Why I March in Gaza

Palestinian demonstrators on a sand plateau during clashes with Israeli forces last Friday east of Gaza City. Residents of Gaza are mounting a series of protests called the Great Return March. (Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Fadi Abu Shammalah, New York Times, April 27, 2018

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Early in the morning on March 30, my 7-year-old son, Ali, saw me preparing to leave the house. This was unusual for our Friday routine.

“Where are you going, Dad?”

“To the border. To participate in the Great Return March.”

The Great Return March is the name that has been given to 45 days of protest along the border between Gaza and Israel. It began on March 30, Land Day, which commemorates the 1976 killings of six Palestinians inside Israel who had been protesting land confiscations, and ends on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war that lead to the creation of Israel.

“Can I come with you?” Ali pleaded. I told him it was too dangerous. If Israeli military warnings were any indication, the risk that unarmed protesters might be shot by Israeli snipers was too high. “Why are you going if you might get killed?” Ali pressed me.

His question stayed with me as I went to the border encampment in eastern Khan Younis, the southern Gaza town where I live. It remained with me on the following Fridays as I continued to participate in the march activities, and it lingers with me now.

I cherish my life. I am the father of three precious children (Ali has a 4-year-old brother, Karam, and a newborn baby brother, Adam), and I’m married to a woman I consider my soul mate. And my fears were borne out: 39 protesters have been killed since the march began, many by sniper fire, including a 15-year-old last week and two other children on April 6. Israel is refusing to return the bodies of two of those slain.

Thousands more have been injured. Journalists have been targeted; 13 of them have been shot since the protests began, including Yasser Murtaja, a 30-year-old photographer, and 25-year-old Ahmed Abu Hussein, who died Wednesday of his injuries.

So why am I willing to risk my life by joining the Great Return March?

Transporting a wounded Palestinian demonstrator. (Mohammed Saber/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock)

There are multiple answers to Ali’s question. I fully believe in the march’s tactics of unarmed, direct, civilian-led mass action. I have also been inspired by how the action has unified the Palestinian people in the politically fractured Gaza Strip. And the march is an effective way to highlight the unbearable living conditions facing residents of the Gaza Strip: four hours of electricity a day, the indignity of having our economy and borders under siege, the fear of having our homes shelled.

But the core reason I am participating is that years from now, I want to be able to look Ali, Karam and Adam in the eye and tell them, “Your father was part of this historic, nonviolent struggle for our homeland.”

Western media’s coverage of the Great Return March has focused on the images of young people hurling stones and burning tires. The Israeli military portrays the action as a violent provocation by Hamas, a claim that many analysts have blindly accepted. Those depictions are in direct contradiction with my experiences on the ground.

Representatives of the General Union of Cultural Centers, the nongovernmental organization for which I serve as executive director, participated in planning meetings for the march, which included voices from all segments of Gaza’s civil and political society. At the border, I haven’t seen a single Hamas flag, or Fatah banner, or poster for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for that matter — paraphernalia that have been widespread in virtually every other protest I have witnessed. Here, we have flown only one flag — the Palestinian flag.

True, Hamas members are participating, as they are part of the Palestinian community. But that participation signals, perhaps, that they may be shifting away from an insistence on liberating Palestine through military means and are beginning to embrace popular, unarmed civil protest. But the Great Return March is not Hamas’s action. It is all of ours.

And our action has been so much more than tires burning or young men throwing stones at soldiers stationed hundreds of meters away. The resistance in the encampments has been creative and beautiful. I danced the dabke, the Palestinian national dance, with other young men. I tasted samples of the traditional culinary specialties being prepared, such as msakhan (roasted chicken with onions, sumac and pine nuts) and maftool (a couscous dish). I sang traditional songs with fellow protesters and sat with elders who were sharing anecdotes about pre-1948 life in their native villages. Some Fridays, kites flew, and on others flags were hoisted on 80-foot poles to be clearly visible on the other side of the border.

All this was taking place under the rifle sights of Israeli snipers stationed about 700 meters away. We were tense, we were fearful — indeed, I’ve been in the proximity of people getting shot and tear-gassed — but we were joyful. The singing, the dancing, the storytelling, the flags, the kites and the food are more than symbols of cultural heritage.

They demonstrate — clearly, loudly, vibrantly and peacefully — that we exist, we will remain, we are humans deserving of dignity, and we have the right to return to our homes. I long to sleep under the olive trees of Bayt Daras, my native village. I want to show Ali, Karam and Adam the mosque that my grandfather prayed in. I want to live peacefully in my historic home with all my neighbors, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish or atheist.

The people in Gaza have been living one tragedy after another: waves of mass displacement, life in squalid refugee camps, a captured economy, restricted access to fishing waters, a strangling siege and three wars in the past nine years. Israel assumed that once the generation who experienced the Nakba died, the youth would relinquish our dream of return. I believe this is partly why Israel keeps Gaza on the brink of humanitarian collapse — if our lives are reduced to a daily struggle for food, water, medicine and electricity, we won’t be able to think about larger aspirations. The march is proving that my generation has no intention of abandoning our people’s dreams.

The Great Return March has kindled my optimism, but I am also realistic. Alone, the march will not end the siege and the occupation, address the huge power imbalance that exists between Israel and the Palestinians or right the historical wrongs. The work continues until everyone in the region can share equal rights. But I could not be more inspired by or proud of my people — seeing us united under one flag, with nearly unanimous acceptance of peaceful methods to call for our rights and insist on our humanity.

Every Friday through May 15, I will continue to go to the encampments. I will go to send a message to the international community about the devastating conditions in which I am forced to raise my sons. I will go so that I can glimpse our lands — our trees — on the other side of the militarized border as Israeli soldiers surveil me through their weapons.

If Ali asks me why I’m returning to the Great Return March despite the danger, I will tell him this: I love my life. But more than that, I love you, Karam and Adam. If risking my life means you and your brothers will have a chance to thrive, to have a future with dignity, to live in peace with all your neighbors, in your free country, then this is a risk I must take.

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May 2, 2018
Memorializing 70 Years of Occupation

UW-Madison Students for Justice in Palestine

Rescheduled from April 27. Stop by to see UW SJP’s display memorializing 70 years of occupation and devastation that stills continues today in Palestine. We will be handing out literature and you can find out how you can get involved in the cause. Hope to see you all there!

Samira Remedial Education

GAZA KIDS NEED YOUR HELP!

Barb Olson, Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, March 9, 2018

For the third time, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) is partnering with the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice to fund the Samira Remedial Education Project in Rafah. Organized by the Rafah branch of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), this project employs special education teachers and a social worker to provide psycho-social support to 180 economically disadvantaged and learning-disabled children age six to twelve and their families.

The Gaza Strip, turned by Israel’s siege into the world’s largest open-air prison, is already one of the poorest and most crowded places on earth. The educational system is overcrowded, unstable and inconsistent. Sanitation, water and electrical services barely function. Public services are weak and underfunded, especially those serving mainly women and children. The recent US cuts to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) threaten to turn crisis into catastrophe. Three-quarters of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are refugees dependent on the schools, hospitals and food distributions of UNRWA just to survive. In addition, Gaza is subjected to frequent Israeli military land and sea attacks and has not recovered from the last decade’s three full-scale bombardments and invasions. Every one of the close to 1 million children in Gaza knows someone who was killed, injured or made homeless.

Gaza Community Mental Health Program

Children have been affected more than others because every aspect of their lives, especially the education system, has been repeatedly disrupted if not destroyed. Psychologically, the negative impact on children is enormous: nightmares, racing thoughts, nail-biting, panic attacks, uncontrolled urination, violent behavior and hyperactivity are common symptoms. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of all children in Gaza are so severely affected that they require some form of structured psycho-social intervention.

For the past couple of years, the Samira Remedial Education Project has been successfully intervening to develop the children’s skills and increase their ability to learn (especially reading, writing and mathematics); to support them psychologically and socially and rebuild their confidence; to implement scientific solutions to learning disabilities and reduce violent and disruptive behavior; to train families to better support their children; and to create job opportunities for qualified professionals in this field. Field trips, a children’s library and activities such as theater, music, art and reading help the staff to understand the children and create a space for the children to express their feelings.

The total cost of this project for the current phase is $14,049. The Rachel Corrie Foundation has pledged $2,000, MRSCP will contribute $2,500 and aims to raise at least $5,500 more by June, 2018 so that the project can be fully funded by MECA. We need your help to meet this goal! Please make checks payable to MRSCP with the note “Samira”, and mail to:

    MRSCP
    P.O. Box 5214
    Madison, WI 53705

If you prefer to donate on line, you can do so through the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA).

The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization and all donations are tax deductible. Checks to MRSCP will receive a letter at the end of the year acknowledging your contribution. Contributions made online will receive a receipt from MECA.

One woman tackles two of Gaza’s toughest challenges

We Are Not Numbers, February 23, 2018

A Gaza man with a SunBox

Two of the Gaza Strip’s most pressing challenges are a blockade-induced shortage of both electricity and building materials. And, in this conservative, patriarchal society, it’s a young, female engineer who is tackling both.

Twenty-four-year-old Majd al-Mashharawi, a 2016 graduate in civil engineering, first figured out how to turn ash and rubble—of which Gaza has a lot—into a material she calls “Green Cake” that can replace cement. Now, she is turning her attention to renewable energy technologies, starting with a solar kit named SunBox. Now in the piloting phase, SunBox is, she says, the first off-the-grid solar kit in Gaza.

“Gaza has an extreme shortage of electricity—receiving just three to six hours a day. But the entire Middle East suffers from a lack of sufficient electricity,” Mashharawi says. “This severely affects both quality of life and opportunity for economic growth. But the region has a resource that can be harnessed—an average of 320 days of sunshine a year, making solar energy an ideal source of electricity production.”

Mashharawi researched solar options in use in Africa and India, where electricity outages also are common. However, she ended up turning to China for the most applicable solution. Her SunBox product is a small solar energy collection kit she imports, modifies to accommodate local electrical outlets and voltage and sells for US$355—a price her market research shows is affordable to most households. (She hopes to partner with microfinance businesses for those families who need to pay in installments.) The kit generates 1,000 watts of electricity—enough to power four lamps, two laptops, two phones, an internet router and a TV/fan/small refrigerator for a full day, before needing a “refresh” (using either the sun or the electrical grid, when available).

Mashharawi (far right) using a SunBox to power a light and laptop

If the Gaza launch goes well, Mashharawi is already dreaming of expanding into other markets—West Bank refugee camps, Syrians in Jordan and off-grid Bedouin communities throughout the Middle East (perhaps the largest of the populations, at an estimated 3.2 million).

Early inspiration

Mashharawi attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her 11th grade math teacher.

"He forced us to find a way to solve math assignments on our own—rather than simply memorizing the formulas. It was the first and most difficult challenge of my life," she recalls.

This led Mashharawi to spend her entire, three-month summer holiday figuring out the "why" behind the answers so she could compile a booklet to distribute to other students. Mashharawi considers this her first startup.

“I didn't know how to change it into a business, however,” she laughs. “I was young and unaware of how businesses work.”

Mashharawi’s independence and a yearning to travel have driven her to work hard to build a future—no minor task in a society that is both conservative, restricting women’s freedom, and oppressed by a blockade.

"I know very well that the world around us is advancing, while our lives in Gaza are frozen,” she says. “But instead of wasting time complaining about how bad our situation is, I prefer to seek solutions for problems."

Green Cake

Gaza men make Green Cake

One of those challenges confronted her family when her brother got married and her father wanted to add a floor to their home for the new couple. However, that was impossible because he could not obtain any cement. In fact, today, nearly four years after Israel's war on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, an estimated 4,500 families still are living without a permanent home. Exacerbating the housing shortage is population growth and restrictions imposed by Israel on the importation of construction materials. The UN Population Fund predicts the population of Gaza, already the densest place on earth, will more than double to 4.8 million by 2050. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of the cement needed has been allowed into Gaza since the Israeli offensive.

That challenge was one of the reasons she came up with the idea for her first product, Green Cake—a material made primarily from coal or wood ash, then cured with steam—with a fellow student. The environmentally friendly brick is fire-resistant and only half as heavy as cement blocks and costs 50 percent less. Nevertheless, Mashharawi and her partner struggled to attract support at first, and the other student later abandoned the project. Fortunately, Mashharawi stuck with it.

A startup incubator run by the Islamic University of Gaza helped fund the first production round in September 2016, and now she rents office space, employing three people. To date, her company has provided the material for parts or all of three new homes.

"At first, I didn't get any help from others," she recalled. Mashharawi borrowed money to develop the project, ignoring the disapproval she received for being a woman in a traditionally man’s field. Then she heard about the Japan-Gaza Innovation Challenge, a two-day workshop and business competition. Two of the 10 competing teams were given the top prize, and Green Cake was one. Mashharawi was invited to tour Japan and then doors started opening.

"Travelling was such a big dream for me, but until then, I could never achieve it," Mashharawi says. Earlier, she had won a scholarship to study for a year in Berlin, and obtained the necessary visa, but she couldn’t get permission to leave Gaza from the Israeli government. Egypt’s Rafah crossing never opened.

“I applied several times to get a permit to leave Gaza, and each time they refused me. So, I lost the scholarship," she sadly recalls. She again was denied the opportunity to travel when she sought to travel to Dubai for the international Hult Prize competition for social-enterprise start-ups.

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Book talk: “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom”

with Norman Finkelstein

Monday, March 12, 2018 12:00 p.m CDT
Livestream Here

The Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated places in the world. More than two-thirds of its inhabitants are refugees, and more than half are under eighteen years of age. Since 2004, Israel has launched eight devastating “operations” against Gaza’s largely defenseless population. Thousands have perished, and tens of thousands have been left homeless. In the meantime, Israel has subjected Gaza to a merciless illegal blockade.

Based on scores of human rights reports, Norman G. Finkelstein’s new book presents a meticulously researched inquest into Gaza’s martyrdom. He shows that although Israel has justified its assaults in the name of self-defense, in fact these actions constituted flagrant violations of international law.

Author Bio
Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate from the Princeton University Department of Politics. His many books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Human Suffering and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, have been translated into fifty foreign editions. He is a frequent lecturer and commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

 

April 8, 2018
Annual Rachel Corrie Commemoration

Mark Your Calendars for Sunday Afternoon

Annual Rachel Corrie Commemoration
Featuring Dessert and a Program
Time and place TBD

2018 marks 15 years since Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer, as she tried to prevent the demolition of a family home in Rafah. 2018 also marks the 15th anniversary of the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project.

Join us for this special tribute to Rachel. Refreshments including baklawa and other desserts will be served. As always, admission is free but we will gratefully accept donations to support the Samira Project for disadvantaged children in Rafah. Palestinian olive oil, olive oil soap, ceramics, Hirbawi kufiyahs, embroidery and other crafts will be available for purchase.

Follow us on Facebook and our website madisonrafah.org for up-to-date information. Or contact us at rafahsistercity at yahoo.com.

The Samira Project Needs Your Help Again in 2018

For the third time, the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project (MRSCP) is partnering with the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) and the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice to fund The Samira Project in Rafah.
 

Clip and return your contribution by mail:

YES! I WANT TO SUPPORT THE SAMIRA PROJECT FOR TRAUMATIZED CHILDREN!

Name:_____________________________ Address_______________________________

City:______________________________________ State___________ Zip ____________

E-mail: ____________________________________________ Contribution: $__________


Organized by the Rafah branch of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), this project (continued on back side) employs special education teachers and a social worker to provide economically disadvantaged and learning-disabled children age six to twelve, and their families, with psycho-social support.

The Gaza Strip, often described as the world’s largest open-air prison, is already one of the poorest and most crowded places on earth. Since 2006 the Israeli/Egyptian siege has drastically restricted human travel as well as all external commerce. As a result at least 80% of the people live under the poverty line. Unemployment for adults and youth is rampant. The educational system is overcrowded, unstable and inconsistent. Sanitation, water and electrical services barely function. Public services are weak and underfunded, especially those serving mainly women and children.

The recent US defunding of UNRWA, the the UN’s vital refugee support program, threatens to turn crisis into catastrophe. Three-quarters of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are refugees dependent on the schools, hospitals and food distributions of UNRWA just to survive.

The people of Gaza also continue to be subjected to frequent Israeli military land and sea attacks, which three times in the last decade have turned into full-scale assaults and invasions. In 2014, your US tax dollars helped pay for a 50 day Israeli bombardment of Gaza that killed hundreds of children and severely injured thousands more. Entire families were wiped out, and every one of the close to 1 million children in Gaza knows someone who was killed, injured or made homeless.

Children have been affected more than others because every aspect of their lives, especially the education system, has been repeatedly disrupted if not destroyed. Psychologically, the negative impact on children is enormous: nightmares, racing thoughts, nail-biting, panic attacks, uncontrolled urination, violent behavior and hyperactivity are common symptoms. It is estimated that at least 30 percent of all children in Gaza are so severely affected that they require some form of structured psycho-social intervention.

The Samira Project successfully intervenes to develop the children’s skills and increase their ability to learn (especially reading, writing and mathematics); to support them psychologically and socially and rebuild their confidence; to implement scientific solutions to learning disabilities and reduce violent and disruptive behavior; to train families to better support their children; and to create job opportunities for qualified professionals in this field. Field trips, a children’s library and activities such as theater, music, art and reading help the staff to understand the children and create a space for the children to express their feelings.

The total cost of this project for the current phase is $14,049. The Rachel Corrie Foundation has pledged $2000, MRSCP will contribute $2,500, and we need to raise at least $5,500 by June, 2018 so that the project can be fully funded by MECA.

Please consider a donation to The Samira Project. As always, we thank you for your support as we work to mitigate the results of our nation’s disastrous Middle East policy, and ultimately to change that policy toward one that supports peace with justice, equality and human rights for all.

Make checks payable to MRSCP, marked “Samira Project”, and mail to:

    MRSCP
    P.O. Box 5214
    Madison, WI 53705

Contributions to MRSCP are tax deductible. Thank you!