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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 movement.

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 U.S.

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 Palestinian organizations.

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 people.

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 capacity.

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 maintain.

Educational achievements

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 pride.

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.

Medical care

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 2009.

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 Gaza.

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 prison.

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 with Gaza.

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 prevail.”