Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gaza – Where you shouldn't make friends

(This is the original version, as I submitted it, of an Opinion piece published in the Montreal Gazette on Friday, March 17, 2009. To see the published version visit my webpage's - - "In the media" section)

Gaza an Arabic word that can translate to “a poke”. Yet visiting the small strip of land named Gaza on the south eastern side of the Mediterranean measuring an average of 9 km by 40 km you feel like the place has been repeatedly stabbed rather than poked.

Reaching Gaza was an ordeal in itself. I left Montreal by mid-February heading to Gaza endorsed by many local groups in a mission of solidarity. A few days later I was at the Egyptian border town of Rafah, the only access point to Gaza not directly controlled by Israel. My Canadian passport was of no help in convincing the Egyptian gate keepers to let me through. Many internationals were also there, waiting for days for an opportunity to pass to Gaza; an opportunity which never came for most of them. I was told that the first thing I need is a letter from my embassy. Back in Cairo the Canadian embassy charged me $130 for two forms, which I filled, absolving them from any responsibility if I go to Gaza. They then stamped and handed me back those forms. These were the “letter” they provide.

Back to Rafah with a couple of American activists armed with similar, but not as costly, letters from their embassy, we were again denied access although the border was open and allowing Gazans who wanted to return home to pass.

Frustrated, but still hopeful, I contacted international delegations on their way to Gaza through Egypt: The Viva Palestina convoy (numbering over 300 delegates) lead by British MP George Galloway which took the road from the UK via north Africa and the Code Pink organised international delegation (numbering over 50 delegates mostly women) planning to be in Gaza for International Women’s Day. I was welcomed to join the Code Pink delegation and we headed to Rafah on March 6th.

Third time lucky! It seems that the Egyptians did not want the bad press for being responsible of denying passage to hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists from all over the world travelling to Gaza with messages of support and with material aid, so they decided to forget about all the excuses they have been giving for weeks and allow us through.

Despite this temporary change of position it was clear that the Egyptian government is acting as a willing enforcer of the siege of Gaza. Israel and Egypt, with the support of other countries including Canada, are taking the people of Gaza hostage in their fight against the Hamas led government that was democratically elected by the people of Palestine (in both Gaza and the West Bank). It is one of the confusing messages the International community sent the Palestinians over the years, we want you to accept democracy but we do not accept your democratic choice.

On the evening of March 7th we arrived in Gaza. During the days we spent there we visited schools and children centres, travelled through devastated border areas and refugee camps, talked to people on the street and met with physicians, activists, UN personnel and MPs. We heard pro Hamas arguments as well as harsh criticism of the movement.

It is shocking when a young teenager tells you that he does not want to make new friends anymore because it is so painful to lose them suddenly in an air raid. Nearly everyone in the Jabalia refugee camp (population 125,000 and one of the most crowded area in the Gaza strip with is itself one of the most densely populated areas in the world) had the experience of losing someone close during the last few years if not in the last Israeli three week offensive.
Despite this the message we heard most was one of persistence and pride. This is strange coming from people who have nothing, not even the support of the fellow Arabs with which they have many ties, beyond words of sympathy.

The people of Gaza do not want handouts. They are confident that they themselves are capable of building a flourishing society. What they want is normal access to the world and a guarantee from the International community that Israel will not systematically destroy the houses, mosques, schools, hospitals and factories they build.

So why does Israel attack and destroy? Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel and tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt are the main reasons usually given.

The tunnels, even if used to smuggle weapons, are only sustainable by the need to smuggle basic supplies Gazans have been denied through legal channels for years: food and fuel. To stifle the tunnel smuggling industry (of which weapon smuggling is just a small fraction) simply allow normal monitored trade and open merchandise routs to Gaza through Egypt, Israel and the sea. There are opportunists on both sides of the border who are making too much profit that will keep this industry in business as long as the siege continues, despite any military action.
As for the rockets (which are in fact primitive missiles if compared to the weaponry used by the Israeli army) launched from Gaza, both those who support them and those who oppose them agree on one thing, these rockets are their only way to tell a world that is ignoring them, their suffering and their problems that they exist, are suffering and will fight until they find justice. An argument which can be understood in the light of the huge increase of settlement building and numbers of settlers moving to the West Bank over the years of “peace negotiations” with Israel (since the Oslo agreement of 1993). The people of Palestine are loosing faith in a peace process that has brought them nothing over a decade and a half but more losses. The international community has failed them and Israel takes more away from them whenever they deal with it in good faith than when they don’t.

In areas in the north and east of the Gaza strip Israel killed hundreds and intentionally flattened houses, mosques, schools, factories and plantations for distances up to a couple of kilometres from its borders to end rocket attacks against its nearby towns. After all this rockets are still being fired which should tell us something about the effectiveness of the brutal Israeli tactics and raise the question of what these attacks really achieve.

In my previous visits to Palestine, a few years ago (although those visits were to the West Bank not to Gaza), I felt no such hate and anger towards Israel as I felt this time around. What Israel is doing, with the help of other countries including Egypt and Canada is killing any chance for a real peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis in the foreseeable future. I am left to wonder if this is done intentionally.

Leaving Gaza I was wondering what would happen when a new Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and including Avigdor Lieberman takes over and how the international community should act if we really want to see peace in the Middle East.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pressure bears fruit

I am now in Gaza, but let me start from where I left off last.
An international delegation of mostly women organized by Code Pink planned to be in Gaza on International Women’s Day. I contacted them before their arrival in Cairo and requested to join their delegation. They arrived in Cairo on March 5th and we all left to al-Arish on March the 6th.

At al-Arish we were directly sought out by directors of the Egyptian Red Crescent in the region who – to our surprise – said they know about our delegation and have orders from the head of the organization, Ms. Suzanne Mubarak wife of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to facilitate our crossing into Gaza!

It was a surprise move that could only be explained by the Egyptians’ worry about having hundreds of internationals stuck at the Rafah-Gaza border at the same time (knowing that the Viva Palestina convoy led by British MP George Galloway is arriving at al-Arish on March 7), attracting media attention and further tarnishing the already bad image of Egypt as a major participant in enforcing the siege of Gaza.
On March 6th we headed to the border. The Egyptian Red Crescent provided us with a truck to carry the symbolic gifts we carried and the directors were with us every step of the way.

This accompaniment, of course, did not save us from the ills of Egyptian immigration bureaucracy but after a few hours that saw the loss of, search for and finally finding one of our delegation members’ passport (which alone took one hour) and paying over 5,000 in “exit process processing” fees.

Finally we were in Gaza by 2:00PM. The immigration process by the Palestinians (Hamas led government) was extremely efficient and the terminal was far better organized than the Egyptian one. We were welcomed by the governor of the Palestinian city of Rafah and headed to Gaza city which we arrived at by sunset.
Yesterday, Sunday March 8th, International Women’s Day, was our first full day in Gaza. Our program was set by UNRWA which is giving us lots of logistical help. The women in the delegation visited women’s community centers and celebrated with the Palestinian women. I did not leave the center of Gaza city yet I did see bombed government buildings and police stations in the middle of residential areas.
I visited Ramattan news agency, the only agency that was reporting from Gaza during the period of the war. They showed us footage from before the war of Israeli helicopters launching 4 missiles in a row on the apartment building that houses their offices.

I also visited the “Community Media Center” which works on giving youth media experience. There I met a group of youth who have degrees in various media disciplines and who are unemployed since the media business is being stifelled in Gaza more than most other business. Their hopes and vision were inspiring but their pain and frustration were undeniable.