Witness in Gaza
A Sacramento peace activist journeys to the Gaza Strip, where she finds a proudpeople persevering amid the rubble
After six months in Palestine’s West Bank, I was finally able to visit Gaza for four days with a Code Pink delegation. On May 30, with 65 other internationals, I crossed the Egyptian border into Gaza.
As we drove up Gaza’s Mediterranean coastline, at first glance, the bobbing, small Palestinian fishing boats seemed idyllic. Then one of our guides pointed out Israel’s warships, hovering menacingly on the horizon. The local International Solidarity Movement team showed us video footage of the Israeli boats swamping Palestinian fishing boats and shooting water canons so powerful they break windows. The Israelis also shoot live ammunition at the boats and the fisherman. The Palestine Telegraph reports that since January, the Israelis have abducted 40 fishermen and seized 17 fishing boats.
On the east side of the narrow 25-mile-long Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers continually shoot at farmers on land that sits within the Israeli border fence’s nebulous buffer zone. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Israel Defense Forces burned 200,000 square meters of Palestinian farmland in early May, destroying pomegranate trees, olive trees and wheat fields. Thirty percent of Gaza’s farmland has been rendered barren. Since the January 18 cease-fire, Israeli soldiers have killed three farmers and injured 12 others, including two women and three children.
In four days, we could only see a small part of the destruction caused by the massive December-January assault—Operation Cast Lead, the Israelis called it—that killed more than 1,400 people and wounded more than 5,000, a third of whom now have permanent disabilities. We saw only a fraction of the 5,000 homes that were destroyed. Industrial districts have been laid to waste, and Israel is making it difficult to bring in the cement, metal, wood and glass needed to begin rebuilding.
Our delegation was joined by controversial author Norman Finkelstein, the outspoken political scientist who was recently denied tenure at DePaul University because of his views on Israel. Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Nazi concentration camps, noted that during the Gaza invasion, the Israelis destroyed 30 mosques and damaged 15 others, reminiscent of Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis destroyed 200 synagogues in Germany and ransacked Jewish homes and businesses.
Schools, universities and government buildings were targeted along with hospitals, clinics and ambulances, in direct violation of international law. According to the United Nations and Physicians for Human Rights, 16 Palestinian medical personnel were killed by Israeli fire and another 25 wounded. The Israelis also attacked eight hospitals and 26 primary-care clinics.
We spoke with doctors who described treating casualties wounded by a new generation of weapons that include bullets which enter the body and then explode. The Israeli blockade means that many medical supplies are nonexistent. Two hospitals had two large scanners they cannot use because Israel will not allow in minor spare parts it needs. More than 300 people have died because they could not get medical treatment after Israel closed the borders in 2006.
We also heard personal testimonies from a tiny fraction of the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed and family members killed or wounded. We met a father whose house was hit by a U.S.-made F-16, killing two children. He was accompanied by the two surviving children, one of whom had lost a leg. We heard from a woman who had lost 13 children and grandchildren. We saw a boy who will permanently have small metal fragments from a bomb in his back and chest; as a result, he will never be able to run or participate in any strenuous activity.
In bustling Gaza City, it was amazing to see how many goods were available, nearly all brought in through the tunnels the Palestinians have dug into Egypt. We looked down one narrow vertical shaft that went 150 feet straight down before connecting to the horizontal kilometer-long tunnel. Goods that come through the tunnel are priced out of range of average Gazans, most of whom depend on aid from the United Nations.
At the end of our trip, President Barack Obama was scheduled to speak in Cairo. Virtually all of the Palestinians I met in the West Bank and in Gaza are positive about Obama. But many are also cautious. As our hotel proprietor said, “The election of Obama was a miracle, but I don’t know if he will be able to do much, even if he wants to. I am sure he will give a good speech in Cairo, and we hope that it will be more than just words. Inshallah [God willing].”
The hotel proprietor was right, Obama did give a good speech in Cairo. However, he has also ratcheted up the U.S. military’s presence in the Middle East. It remains to be seen if Obama’s deeds will match his words.
What can one see in four days? That the people of Gaza are welcoming and friendly, that their land is beautiful, and that they and their lands are suffering from Israel’s blockade and unending attacks. The dozens of Gazans we met consistently asked that we tell others the reality of their lives. They asked us to explain that the people of Gaza want their basic human rights and to live in peace, just like any other human beings.