Human rights visit to Gaza finds a determined people confronting the Israeli blockade
Published Jan 19, 2011 4:44 PM
I had the opportunity and honor to travel to Gaza and the West Bank in 2000,
shortly after the beginning of the heroic second Palestinian Intifada, or
uprising, and in 2003 during the most intense Israeli repression against the
Intifada. A visit to besieged Gaza in early January of this year, along with
former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, was a new opportunity to meet with
Palestinians there and to see conditions on the ground.
Clark is well known in the Arab world. He was the official attorney for the
Palestine Liberation Organization in the U.S. for 35 years until its leader,
Yasser Arafat, died in 2004. Clark spent years successfully litigating against
attempts to close the Palestine Mission to the United Nations and seize
Palestinian assets in the U.S.
Along with visits with families of detainees, doctors and human rights
activists, an important highlight of the solidarity visit was a meeting of
Ramsey Clark with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior political leader of
Hamas, to discuss the impact of the continuing criminal blockade, the danger of
a new Israeli attack and the importance of national unity in the Palestinian
At a press conference after the meeting, Haniyeh thanked Clark for his visit
and asked him to encourage other international dignitaries and heads of state
to travel to blockaded Gaza. Clark called for an end to the violation of human
rights of Palestinians and said that the people of Gaza are being punished for
their democratic choice. He criticized the international community for not
doing enough to lift the siege, and he urged support for the establishment of
an independent Palestinian state.
The strongest impressions of this 2011 visit were of the even greater hardship
and scarcity caused by the Israeli blockade and the heightened social
organization and fierce, steadfast determination of the people of Gaza.
Although a short visit, we were able to meet with elected political leaders,
doctors, educators, students, displaced families and families of political
prisoners being held in Israeli jails.
There is no clearer example that Gaza is truly an open-air prison than to stand
at the border crossing at Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, for hours. One by
one, Palestinians arrive from both sides and must appeal to enter or to leave.
The Palestinian government has no control of the border. At Rafah, the Egyptian
government controls the gate.
The Egyptian authorities denied us entry all day on Jan. 4. We waited in the
cold wind and then were ordered to leave Rafah. They said they were closing for
the night, although we understood that the crossing station was open 24/7. The
Egyptian Foreign Ministry told us that we needed U.S. Embassy approval.
We mobilized our supporters, both in the area and internationally, and prepared
a major e-mail and press release reporting on our experience, including the
Egyptian authorities’ statements. At that point, they reversed their
decision. It appeared they did not like the implication that they might be
taking open direction from the U.S. Egyptians value their sovereignty, which
they won in a revolution against the imperialist powers in the 1950s that
included the heroic seizure of the Suez Canal.
Although it was after midnight, when we crossed into Gaza we got quite a
greeting. Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmed Yousef was there with a delegation
to meet us.
One might also say that the Israeli military also announced its presence: As we
waited at Rafah, we heard a bomb exploding nearby. The air seemed to vibrate
and the ground trembled. The Israelis have been threatening new attacks on Gaza
and from time to time continue to bomb targets in Gaza from the air. Two sites
were bombed the night we arrived.
We came to Gaza to express solidarity with the 1.5 million people there —
the overwhelming majority of them refugees — and to learn how they have
survived years of blockade, siege and bombardment on an already poor and
underdeveloped coastal strip of densely populated land. This is the most
extreme form of collective punishment enforced by Israel and financed by the
Less than one quarter of the supplies that impoverished Gaza survived on before
the blockade are now allowed through the Israeli siege.
Five years ago, the Palestinian people voted overwhelmingly for representatives
of the liberation group Hamas in the January 2006 democratic elections, which
were monitored by international organizations including U.S. officials. The
U.S. and EU, which did not approve of the Palestinian people’s choice,
responded by cutting off all financial aid to Gaza.
In May 2007 Israel and Egypt established an iron blockade of Gaza. Even the
most basic civilian supplies were denied in, in an effort to overthrow the
popularly elected government. Then on Dec. 27, 2008, Israel bombed and then
invaded Gaza in an attack lasting 22 days. The assault killed 1,500 people,
injured more than 5,000 others, and destroyed thousands of homes and almost all
of the area’s small industries and agricultural enterprises. These
onslaughts are a continuation of attacks over decades in an attempt to destroy
Comparing Gaza after the Israeli bombardment and Haiti after the January 12,
2010, earthquake puts the accomplishments and survival problems in Gaza today
into some perspective.
In Haiti there are thousands of U.N. officials, military forces,
nongovernmental organizations and international aid organizations, and hundreds
of tons of supplies brought by ship, truck and air that cover acres outside of
capital city, Port-au-Prince. Yet earthquake rubble has hardly been touched.
Most schools are still not open; except for the help of Cuban doctors, health
care — even in the face of a cholera epidemic — is almost
nonexistent. For the population imperialist aid has meant total chaos.
The Haitian people lack their own government. The U.S. kidnapped elected
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004; now U.N. occupation troops decide
which privileged collaborators can run for office. All organizations of the
people face relentless attack.
In Gaza, with thousands of ruined buildings, it is important to note that
rubble has been cleared. Every building in Gaza has been tested; buildings
structurally unsafe due to bombardment and tremors have been evacuated,
dismantled and cleared. Social services are operating, and there is
distribution of some essential supplies and foods, such as grain, cooking oil,
baby formula and powdered milk. Schools reopened within five days of the end of
the attacks, even though a third of the schools were damaged. Both the elected
government and popular organizations conduct these many programs for the
Gaza today functions under conditions of a war economy. Electricity can be
sporadic; power cuts are frequent. When lights flicker off, conversation barely
pauses. The one power plant in Gaza operates at only 20 to 50 percent of
Scarce supplies must be rationed and allocated. For example, according to U.N.
reports priority was given to repairing the shattered windows of schools and
health institutions first.
But even the distribution of the most essential supplies is constantly targeted
and at risk. Israel has suspended U.N. food distribution several times since
June 2007. This U.N. aid is essential for life. Without aid, 70 percent of
families in Gaza live on less than a dollar per person a day, according to U.N.
reports. More than 38 percent of the population is unemployed.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees states that 80 percent
of households in Gaza rely on some kind of food aid. According to the World
Health Organization, one-third of children under five and women of childbearing
age are anemic. (BBC News, July 6)
Gazans have the ability and the climate to produce their own food. But olive
and citrus trees, fields, livestock, greenhouses and nurseries were consciously
destroyed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization says the closed borders are a major
obstacle to reconstruction, with fertilizer, livestock, seedlings and
agricultural equipment not allowed in. Food is limited in choice and lacks the
protein and vitamins of a healthy diet. But food quality and choices have
improved as essential supplies, seedlings and fertilized eggs have arrived via
the hundreds of tunnels that the people of Gaza secretly dig and
The maintenance of educational levels is the most impressive accomplishment in
Gaza and is a reflection of sacrifice. There are almost half a million students
in 640 schools in Gaza. More than a third of the schools were damaged in the
2008-2009 Israeli bombardment. Although students attended in split shifts, and
textbooks and supplies were missing, schools reopened within five days of the
end of the Israeli onslaught. Schools in Gaza are a source of national
A visit to the Islamic University, which has 30,000 students, gave us an
example of Israel’s targeted destruction. The most important facility,
containing all the scientific labs and expensive equipment and years of
research, was totally ruined by Israeli missiles. The destroyed building has
been cleared of rubble, but the laboratories are denied equipment to rebuild.
However, a new Al-Aqsa television station has opened, showing programs that can
be seen all over the Arab world. All technical materials, computers and cameras
were brought in via the survival tunnels.
It is significant that Gaza today has more than 80,000 students enrolled in
university. Many thousands of other students attend the Open University, where
courses can be taken by those who are working, raising families and only able
to attend school part time. Eighty to 90 percent of all students receive
financial aid and scholarships. Sixty-two percent of university students in
Gaza today are women.
But what the people cannot accomplish is reconstruction of buildings. Thousands
of homes were destroyed, along with almost every industry and food processing
or supply building in Gaza. Clearly the people have the skills and
determination to stay and rebuild. But cement, steel rods, iron bars, along
with piping, wiring, glass, framing and all that is required to rebuilding
modern buildings are prohibited.
The medical system functions, with many skilled and dedicated doctors under
incredibly difficult conditions, such as an endless struggle for needed
pharmaceuticals, spare parts and fuel for backup generators. Six hospitals were
damaged in the 22-day Israeli onslaught.
Accompanied by the minister of health, we visited a dialysis unit of Gaza
Hospital along with other units. While equipment is pieced together, care is at
a high level and free.
But complex care cannot be provided in Gaza, and Israel determines who can
leave, even for emergency life-saving care. Families of political prisoners or
political activists and anyone on Israeli lists are denied exit visas. Exit
permission for 21 percent of patients in need was denied or delayed due to
extensive security screening in December 2009. (Gaza Health Fact Sheet, World
Health Organization, Jan. 20, 2010)
The greatest health concern is that there are no extra resources, considering
the very real threat of a new Israeli attack. Doctors explained that on Dec.
27, 2008, when the Israeli bombardment began, they were overwhelmed with more
than 3,000 wounded people needing emergency care within the first day. They had
almost no emergency supplies available — not even the most basic
supplies, including antibiotics, pain medications and dressings for wounds.
This endless supply shortage impedes normal medical care under
“peaceful” conditions, but in the face of any attack the
Palestinians in Gaza are medically defenseless. The U.N.’s World Health
Organization says that 15 to 30 percent of essential drugs were out of stock in
The Israeli/Egyptian blockade dominates all choices and supplies. Restricted
items include the most basic household necessities, such as light bulbs,
matches, soap, paper supplies, mattresses, blankets, clothing, shoes,
generators, phones and computers.
Yet Palestinian organizations have found incredible and creative ways to get
basic supplies and to continue communication with the outside world. All of
these goods come in, at great effort, through a whole complex of tunnels built
between Gaza and the Egyptian side of the border. These tunnels are not called
smuggling tunnels. They are called survival tunnels. They are the lifelines of
Fuel for vehicles and gas for cooking must be brought in through the tunnels.
Donkey carts are a common sight in Gaza.
Solidarity meetings and exchanges
The visit to the Ministry of Detainees made a powerful impact. Only in Gaza is
there a special ministry for the detainees’ families, who need many kinds
of support and help. There are more than 7,000 Palestinian political prisoners
and almost daily targeted assassinations by Israeli forces in both the West
Bank and in Gaza.
We met with about 100 family members. The women, who came to the meeting with
pictures of their family members, were so clearly pained as they described
years without their loved ones. One young woman introduced her beautiful
5-year-old boy and described how she gave birth in chains in an Israeli
We met with Dr. Ahmed M. Bahar, first deputy speaker of the Palestinian
Legislative Council, and six other members of Parliament regarding 40 kidnapped
members of Parliament being held in Israeli prisons.
A meeting with Judge Diaa al-Din al-Madhoun of the Palestinian National
Authority’s Central Commission for Documentation and Pursuit of Israeli
War Criminals exposed a vast array of documented war crimes in the 2008-2009
Israeli attack. The commission has prepared many hundreds of graphic slides of
deaths, injuries and destruction, along with PowerPoint presentations and books
all cataloging Israeli war crimes. These materials can be used around the world
in years to come to continue to charge Israeli officials with war crimes
wherever they travel.
We also visited with a large convoy of solidarity activists from Asia.
Consisting of 120 participants from 17 Asian countries, the Asian Caravan for
Breaking the Siege of Gaza began in India and brought substantial material aid
to the people of Gaza.
Most of the supplies that the various convoys bring are held up at Israeli and
Egyptian border closures. But the aid that these convoys bring is largely
symbolic — a dramatic way of showing that the people of the world stand
As one young student said to me, “The siege will be broken day by day,
act by act. We are confident that with the solidarity of the people of the
world, and our own creativity and determination, we will
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE