January 7, 2009
In November I traveled to the occupied Palestinian Territories with two fellow Utahns. Our purpose was to witness first-hand the current situation in Israel/Palestine and to attend a peace and justice conference. My travel plans included a visit to the Gaza Strip.
I applied for a permit to visit Gaza well ahead of my visit. I had planned to take a donation to the Episcopal Church’s Hospital in Gaza and discuss with them how our group here in Utah might help. The Israeli border guard denied me entry, telling me Israel was only allowing humanitarian help into Gaza. Next, he denied entry to my traveling partner, a reconstructive surgeon who had thirty patients in Gaza waiting to see her. This was mid-November and the fifth week in a row Israel denied her entry. "Humanitarian cases only," he repeated.
Gaza is a 139-square-mile strip of land and home to 1.5 million people, the most crowded place on Earth. Over half of Gazans are children and 75% of Gazans are refugees, protected people under international law. In 2004 Israel completed the wall around Gaza, positioning itself to seal Gaza from the rest of the world. Israel began to use this new weapon a year before Hamas came to power, cutting off the only major commercial crossing into Gaza. In 2007, after the election of Hamas, Israel imposed a total blockade on Gaza — no imports, no exports, no movement by land or sea, reduced electricity, fuels, and drinking water. Some food aid was allowed to dribble in. Palestinians survived by pulling food through hand-dug tunnels from Egypt. The effects have been devastating.
Today only 23 of Gaza’s 3,900 industrial enterprises are operating. Gaza is forced to dump 70 million liters of raw sewage daily into the Mediterranean Sea because Gaza lacks the fuel and spare parts to operate the sewage treatment plant. Eighty percent of Gazans would starve if not fed by aid agencies. Normally the fall sardine-fishing season provides a cheap source of protein for Gazans. This year the Israeli Defense Forces reduced the allowable fishing area, preventing Palestinians from harvesting sardines.
According to the United Nations’ Office of Humanitarian Affairs, it takes some 80 to 100 truckloads of food per day just to keep Gazans alive. Israel, while stating they were allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, allowed zero truckloads from November 1 to November 18, 2008.
It was Nov. 18 that I was denied entry into Gaza. I decided to go to the Gaza crossing anyway. I wanted to see for myself just how many humanitarian cases were getting in or out. We arrived early, about 7:30 a.m., and there was already a line of people waiting to get in. Not one individual entered during the five hours I was there. One individual exited, a small child lying in a semi-fetal position and wrapped from head to foot in bandages, only eyes showing. They laid this child alone on the back seat of a waiting Israeli taxi. The taxi did not leave, perhaps waiting for someone to exit who could accompany this child? The child was still lying there when I left the crossing hours later. Driving away, I wondered if that child would live and wondered if it was really possible to have 1.5 million people on the other side of the crossing, sealed in by a wall, and only one case serious enough to merit exit? None to merit entry?
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This is the population Israel is bombing to rout out Hamas. The Israeli government and most U.S. leaders say it is Palestinian rocket fire and those illegal tunnels which brought about Israel’s assault. I don’t believe them. Common sense tells me that violence will erupt from any population confined, trapped and subjected to the pressure that Israel has administered upon the Palestinians in Gaza. And if it is predictable, then it is preventable.
I pray for the people of Gaza, and look forward to the day when our governments and leaders look past the latest shooting and instead address the root cause, Israel’s 40-year occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Frances ReMillard is the director of Utahns for a Just Peace in the Holy Land.