Caged walkway between Erez and Gaza (Photo: Catherine Thick)
After passing through the Israeli crossing into Gaza at Erez and having walked in a long cage through no-man’s land into Gaza, we were waiting for a car to take us to the Hamas border control when a bomb exploded uncomfortably close. We were rushed through for our safety.
Although entry into Gaza is severely restricted by the Israeli government, until now we have been fortunate to be granted entry permits. However, our recent request for entry has been refused despite the Israeli authorities telling the world that restrictions are easing. The following is our experience of witnessing life in Gaza following the 2007 blockade and recurring hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians.
As osteopaths and acupuncturists we have volunteered in Gaza and the West Bank over the last five years, treating those with limited access to health care. Our motivation is neither political nor religious. It is simply to help relieve suffering but we are strongly opposed to the inhumane treatment of the people of Gaza. We are also concerned as much of the media covers the conflict mostly from the Israeli perspective, leaving the lives of the Palestinian people under-reported. Waiting once at the Erez crossing, we spoke to a foreign journalist who explained, “Israel banned all its journalists from working in the region due to security issues and only party-sanctioned journalists can report from Hamas territory, resulting in a virtual media blackout. The lack of information perpetuates stereotypes on both sides, which has done nothing but breed hatred and distrust.”
Peter Smith treating a boy (Photo: Catherine Thick)
The clinics we ran were well attended, giving us the opportunity to listen to the views of the many people who bear the physical and emotional scars of Israeli bombs and repression. A doctor at the clinic we work from told us, “Over 80 per cent of Palestinian children suffer trauma at the sound of the Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft which frequently overfly the territory and we have noticed an increase in the number of deformed babies as well as a sharp increase in the number of cancer patients, especially among children and women, following the 22-day war in 2008-2009. There are bombs almost daily, the Israelis do not keep to ceasefires and the violations are never reported.”
A lovely family with three beautiful, bright daughters attended every clinic. The Palestinians highly value education and the girls spoke good English. The very shy and anxious 14 year old daughter suffered breathing problems after inhaling noxious gases when an illegal phosphorous bomb exploded close to their home. She had become withdrawn with post-traumatic stress and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia and anxiety. We treated her almost every day for two weeks and it was wonderful to see her breathing improve and change from a frightened girl to a smiling teenager. Helping to relieve the suffering of children is profoundly humbling and rewarding; their gratitude never fails to move us but what we can provide is a drop in an ocean of need.
It is difficult to imagine the sense of anguish and helplessness the parents of these children feel. The father said, “We find it difficult to comprehend why we are being punished because of the actions of extremist groups we do not support. Only a minority of us hold extreme views. We are a peaceful people who endure this brutal oppression, the massive overcrowding and rising poverty. We want a normal life and a future for our children whose innocence has been stolen.”
Their mother is a nurse and we treated her for stress-related migraines. She told us “With high poverty and unemployment, most people cannot afford to eat properly. The average diet is poor and loaded with unhealthy carbohydrates, so I see a lot of obesity, anaemia in pregnant women and children, diabetes and raised blood pressure.” More than half of the households in Gaza eat poorly or are short of food even when taking into account UN food distributions to almost 1.1 million people. Eighty percent of households receive some form of assistance.
We treated a 65 year old man with very painful advanced osteoarthritis of the knees. He was a qualified accountant but could not get a job in his profession and works as a builder’s labourer for 12 hours every day which exacerbated his pain. He was desperate for relief so that he could continue working to support his family. He said, “Those of us who are fortunate to have a job often have to support an extended family which puts us under great pressure. Hourly wages are very low so we have to work long hours. We Palestinians are hard working and we cannot use our skills. We used to manufacture and export furniture to many countries.” “Now”, he said gloomily, “We can do nothing.” Through the dignity and good humour of those we treated, the sense of despair under the surface was palpable. A physiotherapist at the clinic told us, “A few are driven to the edge of insanity. There are acts of aggression toward one another and the Israelis.” The latter cannot be condoned but is engendered by the complete asymmetry of power, a sense of injustice and the lack of recognition and support by the rest of the world.
Another patient drove a truck, delivering and collecting goods at the commercial crossing. “The catastrophe in Gaza is not an earthquake or a flood, it’s man-made,” he said. Shutdowns were frequent and truck drivers are angry about the exorbitant prices exacted by the export companies and Hamas. “They operate like a mafia,” he shouted, “Israel, Egypt, and our government, everybody, are all restricting movement at the crossing and the people of Gaza are paying the price.”
Rebuilding after Operation Cast Lead (Photo: Catherine Thick)
The Al-Shifa hospital we visited had holes in the walls, no windows, old and broken down equipment and few sufficiently trained surgeons. An exhausted doctor there told us, “Additional expertise, hospital beds and staff will be needed in the coming years to serve a growing population. While some of our health indicators are comparable to middle-income countries, quality needs to be improved. Most of our health facilities are unable to provide safe and adequate services and urgently need to be rehabilitated or upgraded. The infant mortality rate here is 23 per 1000 live births, comparable to Nicaragua. Many of the children brought to us had permanent afflictions caused by hypoxia or other birth traumas which the hospitals cannot deal with.” While Israeli authorities permit the access of medical supplies, there are frequent breakdowns of medical equipment. The doctor said, “Severely ill patients need to be transferred to hospitals in Israel, the West Bank or Jordan. There can be endless delays with applications for transfer which costs lives.”
While in Gaza, we stay at a building mostly occupied by foreign NGOs. They spoke more freely than some of the patients. An educational trainer said, “Life is further complicated as Gaza is becoming increasingly radicalised under Hamas who restrict civil liberties, press freedom and the rights of women. The blockade and internal repression have political, developmental and cultural consequences which benefit fundamentalist forces because people are resorting to religious thinking and behaviour, abandoning intellect and creativity”. She concluded sadly, “The children who are old enough to be aware of their situation can become withdrawn, aggressive or radicalised. So another lost generation.”
Ibrahim, who helps us arrange the clinics, took us to a village that had suffered heavy shelling and many casualties. Families were living in tents next to their bombed out homes. We held back because we were uncomfortable with taking photographs but Ibrahim explained that they wanted us to witness how they are forced to live and they welcomed us. Ibrahim looked almost ashamed. He said, “The people of Gaza are denied basic human rights and everyday life is filled with hardship. Medical supplies, all services, many foods except for the basics, civil rights and liberty are harshly restricted, regulated and enforced by the Israeli authorities. Gaza is forced to buy and import food from Israel as it does not have the means now to produce enough locally.” Clearly angry, Ibrahim told us, “Although Gaza, unlike the West Bank, is no longer occupied it has become, in effect, a huge prison. When Israeli PM Sharon became convinced that the Gaza Strip was no longer worthwhile, he abandoned it and closed its residents within an enormous ghetto with no opportunity for self-sufficiency.” “Even more worrying” he said, “Society is fracturing, traditional community life and values are being destroyed.”
We walked with Ibrahim through the crowded and noisy streets of Gaza City. He explained that the power station in Gaza runs on petrol which is imported from Israel and Egypt. To make matters worse, the power station was heavily damaged by shelling and one third is still out of action because the Israeli government rarely allows any spare parts or building materials into Gaza. As a result there are power cuts during which homes, shops, hospitals and offices are forced to resort to using petrol-driven generators which are expensive, dirty and unreliable. Ibrahim said, “The noise and smell of all the generators hits us when walking down these streets and it is a constant and depressing reminder of our situation.” Another more serious effect of the power cuts is that there is not enough electricity to run the water purification plants, so most of the water in Gaza is unsafe to drink. Ibrahim said “It is hard sometimes not to feel that the endless chaos the blockade causes is a calculated control tactic and a form of spiteful, collective mass punishment.” He is right. Denying millions of Palestinians the right to travel to and from Gaza is collective punishment because it is illegal under international law.
We are constantly offered hospitality and Ibrahim took us home for dinner. Later that evening we arrived back at our apartment block where we were confronted by the bright lights of a film crew and a mass of people talking, shouting and obviously agitated, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying and didn’t stop to ask what was happening. A little later we had a call from Ibrahim telling us an Italian peace activist named Vittorio Arrigoni had been kidnapped and murdered by an extremist Salafist group and that we should not to leave our apartment unescorted. We sat on the balcony into the early hours with a UNDP worker. He explained that as supplies are restricted and expensive, a lot of goods, especially construction material and cheap fuel, are smuggled in through hundreds of tunnels dug along the border with Egypt. This distorts the economy. The tunnels have kept a modest construction boom flowing in Gaza, employing thousands of people. The tunnels bring in everything from food and medicine to cement and iron, providing a large percentage of the goods that stock Gazan shelves and the items forbidden by Israel. Though the tunnel industry has contracted since Israel began allowing more goods through the crossing in 2010, Gazans say they still need the passageways to supplement what the Israelis permit to cross, making the tunnels necessary for their daily survival. According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli and Egyptian policies toward the Gaza Strip impede economic recovery with the ban of exports except flowers, spices and herbs, and strawberries.
The challenges which confront the people of Gaza, the UNDP representative explained, will only intensify over the coming years. With a ballooning population, it will become all but impossible to provide the energy, education, health, water and sanitation necessary for the inhabitants of Gaza to lead healthy and productive lives in peace and security. As a heavily urbanised environment with little room for further growth, Gaza needs to be open and accessible to the West Bank, to the world and to be in control of its own airspace and coastline.
It is only in conversations with NGOs and aid workers that we could talk about the political tension in Gaza directly. Most of them see Hamas’s increasing radicalisation as one of the sticking points for Fatah and Hamas being able to form a united government, undermining their ability to negotiate for Palestinians on the international stage. But the US has threatened economic sanctions if Fatah and Hamas form a unity government. They also explained that the ‘tunnel economy’ mostly benefits the authorities in Gaza. Egyptian security forces recently flooded many of these tunnels in an effort to restore order to the beleaguered Sinai Peninsula and quell the flow of contraband including arms. The Hamas government has begun imposing new restrictions on residents of the Gaza Strip, forcing them to apply for exit permits to enter Israel or the West Bank. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based watchdog, said this only increases the suffering of the already limited groups of people who are permitted to travel via the crossing by the Israeli forces.
The victim mentality has become a political tool in this conflict and much time has been spent apportioning blame. The Balfour Declaration does not represent Britain’s finest hour but more worrying is the mounting catalogue of failures over the last six decades to commit Israel and Palestine to full equality under international law. Visiting Gaza and the West Bank stamps a vivid impression in the heart and mind of the consequences of a major social injustice, of oppression and dispossession. The Palestinians and Israelis have differing views of history, of what it is true, of the future. Blame and apologies aside, surely it is time to take a pragmatic approach to break the current impasse of this complex conflict, a festering wound in a region in turmoil. The US, the EU, the UN and the Arab League have the necessary political, legal and economic tools to break the diplomatic deadlock. Hopefully Obama’s visit to the Middle East will see the beginning of a renewed international effort.
While standing on the balcony at Ibrahim’s home looking out over Gaza city with Emy, a university student and our interpreter, we talked about life in Gaza. Emy said quietly, “We barely have enough to survive. We don’t want pity, we want our freedom and this loss of liberty is what we find most difficult to endure.”