Sabine Erika, New South Wales Regional Meeting
In October this year, with the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), I visited a Gaza Strip still reeling from the 2014, 51 days of destruction. There are 10,000 houses which remain destroyed with little possibility of rebuilding. It is almost impossible to get building supplies. Nearly 100,000 people have lost their homes. Besides that there are still 1.8 million refugees left from the 1948 and 1967 years of war and invasion. Hundreds of factories and 71 mosques were destroyed
The Gaza Strip borders Egypt for 11 kilometres and Israel along a 51 kilometre border. Despite the withdrawal of Egypt and of Israel (since 2005) from direct occupation of Gaza, Israel retains control of air and maritime space, six of seven land crossings, the right to enter for military incursions, and maintains Gaza’s dependence on Israel for trade, sewerage, electricity, water, currency, communication networks, issuing IDs and permits to enter and leave the territory. The UN has declared that if the situation does not improve there will be no water by 2020.
This is de facto occupation. Gaza is in effect a prison since the blockade instituted after Hamas took over control of the Strip. Avaaz, a global civic organization, have coordinated the collection of 600,000 signatures from many organisations including Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF) protesting the blockade.
Despite the fact that Hamas was elected, no countries in the West have accepted the Hamas government. Late in 2014 Hamas accepted the Palestine Authority as the authority in Gaza with control over the Strip and its border crossings with Israel and Egypt. This is a hollow authority given Israeli controls.
The Border crossing is a test of patience and endurance. Both Israeli authorities and representatives of the Palestinian Authority examined our papers and questioned us as to our reasons for entering Gaza, all of which involved long waits and endless wire-enclosed corridors. The crossing takes several hours. At the whim of the authorities the border can be closed for hours on end as it was on our return.
Driving through Gaza is to drive through a war zone. There is much destruction. I was overwhelmed by the stories of cruelty and revenge. There is no doubt that Hamas has fired rockets into Israel, but a 51-day retaliation with its accompanying destruction of homes, hospitals and gardens is a collective punishment which makes one think that it is not only Hamas the Israelis wish to destroy but the entire Palestinian people. Ambulances were forbidden to collect the injured, one ambulance driver was asked to step out of his vehicle and was executed.
Talking with the Mayor of one area, formerly one of the most beautiful and productive areas of Gaza, we learned how their electricity and water supplies were devastated, clinics destroyed, and greenhouses and mosques reduced to rubble, “Am I guilty because I was born a Moslem?… It wasn’t a war, it was a slaughter,” the Mayor declared. They are now dependent on external aid for temporary housing, tents and medical supplies.
The Mayor made the point that living in a jail turns people into criminals. In 5 years there have been three invasions targeting land, trees and houses every time before the invaders withdraw.
In another area of 75,000 people we visited a clinic, one of two in the area. This clinic cares mainly for women and children and is largely funded from overseas aid organisations, such as Act for Peace, churches and the government in Australia. A program of great importance was the house to house visits in the neighbourhood to find children suffering from malnutrition and bring them in for treatment. The clinic also deals with mental health problems created by war and suffering. Overall Gaza has dealt with an estimated 350,000 children suffering from psycho-social problems after the 2014 war. In this area alone over 1000 missiles landed, 270 people were killed in 3 days, and 900 in the 51 days of war; every 3 seconds a rocket was fired always accompanied by strange smells. It is thought that perhaps 200 bodies still lie under the rubble. During our visit to the clinic a woman approached us to look at a picture of her dead son and brother.
One huge problem facing the medical workers is the difficulty in obtaining medications and equipment. If the Israelis designate something as having a dual purpose, as for example X-ray machines, it is banned. A widespread problem is the spread of skin and parasitic infections due to over-crowding and lack of proper sanitation and water.
It is very difficult to leave Gaza. The Egyptian border is only open about 14 days a year and it costs $2000-3000. People die because they cannot cross to get to a hospital. The main multi-story hospital in Gaza
was reduced to a heap of rubble. A tangle of wire with the remains of a children’s toy and a small column of cement was all that was left.
On a visit to a family who lost a son and the family father we talked with the daughter who had been denied medical help or rescue for three days and still had shrapnel and constant pain in her body. Amazingly she and the family were positive and she spoke of her hopes of getting a scholarship to another country after finishing school.
“This time will pass” one man said. But when? Another less optimistic man said that living in Gaza was like a death sentence. This leads some to join the fighting opposition, tempted with money, a job and a purpose.
On a visit to the Australian representative to the Palestinian Authority I asked how Australia had responded to the 2014 slaughter. He assured me they had. Yes, with some aid but not with the condemnation deserved. Yet hundreds of Israeli women maintained a 51 day hunger strike outside PM Netanyahu’s office to protest the 2014 war on Gaza. Where were we? Or the US, the UK or the European Union?
APAN organised this two week study tour of Palestine to encourage participants to see what is happening, to talk with local people working for reconciliation and re-building and for us to come back and speak and write about the experience. It was advertised in the Friends Newsletter.