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On Human Rights Day (and every day...), remember freedom of movement for Palestinians

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When I finally entered the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2012, I wept. The trip across the Sinai and the crossing at the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza (as described in detail by my colleagues Máire Noonan and Verena Stresing) seemed long and fraught. This was my fourth attempt to reach Gaza, so it was emotional for me to finally arrive. We were there for a linguistics conference, and had the opportunity to meet some wonderful young people who were thirsting for contact with the outside world. We felt lucky to be able to travel there and meet them, and to enjoy some legendary Palestinian hospitality.

Our timing was indeed very lucky: the same trip a year later would be impossible, since the Egyptian military has since closed down that crossing.

Since the July 2012 coup and the Egyptian military's xenophobic scapegoating of Palestinians, the crackdown at the Rafah crossing has become brutal. The stories of individuals unable to cross are heartbreaking: students losing their academic year and in some cases scholarships because they cannot enroll, sick patients suffering because they cannot reach needed treatments, families kept apart, and worse. The systemic effects are even worse, as lack of fuel limits electricity supplies, which in turn means failure of critical infrastructure: kids wading through sewage on the way to school and having to study by candle-light while hospitals are unable to keep life-saving equipment powered up.

These increasingly unlivable conditions in Gaza are an unnatural human disaster, and entirely preventable. The Israeli blockade and the Egyptian enforcement of it on one side are both political choices by governments that subject Palestinian civilians in Gaza to miserable conditions for political motives. These political choices are in turn enabled by the complicit silence of the governments we elect. So the Palestinians in Gaza know that they cannot depend on governments, only on international civil society -- people of conscience the world over -- to draw attention on their plight.

For some years I have been working with civil society groups opposing the blockade of Gaza. But you don't have to join our grassroots direct actions in person to support our efforts to challenge the blockade, or join the more than 10 000 people worldwide who have signed a petition initiated by young Palestinians in Gaza calling for the complete opening of the Rafah border in both directions. As an educator, I can't help thinking about the young Palestinians we met in Gaza. Depriving them of freedom of movement means condemning them to a future without hope: if we allow that, we can hardly be surprised if some of them turn to hopeless actions.

Personal emotional responses aside, my ability to travel to Gaza is of course not the real issue. What is really at stake here is one of the basic human rights that the occupation deprives Palestinians of on a regular basis: the right to travel about their land, to leave and return to their country. Freedom of movement, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is fundamental for everything from education and health care to the ability to earn a living and see your family.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay says the Israeli blockade on Gaza and restrictions on freedom of movement throughout Palestine amount to collective punishment, a violation of fundamental human rights. On Human Rights Day (or any other day), you can learn more about lack of freedom of movement imposed on the West Bank Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh by the same occupation, its effect on people's livelihoods as well as what you can do to about it in this Write for Rights action featured by Amnesty International. Although the situations vary in different parts of Palestine, the overarching violation of the right of freedom of movement is a constant of the occupation.

London, Ontario teacher-research and father of two, David Heap participated in the 2009-2010 Gaza Freedom March (but did not reach Gaza… that time). A Steering Committee member with the Canadian Boat to Gaza since the campaign began in 2010, he was on board the Tahrir when it was stopped by Greek authorities in July 2011, and again in November 2011 when captured by the Israeli navy. Deported to Canada after six days in Israeli prison, he also joined the Swedish ship to Gaza Estelle for part of its voyage in September 2012, and he visited Gaza in October 2012 with a group of linguist colleagues (including Noam Chomsky). He works with the Gaza’s Ark campaign to challenge the blockade from the inside out.

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