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.


Meg said...

Thanks for writing up your thoughts, Jo. It's so good to have access to your experiences in Gaza.

Alyson said...

Great work.