The delegation ended yesterday with a last reminder of the reality faced daily by the Palestinians of Gaza. Our delegate from Gaza, Abdullah, who has been living and studying in Cairo for the past three years, was detained at the Rafah border as we left, and was returned to Gaza. The delegation waited at the border several hours as delegates Rosa Navarro, Ann Wright and Ehab Lotayef tried to reason with the Egyptian authorities on his behalf. Finally, he returned to Gaza. Code Pink organizers who remained in Gaza will work with Abdullah to try help get "papers in order" and he will try to cross again. On the bus ride back to Cairo, debate of course arose among delegates about the issue of documentation and what we could have done: anyone, anywhere in the world, would be turned away from a border if their paperwork were not up to snuff, and Abdullah‘s was not. That said, the challenges facing a Palestinian of Gaza in obtaining any kind of paperwork from the various government bureaucracies is something that few of us can fathom. And furthermore, having the correct documentation is no guarantee that one will be allowed to cross the Rafah border.
In Cairo now, I, like many other delegates, have several days of notes and reflections to mull over. Despite our best intentions, most of us were not able to keep up our blogs or enter our notes into a computer as the packed itinerary, early mornings, late nights - ultimately, experience took precedence over reflections and now we are faced with the daunting task of synthesizing it all into coherent narratives.
Four general, lasting impressions from this visit to Gaza:
1. The people of Gaza are like mice in cage where the only one holding the key is a cat. Not only are they denied the right to freedom of movement, they are being strangled and starved by an economic blockade that hypocritically allows food and goods to be transported through illegal (though no doubt known) tunnels, while borders remain, for the most part, closed. Gaza has become a prison, and the people have little to no control over their day to day lives, let alone long term destiny. Leaving Gaza, and leaving Abdullah behind, struck a particular chord. How fundamentally unjust that we can leave, and the people cannot. This video speaks volumes to the situation in Gaza: http://closedzone.com/
2. The ceasefire is theoretical more than real in Gaza. Bombs fall every day on the border. Israeli F16s fly overhead most nights. As a doctor I met explained, in Gaza you can't plan for two hours ahead, let alone two weeks or two months. A month after the attacks by Israel, the people of Gaza are aware that Israel can attack them with impunity at any time: with computer-operated missles fired by drone planes, by F-16 bombs, or by illegal weapons such as white phosphorous. That Israel has committed crimes against humanity in Gaza is indisputable, yet Israel has decided that it will not conduct an internal review of its operations and the international community remains painfully silent.
3. The Palestinians of Gaza we met have extraordinary resolve and dignity. They have a strong civil society - something rare in general in the Middle East, and nothing less than extraordinary under the political circumstances of Gaza. In Gaza City, the streets were remarkably clean and orderly, yet one walked past the rubble of bombed buildings everywhere: police stations, parliament, hospitals, businesses, homes... Gaza City could clearly be a beautiful city, with its expansive beachfront that remains empty due to the contamination of the water (Israel does not permit them to bring in equipment to treat sewage, so they dump raw sewage into the ocean. They also lack desalination equipment, and while Israel drains their fresh water resources to use as it own, Palestinian children are experiencing kidney failure due to the water).
Outside of the city some areas were moonscapes, neighbourhoods flattened, devastation overwhelming from the war, while residents either lived in tents near what had been their homes, or had moved into the cities. Yet wherever we went, most striking was the compassion of the Palestinians. Yes, they are angry, they are depressed, they are frightened, but over and over again we heard individuals ask themselves how Israel could treat people the way they have the people of Gaza. Lets be clear: there is great anger towards Israel, and violence is an every day occurrence in Gaza on several levels - from in the home, to between the internal parties, to the Israeli aggressions, but the degree of social order and social cohesion is striking. A number of Palestinians we met talked of how they believe that the source of Israeli aggression is the unresolved trauma of Israel's own history. They spoke of how Israel as a nation state must heal before it can feel empathy for another. Not what we expected to hear.
The delegation in the end comprised 59 people. 51 women, Muslims, Christians, Jews, seculars, atheists, students, activists, academics, schoolteachers... For some it was their first trip abroad. Our personal safety was never a question, and we were given great leniency by our UNRWA hosts to visit Gaza - we walked through refugee camps, visited families in camps and rural areas. We were warned to avoid areas where unexploded arms may be, and areas where bombing might happen, but were otherwise left to our own devices.
4. The problem is not Hamas. Hamas is the excuse for the siege, the excuse for the war, but the reality is that the occupation existed before Hamas, and will exist beyond Hamas, unless something fundamental changes in Israel and in the international communities' response.
In the next days I'll post more about our time in Gaza and the people we met.