Sunday, March 22, 2009
MY TRIP TO GAZA WITH CODE PINK
photos: 1)bombed out residence. 2)I'm with Daniel -center- a paramedic, four of us on the delegation stayed at his home during our time in Gaza, also in photo, on the left, is Daniel's friend Gassan who helped us get around Gaza. 3)we visit with a family - child with bandaged arm suffered shrapnel wounds from the Israeli attack. 4) The Code Pink delegation in front the Egyptian side of the border crossing gate into Gaza. The Corries and Alice Walker are part of group holding banner.
I was part of a delegation of 62 people that entered Gaza on March 7, 2009. The purpose of the trip was to challenge the Israeli/Egyptian & US sanctioned blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, which has been in force since the Palestinian elections of 2006. The people of Gaza are being "collectively punished" for democratically voting Hamas into majority control of the Palestinian national legislature, defeating the late Yassir Arafat's Al Fatah organization. After a brief civil war Hamas took full control of Gaza, it's main base of support, and Fatah remains nominally in charge of the West Bank (under Israeli tutelage).
All of this transpired before the deadly three week air and land attack on Gaza by Israel. The excuse for the attack, which killed 1400 civilians (many of them children and women)and wounded thousands of others, was to stop the rockets launched from Gaza into Israel. For the previous 18 months before the massive attack there was a "truce" observed by both sides. Part of the truce arrangement was that the borders be opened so that Gazans could get food, building materials, cross into Egypt and Israel to work, and in general make a living. Israel never opened the borders. During this truce Israel kept making "surgical" strikes to kill what it called "terrorist leaders." If three or ten people in the vicinity of the strikes were killed, then that's just bad luck. Many more Palestinians were killed in these attacks during the "truce" than Israelis were killed by all improvised rockets ever fired from Gaza.
The massive attack of January 2009 was way out of proportion to the goal of stopping a few low-tech rockets from being launched. In fact it was planned long in advanced and was sitting on the shelf waiting for an excuse to be used.
BUT ... back to my trip!
Besides challenging the blockade of Gaza, Code Pink (a Venice, California-based women's anti-war organization formed to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) went to participate in International Women's Day meetings throughout Gaza that were organized by UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency). So after gathering in Cairo, the group bussed across the Sinai to the Rafah border crossing (from Rafah, Egypt to Rafah, Palestine).
From our briefings and discussion by email before we all met in Cairo we knew that there was a good chance we would not be allowed in Gaza. The Egyptian government is dependent on U.S aid and is also vulnerable to Israeli pressure to keep up the blockade. There is also no love lost between Hamas and the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarek. So we had a "plan B" ready. We would camp out in front of the border, generally make a nuisance of ourselves and try to get a lot of publicity.
However, we were able to generate a lot of support. We had a large, very diverse group with participants mainly from the US, but also from Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Egypt. Also on the trip were Alice Walker, writer of The Color Purple, and Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie who was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver in Gaza while protesting home demolitions in 2003. The Corries have since started a foundation and are highly regarded in the Arab world.
Having sponsorship from the UN organization in Gaza was also helpful. So, rather than fighting us, the Egyptian government decided to join us. Mubarek's wife is the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society and while we were gathering at the border we learned that the Red Crescent had officially endorsed our mission. Another factor that eased us through the border was the arrival at the Egypt-Gaza border of a 100 plus vehicle motorcade with humanitarian aid from Britain. They had driven through Europe, entered Morocco and proceeded through North Africa and Egypt. Led by George Galloway, a Member of Parliament for the RESPECT party (he was elected in a largely Muslim district). Galloway has been on the progressive political scene in the UK for some years and is a major thorn in the side of the Labor Party and it's policies of following US world policy.
I entered Gaza with the delegation on March 7 and left with most of the participants on March 11. Several other members of the delegation remained a few days or weeks longer. I was using Spring break time from my teaching job to make the trip & had to be back for classes.
WHAT WAS GAZA LIKE?
I had been to embattled, desperately poor countries before. I spent most of the 1980s shuffling between the US and Nicaragua working to help the Sandinista revolution in the face of the US/contra aggression. But I had no idea what to expect in Gaza. It is definitely a different place. I had never been to the Mideast before.
Palestine is not historically as poor as Central America. They've had a history of small businesses, orchards, farms, and have struggled to give good education to their children. The Israelis have been undermining these accomplishments step by step in an attempt to break their morale as a people. With the blockade the standard of living has been falling rapidly. Besides the economic degradation, a public health risk has been created by the Israeli's depletion of Gaza's water table. They have been pumping out fresh water from Gaza which has caused salt water from the sea to seep into the groundwater. Children as especially susceptible to kidney problems as the salinity of the drinking water increases.
The Gaza strip is 25 miles long south to north and 3 to 7 miles wide from the sea to the Israeli border. On March 8, I helped deliver 1000 baskets with cosmetics and consumer products which were gifts to Palestinian women attending UN sponsored International Women's Day meetings. It was something for the men on the delegation to do. We had a truck loaded with baskets and I was in a car following the truck. We made deliveries from border to border. I got to see all of Gaza in less than half a day. One and a half million people are packed into this small strip of land. Because of the blockade most people are unemployed and most families depend on UN food aid to live.
Most of the population of Gaza comes from Palestinians who were chased off their land by the Israeli army in 1948. Gaza is a mostly urban place with lots of buildings of a few stories, say 4 to 7, packed closely together. Often entire extended families live in one multi-story buildings. The main refugee camp in Gaza City, Jabalyia, has 125,000 people. The camp is not one of tents but of cement building with narrow alleyways. There are commercial centers with small stores and eating places, markets and car traffic (also a lot of horse and donkey cart traffic).
The large number of children is also striking. Something like 40% of the population is 15 and under. Many of the children looked sort of dazed or shell shocked. When I met families, I saw a few children who had been wounded in the Israeli assault. Everyone had a story about children being killed in bombings or shot by Apache gunships or snipers on the ground.
The first two nights I was in Gaza I heard loud bangs. In the morning our hosts and their neighbors talked about where the Israeli airstrike took place or if it was an F16 or an Apache. After I left Gaza I heard by email of other attacks. This is as close to a state of "normalcy" that Gaza ever achieves.
Walking though the streets you would see a row of buildings and one or two would be demolished by F-16 or Apache helicopter strikes. Some of the buildings hit were police stations, Hamas offices, government buildings, but others were medical clinics, schools, or residences. Daniel, a Palestinian paramedic in whose house four of us were staying, showed us around different neighborhoods. "In this house everybody died, a family of 12," "Over here six kids were killed, it was just a house nothing political."Daniel himself is a story. He is a 28 year old Ukrainian-Palestinian who grew up in the Ukraine, his mother was a ballerina, and at age 20 he came to Palestine to help his people. He is a nurse and a paramedic (which he became while in the Ukrainian army). He lives in his family house in Jabalyia on the first floor. The other floors house his three uncle's families.
Daniel speaks Ukrainian, Arabic and English. Sometimes I heard him speaking Ukrainian on his cell phone. "There are a few of us around here," he said, "and I call my mother a lot too." He knew Rachel Corrie and was driving the ambulance that responded to the emergency call when Rachel Corrie was killed and took her body to the hospital.
Some of the neighborhoods on the eastern border with Israel were largely leveled. They bore the brunt of the leading forces of the ground attack. We saw people in tents provided by the UN living next to their wrecked homes. Some families, despite warnings of the risk, lived in their partially destroyed homes. As we toured the area we were warned not to go through the wrecked homes or pick up anything. Unexploded cluster bombs or white phosphorus remained around the area.
Besides getting to know individual Palestinians and seeing the war damage first hand members of the delegation also attended meetings with different groups, many of them were NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that had UN sponsorship, such as women's health and right groups, children's centers, legal organizations, agricultural groups, student groups, etc. From funds that delegation participants were able to raise before their Trip Code Pink made a cash donation of $10,000 to a Community Mental Health Clinic, a Women's Center and a Children's center.
A few meetings made a special impression. We met with the head of the UN operation, John Ging, an Irishman, veteran international relief worker, diplomat and scholar. You may remember news reports on the Israel attack on the UN school where several people were killed. Israel claimed that Hamas was firing mortars from the UN school grounds. John Ging was shown on national TV newscasts denouncing these claims as bogus. He became an object of ire for the pro-Israeli lobby such as AIPAC and certain morally corrupt members of the US Senate and Congress.
Most of the people we spoke to, both average citizens and representatives of various groups said that they didn't support any particular party. They wanted peace, they wanted us to tell the American people that they were not terrorists and they expressed hope for a unified government. While we were in Gaza leaders of the PLO were in Egypt negotiating with Hamas leaders.
So this is a thumbnail sketch of what I experience in Gaza. I'll be adding other stories to flesh out the picture, as well as adding some pictures -- some I took, and many were taken by participants in the Code Pink delegation. Also you should go the the Code Pink website to see more stories and photos from Gaza.