Emmett Gulley, the Quaker who was the first to head up American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) Gaza unit in 1949 arrived when the Nakba was still underway. The Nakba, the catastrophe, is the Arabic name for the war and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that established Israel. He described “The dead and wounded were brought in every day…, and the city of Gaza was under air attack almost nightly. There were no lights at night…where we were located, except the searchlights that came on when the enemy planes appeared. We watched with fascination as the planes passed high overhead, silhouettes against the sky as they were illuminated by the searchlights.” Delbert Replogle, a Quaker who headed AFSC’s unit in Israel, said that displaced Palestinians pouring into Gaza were “seeking some semblance of safety from Israeli random bombing and what appeared to be intentional terrorizing of the civilian population.”
The AFSC was invited by the United Nations to head up refugee relief in Gaza and agreed to offer it for one year. AFSC operated under the expectation that the refugee situation was temporary; that those who came to Gaza would offer relief which would conclude with reconciliation of the conflict and with the displaced Palestinians getting to return to their homes. There was never an intention of participating in long term charity, which was seen even then as obstructive of a political resolution of the situation.
AFSC provided tents, food, milk, medical clinics, health services, clothing, and water pumps. AFSC opened schools for more than 16,000 refugee children and vocational schools in mechanics, tailoring, and carpentry.
After that first year, when it became clear that Israel had no intention of repatriating the Palestinians who had sought refuge in Gaza, AFSC decided that the organization could not in integrity continue to offer aid to a situation that had a political solution that was not being acted upon. The AFSC prepared a report to the United Nations, which stated,
“Following a review of the refugee situation in Palestine generally and more particularly the Gaza strip, the AFSC wishes to state its position regarding the continuance of the refugee relief program. The AFSC wishes to withdraw from direct refugee relief in the Gaza strip at the earliest possible moment compatible with the fulfillment of its moral obligation to the refugee population. It is obvious that prolonged direct relief contributes to the moral degeneration of the refugees and that it may also, by its palliative effects, militate against a swift political settlement of the problem.”
The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) took over refugee relief and support on April 30, 1950. AFSC has maintained the same stance that it had in 1948-1949: there is a political solution, the refugees should be permitted to return home.
Nearly 70 years later, there are many more people in Gaza, the air is filled with drones and surveillance balloons, many more relief organizations offer band-aids to the situation, the crushing impacts of the blockade are extreme in terms of collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, but fundamentally the situation is the same, the conclusions the same: it’s time to end the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine.
This felt so true to me when I visited Gaza in October 2017 with staff gathered together to do strategic planning. Firas Ramlawi and Ali Abdalbari, AFSC’s Gaza staff, took us to visit with residents, participants in our Palestinian Youth Together for Change program, to see and hear about current life in Gaza.
Mazen, who has lived his whole life in Gaza, paused, looked out the window of the coffee shop where we met, and said, “You know Gaza is very beautiful, right now figs are ripe and dates heavy on the trees. You drive along the sea and it’s so beautiful, but in a blink of the eye, this place becomes a gateway to hell.”
Mazen grew up in Beit Hanoun, the community closest to the separation wall that is often bombed first by the Israeli Military. He said that during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 he was away. He watched the bombing and the impact on his neighborhood on television. He could see some things, but many details were missing, the TV cameras showed the bombardment, but not necessarily the people. When he returned, he drove a car around the area, from the car he could see the devastation, flattened houses, the remnants of people’s homes and lives, but still much of the particularity of life in Beit Hanoun, the details of the destruction to the community was obscured. When they opened the area, he walked through his neighborhood and could see half bombed houses, people’s clothes and belongings strewn amidst the rubble, he could see the impact of the bombs, but also what had been lost. He said he wished more people would walk in Gaza, would understand life there.
He said that people don’t understand what it means to live without electricity. He has an infant son, who in the summer would start out sleeping on the mattress, but the room was so hot his baby would roll to get to the cool floor. Mazen would put him back on the bed, and his baby would roll onto the floor again. Mazen said that people don’t understand what it is like to live on the brink of hell, in a place where there is almost no water, no electricity, and no way out.
Firas and Ali drove us to the fishing piers. We went to visit the fishermen. They usually fish at night and many were there finishing up tasks after coming in from the sea. They found chairs for us, served us thick Arab coffee. We sat amidst their nets and they told us their stories. A cousin of the father of the four Bakr boys who were killed by an Israeli gunboat operator during Operation Protective Edge talked about the impact of the siege on their livelihood. They used to bring in 5,000 tons of fish per month, but in the last several years they bring in 1,500 tons. He said the quality of the fish has diminished enormously: the power plant was bombed during Operation Cast Lead and Israel won’t allow Gaza to import the needed materials to repair it, there is only 2-4 hours of electricity on most days. Because of this, the sewage treatment plant can no longer operate, so the sewage is dumped into the sea. According to the Oslo Accords, the fishermen are allowed to fish 12 miles out, but since the bombardment Israel has limited their fishing range to 3 to 6 miles. He told us how many fishermen had been killed in the last year, how often they are arrested while out at sea… just trying to fish puts their lives at risk.
We walked through the nets, past some of the men resting after their shift at sea. Firas led us to the piers, we walked past fishing boats, most with lights encircling the top of the boats so they can fish at night. We weren’t sure where we were going, but Firas stopped for a moment, pointed to a boat and invited us all to get in. Even though he grew up in Gaza, Firas is afraid of the water, and it was a big deal for him to have arranged for this boat ride for us. We got in and set off into the Gaza sea. Ali sang Arabic boating songs. Another colleague taught us all a song, “I’ll be ready for joy to come back again.” The only other boat on the sea at the same time as us was a Palestinian fishing boat with a boy at the head of it. It was a moment like many in Gaza. The grinding impacts of the blockade, like that which the fishermen described, seemed remote as we smelled the sea air, looked up at Gaza city which glittered in the sun. Sometimes when oppression is so present and oppressive, a moment like this boat ride feels like a portal into liberation, a moment of feeling fully alive against the backdrop of a slow-moving catastrophe.
Firas took us to visit Shuja’iyya, the neighborhood Firas is from that was flattened during Operation Protective Edge, the 51 day bombardment of 2014. Firas fled Shuja’iyya then with his family, losing his cousin and house to the bombardment. We visited a house in the village where families were living in the bombed shell of the house after the bombs stopped falling. It has been rebuilt. We chat with a few of the family members, many of them children, they are understandably shy with us. They told us how much they owe on their rebuilt house, destroyed by the Israeli Military forces.
Ali and Firas guided us up a high hill that looks out on Shja’iyya and Gaza city. We drove past a bombed out orange juice factory that has not been rebuilt. It seems a metaphor for the situation there: the aid community rebuilds houses, but means of economic self-determination are left shells of what they were. What does it mean to live in a house with no water, no electricity? It makes me wonder if all the concrete to build the houses that could be bombed again in a few days are just a giant band-aid on a suppurating wound that is slowly killing all those in Gaza.
We stood on that high hill and looked out across the density of houses. 2 million people live in this slip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean. We could see the smokestacks of the power plant of Ashkelon, the Israeli settlement right outside of the separation wall, belting smoke, providing electricity. We had driven by the power plant in Gaza the day before. No smoke was rising from the smoke stacks there: after being bombed Israel has prohibited them from importing what they need to fix the plant.
At the base of the hill was a small olive grove and people were picking olives. Two children walked past us and Jennifer gave them a packet of balloons. They looked at them, figured out what they were, and said, “Oh, like the Israeli balloons!” and pointed to the surveillance balloon hovering above us. I stood next to Ali. He said that when he stands on a hill like this, it’s as though his body remembers its evolution. He feels that in his bones he remembers that he was once a bird. He said it’s hard for him to resist jumping off of the hill and believing he can fly. I said that’s like believing in the end of the occupation, in liberation. It’s in his bones, living free, without the blockade. But so much stands in the way of being free.
Israel receives $3.8 billion of military aid per year from the United States. All of that is given as vouchers to military contractors for Israel to spend to enrich U.S. companies that profit from war-making and from the continuation of the occupation. Israel sells bombs that they say are “field tested,” meaning that they have tested them by bombing civilians in Gaza. Any United States citizen who pays taxes is implicated in the perpetuation of the occupation of Gaza, of Palestine. Other than supporting other humans who are suffering under oppression, I used to think that was the main reason U.S. citizens should care, but after this visit, it feels even more draconian than that. Israel doesn’t just test bombs on Gaza, but also the deep economic exclusion that keeps people from being able to sustain livelihoods and from which Israel profits by having a captive market to whom they sell their goods. Bombs won’t be the only experiment that’s exported by Israel, but so will such practices as the enclosure that is the blockade and checkpoints. The crushing, debilitating practices of such open-air prisons and profiting from those held captive will be exported, too.
Just as AFSC knew in 1949, there is a political solution to the occupation of Palestine and to the refugee crisis in Gaza. It’s time to let displaced Palestinians go home and to establish a solution based on equity and human rights for all. It’s time for Palestinians in Gaza to be free.
Note: All references to AFSC’s History are from Quakers in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Dilemmas of NGO Humanitarian Activism by Nancy Gallagher, published by the American University in Cairo Press, 2007
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