The ruins of Gaza

June 22, 2009

Laura Durkay describes what she witnessed as part of a Code Pink delegation that visited Gaza earlier in June.

"PEOPLE ARE being kept alive." It was one of the first things that John Ging, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza told us.

It's a pretty accurate description of the conditions in Gaza, four months after the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which left 1,400 dead, over 5,000 wounded and at least 40,000 homeless. People are being kept alive--and that's about all.

Four months after the cease-fire, not a brick has been rebuilt in Gaza. Thousands of buildings--from the Palestinian parliament building (heavily damaged) and presidential residence (obliterated), to the Islamic University, the American School, Al Quds Hospital (hit with white phosphorus) and thousands of homes, shops, factories and police stations--stand exactly as they were on January 18, the last day of the war.

This is not due to a lack of money or resources. As John Ging pointed out, millions of dollars of aid has been pledged to Gaza from governments and NGOs around the world. But Israel's medieval siege of Gaza keeps out everything but the most subsistence level of food and medicine. The result is that while you won't find mass starvation in Gaza, you won't find any semblance of normal existence either.

The American School in Gaza was destroyed during Israel's onslaught
The American School in Gaza was destroyed during Israel's onslaught (Laura Durkay | SW)

Our delegation--65 American and international activists representing 10 nationalities and 18 U.S. states--traveled to Gaza from May 30 to June 4 to witness the destruction from what Palestinians call "the last war," and to deliver aid to some of Gaza's children, who make up more than half of the 1.5 million residents of this tiny, besieged piece of land, less than half the size of New York City.

We chose to deliver toys, art supplies and playground equipment after hearing that Israel had turned away a UNICEF shipment of these items in March, claiming that they were not a "humanitarian necessity."

EVERYWHERE WE went in Gaza, two things stood out to us: on the one hand, the deliberate, calculated and intentional brutality of the war and the Israeli occupation and siege; and on the other, the incredible generosity, kindness and determination of ordinary Palestinian people.

In some places, the level of destruction was mind-numbing: Izbet Abd Rabbo, in the north, where every house has been mined and collapsed; Abasan, so close to the border with Israel that our UNRWA guides refused to let us out of the bus (it's awful to see them so afraid on their own land); Khoza'a and Sufa nearby, where we walked among indistinguishable piles of rubble, each of which used to be someone's home.

What you can do

Laura Durkay has written more stories and posted photos of her trip to Gaza at her Laura on the Left Coast blog.

For more on Code Pink's past and future delegations to Gaza and around the world, visit the Code Pink Web site.

The organization Viva Palestina U.S. is leading a convoy to Gaza this summer; it will leave on July 4. See the Viva Palestina Web site for information, or telephone 773-226-2742.

We quickly learned that although there is supposedly a cease-fire in effect, "cease-fire" is a relative term in Gaza--and it means that Palestinians are to cease firing while Israel does what it wants.

Driving along the coast road from Rafah to Gaza City, we could clearly see Israeli gunboats on the horizon. During the day, they harass and shoot at fishermen trying to make a living in Gaza's waters, and at night, they sail close to shore and shell the coastline.

Shelling, machine-gun fire and drones flying overhead are a nightly occurrence. In just one of the five nights that we were in Gaza, five refugee camps were shelled, with one person (a mother in her 20s) killed and six others wounded.

Even in places that were spared pulverization by tanks and F-16s, the grinding weight of the siege is palpable. When we arrived at Al Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza, the first thing the director did was apologize for the stifling heat--the hospital had no electricity, and their generators lack the capacity to run both the emergency medical equipment and the air conditioning.

The main building at Al Shifa also lacks a working elevator, since parts for every conceivable piece of machinery are impossible to obtain. Patients' family members must carry them up the stairs.

We were shown a room full of dialysis supplies, many of the boxes dented from rough handling by Israeli inspectors. This is one day's supply, we were told, and there are no reserves. Often, the hospital receives medical supplies that are deliberately damaged or that expired while being held up at the crossings too long.

Most of the buildings at Al Shifa are crumbling and dilapidated, but one is shiny and new: a pristine oncology and radiation therapy center paid for by a Saudi prince. But it sits empty and unused--the material needed to run the radiation machines is not allowed in.

Because no society can possibly function on what Israel legally allows into Gaza, people have found ways to compensate--most notably, with a booming smuggling trade that operates via the hundreds of tunnels, most 50 feet deep and up to a kilometer long, that run under the border with Egypt.

Remember the generators at Al Shifa Hospital? One hundred percent of the fuel to run them comes through these tunnels--along with numerous everyday goods, from produce, bottled water and packaged foods to small appliances, computers and auto parts.

We visited the tunnels on our last day in Gaza and were shocked to discover that they are not hidden at all--in fact, they're quite out in the open, with people (including many children and teenagers) working in them in broad daylight.

The tunnels get bombed on a regular basis, but seeing how clearly visible they are, the obvious question we had was: Why doesn't Israel bomb every single one?

It wasn't until we took a minute to think like occupiers that we understood. Bomb all the tunnels, enforce starvation, and you risk mass revolt. Bomb just enough to keep those who work in the tunnels afraid for their lives at every moment, to keep the risk--and by association, the prices--high, and you have the perfect recipe for collective punishment. I can't think of a better definition of terrorism than that.

GIVEN THE incredible privation and danger that passes for daily life in Gaza, it wouldn't have surprised me to find bitterness, anger, even hatred toward Americans since the U.S. government funds and arms Israel to the teeth. But we were continually stunned by the overwhelming friendliness, hospitality and generosity shown to us by every single Gaza resident we met.

Many Gazans speak excellent English, but even those who don't seem to know one word: "Welcome." I lost track of the number of people--from the mayor of Rafah to the many incredibly dedicated members of the UNRWA staff who took us around Gaza--who told us without affectation that we were their brothers and sisters, and assured us that we now had a home in Gaza for the rest of our lives.

This warm welcome extended right up to the representatives of the Hamas government we interacted with, who treated us like diplomats--which, in a certain sense, we were, since no one from the U.S. government is currently taking up that role.

At the end of our over-scheduled first full day in Gaza, we were greeted with a hasty announcement: "Freshen up, we're going to parliament!"

In the courtyard of the bombed-out Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) building, under a huge white UNICEF tent, our grubby, sweaty and tired delegation received the closest thing Gaza has to an official state welcome, including greetings from Ahmad Bahar, the acting head of the PLC.

Now, whatever your opinion of Hamas, could you imagine the speaker of parliament in any other country in the world taking time out of his or her schedule to roll out the red carpet (literally!) for a scruffy bunch of antiwar activists?

But if a red carpet welcome from Hamas--for our delegation of mostly women, led by Medea Benjamin, an American Jew--was not what many of us expected, it was nothing compared to the next night, when three Hamas MPs came back to our hotel to spend an hour and a half with us discussing politics, covering everything from the legitimacy of armed resistance under international law, to the Hamas-Fatah rift, to one-state versus two-state solutions.

Or the night after that, when Huda Naim, a female member of parliament for Hamas, brought several dozen of her female party comrades to discuss women's lives in Gaza with us--and what fierce and fearless women they were! "I left my house at seven this morning, and I haven't been home since," a woman who works in the Ministry of Education told us proudly (this was around seven at night). She lives in Khan Younis and had traveled 20 kilometers to Gaza City to meet us.

I particularly remember a young woman who was on the student council at the Islamic University of Gaza. Her brother, an 18-year-old volunteer medic, was killed while on duty during the war. Since his death, she has become even more determined to finish her studies and start the business they dreamed of opening together. "They killed my brother," she said simply, "but they can't kill our dreams."

By the end of the trip, we started joking that we had now met with Hamas more times than Obama had--and quite possibly ever will. When several members of the delegation returned to Cairo a day early to stage a protest at Obama's speech and call on him to visit Gaza (surprise--he did not), they brought with them an official letter to the U.S. Embassy from Hamas calling for a reopening of diplomatic relations. (You can read the text of the letter here.)

On the one hand, we were honored by our new diplomatic responsibility. But on the other, it seemed a bit ridiculous that the democratically elected government of anywhere has to depend for communication with the U.S. government on a group of activists.

Perhaps nothing sums up my Gaza experience better than the story of Mufid Amur, who I met on our last full day in Gaza.

Touring a devastated village on the road to the Sufa crossing, I stopped to take a picture of a pile of rubble (once a home) with a Palestinian flag perched on top. I was approached by Mr. Amur, who spoke excellent English and was the owner of the house. He offered to show me where he, his wife and seven children now live: two 8-foot-by-10-foot tin-roofed shacks, with no plumbing or electricity and just a few mattresses on the floor--all they were able to salvage from their destroyed home.

I had no words to offer Mr. Amur--even apologizing on behalf of my government, which I did, seemed hollow and specious. But his primary concern, amongst this post-apocalyptic landscape of destroyed homes, was that I should stay and have tea.

The only promise I could make to him in return was that I would not forget his name (which, being without a pen when I heard it, I repeated over and over to myself on the way back to the bus), and that I would bring his story back to the U.S.--and continue to fight to end the siege and occupation, until the day when there is justice in Palestine.

Further Reading

From the archives