The Gaza Strip is like a giant prison.
Crossing the Eretz checkpoint feels more like entering a cellblock than crossing a border. Unlike the temporary feel of cement blocks and sandbags at the West Bank checkpoints, here there are permanent buildings and lanes for the few cars and pedestrians who cross. No one who lives here can get out, and only foreigners can get in.
More shocking is the poverty. Unemployment in Gaza is now sixty-seven per cent. Eighty per cent of the people live below the poverty line. Many children have no shoes. Almost all have bad teeth.
To add insult to poverty, 5,000 Israeli settlers illegally occupy almost one third of the land in Gaza. One million Palestinians share only 360 square kilometres of land, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. There is no cinema, no theatre â€” no cultural life of any kind save television.
Water is also a problem. Across the Palestinian territories, three-quarters of renewable water resources are used by Israel. In Gaza, the best water is in the south, which is cut off from the north by a checkpoint that is usually closed.
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We arrive on Saturday, and the checkpoint is open for the first time in days. Our guide says he has never before taken visitors there when it was open.
At this checkpoint, we encounter the most incongruous image of our trip: a small boy of twelve, wearing tattered dusty clothes and no shoes, talking on a cell phone. â€œEveryone has this number,â€ he informs us proudly. â€œThe students call to see if the checkpoint is open.â€
â€œReally, honestly,â€ he tells someone on the other end. â€œIt really is open.â€
Like almost everywhere we stop, a group of boys surrounds us. They have seen many people arrested, and some shot, at this checkpoint. Canadian activist Monique Simard, with whom I’m travelling, asks them what they think of the suicide bombers.
â€œHeroes,â€ they answer without a moment’s hesitation.
The people we meet here are deeply frustrated. Gaza is the secret war, they tell us. People are killed every day. Conditions deteriorate continually. People here are almost completely cut off from the outside world. Yet the world media mostly ignores them.
Here we meet one of the great wise men of the Palestinian people: Dr. Hyder Abb Shafi. He is eighty-seven years old and sharp as a tack. In twenty minutes, he walks us through a remarkable history of the Israeli/Palestinian struggle.
â€œOur biggest problem is the distortion of the Zionist media,â€ he explains. â€œJews â€” being a cosmopolitan people â€” found it easy to communicate around the world. What the world came to believe fifty years ago has defined the vision of struggle to this day.â€
The Palestinians, he says, have utterly failed to get their message across through Western media.
On the problem of terrorism, it was his recommendation to Chairman Yasser Arafat that Hamas and Islamic Jihad be included in a unifying national government â€” so that they could be controlled. â€œNow,â€ he said, â€œthey are outside the Palestinian Authority and we cannot control them.â€
Unlike Arafat, with whom we met Friday, he does not believe that the Oslo Accords provided a solution.
â€œOslo did not address the settlement activity,â€ he explains. â€œAfter Oslo, Israeli settlers doubled their activity and built bypass roads [so they wouldn’t have to come into contact with Palestinians].â€
â€œThe Intifada should have happened then.â€
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Arafat tells us a different story. We finally meet him â€” the day after his compound was virtually destroyed by all-night Israeli shelling. He jokes that he is now sleeping on the floor of the conference room where we sit, since soldiers shot up his bedroom.
Arafat seems a shadow of himself. It soon becomes clear that our short meeting is a public relations exercise.
â€œWe are not asking for the moon,â€ he says, â€œonly that the Peace of the Brave [Oslo Accord] be implemented.â€ He goes on to speak of the destruction of Christian religious symbols, a strange focus given that we are there with a group of Belgian Jewish activists.
He offers to have his photo taken with anyone interested. I am not. But as I am walking out of the room I feel a heavy arm descend around my shoulders. And there he is: Arafat with his arm around me, and his photographer capturing the moment.
Some tell us that Arafat is no more than a symbolic leader now, with people around him making most of the decisions.
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Public relations are not on the mind of Raji Sourani, Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. He challenges us.
â€œOver the last months, we have brought hundreds of activists from Europe and North America to see our situation first-hand,â€ he says. â€œIn Europe it is working; but Canada is getting worse.â€
â€œOf course we condemn the suicide bombers,â€ says Sourani. â€œAs democratic activists, do we even need to say it?â€
â€œBut if there is no pressure on Israel to end the occupation,â€ he continues, â€œthe extremists will get stronger and there will be disaster for our people and for the Israelis.â€
â€œWe are doing our job here to prevent this. You have a job to do at home.â€
Other Ways to Fight
June 10, 2002
Yasser Akawi is what they call an Arab Israeli â€” a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship. He works for Physicians for Human Rights, an organization composed of both Jewish and Palestinian doctors. But his passion is with Ta’ayush. It too is an organization composed of Palestinians and Israelis. (Ta’ayush means â€œliving together.â€)
Yasser Akawi is what my mother would call â€œtall, dark and handsome.â€ He is young, unlike the other peace activists we have met in Israel, who are mostly from the 1960s generation. His hair is close-cropped, his face angular, his eyes dark and intense.
When he talks about Physicians for Human Rights, his speech is punctuated by pauses as he searches for English words. When he talks about Ta’ayush, he comes alive. Somehow no longer needing to stretch for words, he describes with obvious passion a group quite unlike the rest of the Israeli peace movement.
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Physicians for Human Rights is like a local Doctors Without Borders.
Established in 1988 during the first Intifada, they provide direct medical services and they advocate for human rights. They work in the Palestinian Authority areas documenting human rights abuses and terrible health conditions.
â€œThe hospitals are in the cities and the patients are in the villages,â€ says Akawi. But because of the checkpoints, people cannot move easily between the villages and the cities. â€œSo every week we see many patients who are getting worse only because they cannot get to treatment.â€
Physicians for Human Rights has 600 volunteers â€” 40 per cent Palestinians and 60 per cent Jews. As the situation deteriorates, their volunteer base grows. No one has quit the group, though some prefer to keep out of Palestine and to focus on their other project of improving prisons in Israel.
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Ta’ayush is less an NGO and more a non-violent direct action movement.
The group was founded at the beginning of the second Intifada, less than two years ago. Like Physicians, Ta’ayush works in the Palestinian authority as well as in Israel. It does things like organizing food convoys into occupied villages and staging demonstrations at checkpoints.
â€œWe are doing more than saying,â€ stresses Akawi.
â€œWe try to be active when things happen. We were in Jenin when it was invaded. If you choose to be a member of Ta’ayush, it is because you are fully committed to oppose the Occupation, oppose the siege, oppose the starvation policy.â€
I get the sense that Ta’ayush represents the new generation of radicals in Israel. Akawi confirms that most of its members are young.
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The other group we met with today is Yesh Gvul. Yesh Gvul means â€œthere is a limit.â€ This is the group that supports the refuseniks.
We knew quite a lot about the refuseniks already. But what we didn’t know is that more than 1,000 Israelis have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories since the beginning of the second Intifada.
Peretz Kidron is more than a generation older than Yasser Akawi â€” but is no less passionate. Kidron explains that there is a strong tradition in Israeli society of supporting the right to refuse an illegal order.
There was a famous massacre of Arab Israelis in 1956, in a Palestinian village called Kafr Kassem. The soldiers defended their actions at trial by insisting that they were just following orders.
â€œA collective chill went through Israeli society,â€ Kidron tells us. â€œIt was just ten years after the Nuremberg trials when the Nazis defended themselves with the same phrase.â€
The trial judgement said Israeli soldiers had a duty not to obey illegal orders. This gives the refuseniks a strong basis in law and culture to â€œselectively refuseâ€ to serve in the occupied territories.
Kidron believes this movement â€” currently comprising hundreds â€” can ultimately have a profound impact in stopping the Occupation.
After the Siege
June 7, 2002
Today we were the first foreigners to enter the Palestinian city of Nablus after a six-day siege.
Early last Friday morning, for the second time, the Israeli army invaded this city of almost 200,000 people on the West Bank. The first invasion, in April, lasted 28 days and left severe destruction in its wake. Life was finally getting back to normal when they struck again.
This new invasion came five days before the most recent suicide bombing.
Locals estimate there were at least eighty tanks, armoured cars and helicopters. Despite encountering no military resistance, troops occupied the entire town. They imposed a twenty-four-hour curfew that lasted all six days.
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When we arrive, people are emerging from their homes for the first time. They havenâ€™t ventured out for almost a week for fear of being shot.
In the neighbouring refugee camps, where 50,000 people live, Israeli police had rounded up all the adult men. An estimated 4,000 men were detained in a nearby military compound for a couple of days. Of those, only around 200 were actually arrested as suspected militants.
Mhadez Hemedan, a young man of seventeen, tells us he was stripped and shackled â€” with his hands around his knees and his head on his hands. He says soldiers forced him to stay in this position, without food and water, for more than twenty-four hours. When they finally brought bread and jam, they threw it in the dirt in front of the prisoners, telling them to eat if they were hungry.
Most humiliating to Mhadez was that female soldiers beat him.
Looking around, we see stores with their front doors blown open and their stock destroyed. We see homes with walls blown out so that soldiers could move from house to house. At a youth centre, we see the remains of computers that had all been smashed to smithereens. What reason could there be for destroying computers where young people are learning to type and use the Internet?
â€œIt is collective punishment for the suicide bombings,â€ Dr. Allan Jarmar of the Palestinian Medical Relief in Nablus tells us. â€œIt cannot be justified.â€
In another refugee camp, we meet representatives of the PLO â€” and of Hamas and Islamic Jihad â€” who are organizing to rebuild the infrastructure and provide social services. This is Balata, the camp that has been attacked by the army so many times. Six hundred houses were partially or totally destroyed in the most recent attack.
I ask Dr. Jarmar how he responds when the Israelis say they are looking for terrorists. He says that there are members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in every village and town on the West Bank.
â€œThey go after the refugee camps because they feel responsible for displacing these people,â€ he answers, as if to explain. The people living in the camps are originally from what is now Israel; the camps were established in 1948.
Everywhere in the camp are photos of the martyrs who died resisting the last invasion. Young boys of six or seven say these are their heroes. Even the tiniest child knows who they are.
We see houses that were bulldozed with people inside them during the siege. In one, eight family members died when their living room collapsed on them. We see another where seventeen people huddled together as helicopters shot at the house. The families fled when they felt the structure begin to collapse. One woman who lost two family members tells me how she hid with her children for days in one room across the street.
We leave Nablus to try and get into Ramallah â€” before the checkpoint closes â€” so we can make a meeting tomorrow.
On the road, we see some cars stopped. A distressed Israeli settler sprints toward our car: does anyone know first aid? Sabine, one of the students with us, does know first aid. But this is a gunshot wound. She doesnâ€™t know what to do for that.
We drive the rest of the way, never knowing if the wound was self-inflicted or caused by a sniper. We have Israeli plates on our car. I fashion a handmade sign that says â€œCANADAâ€ and hope for the best.
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We made it. I write this from Ramallah now.
There is a funny story, though, about how we got into Nablus when everyone else was turned away. The soldier at the checkpoint, we discovered, has a brother in Canada who is out of work. A student with us has a brother back home who owns a courier service. When he promised he would get the soldierâ€™s brother a job, we got through.
Today, the Israeli soldiers were really friendly to us.
At the Ramallah checkpoint, one young man apologized to me.
â€œWhat are you sorry for?â€ I asked.
â€œFor my sneeze,â€ he responded, sincerely.
And with that pleasantry, this soldier with a machine gun continued to search through my stuff.
Could it get any more surreal?
This series was originally published at www.rabble.ca. A photo essay of Judy’s trip will appear on rabble this week. Judy Rebick is publisher of rabble.ca
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