A visit to Gaza, still not free from the odious and illegal siege
I had the chance to spend six days in the Gaza strip from the 12t of June to the 18th June with a delegation of student from Goldsmith University in London. This trip was planned by Goldsmith students in collaboration with the Islamic University of Gaza, which is the largest in the Gaza strip reaching around 20 000 students, to foster relationships and exchanges between the two universities.
My journey in the Gaza strip endable me to witness and now to report a deplorable and continued catastrophic situation which has been going on for now five years despite the illegality of the siege in relation to International Law and the criminal attitude of Israel towards the Palestinians of Gaza. On what ground was the siege enforced on the population of the Gaza strip? One particular political group, Hamas, was elected in the most democratic elections ever witnessed in the Arab world by the Palestinian people in 2006. The results did not please the Israeli State, which decided in reaction to seal its own border with the Gaza Strip in 2006. Following Hamas’ seizure of the territory one year later, Egypt followed suit by closing the Rafah terminal to both human and commercial traffic. Egypt has been since then participating actively in the blockade of the Gaza strip. As a reminder, the Rafah terminal is the only crossing along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with Gaza, and the Strip’s only land crossing not controlled by Israel.
In 2010, the Egyptian government started to build an enormous subterranean steel wall along the border with Gaza, in order to block the tunnels that Gazans have used to undercut the international embargo upon their territory, which according to the director of the UN Relief Works Agency, 60 percent of Gaza’s economy depends on the tunnels. This project has now been frozen by the Egyptian authorities following the fall of Moubarak.
Some hopes among Palestinians and their supporters aroused on the 28th of May when the Egyptian authorities declared the re-opening of the Rafah Border Crossing to human traffic, allowing Palestinian passengers to freely enter and exit the coastal enclave. Egyptian authorities increased the terminal’s working hours from six hours a day to eight, and from five days a week to six (it remains closed on Fridays). The move followed an announcement in April by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi (who has since been named the next Arab League secretary-general) that the border would be reopened on a permanent basis after having been sealed for four years under the ousted Mubarak regime.
The reality has unfortunately been far from these declarations; the border has been closed several times and Egyptian authorities announced since then that no more than 400 Palestinians would be allowed into the country on a daily basis. A high number of Palestinians are still forbidden to travel because their names are reportedly on an Egyptian travel-ban list, while on daily basis hundreds of Palestinians are delayed, exceeding very often few days and sometime a week, or simply denied entry to Egypt. I witnessed personally Palestinians being refused entry from the Egyptian side of the border despite all the necessary documents required. Many Palestinian students are unable to pursue their studies abroad because of the siege, loosing for some of them granted scholarships.
On the Egyptian border, our delegation was actually refused to enter the border crossing a first time by a young officer who then sent us to the head of the secret services at the borders. He also refused to let us enter using some fallacious excuses. It was only on a second attempt that we were able to reach the Rafah crossing on the same day in late afternoon. It should be noted that the whole road in direction of the Rafah crossing in the Sinai is filled with Egyptian military check points accompanied with tanks. Actually a friend of mine in Egypt on Naksa day, the 5th of June, was actually stopped and brought back to Cairo by one of these military checkpoints in Ismaillya because he wanted to demonstrate on the Rafah border. We have to understand these military check points as a way to protect Israel and keep the border stable.
The low amount of people to cross the border have also push Hamas organization, which controls the Gaza strip, to favor its members, people close to the movement or individuals who can pay high amount of dollars to be able to be at the head of a long queue and were given priority to cross the border on the Palestinian side. A number of Palestinians who tried to cross the border and were very often coming back every day since a week were criticizing this “wasta” system as they called it, in other words if you did not have connection with Hamas you would not be able or delayed for few days may be a week to cross the Palestinian border and reach the Egyptian crossing.
Inhumane border regulations are just part of the humiliation that Gazans face at the border, especially on the Egyptian side. On this latter, both the entry and the exit from Gaza, humiliations and shouting’s from Egyptian soldiers against Palestinians is part of the journey. In the Gazan Rafah terminal, they must wait in a metal shed, filled with plastic chairs and toilets which are far from being functional in terms of hygiene.
It is important to note as well that commercial goods remains barred from entering Gaza, they must enter the strip via the Israel-controlled al-Auja Crossing.
The siege on Gaza cut the strip off from the rest of the world, depriving its roughly 1.6 million inhabitants of most basic commodities, including food, medicine, fuel and desperately-needed building materials. The people of Gaza are still suffering from the siege in all aspects all of their life. A new report by the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, has actually stated that broad unemployment in the second half of 2010 reached an unprecedented 45.2 per cent, one of the highest in the world. The report finds that real wages continued to decline under the weight of persistently high unemployment, falling 34.5 per cent since the first half of 2006. The refugees, who make up two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.5 million populations, suffered the most in this period from the blockade which condemned hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution.
The number of people living on just over 1 dollar a day has tripled to 300,000 since the blockade was imposed and with many reconstruction projects still awaiting approval.
During my stay I actually witnessed the destructions caused by the massacre of 2008-2009 on the people of Gaza. Our delegation visited destroyed schools such as the American International School, which was erased from the map after falling prey to the numerous air strikes from the Israeli Air Force, or the Islamic University of Gaza which suffered severe casualties with the destruction of a building hosting the new technologies and used to be the laboratory building, the most valuable one in the complex. In Al-Aqsa University, the Vice-President of the University described us the way Israeli tanks had come right up to the building we were sitting in, and how they had lost 15 students who were murdered during those three weeks of the massacre.
Islamic University of Gaza building destroyed
Memorial for the 15 students in Al Aqsa University
Industries were also targeted near the border with the Israeli State by Israel air force and tanks, while many houses and towers in Gaza city and in refugee camps such as Jabalayee and Al Shati were destroyed by bombardments.
Fishermen in Gaza have suffered very importantly from the blockade and their impossibility to practice their activity. Unable to breech three miles otherwise they will be shot by Israeli military boats, Gaza’s fishermen are left to harvest undersized fish seeped in the pollution of Gaza’s sewage run-off. The greater numbers and quality of fish lie at least six miles out. Under the Oslo accords, Palestinian fishermen have the right to fish twenty nautical miles off of Gaza’s coast. This limit has been unilaterally micro-sized by the Israeli navy by lethal imposition via gunfire, shelling and water-cannoning. In a May 2011 report, the International Committee of the Red Cross indicates that poverty among Gaza’s fishermen is at 90 percent, the poorest earning less than $100 per month, an increase of 40 percent from 2008. In the last five years, at least seven fishermen have been killed by the Israeli navy, while an estimation of tens more have been injured and more than 300 arrested while fishing in Palestinian waters.
The massacre of 2008 and 2009 on Gaza is still in the minds of the people like the Samouni family who we visited and told us how 22 members of their families were assassinated by the Israeli army. Many Palestinians suffer as well from injuries which led them unable to work or even to live a decent life. During Operation Cast Lead Israel committed massive war crimes until today unpunished. We heard from Palestinians or witnessed ourselves these crimes ranging from the use of White Phosphorus in densely populated areas, the use of Depleted Uranium, to bombing civilian targets of all sorts without military necessity and destroying civilian infrastructure and mosques with no military justification. Hospitals such as al Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza that we visited, was receiving 400 casualties per day during the massacre, while it’s accident and emergency ward holds only 12 beds.
Due to the siege and the Israeli bombing of the only power plant in Gaza, electricity is in scarce supply and regularly cuts out for huge chunks of the day. The high streets are therefore littered with small generators connecting shops to power when the electricity is shut down. The sound of these generators is so high that you can barely talk to each other when you are walking through the street.
The siege of Gaza as we have seen is still a reality today and the situation for the people still difficult. If the objective of the siege was to weaken Hamas, it’s quite the opposite that happened in many aspects. Hamas has been able since 2007 to increase public employment by at least one-fifth while in what should have been a relatively good year for the Gaza private sector with the supposed easing of the blockade, the public sector generated 70 per cent of all net job growth as between second-half 2009 and second-half 2010. The UNRWA report states that “If the aim of the blockade policy was to weaken the Hamas administration, the public employment numbers suggest this has failed. But it has certainly been highly successful in punishing some of the poorest of the poor in the Middle East region”. In addition to this Hamas has been able to control the passage of products through tunnels and collect taxes on each one of it, increasing its control on the Gaza strip.
The people of Gaza during our trip have shown us nevertheless the will to continue to struggle against Israel’s oppression, occupation and crimes and also to live a normal life despite these difficulties and the siege. Forms of Resistance in Gaza goes from activists of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian STUDENTS Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PSCABI) explaining us their continual and massive work and activities in their struggle against the Apartheid, Colonial and Racist state of Israel to Palestinian students and workers telling us their wish to study or work in normal condition and live their life as anywhere else. In many ways indeed sometimes as in the case of Gaza, or the West Bank as well: “Existence is Resistance!” To live is a challenge from the oppressed to the occupier, the colonizer and the oppressor telling him he will not surrender whatever happens. Palestinians during our trip taught us many things, but their love for life and resistance is what I will take back from my journey in Gaza.
In conclusion, the siege of Gaza and an improvement of the situation for its people is still mostly linked with the situation in Egypt. A continuation of the revolutionary process and some victories of the revolutionaries would lead to a true opening of the Rafah border, and not a so called easing policy in regards to the blockade which still strangle the population of Gaza. The apparatus system in Egypt is still mostly the same as Mubarak era, despite many successes of the revolution, the appointment of Mohamed El-Orabi as Egypt’s new foreign minister represents the continuation of the former regime’s policies in both the domestic political landscape and the international one. He served as the deputy ambassador to Israel from 1994 to 1998, and has worked in the United States and Britain, while being one of the closest ambassadors to the family of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
This is why we need to support each Revolution in the Arab world to free the people from authoritarian regimes linked with USA imperialism and serving foreign interests such as protecting Israel. Each victory of the Revolutions is a step forward for the liberation of Palestine and the Palestinians. So let the Revolution be permanent!