Chico to Gaza

Three local women travel to Middle East to protest Israel’s blockade

Chicoans Peggy McCormack, Hayley Wallace and Ann Polivka (left to right) are headed to the Middle East. The women are among 330 Americans registered to take part in the Gaza Freedom March on Dec. 31.

Chicoans Peggy McCormack, Hayley Wallace and Ann Polivka (left to right) are headed to the Middle East. The women are among 330 Americans registered to take part in the Gaza Freedom March on Dec. 31.

Photo By Leslie layton

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Leslie Layton is editor of bilingual regional news service Check out the Web site to see this story in a slightly different version.

Chico resident Ann Polivka learned to swim and snorkle in the Mediterranean Sea. She remembers scouring the Israeli coast as a child for old Roman coins. During the four years she lived in Israel, she studied Hebrew and Latin at a Presbyterian missionary school.

On Christmas Day, she’ll leave Northern California for her first trip to the Middle East since leaving Israel at age 9. Now 62, Polivka, a retired nurse-practitioner, is one of three Chico women who will participate in the Dec. 31 Gaza Freedom March to protest Israel’s blockade of the Strip.

The other two Chicoans are Peggy McCormack, 75; and Hayley Wallace, 24. Sixty Northern Californians are among 330 Americans registered for the international protest, says San Francisco organizer Medea Benjamin. Forty-two countries are represented by 1,350 people from throughout the world who have registered. Apparently no one has ever attempted to take a protest group of this size into Gaza.

Polivka said she registered in part because of her bond with the Middle East. Wallace, who was introduced to Middle East political issues as a student at Chico State, views the march as an opportunity to express her commitment to social-justice activism. McCormack, a geographer, has been studying the Middle East for much of her life and has provided testimony to Congress on related issues.

“I’m going to a part of the world I have some strong feelings about,” said Polivka, whose father was a Chico State math professor and United Nations employee. “That part of the world provided my first childhood memories.”

Polivka said she feels strongly enough to travel 8,000 miles to participate in a protest in part because of the degree of human suffering she’s heard about in Gaza. “I’ve always been the kind of person who can’t stand to see others suffer,” she said. “Life in Gaza is miserable.”

The Gaza Freedom March, supported by an array of organizations including Code Pink, has planned the event to mark the first anniversary of Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza. During an invasion last winter, as many as 1,400 Gaza residents were killed and 4,500 injured. Air raids destroyed buildings and cut off water and food supplies, worsening what many already considered a humanitarian crisis.

On Dec. 31, an international coalition including writer Alice Walker and retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, plans to participate in a march inside Gaza to protest what organizers say are Israel’s violations of international law, including illegal settlements, house demolitions, torture and curfews. About 50,000 Palestinians residing in Gaza are expected to march. Some Israelis who oppose their government’s policy have planned a march in Israel.

About 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people live on less than $2 a day, according to the Gaza March coalition. Since 2006, border blockades have created a dearth of basic supplies like food and fuel, and Israeli checkpoints within Gaza—one of the most densely populated places on Earth—restrict movement.

Israel says it was obliged to take drastic measures because its people have been under assault from rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip.

“I agree that peace has to happen from both sides,” Polivka said. “But I believe in the power of people sitting down and talking to each other. We’re all human beings who at the root want the same things—a decent life. I don’t believe Israelis and Palestinians are any different.”

McCormack said the rocket fire from Gaza is an indication of the desperation of residents there. “They can’t get diapers, they can’t get medicines, they can’t get spaghetti,” McCormack said. “The policy of the United States and Egypt appears to be to strangle Gaza out of existence. The United States has to stop being a blind and complete supporter of Israel.”

Wallace, an organizational communication major who graduated last spring, said she knows the march won’t end U.S. aid to Israel. “I’m not so deluded to think that my being there is suddenly going to change foreign policy,” she said. “But the more times a large group of people show they give a shit, the more likely those in control will start to take notice.”

McCormack and Wallace will fund their own trips to Gaza, while Polivka is funded by community members who donated to the Chico Peace & Justice Center for this purpose.

Protestors plan to meet in Cairo and travel to Egypt’s Rafah border. Egypt is being asked to allow protestors to cross its closed border with Gaza for a nonviolent, three-mile march that would end near the Erez border crossing with Israel.

Polivka said she finds “irony” in the behavior of Israel precisely because of what Jews suffered under Nazi rule.

Her father, Jaroslav “Jerry” Polivka, left his native Czechoslovakia to fight Nazi fascism for Britain’s Royal Air Force. As a result, said Ann Polivka, his Czechoslovakan family was incarcerated in a concentration camp. Jaroslav Polivka later worked as a UN flight instructor near Tel Aviv.

“After [all these] years, Israel is still fighting with its neighbor,” Polivka said. “It makes it difficult for me to feel at rest. If there’s some small change toward peace, it will be worth it. If we do nothing, the situation will continue to disintegrate.”