The stories of life under siege

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 delegation. This is the second 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 begins with "A day in Gaza."

A building in the Jabaliya refugee camp destroyed by Israeli warplanes (Tom Arabia | SW)A building in the Jabaliya refugee camp destroyed by Israeli warplanes (Tom Arabia | SW)

July 16, 10:30 a.m.

From Eric: Haidar and I finished a traditional Palestinian breakfast of bread infused with olive oil and thyme. Then we drove around Remal, the administrative center of Gaza, where the concentration of ministry and legislative buildings, universities and Al Shifa Hospital took many direct hits in December and January. This is also the neighborhood of the Palestinian bourgeoisie that had lived in Tunisia, and returned to Palestine after the 1993 Oslo Accords.

I knew Haidar through many phone calls to Palestine, but this is the first time we met face to face. During the Israeli onslaught in December and January, Haidar continued to do interviews with SocialistWorker.org, despite the stress of the 24-hour-a-day military operations--helping open a window on what conditions in Gaza really were like. He is also a leading Palestinian voice in the movement calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

In Remal, Haidar surveyed the damage and worried that the opportunity for the Palestinian struggle to capitalize on an international outrage at Israel's war may be slipping away:

Series: 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.

Armed struggle is just one pillar of the struggle. But what about mass mobilization? What about international solidarity? Honestly, Gaza 2009 is our South African moment.

The problem is that we do not have a visionary leadership. In response to my latest article about Hamas, they called me to discuss it. They weren't at all happy with what I had to say. But it must be said, and I have to say it--I talked for about a half an hour with a senior adviser.

We can't just accept the Hamas-Fatah dichotomy. We've been arguing for an alternative, for a third way.

Mohammed, a former student of Haidar's at Al-Aqsa University and a member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), got into the car, and we continued with our tour of destruction. Mohammed picked up the explanation of what Haidar meant by a "third way":

After finishing my studies, I began working with some undergraduate students to establish a campaign against occupation and colonization in Gaza, and the rest of Palestine.

We're a student extension of the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel. We're organizing a boycott of Israeli institutions that are complicit in the occupation of Palestine. We call on freedom-loving people, like you and others in the West, to boycott, sanction and divest from all companies that support and collaborate with Israel directly or indirectly.

Our struggle is universal and attempts to reach out to all people internationally. All the various student organizations and parties have signed on to this campaign. This is a global movement that has been gathering momentum since the Israeli offensive of 2009. Our struggle and our tactics are nonviolent. Hundreds or even thousands here in Gaza are part of our campaign.

We're also working to establish links with students all over the world, and we invite them to come to Gaza as part of breaking the siege and protesting the collective punishment, illegal under international law, that Israel has imposed on us. This is a result of the democratic election in 2006 won by Hamas. We are being punished for holding an election that did not produce a result Israel and the U.S. approved of. But this punishment does not target just one party, but all the people, the democratic process and the human rights of all of Gaza's residents.

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 11 a.m.

From Tom: Despite the destruction I saw in Gaza City, nothing could have prepared me for what I was to see in Jabaliya, a refugee camp to the north.

Here, Gaza was hit the hardest in an act of genocide that can be seen with plain eyes. In some areas, everything is leveled. Everything. Much of what had been crushed was near the so-called "buffer zone" by the northern border. This "buffer" is now like a large mass grave.

The destruction was total. For kilometer after kilometer, every structure is either a crumbling shell, a skeleton or a pile of rubble. Farms were shelled and overrun by tanks. Hundreds if not thousands of cattle were crushed--or actually killed, one by one, by Israeli snipers. A soldier's graveyard beside a mosque in the distance was overturned by Israeli tanks. Not even the already dead could be left alone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 11 a.m.

From Brian: Everyday life in Gaza City is a twisted amalgamation of normalcy and extreme abnormality. Walking down the street in the late morning is like watching the un-filmed time in between scenes of a Hollywood action film--the monotonous, mundane activity that takes place between climactic encounters.

I made contact with a man named Mohammed, who is the executive manager of a prominent NGO in Gaza. Mohammed agreed to take me around Gaza City for a couple hours to take in as much as I could during my brief visit.

Downtown Gaza City looked much like any other city in the Middle East. Shops were open, cars navigated around the city, people sat in sidewalk cafes, smoking shisha and drinking fruit juice.

But the scene is different in one major way. As I looked at a beautiful mahogany desk in a high-end furniture store window, I glanced at the second-story apartment windows and saw a few dozen bullet holes. The building across the street had a cellular phone kiosk and a small bodega, but on the fourth floor, you could see straight through to the buildings behind it due to a rocket strike, presumably from an Israeli Apache helicopter strike, given the angle of the hole and damage.

Mohammed further filled in this bizarre picture. He estimated that due to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, about 95 percent of the goods in the stores around me, including the mahogany desk, were smuggled into Gaza through the network of underground tunnels along the southern border with Egypt. The cars driving around all run on gasoline smuggled through the tunnels. Mohammed knew of a man who married an Egyptian woman and was forced to smuggle her in through the tunnels, too.

This is life in Gaza--a land of extreme contrasts. A place where children play tag in a giant crater that used to be the road's median. A place where fishermen cast their nets in water filled with raw sewage--for them, scanning the horizon for Israeli gunships that regularly fire on them is as everyday as keeping an eye out on storms or high winds.

A place where young boys play soccer on a lush green pitch next to a pile of rubble and twisted metal that used to be an athletic club, but was bombed by the Israelis in January. A place where you can't fill in a pothole, let alone repair a building, since Israel and Egypt ban the transport of concrete into Gaza (the last concrete factory in Gaza was bombed by the Israelis earlier this year).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:10 p.m.

From Tom: On one particular patch of road, many residences were crushed. Each of the houses held four to five families, with four to 12 members. One larger residence in particular was destroyed because it allegedly hid a tunnel. It belonged to ordinary people. There was no such tunnel. In that vicinity alone, 60 children were slain.

Several homes for the elderly were bombed and leveled. Most of the dozens were killed. Many were maimed and soon after perished, or they remain slowly awaiting their fate in a painful and complicated terminal condition.

The rest, in whatever condition, now live in ad hoc shanty villages with other survivors of all ages. These are the only structures with life. The tent villages spread through the land are crowded with people who but months ago lived in solid homes, in a bustling town. Now they live under plastic or cotton sheets, in shacks made of tin, hay or cinderblock. But as we pass, some children nonetheless play, waving and smiling. How is it possible?

Everything ordinary or necessary to the life of a contemporary society was targeted and destroyed--farms; factories for the production or processing of everything from electricity and sewage, to food and clothing, to office and auto supplies; state, government and municipal buildings; places of worship; hospitals; high schools; colleges; roads; residences; research facilities...

The damage is estimated at $2 billion, but it will take many more billions to reconstruct and get Gaza running in anything like a normal way.

Israel's excuse was self-defense--that these places housed terrorists and weapons. But whole villages and towns? So many government buildings? Schools? Homes for families and elderly? Any kind of shop or factory you can imagine? Graveyards? Fields and orchards? Cattle?

Every action Israel takes reveals a strategy of breaking Gaza's infrastructure and society apart, and condemning its people to hell on Earth, so that their land and their memory may be replaced.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:15 p.m.

From Eric: As we drove along, Haidar and Nasser suddenly burst out laughing. We had just passed several donkey carts, and Nasser told Haidar to ask me if we had as many donkey carts in the U.S. I replied that Gaza definitely had more donkey carts per capita than the U.S. "At least we have excelled in something," said Haidar with a hearty laugh.

The light moment melted away as we turned the next corner. The rubble stretched as far as the eye could see. The destruction was nearly total. "A lot of people died here," explained Haidar.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:30 p.m.

From Khury: A few of us from the convoy who are students went to Gaza City's Islamic University to meet with a group of students.

The campus, like so much of Gaza, is gorgeous. With palm trees everywhere, green athletic fields and charming, modern buildings, I felt like I was at a university in California--until I saw the first of many shells of buildings surrounded by rubble.

The campus is dotted with destroyed facilities, reminders of the winter's bombing. IU is the biggest university in the Gaza Strip, with 20,000 students. Israel destroyed 74 of IU's laboratories during the bombing, which came at the end of fall semester and at the beginning of the spring one.

We met with a couple of administrators from the university and eight students. The students graciously toured us around their campus, answering our questions and telling us about their lives. Their requests from us were simple and humbling. "Please tell them," one of the women said, "that we're not terrorists. We have ambitions like any other students in the world. We went to university so we can make things better for ourselves and our people. All we want is a chance."

Our hope is to build academic relationships between our universities in the U.S., and IU and others in Palestine. This can cut against the isolation imposed on Gazans through the siege. Speaking with the students reminded me of how significant solidarity is to these people who Israel is working to cut off from the world. As one student said, "We are strong persons, and we're still here, but we need you to stand up with us."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:45 p.m.

From Martin: We drove through the northern part of Gaza in the area of Jabaliya where the worst destruction was evident. Whereas other parts of Gaza had buildings that were partially wrecked, with some remnants of buildings still standing among the debris, this entire area of Gaza was almost completely leveled into piles of rubble.

I spoke with many of the translators who were volunteers and assisted us on our tour. I asked Mohamad Aldada, who lives in Jabaliya, what he wanted Americans to know. He replied:

I hope that peace will spread among our country in order that we may live as the whole people among the world and have our rights. I had 17 neighbors killed during the war, including 10 who were in one house, and they were mostly women and children. During the bombing, we were scared, and now we have so many children suffering from psychological pains. Whenever they hear a loud noise, they cry out, "A bomb! A bomb!" and start crying.

We had so many martyrs that we buried. When there was a martyr, the sheik informed the neighborhood by chanting from the mosque, and we then prepared a public burial. From everywhere, Israel was so brutal and savage. We had funerals every day, so many funerals. It was like hell. Darkness was all around, even during the day. The streets were empty, and no one could work. The bombs surrounded us.

Mohamad then went on to explain that in northern Jabaliya at Beit Lahia, near where he lived, "The people now practice their daily life, because there's nothing to be afraid of from the U.S.-made bombs, tanks, F-16s and helicopters any longer. They aren't afraid because so many of their family members were killed. They feel like they have nothing left to fear."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 1 p.m.

From Eric: Haidar took me to the home of a man killed by Israeli soldiers in January. He worked for the UN Relief Works Agency.

There is an eerie quality to walking into this building. I remember vividly when Haidar first told me this story over the phone during one of our interviews in the midst of the massacre. Today, it becomes even more haunting as Haidar describes the man as the same age as me when he was killed.

The soldiers entered the house because they thought it would afford them a useful vantage point to control the surrounding area. They entered by punching a hole in the wall in the rear of the house. A crude patch fashioned from whatever materials could be scrounged up now serves as a daily visual reminder of what happened.

Then the soldiers punctured the walls in the front of the house in a few places to set up sniper nests.

The father of the man killed by the soldiers lives next door to the family's apartment, and as Haidar and I sat in the room adjacent to the one where the body sat for 12 days, he arrived, offered us tea and proceeded to recount the story of his son's assassination, in all its full and terrible detail:

On the second of January, they occupied the whole area of the Abed Rabbo farm refugee camp and occupied this house on the fifth of January. It was terrifying.

Two of my sons and their families were upstairs when the soldiers entered, and ordered everyone including the children to raise their hands. They took my sons downstairs while their wives and children were kept in one room, with two soldiers at the door for the next three hours. They spent several hours searching the seven apartments.

They took my son upstairs to the third floor and shot him dead--one shot at point-blank range. They told my other son that his brother was injured, and said he should go outside and shout for an ambulance, and hope that one hears him. But they were snipers on the roof of the mosque across the street that shot at him, blowing the fingers off one of his hands.

The soldiers told him to remove his clothes, and when they saw he had no explosives, they ordered him to return to the apartment. With his hand bleeding, two soldiers took him upstairs to the third floor. After three days, Israeli soldiers called on everyone in this and surrounding buildings to come outside. But no one was allowed into the room where my son had been killed.

The body sat in the family's apartment, with Israeli soldiers letting it rot as they sniped at civilians on the street outside. The women and children were held upstairs until they managed to escape three days later. Ambulances that were called to pick up the body were turned back by sniper fire. Twelve days later, the body was finally picked up and laid to rest. The man is survived by his wife and eight children.

This father's story of Israeli terror continued. "A third son of mine was used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers," he said. "Whenever they thought they might be shot at, they held my son in front of them and rested the barrel of their guns on his shoulder. The soldiers used my son in such a way for three days."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 1 p.m.

From Martin: We saw graffiti--saying things like, "Steadfast, we will not give up despite the siege," on almost every small storefront and apartment dwelling.

Gaza graffiti comes in four kinds. One kind is for electioneering and political campaigns. Another category of graffiti marks where a particular political faction has control, such as one that asserted, "Hamas resisted for the protection of the city." We also saw "Al-Aqsa Brigade" and "Freedom Fighters Brigade." A third type of graffiti marked where a martyr had given their life. We saw an etching that announced, "Here is the mother of a hero."

The final category is political and social messages. We were moved by the power and will of Gazans to endure and struggle, as captured in these art forms of grassroots resistance, with slogans like: "Unity is a bounty and a blessing to the resistance"; "The strength of our community is the hallmark of our civilization"; "Jerusalem will always be the capital of Palestine"; "Resistance and struggle is the way to victory"; "Our future is bright"; "With patriotism and unity, we will move forward"; "Make your voice heard"; and "A commitment to martyrs, refugees and our Jerusalem."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 2 p.m.

From Tom: The convoy regrouped at Al Shifa Hospital for a much-needed moment of triumph and celebration. For the first half of the day, we witnessed story after story of Israeli state terror.

But now we could rejoice. It was to Al Shifa that we would deliver the bulk of the over $200,000 in medical aid we were able to bring through the border crossing at Rafah. At a big press conference, New York City Councilman Charles Barron was finally able to say to a resounding ovation, "After much duress, we've broken the siege. Mission accomplished!"

After this brief moment at Al Shifa, however, we were off to the Ministry of Detainees. Walking in to a packed room, the ceiling and ventilation system broken by hits from Israeli mortars, we would hear stories of families of detainees and the slain. Before our visit was over, all of us were in tears.

The imprisonment of Palestinians is one of the most dehumanizing of Israel's long-term methods for oppression. Every Palestinian family has been affected by this brutal policy. Israel has imprisoned over 750,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza since 1967--over 40 percent of the male population of the Occupied Territories.

Only 5,419--fewer than half of the prisoners currently in detention--were put on trial and convicted of any offense. Compare this to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the single Israeli political prisoner now held by Hamas, who was riding a tank on Palestinian land when captured.

Families rarely if ever are allowed to visit their loved ones in Israeli jails. But here, we had the honor of hearing some of them speak.

"Welcome to Gaza," said one. "This is land that is for all prisoners, for all free people, for every single human being. All of Israel is said to suffer so much from one prisoner. What about us? More than 11,000 of us are in jails. This child whose hand I'm holding has never seen his father, but we are people of peace."

A little later, I had the chance to speak with a woman from the Samouni family. On January 5, at least 70 people in the Zeitoun district of Gaza were massacred by the Israeli military--and the Samouni family alone suffered the loss of 48 family members, including over a dozen children. Many died from injuries they suffered, but went untreated, because medics and humanitarian workers were unable to enter the area because of heavy bombardment.

Alia told me what happened:

We were all together in one house. The Israelis came and knocked on the door. Everyone in the house left, our family with others from the neighbors, about 120 members. [Some were let go and] put together in the Samuli house. [The rest] were surrounded and held outside all day with no shade, no food and no water. Some tried to go back inside to bring out some wood and food to make.

Then the Israelis shot those outside, and shot into the home. Many children died, and some of my own. The father of a family of 14 died. My husband killed, cousin killed, brother killed.

We heard testimony from some of the young Samouni daughters. The first was no more than 15 years old:

After trapping us in our home, they bombed us four times. After the first rocket, my father and cousin were injured. After the next three, all of us had been harmed. I looked up and saw my cousins' head in her hands. Her head was severed off and lying in her lap. At the same time, my father lost the left side of his head. My brother and two of my uncles were also killed.

Pointing to two young women standing next to her, she said:

She lost her mother and her uncle. And this is my cousin, and she too lost six members of her family. We want to know why the Israelis commit such horrible aggression against us, and with weapons that are forbidden internationally.

The next child was even younger, and took the microphone to exclaim:

What was our fault? What was our fault that we had this violence committed against us? We were just civilians sitting in our homes peacefully, and they killed us, killed all of our family.

I just want to say one thing. I will never forgive them. This is our principle: never to forgive, never to forget. We are still here in our land. We need one time, only one time, to resist, to fight the Israelis for Gaza.

The 10-year-old spoke next:

What is my fault? They killed my parents, but what did I do to them? My life was beautiful and peaceful. But after what they did, I will never ever feel that passion again, to just seek a hug from my parents. And I will never forgive them, because they took the most precious thing in my life.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 4 p.m.

From Eric: Haidar has driven me the entire length of Gaza, beginning in Gaza City heading north toward the border, and then south along the coast all the way back to Rafah, where later, I had to cross back to Egypt. As we saw the wall that Egypt has constructed to contain the residents of Gaza in their prison colony, we began discussing how it could be that the massacre didn't bring an end to this intolerable state of affairs.

Haidar explains:

We consider it a significant victory that Israel's December-January offensive ended without Israel being able to accomplish any of its strategic objectives. In three weeks of pounding, they couldn't end the rocket launches, they couldn't force Hamas to surrender, and they couldn't break the will of the people of Gaza.

We needed to build on this victory, and the slogan that we raised is that we will no longer accept the siege they had imposed on us. But as soon as the offensive was over, the resistance leadership ran off to Egypt for national unity negotiations. And where are we now? We are back to the pre-massacre siege.

We need to challenge this. We need to tear down the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. We need to tear down the PA, which does nothing but sustain the fiction that we have something approaching a viable Palestinian state.

In 2007, the wall came down. This was the second time. The first time was shortly after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005. In 2007, Hamas was under intense pressure. There was no petrol, no milk, no medicine. The Egyptians tried, but couldn't stop it. Masses of people flooded across the border. We woke up in the morning, heard on the radio there was a huge explosion that opened up a hole in the wall, and we all headed for the border. Some 750,000 flooded to Al Arish to get supplies.

Hamas' popularity remains about the same as it was when they were elected in January 2006. If the siege has done anything, it has radicalized people. That's what I think. And I include myself in that.

But of course, radicalization doesn't necessarily mean support for Hamas. I have become more secular, actually. And I believe more and more that the two-state solution has come to an end, and what I am suggesting is more radical than what Hamas is proposing, because Hamas has accepted the two-state solution.

I am not for elections at this time, however, because as we have seen in Iraq, in Palestine and elsewhere, elections that don't produce outcomes the Americans want tend to get people killed. There can be no democracy under occupation. I am for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and the formation of a national unified leadership that can lead resistance against occupation. Not unlike the South African resistance.

We have a tunnel economy. There are no factories. There is practically no economy except a trickle of smuggled goods. The global economic crisis has essentially had zero impact because we are already experiencing a severe depression.

There is a fissure opening up within Hamas between those who want to be a "responsible" party of government, and those who understand the need for resistance. This second current is coming to terms with how to address the urgent needs of Gaza, including the need to breach the wall for a third time and take the edge off the siege. I think this is the only way to move the struggle forward.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 8 p.m.

From Brian: The bus ride back to Rafah, driving along the beautiful coastline, was one of the saddest moments of my life.

No matter how much the people of Gaza show their appreciation and endless graciousness, or how many people you exchange e-mails and phone numbers with, you can't escape the guilt that you get to leave, that you are just visiting.

I won't be returning to the lap of luxury by any means. Our economic crisis means that my daily life is becoming closer to that of some people in Gaza, but with that one overwhelming difference: I get to go home, a right all Palestinians are denied.

As we drove the coastline, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, I cracked open the bus window to take a few last photographs, but Gaza quickly reminded me of its dilemma. The smell of raw sewage filled the bus.

This is a smell many are getting used to in Gaza since Israel destroyed the last functioning sanitation facility. Residential and commercial waste is dumped freely into the sea, not by some corporation trying to boost its profits by dumping illegally, but by the government and municipalities out of necessity, a practice not seen in the U.S. since the 1920s.

Our guide came on the loudspeaker to draw our attention to the east side of the bus. A few miles away, you could see fairly new high-rise apartment buildings, completely undamaged, billboards and what looked like a budding metropolis. Signs of progress, right? Just the opposite. These are the former Israeli settlements, abandoned when Ariel Sharon decided to "withdraw" from Gaza, a supposed sign of his commitment to peace. Our guide then asked us to glance back westward to see the two Israeli destroyers not far off the coast--to see for ourselves just how far Israel has "withdrawn."

Our buses continued on, the sun setting below the horizon, leaving just enough light to see the southern countryside. Interspersed between large houses built for Palestinian Authority officials are acres of farmland, the light too dim to make out what was growing. What you could see was the tank tracks and signs of demolition. Almost every free-standing structure, aside from the officials; houses, showed some sign of damage or disrepair.

Most of this pre-dates the January offensive--some is from previous assaults, some from the scheduled home demolitions under Sharon's government. You can't rebuild without raw materials, so the rubble sits, and farmers continue to work their land, breed their livestock and eke out a living.

By the time we reached Rafah, the sun was long gone, but the stores, restaurants and streetlights lit up the town center. I had learned that the lights ran on by fuel-fed generators, a power source that most buildings rely on.

However, I found a much more profound reason a few minutes later. As we waited to enter the Egyptian crossing, I noticed a bit of graffiti on the walls next to our bus. One was a small hand, holding a heart, filled in with the colors of the Palestinian flag, with little wires and lightning bolts scattered about the composition. Above and over the center of the heart was the text, translated from Arabic: "Gaza is powered by the electricity in the hearts of all Palestinians."

I had hoped to leave Gaza and conclude this entry perhaps on that hope-inspiring message. But Gaza doesn't let you forget about its dilemma. As we passed through customs, one of the Palestinian doctors on our convoy had hoped to finally bring his three young children back out of Gaza. They have been trapped there, despite having American passports, for five years.

They were denied entry into Egypt. Apparently, Israel and Egypt feel this well-educated doctor would become a bigger threat to Israel by reuniting with his three young children. That is my last memory of Gaza, but one that was a stark reminder of my task, and the task of everyone on the Viva Palestina convoy.

There is no middle ground on this issue. This isn't about the right of Hamas militants to carry guns across the border (although it seems to be absolutely fine for the U.S. to send guns, missile and bombs over the Israeli border many times each year). This isn't even just about Gaza. Gaza is just the latest chapter in a 60-year campaign of ethnic cleansing and strangulation--a history that is readily available to read if you're willing to flip through the pages.

This is about the right of families to live together. This is about the right of farmers to work their land, students to attend their schools, and people to carve out a decent life. It's about the right of any people to govern themselves as they see fit, without foreign interference.

Another bit of graffiti caught my eye during my visit. It was written in English, and read, "Palestinian Children: You will not stop our DREAMS."

If we only cry and send a few dollars, Palestinians will continue to suffer and continue to fight by themselves. If the children of Gaza can remain defiant and fight through their tears, then I am confident we can, too. We, people in the United States, will need to fight and organize and build a movement. Viva Palestina represented, for me the beginning of a broad movement, however small it currently may be. We came to break the siege, and we broke the siege. Others can, should--and undoubtedly will--follow in our footsteps.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 9 p.m.

From Karen: The Viva Palestina U.S. convoy made history when it broke through the Israeli-U.S.-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It was the largest delegation of U.S. citizens to go to Gaza on a solidarity mission.

The question for activists is what now? We didn't just go to Gaza to bring aid, though it was much needed and much appreciated. We went to drive a wedge through the gates at Rafah that are separating families, keeping goods from flowing in and information from flowing out.

I can say that a lot of us didn't realize the degree to which Egypt was managing this siege. When we got to the border crossing, we saw the Egyptian riot police back Palestinians away from our bus to ensure that no Palestinians not part of the convoy could leave.

We watched them harass families in no man's land while we waited for our passports. We watched the border enforcement laugh and joke behind the counters while they made us wait for four hours to get into Gaza.

It is Egypt's decision to keep this border closed. Of course, it's pressured by Israel and the United States. But with the president of the United States saying that the border closings should be relaxed, Egypt has the perfect excuse to allow food, cars, supplies, medicines and families into Gaza. Yet it refuses!

When we finally went in, the gravity of the situation hit me. I was in the land where Rachel Corrie was martyred. I was in the land of Samidoon. I could smell the beach where Huda Ghaliya lost her family. You can see the remnants of the Israeli settlements. You can smell and feel the history on this strip of land.

The question remains what do we do with the information we learned in Gaza? On the heels of this historic trip to Palestine, students and other activists around the country can use it to plant the seeds of a BDS movement.

The tide is turning against Israel in America--on campuses and in the mainstream. We need to shift the debate to an unapologetic pro -Palestinian stance that demands real justice for the Palestinians. For the first time in decades, I feel that there is a chance to build a healthy pro-Palestinian movement. We can start with BDS and end with a democratic state.

My trip has steeled me for action. The people of Gaza, more than anything else, sent me home with their amazing strength.