A people-to-people solidarity delegation recently returned from Gaza to Vancouver. On Sunday, July 22, there will be a community forum reporting back on their delegation's experiences and findings. This is the first of several eyewitness accounts from delegates which rabble.ca will be publishing in the coming days.
On our second day in Gaza, we spent the day with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), an independent, grassroots Palestinian organization that operates in both Gaza and the West Bank, organizing Palestinian farmers and engaging in programs to support Palestinian farmers' and agricultural workers' steadfastness, independence and resistance to occupation. Palestinian agricultural workers are on the front lines in confronting occupation -- their existence and continued presence on their land is a deep and abiding resistance.
Because they work the land, Palestinian farmers and peasants bear a particular brunt of Israeli aggression intended to force them from their land and sever ancestral Palestinian ties to the land and its products. In Gaza, farmers in some of the small Strip's richest agricultural areas work the land near the borders of the areas of Palestine occupied in 1948 -- the 300m -- and expanding -- deemed a "buffer zone" by the occupation forces and subject to near-constant threats of firing, bombing and other forms of military attack.
UAWC organizes and supports these farmers and their steadfastness on the land; and in Gaza, UAWC not only works with Palestinians who work the resources of Palestine's land, but also those workers who harvest Palestine's seas -- the fisherfolk of Gaza.
Over 70,000 Palestinians in Gaza make their living based on the harvest of the sea -- fisherfolk and their families. They have harvested Gaza's seas for as long as they can remember, and fishing families have fished for generations. Gaza's sea is rich with fish -- but proper fishing can only take place at 10 nautical miles and further out to sea. Despite Israel's claims of "disengagement" from Gaza in 2005, Israel's sea blockade of Gaza -- the same blockade that blocked multiple international solidarity flotillas and boats to Gaza -- holds Palestinian fishermen to an area within 3 nautical miles, the shallowest part of the sea above Gaza's beaches, where fish are small and rare.
Fishers whose boats venture past - or even inside - the blockade's perimeter (even the Oslo accords of 1993 guarantee Gaza's fishermen 20 nautical miles of fishing area) are subject to water cannons and firing on their boats. Numerous fishers' boats have been destroyed, shot and confiscated, fishers arrested and severely injured, while seeking to make a living in their own coastal waters.
Since 1993, Israel has continually moved Gaza's fishermen into a closer and more desperate situation. Eight-five per cent of the fishers' income has been lost and many fishers forced into marginal incomes in trading, including trading fish from Egypt, deprived of their abundant and traditional sources of income.
Organizers with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees work directly with the fishers. Mohammed al-Bakri, the general director of UAWC in Gaza, known as Abu Bashar, is well known at Gaza's seaport, instantly recognized by large numbers of fishermen in the port, who informed us that over 20 fishers volunteered their own boats to meet our delegation in response to Abu Bashar's request for two.
Fishers told their personal stories of losing their boats to Israeli gunships -- boats shot and unable to hold water, fishers seized and arrested, their boats stolen by the occupation forces, both inside and outside the arbitrary three nautical mile blockade boundary. One fisher shared his story -- his knee was shot by occupation gunboats as he sought to ply his trade in Gaza's sea, his boat confiscated, his knee damaged so severely that the joint was destroyed. After several nights in Ashdod's prison, he was taken to the Erez crossing and released; no longer able to walk unassisted, he was told nonetheless to "walk home" and abandoned at the crossing, his boat and his source of sustenance confiscated by the occupation forces, and his physical disability preventing him from continuing to operate the fishing boats.
Fishers told us about UAWC's organizing efforts, particularly when institutional fishers' unions have done little to pressure the Israelis. There have been important international solidarity efforts with the fishers, they noted, particularly the development of the Oliva -- an international observer boat that follows Gaza's fisherfolk to sea and records any attacks by Israeli gunboats.
UAWC has organized protests of fishers and supported fisherfolk's political voices, created films about the struggle of Gaza's fisherfolk for international distribution, as well as providing practical support to the fishers to support them as they continue to demand to exercise their rights to their own waters, including new net systems that can be cast out further than the boats or repairing and replacing boats confiscated or damaged by the occupation.
For a delegation from Canada -- and particularly from Vancouver on unceded Coast Salish territories where fishing has been a source of sustenance and support for Indigenous communities throughout history -- talking with Gaza's fisherfolk raised bitter comparisons with the settler fishing industry in Canada. Indigenous fishing rights have been subject to continual attack in order to benefit a settler-based commercial fishery industry, with Indigenous people facing criminal prosecutions for selling fish and government attempts to force Indigenous people into working as wage labourers in the settler-owned fishing industry while denying them the rights to the products of their own land and seas.
Several fishers invited delegates to go out with them in their boats with UAWC organizers, showing us Gaza's rich seas which they are prohibited from accessing and utilizing. The fishers asked us to bring back their stories and their struggle -- a struggle that continues to access the sea, to practice their fishery and to defy the gunboats of the occupation targeting Palestinian economy and self-sufficiency.
UAWC organizers also brought us to visit farmers in their own 300 meter -- and up to 1.5 km -- "buffer zone" of valuable agricultural land near the border with Israel (Occupied Palestine, 1948), also under attack from soldiers, tanks and aerial bombs from planes, helicopters and drones.
On our way to the farmers' land, traveling through northern Gaza towns and villages, we visited the Ghassan Kanafani Developmental Foundation. Named for the Palestinian writer, poet and Leftist political leader Ghassan Kanafani, the organization provides pre-school and kindergarten classes for children, women's, children's and family services in a democratic and progressive environment. The foundation organizes classes and services for women and families on the second floor while children attend educational programs, cultural development programs and sports programs on the first floor, with programs dedicated to sustaining Palestinian cultural identity and spaces for learning and creativity in the "buffer zone" borderlands strafed by Israeli ammunition all too frequently.
The school itself was targeted during Cast Lead, occupied by Israeli soldiers who used the school's third-story rooftop as a base for snipers overlooking northern Gaza. The kindergarten and community centre that nurtured Gaza's Palestinian children and families became a site for violence and terror at the hands of the occupation directed at them and their communities and their people.
The fields of the northern "buffer zone" are filled with onions, zucchini and other produce farmed by Palestinian farmers remaining steadfast on their land. The "buffer zone" extends the length of the Strip, reaching agricultural lands from the north of Gaza (where we were) south through Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah. From the rooftop at the Kanafani Foundation, we'd seen how so much agricultural land had been bulldozed and uprooted, requiring intensive nurturing to return to its previous value as farmland. We also witnessed the destroyed former Beit Hanoun Agricultural College, which specialized in agricultural and farming training for Palestinian farmers in everything from farm management, to crop maintenance, to livestock.
UAWC works here with farmers to restore the land, support wells and irrigation systems, and work to support farmers to harvest and remain on their land, daily defying bullets and bombs in order to farm the land of occupied Palestine.
Farmers here risk death in order to remain on their land - numerous farmers have been killed and severely injured by shooting and bombing from the occupation forces. Like their sisters and brothers at sea, Palestinian farmers are on the front lines of confronting occupation and holding fast to their land, their resources, their rights and their self-sufficiency in the face of an occupation doing its utmost to destroy Palestinian productive capacity.
Charlotte Kates was a delegate with 'Resistance, Refugees, Rights and Return, the Vancouver Delegation to Gaza 2012.'