Gaza’s plight matters to the world

Elizabeth Kucinich in Gaza
Elizabeth Kucinich in Gaza (UNRWA USA)

Elizabeth Kucinich, The Hill, June 23, 2016

This month, U.S. congressmen, including Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), were refused entry into the Gaza Strip at the Erez crossing while on a fact-finding mission in Israel-Palestine. Israeli authorities, without elaboration, claimed that their application had not met the criteria necessary to enter. Apparently elected U.S. congressmen inspecting American taxpayer-funded projects and reviewing U.S. aid to Palestinians in Gaza is not worthy criteria.

Bernie Sanders’ representatives to the Democratic platform committee have brought the plight of the Palestinians into the national political debate. This could become a breakthrough moment, presaging policies that address the security of both Israelis and Palestinians as being mutually inclusive.

Some have suggested that the members of Congress may have been turned away from Gaza by Israel through the influence of the U.S. State Department, attempting to prevent Democratic members from elevating the issue of Israel-Palestine. Whatever the motivation, in that moment of rejection, those Congressmen experienced a small taste of the restrictions on freedom of movement that Palestinians live daily. For the Palestinians in Gaza, living under a blockade that just entered its 10th year, virtually all movement in and out is prohibited.

As I watched the Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2014, I was desperate to help. I looked to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, mandated with providing essential services for Palestine refugees, and joined the board of its nonprofit arm, UNRWA USA. Last spring, I traveled with UNWRA USA staff to the occupied Palestinian territory — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — to visit our projects, ascertain living conditions and witness for myself the political and economic situation. The trip was my first to Gaza. Had the other members of Congress been permitted to enter Gaza, they may have seen for themselves what I witnessed firsthand.

At Erez, the Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, I passed through chutes that resembled the herding bays that lead cattle into an abattoir — a standard feature of Israeli checkpoints throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. As we waited for our entry to be approved, young Israeli guards paraded around with automatic weapons.

Elizabeth Kucinich visiting Gaza school children

Once in Gaza, I met Palestine refugees who had faced unimaginable tragedies, like Amal*, a mother who fled the war in Syria with her 13 children. After a perilous journey, they arrived in Gaza only to find themselves under Israeli fire a few weeks later. I met the Nasser family from northern Gaza, whose home had been destroyed in the 2014 assault. I heard their account of fleeing their home under the cover of darkness, petrified, with distraught children and a pregnant mother. When I met them, they were still living in a collective shelter in an UNRWA school with hundreds of other families, a full nine months later.

Two years after the latest Israeli assault, rebuilding in Gaza is going at a snail’s pace. Over 12,600 houses had been completely destroyed, 6,500 severely damaged, and another 150,000 uninhabitable due to damage. Tens of thousands of people remain internally displaced as the lack of funds and Israeli restrictions on building materials hamper efforts to rebuild.

Three major Israeli assaults on Gaza in the last eight years have left their mark, and the scars are not just physical. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is visible throughout the communities I visited, and beyond. Eight-year-old Gazan children have already experienced three devastating military incursions. Children, living in constant fear, experience nightmares and bedwetting. According to the UNRWA, PTSD rates rose 100 percent in 2012 — 42 percent of patients were under the age of 9. The 2014 assault compounded their suffering. The UNRWA’s community health program provides invaluable support to these children and their parents, through group and individual counseling. I sat on the floor and saw the relief that came to a group of children in an art therapy session held at the school that was serving as their shelter.

The Israeli military assaults may be periodical, but the blockade is a constant. This June, the illegal Israeli blockade on Gaza began its 10th year. Israel, with the help of Egypt, prevents all access to and from the Gaza Strip by sea and air, and the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal enclave is restricted to just three crossings. The blockade means all food, water, energy, building supplies and medical supplies are controlled by Israel. Only Palestinian medical and humanitarian cases have a faint hope of leaving. The U.N. has repeatedly highlighted the illegality of the blockade as a form of collective punishment and called for it to be lifted, but to no avail.

Due to the blockade, Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of the population relies on the UNRWA for humanitarian aid, and the agency will provide critical food assistance to an unprecedented 1 million Palestine refugees there this year. This food insecurity is entirely a man-made problem.

Gaza’s economy is under complete Israeli control. This humanitarian crisis is being engineered. A trapped population witnesses the Gaza Strip undergo de-development and suffers from relentlessly mounting psychosocial pressures, while the international community picks up the tab.

In such an untenable situation, the UNRWA is quite literally a life-sustaining force. Its schools, health facilities, food assistance, and other services are a lifeline for Palestine refugees — not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and war-ravaged Syria.

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Palestinians in Gaza are still waiting for the siege to end

Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 10 September 2014

Destruction everywhere

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

A new United Nations assessment published this week lays out the massive scope of the needs facing the nearly 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza following the “unprecedented” destruction wreaked by 51 days of Israeli bombing in July and August.

Israel’s assault – which it dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” – left at least 2,133 Palestinians dead and more than eleven thousand injured. More than 100,000 are permanently homeless as some 13 percent of Gaza’s housing stock – 44,300 housing units – was affected by the attack, with five percent rendered completely uninhabitable.

The UN report “Gaza Initial Rapid Assessment,” published by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), was conducted through August with the assistance of dozens of Palestinian and international aid agencies, organizations and experts.

It indicates that almost everyone in every part of Gaza faces some urgent need for basic protection, healthcare and rehabilitation, housing, water, food security or education.

The report came out the same day that the UN and the Palestinian Authority launched a $551 million emergency appeal to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Gaza.

The assessment also identifies the need for “legal support to address some of these protection needs, including pursuing accountability for alleged violations of international law resulting in deaths and injuries, as well as destruction of property as a result of the military operation.”

The siege is still the issue

These findings underscore the urgency of the call made by Palestinians in Gaza and human rights and humanitarian groups insistently: reconstruction, recovery and a normal, dignified life are impossible unless the siege is lifted.

There is a strong consensus in the international humanitarian aid industry that the siege must go.

“Only a full opening of all crossings to people and goods, including exports will enable Palestinian civilians in Gaza to restore their economy and escape the poverty the blockade has entrenched,” Oxfam has said. “The international community must press Israel for the blockade to be fully lifted, rather than only eased.”

And the International Committee of the Red Cross has long viewed the siege of Gaza as illegal collective punishment.

But since the 26 August ceasefire, uncertainty and mystery continue to shroud the understandings regarding the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza reached by Israel and Palestinian resistance organizations.

Although the ceasefire understandings were not made public, media reported that they “include opening all crossings to Gaza, allowing reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, allowing the entry of materials needed for reconstruction and permitting fishing for a distance of six to twelve nautical miles from shore.”

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One Jewish Woman’s Fight for Palestine

One Jewish Woman’s Fight for PalestineYasmin Mogahed, Nov 19, 2012

For Jennifer Loewenstein, April 19, 2002 was a “waking nightmare”. She stood silent at the edge of the camp, in disbelief–and horror.

Listening to the sound of wailing, she watched as medical workers lay out the bodies of the dead. The corpses, wrapped in white, were loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck.

“I will never forget this time,” Loewenstein recalls. “I stayed in the camp for two days, picking through the ruins and debris of people’s former lives–watching children and families look for their belongings–anything they could salvage from the wreckage.”

Loewenstein was in Jenin.

She had spent much of the previous two years working as an editor and freelance journalist at the Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. During that time she traveled frequently to the Rafah refugee camp to visit friends. It was in that way that she came to know Rafah so well and later started the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project in December of 2002.

But Loewenstein’s decision to take on the plight of the Palestinian people was not an easy one. She has since been shunned by her community and accused of being a “terrorist sympathizer” and “self-hating Jew”–a term she considers as ludicrous as calling her a “self-hating human” for opposing human rights abuse.

Despite this opposition, Loewenstein continues her struggle to expose an injustice she wasn’t always aware of herself.

“I never really knew much about the plight of the Palestinians until I was much older,” says Loewenstein. “I didn’t begin to question all the information I’d gotten on Israel and on Arabs until I got to college (at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem).”

Loewenstein grew up in a secular Jewish family, but was instilled early on with a concern for Israel. She still remembers the day when her favorite dress was sent to her cousin overseas. She was only six, but gave up the dress because her family in Israel needed it.

Although her parents were not “avid Zionists”, their loyalty to Israel was strong. But even stronger than their loyalty to either Israel or Judaism was her family’s loyalty to peace.

“One year at Christmas/Hanukah time we refused to celebrate either holiday,” remembers Loewenstein. “Instead we made a ‘Peace Tree’ and celebrated our hope for peace.”

Her mother’s concern for peace was complemented by her struggle for civil rights. Loewenstein never forgets the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated because it devastated her mother so much.

It was this early awareness of civil rights that Loewenstein carried into adulthood and would bring with her to Jerusalem. In 1981 she traveled to Israel for a semester-long study abroad program. During her stay she was exposed to a world she never knew existed.

One day during a tour of Gaza Strip instead of listening to the tour guide, Loewenstein sat at the back of the bus and looked out the window. She discovered “thousands of people living in tents and shacks.” Loewenstein was appalled.

“It was the first time I had ever seen this kind of poverty and the first time I understood the meaning of “occupation” in a concrete way,” says Loewenstein. “I saw a woman with about three children carrying a jug of water on her head and a soldier watching her and the others around her with his gun slung over his shoulder.”

It was at that moment that she first realized “something was terribly wrong.” But nothing she saw that day would prepare her for what she experienced in April of 2002.

Loewenstein was among the first internationals—and only a handful of Americans–to enter the destroyed Jenin refugee camp the day after the Israeli incursion.

“When I got into the camp area I could not believe my eyes. It had been devastated. Thirteen thousand people had lost their homes,” describes Loewenstein. “The camp was destroyed beyond recognition – flattened into a heap of rubble and dust. The smell of death was everywhere.”

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VOICES OF CONSCIENCE: DELEGATION to THE GAZA STRIP

Interfaith Peace-Builders, November 5, 2012

November 5, 2012 – Interfaith Peace-Builders (IFPB) is pleased to announce that our 21 member delegation to the Gaza Strip passed safely through the Rafah Crossing Monday morning and is now safely in the Gaza Strip.

Interfaith Peace-Builders has sent more than 44 delegations to Palestine/Israel since 2001. This is the first IFPB delegation to enter the Gaza Strip since 2003. Like other IFPB delegations, its purpose is to educate North Americans about the region and deepen their understanding of its conflicts.

On the eve of the Presidential Election in the United States, the US-brokered peace process continues to show few results and US military aid to the region continues to flow unabated.

This delegation focuses on the realities of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip. Participants have the unique opportunity to hear directly from Palestinians throughout the territory regarding their hopes for peace and the role of the United States, the US government, and other international actors, in promoting a resolution to the conflict.

The Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation to the Gaza Strip is led by Michael Brown and Cindy Corrie. Michael Brown worked off and on in the Gaza Strip between 1993 and 2000 for the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. A former IFPB board member, Michael continues to work today on the media and Palestine. Michael led an IFPB delegation in 2008. Cindy Corrie is the mother of human rights activist and observer Rachel Corrie who on March 16, 2003, was killed by an Israeli military Caterpillar bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.  Motivated by her daughter’s work and sacrifice, Cindy Corrie has dedicated herself to the pursuit of justice and peace in the Middle East and has visited Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza on numerous occasions. She is also president of the board of the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, inspired by her daughter.

del44gaza
a photo of the delegation in Gaza City

The delegation includes the following people:

Diane Adkin – Camas, Washington
Michele Bahl – Madison, Wisconsin
Carol Barr – Madison, Wisconsin

Michael Brown – Asheville, North Carolina
Marsha Carlton – Davis, California
Craig and Cindy Corrie – Olympia, Washington
Gary Doupe – Bainbridge, New York
Rich Forer – Yardley, Pennsylvania
Joyce Guinn – Germantown, Wisconsin
Maya Harris – Olympia, Washington
Wendy Hartley – Nevada City, California
Darlene Jones-Owens – Carrollton, Georgia
Declan Keogh – Decatur, Georgia
Ralph and Emily McCoy – Boone, North Carolina
Donna Nassor – Moonachie, New Jersey
Karen Peterson – Horseheads, New York
Cathy Sultan – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Colleen Toomey – North Andover, Massachusetts
Sonja Wentz – Olympia, Washington

Reports and Photos from IFPB’s November 2012 Delegation to the Gaza Strip:
Photos
Report 1: Greetings from Gaza, Palestine
Report 2: Occupation is "An Ongoing Terror"
Report 3: Bringing Gaza With Us
Follow-Up: Delegates in Action!

In addition to the reports linked from this page, IFPB delegation participants may be blogging and tweeting about their experiences. Like the trip reports posted here, individual blogs and tweets reflect the views of delegation participants only, and not necessarily Interfaith Peace-Builders or partners.

Blogs by delegation members:
Maya Harris may be blogging here
Cindy Corrie may be blogging here

Interfaith Peace-Builders believes in the power of eye-witness experience and transformation. Given the opportunity to speak directly with Israelis and Palestinians, delegates return to the United States better informed, more energized, and with a deeper understanding of the possibilities for true justice in the Middle East.

Upon their return to the United States, delegates will share their experiences with the public, the media, and their political representatives.

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Summit’s Goal: Perpetuate Repression of Palestinians

Barb Olson and Amal Othman, The Capital Times, December 07, 2007

“After meeting their own low expectations for the Annapolis conference amid intense skepticism, Bush administration officials crowed with delight,” said an Associated Press story.

And well they might. It was more symbolism than substance, but President Bush looked almost presidential.

But all Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert really agreed on was to negotiate — Bush called it “hard bargaining.”

“Hard bargaining” with Olmert and Abbas (and Bush too) at record low levels of support domestically?

“Hard bargaining” with the overwhelming power of the United States and Israel on one side and the divided and bloodied Palestinians on the other?

The United States is not an honest broker here. Congress just gave Israel another $30 billion for military aid over the next 10 years. That’s on top of the $3 billion to $5 billion annually it already gets.

Since 2004, Bush has officially committed the United States to help Israel keep Palestinian land stolen for Jewish settlements. This policy of using “facts on the ground” to gobble up Palestinian land, water and commerce has already sparked two Palestinian uprisings and is destroying the viability of any independent Palestinian state.

Was this policy reversed at Annapolis? No. Instead Bush asked Israel to pretty-please remove a few trailer park “outposts” and to stop expanding the settlements. (Wink, wink.)

Bush instructed the Palestinians not to focus on the “borders” of a state. No wonder — Israel has already set the borders by constructing the annexation wall deep inside Palestinian territory, leaving the Palestinians imprisoned in a handful of poverty-stricken ghettos on a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of their original homeland.

What’s next, a virtual Palestinian state?

Bush told Palestinians to focus on the “nature” of their state instead. It should be “democratic.” Oh really? The United States and Israel have starved and bludgeoned the Palestinians for having elected the wrong people, and then invited Abbas (who overthrew the elected government) to Annapolis.

Bush hailed the “transparency and accountability” of the Abbas regime. These are the same crooks who were thrown out of office for shamelessly lining their pockets with the meager contents of the Palestinian treasury.

Bush and Olmert seek a puppet regime that will pick up the garbage and police the prison-statelets that are all Palestinians can expect from this “hard bargaining.”

This is why the Abbas-Olmert agreement gives the United States (and thus Israel) a veto over any results, stating that implementation of the agreement will be “led by the United States” and “judged by the United States.”

Completely absent, in spite of pleas from Palestinian human rights groups, was any mention of international law, which long ago laid down two unavoidable conditions for peace: the return of all Palestinian (and Syrian) territory taken by force in 1967, including removal of the colonial settler infrastructure, and a just solution for the millions of Palestinians driven from their homeland since 1948.

Bush’s U.S.-Israel-Palestine bargaining process aims to circumvent this painful reality. Behind a fig leaf of endless negotiations, Israel will push ordinary Palestinians further into poverty and repression. Many will leave in order to survive. Those who remain face a grotesque form of apartheid, whose structure is already in place and whose foundation was laid by the logic of creating a “Jewish state” in a country populated mainly by others. Indeed, many Israelis openly hope that even so-called “Israeli Arabs” — Palestinians who stayed in 1948 and are now 20 percent of the citizenry — will be forcibly transferred to the new “Palestinian state.”

If you want to see the reality obscured by the lofty language of politicians, visit the concentration camp that is Gaza, invisible at Annapolis. Smell the stench of raw sewage and uncollected garbage. Listen to the cries of hungry children and watch sick people die from Israel cutting the electricity or the embargo on medicine or from waiting too long at the perpetually sealed borders. Watch women screaming over the bodies of children and husbands torn apart by Israeli bombardment or vicious fighting among rival gangs of camp inmates.

The original online transcript of Bush’s Annapolis speech referred to the “Iraqi soil of the West Bank and Gaza.” Official versions corrected this to “rocky soil.” But the cruel irony of this Freudian slip remains. Iraq certainly does resemble Gaza, with the West Bank close behind. This is not a path to peace.

Barb Olson and Amal Othman are members of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.

© 2007 Capital Newspapers

Catastrophe at Rafah Crossing: More Than 35 Dead—and Counting

Catastrophe at Rafah Crossing: More Than 35 Dead—and CountingPalestinians wait to cross the Rafah border for medical treatment (Photo M. Omer)

Mohammed Omer, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2007

PERCHED ATOP A suitcase and trunk, her leg knocking listlessly with staccato thuds on vinyl, newly engaged 23-year-old Islam Al Assar waits on the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing to Egypt.

And waits. And waits.

“I’m waiting for my happiness,” she states forlornly. “I’m waiting to start my life. I have to be immensely patient. We hear news that the border will open, but it never does.”

At the border, now closed for more than two months, her luggage carries her dreams: a wedding dress, trousseau, gifts and necessities for her future life. On the other side awaits her fiancé and a new life in United Arab Emirates. The wedding, set for late June, has been put on hold.

“I’m not the only one waiting,” she sighs. “Five of our neighbors are here, too, awaiting passage for operations for cancer, kidney diseases and other chronic illnesses.”

Since the elected Hamas government managed to prevent Israeli- and U.S.-backed Fatah militia from taking over Gaza in June, 1.5 million Palestinians have been living under siege, shut off from the outside world. European Union observers have abandoned the Rafah crossing to the Palestinian executive force, which works under complete Israeli control via remote control and video cameras, and the Egyptian military. Together they enforce the Israeli-ordered closure of the border, which comprises seven distinct gates.

Government officials estimate that more than 12,000 Palestinians are stranded on the Egyptian side of the border, with another several thousand trapped in Gaza trying to leave. While those caught on the Gaza side of the border share a slight advantage, since they are able to find comfort with friends and family, their numbers include people with life-threatening diseases who are prevented from leaving for scheduled medical procedures in Egypt and Jordan.

Stateless Infants

Conditions on both sides of the border remain precarious. Families struggle to survive day-to-day under the blistering Sinai desert sun, with little shade and no water, toilets, food or sleeping quarters. Their situation is best symbolized, perhaps, by the 16 babies who have been born while their mothers wait at the border. Without medical care, many born prematurely may not survive. To this life-threatening situation Israeli bureaucracy adds yet another twist. Since the newborns were not born within Gaza or in hospitals, none has the birth certificates and legal documents required for re-entry.

“The majority of these parents were compelled to come to Gaza prior to the births so their children could be registered and maintain their national identity,” explains Al Mezan of the Human Rights Center. The continued closure of the Rafah border crossing, he asserts, is an example of “collective punishment by Israel used as a political tool in a flagrant disregard of Palestinians’ human rights.”

A Mother’s Death

By mid-August, more than 35 people had died waiting to enter Gaza. One might assume that those who died were either very young or very old, but that is not always the case. After waiting 38 days in the blistering sun, Sana Shanan of the Jabalya Refugee Camp, a 27-year-old mother of three children, 7 years, 4 years and 6 months old, passed away on the Egyptian side of the crossing. The young wife and mother was returning from a successful operation in Egypt to treat her hepatcirrhosis. The last wish she uttered on the phone to her husband as life drained from her limbs encapsulates the anguish felt by all: “Please destroy the wall,” she whispered, her husband said, “and let me get through and see my children before I die!”

Her grief-stricken 35-year-old husband vents his helpless frustration. “I can’t stand it,” he cries. ”Nobody cares about Palestinian suffering! Nobody can live for 38 days under the burning sun!”

The suffering endured by the thousands of people stranded in Egypt is further compounded by lack of finances. Each family receives just $100 for food, shelter, water and necessities—an amount which lasts only a few days. As Israel enforces the closure for weeks, then months on end, Palestinians stranded at the border sell their clothing, watches and personal belongings to anyone who will buy them in order to purchase food and water. While some find shelter and facilities in homes and businesses near the border, most Palestinians end up sleeping on the street, in gardens or anywhere shelter can be found.

According to Haaretz, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked Israel to keep the Rafah border closed. Abbas’ media advisor Nabil Abu Rudieneh issued a denial, saying, “Such reports are untrue rumors.”

The Airport Terminal

Along with some 90 other people, Mohammed Ali, a 27-year-old free-lance journalist returning from France, entered his fourth week of diplomatic quarantine inside Egypt’s Al Arish Airport near the Gaza border. Others—most under 35—are stranded at Cairo’s International Airport. Among those waiting in limbo at the Al Arish terminal were two women with their children. Like Tom Hanks in Stephen Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal,” none of them can leave the airport. Neither citizens of Egypt nor holders of entry visas, they are trapped in a maze of bureaucracy—while their homeland’s occupier uses the well-worn excuse of “security” to deny them passage. For Ali the situation was especially difficult: his wife waited at home, in her ninth month of pregnancy.

While most trapped in this diplomatic no-man’s-land—whether at the border or at airports—refrain from blaming Egypt for their plight, all agree that Egypt remains key to its solution. To call attention to the escalating crisis, several nonviolent protests have been held. Ali and others stuck in the Al-Arish terminal embarked on a three-stage hunger strike, surviving on minimal nourishment (salt and water) and vowing to up the ante if necessary.

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No city money to Rafah project

Madison.com, May 3, 2006

Madison Ald. Lauren Cnare and State Journal readers can rest easy. Contrary to Melanie Conklin’s April 19 column, the Arcatao, El SalVador, sister city project did not give any city money to the Rafah sister city project.

In spite of erroneous comments made by the Sister City Oversight Committee, Arcatao only reported co-sponsoring public events with other groups, including a Passover Seder with Madison-Rafah. Proceeds were split between humanitarian projects of the two groups. No city money was used.

The claim of an “end-run” around the City Council is ludicrous. We are completely self-supporting and have raised tens of thousands of dollars for humanitarian projects, thanks to hard work from members and the backing of many good people in the Madison area.

Conklin and the State Journal have smeared our reputation at a time of soaring hunger and poverty in Rafah, when maintaining the trust of our supporters is essential. Conklin quotes Cnare as saying, “It’s not that the kids don’t deserve milk or money. They do.” We agree.

To help the people of Rafah with food and medicine, send contributions payable to MRSCP and marked “Rafah relief” to MRSCP, P.O. Box 55371, Madison, Wis. 53705.

— George Arida, Barbara Olson and Kathy Walsh, members of Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.