Saturday, December 27, 2008

This is a what a massacre looks like

I've spent the last hour watching footage of things I never wanted to see. The backdrop changed but the images were the same. Dozens of bodies splayed on the ground. Children sobbing. Cars and ambulances unloading the injured and dead at hospitals.

I don't have words yet.

Report: At least 140 dead in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City
Date: 27 / 12 / 2008 Time: 11:57
تكبير الخط تصغير الخط
Gaza – Ma'an – At least 140 Palestinians were killed when Israel’s air force fired missiles at more than 30 Gaza City targets at noon on Saturday.

Live video broadcasts showed dozens of injured and dead Palestinians in Gaza City, many of them screaming, while Palestinian ambulances raced to the scene.

Black smoke billowed over Gaza City into the afternoon as medics evacuated the wounded from targeted de facto government buildings, believed to be the main target in the air raids.

Men, women and children were killed in the airstrikes.

Others were running in the streets as one correspondent noted that the airstrikes amounted to the largest Israeli military operation in Gaza "for decades."

A Reuters correspondent who witnessed the attacks said Israeli fighter jets targeted the Gaza City port and de facto government-run buildings.

It is believed that 33 members of Fatah, who were held in Hamas prisons, died in the airstrikes.

A spokesperson for the Israeli military had no immediate comment on the airstrikes.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called for a massive response to the airstrikes and a renewal of operations within Israel.

He also asked Palestinians to “remain patient in light of these Israeli crimes.”

Sources within Hamas told Ma’an that every de facto security building in the Gaza Strip was attacked.

Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Al-Batsh said that the Israeli attack amounts to “open war” against Palestinians, intended “to put down the resistance.”

Al-Batsh condemned international and Arab States for their “silence on such massacres.” He also swore that what had happened “would never make the resistance factions surrender.”

***Updated 13:07 Bethlehem time

Friday, November 7, 2008

Opening Hebron

This week the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee is organizing different events and actions to bring life to the old city of Hebron.

For decades Israelis have been living illegally in the old city, taking over Palestinian homes and throwing garbage, dirty water, and chunks on concrete onto the Palestinian merchants and passersby. Many shops have been closed by Israeli military orders but even more shops are closed because the Israeli settlers and Israeli soldiers harass people and--prior to HRC's renovation of streets and removal of roadblocks--made it nearly impossible for cars to reach the old city.

Some of the major streets in the old city are closed off to Palestinians completely.

I went to Hebron on Tuesday with my husband and two friends from California. I had to do some last minute shopping for the annual holiday bazaar (mark your calendars for Dec 13!) at one of the three open textile shops in the old city. We walked passed dozens of closed shops and only saw a handful of other people. It should be a bustling market like the old cities in Bethlehem and Jerusalem but instead Hebron is a ghost town. (Note: I purchased keffiyahs made at a factory in Hebron but thanks to globalization, this factory is now competing with Chinese-made keffiyehs.)

My friend and tour guide extraordinaire met us in the old city and took us on a mini walking tour to see some of the racist graffiti by settlers, the wire nets that catch some of the garbage and stones settlers throw out their windows, and examples of the renovations that HRC has done to make it easier for people to live and work in the old city.

Of course, for Hebron to really come back to life, the streets, the houses, and the shops must be returned to their rightful owners. But in the meantime HRC distributed thousands of Palestinian flags to businesses and homes to show that despite the constant attempts to drive people out, Hebron is a Palestinian city.

You can join the HRC's campaign by sending a letter (sample below) to lift the closures:

Introduction to the letter:

The sufferance of 180,000 Palestinian citizens continues in Hebron Old City due to Israel’s eight-year-long closure of the city centre.
United Nations humanitarian affairs reports indicated that more than 101 roadblocks, barricades and military checkpoints are preventing the pursuance of normal life in the city and are tearing its old part to shreds, for the sole purpose of protecting 400 Israeli settlers living in the city.
We invite you to take part in the National Campaign Against Israeli Closures in Hebron Old City launched by city citizens and organizations calling for an end to this blockade by sending the attached letter, or any other text requesting the lift of the siege, to the addresses of Israel’s Prime Minister, its Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs, and to the Speaker of the Knesset.

Text of the letter:

We refuse the closure imposed on Hebron’s Old City and demand that the Israeli government and Israeli occupation authorities lift the blockade, thus allowing Palestinian citizens to enjoy freedom of travel and normal mobility in their own city.

Addresses to which the letter should be sent:

Prime Minister Office -,
Tel. 02-6705555, Fax. 02-6705475

Minister of Defense (Barak),
Tel. 03-6976663, Fax. 03-6976218

Also, please send a copy of the letter to us at the following e-mails:

Friday, October 31, 2008

Olive Picking with Ibdaa

Olives are a staple in Palestine. Every meal has home-made olives or tasty olive oil. People use olive oil soap in their homes. They carve olive wood into prayer beads, candle holders, and nativity scenes.

I've been told some of the olive trees in Palestine date back to Roman times. The trees aren't just part of the landscape - they are the landscape. They cover the hills outside Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the plains outside Gaza, adding texture and color.

October is olive harvest season in Palestine. There are international delegations, festivals, and other activities to mark the olive harvest each year. But Israel's illegal construction of settlements, walls, and creation of "security" zones is threatening the cultural and economic importance of olive trees by confiscating and uprooting groves of trees.

When I go back to the US after a trip to Gaza and describe the restrictions on movement, the destruction caused by bombings and tank shellings, and the lack of basic goods, people always ask me how families in Gaza are surviving. I tell them I don't know. Of course, not everyone survives. 252 patients have died in Gaza since June 2007 because they were not allowed to seek medical treatment abroad and the shortages of medicine and electricity in Gaza have devastated the medical system. 62 children have been killed this year as a direct result of the Israeli occupation. And the economic situation in Gaza is desperate with 80% living below the poverty line.

But I learned something last week when Dr. Mona called me from the olive groves outside Beit Hanoun. The real answer is that the people in Gaza support each other. Dr. Mona went with a group of local volunteers to help farmers pick their olive trees near the very militarized border between Israel and Gaza. They went there and donated their labor. But more than that they gave moral support to these farmers who were scared to walk to their lands because they could see Israeli tanks in the distance. Dr. Mona held out the phone so I could hear some of the volunteers and farmers singing traditional songs as they worked their way from one ancient tree to another.

This morning I had the chance to go to the village of Nahalin to help families harvest their olive groves with 25 children, staff, and volunteers from Ibdaa. Nahalin is about 20 minutes southwest of Dheisheh Refugee Camp. The village is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements and their bypass roads. Much of their agricultural land has been stolen.

The first place we went with the villagers was to a grove of olives next to the settlement of Betar. This settlement, like all settlements, is perched on the top of a hill like a military fortress with an army jeep patrolling the edges of the settlement.

We only stayed in Nahalin for three hours since some of the girls had to get back for their basketball game. We were completely exhausted from these few hours work since none of us are used to it. But it was also energizing for me to witness bonds being built between people from a refugee camp and a village. Israel has worked so hard at creating divisions between Palestinians. They've closed roads, constructed checkpoints, privileged Christians over Muslims, and tried many other colonial divide and conquer tactics.

It was just a few hours but today children and adults from Dheisheh Refugee Camp who were uprooted from their farmlands 60 years ago went to pick olives like their grandparents and great-grandparents used to and they broke some of the barriers and stereotypes separating them from other Palestinians.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ramadan in Palestine complete with Israeli invasions, katayef, and checkpoint closures

Ramadan started last Monday. This is the first time I've been in Palestine during Ramadan and I didn't plan on fasting. I like to eat all day and I LOVE my snack breaks during work. Plus religion is just not for me. But I realized quickly that this is a family holiday, everyone comes home from work in time to eat together and it seemed like a nice tradition to join in on. The first day was rough, very rough. My mind was foggy by 3pm and I was bickering with people over nothing. But it's getting easier (although maybe you'd get another opinion from people who have to be around be all day).

My husband's mother and sisters have been catering to my very particular palate. They make me a plate of Arabic salad without tomatoes and a main dish without meat every day. After dinner every night we play games and the whole family has mastered Uno. We've also discovered that my nine-month-old niece loves green onions and lemons but not sweets.

With the game playing and family time I can sometimes go days without really feeling the Israeli military occupation. Even with the concrete wall in front of our house I've learned to forget and go on with "normal life." On Thursday Hazem and I picked up katayef, a pancake like dessert that you bake with cheese or nut stuffing and then dip in sugar syrup, and continued down the main road towards his family's house. We had called ahead to make sure no one else brought dessert so we knew there were Israeli soldiers near the house but we hoped that by the time we got there they'd have moved on.

Israeli jeeps block the main road forcing cars
to turn around and try another route.

When we reached the area in front of Ibdaa Cultural Center we could see Israeli jeeps blocking the main road ahead of us. So we took a detour up the hill to the right and tried to come down the hill on another street that leads direct to his family's house. From the hill we could see a jeep and a giant trucked parked right outside his family's house. Israeli soldiers were walking through the area with guns pointed in every direction. We drove down to the bottom of the hill but the road was blocked there too. So we waited.

It was getting close to sundown when everyone breaks their fast so we decided to try a third route to the house. We went back up the hill (his family lives on a hill opposite the one we were on) and farther south before coming down. The main road was open here but there were soldiers blocking the road as we got closer to his house. They had two jeeps and a large truck just to block the road. So we waited with many, many other people anxious to get home and eat. Finally some military vehicles started leaving. We saw five or six leave and then a few minutes later the ones blocking the road pulled out. As we turned up the hill towards the house we saw a line of at least five more military cars leaving.

The first group of military jeeps leaving Dheisheh

Refugee Camp.

We entered the house and sat down to eat just as the sheikh's voice rang out over the loud speaker of the mosque. It took more than an hour to drive from our apartment in Bethlehem to his family's house, a drive that is normally about six minutes. On Friday I saw some video footage taken by an international volunteer at Ibdaa. It shows soldiers in front of Ibdaa and the main entrance to Dheisheh Refugee Camp firing "rubber-coated" bullets* into the streets of the camp. I guess we're supposed to expect this as a response to the rocks that were thrown at the jeeps and soldiers. But while the Israeli soldiers wear helmets, thick steel toed boots, and bulletproof vests, the kids are just out there in their jeans and t-shirts.

Friday brought more awful reminders of the Israeli occupation. I had to go to Jerusalem to drop off papers at the British Consulate for two students from Dheisheh since they are not allowed to enter Jerusalem. I had also planned to visit a friend's mother in the hospital. She lives in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip and was allowed permission to leave for a surgery in Jerusalem after Dr. Mona and several internationals in Gaza spent three long days at the Erez Crossing petitioning Israeli authorities to allow her out. She missed her scheduled surgery and is now waiting in the hospital far from her friends and family for the new surgery date on Tuesday.

So it's Friday morning and I've collected all the necessary papers at Ibdaa and I set out to the main intersection in Bethlehem (the only traffic light in the whole district) to catch a bus to Jerusalem. When I arrive there is no bus which is very unusual and someone tells me they cancelled the regular service today. I guess this should have triggered something but it didn't. I was in a hurry so I got back in a shared taxi and made my way to the Bethlehem-Jerusalem terminal (it's a checkpoint but when Israel built a warehouse size building and equipped it with hand scanners, x-ray machines, endless turnstiles that are switched on and off by someone watching you on camera, and catwalks for soldiers above your head, they renamed it a "terminal").

There were tons of taxis which is very unusual since it has gotten really difficult for Palestinians to get permits to enter Jerusalem so the area is usually empty. As I walked towards the 8 meter wall (you have to pass through a door in the wall to get to the warehouse sized checkpoint building) I noticed a crowd and another concrete wall. The Israeli military had constructed a small wall blocking the way to the checkpoint with three doorway sized breaks in this new wall. I noticed women gathered at one break in the wall so went over there. No one was moving. Soldiers were standing silently blocking the way to the checkpoint. And the crowds were standing patiently waiting for someone to let them pass.

It was the first Friday of Ramadan and many people from all over the West Bank were on their way to pray in Jerusalem. Finally one young soldier pulled out a bullhorn and starting screaming in bad Arabic that the checkpoint was closed and everyone should go home. He put the bullhorn right up in people's faces screaming and then moved down the line to the other groups of people waiting at the breaks in the wall. I wanted to smack him. But everyone else quietly backed up explaining to him and other soldiers how far they'd come and how long they'd waited. I arranged with the consulate to send the papers by fax and got to leave the sweltering heat but as I left even more people were arriving hoping to make their way to the Dome of the Rock, a right guaranteed under international law.

In other news, Hazem and I bought a car! We're really excited. It's a bit complicated but he actually had a car before but it had Israel license plates (Israeli used cars are much cheaper because there is less demand for them) so it was technically illegal for him, as a Palestinian with a West Bank ID, to drive the car. We still used it driving around Bethlehem but couldn't use it to leave the Bethlehem area. We thought about keeping the Israeli plated car, putting it in my name and then trying to get him a permit to use the car. But this permit would only be valid in Bethlehem and if we wanted to go to Ramallah I would have to take the car through Jerusalem since Israeli cars aren't allowed on stretches of the Palestinian road between Bethlehem and Ramallah and he would have to take a shared taxi that goes around Jerusalem through two checkpoints and meet me in Ramallah since he is not allowed to enter Jerusalem. So Palestinian plates it is...

*Actually metal bullets wrapped in a hard rubber shell. These bullets have killed and injured many Palestinians

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Palestinian boy sent back at checkpoint, visiting destroyed villages

June 22, 2008 Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine.
Deborah Agre, MECA staff

Several of us from the MECA went from the Bethlehem area to Jerusalem by bus for more shopping for the Holiday Bazaar (we’re going to have some really great stuff this year—December 13). The bus was stopped and we all got off at the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Everyone showed his or her permits or passports. Palestinians who don’t have Jerusalem residency or Israeli citizenship have to apply for special permits to enter the Jerusalem area. (Additional permits are required to go further. For an excellent article about this system click here.) A boy of around 13 handed the Israeli soldier something, but it wasn’t the right thing. They yelled at him in Hebrew. He stood there and as more soldiers came over his brow got more and more furrowed. MECA director Barbara Lubin put her arm over his shoulder and told the soldiers he was with us. One soldier started shouting at us that this was the border and a Palestinian can’t enter Israel without permission, just like an Israeli couldn’t enter the US without permission. OK, so if this is the border and Israel is on one side, what’s on the other side? Not a Palestinian state. Not any entity that can prevent Israelis from coming in; from stealing land and water, from establishing settlements, building walls and Israeli-only roads, arresting and attacking people. Besides, Israel actually has no established, internationally-recognized borders.

The boy was left at the checkpoint, far from town. I was left, as I so often am here, wondering if there was something more we could have or should have done.

Later that week our friend Ziad (Director of the Ibdaa Cultural Center) got a permit to enter the Jerusalem area for three days and zero nights. Ibdaa and some other community centers in West Bank refugee camps organized a trip for kids to visit some of the villages in “48” (AKA Israel) that their families lived in before the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48. When the trip ended Ziad still had a few hours left on his permit and another friend from the US had a rented car. So four of us took off to visit Zakaria, Ziad’s father’s village and other villages about a half hour from Dheisheh. I saw two things there I hadn't seen on previous visits: 1) An area of incredibly beautiful green mountains and valleys; 2) The return of the Palestinian refugees is more than a romantic desire, political demand, or compliance with international law. Here is the land their parents and grandparents left so recently and so close to where they live now in crowded cement refugee camps. These aren’t little anachronistic villages (though there are the remains of some). They are big, big spaces, most of them unpopulated or sparsely populated. Those who argue that if the refugees return Israel will no longer be a Jewish state are making their own counter-argument: Israel was created and is sustained by a grave injustice, one that is still possible to correct. Yes, I fully understand, as do most Palestinians, that it does get more complicated when we’re talking about returning to land, or even homes, where people—most of whom were born after 1948—are living their lives. Complicated, difficult, and painful. But not impossible to reconcile the rights of current residents with the rights of the refugees.

Zakaria is now a small bedroom community near Jerusalem. “Look what they have here for their children,” Ziad noted as we passed a large, well-equipped playground and a basketball court. “Look how Shlomo can come home from work, sit in the garden and look at this beautiful view. How can they sleep at night?” We all sighed, knowing that they sleep just fine. As we walked through another village, now a national park where “Shlomo can come with this family and have a nice barbecue,” I ask Ziad how he feels when he comes here. “Here, at least I can breathe,” he says sadly.

More immediate, and nearly as fervent among young people in Dheisheh Refugee Camp is the desire to go to the beach. It is really, really hot. They are on summer break. The beach is only an hour away. But even if they get permits to enter the Jerusalem area—which takes a while for young women, is virtually impossible for young men—they are still not allowed to go further to reach to the Mediterranean. But someone figured out that, at least for the moment, foreigners driving rented cars with Israeli plates are not stopped at checkpoints. So, the beach shuttles have begun, and I’m sure will continue through the summer until someone gets caught, and the Israeli soldiers begin stopping rental cars at checkpoints.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deborah Agre from Dheisheh

June 16, 2008, Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestine.
Deborah Agre, MECA staff

I am here to co-lead the MECA delegation in July. I came a few weeks early to visit friends and MECA projects in the West Bank and Gaza (we’ll see if I get into Gaza), and to attend a wedding. After we landed in Tel Aviv I got in one of the four adjacent lines processing people with foreign passports. As my turn approached, I noticed that two women wearing hijab who had been on the plane with me from Canada, stood at two of the four windows. I decided to count how many others went through while they stood there. I got to eleven when one woman was escorted away by a guard, presumably to be questioned further, detained, or possibly even denied entry and sent back. My brief turn at the window came and went while the other woman was still standing there.

We drove for a while before I got the first glimpse of the landscape I love so much, terraced hills, patched with olive groves and other desert plants; the old hand-built stone walls blending with the natural rock forms; the subtle variegated colors of the stone. I think of my old friend Jonathan, who died recently and suddenly. He grew up in the southwest and lived in the hills of Contra Costa County, California. I learned from him a real appreciation for the beauty and quiet drama of this kind of non-lush landscape. Jonathan saw the beauty of rocks, in all their shape, texture and color variations like no one else. Except probably the Palestinian stone masons who built the terrace walls by hand, fixing each rock in its place, apparently fitted together by shape, balance and gravity.

I’m staying at the Ibdaa Cultural Center’s Guesthouse with others from the US and Europe. MECA has worked with Ibdaa for many, many years and we always receive an enthusiastic welcome and many invitations to the homes of families connected to the center. We have an enormous and delicious lunch at the home of Khaled Al-Saifi, the co-director of Ibdaa who’s daughter Keyan is one of the students who attends college in the US with the help of MECA’s Ramzy Halaby Education Fund. Keyan is here visiting, and serves as our interpreter as Khaled takes us on a tour of Ibdaa’s new Women and Children’s Building. Keyan adds approving commentary about the importance of women working together, without men, to be strong on their own, to run their own programs and make their own decisions. We go to the roof of the building to get the view of the camp, the Wall, and the growing settlement beyond. Keyan points to the densely built-up hills on one side of the camp and tells me sadly, that is was all green when she was a child. They used to play and have picnics there. Further away, Efrat settlement, called “the Snake” is like a wall itself—grabbing land, dividing communities, diverting normal traffic between towns.

The wedding, which involves no actual ceremony, proceeds with three parties, several meals before during and after, and lots of dancing. The day after the main wedding party, as I am checking my email, someone comes into the computer room and tells us the Israeli Army is here and everyone runs to the restaurant on the top floor to see what’s happening. I see three jeeps on the main road, and one headed to the neighborhood across from the camp. They are looking for a young man there, and they have blocked off the road. Dozens of young men run out to throw stones at the jeeps. Um Mohammed, who works at the Guesthouse, runs after them, yelling for them to stop and come inside. For the next several hours we are at the windows watching, jumping at the sound bombs, inhaling tear gas, and noting the sound of live ammunition. The young people inside are crying and laughing and talking. Others continue to throw stones at the jeeps from just inside the camp. The Americans note the distance and accuracy of the stones, and make jokes about potential baseball careers. I catch myself wondering if I’ll be able to get the phone I need now that the road is closed. I look at the jeeps I think of all the talk of “violence on both sides of the conflict.” Here it is so painfully obvious: Can Palestinians drive armored jeeps to an Israeli town, stop all activity, shoot sound bombs, tear gas and bullets at the civilian population? Arrest people almost at random, hold them indefinitely without trial? And besides, if you have armored jeeps and flak jackets, why do you have to shoot anything at anybody? I’m convinced this show of force is, of course to intimidate people into submission, but also to reinforce for the soldiers themselves and the folks back home the idea that the Palestinians are all dangerous all the time.

As things appear to calm down, we hear the windows shatter on the Ibdaa bus (used to travel to basketball and soccer games, dance performances and filed trips), someone’s car, and the little camera shop near the entrance to the camp. Sound bombs, which I find out later are “practice grenades,” have done the damage. Finally Ziad Abbas, (the other Ibdaa co-director) convinces us all to come away from the windows, sit down and eat the food that was prepared for a church group that had planned to visit that day. The jeeps drive off. The roads open. I get my phone. Later I find out that the “wanted” young man was not arrested, but his family home was ransacked and several young people were wounded by plastic bullets.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Night Sky in Gaza

I'm not a positive or optimistic person but my friends and co-workers in Palestine have taught me how to find the best things in the worst situation and how to enjoy the moment while I can.

When people ask me why I go to Gaza I usually joke that it's my vacation. Gaza is on the Mediterranean and someday I hope it will be beautiful, especially for the people who live there and have survived decades of hell on earth. But sometimes I feel like I really am on vacation.

Even in the worst circumstances there are moments when everything is quiet and you can close your eyes and hear the sea. I took a walk last Saturday with a friend. It was the first walk for me in Gaza. Ever. We went to the beach and collected sea shells. We even put our feet in the warm water.

On my last night in Gaza, we were driving home from dinner with friends. There was no electricity in most of the towns and neighborhoods we drove through so we had a beautiful view of the night sky. Looking up you could almost forget that you were in one of the most densely populated places in the world.

I know these brief moments are not available to everyone in Gaza and that they come easier to me since I'm only in Palestine for a visit. I know most people in Gaza (and in the West Bank) are too consumed with the safety of their children and families, figuring out where the next meal is coming from, and wondering what is next. But even in the midst of this, there are festivals, sports matches, and dark nights that let people take a deep breath. I think this is some of the most important work our partners are doing in Palestine - creating spaces for children and the local community to leave behind the burdens of daily life for a few minutes or a few hours.

Of course, the Israeli occupation is still there and drags people back to reality. When the Al-Assria organized a festival in Gaza City a few months ago, 600 people came to watch the debka dancing and celebrate Palestinian culture. But at the end, they all went back to homes without reliable electricity or clean water. When the Ibdaa basketball team won the West Bank championship last summer there were bus loads of fans from three generations. But then we traveled back from Ramallah through Israeli checkpoints, getting stopped for hours. And in the midst of a dark, tranquil night last week there was a loud boom from Israeli warplanes bombing a car.

Since I left Gaza on Tuesday morning, 30 people have been killed in Gaza. This is a huge number and it becomes even larger when you think about how small Gaza is. It's equivalent to 60 people being killed in Los Angeles or 165 in New York City. But more frightening than the numbers is how "normal" these almost daily killings have become for the international community and also for people in Palestine.

Monday, January 14, 2008

People, Presidents and Peace

I remember now why I stopped watching television and reading newspapers. I can't bear to read stories and listen to commentaries on political issues that are unrelated to people’s reality.

For months the main discourse on Palestine/Israel in the US has been about peace talks and negotiations. I managed to avoid most of the fanfare by getting my news from a few select websites but I was forced to pay attention this week when George W. Bush came to visit.

I was quietly sipping my morning tea at Ibdaa Cultural Center, just outside of Bethlehem, when we heard planes overhead and rushed to the windows. You see there are no airports in the West Bank so it's unusual and worrisome to find low flying planes. It turned out they were US planes checking the area in preparation for Bush's visit to Ramallah and Bethlehem. Some friends told me that they landed at the helicopter landing strip just beside Dheisheh Refugee Camp and loads of men in uniforms came out and then piled into black SUVs. When Bush himself came to the Bethlehem area a few days later, his security detail closed many streets to cars and imposed curfew on several neighborhoods.

Bush’s visit was supposed to show that he is serious about peace but during a press conference he joked about Israeli checkpoints - something that is anything but funny to the 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank who cannot travel freely from one Palestinian city to another because of the checkpoints. It takes more than words to show you are serious. There is no doubt that he and the rest of my government are good with words – peace, human rights, democracy – I’m sure you’re familiar with their favorites. But we are draining the last shreds of meaning from these words by never using our resources and political power for any of these causes.

While my president met with the Palestinian president in Ramallah to make abstract statements and plan for a peace settlement that will never come to be, I was lucky enough to be with people in Gaza.

I spent that morning at a school in Bureij Refugee Camp. Afaq Jadeeda Association, one of MECA’s partners in Gaza, had completed construction of a water purification system for the school and planned an opening ceremony with children, teachers, and community members. Safe drinking water is hard to find in Gaza so the children’s parliament came to Afaq Jadeeda with this idea. Now 2000 children have access to clean water which is wonderful but not nearly enough.

There are 1.5 million people living in Gaza and more than half are children. The situation has become so bad that it would be worth celebrating if everyone’s basic needs were met. Israel has put heavy restrictions on the border crossings. They have reduced the amount of fuel coming into Gaza so the only power station cannot run at full capacity and homes, schools, and hospitals must go without electricity for several hours each day. We have only had power for three hours since morning and it is now 11pm. Dr. Mona’s computer is ruined because of the fluctuation in power and the same is happening to important equipment throughout Gaza.

The border restrictions and power outages have made the prices for food, candles, cigarettes, and especially chocolate go up and up while family’s incomes go down and down. I visited a farm just outside of Khan Younis today – there were at least 10 people there harvesting onions but they will not be able to earn a living from their hard work because they cannot export the onions and people in Gaza do not have enough money to pay fair prices.

How can Abbas, Bush and Olmert discuss peace just a few miles from these children without clean water? I am turning off the television and the radio and closing the New York Times website. I have seen the effects of US and Israeli policies in Gaza and I don’t want to hear the word peace until they are able to show it to me here in Gaza.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in Gaza

I'm back in Gaza. It's been almost a year since my last visit here and I don't quite know what to say or where to begin.

The situation has been terrible and dangerous in Gaza since my first visit in May 2004 (and much before). But each time there are new obstacles and difficulties for the ordinary people to overcome - military incursion, international sanctions, power outages, water shortages, closure - the list could go on for pages.

In May and August 2004 I came just after major Israeli military incursions that destroyed hundreds of houses and acres of orange groves and farm land. I can still picture Beit Hanoun in August 2004. The taxi driver stopped the car and I was sure that he had made a mistake and taken us to the wrong spot. I had been on the same street just a month and a half before and at that time both sides of the street were lined with houses and there were acres of orange trees behind the houses on the left. I was horrified when I recognized one of the houses that was left standing. The neighborhood was decimated.

Since August 2004 my visits to Gaza have been so infrequent that I can no longer be sure whether I have been to an area before. The landscape changes so drastically and the rubble from years of demolished houses, factories, and schools blend together; it's nearly impossible for my untrained eye to discern last week's destruction from last year's.

The long journey

I woke up early on Tuesday morning and phoned the liaison office at Erez Crossing which is run by the Israeli army. After five days my request had been approved so I arranged a ride to the crossing and packed my bags - stopping to get chocolate and cigarettes for friends in Gaza because both are now rare commodities with exorbitant prices.

I arrived at Erez at 2pm and submitted my passport to an Israeli police officer. They told me to sit and wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. There were only a handful of people crossing that day - a few foreigners who work at NGOs, a couple of Palestinians returning from meetings in Israel and the West Bank, and one or two journalists. They all came and went while I sat and read my book.

At 6pm I was finally able to speak with someone besides the woman behind the desk. He told me I didn't have permission but I insisted I did and showed him the call log on my cell phone that showed my phone call to Erez that morning. He sent me to another building to speak with someone from the army. The details aren't that important, just the absurdity of it as I went back forth between the army and the police. I was alternately told I had permission, I didn't have permission, I never applied and needed to send an application, and that I was talking to the wrong person. I was finally sent away at 7pm.

I came back the next morning and was allowed to enter. One woman from the liason office claimed there was a computer error on Tuesday and that everything was fixed now. I consider myself lucky to have been able to pass and to have gotten any kind of explanation, no matter how implausible. There are countless stories of Palestinians seeking medical treatment or wanting to travel for their studies or jobs and they are turned away again and again by Israel, locked inside Gaza with only a word of explanation: security.

First impressions

Most of my family and friends asked me not to come to Gaza. They saw the death tolls in the days leading up to my trip - 11 in 24 hours, 6 the next day including a mother and her children - and told me it was too dangerous. They're right. It is too dangerous in Gaza. Too many people have lost their lives: 290 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces in 2007 dozens more from internal fighting.

But, as always, life goes on. Just like life went on in Rafah after thousands of people were made homeless in 2004 for Israel to build a wall between Gaza and Egypt. And when sonic bombs terrified the population in 2005 because there were no longer Israeli settlers in Gaza who would have also been disturbed. And when the main power plant was bombed leaving much of the population without electricity and international sanctions increased the number of people living in poverty in 2006.

I have spent the past year reading articles and reports of human rights violations; rising poverty; shortages of food, medication, and other necessities; and many other horrors. These are an important part of the story but they are not the whole story. It's strange to say, but it's actually great to be here, surrounded by friends and co-workers, seeing a bit of the other side of life in Gaza. There is no doubt that the situation is hard for people and that they are suffering because of the policies of the Israeli government and the indifference of the international community, but people are making the best of these hard circumstances and I'm glad to be here to see it.

I'll post photos and stories later but need to stop here before the power goes out again.