A day in Gaza

July 20, 2009

The Viva Palestina delegation of solidarity activists from the U.S. was allowed to enter Gaza on July 15 with truckloads of desperately needed humanitarian supplies--but under the condition that the convoy leave again within 24 hours.

The delegation, led by British Member of Parliament and antiwar activist George Galloway, met one bureaucratic obstacle after another from Egyptian authorities. After negotiating an agreement with the government, the convoy finally left for the Rafah border crossing after several days, and with some of its supplies barred from getting through.

A number of SocialistWorker.org contributors were part of the Viva Palestina delegation. This is the first half of a diary of the 24 hours in Gaza by Tom Arabia, Karen Burke, Ream Kidane, Brian Lenzo, Khury Peterson-Smith, Eric Ruder and Martin Smith. The diary continues with "The stories of life under siege."

THE WHOLE world expects callous disregard for Palestinian life from Israel. But as one of the world's largest and most powerful Arab countries, Egypt is supposed to be sympathetic to the people of Palestine.

For years now, however, the deference of the Egyptian regime to the U.S. and Israeli blockade of Gaza has been essential in keeping the residents of Gaza under lock and key. If Egypt simply allowed people and goods to flow through its border with Gaza, the siege would be over.

But the Egyptian government is susceptible--if barely--to public pressure because of the sympathies of its own citizens and the rest of the Middle East with the Palestinians. After days of delays and stonewalling, Egyptian officials finally allowed our Viva Palestina convoy to pass into Gaza at the Rafah border crossing.

But only grudgingly. We were barred from taking with us 47 trucks, vans and cars purchased at the request of hospitals and other social service organizations in Gaza. And instead of staying for the three days in Gaza that we had planned, Egypt limited us to a mere 24 hours. Those who didn't leave with the rest of the convoy within the 24-hour period were threatened with being stuck in Gaza--like its residents--until the next general border opening, which could be weeks or months in the future.

The Al Quds hospital in Gaza City, damaged in Israel's assault
The Al Quds hospital in Gaza City, damaged in Israel's assault (Tom Arabia | SW)

But we did have 24 hours, and we made the most of them.

July 15, 4 p.m.

From Brian: As our bus waited outside the gates of the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, a crowd began to gather around our bus. Around 50 people were camped out on the side of the road, some holding their infant children. We hung our Palestinian flags out the windows and chanted, "Long Live Palestine!"

As people shouted at us, mostly in Arabic, we learned a bit about their purpose at this crossing. One woman holding her baby boy and surrounded by two other children shouted, "I have been here for 13 days, please let me in with you." Another man held his American passport, bags in hand, begging us to let him on the bus.

A group of protesters blocked our path through the border gate, holding a big yellow banner with "End the Siege," written in English and Arabic. People outside and on our bus wept. Many of these people have been trying to get through the border for months, to see their families or to deliver aid.

Convoy to Gaza

Solidarity activists traveled from the U.S. to Gaza to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to the Palestinian victims of Israel's brutal war. SocialistWorker.org writers contributed to this journal during the Viva Palestina convoy.

After navigating through the gate, we entered Egyptian customs, which would turn out to be a six-hour ordeal--a delay just long enough to push our entrance into Gaza out of the daylight hours when we would get the most media coverage.

Immediately, we were confronted with a stark fact of life for Palestinians traveling in and out of Gaza. Along the northern wall of the waiting area, a middle-aged man sat slumped over in a light blue hospital gown. An IV dangled from his arm, the bag lying on the floor between his legs.

A couple of us approached him to offer help and find out what he was doing there. This man had just been released from a hospital in Cairo after kidney surgery--a procedure ruled necessary by Egyptian authorities, so he was allowed out of Gaza to have the procedure with his son at his side.

However, the Egyptian border police refused entry for his son, and so the man limped in sandals and a hospital gown, noticeably disoriented, into customs, where he now sat, unattended to, waiting for entry back into Gaza. Our first delivery of medical aid to the people of Gaza was one brand new wheelchair to a man recovering from surgery, alone, in an Egyptian customs waiting room.

What you can do

For more information about the convoy and ongoing updates about its activities, visit the Viva Palestina-U.S. Web site.

If you'd like to host a speaker who was part of the Viva Palestina convoy and a witness to the siege of Gaza, e-mail [email protected], and note your request in the subject line.

Several contributors to SocialistWorker.org were part of the Viva Palestina convoy. You can read blogs from some at TheSitch.com.

After the fuss, of course, the man was promptly given a wheelchair by customs officials and spirited across the border and out of sight.

Back when our bus pulled through a second gate (the first was blocked by protesters), riot police forced people away from our bus, shoving a young woman and her child. As the scene unfolded, Raja, a Palestinian man from our delegation, cried out, "Oh Gaza! Oh Gaza!" as he wept.

For most of the trip, it was better that we did not weep for Gaza--that we did not show our sadness. The people of Gaza don't need our pity. There is plenty of that to go around. We came to bring aid--but more importantly, our presence was proof that the siege, one of the most brutal blockade-and-sanction regimes in modern history, can be broken. We came to show that Americans care about Palestinians, and that when President Barack Obama calls conditions in Gaza "intolerable," some Americans refuse to tolerate them, even if Mr. Obama does.

After weeping alongside Raja for those short moments on the bus, I focused on the people of Gaza--on their stories and their lives. I opened my heart to them for the paltry 24 hours we were allowed by Egyptian authorities. But when I asked about the January assault, and saw the anguish in their eyes, the intensity of their memories, I thought to myself, "Oh Gaza! Oh Gaza!"

July 15, 9 p.m.

From Eric: "Twenty-four hours is not enough time," Insharah Ashour told me as we waited in one of several lines on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. She was returning to Gaza for the first time in 10 years, and her heart was heavy with the fact that she would have to leave after 24 hours.

"We will break the siege," she said, "but people came from a long way to see their families. Next time, I want to break the siege forever. But if not forever, we can at least raise their spirits. I haven't seen my family for 10 years. I was born and raised in Gaza. Now my mother is very old, and I want to see her before she leaves. I have tried so many times, bought a ticket and couldn't get through."

Insharah is one of many Palestinians on the Viva Palestina convoy whose roots are deep in this land crisscrossed by history, with towns that were settings for Biblical stories and have ever since been ruled over by a succession of empires. The Roman, the Ottoman, the British and the American empires have all left their marks here, some more brutally than others.

The Israeli occupation of Gaza began in 1967 after the Six Day War, and though the U.S. was already sympathetic to Israel's colonization of Palestine, this war demonstrated for U.S. policymakers both the strength of the Israeli military machine and the usefuleness of having a powerful client willing and able to challenge the rising tide of Arab nationalism. After 1967, the U.S. dramatically increased its financial, military and diplomatic support for Israel, cementing what came to be known in foreign policy circles as the "special relationship."

Insharah remembers the protests she participated in during this time:

In 1968, one year after the occupation of Gaza began, I was a high school student, and we protested the occupation--all the curfews, the blockades, the daily frustrations. So we planned a demonstration, but the Israeli soldiers locked the school so no one could get out. Then they beat us with their batons. Some girls had broken bones. I was lucky because I was only bruised and couldn't move for a week. When my mom asked me what was wrong, I told her I was just tired.

I hid this from my mom because she thought that girls are not supposed to be wild and protest. I told her years later the real reason I was hurt. And I think she was proud. I was born in 1951 in a refugee camp. So I'm going to tell the kids who live in tents now that this happened before, that it is happening again, and that they should remain strong.

We want our freedom. We want our right to return from the camps and villages where we ended up after our displacement. We don't live in Palestine, but Palestine lives in us.

Throughout the trip, Insharah was nearly inseparable from Widad, another Palestinian woman of her generation. Today, they both live in Houston, and they carry with them, in their quiet demeanor and steadfast determination, the history of their people, with their pain and their hope etched on their faces.

The day we landed in Cairo with the Viva Palestina convoy, Widad explained to me that her husband was 2 years old in 1948 when the men went off to defend their homes and the women and children fled to Jordan. It took 12 years of searching for her husband's father to find their family, but he eventually did.

Ten years after that, Widad met her future husband while both were active in the Palestinian resistance based in Jordan. But Jordan's rulers worried that a people fighting for liberation might inspire Jordan's poor and downtrodden to fight back as well. So in 1970, during what came to be known as Black September, King Hussein forced the leadership of the Palestinian national movement to flee Jordan for Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were killed, leaving another chapter in the long story of Palestinian dispossession.

Mahmoud Darwish, regarded as Palestine's national poet and one of the Arab world's greatest writers, wrote a beautiful book of prose poems called Memory for Forgetfulness, which takes as its subject the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 1982. But the themes he touches on remain as relevant as ever for Palestinians, from Israel's 1948 war of ethnic cleansing that drove more than 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, to Jordan in 1970 to Egypt today.

Why then should those whom the waves of forgetfulness have cast upon the shores of Beirut be expected to go against nature? Why should so much amnesia be expected of them? And who can construct for them a new memory with no content other than the broken shadow of a distant life in a shack made of sheet metal?

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

And who is going to help them forget in the midst of this anguish, which never stops reminding them of their alienation from place and society? Who will accept them as citizens? Who will protect them against the whips of discrimination and pursuit: "You don't belong here!"

They present for inspection an identity, which, shown at borders, sounds an alarm so that contagious diseases may be kept in check, and at the same time, they note how expertly this very identity is used to uplift Arab nationalist spirit...

Why then do they level against him countless accusations: making trouble, violating the rules of hospitality, creating problems and spreading the contagion of arms? When he holds his peace, his soul is taken out to the stray dogs; and when he moves toward the homeland, his body is dragged out to the dogs.

July 15, 10:30 p.m.

From Eric: I stayed back with a dozen Viva Palestina volunteers to make sure that none of our medical aid, personal belongings or other stragglers got left behind at the border crossing.

While we waited in the warm night for a bus to shuttle us across the no-man's land between Egypt and Gaza, we shared a bag of cookies that someone had left behind--and the expectation that we were finally going to play some small but important role in breaking the siege of Gaza started to make everyone giddy.

The trip brought together an inspiring group of people--Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Latinos, Blacks, whites, antiwar veterans of the U.S. military, socialists, Democrats and even some Republicans.

Some grew up knowing about the injustices committed against Palestinians, some found out about the issues in recent weeks, and others have come to have a deep commitment to the cause of Palestine because of its connection to a string of injustices that shape the world we live in.

Mutulu Olugbala, also known as M1 and one half of the radical rap duo Dead Prez, is one of these people. As we sat on the curb waiting for the bus to take us to the revelry of people being reunited with their families, Mutulu explained how he ended up on the Viva Palestina convoy:

I've been lucky enough to become involved in a movement that faces the world head on. I try to look at the world from the political standpoint that the people have nothing to lose but their chains. Imperialism, which is headed by a ruling class all over the world, has its boot on this particular place. I recognize this struggle as part of the African people's liberation struggle.

Growing up as a young African, oppression in the name of poverty or all kinds of violence is all around. And many of us ask why? I started to find an answer to these questions in the streets of Tallahassee. And since then, I've met veterans of the civil rights struggle, the Black Power movement and many others.

The reality is that in order to change our world, we have to amass power by shifting the relationship to the resources in the world from the people who have it now to the people who should own.

July 16, 7 a.m.

From Tom: Entering Gaza, its pain, the fragility of its smuggled subsistence, its broken heart but unbroken spirit, is part of every waking moment. So even at breakfast, a delicious meal among friends, the conversation set the stage for what was to come.

A few others and I sat with the director of an orphanage. There have been well over 100,000 children orphaned since 1967 in Gaza alone, thousands from Israel's onslaught at the beginning of the year. And this doesn't count the children of the 11,000 Palestinians indefinitely imprisoned.

But even just eating in silence, we can't help but remember that even these modest provisions had to be brought into the country illegally through tunnels, or that Israel tightens the tourniquet of its siege just before the critical point of mass starvation.

Imagine visiting the world's largest open-air prison--and its inmates are doing everything they can to accommodate you.

July 16, 9 a.m.

From Tom: The Viva Palestina delegates were split into three buses, and the first part of our bus tour was Gaza City. It's an otherwise normal-looking city, but peppered with bullet and tank shell holes, the crumbling remains of buildings and the poisonous residue of white phosphorus and depleted uranium.

In the administrative district, hundreds of people died during Israel's attack, and many key buildings were destroyed. The presidential headquarters was hit with dozens of missiles from Israeli warplanes, with 62 people killed there alone. Another body was found just last week. Throughout Gaza, hundreds--perhaps thousands--of families have yet to find the remains of their loved ones buried in the rubble.

Across the street is what was once a police station, beside a factory--both have been reduced to mangled piles of rubble. Just behind these are the broken skeletons of residential buildings, pummeled by missiles and shells. And beyond those is the former building for Palestine television--still standing, but all its windows shattered, riddled with bullet holes.

Further along is another pile of rubble--this time, the former Ministry of Justice. Down the street is the Palestinian National Authority's Ministry of Education, arbitrarily left unscathed. Between them is a demolished complex of buildings that were once the Ministries of Interior, National Security, Finance and Social Affairs. Pieces of the buildings dangle precariously by threads of steel rebar.

Here, dozens more people were killed in the Israeli onslaught. The victims knew of the danger of being in these buildings, but they went to work anyway to keep the city running as much as possible amid the bloodshed and destruction.

We drove by the former headquarters of the Ministry of Detainees, which helps families whose loved ones have been captured and jailed by Israel. It's not just that almost 12,000 are currently behind bars, held in the most wretched of conditions, but the revolving door of prisoners allows Israel to maintain a veneer of "generosity" by releasing inmates to much press attention--even as the same numbers or more are detained.

I don't believe that there's any other country with a Ministry of Detainees. Demolished by the Israeli attack, the Ministry of Detainees headquarters has been moved to what was an adjunct facility.

Further along was another building damaged by Israeli missiles and shells. When we pulled up, it became clear from the now crooked red crescents that it was Al Quds Hospital, once one of Gaza City's foremost medical facilities. Several floors were blown out by mortar fire. There are plans for reconstruction, but precious little building materials to accomplish this.

July 16, 10 a.m.

From Ream: The Al Amal Institute for Orphans is situated in the heart of Gaza City, next to the Ministry of Health.

It was first established in 1949 by a group of Palestinian business owners to house children orphaned by the war to found Israel, when more than 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by Israeli forces and terrorist gangs. Palestinians call this the Nakba (the catastrophe), and while it metaphorically created generations of orphans from towns that were disappeared from the map and given new Hebrew names, Al Amal took in the literal orphans of the fighting.

Orphans hold a special place in the Islamic faith. The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan, according to the Koran, and some of its earliest verses are about his childhood. A majority of Palestinians are Muslim, so the orphanage network in Gaza is a crucial part of the social safety net for many generations ravaged by war and conflict.

Al Amal currently takes care of about 100 to 170 orphans aged 5 to 10. Throughout Gaza, there are 53,000 orphans, plus an additional 2,200 newly orphaned children because of the Israeli offensive. The population of Gaza is 1.5 million people, and half are under the age of 15. That means one out of every 13 children in Gaza is an orphan.

Al Amal didn't have to wait until the offensive was over to feel the effects of the onslaught. On December 31, in the midst of Israel's assault, one of the institute's most beloved children, Mohammed El Awadi, was coming back from school after taking his final exams when he was hit by an Israeli bullet. He died shortly thereafter.

Mustafa, one of the staff at Al Amal (names of the institute's staff were changed), said he thought the orphanage might be safe from direct attack because it was located near three government ministries. However, after two of those ministries were hit by Israeli bombs and rockets, it was clear that the children had to be moved.

Mustafa explained the plan: Send each orphan to a respective host family, dispersing them throughout the community. The plan worked. Although many homes where the orphans were sent were attacked, there were no other casualties after Mohammed.

We continued speaking with another Al Amal staff member, Omar, about the uncertainty of life in Gaza:

They say that we Palestinians are spreading terror, but you [Viva Palestina delegates] can go most anywhere in Gaza for 24 hours, and you will have no problems. It's safe. But for the past few years, we sleep with the car door open, with the motorcycle on, with our hearts open because the Israeli bombs can come in the night at any time.

Mustafa explains that Israel's siege of Gaza and its constant bombardment have targeted not just specific individuals or political parties, but everyone. As a result, he says:

We have no other choice but to fight. Our struggle did not end with the last war, and it did not start with the election of Hamas, it did not start with the PA peacefully taking over Gaza. It began in 1948.

It can't be put in any other way. We're put in a situation where we can't defend ourselves. But we are every day becoming stronger. If we build our strength with justice and without taking the rights of anyone else, we will make it.

In our last few moments at Al Amal, Omar expressed his gratitude for the Viva Palestina convoy and invited us to stay longer next time. He then asked us to deliver this message to the American people: "We love Americans, we like Americans, we respect Americans. But your taxes--the American people's--give us bombs."

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