Visiting the Gaza strip, July 2008
When you approach the Erez frontier post to enter Gaza from the north, you notice a concentration camp straightaway even if you may never have seen one like the ones turned into museums or educational centres, or like the ones that appear in documentaries or photographs.
An observation balloon, innocently painted white, rocks gently to and fro in the air over the wall surrounding Gaza. It makes sure no unhappy soul moves beyond arbitrary limits set by the camp guards. The visitor is overwhelmed by the mammoth steel-reinforced wall. This imprisons a million and a half inmates inside an area approximately 38 kilometres long and 12 wide at its widest.
Apart from cases you can count on the fingers of one hand, Palestinians quite simply cannot pass through Erez. Full stop. Besides, they are not allowed out via the South, crossing into Egypt, nor via the West, since the Mediterranean Sea is barred to them, nor via the air, since that too is likewise barred, despite there being no boats or planes to travel in. In any case, the airport was destroyed by the bombs of Israel air power. Gazans are not allowed to exit by digging underground either.
Patrolling closely about the ten or so people waiting under a scorching sun before a guard post in the middle of open ground about a built-up area, various soldiers and plain clothes police, with state of the art machine guns at the ready, make very clear the people had better keep very still. At the end of a long wait, by loudspeaker, the soldier in the armed guard post lets them through into the built-up precinct. It is like a warehouse, unexpectedly high, air conditioned and with various control posts inside, although only one is in use, since not enough people go through to warrant operating the rest. One is subjected to more waiting despite the absence of movement.
For the Zionist mentality everyone who does not cooperate with the system must pay a price. It is not even necessary to be one of their declared enemies. In this case, the visitors came from a State with good relations of all kinds with Israel, namely the Kingdom of Spain. Their documents were in order and they were unarmed. Matters had been prearranged with the Israeli authorities via the Spanish Consulate in Jerusalem. They also had a return ticket to their country, money for their stay and a stated humanitarian purpose for their visit, which would last exactly three days. The reason the Israeli frontier police at Erez waste the foreigners’ time, is because the Zionists are not enthusiastic about witnesses visiting the camp. Foreigners arriving at Erez intending to pass through, are indeed that, nothing else. Israelis are forbidden to enter. Israelis attempt to discourage visitors by many means. If the sight of the wall, the wandering machinegun-totting soldiers, the wait in the sun do not work, then visitors are subjected to hostile interrogation. From behind thick armoured glass, the seated interrogator addresses the standing interrogated person. The questions vary from the reasonable to the comical, “What are you doing in Gaza? Have you been to Israel before? Do you speak Russian? Do you have a driving license? How many passports do you have? What’s your boss called?” From the higher level floor above, cameras and guards record and observe the visitors without being seen. Afterwards people have to go individually through a narrow series of metal barriers which the service personnel can shut off at will, then another couple of armoured doors operated by remote control and – all the while under closed circuit TV cameras – one leaves the precinct to enter a metal corridor and finally cross through the concrete wall into the Palestinian side.
When returning from Gaza to Israel, the process is the same except that one is forced to enter a coffin-like cubicle that is adjusted to one’s body and in which you have to place yourself, legs apart, arms apart above your head. A kind of vertical electronic belt or ribbon goes around one’s body. It is a procedure as stupid as it is impressive since the soldiers know beforehand who the visitors are and why they are visiting Gaza.
Entering a devastated Gaza
Entering Gaza, the devastation is stark. In the suffocating heat one traverses the remains of bulldozed or partially damaged buildings, mass of tangled rusting steel rods, piles of debris, sand, dust everywhere. Buildings have been torn down at an arbitrary distance from the border. One sees leveled ruins of houses and buildings in an area stretching to the horizon, broken only by that imposing wall. One is not talking about a couple of houses that might have been in the way. Thousands of Palestinian houses and buildings have been razed in order to leave a way clear for military operations, in order to clear them for the so called security reasons.
A taxi takes visitors to the refugee camp at Yabalia, seat of the first Intifada that began in December 7th 1987. After winding through the streets of various parts of the camp, covered in improvised houses, lacking infrastructure and sewage, transport, school or other facilities, one arrives at Al Awda hospital, whose name, perhaps ironically, means Return. There the hospital management meet you and tell about the health situation in the Strip generally and around the hospital in particular. Perhaps it is best not to visit the room with photographs of the wounded, mutilated and dead at the hands of the Israeli Occupation, it graphically documents the barbarism inflicted by what, according to Israeli hagiography, is “the most moral army in the world.”
Living conditions in the Gaza concentration camp
Bassam Naim, Minister of Health for the Hamas government, receives visitors in his office. There he tells them of the problems caused by the international siege of the health system. Even so, the most interesting information for the non-healthcare specialist foreign visitors, is the political aspect. The Minister clarifies for visitors the confusion that exists in the West about the situation in the Gaza Strip. It is not correct to consider that Gaza is a prison, as some argue in Europe. Rather it is indeed a concentration camp, because the inmates of European prisons get enough food and adequate medical care. They are free from military attack and they are not denied other rights, like education. None of that happens in Israeli occupied Gaza.
The Minister offers a further important reflection: the international community, not just Israel, is responsible for this situation. Both rejected the results of the 2006 elections, regarded as free and fair by international observers, and furthermore the “international community” looked the other way when Israel committed serious violations of international law. And of course, the Minister is right in his accusation because according to the law the international community has adopted, every country has the obligation to obey it and make sure that other member countries obey it too.
On April 4th this year, the Israeli daily paper Ha’aretz published the following announcement from the World Health Organization, “Israel has refused transit to more sick Palestinians seeking treatment since Hamas took control of the Strip and several of them die unnecessarily every month.” According to World Health Organization statistics, in 2007, 1627 patients from Gaza had requests for treatment denied, an increase of 470 compared to requests rejected in 2006. As of August 4th this year, 225 sick Palestinians have died in Gaza since the siege began, either because they could not get the necessary medical supplies, since their importation is more controlled than ever, or because they were not allowed to travel to hospitals in the West Bank, Israel or Egypt for treatment unavailable in Gaza.
On August 1st this year, Ahmed Abu Amra, a three-month-old child, died of heart failure because her parents were denied permission to transfer him to a specialist hospital in Israel. Within 24 hours another four adults died, again because Israel denied permission to obtain treatment abroad. Since 21 June 2008 a tenuous ceasefire has been in place between Israel and Gaza, but despite the calmer situation access to medical treatment has not improved. The Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights recently stated: “Despite the agreement between Hamas and Israel. there has been no improvement towards patients in Gaza in Israeli policy, which seems even to have become worse. To the obstacles imposed by the general security service on people who want to leave Gaza for medical treatment, patients face more bureaucratic difficulties imposed by the army, which prevent them enjoying their right to health.” The entire Palestinian medical system is undermined by the siege; it ranges form the basic access to medical supplies to the impossibility of referring patients to specialized treatment.
Although health is not the only social sector seriously debilitated by the siege, it illustrates very well that in fact Israel is not defending itself against the Palestinians; in fact, what is in evidence is a clear policy intent on harming the overall population. Health is a fundamental right. If the Palestinians don’t get enough to eat; if their health needs are not adequately met; if the water purification plants do not work because there are no fuels or spare parts; if waste waters are not treated; if sanitary conditions deteriorate to such an extent, then life turns into mere survival. The shortages caused by the siege go beyond medical supplies. They cover food, water, building materials, spare parts for basic products, energy, educational materials, in fact everything.
John Ging, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, explains the situation as follows: “UNRWA receives barely 56% of the resources it needs to look after the refugees. It supplies 60% of their daily diet, which does not meet Western recommendations on personal nutrition.” School classes are so crowded they have to offer two classroom shifts a day, so as not to leave any child without basic schooling. Some children start at 8.00 and finish at midday. Others then enter and finish at 16.00. No space or facilities exist for extra-curricular activities, either sports or any other kind. Since the facilities are unavailable, there is an educational collapse; young people will not be minimally prepared. Not only are basic skills affected, but what they learn in the moral and political spheres is impinging upon future peaceful relations, democracy, human rights.
I asked Ging about his opinion of the role of the international community and he remarked: “I have invited Solana and Blair to visit Gaza and get to know personally the situation of the refugees, but they have declined the invitation.” The awful condition of 1.5 million Palestinians corralled in 360 sq.km, where they are deprived of basic human rights, is insufficient to prick the consciences of leading Western politicians. In the very least, the likes of Javier Solana or Tony Blair should demand respect for the freedom of movement of people.
John Ging’s blood seems almost to boil when relates that UNRWA has 10,000 employees and a budget of US$200 million for clinics, schools and housing. However, Israel will not even permit the agency to carry out its humanitarian mission, and they are not exempt from the effects of siege. He is a diplomat and can only present these facts while observing that Solana and Blair do not even answer his calls. John Ging is an Irishman straightforward and clear in his arguments. He does not let any visitor leave without obtaining an accurate idea of what is going on in the Gaza Strip and above all why it is happening. “The issue is one of justice, not of distributing food parcels and medicines to people in need. Without a system by which Israel is held to account for its actions, justice does not exist.”
Conclusion: Gaza is not just a prison and Israel is not its only guard
Listening to John Ging, one determines that the responsibility for the Palestinian humanitarian disaster does not just reside with Israel, but the international community certainly bears much responsibility. What makes this situation more galling is that the Palestinians had sought to obtain a negotiated solution and democratic elections of its leadership – hoops Israel and the United States demanded that the Palestinians should jump through. The consequence of this unending situation is obviously a growing sense of despair and violence among its victims.
The terrible history of the Nazi concentration camps does not seem to deter Israel in creating a concentration camp of its own in Gaza. Now, with the blessing and the money of the “international community”, the Erez crossing point has turned into the entrance to a concentration camp right now in the 21st Century. If blame, even if only moral blame, was cast on those who did nothing and looked the other way in times gone by, what judgment do the people deserve now who not only keep quiet about Israel’s actions in Gaza, but actually aid and abet them?
It is a disgrace that in Europe and the United States, stalwart defenders of women’s rights find space in the most influential newspapers and most watched television programmes to clamour against the use of the veil by Muslim women, but there is no clamour against the Israeli State for denying medical care in the Gaza strip, which means that hundreds of Gazans die due to medical neglect. Some women even have given birth right there in the control post, in the most shameful conditions, because they are not authorized to leave Gaza.
Translation copyleft toni solo ©2008
The author thanks both toni solo and Paul de Rooij for their comments and suggestions.
 The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) announced on October 11th 2007 that the Israeli government had demolished 18,000 Palestinian houses since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967. It concludes, “Israeli policies are designed to limit the number of Palestinians living in areas earmarked for settlements or in their vicinity”.
Amnesty International recalled on its web page of March 11th this year, “The Israeli authorities have for many years applied a discriminatory policy of house demolitions, permitting, on the one hand, many tens of Israeli settlements to be built on Occupied Palestinian territory in flagrant violation of international law at the same time as they confiscate Palestinian lands, forbidding the Palestinian population to build and destroying their houses. The cleared land is often used to build illegal Israeli settlements. International law prohibits occupying powers from building settlements for their own citizens on the territories they occupy.”
 Thousands of Palestinians with horrible mutilations, unimaginable wounds, bodies burned and disabled for life give the lie to the Israeli government version. They wait to be called as witnesses by an eventual court briefed to try crimes against humanity committed in Palestine, Lebanon and other countries.
That day, given the statistics of victims of Israeli attacks, there was no shortage of witnesses: 12,261 Palestinians have been wounded by the Israeli Occupation army just from the start of the Al Aqsa Intifada of September 29th 2000 up until May 2008. To get a total of the victims of Zionism, a figure very much higher, one would have to add the victims of the first Intifada and those from previous aggression in the form of actual attacks and wars.
The Palestine Centre for Human Rights, based in Gaza, offers abundant information about the long list of human rights violations by Israel in the Occupied Territories, including torture, arbitrary detention, destruction of Palestinian property, attacks on medical teams, extra-judicial executions, attacks on civilians not involved in hostilities and so on. See also data by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights, Defence for Children International – Israel Section, Machsom Watch – Women for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc
Any action by Israel has to be sold to the world as action to preserve the peace, defend the security of Israel, fight against terrorism, strengthen the peace process: Mass marketing know-how applied once again to selling another, different genocide.
“In his 1965 autobiography, Edward Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933, ‘where Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.’ ” Wikipedia.