Fish in a barrel
As Israel unleashes its military might on the tiny Gaza Strip, a Sacramento peace activist reports the carnage
The Gaza Strip is a 25-mile-long sliver along the Mediterranean Sea. Bordered by Israel to the north and east and Egypt to the south, it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Gaza is home to 1.5 million Palestinians, of whom nearly 80 percent are refugees, forcibly removed from their lands by 60 years of aggressive Israeli expansion. Sea access, air space and northern and eastern borders are completely controlled and blockaded by Israel; Egypt clamps down in the south. Gaza is often called the world’s largest prison.
On Saturday, December 27, Israel launched a massive aerial bombardment of Gaza. Residential buildings, hospitals, pharmacies, mosques and the university have been hit. At this writing, more than 500 Gazan men, women and children have been killed; many of the more than 2,000 wounded will also likely die. Last weekend, Israel launched a ground offensive that will likely kill hundreds more.
My partner and I have been in the West Bank since October, learning about life under apartheid and military occupation. We are here alongside Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists. Eight international volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement were on the ground in Gaza when the attacks began. I joined the round-the-clock effort to disseminate their gruesome reports from shell-shocked Gaza.
“I saw two girls, ages 4 and 12, get hit by a bomb from an F-16,” related one ISM volunteer on December 29, the second day of the attack. “They were outside their homes. The 4-year-old died, and the 12-year-old was being taken to the hospital on a donkey cart. It is impossible to avoid civilian casualties in a densely populated area. No one is safe from the Israeli air strikes.”
“To pretend that Israel wants to avoid unnecessary deaths is to ignore the facts,” reported another Gaza volunteer.
“This is not about homemade rockets from Gaza,” said a Jewish-Canadian volunteer. “Mass bombardment and killing are not self-defense. This is an intensification of the siege that has kept Gazans locked up for more than a year and a half, while Israel blocks the entry of food, fuel, medicines and other life essentials.”
The ISM internationals in Gaza arrived on the Free Gaza Movement boats, which have been breaking Israel’s economic blockade, boatload by boatload, since August 2008. On December 30, 3 tons of medical supplies, four physicians and former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney were on a Gaza-bound boat when it was attacked by the Israeli navy and forced to reroute to Lebanon.
“Our mission was a peaceful mission,” McKinney told CNN.
As the reports from Gaza flowed in, a 20-year-old Jewish-American woman volunteer worked frantically beside me. Two days earlier, at a West Bank demonstration against the Gaza attacks, she had witnessed Israeli soldiers shoot two young Palestinian men in the back with bullets that explode when they enter the body. One was killed almost instantly; the other died on January 1. Horrified by what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, she came to volunteer “because I could not sit at home and do nothing.”
While I write, my inbox is flooded with messages from Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and international activists calling for an end to the bombing, immediate humanitarian aid and a permanent end to the siege. Blame is laid not just on Israel, but on the U.S., European and Arab governments whose political and economic backing have allowed Israel to continue its crimes against the Palestinians.
Here in Bethlehem, the mood is somber; people express a mixture of sadness, anger and worry. Bethlehemites have lived through numerous Israeli military incursions and curfews. Their economy has been devastated by the occupation; more people will now suffer as holiday and New Year’s events are canceled. The hotels are empty at a time when they should be full.
In the West Bank, delays and harassment have increased at Israeli military checkpoints. The wife of a European volunteer with the World Council of Churches was strip-searched by the Israelis on her way home after visiting her husband for a week at Christmas. Such humiliating techniques send the message that international observers are not welcome here.
Such observers are crucial to letting the world know what is going on. But information is not enough. All the internationals we work with here know that none of our governments will do anything to stop this unless their citizenry force them. As one Gaza volunteer said, while an Apache helicopter roared over her head, “This nightmare will not end until there is international outcry for Israel to stop the siege and end the bombings.”
Maggie Coulter has been in the West Bank with her partner since October 2008. Reports of their experiences are at http://bethlehemnarratives.blogspot.com. They encourage others to come to Palestine and see the reality of life there.