch at a little beach stand ordering off of the standard menu, but our simple meals couldn't be assembled in time as they were unable to maintain inventory for the place on-site. Our orders started a flurry of activity that sent runners all over town to gather the chicken, rice, and other basics needed to assemble the meals. If not for the delay, we might not have noticed the strain imposed by a siege economy in this instance, not to mention the endless determination and resourcefulness of Palestinians to adapt and maintain a functioning society in the face of such cruelty.

But I'm sure the real siege experience can be had in the Rafah border area and in the other devastated locales (especially after dark) where things like indoor plumbing and electricity have been transformed from everyday conveniences to unimaginable luxuries. I don't know how many hundreds or thousands are living in tents or in partially destroyed homes who remain unable to obtain decent temporary housing, much less rebuild, thanks to the siege.



5 Gloria Bletter
Effects of the Gaza Blockade

The years-long blockade of Gaza by the Israeli government and its occupation forces affects ALL aspects of life in Gaza, and all ages and conditions of its residents. It makes Israel, with the complicity of Egypt and the US, the sole arbiter of who and what comes in or out of Gaza.

Although its siege intensified after the election of Hamas as the democratically-elected party in January 2006, economic sanctions had begun even as Israel recalled its army and evicted Israeli settlements in 2005, claiming that it was “no longer occupying Gaza.” But Israel never relinquished control over ground access to Gaza (and had bombed its one airport), including, by proxy, Gaza's border with Egypt through Rafah City. This was the way our delegation entered Gaza.

Like the construction of the Separation or 'Apartheid' Wall, the siege is an example of collective punishment,* and like the Wall, should be found illegal under international law, as was the Wall (by the International Court of Justice). Meanwhile, people continue to die, and infrastructure continues to deteriorate, for lack of access to basic and emergency medical care, necessary foods and medicines, fuel, and materials for maintaining water pipes, sewage, and road systems, as well as for rebuilding after the recent massive Israeli attacks.

It must be remembered that the majority of Gazan residents are from refugee families, who fled there in 1948. The UN, through its Relief Works Agency [UNRWA] delivers health, education, and other humanitarian services to these families and their descendants. The Director of UNRWA, John Ging, who spoke to us and to other visiting groups, implied that even UN staff must make use of the approximate 900 tunnels to obtain non-work-related items; for instance, all gasoline for cars and buses comes through the tunnels via a pipeline, except for fuel for UN vehicles and its power plant. King recognized that that few essential supplies are getting in, and that the restrictions are “prolonging the [general] misery.”

Even just prior to the Christmas invasion in December 2008, a coalition of humanitarian and human rights organizations stated that the blockade was destroying public service infrastructure, and had effectively dismantled the economy and further impoverished the population of Gaza. So, in addition to the denial of emergency ambulance and hospital treatment during the attacks, and the bombing of hospitals, sick and injured Gazans of all ages are still not able to get oxygen or use lifesaving equipment which requires fuel and electricity.

The actual restrictions are administered by the Israeli military through its Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories [COGAT]. Its daily decisions are varied and inconsistent: for months, pumpkins and carrots were allowed in, then abruptly reversed two months ago; food items considered 'delicacies' are prohibited, such as cherries, pomegranates, halvah, chocolate, avocados, and green almonds, while persimmons, apples, and bananas are considered vital for basic sustenance, and allowed but in insufficient amounts. Sometimes, produce from Israeli farms are given special dispensation for admission, such as recently, for melons and onions. Seedlings and calves are denied, as are clothes, shoes, toys, school books and supplies, musical instruments and lightbulbs.

Those who have asked for a written list have been refused. What is essential now, after all the willful destruction, is not allowed: building materials, steel pipes, spare parts for cars and machines, and fertilizer. These items were mentioned by nearly every person and official we spoke with. It is well-known by now that Gaza's own farm produce is even less available as farmers are shot at when they go to harvest their fields in farming communities near the so-called green line [the border proclaimed by Israel after the 1967 attacks].

As for allowing people in or out of Gaza, freedom of movement being an international human right, there are clear instances as to how this right is being denied, primarily by Israel, but also with the enforcement aid of Egypt. We witnessed the denial of a Gazan student, who had been away, from entering along with the student delegation, from visiting her family. [See Felice Gelman's report above for more details.] We saw the protesting remnants--four physicians--from a larger group of doctors and medical personnel who had been denied entry and were in the "Travel House" at the Rafah border; we heard about that or another group of cardiac specialists with their equipment who had been turned away; and read about Israel's refusal to allow UN officials in [Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, for one] to view the situation after the attacks.

The daily denial of Gazans' right to travel is ongoing; sick and injured Gazans are routinely not permitted to travel to Egypt for treatment, and several have died while waiting for documents granting them 'permission' to reach hospitals.

What is clear is that Israel misrepresents the basis for the continued blockade and obfuscates its necessity. It appears that it intends to dismantle Palestinian society and institutions. For Gazans, the deficit is not only in tangible goods, but in truth and justice, and the loss of hope for a sustainable life.



6 Susan Johnson
The War and the Children

On the first day of Operation Cast Lead Israel began bombing Gaza just as schools were changing from morning to afternoon sessions. It’s estimated 500,000 children were out in the open, walking on streets when the first bombs began to fall. NO, the bombs did not fall; they were intentionally dropped on Gaza’s most vulnerable people at the time of day when they were most vulnerable.

Panic and fear must have gripped each child. What should they do? Run? Hide? Try to reach home? Why is this happening? With 500,000 children involved there must have been millions of questions asked; but few answers.

The assault on Gaza was just beginning, it continued for 23 days. Bombs and missiles rained down. Bombs of white phosphorous lit the sky with red and white streams. Soldiers, tanks, helicopters, airplanes, bulldozers, landmines, weapons of all sizes & power; all were active in Gaza for 23 days.


Our delegation met with the Gaza Community Mental Health Agency to discuss the impact of the war on Gaza’s children. Depression was at the top of the list. Aggression, clinging to parents, lack of concentration, anger, fear, crying, bed wetting were among the symptoms being observed. Some children remain so fearful they had yet to return to school; it had been five months. They do not suffer from post traumatic stress. There is no “post” in Gaza, just traumatic stress.




Let the children tell their stories through art. These pictures were drawn or painted at the Qattan Center for the Child as part of their art therapy program. Each picture speaks of violence. But please, look at them carefully for signs of hope.





7 Terry Rogers
Palestine Agricultural Relief Committees

As we travelled up and down the Gaza Strip, I was amazed to see how much of the land was actually rural. When we visited PARC (Palestine Agricultural Relief Committees) we were told by their spokesperson, Ahmed Sourani, that one third of the total area of the strip should be available for agricultural use. However, 25% of this land is in the so-called buffer zone, along Gaza's eastern border with Israel. In this area, about 300 meters wide, Israel has already uprooted the orchards and continues to shoot at Palestinians attempting to plant and harvest vegetable crops. Mr. Sourani described this practice as de facto annexation.

Because the importation of food into Gaza is limited and expensive, PARC has emphasized improving local food production. PARC's local committees work on the rehabilitation of agricultural capacity - land, roads, and water resources. Because 25% of Gazan households have gardens, PARC encourages their use for food production and income-generating activities. To this end PARC has a micro-enterprise saving and lending program - targeting women - for crafts, agriculture, raising animals, and producing prepared food.

Another PARC project concerns water and environmental protection. Because the quality and quantity of Gazan water is severely compromised, families are taught how to harvest rainwater and to re-use grey water.

The Israeli siege has made it difficult to import pesticides and fertilizers, so PARC is developing a compost-producing unit. Farmers are recalling traditional indigenous knowledge about how to farm without chemicals - rediscovering organic gardening. The agricultural committees are helping people establish seed banks as well. The NGO Grassroots International has partnered with PARC in many of these projects.

Four years ago, PARC began another initiative, called Poor Farmers for Poor Families. The goal is for relief agencies to purchase fresh food from local producers as much as possible, thus supporting the Gazan economy. They plan to target 15,000 families to receive fresh food baskets regularly, and almost half of this goal has been reached.

When we left the PARC office we saw many plastic-roofed greenhouses nearby. They underscored the insistence of the PARC representatives that assistance for Gaza needs to focus less on relief and more on development. The creativity and resourcefulness of Gazans in such oppressive circumstances can be an example for the rest of the world.



8 Ceil Lavan
IDF still shooting at Gazans

We visited a farming community in Gaza, where just days before Israeli planes dropped leaflets announcing that Palestinians were not to enter within 300 meters of the Israeli green line. This buffer zone, the entire western and northern perimeter of Gaza, includes 30% of Gaza’s agricultural land. Palestinian homes, schools and farms are within the buffer zone. The leaflets warned the Palestinians that they’d be shot if they entered that section of their land.

Palestinians were already being shot at as they tried to farm their land or harvest a crop near the green line. From the porch of the home we visited, which was 500 meters from the green line, we could see where the tanks patrolled back and forth in Israel, shooting randomly at the Palestinian farmers. Nestled in the field across from the home was an innocent looking tower. We were told that Israel has many towers armed to shoot at Palestinian farmers. This particular tower had a bulb-like top, which opened like a flower to automatically fire at the farmers. The firing is remotely controlled from Israel!

How are Palestinian farmers to make a living, and how are Gazans to feed themselves with a blockade and farmers not allowed to farm?

The beautiful Mediterranean Sea hugs the entire eastern shore of the Gaza Strip. The area is presently receiving international attention since June 30th, when the FreeGaza boat, the Spirit of Humanity, was captured at gunpoint and towed to Israel by the Israeli navy, while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. This naval blockade is part of the Israeli effort to seal off the coastal Gaza Strip, and is devastating one of Gaza’s key industries, fishing.

The Oslo Accord gave Palestinians the right to fish within 20 nautical miles of their shores, which Israel never observed. At first Israel limited the fishing area to 10 nautical miles, then 6 and now 3. Fishermen who go farther out risk being arrested, shot, killed, or having their boats destroyed or confiscated. However, even those fishing within the 3 mile limit have the same risks.

We could see Israeli speed boats patrolling back and forth on the sea, and we heard their gunfire in the distance. Before the massacre, the Israeli boats would shoot around the fishermen to intimidate them, or Israeli ships would sail round and round a fishing boat and then leave it not looking back to see if it was capsized. Water cannons, as well as guns, are used to damage fishing boats and threaten and /or hurt fishermen.

Since the massacre, Israeli naval vessels fire directly at the fishermen, and several have been hit. They routinely confiscate Palestinian fishermen and their boats. When the fishing boats are returned they are damaged and stripped, and because of the blockade there are no parts to repair them.

Fishermen have seen their catch drop by two-thirds since 2007. And to make matters worse, because no fuel is allowed through the blockade, fishermen are forced to pay excessive black market prices for fuel that comes through the tunnels from Egypt.

Cut off from the heavily populated shoals of fish beyond the 3 nautical mile limit, paying more for fuel to go to sea, and facing attack every time they go out to fish, it is not hard to see that the once thriving fishing industry in Gaza is being destroyed. An industry that once employed 45,000 Gazans, not only cannot sustain the fishing industry workers, it can no longer provide the needed fish for a people with a critically deficient diet due to the blockade as well as the IDF bulldozing of the citrus and olive groves, the shooting at the farmers, and the burning of wheat ready for harvest.

This unbearable treatment of the already suffering Palestinian people is greeted with a resilience beyond my imagination. We met some of the fishermen at the sea the morning we left Gaza. The face of the fisherman who addressed us was actually joyful, as were the faces of the people we met in the farming community.

I asked Jenny (International Solidarity Movement) why she thought the fishermen were joyful in such dire circumstances. Jenny told us, “Palestinians have a great sense of humor.” She described being on a Palestinian fishing boat as Israeli boats were speeding toward them. The unarmed Palestinian fishermen started heckling the Israelis singing out comments like,”Come and get us.” One of the fishermen started dancing, and soon all the men on his boat joined him; then those on a nearby boat started dancing too, and then those on another boat... as they waited to be attacked by the Israeli vessels!

One of the fishermen told Jenny that he’d rather risk his life fishing to feed his family than stay home and not be able to feed them.

While the resilience of the Palestinian people is inspiring, not allowing Gazans to farm or fish to feed themselves or make a living is one more Crime Against Humanity that Israel needs to be held accountable for.



9 Ayla Jay Schoenwald
The “Big Dreams” of the Palestine Youth Committee

Hazem, a 24 year old Palestinian college-graduate and a member of the Palestine Youth Committee (PYC), has tried to leave Gaza four times in order to continue his education abroad. Three of these times involved scholarships. Each time, however, he was turned back, told his papers weren’t in order or that he should try another crossing or simply that the borders weren’t open and he had to go home. When he tried to explain the situation to various universities, they refused to cooperate. It was too late; he had lost his scholarship. When he told one of the universities that he couldn’t get through the border, they asked him why he didn’t just leave from the airport instead. He had to explain that there isn’t an airport in Gaza- not anymore. Hazem wants to acquire his PhD by the time he’s 30. He also wants to be a pilot, but he’s given up on this goal. No one will let a Palestinian go to school to be a pilot, especially not after September 11th.

Perhaps this is why, when we asked Summer (another student from the PYC) what we could do to support their organization she responded “tell people how we are, how we live, who we are; we are not terrorists, we are just ordinary civilians.” Except, they are more extraordinary than ordinary. The Palestine Youth Committee is made up of students and youth in Gaza, many of whom, like Hazem & Summer, have lost scholarships due to the siege and Israeli-imposed, internationally enforced travel restrictions placed on Palestinians. As a result of these restrictions, the students have decided to use videoconferences, websites, and other technological tools to connect with other students and young people around the world. When we met with them in Gaza City, the students kept talking about their “big dreams” of what they want to build, the networks they want to create, the actions they want to take. We talked about connecting them with student organizations doing Divestment work on their campuses as well as other student organizations that work on other, relevant issues, such as immigrant rights (also, of course, about borders & freedom of movement). The “big dreams” kept getting bigger, for all of us, young and old, and everywhere in between.

I could go on and on, listing examples of how these students have been denied access to the education they deserve. However, they told us they don’t want to be seen as victims; they want to be seen as people with something to offer the world. I respect that. I also don’t want to make them into symbols of “hope” and “the future,” because while this is positive, it still distracts from their humanity. They are activists. They are young. They are empowered. And they are inspiring. Sitting with them at the Marna House, drinking tea and coffee, I could imagine meeting up with them again 30 years from now. By that time, some of us (“us” being the young people in the room) would be published authors, professors, non-profit executive directors, lawyers, mothers, fathers…etc. “Real grown ups.” “Successful.” But will we be successful? Will we have the opportunity to sit together one day in a free Palestine? Will other movements look to us the way we look to South Africa now, to learn how they dismantled Apartheid?

Husni - another one of the extraordinary students from the PYC - told us that despite the siege, the war, and the occupation, he is still free: “I am free,” he said, “I have the right to think, I have the right to speak.” He’s right. The Israeli Apartheid State can restrict the freedom of movement, but they cannot restrict the building of movements. No border, no wall, no army, and no war is big enough to stop “big dreams” from getting bigger.



10 Tom Suarez
Hamas?



Upon crossing the Egyptian border into Gaza, we entered a territory whose government the US has declared a terrorist organization, one so terrible that US anti-terrorism laws could lock us away merely for aiding a charity whose funds indirectly found their way to its public assistance programs. Presidents of the US and esteemed universities have spoken of Israel and Gaza in apocalyptic terms, an ancient battle between Good and Evil. One’s mere presence is complicity: when in 2008 I was among a group whom Israel refused entry to Gaza, a spokesperson publicly charged that we were “cooperating with terror organizations”.

Words often control, rather than represent, human thought. Invoke the word “terrorist,” and critical thought is rendered not just impotent, but even treasonous. “You voted for Hamas,” decreed graffiti we saw left by IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers on the walls of their victims’ homes in northern Gaza, in way of justification for their mass slaughter.

Actually, that family hadn’t; but why the West's hatred for Hamas? Hamas has much to criticize, yes, but what, in truth, does the West fear from Hamas?

In a word, representation.

The Palestinian struggle for liberation differs from all others in that their “representatives,” going back to the fall of the Ottoman empire, have served only at the pleasure of those with whom are they supposedly negotiating. In January of 2006, Palestinians were presented with two choices: Fatah, an organization that had become synonymous with corruption, that had done little to help Palestinians in their day-to-day struggles, and that had sold them to the glue factory at Oslo; or Hamas, which had a proven record of social assistance, had earned a reputation for scrupulousness, and was not in the pay of their adversaries.

Yet the West was taken by surprise when, though it had invested heavily to assure Fatah’s victory, Palestinians elected Hamas to be the representative of all Palestine — Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Immediately, US weapons and cash were redirected to squelching the democracy, and the legitimate government is now confined to Gaza which, in the West's Orwellian language warp, it “took over.”


"You voted for Hamas"

What did we find in this “enemy entity,” as Israel declared Gaza? Despite the enormous disadvantages under which Hamas must govern, including blockade, siege, bombardments, denial of rightful funds, vast Western capital put to sabotage it from within, and the violent denial of autonomy over its borders, airspace, coastal waters, and aquifers, our experience in Gaza was of an orderly, civil society making the best of a catastrophic situation.

Hamas is not a monolithic institution, and conservative elements flourish under societal duress. Yet we saw little evidence that Hamas, however objectionable some of its religious-inspired policies, was interested in a sharia-style state. Few women wear the niqab (face covering), kite flying is a happy diversion, children sing and dance, and the new music school in Gaza City, teaching both Western and Arabic instruments, has already been restarted from its destruction by the IDF in January. Nor did Hamas’ feud with Fatah make anyone afraid to flaunt the image of Arafat, who lives on as a symbol independent of his problematic legacy.

We visited a community center in Khan Younis where the women who ran it described how newly-elected Hamas had removed some of their furniture and equipment, but how the women pestered Hamas until the items were returned — the imagery of women challenging men of Hamas, and winning, worth noting.

Western media are unable to enunciate the two syllables "Hamas" without reminding us that it refuses to recognize Israel, refuses to renounce violence, and that it fires rockets (some media substitute the inaccurate word “missiles”).

— Doesn't recognize Israel?
● How could a people under siege "recognize" their attackers, who refuse to recognize them?
● Israel refuses to state where its borders lie and daily expropriates more and more Palestinian land. Which Israel would Hamas be recognizing?
● The U.N.'s own recognition of Israel was contingent on its abiding by international law under Resolution 194 (December 11, 1948), which it not only has never done, but indeed has further and dramatically violated for six decades.
● Hamas has long offered to make peace with Israel in exchange for all parties abiding by international law — such a "permanent peace" being the same relationship the US has with Taiwan (which the US refuses to recognize).

— Refuses to renounce violence?
How can those being attacked renounce violence when their attackers will not?

— Fires rockets?
Yes, in response to Israel's incursions, siege, and other violence. The rockets may be strategically foolish, but they are a reaction, a flea attempting to bite the claw of an attacking behemoth.

In Gaza, we heard a range of opinions about the primitive rockets (Qassams), being any variation of defensive (though they are unguided and cannot be directed to military targets), idiotic (because they play into Israel’s “defense” excuse), or symbolic flares of desperation to signal the world’s attention.

What was universal, however, was the bewilderment at the West’s seizing upon the rockets, and Hamas, to blame Gaza’s woes on Gazans. “At night we would listen to the news and hear that it's our fault,” one women living near the Green Line lamented about the brutal attacks of Dec-Jan.


Grafitti of a Qassam being fired

The siege predated Hamas’ election; and the cease-fire of last year, never honored by Israel because it tightened, rather than eased, the siege, was broken not by any Gazan rocket, but by unprovoked Israeli infantry incursions and air strikes, timed for US election day to be doubly sure nothing would reach the Western media. Several Palestinians were killed, several injured, Palestinian homes were occupied, and land was levelled.

The ineffective mortar and rockets fired in response then gave Israel its excuse for the twenty-two days of terror whose aftermath had bought even the more stoic among us to tears.

Hamas' charter, a convoluted and deeply objectionable document, has little relevance to its day-to-day governance; it should be discarded and written anew. Although the claim that the charter calls for the extermination of Jews is a fabrication, an attempt to frame the issue in Holocaust language, the charter does ignorantly jumble together "Jews" and "Zionists." Ironically, in doing so it is merely following Zionism's own inescapably anti-Semitic logic, making an intrinsic, metaphysical link between Judaism and a modern nation-state.

Contrast the charter to the letter that Hamas prepared, while we were in Gaza, for Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin to deliver to US President Obama, stating that they “are prepared to engage all parties on the basis of mutual respect and without preconditions,” stressing the importance of international law and United Nations resolutions.

But therein lies the West’s quagmire: the rule of law and justice would expose its six decades of lies, its neo-colonial enterprise, and its staggering hypocrisy.

In the West, commentators discuss whether or not Israel's attacks of Dec-Jan were an "overreaction" to Hamas and its rockets, but this is a false, manipulative framing of the issue, because by way of pretending to criticize Israel for "excess," it safeguards the essential fiction upon which Israeli aggression depends: that Israel is defending itself. And it is this inversion of reality, not relative body counts, that is the core of these six decades of injustice.

In Gaza we found a society determined to hold on to its humanity no matter how it is pushed to imitate its tormentors. We were in the only part of Palestine that has not been taken over by a Western-backed coup.



11 Jane Adas
Come to Gaza

Come to Gaza. See for yourselves the direct results of your government’s Middle East policy, paid for with your tax dollars. This is the message that a Palestinian taxi driver and the Irish head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza asked our New York delegation to convey to Americans.


Majd Abdullah Al-Atannah, holding an unexploded land mine

Majd Abdullah Al-Atannah and his sons lost their homes twice. The first time was during Israel’s Operation Autumn Clouds in November 2006, when Israel invaded Beit Hanun on the northern Gaza border using air strikes, tanks, and helicopter gunships. One Israeli soldier and 53 – 82 (reports vary) Palestinians were killed, among them 18 of Al-Atannah’s relatives. After the U.S. vetoed an already watered-down Security Council resolution, the General Assembly in emergency session passed a resolution 156 to 7 deploring Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Atannah and his five sons moved to the outskirts of Beit Hanun, in the Ezbat Abbed Rabbo neighborhood of Jabalia, and rebuilt their lives, a big house for Al-Atannah and five smaller ones for his sons and their families, in all 57 people supported by their taxi business. Their neighborhood, however, was the first area taken over during the ground invasion phase of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. Al-Atannah described how Israeli soldiers forced families out, firing at them with machine guns as they walked the two kilometers to Beit Hanun, taking nothing with them but the clothes they were wearing. Soldiers also arrested one of his sons, the father of seven children.

When the families returned after the ceasefire on 18 January, they found their homes and cars destroyed, including all three of Al-Atannah’s big Mercedes taxis. As though the Israeli army was using the neighborhood as a laboratory to experiment with different means of demolishing homes, they blew up Al-Atannah’s house with land mines, brought down his sons’ houses with bulldozers, and others by aerial bombardment (see photos at end). Many of the land mines failed to detonate, making the rubble dangerous, so most families had the Hamas government remove them. Al-Atannah, however, reached into the debris of his house and pulled out a live land mine with writing in English: “ARMED / DANGER” (see photo, above). Asked why he didn’t have it defused, Al-Atannah responded, “What’s the difference? I’m 60 years old. Do I have time to rebuild … again?”

Al-Atannah and his family are now living in tents and he no longer has taxis to drive, but he is an astute political observer: “Where are the Western countries that speak of democracy and human rights? Israel influences the U.S. so much. In your country, you think Palestinians are terrorists. Do you accept the terrorist act of destroying the homes of others? We were hit with American rockets. Is there no conscience in America? You will not speak out because Israelis will not allow it. Bush should go before the ICC (International Criminal Court). He has two daughters who should come see what their father did.”


John Ging



John Ging, whom the Code Pink delegations met later that same day, has been head of UNRWA in Gaza since 2006. He too believes Gaza needs many witnesses. “Those who make decisions in far away offices should come to see and have to answer. They might then see the detachment of their rhetoric from reality and the results of a deficit of truth and an absence of justice in policy making.” The rule of law, Ging said, should be the starting point, even if it is an inconvenience for politics.

After Operation Cast Lead and for the first time in years, senior political figures have been coming to Gaza to see the consequences of their decisions – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, European leaders, American congressmen. Ging said that all, without exception, were shocked and humbled by the ordinary people they met who, though having every reason to lose their minds and turn violent, were civilized and dignified. The visiting dignitaries had been told that the aim of Operation Cast Lead was “to destroy the infrastructure of terror,” but when they see the bombed American International School, the willfully destroyed factories and businesses, the demolished ministries, presidential compound and legislative council, they see that what was destroyed was the infrastructure of education,
the economy, and democracy.

The basis of hope for change, Ging concluded, is people from the outside willing to come, seek to be better informed, and influence those back home. So, come to Gaza. And the West Bank. And Israel. See for yourselves.



Destruction by land mines


Destruction by aerial bombardment


Destruction by bulldozer


Demolished factory


The American School

Parliament

Please visit
www.vivagaza.org
for information, photographs, and videos

If you'd like to contact members of this Gaza delegation,
please e-mail suarez@n-y-s-e.org


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