Sunday, March 29, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Palestinians have long been the most educated Arab population in the world. It is easy to explain why this is so. They have no land, their factories are constantly threatened with destruction, they cannot attract foreign investment in their economy. They cannot easily emigrate. The only possibility they have for a better life is to educate themselves and then export this human capital. For them, this is an experience as painful as what our 19th century ancestors experienced when their children emigrated to America. They ache for the possibility of a better life for their children, but they know that, if they are able to achieve that, they may never see their children again. In the 19th century, we were separated from our ancestors by almost impossible ocean journeys. In the 21st century, Palestinians are separated from their children by the Israeli occupation and siege. It is very difficult to get permission to leave, and even more difficult to get permission to return.
Ibtisam is an educated Palestinian woman. She is a university graduate, well respected in social work and women’s rights. Unlike most Palestinians, she has traveled widely to attend conferences and at the invitation of governments, including the U.S. State Department. Her husband is a civil engineer, employed by the Palestinian Authority. Her two oldest children are doctors, the next is studying computer sciences at the university, and the two youngest are still in school. Everyone in the family from the 10 year old up speaks, reads and writes English very well. In other words, they are like you.
But they are not like you. Ibtisam hopes to attend a conference on women’s issues in Ramallah this month. But she has no idea if she actually will attend, because she cannot leave Gaza without the permission of the Israelis – something which is rarely granted. Her oldest daughter, a doctor, works as a volunteer in a hospital. After completing her internship, she is unemployed -- along with 200 other qualified doctors in Gaza – because the government has no money to hire enough medical professionals to serve the population. Her oldest son, a doctor, is underemployed in a local health clinic, with no possibility of developing a specialty practice. Her husband, although receiving a paycheck, cannot work because he worked for the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas. Even if Hamas decided to employ him, he would not be able to work because Israel has embargoed all construction materials and destroyed all the factories inside Gaza capable of manufacturing them.
This family is part of a large Palestinian intelligentsia that is being destroyed by Israeli policies of occupation, closure, and siege. Who would you rather have run a country – religious fundamentalists with no knowledge of the broader world, or a well educated, well traveled intelligentsia? Israel, with its refusal even to grant exit visas to Fulbright scholarship winners from Gaza, has made its answer clear. They prefer the fundamentalists and a failed state. . Is this in our interest?
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I could hardly claim to be an expert on Hamas, but, since the U.S. has decided to have no contact with them (and therefore know nothing about them), here is an addition to the little information we have.
We met with Huda Naim, a woman who is a member of the Palestinian Parliament, for Hamas. Her responsibilities in Gaza include sitting on the government’s committee for human rights. She understands English well, but spoke to us in Arabic – translated for us by an Egyptian American member of our delegation.
She has five children, and a master’s degree in social work. She became involved in politics initially through the student unions at the university, and then founded a public relations firm.
Everything that follows is a paraphrase of her narrative.
Hamas initially was organized to provide the social services that were sadly lacking for the Palestinian people, and is the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1987, it declared itself a resistance movement to the Israeli occupation and broadened its activities beyond social services. After the signing of the Oslo accords in xxx, Hamas decided it had to place more emphasis on political activities in order to participate in the nascent Palestinian Authority. The main reason for this was that, outside the government, Hamas was unable to stop negotiations that were leading to the loss of more and more Palestinian land.
Hamas is not against negotiations in principle, but rejects the current form of negotiations. Hamas sees the “peace process” as just a vehicle for the erosion of Palestinian rights and lands. They believe there is now nothing left for a viable two state solution.
Hamas also felt it had to become involved in politics because the internal corruption and cronyism of the Palestinian Authority was beyond redemption.
It had boycotted the 1996 parliamentary elections, and had no other opportunities for political office because all municipal positions were appointed until 2005. In the 2005 elections, all the political parties agreed to establish a quota for women’s seats in order to insure women’s participation in the government. For these elections, the country was divided into three regions, with elections held in one region at a time. In the first regional election, Hamas women won more than 90% of the seats in the women’s quota, and Hamas men won a large majority of the seats as well. This was a complete surprise to the Fatah Party, who controlled the Palestinian Authority. They were so surprised, they simply seated the winners. When the regional election was held for the second district, the same thing happened. The Palestinian Authority challenged the results, and there has been no resolution of those challenges. In the face of Hamas’ popularity, the regional elections for the third district were never held.
The U.S. had urged the Palestinian Authority to hold new parliamentary elections. When the results were announced – that Hamas had won the majority of the vote in fair, democratic elections – the U.S. cut off relations on the night of the announcement. There were no talks with Hamas, no discussions about what Hamas would do in the government. Hamas was both surprised and hurt by this reaction. They do not believe they have posed any opposition to U.S. policies other than their opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. They were equally shocked that Europe simply followed in the U.S. footsteps.
Hamas has repeatedly tried to open negotiations with the West and sees itself as a moderate Islamic party that can interpose itself between the West and the radical Islamists. It sees itself as a moderate, tolerant party. Hamas has done nothing to impose Sharia, or to interfere with the rights of others.
Asked about the shooting and killing of Fatah members after the takeover she pointed out that, once Hamas took power, the Palestinian Authority ordered all its security personnel to stay home and not report to work. Hamas was forced to deploy a police force very quickly, with inadequate training. They have been working on training and improving that police force ever since. She also agreed that Hamas has its extremists, but that it is very difficult to stop them without showing some tangible benefit for abstaining from extremism.
She said that the youth of Gaza are deeply depressed and bitter. They do not believe they have any prospects for a normal life. We can do without food, she said, but the loss of an entire generation is terrible.
Hamas is working hard for a unity government because it is needed to keep Fatah from completely surrendering all the interests of Palestinians, but believes the Quartet has stopped the formation of such a government by demanding that Hamas specifically recognize Israel. Hamas has agreed to a long term truce, to accept all previous agreements and to accept a state based on the 1967 borders, but this is not enough for the U.S. and its allies. She said that this is not possible politically for Hamas. She likened it to demanding Netanyahu recognize Hamas before beginning any talks.
Asked about the Hamas charter and whether it wanted to destroy Israel, she said you must distinguish between our charter and our actions. Our actions have always been pragmatic and supported a resolution within the 1967 borders.
Asked about suicide bombers, she responded that it is not right to isolate this issue. Israelis have been attacking and killing Palestinians for 60 years, and after the Oslo accords these attacks simply increased.
Asked about her views on the new U.S. government, she said she has some hopes for Obama, but believes Hillary Clinton will remain an obstacle to peace.
Monday, March 9, 2009
I have never had a happy day, have never had a moment free from trauma – beginning with 1948 war. Over and over again, I have been frightened by war. This last attack was the most frightening. I expected to be killed at any and every moment. There was no where to run. There was no safe place.
44 people were killed at Al Fakhoura school as they ran to the UNRWA school for safety. There was no food , no flour, no water, no electricity for the 22 days of the invasion.
In the 1948 war, as my family fled their village, the refugees were bombed and my entire family was killed. Only my mother and I survived our injuries. I still have the bullet fragments in my legs. My family’s bodies were taken by relatives to be buried. My relatives thought I was dead, too. They only realized I was alive when I cried as I was put into the coffin. They took me out and put me on the ground by the coffins. Before the burials were complete, the Israeli army approached and my relatives fled, leaving me behind on the ground. I was discovered by a deaf woman who was did not realize the danger of the Israeli Army because she could not hear. I was kept by relatives and moved six times, until reunited with my mother in Gaza after a year or more after she got out of the hospital in Egypt where she had been taken for treatment. We received no international aid – we lived in holes, caves, and sheds. My own wounds were untreated for more than a year. When I was taken to the doctor, he wanted to amputate my legs immediately, but my relatives refused. We lived by collecting animal droppings and selling them as fertilizer. We slept under trees until UNRWA provided a tent. I thought it was a palace. I was chosen to be sent to UNRWA school because I was the cleanest boy in the area. But my clothes were rags, so I had to be given clothing to wear to school. I became an English teacher in UNRWA schools. My mother insisted I marry to replace her lost family. I had other plans for my life, but I could not say no to her. My wife and I had exactly the same number of children as my mother lost – 5 sons and 3 daughters. We gave them different names, but my mother called them by the same names as her lost children. When my mother died, she left me three things: the key to her lost house, the title deeds to her lost land, and a piece of her lost husband's shirt.
All my children are well educated with advanced degrees. But to get employment, my oldest son had to move to the West Bank. I haven't seen him for 11 years. I cannot go to see my grandchildren because the borders are closed.
This is the reality of the Israeli occupation in Gaza.
We are not terrorists. We are the victims of terrorists.
As a schoolmaster, my job included teaching my students to forgive and forget. Unfortunately, each attack undoes that work. The Israelis want security, Palestinians want freedom. It is a simple exchange. We look for justice – just implement the UN resolutions that have already been passed. Life is too short to waste it on destruction.
We accept Israel as a state, we wish they would accept the Palestinians as a people. I would hope for one state with justice for all its citizens, but if the Israelis insist on a Jewish state, fine. I will be a good neighbor. But give me my own state.
He made everyone of us cry.
El Nounou said there was absolutely no safe place during the attacks. Certain targets were obvious ones, but others appeared to be random. (Some other people have said they believe pilots just emptied their bomb racks in order to be able to return to their bases). There was no electricity, no gas, no food. The bakeries were not operating. Food stores had no inventory. These conditions put children at extreme risk. They just don't have the psychological flexibility to cope.
El Nounou himself had to leave his house as the Israeli Army neared. He moved to his in-law's house. The Israeli soldiers invaded his home neighborhood and everything was destroyed – homes, shops, playgrounds, and infrastructure including the electricity and sewer systems. Cars were flattened by tanks. The area now looks like an earthquake struck. He cannot come up with a reason for why this area was attacked – it was not a rocket launching area, it was not an area of armed resistance. He felt the destruction just seemed to be motivated by a desire for revenge.
Dr. Zyada felt the social consequences of the attack are very critical for Palestinians in Gaza. He had a powerful argument as to why such attacks simply lead to extremism and social disorder.
The attacks cause (naturally) feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, leading to sadness and depression. People's ability to think creatively is damaged. Since every effort to find a way to deal with the situation fails, there is no reward for trying new approaches.
Children cling to their parents. They are afraid to leave the house or their parents, or to sleep alone. They have nightmares and night terrors, and show signs of hyperactivity and attention deficits. The extreme danger and fear intrude into their thoughts constantly. After the war, many just try to avoid their thoughts and feeling, through constant TV watching for example. Levels of aggression increase due to anger and the desire for revenge. But this anger, of course, can’t be directed against the enemy, so it will be displaced towards other children and their parents. The mourning process for the dead and maimed is cut short by the constant attacks and deprivation.
Most important, children see that their parents can’t protect them or provide their basic needs. This means children look for other sources of protection – typically God, or the fighters and extremists. The Israeli occupation creates its own enemies, he says, through the checkpoints and the attacks.
Palestinians also feel acutely their abandonment by the international community. Rather than the international community meeting its responsibility to help the Israelis and world Jewry recover from their holocaust traumas, the anger has been displaced towards Palestinians. Palestinians are not responsible – they are the victims of the holocaust victims -- but the international community needs to help Israel heal. Recovery means Israel must recognize its responsibility for the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. If the Israelis don’t recognize their responsibility, they cannot be a mature society.
Dr. Zyada did not seem to be immune to despair himself. He said he sometimes feels psychosocial intervention is wasted, because the Israeli attacks will just recur. The most important way to improve mental health in Gaza is to end the siege. The siege is clearly not doing anything to protect Israel. Before the siege, the range of the rockets being fired into Israel was 10 km. After the siege began, the range increased to 40 km. The siege created thousands of tunnels to just supply the basic necessities of the population, but also provide cover so long range rockets could be brought in.
Part of the feeling that Palestinians have been abandoned by the international community is that they were misled by the big lie that they could choose their government in a democratic election.. They held a fair, free election and have been punished for their choice of Hamas. How can they believe in democracy again?
He, like many others, said that humanitarian aid does not mean much in an environment where Palestinians are besieged and face an enemy like Israel that can act with impunity.
GCMHP did a survey to assess the extent of the post war trauma. 95%+ of the population saw or heard the attacks. 70%+ suffered specific traumatic events. 70% of those suffered from some form of PTSD. That means we are looking at 750,000 people suffering some symptoms of traumatic stress disorder.
We walked through part of the camp towards the Youth Sports Center which was our next stop. We had crowds of kids trailing us, trying out their few English phrases. I guess first they learn, “Hello, how are you?”, then “What is your name?”. That seems to be about it. Our cloud of child hangers on generated a lot of noise, so a man stepped outside to talk to us, speaking very good English. I asked his name, and, of course, it was Ahmed Abd’Allah. I invited him to come this evening to speak to our group, and will share his comments in a separate post
At the Sports Center, we met a Mahmoud Abu Rexa, a man with 10 children whose house had been bombed flat. He was unemployed (as are more than 80% of the Gazan work force). Unfortunately, he rented a house owned by a Hamas member. It was not of solid construction, and he knew there was no place for the family to remain safe in the house, so they left after houses nearby that belonged to Hamas members were bombed. He had no relatives to move in with, so went to a school. The school officials eventually gave every family $100 and told them to leave so that classes could resume.
About that time, Hamas was giving anyone whose home was destroyed 4,000 euros. But, he said, the Hamas member who owned the destroyed house arrested one of Mahmoud’s sons, essentially holding him hostage to prevent Mahmoud from applying for aid so he could register for it himself. So no job, no money, no house. He is now living in two small rooms of the Sports Center – each about 10x12, with his 10 children.
From Jabaliya, we went to a restaurant to hear John Ging, who is the chief of operations for UNRWA. He is very impressive. Seems quite the opposite of a UN bureaucrat. A few quotes:
“We are here with a decent civilized people who have been driven into destitution and uncivilized behavior. They are trapped.”
“It’s not about ringing food aid, it’s about making a human connection with people who have been isolated and about seeing through propaganda for yourself.”
“Effective action has been absent despite some positive statements.”
He said that extremism has grown in Gaza since the Israeli attacks but the vast majority of people still resist it. He also said UNRWA has had extreme difficulty getting the goods and materials needed for their projects. It is hard even to get paper for the UNRWA schools, and thousands and thousands of tons of donated aid are piled up in El Arish in Egypt awaiting passage across the border.
The second lunch speaker was from the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. (I do not have her name). She said their work has three parts: redress for victims, accountability for perpetrators, and protection of the vulnerable. In the case of Palestine, she said, the issue has been impunity. In the Israeli attacks, civilians were deliberately targeted, the use of white phosphorus in aerial bursts was a clear violation of international law, and the Israelis also deliberately targeted civilian institutions like schools and mosques, another violation of international law.
After lunch, we met with a woman, Sofia, who was the principal of a girls high school and a lecturer on women’s issues at Al Quds University. Her husband works for the Palestinian Authority (which means he is associated with Fatah). She has nind children. Her house was hit by a large missile which penetrated from roof to the cellar and started a fire. She had taken the children downstairs before the missile strike, but the smoke from the fire filled the whole house. Two young men, about 20 years old, pulled the family out of the house. As they ran from the house, Israeli soldiers shot at them. They ran 4 kilometers, with the woman carrying her four youngest children. They took shelter in an UNRWA school, with about 50 people in each classroom. From there they went to the home of a friend who already had 40 refugees staying in their house. They stayed there two weeks, and finally were able to move in with her mother-in-law. (This did not sound like a very good situation either). They have not been able to find a house to rent. Hamas has taken all the empty houses for their own members who need new housing. They have received no compensation for the loss of their home because they do not belong to Hamas.
It seems to me that when the US and the EU refuse to permit aid to come in to Gaza, they are not punishing Hamas. They are punishing everyone who does not join Hamas.
In addition to losing her home, she also lost her job as a school principal – entirely for political reasons. Hamas wanted to put its members in charge of secondary schools (these begin at age 17 – i.e., voting age), so they provoked a strike by the teachers’ union. They reorganized the school staffing, transferring teachers to areas distant from their homes. When the teachers’ union struck in protest, Hamas did not allow them to return to work.
Again, in my view, this is just an example of Hamas consolidating its authority in Gaza. The longer Hamas remains outside a unity government, the longer these shenanigans will go on. It is baffling that the U.S. appears to be sabotaging these unity talks by imposing conditions rather than encouraging them. (Israel’s interest in sabotaging them is obvious. Netanyahu doesn’t agree to the conditions that the U.S. wants to impose on Hamas, so he would rather not have any peace talks).
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Now 2,500 women participate in the programs. Each center has a local committee of both men and women, which is to insure local acceptance of the programs.
The Gender Division is also working to establish a radio station, based on their community surveys where women said they needed a voice and access to information. They have a location, plans for a studio, and the equipment they need, but not enough funding yet to actually launch. People in our group pointed out the Israelis have bombed a number of Palestinian radio stations to take them off the air. They responded, “we have to try to meet the needs of the community.” Of course, this is a huge problem with all investment in Palestinian civil society. The Israelis have repeatedly destroyed major investments, particularly those of the European Union, and dismiss all complaints.
The crushing isolation of the 18 month siege is a theme running through everything. The head of the Union of Cultural Centers talked about how essential it is to link Palestinian women with groups around the world, that they can’t accomplish objectives if they remain isolated. My host family has two grown children licensed to practice medicine, but one of them has no job and cannot go elsewhere to look for one. She volunteers at the hospital. One of our delegation is a Palestinian student who has been studying in Cairo for three years. He has not been able to come home to visit his family for the entire time. Because of our delegation, he was able to cross the border. His family said they did not go to bed, they sat and watched him sleep. Even more interesting is a young Palestinian woman that I met, from a rural area, who is attending Al Quds University in Gaza. When I asked her if she would like to travel if she could, she said, “No. I love my country too much,” as if she were afraid that if she left, it wouldn’t be there when she wanted to come back. That’s not crazy. That’s the experience of Palestinians who have had the Israelis take away their Palestinian identity cards because they stayed out of the country too long.
Gift baskets from us to women's centers
Our group split up to go to the various women’s centers for a Women’s Day program. I went to Mawasi, a fishing village right at the Egyptian border. Of course, the fishermen are not fishing much because the Israeli Navy shoots at them if they go more than two miles offshore. Also there is no gasoline. Driving from Gaza City to Mawasi along the beach road the entire way, I saw only three fishing boats in the sea – two were skiffs that were being rowed, one was a larger, diesel powered boat. But there were fishing boats and nets laid up all along the beach.
beached fishing vessel and nets
Of course, no gasoline also means no traffic, so we got to Mawasi very quickly. The women’s center is a nice, well equipped building – really the only significant community institution in the village. The school is a collection of converted cargo containers.
The women’s day celebration was held in the courtyard, where tarps had been set up for shade, and a Bedouin style tent was the stage for performances. About 80 women were there, of all ages. After a welcoming speech, we broke up into groups for conversations with the women. My group was problematic because the translator – the elementary school English teacher – wasn’t too fluent. Mawasi wasn’t too much affected by the recent war, but for the five years before Israel evacuated its settlements, Mawasi was a closed military zone. That means the village was entirely surrounded by a fence, and residents could only enter or leave with a special permit. That is pretty much all that I learned.
On to the performances. The women recited poetry, some of which was written by one of the younger women, danced, sang, and performed a comedy about a man with three wives (I can’t say I really understood what was going on). Then came the main event which was a mock Bedouin wedding. This was really an excuse for a lot of dancing. There were no escapees—we were all hauled up on stage and had a great time. Afterwards we had time a lot of time to talk to the people who spoke English. As a rural community, they feel largely abandoned. But the women were remarkably optimistic about their own situations, saying they see a lot of changes for the younger generation – later marriages, fewer children, more women finishing high school and going on to university.
In the evening, we had a huge dinner – 80 people – our delegation, our host families, and some of the ISM from Rafah. After dinner, ISM spoke about their experiences during the Israeli attacks. Most of what they did was accompany ambulances. They held a press conference, which was covered by Al Jazeera, warning the Israeli government that the ambulances would be accompanied by international volunteers. This was to try to prevent the Israelis from targeting ambulances. Nonetheless, 13 ambulance drivers were killed and 25% of the ambulances were destroyed by tanks, missiles or bombs. All these ambulances were clearly marked in ways that were visible from the air and to surveillance drones. Bombs were dropped right by the ambulances, and everyone felt they were a target. As Ewa Jasiewicz, who rode with the ambulance crews said, “You prayed more than five times a day.” One ISM volunteer was killed by a flechette from a tank. When his family set up a mourning tent, it too was shelled, and 4 people were killed. The Israeli army spokesperson justified targeting ambulance personnel by describing them as “combat paramedics.” I guess that means the Palestinian Red Crescent is a “combat organization.” Riding on Fire in Gaza
Another horror was surveillance drones. In these cases, someone sitting in Tel Aviv in front of a computer screen pushes a button and a missile is launched. Many, many civilians were killed by surveillance drones while they were out trying to get food, or when they were trying to escape a house which seemed likely to be bombed. (For example, the Israelis bombed three houses that were owned by someone identified as a high ranking Hamas official. Of course his family only lived in one. The others were just unlucky tenants.
Here is another story – from Ibtisam, the mother in my host family. During the Israeli attack, the Red Crescent thought it too dangerous to bring food supplies to Beit Hanoun where she lives. She organized a group of volunteers to go into Gaza City during the three hour ceasefire that took place each day for civilians to get food. Back in Beit Hanoun (at least an hour and half round trip, using up half the ceasefire), she began distributing food. An Israeli soldier told her that he had decided the ceasefire would be only two hours and it was over. The old people still had not gotten their food and she asked for 15 more minutes. He refused and she went to the commanding officer, who agreed she could have 15 minutes. The first soldier then told her he would only allow her 10 minutes and that she had to stand a young boy – 10 years old – in front of her. He said if she was not done in 10 minutes he would shoot the boy. He did shoot him, both in his hand and in his legs. Then the Israelis refused to allow an ambulance to come pick him up. Ibtisam, who works for UNRWA, made numerous calls and finally was able to get an ambulance cleared to come to pick the boy up so he would not bleed to death. Many others were not so lucky.
Tomorrow another story from Ibtisam and, hopefully, some pictures. I've got 'em, but the internet infrastructure suffered a lot from the bombings – like everything else, and it is running very, very slowly tonight.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
We set off pretty early this morning from El Arish to go the border, arriving by about 10:30 am. This is a sad border crossing. It is a large, attractive complex, but it is essentially unused. The border has been entirely closed for the last 18 months, and was largely closed for the last 3 years or so. So all the facilities (exchange, restaurant, duty free) are dustry, empty shells.
We pulled up to the border gate, collected passports from everyone, handed them over and waited…. The Egyptians were very polite, but they have their procedures. I won’t bore you with how long it took, or how many times one person’s passport disappeared. Suffice it to say, we waited. We entertained ourselves with singing and taking multiple pictures with the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, who were very proud to be involved in this humanitarian (as the Egyptian government has characterized it) effort. Although the Red Crescent is an arm of the government and is chaired by Mrs. Mubarak, I think their feelings were quite genuine. The average Egyptian has been forced to simply sit and watch while their Gazan neighbors starved and slept in tents.
After our lengthy wait (which was largely self-inflicted by the size of our delegation, but also by the inexperience of the border guards in dealing with large groups), we walked out the other end of the Egyptian border crossing about 2:30 pm, and piled into unairconditioned buses that run thru no man’s land to the Gaza border. At the Gaza crossing things were a little different. I can’t say the passport control agents were very practiced at their job either, but while we waited we were treated to a warm welcome from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, and from Issa Ali al Nashar, the mayor of Rafah. All the while many cameras were clicking away.
The mayor talked about the Israeli attack, telling us that we will see that the bombs, missiles and tanks flattened all the civil society buildings including post offices, playgrounds, food storage sites. There was no effort to spare civilians, he said. Everywhere the army was, was a killing zone. He also pointed out that U.S. aid largely goes to build up the security appartus, with very little for constructing civil society, and that after the 2006 election of Hamas to head the government, the NGOs had been forced to halt many building projects already underway. I later saw some of these, including a large addition to Al Shifa hospital which is uncompleted.
We drove from Rafah to Gaza City – a half hour drive mostly through the agricultural land along the border. There was plenty of evidence of destruction with huge swaths of agricultural land simply bulldozed – burying the top soil and making the ground effectively sterile. We saw factories that had been leveled and many others heavily damaged, and, of course, demolished homes.
We also passed acres of producing greenhouses for growing tomatoes and flowers. The flowers, especially, were grown for export to Europe. Nothing is exported now, of course, but it is clear that opening the borders would make an immediate difference to the economy.
At the Al Quds Hotel in Gaza City, we were greeted by UNRWA, who had invited us, and, after a discussion about the history of the Palestinian conflict, went off with the hosts we are staying with. In our case, we took a taxi to Beit Hanoun, where we are staying with the Zahanis, a family of seven. They live in a large, beautiful house out in “the green zone”. This area – largely fruit trees – was 1,100 square meters before the Israeli attack. Now it is 1,000 square meters, and a number of homes were destroyed. Our family’s home escaped almost intact, but there was no question about the terrifying impact of the aerial attacks.
This is a lovely family. The husband is a civil engineer, the wife runs a community based women's organization. The two oldest children, brother and sister twins 24 years old, are doctors. The next, also a daughter, at 19 is in her final year of studies to be a software engineer. The next daughter is 14 and the youngest, a boy of 10. All of them speak very good English.
I did manage to grab a very quick meeting with Fida Qishta, who many of youmet when she spoke at a Wespac event -- just long enough to hand off to her the suitcase of school supplies and digital cameras the Wespac Middle East Committee raised funds for. I will learn more from Fida when I see her later in this trip.
Tomorrow, in daylight, our visit will really begin, but check back on this space for pictures, which I will post when my internet connection improves.
Friday, March 6, 2009
After a six hour ride thru Sinai, we arrived at El Arish, just a few miles from Rafah and the border. There are a number of checkpoints between Cairo and El Arish – I think because the area near the border is considered a military zone, and Egyptians who don’t live there require a permit to go there. At the first checkpoint, there was a major confab between our assigned Egyptian security agent and the checkpoint police. It turned out that, because there is a contingent of internationals, including 10 Americans, camped out at the Rafah border demanding entrance to Gaza, they were afraid we were going directly to the border to support them. We explained to them we were going to El Arish. They demanded particulars – like the names of the hotels we were staying in – but eventually were satisfied that we would not skip directly to the Rafah border. (I have no idea why that was the big issue for them, rather than that we definitely planned to go to the border the next day).
We crossed the Suez canal, filled with large container ships, and drove on to Sinai. The Sinai is almost all erg desert – looking just like the movies. Along the highway, there are small villages, and some oases, but we saw very few people and very little activity. The villages mostly seemed linked to natural gas producing facilities. We entertained ourselves on the bus with Egyptian music and a little, very amateur belly dancing -- in which we were joined by our Egyptian security agent once the cameras were turned off.
El Arish is a seaside resort town that, in addition to tourism, used to be supported by trade with Gaza. Since the siege began 18 months ago, the local economy has really suffered.
It is amazing, when you think of yourself as one of a small, hardy band of peace activists, to discover yourselves celebrities. Everyone in El Arish seemed to know about us. My first clue was when I walked out of the hotel, and an older women stopped me with a question in Arabic. I don’t know what she asked, but she included the word Gaza in her question. I wasn’t sure I heard properly, but then we passed a barber shop with a sticker saying “Long live Gaza.” As we walked by, the barber came out to greet us. Then we stopped to shop in a Bedouin store, and, when we told the woman there we were going to Gaza, she said, “Of course, I know that.”
The delegation went to dinner at a Bedouin restaurant, and then retired to an outdoor tent room for tea. There we were greeted by El Arish reporters and notables who were there for a political discussion. They asked plenty of hard questions.
I cannot convey how angry Egyptians, at least in Sinai, are about the Gaza war and the U.S. role in supplying weapons and giving Israel the green light to attack. Their ability to protest is sharply limited by their own government, but there is no mistaking their anger. Their first question was – did you come with humanitarian aid or do you respect the political rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, i.e., why don’t you respect the free and democratic election of Hamas?
The next question was -- Are you like the U.S. government and the European Union that furnish Israel with weapons, and then offer humanitarian aid to rebuild what has been destroyed? The subtext was, "we are not beggars. We need our political rights more than anything else."
The third question was – what is wrong with your press? Why does it not report what is going on here? It is hard for an American, coming from the land of freedom and democracy, to explain why our press is not free, why reporters cannot do their jobs. The best we could was say there can be a substantial difference between the stories a reporter reports and what gets published in the newspapers. But we also said that the reporting of individuals, through blogs and personal accounts makes it increasingly difficult for the mainstream media to completely ignore stories.
I think Cindy Corrie won everyone's heart when she said that we are going to Gaza to witness what is happening there, and to use that information to change our government’s policy. It was clear everyone there had immense respect for the Corrie's loss of their daughter and their ongoing commitment to Palestinian self-determination.
The conversation moved further to the need to open the borders, to respect the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and to end the occupation.
When we got back on the bus we were joined by two journalists who told us they had been at the border, and that fifty internationals had succeeded in crossing – including 10 Americans who had camped at the border until allowed across! (Thanks to all who called the State Department and U.S. embassy in Egypt demanding they be let through).
Thursday, March 5, 2009
What does this mean? Well, if we do not agree that the U.S. has no responsibility for our safety, the U.S. will not forward our names to the Egyptian police at the Rafah border. If the Egyptian police do not get clearance from the U.S., they will not permit us to cross the border.
So.... it took 2 hours for the overworked consular section to advise us of the dangers of travel to Gaza (mostly Israeli military activity) and for us to sign an affidavit that we understood we were on our own. Result -- a notarized piece of paper but no pyramids.
Right now there is a group of medical personnel from Ohio trying to cross the border. The nine of them went through the same procedure but, according to the Egyptians, the U.S. embassy failed to forward the paperwork to Rafah. Will this happen to us? Who knows? The delegation has been very carefully planned, with an invitation from the UN Relief and Works Agency to come to Gaza, with all the names provided to the Egyptian embassy in Washington (for Egyptian security checks) well in advance, and with a visit with the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, as well as the consular waivers described above.
It is worth noting that Senator Kerry, and Congressmen Baird and Ellison, who recently visited Gaza, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her recent swing through Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank called for the borders to be opened.
Meanwhile, we are bringing 1,000 gift baskets for Gazan women with us in celebration of International Women's Day. At the request of people in Gaza, these are baskets full of toiletries, tea, scarves, etc. Everything has been bought in Egypt and when Egyptians learned of its purpose, they donated much of the material or provided it at very nominal cost. This generosity and support of relief for Gaza even extended to the bus providers (who wanted to provide buses and drivers for free for the 6 hour drive to El Arish and then on to Rafah), and to signmakers who painted five huge banners for us.
We leave tomorrow morning for El Arish.