Still Weeping for Gaza

Exactly five years ago I was in Gaza to see the situation for myself. That was before the murderous blitzkrieg they called Operation Cast Lead, but Israel’s crimes against humanity were already piled high.

When I got home memories of the visit so haunted me that I sat down and wrote an article titled “See Gaza and Weep”.

These were my impressions in November of 2007.

See Gaza and Weep

Traffic into Gaza through the smart new border ‘facility’ at Erez is down to a trickle since Israel branded this tiny Palestinian seaside enclave a ‘hostile entity’ and imposed a blockade even harsher than before.

We came to Gaza to visit Fr Manuel, who ministers to his flock, runs an excellent school against all odds and is revered as a local hero. If he leaves Gaza the Israelis won’t allow him back, so for 9 years he has stayed put, isolated. When he heard we were coming, said a colleague, he burst into tears.

After a noisy arrival at breakneck speed, with police sirens blaring Palestinian-style, our visit quickly turned into a media circus and an unlikely cavalcade of priests, interpreters, teachers, cameramen and armed police took off to inspect the Rafah crossing into Egypt, now closed indefinitely, then followed the iron barrier down to the sea and the coast road back to the city.

I noted the deserted beaches and disused fishing boats… Israel has banned fishing off the Gaza coast, ruined the livelihood of 3000 fishermen and deprived local people of a proper diet. Boats defying the ban are fired on.

The Gaza Strip is sealed off from the outside world with an Israeli fence guarded by watchtowers, snipers, tanks, armoured bulldozers and drones. Israel pretended to withdraw two years ago but still controls Gaza’s airspace, coastal waters and airwaves. It has the place bottled up like a prison and makes frequent incursions.

Much of it is blasted to rubble but many fine buildings survive. So does the defiant community. One can easily imagine Gaza blossoming into a coastal paradise, but right now the strangulated economy is in free-fall and for 1.5 million ordinary folk life is hell. Unemployment stands at 65%, and 80% live below the poverty line.

Fuel is running out, so are basics like washing powder. Shattered infrastructure and food shortages mean serious public health problems. Power cuts disrupt hospitals and vital drugs cannot be kept refrigerated. Thousands look death in the face as medi-care collapses.

A friend emailed: “Today in Gaza we have no cement to build graves for those who die.”

We were also there to show solidarity with the whole population, Muslim and Christian, against the crippling economic sanctions that have led to this crisis.

According to the Ministry of Health 450 cancer patients (35% of them children) are forbidden to leave Gaza for treatment or surgery. Many go without medication because cancer drugs are blocked or delayed at the border. There’s no radiotherapy.

400 renal failure patients should be getting dialysis three times a week but 20 of the 69 machines are out of action – no spares – and treatment has been cut to twice a week.

400 cardiac patients suffer unnecessarily owing to shortage of drugs. Spares for therapeutic and diagnostic equipment cannot get through.

Hospitals are completely out of many essential medical and psychiatric drugs, X-ray bags and sterilisation bags. They are dangerously short of dressings, other disposables and cleaning materials. When the 2 weeks’ supply of anaesthetics is finished the operating theatres will close.

Fuel stocks may last 15 days with luck, but there’s no patient food until MAP UK aid arrives.

Physicians for Human Rights – Israel have been trying to bring the critically ill out of Gaza for proper treatment, but are often refused. So they die in agony. A thousand patients – advanced kidney and cancer cases and victims of Israeli air-strikes – need immediate transfer. Channel 4 News screened a shocking report on UK TV about how the sick are blackmailed. If they agree to inform on relatives they are allowed to cross the border. If not they can “stay in Gaza and die”.

The Red Cross repeatedly reminds Israel of its obligation under international law and the Geneva Conventions to ensure that humanitarian supplies reach Palestinian civilians.

However, I’m told that drugs purchased from sales of my book Radio Free Palestine cannot be delivered in the normal way and will have to be smuggled in somehow.

The European Parliament in October passed a resolution calling on Israel to lift the blockade and guarantee humanitarian aid and essential supplies of electricity and fuel. Israel responded by declaring Gaza a ‘hostile entity’ and announced more sanctions.

As guests in the community we were invited for coffee at the House of Fatah and the residence of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. It was a relief to see that relations between religious and political factions are friendly and good-humoured at such a difficult time.

Taking our leave was double torture… the wrench of saying farewell to a brave people that western governments are persecuting, and the prospect of once again running the gauntlet of Erez’s high-tech security procedures and questioning, which this time took 3 hours while Qassam rockets flew over and exploded on the Israeli side. They seldom do any damage but indiscriminate targeting of civilians by both sides is deplorable.

Gaza was formerly under British mandate, which is surely reason enough to feel a special responsibility. In better days a kindlier British government might have landed supplies on Gaza’s empty beach and lifted the siege. Indeed, there are many things a kindlier British government might have done to set the Palestinians free.

How different now. The appalling situation, created with Britain’s help, is designed to force democratically elected Hamas into submission and bring a sick and demoralised community meekly under Abbas’s puppet regime.

Meanwhile the subjugation and dispossession of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land continues. It remains a mystery to me why our largely Christian (but increasingly Muslim-inclusive) democracy so slavishly supports the Middle Eastern ethnocracy that’s doing this…

Question: What has changed for the better?

Answer: Nothing. And that sums up the achievement of Mahmoud Abbas’s over-long stay as Palestinian president.

Some say Abbas isn’t a bad guy, he just lost his way. Actually there’s a long crime-sheet against him. A founding member of Arafat’s Fatah faction, he ‘won’ the presidency of the Palestinian National Authority in January 2005 in a dodgy contest – let’s not dignify it with the word ‘election’ – in which Israel seriously interfered to obstruct other candidates. He has overstayed his 4-year term by nearly 3 years and is widely regarded as having no legitimacy and no popular mandate. Legitimate or not, he is still propped up by the US, Israel, Britain and those other beacons of democracy.

According to the Constitution the presidency should by now have devolved to the Speaker of the Legislative Council, Aziz Duweik. But that could never be permitted because Duweik, although a professor with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, is also a member of Hamas. So Abbas clings to office like used chewing-gum to the sidewalk.

In 2007 he dissolved the Hamas-led unity government, of which Haniyeh was prime minister, and appointed Salam Fayyad in his place, a move that was almost certainly illegal under Palestinian Basic Law and designed to ensure the disunity and weakness that Israel so badly wanted to see.

Since the Palestinian Legislative Council never approved Fayyad’s appointment, many Palestinians regard Haniyeh as the caretaker PM although his authority, as a result of Abbas’s treachery, is now confined to Gaza. In all probability Fayyad has no more legitimacy than Abbas.

When he took up the post of president, Abbas would have sworn this solemn oath…

I swear to God almighty to be faithful to the Homeland and to its sacred places, and to the people and its national heritage, and to respect the Constitutional system and the law, and to safeguard the interests of the Palestinian people completely, as God is my witness.

We’ve seen how he respects his country’s Constitutional system. He was further undone by the Wikileaks suggestions that the Israeli government “consulted with Egypt and Fatah prior to Operation Cast Lead, asking if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas”.

And only a few days ago Abbas was safeguarding the interests of ther Palestinian people by announcing on Israeli TV, of all places: “Palestine now for me is ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever … This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts [are] Israel.” In other words, he relinquishes the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their lands and homes and even surrenders his own right to return to his birth town Safad, which is now a district in northern Israel.

“We don’t want to use terror,” he says.

Agreed. Perish the thought.

“We don’t want to use force. We don’t want to use weapons…” he says.

Palestinians have a perfect legal right to use any means to repel a foreign occupier.

“We want to use diplomacy. We want to use politics. We want to use negotiations…”

Has he learned nothing from 64 years of non-stop ethnic cleansing and failed diplomacy?

The Israelis by all accounts are jubilant. Their Top Stooge has scored for them again.

Haniyeh is not amused. “It is not possible for any person, regardless of who he is … to give up a hand’s width of this Palestinian land, or to give up the right of return to our homes from which we were forced out…”

If you visit the Holy Land, Palestinians will urge you to tell their story when you get home. But does Abbas bother to tell it? How many activists, supporters, sympathizers, journalists and writers have had a chance to meet this great leader of the Palestinian underdogs… to be enthused by him… to question him? When he comes to London for “talks” it’s hush-hush. We never hear about it. His good-for-nothing embassy says nothing. His worse-than-useless press office in Ramallah says nothing.

In the struggle for their rights and independence the Palestinians have international law and UN resolutions on their side. But in the seven years Abbas has presided the West Bank has remained sealed, the theft of Palestinian land has continued unabated and the blockade on Gaza has not eased – it’s been tightened. Palestine goes on losing more than it gains.

The bottom line is that in the 21st Century – this new age of enlightenment – Palestinians remain prisoners in their own country.

How miserably must a leader fail his people before they kick him out?

And how much longer will Western leaders continue to shirk their responsibilities towards our Christians and Muslims brothers and sisters in the Holy Land?

Stuart Littlewood, after working on jet fighters in the RAF, became an industrial marketeer in oil, electronics and manufacturing, and with innovation and product development consultancies. He also served as a Cambridgeshire county councillor and a member of the Police Authority. He is an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and has produced two photo-documentary books including Radio Free Palestine (with foreword by Jeff Halper). Now retired, he campaigns on various issues, especially the Palestinians' struggle for freedom. Read other articles by Stuart, or visit Stuart's website.